Something Old, Something New…A Lesson in Redefining Beauty

simply-imperfect-flowers.jpgAs a designer, I tend to be very particular about the things that I see as beautiful.  In my own home, I confess I love things to look contemporary and fresh and just-so.  I love rotating new items into my existing decor.  I quickly get rid of things that look dated or worn.  However, I have recently had the pleasure of reading two wonderful, albeit very different books, that have greatly challenged and broadened my view of aesthetics. 

The first book, called “The Wabi-Sabi House,” addresses what the author (Robyn Griggs Lawrence) refers to as “the Japanese art of imperfect beauty.”  She states, “The subtle messages that live within wabi-sabi are the things we all seem to long for today: Slow down.  Take the time to find beauty in what seems ordinary – and to turn the “ordinary” into something beautiful.  Make things yourself instead of buying those spit out by a machine, and smile when your work is flawed.  Wash your dishes by hand, and most important: learn to think of others before yourself.”  Wabi-sabi finds beauty in things that are old, natural, broken, simple and earthy.  I must say, it is a challenge for me to find beauty in old things.  I love new trends and styles and experimenting in my home. I am not sentimental or much of a collector.  I have five children and often value efficiency over, well…basically everything!  However, I am stretching myself by attempting to slow down and find beauty in unexpected places, while incorporating small touches of imperfect and meaningful beauty at the same time.

The second book by Nate Berkus, “The Things That Matter,” thoughtfully covers the idea of filling your home with items that carry personal history and significance.  He opens the first page by sharing, “I’ve always believed your home should tell your story…Those cuff links?  They belonged to somebody I loved: we picked them out on one of the most perfect days we ever spent together.  That tortoise shell on the wall?  There was one exactly like it in my mother’s house and I can’t see it without thinking about a thousand inedible family dinners.  Each object tells a story and each story connects us to one another and to the world.  The truth is, things matter.  They have to.  They’re what we live with and touch each and every day.  They represent what we’ve seen, who we’ve loved, and where we hope to go next.  They remind us of the good times and the rough patches, and everything in between that’s made us who we are.”  I love this!  And while this may come quite naturally to some people, this concept has given me quite a bit to think on.  My family has never valued THINGS very much, which is both positive and negative.  While we are not tied to our possessions, we also don’t have any family heirlooms that exchange hands or generations.  I have purchased every single thing in my home…no gramma’s rocking chair, mother’s cookbooks, dad’s tools, nothing!  This honestly makes me a bit sad, but also determined to do things differently for my children.  I have started purchasing (or keeping) something special for our home every time we travel: horse hair pottery from South Dakota, my husband’s first emptied out clam shell from Maine, a wooden manatee to remind us of the one that chose to swim with us in Florida.  When my gramma passed away, I carefully elected to save a jade letter opener that reminded me of her (I never knew anyone who actually used a letter opener to open letters)! 

While I still openly profess my love for all things new, I am also committed to expanding upon what I have traditionally viewed as beautiful, and to looking through an object into its past.  I am looking forward to owning THINGS that matter, things that will one day cause my children to re-tell my stories to their children. And I eagerly anticipate the lessons that I know will come…as I learn to find perfection in imperfections.

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“Ugly” Beauty

When my daughter was young we visited a women’s monastery.  There was a young nun tending to the chickens.  By all cultural standards, she was not pretty.  Her face was broken out and scarred, she had thick glasses and braces.  Her dark eyebrows formed a solid line, giving the appearance of a heavy, furrowed brow.  However, she warmly invited my daughter to help feed the chickens.  They chatted and laughed like old friends and when they were finished, my daughter casually remarked to me, “I hope I can be as pretty as she is some day.”  Her statement stopped me dead in my tracks and pointed out my embarrassing and blaring inability to see true beauty.

I’ve been thinking a lot about beauty lately: not the Victoria’s Secret/Hollywood kind of beauty, or even the glowing sun setting over the mountains kind of beauty.  I’ve been mulling over the idea of true beauty…soul beauty.  This kind of beauty might outwardly appear revolting or undesirable at the very least.  But for those that have the eyes to see, it is the purest form of beauty, ignorant of age, race, gender or religion.

I have a lifelong friend who is a cancer survivor.  After she lost her hair and struggled and fought her way through chemo and radiation, her hair began to grow back.  Naturally, she was self-conscious, but as she was bathing one night, her little girl petted her head and offhandedly commented how much she loved her mom’s cute, tiny baby hairs.  Those little stubbles of hair growing out of a bald head were beautiful.  My dear friend in a weakened state of vulnerability was beautiful.  It just took someone with the eyes to see.

I have another friend who while walking toward an elevator got stuck behind a slow moving mother and her child with special needs.  The child walked abnormally, shuffle-shuffle-clap, shuffle-shuffle-clap.  The mother was trying to move her child along to allow people through and apologetically glanced back at my friend.  Before the mother had time to offer an apology, my friend enthusiastically exclaimed, “Look at your beautiful child! He’s clapping to the rhythm of his steps perfectly!”  The shocked mother admitted that this was indeed what he was doing.  A child finding his own rhythm was beautiful.  A mother trying to be sensitive not only to her child, but to those around her was beautiful.  It just took someone with the eyes to see.

