Learning Family From Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott

As a young boy, I surprised and delighted our local librarian when I brought a copy of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott up to the counter to check it out. I was not one to be dissuaded not to read such a book because it might me deemed a “girl’s book” by anyone and have long-held to the belief that a great book is genderless and can connect to a reader of any sex. Certainly, when I read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, I identified with two of the characters (Lucy and, some might be surprised, Edmund, but that’s another post about embracing the Edmund in ourselves), one of which was a girl. Just as I saw much of myself in Madeleine L’Engle’s protagonist Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time or in the daydreaming Anne Shirley from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (she also introduced me to the poetry of Tennyson).

Now I’m sure there were many boys who would not dare be caught checking out a book with this cover . . .

Little Women book cover

. . . but, fortunately, I was not one of them. My mother recommended this book to me and, since she was the one who introduced me to Anne with an “e,” I knew I could trust her judgment on this work, too.

Jo March writing

Like the previous novels I have mentioned, Little Women would be no different because I instantly latched on to Jo March, who, along with Anne Shirley, made me long to be a writer.  I could see myself in Jo who wanted to speak her mind, go wherever she pleased, to learn all that she could and to, ultimately, be free. I saw myself in the fact that she could be her own worst enemy and how she, too, was a dreamer and scribbler. “Late at night,” Jo would tell me, “my mind would come alive with voices and stories and friends, as dear to me as any in the real world. I gave myself up to it, longing for transformation.” When I read that passage, I saw myself exactly.

Reading about how she holed herself up in the attic, alone, to read (“Take some books and read; that’s an immense help; and books are always good company if you have the right sort.” or “…and best of all, the wilderness of books, in which she could wander, where she liked, made the library a region of bliss to her.”) and write, filling pages upon pages with her wild, inventive stories, I secretly wished that our attic at home could be such a place for me. I understood her saying, “I want to do something splendid . . . something heroic or wonderful that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it and mean to astonish you all someday.” Or, “I keep turning over new leaves, and spoiling them, as I used to spoil my copy books; and I make so many beginnings there never will be an end.” Jo, like Anne, was a “kindred spirit” for me. I wanted to be friends with her and dream up wild adventures and tales together.

When Marmee tells her, “You are the gull, Jo, strong and wild, fond of the storm and the wind, flying far out to sea, and happy all alone.” As someone who is very introverted, I understood that idea of being “happy all alone” and imagined Jo and I as being solitary together, two solitudes protecting one another amidst that storm and wind. Would she have accepted my offer or rejected it as she had Laurie’s? Or would I find acceptance as did Mr. Baher?

Jo reading

When I finished reading Little Women, I found myself lost and unwilling to let go of this classic story. I didn’t want to leave the world Louisa May Alcott created (based much on her own life). It was no shock that I developed a literary crush on Jo March, but what I was not prepared for, was the desire to be a member of the March family. Alcott’s portrayal of this close-knit family made me, like their neighbor Laurie, want only to belong to them and be a part of such a devoted family.  The March family is poor and they suffer much loss, but none of that dissuaded me from desiring to be one of them. Having grown up in an often unhappy home, feeling alone and lonely much of the time, I envied these sisters. Like all siblings, they fought and didn’t always get along, but beneath all of it was a deep affection for each other.

Little Women 1994

“The power of finding beauty in the humblest things makes home happy and life lovely,” wrote Louisa May Alcott. The home life of the Marches was humble, happy, lovely and beautiful. What I loved about Little Women (and had the same feelings about the 1994 film directed by Gillian Armstrong) is that, while I identified with Jo, I loved that the story made the reader and film viewer long for all of the sisters to be together. When they separate to go on to their own lives, we miss all of them being under one roof, all snug together, sharing and delighting in each other.

Little Women film

Being an adult with my own family, I strive to recreate our own version of the March family. To create a home where we all want to be and enjoy in each other. To foster a spirit within our house that nourishes, nurtures and encourages both of my sons into becoming who they want to be, so that when they do leave home to go out into the world, they still take with them this sense of place, of being, of home.

Alcott's home

 

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The Glory Of The Ordinary

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Like the Apostle Peter on Mount of Transfiguration , I want to set my tent in the heart of wonder. Yet I do not need to see Moses or Elijah. Nor. like the poet William Blake, do I need to see the prophet Ezekiel or a tree filled with angels.  Sometimes, all it takes is the way light and shadows fall against the side of a barn.

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Or walking our dog Dash in the early morning hours, the sky filled with pinks and purples, and I spot the shimmering, silver gossamer of a spiderweb wet with dew.  One night, when I walked him, we were greeted by a raccoon in my goldfish pond. We were alerted to his presence by him splashing to get out of the water and scramble out of the pond, away from us to the safety of a nearby tree, where he could gaze down upon us, his fur dripping wet.

The French author Gustave Flaubert once wrote, “There is not a particle of life which does not bear poetry within it.” He is right. If only we allow ourselves to be humbled by this realization.  On one of our walks, our family’s breath was taken away in astonishment as we saw a doe and her two fawns crossing the path ahead of us. In just such a moment, we all realized the whole world is a temple. Each breath and beat of one’s heart is a prayer. We were, all of us, humbled by the holiness of just such an encounter.

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In April, I will turn fifty. Yet despite my years, not a day has passed that I do not take delight in clouds. I cannot recall a time when I have not fallen in love with a sky full of them or even just a singular one. Nor can I recall a time when I was not humbled by the holiness of a still pond, reflecting the sky overhead, and a white heron presides over this as a priest of the Most High.

If only we could all be ignited by the beauty of the world – to truly allow our hearts to be broken open by it and stand amazed by days as delicate as butterfly wings. To know that nature is both savage and sacred. Whenever I am in nature, I feel as if I’m trying to retrace my steps back to Eden, back to that time when God walked with us in the garden. Is it any wonder that a garden was Mozart’s favorite place to compose?  The French composer Claude Debussy once wrote, “There is nothing more musical than a sunset. He who feels what he sees will find no more beautiful example of development in all that book, which, alas, musicians read but too little – the book of Nature!”

I agree with him. And I understand Beethoven, who preferred the company of a tree tot hat of another person. In fact, Beethoven was prone to going outside to hug his favorite linden tree.

I cannot be in nature and not be reminded of great pieces of classical music; whether that be Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring or An Outdoor Overture.

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The world about us is so wonderful and wise when we allow ourselves to be reminded that we are but a small part of it. And it is staggering to know that each one of us contains the entirety of the world within ourselves. What a glorious thought. Each one different, each one unique. And that with the death of each person, that world is gone – only small traces of it remain with those who are left behind. The philosopher Plato wrote in his Phaed that the life of wisdom is “a practice of death.” There are those who may find such an outlook gloomy, but it reminds me of the Psalm that advises us to “number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

Why?

