“Nature is the art of God,” wrote Dante, whose tomb is in Ravenna, and to enter the Basilica Sant’Apolinarre Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, built by Theodoric (493-526) is to stand inside a garden and behold some of the world’s oldest and most beautiful mosaics. Walls wrapped with tiny stone chips create a paradise surrounding the viewer in nature’s luminous spring green. The walls lift us into a great meadow of starry skies, awe shining from vertical heights–light lifted into an infinitely rich blue. Viewing these, we can’t help but be changed, transformed by the beauty merely standing in its presence. (You learn more about the mosaics’ meaning here and can see more images of them here.)
Ceiling in Mausoleum of Galla Placidia next to the Church of Santa Croce, inspiration of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”
Apse of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna
Ceiling in Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
Today, far from Ravenna, I walk outside to water the garden, thinking of those walls and how nature, including images of nature in art, can lift the spirits. There is so much in this world that can weigh us down–worries about our jobs, our purpose, finances, health, our relationships or lack of them. Surrounded by these woes and worries, we long for transformation–and we can receive that when go outside and gaze into the face of nature. Dante writes, “Heaven wheels above you displaying her eternal glories, and still your eyes are on the ground.” Outside my door I see the sunflowers planted months back lifting or trying to lift their heavy heads on the long, slender stems. Things can be difficult for them, too, yet their faces gleam gold amidst the sky’s lustrous blue, and I can’t help but be grateful for their presence–the way their color, their height, the wide-eyed faces help me see the world differently.
“i thank You God for most this amazing/day:” writes E.E. Cummings, “for the leaping greenly spirits of trees/and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything/ which is natural which is infinite which is yes,” and though I feel the weight of the morning’s news weighting my head, I can see, too, that there is a larger world– the trees patiently lifting their arms to the sky, the sky swirled with cloud–the largeness of creation itself. Cummings’ poem, as it continues, also describes this sense of expansiveness.
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
If it happens that you’re sometimes not sure what your purpose is or what value you might have, it’s good to have a few plants nearby that need watering because when you water plants and can know you make a difference. You see you are nurturing something, enabling it to flourish. Gradually, eventually, your plant grows and takes on new leaves. Maybe a flower blooms or the plant bares fruit. When caring for plants you understand how slowly things grow and change, and yet how given time and thoughtful attention, you can bring a little beauty into the world.
Our hearts long to be lifted in difficult times. We may not be able to visit Ravenna. We may not be able to change much in our external events, but the illimitable earth is a gift of love offered every day and it can give us wings. When we practice noticing and naming the gifts, our hearts, our worlds expand.
I read Richard Wilbur’s poem, “Love Calls Us To the Things of This World,” and think he is writing it for me. Arriving again in a new world and culture after moving from India, I see anew the million wonders of this earth, and marvel once more at human productivity and creativity. Living now in London, this is the sixth country I’ve lived in outside of the US. Different than visiting as a tourist, when you live in a place, your threads weave deeper into the fabric of the location. You absorb more of the culture’s spirit and geography, or perhaps it is living in a place that allows it to inhabit you. Maybe it takes most your life to get your bearings anywhere you live. The Australian aboriginals were nomadic people, and sang songs as they walked from place to place—the rhythms, pacing and words corresponding with the landscape’s features as you moved across the terrain—enabling the traveller to recognize their location. Like the Australian aboriginals, many things here in England appear familiar from photos, stories, history, and previous visits, but because I’m living here, the context is new. As I ride the subways, visit houses and museums, and walk the neighborhoods, I see sites I would never see elsewhere. The myriad languages, hairstyles, clothing styles, and the layers of history intermingle here, and rest side by side. When I read, Wilbur’s words,
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
and spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn
my ears grow wide. An invisible pulley is, indeed, calling. I have merely to exit my door and I can see amazing things—an elderly man with long white hair dressed in a pure black suit wearing a crisp, for example, wearing a white shirt and Borsalino hat—traditional amongst Orthodox and Hassidic Jews, or I look up from conversation to discover a man in
a shining red jacket with brass buttons and black beret atop his head hightailing it down the road in his wheelchair. At the National Museum, I see Turner’s enormous painting of Hannibal crossing the Alps, and consider the feats humans have attempted—both Hannibal and Turner. I stand in the room where Samuel Johnson penned his dictionary, where Handel composed his music, and where Hendrix slept, or visit a bookstore that holds over 200 thousand volumes, barely able to breathe thinking of the explosion of stories, ideas and the immeasurable hours of research and effort that went into their making. How does one take in such wonders? In this city, however, such things are common. Histories are sandwiched together, living side by side. “Outside the open window,” writes Wilbur, “The morning air is all awash with angels,” and this is how it seems here in London. The ripples of lives inter-lap with each other, resonate together, creating an enormous symphony of life. The English countryside needs to remain as it is—gentle and subdued with rolling hills, weather misted over and gray, in order for there to be space for the overwhelming mountains of everything else that resides here in the way of literature, history, and art. To allow sun and the geographic drama of precipices and volcanoes into the scene as well would stagger the body and mind beyond recovery. I drink in this place in sips and gulps. Like the bed sheets and blouses in Wilbur’s poem that “rise in calm swells/ Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear/ With the deep joy of their impersonal feeling,” I sit on the subway and though no one wants to be seen looking directly at each other, I think: for however briefly, I am part of this world. These people with their multitude of ways, languages and thoughts are my people—they fill my life with a new spirit, a different vision of the world and how it looks and behaves. The world can’t remain as it was. It must widen, old ways of doing, thinking and being crack open. Whatever is solid inside will emerge.
