all of the selves we Have ever been
Up ahead, a banner flutters in the stingy summer breeze.
I squint into the sun. Words bob like surfers on visible waves of hot, humid air: Estate Sale Today.
A lover of old things and needing respite from the heat, I take a detour off the walking path and into the parking lot of a large office complex. Following the crowd, I enter a cramped showroom. Excited shoppers who were chattering in the parking lot turn silent at the threshold as though entering a church.
Carefully arranged furnishings overflow onto an outdoor patio at the back of the store. The overall effect is both stunning and quaint. There are extraordinary ancient pieces mingling with items from the more recent past. I recognize a set of blue and white Currier & Ives Old Grist Mill china, and my eyes fill with tears. This place is a merger of the Louvre and my beloved grandmother’s house. Mona Lisa, are you here too?
There is little room to walk. I suck in my breath and my stomach as I squeeze between tables covered with stacks of fine china and delicate glassware. I say “excuse me” over and over again as I navigate around the many browsing customers. I pray that I will not bump into a table or chest and destroy the inventory or the mood.
A group of people gather on the east side of the room. I work my way to the perimeter of the crowd and catch a glimpse of the object of their collective admiration. Against the wall stands an exquisitely crafted old wooden cabinet. Though plain in appearance, the cabinet reigns like visiting royalty over this otherwise showy gallery.
A young couple is first to step up to the throne. The woman stretches her arm across the width of the cabinet, commenting on the smoothness of its finish. She stands there for a few moments as though locked in an embrace. The woman’s male companion is even bolder. He takes hold of the aged metal pulls and opens the drawers. We all continue to gaze in silent awe. The man and woman step away, passing reverent words between them. Others from the crowd slowly step forward to examine the cabinet. When everyone has moved on, I move in for a closer look. I slide my hand across the smooth, curved edges. I touch the drawer pulls and study their delicate yet sturdy square shape. I admire each detail of craftsmanship. I open the lower door and the aged wood whispers its story to me. Already on my knees, I pray that I can hear. The cabinet is empty, but I am filled with longing. It is hard to walk away.
I take the long path home that I might have time to savor this experience. While deep in thought, I pass a young man who has stopped in the middle of the path to take a selfie. There is nothing particularly lovely about the spot. I am irritated as I navigate around him, an irritation that I did not feel navigating about in the crowded showroom.
I take a mental inventory of the countless selfie-headlines that greet me each time I open the web browser page on my computer: Elizabeth Hurley Slips into a Revealing Bikini Ahead of Her 56th Birthday; Demi Lovato Celebrates ‘Body Confidence’ in Stripped-Down Selfie; Miley Cyrus Crawls All Over Billy Ray Cyrus’ Truck in Risky T-Shirt and Gold Gucci Heels. Why am I repulsed? Perhaps because these selfie-headlines scream to me of a cheapening of art, a corruption of beauty?
I recall an early visit with the orthodontist as my daughter prepared for braces. The orthodontist explained to me, “We know what attractive people look like,” as he shared his measurements and treatment plan. I did not know such rules existed. I suppose this is also what plastic surgeons do in their quest to make a more beautiful world. Can beauty be achieved through braces, scalpels, and implants? Do I even know what beauty is? I mentally survey my limited knowledge on the subject.
Keats wrote that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Beauty ages well: “its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.” Beauty is more than fashion or style, and without it, the world is dark. Keats reflected on the beauty in nature, the things that endure: the sun, the moon, trees, sheep, daffodils, cooling coverts, streams, and daisies.
The architect Moshie Safdie elaborates on the beauty in nature: “economy and survival are the two key words in nature. Examined out of context, the neck of a giraffe seems uneconomically long, but it is economical in view of the fact that most of the giraffe’s food is high on the tree. Beauty as we understand it, and as we admire it in nature, is never arbitrary.” No plastic surgeon pursuing a lucrative career would ever put those big eyes on such a tiny face, and yet…in nature, form and function unite in the unique and stunning beauty we call a giraffe.
I continue to ponder the question of beauty and the ways in which beauty defies measurement. How, then, can we know what beauty is?
Arriving at home, I turn to a different expert, another poet, Kahlil Gibran, and a favorite book of answers, The Prophet. The people of Orphalese pose a series of questions to the wise Almustafa. I will see if he has anything to say on the subject of beauty.
Sure enough, on page 74, Almustafa answers the question, What is Beauty? Almustafa provides a measurement I understand. Beauty, he said, is “a heart enflamed and a soul enchanted.” Yes, I do know what beauty is. It was a gift to me today from an old wooden cabinet.