Standing before the glass at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I watched as sardines swirled in graceful, ribboned unison, turning then splitting into two shifting forms, as over and again a hammerhead shark pierced through their fluid movement. To observe life under the sea’s surface is to enter another world that is our own but utterly different, and is perhaps the most otherworldly experience one might have. While staring at the fish, on one hand, a person could say that nothing much is happening: over and over one large fish chases other smaller ones. But from another view, the most essential thing is happening: you are observing life in all its mystery and it leaves you standing in awe. For a few moments you’re unaware of anything but the fishes’ movement as they glide as if in dance through the liquid blue, and you step into some larger universe where time dissolves.
Inside the ocean, life teems in myriad forms, yet we’re barely conscious of its presence, as most of us rarely encounter what is happening beneath the ocean’s surface in our day to day lives. I would never know about the hammerhead chasing the sardines unless I were to dive into their world or view them in an aquarium. Would we miss their dance if they were no longer with us? Recently, I received a letter from a friend who mentioned that if he never published another poem, the world wouldn’t miss his voice. Most of us at one point or another have probably felt similarly. We work hard at what we do, we aim to accomplish something significant, but still we wonder if our lives have meaning to others. Does a tree, a forest, painting, piece of music, national park or act of simple kindness matter? Why should we learn to cook, build a house, grow a garden, write a story or read one? The universe is enormous and full of fecundity. What does it matter that we create or that we protect the natural world, make space for beauty or nurture others’ creative effort? Would the world miss Dostoevsky, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Martha Graham or Aretha Franklin if they had never produced their work?
Maybe we can’t miss what we’ve never known or experienced. We tend to take in the world we’re given, absorbing it like food, and whatever we’re given becomes part of our being. We can go through our days somewhat routinely, not necessarily sensing a need for reflection. At the same time, however, something in us hungers to be in relationship to something larger than ourselves. We wouldn’t know what we had missed if the artists who produced their creative work never did so, but our world is certainly fuller, our inner lives richer because of them. To reduce or obliterate voices both nonhuman and human— the forests, animals, music, art, stories or other creative work is to diminish existence, reduce wonder, and to take away our souls.
Though the hammerhead chasing the sardines in the aquarium was beautiful to watch, what I was watching may have also been one animal seeking to make dinner out of another. Death and life are interconnected. To be born is to also to learn you will die. Simply to eat, whether animal or vegetable, something else gives its life in order to sustain our own. All of life is transition. Day follows night follows day. Always, we’re leaving behind one state to enter another. To love someone is to know you will also someday lose the one you love. We leave our parents’ home to enter a larger world. We enter a relationship of love, letting go of something of ourselves in order to expand our lives. Perhaps we move to a new location or a new country. In doing so, we gain a new understanding of the complex diversity and multiple realities coexisting in the world. As we age we lose things—our hair, our vision, our strength. With each transition we make in life we lose something. In turn, what we lose asks us to enlarge our internal selves. To love means to be in relationship, and relationship gives life meaning. The world we breathe and move in is alive and also fragile. Writers, and artists in general, invite us to take off our protective armor and become vulnerable again—to look deeply at our lives, to notice our relationship to the world around us, and to become more conscious of the reality that we stand in liminal space: aware both that we are alive, and understanding we will die. We’re living into as well as dying to each ongoing moment. To enter the world is to experience suffering as well as joy. The more we, like the ancient Biblical Job, can allow ourselves to stand in this awareness, the more we can move out of fear into a place of acceptance of all life brings us, even our own deaths–the biggest transition and opportunity of all to enlarge ourselves.
When we gaze at a school of fish whirling by or view minuscule jellyfish slowly drifting past an aquarium window, their transparent bodies radiating with moving iridescent light or when we lean our heads back to cast our vision into the midnight Milky Way, at stars so thick they have become mis, we catch our breath. Time stops and we stand in naked amazed awareness of creation. These moments may seem small, even insignificant within the press of responsibilities we often take on, but they are important. The accomplishments and creative energy of our lives, the things we hold dear—these reflect the impulse to live and thrive. They are the voice beneath our actions and inside our silences that say, “You are alive, and to be alive is a wonder.” Creative work, our own or appreciation of others’, allows us to touch life, feel its pulse. Our creative efforts may seem small even insignificant, but they are vital. They are efforts that whisper to us why we live. Life dwells in these moments and in the details that bring us into a world larger than our selves—into the mystery of our own being.
How beautifully Mary Oliver speaks of this in her poem, “In Blackwater Woods,”
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Deciduous trees burn with luminescent light during autumn as they move toward winter’s dormant stage. Here in Oliver’s poem, the trees in the woods are more than trees; they are lit candles. Similarly, Oliver implies, if we open the eyes of our souls, we can experience the world move from a space where we know the names of things and can categorize them back into a space of the nameless, allowing us to once more delight in their mystery. There are things worth understanding about life’s connection to loss, explains Oliver. Loss teaches us to hold ourselves open to our mortality. Hold the world dear, “against your bones knowing/ your own life depends on it;” Oliver writes, but at the same time our task is to learn to also let go of what we most love. This can be painful and very difficult, but in it, Oliver states, is fulfillment. In losing our life, we find it–ancient wisdom we learn and relearn. In letting go, we can become like autumn trees–lit candles, our lives rich incense others inhale.
“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.
“We who draw do so not only to make something visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.” –-John Berger
Trees have been important to humans throughout time. The Atlantic points out evidence to demonstrate a connection between the health of trees and our human health. In countries of Turkish and Arab origin, trees are a symbol of life, and tree of life motifs are woven into carpets from the region. People plant trees to commemorate a baby’s birth, and sometimes when a pet dies a tree is planted where the animal was buried. The Buddha was enlightened under the Bodhi tree, and the Bible tells the story of the Tree of Knowledge. In Japanese culture, the plum tree’s blossoms represent life’s beautiful yet fragile quality. These are but a few of people’s interconnections with trees. (The American Forest organization gives many further interesting insights about humans’ relationship to trees.)
Lately, I’ve been spending time with trees. Though I’ve loved trees since childhood when I climbed and played in the pepper and umbrella trees in my family’s backyard, I’ve developed a further interest in trees as a result of my recent endeavor to learn to draw. Drawing is a way of knowing. You look closely at what you’re drawing. You study what you observe in order to draw, and what you’re studying has a way of becoming part of you. You gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of your subject. Families are connected to the idea of trees, and for my family reunion this summer I thought I would draw each family member their favorite tree. This way I could practice drawing, and get to know something new about my family, as well as give something to them. I’d also gain new insight about trees.
