Seeking Solitude

Sendak illustration of boy in the woods

If someone were to describe me as a child, words like “bookish, dreamer, shy, and solitary” would probably be among the most frequently used. Later, as I grew older, the word “introvert” was applied to me (for some the word “offish” was bandied about). It’s true that, no matter what word is used to describe me, the company I most often prefer is solitude’s.

Whenever I’m in social settings, I feel as if something is being taken from me and, by the time the party or gathering is over, I am depleted, used up, and spent. I often retreat off by myself: either to take a walk, read a book, meditate, or simply to ponder and wonder. Some may find this selfish, I simply find it as necessary. As a child, two of my favorite places to be were either in the woods or my room. I could spend hours just walking in nature or in my bedroom building kingdoms out of blocks or drawing or imagining or reading books. Both felt like they were my own little worlds and they were the whole universe to me. School, on the other hand, was dull, overwhelming and tedious. Even there, I too often retreated into my imagination.

Bronte sisters

Certainly I could understand the Brontë sisters, with their brother, creating a fictional country, Gondal, that was all their own. It was made of four kingdoms (one for each child, I would guess): Gondal, Angora, Exina and Alcona. It started out as a childish game created by Emily and Anne (and was picked up by Charlotte and Branwell) but is one that they may have continued their entire lives.  It is not surprising that Emily would be one to create such a fictional world, as she was one of the most solitary of the family. As a girl, she developed her imagination around the natural world she observed. She was a keen observer of the sky, animals, birds, plants, rocks and water. She filled her imaginary world with these and medieval and romantic figures such as kings, princes and princesses, knights, rebels, traitors as well as castles, cathedrals, and forest battles. Emily was even described by her sister Charlotte as “a solitude loving raven, no gentle dove.” Charlotte would go on to write, “She found in the bleak solitude of the moors many and clear delights, and not the least and best-loved was liberty. … Liberty was the breath of Emily’s nostrils; without it she perished.” More than any of the other siblings, Emily loved to commune with herself in her surroundings, wandering the moors with only her thoughts and imagination for her company.

While Charlotte had always been my favorite (due heavily to Jane Eyre and Villette), when I read more about Emily, she became the one I identified with because she loved her solitude. Like Emily, I loved to wander and imagine in the woods behind our house. That setting often showed up in my writings and drawings, as I created my own world filled with kingdoms of different parts of the woods, each ruled by a different animal.

Solitude was necessary as air or food to me. My creativity and imagination thrived in solitude. Without being able to me on my own, I found myself irritable and unpleasant, if not just plain exhausted.

Andrei Tarkovsky

Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, in an interview, was asked what his advice for young people was and he answered:

“I don’t know… I think I’d like to say only that they should learn to be alone and try to spend as much time as possible by themselves. I think one of the faults of young people today is that they try to come together around events that are noisy, almost aggressive at times. This desire to be together in order to not feel alone is an unfortunate symptom, in my opinion. Every person needs to learn from childhood how to spend time with oneself. That doesn’t mean he should be lonely, but that he shouldn’t grow bored with himself because people who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger, from a self-esteem point of view.”

Spend time alone. He is promoting a healthy solitude, not loneliness.

Thoreau

One of the most solitary figures that comes to mind is Henry David Thoreau. “I love to be alone. I have never found a companion,” he wrote, “that was so companionable as solitude.” Thoreau was a man who spent a great deal of his time walking in nature, by himself with his thoughts. Want to see what an introvert Thoreau was simply read this passage from his Journal, “I thrive best on solitude. If I have had a companion only one day in a week, unless it were one or two I could name, I find that the value of the week to me has been seriously affected. It dissipates my days, and often it takes me another week to get over it.” Thoreau was a man who deeply believed in the need for cultivating solitude, that it was not only a spiritual discipline but one necessary to his creativity and well-being. Is it any wonder that his work is among those I most cherish and relate to?

Nathaniel Hawthorne

One of Thoreau’s contemporaries, Nathaniel Hawthorne, was described thus: “Never lived a man to whom ordinary contact with his fellows was more impossible, and the mysterious solitude in which his fictitious characters move is a mere shadow of his own imperial loneliness of soul.” His writing is filled with solitary characters, in fact,  he wrote the main character in his first published novel, Fanshawe, as “He had seemed, to others and to himself, a solitary being, upon whom the hopes and fears of ordinary men were ineffectual.”  Hawthorne was a solitary man who preferred his own company to that of other men; in fact, he found that crowds made him lonelier than if he were by himself.  One can hear this lament in Hawthorne asking, “What would a man do, if he were compelled to live always in the sultry heat of society, and could never bathe himself in cool solitude?”

His friend Ralph Waldo Emerson was always attempting to get Hawthorne involved and out into society, but found his friend pathologically shy and stayed silent during such gatherings where he tended to stay in a corner, away and alone from others.

When he married, Hawthorne chose Sophia Peabody, who was herself, in many ways reclusive.  Their marriage was a long and happy one. In a letter to Sophia,  he wrote, “Solitude gives you that break to reflect, to contemplate, to assimilate and much more; you understand yourself better.” And she heartily and readily agreed. They were a portrait of what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke described of  the perfect relationship, “Love consists of this: two solitudes that meet, protect and greet each other.” Rilke, on the other hand, would never experience that.

RILKE_1.jpg Producción ABC.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke viewed solitude as a safeguard for his creativity and held tightly to it throughout his life. His writings and correspondence are filled with his intense need for greater and greater solitude. Though greatly admired throughout all of Europe, Rilke was a loner, wander and social-misfit. “I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone,” he once wrote. In one of his most well-known works, Letters to a Young Poet, he wrote:

“Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…. be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust…. and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”

His mentor, the sculptor Auguste Rodin, was also a solitary man. Rilke even described him this way, “Rodin was solitary before he was famous. And fame, when it arrived, made him perhaps more solitary.”

Emily Dickinson

One cannot think upon or write about solitude without mentioning Emily Dickinson. Other than for her poetry, Dickinson is most often associated with her reclusiveness. In one of her poems, she writes:

There is a solitude of space
A solitude of sea
A solitude of death, but these
Society shall be
Compared with that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself —
Finite infinity.

Emily Dickinson is not describing loneliness, but solitude. She had a profounder sense of solitude than most as viewing “self as company.” It was in her solitary nature that she was able to make the space and time to write her poems so prodigiously (1,775 of them  by the time she died at the age of 55). What sparked her solitary designs? As a child she already had developed an intensely personal private world that she believed no one else could share in or comprehend fully.

The Soul’s Superior instants

Occur to Her – alone –

When friend – and Earth’s occasion

Have infinite withdrawn –

Or She – Herself – ascended

To too remote a Height

For lower recognition

Than Her Omnipotent . . .

“The Soul’s Superior instants” are Emily’s own inner exalted experiences that she believes can only occur when she is alone and is “infinite withdrawn.” She only knows peace and harmony when she is in her own company. It is there and there alone that she can create her poems. And when she need interaction with the outside world, it was still on her conditions and terms, because she did so through letter writing. Her correspondence was her connection to others.  As she wrote in one of her most famous poems, “The soul selects her own society, / Then shuts the door; / On her divine majority / Obtrude no more.”

Her world was her room and the natural world found in her garden.

In her solitude, Emily Dickinson wrote some of the most beautiful, profound poetry ever written. “I would paint a portrait which would bring tears,” she writes, “had I a canvas for it, and the scene should be – solitude, and the figures – solitude – and the lights and shades, each a solitude.”

These are but a few of the solitary figures who have needed solitude to create within, as well as to find nourishment for their souls and for their very selves. They understood that solitude was not a place of loneliness but one where one can find richness and depth, healing and beauty.  They were not alone in solitude but were in their favorite company: their own thoughts. The world opened and expanded to them when they were solitary. Some of the greatest minds were introverts who needed solitude to focus, think and create (Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Barack Obama, and J.K. Rowling to name a few).

As Mary Oliver writes, “Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.”

