Beauty

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I’ve thinking of how best to describe how I’ve been feeling lately, and that’s been leading me to think back to one of my favorite movies of young adulthood: American Beauty. I remember the first time I watched it, and how it resonated with me then, how Annette Bening managed to capture the frustrations and drives which I could see in my girlfriend, and Kevin Spacey became my personal hero, the embodiment of a man who truly no longer cares, which was something that I had been desperately attempting for at least the past half-decade. And then there was Ricky Fitts. I never sold drugs in High School, nor did I have to worry about a father such as his (or, for that matter, any father at all), but I got the whole photography thing, albeit in a more static format, and the scene when he’s describing the magic of the plastic bag managed to define my artistic sentiment for years to come.

“It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. Right? And this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”

-Ricky Fitts, American Beauty

Maybe it was a side effect of growing up in the Pacific Northwest, but I felt such a connection to the beauty all around me, and since I had taken up photography, I’d learned to try to focus all that beauty through frame of the viewfinder. And maybe it was just a common sentiment among disaffected youth, desperate to find some meaning, any meaning, for the pain they couldn’t help but feel each and every day. All I know is that in the moment that I saw that plastic bag dancing in the wind, I knew that, despite the pain, and despite the seeming hopelessness of the mundanity of the world around me, there was something that made all of this worth it, and I just had to find out what that was.

Even today, encased, as I may be, inside my concrete tomb, I try to hang on to that ideal, to strive to see the beauty just behind the meaningless atrocities of trying to get by. And even though it’s hard to see it through the smog-filtered sunlight of the San Francisco Bay Area, and in the actions of a populace worn down by the iniquities of life, every now and then I can see it poking through, like an overeager child who wants nothing more than to play peek-a-boo with you. And then I blink, and the joy has gone; the vibrancy of life has been replaced by a Polaroid from the 70’s, where everyone is washed out by ennui and yet still manages to look ridiculous upon proper retrospection.

“Both my wife and daughter think I’m this gigantic loser and they’re right, I have lost something. I’m not exactly sure what it is but I know I didn’t always feel this… sedated. But you know what? It’s never too late to get it back.”

-Lester Burnham, American Beauty

I’m not sure where I lost that special something which defined me in my youth, whether it was being beaten down by poor decisions, or simply the inevitable outcome of growing older. One of the reasons why I quit my job and set out to make myself write every day was because I knew that I had lost something- something visceral and vital within me- and I knew that if I didn’t do something, I’d never get it back. I had been worried about the things that other people cared about, running after money, selling pieces of my soul one hour at a time just to pay the rent and keep up with the Joneses. Since I was a little boy, the only future which I ever sought involved me changing the world with the words which only I could write. And yet, here I was, almost three decades later, doing everything except anything I enjoyed. There are necessities which must be attended, but the world the would be a poorer place if no one tried to live their dreams. I knew that I couldn’t afford to let my son grow up in a world where all the magic had been lost, and so I took a chance, and changed my life completely.

“It’s a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself. Makes you wonder what else you can do that you’ve forgotten about.”

-Lester Burnham, American Beauty

Of course, the afterglow has long since faded, and I now face the future with more uncertainty than I think that I can bear. Despite the fact that I’ve been writing almost every day, and even gotten back to where I now feel comfortable in doing it, I’m not writing anything of value, at least not by the standards which I have set for myself. I thought, back in December, that I would have until Mid-January to find some form of gainful employment. I thought that, knowing myself, it would mean that I wouldn’t begin to write my masterpiece until the night before my interview, or worse: first shift in the morning at my new place of employment. But neither of those moments has arrived, and so the desperation for lasting glory has now all but completely faded. I’m still doing something similar to what I’ve always dreamed of, but I know that I need more. There are stories in me, just begging to be freed, and I’m an idiot if, through fear and my own inaction, I allow them to just fade away.

“I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn’t a second at all, it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time… For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars… And yellow leaves, from the maple trees, that lined our street… Or my grandmother’s hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper… And the first time I saw my cousin Tony’s brand new Firebird… And Janie… And Janie… And… Carolyn. I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me… but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life… You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… you will someday.”

Lester Burnham, American Beauty

And there it is: the philosophy which snuck its way inside me when I began to cry. Beyond the plastic bag, and the beauty which it hides within, there is the knowledge that the only thing which stands between myself and perfect happiness is only myself. I wish that I could step back a little from the nonsense of my life, if only to just let the moments stretch into infinity, so that I might stand a chance to feel just one more moment of unbridled wonder. Somewhere within the pain, both physical and spiritual, there is something which I cannot see which will make everything seem worth it. The look of contentment on my son’s face as he figures out the world. The way my wife is so full of life that it radiates out from her, threatens to consume her from within. How my grandson laughs as we share a private giggle at the jokes that only toddlers and elderly can hope to understand. The fierceness of my daughter as she rages at the world just as I once did, when I was younger. The joy of setting words to paper which once existed only in my mind. I am spoiled for happy moments from which to choose; I just wish that I could see them.

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