Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Spring has sprung

Odd how so many of my thoughts and musings drift towards the seasons. I must be practically Pagan. Except, everyone around me seems utterly obsessed too. The first thing we do when we wake up is tear open our curtains and peer up at the sky, checking to see what the day will bring. We rave about the sunny days and then soon come to loathe them. We giggle at the winter and its flurries of frost – and then moan about this too.

It is scientific fact that sunshine makes us happy. When we absorb sunlight, the levels of serotonin increase in our brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that contributes to our wakefulness, which, in turn, puts us ‘in a good mood’.

Sunlight also increases our Vitamin D levels (through the ultraviolet rays). Vitamin D helps boost serotonin and keep it high.

Now Spring is coming. You can smell it in the air. It is late – but it’s coming. In my local park, crocuses are emerging, daffodils protruding from their long-suffering green stems. And it all looks stunningly, amazingly, fundamentally beautiful: to have made it through a long, harsh winter – and to know that they’ve made it too. We are survivors.

But I wonder why this is beautiful. Perhaps it is just the colour: long swathes of violet that collapse over everything. A sheen, a gleam, then an explosion of yellow. That bright, piercing, wincing blue sky…the kind you get rarely, when there is absolutely no cloud cover. The kind that looks almost superficial and Photoshopped.

Perhaps it is linked to this expectation of sunshine. To this expectation of serotonin coming our way, marking an end to all the SAD-stricken people around us.

But I don’t like to be deterministic. Science must have a role to play in beauty – yes. And I certainly can see the connection between beauty and happiness.

But beauty tends to less simple that this suggestion. It is complex and unwieldy and tricky and distorted. It can coil around ugly things, too. There can be beauty in grey clouds…though usually if they have broken up a chain of otherwise boiling, blue-hot days. Or they are large and blooming, crumpled and cumulus. There is something somehow special and unique in them.

We humans love patterns: anything that breaks a pattern and anything that asserts a pattern. It is well argued – well known – that we are a pattern-seeking species. And the seasons form the ultimate pattern; the ultimate, beautiful, spectacular certainty. They combine continuation and disruption in 12 beautiful months.

With winter, comes spring; with spring, comes summer; with summer, comes winter; and thus, we return.

In these desperate times, in our uncertain lives, it is no wonder we watch the seasons pass with a sense of marvel that never tires, that never loses its lustre. It is something to mark our lives against. It is something to convince us we will never fade, we will never fail…we will never die.


Sunday, 21 February 2010

Ageing - a kind of beauty?

Interesting that we see the ageing process as slowly stripping the face bare of what we construe to be ‘beauty’. And yet scientific research from the University of Newcastle really tackles the issue of what we deem ‘beautiful’.

I was listening to the radio the other day, eating my oatbix, just minding my business: thinking of the day ahead, wishing I didn’t have to wake up at 7am every morning. And then this piece came on that made my put my spoon down and go: “Wow”. I love moments like that.

I didn’t really care about the what fors and the whys behind the university findings. Apparently, they are trying to find a way to decelerate or prevent the effects of ageing. I’m not sure they will actually do this, and the whole thing is a potentially thorny moral issue; although, in theory, concerns with ageing don’t have to just be about our obsession with physical appearance – all of us want to live longer and be healthier. That’s just our instinct.

But anyway. The bit that made me sit up and take notice…the bit that made me think it worthy of this blog…of being an ‘encounter with beauty’: the reasons 
why cells age. I hadn’t really thought of this before…

Cells age because they deliberately
 switch down. It is like an act of euthanasia, an act of love. When a cell detects serious damage to its DNA, it sends internal signals that keep it from dividing, as they should do to stay healthy. If we didn’t age, our bodies would probably be riddled with cancer. For cells with serious damage that don’t switch down – they tend to go that way.

I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth. In the mirror, I saw my eyes puffed up, with tiny creases underneath; the skin getting crepey, the lines on the forehead. And this is only the beginning. I am 27 years old.

Sometimes it makes me bite my lip and want to scream that the very air itself, the very stuff that life is made of, with its swirling free radicals, is what is changing my face, making it something not mine anymore, but something stretched and distorted, and waylaid by existence.

But to look at these wrinkles as my friends, my safeguards, a source of sustenance, self-preservation: what a beautiful twist of irony, that the things we attack with expensive face creams and Botox surgery, which we consider violently ugly, are performing an act of self-sacrificing beauty.

Because, yes, beauty can be function; can be form. It doesn’t have to be literally what’s in front of your eyes. Does it?

