David Bowie: A Life In Books

Bowie's eyes

“The truth is, of course, that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.” David Bowie died at the age of 69 from cancer. He was his own creation, constantly reinventing who David Bowie was; whether he was the personas Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke.

No matter what his on-stage or on-screen identity was, Bowie always identified with the outsider. He attributed this to his elder half-brother, “Terry probably gave me the greatest servicable education that I could ever have had. He just introduced me to outside things. The first real major event for me was when he passed Jack Kerouac’s On The Road to me, which really changed my life.”  Reading Kerouac at the age of fifteen and then, later, Allen Ginsberg, made him long to get out of Bromley, where he grew up.

“My brother was one of the bigger influences in my life, in as much as he told me I didn’t have to read the choice of books that I as recommended at school, and that I could go out to the library and go and choose my own, and sort of introduced me to authors that I wouldn’t have read.probably. You know, the usual things like the Jack Kerouacs, the Ginsbergs, the ee Cummings and stuff.”

Bowie reading

David Bowie wasn’t a model student and left Bromley Technical High School with just one ‘0’ level (in art), but he said of himself, “I’m a real self-educated kind of guy. I read voraciously. Every book I ever bought, I have. I can’t throw it away. It’s physically impossible to leave my hand! Some of them are in warehouses. I’ve got a library that I keep the ones I really really like. I look around my library some nights and I do these terrible things to myself–I count up the books and think, how long I might have to live and think, I can’t read two-thirds of these books.’ It overwhelms me with sadness.”

Photo of David BOWIE

In an interview with Vanity Fair, he was asked what his idea of personal happiness was, Bowie simply replied, “Reading.”

Young David Bowie (9)

His reading tastes were eclectic and extensive. Film producer Jerry Thomas said of Bowie, “We bonded over a love for William Burroughs . . . He loved Burroughs, loved J.G. Ballard, loved Brion Gysin, all the things I liked at the time . . . He had a great spirit, and an acceptance of anything that might happen.”

Bowie reading in airport

Reading was a way of exploring, of discovering, of connecting.  Because he was scared of flying on planes, he traveled by ship. During one such voyage in 1972, he began to read Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. The novel was completed months before the 1929 stock market crash which caused the Great Depression and whose narrative ends in the near future with World War II under way. Bowie saw the correlation between the novel and his own times, so much so that he would write a song about it, “Aladdin Sane.” Like Waugh, it was Bowie’s way of writing an “epitaph for his own lost generation.

“Nobody reads anymore,” he once complained,  “nobody goes out and looks and explores the society and culture they were brought up in. People have attention spans of five seconds and as much depth as a glass of water.”

Unlike those he was describing, Bowie was a voracious reader who was said to read a book a day. He loved reading because he was fascinated with ideas from art, culture, science and writing.

Bowie reading a book in bed

Even as a teenager, he would always carry a book with him to read while he was on traveling on the underground. Or he would buy one to keep in his pocket. At first he wanted to appear cool, so he would buy something by one of the French Existentialists, but then he actually began to read and love their works.

“When I’m relaxed what I do is read.” And he described a good week as one where he read “three or four books.”

Bowie reading in bed

When he went to Mexico to shoot the film The Man Who Fell To Earth, Bowie took with him 400 books, partly because he loved to read and partly because he was afraid someone might “nick” any of his beloved books.  After that, he carried with him what he called his “travelling library” when he was on tour. “I had these cabinets – it was a travelling library – and they were rather like boxes that amplifiers get packed up in . . . because of that period, I have an extraordinarily good collection of books.”

Bowie books

He was a collector who delighted in collecting rare and first editions. He loved talking about books and about his favorite authors (he loved everything from the Beats to Stephen King to British authors like Julian Barnes to Russian writers like Mikhail Bulgakov). He would go on to compile a list of 100 titles that he recommended (Bowie’s Top 100 Books). The list contains everything from classics like The Iliad to more recent works like Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. 

Curator Geoffrey Marsh, who put together the touring exhibition David Bowie Is (it included 300 of Bowie’s personal objects, 75,000 costumes, his books and memorabilia) said, “The idea that he (Bowie) sits down and reads every book cover to cover, I don’t think that’s what he does. I think he’s more interested in ideas – and what he’s really interested in is how he can rework those ideas. He is the ultimate postmodernist, sampling stuff even before postmodernism arrived. I don’t think it’s a direct connection to him. It’s much more complicated.” Bowie, himself said, “The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from.”

One can see how the works of Christopher Isherwood influenced Bowie’s Berlin period. George Orwell’s 1984 inspired Diamond Dogs.  And it was his love of science fiction (from Michael Moorcock to Anthony Burgess to H.P. Lovecraft) that would form The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.


In an interview on NPR with Terry Gross, Bowie explained, “I think everything that I learned about stagecraft and carrying through – creating a through point for a theatrical device. I think Lindsay Kemp really introduced me to the work of Jean Genet, and through that, I kind of kept re-educating myself about other prose writers and poets. He instigated – he opened an awful lot of doors for me in terms of a new approach to what I could do. I could never have done what I did without being involved with Lindsay Kemp’s company.”

Whether it was watching movies or reading books, David Bowie would get lost in his own world within them and then translate them into his own art. And, while he preferred not to talk about himself, he would gladly talk about a great writer, such as the Japanese author Mishima (Bowie was in Tokyo when Mishima died) or Carl Jung’s The Red Book (according to the artist Tony Oursler, Bowie “was fascinated by Jung’s alternative view of channeling characters while making art”).

Bowie's books

He would jokingly refer to himself as “a born librarian with a sex drive.” When filling out the Proust Questionnaire, he answered the question “What is the quality you most like in a man?” with “The ability to return books.”

For Bowie, reading was a way to keep that sense of creation, discovery and wonder. As he said, “Once you lose that sense of wonder at being alive, you’re pretty much on the way out…”

Bowie A Life

In the preface to his book David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones writes of attending a private dinner held by Sotheby’s in Bond Street for Bowie/Collector. As each of the invited guests sat down at the table to eat, they discovered a book was carefully placed before them. Each one received one of Bowie’s favorites (everything from Frank Norris’ McTeague to John Kennedy O’Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces).

Simon Hucker wrote in The Guardian that Bowie was attracted to writers and artists who were “often outsiders or cultural refugees trying to break from their own history,” just as Bowie did.


