I grew up with Evil Knievel and the Flying Wallendas. Thrilling as their stunts were, it was always a noisy spectacle. It seemed to be more about man conquering the Grand Canyon or the Tallulah Gorge than interacting with nature. The backdrop was a prop.
In this video, though, Michael Schaefer and Dean Potter create a scene as thrilling in its composition as in the act itself of walking the highline at Cathedral Peak. As the sun sets and descends, the moon rises and looms large — the orb cradling the dyad of rock towers turned burnt-red. As the National Geographic filmmakers say, it is “the ultimate full moon shot” — captured from over a mile away with a serious telephoto lens.
As Mr. Potterbegins his unaided walk, you hear the camera operator take deep, calm but anxious, meditative breaths. And you breathe with him. Oh, if we all could witness such panoramic beauty like this each day…
The only thing that matters is how I feel about myself, my personal integrity, and my relationship with my Creator. Of course, it’s wonderful to be held in esteem and fond regard by family, friends, and community, but a central part of my spiritual practice is letting go of otheration. And casting one’s lot with the public is dangerous and self-destructive, and I value myself too much to do that.
—Ashley Judd, from her commentary for The Daily Beast's Women in the World blog
No wonder this piece has been taking the media world by storm. It’s a powerful commentary, one that lets no one off the hook and reminds us that we’re all culpable of this type of thinking. I’m a father of two boys, and I’ve got some real work to do.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
A Reprieve from Myself: What’s Revealed in a View
by Sarah J. Hart, guest contributor
My last two years in Brooklyn I felt fortunate to have the view I did. My windows faced east, and, although the blank wall of another building loomed large directly in front, to the right grew a luscious tree and above was an unobstructed view of sky. I often woke at dawn and would stand on the fire escape and soak in the morning, while it still felt clear and clean.
Over the five years I lived in “the city” I learned to train my eyes away from a lot of what was around me: trash exploded from vandalized garbage bags; the grey on brown on dingy grey of sidewalk, street, and dirty buildings; tawdry advertisements; glaring lights. Instead I’d glue my gaze on any scrap of nature available: a leaf splattered on the curb; weeds flourishing in an empty lot; wheeling pigeons, making the sky sparkle with their sunlit wings. By the end of my five years in NYC I felt I struggled endlessly to find enough beauty that I might endure the ugly. “This is absurd,” I thought. “Clearly the city is the wrong environment for me.”
In January of this year I had the opportunity to move out and, with great relief, I did.
Now I live in the woods. There are no other houses in sight. I am on 40 acres, embraced in a bear hug of state land. When I look out my window, I see only beauty: layers of hemlock, bright clusters of beech leaves, spindly maples with slender branches that shatter the sky.
Whether it’s a sun-soaked day that impels me to shut my computer and go out for a walk (or at least to do something useful, like fill the wood box) or an overcast one with a moody sky and pinches of sleet, I see that there is always a perfect harmony in the colors and textures around me. In the woods I am humbled — in that way that’s also elating — with the reminder of all the living and dying and churning forth of ephemeral beauty that is happening around me all the time, whether I am paying attention or not.
Living in such an environment induces a certain shrinking down to size, and a correlating peace with one’s place in this world. Red squirrels and red maples do not seem to fret over the “good enough-ness” of their lives, and it starts to feel a bit out of line to do so myself. I see their perfection — the kind that is inherent rather than measurable — and find it easier to see that same quality in myself as well, ongoing toils notwithstanding.
But of course, I could have felt this in the city. Strictly speaking, the city is no less a natural environment than the one up here. It too evolved from the tumble of cause and effect of living things trying to survive. It is certainly no less vibrant an ecosystem. True, in an urban landscape the parameters of opportunity and constraint are mostly man-made, but they yield an abundance of variety equivalent to that in a woodland environment. There’s differentiation, specialization, and the endless burgeoning of micro-complexity within the larger landscape.
Indeed, there was a time when the city inspired in me similar feelings as the woods do now. I moved there at a time in my life of greedy growth, too hungry for the tidy flower box of a town I lived in. New York City had the appeal of wilderness — an expanse of unknown, potential, and gritty reality.
To love the city is to feel a great compassion for the swarms of other people around you. All those lives, all that urgent self preservation, the palpable vulnerability and ferocity. The beauty of it can break your heart.
