THIS MORNING I took a walk down my valley road. Fall is coming to a close: the cornflower blue sky, the final few yellow leaves shaking in the wind, dried up bits blowing into the stream. Here we go.
Even from within my body’s subtle bracing of what’s to come—another long, sad winter in the Catskills—I craved the open sound and texture of the woods, which softened the dread and, what do you know, made me happy. I guess you could call it beauty—that lilting pleasure to be had in the form of things, the way something reaches back and sees you standing there. My favorite poet Anne Sexton said, “Once I was beautiful. Now I am myself.” I would say that beauty is what makes me feel like myself: Food, bodies, trees, words, my little blue house, friends, clothes, the perfect glass of red wine, lining my body up with an on-coming tennis ball, zazen. Watching people drive their cars around a corner in the mall parking lot, having their thoughts. All these humans beings pulling these crazy human stunts. Nutty. Beautiful.
So what is it about the way loveliness abounds these days that just feels so….icky? I mean, why shouldn’t pixied girls from San Francisco sell their homemade aprons on Etsy? What’s the matter with artisanal pickles? There’s nothing inherently bad about handsome young bucks wearing old man shoes, or urban intellectuals raising chickens, and I think little birds’ nests are neat, too, and sepia-crinkled photos with hints of turquoise are very soothing, and it’s true that room vignettes of apparently disparate objects (say, a horse statue, a bean-filled mason jar, and a vintage walkman) in a person’s house can feel so….harmonious….and online pantry porn gets me totally hot, and it’s like, wow, how does that beautiful, homeschooling woman with the vintage clothes and the intriguing bearded husband and the kids and the dynamite website about how she is dressing said kids do anything at all besides futz with her….situation? Like, is she a real person? And how do all these foodies not…get…fat?
Those are the things I really want to know. That, and why all this bounty of the things I love makes my skin crawl.
I have been noting my reactions to this deep and demanding domestilust for some time, and I know I am not alone, nor are my gripes particularly new. There’s Portlandia, for instance, that clever (ish) TV parody of preciousness, Portland style, the opening scene of which exploits our irritation with that couple (we all know/are) who demands papers on the chicken they are contemplating ordering. Or the Brooklyn hipsters backlash (i.e., www.ihatehipsters.blogspot.com, among others), which is often a legitimate response to the gentrification (not pretty) of Brooklyn and other areas where urban aesthetes flock, as well as pretty hilarious teasing (i.e., Brian Williams’ take on the borough of Kings County). In a recent New Yorker review of a Brooklyn restaurant, Ariel Levy qualified her recommendation by suggesting, “If your tolerance for Brooklyn preciousness is low, limit yourself to dinner and resist the urge to check out the hotel rooms upstairs: they are lovely in a reclaimed-wood-and-exposed-brick kind of way, but the twee factor is pretty intense.” Indeed, my tolerance for feeling suffocated by a hyphentated-set-of-predicatable-aesthetics-which-frankly-I-find-simultaneously- hyper-arousing-and-nauseating is very low. And nose-diving daily.
Lest I give the impression that I am just jealous of all these gorgeous young tastemakers and their groovy lives, allow me to clarify: In fact, I am sick with envy. I often feel so edgy and kind of gnarly and mouthy and raw that I long for the apparent effortlessness of these people’s ability to create a cocoon of cool, a sensory paradise. But this, one could say, is a personal problem. And I would agree. However, a more cosmic jealousy also belies our current obsession with beauty. Even among a relatively small and rarefied clan, this incessant visual curating can create more of a disconnect than the heart-felt articulation of our human landscape which I think is intended by all this attention to aesthetic detail vis-à-vis what we eat, wear, design, and inhabit. Look: I am expressing my humanity by using a log for a chair. And a devilishly well-made $2,000 thing for another chair. That is the spectrum of my life-palate. Do you see me? Do you see who I am? We all have a tender need for to be seen, and recognized, but is this the right approach? Are we missing something? Or adding something? There is the magic of things as they are, a tree by the river, say, colliding with my idea of a tree by the river, which brings me and my big ideas into view so completely I disappear, filling the universe with the tree and all its orange light. But then there are things that, because of the way we use them or what we expect of them, actually ape things as they are—the quintessential chipped enamel bowl dying (can you hear the wah-wah-wah bummer sound?) on a shelf, out of context, projected upon. And I die a little, too.
So, setting my jealousy aside.
I think there’s something else wrong with this picture.
Take, for instance, Kinfolk, the magazine and “growing community of artists with a shared interest in small gatherings.” I happened upon this gang through Heidi Swanson’s blog 101 Cookbooks, which is, indeed, very beautiful, but seems to know its place as a “healthy food journal,” with the occasional home-erotic “Favorites” list thrown in. My husband, a psychotherapist with an appetite for eating, but not for any of the shenanigans around food, and whose bread and butter involves the vast and varied (not always pretty, but beautiful, according to him) human parade, keeps reminding me that foodies and hipsters are most definitely not taking over the world, and thinks I am a bit weird for worrying about such things. He’s right, of course, and ok, fine, India’s population of 1.2 billion has bigger fish to fry than the co-opting of real things as really real things, but Starbucks is opening their first store in Mumbai this month, so let us not underestimate the voracity of global trends. And the squishiness of the human heart and its willingness to succumb to the pressure to belong. I mean, coffee in India? Really?
