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Three Experiences of Beauty

Elizabeth Newbury

A foreign tongue assaults my ears, as I stand miles away from home and family. We're pressed into a school room too small for our American egos, ambassadors into a country that had an organized government while the West was still a bunch of competing savage hordes.


In China, everything has a different texture but yet so strangely similar. It's like looking into a tilted mirror, a world where simple things take on an exotic edge. Small children race around us, dressed in clothes so similar to what our children wear, but with characters and cultural icons ironed into them that I cannot read nor understand.


While the teacher speaks to us, my attention wanders to take in the desolate courtyard. But before I can consider in full the significance of the run down playground with its squeaky swing, or even wonder how long the recess is on this side of the world, a tiny hand grabs onto my shirt and pulls. I look down into the eyes of a little boy, and he stares at me with a curiosity just like my own, mute. We regard each other through a chasm caused not just by the continental divide, and the question comes to my mind: who is under inspection here? Are the children on display, or are we the ones in the zoo? As his black eyes consider me unblinkingly, I am acutely aware that my presences here is an invasion into his world. I bring with me my strange hair, strange clothes, strange skin, and strange words. What right do I have to gawk at him?


He tugs on my shirt again, before reaching to my backpack to inspect it, mouth pursed like a disapproving grandmother. Nonplused, I give him free reign to tug at the pockets to my sack, small digits fumbling with the zippers and snaps A glimmer of what Margaret Meade must have felt when she interacted with the Samoans passes through my psyche. Thus distracted, I barely notice as he begins to tug insistently at the camera that hangs like a revolver at my side, the cord pressing hard against my neck as the mum child tries to grapple with my gawky Canon. I watch, entranced, as lilliputian fingers poke at the lens, pushing it open, trying to figure out the purpose for the plastic black box. Or perhaps simply trying to repeat what he had seen adults do. Did his family have a camera? Did he know what he was holding?


I lift the device, smiling, and capture his wide-eyed gaze with film. (1)(2)


This moment of understanding that crossed oceans, where words were not needed, was beautiful. Children are beautiful, for their innocence, for their insatiable need to explore the world around them. They are pure. This exchange would never have happened had the child been anything but true to himself. This memory would never have been made if he knew who I was, where I had come from, or understood any of the stigmas about the United States. He only knew that I was exotic, with funny looking things dangling from me that he wanted to touch. Years from now, I wonder if he will remember this exchange. I won't. Every time I look at the picture of him, I will be transported back to that hot summer day, to that slip of time where I was fully aware of the beauty of China.


That is beauty.



I have never had a more beautiful shower than I had one fateful day at Girl Scout camp. This not a small thing to say, mind you, because I love showers with the same fevor that most people love chocolate. I love taking them, I love singing in them. I love the smell of shampoo, the mist of warm vapor around me, the sensation of water beating against my skin, the way the world can rinse down the drain and the way I can feel both spiritually and physically clean after taking one. Where there's love there is beauty, and so it is with absolute seriousness when I say that there are few things I find more beautiful in this world than the simple act of taking a shower. So when I say that this is a memory of the most beautiful shower I've ever had, I am not saying this lightly.


We had to leave the beach early the last day of Girl Scout camp. Hauling in the canoes, storing the paddles, racing across the sand with bare feet to get our shoes, we were intensely aware of the storm coming. Thick clouds of the darkest grey imaginable loomed over the mountain, bearing down on us as we tripped over the sand to get to the jeep. As the engine rumbled to a start, we heard the first thunderclap. It was loud enough to rattle the windows.


Tires shrieked over gravel as the jeep made its way up the winding road. We grinned around, confident that we had gotten the better of Mother Nature, with the smell of sweat and the grime of a long week serving as our badge of honor. All five of us, tentmates, were looking forward to spending our last afternoon enjoying a well deserved shower. It took until we were at the top of the mountain, back to the campsite, to realize that lightening was not conducive to the shower house. Unless you wanted to get electrocuted, which the operators of the camp weren't exactly keen on. We would have to stink it out another day.


