The Grace & Grit Of Abel’s Island

Abel's Island

“How deeply one felt when alone,” wrote William Steig of his protagonist,  Abelard Hassam di Chirico Flint, from the Newberry Honors book Abel’s Island. I had grown up loving Steig’s books (everything from Sylvester and the Magic Pebble to Dr. DeSoto to Pete’s A Pizza, this was my older son’s favorite and we had to make him into a pizza just the way Pete’s parents did).

Pete's a Pizza

Somehow, despite my admiration and love for his work, I never read Abel’s Island. Since it was a dreary, rainy Sunday afternoon yesterday, I took the book down from the shelf and became lost within its wonderful pages.

Abel and Amanda

Steig’s use of language (I love when children’s authors use words that a child might be unfamiliar with, such as verdure, so that the child can learn and add new words to their vocabularies. It was always one of my favorite ways to learn new words as a kid. I used to write the words down in a notebook and then go and look them up later in a dictionary), along with his glorious illustrations, drew me in to the story in a way that far surpasses his other books I read. It did not take me long to realize this was the perfect tonic to a rainy afternoon. It tells the story of Abel, a mouse who’s lived a safe and secure life. He and his wife Amanda decide to have a picnic when they’re caught in a rain storm and, when he attempts to rescue his wife’s scarf, poor Abel is washed away in flood waters where he ends up on an uninhabited island.

Abel downcast

This book is part rodent Robinson Crusoe, as well as being an odyssey no less than Homer’s. As we watch this once pampered mouse learn to adapt and survive on the island, we are also given these wonderfully introspective passages:

“Somewhere out there, in the night sky-and it could only be night-were the glittering stars, and among them his, the one he had always known. This star, his, millions of miles away, was yet closer than Amanda, because if he had the will and the strength to get up, uncover his window, and look out, he could see it. He knew, therefore, that it existed. But as for Amanda, father, mother, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and the rest of society and the animal kingdom, he had to believe they were there, and it was hard to have this faith. As far as he really knew, he himself was the only, lonely, living thing that existed, and in his coma of coldness, he was not so sure of that.”

It’s an absolutely beautiful piece of writing. Like any great writer, Steig does not write down to his reader, even his young readers. He offers them more than just a survival and adventure story, but one that reveals the inner life of this mouse. Anthrophormism is nothing new to children’s literature (in fact, many of my favorite children’s books such as those by E.B. White, Beatrix Potter, A.A. Milne, and Kenneth Grahame use this technique to give animals human qualities) and Abel is a deeply and wonderfully written example of this at its best. The reader sees him go through a gamut of emotions and feelings: from loneliness to fear to curiosity to pondering about not only his exterior landscape but his interior one as well, often connected.

Abel at work

In one passage, Steig writes:

“Rain caused one to reflect on the shadowed, more poignant parts of life—the inescapable sorrows, the speechless longings, the disappointments, the regrets, the cold miseries. It also allowed one the leisure to ponder questions unasked in the bustle of brighter days; and if one were snug under a sound roof, as Abel was, one felt somehow mothered, though mothers were nowhere around, and absolved of responsibilities.”

What I love about this book is that not only does if offer the reader a character who ponders and wonders, thinks and questions, but it allows the reader to do so as well. Steig invites the reader to do more than simply follow a story from beginning to end, but to meditate on nature and identity. In solitude, this mouse begins to build a new understanding about the world around him and his connection to it. How many children’s books offer up such a reexamination of the meaning of one’s life?

IMG_6324.JPG

Abel’s Island is a thoughtful, philosophical book as well as an adventure story and it manages to do both well. At one point Abel even finds a copy of the novel Sons and Daughters. His heart races at finding such a discovery because it meant that there were civilized creatures somewhere on the island. Thrilled by this finding, he immediately sets to reading it and discovers that this is an epic tale of bears. After reading a chapter about the war that has broken out between bears, Abel begins to reflect not only on the book but about his own life and his relationship to an owl on the island:

“It made Abel wonder about civilization. But, come to think of it, the owl, who was not civilized, was pretty warlike too. The hero, Captain Burin, was writing home from the battlefield to the one he had waltzed with in the first chapter, the one he loved. It was also winter in the story, and a drunken sergeant was saying things that were foolish and wise and funny – he wished he were hibernating instead of warring.”

Abel and the owl

William Steig was a man who felt differently from other people because he never grew up and he continued to see that the world was all magic. In his book The Real Thief, there’s a passage that illustrates this view he held, “Why did the world go on being so beautiful in spite of the ugliness he had experienced? The lake was beautiful, serenely beautiful. The forest was beautiful, greenly beautiful. Lake and forest, the whole shimmering world was painfully beautiful. He loved this world, but he was too hurt to enjoy it.”

Growing up in the Bronx, Steig spoke of his childhood being filled with books, comic books and movies called “Nickelettes.” He once said in an interview, ” Among the things that affected me most profoundly as a child – and consequently as an adult – were certain works of art: Grimm’s fairy tales, Charlie Chaplin movies, Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel, the Katzenjammer KidsPinocchioPinocchio especially. I can still remember after this long stretch of time the turmoil of emotions, the excitement, the fears, the delights, and the wonder with which I followed Pinocchio’s adventures.”

After years of being a famous cartoonist and illustrator, he would not embark on writing and illustrating children’s books until late in life. But he had his own approach to creating children’s books. As he once told an interviewer, “Art, including juvenile literature, has the power to make any spot on earth the living center of the universe, and unlike science, which often gives us the illusion of understanding things we really do not understand, it helps us to know life in a way that still keeps before us the mystery of things. It enhances the sense of wonder. And wonder is respect for life. Art also stimulates the adventurousness and the playfulness that keep us moving in a lively way and that lead us to useful discovery.”

