Some Shape of Beauty

“Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old, and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils”
John Keats

What is the shape of beauty that moves away the pall? What is the thing that lifts our chin to the spectral infinite? That pauses our hearts?

It paints the world pink. It cups the ears and shatters mental obstinance. It arrives like Phaethon in fiery orbit.

It is a beautiful thing, but is it rightly called beauty?

A few examples for contemplation.

Jan Morris and the unexpected kindness

Here’s a lovely thing that has happened to me. When they made my first collection of these diary pieces into a book, I added a dedication, thus:

For One and All Kindlily (and yes, there is such a word!)

Well, last night I went into town in a misty, rainy dusk to collect a load of firewood, and as I began to load it up a vague, burly figure emerged unexpectedly out of the half-light to carry it all to the car for me. I don’t know who he was. I didn’t recognize him – could hardly see him really – and when he finished the job he just melted into the mist again without a word. I called after him through the darkness to thank him for his great kindness, and after a pause his voice came back to me there. ‘I try to behave kindlily,’ it said, and then after another pause, more faintly still: ‘And yes, there is such a word.’ Never in half a century of the writing life have I been so delightfully quoted.

From Jan Morris’s Thinking Again

Unexpected emptiness. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Emma Mitchell and the village wood

When I walk the half-mile or so from our front door to the entrance of the village wood, follow the mown paths that trail between the trees and begin to notice the plants going to seed or coming into flower, seek out the yellow-striped grove snail shells part-hidden in the chalky soil and catch sight of a muntjac deer as it scampers away, the mental relief I felt at seeing that lime tree opposite our cottage is multiplied many-fold. I become engrossed in every leafy, creeping or flying inhabitant of the wood, and with each detail that draws my attention, with each metre I walk, the incessant clamour of daily concerns seems to become more muffled and the foggy pall of depression begins to disperse.

From Emma Mitchell’s The Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us

Unbearable complexity from a point. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Billie Holiday and the song

I didn’t even know the word ‘audition’ existed, but that was what I wanted.

So Jerry sent me over to the piano players and told me to dance. I started and it was pitiful. They were going to throw me out on my ear, but I kept begging for the job. Finally the piano player took pity on me. He squashed out his cigarette, looked up at me, and said, ‘Girl, can you sing?

‘I said, ‘Sure I can sing, what good is that?’ I had been singing all my life, but I enjoyed it too much to think I could make money at it. Besides, those were the days of the Cotton Club and all those glamour pusses who didn’t do nothing but look pretty, shake a little, and take money off tables.

I thought that was the only way to make money, and I needed forty-five bucks by morning to keep Mom from getting set out in the street. Singers were never heard of then, unless it was Paul Robeson, Julian Bledsoe, or someone legit like that.

So I asked him to play ‘Trav’lin’ All Alone.’ That came closer than anything to the way I felt. And some part of it must have come across. The whole joint quieted down. If someone had dropped a pin, it would have sounded like a bomb. When I finished, everybody in the joint was crying in their beer, and I picked thirty-eight bucks up off the floor. When I left the joint that night I split with the piano player and still took home fifty-seven dollars.

From Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues

Clouds fumble over themselves like waves. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Andy Warhol and odd objects of comfort

Sometimes something can look beautiful just because it’s different in some way from the other things around it. One red petunia in a window box will look very beautiful if all the rest of them are white, and vice-versa. When you’re in Sweden and you see beautiful person after beautiful person after beautiful person and you finally don’t even turn around to look because you know the next person you see will be just as beautiful as the one you didn’t bother to turn around to look at-in a place like that you can get so bored that when you see a person who’s not beautiful, they look very beautiful to you because they break the beautiful monotony.

There are three things that always look very beautiful to me: my same good pair of old shoes that don’t hurt, my own bedroom, and U.S. Customs on the way back home.

