The Universe’s Beautiful Furnishings

As I was lying in bed late the other night, I was still thinking about the physical universe, and a bunch of images arose in my mind.  Earlier that evening, I had watched an episode of Nova called “Hunting the Edge of Space: The Ever Expanding Universe.”  As I lay on my back, I thought about what surrounds each of us – there are one’s immediate surroundings, of course, as well as the Earth below and the atmosphere above, and then there’s the neighborhood of our solar system with its wide variety of planets, and then there are the stars, planets, and other things that populate our Milky Way galaxy, and beyond that, a hundred billion other galaxies, each containing at least a hundred billion stars.  And so I lay in bed bathed in images and awe – it’s pretty hard not to be astounded by the immensity and beauty of the physical universe.

Many of the images that emerged in my mind that night were supplied by the Nova program I had watched earlier.  Like many people, I owe a dept of gratitude to the people behind NovaNova does such a terrific job with physics and astronomy – watching an episode is kind of like hiking on a highline trail in Rockies: though you’re going along at a very comfortable pace, your adrenaline is running high, and you encounter one breathtaking vista after another.  After the hike ends, the exhilaration lingers for quite a while, and the trail is easy to revisit in memory during the weeks and months to come.

The ongoing partnership between humans and telescopes figures prominently in this particular episode of Nova.  Early in the episode, the narrator talks about Edwin Hubble, who fastidiously studied images generated by an enormous telescope – the largest of its time – located atop Mount Wilson near Pasadena, California.  At one point in his research, Hubble was paying particular attention to what appeared to be a fuzzy, star-filled patch of light located in the constellation of Andromeda.  This fuzzy patch of light was then known as the “Andromeda Nebula.”  With painstaking care, Hubble studied many images of the Andromeda Nebula, always on the lookout for a certain kind of variable star called a “Cepheid variable.”  Cepheid variable stars act as standard candles – astronomers know how bright Cepheid variables are intrinsically, so when they locate such a star and measure its brightness (relative to us), they can calculate how far away it is.  Hubble eventually succeeded in locating a Cepheid variable within the Andromeda Nebula and was thereby able to show that the distance between us and the Andromeda Nebula is many times the distance between us and the most distant stars of our own galaxy.  In this way, he showed that the universe stretches far beyond the borders of our particular galaxy.  (It’s hard to imagine how extraordinarily exciting Hubble’s discovery must have been – presumably, for Hubble himself, all of that painstaking work must have seemed a more than fair price to pay for such an experience.)

Due to Hubble’s work, what was then called the “Andromeda Nebula” is now familiar to us as the “Andromeda Galaxy.”  We know now that the Andromeda Galaxy is part of a cluster of galaxies to which our Milky Way Galaxy itself belongs, a cluster containing between 30 and 40 galaxies that astronomers call the “Local Group.”  The Andromeda Galaxy is stunningly beautiful, perhaps in part because it is a particularly lovely spiral galaxy – its spiral arms wind away from its bright, bulging center in airy, luminous arcs.  Under good conditions, you can see the Andromeda Galaxy with the naked eye.  It’s pretty thrilling to look at, especially when you think about how far and long its light has traveled on its way to the encounter with your eye: the Andromeda Galaxy is about two and a half million light years away, so by the time its light reaches your eye, that light has been traveling for about 2.5 million years.


(If you’ve never seen the Andromeda Galaxy in the night sky and you’d like to do so, it’s pretty easy to find.  One way to find it is to first locate the constellation of Cassiopeia, a prominent constellation that looks like a ‘W’ (or an ‘M’, depending on how you’re looking at it).  On the chart to the right, the Andromeda Galaxy is right in the center, directly below Cassiopeia, marked in red and labeled ‘M31’.  In the actual sky, the galaxy looks a bit like a fuzzy thumbprint of light.)
_____
___________

It seems hard to believe that the discovery of galaxies beyond our own occurred so recently in human history.  It wasn’t until the 1920s that Edwin Hubble located a Cepheid variable star within the Andromeda Nebula and used it to establish that the physical universe extends far beyond the borders of the Milky Way.  So even as recently as a hundred years ago, the known universe did not extend beyond the galaxy we inhabit, which is in fact only one of at least a hundred billion galaxies.  Of course, these days, powerful telescopes enable us to see all kinds of galaxies.  During one particularly striking segment in the Nova episode, the narrator describes a project involving the Hubble Space Telescope: in 1995, astronomers pointed the Hubble toward what seemed to be an empty region, a place of plain, old, dark space.  Here’s an excerpt from the transcript of this particular part of the program:

NARRATOR: In 1995, Hubble’s ability to look back in time is put to the test. Astronomers decide to turn its gaze onto one dark point in the universe, just to find out what they can see.
MARIO LIVIO:
We picked one tiny point in the sky, in which there was, essentially, nothing there.
MATT MOUNTAIN:
We stared, for 10 days, at a single dark spot on the sky.
NARRATOR:
It is as if Hubble was peering through a tiny keyhole of our Milky Way galaxy, to the universe beyond.
MATT MOUNTAIN:
The size of the spot that we looked through was no more than a drinking straw.
NARRATOR:
What Hubble sees is extraordinary.
MATT MOUNTAIN:
And what we saw were 10,000 galaxies in that single spot.
MARIO LIVIO:
Every point of light that you see in the image represents a galaxy with a hundred billion stars like the Sun.
NARRATOR:
The image is called the Hubble Deep Field. It shows light from galaxies four-billion times fainter than anything we can see with the human eye, light that set out on its journey billions of years ago.
MARIO LIVIO:
If there is something to give you a sense of the size of the universe and its depth, it’s this kind of image.

This is the kind of anecdote that gives one gooseflesh, yes?  An itty bitty part of the sky looks dark and dead, but look more closely, and it’s full of thousands of galaxies – thousands of galaxies, each containing billions upon billions of stars.  Scratch the surface of the physical universe, and there’s incredible detail, color, complexity, and beauty.

The Nova episode also describes how telescope data helped astronomers determine that the universe is expanding, that it had a beginning as a tiny singularity, and that its rate of expansion is increasing (rather than staying the same or decreasing).  The narrator explains that dark energy is responsible for the expansion.  At this point in human history, the nature of dark energy is largely mysterious, though astronomers are confident that 72% of the universe as a whole is constituted by dark energy.  Another 23% is constituted by dark matter; whereas dark energy pushes things outward, dark matter pulls things inward – were there no dark matter, galaxies would fly apart.  Only a measly 5% of the physical universe is constituted by stuff that’s familiar to us: protons, neutrons, electrons, and photons, for instance.

So if you lie face-up under the night sky and think about the billions of galaxies that surround you on all sides, each with its billions of stars, don’t forget to include the reams and reams of dark matter and dark energy that weave through all of those galaxies.

