All Serious Daring

Eudora Welty

“As you have seen,” writes Southern author Eudora Welty in One Writer’s Beginnings, “I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be daring as well. For all serious daring starts from within.” Certainly most do not connect a sheltered life to a daring one. We tend to think of daring in terms of the Three Musketeers who claim it’s their business to risk their lives.  Or we may view adventurers and explores as daring as they set out into uncharted areas of the world and the universe. When people advise someone to be a “risk taker,” I don’t believe they mean “Go live a sheltered life” or “a quiet life.”

The dictionary defines daring as “adventurous or audaciously bold.” Can one be both “audaciously bold” and still be contained within ones home or hometown for much of one’s life? What makes for true daring? Climbing Everest? Thrill seeking? Risking life and limb for the adrenaline of the experience? Or, if one’s a writer, be like Hemingway?

Eudora Welty lived most of her life in the house she grew up in, located in Jackson, Mississippi. Yet from that house, Welty would go on to write novels, short stories and essays that saw deeply into Southern life and human relationships to such a degree that he work has been compared to that of Anton Chekov. She would probe into what lay behind the facade of daily life in a small Southern town in such a way that did not exploit the characters but offered them up in both honesty and generosity of spirit. Her writing is not mean or, like some of her contemporaries, Gothic.

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The daring that Welty wrote about was not an outward one, but a daring that goes inward for a deeper truth and authenticity. Her stories are a portraiture that reveals her keen eye, which served her well in both writing and photography. She, like Chekov and Jane Austen (another author she calls “kindred”), write about the “singularity of people.” In her writing, the reader discovers the whole of life in thought, feeling and speech. Welty is deft at revealing what’s going on inside the hearts and minds of those she’s writing about, in such a way that is rooted in the oral tradition of storytelling. With a keen sense of observation, she portrays flawed characters in such clarity and nuance that there is a feeling of familiarity about them: they could be one’s neighbors or family members.

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One of her greatest strengths is her ability to write believable dialogue. How is she able to do this ? “Familiarity,” she told in an interview in The Paris Review, “Memory of the way things get said. Once you have heard certain expressions, sentences, you almost never forget them.” Her stories are filled with the narrative of remembering. And she tends her words as skillfully and with as much attention to detail as she did her mother’s garden. “Southerners,” she said,  “love a good tale. They are born reciters, great memory retainers, diary keepers, letter exchangers . . . great talkers.”

Eudora Welty was a shy, private woman who revealed very little of herself in such interviews. Writing for her was an “inward thing” and, upon seeing her words in print often felt a “terrible sense of exposure.” “Writing a story or a novel,” she said, “is one way of discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer’s own life.” That is where her daring comes in. She draws from her own experience, those of people she knows, and her vivid imagination to create stories and novels that resonate with readers. The novelist Reynolds Price described her as “a fierce observer of the wide world around her and its loving consumer.” Welty is neither timid in thought, expression or imagination.

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“It is our inward journey,” she writes in her beautiful memoir One Writer’s Beginnings,  “that leads us through time – forward or back, seldom in a straight line, most often spiraling. Each of us is moving, changing, with respect to others. As we discover, we remember; remembering, we discover; and most intensely do we experience this when our separate journeys converge. Our living experience at those meeting points is one of the charged dramatic fields of fiction. ”

What greater daring is there to go within oneself and to draw out from those memories and meditations art?

There are many people who remain so outwardly busy as to refrain from any inward daring. They escape reflection with distraction. But all great artists understand that to create there must be the solitude and bravery to face one’s own inconsistencies and hypocrisies as well as one’s own generosity of spirit to create full, well-rounded works of art that both remind and reveal the world around us when we come in contact with it.

Eudora Welty

“Art is never the voice of a country, it is an even more precious thing,” Welty once said,
“the voice of the individual, doing its best to speak, not comfort of any sort, but truth. And the art that speaks it most unmistakably, most directly, most variously, most fully, is fiction.”

I first encountered her work in her most famous and anthologized short story “Why I Live At the P.O.” and, upon reading that, began to clamor after more; recognizing in her voice that of my own family. Certainly, for me, reading Eudora Welty’s writing is like listening to many of my own relatives speaking and spinning yarns about family history. They remind me of being a child who sat and listened with great attention to adults talking and weaving such stories that made relatives seem as lively as fictional characters.  For many years, a paperback of her collection of short stories was always to be found in my car’s glove compartment so that I could take them out and read them whenever I could. In her writing, I found the truth of place. “One place understood,” she once wrote, “helps us understand all places better.”  And she was masterful at it.

