May your deeds reflect its depth.
Shortly into The Polished Stone Tour, while traveling through the Midwest, I received a call from a priest in Manhattan. Wanting me to read my book to teens living in the residential facility where he worked, he asked if I’d stop by when my journey brought me through New York. I agreed.
Two months later, as the autumn sky darkened early and I looked for the halfway house, I felt trepidation. I realized that, besides feeling uncomfortable in that particular neighborhood, my ego feared rejection. It seemed unlikely that the residents would want to hear a Once upon a time fairy tale read to them by a middle-aged, middle-class woman who knew nothing about the streets. Asking my ego to step aside, I took a deep breath and entered the facility.
Eight residents showed up for the presentation, seven females and one male. On the surface they looked stonehearted. Generally the teens staying there had been involved in drugs, prostitution, theft, and other actions that don’t reflect what society usually considers “beauty.”
Despite their initial surface appearances, that night as their arms uncrossed and their jaws relaxed, I glimpsed beauty. They seemed to see it also, in themselves and one another. As time passed, the young women spoke openly. Each had been abused in childhood. Each was trying to heal. They shared longings and dreams for the future.
During the discussion, the one male, large and imposing, sat quietly apart from the women. He was the last of the group to approach me to receive a polished stone. For several moments after receiving his stone and closing his fist around it, he stood still, towering over me. Had I encountered him outside the facility, I might have crossed the street to avoid him. Silently, he looked directly into my eyes as moisture gathered in his. Gazing back into his glistening eyes, I saw beauty and vulnerability, and absolutely nothing to fear.
Letting teardrops flow, he bent down, hugged me, and whispered “Thank you, Lady.”
That visit to Covenant House reminded me of what my husband and I had experienced in Carlsbad, New Mexico and in Benson, Arizona. In both desert locales, the terrain looked harsh on the surface. However, beneath the landscape in those places, we can saw nature’s version of a sacred cathedral.
Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and Kartchner Caverns in Arizona are among the world’s most significant caves, consisting of many chambers that feature gorgeous, golden stalactites and stalagmites.
The existence of Kartchner Caverens was unknown until 1974 when two young men discovered it by accident. We all have a place like that in us. Like the world’s caverns, for years our inner beauty may lie hidden, but it is always there, ready to be discovered.
One morning, during a vacation in Florida, I walked briskly along the beach on Sanibel Island, a barrier island off the coast of Ft. Myers. Keeping pace with the music playing through my earphones, I stepped carefully around sandcastles and people stooping for shells. With a row of dolphins arching just beyond the breaking waves and hundreds of birds nibbling at the shoreline, it was easy to appreciate nature’s beauty.
About a half mile into my aerobic walk, I felt drawn to a sand creation at the high-tide line. I pulled off the earphones and walked up from water’s edge to a get a closer look. A simple, Zen-like garden had been made of leaves, twigs and shells, broken and whole. In front of the garden, seaweed formed the word, Welcome.
I wondered if the greeting was intended for beach walkers, for imaginary creatures, or for the waves that would eventually claim it. The garden was not nearly as impressive as the castles I had passed, but it seemed to exude beauty. I liked it so much that I returned to my lodging to get my camera. When I got back to the beach debris garden, I met the family who created it. After talking with them I understood why its beauty was palpable.
The mother explained that she and her husband and two children had made a sand creation the day before. They had fun playing together. When they stepped back and saw the result, they were pleased. They hoped beach walkers would enjoy it.
When they came out to the beach early this next morning, however, they discovered that it had been destroyed. Footprint evidence suggested that someone had stomped through the little garden, swishing and smashing large feet against it, deliberately.
“When I saw the hurt on my children’s faces, intense anger rose in me,” said the mother. “Who would do such a thing? Why? I wanted to crush whoever did it.”
Fueled with fury, she marched down the beach with fast, fierce steps, cursing the young man she imagined doing it, wishing him harm. She walked until her anger was spent, which brought her to the lighthouse at the end of the island. There she sat and thought. What are my children learning from this? That some people are senselessly mean? To mistrust? To hate?
“When I released the last of my anger, I felt something open,” she said. “And the Dalai Lama came to mind. A sixth of the Tibetan population was killed in the 1950’s. When he is asked about the holocaust, he responds with compassion for the people who did it. I then saw other possible lessons my children could learn.”
When she arrived back, she asked her family to forgive the perpetrator and repair the garden. At first they resisted. So, she started to rebuild it herself. Soon, her husband joined her. Then, the daughter. Finally, the son. After a short time, they worked again in a playful way with ease and trust. They enjoyed another morning in the sunshine, arranging flotsam and jetsam in attractive patterns. They forgave the sand garden vandal, wished him (or her) well, and agreed that what emerged that day was actually far prettier than what they had made the day before. When it was done, the son suggested adding the word “Welcome” as a symbol of accepting whatever became of it.
This event reminds me that everyday we have opportunities to create beauty in the world by the way we respond to debris, insults and injuries. We can bring beauty into being from all our experiences, even the painful ones. We bring a measure of it every time we wave to a neighbor, listen to a child, encourage a co-worker, allow someone to merge into traffic, and smile at a stranger.
Consider the example of the woman who, finding shards of an imperfect pot that was broken and discarded by a pottery artist, transformed them. Careful of the sharp edges, she carried them to her home and set them on a windowsill. On to each shard she placed a scoop of soil, a pinch of seeds, and a spoonful of water. A week later, the seeds sprouted and each broken fragment became a container for new life and beauty.
We can increase our experience and expression of beauty by expanding our perception of it. In addition to however you usually appreciate beauty, notice the beauty in strength, courage, compassion, hope, joy, talent, imagination, reverence, wisdom, love, and faith. According to Plato, whenever we seek any one of these high values, we attract all of them to us because they commune with one another. Closely related, like the refracted hues of light we see in a rainbow, the twelve gifts are all shades of love.
For reflection, journaling and discussion:
1. What are some ways that you experience beauty?
2. Listening to music? Arranging flowers? Volunteering?
3. In what places do you see it?
4. Are you comfortable with your own beauty?
5. Recall a time when you acted with beauty. How did you feel?