The Poet In The World

Denise Levertov

I first encountered the work of poet Denise Levertov years ago when I went to a local college’s book sale and found battered paperback copies of her The Poet in the World and Poems: 1960-1967. The title and the black and white photo on the cover of The Poet in the World made me pick it up and look through its pages. The fact that both were only fifty cents made me snatch them up and buy them. That was one of the best dollars I have ever spent as I cannot count the number of times I have reread both of the years.


Recently, I began to reread The  Poet in the World and was particularly struck by the chapter entitled “Some Notes on Organic Form.” In it Levertov writes about organic poetry, which she gives a partial definition of as “a method of apperception, i.e., of recognition of an order, a form beyond forms, in which forms partake, and of which man’s creative works are analogies, resemblances, natural allegories. Such poetry is exploratory.”

Then she goes on to ask, “How does one write about such a poetry?”

Her answer:

“I think it’s like this: first there must be an experience, a sequence or constellation of perceptions of sufficient interest, felt by the poet intensely enough to demand of him their equivalence in words: he is brought to speech. Suppose there’s the sight of the sky through a dusty window, birds and clouds and bits of paper flying through the sky, the sound of music from his radio, feelings of anger and love and amusement roused by a letter just received, the memory of some long-past thought or event associated with what’s seen or heard or felt, and an idea, a concept, he has been pondering, each qualifying the other; together with what he knows about history; and what he has been dreaming – whether or not he remembers it – working in him.”

Levertov gives this example of a possible moment in someone’s life, in which they are inspired to take such fragments of one’s day coming together and distill them into language, into an act of creation. It’s what she calls this cross-section of “constellation, of experiences . . . wakes in him this demand: the poem.”

How many of us have experienced a moment of such joy, sorrow, beauty, grace, pain, or intensity yet we do not know the right words to express them until we’ve read a poem by someone who crystallizes precisely our own feelings and thoughts? Few feel that awakening, that demand to write a poem.  As Robert Frost said, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”


Prolific Denise Levertov wrote poems that covered a wide range of subjects: from nature to love to protest to her faith in God.  Amy Gerstler, a book reviewer for The Los Angeles Times, wrote of Levertov’s writing that a “reader poking her nose into any Levertov book at random finds herself in the presence of a clear uncluttered voice—a voice committed to acute observation and engagement with the earthly, in all its attendant beauty, mystery and pain.”

How did Levertov write so prolifically and so profoundly?

“The beginning of the fulfillment,” she wrote, “of this demand is to contemplate, to meditate; words which connote a state in which the heat of feeling warms the intellect. To contemplate comes from the ‘templum, temple, a place, a space for observation, marked out by the auger.’ It means not simply to observe, to regard, but to do these things in the presence of a god. And to meditate is ‘to keep the mind in a state of a contemplation’; its synonym is ‘to muse,’ and to muse comes from a word meaning ‘to stand with open mouth’ – not so comical if we think of ‘inspiration’ – to breathe in.”

I love that image of a poet standing, open-mouthed, for inspiration to enter in as one breathes in a breath of air.

Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov never received a formal education growing up in Ilford, England but she and her sisters were taught by their father Paul Philip Levertoff. He was a Russian Hassidic Jew who converted to Christianity and later moved to England where he became an Anglican minister. He, himself, was a prolific author who wrote in Hebrew, Russian, German, and English. Buying secondhand books by the lot, he filled their house with literature in many different languages. Her mother, Beatrice, enjoyed reading to the family from nineteenth century poets, especially her favorite: Lord Alfred Tennyson.

At the young age of five, Denise Levertov declared that she was going to be a writer. At twelve, she was bold enough to send some of her poems to T.S. Eliot. Surprisingly, Eliot wrote her a two-page letter back, giving her advice which inspired her to keep writing.

“During the writing of a poem,” she continued, “the various elements of the poet’s being are in communion with each other, and heightened. Ear and eye, intellect and passion, interrelate more subtly at other times; and the ‘checking for accuracy,’ for the precision of language, that must take place throughout the writing is not a matter of one element of supervising the others but of intuitive interaction between all the elements involved.”