Do you ever wonder how your experience of the night sky (on a cloudless night) differs from what it would have been had you lived a hundred years ago and been unaware of anything beyond the Milky Way Galaxy?  Do you wonder how your experience would have been different had you lived, say, 3000 years ago?  When I do these kinds of thought experiments, my first inclination is to think that my experience would be very different, and that a more limited view of the universe would naturally be associated with a more mundane experience of the night sky.  But upon reflection, I find myself questioning my initial inclination.  Perhaps, the night sky is just simply astounding, whatever its nature.

In any case, when one considers all of the physical structures that make up the universe, from tiny quarks to clusters of galaxies, it’s hard not to feel amazed.  And it’s hard not to be amazed by the laws of physics themselves: the laws that give the universe’s constituents their physical natures and, in some sense, shape the furniture of the universe into the forms it takes.  As I think about this experience of amazement and awe, science writer Martin Gardner comes to mind.  Gardner offers a particularly satisfying expression of this kind of amazement in his book The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener.

(Gardner is perhaps best known for his work as a columnist for the magazine Scientific American.  He was an extremely creative person, excelling in mathematics, delighting in science, dabbling in philosophy, and participating in all sorts of endeavors.  He just recently died – less than a year ago – at age 95.)

________

One particularly intriguing idea that Gardner discusses is the view that the laws of physics will never be fully understood and codified, that there will always be much that lies beyond our current understanding of physical reality, just as there is much that lies beyond what we can see with the naked eye when we look up at the sky during a clear night.  He is drawn to the view that “nature is infinitely exhaustible, and there will be always be wheels within wheels, and wheels outside wheels.  Murray Gell-Mann once compared physics to the task of perpetually cleaning out a cluttered basement.  No sooner is the basement’s outline seen than somebody finds a cleverly hidden trapdoor leading to a vast subbasement.  David Bohm and Stanislaw Ulam are among those who believe that the universe has infinitely many levels of structure in both directions, toward the large and toward the small.” (p. 328 of The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener)

Late in the book, Gardner writes about a certain sort of sensation, “the sensation of overwhelming awe that comes upon certain people at times when they reflect on the fact that anything exists at all.” (p. 296)  Gardner does a superb job of conveying that sense of awe – awe in the face of what exists, awe in the face of the forms and shapes that the furnishings of the universe happen to take (furnishings from elementary particles to superclusters of galaxies), and awe in the face of the mathematical equations that in some sense mold the universe and give it its own distinct character.

Even though Gardner’s understanding of physics and astronomy was much deeper than that of a typical PBS viewer, I can’t help but wonder whether he was a fan of Nova

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Love

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been eating those chalky Valentine’s Day hearts that appear on the shelves of drug stores shortly after the Christmas sale items disappear.  The candy hearts come in a variety of colors and sport a variety of short messages, messages stamped on the hearts in red capital letters (messages such as ‘flirt’, ‘true love’, ‘no way’, ‘ask me’, ‘xoxo’, ‘all yours’, etc.).  I bought the hearts for a purpose other than eating them, and I’m not proud of the fact that I actually cracked open the bag – eating one is like eating a sugar cube straight up.  After maxing out on four or five of the hearts (different colors, of course), I think yuck! until a day or so later when I think, what the heck?, and proceed to have another few.  I think that part of the reason I’m even remotely tempted by the chalky hearts is that they bring me back to Valentine’s Day celebrations in grade school.  My classmates and I would put the little hearts with their goofy messages into the envelopes that encased the Valentine’s Day cards we’d drop into each other’s Valentine’s Bags (paper bags we had decorated by decking them out in things like doilies and construction paper hearts).  We were required to give cards to everyone if we gave them to anyone, so by the end of the day, each of us had a bag full of cards and candy (and Trident sugarless gum from Stephanie, whose father was a dentist).  In grade school, Valentine’s Day was a blast.

These days, though I recoil from much of the sentimentality surrounding this holiday, I’m still glad that it exists.  One good thing about it is that it seems to invite people to think about the nature of love – not just romantic love, but love of all kinds.  And thinking about love might lead to insights, and such insights might help to bring about or foster human flourishing – a good thing.

Incidentally, I think about love (in all its variety) a lot, whether or not Valentine’s Day is in the vicinity.  That’s not to say that I have any special expertise on the topic of love – if anything, I’m kind of a kindergartener in this respect.  But given that the holiday just recently occurred, I thought it might be a good time to blog about some sources of insight I’ve come across on the topic of love.  [There are all sorts of important sources of insight I’ll have to leave out, but at least I’ll be able to describe a few.  I’ll take the easiest route and focus on ideas that have been on my mind recently.  A related note: In rereading the first draft of this post, I feared that it might strike readers as a sprawling hodgepodge of disparate thoughts, ideas, and comments that are loosely related to each other in disparate ways.  I also feared that people might find it preachy; I was so freaked out about the possibility of sounding preachy that I almost didn’t post it.  In any case, I hope that even if you find the remainder of the post hodgepodgey and you keep reading anyway, you find ideas that resonate with your own experience and/or are helpful to you in some way.]

Like lots of people, I’ve thought a lot about different kinds of love, and I’ve been helped immensely in this endeavor by literature.  In this post, I’ll highlight some core insights I’ve come across in ‘young adult’ (or ‘YA’) literature, which I thoroughly enjoy.  I find that often, the characters in YA literature communicate very important, profound ideas in refreshingly straightforward, pithy ways.

For instance, I recently read a very insightful novel on the topic of love: Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan (the same authors who teamed up to bring us Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist).  Here are a couple of passages that struck me as being especially insightful:

_____

_____I think I’m going to learn to appreciate the word close.  Because that’s what Naomi and I are.  We’re close.  Not all the way there.  Not identical.  Not soul mates.  But close.  Because that’s as far as you should ever get with another person: very, very close.
_____That’s what I want with Bruce too.
_____I want to be close.
_____It’s bullshit to think of friendship and romance as being different.  They’re not.  They’re variations of the same love.  Variations of the same desire to be close.

[a few pages later:]

It’s a total lie to say there’s only one person you’re going to be with for the rest of your life.
_____If you’re lucky – and if you try really hard – there will always be more than one.

True, true, true.  And one thing that makes the novel so successful is that it displays the truth of the insights just quoted – through the characters, their relationships, their choices, and the changes they undergo – so that readers feel and experience the insights, rather than just processing them in the abstract.  The characters display the vast capacity of the human heart to love, the way that the heart can expand to encompass many different people and things and still have lots of room for more.  And the characters show how very fulfilling it is to cultivate close relationships and how impoverished life would be (at least for many of us) in the absence of this sort of closeness.

One particularly enjoyable benefit of closeness is that when you are in the presence of someone to whom you are close, all kinds of experiences tend to be deeper, more vivid, and more precious.  You’re more likely to be struck by the uniqueness and beauty of everyday objects.  Music is more tangible, visual experiences are more vivid, and food tastes better.  Probably, most (if not all) people are familiar with this kind of phenomenon.  For me, this kind of phenomenon – this heightening and appreciation that closeness brings – is beautifully expressed by American poet Conrad Aiken when he writes: music I heard with you was more than music, and bread I broke with you was more than bread.

