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 





Sunday, July 17, 2016

THE TENDER GRAVITY OF KINDNESS

Dalai Lama With Group of Tibetan Muslims
Photo Courtesy of Voice of America

As the world becomes increasingly divided, with passionate demands in many quarters for more walls and fewer bridges, more weapons and fewer conversations, more national isolation and less international cooperation, may I humbly suggest that what we need most in the world at this time is more kindness, followed by more gratitude for the kindnesses we have received?

This should not be as difficult as we make it.  We have all been taught since childhood to be kind.  Remember all of that stuff about welcoming the stranger, loving your neighbor as yourself, doing unto others as we would have them do unto ourselves?  When did we we stop taking this ancient wisdom seriously?  Perhaps we need to remember the great lesson that William James learned after a lifetime of work in psychology and philosophy:  "Three things are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind."

I greatly admire both the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, surely among the most respected people in the world.  If you listen carefully to what they are saying, it all comes down to human kindness.  The Dalai Lama states forthrightly: "My religion is simple — it's kindness."  In the same spirit, Bishop Tutu goes further and reminds us that kindness may be the greatest power we possess to create a better, more inclusive, more compassionate world.  "Do your little bit of good where you are," he says, "it's those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world."

It's tempting to suggest that kindness is a fine sentiment, but without any practical value in today's competitive, dog-eat-dog world.  In truth, however, kindness may be the only thing that saves us from this fearsome world.  Waiting and hoping for circumstances to improve on their own is not a viable option.  As Emerson cautioned many decades ago, one "cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late."

If I'm feeling a sense of urgency about the importance of kindness, it's because of my recent reading of Naomi Shahib Nye's fine poem on the subject.  Nye recognizes that the incalculable value of kindness is seldom fully appreciated until one has lived long enough to suffer losses, long enough to know deep sorrow, and long enough to encounter the inescapable reality of death.  "Then," she writes, "it is only kindness that makes sense anymore . . ."


                                                               Kindness
                                                                         by Naomi Shihab Nye

                           Before you know what kindness really is
                           you must lose things,
                           feel the future dissolve in a moment
                           like salt in a weakened broth.
                           What you held in your hand,
                           what you counted and carefully saved,
                           all this must go so you know
                           how desolate the landscape can be
                           between the regions of kindness.
                           How you ride and ride
                           thinking the bus will never stop,
                           the passengers eating maize and chicken
                           will stare out the window forever.

                           Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
                           you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
                           lies dead by the side of the road.
                           You must see how this could be you, 
                           how he too was someone
                           who journeyed through the night with plans
                           and the simple breath that kept him alive.

                           Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
                           you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
                           You must wake up with sorrow.
                           You must speak to it till your voice
                           catches the thread of all sorrows
                           and you see the size of the cloth.

                           Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
                           only kindness that ties your shoes
                           and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
                           only kindness that raises its head
                           from the crowd of the world to say
                           It is I you have been looking for,
                           and then goes with you everywhere
                           like a shadow or a friend.

From Words Under The Words, Selected Poems, by Naomi Shihab Nye
The Eighth Mountain Press, A Far Corner Book, Portland, Oregon (1995)

Peace To Everyone

Saturday, July 16, 2016

WALKING THE OFFA'S DYKE PATH: PART 2

Joined By a Couple of British Walkers on Top of Offa's Dyke

In the previous posting regarding my walk last summer of about 80% of the Offa's Dyke Path, a U.K. National Trail, I covered the stretch between Chepstow and Hay-on-Wye.  In this posting, I will cover the remainder of my walk, specifically, the section between Hay-on-Wye and Llangollen.

Day 5:  Hay-on-Wye to Kington

Leaving Hay-on-Wye Along the West Bank of River Wye



Continuing Along a Farm Track



Wild foxglove is everywhere . . .



. . . as are profusions of bluebells.



There are periodic markers along the path, 
but many are hidden in beautiful but overgrown foliage.



A small farm road, bordered by beautiful wildflowers, 
leads into a shaded tunnel through lovely woods.



 Sheep greeting me at a peaceful country homestead . . . 


