PUBLISHED WINTER 2018 IN ABLE MUSE
Ten years ago, I was walking my dog through the overgrown trails of Frick Park in Pittsburgh. When we reached a certain ridge, I stopped. My dog did not want to pause; he was raring to go. But I saw a view that stopped me in my tracks and struck me with awe.
Yet that awe had no name. Those blue hills beyond the Monongahela River have a name, but I still do not know what it is. I avoided their name on purpose. I preferred the way the hills sat as a distant blue wall on the edge of the horizon with the Monongahela meandering gently away from them. A train horn echoed in the distance. I know that if I had wanted to, I could have visited there. Yet, I never did—I left those blue remembered hills alone, untouched on the horizon.
I am certain those hills have had several names over the eons, but for me they remain unnamed. As a young writer, I was struck by Wordsworth’s observation in “The Tables Turned,”“Our meddling intellect/ Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—/ We murder to dissect.” So to name those blue remembered hills, or to dissect their geological history would be to lose what I first saw there.
In many cases, I am uncomfortable with things that remain unspoken. As a novelist, my whole goal is to give some sort of physical representation to the invisible stories in my head. Yet, as soon as I write a story, I can feel that I have lost something essential about it. Unwritten stories have infinite possibilities, which must be sacrificed as soon as they are fashioned into black and white. So as a sort of an exercise in restraint, I have always remembered my blue hills as nameless.
This exercise doesn’t come easy to me. Before I became a writer, I wanted to be a scientist: an astronomer to be specific. I wanted to become closer to those rare experiences of utter awe I experienced in dark, misty fields staring up at infinite skies. Stars are nature’s distant horizon.
Despite knowing the names of the constellations, one day I purposely let my eye disorient itself in the skies to stare at one star alone and wondered: how many thousands of years that light took to reach my eye. What was happening in that corner of the universe as the light left there on its odyssey? I tried and failed to wrap my head around distances and concepts that were clearly too large for me. So I chose to leave those blue Monongahela hills nameless, because they were like icebergs, almost all of them sat beneath my sight.
Some people respond with anxiety to the idea that anything is beyond naming or conception, and for a time I was one of them. As a high school freshman I would devour university level textbooks about astronomy. Yet, the more I learned, the more my interest waned. I realized that, at least for me, the math was papering over the majesty of the reality. I was murdering as I dissected. Of course, I am in no way saying that astronomers’ hands are dripping with the blood of awe! Not at all.
If I see far it is because I stand on their shoulders. But, for me, I couldn’t keep on dissecting the stars, I wanted access to that experience I sometimes had while watching them. I was greedy for unlimited awe, but memorizing tables and charts did not give me the grasp that I sought.
As I sat staring out at those blue hills, my dog finally settled down with a big sigh to study the bugs crawling up and down an overgrown tuft of grass. For a brief moment those distant hills pulled me toward them with intense gravity; I hoped I might orbit something transcendental if I approached close enough. C.S. Lewis called these transcendental experiences joy in his memoir Surprised by Joy (also cribbing from a poem of Wordsworth). He called joy “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. … anyone who has experienced it will want it again.”
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