Looking for beauty

writing about places

In her book On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry writes that beauty inspires creation and fills its beholders with a “surfeit of aliveness.” “Beauty is for the beholder lifesaving or life-restoring—a visionary fragment of sturdy ground.”

I always long for beauty, and especially now, as the days grow shorter and darker and we enter yet another terrible phase of the pandemic. Sometimes I feel conflicted about seeking beauty at a time of deep suffering, but then I return to Scarry’s book and remind myself that beauty is life-sustaining and necessary. So I look for beauty and find it everywhere — the red-and-white woodpecker scaling wooden shingles across from my window; the whistle of trains trundling through Somerville; the blueness of the sky, a rare sight these grey days.

Scarry’s writing on beauty is itself gorgeous, euphoric. Take this passage about a palm tree, for example: 

Suddenly I am on a balcony and its huge swaying leaves are before me at eye level, arcing, arching, waving, cresting and breaking in the soft air, throwing the yellow sunlight up over itself and catching it on the other side, running its fingers down its own piano keys, then running them back up again, shuffling and dealing glittering decks of aqua, green, yellow, and white. It is everything I have always loved, fernlike, featherlike, fanlike, open—lustrously in love with air and light. 

Recently,  I sent a note to friends and family requesting they write a few lines or paragraphs about places in the world they found beautiful. “Beauty,” Scarry writes, “always takes place in the particular.” In the following entries, you will find exactly that — beauty in the particular, in lived experiences. Like Scarry’s writing, these texts are themselves gorgeous, sensual, and inspiring. Paired with the texts are photos — some related, some not (all taken by me). 

The first of my friends’ reflections on beauty, from winemaker Carmen López Delgado, is in Spanish. I translated to English below but also wanted to keep the Spanish because it’s such poetry. (Poetry from a WhatsApp message!) Her texts describe the vineyard where she grows grapes; her grandmother’s birth village in northwestern Spain; and the beach in Valencia where she and her family spend a few weeks each summer. 

And finally, before I leave my friends to share their words, here is the essay I wrote about my grandfather’s death and my cross-country driving over the summer. Lately, I’ve been missing him and wishing I could tell him about all the beauty I’ve met in this world. 

Carmen López Delgado 

La viña:

Es un lugar que huele diferente, que me produce admiración.

Sus atardeceres son mágicos.

Me despeja la mente.

Me alimenta, me nutre, me cura.

Me invita, me ilusiona, me despierta la imaginación.

Sueño con sus atardeceres, observando y sintiendo el paisaje, con una copa de vino, un libro, y una conversación profunda compartida.

Eso es la felicidad para mí.

Valparaíso:

Me gusta porque es el silencio más atronador que he conocido.

Me conecta a mi niñez, a mi abuela, a mi madre.

A mis ancestros.

Piles:

La inmensidad del mar me hace poner atrás de mí cualquier problema o preocupación. Me hipnotiza.

Me trae recuerdos de mi familia, de mis hijos siendo bebés.

Es el descanso, el amanecer, el Sol, la siesta, la brisa.

Es un parentesis en la rutina del dia a dia.

//

The vineyard: 

is a place that smells different, that makes me feel admiration. 

Its sunsets are magical. 

It clears my mind. 

It feeds me, it nurtures me, it cures me. 

It takes me in, it awes me, it awakens my imagination. 

I dream of the vineyard’s sunsets, observing and feeling the landscape, with a glass of wine, a book, and a profound, shared conversation. 

That, to me, is true happiness. 

Valparaíso 

I like it because it’s the most deafening silence I have known. 

It connects me to my childhood, to my grandmother, to my mother. 

To my ancestors. 

Piles: 

The vastness of the sea makes me set aside whatever problem or preoccupation I have. It hipnotizes me. 

It brings me memories of my family, of my children as babies. 

It is rest, dawn, the sun, la siesta, and the breeze. 

It is a parenthesis in our daily routines.

Henry Oostrom-Shah

Parisians call all the world outside their city, “extra-muros,” or “outside the walls.” It isn’t clear if these walls keep things out or in. No one moves to Paris because of the cheap rent. Many stay in Paris for the light. I moved two miles north of Paris, mostly for the rent but also because I had made a friend who told me that the new city would be my kind of place. I trusted him. My city housed people who many Parisians hoped the walls would keep away—poor people, Muslim people, immigrants, errant artists, leftist teachers and sociologists. When I told my friends I was moving to this new, oft-maligned city, many warned me that it was the most dangerous city in France. “You won’t want to come back after dark” or “There’s nothing there” or, most ominously, a simple “Good luck.”

