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Beauty in Categories

Flora Shepherd

I have a very strong memory of an experience of instinctual beauty. I was walking out of school, in my junior year of high school, onto a flight of outdoor stairs. I opened the door and the sky was perfectly blue with white clouds, just like you would imagine a perfect sky to look It was almost summer and the courtyard below my was lush green. I had just finished a poetry workshop that had gone well and was walking with my friends, listening to them making fun of our workshop guest and laughing. And I remember when I was outside, in the humid heat of New Orleans that you can smell and taste, like sweet steam and the sun that seems to embrace you. I could see outlines of the Mississippi river bridge and the skyline of downtown, and the brightly painted homes in the neighborhood around my school below the perfect blue sky. And I thought about how perfect everything seemed and how I felt like I had nothing to worry about, because everything was so beautiful and I was young and smart and lucky and almost grown up. I was so overcome by how happy I was and how beautiful everything was, I got kind of teary-eyed and started laughing even more. And even though I can no longer perfectly recall the way everything looked that day, I can perfectly recall how I felt. I was just completely grateful and happy and I felt like the whole world was beautiful at that moment.

That sort of all-consuming experience of beauty is very rare. It's worlds apart from a more personal, intellectual experience of beauty, which I find very common at Bryn Mawr. I remember one cold weekend freshman year, I didn't want to go outside and deal with the campus, so I ordered some Chinese and stayed in my room reading Anna Karenina for two days. I remember it as an incredibly lush and beautiful book. But I also remember how warm and cozy I felt in my own room, escaping from my less than beautiful class work.

I don't think I've seen anything that I thought was very beautiful in a few months. In order to perceive beauty, I have to be willing to see it. Too much work or stress can effectively block the beauty out. When I get so busy I must adhere to my plans, I cannot fit beauty into my life.

There are many things I would rather write about beauty than just my experience of it. This essay frustrates me because it only feels to obfuscate beauty. I would rather be doing my physics homework that writing this paper. Physics problems are beautiful to me. Physics is so impersonal. I can pour hours and hours into reading and calculating and re-writing my calculations and then find out that I am completely wrong in my assumptions and not feel bad. Because I find all of the thinking and calculating the most beautiful part. When I think through, say, Gauss' law, I am re-living how Gauss himself might have derived it.. If I were to fail an exam or completely screw up a problem, I wouldn't think I was a bad physicist. I would think I didn't study enough or I just didn't quite understand the concepts, and, instead of feeling too discouraged, just caution myself to do better.

To me, all parts of physics are beautiful. I am trying to explain the processes of the world using a system derived by human beings after centuries of work. If I think of a new idea, I am adding to a cannon of old ideas and progressing in a logical development of thinking. But if I screw up this essay, I'll feel like an awful writer and a disgrace to my heavily humanities upbringing. Because writing essays shouldn't get much harder depending on the topic, it's not like learning a new concept in physics. So I guess you could say that I don't like thinking about beauty in the contexts of this class, because it scares me. There are no logical answers and no calculations I can write out to prove my point or to explain why my answer differs from everyone else's. When I talk about beauty, I am, in fact, getting paint on my hands. In physics, I can usually keep myself happily distanced from the harsh criticism of the world by the daunting reputation of physics and hide inside my jargon and general awe of those who do physics. But for me, in many ways, it's the opposite. Physics makes sense. All of my experiences of beauty have many causes. No one can point to just one.

But yet, I can find beauty in things which I am not calculating, reading or seeing. Until I turned eight, I never stopped doing art. I was in special art classes at school, knew more about painters then than I probably do now and read several books on the subject, my favorite being the Linea series, in which a young girl travels to different places. My favorite was the one were she traveled to Monet's gardens in Giverny. Especially in elementary school, I was fascinated by the impressionists. I had posters, tried to imitate some of their techniques (poorly) and knew quite a bit about their lives. When I was fourteen, way past my arts phase, my family and I visited Giverny and all my childhood memories came rushing back. It felt like the most beautiful place in the world only because I could remember reading so much about it.. The gardens truly are breathtaking and the bridge really does curve over a pond with water lilies. The weather was perfect and I remember walking all over: the Japanese garden, the rows of flowers and even his house, with rooms painted appropriate colors for how he thought you should feel in the room (the kitchen was blue). Outside, everything smelled like flowers. And there were so many tourists walking around, sighing and smiling just as much as I was. It felt like an important, beautiful place. I don't know if I would still think it was the most beautiful place in the world if I re-visited it without my family on an ugly, cold, rainy day with no one around but me and some grumpy tourists.

It's hard to piece together how I experience beauty since each experience is different in its own way. Maybe someone will think of a formula for it.

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