Thursday, April 29, 2010



The plays of Shakespeare can be successfully mined for wisdom on almost any subject -- the vicissitudes of history, the temptations of youth, the challenges of aging, the folly of ambition -- you name it. Often overlooked, however, is Shakespeare's simple advice on how to live a good life. Research "the good life" on your computer and you will be offered more than three million sites to visit. None, however, is likely to yield better advice on the subject than the counsel that Polonius gives his son, Laertes, in Hamlet:

  Give thy thoughts no tongue,
  Nor any unproportion'd thought his act.
  Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar;
  Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
  Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel;
  But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
  Of each new-hatch'd, unfledg'd comrade. Beware                      
  Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
  Bear't that th' opposed may beware of thee.
  Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;
  Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.
  Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
  But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
  For the apparel oft proclaims the man . . .
  Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
  For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
  And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
  This above all: to thine own self be true,
  And it must follow, as the night the day,
  Thou canst not then be false to any man.

For three weeks each summer between ages six and sixteen, I attended a summer camp in which the campers were not permitted to enter the dining hall until they had recited in unison the last three lines of this advice about the need to be true to one's self. After a lifetime of reflection, I still consider this wisdom on personal integrity and authenticity to be the most important guidance offered by Polonius -- "above all," writes Shakespeare. With every passing year, however, I find myself increasingly drawn to the insightful observations of Polonius on friendship, especially the notion that we should grapple trusted friends to our souls "with hoops of steel."

I must confess that I have been somewhat remiss in providing the care and attention that is often required to maintain lasting friendships.  With our modern lives in a constant state of flux, punctuated by geographical moves, it is all to easy to lose touch with valued friends, rationalizing all the while that "we've moved on."  Conventional wisdom suggests that "distance makes the heart grow fonder," but I think the truth often lies elsewhere; we move or friends move, and while no one really intends to break ranks, we often fall into an "out of sight, out of mind" way of thinking.

I'm taking steps now to reverse that trend, starting tomorrow with a trip that I may not have considered just a few years ago; I am traveling well over a thousand miles to a reunion with classmates that I had for only two years of my life -- in the ninth and tenth grades of high school -- friends who, for the most part, I have neither seen nor spoken to for more than fifty years. Who knows? Maybe I will find a use for some of those hoops of steel that have been rusting away in the recesses of my mind.

Before departing, I want to offer a little toast of gratitude for those new friendships that I have been making in the blogging community:

To those who generously share your passions through prose, poetry, photographs, historical accounts, and inspirational quotes;  to those who call upon us daily to pay attention to something rare and wonderful in the universe; to those who invite us into different cultures with different traditions; to those who have the courage to talk openly about the difficult passages that cycle through all of our lives; and, finally, to those who not only write about their experiences, but who also find time to comment on the journeys of others --

I raise my glass to you in gratitude. I find your individual journeys to be both fascinating and inspirational, and I look forward to reading your postings when I return early next week.

Monday, April 26, 2010


Sitting here at home today, listening to Chris Botti's amazing trumpet, his mood-altering rendition of Caruso, I am drawn to quiet thoughts of quiet beauty. Here is a sampling of the beauty that I find in or near my little corner of the world -- accompanied by the moving words of some who have also found inspiration in the natural world.

              Flowers at the Local Farmers Market

"Flowers seem intended for the solace of ordinary humanity"
 John Ruskin

     Great Egret at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

"You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird . . . So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing -- that's what counts.  I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something."
 Richard P. Feynman

Sunrise at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

"The grand show is eternal.  It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising.  Eternal sunrise, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls."
John Muir

     Blue Heron, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

"When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.  I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought or grief.  I come into the presence of still water.  And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.  For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and I am free."
Wendell Berry


       "Guarded within the old red wall's embrace,
      Marshalled like soldiers in gay company,
    The tulips stand arrayed.  Here infantry
Wheels out into the sunlight."

             Amy Lowell
            A Tulip Garden

Looking at these images again, I am overwhelmed by the ineffable beauty of the world around us -- its diversity, its myriad colors, its constant ebb and flow, its stirring  call to the human spirit -- and I am grateful for the the poets and other writers who have always called upon us to pay attention and be present with nature.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


The Eastern Shore of Maryland, where I live, is endowed with an abundance of beautiful waterways, mainly cove-lined creeks and large, peaceful rivers that wend their way through a gentle landscape to the Chesapeake Bay. Understandably, it is a haven for sailing enthusiasts, many of whom retire in this area to pursue their passion.  For avid walkers, however, the Eastern Shore presents considerable challenges.  Since most large parcels of land are held privately, without any public footpaths or rights-of-way such as one might find in England, walkers are usually consigned to the narrow shoulders of country roads or the backstreets of small towns.  These walks have their charms, of course, but the soul also needs to immerse itself occasionally in wilder, untamed places, which are free from the din of traffic and other menacing sounds of civilization.  As Thoreau reminds us:  "Life consists with wildness.  The most alive is the wildest.  Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him."