Because time is fleeting. We exist in daily time, but there is a time deeper and more ancient than that, of which we are all a part of.  Take time to behold the moment lest we forget the miracles that surround us. Life is filled with pathos and pleasures, misery and miracles, weeping and wonders. It brings to my mind Mary Oliver’s beautiful poem “Mindful.”

Every day

I see or I hear

something

that more or less

kills me

with delight,

like a needle

in the  haystack

of light.

It is what I was born for –

to look, to listen,

to lose myself

inside this soft world –

to instruct myself

over and over

in joy,

and acclamation.

Nor am I talking about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,

the very extravagant –

but of the ordinary,

the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.

Oh, good scholar,

I say to myself,

how can you help

but grow wise

with such teachings

as these –

the untrimmable light

of the world.

the ocean’s shine.

the prayers that are made

out of grass?

In Nature, nothing is ever finished or done with in this world. A seed that is planted lays dormant during the winter, but, come spring, shoots forth from the earth and puts forth its leaves and then a flower to remind us that all the world is filled with resurrection. All it asks of us is to be present to it – even for just a moment – and we must remember that such focused attention is, indeed, a form of prayer.

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To Make A More Beautiful World

A Waterfall in Glenfinlas by Millais

In Anne’s House of Dreams. L.M. Montgomery writes, “I’d like to add some beauty to life,” said Anne dreamily. “I don’t exactly want to make people KNOW more… though I know that IS the noblest ambition… but I’d love to make them have a pleasanter time because of me… to have some little joy or happy thought that would never have existed if I hadn’t been born.”

When I read those words, I thought, “What a wonderful ambition to have in life: to add some beauty to it.” Then I began to contemplate how I could start each day with this desire to make someone else’s day “pleasanter” by simply offering them “little joy or happy thought that would never have existed if I hadn’t been born.” That last part “would never have existed if I hadn’t been born” struck me – how many of us even stop to consider that notion of a beauty being in the world that would not have been there had we never existed. How might our days be shaped differently if we thought more like Anne and viewed our brief time here on this earth as opportunities to offer some “little joy or happy thought” to another?

One of my favorite singer/songwriters is Sara Groves. Her 2005 album is entitled Add to the Beauty, so when I read that passage by L.M. Montgomery, I immediately thought of Sara’s song, from which the album takes its name. In “Add to the Beauty,” Sara sings:

We come with beautiful secrets
We come with purposes written on our hearts, written on our souls
We come to every new morning
With possibilities only we can hold, that only we can hold

“We come to every new morning with possibilities only we can hold . . .” How much that sounds like Anne. Each one of us comes to each new day with “possibilities only we can hold.” But what are they? What are we allowing ourselves to bring to each new day?

It can seem a daunting and overwhelming task to bring possibility, hope, and joy in a world where so many are divided, clashing, arguing, fighting, and where community often feels like it’s in tatters and shreds. So much of what goes on around us appears to be motivated more by fear than by love. The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wisely wrote, “A man sees in the world what he carries in his heart.” Instead of focusing on or worrying about what’s in the hearts of others, we must look to see what we carry within our own hearts. Do we carry the compassion, understanding and desire to love another so that we see the world through the lens of compassion, understanding and love? Do we carry empathy, an open heart and a listening spirit? We cannot bring beauty to the world if there is none within our own souls.

Returning to Sara Groves’ lovely song, I cannot help but heed her chorus:

And I want to add to the beauty
To tell a better story
I want to shine with the light
That’s burning up inside

How can we, in our own lives and the lives of those around us, tell a better story? To write with our daily doings and in our being, a better story. A story written in mercy, patience, justice and equality. One where we allow for the walls to come down so that there are no barriers, no boxes to put someone in, no labels to attach to them, no distancing of ourselves, no longer seeing and believing in an “us versus them” attitude.

The novelist Jack London said that his motivation for writing was “for no other purpose than to add to the beauty that now belongs to me.” When we find the beauty within ourselves then we can see the world as beautiful. We understand that to accept others equally is not to diminish ourselves, but to enlarge our perspective, our understanding of what it means that we are, all of us, created in Imago Dei (the very image of God). As Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, “To love someone is to see him as God intended him.”

I love the lines from “Add to the Beauty” that goes:

This is grace, an invitation to be beautiful
This is grace, an invitation

What a wonderful concept of grace: an invitation to be beautiful. Not just ourselves, but an invitation to allow others to be beautiful and to see them in that manner. It is a grace that helps someone find their worth.

The poet Goethe wrote, “We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.”

If we love money, our lives will be shaped by a desire to make more and more. If we love having things, that our lives will be shaped by a desire for acquisitions. If we love power, we will spend our time and energy trying to accumulate more and more power. Yet, if our lives are shaped simply by a desire to love and be loved, then we will spend our days offering and allowing the opportunities to nourish, nurture and strengthen relationships, friendships and community.

Love is an awareness of something beloved. We give meaning to what we love. Do we see ourselves as beloved? When we do, we will see others in that light as well. We will not need to push and fight for our way, our opinion, our argument, our desire to be right. We will not get caught up in the daily war, but in creating the daily peace. Our words and our spirits have the choice to offer both. Are these words of redemption or simply another declaration for battle? I pray that I do not get dragged down into the comments section of social media, but, instead, use what I write, what I say and what I do be an opportunity to offer someone hope, joy and a sense of beauty in the world. Certainly one of the biggest compliments I have gotten from someone is simply being told, “You have taught me to see.” And they explained how they notice things that they had previously taken for granted. There are even people who text or message me photos of something they have paid attention to in the natural world.

This is not about big revelations, great acts but about the quiet changes that happen in each sacred moment of our days. It is about not being right, but in being light in the darkness. To offer a smile, a kind word, a place of solace and acceptance, or simply a listening ear to someone who desperately needs this. It is being present and grateful for the beauty.

In one of my favorite novels, Anne of Green Gables, Ann asks, “Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.”

I love that idea of just feeling prayer because I am so overwhelmed by the beauty of a field or the woods or a lovely blue sky. So often when the culture gets to me (particularly in this political climate), I can become ungrateful, angry, disillusioned, discouraged, disgusted, irritable and irascible. I want nothing but to be left alone. Then, if I simply go outside, go for a walk in nature, I find myself returning. I feel the “peace of wild things” as Wendell Berry so aptly calls it. Berry is so right when he describes spending time in nature as “resting in the grace of the world.” All the world is holy ground. All is sacred. And I reminded of these truths when I allow myself to be open to its hallowed offerings.

