I am writing this where I have been doing most of my writing for the past month – in a small hotel room with bad lighting and an open suitcase.
Currently the setting is Rome, a place I swore I would never return. It was an ugly city that first time, in my eyes it was full of junkies and thieves. I was 21 then, determinedly weaving my way through the violent traffic for the chance to gaze up at the gods painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Even then I made mad pilgrimages for beauty.
Decades have passed since that time, and yet I still remember what it felt like to step into that tiny chapel and lift my neck to receive the gifts that were offered by an artist who never wanted to make such a masterpiece. Isn’t that the nature of beauty, though? Always appearing in places that never should allow it to flourish.
The Value of Beauty
I have seen a lot of art in my time, both the kind displayed in museums and that which runs down the gutters after a rainstorm. As my eyes have fallen on these works, they have shaped, chiseled, and colored my understanding of beauty – what it is, what it offers us, and what we can offer it in return.
What I have come to know is that beauty is a currency. In my eyes, it is the most valuable type that exists in the world. But like a forgotten temple, beauty has been overlooked in favor of the newer, more aggressive objects that dominate our minds and fill our pockets. War, money, power – we humans reach for these as a way to soothe what aches in our ribs. But none offer the way home that beauty can.
Perhaps this is why, despite its under appreciation, beauty continues to be. Not only continues, but flourishes in the harshest environments to remind us that life is more than the swarms of angry wasps that we swat away. Beauty continues in the strangest of ways – winding flowers up around bombed out buildings and blowing songs through the voices of beggars calling for our attention. Beauty does not always take the easy route; indeed, it takes all routes.
Beauty in a Shattered World
At the beginning of my journey through Europe this month I was part of an event that is best described as ethical hedonism. It was a weeklong performance of erotic theater, a genre that has allowed me to express many of the thoughts that I have always wanted to express in a way that can be heard. On the first day I arrived, I shared a conversation with the organizer about the event. We spoke about our questions of whether we should be reveling in a time when violence threatens not just a group of people in an occupied land, but shades of all of us who have been grappling with the question of what to do to undo the pain of a colonized world.
The shared answer we came to was this: the old tools aren’t enough. Pleasure – the action word of beauty – has the ability to lift our chins and remind us that life contains an odd magic. Even in the worst of times we can dance to express the pain. We always have.
Beauty never leaves us, but there are times, like now, when it must be intentionally excavated. But it’s not just waiting in marble carvings and fine brush strokes in the museums, but in the contradiction of that artistry against the million forms of heartbreak we see in any day. When we orient our eyes to beauty, we can have faith that something is waiting to love us back no matter what horrors we have done or have been done to us.
Gaze Upon This
The eyes are the key to beauty. There are many objects, events, and people that are irrefutably horrific, but nothing – nothing – exists without a kiss from the divine. Our only hope to keep the passion alive within is to dig out the beauty that is being offered to us in the face of tragedies.
Beauty exists in the proud defiance of Palestinian men dancing in front of Israeli snipers. It exists in the sharp eyes of the Iranian women cutting their hair in protest. It exists in the grief that surfaces when yet another mass grave of Canadian indigenous children is uncovered. Beauty teaches us to feel, and that feeling reminds us that we have remained open enough not to be numb. Short of a miraculous turn toward peace and true justice, our best effort lives in looking at the things we don’t want to see until their petals unfurl toward the illumination of our gaze.
With eyes oriented to rooting out beauty, to avoid running from the scarred surfaces of life, we have the power to reveal a work of art. But some art, even when stripped bare, will be hideous. It will send us running into the depths of our psyche, far from the places we expected we would go. But even here, in the shadows, we can find beauty making love to the pain. The passion of their coupling is a testament to the truth that the horrific things humans do are just a plea for a space to be heard and held until they feel safe enough to weep softly.
Last Night in Rome
On my last night in Rome, I took a walk home in the rain alone. It was one of those romantic moments. An umbrella and smooth, white stairs. Cafe lights and gushing fountains.
I walked three flights up to a hotel room so small I could not open both my suitcase and the door at the same time. I packed my things and stepped out on the balcony to take in the fading scent of my travels. My view was the inglorious backside of four buildings. Laundry hanging in the rain. Air conditioning units on uncertain foundations. A ground floor filled with neglected plants and waterlogged cigarette butts. In an ugly corner of a gorgeous city, I practiced finding the beauty. This is when Rome showed me who she truly is. Still the same city I swore I would never return to, but also the new part I had discovered, the one that lifted my heart to the sky as the world around me moaned in agony.
I realized I had fallen in love with Rome. Not just with her rolling streets and sudden piazzas, but the forgotten courtyards, taxis that nearly killed me, and men who threatened to eat me alive. I hold those parts just as softly as the memory of Trevi fountain at night. Just as softly as I hold the awareness that injustice anywhere points us toward our compassion, our care, our desire to do better.
As I shut off my lights that night for one last sleep in a city that will forever have my heart, I saw this truth: Beauty does not want us to only rest in what is pleasing to the eyes, but to fill us with the courage to know that our hearts are made stronger when we look long enough to no longer be afraid.
The least we can do to thank her for this gift is to never turn away from anything – or anyone – we deem ugly until we find the places where Venus herself has laid a kiss.
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