Conversations on Beauty

Kristy-Anne Swart is a Calgary based photographer and friend.  You can find her work at www.upandawaystudios.com or on instagram @kristyanneswart  .  Throughout our friendship, we’ve had amazing conversations about art, faith, motherhood, beauty and so one day we just decided to record our conversation.  Here is a “slightly” polished version of that conversation.  I took out most of our ‘like’s and ‘hmmmmss’s and sentences that didn’t go anywhere.   But I love conversations and holding up real ones that explore, ask questions, maybe don’t get to a final word, a definitive statement,  but are part of the process of living well.  Conversations are a skill and craft that could and should be elevated.

We hope you enjoy it.

from Jacqui and Kristy-Anne

IMG_2076*********************Hope Hill, the site of the best conversations**********************

( We are sitting on the top of the hill, surrounded by prairie flax, vetch, and grasses, with water and a recording iPhone)

J: Well, friend, this is weird.  But thanks for doing this!  So, two things I want to talk about.  The first is how has an understanding of beauty led you into a deeper spirituality?  And the second is that you mentioned once that you had a “contract with beauty” and I don’t know if we ever totally unpacked statement that so I thought to myself, “I want to talk about THAT.”
K: ooohhh, ok!
J: And then I kind of wanted to talk a little bit about – well maybe an entry point would be how to talk about beauty that goes beyond something being pretty or decorative. What does beauty hold that just something looking nice doesn’t hold, or isn’t getting.
K: Ok, well, I think that we have this idea that beauty is glamor – and all those things associated with that, but I think that true beauty invites people to be a part of it and offers something to people.

That’s the initial thing I think about – if you think about the flowers, the flowers aren’t in competition with us to make us feel less beautiful, in fact I think they just remind us that beauty is a whole.
I think beauty can be found in anything and is to me, beauty is spiritual. To me, anywhere I can find God, I can find beauty. I can almost use those words interchangeably.  ….yeah, God is beauty-full.  So I can take the time to notice Him in the grass or in the flax plant and to notice that.  It can be found in music. It can be found in the wind. I think it can be found in anything I choose to notice or recognize.
J: I liked how you said about the invitation, because I think spirituality to me means something that draws you out of yourself but doesn’t make you leave yourself. I’m not just a body, but I’m also not apart from my body. A spirituality would bring my gaze to something more than just myself but it would leave me still rooted.   Beauty invites us to that space.  So there’s a connection between beauty and spirituality.  It…..

KA: ….Calls us, calls us into the divine. There’s so much beauty in community, good conversation and yeah, I think it is about more and its deeper and its more inclusive? I feel like I feel all these things, but I haven’t put words to them or written them down yet.

But I think the one thing is that beauty cannot be trapped. I wrote that one post about capturing the clouds – if we were able to bottle up beauty, and sell it. or manufacture it, then it wouldn’t be true beauty. Or real. There’s not a formula to it. I think that one day we might find beauty in “this” and another day we might not be able to find it. And I think that sometimes, its slowing down long enough to notice. Its’ just so abstract but you invite beauty to come and maybe it will come. Or you look and you slow down – so much is in the practice. And then you find it. I feel like I find it but its not always the same way. One day it might be the butterfly dancing and the next day it will be in somebody’s tears or in somebody’s smile. And I don’t know if i’ts just because that’s where I noticed it, noticed what was going on within me that day, or if it is just everywhere and we only see in part.

J: When I talk about beauty, there’s something about creation, created beauty, like now we are in the grass on a hill with the wildflowers and there’s something about being outside that we say is beautiful and I think most humans respond to that. But it’s not just because it’s useful for us. There’s something extra that invites us in, but it’s not only because it’s utilitarian.

KA: Yeah, Yeah, it’s one of those rare things that’s not quantifiable.

J: Yeah, I was wondering the other day –  could we in some conceivable way, humanity and all life on earth, get all the sustenance it needs is less varied ways? Just one plant that grows and all humans eat it and we get enough – sometimes I wonder “Why” the variety and the difference ecosystems and the hugeness of it and it altogether makes something beautiful that is more than the sum of its parts?   And I wonder if it is THAT moves us somehow because we belong to it?  That abundance?  I don’t know, those are my random ramblings… Beauty and the natural world, which is often where people respond.

KA: We can find truth in nature – and again its not hiding behind something – it just is. It just grows. And every year it’s going to look a little different. But every year we have the rain and the snow and all the different things and somehow, this hill is covered in wildflowers every year. It’s not necessarily what you were saying, but it feels like it doesn’t matter what crisis, what thing happens in our world, like Covid, are the flowers stressing about all the different things? no they are just showing up. And are here. The variety of nature. Also we are also part of it. Are the flowers appreciating us for being here with them? I don’t know?

J: Maybe not sitting on them?

