I live in a neighbourhood of oldsters. Lawn nazis we call them. They seem to schedule their lives around yard work. Some time during the week when I am at work, those mowers are going, hedge clippers clipping, weed whackers edging, and then after hours they sit on their porches admiring. I come home on the weekend, and all of their yard work is done, while mine has not happened yet. They eyeball me. Some of them come up to me, offended and tell me “I noticed you haven’t cut your grass yet, have you been sick?”
There’s only one thing that changed up this routine. One summer Reg started having heart trouble. Reg had two daughters and they were both beautiful, but they had grown up and moved away. That summer they came back, every weekend and they were out there in cut off shorts and T-shirts, mowing the grass, doing the edging, raking leaves, all that stuff.
Silently, imperceptibly those rigid neighbourhood routines shifted. I noticed that finally one Saturday when the two daughters came by to do the yard work, that as if by coincidence, ALL the men in the neighbourhood suddenly had grass to cut and yard work to do on Saturday. They were all outside, young and old alike, attending to beauty. Those two daughters had no idea what was really going on.
Beauty is a mysterious thing. You can go through books in art history courses, and study up on all the great masters, and it doesn’t mean a thing. Or, if you are lucky enough, you can spend a day in the Louvre in Paris, and see those paintings close up. Close up isn’t hard because the scale isn’t anything like in the art history books. Most of these paintings are about twelve feet high, or larger. They were painted for churches, and they were painted on a scale premised to inspire. At the Louvre there is no complicated explanation going on for how things came about or the history involved. There are just people sitting there, standing, for a long time in silence. They don’t move. They are attending to beauty.
Ancient cathedrals were built with the same purpose in mind, to inspire awe. With the recent fire at Notre Dame, criticism has been trotted out by the usual suspects, that all of this treasure, could have been sold to raise money for the poor. They see its beauty as a great waste while missing the obvious. They neglect the seminal need in life, to create focal points of beauty and richness where people can gather. It is a religious sentiment, even if you are not religious.
As an artist, I am particularly conscious of beauty in the public sphere, and saddened when it is discounted at the expense of practicality, like when municipal budgets cut art funding. But go to any place where you are surrounded by beauty and see how your world is transformed, because beauty has its own particular holy power. It cleanses the heart without duress. It draws you in without argument. There are few other things in life which have as much power as beauty.
Beauty is the necessity to slow down and pay attention. Seeing and appreciating leads you to the sense that you must give something back. Let us just say that beatify and beautify are related terms. They tie the saint with the sinner. Beauty is the gift which enriches both giver and receiver alike.
There is a memorable children’s story that I used to read my kids entitled “Miss Rumphius” by Barbara Cooney. It is a story about an old lady, and the last thing she has to do in her life, is to leave the world with some gift of beauty. She cannot do much because she is old, so she decides to broadcast wild flower seeds wherever she goes. It is a wonderful story. It teaches a great lesson. Did you ever think about your own duty to leave behind something that has no purpose but beauty? Shows like America’s got talent prove that most people are capable of something rare and beautiful in their lifetime. Some merely suspect, while others touch the mystery.
Attending to that beauty is a job that we eventually arrive at in our own lives. It is your personal gift to the world from the very essence of who you are. Those who skip the desire to create something beautiful, have missed the point. Do something beautiful. It may be the one thing that lasts.