I have never been particularly driven by beauty. I am in no way glamorous, and rarely look polished – with ‘just so’ hair and make up or a crisply ironed outfit. I am what you might call ‘practically driven’, and more so since I’ve become a parent. I’m also a bit of a miser, and tend to save my money rather than spend.
I guess I’ve always been sceptical about beauty as I’ve felt people ought to not judge a book by its cover, and that if we become obsessed by beauty then we are just involved in the ‘surface’ of life and not what really matters underneath. But lately I have come to some realisations about beauty, and the real value it can have in people’s lives: beauty can have a truly deep, rather than superficial value.
I first started thinking about beauty consciously when I was reading a book recently. I just wish I could remember what book it was! A kind of incidental line in the book talked about African women journeying to get water from a well, and it described the beauty of the clay pots they carried on their heads. The point the writer was making is that beauty adds another element to life. When we integrate beauty into our daily lives it adds another element to the ordinary.
When I was in high school I used to cover my exercise books with beautiful photographs, artwork, cartoons and illustrated poems that were meaningful to me. Funnily enough I always found that the subject I like most each year was the subject with the most beautiful cover. But did I choose the beautiful picture for my favourite subject or did the beautiful picture influence what subject was my favourite? I don’t know. But I know I enjoyed looking at, and using my beautiful books. Some of my friends from work enjoy using beautiful note books. It does add an element of beauty to our day-to-day tasks, and I think this helps to make them more enjoyable.
So I’ve been trying to more consciously bring some beauty into my life. I have a few beautiful things I’ve collected in my life. One was a bowl we were given for a wedding present. It had beautiful blues and aqua swirls. I got a lift from seeing the lovely colours, instead of hiding them away in a cupboard. Then one day I put it in the dishwasher. I didn’t think this would be a problem with stone-wear. But when the cycle was run the aqua glaze had disappeared, replaced by white, and the glorious beauty of my bowl was gone. I’m sad that I won’t see those colours again, but I still think it was better to use and lose its beauty, than have it hidden behind a door. And through it’s absence, I’ve learnt more about what you can miss out on by ignoring the importance of beauty.
Beauty also has an important role in self expression. In my previous job I worked at a university. I had a notice board above my desk that was a collage of hundreds of photos depicting meaningful people and events in my life, but also arranged in a way I found beautiful. It was my office artwork. I have a similar, but lower key thing in my current public service cubicle. One day we got a new director in my department at the university who issued an edict that no staff member was to display more than two personal photos in their work space. Political cartoons and pieces of satire were forbidden. Not only did this endanger the long standing tradition that a university can be relied upon for providing a steady supply of humour displayed on university lecturer’s doors, it sterilised the environment, and the staff lost one of the ways to express their individual identity. There was no individual creativity or beauty in our offices. And though it may sound dramatic, it felt like a part of who we are was taken away.
Recently I was so fortunate to go on my first ever retreat. I went with a small group of teachers down to the Jesuit Villa at Gerroa. I’m not particularly religious, not having grown up in a church community, but my husband’s background is Catholic and he teaches at a Catholic school. I’m not an atheist, but I’m not a card carrying Christian either – I’m still thinking and developing my own ideas about religion, belief, and God (incidentally I’m really enjoying reading ‘God is not one’ at the moment which has helped clarify some of my thoughts around religion). Despite this, I got so much out of the retreat because I am very much a spiritual person and a person who values reflection and contemplation.
One of the things that I got out of the retreat was more contemplation on the role of beauty. One of the retreat leaders adorned the coffee table with a simple gold silk cloth, some candles, a rustic wooden cross, and the simple, yet beautiful, statue pictured in the photo on this post. The sweeping, majestic beauty of Seven Mile Beach was laid out in the view before us, but we were also comforted inside by these tokens of beauty placed on the coffee table. Beauty can really help contemplation and reflection.
When we live in the city, or even in suburbia, we lose touch with the beauty of nature. Yes we can appreciate our gardens, and appreciate the sunshine, but it is different to the sweeping beauty of nature – the feeling of space and room to breathe and life that you get from a scenic view of the mountains, or a river, or the ocean, or even a wide sweeping desert or plain.
This has been written about again and again. Henry David Thoreau wrote “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately”. We know the role that the beauty and force of nature can play in connecting us, and healing us when that need is there. Maybe that’s even what Keats was getting at with his line ‘beauty is truth, truth is beauty’.
I’m reading a paper on nature and wellbeing at the moment which refers to Central Park, New York. Even the most industrialised city in the industrialised world realised how impoverished the lives of residents would be without nature.
As one of the landscape architects who designed Central Park, Frederick Law Olmstead wrote in defence of the idea of the park:
“The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system”
Beauty in our lives adds another dimension which should neither be neglected, nor dominate us. But the most important beauty of all – nature’s beauty – is medicinal. We need to feel it in our blood, our bones, and souls. And I think wherever we live we need to make the time to reconnect with that beauty, because it really does help relax us yet gives us energy and clarity. Now that might be all new age, but stand at the end of Seven Mile Beach and tell me I’m wrong.
I dare you…
(provided your speech is not taken away by its grandeur)