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“My continuing passion is to part a curtain,” she wrote, “that invisible veil of indifference that falls between us and that blinds us to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight.” I, for one, am glad that she had the serious daring to do just that.

 

 

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Monet’s Colorful Silence: The Haystacks

Haystacks by Monet

In one of my favorite films, Smoke (written by the novelist Paul Auster and directed by Wayne Wang), the character of Auggie Wren (played by Harvey Keitel) owns a cigar shop on a corner in Brooklyn. Every morning, at the exact same time, he snaps a photo from that corner. When he shows his photo albums to the author Paul Benjamin (played by William Hurt), Paul just casually flips the pages and is baffled by the fact that day after day, year after year.

“It’s just one small part of the world, but things place there, too,” Auggie says, “like everywhere else. It’s a record of my little spot.”

“You’ll never get it,” Auggie tells Paul, “if you don’t slow down, my friend.”

“What do you mean?” Paul asks.

“I mean you’re going too fast. You’re hardly looking at the pictures.”

Paul shrugs, baffled by this,  and laughs, “They’re all the same.”

“They’re all the same,” Auggie agrees but adds, “but each one is different from every other one. You’ve got your bright mornings and your dark mornings. You got your summer light and your autumn light. You got your weekdays and your weekends. You got your people in overcoats and galoshes and you got your people in t-shirts and shorts. Sometimes the same people but sometimes different ones. Sometimes the different ones become the same and the same ones disappear. The earth revolves around the sun and every day the light from the sun hits the earth at a different angle.”

As Auggie is talking, we see glorious black and white images of what he’s saying. Finally, Paul hears what his friend is saying and he slows down and actually looks at each photograph. It is only then that he sees one of his late-wife Ellen. “My sweet darling,” he laments and the beauty of what his friend has undertaken these many years has overwhelmed him in this single, beautiful moment.

How many of us miss such moments because we do not take the time to see them?

The French-Impressionist Claude Monet was taking one of his regular walks one day, with his stepdaughter, Blanche, when he noticed haystacks in a field. These were common in this area and many people passed by them daily without taking a second glance, but for some reason, Monet didn’t. He stopped and looked at them. He gave deliberate attention of something as mundane as haystacks.

haystacks end of summer morning 1891

Monet began painting what would become a series of twenty-five paintings at the end of that summer in 1890. Using a wheelbarrow, he would haul canvases, paints, brushes and the materials he needed to paint. Monet chose the canvas according to which one he felt best suited the subject. “It’s on the strength of observation and reflection,” Monet wrote, “that one finds a way. So we must dig and delve unceasingly.” Which is exactly what he did as he began to pain a repetition of them throughout the different seasons.

In a letter to his friend Gustave Geffroy, Monet wrote, “I am working doggedly on a series of different effects. The farther I go, the more I realize that I must work very hard if I am to find what I am looking for. . . I am more and more passionate about the need to convey what I feel . . .” And it was hard work for a perfectionist like Claude Monet, who destroyed many in the series that he found lacking.

How many of us would be passionate enough to spend our days throughout the seasons of a year, focusing on haystacks in fields? Would we willingly spend hours standing in the late-summer heat or in the bitter cold of winter to paint haystacks? Could we cultivate the awareness to not only see the beauty in them, but to see our own selves reflected in their images? To ruminate and reflect and to work “doggedly” to express what was going on inside our own souls while painting something as pedestrian as haystacks?

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There in what he calls “colorful silence,” Monet wrestles with himself, with his art, with trying to capture not only what he sees before him, but deep within him onto the canvas. Monet was not just existing in his world but truly inhabiting it, relishing the beauty found in what others did not find beauty within and elevating the commonplace to masterpieces.

But do we stop to look at even these paintings? Or are we like Paul Benjamin, dismissing them as being just the same thing? Do we stop to notice the interplay of light and shadow, of color and season and composition? Do we begin to grasp what Monet felt or, even, how we feel looking at these glorious paintings?

