Why is Beauty?

Why do we eat?

We eat to keep ourselves alive. More specifically, to keep our bodies alive. To nourish.

There is a spectrum, from fasting to feasting. We may fast for forty days and live, I am told. Once I fasted three days only to get so weak I had to get off the ETS bus and buy an apple from 7-Eleven. I could feel the sugar surge through my veins, reviving me. Science tells me I could have held out longer, but I'm a small man.

We are fresh from Thanksgiving feasts, when family gathers around a special meal to eat more and better than we need. There is no practical purpose for gravy.

We fast sometimes and we feast sometimes and both are good.

But we do need to eat. The most basic food will sustain us. Mush. Gruel. Insects and leaves on desert islands. Rice and beans for a third world lifetime.

To survive we don't need flavour, but we do need food.

Why do we sleep?

The science of sleep seems to be a confounding conundrum, but I can tell you one thing for certain. I need sleep.

Shortly after returning from Europe, I awake in a half-dream state. Blurred vision. Disoriented stagger towards the bathroom. I've been away for two weeks in three different bedrooms and already I am losing my way in the darkness of home. Back in bed I lie half-awake for two hours. I move ever so slowly in and out of sanity. My vision is liquid – dancing in blurred shapes of light. This feels close to fainting. I wonder if I am going a little crazy. Or having a near-death experience. I check my pulse.

As I lay awake–and more awake each moment–I inch towards the light of reason. My mind clears its clouded waters until I can see bottom.

I was not crazy, after all. Only very, very tired. Jetlagged.

I eat to sustain my body. I sleep, I think, to sustain my mind.

But what of my spirit?

A few months back good friends shared good drinks and asked a good question: What is beauty?

We never got our definitive, move-forward-answer.

There were clues. We got peeks through the windows. Parts to make something of the Whole. But the whole remains obscured.

What is beauty? They still write books about this question.

But what if it is the wrong question? Often, questions matter more than answers.

We were asking 'What is Beauty?'. What we should have asked is this: Why is beauty?

This is perhaps the great forgotten question of our time. The walked-over-on-the-way-to-work-question. The question left behind on a rush through the Louvre to check the Mona Lisa off an itinerary.

Why is beauty?

Our bodies can go without food for 40 days and will let us know they need their hunger. By 40 days will theyever let us know. They have pain at the ready. Our minds can last a while without sleep before they slip. But anyone who has felt that slip start will tell you it is a long way down and that you'd better stay here and lie down a while at the top.

So what of our spirits? What food for them? What rest?

This is why beauty.

Last week my wife and I are reclining on the Parisian grass. We close our eyes, and when we open them, the Eiffel Tower is there. Just right there, and way up into the sky she reaches. She dances with light. We are drinking French champagne. We close our eyes again and when we open them, the Eiffel Tower is still there. And we are still here, on the Champ de Mars, like millions before us, feasting on beauty. We lie down and sigh. And then my wife is crying. Not sobs and not much, but a tear or two.

The spirit leaks in this way, sometimes. When jabbed with the sharp spear of beauty, a little hard and a little fast and a little too far in.

Somewhere on our trip, from some mouth or some wall's graffiti came words something like this; 'Beauty is the glow of Truth'.

My God, that is beautiful. And the best answer to our wrong-headed question I've heard so far. It might be just another peek through a window, but it's a mighty large window.

We need beauty. Our spirits need beauty, in the same way that our bodies need food and our minds need sleep.

But we have a problem–a fatal flaw in our design that I cannot understand. When we lack beauty, it is so hard to tell. Our spirits are so quiet. The body will cry out with pain. The lens of the mind becomes so foggy without sleep that we cannot walk a straight line. But what cry does the spirit make?

Depression. Boredom. Anxiety. Fear. Hatred. Hopelessness. Abandonment. Loneliness.

These are good warnings. When the needle is on empty, these will tell you. Unless you are not listening. Unless you drown the warnings out.

Entertainment will do the job.

Perhaps the ugliest thing I saw in Europe was a group of actors screaming for my attention at a dungeon-themed amusement park in Berlin. It was one of the most expensive mistakes of the trip. And the longest wait in line. The sets were elaborate and immersive. The actors were passable through thick German accents. The ghoulish special effects and suspenseful scares entertained, but none of it was beautiful. My spirit left hungry.

Entertainment is no stand in for beauty.