“A man never discloses his own character so clearly as when he describes that of another,” an insightful person is said to have said. This observation is true. And it also applies to our descriptions of the world around us. What we see in the landscape outside the window is, truly, a window onto the landscape inside.
New York City lost its beauty not because it changed (if anything it has become thrillingly greener in the years since I moved there, what with the urban agriculture movement, the roof top farms, and so on) but because I lost my ability to see it. My dissatisfaction with the city increased in direct correlation with my dissatisfaction with my life and dissatisfaction with myself for failing to improve that life. The fewer hopes and ambitions I managed to fulfill, the fewer opportunities the city seemed to provide for peace, contentment, and happiness. I condemned it as a place of harsh judgment and didn’t notice that I was the harshest judge.
I moved to the woods to gain a reprieve from the city, but what I really gained is a reprieve from myself. Of course, the change of view outside my window is very real, and one I appreciate intensely, but I know the significant change is actually in my point of view. Bickering at the corner deli used to make me groan, but squabbles of the same order at the birdfeeder make me giggle. I wince at lurid colors in plastic, but delight in the same hues when discovered in lichen. Although I’m a bit of an oddity in the small town I now call home, I feel thoroughly comfortable, as I never managed to feel when in the midst of thousands of peers.
I know there have been times in my life when I could not have appreciated this environment as I do now. And who knows, perhaps I’ll be ill content again someday. But I hope I do not forget that beauty is not a quality to seek, only to see.
Sarah Jean Heart is a writer, editor, and reporter living in Boonville, New York. You can read more of her writing and view more of her photography at The Perspective Project.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication for the On Being Blog. Submit your entry and contribute a deeper understanding of the world around us.
Their goddess of love is a very fascinating and complex idea. She is in fact goddess of all the luxuries which are not essential to survival. She is the goddess of love which, unlike sex, is not essential to propagation. She is the muse of the arts. Now man can live without it but he doesn’t live very much as man without it. It is strange that one would have to go to an apparently primitive culture such as Haiti to find an understanding in such exalted terms of what the essential feminine – not female – feminine role might conceivably be – that of being everything which is human. Everything which is more than that which is necessary. Taken from this point of view, there is no reason in the world why women shouldn’t be artists. And very fine ones.
—Maya Deren (1917-1961) describing the Vodou spirit Erzulie.
The experimental filmmaker was the first person to win a Guggenheim Fellowship for film. She used her grant to travel to in Haiti during the 1940s, immersing herself in Vodou rituals. Her 1953 book Divine Horsemen: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti introduced many Western readers to the complexity and depth of Vodou for the first time.
Photo of Maya Deren by bswise (Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
-Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
The Pursuit and Practice of Happiness Is an Awareness of the Suffering and Pleasure of Others
by Krista Tippett, host
A basketball court transformed by flowers and incandescent light. Four thousand people in attendance. Four global religious leaders. I have never concentrated as hard as I did in the two hours I spent on that stage. But it was, in the end, a delight. And it was fascinating as an encounter as much as a conversation. The Dalai Lama embodied joy, his radiant and playful presence, was as defining as the words he spoke.
The biggest challenge with discussing “happiness” in this culture might be finding our way back to the substance of the word itself — a substance that has been hollowed out by its uses in culture. I found myself planted in the definition of happiness that the French-born, Tibetan Buddhist scientist and monk Matthieu Ricard offered on this program. He defines happiness as “genuine flourishing” — not a pleasurable sensation or mood but a way of being in the world that can encompass the fullness of human experience, joy and pleasure as well as suffering and loss.
Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church, and Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Kingdom all added to that definition as they laid out the virtues and habits, the spiritual technologies, that their traditions have carried forward in time. They all described corollaries, in a sense, to the Dalai Lama’s joyful yet disciplined teachings on cultivating compassion and calmness in the mind as way of flourishing in and amidst all of life’s experiences. But the most exciting part of interreligious encounter, for me, is not rushing to hear similarities but savoring particularities — the distinctive vocabularies of thought and practice, the beautiful and intriguing differences that come to light even as we may seem to be circling towards the same goal.