It’s a challenge to be here, though, difficult to rise every day and recreate the world again as I start a new school year in a new school teaching with an entirely new approach from all the years I’ve previously taught. When I get to Wilbur’s lines describing how “The soul shrinks/ From all it is about to remember,/ From the punctual rape of every blessed day,” I recognize the difficulty he describes. I know this year I will face a mountain of papers to read and evaluate, and recognize the devotion and energy that takes. My knees are still swollen and recovering from the five-hour hike I took with students through the Stiperstones nature reserve over a week ago now on a school trip. My body says I’m living on the edge of my ability to do such things, best to make way for a bigger change to come. But for some reason I hope will reveal itself to me, I felt called to come here and teach for one last year. I remember walking amongst the damp and drying sheets my mother hung on the line when I was a child. I loved inhaling their coolness, their clean scent, on hot summer days. It would be wonderful if the world were as Wilbur’s description of the beautiful laundry on the line—“Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam/ And clear dances done in the sight of heaven,” but there would be no substance there. We have to accept, as Wilbur describes it, “the bitter love” of the “waking body.” We walk into an ancient building with its beautiful mosaic floors and sculptures, absorb its beauty at a glance—all the time, knowledge, effort, skill, devotion, money and effort it took to make what we see. It astonishes and overwhelms the eyes and heart—the “prodigious reality of the world,” as Octavio Paz calls it. We stand on shoulders that stretch across millennia to make whatever it is we create or do. It is too much to fully absorb. What does it all mean, though, for this one small life of mine? Who or what am I in the face of such giants? The immensity of work done by certain singular humans is not the work for all to aspire to. Numbers and size impress, but bigger, better, more—these are not what love calls us to.
Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance.”
These words suggest that substance is found in the body. I must do my work, whatever it is: that daily effort—the habits kept in secret that enable us to keep our balance, and making it possible for beauty to float out through them—moving beyond the borders of our actions. The end of Wilbur’s poem brings us back to the poem’s title: “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.” We must take up our cross, so to speak, and carry our weight. We don’t love on a grand scale. We love in small numbers, in relationships of twos or possibly tens, and relationship is what brings us meaning and is where we find love. It is doing our daily work, our recognition of that ongoing effort that allows us to stand in awe at the grace in a sweeping marble staircase, powerful words and worlds emerging from writers’ pens, or laundry fluttering so effortlessly in the wind. Though we don’t often take the time to notice it, even ordinary life is extraordinary. When I consider the multitude of people, effort, time and knowledge it took to bring me my meal tonight, it is an astonishing gift—the salmon swimming in the ocean, the fisherman who caught it, the sun shining down on the lettuce leaves and olive tree, the goat eating the grass that made the milk that allowed us to later produce cheese from that milk, the truck drivers, grocery store workers, the cooks who taught us to cook—the collective effort of all that is surrounds and sustains us. The blessings come.
A trip this week to Hikkaduwa beach in Sri Lanka got me wondering about how places we travel to change us. Some trips I’ve gone on I thought I would return from changed, that my eyes would be opened to some newer, deeper understanding of life, but that didn’t actually happen. Other travel, however, has left an indelible impression on me–such as the trip to southern Italy to visit the towns of San Lucido and Amantea and walk the streets where my husband’s grandparents came from, or the summer I spent in Guatemala helping with relief efforts after an earthquake, also my first trip to India when I saw the way people lived a life so different from my own, and how difficult life was for so many. After visiting Sri Lanka this week, I’m left feeling deeply grateful for the places on earth where greenery and beauty are still in tact, where people can breathe deeply and the air is pure, for places where people can restore themselves. Hikkaduwa beach is such a place.
