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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Daily beauty and joie de vivre


When Veronica and I exited the Jean Talon Metro Station, we knew almost instantly that we were close to the Jean Talon Market.  Young people strolled towards us with granny baskets full of produce, a shock of leeks or the fringed tops of carrots suggesting what was underneath.  Middle-aged women carried African baskets woven of colourful grass and filled with produce.  One lovely woman strode toward us carrying two enormous mounds of chrysanthemums, each pot circled by an arm.  

In his book on beauty, Roger Scruton deals with a topic most philosophers don't consider:  everyday beauty.  He begins his discussion of everyday beauty, not surprisingly, with gardens--with our attempts to bring the world's fundamental beauty, that of nature, into our own lives and into our daily experience.  He argues that "This attempt to match our surroundings to ourselves and ourselves to our surroundings is arguably a human universal.  And it suggests that the judgement of beauty is not just an optional addition to the repertoire of human judgments, but the unavoidable consequence of taking life seriously, and becoming truly conscious of our affairs" (82). That second sentence is a bit of a leap away from the first, but it does reflect the observations of many thinkers about beauty.  Let me offer this example as an illustration.  You're getting a quick dinner ready so that the kids can get to their soccer practice and their music lessons.  Do you set the table just so, or are you simply satisfied with getting everything on the table--the chips still in their bag, the mini carrots hastily poured into a cereal bowl, knives and forks within everyone's reach?  But when you arrange a table for a dinner party--and Clarissa Dalloway can tell you how important parties are for making connections between people and creating conversations that will doubtless delve at some point into what is important to us--the upcoming election, the latest film, the city's plan to bulldoze some houses to create another park--beauty is at the forefront of your concerns.  You understand, without thinking about it, that a beautiful setting is required for an evening when we not only enjoy wonderful food--another everyday beauty--but revel in the chance to have meaningful conversations, to take the culture's temperature, to 'take life seriously.'

The Jean Talon market was full of people who took life seriously.  Veronica and I wanted a couple of apples to go with our baguette and cheese, and approached a table where the orchardist had an enormous variety of fresh, local apples.  I went straight for a Honeycrisp, but Veronica was hemming and hawing about an Empire, a Lady Apple, or a just-picked Mackintosh.  Instantly he had a knife in his hands and was quickly but carefully cutting slices of apples for us to try while also handing out samples to other people who had approached his stand.  We weren't going to be a big sale, shlepping back a bushel to our hotel, but he saw that choosing a single apple was important.  We met the same response later in a cheese shop where we found a dozen varieties of goat's cheese.  The very young woman, not much over sixteen, was happy to describe the special qualities of each creamy round.  Sadly, I don't remember the name of the one we bought, but it was very, very good with the baguette and apple, just as she said it would be.

An enthusiastic sense of joie de vivre permeates Montreal.  On Saturday night, Veronica and I went to hear Les Violons du Roy perform some experimental music--a concerto for strings and electric guitar--as well as Beethoven's Fifth, which I've probably heard hundreds of times.  Yet conductor Anthony Marwood found something entirely new in the score, and the audience leapt to its feet at the end.   Montrealers wear their scarves with insouciance, gather among China Town's gaudy lights on Rue de la Gauchetiere to study the windows of the cheap but excellent patisseries and the tiny shops with their teapots and graphic blue and white bowls.  As we walked that afternoon, we found a lovely wool shop where women collected on Saturday afternoons to knit.  There were lovely tea cups on the table, along with myriad knitting projects.  The shop itself was full of wonderful colours, as well as these shelves of jam jars full of tiny iridescent beads for working into complicated lace.  Montrealers' sense of joie de vivre is infectious.

You can manufacture joie de vivre.  After two or three rainy days, we will eat dinner in front of the fireplace, trying to absorb from the fire the light that our days seem to be withholding.  I make quilts for several reasons.  One reason speaks to the human need to feel competent, so my ability to cut and sew carefully and to skillfully to produce blocks where all the edges meet fills a definite need.  But choosing fabric for a block and seeing the pieces come together gives me a small hit of joie de vivre.  

I have a feeling our pets give us is joie de vivre.  I am listening to my friend Katherine tell the stories of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy who has joined her household--who makes her laugh several times a day, even during difficult times.  I have realized how much I appreciate Twig's undramatic joie de vivre:  as he moves from twining around my legs to his food bowl, I can hear him thinking "Yes, I'm an old cat who sleeps a lot, but life is good."

Joie de vivre, I suspect, is tied to beauty, to the world's willingness to hand us, gratis, a beautiful sunny day or a glorious puddle of golden light that dances around the roots of an aspen.  We can manufacture it with a lovely dinner or a vibrant quilt block, but when nature is withholding, it's harder.  Then, it's culture's turn to kick in and remind us that part of "the good life" is being enveloped in the present moment, in the people and spaces that have conspired to hold our attention with their beauty and vitality and give us an energizing hit of joy.  Montrealers are practiced at this.  Maybe those of us who live on the prairies could learn from them.

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