Driving into Chicago, I listened to the On Being episode that I managed to download without taking my eyes off the road. It was an interview with Bernard Chazelle, Princeton computer science professor and Bach expert. I’ve never heard of Chazelle and must admit that I don’t think about Bach too often. But he’s a spirited conversationalist and his words got me through the snarled traffic jam that clogs the interstate between Oakbrook and Oak Park. The overhead digital sign had told me 39 minutes to city center, but it seemed to be 29 minutes from one western ‘burb to the next.
I was halfway through the interview, mildly annoyed with the black Lexus that kept darting between lanes, when Chazelle said something that hit me beyond the level of “hmmm… kind of cool.” When I got to the hotel, I listened to this part again and tried to type out his words, though I only managed a close proximation: “What amazes me is how Bach’s music moves you so much, but it’s just sound waves hitting your ears…and this emotion bubbles up, you start tearing up. What’s going on? You can say, ‘It’s Bach; he’s a genius.’ But no, it’s not so easy. I have to have the ability in my brain to create that emotion. …It’s almost dizzying to realize that when you’re moved like that there must be a reservoir of beauty that mainly goes untapped, but if you can find it with the right spotlight then it’s there, this amazing possibility.”
Yes. That beauty that we all too often don’t let in but that’s there all along. Of course when we see the ocean or a great painting we tap it. Just last month, staring at the Pacific on the beaches of Point Reyes, I was moved to tears several times. But what about my daily walk with the dog? I walk the same blocks again and again with the same dog by my side. Only occasionally will this very familiar scene bring me to tears. Like the sweet drunk guy in a movie, I’m suddenly looking at the same bush and the same trees and the same dog but through a new lens: Wow, it’s sooo beautiful!
But how to access this reservoir all of the time? I believe this is possible. I want to live there.
In identifying parts of myself — there’s the 10-year old imp who wants to explore, the 6-year old waif who is afraid and darts and hides, the Felix Unger type who scolds me for spending money, etc. — there’s a part I call Mr. Shrimp. He is a walking shrimp with a cane (I know – really weird, but bare with me, this is Inner Psyche Land and just like with Alice, it’s all a bit tripped out). Mr. Shrimp’s role is to be a thin, brittle layer that keeps me from feeling anything too much. He is my exoskeleton, a sheath of protective coating. I understand that Mr. Shrimp is trying to keep me from feeling the really hard stuff, but often I wish he’d take a long vacation to Tahiti (or maybe to Israel where they don’t shellfish and, hence, he’d be safe) and let me dive into the reservoir of beauty buck naked, with no protective sheath. What would that be like?
Walking down Michigan Avenue tonight it was – it always is – too much. It’s such a jangle of high and low – Cartier and Forever 21 rubbing shoulders; women in full minks and high black boots wait for the walk light next to a family in faded jeans and Nikes. Rising above the street are luxurious apartments and hotel rooms, while people with cardboard signs sit on the corners: “Hello, my name is Amy. Please anything helps. Merry Christmas.”
Mr. Shrimp keeps me from sitting down next to Amy and sobbing. He also keeps me from seeing Amy completely because no doubt there is beauty there that my guilt does not allow me to experience. And what does Amy see? I imagine she’s quite aware of Mr. Shrimp – of thousands of exoskeletons that walk past her each day, protected behind suits and down coats, behind cell phone screens and phalanxes of shopping bags.
The reservoir that Bach opens up is that of our vulnerability. The music inspires awe and reminds us of how simultaneously small we are and yet how grand. Residing in both our simpleness and our greatness is where we open to beauty. It necessitates vulnerability combined with belief in the impossible. As the Irish writer John O’Donohue puts it, “When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace.”
Tomorrow and for the final days of this year, I am committed to walking with reverence. I am asking for beauty’s trust. And Mr. Shrimp? He can take the rest of the month off!