Posted by: Shanna Germain | 11/14/2009

Pg. 179: Beauty Is As, Part 2

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What do dogs think about when they think about beauty? For surely this can’t be a human-only concept.

*

So, I posted yesterday about beauty. About how difficult it is for me to find beauty in the cities. Realizing that even in my post where I said I was determined to “find beauty,” all of the things I mentioned were natural things: dogs, butterflies, sunlight.

Why can some people look at concrete and steel and glass and store fronts and find them gorgeous, while others cannot? I suppose that is an age-old question, the same one that people have asked about women and art and men and animals for centuries. Why does one guy lust after blonde hair and blue eyes, while another wants only red heads? How is it possible for some authors to break my heart with the beauty of their words and for others to leave me cold?

But honestly, those questions are just a segue of my over-active brain. What I really wanted to talk about was one of the comments from yesterday’s post. Shawn said:

Beauty in your surroundings is important to mental health – or so I believe. There are few good reasons to spend your time someplace that isn’t impressive and/or inspiring. What if we take the economics principal of opportunity cost and apply it to beauty? The day you spend straining to find beauty in the Texas suburbs, could it have instead been spent surrounded by meaningful surroundings elsewhere? Are you paying a deprivation cost by taking the time to try and milk some fabricated beauty out of taupe houses? You have a finite supply of days, is tomorrow best spent wondering if that dog poop really does look like Delta Burke? Or maybe it is best spent in the presence of genuine beauty?

And I spent the rest of the day wandering around with his intelligent questions and thoughtful comments in my head. Coming from the beauty of Scotland, why am I trying to find something that lifts my heart in Texas? Why not just escape back to somewhere that’s inherently beautiful, a place that doesn’t require any work?

I didn’t find any true answers in my musings, but I found a couple of thoughts (most likely not coherent thoughts, but there you go. It’s early, and it’s Saturday.):

  • Perhaps there is something to be said about beauty that is too easy, too perfect. I found this experience to be true while driving through the national parks of Utah. The first gorgeous red mountain took my breath away. The second too. But by the fifth or twelve beautiful hill, I could no longer see the beauty in them. They had become commonplace. When places overwhelm us with their beauty–the grand canyon, for example, or a woman who’s been cut and sculpted and made-up into perfection–then it’s hard to see it for what it is. It’s also a little like being smashed in the head with the Mona Lisa. “Here! Have perfect beauty!” and all you can do is try to take a few steps back in order to see things clearly.
  • What is the value of beauty that must be discovered? Does it add to the beauty when you come upon a hidden waterfall totally by accident? Does it detract from the beauty when you drive four hours to see the waterfall that’s in the brochure only to find that it’s surrounded by parking lots and people and bathrooms?
  • How does it benefit us as humans to change our perspectives? If we hate classical music and take a class to try and learn to love it, are we wasting our time? Are we gaining anything?
  • Is running from ugly to beauty akin to running from conservatism to liberalism? Let me explain that one: When Bush was running for re-election, a lot of my friends kept saying, “If he gets elected, I’m leaving the country.” Which is a fine choice, I think, but one that isn’t for me. If I believe in democracy, but don’t believe in the outcome, what am I saying by making the choice to go away? Is that following my beliefs, or running from my non-beliefs? Could I have made a difference if I stayed?
  • Is beauty available only to those who can afford it? And should it be this way?

But perhaps the thing I’m most interested in discovering is this: What is it about class and money and privilege that makes us feel we have the right to beauty? (Note on the class/privilege thing before I continue: I’m not rich. My family is not rich. I’ve never been rich. And I’m a writer — thus, I will likely NEVER be rich. I am middle class, all the way. And poor middle class at that. But I do choose how I spend my money, and instead of children and a house and a car and clothes, I choose travel and experiences.).