I set out on my endeavor. As I drew, I realized more clearly how trees each have their own unique architecture and character. Drawing them is a bit like getting to know a person. As you get more familiar with someone, their unique personality emerges. It’s similar with trees. It takes a lot of patience to draw–patience with yourself and your learning process. I want to draw better than I am able. As a beginner, it’s difficult to see well enough to draw the spirit inside of anything–which is what I want to do–to interact with the unique feeling or character of what I’m drawing and reveal it–but this is next to impossible because I’m still trying to develop the skill of how to put the lines on the page. It’s an amazing notice, however, when what I’ve made looks something like what I intended and others can recognize it! That’s motivation to continue the effort going.
After completing the drawings (a few of which are shown below), I interviewed each family member to learn more of the story behind why they chose their particular tree as their favorite. Reflecting on what I heard during these interviews, I noticed the strength and energy behind people’s attachment to their chosen tree, and decided to write a poem about each person’s tree, using some of the details told me during the interviews.
To do this, I had to imaginatively enter into the landscape where the tree grows, and envision both the tree and the meaning it holds for the person. I had familiarity with everyone’s chosen tree, but in aiming to write about the pine-filled hills of Tennessee, I was confronted with the fact that I knew little specifically about Tennessee pines. Though I’ve lived in more than one region of the US and have travelled to different states, it is not the same as living in a particular place and knowing it in its subtle moods and aspects. We connect with the land around us both physically and imaginatively. We know something by reading about it and studying it, but also by being present with it over time. This is what makes landscape or a tree personal–we interact with it and come to know it. Knowing pines in locations other than Tennessee, as well as reading about the landscape, and recalling novels and films that took place in that part of the US, helped me to imagine the pines of Tennessee so I could write about them. In this way, a world that was not my own could became part of my own experience.
After drawing and writing about trees, I decided to familiarize myself further with the heritage trees near where I live, and took a hike to the Byrne-Milliron forest. Santa Cruz County is home to some of the oldest redwood forests in the world, and the Byrne-Milliron forest contains one of oldest redwood trees in California, the Great White Redwood. The tree is 25o feet tall and a 1,000 years old. Though the tree is a redwood, its bark has a silvery white appearance. In spite of the heat, I wanted to encounter the tree, to stand in its presence and observe how that felt, so with my water bottle in hand, I set out.
The Byrne-Milliron forest lacks a high volume of visitors, so when walking through the area, other than leaves crunching under my feet, a dense quietness filled the air. Dodging poison oak along the way, and guessing a bit at which way to go, I followed a path as it wound up a hill offering an overview of the Pajaro Valley, then dipped into gullies rich with shade before narrowing into more or less the width of my feet as I approached the tree.
Standing at last in the small clearing at the foot of the great tree, I gazed up its long, near endless height. The forest was so deeply still but for the butterflies moving in a gap high up in the redwood’s branches where sunlight fell through. The journey to find the tree had been a kind of pilgrimage, and I sat in silence before the tree for some time. Even with the tree’s top obscured by leaves from its branches, the tree’s solidity and immensity moved and overwhelmed me.
Along the hike, I had seen a number of large redwood stumps where virgin growth trees had been cut at the turn of the last century. Previous to this, for a hundred years short of a thousand years, this tree and the forest itself had stood silent with only the hum of flies and the random call of a bird, rain patter, and perhaps some occasional thunder. Eons of of silence. Stillness. That’s what the forest held and the trees knew–an astonishing reality.
As I didn’t see other trees in the forest approaching the size of the Great White Redwood, it appears to be the one uncut virgin growth tree remaining. I imagined what it must have been like to enter this forest two hundred years ago where all the trees were this enormous, this ancient. Humans have done much to shape and alter the earth. Numerous pieces of human architecture have moved me–the Golden Gate Bridge, the Taj Majal, the Sagrada Familia, to name a few. Standing before an ancient tree is different. A tree is alive. Before this ancient living presence, I felt full of wordless awe. A large, solid slice of wood shaped like a plaque sits before the Great White redwood in the Byrne-Milliron forest, a commemoration of the tree, it seems, though the plaque contains no words. That emptiness seems worth noting.
People have altered and shaped the earth since the beginning but the land also shapes us. Our experience with geography and landscapes is an exchange–the land brings us its scents, colors, textures, lighting, and seasonal changes, but we also bring something to it with our specific interests, questions, perceptions, skills, and imagination. What is the affect on our lives of loving and caring for particular landscapes or specific aspects of nature such as trees? The nature writer and naturalist, Barry Lopez, in his Education Week Teacher essay, “Losing Our Sense of Place” writes, “The intense pressure of imagery in America, and the manipulation of images necessary to a society with specific goals, means the land will inevitably be treated like a commodity; and voices that tend to contradict the proffered image will, one way or another, be silenced or discredited by those in power.” Getting to know the land we live on, getting to know the trees and plants around us through drawing them, writing about them, or simply walking among them is a way to move beyond the idea that the earth is merely another commodity. These practices honor the land’s presence and our shared connection to the natural world. They help toward creating greater balance between being and the effort to possess, to attain.
How well do we know the place we live? How do we stand in relationship to it? As I draw trees, I grow more aware of their complexity. I thought I knew what a tree was, but when looking closely over an extended period of time, as is necessary when drawing a tree, I notice how there’s so much mystery inside a tree as well, so much I don’t understand. Hikmet Nazim, in his poem, “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved,” writes, “I didn’t know I loved the earth/ can someone who hasn’t worked the earth love it.” Our lives are linked with trees. They are important to our physical and emotional health. We may not work the earth but we can nurture our love for it. It’s worth our time to read and learn about the land we live on–the land we love. It’s worth taking time to visit the natural world, to develop a relationship with the geography we are a part of, to grow close with the land we love and with the trees they hold. They are an important part of what makes us who we are.
Recently, I visited several museums in Paris where I viewed many of Monet’s paintings and learned more of his biography. What especially struck me were the many uncertainties in Monet’s life that could’ve threatened his painting career. Monet’s mother, who supported his interest in art, died when Monet was sixteen. At twenty, Monet was drafted into the army where he served in Algeria for two years before getting typhoid. Later, his first wife died leaving him with two sons. Twice he had operations for cataracts. The weight of having to provide for an additional six children he gained from his second partner, the work it was to take care of his gardens at Giverny—these many difficulties, yet no sense of these tensions surfaces in his paintings.
Entering the oval shaped room in the l’Orangerie is like stepping into a peaceful garden—as if Monet’s paintings have arisen from a place of meditation where the outer world slipped into a pool of interior contemplation, colors and textures reverberating off one another. Bending into the water’s mirrored exterior, plants and trees mingle with clouds’ reflections, blend with lily roots beneath the pond’s surface, and simultaneously give the viewer multiple perspectives of above and below the water, as well as its expansive surface.
