"Perceiving beauty, we become beautiful."
--Polly Berrien Berends
Author's Note: This essay was originally published in December, 2011, in the online magazine: Rhythm of the Home. Sadly, the magazine ceased its quarterly publications a few years ago, but you can still visit the page and read the articles. I wrote this essay, The Spiritual Quality of Beauty: Reflections of an Artist-Mom, when I had very small children (my daughter was five, my son, about a year and a half) and in many ways, it no longer feels relevant to me. (Mainly, I am now able to paint every day with wild abandon, when the kids are in school.) But, although my life is different now, it is my sincere hope that this essay will provide inspiration and encouragement to other parents of young children. This essay is especially dedicated to those people who struggle with the overwhelming nature of new parenting, while mourning the loss of time to create art.
The Spiritual Quality of Beauty: Reflections of an Artist-Mom
Winter brings stillness. The earth sleeps, the birch trees stand bare, the garden lies empty, waiting for spring. Animals are hibernating, and I too am hibernating, wrapped in warm blankets in my cozy chair, sipping hot tea. An inner stillness arises in resonance with nature’s own stillness, inviting me to reflect, to go within. It is a relief to just be, for a moment quite separate from the outside pressures of holiday consumerism. For an artist, it is especially crucial to allow time for quiet introspection.
As an artist, my attention is drawn again and again to Beauty. Not the superficial beauty glamorized by the media, but rather Beauty, a spiritual quality in its own right. Before becoming a mother, I was an artist. I spent hours painting, making collages, and creating intricate crafts. Back then, there were many things I could do that I haven’t done in a long time, now that I am fully engaged with two small children. I could paint all day in front of my easel, and forget all about lunch or dinner. I could sit for hours contemplating a river flowing, or snow falling, or the steam drifting up out of my coffee mug. I could paint whatever I wanted to paint, whenever I wanted to paint it.
Then I became a mother, and my life was completely transformed. It was a wonderful transformation, but also difficult. At first I resisted the apparent constraints of my new life. It seemed so much smaller and more rigid. I couldn’t paint—at least, not alone. I couldn’t labor over a collage—little hands wanted to hold the scissors, to tear the paper. And yet, once I fully embraced my life as a new mother, I found a different sort of creative freedom, with even more ideas and inspiration than before. It was a joy to share this with my little ones, the Beauty that I found in creating art, and in everyday life. But first, my preconceptions of art and Beauty had to change.
Is Beauty something that can only be created during special alone-time, in the studio or within the boundaries of an art class? Is art something accessible only to adults and professionals? I questioned my old assumptions and rejected them gently. When I allowed my views of art and Beauty to broaden, a tremendous sense of guilt was lifted from my heart. I could release this feeling of not being good enough, of not keeping up my artistic output and my identity as an artist.
You may feel that, as a mother, you have lost the opportunity to be artistic, but if you look more closely, you will see that motherhood is rich with possibilities to experience and express Beauty. Although it’s rarely possible for an artistic person to maintain anything remotely resembling the creative time she once had before becoming a mother, it’s not necessarily a problem. A whole new realm of opportunities presents itself to the mind that is flexible and open.
Beauty can come into your life, and the lives of your loved ones, simply by increased awareness and appreciation of what already exists. Perhaps you have a mug that you love to drink out of in the morning. Start by noticing the mug while you drink. Enjoy the grace of its curves, the loveliness of its color, the ephemeral beauty of steam rising. Or, when the tree branches glitter with ice like diamonds, look up! And share it with your children! Even if there are snow boots and mittens all over the floor, the dishes are dirty and piling up on the counter, and you feel overwhelmed, it is good to stop, breathe, and really see the incredible Beauty in your life. At the very least, you can gaze upon your sleeping children in the evening—it’s hard to imagine anything more Beautiful!
There are many ways to incorporate Beauty into your life, without any extra effort or expense. Here are a few practical real-life ideas to get you on to this way of thinking. Remember, you don’t have to do all these things. You don’t do or make beauty. You appreciate it. You see it. You reveal it to those around you. But sometimes a physical action can encourage a spiritual quality to blossom. These small ideas have helped me to make the concept of Beauty more concrete in my own life, so I’ll share them with you.