When I read how she describes the writing of a poem, one sees a spiritual aspect to her tone, her use of language, and how she approaches her craft. One wonders how much of this is due to her father’s influence as her first teacher?  She once said that, “My father’s Hasidic ancestry, his being steeped in Jewish and Christian scholarship and mysticism, his fervour and eloquence as a preacher, were factors built into my cells.”

Spirituality and scholarship both require a passion, a rigor and a strict sense of devotion. One finds this in Levertov’s own writing. Take her poem “That Passeth All Understanding”:

“An awe so quiet
I don’t know when it began.

A gratitude
had begun
to sing in me.

Was there
some moment
song from no song?

When does dewfall begin?

When does night
fold its arms over our hearts
to cherish them?

When is daybreak?”

When Levertov moved from England to the United States, she first encountered and came under the influence of the Black Mountain Poets, especially the mysticism of Charles Olson. Levertov, in her later years, returned to her Christian faith and used her poetry  to “trace my slow movement from agnosticism to Christian faith, a movement incorporating much doubt and questioning as well as affirmation.”

Levertov in chair

For Levertov, poetry is a revelation, “A religious devotion to the truth, to the splendor of the authentic, involves the writer in a process rewarding in itself; but when that devotion brings us to undreamed abysses and we find ourselves sailing slowly over them and landing on the other side – that’s ecstasy.”

Her work is filled with a spiritual sense of reality, a transcendence, of “poetry as pilgrimage.” In an interview towards the end of her life, she said, “I would say that I do believe that anybody who has any kind of gift, and has been given that gift, has an obligation to use it. And it’s really hard to have a gift. When I stopped being an agnostic I perceived it [the calling] as a gift from God. What I thought it was in the interim I don’t know. I thought it was a gift anyway, a gift from something somewhere.”

Levertov photo

For her, poetry, like prayer, is the focus of attention. She saw her poems as forms of praying. She captured divine sparks and put them to the page. Her poem “Suspended” reads almost like a psalm:

“I had grasped God’s garment in the void
But my hand slipped
On the rich silk of it.
The ‘everlasting arms’ my sister loved to remember
Must have upheld my leaden weight
From falling, even so,
For though I claw at empty air and feel
Nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.”

For her the poems was prayer and temple and the poet a priest. She viewed poetry as sacred. Poems as containers of the holy.  Her poems are born of silence and stillness and solitude. Poetry was her way of encountering the Divine, of engaging the world and creation, as well as social justice. All were interconnected.



A Reading Life


“I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves,” wrote Anna Quindlen. Anyone who has ever been in my house knows that I follow Quindlen’s logic. When we moved, people helping us would rather move our furniture than all my boxes of books. Our house is chock full of books. Books are everywhere. That is not an exaggeration. Just ask anyone in my family. My older son even refers to my books as a kind of plague that has infected every room. And, whenever I enter someone else’s house, the first thing I do is check to see what books are on their bookshelves (and question their moral character if they have none).

Like the writer Jorge Luis Borges, “I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books.” And I am!

Books are more than mere decoration or collection or to impress people (unlike the library of Jay Gatsby). From the time I was a child, I have loved books and my shelves have always been full of them. I still have many of my favorite books from childhood (my paperback boxed set of The Chronicles of Narnia, my copy of The Wind in the Willows and all of E.B. White’s children’s books).  Language forms our consciousness, so it’s no wonder that the books of my childhood shaped how I saw the world, they made me pay attention to things I might have simply overlooked otherwise.

Lewis made me see street lamps as something that could be magical. E.B. White made me notice something as ordinary as a spider and view it as something miraculous. Kenneth Grahame made me look more closely at forests and the animals who inhabited them. L.M. Montgomery caused me to think of the landscapes around me in a different light just as Anne Shirley did by describing a pond as the “Lake of Shining Waters” or the Avenue with its blossoming trees as the “White Way of Delight.” Her romantic vision transformed a place by language and made me want to do the same.