Yesterday, in search of a little wildness for myself, I headed up to a place called Wye Island, which is located in the county just north of mine.  Surrounded by the tidal rivers and wetlands of the Chesapeake Bay, Wye Island is a 2,450 acre reserve of fields, meadows, and old growth forest that teem with an amazing diversity of wildlife.  For more than three centuries, it was privately owned and used for agricultural purposes, primarily for growing tobacco and wheat.  In 1976, however, the entire island was purchased by the State of Maryland and opened for public use.  It's a fine example of what I spoke about in my last posting, specifically, the small efforts that can be made by governments and and other organizations to bring people closer to the mystical, healing powers of nature.

As I embarked upon my hike around the island, my initial goal was to walk about fifteen miles, in keeping with a training regime that I have been trying to maintain in preparation for a coast-to-coast walk across England in early June.  After the first mile, however, the Zen spirit tapped me on the shoulder and reminded me that good walking is about mindfulness, not mileage.  Thus prompted, I slowed down, discarded the judgmental chatter in my brain, and began to focus all of my senses on the then-present moment.

It was magical, of course, as it always is when one removes the cataracts from one's eyes.  The thick woods -- filled with ancient oaks, maples, hollies, sweetgums, and other trees too numerous to mention -- were bathed in glimmering shafts of sunlight. Small white butterflies danced above patches of yellow dandelions and violets; birds darted across the path in every direction -- warblers, goldfinches, bluebirds, cardinals, bluejays, even a couple of wild turkeys; and Delmarva grey squirrels, unique to this area, could be seen scampering to higher elevations as I made my way down the path to a small open area on the riverbank.

Stopping for lunch, I spent a while just watching the amazing variety of movements in and on the river that surrounds the island.  Blue herons stood feeding in the shallows; a few mallards could be seen in the coves; and the water created a small fence of white foam as it lapped on the small sandbar. "Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour," asks Emerson, " and is not reminded of the flux of all things."

At the end of the day, I had walked about half of the distance that I had envisioned earlier.  As Robert Frost reminds us, however, "happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in length."

Thursday, April 22, 2010


A couple of years ago, my wife and I had the good fortune to meet a young Czeck sculptor who had traveled at his own expense to Key West, where he was in the process of creating two mahogany busts that would be placed on the Florida coastline facing Cuba, the perceived ideological adversary of the United States. The completed sculptures would be a "gateway," he told me, designed to invite mutual respect and peaceful dialogue between the two countries.  He also stated that, upon completion of the two sculptures in Key West, he would be traveling to Cuba for the erection of identical gateway sculptures on its northern shore, facing the United States.  He anticipated that the gateway projects in  the United States and Cuba would be followed by trips to other antagonistic countries, such as China and Taiwan, where he would use his art to foster peace and better relationships among peoples and nations.

Unfortunately, I do not remember the name of this compassionate and idealistic young sculptor, and most people in this country have surely never heard of him.  As an artist, however, he was doing what artists often do best; he was summoning us to reconsider the way we think about things. He was asking us to pay attention to the divisions we sow and leave unattended; to reconsider the illusions that stoke our nationalism and xenophobia; and to move forward as a people with a common ancestry and a shared future.

Since meeting this young artist, I have begun to question the world's obsession with boundaries.  One cannot dispute, of course, that some territorial boundaries are necessary for the preservation of social order; most of us do not want to find the neighbor's livestock devouring the remainder of our gardens after the deer have had their daily fill.  But what about the fear-based intolerance that often stands behind these boundaries -- the intolerance of other people's race, religion, culture, or political ideology?  Is there any justification for separating one human heart from another?

Perhaps it is time for everyone, nations and individuals alike, to drop the arbitrary, fear-laden boundaries that poison relationships.  Maybe it is time to join the young Czeck sculptor in the building of gateways -- gateways to the arts, which can teach us about the creative, regenerative spirit of the human heart; gateways to other cultures, which can reveal the common threads that hold humanity together; and gateways to the natural world, which can dissolve prejudice and return us to a place of gratitude.