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It’s amazing to pay attention to the transience of light in each one. Reflected in that transience of light is the transience and passing of time itself. That’s why it’s important that we stop, slow down, and take a good look at the world about us. To join in the immutable conversation of the environments we inhabit.

When the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé saw these paintings for the first time, he wrote a letter to the artist, “Monet, you have so astounded me lately with your Haystacks that I watch myself looking at the fields through the prism of your paintings; or rather they seem to impress themselves upon me in that way.”

Is there a greater compliment anyone could give any kind of artist than to tell them, “Your work made me pay attention to something I ordinarily wouldn’t have. You made me take notice.” Is it not the artist’s job to open others to awareness?

Claude Monet http://www.tuttartpitturasculturapoesiamusica.com

The Work Of Seeing

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“We must look a long time before we can see,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. To truly see something one must be present to what they are looking at. In our hectic, busy, rushed and overly-scheduled lives, we often forget to take the time to see what’s around and within us.

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Whenever I visit an art museum, it amazes me how quickly so many people rush through it. They stop, momentarily, before a painting or photography or statue. Register it – sort of – before moving on to the next one. They never really see the work of art before them. The concept of standing before a painting for any period of time over five minutes is foreign to most who are there.  When we take our sons to any art museum, which we did over their Spring break, my wife and I take turns with each of them to walk, study and talk about the different works we are viewing. We ask questions, “What do you think made the artist paint this? Why do you think he chose the colors that he or she chose? What do you feel when you look at this work?” It’s amazing how listening to their answers helps us to see new things and to look at a painting or photograph through their eyes and perceptions.  Among the four of us, none of us see any one work the same way.

How many even stopped to notice the blanket stuffed in the broken window of the upper right window of that house painted by Andrew Wyeth?

Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal

When Henri Nouwen visited the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, he spent eight hours in front of Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Return of the Prodigal Son.  Nouwen understood that to even begin to see this great work, he must be present to it, to meditate upon what was there before him. By spending hours with Rembrand’s painting, he gleaned a truth about the relationship of fathers and sons, which he wrote about in his short book The Return of The Prodigal Son: A Homecoming. In it, Nouwen said:

Rembrandt is as much the elder son of the parable as he is the younger. When, during the last years of his life, he painted both sons in Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger son nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father. But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt’s painting, it is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home.

That book, considered to be one of Nouwen’s greatest, would never have even come about had he not spent the time he had looking and reflecting on this masterwork.

As I go about my walks, it always amazes me, that people can be out in the glories of natures and spend most of it with their eyes on their smartphones. Even when we were at Walt Disney World, supposedly the most magical place on earth where every inch of that amusement park is filled with diversions, people could barely look up from their phones. At concerts now, most people are too busy trying to record moments rather than enjoy them.  How much do others really see anymore? Is it all a mere glance and, “Okay, saw it, now let’s move on to the next thing…”?

How much are we missing by not actually seeing anymore?

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One of the things I love about walking with my younger son is that we are both people who love to stop and linger and look at everything about us: rocks, birds, trees, plants, streams, leaves, the shadows on clouds, insects. We pause to watch and wonder. We ask each other questions and, those we cannot answer, we look up when we get home.

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The Chinese philosopher Confucius wisely wrote, “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” Why? Because seeing takes time. It’s a matter of looking for more than a mere second or two, but stopping and becoming aware of what one is seeing and then studying it more closely. Of watching the life that is moving all around us: in the grass, in the trees, in the water. It allows us to be amateur naturalists, biologists, geologists, botanists, ornithologists.

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I also love to carry my camera with me wherever we go and, especially, on my walks. Why? Because it often helps me to pay closer attention to the world around me. I begin to notice details that I might have normally missed. I am studying light and shadow and angles and composition of a possible image. The photographer Dorothea Lange once said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”

Why do I do this and teach it to my sons?

Because when we undertake learning to see then we are training ourselves in patience, calmness, and are looking at something from different sides, different perspectives, and opening ourselves to the possibility of so much that we might otherwise take for granted.  How wondrous the world is when we are open and awakened to what it has to offer to us? It allows us to let go of our assumptions and discover anew those mundane miracles that are there before us.

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“After all,” George Eliot wrote, “true seeing is within.”

