Keats knew what he was talking about and so do the Navajo. They have a prayer:
“May I walk with beauty before me.
May I walk with beauty behind me.
May I walk with beauty above me.
May I walk with beauty below me.
May I walk with beauty all around me
As I walk the beauty way.”
The beauty the Navajo seek is the same that Keats wrote about, it’s the invisible force that pulls us towards life and love, reaches out to us in despair and comforts us, opening us up again to the possibilities of love and laughter.
In the Navaho and all other First Nation philosophies there is no separation between spirit and matter or distinction between the natural world and the human. All that lives, breathes and moves is brother or sister to the human and everything has a place, along with the rocks, plains, mountains and rivers, a part of the big wheel of life. Beauty is the truth of what is, not a narrow definition posited by a hierachical view on physical attraction, and the Navajo prayer expresses a desire to recognize and receive beauty, to be co-creator of life itself.
I grew up being the butt of a family joke about being ugly. Apparently my mother knew next to nothing about babies – how they got there, how they came out etc – and she was in labour a long time. I was finally intruduced to the world with the help of forceps and spent the next 24 hours alone in isolation in the nursery. My mother was convinced I was dead, then when they took me to her and she saw my battered purple face, cuts from the forceps and my nose and chin meeting she believed that I was some unwanted child from an unmarried mother they were palming off onto her. That story became the family joke told over and over; needless to say, it didn’t really encourage a lot of my self-esteem.
To me, beauty seemed unattainable for someone as ugly as me. Pretty girls got everything they wanted without really trying, they were adored by fathers and later by men who wanted to marry them. The literature of the day reinforced this assumption on my part and I grew into an angry, strident and politically motivated teenager whose attitude and behaviour drove people away, not my looks. But then, as an adult going back into full-time education at university I discovered Shakespeare’s sonnets and Keats’ poetry. Suddenly everything made sense and, like in ‘Educating Rita’, I devoured literature, studied philosophy for a year and began to explore various religions and New Age philosophies.
When I moved to Scotland after a nasty breakdown I discovered the healing benefits of being beside a fast-flowing stream, in the warmth of sunshine on a crisp spring afternoon, in the shivering dark of the forest on a clear night and in the fingers and toes of my baby grandson. I rejoice in the feel of soft drizzle and mist on my face, in the howl of the wind and the rain that crashes against my window panes. My health is going, as are my looks (which were never as bad as I believed), my body sags and the wrinkles run deeper each year. But I’m part of this place, of its beauty and resilience, its seasons and the ebb and flow of its tides. I have become beauty – and that’s the truth.