gratitude, snorkeling, Tabitha Cambodia

Beauty and Reasons to Travel

photo 3-13
Hikkaduwa beach, Sri Lanka

A trip this week to Hikkaduwa beach in Sri Lanka got me wondering about how places we travel to change us. Some trips I’ve gone on I thought I would return from changed, that my eyes would be opened to some newer, deeper understanding of life, but that didn’t actually happen. Other travel, however, has left an indelible impression on me–such as the trip to southern Italy to visit the towns of San Lucido and Amantea and walk the streets where my husband’s grandparents came from, or the summer I spent in Guatemala helping with relief efforts after an earthquake, also my first trip to India when I saw the way people lived a life so different from my own, and how difficult life was for so many. After visiting Sri Lanka this week, I’m left feeling deeply grateful for the places on earth where greenery and beauty are still in tact, where people can breathe deeply and the air is pure, for places where people can restore themselves. Hikkaduwa beach is such a place.

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Tsunami memorial, north of Hikkaduwa

Maybe we should be able to transform our minds and way of being without visiting other lands or worlds, but travel can boost our potential to do that as it places us in entirely different realities operating under different rules and understandings. Walking around in such a world for even a few days can help us to see things don’t necessarily have to be how they currently are. Old patterns can be broken. Something new can emerge. What we perceive as fixed boundaries defining the way the world is or functions, we discover when traveling, is actually a social construct that people collectively build and uphold, and that can change. Whatever the actual cause–whether it is simply time away, or new connections made as a result of being as totally new environment, what seemed impossible before travel to a different location often seems doable after travel.

Over the years of living and working abroad, I’ve been able to travel many places, and doing so has given me a clearer picture of the world. Unlike a few decades ago, nowadays, of course, a person with Internet access can simply look up an area of interest and view absolutely wonderful images. The mosaics in Ravenna, I learned after reading in William Dalrymple’s book, From the Holy Mountain, together with those in the cathedral in Trastevere in Rome, are Europe’s best examples of Byzantine mosaics outside of Istanbul. Traveling to Ravenna isn’t currently possible for me, however, but the online 360 degree view of some of these mosaics online at this site is truly stunning, and it’s fantastic to be able to see them. Then there are the videos of locations, like those on this site of Ravenna, that you can also explore.

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Roadside grave from 2004 tsunami victims, Sri Lanka

Mini mind breaks that take us vicariously to other locations are not an adequate comparison to the kind of transformation that can occur from visiting a place in person, however. Traveling in person allows you to meet people, make connections, learn about history in context, find yourself in new contexts and situations, and to experience first hand the subtleties of a world built on different foundations. In the world today when so many are afraid of differences, it seems much good could come if people were able to travel often so that they could experience the contexts and causes that create various world views and realities. Perhaps we would find ourselves better able to listen to and understand those different from ourselves, and empathy between people would grow.

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Hikkaduwa home, Sri Lanka

On the other hand, the environmental state of the planet is a growing concern, and airline travel contributes to the unhealthy state of the environment, raising the question of when travel is justifiable. If we are traveling merely for pleasure, is the expenditure of fuel justifiable? When we arrive at the new location, does what we do there add to other’s lives in a positive, constructive way? It’s true that tourism is important to the economy of many places, but our current economic systems aren’t sustainable. If we care about the places we go to visit, and I do think that when we visit new places we generally have a greater affinity for them, how are we giving back something to these places as a result of our travel? How are we are connecting with a place  in a way that sustains it, as opposed to using it as a consumer–taking away from it what we can, and moving on to the next location? These are questions I’ve thought about for some time now.

A few alternative travel options people can try are opportunities like snorkeling with whale sharks in the Seychelles where a portion of the money you spend helps contribute to research and tagging efforts. Having done this previously, I can say it’s a fabulous experience–you have a close encounter with one of the most amazing animals on the planet, and you contributing to efforts to understand them better. If you want to read someone else’s blog post about this activity, see here. If you’re interested in places you can connect with to snorkel or dive with whale sharks, see here. Additionally, travelers can visit places like Ravenna and take a workshop where you learn to make a mosaic. The Shaw guides to art, writing, and other cultural workshops as well, lists thousands of learning travel opportunities around the world. An alternative option is travel where you can contribute to social efforts like helping to build houses with Tabitha Cambodia, something I’ve also done on several occasions and found a moving and valuable experience. All these reasons for travel are ways a person can either learn or give something back while traveling.