The books from my childhood were more than books because they formed and shaped my imagination and I brought more of myself to them than I ever has a reader. Books helped me transcend myself and my surroundings. They gave me more of myself and the landscape that I inhabited because books made me pause and reflect and take in the very world with eyes opened wide by fiction. How much of ourselves do we see in the characters we cherish and love from our childhood? In both the heroes and heroines? They made us long for adventure and for them to be our “bosom friend.” Reading made me want to fly to Neverland, go down a rabbit hole to Wonderland, sail on a pirate ship to Treasure Island or a raft down the Mississippi. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings taught me about friendship (Frodo and, the ever true, Samwise) or about honor through Argorn. These books made me bigger than myself and more myself.


The French philosopher Simone Weil wrote, “There is something else which has the power to awaken us to the truth. It is the works of writers of genius. They give us, in the guise of fiction, something equivalent to the actual density of the real, that density which life offers us every day but which we are unable to grasp because we are amusing ourselves with lies.”

Great books teach us truths by making us see the world through the eyes of someone else. Novelists like Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo put me in the middle of the French Revolution. Or they make me rethink what I grew up hearing about race; as was the case when I read To Kill a MockingbirdThe Bluest Eyeor Invisible Man. Characters like Atticus Finch or Jane Eyre taught me that to stay true to one’s character, to one’s values, if often lonely, costly and difficult. A novel like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando  and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex made me question what exactly defines a person’s sexual identity: what defines being a male or female? Through Elie Wiesel’s Night I saw the horrors or the Holocaust and survival within concentration camps. Aleksandsr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead put me in the Russian gulags and labor camps.

Books made me see the world and different cultures as I never would have otherwise. I have been to the Russia of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, the India of Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, or Jhumpa Lahiri. The Chile of Roberto Bolano or the bizarre, dream-like Japan of Huraki Murakami.  Or Southern writers have made me rethink the land I grew up in. Authors like Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Reynolds Price, or Walker Percy.  A writer like Wendell Berry makes me reconsider the land, what living on and truly being a part of it means, the moral responsibility of temporary ownership. Marilynne Robinson’s novels reveal the slow growth of grace in novels like Gilead or Lila. Herman Melville took me into the world of whaling with such detail and description that I could taste the salty water and air in my mouth as we pursued the white whale.

I cannot even begin to describe the impact that English literature has had on me. Jane Austen, the  Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens,  and Virginia Woolf, to name a few, have made me long to walk in the places they walked and, more importantly, the places where they wrote. Because their words have had such a deep, lasting impact on me, it would be almost a spiritual pilgrimage to visit the parsonage where Charlotte, Emily and Anne created such memorable and lasting works. Monk’s House where Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group so often met. Or Dove Cottage where William and his sister Dorothy Wordsworth lived and were often visited by Coleridge. Or Hardy’s Wessex. I long for the England of English literature.


I love having books around me because this allows me to grab a book at any time and lose myself within its pages. Having books everywhere allow my children to do the same. To discover the books that will impact and have such meaning in their own lives.  Books do more than accumulate on my shelves, they find their way into my imagination, my identity and my perception of how things are and how they should be. So often, I lose myself inside the pages of a book that it takes much to awaken me from the stories they tell.

From childhood to adulthood, I have been a witness to the lives of Lucy Pevensie to Lucy Honeychurch. I have entered a secret garden, Moonacre Manor, Toad Hall, and a little house on the prairie. I have witnessed the love affairs and the suicides of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. I have watched as Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple figured out who done it with their keen intellects and power of perception.  I have felt the heartache of Holden Caulfield as he watches his younger sister Phoebe rides the carousel in Central Park and he mourns the loss of his own childhood innocence. I have witnessed the existential and physical brutality of Cormac McCarthy’s West.  And I have laughed at the social comedy of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves. Like Cassandra Mortmain, the protagonist and narrator of I Capture the Castle, I, too have said, “I wish I lived in a Jane Austen novel.”

