Thursday, August 11, 2016

SHIFTING AESTHETICS



I don't know why I find myself attracted to old, abandoned houses, but I do. Perhaps it's my admiration for the wabi-sabi aesthetic of finding beauty in what architect Leonard Koren has described as things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. There may also be something else at work here — a sense of profound sadness that these myriad decaying structures once sheltered people with hope, unnoticed dreamers who struggled valiantly but finally succumbed to the harsh realities of life. Whatever the case, I look upon these old places much as William Carlos Williams does in his nostalgic poem Pastoral (When I Was Younger).  I continue to find beauty in whatever life remains,  whether it be the "properly weathered" colors of old wood or the changing angles of a leaking roof that will surely collapse in time, but which is holding its own today.  As Williams concludes in his poem, these things may not be "of vast import to the nation," but they always deserve our attention, for they remind us that most things — even our own lives — continue to yield beauty, even as they surrender to the ravages of time.



                                          Pastoral (When I was younger)
                                               by William Carlos Williams


                                              When I was younger
                                              it was plain to me
                                              I must make something of myself.
                                              Older now
                                              I walk back streets
                                              admiring the houses
                                              of the very poor:
                                              roof out of line with sides
                                              the yards cluttered
                                              with old chicken wire, ashes,
                                              furniture gone wrong:
                                              the fences and the outhouses
                                              built of barrel staves
                                              and parts of boxes, all,
                                              if I am fortunate, 
                                              smeared a bluish green
                                              that properly weathered
                                              pleases me best of all colors.
                                              No one
                                              will believe this
                                              of vast import to the nation.


From The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: 1909-1939



Friday, August 5, 2016

LIKE A GARDEN LOOKED AT FROM A GATE



What is this nebulous thing we call "hope," and where do we find it?  Throughout history, many great writers and thinkers have chosen to view hope through the cold lens of logic.  Shakespeare suggested that hope exists only because "the miserable have no other medicine."  Nietzsche took it a step further, proclaiming that "hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs man's torments." 

I'm inclined, however, to side with those who see the positive side of hope, people like Norman Cousins who recognized that "hope is independent of the apparatus of logic."  Maybe Samuel Johnson came closest to expressing the truth when he observed that "hope itself is a species of happiness, and, perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords . . ."

So how do we find and keep hope?  Hints to the answer can be found in this poem by Czeslaw Milosz, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature: 


                                                        Hope
                                             by Czeslaw Milosz

                            Hope is with you when you believe
                            The earth is not a dream but living flesh,
                            That sight, touch, and hearing do not lie,
                            That all things you have ever seen here
                            Are like a garden looked at from a gate.

                            You cannot enter.  But you're sure it's there.
                            Could we but look more clearly and wisely
                            We might discover somewhere in the garden
                            A strange new flower and an unnamed star.

                            Some people say we should not trust our eyes,
                            That there is nothing, just a seeming,
                            These are the ones who have no hope.
                            They think that the moment we turn away,
                            The world, behind our backs, ceases to exists,
                            As if snatched up by the hands of thieves.






Wednesday, August 3, 2016

MINDFULNESS: "NEXT TIME" OR NOW


The present moment is filled with joy and happiness.  
If you are attentive, you will see it.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Learning to live more mindfully, by which I mean living in the moment and paying attention to whatever is present, has led many people to achieve greater peace and happiness in their lives.  This has been my experience as well.  When I clear my chatterbox mind of thoughts about the past or future, I inevitably find that there is vibrant, meaningful life in the mere act of being alive and being present with whatever is before me.  It is in the present moment, and only the present moment, that we hear distant birdsong, feel the wind on our faces, witness the magical unfolding of life in all of its glorious forms.

While I'm not inclined to spend a lot of time on regrets — that allows the past to steal the  present moment — I have often wondered if my earlier life would have been different if I had known then what I know now, particularly with respect to the value of living mindfully.  Of course, one can never know the answer to questions like this. Still, it's interesting to contemplate, as William Stafford does in this lovely poem.



                                                          Next Time
                                                    by William Stafford

                                       Next time what I'd do is look at
                                       the earth before saying anything.  I'd stop
                                       just before going into a house
                                       and be an emperor for a minute
                                       and listen better to the wind  
                                            or to the air being still.

                                       When anyone talked to me, whether
                                       blame or praise or just passing time,
                                       I'd watch the face, how the mouth
                                       has to work, and see any strain, any
                                       sign of what lifted the voice.

                                       And for all, I'd know more—the earth
                                       bracing itself and soaring, the air
                                       finding every leaf and feather over
                                       forest and water, and every person
                                       the body glowing inside the clothes
                                            like a light.


