Beauty in the ‘Burbs

a cartoon map of Fairfax County, where I live

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?

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4 thoughts on “Beauty in the ‘Burbs

  1. The key words for me were “watchful reverence” and “alive.”

  2. M says:

    I have lived most of my life, in three different cities, in or near the flight path of an airport. Today, I live 1 mile from Midway, an airport that spews out Southwest Airlines and Frontier flights as if on an endless loop from 6 am to around midnight.

    For me it is not a place of noise or disruption, but a daily reminder of the movement of people..of how work and pleasure and family and joy and crisis have us on the move, connected by those arching flight paths in the back of the airline machines. They are the stitches on a global crazy-quilt of human interaction that means we are more connected to our fellow citizens of the earth than ever before.

    Yet in the shadow of this planetary scale of interaction, every night, across the non-expanse of a tiny churchyard, I have nightly encounters with our “squatters,” two field rabbits and a very, very large possum. The rabbits are skittish, but the possum is largely disinterested in my presence. The entire world for these three creatures is made up of the churchyard and the large city park adjacent to the schools across the street. They do most of their foraging in the park, but they “live” in our yard (under two different shrubs) I believe because it provides more protection from predators with its many fences and motion sensing lights (which still freak out the neighborhood cats and dogs). They find safety, perhaps comfort?, in the smallness of their nightly world.

    Barriers of space and distance overcome and barriers of space and distance reveled in…odd, but beautiful…

  3. anne says:

    last night i looked out of my exurban window and saw the stars—so close yet so far. this morning at sunrise i saw pink contrails in the eastern sky. tonight, for the 4th night in a row i’ll miss seeing my own personal exurban lakeside sunset because i’ll be attending a premier of the hbo movie about the loving case. (our friend was the attorney who argued it before the supreme court).
    i live in a restaurant dead zone of the first order, but i live in a nature alive zone of the first order. maybe we can’t have everything at the same time. maybe that’s good. having to make choices is good.

  4. […] hasn’t somehow managed to get completely into my head (witness the fact that we both posted about seeking out nature in the suburbs last week), she still manages to minister to me. If I lived anywhere near her, I […]

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