Solitude is a necessary space for someone like me to retreat into for recovery from an often overwhelming world, whose voices I can distance myself from. Solitude allows me to think, to be, to imagine. In solitude I can be in the whole-heartedness of creation and concentration. It is a place where I am invisible to distraction and can focus my attention, once again, to the grace that abounds in the natural world and in language of books or in the silence of being alone.

 

 

 

 

 

The Sound Of Silence

sound of silence

While at our local library, I came across the most beautiful children’s book entitled The Sound of Silence, written by Katrina Goldsaito and illustrated by Julia Kuo. It’s about a young boy named Tashio, who lives in very noisy Tokyo, Japan. One day he comes across a musician playing a koto, a long stringed instrument that is plucked with the fingers. Toshio asks the musician, “Sensei, do you have a favorite sound?”

“The most beautiful sound,” the koto player said, “is the sound of ma, of silence.”

In the back of the book, the author explains ma: The Japanese concept of ma is the silence between sounds. It’s the moment when musicians pause together and it is at the heart of traditional Japanese music, dance, tea ceremony, flower arrangement, storytelling and even conversation.”

What a beautiful concept to include in all aspects of one’s culture and I couldn’t help but wonder why so many other cultures didn’t? Why do we fearfully prefer to keep silence at bay?

There’s a scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande A Parte (from 1964) where three misfits decide to conduct a “minute of silence” in a busy café. This silence ends after 36 seconds when one of the characters finally quits with, “That’s enough for me. I’m going to put on a record.”

Composer Arvo Pärt

The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is a composer who’s known for his embrace of silence in his works. In an interview he did on NPR, Pärt said, “On the one hand, silence is like fertile soil, which, as it were, awaits our creative act, our seed. On the other hand, silence must be approached with a feeling of awe. And when we speak about silence, we must keep in mind that it has two different wings, so to speak. Silence can be both that which is outside of us and that which is inside a person. The silence of our soul, which isn’t even affected by external distractions, is actually more crucial but more difficult to achieve.”

Awe and silence.  Pärt includes these in his compositions and, by so doing, makes us more aware, more attuned to the notes that are played. Silence draws us in and forces us to hear more clearly than we would if the silence wasn’t there. The silent spaces in his music amplifies the spiritual and emotional aspect of his work. The silence works within the framework of his use of Gregorian monody and early Renaissance polyphony, as Pärt studied the intricate framework of ancient chants and the music associated with the Russian Orthodox Church. He also uses the tintinnabuli (a word derived from the Latin term for “little bells”).  The bells ring into silence and the composer uses that silence to a startling effect in his tintinnabuli system. How? The silence punctuates individual phrases of the vocal music and provides moments of stasis that one does not expect to find in modern music. Yet it is from this very silence that his music is born. “The silence must be longer,” he wrote, “This music is about the silence. The sounds are there to surround the silence.”

John Cage

“Music is the silence between notes,” Claude Debussy once said. Someone who would agree with Debussy’s assessment is the modern composer, John Cage.

Cage’s use of silence was heavily influenced by the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu who said that without silence, sound would be meaningless. He also said that his favorite sounds were “the wind through bamboo and the sound of silence” (it was this quote that inspired the children’s book). One of Cage’s most controversial and well-known pieces is entitled “4’33” (because it contains exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence) and was nicknamed “the silent piece” because the performer would sit down at the piano and play nothing for over four minutes. “There’s no such thing as silence,” John Cage said,”You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”

His audience grew uncomfortable and angry with silence.

Why?

Because so much of our culture pushes back at silence and wants to fill it with noise: in our restaurants (where we often have not only the sounds of conversations and the clattering of dishes and the movement of people, but also music playing through the speaker system and, sometimes, even televisions on as well), our stores, and even when we go on walks or runs (ear-buds in, listening to music on our iPods). The world is inundated with noise. I am grateful every time one of my sons asks if we can drive somewhere without the radio on, that they are embracing the opportunity to have a quiet space to think and reflect.

Tarkovsky

A filmmaker who adopted a slower pace for his films and embraced moments of sheer silence, was the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. “Being silent for awhile is good,” he once said, “Words can’t really express a person’s emotions.” He realized that so often the discordance and the noise was because we are spiritually disconnected from ourselves and our environments. Tarkovsky’s use of silence allows for the beautiful, tranquil and meditative nature of his films. He allows for silence so that his characters can explore their inner selves just as we best can in stillness and silence.

silent

Tarkovsky understands that noise is often pollution with physical, emotional, psychological and, definitely, spiritual implications. In his masterpiece Stalker, Tarkovsky has a Stalker leading an expedition of a Professor and a Writer to a place known only as The Room. In The Room, a person’s deepest, innermost wish is granted. While other scenes in the film contained noise (such as the clanging of the railway cart or the metallic sounds) The Room is filled with silence. A contemplative silence that is broken only when the Stalker finally says that he’s “home.”  Andrei Tarkovsky uses silence and longer, slower shots to create what he calls “a special intensity of attention.” He is drawing the viewer in, making them pay attention because there isn’t a lot of action, it’s not fast-paced and there is silence (something most people are not used to in cinema).

Tarkovsky uses silence and natural sound (wind, rain, the cry of a bird) to create a more haunting atmosphere, where our senses are forced to pay attention to our surroundings. Tarkovsky sees this as a spiritual act. God dwells in the silence of eternity and is reflected in such directors’ works as that of Tarkovsky and his influences: Robert Bresson and Ingmar Bergman. Robert Bresson even stated, “The eye solicited alone makes the ear impatient, the ear solicited alone makes the eye impatient. Use these impatiences. Power of the cinematographer who appeals to the two senses in a governable way. Against the tactics of speed, of noise, set tactics of slowness, of silence.”

Stalker

One cannot go to the movies now without the loudness and bombast of sound. Veterans who were at the actual battle of Dunkirk stated that Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk was louder than the real one. Filmmakers use loud sounds to raise our adrenaline and excite us.

But how is this lack of silence impacting our daily lives?

Studies have been done that show that the physical rhythms are, indeed, being affected by the constant sound that is outside of us all of the time. Noise affects our bodies in four different ways: physiologically, psychologically, behaviourally, and cognitively.

 

Silence was immense

Noise has even been called a “modern plague” by the World Health Organization. Florence Nightingale understood the impacts of noise on a person’s health way back in the 19th century, when she said, “Unnecessary noise is the most cruel absence of care that can be inflicted on sick or well.” She was correct. Noise pollution has been found to cause increased stress levels, heart attacks, and high blood pressure.

sound of silence interior1a

Silence is needed not only for our health but for self-reflection and self-generated cognition (meaning daydreaming, meditating, and simply letting our minds wander). In silence, our minds can connect to our own thoughts, emotions, memories, and creativity. Silence also helps to regenerate brain cells in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain associated with learning, memory and emotion.

“To hear,” the writer Ursual K. Le Guin wrote, “one must be silent.”

sound of silence interior3

We cannot truly hear because we no longer listen to silence first. Studies have shown that in this modern day and age, people can only hear about 1.6 of a conversation. Why? Because we are busy, both in our exterior and interior lives, and we do not silence the noise of them both. We do not quiet ourselves, so we are unable to listen.

Ma, or the silent spaces, are worked into every part of Japanese culture. Paintings even allow for that empty space. As an example, just look at Hasegawa Tohaku’s painting Pine Trees where one can visually see ma.

hasegawa-tohaku-pine-trees

We all need ma, this space for quiet time to bring meaning to our busy lives. We need to create this space for our peace of mind. The Japanese also have a word for that and it’s heijoshin, which means “calm, peaceful, steady.” Ma and heijoshin are interconnected. There is an old Japanese poem that speaks of ma:

Thirty spokes meet in the hub,
though the space between them is the essence of the wheel.

Pots are formed from clay,
though the space inside them is the essence of the pot.

Walls with windows and doors form the house,
though the space within them is the essence of the house.