William Steig

Later, in an interview with The Paris Review, he said, “Draw what you love and what interests you. Draw it how you want to draw it. When we are children we do this instinctively. But somewhere in our passage from childhood to adulthood, the ability to be truly and fearlessly creative is often lost.” He never lost that ability to be “truly and fearlessly creative.” His children’s books would go on to win numerous awards including: William Allen White Children’s Book Award, Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, the Reading Magic award, the Newbery Honor for Abel’s Island and Doctor De Soto, several notable designations from the American Library Association, and American Book Award and three National Book Award finalists.

William Steig was described as a curious man, who was fascinated by people and how they interacted with each other, with his natural surroundings, and continued to embrace his childhood and a child-like sense of seeing the world. All of this translated into the worlds he created in his books.

When he was once asked what his ideal life would be, he replied, “I often ask myself, ‘What would be an ideal life?’ I think an ideal life would be just drawing.” He paused before adding, “”I’m lucky, I’ve been able to do something I loved all my life.”

And we are lucky that William Steig was able to do what he loved to do and we got to benefit from being able to enter the books he created, especially Abel’s Island, which offers us both grit and grace. If you haven’t read this delightful masterpiece, then I highly recommend that you rush out to your local library (especially on a rainy day) and curl up in your favorite chair and cherish the time it takes to read this splendid, slender volume either to yourself or to a child. You won’t regret it.

Abel's Island book cover

Six Impossible Things

Alice in Wonderland

How many of us, if we saw our own white rabbits, would chase it down the rabbit hole to our own Wonderlands? Many of us would dismiss that we even saw the rabbit would admit that we had? The older we get, the more of us, I would guess. White rabbits and going down rabbit holes are fanciful ideas for children but not at all practical for a grown-up. We prefer logic and rational thinking to whimsy and wonder.  WE have long since given up the practice of  believing in “as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” But what have lost in the process?

Today is the birthday of Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass.  I love that a man who was a logician, mathematician and Anglican deacon came up with the nonsensical world of Wonderland. Perhaps he, like the character of Alice, look at the world about him and decide, “If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”

Alice

And, yet, within Wonderland is a deep philosophy that sparked and continues to spark delight in those who enter its pages. I cannot even remember when I first read Alice in Wonderland and I cannot imagine my life had I not done so. As a boy who was most-often called a “daydreamer,” “absent-minded,” “distracted,” and had my “head in the clouds,” I connected with Alice in her desire for a world unlike the one she was in because I, too, longed to escape the dull, drudgery of school where learning was reduced to facts and information, instead of fantasy and curiosity.

Cheshire Cat

More than likely, I either checked a copy of the book out from my school or local library. I’m not sure if it was John Tenniel’s beautiful illustrations that drew me in, if it was the title itself with the promise of a Wonderland, or if I had seen the Disney cartoon version first and that inspired me to rush to get hold of the book itself. For whatever the reason, I am only too happy that I did.

Lewis Carroll’s wild fantasy taught me that it was okay to be puzzled, baffled, surprised, delighted, scared, confused and to question everything. His story showed me that doubt and questions were just other names for curiosity. Like Alice, I have often asked, “Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.” In April, I will turn fifty and I haven’t stopped asking that question and doubt that I ever will until I take my last breath.

Just as Alice repeats, “Curiouser and curioser” about Wonderland, I did, too, about the very world around me. I loved that she wasn’t scared or even hesitated in following that white rabbit. Whenever I was in the woods behind our house, I attempted to do the same whenever I spotted a rabbit myself, but, alas, none led me on anything other than a hopeless chase before they disappeared from my sight.

Yet I still look at the world with a curious eye and a questioning mind. And these two things have served me well in many respects. True, it has often set me apart from others (and continues to do so), but I love when I meet another person who is the same way and we realize that we’re kindred spirits in this marvelous, fantastical journey. It’s an “Aha!” moment to realize we are both pulling back curtains to find that tiny door that will lead into the garden.

curiouser

As Alice makes her way along, she says, “I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then . . .” But that’s the whole point of this wandering and exploration that we call our lives. It is to be in the process of ever-changing and becoming a new creation with each and every day we are here. It is to see with ever-new-eyes and fresh visions so that we don’t stifle that part of us that must and should remain childlike. We cannot be creative beings if we don’t retain that sense of astonishment.

To be in Wonderland is to be present. One cannot be distracted because one is always being surprised.

“How long is forever?” asks Alice.

“Sometimes, just one second,” replies the White Rabbit.

Years later, when I read those words, I could not help but think of the mystical, child-like wisdom of the poet William Blake when he wrote in Auguries of Innocence:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
Alice and the Caterpillar
“Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality,” wrote Lewis Carroll and he’s right. Imagination is the only weapon against a reality that tries to stifle and keep things in neat and narrow little boxes. Imagination opens up the world and possibilities. It allows us to enter Wonderlands and believe in impossible things because, as the Door tells Alice, “Nothing’s impossible!”  I needed to hear that from a storybook. All children need to hear that. All adults need to continue to hear that. It is a truth that we too often let go of our grasp on as we “mature” and “put away childish things.” But what we have, unfortunately, replaced the impossible with is the functional. The world is meant to spark our imaginations and make us inquire, “Why?” We are to seek and to find, not always answers, but bigger and better questions that destroy the comfortable and easy solutions we so often settle for. There is nothing miraculous or magical to be found in utilitarianism.
Alice and the unicorn
All of us need to practice the impossible on a daily basis. To reach beyond our grasps, beyond what we believe to be and strive for the unimaginable, the far-fetched, the unlikely because that is where the true magic happens. It is like when Alice meets the unicorn for the first time.
Alice with lion and unicorn

“Do you know, I always thought unicorns were fabulous monsters, too? I never saw one alive before!”