Seeing is an inner process of allowing ourselves to take what is outward within ourselves. It is an opening of not just our eyes, but our hearts and minds to the experience of noticing, of gazing, of seeing not only what is before us but what is within that which we are looking at. It’s the ever-expanding capacity for understanding. For grasping that we are, all of us and all things, connected. That within all things are secrets to be revealed if we take the time to begin understanding.

Sometimes, I will either sit by myself or with one of my sons, in the yard. In this stillness, I just observe whatever is going on around me. I am aware of the squirrel or the chipmunk or bird as they busy themselves about me. It’s amazing, how when one is still and silent, at how close they will come up to me. When I’ve taught this to both my sons, they have delighted in how close they get to these animals. It’s miraculous.  It’s wild and wonderful.  “To pay attention,” Mary Oliver wrote, “this is our endless and proper work.”

But how many want to undertake this work? And work it is, because it takes a conscious effort to even begin to start to see. It is like seeing with new eyes.

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Seeing is to be childlike. Not long ago, we went with some friends of ours to a local park. Their young son got so excited at seeing a dog. It was the kind of enthusiasm that we, unfortunately, lose as we grow older. A dog becomes just another dog. We stop seeing because we have lost our childlike sense of wonder that the world is a glorious place filled with amazing adventures and objects and experiences. We have forgotten that seeing, hearing, feeling, discovering are all miracles. They are all glorious gifts. That magic is not just in the realm of fairy tale fiction, but is found in the dawn rising of the sun and the evening setting of the sun. It is found in birds in flight. It is found in the drops of rain found on the leaves of plants.  It is found in the multi-colors of just green that one can find in the grass. It is found in the lichen that grows on the side of our oak trees.

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True seeing causes the observer to be both the seer and the seen. To observe with empathy, with connection with a sense of awe and reverence. To see and learn the names of what we are seeing, to understand something about them and how they relate to us in our environment.  To see and to sense and to feel.

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One of my favorite past times has always been sitting somewhere and just watching people. I love to watch their interactions with each other (or lack of them) and to gain insight into their emotional and psychological state by how they talk or are silent, how they move and in their expressions. Each person I see has their own lives and their own thoughts and, despite the fact that we are in the same place at the same time, we are, all of us, in our own little worlds. We are connected and yet disconnected. Some of us are present to the moment, while others prefer to avoid it through constant distraction. We do not see because we do not wish to see. We prefer to avoid. Seeing is the accepting of responsibility. It is removing the distance between ourselves and someone or something else.

Seeing is coming to the understanding that we are all intricately woven into the fabric of this world together. Seeing means we must be open to the meanings of the moments and movements around us and within us. We must be aware with open eyes to the joys and hurts and needs of each other. Seeing, truly seeing, another is a form of giving up oneself to the service of the other. How many of us can have spent any time talking to someone but, afterwards, if we were asked, could not tell what the color of that person’s eyes were? How then can we say we’ve even begun to see them or a mossy rock or rotting log or a the pine trees or the killdeer moving about the grass?

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To see is to live. To see is to be present and visible and grateful. It is to feel the full force of the moment: to not take for granted the beauty and the sorrow, the living and the dying. It is to be interconnected with the great, grand scheme of creation. Seeing is to gain understanding.  Sight is to gain insight.  To see is such bliss, how can we so often choose not to? To see the seasons and be knocked breathless by them.

So I open my eyes to the hallowing of all things and have found that my world, both within and outside of me, has gotten so much bigger, so much more mysterious, so much more wonderful, so much more humbling and, in the surprise of all of this, I can only offer my own alleluia of the deepest and simplest of prayers, “Thank you.”

 

 

 

 

 

Solitude, Streams & Walks

Sendak sketch

There is nothing like a walk in solitude, especially should that walk take me to a quiet little stream where I can sit on the banks and just listen: to the sounds of the gentle movement of the water, to the birdsong, to my own breathing and heartbeat, and to my own thoughts.  Solitary walks are a gift and a pleasure for this introvert because I am no longer surrounded by people but by sky and clouds and trees and grass and nature: all of which corresponds to my heart. To encounter only the companions of a robin or Monarch Butterfly or the shafts of light coming through the rustling leaves of the trees about me. Sometimes I catch a quick glimpse of a rabbit or fox or lizard or King Snake sleeping on a sun-warmed rock.

