“The world may end. You’re right. But that’s not a reason to be scared. None of us know what will happen. Don’t spend time worrying about it. Make the most beautiful thing you can. Try to do that every day. That’s it. You know? What are you working for, posterity? We don’t know if there is any posterity.”—Laurie Anderson, as quoted in Austin Kleon’s Keep Going
What is the most beautiful thing you can make today?
When I read Laurie Anderson’s quote I am electrified, stopped in my tracks. What have I been doing with my day?
Obsessed with checking things off the to do list or frittering time in meaningless tasks and distractions. Yes, some of these things matter or have to be done. Some don’t. But what have I been doing?
So, I ask myself this question: What is the most beautiful thing I can make today?
Because what could be more worthwhile of my time and energy? In what better way could I give, contribute, serve, even if no one sees or hears or experiences the beauty I make?
Facing the fear and unknowning
But the question is terrifying, daunting, calling me not just to make something beautiful but demanding I don’t settle for the dull habit, routine, the needful tasks, nor the easiest way out through the creative mines, because even in my studio time I have my safe and well-worn paths.
I am afraid to even think the question: What is the most beautiful thing I can make today?
I have no idea of the answer.
Play music on my violin perhaps? I know that when I do that soulfully, it approaches the numinous and, at the same time, gives voice to something profoundly human.
Try to write a poem that matters? Lately, I’m not happy with much of what I write.
Or have I already made the most beautiful thing, already made a visual poem, by arranging cut flowers from my garden in two little vases—two colors of azaleas, magenta and baby pink and white balls of candy tufts.
Am I therefore off the hook, done with the project of beauty for today? That doesn’t feel right.
A generative question keeps opening possibilities
What is the most beautiful thing I can make today?
What if I didn’t rush to answer that, at least not yet, but instead kept asking throughout the day, so that I was never done with the project of beauty, adding to the needful store of the world?
What if my conversations with others were held to this same measure? My actions, such as making dinner, even of the simplest materials? It is one of the elements of my life mission statement “to be an artist with all my life.”
How might beauty be the guide of my days?
And when I say beauty I mean to define it in an expansive way, the way that old warehouses and rusting metal can be beautiful, the way that a painful, hard truth can be beautiful, the way that grief scoring us inside can be beautiful, the way that dissonance in music can be beautiful.
Maybe the most beautiful thing I can make today, given my day, is a loving gesture or word, a soulful moment of connection. Maybe it’s a moment of self-kindness. Maybe it’s in the way I set the dinner table.
A better question for artists
The time management guru Alan Lakein suggests the question “What is the best use of my time right now?”
That’s helpful if efficiency, productivity, but also being on target with what matters most are your aim. It’s a good question. Particularly helpful for procrastinators, when we’re habitually distracted, frittering time, or simply keep choosing the easier, but less important or less meaningful tasks. I use it from time to time.
But how about asking: What is the most beautiful thing I can make today?
Do I dare ask and ask again? Do I dare meet the answers face to face? Do I dare confront my own sense of inadequacy and step over it, so I can actually try? And be willing to fail.
Wouldn’t the best use of my time be to try and fail in the service of beauty?
As an artist I feel an aching, resounding yes.
Aching, because it causes the clench of sadness and love in my chest, the grief and praise of being alive, and of always falling short of my visions as an artist—how could I not?
It’s the nature of being an artist. The yearning and reaching toward the hidden god, deus absconditus, the ache of longing for communion with the One, the glimpses of the One in the making and receiving of art.
What is the most beautiful thing I can make today? Is it this writing? The little flowers I arranged in the vases?
Do I dare to keep trying with each pen stroke, spoken word, act? Do I dare to pick up my neglected violin and face the demons that swirl around it? Do I dare to shed another layer of the mask that separates me from others? Might I dance on the deck at dusk for the joy of it?
So many ways to make beauty in a single day.
It is so alluring to just repeat the easy, safe, habitual—even in my writing. To follow the known paths. How might I challenge myself to stretch further, to make something really beautiful?
And yet how might I do this so lovingly that I don’t stifle my flow but encourage it?
Entering the Flow
Flow is the state in which we lose ourselves in our work. Time stops, self-consciousness stops. We are fully present in the work.
It’s a state most of us long for, certainly as artists. An inspired state of Oneness and aliveness.
One of the characteristics needed for the state of Flow, which the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied extensively in his pioneering work with artists, athletes and others, is having a challenge that stretches us, but which we feel capable of meeting.
So, we want to cultivate that sense of reaching to create beauty without setting the bar so high for ourselves that we become deflated, discouraged.
The lineaments of beauty
Beauty is a fearsome, wondrous god—form like a burning bush too bright to look on, too hot to draw too near. I want to kneel and bow my head before it, humbled, embarrassed. And yet I hunger for it, need it all around me to live—beauty in my home, my garden, in words, art, music, how I dress.
I need the soft lineaments of beauty to make my days feel worth living, hopeful, whole. The utilitarian and mechanical don’t do it for me. Nor simply living to live.
Every moment of beauty—bird, cloud, music, poem, curve of line, pleasing shape or arrangement of objects, flowers, flow of a dress, tears on a face, wisdom spoken, heart-wrenching honesty and vulnerability, bravery, kindness—lights my days.
So I will do my best to add my share each day, no doubt falling short in my own estimation often, but nonetheless living the best possible life by asking:
What is the most beautiful thing I can make today?
And then making it and asking again.
Will you join me? Will you add to the world’s store of beauty with your own?
Will you add to your own life by living it with beauty, in service to beauty, by making beauty today, and then again tomorrow and the next day?
Will you dare to ask the question and answer it and follow it?
Let’s do our best. What is the most beautiful thing you can make today?
To the beauty that you are,