Still, just being in a new environment can broaden us, a bike ride through the mountains, for example, can help us understand the world in new ways. Sometimes a person just wants to see the art in France because of a love for art. Maybe others want to visit Eastern Europe to get a better sense of history there. Some people may want to climb Mt. Olympus because they loved their high school world history class and it would be a dream to visit the location in person. There are many reasons for desiring to travel and there are no simple guidelines for what are the right reasons to do it, but maybe one consideration to nurture could be how we might use our travel experiences to in someway give back to the world or enhance our relationship with others.

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Twilight, Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka

This weekend when I put on my snorkel and stuck my head underwater and saw the thousands of fish swirling about in the shallow pool just off shore, the eels poking their heads out of the rock, the lion fish with their striped fins floating next to the coral wall, and the juvenile emperor angel fish dancing about their tiny holes wearing their fancy blue, white and black patterns, I was filled with joy. It was, after all, Thanksgiving weekend in America, and I felt fully alive and grateful for the earth’s abundance, for the life given me to experience such beauty.  I don’t know if one person’s experience of beauty can ripple out to others in a way that helps to restore lives, but more and more, I’m convinced of beauty’s importance for our lives. From Ravenna to the fish floating in Hikkaduwa’s beaches, could it be possible that if more people experienced nature’s beauty, maybe more would want to cherish and protect it and fewer would be willing to trade it away for economic gain? I’m encouraged by Mary Oliver’s poem in Swan: Poems and Prose.

DON’T HESITATE
Mary Oliver
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happened better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

Beauty, Uncategorized

In the Arms of Beauty

California red buckwheat
California red buckwheat

While visiting southern California recently I got to wander out into the hills outside of Wildomar and experience again a landscape similar to the one I wandered in as a child. At first glance the landscape seems semi-barren. Though there are few, if any trees, low chaparral grows in abundance, especially the beautiful red California buckwheat. The ants especially loved this plant, and numerous flower petals spread in a mandala around the ant holes. The flowers have a sweet smell, and the seeds are edible. At sunset, the light made each thing on the earth’s floor stand out distinctly. So much texture in the bark of broken shrubs, scattered rock. The hillside were alive with their blossom’s red rust blush. Truth, beauty, and goodness abound when we set out to notice them. Standing in the presence of beauty is too much for one person to hold. Overwhelming beauty is humbling and helps us to see our place in the vastness of all that is. It enables us to understand that the world is not ours, it is shared.

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Wildomar sunset

In the Harvard Gazette, Howard Gardner advocates revisiting the values of truth, beauty and goodness “suggests keeping lifelong portfolios of beauty, either in our brains or a physical catalog that chronicles the experiences, music, art, and more that we find beautiful over time.” I’m thinking of hummingbirds, how they feed frequently, coming back to the flower repeatedly in order to maintain substance. As we do this, what is beautiful, good and true expands in us.

With its wide valleys and minimal vegetation, southern California has a wonderful sense of openness, and the sunsets this summer carried me away into the ecstasy of their expansiveness, and the sense of freedom they invoke. The skies filled me with awe in the vastness they evoked. I wondered why everyone in the neighborhood had not thrown open the doors, and walked out into the arms of the world waiting for them to see the boundless beauty above and around them. The world is a wonder if we open our eyes to see it.

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Wildomar countryside

So many people today are wondering how to live well, how to find their center. Returning to Gardner, he states that what we need to do now is to learn how to behave not just for “numero uno, or for your neighbors, but for a wider public.” One start, I think, would be to consciously look for beauty in the world. Notice it, delight in it and share it, and thereby help others to lift their hearts into a deeper understanding of their own connection to life and to each other.

Beauty, pilgrimage, Uncategorized

Quiet Moments With Clouds

photo 2-3Frequently this summer I’ve been looking at clouds, the way they grow and contract before my eyes, sometimes so imperceptibly I wonder if it’s happening, other times so rapidly I wonder how they can do it. Gazing at the sky may seem like a mundane thing to do, but I recall many a time as a child lying back on the chairs outside my house and watching them glide by for hours, morphing forms as they paraded by as if on a slow moving carousel.