Taking ideas from Japanese woodblocks, and with his children’s help, Monet created the garden at Giverny. He shaped the garden and the landscape, digging the ponds, putting in the Japanese bridge, and mixing common flowers with exotics, then painted the landscape and light. Dusty mauves, purples and muted blues–the color tones on the canvases in the l’Orangerie instill a feeling of calm. From the wide stretches of water textured with color, waterlilies appear in buds of illumination floating on spacious planes of reflection. Gardens filled with light and waterlilies–Monet painted the opposite of anxiety.
Monet is especially known for his water lily paintings. On the surface it may not seem like much to be known for or to commit oneself to—painting gardens with flowers. Yet he made us see them newly, and for nearly a hundred years, these paintings have drawn people from around the world to see their beauty.
Looking beyond our fears to the larger vision of our purpose and involving ourselves in creative acts can help us to let go those things that trap us in fear, and can improve our overall wellbeing. Cathy Malchiodi in her article in Psychology Today, “Creativity as a Wellness Practice,” describes how “in 2010, a review of existing literature on the benefits of the arts (music, visual arts, dance and writing) by Stuckey and Noble considered more than 100 studies, concluding that creative expression has a powerful impact on health and well-being on various patient populations.” Additionally, Malchiodi explains how a 2015 study shows “creative self-expression and exposure to the arts have wide-ranging effects on not only cognitive and psychosocial health, but also physical conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, various forms of dementia and cancer.” Participating in generative acts and nurturing our creative strengths can turn fearful minds into calm minds where, like lilies of light, thoughts can emerge gently, illuminating what we need to know and do.
I’ve just returned from Sicily, a poor region of Italy, but a land rich in beauty–beauty enough to leave me speechless and in awe as I stepped inside Monreale’s cathedral and looked into the face of the pantocrator–Christ as the Lord of the Universe–depicted in the shining mosaics filling the central apse. The mosaic is so finely made it seems to be painted. A world heritage site, the cathedral holds the largest Byzantine mosaics outside of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Mosaic art was practiced in the Byzantine empire since the fifth century (according to the Joy of Shards Site.) Thousands of skilled craftsmen had to have worked for centuries to be able to produce the level of skill to create the quality of workmanship presented in Monreale’s cathedral and cloister. (See more images here and here.) The walls depict various Biblical stories–God giving Adam the breath of life, Noah building the ark, Jesus holding out his hand to Peter who has jumped the fishing boat he was on with the other disciples in order to meet Jesus who he sees walking across the water–stories told through images of God interacting with the world and in humans’ lives.
Jungian psychologist Robert A. Johnson, in his book, Inner Work, writes of how the original meaning of fantasy comes from the Greek, phantasía, meaning “to make visible, to reveal.” Johnson explains how it’s our imagination that converts the invisible to the visible, enabling us to contemplate it. Interaction with world in the form of the arts and in writing enables us to understand spiritual truths. For the Greeks, Johnson goes on to say, phantasía was the way the divine spoke to the human mind. Until the Middle Ages, Johnson states, phantasía was thought of as the “organ that receives meanings from spiritual and aesthetic worlds and forms them into an inner image that can be held in memory and made the object of thought and reasoning” (p. 23). Phantasía was also the word Roman writers employed when wanting to “speak of the human faculty by which we express the contents of the soul by using poetic or spiritual energy.” In other words, practicing using our imagination, as artists and writers do, allows us to become conscious again of spirit. Johnson asserts also that when speaking of sensing the spirit, all ancient people understood, “Only our power to make images enables us to see it.” In fact, Johnson explains, “When we experience the images, we also directly experience the inner parts of ourselves that are clothed in the images” (p. 25). As Abigail Tucker reported in The Smithsonian’s article, “How Does the Brain Process Art?”, the brain signals the body to have physical responses to art, mirroring what is viewed.
The cathedral at Monreale, clearly demonstrates Johnson’s assertion of imagination’s power. Stepping from the everyday life of the street and entering the cathedral, I was carried out of myself into a place of wonder so astonishingly beautiful in its glowing color and intricately depicted images it could bring a person to tears—or at least it did me. A thousand years ago in Sicily, people worked the land, even as many do now—a challenging life, dependent on nature and the weather, as much of Sicily uses dry farming methods. Life could be difficult, but then there was the world inside the cathedral—a place of intense beauty, a heaven on earth, that could lift you from the mundane, and transport you into a place of wonder. In doing so, you understood your life was more than mere struggle. You were also part of a greater reality, you were also Spirit, and you participated in the life of that Spirit as revealed in the cathedral’s art.
Recognizing God speaks through nature, the Psalmist wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork.” The Psalmist created music to express the presence of Spirit. Artist Georgia O’Keeffe painted flowers enormous on her canvases as a way to invite viewers to engage with the natural world. “Nobody sees a flower,” she wrote, “- really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” Interacting with nature as an artist, as well as simply viewing paintings and pondering them are ways to touch Spirit. Similar to O’Keefe’s intention for viewers in the paintings she produced, though cathedrals’ construction were normally initiated by kings as expressions of their power, and often with political aims, cathedrals could also be viewed and embraced as embodiments of love—love expressed in and through the hands that made them. To produce works of such beauty, heart had to be invested, not merely the use of skill. A thousand years later, the mosaics in the Monreale’s cathedral beauty draws the world to stand before them in awe.
The Norman ruler, King William, ordered construction to begin on the Monreale’s Cathedral in 1172. The building was completed in 1176, and the mosaics by 1189. That is only 17 years for a work of monolithic and intricate beauty. I think of the difficult times we currently live in, and the tremendous effort needed to rise to the challenges–social, political, economic, and environmental–that we face, not unlike that of building a cathedral. Likely, all times could be identified as difficult depending on where you live and what you’re living through, but a particular area of current concern are the many in the world who have lost their homes. The Guardian’s December 31, 2016 article describes, “War, weather, climate change and terrorism have made millions homeless,” and then goes on to add starvation, and natural disaster to the list of causes. Sixty three million people today are fleeing disaster according to The Guardian. To address the needs of these displaced people so that their fundamental necessity for shelter is met will take the effort of millions. The forces at work to create such displacement are monumental. I’m wondering, though, how we might use our imaginations to create a cathedral of spirit amidst the poverty of our current situation in order to address the human needs of those around us.
While reading Unsettling America, An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry, I came across Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poem “In Memory We Are Walking,” where Gillan describes how as a child, she once went on a picnic with her Italian immigrant family. The poem allows us to go inside the experience of what displaced people likely feel coming to a new land for reasons of necessity, and working to make it home. On a rare excursion, the poem’s speaker–a young girl–and her family left Patterson, New Jersey, walking out of their mill worker’s house “built cheaply and easily,” and past “squat middle-class bungalows” that, to her, appeared to be wealthy abodes. She describes how her father, hoping for a job, walked from Patterson to Passaic, nearly a two hour’s journey, to inquire about an opening. He didn’t have the money to take the train. When he arrived, a worker told him, ‘“You stupid Dago bastard,…/ Go back where you came from./ We don’t want your kind here.” The words from this poem resonate elsewhere in the world and across time. Reading current news stories, though the faces may be different now, one can still see how attitudes prevalent at the turn of last century regarding immigrants persist.
