I have a problem: I am having trouble writing about beauty.
This frustration all comes from failed attempts to write about the scenery in northern Spain and eastern Siberia, my two latest locales for my current work. I envy photographers who can wait for just the right light and mesmerize us with panoramic views of anywhere. I suppose, though, even they would say the same; that when they look at their photographs they just shake their heads and admit, “No. Close, sure, but this isn’t what it was like.”
Landscape artists (apologies to Cole Young who hated that term) as well, such as Young and Mikel Wintermantel and Thomas Cole and others, might admit this gap between what they see and what they create, though I’ve been to the places some of these artists captured and can confidently say they nailed it.
The irony, though, is I surround myself with beauty. In my house are artifacts from various travels: A small shell from Spain, icons from Russia, a musical instrument from Africa, and more. On the walls is the inspiring artwork from my son, Michael, from our travels together; a half dozen or so Mikel Wintermantel paintings which calm me, energize me, remind me of where so much of my soul resides in western New York; and other beautiful artwork. There’s the glass work by artisan and friend John Almaguer, the pottery of NY and Arizona compatriot Tom Schell, and on the shelves books by friends too many to count. I read them sometimes—I read about the ‘60’s in Philadelphia, or the things they carried in Vietnam, or growing up in the Bronx, or the floods of North Dakota, and I am mesmerized by beautiful prose and poetry; I am transfixed as writing is apt to do when it is that good.
In my office, too, I have taken the time to insure I am not cut off from that beauty for which we should be alive. I have Michael’s photos overlooking the Atlantic in Spain and others on the wall for me to fall into, and pictures by my Russian friend Valentine. When I look at those photos I laugh and remember how out of touch with reality he is, and how in touch with beauty he has always remained. He is legitimately crazy and figured out how to make a living at it. That’s beauty.
Also in my office is a small statue of St James the Greater as a pilgrim on horseback Michael bought for me at the cathedral in Santiago. There is artwork from friends in various places. A monkey clock from Kay. Pottery from St Augustine (the place not the person). A Cole Young painting which to look at immediately places me in his studio listening to his rant, listening to Van Morrison. I can smell paint.
Outside, however, the beauty has always escaped my writing. I think because that scenery is so obvious, such the standard example of what is recognized as “beautiful.” The ocean this morning was especially calm, and more dolphins swam by than I’ve seen in some time with pelicans barely above the water, always in a straight line, not a “V” like geese. The sun burned through the few clouds at eight a.m. and it was warm before I was half way down the sand. I rarely try and describe that for the countless scribes who tried and failed in years past. Oh, there were some who knew how to capture the beauty of nature—Muir, Thoreau, of course, Frost, even EB White’s “Here is New York” describes the city in a most enticing way making the skyline as much horizon as the Atlantic.
You’d think with something like eight hundred thousand words at my disposal I’d not have an issue with translating the lush mountains of the Pyrenees. So I find myself instead writing about my inability to write about something. It can be a cruel occupation.
To avoid writing, as we writers are quite apt at doing, I decided to clean out some boxes I moved in here a while back. Also, my file cabinet should be thinned out. Oh, and a few tea mugs look dusty so I need to wash them in the bathroom sink, which isn’t far from the café, so I might as well head over there for something to drink. See, that is how we think. It is absolutely beautiful to watch a writer avoid writing.
But I did empty the box to focus on something other than beauty and found old artifacts from before I began measuring time. A wall rug of seagulls and clouds my sister made for me almost half a century ago; a few mugs my dad bought for me in some of his travels to conventions during the early years; a drawing, scribble really, of the moon Michael did when he came to work with me one night when he was two; a high school yearbook with a picture of my old friend Mike and me doing the morning announcements (a good hour was lost looking through that relic); a key to my house in Wellsville, Pennsylvania, I have kept for all this time; a guitar pick from an old friend; two tootsie rolls.
A note here: the tootsie rolls aren’t garbage. I collected money once outside a grocery store for the Knights of Columbus and we gave away the candy. Michael was just six at the time and we had so much fun that day I believe we both remember the details of every person who came by; at least I do. There is certainly beauty in recollection, much to admire in some degree of melancholy.
I have a dried sunflower, a ton of photographs, and three rolls of undeveloped Kodak film; I have no idea from when or where.
I think the natural instinct when wishing to write about something we find beautiful is to turn to metaphor instead of focusing on detail. We do that in life too, I believe. I know I do. When stress is overwhelming and the days feel like something to “get done” instead of enjoy, it isn’t the “ocean” I need to fix on, but the break of the wave right near my feet and how it chased young sandpipers back and forth with the surf. I shouldn’t write about Siberia, but about that moment our cabin mate Alexander figured out how to say “rain” in English, and he taught us the Russian; and it certainly isn’t possible to write about the Pyrenees, but I can write about the Basque café owner who gave us flag pins and shots of Pacheron and was thrilled beyond description when Michael spoke some of the man’s native tongue.
And so throughout writing, it is the details. I can’t write about how much I miss my father, but I can write about how his face lit up when he sank a long putt; or how I forgot to say just the right thing; or how I never really did like Scotch all that much; or how I’ve lost interest in eating at Mahi Mah’s.
It isn’t difficult at all to write about beauty. The problem then is not recognizing how we are always surrounded by it and never know.