What a week this has been! On Sunday, my father passed away from COVID-19. On Monday, my mother tested positive for the virus—so far, thankfully, she has no symptoms, but the initial news was a hard blow. On Tuesday, I labored over the first draft of Dad’s obituary. On Wednesday, as I was planning his online memorial service, thousands of my fellow citizens attacked the U.S. Capitol. Lives were lost. The fragility of our democracy was on full, ugly display.
I won’t continue with my week’s catalogue of woes. You get the picture. Maybe your week felt much the same.
But then, in the midst of my grief and dismay, beauty began to appear. Gifts arrived from far and wide, from friends as well as people I’ve never met: a bouquet of flowers … lovely cards, all of them kind, some handmade or featuring original art … poems by Jane Kenyon, Ellen Bass, Mary Oliver, John O’Donohue, Diane Der-Hovanessian, and more … a turquoise heart of glass … carefully selected sacred texts, from diverse faith traditions … heartfelt emails … calming recordings of music … cartoons … a peace lily, standing almost four feet tall … Someone even mailed me one of my own condolence cards, containing the soothing poem I’d dreamed on the cusp of the pandemic, when Dad was suffering through another tough stretch. To receive that poem from outside myself in these difficult days, even as I had in the dream, was a tremendous comfort.
These infusions of beauty have sustained me. They’ve prompted cleansing tears. They’ve lifted me out of myself. Some have even caused me to laugh. All have strengthened me to carry on, with—and for—those I love.
I so often ask myself, what prompted this woman or this man to reach out in this way, the light of soul shining through? Why, in tough times, does instinct turn us toward beauty? I don’t need answers to these questions. I raise them in wonderment and gratitude, content to float on the mysteries of grace.
One gentle soul who wrote me was Pavi Mehta, the editor of DailyGood. Until now, our slender correspondence has always been work-related. But a stunning series of synchronicities over the past couple of weeks has deepened our connection. I can’t take time to tell you the full story. I can, however, follow Pavi’s lead and introduce you to the beauty of kolams.
Kolams are a ritual art form from South India, where Pavi was born. This photograph shows a sublime example. “These patterns of dots encircled by flowing lines,” Pavi says, “are drawn on predawn thresholds every morning by millions of women. The dots represent the beginning of things—the origin point of life. The lines represent the flow of life, and a kind of infinite continuity.”
Traditionally made from rice flour, kolams are food for ants and other tiny life forms. But their purpose doesn’t stop there. In Feeding A Thousand Souls, Vijaya Nagarajan says that a woman’s positive intentions while working on a kolam “are believed to actually make a difference in people’s lives.” The powerful (even divine) energy of her intentions transfers from her hands to the art, “to be picked up by the feet of passersby and transported throughout the day.”
Pause a moment and let that sink in. Imagine your hands, creating such sacred beauty as a routine act. Imagine your feet, and your neighbors’ feet, and strangers’ feet, deliberately walking through such beauty, that they might track some of it through the world. Imagine your heart-mind, constantly tuning in to whatever beauty it might meet, or bring forth, next.
For all their exquisiteness, kolams exist for merely a day before their makers sweep them away. In anticipation of another dawn, the women sprinkle the ground with water, then form fresh, original designs to greet the sun. It might take them minutes. Or hours.
“These patterns,” Pavi says, in gorgeous phrasing, “flow spontaneously through fingers … in that thin sliver of no-man’s-land where the visible and invisible worlds meet, where darkness and daylight press their palms against one another.”
I wonder: What would this trembling world look like if more of us started each day by ritually acknowledging our own power to make a difference? If more of us dedicated ourselves to spreading beauty, for the sake of promoting good?
Today, on the strength of all the beauty that has rained down upon me in my time of sorrow, I press my palms together and bow to you. I bow to the beauty that you are. I bow to the beauty that you yourself need. I bow to the beauty that you give. Some beauty you give knowingly; some, you give unaware. It’s all the same.
On the winding journey of your days, I urge you to make beauty your companion. “What beauty?” you ask. The beauty of poems and stories, of music and art, of film and dance; the beauty of nature; the beauty of food and fabric and fragrance—everything that delights and humbles your senses; the beauty of kinship and community—of a hand held, of laughter shared, a testimony heard, a struggle joined; the beauty of solitude, of silence, of introspection; the beauty of mystery, and the infinite ways that the intricate dots and graceful lines connect us all within the flow of life and death and Life Again….
What beauty? Seek it out. Invite it in. Let it be. Set it free.