"Beauty doesn't mind questions and she is fond of riddles. Beauty will dance with anyone who is brave enough to ask her. When I first wrote these words twenty-five years ago, I had only begun to imagine how we could invite beauty into our lives. I had no idea how deeply they would lead me into an exploration of beauty.
"Writing about beauty feels like drinking water out of the cup of my hand from a clear spring. As I bring this water to my mouth, so much spills away. The water tastes delicious; the freshness and purity startle me. I have been drinking water that was mediocre for so long. I have forgotten how good water can taste. Like water, beauty is ordinary and essential, as well as extraordinary and magnificent.
"Beauty, like water, takes many forms and permeates our environment. Just as water travels across the world and pools in everything from our cells to underground streams to magnificent storms, beauty also travels, gathers, concentrates. It is beautiful to look at and listen to the way the world changes with rain, to trace the path of the river by foot or from an airplane window, to talk at the ocean's edge, swim under the waterfall. Beauty rinses our eyes. Sometimes beauty moves us to tears. We bathe in, drink the presence of beauty.
"Slowly I have come to savor the beauty of the unknown, the unnameable, the contradictions and paradoxes. Beauty is simple and complex, obvious and elusive, superficial and profound, spontaneous and achieved with great effort, impossible to define and essential to articulate. Beauty is allied with the radiance of fire, body and soul, vision and music, movement and stillness, the daily cycles of night and day.
"Beauty refuses to yield to analysis, refuses to be perfection. Beauty moves within and around us, rearranging our moods, taking us home. Beauty is always moving and beauty is very still, the light in the dark, the dark in the light, the subtlest shades of pale white and blue, the richest tones of indigo and black and deep brown, the brightest reds and oranges and golds. We find beauty at the intersections, the edges, the center of so many experiences. Although we keep trying to talk about beauty as inner or outer, that language is too static, trying to fix beauty in a single location. Beauty is an energy, not an image, and that energy can go anywhere; that energy takes on an image, a form, many images, many forms.
"As a visual artist, I tend to think about beauty in visual terms, though making art that is beautiful is rarely my conscious intent. Making art is a practice of seeing, and as we see more deeply, we find beauty in unexpected places. When I make art, I slow down and my perceptions of the things around me are heightened. The feel of the paper, the three new jars of blue paints, the shiny black ink, the textures and liveliness of the materials are in themselves satisfying. Sometimes when I emerge from my studio, everything that was ordinary becomes so vivid that it stuns me. Although I have never been stopped for speeding, I was once pulled over for driving too slowly; there was simply so much to see.
"Being an artist has offered me a way to practice developing my vision and to work with the knowing of the senses; my hands know how to make order, how to place one stone next to another stone as if it were a language. Making art is part of how I make sense, how I see my experience. I begin to draw people with leaves in their hearts; to my amazement the leaf people begin to look like angels. A shape turns into other shapes. Leaf becomes flame becomes wing.
"My work has involved looking at the familiar in new ways, allowing myself to be led by my questions, listening to the dreams and stories of my friends, teachers, and students. The normal activities of my life become part of the way I take notes on the need for beauty. Living on a lake and watching the sun rise over the water for a week, talking to second graders about the animals in their dreams, visiting gardens and salvage yards, adding a third window in my office and bringing more light inside, become opportunities to explore different qualities of beauty.
"Writing about beauty feels like swimming in a Sierra lake after years of doing laps in an indoor pool. There is a freedom to swimming in a mountain lake that is exhilarating. Swimming for joy, I feel the great depth of water beneath me and the sky above me, and my creature self comes alive. I may not see the trout or otter I share the water with, but I know I am not alone.
"The research has truly been a search on many levels. I yearned to look outside the jacket of my conditioning to cultures in which the Mystery is alive, in which there is more time devoted to celebration, exchanging gifts, dancing, making music. Although I wanted to travel to faraway places, I found some of my most important travels were as an artist and poet in the schools. Listening to children consider beauty and ugliness underlined that beauty is, in fact, everywhere. On my very first visit to a classroom, an adolescent boy wrote, 'Beauty doesn't drink Perrier water. Beauty doesn't eat finger sandwiches with her afternoon tea. Beauty doesn't wear a lacy nightie. For Beauty is too busy tending the rice fields in China.'
"I am not researching beauty to prove an academic argument; I don't have a single vision or theory. I am exploring and celebrating beauty, feeling that beauty is both precious and common, far too absent in our culture and everyday life and yet very available when we give our attention over to it. Because so much of our culture focuses on its most superficial aspects, we have forgotten that beauty is one of the most profound and essential qualities in our lives. I have come to believe that by attending to beauty and enlarging our sense of beauty, we are able to live with greater appreciation, engagement, wonder, and reverence."