So as I begin this new week, I will go out with the desire to add to the beauty. Why not? If Dostoevsky is right, then “Beauty will save the world.”

Ruskin

 

Sound The Deep Waters: Christina Rossetti

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“Always carry a volume of poetry with you,” is a motto I attempt to live by. Along with a couple of other books (typically one that’s fiction and one that’s essays), I keep a collection of poetry in my car. Part of this is because my job requires me to spend so much time in retail stores that I need something to cultivate and nourish me in the midst of such daily consumerism. I have carried everyone from Whitman to Merwin, Dickinson to Sexton, Rilke to Rich. Reading poetry, after having been in a big box store makes me declare Anne Bronte’s words to the world, “My soul is awakened, my spirit is soaring!” Currently, I have a slender volume entitled Selected Poems of Christina Rossetti.  

When I first opened this collection the other day, the first poem to greet me was “Advent,” which was very apropos for the season, as well as the fact that we were going to have our last super moon of the year.

This Advent moon shines cold and clear,
These Advent nights are long;
Our lamps have burned year after year
And still their flame is strong.
‘Watchman, what of the night?’ we cry,
Heart-sick with hope deferred:
‘No speaking signs are in the sky,’
Is still the watchman’s word.

The more I read of her poetry, the more I wanted to know about the poet herself. In a letter written to Edmund Gosse, Rossetti spoke of the origins of her poetic training. “If any one thing schooled me the direction supposed,” she wrote, “it was perhaps the delighful idle liberty to prowl all alone about my grandfather’s cottage grounds…” She loved to explore the woodlands, lanes, fields orchards and copses where she encountered hawthorne, holly, blackthorne, cherry trees, wrens and robins, a garden pond and watching as the cows came in for milking. Years later, an adult Christina would write of how that time was “a rarity” that she would give to “recover that wonder…”

I thought of how such an idyllic childhood exploring the gardens and nearby woods was what inspired Jane Goodall in her future endeavors. It also reminded me of my own childhood that was spent in discovery and connecting with the natural world.

Nature was also the first teacher to Christina in offering her the “first vivid experience of death” when she found a dead mouse in the orchard.  “I took him up,” she wrote, buried him comfortably in a mossy bed, and bore the spot in mind.”  Later, when she returned to check on the mouse, she lifted the mouse where, to her horror, a “black insect emerged.” Part of this experience was something I, too, could relate to, when, as a boy, I was exploring the woods behind our house shortly after a summer storm and, to my horror, found the body of a small Carolina Wren lying dead on the ground. Thinking it somehow disrespectful to find such a tiny creature and just leave him there, I gathered the small bird up and located what I tought might be the perfect burial spot and, using my hands, dug a little grave for the bird, buried him with a small prayer.

Rossetti as a girl

Death would be a subject that would fascinate and fill the poetry of Christina Rossetti just as it did Emily Dickinson, the poet she is most often compared to. In a poem entitled “A Dirge,” Christina wrote:

Why were you born when the snow was falling?
You should have come to the cuckoo’s calling,
Or when grapes are green in the cluster,
Or, at least, when lithe swallows muster
For their far off flying
From summer dying.Why did you die when the lambs were cropping?
You should have died at the apples’ dropping,
When the grasshopper comes to trouble,
And the wheat-fields are sodden stubble,
And all winds go sighing
For sweet things dying.
Like Dickinson, there is very much a connection between the natural world and death. How much of this understanding come after she buried that mouse in the orchard?
Though a great lover of nature, Rossetti spent most of her life in London.  In one of her most famous poems, “A Birthday,” Christina uses imagery of a song-bird, a fruit-laden apple tree, a rainbow, the sea, doves, and peacocks.
My heart is like a singing bird
                  Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
                  Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
                  That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
                  Because my love is come to me.
Raise me a dais of silk and down;
                  Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
                  And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
                  In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
                  Is come, my love is come to me.
C. Rossetti
One wonders what Rossetti’s poetry might have been like had she not had that experience in nature? It also makes me question how many poets we lose when children today cannot spend that time exploring and discovering the natural world (if there is much that hasn’t been torn down for “development”) around them.
“Tread softly!” she once wrote, “All the earth is holy ground.” If only we heeded her words, how much differently we would treat the natural world. As a devout Christian, Christina’s faith shaped everything she wrote and how she viewed nature and others. For her, God is always there, always present. For her the creation is a reflection of the Creator. The world was sublime and its wonders evidence of God’s love and glory. This can be seen in poems like “Spring” or “From House to Home” or “Shut Out.”  She echoes the words of Christ in her poem “Consider”:
Consider
The lilies of the field whose bloom is brief:—
We are as they;
Like them we fade away,
As doth a leaf.
Consider
The sparrows of the air of small account:
Our God doth view
Whether they fall or mount,—
He guards us too.

Consider
The lilies that do neither spin nor toil,
Yet are most fair:—
What profits all this care
And all this coil?

Consider
The birds that have no barn nor harvest-weeks;
God gives them food:—
Much more our Father seeks
To do us good.

Of course, as we enter the Christmas season, we often hear one of her poems (In The Bleak Midwinter) set to music. The Incarnation, which reveals the sacredness of both the Infinite and finite, is the perfect image for Rossetti’s poetry, as it combines both the holy and the ordinary.
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

Rossetti

“Were there no God,” Christina wrote, “we would be in this glorious worldwith grateful hearts and no one to thank.” And her poetry reflects this gratefulness for a God who created such a glorious world. Like all great poets, Christina Rossetti opens our eyes to the marvelous wonders the earth around us holds and directs our gaze even further to the one who created it all, which makes her an apropos poet to read during this Advent and Christmas season.

Little Daily Miracles

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“What is the meaning of life?” Virginia Woolf asked and then answered her question with, “That was all – a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”

What struck me about that beautiful passage by one of my favorite writers was the idea of finding meaning not in the “great revelation,” which so many are seeking, but in the “little daily miracles.” Yet what do we consider “little daily miracles” in our lives and do we allow ourselves to be present enough to notice them?

This morning, when I went to wake my younger son up for breakfast before getting him ready for school, I paused and decided to lay down beside him. His warm, sleep-filled body was deep in a dream. I lay there listening to the rise and fall of each breath. Just laying there, listening to him breathing as he slept, I felt a sense of gratitude that the story of this child from Ukraine had become part of our family’s story.  Adoption is, in its own special way, a miracle of giving life just as birth is. That this boy, born from another womb, calls me his “Papa” and that I have the privilege of calling him “son” is a daily miracle.

