25 Jun 2013
I am re-reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov for the first time in ten years, and I’m falling in love with it all over again. You go merrily along, chuckling here and there at the narrator’s jokes and the ridiculous foibles of the characters, and then something like this jumps off the page and grabs you by the heart. I should say, first and foremost, that I adore Dostoevsky. I don’t think any writer has ever understood the ecstasy and agony of the human heart, and especially the hearts of the downtrodden, as well as he did. And I can’t think of any writer who has ever expressed something so oft-discussed as love in such a new way that it makes you feel like you’ve never encountered it before. That is pure magic.
This passage, a quote from the Elder Zosima, the novel’s spiritual core, has been much on my mind these past few weeks. As we’ve been traveling quite a bit this spring and summer, I have been in a near-constant state of awe at the beauty all around us. I’ve seen the rarest seahorses and jellyfish, so improbably bright in hue that it knocked me off my feet. I’ve touched the rocky surface of starfishes and felt the cool velvet of a bat ray. I’ve watched ocean waves crash into rocks, gently flowing from royal blue to aquamarine to palest turquoise and then into a bubble bath of foam. I’ve seen the hugest and most majestic bears and the tiniest of lizards darting across mountain paths. I’ve seen redwoods and cypresses, permanently bent away from the ocean winds, as if raising their shoulders in defense. I’ve smelled the most decadent of wild sage, juniper berries, and jasmine. I’ve seen tiny pale green pine cones and mule deer antlers still in velvet. I’ve stood, jaw dropped, for fifteen minutes watching a 100-year-old tortoise walk across the sand. I’ve seen enough beauty to break my heart.
And Zosima is right, the more attuned we are to the incredible things around us, the more we see of them. It builds upon itself, every day. I have lived in California for almost ten years, and I treasure the plants and animals I’ve come to know. I love seeing manzanitas and star of jasmine, lady finger succulents and harbor seals, leyland cypresses and lupines. I’ve become obsessed with the idea of learning more of them. Today I brought home a fat stack of field guides from the library: cacti, wild flowers, trees and animals. These beautiful things around me, I want to know what they are called. I want to greet them each day as I run my errands and go for afternoon walks. I want them to become part of me, their beauty reminding me of something that is deeper and truer than I can see or touch with my hands. Whether you are a person of faith or not, there is something transcendent about nature, something of two worlds touching, as Dostoevsky would put it. It isn’t a stretch at all to say that the flowers and the trees and the birds bring me joy on a daily basis. And that’s how I want to live. Loving every grain of sand.
It boggles my mind to this day how someone who had as hard and sometimes dark of a life as Dostoevsky could have such a luminous faith in humanity, in love, in grace. He wrote The Brothers Karamazov while grieving the loss of his beloved three-year-old son. And yet he still found a way to write a book about darkness that nonetheless blinds you with pure light, with pure love. People often think that Russian literature is depressing, and Dostoevsky’s novels in particular, but that could not be further than the truth. In every word of his text, you can feel his joy at the gift of life, his laughter at the tiny comedies that make up our days, and his relentless hope in forgiveness. I never feel so uplifted as when I’m reading his novels. It’s simple and true: light shines brightest in the darkness.
In 2004 I had the incredible opportunity to intern at The Dostoevsky Museum in St. Petersburg. It’s housed in Dostoevsky’s last apartment, right across the street from a church, so he could hear the bells every day. The room behind me is his study, where he breathed his last. The clock behind me was stopped at the moment of his death. Being in this space overwhelmed me in the best possible way. As I walked past his black top hat, carefully preserved under a glass cloche, and listened to the old stairs creak under my feet each day, I liked to think he was looking down on me and smiling at all my many grains of sand.