Bowie Read



Simone Weil: Saint Of Outsiders


Weil young

All my life I have felt like an outsider, never quite fitting in wherever I was. Being an outsider can make one both extremely lonely but also allows one to identify with those on the fringes, those who are forgotten or overlooked. During my college years, while working in a bookstore, I began to read the existentialists. My favorite was Albert Camus, not only because of his writing but because he looked like a movie star in the same cool, rebel style of James Dean or Marlon Brando. It was through Camus that I discovered the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil. Not only did she have a huge influence on him (Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our time) but he meditated in her room before he went to Stockholm to accept his Nobel Prize. She also impacted feminist and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. Both attended the École Normale Supérieure where they studied philosophy and logic. Weil finished first in her final exams, while de Beuavoir came in second.  Simone de Beauvoir spoke often of her admiration for Weil’s intelligence and courage to live out truly what she believed.

Simone Weil was an unintended mystic. She clung to being an outsider and felt that she was always at the “intersection of Christianity and everything that is not Christianity.”

Waiting for God

Because of Camus, I ordered a copy of Weil’s master work Waiting for God. Reading Simone Weil’s writing was like reading no other that I’d ever read before. The breadth and width of her mind and thought was astounding and I found myself mesmerized and overwhelmed by her spiritual intellect. I was especially drawn to this passage:

“Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of that though, but on a lower level and not in contact with, the diverse knowledge we have acquired, which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as a man on a mountain, who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.”

Reading Weil, made me, for the first time, stop and consider what I gave my “attention” to.  For her thinking is a form of attention and attention is one of the deepest forms of generosity or love that one can give another, even God. As she wrote, “Absolute unmixed attention is prayer.” Attention for her is active and not passive. Prayer then is a form of active receptivity or, as she puts it, “The highest ecstasy is the attention at its fullest.” It is a focusing on reality. It is giving a deep attention to reality. Listening as a way of understanding, of forming thought, of comprehending (whether it’s listening to another person or to God). “The poet produces the beautiful,” she believed, “by fixing his attention on something real.”

In Waiting for God she writes:

“God rewards the soul that focuses on Him with attention and love, and God rewards that soul by exercising a rigorous compulsion on it, mathematically proportional to this attention and love. We must abandon ourselves to this pressure, and run to the precise point where it leads, and not a single step further, not even in the direction of what is good. At the same time, we must continue to focus on God, with ever more love and attention, and in this way obtain an even greater compulsion — to become an object of a compulsion that possesses for itself a perpetually growing portion of the soul. Once God’s compulsion possesses the whole soul, one has reached the state of perfection. But no matter what degree we reach, we must not accomplish anything beyond what we are irresistibly pressured (compelled) to do, not even in the way of good.”

Simone Weil

The more I read of Waiting for God, the more I found my own attention drawn to the figure of Simone Weil, even dreaming about her in her long cape and her beret. Of her thin face with dark eyes that seemed to stare boldly out from behind her glasses and betrayed an immense curiosity and intensity. I soon became as fascinated about her as I had Emily Dickinson (both women became spiritual touchstones in my life, as well as my own personal saints).

After I had devoured Waiting for God, I ordered a copy of Gravity and Grace.

Gravity and Grace

In it, she wrote, “Although people seem to be unaware of it today, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies…Students must therefore work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes; without any reference to their natural abilities and tastes; applying themselves equally to all their tasks, with the idea that each one will help to form in them the habit of that attention which is the substance of prayer. When we set out to do a piece of work, it is necessary to wish to do it correctly, because such a wish is indispensable in any true effort. Underlying this immediate objective, however, our deep purpose should aim solely at increasing the power of attention with a view of prayer…To make this the sole and exclusive purpose of our studies is the first condition to be observed if we are to put them to the right use.”

Now, having never been a particularly good student and one that had a hard time giving much attention to subjects that I believed to have no real use in my life (such as geometry), I struggled to connect with the idea of studying for the sole purpose of studying (particularly since schools promoted grades and academic success over the notion of learning for learning’s sake). Yet, when I was not in school, I loved to read and read widely in subjects I abhorred in school. I would read in a wide range of subjects from philosophy to science to history to natural history and language. It was only when I took the idea of attention and placed it within my own personal desire of pursuing my own curiosity about the nature of things and the workings of the universe that I could see that Weil meant about pursuing my studies as a form of prayer. It was an astounding concept to view learning about microbiology or physics or astronomy as a way of praying to God, the creator of all things. “True definition of science,” she wrote, is “the study of the beauty of the world.”

The more I read Weil’s work the more I began to see attention as a spiritual act.

I was especially enraptured and captured by this line (her most quoted):

Simone Weil quote

When we give something or someone our attention, we are giving from the deepest part of ourselves. We are offering them our focus and not being distracted by our smart phones or computers or televisions or anything else that vies for our attention. By giving someone our full attention, we are telling them that they are of the up-most importance to us.

This is even more critical when we give our full attention to someone who is suffering. “The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer,” Weil states, “is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have the capacity do not possess it.” How do we respond to human suffering? Do we give the suffering of others our full attention? Are we more willing if we know them and less likely if they are strangers? How does one pay attention to the suffering one sees around oneself when one is inundated with it all the time with constant coverage in the media? Earthquakes, hurricanes, wars, oppression, starvation, poverty?

Weil is right.

To offer the suffering our attention is a rare and difficult thing to do. “Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough,” she continues, “The love of neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through?

To offer the suffering our attention is to be filled with compassion for them, to put ourselves in their place.

“Human existence,” she said, “is so fragile a thing and exposed to such dangers that I cannot love without trembling.”

Simone Weil at table

Simone Weil aligned herself with the poor, with the oppressed and would never align herself with a political party but only with the defeated and downtrodden. “If we know in what direction the scales of a society are tilted,” she wrote, “we must do what we can to add weight to the lighter side.”

young Simone Weil

Though born into a well-off family, even as a child, she exclaimed, “I don’t like luxury!” At the age of five, she refused to eat sugar so long as soldiers at the front were unable to get any. She gave up a life of ease and worked in a factory and later as an agricultural laborer.  Weil felt at ease on the lowest rung of the social ladder. This is why Susan Sontag described her as one of the most un-compromised spirits to human travail.

Though very few knew of her upon her death at the young age of thirty-four, Simone Weil has had a huge influence since the publications of her works (overseen by Albert Camus).

In her lecture on “Why I Write” at Windham-Campbell, Patti Smith told those gathered,”I marveled as I traced Weil’s path through the halls of higher learning, rumination, revelation, revolution, and higher sacrifice.” Smith even took a pilgrimage to visit Weil’s grave in Ashford.

Nobel prize winner, Andre Gide said of Weil that she was “the best spiritual writer of the century.” The poet T.S. Eliot considered her a genius.