Sitting there in the quiet and dark, I just listen. The rise and fall of each breath. Breath. Pneuma – the Greek word that means not only breath but spirit or soul. This notion runs throughout many religions.  In Hebrew the words are nefesh and ruah. They mean breath, wind or spirit. In Genesis, God the Creator quite literally breathes life/spirit into man. Breath and spirit give man life. Later, in the New Testament, God will give his Holy Spirit. The early Christian author Tertullian would later write that the soul is “born of the breath of God, immortal, corporeal, and representable.”

Islamic philosophy believes that one’s breath begins as a divine emanation that moves from potentiality to actuality and proceeds without interruption until each form is complete and perfect. As a link between body and spirit, breathing is what makes the balance of the elements, which is a condition necessary for the manifestation of the divine. Muslims breathe out, the words lā-ilāha (“There is no god”) are formed, while breathing in coincides with the words illā Allāh (“but God”), so that each breath is a prayer of profession. How beautiful to view each breath (an act that is so vital and necessary for life) as prayer.

Lying there, I breathed inward and then outward my own prayer. My prayer that my sons will always remain fellow adventurers, generous souls, and wise hearts.

Throughout my day, I kept returning to meditating on the act of breathing. An act we take for granted most of the time. Breathing is more than an act of the lungs but one that is done by our whole body. There is a rhythm to breathing. We breathe 16 to 17 respiratory incursions a minute. That increases or decreases according to our emotional state.

In The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.” When I go on my nature walks, I have begun practicing breathwalk mediation; whereby I synchronize my breathing to my steps, as well as directing the focus of my attention. Each breath, each beat of my  heart, each step reminding me: I am. I am. I am. (to paraphrase Sylvia Plath).

I walk and each breath becomes a prayer of gratitude: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Thankful for the breath that allows me to take these walks. Thankful for the trees that surround me and produce the oxygen I breathe.  We breathe in 9.5 tonnes of air a year. Scientists have estimated that this amount is seven to eight trees’ worth. How can I not be grateful for the beauty and the oxygen they offer me? I cannot help but touch my hand against their bark as if to offer my gratefulness for just one of the “little daily miracles” that make me say, as Anne of Green Gables did, ““Dear old world, you are very lovely, and I am glad to be alive in you.”

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Looking With Curiosity & Love

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“As children,” Ansel Adams once said, “we are very sensitive to nature’s beauty, finding miracles and interesting things everywhere. As we grow up, we tend to forget how beautiful and magnificent the world is. There is magic and wonder for eyes who know how to look with curiosity and love.”

When I was a boy, if the weather was nice (especially during the months of summer vacation), my mother would drive us from the house with, “It’s too nice a day for you to be inside. Go outside and play!”  My friends and I loved playing in bushes and shrubs or climbing trees (to survey the world, as if it were our kingdom), or lying in the cool green grass under the weeping willow tree. We delighted in insects and caterpillars, snails, roly-polys (or pill-bugs), butterflies and, at night, fireflies. There was nothing more fascinating than discovering a box turtle or sitting still enough that birds would come close to us. We would roll down the hill of our big backyard. Or chase each other around trees. Or collecting acorns to have acorn fights. We labored with joy in building small dams in the creek. Playing in summer rain storms.

The woods was a sublime world for us to explore. We would watch spiders on their webs, squirrels chasing each other around and up trees, of watching birds make their nests, and of finding what we considered secret places that were only ours. We built small little homes of twigs and bark and moss that we called fairy homes. We would use the tops of acorns as their bowls which we would place a small berry in, as a kind of offering for when the fairies came upon the houses we made and make them their homes. And why not? We were convinced that the woods was a magical place. How could it not be when one was likely to spy a raccoon or rabbit and, on rare occasions, a fox?

During part of the summer, I would be sent to my grandparents’ farm. Life had a different rhythm there than at my own home. For one thing, they awakened early – at 5 am, which to my mind is an ungodly hour and should never even be considered as a possible time to get out of bed and start the day.  But I did. My grandmother fixed us a large breakfast and then I would go with my grandfather to the fields where he grew vegetables (such as corn, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers). He would drive his tractor and, to my delight, his pet bird would ride on his shoulder. I sat on the trailer pulled behind the tractor, which is where we would put the vegetables that we picked. Amidst the rows of corn, I might see a king snake, a rabbit, a field mouse or, sometimes, a deer.

It was amazing to see how all of the seeds my grandfather had planted had taken root and grown into plants with a harvest of fresh vegetables. To have seen this go from an empty field to one that was plowed and prepared. To see all of the effort and hard work it took to get such plants to grow and yield a crop. This is probably why I fell in love with the writing of Wendell Berry.

Because of all the time I spent as a boy in nature, is it any wonder that I became so emotionally rooted to it and have nurtured a love of nature in my sons? This deep connection to the natural world is something I have fostered, along with a great appreciation for the seasons and what each has to offer.

The Secret Garden

Recently, I began rereading The Secret Garden, which I loved in childhood. As I rediscoverd the world of Mary Lennox and Mistlethwaite Manor, I began to fall back under the spell of the secret garden. As Mary and Dickon tend to and plant seeds, I loved how Frances Hodgson Burnett describes their time, “There was joy on earth in the secret garden that morning, and in the midst of them came a delight more delightful than all, because it was more wonderful.” But it made me lament how many children do not get the opportunity to take delight in planting and tending and nurturing seeds into plants.  Of getting their hands dirty in soil and uncovering the life that lives there, such as wriggly earthworms.

In one of the passages from The Secret Garden, she writes, “One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands out and throws one’s head far back and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one’s heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun–which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. One knows it then for a moment or so. And one knows it sometimes when one stands by oneself in a wood at sunset and the mysterious deep gold stillness slanting through and under the branches seems to be saying slowly again and again something one cannot quite hear, however much one tries. Then sometimes the immense quiet of the dark blue at night with the millions of stars waiting and watching makes one sure; and sometimes a sound of far-off music makes it true; and sometimes a look in someone’s eyes.”

This glorious passage makes me think of my own time, watching the sun come up as I rode on that trailer to my grandfather’s field. Or playing with neighborhood kids in the moonlight of our backyards where the night sky was infinite and the fireflies appeared like tiny blinking stars about us.

Rereading The Secret Garden reminds me that it’s not just the appearance, but even the poetry of the names, that make flowers beautiful: Lily of the Valley, Canterbury Bells, daffodils, crocuses, Campanula, blue larkspur, among others. Perhaps it was reading this book as a child, as well as my mother’s own love for gardening, that made me take pleasure in gardening myself. To grow things from seeds or bulbs. To weed and water and tend to such precious life and feel connected and alive.

