Posted by: Harold Knight | 04/05/2011

A Thing of Beauty is a Grace Forever

Often when grading student essays I make note of the use of “thing” as lacking clarity (it can refer to anything, I joke). I also say—to students whose self-image includes sophistication and intelligence—that its use is neither sophisticated nor intelligent.

The meaning of “thing,” according to, will surprise no one.

Some entity, object, or creature that is not or cannot be specifically designated or precisely described.

So I’m right when I tell a student the use of the word lacks clarity. But the derivation of “thing” is much more interesting. Its etymology, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary,

O.E. þing “meeting, assembly,” later “entity, being, matter” (subject of deliberation in an assembly), also “act, deed, event, material object, body, being,” from P.Gmc. *thengan “appointed time”. . .

A “thing” was originally an assembly or the subject of deliberation in an assembly, an “act, deed, event, material object, body, being.”

I’m no romantic (I prefer Yeats to Keats) but I am reminded of

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth . . .
–John Keats (1795-1821)

Twenty years ago I was fortunate to count as friend a charming, almost appallingly optimistic Jamaican-American woman who lived alone in an upstairs apartment in the historic district of Salem, MA.  When she needed transport to church or the grocery store, she called on Alan, a mutual friend, who had known her son in high school and now looked after her as a son. Her husband was several towns away in a nursing home specializing in care for Parkinson’s patients. On several occasions when Alan couldn’t, I took her to visit her husband.

One day she said, “Alan tells me your apartment is decorated black and white.” Yes. “What color do you like to go with it?” At that time the answer was “red.”

“I will hook you a rug.” “You don’t have to do that.” “Yes, I must.”

Some time later when I picked her up to go to see her husband, she carried more bags than usual. The largest of the bundles she left in the car when we went into the home. I was curious but figured it was none of my business.

When we returned to her apartment, she stepped out of my car without the large bundle. “That is for you. Take it home.” I was stunned when I unwrapped it—a rug, for sure, but not the silly “hooked” thing of acrylic fiber I expected. Thirty-six by forty-six inches of unbelievably fine hand work in black, white, and several shades of red. A note (which I have lost) gave the name of the Chinese pattern she had used.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Suddenly I got it. The rugs in her home I thought were Persian she had made.

If I had a fire in my apartment, this rug would be one of the first things I would try to save. This rug, as a “thing” is a meeting place with Louise and me as the only participants. It is a thing, not only of beauty, but of grace. A thing of grace is a joy forever.

I have tried recently to find Louise. When I left Massachusetts, she was planning, when her husband finally died, to move to North Carolina to be with her daughter. She must have done so.  None of our mutual friends knows where she is.

A thing of beauty is a grace forever. Grace. “A manifestation of favor.”  Underserved favor.

. . . on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth . . .

I am mystified that such a thing as a hand-made rug—no matter what thing of beauty it is—can bind me to the earth. I am mystified that, looking at the rug, I feel—twenty years later—the same connection I felt with Louise on the day she gave it to me.

In a recent article, Susan H. McFadden, discussing the “metaphysical problem” of aging that separates the human mind from the brain claims that the

. . . mind is enabled by a brain that is responding to physical signals generated by conditions within the body as well as by interactions with other persons and the environment. The religious person would add that the mind is also enabled by the brain in interaction with the sacred (1).

I might use some of the same verbiage, but with a different understanding of the interactions. The sacred—or whatever it is I am experiencing that I might (might) call “sacred” –exists because of the signals I receive (mind or brain, I don’t know) through my “interactions with other persons and the environment.” My being “mystified” is the sacred (if the sacred exists) which I know, for example, through interaction(s) with Louise and her beautiful creation (part of my environment). This is the “flowery band [that] bind[s] us to the earth.”

Another of McFadden’s “persistent problems” of psychology and aging is the “aesthetic problem.” I have no way to know if her critique of psychological studies of aging is correct that, in such studies,

. . .  very little attention is paid to the arts.  Studies of creativity mostly focus on whether creativity in art, literature, and science increases or decreases with age; they have not examined how opportunities for creative expression affect health and well-being (2).

I am not certain how old Louise was when she made my rug. I’m not sure if the rug is properly called “art” (it is certainly domestic art or folk art—if not fine art). She had grown children approximately my age. I assume she was in her sixties. I am now in my sixties. My guess is that Louise’s ability to make (and to give away) beautiful rugs was of paramount importance in her well-being as she aged and as her husband approached death.

Lars Tornstam, a Swedish psychologist, identified a shift in one’s attentions as one ages which he calls “gerotranscendence.” He says that from this perspective we become

. . . less self-occupied and at the same time more selective in [our] choice of social and other activities. There is an increased feeling of affinity with past generations and a decreased interest in superfluous social interaction (3).

Carol Sherburne explains that, in this “gerotranscendence,”

How and with whom one chooses to spend whatever time they have left in life [becomes] a spiritual issue. What feeds the spirit will be embraced and what does not will be abandoned (4).

My environment includes a few beautiful things people I love have created. Louise’s rug is one of those things. When I consider it, Louise and I meet, and the rug becomes the “subject of deliberation in [our] assembly.” We feel an affinity because ours is not a superfluous social interaction. You see, even separated by miles, years, and possibly her death, we have a “thing of beauty [and] a joy forever between us.”
(1) McFadden, Susan H.  “The ‘Persistent Problems’ in the Psychology of Religion and Aging:  A View of the Past and a Look to the Future.” Journal of Religion, Spirituality & Aging. 20.1-2 (2008).
(2) McFadden, ibid.  
(3) Tornstam, Lars. “Gerotranscendence from young old age to old old age.” Online Publication from The Social Gerontology Group, Upsala. (2003). URL:  Quoted in Sherburne, Carol. “Spirituality: The Beauty Secret of Aging.” LLI Review 3 (Fall 2008): 102-108.
(4) Sherburne, Ibid.


  1. *What feeds the spirit will be embraced and what does not will be abandoned.*

    Thank you for always giving me things to contemplate and appreciate.



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