Monday, July 25, 2016

In search of beauty

A couple of weeks ago the tenor in the household was ... shrill.

It was around 5 o'clock (always a challenging time of day). The girls were exhausted, but paradoxically, were racing around the house screaming at high pitches, bumping into things, crying about bumping into things, recovering, and then screaming, running, bumping and crying some more.  But then we were gifted with this tropical shower -- you know when it's sunny and the rain comes down in millions of fat drops and it seems as if diamonds are pouring from the sky. 

"Put on your shoes, girls! We're going for a walk!"

They protested because it was rainy. And because it was hot. And because it would be so boring. And the walk would take forever.

I ignored it all.

We trekked outside as the rain ebbed, I scanned the sky for magic. 

"Girls! Look! A rainbow!"

Their whines and groans transformed into oohs and ahhs. They jumped in puddles and came home better versions of themselves. We all did.

Being outside, being in the natural world (even if it's just the natural world creeping up between all the little brick ramblers and cape cods in our little neighborhood next to the interstate) – being here is transformative. 

I've been thinking about that this week – nature's ability to calm and soothe us. To minimize massive worries. To give us the chance to marvel and wonder from a very deep, primitive place.

Then, of course, we are part of nature. All things that are not human-made, are right? As much as we'd like to believe we owe our existence to ourselves, it's just not the case. We are borne from the same place as trees and butterflies and rainbows, even.

Returning to nature is going home. 

I've been ruminating on the nature of beauty, too. And the beauty of nature. How nature is always beckoning us to look closer, enticing us with these little jeweled gifts. The obvious ones like the perfect, endless symmetry of cornflowers and the ethereal grace of a swallowtail. But in less obvious places, too. The dried husk of an allium flower. The iridescent wings of a crow. or the intricate lace of the earth frozen solid.

We are desperate for this beauty, I think. 

On the ledge of the kitchen sink I keep a collection of small things I've found outside. Little pine cones, a starfish and bouquets of chicken feathers the girls and I gather at the barn. Our black-eyed susan's and coneflowers are in bloom right now and last week the girls handed me a bundles of them (roots and all), which I trimmed down and stuck in a miniature vase my mom gave me for such occasions. 

The trouble is, this new cat we have has a thing for flowers, well, and feathers for that matter. He's knocked over my bouquet at least five times. And each time I stubbornly refuse to give up on my flowers. This is their time to bloom and I want it to last as long as it can. 

"God damn cat!" I yelled at Pretzel last week as he knocked over the flowers yet again, breaking this beautiful soap dish my parents gave me yet again (thank god for Gorilla glue).

"He's not a damn cat!" Lily admonished me. 

She's right. He's just a cat being a cat. Just like me, seduced by green things. 

I told her I shouldn't have said what I said. And that damn (though used in context!) was not a particularly nice word. And that roping God into it wasn't especially kind either.

Nature and beauty are only good for us when we don't covet it. It's for all of us. Even Pretzel the cat.

I think this is why I seek out the farm. Why I never dread waking up on frigid winter mornings or hazy, humid summer mornings to pick stalls and wrangle fussy pigs. There, nature explodes. It's bunnies hopping across the lane and red-winged black birds whistling in the rain garden and barn swallows swooping around the rafters and geese splash landing in the pond. It's all varieties of fauna sprouting from the refuse of the barn. It's the smell of hay and even the smell of manure and the mumbling of chickens punctuated by the melodies of songbirds. It's all the little surprises -- tiny mushrooms sprouting outside Pete's stall and a toad holed up in the pile of sawdust. 

There's such wealth here. And it's shared wealth, you know? There's enough for all of us to partake and to celebrate.

Sometimes I feel as if humans are much too proud of how separated we are from nature. You know first we harnessed fire, then we figured out the wheel and then there was electricity down the road from that. Our frontal lobes forever solving problems that further separate us from ourselves and from the world around us.

I'm not ungrateful for all the things that have allowed us to live these comfortable lives. This week I'm especially grateful for things like central air conditioning, for Nick Jr., which allowed me to sleep in a little this morning and for the internet, even, which allows me to share my ideas and soak in the beautiful ideas of others with ease. 

It's when we allow our ability to create all these amazing machines to justify our dominion and superiority over nature and each other, that I feel wary. I'd much rather be a steward to this place, you know? 

Yesterday, I drove up to State College for a lovely day with friends. Route 322 west of Harrisburg takes you between these tall ridges near the Susquehanna and Juanita rivers. It's a beautiful drive, and one that makes you feel a little slight. I started thinking about how small I felt, and then I thought about how on the scale of Pennsylvania, a little two-hour road trip through some tired old mountains wasn't all that significant. And that on the scale of the U.S. stretching from the Pacific to the Atlantic with much larger mountains in between, it was even less significant. And that on the scale of the Earth ranging from Everest to the Marianas Trench, well, I was kind of like an ant trying to scale a modest-sized rock. Here I was, this little speck swallowed by this massive planet.

Before I started mentally spinning out into the cosmos, I grounded myself. "You are part of all of this," I told myself. Because we are. And we all serve and Earthly purpose. And also, I think, a universal purpose. 

We are both significant and insignificant at once. Both the ant and the colossus at any given moment.

My Dad and I were emailing back and forth a bit about our mutual fascination with the universe. Dad's a kinda retired aerospace engineer who enjoys reading up on particle physics, dark matter and quantum mechanics in his spare times. So his understanding of the universe is a bit more expansive than my own. I love his explanation for why he is so passionate about the topic:
"My interest in the universe is that I think understanding it allows us to understand more of the creator. The amazing attention to the tiniest detail when working in such large dimensions is far beyond our capacity so I think that the more we slowly learn about it we come closer to looking into the eye of the Lord. (Compare the elaborate detail of the DNA structure in cells to the massive planets that orbit the sun - the large and small are finished to elaborate detail and perfection in order to work as they do)."
I heard something recently about how beauty is a core moral value in Islam. ... OK, OK, yes, it was something else from "On Being." (Yes, I'm obsessed.) In an interview shortly after 9/11, Muslim jurist and author Khaled Abou El Fadl shared his thoughts:
"Beauty is to fall in love with God, to fall in love with the Word of God, with the Qur'an, to read it and to feel that it peels away layers of obfuscation that I have spent numerous times building around myself. Beauty is to look around me and fully understand and feel, therein is God, in all that I see around me — and to understand my place in this, that I am integral as God's viceroy, as God's agent on this Earth, like everyone else. And at the same time, that I am wonderfully irrelevant."
So here we are in this place today. So desperately in need of the beauty that is right here in front of us if we only look up from our screens and outside of our own experience. The beauty that will bring us closer to our creator (or Creator) and closer to each other. 

Look up. Look up. 

You will find rainbows.

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