“… going day by day for what the Japanese would call “beholdings” & bring(ing) back vivid word-pictures of the same that are a joy… They went with the intent of shewing Margaret (sister) a row of wonderful cypresses, silhouetted against the curve of the bay, with the port lying below, the tracery of breakwaters & shipping basins shewing prune coloured on the opal sea.” Diary – excerpts from October 1925
Beholdings! Lilias, in the above diary entry, was content to enjoy word-pictures of “beholdings” that her sister brought from her excursions to her bedside, she being too weak to venture beyond the four walls of her room. And, from the window of that same room, Lilias observed “beholdings” that gladdened her heart: “Lovelier than ever, this year, has seemed the interweaving of autumn & spring, till you can hardly tell which it is – the tiny stars of white jonquils into the withered grass – & the golden crocus among the falling leaves, & the amethyst Judas blossom, not knowing what to do with itself, from the wealth of sap that the first rains have brought rising…”
Lilias brought to her final years a practice of a lifetime or, in the words of Flannery O’Connor, “a habit of being.” From her earliest years, she recorded what she saw in little pocket sketchbooks, capturing a host of “beholdings” – a skill that Ruskin noted in his “The Art of England” lecture to be “what we should all like to be able to do . . . .” All the while she was training her eyes to see: a “habit” that brought joy to even her most difficult days.
I write at my kitchen table. A photograph, a handful of shells and a heartful of memories – beholdings! – are what remain of a family vacation, 21 people strong, at a Florida beach house. I try to capture images in my journal, sounds and sights: waves pounding the shore; sea birds swooping down for their evening catch; sea grapes flanking the board walk leading to the beach; laughter (and wails) of children; these same children nut-brown from the sun, seated around a large wooden table, appetites teased from fresh air and salt water; adults gathered, after the children are bedded, talking late into the night.
What I do by intent – collect beholdings to record and remember – our young grandchildren do by instinct, still awed by every day wonders. From the porch rocking chair overlooking the beach, I was eye-witness of wonder and first-hand recipient of children’s beholdings. They came to me – a convenient anchor – to proffer their treasures: sea glass, an odd configuration of moss, a crab shield, shells of all shapes and sizes. Breathless with excitement they announce the miracle of sea turtles, hatching from their eggs, making their tenuous maiden voyage out to sea.
What occurs on a vacation or scenic trip can be, should be cultivated on a daily basis. Call it “grace” or “blessings” or “gifts” – or, as did Lilias, “beholdings” – it is less about the name than the reality. Beauty is within our reach regardless of our immediate circumstance. It exists in the simplicity of the ordinary rites and routines. I believe that beauty is one of God’s loveliest ways of reminding us that He is. . . and that He cares. . . . Pointers, in a sense, to Heaven. And, in turn, I’m convinced, that being attuned to beauty is no small thing – whether in the grandeur of a mountain range or the minutia of a cobweb… the nuzzle of a beloved pet or, in the words of Sara Teasdale, “children’s faces looking up holding wonder like a cup. . . .”
Sometimes beauty surprises us. Serendipity. Sometimes it seduces us, as did the glimpses of joy that C.S. Lewis, as a child, saw in Beatrice Potter’s illustration of Autumn, intimating to him “something other.” Beauty sustains us during times of unrelenting duress: The renewal of spring, during a seemingly endless war, evidenced by green shoots and yellow daffodils breaking through cracks in barricades of sandbags – recorded by V. Sackville-West in her Country Notes in Wartime. And, sometimes it saves us: Viktor Frankl’s glimpse of “the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of a prison carriage. . .” fragments from a Beethoven concerto, piercing the darkness of a concentration camp barrack, heard by Elie Wiesel, the violinist playing out his soul, bow gliding over the strings, at once life-affirming and heart-breaking. . . a pot of tulips in a hospital room. . . .
But whether by surprise or design, I am continually startled by “beholdings.” If I could, I would paint them, like Lilias, but instead I record them in my journal. “Beholding” I write in bold print – then jot it down, one at a time, as it happens: scent of orange blossoms… a single orchid bloom, survivor of a neglected plant. . . a trio of butterflies dancing above Lantana. . . a peacock reclining alongside a back country road. . . a clean child wrapped in terry cloth, wet hair slicked behind ears. . . a letter in the mailbox. . . . music from a CD filling the house. . . a cat sunning in a patch of sunlight. . . .
St. Augustine said: “The soul is weighed in the balance by what delights her. Delight or enjoyment sets the soul in her ordered place.” Little matter if we translate that delight in paint or print, in music or in spoken word. What matters is that we do behold – and wonder!
Painting: from Between the Desert & The Sea