This is why my family and I are embracing this concept of ma in our daily lives: to help us recalibrate and focus. We are learning that a deeper communion is most often found in silence. That silence is healing and reshaping not only how we view and interact with each other, but with the world around us. And it is helping to us to listen: to each other, to the sounds of nature, to others. We are learning what the Sufi poet Rumi, “Silence is an ocean. Speech is a river.” Silence is large, expansive to the soul. There is something sacred and holy to be found in silence that one cannot ever find amidst the noise. We are learning that silence is the language of the spirit.

What a beautiful lesson to be learned from a children’s book.

Sound of Silence book

 

 

 

 

 

 

Van Gogh On The Love Of Reading

OnlineLibraryVanGoghYellowBooks-780

“So often,” Van Gogh wrote, “a visit to a bookshop has cheered me and reminded me that there are good things in the world.” This statement only further endeared one of my favorite painters to me. When we think of Van Gogh, avid reader doesn’t necessarily come to mind. And, yet, reading was as much a part of his creative and spiritual life as painting. In one of his letters, he wrote, “I have a more or less irresistible passion for books, and constantly need to instruct myself, to study, if you will, just as I need to eat my bread.” From the time he was a child, Vincent bought and borrowed books, as well as loved getting them as presents. His choice of reading, novels, however disturbed his pious father, who objected to his son’s love of literature.

At one point, to please his religious father, Van Gogh got rid of his novels and focused solely on reading the Bible and religious works, but found himself drawn back to fiction through works like John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Vincent-Van-Gogh-Vase-With-Oleanders-And-Books_art

Self-discovery, for all of us, is done through a variety of medium and experiences. Van Gogh plumbed the depths of himself through his art. His art reflects who he is, what he found important and how he saw beauty and poetry in the daily world around him, such as workers in a field. Just as in his painting, Van Gogh used literature to discover himself and let them shape and reflect him. When he was a seminary student, he read lots of religious and theological works; one of his favorites being Thomas à Kempis’s Imitatio Christi.  During his time in Paris, he devoured French novels by the likes of Emile Zola.

Still life

Like his art, Van Gogh preferred novels that dealt with the common, working man and with every day live. His favorite authors were Charles Dickens, George Eliot (especially Adam Bede), Charlotte Brontë, Shakespeare, Emile Zola (mentioned 100 mentions of him in Van Gogh’s letters. 40 of those to a particular book) and Victor Hugo. “I am reading  Les Misérables by Victor Hugo,” he wrote to his brother Theo, “It is good to read such a book again, for the very reason of keeping some sentiments and ideas alive, especially that love for humanity, and the faith in, and consciousness of, something higher.”

Van Gogh could devour voluminous books in a matter of days, as he did with  Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley. Spending hours lost in a book was more than just a mere past time but shaped how he saw the world. In writing about reading Les Misérables, Van Gogh said, ” I was absorbed in the book for a few hours this afternoon, and then came into the studio about the time the sun was setting. From the window I looked down on a wide dark foreground . . . Behind it a gray silhouette of the city, with the round roof of the station, and spires, and chimneys; and right above it, almost at the horizon, the red sun. It was exactly like a page of Hugo.” Reading this novel impacted how Van Gogh saw the very world around him, which is exactly what great literature is meant to do. Like Van Gogh’s paintings, novels can focus our attention and cause us to take notice of things we might ordinarily overlook.

Yellow Books by Van Gogh

“It is with the reading of books the same as with looking at pictures; one must, without doubt, without hesitations, with assurance, admire what is beautiful.”

van-gogh-the-novel-reader-vincent-van-gogh

Throughout his letters to his brother Theo, Vincent is constantly suggesting books his older brother should read, such as Pierre Loti’s Pêcheur d’Islande. Theo often took his brother’s advice and were soon exchanging books. He also did this with his younger sister Wilhelmina, writing to her about the American poet, Walt Whitman:

“Have you read the American poems by Whitman? [his italics] I am sure Theo has them, and I strongly advise you to read them, because to begin with they are really fine, and the English speak about them a good deal. He sees in the future, and even in the present, a world of healthy, carnal love, strong and frank— of friendship— of work— under the great starlit vault of heaven a something which after all one can only call God— and eternity in its place above this world. At first it makes you smile, it is all so candid and pure; but it sets you thinking for the same reason. The “Prayer of Columbus” is very beautiful.”

In fact, it was a part of Whitman’s Song of Myself inspired Van Gogh’s painting of Starry Night.

Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass with a Book - Van Gogh

“Poetry surrounds us everywhere,” Van Gogh wrote, “but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it.”

Old man reading

Van Gogh read and reread his favorite works, such as novels by Honoré de Balzac and Charles Dickens. With the latter, he wrote, “I admire everything that Dickens wrote, but I have reread these two “children’s tales” [A Christmas carol and The haunted man and the ghost’s bargain] nearly every year since I was a boy, and each time they are as fresh as ever.”

Literature often shows up in his paintings. In his Portrait of Dr. Gachet, Van Gogh even painted two novels by the De Goncourts: Manette Salomon (a novel said to be found on the sofa of every artist’s studio in The Hague) and Germinie Lacerteux.

Portrait_of_Dr._Gachet

Like any bibliophile, Van Gogh collected so many books that he lamented, “I am gradually rearranging all my books. I have read too much not to carry or systemically trying to get at least an idea about modern literature . . .” He had so many books that he could not recall which ones he had and hadn’t read. There’s a Japanese word for this: tsundoku (the acquiring of reading materials in one’s home without reading them).

man-standing-reading-a-book-1882

Writers the painter did not care for: E.T.A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allen Poe and the poet Charles Baudelaire. It’s not surprising, since, for the most part, he preferred naturalist writers.

Van Gogh

To read his letters, one discovers Van Gogh’s passion for literature, something that absorbed him and he absorbed in his own work, including books (including many with legible titles) in his paintings, portraits and still life. Books, like art, were a part of who he was and shaped not only how he saw the world, but how he painted it.

Puzzle Pieces

IMG_4573

In his beautiful poem “Saint Francis and the Sow,” Galway Kinnell wrote:

The bud

stands for all things,

even for those things that don’t flower,

for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;

though sometimes it is necessary

to reteach a thing its loveliness,

to put a hand on its brow

of the flower

and retell it in words and in touch

it is lovely

until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing

The lines that struck me upon first reading it were, “Though sometimes it is necessary / to reteach a thing its loveliness…”

How many of us need to relearn that we are lovely and that there is beauty in us? It can be so easy to see the loveliness of a flower and just accept that it is without question. A field of wildflowers or an immaculately tended flower garden can nourish us in ways nothing else can. Yet how seldom do we look at ourselves as something as lovely as the daffodils that William Wordsworth wrote about in his poem? How many of us struggle with identity and self-hood and self-worth?

My younger son was adopted from Ukraine. Though he has been with us nearly five years, he wrestles with his identity. He still sees himself through the lens of his past experience and has trouble accepting that he’s accepted and loved. Since he loves to put together puzzles, I used what he enjoyed doing and understood to give him this analogy:

Picking up a small, not very pretty piece of a puzzle he was working on, I asked him, “Is this the whole puzzle?”

He gave me a look like: Are you crazy? It was obvious to him that it wasn’t the whole puzzle and he told me so.

“Okay,” I continued, “this isn’t the whole puzzle but just a small piece of it, right?” He agreed with me. “This is Ukraine. Now it’s now the whole puzzle but one piece of it. Now it will always be a piece of the puzzle, a part of who you are, but it is not all of who you are and doesn’t define your whole life. Just as this plain, boring looking piece doesn’t define or make up the whole puzzle. If we don’t have this piece, however, we are missing a part of the whole. So it’s important to recognize this, but to not allow it to be our entire focus. There  is so much more to the puzzle than this one piece and you have a whole glorious puzzle to put together ahead of you.”

Now this metaphor is one that stays with him, though I remind him of it whenever he gets stuck with his past being his present.

Like many of us, he is being taught that he is beautiful and lovely and of value and worth. Just as Galway Kinnell wrote in his poem, my son will need to be told in “words and touch” that he is.

