Finding Beauty in the Darkness
A few years back, I went through an Allen Ginsberg phase. I faced some darkness, then. Inner demons, really. Anxiety, depression, generalized melancholy. It was a world post-9/11. I was shaken. Worried. The future felt bleak. Sodden. I couldn't imagine being happy and lighthearted ever again.
Ginsberg, in those days, spoke to me. Howl, especially, had words that reassured me, in some confusing, unexplainable way. I read and re-read it, soaking in the beauty of the words. Loving the way they found redemption in tumultuous times. Forgive me a quote now, if you will. The quote, really. The opening of Howl. I don't know that there's ever been a more powerful opening to any literary work.
Oh, the howl.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.
That was me, too, seeking light in dark times. Not through drugs or anarchy, but rather through the words of someone who had been there. Someone who had seen it. Someone who knew.
Once I found my own words, my own light, I moved away from Ginsberg, preferring instead the escapism of horror novels or Jane Austen. I didn't need Ginsberg's words anymore, not right then, but they'd been there for me in the dark times. Somehow, perhaps, his howling promised me one day it would all be okay.
Today, collectively, we face dark times. We in America are all still reeling from a most contentious political election. Many of us worry about the leader who won, and we fear the damage that could be done. Personal freedoms lost. Religious persecution found. We're on shaky ground, here in the States, and regardless of your political affiliation, admit it: you feel it, too.
And that's just in the States, where we still have it better than most.
Around the world, people are dying by the score. The hundreds. The thousands. Syria is a disaster of Biblical proportions. Similar atrocities are happening in the Sudan. I feel helpless. Powerless. Unable to do a thing to shift the tide of death washing over our planet.
So, too, does helplessness hit when I contemplate global warming. Nuclear weapons in the hands of madmen. Heroin epidemics at home. Wildfires burning unmitigated.
Dark times indeed. Impotent times. Times where you want to scream out into the night, "Someone! Please! Help me know what to do!"
But these are also times where, even if you scream, no one answers.
Today I find myself, once again, turning to the words of masters for comfort. Ginsberg, now, is just the beginning. The gateway drug, if you will. He opened the door for me, long ago, to finding grace in the twilight hours. Now that the door is open, I'm free to explore. I'm free to read. I'm free to seek the loveliness that was birthed from our blackest days.
I do this not because I enjoy wallowing in the misery of others, but because our literary predecessors have told us, time and time again: the world has faced darkness before. It's faced tempests far beyond the scope of what we face today, and the world has survived. We as a people have survived.
We can and will survive again.
Anne Frank's diary was written by a teenage girl, barely on the brink of adulthood, trapped in an attic. Terrorized day and night by bombs and news of massacre, she lived hand-in-hand with the knowledge that her annex was her only hope. Her only sanctuary. Outside, death was certain. Still, somehow, she found the wisdom to write:
The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere they can be quiet, alone with heavens, nature, and God.
Still, she found a path toward happiness.
Elie Wiesel survived the atrocities of Auschwitz. He endured hard labor. Selections. Disease, starvation, and the smell of death blanketing him every day and night. Still, he found the tenacity to write:
There's a long road of suffering ahead of you. But don't lose courage. You've already escaped the gravest danger: selection. So now, muster your strength, and don't lose heart. We shall all see the day of liberation.
Still, he found a way toward hope.
Zora Neale Hurston was the daughter of slaves. Her parents were considered possessions to be bought or sold until the day of their supposed emancipation. Their "freedom," however, was tenuous. Dangerous. Their life in the American South during Reconstruction was barely better than slavery. Still, Hurston found the love in her heart to write:
When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks made them hunt for one another.
Still, she found a way toward connection.
George Orwell came of age during World War I, a time of violence and mass deaths never before seen in the world. He experienced the brutal British colonization of India and Burma, each its own form of slavery. He saw hardship and death, but as a member of a privileged class, he could have kept his head down, and chosen not to bear witness. Still, he found the courage to write:
Being in a minority, even a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth, even against the world, you were not mad.
Still, he inspired a quest for knowledge.
Tim O'Brien was an American soldier in the Vietnam War. He witnessed death. Carnage. Friends blown to pieces. Comrades and enemies fighting to the edge of their humanity. Still he found the moral imperative to write:
And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.
Still, he found the importance of sharing his words.
Writers have a way of seeking a truth, and of sharing it, even in their most forsaken days. Our history is littered with the words of writers who endured the long, dark night, and by the very telling of their stories, made it, somehow, worthwhile. Even exquisite.
As we face the darkness ahead of us, surrounding us, sometimes threatening to close in and suffocate us, we must turn to our writers. We must turn to each other. We must tell our stories. We must support each other, this wonderful, diverse, energized writing world, and we must find ways to lift each other up from the depths of our despair. We must draw upon the examples of our predecessors. Those mentioned above, and others. So many others.
Shakespeare. Dickens. Alcott. They wrote in times of plague and squalor. Hemingway wrote of war, Vonnegut of survival. All's Quiet on the Western Front found friendship among enemies. Maya Angelou taught us how a caged bird can still sing. The writers who came before us are our light. They are our path forward.
But who will write our histories? Who will emerge to inspire future generations to find the beauty in our darkness?
Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates. Toni Morrison and Ursula LeGuin. Will they share more stories, finding a path through our tempest?
George Saunders. Colson Whitehead. Ta-Nehisi Coates. Lidia Yuknavitch. Ernest Cline. John Scalzi. Emma Straub. Roxanne Gay. Will they find the wisdom? The tenacity? The love and the courage and the goddamn moral imperative?
Those are just a few names. A few options.
Will it be me? Will it be you?
Whoever it is, it must be us. All of us. Our words, our stories, now find such a vast importance in telling future versions of us: someday, soon, it'll all be okay, if only for a little while.
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