Heaven Stooped Low

“We fail to understand the Divine, not because we aren’t able to extend our concepts far enough, but because we don’t know how to begin close enough.”

Abraham Herschel-

August 15, 2022

I took the kids to eat at a fast food restaurant yesterday after church. The Cracker Barrel had waiting lines out the door, the air conditioning was down at Noodles & Co., and so we ended up–first-world famished–at a run-down Burger King in Pueblo.

The entrance was partially demolished and blocked off with yellow caution tape, almost as if a car had crashed through the front door, and a hand-written sign suggested using the side door as an alternative.

But the alternative entrance looked like a grocery store parking lot lined with shopping buggies filled with sleeping bags and any other tattered possessions their homeless owner had accumulated along the way.

Sufficiently deterred, I pulled out of my parking space around to the drive-through window, which–to my dismay–was only accepting cash. The lobby register was equipped to take credit cards, the staticky voice politely informed.

Grayson growing edgier by the minute, I resigned myself to a dine-in Whopper, and circled back to my original parking spot, where Grayson, Reagan, and I filed out of the car toward the buggy-lined door.

A waif-like man beat us there and was holding the door for us while fixedly staring at the ground. His hair looked like it hadn’t seen a dollop of shampoo for weeks, but when he hesitantly lifted his pale blue eyes to meet mine, I noted they were kind, albeit heavy-laden; and their watery softness stood out in stark contrast to his deeply etched and weathered skin.

Inside, a homeless man was curled up in a chair, loudly snoring away with his filthy shoes propped on the table. My kids exchanged nervous glances but followed me toward the register, regardless, where we arrived just in time to overhear the recently door-holding man barely whisper, “Just a hamburger please,” before plunking down a pile of change–mostly pennies–on the counter. He was visibly nervous as he slid and counted the coins one at a time, and grew further exacerbated when a man toward the back of the line loudly muttered, “Jesus, how long is this going to take?” before irritatedly slapping a dollar bill on the mound of coins.

Now fully flustered, the door-man forgot what number he was on, and had to start counting all over. The young girl behind the cashier smiled apologetically at the approaching manager, who had, in the meantime, wandered over to assess the hold-up and the ever-increasing line.

His head was bare as an eight-ball, and every last square inch of his revealed skin was covered in tattoos. Strands of looping earlobes swung back and forth as he walked, further highlighting the two gaping holes that lacked the structure of their customary gauges. He looked the part of a fast-food manager, I wryly (and critically) mused to myself.

Stepping forward, I offered to add the door-man’s hamburger to my order, but the manager brushed me aside with a wave of his arm. “No worries, I got it,” he said, sweeping the change off the counter into his free hand. I asked the door-man whether I could buy him anything else, and he quietly added from beneath lowered eyes, that, yes, a drink might be nice.

After thanking me, he shuffled meekly to the end of the counter as if he wished to disappear, and I leaned over to asked whether he might like some fries or onion rings too.

Suddenly, the manager’s swift movements caught my attention, and I caught him quickly sneaking an oversized box of fries into the man’s paper bag. Our eyes met, and he winked as he stuffed an extra burger into the bag.

At once, the scales fell from my eyes and the manager’s heavily-inked skin was revealed as the canvassed dwelling tent of God. Joy trickled from the corner of his winking eye, and his face was awash in white light.

There, in line at Burger King, I stood exposed and naked in my threadbare garment of judgment, while the tattooed manager was regally robed in his charitable works, and the door-man vested in a simple, yet splendid robe of humility.

Even so, the nearness of the Divine, was sufficient to cover me–even me.

Truly, there are angels among us.

~

It’s early morning, and the sun has yet to show it’s face over northeastern mountain peaks. A loud thump to my left alerts me to the fact that–yet another–bird has flown into our living room window.

I look over to behold the tiniest, most pitiful of creatures laying in an all-wrong position on a board of composite decking–its wings intermittently twitching and flapping. Assuming it to be a near-death flutter, I pull my chair closer to observe the strange transition between life and death.

I note the bird’s faint yellow underbelly and the white markings around its eye, and assess it–perhaps incorrectly–to be a Warbling Vireo. Much to my husband’s amusement, I’ve taken on the self-appointed role of “Family Ornithologist,” thanks to my new Merlin Bird ID app.