Secret Garden - Mary & Dickon

Tasha Tudor, who did the illustrations for The Secret Garden, said, “It’s exciting to see things coming up again, plants that you’ve had twenty or thirty years. It’s like seeing an old friend.” And isn’t it?

Every Spring, I am thrilled to be reunited with the perennials I planted before and to be greeted again by them each season (beginning with crocuses and then daffodils). It is a glorious reunion and a reminder of the miraculous resurrection that takes place in creation every year.

Tasha Tudor

Research has shown that spending time in nature makes a person more energized than in drinking coffee, as well as making one happier, kinder and more creative. Scientists are seeing that spending time in nature literally changes the brain in ways that have positive impacts on one’s life and health. Being in the natural world decreases stress. They even discovered that people who walk in nature, as opposed to an urban setting, had lower heart rates and were more relaxed. Spending time in nature causes what they term “attention restoration,” whereby people can focus better.

Beatrix Potter in garden

Beatrix Potter understood this. She spent great amounts of time in her garden, in nature and she wrote,  “Thank God I have the seeing eye, that is to say, as I lie in bed I can walk step by step on the fells and rough land seeing every stone and flower and patch of bog and cotton pass, every tree, the scent of heather… Even when the thunder growled in the distance, and the wind swept up the valley in fitful gusts, oh, it was beautiful, home sweet home.” And one can see this attention to every detail in her journals. Pages and pages of notations and illustrations of what she encountered and would, later, show up in her children’s books.

Beatrix Potter caterpillars

One passage, she writes, “In Summer there were white and damask roses, and the smell of thyme and musk. In Spring there were green gooseberries and throstles [thrush], and the flowers they call ceninen [daffodils]. And leeks and cabbages also grew in that garden; and between long straight alleys, and apple-trained espaliers, there were beds of strawberries, and mint, and sage.”

With her keen observational skills, she noticed the flora and fauna; even discovering previously unknown varieties of mushrooms.

Potter mushroom

She studied animals’ habits and habitats. As she noted in her journals:

Harescombe Grange, Stroud 1894, June — . . . I went out in the morning with Caroline into the copse at the back of the house, a steep wooded bank. It had been wet overnight and we got dirty to our heart’s content.

I was extremely interested with the badger’s marks and their claw-walks, worn bare and slippery underneath the nettles and brush, but could judge they were made by a large stumpy animal, and the size of their footsteps is quite startling in an English wood.

Caroline said that she had never succeeded in seeing one during the fifteen years that they have lived at Harescombe, yet we saw their tracks in a lane half a mile from the Earths. The latter are curious, struck out by the hind legs like a rabbit’s hole, but a square piled-up bank like the spoil-banks in front of a coalpit. We found some curious snails, and poked about delightfully. . . . 

She took the opportunities she spent in nature to observe and to question.

Woodfield, 1883, Thursday, August 2nd. — . . . caught some newts in the afternoon. Didn’t know they grew so big, or that they squeaked, it is as queer as to hear a fish make a noise.

They cannot breathe under water, having no gills except in the tadpole state, but they, like frogs, can remain under the surface for a long time. They sometimes let out the air at the bottom of the water, but generally rise to the top so as to get a fresh supply. The moment they have parted with the old they breathe rapidly through the nostrils like other reptiles, as may be seen by the rapid palpitation of the throat; but there is one thing about the breathing which I never noticed in any other, the newt having put out the used-up air, draws in fresh by quick respirations through its nostril. Then, if in the water, it sinks to the bottom till the new supply is exhausted; but the air when used, instead of returning through the nose, collects in the throat, extending it greatly. Then the newt rising to the surface, lets out the air by opening its mouth wide with a snap.

Now the thing which puzzles me is that land-newts, frogs and toads and salamanders, though they breathe the air in at their noses in the same way (taking in a good deal and then stopping to use it), do not get fresh air through the mouth, or collect it in the throat, but through the nose. Indeed, I think sometimes they breathe and discharge the air alternatively  like an ordinary animal, otherwise they would burst from breathing in too much.  Another thing is, how can frogs stop underwater so long as they sometimes do, over half an hour?  The big newts seem to have to rise oftener than the small ones. 

Beatrix Potter understood the importance of paying attention, being aware and being present to one’s surroundings. Nature inspired curiosity and wonder in Potter that she would retain her whole life and would deeply shape her own identity and her art. She did not see her art as disconnected from her observation of nature.

In The Secret Garden, the reader watches as Mary Lennox comes alive by spending time in nature and, as she does, how the natural world of the secret garden comes alive under her love and care. It’s a symbiotic relationship where both benefit and blossom. I cannot help but believe that this would be the case for any child who is allowed to discover and explore and spend time in creation. Only then will they begin to see the magic and wonder of the glorious world about us.

 

 

The Lost Words

IMG_5538In Four Quartets, the poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice.” Language is constantly changing and evolving. New words enter our vocabulary and our lexicon. How many of the words that we use on a daily basis would be completely strange and unfamiliar to our ancestors just a few generations ago? How many of their vernacular are lost to us now? Just as our physical landscapes are changing with development, so, too, is our language.

How many of us, when we venture into the woods, cannot name the trees or plants or birds or wildflowers that we come across? How many children can tell you the names of imaginary cartoon animals but not the real names of animals in nature?  How many of them have been more likely to touch the latest iPhone than water in a creek or the bark of a tree as they climb it? How many of them would be more in awe of the latest video game system than in seeing a hawk in flight? When Cambridge University did a study of four to eleven year olds, what they discovered was that kids were “more inspired by synthetic subjects” than by “living creatures.” They were more excited by Pokemon than porcupines. But what are we losing when we and our children are no longer connected to the natural world? How can we care about the welfare of other creatures if we don’t even realize they exist?

As people become more and more connected to the online world, they become less and less to the natural one. As technological words enter our vocabulary and our dictionaries, the words of nature are falling away and forgotten. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”

How limited will our world become?

When we diminish our language, we diminish ourselves.

In her book From The Forest: A Search For The Hidden Roots of Our Fairy Tales, Sara Maitland writes:

“The whole tradition of [oral] story telling is endangered by modern technology. Although telling stories is a very fundamental human attribute, to the extent that psychiatry now often treats ‘narrative loss’ — the inability to construct a story of one’s own life — as a loss of identity or ‘personhood,’ it is not natural but an art form — you have to learn to tell stories . . . The deep connect between the forests and the core stories has been lost; fairy stories and forests have been moved into different categories and, isolated, both are at risk of disappearing, misunderstood and culturally undervalued, ‘useless’ in the sense of ‘financially unprofitable.”

When I read those words, my heart broke. As someone who loves both fairy tales and forests, I fear for what we are not leaving future generations.