His past contains so much grief and trauma that it often overshadows the joy and love of his present circumstances. What is happening now is filtered through the lens of his past experience so that it, not what is really occurring, is his reality.  My own childhood was not a normal one; though I have come to realize that very people had what can be considered normal. Like my son, I, too, see the world sometimes, not as it is, but through all of the fears, hurts and losses I have experienced. One of the greatest authors on the subject of memory and the past, Marcel Proust, wrote in his monumental In Search of Lost Time, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

Why?

Because so often we don’t see what’s there because we are filtering it through our past experiences. We interpret our circumstances according to how he have done so in the same way that we remember things: not necessarily as they are, but as we remembered them to be. That’s why Proust writes, “My destination is no longer a place, but a new way of seeing.”

To truly see, we must let go of our biases. This can be difficult when grief is so woven into the fabrics of our past through abuse, neglect, trauma, or sexual abuse. How much of how they see the world is through the lens of self, so that, if the self is damaged then one cannot help but view the world as hostile, frightening, dark, or overwhelming. So often how we see ourselves is how we see the world.

We build a self from our stored memories, from the social interactions we’ve had, from the emotions and experiences (positive or negative). Selfhood is created of the symbols of  the real and the imagined experiences of our memories. Both the rational and irrational forge this identity and shape how we learn to love or not love, how we trust or fear, how we raise and shape our own children, and struggle with identity according to so many social and cultural factors from social status to economic standing. How hard it is to let go of those things and tell ourselves: You are not what others say you are. You are not what we have or don’t have. Identity is an assemblage of our past: a collage of every joy, sorrow, rejection, success, failure, desire fulfilled or unfulfilled.

In his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat And Other Clinical Tales, Oliver Sacks writes, “If we wish to know about a man, we ask ‘what is his story–his real, inmost story?’ – for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us – through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and, not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations. Biologically, physiologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives – we are each of us unique.”

Our singular narrative shapes how we interact and view others, our circumstances and how we react. Yet, what happens when the trauma of our past has been repressed so that we don’t know that it is shaping our current narratives?

Sacks writes, “To be ourselves we must have ourselves – possess, if need be re-possess, our life-stories. We must “recollect” ourselves, recollect the inner drama, the narrative, of ourselves. A man needs such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self.”

That means we have to face the negative, to confront our pasts with all of its wounds and brokenness. We must see that that part of our lives will always make up some of who we are but doesn’t have to define all of who we are.

Mission 5

There’s a scene in the movie The Mission in which the character of Rodrigo Mendoza (played by Robert DeNiro) wants to leave behind his past as a soldier, mercenary and slave trader to become a Jesuit priest. He is made to climb the steep, rocky cliff of a mountain. It’s slippery (as it’s near waterfalls), jagged with rocks, muddy and difficult to navigate. This is made even harder by the fact that tied to him is a net containing his old life (weapons, armor). It is heavy and cumbersome, yet Mendoza continues to attempt climbing. He falls and cuts himself. He slips and struggles.

When he finally gets to the top where Father Gabriel (played by Jeremy Irons) waits with members of the Guaraní  tribe (of whom Mendoza has kidnapped many and sold into slavery). Father Gabriel tries to get Mendoza to let go of the things of his past, but he won’t let go of them. Finally, one of the Guaraní comes over with a knife. At first, one thinks this native is going to kill him by cutting his throat (And why shouldn’t he take the life of a man who’d taken so many of his tribe?), but he doesn’t. Instead, the native cuts the ropes tying Mendoza to the net, which causes all of those items from Mendoza’s past to fall back down the cliff and into the river, where it is swept away. Only then does Mendoza begin to sob in release.

DeNiro The Mission

It’s a powerful scene of forgiveness and symbolic of how letting go of the burden of our past self can offer us a new life. In that act of cutting Mendoza free, the indigenous man was not only freeing someone who’d been his enemy, but was offering him a new identity of worthy and beauty.

How many cannot see their loveliness because they are stuck carrying the weight of their baggage up an already difficult climb?

Galway Kinnell continues his poem with:

… Saint Francis

put his hand on the creased forehead

of the sow, and told her in words and in touch

blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow

began remembering all down her thick length,

from the earthen snout all the way

through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,

from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine

down through the great broken heart

to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering

from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:

the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

How deeply moving is it that the poet writes of Saint Francis toughing the sow, telling her “in words and in touch” blessings of every part of  the sow (from its earthen snout to its great broken heart). How many people need such a blessing over every part of their self-hood and identity: to have someone bless and tell them they are beautiful?

There is that juxtaposition of this messy, dirty, smelly image of a sow with all of earthiness and slop with the poem’s final words: the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

Would it not be easier to face one’s past, no matter how painful, if there was someone there to tell us that we are lovely and loved? That all of us is blessed and beloved?

Souls & Bones

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While driving some distance, I put on a collection of poems written and read by Mary Oliver. It’s one of the ways I am introducing my younger son to poetry and the ideas of language as metaphor, as imagery. He is very concrete and literal in his use and understanding of language. From the time I received Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses as a gift from my Great-Aunt Annie, I have loved poetry. From the silly and humorous poems of Edward Lear, Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein to “The Jabberwocky” of Lewis Carroll. As I grew up, unlike so many others I knew, I never lost my love for poetry; probably because I never lost my love for language and learning new words.

I chose to listen to Mary Oliver because of her writing so clearly about the natural world (birds, animals, nature) and these are all things that are dear to my younger son. Sitting in the back seat of my car, he was clearly listening to her with rapt attention because he would begin to ask me questions about what certain lines or phrases meant. I often responded by asking him, “What do you think it means?”One of the worst things to do when teaching about poetry is to take the approach that there is only one meaning to poems and to dismiss or not even listen to a child’s thoughts about what they think it means. To encourage and, hopefully, nurture and nourish a love of poetry, I never have told either of my sons that a poem only has one set meaning. Instead, poems are open to interpretation and so much of what makes poetry powerful is what the reader brings to the poem. It’s also important that poems be read aloud.

Then Oliver began reading from her poem “Bone,” which comes from her collection entitled Why I Wake EarlyThe poem begins with these lines:

Understand, I am always trying to figure out

what the soul is,

and where hidden,

and what shape –

As soon as she read those words, I knew she had my son’s attention. The soul has been a topic of much conversations and questions since the passing of one of our dogs. He has asked my wife and I questions like: What is a soul? What does it look like? Is it the same as a ghost? Where does the soul go after we die? Do animals, like our dog Chloe, have a soul? Do animals go to heaven? What happens to our bodies after we die?

His questions are theological, spiritual, and complex. We listen to him and take his questions seriously because how we respond can shape how he approaches the subject of death and dying, as well as his concept of God, an afterlife, and what it truly means to be alive.

The concept of a soul has been around for centuries. Archaeologists discovered a slab that dates from the 8th century BC and comes from an Iron Age city called Sam’al in Turkey. On this 800-pound, 3′ tall rock with a carving of the deceased man and words that explained how his soul was now residing within this stone slab. Not exactly what most of us would think of as an ideal eternal resting place (not even for a geologist, I’m guessing).

Around the same time as this stone carving, the Greeks who wrote a great deal on the nature of the psychê (or soul or to breathe), whether it was Plato (first in Phaedo and then in The Republic), Aristotle (in De Anima or On The Soul), Epicurus, the Stoics, Plotinus, Platonists, as well as the early Church Fathers. In 5th century Greece, the soul was simply being alive and is attributed to every living thing, not just humans. Later, into the 6th century, it became the essence of what it meant to be alive: reason, character, feeling, memory, perception and being. The soul became more abstract than just simply being alive. The soul was the breath that gave life to the anima (or that which animates) the being. Of the soul, Plato wrote, “The soul of man is immortal and imperishable.” For many Plato, like many Greeks, the psyche was what determined how we behaved and tconsisted of three parts:

  1. Logos or reason. This is located in the head.
  2. Thymos or emotion. This is located in the chest.
  3. Eros or desire. This is located in the stomach.

