Seeing beauty and embracing life

Kevin Van Meter

I was going to write about the problem of specialization. How the notion of the whole is lost, how the ultimate goal of a better life is forgotten in the details, how the idea of good work is perverted and put to the service of aimless wanderings and meaningless tussles. But such criticism isn’t the beginning. The beginning is beauty.

All good criticism is in the service of life. The critic that deconstructs without the aim to rebuild anew with truer proportions is an enemy of life. In this column I will often take on that role of the revisionist. But I hope that I will as often find myself the celebrator, devoting myself with compassion to exploring the impulses that inspire us to love, laughter, generosity and contemplation.

And that is where I would like to begin. To begin at the beginning, with delicacy, with beauty, with the pulse hammered out by the beating heart of the universe. The stuff for which painters paint, architects design, priests preach and I hope, for your sake, for which students study and professors teach.

This is why we criticize. Because we sense the presence of something that compels us, something that gives direction and urgency to our movements. Because we yearn. Because we know that goodness is something tangible, something that we hold and breathe. And because we are in danger of losing it if we stop wanting it.

Last night my friend hosted a potluck as a housewarming. Dozens of people piled into their three-room apartment. We sat on couches, on the floor and on each other. Voices mingled with the smells of carefully prepared food, with the ambience of lighting and the freshness of the cool darkness just outside the large windows. When the door opened people would look over until the face of the newcomer came into view, their warm food cradled in their arms, their eyes bright with expectation and excitement. I savored that meal and that company. And I savored the space. I went there to share in the goodness of life that comes from food and community. To be nourished and strengthened.

Afterwards I went to the library with a heart-friend. We went for poetry. For Neruda’s exultant joy and Rilke’s sweeping compassion. We giggled between stacks of shelving to the sound of Spanish love poems read out loud in English with a French accent. The delicacy of syllables tickled our imagination; the precision of words brought forth exclamations of admiration, astonishment.

This morning, as I walked out in the snow, I spooked a squirrel out of a tree. As it scampered to a more distant tree I saw that its mouth was full of leaves. What could this be, I thought, this was something new to me. As it hit the new tree it shimmied to the far side, out of view. I gave it a few seconds to climb before I too skirted the trunk and looked to find it. Just in time. It stashed the leaves, delicately using its paws to pack them into the visible beginnings of a nest not 15 feet above the ground. I stared, surprised, but already planning to come by this place as spring came on and see the progress of this live giving project. I have seen a baby squirrel just once before: clutching firmly to its mothers neck as she bounded away from the rudeness of my presence. I now have the promise of seeing another. This next month I’ll pray that nature didn’t cross her fingers.