There was something soothing about those quiet afternoons. They carried me into a place, that looking back on it now, I can describe as a place of communion. Like staring at a campfire, the experience enabled me to enter a state where the world dropped away and I was absorbed into the moment, fully present in the simplicity of being. I call it a state of communion because even now, years later, while cloud gazing I find myself entering the same place in the mind and body, connecting with the environment where words aren’t needed, nevertheless communication is happening. I see the images, color, shapes–they are all showing themselves to me and something in myself is responding with more than a mere physical reaction. I hold and behold the forms, and in doing so, I am learning about the changing nature of the world and how I participate in beauty.

Though I gazed at clouds more often as a child, still today when I look up at the sky after waking up or as I walk home from work, something in me longs for the the open sky I experienced as a child, the vast, spacious world the mind can wander in. A hazy, flat sky flattens the mind. On days when the haze lifts, my heart feels freer, more content and at home. It’s refreshing to be reminded that shapes can also have forms with soft edges that float.

Our connections to the environment we grow up with influence who we become and leave an indelible mark. The house my father built and that I lived in as a child in San Diego county was perched high on a hill looking over a wide valley. We lived in a rural area with hills rimming the distant horizon, a geographical location that shaped my soul, so to speak: Living there nurtured a value of open space and encouraged in me the qualities of observation, reflection, and of taking the long view of things, values fundamental to my understanding of the world.

photo 3-2Earlier this summer I was recovering from a knee injury. Because moving around was slow and uncomfortable, all walking became a focused effort, each step a meditation. Immediately the world felt smaller and more challenging as a result. There seemed to be so much I couldn’t do, and I was surprised by how vulnerable and limited the injury made me feel. During that time, I was visiting my brother. I rested on his deck one morning, looking up into the enormous billowy clouds. Once again the world grew into itself, the largeness of it stretching out with the length of sky like an enormous blue sheet hung out across the universe, shifting in the solar breeze. Little had actually changed except my perception. I couldn’t move any faster than before, but staring at the passing clouds reminded me of the larger reality I was a part of, and brought me back to that place of wonder I participated in as a child. Just as clouds change forms, so does my life, and any suffering I might experience. Any suffering I might know, however small or big, is just a part of the larger suffering of the world. In the world there is pain, but there is also great beauty. Both coexist, and reality is a state of flow between them in different measures.

Not all of us live continuously in a world with natural beauty. I know I don’t. Countless others are like me–those who live in smog choked cities, those without access to green space and parks or who spend most their time in rooms without windows working under fluorescent light. Though we may not have access to it, the world’s immense beauty continues on. When I am in a place with natural beauty, I want to really notice it, pausing to take it in, to be thankful, and to consider all the processes of nature it took to create what I am experiencing. I want to remember often how open skies and time spent beholding them can restore.

When I am in a place that lacks beauty, when I find myself living there, I can also look up at the sky and know that beauty’s absence I that place will help me to recognize how precious beauty is when and wherever it is found. I can let this awareness fill me with gratitude that I have seen beauty, have beheld it, and hopefully do so again in the future.

I am reminded of Wendell Berry’s Sabbath’s 1999 poem, and how it values the small, quiet moments, emphasizing the importance of noticing and learning to rest in them, moments like looking at clouds.

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VII

by Wendell Berry

Again I resume the long
lesson: how small a thing
can be pleasing, how little
in this hard world it takes
to satisfy the mind
and bring it to its rest.

Within the ongoing havoc
the woods this morning is
almost unnaturally still.
Through stalled air, unshadowed
light, a few leaves fall
of their own weight.

The sky
is gray. It begins in mist
almost at the ground
and rises forever. The trees
rise in silence almost
natural, but not quite,
almost eternal, but
not quite.

What more did I
think I wanted? Here is
what has always been.
Here is what will always
be. Even in me,
the Maker of all this
returns in rest, even
to the slightest of His works,
a yellow leaf slowly
falling, and is pleased.