“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”

We must believe in unicorns so that they believe in us.
lewis carroll2
So I am grateful to Lewis Carroll for showing me the way to a land where “We’re all mad here.” We need a little madness in our lives. To sing loudly for all to hear:

In a Wonderland they lie, Dreaming as the days go by, Dreaming as the summers die:
Ever drifting down the stream – Lingering in the golden gleam – Life, what is it but a dream?

Do we not want life to be but a dream? A Wonderland?

Lewis Carroll invites us to be part of his dream. He encourages us to “Be what you would seem to be – or, if you’d like it put more simply – never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.” In Wonderland, we can be impossible selves and change and continue to change.  He lets us in on the fact that life is a puzzle, but what a wonderful puzzle it really and truly is. That we should approach it as Alice did Wonderland: full-speed ahead, fearlessly and without hesitation. Oh, imagine the adventures we would all of us have if we finally do?

Alice images

Two Questions: Thoughts On Family & Community

Wind from the Sea

The Amish have two standards by which they judge whether or not something is allowed into their midst. They are both questions. First, “Is it good for the family?” And, secondly, “Is it good for the community?” If one cannot answer affirmatively to both, then whatever it is, is not allowed.

How many of us ask those questions with the decisions we make in our daily lives? Or are most of us so “me” centric that we are unconcerned about the impacts our choices have on others?

How many of us are even connected to our families or our communities anymore?

Most of the younger generations have no deep ties to anyone beyond their immediate family and have no real experience with older relatives. I was fortunate that when I grew up, I was around my parents’ families. Not just grandparents, but aunts and uncles, cousins, great-Aunts, and even my great-grandmother on my mother’s side. From a very young age, I heard their stories told and retold at holidays, family reunions, or simply when we went to visit.

I still have memories of going to my great grandmother’s house in the middle of a small town called Osgood (its former name was Shakerag. They say that it got that name from the fact that the town was so small it did not have its own train station, so, to get the train to stop, folks would stand by the tracks and shake their handkerchiefs to get it to stop there). There was no running water in her house and I was fascinated by the pump. There was no electricity and I remember how they often told ghost stories at night by the fire and how much more such stories had an impact because one couldn’t just go and turn on a lamp. I remember the thick, huge family Bible that recorded all the births and deaths. “To every thing there is a season . . .”

They were farmers who lived by seasons. The soil was the source and they understood how important it was to be good stewards of that land in its tending and caring and cultivation of it. They loved the land they tilled and toiled over. It was their livelyhood and their life. Life came from that furrowed soil.

They were connected to their land, their community and to each other in a way that is, sadly, too often forgotten in our modern technological age.

I remember the beauty of my great-grandmother’s wrinkled face. She was nearly a hundred yet her eyes retained a child-like sparkle to them. I thought her lovely because of those wrinkles, which revealed age like rings in a tree. Those wrinkles etched there by love and loss and laughter and life.

IMG_6234

As a very young boy, I used to sit on her lap and feed her some of my animal crackers. Despite the huge gap in our ages, we delighted in each others company. Hers was the first death I ever experienced.

I loved hearing  my grandmother, who I called “Gamma” because I couldn’t say “grandma,” tell stories of her youth. Of learning to swim in creeks and of midnight rights in cars with rumble seats where they drove under the stars and sang the popular songs of the day. Of how, when she was a girl, she made wings out of a cardboard box, strapped them to her arms with belts, and climbed onto the roof of their barn to test them out. Needless to say, she did not fly but ended up in her mother’s prize rose bushes. My grandmother told me that the sting of the thorns were nothing compared to the “whopping” she got from her mother once she saw the condition of those rose bushes after her attempt to be a girl Wright Brothers.

IMG_6239

Or of my grandfather, Papa Fred, who saw the invention of everything from cars to airplanes to seeing a man land on the moon. I often wonder what it was like to see such progress? Was it thrilling or did he long for the slower, simpler times before such technological advances. He was an educated man, who got his degree in agriculture and horticulture at N.C. State, though he never used his degrees. Instead, he ran everything from a pizza parlor to a record shop to a laundromat. He was the man who would drive me to Woolworth’s to see a Mina bird called “Birds can’t talk.” This bird was in a cage near the toy department to draw kids back to it. The bird would talk unless you tried to talk to him and he would dismiss you with, “Birds can’t talk.” More than any toy he would buy me, I liked being with him and riding in his car. I don’t think he said very much but he would listen to me talk (jabber on, most likely) and that made me feel important.

My Papa Fred would sit in his chair by the window, watching and waiting for us to arrive. Behind that chair was a painting of horses stampeding away from a thunderstorm that’s off in the distance but approaching. He would sit in that chair and listen to State games on his transistor radio. While he never did anything that one would call heroic, he was a hero to me and I looked up to him. Yes, Papa Fred was a quiet man, who said little, but, after he died, was spoken of as “a man who never said an unkind word about anyone.”  Is that not something for anyone to aspire to?

I have these memories. I cherish them and the stories of my ancestors that are as much a part of me as their DNA. They connect me to a people and a place. Though they were far from being wealthy, they taught me about giving, about taking care of others, that it was never a sacrifice if done with love, and the importance of how one’s choices determine one’s character and of finding beauty in the ordinary. I cannot help but think of  them in terms of what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once wrote, “Do not forget that the value and interest of life is not so much to do conspicuous things…as to do ordinary things with the perception of their enormous value.” This is how they lived for generations. They have shaped and formed how I approach family and the importance of those connections and passing them on to my own sons. It’s a rich heritage for sure.

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry defines community as, “the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.”

How much have we lost this by only forming community on-line?

We have lost the sense of neighborliness, of being rooted to place, of taking pride in community and the well-fare of those around us. Do we look at any proposed changed and innovation under that same questioning as the Amish of, “Will this be good for community?”

Do we support local businesses or purchase our food from local sources?

Do we strive to ensure that all are taken care of, especially the young and the old?

