Category: Aesthetics

Three Poems

Three Poems

wild roses on the prairie

The wild roses grow

along the path I walk forever.

 

 

 

The Bittern at the pond

wrote me a letter.

It said, “Look!”

Saying Grace

It will not end when you die.

In the Cathedral the trees will still grow

and the mushrooms appear.

The cat will still sleep in the sunny window

and the unnamed insect will continue to crawl in and out.

The rose beside the alter will still have thorns and perfumed petals.

And when it all burns away,

a new cosmos will appear in the heavens,

complete and lively. And you will be somewhere in it too.

In the deep and fertile dark, a seed of light.

 

 

My Life with Gardens

My Life with Gardens

A garden is just a way of mapping the strengths and limitations of your personality onto the soil (Klinkenborg, 2002, p. 35).

This is a story about potatoes and flowers, degrees of coercion and choice, awareness of privilege, and food security.

My emotional history with gardening is a bit ragged. It started reluctantly. Nothing thins the gardening spirit like having a boss. In my case, it started with my father in charge. Dad loved to sit at the kitchen table and draw plans for the coming year’s garden. He used a slide rule. He liked the designs he created. He bought the seeds. Then my sisters and I were recruited to plant, weed, and pick.

We proved unsuitable for the job and the responsibilities we were given. We lacked exactitude and enthusiasm. We all had an aversion to worms and caterpillars; a fear of bees and wasps, and felt mosquito bites were a plague.  Precision was not a value we held, nor a talent we demonstrated. My least favourite task at the end of the season was picking the raspberries. Bees took the raspberry patch as their territory; thorns scratched our arms and legs. I did not want to eat the raspberries we picked. My aversion to finding caterpillars in the berries was so strong I did not want to examine them and certainly not eat them. I can hear in these words a tone of entitlement and it does not please me. Although most children, at least the fortunate ones, don’t think about the bigger world picture, my father tried to give us a social justice view.

At this point in my life, I ponder the idea that my father was offering us an opportunity to participate in something essential to human well being. Growing your own food for many is a necessity; for many a desire, yet an impossibility. For our family it was both a blessing in terms of lowering our food bill, and part of a vision of what a human life should include. My parents’ values, including their belief in having a strong social safety net that helped to care for those most in need, were not attached in my mind with any feeling of being lucky we had abundant vegetables. My dad admired Adelle Davis and her principals about gardening. Our closest neighbours were not pleased that he bought a hay bale and spread hay all over the garden to conserve moisture.Much of the hay ended in their yards.

It has taken me a long time to understand that despite my not particularly appreciating anything about the gardening tasks I was given as a child, some knowledge of gardening and values related to growing your own food remained. Seeds were sown then that helped turn me into a gardener later. I think they also have some part in the development of my present anger at the practices of agribusiness, and my understanding of the relationship between healthy soil that is available to everyone, and food security.

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The next garden I tended was the one where my sombre and critical first husband was in charge. He had the larger say in what was to be planted. He also had a penchant for straight rows. Although a lot of the work of this substantial garden fell to me, it hardly ever seemed to meet my husband’s standards. I think my lack of feeling pleasure in this garden and its produce was again the matter of having little choice in what to grow, how to grow it, and even how to cook it, and preserve it. And being the object of my husband’s bad moods and disapproval coloured gardening grey for me. My husband had some virtues and many gifts but he was not a happy man and their seemed to be a kind of aura of dissatisfaction that hovered around him. Although he worked hard, every kind of work seemed to make him angry.

To be fair, there were some enjoyable tasks in those gardening years—some knowledge gained, and lasting skills attained. I got to choose flowers for the garden and I feel a kinship with flowers. My husband built the rock garden I wanted at the front of our house. Our daughter loved the flowers and peas from the pod, and eating raspberries. A new gardener was born.

I subscribed to a prairie gardening magazine and became interested in hardy plants. I learned a lot about gardening, especially the slow process of turning clay to good soil. But, the constraints and criticism of those years weighed heavily on my spirit and spoiled the pleasures I took in horticulture. If I had a choice, I felt I wouldn’t want my spring, summers, and falls to be taken up by a garden.

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After that marriage ended, a funny thing happened. It was certainly time for a funny thing. I moved to a city where my children would be attending university. I bought a house—partly chosen for its good condition and partly for its fully-grassed and gardenless yard. A few weeks into the first spring, something came over me. Gradually feeling became conviction. I wanted a garden.

My son dug up a small rectangle of lawn. I sowed flower seeds. I planted a set of pinks as a border. A set of tomatoes towards the back.  I held my breath. I waited. This gardening mood remained. I was amused.

I was in charge. Not coerced. I didn’t develop a bad temper nor a tendency towards precision. The tomatoes didn’t care. And every home after that had a garden with potatoes, tomatoes, and floral displays. Every deck had flowers in pots. A proliferation of pots. It seemed I couldn’t abide summers without growing something. And no one was looking over my shoulder.

