All things counter, original, spare, strange
—Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Pied Beauty”
My plastic fork had been hanging in midair for at least 10 minutes. The man sitting across from me had not stopped talking since we sat down, 20 minutes after we were meant to meet, and proceeded to tell me in great detail a truly wild life story, during which I said nothing more than “wow” and “ummhmm” between bites of my sweet potato bowl. It was the first meal I’d eaten “out” since the pandemic, and the first first-date I’d been on since before the lockdowns, and everything about the evening seemed to prove to me that I should, in fact, just continue on my path to spinster-dom. When we got up to leave, I reluctantly agreed to his suggestion that we take a scenic walk with his dog (who he brought with him on the date). I was counting the steps until we got to my block, so I could run home and make myself a cup of tea to soothe this disappointment, when he stopped at a bodega. He had a weekly ritual of buying flowers for his mom and for himself, apparently. “What’s the point of working if you can’t buy beautiful things for beautiful people?” he’d said by way of explanation. I stood on the corner, squirming in my skin as I watched unmasked people gather round, when he presented me with a red rose from the bouquets in his hands. “What kind of person would I be if I didn’t buy you a flower, too?” he said in response to my shocked face.
This date was not the triumphant return to socializing I hoped for in the summer of 2021. Although I came away feeling even deeper despair about my potential to find a “normal” mate, I thought about the evening and conversation for days afterward. I had no desire to see this person again, and yet that simple gesture of giving me a flower, and his flower ritual, left a deep impression. He had no stake in me, no relationship at all to try to nurture or preserve, and yet the few hours we spent together still warranted an acknowledgment of beauty.
From that moment on, I felt myself reframing in a new way how I distinguish between needs and wants, and moving from the mode of survival and productivity I’d been in most of my life, but especially since the pandemic, to one where there was room for beauty—just because. My weekly farmer’s market trips would end with a trip to the flower stand, where I’d choose a bouquet of seasonal blooms, and watch them with the attentiveness of an artist as they opened and died during the course of the week. Their ephemerality was part of their joy, and being greeted by their color and carefree posture each morning felt as nourishing as the edible food I also bought.
It’s no wonder that when it came time for me to choose a word for 2022, “beauty” immediately surfaced as the only possibility—a choiceless choice, the way all good decisions tend to be. But truth be told, I’ve been holding onto the theme of beauty for a few months now, which is part of why I feel particularly hopeful about how it will manifest in the year to come. You see, the kind of beauty I’m talking about has nothing to do with makeup or clothing or accessories, though I am intending to use those things as ways to cultivate beauty in my daily life. The kind I’m talking about has much deeper roots, and defies the superficial, even dangerous standards of beauty that I’ve been haunted by most of my life.
Ayurveda spends a lot of time talking about digestion. It’s easy to get caught up in the what and how of optimizing digestion, but we rarely get to the more important question of why. Why does it matter that we have good digestion? Sure, it’s essential for keeping our bodies running in a biological way, but truly good digestion goes beyond the essential. Because at the end of the digestive process is ojas, the elixir of immunity and life that Ayurveda describes as the source of our inner—and outer—beauty. When we are producing good-quality ojas on a regular basis, we have enough to feed all our tissues, and then some. That extra is what gives our skin plumpness, our hair shine, and our hearts and personalities the softness and receptivity to radiate kindness and compassion that reflects a beautiful soul residing happily inside our suit of flesh and bones.
In this way, beauty serves a very important function in our lives and well-being. Because when we prioritize beauty that’s deeper than skin, we are inherently prioritizing the digestion, transformation, and integration that creates it. This includes not just food, which can be a source of beauty in its presentation and the ritual of eating, but everything we take in through our senses. Indeed, caring for our senses—which is a theme I’m exploring the first half of this year in my new self-paced course—not only keeps those physical orifices clean and functioning, but allows them to be more open and receptive to our world, and see the beauty along with the suffering. Clear senses help us see the beauty around us—like a vase of flowers or a dewy spider web—and recognize that beauty as us. Just like good digestion allows the elements in the world to turn into the elements of our bodies, it transforms outer beauty into inner beauty, and so it goes.
My intention for seeing more beauty in 2022 is not a naive wish for a year filled with #goodvibesonly. Rather, it’s a pact with, and request to, the universe that my agni stay strong such that I can digest everything that comes my way, the beautiful and the ugly, and still have that extra juice for ojas. I’ve gone too long toeing the “empty” line day in and day out, and while keeping my tank fuller all the time is perhaps the hardest thing for me to do, I know it’s nature’s way. And after the last few years, I have been humbled enough to finally put aside my ego, which paints a picture of beauty that’s flat and stable and absolute, rather than the beauty I now know to be dynamic and round and gloriously difficult.
Having discovered beauty after 2021 surprised me at first. That date wasn’t the only thing to not go perfectly last year, for me and for all of us. But a lot of things did go well—really well, a fact I did not fully realize until I did my year-end reflections with various members of my growing online community. I published a book, overcame a chronic health imbalance, and settled into a new space of belonging and love in my family. It took me some time to digest all that, but thanks to the regularity of my practices I am now in the post-digestion stage, and steeping in all the ojas I was building, way down deep inside, for the past year—and long before.
Being able to do work and non-work that’s rooted in beauty is not a luxury or indulgence. For me, it’s proof that I’ve settled into a rhythm with nature, and guided by nature, that I’ve been seeking for a long time. Having gotten used to seeing beauty in all shapes, sizes, colors, and lights, I know that this intention won’t lose its potency even if it doesn’t maintain a consistent appearance. In fact, noticing and allowing for change is exactly how I’ll know beauty is still with me. So in twelve months’ time, I hope that the world I’m seeing looks nothing like what I thought it would be, or even what I’m used to. Though I do hope there will be flowers.