IMG_5542One of my favorite authors, Robert Macfarlane, has explored this loss in books like Landmarks and The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. Now he has a gorgeous new illustrated book out entitled The Lost Words.  It is astoundingly beautiful and the watercolor illustrations by Jackie Morris take my breath away in no less a fashion as seeing wildlife in nature itself. Their collaboration is a pure celebration of words, poetry and the natural world.

IMG_5544When I received The Lost Words in the mail, I could not wait to share this book with my younger son, who adores animals, the woods and, especially birds. The two of us poured over the pages of a work that compels the reader to reconnect with the outdoors again.

Robert Macfarlane mourned the loss of words that were disappearing from kids’ dictionaries: acorn, bluebell, heron and conker being among them. As he told The Telegraph, “The idea was that readers would feel a sense of walking into the book, like a landscape. We wanted to make a spell-book in two senses – in that children spelt these words but that there was also this great sense of enchantment; that old magic of speaking things aloud.”

IMG_5545As a child I discovered nature both through books (Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows were two vital ones for me) and by playing in and exploring the woods behind our house. I lament that my own sons do not have the ability to just roam free in the nature as I did, but I still make the effort to take them out on weekly nature walks and spend time in national parks where they can encounter fish in the streams, hear the piercing cry of a red-tailed hawk in flight, feel moss on their feet, see the sunlight dancing amidst the branches and leaves of the trees, and to learn the names of what we see. To know the names is to enter the enchantment because every reader of fairy tales understands the power of knowing someone or something’s true name.  Forests and woods can cast a spell that no other places can – and I want my boys to feel that magic as I have over the years.

IMG_5543I want my sons to pick and taste wild blackberries. To know the feel of acorns and the cool, smoothness of river stones and what it’s like to put one’s hands into the soil. I want them to realize that, while we are not wealthy by any means, we have riches by being able to spend time in such places.

As Macfarlane wrote in The Wild Places, “Wild animals, like wild places, are invaluable to us precisely because they are not us. They are uncompromisingly different. The paths they follow, the impulses that guide them, are of other orders. The seal’s holding gaze, before it flukes to push another tunnel through the sea, the hare’s run, the hawk’s high gyres : such things are wild. Seeing them, you are made briefly aware of a world at work around and beside our own, a world operating in patterns and purposes that you do not share. These are creatures, you realise that live by voices inaudible to you.”

IMG_5549The Lost Words is a lovely reminder of what we need to remember to value: the words and the natural world they are referring to. There is a beauty and a poetry to the natural world that Macfarlane and Morris capture exquisitely.  Our family has developed and nurtured our intense love for words and the wild woods, so this book was a wonderful addition to our collection and will be treasured for years to come.

Dandelion, fern, starling, spores, smoke, feathers are all parts of our lexicon. We have guides for birds, trees, plants and regional animals. Every trip that we go on as a family, we always research where we can spend time in nature and, hopefully, discover animals, plants and birds we don’t normally encounter. Because of me, my family has also begun paying attention to roots, moss, clouds, and rocks.

IMG_5550The Lost Words is a book to be poured over: both the images and poems. They also have continued to inspire my younger son to draw and paint watercolors of what he sees in nature (along with furthering his interest in keeping a nature journal).  This book will encourage anyone who reads it to desire to become protector of lost words so that they do not become forgotten and to find an abiding love for nature and spending time in the woods again. This book is magical.

IMG_5551“A proportion of the royalties from each copy will be donated to Action For Conservation – the charity that works with disadvantaged children and which is dedicated to inspiring young people to take action for the environment. Macfarlane is a founding trustee. “

Komorebi & The Love Of New Words

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When I was a child and I would read a word in a book that I was unfamiliar with, I would go and ask my mother what that word meant. At first, when I was really young, she would tell me it’s definition. But when I got a little older, she told me to go look the word’s meaning up in a dictionary. I was enthralled that I could go to our shelf, pull down two volumes from our Encyclopedia Britannica set that were dictionaries and look up so many new and exciting words. Yes, I was one of those weird kids who actually loved reading the words and definitions that were found between its pages.  And, unlike so many of my peers in school, I didn’t go to dictionaries just to find the “dirty” words and snicker.

Some of my favorite children’s books were the best at introducing me to new words.

Where The Wild Things Are

It started with Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and Sendak’s use of the word rumpus. I learned that rumpus was “a usually noisy commotion or ruckus.” It was thrilling to me to declare, like Max, “Let the wild rumpus start!”

Owl-and-the-pussycat

Then there was one of my favorite childhood poets, Edward Lear. His most famous work “The Owl and the Pussycat” introduced me to the word runcible, as in “they ate with a runcible spoon.” I was delighted to find out that Lear had simply made this word up (Even more thrilling than a wild rumpus was that one could simply make up words). Edward Lear loved his new word so much that he used this adjective to not only describe the spoon, but also a cat, a hat, a wall and a goose. The word came to mean “silly.” Another writer who delighted in making up nonsense words to the delight of children was Roald Dahl whizzpopper).

Carroll

Lewis Carroll enjoyed blending existing words to form new ones as what he called “portmanteau words.” One sees this usage of words in his poems “The Jabberwocky” or “The Hunting of the Snark.” Frumious was just such a word formulated in the imaginative mind of Carroll by combining fuming and furious.

Dr. Seuss was, of course, a master of made-up words and language.

Beatrix Potter introduced me to the word soporific in her book The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies and my mother explained that it meant that something had the effect of making one sleepy.

A Wrinkle in Time introduced me to the world of science and the concept of a tesseractThe spider Charlotte first made me aware of the word radiant when she described Wilbur that way in Charlotte’s Web. The Little Prince was where I first encountered the baobab tree.

Phantom Tollbooth

Just as I longed to go to Narnia (Lewis taught me the word wardrobe), I also longed to visit Dictionopolis from Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. Dictionopolis, the kingdom of words, where King Azaz decreed a law that words were more important than numbers. As someone who has always struggled with math, I’m with King Azaz. This was the land where the protagonist, Milo, learns to use words and times wisely.

From elementary school on, I was a logophile (from the Greek logos for “word, reason” and philos for “dear, friendly”). It never once abated. I adored words. If I grew bored, particularly during the winter months when I couldn’t go exploring the woods, I would take down a dictionary and simply begin reading it. I thought I was the only one, but then, years later, I found out that David Bowie did as well. “Don’t you love the Oxford Dictionary?” he once asked someone,  “When I first read it, I thought it was a really really long poem about everything.” Now I’m sure there was some tongue-in-cheek playfulness about that statement, but I still found Bowie a comrade.

