on practicing beauty (as an act of resistance)

Here at the end of June, nearly halfway through summer holiday for many kids, I’d like to offer some ideas on how to slow down and see beauty. These are indulgent activities (They might not require finances, but they do take time, and it will be necessary to plan find time alone or with one or two others). In my experience, learning how to be in a space, present with yourself, aware of your senses and open to the beauty in the world around you, takes practice.

 The last few years have been so ugly and evil that at times I lost sight of the beautiful. I experienced great personal pain through the slow death of a child I love, students and close friends have struggled to survive through mental illness and addictions, the norms of public speech have devolved so that hate, blame and bigotry are accepted with no challenge, violence is uttered and practiced on the bodies of so many vulnerable people, and those committed most to their own comfort seem protected, unaware of how the systems that protect their position also prevent others from living with enough. Living in grief, and acknowledging my deep dissatisfaction with the inequity and injustice I see around me has left me feeling profoundly alienated.

There are many ways to elevate the sense of connectedness and belonging that abides underneath all this alienation, but here I will offer the two that have sustained me in my weary waking hours: First, to remember my origins, and let them lead me back to my Creator. I have been frustrated at my understanding of God and furious at many people who claim to love God for their utter lack of sacrificial and compassionate action on behalf of hurting others. However, when I remember that I was created by God and that I bear God’s image, and when I read Holy Scriptures, I see that lamenting—confessing to God wrong I have done and wrong done by others, and acknowledging how much it all hurts, and how impossible it all feels outside of a radical, cosmic, redemption—leads me to abiding in God. Lamenting leads to hope, and hope is an act of resistance in this damaged world.

 The second lesson I have learned in how to find the points of connection when alienation or grief threaten to swallow me whole is rather simple: seek beauty. The ugly is surely there if you look for it, but the wonderful truth about our planet and the people on it is that beauty exists. Always. Train your eyes to look for it, train your body to respond to it, train your hands to create it. Elevating beauty in the midst of pain and suffering is a bold act of resistance in this dark world.

So, with that, here are indulgent suggestions on how to spend time elevating the beauty around you, reminding yourself that you belong to a world that is both ugly and beautiful, and that each of us must learn to accept and respond to all of it.

1)   Plan to be outside from dusk to dark. Like an observant Jewish family prepares to rest on Sabbath, plan ahead so that food, music, and seating are ready. Lights hush our spirits, so find a way to see the stars and the moon, or string some twinkly lights, or build a small fire. Watch the world go dark.

2)   Create something. Search your childhood, school days, or even a dream you used to have, and go try it again. If you are embarrassed then do it alone. Paint a canvas, or even a piece of paper (paint the whole thing first just to get over the blank page). Pick up a guitar (even at a store) and try to play a chord. Sing a song out loud with no accompaniment. Get some clay (or play dough!) and make a snail. Build a recycling bin or a table. Write a song, or a memory. Enjoy the process, if not the product.

3)   Find a patch of green, a bench, or a walking trail in a part of your town you normally do not visit, and go be there. Sit or walk and just see the people, noticing that you share a county with lots of people you never encounter, and they have a normal that works in their space just like you do in yours. Wonder at the wide variety of living we all do.

4)   Garden. If you have green space then weed it and plant something that makes you smile. If you don’t then buy a few pots and then fill them with soil and living things. Go to a berry patch or orchard and pick fruit. Allow yourself to notice that the rhythm of our world is to die and then to live again, to be still and then productive.

5)   Sit in one chair, pour yourself something you can sip slowly, and listen to an entire album. I suggest jazz (even if you’ve never listened to jazz). Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Herbie Hancock’s Inventions and Dimensions or John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Just be with the music, observe your wondering mind and see what it does for you.

6)   Find a state park (usually free) and go on a long hike. Work hard and go fast for 30 minutes, sweating and breathing heavy. Then forcibly slow yourself, looking around and soaking it all in for 10 minutes. Repeat for as long as you can, noticing that our bodies are made to work hard, but that in doing so we often miss the world around us. Make room for both in your daily rhythm.

7)   Begin a daily practice of Examen. There are many ways to do this, but I suggest simply setting aside time every day to reflect on two questions.  As you do, your answers will begin to reveal for you certain habits, tensions or areas of gratitude that are dominant themes in your life.  As you ask yourself two sides of the same question, day after day, do not over analyze your answers; rather, make a note and take in the data you collect.  You might be most impacted after a week or two when you begin to notice patterns—not of situations, but of your responses to and feelings about such moments.

            Possible questions include:

            For what moment am I most grateful today?  For what moment am I least grateful?

            When did I give/receive the most love today?  When did I give/receive the least?

            What was the most life-giving moment today?  What was the most life-thwarting?

            When did I feel most connected to God, others, self? When was I unconnected?

            When did I experience “consolation”? When did I experience “desolation”?

