I arise today Through the strength of heaven: Light of sun, Radiance of moon, Splendor of fire, Speed of lightning, Swiftness of wind, Depth of sea, Stability of earth, Firmness of rock. From St. Patrick’s Breastplate Prayer
After living indoors for weeks because of winter storms bringing record snowfall and ongoing rain or or working inside for months, when finally able to walk outside in the green world, we feel its life-giving qualities. Today, a pause between atmospheric rivers, was just such a day, making it possible to wander down a path in our area we’ve not walked before. It’s a delight to take a path, not knowing exactly where it goes, simply to follow it and see what presents itself. Wild flowers, leaf-perfumed air, and birds gliding through got me thinking about how the weather affects the weather of my inner garden. After a walk at Helen Putnam Regional Park, the weather in my inner garden is one of calm skies with soft light with the chance sprinkle of blossoms.
There is much to be said for the wonder of desert lands, the exquisite form that desert worlds reveal. Desert scapes bring us in direct contact with the Earth’s elemental shape, the magnificence of mineral texture, as in this overview in Saudi outside of Jeddah. As beautiful as the desert is, after months of gray skies and the hope of spring in the air, right now I’m longing for green.
Nature’s green offers tranquility, calm, and restores a sense of wellbeing. New research at Cornell indicates that spend as little as ten minutes a day in nature can help college students feel happier and reduce mental and physical stress. Robert Jimison’s CNN article “Why we all need some green in our lives” states that a “2016 study found that living in or near green areas was linked with longer life expectancy and improved mental health in female participants. Another eight year study of 100,000 women showed that those “who lived in the greenest areas had a 12% lower death rate than women living in the least green areas.”
Lucille H. Brockway’s, “science and colonial expansion: the role of the British Royal Botanic garden,” clarifies how Britain, (and the West in general) has historically viewed the plant world as an object to be manipulated for bringing economic advantage. Michael Moore’s film, Planet of the Humans, directed by Jeff Gibbs, further demonstrates this idea, emphasizing the dire situation we have brought ourselves into as a result of not living in union with nature in a regenerative way. When the natural world is viewed as merely a backdrop, our spirits become impoverished. It takes time spent in the natural world to be able to hear its language. In his poem, “The Language of Trees,” Eran Williams writes,
When we hear the language of trees,
will we hear the season’s pulse,
and find the heart’s beat is but an echo?
Nurturing our relationship with nature, as with any relationship, helps us understand its language and way of being. Observe something closely across a period of time, and you will hear the nuances of its voice, discover its moods in greater depth and detail. We grow in recognition of how our life is connected to the natural world.
There’s a variety of ways we might nurture a relationship with the natural world. Santa Cruz’s Brighton and Jim Denevan’s sand art could be a starting place to encourage you to create our own environmental art. To begin more basically, you could choose to draw a few lines on paper that represents the textures of the sounds around you, or you could photograph patterns or textures in nature, or write a dialog with a neighborhood tree or back balcony flower. You might create a piece of music based on the tones or rhythms in a the landscape or skyscape, or simply create questions about something seen or heard. Alternatively, you might begin learning the names of plants in your neighborhood, find out if they are native or nonnative plants and why that might matter. You might join together with others to go on walks or to appreciate something in nature such as ferns, rocks, or clouds as do those who have joined the Cloud Appreciation Society.
As we search for a closer connection and understanding of the natural world, we gradually grow into relationship with it. Nurturing a connection to the natural world nurtures our inner landscapes and garden. When we take care of the earth, it takes care of us. In her poem, Today’s Book of Delights, after Ross Gay, Teresa Williams writes
He is right; if we choose to look, we just might believe it’s there in the first chirp of the day and the body awakening to hear it, in the black wings weaving through champagne leaves,
This image is a beautiful one, the kind of image we hope to meet when we go out into nature, but recognizing our connection to the natural world also includes embracing the whole of what it means to be part of the natural world. As the poem concludes, Williams writes about delight even in the midst of diminishing life,
or each small note from the universe and its cheerful persistence, even today,
with a new tumor on the back of my dog’s leg, to encourage delight in her oblivious exuberance, and let that be
what sustains me.
How difficult it is sometimes to keep on tending our inner gardens when pain or rain, storms and sorrows keep coming. As Willams writes, however, observing and listening to the small notes from the universe can help sustain us.
Poets listen closely to the world around them, interpreting what they mean for how they might take us into the heart of ourselves and the world we inhabit. In the 1994 film, Il Postino, the characters of the postman and Pablo Neruda record the local sounds of their island, with the purpose of helping the postman use metaphor to write a love letter. The earth speaks to us. Listening closely to the earth helps us to write a love letter to being alive.
What are the sounds of your home that have written themselves on your heart? Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton says the art of listening is dying but we can open our windows or doors or simply sit calmly in our house and listen. What love letter of the earth do you want to hear over and over. When you listen to your heart’s garden what does it tell you? As Louis Armstrong’s song reminds us, it’s a wonderful world with so much to explore.
