Sunday, February 5, 2012

In which I assign beauty


My children are small, the oldest just turned six: two girls and a boy behind them. They are still developing their language of the world, and I work very hard at molding it. So I make a practice of giving voice to those thoughts we might otherwise let slip through more tactile concerns. I will say to them, "look how that lady's beautiful gray hair shimmers like a waterfall in the sunlight." I will say, "show me, on this leaf, exactly where you think the green has ungreened itself and gone yellow." I will say, "I hear a windchime -- do you hear it, too?" so that we can nod a hello to the air as it laughs, and laugh along with it.

I say to them each, "your eyes are a blue that goes forever, straight, I think, into your soul," because what might have sounded like a pick-up line in college speaks real-to-goodness love when you look at your children. I look at them and I want them to know their beauty. I want them to know that they are not model-gorgeous or Hollywood-gorgeous or (God help me) toddlers-with-tiaras gorgeous, and I want them to know this because they are real-person beautiful, stunning each, loved and important and out to better this world with their presence.

I want them to be beholders of beauty.

In college and graduate school I studied art history, and in that field, if you are serious, you are always developing your critical eye. For each artist, each piece, we trained ourselves to notice: is this work innovative or imitative? What do we learn about the time, the place, the movement, his (always a 'his,' almost) peers? How can we file this work in the knowledge drawers of our minds against all the other works we've studied critically?

I am cultivating in my children an Uncritical eye. I want them not to define beauty by celebrity gossip nor by what some mean girl will one day say. I want them not ever to define their worth against an other; not their beauty nor their wisdom nor the measure of their hearts. So I assign beauty uncritically. I notice how tenderly a husband holds his hand against his wife's back, and I say quietly to my kids, "that's enduring love." When I see them staring at a woman in a wheelchair, as small children will do, I point out the warmth of her smile. When they look on the leathered face of an elderly gentleman, I draw their attention to the way his wrinkles carve canyons, deepening and emphasizing his dimples. When one girl challenges me with a difficult question I praise her deep thinking and when the other draws a picture to give to a friend I praise her generous spirit and when my son is old enough I'll tell him, too: these are the ways you love others, and your world -- by dwelling not on flaws but on beauty.

I suggest we go for a walk at dusk so I can show them how the tree branches are silhouetted black against a blazing-fading sky and I say "this is my favorite light." And I say that just so I can ask, "what's your favorite light?" And I ask that not for the answer, but so they will wonder, and seek beauty.

It's holy work, seeking beauty, and not just in the oldie-but-goodie 'we're made in God's image' way, but in that I'm building two confident women and a nurturing man. The best way I can make the world a better place is by sending my little people out into it as the most compassionate they can be, and so I tattoo this message beneath their skins, in their hearts and in their sights and in their bloodstreams: this world is filled with beauty. That person is filled with beauty. You are filled with beauty.

We all have worth.

But I can't only tell them that and be done; I need to teach them to identify it on their own. It's the hardest lesson of all, I think, to show ourselves grace. So for now we find it elsewhere, and we call it beauty. We find it in sunsets and crawling caterpillars and the friend who's so good at sharing toys. And with practice, there will be the days when they can stop the downward arc of a bad mood by watching a dust mote dance on a sunbeam and the days when they hold their tongues against gossip while remembering a kindness instead.

If we find beauty in nature, we can find it in other people. And if we can find it in other people, we can find it in ourselves. It's all a big universe-mirror, really, because happy people can make others happy. So now we've got the confident and the nurturing; the compassionate. And it all starts with noticing beauty.

Have you ever participated in a writing exercise? "Just write," the instructor will say, and suddenly you're paralyzed, pen tip poised just above paper, and you stare so intently at all that blankness that you notice the very fibers of the paper itself, the way the grain crosses where your words should go, and all you can do is scratch out a doodled curlicue, half-hearted, in the corner. And then suddenly words come and they fall out of your thinking faster than ink can convey and it's such a relief, that moment, and you're grateful for the words. Finding beauty is like writing: it doesn't always work at all but it is easier with regular practice.

And so I make my practices aloud that they may partake with me. I know, and expect they will learn: not every day is beautiful. Not every moment has a hug inside it waiting to unfurl. And that's exactly why I assign beauty to the mundane moments, so that they may become seekers, and in doing so become the best kind of self-sufficient.

EmergingMummy.comI'm participating in Emerging Mummy's Practices of Parenting Carnival. Sarah's Practices of Mothering series is filled with words I would have liked to write. When she suggested crowdsourcing more Practices, I knew I wanted to contribute a practice of my own. This is just the kind of thing that makes me love the internet.



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