But I digress.
Kinfolk magazine, focused on the art of “natural” entertaining, founded by the photographer and impeccably stylish individual Nathan William (who declined to be interviewed for this essay), reads like a parody of pretty. It is a gorgeous quarterly book, filled with photos of beige hemp-y napkins, floral wallpaper, fried eggs, blue china, skinny people eating pies, or as one commentator called it, “beards and chambray.” They also have a website, of course, a click-and-pant-fest of their lit-glass-jars-swaying-in-the-wind parties and the dinners they sponsor at “heritage apartments” and similarly hued spaces around the world. And boy, Kinfolk sure do take themselves serious! This is from their “manifesto”:
“We recognize that there is something about a table shared by friends, not just a wedding or once-a-year holiday extravaganza, that anchors our relationships and energizes us. We have come together to create Kinfolk as our collaborative way of advocating the natural approach to entertaining that we love.
“Every element of Kinfolk—the features, photography, and general aesthetics—are consistent with the way we feel entertaining should be: simple, uncomplicated, and less contrived [!]. Kinfolk is the marriage of our appreciation for art and design and our love for spending time with family and friends.”
And then there’s the video.
This film-ette features an adorable/geeky 20-something girl with braids, high-waisted shorts, saltwater sandals, paddling a canoe (in a manner of speaking) to her gathering across the lake. The girlish narrator, in some variation of a Commonwealth accent, says:
“Bring yourself. Take your time. The food will bring the minds together, as foreign as they might be. Friends will be found in a shared experience without need of history or gestures known. If you have a bit of hunger, bring that as well. We will not wear our masks here…..”
The braided one makes it to the shore and her friends all look back at the camera from their long, soft-focus table.
(This reminds me of a story. Soen Nakagawa Roshi, one of the first Japanese Zen teachers to land on our fine shores, was at a party hosted by a set of early Zen students and supporters. He put on a mask and wouldn’t take it off. It wasn’t long before the joke became unsettling.)
Please, don’t get me wrong. I love having people over and feeding them. I like things to look good, too. Last year, cooking my very first big Thanksgiving, I drooled all over Vintage Ebay and Etsy, spending way too much time and money on finding the perfect tablecloth, the silver, the works. I get it! Nesting is fun, and it feels good. But within reason, people. Isn’t there more to life? The New York Times recently reported on a new housing project in Oakland, CA that is not only super-cool, but is also structurally sound and actually appropriate for the healthy habitation of lots of people who need a place to live. Now that is putting design to good use. I guess I am old fashioned in feeling like there is something a bit unseemly in going so whole-hog about our own good time.
And yet, I appreciate the need to subvert the Walmart paradigm by personalizing and naturalizing our spaces, both public and private (but mostly private, let’s be honest), protesting, as we used to do in college at Antioch, against “corporate grub,” touching history by using well-worn things in our daily lives, and trying to bypass the global economy, and save our money—which means we have to earn less, which gives us more time to cook all our CSA veggies and ferment stuff, etc.—by shopping in thrift stores. Of course! But the self-conscious naturalness that has developed in conjunction with the crafty-cozy-DIY movement is so much more palatable and, indeed, within reach, than the no-glory work of activism, that we can fool ourselves into thinking that since it is so hard to actually help the poor souls in Chinese factories, we will at least not do any harm by avoiding the whole thing and buy homemade, or at least sustainable. And for ideas, we can go to Apartment therapy, whose cheeky tagline is “Saving the world one room at a time,” where we can learn about the best organic mattresses on the market, and where to buy reclaimed wood for our new kitchen, and who makes the most charming wallpaper, and then we can decorate. Ah, we’re home (worrying is exhausting). Even Tolstoy said, “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” There’s nothing wrong with doting on ourselves. But let’s not confuse our luxuriating for offering. In fact, let’s just call it what it is: Consumerism. This feeling we have about being what we buy or don’t buy is a tough one to shake. We come by it so honestly, identifying with brands and images and constructed identities so deeply that we lose our rough and tumble, unadorned selves, a connection to just being a plain old human being (an ordinary meatball, as we like to say in our house), and a confidence that our personhood can’t be contained within even the cutest 1930’s tin bin on earth.
In Ikebana, the art flower arranging, students spend years trying to master the challenge of making arrangements look natural. It’s not easy. But the fact that we strive for naturalness is telling. It is difficult to be ourselves. Marx called it “estranged labour.” The Buddha called it “samsara.” I can hear my brother in Michigan saying, “Jesus, Beth, people just like shit,” so there’s that, too. The reason I take such issue with all this loveliness business is because it is so alluring, firing up so much lusty energy (to what end?), and capturing the imaginations of those of us (will we get them back?) who are longing to be a part of something big and true and meaningful, and, yes, beautiful.
The thing is, we already are.