I was raised in an atmosphere suspicious of beauty. To be beautiful is to be shallow. To pursue beauty is to be vain. To create beauty is to divert serious attention to frivolous gains. To spend money on beauty is to waste and rob the poor. You are getting it, I am sure...
In spite of that, much of my life I have been compelled to create beauty: stuffing pop bottles with weed blossoms, painting little girl's toenails, arranging art on a mantle, planting flowers, replanting flowers and weeding flower beds, feeding birds, presenting food palatably, and so on. On more than one occasion I have wondered if it is, indeed, foolishness.
Particular to my angst about beauty is the fact that 'serious' women here at the seminary do not seem to be much in mind of it. So to be serious, I wonder, must I cease the pursuit of beauty?
Until Ruth. Ruth is an older woman, fine thinker, wise and spiritual and she once told me that she suffers when she has no beauty around her. Her actual words are, "I need beauty." And until I read about the violinist who sets a chair in the rubble of a war devastated city center in eastern Europe and plays fine classical music to encourage his fellow inhabitants. Not to mention those who build life giving gardens between inner city ghetto buildings, or plow their crop rows straight for the sake of joyful pride, or tie tiny cornrows with beads on the tops of little smiling heads.
Beauty is hope, as I see it. Far from practical, the presence of beauty speaks of the potential of the irrational lavish generosity of life. Attention to beauty happens in the fragile margins of life and can be stolen in a moment. My husband used to ask why I prefer cut flowers to a plant that would continue to grow. I tell him that to have something in my home whose only purpose is to be beautiful, and which, when having accomplished that will simply die, is a measure of richness. Just beauty for beauty's sake alone.
I remember becoming disoriented in a drive through Detroit one Christmas season and finding myself in a sad neighborhood. What struck me was the absolute lack of any decorations, lights, wreaths or bows. No margin - no extras. One house stood out. Cared for in a painstaking way, a simple wreath hung on the front door. I slowed down and looked hard. The neighborhood sadness was eased in that spot.
Beauty is, for me, an essential. Wealth is not essential. Elegance is not essential. Perfection is not essential. But beauty - ah, found in so small a thing as a tiny flower or an old man's twinkling eye - without that, how much poverty we would feel.