. . . and more wildflowers on the verge of the path . . .



I met these three Brits along the way 
and hiked with them a couple of days.  Great people!


Walking through and abandoned farmstead . . .


When the path runs adjacent to someone's farm 
or home, one frequently sees offerings like these.


My British friends on the dyke . . .


Another section where the path is actually on top of the ancient dyke . . .


Chatting with an American hiker who was 
on the return leg of a round-trip walk of Offas's Dyke Path 
(round-trip would be 354 miles,
 not counting the necessary diversions to reach accommodations)


A pleasant climb to the left of the dyke, now covered with trees . . .

Day 6: Kington to Knighton


The Offa's Dyke Path weaves back and forth
across the Wales-England border for most of the distance.


A stile with sign announcing entry into the 
Shropshire Hills, some of the most challenging terrain is the entire walk . . .


As I entered the Shropshire Hills, it occurred to me that the only reference point I had for this region of the country was A.E. Houseman's collection of poems, A Shropshire Lad, which many of us read in high school or college.  The collection has many memorable passages — remember "When I was one-and-twenty/I heard a wise man say/Give crowns and pounds and guineas/But not your heart away . . ." — but, for some reason, possibly a lifelong inclination to embrace reality for what it is, I have carried these Houseman lines around in my head for more than four decades:

                                         Stars, I have seen them fall,
                                         But when they drop and die
                                         No star is lost at all
                                         From all the star-sown sky.
                                         The toil of all that be
                                         Helps not the primal fault;
                                         It rains into the sea
                                         And still the sea is salt.


This was a rainy day and the climbing was steeper than it looks in this photo.


For the remainder of this day's hike, 
generally regarded as the toughest section of
terrain to be traversed on the Offa's Dyke Path,
 it was one up and down after another,
much of it with grades like those seen by the goats
 on the upper part of this hill.  As a result, 
I have very few photos from this day.  
This was a rainy, hard day in which every ounce of energy was 
required to get to my destination before dark, and I barely made it.


Day 7: Knighton to Cwm


This day started with some welcome shade 
and flatter terrain on top of the dyke in a wooded area.


Colorful fields opened up . . .


. . . and I met a couple of other Brits who were doing
a series of section hikes on Offa's Dyke, hoping to complete it in one year.


It was a pleasant day of hiking through pastures . . .


. . . and the patchwork fields that are so inviting throughout the U.K.

Day 8:  Cwm to Buttington


This day, which was the most relaxing day 
of the trip, began with the path following the lovely Montgomery Canal.



House and lock on the canal . . .


For long-distance walkers, few things are appreciated more than
coming upon a pleasant area where an adjacent property owner has
kindly set out chairs and homemake cookies and cakes for weary travelers.



I remember the wildflowers, trees, and shrubs
 being especially beautiful in this area of the path.


Barn and Tranquil Waters Along the Canal



Canal Path with Nesting Baby Swans on Left



Approaching a canal lock . . .



. . . walking beneath the overhead bridge . . .



. . . to discover this stunningly beautiful setting for a house . . .



One of the many bridges over the canal and path . . .

Days 9 and 10:  Buttington to LLangollen


This day began with a lovely walk through magical woods . . .



. . . then entering a supremely beautiful area
 in which the path was marked by stacked stones on each side . . .



All seemed to be going extremely well . . .



. . . until shortly after this photo, when I encountered four bulls.  After much patience, I successfully got beyond these bulls, only to find a giant longhorn bull in the next pasture, together with a large sign warning walkers that the bull was dangerous.  After spending about fifteen minutes trying to figure out how to get safely by the longhorn, a Welsh couple joined me and, together (hoping there was strength in numbers), we made it successfully to the other side of the pasture.  
After that experience, it was . . .



. . . a great relief to reach the LLangollen Canal
 and the pleasure boats traversing its waters.



My Welsh friends are ahead on the canal 
viaduct (boats go through here), which is high above . . .



. . . this river.


My Welsh friends near the end of our walk together . . . 


Last photo before I took before entering 
the town of LLangollen, Wales, where I completed my walk.