“When the doors of perception are cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” — Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
The world didn’t have to be beautiful but it is. Morocco’s night skies with a billion stars flung across the heavens like spilled salt, Australia’s Great Ocean Road winding along rugged coastline, Buddhist temples perched on India’s stark and stony Himalaya, wild gibbon calling from among the tree-tops in Borneo, the view of the hillside sweeping down to the sea from a hilltop in Erice, Sicily, Cartagena’s colorful streets—there are myriad beautiful places in the world.
When I recognized I needed to move from my home in Santa Cruz, I didn’t want to leave behind the trees, the sea, the beauty–though I felt that very well might be what would need to happened. After more than a year of looking for a different place to live and finally finding one, we moved in. The yard is large enough for a garden, the house has been updated, and we have pleasant neighbors. I like for things to be the best I can make them, but nothing is perfect. What bothers me about the house I now live in is the floor. It’s not level. The lift and dip can be felt while walking across a room, and some of the furniture doesn’t sit solidly on the floor. Nevertheless, at the last minute when we absolutely had to be out of our previous home, the opportunity for this house appeared and we are here living in it. Despite the floor, beauty can be found nearby. Living here feels right.
Before moving to Sonoma County, we drove out to explore the landscape along the coast. It was then, standing at the edge of the Pacific gazing into its expansive presence I recognized that despite the economic challenges of moving, perhaps my imagination about what was possible was too small. It took Earth eons beyond counting to form the land where I stood, looking out into that particular horizon. Yet there I was in my finite body through some amazing collaboration of circumstances peering into the boundless open heart of Bodega Bay, Earth’s embodied unspoken invitation that I enlarge my mind and imagination.
In her poem, “A Settlement,” Mary Oliver writes about spring–life in all its trembling, hopeful beauty, and the joy that brings–the way I felt about returning home to Santa Cruz, and what I thought would be my forever home, after 26 years of living in foreign countries to live beside the redwoods and the wonder of their amazing presence. Oliver writes,
Look, it’s spring. And last year’s loose dust has turned into this soft willingness. The wind-flowers have come up trembling, slowly the brackens are up-lifting their curvaceous and pale bodies. The thrushes have come home, none less than filled with mystery, sorrow,
happiness, music, ambition.
And I am walking out into all of this with nowhere to go and no task undertaken but to turn the pages of this beautiful world over and over, in the world of my mind.
Therefore, dark past, I’m about to do it. I’m about to forgive you
Mystery, sorrow–these are all there alongside the wonder of the world’s beauty that Oliver turns over and over in her thoughts as she walks about. She has no predetermined path in mind, she’s simply absorbing what is–the music of it all. She lets it fill her.
And that immersion of her full self into the landscape’s presence is what allows her to pause and then to take the next leap– to forgive the past. For everything. That pause she takes between the last two stanzas is essential. In it we can feel her weighing everything in her past before making the commitment to release what has weighed her down, perceived failures, guilt, shame–whatever incompleteness might be there.
What we think at one point in time will be the life we will have can change unexpectedly into something quite different. Moving to a new home as well as other large life changes–unemployment, retirement, disease, divorce, death, and numerous more alterations, requires a letting go, an opening, a release into new possibilities. At our previous house in Santa Cruz we had dreams of an art studio, a meditation bench under the redwoods, a greenhouse, and a terraced hillside with artichokes, berry vines and fruit trees. Those never came to be. Just as a plant produces more seeds than can ever be used or that will ever come to fruition, there are many worlds, lives, and dreams inside us. Not all aspirations blossom or come to fruition. Spring carries with it a history of winter but has to release itself from cold days with little sun in order to liberate itself into new life.
As Oliver suggests, I can forgive what I can’t change, the defects of uneven floors, the insights I wish I had but lacked. I can embrace what is and open the doors to what waits past the plains and borders I’ve previously defined. Oliver’s moment of turning in “Settlement” is a kind of invitation to let go of what weighs us down, what we’ve wanted to be different but wasn’t, to let it drop like clothes changed at the end of the day. We live in a world too big for a small inner life. We can imagine something different, plant the seeds of a different reality, stretch beyond the past hopes we dreamt of that never came true.
“We have an obligation to imagine,” writes Neil Gaiman. “It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that society is huge and the individual is less than nothing. But the truth is individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.” Find an ocean, a sea of billowing grass, a snowy plain, or a desert’s wide expanse. Look up into the infinite sky. We are bigger than other’s definitions of who we are, bigger, too, than the roles and definitions we give ourselves.
It’s literally true, we are stardust. Our very existence depends on the unseen interconnected workings of vast systems of life that hold together not only our planet but the far-flung fringes of the universe. As Charles Eisenstein’s book title states The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, is waiting for us to discover it.
“Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world, receiving the gifts with open eyes and open heart.” –Robin Wall Kimmerer
Sometimes, it takes a long time to see something. Maybe you’ve looked at something before and recognized it, but really seeing it can be a different thing altogether. Painting on silk, as Ann Pervinkler does, the artist has to pay attention to shape, angle, blending of color and use of space, but more than that, an artist wants what she’s painting to come alive–to have spirit and life. When I saw Ann’s turtle pillow, I felt the turtle was swimming right to me, and immediately thought of my experience some years back while snorkeling beside a turtle in Sri Lanka.
