Tuesday, September 16, 2014

BREAKING THE DEAD SHELL OF YESTERDAYS

Morning Sun Breaking Through the Trees on The Hill Behind My House

                                                 A Morning Offering
                                                  by John O'Donohue

                                 I bless the night that nourished by heart
                                 To set the ghosts of longing free
                                 Into the flow and figure of dream
                                 That went to harvest from the dark
                                 Bread for the hunger no one sees.

                                 All that is eternal in me
                                 Welcomes the wonder of this day,
                                 The field of brightness it creates
                                 Offering time for each thing
                                 To arise and illuminate.

                                 I place on the altar of dawn:
                                 The quiet loyalty of breath,
                                 The tent of thought where I shelter,
                                 Waves of desire I am shore to
                                 And all beauty drawn to the eye.

                                 May my mind come alive today
                                 To the invisible geography
                                 That crosses me to new frontiers,
                                 To break the dead shell of yesterdays,
                                 To risk being disturbed and changed.

                                 May I have the courage today
                                 To live the life that I would love,
                                 To postpone my dream no longer
                                 But do at last what I came here for
                                 And waste by heart on fear no more.


From John O'Donohue's To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (Doubleday, 2008).


Thursday, September 11, 2014

VERMEER: IN LOVE WITH LIGHT

Girl With a Pearl Earring
Jan Vermeer
c. 1665-1667


As one who loves both good poetry and fine paintings, it was a great pleasure to recently discover Howard Nemerov's insightful poem on the great Dutch painter Jan Vermeer (1632-1675).     Having died at the early age of only forty-two, Vermeer did not produce a great volume of paintings.  The ones that have been preserved, however, are generally extraordinary.

While I'm drawn to Vermeer's paintings for several reasons, I will mention only the most important here, namely, his extraordinary understanding and treatment of light. It is one thing to see the transformational power of light coming from a certain angle; it's quite another thing to be able to capture it on canvas.  In this respect, Vermeer is rightly considered an absolute master.

Below are five Vermeer paintings that provided some of the inspiration for Nemerov's fine poem.  If you look closely at each of these paintings, especially at the use of light to define the moods of the characters and the scenes, I think you find a special resonance in the poem.


The Geographer
Jan Vermeer
c. 1668-1669



Girl With a Red Hat
Jan Vermeer
c. 1665-1667


Woman in Blue Reading Letter
Jan Vermeer
c. 1662-1665



Woman Holding a Balance
Jan Vermeer
c. 1622-1665


                                                            Vermeer
                                                   by Howard Nemerov

                                    Taking what is, and seeing it as it is,
                                    Pretending to no heroic stances or gestures,
                                    Keeping it simple; being in love with light
                                    And the marvelous things that light is able to do,
                                    How beautiful! a modesty which is
                                    Seductive extremely, the care of daily things.

                                    At one for once with sunlight falling through
                                    A leaded window, the holy mathematic
                                    Plays out the cat's cradle of relation
                                    Endlessly; even the inexorable
                                    Domesticates itself and becomes charm.

                                    If I could say to you, and make it stick,
                                    A girl in a red hat, a woman in blue
                                    Reading a letter, the lady weighing gold . . .
                                    If I could say this to you so you saw,
                                    And knew, and agreed that this was how it was
                                    In a lost city across the sea of years, 
                                    I think we should be for one moment happy
                                    In the great reckoning of those little rooms
                                    Where the weight of life has been lifted and made light,
                                    Or standing invisible on the shore opposed,
                                    Watching the water in the foreground dream
                                    Reflectively, taking a view of Delft
                                    As it was, under a wide and darkening sky.



View of Delft
Jan Vermeer
c. 1660-1661



I love these opening lines by Nemerov: "Taking what is, and seeing it as it is, pretending to no heroic stances of gestures, keeping it simple; being in love with light . . ."  Great advice not only for painting, but for life itself.



Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A CURIOUS RACE

 Ant in Flower
Photo by Jens Buurgaard Nielsen
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For many decades, beginning in the early seventies, I walked around with ten to fifteen memorized poems in my head.  Generally, these were poems that sustained me through the challenges of life, and I simply enjoyed having them always available to me, whatever the place or circumstances.  I felt then, as I do now, that quiet reflection upon a poem that I "know by heart" is a rewarding form of meditation that can deepen my understanding of both the poem and myself.

Most of the memorized poems that I carried around in my head during those years provided valuable insights or inspiration for my personal journey — e.g., Tennyson's Ulysses.  There was one poem, however — Departmental, by Robert Frost —  that I memorized for the simple reason that I loved its rhyming structure,  its musicality, its lighthearted humor, and its sheer entertainment value.  The poem offers more, however, than a delightful and entertaining structure.  While it is ostensibly an observation of the "curious race" of ants, it is also a reflection on the societal traits of another curious race, namely, the human race.  

Read the poem and see what you think.  For what it's worth, I find it very satisfying to read this particular poem out loud.  

                                                     Departmental
                                                     by Robert Frost

                                             An ant on the tablecloth
                                             Ran into a dormant moth
                                             Of many times his size.
                                             He showed not the least surprise.
                                             His business wasn't with such.
                                             He gave it scarcely a touch,
                                             And was off on his duty run.
                                             Yet if he encountered one
                                             Of the hive's enquiry squad
                                             Whose work is to find out God
                                             And the nature of time and space,
                                             He would put him onto the case.
                                             Ants are a curious race;
                                             One crossing with hurried tread
                                             The body of one of their dead
                                             Isn't given a moment's arrest —
                                             Seems not even impressed.
                                             But he no doubt reports to any 
                                             With whom he crosses antennae, 
                                             And they no doubt report
                                             To the higher-up at court.
                                             Then word goes forth in Formic:
                                             "Death's come to Jerry McCormic,
                                             Our selfless forager Jerry.
                                             Will the special Janizary
                                             Whose office it is to bury
                                             The dead of the commissary
                                             Go bring him home to his people.
                                             Lay him in state on a sepal.
                                             Wrap him for shroud in a petal.
                                             Embalm him with ichor of nettle.
                                             This is the word of your Queen."
                                             And presently on the scene
                                             Appears a solemn mortician;
                                             And taking formal position,
                                             With feelers calmly atwiddle,
                                             Seizes the dead by the middle,
                                             And heaving him high in the air,
                                             Carries him out of there.
                                             No one stands round to stare.
                                             It's nobody else's affair.

                                             It couldn't be called ungentle,
                                             But how thoroughly departmental.



Tuesday, September 9, 2014

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MR. TOLSTOY

Tolstoy and His Grandchildren
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Today is the 186th birthday of the great Russian novelist, essayist, playwright, and philosopher, Leo Tolstoy.  It's fitting, therefore, that we remember a few samples of the wisdom he left for us.  Enjoy. 

If, then, I were asked for the most important advice I could give, that which I considered to be the most useful to men of our century, I should simply say:  in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.  ~ Essays, Letters and Miscellanies

* * * * * 

A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one's neighbor — such is my idea of happiness. ~ Family Happiness
* * * * * 

All the diversity, all the charm,  and all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow. ~ From Anna Karenina
* * * * * 


Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.
* * * * * 


All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.
* * * * * 

What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are but how you deal with incompatibility.
* * * * *  

The strongest of all warriors are these two — Time and Patience.
* * * * * 

Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be. ~ Anna Karenina 
* * * * *  

He soon felt that the fulfillment of his desires gave him only one grain of the mountain of happiness he had expected.  This fulfillment showed him the eternal error men make in imagining that their happiness depends on the realization of their desires. ~ Anna Karenina
* * * * *

There is something in the human spirit that will survive and prevail, there is a tiny and  brilliant light burning in the heart of a man that will not go out no matter how dark the world becomes. 

