We All Find Infinity, Sooner or Later
Black shapes of hikers dot the edge of the tall arid cliffs. Like pilgrims, they trudge along the edge of oblivion. Some with sticks in their hands. Some with backpacks on their shoulders. Here and there, they stop at this or that outstretched finger of rock, where the land bulges into the sea, and hold up gleaming phones to take a picture. To capture it. To subdue it, and in some way to own it.
Meanwhile, the beaches at the foot of the cliff are dotted with pale pink skin. It’s the first foretaste of summer, twenty-degree weather that brings us all out of our heated houses and down to the beach.
Divers surface, seal-sleek in black wetsuits, to raise flippers like the dorsal fins of orcas before plunging below the waves in search of sea urchins that cling blindly to the rocks. Unseen above, the shivering stars look on as the divers surface again, blowing out stale air like whales. Clouds of spray attract rainbows in the relentless sun.
We all think we know the sea.
It’s that big blue thing at the end of town, on the edge of the land, on the edge of everything, where the fish and the monsters live. The force that grinds fine sand out of rocks for the kids to play in when summer comes, and the hidden hand that pushes water up the beach in winter to collect in the salt pools and turn to fine white seasoning. Something to sell.
It’s a playground. It’s a partner that brings ships from around the world to dock in the port and create dull but high-paying jobs driving forklifts and rolling barrels and climbing cranes under high pigeon-haunted roofs.
But it’s more than that.
Every year it takes a few more lives, adding to the unnumbered toll of lives lost to the lightless, airless, beautiful blue. And here we are, lining up to take pictures with it. Clamoring to be near it, to touch the holy hand of the killer that still drips with innocent blood.
Because we hate what we can’t control and fear what we can’t conquer, but only to a point. When we find at last that unconquerable horizon, that thing too vast and wild and savage for even our considerable powers, we fall at its feet and worship the monster.
The church was always packed. The fair-weather faithful, fulfilling some dimly-understood ancestral obligation like salmon swimming upstream, a nod to some vanished grandparent or a wish to give some gift they never wanted themselves to their children, bored to excruciation by the tiresome pomp of Catholicism.
We weren’t like them. We showed up every week to hear the same stories, recite the same prayers, stand and sit and kneel and shake hands and take part in what we were told was a high and deep mystery, even while it seemed like a hollow game.
I sat up on the altar with the priest, dressed in an ill-fitting robe, producing paten and chalice and swinging a censer on demand. An altar boy. My father’s idea. Perhaps, up there, I was supposed to be closer to God, closer to the blood and the flies, the stinging sweat, the wild and too-human despair of God’s son nailed to a tree.
Well, we all have fathers, don’t we?
There was no magic in it. Not even back then, when I still believed what I was told about the infinite, the eternal, the Most High. It was a performance, and when the show is over, you take off your costume and hang it up in your closet for next week and become who you are instead of the functionary of some drama written before your grandparents were born. Another loathed duty in a childhood absolutely packed with them.
There is nowhere more godless than church.
It would’ve been better to come here
Here, where the land ends in one last rocky flourish before plunging into annihilation. Here, where the dark shapes of underwater rocks stand out against the brighter sand and look like menacing shadows rising from those sinister depths.
Annihilation is everywhere here. People stand on the cliff’s edge to get the best photo, ignoring the one wrong step that could be their last. People plunge into the water and shriek and gasp as the chill wraps its cold fist around their ribcage, and squeezes. There’s nowhere better to be than this, the edge of the land on the edge of another summer, spring bursting in pink and purple flowers from every bush, the southern wind driving away the last tattered shreds of winter as if forever. Another drama scripted before any of us were born.
And it’s hard to believe that the sea is older than the cliffs. Older than the continent even, depending on how you count it. Forty-four million years is long enough to be forever compared to our green lives, but it’s still a blip in geological time. And for this sea to exist, an older one, the Tethys Ocean, had to die.
In the normal order of things, it’s fathers that die for their sons, not the other way around.