I first read these lines in a memoir called Two Part Invention by Madeleine L’Engle.  The memoir focuses on her marriage to actor Hugh Franklin and her experiences as he battled, and eventually died from, cancer.  In the memoir, Conrad Aiken’s lines are quoted multiple times, and they make up the final sentence of the book.

Madeleine L’Engle’s novels and autobiographical writings (and passages written by others that she quotes therein) have taught me a great deal about love.  In her view, and in the view of many of her characters, the most significant thing that humans can do is love; love is at the center of the meaning of life.  Along these lines, there’s precious little that’s more fulfilling than loving (in one or more of the myriad ways of loving) and being loved.  (Of course, Madeleine L’Engle and her characters are not alone; the idea that love is central to human flourishing is an idea that lies at the heart of many religious traditions as well as many novels and stories about the human condition.  This idea seems to me to be an obvious truth, but a profound and deeply important truth as well.)

Here’s an exchange between some of the characters in L’Engle’s novel, A Ring of Endless Light (the title comes from a poem called ‘The World’ by seventeenth century British poet Henry Vaughan).  The book is narrated in the first person; the narrator is Vicki, who is struggling with the deaths (or impending deaths) of certain family members and friends.  The passage occurs near the end of the novel:

_____

_____‘Wonder who’ll be the next to go?’ the woman had asked at Commander Rodney’s funeral.  Maybe it wouldn’t be our grandfather after all.  Maybe it would be Jeb Nutterly, struck down as wantonly as his wife and child.  …
_____“I’m going to help Father get ready for bed,” Daddy said.
_____Suzy demanded, “So, are you going to ask him to pray for Jeb?”
_____“Why not?” Daddy responded mildly.
_____“You mean, it may not do any good but it probably won’t do any harm?”
_____Daddy’s voice was still mild.  “I think it well may do some good.”
_____Suzy snorted and turned away from Daddy, so that she was facing Mother.
_____Mother put her hand against Suzy’s cheek.  “I believe in prayer.  You know that.”
_____“But you don’t even know Jeb!  You’ve never even met him!”
_____“What’s got into you?” John demanded sharply.
_____Suzy still sounded angry.  “Prayer didn’t keep Jeb from being hit by a car.  It didn’t stop Grandfather from having leukemia.”
_____“Prayer was never meant to be magic,” Mother said.
_____“Then why bother with it?” Suzy scowled.
_____“Because it’s an act of love,” Mother said.

Incidentally (or maybe not so incidentally), L’Engle didn’t think that one has to belong to an organized religion or be a theist in order to pray.  I agree – it seems to me that a prayer can be simply a pure act of love, a deep expression of care and hope for someone’s well-being, regardless of how one views the nature of reality.

The passage from A Ring of Endless Light brings to mind a similar sort of act of love that’s well known in certain Buddhist circles: metta meditation practice.  [A quick note about the meaning of the word ‘metta’: In English translations, ‘metta’ is often translated by the words ‘loving-kindness’.  In Buddhism, loving-kindness is one of four Brahmaviharas, or divine states of mind (the word ‘Brahmavihara’ may be translated by the phrase ‘divine abode’).  Besides loving-kindness, the Brahmaviharas include compassion, equanimity, and sympathetic joy.]

In doing metta meditation practice, one focuses one’s mind on a certain person, group of people, animal, or perhaps the totality of all sentient beings.  With that person (or group of people, etc.) at the forefront of one’s psyche, one says (either silently or aloud) something like this:

May you be happy.
May you be free from suffering and the root of suffering.
May you be well.
May you be peaceful and at ease.
May you be filled with loving-kindness.

Here, I’ve added the second line, which I’ve often heard recited, to the lines that Jack Kornfield recommends in his book, A Path with Heart: A Guide through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life (first published by Bantam Books in 1993; Kornfield’s discussion of metta meditation can be found on pp. 19-21).  I’ve heard lots of variations on those lines.  Here’s a variation that especially appeals to me:

May you be happy.
May you be free from suffering.
May you be peaceful and at ease.
May you be filled with loving-kindness.
May you love and be loved.
May you enjoy insight and wisdom.
May you live in joy.

Typically, in doing this practice, one repeats the set of lines again and again, focusing in turn on different people (or groups of people, or animals, or groups of animals and people, etc.).  It seems to me that doing metta meditation for someone is a paradigmatic act of love.

In discussing the nature of love, people often distinguish between love as an emotion and love as an act.  This distinction seems to me to be a helpful one, even if it ultimately breaks down.  One difference between an emotion that one might call ‘love’ and an act of love is that one probably doesn’t have direct control over the emotion – one can’t simply and directly bring oneself to experience the emotion on the spot in the way that one can simply choose to do, say, metta meditation for someone.  Here’s an example of a kind of emotion that seems deserving of the name ‘love’ (of course, there are other sorts of emotions that deserve the name just as much; the word ‘love’ has many senses).  What I have in mind is the sort of emotion one experiences when one simply delights in the existence of someone, whether that person knows it or not.  It’s the sort of emotion that naturally accompanies thoughts along the following lines:

‘I’m so glad that you exist, that you’re part of the world.  From what I can see of your soul, it’s breathtakingly beautiful, and I’m so grateful to have been in a position to glimpse it.  You’re glorious, and the world would have been a paler, blander, starker place had you never been born.  I hope that you know this, and I wish you the very best – I hope that you truly and completely flourish and that you never cease to do so.  May you find whatever you seek; may your deepest desires be satisfied; may you be your best self; may you love deeply; may your existence be thoroughly permeated with joy, creativity, and freedom.’

Do you know the emotion I’m describing?  It seems to me that it’s a kind of love, even if it never gets explicitly expressed.  (Though I’ve experienced this emotion toward, probably, several dozen people, I’ve expressed it to only a few of them.  And given what I read and hear from others, I’m not alone in this regard – I’m not sure, but I’d bet that in general this kind of love is unexpressed more often than it’s expressed.)

Like many people who, for one reason or another, think a lot about love, I think a lot about what it is to be a loving person – the sort of person whose basic stance toward others and toward the world is genuinely open-hearted.  And then I think about specific people I know who have this open-hearted quality, and I wonder how they came to have it (especially given all of the pointless and deeply disturbing suffering that goes on in the world).  I have a few ideas about how one might become more loving, but the process of developing into such a person is, to me, largely mysterious.  As always, though, art provides helpful insights.  Here’s an example of a work of art – another poem by Mary Oliver – that bears on the topic at hand.  The poem seems to me to convey a helpful depiction of a loving person and to motivate readers to want to be the sort of person described by the poem.  Sometimes, as I’m moving along through daily life, it helps me to bring this poem to mind, especially the part about the bride and the bridegroom.  If you are familiar with the poem, I hope that you enjoy revisiting it.  And if you’ve never heard it, I hope that you like it.