Before leaving to travel to Sicily this past December, I visited downtown London early one evening. When I emerged from the subway tunnel, I heard a loud voice calling out, “Help me. Somebody save me!” A man sat on the street outside the subway exit shouted to those walking by. I didn’t know what kind of help the man needed, or if he possibly might not be in his right mind. Like others, though, I crossed the street to wait for the bus—on my way to elsewhere. Ten minutes later, the man’s desperate voice could be heard shouting, his words echoing across the street. On and on he called, his plea reaching into my thoughts—fixing itself there, and becoming, somehow, the needy voice of us all.
Further up the street, suspended in flight, angels hovered above the roadway in the form of electric lights. Christmas shoppers emerged from the brilliantly lit multilevel department storefronts, windows packed with a plethora of products–leather purses and shoes, sequined dresses, sportswear and down jackets, wool hats and scarves, specialty chocolates and teas. Streets drenched in abundance while at the same time, not far away, a man calls out for help, and none respond. Further down the street, I walked by a man in a grim looking Santa costume. He leaned against a wall above the sleeping bag where he slept, a cup held out for money. Entering another subway station, a second Santa stood by the escalators holding a cup for offerings, a thin woman with a drooping Santa hat, and wearing grubby Santa coat and a plaid skirt. Homeless Santas, and a man pleading to be saved–if not physical poverty, we live amidst a poverty of spirit. Those on the street have the humility to admit their need. The man on the street shouted out the words that we in our social silence, pride, and neglect fail to speak: that in many ways in the places we live, if not our lives and way of living, then in our hearts–connection to each other, is broken. If so many around us live in dire need while others of us live in physical abundance, then somebody help us.
From the crowded streets of our lives, the homeless part of ourselves calls out in our poverty. The somebody that must help us needs to arise from within. What kind of world do we want to live in? What does a beautiful world look like? How would people interact in order to create a world where we could live without fear, where all people’s needs are met? Just like those who built the cathedrals of Sicily, we each have skills we have built up over time. Humbly, and together, we can use these abilities to create the world we want to live in. We can do our art and look for ways to create neighborly acts of kindness and generosity wherever we are. Whatever the work we look for or do, we can make of our work a spiritual effort, a prayer. With our hands and mind, we can create sanctuaries of the spirit, cathedrals of the heart that transform ourselves and those around us. As poet Nancy Wood writes, “Patterns persist,/life goes on, whatever rises will converge./ Do what you will, but strengthen the things that remain.” We can use our imagination to discover ways to transform despair, and to practice the skills that will make a world where, like the cathedral of Monreale, a refuge of beauty and place of peace people a thousand years from now can inherit and inhabit.
Like the work to create the cathedral, creating such a world takes devotion, love, and hard work. Labor doesn’t have to be merely work, as it often becomes when the goal is merely for self interest and personal gain. Just as beauty can open our hearts, labor can also enlarge us as we work together. The two aren’t inseparable when we work with the intention that the labor we do is a way to give something needed for the betterment of the community–for the beauty of the earth and humanity.
Barry Lopez in his children’s book, Crow and Weasel, writes, “Remember on this one thing, said Badger. The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memories. This is how people care for themselves.”
Stories connect us to the people who came before us, the narratives they live out and the tales they tell us about what the world is, and who we are in the world. We live by the stories that have shaped and taught us. They give meaning to our experience and direct us in our journey. Stories condense experience, give us the opportunity to examine our difficulties, and to reflect on how our struggles might enable us to grow.
The oldest form of story is poetry. Before poems were ever written, they were told. People’s histories were given in poetry–words constructed to call up experiences through sound and imagery that evoked emotion and helped people remember who they were, what they had done, and why it was important. In listening to poetry, we can step inside a reflection of life that holds up a mirror, and at the same time speaks to something beyond what is experienced. It is a way to reconnect to what it means to be human and to the mystery of existence. As Dana Gioia writes, “In a moment’s pause another world / reveals itself behind the ordinary.” By extension, because poetry was once connected to other art forms, stories, music, and dance, these are doors we can open to that allows us to walk into a larger reality, to see the world from a wider perspective.
The idea that the physical world intersects with the spiritual world is an ancient one, found in many traditions; the Celtic, Catholic, and Native American being a few examples of these. St. John Damascene, a Syrian monk who lived from c. 675 or 676 –to 749 CE, wrote a defense for the use of icons (see more here) that shaped the direction of the church. Though others at the time argued against the use of icons and representational art. God is bigger than any particular physical form, the thinking went, and therefore representation of God in icons should not be allowed. St. John of Damascene argued, however, that if God became human in the form of Christ, then two are intermingled. The sacred could be seen living and breathing through the human form, and therefore it was completely acceptable, he argued, to create icons, to worship through icons, and to paint the human form. In fact, art was a way for the illiterate to see God, Damascene explained, and to read the story of God’s compassion for and interest in humans through the paintings. Damascene demonstrated an acceptance of paradox, and the idea that one’s thinking doesn’t have to be contained in tight boxes of either or. William Dalrymple, in his book, From the Holy Mountain, quotes Damascene saying, “‘…the flower of painting makes me look, charms my eyes as does a flowering meadow and softly distils the glory of God in my soul.'” Through painting, as through nature, Damascene declares, God communicates his presence in the world, and art is a central way in which humans can experience and connect with the Divine.
Though Dalrymple describes the cave where St. John of Damascene wrote these thoughts in The Fount ofKnowledge,as “crude and primitive,” he goes on to say that, “Without Damascene’s work, Byzantine ars sacra would never again have been permitted, Greek painters might never have been able to pass on their secrets to Giotto and the Siennese, and the course of the Renaissance, if it had happened at all, would have been very different.” I’m very grateful for Damascene’s words and thoughts regarding art. Without them, we’d likely be deprived of much beauty, and the spirit that speaks through that beauty.
In her poem, “Pray for Peace,” Ellen Bass speaks of this interconnection of the everyday world around us with the world of spirit.
Pull weeds for peace, turn over in your sleep for peace,
feed the birds, each shiny seed
that spills onto the earth, another second of peace.
Wash your dishes, call your mother, drink wine.
Shovel leaves or snow or trash from your sidewalk.
Make a path. Fold a photo of a dead child
around your VISA card. Scoop your holy water
from the gutter. Gnaw your crust.
Mumble along like a crazy person, stumbling
your prayer through the streets.
