Getting to Beauty
Life is short; art is long. —Ancient Greek proverb
I didn’t expect to find a hole the size of my fist in the kitchen wall behind the cabinets that had hung there only ten minutes before. Actually, I hadn’t known what to expect other than the ubiquitous “stuff” that really just means “more work.” So standing in front of one decent-sized hole and several smaller ones scattered across the wall, not to mention the damage we inflicted while prying off the cabinets with a crowbar, I had nothing but a smile on my face.
Ah…the impatience of youth. I knew it; I didn’t care.
We’ve been working on a house project for a month or so now and it’s proven to be a vacuum for time and energy. Nothing is truly wrong with the home; we just feel that it needs some new life and more than a couple changes. So every day after work I’ve been throwing myself into one project or another, often staying up until midnight or 1 a.m. before falling into bed (which has been pulled into the middle of the room to make way for painting). Then get up and do it all again.
There has been prepping and painting and cleaning and destroying and building back up again and weeding and planting and weaving through a sea of cardboard boxes and ladders and unused supplies just to sit down and have a bowl of cereal.
You get used to a healthy dose of chaos in your life.
This is the first time I have done anything like this, to really begin to take possession of a space, to leave your mark on a canvas the size of a home, to learn what makes something more than just a building. It’s been completely exhausting at times. Full workdays give way to full worknights and nothing in your world feels relaxing. The first time I got away from it all I slept most of a day away, my body collapsing in just a little space of silence. (Actually I was at a retreat with 80 other guys but I slept like the proverbial log every moment I could.)
I’m driving at something, searching for something.
As chaotic as our world becomes, as tired as we feel, we are chipping away at a crack in the ground because we know that beauty is in there. The desire to improve, to make better, to bring beauty is deep in the race; it probably traces its roots all the way back to Eden. I’m trying to rule and subdue my new home; I’m trying to be fruitful and multiply—to increase beauty.
But patience is not always one of my more shining virtues… like when I refused to remeasure the holes I was drilling to hang some curtains and they ended up crooked. I’m finding that the path to beauty requires wading through the chaos of debris. It takes time.
I remember hearing that the playwright Neil Simon would finish a script, put it on the shelf for a year, then come back and look it over with fresh eyes, to make it better. The thought baffles me. I tried to pound this article out in my state of exhaustion between full time days and full time nights. I hit a wall (because beauty can’t get forced that way) and called a friend for help.
He said, “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis. The Greeks had a saying: Ars Longa, Vita Brevis. Meaning, art—or beauty of any kind—takes time (is long), but life is short (brief).” I’d say these days it’s even shorter than ever. In two ways. First, our days are hectic and filled to the brim with a flood of information and responsibility and stimulation. Second, we’ve been raised in an instant culture, one that has trained us to follow the scent of immediate gratification.
As the comedian Louis C. K. observed, regarding our utter impatience when our phone won’t send a text or photo immediately: “Give it a second – it’s going to space!”
Which brings me back to my kitchen. Standing here having knocked the cabinets off the wall with a hammer and prybar, I now see I have all sorts of other things I need to address before the beauty I wanted to happen can be realized. In fact, the beauty is the last thing that is realized. So much happens beforehand. Right now, I see a hole in the wall.
Which is probably a lot like our lives. We get so impatient with the process of “becoming,” wanting to see (and show) the final fruits of a beautiful life. But there is a truckload of process beforehand, isn’t there? My friend recounted a couple of lines from a Richard Wilbur poem, “A Hole in the Floor”:
The carpenter's made a hole
In the parlor floor, and I'm standing
Staring down into it now
At four o'clock in the evening…
For God's sake, what am I after?
Some treasure, or tiny garden?
Or that untrodden place,
The house's very soul…
Wilbur is after something—we are all after something as we strive towards beauty or redemption or making things better. What’s intriguing to me is that the carpenter has made the hole. There was this fellow from Nazareth, you see, often known as a carpenter, and when he comes to help with the renovations of our lives, I think the first thing we see is what the poem’s author saw: sawdust shavings, a hole, the joists beneath, a radiator pipe. We see the mess that is always necessary on the way to beauty.
But the beauty is coming. I have to hold onto that, especially in my impatience—the beauty is coming.
“How attractive and beautiful they will be!” (Zech. 9:17)