Tasting Beauty in the Suburbs

Ashley Hales @ The Mudroom  -- Tasting Beauty in the Suburbs

It had been a string of days with too much noise—me, children, politics, social media—so I took to the neighborhood walking paths to work things out in my body, while my husband constructed things out of wood (his own way of working things out). I could feel myself hit walls, get to breaking points, pass the point of no return—whatever cliché I could trot out to say, “I need out.” I’d neglected quiet. And it was almost too late. 

There’s a gift of bodily presence that I’m finally learning in my thirties, when I’m past caring about men looking, or the perfect abs at the gym, or how quickly I’ve bounced back after four babies. My body can move, and movement is both glorious and a gift. So I unwrap it. My toes stretch out to dirt paths—the ones that feel a bit fake smack dab in this master-planned community—but I’m anxious to get myself out into nature, no matter its shape. I walk quickly up the hill, my lungs pounding, my mind blissfully quiet. 

I watch. I listen. I pick a path through California scrub brush and paths already dusty brown even though it’s still spring. I force my mind away from past years in green Rocky Mountain glory and remind myself right where I am. That this place matters, too. I chase the beauty in the broken. I look for meaning in the dirt. I need to believe with my body that out of death comes renewal. But “renewal” seems such a soggy word—the sort of word on jade green spa leaflets—and I need something more than renewal. I need resurrection. Even if it’s for a moment, a jolt out from ordinary.

As I crest the hill, I strain for a faraway glance of the sea. But it is foggy and the chances of seeing a button-sized spot of blue is slim on the best of days, given our distance from the Pacific. So my suburban walking paths will have to do. 

Sometimes solitary walks are full of noticing, and other times, my earbuds give my mind and spirit a bird’s eye view of the mundane so that it is again clothed in holy mystery. Today, I’m listening to Frank Wilczek, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, who is talking about physics, space, and mathematical equations, but he’s using the language of beauty. I’m hooked when he starts talking about asking beautiful questions. He says if there is a creator, than he is an artist. I stop and sit on the edge of some loose gravel. This isn’t some tie-it-up-with-a-bow Christian rhetoric about God-as-Artist, this is a man who understands the operation of the universe in ways I can’t quite fathom, who says the universe is like cosmic jello. He’s making the complex accessible. He’s chasing beauty too. 

He gets at the heart of all my longings in one short sentence: “Having tasted beauty at the heart of the universe, we hunger for more.” I can’t help but turn to the language of scripture—to all the injunctions to “taste and see” that the Lord is good, to story after story of Jesus feeding people, feasting with sinners, turning water into wine. I can’t get over the image of glory as a wedding banquet when we will finally be one with Beauty. But here and now, we are only left with hunger. We are left with noise. We are left with so much gaping space between the “already” here of the Kingdom of God and the “not yet” ache for its consummation. So we fill up the longing, the loss, the ache (whatever you’d like to name it), with more soul clutter. We are scared of the gaping wounds. We are scared of the silence. Finding space and keeping the gaps open is hard and holy work. 

Finding place is so much more complicated than I once thought. I trust that internal journeys extend from my own external ones and that even a short walk in my suburban neighborhood will show me more of God, more beauty, and how to be present here. I’m praying that I’ll find my place. I’m learning how to make a wide berth for the longing, to quiet my spirit from the noise, and to listen. 

It’s a quiet, unseen work—this listening, this footfall on dirt paths, this lifeline of noticing. But like Wilczek’s jello, every little thing leaves a trail across the universe. Like a rock skipping across the lake, the ripples grow. My walk to clear my head might leave bread crumbs behind me for another hungry soul to gather up. 

And it is not my job to stuff beauty into experiences or souls, to force-feed others when they would rather serve the god of busy productivity. It is my job as a writer to chase beauty and sustained attention. To toss out pain and ache as questions that invite possibility. After all, I’m just as enmeshed within this cosmic jello as anyone else. For, we all, as Rilke wrote, are “grasped by what we cannot grasp.” We are held. We have the blinding hope of resurrection, even as we sit in the dark. There is enough beauty in that for a long walk. 

Image Credit: Elizabeth Lies

Ashley Hales

Ashley Hales

Writer and Editor at aahales.com
Ashley Hales holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. But she spends most of her time chasing around her four children and helping her husband plant a church. She writes at AAHales.com and loves to make friends on Twitter.
Ashley Hales

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  • Jo-Ann Sassone

    What a beautiful meditation on the quest to find peace and beauty right where we are, and trying to make that enough for now. Yes, we all hunger for what we are promised in our faith, and yet are anchored to the everyday world with all its challenges. And that tension always requires attention and balance. I hope you are able to make time for many more walks if this kind of deep reflection is the result!

    • Thank you, Jo-Ann — both for your kind words and the push to keep walking. I realize how very good it is for all of me: body, soul and mind. I like what you say about attention and balance, too. Thanks for being here.

  • Ashley! So well-written and beautiful! Our job is to chase beauty and sustained attention- yes to that and to finding our way as we go for walks on dirt paths.

    • Thank you so much Grace! I think there is something so right about all the big ideas coming through the small, daily moments.

  • So lovely. In the midst of all the noise, I love being reminded that there is beauty out there, that God has embedded – even in the macro and micro of His creation – a beauty for us to discover and then be in awe of.

    • Thank you Michele. Yes, the macro and the micro — that is precisely it and such a fitting coda to this piece. I hadn’t thought of it like that, and it’s so true.

  • Loved this.

    • Thank you Kelley. Thank you for commenting and being here.

  • Jody Ohlsen Collins

    Ashley, you captured this search for whitespace so very well…harder (I think) to find in Southern California than anywhere else. Fifty plus years ago there was still the fragrance of orange blossoms floating in the air and ice plants lining the sandy soil on the way to the beach…now when I visit, there is nothing but a press and a crush of humanity.
    You said it well,
    “But here and now, we are only left with hunger. We are left with noise. We are left with so much gaping space between the “already” here of the Kingdom of God and the “not yet” ache for its consummation. So we fill up the longing, the loss, the ache (whatever you’d like to name it), with more soul clutter. We are scared of the gaping wounds. We are scared of the silence. Finding space and keeping the gaps open is hard and holy work.”
    The green expanses of my Seattle neighborhood make getting away to quiet easier…but I don’t necessarily always heed the call. Thank you for this reminder.

    • Thank you Jody, for your faithful presence here. It is harder in some places to find ways and spots to connect to God. But I firmly believe that he hallows every space. I hope you find some physical and spiritual space to breathe.

  • Ashley, I love this so much. I really want to look for beauty in the ordinary, in the dirt. So often I just busy myself completely forgetting to slow down and enjoy. Your last sentences really grab me, “We are held. We have the blinding hope of resurrection, even as we sit in the dark. There is enough beauty in that for a long walk.” AMEN Blessings to you, Ashley! 🙂 xo

    • Thank you so much Gayl. Thank you for your encouragement and presence here, as always. You make a difference. I pray you’ll get some space to slow down and take delight.