As I’m voyeuristically observing the bird’s sacred transition, Cadence, our German Shepherd, lets herself out the front door, and automatically walks up to the ailing bird and rudely nudges it with her nose.

With what seems like its last dying strength, the bird hurls itself over and its head flops back in an unnatural position. Certain that the light is now surely passing from its eyes, I return to my reading, mentally committing the task of discarding the dead bird to my daughter.

Half-an-hour later, Nala, our dingbat of a Golden-doodle, comes sauntering out the front door to lay her head in my lap, completely failing to observe the little bird I believe to be deceased.

After a round of morning scratches and pets, both dogs notice and re-notice the bird. They sniff, circle, and then to my chagrin, begin poking it with their noses. Surely, they won’t eat a dead bird, I wonder to myself, cringing.

Suddenly, Cadence flips the bird upright with her nose, and I observe that its eyes are now wide-open and glossy black. It’s hops across one, then two and three planks, then leaps off our porch and flies effortlessly to a nearby tree.

I sit, stunned, as I take in the complexity of such a simple moment, and ponder on the quote I’d just read, “We fail to understand the Divine, not because we aren’t able to extend our concepts far enough, but because we don’t know how to begin close enough.”

Self-admittedly, I lack the ability to extend my concept of the Divine “far enough,” for it is here that I find my words and mental capacity simultaneously reaching their end.

Perhaps this is the holy ground where has God has drawn a line in the sand, thus demarcating the end of language’s capacity and the early frontier of contemplative “unknowing.”

Regardless, it is in this micro-moment that I sense the meaning of “close enough.” It is here, that I sense God’s “smallness” and the way He condescends to fill the fragments–the slivers of time–to bring life and light to motionless birds, tattooed skin, and defeated, pale-blue eyes.

~

As I found my way to a table and began doling out burgers, the soft-spoken door-man began unwrapping his at a nearby table. I stood to introduce myself and invited the man named “Adolfo” to eat with us. Re-wrapping his burger, he let me me know that people made him nervous, as he was more accustomed to being alone. I told him I understood as he turned to shuffle out the door, the feel of his leathery hand still fresh in mine.

But it had been “close enough.”

The Divine had come “close enough.”

The Chains That Bind Us

July 23, 2022 – Part 1: Regarding Fear

Yesterday, Arin and I spent an hour-and-a-half hiking up and down the grassy knolls of our new property and exploring the winding ravines that snake through the bottom of what I’ve secretly labeled “the scary forest.” 

Right off, we saw a coyote big enough to be a wolf trotting off into the scary forest, thus confirming my belief that that’s where all the limb-tearing creatures abide. And just last Saturday, a motherless baby bear emerged from down there after I’d spent an hour sitting on my porch in the pre-dawn darkness, listening to the deep and gravelly grunts of what I (later) understood to be her mama. Not only that, but a few days ago, Arin discovered a deer skull and hollowed-out carcass atop a rocky ledge—most likely the handiwork of a perching lion. 

All-in-all, I’d say the scary forest is not on my top ten list of places I’m dying to explore.

Later that afternoon, Arin and I took Grayson and Arin’s mom to the Royal Gorge Bridge, where I tapped out on Grayson-duty and relinquished his crossing-the-highest-suspension-bridge-in-the-country caretaking to Arin. (High places and I don’t mix well, and Grayson completely tips the scale). Instead, I focused on remembering to breathe while coercing myself across the gently heaving bridge that dangled from strands of measly steel cables. I held on to my mother-in-law’s skinny arm for dear life, wholly forgetting that it was I who was supposed to be supporting her. 

Afterward, Arin spontaneously opted for a detour up Skyline Drive, a narrow, one-lane road flanked by steep drop-offs on either side that more than adequately lived up to its name. Curling the brim of my baseball cap tightly around my eyes, I turned all my attention to the Wordle of the day, squeezing my cell phone like a rubber stress ball. 

By the time I got home, I was exhausted and flat-out discouraged by how much of my day was spent feeling anywhere from mildly anxious to outright panicked.

