Did you know that eighty percent of the information we receive comes through our eyes? And if you compare light energy to musical scales, it would only be one octave that the naked eye could see which is right in the middle? And aren’t we grateful for our brains that can take this electrical impulse that comes from light energy to create images in order for us to explore our world? And aren’t we grateful that we have hearts that can feel the vibrations in order for us to allow ourselves to feel the pleasure and beauty of nature? ~Louie Schwartzberg
Our American friends are celebrating Thanksgiving today. Anybody's Thanksgiving Day is a good reminder for all of us to express some gratitude. If you need some help thinking about what to be grateful for, Louie Schwartzberg has some ideas.
In fact he’s done such a good job in reminding me, I’m calling him beautiful thing number seventy-seven.
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."
Aristotle and I
would probably argue at the dinner table
about what constitutes
beauty he said
is represented in
and pour us another glass of wine
he sounds a little uptight
beauty I say
old more often than new
odd more than even
irregular not regular
free flow over precise
spontaneous rather than meticulous
or at least it seems that way
imperfections are marks
but you know
there’s been a lot of water under the bridge
philosophized about stuff
would he still define
order, symmetry, definiteness
as those things that give
pleasure and satisfaction
Beautiful things considered, first day of self-imposed challenge.
Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
~William Butler Yeats, 1899
I have been taken with the concept of beauty for a long time. Not idealized, contrived beauty – but the kind of beauty that has layers of meaning contained within it, and that meaning a different thing for each person that experiences it.
If beauty can be described as some kind of quality in a thing, place, idea or person that causes an experience of pleasure, satisfaction or even transcendence for its beholder, is beauty then something representing a fulfilment – partial or all – of some sort of need in us?
I have been transformed by beauty a number of times in my life, and because of that I feel, without a trace of doubt, that beauty is related to the spiritual nature of us – to the magic in our existence. I wrote about that once or twice last year during the time I was taking part in a 30 Days of Beauty challenge put out there by Erin at her (very beautiful) Bluebirdbaby blog. Hers was a photography challenge, but I adapted it to fit into my own way of expressing and mostly wrote about finding beauty in those 30 days. It turned out to be one of the most prolific and popular periods of my online writing experience. And it did what it was intended to do – lift me above the mire of winter.
So what is it you find beautiful? Based on what I know of most of my faithful friends here in blogland, it’s not going to be that pretty pop star whose photo was manipulated to “perfection” for the cover of Rolling Stone. I could look at Bob Dylan’s face and find mountains more beauty than I can in hers. But that’s me. My definition of beauty is formed by where I came from, my ideals, my age, my interests, my education – and my needs. What about you? What defines beauty in your world?
I find old train tracks beautiful. And forgotten corners of cottage yards. And broken down old sheds. And my mother’s hands. The way a little kid darts around his father repeating “Da-a-d…?” as they walk toward the Air Canada Center to the hockey game. Or the stunning gradation of the sky as it was the other night – from breathtaking orange to the deep royal blue housing that delicate sliver of a crescent moon. Or Santana’s rendering of Soul Sacrifice at Woodstock. The soft traces of humming I hear coming from the woman with the beatific smile who sits on the other side of my office cubicle. The bowl on my table filled with sweet potatoes, beets, Bosc pears, an acorn squash and some bulbs of garlic – a haul from the market last week. Giant ropes coiled on the decks of ships.
So here I am in February again. I could do with a dose of creative healing and I if last year’s exploration was any indication, another beauty challenge is what my psyche needs. Kind of like my body and soul needing that big steaming bowl of Phở at lunchtime yesterday. Hell, just writing these past two paragraphs made me feel good. Since Erin decided not to issue the challenge again this year (going with another wonderful idea instead), I’m doing an explore beauty challenge of my own, and I’d love it if you joined me.
You may not be mired in any deep dark winter. Maybe you’re in summer, or whatever season it is it’s your happiest time of year and beauty is falling all over you at every step. I’m inviting you to do it anyway. Maybe you’re not a blogger. Who cares? I dare you to write 1-101 on a piece of paper and take it with you wherever you go.
The challenge is simply this:
Find 101 examples of beauty, and show, tell, list or write them. Photographs, poems, paintings, crafts – however it is you tell your story.
I’m dispensing with the timeframe because the number target may seem high. Do it once a week and it could become an ongoing topic for a year. Find a few things a day, the project could last a month. Sit down for a few hours and you could finish a list in one go! Maybe you’re not ready just now. Or maybe you are stumbling across this challenge six months from now. Any time is a good time to start.
I’m creating a badge and a dedicated page for the challenge (stay tuned). You can grab the badge and put in your sidebar if you like, as a reminder of where to find inspiration in an uninspired or down period. And that, really, is the point. Where the doldrums take over – finding beauty brings inspiration back.
Why 101? I just like odd numbers better than even ones. It’s only a number and who knows, maybe the term “101” will just be a symbolic sort of thing, representing “my collection” or “my exploration.” I just know that for me, it’s a topic I need to return to time and time again, and I’m hoping it will turn into something of an extended exploration here. After all – it’s really beauty that I’m searching for in Realia every day. I'd venture to say it's what we're all looking for.