Touching Transcendence, Transforming to Joy

sublime /səˈblīm/: tending to inspire awe usually because of elevated quality (as of beauty, nobility, or grandeur) or transcendent excellence. [Merriam-Webster]

There’s a video of me in 2018 walking along the edge of the Grand Canyon in Nevada and I can not stop laughing. I sound almost giddy, with uncontrollable giggles accompanied by a lot of exclamatory, somewhat coherent phrases.

I do not know if that is everyone’s reaction to seeing the glory of this natural wonder, but I can attest that at that moment, I truly understood the meaning of the sublime.  

A view of the Grand Canyon where you can see how far it extends and the stratigraphy along its walls.
A photo of the Grand Canyon does not do it justice. It is only after standing before its magnificent splendor that I felt the power it evokes to all who behold is massive existence.

When I was in graduate school I spent some time researching the power of place and ending up digging into this idea that places and technology can evoke an overwhelming feeling of awe, and sometimes terror. It started with an idle interest in the Grand Tour, the travels of  wealthy young white men, either to Europe or certain parts of the United States in order to experience the grandeur of nature, and the unfathomable wonders of the world. 

In the artistic world the sublime is a phrase associated with the romantic art movement—incredible pieces that have an almost transcendent quality to them (often J.M.W. Turner’s work is used as an example). For me that is most evident in the four part series by Thomas Cole called The Voyage of Life. His use of light in those paintings has always had an indescribable impact on my emotions. 

In a lot of ways I have spent the last year trying to re-capture that sense of wonder at the world. After all, we all went through a period of unexpected seclusion. A time when, for most of us, our physical existence was limited by our four walls and our immediate neighborhood. 

Starting in January, armed with many vaccines and boosters, I slowly emerged—being as careful as possible—into the wider world. I wanted to remember what that awe, that inspiration, felt like. 

I will admit right away that my travels did not all go as expected. There was the trip to West Virginia where we experienced all four seasons in one weekend, or the Maine trip that never was (but will be in 2023!). Not to mention my birthday trip to Vancouver which started off inauspiciously when I brought my passport card for a flight to Canada (I know! I should have read the fine print.) Luckily I was in Seattle so a quick car rental later, I easily crossed the border. 

A row of high end rectangular avacado sushi from a restaurant in Vancouver, BC.
One of the truly sublime things in Vancouver was the food we ate. Particularly the salmon sushi at Miku.

And then there was my most recent European adventure in September. A trip that was a year in the making but had its own unexpected stressors. 

But none of that really matters, because each trip brought me back to that moment at the Grand Canyon, but this time the awe came not only from the tableau before me, but from the people that stood by me. 

To sublimate is to change the form, but not the essence. [Merriam-Webster]

When I went into the year, I told myself that I would do some things differently. In some cases that meant owning my own decisions, in others it meant taking leaps that I did not expect to take. 

The first test of this was during the trip to West Virginia where two of my oldest friends and I visited the incredible New River Gorge National Park. During the long weekend we took hikes that included delicious trail snacks—M&Ms, hummus, and pretzel sticks—while sitting on rocky outcroppings listening to the rush of water and the wind blowing through the trees. We drove through the winding road to the bottom of the gorge, and stood on a wooden scaffold to see a horseshoe turn in the river. 

An overhead view of a river at the bottom of a gorge lined with trees.
The New River in West Virginia from one of the various scenic overlooks during a hike. We had gorgeous weather and clear skies that made the trip all the better.

And then we had the moment of truth, because really you can’t visit the New River Gorge without experiencing white water rafting. It would have been easy to back out, as we were all a little bit terrified.

And yet, we didn’t talk ourselves out of going when we hiked along the river.
Or when we pulled on the tight wet suits to keep us warm.
We certainly didn’t talk ourselves out of going when we were taking the bus to the start and they gave us the run down on the bazillion ways we could die. 

In an unexpected turn of events, I was the voice of reason. Urging us to keep going, even though this was by far, the scariest thing I had ever made myself do. 

I was, in a lot of ways, changing, but still myself. 

A group of people on an inflateable raft that is blue with yellow paddles.
Evidence of a woman not letting fear get in the way. Rafting along the New River.

Our river guide was great. He was funny, distracting, but also confident as he guided us through Class 2, 3, and 4 rapids. It was such a rush. The adrenaline kept me leaning in, avoiding the fall that I know would make the panic worse. No one wanted to be the poor woman who fell out of the boat early on and then refused to go on (she had to keep going). 

