One blistering, humid, high 90s day in the middle of the summer, I hiked a couple of miles on the High Bridge Trail with my family. The trail is a converted railroad bed and the bridge is a very high passage trains once made over the trickle of the Appomattox River far below. Until you get out into the middle of the bridge where you can peer down and see that trickle, you walk level with treetops. At intervals across the bridge, there are train-depot-style platforms that jut out slightly from the rest of the bridge, with off-center-peaked roofs sloped over benches facing out over the drop. As we hid from the baking sun, eating our picnic lunch on one of the benches, I noticed how much detail went into making the depots.
Fed, watered, and cooled down a bit, I examined our depot from all angles. It could have easily, predictably been nothing more than a bench with an unadorned roof. But these were made of bolted metal and grooved tin roofing, with gentle arched supports underneath that lit up all the train depot recognition areas of my brain – areas I wasn’t aware of until those delightful sparks of recognition.
The depots could have been merely utilitarian and expedient, enough to provide rest and shade. Instead, someone decided to delight. Someone opted for unnecessary beauty in a place where relatively few will see it and where you have to work to get to it – a place where rest and shade are the only necessities or expectations.
When the latest bad news spreads, I hear people say, “Fight back with beauty.” I know what they mean. I appreciate the battle cry but I am weary.
I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
When my grandfather was old and blind and my grandmother was still cooking in her own kitchen, I was trying to help set the table for lunch. With my grandmother, even a simple un-cooked lunch of sandwiches involved ten full minutes of table preparation. I was trying to speed things up and wash fewer dishes later, so I grabbed the empty glass from beside my grandfather’s chair in the living room where he sat listening to the television. When she saw me putting that glass at my grandfather’s place, tears welled in my grandmother’s eyes as she replaced it. “I always give him a fresh glass with his meal.”
Maybe a clean fresh glass doesn’t normally count as beauty but it did then. It was as unnecessary as the delightful depots on the trail – his previous glass wasn’t dirty and he would never see the difference between the two glasses. But she knew – she could see – and the fresh glass was one in a long line of her simple, daily, loving acts of unnecessary beauty.
I keep saying “unnecessary.” When you swim two miles and get out of the pool growling for food, it doesn’t matter whether the table is set properly or the food is a balanced meal. You need calories, plain and simple. Calories are necessary; gourmet is not. I can think of other similar but less obvious routines in my life when I opt for the utilitarian and expedient.
But is beauty an option? Is delight really “unnecessary”?
After the presidential election last fall I re-watched the entire West Wing series. I also decided it was time to purchase my own clergy collar shirt. Beauty, fantasy. Beauty, calling.
There is so much to do and sometimes I choose the crappiest way to do it. Once, when friends asked to use our ministry’s fellowship hall for a birthday celebration, I hastily dumped a bag of ice into a cooler and threw the cooler up on a table next to the drinks. The elderly mother of the birthday guest looked at my attempt and asked if there was a nice bowl we could put the ice in instead. In the kitchen, I grumbled to a friend about how unnecessary that was and wasn’t the mother being a little too much – my friend looked at me as if I were an idiot and told me I was being an idiot. Of course the ice should go in a bowl.
Beauty is relative. It’s still beauty.
I haven’t written much since the election. I want to hide constantly. I mostly don’t.
Here’s what I know: The day we hiked High Bridge Trail was brutal, even for a Virginia summer day. The food and water would have been enough to make the hike and make it back to the car. But the delight of the depot – detailed, intentional, unnecessary beauty – is what has stuck with me. Maybe it had more to do with making it than I thought.
Photos © Woody Sherman, used with permission.