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Smiles and Buenos Aires

I recently returned to the Twin Cities from Buenos Aires, where I spent a week visiting my cousin Susan and her family.  There’s so much that I’d like to write about in connection with this vacation, and it’s hard to know where to start.  But I think I’ll start with the smiles.  (At this point, if you’re tempted to roll your eyes or put your hands to your throat, please resist – forget about ways in which smiles can be sentimentalized, and just think about the bare phenomenon of human beings smiling.  Of course, it’s a universal human phenomenon, crossing all kinds of cultural, spatial, and temporal barriers – a phenomenon well worth thinking about and enjoying.)

Genuine smiles (truly authentic smiles, as opposed to artificial smiles, overly sentimental smiles, manipulative smiles, grimaces, etc.) are so amazing and delightful that it’s impossible to be entirely cynical about humanity in the face of them (no pun intended!).  If human beings can do something like produce genuine smiles, then humans can’t be all bad – there’s got to be some good in creatures who can spontaneously produce such radiant beauty.

One of the most delightful types of experiences I had in Buenos Aires was the experience of exchanging smiles with strangers.  The experiences were especially delightful due to the vivid awareness that they were so very unlikely, so entirely coincidental, and so completely momentary.  For example, at one point, I was taking the train from La Lucila (the neighborhood in which I was staying) to Retiro (in the heart of downtown Buenos Aires), and a sudden exchange of smiles took me by surprise.  Here was this person – this beautiful guy with a whole life behind him about which I know nothing and a whole life ahead of him that I won’t be any part of.  And yet our lives overlapped in this one instance and connected in a completely delightful way.

I’ll call the guy on the train ‘Alejandro’ (while in Buenos Aires, I heard about several different Alejandros; the name seems to be very common there).  When I think about the chances of my having made this connection with Alejandro, my mind reels at how slim they were.  Over 15 million people live in Buenos Aires, and at the time I visited – the peak of summer – the city was crawling with tourists from all over the world.  The chances of my being in Argentina (a long way from Minnesota, needless to say), being on the same train as Alejandro, and actually exchanging a smile with him were practically nil.  And yet it happened, and it was all the more precious because neither of us had any kind of agenda with respect to the other – there was absolutely no reason for either of us to try to impress the other in any way.  And there were several smile exchanges like this with different people throughout the trip.  I love it that this kind of experience is not only possible for humans to have, but so easy to have – all one has to do is be open to it.  When it happens, even though its incredibly transitory, it’s earth-shattering in its own way.  Do you know what I mean?  I imagine so. : )

Of course, another common kind of experience of a smile occurs when you happen to observe an authentic smile that’s not directed at you at all.  Having such a smile fall into your line of sight is like suddenly having a masterpiece fall into your line of sight – you’re suddenly treated to a full dose of unexpected beauty, and you feel really fortunate to have been given this little window into someone’s private world.  I experienced this a number of times (as all of us do, perhaps several times a day).  My most memorable experience of this kind of smile in Buenos Aires occurred on a tour bus.  I was being bused with about thirty other tourists to a boat that would bring us through some of the channels in the huge Tigre delta north of downtown Buenos Aires.  Only four of the bus passengers spoke English, so most of the tour guide’s commentary was in Spanish.  At one point, the tour guide – Cynthia – was talking about soccer players and asked the tourists which of two soccer players was the best (I really wish that I could remember the names of the players – the fact that I can’t shows how little I know about soccer).  One of the players was a current Argentine hero (something like “Montero” or “Marcello”?); the other player was from another country, Chile I think.  Anyway, when Cynthia asked which of the two was the better player, a loud chorus of people called out the name of the Chilean player, and at that moment, a couple of tourists from Chile had huge smiles on their faces – beautiful, breath-taking, laughing smiles.  What a completely delicious treat!

The photos below are some of my favorite smile photos – not from the trip (the smiles I’ve described above were so spontaneous and sudden that it would have been impossible to capture them on camera), but from photographer Nathan Kavlie’s huge inventory of captivating photos.

About the photos: The first image is a photo of the family of a friend of Nathan’s and can be found (together with more photos of the same family) in Nathan’s blog at http://www.nathankavlieblog.com.  Photos two through seven were taken at weddings and can all be seen on Nathan’s wedding website at http://www.nathankavlie.com/weddings; even if you’re not currently involved in any sort of wedding planning, check out the website – it’s full of terrific photos.  The eighth photo is from Nathan’s portfolio on Model Mayhem, a social networking site for models, photographers, visual artists who work with models, etc.  Nathan’s Model Mayhem profile can be viewed here: http://www.modelmayhem.com/383666.  The two models in the photo, Jack Kloppenborg and Jesse Griffith, each have their own profiles: Jack’s is here: http://www.modelmayhem.com/1010020, and Jesse’s is here: http://www.modelmayhem.com/1150238.    Enjoy!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Music and Human Nature

No human society – at least, no human society known to anthropologists – has existed without music.  I can’t remember how or where I learned this fact – I think I’ve heard it repeatedly – but in any case, I don’t doubt it.  Music is so amazing that it’s difficult to truly comprehend how amazing it is, yes?  It’s just flat out wondrous that a pattern of waves in air molecules can interact with the machinery inside a person’s ears and thereby affect him so powerfully and profoundly that his whole state of mind changes dramatically as a result of the interaction.  (A friend of mine who is a staunch atheist has said repeatedly that if he ever becomes a theist, it will be due to Bach and Handel (rather than, say, a set of arguments for the claim that God exists).  I don’t doubt him.)

If one wants to better understand music and its power, what should one do?  Well, obviously, play and/or listen to music (if possible).  But in addition, one should look to literature; literature is a particularly rich source of insight about the nature of music.  So, here, I’ll turn to literature as a way of exploring music and its power: I’ll set out passages from novels – passages that seem to me to be particularly illuminating – and I’ll hope that you find them so as well.

Like many people, I’m drawn to novels in which music plays a major role.  Novels are great at illuminating the different ways in which music can act on us as it permeates our psyches.  In my experience, novels that feature ‘young adults’ as main characters can be particularly good sources of musical insight; all of the passages below are from such novels.  The passages illustrate various facets of the power of music – the way that music can perfectly capture and express central human desires, such as the desire to love and be loved; the way that music can bring about and foster intimacy between people; the way that it can alter one’s whole emotional landscape; the way that its power can seem magical; the way that it can release one from the grip of the immediate storyline of one’s life; the way that it can make one feel thoroughly and completely alive; the way that it can put one in a frame of mind particularly conducive to gaining wisdom and illumination; the way that it can provide a unique and inestimable kind of freedom; and the way that it can so thoroughly captivate and permeate that one in a sense becomes what one is hearing.  (Of course, music can do other things as well; the passages aren’t meant to be exhaustive.  In any case, I don’t think I’ll say much more – at least, not at present – about what the passages express.  It’s best to let them speak for themselves.)