I have been described as a “bookworm,” a “bibliophile,” and “an avid reader.” I hold all of those close to my heart. Books are the world to me, literally. They remind me of bookshops that are long gone (especially in this age of Amazon), of bookstores I worked in, of people who recommended or gave books to me. Many of them are gone now. My great-Aunt Annie, who was one of the first to introduce me to the wonder of receiving books as gifts on Christmas and my birthday. My mother, who read to me before bed and whose voice is often interwoven with those early books. Of times in my life where books spoke to me and my circumstances as nothing else could, such as the death of my mother and how it opened me to the work of Marcel Proust.  Books have drawn me into myself and out of myself. It has made me think deeper, question better and love language and story.

There is nothing like encountering a book for the first time that unexpectedly changes you. To browse a bookshop or library and be drawn, inexplicably, to an author or title you’ve never heard of but soon becomes cherished and a favorite. It becomes that book or writer that you tell all of your friends who are readers to read. And can be the one that makes you wonder about a friend if they don’t like it, or don’t like it as much as you do. How can you not love Middlemarch? How can I be friends with someone who dismisses Ann Patchett or Anne Lamott or Anne Tyler? What do you mean Walden or Pilgrim on Tinker Creek is boring?

I remember the first time I ever read Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I was home sick from high school and my mother gave me a copy. It was a paperback with a red cover and yellow lettering. Nothing about the exterior of the book prepared me for what was inside. From the opening line, I was hooked and, like so many other teens, felt that this was my book. My favorite passage from the novel is the one that I understood best:

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”

I read that and hollered, “Comrade!” I wanted to know Salinger so that I could call him up and talk about his novels and short stories just as I had once longed to know C.S. Lewis so I could have conversations with him about Narnia or Ursula K. Le Guin about Earthsea.


In her book On Writing, Eudora Welty says, “Both reading and writing are experiences – lifelong – in the course of which we who encounter words used in certain ways are persuaded by them to be brought to mind and heart within the presence, the power, of the imagination.”

Yes, reading is lifelong and brought me into the “presence” and “power” of the imagination. It has sparked my own and made me feel less alone. Reading has connected me to people: my mother who read to me and shared my love of books, co-workers in bookshops who became friends because we shared affection for the same authors, or my wife (who I met when we were both English majors in undergraduate school).  For that last part alone, I cannot imagine my life without books and the delight of reading them. Yes, not for a moment, would I ever consider give up living a reading life.

What Is The Question?

Gertrude Stein

While on her deathbed, Gertrude Stein supposedly asked, “What is the answer?” There was a long silence before she followed this up by asking, “What is the question?” How many of us would be uncomfortable with those being our last words? Would we hear them and feel fear that we could utter that, at the end of our lives, we don’t have all the answers, that there are still questions unanswered, still uncertainty and that our last thought is a question itself?

Certainly we cling to that notion of older and wiser, but I find that the older I get, the more questions I have and the less answers to go with them. I also find that I am beginning to love the open question, the one that leads to more, deeper and better questions.  Though I was not raised to think for myself, I have chosen to raise both of my sons in such an environment. As a child, I grew up in a religious home and tended to hear phrases like “Jesus is the answer” a lot at home or in church (which is why I joke, “It’s no wonder I never did well on math tests.”)

With my sons, I encourage them ask and to question and not to just accept what they are being told by anyone, but to seek out answers and to be okay when there are not answers to the questions, or the answers are not yet known. That is the beginning of wisdom and wonder and curiosity. As the anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote, “Wonder is very important, because if we never wondered, we would never get to the point of asking questions. Yet wonder may lead people to write poetry or to paint pictures or to pray, as well as to ask the questions about the world and themselves…”


In Judaism there is a form of study called chevruta, which is a traditional Rabbinic form of teaching in which two students are paired up to analyze, discuss and debate a text. Like Jacob with the angel, they wrestle with the text. The more they study a text and go through rigorous questioning and debating of its meaning, the closer and closer the students go sentence by sentence, word by word, through commentary and interpretation, searching out hidden meanings, and getting closer and closer to understanding, but never having mastered the whole of wisdom. Each new question is a way to formulate a better one. As the always wise Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “Philosophy may be defined as the art of asking questions . . . awareness of the problems outlives all solutions. The answers are questions in disguise, every new answer giving rise to new questions.” And for those who equate questions with doubt, Heschel also said, “We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers.”

