Cézanne On Genius

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“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.

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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.”

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

 

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Balance

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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.”

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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

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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.

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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,

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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.

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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.

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“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?

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Belief

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“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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Life As A Prayer

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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.

A Winter’s Walk With My Son

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“Where your feet take you,” said Frederick Buechner, “that is who you are.” How true his words ring today, as my younger son and I embarked out into the chilly, wintry day for a nature walk. We could not bear to stay inside again today. But our walk was not mere exercise or transit. No, this walk was necessity, it was, in its own small way, a spiritual pilgrimage on our parts. We needed to be in nature, to reconnect with her, and to re-find our focus.

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Overhead, a powder gray sky hid the sun and kept it to a dim light. Perhaps because there appeared the chance of rain, the paths were clear for us. No one else had felt the call to do as we had. In the distance, we heard the caw of crows. What were they telling each other? Was it a warning or a friendly conversation? It’s hard to tell with the harshness of the crow’s hoarse, grating rattles and clicks and caws. Perhaps they were joyous. Perhaps not.

We did not see them. Not once.

In fact, we only caught a glimpse of one, solitary bird on a branch overhead. It paid us no mind. Maybe she was caught up in her thoughts. Maybe she was asleep. This made me wonder: What do birds dream about?  Do they have dreams of flying like we do or would that merely be redundant? Do they dream of being other birds or a different kind of animal? Perhaps they are merely glad not to be human, as humans are not enviable sorts to be, especially among nature.

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Though my younger son and I walked together, the walk still felt as solitary as that bird. To ground ourselves and remind us that we are not all that important, we liked to reach out and feel the bark of a tree. You were here long before us, we understood and pondered if great oaks would remain long after we were gone from this earth.

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There is nothing like feeling the roughness of bark against the palm of one’s hand. To feel the traces of moss and lichen. To gaze up, along its trunk, to its branches, reaching out, leafless and bare into the sky.

My young son loved the feel of moss on a rock. He smiled at the softness of it. “Like petting a cat,” he laughed. Yes, my son, smile and laugh and touch and experience.

I love that I can offer this to him. I hope that is healing. For him. I know it is for me.

Rachel Carson once said, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” My prayer, as we walk, is that he keep alive his inborn sense of wonder.

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How can a person not feel wonder amidst nature? After all, in the presence of beauty, we forget ourselves. It is easier when we are at the Grand Canyon or standing at the shores of the ocean, but how much more delicate and lovely to find that awe by simply paying attention, noticing and being aware of the magnitude of grace that one can find by stooping and investigating and looking more closely, more deeply at the very world about ourselves. To see Jacob’s Ladder, where angels ascend and descend, on the fungi growing on the stump of an old tree. Is this ladder any less sacred? Can I not, like Jacob, respond with, “Surely, the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not”? But I do not want to be unaware and not know. I want to be present to the holiness so often overlooked by those who pass by with eyes that never see and ears that never hear. No, like Jacob, I want to cry out, “How full of awe is this place!” Yes, how full, indeed.

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But to see, as Christ said, I must become as a little child. To see as a child sees: a world that’s fresh and new and beautiful. A world of wonder and excitement that has not been dimmed by “more important things.” I pray that I can keep this clear-eyed vision by not taking any of it for granted. Not even the smallest pine comb amidst leaves.

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I agree with Rachel Carson when she wrote in The Sense of Wonder, “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later year…the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

Is there anything more glorious than this? Than in feeling the weight of one’s body against the earth with each wonderful step one takes along the path. It’s about the walk, about the journey, about the paths taken and explored and discovered and in breathing in the fresh, cool air. It’s in hearing the sounds of the trill of the water that is not still frozen in the stream. Or looking down into its clear waters and seeing the quick darting of fish.

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YES! There is life here. Such life. Life more abundantly.

Not the man-made dreams of cities and highways and commerce and technology, but the very dreams of God. We are moving about in the dreams of God. And, like him, my young son and I declare it, “Good! Very good! Gloriously good!”

Is it any less miraculous to spot a small red leaf among the fading tans and browns than it would be to spot an angel or a goat-hoofed Pan among these trees?

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Yes, this walk feels solitary but not isolating, not disconnected, not alienated. My son and I are together. He calls to me to come and see. Beneath the ice, he sees the movement of water. This delights him.  It is melting and that is why the water moves beneath it, but I do not tell him this, I do not remove the magic for mere fact. I watch as he touches the cold wetness of the ice’s surface and runs his hand along it.