Do we see community as cooperation and looking after each other’s interests?

Community should be based on respect for all, including the natural world. It should be rooted in virtues like self-restraint and not simply self-interest. Our communities should be the places where we find compassion and kindness for all who live there, regardless of their race, economic station, sexuality, and religion. There should be a loyalty towards one another,  cooperation with each other and a desire that all decisions that affect the community be fair and just for all and not just the wealthy and powerful.

One of the reasons that I love reading the works of Wendell Berry is that I see this in his writing.  He has created a real sense of place in the creation of Port William, Kentucky in his fiction. Berry has written eight novels, thirty-eight short stories, and seventeen poems that touch on this place and its people. As he has said of his fictional town, “I have made the imagined place of Port William, its neighborhood and membership, in an attempt to honor the actual place where I have lived. By means of the imagined place, over the last fifty years, I have learned to see my native landscape and neighborhood as a place unique in the world, a work of God, possessed of an inherent sanctity that mocks any human valuation that can be put upon it.”

Should we all not see our “native landscape and neighborhood” as a “work of God” and “possessed of an inherent sanctity?” How differently would we approach the towns and cities where we lived if we did? The Quakers believe that the light of God is in every single person. I cannot help but wonder how different our communities would be if we worked at seeing this light within those around us and acted accordingly. Or if we saw the land as being sacred and not just there to be torn asunder for profit, for building another store or car wash or more homes.

How could we change our communities if we approached how we lived within them by asking the questions the Amish ask? If we stopped to wonder if the choices we were making were good for all who lived in its borders? If we did as Wendell Berry says, “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”

So I will begin to ask myself those two questions.

And I will try to live a life of humility, faithful simplicity and a compassion for others and raise my sons to do the same.  As L.M. Montgomery wrote in her beloved Anne of Green Gables, “Some people go through life trying to find out what the world holds for them only to find out too late that it’s what they bring to the world that really counts.” May we, all of us, realize that it’s what we bring to this world, to our families and our communities, that really counts.

Learning Delight In The Daily

IMG_6207

The older I get the more I learn.

Lately, I am learning delight.

One would think that, at my age, I would know this better,

but I don’t.

My younger son is teaching me,

though he does not know it.

How easy it is to be excited by the new and unfamiliar.

Yet my son is teaching me otherwise:

that there is joy to be found in the familiar and the daily.

Yes, he is enthralled at spotting a bird he’s never seen before:

such as the belted kingfisher with his punk-rock crest,

his long black bill, slate-blue head and dignified white-collar

(as if he were a priest on that branch).  And yet …

My son gets no less enthusiastic whenever he sees the same

tufted titmouse  returning again and again to the bird feeder

like an elder parishioner to his pew.

Or the overly common Robins that so often populate

our yard and trees.

This is the long lesson of living, I think,

to find satisfaction in contemplation,

not of the whole forest, but of a single tree.

To participate in the present,

in the presence.

Here,

in this moment.

In this moment,

in this minute,

in this place.

To allow myself to be astonished,

to know the spirituality of surprise,

by those things that could easily become

dulled and ignored by commonality,

by being a plain, brown Carolina wren

instead of the unrivalled painted bunting

with its vivid fusion of bright colors

rivalling Joseph’s glorious coat.

But isn’t that like us to long for the spectacular

than to be awed by that which we see

season upon season?

We grow bored with the familiar and,

in doing so, are unable to look with eyes anew

at things which are no longer young,

that are wearing out and have lost their shine.

So I pray that I can rejoice upon hearing

the sabbath choruse of songbirds in the morning

that wake me from my slumber.

That I do not need a bush aflame

when I can see the sunflower.

Nor do I need the parting of a sea

when I can stand in the springtime rain.

And I pray that I can know astonishment

not by some great miracle of divine intervention

but in the restfulness and blessedness

of each day that I do awaken, that I am breathing

and my heart is beating, that my mouth is speaking

each incarnational word, “This is good.”

No, let me not live some half-lit life,

but one that delights in the return of that tufted titmouse

just as my son does without fail.

IMG_6203

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cézanne On Genius

still-life-with-a-plate-of-cherries-1887

“Genius,” said the artist Paul Cézanne,  “is the ability to renew one’s emotions in daily experience.” A beautiful sentiment, especially when expressed by an artist like Cézanne, but how, practically speaking, does one begin to “renew one’s emotions in daily experience?” Is this merely an artist’s responsibility and need not apply to those of us who don’t consider ourselves creative?

I think the key is that Cézanne said “daily experience.”

Daily experience is whatever we are going through, wherever we are going through it. This can be the mundane and quotidian routines and chores that we do every day and think nothing of.  It can take place in an office, a home, a school, or any number of places where we interact with others and live out our daily lives and schedules.  But the “genius” Cézanne is referring to is not artistic genius, but the ability to notice, be aware and feel what it is to be there in that moment, not simply drifting through it with only one’s thoughts on what’s next or being somewhere else or doing something else. It is connecting with that activity, no matter how seemingly tedious or trivial.

Cezanne_-_Fruit_and_jug_medium

Certainly one sees this emotional and artistic connection to the seemingly ordinary in Cézanne’s paintings. He is most famous for his paintings of the commonplace subject of fruit. During his forty years of painting, Cézanne painted over 900 oil paintings and 400 watercolours. Many of those were focused on still lifes, which was considered the lowliest genre for an artist to paint during his day. Yet Cézanne raised still lifes to a grand subject, using light and space to create an exploration of how people see and perceive things; even going so far as to play with perspective.

“I will astonish Paris with an apple,” he once said. And he did. And continues to do.