Questions allow us to abide in the mystery, in the unknown. Questions, therefore, are sacred and holy. They allow us to enter into the realization that the universe (or multiverses) are so much bigger and grander and more complex than we could ever imagine (especially since we don’t even grasp 98% of our own universe).  Though I never did very well in science while in school, I have always been fascinated by it. Albert Einstein and Madeleine L’Engle are probably the two most responsible for that. There is an elegance to Einstein’s mind and the way he artistically looks at the world and the universe which draws me in. “To raise new questions,” he said, “new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science.” Questions help us to see things from a different perspective and allow our minds to expansively approach the bigness and grandeur of everything in a way that makes questions seem, not frightening, but enlightening. It is grasping that we are merely touching the hem of reality, of truth. Science is both a looking for answers and for more enlightened questions. It is finding one answer but in that answer gaining a thousand new questions. It is wondrous and overwhelming (and it’s for that very reason that so many are scared of questions that don’t provide assurance and certainty).  Science shows us that many things that are thought unsolvable may one day be solvable.

Brothers Karamazov

There are many that find questions and questioning dangerous. They want finite answers to infinite questions. In his masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky writes,  Alyosha says to Rakitin about his brother Ivan, “Ah, Misha, he has a stormy spirit. His mind is in bondage. He is haunted by a great, unsolved doubt. He is one of those who don’t want millions, but an answer to their questions.” How many would turn down a fortune if all of their questions could be answered?

There are a great many people who would. They want easy answers and are uncomfortable and troubled by the response, “I don’t know.” They do not find answering a question with more questions to be breathtaking and exciting, but leave them with uncertainty and dread. They are the ones who dismiss children who ask probing theological, scientific or moral questions that refuse to be answered in trite platitudes. In her diary, Anne Frank wrote:

“The question is very understandable, but no one has found a satisfactory answer to it so far. Yes, why do they make still more gigantic planes, still heavier bombs and, at the same time, prefabricated houses for reconstruction? Why should millions be spent daily on the war and yet there’s not a penny available for medical services, artists, or for poor people?

Why do some people have to starve, while there are surpluses rotting in other parts of the world? Oh, why are people so crazy?”

How many parents would want those types of questions being posed to them by their children? Questions of why does terrible and tragic things happen. Over the years, my own children have approached me with just such questions, partially wanting answers and partially wanting to be comforted. We are not comforted by questions that are open-ended. Why is there evil? We talk about the fear that turns to hatred and often expresses itself through violence.  I listen to their questions carefully and ask myself: What are they asking and why are they asking it?

I often respond to such questions with one of my own, “How can we be those who bring love into the world? How can we be the ones who offer compassion? How can we offer mercy?” I ask them questions to their questions. “What can we do to work for change in this world?”

I welcome their questions so that they are not afraid to come to me and ask. I allow them the opportunity to ask because I want them to see the importance of inquiry instead of shutting them down with pat answers in order to dismiss what they are wondering about. All learning begins in questioning. How I respond to their questions may shape how they approach the world in all of its complexity. Do I offer them the opportunity to ask so that they, too, can see it as complicated and grand? Do I allow them to delight in questioning for the sake of seeking? Questions as pursuing solutions, to consider and reconsider positions and frame of references. Questioning means they are thinking, that they are engaged and are wondering. That is the beginning of wisdom, so why would I not want them to?

