You Are Required to Make Something Beautiful
I wrote this essay as the introduction for a book that never ended up being published. That book just so happened to be called, Transactions with Beauty. Some longtime readers of my online work may have read this before, but I think it holds up.
I’m not a philosopher or a religious scholar or historian. I’m not a self-help guru. I come to the subject of beauty as a poet; as a shy, ordinary person; as a reader, an amateur photographer, art lover, a mother, a suburban dweller; and as a spiritual seeker. I come asking, listening, looking; I come to beauty open. I look for those cracks where the light gets in. I hunger, I crave. I sift through words, pictures, libraries, the web. I scan my small corner of the world, and I survey the limited paths upon which I tread.
How to be alive in this world, awake to its astonishments and open to being wild-souled and to every loveliness? How to be in this world and belong to oneself and how to give oneself up to the glimpses of beauty that will find us even when we might refuse to see them or when we feel quite lost, quite unmoored.
In Straw for the Fire, Theodore Roethke describes the necessity of creating something out of that debris: “The barrenness of the poetic task: as if every day we look out at a courtyard of rubble and from this are required to make something beautiful.” And we are, we are.
Roethke also says, “May my silences become more accurate.” It’s very easy to begin our days in the fray of things – checking email, social media. We don’t even get to the part where we look at the piles of debris and wonder what to make of them. But if we can bypass all the electronic devices and spend the first fifteen minutes of the day looking out the window, or at a blank page, in silence, what would happen?
Perhaps this is the way to ensure our silences become more accurate: to live in the silences, to feel and embrace them. To let these silences hold and carry us through a day that requires us to not quite exactly be our self, at least not our creative self, poet or writer or artist self.
We are busy and we are exhausted. But still most of us have this pull toward the poetic task and we have a desire to live poetically. I find this very beautiful. This feeling that we are required to make something out of what we have, to sing in the silences, in the limited time we have, to make something of what we have now, of where we are. It’s heartening, I think, to know that we have company in this eternal apprenticeship of ours. And to remind each other – you are required to make something beautiful.
I live in the suburbs, in Edmonton, a northern city, historically known for being significantly ugly. (Those of us who live here have always known where to find the city's beauty). Edmonton is also known for its hockey team, for being an oil town, and for its long and harsh winters, for being situated at latitude 53. It’s a place in which you can wait and wait for beauty, squinting and scanning. In Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil says, “The attitude of looking and waiting is the attitude which corresponds with the beautiful. As long as one can go on conceiving, wishing, longing, the beautiful does not appear. That is why in all beauty we find contradiction, bitterness, and absence which are irreducible.”
I think that there is as much pure authentic beauty in the looking and waiting, in that stance, that approach, that slouch. In the way we meet the world, leaning hard into the absence of beauty, waking up yearning into that contradiction.
All summer long, I look, I wait. Wrestle with definitions of beauty, with incongruities, and meanwhile, waiting for it to appear, hoping. It appears when it appears. Sometimes early in the morning, sometimes later in the evening. When you look up from doing the breakfast dishes, over your shoulder. When you stand up after dinner and look at the disarray on the table, the crumbs, the juice stains on the white cloth, the way the silverware catches the colours of sauce and spill, the small vase with flowers you cut from the garden days ago that are now drooping.
It appears in the way the light sparkles on our neighbour's huge, white truck, glimpsed through the pink, zone-two hydrangea tree we planted in the front yard in early spring. It appears in the form of sun glowing through the paper-thin amber bark on the trees planted in every front yard in this neighborhood on an early morning dog walk. And it appears in the ripening bowl of garden tomatoes on the kitchen table, bathed in light, warmth.