The Platonists, or followers of Plato, believed that the soul was immaterial and incorporeal. While the Epicureans disagreed and believed that the soul was made up of atoms like the rest of the body.  This body-soul dichotomy would originated with the Greeks but would be taken up by early Christian theology of Gregory of Nyssa and Saint Augustine (who believed in the trichotomic view of body (soma), soul (psyche), and spirit (pneuma).

ba-in-tomb

Unlike the Greeks, the Egyptians believed in a dual soul. The ka (or breath) survived death and remained near the body. The ba (expressed in the form of a bird) is mobile and leaves the body and goes to the land of the dead.

In early Judaism, they did not separate the soul from the body. Biblical references connected the soul to breath and the word for both were the same: nephesh.

Hinduism also has the soul as the atman  or life breath.

For as long as humans have had consciousness, we have wrestled with the idea of a soul and the nature of it; although many, like William James, believe that the soul is no more than a collection of psychic phenomena.  Some consider the soul immortal. Others that only part of the soul is.

Mary Oliver

Like so many things, we don’t like this uncertainty, these unanswered questions. We prefer to do what Mary Oliver writes of in the poem as “sift it down into fractions and facts.” But we cannot. We can, as she continues, only “play at the edge of knowing” just as we would play at the water’s edge of “the gray sea” that will not offer up its answers. But this is so unsettling to a great many people.  They are not willing to say, as she did in her poem, “truly I know our part is not knowing.”  Such a non-answer is found unsatisfying.

As my mother lay in a bed in the hospice wing of the hospital, she wrestled with a faith that had always been so settled all of her life. What lay beyond this life became a question, not an answer, even as she fidgeted with the ribbon-bookmark of her Bible, and asked me, when we were alone, “What do you believe?” The woman who, in a great sense, gave faith to me, was tired, broken and afraid from battling with cancer. There was clearly fear in her eyes. I was shaken, to say the least. How could I answer this question for her when she was the one who had always appeared to have such certainty?

“Hope is a thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson (Saint Emily, to me) wrote, “that perches in the soul.” Her poem begins like a psalm or a hymn. But hope was not perched on my mother’s soul. Doubt was (something that seemed more akin to Emily Dickinson than hope). Certainly death was a central theme of so many of Saint Emily’s poems. Preoccupied by a subject that was a daily occurrence in her small New England town with its high mortality rate for young people, Dickinson’s poems about the subject struggle deeply with whether or not the soul survives death, as seen in a poem like “This World is not Conclusion.”

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond –
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound –
It beckons, and it baffles –
Philosophy, dont know –
And through a Riddle, at the last –
Sagacity, must go –
To guess it, puzzles scholars –
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown –
Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies –
Blushes, if any see –
Plucks at a twig of Evidence –
And asks a Vane, the way –
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

What happens after death is a question even the wise cannot answer, she writes. This poem portrays this conflict of faith and doubt without being able to rest solely on either. But such lines do not give comfort, particularly for the dying and the fearful.

Mary Oliver ends her poem “Bone” with saying that “our part is not knowing but looking, and touching, and loving…” In our not knowing, we are to continue to live life. The parts she emphasized were looking (being aware and present), touching (again a presence and awareness) and, lastly, loving (to truly love another is to be present to them). Oliver stresses that we should not spend all of our time so focused on what happens after life that we do not live this life we are now in.

The Sufi poet Rumi wrote, “My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that, and I intend to end up there.” For him, this meant “losing” his “soul in God’s love.” He believed in an afterlife, as do I.

George MacDonald

One of my favorite theologians is George MacDonald. His writing would go on to influence C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll (who took the above photograph of MacDonald), W.H. Auden, E. Nesbit and Madeleine L’Engle. MacDonald wrote, “Never tell a child you have a soul. Teach him, you are a soul; you have a body.’ As we learn to think of things always in this order, that the body is but the temporary clothing of the soul, our views of death and the unbefittingness of customary mourning will approximate to those of Friends of earlier generations.”

How I answered my mother is the same as how I answered my sons after the death of our dog: I believe that death is but a door. It is not an end, but a connection to a life after this one. For me, the “hope” that is perched in my soul is that this is real and true.

Still, when those we love die, we lose a part of ourselves, and the world seems somehow irregular and missing something. When my mother died, her body remained but that which gave her life and made up her very being was gone. And a part of me was gone with her. A part of my own life and story was lost. Just as we now find our house somewhat unfamiliar without our sweet little dog scampering about in it.

What I love, though, is that despite my not having all the answers, I can have this conversation with my sons. That they are questioning and thinking about such deeper things now and that they will continue to do so. That a poem like “Bone” can spark this dialogue between us. That words and language matter because they allow us to talk about such ephemeral and eternal things. Today, this poem was a gift in so many, many ways because it opened our minds to something bigger than ourselves and formed a stronger connection because we allowed ourselves to be present to it.

Oliver

Bone
Mary Oliver

1.
Understand, I am always trying to figure out
what the soul is,
and where hidden,
and what shape
and so, last week,
when I found on the beach
the ear bone
of a pilot whale that may have died
hundreds of years ago, I thought
maybe I was close
to discovering something
for the ear bone

2.
is the portion that lasts longest
in any of us, man or whale; shaped
like a squat spoon
with a pink scoop where
once, in the lively swimmer’s head,
it joined its two sisters
in the house of hearing,
it was only
two inches long
and thought: the soul
might be like this
so hard, so necessary

3.
yet almost nothing.
Beside me
the gray sea
was opening and shutting its wave-doors,
unfolding over and over
its time-ridiculing roar;
I looked but I couldn’t see anything
through its dark-knit glare;
yet don’t we all know, the golden sand
is there at the bottom,
though our eyes have never seen it,
nor can our hands ever catch it

4.
lest we would sift it down
into fractions, and facts
certainties
and what the soul is, also
I believe I will never quite know.
Though I play at the edges of knowing,
truly I know
our part is not knowing,
but looking, and touching, and loving,
which is the way I walked on,
softly,
through the pale-pink morning light.

 

Footsteps

Footsteps

Whenever I go on vacation, my family knows that wherever we go, I will check before we leave to see what literary stops we can make. In the past, we have gone to the rugged shores of Rachel Carson’s Maine,  the boardinghouse that Thomas Wolfe grew up in and wrote about, Carl Sandburg’s Connemara in Flat Rock (one of my favorite places because it looks exactly as it did when the poet laureate lived here and makes one think that he just stepped out for a minute), Edgar Allen Poe’s dorm room at the University of Virginia, Mikhail Bulgakov’s childhood home in Kyiv,  and Thomas Merton’s apartment in Greenwich Village are just a few of them. On my list of places to go on literary pilgrimage is: Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Flannery O’Connor’s Andalusia, the Brontë’s parsonage in Haworth, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond, both William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak and Eudora Welty’s Mississippi home, Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in the Lake District and John Steinbeck’s home in Salinas.

M Train

In her memoir M Train, Patti Smith writes an elegy to her late husband, Fred Sonic Smith, as well as her extensive love of books and pilgrimages to the places that the writers she loves inhabited. It is a glorious rumination on memory, and how one’s interior and exterior life are connected by dreams, art, literature, and place. “We seek to stay present,” she writes, “even as the ghosts attempt to draw us away.” Those ghosts are not only her late husband, but writers like Jean Genet, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Paul Bowles, and Roberto Bolaño. Her literary pilgrimages are no less sacred than the religious one so many take to places like Camino de Santiago.  Smith’s poetic and vagabond heart drew me in with her beautiful prose and only furthered my desire to visit the places of authors who have meant so much to me (like Fyodor Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg or Lewis Carroll’s Oxford). And the book is filled with Smith’s lovely black and white photographs of items like Woolf’s writing desk.

