A tale of three post-waste mentalities, and one product type.
Finding it, cherishing it, sharing it and being a creator of it, is what I want to do… for life.
Does that sound a bit superficial? I’m not talking about unrealistic beauty standards that are forced onto our appearances and bodies. Or the idea that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, a false statement that demotes beauty to an opinion and is easily dismissed. I’m talking about the sort of beauty in people, places, moments and monuments, that sing to our souls and caress every nerve in our bodies. The collective gasps when watching a lead violinist perform something seemingly impossible yet with superhuman precision and grace. The sensation of the entire continent pressing behind you as you stand on the edge of the unfathomably-vast ocean. Losing yourself in an unknown distant past when you crack open and smell the air of an old book.
That is the kind of beauty I am obsessed with. That which makes me feel alive.
This obsession with beauty doesn’t make me an artist per se. In fact, experiencing beauty is an essential part of being human. Without beauty, our lives would be bleak and meaningless. Beauty is what brings us together, and sets us apart, at the same time.
What makes you feel alive? What makes you vibrate? …That is beauty.
As humans, we are all capable of experiencing beauty, and we develop different capacities for finding and enjoying beauty. Truly, there are so many things that can harbour and amplify beauty around us. But if we can’t see what’s worth saving or savouring, we’ve lost. Therefore it’s important to train three muscles: our attention, our expression, and our dedication to beauty.
Beauty in noticing
There are so many circumstances where we lose sight of beauty in our lives. When I feel unmoored and unsure about life, this timeless advice from the Buddhists never fails: focus on the now, within and without.
This is a practice in noticing.
In Norway we have a saying:
At school, I cannot count how many all-season mini excursions we took as a whole class. Rain, snow or shine, it was always a good time for us to spend in nature. Nature was so accessible that we’d start in our classrooms and within 30 minutes our little feet (with a little help from public transit) had brought us to the edge of nature where we’d spend the afternoon, playing. And through play our teachers would guide us to notice and appreciate beauty in so many places and ways.
Activities included: find the maple leaf with the coolest colors and patterns of the fall, marvel at the perfectly aerodynamic shape of snow drifts on the side of a path (before someone destroyed it with a stomp, to the groans of the young appreciators), find the weirdest rock formations with carpets of moss and lichen draped over them, or count the number of animals hiding in the shifting shape of the drifting clouds. We’d run around and shout “hey come check this out!!” all day long, chasing the wave of child-like wonder hour after hour. Finding beauty was a competition that we all partook in, and won together through our shared awe-struck reactions.
30 years later, I still find wonderment in noticing the hazy quality of the sunlight streaming into the room. I love noticing the trees slowly go from naked to budded to fully leafed week over week. I run my finger over the part of the spacebar that is so asymmetrically shiny from my right thumb hitting it thousands of times a day, revelling in the smoothness.
Observing, acknowledging and enjoying beauty–small or big, brief or everlasting, silent or splashy–is the first step to becoming a purveyor in it.
Beauty in expression
To notice beauty may sound easy, but just wait until we’re asked to express beauty!
Suddenly a nervousness descends, and anything from performance anxiety to impostor syndrome takes over.
You’re asking me to express beauty? That’s for artists! I’m not one, that’s for sure.
No, no, this is all wrong. Or rather, whoever planted those ideas in us got it all wrong. Expressing beauty is not just for artists. It’s human. It’s universally accessible to all of us. And it’s something that Norwegians teach their kids very well.
In younger grades we were constantly workshopping and completing craft projects. Often they tied back to larger lessons, like in Geography class. Here, we created passports where we filled every page with a “memory” of each country we learned about. We had to pick one thing that stood out to us from the lesson, and scrapbook it in. Every classroom would have tons of craft supplies ready to go. (I am amazed at how they kept classrooms so clean despite all the glitter we used on our projects!)
Another beloved memory of mine would be the annual pre-Christmas workshops. Christmas is a heck of a big deal in Norway. In the darkness of winter, imagine a bright room with tables arranged like a production line. Every kid would start on one end, empty handed. We would be placed at the first station: take this tube and stitch one side shut. Then we’d move to the next station: fill the tube with rice. And one after the other, every kid would have drawn, cut, stitched, traced, glued, folded, poured, sprinkled and fixed their way through the instructions, channeling the “Santa’s workshop” spirit and ending with amazing Christmas ornaments that had the personal flair only an 8-year-old could give.
Oh, how we poured ourselves into creating the most beautiful things that we could at that age.
How can we learn from this? Give people―and yourself―space to express passion for something. The activities gave us kids so much latitude to be expressive, and to create strong positive associations with the subject at hand. We learned about the world through scrapbooking a passport; and the spirit of generosity was imprinted in us when we created these ornaments to give to our parents as presents for Christmas.
What is your personal flair to life? Add that spice generously.
Beauty in stewardship
“Dugnad” is a communal event in Norway where a neighbourhood will organize a day of “cleaning/fixing/resetting the neighbourhood”. Usually they happen after winter when snow and ice has melted and revealed all the things that got lost in two feet of snow. From 9 in the morning to late in the afternoon we would deploy people to the furthest reaches and tiniest nooks of our neighbourhood. There they would do things like sweep pathways clear of gravel (we use gravel, not salt, for traction during winter) and collect them in bins for use the next year. Some would pick garbage or rake together heaps and bags of decaying leaves from last fall. Others would haul away big broken items that had collected throughout the year or collect batteries and other toxic waste to be taken to a safe place for disposal.
This was not limited to certain neighbourhoods or just adults. Starting from daycare, all kids would partake in cleaning the grounds of their school or kindergarten in the same way. It’s such a big deal that there even is an Oslo-wide organization with a mascot of the same name called “Rusken”. They are so organized that they managed to break the world record (link in Norwegian) on “number of people sweeping at the same time, in the same place” in 2019!
And though such events could seem like a chore for both kids and adults, Norwegians knew the secret sauce to making these things worth it. At the end of the day, everyone would gather and be served a warm/sweet drink (toddy, tea, coffee, hot chocolate – you choose) and a sweet snack at the end (waffles, sweet buns, cake, “lefser”) to mark the end of a good day of work. The aprés-work treats tasted all the sweeter from witnessing and partaking in the collective effort to make our environment better than we found it.
Taking personal time to reset our collective home made us take ownership over our corner of the world. We didn’t rely on a hired clean-up crew to keep our neighbourhood clean. The “dugnad” was our yearly affirmation to our environment, a promise that we will be there to take care of it, as a community.
What we humans spend time nurturing and taking care of is nothing but beautiful.
Beauty, here and now
The late Irish poet John O’Donohue insisted on beauty as a human calling, and even wrote a whole book simply called Beauty:
What John is telling us is this: we already have what it takes to see more beauty in our lives. We just need to practice.
As a child, every act of play, expression and stewardship grew within me the confidence and agency that I could create something beautiful of my own, on my own. Creating beauty is not one person’s singular job. It is all our jobs. Because of this, it is of utmost importance that we get in touch with the parts of us that inspire joy, awe, and delight. Only then can we begin to truly elevate beauty as an elemental and necessary aspect of living.
My childhood stories are one of many memories that leave me with a beautiful feeling.
Where do your beautiful stories exist?
That’s where life is.