According to the Guggenheim Museum, “Cézanne set up his still lifes with great care. A testimony by an acquaintance describes his method of preparing a still life: “No sooner was the cloth draped on the table with innate taste than Cézanne set out the peaches in such a way as to make the complementary colors vibrate, grays next to reds, yellows to blues, leaning, tilting, balancing the fruit at the angles he wanted, sometimes pushing a one-sous or two-sous piece [French coins] under them. You could see from the care he took how much it delighted his eye.”  But when he began to paint, the picture might change in unusual ways. Cézanne seems to be painting from several different positions at once. He believed that the beauty of the whole painting was more important than anything else—even more important than the correctness of the rendering.”

Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses

“Painting from nature is not copying the object, ” Cézanne believed, “it is realizing one’s sensations.” By choosing such everyday objects as fruit, he was exploring not only what was a worthy subject for an artist to paint but the very nature of seeing itself.  This was more than mere imitation of life. As The Metropolitan Museum of Art has said of his work,  Cézanne built “forms completely from color and creating scenes with distorted perspectival space. The objects in (his) paintings, such as fruit and a tablecloth, are rendered without use of light or shadow, but through extremely subtle gradations of color.” And that he “ignores the laws of classical perspective, allowing each object to be independent within the space of a picture while the relationship of one object to another takes precedence over traditional single-point perspective.”

Still Life with Apples

By seeing and painting his subjects in the manner that Cézanne does, he forces the viewer to  make those connections, to see the relationship between objects and to reconsider them, but to stop and see and reconsider our own relationships to the subjects before us. To spend time looking at a bowl of fruit that Cézanne has painted makes us stop and see a bowl of fruit that may be in our own homes that, because of its familiarity, is so easily and often overlooked by us daily.

Cézanne, like any great artist, causes us to see with new eyes those things which we stop seeing because “It’s just a bowl of fruit.”  He causes us to observe and pay attention. His subjects are more than mere shapes or colors, more than simply a recreation of fruit, but an artist’s rendering of how he sees the world, what he views to be important because he understood that the subject he was painting, was being captured in time, and that such moments would never come again.  His ultimate goal, as he has said, was to capture those emotions, those sensations of what it felt like to be in that moment in time.

still-life-with-bottle-and-apple-basket-1894

His subjects  became “reflective” of his humanity and his life. These works were a working through how he felt, how he saw, and all of that a moment encapsulates. As he said,  “I make it an object, let it project itself and endure within my painting….I become the subjective consciousness of the landscape, and my painting becomes its objective consciousness.” Cézanne brought all that he had of himself to a painting, even if it’s a still-life of fruit.

Still Life with Commode

How many of us bring so much of ourselves to the moment? To truly seeing and being aware of the sensations that can be found in a simple bowl of fruit. Do we stop and look, sniff the sweet fragrance of a rich, golden pear, or relish in the beauty of deep red cherries, or bite into the juicy flesh of a peach?

Cézanne believed that all things must be “freshly observed.”

Do we take the time to “freshly” observe anything? Do we stop and consider those objects that are all around us? Or do we simply take them for granted?

As my mother was dying of cancer, it was eye-opening to me, to see how her senses became heightened and she became aware of so much more around her: flowers, colors, scents, tastes, and the simple enjoyment of feeling a warm breeze against her skin.  The act of dying, in many ways, caused her to live again, to not take anything, not even the simple process of breathing, for granted. This was not lost on me, not even twenty years after her death.

Cézanne-Still_Life_with_Onions-1000px

“Doubtless there are things in nature which have not yet been seen,” Cézanne once said, “If an artist discovers them, he opens the way for his successors.” Indeed, his work would go on to influence many of the great modern painters of the modern era. Both Matisse and Picasso have referred to Cézanne as “the father of us all.”

May we learn from this great artist to “renew our emotions in daily experiences” and not assume that we are guaranteed more than the moment we are in. May we see and feel and touch and love and be present to those around us and those things in our lives that we so easily forget (even a simple meal). May we draw from the well of goodness that can be found in the moment: a cup of coffee, the laugh of a child, the cool breeze off the ocean, the gliding movement of clouds overhead . . .  May we all become geniuses of awareness, of being present to our moments.

 

Balance

IMG_5821

The Danish have a word Hygge that is used to acknowledge a feeling that is cozy and content, whether one is alone or with friends. It is a word of well-being and reflects an enjoyment of the simple things. Lagom is a Swedish word that means “just the right amount, in moderation, in balance.” Both words show cultures that cherish simplicity and appreciation. Moderation and contentment, simplicity and enjoyment should be more than mere cultural appropriation as we grasp at the latest trend. For years I have found it funny that people buy books on simplifying their lives; after all, if you truly want to simplify your life then the first step you should take is not buying that book.

When I reread Walden, I took Henry David Thoreau’s words to heart when he said, “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” Later he wrote, “As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.”

Live Lagom

Anne Brones writes in her latest book, Live Lagom, about how in modern Western culture, “being busy has come to define us” because this idea is built on the “underlying assumption that if we’re busy, with our schedules packed to the brim, then we must be important, our lives must have meaning and purpose.”

But busyness is not an authentic or intrinsic value. Our lives cannot sustain being built on success, popularity, or power. We cannot define ourselves by what we have or own, what others say about us or what we do for a living (I don’t even like that we define our careers as what we do for a “living”).  Our culture is driven by ambitions. Yet despite our success and accumulation, many find themselves still clamoring for significance and meaning.

In his book Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation, Parker J. Palmer writes, “Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.”

Instead of trying to lose ourselves in a flurry of activities, in a constant need to be entertained so that we do not have to deal with the inner restlessness that we constantly feel, we need to stop. Stop running and acquiring and working to acquire and make a name for ourselves. We need to stop and just be.  Slow down. Be present to ourselves and to our inner lives and the world around us.  Anna Brones writes, “When we allow ourselves time to slow down and be in the present, we are actually doing a lot for our general health and wellbeing . . . We need slow moments. We have a tendency to think of slow moments as boring moments. If we’re not occupied with something then what are we accomplishing? But these slow moments are essential to our health and even our creativity. The brain needs space to daydream.”