Stephanie Mills (2002) describes the gift of freedom in a way that captures some of the ways I felt. When gardening is chosen, I think it is as Mills says a way of being fully present. Her words on freedom ring true to me.

An archaic liberty such as the freedom to go for a swim, entrusting yourself to yourself, is a shaping kind of freedom, a kind of liberty critical to developing and sustaining one’s strength of person. To be fully present in the body and in the body of nature is an old, old, need.

And so it was. I needed to garden and the garden gave me back a self I felt more at home with. I knew I was a teacher and a mother by choice. I learned I was also a gardener.

I married again – a kind, funny, perceptive, man. By the time we bought our acreage that had been a farm field, I was onto the joys of garden design. I studied garden plans, discussed possibilities and drew a garden of walks and raised beds. It came into being with the help of my husband Dennis and in the pounding of long bolts into the railroad tides that held the soil of the raised beds, my son. The weeds flourished and so did the vegetables and flowers.

Over five years of drought, we planted trees and shrubs and hauled heavy black hoses closer to the trees to water, water, and water. I don’t remember that we minded the constancy of the work. It was ours. There was great satisfaction in the labour involved in turning fields into shelter, produce and flowers. The trees and garden were ours. Everything chosen. At times we had enough tomatoes to give a large box of them to the local food bank.

We no longer have a garden and my only plants are house plants in our apartment condo. I enjoy and learn from them. I feel all the gardens of my life were blessings in some way and I understand more now about hunger and poverty. My first husband lives in the country and continues to grow a garden with vegetables and perhaps zinnias which were a his favourite flower. He may still be a sombre man but I think something of his garden strengthens his spirit in some real way. I wish it so.

šThe list of lessons I learned from gardens is long. First, freedom is not another word for nothing left to lose. Freedom is grace. And having a garden is a privilege. Food security is an essential human need—one that we can fulfill if the will is there. A secure home of your own, however small, gives people a ground from which to become fully human and humane. And a garden is a blessing. I am convinced that forests are gardens and we need them and that there is room in the world for forests and grain and vegetable gardens.

Gardens contain relationships beyond our control and each plant’s way of being. They have their own sense of order. And gardens are endlessly entertaining. They helped me cultivate my sense of humour and grow in gratitude.

It can be amusing to notice and create names for the different weeds—the regulars and the never-seen-before-in-your garden weed. We had weeds at the acreage that I called “the weed of the month,” a testament to weeds having timetables of their own. And I learned how long I could stay at weeding without earning a back ache-a good thing to learn in life more generally.

The morning tour of the garden to see what flowers have blossomed over night and whether the green tomatoes are turning yellow is happiness felt and earned. And who could not enjoy the smell of tomato plants when you pull them up each fall, or the scent of wet soil after a rain? Or walking through the garden at night, star gazing and breathing in the heady perfume of evening scented stocks? And I can’t help indulging in metaphysical questions that gardens arouse like the meaning of green or where the first seed came from.

 

And another thing I learned is that once you have created a garden, choosing every plant in it—gardening because you want to, you experience a heightened pleasure in viewing and discussing gardens with other gardeners. This works best if no one involved feels like an expert.

And, if you have no regrets, the memories of gardens past are small and lasting sources of joy. Close your eyes, visualize, sniff, you are there again.

The Questions Enliven Us

The Questions Enliven Us

The realization that I needn’t have answers to the Big Questions, needn’t seek answers to the Big Questions, has served as an epiphany. I lie on my back under the stars and the unseen galaxies and let their enormity wash over me. . . . Mystery generates wonder, and wonder generates awe (Goodenough, 1998, p. 13).

I like the mysteries of life. I felt when young, and still feel now, the compelling nature of those dimensions of life which can’t be known and understood with certainty.  I appreciate explorations of the many mysteries that exist—the questions of beginnings, meanings and purposes—questions that have many possible answers and interpretations. The lack or impossibility of coming to know the central mysteries of the universe has never been a reason for me, or for cosmologists, to stop pondering them. Quantum physicists also ponder and create. They develop mathematical equations that describe—with precise findings that have been duplicated and proven many times—the nature of some elements and dimensions of the universe, but not ones that explain why the universe exists at all. Imagine representing the meaning of life mathematically!

the far hills of Cyprus

There are some big questions most fundamental for me. “Why is there a universe or multiverse at all? How can something be created from nothing?” are my favourite questions. They have so many possible and not necessarily probable answers.

Other prismatic questions that enrich my life are: In the face of the mysteries of life, what then must I do? What is my role?  What is the essence of goodness? Why does beauty seemed to be attached to the mysteries at the centre existence? Was love inherent in the universe from the beginning?

The Divine is felt in many theologies to be love. I have not found sufficient reasons to believe that. Much as I might want to think that the ultimate source or spirit of life (what many call the Creator or God) is ultimately one of compassion, in the face of human cruelty I cannot. When I think of what might be meant by “God”, my conception is that the central life force, if a god, is a god of freedoms—freedoms within limitations.