From Andy Warhol’s The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

Stephen Fry and love’s whimsy

The moment I lifted my head from the pavement and glanced across the road I saw, amongst the Redwood’s boys crossing, one of their number was looking the other way, as if to check that there was no traffic coming. And at that moment, before his face came into view, it happened. The world changed.

If he had turned out to be ugly, I think my heart would have sunk, but still the world would have been different, because that thing that stirred and roared in me would have been awakened anyway and nothing could ever have put it back to sleep.

As it was, he was not ugly.

He was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life.

I stopped dead so suddenly that a boy behind walked straight into me.

From Stephen Fry’s Moab is My Washpot

They square their breasts to the sun. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Ernest Hemingway and the oyster

Then I went back to writing and I entered far into the story and was lost in it. I did not look up nor know anything about the time nor think where I was nor order any more rum St James. I was tired of rum St James without thinking about it. Then the story was finished and I was very tired. I read the last paragraph and then I looked up and looked for the girl and she had gone. I hope she’s gone with a good man, I thought. But I felt sad.

I closed up the story in the notebook and put it in my inside pocket and I asked the waiter for a dozen portugaises and a half-carafe of the dry white wine they had there. After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy, as though I had made love, and I was sure this was a very good story although I would not know truly how good until I read it over the next day.

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.

From Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast

Hello there! Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Wislawa Szymborska and constant art

Vermeer

So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum
in painted quiet and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the pitcher to the bowl
the World hasn’t earned
the world’s end.

From Wislawa Szymborska’s Here

To be erased and made again. And again… Photograph by Ellen Vrana.
Sudden or slow. Conscious-expanding or cosmic blip. A moment of peace. Or energy.

We surrender as the shape of beauty aligns our fibers to true north.

It is a wonder, wrote Annie Dillard in her contemplation of these exact moments, it is a wonder that there is any beauty at all.

What shape of beauty moves away your pall?

Brotherly Love

“The most fundamental kind of love, which underlies all types of love, is brotherly love. By this I mean the sense of responsibility, care, respect, knowledge of any other human being, the wish to further his life.”
Erich Fromm

The most fundamental unit of life is a cell and we all have them. If you find nothing else in common with your fellow man, find that. Her cells, like yours, from two into multiple trillions. Cleaving and heaving and belching their way to tissue and organs and eyes and you and me.

But there is something more that connects us, isn’t there?

Hearts and cards from Take Heart organization.
Spreading “ripples of kindness” throughout England, the Take Heart organization crochets pocket-sized hearts and leaves them about with notes saying “You are not alone.” Learn more.

Before humans understood the concepts of atoms, or species or a cellular interconnectedness or anything else that connects us, they had a concept of brotherly love and used surprisingly familiar words that we use today. Former Emperor and late-in-life Stoic Marcus Aurelius wrote about a “nature akin to my own…”

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own – not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong. Nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work in opposition to one another is against nature: and anger or rejection is opposition.

From Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

Marcus Aurelius’ concept of brotherhood, echoed in in his fellow Stoic Seneca’s pithy “if you wish to be loved, love,” was rooted in a fierce belief in the whole of things, a unity of which we are all part.

Is it our shared fragments of divinity? Our unknowable real mortality? We were born for cooperation? Are those the feelings of brotherly love?

“The most fundamental kind of love, which underlies all types of love, is brotherly love.” argued Erich Fromm in his sublime tract on the mellifluous shapes of love.

The most fundamental kind of love, which underlies all types of love, is brotherly love. By this I mean the sense of responsibility, care, respect, knowledge of any other human being, the wish to further his life. This is the kind of love the Bible speaks of when it says: love thy neighbour as thyself. Brotherly love is love for all human beings; it is characterized by its very lack of exclusiveness. If I have developed the capacity for love, then I cannot help loving my brothers.

From Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving

This unity, this feeling, is it something into which society can ebb and flow? Do we expand and contract our ability to love one another?

And if so, where are we now?

Hearts and cards frTake Heart organization.
Take Heart’s abundance of warmth, a reminder of love to the finder, a kindness that extends from the maker, the writer, the mailer, the placer of hearts and whoever is lucky enough to discover the little gift. Each act of love settles itself in the recipient. Learn more.

