Montecito is an impossibly lovely and privileged town between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the sea, just east of Santa Barbara. The place shows no signs of strain of any kind. A handsome old mission church is all that disrupts the eternal present of the materially fortunate. The beauty almost eclipses the money. But for an hour or so it did, as I perched on a large rock facing the ocean and was thoroughly saturated in the noontime light. In the distance oil platforms, like ghost ships, rudely marred the pristinity of the marine expanse. Just off the coast the Channel Islands, ringed by a low lustrous mist, were indistinct, except for their husky contours, in the conquering glare. The radiance swallowed the features and dissolved the solidity of the landscape, until all that remained were the twin luminosities of the sea and the sky, and in the vast silvery abstraction it was almost impossible to detect the seam between them, the world-organizing line between the air and the water. The exciting sensation of insubstantiality, of an induction into a plentitude, was owed in part to this disorienting absence of a horizon. By light, light, as the ancient philosopher said.
To be dazzled is to be blinded. The brightness did not reveal the details of the scene so much as it obliterated them. I was pleased to be released from the distinctions and the differentiations, from the mental obligations incurred by the specificity of things. The heavens were cloudless, and so was I. Cloudlessness is not my natural condition. I was raised on the principle of care, on doctrines of attachment to individuals, ideas, and institutions, on the art of multiply loving; and all this work of commitment, all this service, though it is also a source of joy, shoots one through with anxiety. Anxiety is an imperialism; it takes over everything. One must equip oneself against it, organize a resistance. Does love make you strong? It also makes you weak, because it creates nightmarish vulnerabilities, and haunts you with the imagination of loss. Courage is not the whole answer when one is afraid not for oneself but for others. And the way we live now, a life of devotion means perpetual movement—a hurrying life. Yet all this, and I abjure none of it, I am right to love who and what I love, disappeared from my heart in the sun at Montecito beach. The light was a kind of pardon. Farewell, caritas! Farewell, Sorge! I felt calm, slight, unarticulated, slow, disobligated. The sun issued no commandments. I was, as they say, beyond caring, but with none of the cruelty that the phrase implies. Care would of course return, and I would welcome it back: I never dream of more than a temporary escape. But respite is not treason, and I wished to be emptied.
Care returned soon. A woman spread a large towel, and on top of it a small rug, not far from where I was sitting. She was thin, almost gaunt, with lovely gray hair and a pleasant Californian smile. She wore a loose blue shirt and white yoga pants that clung tightly to her legs and made them look bony. She took a notebook and a pen out of her bag and began to make notes. (Perhaps she understood that an iPad is the opposite of traveling light even if it weighs little.) She lifted her face toward the light. I could see her sighing with gladness to be in the sun. Another fugitive? I enjoyed a moment of solidarity with her. Then she reached deep into her bag and pulled out two beaten-up books. One was called The Art of Healing Cancer. The other was called A Cancer Battle Plan Sourcebook. They were of the desperate genre, the sort of manuals to which people turn who cannot be helped by medicine. I can hardly describe the shock to my mind. The entire scene was instantly transfigured by my discovery of the woman’s circumstances. Everything changed. The mysticism was over. The rule of concern came rushing back, even upon a stranger. The light shone no longer upon beauty but upon tragedy. She was gaunt, and she was a fugitive, and she was dying; and I felt pity. The magnificence of creation was suddenly dwarfed by this thin, doomed creature. Emerson would have scolded me for it, but I was fully human again.
The woman got up and took a few steps toward the shore, and stood there staring at the glittering world. Was I witnessing a last look? I was reminded of a poignant custom that Helen Vendler described at her Mellon Lectures a few years ago. Here is the passage from the resulting book, a subtle and affecting study of the poetry of dying: “There is a custom in Ireland called ‘taking the last look.’ When you find yourself bedridden, with death approaching, you rouse yourself with effort and, for the last time, make the rounds of your territory, North, East, South, West, as you contemplate the places and things that have constituted your life. After this last task, you can return to your bed and die.” The woman started to walk gently along the beach. It was almost too wrenching to watch her. Transience is a much less exquisite subject when it is your own. All the traditions, religious and secular, enjoin us to live each day of our lives as if it might be our last, so as to heighten our seriousness about our reason for living, be it virtue or pleasure. But who can live only on last days? We are all fugitives, but we are not all hermits. We have children to teach, jobs to do, causes to serve. A day spent in the contemplation of personal extinction is an insufficiently rich day. Without care, then, we might be crippled by the consciousness of mortality. “How can the manner of a poem do justice to both the looming presence of death and the unabated vitality of spirit?” Vendler asked. Her answer was a “binocular style.” Life and death must both be noticed. When I came to the beach, I was binocular. At the beach I became monocular. When I left the beach I was binocular again. An old and frail friend was waiting for me to pick him up for lunch, and he needed help getting in and out of the car.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.