Wednesday, March 28, 2012

It's a Beautiful World, Charlie Brown

My adult life has been one long striving towards beauty.  Not in the conventional sense, in the sense of making myself more aesthetically appealing or socially palatable.  I'm not one to chase the perfectly sculpted body or the meticulously engineered wardrobe, that enviably well-ordered life.

Instead, I'm speaking of Beauty, of the sense that a moment, a view, an experience is so deliciously right that it's impossible not to revel in it.  Occasionally, I find myself struck dumb by wonder, for no reason I can explain.  A sunset, a friendship, the smell of jasmine through an open window, can completely stop me in my tracks.

As children, we're indulged in our susceptibility to Beauty.  No one faults a child who stares up at her first Christmas tree, eyes perfectly round, in total awe.  Parents smile indulgently and say, "Oh, I wish I still had her enthusiasm!" or "I remember what it felt like to see the world that way..."

Few people ever remember that you still can.  That it's perfectly acceptable, even as a Responsible Adult, to stop, stare, and say, "Wow!"  My morning commute includes a brief downhill drive during which the Austin skyline hangs before me.  Some mornings it's shrouded in fog, some mornings it's pink-glazed glory, and some mornings it's heartbreakingly crisp, every line and window perfectly clear in the morning air.  Perhaps three mornings out of every five, I'm given the chance to acknowledge Beauty, and the days I do so are invariably better days.

For years I've tried to explain Beauty, never quite encompassing it.  For some, it's a matter of proportionality, of things being right and harmonious:  the grace of the bird in flight, the mastery of a well-designed musical piece, the balance of flavors and textures in a dish.  For some, surprise is integral to it.  You come around a curve to be struck unaware by wildflowers stretching as far away as your eyes can see, a riot of unexpected color.  Others require a wildness to embrace Beauty:  the untouched forest, the crash of the sea on rocks, the predatory grace of the tiger.

What it ultimately comes to for me is that Beauty feeds my sense that larger things are at work.  Gods, nature, love, maybe even mathematics, something grand and transcendent and beyond my own full comprehension moves in the world, and Beauty is the mark of its graceful passing.

My response to it used to be a sort of hushed and respectful reverence, observation from a distance, desperately trying not to touch (and thus spoil) the Beauty myself.  I firmly believed that as an imperfect being I could only damage that grace, only mar the surface and ruin it for everyone else.  I have come to a space, though, where I begin to understand how I am part of the Beauty around me.  Now I practice whole-body reverence.  I jump in, I embrace the moment.  I touch, I taste, I completely immerse myself in the experience and weave it around and through my life.  I stick my head in a vat of fresh-roasted coffee beans to exclaim, "Doesn't this smell WONDERFUL?"  I walk on the grass, touch the flowers, dance to the music whether it's being played for my benefit or not.

And I point it out.  See, look, do you see?  Smell this.  Listen to those birds, touch this fabric, eat some of my food, it's wonderful and amazing.  This book, this movie, has moments of perfect Beauty woven through it, you should touch it and let it come into your life.  Here is a picture of where I was, you should go and see it yourself, because it's just incredible and I felt the hands of the gods on my heart there.

It shouldn't surprise me that this makes some people profoundly uncomfortable.

I get that Beauty is not universal, that others won't find the same delight and joy in my world that I do.  They may not care for birdsong or chocolate cake, and so they don't entirely understand what it is I'm getting out of it.  Many of them are finding their own Beauty in their own way, and that's wonderful.  Anyone who reaches out to touch the world as an act of celebration enriches it.  But others seem entirely resistant to the concept itself, to opening any windows or doors through which wonder can enter their lives.  They keep eyes forward and head down, pragmatically experiencing it all as a set of discrete and generally unremarkable facts, happy enough but completely bereft of joy.  They set aside their awe with childhood, and refuse to allow it to upset the schedules on which their lives run.

Occasionally, they make me feel like a terrifying space alien bent on the destruction of all they hold dear.  More often, they treat me as a dangerous and fascinating curiosity, so far outside the experience they've chosen for themselves that they can only observe me with passing bemusement and maybe the expectation that some day I'll 'up' appropriately:  grow up, wise up, straighten up.  I don't really plan to, though.  I mean, it may happen that reveling in Beauty is just a phase, but I hope not.

We need that sense of something larger than ourselves.  Whether it's to feel safe in the knowledge that there are gods watching out for us, to feel empowered by love to do great things, or to set our sights beyond our grasp to conquer a mountain, a problem, or even just self-doubt and fear, we need to be made small on a regular basis by the immense Beauty surrounding us, to be shown our place, to feel that grace passing through our lives and see the footprints it leaves behind.

"He said that in the end it is Beauty
That is gonna save the world, now."
Nick Cave, Nature Boy

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