Among those she influenced is wide and varied: Albert Camus, Iris Murdoch, Czesław Miłosz, Flannery O’Connor, Jean Luc Godard, Anne Carson among others.


The more I read of her worked, the more I discovered how her words and thoughts were seeped with lucidity and grace as I had never encountered in a philosopher before.  I began to play closer attention to what I gave my attention to and if I was really and truly giving someone or something my full attention. When I was honest, so much of the time I was inattentive to anything outside of my own thoughts and interests. I was preoccupied and was ungenerous in giving the slightest attention to others or to the natural world around me or even to God. By reading Weil, I became aware of my inability to offer that which was most like grace to another.


“To pay attention,” wrote the poet Mary Oliver, “this is our endless and proper work.”

And it is work. Giving our full attention to someone or something-else means we have to blur our focus on ourselves and approach another without judgment or preconceptions. It is to listen and hold what they are saying to us, in words, expressions and actions. To give attention to means that one has to be present and not thinking of a million other things.

To give attention means to pay attention, to see, to be aware, to recognize and register what is there before us: whether that be a loved one, friend, or something in nature. The poet, the philosopher, the artist, the actor, the writer cannot create if they cannot see the world around them. They must pay attention. In a speech she gave, Rachel Carson said:

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race. Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.”

I began to develop my sense of wonder when I began to develop my ability to pay attention: to see the wonders of reality. And our world is filled with wonders upon wonders.

Susan Sontag echoes Weil when she writes, “Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”

And she’s right!

By giving my attention to others, I am more alive because I am more present, more connected to others and to the natural world. I am no longer isolated but attention focuses and forces me to see the interconnectedness of all things and all people.

It was Simone Weil who taught me and continues to teach me the importance of paying attention. Attention is a form of love, one of the highest forms.  It requires us to die to self, to be selfless. It requires us to empty ourselves of ourselves and give wholly to another. What greater wisdom is there than this?

Is it any wonder then that I was drawn to and influenced greatly by this saint of outsiders?

simoneweil (1)

Katherine Mansfield: The Mind Must Have Wild Places

Katherine Mansfield

In her notebooks, Katherine Mansfield wrote, “The mind I love most must have wild places, a tangled orchard where dark damsons drop in the heavy grass, an overgrown little wood, the chance of a snake or two, a pool that nobody fathomed the depth of, and paths threaded with flowers planted by the mind.”


I discovered the writing of Katherine Mansfield when I came across a paperback collection of her short stories at Goodwill. I love the watercolor cover so much and, finding out that she was a contemporary of Virginia Woolf, I gladly paid the ninety-nine cents to purchase this book.  After I finished reading this collection, I sought out any other books she had written, which, unfortunately, are very little since she died at the very young age of 34 from extrapulmonary tuberculosis.  Yet the few things I could find (short stories, letters, poems and journals) challenged not only the way short stories were written in English but also the gender roles of women. Among her friends she counted D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. Like them, she did not like the constricting confines of Edwardian life and sought a new way of living.

Katherine Mansfield at table

As she wrote in her journals, “Could we change our attitude, we should not only see life differently, but life itself would come to be different. Life would undergo a change of appearance because we ourselves had undergone a change of attitude.”

Mansfield playing cello

Her early journals are filled with feeling alienated in provincial New Zealand, especially over the oppression of the Māori people, who she portrayed in a positive light within her stories (something unheard of at that time).  At the young age of fifteen, Mansfield left the country for London to attend Queen’s College. There she discovered the work of Modernists, Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Symons, Walter Pater, Ernest Dowson and Oscar Wilde. Years later, in 1920, she would even write to her husband John Middleton Murry, about a dream she had of meeting Wilde in which he was “shabby” in “a green overcoat.” She was drawn to both the Modernists and Wilde’s “poeticization” of society through art. They wanted to break the reader from their stereotypical point of view and see things in a new light that questions their fixed set of values.

“Without passion,” she said, “one writes on the air, or on the sand of the seashore.”


“Risk anything! Care no more for the opinion of others … Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth,” she wrote in her journals. Defiant against the culture, Mansfield traveled continental Europe, wrote stories, lived a bohemian lifestyle and had love affairs with both sexes. It was while she was in Bavaria that she first encountered the work of a writer who would deeply influence her own stories: Anton Chekov. “Ach, Tchekov! Why are you dead?” she’d write,  “Why can’t I talk to you in a big darkish room at late evening—where the light is green from the waving trees outside? I’d like to write a series of Heavens: that would be one.”


Many of Mansfield stories are told from a young female’s point of view where they are most often alone, vulnerable and naïve. They tend to question their roles in society and the double standard which allows men to enjoy sexual pleasures and women to suffer the consequences.  She herself experienced this in her own life when she became involved with a young man and believed herself pregnant by him. She wrote this man repeatedly but got no reply.

NPG Ax140568; Katherine Mansfield by Lady Ottoline Morrell

She would, of course, turn to her writing as a way of coping and escape.  “To be alive and to be a ‘writer’ is enough.” Writing, for Mansfield, was a way to try on other lives. “Would you not like to try all sorts of lives – one is so very small – but that is the satisfaction of writing – one can impersonate so many people.” As The Paris Review wrote of her, “Mansfield gobbled up experiences and writing styles. She was a ventriloquist, a shape-shifter, her short stories exquisitely crafted and stylistically varied, mingling to form an oeuvre that was polyphonic and mercurial; hers was a shifting, un-pin-down-able literary sensibility that has only added to her mystique and kept her train a-rattling.”

mansfield by fence

She considered herself a writer first and then a woman. All of her life fed into her art. As she wrote, “I want so to live that I work with my hands and my feeling and my brain. I want a garden, a small house, grass, animals, books, pictures, music. And out of this, the expression of this, I want to be writing.”


Her friend and contemporary, Virginia Woolf, confessed to being jealous of Mansfield’s writing. As she wrote in her own journals, “I was jealous of her writing – the only writing I have ever been jealous of.” Mansfield’s stories like “Prelude” and “At the Bay” present fleeting impressionist glance of the common, ordinary details of daily domestic life and would influence Woolf’s on To The Lighthouse.

K Mansfield

“I adore Life. What do all the fools matter and all the stupidity. They do matter but somehow for me they cannot touch the body of Life. Life is marvelous. I want to be deeply rooted in it – to live – to expand – to breathe in it – to rejoice – to share it. To give and to be asked for Love.”

Despite her love affairs and travels, she described herself as “I am a recluse at present & do nothing but write & read & read & write.” Nothing and no one could fill her life the way that her writing did.


