Thursday, June 20, 2024

Beauty and Hope

 My body is failing me in some of the most mysterious ways. My New Year's resolution this year was to become a woman who walked, because any advice on getting older will tell you that walking contributes significantly to cognitive, physical, and mental health and longevity. But because our winter and spring was so icy, I didn't walk nearly enough this year, and so my right thigh decided to feel weak and unhappy, often spasming instead of lifting to take a step. I had three reactions to this.  One was to soundly beat myself up in the interests of ensuring that when the ice and snow come down late this fall, I will be walking indoors. How did I get this weak? But then my feet acted up, which is another story, a story that suggested I have neurological problems, that I hadn't just been lazy. Still.  I will walk indoors this winter. The second was to look at other people in wonder, partly because of my thigh, partly because of my vertigo:  do you know how hard walking can be?  And you take it for granted!  The third reaction was to walk.  My physiotherapist gave me a workout schedule and some devilishly hard exercises, like doing squats with one foot in back of your body, forcing the forward thigh to do more work.  I just did them.  I just walked, with my phone in my pocket, counting steps.

I began by walking down back lanes.  They are right out my back door, not down two flights of difficult steps onto College.  There are virtually no cracks in them to trip my lazy leg up.  They're a bit more protected on windy days--which we've had a lot of this year.  And they're less public for a walker who often feels more like a troll than a 74-year-old woman. But spring lured me back onto the street, spring and a cluster of prairie crocuses at a corner house near Crescent School,  Spring and lilacs.  Spring and tulips.  Spring and green. I was lured by beauty.

And I was lured out of my own whining head by thinking about beauty. What is consciousness, that it is drawn to beauty, surprised by beauty, eager for beauty?  Our attention to beauty in plants might provide information about where we will find food later in the summer or early in the fall, but otherwise beauty in nature has little practical use for us.  A sunset?  A butterfly?  Flowers may need to be beautiful (more of that in a moment), but pollinators don't. Here's the thing.  Beauty demands our attention.  Elaine Scarry, in her groundbreaking book On Beauty and Being Just, calls beauty a wake-up call--and she was writing in 1990.  How much more we need beauty to pull us out of our insular cellular worlds--if it can! 

And if you were to walk with me down the street or through an art gallery, we would often agree on what was beautiful--though perhaps not on what was interesting or provocative or important. Beautiful things often have an appealing form--think of the columbine out my back door--yet a wholeness or integrity about them. But you and I wouldn't always agree:  we'd need to talk about whether a columbine was beautiful or just pretty.  Or whether the garden down the street had a significant design to it or whether it was just a gathering of a lot of prettiness.  But we'd want to talk about it.  It would matter to us. What does it mean that something as useless as beauty matters to us?

And why do we return to it again and again?  Few of us say "If you've seen one sunset, you've seen them all."  Or one peony.  Or one blue morpho.  We return to these things again and again, it has been suggested, because we sense that there is a meaning to them that's just out of reach, and if we look again we might find it.

And then there's the second mystery about beauty.  The first wonders why our consciousness pays attention to it.  The second asks why it's in the world.  Pollinators are drawn to flowers by their visual beauty and their scent, but let's go back to that sunset.  Or that cluster of trees that balances unity and variety and line so beautifully. I don't have an answer for why beauty is a quality of the physical world we live in, right down to the subatomic level, but I do know what it tells us.  We fit in this world.  There is some profound consonance between the world outside us as it is and our consciousness.  There is some consonant meaning to our existing in exactly here, exactly  now. That is perhaps the meaning we seek.  That's hopeful.

I am old enough to think back to duck-and-cover exercises, where we practiced uselessly hiding under our desks in the event of a nuclear bomb, and to demonstrating against the war in Vietnam.  But I don't think the world has ever seemed so out of joint with so many threats--from narcissistic and irrational populist leaders to wars that seem to have gone so far beyond a reasonable, useful response, to the breakdown of truth and trust. The larger world seems profoundly broken.  Yet in the prized surprises of beauty, we are reminded, in the words of one of my mantras, to "Be.  Here.  Now."  Beauty reminds us that here is where we live.  It encourages us to pay attention, to come out of our own preoccupations, (like my obsession with my walking).

Or we could ask why we describe acts of generosity, kindness, and courage with the words "moral beauty."  Victor Frankl, in Man's Search for Meaning wrote about the hunger for beauty in concentration camps, about how a beautiful sunset caught people's attention, prompting them to point it out to others, about the surprising generosity he saw time after time in near-starvation conditions when one person gave another the single piece of potato in his soup. That gives one hope.

But here's the most hopeful thing for the time we are living in.  You can make beauty.  It can resonate in the way you set the table for dinner and plate the food.  It can be two flowers from your garden in a simple vase or even a narrow glass.  You can make a quilt or knit a hat or plant a garden--even a single pot.  You can write a kind note to someone who is grieving.  And if  you are "too absent-spirited to count," as Frost once described the speaker of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," you can go looking for it.  Walk at sunset.  Learn which streets in your neighbourhood have the best front gardens or the most beautiful stands of trees.  It's there.  And you and beauty are kindred spirits.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this remarkable and beautiful piece, Kate. I too have had issues with walking and balance this past winter. And like you, have beat myself up for not making a greater effort to be faithful to my path - so to speak. Everything about this resonates with my heart - which so misses you - today was a good day and this has sealed that with hope that tomorrow I will do better. It is almost lupin time here, and I will pick some blooms and put them in a vase with thoughts of you. Much love, Deb.