Uncategorized

This Day We Are Living–An Experiment in Noticing

Sonnet 73, That Time of Year When Thou Mayst in Me Behold

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

—–

It’s late spring in Delhi, which means the leaves are falling from the trees. Yellow leaves, and gold gather on the streets, pile on curbsides in drifts. The flowers that the city plants in the parks so that that were in full bloom in February and early March, are now growing spindly as stalks lean into each other, heads droop, and their bodies begin to turn to seed. The seeds are their gift for the future, the brown, withered looking things that hold the future generosities of spring. After the six or eight weeks of flowers, fall arrives. Then the months of monsoon–the floods of rain. That’s the season we’re in now, the season between seasons–between the dry and the wet.

When I was attending what was then called Bethel College in St. Paul, MN, my poetry teacher read Shakespeare’s 73 sonnet to us, and asked us to go out and look at the fall leaves–the fiery Dutch elms that grow in profusion throughout the city’s streets, and that crowd along the Mississippi’s river banks. Leave your books, she suggested, and go out and notice them before they are gone. They don’t last long.

A native of southern California, I knew what it felt like to live through the Twin Cities long months of winter’s color deprivation and cold that followed September’s autumn.  For the most part, it seemed to me that Minnesotans loved their snowy winters. I had  heard various people I met there describe how they looked forward to winters–the snowshoeing and cross country skiing, the briskness in the air. But coming from the land of sun, where winters didn’t usually require much more than a light jacket and shoes that covered the toes, that anticipatory attitude was difficult for me to understand. I hadn’t learned to ski or skate, and for me getting bound up in sweaters and mittens, hats, thick socks any time you went out wasn’t something I looked forward to. Change is interesting, but I truly missed the freedom of wandering outside for a stroll, run, or bike ride. So, I followed my teacher’s suggestion, and went out to walk through trees on campus, and visited other campuses along Snelling Ave. whose campuses were thick with trees. I went down by the Mississippi as she suggested. It was glorious–all that color shining in the myriad leaves. All that sugar burning inside them as temperatures turned. The whole world a flame. As my teacher said, the trees were all the more beautiful, for knowing what would come next.

And what came next was winter. Dark branches silhouetted against white for months. Beautiful things often have a way of piercing the heart, of opening us–the last yellow leaf falling from a tree, rainbow color glistening from a spider’s web, the way clouds roll in low over the ocean at sunset. As Dana Jennings says in her NY Times article “Scratching a Muse’s Ears”, about Mary Oliver’s poetry book, Dog Songs, says, there are tears inside of things. Because we know this, it can make our heart ache when we see something beautiful. We’ve all eaten from the tree that lets us know we are not living in the garden anymore–but we know what it looks like, that last leaf falling from the tree before winter, and how it feels to watch it fall, joining the fire floating down the river or resting on the forest floor before it turns to dust.

So, all of you who have sat at your desk all day, I encourage you. Get up, leave your books or your office, you papers and your e-mail, and go outside and notice this day. Find what there is to love in this day, before you have to leave it. Notice life. What is it you are living?

THE TABLES TURNED 
William Wordsworth

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless—
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

___

Okay, so I took my own advice and got up and went out for a walk. I didn’t have a wood to walk in, so I took a walk around the block where I live. The wisps of clouds turning from pink to salmon against a pale turquoise sky–the kind of sky that is rare in Delhi.

It was a short walk around a city block. The first quarter of the block I couldn’t stop staring up in amazement. The second quarter of the block, I grew aware of the traffic noise as it hustled by.  As I turned the corner, I noticed a billboard that read “Platinum Living” with a sleek, blond-haired woman wearing an elegant low cut black gown and a long strand of pearls leaning back against a comfortable couch. I glanced down at the pair of abandoned black slippers at my feet on the sidewalk and wondered who this ad was aimed at speaking to in a city where a quarter of its population is below the poverty line, 30% live in slums, and in a country where the World Bank estimates that 21% of the deaths in India are related to unsafe water.  As I continued to walk, the acrid smell of burning leaves permeated the air, scratched at my throat, and made me cough. (Sadly, too many things here seem to makes me cough.) By the time I turned the last corner and entered my apartment door again, the sky’s color had drained away.

