TGB reader John Starbuck recently forwarded to me an old issue of Brain Pickings, Maria Popova's weekly blog post of her thoughtful writing on books, art, philosophy, the internet and, over the years, just about anything that captures her interest and attention.
The operative word in that paragraph is “thoughtful.”
I recalled that article immediately because it had given me a perspective on a certain essay from a book that sits on my favorites shelf, The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader and the Imagination, by Ursula K. Le Guin.
The book gained favorite status as soon as I read it the first time, when it was published in 2004. The essays go back in Le Guin's life even farther, the oldest having been published in 1988.
On re-reading it this week, what surprised me is that in all the years I've been writing Time Goes By, since 2004, I've have never mentioned the book or – most particularly - the essay that Popova featured in 2014.
To rectify that oversight, I'm going to give you a taste of it today. It is titled, “Dogs, Cats, and Dancers: Thoughts About Beauty” and it is about all those things. All those things and another omitted from the title, growing old.
For some perspective, you should know that Ms. Le Guin is speaking from life, from experience. She was born in 1929; this essay was written in 1992, when she was 63.
Selections from Dogs, Cats, and Dancers: Thoughts About Beauty by Ursula K. Le Guin.
“One rule of the game, in most times and places, is that it's the young who are beautiful. The beauty ideal is always a youthful one. This is partly simple realism. The young are beautiful. The whole lot of 'em. The older I get, the more clearly I see that and enjoy it.”
Le Guin tells us it's hard to look in the mirror, wondering who that old lady is and what happened to her waist. “How large can a knuckle get,” she wonders before it becomes a kneejoint?”
”And yet I look at men and women my age and older, and their scalps and knuckles and spots and bulges, though various and interesting, don't affect what I think of them. Some of these people I consider to be very beautiful, and others I don't.
“For old people, beauty doesn't come free with the hormones, the way it does for the young. It has to do with bones. It has to do with who the person is. More and more clearly it has to do with what shines through those gnarly faces and bodies.”
Further on, Le Guin discusses how, even though children supposedly look forward to becoming adults, puberty isn't always welcome to them. "When I was thirteen and fourteen," she writes, "I felt like a whippet suddenly trapped inside a great lumpy St. Bernard. I wonder if boys don't often feel something like that as they get their growth."
"The change is hard," she writes. "And then it happens again, when you're sixty or seventy."
"But all the same, there's something about me that doesn't change, hasn't changed, through all the remarkable, exciting, alarming, and disappointing transformations my body has gone through. There is a person there who isn't only what she looks like, and to find her and know her I have to look through, look in, look deep. Not only in space, but in time."
Speaking of her mother, who died at age 83, Le Guin wonders how we remember, how we see a beloved person who has died - particularly, as in the case of her mother, one who was, at the end, in pain from cancer, her body misshapen from disease.
”It is a true image, yet it blurs, it clouds, a truer image. It is one memory among fifty years of memories of my mother. It is the last in time. Beneath it, behind it is a deeper, complex, every-changing image, made from imagination, hearsay, photographs, memories.
“I see a little red-haired child in the mountains of Colorado, a sad-faced, delicate college girl, a kind, smiling young mother, a brilliantly intellectual woman, a peerless flirt, a serious artist, a splendid cook – I see her rocking, weeding, writing, laughing – I see the turquoise bracelets on her delicate, freckled arm – I see, for a moment, all that at once, I glimpse what no mirror can reflect, the spirit flashing out across the years, beautiful.
“That must be what the great artists see and paint. That must be why the tired, aged faces in Rembrandt's portraits give us such delight: they show us beauty not skin-deep but life-deep.
“In Brian Lanker's album of photographs I Dream a World, face after wrinkled face tells us that getting old can be worth the trouble if it gives you time to do some soul making.”
You've noticed, I'm sure, that I've left out the dogs and cats and dancers of the essay's title. They are absolutely germane, they enrich the subject further and so these excerpts are not entirely fair.
If you want to read the rest of Ms. Le Guin's essay, not to mention others in the book, it is available at all the usual online sources.