When I first saw the turtle, I was elated since I’d never before swam so closely alongside such a large turtle. It seemed the size of a small, round picnic table! It moved through the water with grace and ease. Close enough to easily touch the turtle, I began to see it in a new way. You can watch this video version of the poem as I read it to the accompaniment of Kanako Fukumoto on the violin and Satsuki Fujishima on piano, (“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” by A. Senju/ Kimi wo Shinjite.) The turtle in the video was filmed by Marina Goodyear in Malapascua, Philippines.
The Curious Turtle
She wasn’t like other turtles plowing along the ocean bottom tearing up coral with her beak.
She didn’t hide under a rock when I swam by for fear of what I might do. No.
She held intently her full mouth of food as the surge swept her. Trailing a string of bright bubbles she paddled straight to me, placed her face with its glistening eye next to mine and peered into me.
I stared into her eyes’ gleaming depth, her gaze a recognition. Somehow, she knew me.
The universe spinning through its layers of mystery, I’d entered another world, felt how Eve must have felt in the garden before the fall, naked, vulnerable and scintillatingly alive.
When we give ourselves to something with our full attention, looking with the eyes of our heart, we see the world anew. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote in The Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Not a mere backdrop we are moving through, when we look at at something or someone with the eyes of the heart, we become more aware of our interbeing with everything around us, the enormous wonder of reality.
In her 1982 essay, “Living Like Weasels,” Annie Dillard wrote about encountering a weasel and being “stunned into stillness…Our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key…the world dismantled and tumbled into that black hole of eyes.” Dillard’s description is very similar to my experience when the turtle’s eye met mine. I saw a depth there, felt what even might be called a wisdom. No longer merely an animal simply to identify and swim beside. I’d met another being with a history, a presence. When we looked in each other’s eyes, something in me woke up: the turtle’s life had depth and a way of knowing beyond my knowing–and one to learn from. I understood the turtle saw his life equally important to mine with his own interests and pursuits. Reality had expanded.
The encounter with the turtle was a gift, changing the way I see not only turtles, but animals and the natural world as a whole and my relationship to it. We can see the world as objects or we can look into the eyes of the world and see it as a marvel alive with presence.
Artists use their skill to help us see the world with the eyes of the heart to help us recognize the wonder that surrounds us that we might otherwise miss without their assistance in bringing it to our attention. Looking into the eyes of a live turtle paddling by, or into silky turquoise water the turtle Ann Pervinkler’s pillow swims through, or the tree branches rolling with wind along the road as you ride home from work–wherever you find yourself, the world is alive and is speaking. Open the eyes of your heart. Listen.
Have you noticed the clouds lately–their capability for wideness, their sweeping, rippled texture, their billowed softness, the world of wideness they can bring you to? As a child, I remember lying back on chairs outside our house and gazing up into the sky, naming the shapes of clouds as they drifted by. A dog or dragon, boat or mermaid, a lot of time could be spent looking at clouds’ evolving shapes, their appearance, transformation, then disappearance into the beyond.
Clouds are sometimes spoken of negatively–clouded thoughts, a cloud hanging over someone, clouds on the horizon–but clouds can also lift us, carry us to a places we long to go in our imagination–someplace light and gentle, a place of expansiveness or wonder.
Danna Faulds, in her poem, “Walk Slowly,” writes,
It only takes a reminder to breathe, a moment to be still, and just like that, something in me settles, softens, make space for imperfection
Cloud gazing can do this for us–bring us into a place of open quietness where, absorbed in our observation, the sense of time passing dissolves into a state of oneness with what we’re observing. Returning to California after living in New Delhi, India for nine years where seeing clouds in a blue sky was uncommon, clouds in a blue sky catch my heart, stop me still. Now because people need to stay at home more often and because many face difficulties regarding illness, additional stresses at work or loss of work because we are in the midst of a pandemic, it’s good to remember we can look up to receive the soft presence of clouds. As Faulds later goes on to say in her poem,
I can make the choice to stop, to breathe, and be, and walk slowly into the mystery.
If you’ve ever been stuck while trying to solve a problem, then stepped away from it to take a walk or simply changed locations by moving into the backyard, out onto a balcony, or into the street, and stared up into the sky, you might have experienced how this shift where you let your mind wander allows for a new idea to emerge. ‘“When one gets stuck on a challenging problem, rather than forcing the mind to work it out consciously, it is valuable to allow for daydreams to occur,”’ says Markus Baer, Olin Business School’s professor of organizational behavior speaking to Inverse magazine. Day dreaming assists creative thinking. What we instinctively knew and enjoyed as children when staring up into the clouds opens our mind to different pathways. Restful awareness is good for us.
Sometimes appearing like apple blossoms in an orchard, sometimes the billowy expression of mountainous joy, in their wide variety of forms of cumulous to cirrus, contrails to lenticular, clouds can evoke in us an enormous range of emotional responses. Gazing at them we sense their weight, their ease. Mesmerized by their capricious, shifting forms, clouds have the ability to take us beyond worries and routines, pull us out of ourselves and the activity in our mind to slip into a space where we’re not thinking about the passage of time or anything else. We’re simply present.
