I recently finished reading Barry Lopez’s seminal work, Arctic Dreams. The book is like a meal; lovingly prepared, hearty, something to linger over. In one of numerous incandescent passages Lopez describes the return to England in 1820 of Lieutenant William Parry and the crew of HMS Hecla from a long Arctic voyage. Parry disembarked at Peterhead and took a carriage to London, carrying with him all of the journals, maps and records gathered on their trip. In light of the separation of these written records from the rest of the crew, not all of whom could even read let alone write, Lopez reflects on the egalitarian distribution of experience—profound beauty and profound suffering—amongst Parry and his men.
I could only think what exquisite moments these must have been. Inescapable hardship transcended by a desire for spiritual elevation, or the desire to understand, to comprehend what lay in darkness. I thought of some of the men at Winter Harbor with Parry. What dreams there must have been that were never written down, that did not make that journey south with Parry in the coach, but remained in the heart. The kind of dreams that give a whole life its bearing, what a person intends it should be, having seen those coasts.
The sailors under Parry’s command were men who, for all their lack of formal education, were just as capable of receiving inspiration from their experience of the foreign creatures, vast moonscapes, and strange stars of the polar regions as were the most esteemed of the Royal Scientists and high-ranking officers accompanying them. Lacking the language or opportunity to articulate those experiences, to transcribe them for future generations, did nothing to lessen the impact of what they had seen and undergone.
I have returned to this passage often as I’ve contemplated what it means to be a writer. To be a writer is to be one who bears witness to one’s own story and experience as well as to the experiences and stories of others. In bearing witness to my own life I have found that there are times when language fails. There are places beyond the ability of language to describe, moments when what is required merges seamlessly with what is possible—moments in which we need only, and in fact can only, be.
I feel compelled, ironically, to attempt a description of such a moment. Sitting alone on my bed on a recent afternoon I felt the touch of the breeze on my skin as it moved through the open window, and observed the play of dusky light across the driveway just outside. I was filled with strong emotion and a sense of the transitory nature of my own life. How many things end quickly or too soon. How nothing lasts forever and that this moment too was already passing. In that moment time was meaningless; all I had was the present, the beauty and sadness it offered me.
You weren’t there with me on my bed and you’ll never know just how I felt, just as I’ll never know what it meant to stand in the light of an unending day and watch plovers wheel in the sky above the Greenland ice cap two hundred years ago. It’s alright. I have come to believe that part of living well in this world correlates not so much to our ability to comprehend and pin down the fluttering moths of our thoughts and experiences with words, but rather to our ability to receive the simplest of blessings with gratitude and in turn bestow those blessings on others. It is an ability in which our growth and skill are themselves a reflection of grace.
What then of my aspiration as a writer; to chronicle, to parse, to hew down to the essence of things? I affirm it as a good desire. The call to bear witness is a call to be heeded and blessed. Yet every person is an island, sheltering in his or her soul some virgin tract which by virtue of its very nature can never be accessed by anyone else. This is not to say that we cannot understand what it is to suffer, to love, to desire, to be in anguish. We can—the ability to share in the sufferings and joys of another is what makes compassion, friendship, relationship and love meaningful. But we can never be fully known by another, save perhaps God.
I am almost surprised to find that this reality engenders in me not primarily a sense of loneliness, but rather wonder, even while begging a question as to what we, as people, are for. Perhaps the point of life is in one real sense simply to be present. We don’t have to record everything for posterity. We can’t. At some point the continent of language ends and we push out onto the water of experience, the water of grace, where we live and move and have our being.