In Robert Putnam’s ground-bulldozing book from 2001, Bowling Alone, the Harvard sociologist studied civic engagement and social bonds relative to the erosion of social trust.

One of the central arguments of the book is that both civic engagement and organizational involvement experienced marked declines during the second half of the twentieth century. According to the best available evidence, these declines have continued uninterrupted. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, fewer and fewer Americans are socializing through membership organizations.

[…]

[S]ocial trust has deteriorated further over the past twenty years as well. This continues to be explained in part by generational replacement […]. As more trusting generations have died out, they have been succeeded by less trusting youth cohorts, leaving America a less trusting society, year after year.

From Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone

If social capital is an uninvested asset, then not only do you not know your brother, but you also do not trust your brother.

Putnam continues:

In recent years social scientists have framed concerns about the changing character of American society in terms of the concept of ‘social capital.’ By analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital – tools and training that enhance individual productivity – the core idea of social capital theory is that social networks have value. Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a college education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so too social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups.[…]Social capital refers to connects among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.

From Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone

It is this reciprocity and trustworthiness that James Baldwin summons in his 1964 essays calling for an awakening to the racial crisis besieging America: “If the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”

The same themes course through Baldwin’s earlier brilliance, Notes of a Native Son, which argued that we are bonded by even the darkest side of our nature:

It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality. Within this cage it is romantic, more, meaningless, to speak of a ‘new’ society as the desire of the oppressed, for that shivering dependence on the props of reality which he shares with the Herrenvolk makes a truly ‘new’ society impossible to conceive.

From James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son

If we are bonded by our mutually endured and perpetuated horrors, we must, must, be part of their absolution.

Hearts and cards from Take Heart organization.

In the early 20th century the War-torn French government called on philosopher Simone Weil to expound on what was needed to rebuild a tattered society. “Every human being needs to have multiple roots,” argued Weil resolutely, “It is necessary for him to draw wellnigh the whole of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.”

To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future. This participation is a natural one, in the sense that it is automatically brought about by place, conditions of birth, profession and social surroundings.

From Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots

The lack of roots, a society bifurcated by the ostensible differences of morality, leads not only to lack of integration but also to the further breakdown of society.

The antithesis of brotherly love.

In brotherly love there is the experience of union with all men, of human solidarity, of human oneness. Brotherly love is based on the experience that we all are one. The differences in talents, intelligence, knowledge are negligible in comparison with the identity of the human core common to all men. In order to experience this identity it is necessary to penetrate from the periphery to the core.

From Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving

Then, how do we get back to this? How do we burrow to the core of who we are to find that commonality of being?

Hearts and cards from Take Heart organization.
So many people loved, all from this little group, a #crochetarmy of unbeatable kindness. I found one of their hearts once. Bright like a ripe apple. I exhaled a breath I did not know I was holding, felt a breath of kiss I did not know I needed. Learn more and consider donating to their heartfelt cause.

According to the watchful eye of Rebecca Solnit, a chaser of narratives on the human social condition, humans do a unique thing in moments of disaster. “When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up to become their brothers’ keepers,” Solnit admits in her touching work on humanity in times of disaster.1

The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it. In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors as well as friends and loved ones.

From Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell

The breakdown of separating structures allows some miasma of binding substance to flow and fill the cracks.

“We don’t even have a language for this emotion,” bemuses Solnit, “in which the wonderful comes wrapped in the terrible, joy in sorrow, courage in fear.

Could that emotion be the seed of brotherly love?

Solnit’s writing abounds with examples of care, protection and the kind of unadulterated generosity of which we imagine but never see.

Whatever that emotion is, joy in sorrow, a feeling of open-heartedness, however you feel it when our society breaks down and flows apart, hold it tight. Or when anything falls apart, atomizes into bits. Hold it safe.