Maybe we should be able to transform our minds and way of being without visiting other lands or worlds, but travel can boost our potential to do that as it places us in entirely different realities operating under different rules and understandings. Walking around in such a world for even a few days can help us to see things don’t necessarily have to be how they currently are. Old patterns can be broken. Something new can emerge. What we perceive as fixed boundaries defining the way the world is or functions, we discover when traveling, is actually a social construct that people collectively build and uphold, and that can change. Whatever the actual cause–whether it is simply time away, or new connections made as a result of being as totally new environment, what seemed impossible before travel to a different location often seems doable after travel.
Over the years of living and working abroad, I’ve been able to travel many places, and doing so has given me a clearer picture of the world. Unlike a few decades ago, nowadays, of course, a person with Internet access can simply look up an area of interest and view absolutely wonderful images. The mosaics in Ravenna, I learned after reading in William Dalrymple’s book, From the Holy Mountain, together with those in the cathedral in Trastevere in Rome, are Europe’s best examples of Byzantine mosaics outside of Istanbul. Traveling to Ravenna isn’t currently possible for me, however, but the online 360 degree view of some of these mosaics online at this site is truly stunning, and it’s fantastic to be able to see them. Then there are the videos of locations, like those on this site of Ravenna, that you can also explore.
Mini mind breaks that take us vicariously to other locations are not an adequate comparison to the kind of transformation that can occur from visiting a place in person, however. Traveling in person allows you to meet people, make connections, learn about history in context, find yourself in new contexts and situations, and to experience first hand the subtleties of a world built on different foundations. In the world today when so many are afraid of differences, it seems much good could come if people were able to travel often so that they could experience the contexts and causes that create various world views and realities. Perhaps we would find ourselves better able to listen to and understand those different from ourselves, and empathy between people would grow.
Hikkaduwa home, Sri Lanka
On the other hand, the environmental state of the planet is a growing concern, and airline travel contributes to the unhealthy state of the environment, raising the question of when travel is justifiable. If we are traveling merely for pleasure, is the expenditure of fuel justifiable? When we arrive at the new location, does what we do there add to other’s lives in a positive, constructive way? It’s true that tourism is important to the economy of many places, but our current economic systems aren’t sustainable. If we care about the places we go to visit, and I do think that when we visit new places we generally have a greater affinity for them, how are we giving back something to these places as a result of our travel? How are we are connecting with a place in a way that sustains it, as opposed to using it as a consumer–taking away from it what we can, and moving on to the next location? These are questions I’ve thought about for some time now.
A few alternative travel options people can try are opportunities like snorkeling with whale sharks in the Seychelles where a portion of the money you spend helps contribute to research and tagging efforts. Having done this previously, I can say it’s a fabulous experience–you have a close encounter with one of the most amazing animals on the planet, and you contributing to efforts to understand them better. If you want to read someone else’s blog post about this activity, see here. If you’re interested in places you can connect with to snorkel or dive with whale sharks, see here. Additionally, travelers can visit places like Ravenna and take a workshop where you learn to make a mosaic. The Shaw guides to art, writing, and other cultural workshops as well, lists thousands of learning travel opportunities around the world. An alternative option is travel where you can contribute to social efforts like helping to build houses with Tabitha Cambodia, something I’ve also done on several occasions and found a moving and valuable experience. All these reasons for travel are ways a person can either learn or give something back while traveling.
Still, just being in a new environment can broaden us, a bike ride through the mountains, for example, can help us understand the world in new ways. Sometimes a person just wants to see the art in France because of a love for art. Maybe others want to visit Eastern Europe to get a better sense of history there. Some people may want to climb Mt. Olympus because they loved their high school world history class and it would be a dream to visit the location in person. There are many reasons for desiring to travel and there are no simple guidelines for what are the right reasons to do it, but maybe one consideration to nurture could be how we might use our travel experiences to in someway give back to the world or enhance our relationship with others.
Twilight, Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka
This weekend when I put on my snorkel and stuck my head underwater and saw the thousands of fish swirling about in the shallow pool just off shore, the eels poking their heads out of the rock, the lion fish with their striped fins floating next to the coral wall, and the juvenile emperor angel fish dancing about their tiny holes wearing their fancy blue, white and black patterns, I was filled with joy. It was, after all, Thanksgiving weekend in America, and I felt fully alive and grateful for the earth’s abundance, for the life given me to experience such beauty. I don’t know if one person’s experience of beauty can ripple out to others in a way that helps to restore lives, but more and more, I’m convinced of beauty’s importance for our lives. From Ravenna to the fish floating in Hikkaduwa’s beaches, could it be possible that if more people experienced nature’s beauty, maybe more would want to cherish and protect it and fewer would be willing to trade it away for economic gain? I’m encouraged by Mary Oliver’s poem in Swan: Poems and Prose.
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still life has some possibility left. Perhaps this