But do we allow ourselves this time to pause, to reflect, to daydream? I know many people who view such time as “wasted” when so much can and needs to be done.  But when we don’t stop, when we don’t pause and reflect, then we are missing out on our deepest calling, which Parker J. Palmer calls growing “into our authentic self-hood.” So much of the chaos we see in the world is because so many of us refuse to take the time to do this. We are too busy, too over-scheduled, too restless and discontent. Palmer writes about how when we do “listen to our lives” then “we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks – we also find our path of authentic service in the world.”

I find that when I unplug for my hectic schedule and from social media and spend time with family and friends, in nature, in quiet reflection, in meditation and contemplation, I find that my spirit is nourished, I feel connected and that so much of my fears and anxieties are forgotten, that I am not focusing on the worry that I don’t measure up. Instead, I find myself ignoring the superficial desires and trust, instead, in those things that are more precious and  meaningful: compassion, patience, generosity, kindness, community, and a deep, abiding sense of being connected to the natural world.  I enter a more restful and spiritual life.

 

 

Ansel Adams On Life As Art

Ansel Adams with camera

A couple of weeks ago, I began to home school our youngest son. Having spent his formative years in an orphanage, he has never been allowed to express himself freely or to explore his own creativity and imagination. Part of the reason I decided to homeschool him came from a desire to nurture and nourish an aspect of him that he has been afraid to express for fear of failing. One of the most important things I want to teach him is that there is no right or wrong in how we approach creativity and making art.

All of us are creative beings, we only express our creativity differently. I am exposing my young son to different artists and the mediums they used to show their perspective, their point-of-view, how they see the world. This can be done through a variety of mediums and techniques. Each of the artists I am teaching him about saw the world in a way no one else before them had. And none of them were wrong in saying, “This is how I see this.” Even when those in the world around them didn’t get it or agree with them. Ansel Adams once said, “No man has the right to dictate what other men should perceive, create or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions and emotions, and to build confidence in the creative spirit.”

Leaf, Glacier

This week, the artist we have been learning about is the photographer Ansel Adams. Taking one of my portfolio books of his works down from the shelf, I sat with my son on the couch and we slowly looked at the black and white photos in the book. I asked my son what he was drawn to in each photograph to see what he responded to. We talked about Adams’ use of light and shadow. We talked about what our eyes focused on and why we think Ansel Adams wanted us to see what he was taking a photograph of.  His photographs of nature could focus on a grand mountain in the southwest or something as simple as a leaf. Yet each subject felt personal and revelatory. Each photo drew us in for a completely different reason. “A great photograph,” Adams believed, “is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed and is thereby a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.”

Mount McKinley at 20,320 feet is the highest peak in North America.

So I would ask my son, “What does this photograph make you feel?” And I listened. It was fascinating to hear what he had to say.

Since it’s snowing, we began to pay closer attention to Ansel Adams’ snowy photographs.

Adams snow

Once again, we were struck by the beauty of these black and white photographs, by their power of making us pay attention and notice the natural world.

alrbol-nieve

“The whole world is, to me, very much ‘alive’,” Ansel Adams said,  “all the little growing things, even the rocks. I can’t look at a swell bit of grass and earth, for instance, without feeling the essential life – the things going on – within them. The same goes for a mountain, or a bit of the ocean, or a magnificent piece of old wood.”

One could see the aliveness of his subjects, whether they be composed of mountains or streams or trees or rocks or snow on the branches of a tree.

Branches in Snow

Ansel Adams brought himself to the photographs. His life shaped how he saw and what he saw. “You don’t make a photograph just with a camera,” he wrote, “You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”

evergreen_boughs

After looking through the magnificent book of photographs, my son and I dressed warmly to go out into the snow. With camera in hand, I told him, “I want you to look at the world about you. Pay attention. When you see something you want to take a photograph of, I’ll hand you my camera and you can take the picture.” I must admit, I was very curious to see what my young son would notice and think worthy of capturing in a photograph for others to see.

The first photo he took was of snow on the bark of an oak tree. He liked the contrast of the white snow against the dark gray bark.

IMG_6167

As we slowly moved about the yard, my son would notice something, point it out to me and then ask for the camera. He was very deliberate in how he held the camera and in framing his subject,

IMG_6171

Now he hates snow, so I loved that he forgot the cold and his focus, instead, was on noticing the beauty of nature covered in this tapestry of white.

IMG_6166

IMG_6174

IMG_6175

IMG_6179

It was clear that he was hearing Ansel Adams’ wisdom when I had read to him, “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.” These are wise words for how to live a life as well, for like art, to live a good life takes practice and work. It requires one be present to the moment and to not be so caught up in oneself that one forgets to look about and notice the world and the gifts it has to offer daily and in each season.

I loved seeing my younger son doing this behind the lens of a camera.

IMG_6187

IMG_6188

“Life is your art,” Ansel Adams believed. “An open, aware heart is your camera. A oneness with your world is your film. Your bright eyes and easy smile is your museum.” This is what I hoped to give to my son through this lesson. I wanted him to see his life as his art. I want him to feel a oneness with the world and not disconnected from it. What better lesson can a parent give to their child?

IMG_6185

 

 

 

 

 

 

Belief

IMG_5778

“Would you still believe what you do if you found out there was no heaven?” a friend asked me over lunch one day.

It’s a fair question to ask and I took some time to consider before replying.

Would I?

Or would I dismiss my beliefs as misguided and frivolous?

Do we believe because we long for a heaven to be real?

How many would stop praying and praising if they did find out, conclusively, there was nothing beyond this life, only the grave in waiting? Would I join their ranks of unbelief? How much of a person’s belief is hinged on heaven, on an afterlife, on something better than this world they are now in?

