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Beauty? Where? There!

A shovel rattles against a small plastic bucket, signaling that our seven-year-old granddaughter Rosie is impatiently awaiting our trip to the beach. For both of us, the beach is a recess from the everydayness of our lives. Irritations about politics, for example, are vanquished for me by the predictable sound of waves approaching the shoreline, then slowly receding. The soft rhythm cleanses my mind and my spirit. The warmth of sand under my feet penetrates the rest of me, and even the piercing cries of seagulls can, in small doses, be diverting.

Rosie’s attraction to the beach stems from other sources. For her, it allows temporary luxuriating in complete freedom, a break from having to share attention with sister-and-brother-twin babies and to observe rules governing a well-run house. So, with me close behind, she races to the water’s edge, ventures a toe into a wavelet and, with a theatrical shudder, pronounces it, “Cold! Brrr!” Then, she retreats to sun-warmed dunes, reveling in mastery of her domain.

A while ago, the regimen changed in a way I barely noticed at the time. Rosie interrupted her perpetual motion to pick from the sand a few things that had caught her attention. Some she discarded immediately; a few she clutched as she resumed her racing around. When she rejoined me, without a word, she opened her hand to show me several shells she had collected. Afterwards, it occurred to me that what was curious about that micro-moment was that she didn’t react personally, immediately exclaiming about the beauty of the shells. It was as though she were subjecting me to a test, to see whether, without prompting from her, I could detect how attractive her treasures were. Rosie had no way of knowing my history with seashells, which dated back to my days as a kid living in West Philadelphia. During summers, my most anticipated treat was the infrequent day trip to Atlantic City, where, early on, seashells captivated me. I realized later the attraction lay in their physical qualities–shape, color, design, and holistic blend. Always, when returning to the city from these excursions, I brought back several specimens I thought worth keeping. I admired them regularly.

I examined each of Rosie’s shells, elated by the fact that something within had stirred her to respond to natural beauty. She hadn’t simply looked, then dismissed. Something had struck her and made her engage with what she had found. As she watched me closely, I nodded and made sounds of approval. I brought the objects closer to me and stared speculatively. Then, I asked which ones were her favorites. She pointed to three of them, which I took for even closer inspection. Then, the irrepressible teacher within me asked the crucial question: “Why did you choose those?” But I tried to frame the question as though I needed her help to recognize their true value. I wasn’t simply challenging her to justify her choices. I needed her to be my guide, to explain something I hadn’t yet quite grasped. It was a role she plainly enjoyed as she explained what had drawn her to each shell. From then on at the seashore, we shared our noteworthy finds. When we were there separately, we ritualistically left small paper bags for each other containing a few outstanding finds for future examination. No bag meant that nothing on this particular exploration had met our exacting standards. Later, I realized how important the bagless days were. They meant that however unconsciously, each of us had criteria for the beauty that couldn’t be compromised.

Rosie has a developing personal appreciation for beauty, starting with the natural treasures of the beach. Without prodding too hard, I hope to help cultivate her receptivity to other gifts of nature–sunsets, cloud formations, design of flowers, sweeping landscapes–the list is endless. And sometime during this intricate, infinitely important process, I hope she is caught up, too, by-products of human creativity–painting, sculpture, architecture, and the like. Obviously, regarding Rosie, I have a lot of thoughts that begin with, “I wish” and, “I hope.” From appreciating natural beauty, I hope she transitions logically to marveling about the ways artists respond to their natural surroundings by using materials and tools to interpret what they admire and what bemuses them.

Unlike nature’s cosmic artistry, human versions stimulate broad response, then critical reaction. The critique should arrive after we try to engage with what we see as objectively as we can. Serious art emerges from the soul and deserves no less. We can reject what doesn’t move us, but we shouldn’t do so too impulsively. Start by giving artists the benefit of the doubt, by trying to see works with their eyes and understanding their intentions. Give even off-putting works chances to plead their cases. Also, we shouldn’t regard initial responses as necessarily unchangeable. Development of taste should be on-going, not necessarily linear, as I’ve learned first-hand.

For a long time, we’ve had a small abstract oil painting that made me wonder later, when I infrequently looked at it, what possessed me to acquire it. A while ago, for some reason, I took the time to examine it closely. I saw, to my surprise, elements I had dismissed too easily. Maybe it was my mood at the moment of re-examination. Maybe it was some alteration of light. Most likely, though, I was looking at it as a different person. Navigating life alters us in subtle ways. Without our recognizing this continuous process, our perception of life–art included–changes. Truly, I’m not entirely who I was a year ago or even a week ago. Now that I think about this largely-unacknowledged truth, I wouldn’t want it any other way. A predictable, immutable life may seem to generate security, but it comes at the cost of abandoning useful re-explorations. Essentially, the painting hadn’t changed. I, and therefore my being open to it, had. This is an esoteric musing, I know, but I hope it explains why I want so much for art to become meaningful and important for Rosie. In its various forms, it makes life vivid by providing horizons to be appreciated and pondered. It deepens the essence of who we are, freeing our minds and imaginations to roam like Rosie on the beach, always ready to be captivated.


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