Some years ago, I stumbled across an interesting quotation, which I now know came from the book of Psalms: "The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance." What struck me then about this quotation -- and strikes me now -- is the iconoclastic notion that boundaries, notwithstanding our conventional wisdom, do not always protect us.  They may, if fact, be barriers to what we are seeking.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


After my two most recent postings, "Memento Mori" and "Waiting in Hallways," I might be well advised to lighten up a bit, lest the reader think that poor George has been reading too many Stephen King novels lately.  A minor shift feels right at this point because I want this journal to weave unexpectedly, rather than proceed in a straight line.  Think of it  like the cliffside roads that skirt Italy's Amalfi coast; they rise, they dip, and they turn quickly and sharply, with each turn opening up a new vista.

That said, my posting today is a small potpourri of images, comments, and quotes, all of which have something to do with revelations of light -- physical light, spiritual light, or both.  I have chosen three photographs that speak to me of solitude, simplicity, and quiet beauty.  I am also posting a quote by the novelist and spiritual writer Frederick Buechner, who has found just fifty-six words to sum up what he has been saying for a lifetime.  But first the photographs --

Farmhouse in Provence  

I took this photograph in the countryside of Provence a few years ago.  The image remains imprinted upon my psyche because it is a study in contrasts with philosophical meaning  -- the aging patina of a house being brought back to life by the willful placement of three simple pots of geraniums in the window.

Sunrise at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

This image was taken at a wildlife refuge not far from where I live.  I sometimes arise before dawn and go there to experience the solitude and stillness of the fading darkness just before the sun raises its baton, bringing up the music of the birdlife waiting to greet the day. 

Door and Window, Monastery, Pisa, Italy

I discovered this quiet place while walking through Pisa, Italy a few years ago.  Aside from the wonderful contrast of colors, I am touched by the asymmetrical balance of the door and window, two unique designs existing in perfect harmony.  Somehow, I find a lesson in that.

Frederick Buechner

Frederick Buechner is a novelist, spiritual writer, and former preacher who has wonderful gifts of insight, as well as the ability to share those insights with soft delight.  I hope to devote a complete posting to Buechner in the near future.  For today, however, I will close with a brief quote that contains an inspiring 56-word summary of what Buechner has learned through his long and productive life:

"If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this:  Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is.  In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness; touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace."
                                        From Listening to Your Life

Monday, April 19, 2010


Few things tickle the heart like a new twist on an old bromide. This was brought home to me recently when a friend with a keen wit passed on the following observation: "When one door closes, another one opens -- it's just hell in the hallway."

Like most good humor, this comment is rooted in a universal truth. Significant changes in our lives, whether sought with purpose or simply thrust upon us, have their own timetables and often leave us side-tracked for a while in a purgatory of self-doubt and despair. When the challenge is brief and manageable, we tend to regard it as a mere "period of adjustment." Sometimes, however, we are presented with something that appears more relentless and sinister, what the early mystics called "the dark night of the soul." We can move neither forward nor backward; we can do nothing but wait and watch like expectant gardeners, frustrated that our planted seeds must remain for an uncertain time in the darkness of the earth.

Periodic suffering, of course, cannot be avoided upon this terrestrial plane. Indeed, on a cosmic level, suffering should probably be seen as an integral phase of our evolutionary journey, a period of cleansing that allows us to strip away the old and extraneous in order to make way for the new and essential. The question that remains, however, is: What are we to do in the meantime -- the seemingly endless period of experiencing "hell in the hallway," to use my friend's words?

Answers to this question can be found in all spiritual traditions. The best answers, however, seem to point to the central truth that suffering, by definition, is a resistance to the reality of what is. The more that we resist what is, the more that our suffering turns into pain. When we accept the suffering, however -- watching it, listening to it, allowing it to do what is must -- we often find that we can transcend it. It may be that our task is to simply remain in the present moment, always grateful that we have been given this hour of this day. Perhaps we can follow the wisdom suggested in T.S. Eliot's poem, Ash Wednesday:

"Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual for only one time
And only one place
I rejoice that things are as they are . . ."

The photo at the head of this posting shows a hallway in a small hermitage near Assisi, Italy, where St. Francis and his followers frequently meditated and broke bread together. The contrast between the darkness in the foreground and the pool of light beyond is a visual metaphor for me. It reminds me that every transition, even one bathed in shadow, can be a journey of hope.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


For the most part, nature speaks to us in whispers -- a good approach, I think, because it keeps the cows in the pasture and the reptilian parts of our brains in check. Occasionally, however, nature brings out the the trumpet and gives us a stentorian blast, telling us to stop and behold! Something important is happening.