In December of 1917, Mansfield first developed pleurisy. A year later, she would suffer her first tubercular hemorrhage. She wrote of her declining health, “‘How unbearable it would be to die – leave “scraps”, “bits”…nothing really finished.” It was during her time of recovery in Switzerland that she would go on to write some of her best and most famous works, including “The Garden Party.”

Manfield in Switzerland

“Make it a rule of life never to regret and never to look back,” she would write, “Regret is an appalling waste of energy; you can’t build on it; it’s only good for wallowing in.” Mansfield belonged to no tribe or country or group of writers. She was unlike any other and wholly unto herself. Even to the end, Katherine Mansfield was planning a series of stories when she died in 1923. In many ways, she was fearless. As she once said, “When we begin to take our failures non-seriously, it means we are ceasing to be afraid of them.”

Mansfield, along with James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, are credited with creating a writing style that eschews the straight forward narrative in favor of finely observed inconsequential moments of everyday life. Mansfield’s writing with its intense eye for detail would go on to influence writers like Colette and Evelyn Waugh.

“I sometimes wonder whether the act of surrender is not one of the greatest of all – the highest,” she wrote, “It is one of the [most] difficult of all… You see it’s so immensely complicated. It needs real humility and at the same time, an absolute belief in one’s own essential freedom. It is an act of faith. At the last moments, like all great acts, it is pure risk. This is true for me as a human being and as a writer. Dear Heaven, how hard it is to let go – to step into the blue. And yet one’s creative life depends on it and one desires to do nothing else.”

I, for one, am thankful that Katherine Mansfield surrendered to the freedom of her writing. That, short as her life was, she left great works of art that remind all of us of the importance of living.






The Heart’s Invisible Furies


Irish novelist John Boyne is best known for his book The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. His latest, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, is his most personal and powerful. As it begins:

“Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore.”

In his tenth novel, Boyne reveals what it was like growing up gay in the Irish Catholic Church. The protagonist, Cyril Avery is born out-of-wedlock to sixteen-year-old Catherine Goggin. She moves from her village to Dublin in order to give birth to her son, who, at the age of seven, finds himself attracted to another boy who spends the night at his house. This only deepens when the two boys are fourteen and become roommates at school.

The 500 page work covers Cyril’s whole life: covering three countries and two continents. While the subject matter is often heartbreaking, Boyne is able to infuse the story with humor, deep emotions, and with vividly observed scenes that cover everything from the IRA terrorist bombings, the AIDS crisis in New York City and Ireland’s legalization of gay marriage.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a powerful story of friendship, love, pain, loss, violence, religion, politics and the desire to find peace with oneself. It really is quite an achievement.

John Boyne

John Boyne’s official website:

John Boyne

On Living A Life


If you knew you were going to die today, would you look back at the days before this one and call it a life?

It’s a question I found myself asking and thinking a great deal about. How many of us are not really living our lives so much as simply existing in them? Are we wishing our days away with, “If I could just get through . . .” this day or tomorrow or this week? Are we merely enduring? Existing and enduring are not living.  As the poet Mary Oliver asked, “Listen. Are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?”

Living a life means being present in one’s life. To seeing and making the connections that we are meant for community as well as solitude.  Living requires us to look closer: at ourselves, at nature, at others and live in awareness. For me, in my own daily routine, I try to make space for truly seeing what’s about me. It’s amazing how much delight I draw from simply admiring trees. Why? Because when I do I begin to focus on the intrinsicness of the natural world. I am drawn to such meditations when I take the time to watch birds or clouds or trees. I would argue against Socrates’ declaration that, “Trees and open country cannot teach me anything, whereas men in town do.”  He was oblivious to the ancient eloquence and wisdom that trees have.  In Australia, for instance, the Aboriginals regard the bulbous Boab Tree as sacred. These trees provided them with water, food, medicine shelter and even burial crypts for their dead.

I cannot help but think of how important the horse-chestnut tree was for Anne Frank while she and her family were in hiding. As she wrote in her diary, “Nearly every morning I go to the attic to blow the stuffy air out of my lungs, from my favorite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind . . .  As long as this exists, I thought, and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies, while this lasts I cannot be unhappy.”

W.H. Auden clearly disagreed with Socrates when he wrote, “A culture is no better than its woods.’ ”


It was a short story by Carson McCullers entitled “A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud” that made me begin this practice. In it, an old man named Leo asks a young paper boy, “Son, do you know how love should be begun?” The boy shook his head. “A tree. A rock. A cloud,” the old man tells him. He then explains, “At the time my science was begun. I meditated and I started very cautious. I would pick up something from the street and take it home with me. I bought a goldfish and I concentrated on the goldfish and I loved it. I graduated from one thing to another. Day by day I was getting this technique . . . For six years now I have gone around by myself and built up my science. And now I am a master, Son. I can love anything. No longer do I have to think about it even. I see a street full of people and a beautiful light comes in me. I watch a bird in the sky. Or I meet a traveler on the road. Everything, Son. And anybody. All stranger and all loved! Do you realize what a science like mine can mean?”

Of course the young paper boy thinks Leo is crazy, but as I read that story, I began to wonder how my own life would change to begin to love in such a way.


As Annie Dillard wrote in The Writing Life, “There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by.” How then do we come by good lives? How do we move beyond habit and schedule to encounter life itself in all of its fullness and wonder?

If we can begin to love the small, simple things (a tree, a rock, a cloud), to fully appreciate and not take for granted the beauty and necessity of nature, of how we are deeply rooted and interconnected with the natural world. Much of our loss stems from our disconnection to the land around us. We have replaced the real world with the virtual one of technology. We must lessen the grip our technology and social media has on our days in order that we might relearn the language of our environment, so that we and our children don’t lose words from their vocabulary like ferns, willows, runnel, or cirrus clouds.

Living a life means finding extraordinary pleasure in ordinary things.

I want my sons to feel dirt on their hands and river water on their skin, to hike mountains, to climb trees, to play in the rain and experience their world. But to get them to do that, I must give lead by example. To not be bound to iPods and smart phones and computers and social media. I don’t want to be trapped within the confines of technology, either. I want them to commune with nature, as I do the same.

The English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins asked, “Where lies your landmark, seamark, or soul’s star?”

What guides us in our lives? What is our North star?

Curiosity? Wonder?

Or is the desire to accumulate more money, possessions, status?

For myself, I want my family to have more experiences, not more stuff. Life, living, is not found in the striving for wealth, but in the wealth of memories formed beyond the Facebook photos that we post. Part of that is by allowing them to experience the joy and delight of

Go to a farmer’s market! Go to a museum! Go to a concert! Go to a library! Go to a park!

