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.