The Eye of the Beholder
I live in a beautiful place.
Misty, Civil War battlefield mornings, hummingbirds zigzagging like bees from one open-mouthed hollyhock to the next, the smell of honeysuckle, dew and wood smoke in a heavenly perfume. It wafts in as I open my front door. The morning sun illuminates a large oil drum stain on our ancient wood floors, one of many historical scars in our house.
And this is the splendor of just any old day.
I haven’t even begun to tell you about the mountains, the orchards, the vineyards, the fact that we have as many rivers, streams and creeks as we do roads. Or the hot air balloons that float leisurely over our town on clear, fall days.
Where I grew up in suburban Chicago, unequivocal beauty was pretty scarce. The winters were harsh and a fresh snow would descend from white into gray within hours of falling. We’d have to make our Sno Cones quickly.
The city’s skyline was breathtaking – especially at night – and anywhere near Lake Michigan seemed like a vacation spot. But most of Chicago was industrial, gritty and rough around the edges in a way that was only charming if you grew up there. Even the so-called “beautiful” neighborhoods – the rich ones – weren’t all that great. They were fancy, yes, but when compared to some of the places I’ve lived in my adulthood, they were and remain fairly meh.
Truly beautiful days were uncommon enough when I was growing up that when they came, especially after a long and bitter winter, kids skipped school and adults called in sick. Or at the very least, tried to spend as much time outside as possible – maybe taking an extra long cigarette break (those were the days, right?), or offering to run an errand they would normally duck like an uncovered sneeze. In the city, people sat on their stoops after work, while in the burbs, they migrated to their porches or decks.
These were moments of stolen magic every bit as soul-stirring – at least for me – as the gentle, classical beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains in my backyard today. They were beautiful because of the stockyards across town, the stained bricks and dirty smells, the mornings so frigid it took real effort to make an expression on your face, or grip your keys firmly in hand.
Those tiny glimpses of something fresh and wonderful – the dandelion that grew in the crack of a sidewalk, the vacant lot – weedy and clovered, offered plenty of fodder for my imagination. To this day, I can say without reservation that I have seen nothing as riveting as a thunderstorm viewed from my parent’s cluttered garage. I would sit in a rusty folding chair as rain pummeled our driveway, lightening cracked above the roof of the mud brown ranch house next door, and wind battered our American flag. It felt biblically wild and dangerous. Like anything could happen.
The creek across the street, nestled next to a four-lane highway, was like the wilderness to my friends and me. We pretended to fish in it during the summers (the water was too iffy for us to eat anything we might have caught) and it became our ice skating rink in the cold months. A grouping of trees huddled on no more than two, undeveloped acres on the other side of our block, was uniformly referred to as “the forest.” Every winter a dramatic icicle sculpture would burst out of split gutter somewhere – a surprise, poor man’s Michelangelo.
It was more than enough. In fact, the very personal nature of the beauty I experienced as a girl growing up in an unbeautiful place was what made it so special. To this day, driving down Interstate 55 in Illinois – what my husband calls “possibly the ugliest corridor I have ever seen” – makes me sigh. Forget the billboards and congestion, the railways, the chimney stalks billowing smoke, one’s my youngest daughter mistook for “cloud factories” on our most recent visit. This was the path to Chicago in my youth, and evokes nothing but feelings of excitement and possibility for me. I loved the way the streetlights came on at night, their yellow, harvest-moon glow. I savored the smell of air-conditioning puffing out of the vents of our metallic green Lincoln.
Perhaps it meant so much to me then, and still does now, precisely because of its paucity and particular nature. It belonged to me. Not even my own husband has grown to appreciate it over the years – no matter how many times I’ve tried to explain.
The beauty of where I live now – undeniable, unrelenting in every season, every incarnation – belongs to everyone. There is not a sane person living who would deny it.
And I do love it.
But it’s not mine.
In John O’Donohue’s book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, he writes at great length about how beauty, whatever our interpretation of it, is the ultimate source of compassion and hope, the spark of both our collective and individual imaginations. The influence of beauty on our creative minds, he contends, is the only true tether to innocence.
“[only the imagination, through beauty] has retained the grace of innocence. This is no naive, untested innocence. It knows well the shadows and troughs of the world but it believes that there is more, that there are secret worlds hidden within the simplest, clearest things. The imagination is not convinced of the world of external fact. It is not persuaded by situations that pretend to be finished or closed. The innocence of the imagination is willing to see new possibilities in what appears to be fixed and framed. There is a moreness to everything that can never be exhausted.” — John O’Donohue
The moreness is what got me. That a storm watched from the garage of a 1960s style house can be as moving as a full, double rainbow over a pasture of wildflowers in the Virginia countryside is a testament to the moreness of the imagination. To the power of beauty as muse to the heart and mind.
John O’Donohue tells us, “Beauty is only a visitor. It’s not meant to stay.” But I’m not so sure. The beauty of my ugly childhood home has stayed with me, a travelling companion as I’ve passed through some of the most objectively beautiful places in the world. It will always be the standard to which I hold any surrounding, and the inspiration for some of my deepest, most contrary thoughts. The ones that help me understand people who are nothing like me, whose views I may find abhorrent, or whose values I deem silly.
The sumptuous beauty I live amidst today gives me serenity. It does inspire me. But my beauty – that of the chain-link fence, the brief summer, the gangway, the wall to wall carpeting, the tchotchkies, the plains – has been a wellspring of empathy and artistry. A dogged champion of independence and the fight for originality.