But maybe soon I should go deeper into physical beauty and my own personal battles…another time, another entry. 

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Away We Go…and, yes, more snow

A beautiful scene in the chucklesome, heart-warming film from the ever-wonderful Dave Eggers (screenplay).

A married couple, truly happy, deeply in love. How often does that happen in a film? No, there are no extra-marital affairs. The plot does not unravel a big global conspiracy and they aren’t caught in a do-or-die situation. She doesn’t get cancer. He doesn’t lose his job and they start to fight and so he takes to drinking heavily and hitting her occasionally.

(And yes, these things might all happen over the course of time, once the credits end, and this fictional couple carry on living in their fictional world. But, equally, they might 
not. They might not!)

They are happy. She is heavily pregnant. She is crying into her hands, she is moaning “I’m so uglyyyyyyy.” He slides up behind her on the bed, spooning her, affectionately, but not sexually, at all. Not yet. Not now.

He prises open her hands and he says “I find you beautiful. I’ll still find you beautiful if you get even more enormous. If it takes you a year to shake off all the fat. If you NEVER shake off all the fat”. Of course, he has said exactly the wrong thing. His wife looks like she might be angry, but then the humour of him trying so hard, but getting it so wrong, whacks them both hard, and they collapse into giggles and the cuddling comfort of two people that know everything about the other but are still undeterred. In fact, they are all the more determined.

It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful because it’s true and touching. And because love gives – or should, if all works well – the gift of being found beautiful, every day, for the rest of your life, no matter what comes, and no matter your age. It’s corny, yes. And sickening for singletons. But if you’re single – you have it to come. And when it happens – it’s amazing. There’s nothing quite like it. It’s alchemy, magic. Suddenly your base metals are transmuted into invaluable gold.

It’s starting to snow again. The days have gone back to being bone-achingly cold.

But here is a poem by Robert Graves:

She tells her love while half asleep, 
In the dark hours, 
With half-words whispered low:
As Earth stirs in her winter sleep
And put out grass and flowers
Despite the snow,
 Despite the falling snow

Coiled up life; stored up energy

Can you discern beauty through ‘taste’? Or does beauty always have to be something visual and tangible?

I’ve been asking myself this over the last few days. The week seems to have been dominated by food. From a trip to a Michelin-starred restaurant as a one-off with friends (verdict: meh; but my mates said it was wasted on a vegetarian). To a meander round
Borough Market with the sun on my back.

Rows and rows of gnarled up mushrooms, looking like alien life forms: mottled shades of brown. Some even purple or red or yellowy. A big, bold artichoke, wrapped in spiky, fleshy leaves that clung like petals on a flower. In fact, every stall was just like a flower bed: deep smartings of colour, a rush of aroma. It’s a shame that we don’t tend to think of fruit and vegetables (or food, generally) as art, though we write poems galore about flowers. To me, a wavy, golden pepper is every bit as beautiful as a daffodil; an aubergine as mysterious as a hyacinth.

These things also give us life. They are coiled up sunshine; they are stored up energy. And, god, they taste good.

I ate melt-in-the-mouth
Comte and cake and vegetable burgers, and I sipped a hot apple and cinnamon drink that trickled down my throat with a warm, syrupy movement that was comforting and nostalgic – almost like cough medicine (though it tasted a lot better). I swooned, closed my eyes, I murmured appreciatively. But was I dabbling in beauty?

I know most aestheticians and philosophers would say no. But I would argue that to exclude any sense data is to elude a true definition of beauty. When people find something beautiful, it is seldom through eyes alone. When I find a field beautiful, it is because I also smell the lavender; feel the soft, feathery touch of the grass on a leg; maybe I taste the pollen that drifts languidly in the air. And then there is another aspect, a kind of additional sense and I don’t know what I’d call it. That every scene, every detail, and every thing we encounter is coated in context. Maybe that field has extra beauty because it reminds me of country drives in my childhood; when my mum sung along to the radio, and the windows were wound open. Maybe it also makes me think of the scene in
A Room with a View: a film I caught late once on TV in my early adolescence. And I stared and I stared at Daniel Day Lewis and Helena Bonham Carter, and I thought I’d never seen a couple more beautiful and sumptuous. And my heart beat fast in my chest and I later came to recognise it as the acceleration of puberty.

Food is beautiful because it also has context: happy meals, happy times. The people I’ve loved who have fed me. Who have fed me out of love and for love.

To me, beauty is anything that transports. Beauty is anything that lifts. Beauty is anything that gives sheen to the humdrum, even if the veil is thin.

Photo courtesy of
Nicola photographs flickrstream.