photograph by Cristian Escobar

Beauty as a Handhold

Savala Nolan
4 min readJul 22, 2023

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Listen. This is a different kind of post, because I just need some beauty, some reprieve. It has been a long few weeks. So, last night, at the dinner table, my daughter and I ate hot dogs and listed beautiful things. She had many. I had to think more; we can call this the result of life experience. After she went to bed I decided to think about beautiful things and pick one to write about. Not as a distraction from the sadness and worry I feel. But because if beauty has any use at all, maybe it’s to see us through, to be a handhold.

Anyway, here’s the best bit of what I wrote. By “best” I mean that it accurately reflects what I experienced as beautiful; the writing may be great or so-so — I’m less concerned with that than with rendering a beautiful moment as an act of attention and appreciation. Should it be useful to anyone else — the practice or the content — I’m sharing it here:

Twenty years ago, I was living in Florence, Italy. One weekend, I and an American friend had planned a trip to Prague when, at the last minute, standing in the small but frenetic train station, we changed our minds in favor of Siena, a tiny, ancient town two hours south of Florence.

I was just getting over a crush on my friend, but whether or not he knew that I don’t know. The old woman who ran the hotel we found must have assumed we were a couple because she gave us what was called a “matrimonial” room, a room with one big bed.

That evening, we ate at a quiet restaurant, empty except for two Italian couples. My friend insisted, as he always did, on ordering the strangest thing on the menu, so he had pasta and tripe, while I had pasta and steak. We drank a bottle of wine, and after a third glass, he began to talk about the Holocaust. He was Jewish, and began to cry. He cried calmly for a few minutes while I held his hand, glancing once or twice at the other patrons. After a moment, he stopped crying and drained his wine glass. We ordered the check, paid, and walked to the hotel, getting momentarily lost along the way. Standing together at the tiny sink, both hunched over because of the attic ceiling, we brushed our teeth. Then, we got into bed and slept.

The next day, we climbed the tower beside the main, scallop-shaped piazza and saw Tuscany, hazy under the thin autumn fog, her mellow hills stretching out…

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Savala Nolan

uc berkeley law professor and essayist @ vogue, time, harper’s, NYT, NPR, and more | Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins | she/her | IG @notquitebeyonce