The key to anyplace is to be present to what it has to offer.

Not long ago, our family went to a local science museum for their insects exhibit. It was amazing to see the diversity and beauty of butterflies. We lingered over the cases, closely examining each one, marveling at the decorations of their wings, not merely ornamental but as camouflage. It made me think of the Russian novelist, Vladimir Nabokov, who was a great and passionate student of the natural world, particularly lepidopterology, even discovering and naming a new species of butterfly.

“It is astounding how little the ordinary person notices butterflies,” he once complained. The patience and focus he had in his pursuit of butterflies gave his life deeper meaning than even his writing did. “Few things indeed have I known in the way of emotion or appetite, ambition or achievement, that could surpass in richness and strength the excitement of entomological exploration. From the very first it had a great many intertwinkling facets. One of them was the acute desire to be alone, since any companion, no matter how quiet, interfered with the concentrated enjoyment or exception.”

As I looked in the cases at these wondrous specimens, I began to get a glimpse of why Nabokov loved this pursuit.


What do we find sublime joy in? In what do we take delight?

“It seems to me that we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive,” wrote George Eliot.  “There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good and we must hunger after them.”

That is one of the reason we take our sons to places like museum. We want them to hunger after that which is beautiful and good, that which is transcendent and reveals the best of humanity. We stop before different works and ask them, “What do you think the artist was trying to convey in this painting?” We never correct them but allow them to express themselves, what they see and what they think. Art is about opening a person up to the world, to seeing it differently, or just seeing it.


During last Spring, we took them to an art museum in Raleigh. There we encountered works by Rodin, Titian, Raphael, Sargent, Georgia O’Keefe and one of Joseph Cornell’s shadowboxes. I love the unexpected juxtapositions that Cornell creates and how he makes me see common objects anew.  I love that he bought the items for his shadowboxes from second-hand shops; using things others no longer wanted and translating them into art. “Look at everything as though you were seeing it for the first time,” Cornell said, “with eyes of a child, fresh with wonder.” Isn’t that a desirous way to live one’s life? Fresh and with wonder?

Sendak illustration of children dancing

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.”  Now it’s hard for me to imagine Nietzsche dancing, but it is good advice. I love watching the freedom of young children who dance in public with no concern for who is watching them or what others might think. They dance for the sheer joy of the movement.

What do we do for just the sheer delight of it?

One day I was at a stoplight and saw a man playing his French horn. And it made me so happy to see him, sitting there in his car, playing until the light changed from red to green. I loved that he had this overwhelming desire to play, that the music had to come out of him.

Do we live a life of such habit that we no longer allow for spontaneity? Is everything, including play, scheduled?

As a child, I played t-ball. Played in the abstract sense of the word. Often, I found myself distracted by clouds overhead or dandelions in the grass or simply my own thoughts. Clearly, I was not performance-driven. I’m still not. Part of that is being an introverted, daydreamer, but also it stems from a love of seeing the wonder that exists in the world around me. I have been known to stop my car when we are driving past a stream (especially in the mountains) so that we can get out, take off our socks and shoes and go stand in the water. To me, such moments have the same exhilaration of stepping into the ocean and having a wave crash into your body.


Because it reminds me that I am alive.


Go to the woods! Go to the forests! Go to the mountains! Experience the wildness. As John Muir wrote, “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”

Pause. Breathe. Pay attention.

Break free from the fragmented and hurried, the busied and unhappy. To live a life, one must let go of pretense, of simulated existence. Live fully in the moment, love unconditionally, let the beauty of this grand, wondrous world resonate deeply within oneself.  Create a life with both our inner and outer ones are richer, nurtured and nourished so that we are open to the infinite opportunities that surround us. We unfold our lives and spread them out as if they were a patchwork quilt of moments; noticing the patterns and designs of joys and sorrows, seriousness and whimsy that make a life.

Life is precious and should not be wasted and squandered. If you ask yourself my question and cannot answer that you would call your life a life, then stop and, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in the last line of “The Archaic Torso of Apollo”: You must change your life.

Live your life. Don’t endure it, or suffer through it, or hope for a better afterlife, but live this one more fully. Seize moments now because they will not come back. Take chances. Live bravely. Love fiercely. Embrace those you do love. Dream. Create. Jump in rain puddles. Dream big and then pursue those dreams because it’s not enough to just dream them. Grab a backpack and explore the world.  As the poet Jane Kenyon wrote, “If you want a different life, you gotta start doing and learning different things.”







The Art Of Empathy

Spirited Away

“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation,” said J.K. Rowling, “In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

Rowling’s hugely successful Harry Potter series had the impact it had on culture, not so much for the magical worlds it portrayed in the battle of good and evil, but because of the author’s sense of humanity and social justice that came through in all of the novels. She imbued the protagonists with a sense of the worth of all people.  How many of Ms. Rowling’s young readers grew up with their perspectives on others changed because they had read her books? How many took up causes of social justice because they saw characters like Hermione Granger doing so?

Peninsular War

Great art allows us to transcend ourselves and enter into the perspective of another person. Just think about how the painter Francisco Goya put the viewer into the emotional condition of the horrors of war in his masterpiece “The Third Of May 1808.” This monumental work would go on to inspire Pablo Picasso to paint his great piece “Guernica,”  One cannot look at Goya’s painting and not feel for the victims standing before the firing squad. With a masterful stroke, Goya painted a lantern on the ground to illuminate the men huddled together, especially the man in white, who is kneeling amidst the bodies of the men who have already been shot. As we gaze upon this work, we find ourselves connected to him and not with the soldiers aiming their guns. Our sympathy is with this simple laborer.

“Painting (like poetry),” Goya once said, “chooses from universals what is most apposite. It brings together, in a single imaginary being, circumstances and characteristics which occur in nature in many different persons.”

And he does that, his painting allows us to put ourselves into the position of the “other,” that simple laborer who’s about to die. We are taken out of our own circumstances and situations and put into his. We are transported into that moment and the deeper we study the work, the more we find ourselves wondering what we would do in just such a circumstance. Would we have the dignity and even beauty of that laborer?

In his book Culture Care, Makoto Fujimura writes, “Where does this openness to the “other” come from in artists? Some may grow out of empathy earned because artists are themselves often exiled from a normative tribal identity. There is also training to extend that empathy. In art, we constantly train ourselves to inhabit or portray the “other.” Artists learn to be adaptable and blend into an environment while not belonging to it, which also requires learning to speak new tribal languages.”