If there’s anything I’m learning here in Texas, it’s humility. The things, beliefs and slogans that I’ve taken for granted my whole life, things like: recycle, take back your cans, buy organic produce, shop local, embrace public transportation, the city is obligated to provide sidewalks and green spaces and public art and recycling programs, walk where you can, don’t over-purchase, be active and healthy, buy your beliefs, go to the farmer’s market — these things just don’t exist here.

At first, I was angry about that, livid. “How can you not have a recycling program?!” I called the city. I ranted. I asked every grocery store I went into if they offered bag recycling, or can recycling and was met with a million nos. I was mad if the bus was late. I couldn’t believe there weren’t any parks within walking distance, or that the only grocery store nearby was WalMart, or that the farmer’s market wasn’t on the bus line. I couldn’t understand how they could have a city that didn’t have these things.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I’ve traveled a lot outside the U.S. and I know that we are lucky here. I never, ever expect those things when I’m not in the States. But IN the States? Oh yes.

And then I had to take a step back from it all and realize that in so many ways, I was acting like a spoiled brat who can’t get her green candy bar. I was basically throwing myself on the ground and wailing, beating my fists. The city and the people in it kept saying the truth — “Mommy can’t afford to buy you a candy bar right now, sweetie,” — but I didn’t want to hear it. I wanted to be pissed off and self-righteous about all the things that the city was supposed to have.

Finally, I had to get myself off the floor, dust my shirt off and reconsider my expectations and my beliefs. What does it mean to live in a place where the priorities are not the future but the now? Where families don’t ask, “What can we do to save the world today?” but “What can we do to feed ourselves?” And who says my beliefs about food and the world and health are correct, just because they’re mine? I never considered myself to be closed-minded, and yet my arrival here in Texas proved that I was exactly that.

How does this tie into beauty? I’m still not exactly sure yet. But I think it’s something about being humbled, about learning how to see the world in a way that isn’t privileged, about finding beauty instead of being slapped in the head with it.

Sure, I’d love to be back in Scotland right now, walking along the ocean. Or in Portland, wandering through a city park lined with trees. Or at my parent’s farm in upstate New York, listening to the whinny of horses and the laughter of my siblings.

but I’m learning something here, in the midst of all this ugliness. I’m not sure what it is yet. More and more I think it has something to do with beauty. Perhaps that I’m not as beautiful inside as I’d like to think I am, and that it’s not as ugly outside as I’ve come to believe.

Far and fast, s.

*

“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful.” ~Friedrich Nietzsche quotes

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Responses

  1. I find allot of beauty in simplicity. In Indiana, I spend most of my time in and amongst the third largest population of Amish in America. I find allot of beauty in their simple lifestyle, their simple yet elaborate farms and their peaceful caring nature. In Costa Rica, I find that same kind of beauty. I spend most of my time there 1100 meters up the side of a mountain surrounded by nothing but nature and a simple, unplugged environment.
    Beautiful, spirtually uplifting and calming.

  2. Hi Shanna,
    I had to read your post today to my husband, because I found it extremely ironic considering conversations he and I have had recently.

    Two years ago we moved from Southern Ohio to the outer suburbs of Buffalo, NY. We moved from Appalachia – an area well known for its depressed perpetual economic state, poverty level, and lack of opportunity. We moved to a metropolitan population that votes Democratic in a state that has can deposits and just legislated deposits on water and juice bottles.

    And we feel the same about where we moved to as you feel about Texas.

    The people here are the first to ask you why you moved here. As progressive as the legislation and so on are, the area is still depressed. The lakeshore is huddled with the dilapidation left by the exit of the steel business. Everywhere there are run down buildings and empty homes.

    They do have public transport, but it’s cheaper to own a car. The library system is phenomenal but the Central library that occupies two city blocks is more likely to be full of homeless in the wintertime seeking warmth than people there for the joy of reading. Everyone recycles because it’s mandated, not because they have any concern for the future.

    There are trees, and the lake, and parks. But no one uses them. They’re too busy worrying about how to afford their electric bill and what happened to the promises the politicians voted into office made.