Wordsworth’s poem admonishes us to go out into nature with a listening heart, one that watches and receives. That is definitely the heart I stepped out of the door with, and is the one I want to hold on to. I live in a city, though. It’s not the same as standing at the ocean’s edge or walking amidst the redwoods. What was I expecting, anyway? In truth, I was just expecting to enjoy the early evening coolness and to take in the color-brushed clouds. I just happened to get the other experiences in addition because they are a part of this environment. The walk makes me wonder, though, can experiencing beauty motivate us to protect it, nurture it? Or are we so used to the traffic, the billboards, the burning leaves and discarded shoes, to the poor living in substandard housing, that we give up on beauty, that we forget to notice those gestures of grace nature gives us even in the city from time to time–those rare moments of clear sky and color-streaked clouds that open our eyes, move us out of our routines, the moments that call us to step out of our brokenness into the possibility of another way of being?

On the other hand, maybe its that very poverty and brokenness around me that encourages me to notice the way the sky sometimes opens into a canvas of shinning color, as it did this evening. Either way, I need those moments of open sky and color. They carry me through winters. The winters I’m talking about don’t always necessarily always come with snow and cold. They can look like a multitude of cities flung across this world, or any place where we are too busy to notice or take care of what nurtures us.

Uncategorized

Can Beauty Save the World?

“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at a rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it–but all that had gone before.”– Jacob Riis

I spent this past week in the Himalaya foothills with students from my school on a camping trip. It was an excellent week of hiking, rappelling , creating art using things found in the natural environment, swimming in a mountain stream. I loved experiencing all the things I don’t get to participate in while living in Delhi. Walking up a forest road, I looked up to see a group of yellow butterflies swirl through the sky. Later, I stood at the foot of a waterfall, staring up into the mossy ledges of brilliant green through a rainbow arc. Another day, while hiking I noticed the shining gossamer wings of a dead cicada lying on the path as I walked by. The world is indeed full of wonder and magic, or at least it can be if you are in the right location.

As we drove down the mountain and back toward Delhi, I experienced a different kind of world–one filled with honking horns, a layer of trash covering the roadside for miles, traffic congestion, and road-side fires–a world where where smoke and the resulting haze made visibility increasingly difficult. As the sky grew increasingly dark and the sun went down in a great ball of pollution-orange, I thought to myself, “What has happened to beauty?” People who grew up in this world, who have never been outside of it, are bound to think that this is the whole of the world–the way life is. Three mornings in a row now the sun has risen as an orange ball into a haze-filled sky, the kind of sky I have seen before in California when the hills have caught on fire. We have made a kind of hell for ourselves to live in it seems. We light the fires. We burn the world. How is it that we have come to this state of being?

Yesterday I received this poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay in a letter from Monasteries of the Heart.

God’s World
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!
Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart. Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year.
My soul is all but out of me, let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

What a very different world Millay was observing than the one I live in with its pollution filled skies–where the natural world is pushed aside for the demands of roads and buildings, where people live in substandard housing or live on the streets, where there is so much trash that it has become a literal mountain in the city. Given this reality with such pressing social and environmental needs, what is the role of beauty? A prince in Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot, states that “Beauty will save the world.” How can this really be and what does this mean? Beauty can lift us above the mundane, restore and renew us when we feel worn down, but can it save us?

If we look at the work of the journalist and photographer Jacob Riis, we can see one way in which it’s possible for the artist’s eye can lead to change in the world. Riis is noted for raising social consciousness through his photographs in the late 1800’s of the tenement houses and slum areas of New York City, in particular of Mulberry Street, where many Italian immigrants lived in some of the city’s worst slums. The Italians were willing to live in these areas because many of them found them no worse than what they came from, and in some cases actually better, and they looked on their living situation as somewhat temporary. They had dreams of building a better world for themselves. Riis looked at the plight of those who lived in these conditions, and looked deeply. He used his photographs to not merely document or bear witness to other’s suffering, but to motivate others to make social reform. While some may have questioned his relocation efforts, nonetheless, the effect his photographic work had on others is remarkable. His work led to more diligent police patrol in NYC after President Roosevelt walked with him through areas Riis had been photographing. Riis photographs of sewage falling directly into New York state’s water supply led to the state becoming aware of the connection between these behaviors and the possibility of an outbreak of cholera after Riis spoke with doctors about the connection between this behavior and the disease. His photography work also helped others to see the need for replacing unsafe tenements with parks. Because he looked deeply, and use that sight to create powerful photos that helped convince people of the need for change, Riis made a difference for good in the world. While it was not Riis’s main goal to create works of art, nonetheless, his photos are a kind of work of art. Social reform, however, is not generally the goal of art. Should art be political? Maybe from a certain perspective all art is political, but I wouldn’t argue that art should be political, though artistic efforts can lead to social reform, as did Dickens’ writing.