I have always hoped but have never been certain that there is anything to come once I have breathed my last, though I have been taught from the time I was a child that “good boys and girls” go there. That’s a lot of pressure on a child, particularly unruly ones, as well as any adult, as we struggle through our days, with all of our trying and failing and clinging to the glimpse of grace, the trace of mercy and the faint horizon of forgiveness that fill our liturgies and our hymns.

“Yes,” I replied to his question, “I would still believe.”

“Why?” he asked, not meaning to be rude, but taken aback by my answer.  When I noted his surprise, he said, “That’s because you are the only one to answer that they would still believe.”

I was and wasn’t surprised by this revelation.

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads,” I quoted Thoreau’s Walden.

My faith has shaped who I am, whether or not there is another world to come after I breathe my last.

Thoreau is right. To put it another way, “On earth as it is in heaven.”

How could I not believe when I  have stood in the cool movement of a mountain stream and felt the waters rushing past me and the cold, smooth stones beneath my feet?

Or that time, as I stood on the shores of the ocean and watched as a formation of pelicans flew overhead in numbers I had never seen before? All the while the waves rolled in and out. It’s sound a meditation that I found myself allowing my breath to imitate.

The reasons for belief are far more numerous for me than those that would pull me to unbelief.

To walk in the streets of a foreign city as snow began to fall and to wander into a cafe and sip on hot coffee while listening to a language I did not understand but found myself unable to not listen.

To have rolled down grassy hills as a child or run through sprinklers in summertime. To see fireflies that appeared to be as numerous as stars.

To move through the seasons and find the hidden beauty that lies within each if one is attentive to them. To move through the litany of hours that compose a day and find oneself brought back from distractions to the necessity of standing still to simply take in the sunset in its vivid oranges, reds, blues and violets.

Or how could I not have belief after holding my son in my arms for the very first time and know that in this tiny form is hope that he will live out his dreams?

How can I not believe when so much in this world has dazzled and amazed me?

Seeing the springtime blooms on cherry trees or a field of sunflowers in summer.

I have heard the joy that comes out of Yo-Yo Ma’s cello as he performs Elgar’s Cello Concerto or from Glenn Gould’s piano during the Goldberg Variations. Is it not enough to live in a world that contains the music of Bach or Mozart? To hear Bach’s Sacred Cantatas or Mozart’s Requiem or Handel’s Messiah? To feel one’s self swell with the performance of such pieces by a symphony.

I have found heaven in the language of poetry: in Blake, Dickinson, Rilke, Oliver, Berry. Is there not transcendence in the lines of Whitman or Hopkins?

To see the light streaming in through a window and it reminds you of a Vermeer painting and grasping Rumi’s words, “”Deep in our hearts the light of heaven is shining.”

I have no need of evidence that there’s a heaven for me to believe. There is an abundance of reasons in the here and now that seem to me to be but glimpses of something deeper, richer and more encompassing.

I have caught heaven in a moment; such as holding my elder son for the first time and to look in his eyes and see that my hopes for him are only that he does not doubt he is the containment of the dreams of his ancestors.

Is it no less miraculous to watch this child grow? To join in his joyous laughter or to hold him when he cries, to go from first words to conversations that are filled with questions and considerations.

Yes, this life has pain along with its joys. It has sorrows that can feel like they last longer than the laughter and celebrations. One longs for heaven to be more than just a whim or wish when one is by the bedside of a loved one dying, to pray within oneself, “Please be true” as you hold their hand at their last breath.

I don’t need saints and angels, streets of gold or mansions or pearly gates.

I don’t imagine myself having conversations with biblical figures or historical leaders, philosophers or prophets, poets or celebrities.

Is there not heaven enough in holding one’s spouse or child so tightly to oneself that one feels their heartbeats against one’s own chest?

Whether or not there is a heaven does not diminish how precious this life truly is.

Do I believe because there is a heaven? No.

Yet I believe there is one.

And why not?

Why not choose hope, choose possibility, choose love?

But love is not contained to a heaven. Nor should it ever be.

So I will choose to believe because such belief has offered such beauty and allowed me to see the world through grace-filled eyes. Such belief has given me an awareness that all is holy and not to take any of it for granted. Is that, in itself, not a kind of heaven?

Approaching The Day With Holy Awe

IMG_6103

When my older son asked me to go on a nature walk at our local greenway, despite the chill of the day, I readily agreed.  How could I dare say “no” to two of my favorite ways to spend time: with my sons and in nature. We layered up and headed out, my younger son with his nature journal in hand.  As I have written about previously, when I go for a walk the goal is not to get from point “A” to point “B,” as it is all about the journey and not a destination. Walks, for me, are opportunities to see something new along a path that is familiar. It’s not so much a challenge as merely a desire to not take for granted the world around me. To allow myself the chance to be surprised.

Every year, I start the new year with a word to live out that year. Last year it was the word joy. This year it was the word “awe.” The word stood out to me as I was slogging my way through the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. It’s not one of my favorite books with all of its curses, but then I came to chapter 31 where Moses tells the people to gather everyone together so they can listen well, so the may learn to live in “holy awe.” I loved this notion of living in “holy awe” and wanted to see how I could live that out in my daily life this year. What would it entail? Was it even possible?

As we were walking along, my younger son kept stopping to make notations in his journal of his observations and my older son and I were having a conversation. Our conversations tend to flow more readily while we walk together. As a Papa, I love when my son feels that he can share his heart, his thoughts and himself with me and I never, ever take these moments for granted. At one point, when we were walking in silence, I stopped and went over to take a photograph.

IMG_6086

It was of a leaf, orange and red in color, that the sun was shining through so that the veins of it stood out to me from the walking path. After I had taken the photo, my son asked, “How do you notice things like that?”

“Because it’s important to me,” I replied. “It is something I nurture and work at.”

“But why?”