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To be in nature is to be a poet without ever writing a single word on paper. It is to understand that silence of wildflowers is as lovely as the silence in a European cathedral and, oftentimes, closer to the Creator who delights in such ordinary miracles.

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Such walks allow me to contemplate and reflect. To gather my thoughts together as a rainstorm will children dashing in the house from outside.

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There is a freedom to walking along the wooded path and among nature. I have deeply cherished these kind of walks ever since I was a boy.  All children long to be explorers and adventurers and the woods offer that to them, particularly when I was a boy and could go exploring for hours alone, without parental supervision. It was there that I ate the sweet, juicy wild blackberries and sucked the nectar from the honeysuckle.

These walks allowed me to begin to grasp the truth of John Muir’s writing, “In every walk in nature one receives far more than he seeks.”

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For me the woods were as magical as Narnia or Middle Earth. It was especially made so by the fact that in the center of our woods was an old abandoned VW Bug that no one knew how it had gotten there. It was like being Lucy and seeing the lamppost, though I never encountered a faun coming out of the woods or the Volkswagen even once.  But that did not matter, the mere presence of this car being there struck a chord in my imagination and filled me thoughts with stories of how and why it was there (always a doorway to another place). Just as C.S. Lewis did when he was a boy, I wrote numerous stories involving animals, who could talk of course, and of their kingdom (comprised of different lands that could be found in the woods that were broken up by fields, the woodlands, the great section of thick Oriental bamboo, the creek, and an area with large boulders that my friends and I climbed on). I drew maps and drawings to go along with such tales.

Lizzie

In her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit writes about Elizabeth Bennett’s, from Pride and Prejudice, love of solitary walks.  Lizzie’s “solitary walks express the independence that literally takes the heroine out of the social sphere of the houses and their inhabitants, into a larger, lonelier world where she is free to think: walking articulates both mental and physical freedom.”  For Lizzie to get in touch with her interior, she had to be alone in the exterior world and the best way to do this was walking. It connected her to the earth, her surroundings, nature and, most importantly, herself. Solitary walks were freedom and a place to reflect on identity and relationships to other. Walking was a way of working things out for her.

Like one of my favorite literary heroines, I tend to find not that I necessarily have more thoughts while walking, but that I am more present to them because I don’t have the distractions of technology.

The Walking Man

The beauty of walking is not the destination but the act itself.  This is something I learned both from my own walks and from the amazingly simple but profound manga The Walking Man by Jiro Taniguchi. There is no narrative other than a nameless man goes for a walk in his neighborhood. He enjoys the pleasures of climbing a tree, observing birds, playing in puddles after a storm, and finding a shell by the beach. He is silent and alone, except for his dog sometimes. It’s a glorious meditation of being present to the life around oneself. Every time that I pause and savor the simplicity of the message of this book, I find my own world expands and grows larger, even if I, like the character, am merely taking a walk in my own neighborhood.

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One of my favorite works by the German author W.G. Sebald is his book The Rings of Saturn, which records a walking tour he undertook along the east coast of England. The book is nothing more than a recording of what he came across and the thoughts he had as he walked this pilgrimage. It’s more than a simple recording of facts but a mediation on art, literature, history and place, as well as reflecting on memory.  Of this, he writes, “Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life.” This walk, for Sebald, is a way of noticing more than his surroundings, but also myth, memoir, travelogue, and history written in the most haunting of prose.  As a German in England, it was also about understanding identity in a foreign place.

After having read this book, I noticed that I began to wonder about personal and cultural memory being revealed in my own walks. As I noticed buildings in the small town where we live, I began to wonder of their own history and to research about it, in a sense to gain a better understanding of place. I began to view myself within that context and to ask, “What does that mean?”

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For me, walking is not just mere exercise, as I see so many others undertaking it as, but as a time for deeper reflection. My walks are to be in that place in both body and spirit. To be open and aware of my surroundings and what it has to offer, to allow the path I undertake to nourish my soul in a way that cannot be done anywhere else or by any other means.  As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I think I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend . . . hours a day . . . sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

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It is to return to the joy of walking that I experienced as a child. Though I was often a lonely boy, I never felt so whenever I was in the woods. Then I was not lonely, but solitary. Loneliness takes away peace, but solitude returns it tenfold. In my head, I become William Wordsworth or Mary Oliver or Henry David Thoreau or Annie Dillard or John Muir.  It is a withdrawing from society to the soul to the place where I encountered God, long before I encountered God in a church.