The only way forward was through.

I was experiencing Edmund Burke’s sublime, the feeling that is at times both awful and terrifying, and yet also deeply satisfying.  And at the end, as we meandered under the girders of the New River Gorge Bridge, I felt another wave of emotion. 

A close up of the girders on a massive bridge in West Virginia.
A look at the enormous girders that make up the New River Gorge Bridge. The repeated pattern of the structure provides its own sense of human-made harmony.

There we were on one of the oldest rivers in the United States, looking up at a structure that was an example of incredible human engineering. Where once travelers had to wind their way down and then back again there was now this human-made monstrosity of a bridge, both a juxtaposition in the natural landscape, yet also an integral part of it. 

Built over three years in the 1970s this 876 foot bridge is designed to practically get drivers from point A to point B. But it inspires another sense of awe—one apparently coined by historian Perry Miller as the technological sublime. A feat of engineering that simultaneously evokes fear and marvel. 

A view of a bridge with an incredible arch that spans across a huge gorge.
The New River Bridge from the vantage point of the old bridge which is closer to river level in the Gorge. Looking up you can, from another perspective, see the crisscross pattern of girders and arch that give the bridge its strength.

In a lot of ways that trip was the start of a transformation. I had left point A and was moving towards an undefinable point B. But the person who had started down the New River Gorge in an inflatable raft was not the same person who stepped off at the landing. 

As I stared up at the girders crossing above us I realized I was not a different person, in essence. Rather I had shifted from an individual filled with worry and consternation, to someone who had made a choice, and pushed through the challenges on the other side.  

A sublimation. Is the process in which something transitions from a solid state directly to gas without becoming liquid first, OR the act of expressing strong emotions or using energy by doing an activity or creating something, or the activity or work itself (Cambridge English Dictionary).

Later this year, my sister and I sat, side by side, on the beach in New Jersey. For a long time we just stared at the waves beating along the sandy shore, in a repetitive motion that kept moving forward, then back, forward, then back. My sister spoke of the meditative quality of the ocean. We talked about how you could be ridiculously cranky and frustrated with the world, but you could come, sit on the beach at sunrise or dusk when there are barely any souls around, and it would all melt away.

For me it was and is a moment of creation, when a wave of peace washes over me and I find myself wanting to write, to brainstorm, to consider, and contemplate. It is a different sort of awe, one inspired by what I refer to as the heartbeat of the earth. 

This sublimation is not as aggressive as the definition indicates it to be, but it is a transitive process in which an emotion, an ephemeral feeling that lives like gas in the air around me, is transferred into a more tangible form—words on a page, paint on a canvas, a bow on a string. All in time to the gentle thrum and hum of waves crashing back to earth. 

But there is the feeling of awe that comes from the spark of creative energy, and then there is the spark that comes from being in connection with those you love. 

A bunch of sweets next to a bouquet of flowers and books.
A view of the sweet surprises from one of the three events that brought me and mine together to celebrate my birthday.

In August I threw myself a series of birthday parties. My only goal was to see as many of my favorite people as possible. We had breakfast tacos at the National Arboretum, birthday cake in my backyard, and experienced Shakespeare in the middle of one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. 

In Vancouver, I took the long way around to spend three days with four of the most important women in my life. And in Europe, on a trip to Greece and Germany, I visited with two people who have never made me feel less worthy in the over twenty-five years that we have known each other. 

Two women standing in front of the Parthenon in Greece. The site has scaffolding around it.
Another historic site that feels different when you are standing before it. This was a day of uncertainty, but also a day filled with inspiration as we basked in the shadow of these remarkable ancient structures.

And it was on that trip that I had another Grand Canyon moment. Standing on the Acropolis, staring up at the Parthenon, I felt the earth move once again—overwhelmed by moments of unbridled joy.

Maybe that is another way to consider the different variations on the word sublime—even if they do not really share the same root word, they all are about deep, strong feelings of awe, fear, and love. Perhaps, however, it is joy, an emergence and temporary escape from an uncertain world, that is a class of sublime all its own. 

It is that definition of the sublime that I am here to grasp, to embrace that joy as it fills my soul, and to let that feeling carry me through whatever troubled times are yet to come.

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