Yesterday morning I was driving across the Derwent Valley on my way to an NLP workshop called ‘Altered States’. As if by magic, the prospect of attending seemed to shift something and I could feel my state altering in transit whilst I listened to chill out music, gazing across the horizon and the wide-open undulating carpet of land bathed in a glorious hush of soft spring sunlight. My CD included one of the signature tracks from the film American Beauty, featured in the scene where Ricky shows Janie a video he made of a paper bag dancing on the breeze and explains how came to capture this moment – one in which he transformed something everyday and ordinary into an extraordinary poignant piece of art.American Beauty Dancing Paper Bag
“It was one of those days when it was a minute from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. And this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That day I realised that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember … I need to remember … sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in”
As I looked beyond my windscreen that’s exactly how I felt … overwhelmed with a sense of beauty. I took some deep breaths and tried to relax into it, letting if flow through me, and as I did so another quote came to mind …
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know
Although I haven’t thought about it for a long time, these words have huge resonance for me, because my dad has been obsessed with this quote for his whole life.
He was born with a disfigured face from a hare lip and cleft palette, which had a very singular and dramatic impact on his life. From an early age, my dad was acutely aware of people’s reactions to his appearance, so much so that up until the age of about ten he spoke with his hand over his mouth. Despite successive surgery, which significantly improved the way he looked, he became obsessed with understanding the true relationship between Beauty and society, and committed his life to hacking into this code and laying it bare for others to see. It was this quest that led him to become a lighthouse keeper, where he believed that he would somehow find a way to “shine a light of truth upon human thought”.
The deeper he delved into his research, the angrier he became, as he saw that the world operated according to an assumption that our visible self (our appearance) is a mirror of the invisible, inner self. So for my dad, Keats’ quote became symbolic of this travesty and an instrument of dangerous cultural conditioning. Why? Because Beauty is Truth suggested to him that if you are beautiful (good looking) on the outside, this denotes ‘truth’ on the inside, or in other words a sense of ‘rightness’ and integrity to your inner world. Taking this idea to its logical conclusion, my dad argued, meant that by implication ‘Ugliness is therefore Falsehood’, leading to a view that people who are not attractive are somehow morally and/or intellectually impaired. My dad believed that our cultural myths and norms are predicated on this basic assumption, implanted into our psyches from our earliest childhood fairytales (the ugly sister, the evil hag) and reinforced through the media 24/7, creating a dangerous prejudice that is cleverly and continually deflected as being “trivial” to ensure it is never deeply discussed. Before the advent of the environmental movement, my dad predicted and documented the rise of celebrity culture and plastic surgery as entirely predictable consequence of this imperative – ie. devices employed to create a world of pretty appearances, to hide the ugly truth that we are destroying the planet and, ironically, rendering the real Beauty of the world (ie. Nature), ugly.
Or, to put it another way …. humanity is essentially conspiring to put nail polish on a turd!
My dad calls his theory ‘The Good Looking Mafia’ (or GLM for short) – and this was a model of the world that I was exposed to on a regular basis growing up. Over the years, he tried to expound his theory via various articles and papers and books, but without any success – an outcome that my dad attributed to the fact that he “was not good looking enough/too ugly” to get published – and so, over time, he slowly withdrew from the world and deeper into his own imagination.
However, he did succeed on one level, because by the time I was in my late teens this was also a lens through which I saw the world, a perception that continued well into my twenties and early thirties. Ironically, I responded to all of this by trying really hard to create a life that looked good on the outside – successful husband, beautiful house, nice car, constantly managing and improving my own appearance. It was as if I knew the rules of ‘the game’ and was going to play full out to ensure I would succeed. I did not necessarily do this consciously, but I can see the unhealthy, unconscious patterns at play very clearly now with hindsight.
When American Beauty came out in 1999 I went to see it with my then husband. I was 28 years old and, two years into my marriage, I was deeply unhappy. But I was in denial, so as this strong off-feeling gradually grew, I became more impatient and angry with myself, telling myself that there must be something wrong with you not to be happy with this life, you’re just a miserable selfish bitch…. (nice huh?) which became a well-worn internal record that played round and round and round.
Early on in the film, there was a scene that felt as though it had stopped my heart for a whole beat. Lester (played by Kevin Spacey) quits his job and is enjoying a new sense of freedom and empowerment. His wife Carolyn, who is a very uptight A type what-will-the-neighbours-think sort of person, returns home to hear his news. Lester explains what has happened and tries to appeal to her softer side, to the woman he fell in love with all those years ago, and she momentarily softens … until Lester spills some beer on the couch. He tries to make light of it and, eager to protect the fragile moment of rare vulnerability between them, says “Honey, it’s just a couch” to which she SHRIEKS back “This is a $4,000 sofa, upholstered in Italian silk. This is not just a couch!”
There in the darkness of the cinema, I remember thinking OMG have I become like her? I quietly cried myself to sleep that night, and many more nights after that, unable to get that cream sofa out of my mind.
(Now before I go on, don’t get me wrong here, I am not saying there is anything inherently wrong per se with wanting a nice place to live and having nice stuff. I just think the intention behind what you do really matters, and whether you are also nourishing and taking care of your inner life and space).
Three years after that trip to the cinema, I left my marriage and my life has changed immeasurably since. Happily, I now have many moments like the one I had driving across the Derwent Valley yesterday. As I drove my car across along that undulating empty road, and I looked up at the sky, I felt filled with a wave of beauty and gratitude, like my heart could burst: grateful that I had gone to watch that film all those years ago and grateful for a dad who taught me that the secret to living a truly happy and fulfilled life is to pay attention to what’s on the inside by nourishing your imagination.
And in that moment I smiled as I realised something. Whilst I am able to see the way the world is through my dad’s lens, I also see something different now and have my own understanding of Keats’ enigmatic quote. And it’s simply this …. that when you find your own Truth, you feel connected to a deep sense of universal truth which fills your heart with an awareness of Beauty – the beauty of life, of nature and of a mysterious benevolent force. And when this feeling of love and connection flows through us, we become Beauty, we become Beauty-full – transformed, just like that ordinary, dancing paper bag. So whilst some of the well-worn phrases we have come to know as part of our common cultural consciousness may have been cynically hijacked, it does not change the fact that Beauty really does come from the inside, because when you connect with your own truth there is a light that shines from within you. And light which shines from your heart, is pure Beauty.
With love to you and to my amazing dad