I’m picking up where I left off on the last post about Laurie Anderson and the importance of being tender. One of the most tender moments in her film was when she described the walks she used to take with her rat terrier, Lolabelle, in northern California.
LAURIE ANDERSON’S HEART OF A DOG
After 9/11, Anderson and Lolabelle seek solace in long walks to the ocean. In a very matter-of-fact tone, Anderson explains that she had planned to conduct an experiment on these walks. You see, rat terriers are supposed to recognize 500 words. Anderson planned to find out just which 500 those were.
She describes her research plan in an automatonic tone. But soon her cold seriousness subsides, and the mood softens as we take in enchanting scenes of hillsides dotted with wildflowers. We see fingers brushing across the grass and the flowers, and can imagine feeling the misty verdure ourselves.
Anderson’s voice comes back more gently, as she describes how beautiful the walks to the ocean were. This beauty, however, seems to have foiled her experiment. She announced, without regret, that the experiment didn’t work. She didn’t follow through because
“all that beauty got in the way.”
The beauty got in the way of the experiment that was supposed to help her learn more about Lolabelle. But despite the experimental failure, she did learn a lot about Lolabelle—she just didn’t learn which 500 words she knew.
THE NAVAJO CONCEPT OF HOZHO
The idea of beauty getting in the way reminded me of the Navajo (Diné) concept of Hozho—or the Beauty Way. Hozho is an approach to life that focuses beauty and being tender in one’s approach. Hozho doesn’t admit of easy translation, and I don’t claim to be an expert on the concept. But even the most rudimentary idea of Hozho suggests that paying attention to beauty is a possible way of ordering a life.
In Anderson’s walks with Lolabelle, the proverbial “smelling the flowers” becomes literal, and fills her world with beauty, a beauty that gets in the way.
Hozho, or living in the beauty way, could also mean that we actually allow beauty to get in the way. For example, it can get in the way of statistical descriptions of our experience and relationships. Instead of trying to understand which 500 words her rat terrier knew, Anderson just ended up losing herself in the beauty with Lolabelle.
Anderson’s affection for Lolabelle deepens as they experience the delight of walking to the ocean, and as she watches Lolabelle race along the beach, even after she became blind.
In short: the value of the relationship was not about counting up words.
CAN’T MEASURE VALUE
One of my favorite philosophers, Ruth Chang, explains that value cannot be measured in the same way that many things can. We are so used to thinking of things in terms of being better, worse or the same (+/-/=) that we sometimes forget such relations do not universally apply. Being alive to how we experience and express value may give us a renewed sense of power, as we recognize the authorial control we have over our own lives. After all, we choose and cultivate the particular values that make our personalities unique. This could encourage beauty to get in the way, and even help us walk the beauty way, if we want to.
WALKING AND TALKING
Anderson’s walks with Lolabelle recall the peripatetic tradition of Aristotle. Aristotle walked with his students, who were his friends, because they found that they discovered some of their best ideas emerged in dialogues on walks.
Typically we think of being in dialogue with other people, but I think we can be in dialogue with the natural world, our pets, and maybe even other animals. Traversing across the surface of the earth and exploring our relationships with others is a practice that has revealed insight for quite a long time. No wonder we love hiking so much in Sedona! There are so many great opportunities to let beauty get in the way here.
Oh, and just one more thing. After Lolabelle returned to the city, her blindness made East Village walks prohibitive. So she started a new dialogue, with the piano.