Here are a couple of excerpts from an absolutely excellent novel: The Sky is Everywhere, by Jandy Nelson.  (They can be found on pp. 24-25 and p. 122, respectively.  A quick footnote about this novel: It’s one thing to simply say something like, “Even though living a human life involves experiencing the senseless deaths of loved ones and moving through intense grief as a result, life is still well worth living given all of the joy, love, beauty, creativity, and humor that the world has to offer.”  It’s another thing to lead others to truly feel this important truth, to write a novel that enables them to experience it vividly and viscerally and thereby become deeply convinced of it.  The Sky is Everywhere is such a novel.)  Here’s the first passage:

This is what happens when Joe Fontaine has his debut trumpet solo in band practice: I’m the first to go, swooning into Rachel, who topples into Cassidy Rosenthal, who tumbles into Zachary Quittner, who collapses into Sarah, who reels into Luke Jacobus – until every kid in band is on the floor in a bedazzled heap.  Then the roof flies off, the walls collapse, and when I look outside I see that the nearby stand of redwoods has uprooted and is making its way up the quad to our classroom, a gang of giant wooden men clapping their branches together.  Lastly, the Rain River overflows its banks and detours left and right until it finds its way to the Clover High music room, where it sweeps us all away – he is that good.
_____When the rest of us lesser musical mortals have recovered enough to finish the piece, we do, but as we put our instruments away at the end of practice, the room is quiet and still as an empty church.
_____Finally, Mr. James, who’s been staring at Joe like he’s an ostrich, regains the power of speech and says, “Well, well.  As you all say, that sure sucked.”  Everyone laughs.  I turn around to see what Sarah thought.  I can just about make out an eye under a giant Rasta hat.  She mouths unfreakingbelievable.  I look over at Joe.  He’s wiping his trumpet, blushing from the response or flushed from playing, I’m not sure which.

And here’s a poem from the same novel:

When
Joe
Plays
his
horn
I
fall
out
of
my
chair
and
onto
my
knees
When
he
plays
all
the
flowers
swap
colors
and
years
and
decades
and
centuries
of
rain
pour
back
into
the
sky
_____

_____

Here’s a passage from another terrific novel, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan.  (Another quick footnote: I have no idea how the novel compares to the movie.  To be honest, I’m afraid to watch the movie.  It seems to me that much of what makes the novel outstanding would be very difficult to reproduce on screen, and I’m afraid that I’d be frustrated by the movie…  Anyway, the excerpt below is from pp. 116-120.)
_____

____
_____

Dev slaps me on the back and sits next to me, his hair a ball of dance-induced sweat, the moisture making his shirt fit even tighter than when it began the night.
_____“You’re not in there for Where’s Fluffy?”
_____“Nah.  Needed to take a break.  You think it’s easy being the cutest damn underage lead singer on the queercore scene?  I can’t work all the time, man.”
_____“Where’s Randy?”
_____“Who?”
_____“Randy.”
_____“Huh?”
_____“From Are You Randy?  You were, uh, with him before?”
_____“Oh!  You mean Ted!  He’ll be out in a few.  Wanted to dance off the last song.  Isn’t he high voltage?”
_____Dev’s got his mischievous, smitten gleam in his eye, so I nod in agreement.  Sometimes Dev only has the mischievousness, and none of the smittenosity – that’s when I usually worry about the other guy’s heart.  But when Dev gets bitten by the swoony bug, I know it isn’t just sex that he’s after.
_____“So where’s Tris?” he asks now.
_____“Inside.  Why?”
_____“I dunno.  I figured you two would be together.”
_____“Dev…  Tris and I broke up like four weeks ago.”
_____“Fuck!  I totally forgot.  Sorry, man.”
_____“No problem.”
_____Dev looks at me for a moment, then smacks his forehead.
_____“Wait!  There’s another girl tonight, isn’t there.  I saw you, like, groping.”
_____“You could say that.”
_____“I just did!”
_____“What?”
_____“Say that.  I could, and I did.”
_____This, for Dev, is what usually passes as genius.
_____Now he puts his arm around me, snuggles in.  He loves to do this, and I never really mind.  It’s not sexual so much as comforting.
_____“My poor straight-edge straightboy,” he says.  “Nobody should be alone on a night like this.”
_____“But I have you, Dev,” I reply, trying to lighten things up.
_____“Ain’t that the truth.  At least until Ted comes back.”
_____“I know.”
_____“You know what it’s all about, Nick?”
_____“What what’s all about?”
_____“It, Nick.  What it’s all about.”
_____“No.”
_____“The Beatles.”
_____“What about The Beatles?”
_____“They nailed it.”
_____“Nailed what?”
_____“Everything.”
_____“What do you mean?”
_____Dev takes his arm and puts it right against mine, skin to skin, sweat on sweat, touch on touch.  Then he glides his hand into mine and intertwines our fingers.
_____“This,” he says.  “This is why the Beatles got it.”
_____“I’m afraid I’m not following…”
_____“Other bands, it’s about sex.  Or pain.  Or some fantasy.  But The Beatles, they knew what they were doing.  You know the reason The Beatles made it so big?”
_____“What?”
_____“ ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand.’  First single.  Fucking brilliant.  Perhaps the most fucking brilliant song ever written.  Because they nailed it.  That’s what everyone wants.  Not 24-7 hot wet sex.  Not a marriage that lasts a hundred years.  Not a Porsche or a blow job or a million-dollar crib.  No.  They want to hold your hand.  They have such a feeling that they can’t hide.  Every single successful love song of the past fifty years can be traced back to ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand.’  And every single successful love story has those unbearable and unbearably exciting moments of hand-holding.  Trust me.  I’ve thought a lot about this.”
_____“ ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand,’ ” I repeat.
_____“And so you are, my friend.  So you are.”
_____He closes his eyes now, fingers still folded into mine.  Even Dev’s breathing is rock ’n’ roll, full of kicks and sputters.  I angle my head on top of his.  We sit there for a second, watching traffic.
_____“I think I blew it,” I say.
_____“With Tris?”
_____“No.  With Norah.  With Tris, I didn’t have a chance.  But tonight, with Norah – it might’ve been a chance.”
_____“So?”
_____“So what?”
_____“So what are you going to do about it?”
_____“I don’t know – sulk?”
_____Dev removes his hand from mine and squeezes me lightly on the shoulder.
_____“You’re damn pretty when you sulk,” he tells me, “but in this case, I think a more active course might be advantageous.”
_____“Where the hell are you getting these long words from?” I have to ask.
_____“You, stupid.  ‘If you act courageous / it could be advantageous / to make me act outrageous / all over your blank pages’ – did you think I was, like, learning these songs phonetically?”
_____“ ‘My love ain’t hypothetical / or pronounced for you phonetical / so it might just be heretical / if you don’t love me back,’ ” I quote in return.
_____Dev nods.  “Exactly.”
_____“Where do we come up with this shit?” I ask.  “I mean, where do these words all come from?  I sit here on the sidewalk and they just appear to me.”
_____“Maybe they’re always there and you just need to live enough life to get them to make sense,” Dev says.
_____Someone whistles a birdcall behind us.  Dev and I both turn, and there’s Ted just out of the club, shining like a diamond under a spotlight.  He’s keeping a respectful distance, but I can tell he’s waiting.
_____“You gonna go hold his hand?” I ask Dev playfully.
_____“Hell, yes,” Dev says, sitting up now.  “Don’t get me wrong – we’re totally going to make the beast with two backs tonight.  But if we do it right, it’s going to feel like holding hands.”
_____There’s no way Ted could’ve heard us.  But when Dev walks over to him, Ted offers his palm.  I watch them walk down the street, hand in hand.  I don’t think they notice, but their legs are in perfect rhythm.  Before they round the corner, they both turn as one and wave goodnight to me.
_____

