After Veronica and I returned from our wonderful trip to Alberta, I needed something slow, calm, and thoughtful to read. An introvert by nature, I found trying to pass as an extrovert exhausting. As well, the homebody found the intense attention to driving over several long days taxing. As I unpacked the books of my wonderful fellow-readers, who so kindly created an audience for Veronica and me--we're all but unknown in Alberta--I thought Shawna Lemay's slim collection of essays, The flower can always be changing, might be exactly what I needed. I both knew and didn't know Shawna; I had never met her, but we're friends on Facebook and I published some poems and a "secret" in Canadian Poetries when she was curating it. And of course I am an avid reader of her blog, "Transactions with beauty." We share that belief in beauty: how it's not just some nice add-on to our stressed and technology-laced lives, but how it changes us. At its most basic, beauty takes us out of ourselves, out of our moods and pessimisms, our anger and frustration, by providing, in Elaine Scarry's words "a wake-up call" to a world outside of us that delivers beauty to all our senses: the smell of fall in the air, the crystalline silk of a rose petal or the soft rich fur of a cat, chocolate or warm bread, the sound of a Bruckner symphony or a loved-one's voice. The world is made of beauty, not just of the politicians we want to excoriate today.
And because beauty takes us out of ourselves (challenging our narcissism--though we won't name names), there is an ethical element to it. It trains us to be mindful; it even rewards our mindfulness so that when a friend or a partner or a child or the environment or a cause need our attention, we are ready with an attention that has been trained to slow down and notice carefully. My manuscript on Virginia Woolf's aesthetics drew my attention to theories of beauty and how they've bloomed since philosophers have spent less time trying to define art--a hopeless undertaking because, I think, definitions of art are always personal. There's Elaine Scarry above; there's also Alexander Nehamas's Only a promise of happiness and Roger Scruton's Beauty--which takes up the very useful idea of daily beauty. I love Nehemas for two reasons. One is that he says beautiful things promise wisdom, insight, meaning, and so we go back to them again and again. This mindful quest seems to me part of what I might call "the good life," the attentive life. The second is that he says we can't define beauty, so we have to talk about it. Conversations, it seems to me, are like beauty: challenging and comforting at the same time.
This idea that beauty requires, and maybe even facilitates conversations takes me back to Shawna's book. Beauty permeates The flower can always be changing--with its helpful Woolfian reference. I can only give you a general feel for the book because it's so complex and because some of its essays are only a few paragraphs long. It has to be quaffed whole. There are beautiful images in the book--no surprise given the way the visual arts permeate Shawna's life and her practice. There is beautiful language--precise and evocative, language used always to reveal and touch, not hide and obfuscate. There is beauty in the consonance between form and content (which I'll write about below). And there is beauty in her effort to touch each reader, to start a conversation.
"A Flower Held Up to the Light" is one of the many essays that considers how our difficulty connecting with one another might be facilitated by beauty: "A flower held up to the light might express my hope for mutual comprehension and a spontaneous tenderness toward the open space between us." In "The Held Breath," the beautiful provides a doorway to the spiritual: "My daily practice includes taking photographs and this has refined my looking and changed who I am as a being. When we breathe in and hold that breath taking a photographs, we breathe in light, an instant of light. We enter the vestibule of what is holy. It enters us." Parallel to 'inspiration,' a word whose etymology goes back to breathing in, taking a photograph reminds us that the world is impossibly rich and connects us with the world's holiness through our own mindful attention. Later in the same essay, Shawna tells the reader that "What I want in my quiet life is to be a persistent witness to splendor."
For Shawna, beauty has an ethical component. Shawna writes honestly of compassion fatigue, particularly in the midst of winter, but she also strives to overcome it when a man collapses in a heap on the floor of the library where she works. Or she considers compassion from another perspective altogether. Home from a family trip to New York City and visit to museums there, Shawna considers the "Museum Problem," an exercise in imagining where you can put security guards to cover the greatest territory, and the Museum Problem gives birth to a metaphor: "I'm thinking of the guard in the museum, her sightlines, and wondering if our responsibility to others could resemble this a bit. That we have an obligation, even, to heroically guard, watch over each others' paths, desire lines. A greater obligation, maybe, to imagine the invisible tracery of where the soul has travelled." Beauty and ethics permeate her practice in a startling and wonderful way: "As a poet I've believed part of my task is to be an instrument of peace. To describe that landscape of loneliness...for a friend, so that we may all feel less alone, more at peace."
Shawna's essays have taught me something about the form. Essay, as she point out to us, means "to try." and she claims nothing more for her work. But it may not surprise us, given her sense of the link between poetry and ethics, that the words "to try" refer not only to what the essayist is doing, but to what we are all doing. In moments when I'm feeling discouraged or judgmental, I remind myself that most of us are just trying to do our best and, because we're human, often falling short. Of course, we all know of people whose idea of 'doing their best' is not the result of sincere self-reflection or of awareness of the needs of others. But that, frankly, isn't the person for whom Shawna is writing. Shawna gives us a clear sense of the audience of these essays that "try" when she writes of our successes and failures "This is the way it is. All of these moments and gestures sometimes getting things right and sometimes getting them wrong. All of us are moving from flower to flower." I can only begin to unpack that rich metaphor in which our search for beauty in our lives and in our souls takes us from experience to experience, also in the realm, like the many many flowers in this collection, of the beautiful. Implicit in the metaphor is also the compassion she has for those of us who "try."
Shawna also taught me something about the essayists' voice. I wrote at the beginning that I both know and don't know Shawna. But she lets the reader into the joys and the struggles of her life--a life at the beginning of middle age, while I am rather toward the end (if not onto the next phase altogether). But her reflections on the invisibility of the mid-career female writer, on the puzzles of friendships, on attempting to cope with winter by buying bouquets of flowers from Safeway, made me realize that the friendliness of the essayists' voice is one of her greatest assets. She walks alongside the reader when the attempts to create a beautiful life have failed--or have been eclipsed by life's shadows: "I wanted to get at how to make the ordinary life a masterpiece even though my own often includes this quite dreary feeling that I've forgotten how to live. To be bright eyed, and alive." Or, a few pages later, this: "I'm asking you to believe I'm in full command of the strategies I employ, even when I don't so much lack faith in them myself but understand that there is a certain madness in the process, and that what happens in that swirling fever of creativity past any analysis is also a form of hope."
Read this book, have a conversation with it. Then leave it on your bedside table for those long, sleepless winter nights when you need someone to talk to.