In his gorgeous book, Anam Cara, John O’Donohue says, “A day is precious because each day is essentially the microcosm of your whole life.” Annie Dillard says something similar: “Because how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” In her well-known poem, Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
And I’ve been asking myself – how will you spend your day, your mad and exquisite and decrepit day, rough and frayed at the edges, fierce and fragile, drab and magical – how will you live? Not every day is perfect, in fact most are messy and full of interruptions, but I’m conscious of choosing – conscious that there is a choice. Maybe the entire day isn’t always mine to do with what I wish, but so long as there is an hour, where I insist on at least attempting to make or read or look at something beautiful, something that stirs and enlivens my soul – then it’s possible to keep a weariness at bay, a dogged loneliness of the spirit.
I’ve paid heed to Goethe’s words: “A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.” And let me say, that I’m not in the least bit elitist about this combination. We don’t all have access to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a regular basis – but we can look at pictures from the Met on the web. Some days the music will be John Cage or Debussy or Bach or Mozart. Others it will be Sting, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones. When it comes to poetry, I read as widely as possible – mixing up John Keats and Rilke with the conceptual poets and the spiritual ones too.
Maybe reading poetry is the easiest way to find the secret place that Rumi speaks of – where we may conduct quiet transactions with beauty. Part of the experience of reading poetry, I think, has to do with seeking out those poems that speak to you and address a state of mind or experience or a craving for a particular voice. Just as we select music according to mood, occasion, or even time of day, so we also are drawn to a poem or a poet for different reasons at certain moments.
The Swedish-speaking Finnish poet, Edith Södergran writes:
“but I won’t give up seeking joy on each blue wave
or peace below every gray stone.
If happiness never comes, what is a life?”
And I won’t give up seeking joy in poetry, in life, in the mystery of a day. I won’t give up seeking beauty either, which is very often found in sorrow and pain, in sincere and reckless intoxications. As often as I find beauty, I want to send beauty out into the world, too. And this I think is part of the agreement, in those transactions we make with beauty, and is what Lewis Hyde talks about in The Gift. That particular economy of the creative spirit – where we send what we have created out into the world, share it. The gift must not be withheld. Hyde quotes May Sarton: “The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up.” To receive, continually give.
I repeat, you are required to make something beautiful. Even if it’s a single line in your diary, a photograph, a row of knitting, or an arrangement of flowers on the windowsill. Clarice Lispector writes in her book, A Breath of Life, “Sometimes writing a single line is enough to save your own heart.” And what’s interesting is that reading her line has the same effect, as in, it has the power to save the reader’s heart, to save mine. For who can read what is so simple and true without feeling as though one’s own heart has been saved?
In Pablo Neruda’s poem, titled, “The Poet’s Obligation,” he says:
“To whoever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to whoever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or dry prison cell,
to him I come.”
It’s interesting to think of this - the poet’s obligation. Very often we writers feel that we are writing into a void, that we are spending our days making things that no one, or few, outside our circles will read. We are even quite possibly creating worlds and writing hundreds of pages that won’t even be published, pouring our broken-heartedness, our joys, our sorrows, and all our keen observances into these works. But we are obliged to share what beauty we do find with those who don’t have the good fortune to be listening to the sea.
“Whatever you do will be insignificant,” says Gandhi, “but it is very important that you do it.” And here is John Keats in a letter he wrote on October 17, 1818: “I feel assured I should write from the mere fondness and yearning I have for the Beautiful even if my night's labors should be burnt every morning and no eye ever shine on them.”
Maybe it is your obligation to observe the winter light, or the singing of snow, its silence and sparkle. Maybe your obligation is to remember a childhood filled with delight or betrayal, or both. Your obligation may be to create worlds for others to step into, so they might experience something of them as well. It’s very easy to forget our obligation. But we are indeed required, we are obligated – to those who are cooped up (even if we, too, are the ones cooped up!) and to those whose hearts, as Neruda says in his poem, are shrouded. We are obligated to hear their call, their cry, and also, especially, our own inner calling.
How you live a single day is how you live your life. And if this is so, then I will live my day looking for beauty, though it is insignificant, though no eye ever will shine on those things I write, and see, and make.