Memory & Identity

memory

The Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel said, “You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all . .  . Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it we are nothing.”

What is memory?

Memory is who we are. We are our memories. They define and shape who we are, how we act and react, how we think. And memories can be triggered by something else: a smell, a taste, a sound. I can hear a song on the radio and immediately think of who I was with and what I was doing the first time I ever heard it.

When considering this type of memory, I cannot help but think of Marcel Proust tasting the Madeleine dipped in tea and how that simple act caused memories of his childhood to come flooding back. From this came his great magnum opus In Search of Lost Time. A masterpiece about what is perceived, what is remembered and the links between perception and memory.  It was Proust who coined the term “involuntary memory,” which he believed contained the “essence of the past.”

Proust

For years I had attempted to read this monumental work to no success – until the death of my mother. It was only after her dying that I found myself drawn into this stream-of-consciousness masterpiece. Why? Because prior to my mother’s death, I had no context for searching for “lost time” or the past. I had not experienced enough to be able to fully appreciate or grasp the melancholy desire to return to the past. The older I get, the more I find myself doing this: revisiting my own childhood and having questions about memory.

The Greeks had a word nostos that meant “return” and another algos that means “pain or suffering.” Those two words are where we get our word nostalgia. Nostalgia, therefore, is the suffering caused by a desire to return to the past. Certainly there is a sorrow or loss that runs throughout Proust’s novels just as there is in any of our lives when we look back. We remember those we have lost. With each person that we lose who have known us since childhood, we lose a part of ourselves, a part of our story and our memory that is gone.  After the death of my mother, I have often been filled with sadness that I cannot ask her about events from my own life that I am unsure of or ask her about her own life experiences and memories.

In one of my favorite novels, The History of Love, Nicole Krauss writes, “Every year, the memories I have of my father become more faint, unclear, and distant. Once they were vivid and true, then they became like photographs, and now they are more like photographs of photographs.”

It’s true. As the years pass, I lose more and more of my mother. I have to work harder to recall the sound of her voice or her laugh. I catch traces of her in myself and, especially, in my younger sister.

IMG_4199

It’s interesting how I grew up in a house with two parents and a sister,  but we can recall the same event differently. Aspects that stand out to me, are forgotten or were never noticed by somebody else. My sister and I can talk about our childhoods and have completely unique versions of how they unfolded and of our parents. Part of this is due to my being older but it’s also because our memories are filtered through who we are and our own perceptions and experiences. How we perceive often becomes how we see. Whose memory is the correct one? Can both be?

Memory is malleable. We reshape our memories with each retelling of a story. Something shifts, something changes. Memory is fiction. Memory is fantasy. Even Proust wrote, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

An article in The Atlantic by Erika Hayasaki addresses this, “Memory distortions are basic and widespread in humans, and it may be unlikely that anyone is immune.” She then asks, “As our memories become more penetrable how much can we trust the stories that we have come to believe, however certainly, about our lives?”

It’s a fascinating question. What is reality when it comes to memory? How much of what we believe is memory has been changed by personal life experiences? How much of what we call memory has been reconstructed over the years until we might even be shocked by how far it is from what really transpired? How much of memory is us attempting to integrate the details we remember into a coherent narrative?

This becomes even more difficult in people with traumatic memories. Those lodge themselves in a part of the brain where they cannot be assimilated into a narrative story, so much so that, when asked about such moments, they literally can only answer, “I don’t know.” They more often feel those memories in the present when they are triggered by something that reminds them. The past becomes present. They become trapped in their memories.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

How often do we reshape our painful memories or simply try to forget them?

I cannot help but think of the brilliant film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in which the shy, soft-spoken Joel Barish (played by Jim Carey) decides to have all of his memories erased of a relationship that has ended rather than deal with the pain they cause him. The majority of the film transpires in his mind as the memories are being erased and we watch how other memories from Joel’s past begin to interweave themselves into those of his former relationship with the free-spirited Clementine (played by Kate Winslet). Slowly, we begin to see how memories from all of Joel’s past has impacted his life. We see visually how the memories we carry inside of us impact, positively or negatively, on our relationships and our perceptions of reality.

The memories we carry are tinged with emotion. As Erika Hayasaki wrote, “For all of us, the stronger the emotion attached to a moment, the more likely those parts of our brains involved in memory will become activated.”

What’s interesting is that scientists have recently discovered that the mind makes two copies of an event, it creates two memories, one for the present and the other is for the long-term version. In fact, researchers at MIT and a team in Japan discovered that two parts of the brain are involved in collecting and storing personal memories. Short-term memories are stored in the hippocampus, while the cortex stores long-term ones simultaneously.

brain

Our memories lie at the core of who we are. Memory is defined by the totality of the things we’ve experienced in our pasts. Two people can experience the same event differently only furthers the individuality of memory. In his work A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume wrote that our identity or our self is a “bundle” or a collection of sensations or impressions.  So what happens if those memories are erased (not by a machine like in Eternal Sunshine) but are lost through Alzheimer’s or dementia? How much of their identity is lost by the loss of memory? Or when memories from the past solely become their present? So that a son is thought of as a deceased brother? If those memories are stored for long-term how can those who suffer alzheimers or dementia become unable to access them? Can scientists discover a way to access them? Can identity be found and regained?

The more I research and study memory, the more fascinating the notion of memory, identity and self becomes. With each answer I uncover, a new question is formed.

French author Guy de Maupassant wrote, “Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe: it gives back life to those who no longer exist.” But, after reading all that I have, I have to ask: Is it? Really?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Idea Of Home

IMG_4108“You can go home again,” Ursula K. Le Guin once wrote, “so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been.” When I read that statement, my first thought was, “Hmmm, I wonder what she means by that?”

That one sentence was something that stayed with me long after I first read it and I began to reflect on the nature of what really is a home.

What do we think of when we think of home? A specific house? A town or city where we grew up? The family we were born into? The family we created through marriage? The close friendships we make that often feel more like family than the ones we were born into?

As a child growing up, home was my entire universe.  And there is one specific house, our house on Windy Rush Road, that when I think of home it is the one of my childhood up until the age of twelve. It is the home inhabited by summer and neighborhood friends and the woods I loved to explore. It is the place that looms large in my imagination. But it is also, in many ways, an imagined place. It is the home that exists more in memory than in reality any more. Although there were four of us living in that home, I would guess that each of us would talk about that one house differently from each other. We would have a unique perspective on that moment in time.

IMG_4106

For me, it is rooted in summers. In wearing shorts and running barefoot. Of feeling the sun on one’s skin. Of playing until dark. Of catching fireflies in mason jars with holes punched in the top. Of bats darting about in the night sky eating bugs. Of riding bicycles and playing games that we made up to entertain ourselves. It was running through sprinklers. It was developing my first crush and the heartbreak of her moving away.