That is what I experienced yesterday on my morning ramble. As I walked down the edge a small but well-traveled road, I was startled to discover the strangely configured remains of a small deer that had fallen very recently into the ditch, the probable victim of an automobile or a hunter's bullet. At first glance, my conditioned mind said "gruesome," and I turned away in disgust. Circling back, however, I witnessed something that was both odd and interesting. Except for a cathedral of spine and ribs that lay arched in the ditch, the entire lower torso of the doe had been taken away and reprocessed by other creatures, presumably the turkey vultures that circle this area constantly in search of their daily bread. The head and face, however, remained largely intact, with the eyes still open, staring wistfully toward the quivering sunlight. It was an eerie sight, part architecture and part animal, something that might occupy a dream but not an April morning.

This is a memento mori, I instantly thought, something placed here by the universe to remind me of the impermanence of life. Most people fear death, of course, and they turn away from anything that would remind them of its inevitability? Others, however, prefer that the undeniable realities of life and death be served straight up, preferably with a twist of good humor. We agree with the Buddhists that occasional meditations on death serve to quicken life and give meaning to our journeys. As the poet and chronicler Mary Sarton has written, "one must live as though one were dying -- and we all are -- because then the priorities become clear."

We are such stuff as stars are made of, and like deer and the stars under which they sleep, we will eventually return to stardust. Knowing that, we not only seize the day, we embrace it, point-blank and without fear. Well-served is the person who can follow Dryden's counsel in Imitation of Horace:

"Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own,
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow, do thy worst, for I have lived today."

Thursday, April 15, 2010


For the past three weeks, I have been repeatedly distracted by the stunning redbud tree that stands in the the corner of my backyard like a young ballerina en pointe. With her flower-laden arms extending gracefully in every direction, she beckons me each day to some kind of communion, some kind of intimate conversation that I have been avoiding. She is a teacher of sorts, one of exquisite beauty and radiance, but I have been slow to receive her lessons.

Redbud trees are often called Judas trees, because of the thread-bare legend that one of their ancestors provided the limb from which Judas Escariot hanged himself after his alleged betrayal of Jesus. The Judas connection, however, may be somewhat apocryphal. Indeed, many believe that the name "Judas tree" was originally "Judeas tree," a simple reflection of the ancient Judean landscape where the species prospered.

Names can be a burden, of course, and some insist upon calling the redbud "the tree of lost souls." For me, however, it is more like a tree of found souls, a tree that offers wisdom about the fragility of life. In a winter that has split and torn assunder many of the evergreens, whose thick foliage attempted to resist the heavy snow, this elegant little redbud, in her denuded winter form, has come through unscathed. "Resist little and travel lightly," she seems to be saying,"it may be critical to your survival."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


We awake together, lifted by the first light and birdsong. Before leaving the bed, she licks away the night wrinkles in my face, urging me to arise and enter the experience of something that has never happened before -- this amazing new day.

We walk and talk, each in our own way, and I sometimes fall prey to thinking about something I should be doing later in the day. Sensing my distraction, she freezes and refuses to move further until I close down my chatterbox mind and return to this sacred moment and place, not the place down the road, but this place, where something wonderful has left clues of its nocturnal presence. It is a mystery that requires our full attention -- here and now!

Later in the day, after I have returned home from my separate adventures, I find her sleeping in a pool of dappled sunlight that falls softly through the window. It's not surprising to find her so unproductive, for she has told me on many occasions that productivity can be a fool's errand, and that it is often better to focus upon fulfilling one's own destiny -- in my case, that of a human being.

She, of course, is not the least bit concerned with her own destiny as a labrador retriever. In her wisdom, destiny is an abstract folly that does little more than corrupt the eternal present. "Retriever," moreover, is simply a convenient name-tag created by an alien species that prefers role-playing to authenticity. It's a matter of individual integrity, she tells me, and she will not mortgage her true self for a shilling's worth of approval.

As the sun declines, we move like dancers, sometimes together, sometimes apart. Shortly after nightfall, however, we find ourselves back in the bed, pleasantly exhausted from the day's journey. We have done this thousands of times before, but every evening feels like a new experience. Could it be that T.S. Eliot was talking about all creatures, including my Zen master, when he said:

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."

The Four Quartets

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Some books are so rich in content that they deserve a permanent place on one's desk or bedside table, ready to be seized the moment the owner needs a strong boost of wisdom. One such book for me is Anam Cara : A Book of Celtic Wisdom, by the Irish writer, John O'Donohue, who, unfortunately, died just two years ago at age fifty-two. O'Donohue was a well-educated but unassuming Irish writer who had enormous gifts of insight, as well as an extraordinary ability to express those insights in both prose and poetry.

