In memory, I often paint my kid self with no sense of beauty – someone with a blank internal stare that excluded judgment. But on closer examination… not really.
The oatmeal we bought in the late ’40s, Mother’s Oats (Quaker Oats under another name), came in boxes with dishes inside. The big square boxes held plates or soup bowls, the smaller ones, cereal bowls. Round boxes may have held cups – I can’t recall.
They formed our default breakfast dishes, off-white low-fire ceramic with raised fruit around the rim. I always felt they were crappy, cheap, not something a caring human being should eat from. But not because they came in a box: All sorts of interesting shit came in cereal boxes in those days: The cardboard dividers between levels of shredded wheat had printed patterns your could cut out to make little airplanes (I’d as soon have eaten the cardboard as the shredded wheat).
No, I reacted to those bowls because they were ugly, and anything that ugly should not be!
At age four I could lay formal dinner place settings, complete with napkin in napkin holder and butter knife crossed above the fork. We ate all our meals, including breakfast and snacks, with my parents’ sterling silver wedding set. Every other Saturday it was my duty to polish the silver. I would compulsively rub down every last piece, including items we never used (such as a silver cane handle). I looked with snobbish rejection at the few pieces of silver plate, their brass underwear showing through.
Many a breakfast I ate from a sterling silver bowl with the alphabet stomping around it in huge embossed letters, or off a silver plate of the same design. I still have the silver knife and cereal spoon that went with them, though the bowl and plate are long gone. I don’t think I ever had the fork.
My mother’s china cabinet was jam packed with cups, plates, wine glasses, tureens, gravy boats. Etc. Many were delicate and beautiful and seldom used. A few remnants of an old set – a sugar bowl, small plates, some kind of server – were white with angular green and olive-grey lozenges repeating around the rim, inside a gold edging. Between the repetitions of the main pattern, the dark lozenge outline would cross over in a complex way – it may have been a Celtic knot. I felt irradiated, almost blessed whenever I had the privilege of using one of these exquisite plates or placing the sugar bowl (too rarely) on the table.
Try as I might, I can bring up no image of the plates we ate off every night, a selectively failure of memory.
Each family member owned a personal napkin ring. My father’s was silver with his initials, my mothers a heavy, wide hammered silver (Linda and I still have it). I can’t recall my brothers’, but mine was some lightweight pressed compound (redeemed sawdust?) with a lacquered plaid overlay; I never set it out without a minor resentment that, as the youngest, I had been granted a leftover.
Each brother also had a decorated beer stein. A colorful medieval scene ran around Rod’s, with a shoe or slipper sculpted on top. Vic’s was also elaborate. Mine was a knobby, unfigured ceramic blue topped by a pointed lead lid half attached to the handle by a broken lead band. I never resented a single thing that my glorious brothers possessed; but again I resented being handed what I saw as the leavings. (In retrospect, my stein was probably inherited and worth more than the others put together. Kids are dumbasses.)
The damnedest things sit in my mind as physical symbols of family life: The wooden, lidded jar with painted Russian figures that held a collection of Wendell Willkie buttons from the 1940 presidential campaign (likely worth hundreds on eBay these days); the stainless steel Ingersoll-Rand letter opener with a riveted bronze relief of a man operating a jackhammer; the ten-inch pair of woefully dull paper scissors.
Both the letter opener and the scissors resided on the most wonderful physical memory of all, my great grandfather’s magnificent walnut partners’ desk. I refinished it slowly over the years, never did quite complete the job. It’s gone now.
So I definitely did have a sense of beauty back then, and I did form aesthetic judgments. These days, I see beauty as central to being alive.
From our early years together, Linda and I ate from her hand-made plates – far more beautiful than whatever our family used back then – but we wielded flatware bought at a restaurant supply house in Philadelphia, while my parents’ silverware snoozed in the back of a drawer.
A few years ago, a friend mentioned that she regularly set a formal dinner table. At first that sounded like a ridiculous throwback. But the more I thought about it, the more it resonated. So one night I whipped together a compartmentalized wooden utensil tray that would fit in the top drawer of our hutch, which also held our recumbent tablecloths and napkins. Now, each evening, we set the table with a tablecloth, Linda’s plates, sterling silver utensils, cloth napkins – and napkin rings, made by Linda (plus my mother’s).
My parents’ monogrammed wedding silver is a simple but elegant design of different-width parallel lines around the handle, focused on a blunted end with sloping shoulders. It’s proto-art deco, I guess (they were married in 1922). We use the knives from that set nightly, but the forks are from an earlier era, presents given piece by piece to my mother, each dated holiday, as a child. The eldest is from her birth year, 1902.