I love how Frederick Buechner puts it, “When you hear the question that is your question, then you have already begun to hear much.” I want my sons to hear their question. I want to hear my own. And I have, though I believe that question changes as we grow older, more mature, and get a larger perspective on the world around us. Questions that enlarge us to the questions of others and entering into them so that we might see things from their point-of-view. To embrace beyond our own tribal answers or beyond what Friedrich Nietzsche described, “We hear only those questions for which we are in a position to answer.” I want to hear and be open to the questions.

To The Lighthouse

In To The Lighthouse, one of my favorite novels by Virginia Woolf, she wrote, “What is the meaning of life? 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.”

I love her description that there wasn’t a great revelation, but that there were “little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.” Isn’t that really how what we call wisdom comes? Not in some great, earth-shattering revelation, but in those small, daily epiphanies that are often the most beautiful? They come from listening to your child. Or from taking a walk. Or tending and cultivating a garden. By being present and aware. Of allowing ourselves those moments of silence and stillness. Or of accepting the invitation to have coffee with a friend. Or picking up that right book at the time when we most needed what was offered in its pages.

That is why, I, like Gertrude Stein, ask first, “What is the answer?” before asking, “What is the question?” That last one is the most important part.


The Art Of Life


“If you want to work on your art,” Anton Chekov wrote, “work on your life.”

When he began writing, Chekov wrote low-brow comical sketches without much success. It wasn’t until he wrote the autobiographical story “Steppe,” which is a journey through Ukraine in the eyes of a child, that he found an audience and began to truly develop his craft. His stories and plays became known for their author’s attention to detail and minutiae of daily life (people’s mannerisms, the way they interacted without even speaking a word, and their social and private manners).  As he said of his writing, he “submerged life in the text.”

As I thought of his statement, “If you want to work on your art, work on your life,” I began to turn the words around, looking at them from all angles and asking my own questions of what makes an artist, a creative life and what is required of both?

Do we view our lives as creative acts? That our very living is connected to our creating?

How might our days be shaped differently, almost like a potter with clay, if we approached them in terms of creation?

Do we allow ourselves the space to be still, silent and do nothing? To allow our minds those moments of rest so that reflection will come and allows our spirits to sift through the silt of each moment to find that light in the darkness. It is to stop and reflect on the journey one takes in life and the significant events and the places that form oneself. To pay attention to one’s own narrative and the arc of one’s days.

Lewis Hyde writes in his book Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership, “We are each born into a situation—a particular body (its race, sex, health…), a set of ancestors, a community, a nation—and born into the stories told of each of these.”  We are not only our own stories but also a collection of the stories of our ancestors and families and neighbors and communities. As James Joyce once said, “I am a part of all that I have met.”

How many great authors can you read and hear the voice of their ancestors, the place where they lived and the social and political climate around them? Certainly one gets the red-dirt, post-Civil War South of William Faulkner in the language he uses to create his characters and their stories. How different his portraits are compared to the South of Eudora Welty or Carson McCullers or Walker Percy.  And can one not walk through Dublin without thinking of James Joyce?

Virginia Woolf

Art is the translating of the daily life into something more transcendent such as James Joyce did in Ulysses or Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway.  Virginia Woolf wrote in her journals, “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, quality of his mind, is written large in his works.” She struggled to take what was there before her, some experience, and how she sought to translate that reality with her pen and write it down. Joyce expressed that he wrote to discover the “mode of life or of art.” Like Chekov, he understood that to create great, meaningful art, he must first live a life that offers up such depth. As he wrote, “The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring?”

A deep life does not necessarily mean that one has to live an adventurous life like Ernest Hemingway. Some of the most powerful art comes from those who are rooted to one spot, such as Emily Dickinson or Eudora Welty.  It is not about wandering and discovering the outer world as much as it is plumbing the depths of ones inner one. To see in the minutiae and the mundane, the tender beauty of all experience. Such artists take what so many overlook and force us to stop and pay attention to what we have forgotten to see. The make the common uncommon.

