Apr 15, 2007
My mother once said to me, “It’s much harder to create beauty than it is to create ugliness.” She said this to me during the depths of my antisocial hippie dippie years, when I was seventeen and remarkably ignorant. I don’t remember what I had drawn, or written, but it must have been just south of putrid, for I offended her artistic sensibilities. For some reason, perhaps because she was an art teacher and my mother, I listened to her, and abandoned the project. I also have never forgotten what she said.
It was in that same stretch of time that I went to see the movie A Clockwork Orange. I saw it twice, with a year of life-changing growth in between. The first time I saw it, I thought it was way cool and groovy baby. The second time, I thought it was one of the ugliest movies I had ever seen. The first time I saw it, I was in the middle of my teenage pot-smoking phase, a year and a half of rebellion flavored with a desperate desire to fit into the local crowd of leftist radicals that circulated around Portland, Maine in 1971. To support my freedom from parental authority, I worked at a dry-cleaners, while living in an apartment with a pot-smoking friend.
I remember sitting near the front window of the dry-cleaners at Longfellow Square in Portland one day, talking with a girl who was a coworker. Someone passed on the street, and I said something disparaging about the person. I can’t remember what I said, but I remember my coworker's response. She looked at me, and said, “You’re really vicious, aren’t you?” I’m ashamed to admit it, but I took it as a compliment and said, “Yes”. I was pleased with myself, and thought myself very grown up because I used the “F” word as standard punctuation in many of my sentences.
I lived a life of lazy decadence, smoking two packs of non-filtered Camel cigarettes a day, beginning with a cigarette in bed before I got up. I drank beer and wine and read underground comic books, and had discussions about things that I knew nothing about. I read books about white magic while my roommate read books about black magic, and we listened to as much rock and roll as possible, usually during a haze of marijuana smoke.
Everything changed one day when we came back to our apartment to find that we had been robbed. We immediately decided to move. My roommate found another apartment and I moved back home to my parents who were living with my grandmother in her large house on the Western Promenade of Portland. One day, while sitting in my room looking out at the trees in my grandmother’s yard, I realized with a start that my substance abuse had brought me to the point where I couldn’t think clearly anymore. I believe that it was God “hitting me upside the head” so to speak, and yelling, “It’s time to wake up now!”
So it was that on that lovely spring day, I threw my cigarettes, marijuana, beer, wine, rolling papers and underground comic books all in the trash, and then went and took a bath with Herbal Essence shampoo. I started running two miles a day, and at my mother’s request, returned my recently purchased stereo to the store, and bought a racing bicycle instead.
I want to emphasize here that it is not my intent to judge anyone who drinks wine or beer, or smokes, or swears, or listens to rock and roll. I think the Beatles are a great band, after all these years. At the age of fifty-two, I truly don’t want to judge anyone for anything, having become increasingly aware of my own shortcomings. All I can really say is that the sharp U-turn that I took at the age of eighteen was the best possible thing that could have happened to me.
One of the things that my change in direction taught me is that our perception of the world around us can imprison us or free us. Since that day, over thirty years ago, I’ve become more and more interested in trying to connect my thoughts and feelings and desires, and my perceptions, to what I believe is the motivating force of the universe. When I sit at our old beech wood table and look out over the fields and listen to the water drip chirp of the mockingbirds in our cedar tree, I feel like God’s love is pouring down from the sky above and springing up from the earth below.
The world that He created is even more beautiful than we have been able to yet perceive. Our eyes are too often encrusted with filters that prevent us from appreciating and feeling His motivating love that has created the beauty all around us. When I consider these things, my own personal prayer is that I can learn how to create beauty that will communicate love and multiply joy. A professor once told me that we should all try to become “value givers and happy makers”. Certainly this applies to the process of creating beauty in everything that we do.
Yet, if we look around us, man-made ugliness is everywhere. Cities are often urban graveyards, and suburbia has become a grey wash of dull houses interspersed with garish shopping centers. Genuine beauty in our culture is frequently on the run, overshadowed by ugliness masquerading as cool sophistication. In the realm of the popular perception of beauty, all too often the emperor has no clothes.
It is a very curious conundrum that each generation of teenagers seems to have to learn everything all over again. I hope that one day, we will discover a method to teach our children that real beauty is based on true love and the unselfish desire to bring joy to others.
I’m sure that my artist mother, may God rest her soul, would approve.