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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Speaking the Unspoken Truth

**Spoiler alert – contains spoilers regarding the movie “A Monster Calls.” **

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Over Christmas break, I took my kids to the movie, “A Monster Calls,” based on the New York Times Bestselling book.  I had no expectations or understanding of what it was even about.  That being said, I managed to cry my way through the last half of the movie.  It is very rare that a movie grips my mind and thoughts long after the credits are through rolling.  But this movie was so poignant and in my opinion, touched on the very struggle of what it means to be human.

The story is told of a young boy whose mother is facing cancer.  He has a recurring nightmare in which he is holding onto his mother who is about to slip into an abyss and he cannot hold her any longer.  The boy repetitively wakes up just as he loses grip and she begins to plummet.  The long and short of the plot is that an ancient tree awakens and shares three stories and tells young Conor that after the third story, he will tell his story (nightmare) and will tell the truth of it.  The following is an excerpt from the book.  Forgive me for a lengthy quote but I cannot summarize in any way that would do it justice…

From A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

“Because, yes, Conor knew.  He had always known. The truth. The real truth from the nightmare…  ‘Please don’t make me,’ Conor said.  ‘Please don’t make me say it.’  You let her go, the monster said.  Conor closed his eyes tightly but then he nodded.  You must speak the truth and you must speak it now, Conor O’Malley.  Say it.  You must.  ‘It’ll kill me if I do,’ he gasped.  It will kill you if you do not, the monster said.  You must say it.  You let her go.  Why?  And then he spoke the words.  He spoke the truth.  He told the rest of the fourth tale.  ‘I can’t stand it anymore!’ he cried out as the fire raged around him.  ‘I can’t stand knowing that she’ll go!  I just wanted it to be over! I wanted it to be finished!’  And then the fire ate the world, wiping away everything, wiping him away with it.  He welcomed it with relief, because it was at last the punishment he deserved.

‘It’s my fault,’ Conor said.  ‘I let her go.’  It’s not your fault, the monster said, its voice floating in the air around him like a breeze.  You were merely wishing for the end of pain, your own pain, and how it isolated you.  It is the most human wish of all.  ‘I didn’t mean it’ said Conor.  You did, the monster said, but you also did not.  Conor sniffed and looked up to its face which was as big as a wall in front of him.  ‘How can both be true?’  Because humans are complicated beasts, the monster said.  How can a queen be both a good witch and a bad witch?  How can a prince be a murderer and a saviour?  How can an apothecary be evil-tempered but right-thinking?  How can a person be wrong-thinking but good-hearted?  How can invisible men make themselves more lonely by being seen?   ‘I don’t know,’ Conor shrugged, ‘Your stories never made any sense to me.’  The answer is that it does not matter what you think, the monster said, because your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day.  You wanted her to go at the same time you wanted me to save her.  Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary.  And your mind will punish you for believing both.  ‘But how do you fight it?’ Conor asked, his voice rough.  ‘How do you fight all the different stuff inside?   By speaking the truth, the monster said.   As you spoke it just now.  Conor thought again of his mother’s hands, of the grip as he let go ~ Stop this, Conor O’Malley, the monster said, gently.  This is why I came walking, to tell you this so that you may heal.  You must listen.  You do not write your life with words, you write it with actions.”

The bare naked truth of the matter is that we all have secrets.  Perhaps we have never actively done anything horrifically wicked, but we have all had thoughts that would mortify us if spoken out loud.  I will be embarrassingly transparent regarding a personal example.  One day, my son threw a fit and ran away and was threatening to run into a busy road.  His fits are not uncommon, as a child with special needs, and it had been a particularly bad week.  As he ran toward the street, the thought flashed through my mind that if I let him run and there was a fatal accident, my life would be so much easier.  Of course I stopped him from running, yet I felt crushed under the weight of my hideous thought and punished myself internally for days.  This is one of many reasons why the above scene absolutely pierced my heart.  Anyone who has suffered or experienced grief also understands the desire for an end to pain, for an end to the isolation of it, for an end to the weariness of it.  After that incident, I did some intense soul searching and demanded of myself to know how any decent mother could ever even allow the faintest of such thoughts to be entertained.  I felt like a blasphemous cartoon character deserving of the proverbial lightning strike from the sky.

And so, many of us carry this needless guilt and shame.  We begin to identify with these fleeting thoughts.  We even may hate ourselves at times for thoughts we have, ways we have hurt others, and the supposed truth over who we are.  But herein lies the problem.  We are not the summation of our thoughts.  We are complicated beasts, as the monster so aptly points out.  It is possible to be wrong-thinking but good-hearted.  Life does not seem to have the same problem with dualistic truths as we humans do.  But we must learn to speak the truth.  We must own our morbid thoughts.  We must open up our dark, cobwebbed closets and let even the smallest aperture of light in.

Ultimately we must understand that the majority of our terrible thoughts do not stem from some deep-rooted wickedness within, but rather a wound that needs to be healed (“This is why I came walking, to tell you this so that you may heal.”).  Our ugly thoughts, our rage, our embarrassing failures all serve as an indicator to show us where we are broken, where we are suffering, where we need mending.  What good would it do to suture up an infected laceration?  It would only fester and rot and cause further damage.  This being the case, we still hide in shame rather than risk being exposed.   And so, we suffer while smiling and silently endure our infected wounds.  We would rather die than expose the truth.