At a time when many are wishing to travel, to step out into a new adventure beyond familiar walls, simply by looking up, clouds can take us on a journey allowing us to look at the world with new eyes. As Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder, Cloud Appreciation Society says, “Nothing is more nourishing, more stimulating to an active, inquiring mind than to being surprised, being amazed…You don’t need to rush off, away from the familiar, across the world to be surprised. You just need to step outside.” What a beautiful spaciousness to return to.
Once while visiting Crete during the spring, I sat for a long time at the mouth of the Samaras Gorge mesmerized by clouds appearing, changing form and dissolving into the blue every few moments, their presence completely ephemeral. We, too, are part of that floating world, forming, expanding, dissolving, always being made and remade.
Appearing, disappearing. Illuminating, hiding and revealing, there is a mystery in clouds. First we see and then we don’t see the trees and mountains they touch. Clouds are an embodied metaphor of the myriad things we have mere glimpses of understanding. There’s so much we don’t know or understand about what it means to be alive. As D.H. Lawrence writes in his poem, “Terra Incognita,”
There are vast realms of consciousness still undreamed of vast ranges of experience, like the humming of unseen harps, we know nothing of, within us.
when at last we escape the barbed-wire enclosure of Know Thyself, knowing we can never know, we can but touch, and wonder, and ponder, and make our effort and dangle in a last fastidious fine delight
Staring at clouds can draw us into an awareness that there are immeasurable realms of life outside of our experience. We are part of a vast intersection and abundance of universes. We swim in creation’s wonder, like water it moves in and through us. The two are intertwined.
TERRA INCOGNITA D.H. Lawrence
There are vast realms of consciousness still undreamed of vast ranges of experience, like the humming of unseen harps, we know nothing of, within us. Oh when man has escaped from the barbed-wire entanglement of his own ideas and his own mechanical devices there is a marvelous rich world of contact and sheer fluid beauty and fearless face-to-face awareness of now-naked life and me, and you, and other men and women and grapes, and ghouls, and ghosts and green moonlight and ruddy-orange limbs stirring the limbo of the unknown air, and eyes so soft softer than the space between the stars, and all things, and nothing, and being and not-being alternately palpitant, when at last we escape the barbed-wire enclosure of Know Thyself, knowing we can never know, we can but touch, and wonder, and ponder, and make our effort and dangle in a last fastidious fine delight as the fuchsia does, dangling her reckless drop of purple after so much putting forth and slow mounting marvel of a little tree.
“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,” begins John Masefield’s poem, “Sea Fever,” my favorite poem in grade seven, a poem that made me fall in love with poetry because of its rhythm, and the mystery of the sea the lines evoked. The summer before grade seven, I lived in Seaside, in Monterrey County, CA, close enough to visit the ocean often, where I would sit on the rocky shoreline, mesmerized by the tireless waves–their strength, endurance and foamy beauty rolling in from depths.
Clown fish and coral, photo, Michael Citrino
Clown fish and anemone, photo, Michael Citrino
Decades later, living and working in Singapore, a friend encouraged my husband and I to spend our winter holiday diving in the area near Palau in the middle of the Pacific, where we would be able to see incredible fish life among the reefs, including schools of barracuda, and manta. During the years I lived in Turkey, I’d loved snorkeling in the Mediterranean, and had spent many hours suspended in the water staring into the ladders of light with fish wandering through. When I moved to Singapore, I was a new scuba diver, and barely aware of the rich life beneath the water’s surface. Traveling to spend several weeks swimming alongside fish wasn’t something I’d considered doing on a holiday. Instead, I’d hoped to experience the world I’d read about from books but had never seen–historical places with art and architecture. I wanted to listen to people speaking languages I didn’t comprehend, and to experience something of the world other than the one I was comfortable with. I’d never considered what two weeks of diving might do to open my eyes to the world’s wonder, how diving could expand my experience of life beyond what was previously familiar. My friend’s various descriptions of diving in Palau and Truck Lagoon convinced me, however, that there was, indeed, a phenomenal new world to explore underwater beyond what I’d previously known, and I made the trip to Palau and Truk lagoon.
The experience there changed me. Enveloped in wildness and beauty, I came to realize that to scuba dive is to have the most other worldly experience you can have on earth and still be on earth. Diving into ethereal blue waters to see bioluminescent clams and corals, watching coral feed, peering up close with a magnifying glass at a jeweled fairy basslet’s golden scales, observing a tiger shark emerge directly from the deep and swim toward you, witnessing a school of fish so large you can’t see the edges, or a hammer head swing its body back and forth in a movement fluid as an unfurling flag, watching the wildly patterned mandarin fish dance as it swims away, lying on the ocean’s sandy bottom as a ten foot wide manta ray wings its way gently over your head, these experiences are but a droplet in the life the ocean holds and that I’ve experienced underwater as a diver. It is a world other than the one we live in from day to day, operating with its own rules, and for a few minutes–as long as your air tank lasts–you are a part of it.
