The English novelist George Eliot once wrote, “The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone.” Our days do, indeed, rush past us in a blur so that we seem to be passing through them at a breakneck speed. Is the sand Eliot writing of that which passes through the hourglass of time? Or do we see so much only as sand in a desert so that one grain is no more noticeable than another? Do we awaken, as if from sleep, and scratch our heads like Rip Van Winkle that the world around us seems to have moved on and moved on much more rapidly than we and we long for that slower, even-tempered pace?
How much of our lives and the world around us do we miss by simply going along in that great rush? One can see this in art galleries where the average person spends only 15 to 30 seconds looking (not seeing) a painting, photograph or sculpture. How then can they truly be impacted by or deeply moved by a work that they don’t really stop to allow it to transform or change what they see or how they see? More people spend time trying to get the right selfie in front of a masterpiece than in actually looking at the masterpiece itself. How much of life do we not really experience because we are too busy trying to capture the moment to post on social media? One cannot even go to a concert without seeing people’s hands raised as they look through the small screen while the record a performance on-stage.
How many of us even really pause our lives when we listen to music at home?
In the documentary The Art of Listening, composer Philip Glass says, “The problem with listening, of course, is that we don’t. There’s too much noise going on in our heads, so we never hear anything.”
There are times when my spirit needs me to stop, close my eyes and just listen to a piece like Arvo Pärt’s Salve Regina as it slowly builds to its majestic climax. With a composer like Pärt one cannot have a lot of background noise while listening to his glorious compositions which so often rely on silence and quiet. As he has said, “On the one hand, silence is like fertile soil, which awaits our creative act – our seed. But on the other hand, silence must be approached with a feeling of awe.” And for those who approach his work with silence and awe, they are rewarded by the deeply spiritual nature of his compositions. If one wants to start listening to his works, I would highly recommend one of his most famous Spiegel im Spiegel. It’s a hauntingly quiet and lovely piece.
Every new year, Goodreads has a reading challenge in which they ask how many books someone wants to read in a year. The goal is to read more than last year’s number. I balk at this concept since I don’t see reading as something that needs to be quantified simply on the large number of books read. Books are not mean to be read all whiz-bang but, if they are worth one’s time, are meant to be savored in, delighted by, challenged by, to make one think more broadly and ask deeper and better questions. How can a reader learn to love the turn of phrase or the sheer beauty of language if one is merely trying to meet some quota? What is the quality of this reading if one is merely focusing on the quantity of it?
Do we complain about the detours on the path of life without ever realizing that the detours are the path? Do we stop to savor and be present in a place or do we simply go through our lives as tourists madly darting about so that we can say that we have been to or seen a famous spot or attraction?
How much of our lives are not lived because we are too busy documenting it?
Do we take walks without expectations and allow ourselves to slowly be present and aware that all ground is sacred, all life is holy? Sometimes we need to leave the path and stoop down to notice the small, often overlooked things (an insect, a mushroom, a flower) than always hoping to spot the grand one (a hawk in flight, a sweeping vista).
I am learning to lose myself to the moment. Letting myself go. Opening myself up to surrender. Immersed in instead of gazing outside of the moment.
Allow yourself moments to be bored. That is the worst sin according to my children and the worst fate imaginable. When they lament that they’re bored, I respond, “Good! Sometimes boredom is good for the mind, good for the soul.” The philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote, “Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away.” Boredom inspires creativity because moments of not doing but being allow us to be aware of our thoughts and not drown them out with activity and noise. To be lost in thought is to be fully present. Even the smallest distraction can cause the “dream bird” to fly away from us.
In Upstream, one of my favorite books by Mary Oliver, she writes, “No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind.” How many of us miss the angels because we are not seeing, we are not concentrating?
Certainly, as I am about to turn fifty, I am very aware of the brevity of life. But I have to ask myself if living a life more fully is simply about being present in that exact place, with those exact people and in that exact moment that I’m in, instead of searching around for some magical secret door that will transport me to my real life. It’s about enjoying where I am and who I am with. It’s about seeing my surroundings and gaining from them what they have to offer me if I’m not preoccupied with what I think I should be getting from them.
Again and again, I am realizing that life is not transactional but transformational if we allow it to be.
We should not be like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tragic figure Jay Gatsby, who is always looking off into the horizon at the beacon of that green light (situated at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock) where Gatsby has placed all of his hopes and dreams, where he has set his goal and his future. Instead, like Patti Smith, we must grasp this truth, “For life is the best thing we have in this existence. And if we should desire to believe in something, it should be a beacon within. This beacon being the sun, sea, and sky, our children, our work, our companions and, most simply put, the embodiment of love.”
May we pause. May we slow down. May we stop. May we be present so that we do not that the angels have visited us only after they are gone.
How many even looked at the photograph long enough to notice the drops of rain on the Iris petals?