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Beauty

Posted 3/31/2022

A few weeks ago, I bought a small bunch of purple tulips from the grocery store. I do not buy myself flowers often, and I am very frugal when it comes to non-essential purchases, however this little bouquet was only five dollars. I set this tiny bit of Spring on my kitchen table. Today as I was cleaning the kitchen, I grabbed the withered flowers and set to toss them in the organics bin, but I was struck by how beautiful they were even in their broken-down condition.

The first thing I noticed was the color of an unopened flower. The blossom had started to dry before it could open. It was a mixture of gold, silver, eggplant, and violet. I noticed the stamen was visible in a few flowers which had opened right up and were about to drop their petals. The delicate lemon-colored pollen grains had been scattered across the inside of the purple petals bringing royalty to mind. The petals themselves were arched and twisted and resembled a piece of modern art. The tulips were no longer considered beautiful in the traditional way of thinking, but I could not help appreciating them for what they had become. (By the way, I did eventually toss them!)

 

 

While I admired these old and essentially worthless flowers, my thoughts turned to a quote. Miguel de Unamuno was a 19th-20th century Spanish writer and philosopher. I came across a quote from him a while back that has stuck with me. Not because I agree with him, but because I adamantly do not. In his 1914 novel, Niebla, Unamuno writes "El use estropea y hasta destruye toda belleza. La función más noble de los objetos es la de ser contemplados." This translates in English to "Use harms and even destroys beauty. The noblest function of an object is to be contemplated." What? Are you telling me that the things I actually use are no longer beautiful? Like the tulips, I own many items that some would consider worn and ugly. Our society is so quick to dispose of things that are marred, stained, or faded. These things are often thought of as useless if they no longer look perfect. But I would like to challenge this way of thinking. 

 

 

I have a few plants. Not too many, but some special ones that I have become attached to. Most of them are in terracotta pots. I like terracotta pots because they are inexpensive and it is easy for me to control soil moisture. But mainly, I love the way they look. The longer they are in use, the more interesting they become. The terracotta darkens with use, gains a chalky exterior from the soil fertilizers and minerals in the water, and shows water stains. The texture and colors that develop are definitely more beautiful to me than a new pot. You can google how to clean terracotta pots and make them look new again. There are tons of websites to help with this. but I think the signs of use enhance the pots' beauty, not destroy it. 

 

 

T and I are already planning for our retirement. Our first order of business after that day will be to sell our house and all of our possessions (except for a few keepsakes). We are planning to be nomadic travelers for some years. We are already purging a few of our things and are cognizant of what items we buy, knowing they will need to be disposed of in the near future. This has made me very aware of what items we own and what value they hold to me. I am surprised by what objects give me pause when I think about getting rid of them. Many years ago my mother-in-law gave me a watering can for my garden. I do not remember what the gift was for, and I doubt she remembers giving it to me. This can is sturdy and functional. It is pure white and has decorative stamping.  Recently I have noticed some wear and tear. There are some rust marks in the joins, and the white paint is chipping off where it has been bumped and dropped. I have used this watering can to grow so many gardens as we have moved over the years and I see every mark is a symbol of vegetables grown and flowers bloomed. It feels like this can has just began its journey and it still has so many years of plants to water. I am hoping one of my children will take ownership and use this watering can in their own garden. The rust will spread, dents will appear, and more paint will chip off. I look forward to seeing its beauty grow as its use continues.

 

 

We have taken in a lot of second-hand furniture. Over the years, as our parents have upgraded their own furniture, T and I have gladly accepted their cast offs. Most of this furniture has since been passed on or has worn out. One piece that we still use, that will never be traded, is our kitchen table. The table was made in Ontario, Canada by Kroehler Mfg. Co. Limited most likely in the late '70's. It was purchased new by T's parents and is the table he grew up eating family meals around. It is the table our kids sat at when visiting Grandma and Grandpa when they were little. You can easily sit ten people when the two leaf inserts are in place, and can squeeze in fourteen if needed. Many, many holiday gatherings have taken place around this table. T and I acquired it after his father passed in 2005 and his mom moved into a condo. The table is now outdated and out of style. It is not old enough to be vintage or retro; it is not new enough to be modern. It is stained that orange-brown color popular in the '80's and has blocky, decorative trestle legs at each end. This is not the color or style I prefer and it does not go with the rest of the house. The table is covered with some sort of bomb-proof finish that secures that it will never be re-stained. T's Mom tried to strip one of the leaf inserts years ago and could not remove the finish. If any moisture sits on the table, it leaves a white milky spot that you cannot wipe up but disappears once it dries. The finish is strong but yet marred from decades of use. I have soaked the table top in furniture cleaner and scrubbed away years of build up and the finish looks the same. The table itself is extremely solid. T and I have both stood on this table at the same time while changing out a light fixture and it has not complained. There is no movement in the joins. But the edges of the table top are worn down from years of elbows and arms resting there. There are marks from T and his sisters still visible; you can see the '5' (or is it an 'S'?) carved into one of the leaves. There are marks from our kids; I can find the holes drilled in by the Boy while crafting one day. Just last month we put in a new scratch while dragging something across the table top during a family game night. I hope there will someday be signs left behind from our grandkids. How could anyone think of this table as anything but beautiful when they think about the joyful or heartbreaking conversations had while leaning on this well-used piece of furniture? 

 

 

But there are people who agree with Unamuno and live their lives accordingly. They do not use their good china in case it gets broken; they do not wear their nice clothes for fear they might get dirty; they protect their couch with a plastic cover to keep it looking new. (Okay, I do not think anyone does that anymore but remember the formal living rooms of the '70's?)  The thought is to maintain an object's beauty by protecting it at all costs, even to the point of being unable to enjoy it for what its function actually is. I was guilty of falling into this way of thinking in the past. I remember packing up so many nice baby clothes that my kids had outgrown without ever wearing them. I was always waiting for the right occasion deserving of risking wrecking the outfits. I used to fret over a ding to my bike after a fall because it no longer looked new. I would get upset about breaking a Pyrex bowl because the set was no longer whole. I had this illusion that I needed to keep everything in pristine condition for it to retain value, for it to remain beautiful. But I have since changed my way of thinking.

This has led to me to a final thought; aging. The media tells us that the ideal body is one that has not aged. We cover our gray hair, we hide our wrinkles, we apply Rogaine to our scalps in the hopes of slowing baldness. We worry about our bodies sagging and slouching. We are embarrassed by old age spots and spider veins. But these are the things that show your experience. These are the things that prove your wisdom. These are the things that confirm your contribution to society. I encourage you to see the charm in your maturing face. I want you to find pride in your aging body. I hope you know you are beautiful.

 

Photo by Z on UnsplashPhoto by Z on Unsplash

 

I have shifted my focus on what makes an item or a body beautiful. I no longer leave objects to be contemplated, I enjoy using them. I do not color my gray hairs, I embrace the shades of silver. And I stop to contemplate beauty. Beauty is everywhere, you just have to be open to seeing it. Margaret Wolfe Hungerford wrote in her novel, Molly Baun, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder". So I challenge you now to go out and behold!!

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