Let me repeat that, oh screen-sapped and weary generation of mine. ENTERTAINMENT IS NO STAND IN FOR BEAUTY.

Don't settle for entertainment. Seek out beauty. You won't have to look far. You don't need to travel. Beauty is just around the corner.

The most beautiful song is the song written just for you. The most radiant beauty is steeped in the context of home. The beauty of my own wife in a fancy dress. The beauty of Alberta Avenue on a sunny Kaleido Saturday.

Festivals and holidays are feasts, but our spirits need meals and snacks, too. Tiny beauty. The Sacred Small. We have to take time, and purpose, to stop and eat.

To look. To listen. To pay attention.

If I bring back one thing from two weeks in Europe it is the reminder to nourish my hungry spirit. To find the beauty of home and daily life. To grow stronger and healthier as I do.

I bring back answers to a good question. Why beauty?

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13 Moments From the Tempelhof Airport Garden

I've been back from Europe nearly a week and I'm just now getting settled. I return refreshed, with a full memory, and a fuller memory card. I am seeking ways to unpack it all.

There was champagne at the Eifel Tower. The massive treasure chest of modern art that is the Pompidou Centre. The Salvador Dali Gallery. The old rail yards of Berlin. The midnight bike-ride through a pitch dark drug park. The beer steins and lederhosen of Munich. There was just so much. 

When I feel this sort of overwhelm, I know I need to focus–to zoom in on just one moment. So let me take you to Berlin's abandoned Tempelhof Airport.

I am wandering, jaw dropped and wide-eyed, through the most wild and beautiful garden I've ever seen. The Tempelhof Airport is an abandoned city-centre airport, like our own. It was slated for redevelopment, like our own. Unlike Edmonton's Municipal Airport, Tempelhof is a war hero. It was here that the US would drop off supplies and aid. This patch of grass and concrete and asphalt has worked its way into Berlin's heart. They love it here.

Tempelhof is now many things to many people. It is a sprawling runway for bicycles and skateboards, rollerblades and scooters. It is a place for children to race on foot, with start and finish lines painted out. It is hopscotch and chalk drawing. It is a place to picnic by the little old airplane. A spot to play baseball. A place to watch and learn about birds. A dance school. A bike-repair training centre. A refreshing hand-in-hand walk. A community garden.

In middle of this public park, now reclaimed by Berlin's citizens (I am told they will never develop it now), there is a community garden.

And I am wandering through this garden, taking photos. The first visit I just gawked and wondered aloud how this could happen. There are, seemingly, no rules at the Tempelhof garden. Respect your neighbours, of course, but build what you wish with whatever you wish. A pile of trash waits just at the edge to be transformed into the waking dreams of gardeners. I am back today to capture this–to feed my lens a kaleidoscope of imagination. To try and bring some of Tempelhof back, for you.

I need to try, because this remains my favourite memory of Europe. There is something about such ragged beauty–it's absolute freedom granted to the human spirit–that is a pure joy. This place, so far from perfect, is just perfict. 

Here. Let me show you as best I can in thirteen images.

Be sure to click each image for a description, my thoughts, and a larger version.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Glen Day One

Sunday evening, Edward Van Vliet and I are prepare to land in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The flight attendant offers us free drinks. We bask in extra inches of leg room and softer seats. We are flying first class, but not by choice. 

This day of travel has had little to do with choice. We've felt powerless, at the whims of US Airways, hanging on to hope. 

Our journey to first class was rough.

It's 3:30 AM and I am awake, thanks to my alarm or my pre-flight jitters. At 4, I'm waiting at the front door for my father in law, packed and ready. Everything is on schedule. Last year, I never made it this far. Last year they cancelled my flight with a 3 AM phone call. This year, I'm on my way.

I arrive at the airport with plenty of time. Good. I immediately spot my travel companion, Edward. Good. My "hope this fits in carry on" duffel bag does indeed fit in carry on. I save twenty five dollars. Good. Check in flawless. Security is smooth. Lines are short. Starbucks is open. All good.

We board our first US Airways flight. The flight is not full, so we can switch seats and sit together, with a whole seat to spare. Great. We buckle up and wait for takeoff. This is happening. We are off to the Glen Workshop.

We wait. We wait more.

