Here is a strange and true story: about a week ago we went with some friends to Starved Rock State Park, four of us and four young boys, down a trail into a canyon that drops down abruptly from the grass covered plains. It drops all the way to a little pool, filled by a gushing waterfall, with layer upon layer of rock too high to climb but not quite high enough to block out the sun.
Lincoln gasped with wonder and yelled, “Mom, it’s a beach!!” so loudly it reverberated a little between the rocks and he immediately tore off his shoes and went straight to the water. Eliot went straight for the sticks, and then they built a castle in the sand at the foot of the cliff and then walked, squishing, through the mud, washed their toes off in the pool, and went back again.
But this is the strange part: not that there are canyons in Illinois, or that no one cried the whole time we were down there, but this: while I watched my boys play excitedly, recklessly, in the falls, their joyful faces underneath the overflowing waters, and digging their wiggling feet into the sand, an older gentleman came up to me and started talking. He laughed at the boys, and talked about the walk down until this came, out of the blue: “There were three women murdered down here, did you know that? Right here. A guy followed them down from the lodge and tied them up and put their bodies right in one of those caves there.”
He pointed up to the cliffs, and suddenly the whole beauty of the place felt a little chillier, a little stranger, a little harder to handle, this sudden deep canyon and a strange man beside me. It felt a little more important to keep my eyes open wide and not squint at the shadows in the crevices in the layered rock. The idea of someone losing so much control down here that he could murder three vacationing women, and in such a place as this, where the clear, clean waters still fell in a small and concentrated rain.
And it’s actually something I think of a lot, not that situation, and not murder in general (although I am an avid Netflix detective show watcher so it’s never too far away), but this tendency we all have, to take the beauty around us and how we often have the immediate urge to control it.
I don’t know the story of that situation, the one that unfolded on those rocks 60 years ago. I don’t know why or how someone decided that he controlled the fate of those women. Murder is extreme and not a pleasant thing to think about, but surely the concept of taking something that is not ours is not a new story, is it?
It seems to me we all walk around the world like that, thinking that if we take things for our own that they can become ours, that we can be more a part of it then we are already, and most importantly, that the beauty can be more enjoyable if it is ours. Because deep down inside of us, we all want to belong to beauty, to be caught up in it so high that we won’t ever come down again.
And so we often see something beautiful and decide that therefore it must become our own. We decide we are deserving of owning it, because we think that if we do not own it, we cannot be caught up in it in the same way.
We assume the key is ownership, but is it really?
If we cut flowers and take them inside, they die.
And if we take a wild animal and put them in a cage they lose their freedom and their wild fierceness, and we do not realize until after they are tame that maybe what we wanted all along was the beauty of their wildness.
Because in taking something and owning it, in demanding that we control it, we always change the beauty. We make a change to make it more our own and in doing so we cut the flower, we clip the bird, we kill the women.
We always pay a price.
It becomes all our own and it is not what it was.
Maybe this ache that we feel shouldn’t be translated into ownership, but into a gasping, breaking realization that this thing will pass, but we will find it again, someday, maybe in a few days or weeks or years, when we or it has changed a little but not so much that we cannot recognize each other. Or instead something else will come along, just as beautiful in its moments, just as transcendent in its pull.
In this place there was too much water for its river bed, too much joy in the boy’s faces for the day, and when we left Lincoln cried to stay. But we leave. We take ourselves, because that is the only thing that is really ours.