I confess to being an armchair philosopher, which I suppose comes from my profession.
My armchair at the moment looks out at a Great Lake, attuning myself to changes in wind direction, wave response, counter-currents, and height of the sun — as I analyze the best conditions for big-water kayaking.
I know I live a privileged life because I am able to escape work for a time and immerse in the wild birdsong among the sand dunes while watching the interplay of light and water. This immersion is lived poetry to me. It is beauty — alive, vibrant, full of energy, even on gray days. This immersion is not mere vacation, filled with seeing sights and doing things; it is re-learning to attend to the life-giving gifts rather than death-dealing temptations that accompany much of daily life.
Beauty is one such gift, an antidote to the games we are supposed to play in our work and in society. If we get caught in the unspoken competitions requiring us to be smarter than, better than, “right-er” than, richer than, more than others whose opinions matter to us, we lose our way. Natural beauty helps us turn around; it quiets us because we did not create it and really have no stake in it, except to accept it as gift. I have learned that when I can accept such a precious gift, I no longer live in the world of “than.” I live in the world of gratitude.
As I sat in my armchair this morning, something happened that honed my gratitude to a fine point. A very young bird who did not have good wing control flew into the window. Smack. The reflection fooled her into thinking she had clear passage.
She dropped to the deck immediately, still fluttering, feathers left behind on the glass. I rushed to her, hoping she would live. As I picked her up, she blinked at me. Her feathers were askew and one leg wasn’t moving correctly. So I cradled her in my hands, warming her as she recovered from shock. Her clear eyes stirred hope in my own fluttering heart.
After an eternity, I moved my hand and she hopped up to my finger. One leg did not quite land where it should. For some time she perched on my finger, gingerly letting the other leg find an adjacent landing place. I waited. She blinked. We stayed still. Eventually, I stood up slowly, walking around with my hand-perch in the air. She fluttered. Not ready? She rode on my fingers for a full tour of the deck and back again. Blinking. Grip becoming tighter. Good. Stronger.
I pushed my hand up to give her momentum, and she took off — back into the window! This time, though, not hitting hard, recovering and landing on the table umbrella, feathers again askew, legs akimbo. I spoke with her quietly. She gave herself a great shake, all the feathers falling into place and feet aligned, off she went, sailing beautifully into the nearby dune shrubs.
I believe I’ve seen her fly by a few times since, but perhaps this is only my wish.
The gift of beauty: not static, heart-wrenching, desperate, hoping. Sometimes it is so sudden, it knocks the wind out of me. Sometimes it is found in the simplest of gestures, quietude, or conversation that creates new territory. Sometimes beauty is visual, sometimes audible, sometimes encountered by taste, smell or touch. What I know is this: Beauty heals and, therefore, blesses, in whatever form it gifts itself to us. The great tragedy is that when we are so busy competing to get ahead (of someone else), we lose the blessing of gift that could transform our lives.
“O taste and see,” says the Psalmist. The Creator graciously holds creation out to us, to taste, to see, to love, to respond — this is fierce beauty. Armchairs aside.
Lisa Withrow is dean and vice president of academic affairs at Methodist Theological School in Ohio and an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, East Ohio Conference.