Today we’re thrilled to welcome David Oates to the site to discuss his travel memoir, The Mountains of Paris: How Awe and Wonder Rewrote My Life, out now from Oregon State University Press! Here’s a little more about the book:
Living in Paris for a winter and a spring and waking each morning to a view of Notre Dame, David Oates is led to revise his life story from one of trudging and occasional woe into one punctuated by nourishing and sometimes unsettling brilliance. He asks: What is the meaning of this tremendousness?
In long years of mountaineering Oates fought the self-loathing that had infused him as the gay kid in the Baptist pew. And in The Mountains of Paris, he ascends to a place of wonder. In luminous prose, Oates invites readers to share a sense of awe—whether awakened by a Vermeer painting or a wilderness sojourn, by the night sky, a loved one, or echoing strains of music—lifting the curtain on a cosmos filled with a terrifying yet beautiful rightness.
And here’s the guest post!
I had more fun writing this book than any other to date – and I’ve been writing for a long time. How easily these chapters gobbled up month after month and eventually a few years of my life!
Yet they include the most painful material I’ve ever tackled. My life as the gay kid in the Baptist pew. All the ways I tried to bend and break and robotize myself, to become acceptable to God. My dogged persistence in dysfunction and despair. (I’m a stubborn guy, proud of my inner strength. A stupid, fatal pride.) And later, the lover who left me after nine (for me) healing years, leaving me alone and half broken. Two-thirds broken, maybe. Followed by more years of dogged loneliness.
What made it all bearable to write about is that I stumbled onto a way to reframe it. To reconsider what had happened. Because I’m tired of my wounds – maybe you’re tired of yours too. I’ve been nursing them so long, always the same old story of woe and struggle. But here’s the trick: I got to thinking about what had, after all, saved me. What had kept me from harm and allowed me to navigate, in tears or out, into a decent and productive life.
Whatever it was had been potent and, when I think about it, omnipresent. And I came to suspect that this might be my true story – not the woe-is-me tale that most of us almost automatically tell.
* * *
Think of the last really big sunset you allowed yourself to take in. Or the last time you stood under a clear and moonless night sky, being drawn into the incomprehensible mystery and beauty of it.
Or that piece of music that always puts you into some other headspace, or heartspace: and you are suddenly moved, translated into your better self, tender and openhearted. Or that act of kindness that surprised you (maybe you received it. . . or maybe you offered it). And for a moment you felt like part of a better version of humanity.
Strange reveal: My book about pain turned out to be a book about joy, the weird complicated feeling of big spaces and piercing beauty that floods in upon you for no reason except that you’re alive and for a moment all your senses are open.
I saw that I had been experiencing these moments of unearned joy and unexpected beauty all through my life. As a child, alone in the woods for the first time. As a teen, becoming wrapped up in the vastness of a Bach fugue. As a young adult, receiving kindness from less-damaged people who wondered why I struggled so. . . and, without needing to know why, reached out to me.
Suddenly I understood. I saw how my attraction to poetry drew from the same source. How the high mountains, where I climbed and wandered for so many decades, offered it too. And music! Always music; and even, when my eye and spirit evolved, art too.
They all had the power to call up a kind of tearful joyousness that never lasted more than a few moments, yet that was ever after an indelible memory, a kind of secret hoard of inexpressible gold. I could remember it whenever I needed to – moments from childhood still vivid as if they had just happened. Moments harvested by the me of a decade ago, or six decades ago, still fresh. Still radiating their strange message: This is the universe you are part of. You’ll never understand it. But you’ll know the dignity of being the witnessing soul, the admiring being.
That’s what this book turned out to be about: These moments that have been redeeming me all along, sneaking up on me, overtaking a second or a minute of my life with a kind of huge-hearted feeling that was perilously near to terror – that made me feel small. . . and then expanded me toward something vast, impersonal, and ultimate.
Made small, I grew. That’s my story. And I’m betting it’s the story of anyone who undertakes this kind of remembering. Yes, life is troubled and painful. I don’t deny it! Savagely painful, but also beautiful. Beautiful beyond expression.
It’s a strange thing being alive, no? Worth noticing. Worth allowing a kind of awe that can open up your heart, connecting you to more than can be expressed. I think this awe-and-wonder self might be the real you.
That’s my hypothesis, anyway. Test it on yourself, see what you discover. Pay attention to what opens up your heart in largeness. Gravitate towards that. See what sort of life that is.
David Oates is the author of two books of poetry and four works of nonfiction, including Paradise Wild: Reimagining American Nature and City Limits: Walking Portland’s Boundary. His award-winning essays have appeared in Georgia Review, Creative Nonfiction, and Orion. He was Kittredge Distinguished Visiting Writer at the University of Montana and is founder and general editor of Kelson Books in Portland, Oregon.