in which we commence a summer’s reading…(there’s a stack of books on my desk, with titles from a british children’s classic, the little grey men, by someone named “b.b”., to the poems of jane kenyon, to a pair of books that mine the intersection of psyche and soul. i begin, curiously, there…)
what caught my eye was this:
“bittersweet”: a tendency to states of longing, poignancy and sorrow; an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world. the bittersweet is also about the recognition that light and dark, birth and death––bitter and sweet––are forever paired. “days of honey, days of onion,” as an arabic proverb puts it. . . .to fully inhabit these dualities––the dark as well as the light––is, paradoxically, the only way to transcend them. and transcending them is the ultimate point. the bittersweet is about the desire for communion, the wish to go home.
it’s a passage from a book titled, bittersweet: how sorrow and longing make us whole, and it’s by a writer i’ve never before read. her name is susan cain, a lawyer-turned-author, who, in 2012, wrote a best-seller titled quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. susan cain seems to be sliding my deepest truest traits under her magnifying lens. i likely never would have bumped into her, except that her work caught the eye of maria popova, the cultural critic and genius behind the marginalian, a weekly e-compendium of esoterica and wonder, whose work always catches my eye.
i’ve never put that name to how i am in the world. bittersweet: it’s a beautiful name, the name of an autumnal berry, persimmon in color, that has appeared to me on a trail up ahead as if the woods were aflame. but i’ve not pinned it to a way of being, of seeing, of sensing. and yet it fits as if it’s the long-missing piece to the jigsaw that is me.
i might define or describe it as living with a profound antenna to the pains––and the beauties––in the world, and longing to heal or to salve or to simply be present. fully present. because you realize the beautiful is out there, is possible, and you think that if you reach far enough, work hard enough, imagine the whole of it, you just might bring it to life, the beautiful you believe in.
and when, for one reason or another, you can’t, it can be crushing.
the first time i got a sense that i might be wired in what i might now recognize as a bittersweet way was all the way back in first grade when mrs. leslie, my unforgettable teacher with the “eyes in the back of her head” (so she told us), called me to her desk just before lunchtime one day, and asked me to stay in from recess, along with david pugliese, a classmate who, it turned out, had a brain tumor, back when brain tumors in children had no possible cure. so david and i stayed in the classroom while everyone else ran out to play. for 59 years now, i’ve thought of david pugliese and how very unfair it was that he had to have a tumor in his beautiful, soft-spoken brain. i remember quietly playing games in that quiet classroom while the shrieks and the shouts from the playground seeped in from the underside of the door, day after day for as long as david was there. every time i think of david, my heart hurts. all these decades later.
bittersweet: perceiving pains and longing to fix them. because you believe in the beautiful, the sacred, the whole.
it’s not the same as being shadow-souled, which is another name for depressed. though the bittersweet among us can feel the weight of too many worries. and we can be accused of being depressed. our hours of silence might easily be mistaken for something other than turning deep into our worries about the world, or someones we love, or someones we just barely know. sometimes we slip so deeply into the heartache of someone else’s agonies we can’t escape the weight of it.
i’ve long known that deep sorrows pulse through me. a short list of bittersweet clues might be these (cain’s book has a checklist for gauging your level of bittersweetness): i know i love a foggy day, and the mournful cry of the geese veeing across the sky. i know the interplay of shadow against sunlight is where my eye always falls; it’s textural, it’s nuanced, it draws my deepest attention.
maybe yours too.
(cain diagnosed me [and you, if you sense a shared sensibility here]: “a true connoisseur of the places where light and dark meet.”)
i am equally awake to what’s beautiful, what’s tender, sometimes piercingly so. it’s a perpetual tug down there in my heart and my soul, where sometimes the rope starts to fray.
i’ve been told since i was little that i should remember to see the glass as half-full, celebrate sunshine, sing to the rain clouds to make them go away. i remember the quiz i once found in the pages of a newspaper, and how i filled in the answers and found out, according to the quizlet, i ranked among those with “low-grade depression.” i remember once writing (here on the chair) about how, in the discordant minor-key wail of a lone goose’s night cry, i heard the echo of my own unbound sorrow in the days and weeks after my firstborn went off to college, and i remember how someone i loved called to scold me after reading my words, to tell me that i should feel blessed, not on the precipice of perpetual tears. and, by the way, he added, i might want to check in with a therapist.
and, yes, keeping close watch on the news of the world, and where the world shatters, i feel my heart shattering too. i’ve long known that empathy is a double-edged gift, and one that i’d never surrender. i know that it hurts––sometimes unbearably so––to slip into the shoes or the soul of someone who’s aching, who’s broken, or limping, or shattered. i know i sometimes wear it too heavily, and that it pushes me into long hours of quiet.
but i’ve never fully considered how that pierced sense of the heart might also be the very pulse beat that propels the push toward the good, toward that which heals, toward that which reaches for communion of the empathetic kind. i’ve never before seen it against a truth found in this line from middlemarch, george eliot’s epic 19th-century novel:
“…by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil—widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.”
“widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.” now there’s an assignment.
nor have i ever framed it in the way of Gregory the Great, the bishop of rome in the late-sixth and early-seventh century, who spoke about “compunctio, the holy pain, the grief somebody feels when faced with that which is most beautiful,” as described by Owe Wikström, a swedish professor of the psychology of religion. “the bittersweet experience stems from human homelessness in an imperfect world, human consciousness of, and at the same time, a desire for, perfection. this inner spiritual void becomes painfully real when faced with beauty. there, between the lost and the desired, the holy tears are formed.”
“between the lost and the desired, the holy tears are formed…”
this world we’re yearning for, cain writes, is present in all world religions: in the judeo-christian realm, it’s the Garden of Eden or the Kingdom of Heaven; sufis call it the Beloved of the Soul. c. s. lewis called it “the place where all the beauty came from.”
buddhists teach that we might aim “to participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.”
just the other day, at a celebration of 20 years of OnBeing, krista tippett closed the proceedings with a call for joy-seeking even in this broken world. imperative joy, i immediately coined it. not mamby-pamby cheery whistling-in-the-dark, but honestly, authentically (to borrow the word from contemporary psychobabble), set out to plot a map of barely noticeable, utterly quixotic joys each and every day. (that’s a thought hole to burrow in some other day, though it wouldn’t hurt––especially now––to begin to seek joy in this epoch of considerable shadow.)
an old hasidic tale, one cain tells in her book, has it that a rabbi noticed an old man in his congregation seemed indifferent to any talk of the divine. so the rabbi hummed a poignant melody, a song of yearning. “now i understand what you wish to teach,” said the old man. “i feel an intense longing to be united with the Lord.” it’s in the minor-key chords, the song of the heart crying, that some of us hear most perceptibly.
naomi shihab nye once wrote: “before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”
maybe that’s the beautiful secret of the bittersweet, a condition, a way of being i am only just beginning to deeply consider, after a lifetime of intensely feeling the sorrows that swirl ever and always. and just as intensely believing the beautiful is shimmering somewhere within our holiest reach.
it’s the start of my summer’s reading, and it seems a choice place to begin….
what’s on your summer reading list? or your bittersweet thoughts?