Sunday, May 22, 2011

Beauty and Ugliness

There is a great line in Walter Mosely's Six Easy Pieces:
He was living in an apartment building on San Pedro. It was a turquoise and plaster affair, designed to be ugly so that the tenants would know that they were poor.
It caught my attention because I've been thinking about beauty for a long time - not just beauty, but the whole beauty-money equation.

It started when Steve and I were house-hunting in Toronto, way back in 1996 (I think; Steve will correct me if I'm wrong).  We looked at the military PMQs (private, married quarters), where we had two options. In the officers' area, there were smaller homes amidst mature trees in a parklike setting - quite beautiful. The houses themselves were nothing to write home about.

Up the hill, there were the larger, enlisted quarters, plonked in a loose circle around a shade-deprived playground. A few homes had a shrub bravely planted by the front door, or a desperate garden patch, but, by and large, it was desolate.

And ugly.

In fact, anything we could afford was either too cramped for a family of six or ugly, or both.

In the end, we decided that the kids and I would stay behind in Ottawa for the months while Steve was on course because I sensed that, for me, it would be too depressing to spend all that time surrounded by ugliness.

For Steve, aesthetics were not a factor in his feelings of quality of life. He was content to stay in an apartment with builder-white walls and no artwork (aside from the kids' masterpieces which were sent on a weekly basis).

This has been a constant dance in our marriage: how important is beauty? And by "how important," I mean, "how much are you willing to pay for it?" Because, like it or not, beauty costs money. The landscaped yard vs. the mown lawn? The nice hotel vs. the grotty motel? The house with the industrial view vs. the house with the park view?

I must amend my statement. Beauty doesn’t always cost money. There are plenty of places where nature and public artwork provide an aesthetic delight free for the taking – watch the sun rise or set, walk along a river, take in the public art outside of downtown buildings. And those who are creative can create beauty, sometimes out of almost nothing, it seems.

But I stand by my thesis: there is a cost to bringing that beauty closer to where we live.

It’s a cost I’m willing to pay because beauty matters to me. It explains my forays to IKEA and Home Depot and the garden centre. It explains why I pause and take pictures of wildflowers. These things feed my soul.

My cousin posted a Facebook status the other day:
white heron gliding into the meadow outside my window. my heart soars as I work and welcome her.

Such a simple thing: a bird in flight. A moment captured in the midst of a busy mother’s workday. The spontaneous connection between one creature and another.

Of course, the words, “my heart soars,” immediately brought to mind Chief Dan George’s eloquent poem. Any words I could add after this would be superfluous, so I leave you with his thoughts.
The beauty of the trees,
the softness of the air,
the fragrance of the grass,
   speaks to me.

The summit of the mountain,
the thunder of the sky,
the rhythm of the sea,
   speaks to me.

The faintness of the stars,
the freshness of the morning,
the dew drop on the flower,
   speaks to me.

The strength of fire,
the taste of salmon,
the trail of the sun,
and the life that never goes away,
   They speak to me.

And my heart soars.

Update: I didn't realize that Chief Dan George was Canadian.

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