Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Real Need for Beauty

It’s summer at the lake and it’s beautiful, but we’re in the midst of a family crisis and all of my energy has been directed there. The worst of it seems to be over, at least for the short haul, but there is still much work ahead. It’s early morning and I’m sitting on my deck looking out at water so placid it could be a painting. Farther out, past the point that sculpts our bay, the wind is churning up the waves and I see two sailboats heading west toward the shipping channel. I hear a mourning dove calling, and now a string of Canada Geese are working their way along the shore. A while ago a kingfisher landed on our dock post and sat still for just a moment before taking off again.

It’s quiet this morning, a Fall chill already in the air. The dew is heavy on the grass, and even though I’m bundled up in sweats and shivering under an afghan, I’m overwhelmed and suddenly grateful for these beautiful moments. I come from a long line of depressives and have had to fight it many times in my life. My own relief comes, I’m convinced, from aggressively seeking out beauty.

But I’m not the first one to grasp the profound healing properties of beautiful things. Since early man we humans have purposely sought out anything that even hints of feel-good properties. We adorn ourselves with objects that have no necessary function other than to please us. We pierce our ears in order to hang shiny doodads from them. From the earliest times we’ve woven fabrics and intricately etched leathers and stitched them into colorful clothing. We’ve scratched and stained our skin, creating fabulous tattoos. We’ve worried our hair and plastered it with glop in order to create a whole new us.

The history of adornment tells us much about what separates us from the animals. I believe its roots are in our almost desperate need for beauty. Beyond our own self-images, we’ve created beauty by gathering seeds and planting flowers in otherwise barren places. We’ve painted gloriously vibrant scenes on cave walls. We’ve built structures of staggering proportions under seemingly impossible conditions for no other reason than to protect and preserve and admire the gorgeous treasures we’ve created.

Throughout all time we’ve lavished attention and affection on our human treasures -- those few mortals who stun us with their own creative visions. From visual and dramatic artists to musicians to writers to sports idols to movie-makers, we love them for their ability to transcend the ordinary and bring us outside of ourselves to a beautiful ecstasy we can never stop craving.

The kind of beauty that calms us to our very souls can be found almost anywhere. I remember seeing a photograph of an old woman standing in a tiny, trash-strewn room. She herself was dressed in rags, but she was smiling and pointing to her one, lone window. She had found an old calendar somewhere and had torn out the pages and taped them to her window. Whatever dismal view she once had was now replaced with visions of the Taj Mahal, the pyramids at Giza; with mountaintop sunrises and Chinese junks on a lovely, winding river.

She found what she was looking for.

Dwarf iris clinging to rocks

(Published in a blog a few years ago. The crisis noted above is long past, but, as in any life, all is not roses. The need for simple joys never ends. )