Unbidden Beauty

The urbane  residents of New York City like to appear austerely bored at their hometown’s famous sites: the Empire State Building is an overrated tourist-trap; Times Square, garish; and Wall Street is a street – without a wall.

But though my first few months in the Big Apple convinced me that Times Square’s flashing advertisements are not sublime, the excitement of walking the crowded streets of my city has not dissipated. Four or five miles is an easy afternoon walk, with each mile producing a dozen places I vow to revisit and dozens more individuals who seem to embody stories both tragic and tender.

And I must confess, I quite shamelessly listen to strangers’ conversations. Many conversations are in languages I cannot even identify; others are simply an incoherent agglomeration of curses. But occasionally, there is more.

I recently walked up Broadway, through a district known as SoHo. (SoHo stands for “South of Houston,” a street that separates the lovely Greenwich Village from the hipster fashionites of southern Manhattan. The first syllable of “Houston” rhymes with “Faust”. Yes, our street is older than the Texan city.) Pedestrian traffic was busy as we approached one of our first temperate weekends of the year. The advertising traffic kept pace: spring models dominated storefronts, featuring prominent assets and old promises of fresh beauty.

Such overt appeals always leave me feeling dirty, like an inadvertent voyeur, and I began to wonder why I had decided to walk through this particular part of the city. I stopped at a busy crosswalk for the Houston taxis to rush past. The conversation of two men, temporarily stopped by the same traffic, floated past.

“…got pregnant after a one-night stand. And she decided to keep the baby.”

“What?” A pause and a laugh, more unbelieving than derisive. “That’s crazy!”

“Yeah,” responded the first, “But it’s kinda beautiful, too.”

Traffic stopped. My feet moved me across the street. But my mind stood still.

The billboards of beautiful body parts that surrounded me were, in that moment, put in their proper place: they do not contain beauty in any meaningful or lasting sense. But what this woman did was beautiful. She had grasped beauty in its most unbidden moment, and her decision contained more beauty than all the advertisements in Times Square.

My city trafficks in beauty, but for all its advertising and fashion weeks, it does not know beauty. Seductive poses and well-formed bodies may point vaguely in the direction of beauty. But true beauty does not titillate and taunt, first seducing us then leaving us unfulfilled. Those advertised bodies seem to promise that we, too, can enjoy beauty. Instead, they leave us with a snapshot of a seemingly perfect world populated by perfect people – a world we are never invited to enter.

But beauty was meant to serve the opposite purpose. Life is often tinged with sadness; there is such suffering all around us. Beauty’s grace is given to remind us that suffering does not have the final word. Beauty slips, unbidden, into some of the darkest human moments, a reminder that even the most difficult sacrifice can bring new life. That is beautiful.

Katherine Bliss Teubl, a grad student at NYU, is an Adjunct Professor at the King’s College where she coaches British Parli debate. She enjoys traveling internationally, especially in China, and never turns down a chance to go rock climbing or play Scrabble.

7 comments on this post.
  1. Howard Merrell:

    This post is a beautiful reminder.
    Thanks

  2. robert m. peters:

    I passed more than once during a conference a busy intersection on Canal Street in New Orleans; there on one of the corners was an old black preacher proclaiming the Gospel, God’s voice in his vernacular and his idiom. He was there all day, not buttonholing or passing our tracts, simply proclaiming the Gospel in his sonorous voice. Hundreds is not thousands of pedestrians encountered that voice and its Message that day; how many of them heard that voice I cannot say. My day was certainly better for again being reminded that God is found deep inside the devil’s strongholds. It also engendered a sobering thought: in that day, standing before our Lord, some of those who passed that way on that day will lament that they had never heard the Gospel; to which our Lord will reply, “But yes, my Voice was there at a corner on Canal Street in New Orleans; I had given you ears with which to hear, and my spirit was there, black and sonorous; I called and you passed Me by.”

    We something, yea, perhaps ofttimes, miss grace and its potential blessings; and the missing thereof has eternal consequences.

  3. Emily:

    What a beautiful meditation — and nostalgic, too, as I loved my few years in The City and never got tired of the atmosphere or the snippets of conversation. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. Piyali:

    This is an incredible article, Katy! Wow, what poignant writing you have.

  5. Taylor:

    Thank you for an eloquent reminder of an oft-forgotten truth.

  6. Matthew Zehnder:

    Katie, I know its not directly pertinent to your central point, but your comments about the city reminded me of some remarks from Lewis Mumford’s autobiography; I love the poetry.

    “Yes: I loved the great bridges and walked back and forth over them, year after year. But as often happens with repeated experiences, one memory stands out above all others: a twilight hour in early spring— it was March, I think—when, starting from the Brooklyn end, I faced into the west wind sweeping over the rivers from New Jersey. The ragged, slate-blue cumulus clouds that gathered over the horizon left open patches for the light of the waning sun to shine through, and finally, as I reached the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge, the sunlight spread across the sky, forming a halo around the jagged mountain of skyscrapers, with the darkened loft buildings and warehouses huddling below in the foreground. The towers, topped by the golden pinnacles of the new Woolworth Building, still caught the light even as it began to ebb away. Three-quarters of the way across the Bridge I saw the skyscrapers in the deepening darkness become slowly honeycombed with lights until, before I reached the Manhattan end, these buildings piled up in a dazzling mass against the indigo sky.

    Here was my city, immense, overpowering, flooded with energy and light; there below lay the river and the harbor, catching the last flakes of gold on their waters, with the black tugs, free from their barges, plodding dockward, the ferryboats lumbering from pier to pier, the tramp steamers slowly crawling toward the sea, the Statue of Liberty erectly standing, little curls of steam coming out of boat whistles or towered chimneys, while the rumbling elevated trains and trolley cars just below me on the Bridge moved in a relentless tide to carry tens of thousands homeward. And there was I, breasting the March wind, drinking in the city and the sky, both vast, yet both contained in me, transmitting through me the great mysterious will that had made them and the promise of the new day that was still to come.

    …I have carried the sense of that occasion, along with two or three other similar moments, equally enveloping and pregnant, through my life: they remain, not as a constant presence, but as a momentary flash reminding me of heights approached and scaled, as a mountain climber might carry with him the memory of some daring ascent, never to be achieved again. Since then I have courted that moment more than once on the Brooklyn Bridge; but the exact conjunction of weather and light and mood and inner readiness has never come back. That experience remains alone: a fleeting glimpse of the utmost possibilities life may hold for man.”

  7. Katherine Teubl:

    Matt, thanks for sharing that piece! What an incredible piece of writing. He paints it so clearly: the unfolding evening, the nostalgia and pride, the desire to go back and recapture it. What a scene.

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