We thought Mother Nature tortured us.


Trudging through the downpour back to our tent, which happened to be the farthest tent from both the shower house, the road, and any other signs of civilization. It didn't help matters that the camp site was as far from level as one could manage, and our tent was at the very bottom on the downward slope.


We had mud to greet us at our doorstep.


We heard Mother Nature laughing at us.


Gloomily, we stood in our platform tent, looking out the wide open 'doorway', dripping onto the wooden planks beneath us with heavy shoulders. The rain brought with it a spike against the heat of the day, but this didn't make our defeat any more tolerable. It beat against the canvas top of our tent, ran down in torrents where the canvas met the wooden supports, surrounding us in a watery prison.


Mother Nature, I determined, was not going to have the last laugh.


Stripping out of my wet clothes until only my swimsuit was left, I grabbed my shampoo and soap and raced outside. I shimmied up the side of the tent, climbing the supports like some sort of obstacle course. After a bit of weaving around rope, I found my way to an intersection where I could find firm footing, and squinted through the rain until I found a corner of the tent. A steady river of rainwater poured down, splashing past my feet and adding to the giant mud puddle moat around our entrance. Thunder booming in the distance, Herbal Essence commercials flashing through my mind, I thumbed my nose at Mother Nature, lathered up and stepped into the stream.


It was at this point that I realized Mother Nature wasn't torturing, laughing or even frowning down at us. She was simply giving us a golden opportunity to enjoy one of her splendors. The water pressure was perfect, the water brisk and invigorating. The sounds of the forest around me a delightful orchestra, the distant rumble of thunder added harmony.

In short, it was the perfect shower.


It was so beautiful.



I love finding small nuggets of beauty in things like the child's curiosity, or the feel of good shower. Fresh strawberries, The Princess Bride on a rainy afternoon, sakura petals, the sound of my dog's bark when I walk through the door all of these are beautiful to me.


Yet there is more to life than just the simple pleasures. Painting, writing, and other forms of expression are a different kind of beauty, but a beauty nonetheless. These are a kind of beauty that allow you to experience beauty on a journey created by another human being. And for me, music is one of the most beautiful ways of this way of expressing beauty. You cannot see music, but it will latch onto your mind and give you a vision. You cannot touch music, but it touches you. It can make you want to dance, hum along, smile, and cry.



A young soprano hits a chord I could not, even in my wildest dreams, hope to breathe. In the background, the chanting of the choir blend with the orchestra, weaving together to form a song light, ethereal, and bittersweet. (3) The perfect backdrop to a movie about Irish gangs in New York during the 1860's. But I am not thinking about the movie "The Gangs of New York" or Leonardo DiCaprio. I am thinking of another New York. It was supposed to be another day in Sociology class. I was at my desk, the surface cold against my open palms, my eyes glued to the television screen. We always started out with the class with CNN running in the background, while the teacher prepared for the assignments and students caught up on gossip. But the room was silent this day. Today, we were watching. We watched, over and over, as the World Trade Centers crumbled, as the Pentagon was turned to smoke, and a thousand lives were snuffed out. Our school was in lockdown, and course work was far from our minds. All day, we watched as the world we knew was lost. This is beauty.


But also frightening. What gives this song the right to transport me to one of my least favorite memories? More importantly, why do I continue to turn back to this song, knowing that the memory is as much a part of "Dionysus" as the Latin chorus? Why is it beautiful? I do not consider myself a morbid individual; it is not the death that attracts me. This song is beautiful because not only does it twine itself to that memory with its mourning chords, but because it is a lament with hope. We got beyond that day, this song reminds me. Cry, yes, and mourn, but also rejoice as you remember the way the nation united.

Remember the beauty of the human spirit.


Is there really anything more beautiful than that?





Sources


1)
Little Boy.



2)
We're surrounded.



3)Gangs of New York: "Dionysus", Song "Dionysus"






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