Recently, I was asked, “Where do you find beauty?” I didn’t answer right away, but thanks to stay-at-home orders I’ve had lots of time to ponder that question. It’s a good one, for I can think of no other time in my life when I needed the transcendent power of beauty more than in the last few months.
“A world without beauty would be unbearable. Indeed, the subtle touches of beauty are what enable most people to survive”.John O’Donohue, Irish Priest and Poet
Everyone experiences shimmering moments of beauty that catch us off guard and take our breath away. We delight in moments that arrive without warning as suddenly as butterflies that spring from the grass on a summer afternoon or as gradually as blossoms that swell into apples.
When the ordinary suddenly becomes the extraordinary we are filled with wonder, awe, and a heightened awareness that the world around us is bursting with hidden beauty. Beauty doesn’t save itself for special occasions but is already present in everything.
Beauty is so finely woven throughout our ordinary days that we hardly notice it.John O’Donohue
The colors of the sunset, the sound of wind through the trees, or the trust in a child’s eyes will be there whether we notice or not, and though we’re almost never aware of it the stars shine even in the daytime. It is up to each of us to pay attention, recognize, and appreciate the beauty that surrounds us.
It was serendipity that brought me to my first photography workshop on Star Island off the coast of New Hampshire. I sat in the back of Sandpiper at the end of a long, narrow table, with my tiny Canon point- and-shoot tucked in my pocket trying to blend into a world of SLRs, tripods, and assorted lenses. Any notion that I actually belonged there didn’t last much longer than the first part of my first question.
“You know that button? You know the one? The one you push to make things bigger…?”
As if they were marionettes controlled by an invisible puppeteer a matched set of curly-headed New Yorkers sitting in the front of the room where the good students sit, turned in unison, and replied in a single voice filled with great incredulity.
“Do you mean….the zoom?”
“Yes,” I replied.”That would be the zoom.”
Apparently, zoom is a basic photography term. I knew immediately that I had somehow matriculated into a master’s class without taking the required prerequisites. The instructor and my fellow students…especially those two New Yorkers…were kind, extremely patient, and always willing to help, so I returned the next day and the next. I remained in the workshop for the entire week.
It was one of the best decisions of my life. I have taken subsequent photography workshops where most often, I’m still the one with the most to learn. I continue to use a point-and-shoot camera…up-graded…but still rather basic and now, too, I use the camera on my phone.
I delete many more shots than I keep and I miss more shots than I take, but I came away from that very first workshop with something much more valuable than learning the difference between aperture and speed, or how to set the ISO. I learned to see. To really see the beauty that surrounds me every day.
“Everything that is made beautiful and fair and lovely is made for the eye of one who sees.”Rumi
During that first workshop, I became very aware of light. “Find the source, see where it falls and place yourself and your subject in relation to it,” Caleb said. “ Move if you need to. Change the light. Direct the light. Reflect the light. Be the light.”
Neither my camera nor I am fast enough to capture everything I see, but now I notice the way the light reflects off the water and dances among the leaves at the edge of the river; I marvel at the way the sun shines through the delicate petals of the bearded iris that line my sister’s walkway, and I find much joy in the twice-daily golden hour that momentarily highlights the ordinary with opulent splendor. Beauty is transient. It doesn’t wait or linger. We must be vigilant and observant. The brilliant sunset morphs and fades even as we watch; the final notes of the song once clear and crisp dissolve into the evening air, and the eagle soars overhead and then is gone.
A few years after I took that first photography workshop I joined a photography group at the local senior center. The facilitator was very fond of Wabi-Sabi, the philosophy that beauty can be found in the old, the everyday, and the imperfect. Wabi-sabi is seeing the beauty in the worn, well-used, weathered, and decaying. It is seeing beauty in common items and scenes often overlooked simply because it is not where you expect to find it. That philosophy opened my eyes even wider.
Shortly before his death, my husband and I spent four days in a ghost town outside of Arches National Park in Utah. I brought my camera along on hikes in the park where I was amazed by the natural beauty of the awe-inspiring arches carved in the soft red sandstone by wind, weather, and time, but I was also able to appreciate the special kind of beauty that remained in the weathered boards, the chipped and faded paint and the sagging roofs of the once prosperous village in which we found ourselves. Even in this place, I could still hear Caleb’s voice. “Crop with your feet.” and paraphrasing Robert Capa…”If it’s not interesting, you’re not close enough”. Through my lens, I saw the roofs now naked and shingle-less, and the abstract perfection of the staunch and upright nails who still remained at attention with no other purpose than to be beautiful. Streaks of rust from broken hinges, garden gates covered with vines, shattered glass, and tattered curtains also revealed their unique beauty. What a blessing to be able to appreciate the wonder of such a place.
Even in this strange time of physical distancing and self-isolation, we are discovering the beauty that has been hiding in plain sight…the light that turns the neighborhood windows to gold at twilight, the still life created by groceries on the kitchen counter, the smiling eyes that look back at us across a homemade mask. We dance, we sing, we write words on the page, we add paint to a canvas, we capture light through a lens, we rearrange pieces of broken plates, we read, we walk in the park, we sew masks, and we bake loaves of bread. I believe our need for the beautiful…and the compulsion to create it…has enabled us to endure this challenging time of the pandemic.
“Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and awful, it’s ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That’s just living heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful, ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautifulL.R.Knost
Learning to see the beauty of the world isn’t the only lesson taught in those photography workshops. For if you didn’t notice, the rules that Caleb taught me are also lessons for how to live in this world as well. Find the source of light…the source of love…the source of that which you call holy… and place yourself in relation to it. Move if you need to. Change the light. Direct the light. Reflect the light. Be the light and kindle the flame for another when their light flickers in the storms of life. Wabi-Sabi entreats us to see the beauty, the wisdom, and the divine in people who are broken, tired, old, and worn, as well as in objects or buildings and if they’re not interesting we’re not close enough. Crop with your feet.
“Where do you find beauty?” he asked.
“Everywhere,” I replied, with a smile. “Everywhere!”
Originally shared as part of a chapel service during Virtual Star Arts Retreat. Star Island, Isle of Shoals, NHJune 26, 2020