I never used to be such a scaredy-cat; rather, quite the contrary. I was the fresh-faced, twenty-three-year-old mom sitting relaxedly on a bench at the Tampa zoo as my eighteen-month-old son climbed up and over the jungle gym—alone and unassisted. Older mothers with pinched and worried faces hurried over, “just to make sure I knew where my baby was and what he was doing.” Their concern always confused me—how else would my son learn his limitations and capabilities if I didn’t give him the space to try? Back in those days, I rode roller coasters with reckless abandon, went for midnight swims in the ocean, and took solo late-night flights into Detroit to watch my sister play volleyball—and never once did I think of being afraid.

But then Grayson, our Autistic son, came along and taught me—over and over again—the meaning of fear. He was the child I swore would never live to see Kindergarten. When enraged (which was often), he would suddenly dart into five lanes of oncoming traffic, open his door and attempt to leap from our moving car, or shimmy over our second-story railing and threaten to jump—and all before the age of five. 

Therefore, after living years and years in a steady state of flight-or-fight, I, the mother who was once young and cool-as-a-cucumber, can barely remember what it’s like to feel the absence of fear.

Somewhere along the way, as one catastrophe piled on another, something inside of me began to shrink and shrivel, and my ordinarily expansive soul-space grew tight and gnarled as an atrophied muscle. I started perceiving once trusted civil servants—like teachers, doctors, and police officers—as enemies, and the world—previously open and inviting—turned dark and threatening as the scary forest. It was then that I started feeling afraid. All the time. 

I nearly jumped out of my skin when I once snapped a pencil underfoot in the dark. Little boys riding bikes down the street made my heart race as I frantically searched my memory, only to recall that Grayson was in school. And the sound of my cell phone ringing turned my throat dry as the Sahara desert. 

This compilation of fears—accompanied by the new sensations from the day prior—caused me to linger in bed when awakened by a bright white moon at 4:00 a.m. this morning. Normally excited for the start of a new day, my feet typically hit the floor and head straight to the coffeepot the second my eyes flutter open. But today, I heaved a weary sigh and pulled the covers back over my head to block out the streaming moonlight and avoid another day with myself. 

I felt tired of being afraid, sick of battling my fears day in and day out; I just wanted them gone. I imagined ripping them from my chest like Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber, then hurling them over the edge of the Royal Gorge Bridge where they could never bother me again.

 I’ve experienced enough crises to know that trauma can get “stuck” in your body, which is part of the reason I wanted to move. I needed at least eighty acres to bleed out all the chaos from our past—the police restraints and hospitalizations, our oldest son’s rollover car accident, the disgusted glares from strangers at the grocery store, the nightmares of Grayson falling and falling through layers of black space…

But today, there doesn’t seem to be a mountain big enough to handle all my fears, and I worry they’ll remain trapped inside me forever. I lay there under the covers in moonlit darkness for a long time; then, finally roused myself and started writing: Yesterday, Arin and I spent an hour-and-a-half hiking…

Just the day prior, my sister, Dani, had texted me a page from Susan McCain’s new book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, and something about it had struck me, although I couldn’t put my finger on it then. So I went back this morning and reread, “I believe he’s telling us, It’s enough to be aware of it, and to feel its sting. Because this, in the end, is what connects us all…By turning his experience into poetry, Issa invites us to the shared story of being mortal, the communal longing of being human; he guides us to the love that I’ve always felt to be the unseen power source of all those sad songs with which we’ve inexplicably filled our playlists. This is the ultimate paradox: We transcend grief (or fear, in my case) only when we realize that we’re connected with all the other humans who can’t transcend grief because they will always say, because we will always say: But even so, but even so.” 

I realized that as much as I want to rip the fear from my chest and chuck it over a bridge, it is this fear that keeps me connected to others; for it is our pain, our suffering, and our lack of control “that guides me back to the love that is the unseen power source of all…”

Regardless of how desperately I long to rid myself of my fears, at the end of the day, I must value them for the gift they truly are. They are the thorn in my flesh that leads toward compassion and away from pride; they’re the link that binds me to my fellow co-laborers in life, and they’re the constant weakness that remind me to depend more fully on Christ, the ultimate and most pure source of strength. 

Perhaps one day, my fears will magically evaporate, and I’ll find that I can breeze effortlessly across the Royal Gorge without a second thought. Or maybe, and probably more realistically, I’ll continue battling, struggling, reminding myself to breathe, and occasionally pulling the covers back over my head to find some relief.

