Finding beauty

Thursday, July 19, 2007

July 19, 2007

Dear Leslie,

Notes flew off fretboards like tiny choreographed explosions. From the stage at the Luther Carson Four Rivers Center, Nickel Creek produced sounds that have been called progressive bluegrass but defy being cornered by words.

Bill Monroe could be turning over in his grave, but I suspect he's tapping his foot.

The members of Nickel Creek are only in their 20s, but their musicianship is prodigious. Sometimes their music is a torrent of notes and sometimes a meditation on the beauty in just a well-chosen few.

To hear musicians play this well and this well together is thrilling. It altered my state of mind, and I suspect had a similar effect on the nearly 2,000 others in the audience.

DC and I were in Paducah, Ky., Friday night to see Nickel Creek and our friend Carolyn. We sat next to a couple visiting from New Orleans. When we asked the inevitable question the husband smiled and said yes, their house was flooded. When people asked that question the first year after Hurricane Katrina all they could manage was to nod. Now he could tell us about swimming away from their house in 10 feet of water.

They didn't know who Nickel Creek is. They came to see the magnificent hall.

Carolyn pointed out the daughter of someone she works with seated across the way. She was skin diving during the Indonesian tsunami. The waves that killed so many passed harmlessly over her head. To her each day must be priceless.

Carolyn is an art teacher whose first job after graduation was on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. I visited her there one October nearly 30 years ago. The high-plains wind and cold made the reservation seem like a lonely place for my friend to begin her life as an adult, but she loved the children there.

Carolyn has taught art in Paducah for many years now. When they've grown up a bit and recognize her at a restaurant where they're waitressing their way through college just like she did, former students greet her with the special warmth saved for those who have shown us some beauty in the world. Carolyn cares about teaching art, but art is the means for wrapping her arms around the children she teaches.

Early Saturday morning she learned that one of her former students, now 15 years old, had died suddenly the day before. Carolyn was distraught.

So much about the world is joyful, almost overwhelmingly beautiful. So much is unexplainable, unfathomable.

Finding beauty in a building, a performance, a work of art, in the soul of another person can be an antidote to loneliness and sadness. Beauty consoles and reminds us that tragedy has a counterpart in joy and that one could not exist without the other.

For 30 years the German artist Wolfgang Laib has collected pollen from plants near his home in the Black Forest. Filling two jars of dandelion pollen might take him a year. When he has enough of one kind of pollen he might begin to create a 3-inch-thick field of bright yellow dust on the floor of a museum or sometimes in a cathedral.

The sacramental glow and smell of pollen on the floor of an ancient cathedral takes years of care to create. The sacred grist of life is fragile and beautiful.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is managing editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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