This is the fourth guest post in a series on the Navajo Beauty Way here on Smoky Talks …. I asked half a dozen friends of mine, each an artist in their own way, to read the Navajo poem, The Beauty Way, and talk about how it applies to their work and their lives. (The series begins, and you can read the poem, here.) The fact today’s guest blogger and I share the same last name is no accident; for those of you new to my blog who do not know me yet, Scott is my husband. He’s also a gifted classical guitarist and writer himself, and co-author (with me) of the book, Trails. Scott lives the Beauty Way like no one I know. He inspires me, as he inspires others around him. Here are his thoughts on what it means to walk in beauty:
When I was a kid the world was unconditionally beautiful. Beauty was simple, natural. I didn’t analyze it, desire it, possess it. I didn’t ask anything of it. I didn’t think about it—a child would never contemplate a peach’s sweetness. They would, with a big grin, simply take a bite and let the sticky juice run down their chin. Thinking wasted time. Thinking got in the way. I breathed beauty like a newborn baby breaths fresh air for the first time, without deliberateness, or self consciousness, or awareness.
Beauty was alive, transitory, like a river. It was in the apple tree I once climbed on summer vacation; it was in the plump green caterpillar I encountered on the way; it was between my bare toes waving in the breeze as I sat on a branch; it was in the blanket of wild strawberries that cushioned my fall. Beauty was not a way of life. Beauty was life.
As a child, I walked with beauty, like the Navajo in “The Beauty Way,” quoted by Smoky in The Storyteller’s Bracelet:
With beauty before me I walk.
With beauty behind me I walk.
With beauty above me I walk.
With beauty around me I walk.
This was me. Everything was so vivid, so beautiful, that beauty itself was invisible, like staring at a lilac flower on a lilac background. The flower and the background were one. I was one with beauty.
But, alas, Goethe’s evil Erlkönig finally touched me, and the child in me died. Tot. I grew up. I didn’t want to, but I did.
Beauty became a mystery, a dream, a thought, a memory—something complicated, mystical, tenuous. It was now an adult concept, imprisoned in poetry, or paintings, or musical compositions … or looked at from afar, on a vacation, or something I brushed against on a walk.
Adults think about beauty and judge it, the same way they judge everything. This is beautiful. This isn’t. This is what beauty’s all about. This isn’t. Adults weigh beauty and measure it, convert it into something they can understand, relate to, a thought or an emotion. It’s no longer direct. It’s filtered, and consequently out of focus.
I can listen to the sublime slow movement of Beethoven’s Op. 132 string quartet and be deeply moved, get chills on my arms and back, sometimes even cry. But why? Is it Beethoven’s beauty that touches me? Or am I weeping over lost innocence, over a time when I experienced beauty directly, purely, as a child, as a Navaho?
I was born in Northern Wisconsin, on the shore of Lake Superior. I was “from the land of sky blue waters,” as the old beer commercial once said. My paternal grandmother lived about thirty miles from town in a cabin on an idyllic lake in a dark forest. My family would visit her often. Once, when I was about seven years old, I crept into her rowboat and paddled into a cove of flowering lily pads. I was alone with perfect stillness. I pulled the dripping oars into the boat, lay on my back, and drifted on the glassy water like the clouds drifted above. The lake smelled ripe, alive, as it washed against the sides of the boat.
Now, as a memory, I know this was pure beauty before me, behind me, above me, around me. I didn’t think about it then. I didn’t qualify it. I didn’t label it. I didn’t say to myself, this is beautiful. I didn’t say to myself, this is more beautiful than that is. I just floated in the rowboat like a cloud.
Everything was beautiful in my youth, long before my father died, my mother died, and my heart was broken.
But everything is not beautiful, not literally at least. As I wrote about in Trails, things change. In addition to all the wonderful things in life (beauty, joy, peace, kindness, love, and so much more), there’s also death, disappointment, cruelty, pain, loneliness, ugliness … all things we must experience, all things we must greet along our trail, and, one hopes, reconcile. We have no choice, good and bad, it all makes up the big (dare I say, beautiful) canvas of our life.
But there’s a time, when merrily skipping through life, one collides with ugliness. I’m sure it’s different for everyone. For some, it happens when they’re quite young (maybe at birth, or even before); for others, it’s not until they’re much older; others have one specific moment when the light goes on, when they admit, ah! this is reality. I will welcome this too into my life. There’s nothing sudden about it for others —experiences, emotions, and thoughts imperceptivity fade in and out of their awareness. Some people go through life avoiding ugliness all together, at least that’s their plan.
For me, it happen in an instant. I was walking home from elementary school when I stopped to talk with a bunch of kids on the sidewalk. One boy, a stranger, glared at me, and for no discernable reason, violently kneed me between the legs. I limped home in incredible pain; big tears baptized my face, washed in the blood of the lamb. I had experienced for the first time true cruelty, true violence, true pain, true ugliness.
I woke up from the dream I had while laying in the boat on my grandmother’s lake. And my childhood, my innocence, ended. That quickly. With a snap of the fingers. With a raised knee. My perception of life, of beauty, completely changed. Beauty and life were no longer the same thing—beauty was on one side of the boxing ring, ugliness on the other.
My adult life, and it’s by no means over, has been a journey back to unconditional beauty, to childhood. But this time around I’m more aware, more adult. It’s not easy. Every day, every moment is a challenge. I do a lot of meditation. That helps. A lot. But, even more important, I flood myself with beauty. I read beautiful, creative poetry. I read beautiful, creative books. I watch beautiful, creative movies. I insist on nonjudgmental kindness from the people I let into my life. I try to be kind to everything on the earth, animate and inanimate. I love my children, all that love means, in the purest sense, not expecting anything in return. I’m in mad crazy love, without resistance, with my wife.
Today I walk in nature and breathe the sweet fragrance of beauty.