Friday was a rest day. I planned to run a 25k trail race on Saturday, my favorite race of the year and a tough one, so no running, no swimming, no Body Pump class, or yoga, or elliptical trainer, not even any push-ups for me.
I always get a little bit twitchy on days like these, restless and fidgety and wired, like I drank too much coffee.
Resting is hard, so I grabbed my dog Benji’s leash and asked him if he wanted to go for a walk in the meadow below our house, next to the stream. He gave his answer, a barking, twirling, jumping enthusiastic yes, and we set off into the frigid wind.
I did a 52-week photography challenge last year to improve my picture-taking skills. The challenge is no longer in existence but I found a new one that looks very good. Anyone with a camera can join. You can check it out here.
I was hoping to find some good subjects for photos to submit in the sere brown and gray winter landscape.
It was tough.
To kill some time, I looked at an online field guide to identify the grasses I saw, but all of the photos looked like this:
Lush and green, unlike the bleak dried grasses I was seeing, and my heart wasn’t in it anyway. Unfortunately, I could not get excited about learning the grasses of Pennsylvania and I can get excited over some seemingly trivial objects.
I can’t tell you how many times I have buttonholed some unlucky person at a gathering and bored them with a story of an unusual butterfly, wildflower, or seagull, but learning to identify grasses was too mundane, even for me.
I looked around for some birds to watch, just to break up the monotony, but all I saw rustling in the bare branches of the stream bank shrubs were brown and gray house sparrows, an invasive species, eliciting little of my interest.
I thought about the warblers I look forward to seeing each spring with their bright colors, patterns, and stripes.
Experienced birders call them “eye candy“, as though serious ornithologists would find just as much joy finding hard-to-identify LBJs (Little Brown Jobs) hopping from branch to branch as the more colorful species.
Maybe they are eye candy, and maybe that makes me shallow, or at least not a creditable birder, but their flashy bursts of brilliance are what I crave each April after a long gray winter.
Why do we love beautiful things?
As human beings, we are attracted to beauty. Beauty is difficult to define, but, just as the Supreme Court famously said about pornography, “you know it when you see it“.
As it turns out, there are certain patterns we prefer such as the famous “golden rectangle“, a shape with a ratio of approximately five by eight.
Credit cards are a golden rectangle. It can be found in the design of items as diverse as television sets, books, the Mona Lisa, and the Parthenon.
Symmetry is another trait we find attractive. Many studies have found that facial symmetry is highly correlated to beauty, especially in women.
One theory posits we appreciate beauty because we recognize it takes so much work. The cosmetic industry, worth over half a trillion dollars worldwide, would seem to support that point.
Sushi is beautiful, for example, because it costs so much time and effort to prepare. It’s an obvious battle against the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the tendency of matter towards disorder.
We also love beauty because it’s rare.
The warblers I yearn for in the spring are migrants, mostly. Here for the day, then gone, looking for nesting grounds elsewhere, ephemeral and fleeting, difficult to see.
If there was only one blade of grass in the meadow, I might stare at its lone verdant leaf in rapt wonder but since there are billions, I ignore them completely.
What, I thought, if I could love as God loves.
Not only the beautiful and rare but the ordinary and common.
What if I could love every blade of grass, every rosebud, keeled rat snake, spiny sea urchin, and orb-weaver spider?
What if I could extend my love to poison ivy, and tsetse flies, to slugs, locusts, tapeworms, and, even though they make my skin crawl, to ants?
What if my love could be so abundant I could offer it freely to the homeless man on the street, looking at the pavement with hopeless eyes, to the children in cold apartments going to bed hungry tonight, to the arrogant sonofagun who cuts me off in traffic, to the gay kid convinced he is a freak, to the outsider, the unwashed, the unkempt, the unlovable?
Each one is the image of God, here with us, Emmanuel in the sketchy neighborhoods, the forgotten locales, the thin places and holy spaces where God is closest.
Christ did not tell us to love only the beautiful, He said: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.“
In the meadow, I put my camera in my pocket, called Benji, and turned for home. I had not found suitable subjects for photos, but my heart was lighter, more expansive and my mood more exuberant than when we left.
We are called by Love to show each other more love in this old world. We must give love to the undesirable, the unattractive, even the repulsive. I still don’t think, though, we have to love the ants.
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