Emily asked me a couple of weeks ago if I could comb through her blog, looking at the theme of ‘beauty’, as she is drawing together an essay for a special edition of Tin House magazine. I finally settled down to it on Sunday night, sitting in my office at the top of my thin tall house in London, darkness with subtle orange streetlamp glow to it outside my window and all quiet inside.
What is beauty according to the world of Little Seal?
- Was it a visual thing? Emily’s blog makes almost no reference to this idea of beauty. Except when people mentioned Ronan’s smile! (Grandpa Louis, Weber)
- Beauty was sometimes the unattainable future, the imagined perfection of what will be and what would finally make Emily happy, best epitomised in the doll’s house in the children’s ward in Emily’s article in the Santa Fe Reporter.
- Maybe ‘beauty’ was about being in the Now? Oger wrote: “suddenly, surprisingly, the Brigadoon-like cloud of despair gave way to an indescribable sensation of peace. It was as if Ronan and I were floating into a glorious universe of light. For a moment, time seemed suspended. The past evaporated. The future was absent… Suddenly, two five letter words emerged: Ronan. Light”. Ingrid Ricks did the same in her post about the power of ‘Now’. Emily herself wrote, on 5 March: “Even inside this frantic sadness, there exist these exquisite moments of pristine happiness and an almost-perfect peace”.
- Or was beauty about rareness. Emily described rareness as being utterly awful. In her post on Georgia O’Keefe, she said, “I can’t help wanting more information, and wishing, not for the first time in my life, that the word “rare” was not associated with any aspect of my physical body.” But she also infers rareness as a beautiful thing when she talks about the unique voice of Wallace: “His penetrating insights into all that was weird and wonderful, his obvious genius, his status as a true original with no literary heir — all were celebrated”.
- I started feeling prodded and challenged when I read Emily’s post wrestling with the question of predestination. She said that the Calvin interpretation of the world is that we are in an ordered universe which is run by an omnipotent God, for whom every experience of the individual, positive and negative, is ultimately ‘for good’. “Calvin believes that this is a comfort, in the end because believers trust and know that all things work for good and that the events that befall them are not random and meaningless.” (5 March) Does this come to saying that all things, including evil, destruction, loss, have the beautiful divine hand of God behind them because in all things, seeds are sown ‘for good’?
- Ach, this is such a hard one to take on board. Last week I was reading Parker J. Palmer’s reflections on the metaphor of the seasons in his book “Let Your Life Speak”. He points out that while Autumn is a season of beauty and decline, this season, “faced with the inevitable winter, scatters the seeds that will bring new growth in the spring.” Winter itself is “A demanding season — and not everyone appreciates the discipline. It is a season when death’s victory can seem supreme. And get the rigors of winter are accompanied by amazing gifts.” What beauty is there in Ronan dying? There seems to be none. Emily texted me last week in one of her dark moments to say ‘I feel like nothing good will ever happen again.’ Yet I know too that she is amazed at the connections she is experiencing through this blog, from her friends in Santa Fe who gathered at the weekend to celebrate Ronan’s first birthday, and she is amazed too at her need to write. These are precious, beautiful gifts in the midst of awful, demanding rigour. One does not cancel out the other. They coexist. Beauty coexists with, and actually emerges from, ugliness and death. Her blog again: “Yet, as O’Rourke and Oates both point out, the experience of their losses was deeply profound and artistically, at some points, absolutely electric,” said Emily on 5 March. The very process of ordering chaos, of embracing life from death, was beautiful. Parker J. Palmer echoes this: “In the Upper Midwest, newcomers often receive a classic piece of wintertime advcie: ‘The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.’ Here people spend good money on warm clothing so that they can get outdoors and avoid the ‘cabin fever’ that comes from huddling fearfully by the fire during the hard-frozen months.”
- The theme that got me thinking the most came when I started wrestling with whether Art was a shorthand for beauty. I wondered if Emily was positing that beauty existed only when there is objectivity and distance from the thing being appreciated. She didn’t say this. But the way she talked about writing from inside the experience of an emotion made me think that we would not normally say the experience she was describing is beautiful. There’s a euphoria, a passion for writing, but what she was describing sounded messier, much more energetic, more driven. “In those first hellish weeks, I had to write; that was all there was. That was living.” “A person experiencing catharsis is on fire” (5 March).
- So did that mean that beauty is detachment – and therefore stillness? (Is that what Ingrid Ricks was writing about, about finding a ‘stillness’ in the present?)
- I was reminded about a grid I got taught about on a (very good) leadership course. As we sat in a semi-circle in front of a flip chart, a tall, carefully dressed man who (it turned out) coached the head of the British civil service, told us that the prime purpose of a leader was ‘to manage their own energy… (He paused here to emphasise this really was the top priority) and to manage the energy of others.’ We were asked to consider the possibility we could find ourselves in four different energetic states:
|Just Surviving||At your best|
Making others wrong
In the Detail
|Make it happen!
On the front foot
Seeing the Big Picture
Grace Under Pressure
(From Steve Radcliffe, “Future, Engage, Deliver’)
What was fascinating was that Steve Radcliffe encouraged us to find time for the ‘low energy, at your best’ place. It’s from here, he argued, that you get to embrace the big picture, the whole. (Anyone who meditates, or has any kind of spiritual practice, intuitively knows this I suspect. It was rather exciting to see this packaged up in business speak and delivered in a four by four grid to a group of very ambitious British civil service bosses.)
Did Emily’s point, “the creative act makes a new world with new rules and structure and form, and is therefore not only sustaining in both an emotional/human way, but also in an artistic way” (5 March) – therefore mean that in writing, she found a new place from which to observe – from a little distance, which in turn lent a manic, energetic experience the quality of stillness and calmness that let it become Beauty? Did she, in effect, got to flirt with the bottom right hand box of the grid?
I started pondering if beauty did require this quality of stillness, calmness, and distance. Then, reading her bit on Thomas Mann, (27 Feb) I questioned myself again. She quoted him as saying, “They don’t just land at an end point, whole and complete, and they never stop changing. They never arrive.” Well, this was saying existence is always MOVING and never STILL. Emily then deployed Hegel, and Hegel also proved to be the clincher for me to accommodate beauty in movement AND stillness. She explained: ““Spirit” (a kind of stand-in for the notion of God and/or the Holy Spirit, although not exactly), as an animating force that exists within every living thing, a force that is not just about forward motion, but about spiraling, doubling back, mucking up our notions of time, our understandings of development and progress.” (27 Feb) She made the point particularly strongly when she referred to Laura’s poem. “Just life and death, in that moment, held up together, at once. Fusion. The effect was stunning. It was, in a word, art.” I concluded that the act of blogging, as a writer, was an act in creating beauty.
- One thing was sure, I felt beauty in much of Emily’s writing itself. Lots of people had made comments like those of Alison “You are sharing Ronan’s days so beautifully with your words…” While re-reading Emily’s writing I had one of those moments too. It was when I read the description of Emily’s ‘hair flick’ in the same paragraph as her explaining Hegel better than any Cambridge Don did for me. It wasn’t, technically a ‘beautiful’ bit or writing – clever, yes, witty, yes, well observed, yes. But the combined effect of the wit, the intelligence, the poetry of the previous posts… I suddenly thought: But THIS is beauty. It made me feel so delighted inside.
Guest Post by OtherEm (Emily Miles)