Maybe it was Amanda Gorman speaking her poem, “The Hill We Climb” at the inauguration last month, or maybe it’s the bitter cold and stark white of a Minnesota winter, but I find myself yearning for beauty among my truths. In his poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats first penned the lines:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all,
“Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
The poem was written in 1819. Since then, there has been a lot of discussion about what Keats meant by these lines both in the context of the poem and as a general philosophical statement. It appears that Keats is trying to tell us that only those things that last forever and never perish, such as truth, are beautiful. Natural wonders and even works of art that we often consider beautiful do eventually perish, only truth lasts forever. It’s thought to be an urging to look at the core truth of something rather than the decorative exterior.
Sometimes this is relatively easy. The love and loyalty of even the homeliest of pets is cherished by their families. There is an inner permanent truth that is recognized beyond the unbeautiful exterior. But sometimes the truth is harder to see. For example, how can you focus on the truth of potato chips, those binge-inducing fat pills with no nutritional value, when they are wrapped up in beautiful, salty, crispy, deliciousness? Even though potato chips are nowhere near permanent, and their truth is not pretty, they do seem to be beautiful.
These days, the truths of our lives can seem pretty brutal. Winter is in full swing with nary a color in site, the pandemic has reduced our social lives to virtual communications, parents are doing double and triple duty with child care and education, many are struggling with unemployment and no paychecks, and then there are those who are sick or grieving the loss of a loved one due to COVID-19. While these truths may not be permanent, they sure seem that way in February 2021. The truth of spring seems a long way off.
So to make it to the next round of truths — perhaps those include a vaccinated population, the greening of our landscape, schools back in session, employment and sufficient funds — I’m suggesting we try adding a little beauty to our lives, even if it, too, is transient.
You might try following an artist online. Musicians, visual artists, theater artists, and spoken word artists are all putting themselves out there for you to enjoy. If you don’t have computer access, try a book from the library. Perhaps pick something you are not familiar with to see if you get a better understanding of the genre. For example, I am not very familiar with poetry or spoken word, but I’ve become more interested in it because of the beauty and power that those art forms evoke. Or you might try a new art or craft yourself. Even a paint by numbers project can be satisfying.
You can add beauty to your home or day just by intentionally bringing it in. Perhaps it’s trying a new recipe for food you love, but don’t usually cook at home. Or adding color to your table through foods like beets, corn, oranges, and greens of all kinds. When was the last time you tried to eat a rainbow?
You can intentionally turn on the lights on those dark days so your house shines like the sun, play some salsa music, and practice your dancing. If you’re missing your hair stylist and manicurist, introduce a spa day at your house. Light some candles, use some smelly lotion, and paint your toes.
Even home improvement projects can add beauty to your surroundings. About this time of year, I start to wonder if painting a garden on my dining room wall might become a great selling point for my house when the time comes. (It could happen.)
If you have the means, bring some beauty into the lives of your neighbors. Drop off a homemade card for the grandma next door. Donate or volunteer at a food shelf. Run errands for folks in quarantine. Bake cookies for the kids across the street. Keep checking in with those you don’t see often to make sure they too are surviving this winter.
Beauty that we bring to ourselves and our loved ones may not be permanent in the Keatsian sense of the word, but then neither are the truths we are living with today. While the lesson of looking beneath the pretty surface for the essence or truth of a thing is wise and necessary, I also think that the one constant in our lives is change.
As Louis L’Amour said, “The only thing that never changes is that everything changes.” The truths of today are not the truths of tomorrow and there is joy in bringing a bit of beauty into our daily truths.