It Fails in Beauty

It Fails in Beauty September 27, 2023

trees with yellow leaves by a pond, in mist


I went for another hike in the woods, because I am a failure.

The weekend wasn’t good. We continue to circle the drain with Twitter algorithms in shambles and the spontaneous tips that make up between one and two thirds of my income nearly gone.  We had to borrow from a friend to make rent. Adrienne’s box of birthday cake mix was bought as a present by a nice lady in the Buy Nothing group.  I was sick and often homebound with a misdiagnosed chronic illness that caused severe fatigue until I was 36, learned to support myself writing on the internet because it’s something I could do when I couldn’t sit up, and now at nearly 39 the bottom’s fallen out and I have to try something new. I’ve been slowly coming up with other ideas, but the insomnia and depression is so relentless that I haven’t put them into action yet. I am a failure. I should be digging myself out of this hole, but I am a failure.

On Sunday, the dryer broke for real this time. It still tumbles, but the heat does not come on. We discovered this while trying to dry Adrienne’s good unstained jeans before the late Mass, which is how she ended up wearing sweatpants to church.

I went to church too, my first Mass in about six weeks. It didn’t go well. I’m just not ready.

I don’t know when I’ll be ready.

Being sick in public, being traumatized in public, discovering that your particular corner of the Catholic Church was an abusive cult in public, not knowing what to do next in public, being a failure in public, these are hard things. I write about them because they’re what I have to offer. They’re who I am. Writing about who I am makes me less lonely, and based on the comments I get, it makes other people less lonely as well. That’s worth doing.

Yesterday, while Adrienne was at school,  I was so sick of being tired and depressed at home that I drove Serendipity out to a state park, to be tired and depressed in nature.

That was the stupidest thing I could have done, wasting so much gas and my only few hours with energy and a clear head on a trip to the woods, but I did it anyway.

The Autumn is the loveliest time to be tired in nature. In Eastern Ohio, Western Pennsylvania and the chimney of West Virginia, late September is when the fall starts in earnest. All of nature is getting tired, but it does so by breaking into a symphony of glorious orange and red. The sunlight is fading, so the trees fight back as brightly as they can. The whole world is failing, but it fails in beauty.

I hadn’t been to this particular hiking trail since last Spring, a year before the catastrophe with Serendipity. The last time I hiked there was before the canopy of leaves had grown in, when the sky was visible overhead and the ground was a riot of wildflowers. Now, the ground was fading foliage, but the world overhead was exchanging green for gold. It looked like the vault of a cathedral.

You could really believe in God, in Northern Appalachia, in the Autumn.

I wandered up the side of a hill past a derelict cabin that used to be some artist’s studio. Last time, the cabin was open and you could look around. Now it’s boarded up. Then I went down the side of a steep hill until the trail stopped being gravel and turned into mud. Then the ferns appeared, not the color of sap but the color of saffron, a fire that burns but doesn’t consume. That meant I was near the river, but I was too sleepy to realize I’d taken a wrong turn. I had meant to take the meadow trail quickly back to my car, but I was on the other trail, the trail that followed the course of the creek.

By the time I realized my mistake, it was too late to turn back.

How often has that last sentence described the course of my life?

I found myself in that odd liminal state that people with insomnia know well: tired, but with a burst of phantom energy instead of drowsiness. I hiked along the mud path until I came to a thick, stagnant pool as green as the ferns weren’t. A little beyond the pool was the real river, flat and placid, the exacts same gunmetal silver as the sky above. A little beyond and the river was alive, turbulent, noisy over stones. On a sunny day it would have sparkled, but today it merely shimmered.

There was a place where the trail jutted out onto an embankment. A great big tree leaned over the river, gripping the bank with a Gordian knot of roots. The roots stretched out wider than the tree was tall. They formed a natural pier to stand on. If it had been a hot day, I would have jumped off the pier and gone swimming. As it was, I just watched the river slide by underneath me, noisy, busy, alive.

The trail turned again, past the most glorious shale cliffs, alien things that looked as if they’d been built by a forgotten civilization, sheet after thin sheet of delicate rock. I felt as if by taking that wrong turn, I’d been transported to another world light years away from the Ohio Valley.

No, better yet, I felt that I was in the Ohio Valley, and the Ohio Valley wasn’t ugly or threatening. It wasn’t a death sentence or place I was trapped when I desperately wanted to be somewhere else. The Ohio Valley just was.

And I just was.

And all of the earth just was.

No failure, no shame, no wrong turns, no sin, no hell, no Sunday obligation, just golden ferns and a vault of trees, shale rock and silver water under a flat gray firmament.

Above the firmament was God– maybe. I hope so. I would like to find that God is there.

I would like to find that the ferns and trees and shale and silver water exist because there is a God who would like them to. I would like to find out that I exist for the same reason.

Things will go back to hurting before long, but they didn’t hurt just then.



Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

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