Though a way of communicating half forgotten these days, Bass helps the reader to see that prayer can be any act we do with full attention and heart. When we pay attention to our lives, doing what we love presence, that is prayer–a breathing, walking prayer that adds meaning to our lives, and enables us to grow toward wholeness. Making a routine out of things saves energy and time, but even routines can be done with attention and heart. How do we cultivate the kind of noticing awareness in our every day lives, the ways of being that enable the act of living to become prayer?
Involvement in a creative act is a central way to connect the physical world with the inner world. Though there are a variety of art forms that can enable a person to live in fuller awareness of a connection to life’s mystery, writing is an excellent path from which to begin this journey. Whenever I leave the house, I carry my journal, a small book that easily fits inside a pocket. I carry it because at any time something might appear, or someone might say something that needs to be noticed, and I want to be ready. My journal is my fishing line, so to speak. Though I may miss many things swimming in the world around me, because I’m prepared with pen and paper to notice something, I am more likely to find and catch something than if I had no tool at all to help me. Whatever I’m working on as a writer, I look and listen for moments that speak to me while moving through the day—a random phrase, a gesture, a sudden familiar scent that might embody the idea I’m reaching for in a writing piece I’m working on. I remain attentive to sounds, textures, colors, actions—the world’s details that define a place or time. As a result of knowing the questions I’m living with and what I’m looking for, things tend to show up and announce their connection like a kind of internal spark. Suddenly, as if witnessing the embodiment of a metaphor, I see, for example, how something I’m looking at or hear is related to something seemingly completely different. The discovery has a wonderful quality to it, and to then write it out is to be able to embody that insight. Sharing it with others deepens a sense of connection to the world.
Writers aim to name the world, and doing so is to participate in a kind of co-creation of life, at least this is how I experience what happens while writing, and it is one of the motivating reasons to write. To write is to observe closely, and to observe closely moves me to an awareness that I am part of a greater something beyond myself–that I swim in the mystery of existence. Writing is a path that allows me to enter a space where I’m both fully present in my life, and somehow not present at the same time as I step inside the weave of words. This is because I’m living inside of the thing I’m writing about, and what I’m writing about is bigger than me. As poet Nicholas Samaras explained to me once, writers are always writing, even when not writing. I agree with Samaras when he says, on Poetry Net, “God is in the point of my pen.” In losing myself in the work I am doing, I’m made more alive, full, and solid. It’s a paradox.
Writing poetry can be a kind of prayer. My father wrote stories and poetry, but my mother taught me to pay attention to the world around me. She constantly noticed the natural world, flowers on the bank or scent of orange blossoms from the orchard, bees at the birdbath, a fox that came through the front yard, or hawks that circled above the hill behind us. The wind as it blew through the pines where she grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota, was an ancient choir, she said. As she described the experience to me, I could hear the wind as if it were real. She recalled wild gooseberries’ tart flavor, and told me the names and shapes of wildflowers that grew on the land of her childhood home. Her descriptions lived in my mind as if they were real. Even though where I grew up in eastern San Diego county’s dry desert–very different from the Black Hills, I felt preciousness my mother’s memories of her childhood’s natural environment. Her respect for those experiences nurtured in me a love of my own childhood’s natural environment.
I played outside every day as a child, climbed around on granite boulders, or sat inside the branches of an avocado, umbrella or pepper tree. Our front door often stood open to the outside air. I ran through the yard barefoot, watched clouds parade by, and sunsets spill across the horizon. Coyotes’ yips echoed through the valley in the evening. Crickets sang. Stars came out. These were all gifts, and I belonged to that earth. The experience of growing up in such a place with the opportunity to experience the natural world as part of the rhythms of every day life created in me a foundation for wanting to remain connected to the earth. To have our feet on the earth, to literally ground our selves there, is life engendering. If deprived of such experiences, I think our bodies and spirits still long for them without possibly even knowing it.
Poetry relies on imagery and figures of speech. It integrates the physical world with the world of language. It tells abstract ideas by recreating the physical world. It reconnects the writer and the reader back to place, and this is a central reason why I find it so powerful. In our world, the culture of the workplace pushes us to compete, to gain power and control. When writing poetry, however, I interactively participate in reconnecting to the physical world and the presence residing beneath and inside the movement of life. I trace my origin of wanting to write back to these childhood experiences of connection to the earth’s vibrant, sustaining presence. Willa Cather writes in My Antonia, “I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.” To be able to wander in time, to play in a landscape or place is to be transformed and enlarged by it. Writing poetry focuses the writer on presence, and in doing so, helps move the writer toward wholeness. I recommend it.
At seventy-three years old, Aretha Franklin sings Carole King’s song, “Natural Woman” at Lincoln Center with perfect timing, range of voice, power and outright presence. If you ever wondered what you might have to offer the world in your aging years, listen to her sing, and you will know what is possible—a person who knows who she is, who is in full possession of herself, and who gives her gifts—her talents and skill to the world as a blessing. This is beauty.
Daniel O’ Leary, a priest in Leeds and former teacher at St. Mary’s University College in London writes, “I like to think that each one of us, when we act out of our true essence rather than out of our false ego, when we refuse to betray our authentic self, when we are in close touch with our own sacred centre, in spite of persistent temptation, persuasion and compulsion to conform and to compromise – that when we act in this way we transform every room we enter, every conversation in which we take part, every relationship we engage in and every project we initiate or join.” Aretha Franklin was most certainly singing from with in the center of her true essence when performing at Lincoln Center, her presence transforming not only those in the room, as evidenced by Carole King’s overwhelmed and enthusiastic reaction to the performance, and by Obama who wiped tears from his eyes, but transforming also those who watch Aretha via the Internet. How do we live like that–from the center of ourselves, moving beyond the desire to demonstrate our skill, ability, talent, or worth—beyond the need to compete and claim a space, beyond nervousness and fear about perceived success—and instead, move into the depths of our own selves, to rest in the acceptance of who we are, including our imperfections and incompleteness? How do we live with open arms, surrendering into life in order to walk into a larger world, so we can let go into our own transformation?
Recently, while traveling through Morocco’s enormous outback of the Atlas Mountains, I noticed how in the desert, the earth lays itself open for all to see. Nothing is hidden, the layers, folds, slumps, the red years of surface soil eroding away to the green rock beneath, solidity slowly wasting away–all is revealed. The Atlas Mountains, opens its chest to Allah, lays bare its red heart. Each ripple and rock stripe, distinctly visible and known. How vulnerable the earth is, face open to sun and wind. The sky kisses the earth. Goats, their shadows following them like dark drifting clouds, amble slowly across the red soil, grazing. Earth’s muscles loses hold. Rocks walls crumble—bones turning into gravel. Mountains slide into valleys in slow, smooth heaps. Complete with folds and flares, in her old age, the earth wears her skirt of splayed sand and rock, swirled out as in slow, ponderous steps–an ancient dance still in play. Continuously, the earth’s age reveals her beauty.