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No matter what the weather, I know I’m alive when I am walking.  To know that, beneath each step, is the round arc of the world. Like those I’ve mentioned, when I walk I explore the mind and the terrain.  My walks offer up new thoughts, new experiences, new encounters, new explorations. And it reminds me again and again, that the world is much bigger and more wondrous than I can ever begin to imagine. When I walk, I do so with the understanding that I cannot and should not own such beauty or such moments, for I am only a sojourner who is grateful for the inexhaustible pleasure that my walks give me.

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Nature is always an invitation to discover; not an acquiring of more knowledge, but is, in itself, a means of knowing.  There is always something awakening within me that wish only to hear the sound of wind in the verdant trees and the gurgling waters of a stream and to know that this is what it means to be thoroughly awake and alive to the surprise and the truth of the world: that grace is all around to those who are present to receive it.

 

 

The Kindness Of Kafka

Franz Kafka

Mention the name “Franz Kafka” and what immediately comes to mind?

For most, it would be the giant cockroach from his short story “The Metamorphosis.” For others it might be terms like alienation, existential angst, surrealism, and bureaucratic nightmares. But how many would answer, “Kindness”?

One of my favorite stories from Kafka’s life was his encounter with a young girl in a local park while he was living in Berlin. As he was strolling along through the park with his fiancée , Dora, they came upon a disconsolate young girl.  She was in tears and Kafka stopped to find out what was wrong. The girl informed him that she had lost her favorite doll.

“Please do not mourn,” he told her, “your doll has gone off on a trip”

The little girl was confused, “How do you know that?”

“Because she told me so,” Kafka replied, “in a letter.”

Naturally suspicious, the girl asked, “Can I see the letter?”

“I’m afraid I left it at home, but if you will be in the park again tomorrow, I will bring the letter with me so you can read it.” That night, Kafka sat down at his desk and, with the same intensity with which he wrote his stories, he began composing a letter from the doll.

The very next day, Kafka and Dora return to the park and find the little girl. She sees him and asks, “Did you bring the letter?” He takes the letter from his coat pocket, but since the girl is too young to know how to read, they sit down on a park bench and Kafka reads it to her.  In the letter, the doll tells the girl, “Please do not mourn for me. I have gone on a trip around the world, which is something I have always longed to do. But do not worry, I will write you of my adventures.”

With that very line, Kafka committed himself to writing the little girl letters from the doll. Why? Simply to console this child. And he does, every night he sits down and undertakes the task of writing a letter from somewhere new and of the experiences that this doll was having in a new land or city. He pays close attention to details, he makes the letters lively, funny, and loving.

Every day for three weeks, Kafka returns to the park with a new letter from the doll for the little girl. The doll grows up, meets new people, has new experiences, but assures the girl of her love for her. As Kafka is writing these letters, he begins to wonder how he is going to end it, as he must help the child understand that the doll is never coming back. Little by little, he adds complications to the doll’s life and then, he comes up with a satisfactory reason, the doll has met someone and is getting married. In the letter, the doll describes this young male doll and of their engagement and their wedding ceremony in the country, as well as the house where they will live.

By the last letter, the girl is no longer sad. Kafka’s letters from the doll have helped her heal from the loss. Seeing a child in pain, he was moved to the point of wanting to help her, not just to get her to stop crying, but to provide a way for her to feel less alone (something amazing from an author best known for his isolated characters). How many of us would go to such trouble for a child that was not our own?

Whenever I think of this story, the words that come to my mind are the opposite of what mostly comes to mind when I read Kafka: they are compassion, empathy, kindness and love. This story is one of grace and gentleness. It’s astounding that this author, in the last year of his life, would take the time to not only write one letter, but a letter for every day of the week for three weeks just to help a child go from grieving to healing.

An author who so often wrote of hopelessness, gave a child hope.