Then comes the announcement. The first in a long line of hiccups seems harmless enough. A latch on a panel needs repair. They are going to try a solution called "Speed Tape". Fixing an airplane using any kind of tape does not instill confidence. Especially tape marketed not for its hold, but its speed. No worries, because they don't have any speed tape anyways. We wait in our confused and stuffy cabin. 

US Airways are going to see if they can borrow a part from Air Canada. I'm not sure if Air Canada doesn't have the part, or if they are like "Really, US Airways? Again? Sorry, we've got to teach you how to fish this time". There is no part. 

After an hour they tell us to deplane. We gather our things. Those who bought duty free must return it. They cancel my flight. Again.

What do we do? Where do we go now? They cannot tell us yet, because they need to see if they can fix the plane. Once they know, they will tell us whether to book new flights. Until then, while new flights may leave and our layover window shrinks, we must wait. We do wait. Without information. Without confidence. They finally confirm our fears and send us off to rebook. Square one.

Edward waits at the luggage carousel for his checked bag while I head for the check-in counter to book our new flights. The line is short, but there is just one poor person working. One person for a hundred reschedules taking 10 minutes a piece. I doubt my chances of making sign-in at the Glen Workshop this afternoon. I doubt my chances of dinner. We start fending for ourselves, rebooking on cell phones. But I don't have a cell phone. I wait. 

Rumors start to come back about the passengers waiting for bags. They still haven't got them. Team baggage is waiting, not knowing what is going on with us, team carry-on. We have cell phones and iPads but nothing to communicate. "You heard anything yet? No? Me neither." Then I overhear chatter about our cancellation being cancelled. They confirm that we are going to get back on the same plane. Thanks to speed tape or the gods or gremlins, the latch has been fixed. Hallelujah. Except that Edward and team baggage don't have a clue about this. They are stuck on the other side of the airport. Their luggage was never removed from the plane, and no one is telling them. 

This is the worst customer communication I have ever experienced. 

I don't like going through customs and filling out declaration cards, but I really don't like doing it all twice. In an astounding move of beureaucratic t-crossing, we all have to do everything again. Sheesh.

Meanwhile, poor team baggage is told to go back the way they came and reboard the plane. Security stops them and sends them other way around. We, team carry-on, have no idea any of this is happening.

The flight itself is uneventful, and while we are hungry, it looks like we'll make our connection in Phoenix. Indeed we do, with a half hour to spare. Except that we are not on the flight anymore. Without telling Edward and I, US Airways gave our seats away, and there are no more seats. They put us instead on a 9:45 PM flight, thinking we'd missed our connection. But we didn't. In fact, Edward's luggage is about to fly to New Mexico without Edward. 

We push back on the 9:45 PM flight, as we'll miss our shuttle into Santa Fe, along with everything else happening tonight. At customer service, the first kind, helpful employee today puts us on the 3 PM flight to Albuquerque in the only seats available. First class. It's a mind-bending mystery to me why this was not the first solution to our problem. Why, had we not pushed back, would we be spending the night on an airport floor in New Mexico, waiting for our morning shuttle?

We'll still miss check-in and supper, but we'll arrive this evening, a few hours earlier than I arrived last year. It will still be light out. We have time for lunch now. We're starving. We'll take it.

I'm counting my blessings.

One. We share a leisurely lunch, preparing our hearts in conversation for the week ahead.

Two. We try a delicious new beer. Its five o'clock somewhere. 

Three. We experience the marginal privilege of first class.

Four. We reevaluate our willingness to book a US Airways flight again. Ever. 

Five. We find ample time to read and laugh through Sky Mall, the in-flight catalogue of goods you just cannot buy anywhere else. In a move I will appreciate more as the week rolls on, I take Sky Mall with me. 

Our shuttle drives us through New Mexico's moonscape as gratitude erases all wrongs. It's hard to stay angry in this strange and beautiful world. The sun shines down on a duotone palette of rust and turquoise. Red rock and sage brush. Cacti and blue sky.  

I watch Edward take this all in for the first time. I smile at the sharing of this special place. Our jagged journey leaves us weary, but full of hope.

Sometime ago, somewhere amidst the madness, Edward guesses our setbacks to be the devil's doing. The devil must not want us in Santa Fe. God must have something waiting for us. Given this is my second year of cancelled flights, it's hard to disagree with the assessment. But if we met devils on our journey, we were about to leave them in our dust. At St. John's college, at the Glen Workshop, we'd encounter only angels and saints.

For the week that was to come, I'd live this damned day a dozen times over. 




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