IMG_4105

It was my first kiss. My friends and I were playing war and I was shot. My death scene was spectacular and Oscar-worthy. I didn’t just drop to the ground but died dramatically and rolled to the bottom of our front hill. As I lay there dead in the grass, I suddenly felt lips kissing my own. Quickly and tasting of apple juice. I opened my eyes to see the girl who lived next door running away. My heart pounded heavy in my chest. I cannot even count how many times I let myself get shot that day, but the kiss was not repeated – at least not again that day. We were summer sweethearts. I had a shirt with x’s and o’s on it. She would give me a kiss for every “x” and a hug for every “o.” My mom, tired of washing that shirt, asked me why I kept wearing it. I just shrugged and answered, “Cause it’s my favorite.”

IMG_4098

It was the place of t-ball games and kick the can and Christmas and birthdays and swimming lessons and of my Mom telling me that “Everything was going to be all right” and I believed her. It was walking home from school and finding that she had just made chocolate chip cookies that I could drink down with milk as I told her about my day.

There was where I discovered music by listening to my parents’ record collection, as well as the one I started to collect of my own favorites. It was The Beatles and the soundtracks to movies and Broadway musicals. It was the home where my friends and I used to put on our own shows and lip-synced and danced to music.

IMG_4102

It was the home where I was first read to at bedtime by my mother and where I not only learned to read, but loved reading. I discovered Where The Wild Things Are and The Five Chinese Brothers, E.B. White’s books and Roald Dahl’s, and the ones that would have th hugest impact on me: C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. After reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, I tested out all of our closets and was utterly disappointed that they did not lead to any magical lands no matter how much I called out for Aslan. I also pestered my poor mom with my begging for them to please buy me a wardrobe, which, alas, they never did. Those are the books I still own and have read with glee and delight to my own children and watched as they, too, embraced them into their own childhood worlds.

That home was the one that I recall whenever I hear Mary Chapin Carpenter’s song “Stones in the Road.”

When we were young we pledged allegiance
Every morning of our lives
The classroom rang with children’s voices
Under teacher’s watchful eye
We learned about the world around us
At our desks and at dinner time
Reminded of the starving children
We cleaned our plates with guilty minds
And the stones in the road
Shone like diamonds in the dust
And then a voice called to us
To make our way back home

Although I was often a very lonely child, most of my memories of that house are of the idyllic childhood where I still approached everything with wonder and the belief that the world was a magical, wondrous place.

No place like home

I cannot help but think of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz who first dreams of escaping the dreariness of home, but once in Oz, spends the rest of the story wanting to return to home in Kansas. “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” And, by the end of the book and the film, Dorothy realizes the truth, ““If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

How many of us are the same way and have to learn the same lesson?

IMG_4099

Children long to grow up. To have their own experiences in the world and are very definite in telling their parents just how their lives will be different and how they will parent differently. “I will never, ever tell my kids ‘Because I said so’ as a reason to do something,” I once informed them. If I only knew then how frustrating and exhausting parenthood can truly be and how one is pushed to the point where that is the only answer one can form. We rush headlong through our years and when we have reached adulthood begin to look back with a heartbreaking longing for the time we had (especially when we have lost a parent). With our own children, we learn that the days go so slow but the years whiz past by so fast it makes our heads spin and we blink to find our own children to be children no more. And begin to understand the melancholy beauty of Joni Mitchell’s song “The Circle Game.”

I love how Maya Angelou puts it, ““The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

Everyone does not think of a place in their past, as those were broken homes that are not seen in nostalgic sepia tones, but as memories so painful that their lives have been spent trying to escape them and make their own home.  Or what is home for the child who is bounced around from one foster home to the next? Or grows up in an orphanage?

Home can be the place where we begin to form our identities or the places where we find them. Home is discovering acceptance for who you are and not who you’d like or wish to be.  It is unconditional love and warm embraces and shared tears and to have someone or some others who see who you are, warts and all, and welcome you whole. Home is wholeness. Some are born into it and some only discover it later and, sadly, there are those for whom home is an idea they will never ever know.

Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse wrote, ““One never reaches home. But where paths that have an affinity for each other intersect, the whole world looks like home, for a time.”

Perhaps there isn’t one home but many in our lives. As we grow up and go out into the world, we find our homes not in being rooted to the same place, but those we make community with wherever we may be. It is the welcoming table and laughter and tears and shared experiences. It is not having to pretend and wear a mask but to let another see who we are and what we are really going through.

Home is the light in the darkness. Is it any wonder that the Talking Heads sang in the opening to their song “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)”: Home is where I want to be . . .

We all want to be there. We all want a place where we can call home.

 

 

The Nature Of Freedom

IMG_3908

School always felt like a prison to me. I grew restless and bored.  Even as a child I somehow understood that truth could not be found in dry, brittle, dusty facts.  So, during the school year, I daydreamed a lot, so much so that it often came up on report cards or in parent-teacher conferences.  I longed for summer. Summer meant freedom. Freedom was also found in books, libraries, and the woods.

As a child, I would pack my backpack with the necessary items: snacks, a thermos of either juice or water, books, magnifying glass, my camera, sketchpad, pencils, and a journal. I also left enough room in my backpack for whatever I might find while exploring the woods behind our house. Sometimes I went with neighborhood friends. Sometimes I went on solitary expeditions. For me, solitude was never loneliness.

IMG_3802

Whenever I went into the woods, it always offered up something about herself: blackberries, whose juice stained my hands and its brambles scratched my hands and arms, wild strawberries, and sucking the sweet nectar from honeysuckle. I discovered that the leaves of the slippery elm had the rough texture of a cat’s tongue. Later, when I taught this to my own sons, they were amazed and delighted by this discovery.

IMG_4061

There was such freedom in discovering the world on one’s own, without a dreadful teacher telling me what was and wasn’t important about what I discovered. Instead, I could see, hear, smell, touch and react to the wonder of the poetry that nature had to offer if one was present to its rhythms. “Come forth into the light of things,” the English poet William Wordsworth wrote, “Let Nature be your teacher.” I heartily agreed because Nature was a far better teacher than many of the ones I suffered under throughout my school years.

