“Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing,” wrote the Danish-French Impressionist Camille Pissarro in what sounds like his own version of a beatitude. When I read that, I thought: What a glorious philosophy to undertake in my everyday life. To find beauty in the humble places and people and things that so many, including myself, so often overlook.
When I look at Pissarro’s painting Sarcleurs Dans Les Champs (pictured above), I wonder how many other people would either not notice such a scene in real life or would barely register common field hands at work. How many would pay attention and consider them beautiful and worthy of immortalizing in a work of art? Certainly Pissarro loved this kind of scene as a subject, as did another Dutch artist, Vincent Van Gogh. Many of his works are of peasant laborers, as well as wheat fields and sunflowers. One cannot help but think of Van Gogh and how unsuccessful he was during his own lifetime because others could not see the value in his paintings and they remained unsold (save one bought by his brother Theo). Only now do his works have value, auctioning off in the millions. Why? Because now we see what Van Gogh saw: beautiful things in humble places, even in his lonely room at the Saint-Rémy clinic.
It’s easy to find the beautiful in nature or works of art, but do we notice beautiful things in the humble places of our society and community?
How many paintings do you see of a Wal-Mart employee? Or in a cleaning person?
“To me,” Dorothea Lange once said, “beauty appears when one feels deeply; and art is an act of total attention.” It was her photographs that exulted the overlooked and the forgotten; causing others to see what they blindly overlooked: those ruined by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. She found clearly found transcendent beauty in the humble places and documented with great humanity and compassion.
To see the beauty in the humble, we must first love for it’s only when we love that we are truly capable of seeing beauty everywhere. When we love, we feel deeply, feel tenderly and that transforms how we perceive the world around us, including other people. As Van Gogh wrote. “There is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”
Whenever we invest something with love, it has far more value and meaning to us. In our kitchen is a simple bowl of gray and blue, with a stem with leaves and blueberries on it. In the past, whenever we’ve gone on trips, I love to find local potters and support their artistry by buying a work that I connect with. My love of pottery stems from the fact that it is made by hand and is unique and different. What I love about this particular bowl was that I purchased it on our honeymoon in Maine, so that now, whenever I look at it on the shelf, I am reminded of all of the meaning behind it. Because of those memories, I am far more invested in that bowl than our daily cereal bowls because I have invested this one with the significance of remembrance.
In one of our rooms, I have a woven basket from Africa and within that basket are a collection of smooth river stones. To many who would even notice them, it would just appear to be a basket of rocks, but for me, each one has come from somewhere that we have been. Whenever I find a small, smooth stone that catches my attention, I pocket it as a kind of souvenir. The same goes for sea shells, pieces of coral, pine combs, even unusually shaped pieces of wood. This is something I began during my exploration of the woods behind our house as a child. While I often found school to be more like a prison (being told what was important to think and know), I found freedom in nature and in books. I tended to spend a lot of time in the woods with a book in hand. There I would find all manner of treasure: snake skins, bird feathers, abandoned bird’s nests, an empty hornet’s nest, a small animal’s skull, or a turtle’s shell. To me such discoveries were the stuff of wonderment. My shelves were filled with books and my collections.
It was only years later, as I read about the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, that I discovered that he, too, collected such ordinary things (in the eyes of many) but were extraordinary gifts to us. He loved the ordinary to the point of writing poems about them, including one entitled “Ode to My Socks.”
How many of us would write such an ode?
Are we poet enough to notice the beautiful in something as humble as a pair of socks?
Yet how much different would our world appear to us if we did view such humble things in such a light? To see even the modest as miraculous? To look deeply into objects, especially those that are discarded (of which there are a proliferation in our world) and find the poetry in it? To find poetry in the old clothes that are a bit tattered and torn and stained? The songwriter Tom Waits created an entire collection of photographs of oil stains. How many of us stop to notice the way sunlight plays on an old, tossed out bottle? Or to understand the true value of something because you look at it with surprise and not indifference?
Or do we see the wondrous worth of the clerk at the gas station? The garbage collector? In someone we often do not see because we fail to even look?
But I do not want to be one of those who go through life with eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear and hearts that do not beat with wonder and awe and the miraculousness of the ordinary and plain. I want to be aware and see the beautiful things in humble places so that I, too, can be “blessed” by the experience of living in such a mindful manner.