I am better pleased with ridding my thoughts of any kind of ‘Godness” attached in any way to human characteristics, and seeing instead a endless creative process—infinite in time and space. Theologian and Professor Emeritus at Harvard Divinity School Gordon Kaufman (2004) calls the whole process of creation and destruction, continuity and change, with its unknowable beginnings and on-going, perhaps infinite, bringing of the new into existence, “Serendipitous Creativity.” Not only a seemingly infinite creative process, but also one with moments of grace that made it possible for the earth to support life, and for human life to coexist with all other life forms.

Humans coming into being and evolving was an event for which improbable conditions were just right at just one small moment and never again—cause for wonder and gratitude. As science writer, Ed Yong (2016), describes it;

For roughly the first 2.5 billion years of life on Earth, bacteria and archea charted largely separate evolutionary courses. Then, on one fateful occasion, a bacterium somehow merged with an archaeon, losing its free-living existence and becoming entrapped forever with its new host. That is how many scientists believe eukaryotes came to be. It’s our creation story: two great domains of life merging to create a third, in the greatest symbiosis of all time. The archaeon provided the chassis of the eukaryotic cell while the bacterium eventually transformed into the mitochondria . . . . There is a huge void between the simpler cells of bacteria and archaea and the more complex ones of eukaryotes, and life has managed to cross that void exactly once in four billion years (p.9).

The countless bacteria and archaea in the world have never again managed to produce a eukaryote. And yet, that union is the reason that plants, humans and other animals, and anything else that can be seen without a microscope, exist. Why only that once? Why then?

I agree with poet Mary Oliver when she says “In this universe we are given two gifts: the ability to love, and the ability to ask questions.” There is so much to wonder about. So much to beauty to appreciate, so much destruction to mourn and power to be in awe of, so many questions and wonderful answers. Yet the mysteries persist. Opportunities for wonder exist as permanent opportunities. For instance, the question of “why the universe exists at all” has never, and probably will never, be answered in a way that satisfies every human soul. We wonder why we here and who we are meant to become. We wonder why love seems to flow through life on earth, and try to understand human consciousness and how deep it can go in sensing hidden realities. I close my eyes and envision a chain of “whys?” extending and fading into infinity.

It pleases me somehow when I am reading nonfiction to come a page where the author is asking the great questions of existence. For example, Albert Schweitzer, beloved by so many for his compassion, his wisdom, his music, and his dedication to the poor people in Lambaréné, in the Ogowe district of Africa, wrote that pondering the elemental questions of life is necessary to becoming fully human. In his words,

Elemental thinking starts from fundamental questions about the relationship of humans to the universe, about the meaning of life, and about the nature of what is good. It is directly linked to the thought that motivates all people. It penetrates our thought, enlarges and deepens it more profound (1933/1990, p. 228).

Ursula le Guin, author of fantasies, essays, and literary criticism, in speaking of the nature of life reminds us “It doesn’t have to be the way it is” and suggests the thought that the universe, the Earth, could be otherwise is where imagination and fundamentalism come into conflict. Le Guin also believes in the power and importance of the big questions.

“Why are things as they are? Must they be as they are? What might they be like if they were otherwise?”To ask these questions is to admit the contingency of reality, or at least to allow that our perception of reality may be incomplete, our interpretation of it arbitrary or mistaken. . . . To open a door that has been kept closed is an important act (2017.p. 83).

Indeed.

Phillip Simmons, in his eloquent book about living with Lou Gerick’s disease, reminds us of the difference between mysteries and puzzles.

As a culture we have accomplished a great deal by seeing life as a set of problems to be solved. . . . We observe the world, we break down what we see into its component parts. We perceive problems and set about solving them. . . . And here is where we go wrong. For at its deepest level life is not a problem but a mystery. The distinction is fundamental – problems are to be solved, true mysteries are not (2000/2003, pp. 7-8).

Mysteries are to wonder about.  And be alert to. And be in awe of. And the questions keep us on our toes. Peering into places and realms where we’ve never looked before. Scanning the planet for new possibilities. Listening to the ideas of birds and winds and the cow in the field. I asked a former dairy farmer once, “Do cows have best friends?  That set us wondering.

Small mysteries such as pondering the inner life of plants and animals can exercise the imagination, be cause for amusement or communion. Bound together as we are on this small orb circling the heavens let us not assume too much. Or too little.

As we age, we may lose some of our memories, but let us not lose our questions.