IMG_3910

I loved to walk in the streams and to feel the coolness of the water on my feet and legs. To see the ferns and brightly colored mushrooms and moss that lined the banks. It appeared magical, as if a fairy might suddenly appear out of nowhere.

stream bank

My heart and imagination opened up when I was among the trees, the Bloodroot found among the semi-shade with its white petals and yellow stamens in the center, and the birdsong and the sudden darting of a woodland animal (squirrel, field mouse, rabbit). Often I would find a soft spot of ground to plant myself on and I would quietly sketch the animals, who reminded me of the ones found in Beatrix Potter books. Like Potter, I practiced on having a “seeing eye” that notices every stone and flower. Her illustrations helped me to see animals in a clearer light as they busied about, gathering nuts or berries or worms. To be still and quiet enough that I could notice them, but they forgot about me. My presence was not an intrusion to their own.

beatrixpotter_fungi8

Beatrix Potter made me aware of plant life and of fungi, something I might not have given a second glance to if it weren’t for the aliveness in nature that she presented with her glorious illustrations. One can look at her incredibly beautiful and detailed drawings to see what a keen eye and mind she had towards mycology. She taught me that art and science are not separate but are connected. Because of that, Beatrix Potter opened my own imagination to being aware and appreciative of all forms of natural life.

“We cannot stay home all our lives,” Beatrix Potter once said, “we must present ourselves to the world and we must look upon it as an adventure.” And I am so glad that I did. How different my childhood might have been if I had grown up with computers and the internet. I am thankful that I didn’t have all of the technology that my kids have. While children today explore the virtual world, I got to experience and explore the real one. I got to feel the dirt under my fingernails, the dampness of sitting on moss by a stream, the freshness of the earth after a summer rain.

IMG_4014

That is why I find it so important that I give my sons the space for creative wandering and wondering. They need to see the wild black cherry trees and touch the raised, warty dots of its bark.  They need to feel the coolness of stream water and the stones and sediment beneath their bare feet. They need to feel the excitement of spotting an Eastern mud turtle.  Or taste sassafras or wild mint. It is important for me to give them the woods and the fields and streams so that they can experience the joy of being connected to the earth. They need to know the sounds that nature offers, as well as its silences. How dangerous is it for our children to grow up estranged from nature? How many of them will see nature only in terms of consumption and profit because they don’t have a connection to it?

IMG_3986

The natural world cannot be a stranger to our kids. Or to ourselves. That’s why I encourage and love it when my own boys suggest a nature walk. It delights me to see that they want to be alive and present to what the woods have to offer. I want them to grow up with an appreciation so that they, too, can pass this ache to be in nature on to their own children. I want them to understand what Hans Christian Andersen meant when he so wisely wrote, “Just living is not enough . . . one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.” May they always have that freedom.

Hag-seed: Entering Atwood’s Tempest

IMG_4085

Years ago, for Father’s Day, instead of our family going out to eat, I chose for us to go see a theater in the park’s production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It was a nice June night, we had a picnic that we enjoyed on a blanket as we watched the play unfold all around us. It was a clever production that moved at a brisk pace. To my delight, my older son, who was  quite young at the time, never got bored or complained. Instead, I watched him get caught up in the story of Prospero with all of his magic and desire for revenge. The play would stick with him because, this year in high school, when the teacher for his public speaking class told them they would all have to memorize a soliloquy from Shakespeare, he picked Prospero’s final speech:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint. Now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardoned the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell,
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
I was thrilled that the play had remained in his imagination so much that he really wanted to learn it. As he was memorizing it and going over the words with me, we would talk about what the lines meant, the arc that the character of Prospero had undergone from revenge to forgiveness, and of what we remembered from that production of the play.
Shakespeare
The Tempest is thought to be the last play that William Shakespeare wrote alone and is considered to contain some of his finest and most mature poetry. The play is a mixture of romance, a courtly masque, commedia dell’arte, as well as the supernatural found in fairy tales.  Shakespeare was brilliant in his ability to balance all of these elements and make the play both art and easily accessible to his audience, which contained a good mix of socio-economic and education levels. Unlike some of his earlier plays, there was no direct source for the inspiration for The Tempest.
Tempest
There are, however, different sources that inspired elements of the play. One is the story of a shipwreck and of the mysterious island came from a recent, sensational event in 1610 when two pamphlets were printed entitled A Discovery of the Barmudas and A Declaration of the Estate of a Colony in Virginia about the ship-wreck of the Sea Venture off the islands of Bermuda. It gained notoriety when a year later, William Strachey, who was one of those who were on the Sea Venture, wrote his own report about what he claimed happened. A number of his phrases found their way into Shakespeare’s play. Another influence was John Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s Essays, in particular one entitled “Of the Cannibals,” which shaped the “savage” character of Caliban. Shakespeare wrote The Tempest for the Court of King James I, and was performed at a Court wedding. The play shows Shakespeare at the height of his talent and mastery of blank-verse form, particularly in the speech “Our revels now are ended.”
Prospero
For those unfamiliar with the play, the story revolves around Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, who is stranded on a remote island with his daughter Miranda. There he involves himself in the study of magic, which he uses to create a tempest, causing the ship containing his usurping brother Antonio, King Alonso (along with his son Ferdinand and brother, Sebastian), as well as Stephano and Trinculo to believe they are shipwrecked and end up on the island, inhabited by Prospero, his daughter, the “monster” Caliban and the spirit Ariel (both of whom Prospero has enslaved). The play unfolds as Prospero uses his magic to separate the men and three plot lines alternate throughout the play.
The Tempest
Is it any wonder then, that when she was asked to adapt a Shakespearean play into a novel by Hogarth Shakespeare Project, Margaret Atwood not only jumped at the chance but chose this magical work? When interviewed for Mother Jones, Atwood was asked why this play, to which she replied, “The characters have always been favorites of mine. It is one of his meditations on art – what it does.”  Like Shakespeare, Margaret Atwood is a marvelous weaver of story. She, too, has a mastery of language, plot and character. In her modern retelling, her Prospero is a theater director by the name Felix Phillips. When the novel begins, Felix is rehearsing his own production of The Tempest when he is suddenly fired by his once trusted, right-hand man Tony. Taking clues from the play itself, Atwood noticed that the source material contained nine prisons in the text. This led her to having her own Prospero take a job teaching Shakespeare to the inmates and directing them in the Bard’s plays.
Atwood
“In a play that ends with the words “set me free,” you have to take that into account,” Atwood said, “What is it Prospero needs to be set free from? Why does he feel so guilty? That epilogue has always been extremely intriguing to me. I started with the questions it raised and worked backward.”
Hagseed
What Margaret Atwood manages to do is create a tale that is filled with its own magic and plot twists, especially when Tony, who’s now a politician, will be coming to the prison for a photo opportunity because of the prison’s productions of Shakespeare (not knowing that his old boss is behind it – as Felix is working under the name Mr. Duke, a clever wink to Shakespeare’s love of fake identities). Like Shakespeare, Atwood is a magician with words and she uses them deftly to tell a story that moves at lively pace. The reader is drawn in and, like a child reading a fairy tale, finds themselves asking, “What’s going to happen next?” Even though we come to this novel knowing the tale of The Tempest, we find that we are unsure how close to the text Atwood will be.
Will this also be a tale of forgiveness and being set free as the characters were in Shakespeare’s play?
On Writers and Writing
In her book On Writers and Writing, Margaret Atwood wrote about Shakespeare and The Tempest:

Prospero uses his arts – magic arts, arts of illusion – not just for entertainment, though he does some of that as well, but for the purposes of moral and social improvement.