The nature writer Barry Lopez writes in his book, About This Life, how a man he sat next to on an airplane asked him what his daughter should do if she wants to be a writer, “…get out of town,” advised Lopez. “I don’t necessarily mean to travel to Kazakhstan, or wherever, but to learn another language, to live with people other than her own, to separate herself from the familiar. Then, when she returns, she will be better able to understand why she loves the familiar, and will give us a fresh sense of how fortunate we are to share these things.” Ocean diving will most certainly separate you from the familiar and expose you to other languages–the ones fish speak with the behavior they display. It can also bring one a fresh sense of the world, how diverse it is, how wide, and what a gift it is to be alive. In this poem of mine written after diving in the Maldives, I describe the experience.
Days At Lohifushi Anna Citrino
I. Underneath the wing of the reef twenty or more oriental sweet lips lounge contentedly in the hammock of the ocean, their happy striped and spotted bodies swinging lazily back then forward with the surge, their yellow and black faces playing peek-a-boo with passers by.
II. Flowers burst in suns of buttery yellow from the salmon pink fingered nubs of corals stretching out from the wall, a passion of color dancing out into the darkness of the watery night. I have traveled a long distance to stare at them here thriving riotously underneath the overhang, and notice how without traveling any distance, with only reaching out to feed their pudgy bodies on what happens to come their way they dazzle with brilliance.
III. Minuscule transparent shrimp float almost invisibly in the shimmering aquamarine windows, the smoldering fiery gold jewels of their iridescent eyes left as hidden treasure for seekers to find, secreted inside the silent dark caves of the ocean’s night.
IV. Underneath me, the eagle ray rises from the edge of the reef, raises his wide arms, circles the blue reach in slow spirals, gliding, turning, each revolution a lifting of his arm’s white lip a mantra of smoothness. I watch him until he slides away into the far distance. I peer after him though I can no longer discern his body’s shape from the lift of his wing, and the shadow of the sea.
V. We stand in a circle, waist deep in water, watching the sea gently tumble up the white coral shore. Above the waving green palms, a rainbow curves into a cup of blue sky. Lars spins cartwheels, his legs pointing up toward the clouds, body twirling with the pinwheel spiral of the earth whirling toward twilight as the sun rolls, molten orange, down the sky, smoothed into the sea’s soft, silken cradle. Hush. Can you hear the stars singing?
VI. Skimming along the surface of the inky water the boat speeds ahead toward the city’s lights and the plane that will take me home. I do not want to go. I stare off into the distance out the side window, unable to distinguish the difference between sky and water, the whole world folding into one. Beneath me water flies in showers of starry phosphorescent light. Luminescent sparks flare in bright streaks. I am leaving, carried on the tail of a comet.
Immersing oneself in the sea may not be what everyone feels motivated to do, but the ocean is the place where all rivers meet and a source of immeasurable life. Now that I live in the US again, I’ve not had the opportunity to dive, though I admire the work of oceanographer and explorer, Sylvia Earle, and her efforts at Mission Blue, to preserve the ocean’s biodiversity, and as well as her work with National Geographic to create underwater marine reserves--blue parks. The natural world’s diversity enriches us and brings us more life.
It’s comfortable to stick with what we know, but it’s also good to recognize that our individual lives depend on the diversity of life worldwide. Appreciating and supporting that diversity is perhaps one of the most important things we can do to bring more life into the world, our own and the natural world as well. When diving into the ocean, we can see the variety of worlds going on there all at once. Many ways of being co-exist. A manta ray might be swooping over an underwater mound of rock where cleaner wrasse wait, ready to feed on the mucus, damaged cells, and parasites that live on the manta ray. To the side and below the scene with the manta and wrasse, an octopus prepares his den, shoving out sand, while suspended between the two worlds, bat fish slowly circle.
The natural world thrives because of its diversity. In the financial world, as well, advisors tell us that a diversified portfolio is the foundation for sound investments. Similarly, diversifying our activities can benefit both our mental and physical health. Being open to new kinds of people, activities, and ways of thinking is good for us. When we purposefully choose to allow new ways of thinking and being to enter into our lives, we, enhance our health and well being, says the Harvard Medical School newsletter.
Stepping out of our comfort zones to do or learn something new, go somewhere different, to consider unfamiliar thoughts and different ways of seeing the world that contradict our former ways of being can bring challenges. Those very difficulties can also wake us up inside, though, and help us feel more alive. They can enable us to become more whole. David Steindl-Rast points out in his book, Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer, an Approach to Life in Fullness, that Abraham was seventy-five years old when God told him “‘Go forth out of your land, and out of your kinsfolk, and out of your father’s house.'” It takes a lot of courage to leave the world you know, in particular to do this at an age when people often prefer to settle into what’s familiar and comfortable. Abraham left his familiar world behind, though, and it’s interesting to note that Abraham didn’t know where he was headed when he set out on his pilgrimage. He was willing to be uncertain about what he knew, where he was going. Perhaps this is a central reason he’s revered–his willingness to reach beyond the borders of his understanding, and to move into unfamiliar territory and ways of being.