Beauty and We Don’t Know Why

Beauty and We Don’t Know Why

Whatever attitude to human existence you fashion for yourself, know that it is valid only if it be the shadow of an attitude to Nature. A human life, so often likened to a spectacle upon a stage, is more justly a ritual. The ancient values of dignity, beauty, and poetry which sustain it are of Nature’s inspiration; they are born of the mystery and beauty of the world. (H. Beston, 1988 p. 218)

 

The Spiral Galaxy, source – Hubble website

There is so much to wonder about. So much to beauty to appreciate, so much destruction to mourn and power to be in awe of, so many questions and wonderful answers. Yet the question of “why the universe exists at all” has never been answered in a way that satisfies every human soul. We wonder why we here and who we are meant to become. We wonder why love seems to flow through life on earth, and try to understand human consciousness and how deep it can go in sensing hidden realities. I close my eyes and envision a chain of “why?’s” extending and fading into infinity.

In his book, A Briefer History of Time (2005) brilliant mathematician and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking,  describes how scientists are striving to create a complete theory  such as was intended by string theory. He says that up to this point most scientists have been too preoccupied with theories that describe what the universe is to ask why? Perhaps many feel that the “why” questions  of ultimate existence are impossible to answer and to attempt to is a pursuit with no particular value. In relation to this, Hawking concludes that theories of science should be accessible in some form to everyone including the pursuit of “Why?” . He says:

If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason–for then we would know the mind of God. (p. 142) [my emphasis]

I feel Hawking is being rather playful here while at the same time serious in reminding us of what lies behind what we know now and possibly of the limits of what can be known. He uses metaphors as all physicists, mathematicians and other scientists do when it comes to theorizing about the infinitely large and infinitely small. To me, the “why” questions are infinitely interesting – mainly for their connections to meaning. They appear to me as questions of Spirit. And Mystery.

Poets, philosophers, and theologians use different words and images in pondering the ultimate questions of existence and some keep these ideas and questions separate from how they live their life. For Indigenous cultures across the world and throughout time, spirituality was contained in their lives and languages, all of a piece.

A Lakota ceremonialist, Don Coyhis, commented:

This is not a scientific or technological world. The world is first a world of spirituality. We must all come back to that spirituality. Then, after we have understood the role of spirituality in the world, maybe we can see what science and technology have to say. (quoted in Simonelli, 1994, p.11).

Ojibwa author Richard Wagamese (2008) describes this world of spirituality as a world where everything is energy that connects all beings. “We are all one being. We are all one soul,”  he tells us.

Chinese scholars called this energy “qi”. It has also been thought of in other traditions as “spirit”, “vac”, or “Word”. Gary Holthaus, in his book Learning Native Wisdom talks of ways the Mystery was described by human wisdom seekers. He says that for Nishida, an early-20th century philosopher, the mystery at the heart of Nature goes beyond “mere universes” and is pure experience – experience that lies behind or prior to planet earth. A sensibility that refers to ‘mere’ universes makes me smile – contemplating one universe seems like a life’s worth of awe to me. Nishida continues in describing what he means by pure experience in these words.

Because it exists at the deepest heart of Nature, it is eternal. We can rely on pure experience, Nishida holds, because it is always available to us, always present. Further, in that depth there resides a unifying force that Nishida calls ‘spirit.’ He says, ‘I contend that reality comes into being through interrelationship.’ (pp. 192-193).

The Eagle Nebula, source – Hubble website

 Father Thomas Berry, scientist, environmentalist, cultural historian, and religious thinker speaks of the basic principles of the universe process in a way that also emphasizes the interconnectedness of all life forms. He says the primordial intentions of the universe are towards differentiation, subjectivity, and communion and defines these in ways that give these intentions spiritual value and a form of beauty.

Differentiation refers to the extraordinary variety and distinctiveness of everything in the universe. No two things are completely alike. Subjectivity is the interior numinous component present in all reality, also called consciousness. Communion is the ability to relate to other people and things due to the presence of subjectivity and difference. Together these create the grounds for the inner attraction of things for one another ( pp. 168-169).

I notice the similarities in which scholars from different countries and spiritual traditions talk about the great mystery. I love those similarities – the unity of interrelationships, the uniqueness of each individual life form, the different ways that spirit is approached, and how all come to rest on the same felt sense of an eternal force or original quality. Some philosophers and theologians feel that the fact that humans have always asked the large questions of existence suggests that there is something more – an eternal, unifying force of some kind behind the reality we see, hear, and touch. They feel that the deepest part of our inner life, our spirit, senses this “More”and creates a vision of what it is like. I ponder why it is that people from all cultures through time desire a personified force to pray to – or ask for help, or give thanks without knowing who or what they are addressing.

In my reflections over the years, I have come to feel that the greatest gift humans have received from what I call the Spirit of Life is freedom – freedom to choose how to live, freedom to question and appreciate what is in us and around us. We can choose what we look for in the universe and in life. I seek stories of human goodness, tolerance, generosity, and compassion. I find much beauty in the world and know it could be otherwise. For me, cruelty and destruction do not cancel out the beauty or the goodness in the world.