In each of these cases, our well-intentioned society might try to “fix” that which is “ugly”…make-up and a wax job for the sweet nun, a wig for my friend with cancer, therapy for the child walking irregularly…thus allegedly beautifying each scenario.  But in doing so, we dictate what we think beauty SHOULD look like and lose sight of what true beauty actually is.  True beauty functions like a magnet.  Those who are unable to perceive it will be repelled and perhaps even repulsed.  But for those that have eyes to see, true beauty will attract, draw in, and connect people on a soul level.

I realize that I severely lack the eyes to see.  I feel sorrowful when I recognize how much of my own soul is uncultivated, wild, ugly even.  But in order to avoid hypocrisy, I must practice seeing the beauty in my own soul.  I must nourish what is good within me instead of dwelling on that which is lacking.  And like a novice photographer sharpening his eye for what will make a good photograph, perhaps my vision will become clearer, less muddled by the confines of society, more free to see what is true and pure, more grounded in that which is real.  May we all have the clarity of soul to see the true beauty that is found in the “ugly”.

 

The Beautiful Life

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The ancient Greek philosophers stated that there were three prime virtues: goodness, truth and beauty. Most individuals would readily affirm this statement and even proclaim that they are trying to live a good and honest life. But how many would honestly be able to say that they are actively pursuing a beautiful life? As humans with souls, we understand this to mean that we not only live our spiritual life in a beautiful way, but also our corporeal, tangible and every day life. This ideally means that we are to physically beautify everything we come in contact with, be it a person (ourselves included), a meal, our home, our workplace, or city of residence.  Now this can seem like quite a tall order, especially in this busy, stressed-out, frantic culture that we live in. It can become another checkmark on our to-do list as opposed to an organic way of living an aesthetic life.

In order to move forward in addressing the creation of beauty, we must first acknowledge the problems that are so often evident in our American culture.  In my opinion, the primary issue is that we have traded the art of beauty for pragmatism (what is useful) and efficiency (does it get the job done). For example, our American churches resemble nothing of the old grandeur once delegated to places of worship. They unfortunately blend in, even in industrial parks. As an amusing, but not funny side note, we were driving by a local church with one of our children’s friends. He asked what store it was and when we told him that it was a church, he quite wisely stated, “It doesn’t look like one.” Even children seem to inherently realize the need for beauty. A secondary problem is that people often equate the pursuit of beauty to selfishness or the pursuit of vanity. Nothing could in fact be further from the truth. Pure beauty blesses all that come in contact with it. One final observation is that is for the most part, we have forgotten or perhaps have never even identified that which we love. The classic childhood question asks, “What is your favorite color?” As adults we think this is silly and quickly brush it off. But why can we no longer answer this question? Why do we not have favorite colors, favorite smells, favorite foods, favorite flowers? And if we do, why do we not routinely surround ourselves with them? Why must life become gray with age? If we will learn to fall in love with our physical and natural  and yes, even man-made surroundings, I daresay we will discover a new level of joy and delight in the world around us.

Moving from the philosophical to the practical, how does this apply to everyday life? When I am working with clients in their homes, I use only one rule: they must love anything and everything that is brought into their home. Statements like, “This would be ok” or “This might work,” are problematic, in that people are looking to external criteria to define their tastes. True beauty must have its roots in love. It should be emotionally evocative. Think of watching a Colorado sunset. In one moment, all five senses can quite literally feel and absorb true beauty. It is in fact these five senses that provide an ideal framework with which to recreate beauty. With the holidays upon us, let us consider how this might be achieved. Visually, you could make your house sparkle by adding different forms of lighting…fire tipped, dripping candles of multiple heights and colors on a tray; twinkling rope lighting on a ledge; even by installing a dimmer to a dining room chandelier. The tactile dimension could be established with the use of soft, fuzzy blankets draped over a favorite chair by a lit fire; Christmas carols in the background could provide an audible contribution and the smell of sugar cookies baking in the oven would wrap it all up. The creation of beauty is much more comprehensive than simply making something look nice. It is more about creating the feeling of beauty. Our understanding of what is beautiful is far too often reduced to only that which can be seen by the eye. It is much more properly understood in the integration of all senses.

In further examples, light a fragrant candle on an ordinary day while cleaning with your favorite music playing in background. Buy fresh flowers for no particular reason. Fix an unexpected dinner served on fancy china; don’t wait for that special occasion. Buy plush and inviting pillows instead of scratchy, “pretty” ones. And then, you will realize as the Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker states that, “Whenever you are creating beauty around you, you are restoring your own soul.” And from there, as Dostoevsky states, “Beauty will save the world.”