But even so, even so…

May our struggles be blessed.

Skyline Drive

Speaking the Unspoken Truth

**Spoiler alert – contains spoilers regarding the movie “A Monster Calls.” **

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Over Christmas break, I took my kids to the movie, “A Monster Calls,” based on the New York Times Bestselling book.  I had no expectations or understanding of what it was even about.  That being said, I managed to cry my way through the last half of the movie.  It is very rare that a movie grips my mind and thoughts long after the credits are through rolling.  But this movie was so poignant and in my opinion, touched on the very struggle of what it means to be human.

The story is told of a young boy whose mother is facing cancer.  He has a recurring nightmare in which he is holding onto his mother who is about to slip into an abyss and he cannot hold her any longer.  The boy repetitively wakes up just as he loses grip and she begins to plummet.  The long and short of the plot is that an ancient tree awakens and shares three stories and tells young Conor that after the third story, he will tell his story (nightmare) and will tell the truth of it.  The following is an excerpt from the book.  Forgive me for a lengthy quote but I cannot summarize in any way that would do it justice…

From A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

“Because, yes, Conor knew.  He had always known. The truth. The real truth from the nightmare…  ‘Please don’t make me,’ Conor said.  ‘Please don’t make me say it.’  You let her go, the monster said.  Conor closed his eyes tightly but then he nodded.  You must speak the truth and you must speak it now, Conor O’Malley.  Say it.  You must.  ‘It’ll kill me if I do,’ he gasped.  It will kill you if you do not, the monster said.  You must say it.  You let her go.  Why?  And then he spoke the words.  He spoke the truth.  He told the rest of the fourth tale.  ‘I can’t stand it anymore!’ he cried out as the fire raged around him.  ‘I can’t stand knowing that she’ll go!  I just wanted it to be over! I wanted it to be finished!’  And then the fire ate the world, wiping away everything, wiping him away with it.  He welcomed it with relief, because it was at last the punishment he deserved.

‘It’s my fault,’ Conor said.  ‘I let her go.’  It’s not your fault, the monster said, its voice floating in the air around him like a breeze.  You were merely wishing for the end of pain, your own pain, and how it isolated you.  It is the most human wish of all.  ‘I didn’t mean it’ said Conor.  You did, the monster said, but you also did not.  Conor sniffed and looked up to its face which was as big as a wall in front of him.  ‘How can both be true?’  Because humans are complicated beasts, the monster said.  How can a queen be both a good witch and a bad witch?  How can a prince be a murderer and a saviour?  How can an apothecary be evil-tempered but right-thinking?  How can a person be wrong-thinking but good-hearted?  How can invisible men make themselves more lonely by being seen?   ‘I don’t know,’ Conor shrugged, ‘Your stories never made any sense to me.’  The answer is that it does not matter what you think, the monster said, because your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day.  You wanted her to go at the same time you wanted me to save her.  Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary.  And your mind will punish you for believing both.  ‘But how do you fight it?’ Conor asked, his voice rough.  ‘How do you fight all the different stuff inside?   By speaking the truth, the monster said.   As you spoke it just now.  Conor thought again of his mother’s hands, of the grip as he let go ~ Stop this, Conor O’Malley, the monster said, gently.  This is why I came walking, to tell you this so that you may heal.  You must listen.  You do not write your life with words, you write it with actions.”

The bare naked truth of the matter is that we all have secrets.  Perhaps we have never actively done anything horrifically wicked, but we have all had thoughts that would mortify us if spoken out loud.  I will be embarrassingly transparent regarding a personal example.  One day, my son threw a fit and ran away and was threatening to run into a busy road.  His fits are not uncommon, as a child with special needs, and it had been a particularly bad week.  As he ran toward the street, the thought flashed through my mind that if I let him run and there was a fatal accident, my life would be so much easier.  Of course I stopped him from running, yet I felt crushed under the weight of my hideous thought and punished myself internally for days.  This is one of many reasons why the above scene absolutely pierced my heart.  Anyone who has suffered or experienced grief also understands the desire for an end to pain, for an end to the isolation of it, for an end to the weariness of it.  After that incident, I did some intense soul searching and demanded of myself to know how any decent mother could ever even allow the faintest of such thoughts to be entertained.  I felt like a blasphemous cartoon character deserving of the proverbial lightning strike from the sky.

