Word Painting: Heartbreaking Beauty
Dispersing mist and emerging sunshine intermingle below in the many green valleys. I look carefully at the green hillside next to me and see that there are also fine tall grasses of a burnt red hue, a variety of tiny white flowers and even a few yolk-orange blossoms. I realize that the green I see far off in all directions is subtly made up of many colors.
A woman approaches, her bare feet so sure of the small dirt path that she does not need to look down. She wears a long skirt and a button down short-sleeved blouse with one button missing and a small tear along the bottom hem. A small round “cushion” weaved of banana leaves helps to carry an enormous bundle of collected firewood on her head. As she gets closer an easy smile emerges. She greets me and continues down the hill. I look on. “How beautiful,” I think.
I just finished Alain De Botton’s book, The Art of Travel, in which he spoke of human kind’s desire to possess beauty, to capture it and save it. He argues that more effective than the camera, the best way to preserve beauty is to paint or “word paint” the scene. For when you try to paint the green hill or describe the passing woman you see details that make up the whole, which helps you to understand the beauty, which helps you to internalize it.
But on that particular morning, as the woman passed me on the hillside, beauty was not the only thing I saw. I also saw hardship. I saw poverty. I saw struggle. Amongst all these possible negative impressions I was surprised that beauty was the first to reveal itself. I decided to try, as suggested, to understand the parts in order to better understand the beauty at hand.
The bundle was tied with a banana fiber rope. Hands and feet were sufficient in attaining and transporting and using this daily necessity. It would be done the same way the following day and the day after that. I was seeing simplicity; something I yearn for but cannot always attain as I also yearn for variety and newness and ever-increased productivity.
The load was clearly very heavy, but the woman carried on as if it was not there. Under great physical strain, she was attending to her needs (and the needs of her family) with grace, assurance and poise. I was seeing independence, strength, physical capacity… Has our reliance on washing machines and cars and dishwashers and computers subconsciously (or consciously) made us question our own capacity, our own force, or own ability?
On that early morning that firewood would provide a cooking fire that would allow her to make breakfast for her children before sending them to school. This woman knew what her family needed and she was providing it successfully. I was seeing dignity. Sometimes I see almost the same scene and only feel empathy or concern because the subject seems beaten down instead of subtly victorious. But this beauty was definitely made up of dignity. Sometimes I feel our devotion to ambition mixed with our broad knowledge and contradicting ideas confuses our definitions of purpose and success and value. Part of me longs to have those things clearly defined for me and to feel the satisfaction of following them. Though I also revel in the freedom and ability to make my own definitions.
I saw beauty because I saw qualities that I value and am perhaps continuously struggling with. I saw beauty because I saw some of the subtly colors that made up the whole.
Please don’t confuse these images of beauty on this particular morning to be a general glorification of poverty or a condemnation of comfort and modern technologies. Though the text is black and white, the words are not meant to be read that way. Our organization empowers women, giving them opportunities to develop and grow outside of their domestic role. Some of our coordinators dream of learning how to drive and that excites me.
I have not chosen to live my life out in Africa. I will go back to a life in America with its washing machines and schedules based on progress and efficiency. Today I hope only to internalize the beauty I saw and carry it with me. This is but one of my attempts to make sense of the collection of daily contradictions I come face to face with and the many subsequent contradicting emotions.