What Is Beauty ... and Why It's Chopin

By Kelsy Yates


Baby grand The author, as a toddler, working on her scales. Courtesy Kelsy YatesThere is a photo of me in front of a glittery Christmas tree with sundry boxes wrapped in silver polka dots and candy-cane stripes. Me with red lips from a cherry sucker, shirtless, decked out in a red cowboy hat and embroidered jeans, my hair parted into a mini ponytail on top of my head – a style I rocked with every single day, a style only my mom could comb. Like a real country singer, I loosely held a pretend guitar. I believed, at age four, my red ukulele was strummed beauty.

It was my first instrument. Though it was a passing fancy, I gleefully slapped the ukulele’s body, thudding the wood and swiping the strings, as I followed our terrified cat around the house. I would flatten my hand over the carved sound hole to muffle the vibrations, choking them, fascinated by the contrast between cacophony and deadened sound.

The following Christmas I asked Santa for a harp − a real pedal harp that I imagined hugging, seated on a whittled wooden bench, noodling notes, fingering the cold wire strings until they warmed. I saw myself dressed in white shorts and a white Hanes T-shirt – an imagined outfit that pushed the boundaries of my feeling too “girly.” I failed to define “harp,” however, and Santa brought me a red mandolin. In hindsight, considering his red suit, sleigh and sack, I suppose Santa’s favorite color was red. After tinkering with the mandolin, I eventually grew bored and asked for a cream-colored plastic recorder. My first-grade class was learning the art of pressing lips to smooth tapered mouthpieces and blowing into hollow tubes – an action that produced more spittle than melody. Though we did memorize a few notes which we strung together in some semblance of a song, the effort reminded me more of a clunky tugboat whistle. The recorder closely resembled nunchucks, and I sometimes used it as a weapon against my younger brother when he failed to follow my ever-changing rules as we played among the cornrows and marigolds in the garden.

Whether I was practicing marital arts or inventing discordant lullabies for my newborn sister, the recorder was just another attempt to assuage some part of myself that longed to be expressed through sound, some creative void needing to be filled, some desire for beauty that had yet to be revealed. At six, I was just beginning to understand myself based on the life I shared with my family and community. But I was also becoming aware of another reality, an emotional and mysterious one, immeasurable and beyond my five senses. In Best Words, Best Order, author Stephen Dobyns writes:

... we can define this other world only with a range of possibility. At one extreme is the place where God exists, all sorts of gods, spirits, magic and mysterious forces. At the other is the place where beauty exists and love is possible, where the objects of the literal world are seen through an element of emotion.

He goes on to say:

... in experiencing beauty ... we think of ourselves as most human. Because while we take our physical definition from common reality, we derive our spiritual definition from this other world, and we take our sense of self-worth mostly from this spiritual definition.

Perhaps my creative scrums made me feel more human. When I got a brown upright piano from Santa the following year (I should have specified a black-lacquered baby grand, since Santa’s taste was not quite my own), I knew I had found my instrument.

Read the rest of this story in the Fall 2015 issue of Artenol. Order yours today

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