The Vocabulary for Transcendence

Courtesy freedigitalphotos.net, "red autumn forest" by Evgeni Dinev

Courtesy freedigitalphotos.net, “red autumn forest” by Evgeni Dinev

Last week’s Washington Post featured a book review on All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Here’s a piece of it that really caught my eye:

“I imagine that most parents will agree with her, too, that the joy is real, if sometimes fleeting and difficult to measure. “Meaning and joy have a way of slipping through the sieve of social science,” she writes. ‘The vocabulary for aggravation is large. The vocabulary for transcendence is more elusive.’”

The vocabulary for aggravation is large. The vocabulary for transcendence is more elusive. Those are great lines. And they made me think about why writing about happiness is such a challenge. I won’t say writing about fun, because fun is neither very interesting nor any kind of goal. Fun is so uninteresting, in fact, that it’s a stereotype – imagine the neighbors inviting you over to view their vacation slides. Fun turns out not to be too great a story topic. I think most people know that instinctively, know that fun, while nice to have, isn’t exactly the richest of experiences. That’s why it seems like such a strange thing to talk about in the context of parenting. Asking if parenting is fun is like asking if schooling is. It deepens you, it challenges you, it enriches you, and it has moments – so many! – of transcendence. But though it might be plenty of fun some days, that’s not exactly part of the job description.

Which all leads back to the difficulty of writing about happiness, and yes, transcendence. The best writers I’ve seen do it by tucking those lovely moments into the midst of the conflict, moments that give the characters space to breathe, and to remember why they fight so hard to survive whatever challenge the story holds for them. Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of the fantasy writer Maggie Stiefvater, whose lyrical writing gives me much to aspire to. And I notice that she does this a lot – slipping in moments of beauty that you just want to hold onto, even as you’re eager to turn the page. The images she comes up with really wow me – a golden wood where leaves flutter past in the wind, a room where a boy makes paper cranes out of his memories. Beauty tucked in amid the hardship, transcendence that rises out of the challenges. Another way in which stories are so much like life.

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2 thoughts on “The Vocabulary for Transcendence

  1. “slipping in moments of beauty that you just want to hold onto, even as you’re eager to turn the page. ”

    Wow. Can we just learn to appreciate these “moments of beauty”? What an elegant sentiment. I was a speed reader in my youth, thinking that amassing a grand pile of books read was the finish line, and I meet lots of bright, young students who are under the same impression. Just yesterday I handed a home-bound student a small journal and asked her to begin “collecting” at least one sentence a day from everything she read – something that made her pause and ponder. I suspect she will struggle with the task in the beginning, which is why I will be modeling my own collection for awhile, and today your sentence will be collected in my journal. Thank you!

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