How can a story be heartbreakingly terrible and transcendently beautiful at the same time?
How can life?
The other morning while getting ready for work and listening to the news, I heard a man interviewed about rescuing a dog in New York (my precious Baby Rae is also a rescuee, an abused puppy smuggled across the Mexican border eleven years ago—that’s her in Tecate, above, on the day I found her. See my 10/3/11 post titled Writing With A Blue Dog– also see Baby Rae at the end of this post).
But back to the man being interviewed. He was a professional rescuer, and he spoke of a call he’d received about an injured dog in the street. When he arrived at the address and bent to examine a small dog, he found it so badly beaten it couldn’t move (it had sustained a broken back).
As the man whispered comfort words to the dog, he was rushed by a gang of thugs (they were the ones who’d beaten the dog–and were taking bets as to how long it would take to die; thus, their ugly rationale for attacking the dog rescuer as well, for intruding on their sick party).
The thugs beat the dog rescuer unconscious, and then, scared, ran off.
But this is where the transcendently beautiful occurred:
This small half-dead dog with the broken back army-crawled to the unconscious man’s side and began licking her rescuer’s face. She literally licked her rescuer back to consciousness, until he was able to call for help.
Of course I cried listening to this story—I’m an easy crier when it comes to brutality, or the beauty of certain hearts, human or otherwise.
All day long I carried this story around with me, sharing it with anyone who’d listen, and as I and others spoke of this dichotomy of life—the ugly and the beautiful—I considered other stories that have touched me, even changed my life.
Starting with an old children’s book called Old Yeller.
Old Yeller is about a rescued yellow dog called Yeller (I’m seeing a commonality here, especially considering that the last novel I cried—buckets!—over was The Art Of Racing In The Rain, also dog-centered).
In Yeller’s story, he brings joy to the family he’s adopted, but then is bitten by a rabid wolf while protecting his primary human, a boy named Travis. Knowing Yeller will also get sick with rabies, Travis is called upon to shoot the beloved friend who not only saved his life, but also introduced him to the incredible exhilaration of just being. This story is still so heartbreaking to me, I’m having trouble typing dry-eyed, thinking, And this is a children’s story?
But once again, transcendent beauty:
Yeller’s lookalike puppy subsequently helps Travis recover from Yeller’s death. And of course Yeller’s little puppy is also a teacher, illustrating for Travis—and sobbing readers—the strength that can come from rebirth.
Another story with marked elements of terribleness and beauty within it is Atonement.
The terribleness is a young girl’s lie (Briony is her name), and what happens to Briony’s sister, Cecilia, and Cecilia’s lover, Robbie, as a result of something that is tragically understandable given Briony’s tender age at the time.
And then poignant beauty:
Years down the road, a 77-year-old Briony, now a successful novelist, tells of her stab at atonement by way of writing about Cecilia and Robbie’s reunion and happiness—neither of which is actually true, come to find out—and so the tears flow again with the elderly Briony’s bittersweet words at the ending of her story about Cee and Robbie: “I gave them happiness but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me.”
The piercing sadness of the win . . .
Near the ending of my own novel, The Angry Woman Suite (available in 2012), Elyse claims a hard-fought autonomy from her—to put it mildly—neurotic family, and she then speaks of “the piercing sadness of the win.”
The terribleness and the beauty co-exist within one phrase.
Certain stories resonate. They move us, and even have the power to change us, because they emotionally connect us to truth and paradox.
And to the flip side of terribleness, even if we can’t always see it right away. That flip side is the beautiful soul of a small, battered dog rescuing her rescuer, and the nobility of another dog sacrificing his own life to save his human; and the character of a guilt-ridden old woman attempting to square a wrong she committed as a young girl, and the tenacity of another girl—Elyse, worn out in body and spirit—winning the fight against her father’s inner monster.
It’s mystery, dichotomy and paradox. It’s yin and yang, and balance, and balance always means hope—and hope never fails to move.
Baby Rae today, in her San Diego garden. Look at that smile.
Tell me a story that changed you.