Beauty and Seeing

When I was in grade eight, I went through a phase of wondering what the purpose of human existence could possibly be.  Why are we conscious? I asked myself; What are we meant to see?  I don’t remember what precisely sparked this particular line of thought: no doubt I was influenced by many things.  I used to go asleep to the music of Simon and Garfunkel, because I found the noise of the wind fretful; we lived on the top of a cliff, battered by the winds off the Atlantic.

I came eventually to the position that the purpose of human consciousness is to see beauty.  It seemed to me then (at the grand old age of thirteen) that beauty is a human thing, requiring awareness, noticing; I also thought that the universe gives forth beauty to us, if only we deign to notice it.  Years later I found this expressed in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Pied Beauty:

                    Glory be to God for dappled things —
                        For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
                            For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
                    Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
                         Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;
                             And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
                     All things counter, original, spare, strange;
                          Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
                              With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
                     He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                 Praise him.

Not that I was particularly religious in grade eight.  But I think this is what I meant.

Having come to this position, that winter I spent trying to cultivate my ability to see the beautiful.  It was February or March, never the best time of year in Canada (unless, belike, one is a maple syrup producer, for whom this is the busy season): usually February is full of grey-brown slush, bitterly cold days and sudden thaws that feel worse, all rived with the longing for a spring that is still months away.  But that winter I set myself to look for beauty in everything.

I remember fire-coal moments when my intention transformed the ordinary into the lovely: oil slick on a puddle in the road; red railings beaded with frozen raindrops on the under-construction new junior high (the old school was insulated with dried seaweed); the blowing grey-gold of sere grass over tired snow on the steep hill near our house, punctuated with hawthorn and spruce trees and, once, an owl.  A handful of ordinary moments, burnished with attention.

This phase lasted a few weeks, perhaps, when I looked, when I saw.  I learned to see then, and have never since looked on oil slicks, or railings, or winter grass, without seeing at least a ghost of beauty in them.  I was reminded of this today, reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  Tonight I went for a walk in the dark, and saw maple leaves gold against a deep blue sky, backlit with an orange streetlight: they looked like a heraldic banner draped over the city.


2 thoughts on “Beauty and Seeing

  1. Gorgeous and inspiring, Victoria! Believe it or not, I have meditation homework this week that involves recognizing and recording moments of beauty! I think it may be the healthiest and easiest way of being awake in the world once it becomes a habit 🙂


  2. I think I’m going to make an effort to cultivate this habit of mind this winter, too. It’s easy enough in fall and spring, when everything seems beautiful, but to do it in February — ay, there’s the rub. I’ll have to practise. I just bought a book on drawing, which I think will help, too.


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