Aunt Blanche in Lucille Clifton’s “Praise Song” reminds me of the many times I’ve told myself I’m going to do (or not do) something, only to metaphorically fall off the lawn regarding commitments I had made to myself. Clifton’s poem presents the reader with Aunt Blanche standing in the yard with her family, experiencing the day together. It’s a Sunday, a day of relaxation, and a time to gather with family. Things seem to be going fine until, boom, down goes Aunt Blanche, slipping off the yard and into the street! Clifton explains that Aunt Blanche had a basketball body, indicating her aunt likely hasn’t practiced the habit of healthy eating, or she probably wouldn’t be as round as a basketball. In spite of her love of food, or even perhaps because of it, Aunt Blanche is a resilient woman: basketballs bounce, and this is exactly what Aunt Blanche does; she bounces up from the street, and out of danger’s way.
It’s interesting to note that Aunt Blanche’s family doesn’t run into the street to rescue her. Clifton explains that as a ten year old observing her aunt’s fall, she “understood/ little or nothing of what it meant,” but she had faith in her aunt to get up from the humbling event. “Praise to the faith with which she rose,” writes Clifton, describing her belief in her Aunt’s ability to return to the family. Thankfully, Aunt Blanche has enough wits about her to recognize she was in danger, and works to get her self out of the possibility of further harm from oncoming cars. Drivers, too, see the situation Aunt Blanche is in, and respond by moving out of the way, so as to not harm her. Then, similar to the father who waited for the Prodigal Son to return home, Aunt Blanche’s family, too, waits for her with open arms as she climbs out of the street and rejoins them on the grass: an occasion for praise. The horror that might have happened didn’t. Aunt Blanche sighs a bit, showing her dismay at her own behavior, but doesn’t stay in the road carrying on about how silly she was. Neither does she blame anything or anyone in her situation. She simply gets herself out of danger’s way, and walks back to her family, a place she knows she is safe, a place she belongs. When we fall, rather than judging or blaming, we all want to know there’ll be open arms waiting for us when we rejoin others. As Clifton indicates, such an attitude of acceptance is “like God.”
People are social beings who need to feel they belong and are respected by those in their group. What stories do we tell ourselves about those experiences where we fall that allows us to bounce back up like Aunt Blanche, dust ourselves off, forgive ourselves, and walk back onto the lawn and continue conversation with others because we understand that in the bigger picture of things, falling is part of the learning process? How might societies as a whole create ways of reacting to those who have fallen so that they can be drawn into the arms of others?
Poet and physician Rafaelo Campo, describes one of those ways in his poem, “What I Would Give.” Many of us carry a fear of falling ill, and Campo’s poem describes the fear people carry when they come to see him for medical help. The poem specifically mentions fears regarding lungs and melanoma, but these are merely examples of the myriad fears we carry with us from day to day: fears that our bodies won’t hold up under the activities we plan to undertake, fears about appearance, fears we won’t complete our work on time or meet people’s expectations, fears about how a new change we are making will affect our family or relationships, so many fears. Campo describes in his poem that what he wants to offer people, though, is “not the usual prescription with/ its hubris of the power to restore,/ to cure.” Perhaps because Campo is not only a doctor but also a poet, he understands that wellness is more expansive than physical wellness alone. It’s also connected to our emotional and social wellbeing, and how these are intertwined with our relationship to the physical environment.
Not all illnesses, aches or pain lead to recovery. If a person has arthritis, for example, she doesn’t get better. The disease progresses. When I see a person walking with a cane, I think of how challenging it is for that person to live with pain and ongoing suffering. Campo’s vision of healing moves beyond the elimination of pain to a wider plane. Even if we can’t be cured, his poem infers, we can be well. How that is possible, Campo suggests, is by opening ourselves to wonder.
I’d like to give them my astonishment
at sudden rainfall like the whole world weeping,
and how ridiculously gently it
slicked down my hair; I’d like to give them that,
the joy I felt while staring in your eyes
as you learned epidemiology
(the science of disease in populations),
the night around our bed like timelessness,
like comfort, like what I would give to them.
These lines show the wisdom of purposefully looking beyond disease and suffering to affirm the gifts abounding around us—to notice what is perhaps commonplace in life, yet amazing: rain falling gently on hair, or joy lighting the eyes of a loved one in the discovery of something new. Campo draws our attention to the idea that wholeness doesn’t have to mean a perfectly attuned body and mind. Healing is a part of a bigger dynamic of how we relate to both the natural world and to those around us. Seeing our connection to the physical world, and delighting in relationships with those around us can enable us to move beyond isolated suffering, and into seeing ourselves as part of the greater whole. It is this “seeing” that makes us whole again, even in our incompleteness. This is the larger healing Campo wants to give. Strength to deal with the pain (and the etymology of “comfort” is to intensify strengthening) comes from finding a way to stay in love with life even amidst struggle and pain. When we let ourselves reconnect to an awareness of life’s enormous gift, we lose ourselves into timelessness. In the process, we find a larger self. Even in the midst of danger, we feel safe, so that even “the night around our bed,” whether a bed of illness leading to death, or the bed of simple sleep, is a place of “comfort.” We can be at home with what is.