* Enjoy Dressing Beautifully. Take a little time to be a beautiful parent. You don’t have to spend hours preening. But do take some care to brush your hair, to wash your face, to smile. It doesn’t take any more time to put on a t-shirt that is a fetching color and cut, than it does to put on some old baggy thing with stains. See how it feels. Do you feel you are a beautiful parent? How does that feeling permeate your day? How does that feeling affect your children and your spouse?
* Appreciate the Spiritual Quality of the Family Table. A jar with some flowers, even a few sprigs from a holly bush, adds beauty. Cloth napkins are quite cheap to make or find at yard sales. Avoid purchasing any table settings that you personally think are ugly, just because you need them. In my experience, the things you need are readily available at thrift stores, so just be discerning in what you buy. This goes for any household item. It’s really just as easy to buy an elegant pitcher as it is to buy something that is merely utilitarian and does nothing to please your eye. How does it feel to sit down for a meal at your table?
* See the Grocery Store as your Inspiration and your Palette. Notice which fruit you are picking up. You don’t have to go digging through the whole bin, looking for perfect fruit. Just bring awareness to the task of selecting fruit, as if you were selecting fruit to paint a still life. I find great joy in looking at the fruit and vegetables I select, and imagining the painting I would paint. Sometimes when I get home, I arrange the still life on the table, there to be appreciated by all, and eventually eaten. You can keep Beauty in the back of your mind when doing all of your grocery shopping, whether it is produce, or tomato sauce, or cleaning supplies. You may wish to consider the wider influences of Beauty, beyond the reaches of your own home. Is your purchase helping or harming the Beauty of the earth and the ocean? Does it affect the Beauty surrounding other people, perhaps far away in some distant country?
*Fold Laundry with Gratitude. Fold each item with appreciation, recognizing the qualities that appeal to you. The color, the texture, the print, or even the memories associated with each shirt and pillowcase, can give a deeper meaning to the task of folding. You can be a model for your children, demonstrating a wonderful new way to do the laundry, with grace and awareness. Perhaps some little hands are helping you, and that’s fine. It’s all about the process, not the product. The laundry is beautiful. You are beautiful. The smile on your little one’s face is beautiful.
* Clean the House with Love. When you clean, you are making the house beautiful for your family. You are helping to create a safe, happy, lovely living space. There is no other reason to clean. Clean with love, or not at all. If you’re feeling bitter, it’s perfectly acceptable to take a break and live with some chaos for awhile until Love can return. Have a nice cup of tea while you’re waiting. You want your little children to see that cleaning is a good, loving task, not merely something to be endured.
*Express your Creativity By Cooking Colorful Meals. Cooking is an easy, fun way to create Beauty. Use a bright variety of ingredients: crimson peppers, rich green kale, gorgeous glossy purple eggplants, fragrant spices. Garnish with fresh parsley from your window-garden. Arrange the apple slices in the shape of a flower, with a little grape in the center. Make a heart-shape of raisins on a slice of peanut butter toast. These tiny details can make such a wonderful difference! Of course a meal can taste great and look awful, but I think we can agree, it’s better if it looks great too, especially if you have any little picky eaters.
Now that I have children, I am still an artist. Or rather, art still happens, within the framework of motherhood. It’s possible to feed your artist soul by cultivating an awareness of Beauty. It requires no more effort than a gentle and enjoyable shift in attention. Even in the most chaotic moment, Beauty exists. As a spiritual quality, Beauty can invite a sense of serenity, grace, and calmness into your home, and lead to a general feeling of well-being. If you yourself are peaceful, your family will reflect this peace back to you.
Lauren Kindle is a stay-at-home mom who finds Beauty in the every day. She creates art for her greeting card business, Kindle Arts & Cards. (www.kindlearts.com)
(Author's Note: My greeting card business is still in operation, but the website needs to be updated.)
Photography by Ian Kindle
This essay is dedicated to Polly Berrien Berends, author of Whole Child/ Whole Parent, from which book I continue to find incredible wisdom, especially her chapter on “Beauty.”