Art Above Aesthetics
There’s an honesty to true art that pokes holes through the dynamic canopy always before us where the grime of the raunchier shades bleed through and what’s left is the hidden beauty of the world. To an artist, an old tree on the verge of death and decay becomes a part of history that ran with the land and gave shelter and clean air and life and breath to its people. The dirtiest beggar seen by any other is a vagrant and a drain on society’s space and resources. But an artist sees a life broken by pain and circumstance but still fighting. Still alive.
There lies beauty beneath resilience, hope being its bedrock that holds a fragile life above death. This understanding of beauty in broken places is the pulse for an artist’s heart and it’s the artist’s duty to share this beauty with a world blind to itself.
Many years ago, I found out of my own ignorance to the wonder of this world. Young and still a university student, I worked hard in my studies because I was expected to but I didn’t much care for the result or where I was heading. I had other things on my mind. My hair was thinning at the crown of my head and receded at the sides.
An acquaintance of mine told me she had a friend whose hair thinned due to a congenital thyroid issue. She treated her thyroid issue with medication which effectively reversed all the negative effects of her hormonal imbalance. Maybe my issue was caused by a thyroid imbalance too.
I scheduled an appointment with my family doctor. He took some blood samples to measure my hormone levels and sent them to a lab. The results came back. I was healthy.
“There are a lot of young men losing their hair,” he told me. “It’s normal.”
I didn’t like his words.
I researched online for natural remedies that were found to reverse the results of hair loss in its earliest stages. I bought saw palmetto pills, a horrible smelling Egyptian cream (called el-Kerreem) from the pharmacy, and even went as far as to purchase a laser comb online that was said to shock the hair follicles back into action. Nothing worked.
I wasted money and time on remedies that were believed to work based off of anecdotal evidence and pseudoscientific conjecture and found myself growing tired, my hairline still receding. I searched and ran out of options I hadn’t tried, except prayer. What else did I have?
I attended Liturgy on a weekday I didn’t have class. I made my way to the same side pew I sat at when I came to church, at the very back next to the water cooler. The church was empty save for a few older men and women on either side of the church. An old man with a slouched back sat alone at the end of a pew at the front of the church. He looked into the altar and grasped a walker that sat beside him in the aisle between the rows of pews.
At the front of the church, on the right side of the altar, a deacon, tall and skinny and old stood and stared at an icon of Jesus holding the book of life. The man stood alone, all the rest of the deacons were in the altar.
I spotted the priest walk off the altar waving his censer back and forth, the incense rising to the ceiling in grey swirls. He spotted me as he walked down my aisle, smiled and stopped when he reached me.
“Are you a deacon?” he asked.
“Go grab a tonia at the back and wait for me in the altar.” I smiled and nodded and did as he said, although I didn’t want to. I was there to pray for a miracle, not serve.
I walked to the right side of the front of the church where the only deacon outside of the altar stood. He heard me approach and looked towards me, his sight shifting in short twitches from side to side, like he was trying to read me. His eyes, dark and brown and narrow, felt barren, as if he was empty of any connection to the outside world.
I smiled and nodded hello. He stared for a moment, his eyes still pacing side to side, and turned back to the icon of Jesus. He didn’t acknowledge me. That was rude I thought as I stepped in front and turned my back away from the man.
I felt the man’s eyes on my back, as if his sight penetrated right through me. Almost as if I didn’t matter. I looked back a few times pretending to look out into the few people in the congregation, but I only wanted to see that man’s face. His stare twitched as he whispered his prayers.
The man was bald save for the thick black crow’s nest that grew around his crown. Looking at him made me anxious. I did not want to look like him at my age.
Communion time came so I grabbed a square kerchief with a red Coptic cross stitched into it and made my way towards the altar. I looked back and saw the skinny deacon search for something on the pew. He prodded the wood with his open palm, his eyes not able to follow the motion of his hands. Finally, he caught something in his fingers, clutched it, and picked it up. A large, metal walking stick. He poked at the ground and hit a few ledges, avoiding them as he walked. The man was blind.
He made his way into the altar to receive communion. In that moment, I wondered what he’d prayed about all this time. I couldn’t imagine that man praying for his hair to grow back. Being that he was blind, he had more important issues he could worry about.
I also couldn’t imagine him praying to receive his sight. He could have been I suppose, but something inside me felt like he was there because he wanted to be. Unlike me, he didn’t seem to have a self-serving agenda that he could use against God.
Maybe he was there for the fellowship of the community of the faithful or the ancient chanting against the polyrhythmic tone of the triangle and cymbals and the Spirit that lived beneath the words or the sweet charred smell of incense that rose in swirls and dissipated into nothing or the smooth feel of the floral designs engraved into the wood that surrounded the icons or maybe he was grateful, genuinely grateful for things in his life that only a man whose known true hardship could notice. Though I wasn’t sure what the man prayed for, I knew he could see what I couldn’t.
Watching that blind man prod with his walking stick through the altar was a defining moment for me as a writer. I had problems, but other people had bigger problems. I’d met people that died in a car crash or fought and lost to cancer before they reached twenty-one. I knew one girl, once a star soccer player and amateur actress, who suffered a stroke in her early twenties and woke up in a hospital bed, unable to move or form words. The doctors told her she would never walk again. After years of rehabilitation, she took her first steps.
There are bigger things than aesthetics and our feelings in this world. We as artists need to see past the trivialities and stress of our day to day existence to notice the things that make life beautiful. I believe strongly that it is this beauty that transcends aesthetics and our simplistic self-importance that helps to validate our existence to give it meaning and purpose. We search for beauty so it can fill us and weave itself into our souls, which stiches it into eternity. And as altruistic communal beings, we search for beauty so we can share it with a world that suffers the same blindness we once fell victim to.