“Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
I am embarrassed to admit that I avoided art appreciation in college because it just sounded terrible. While we are all naturally drawn to beauty, some of us are raised to find that hard to admit or believe or even notice. The creation of beauty (as Emerson defined art) was not my native language, and it has taken me years to recognize that my reticence to embrace an appreciation of beauty is the real terrible.
So I am making up for lost time.
Last week my wife and I gorged ourselves on beauty with a trip through stunning Arizona. At one moment we were rocketing through the searing desert in our air-conditioned car in silent admiration of the towering cactuses (saguaros) standing proudly against the otherwise nothingness. At another we are winding our way to otherworldly Sedona where the colossal Red Rocks attract their spiritual disciples—and we were speechless in our reverence. And then we climbed to higher elevations where the ponderosa pines seemed to appear out of nowhere and made us wonder if we had been magically transported to Colorado, especially when we saw the summer snow high on the San Francisco Peaks. Oh and there was this little place called the Grand Canyon up there, too. Breathtaking is no hyperbole.
We were determined to watch the sunset at the Grand Canyon, and it was a good decision. We arrived about an hour early—the magic hour—and found a point just west of Mather Point to watch the sunlight play off the canyon walls and witness the beauty for which no human being can claim credit. Words and pictures all fail. The sandy browns and the sleepy blues and the flashy reds and oranges undulated across the vast expanse like a wave of exploding fireworks in extreme slow motion.
I would love to say that it was unforgettable, but I know myself too well to say such a thing. I still have the ability to dismiss the grand spectacle of nature and revert to seeing beauty merely in utilitarian terms. That is my particular training, and I am nothing if not a good student.
Utilitarian Me asks what good watching something like a plant or a tree or a big rock or a ravine or a sunset does for me. Utilitarian Me can be a pain in the butt and doesn’t always deserve a response. But I will give in this time and respond with a quote from Kafka: “Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.”
I feel younger already.
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged appreciation, arizona, art, beauty, cactus, desert, emerson, grand canyon, mather point, ponderosa pines, red rocks, saguaro, sedona, sunset
I want to see everything there is to see. All of these United States. All the regions of the world. (Well, except Antarctica. If I want to see frozen beauty I will go to the ice cream section of the grocery store.) I can hear all the wonders of the world calling my name. The world is vast and wild and beautiful and alluring, but it turns out there’s an argument to be made for just staying home.
Ronnie and I chased our friend, Brad, for 5.6 miles through Zuma Canyon Trail in the May Gray of Malibu last Saturday morning — and it was good. Good friends. Good run. Good conversation. Good stories and laughter. Beautiful scenery. Gentle trails. Birds and flowers. Pleasant temperatures. A light mist.
And yet I wondered how a runner like me who has lived in Malibu for nine years had never heard of Zuma Canyon Trail until Brad suggested we check it out. What else have I failed to see in my own backyard?
I know that I could never take in all the wonders of this magical planet. Believe me, I did the math. And I know that I could never drink from all the intoxicating wonders of California, or even Los Angeles. But now I am wondering if I could ever exhaust the beautiful secrets of this one little town!
There is value in travel and adventure, but a frantic effort to see and do everything is a fool’s mission. Foolish because it is doomed to failure, but also foolish because you just may miss out on the cleverly disguised magic in your everyday world.
Enjoy the occasional globetrotting adventure if you get the opportunity, but you don’t have to leave home to discover amazing hidden treasures. Take a look around and see for yourself.
Our 2008 move from Mississippi to Malibu sounds like a seismic culture shift, but moving from affluent, artsy, coastal Ocean Springs, Mississippi, to affluent, artsy, coastal Malibu was not as mind-blowing as you’d think. Okay, it was mind-blowing, just not as mind-blowing as you’d think.
One of the major differences is simply topographical. Ocean Springs sits on the super flat Mississippi Gulf Coast. Malibu officially sits at sea level, too, but that is only half the picture since the vast ocean spectacularly combines with equally stunning mountains. The views we are privileged to enjoy on the Pepperdine campus are ridiculous, and quite often we awaken to see that we are actually above the clouds. It is like a flight with adequate leg room and spacious bathroom facilities.
