Saturday, January 29, 2011


Ralph Waldo Emerson
1803 - 1882

One of my oldest possessions is a two-volume set of the collected essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  From the first serious reading of those essays as a college freshman, I knew that I had discovered a friend to whom I could always turn when searching for guidance on issues of ultimate importance.  Now, more than five decades later, my admiration and respect for Emerson remain the same.  His observations on the nature and potential of mankind are as relevant today as they were in the nineteenth century.  As philosopher and writer Jacob Needleman states in The Spiritual Emerson, a new compendium of seven of Emerson's essays —
Reading Emerson can awaken a part of the psyche that our culture has suppressed.  And when this part of our human nature makes itself known to us, we are, for that moment, no longer hypnotized by the black dream of a dead universe or the hellish dream of a vain and angry God.  Nor, for that moment, are we under the spell of sudden illusions or arrogant fantasies about what human beings are and what they can become: illusions that deny the true metaphysical nobility of man; fantasies that blind us to how far we actually are from that nobility.
In keeping with what has almost become an annual ritual, I have been re-reading some the Emerson essays that influenced me as a young man seeking liberation from the stifling conformity of my southern background.  These essays inspire me now as they always have, and I would like to share some of Emerson's thinking with you on my blog, beginning today with some excerpts from "Self-Reliance."  As I read this wisdom, I continue to ask myself if there is anyone writing today who not only possesses such a penetrating mind, but who also has the power to summon us to our better natures.

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.  Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost . . .

* * * * *

A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. 

* * * * *

There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better or worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.

* * * * *

Trust thyself:  every heart vibrates to that iron string.  Accept the place the divine providence has found for you . . .

* * * * *

The virtue in most request is conformity.  Self-reliance is its aversion.  It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs. . . . Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.

* * * * *

Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.  Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. 

* * * * * 

I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.

* * * * *

Truth is handsomer than the affectation of love.

* * * * *

You will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

* * * * * 

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.  With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.

* * * * *

To be great is to be misunderstood.

* * * * *

These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exists with God today.  There is not time to them.  There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. . . . But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future.  He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.

* * * * *

Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim.

* * * * *

Insist on yourself; never imitate.  Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession.

* * * * *

Abide in the simple and noble regions of thy life, obey thy heart . . .

* * * * *

Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.  Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.

Emerson's Study

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Dish of Apples (ca. 1875-77)
 Paul Cezanne

Frederick Buechner is a novelist, spiritual writer, and former minister who has wonderful gifts of insight into life, art, and other matters of ultimate importance. While perusing a collection of Buechner's writings last night, I came across a discussion of the role that art plays in our lives.  I share it with you today because I believe it will resonate with those who read this blog on a fairly regular basis.  As you read this excerpt, you will discover the relevance of the paintings I have chosen to accompany this post.  Enjoy.

Portrait of the Artist's Mother (ca. 1629)

Excerpt from Meditation for February 20
 Listening to Your Life, by Frederick Buechner
From the simplest lyric to the most complex novel and densest drama, literature is asking us to pay attention.  Pay attention to the frog.  Pay attention to the west wind. Pay attention to the boy on the raft, the lady in the tower, the old man on the train. In sum, pay attention to the world and all that dwells therein and thereby learn at last to pay attention to yourself and all that dwells therein.
The painter does the same thing, of course.  Rembrandt puts a frame around and old woman's face.  It is seamed with wrinkles.  The upper lip is sunken in, the skin waxy and pale.  It is not a remarkable face.  You would not look twice at the old woman if you found her sitting across the aisle from you on a bus.  But it is a face so remarkably seen that it forces you to see it remarkably just as Cezanne makes you see a bowl of apples or Andrew Wyeth a muslin curtain blowing in at an open window.  It is a face unlike any other face in all the world.  All the faces in the world are in this one old face.
Unlike painters, who work with space, musicians work with time, with note following note as second follows second.  Listen!  says Vivaldi, Brahms, Stravinsky.  Listen to this time that I have framed between the first note and the last and to these sounds in time.  Listen to the way the silence is broken into uneven lengths between the sounds and the silences themselves.  Listen to the scrape of the bow against the gut, the rap of stick against the drumhead, the rush of breath through reed and wood. The sounds of the earth are like music, the old song goes, and the sounds of the music are also the sounds of the earth, which of course is where the music comes from.  Listen to the voices outside the window, the rumble of the furnace, the creak of your chair, the water running in the kitchen sink.  Learn to listen to the music of your own lengths of time, your own silences.
Literature, painting, music — the most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look, and listen to life on this planet, including our own lives, as a vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble along from day to day on automatic pilot.  In a world that for the most part steers clear of the whole idea of holiness, art is one of the few places left where we can speak to each other of holy things.

Wind from the Sea (1948)
Andrew Wyeth

Monday, January 17, 2011


When anxious, uneasy and bad thoughts come, I go to the sea, and the sea drowns them out with its great wide sounds, cleanses me with its noise, and imposes a rhythm upon everything in me that is bewildered and confused.

Here on the coast of South Carolina, where my wife and I have come for the winter, I devote much of my time to walking the magnificent beaches that define this part of the Atlantic coastline.  Gone are the sunbathers of summer, with their beach chairs, their overloaded coolers, and their colorful umbrellas.  This is now a place where one can find solitude, a place where memory deepens, a place where we can seemingly reenter the womb of nature from whence we began our journey.

