This place could be beautiful

Shanghai Falling (Fuxing Lu Demolition) 2002, Greg Girard

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

— “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith in Waxwing via Hannah Rosefield

Photo: Shanghai Falling (Fuxing Lu Demolition) 2002, Greg Girard

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Light in New York City

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One of the first things I noticed after moving to New York was the light. Light is, typically, an amorphous and shapeless phenomenon. It might bathe you in its glow, cast long blurry shadows, blind you with its glare, or scorch you with its heat–but nevertheless it generally maintains a formless, fuzzy quality. In New York City, there is no such fuzziness: here, the light travels through a linear forest of skyscrapers getting progressively more bisected into sharp angles, rectangles, polygons, and shapes of all sorts which are cast in sharp relief onto the structure walls. Alternatively, the light from the setting sun may strike a series of windows, which in turn reflect the light back onto a building across the street, ad infinitum, casting a melange of jewel-like projections onto the structure walls around you.

I love these architectural-atmospheric interactions because they enliven even the most blase of buildings, turning them into scintillating canvases or real-life abstract palettes like something out of “The Dot and the Line.” In such an ironic and acerbic city, it’s a sincere little joy that I can latch onto in the late afternoons.

New York Buildings

Breath and sky

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One a recent evening I stood on a curb in Levent, awaiting the right bus to arrive and transport me home. I was taking frequent deep sighs and inducing shallow yawns. Although I’ve never before had asthma, managing asthmatic symptoms–shallowness of breath, the oxygen seemingly caught in my throat–is becoming a daily chore. In terms of air pollution, Istanbul is one of the most polluted cities in the world, and it has been getting to me. Recently spending the better part of a week in Tehran, an even more polluted place than Istanbul, might not have helped matters.

While I tried to regain my breath, I pondered the sunsetty sky. It was purple gradating cleanly and indecipherably into pinkish hues.

“The same dirty air that is sabotaging my lungs,” I thought, “is creating the beautiful colors of the sunset.”

How many things in life are like this–creating suffering and beauty at the same time?

A beautiful pain

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I believe every city has a certain essence. You can’t necessarily put it into words, but once you live there you know it. For instance, the essence of Washington, D.C. (at least in my experience) was self-importance. Everyone in DC is wrapped up in affairs and doings, business and busy-ness that they see as profound and important–whether it really is or not.

Istanbul also has an essence, and for me the essence of Istanbul is: a beautiful pain in the ass.

As I said, Istanbul is a universe of chaos: you can be going about your day and be detoured by an angry communist protest and a destructive soccer riot. On May 1st, International Labor Day, the city shut down public transportationcausing people to cancel plans in the city and even miss their flights. Then there are the daily inconveniences: overcrowded metros, choked up traffic, belligerent taxis, aggressive salespeople, various kinds of unwanted attention. There are times when I’ve been put over the edge. This article at Time Out Istanbul sums up the situation in a succinct list of pros–including unceasing opportunities and ample air connections–and cons–concrete jungle, ugly development, mass insanity, and empty illusion.

But when you find the moments of stillness, of calm, they seem all the more beautiful and uplifting. It can come to you slowly, like taking a leisurely ferry to Üsküdar and seeing the Maiden’s Tower superimposed against Sultanahmet and Galata Tower, or suddenly and without warning, like turning a corner and coming face to face with an epic Bosphorus vista. It may be dependable, like the daily view of the sunset from Galata bridge, or it may be fickle, the usually charmingly dilapidated streets of Karaköy made grubby on an overcast day. Or the other day, when I went to meet a friend at their offices in Levent.4. The street was plain, the usual tunnel of cement with few trees, but when I was admitted past the office’s gate I was met with a luscious green garden surrounding a masmavi (very deep blue) pool. Going through a door or turning the corner, you never really know what you’re going to get.

At least, that’s how I see it now. I’ve been thinking about this city a lot as I’m planning on moving there this year. Will I be able to put up with all the pains for the sake of the beauty? Either way, I’m curious to find out, or perhaps to discover a deeper essence of the city.

Photo walks: Meditate and create

The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.
–Robert Louis Stevenson, “Happy Thought” (From A Child’s Garden of Verses)

Photo walks are when I pick up my camera, take a walk to some familiar place, and go looking for photos. I have done it for years now–my first photo-walk photos were taken on a camera that stored the pics on floppy disks. The photos I take on these walks have never been spectacular, just glimpses of ordinary things that seem extraordinary at the time, such as a crane resting on the river, or the reflection of leaves on a windowpane…

A childish imp with rusty fingers….

A lavender and green ladder of flowers to the sky…

The shape and rhythm of raindrops sprinkling the canal…

The dancing speckled emerald glow of sunlight filtering through wind-kissed leaves…

Balloons mimicking the sky and puffy white clouds…

And lots of other little, ordinary things.

Photos are not the purposes of a photo walk but a mean to the ends of reconnecting with my past, getting in touch with my environment, rekindling my creative juices, and meditating. The camera is just an excuse to reflect on my environment and exercise my creative eye.

The best part is that during and after one of these walks, my mind feels extraordinarily clear, calm, and peaceful. I highly recommend you create your own ritual that helps you meditate and create.

All photos by: Me

Beauty

“Salads are more useful than flowers,” said the housekeeper.
“You are wrong,” replied the bishop. “The beautiful is as useful as the useful.” Then after a pause, he added, “More so, perhaps.”

— Victor Hugo, Le Misérables

Is the bishop right? I think so. Useful things may give us a means to live, but beautiful things give us a reason to live. Utility is at least as important as beauty.

Top: Portrait of a Woman by Leonardo da Vinci; Bottom: manuscript of “Bright Star” by John Keats

Beauty

Our youth [will] dwell in a land of health, amid fair sights and sounds, and receive the good in everything; and beauty, the effluence of fair works, shall flow into the eye and ear, like a health-giving breeze from a purer region, and insensibly draw the soul from earliest years into likeness and sympathy with the beauty of reason.

–Plato, The Republic, Book III

If we are surrounded by beauty, will we become beautiful ourselves?