The other day, the head swim coach for our team was telling me about the previous practice she had run with the senior group.
“It was a tough set,” she said, and she told me exactly what kind of swimming she had the kids do. It was, indeed, tough.
“Luke got out in the middle,” she said. Luke is one of the top boys on the team. He works hard; he plays hard; he swims hard. “He went in the locker room and threw up. Then he came back out and finished the set.”
Throwing up in the middle of a set is a sign of putting in maximum effort. I have a friend who is an elite level distance runner. He says that if he doesn’t throw up at the end of a race, he feels like he hasn’t run hard enough.
“When the kids finished, they all said what a great practice it was,” the coach finished.
“Even Luke?” I asked.
“Especially Luke,” she replied.
And therein lies the paradox. Doing something so challenging that it makes us throw up (or want to) yields the greatest reward in the end.
Which brings me to chapter 4 of Helen Gardner’s book, The Art of T. S. Eliot.
I thought it was enough that I really wasn’t familiar with his Four Quartets. Okay, I thought, I can study the Four Quartets while I read Gardner’s book. I have now spent some time with Burnt Norton, highlighting and underlining and writing notes to myself in the margins. I looked up words that were unfamiliar to me, like ehrebung and tumid and appetancy. I felt like I was making progress.
Then, chapter 4 hit me. “What?!” I’m sure I said it out loud. “I have to study another poem, too?”
I pulled up a copy of The Waste Land on the internet. The Waste Land employs at least seven languages. Eliot starts with a little Latin and Greek before he turns to English. Then he peppers the poem with German, French, Italian, and Sanskrit.
I went in the locker room and threw up. Figuratively, of course.
I can’t do this, I whined to myself. It’s too hard. Just as Luke could have gotten dressed and gone home in the middle of practice, I entertained thoughts of dropping out of the reading group. But what would I miss by doing that? A treasure, I’m sure.
T. S. Eliot said,
But the essential advantage for the poet is not to have a beautiful world with which to deal; it is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory.
Helen Gardner, on page 82, said,
This sense of the boredom and the horror behind both beauty and ugliness is expressed also by the trick, learned partly from Ezra Pound, of juxtaposing the beautiful and the ugly, the heroic and the sordid, and makes it more than a trick.
Several years ago there was such an exhibit at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown. Two rooms were dedicated to a modern folk artist, Ralph Fasanella. “See if you can find ice-tongs in some of the pictures,” the museum worker told us as we entered the exhibit.
In some paintings, a crucifix was present, but it wasn’t Jesus on the cross; it was a man with ice-tongs on his head. In at least one painting, the crucified ice man was the main subject. When the curator came to explain the exhibit, he specifically addressed the ice tongs. Ralph’s immigrant father sold ice in Brooklyn from a horse-drawn wagon in the early 1900s. It was back-breaking, low-pay labor which was never enough to provide for his family. As a child, Ralph sometimes helped his father, but more often rebelled against this life of poverty. Each crucified ice man that Ralph put in a painting, each set of ice tongs, was a tribute to his father. Ralph saw in his father the ugliness of poverty and thankless labor, but he also, later in life, realized the sacrifice his father had made for his family.
The concept of juxtaposing beautiful and ugly has been on my mind these past several years as I have walked the Alzheimer’s road with my mother. There is nothing beautiful about a disease that a robs a person of her mind, her memories, her dignity. Before she went into the nursing home, I was, at times, a nursemaid, cleaning my mother in unmentionable ways, taking the brunt of some angry outbursts, battling hallucinations that were more real to her than I was. But her Alzheimer’s was also a beautiful gift, allowing me to forgive and love her completely, and drawing out of my daughter a desire, no, a calling, to care for these challenging, and at times unlovable, elderly people.
Sometimes the most ugly is the most beautiful. The crucified Christ is the epitome of that.
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hid their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
When I put it all in perspective, throwing up in the locker room is such a small thing, and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) perhaps there is a beauty even in vomit.
Are there ugly things in your life? Can you find the beauty in them?