I remember once when I was 19 or 20 and being at Holiday Beach playing Frisbee with some friends and getting lost in the perfection of the late spring day. And I remember the ever loving but sometimes irascible and always growly Robbie scoffing me, telling me to get the fuck back down to earth. I was a little annoyed for being yanked out of my reverie. I mean, why deny anyone a little reverie?
Remember the plastic bag scene in the movie American Beauty? That scene astounded me the first time I saw it. It was one of the most memorable movie experiences I ever had – I wanted the story to freeze so I could hold that scene, those words, with me. The film rolled on but I wasn’t ready to let that bit go because in it, Ricky articulates what I’d felt on that day and so many other times:
It was one of those days when it's a minute away from snowing. And there's this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it, right? And this bag was just… dancing with me. Like a little kid beggin’ me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That's the day I realized there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid ever.
Video's a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember. Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it… and my heart is going to cave in. (American Beauty, 1999)
That “entire life behind things” is what I think we call beauty. And if we pay attention, it can be a sublime experience.
I think the term “beauty” got commandeered over the past century, and in this post-modern world it seems to have been watered down to represent something trite or trivial. For that reason I hesitated entering into this challenge, as I did last year because I don’t want to be slotted in as one of those ‘bloggers of pretty things.’ Not that I don’t love and appreciate the ‘bloggers of pretty things’ – I follow a number of them and lots of them are really good at it – they are by no means trivial in my mind. But I don't wan't to be perceived as such. This blog is about writing, and inspiration and the creative process and how all those things are associated with the act of living out a life.
So I’m really interested in what it is that is beneath the surface of something that you or I define as "beautiful" – what is that element which connects us to it? What is that “life behind” the wind and that plastic bag that compelled Ricky so? What is it draws me to that colourful fella on the subway or one painting amidst hundreds of others in a gallery, or that particular hymn in that particular church at that particular funeral?
I’ve never subscribed to what my friend Tricia calls the “grandpa in the sky” god theory. But BEAUTY is a cosmic experience I can grasp on to. Beauty gives me the experience of seeing magic coming through a person or a thing or a place. All kinds of artists will say that their work is not by them but passed through them, and whether I’m looking at a picture of Michelangelo’s Pieta or watching Carlos Santana play, I see that.
Once I met a Canadian Orthodox priestmonk, Father Vladimir, at a monastery in Finland where he lived and worked. An artist, he went there to learn and practice icon painting from a master. As I sat in his studio listening to him talk about his calling and his work, I kept turning around to look at one particular icon of Mary on a shelf amidst dozens of others against a wall. At one point I mentioned to Father Vladimir that I couldn’t stop looking at her.
“That’s because she’s speaking to you” he said matter-of-factly, and went on with whatever he’d been talking about.
And at that point, despite my Presbyterian (icon=big no-no) upbringing and knowing very little about the Eastern Orthodox faith, despite my not believing in any “grandpa in the sky,” I had no doubt at all that these strange little paintings were less the product of that lone painter than they were his collaboration with some divine source.
I believe we’re drawn to what we perceive as beautiful because of the strata within it, or that “life behind” it. And I believe those elements of the thing are different for any person who experiences beauty, based on his or her own life, history, needs and desires. And as we evolve and change, our definitions of beauty and our ability to find it changes.
For some reason I need it a lot. The searching for it and writing about beauty keeps my head above the sometimes murky waters of living a life. Maybe there are some more socially-responsible things I could be focusing my writerly attentions on, but in many ways this is self-preservation – or as Ricky put it – fear conquering. Whatever it is – I think life would be pretty much hell without it.
Beautiful thing number 12 of 101 in finding beauty – revisiting the "plastic bag scene."
I can find beauty in the seediest parts of any city. Beauty is easy to find if, if you believe as I do that it has many more layers than that which sits on the surface of a thing or a person.
But then there is the kind of beauty that transforms you, the kind the Romantics explored. I’ve experienced this kind of transformative beauty a number of times in my life, and it’s always the product of me encountering some work of art or some aspect of the natural world. I valued beauty even as a kid, and that’s probably why I found such power in studying Romantic literature in university. When I found these poets writing of sublime experiences in encountering beauty, I got it, because I’d been there.
I was about sixteen when I sat in an art history lesson and saw slides of Michelangelo’s Pieta. It was the first seed of an idea that I’m now certain of: that great artists channel a source that moves beyond the confines of human understanding. I experienced a similar conviction about witnessing the transcendent when I studied John Keats and his achievements during his short stay on this planet.
Encountering divine splashes in nature has had even more startling impact on my sensibilities. A northern Ontario forest floor carpeted with trillium; the ancient rocks on the shore of the Manitoulin Island; great masses of bluebells covering the rolling, lusty landscape of mid-Wales; farm fields of yellow mustard radiating a colour you wouldn’t believe existed if you didn’t see it with your own eyes.
The most arresting encounter with the sublime in nature was in a forest next to a monastery and retreat I visited in Finland over the Orthodox Easter weekend some years ago. Saturday church services ran all night, and most of the visitors to the retreat had attended. I awoke with the sun, feeling some regret that I didn’t attend any of the services, feeling shy and out of place in my Presbyterian upbringing and largely secular sensibility. When I walked outside Sunday morning I felt very alone – everything on the compound was closed up tight; everyone was asleep but me. So I went for a walk.
I headed into the woods adjacent to the monastery grounds. Not far in, I was stopped short by the sight ahead of me. The sun was spilling its pale, shimmering ribbons through the dark contrast of the trees, landing in golds and pinks on the snowy forest floor. The picture was so stunningly beautiful I cried, knowing for certain I was being presented with a divine gift. I wondered for a moment if I’d stumbled onto heaven.
Perhaps some would say it’s simply a way of feeling, of exploring sensibility and one’s ability to pay attention to the experience of encountering magnificence. I am not a religious person, though I have experienced transformative moments of beauty in churches. I suppose I find more certainty in the tangible, finding the divine in great artistic accomplishments and the spontaneous magic in nature rather than through any strictures of organized worship or scientific rationalizations.
For me, these spontaneous experiences and the subsequent emotion and inspiration that result are the most convincing evidence that we are living in a magical world. Really, you couldn’t convince me otherwise.
And he, with many feelings, many thoughts,
Made up a meditative joy, and found
Religious meaning in the forms of Nature!
~Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Fears in Solitude
Story Copyright © Jennifer Morrison 2010