_____

Here’s a passage from a wonderful novel, The Small Rain, about a young pianist named KatherineThe Small Rain is Madeleine L’Engle’s first novel (Madeleine L’Engle is perhaps most famous for the novel A Wrinkle in Time, though she wrote several dozen books).  Even though The Small Rain was first published back in 1945, it has a very contemporary feel to it.  Like The Sky is Everywhere and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, The Small Rain is particularly fresh and honest.  (The following passage can be found on p. 67 of the 1987 Farrar Straus Giroux edition.)

_____
They went downstairs.  Katherine sat down at the piano and began to play.  She didn’t hear Tom when he came in and sat down by the piano just out of sight.  She played for over two hours.  Then she turned to Charlot, saying, “I didn’t mean to play so long.  I’m sorry.”
_____Tom got up and lumbered around to her from behind the tail of the piano, where he had been sitting, and put a sheet of music manuscript in front of her.  “Try this.”
_____Katherine played, recognizing her father’s music – a simple little melody in B minor, almost like a folk song, but with great passion and strength underlying its simplicity.  When she had finished, Tom said nothing about his composition.  He took it back and stood looking down at her.  “You play Bach very well indeed, my dear,” he said at last.
_____Katherine looked down at the keyboard.  “Mother said when you were unhappy or confused, Bach was the person to play.  With almost everybody else you can think, but with Bach there’s nothing but the music.  It’s true, you know.”
_____“Yes, I know,” Tom said.  He stood leaning on the piano.  Twice he seemed about to speak; then he waved his arms a little, helplessly, and wandered out.
_____

_____
_____

Finally, here’s a passage from Camilla, another novel by Madeleine L’Engle (this one was published in 1965; the passage is on pp. 153-155 of the Dell edition).  Like the other passages, it speaks for itself:

______

_____
_____
The music shop was empty when we went in and a gray-haired man and woman were sitting behind the counter.  The woman came around the counter and put her arms round Frank, and just said, “Franky, Franky,” and kissed him as though she were his mother.
_____Frank kissed her and just said, “Hi, Mrs. Stephanowski,” and then he shook Mr. Stephanowski’s hand and then he said, “This is Camilla.  I brought her today because I want you to know her.”
_____They both looked at me and I felt somehow that what they thought of me was terribly important and I was filled with relief when Mrs. Stephanowski smiled and took my hand in hers.  Some customers came in then and Mr. Stephanowski said, “Take Camilla into one of those booths and give her a concert if you feel like it, Franky.”
_____“Thanks, Mr. Stephanowski,” Frank said.  “I’d like to.”  He picked out an album and we went into the last of the small listening booths.  Frank had me sit down in the chair.  “Do you know Holst’s The Planets?” he asked.
_____I shook my head.  “No.  What is it?”
_____“It’s kind of queer,” Frank told me, “but it’s kind of wonderful.  I thought maybe it might be interesting to you.  Of course it isn’t scientific or anything, but I think it’s sort of interesting to listen to a musician’s conception of stars.  There’s one place that sounds to me like the noise the planets must make grinding against space.”
_____He put the record on and it was different from anything I knew.  I knew Bach and Beethoven and Brahms and Chopin and I loved them, especially Bach, but this music – it was like stars before you understood them, when you think an astronomer is an astrologer, when they are wild, distant, mysterious things.  And as I listened I realized that the music had a plan to it, that none of the conflicting notes came by accident.
_____“Why haven’t I heard this before!” I cried, and Frank smiled at me and changed the record.  When he smiled, his face lit up in a way that I have never seen Luisa’s light up, and he seemed to me completely beautiful.
_____When The Planets was finished, Frank said, “What next, Camilla?  You choose something.”
_____But I shook my head.  “I’d rather listen to something you like particularly.”
_____“Well,” Frank said, “I have a game I play.  I have music for everybody.  That was Johnny’s idea, doing that, and now David and I do it too.  I’ll play yours.”  He went out into the shop, where several customers were now gathered about the counter, and came back with another album.
_____“What is it?” I asked.
_____“Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto.  Particularly the andantino.  You probably won’t think it sounds like you.”  …
_____I listened and it didn’t sound to me like me, but it was as exciting and different as The Planets had been, and as I listened, I was filled with a great tremendous excitement.  Oh, I love I love I love!  I cried inside myself.  So many people, so many things!  Music and stars and snow and weather!  Oh, if one could always feel this warm love, this excitement, this glory of the infinite possibilities of life!
_____And as I listened to the music I knew that everything was possible.
______
__________

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Giving, Receiving, and Neil Gow

Happy Holidays to you!  I hope that you’ve been experiencing lots of warmth, laughter, and good will.  And I hope that you’ve enjoyed lots of gifts, gifts that make you smile spontaneously when you think about them.

I’m still thinking a lot these days about giving and receiving (as I was earlier this month when I wrote about the story of the four-foot spoons).  This morning, I was thinking again about giving and receiving as I lay in bed, happy to be able to linger there.

I woke up this morning with Scottish fiddle music running through my mind – I’m not sure how it got there, but there it was, running through me in the haziness that marks the transition between sleeping and waking.  Some part of my psyche was (and still is) generating a rendition of a fiddle piece called Neil Gow’s Lament for the Death of his Second Wife.  This piece of music is one of my very favorite works of art; it does something to me that few others things have the power to do.  As I lay in bed basking in its presence, I thought about how – at least in my observation – often the best, most valuable gifts exchanged between people are gifts given in ignorance; they are given in ignorance in the sense that the givers have no idea how valuable and precious they are to the recipients.  I don’t know quite what to make of this fact, but it seems intriguing, as if there’s some insight lurking behind it that I can’t quite make out.  Anyway, let me give a couple of examples to illustrate the point, and then I’ll go on to make a few general comments.  (The examples both come from my own experience; they’re examples that spring immediately to mind.  I’d like to edit this entry later by providing examples from the lives of other people.)