As my voice reaches your inner ear over the internet and warms your cheeks let’s imagine together a human at-oneness.

The Flux of All Things

“Nothing lasts. Nothing is indivisible. ... Nothing is whole. Nothing is indestructible. Nothing is still.”
Alan Lightman

I learned recently that ants never sleep. Never mind sleep, have you ever watched an ant? They never stop moving!

Of course, if they were to sleep, their bodies would be reviving and regenerating, much like ours. The body never rests, never sits still, even when it is sitting still.

Ants and humans. And so many other things. Unstill all of us.

Clare Millen's "The Quiet", acrylic on canvas.
“The Quiet” by Clare Millen a Cambridge-based painter. Millen’s work is primarily based on the light and movement of nature but captures the thingness – memory, longing, uncertainty – that humans so often impose on landscapes. Learn more.

I’ve written about the question of stillness, how to seek it, grab it, hold it. I never thought to question whether stillness was desirable.

This “never sitting still” is called flux. The flux of all things is the movement, the unsettling and undoing and redoing of all things.

To and from chaos and pattern, we turn in the ever-widening gyre.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

From William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming”

Yeats’s gyre, turned over itself in metaphor by Joan Didion in her essays on the undoing of America, smoothed over by Pema Chödrön in her advice on holding together, is something to be escaped and turned from, no? Stillness – and its henchmen: absolutes, control, pattern – is to be desired.

Or is it?

American poet Mary Oliver sought the stream, to be in the stream, specifically upstream. “May I stay forever in the stream” she wrote in her last published collection of essays.

Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream.

A connection to the eternal, not in the stream, but in the flux of the stream. For there we find the flux of all things.

Oliver continues:

Occasionally I lean forward and gaze into the water. The water of a pond is a mirror of roughness and honesty—it gives back not only my own gaze, but the nimbus of the world trailing into the pictures on all sides. The swallows, singing a little as they fly back and forth across the pond, are flying therefore over my shoulders and through my hair. A turtle passes slowly across the muddy bottom, touching my cheekbone. If at this moment I heard a clock ticking, would I remember what it was, what it signified?

From Mary Olivers’ Upstream

“The descent of an eighth of an inch in a mile is sufficient enough to produce a flow” Thoreau informs us in his contemplation of rivers and human life. “As things flow they circulate, and the ebb always balances the flow.”

A river is a natural metaphor for flux, for it is constantly moving, constantly flowing.

“Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things-” echoed Thoreau’s compatriot and Transcendental kin, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson continues:

Throw a stone into the stream, and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence. Man is conscious of a universal soul within or behind his individual life, wherein, as in a firmament, the natures of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature

Emerson, a time-removed mentor to Oliver (and so many more), believed wading into such flux was to step into the deepest recesses of meaning in the universe.

Is there a connection to the eternal in the flux of all things?

Clare Millen's "Open Sky", acrylic on canvas.
“Open Space” by Clare Millen. Using a process of repeated application and scraping, Millen forms structures on the canvas. “I work in layers -” Millen articulates, “Building, scraping and scoring surfaces to expose the history of colour and surface I have laid down. I am led by what is revealed and work intuitively until I feel the piece is complete.” Learn more.
There is a reason I’m circling on themes of nature. Nature is the root of all flux. Nature is flux itself. We can shut the door to the ants and the rivers, but they continue and will continue to change, and so do we.

Grace Paley’s perfect sentiment on flux is entitled “Fear.”

I am afraid of nature
because of nature I am mortal

my children and my grandchildren
are also mortal

I lived in the city for forty years
in this way I escaped fear.

From Grace Paley’s Begin Again: Collected Poems

Nature bellows out overwhelming, incapable flux that blows aside our pretense of control and whisks away our attempt at pattern.

Clare Millen's "Open Sky", acrylic on canvas.
“Big Sky” by Clare Millen. “I’m often defeated and have to walk away. However when a painting does work it is a deeply satisfying feeling – one that compels me to repeat the process again and again.”

