Tasting Beauty in the Suburbs

Flashback Friday: This post was originally published on May 10, 2016.

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. 

Ashley’s new book, Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much, is launching on October 23, 2018.

Click the book for more information!

Finding Holy in the Suburbs by Ashley Hales

Ashley Hales

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