Friday, December 9, 2011

How finding beauty in ordinary life can make you happy

December 4, 2011
From Monday's Globe and Mail

With fall glory gone and holiday hurry upon us, five Canadians pause to share a moment of wonder that stopped them in their tracks. What their stories have in common is sheer serendipity

I have a friend who is next to impossible to go for walk with in the spring or summer. "Look," she will instruct, stopping dead in her running shoes. "See how beautiful this gladiolus is?" And of course, you have to stop alongside her and admire the texture and the colour and the height of the flowers. What are you, anyway? Some power-walking obsessive who doesn't know how to smell the proverbial roses?

It turns out that identifying and appreciating beauty in the everyday is a happiness strategy.
 Some spiritual leaders advocate it as a way to feel divine energy. Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness and Flourish, listed it as one of the 24 psychological character traits that make for happy, functioning people. It allows us to experience awe and wonder - to be elevated.

Great, but is that even possible in this dreary limbo of shortening days, after the glory of fall but before the festive season gets fully under way? To think about beauty in ordinary life, I asked five well-known Canadians to tell me (or write) about a recent instance of wonder.

Esi Edugyan, this year's Giller prize winner for her novel, Half-Blood Blues.

Two weeks ago, a friend of mine invited me over to see a new painting he'd just bought. I'd been feeling exhausted, and so when my friend phoned, I grudgingly agreed to go over.

The painting, Crossing the Strait, by the B.C. artist Takao Tanabe, depicts a seascape at night, a view of a blackening ocean just before the light dies, and is viscerally beautiful. Maybe because it so perfectly reflected what goes on outside my window on a dark November day, I was utterly haunted by it. But rather than dwelling in such darkness, rather than brooding on the faltering of the season, the day's sense of ending, Tanabe finds a vein of light in the sky that is perfectly reflected in the water, creating a visual path for the eye to trace, a kind of compass suggesting both hope and the possible. The painting is more, much more, than a meditation on death, as some critics have suggested. It becomes instead a meditation on life, on living, on being alive in the brief time that is our own. I stared at it a long time. And I left feeling grateful, heartened, refreshed.

Mary Walsh, comedian and actress, best known as Princess Warrior Marg Delahunty on This Hour Has 22 Minutes.

Recently, my husband and I went to see Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem in London's West End. The performance by Mark Rylance was startling. It makes me so happy just to even think about it now. The show itself was enormously tragic. He plays Johnny Byron, a wreck of a man held together by drugs and drink. But it was overwhelming. He worked entirely with the audience - theatre is a two-way street - and he was open-hearted and you felt that he was just there giving everything he had. It was such a gift. I don't know if I've ever been in a room with such generosity.

Lesra Martin, lawyer and Literacy Ambassador for ABC Literacy, who grew up illiterate in New York before coming to Canada as a teenager with the help of benefactors. He went on to be part of the team who helped free Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.

I'm not convinced that beauty is what we see. I think it's something that we feel. I was in Vancouver in early November and out the window, I could see this street full of trees. They were losing their leaves. I found it a bit sad. But my wife and kids were with me, and when the kids saw the leaves, they reacted as they do with a snowfall. They just wanted to go out and play in them. And that immediately changed my perspective. They find joy in it without reflecting too much. That feeling of circumstances shifting, of a change in perspective, is what I think beauty is. It emanates from within and helps shape who we are.

Jennifer Gardy, molecular scientist with British Columbia Centre for Disease Control and the new It Girl of Science following the airing of the CBC documentary Myth or Science.

My husband and I bought tickets to a concert in mid November, and he invited two of his work colleagues from Apple to come with us. Before the concert, the four of us got together at our place, and one of the guys said he wanted us all to watch a music video. And I was, like, a music video? Really? I'm not really interested. But with the opening frames, we were all mesmerized. It's Montana by a group with a really weird name, Youth Lagoon. It's very evocative about a boy; and it flashes back between the fifties and sixties, when he was small, to the present. The song is really beautiful, and the visuals are impressionistic and hazy like memory. It's about family and redemption and change and loss and moving forward. The four of us had just been yapping away, and suddenly we all went silent. Some of us cried. Nobody could say anything for a long time.

Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, priest, Poet Laureate Emeritus of The City of Toronto

I was coming out the elevator doors in Toronto's city hall, fresh from committee meetings where strategies, costing thousands of dollars, had been discussed for how to make people happy. I see throngs of people gathered around the sound of a flute. Leaning against a pillar in the concourse is a weather-beaten, little old Chinese man, playing a 10-cent tin flute. Playing jazz, playing pop, playing classical. He is free. And he is blind. There's no collection. His granddaughter comes, gently takes him by the arm, and they go home. Blind and happy, he smiles. Clear-sighted and happy, the people go home. It is how we should live in the city - by the gift of ourselves, inexpensive and priceless.


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