From the inception of human thought, mankind has felt a special connection with the sea.  There is something about its rhythm and constancy that is both cleansing and reassuring.  When we stand at the sea's edge looking into infinity, we know in our hearts that we are part of something much grander and more complex than our individual, day-to-day lives.  We hear the surf rise and fall; we watch the tide deposit its gifts and then reclaim them; we see the light rise, then fall, only to rise again — and, like the light, we are born again into each new moment.  Perhaps it was best said by Pablo Neruda in the poem quoted at the end of this piece:  "Every day on the balcony of the sea, wings open, fire is born, and everything is blue again like morning."

While I often walk these beaches with my wife and my Zen master, Derry, I also spend a great deal of time walking alone.  Some might find this a lonely enterprise, but I do not.  Indeed, I find myself in complete agreement with that fine writer and lover of the sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who once said:

The loneliness you get by the sea is personal and alive.  It doesn't subdue you and make you feel abject.  It's a simulating loneliness.

Rilke is so right about the effects the sea on the human spirit.  The "great wide sounds" of the ocean drown out the "anxious, uneasy and bad thoughts," and "impose a rhythm upon everything . . . that is bewildered and confused."   When the rhythm is restored to our lives, we begin to hear the music again — and with the music comes the dance.

Set forth below are a few photos that I have taken during my walks of the past couple of days.  I have also chosen some insightful comments from others on the mystical connection between mankind and the sea.  Enjoy.

The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach.
Henry Beston

The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient.  One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach — waiting for a gift from the sea.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Every time we walk along a beach, some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war.
Loren Eisley

. . . for whatever we lose (like a you or a me), it's always ourselves we find in the sea.
E.E.  Cummings 

The cure for anything is salt water — sweat, tears, or the sea.
Isak Dinesen

I find myself at the extremity of a long beach.  How gladly does the spirit leap forth, and suddenly enlarge its sense of being to the full extent of the broad, blue, sunny deep!
Nathaniel Hawthorne

Why to we love the sea?  It is because it has some potent power to make us think things we like to think.
Robert Henri

Sit in reverie and watch the changing color of the waves that break upon the idle seashore of the mind.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.
Jacques Cousteau

In every curving beach, in every grain of sand, there is the story of the earth.

Rachel Carson

Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.


My Wife, Margaret, and the Zen Master at Play

I really don't know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it's because, in addition to the fact that the sea changes, and light changes, and ships change, it's because we all came from the sea.  And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears.  
We are tied to the ocean.  And when we go back to the sea — whether it is to sail or to watch it — we are going back from whence we came.

John F. Kennedy
It Is Born

                                          Here I came to the very edge
                                          where nothing at all needs saying,
                                          everything is absorbed through weather and sea,
                                          and the moon swam back,
                                          its rays all silvered,
                                          and time and again the darkness would be broken
                                          by the crash of a wave,
                                          and every day on the balcony of the sea, 
                                          wings open, fire is born,
                                          and everything is blue again like morning.

Pablo Neruda


Wednesday, January 5, 2011


Now that the holidays are over, my wife and I are headed to coastal South Carolina, where the temperatures are a little more conducive to outdoor activities during the winter months.  Before departing, however, I want to post a few memorable quotes that have caught my attention in recent days.  The first two quotes are from Henry Miller and Thoreau, respectively, and the third is a poem by William Stafford.  The common theme in these quotes is the importance of surrendering to the beauty and mystery of the present moment — this day, this hour, this moment, NOW.  As Henry Miller states in the opening quote, we tamper with the universe at our own peril. 

When you put your mind to such a simple, innocent thing, for example, as making a water color, you lose some of the anguish which derives from being a member of a world gone mad.  Whether you paint flowers, stars, horses or angels you acquire respect and admiration for all the elements which go to make up our universe.  You don't call flowers friends, stars enemies, or horses Communists, and angels Fascists.  You accept them for what they are and you praise God that they are what they are.  You desist from improving the world or even yourself.  You learn to see not what your want to see but what is.  And what is is usually a thousand times better than what might be or ought to be.
If we could stop tampering with the universe we might find it a better world than we think it to be.  After all, we've only occupied it a few hundred million years, which is to say that we are just beginning to get acquainted with it.  And if we continue another billion years there is nothing to assure us that we will eventually know it. In the beginning as in the end, it remains a mystery.  And the mystery exists or thrives in every smallest part of the universe. It has nothing to do with size or distance, with grandeur or remoteness.  Everything hinges upon how you look at things.

Henry Miller 
"The Angel Is My Watermark"
Stand Still Like the Hummingbird

Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present.  He is blessed over all mortals who loses no moment of the passing of life in remembering the past.  Unless our philosophy hears the cock crow in every barnyard within our horizon, it is belated.  That sound commonly reminds us that we are growing rusty and antique in our employments and habits of thoughts. His philosophy comes down to a more recent time than ours.  There is something suggested by it that is a newer testament, — the gospel according to this moment.  He has not fallen astern; he has got up early and kept up early, and to be where he is is to be in season, in the foremost rank of time.  It is an expression of the health and soundness of Nature, a brag for all the world, — healthiness as a spring burst forth, a new fountain of the Muses, to celebrate this last instant of time.


You Reading This, Be Ready

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened 
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now?  Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day.  This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life —

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

William Stafford

Reed Life