One of my favorite walks in the Bay Area is right across the Golden Gate Bridge, in the Marin Headlands. As I hike up the steep wooded trail, to the top of Hawk Hill, raven’s croak and hawks soar overhead. The reward for this climb is a spectacularly sweeping view; on one side, the jewel box city that is San Francisco gleams like a silver Oz in the distance.
On the other side, the wild rolling landscape of the Headlands meets the Pacific Ocean stretching on to the edge of the sky. In the afternoon light, sun stars dance on the water and the Farallon Islands hover mysteriously on the horizon. Standing and gazing out at the land, the water, the sky, never fails to deeply move me and fill me with both a sense of complete peace and profound awe. I cannot imagine anything more beautiful.
It is this experience of beauty that most often catches my attention when I am out wandering and is what draws me back to the landscape time and time again. Now, I know that beauty is one of those words, like love and friendship, that has gotten watered down in our culture from casual use, leaving us with impoverished sense of what these words mean. But the essence of the meaning is just as important as it ever has been.
The experience of beauty can come from many sources; the beauty in nature, a beautiful painting, an exquisitely moving poem, a gorgeous musical passage, the taste of a fresh peach, the beauty in an act of great kindness. These experiences move us and change us by affecting us at a very deep level. True beauty, I believe, has transformative power. It can be a threshold that takes us from one place to another—from hurt to healing, from famished to nurtured. The experience of beauty can summon not only great joy but deep sorrow—it works like a probe that brings all kinds of emotions up from the deepest place.
I recently listened to an interview with the late Irish poet, John O'Donahue, where he discussed his thoughts on the inner landscape of beauty. He said that we feel most alive in the presence of what is beautiful, and that beauty enables the heart and reminds us of what is infinite in us. He even talked about how the experience of true beauty can be an experience of homecoming. He asked listeners to think about what comes to mind when they close their eyes and visualize beauty, reminding us that beauty and glamour are not the same—that beauty isn't all about nice loveliness but about an immerging fullness, a greater sense of grace, a deeper sense of belonging.
Yes. That’s the experience I’m talking about.
So, what does this have to do with writing? When I am getting to know a character, one of the questions I always ask myself is, "What does he/she love?" Once I’m able to answer this question, I know so much more about who this person (character) is. I think two equally revealing questions might be, " What does she see when she closes her eyes and thinks of beauty?” And “How does the experience of beauty inform and change her?” They are questions I plan to incorporate in my future getting-to-know-you ritual.
O’Donahue reminds us that the root of the word beauty is the word calling. Beauty calls to us but also can remind us of our calling by evoking what moves us.
You can listen to the entire 51-minute interview with John O’Donahue at :
Take good care,