Ordinariness is the stuff of magic in the hands of writers like Anton Chekov, Eudora Welty or Alice Munro. Their stories so often mirror the casual movement of reality. As observers of the worlds they are living in, each one is able to translate the commonness into something that is profound and more meaningful, in a way, enormously more alive than the reality they are describing.

When asked how she created such convincing characters, Alice Munro answered,”I always have to know my characters in a lot of depth — what clothes they’d choose, what they were like at school, etc. And I know what happened before and what will happen after the part of their lives I’m dealing with. I can’t see them just now, packed into the stress of the moment. So I suppose I want to give as much of them as I can.”

Patti Smith writing

To create art, the artist must balance the real world with their creative one. In her memoir Just Kids, Patti Smith 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.” It’s what developmental psychologist Erik Erikson describes as the “fullest” life: a balance of the three realms of work, love and play.  This is not always an easy thing to do because time is precious. Singer/songwriter Natalie Merchant once said in an interview about the struggle of balancing her creative life with her role as mother, “”During the day, when I’m doing laundry or making dinner, I’m not humming melodies or writing down lines. I have to sit and focus on the process, but finding the time to do so is so difficult. I blew so much time before I became a mother. I could have written novels, with all the time I used to have. Now time is the most precious thing in my life.”

Regina Spektor

Someone who echoes Merchant’s sentiments is another singer/songwriter Regina Spektor, who told an interviewer for Harpers Bazaar, “I felt personally that I was more creative, I was able to do more work than I had before, and I was able to really use my time more. If I had 30 minutes that I was sleep-deprived and covered in baby puke, I could go write a song. Whereas before, I could have wasted three days in a row, just thrown it away, now I could never do that. Now I have this little being to be there for and to play with and so I have to work hard and organize myself so that I’m present and not a slacker.” Yet Spektor says that becoming a mother gave her a greater realization of herself in relationship to her parents, her ancestors, and her heritage; thereby creating a richer source of creativity for her more mature songs after her last album, Remember Us To Life.

All of these artists sought or continue to seek to do what Konstantin Stanislavksi once described, “Every person who is really an artist desires to create inside of himself another, deeper, more interesting life than the one that actually surrounds him.” But to do that, they must first have that other life to translate and transform into art. Through experience, memory, and the daily routines of what is required, they find the conditions for creativity whereby they concentrate on what makes a life, both the conflicts and tensions, that are born of every day relationships and of self, and they transcribe their own worlds into reflections of our own that remind us we are not alone.  Artists make us understand that all of life is creation, all is the stardust of stories and songs.


Composing A Life Of Compassion

the blessing cup

“You were born with the power to change others,” said children’s author and illustrator Patricia Polacco. “You change people by the way you treat them. That is what changes the human heart.” To approach one’s life as a way to change others through acts of kindness, love and compassion is offering is ultimately about changing ourselves first. To express them, we must first experience them ourselves. Compassion, kindness and love must come from a place where we recognize in everyone our shared humanity. The wall of us and them is torn down to become a bridge of realizing there is only us. Compassion is connection, it must be live out in community. Compassion is an open embrace. It is a hand reaching out and a welcoming to the table.

Our culture stresses competition far more than it does cooperation and compassion. “Survival of the fittest,” one hears people misquoting Charles Darwin. Yet what Darwin stressed was that success and survival is based on “dependence of one being on another.”  In his book The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, he wrote, “Sympathy will have been increased through natural selection for those communities which include the greatest  number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” Compassion, then, is imperative for our very survival as a species.

Do we approach compassion as something necessary for our very existence?

Compassion is an inter-connectedness among all things. As John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” The Trappist monk Thomas Merton had this epiphany on a corner of a busy street in New York City. As he wrote in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

“I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”


Compassion needs connection. It is much deeper than pity or empathy. Compassion is seeing someone else’s suffering and entering into it. Compassion aligns ourselves with those who are often marginalized, ostracized, forgotten, disconnected, lonely, oppressed and suffering injustice. It is placing ourselves with the least of these and the left out. Compassion sees the dignity and humanity in everyone. Albert Einstein wisely said, “Our task must be to free ourselves . . . by widening circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

the Giving Tree

There is a philosophy known as Ubuntu, which means “humanity” or “humanity towards others.” It’s saying, “I am who I am because of who we all are.” It is rooted in connectedness. Of an equal of caring and sharing among each person.  Compassion is letting go of self-preservation and self-centeredness in order to work that all might benefit. Compassion is finding the worth and value of each individual person. It is moving past our own comfort to those who are comfortless, homeless, abandoned and on the fringes of our society.

A dream for you


Do we create opportunities for ourselves and our children to treat others with compassion and caring? Do we teach them not to stand by and do nothing when they see others bullied or hurting or alone? Do we provide examples of these traits to them through our own actions towards others? We cannot raise compassionate children if we ourselves are not. Or how do they see us in our interactions or lack of them with people of different races, religions, genders, sexuality, or nationality?

Too often we promote independence over interconnectedness. The ancient Chinese philosopher Lau Tzu wrote, “Simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures. Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being. Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are. Compassionate towards yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.”

Compassion is bringing light to the darkness, even if it’s a single candle.

Compassion requires a transformation of mind, heart, actions, and words. It is a letting go of hurt and fear which often expresses itself through violence and selfishness. Suffering comes from being disconnected. Compassion comes from establishing connection. It is understanding that we are impacting and affecting the world through our words and actions.

I love how Brené Brown puts it, “Compassion is not a virtue – it is a commitment. It’s not something we have or don’t have – it’s something we choose to practice.”

Compassion is a practice. It’s a process. Compassion is not the destination, it’s the path we take and the understanding that we do not walk it alone. It is a daily choosing to be compassionate, especially towards those we would not be inclined to show compassion towards, even ourselves sometimes. It means that every morning we reawaken ourselves to the need to be compassionate: first to ourselves, then to our families, then to those that we encounter that day.

Compassion is making beauty where there was ugliness. Love where there was only fear and distrust. Understanding where there was discrimination.  Joy where there was tears.

Often compassion begins in listening, in being present, in being aware. Compassion is no longer being silent or neutral or indifferent. It is being gracious and generous in thought, word and deed. It is grasping that all are sacred, all are created in the image of God. It is a reverence for life – all of life. Compassion is a striving for real understanding.

Compassion is where love dwells.

Patricia Polacco








Seeking Solitude

Sendak illustration of boy in the woods

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

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

Bronte sisters

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

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

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

Andrei Tarkovsky

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

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

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


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

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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

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

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

RILKE_1.jpg Producción ABC.

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

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

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

Emily Dickinson

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

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

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

The Soul’s Superior instants

Occur to Her – alone –

When friend – and Earth’s occasion

Have infinite withdrawn –

Or She – Herself – ascended

To too remote a Height

For lower recognition

Than Her Omnipotent . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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






The Sound Of Silence

sound of silence

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

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

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

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

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

Composer Arvo Pärt

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

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

John Cage

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

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

His audience grew uncomfortable and angry with silence.


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


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


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

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


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

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

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


Silence was immense

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

sound of silence interior1a

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

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

sound of silence interior3

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound of Silence book







Van Gogh On The Love Of Reading


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

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


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

Still life

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

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

Yellow Books by Van Gogh

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


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

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

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

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

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

Old man reading

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

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


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


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

Van Gogh

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

Puzzle Pieces


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

The bud

stands for all things,

even for those things that don’t flower,

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

though sometimes it is necessary

to reteach a thing its loveliness,

to put a hand on its brow

of the flower

and retell it in words and in touch

it is lovely

until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mission 5

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

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

DeNiro The Mission

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

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

Galway Kinnell continues his poem with:

… Saint Francis

put his hand on the creased forehead

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

blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow

began remembering all down her thick length,

from the earthen snout all the way

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

from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine

down through the great broken heart

to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering

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

the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

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

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

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