Woolf's desk

Footsteps is a collection of essays based on The New York Times‘ travel column of the same name. As a traveling bibliophile, I was thrilled to step into the pages of this book in the hopes of being filled with a longing to to spend time not only either reading or rereading the works of the authors mentioned, but to visit the places I have either dreamed of or will now begin to dream of going to. For example, I can only imagine the thrill I will get when I finally sit down at the stone table where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien talked about their writing (of no less than the ones that took place in Narnia and Middle Earth).

stone table

Place can so often be conjured up by simply mentioning an author: Charles Dickens’ London, L.M. Montgomery’s Prince Edward Island,  Dashell Hammett’s San Francisco, or Marcel Proust’s Illiers-Combray.  Reading the essays contained in this wonderful collection made me imagine wish to see the sun rise over Black Bird Pond in Provincetown because it’s the place so inhabited by the poetry of Mary Oliver. It doesn’t take much to cause a stirring in me to hop a flight to Ireland, but I get goosebumps at the thought of visiting James Joyce’s Dublin or W.B. Yeats’ Innisfree. Having visited Germany years ago, I can now add the Brothers Grimm’s homes between Frankfurt and Bremen, Alice Munro’s Vancouver, Pablo Neruda’s Chile and Elena Ferrante’s Naples.

That is what’s so wonderful about this book: it stirs and rekindles a desire for wanderlust to travel to places that are often only familiar to me in my imagination from having read these great writers’ works. And it makes me rethink somewhere like Hawaii in terms of Mark Twain’s time there (How many of us think of him attempting to surf?).

It is because a writer has somehow reached through their words and moved us and touched us so deeply, so intimately and connected to the reader in a way that no other medium can, that makes someone like myself to eagerly yearn to see where the places they inhabited and inhabited them to such a degree that their literary works breathe and smell and have the sounds and sights of that place. It makes us want to visit those places so that we can somehow touch something connected to them, even if it’s paying one’s respect at an author’s grave (as I have done so many times before). It is paying tribute to those who have affected us and changed us.

If you are also one of those people, then I highly recommend Footsteps so that you, too, can begin to plan your next trip.

 

Georgia O’Keefe On Truly Seeing

OKeeffe

“Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time,” wrote Georgia O’Keefe. “If you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for a moment.”

How many of us truly take the time to look at anything in the world about us? To see beyond a passing glance or a brief registering of an object or plant or tree or bird or person?

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Do we stop to notice the way the light touches something and creates color and shadow? Can we see that there is more than one shade of green in a blade of grass or a leaf?  Do we train ourselves to really look at something beyond the surface to the very nature of the thing itself?

Back when I was an art major in undergraduate school, I learned how to train my eye to be awakened to the subject that was before me; whether that be another person, a still-life, a door, the corner of a room, or something in nature. Before I ever even began to sketch or draw or paint, I observed. Confucius wisely said, as he so often did, “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” How many of us miss the beauty that is all around us because we do not have the eyes to see it? Artists, poets, and photographers train themselves to seeing. To being aware and present to what is before them.

O'Keefe with camera

My art teachers taught me to stop identifying objects but to see them as lines, shapes, contours, shades and shadows. Psychology professor Dr. Stine Vogt writes that artists see the world differently than non-artists because they “turn off the part of the brain that identifies objects” by focusing instead on the “curves, colors and shadows that hit the retina.” When someone only draws the object, they end up drawing an icon of the object rather than the object themselves.

That is why great artists not only see differently from others but they cause us to stop and see something that we too often overlooked.  O’Keefe’s flowers, Cézanne’s fruit or Monet’s waterlilies.

The Starry Night

“Genius gives birth,” Jack Kerouac wrote, “talent delivers. What Rembrandt or Van Gogh saw in the night can never be seen again. Born writers of the future are amazed already at what they’re seeing now, what we all see in time for the first time, and then see imitated many times by made writers.”

Why is this?

Because artists are actively looking. They are watching, noticing, remembering. For them, seeing is active, not passive.

Okubo Shibutsu

How many of us would take the time to not only see but study and paint bamboo, for example? Japanese artist Okubo Shibutsu became famous for his and is considered the greatest painters of bamboo painters. Why? Because he first noticed the way that the moon cast a shadow on bamboo as he had not seen on anything else. He began tracing  with sumi (a type of black Japanese ink prepared in solid sticks and used for painting and writing) such bamboo shadows on his paper window.

Do we even really stop and look at paintings that we consider masterpieces or great works of art? A study found that the average person spends a total of seventeen seconds looking at a piece of art in a museum. Seventeen seconds. That’s it. A person cannot even register the details of an artwork in that brief period of time.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “To learn to see- to accustom the eye to calmness, to patience, and to allow things to come up to it; to defer judgment, and to acquire the habit of approaching and grasping an individual case from all sides. This is the first preparatory schooling of intellectuality. One must not respond immediately to a stimulus; one must acquire a command of the obstructing and isolating instincts.”

We do not take the time to see because we do not take the time.

We place little value or importance on seeing. We are too busy to see. Or we simply snap a selfie of us with a work so that we can post it to social media to present the experience of being in a place without ever really experiencing or seeing that very place we are in.

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Seeing requires patience, requires us spending time being present to something as simple as a flower. While walking in  nature, I came to a stream and as I stepped down the rocky banks, I stopped. There on some of the smaller river gravel was a Blue Swallowtail Butterfly. I sat down and just watched it. I looked at the contrast of its gradations of blacks and blues to that of the small stones and even the leaves of green and brown that were around it. It was living art right before my eyes.

I love how the poet Mary Oliver describes looking:

I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.

Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
As though with your arms open.

Her description of looking as “standing around as though with your arms open” is transcendent. It is to look with expectation and willingness. It is looking as participating. It is being open and alive to the wonders that surround us daily in life.

Great artists help us to see. They force us to pay attention.

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One can ignore a flower in nature, but find ourselves unable to do so when it’s been painted by Georgia O’Keefe. We look at her bold, bright colors on the canvas and take notice. We are made aware of what we so often take for granted.  As she, herself, once said, “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”

Part of the reason that she painted flowers on such large canvases was that she understood that on such a grand scale one cannot ignore its beauty.

Georgia O'Keefe

When we being to see creation that flourishes around us, we keep ourselves open to possibility, to allowing the force of the world to break into our own personal realities and connect us to something larger than ourselves. We are present to what is now visible to us. We move beyond recognizing or registering to seeing: the Carolina Wren with its gradations of browns and blacks on its feather, resting on the limb of the Japanese Maple with its blood-red leaves, or the way the sunlight touches it. We notice the crystals in the smooth, cold wet rocks of the stream. The landscape becomes alive to us.  Seeing helps us to gain understanding. Everything becomes sublime and intricate and alive.

That is why I am glad we have artists who are brave enough to not only see but who force us to see. That they can speak in colors and shapes so that we can understand this translation and begin to see for ourselves a black iris or red canna or blue morning glories. This is the gift of the artist to those of us who are willing to stop and begin to look as if we were seeing the world for the very first time.

 

 

The Magic Of Creation & Fairy Tales

fairy tale book

In his book The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre, Jack Zipes wrote, “Fairy tales begin with conflict because we all begin our lives with conflict. We are all misfit for the world, and somehow we must fit in, fit in with other people, and thus we must invent or find the means through communication to satisfy as well as resolve conflicting desires and instincts.” The truth of his words sink deeply in as I have begun to write my own fairy tale after having read and collected them for so many years.

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I was first introduced to the genre when my Great-Aunt Annie gave me a small picture book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales (much of the darkness and brutality of their tales were cleaned up in this edition).  It was one of the first books given to me as a Christmas present and would become one of my childhood favorites.

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This collection of fairy tales is one of the books I have kept over the years because I cannot imagine my life had I not been given it. I did not just read fairy tales, but became a part of them and they of me. There was something deep and truthful about their stories that enraptured me and engrossed me and drew me in. I entered fairy tales the way children in them so often entered the forest. The places they led me to were frightening and fantastic and allowed me to dream of magic.

In our home, the conflict that so often arose there, could also be mirrored in the relationships of fairy tales. Families were often fractured and broken. And yet, no matter how difficult and dangerous the situations were, these stories always ended with a happily ever after, with overcoming the terrors and the troubles and the trials. As a quiet, shy and introverted boy. I wanted to believe in such endings.

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And yet, despite my love of fairy tales, I had never really attempted to write one until the beginning of this summer. It started as a project between my younger son and myself. Since he is adopted and often struggles with identity, I thought what could be a better way for him to do just that than in a genre that is all about identity and struggling with who one is and of the monsters and forces in the world around us. What better gift than to work on a story where such struggles end in triumph?