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As I have gotten older, I continue to love new words, particularly if they are related to the natural environment around me. One of my newer favorites is a Japanese word KomorebiKomorebi means “the sunlight filtering through the leaves or trees.” The fact that there is a word for that is magical to me because now I can use it whenever I see light coming through the leaves of trees. There is something transcendental about the light coming through the leaves and can fill me with a sense of awe. This was especially true during the last eclipse. Komorebi also describe that effect that happened after the solar eclipse, where I was more fascinated by the light playing on our patio than the eclipse itself.

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I love language that reads like poetry or makes the world more poetic and somehow names that which was previously ineffable.

Komorebi is what Dylan Thomas called “windfall light” in his poem “Fern Hil” when he writes “Down the rivers of windfall light.” Like myself and Thomas, C.S. Lewis was someone who loved Komorebi and he described them as “shafts of delicious sunlight” or “Godlight.”

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon the absolute truth.” And he’s right. Words cannot touch the absolute truth but they can, however, guide us there. When we give something a name, we give it meaning.  As Robin Wall Kimmerer wisely said, “With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.”

And they have. Words have taught me to see. They have opened me up to being able to call something a specific name instead of just a bird (a Brown-headed nuthatch – so much more wonderful than just saying “bird”) or just a plant (Eastern Blue Star is far more poetic) or just a tree (Carolina Silverbell).

anne-and-matthewI, like Anne of Green Gables, understand the value of naming a place(the White Way of Delight or the Lake of Shining Waters). Like one of my favorite fictional characters, I agree with her assessment of in this passage of the book:

“Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about?” she asks Matthew on their first drive to Green Gables. “It’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?”

Words help give us that scope of imagination for discovery, for being able to name something we once could not name. I can use the German term Waldeinsamkeit  to describe “a feeling of solitude, being alone in the woods and having a connection to nature.” Ralph Waldo Emerson even wrote an entire poem about this.

So I will continue to take the dictionary down, even when I’m not bored, just to open it randomly and find new words. It not only expands my vocabulary and my mind, but my world as well.

The Holy Hungering After Beauty

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“It seems to me,” wrote George Eliot, “that we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good and we must hunger after them.”

I find myself in a place in my life where I am hungering after the beautiful and good because the world appears to be filled so much more with the harsh, cruel, violent, and indifferent. As if to counteract all of that, I am turning more and more to poetry, nature, music, and art. They provide a kind of balm to my soul when everything else seems overwhelming and chaotic. I turn to either silence and stillness or I allow myself to listen to works of music that cause my spirit to soar, especially Handel’s Messiah (a work I have already begun listening to in expectation of the beauty of the season to come. It’s hard not to find joy in listening to a chorus singing, “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given . . .” or the famous “Hallelujah” chorus. This music is ushering me into the spirit of Advent before Advent begins. It is preparing myself into that holy waiting.

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Awhile back, when I was writing a blog post about the nature journals of Jane Goodall, Charles Darwin, Rachel Carson and John Muir (The Nature of Notebooks), my younger son came up to me and asked what I was writing about. After I explained to him about how these naturalists often started journaling about nature as kids, he became fascinated and wanted to begin his very own. I gave him a small pocket journal for him to keep with him whenever we are out in the yard or on one of our many nature walks so that he can record and draw what he sees. I love how it teaches him observation skills, for him to pay attention and to be aware of the beauty of the world around us: be it a bird, a leaf, a plant, an animal, an acorn or a pinecone. He then goes to his bird or tree or plant guides to discover more about what he has seen and to compare the notes he has made to what the guides say about them.

This act of noticing and recording what he sees is a way for us to grow closer together as we talk about what’s in his journal. It’s also a way for him to begin to care deeply for nature and express his thoughts, feelings, and observations down so that, years later, he can go back and look at them. It will, hopefully, be something he will continue to do throughout his life. It’s a way for him to see the world around himself and to connect himself to those very things: the texture and feel of trees, the sounds and smells of the natural world, the change of seasons as reflected in the colors of the leaves. It creates awareness and connectedness.

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The German poet Johann Wolgang von Goethe wisely suggested, “A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.”  Sound advice. And one that I follow daily. I always keep a small collection of poetry in my car so that I can take it out whenever I need the loveliness of and rhythms of the language  and continues my connection to landscape (particularly in poets like Wordsworth, Dickinson, Oliver,  Frost, Whitman and Merwin).

In his collection The Moon Before Morning, W.S. Merwin wrote a poem entitled “Trees”:

I am looking at trees
they may be one of the things I will miss
most from the earth
though many of the ones I have seen
already I cannot remember
and though I seldom embrace the ones I see
and have never been able to speak
with one
I listen to them tenderly
their names have never touched them
they have stood round my sleep
and when it was forbidden to climb them
they have carried me in their branches

When I read such a poem, I connect with his love for trees because it is something I have as well. It causes a longing in me to walk along my thinking path, through the woods filled with a restless curiosity and a desire to allow creation to fill me.

Poetry and nature remind me that I, like Walt Whitman, “I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen, / And accrue what I hear into myself – and let sounds / contribute toward me.” I take the sounds I hear into myself: birdsong, the conversations of others, music (especially when it’s a songwriter like Andrew Peterson or Mary Chapin Carpenter or Carrie Newcomer).

Monkey Rock Autumn

Lately, I also find myself drawn to Japanese woodblock prints, such as those by the landscape artist Ito Yuhan, Hiroshi Yoshida or Hasui Kawase. I love not only the flora and fauna of the works, but the principal behind the works which embrace a simplicity, quietness, tranquility and transcension.  I find that often, I find myself meditating on the beauty of their works and connecting them to the haikus of Matsuo Bashō. One that I love is:

In the twilight rain
these brilliant-hued hibiscus –
A lovely sunset

His haikus, along with the woodcuts, allow me to enter a space of contemplation and focus on the essence of the impressionistic images in both.

Cherry Blossoms and Castle

Why should we hunger after beauty?

In her Lectures on Philosophy, Simone Weil wrote, “Everything beautiful has the mark of eternity.” This hunger is to fill a spiritual need that dwells deep within all of us to be connected to the seen and unseen world, to that which is deeper and truer, which nourish and nurture us, that ever reaching for Divine Mystery. To those things that inspire us to awe and wonder. Those things that transcend us and make us consider beyond ourselves and ask questions of why we exist and to join in the sacrament of transformation that occurs when we enter a forest, stand in the ocean, gaze on a masterpiece of art, hear a composition of music that goes deep within our own experience and connects us to so much more, to join in the dance, to sing, to speak aloud a poem, to long to create ourselves and become co-creators in this wondrous world of ours.

