When a ray of wonder pierces your sadness, that's...

Radical Joy Revealed

Beauty and Terror 
January 20, 2021
Turkey beard on Polly Howells's altar. Photo by Polly Howells
Polly Howells of Glenford, New York writes of her confrontation with two great forces:

For beauty is but the beginning of Terror.
We can barely endure it…

Rainer Maria Rilke
"The First Elegy"
Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

This past fall I attended a virtual meditation weekend with Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. We meditated – thousands of us across the globe – and she took a few questions, each questioner and she side-by-side on a split screen. The deep presence in which she held her students seemed to me the definition of beauty.

After one of the sessions I walked to the vegetable garden that abuts the out-of-ground swimming pool dug into our hillside. I opened the pool gate and noticed a few small black feathers on the sun cover. As I followed their trail, my breath stopped. In the water, right by the ladder, was a three-foot-long black bird with no head. A murdered being in my bucolic swimming pool. Total terror.

I called my husband and neighbors. Upon inspection we identified it as a wild turkey. How did it get there, who killed it? And where was its head? 

We dragged the carcass up into the woods behind the house and left with it a bouquet of wildflowers. A week later the bird was gone, only a few feathers left. The flowers were still there; I brought them to the house and put them in water. Also on the site was a sheaf of bristly black hairs. Did these belong to the being who spirited the bird away? With some research I discovered they were the turkey’s “beard,” the prized sign of masculinity in wild turkeys. I brought the sheaf home and laid it on my altar. 

Pema tells us to lean into our fears. I did so. The ferocity of the natural world surrounding us as well as her spiritual beauty have become, in my memory of that weekend, one.


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"In hard times there is a temptation to let the problems of the world orient the direction of our lives and the shape of our activism Through her extensive artistic activist practice and in her powerful new book, Trebbe Johnson shows us a different path: a way to turn devastation into creation. Through simple acts of beauty she provides a map that moves us from wallowing in dystopian despair to imagining utopian joy."

—Stephen Duncombe, author of Dream: Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy and co-Founder of the Center for Artistic Activism
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