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The Miracle of the Mundane

Heather Havrilesky | Longreads | September 14, 2018 | 3,976 words
Posted inBooks, Essays & Criticism, First Chapters, Story, Unapologetic Women

The Miracle of the Mundane

In an excerpt from her new essay collection, Heather Havrilesky calls for tuning out the online cacophony telling us we aren’t enough, and tuning in to the soul-affirming, quiet truth of the present moment.
Sheet music discovered in 2009 identified as part of a childhood creation by Mozart, Kerstin Joensson / AP. Penguin Random House.

Heather Havrilesky | What If This Were Enough? | September 2018 | 16 minutes (3,976 words)

On a good day, all of humanity’s accomplishments feel personal: the soaring violins of the second allegretto movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7, the intractable painted stare of Frida Kahlo, the enormous curving spans of the Golden Gate Bridge, the high wail of PJ Harvey’s voice on “Victory,” the last melancholy pages of Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. These works remind us that we’re connected to the past and our lives have limitless potential. We were built to touch the divine.

On a bad day, all of humanity’s failures feel unbearably personal: coyotes wandering city streets due to encroaching wildfires, American citizens in Puerto Rico enduring another day without electricity or potable water in the wake of Hurricane Maria, neo-Nazis spouting hatred in American towns, world leaders testing missiles that would bring the deaths of millions of innocent people. We encounter bad news in the intimate glow of our cell phone screens, and then project our worries onto the flawed artifacts of our broken world: the for lease sign on the upper level of the strip mall, the crow picking at a hamburger wrapper in the gutter, the pink stucco walls of the McMansion flanked by enormous square hedges, the blaring TVs on the walls of the local restaurant. On bad days, each moment is haunted by a palpable but private sense of dread. We feel irrelevant at best, damned at worst. Our only hope is to numb and distract ourselves as well as we can on our long, slow march to the grave.

On a good day, humankind’s creations make us feel like we’re here for a reason. Our belief sounds like the fourth molto allegro movement of Mozart’s Symphony no. 41, Jupiter: Our hearts seem to sing along to Mozart’s climbing strings, telling us that if we’re patient, if we work hard, if we believe, if we stay focused, we will continue to feel joy, to do meaningful work, to show up for each other, to grow closer to some sacred ground. We are thrillingly alive and connected to every other living thing, in perfect, effortless accord with the natural world.

But it’s hard to sustain that feeling, even on the best of days — to keep the faith, to stay focused on what matters most—because the world continues to besiege us with messages that we are failing. You’re feeding your baby a bottle and a voice on the TV tells you that your hair should be shinier. You’re reading a book but someone on Twitter wants you to know about a hateful thing a politician said earlier this morning. You are bedraggled and inadequate and running late for something and it’s always this way. You are busy and distracted. You are not here.

It’s even worse on a bad day, when humankind’s creations fill us with the sense that we are failing as a people, as a planet, and nothing can be done about it. The chafing smooth jazz piped into the immaculate coffee joint, the fake cracks painted on the wall at the Cheesecake Factory, the smoke from fires burning thousands of acres of dry tinder, blotting out the sun — they remind us that even though our planet is in peril, we are still being teased and flattered into buying stuff that we don’t need, or coaxed into forgetting the truth about our darkening reality. As the crowd around us watches a fountain dance to Frank Sinatra’s “Somewhere Beyond the Sea” at the outdoor mall, we peek at our phones and discover the bellowed warnings of an erratic foreign leader, threatening to destroy us from thousands of miles away. Everything cheerful seems to have an ominous shadow looming behind it now. The smallest images and bits of news can feel so invasive, so frightening. They erode our belief in what the world can and should be.

As the first total solar eclipse in America in thirty-nine years reveals itself, an email lands in my inbox from ABC that says The Great American Eclipse at the top. People are tweeting and retweeting the same eclipse jokes all morning. As the day grows dimmer, I remember that Bonnie Tyler is going to sing her 1983 hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on an eclipse-themed cruise off the coast of Florida soon.

Even natural wonders aren’t what they used to be, because nothing can be experienced without commentary. In the 1950s, we worried about how TV would affect our culture. Now our entire lives are a terrible talk show that we can’t turn off. It often feels like we’re struggling to find ourselves and each other in a crowded, noisy room. We are plagued, around the clock, by the shouting and confusion and fake intimacy of the global community, mid–nervous breakdown.

Sometimes it feels like our shared breakdown is making us less generous and less focused. On a bad day, the world seems to be filled with bad books and bad buildings and bad songs and bad choices. Worthwhile creations and ego-driven, sloppy works are treated to the same hype and praise; soon it starts to feel as if everything we encounter was designed merely to make some carefully branded human a fortune. Why aren’t we reaching for more than this? Isn’t art supposed to inspire or provoke or make people feel emotions that they don’t necessarily want to feel? Can’t the moon block out the sun without a 1980s pop accompaniment? So much of what is created today seems engineered to numb or distract us, keeping us dependent on empty fixes indefinitely.

Such creations feel less like an attempt to capture the divine than a precocious student’s term paper. If any generous spirit shines through, it’s manufactured in the hopes of a signal boost, so that some leisure class end point can be achieved. Our world is glutted with products that exist to help someone seize control of their own life while the rest of the globe falls to ruin. Work (and guidance, and leadership) that comes from such a greedy, uncertain place has more in common with that fountain at the outdoor mall, playing the same songs over and over, every note an imitation of a note played years before.

But human beings are not stupid. We can detect muddled and self-serving intentions in the artifacts we encounter. Even so, such works slowly infect us with their lopsided values. Eventually, we can’t help but imagine that this is the only way to proceed: by peddling your own wares at the expense of the wider world. Can’t we do better than this, reach for more, insist on more? Why does our culture make us feel crazy for trying?

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