Though I’ve not yet read Gregory Wolfe’s book, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age, the title attracts me, as does Wolfe’s own comments about the book, and I want to put it on my wish list of books to read because since living in Delhi, I’ve been struggling with this question of whether my need for beauty is frivolous or a true need. I long for access to the natural world, a walk in a forest rather than a city park. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a place where I could roam the hills behind my house, climb up granite bolders and look out over the valley and hills beyond. Maybe it is just a part of my spiritual geography that I think I need this access to the natural world. On the other hand, couldn’t it be that we really do need beauty to survive? Humans have made art since the days when we lived in caves and were hunter-gatherers. I have been working on accepting where I am–learning to be happy where I am, even if where I am doesn’t have the beauty I need that feeds my soul. In truth, I have been given much to be utterly grateful for every day of my life. Could it be, however, that I long for beauty because as human beings we truly do need it?

I don’t have to have the kind of beauty every day that Millay talks about in her poem where I feel  stretched apart. It would be too much to actually bear that kind of beauty every day. My first trip to Italy several years ago made me wonder how people could live every day with so much beauty all around them. After a while, one must just accept it as the world as it is, just as here in Delhi with the polluted skies people accept this as the given world. Though they saw it, the children on the bus ride down from the Himalaya weren’t focused on the lack of beauty around them. They simply continued singing as we rolled through the streets lined with trash and burning fires. This is a way to survive–to just keep singing. Which leads me back to the question of what role beauty can play in helping us act in ways that create a better world. Just because art exists around us or because people are producing art doesn’t necessarily make the air pollution go away. Riis took the photos which piqued people’s awareness, but he also had to get out there and motivate the change of policy. We need policy changes to make the world a more livable place, and in order to preserve the beauty.

Is the role of imagination, art and beauty at its base a political action, however? Does political action trump imagination? Dr. Eric Cunningham explains in his review of Wolfe’s book, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age that Wolfe asserts that it is beauty, not ideology, that will save the world. “Throughout this twenty-five year exploration Wolfe has struggled with the most nagging characteristic of the time, i.e., the tendency of modern consciousness to reduce all forms of cultural expression to the status of propaganda, leaving those who would strive for the spiritual redemption of our culture with few strategies other than political action.” I care about preserving that beauty so I can continue to enjoy it, yet my life is wrapped up in work not directly related to preserving the natural world. Our modern world’s love of “stuff” plays a big part in the destruction of natural beauty, and while I make efforts to reduce my needs and to recycle, I struggle with what I should be doing in order to make a difference in the world when I am not a political activist. Cunningham in his review of Wolfe’s book responds to this question and presents Wolfe’s alternative viewpoint, “Where I have long argued that the tendency of modern people to politicize every aspect of their lives, religion included, is the inevitable product of a flawed historical narrative, Wolfe argues, with convincing clarity, that “the problem” is essentially an aesthetic one, and can be remedied through a renewed appreciation, and a re-appropriation of the aesthetic sphere.” So, what is the role of aesthetics in saving the world? What part does the imagination play? Art does, indeed, bring people of divergent perspectives together. To what extent does it or can it change the way we relate to the world at large?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn when pondering Dostoyevsky’s statement about beauty said, “It is vain to affirm that which the heart does not confirm.” It is not a matter of one thing over the other he seems to suggest. If the heart isn’t involved, nothing is going to happen. The trajectory of western history has made us rely on reason and remain skeptical of the heart. If the heart is not involved, however, the brain isn’t in full function. The heart and brain work together. (You can attend a conference in Paris about this idea if you are interested!) The heart helps engage the brain, and in fact acts as a second kind of brain. Solzhenitsyn goes on to say in his essay about beauty, that if  “Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light—yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three.” Beauty, he suggests, will serve in the place of Truth and Goodness if they are destroyed. Beauty is somehow stronger. When it comes to matters of basic survival, however, is it enough that a person offer poems, or make music, or take photos when people across the street from me live without water, when people are without adequate clothes, medicine or food? Is it okay that some offer beauty while others assist with the other more basic needs? Can we work together to meet the world’s needs?