KA: Well we chose a part that had less of them?…..
So the last time we chatted at secret beach, and I wrote about it after, I felt like the place welcomed me. I feel beauty welcomes me. Us. And I think its because I chose to notice it. Ok, we are going all over the place, and I have the abstract, mythical, mystical ideas about it, but I like to think that the flowers are really being thankful that someone appreciated them. And that one day they bloomed was noticed.

J: So does that lead into that time you said you had a contract with beauty? I don’t know, was that just a phrase you came up with? or had it been something you’ve thought about before?

KA: So that came when I went to a workshop and surprisingly it was a photography workshop but it was very much less about tech but a lot about how we see the world. And one of the things she got us all to do was to write out a contract with something. So one person’s was “forgiveness.” But for me, my contract was with beauty. I think that its something I will continue to think about for a long time, but I feel like its my calling to point people back to what beauty is. And I feel very strongly that beauty exists – well I can hold grief and beauty at the same time. And its more beautiful and more impactful because I can hold them both and I’m not having to say I have to get rid of THAT – grief – before I can have THAT – beauty. I think that things are more colorful because I can see it, or that the diamond will shine brighter because of that tiny bit of light not because of the fully lit room. So my contract with beauty is to not forget. To not let darkness or pain or trauma or the confusion of the world to get past me where I stop noticing. My contract is to invite beauty into my life.

There’s this traditional navajo prayer  that says “With beauty before me I walk.  With beauty behind me, I walk. With beauty within me I walk.”  I know I’m saying it wrong slightly. And then it ends, “It has become beauty again, it has become beauty again, it has become beauty again.”    I was trying to say that every morning!  But I still do think about how when I see the light, and I think to invite it every day and to try to notice it. And then to try to point other people back to it. To see it. Because, well I wouldn’t say its easier for me, but maybe because it is my calling, to notice the beauty. My idea of beauty will be different but my invitation is for others to also see and find beauty, not in the conventional ways.

J: Do you feel pressure to hold it, keep it when you see it? How do you manage that ? I think so many times, when we experience something that’s life giving – there’s the experience and then after, theres’ the urge to “I have to replicate this” or “get back to this.” or “I have to hold on to it, hoard it?” that impulse to grasp it.

Maybe your daily practice is that, then every morning it’s new..

KA: I don’t feel nervous to hold onto it, but I feel nervous if I don’t notice it. I think for me, the whole thing is just in the noticing. It’s not in the “having” or “having to hold it” because as the sky dances, its going to change in moments. I can’t hold that. That child’s face is going to do something different. I’m confident enough that beauty exists in so many different places, that I’m not worried about missing it. Like lately the skies have been so incredible and I’ve felt a bit guilty that I haven’t gone out of my house, and I haven’t gone on my walk or taken a photo, but either way I’ve said to the sky, “You are beautiful” and in my heart acknowledged it. And taken a moment to be like “wow.” And then the next day there’s another sky. And its another display.

J: It strikes me that that is such a deep spiritual practice – to be able to say that and trust that beauty will come again.

KA: It has become beauty again. Everyday.

J: And it won’t run out.

KA: Yeah, it’s not like a commodity that we can lose because we’ve been using it for however long. How many years have the wildflowers bloomed whether we were here or not. And again, we are just talking about nature – beauty doesn’t just exist in those things. Yeah, I’m not really worried that it’s going to run out. But I do think it’s a muscle that you can practice. To acknowledge and see. And I think its easier for me to see because I have the contract and because I practice seeing. It’s like with anything – if you’re a musician you can hear a note that’s in tune or not, and because I’m open to it, I think it comes more readily for me to see. Its a posture.

It’s a practice that I didn’t realize I had or a ritual I didn’t realize I was living.

J: I love when you step back and think “Huh! this is a very deep spiritual practice in seeing.”

K: Yeah, This has been holding me. And in the same breath – in the same way I know that beauty will come, I also know that very quickly my whole life could be shook up by pain tomorrow as well. As it does. But to know that there’s not one without the other. I think we all have contracts with something – a desire or gift.

J: Yeah, that’s an interesting question – I’m going to think about that. What’s my contract with?

IMG_9457

Now, is there something that specifically always catches your eye? Is it small things? big landscapes? or all over the place? Or does it chance day to day or by season?

K: Its very easy for me to be moved by the sky. Maybe it’s growing up on the Prairies, like Saskatchewan, just that drive from Saskatoon to Edmonton would be five hours and I remember some people saying “this is so boring” but I was never bored by the landscape. Land of the living skies is the motto and I always felt like I could look out and every day, every year, it would be different. That drive, even now, it’s common for me to drive to Sylvan and I’ve driven that road a million times and every time the sky moves me. It doesn’t get old. It does help that we have seasons – it’s easier to acknowledge beauty – we get a lot of difference. Spring, the winter hoarfrost, it doesn’t get old.