My just-turned-seven-year-old grandaughter  was sitting with her mother in an auditorium watching a video of the coral reefs and listening to the discussion with coral reef scientists that followed it. The audience were encouraged to ask them questions. My grandaughter whispered in her mother’s ear, “I have a question. Why is life so beautiful?”

Madeleine in Spring, courtesy J. Klenz

“Why?” indeed.

I know that for many, perhaps most humans, the answer is because God created it that way. Why is there something rather than nothing? Because Creator, Allah, God, or the eternal Tao brought the cosmos into being before time began. But, “Why?” and “How?” Other mysteries. Perhaps scientists will find answers they can accept to the “How?” question. Perhaps many people will continue to live in relationship with their God and feel no need to seek further.

I have written of this before but it matters so much, I will say it again. What matters is not what you believe in relation to the Mystery or God or Nothingness but rather how that belief shapes the way you live

  • Does how you answer the question of “Why there is something rather than nothing?” or how you envision the ultimate source of the universe make you kinder? more compassionate?
  • Does it make you feel more open to and appreciative of human and bio diversity?
  • Does your belief system in relation to the large questions of existence, make your more awake and aware of the life around you?
  • Does it leave you with more questions and an open mind?
  • Do your ultimate beliefs open your heart and strengthen your spirit?

 

 

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Everything is Connected to Everything Else

Everything is Connected to Everything Else

does the river need the duck?

Everything has Spirit – Everything is Connected to Everything Else.

I came to these understandings late in life—at the same time recognizing that in some reduced form, I had always known it. The strongest knowing of interconnection in my childhood was that my family members could hurt each other. This included me. I thought more about how we could avoid hurting each other’s feelings than I did about how we could affect each other’s happiness.

I have carried with me since childhood this understanding of how feelings are connected. This brought with it a sense of responsibility and attempts not to emotionally wound others. It was a very imperfect response to connectedness. I remember with regret that I could get drawn into the behaviours of friends and make fun of other children, not directly, but behind their back. I chose some friends and left others out–again, not directly, but the result was just that. I did understand that my actions could wound others and remorse was part of it too. At the same time, I tried to be kind, and would not use my humour or quick tongue against those I saw as less fortunate than me.

After the turmoil and challenges of childhood and the teenage years, I became more dedicated to not hurting others and more consistent in acting from the understanding of how we all share the same needs. My focus on injustice still causes me to feel great anger when people in positions of power disregard the well being of others and the environment.

My sense of connection to the Earth and all other living beings was not very strong in those years, yet I did like to walk to school by myself as a teenager, through a field rather than down the sidewalk. My mom and dad took us on picnics and wiener roasts and swimming in lakes and a small river and we were outdoors all summer playing with neighbour kids but I don’t remember ever thinking that I was part of the natural world and in relationship with other life forms. My daughter gave her daughter a sense of connection to the natural world at a young age and in a natural way — a rare gift. During walks, she drew her attention to birds, bugs, trees, shrubs, and flowers and always said, “Hello birds” or “Hello tree.”

connecting – courtesy of JEK

In the last couple of decades, I have become immersed more frequently and gratefully in the beauties of the Earth. My understanding of  my interconnection with everything there is, is what I live with now. It brings me moments of deep feeling and moments when guilt or regret surface. More about that  later, but first the satisfaction, the gratitude. I am quite an ordinary seeker of the spirit in trees, the herons in the pond, the ocean, the people I encounter, the solid rocks. Yet, growing within me is a new joy in being outside, and a stronger absorption when listening to piano sonatas in the early morning, or watching the light transform the furniture to glow with richer colours. The constriction of my heart is being stretched and smoothed, my feelings loosened and set free, and happiness and quiet more frequently settle upon me.

And, in the last few years I have gradually been able to be more at peace outdoors, less restless when sitting by the river or the ponds we visit. Just to sit and breathe and look is the greatest pleasure. I have an attachment to the birds that twitter away in the trees by the river or the waterfowl and shore birds at the ponds we visit. I have a life time attachment to trees and my spirit never tires of back-lit leaves.

the spirits of the watcher, the heron, and the ocean

I notice more and am moved in a deeper way by beauty in all its forms. A little more than a week ago, Dennis and I saw a Bittern by the shore of one of the ponds in a conservation area. It was standing still and quiet that first day – all soft brown and tawny as the reeds that enclosed  him. And on that second day, the Bittern moved into the light and we were absorbed into the place of pond and bird and light and water and reeds. The Bittern had such certainty of being and of movement, utterly focused, yet easy in its world . These were moments when my spirit felt such a strong sense of being gifted by the sun, the Bittern, the pond waters; and of my own presence being no longer separate. The sun charged the body of this great bird with light, with fire. Its feathers turned to copper iridescence and the Bittern was given a luminous outline. I was in love.  I had been given a sense of the rightness of the world.

This was an experience that erased the sorrow of what we have done to our world. To live, to feel, to see, and join in the sacredness of being was enough for that time. The pull, the  undertow of knowing that my connection to everything else brings responsibilities was absent. Yet being within the beauty, the pleasures of the day, is often where that ancient question of, “What then must I do?” arises.