Such great wisdom from Tolstoy.  As always, however, I prefer wisdom to be served with a side of humor.  Accordingly, I leave this parting quote for all those (like me) who have yet to completely read War and Peace:

I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes.  It involves Russia.
Woody Allen 
 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

BECOMING SKY AND MOON


Evening Landscape With Rising Moon
Van Gogh
Painted in Saint-Remy, France, 1889



                                                        QUIETNESS
                                                           by Rumi

                                      Inside this new love, die.
                                      Your way begins on the other side.
                                      Become the sky.
                                      Take an axe to the prison wall.
                                      Escape.
                                      Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
                                      Do it now.
                                      You're covered with thick cloud.
                                      Slide out the side.  Die,
                                      and be quiet.  Quietness is the surest sign
                                      that you've died.
                                      Your old life was a frantic running 
                                      from silence.

                                      The speechless full moon 
                                      comes out now.

                                Translation from Persian by Coleman Barks

Friday, September 5, 2014

ON TO ITHAKA, FEARLESSLY


Some poems are best read — or reread — later in life.  A recent example for me is Cavafy's "Ithaka." Perhaps like me, others will find something in this poem that resonates with their own individual journeys.  


Ithaka

by C.P. Cavafy


                              As you set out for Ithaka
                              hope your road is a long one,
                              full of adventure, full of discovery.
                              Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
                              angry Poseidon — don't be afraid of them:
                              you'll never find things like that on your way
                              as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
                              as long as a rare excitement
                              stirs your spirit and body.
                              Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
                              wild Poseidon — you won't encounter them
                              unless you bring them along inside your soul,
                              unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

                              Hope your road is a long one.
                              May there be many summer mornings when,
                              with what pleasure, what joy,
                              you enter harbors you're seeing for the first time,
                              may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
                              to buy fine things,
                              mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
                              sensual perfume of every kind —
                              as many sensual perfumes as you can;
                              and may you visit many Egyptian cities
                              to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

                              Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
                              Arriving there is what you're destined for.
                              But don't hurry the journey at all.
                              Better if it lasts for years,
                              so you're old by the time you reach the island,
                              wealthy with all you've gained along the way,
                              not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
                              Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
                              Without her you wouldn't have set out.
                              She has nothing left to give you now.

                              And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
                              Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
                              you'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.


For those wondering about the relevance of the header photo of a Painted Lady butterfly to Cavafy's "Ithaka," I can only say that both cause me to reflect deeply on the riches of our fleeting journeys through life.  The Painted Lady has a lifespan of only two to four weeks, and I, of course, have been given many years.  May we both make it to Ithaka eventually, learning and leaving something worthwhile along the way.

P.S.  My friend, Teresa, has called my attention to a video on Youtube of Sean Connery reading Cavafy's "Ithaka," accompanied by music and images.  I highly recommend it.  For some reason, I have difficulty uploading workable links to Youtube.  I found it, however, by just going to the Youtube site and searching "Sean Connery Ithaka."  Enjoy.

Cavafy's poem, "Ithaka," translated from the Greek by Edmund Keeley and Phillip Sherrard

Sunday, August 31, 2014

SOMETHING OF THE MARVELOUS


In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.

Aristotle



Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth
find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.

Rachel Carlson



Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty.  It expands
through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.

Aldo Leopold



I think one of the most exciting things is this feeling of mystery,
feeling of awe, the feeling of looking at a little live thing and being amazed by it
 and how it has emerged through these hundreds of years of evolution and there it is perfect and why.

Jane Goodall



I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man
if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature
and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.

E.B. White



Our task must be to free ourselves . . .
by widening our circle of compassion to embrace
all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.

Einstein



Happiness,
not in another place, but this place . . .
not for another hour, but this hour.

Walt Whitman



The poetry of the earth is never dead.

Keats