I really find in my kids, in their movement. Kids dancing, music, the sky – I mean that’s pretty beautiful. Faces are beautiful, little faces and little smiles.
J: So you kind of talked a little bit about it, but you said something the other day about grief and beauty.  It was a text, a screen shot from Morgan Harper Nichols saying this was her favourite quote right now from Wendy Beckett. “Art accepts all the sadness and transforms it implicitly, affirming that beauty is essentially the presence of God.”

K: I think we need to read it one more time.

J: Yeah, “Art accepts all the sadness and transforms it implicitly, affirming that beauty is essentially the presence of God.” by Wendy Beckett

KA: Yeah, I think that struck me because I feel like there is a connection between grief and beauty. I cannot escape that. The whole Barbara Brown Taylor book, Learning to Walk in the Dark was so impactful for me because it also went hand in hand with this. It says, ” I think I can see beauty more because I’ve seen darkness.” I think I can see because I’ve not shut myself down from feeling those feelings. I’m not them. I think its through the feeling of pain that it transforms the pain into the place where we know God? I don’t know. I don’t know how it works and that’s the whole mystery because if we as humans know how it works, we would….

J: Well, we would bottle it up and sell it, which we do….

J: I wonder if it’s because there’s an element of witnessing to the pain and holding it in tension with the good that IS. There’s a witnessing to God and I think us as Christians, we look at this incarnate God who willingly goes to the cross and we hold that – and I don’t think we even remotely touch the way that God witnesses the tension of world’s deepest pain and the world’s greatest beauty, being held together. Not that you’d ever say “you have to go through suffering” to see beauty. You don’t want to idealize pain, or fetishize it in any way, but its a fact of life, of existence and so God bears witness to it in His creation and we bear witness God’s witnessing to it when we try to express it back, when we try to make sense of it through art?

KA: Maybe its the mirroring. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it like that necessarily. But in the idea of the cross, the deepest pain, the deepest sacrifice, but that is the greatest gift. And in that moment….

J: There’s a lot in there…..hmm

KA: Maybe that’s part of it? Maybe that’s why they can coexist. The paradox of it all.

J: We talked about this the other day, about how the few days in which my mom was dying and then the day she died, and how it was obviously the most traumatic thing we’ve all gone through and yet there was also in the room, some of the most beautiful sensations of my life. Where my kids were touching her arms like crazy, just feeling how soft she was, and they couldn’t get enough.  And there’s this sense that there’s this deep beauty in their need to notice everything about her.

KA: To embrace every last aspect of her. Yeah, I’ve thought you saying that – again it’s like that idea of both grief and beauty being together.

I used to struggle a lot as an artist thinking that “oh i’m not dark enough” to have this thing. Because you look at all the artists of the past, the musicians who were so tortured and then they create such incredible beauty. And I’ve always thought – oh am I not tortured enough to create true beauty? But maybe there’s a way we don’t have to necessarily give too much or go down that road too much just to find something beautiful. Maybe we can notice it, express it, in a more healthy way? There’s just so many documentaries about musicians and artists just go down the tortured hole. And you cannot deny there was something so hauntingly beautiful in their work. Maybe its just that their song was a reminder that there’s hope. Or a warning.

J: Or a longing. The longing for a wholeness, somehow expresses beauty.

KA: I don’t know.

J: (laughing) We are so philosophical today.

KA: I mean if you’re going to ask me to talk about beauty, what did you think? (laughing)

For me, I’m more visual so obviously I will see it more “in things” but I think it happens through touch or sound.
Even as I was acknowledging this contract with beauty, I remember just having to slow my breath down. just putting my hand on my heart a lot, just to feel the breath and acknowledging the beauty in that – just being alive. or the beauty in feeling the wind and the cold on my face, even if I don’t like being cold, just that feeling. Sometimes its in those things too.
They are all reminders. Maybe beauty is just a reminder.

J: Of life? Of being alive? Of being created?  I wonder if that’s why we can still say that the fall season and the dead grass and falling leaves are still beautiful because they are part of the life cycle…..

KA: Hmmmmmm.
J: Hmmmmmmm.
J: Ok, the last question I have….ok, there’s some sort of old maxim, those platonic ideals, that says the good is about “truth, beauty and justice” and there’s a sense that whoever said this (Plato?) saw that they go together. There’s a rightness in these things. That is hard to pin down in our times because we have everybody in the universe fighting over whose version of truth or beauty or justice.
I don’t know how to connect those in a way that brings justice and that brings truth, that frees people and doesn’t make more heartache. I think we’ve all had the word truth be used to create some heartache in us, but that’s just something I think about a lot. And how cultivating that “wonder” bit, by attending to beauty, might be connected to justice and to truth because it helps you to know that you are not the centre. This idea of acknowledging the beauty that is around us instills and fosters a sense of wonder and then wonder itself does this thing in us that says, ” Oh I’m not the centre of attention; Oh it does not all revolve around me.” My life is important and it should be offered to the world…..wonder appropriately sizes us. In the best way, where we feel at home and at ease and that we can contribute. ……hmmmm not sure where that goes.