    The one view of hope that we see here are the eight wind turbines that were built on the ruins of the steel mill. I see them every day on my drive to work and they take my breath away every time. Residents here look at them and sneer.

    I seek beauty wherever I am, and can find it in the lie of geometric shadows cast by a cityscape as well as the ever changing color of the lake as it shifts and morphs with its moods. But I think it’s not so much where I am as the residents of the area that tint my view.

    If the people around you can’t stop and smile at their hometown, how easy is it for you to shed the general mood of where you are?

  3. Good for you, Shanna! Just lovely, this essay. Find somewhere to submit it. Rearrange what you will about it, but go with your thoughts. I am touched by this writing. Love the doggie at top by the way!

  4. Loving these thoughts, S!

    Beauty is a really odd concept. Having spent so long studying and making art, it’s a word that tends to make me involuntarily cringe. Not a very fashionable concept, these days, or I suppose for the past fifty odd years. Even so, I expect I’d have to admit wanting it, searching for it and enjoyng it when I find it.

    It’s wholly inadequate or the wrong word for the most part. When we’re talking about landscape I expect ‘beauty’ is commonly used to mean ‘less interfered with’? Or maybe ‘fertile’, even. And physical ‘beauty’ among humans is mostly symmetry and a roughly agreed upon set of features that are a kind of shorthand for fertile/desirable/healthy.

    Beauty usually meets culturally broadly agreed upon criteria, doesn’t it, and is therefore mutable/subjective? So perhaps it’s more to do with communication than an individual experience? Belonging? Identifying?

    Hm. I’m going to spend more time thinking about the idea of beauty today. Thanks for prompting! N x

  5. I lived in Texas for 4 years, so I bet we’ve had a lot of similar thoughts and frustrations about it. Over time I learned that it wasn’t the expense or impossibility of the things I thought were crucial – transit, recycling, green space, even sidewalks of all things. They just didn’t fucking care. The prevailing culture of the region was apathetic to any of those ideas. They instead believed in the importance of individual comfort. Big cars, big homes, and improving their own quality of living. Why build a park when we can all have yards? Why have a bus system when we can all drive SUVs? Hell, they wouldn’t fit that new deluxe bbq that they just bought on the damn bus anyways. After even one year there I could see how my own thoughts, actions and lifestyle were morphing to match my surroundings. I gave up on walking/transit and bought a truck. I started accumulating “stuff” and I started gradually seeing things differently. Part of that is intentionally adapting to a culture, but the other part is the imperceptible marinade of your surroundings.

    I definitely agree that we tend to take majestic beauty for granted after we’ve been exposed for too long. What about “nice” beauty though? Not the grand canyon, but just nice surroundings. Maybe a shoreline, and some trees in a nice clean neighbourhood? The kind of beauty that isn’t meant to knock our socks off, but the kind that is meant to elevate our standard of living. Or think of it as a crazy sloppy, dirty home, versus one that is well kept and has a nice plant. Surely our environment impacts our thoughts.

    Consider some famous authors and how their surroundings may have impacted their works. Try to imagine Dostoyevsky writing Crime and Punishment in a charming seaside cabin. Can you picture Tolkein typing out the Hobbit in Texan suburbia? My point is that I suspect that our surroundings adds a tint to everything we do. Even in the littlest of ways.

    Obviously there’s something to learn from just about any place. Putting yourself in a variety of cultures and situations is how you really see who you are and how much of you is predicated by your surroundings. I do believe though that straining too hard to find beauty just turns into imagination. It’s not seeing beauty, it’s just making shit up.

    That dog is beautiful though. What a happy, healthy and pretty dog! Sorry for the long reply, I get bored at work. Peas.

  6. I have to admit… I haven’t responded to these comments individually because they just gave me so much to think about. I’m loving the dialogue and discussion that are happening around this topic. I know I’m going to revisit it, once I get my head around it all.

    Thanks so much to all of you, not just for reading, but for giving such great insight about something that seems to be a theme of my life lately!

    You guys rock πŸ™‚


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