Friday, July 29, 2016

MORNING WALKS, TIMELESS WISDOM

Never say there is nothing beautiful 
in the world anymore.  There is always something
to make you wonder in the shape of a tree, the trembling of a leaf.

Albert Schweitzer

I took another walk this morning through the 300-acre South Carolina Botanical Garden, which, to my good fortune, is located less than half an hour from my house. As I had done in recent days, I took my camera and was primarily focused on capturing images of some of the butterflies that are abundant in this area this during July and August.  As I finished taking photos of the butterflies and began returning to my car, I turned around and saw these wonderful green, oval leaves that were backlit by the sun.  It was a truly magical moment, one of those luminous moments in which time seems to be literally suspended.  After a few minutes of absorbing what I was seeing, I shot the header photo, which turned out to be my favorite image of the day. 

Here are some of the other images I've taken in recent days — mostly butterflies and moths, but also a few flowers along the way.  I've also added some insightful words from others who, like me, find nature to be a perennial source of beauty, contentment, and joy. 


I only ask to be free.
The butterflies are free.
Mankind will surely not deny to Harold Skimpole
what it concedes to the butterflies.

Charles Dickens
Bleak House



Happiness is like a butterfly:
the more you chase it, the more it will elude you,
but if you turn your attention to other things, 
it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.

Henry David Thoreau



It seems to me that the natural world
is the greatest source of excitement; 
the greatest source of visual beauty;
the greatest source of intellectual interest.
It is the greatest source
 of so much in life that makes life worth living.

David Attenborough



Deep in their roots, 
all flowers keep the light.

Theodore Roethke



Butterflies are self propelled flowers.

R.H. Heinlein



My soul can find no staircase to Heaven
unless it be through Earth's loveliness.

Michelangelo



I embrace emerging experience.
I participate in discovery.
I am a butterfly.
I am not a butterfly collector.
I want the experience of the butterfly.

William Stafford



The temple bell stops
but I still hear the sound
coming out of the flowers.

Basho



I dreamed I was a butterfly,
flitting around in the sky;
then I awoke.  
Now I wonder:
Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly,
or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?

Chuang Tzu



When you take a flower in your hand
and really look at it, it's your world for the moment.
I want to give that world to someone else.
Most people in the city rush around so,
they have no time to look at a flower.
I want them to see it whether they want to or not.

Georgia O'Keefe



If we surrendered
to earth's intelligence
we would rise up rooted, like trees.

Rilke



The earth laughs in flowers.

Emerson



It is written on the arched sky;
it looks out from every star.
It is the poetry of Nature;
it is that which uplifts the spirit within us.

John Ruskin




Nature is not a place to visit.
It is home.

Gary Snyder




I go to nature to be soothed,
and healed,
and to have my senses put in order.

John Burroughs



The butterfly counts not
months but moments,
and has time enough.

Rabindranath Tagore



Nature never deceives us;
it is we who deceive ourselves.

Jean-Jacque Rousseau




There is pleasure in the pathless woods, 
There is rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes, 
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more.

Lord Byron

Sunday, July 24, 2016

MEASURING THE GOOD LIFE


I don't want to get to the end of my life
and find that I have lived just the length of it.
I want to have lived the width of it as well.

Diane Ackerman

People seem to be increasingly obsessed with longevity.  Indeed, the variety of products and programs advertised in the daily media suggest that people will pay almost anything for the promise of more length in their lives.  As Diane Ackerman reminds us, however, the width of life is no less important, and perhaps more important, than its length.  It is yet another example of where quality is more rewarding than quantity.

On this issue, as with so many other questions involving the art of living, some of the best advice comes from the Stoic writings of Seneca, the great Roman philosopher, dramatist, and essayist.  In his perceptive essay On the Shortness of Life, Seneca begins by noting that "most human beings . . . complain about the meanness of nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, and because this spell of time that has been given to us rushes by so swiftly and rapidly that with very few exceptions life ceases . . . just when we are getting ready for it."  He then lucidly states why the problem lies with our individual choices, not with some flaw in biological design: 

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.  Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.  But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death's final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.  So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it.  Just as when ample and princely wealth falls to a bad owner it is squandered in a moment, but wealth however modest, if entrusted to a good custodian, increases with use, so our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.
Why do we complain about nature?  She has acted kindly: life is long if you know how to use it.
* * * * *

There are many instructors in the other arts to be found everywhere . . . but learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die.  So many of the finest men have . . . made it their one aim up to the end of their lives to know how to live.  Yet most have died confessing that they did not yet know — still less can those others know.  Believe me, it is the sign of a great man, and one who is above human error, not to allow his time to be frittered away: he has the longest possible life simply because whatever time was available he devoted entirely to himself.  None of it lay fallow and neglected, none of it under another's control; for being an extremely thrifty guardian of his time he never found anything for which it was worth exchanging.
* * * * *

Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present.  But the man who spends all his time on this own needs, who organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day.


