Saturday, August 16, 2014

Wind, waves, weeds, beauty

Around noon yesterday we grounded our canoe on a mud flat and ate sloppy sandwiches while watching wind ripple through the tall grass alongside the lake. The grasses and reeds swayed in waves, softly rustling. The only other sound was the occasional blue heron squawk and, somewhere in the distance, a muted beep-beep from a big truck backing up.

Ask me what we saw on our canoe outing yesterday and I'll tell you "Not much": wind, water, swaying reeds, a few herons and kingfishers and a pair of eagles. And beauty so stunning I can't begin to express it.

This morning I read an article in the Atlantic exploring "The Beauty-Happiness Connection"  (read it here). Scientists who study the sources of happiness (and who wouldn't want that job?) conclude that being in the presence of beauty--even ordinary, everyday beauty--is closely correlated with feelings of happiness, perhaps because beauty "is able to conjure the feelings we tend to associate with happiness: calmness, a connection to history or the divine, wealth, time for reflection and appreciation, and, perhaps surprisingly, hope."

What's hope got to do with it? According to the article's author, Cody D. Delistrati, "the beauty around us--the sky-high nave of the Westminster Cathedral, the ability to appreciate a simple lunch--offers hope that life can inch closer to perfection."

The search for perfection, of course, is a double-edged sword: seeking the ideal leads the perfectionist to live in a constant state of disappointment. Which is why it's so wonderful when beauty crops up serendipitously in the midst of an imperfect world, such as wind blowing soft ripples across a sea of water and grass. I couldn't recreate that beauty in word or picture without leaving out the most important part: being there, imperfectly. 

But we couldn't stay there. We didn't have enough sandwiches to last forever and there are no porta-potties in the lake, so finally we turned around and paddled directly into the wind. The same wind that had contributed so much beauty and peace was suddenly a force to be reckoned with, pushing us around the lake and making us pour every ounce of energy into paddling just to make slow progress back to the boat ramp. It was exhausting and exhilarating and occasionally a little frightening.

So when I recall yesterday's canoe trip I may think of the calm moments of beauty with our backs to the wind or the strenuous effort of paddling with our faces to the wind. Add them both together and the result is happiness.

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