“I don’t want to take such moments for granted. It’s too easy to be so busy or preoccupied with what I mistake for important that I miss what truly is – such as this walk with you right now.”

While we walked, he began to share with me the things that he noticed and found interesting, including tree roots, which is something I am also fascinated by.  I pointed out how I loved the long stretch of shadows the trees made on the path; of how I love the play of light and shadow.

IMG_6088

The further we walked along the path, the more he and I began to point out what it was that drew our eyes, captured our attention and made us focus on something other than ourselves. It was wonderful to see the world through his eyes and to understand what drew him to itself. I truly believe that one can find beauty in the world if one stops and looks.  As a parent, it is vitally important to instruct and teach my sons to pay attention, to see and to connect with the natural world around them. It’s also critical that I do the same. “Unless you become as little children” is a benediction that calls us to delight, wonder and hope.

IMG_6090

What does each moment hold for those who are available to it?

I love how the poet A.R. Ammons describes this kind of moment with, “”Anything looked at closely becomes wonderful.” Yes, it most definitely does. That’s why I want my sons to be present to nature, to look and see that the world is good.

Life is short, we must leave our lives open to the wonders of the world. That can be as simple as noticing the way light and shadow plays on a leaf.

IMG_6096

Or the gasp that was drawn from all three of us at spotting a Cooper’s Hawk as it swooped from the sky and landed on a nearby tree.

IMG_6080

This is a world they cannot get from technology. They cannot get that sense of awe and wonder from seeing such a magnificent bird of prey on a computer, phone or TV screen. No, one cannot truly capture how regal and authoritatively that bird sits, as if it were royalty on a throne.

IMG_6074

The always brilliant C. S. Lewis once wrote, “We do not want merely to see beauty… we want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”

And that’s what happens when my sons and I go on these walks. These are not passive occasions, but glorious opportunities to be drawn in and connected to the beauty of creation. It is to see this wild, wide wonderful world in all of its extravagance (even in the winter months) and to feel the deep chill of the January air, the screech of the hawk in flight, or the gentle burbling of the creek water.

Breathe this in, my boys, let the cold air and the beauty fill your lungs. Be alive. Be alive in this bright, shining world and to this world. Don’t tread the paths, charted or untaken, with fear but with a sense of wondrous expectation for what may reveal itself to you. Take delight in the moment. Do not waste it. Time is a vapor that vanishes. Do not take any of it for granted. Allow yourself to be overwhelmed and welcome it.

This is how I will approach the day with “holy awe.” How else should or could I begin? Go towards it with a whole heart, an open mind and eyes to see and, if possible, a person to share it with. Only then can any of us begin to even touch the surface of the mystery.

IMG_6071

Life As A Prayer

IMG_6086

Live your life as if it were a kind of prayer – because it is.

Each prayer is different.

Joyous or filled with lament.

Some come out in loud shouts or quiet whispers or even in silence.

Some prayers are as bold as a field or red poppies, while others are more quiet and delicate as the light-blue Tweedia. Both are fragrant before our Creator, or so we’re told.

But, perhaps, you don’t believe.

And that’s okay, too.

Belief or unbelief no more lessens your life as a prayer, as something holy and sacred as the birdsong that greets each new morning then belief or unbelief changes the rotation of the earth that brings each new day, each new sunrise.

We are, each of us, formed of hallowed ground, consecrated clay and breathed into with the prayer of life.

Spirit, breath, prayer.

Would we be any less sublime no matter how we were formed? From loam or lake. One is no less miraculous than the other. We are here, as we are, a long chain of prayers throughout history. It’s overwhelming to pause and consider the moments and choices that had to occur for us to occur. We are, within us, the whole world and a new one to come.

Our lives as prayers.

Even without speaking a word. Prayer as breath, as heartbeat, as life.

Gratitude and grace.

Suffering and sorrow.

All connected and all necessary in equal degree, though we often pray not.

We like deliverance and not discordance.

Too often we fail to see that we are called to create gardens in our exile; beauty from our toil amidst our suffering and our longing for home.

My grandmother used to tell me, “No matter how bad the hurt, there’s always a breath for even the smallest hallelujah.” She said this as her joints ached with age and arthritis. “Pain is the gift of old age,” she’d say, this woman who mowed her own lawn up until her eighties. She, who despite her hurts and the sufferings of years, found each breath she drew a praiseful thing.

My grandmother understood that all of life is not mercy and meditations. To think otherwise is sheer folly and foolishness. “Wish in one hand and spit in the other and see which one fills up first,” she might admonish me playfully.  Life is . . . you have to take what comes – anguish or angels, absence or presence, grace or the grave.

As she grew older, she drew life in more. Seeing and noticing every living thing: finding that which we dismissed as insignificant as a miracle to behold on the scale of parting seas or walking on water. “Don’t let life cause you to lose your delight,” she’d whisper to me as if it were a secret. “Promise me that.” And she would hold my tiny hand in her own, which was as withered and gnarled as the roots of tree. I hope I keep my promise. I hope . . .

“At my age,” she’d say, “you eat your dessert first ’cause you don’t know if you’ll be around for it after the meal.”

I envy her death. The form and shape it took. Life was not taken from her, she offered it back to the one who created her.

An old woman lying down in her bed, telling us, “I’ve lived long enough. I’m ready to go.” Closing her eyes and releasing that last breath, that last prayer . . .

There, by her bedside, I was one of the final memories she would take with her. She, who was one of my first memories. That memory of her, leaning over my crib, singing, “Sugah in the mornin’, sugah in the evenin’, sugah at suppertime, be my lil’ sugah and I’ll love you all the time.” How many times did she sing that to song to me? It, too, was a prayer.

So, in the end, it does not matter if it’s a prayer of restraint or an exuberant praise; for no matter the form the prayer takes, it is a prayer, it is a life.