Indigenous Elders and Wisdom Keepers use the phrase, “all my relations” to talk about the central understanding that we are connected in spirit with all other living things and with the Earth and sky and water as a truth and a reminder that we have obligations to the living world of which we are a part.

In the writing of William Mussell, an educator with the Sal’i’shan Institute, another expression of this central understanding:

“In relationship, one must be willing to take responsibility for the impact of one’s behavior toward the other, as well as responsibility for managing and learning from one’s responses to the other’s behavior. Each party in the relationship is equal in worth to the other, regardless of difference in age, knowledge levels, insight or personal authority.” (Mussell, W., 2008)

How best to meet this responsibility is a constant question. When asked by environmental activists  what they could do to save the Earth, Vietnamese Zen teacher and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hahn, after a long pause responded by saying that they needed to,

“place their hands on the earth and listen to the cries of the world.” 

This was not the answer they expected. He wanted them to “reconnect with their original motivation: love for the earth.”  I think he wanted them to feel why they were doing the work they did first, as the foundation for thinking and action – feel their gratitude for the beauty and diversity and mystery of being.

To only feel guilt and pressure to do more for those who suffer, more for the burdened earth, is a disservice, to beauty, to life. A happy appreciation for diversity, for beauty, for being alive, must be there too. In the end, I feel there is only one way to respond to gifts of beauty,freshness, goodness, -first with pleasure and gratitude, then with knowing that the only thing you can do is to show up, to be present as your singular, unrepeatable, self. Look, listen, quieten, be still, know that you are unique, that we are all extraordinary and enough. And that is our role always, to do what is our piece. Guard yourself from those who want us to be other than we are, stop your ears to any message that you are not enough, insufficient as you are, and go out into the world complete. Yes, we must do what we can, little things like using less hot water, signing petitions to stop a pipe line, supporting a homeless shelter, voting for leaders and MP’s who care about social, economic, and environmental justice, buying smaller cars, building small houses, growing your own produce–all worthy actions. But I feel strongly that doing everything you can means most profoundly, what you can. That of course means knowing who you are – a life’s work in itself.

If we are fortunate, the work life we choose will be the life closest to our gifts and abilities. I felt becoming a compassionate and creative teacher was a way of giving back to the world – my way. Teaching and parenting were demanding and satisfying. When the contributions you make through your work life seem to end, they don’t really. You take what you have  learned and it is part of you and can continue to heal others in perhaps, less direct but equally important ways. Our presence, the way we smile at a clerk or another person out walking can add to the store of good feelings in the world and perhaps make the other person feel good about  who they are in an almost imperceptible but nourishing way. I enjoy those encounters with the spirit of another. I am grateful for them. They contribute to feeling fresh and happy to be alive and here in this place – here with all the other people, the other living beings.

present

Gratitude that is felt through every bone, muscle, cell, will be compelling enough to remain with what your spirit tells you, and your soul compels you to be, yourself. Yourself to care for, love, and not overburden. Your responses then will be the ones only you can do –the ones you were always meant to do. Perhaps you are meant to be an appreciator. When accepted as your role, particularly later in life when energy starts to ebb, appreciating, enjoying, entering in, may be exactly what to do next, and ever.

“It is love that fuels us to make constructive change in our care for the natural world and of our fellow human beings.” (Coleman, M., p.11)

 

Finding Meaning in Art and other Objects: Memory and Aesthetics

Finding Meaning in Art and other Objects: Memory and Aesthetics

sculpture created by my son

Finding Meaning in Art and other Objects

One of the sources of meaning in my life is creating relationships between things we own and have in our home and connecting them to a narrative through creativity or memory. I suspect we all do that in ways particular to us.

On an alter-like table in our living room sits an eloquent sculpture of an old man –an improbable man with legs out of proportion to the rest of his body. I often think of my father when I look at him—the many lines carved in his face and, although my father’s legs were like the rest of him, thin and sinewy; they were strong. He was full of energy well into his early 80’s, walked quickly, took up curling, and stood for long hours in his workshop creating bows and arrows, and repairing things.

I also see this strength in my son’s sculpture which was created in a university art class as part of an installation. It had quite a different meaning for him at the time but such diversity of intention or impact is the potential of art.

This year, my husband’s daughter gave him the little boat carved by an old man she met in China. Can you see the old man of the sculpture gazing pensively at the little boat, perhaps wishing to sail away one last time?

My father always wanted to sail and did build a catamaran in his late 70’s. So, the relationships and meanings evoked by this little scene contain layers of meaning.