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“Yes, touch and see that the world is good, my son,” I think.  “Do not let this stray far from your memory, but hold it as close as you will your child one day. This is life. Real life. Life that embraces and encompasses it all: life in all its complexity with birth, life, death and rebirth. Life in its seasons. Life of expectation of what comes next. What does the next season hold in store for us? What does this one still have in waiting surprise for us? Be content in this moment and carry it with you for that moment in life when you will most need to pull it up from the well of your soul to remind yourself that life can be good.”

As we start back towards our car, I cannot help but wonder how much lessened my life would feel if we had not come today, if we had not seen what we saw and heard what we heard and touched all that we did? And I also wondered, “What would my life be like if I never saw it again?”

Yes, we do not know what the future holds, but carry this with you my child, carry it wherever the paths of the world may take you.

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On A Winter’s Night

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The days draw to a close earlier and turns from bright, crisp blue to a darker shade before, finally, turning the color of a Bible. Outside, the air bites with cold, but one finds an almost divine pleasure inside, with a fire going and the flickering light of candles. I gather myself beneath a blanket on the sofa, a cup of tea on the table next to me, and a book in hand. These, along with homemade soup, are a comfort no less than friendly conversation with a friend or loved one.

At night, when I take the dog out for his last walk, I hate the frigidness of the cold, but I ignore the falling temperatures as best as I’m able, to gaze upward at the stars, which are spread out more clearly during the winter. Or I stand amazed at the wolf’s moon that began this wintry month. I love how its reflection glints silvery on the ice of the goldfish pond. As a child, I remember my grandfather telling me that one can always tell one’s secret to the moon for the moon will never betray one’s trust. I think of him, long past, and how so many of my relatives, on my mother’s side, die in winter.

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My dog stops. He stares and, it’s then, that my attention is drawn away from this big, bold moon to a raccoon, who stares at us in wait, like someone playing chess and watching to see what his opponent’s next move will be. The dog and I will offer him no chase and no harm. Perhaps, in this melancholy season, he needs to see us as much as we, ourselves, need company. I nod my head and lead the dog back towards our house again.

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Overhead, the old oaks are stripped bare of all but what is necessary. Perhaps I should learn from them. As they have long since shaken off their leaves, I, too, have been shaken in this new year by that which I did not expect, but how often do the things that truly impact our lives come unexpectedly, on what would have been an ordinary day, uneventful and forgotten among the clutter of others, had this not occurred to us?

The ground is hard and crunches under my feet.

A winter’s night: how quiet, how patient.

My thoughts turn to Basho and his elegantly simple haiku:

Winter solitude–
in a world of one color
the sound of wind.

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Back inside, I am nearly as shocked by the warmth of the house as I was the cold I just came out of. I remove the dog’s harness and he dashes off (just as his name – Dash – requires of him). I then take off my gloves, cap and, finally, my thick, heavy coat. The coat I had to buy for when we traveled to Ukraine in winter, five years ago, to adopt our younger son. I love that its pockets are big enough to contain a small paperback or a journal.

Just as the cold is replaced by the warmth, so, too, is the silence replaced by the sound of my wife watching television.

I return, contentedly, to my blanket and my book during this long winter evening. My wife snuggles up to me.

While I long for spring, there are, many things, to love about this season.

 

 

 

Matisse On Our Interconnectedness & Hope

 

The DanceFrench artist Henri Matisse once said, “We ought to view ourselves with the same curiosity and openness with which we study a tree, the sky or a thought, because we too are linked to the entire universe.”

It’s the dead of winter. The mornings are dark and night comes earlier. The temperatures are freezing and frigid. Not at all conducive to my long, slow and necessary walks in nature. I miss those walks. They made me feel exactly what Matisse was expressing: connected – to nature, to the world, to the universe, to myself. Although nature was generous in her gift to my younger son and myself the other day when she delivered thirty Robins to our backyard and trees. They flitted and fluttered and flew about. Some landed and moved about the leaves-covered lawn, while others chose (for some unknown reason) to move about my small, frozen goldfish pond. In that moment of standing outside, unconcerned with the cold, my son and I experienced only delight in this moment of the grace of the world. And, with the close of a very hard year and the start of one that appears to be more uncertain, we were thankful and full of gratitude that we were a part of this, aware and present to the wonder of these birds.

Matisse understood interconnection because his art was influenced by art from other cultures that he’d seen in exhibitions. He became interested in everything from Islamic art to African sculpture to Japanese prints. “You study, you learn, but you guard the original naiveté,” Matisse once said, “It has to be within you…” Childlike curiosity was something his mother, Anna Heloise, encouraged in her young son.

