On Beauty

I’ve heard professional photographers talk about the shots they’ve taken. The why, the how, the when of a particular picture. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard one speak of the picture that they didn’t take, that they wished they had taken. Perhaps that’s why they are professionals—they’re rarely without a camera and usually ready for that moment of grace when a picture presents itself.

But I imagine that professionals as well as amateurs like myself all have “one that got away”—a picture indelibly etched into the bedrock of the mind, a picture that becomes part of your very existence and that will never be shared with another human being. There is a melancholy and a magic to being the sole witness to a photograph not taken.

My particular picture happened in college. I was in school in Greensboro, North Carolina trying to find the cheapest possible way to get to a dance/theater workshop in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I found that I could drive someone’s car to Birmingham, Alabama for free if I delivered it in good condition, then I could catch a bus from Birmingham to Chattanooga pretty easily. It was roundabout, but I had more time than money and driving the long distance by myself sounded like an adventure.

I don’t remember if I had planned during that drive to gina a cheap motel or campground in which to sleep or if I thought I could make the trip without sleep at all. I remember that I was so very tired I pulled off the highway to sleep a couple of hours and was awakened by a highway patrolman saying I needed to move on. The nap had given me enough energy to continue but not enough to negotiate the nearly signless Alabama backroads. I traveled blind for some time but was unconquered about being lost, certain that a road sign would materialize when I really needed it. Perhaps it was the lazy aimless quality of my travel that allowed me to “see” the picture.

The sun was just rising on a hot, summer, Sunday morning. On the side of thee road across the drainage ditch were a man and a woman. They were an old couple, the man dressed in khaki shirt and pants with a brown fedora pulled low across his brow. His hands were weathered, his skin a deeper brown than shirt and pants, but not so dark as his hat or shoes.

His wife (surely they were married) was completely grey, Grey hair, grey skin, grey dress, grey apron. They were as monochromatic a couple as you could possibly imagine. I might not even have noticed them, have taken them for rocks or bark or dirt except for their activity.

The old man stood with outstretched arms while the woman cut brilliant orange day lilies from the side of the road and lay them gently in a bouquet that was nothing short of spectacular. Two colourless people against a backdrop of brilliant blue sky with orange and green shot round and through them. It was stunning.

I’ve thought of that picture often through the ensuing years and pondered what it was that affected me so. Certainly the juxtaposition of colours was striking but why so much more than a beautiful sunset or a mountain lake or a million other breathtaking images I’ve seen.

If every picture tells a story, then it is surely the story I’ve concocted that has become a part of me. I saw these two people as having lives a colourless as their clothing yet here they were on Sunday morning in a search for beauty and both of them seemed reverent in its presence. That longing for beauty I’ve endowed them with is what haunts me.

Were they different from the rest of us? I think not. We all require beauty to feel whole, complete, peaceful. We search for it for our homes, in a mate, in art, in travel. Those of us who are happy find beauty in the mundane. Those of us who are unhappy find beauty in nothing but gobble and destroy everything in our paths in search of it.

Then I come back to my picture. This couple was gathering beauty that was free to them as it was to everyone, but they were able to appreciate what others might consider common or low. I imagine those day lilies made them as happy as most anything in their lives. I imagine that being connected to that beauty gave them peace. I imagine these two were wise.

I hope I learn what I believe they knew.

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