 

We have this one, beautiful ugly life, and the task before us is to show up for all of it. Remember your origins, and seek beauty, and you will find that we can resist the darkness one practice at a time.

what the flowers told me: on beauty in pain

You belong, among the wildflowers.
— Tom Petty

Living in Scotland, one gets used to gray skies and rainy mornings. On the cusp of adulthood, I discovered there that I was a closet introvert. I tend to live with everything I’ve got thrown out in the sun, engaged from head to toe. The Latin roots of extrovert explain the word suggests one who is turning outward, and I spent the first half of my 40 years doing exactly that. I constantly turned outward, to adventure, to relationships, to thrilling fun. I laughed hard and lived loud.

Then came the rains of Scotland. Walking often alone in Edinburgh, I discovered I liked the quiet. I loved to think and read and eat alone. Gray rainy days gave me the gift of my self. Nature has a way of teaching us how to be in the world, if we will only pay attention. 20 years later, my blood pressure drops a few notches when the rain comes. Rainy days wash forgiveness over us, giving all an excuse for being late, a reason to cancel plans, a lowering of expectations. Rain reminds me that enough is okay, that accomplishing less might be more enjoyable, that we should all just slow down.

For a productivity addict, the calming effect of rain provides a necessary pause. The rain reminds me there are lessons to be had if only I will pay attention. It remind us that the way we live is not the way we must, that our patterns might not define us. We withdraw, we hide away, we indulge, we rage, we distract ourselves, we pretend like we are fearless. When the pain of life delivers us at the end of ourselves though, those coping skills often seem inadequate. As the rain of Scotland exposed the beauty of turning inward and slowing down, I find myself looking again to the natural world for advice on how to survive the times that hurt and try us.

Yesterday I spent a lovely morning with a dear friend in a field of wildflowers. She is a pursuer of beauty, a chaser of wonder, and it is good to be in her presence whether I am happy or sad. As we drove through small towns, past barns and rolling fields, we began to learn the lessons Mother Nature offered up. Here are a few:

Consider the sunflower. Big, bright and beautiful, she is iconic. The deep brown center, the flaming bright petals, she stands tall with a stern stem. Today I observed her, and noticed the sunflower seems so sturdy, but those yellow petals are quite frail. The stem is thick, straight as a backbone, the brown center large and open, but the leaves, which provide the color for which the plant is known, are rather tiny. We love sunflowers for the brilliant contrast of the yellow and brown, for the large center, so stable, so open. I tend to minimize my frail parts, wanting to hide my fragility from the world. But the sunflower is the sunflower because we see the frail parts, because that flash of yellow is such a gift around the orb of brown. The sunflower teaches us to turn ourselves toward those who give us life, exposing our fragility and trusting others to call it beautiful. Could we learn to know we need to face the sun, that we must turn inward or outward toward those people and practices that give us life? Could we learn to bring our full selves, stable or fragile, toward the light, toward that which will carry and comfort us? Is it possible that our hurting, broken places are actually the most lovely? That our weak parts are made beautiful when seen alongside our strength? The sunflower has much to say if we will listen.

As we walked through the fields we also saw butterflies, fireflies and bees. Everywhere fluttering and buzzing, reminding us of the grace of rest, the freedom of flight and the necessity of nourishment. Ubiquitous, I found such pleasure in watching them dance. I saw there a beautiful reminder that perhaps the best path is not a path at all. Fully existing in a moment might require us to flit about, finding nourishment or rest wherever it is provided, unsure from where it will come. Don’t stop the journey because the rest ahead is unclear. Fly anyway, enjoying a reprieve whenever it appears. Perhaps the best paths meander.

Amidst the gorgeous bright sunflowers were also wildflowers of every shade. They were wild and bushy, mostly messy green with small pops of color. Lovely all the same though. Step back and survey the mess of life, looking for the precious color within. Might we trust that in every disaster there are moments of peace, that in every mess that is fleeting beauty? Some of the sunflowers looked like they were dying, but their burnished leaves added such depth to the sea of gold. Look for beauty in the dying, in the mess. No heart can bear only bad all the time. Allow yourself the gift of beauty if you stumble upon such wonder.

Buried beneath the flowers, we learned, would soon be tulip bulbs. Burrowed deep for the winter months, they will break through the ground in the spring, bursts of color growing toward the sun. In the beautiful wonder of our created world, cycles of life abound. God created this world to live and thrive and decay and die, only to nurture and grow new life. I am learning to face each death I encounter, knowing that in God’s baffling and cyclical economy, some gift is being deposited for the new life to come.

The natural world is a wild and lovely place. It is helpful, when the path ahead feels riddled with the traps of pain and despair, to remember that we were made to live as observers and partakers of the world around us. There are gifts of comfort and lessons of wisdom hidden within the plants and bees and rain and sun. Although we live our lives in a line, we grow in cycles large and small, as grace and pain somehow work together to teach us how to pay attention.

The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first; Be not discouraged - keep on - there are divine things, well envelop’d; I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.   
— Walt Whitman