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.