It interests me how these associations come about. Perhaps via the affection I feel for the old man on the table and for some fond and entertaining memories of my father. He was a creator, a maker, a man of passions that regularly exploded into the atmosphere of our small home. He had a temper that we liked to avoid and nightmares and other effects and behaviours resulting from his time as a 17 year old in the trenches in France during WWI. I am glad that in his last years one of the ways he found respite from the war and other difficult memories was in his workshop.

dad in his workshop, creating a bow – photo by Paige Finney

I am aware that I am summarizing the detail and complexity of his life but I am conscious of the “more” that his life and relationships were about and of their importance for him and to me.

To return to the beginning, the ability of art and other objects to evoke ideas, feelings, and memories and add another layer to daily life seems very human to me. Sometimes they can startle us into larger perspectives and sometimes this happens gradually as the object asserts its presence until finally you notice some way your thinking has changed. I don’t know precisely why the sculpture of the  old man came to be my father but the relationship is not so much thought as felt. And that seems an important distinction.

As I thought about this business of objects, memories, and meaning, I decided it is, most simply, a part of being human. Why do we keep what we keep? display what we display? Why do we pick up that pebble or shell on the beach and put it in our pocket and later perhaps in a drawer?

Penelope Lively has something interesting to say about this tendency in her memoir written at 80. In her book Dancing Fish and Ammonites (2013) she comments,

I have the great sustaining ballast of memory; we all do, and hope to hang on to it. I am interested in the way that memory works, in what we do with it, and what it does with us. And when I look around my cluttered house – more ballast, material ballast – I can  see myself oddly identified and defined by what is in it: my life charted out on the bookshelves, my concerns illuminated by a range of objects.

She goes on to describe her books and objects as this curious physical evidence I find all around me as to what I have been up to . . .” (p. 4).

Objects can evoke memories we didn’t know we have and feelings we can’t always describe and perhaps, it is not too much to claim that objects can heal.

Sometimes Beauty is Simply Waiting to be Understood

Sometimes Beauty is Simply Waiting to be Understood

cultivated rose in rose garden – photograph courtesy of M. McCreath

I have been thinking about the concept of beauty for many years.

A friend took this picture of a cultivated rose in a Portland rose garden. I appreciate everything about this image, — its shapes, colours, the meanings it carries for me. I am grateful for wild roses as well, with their more modest beauty and their distinctive yet gentle scent.

I find I turn to the natural world for the beauty I crave in my life more often than any artifact, human face or body, architecture, or film although all of these can give me pleasure or heighten my day as well. There are a few constants for me in the natural world that feed my soul—sunlight on water, back-lit leaves on deciduous trees, and the shapes of tree limbs in all their particularities.

wild roses on the prairie – Photograph © Colleen Watson-Turner

I like looking at rocks, stones, shells, wild flowers, tree roots, and barks. My mother loved clouds and the skies in her paintings were often wonderful. She used to say that sometimes skies are so beautiful that if she painted them, people would think she was embellishing scenes that were actually less dramatic or less beautiful than what her paintings revealed. Recently, I have taken to cloud watching as a kind of morning meditation. I miss having our acreage, and former yards and all the hours spent looking at the changing light and the affect of back lighting. Now that we live in a downtown condo, I feed my soul by sky- gazing from our floor to ceiling windows and walking the river trails close to our home.

Only music can come close to equaling the natural world for its place in my days. I used to listen to a CBC classical music show first thing every morning—one hosted by Eric Friesen and later others. And Dennis and I had a classical music program we loved that was part of our dinner hour.  Music for Awhile aired classical pieces rarely played on other shows. It introduced us to new music. Other CBC and American Public Radio programming, both jazz and classical, also shape our music tastes. They sharpen my listening abilities, teach me new things, and generally play a central role in both our lives. For me, this is another quality of the beautiful – it can draw me in and help me to grow as a human, expanding my ideas of the beautiful, the sublime, and their relationship to the contradictory and sharp edges of life.

Perhaps, I could say that sometimes an image or set of sounds is beautiful because it is arresting or startling—shaking me out of living in my head. I think beauty also has a role in destroying stereotypes.

Sometimes my feelings seem to have a certain kind of beauty. This experience might be because a documentary tells a story of human courage, endurance and compassion. I listen to the voice and watch the face of the speaker and feel moved to respond with some courage and compassion of my own, even in if it is fleeting, it reminds me of what is of real worth in life.

snake pit, Grasslands National Park- Photograph © Colleen Watson-Turner

I’m glad that not everyone finds the same things beautiful. We need beauty in our lives and we need to expand our sense of what is beautiful lest we are drawn to judgments that diminish and destroy our care for each other and the planet. I read a chapter about vultures recently and really appreciated this paragraph for its suggestion that there are other points of view in relation to the beautiful.

“The vultures of Asia have all but disappeared while few people were paying attention and the vultures of Africa are in trouble as well. The fate of these birds, and the fate of the ecosystem they are essential to, and which is in turn essential to many people, still hangs in the balance. It is a teachable moment in how we need to understand the world around us: not only those things that are beautiful and give us pleasure, but even those that seem, as Charles Darwin said of the vulture, disgusting. Sometimes beauty is simply waiting to be understood.(from, The Wonder of Birds, by Jim Robbins, 2017).