Matisse with his mother

Matisse described his mother as tender, sensitive, generous and “loved everything I did.” He would describe himself as a child as pensive, dreamy, frail and not very bright. It was her encouragement that even started him in painting. Following an appendicitis attack, while Matisse was recovering, his mother brought him art supplies. “From the moment I held the box of colors in my hands, I knew this was my life. I threw myself into it like a beast that plunges towards the thing it loves.” It was his mother who told him not to adhere to the “rules” of art, but rather “listen to his own emotions. ”

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“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject-matter,” Matisse once said, “an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”

Although Picasso is considered to be the genius of modern art, I have never responded to his paintings in the way that I have to the bold, bright colors of Matisse’s. There was something about the shapes and colors and designs of Matisse’s paintings, including those he “painted with scissors” towards the end of his life, that draw me in and make me feel, somehow, more joyful, rejuvenated and energized.

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“It is only after years of preparation that the young artist should touch color,” he once advised, “not color used descriptively, that is, but as a means of personal expression.” What was his personal expression through use of color?

Hope.

With Matisse, whose life was often difficult and filled with poor health, he painted with the desire that anyone, no matter what their personal situation, would view one of his paintings and, in the beauty and the boldness of it, find hope. To see his work and be uplifted and find optimism, if only for the time one stands before his painting and admires and appreciates it. “There are always flowers,” he has said, “for those who want to see them.” That is what Matisse is offering us in his work: the opportunity to see flowers in the dead of winter, when all is fallow and bleak, when the cold and darkness touches not only our skin but often our hearts and spirits.

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In my own life, I am thankful for his paintings. There are times when I grab a cup of coffee or tea, and sit down with one of my books on Matisse and I do nothing more than allow the beauty and hope that infuses his work to nourish and nurture my battered and bruised soul. Too turn from the grays, browns, and darker tones of winter to the brilliance of Matisse’s world.

And this is not mere naive optimism that Matisse is offering us, but hope that is found in the worst and trying of circumstances. For him this was being diagnosed with duodenal cancer in 1941, which would leave him bedridden or in a wheelchair. A time when he was isolated in southern France, while his family was deeply involved in the Resistance movement against the Nazis.  His own daughter, Amelie, had been captured, brutally tortured by the Germans before being sent to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. Or that one of his students had died in Auschwitz.

How did he find the capability to dig deep within himself when everything appeared hopeless and fight that desire to give up?

“The task of painting,” Matisse believed, “is no longer to portray historical events. We can read about those in books. We must expect more of painting. It can serve the artist to express his inner visions.”

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Take this work entitled “Sorrow of the King,” which was Matisse’s final self-portrait. It is his portrayal of young David playing before King Saul from the Old Testament. David plays to distract the king from his melancholy. Matisse represents himself as the large black shape in the middle, sitting in his favorite armchair, surrounded by the beauty that had enriched his life, even amidst great personal tragedy. According to his official website, “The yellow petals fluttering away have the gaiety of musical notation while the green odalisque symbolises the Orient and a dancer pays homage to the female body and sensuousness.” Unable to paint because of the severe pain his body was wracked with, Matisse “painted with scissors” cutting out shapes that would be the life-giving art of his last years.

“Cutting into color,” he said of this technique, “reminds me of a sculptor cutting into stone.”

Matisse cut outs

Right now, in my own life, I need th hope that Matisse portrays. I need to see beauty and brightness amidst uncertainty and sadness.

In her song “It Might Be Hope,” off her 2007 album Tell Me What You Know, Sara Groves sings in the chorus:

Hope has a way of turning it’s face to you
just when you least expect it
you walk in a room
you look out a window
and something there leaves you breathless
you say to yourself
it’s been a while since I felt this
but it feels like it might be hope

Hope, like creativity, as Matisse said “takes courage.” It could be easy to look at the world about us, maybe even in our own daily lives, and despair, but to look past circumstances and strain our eyes off into the distant to find hope, that is bravery, that is what keeps us alive.

“Colour is a means of expressing light,” Matisse said, “though not so much as light as a physical phenomenon as the light that exists in reality – in the artist’s head.”

We must, all of us, find that light within us and be that light for others, whether it’s through our art, our faith, our living, our interactions, our interconnectedness to each other and the world around us. We must offer the spirit of hope to ourselves and to others. As the novelist Herman Melville once wrote, “We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”

Matisse Dance First

 

 

The Purposefulness Of Play

IMG_5947The always wise Fred Rogers once said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” There is such truth in his words that I fear too many adults have lost sight of.