My new apartment had no blinds or curtains, and I never ended up buying any, and so my apartment was filled with light, ever changing. Three neon signs flickered, one for “BIG FOOD,” another for “HAPPY DAYS FOOD,” the last for a shabby bar with the humility to illumine in lowercase, “pavillon.” Patrons partook in each outlet’s respective victuals as long as they could.  You could almost hear the rustle of kebab wrappers and clink of beer glasses as the light slunk from the last neon sign that went dim. No buildings blocked my windows eastward, and so my flat hosted a one-man high-noon from sunrise to 9 A.M. The apartment was only truly dark from 3 A.M. to sunrise. The darkness was often so surprising that I’d wake up and stumble to the window. One winter night right after moving to the new city, a snowstorm started and the power went out on my street. My apartment was dark at 9 P.M. It was cold; I didn’t know anybody whose house had heat except for my friend who told me to move to this godforsaken city of neon and utility failures. I texted him and he told me he was coming back from out of town. I resigned myself to a night of unexpected darkness. An hour or two later, I heard a thump on my window. I staggered from bed and looked down at the street. A second snowball shook the glass. It was my new friend, below, smiling with his partner. He held up a bottle of wine and the pair threw up their hands, an invitation. Many stay in Paris for the light, but I left for this darkness.

Reis Thebault 

This made me think of a couple things. The first was a line in the waning pages of Gilead, which I was finishing when I got this email. "Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration,” Ames writes. "You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.”

This embrace of the beauty all around us all the time is for me one of the most admirable aspects of honest-to-god faith, and also one very easy to secularize. I haven’t figured out how to see the shine wherever I turn, but I do feel like I’ve stumbled upon it a few times. For whatever reason, this brings to mind a classmate’s thesis project that I participated in my senior year of college. She asked several of us about what happiness meant to us. I don’t remember precisely how I answered — something about a feeling like nostalgia without the painful twinge of loss — but I remember thinking about two places where I had felt that feeling, one near and one afar. 

One was unquestionably beautiful. I was in Corcovado National Park, a pristine peninsular reserve in southern Costa Rica, and I was steering a kayak through a mangrove forest. Paddling ahead of me, a professor explained the difference between red and black mangroves, how one survives by filtering saltwater through its roots and another gulps the water and sweats the salt from glands on its leaves. The crystals pile up on the leaves, eventually drop off and float downstream, where a clueless college student could pluck one from the water and taste its briny, waxy surface. I was there to study rainforest ecology and earn college credits. It was a bit of a boondoggle, but it was the first time I felt like a part of the natural world, rather than just a supportive bystander. I learned scientific names and birdwatched for the first time; I held poisonous snakes and went on long night hikes. And I saw mangroves up close. On the kayak, with those breathing trees on both sides, I felt that feeling. Happiness, beauty, contentment, whatever. 

The other time, the floor was sticky. A group of us, my college roommates, our friends, our girlfriends, were in our favorite bar on some anonymous Wednesday late in our last semester. It was a dingy place, with checkered, beer-crusted tile and wood-paneled walls with framed posters drilled into them, anticipating drunken heists. Our roommate managed the place and made us whatever we wanted for however much we felt like paying, and on nights like these we’d crowd around one of the lacquered indoor picnic tables and play cards. When it wasn’t too crowded, it felt like our living room. On this particular evening, I remember sitting a few feet above our table, probably on the banister that framed the staircase that led to an even dingier basement. My vision turned sepia and I took in the scene, and I knew there wouldn’t be many more like it. I wasn’t sad about it, but I knew I wanted to remember it and remember that feeling. 

That’s all from me! There has been much beauty since those moments, too, but for some reason your request cast my mind back a few years. If I were Amesian enough, I could say there’s tremendous beauty now, outside my window — even in the pounding rain, even as my work computer fires up for another day and even as the wind blows the last of the red leaves from that maple across the street.

Tom Bernhard

Yosemite National Park.

A natural wonder.

Driving the Pacific Coast Hwy from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo was awesome as well.

Sam Harrison 

All the cliches about the rainforest are true: I have never felt so much life in a single place. So much of it was out of sight--the motion-activated cameras would pick up a nighttime visit from a jaguar feet from our rooms, or a monkey would shake the branches of a tree, far above my head. Sometimes, life would burst in on us unexpectedly, like the time we floated down the river and two caiman slipped into the water silently behind us. Or the river otters that crossed the trail only a few feet in front of me, chattering to each other and ignoring me completely as they broke through the undergrowth on their way to the creek. 

The beauty of the rainforest was overwhelming and monochromatic. Everything came in shades of green--leaves, moss, roots, vines growing on branches growing on fallen tree trunks. I remember clearing trails with a machete, hacking through thin branches that had grown over trails already cleared weeks or months before, and trying to tell the spider monkeys apart, and not getting too close to the capuchins because they’re mean and they bite. Same for the macaws. I remember walking the perimeter of the reserve during the rainy season (a full-day activity) and swimming through puddles that had become swamps, trying to avoid the tarantulas floating on leaves nearby (don’t worry, I was told; they sting but aren’t poisonous), and stumbling on a snake that the resident herpetologist would then rush to catch, measure, and release. I remember getting up painfully early to climb up to the canopy platform, built high on one of the tallest trees, to record birds and bird calls at dawn. 

Part of the beauty was in the newness: for a long time, every experience there was fresh, a complete novelty. But even after months, when machetes and mud became routine, there were still sparks of surprise every day, good and bad: the botfly that laid its egg under my skin, the way the Tambopata River shined gold in the afternoon light. Nothing is ever predictable when so much is happening at once. 