Recently, on such a morning, I drove from Sunshine Mountain down into the murky clouds for a beachside run along Malibu Road. It is one of my favorite runs because it is nearby, flat, quiet, and scenic, but it isn’t quite as scenic on mornings when the clouds decide to take a nap on the surface of the planet. Despite the cloud cover, I took off with eyes wide open since I have developed a habit of memorializing each morning run with a photograph. It was a challenge. The crashing waves were pretty great in the fog, but not so much for my increasingly outdated iPhone camera, and the horizon was simply nowhere to be seen.
And then I noticed the flowers. The reds and purples, the yellows and lavenders, all nestled in a setting of green and white, almost shy and hiding in the morning fog.
Life lessons exploded from the haze like the colorful flowers. For starters, when life descends into a fog, remember to look for the beauty that is ever present. But also, when life floats in the sunshine above the gray clouds, remember to go to the trouble of joining the world struggling through the smothering gloom. It would be tragic to miss out on the stunning grace that can be found in the obscurity.
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged beauty, clouds, flowers, fog, grace, gulf coast, life, malibu, mississippi, ocean springs, pepperdine
Today is my wife’s birthday, and the specific number is none of your business (or, apparently, mine!). Jody’s parents both worked as tax preparers back in 19-whenever when she made her grand entrance on April 14—talk about demanding attention from the very start! She deserves a lot of attention. Jody is, hands down, the most impressive person that I know.
I could list a thousand beautiful words that describe my wife, but let’s try a story instead.
Less than two years after we married, Jody was hired as a full-time houseparent at Children’s Homes, Inc., and I got to tag along for the ride. Imagine the situation: a young married couple in their mid-twenties living with and “parenting” teenagers from a wide variety of challenging backgrounds. Not sure who was more crazy–us or the people who hired us. One evening early in our three years there, we were walking with several of the teenage girls at dusk when Jody and one of the girls got into it, and a battle of two very strong wills was on. Given the body language of the two, my fear was that the battle would soon move beyond wills, and I should mention that the other combatant was about a foot taller and appeared to be twice as strong. But there Jody stood in the growing darkness, eye-to-navel, looking up at the girl she was responsible for and yet somehow communicating that she would take her out in a second if anyone flinched. None of us flinched. There was never a question who would win.
Our daughters never really stood a chance with a mother like Jody who loves with such courage and ferocity. She will stand up to anyone, anytime, anywhere for what is right, and particularly for (and if necessary, to) someone that she loves. She is strength and beauty and goodness all wrapped up in one amazing person.
I can’t even imagine how many people are better because Jody decided to care for them. I just know that I am at the top of the list.
Famed journalist, David Brooks, was the featured speaker at a recent conference at Pepperdine, and much of the conversation focused on an op-ed he wrote a year ago in The New York Times titled, “The Big University.” The thought behind the article is summed up in a single sentence/paragraph:
In short, for the past many decades colleges narrowed down to focus on professional academic disciplines, but now there are a series of forces leading them to widen out so that they leave a mark on the full human being.
Brooks applauded this development and prescribed four tasks for colleges and universities:
- Reveal moral options.
- Foster transcendent experiences.
- Investigate current loves and teach new things to love.
- Apply the humanities.
While all four are worthy of reflective conversation, I am particularly drawn to the call to foster transcendent experiences. Brooks wrote:
If a student spends four years in regular and concentrated contact with beauty—with poetry or music, extended time in a cathedral, serving a child with Down syndrome, waking up with loving friends on a mountain—there’s a good chance something transcendent and imagination-altering will happen.
Yeah, I dig it.
Last week, I was thousands of miles from home in Akron, Ohio, with a couple of unexpected hours and zero plans and somehow ended up hiking through a beautiful park amid the blazing colors of autumn. The very next day, even farther from home in the heart of Manhattan in New York City, I had more unexpected time to spend while awaiting a meeting in a Fifth Avenue skyscraper and wandered into iconic St. Patrick’s Cathedral to experience an early afternoon Mass in that stunning venue.
A peaceful forest. A majestic cathedral. Two good choices. And why did I have to travel so far to make such choices?
Brooks’s encouragement may have simply been intended for college students, but seeing that I feel a little thirsty for transcendence myself, my choices in those two moments make me wonder what might happen if I altered my routines to create “regular and concentrated contact with beauty.”
I just might do it. And if nothing else, fostering transcendent experiences in my own life might make me more effective in fostering such moments for others.
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged akron, beauty, college, david brooks, experiences, hiking, manhattan, nature, new york city, new york times, ohio, pepperdine, st. patrick's cathedral, transcendence, university