“That being said, it must also be said that Prospero plays God. If you don’t happen to agree with him – as Caliban doesn’t – you’d call him a tyrant, as Caliban does. With a slight twist, Prospero might be the Grand Inquisitor, torturing people for their own good. You might also call him a usurper – he’s stolen the island from Caliban, just as his own brother has stolen the dukedom from him; and you might call him a sorcerer, as Caliban also terms him. We – the audience – are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, and to see him as a benevolent despot. Or we are inclined most of the time. But Caliban is not without insight.”

Just as Prospero lost his dukedom due to his own negligence, so, too, has Felix lost not only his job as the head of Makeshiweg, a prominent Canadian theater festival, as well as the life of his young daughter, Miranda. Will Felix, like Prospero, come to realize his own faults?

What Atwood does is draw upon the fact that The Tempest is a play about putting on a play.  The action takes place on an island and, through the use of magic, is filled with special effects. She deftly uses all of theses elements to her advantage in telling her own story within this brilliant novel that also deals with obsession and betrayal, grief and loss, and lots of magic.

Yet why doesn’t she name her novel after Prospero? Why, instead, does Atwood name it Hag-seed, the name Prospero curses at Caliban? That is for the reader to find out.

Even for someone who has never read Shakespeare’s The TempestHag-seed is easy to enjoy, but I highly recommend reading the play first to truly appreciate this marvelous magical novel.

Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood’s official website:

Risk Curiosity

IMG_3309

“Once we believe in ourselves,” wrote the poet e e cummings, “we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human experience.”

Curiosity is calling, but how many of us listen to it? How many of us are brave enough to undertake curiosity and where it might lead us? Most are secure with comfortable answers and do not like to imagine that there might possibly be others that they may or may not agree with or, worse yet, that there is not an answer.

For as long as I can remember, I have been a child of the question.  My curiosity was always sparked by what I discovered in the world around me or in books. I had an insatiable curiosity that was often stifled in school, where I easily grew bored with rote memorization of facts. Truth is seldom found in facts but is often found in paradox, metaphor, imagery and mystery.

Whenever I had a question that adults could not answer (or would not answer), I knew I was on to something.  Many were uncomfortable with an inquisitive child and didn’t know what to do with me or, I, with them. So often I allowed my mind to wander and daydream when I was supposed to be paying attention in class. Is it any wonder then that school always felt like a prison to me? I learned far more on my own, when I became curious about one thing, went to look it up in an encyclopedia or at the library, and that led me to something else that was connected and then led me to another question and I kept following each answer that sparked better questions. I’m glad that I didn’t have the internet to just Google a subject because searching through books offered up more than just the answer to the question I was asking, but to my getting a wider and deeper perspective on the world and the universe.  Everything became bigger and more wondrous.

My questions shaped who I was and continues to do so. As the poet Rilke said, “Live the questions now.” I also have followed his sage advice by being patient with the question. I don’t always have to have an answer. Questions have made me passionately curious about a vast array of subjects that I could not have cared less for in school (probably because students are taught dry, un-living facts instead of living, breathing questions that force one to go deeper and think more broadly).

Now, I will admit, that my questioning and being curious has often put me at odds our outside of many groups.  They view my thought processes or ideas as odd or peculiar, especially in regards to religion.  At best, I can define myself as a “Christian with questions.”  Ever since I was a child, I have not been able to take things at face-value or the response, “That’s just the way things are.” Instead, I always came back with, “Well, why are they that way?”

Questions can be seen as troubling or exasperating.  And, yet, I encourage both of my sons to be curious and not be afraid to ask a question, no matter how hard a question it may be. When they ask me, I listen. Truly listen to what they are asking. I answer, if I can, and if I can’t, I admit that I don’t know the answer. Never do I make them feel guilty or wrong for asking me.

“Curiosity,” wrote Samuel Johnson, one of the most brilliant minds of England, “is one of the most permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.”

Why would I not want my sons to have a vigorous intellect?

Ask questions. Explore. Investigate. A closed mind shows open ignorance.

Dan Kahan, a professor of psychology at Yale University, studies what he terms “science curiosity.” What is science curiosity? Kahan defines it this way: Science curiosity is a desire to seek out and consume scientific information just for the pleasure of doing so. People who are science curious do this because they take satisfaction in seeing what science does to resolve mysteries. That is different from somebody who would show interest in scientific information because they had a specific goal like wanting to do well in school. Science-curious people are driven by the pure activity of consuming what science knows.

Curiosity for pleasure’s sake. How many of us just delight in curiosity? How many of us take time to even be curious? Too often we are caught up in the busy schedules of our day that we do not take the time to stop and ponder and wonder. How many of us take even a few minutes to ask, “What if . . .?” or “Why is that?”

Alice's curiosity

In an article Albert Einstein did for Time Magazine in May of 1955, entitled “Old Man’s Advice to Youth: Never Lose a Holy Curiosity,” he wrote: The important thing is to never stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.”

I love the idea of curiosity leading one to awe. Certainly, the more I ask and seek, the more beautiful and mysterious and complex the world and the universe appears to me.  I keep a notebook with me at all times, to write down my questions, or the questions of others, or thoughts of others that spark questions in me. I love reading something someone else has written that makes me stop and formulate a question that starts me on a new creative and spiritual journey of wondering.  And curiosity is a spiritual act. One that Einstein called “holy curiosity.”

When I question and am curious, I see the world in a new way, or a piece of art differently, or gather a new perspective from a novel I’ve read, or from a science documentary I’ve watched.

Take time to wonder, to search out the truth.

For many, this is a scary and daunting task. They are especially afraid of being wrong. The theoretical physicist Richard Feynman said, “As I get older, I realize being wrong isn’t a bad thing like they teach you in school. It is an opportunity to learn something.”

What a glorious way of looking at learning and allowing oneself to be wrong. Do we give ourselves the liberty of making mistakes and being wrong in the pursuit of investigation and listening to the world around us? Do we create the space for curiosity in our lives and the lives of our children? Even Christ said, “Ask, and you shall receive.”

