Yesterday while driving around I was listening to On Being, an interview with John O’Donohue, an Irish poet and philosopher:
I suppose I was blessed by being born into an amazing landscape in the west of Ireland. …It’s the Burren region, which is limestone. And it’s a bare limestone landscape. And I often think that the forms of the limestone are so abstract and aesthetic, and it is as if they were all laid down by some wild surrealistic kind of deity…
I think it makes a huge difference when you wake in the morning and come out of your house. Whether you believe you are walking into dead geographical location, which is used to get to a destination, or whether you are emerging out into a landscape that is just as much, if not more, alive as you but in a totally different form. And if you go towards it with an open heart and a real watchful reverence, that you will be absolutely amazed at what it will reveal to you. And I think that was one of the recognitions of the Celtic imagination: that landscape wasn’t just matter, but that it was actually alive.
I love O’Donohue’s comment and resonate with Celtic spirituality in general, but it’s a struggle to put it into practice. I live in the suburbs, where the landscaping is planned and the trees uprooted and replaced by younger ones, more conveniently placed. The whole point of the suburbs is optimization: to have the right sized house vs. yard, to have enough green space but not be in the country, to be close to amenities and culture without all the nasty challenges of living in The City. I understand the impulse behind trying to find that middle ground between urban and rural, but too often, splitting the difference means getting the worst of both worlds, not the best. (Let’s just say that, in the suburban restaurant dead zone I live in, it was a HUGE deal when the Chipotle opened. We still wait in vain for a Starbucks.)
The suburbs don’t just happen, like a landscape over thousands (millions) of years. We make suburbs happen, and the result isn’t always all that beautiful. Living with a “watchful reverence” in a place where nothing is truly indigenous is a challenge.
But why not try? Do I not have an open heart too? Is there a beauty to be found in the suburbs?
Yes. There is an aliveness here. I will try to see it.
Yesterday evening I took the girls to the Rec Center for some ice skating. They’ve been taking lessons, the cost of which includes six free practice sessions.
With an open heart, I saw beauty there. I saw fathers off of from work, picking up snowsuit-clad toddlers who had fallen on the ice, all akimbo. I saw a teenage girl with a worn brown strap around her waist. The strap was attached to a pulley with the other end in her teacher’s steadfast hands as she attempted a double axel. The contraption kept her upright, again and again as she stumbled. I saw a woman my age carefully practicing her spins. Maybe she’s preparing for a competition or maybe she’s just skating for the love of it. I saw a girl Caroline’s age with a Cinderella helmet on top of her hijab.
And I saw my girls, stepping out on the ice, leggy and cautious as fawns. They fell, again and again, mostly with a smile. And by the end, they were wobbling and gliding, gliding and wobbling.
What’s the beauty where you live?