Chapter 1: Two Moments of Beauty

Two Moments of Beauty

Much of my private writing over the years bears the mark of a curmudgeon: negative, a bit bombastic, frustrated. True enough. But there is a gentler side of me—one, I suppose, not made public enough that is aging hippie in love with beauty. I have always been in love with beauty, even before my hippie days. One of the most beautiful memories of my childhood is that of sitting in an old maple tree at 6 am in the midst of the swampy field behind my house. From my perch I watched the redwing blackbirds fly from the cattails as the sun came up fuzzy orange on the horizon and burned the thin mist from the tops of the cattails. But I seldom write or speak from this side of my being—only perhaps when alone with the closest of friends. Perhaps I should say, I seldom “publish” from this side of my being. I have written poems about these beauties since my early teens—but have always kept them private.

I’m not sure why. In part, perhaps, because “boys” are supposed to be rough and not attuned to beauty and poetry—something we all know is false but persists as a myth of our culture, a very damaging myth (that’s a thought for another time). In part, perhaps, because the only news that sells consistently well is the “bad” news—curmudgeonly news. But I think mainly because I am often so deeply embedded in beauty experiences that I have neither the energy nor the nerve to write about them. Writing descriptively, as I do here, inevitably misses the depth and the heart of these experiences. They are better left alone, untouched, unmarred—moments to let be. Their full being, in the language of philosophers, is ineffable (it is hard for me not to hear “ineffable” as “unfuck-upable” and, seen from my mystical way of being, there is some truth in that conflation). Despite all that, it doesn’t follow that nothing intelligible or useful can be said for these moments.

            In an attempt to bring my hippieness to prominence, I offer here two brief excursions into my experiencing of beauty.  After all, despite my curmudgeon-ness, I spend much of my time dancing with beauty—even if, as a young Chinese friend says, dancing alone. There is a reason why I spend so many nights in my back yard with fire and stars to accompany me. And why, when I run to the lake, I stand to watch the birds, the turtles, and the lilies in their quiet aquatic dance. My experiences with beauty are why I am comfortable with the actuality of death—I have been given more gifts of beauty than any one person deserves in a lifetime. I have been beauty-fortunate in painting, in poetry, in love, in nature, and in music.

Singing to Beauty

Throughout my days of playing music there has been a common phenomenon that I understand but do not engage in—the refusal to play some overly popular song. In every music scene there is always an “in” crowd—the hippest musicians in town. They knowingly introduce songs to their audiences that then become ridiculously popular—they are good and popular songs. Audiences then begin to clamor for these songs to be played over and over until the musicians are simply sick of them. The musicians, believing that they have created a monster, begin to mock the audiences that call for the songs and then refuse to play them. Thus, to make it into the hippest group, you must refuse to play and also be willing to make fun of the songs in question.

            Every generation has a few. Most recently “that” song has been “Wagon Wheel.” But the history of these songs is easy to track—at least in my experience. The “unplayables” include John Denver’s version of “Country Roads,” Van Morrison’s “Brown-eyed Girl,” Buffett’s “Margaritaville,” “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” by the Eagles, and of course Skynrd’s “Freebird.”  Many more of these litter the trail of pop music performance.

            I understand the initial resistance, but I cannot take the road of the hipsters. First, these songs are usually good songs, which is why we play them in the first place. Second, in playing each of these songs I have felt my own beauty in the playing—that moment inside a song when you are no longer an outsider but are there in all immediacy with the lyric and the melody. Few things in life are more beautiful than such moments. My third reason is the moment of beauty I want to illuminate here.

            Each person who asks me for one of these songs has found some experiential beauty in and with that song. They might not be musicians or poets or artists. They might not feel with the depth of an artist. But they are persons who have been affected by the song—affect, feeling, sensuousness—human animals experience these. So, when I sing the request of one of these songs, I sing to the beauty of the requester and to others in the audience whom I can see have been affected by the song. I am offering to them an experience or memory of beauty—and that is the moment of beauty for me. I have become the contingent vehicle for someone else’s moment of beauty—their beauty seeps into me as I sing; it is quite literally an awe-some and amazing experience. Occasionally I do not even wait for the request—I can simply sense by the tenor of the set I have been playing and the nature of the audience’s response that some one song will bring us together—and more often than not it works. What a luxury of beauty! A few years back Eliza Gilkyson wrote a song called “The Beauty Way” that captures the essence of those moments of performing beauty. She begins with the lure of the music:

            “A wide-eyed kid with a little transistor

            Listenin’ to Wolfman Jack

            I picked up a guitar and heard the sirens whisper

            And I never looked back, little darlin’, no I never looked back…”

And in the end she leaves us with the hold that—despite all the little trials of performing—these moments of music beauty have on us:

            “Some nights I wish I could unplug this cord

            And my soul or my money I would save

            But every time I try to quit this beauty way

            My bones start turnin’ in my grave, little darlin’, bones start turnin’ in my grave…”

So, for me, bring on “Wagon Wheel” and “Margaritaville.” I know I may have the opportunity to live in and through the beauty of another human, however difficult their life has otherwise been.

Harsh Beauty

My experiences in nature have been many. When I was 18, fresh college drop-out, I used to walk a mile into the New Hampshire woods and sit still on a high stump beside a beaver pond. After 40 minutes or so, the beaver(s) would assume me harmless and go about their business; what a treasure of beauties in watching them live and “work”—I call it “work” but to me it most often seemed they were playing, enjoying their day as I was mine. But my moments of beauty have not always been “sunshine on my shoulders.”  Sometimes I have felt harsh beauty.

            I was reminded of this one night when I came home in the dark after a late night of music. I stepped out of my van into a searing wind driving cold rain almost sideways at me. A moment of natural transition—the actual moment when winter arrived after an extended autumn. At first my body shuddered and closed in on itself, seeking its own warmth. But as I stood becoming thoroughly drenched in icy rain, a scream of utter joy erupted and exploded into the night, eaten up by the sounds of wind and rain. My scream blew off behind me into some unknown infinity. But I opened my arms and leaned into the rain and felt such an intense harsh beauty it nearly overwhelmed me—like Socrates I was struck stone still in the night—in the awesomeness of the moment.

            Fortunately, I lived then on a reasonably abandoned dirt road and no one called the police or a psychiatrist. I’m not sure why we hide such moments from each other, but I know we do. These moments of harsh beauty have been with me throughout my life and I used to think I was simply strange. But one day when I was 16 and working on a dairy farm, I saw a young heifer just lose her mind and jump joyfully over the electric fence designed to keep her locked in. Cows are astoundingly graceful if you can catch them in the mood—this heifer landed in a young cornfield, clearly happy and proud of herself. At that moment I realized for sure that we are all animals—and animals seek experiences of joy and beauty. Since that day, I have left myself open to moments of harsh beauty without apology. I am, after all, no more of a hippie animal on a sunny September afternoon in a pine forest than I am in a late November ice storm up to my knees in a shifting swamp—I am open to beauty. It remains the fuel of my existence.

(For more on harsh beauty, see Robert Frost’s “My November Guest”)

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