Do not be daunted by the unknown. Replace fear with curiosity. Only the dead should be incurious.  What fires in us will be kindled when we embrace the wonder? When we welcome the question? When we delight in the unknown and unknowable? What greater gift is there that we could give ourselves or our children than curiosity?

I agree with the short story writer Alice Munro when she said, “The constant happiness is curiosity.”

Curiosity is the creative process.

Let your curiosity be immense and ever-expanding.  Be interested, not indifferent. Curiosity is, after all, a very beautiful thing to possess.

So go out into your day and bravely risk curiosity!

 

 

Finding My Way In Fairy Tales

Rackham illustration

“If you want your children to be intelligent,” Albert Einstein once said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

Because the voices of my parents were constantly yelling, I made my home in books, in solitude, in the woods and in my imagination. The first books that offered themselves up to me were fairy tales.  At first, they were my escape from reality but, over time, became my reality. When I went to the woods carrying a collection of fairy tales and my imagination, the three have interwoven themselves together so that I longed for the trees around me to resemble the ones in Arthur Rackham illustrations.

The woods were a place of magic. I had to first jump over a small creek to get to them and then through a field of tall grass. Often I would come upon a rabbit and I hoped that he would suddenly pull a pocket-watch out and announce in a hurried manner that he was late for something and I could follow him to a rabbit hole that would lead me to Wonderland.

white rabbit

I longed for Wonderland or Narnia or Neverland. Somewhere that I could escape from my own life.

My mind was full of the worlds created by Lewis Carroll, J.M. Barrie, C.S. Lewis, E. Nesbit, Kenneth Grahame, the Brothers Grimm, L. Frank Baum, Hans Christian Andersen, Diana Wynne Jones, J.R.R. Tolkien and George MacDonald. Their worlds became my own; more real to me than the one around me. As a quiet boy with an overactive imagination and a penchant for daydreaming, books were sacred objects that were read and reread and cherished like no other book since. Reading was life, was freedom. Even the novelist Graham Greene once said, “What do we ever get nowadays from reading to equal the excitement and the revelation of the first fourteen years?”

The characters in my favorite books were more than fictional figures, they were dear, close friends who I could not only imagine myself, but see aspects of myself in. And, like David Copperfield, I rad my books “as if for life.” And they didn’t even have to be human: they could be the faun Mr. Tumnus, or a silly old bear named Pooh, or the good-natured Mole. I remember reading The Wind in the Willows and loving this passage about Mole:

“The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.”

Wind in the Willows

I could relate to Mole because I was quiet and reflective and loved (and still do) to sit by the banks of a stream and listen to the sounds of the water.

I was charmed and delighted and frightened and excited by the stories I read and watching the adventures unfold and they were more vivid to me than the lives of children my own age. These stories could be painful and terrifying, yet they taught me that, like the characters in them, I, too, could overcome. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” Or, as Neil Gaiman put his own twist on this saying with, “Fairy tales are more than true: not  because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

fairy tale woods by Isabelle Ouzman

In his monumental work on fairy tales The Uses of Enchantment, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote that fairy tales were critical for children to read because they did teach children that “a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable.” He also stated, “If one does not shy away but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end often emerges victorious.”

Fairy tales teach us that, yes, there is darkness in this world, but that the light can overcome it. As a small, quiet child who was often bullied, these were welcome words and worlds for me to discover. I would often take one of my fairy tale books (given to me by my great-Aunt Annie, who delighted in my love of reading) and go out into the woods behind our house: to explore, to read, and to daydream. Sometimes I would read and then lie down in the tall field grass, in the warmth of the summer sun, and re-imagine this wood as one of the many that were in these tales.

wood sprites

I could easily picture magical folk living in these woods: sprites, elves, fairies. There was even evil in the woods that I conjured up as the Shadow-man. All of the animals spoke English, of course, but did not when people were around. I secretly hoped to catch them doing so one day – and still do.

The illustrations in these books were as important to me as the stories. I gloried and reveled in the drawings of Cruikshank, Rackham, Tenniel, Bilbin, Crane, Burne-Jones and Dulac. Because I loved to draw, I copied their styles in an attempt to form my own, just as I wrote my own tales of what happened in this wood. The stories of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Perrault and Joseph Jacobs emboldened me to begin creating my own. This really took on a fervor after I encountered C.S. Lewis and realized, for the first time, that someone actually wrote stories and they did just appear as they were on the page.

Kay Nielseon

It’s amazing how much more magical the world appears when we see it that way. To imagine that around every bend is the possibility: for magic, for wonder, for adventure, for the dream world to overlap with the real one.

My woods were made especially opportune for such magic to occur since there as an old abandoned Volkswagen Bug right in the center of it. No one knew how it got there. If there weren’t teenagers hanging around it, smoking cigarettes and listening to Led Zeppelin, my friends and I would pretend that it could transport us anywhere, that it was able to go to any country or world, real or imagined, and could be a portal to our grandest adventures.

Those woods and the fairy tales still loom large in my memories. They are the ones I hold most closely to. They are the ones most dear and encapsulated my childhood in the ways that I love to remember. Those are the memories, like Wendy’s stories to the Lost Boys, makes me dream bigger and understand that words are like incantations and can weave such magical spells as only great stories can.

forest

 

E.B. White On The Presence Of Wonder

EPSON scanner image

“Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder,” wrote E.B. White and, when I read this simple sentence, I felt a kindredness with the author. YES! I thought, Exactly right.

E B White children's books

I first encountered E.B. White’s writing when I was an elementary school student and checked out Charlotte’s Web from our school library. Along with introducing me to the world of animals on farms, he was also the one who first shed light on death and dying, getting me to care so much about a spider that I actually mourned her fictional death because it felt as if a real friend had died. For a long time, every spider was “Charlotte.”

Charlotte's Web

What E.B. White did was open  my eyes: to not only farm life but to revealing the moods of seasons through vivid descriptions that made me feel what he was writing. Here are two examples:

“The Early summer days on a farm are the happiest and fairest days of the year. Lilacs bloom and make the air sweet, and then fade. Apple blossoms come with the lilacs and the bees visit around among the apple trees. The days glow warm and soft. School ends, and children have time to play and to fish for trouts in the brook. Avery often brought a trout home in his pocket warm and stiff and ready to be fried.”

As someone who went to his grandparents’ farm for a few weeks each summer, it brought to mind their farm. I can recall the bees being around the apple trees and how, after an apple had ripened and then fallen to the ground, it would become soft and my cousins and I had to be careful when we ran past the apple trees or else we might step on one and be stung by the bees that were inside its mushy flesh.

