Something Old, Something New…A Lesson in Redefining Beauty

simply-imperfect-flowers.jpgAs a designer, I tend to be very particular about the things that I see as beautiful.  In my own home, I confess I love things to look contemporary and fresh and just-so.  I love rotating new items into my existing decor.  I quickly get rid of things that look dated or worn.  However, I have recently had the pleasure of reading two wonderful, albeit very different books, that have greatly challenged and broadened my view of aesthetics. 

The first book, called “The Wabi-Sabi House,” addresses what the author (Robyn Griggs Lawrence) refers to as “the Japanese art of imperfect beauty.”  She states, “The subtle messages that live within wabi-sabi are the things we all seem to long for today: Slow down.  Take the time to find beauty in what seems ordinary – and to turn the “ordinary” into something beautiful.  Make things yourself instead of buying those spit out by a machine, and smile when your work is flawed.  Wash your dishes by hand, and most important: learn to think of others before yourself.”  Wabi-sabi finds beauty in things that are old, natural, broken, simple and earthy.  I must say, it is a challenge for me to find beauty in old things.  I love new trends and styles and experimenting in my home. I am not sentimental or much of a collector.  I have five children and often value efficiency over, well…basically everything!  However, I am stretching myself by attempting to slow down and find beauty in unexpected places, while incorporating small touches of imperfect and meaningful beauty at the same time.

The second book by Nate Berkus, “The Things That Matter,” thoughtfully covers the idea of filling your home with items that carry personal history and significance.  He opens the first page by sharing, “I’ve always believed your home should tell your story…Those cuff links?  They belonged to somebody I loved: we picked them out on one of the most perfect days we ever spent together.  That tortoise shell on the wall?  There was one exactly like it in my mother’s house and I can’t see it without thinking about a thousand inedible family dinners.  Each object tells a story and each story connects us to one another and to the world.  The truth is, things matter.  They have to.  They’re what we live with and touch each and every day.  They represent what we’ve seen, who we’ve loved, and where we hope to go next.  They remind us of the good times and the rough patches, and everything in between that’s made us who we are.”  I love this!  And while this may come quite naturally to some people, this concept has given me quite a bit to think on.  My family has never valued THINGS very much, which is both positive and negative.  While we are not tied to our possessions, we also don’t have any family heirlooms that exchange hands or generations.  I have purchased every single thing in my home…no gramma’s rocking chair, mother’s cookbooks, dad’s tools, nothing!  This honestly makes me a bit sad, but also determined to do things differently for my children.  I have started purchasing (or keeping) something special for our home every time we travel: horse hair pottery from South Dakota, my husband’s first emptied out clam shell from Maine, a wooden manatee to remind us of the one that chose to swim with us in Florida.  When my gramma passed away, I carefully elected to save a jade letter opener that reminded me of her (I never knew anyone who actually used a letter opener to open letters)! 

While I still openly profess my love for all things new, I am also committed to expanding upon what I have traditionally viewed as beautiful, and to looking through an object into its past.  I am looking forward to owning THINGS that matter, things that will one day cause my children to re-tell my stories to their children. And I eagerly anticipate the lessons that I know will come…as I learn to find perfection in imperfections.

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Reading Color

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Today I met the most amazing man.  He is an older gentleman from Greece and he writes (draws) icons for Orthodox churches. He was sweet and funny but what I found fascinating was his ability to see color.  Now anyone who knows me knows that I am a bit obsessed with color. I love the undertones, the way they change from wall to wall, from day to night. I love colors that look blue and gray and green all at once, to where you almost don’t know what color you’re looking at.  I would get a Ph.D. in color if there was such a thing!  This is very different than my husband, who when asked which paint swatch he likes best, responds with a shrug and says that they all look the same (bless his heart, as they say in the South).  But I digress…back to the iconographer. What amazed me about this man is that he not only can read color, he  knows how to MAKE it!  He can look at a color and know how much black and white and red and yellow and blue would be required to CREATE any color!  He knows what to add if it’s too dark or how much to add if it’s too light and what colors enhance the richness of others.  This might be silly but it honestly mesmerized me.  I’ve been thinking about it all day.  What talent and skill!

soulAnd so I have come to this thought tonight…what if we could look at people the way that this artist looks at color?  What if we could have insight into the creation of their personhood, how they became who they are…their ups and downs, sorrows and joys, the moments that have either broken or resurrected them, what they currently long for?  What if we could discern exactly what “color” to add to enhance other’s lives and beautify their existence?  How much more patient and compassionate would we all become?  What if we could learn to look at OURSELVES this way?!  What if today, instead of seeing my irritability and the dishes and the messes and everything that feels like a failure, what if I could look at myself like a color, complex with constantly changing undertones, drastically different in the morning light, but beautiful nonetheless.

But alas, my eye is not quite as developed as this skilled artisan.  I still see only in tones and shadows.  I do not look deep enough or close enough.  The late author Jonathan Swift writes that, “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”  Oh, that I might have the eyes to see that which remains hidden in every person, and the knowledge of what to add so that fullness of color might be achieved.   Perhaps over the course of my life, I will hone my skill and attain proficiency.  In the meantime, I will remain restlessly content to aspire to those who have inspired.

The Lost Art of Sitting

 

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Last night, my 11-year-old niece told me about a birthday party she had gone to.  Their morning activities included waking up to a morning smoothie bar and a hired yoga instructor.  Am I the only one who happens to thinks this is INSANE?!   What happened to the birthday parties where you play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, eat some cake and call it a day?  Our American culture has become obsessed with productivity, efficiency, and one-upping last year’s Pinterest birthday party.  The dog days of summer have been replaced with a steady stream of camps, organized play groups, and a landslide of sporting events.  Stress related illnesses have reached an all time high.  What is happening to us?!

