By the time I reached the cemetery on its bluff south of town, the fog had disappeared and the beginnings of sunrise were lighting up the horizon. I had spent all night walking, praying, and crying. This was October in Santa Barbara, and the Santa Ana winds had raised night mists but left us warm, electric, on edge.
Walking and praying, all night. At some point, desperate for God’s love, I had tried bashing my fists into a chain-link fence. Raising blood: that was good. But I noted—from a corner of the mind where I watched myself ironically, judgingly—that I had stopped at one good bloody knuckle.
Yet the desperation was real. I was one of the uncountable gay kids trapped in evangelical Christianity: trapped by my own stubbornness in not quitting the faith, trapped again by fear of rejection by my family and friends—above all trapped by fear of the degeneracy so confidently predicted for men, or boys, such as me. I was just twenty.
I saw the Pacific moving gray and silver all the way to its rim. At my feet was a long drop-off, rocks foaming in the surf. But despite my nightlong untethering, I felt no weepy self-extinction, no thought of making an end. No. There was just the seething, the power, the beauty.
I was standing in a grassy place with big oaks and pines, and I reached out to touch the rough moist bark of the nearest one. Laid my forehead there, catching the faint pine scent, sweet behind the salt mist. Felt something rushing, rushing, something bigger and truer than all this wailing and gnashing of teeth. Raised my eyes to look again.
Glow of pink and gold just beginning, bright planets still visible in the blue-violet sky, rightness and beauty all around me. Silent. Beyond doctrine. Greater than thought, and somehow welcoming in their indifference.
I had no idea how to process what had just happened. Soon, or soon enough, I trudged back to campus, cleaned my face and squared my shoulders. A class in theology to prepare for (ours was a flyspeck Christian college, chosen for its earnestness). And then Survey of English Lit, something to read from the big thick Norton Anthology (Volume I). I’d get it done and have something to say for myself. Very determined about that.
I kept that morning in my heart, that glow, that rightness. But I also had a lifetime of God’s alleged hate stored up in me, the unspoken contempt of family and church. I had been collecting these, silently watching and listening as people minced and mocked and joked, preached and misapplied Bible verses. Of course they had no idea about me; I knew how to pass. And they had meant well, meant to safeguard the flock, keep the children from the twisted ways of the world. We were cosseted, really: middle class kids in an uneventful corner of Los Angeles, dressed up for church, asked and warned and invited to follow the path of righteousness.
That’s what I wanted, fiercely. I memorized, I prayed, I hid myself behind a barricade of vigilance and pretending. But it was hopeless. I was headed for misery, loneliness, perdition. Everyone in my world said so. And our pious college life wasn’t changing anything.
Yet the morning world I saw, that seethe of beauty, that extent that went so much further than anything words could capture ... I held that in my heart. It helped me see how small my story was, small and unremarkable. And for a second or a minute it healed me—silent on a cliff in California.
This big world—this immeasurable, wonderful, terrifying cosmos that we lose ourselves in, and find ourselves in—this is the subject of this book. The twilight all in fire and color. The night sky, limitless, incomprehensible. Even the strangeness of the living world—and of each other. What is it? What is this tremendousness? That breaks our heart with beauty, with longing, with fear and delight mixed so weirdly together? And that sometimes, unexpectedly, finds its echoes in the human arts—music especially and sometimes a painted canvas or some other handmade thing that again brings that note of endlessness, power, and beauty.
In the gradually blooming years that followed my sad night’s journey, I strove unconsciously but continuously toward that undegenerate life I yearned for. It was a long time before I could handle other people—let alone the terrible question of love. So I headed for the mountains. At first with others, climbing and backpacking, but soon solo, solo for years and years. Years of stars rising over alpine basins and the clear, glowing granite of the High Sierras. Years of riversides cloaked with welcoming pines and peaks walked or scrambled or climbed until the whole world unfurled before me. All of it indifferent, beautiful, and right. Slowly I believed it: that I might be right too. Small, yes. Lonely, yes. But right enough.
The story I told myself at first was the usual one: woe is me, suffering and hurt, and damn those narrow bigots. But all that dropped away in the mountains. Little by little the quieter, larger self grew. The wideness of the world was my tutor. It was beauty, it was scale, it was depth and complexity. All I had to do was keep silent and pay attention and absorb. Made small, I grew.
When I got to Paris so many decades later, I was finally ready to see it: that bigger story, deeper than hurt, wide as the sky.
Anyone could reenvision his or her story this way, I think. All it takes is remembering. And admitting: Yes, it was beautiful, too. Savage . . . and beautiful.
In Paris for a winter and the beginnings of a spring, I discovered a present so vivid—so full of art and music and people and life—that I began to rewrite my past. This book is the record of that discovery, a present life awakened, an old life coming back in newness, revised and re-seen and full of an unexpected grace. And leading to this affirmation (or, perhaps, hypothesis):
Stupendous beauty and power surround us. Are us. Whosoever will become open to them will be changed.
Excerpt from The Mountains of Paris © 2019 by David Oates, published by Oregon State University Press. Reprinted by permission