Miguel Otárola 

The place I want to tell you about is Seattle.

It was 2015, and I had just finished my junior year of college in Phoenix. I was headed away for my first internship outside of Arizona, so eager to live "abroad" by myself and work a real job in a newspaper. I had only been to Seattle one other time, as a child, and had been enchanted by the city, particularly by the ferry rides across the gray ocean.

My arrival that summer was less than spectacular. I couldn't find an apartment in time, so I stayed a few days in a hostel and then on a friend's friend's couch. It is to this day the dirtiest place I've ever lived in, the kitchen cluttered with dirty dishes and the ground littered with crumbs. But I was making it work, all the while taking the bus over to the newsroom and reporting every day.

I ultimately scored a room at a house in the Green Lake neighborhood with a couple of transplants a little older than me. They were kind and cool and brought me into their community. We saw house shows, danced in DIY venues, took walks in the park and swam in hidden beaches. I had never done these things before, and yet it all felt so natural because no one up there really knew me.

I fell in love with the city’s mish-mash of features: the ocean, the mountains, the lakes, its neighborhoods and shops. I ate oysters in Ballard, dug for records in Wallingford, reported through the allies of downtown and Chinatown. I did stories about homeless encampments, boutique book shops, high-school graduations and a little bird called the marbled murrelet. One time after hours, the other interns and I went to a bar that may or may have not been the last place Kurt Cobain was seen before he died. Then we smoked hookah for three hours.

I think I loved Seattle most because I had never felt that kind of freedom before. I was 21, meeting new people, melding both my love of music and journalism into a singular experience. It was a perfect summer. I've tried to go back before, both to the city and to that same newsroom. It hasn't happened yet. It's probably for the better, too. I don't think anything could live up to that summer, even if it was the same place.

Kelly Bernhard

Our trip to Baja was the most relaxing and soothing trip I believe I've ever had in my life. There is something about the ocean that is so healing.  To see and hear the crashing waves for several days was such a magnificent gift!

It was also fun to see another culture, hear another language. The food was fabulous and fun! The crowded restaurant we visited was such a treat!

This drive to the winery was breath taking. We are blessed to live so close to such beauty and I hope we can make a return trip in the not too distant future.

Rob Pinney 

My place is without a doubt Pebbly Beach near Bateman’s Bay in Australia. I lived in Australia for a year when I was growing up, when I was about 7 or 8, and we used to go camping there. The pitches were set among the trees and only a stone’s throw from the beach which was wide and sandy, and with a rocky outcrop on one side. You were always surrounded by wildlife, whether you wanted to be or not: I remember waking up one morning to find a kangaroo in the front of the tent me and my brother were in.

Some 10-11 years later, when I was living in Sydney during an extended working hiatus to gap year travels, I took the team I worked with there for a weekend break (we were almost all travellers so weekend getaways happened often). I think everyone enjoyed it well enough, but for me it felt almost dreamlike. I don’t think I really registered much that was going on around me that weekend and was just consumed by this feeling of euphoria, knowing that I was back amidst some of my happiest childhood memories. 

It’s weird how a place can have such a hold on you. I still think about it often and it pushes my emotions right up to the surface. Although I know it will have changed a lot, I’ve often thought that it’s somewhere I really hope I’m able to one day take my own children. But actually I think what I really want is to be able to go back there with my mum, dad and brother.

Malena Roche 

I don’t have a place I call home anymore.

I've lived in four different cities in the past five years.

I learned to see people as home instead of places.

When I think of each one of the places where I’ve lived I don’t think about landmarks or bars

I think about familiar smiles and stories 

Meaningful hugs and lovely accents

I think of the time a friend taught me her grandma’s strudel recipe

Or when I first said I love you in another language

Or that kind man who helped me when I was lost and sick in a foreign train station

It doesn’t matter where you are

Is who you are with

Home is not a place 

is a state of mind

Me

I could pick any number of places I’ve encountered, but I’ll keep mine short and specific. Almost exactly a year ago, in early December, I visited my college roommate Jamie in Rome, where she had just moved for work. The night before, I’d stayed up too late at a housewarming party and had forgotten to set an alarm. I woke up an hour before my flight out of Brussels. Frantic and running on pure adrenaline, I called a cab, threw clothes into a backpack, and, at the airport, sprinted through the departures terminal, cutting ahead of everyone in every line. I made it to my gate with minutes to spare. 

Later, a world away from the airport, we ambled along the Tiber River, enjoying the fading light and the soft purple of the sky. As we turned to cross a bridge, we heard a strange clicking sound. At first, we thought the sound might be the rush of water, but when we looked to the distance we saw a thousand black dots moving and turning in formation. They were black-winged starlings with silver bellies, which made them disappear into the air when they turned. We stood watching, at once mesmerized and terrified at this vanishing act. Passersby on both banks of the river also paused and turned southward to watch. None of us knew a deadly virus would shutter the city in just three months, that it was percolating somewhere at that very moment. The pain of the future was still distant. For a few minutes, a crowd of strangers gazed in wonder at the sky. After a while, we broke our gaze and walked over the bridge into the evening.