Contrast White’s portrayal of early summer to the end of it:

“The crickets sang in the grasses. They sang the song of summer’s ending, a sad monotonous song. ‘Summer is over and gone, over and gone, over and gone. Summer is dying, dying.’ A little maple tree heard the cricket songs and turned bright red with anxiety.”

In his descriptions, White made me feel the joy and the sadness that came with the beginning and ending of the summer season, a feeling any child knows. Summer always meant freedom. As a small and quiet boy, I preferred books and brooks to crowds and school. School, to me, felt more like a prison where we were made to learn facts that the teacher was telling us were important and that we needed to know. When I read books or explored on my own, I learned the ones that made me think and see the world differently. They expanded my sense of curiosity and fed my desire for learning in a way that I never picked up in school.

I must have read Charlotte’s Web a dozen times, as well as Stuart Little. Never did I question how the Little family had a mouse for a son, I just envied them. Both books made me love animals in the way that the author so clearly did. His love of words and animals came through in his books.

Years later, when I read the book The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims, it did not surprise me that the germ for the creation of White’s book sprang from his noticing a spider spinning a web in the barn of his Maine farm. Because there was early morning dew on the web, the author’s attention was drawn to the elaborate loops and whorls that shined. The web had been transformed from something ordinary and overlooked to something wonderful. From this simple noticing came the miraculous tale of the passage of time, of mortality and of the meaning of true friendship.

Charlotte

When White was asked by his editor why he wrote the book, he explained not only about his love for animals, which was a problem on a farm where the livestock are often killed for meat, he also explained why he would make a spider a main character.

“As for Charlotte, I had never paid attention to spiders until a few years ago. Once you begin watching spiders, you haven’t time for much else – the world is really loaded with them. I do not find them repulsive or revolting, any more than I find anything in nature repulsive or revolting, and I think it is too bad that children are often corrupted by their elders in this hate campaign. Spiders are skillful, amusing and useful. and only in rare instances has anybody ever come to grief because of a spider.

One cold October evening I was lucky enough to see Aranea Cavatica spin her egg sac and deposit her eggs. (I did not know her name at the time, but I admired her, and later Mr. Willis J. Gertsch of the American Museum of Natural History told me her name.) When I saw that she was fixing to become a mother, I got a stepladder and an extension light and had an excellent view of the whole business. A few days later, when it was time to return to New York, not wishing to part with my spider, I took a razor blade, cut the sac adrift from the underside of the shed roof, put spider and sac in a candy box, and carried them to town. I tossed the box on my dresser. Some weeks later I was surprised and pleased to find that Charlotte’s daughters were emerging from the air holes in the cover of the box. They strung tiny lines from my comb to my brush, from my brush to my mirror, and from my mirror to my nail scissors. They were very busy and almost invisible, they were so small. We all lived together happily for a couple of weeks, and then somebody whose duty it was to dust my dresser balked, and I broke up the show.

At the present time, three of Charlotte’s granddaughters are trapping at the foot of the stairs in my barn cellar, where the morning light, coming through the east window, illuminates their embroidery and makes it seem even more wonderful than it is.”

I cannot imagine the world without the book Charlotte’s Web in it nor can I imagine my own childhood without having read that classic of literature. Because of it, White made me pay attention to spiders, to see the magnificence of the glorious architecture and design of their elaborate webs.  Another of my favorite authors, Eudora Welty, wrote in The New York Times, “As a piece of work it is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done.” She is spot on with her assessment. The novel is near perfect and it is magical in a way that showing a child nature and the connection we have to it.

Recently I have re-encountered this when I read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Gathering Moss. It’s astounding how she can write about a subject such as moss, which most of us barely notice, and make it into a work that’s beautiful and profound in so many ways. In one passage she writes:

“Traditional knowledge is rooted in intimacy with a local landscape where the land itself is the teacher. Plant knowledge comes from watching what the animals eat, how Bear harvests lilies and how Squirrel taps maple tree. Plant knowledge comes from the plants themselves. To the attentive observer, plants reveal their gifts.”

That is what E.B. White did. From his observations, he discovered both the reality and the beauty of nature: by humanizing their personalities but leaving them in their predatory natures and their messiness.  One of my favorite lines from Charlotte’s Web is,”Life is always a rich and steady time when you are waiting for something to happen or to hatch.” That line reiterates White’s statement that we should always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder because life, nature, will always reward those who are attentive to it.

Garth Williams illustrations

To open their eyes to pay attention and look for the “presence of wonder,” is one of the reasons why I have read Charlotte’s Web to both of my sons. It is amazing to read it aloud and watch how they reacted to parts of the story, some of them being the same sections that I reacted to as a child. I love how this book caused them both to ask questions and to reflect on human’s relationship to animals and to nature. It’s important that they, too, meditate on mortality, especially as one of our dog’s is older and is approaching that time in her life.

E. B. White is a wonderful writer who’s loves of language and animals transcends the pages of his book and fills the reader with enthusiasms for both. It’s also amazing to me that I am almost the age that White was when he began writing Charlotte’s Web back in the 1950’s. It’s heartbreaking to think that the last years of his life were spent with his suffering from Alzheimer’s. His son Joe would read aloud to his father from his father’s books. When he read to him from Charlotte’s Web, White asked, “Who wrote that?”

“You did, Dad.” He would watch as his father thought about this for a moment before finally saying, “Not bad.”

Not bad, indeed.

E.B. White once said, ” “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” That love definitely shines through and allows us to “be on the lookout for the presence of wonder” that he first showed us. What richer gift is there than that?

E B White

Mature Into Childhood

A dream is for you

“My goal,” said the Polish novelist Bruno Schulz, “is to ‘mature’ into childhood. That would be genuine maturity.” How many of us have the view that one matures into a childlike nature and that it’s a desirable goal to aim for? Or that one matures into childhood? Too often children are in a hurry to grow up and our culture is far more interested in creating them to do so because of a desire to turn children into consumers; after all, we live in a society where kids can name more logos of products than they can that of animals, plants or trees.

But what does Bruno Schulz mean by his statement?

In 1938, Schulz wrote to a friend:

What you say about our artificially prolonged childhood – about immaturity – bewilders me somewhat. Rather, it seems to me that this kind of art, the kind which is so dear to my heart, is precisely a regression, a return to childhood. Were it possible to turn back development, achieve a second childhood by some circuitous road, once again to have its fullness and immensity – that would be the incarnation of an “age of genius,” “messianic times” which are promised and pledged to us by all mythologies. My goal is to “mature” into a childhood. This really would be a true maturity.

The artist Picasso would agree with Schulz. He once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Picasso also said that, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Even his friend, the painter Marc Chagall delighted in saying, “I am a child who is getting on.”