The first example is a gift I received yesterday.  I was at a holiday gathering with Peter’s family, and he and I were sharing one of those large leather easy-chairs that comes with generous arms and a movable footrest.  We were talking with his mother and his sister and her husband as the party was coming to a close.  For some reason, there was a ton of tension lodged in my neck and upper back, where it was creating pain that had been intensifying throughout the afternoon.  I asked Peter if he would press his fingers into my neck and shoulders for a minute, hoping that his doing so might at least break up some of the tension.  Instead, Peter spontaneously gave me a full-fledged backrub.  And it wasn’t a wimpy backrub; he really dug his fingers into my muscles, and he did so until they had been thoroughly worked over.  To say that it was pleasurable would be a vast understatement – as his fingers dug into my sore muscles, the tension was replaced by massive relief.  I had to make a real effort to keep my face neutral – I think that it would have freaked out the people I was facing had I allowed my face to reflect my completely blissed-out state of mind.  While Peter was kneading my back muscles, my dominant thought was, he has noooo idea how grateful I am for this, no idea how glorious this feels.

I had the same sort of thought as I lay in bed this morning enjoying Neil Gow’s Lament.  I first heard the song over a decade ago (yikes!) on a toasty summer night as I sat in a back yard screened-in porch with my friend Greg.  Greg great up in Halifax, and earlier that afternoon, we had been looking through a coffee-table book of photos that bring their audience to Nova Scotia, treating viewers both to wild, rugged swaths of land & sea and to smaller, more intimate scenes that reflect local culture or especially striking aspects of the natural world.  We had gotten all caught up in the photos – you know how photos can bring you to a place or event so that you feel as if you’re thoroughly inhabiting it?  As night fell, we went from photos to music.  For several hours, Greg treated me to the Scottish fiddle music of Nova Scotia – airs, reels, jigs, and everything in between.  He played traditional renditions of the pieces as well as versions that had been jazzed up with very modern elements.  We listened to Buddy MacMaster, Natalie MacMaster, Ashley MacIsaac, the Barra MacNeils, the Rankin Family, and others.  I remember sitting there in the dark, humid night, on a thrift-store bench in a somewhat grungy porch, and just completely soaking up the music.  You know that kind of intense awareness of music that you can have in the dark, while the other senses sit more-or-less in the background?  The fiddle music permeated my psyche and I fell in love with it.  I remember thinking at one point that I hadn’t felt so alive in a really long time.

During the next few days, Greg made me tapes (this was back in the days when cassette tapes were still common) of some of the music we’d listened to, and over the next several years, I wore out those tapes by listening to them so many times that they eventually died on me.  I’ve also collected numerous CDs of this music, and I still listen to it often.  I’ve listened to Neil Gow’s Lament for the Death of his Second Wife a gazillion times; I’ve gathered as many versions of it as I can find, and I practice it on the piano every time I sit down to play.  I can honestly say that this piece, together with its friends in the Scottish fiddle tradition, have given my life a certain (very valuable) kind of color and richness that it wouldn’t have otherwise had.  The music has affected me in multiple ways on every level – emotional, physical, intellectual, spiritual…  I’m just immensely grateful for it.  And it’s easy to trace my experience of it back to that warm, humid night when Greg and I spent hours in a back porch of a well-worn rental house in South Bend.  At the time, Greg had absolutely no idea what kind of gift he was giving me – one of the most valuable gifts I’ve ever received from another person.

I think that it’s easy to generalize from examples like the ones I’ve just sketched: gift giving is often done in ignorance.  When you give something, you often really don’t know what kind of splash what you’ve given is going to have in the life of its recipient.  Perhaps this fact is simply a consequence of the fact that humans are fundamentally mysterious creatures.  It can be striking to realize in the middle of a conversation with another person that you’re just seeing the very, very, very tip of the iceberg of that person – that behind the face and the facial expressions and the words is an enormously rich and complex psyche, molded in part by uncountably many experiences and choices of all kinds.  (This probably sounds like an obvious truth, but at least in my experience, I don’t always feel this truth on a visceral level.)

In any case, I’m glad that we don’t know what kind of impact our gifts may have.  This way, there’s a kind of healthy humility in giving – giving something to someone can be a simple act of love, accompanied by a tangible desire for the well-being of the recipient and a recognition of the fact that he or she is fundamentally mysterious creature.  Giving gifts in good will – what a ridiculously amazing thing that human beings can do for one another.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Four-foot Spoons

Here’s another Zen story:

Imagine that you are seated before a table, and on the table is a feast consisting of all of your favorite foods.  Unfortunately, the only way to access the food is via a four-foot spoon that’s attached to your forearm (but not your hand).  Now imagine trying to eat from the table using your spoon.  It’s an exercise in futility – you don’t succeed in eating much at all, but you make a big mess in your efforts to do so.  You grow increasingly angry, and your hunger keeps growing.  Others around you, also trying to feed themselves via four-foot spoons, are equally frustrated.  The whole situation is hell.

Now imagine exactly the same situation except that instead of each person trying to feed himself, the people seated at the table use their four-foot spoons to feed each other.  This situation is heaven.

I first heard this story a few weeks ago.  Michael told it in a class on a book called Transformation at the Base, by the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.

The story has been running through my head lately – it keeps popping up again and again.  Maybe one reason for the persistent popping is that Parabola magazine is doing an upcoming issue on the topic of giving and receiving, and the story bears on that topic.  Or maybe it’s the striking images the story conjures up.  I’m not entirely sure – maybe it’s just one of those things, like catchy Mountain Dew commercials or the Notre Dame fight song (to give a couple of examples from my own life), that tends to run through one’s mind.

In any case, I love what the story suggests about human nature: in order for our fundamental desires to be satisfied, we have to both give nourishment to others and accept the nourishment that others give to us.  Of course, ‘giving nourishment’ could take all kinds of forms – rereading a story to a four year old, forgiving someone, making someone laugh out loud, listening to a friend, collecting blankets for people who live outside, giving someone a backrub, knitting hats for babies born into poverty, shoveling someone’s sidewalk, easing someone’s suffering, repairing someone’s car, creating a photo or story or song or painting and sharing it with the world…  and of course there are lots and lots of other examples.

One thing that seems striking about the story is that even though everything works much better when people feed each other, it would still take considerable skill to actually feed others with a four-foot spoon or eat from someone else’s four-foot spoon.  A successful feast would require skilled participants and lots of cooperation.  These elements of the story seem appropriate, since both successful giving and successful receiving often do take skill and require cooperation.  But of course, the neat thing is that humans can get really good at giving and receiving.  And maybe that’s a key component to living a flourishing human life – getting really good at giving and receiving.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Cliffside Strawberry and the Wild Geese

Here’s a well-known Zen story:

A man was running through the forest, with a tiger running close behind, hot in pursuit.  Suddenly, the man’s path took him off a cliff, a cliff he encountered so quickly he couldn’t have slowed his pace.  As he dropped down through the air, he grabbed onto a branch that was growing out of the cliff-face.  The branch held him and temporarily halted his fall, but there were a couple of mice, one black and one white, gnawing on the branch, and the part of the branch on which the mice were gnawing was slowly growing thinner.  Above, at the top of the cliff, the tiger that had been chasing the man was looking down at him.  Below, at the bottom of the cliff, another tiger paced, looking up at him and waiting.  As the man continued to grip the branch, he noticed that right in front of him, growing from a stem attached to the cliffside, was a perfect wild strawberry.  Upon becoming aware of it, the man leaned forward, ate the wild strawberry, and said: “How delicious!”