All illnesses, discomforts, failures, and “falls,” are opportunities to practice reframing suffering and pain within a wider perspective. Suffering and pain can engender compassion and gratitude, but we have to cultivate those qualities. Some people at an early age are faced with challenges or disabilities requiring them to grapple with how to live with great hardship. To be at home with whatever life gives us is extremely difficult. This is a journey that requires practice, likely years of practice, perhaps a lifetime. When you are ill, you recognize what a gift it is to be well, to be able to walk, to see, to breathe. I lived in a city with air quality so poor that it’s rare to see a cloud or blue sky, as I did for nine years in Delhi, taping the front door each night to reduce the smell of smoke. To see a blue sky filled with clouds large as mountains, for me, is truly a wonder, not a commonplace fact. Practicing gratitude in times of ongoing suffering or pain enables us to recognize we are connected to something bigger than our grief and our pain, and allows us the opportunity to identify with others around the world who suffer too.
Thoreau, in his experiment in living simply at Walden Pond, said he “went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I want to live deeply. When I work, I give myself to that work fully, but I must remind myself to guard my energy, and practice purposefully widening my view—attending my ear and heart to the possibilities that allow connections to the natural world to surface. I need to practice making room for both work and wonder. “The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living,” writes the Jewish scholar, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and like Heschel, I want to walk in wonder.
As I walked down the subway tunnel in St. Petersburg, Russia recently, observing the living river of people moving in the opposite direction, I thought about how vast the world is and the ideas it contains in people’s thoughts beyond the world I know and live in. Emily Dickinson wrote, “I am nobody, who are you?” It is a line of poetry I identify with as one who has lived outside my own country for more than two decades. When traveling to a new country and encountering entire cities filled with people who have a different history, who wear clothes with a different sense of style, and who don’t speak my language, I’m again made aware of my smallness.
I had come to St. Petersburg to see the art as its museum, the Hermitage, an art museum known as one of the finest in the world. Once inside the vast building, we found ourselves wandering through rooms of Rubens, Rembrandt, Gauguin and crystal chandeliers.
Hermitage art museum plaza
Hermitage art museum, St.Petersburg, Russia
Stepping into the room that held the da Vinci paintings, I noticed how crowds clamored in front of them, hoping to get a glimpse. One man I noticed worked his way up to the front to look at the painting of the Madonna Litta through his phone’s camera lens just long enough to take his snapshot, then turned immediately away. Observing this behavior repeated by others as well made me wonder what is it we actually see when we gaze at a painting? Most of us aren’t trained artists. What are we looking for and what do we find when viewing art? When does a painting speak to you and why? What makes it stand out in someway beside all the others of similar subject matter? Is it the name of the artist that tells us this painting is from a master and therefore valuable, or is there something more? To what level do we actually see something of ourselves and our world in the art we view?
One of the reasons I appreciate visiting art galleries is for the glimpse they give into other minds, other ways of being. It is also a way to time travel. If you recall when you last visited an art gallery, you probably remember seeing paintings of people you’ve never heard of, or paintings by artists you know little about. Perhaps you see the portrait of a duke or a countess who were considered to be somebody in their day, and an artist painted their portrait, maybe even a well-known artist, but today hardly anyone passing by even knows who they are. Thinking again, of the anonymity in crowds, I began to take more notice of paintings of people and by artists I’ve never heard of when I came across a painting that said it was by an unknown artist. Neither the artist or the subject are known by name, yet here the portrait or sculpture was, hanging in the gallery. No one crowds around to view the paintings by the less well known, but thousands see them every day in galleries like the Hermitage, and someone recognized the value of the artist’s work so that it ended up in the gallery. What might these pieces have to say?
When I encountered this painting of Ivan Kramskoi by Ivan Shishkinin the Russian Museum, it seemed as if Shishkin could step out of the painting and have a conversation with the people in the room. He appears so alive, ready to engage. Shishkin was a landscape painter, and Kramskoi was a leader in the Russian democratic art movement. The realistic quality of these paintings is echoed by another painter of the 1800’s, Nikolai Ge, in his Portrait of Olga Kostycheva, a girl whose eyes reflect a kind interior sadness.
Standing before the portrait of Marina Derviz, by Jean-Joseph Benjamin Constant, I felt I wanted to know her thoughts. She appears sensible and the upturned edge of her lips suggest she is kind. Her face seems open and approachable, even though she wears a stiff high collar and pearls demonstrating wealth and status.
Art reflects life and the artists’ way of seeing and interpreting life. There are a variety of reasons an art piece might speak to a person, of course. Some paintings I observe for what they might say about how the artist used the brush strokes to create the form. Other paintings I recognize from seeing copies of them in books. Still others depict familiar stories or embody larger ideas or responses to events. It’s interesting to see the artist’s interpretation and perspective of these events and stories, and this is an activity that requires close observation and interpretation of gesture and facial expressions. This painting by Pavel Chistiako, Jovannina Sitting at the Window Sill is beautiful in the quality of quiet reverie it evokes.