I’ll never forget Oliver Sacks’ warm, generous memoir of treating patients with neuro-deficiencies in which he writes about a particular patient who could not form memory. When confronted with anything, rather than drawing from memory like we might, this patient constructed elaborate fantasies every few seconds.1

Sacks’ writes:

He remembered nothing for more than a few seconds. He was continually disoriented. Abysses of amnesia continually opened beneath him, but he would bridge them, nimbly, by fluent confabulations and fictions of all kinds. For him they were not fictions, but how he suddenly saw, or interpreted, the world. Its radical flux and incoherence could not be tolerated or acknowledged, for an instant – there was, instead, his strange, delirious, quasi-coherence, as Mr. Thompson, with his ceaseless, unconscious, quick-fire inventions continually improvised a world around him – an Arabian Nights world, a phantasmagoria, a dream, of ever-changing people, figures, situations – continual kaleidoscopic mutations and transformations.

For Mr Thompson, however, it was not a tissue of ever-changing, evanescent fancies and illusion, but a wholly normal, stable and factual world. So far as he was concerned, there was nothing the matter.

From Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat

What happens when we root our self in a reality that erodes a moment later? We form new realities. Again and again until the mental machine that erects those realities becomes worn and threadbare.

There is great uncertainty in flux. There is discombobulating uncertainty in the flux of all things. An uncertainty that splits us apart in its own way, cleaves us down the middle and begs us reshape!

“Nothing is a whole. Nothing is indestructible. Nothing is still…”

Everything is in flux, and everything, as imagined by physicist Alan Lightman, means our space, time, composition, morality and everything else we can imagine. “If the physical world were a novel, with the business of examining evil and good, it would not have the clear lines of Dickens but the shadowy ambiguities of Dostoevsky.”2 Therefore, the only absolute is infinity itself, is the eternal. To some it is that unknowable divine.

Is that what Oliver sought in the stream?

On his back on a boat in one of the many dark, secretive and quiet Maine coastal inlets, Lightman – his name never more fitting – finds some inkling of this eternal:

I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars as if I were part of them. And the vast expanse of time – extending from the far distant past long before I was born and then into the far distant future long after I will die — seemed compressed to a dot. I felt connected not only to the stars but to all of nature, and to the entire cosmos. I felt a merging with something far larger than myself, a grand and eternal unity, a hint of something absolute.

From Alan Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine

Clare Millen's "Shore Line", acrylic on canvas. © Clare Millen
“Shore Line” by Clare Millen. The flux involved in making the paintings is reflected in the final canvas. The layers and depths flow before our gaze reflecting Millen’s artistic process and nature itself. Learn more.
Maybe the idea of flux appeals to these individuals because they approach it from stillness. Oliver steps into the stream from the bank, Thoreau looks upon a river in a meditative hour. Lightman looks at the stars from a boat. They all eventually turn away and return home to a more controlled environment, to stillness.

The lightness we feel if we gaze upon flux – in the stars, a river, or whatever – is short-lived if we do not simultaneously open our hearts that we are not only in a state of flux, but we are the flux.

The infinite expanse of sky is in us as well.

I have changed from the beginning of this post. Cells have died, regrown, thoughts formed, held then vanished. I am someone who has written this post as you are now someone who has read it.

I want to return to Yeats because his grasp of human triumph and frailty is unique. He imagines his future self, regretful yet triumphant, sorrowful but content.

A celebration of the complexity of being human;
Although I shelter from the rain
Under a broken tree
My chair was nearest to the fire
In every company
That talked of love or politics,
Ere Time transfigured me.

Though lads are making pikes again
For some conspiracy,
And crazy rascals rage their fill
At human tyranny,
My contemplations are of Time
That has transfigured me.

There’s not a woman turns her face
Upon a broken tree,
And yet the beauties that I loved
Are in my memory;
I spit into the face of Time
That has transfigured me.

From William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming”

Throw yourself into the stream, into the world, into a line of ants, into the universe. It will be held in flux.