“These times are riven with anxiety and uncertainty . . . Our trust in the future has lost its innocence. We know now that anything can happen, from one minute to the next.”
John O’Donohue, the poet, philosopher and scholar who died in 2008, wrote those sentences in 2003, in Beauty: The Invisible Embrace. But reading it now, in the Spring of 2021, feels eerie.
“Every life is braided with luminous moments,” says O’Donohue, as he invites us to be healed by all kinds of beauty. “The wonder of the Beautiful is its ability to surprise us. With swift, sheer grace, it is like a divine breath that blows the heart open.”
O’Donohue says we can find beauty anywhere, even in a pandemic. “In a sense, the question of beauty is about a way of looking at things. It is everywhere, and everything has beauty; it is merely a matter of discovering it.”
For me, beauty in 2020 and 2021 has been about flowers – the flowers in the tiny bud vases on my desk and my bedside table, the flowers I find on my sanity-saving daily walks, even images of flowers on Instagram (I follow a lot of florists!). Without museums and the performing arts, I’ve held onto flowers as if they were oxygen. Because, as O’Donohue says, “A life without delight is only half a life.”
In her fantastic and fascinating book Joyful, Ingrid Fetell Lee says, “Flowers signify a kind of uncontainable verve, a life force that can’t help but find its way out. Even in static form, the blooming shapes of flowers suggest a momentum toward a more abundant world.”
One awful night last September, as California burned and it felt dangerous even to breathe, I sat and stared at the flower on my bedside table before I went to bed:
The rose, glowing in the soft light of my bedside table’s lamp, is white. It’s not ivory, not cream. It is a papery white I haven’t seen before. Its shape is hybrid tea rose perfection — a tight cone at the center, surrounded by graceful layers of young petals, rimmed with older petals ruffling the edge.
This single serving of ideal beauty in a pale blue Heath bud vase is unaware of the essential service it is performing, filling my starving eyes and my heart with beauty.
After a few days, the rose yields and opens like a camellia. It is wider, rounder and still full of grace. The color grows creamier, the petals are like suede.
That flower, which I can still remember perfectly, healed my heart and gave me hope.
The subtitle of Ingrid Fettell Lee’s Joyful is: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness. Her book, like O’Donohue’s, is a call to action, a recipe for hope. “Life multiplies,” she writes, “and so does joy. And though I never would have suspected it eight years ago when I started writing this book, it’s not far-fetched to believe that from the seeds of our own joy, a whole world can be reborn.”
I hope that this spring we can each find the beauty to heal us, to inspire us, to sustain us as we do the work of helping to build a new world.