In Just Kids, Patti Smith eloquently writes, “The artist seeks contact with his intuitive sense of the gods, but in order to create his work, he cannot stay in this seductive and incorporeal realm. He must return to the material world in order to do his work. It’s the artist’s responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation.”

To create art or to come in contact with it, forces us to move beyond the material world to one that connects us to the artist and, ultimately, something far greater than that. We encounter both ourselves and something transcendent of ourselves. We move beyond mere existence to an understanding that all is holy. As Walt Whitman wrote, “All truths wait in all things . . .” When we encounter beauty, we encounter these truths.

Beauty is a beacon.

May we all proceed towards it with sacred, joyful abandon.

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The Magic & Necessity Of Nature

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“Like most children before the age of TV and computer games, I loved being outside,” writes Jane Goodall in her book Reason to Hope: A Spiritual Journey, “I loved playing outside, playing in the secret places in the garden, learning about nature. My love of living things was encouraged, so that from the very beginning I was able to develop a sense of wonder, of awe, that can lead to spiritual awareness.”

When I read that passage by Goodall, I instantly connected with her and her experience. While I had TV, I spent more time in books and the woods. Both were ways of exploration and self-discovery for me. Both libraries and nature were places of freedom, self-education, self-discovery and deep connection to the realization that I’m not alone. When I look at my past, I  see how literature and language and the natural world were all interconnected for me.

My mother encouraged both my love of reading and my love of nature. And I’m sure she was thrilled to go through my pants’ pockets before she washed my clothes: never knowing what she might find in them (small stones, bird bones or feathers, a snake skin, a brightly colored leaf).

It was my discovery of the wonders of nature, like Goodall’s, that opened me to a sense of awe that undergirded a spiritual awareness that was deeper and richer than that I experience in church as a child. It’s also why, as a parent, I ensure that my own sons spend time in nature, to get that sense of the amazing delight and reverence for trees and plants and animals and streams. To be connected and rooted to the natural world and not just to the technological one.

Later in her book, Jane Goodall writes about how she was “not at all keen on going to school.” These are words that harken to my own ambivalence and dislike of systemized education that feels more like chores and prison than opportunities for discovery or creativity or even inspiring critical thinking. My room was filled with books. We took weekly trips to the local library. I would check out stacks of books and then spend time losing myself within their words and worlds, just as I did within the woods.

Many of the books I loved as a boy were either about far off imaginary places, magical places, or wild and wooded places. Fairy tales were a start, but then they were followed by books like The Wind in the WillowsThe Secret GardenDoctor DoolittleCharlotte’s WebWinnie the Pooh and The Jungle Book

I can still recall reading The Wind in the Willows, one of my most cherished and beloved books, and becoming enthralled with the passage where Kenneth Grahame writes, “All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.” That was me he was describing. I could and, still can, get lost into staring at the sky.  I have a fascination with skies and clouds that is unexplainable and I love that it is. I delight in mystery and the inexplicable and unexplainable.

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Needless to say, I relished that Jane Goodall also loved The Wind in the Willows. As she writes, “…to this day, I remember the beautiful and mystical experience shared by Ratty and Mole when they found the missing otter cub curled up between the cloved hoofs of the sylvan god, Pan.”

Pan in The Wind in the WillowsI, too, remember that moment. Certainly this Pan was a kindlier and gentler, more English version of Pan than that of classical Greek. Grahame’s Pan owed more to Wordsworth as a protector of the English wild countryside.  Pan symbolizes nature itself and we see the awe and reverence he inspires in the dialogue between Ratty and Mole:

“Rat!” he found breath to whisper, shaking. “Are you afraid?”

“Afraid?” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. “Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!”

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

This was a reverence for wild, untamed places. This was a respect and wonder for the natural world. It was what I felt every time I ventured into the woods behind our house, for when I saw a fox, or discovered raccoon tracks, or spotted a barred owl on a tree branch overhead.

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As a boy, I climbed trees. Loved climbing trees. To hide out. To read. To be alone. To think.So when I read Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, I understood, at once, why the protagonist, Cosimo, climbs a tree on his father’s estate and vows never to set foot on the ground again. There was nothing like being near the top of a tall tree when the wind began to move it, the tree began to sway. Overhead the pale clouds glided by in the summer sky.

It’s also one of the many reasons why I connected with Jiro Taniguchi’s beautiful and simple graphic novel The Walking Man. It is a lovely reflective and meditative work on a man walking. The narrative shows what he encounters on each walk: the people, places, and nature. One of my favorite images is of him, resting in the crook of a tree, gazing out over the rooftops of houses in a suburban Japanese neighborhood.

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This manga wonderfully illustrates the Japanese art form called “Ukiyo-e.”  The philosophy behind Ukiyo-e is of living in the moment, of appreciating life’s simple pleasures and the beauty inherent in nature. This work by Taniguchi causes anyone who takes the time to spend within its pages towards contemplation, reflection and awareness. It takes us out of the pace of our busy, hectic world into one of Ukio-e.

When I first discovered The Walking Man, I could easily identify with its protagonist. There is a peace to his world that I find in my own walks, in my own interactions with nature. I can remember, as a boy, how I loved walking through the tall, woodland grass that brushed against my skin as I passed through the field to enter the woods.

Whenever the world has felt chaotic, I turn to the woods and to the words of writers like Mary Oliver, Jane Goodall, Henry David Thoreau, Robert Macfarlane, John Muir, William Wordsworth, Annie Dilllard, W.H. Hudson, W.S. Merwin, Loren Eiseley, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Rebecca Solnit, Wendell Berry, or Gary Snyder. They draw me back from the hopelessness one so often sees in the media, to the reality of the natural world where there is true connection and where one can find peace and hopefulness.

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“There is no mystery in this association of woods,” writes Robert Macfarlane in The Wild Places,”and otherworlds, for as anyone who has walked the woods knows, they are places of correspondence, of call and answer. Visual affinities of color, relief and texture abound. A fallen branch echoes the deltoid form of a streambed into which it has come to rest. Chrome yellow autumn elm leaves find their color rhyme in the eye-ring of the blackbird. Different aspects of the forest link unexpectedly with each other, and so it is that within the stories, different times and worlds can be joined.”

The woods and forests are an enchanted, magical world because I came to them as a boy and through books. I saw through the lens of the excitement that one never knew what one would discover or encounter in both the natural world and in the pages of books. Both opened me up and have helped me get through the hardest times of my life (How often did I feel the nourishment and healing of the woods when I took walks there after the death of my mother?).

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As the world around me appears to me in chaotic disarray and confusion, I am returning again and again and again to the peace of wildness, of finding the beauty and grace in leaves that are turning glorious golds and reds and oranges all about me. Of putting my hand into the chilly creek to remind myself: This is life.