He was thrilled when I proposed the idea to him. But what would our story be about?

It was my son who came up with what our fairy tale would be about: a young boy who loves with his parents by the edge of a great forest learns that he was a foundling that they discovered on a bed of moss in the forest itself. Desiring to know his true identity and where he came from, the boy decides to journey into the forest to find the answers to his questions.

The poet W. H. Auden once said, “The way to read a fairy tale is to throw yourself in.” It’s also what you must do to write one as well. So we did!

Baba Yaga on mortar

Since my son is from Ukraine, we decided to use the Slavic myths and fairy tales instead of the more European ones that most people know. Ours would be inhabited by the figures of Russian and Ukrainian fairy and folk tales. Figures like the Baba Yaga, the firebird, Father Frost and Kot Bayun. We would also add our own twists on them: creating our own characters and takes on established figures and motifs that run throughout all of Slavic folklore and mythology.

writing fairy tales

What’s fascinating about writing this fairy tale is how much of it we incorporate with ourselves and our own struggles masked in the archetypes of a character like the crone Baba Yaga or the forest itself. I love how Maria Tatar describes this process in her book Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood:

“Magic happens when the wand of language strikes a stone and makes it melt, touches a spindle and turns it into gold, or taps a trunk and makes it fly. By drawing on a syntax of enchantment that conjures fluidity, ethereality, flimsiness, and transparency, writers turn solidity into resplendent airy lightness to produce miracles of linguistic transubstantiation.

What is the effect of that beauty? How do readers respond to words that create that beauty? In a world that has discredited that particular attribute and banished it from high art, beauty has nonetheless held on to its enlivening power in children’s books. It draws readers in, then draws them to understand the fictional worlds it lights up.”

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The reason fairy tales have stayed with us and have had such a deep impact on those who both read and hear them is that they connect to something primal about us. They strike a chord of truth within us that we understand that there is darkness and light, and that the choice determines our characters and our outcomes. Fairy tales show us that kindness is rewarded and selfishness leads to destruction. We are enchanted by these stories because they reveal truths to us that we cannot find anywhere else.

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Who doesn’t delight upon hearing the words, “Once upon a time . . .”

Walt Disney built so much of his empire on them.

Our culture thrives on fairy tales disguised as dramas or even advertisements. Nikes are the magic shoes that give us amazing athletic prowess. Coke is the magic elixir we drink and find friendships.  Wear this makeup and it will make you look younger and more beautiful than all of the other fair maidens.

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We need fairy tales because we long for them to be true. As Jack Zipes wrote, “If there is one ‘constant’ in the structure and theme of the wonder tale, it is transformation.” We all long for transformation. Is it any wonder we keep retelling the tale of Beauty and the Beast?

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And I hope for transformation, even tiny glimpses of transformation, in my younger son as we write this tale together. It is the opportunity to not only spend time together creating and allowing him to discover the true limitlessness of his imagination (something he had never been able to do before he was adopted), but hopefully find some healing in the power of storytelling. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “There is the great lesson of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.” This is a lesson he’s learning by being a member of our family and our community.

Fairy tale characters struggle to overcome witches and monsters and bestial forces, but this child has really faced the demons and the darkness that exist in the forest of this world. We are going through our imagined forest together, writing of a young boy who defeats his enemies, makes friends in those he encounters (human, animal and bird), and, ultimately, overcomes and triumphs. I hope that the story he is helping me write is one that will resonate within his own mind and heart and soul. I want him to see that he is the boy, Pavel, from our story. He is a hero. He is truly braver than the knight Ilya Muromets.

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‘Words,” Maria Tatar writes, “have not just the astonishing capacity to banish boredom and create wonders. They also enable contact with the lives of others and with story worlds, arousing endless curiosity about ourselves and the places we inhabit.”

And they do.

My younger son and I sit on my bed with all of our notes scribbled in notebooks spread out and all of my fairy tale books within reach and we talk and write and dream and imagine. We create worlds and characters and scenarios of terror and wonder. This is, indeed, the true magic of fairy tales.

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The Beauty Of Bird Watching

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Bird watching requires me to be present, to be silent and to be still. All of these things are a spiritual practice and I cannot help but think of Christ’s asking us to “Consider the birds of the air…” It’s a command I can easily and willingly obey. As a child, I loved to spend time in the woods behind our house and to discover birds, collecting parts of egg shells or empty nests or feathers. All of these things were prized by me and ended up on my bookshelves. My mother was horrified to see me picking up such things and warned me about how “dirty” birds were and to go wash my hands. Her warning, however, did not deter me in the least.

I loved laying in the fields or in my backyard on a beautiful spring or summer day and watch the birds in flight within the Carolina blue sky. I loved to hear birdsong from the trees and bushes, that seemed to fill the mornings and early evenings. Sometimes I would go to the local library to check out bird guides so that I could name what I saw: filled with delight when I spotted a bird and then found it in the guide. To know the name of the bird made this small event somehow more magical, as if naming meant the bird was somehow connected to me. It also meant that I was constantly on the look out for new birds.  Where we lived, I saw a lot of Robins and Cardinals (my mother’s favorite and our state bird).  Seeing them often, however, did not diminish their beauty or my desire to watch them.

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As I grew older, however, I lost the magic of seeing birds. They became common objects, mundane and I did not take the time to pay attention and notice one bird from another. They, unfortunately, fell into generalities of trees, plants, and rocks (all things that had held me in their thrall during my childhood years) and I found myself paying more attention to girls and dating and music and all that encompasses the drama of the teenage years. Putting away childish things is the business of supposedly growing up, though I have come to appreciate the idea of maturing into childhood because it’s filled with wonder and delight.

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It was only when my younger son began his interest in bird watching that my love of birds returned to me as a pure gift that life wants to give to us when we are open and allow it to. His enthusiasm for spotting birds drew me in and I found myself going on nature walks or spending time in our back yard watching and, as I had once done, helping him locate the birds we saw in the field guides I bought for him. His joy translated into my own as we observed birds going about their daily business. The birds were no longer mundane but were no less miraculous than burning bushes or ladders to heaven.

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How had I lost this? I began to wonder. Why did I stop noticing? Stop paying attention? Why had seeing not been important?

To be present to these birds was to be present to the holy, the sacred, the divine. There is a Zen saying that goes, “Consider the trees which allow the birds to perch and fly away without either inviting them to stay or desiring them to never to depart. If your heart can be like this, you will be near to the way.” As I watched birds, I realized how pure an act it is. I don’t try to collect or capture them, but am content to simply watch them and let them be. I am aware of the birds in the world around me and this makes me open to not only birds, but all of nature. I see myself not disconnected from them but that we are both sharers in this world.

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There’s a Chinese proverb that goes, “A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.” I want to be more like that: less in need of answers, more in need of songs. To sing for singing’s sake. Pure music because it flows from the simple desire to make music. It is creation at its simplest and most amazing. There are times when I am walking through nature and I just stop, close my eyes and listen to the birdsong that fills the trees and my own soul. Emily Dickinson, the poet of small things, wrote, “I hope you love birds, too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.” Hearing their music is on earth as it is in heaven. It is glorious and rapturous. It is to find joy in the moment, just as I do listening to the sound of streams.

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There is a euphoria to spotting a bird, especially when I know exactly what bird it is. The Black-Capped Chickadee or Carolina Wren or Painted Bunting or Killdeer. I find myself, no matter where I am, looking for birds. Seeing a hawk soaring overhead as I drive through the country or seeing Carolina Chickadees in the trees of a Target parking lot as they fly down to eat crumbs.

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One of my family’s favorite parts of Spring is to see the Barred Owls that take up residence in our oak trees. Their families become a part of ours and we welcome their arrival and take pleasure in seeing their precious owlets. Or hearing the sounds of their calls at night. Deep down, secretly, I think we all still hope that one is going to deliver our letter from Hogwarts.