Selections from
On the Shortness of Life:
Life is Long if You Know How to Use It
(Penguin Books, Great Ideas Series)



Lucius Annaeus Seneca 
(Socrates on back side of bust)
Courtesy of Pergamonmuseum, Berlin


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

THE HOPE BENEATH OUR FEET


Collage of Happiness


Followers of this blog know that I frequently return to the poetry and essays of Wendell Berry, a remarkable philosopher and writer whose poems and essays speak to me almost daily as I try to navigate the treacherous waters of an increasingly complex and rapidly changing world.  The poem that has my attention at the moment is Sabbath poem VI from 2007, as it appears in This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems (2013).  It's a poem about hope, but not the abstract notion of hope that one might find on a Hallmark sympathy card.  It's about what could happen to the world if each person could find his or her place, come to truly know that place, and recognize that caring for this place — this local place "underfoot," as Berry writes — is, ironically, the best way to care for the whole earth and the whole of humanity.

Knowing that most people do not have the time to devote to a lengthy blog posting, I hesitate to post a poem as long as this one.  I'm making an exception, however, because I think that the subject addressed — keeping hope alive by living well and responsibly on a local level — is vitally important, especially when our world leaders seem to be so bereft of solutions.

Sabbath Poem VI (2007)
from
This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems
 by Wendell Berry

            It is hard to have hope.  It is harder as you grow old,
            for hope must not depend on feeling good
            and there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight.
            You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
            of the future, which surely will surprise us, 
            and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
            any more than by wishing.  But stop dithering.
            The young ask the old to hope.  What will you tell them?
            Tell them at least what you say to yourself.

            Because we have not made our lives to fit
            our places, the forests are ruined, the fields eroded,
            the streams polluted, the mountains overturned.  Hope
            then to belong to your place by your own knowledge
            of what it is that no other place is, and by
            your caring for it as you care for no other place, this 
            place that you belong to though it is not yours, 
            for it was from the beginning and will be to the end.

            Belong to your place by knowledge of the others who are
            your neighbors in it: the old man, sick and poor, 
            who comes like a heron to fish in the creek,
            and the fish in the creek, and the birds who sing
            in the trees in the silence of the fisherman
            and the heron, and the trees that keep the land
            they stand upon as we too must keep it, or die.

            This knowledge cannot be taken from you by power
            or by wealth.  It will stop your ears to the powerful
            when they ask for your faith, and to the wealthy
            when they ask for your land and your work.
            Answer with knowledge of the others who are here
            and of how to be here with them.  By this knowledge
            make the sense you need to make.  By it stand
            in the dignity of good sense, whatever may follow.

            Speak to your fellow humans as your place
            has taught you to speak, as it has spoken to you.
            Speak its dialect as your old compatriots spoke it
            before they had heard a radio.  Speak
            publicly what cannot be taught or learned in public.

            Listen privately, silently to the voices that rise up 
            from the pages of books and from your own heart.
            Be still and listen to the voices that belong
            to the streambanks and the trees and the open fields.
            There are songs and sayings that belong to this place,
            by which it speaks for itself and no other.

            Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
            Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground
            underfoot.  Be lighted by the light that falls
            freely upon it after the darkness of nights
            and the darkness of our ignorance and madness.
            Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you,
            which is the light of imagination.  By it you see
            the likeness of people in other places to yourself
            in your place.  It lights invariably the need for care 
            toward other people, other creatures, in other places
            as you would ask them for care toward your place and you.

            No place at last is better than the world.  The world
            is no better that its places.  Its places at last
            are no better than their people while their people
            continue in them.  When the people make
            dark the light within them, the world darkens.

Wendell  Berry, This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems


One of the sentinels on my little piece of land . . .

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

THE GIFTS OF SOLITUDE



Find meaning.  Distinguish melancholy from sadness.  Go out for a walk.   It doesn't have to be a romantic walk in the park, spring at its most spectacular moment, flowers and smells and outstanding poetical imagery smoothly transferring you into another world.  It doesn't have to be a walk during which you'll have multiple life epiphanies and discover meanings no other brain has managed to encounter.  Do not be afraid of spending quality time by yourself.  Find meaning or don't find meaning but 'steal' some time and give it freely and exclusively to your own self.  Opt for privacy and solitude.  That doesn't make you antisocial or cause you to reject the rest of the world.  But you need to breathe.  And you need to be.
Albert Camus, Notebooks 1951-1959