Fill in the blank: oncoming ___________.
What’s the first word you think of?
For me, it’s traffic. Something potentially dangerous, oblivious to me, at odds with my path. Something to watch out for and yield to.
I’m asking because of something I learned in a one-week intensive course earlier this summer, called Soul Care: Journey Inward, Journey Outward. We were in class from 9ish to 4 most days, but on Thursday, we attended a day-long seminar with psychiatrist Curt Thompson. At one point he repeated a question he sometimes asks his clients: How often are you putting yourself in the path of oncoming beauty?
He said many interesting or memorable or moving or provocative things that day, but this is the one that stood out in neon then and has persisted over the weeks. Oncoming … beauty?
Sit with that for a long moment.
There’s so much that thwarts expectation here: that incongruous pairing of oncoming with beauty; the hint that we are stepping into danger, or at least leaving a comfort zone, by putting ourselves in the path of beauty; the suggestion, almost prescription, that we should; and the invitation and provocation of making it a question.
So many questions follow it. What do you find beautiful? How do you define beauty? Why that odd adjective “oncoming”? How do you look for it or, indeed, put yourself in its path? Has it ever broadsided you? Do you cultivate it? Create it, share it, send it forth?
Thompson had some specific ideas about that, which you can read in this April 2020 blog post, which puts them in the context of the early, disorienting days of the pandemic. In short, he advocates three things, in this order: 1) doing something to create beauty several times a week, whether writing a poem or planting a flower; 2) spending time with works of art that have stood the test of time, including the natural world; and 3) connecting with others “with regular frequency with the intention of informing them of what creative act you have committed or how you have allowed yourself to be found by beauty in nature.”
Some of the happiest hours I spent this summer (and also some of the most physically demanding) passed while weeding various garden nooks on a half-acre surrounding an old Victorian mansion in Pittsburgh. I didn’t know I was putting myself in the path of oncoming beauty; its owner might have called it oncoming chaos. But something new was blooming every week. For a while, it was my patron flower, a parade of daylilies along one sidewalk on that corner property. Or dusty red tea roses, or the slender stalks of lavender blossoms on unassuming hostas, or the fuchsia peeking through a sort of igloo of grapevines that told me, hey, there’s a rosebush under here, which we then spent time liberating together. A favorite part of the place was a low, lush strip of succulents filling a foot-wide stretch along a fence, which you’d never notice unless you were searching everywhere on mission to eradicate thistles. Even with ever encroaching overgrowth to reclaim, there was beauty — old moss on patio bricks, hollyhocks, a volunteer sunflower, the soft murmuring of the matriarch chicken, the bees and butterflies visiting the pollen-rich plants that were put there to attract them, and so many signs of a property long loved and cultivated.
I could go on about Thompson’s ideas, in that blog post and his lectures and the book assigned as class reading, but then I’d risk letting the daylily of this post wither without putting it in the vase and offering it, so to speak. So tell me. How have you put ourself in the path of oncoming beauty, whether intentionally or accidentally? What play can you make with that phrase? How has it sustained and blessed you in this long strange time?
And, for those who find themselves in the path of oncoming ugly, how might this help? To adjust our gaze, to reorient us to what I will call goodness?
Goodness, lately, which is also oncoming beauty
While staying with four friends for a few days:
The husband daily going out with a basket and returning with that morning’s ripeness (cucumbers, tomatoes, slender Asian eggplants, a hefty muskmelon).
The wife slowly but surely knitting a baby afghan while watching her online class.
Laughing so hard we couldn’t speak. Isn’t that a kind of beauty, for the mind to find something so hilarious that the body can only double over and go mute?
The brass trivet that held whatever was set on it: a huge cast-iron skillet with the morning’s frittata, a stoneware bowl full of a glorious savory chickpea stew.
A tray piled with steamed crabs set on a brown paper tablecloth.
And other recent glimpses:
The “who IS that?” guitar piece someone set as music to her Instagram story.
A walk in the neighborhood to see what’s growing now.
The sighting of a beloved person coming to gather me at the airport.
The house welcome of “Are you hungry?” as the welcomer took baked salmon, corn on the cob, grilled asparagus and a rack of ribs out of the oven.
Months ago, a friend in one of my writing groups joked about blog posts that apologize for not posting. Let me draw your attention to absence! In a way that is a cloak of humor over a garment of something like regret or shame or apology! (This is how I think of it. Her mileage may vary.) I was talking with a friend last night about a period of not writing, and she said I might think of it as a field lying fallow. I like that. That, too — a friend I haven’t spoken to in quite a while, offering me a reframing metaphor — was oncoming beauty.
So, just know that I have thought about things to say here, and I started saying some of them, which are lying fallow in the Drafts folder, and I intend to say more, in their time.
Reading lately, each a kind of beauty:
Small Graces: The Quiet Gifts of Everyday Life by Kent Nerburn. I read this about 18 years ago when someone lent me her copy, and someone gifted me a copy again a few months ago. Now seems to be the right time for it.
Poem for the road
Often when Facebook notifies me of birthdays, I send the celebrant this poem. But I forget the plain truth of the title, and the second line.
My hundred-year-old next-door neighbor told me:
Every day is a good day if you have it.
I had to think about that a minute.
She said, Every day is a present
someone left at your birthday place at the table.
Trust me! It may not feel like that
but it’s true. When you’re my age
you’ll know. Twelve is a treasure.
And it’s up to you
to unwrap the package gently,
lift out the gleaming hours
wrapped in tissue,
don’t miss the bottom of the box.
— Naomi Shihab Nye
Until next time, whenever that is, may your days be seeded with peace and beauty and wonder.