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Now, when we go on vacation, we always look up where a great place is to bird watch in whatever city we are traveling to. We plan to go to nature parks so that we can spend time together doing something that continues to open us up to the natural world and to be amazed at the abundance of bird species. To see the diversity and the glorious beauty of some of their brightly colored feathers. I always carry my camera to snap photos of the birds we find so that we can look them up later. Although, with technology, we can also do that with Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s app eBird.

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Bird watching is the cultivation of patience. Of being alive and awakened to what’s around you. To suddenly seeing the hummingbird drinking nectar from the fluted, brightly colored flower in our garden. It’s letting go of expectation and opening oneself up to what might see, a bird we’ve seen many times before or a new species that makes us gasp for breath in wonder. Either way, one comes away changed and grateful.

The poet ee cummings wrote, “may my heart be always open to little birds who are the secrets of living.” And I heartily agree with him. It is a kind of prayer that we pray to allow ones heart to always be open to the birds and not take them for granted. To wait and watch is to stop the world’s busyness. It is letting go of the notion that humans are of greatest importance and the center of everything.

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To watch birds is to have a willingness to stop thinking about self. To focus on that which is outside of ourselves. It is to see the beauty and harmony that underlies all of nature. To look through binoculars and see that what one thought of as a plane, brown bird has subtle markings on their feathers and that there is a grace and deeper beauty than what one had first imagined allows for the opening of one’s soul to the true wonder that really is all around us.

Why would I not want to share in that? Why would I not want my sons to do so as well? It is a treasure that we can do this together. We are, all of us, allowing ourselves to be opened up to another dimension of our world, to seeking understanding in places where we had so busily overlooked them before.

To sit there, silently and watching, is a form of prayer. And, I cannot help myself, that when I do spot a bird suddenly, I find myself saying quietly, “Thank you.” This moment is, indeed, a precious gift. The world around us is filled with ten thousand truths if we let ourselves be present to them. May I always welcome such flights of wisdom and wonder into my life.

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Happier of happy though I be, like them
I cannot take possession of the sky,
Mount with a thoughtless impulse and wheel there
One of a mighty multitude, whose way
And motion is a harmony and dance
Magnificent….
~William Wordsworth

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Dr. Who, Wonder Woman, & A Wrinkle In Time

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One of my favorite TV shows, Doctor Who, just announced that the next Doctor would be a woman. Does those bother me? No. Not at all. It makes me excited at the possibilities that this opens up for storytelling. The actress, Jodie Whittaker, I know from her work on Broadchurch, another show I love to watch. She’s a strong actress who I am rooting for that the story lines will be strong enough to showcase her talents.

The DoctorAfter twelve male doctors, it will be great to have a female take on this iconic role. When I told my oldest son that the next Doctor was going to be a woman, it made me proud that he responded with enthusiasm and was excited by this change.

What can a strong female bring to this role that a male could not? How will she and the writers see the Doctor through the lens of being female and is there a difference to how she will be played compared to that of a male actor? This will be challenging and thrilling and interesting, which is never a bad thing for drama. I also love how young girls will now be able to see themselves in this Time Lord as they had not been able to before.  I love how my sons will now get to see yet another strong female role model in the media (as they get to see one at home with my wife).

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Just a day before the BBC announced their casting decision, the teaser trailer for A Wrinkle in Time finally came out. Far longer than my love for Doctor Who, is my love for this novel. As a young boy, I read Madeleine L’Engle’s classic back when I was in middle school. Instantly, I connected with the character of Meg Murry. Like Meg, I felt like an outsider and an oddball. I identified with her and loved that L’Engle used what Meg considered to be here weaknesses to be the strengths that saved everyone from the Darkness. Even though I was a boy, I saw much of myself in Meg and longed for her to be real so that we could be friends.

A-Wrinkle-in-Time-images-700x300When I heard that Ava DuVernay was directing this epic for Disney, I rejoiced. Not only did I love her film Selma but also her powerful documentary 13th.  Both brought a masterful eye to their subjects and made me to stop and consider what I knew about a subject that was familiar (Martin Luther King, Jr.) and the racial injustice of the American prison system. The idea that a story that was so familiar to me would be seen afresh and anew made me excited at what lay in store.

Then when I saw the diversity in casting for not only Meg, but Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), I loved that it made these characters alive again.  I loved the character of Meg Murry and the fact that she was being played by a young actress of color meant that even more children would be able to love and identify with her was brilliant. Besides, Meg should be defined not by her color but by her character.

Hopefully, this film will make such casting normal and not be seen as brave or unusual.

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All of this comes after a summer where our family’s favorite movie was Wonder Woman. When asked what I wanted to do for Father’s Day, that film was my choice to go to with my sons. Growing up, I loved super heroes and there have been many, many, many super hero movies – predominantly male. How many versions can we have of Batman, Superman, and Spider-man (including one this summer)? Yet, as a boy, one of my favorite super heroes wasn’t Superman but Wonder Woman (played on television by Lynda Carter).  When I heard they were making a Wonder Woman film, my hopes were very low because of all the dreadful DC movies that had come out (Super-man, Batman Vs. Superman, Suicide Squad). But Wonder Woman was vastly different and far superior to not only those films, but many in the super hero genre. Why?

Wonder WomanBecause Wonder Woman was a hero to be a hero. She wanted only to help out of a goodness. In the midst of dark, brooding super heroes who appear to be conflicted and miserable all the time, it was refreshing to see a hero who was a hero. How sad that we so seldom see that in movies now. Gal Gadot portrayed a super hero who was strong, moral and good. Her Wonder Woman had both an inner and outer strength of character. And it was awesome to watch as the Amazonian women came riding out on that beach or swinging down from the cliffs to attack the Germans. Who’d have thought that Princess Buttercup from The Princess Bride could shoot a bow with three arrows in a manner that made me want to stand up and cheer? I also love that Wonder Woman is now my younger son’s favorite super hero.

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Seeing female characters that are equal and empowered does not threaten or emasculate me in any way or do so to my sons. I embrace and welcome them. Having grown up in a house with a strong mother taught me that this was not something that challenged my male identity. My mother’s strength did not weaken me but raised me up to be strong, too. Her intelligence meant that she taught me to question and wonder and ponder and really investigate and challenge why things were as they were. “A closed mind shows open ignorance,” she taught me. She raised me so that when I got married, I would seek a woman who was strong and intelligent to go through life with together so that we could exhort each other, as well as have each other’s back.

And indeed I did.

My wife’s strength only makes me stronger just as I hope to do the same for her. I love that she has opinions that differ from mine and that she’s not afraid to say so.

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As a boy, I was never told not to read a book because it was a “girl’s” book. Because of that, I grew up reading about characters like Meg Murry, Jo March, Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls, or Sara Crewe. It also meant that as I got older, I continued doing so and discovering Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre, Cassandra Mortmain, and, most recently, Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen.

LeighI also loved movies that had strong females in them, especially Princess Leigh from Star Wars, who was often the one who got the males out of a tight spot, as well as had some of the best lines.

I don’t believe equality should be an issue for debate but a given for all, no matter a person’s race or sex or sexuality. When I see that the Doctor is going to be a woman or that Meg is going to be a girl of color, I welcome it because that means that these creations that I love and have held so dear are opening themselves to more people loving and caring about them. It means that a girl of color can now see herself as Meg or a girl can see herself as being able to save the galaxy while traveling through time in a TARDIS.

These changes do not threaten me, they make me hopeful that the world will be changing to a better one. By casting Dr. Who as a woman or characters from A Wrinkle in Time as people of color, then that means others can now embrace and see themselves in them in a way they could not before.  I hope that, not only will girls watch these shows and movies and feel empowered, but that these works will do the same for my sons. By seeing these TV shows and films will encourage my boys to continue to champion equality and not see such casting decisions as unusual but as the norm. I want a world that’s better reflective and inclusive of all who are in it. The universe is now bigger and without limits.

As Madeleine L’Engle wrote in A Wrinkle in Time, “Nothing is hopeless; we must hope for everything.”

YES! We must. All of us.

For that reason, I cannot wait for 2018 with its new Doctor and its new Meg.