However,  if we will be brave enough to speak that which is unspoken, we will find peace and freedom.  We will find that our thoughts, once uttered, become powerless over us.  The shackles of guilt and self-chastisement will fall away and we will realize that our thoughts are simply…thoughts.  They do not define us.  They cannot control us.  And then, we will reclaim the power to write our lives with our actions, instead of being tormented by our thoughts.

“Conor let out a long, long breath, still thick.  But he wasn’t choking.  The nightmare wasn’t filling him up, squeezing his chest, dragging him down.  In fact, he no longer felt the nightmare at all…” 

You Are Enough.

13323703_1046851035408719_7118944347292993062_oTo my new friend…and for anyone else who is struggling to feel that they are “enough…”

I can see you have a hard time recognizing the beautiful person you are and all of the wonderful things that you do.  I shared that until you are able to see for yourself how amazing you are, you would have to learn to trust those who best know you.  I realize that I just met you and don’t yet qualify for that role.  But I have been where you are and my heart hurts because I understand how you feel.

You approached me because of our shared struggle in raising special needs kids.  My impression of you right off was that you live with gratitude (you didn’t have to come up to me to say thank you), and you are courageous (for being vulnerable with someone you just met).  I quickly realized that you are exceptionally amazing because you willingly chose to bring two struggling children (that are not yours by birth) into your practically empty-nest home.  I don’t know if you recognize the magnitude of this choice.  It doesn’t matter if you have been scared or have second guessed yourself…you willingly exchanged your life for theirs and there is no greater love than this.

And forgive me, but I Facebook stalked you tonight.  I looked at your pictures and I didn’t see irritability or failure or anything else that you mentioned.  What I did see was a strong woman fighting to give two children a normal life; children that would have otherwise been lost to the proverbial system.  I saw two children living in a house surrounded with beautifully tended flowers and attending church in a loving community.  I saw birthday parties, extravagant school projects, Halloween costumes…all things that these children would never know without you.  I saw your beautiful smile in many pictures.  How many forgotten children never receive a genuine smile?  Do you realize what normalcy, consistency and safety you are giving to these kids?

Of course I know that there is more to meet the eye than what is portrayed on social media.  I know that you rage and cry and scream and want to drive off in your car and never look back.  But I also know WHY you feel this way.  It is NOT because of who YOU are.  It is because of the situation you are in and the ways you are being stretched and pushed beyond your capacity.  You are strong day in and day out.  You can’t even truly rest while you sleep because of the dreams and nightmares.  You are trying to love two children as your own, even though you missed out on the essential bonding years of infancy.  Not only that, but you work full time!!  In my book, this certainly qualifies you for some kind of major award! 

I can see that you truly want the best for these kids.  You really love them.  But I can also see that you’re tired, you’re depleted and you’re running on fumes.  You are human and you have a limited amount of time and energy.  So you have to, for everyone’s sake, eliminate all the needless junk in your life.  By this, I mean get rid of the self-imposed guilt.  Expel the hovering, vicious thoughts telling you that you’re failing.  And especially, eliminate (as you are able) all of the self-doubt that pushes you to believe that you’re not good enough, patient enough, loving enough, whatever enough.  You are you and that is enough.  At the end of every day you are empty.  This is because you have given everything so that they might want for nothing .  It will never feel like enough because they are bottomless pits at this point (regarding their neediness).  But with time, maybe their special needs will be less because of the backbreaking work you are putting forth now. 

Above all, try to look at yourself and everything around you with soft eyes.  Pursue beauty and that which feeds your soul.  Your face lit up when you talked about books…maybe you could make yourself a cozy reading niche?  Perhaps gardening or photography are undiscovered talents?  Regardless, figure out how to love, cherish, and respect yourself.  It is not selfish…it is survival.  Celebrate the small things, turn your morning coffee into a  sacred ritual.  Give yourself permission to sit and do nothing without judgment.  Fight for joy and pray for the eyes to see light and beauty. 

quotes_creator_20161219_090518And though I don’t know you well, know that I love you.  We are connected through our struggles and sufferings and I understand.  I understand that you sometimes feel trapped in your own life.  I recognize that you constantly feel as if you are on the verge of a mental breakdown and I am all too acutely aware of the guilt that has become your constant unwanted companion.  But I also see that you are strong enough.  You will have to work hard at resting, strive to surround yourself with love, and be a continual advocate for yourself and your family.  But I know that you can do it.  Hang in there and believe me when I say that you are amazing.  Good strength!

Walden Pond

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Standing on the edge of Thoreau’s Walden Pond

“I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof, and yet we often parted without being aware that we had come very near to one another…I have found it a singular luxury to talk across the pond to a companion on the opposite side. In my house we were so near that we could not begin to hear — we could not speak low enough to be heard; as when you throw two stones into calm water so near that they break each other’s undulations. If we are merely loquacious and loud talkers, then we can afford to stand very near together, cheek by jowl, and feel each other’s breath; but if we speak reservedly and thoughtfully, we want to be farther apart, that all animal heat and moisture may have a chance to evaporate. If we would enjoy the most intimate society with that in each of us which is without, or above, being spoken to, we must not only be silent, but commonly so far apart bodily that we cannot possibly hear each other’s voice in any case. Referred to this standard, speech is for the convenience of those who are hard of hearing; but there are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout.”

-Henry David Thoreau-

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.”