“Youth,” Kafka wrote, “is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.” In that moment, with that little girl, Franz Kafka saw the beauty of how the imagination can help another heal from their hurt. He offered his gift into the service of restoring a child’s fear of being abandoned into one of not being forgotten, but loved dearly by a favorite doll. What kind of an impact did this make on the girl? I cannot help but wonder if, as an adult and a mother, she recalled this small part of her young life with not only gratitude but amazement that a complete stranger would take the time to comfort the sorrows of a little girl. Did she recall this moment when, perhaps, her own daughter lost a favorite doll?

Hopefully, as I go about my own days, if I see someone else suffering, I will stop and have the kindness of Kafka.

 

 

Beautiful Things In Humble Places

Sarcleurs Dans Les Champs by Camille Pissarro

“Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing,” wrote the Danish-French Impressionist Camille Pissarro in what sounds like his own version of a beatitude. When I read that, I thought: What a glorious philosophy to undertake in my everyday life. To find beauty in the humble places and people and things that so many, including myself, so often overlook.

When I look at Pissarro’s painting Sarcleurs Dans Les Champs (pictured above), I wonder how many other people would either not notice such a scene in real life or would barely register common field hands at work. How many would pay attention and consider them beautiful and worthy of immortalizing in a work of art? Certainly Pissarro loved this kind of scene as a subject, as did another Dutch artist, Vincent Van Gogh.  Many of his works are of peasant laborers, as well as wheat fields and sunflowers. One cannot help but think of Van Gogh and how unsuccessful he was during his own lifetime because others could not see the value in his paintings and they remained unsold (save one bought by his brother Theo). Only now do his works have value, auctioning off in the millions. Why? Because now we see what Van Gogh saw: beautiful things in humble places, even in his lonely room at the Saint-Rémy clinic.

The Artist's Room

It’s easy to find the beautiful in nature or works of art, but do we notice beautiful things in the humble places of our society and community?

How many paintings do you see of a Wal-Mart employee? Or in a cleaning person?

“To me,” Dorothea Lange once said, “beauty appears when one feels deeply; and art is an act of total attention.” It was her photographs that exulted the overlooked and the forgotten; causing others to see what they blindly overlooked: those ruined by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. She found clearly found transcendent beauty in the humble places and documented with great humanity and compassion.

Dorothea Lange

To see the beauty in the humble, we must first love for it’s only when we love that we are truly capable of seeing beauty everywhere. When we love, we feel deeply, feel tenderly and that transforms how we perceive the world around us, including other people. As Van Gogh wrote. “There is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”

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Whenever we invest something with love, it has far more value and meaning to us. In our kitchen is a simple bowl of gray and blue, with a stem with leaves and blueberries on it. In the past, whenever we’ve gone on trips, I love to find local potters and support their artistry by buying a work that I connect with. My love of pottery stems from the fact that it is made by hand and is unique and different. What I love about this particular bowl was that I purchased it on our honeymoon in Maine, so that now, whenever I look at it on the shelf, I am reminded of all of the meaning behind it. Because of those memories, I am far more invested in that bowl than our daily cereal bowls because I have invested this one with the significance of remembrance.

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In one of our rooms, I have a woven basket from Africa and within that basket are a collection of smooth river stones. To many who would even notice them, it would just appear to be a basket of rocks, but for me, each one has come from somewhere that we have been. Whenever I find a small, smooth stone that catches my attention, I pocket it as a kind of souvenir.  The same goes for sea shells, pieces of coral, pine combs, even unusually shaped pieces of wood.  This is something I began during my exploration of the woods behind our house as a child. While I often found school to be more like a prison (being told what was important to think and know), I found freedom in nature and in books. I tended to spend a lot of time in the woods with a book in hand. There I would find all manner of treasure: snake skins, bird feathers, abandoned bird’s nests, an empty hornet’s nest, a small animal’s skull, or a turtle’s shell. To me such discoveries were the stuff of wonderment. My shelves were filled with books and my collections.

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It was only years later, as I read about the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, that I discovered that he, too, collected such ordinary things (in the eyes of many) but were extraordinary gifts to us. He loved the ordinary to the point of writing poems about them, including one entitled “Ode to My Socks.”

How many of us would write such an ode?

Are we poet enough to notice the beautiful in something as humble as a pair of socks?