When children play, they are fully engaged in what they are playing. Watch a child at play and you will see them more alive, more engrossed in what they are doing than at any other time. Somehow at play, they are more themselves, even when they are pretending to be somebody else. When they dress up, they become who and what it is they are imagining themselves to be (teacher, knight, princess, astronaut, race car driver, Jedi).

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Play is a way a child makes sense of the world: imitation is a form of exploration. They find truth in play. When a child is playing with others, they are not only learning creativity but also collaboration. Play is more than mere diversion, but development.

As a boy, I recall fondly playing with other kids in our neighborhood. We would explore the woods behind our house and imagined we were like the Pevensie children in Narnia, or Peter Pan and his lost boys in Neverland, or Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men in Sherwood Forest. We roamed and discovered and dreamed together. We invented games and kingdoms and inhabited those things with all that we were.

As kids, we expressed our feelings through play, through art, through making up stories, through games and interactions with each other. There was a sense of freedom and discovery in play. And we learned about each other. As Plato said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

By exploring the outer world through play, we were also exploring our inner worlds. Play is a form of self-discovery.  Play was purposeful. The path of play allowed us to explore the possible. Anthropologist and Primatologist Jane Goodall was shaped and formed early as a child by being able to play and explore nature in her grandparents’ garden. How many creative people were successful in their creative endeavors because they never lost this sense of childhood play? Beatrix Potter was surely one of them and her books reveal a curiosity of someone who never lost the perception that the world was a very interesting place. She often expressed how she never felt more alive than when she was a child at play in the country.

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The Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner once said, “If a young child has been able in his play . . . to give up his whole living being to the world around him . . . he will be able in the serious tasks of later life, to devote himself with confidence and power to the service of the world.” Danish therapist and parenting expert, Iben Dissing Sandahl wrote in her book Play the Danish Way: A Guide to Raising Balanced, Resilient and Healthy Children Through Play, Through play, children experience a greater confidence in their bodies, surroundings and themselves. They become familiar with what they can and cannot do.”

Yet we often see an educational system that removes play and often discourages the discovery that comes with it in favor of more regimented and organized discipline: sadly a teaching towards testing, not thinking and wondering. There is no common core curiosity.  Education is too concerned with filling kids with facts and not a sense of wonder that leads to higher thought.

When one thinks genius, the name Albert Einstein is always the first to come to mind. In his great wisdom, he understood, “Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” Or “Play is the highest form of research.” If Einstein is uncontestedly a genius, why do less educators listen to and heed his words?

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As a parent who is about to embark on homeschooling our youngest son, I have taken serious consideration of the importance of play in how I will instruct him. He is already disadvantaged in this area, having spent the formative years of his life in an orphanage. When he arrived here in the States, he was unsure of how to play. His imagination had not been stimulated, play and creativity was not encouraged. The first time I ever saw him playing on the floor with some dinosaurs, I burst into tears of joy.

Growing up, I learned far more on my own than I ever did in school. Curiosity drove me in asking questions, in dreaming, in creating my own imagined worlds, in pondering how things worked. On my own, learning was a delight, not a dreadful, tedious chore. That is why I have strived to encourage a sense of playfulness in learning with my sons. To show them that one can delight in discovery, in not being afraid to be silly or ask a question.

When they complain to me, “I’m bored,” they are often surprised when I reply, “Good! Boredom is good for stirring the imagination on. Be creative in finding something to occupy your time. With my older son, it was amazing to watch him take these words and go off to his room where he would create the most amazing inventions out of Tinker Toys and rubber bands. It challenged him and I see how it has shaped his mind now. He loves to solve problems and puzzles through programming.

Louisa May Alcott wrote in Little Women, “Have regular hours for work and play; make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you understand the worth of time by employing it well. Then youth will bring few regrets, and life will become a beautiful success.” Success that is rooted in both work and play. A balance.

It’s also important for me, as a parent, to play with them. To lead by example.  Be a playful parent. Be whimsical. Be mischievous. Don’t be afraid to get messy (whether through paints or clay or playing in the rain and splashing in puddles). What greater responsibility do we have than to take to the seriousness business of play?

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “It is a happy talent to know how to play.” I like that he used the word “talent” because a talent is something we develop and work on. As parents we must encourage our children to develop this “happy talent” of play. To create engaged children. Our culture seems preoccupied with making our children consumers instead of creators. They have deeply and dearly missed the point. “The true object of all human life,” said G.K. Chesterton, “is play.” May we be playful parents and teachers so that our children will grow up to do likewise.  May we see that the play truly is the thing.

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