KA: Yes, going into the “wonder” bit of beauty. I think that wonder leads us to curiosity. And curiosity is like an open-stance in the world. And it comes back to the whole thing where beauty invites us. It is an invitation. And an invitation is not exclusive or polarizing. It is a simple idea that beauty is an invitation, and it is inclusive. It reaches every one. Justice is inclusive. It is for everyone. These ideas that we are all in this together, not being pulled apart.

J: That no one is free until all are free idea?
KA: There’s that quote from Scott the Painter – “Wonder is the interior filter for how we see the world.” I think that beauty has made me curious. you’re right. I think that true beauty is not the type that’s going to make you feel less at home.

J: Yeah.

KA: It’s going to make you feel more curious. and it will make you long for things – for home.

J: I like that.

KA: I mean, you come here, to the hill, and I’m not thinking “I don’t belong here.” The idea of old school beauty is “I’m not beautiful enough” or ” I’m not pretty enough” – a sense of ” I can’t be a part of that because I’m not…” The whole social construct of beauty is gone.
But we have the trees, the wind, the sky – they’ve never made me feel like I wasn’t enough for them.

J: Right (laughing).

KA: They are gracious hosts. As God would be. Yeah, that justice aspect – as we ground ourselves in these elements of life, we are reminded that we are all here. It is not a competition.

J: And we are connected. Even like you’ve said, this hill, this sky is a gracious host and we can be gracious guests. And I like thinking about that because that will lead to a posture of openness and receiving but also in the best way, response-ability. Not burdensome, shoulder the responsibility, but an ability to respond to the world, that helps create that growth, that life to continue.

KA: If we’re noticing these things, if we are being gracious guests, then aren’t we also going to be more aware that we want to be kind to our world? To not just consume it? When we realize it’s a gift to us? We haven’t talked about it with humanity, but I cannot help but think in the midst of coronavirus, and the black lives matter movement, you cannot help but see the shining moments of humanity coming together in certain aspects. It is beautiful.
Did you ever watch Some Good News? there were so many tiny acts of humanity. little acts of people with each other, doing the simplest things that brought me to tears because its beauty in the midst.

J: Usually so small.

KA: And that’s all it needs to be – little actions. beauty in people coming together. The beauty in a hug. Again, it’s a dark time so those little things will shine. The dark times remind you though, that those things were there all along, but maybe we weren’t seeing it. It’s easier to see the candle shine when it’s dark.

But back to pushing it to justice, I think if we are feeling the power of those beautiful moments, I think it pushes us to want to continue that cycle of recognizing each other. I was moved by how impactful those little acts could be. That’s the whole thing with the contract – how in this dark world, in so many hopeless moments and places, can I bring beauty to people. In small ways. the beauty contract/desire/invitation pushes me to want to spread it.

J: Life creates more life.

KA: You see those little acts…. it’s so special how you talked about the flax for one day blooming – it’s those little acts of beauty is still impactful to somebody. Even just one person. but the cumulative effect..

J: Right. I can name the times when someone said one small thing that had a huge outsized impact because it was the moment in which it was most needed.

KA: It was timely. And it brought life.
J: Yes, real life, not try harder life, not life where I had to leave my body or tamp down my soul.  Real life.      Hmmmm…..that’s good.

KA: I want to end with a quote. Oh, but this is the word I was thinking and couldn’t remember: “Reverence”

J: Yes reverence!

KA: I think that having a reverence for nature and humans, for creation – I think that humans are the most human thing because we are so flawed. Potentially. We are both. And that is why a human being can create so much beauty. Also destruction….

“A reverence of approach awakens depth and enables us to be truly present where we are. When we approach with reverence, great things decide to approach us. Our real life comes to the surface and its light awakens the concealed beauty in things. When we walk on the earth in reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and the arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience required to enter the embrace. Beauty is mysterious, a slow presence, who waits for the ready, expectant heart. when the heart becomes attuned to her restrained glimmerings, it learns to recognize her limitations more frequently in places it would never have lingered before.”    John O’Donohue, Beauty.

Yeah, that “when we walk with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us.” I haven’t read that in awhile but I think that’s what it comes back to. Like when I went to fish creek, I feel that beauty is trusting me.

J: Oh I’m going to think about that. ponder that, chew on that for a bit.
That is so beautiful. Thanks friend.

KA: Thank you!

(The conversation ends with us laughing at our own awkwardness and also delighting in the fact that we spent time on a hillside deliberately talking about beauty.)

 

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