Joan Chittister, a follower of the Benedictine tradition, talks about three aspects of what it means to do good works; celebrating beauty, honoring the word, and practicing nonviolence. It has never occurred to me before that celebrating beauty is doing a “good work.” Chittister explains that “The monastic life exists in pursuit of the beauty of the invisible God. Wherever you find the beautiful you discover another incarnation of God. Members of Monasteries of the Heart know that to revive the soul of the world, we ourselves must become beauty, become contemplatives. And to be contemplatives, we must surround ourselves with beauty, and consciously, relentlessly, give it away until the tiny world for which we are responsible begins to reflect the raw beauty that is God.” She lists the following as ideas for celebrating beauty:

•Begin a garden in an inner city neighborhood or your own neighborhood
•Donate art pieces to inner city schools
•Give away flowers or art postcards on street corners
•Take inner city children to hear an orchestra or to the museum or to a play or dance performance
• Join or start a threshold choir. These women choirs visit those who are sick and dying:www.thresholdchoir.org

Chittister suggests that yes, beauty is a basic need. After reading the list she provides, I can begin to see new ways in which beauty can, indeed begin to save the world by helping people to honor the natural world and to see ourselves in relationship to it as well as to each other. I love the idea of sharing beauty with people living on the street, of taking art to the homeless or offering flowers. Maybe I can’t assume that because I need beauty, they, too need it, but who could reject the beauty of a flower?

I remember several years back when our biking group had been out for a ride in the rural areas several hours outside of Delhi. Our van broke down on the way home, and we had to wait four or five hours on the road for a car to be sent from Delhi that could carry the van to a location where it could be repaired. In the mean time, we sat on a charpoy in a roadside farmhouse compound where joint Muslim families were living together. They fed us a dinner of chapati and vegetable curry. While there, I asked one of the children what he thought was the most beautiful thing where he lived. He replied, “The mosque, and the pond.” His response makes sense. In God’s house we are brought in touch with the wonder of life and the world. In nature, we are brought in touch with the wonder of God, and of Life itself–we see how we are part of the bigger wonder of the universe and can stand in awe.

Riis watched the stone cutter hit the stone with the hammer, and it wasn’t until the hundredth time that the blow made a difference. Singing our songs, writing our poems, telling our stories, carving our stones, maybe they don’t make the pollution go away but these acts in the least help to restore the soul and the more we grow toward wholeness, won’t it also help others to know how to create wholeness as well? I am not a politician. Neither am I Jacob Riis. I don’t know how to change the things in this world that are much bigger than what is in my power to change. Suffering, such as living in a world of polluted air, is part of life. We have collectively created our suffering. But inside this place of suffering it is still possible to find a way to share beauty with others. Are the ones who long for beauty those who Jesus was speaking of when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit?”  When we share beauty with others, we are brought into their heart, and perhaps through touching others we can be brought into the heart of seeign our connection to the world and to Life itself.

The threshold choirs sing to the dying, singing to people as an act of healing and beauty in the midst of suffering. Can beauty save the world? Mark Helprin in his novel, Solider of the Great War says, ” To see the beauty of the world is to put your hands on the lines that run uninterrupted through life and through death. Touching them is an act of hope, for perhaps someone on the other side, if there is another side, is touching them, too.” Perhaps if we all offer the beauty we have to those spirits choking in the world’s pollution in its myriad forms, an answer will emerge that we didn’t expect. Perhaps it takes more than a hundred strikes on the stone before we will be able to move into a different way of living and being. As in Poco’s song, we can keep on trying.