You Must Change Your Life

How much has the arts impacted and changed the way we view empathy? Rachel Corbett, in her book You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin, writes, “The invention of empathy corresponds to many of the climactic shifts in the art, philosophy and psychology of fin-de-siècle Europe, and it changed the way artists thought about their work and the way observers related to it for generations to come.” Certainly Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet helped encouraged the art of empathy. Many scholars think that empathy was a newer concept that did not begin until the early 20th century when words like the German Einfühlung  or “feeling into” was coined.

This “feeling into” or inner feeling was the capacity for is what Charles Darwin wrote about in his book Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. In it, he stated that, “from the power of the imagination and of sympathy we put ourselves in the position of the sufferer.” Therefore, “feeling into” is an individual allowing themselves to feel the emotional state, or taking on the perspective, of another.


In “Song of Myself,” the poet Walt Whitman said, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” Whitman, who had been a journalist, was drawn into the Civil War after going to the front in Virginia to find his wounded brother, George. After seeing firsthand the suffering the war was causing, he volunteered in hospitals; where he assisted doctors and nurses, as well as comforted patients. During his time of volunteer service, he said of the poetry he would write, “I’ll pour the verse with streams of blood, full of volition, full of joy.” Later, he would note in his journal that being around these wounded soldiers restored his faith in humanity and all of the poetry he wrote after the war reflected the nobility and ideals he saw in these young men. Of one of the victims that he saw, Whitman wrote “A Sight in Camp,” which contained the line, “Young man, I think this face of yours the face of my dead Christ!”

In an essay entitled “The Great Army of the Sick,” which was published in the New York Times, Whitman wrote, “A  benevolent person, with the right qualities and tact cannot make a better investment of himself, at present, anywhere upon the varied surface of the whole of this big world, than in these military hospitals, among such thousands of most interesting young men. It is enough to make one’s heart crack.”

Walt Whitman would use his writing skills both in essays and poetry to show the compassion needed to tend to these broken men, as well as to celebrate their humanity during one of the darkest times this country had known.


Author Neil Gaiman said, “Fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gifts of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.” Writing pulls the reader into the psyche of another person and lets the reader see the world through their eyes, their perspective.

The power of great art is the power of deep empathy. Taking from their own lives, their own memories or their own cultures, novelists and poets and painters draw from the well of human experience and transform that into words or images that do not allow us to go unmoved. They require us to give of ourselves: to think and question and feel and connect. As the English novelist E. M. Forster wrote, “Only connect.”

One cannot help but think of how a novel like Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe shed light on the horrors of slavery and furthered the abolitionist cause of the North. Or Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in its depiction of how a tribal society falls apart with the arrival of Christian missionaries and the impact of colonialism on culture and identity. One cannot be changed in one’s attitude towards race by the powerful works of Toni Morrison, whose Beloved puts one in the position of seeing the legacy of slavery through the eyes of a runaway slave who would sooner cut the throat of her infant daughter rather than allow her to be a slave.


One cannot look at the photographs of Dorothea Lange and not connect with her subjects and the suffering that they are enduring because of the Depression and the Dust Bowl. Her photos have the ability to capture the essence and the emotion of that moment in such a way that no other art form could. “The camera,” she once said, “is an instrument that teaches people to see without a camera.” Because she focuses her camera on a particular subject, the person viewing the photograph now sees through her lens, on what she was drawn to and, thereby, draws us in with her. Great photography captures a moment in time and holds it still, as well as holding it up, for us to take notice of.

The photographer has a great responsibility to his or her subject. They must present them in a way that is both honest and empathetic.  To capture someone in a moment of pain and suffering, the artist must be their advocate, to use their craft to present this sorrow and, by capturing it, ask the viewer, “What are you going to do to alleviate further suffering?” The photographer is giving voice to the suffering of others.

Art allows a transaction between artist and the person who is viewing the painting or photograph or reading the poem or novel to have their world view broadened. The artist’s goal is to expand the empathy of their audience, to introduce them to new points of view and perspectives they may not have considered before. Sometimes this requires shocking them, such as Upton Sinclair writing about the harsh conditions and the exploitation of immigrants in the meat-packing industry in his novel The Jungle.

Empathy requires equality: both on the part of the artist and the audience. Both must identify with the other until the other is no longer that, but is simply a human like ourselves. Great art puts us in a different social context. Artists must be the voice of the people, especially those whose voices are not heard (as John Steinbeck did in The Grapes of Wrath or Elie Wiesel in Night). Empathy works on our moral sensibilities. Whether or not we allow these works to change us is up to us, but after we encounter them, we can no longer pretend that we did not see the suffering of another.  As the German artist Käthe Kollwitz once said, “It is my duty to voice the sufferings of people, the sufferings that never end and are as big as mountains.”

Art connects us deeply to the subjects of those works, as well as the artist who created them and to our own humanity.  Empathy created by art removes any nature of isolationism because it forces us to see others and when we see their suffering, we are moved to act. It is in that action that we find healing.


Czeslaw Milosz: A Poet’s Language On Doubt & Belief

Japanese prayer

On Prayer

Czeslaw Milosz

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are left aloft, as on a springboard
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun
That velvet bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word is
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice: I say we: there, every one, separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh
And knows that if there is no other shore
We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.

Nobel Prize winning poet and essayist, Czeslaw Milsoz, wrote some of the most searching and challenging religious poetry of the modern century. For every supposed answer, there comes yet another question for the poet. Along with Christian imagery, his poems cover prayer, the afterlife, theology and the Bible. In his poem “How It Should Be In Heaven,” he writes, “I understand nothing about God, religion, salvation, even ethics. This is too difficult for me.” And, yet, in his essay “If Only This Could Be Said,” Milosz says, ” I must ask if I believe that the four Gospels tell the truth. My answer to this is yes. So I believe in an absurdity, that Jesus rose from the dead? Just answer without any of those evasions and artful tricks employed by theologians: Yes or no? I answer, Yes, and by that response I nullify death’s omnipotence.

In 1982, Milsoz wrote an article in New Republic entitled simply “Catholicism.” In it he says:

“The division of people into believers and nonbelievers has always made me somewhat uneasy because it assumes a qualitative leap, a different substance for the “believer” and the “nonbeliever.” I suspect, a few exceptions aside, that we are dealing here with a decision, a will to belief or disbelief, resting on considerations which, relative to the heart of the matter, are rather secondary, and also that the imagination of those who attend mass every Sunday is no different from that of those who never set foot inside a church.”