Picasso portrait raises 13 million

Albert Einstein wrote, “To stimulate creativity one must develop childlike inclination for play and the childlike desire for recognition.”

What do these artists and great thinkers see in childhood that so many of us are dismissive of, want to outgrow and condescendingly consider being childlike as immature or naive?

They understood that at the root of all thought that leads to art, to innovation, to spiritual growth and to being more creative. Why? Because to be childlike is to be continuously wondering. There is a never-ending curiosity to their inquiries that usually begin with the simple and profound, “Why?” Too often their questions are ended with parental exasperation. All children are artists, are scientists, are wonderers, are poets and explorers. So what happens to them?

Adults.

Too often parents classify and categorize their children by saying things like, “This one’s my artist.” “This one’s my athlete.” “This one’s my scientist.” When a child hears that enough, they begin to believe that the adult knows something they don’t and begin to see themselves through the lens of how they are considered. What parents need to do instead is to simply encourage and allow their children to enjoy and explore possibilities. They need to let their kids draw and dance and dream and delight.

And adults need to do this as well. Too often we prize productivity over creativity. We have believed the categories we have been placed in. Like our kids, we have listened to some bumbling adult who tells us that we aren’t an artist . Both of my sons have come home, upset with an art teacher who has criticized their art and told them what they had created was “wrong.”

“Did you not follow the instructions?” I inquired.

“No,” my older son had replied, “we were just told to draw a landscape.”

“Those were your only instructions?”

He nodded.

“And what did she say was wrong with yours?”

“I made my tree purple,” he replied.

I was aghast. Taking three different art books off my shelf, I opened them up and showed them to my son. One was Picasso, the other Matisse and the last one was Chagall. I explained that they were all famous painters. Each one knew the other and, at one time, all three lived near each other. “Do any of their paintings look the same?” I asked my son.

“No,” he shook his head.

“No, they don’t. Even though each painting is a landscape, each one saw it differently. Chagall even painted a green goat and people floating in the sky. There is no wrong in art. Each artist sees the world differently and that’s what makes them great. If all of them painted like Picasso then only Picasso would be celebrated, but Matisse and Chagall didn’t. We need them to see the world differently to help us see the world differently. To see the world with new eyes.”

sendak

“Children do live in fantasy and reality,” Maurice Sendak once said, “they move back and forth very easily in a way we no longer remember how to do.” Sendak, however, seemed to do so with ease and created such classics of children’s literature as Where The Wild Things Are and In The Night Kitchen.

We, all of us, need to return to play and exploration and curiosity.

We need to allow for daydreaming.

We need to allow for “mistakes,” which means we need to turn off our critical minds and simply delight in the act of creating.

We need to make room for surprise.

We need to attend to wonder.

We need to hold the capacity for joy.

We need to live in possibility.

Jim Henson said, “As children, we all live in a world of imagination, of fantasy, and for some of us that world of make-believe continues into adulthood.” Oh that more of us would be so brave.

Jim Henson

Be Alive To Everything

May Sarton

“For any writer who wants to keep a journal,” May Sarton once said in an interview, “be alive to everything, not just your feelings.” This advice is important not only for those who wish to undertake any form of writing, but for any form of truly living: Be alive to everything. But wow does one begin to form the awareness to the world around us?

I believe that one begins when they accept the invitation to presence that the world offers us. The question is: Are we willing to accept that invitation?

As a child, I discovered that the best companions for discovering to undertaking this delightful task were: books, solitude and nature. One of the most magical places my mother ever introduced me to was the local library. It was astounding to me that we could go there every week, I could browse and discover new books among all the books that were on the shelves and that I could check them out. Books introduced me to thinking and considering and exploring.

One of those first books that ever made me begin to wonder was one by Margaret Wise Brown. Most people know Margaret Wise Brown for her books Goodnight Moon or Runaway Bunny, but one of my most cherished books by her is a lesser known one called The Quiet Noisy Book. When I mention it, very few know what I’m talking about, yet it was one of those books that first opened me up to listening. Throughout this book, Brown invites ust to listen to noises (such as an alarm clock) to the silent (a butterfly’s wings). It’s a gorgeous meditation on sound and silence. It made me aware, for the first time as a child, in being able to listen closely to both. This illustrated kids book is one that many adults needs to discover and heed its wisdom.

Quiet Noisy Book

She, along with writers like E.B. White or Ruth Krauss with Maurice Sendak’s illustrations or A.A. Milne’s Pooh books, made me aware of nature and my connection to them. They made me want to spend more time in the woods behind our house. These authors and their books started me on the path of observation. This means keen observation of both the inner and outer worlds. One begins with the inner world of ourselves. It means looking more closely, as if inspecting one’s thoughts and real self as if through a magnifying glass.

To enter one’s own inner landscape, one needs solitude. In her journals, Susan Sontag wrote, “I want to be able to be alone, to find it nourishing – not just a waiting.” Solitude is nourishing to the self. Some might think solitude is loneliness, but it isn’t. There is a richness one can only reach when one spends any significant amount of time in solitude. This, however, does not mean it’s easy. “I can tell you that solitude is not all exultation,” May Sarton wrote, “inner space where the soul breathes and work can be done. Solitude exposes the nerve, raises up ghosts. The past, never at rest, flows through it.”

Solitude allows us to wrestle with that which is deep within us, that we often try to suppress or ignore. Solitude forces us to grapple with our inner selves, our true selves, both the good and the bad. Solitude means we have to stop our hectic, scheduled life and pause, reflect and pay attention. If we cannot pay attention to our inner world, we will never be truly able to pay attention to our outer one. Solitude offers us reflection and contemplation. When we learn attention and awareness, we are more in tune with ourselves (both our hurts and our joys) and we become aware of others. Returning to Sontag, she says, “Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”

When we learn to pay attention, we discover the wealth that can be found in our daily lives. Artists like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce learned this and they were able to take an ordinary day in the life of a character (Mrs. Dalloway or Leopold Bloom) and turn it into something extraordinary. When one reads Mrs. Dalloway or Ulysses, one is transported into and transformed by the rich, inner depths these novelists mine from the lives of two imagined characters. How many of us are willing to make the marvelous out of the mundane by revealing the transcendence of our commonplace existences? It is there if only we are brave enough to give it our undivided attention, if only for twenty to thirty minutes each day.

IMG_3808

Last, is nature. Like solitude, nature allows me to both clear all unnecessary thoughts and find what is truly nourishing and healing. When I take my walks in nature, I find that I become oriented to the rhythms of nature and I become disoriented when I leave nature to return to what we have falsely named the “real world.”