And so, many of us carry this needless guilt and shame.  We begin to identify with these fleeting thoughts.  We even may hate ourselves at times for thoughts we have, ways we have hurt others, and the supposed truth over who we are.  But herein lies the problem.  We are not the summation of our thoughts.  We are complicated beasts, as the monster so aptly points out.  It is possible to be wrong-thinking but good-hearted.  Life does not seem to have the same problem with dualistic truths as we humans do.  But we must learn to speak the truth.  We must own our morbid thoughts.  We must open up our dark, cobwebbed closets and let even the smallest aperture of light in.

Ultimately we must understand that the majority of our terrible thoughts do not stem from some deep-rooted wickedness within, but rather a wound that needs to be healed (“This is why I came walking, to tell you this so that you may heal.”).  Our ugly thoughts, our rage, our embarrassing failures all serve as an indicator to show us where we are broken, where we are suffering, where we need mending.  What good would it do to suture up an infected laceration?  It would only fester and rot and cause further damage.  This being the case, we still hide in shame rather than risk being exposed.   And so, we suffer while smiling and silently endure our infected wounds.  We would rather die than expose the truth.

However,  if we will be brave enough to speak that which is unspoken, we will find peace and freedom.  We will find that our thoughts, once uttered, become powerless over us.  The shackles of guilt and self-chastisement will fall away and we will realize that our thoughts are simply…thoughts.  They do not define us.  They cannot control us.  And then, we will reclaim the power to write our lives with our actions, instead of being tormented by our thoughts.

“Conor let out a long, long breath, still thick.  But he wasn’t choking.  The nightmare wasn’t filling him up, squeezing his chest, dragging him down.  In fact, he no longer felt the nightmare at all…” 

“Ugly” Beauty

When my daughter was young we visited a women’s monastery.  There was a young nun tending to the chickens.  By all cultural standards, she was not pretty.  Her face was broken out and scarred, she had thick glasses and braces.  Her dark eyebrows formed a solid line, giving the appearance of a heavy, furrowed brow.  However, she warmly invited my daughter to help feed the chickens.  They chatted and laughed like old friends and when they were finished, my daughter casually remarked to me, “I hope I can be as pretty as she is some day.”  Her statement stopped me dead in my tracks and pointed out my embarrassing and blaring inability to see true beauty.

I’ve been thinking a lot about beauty lately: not the Victoria’s Secret/Hollywood kind of beauty, or even the glowing sun setting over the mountains kind of beauty.  I’ve been mulling over the idea of true beauty…soul beauty.  This kind of beauty might outwardly appear revolting or undesirable at the very least.  But for those that have the eyes to see, it is the purest form of beauty, ignorant of age, race, gender or religion.

I have a lifelong friend who is a cancer survivor.  After she lost her hair and struggled and fought her way through chemo and radiation, her hair began to grow back.  Naturally, she was self-conscious, but as she was bathing one night, her little girl petted her head and offhandedly commented how much she loved her mom’s cute, tiny baby hairs.  Those little stubbles of hair growing out of a bald head were beautiful.  My dear friend in a weakened state of vulnerability was beautiful.  It just took someone with the eyes to see.

I have another friend who while walking toward an elevator got stuck behind a slow moving mother and her child with special needs.  The child walked abnormally, shuffle-shuffle-clap, shuffle-shuffle-clap.  The mother was trying to move her child along to allow people through and apologetically glanced back at my friend.  Before the mother had time to offer an apology, my friend enthusiastically exclaimed, “Look at your beautiful child! He’s clapping to the rhythm of his steps perfectly!”  The shocked mother admitted that this was indeed what he was doing.  A child finding his own rhythm was beautiful.  A mother trying to be sensitive not only to her child, but to those around her was beautiful.  It just took someone with the eyes to see.

In each of these cases, our well-intentioned society might try to “fix” that which is “ugly”…make-up and a wax job for the sweet nun, a wig for my friend with cancer, therapy for the child walking irregularly…thus allegedly beautifying each scenario.  But in doing so, we dictate what we think beauty SHOULD look like and lose sight of what true beauty actually is.  True beauty functions like a magnet.  Those who are unable to perceive it will be repelled and perhaps even repulsed.  But for those that have eyes to see, true beauty will attract, draw in, and connect people on a soul level.