I love that. Once again we are reminded that everything is connected to everything else and everything is needed for its unique self.

  • What seems beautiful to you?
  • What role does beauty have in your life?
  • Have you been damaged by other people’s notions of beauty and ugliness?
  • Do any of your own notions of beauty diminish you or your relationships to other living things?
  • Can you find beauty everywhere?
The Aesthetic Dimension of Life: A Few Thoughts

The Aesthetic Dimension of Life: A Few Thoughts

light sparkles on water

Aesthetics have an integrative role which connects us to the whole – the web of relationships which is life. The aesthetic is an open concept that attracts diverse perspectives and eludes any final definition. Yet, it is an essential part of human life, an aspect of our experiences which deepens their potential for meaning.

I think of aesthetics as having to do with the life of the senses, with beauty, and the sublime. It encompasses art but is much more than art. Kant believed that the aesthetic domain offers the promise of reconciliation between Nature and humanity.[1] This potential is realized through feelings and sensory experiences and is shaped further by the mind but is rarely a matter of the mind alone.

One of the central elements of the aesthetic is that it offers autonomy. Each person has the freedom to find and assert what they experience as beautiful, appealing, or powerful in its impact. Free to explore the world and develop our own aesthetic sensibilities, we change ourselves and our world.

Light sparkling on water whiles waves splash on shore never fails to bring me pleasure and deepen the quality of my day. The sights and sounds connect me to a world that humans didn’t create and brings wholeness. The harmony of mind, senses, and spirit which is aesthetic pleasure is at times sublime.

Life has diminished meaning, is almost impossible to sustain, without some of what the aesthetic dimension of life can offer the human soul.

Aesthetic experiences also come from the creative process whether it takes place within the arts or in every day life. The feeling of unity with self and materials that is possible within creative processes means we are fully ourselves in those moments. We can see our ideas materialize and take other forms. Within aesthetic experiences we may understand our selves more fully or feel greater compassion for others. We can express our feelings whether positive or not, happy or hurting. We often gain empowerment in their expression.

with sand and water we create worlds-Photograph © Colleen Watson-Turner

I have just scratched the surface of the positive elements & potential for feeling connected to all of life that the aesthetic dimension can offer. I will be continuing this focus in future posts.

Do you notice when the aesthetic dimension of life enriches your day?

[1] Eagelton’s The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990/1995) discusses this idea and Kant’s aesthetic philosophy in detail.


Outside!

Outside!

The Rock Pile Investigations
The Rock Pile Investigations

[Children’s] curiosity is to make connections, to realize the larger picture, to become able in the physical environment our lives depend on. Sarah Stein, Noah’s Children: Restoring the Ecology of Childhood.

There are many reasons why children need to be outside. The world outside, when it is familiar to children, expands their concept of home. It supports them to be at home in the world in a larger way. Kids need to be outside because it is a natural place to be. The outdoors is as much a part of their context as the indoors. It has fewer boundaries, is less confining and offers more to explore. In a sense, we were born outdoors.

Nature also gives children and teenagers a larger, often stronger, identity. It offers many opportunities to find out who you are away from the tv, the computer, and other technology and hopefully, opportunities to be free of adult supervision that is overly restricting. Rather they can learn to be someone within relationships to trees, birds, nests, ponds and sky. Many psychologists believe that this time in green spaces is essential to children’s mental and physical health.

Not all outdoor spaces are alike. The best have some biological diversity or large spaces to explore, away from heavy traffic. Ungroomed or “wild” areas have more to offer –they feed the imagination. You can support kids to explore who makes a home in that context or use their imaginations to create small world, huts, and games.

Studying a Flower
Studying a Flower courtesy JEK

The outdoors offers sensory richness and often asks for closer observation (for example, asking, “What are all the colours you can see in your stone?”) Children of all ages can learn to make finer discernments and develop a larger sense of the possibilities that exist in the world to be appreciated. Aesthetic sensibilities can be developed from forms of beauty that can only be found outside. We can point out how we enjoy the sight of light shining through dry grasses but also ask what they find beautiful – trying to expand and not limit their sense of the beautiful or the sublime.

It would also be a kindness if young people were encouraged to be outdoors when they are trying to overcome a hurt or solve a problem. I have found that some places have qualities that nurture my spirit –what might be called a spiritual presence. Encouraging children and teenagers to find their place where solitude and safety can offer them moments of being at peace can be as simple as telling your own stories of such experiences. My own attraction to being alone outdoors came both from the experiences my parents provided and from characters in favourite books describing a place outdoors they felt was meant for them. Perhaps suggesting they go for a walk by themselves might give your children or students back the sense that they can overcome or live with a problem in their lives. Supporting a child or teenager’s life in these ways may start with our own pleasure in being outdoors to explore or to be quiet, still, and content.

Are you at home in the natural world?