When I look at my closest friends, it’s easy to see why they’re part of my innermost circle. Each one is conscious, joyful, funny, open, and utterly devoted to beauty. Whether it’s the fragrance
of geraniums, the stitching on a blazer, or the way the light rests on a hardwood floor, all of my girls care
deeply about the sensual details of living. So when my friend Maureen (who has won a Governor General Award for her work with heritage buildings) told me about a new bakery designed by Bioi, I dropped everything. A beauty binge in the doldrums of March? Yes PLEASE! Since the morning was overcast, I offered to pick her up. “I might walk,” she texted. “I love that about you,” I texted back. And it’s true. I do love that about her. Maureen’s the kind of woman who connects to her environment by immersing herself in it. She mostly bikes or walks—getting the city under her skin and into her lungs—breathing life back onto the streets and into the neighbourhood. I really admire that. But me? Walk on a grey, chilly morning? No thank you. My action plan for the day involved a warm, cozy car. And thank goodness. Because “grey and chilly” turned to bone-cracking COLD. When I entered the bakery, Maureen was already inside, blue-lipped and shaking. We both burst out laughing. “I can’t believe you walked!” “I know,” she said, taking off her mitts and rubbing her hands together. “What was I thinking!” It was a rhetorical question. We both knew why she had walked an hour from Bankview all the way to the East Village. The past 2 years of her life have been filled with non-stop change and loss.
Maureen walks as a meditation, a ritual, a way to move forward in a time of disconnection and grief. Like me, she recently lost both her brother and father in close proximity. Our initiation into sorrow is the quiet bond between us. Beauty is our medicine. So we stood there, ensconced in the smell of bread and pastry, filling up our emotional reserves with as much joy and appreciation as possible.
"Look at the modern peg board!" "And the arrow-patterned floor tiles!" "And the choux pastry!" "And the roll cake! Oh, look at the ROLL CAKE!"
We stared at the spirals of chiffon, each curled around a raspberry gem. Just looking at them made us happy.
"They're beautiful, " I said. "But I'm having the quiche and a coffee."
Maureen ordered a baguette with a side of butter. I looked at it. A whole baguette. "I'm craving good French bread," she said. And then she told me how horrible the walk had been. And not just because of the cold, but because the city's core had changed in a way that made her cry. “It looks abandoned," she said. Garbage is piling up and no one's taking care of their planters." I felt a pang of distress. Alberta has suffered from one of the worst recessions it's ever seen and many people haven't been able to rise above all the gloom and despair. "This is what happens when we give up," I said, stirring some cream into my coffee. Because let's face it. It doesn't cost anything to sweep the sidewalk. People only let garbage pile up because they're caught in a sense of hopelessness and fear. I watched Maureen tear off a piece of baguette and spread butter onto it, her eyes closing as she took a bite. I thought of her stories of Paris—of all the good bread and whipped butter that made her deliriously happy. "Is that why you ordered the baguette?" I asked. "To bring Paris to here?" "Maybe," she said. "In Europe, it's just so much easier. You can’t escape the beauty. There are layers upon layers of it. Even when things are bad, you're still surrounded by all the history and architecture and art and culture. She looked out to the grey street. "Here, everything's brown and ugly and barren. We have to search for beauty. We have to create it."
"We have to create it."
Her statement stunned me. Because she was absolutely right. In a time of relentless uncertainty, with ugliness everywhere, beauty can be our saving grace. It can soothe and nurture the soul, giving us a foothold in times of despair. It can remind us, in the dead of winter, that Spring is coming and that it always will. Which means it's our job to seek it out, and wherever possible, create it for ourselves and others. I looked at the scarf around Maureen's neck—a beautiful silk print in bright pink and happy green. My friend was refusing to become a victim of the weather, or the economy, or the never-ending stream of blah. Since the city couldn't give colour to her, she had given it to herself, and now she was spreading it everywhere she went. She was finding where she DID have a choice and was making an effort. Instead of giving up, she was creating beauty.
Sending you so much beauty and love,
PS. Maureen has her Masters in Environmental Design and is one of the co-founders of D.talks (a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the public understanding of art, architecture and design) You can learn more about her and her passion for neighbourhood planning by reading her blog, The Happy Urbanist (which was voted best blog by Fast Forward Magazine, 2011)
PSS. I helped Maureen eat the rest of her baguette and it was really delicious!