I first heard this story from either Joen or Michael – probably Joen, since I took my first intro to mindfulness class from her.  Joen is a Zen priest whom I have known for most of my life (my best childhood friend is her daughter) and Michael is her husband.  Together, they are the guiding teachers in a local Zen community.  I’m not quite sure how to introduce or describe them; there’s a lot I could say.  …  Well, at the moment, suffice it to say that they are both very wise and they laugh often.  I’m sure that they will make regular appearances in this blog, so I’ll say more as time passes.  (They are both major figures in my life; if I were to write up my own version of a “The Most Important People In Your Life” list, they would be near the top.)

Okay, back to the Zen story.  Joen and Michael both tell the story in introductory classes they teach.  The classes I have in mind center on the practice of exercising mindfulness.  To be mindful of something is simply to pay attention to it, on purpose, without prejudice and without making snap evaluative judgments about it.  As it turns out, getting in the habit of exercising mindfulness is beneficial in all sorts of ways – it helps with everything from managing chronic pain to creating works of art to living a fulfilling, meaningful life.  In the cliffside strawberry story, the man hanging against the cliff is mindfully aware of the strawberry, and that’s what makes his whole experience of it so delicious.

The cliffside strawberry story is so powerful in part because it offers a vivid depiction of the human condition.  Joen tells me that the mice symbolize day and night, and the fact that both mice are gnawing away at the branch symbolizes the passing of time.  The situation of the man hanging on the cliffside is a metaphor for the way that many of us humans experience life: one is born and finds oneself in the world, having had no choice in the matter (just as the man more or less finds himself hanging next to the cliff-face without having chosen to be in such a situation), and one knows that one’s position in the world is precarious, since death is inevitable.  Even worse, it’s not clear when death will come (just as it’s not clear when the mice will have gnawed through the branch).  Indeed, at no time during one’s human life is one truly ‘in command’ of one’s situation; being vulnerable is at the heart of being human.  But in the midst of all one’s helplessness, ignorance, and vulnerability, right in the immediate present (as opposed to the past or future), there is a delicious, perfect wild strawberry – a gift to be deeply experienced and thoroughly enjoyed.

I love the image of the person hanging precariously from the cliffside, in all his vulnerability, immersing himself in the immediacy of the present and thoroughly enjoying the beautiful, refreshing, perfect gift that the world simply offered to him.  The Zen story reminds me of Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese, which is also, at least partly, about the human condition and ways in which the world offers itself:

Wild Geese
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

[Here’s a place to stop and pause.  Isn’t the poem amazing?  It’s one of those gooseflesh poems…]

Like the Zen story, Wild Geese may bring to mind an image of a person in a state of vulnerability and (at least apparent) isolation.  And yet, the person is not truly alone and destitute: the world is offering itself to that person’s imagination and bringing the person together with other members of the ‘family of things’.  Likewise, we could think of the world as offering itself to the man in the Zen story by presenting him with a perfect strawberry, something completely sufficient for his present happiness.

It seems to me that we’d be entirely in keeping with the Zen story and the Wild Geese poem if we think of the world as offering itself to each of us in all kinds of ways – perhaps via a wild berry, an experience (either real or imagined) of wild geese calling in flight, or Mary Oliver’s poem itself.  More generally, the world could offer itself via a parable, an insight, or a work of art.  Sometimes it offers itself through another person or through another person’s imagination (e.g., through a poem or photo); sometimes it offers itself more directly (e.g., via a wild berry or a starlit sky on a clear night).

Joen and Michael often emphasize that even given the First Noble Truth (in Buddhism) – the truth that living involves suffering – there is always some way in which the world is offering itself to you, whether it be via an image, an idea, a book, a passage in a book, the presence of a person or an animal, an experience of stillness and peace, or a delicious orange slice [ever eaten an orange slice truly mindfully?  It’s quite an intense experience – not for the faint of heart].  It’s not as if such things completely erase suffering or vulnerability or ignorance, and it’s not that they ‘make up for it’ in some sense.  Suffering is a pretty inescapable part of the human condition.  But still, as the Zen story and the poem suggest, the ways in which the world offers itself can be very much enjoyed and cherished – they can be sources of delight, joy, freedom, laughter, and buoyancy.  They can (at least momentarily) free you from the storyline of your life and let you breathe easy.  They can make you feel fully alive and delighted to be so.

Here’s a concrete example.  A couple of weeks ago, I was taking a break from my computer work and jumping from website to website.  I have a special fondness for photography blogs, and I came upon a photography blog that belongs to a local (i.e., Minnesota) artist: Nathan Kavlie.  [A word about Nathan: If you check out his website (www.nathankavlie.com) and his blog (http://www.nathankavlieblog.com), you will learn that he is not only a very talented photographer, but also an absolutely delightful person – friendly, cheerful, intelligent, and thoughtful, with a great sense of humor.]

When I arrived at Nathan’s blog, my eyes landed upon a photo I adored immediately.  The photo is called ‘Munchkin Pumpkin’, and it’s perfect.  It’s an ideal combination of playfulness, stillness, and beauty, and it perfectly encapsulates the experience of late autumn in the upper Midwest – mellow, golden sunlight bathing produce that’s ripe and bright and almost separated from the vine.  As usual, words can’t begin to do justice to a photo – perhaps the best thing to do is to just look at and enjoy the photo, which I’m reproducing here with Nathan’s permission:

Photo credit: Nathan Kavlie Photography, http://www.nathankavlie.com

So, the Munchkin Pumpkin presented itself to Nathan, and then he in turn offered it to our imaginations by taking the photo and posting it.  In this vein, we could think of the photo as a way in which the world offers itself to our imaginations through Nathan’s imagination.

Part of what I’d really like to do in this blog is to call attention to some ways in which, it seems to me, the world is offering itself to our imaginations.  So, I’ll post photos, quotes, passages, and poems; I’ll mention books or parts of books; I’ll talk about places and events.  The blog will also include a fair amount of philosophical reflection – I’ll set out questions and discuss possible responses, set out passages and focus on insights they contain, or talk about some of my own experiences in a way that (I hope) gives readers good food for thought.  Some of this philosophical reflection will focus on spirituality, some of it will focus on art, and some of it will focus on other philosophical themes.  Everything I write will be written in the hope that it will benefit readers.  Thank you for your interest!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment