Beautiful things often come in strange forms. Take White Snake, for instance. Now I like White Snake, but I understand that many people don’t, and I know why. It’s pretty cheesy stuff. By all accounts it’s an 80’s hair band that did what 80’s hair bands did best: shred guitars, shriek into the microphone and ask people to pour sugar on them (yes, I like Def Leppard, too). So I don’t blame you if you don’t like White Snake, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you asked me how they relate to beauty. My response to that would be (and is) a song. In 1987 White Snake released ‘Still of the Night’. Is it a hard rock song? Sure, but it has something different lurking in there as well. Right around the middle of the track it breaks into something that seems completely out of synch with the rest of the song but somehow works so well. In my opinion, it’s, well, beautiful.
This link should take you to the song, and if you have a tolerance for such music, I recommend you listen to it at least until midway through minute 4. If you absolutely can’t stand it, feel free to skip to 3:19, where the magic happens, but I truly believe that the beauty of this moment exists in the contrast that it presents to the rest of the song. And the music video is…interesting. If you like, you can look at something else. In fact, when it comes down to the really good part of the song, I suggest you do. For me the images are a distraction, but then I heard the song long before I saw the video, which I watched for the first time about five minutes ago. Enjoy.
But today’s post is not about White Snake as much as it is about finding beauty in unexpected places. You can see it in the arrangement of the dirty dishes piled in your sink, the constellation of plastic and aluminum that awaits recycling or even the sculpted genius of your dirty clothes hamper. You may find beauty in the shiny bits of glass that shimmer on the sidewalk and evoke the tale of a broken window or the tragedy of a beer that slipped away and left us too young. It could even appear in the guise of a dead bird, coolly reminding us of the loneliness of death, while at the same time meeting the eye with a touch of sadness as we mourn the passing of another being yet remark how peacefully it seems to rest there. Or you might see beauty in something that is simply hard to love.
It might be in the raw dignity of an abandoned factory, rusting away and collapsing under its own weight, while nevertheless holding up its smoke stacks proudly as if to say, ‘Yes, I was used up making tires and tennis shoes. I belched my acrid smoke into the pure air outside of your city, and my waste poisoned rivers and water tables. I have been forsaken and sit here rotting away, no longer even serving the purpose for which I was built. I am a blight on the horizon, an eyesore that you would rather forget. But look at me more closely and you will see yourself. You will see the hands that built me, the care that went into my creation, the delicate curves of my ducts and tubes that subtly, unintentionally reflect the aesthetics of your culture. I am a part of you, and you are a part of me. Come wander here and behold the creature that stands before you. I am old, but am I not majestic? I am empty, but do I not have a soul? I am broken, but am I not beautiful?’
Both in my travels and in my times at home I have had the great fortune to see so much beauty, even in the places where I expect it least. There have been times when I have actively gone looking for it, pondered it, done my best to determine just what it is after all. And there have been far more times when it has slapped me in the face when I was least prepared. It has been enough to make me believe that one can find beauty in everything. One only needs to either look closely or stop looking entirely and simply let it come. The problem is knowing which strategy to employ, although it appears most often to be the latter. All the same, for the past few days I have been wrestling with a more elusive question about beauty. My course of Slovene language ended yesterday, and although I still have several months left in Slovenia and a little over a year left in Europe in general, I have come to realize how much I’m going to miss this class and all of the people I have met through it in the last year. The question I am left asking myself is: Where is the beauty in goodbye?
Saying goodbye is a part of everyone’s life, and it’s not surprising that it’s a huge topic in the world of film, literature and television, as well as everyday conversation. For me, saying goodbye to new friends has become almost habitual, but that hasn’t made it any easier. Like everyone, there are the goodbyes that come with graduating high school and college, and recently leaving for Europe for two years spawned a lot of sad and heartfelt moments. There’s another kind of goodbye, though, that is different but also very difficult. Since high school I have had many intense experiences that bring a small group of people very close together in a short time. I was a Senate Page for a month my junior year, an exchange student in Germany my senior year, did Semester at Sea my senior year of college, was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Suriname, an English teacher in Moscow; I have also done month-long courses in English teaching and Yiddish language, and most recently I have been taking Slovene courses here in Ljubljana. I’m sure everyone has their own list, and I don’t think mine is any more special than anyone else’s. It just happens to be mine.
Each time I find myself in one of these situations, I grow close to the people around me and it makes it difficult to say goodbye. I’ve known people who remain distant and closed for that very reason. It’s hard to constantly make new friends that you know you’re not going to see again for a long time, if indeed you ever see them again. In many ways it might be easier to grow a thicker hide and remain as emotionally disconnected as possible, and I can’t blame anyone for making that call. All I know is that it wouldn’t be the right call for me. The friends I’ve made through these experiences have been incredible, and many times they have remained in my life for a long time afterwards, some even to this day. Many have been my best and closest friends, the people from whom I’ve learned the most about life, humanity and myself. I would not trade a moment spent with these people or a single tear shed at parting in return for an easier goodbye. It’s hard, and I always know it’s going to be, but it’s been worth it. And here I go again.
Finishing this course has been bittersweet. It’s a relief to be out of class and have a break, but even apart from the people I became friends with, I know that I am going to miss it. It was great having a place to go every day where I could learn this language and communicate my ideas and my knowledge to people who were excited to do the same thing with me. I must say, the Centre for Slovene as a Second/Foreign Language deserves a note of praise. Having participated in their summer school almost two years ago and now having just done two semesters there, I look back and am very impressed with their programs. Those teachers work so hard to make class fun and exciting, as well as educational, and I have learned a great deal about teaching from them. The coordinators also earn a big nod of thanks and appreciation, as their job is probably even harder and they get much less recognition. As for my teachers, Melita, Tanja, Gita, Anja and Magda, if you ever read this, you have my hearty thanks. What a wonderful experience it’s been!
Missing a course is just part of this, however. This past year I’ve met so many people and gotten a chance to get to know a bit about them and who they are. What a gift that is. To get insight into other human beings, like-minded and otherwise. And this last notion is important because although an interest in Slovene is something we all shared, we were from different parts of the world and even from different walks of life. Somehow, through opinionated discussions in a very difficult foreign language, we managed not to get anyone’s dander up too severely, and yet we also learned so much about other ways of viewing the world. Now that that’s over, I’m left wondering where the positive is in this ending. Again, I’m asking myself where the beauty is in goodbye. Like many times, this is an example where I’ve had to stop thinking about it and let beauty find me.
The answer, or at least an answer, came a few minutes ago as I was writing this very post. My mind was focused on good times and goodbyes, but I wasn’t concentrating on finding the meaning or the sense behind it. Then I remembered all of the time after saying goodbye, the friendships that remained and the ones that faded, how it was sometimes surprising just which ones lasted and which ones did not. There are friends that I count as some of my all-time, best-ever, and I maybe hear from them a few times a year. There have even been years in between, when I wondered if we would ever be in touch again, but deep down I knew that it was only a matter of time, and those individuals have renewed my faith the power of true friendship again and again.
Three years ago my girlfriend, Courtney, and I started dating a week and a half before summer break, and I was planning on being in Europe for nearly three months. We left things simple and loose, which was wise, but our feelings were clear even then. Through literally hundreds of emails we explored each others’ minds and emotions, discussed our hopes and fears, opened up about our needs and our desires, and in the end we grew stronger for having been apart. It wasn’t long before I wondered, ‘Is this love?’ That was the first summer we said goodbye, and it was followed by another a year later. The story basically repeats itself, including such updates as skype and a fixed mailing address for yours truly, and we found that the times when we had to live our lives without the other were difficult but not diminished. To be fair, I think we both constantly wished the other person could be there, and there’s so much that I’ve done that I wish I could have shared with her, but we didn’t put our lives on hold, and that was important. Now, Courtney is in the Peace Corps and I am in Europe. Two years plus apart is torture, but we learned early on how to live for ourselves, even when waiting for each other. It’s a lesson that goodbye taught me, and I’m glad that I was willing to listen.
As I sit here and write this, I know that this knowledge does not make goodbyes any easier. I don’t miss Courtney less, just as I don’t miss all of the friends I’ve made any less either. I’m aware that knowledge rarely makes things easier at all, and in the end that’s okay. Just like with White Snake, beauty finds its way to us if we let it, if we’re open to it, and very often we can learn from it so that it’s easier to spot in the future. That’s something that I’m very thankful for, in the midst of feeling sad that my course is over and that everyone is going their separate ways. As the head teacher said day before yesterday, ‘Tomorrow is a another day.’ Simple words with a lot of wisdom for those who are willing to embrace it. Thanks, Tanja.
And kudos to everyone who found the rest of the White Snake references 😉