Later, writing about Christ, he adds:

“There is the warm, human presence of a God who took on flesh in order to experience our hunger and our pain, so we would not be doomed to strain our eyes upward but could be nourished by words spoken by lips like our own. And the God-man is not one of us in our moments of pride and glory but one of us in misfortune, in slavery, and in the fear of death. The hour when he agreed to accept suffering conquers time; centuries of change and passing civilizations are insignificant and short-lived, and no wasteland of cement, glass, and metal will make man different from those men Christ addressed in Galilee. He still has the right to proclaim: I am love.”

“Mystery compels humble submission to an authority that derives its power from the will of God, but the mind wavers between resignation and the hope that there is some path that leads into the heart of the fortress.”

Even Milosz’s study, with its overflow of books reflected, his spiritual search: numerous translations of the Bible,  ”Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon,” ”The Septuagint and Apocrypha” in Greek and English, The ”Jerome Biblical Commentary,” Kierkegaard’s ”Stages on Life’s Way,” ”Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible.”

Czeslaw Milosz

In is poem “Onaangepast,” Milosz states:

“I was not meant to live anywhere except in Paradise.
Such, simply, was my genetic inadaptation.
Here on earth every prick of a rose-thorn changed into a wound. When the sun hid behind a cloud, I grieved.
I pretended to work like others from morning to evening, but I was absent, dedicated to invisible countries.”

When asked to define poetry, he replied, “I have defined poetry as a ‘passionate pursuit of the Real.”

It becomes obvious from his poetry and essays, that Milosz was a seeker. He was unsure, questioning and a pilgrim of inconsistency. He was orthodoxy and unorthodoxy, belief and unbelief. As he described himself, “I am composed of contradictions, which is why poetry is a better form for me than philosophy.” All of this skepticism stemmed from his taking faith seriously, of digging deeper, of understanding that questioning was not a sign of doubt as much as it was an inability to simply take something at face value. He confronted his questions head on, not keeping silent before God.

“Calm down,” he wrote, “both your sins and your good deeds will be lost in oblivion.”



Upon Encountering A Heron


My  younger son and I came upon the heron in the shade of a tree, standing still and silent like a monk. Being there, in his presence, to witness him, was somehow sacred. We felt as if we had been invited into the grace that we too often miss in the hectic busyness of our days. But to be there, to be present, and to stand there in acknowledgement of this magnificent bird’s existence, was to witness the holy.

Standing on his long, thin legs, the heron was motionless. The gracefulness of his curved neck, smoke-colored wings and that large yellow eye with the black pupil, centered like an island, took our breath away no less than if we came upon a great sculpture by Rodin before us.

My son and I stopped and knelt as if we were before an emperor or in a temple. We became as still as the heron.  To be there, in this state, was like meditation. The three of us, together, in this spot, on one of the last days of summer was perfect.


Watching this heron, I could understand why the Egyptians considered herons to be sacred. They saw them as being linked with the sun, creation and rebirth. I imagined this one flying over the waters of creation before landing on a rock and issuing a call that determined the nature of creation.

The Greeks believed the herons were messengers of the gods, as did the Celts. In India, the people believe that if a heron lands on your house it signals good fortune. For the Chinese, the heron represents strength, purity and long life.

white heron

Watching this heron, I could see that there is, indeed, something noble about how the he carries himself, as if this were his kingdom and we his subjects.

As we sat there, simply watching, we felt a sense of peace in the quiet reflection of the water and the shade of the tree. It is when we stop and do nothing more than being in that present moment, that neither my son nor I felt anxiety or worry. We were not thinking about what might happen or what we needed to do. There was no other thought but to see and to be.  We did as the Buddha once taught, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”

white heron

I could not help but think of Mary Oliver’s most famous poem “The Summer Day” with its lines of:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Right there, in the presence of that heron, the only answer to that question was what we were doing and nothing more. To have this was precious. Neither my son nor I took it for granted nor did we want to leave.  Yet it was not our decision to make, but the heron’s. As if he understood, he slowly moved away from us, into the waters of the pond to let us know we were dismissed, that we were to return to our own lives just as he was his. And, while we did, my son and I both knew that in some small way, we were transformed.

Buddha quote


Deepening The Mystery

Dali shipThe philosopher Francis Bacon once said that, “The job of the artist is to always deepen the mystery.” When I read this, I was delighted and loved the notion of the artist using their craft (be it a painter, musician, writer, poet, filmmaker, dancer, composer) to do more than just create, entertain, or make art for art’s sake; but to view it as a kind of calling – the deep calling to deep. To heed that call and to strive to both illuminate but to reveal that the mystery can never truly be plumbed to its deepest depths. No matter how much we know or think we know, there is still so much more that remains mystery.

Think of the universe. 98% of the universe remains unknown to us. 95% of our ocean is still unexplored. Neuroscientists say we don’t understand 90% of how the human brain functions. There is so much about us and around us that is shrouded in mystery yet waiting to be discovered or uncovered.

The artist, scientist, philosopher, theologian all stand there at the edge of mystery. All are filled with questions about that which is unobserved, unfathomed and unknown; whether that’s in our universe, our world, or ourselves. They are trying to catch a glimpse of an answer, snatching pieces of wisdom, but never fully its whole cloak, only bits of the hem.

Carl Sagan wrote in his book Cosmos, “Every aspect of Nature reveals a deep mystery and touches our sense of wonder and awe… those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where it differs profoundly from their wishes and prejudices, will penetrate its deepest mysteries.”

Miro painting

Mystery is vast and awesome. It is overwhelming and, in its grandeur, humbles us into awe. Awe and wonder is the basis of all great art, philosophy, theology and wisdom. It is what draws us into the question, into the territory of the unknown. While many are uncomfortable with mystery, artists are not. They approach the immeasurable and see it, not as something to fearfully withdraw from, but as something that expands and. at the same time makes them vulnerable. To stand before mystery does that: makes one vulnerable because there is so much that is not known, is not understood or grasped. Art cannot declare, but suggests. It allows us to see anew, to get a fresh perspective and to ask questions. Art requires both the artist and the viewer or reader or listener to stay awake, to stay present. As the Surrealist René Magritte said, “Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.”


An artist must remain wide open to possibility. They cannot create from a place where they believe they have the answers, but only from where they have questions. They must ask again and again, “Why?” or “What would happen if…?”  It is a struggling with, a wrestling with mystery through paint or words or musical notes or film. Often the more personal an artist’s work is, the more universal it becomes. Whether it’s a memoir by Mary Kerr, the music of Peter Gabriel, the poetry of Sylvia Plath, the novels of Marcel Proust, the paintings of Frida Kahlo, or a film like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.  “All important things in art,” wrote German Expressionist Max Beckmann, “have always originated from the deepest feeling about the mystery of Being.”