And so among my favorite moments are Professor Nasr’s explication of beauty as inextricably linked to virtue and happiness in Muslim tradition. Beauty, he says, makes the soul happy. Bishop Jefferts Schori talked about the long tradition in Christianity of practicing gratitude and “the presence of God” in the midst of ordinary activities of life. Rabbi Sacks evoked sabbath as a space to focus on the things in life that are “important but not urgent.” He described the extraordinary power of pausing to let life’s “blessings” — an awareness of the deepest sources of our happiness — “catch up with us.” Such reflections unsettle notions of happiness as a “right” and as something to be “pursued.”
A discussion of happiness is intrinsically serious, too. As we were also reminded in the course of this discussion, spiritual happiness is never merely personal in nature. It is linked to an awareness of the suffering and pleasure of others. And at the same time, it is something we cultivate in our bodies as well as our minds. It communicates itself in our very presence.
There was, fittingly, a great deal of laughter on this stage of religious dignitaries seated center court at Emory. There was a festive atmosphere in the room altogether. Listen, and watch, for yourself. Ponder, and enjoy.
One Year in 40 Seconds (video)
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Something a bit more playful and quiet for this Friday: a time-lapse video of a grove of trees in Oslo, Norway showing the seasons change.
Communing with Beauty
by Rita G. Patel, guest contributor
"Beauty and Its Possibilities" by Rita Patel
I once saw a simple fish pond in a Japanese village which was perhaps eternal.
A farmer made it for his farm. The pond was a simple rectangle, about 6 feet wide, and 8 feet long; opening off a little irrigation stream. At one end, a bush of flowers hung over the water. At the other end, under the water, was a circle of wood, its top perhaps 12 inches below the surface of the water. In the pond there were eight great ancient carp, each maybe 18 inches long, orange, gold, purple, and black: the oldest one had been there eighty years. The eight fish swam, slowly, slowly, in circles—often within the wooden circle. The whole world was in that pond. Every day the farmer sat by it for a few minutes. I was there only one day and I sat by it all afternoon. Even now, I cannot think about it without tears. Those ancient fish had been swimming, slowly, in that pond for eighty years. It was so true to the nature of the fish, and flowers, and the water, and the farmers, that it had sustained itself for all that time, endlessly repeating, always different. There is no degree of wholeness or reality which can be reached beyond that simple pond.
Not only is the description both vivid and beautiful — conjuring up a lovely image — but the emotion from actually seeing and being with this beauty in nature is profoundly powerful.
If I am open, moments where I can deeply see, feel, and be are available in all sorts of so-called common places and interactions. And what happens is that I don’t just observe with my senses and my mind, but I commune with the beauty of it in my heart — that is where it happens, where I actually feel it. The feeling doesn’t stay but the feeling about other things afterwards is always affected. And the more I experience this beauty the more I realize that it does not disappear but is always present. Available to connect to when I am available. A wonderful thing to wake up and remember and make a habit.
"Radiance belongs to being considered precisely as beautiful; it is, in being, that which catches the eye, or the ear, or the mind, and makes us want to perceive it again."
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When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.
—R. Buckminster Fuller
Beauty resists easy definition, because it rests on the particular as well as the elusive.
— Judith Dupré, from her newly published book, Full of Grace: Encountering Mary in Faith, Art, and Life.
posted by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Embracing the Beauty of Genetic Difference
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
Former fashion photographer Rick Guidotti has been taking pictures of people with genetic differences for over a decade. His organization, Positive Exposure, celebrates “the spirit of difference” and “the joy that comes with self-acceptance.” He’s committed to changing how people with genetic conditions all over the world see themselves, and, in turn, how they’re perceived within their communities.
Guidotti is adamant that his work isn’t about illuminating inner beauty. “This is beauty,” he insists. “This is the real deal. These kids are gorgeous, and you see the beauty there exists. We just haven’t been allowed to see it.”
Photographing people with albinism has been central to Guidotti’s efforts with Positive Exposure. In recent years, he’s photographed some of these young women and men in villages in Mali and Tanzania, where the social stigma can lead to ostracization and sometimes life-threatening consequences, and in South Africa at a school for the blind.
When we sat down at a conference in Minneapolis, I asked him to tell me the stories behind some of his photographs, which we’ve included in our narrated slideshow at the top of this post. You can also download the unedited interview (mp3, 29:21) to hear even more of these stories.
Most of us have probably harbored negative feelings about our physical appearance at some point in our lives. When these feelings lodge and fester, they deplete our spirits. I see Guidotti’s images as a visual reminder to be kinder to ourselves and more generous and joyous in how we construe beauty in all its manifestations.