I go blind sometimes in the face of great beauty. It could be a river gorge, the cathedral of a forest, or a sunset singing its heart out. I can't always find the door in my soul big enough to welcome it all in. It would need to be a God-sized door.
In such moments I often feel like my heart is running into the arms of the beauty before me, but, like in a dream, my feet have turned to stone. We have the word, speechless, but it's a different word I need. Even if I am alone, I can't stay quiet. I stammer, I sigh, I call out, and wish I could ask the person next to me for help. Like being on an acid trip and needing to check with a friend if they also hear the tree you are sitting in singing what sounds like a lullaby.
When my daughter Madeleine was seven we stood together on a cliff overlooking a small bay on the Greek island of Chios, where we were visiting a friend whose family was from there. We had been driving along the northern coast road, on our way back from an errand, and the beauty of the scene was so intense I was having trouble concentrating on driving. I surrendered and pulled onto a patch of dirt at the edge of the cliff. Such an unbroken expanse of blue sea, under an even brighter blue sky, sent a sigh rippling through me that made me weak in the knees, just like the cliché. I remembered gazing up at the blue glass in the windows above the main entrance to Chartres cathedral, and thinking, "Yes, this is it, I am weak in the knees."
The horizon where the two blues met seemed to hum like a violin string, like the sky was a bow being drawn across the sea, producing a note that could bring an opera house full of people to tears. I held my daughter's hand. The sun, high in the summer sky, made her hair look like spun gold, and her whole body seem to be glowing from within, though in fact, she often looked that way. A cooling breeze played around us, making the perfect more perfect.
I could almost have coped with that much, but it just wouldn't stop. The angelic being who had been entrusted to me, and whose company was my greatest joy, stood beside me, framed by a shadow-dappled pine tree, and behind it a dream-like mountain in the middle distance. Below our cliff curved a small white beach like a mother's cradling arm, in which a few small boats painted with joyful colors floated, tethered to the bottom of the sea. Three children were running into the water, their laughter rising to us on the breeze. As if this weren't heaven enough, at the end of the beach where the boats could tie up stood a small white taverna with two tables in the shade of a grape arbor, with checked tablecloths and straw-backed turquoise chairs.
My lungs weren't big enough for the breath I was taking, so for a moment I was holding it, still inhaling, with nowhere for it to go. I couldn't find a container big enough. The only way to meet it would be to take it for granted, have lived there all my life, see it simply as the way things are, and love it as part of yourself, the way life is. And I heard that voice, behind it all, utterly confounding, saying, this is the way life is. But there was some gap that had to be filled in, like someone pouring water for you, and you are very thirsty, but you aren't holding out your cup, so the water falls to the ground and you don't know why you are still suffering with thirst. And I was frantically looking for my cup, like a rock-climber looking for the foothold, and I turned to my daughter and asked her, "What do we do with so much beauty?" And she tilted her head slightly, the way she did when she had to ponder something, and her almost invisible blonde eyebrows went up, and she looked up at me and said,
"We could store it, I suppose."
"Keep it somewhere inside ourselves, and pull it out when we're sad, when we need it. And it could make us remember how we feel right now."
More beautiful than all the pine-shaded coves and heavenly blue water around all the Greek islands is my daughter's heart and her seven-year-old's ancient wisdom.