They celebrate a voluptuous woman in full relief, naked above the waist, wrapped in classical flowing cloth below. I’ve always called them the “naked lady forks.” (If you enter “naked lady fork” in Google, there they are, the very same – at $74 apiece, or $18.50 a prong.) Food really does taste better when eaten with a naked lady fork.
Where has beauty taken me as an adult?
“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” — John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
I’d go with that, but I’d substitute “knowledge” for “truth.” They’re much the same in most ways, but I’m more scientific than poetic (though I love Keats – try “The Eve of St. Agnes” for sensuous color imagery). For me, finding things out, slowly coming to understand, may be the highest level of beauty; discovering connections, the glory of possibility – what fits together and how it fits, no matter the subject, no matter the presentation.
We were listening one nnight to Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas’s play for voices, recorded in 1953, just months before his death. The language, the reading (led by Thomas with a group of out -of-work New York actors) have such a resonant, mercurial, lush and rambunctious beauty that I find it almost painful to listen to. To a particular turn of mind, such gorgeous things are close to unbearable, soul-stripping. Thomas may have been the most sound-obsessed poet ever and one of the funniest: His humor rips, ripples and runs ragged, nowhere more so than in Under Milk Wood.
But I don’t find all beauty that straightforward or obvious. The most hideous can become the most beautiful when you’re given leave to experience its distorted construction: The beautiful should make you gasp or squirm; the most beautiful should make you do both at once.
Where I see beauty in the unlikely or the hideous:
In music, Antony and the Johnsons, with Antony wishing to grow up to be a “beautiful woman, but for now I am a boy”; the Tiger Lillies yearning to have sex with flies; Killdozer finding redemption in the disfiguring explosion of a grain elevator.
In literature, the horrifying last sentence of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano; Dostoevsky exploring the humor in epilepsy and the defining grace in mental dissolution.
In city streets, the shimmering effervescence of broken glass on the sidewalks; the sudden assault of rank piss when entering the subway.
In art, Hieronymus Bosch or the festering Grunewald crucifixion.
I can’t avoid giving unfair advantage to beautiful people (especially women). Face, figure, grace, energy, resilience, a turn of body, the sudden gesture of a hand – any or all can turn a person luminous in an instant. Sexuality is part of it, of course, but it goes much further, to a sense of rightness that skews my perceptions and interactions.
The down side of my obsession with beauty is my overreaction to human ugliness. I feel immediate repugnance for ugly people. It’s a moral failing by any spiritual measure. I try to compensate, to push it under. It flavors any dealing, interferes with fairness and basic decency.
Yet even here… there was a teller at the downtown savings back I visited every Friday to withdraw the $25 that would see me through the following week. Her face was disfigured, shifted, yet her gentle charm always left me feeling uplifted from that brief interaction.
Beauty can be ecstasy but equally a knife-edge away from misery and dissolution. If we are willing to accept the ugly as potentially beautiful, if we reject the easy assumption, still, how do we walk that knife-edge and not fall into the pit of abomination on one side, the consuming cuddle of illusion on the other?
The Higgs boson, to me, is beautiful; the emptiness of space (“Winken Blinken and Nod”) is negating in its aloneness, unsalvageable. What we label “good,” what “bad” is often what we see as “beautiful” or “ugly.” We think we’ve found the truth while only passing along the skewed image of what was impressed on us through genetics, upbringing, experience or mindset.
What beauty should never be is a cheap imitation of or limitation on our ability to understand and absorb: Thomas Kinkaid, Hallmark cards, soulless Catholic saints – the unquestioning underbelly of comprehension that leaves reality denuded, impoverished.
What I experience as beautiful I want to share, to fling away with abandon, but so often it falls down a hole to be devoured by reality before the gift can be received – or if received, tossed on the ash-heap by the recipient.
And how can we share beauty when the ways to view it, the comprehension of it are so varied? We each have our individual ideas/ideals of what resonates, of what we will wake up tomorrow morning and smile to recall. They spring from who we are, who we were, what has happened, what will happen, what we might wish would happen but will not live to see.
I cry old-man tears because I see the beauty both of having and of losing. Is that part of learning or part of falling apart? Yet my failure to find an answer is itself a superlative kind of beauty: I’ve reached as far as I know how to reach, and when it all leads to tears and sorrow, still I know that I’ll keep looking, that the sorrow, as well as the joy, can support me.