The sculpture on the left below by Gleb Deriuzhinsky is of an unnamed woman and is simply titled Female Portrait. Next to it is, Youth by Ekaterina Belashova-Alexeyeva. Both depict a woman without a name and instead, reflect life at a particular age and moment.
None of these artists or art pieces was I familiar with before seeing them in St. Petersburg, and yet they are of excellent quality.
2,000 years ago, Socrates taught people by asking questions. He didn’t work in an established school. Instead he taught in the streets. He was a “nobody” in the sense that he didn’t write anything down himself. Plato’s written version of his dialogs has helped students of succeeding generations to see how curiosity and reflective inquiry can help us to better understand our thinking and that of others around us. The older I grow and the more I travel, however, the more I realize there is so little I truly understand or grasp of the world around me. Constantly, I’m lead back to the mystery that life is, and this is what happens to me when I stand before art such as these few pieces I’ve mentioned. Vistors walk by a thousand art pieces and see their beauty, the immense skill, the hours and hours of dedicated work and effort they represent. There are rooms and rooms of art, and “experts say that if you were to spend a minute looking at each exhibit on display in the Hermitage, you would need 11 years before you’d seen them all,” says the Hermitage museum site. We can hardly take in what it means. It’s too large to grasp. Socrates said, “I know that I do not know,” and we consider him a wise man. Maybe the beginning of any kind of understanding is the humble acknowledgement of our smallness. Our life experience can lead us into an understanding of what is important in life, but in the face of all the flow of humanity and the experience represented there, in face of all the art, it’s also worth recognizing that there is much we don’t know and can’t do. We are led back to a place of humility, and perhaps even awe at what it means to be alive, to be part of history’s vast river. This, again, is a valuable reason to view art–to gaze into other worlds and to listen to what is being expressed beneath the words because art, by its nature, leads us into a world that communicates beyond words and is both inside of time and is in some sense timeless–speaking to us of our bonds to humanity beyond a particular period. When viewing art, we look into the face of humanity in its variety of activity, moods, and moments, and for a few moments we hold time before us to savor and wonder at its meaning.
Art works are invitations for reflection and serve as mirrors of the time and society. They communicate a way of seeing and expressing the world, inviting us to see something about ourselves, ourselves in relationship to the world, or the artist’s vision of the world. Art asks us to notice texture, color, shape, line and form—the fundamental essences that compose physical reality. In how much of our lives do we function on routine procedure? Art is there to bring us back into a place of being, to rejoin us with the awareness our humanness and to enable us to connect consciously to the life we live.
So, what do we see when we look at art? We can ponder the open face that appears ready to engage in communication and those that are haughty. We can notice Kadinsky’s playful lines, the energy explosion on a Pollock canvas, the quietness of a Monet haystack under morning light. We can also learn from those who wanted to be “nobodies,” whose aim wasn’t to be known, but instead focused on doing their work. We can make it our aim to be the unknown life-giving presence to the unknown face in the gallery by the unknown artist who reveals his or her life’s message, a message that might be simple as taste the water, watch the circling bird, listen to the song inside a boysenberry’s bursting juice as you bight in, dance with the village, or notice the pain inside the choice you made and what it teaches. Rest in the window. The Persian poet, Hafiz, wrote in his poem “Deepening the Wonder”
The impermanence of the body
Should give us great clarity,
Deepening the wonder in our senses and eyes
Of this mysterious existence we share
And are surely traveling through.
If I were in the Tavern tonight,
Hafiz would call for drinks
And as the Master poured, I would be reminded
That all I know of life and myself is that
We are just a midair flight of golden wine
Between His Pitcher and His Cup.
Art asks us to deepen our wonder, to recognize we are but the liquid flight between the Master’s picture and his cup. Art asks us to look at life as a felt experience, to notice humanity and the world in its myriad expressive forms and appreciate its diversity. We want our lives to have meaning, so why not practice noticing the life we live. Next time we look at an art piece, or the things in our world that art depicts— the cup resting on your table, the face of a stranger or the one you love, notice the texture of things, the color, the turn of line. To practice noticing as a way of returning to being. What are the questions the people and things you observe are asking underneath the surface of their presence? Let’s listen to the things, to faces and bodies and beings.
Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, 1915, by Natan Altman
The Wave, 1989, Ivan Aivazovsky
Portrait of Isaac Brodsky, 1938, by Alexander Laktinov
Your Mission: to document and observe the world around you as if you’ve never seen it before. Take notes. Collect things you find on your travels. Document your findings. Notice patterns. Copy. Trace. Focus on one thing at a time. Record what you are drawn to.
1. Always be looking. (Notice the ground beneath your feet.)
2. Consider everything alive and animate.
3. Everything is interesting. Look closer.
4. Alter your course often.
5. Observe for long durations (and short ones).
6. Notice the stories going on around you.
7. Notice patterns. Notice connections.
8. Document your findings (field notes) in a variety of ways.
9. Incorporate indeterminancy.
10. Observe movement.
11. Create a personal dialogue with your environment. Talk to it.
12. Trace things back to their origins.
13. Use all of the senses in your investigations.
(The list here is taken from the book, How to Be an Explorer of the World, by Keri Smith, p. 5.)