"When I was seven years old, I discovered the magic of falling in love with a beautiful object. The experience took me completely out of time, and I remember it today as though it had just happened. I was staying with my uncle and aunt in a quaint town in northern England, and as I walked to the town center, I felt excited because I'd just been given some money to spend while I was out — not a lot, but more than my regular allowance. There was a store that I'd passed many times that had always appealed to me, but I'd never had the chance to explore it. It wasn't a shop for kids, so the adults had whisked me along whenever I'd tried to slow down to look more carefully at the displays. Its window was filled with housewares of one stripe or another, but they weren't the run-of-the-mill variety. Each object was more like a work of art, some handmade and some manufactured, but all crafted with an elegance that made me want to gaze at them for a long time. This was the store I headed for.

"Standing before the window, I felt exhilaration, an experience I still get today when I go to a good arts and crafts show. It's as though I could feel the creativity and care that had gone into the making of every one of these objects. My eyes moved slowly from one item to the next: a set of coffee mugs decorated with an unusual geometric design rendered in brilliant colors; a glass carafe, remarkably tall and sleek and perfectly tapered to a delicately folded lip; a dish towel imprinted with an intricate pattern composed of the overlapping skeletons of leaves.

"And then I saw it — the object that captured my heart. It was a plate of plain white porcelain, very simple in form, with a design painted on its flat center that evoked memories of a wildflower garden. I can't tell you why it was this piece in particular that so captivated me, but in that extended moment of delight it didn't matter. I stared and stared, breathing deeply as I did so, completely unhitched from and unfettered by the world around me. I was totally intoxicated by the beauty of what I saw. I felt expanded far beyond the normal experience of my physical body, and it didn't occur to me to worry about what anyone might be thinking or how strange my behavior might appear to those around me. I was transported beyond time by the wonder and delight that this simple plate evoked in me.

"Of course, after the moment passed and I remembered where I was and what I was there to do, this was what I spent my money on that day. It was a treasure I kept with me for many years. I remember the quizzical looks I got from my uncle and aunt and from my parents when I returned home with my prize. I'm sure they were wondering, 'What kind of child would buy a plate with her pocket money?' But for me it was a souvenir of a profoundly moving experience, and every time I looked at it, it gave me goose bumps. I was able to retaste the timeless quality that had engulfed me on that first sighting. It was my most precious possession, and I put it to many uses over the ensuing decades, from exhibit to plant tray to, of all things, a dish for food. It became my reminder to pause and my excuse for a 'beauty moment,' an intentional breathing space in my day.

"That experience was a pivotal 'aha' moment in my life, the moment I recognized the power of beauty to transcend time and create the conditions for inspiration to take hold. It has become a tool for staying aware, and I use it still to help loosen the grip that time can have on me. All of us have experienced similar moments in our lives. As I began working on the proposal for this book and recounted the plate story to a friend, she told me of a similar technique she's developed for herself: In her bedroom, taped to the mirror above her dresser, is a topographical map of a place in Colorado where she often vacations. She told me that this is the only place she knows that can completely release her from her work and responsibilities. The majesty of the mountains and the dry crispness of the pine-scented air envelop her and allow her to experience herself as a creature of the universe and not just a worker bee in the city. By glancing at this map each day as she rises and each night as she heads to bed, she allows herself to remember what's important in life. It puts everything in perspective.

"A more recent example of this phenomenon involves a tile that I purchased at a craft fair and that is now built into a sitting space in my newly remodeled office in my home in North Carolina.

"I bought the tile more than a decade ago for clients who I thought might like the design motif for their kitchen backsplash. It was one of many very beautiful patterns made by an artisan, Nawal Motawi. I'd had a quick conversation with the artist and knew as I was speaking with her that there was great depth to her work, and that it embodied a very special quality of attention that she had come to understand. The care that she takes with her products can be imparted to those who appreciate them, just as the plate of my childhood had imparted its creator's state of being to me.

"Although my clients had been unimpressed by the tile, I loved it, and I set it on my desk, where it provided endless inspiration for my architectural work. I had picked up the tile on many occasions, looking at the changing shadows cast by its relief pattern as I moved it in the light from the big window beside my desk. As my plate had earlier done for me and my friend's map has done for her, the tile held me in a sort of spirit dance, right in the middle of the day, unbeknownst to my colleagues who bustled around me. For a few moments, whenever I wanted, I could visit the font of vitality that beauty provides. I could breathe in the scent of the creative juice that the artist had poured into that tile and borrow its inspiration for the designs I was working on.

"If we're struggling, thinking too hard, and worried about getting something done before our next meeting, our creativity is limited and derivative. But when we're attuned to the vitality of the moment, everything is informed by the creativity of that moment. It's not something we possess or master; it's something that we are. There's no separation between creativity and you. That's why the vibrancy of another person's creative act can inspire our own. It's the state in which the object was made that is contagious.

"When I was finishing my office addition a year ago, I was riffling through a box of papers and office supplies from my Minnesota house when I found the tile, wrapped in bubble wrap, stuffed inside an old manila envelope. I was so pleased to have found it. The trim work was under way, and a spot beside the new skylight was presenting a challenge. At a point where the wall meets the sloped ceiling, I was looking for a graceful way for the trim to turn the corner, and I suddenly realized that this favorite tile might offer the perfect transition. By placing it between the upper band of maple trim and the lower one of cherry, I could make the change of direction look effortless, and the tile would have a place constantly in the light, where its relief would stand out and I'd be able to enjoy it every day.

"The space it inhabits is at the entry to the addition, as well as in the transition zone between my inner office and my outer office — my writing room and my communicate-with-the-world room. So every time I enter or exit the office and every time I move between inner and outer offices, I see the tile, and it prompts me to breathe. My heart skips a beat whenever I notice it. Each glance at this small point of beauty causes me to pause and to see with that other pair of glasses into the richness and meaningfulness of this moment.

"That's what beauty can do. It's a doorway into the next dimension, the dimension that we normally think of as time but that really is beyond linear time, and in real time — in presence. Beauty, when you experience it fully, opens the door to being in the Now just as surely as any death-defying act, by stunning the senses equally as powerfully, though in a very different way.

"Inspiration doesn't have to come just from the content of what you experience. In this instance it isn't the pattern or the shape of the tile that inspires me. It's the beauty that it exemplifies in my eyes and the quality of the attention I know went into its making, which in turn inspires me to pour the same kind of attention into my own creations. That attention can be brought to the creative process only when you are completely engaged, unencumbered by your to-do list, and unfettered by linear time. It can be brought to bear only when you are completely present in what you are doing.

"Beauty can be a powerful tool in helping to transport us to that place beyond time. It is the coming through of a quality from a dimension beyond our normal experience. Though we can't adequately explain it, we can see and feel beauty, and when we open ourselves to it, it can in turn allow us to transcend linear time and breathe in the vitality of simply being. If you can surround yourself with objects of delight, they will feed you in ways you never imagined."