Last week I observed to someone how easily I can descend into a bad place when I think of my life’s recent milestones in terms of loss: family, home, livelihood. This happened to me more or less all at once about two years ago. And then just on the heels of venturing a thousand miles to try to start again from scratch I lost my companion animal. When my head goes there I do something a smart friend suggested. I recite times tables from the beginning exactly as I did when I was eight, long enough to get out of my brain’s emotional right hemisphere and back into its rational left one. It works. I’ve navigated some tough crevasses this way. The alternative is wasting hours or even an entire day or more wallowing in self-pity. And it’s cheaper than therapy.
Lately I’ve been reflecting on all this in the context of beauty. I believe the presence or absence of beauty in a person’s life has a palpable impact on its outcome, period. There is no science behind my theory, just a strong instinct. (Acknowledging your instincts is a benefit of advancing age.)
I once came across a fantastic suggestion for helping local homeless people: tiny individual care packs in a Ziploc that you keep in your car to hand somebody in need. The suggested contents were the things you can imagine—toiletries, phone card, sunscreen, energy bar. I am thinking a small piece of art or a photograph or poem should go in that bag, too. I know it sounds easy for me to say from my relatively privileged station. I am not so sure, though. I think finding beauty is a struggle as surely as earning your keep, and maybe as critical for self-preservation.
Just a few days ago I finally met a person whose work I have admired since I moved to this corner of the world, if a bit wistfully and from a distance. She is one of those people in the business of creating beauty. If you are interested in seeing her work—her photographs, her cheese and bread, her amazing and bold projects in animal husbandry and beekeeping—and also in reading her engaging writing, go here. I for one am thrilled to have found myself in her company for a couple of hours, during which time our conversation ran the gamut from stories of life and love and families to finding and creating work. How did you get there, I asked? How did you find yourself making amazing artisan cheese and restoring an old house and barn and raising a family here and creating all this amazing beauty?
Her answer is best synthesized in a single word: gradually. She went on to elaborate about repetition, trial and error, and a confession that it’s the success stories that make the final cut for the rest of the world to see.
This evoked another idea that has been on my mind of late, related to beauty and its creation: the best work ultimately comes from repetition, from trying and failing and trying again, and is rarely the result of a single Aha! moment. Choreographer Twyla Tharp drives this point home in her book The Creative Habit. Mozart wrote a lot of music. Some of it was extraordinary, most of it was not (the not-extraordinary Mozart is the stuff rarely performed, live or in recordings). The point is, he wrote a lot of it. There are exceptions. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, was her only novel. It is a brilliant piece of beauty.
Mainly though, I think most creative output aligns with Ms. Tharp and the Mozart Theory. There is enough loss and sadness and ugliness to go around; much of the time I find the magnitude of it overwhelming. The answer to this must be tenacity, to keep on working and creating and hoping that some beautiful thing emerges from our efforts. And to continue to find beauty wherever we can, because elusive beauty is food for the soul.