Now with five children, I could never convincingly claim that my life is anything but frantic, chaotic and constant.  But I can genuinely assert that as a direct rebellion against the busyness, I have intentionally reclaimed the lost art of sitting.  I have created a space for this sitting right by the fireplace with my favorite chair that will soon have an indelible imprint of my backside.  I have a small garden stool for a table used exclusively for my coffee.  And my kids know that when I am sitting there, I am very unlikely to jump up and do much of anything for them.  They are, in fact accustomed to me calling out for the nearest child to “give me 20!” (which in layman’s terms means a coffee reheat).  This time for me always involves a little reading, a little contemplating, and a lot of just staring out the window. It is my balking recoil against time, chaos and the never ending to-do list.

From an architectural standpoint, it is interesting to observe how even our homes exhibit our cultural priorities.  Backyard patios, as opposed to front porches, tend to be the focus of most outdoor living spaces.  Porches represent the concept of sitting, doing little to nothing, just being.  Whereas, patios tend to emphasize entertaining, playing, and doing. Interesting enough, these are the top five results that pop up when the word “sitting,” is googled: “Too much sitting linked to heart disease, diabetes and premature death…Sitting is bad for your health…Sitting will kill you, even if you exercise…Is sitting a lethal activity…Sit less, live longer.”  Even alleged inspirational quotes about sitting carry a negative connotation. References are made to bench warmers, laziness, loneliness and passivity.  Sitting has gotten a bad rap.

Even so, I choose to sit.  I choose to sit and slow down time.  I choose to be unproductive for 5 minutes, an hour, a day so that I might be happy and rested and mentally clear.  I choose to not be constantly efficient so that I might have energy for my kids and husband.  And I choose the pin-the-tail-on the donkey birthday parties so that my children will not constantly expect bigger and better for the remainder of their lives.

 

The Beautiful Life

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The ancient Greek philosophers stated that there were three prime virtues: goodness, truth and beauty. Most individuals would readily affirm this statement and even proclaim that they are trying to live a good and honest life. But how many would honestly be able to say that they are actively pursuing a beautiful life? As humans with souls, we understand this to mean that we not only live our spiritual life in a beautiful way, but also our corporeal, tangible and every day life. This ideally means that we are to physically beautify everything we come in contact with, be it a person (ourselves included), a meal, our home, our workplace, or city of residence.  Now this can seem like quite a tall order, especially in this busy, stressed-out, frantic culture that we live in. It can become another checkmark on our to-do list as opposed to an organic way of living an aesthetic life.

In order to move forward in addressing the creation of beauty, we must first acknowledge the problems that are so often evident in our American culture.  In my opinion, the primary issue is that we have traded the art of beauty for pragmatism (what is useful) and efficiency (does it get the job done). For example, our American churches resemble nothing of the old grandeur once delegated to places of worship. They unfortunately blend in, even in industrial parks. As an amusing, but not funny side note, we were driving by a local church with one of our children’s friends. He asked what store it was and when we told him that it was a church, he quite wisely stated, “It doesn’t look like one.” Even children seem to inherently realize the need for beauty. A secondary problem is that people often equate the pursuit of beauty to selfishness or the pursuit of vanity. Nothing could in fact be further from the truth. Pure beauty blesses all that come in contact with it. One final observation is that is for the most part, we have forgotten or perhaps have never even identified that which we love. The classic childhood question asks, “What is your favorite color?” As adults we think this is silly and quickly brush it off. But why can we no longer answer this question? Why do we not have favorite colors, favorite smells, favorite foods, favorite flowers? And if we do, why do we not routinely surround ourselves with them? Why must life become gray with age? If we will learn to fall in love with our physical and natural  and yes, even man-made surroundings, I daresay we will discover a new level of joy and delight in the world around us.

Moving from the philosophical to the practical, how does this apply to everyday life? When I am working with clients in their homes, I use only one rule: they must love anything and everything that is brought into their home. Statements like, “This would be ok” or “This might work,” are problematic, in that people are looking to external criteria to define their tastes. True beauty must have its roots in love. It should be emotionally evocative. Think of watching a Colorado sunset. In one moment, all five senses can quite literally feel and absorb true beauty. It is in fact these five senses that provide an ideal framework with which to recreate beauty. With the holidays upon us, let us consider how this might be achieved. Visually, you could make your house sparkle by adding different forms of lighting…fire tipped, dripping candles of multiple heights and colors on a tray; twinkling rope lighting on a ledge; even by installing a dimmer to a dining room chandelier. The tactile dimension could be established with the use of soft, fuzzy blankets draped over a favorite chair by a lit fire; Christmas carols in the background could provide an audible contribution and the smell of sugar cookies baking in the oven would wrap it all up. The creation of beauty is much more comprehensive than simply making something look nice. It is more about creating the feeling of beauty. Our understanding of what is beautiful is far too often reduced to only that which can be seen by the eye. It is much more properly understood in the integration of all senses.

In further examples, light a fragrant candle on an ordinary day while cleaning with your favorite music playing in background. Buy fresh flowers for no particular reason. Fix an unexpected dinner served on fancy china; don’t wait for that special occasion. Buy plush and inviting pillows instead of scratchy, “pretty” ones. And then, you will realize as the Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker states that, “Whenever you are creating beauty around you, you are restoring your own soul.” And from there, as Dostoevsky states, “Beauty will save the world.”