Artists reach the “deepest feeling about the mystery of Being” by examining their own lives (physical, subconscious and conscious) and transforming the pain, the joy, the loss, the love and death into a play, a poem, a painting, a symphony (such as Gustav Mahler’s Ninth, written after witnessing the death of his daughter), a film, or a novel. One cannot see the visual metaphors of a Frida Kahlo’s paintings and not grasp the physical suffering that she endured from having polio, having been in a serious bus accident (in fact she taught herself to paint during her recuperation), as well as her declining health.   In her diary she wrote, ““I paint self-portraits, because I paint my own reality. I paint what I need to. Painting completed my life. I lost three children and painting substituted for all of this. I am not sick, I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.” In her work is a great artist approaching the mystery of suffering; painting was a catharsis that released her suffering and pain into something magical and transcendent.

Frida Kahlo

In his autobiography My Last Sigh, Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel wrote, “All my life I’ve been harassed by questions: Why is something this way and not another? How do you account for that? This rage to understand, to fill in the blanks, only makes life more banal. If we could only find the courage to leave our destiny to chance, to accept the fundamental mystery of our lives, then we might be closer to the sort of happiness that comes with innocence.” From his early Surrealist films that he made with Salvador Dali to his later works, Buñuel approached mystery through imagery, as all great filmmakers do. Whether it’s the existential absurdity of guests at a dinner party who find themselves unable to leave, a widower’s love and desire for a woman (played by two women to show that the man does not even see her clearly; in fact there are scenes in which the actresses switch roles showing how interchangeable each is to this man’s lust), or the surreality of pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela but end up time-traveling as Buñuel takes on religion.

The Color of Pomegranates

Because so much of film relies on imagery, it opens up the possibilities of how an artist can explore mystery. One cannot help but think of a movie like Sergei Paranjanov’s The Color of Pomegranates in its complete use of some of the most amazing imagery in cinema to portray the life of the Armenian poet Sayat-Nova. Paranjanov approached this as a visual poem, using chapters of active tableaux to poetically show the live of Sayat-Nova. While there are some sounds and singing, dialogue is sparse. The director stated that the inspiration for the visuals “the Armenian illuminated miniatures. I wanted to create that inner dynamic that comes from inside the picture, the forms and the dramaturgy of colour.” What the viewer gets is a masterpiece of elusive imagery, that appears magical and mysterious.

The Mirror

Another such enigmatic film is Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s loosely autobiographical film The Mirror. With its unconventional structure, dream-like imagery and poems read by the director’s father, the poet Arseny Tarkovsky, the narrative flows organically, like memory.  Because the movie unfolds in a nonlinear fashion, moving backwards and forwards in time, it is rich in symbolic, oneiric visuals. He juxtaposes his own memories with those of others (such as his mother’s, who is a dominant figure in this film). As he wrote in Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky stated, “We can express our feelings regarding the world around us either by poetic or by descriptive means. I prefer to express myself metaphorically. Let me stress: metaphorically, not symbolically. A symbol contains within itself a definite meaning, certain intellectual formula, while metaphor is an image. An image possessing the same distinguishing features as the world it represents. An image — as opposed to a symbol — is indefinite in meaning. One cannot speak of the infinite world by applying tools that are definite and finite. We can analyse the formula that constitutes a symbol, while metaphor is a being-within-itself, it’s a monomial. It falls apart at any attempt of touching it.”

Tarkovsky isn’t interested in simply telling a story, but in portraying an emotional, spiritual and intellectual experience through imagery. He uses film as a language to approach mystery in all its forms (memory, dreams, poetry, autobiography), a manipulation of time to portray a reality that is deeper because, as an artist, he is awake to the power of the ordinary. As he wrote, “Anyone who wants can look at my films as into a mirror, in which he will see himself.” He sees the viewer not as a mere consumer, but as a spiritual being and that art “only has the capacity, through shock and catharsis, to make the human soul receptive to good.” It is to express what he views as the true meaning of life “love and sacrifice.” Film represents reality reaching towards an ideal, beyond hopelessness, to faith and hope to the beauty of existence that is so often unseen.

Komunyakaa graphics

The poet Yusef Komunyakaa said in an interview with The Telegraph, “Poetry helps me understand who I am. It helps me understand the world around me. But above all, what poetry has taught me is the fact that I need to embrace mystery in order to be completely human.”  Poetry is about mastery and mystery. The precise, beautiful language of a poem can open our eyes with piercing clarity to the sparks of the world around and within us. Komunyakaa uses autobiographical details, the rhythms of jazz, the vernacular language of the everyday, that are achingly real and philosophical. So much of his poetry dwells in the half-remembered, half-imagined worlds of his own life and folklore. His childhood was dominated by a father who believed in a strong work ethic and that “the acquisition of property was a way to a certain kind of salvation.”  But that was not where the poet found his own redemption. “There were two escapes,” he said. “One was penetrating the physical landscape and daring that landscape to teach me something. And the other was reading and dreaming myself away from Louisiana. And both of those sort of collided in my psyche to create, perhaps, poetry”. The real and imagined world “collided” to form his poetry and in that is the embracing of mystery. Both the real and unreal, the unconscious and the instinctive that resides in humanity. Komunyakaa understands what another poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, when Lorca wrote, “Only mystery allows us to live. Only mystery.”

All great art should deepen the mystery. We live in a world that exists in a universe of billions of stars: a universe that seems infinite and unfathomable. Creativity and art is a pursuing of that glorious mystery. Artists are driven by curiosity and wonder to spend time in that mystery, to understand just a fragment, but to come away aware and alive. The painter Joan Miro once said, “The painting rises from the brushstrokes as a poem rises from the words. The meaning comes later.” Painters and poets create from the mystery that lies deep within their hearts. They put to canvas or paper the colors and words of truth, not fact. It is to embrace radical mystery, to be rooted in it and to know that our seemingly ordinary, unmysterious lives are not so; that they are filled with the extraordinary and mysterious wonders that cause William Blake to see a tree filled with angels or Van Gogh to see the swirling, spiraled nebula of The Starry Night.  May we, as we view their art, read their poetry or novels, watch their films, or listen to their music, may we, too, embrace the deepening of mystery.

The Poet In The World

Denise Levertov

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


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

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

Her answer:

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

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

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


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

How did Levertov write so prolifically and so profoundly?

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

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

Denise Levertov

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

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

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


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

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

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

A gratitude
had begun
to sing in me.

Was there
some moment
song from no song?

When does dewfall begin?

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

When is daybreak?”

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

Levertov in chair

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

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

Levertov photo

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

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

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