Inside: Practicing the art of noticing beauty around you, making space for the presence of wonder, is an antidote to the things that steal your hope, your peace, and your joy. This is a guest post by Liezel Graham. The post contains referral links.
If you were to ask me how I found my way through the most difficult parts of my life, I would tell you this, ‘I pay attention to beauty’. And by this, I mean that I have taught myself how to look for the details that make up the delicate bones of the world around me—the things that tiptoe quietly on gentle feet, that don’t announce their presence in a loud voice.
I have not always been able, or rather, willing to do this though, in fact for many years I survived the world that I inhabited by not looking. Keeping my eyes to the ground and my ears closed off to the words, and often, the presence of others, was far easier and the only way for me to get through my day. Somehow, I lived starved like this for many years, only allowing myself to look for crumbs, despite my hunger for more. Growing up in a troubled home, I became an adult who was driven by a need to prove myself worthy of love and acceptance. I struggled with deep issues around my body, my weight, and everything that made up the person I was.
Beauty was something for other people, not for someone like me.
When I was in my early twenties, my bone marrow stopped working. It simply stopped producing the myriad of blood cells necessary for my survival. I was given a 3-month prognosis as the search for a compatible bone marrow donor commenced. I was seriously ill and facing the fragility of my own life and I became caught in a haze of desperately holding onto my faith, and the belief that I would live through this, along with hospital admissions, and endless rounds of medication and blood transfusions. I knew a great deal of peace, but I also knew a great deal of fear, and living alongside fear narrowed my vision even further. There was little by way of beauty to fill the hunger within me, or rather, at that point in my life I was only able to focus on the enormous, growling thing looming in front of me—survival.
Pay Attention to The Beauty That Surrounds You
Anne Lamott said, “Pay attention to the beauty that surrounds you.” I was paying attention, but to the wrong things.
All of this changed on a day when I was completely caught up in the weight of the financial worries that often accompanies a serious illness. On that morning, the light was gentle, and I was standing on the Juliet balcony of our small apartment when a breeze picked up and blew off the lagoon a short distance away. It was cool and soft. Caressing my face as if it were a thing with life, with a heartbeat, it brought the fear inside me to a stop. I closed my eyes, held my hands open and yielded to the gentleness. I noticed the feeling of the air moving on my skin. How many times had I felt the wind blowing around me? But this was different. When I gave it my full attention, I was able, for one delicate moment, to step out of reach of my fear.
Find Beauty In The Ordinary
By allowing myself to shift my focus to the simple presence of the beauty-in-the-ordinary, fear lost its sting. This simple choice grounded me. I was reminded that life—my life, was still rich with things that could not be bought and therein lay a life-giving antidote.
In her poem, Beauty to Survive, Ana Lisa de Jong writes, ‘We need beauty to survive that we drink her in mouthfuls.’ I yearn for these mouthfuls of sublime wonder, and I have filled many notebooks and poems with words that are born from moments such as the deliciously unexpected shock of an octogenarian’s bright red running shoes, and the first sip of my morning tea as its rich, malty flavour fills my still-sleepy mouth, and how I feasted for a long while on the unhurried smile of a stranger in the library. The orange of a man’s turban, the sound of the blackbird singing outside my bedroom window, stumbling across the first of the autumn fungi in the woods. Colour, fragrance, sound, touch, taste! Beauty is caught up in my senses and even things that would not ordinarily be considered lovely, such as the abandoned exoskeleton of a cicada clinging to the bark of an acacia tree, fills me with a deep sense of joy.
notice the little things
When I give myself with abandon to the little things around me—seeing them as a beautiful presence in my world, I am given the antidote to fear, and even at times, despair.
Of course, it is easy to notice beauty when we are in a soft and gentle season in our lives, yes? And it might sound as if I am telling you that always paying attention to our surroundings, is an uncomplicated exercise, perhaps a cheap panacea for the ‘comfortable’ ills of this world—look for the loveliness and your life will always be sparkly and bright? No, choosing to look for the good; for the beauty, is often hard work and it requires a conscious decision, but my experience over the last two decades has been that the more I practice this (as an art) the more it becomes a discipline that has the ability to sustain me, even in the midst of tremendously difficult circumstances.
Related: You’re Strong Enough to Feel Fear and Show up Anyway (a video chat with some of my Brave & Beautiful Community Members)
Look for Beauty in the Unexpected
Life has a habit of unravelling at the seams, and there are times that it is easier to look away, to go into survival mode, and when I am tempted to do this, these words of Dr Kamand Kojouri always draw me back ‘Do not avert your eyes. It is important that you see this. It is important that you feel this.’
I want to be fully present for the life that I have been given and looking away is not the answer to deal with the hard things that happen. Beauty is often hidden in plain sight, and I have been known to dig for the things that bring me life, and I no longer apologise for seeking beauty in barren places.
It has been many years since I completed my treatment, and the fear of relapse no longer hounds me. The greatest gift that I was given, was the realisation that I have a choice to see the world as a beautiful place, but more so, that I am allowed to wrap myself in it with quiet abandon.
If I could leave you with one gift it would be that you know that whatever stories your life is weaved from, there is beauty hidden in unexpected places for you, and if you would make a habit of looking for it, for making space for the presence of wonder, it will become a certain antidote to the things that would steal your hope, your peace, and your joy.
Bio: Liezel Graham is a poet and writer residing in Glasgow, Scotland. Her work focuses on the intricacies of the human spirit—the strength and resilience of people and how they overcome challenges and trauma. She has published two collections of poetry, Stripped and A Counting of Love and hosts an online writing group, as well as writing workshops. When she is not writing, she loves exploring the woods with her son, teaches maths at her kitchen table, and will do almost anything for a good cup of tea—something she considers a thing of great beauty. More of her work and information about her writing workshops can be found at her website or you can connect with her on Facebook or Instagram.
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