I walk the same paths more times than I can recall and I have left those same paths even more to explore what lies beyond them: mossy rocks near streams that I can touch their softness with my fingers or I can take off my sneakers and socks to slip my feet into the cool waters of the stream. I breathe in more deeply and begin to allow my internal world to reflect the external landscape that I’m in. I watch dragonflies darting about or a butterfly weaving about in the sky or see a small fish dart to hide under the dark overhang of the bank by the stream.

When I go on these walks, I tend to carry a small notebook and my camera to record the delightful and free surprises the world offers if I just allow myself to be present to them. Wonders such as the red-tailed hawk with a snake in its beak landing on a limb just above me. Or watching the heron still and silent as a Buddhist monk in the pond murky with green algae. While I bring my notebook and my camera, I never bring my iPod, which would distract me from natural sounds. Though I find myself, in such moments, humming James Taylor’s “Secret O’ Life” with its lyric, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.”

I have also begun to study books on nature so that I can learn the lexicon of the landscape to better understand what it is I am looking at, to do, as John Muir suggested, and “get as near to the hear of the world as I can.” I am beginning to have the words to make the connections of the architecture of our world and to better grasp my relationship to it.

“Having words for these forms,” writes Robin Wall Kimmerer in her beautiful and profound book Gathering Mosses, “makes the differences between them so much more obvious. With words are your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step to learning to see.”

Language gives me an intimacy with nature that allows me to be more deeply invested and concerned with its welfare. It trains me to be a better steward of the gifts that nature offers.

IMG_3782

Nature, like meditation, is teaching me to be a better listener, to be less distracted. Even when I am at home, I am more aware of the life that is about me. As I washed dishes in the sink, I watched from my kitchen window as squirrels played about in our backyard, resembling a Beatrix Potter illustration.

Nature has shown me that it is important to risk curiosity and wonder. To take spontaneous delight in being alive because being alive is more than simply breathing air. As the poet e. e. cummings wisely understood, “Unbeing dead isn’t being alive.”

No, I am discovering that when I let my heart catch fire by the life I can lead then I am going to fan the flames by embracing the beauty and the mystery of it all. It teaches me how to express gratitude and appreciation by the sacred life that is both within me and around me. This world is meant for us to wonder and to wander in if we would only just take the time to do it.

 

Beauty & Eternity

IMG_3775

“Everything beautiful,” writes the philosopher Simone Weil, “has a mark of eternity.”

It’s a reality I am made aware of every time I go for a walk in nature. Yet there is more to beauty than mere recognition. It is more than an appreciation of attractiveness. As Weil continues, “In everything which gives us the pure authentic feeling of beauty there is really the presence of God. There is, as it were, an incarnation of God in the world, and it is indicated by beauty. The beautiful is the experimental proof that the incarnation is possible. Hence all art of the highest order is religious in essence.”

For Weil, beauty has both a physical and spiritual depth to it. Beauty, therefore, is not transitory but transcendent. It registers deep within us causing the object of beauty to draw us in to the beauty of this world and giving us a longing for the greater beauty of the next. Beauty reveals that life and death are connected: that death is not an end but a continuation of the same path. To gaze on beauty is to gaze on eternity.

IMG_3794

Is it any wonder that the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in his novel The Idiot, “Beauty will save the world.” Certainly that is a bold statement and one that was questioned by another Russian novelist, Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, who asked, “How could this be possible? When in the bloodthirsty process of history did beauty ever save anyone, and from what? Granted, it ennobled, it elevated – but whom did it ever save?”

What answer did Solzhenitsyn arrive at upon pondering this question?

“There is, however, a particular feature in the very essence of beauty—a characteristic trait of art itself: The persuasiveness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable; it prevails even over a resisting heart . . . a true work of art carries its verification within itself: Artificial and forced concepts do not survive their trial by images; both image and concept crumble and turn out feeble, pale, and unconvincing. However, works which have drawn on the truth and which have presented it to us in concentrated and vibrant form seize us, attract us to themselves powerfully, and no one ever—even centuries later—will step forth to deny them.

So perhaps the old trinity of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty is not simply the decorous and antiquated formula it seemed to us at the time of our self-confident materialistic youth. If the tops of these three trees do converge, as thinkers used to claim, and if the all too obvious and the overly straight sprouts of Truth and Goodness have been crushed, cut down, or not permitted to grow, then perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, and ever surprising shoots of Beauty will force their way through and soar up to that very spot, thereby fulfilling the task of all three.”

It’s interesting that he connected beauty with truth and goodness, which the Greek philosophers also believed that beauty was associated with moral goodness. Beauty was always traditionally counted among the ultimate virtues along with goodness, truth and justice. The Greek word for beauty is kalon and means “ideal perfect beauty in the physical and moral sense.” It was the subject of Plato’s Symposium which stressed this connection between beauty and the divine.

Plato was not alone, as Pythagoras conceived of beauty as as useful for a moral education of the soul. Pythagoreans conceived of the presence of beauty in universal terms, as existing in a cosmological state. One of the areas where Pythagoras found such mathematical beauty was in the harmonic scales. Is it any wonder then that Albert Einstein once said, “Mozart’s music is so pure and beautiful that I see it as a reflection of the inner beauty of the universe”?

IMG_3819

In his De Natura Deorum, Cicero connected to the beauty of a creator. To see the beauty in the creation was one of the ways of revelation of a god. Creation is a revelation of its Creator. Saint Ignatius of Loyola also wrote of finding God in all things, as did Meister Eckhart.

“The beautiful,” wrote Simone Weil, “is something on which we can fix our attention.” Like all spiritual disciplines, beauty requires awareness and attention. That’s why many train themselves to study a painting for hours. Behind all is the divine revealing itself: not through a burning bush but through an artist’s brush. That’s why we find ourselves connecting to the great masterpieces.

IMG_3334

The Bengali polymath, in a conversation with Albert Einstein, once said, “Beauty is in the ideal of perfect harmony which is in the Universal Being; Truth the perfect comprehension of the Universal Mind. We individuals approach it through our mistakes and blunders, through our accumulated experiences, through our illumined consciousness – how otherwise, can we know the Truth?”

Beauty as a way that leads to Truth.

How many of us begin to grasp at the ineffable when we hear a piece by Bach or see a painting by Matisse or see a play by Shakespeare or read a novel by Jane Austen or see a film by Andrei Tarkovsky? In fact, Tarkovsky once said, “Art is . . . striving for truth, and truth is always beautiful.” The aesthetic and the ethical meet in beauty.

Nostalghia

This means that beauty is necessity: not simply because it enriches our lives but because it nourishes our souls and leads us to Truth.