Yet how much different would our world appear to us if we did view such humble things in such a light? To see even the modest as miraculous? To look deeply into objects, especially those that are discarded (of which there are a proliferation in our world) and find the poetry in it? To find poetry in the old clothes that are a bit tattered and torn and stained? The songwriter Tom Waits created an entire collection of photographs of oil stains. How many of us stop  to notice the way sunlight plays on an old, tossed out bottle? Or to understand the true value of something because you look at it with surprise and not indifference?

Or do we see the wondrous worth of the clerk at the gas station? The garbage collector? In someone we often do not see because we fail to even look?

But I do not want to be one of those who go through life with eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear and hearts that do not beat with wonder and awe and the miraculousness of the ordinary and plain. I want to be aware and see the beautiful things in humble places so that I, too, can be “blessed” by the experience of living in such a mindful manner.

The Gift Of A Rainy Afternoon

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The sound of the German grandfather’s clock can be heard marking off time throughout our hundred-year-old house. Outside the rain came down heavily from ash-colored clouds. The rain and the clock were the only sounds that could be heard. All else is silence. No radio. No television. No Spotify playing from the computer. To have any of these on would profane the silence with unwanted noise.

Seated on our couch, my only companions for the afternoon were a cup of coffee and copies of Thoreau’s Walden and Mary Oliver’s poetry.  Both were welcome and dear friends, as only those writers whose works we dearly cherish can be.

When I open the collection of poems, the opening line of the first poem begins: All afternoon it rained, then . . .

Mary Oliver and I, in that moment, were in the same space (even though I know she resides in Florida). Words and reality met to my delight.  On such a dreary day, only poetry will do as I need to be revived by language. As another of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson, wrote:

He ate and drank the precious words, / His spirit grew robust . . .

And mine does whenever I spend time in the richness and beauty of language and metaphor and imagery that is only found in poetry. Poetry draws me out, calls to me in a way that nothing else can because it makes me stop, pay attention, and truly see beyond the words to the world which offers itself only to those who are aware of its miraculous aspect that is only found in the mundane, humble, and often overlooked such as a raindrop on a leaf.

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Poets like Mary Oliver and Emily Dickinson make me awakened and aware to such tender revelations. Their words make me look and listen and cherish. They bring me to mindfulness so that I don’t take the simplest of things for granted, but find an inner gratitude to stand at our kitchen window and watch as the birds, like young children, delight in playing in the rain. Poetry helps me to see the grand unfolding of the world around me.

I find myself beginning to wonder what it would be like to Mary Oliver and Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau and Annie Dillard as neighbors? Surely we would all be agreeable neighbors since we are, all of us, solitary in nature. It would be quite wonderful to have them all around my kitchen table, enjoying conversation and coffee and Emily’s coconut cake that she loved to bake.  Can you imagine the discussion that would take place? Nourishing, no doubt. All of them are profound of thought and with deep probity of character.

If it weren’t raining, we could all enjoy a walk in nature. I would imagine such a walk a more slowly paced one than the walks most take on the green-way near our home. No power walking. Instead, it would be one communing with nature, stopping to notice and observing whatever we came across: birds and plants and stones and streams. To see a single place as the entire world, as Emily so intensely did from her own Amherst home.

But they are not here, except within the pages of the books that line my shelves.  My house is chocked full of books, much to the chagrin of my family who compare my books taking over the rooms as it were an uncontrollable epidemic, like a zombie apocalypse. Yet, even within just the pages of books, they are all connoisseurs of the spirit, appreciators of the natural and spiritual world that are interconnected in ways that only  those who pause, reflect and consider can see in the natural phenomena. It is why poetry, like science, can often be the best of theologies.

Alertness and appreciation are the greatest of gifts because they lead to wonder. This is what all of them offer to those who are open to the experience.

Poetry offers us the day like a prayer. Poetry examines and exalts, captivates and liberates, enters and opens the reader by waking them to the living dream around them.

The only thing that can break me free from the glorious words found in both of my companionable books is the crashing sound of a large branch that fell from the old oak beside our patio. I reluctantly get up from the sofa to check to see what damage has occurred. The last time such a limb fell, it smashed the glass-top table, causing the glass to resemble small pieces of ice on the brick patio below. This time, the limb has found rest on the glider that was once my grandparents’.

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This is the world reminding me that it is not always quiet and passive, but can, at any moment, snap such a limb; reminding me that nature is not tame or controlled, but who would want it to be?

Such are the gifts of a rainy afternoon.