No one on the cliffs or on the beach mourns the vanished oceans we never knew. But they’re mourning something.
In this secular country, around 50% of people claim to be Christian, the majority of them Catholic. In the English-speaking world, Easter, the spiritual apotheosis of the Christian ritual calendar, is still named after Eostre, a Saxon pagan goddess whose name in German is directly related to the word for East, where the sun rises.
In France, it’s Pâques, coming straight from the Hebrew Pesach, or Passover. That might seem as though it makes them closer to the original source. Holier than us, perhaps.
But France has some of the lowest rates of religious service attendance in the world, with only around 5% going to church on a weekly basis.
I get it. Culturally and historically Catholic. Intellectually atheist.
No one, on cliffs or beach or in the shifting bronze water, is mourning the Son of Man, either.
This is a pagan scene for Easter Sunday, the home of Olympian gods and sirens and Circean enchantresses. And something older and colder and deeper calls us here, to the edge of the cliff, the edge of the world, to stare out at that bright bronze infinity.
The urge for annihilation. The desire to shed the loneliness of being aware and awake in a world that seemingly isn’t. To put on the robes and the consciousness of the rocks and the waves and the sun. To become thoughtless and immortal, the body lying in the cold tomb for those three days, then rising to shake the world.
Catholicism taught me that what we say in private is what is most true. That confession is holy, and that betrayed confidence is almost the greatest sin there is.
In a certain sense, I’ve built a life around trying to say the unsayable. To take what’s most hidden, what’s plaited around the tumbled boulders of my spine, and hurl it into infinity. The opposite, in some ways, of those cliffside pilgrims taking their tiny photos to take home and show disinterested friends.
But we know that every yang contains that dark dot of yin. That all means ultimately find the same end. That to throw something away in abject disgust is just another way of reaching out to take it back.
“And so long as you haven’t experienced this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth.”
Goethe said that.
You don’t need to buy into Christian mythology to understand why spring would be a time of rebirth. It’s all around you. The trees are bursting with blossoms. The animals are birthing without knowing why. You’re probably fucking like an executioner, or flicking yourself sick to make up for it if you’re not.
But that’s what this festival is, Christian, pagan, or otherwise. It’s about rebirth. Every spring arrives as fresh and beautiful as the last, as remorseless as though winter never existed. Life, as the Christians and so many other religions promise, really is eternal.
Just not yours, like this, with your beer gut and crow’s feet and unfortunate tendency to fly off the fucking handle at the slightest provocation.
You don’t have to believe in capital-G God to be thankful for that.
But this is the point. The things we say in private. The broken-glass shards of ourselves we try to wrap in paper and cardboard and shield even ourselves from. We look at the infinite but don’t think about what it really means to be infinite.
Even the blood and the flies and the nails through the hands are better than that.
But here we are, on the edge of rebirth, one day closing its pincers as the next opens its jaws, and make no mistake. We are all being reborn.
We are all being offered that same chance, that unbelievable gift, to reinvent ourselves with every sunrise, to become something new with every breath we take into our rancid, unworthy lungs.
Someone believes it
Across the street, my neighbors are praying. I can see them at their dinner table, hands clasped, eyes closed, muttering words I wouldn’t understand with a meaning I could never miss. I can see them through the window, the greater light of their dining room shining out against the dark street while I try to bring the day’s light to some kind of sharp, hard point on my laptop.
To be thankful for what you have. To thank some force beyond you, whatever you call it, for its blind beneficence in awarding you, with your rancid black veins of shit, with another day of life on the edge of infinity.
There are worse rituals to indulge in.
I don’t believe in the things I was taught to believe in. But you never really escape the influence of those early myths. And as the years roll by, you don’t especially want to.
Because you learn that there’s wisdom in the flies and the blood, in the nails through the hands. But more than that, there’s wisdom in the stone rolled away from the tomb, and the women fleeing in joy and terror.
The story doesn’t have to be true to be real.