A Training in Beauty: Learning to See Differently

Shwmmm. Shwmm. Downwards we climbed in a vintage elevator, decorative metalwork surrounding us. When it gently came to a halt, my husband opened the door, allowing light to fully flood our space.

Each day’s adventure began this way, and I think this routine helped me fall into the rhythm of the city. We were visitors, strangers really, and yet we were drawn into the soul of the city, welcomed into it; by the bookshop owners, Sagrada Familia guards, lay people, pourers of liquid chocolate, the hostel receptionist, the sardine and vermut bodegista.

Though we were on our honeymoon in Barcelona, I didn’t feel like a tourist, it didn’t feel like we were vacationing. Instead it felt like we had tapped into the rhythm of the city, of its people. This rhythm was one of leisure, but also had the swing of wonder and adventure. David Steindl-Rast says that leisure gives us a kind of rhythm that mimics the heart. He writes,

“leisure makes time come alive…Our very heartbeat is healthy only when it is leisurely. The heart is a leisurely muscle. It differs from all other muscles. How many push-ups can you make before the muscles in your arms and stomach get so tired that you have to stop? But your heart muscle goes on working for as long as you live. It does not get tired, because there is a phase of rest built into every single heartbeat.”

Perhaps because of this rhythm, I felt strangely at home in the city, almost immediately. As though some part of my soul was manifesting itself visually in the city.

I was struck by the beauty of this pace, in forms both grand and simple. There was the beauty of Casa Batlló, a private home designed by Antoni Gaudi. With its textured glass and blue tile walls that turned your vision into the sea. But there was also the beauty of a glass bottle of water. Or a street sign.

This envelopment in beauty resulted in an impulse to try and capture it, keep it, store it, in pictures. So SO many pictures. From coffee shops to street names, from a children’s bookshop to corner bodegas, cups of liquid chocolate to the textures of walls.

The beauty of things, the beauty of the place, seemed to imbue or perhaps was imbued with the rhythm of the people and the city itself. Despite the political unrest, evident from the flags hanging on balconies and windows, Barcelona exuded a kind of peace of life. There didn’t seem to be this sense of rushing and intensity and anxiety. There was a pace that matched the pace of the body, rhythmic, steady, highs and lows, a kind of daily ritual of movement. This leisure, this ritual of sorts, became a part of my mode as well for that week in Barcelona. The pace drew me in and I wanted to be a part of it. The unintentional ritual emerged in different ways: we returned to places, saw the same people, walked down the same subway corridor, creating a kind of memory and attachment, a sense of knowing and being known.

One place we returned to was a little shop we happened upon on our way to Sagrada Familia on the second day of our trip. This little sanctuary of a shop epitomized the particular beauty, whimsy, wonder, and elegant simplicity of Barcelona. The city, and this shop, highlight the handmade, the human, surfaces, textures and objects that have been molded, constructed, or carved by artists of all sorts. The store was called La-a, and here are a few pictures which attempt to capture the spirit of this little place.

And so I returned to this place because I wanted to find something. I’m not sure how much I’ll get to travel in my life, but when I do I’d like to bring back an object, a curiosity, for my current corner, one day cabinet of curiosities. I wanted to find a memory object, a piece of a place I had been, and which on seeing it in my home would pull me back into my memories of it and the beauty and time I found and spent there. I decided that for this trip, La-a was the place to find it. (If you’re curious, my chosen curiosity is the little hand-carved bird in the photos above).

As the trip came to a close, after five and a half glorious days, I began to resign myself to the impending disappointment. Home could not, would not, afford me this level of beauty. Philadelphia—with its busy atmosphere, angry denizens, and dirty streets—could not match up to the beauty I had just been surrounded by. But as we taxied back from the airport into the city and to our now shared home, my eyes felt new, re-focused, attuned to details, textures, little corners of wonder that I had missed before.

What I found was not nostalgic disappointment for this place I had left after five days, but instead I found I was now seeing beauty in unexpected places here in Philly as well. Not only was there new beauty I had never noticed, but there were now places filled with happy memories from my wedding day. Places imbued with new meaning, visions of cityscapes that fit within the framework of my eyes that were now different. I found I didn’t need to re-conform to this busy pace, I could continue and create my pace. One imbued with leisure, ritual, routine, wonder and rhythm. A kind of rhythm of beauty.

In many ways, Commonplace Living found its full form out of this experience. And ultimately what I received in Barcelona it seems was a training in beauty, on seeing it and finding it, no matter the place.

Note: All photos in this post were taken by the author using an iPhone camera.

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Jess Sweeney

is the founder and editor of Commonplace Living. One Sunday in November of 2018 she experienced a simple but glorious morning from which emerged the concept for this project and community. That Sunday included a cup of coffee, beautiful morning light, an On Being interview with Christian Wiman, and drawing a tree in her backyard. That day, the idea of seeing the glory all around, as Dostoevsky describes, really came to life.