I realize that I severely lack the eyes to see.  I feel sorrowful when I recognize how much of my own soul is uncultivated, wild, ugly even.  But in order to avoid hypocrisy, I must practice seeing the beauty in my own soul.  I must nourish what is good within me instead of dwelling on that which is lacking.  And like a novice photographer sharpening his eye for what will make a good photograph, perhaps my vision will become clearer, less muddled by the confines of society, more free to see what is true and pure, more grounded in that which is real.  May we all have the clarity of soul to see the true beauty that is found in the “ugly”.

 

The Beautiful Life

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The ancient Greek philosophers stated that there were three prime virtues: goodness, truth and beauty. Most individuals would readily affirm this statement and even proclaim that they are trying to live a good and honest life. But how many would honestly be able to say that they are actively pursuing a beautiful life? As humans with souls, we understand this to mean that we not only live our spiritual life in a beautiful way, but also our corporeal, tangible and every day life. This ideally means that we are to physically beautify everything we come in contact with, be it a person (ourselves included), a meal, our home, our workplace, or city of residence.  Now this can seem like quite a tall order, especially in this busy, stressed-out, frantic culture that we live in. It can become another checkmark on our to-do list as opposed to an organic way of living an aesthetic life.

In order to move forward in addressing the creation of beauty, we must first acknowledge the problems that are so often evident in our American culture.  In my opinion, the primary issue is that we have traded the art of beauty for pragmatism (what is useful) and efficiency (does it get the job done). For example, our American churches resemble nothing of the old grandeur once delegated to places of worship. They unfortunately blend in, even in industrial parks. As an amusing, but not funny side note, we were driving by a local church with one of our children’s friends. He asked what store it was and when we told him that it was a church, he quite wisely stated, “It doesn’t look like one.” Even children seem to inherently realize the need for beauty. A secondary problem is that people often equate the pursuit of beauty to selfishness or the pursuit of vanity. Nothing could in fact be further from the truth. Pure beauty blesses all that come in contact with it. One final observation is that is for the most part, we have forgotten or perhaps have never even identified that which we love. The classic childhood question asks, “What is your favorite color?” As adults we think this is silly and quickly brush it off. But why can we no longer answer this question? Why do we not have favorite colors, favorite smells, favorite foods, favorite flowers? And if we do, why do we not routinely surround ourselves with them? Why must life become gray with age? If we will learn to fall in love with our physical and natural  and yes, even man-made surroundings, I daresay we will discover a new level of joy and delight in the world around us.

Moving from the philosophical to the practical, how does this apply to everyday life? When I am working with clients in their homes, I use only one rule: they must love anything and everything that is brought into their home. Statements like, “This would be ok” or “This might work,” are problematic, in that people are looking to external criteria to define their tastes. True beauty must have its roots in love. It should be emotionally evocative. Think of watching a Colorado sunset. In one moment, all five senses can quite literally feel and absorb true beauty. It is in fact these five senses that provide an ideal framework with which to recreate beauty. With the holidays upon us, let us consider how this might be achieved. Visually, you could make your house sparkle by adding different forms of lighting…fire tipped, dripping candles of multiple heights and colors on a tray; twinkling rope lighting on a ledge; even by installing a dimmer to a dining room chandelier. The tactile dimension could be established with the use of soft, fuzzy blankets draped over a favorite chair by a lit fire; Christmas carols in the background could provide an audible contribution and the smell of sugar cookies baking in the oven would wrap it all up. The creation of beauty is much more comprehensive than simply making something look nice. It is more about creating the feeling of beauty. Our understanding of what is beautiful is far too often reduced to only that which can be seen by the eye. It is much more properly understood in the integration of all senses.

In further examples, light a fragrant candle on an ordinary day while cleaning with your favorite music playing in background. Buy fresh flowers for no particular reason. Fix an unexpected dinner served on fancy china; don’t wait for that special occasion. Buy plush and inviting pillows instead of scratchy, “pretty” ones. And then, you will realize as the Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker states that, “Whenever you are creating beauty around you, you are restoring your own soul.” And from there, as Dostoevsky states, “Beauty will save the world.”