On the Conundrum of Beauty

When I was very young
The canna lilies bloomed
To mark the end of summer.

Now they flaunt their blossom
All the warmth and light around
And I am left behind
To write poetry.

…See, kids, this your brain on long bus commutes through the North York suburbs. Always make sure you bring a comic book along to read instead. I recommend the Adventures of Plastic-Man, if you can find it in the trade.

Anyway. Those lines appear here and now courtesy a long walk through the unexpected loveliness of an October twilight – a strange summer evening out of time. My currently brisk and action-oriented psyche doesn’t quite know what to make of this whole weather situation, so I pacified it with the Rock/Psychedelia playlist on the iPod (“One night in Bangkok makes the hard man humble/Not much between despair and ecstasy…” ) and carried on.

I have the great good fortune to live not far from one of Toronto’s wealthiest neighborhoods, the old-money part of town. The beauty and serenity of the wide, tree-lined streets is of course a given; what really floors me is the…rightness of it all. This is so manifestly how life should be lived that on first entering it – quite by accident – as a wide-eyed downtown rat just trying to find a way home through the wider city, I quite naturally and un-self-consciously dubbed it ‘Fairyland’.

And so it has remained to me. The funny part is that for the most part, in most important respects, I am still that downtown rat – a sociological liberal, champion of the underdog, sworn enemy of complacency in every form. Except this one. Yes, it’s entirely possible to feel horribly angry and ashamed. that people in, say, Darfur or Haiti don’t have these elegantly untouchable streets to flee along; that unholy numbers of people right here in this city are condemned to be sneered at, lost, forgotten, quietly rot away for want of the contents of  just one of those brick or stone palaces – hell, one of their garages.

But…but…how do you tell the people that already have, that have made such a manifestly wonderful use of what they’ve been given, that it’s a wrong thing? How do you deny yourself a taste, just out of spite or guilt at not having the whole? I was a pretty scruffy little character myself, back in the day…but when I walked through Fairyland, somehow such niceties as the rent being overdue faded away into unimportance, just as long as it was there and I had the ability to understand it, or at least imagine that I did. Foolish, yes…just like the fancies I wove around the canna lilies.

You begin to appreciate the genius of a Jane Austen, who was able to so delicately excise away the foolishness without disturbing the very real worth and beauty. The people – and there have been many of consequence, notably Charlotte Bronte and Mark Twain – that accuse her of being shallow, avoiding the real passions…with all due respect, I think they’re missing the point entirely. It’s not that her target is less significant; only that it’s subtler, more elusive. The skill required to detach Fairyland from reality is a very, very meaningful sort of skill indeed.

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