Erosion reveals the layers of earth’s substrata. As in our own lives, the surface wears away as time continues, revealing the bedrock of who we are, what we are built on—what our foundation consists of. When standing in Morocco’s 10 meters (thirty three foot) wide Todra Gorge, the color and stone rise 600 metres (1,969 ft) above in gold-red walls, surround you with their millennia of patiently layered rock, cut through by the Todgha River. The slow turning folds and twists that made the canyon’s strength, humble you, leave you without words. We take the wadi and the world in at a glance—the entire landscape gifted to us, a grace delivered as simply as the sky kissing the earth–a beauty, that like an abstract painting, strips away all to its bare forms and essence–joining us to the oneness lying beneath. To stand in the Todra Gorge is to connect to your foundation, to stand inside it. Experience it.
Todra Gorge cliff and sky
Later, a bit further down the road in the Dades Gorge, I woke the next morning to the view outside my window: the leaves of a tree trembling in the gold, early light of morning’s breeze. Everything around the trees delicate leaves was rock. Solid and still. The sun rose, turning the gorge’s walls to rust. Then, the tree, too, stood still as the stone surrounding it.
The next day, after traveling on to Ait Bin Haddou, I climbed the hill that overlooks the mud walled city. Walking along, Here you can find calcite formations strewn across the earth in palm-sized slabs, and can see the bubbling up in pillow-like form from beneath the soil’s shallow cover. The earth wears stripes here and spots of purple. Wind rushes across the earth, kicks up dust, and streaks the sky with long cloud flares. The sky is the very definition of blue—long vowels of ooooohhhh, moving with the wind’s rough breath, the scattered stones the earth’s consonants. The earth speaks.
Dust in the wind over river bed
Ait Bin Haddou sky
Calcite formations at Ait Bin Haddou
Red and purple earth
In mountains, in sky, in her erosion and old age the earth speaks. She has no pretensions. In full possession of herself, she gives her gifts to the world as blessing. She’s the natural woman. She knows who she is, and she is singing.
Looking out on the morning rain
I used to feel so uninspired
And when I knew I had to face another day
Lord it made me feel so tired
Before the day I met you, life was so unkind
But you’re the key to my peace of mind
‘Cause you make me feel
you make me feel
You make me feel like a natural woman.
A plain dotted with trees and scattered with boulders, Hampi in the Indian state, Karnataka, is a beautiful landscape. My recent visit there during the Diwali holiday allowed me to wander into India’s rural outback, and to laze against sun heated granite by the Tungabhadra River. During the 1500s, the Vijayanagar had a population of 500,000. The empire covered the entire southern portion of India, but Deccan Plateau sultans joined together and defeated the Vijayanagar army. The temples’ treasures were carried off as loot, much of the population was killed, and of those who weren’t killed, many fled. One of the world’s mightiest kingdoms fell to ruin, and gradually into obscurity.
Four hundred years later, Robert Sewell, a British civil servant stationed in India, wrote about the empire in his book, A Forgotten Empire Vijayanagar: A Contribution to the History of India. Much later, in 1986, Hampi became a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In addition to being a World Heritage site, Hampi is also a place of important religious significance for Hindus. As the stories describe, Hampi is the hill where Shiva, the god of destruction, did penance before marrying Pampa. After Shiva married, the gods poured gold onto the Heamakuta hill. According to the Hampi India website, Heamakuta, means heap of gold.
Hampi’s temples and ruins are spread over more than 10 square miles, or 25 square kilometers. There is much to see, and the carvings are fantastic. Though a place of enormous significance for many people on the subcontinent in the 1400 and 1500s, Hampi and the Vijayanagar empire are mostly unknown to people outside of India. As I walked along near the queen’s palace, I ran my hand along one of the carved walls. “My hands are touching history,” I thought to myself. “My hands touch what the ancients have touched, yet I understand so little.” Whether at a ruins of an ancient empire, or walking down the street of our hometown, our lives are enveloped in mysteries. We just don’t often recognize it.
After our day of exploration at the ruins, we went on a walk on the grounds near our hotel. We stepped across bamboo bridges stretching over the river, looped up across massive granite faces. Turning a corner, we tucked ourselves through a wooden door between leaning rock slabs. As we stepped inside, it seemed we had entered into a rock cathedral with windows of sky beaming through the stacked boulders. We continued climbing a short distance to an opening where we stood, at last, to view the valley spread before us in a 360 degree view. It was as if we had entered a secret door that enabled us to see the whole world. What a wonder it was, too–a plain filled with trees, and a river meandering through it with granite boulders balancing in precarious positions and leaning agains each other in dramatic angles. Nature like this is not a site often seen when living in one of the world’s mega cites like Delhi. We scanned our eyes across the landscape, fishing for greenery, for sky, for what we didn’t even know how to name. Our hearts simply opened to the world, and when we left the hilltop, we knew something inside us had shifted. We were lighter, and ,paradoxically, somehow more solid. Nature writer Barry Lopez says, “real beauty is so deep you have to move into darkness to understand it.” This is because when beauty touches you, you slip into a place that is beyond rational thought and abstraction. The divisions between the physical and spiritual worlds collapse into one unified presence. That presence is far bigger than the mind can hold. You are humbled and made whole again.
The beauty of Hampi’s temples is definitely worth traveling a long distance to see. The setting of the ruins themselves, though, is what sets Hampi apart from other locations. In this landscape, you can learn that everywhere is a temple if we have eyes to see it. To be there is to walk around in a colossal expanse of found sculpture, an installation art piece of gargantuan proportions, the origins prehistorical. Everywhere I looked, I saw art emerging from the earth.
Hampi granite sheathes
Rice field, Hampi
Granite sheathe 2
Granite sheathe 3
Rice field, Hampi
The earth is in an ongoing creative act. If you listen, you can hear it speak through its myriad forms. The wind in palm trees chatters with stiff, clattering branches. Wind through bamboo scratches and cracks like arthritic bones. Wind through neem trees speaks with a restless, dry and fragile sound like crinkled onion skins. The earth tells its stories.
In my continuing desire to learn Spanish, I’m reading Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Treehouse book series in Spanish. Currently, I’m reading Una momia al amanecer, or in English, A Mummy at Daybreak. The children in the novel, Annie and Jack, learn how the Egyptians “tried to protect the body against death by preserving it for eternity.” (p. 45) Travel to the Vijayanagar empire’s ruins, however, assures the visitor that empires are temporary. All we have can be lost in a moment. Even stone wears away and topples. In Hindi, Vijay means victory. Victory, if found, is elsewhere, not in empires.
