When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was Our Animal Friends at Maple Farm. Each animal that lived on the farm was described in the perfect manner for children to appreciate, straightforward and simple, yet in a manner that left a rich understanding. Among the horses, geese, sheep, chickens, cows, and goats, there were four cats that lived on the farm. One of the cats, named Willow, was described as beautiful but not very interesting. Just like the brown eggs and the white eggs that we were told were equally good, the point the authors were trying to communicate through Willow was clear – beauty doesn’t trump personality. The other cats on Maple Farm were depicted as actively involved in farm life. Willow, if my memory serves me well, didn’t do much other than sit in her pristine splendor.
When I was a kid, my translation of Willow’s message was one-dimensional – beauty was a poor measuring stick, and we should make a point to get to know those who may not initially captivate us with their good looks. Looking back as adult, I see an added layer of meaning – an interesting life is going to involve a willingness to get messy. Willow lived in her own reality, separate from the rhythms of Maple Farm life. She didn’t get involved, she didn’t explore. She made her job maintaining a surface beauty – nice to look at, but not very interesting. Willow’s lack of depth made her a bit silly and humorous. We loved her for what she was, in a sympathetic sort of way, because she failed to understand that a life of beauty was not achieved through avoiding risk, but instead through a willingness to engage, be challenged, and allow ourselves to be defined through our experiences.