Seeing the beauty in a life well-lived
I was listening to the audiobook of the Louise Penny mystery The Brutal Telling in the car the other day and was struck by the lines spoken by Inspector Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec:
“The leaves had fallen from the trees and lay crisp and crackling beneath his feet. Picking one up he marveled, not for the first time, at the perfection of nature where leaves were most beautiful at the very end of their lives.”
I also found out subsequently that in the Regina Spektor song Time is All Around, she also says “Leaves are most beautiful when they’re about to die.” Put that way, it sounds a little morbid, but I found the idea to be one of beauty.
Yes, in the literal sense the vibrant colors of autumns leaves can be breathtaking. But what the lines made me think about was the beauty of what I call lived-in human faces.
In the Penny novel, the inspector spends a deal of time looking at the life of Emily Carr (1871-1945). I had never heard of Emily Carr until we went to Vancouver last year and saw a show of her work. There is even an Emily Carr University of Art in Vancouver. She was a very important artist and writer in Canada, receiving much of her inspiration from the art of the Pacific Northwest indigenous people, particularly the Haida of the Haida Gwaii (at one time in history called the Queen Charlotte Islands) in British Columbia.
She documented what was a disappearing way of life and landscapes that were being destroyed. Among her famous paintings are Raven, 1930:
and Vanquished, also 1930:
Emily Carr was not a traditionally pretty woman, but when I look at photos of her I am struck by the beauty that emanates from her. She chose her own path, was often ridiculed, and wasn’t considered an important artist until later in her life. She spent much of her time alone, with her beloved animals, traveling in her caravan and painting, memorializing a culture threatened by Euro-centricism.
I’ll never forget the moment when I had an epiphany of sorts about the beauty of faces of those not young and smooth and still untried but of those who’ve been through troubles, taking life as it comes, and aging with grace and dignity. I was watching the movie Beyond Rangoon (1995), which takes place during the 1988 uprising in Burma, or Myanmar.
What I took away from this movie was the image of the face of U Aung Ko, the guide who helps Arquette’s character escape to Thailand. He was the heart and soul of the movie. His face to me conveyed as much as his words or actions. He has a beautiful face.
After that I started paying more attention to the faces around me of older people, not necessarily like the leaves in the quote about to die, but who having lived and learned and loved and sometimes suffered and hopefully found peace, giving them a beauty beyond pure looks. There are countless images I can add to prove my point but I don’t think it’s necessary.
In 2008, Jyll Johnstone released the documentary Hats Off, about then 93-year old actress Mimi Wedell, who passed away in 2009. She began her modeling and acting career when she was 65. The film’s tag line is “90 is the new 40”.
In terms of how I live my own life based on these reflections, I am proud of who I am becoming as I age. I like myself better now at 56 than I ever have. I’ve never lied about my age, and I never will. Why? I’ve earned every laugh line and crow’s foot and the now emerging gray hairs. If I had the gorgeous snowy white hair my grandmother Cottraux (coincidentally we called her Mimi) had, even when she was a younger woman, I would show it off. I have no interest in cosmetic surgery. Yeah, I’d like to lose a few pounds, but apparently not enough to give up chocolate. Life is too short to give up chocolate.
Don’t get me wrong. I care about how I look. I usually wear contact lenses, although more and more these days I wear my eyeglasses. Seeing is becoming pretty important too! I wear a little eye make up. I’m not saying we should let ourselves go, but that we take pride in what’s good about ourselves. I’ll never be drop dead gorgeous, but I like to think I have a kind face. That is my idea of being a beautiful person.
In American popular culture, there is such a heavy emphasis on youth, on cookie-cutter beauty standards that are unrealistic and potentially harmful. The green leaves on the trees are of course beautiful. I love the green of spring and summer. But as the leaves continue their leafy journeys, they change into works of art, bursting with color and causing us to gaze with awe. We should celebrate ourselves as we enter into the metaphorical autumn and ultimately winter of our lives. All of the seasons of the year are to be enjoyed, as are all the seasons of our lives.
Peace and hugs.