The final stanza of Louise Gluck’s poem “Summer Nights” reads,
Balm of summer night, balm of the ordinary,
imperial joy and sorrow of human existence,
the dreamed as well as the lived–
what could be dearer than this, given the closeness of death?
Life is so dear, and life is full of both imperial joy as well as sorrow. You don’t seem to get one without getting the other too, at least that is what I’ve observed from living in India. Everything is being destroyed and made at the same time. Maybe that is, in part, why art is necessary. It reminds us that we participate in the creative act of life. Perhaps this is why temples have so much art. Religion means to rebind, and the creative act helps us to re-member–to put our selves together again.
“Man is hungry for beauty. There is a void.”—Oscar Wilde
In the streets of my Delhi neighborhood, workers are building new apartments. Women carry sand on their heads. Bricks are stacked on the walkway. Yesterday the populous celebrated Republic Day, and I was reading Pamela Timms’ book, Korma Kheer & Kismet, the chapter titled “Independence Day in Sadar Bazar” where she describes the civic protests of 2011 where social activist, Kisan Baburao “Anna” Hazare, began a hunger strike in protest of government corruption. Concerned with the amount of interest Hazare stirred up in the populace, prime minister of the time, Manmohan Singh responded, ‘”Corruption manifests itself in many forms. Funds meant for schemes for the welfare of the common man end up in the pocket of government officials. In some other instances, government discretion is used to favor a selected few. There are also cases where government contracts are wrongfully awarded to the wrong people. We cannot let such activities continue unchecked.”’ Hazare’s hunger strike began the day after the prime minister made the statement, reports Timms, and goes on to describe some of the corruptions in the system—food vendors paying as much as a quarter of their salaries to the police to be able to stay open, and rickshaw drivers paying as much as 20% of their salaries to police to prevent their tires from being slashed, families having to pay bribe money to secure a place for their child at school. (p. 55) (You can read an overview of large-scale corruption in India here if you wish.)
It’s no surprise that corruption is present not only in India. It is a worldwide problem in both businesses, see a list here of top business corruption cases, and governments. Take a look at the thematic map from Transparency International here, to see a visual representation of corruption levels in countries across the world. Justice doesn’t prevail. In many cases, it’s simply the way the world functions where people live, and the everyday person, if he or she wants to function in society, doesn’t have a lot of choice about it.
With corruption and misuse of power so widespread, an enormous percentage of people in the world are pawns to those who hold the power. How do people manage? How do people—any of us and all of us—caught in such systems go on living with good conscience? I remember listening to Garth Lenz describing on his TED Talk about the effects of mining for oil in Canada’s tar sands had on the native people of the area. Parents in that area are caught in the dilemma of needing to feed their children, yet the toxins in the river are causing cancers at the rate of 10 times what it is in other parts of Canada. Because it’s very costly to fly in all the food a person needs in order eat, the aboriginal people are forced to eat the food “..as a parent, I just can’t imagine what that does to your soul. And that’s what we’re doing,” says Lenz. (transcript available here.) Certainly there were people during the time of Spain’s inquisition, in Nazi Germany and in Pol Pot’s Cambodia who didn’t agree with the government’s position but felt compelled to go along with the crowd mentality for fear of their own lives and those of their children’s. Certainly, there are people today in our own institutions who disagree with the use of power and yet are afraid of speaking out for fear of losing their jobs and the livelihood for their families. Not everyone can just move on or move out to a new situation, new job, new country, new life, and even if that were possible, where might one live or work where corruption was not part of the way of life? We have to learn to live in a fallen world.
I’m reminded of Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poem, “I Open a Box,” in her book, Ancestor’s Song, where she describes her Italian immigrant mother’s doctor coming to her New Jersey tenement to assist her in the delivery of her baby. He arrives late, and Gillan’s mother has already given birth, cut the umbilical cord, and washed her child. When the doctor finally arrives, he doesn’t even enter the room. Instead, he distances himself from the situation.
“He washed his hands, wiped
them on one of the rough linen towels
I brought from Italy, stood in the doorway.
“You’ll be okay,” he said, and left.
“Oh, well,” my mother said, “I think
he was afraid of catching it.”
“Catching what?” I asked.
“Poverty,” she said.
Poverty is often perceived by wealthier countries as something out there over there, not mine not related to one’s own life. Like the doctor at the door, people want to distance themselves from the poor, not realizing their lives are connected. We may want to stand at the door like the doctor of this poem observing a world we don’t want to be a part of. We may think we can wash our hands, bid others well and walk away, and disconnect ourselves from what we don’t want and live in a different neighborhood. But our lives are intertwined. One example: A few years back, students in my speech class debated whether the lithium beneath Bolivia’s salt flats should be mined. The area is of tremendous beauty yet the area holds more than half the world’s lithium. Lithium is a lightweight metal used in powering our high tech products—iPhones, iPods, and other handheld devices. Now, as the world searches for alternative energy and looks towards ways to store electricity in batteries in order to meet more of our needs, including the use of batteries for electric vehicles, the need for lithium grows in greater and greater demand.
Dan McDougal, in his article on Mail Online “In search of Lithium: The battle for the third element” quotes a lithium-ion battery producer, Mary Ann Wright of Johnson Controls-Saft, ‘Since a vehicle battery requires 100 times as much lithium carbonate as its laptop equivalent, the green-car revolution could make lithium one of the planet’s most strategic commodities.’“ There’s not enough lithium to power the world’s 900 million vehicles, however, McDougal observes. Bolivia has significantly large amounts of the needed lithium to produce the batteries for the growing electric car industry, an industry that most people perceive as a green technology. Mc Dougal reports that according to “William Tahil, research director with technology consultancy Meridian International Research, ‘to make just 60 million plug-in hybrid vehicles a year containing a small lithium-ion battery would require 420,000 tons of lithium carbonate – or six times the current global production annually.” To continue, McDougal goes on to report that “The US Geological Survey claims at least 5.4 million tons of lithium could be extracted in Salar De Uyuni, while another report puts it as high as nine million tons.”’ Bolivia is a very poor country. Child workers are exploited, but children work to help their families. While mining the mineral would bring needed jobs and money into the country, a problem is that mining the mineral requires an abundance of water, and water is a rare commodity in Bolivia’s high desert. Bolivia has experienced exploitation by outsiders before in the tin and silver mining industries. An overuse of water could significantly affect the country and its people in numerous ways—making it difficult to have enough water for daily use, as well as for farming. Additionally, mining pollutes water with toxins as well. McDougal asks his readers “Is the world’s need for a green solution to transport worth the destruction of this unique environment and way of life that it lives on?”