While thumbing through Anam Cara yesterday, focusing on passages underlined in previous readings, I discovered a brief section that had not fully registered with me earlier, but which contains a brilliant discussion of how our ways of seeing affect the quality of our lives. "It is a startling truth," writes O'Donohue, "that how you see and what you see determine how and what you will be."

To determine one's own pattern of seeing, O'Donohue calls upon each of us to ask a simple question: "What way do I behold the world?" Do we see the world through fearful eyes, where everything and every person is perceived as a threat? Do we see the world through greedy eyes, where everything can be possessed at a certain price? Do we see the world through judgmental eyes, where everything and every person is rigidly defined and limited by our prejudices and preconceptions? Do we see the world through resentful eyes, elevating our own entitlements while condemning others for theirs? Do we see the world through indifferent eyes, where our capacity for compassion is trumped by cynicism and despair? Do we see the world through inferior eyes, where everyone is perceived as superior to ourselves? Or can we remove the lens of fear, the lens of greed, the lens of prejudgment, the lens of resentment, the lens of indifference, the lens of inferiority -- and then begin to see the world through eyes of love? Can we ever accept St. Augustine's profound but simple advice: "Love and do what you will."

How we see determines who we are, but who we are can always be changed by altering the way we see. Understanding this, suggests O'Donohue, may "bring you self-knowledge and enable you to glimpse the wonderful treasures your life secretly holds."

The Gaelic words used in the title of the book, Anam Cara, mean "soul friend." No better words can be found to describe its author, John O'Donohue.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Having recently rediscovered this photo that I took last year, I have been giving a lot of thought to not only the pleasures of nature, but also to the nature of pleasure. We are conditioned to be pleasure-seekers, which means, of course, that we are always expecting that something in the future will provide the satisfaction of our desires. Get that, go there, do that -- we tell ourselves -- and we will be happy and need nothing more.

Ah, but there's the rub. As the masters of advertising know so well, we are conditioned to believe that we will always need something more. Satisfy one desire and, like the hydra-headed monster fought by Hercules, two more desires will arise to replace it, forcing us once again to put more of our attention into the future and less into the present.

I recognize, of course, that some degree of planning is required for an orderly and fulfilling life, and, like most people, I will continue to look forward to the anticipated pleasures of the future. What I am learning, however, is that the greatest of pleasures come unexpectedly, wending their way into the heart before the judgmental mind has its say. Maybe it's the kind eyes of the nameless stranger who seemed to know you at some intuitive level. Maybe it's the dog basking in the backyard sun after a swim in the river. Maybe it's the dragonfly resting on your hand, its silent presence calling you to the here and now.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Though lovely at times, it has been a brutal winter here on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where I live. Record-breaking snowstorms, high winds, and relentless rain have brought down trees and other unstable structures, reminding us once again that we are always at the mercy of nature and that everything is impermanent. The memory of winter, however, is now in its own demise, as April unfolds, "breeding lilacs out of dead land, mixing memory with desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain." (T. S. Eliot, "The Waste Land")

It is a time for revival and regeneration, a time for taking new bearings and plotting the course for new growth, a time for answering the questions raised by the poet Mary Oliver after watching a swan stretch its wings and soar:

"And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?"

Mary Oliver, "The Swan"

Friday, April 9, 2010


Every day is an opportunity for a new adventure, a chance to break through fear and conditioned thinking, a chance to see something new or to see something old from a different perspective, a chance to create new forms of expression for what one is learning in this wondrous journey of life.

Today's new adventure is the creation of an online journal which I hope will contribute in some small way to the conversations we are having with ourselves and each other about the ingredients of a good life. I will have my own musings, of course, for that is the nature of a personal journal, but I will also be writing about the ideas and perspectives of others -- the writers, painters, poets, philosophers, and mystics who have been, and who continue to be, my teachers. I will also be posting photos on this site, because I believe that visual images can often take one to a place and time that words cannot describe, a place and time in which one is totally present, totally mindful, and totally engaged with some lovely fragment of life.

Finally, I hope that this journal will be a departure point to other blog sites where fascinating people are providing field notes and markers about their own individual journeys. Some of these people are creative artists, some are homespun philosophers, some are keen observers of nature, and some are just iconoclasts, prophets of a sort who are trying continuously to disabuse us of the illusions that pass for reality in our modern world. Each of these people has something to contribute to the conversation, and if we listen closely, we just might discover the common themes that unite us in this great journey.