Transportation is necessary. Our society is structured in such a way that few of us can walk to work. We need some way of getting to work. We want to do that in the least harmful way to the environment and others. As a result, in the desire to move away from our dependence on oil, many people are looking toward buying an electric car. These same people may be unaware that in doing so they are connected to moral dilemmas of another sort. We are all part of the greater web of being.
Parker Palmer, in his book, The Courage to Teach, which I’m currently reading, talks about the biologist Barbara McClintock, who was given the Nobel Prize in 1983 for her work that changed our understanding of genetics. Prior to her work, people thought of genes as separate things, not in connection to the environment they were a part of. Palmer explains that McClintock’s interviewer who wrote her biography, Fox Keller, “wanted to know, ‘What enabled McClintock to see further and deeper into the mysteries of genetics than her colleagues?’ McClintock’s answer, Keller tells us, is simple: “Over and over again she tells us one must have the time to look, the patience to ‘hear what the material has to say to you,’ the openness to ‘let it come to you.’ Above all, one must have ‘a feeling for the organism.’” We co-create our world. We can’t stand at the door. The burden of the cost of anything is born by all eventually. As Palmer goes on to say, “Modern knowledge has allowed us to manipulate the world but not to control its fate (to say nothing of our own), a fact that becomes more clear each day as the ecosystem dies and our human systems fail.” (p. 57) Perhaps, then one important way of living inside of corrupt systems and move ourselves and society toward greater wholeness is to do what we can with those around us to build and restore relationships constructively. Some things or many things may not be in our power. But some things will. We can learn to listen closely to the interrelationships of people and things so we gain a greater connection to life. With this understanding, we can better comprehend what actions will create harmony both with others and with nature.
Dostoyevsky said, “Beauty can save the world.” While it may not appear to be a solution to growing environmental and social concerns, the idea deserves a closer look. What connection does beauty have in showing us a way through our dilemmas of how to live in unjust social systems? The New York Times “Books” section, published in 1987 includes an excerpt from Richard Ellman’s essay “Oscar Wilde.” Ellman relates the story of Oscar Wilde coming to New York City in 1882. “Beauty is nearer to most of us than we are aware,” Wilde explained talking to reporters. One of the reporters wanted to know if a nearby grain elevator was beautiful. Earlier in the conversation, Wilde had said, ‘I am here to diffuse beauty, and I have no objection to saying that.” As reporters continued probing, Wilde explained further his ideas about beauty. ”’It’s a wide field which has no limit, and all definitions are unsatisfactory. Some people might search and not find anything. But the search, if carried on according to right laws, would constitute estheticism. They would find happiness in striving, even in despair of ever finding what they sought. The renaissance of beauty is not to be hoped for without strife internal and external.” ”Where then is this movement to end?” ”There is no end to it; it will go on forever, just as it had no beginning. I have used the word renaissance to show that it is no new thing with me. It has always existed. As time goes on the men and the forms of expression may change, but the principle will remain. Man is hungry for beauty. . . . There is a void; nature will fill it. The ridicule which esthetes have been subjected to is the only way of blind unhappy souls who cannot find the way to beauty.”’ Creating a world of beauty is creating the ideal world. Creating a heaven, so to speak. To do so will take great effort. But people are hungry for it, as Wilde says. We are hungry for beauty, and that hunger connects to the desire for a world without corruption. Without corruption, beauty has a better chance of thriving.
Elaine Scarry, author of On Beauty and Being Just, speaks on her Harvard Thinks Big, “Beauty as a Call to Justice” about how experiences of beauty help to move humans toward justice. When we experience the beautiful, we are pulled out of our everyday way of interacting with our surroundings. We stand still. We are transfixed, she explains. In those moments, beauty pours into us an awareness of the “surfeit of aliveness.” It takes us out of ourselves, and connects us with a larger reality. Scarry makes the case that this experience of beauty helps lead us to love what we see and to want to care for it and have a relationship with it.
I don’t know if its true as Keats said in his “Ode to a Grecian Urn” that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” but I do believe we need to have a much deeper knowing of beauty than we currently hold. There is a relationship between our loss of beauty in many of our urban environments, a loss resulting from our pragmatic values that relegates beauty to the bottom realms, and efficiency to the higher realms of priority. When I speak of beauty, I’m not talking about beauty in the decorative or commercial sense. I’m speaking of the beauty such as nature gives us in a star strewn sky or a valley sweeping down in green fields from stoney mountain peaks. I’m speaking of the beauty Scarry described above—that stops us short, that overwhelms, and then lifts us out of ourselves. Is our culture’s pragmatic love of efficiency causing us to structure society in such a way that it’s actually challenging to make deep connections with others? We have connection to people on Facebook, but does the minimalistic communication that exists there nurture deep conversation and relationship? I doubt it. Could it also be true that our lack of seeing ourselves as connected to the beauty of the Bolivian salt flats and the lives of Bolivian miners as we pursue our technological development (and other similar realities) is part of the reason corruption continues to thrive? Do people act in ugly ways because they live in a world where connection to the natural world is broken? In glimpses of beauty, we can see the world we want to belong to, a world of balance and wholeness, and are drawn to it. If we gave beauty a place of respect and honor in our cultures, possibly we would treat the world with more respect. If we developed more of a relationship with those around us and with the natural world, wouldn’t we understand our connection to the world and realize more fully the effects of our choices? Is our collective loss of beauty causing us to lose our souls?
I never used to understand the Jesus prayer—the ancient prayer that says, “Have mercy on me.” I felt it seemed too focused on the negative and I already struggle to move beyond my failures. But as I see myself more and more intertwined with the existence of all that is, I see the value of this prayer. What the world is or isn’t, isn’t all up to me, but I’m also a part of all that is. How do we live in a corrupt world and yet continue to grow toward wholeness? The problems are all much bigger than me but mercy is extended. “For the Beauty of the Earth” is an old song that carries with it the idea of giving praise for the world around us and to the skies. Perhaps the ongoing practice of noticing and valuing beauty in the world, as the words of this song illustrate, acts to create a greater awareness of our interconnectivity. It’s worth trying.
One of the especially valuable aspects of creative work—of art and literature, of writing—is the way it nurtures the inner life. The artist must look very carefully at whatever she or he is drawing in order to see it and how it functions in relationship to itself and to the world it inhabits. In writing, an author must delve inside the subject with imagination in order to understand the subject and the interrelationship of the subject to oneself and the world. To write or to do art is to cultivate beauty. It is a way to reconnect to the world, is a way of making whole again as telling our story is a way of making us whole again. The flourishing of this kind of empathetic understanding that comes through our interaction with literature and the arts is important to not only the continuance of the world, but the continuance of a world that is good to live in.
Wherever we are, we can work with others to create greater wholeness. If we are going to change at all, it will be a step-by-step movement toward wholeness. In the mean time, we can pray as we walk, “have mercy,” and, by grace, we will continue on.
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