"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Nothing To Live Against

Philadelphia: Ginkgo Branch & View from 3rd Floor ~ Autumn 2000

Josef In The Windowsill: So Placid and Self - Contained!
(Same Window, Same Ginkgo Branch ~ Summer 1994)

In The Little Book of Letting Go, Hugh Prather questions why we wear the seams of our socks against the skin, so that they look smooth on the outside but feel bad on the inside. Wouldn't inside out make more sense? Interior vs Exterior.

Circumstances vs State of Mind. Which matters more? Prather says don't let circumstances become more important than your mental state: "If it were possible to summarize all mystical teachings in a single sentence, this one would come close: Make your state of mind more important that what you are doing" (7, 76).

I don't know why Hugh Prather calls his book "Little" since it is really just a normal - sized book. However, if you're familiar with author Susan Jeffers, she really does have a couple of tiny books containing advice similar to Prather's. Prather says we have two minds -- one that is whole and peaceful; another that is always conflicted, fragmented and busy. Susan Jeffers calls these two minds The Higher Self and the Lower Self. The Higher Self holds inner peace, strength, wisdom and spiritual dimension, whereas the Lower Self is a "place of struggle, lack, fear, and pain" (The Little Book of Peace of Mind, 4).

I have long been aware that when I get upset it is due to circumstances (missed appointment, messed up recipe, items lost or misplaced). This awareness, however, has not yet prevented me from feeling irritated, even though I tell myself over and over that these details are insignificant and have nothing to do with my Higher Self; they are merely circumstances that I needn't react to. As Jeffers says, "Your inner peace has nothing to do with the dramas of your life" (LBPM, 9). But, guess what? I react anyway, giving those annoying little details and missteps the power to determine my mood and the way I feel about and act toward others. It's all small stuff? Oh, really?

As you may have noticed not long ago on the Quotidian Kit, one of my favorite lines of fiction is actually about this same idea. In one of Margaret Atwood's "True Romances," a character is lamenting that her bad boyfriend has left her, and now she has "nothing to live for." Her level - headed friend asks, "Were you living for him when he was here?" And the distressed one says, "No . . . I was living in spite of him, I was living against him." The wise friend concludes, "Then you should say, I have nothing to live against."

I do recall applying this lesson during my early Philadelphia years, back when I was trying to improve my urban attitude. Thinking of Atwood's story, I said to myself, "You need to give up living against the city! You have nothing to live against." But it's such a bad habit with me, it seems that I will try to live against almost anything! The weather, the grocery store, the holiday season, organized religion, centuries of misogynism -- you name it; unless I consciously stop myself, I will try to live against it. And how does one little person live against an entire city or an entire cosmos or an entire family? Not only is it impossible, it is just not necessary to do so, even if it does feel so at times.

Nothing to live against. Brian Andreas makes a similar suggestion in his story, "Western Mysticism": "It's much easier, he told me, if you like the parts you like & you like the parts you don't like. Is that some Eastern thing? I said & he said not really since he was from Idaho & it worked there just fine" (from StoryPeople).

Still I wonder, how do you really learn to "like the parts you don't like"? How do you learn to say, "Oh well," if that's what the occasion calls for, to be dismissive, remain impassive, impersonal, detached? Easy to know these ideas so well yet remain painfully inept at living them out. Oh, Great Buddha (misogynist though you were), Oh, Mother Theresa, tell us: how ON EARTH does one "let go"; how draw the line between "circumstance" and "state of mind"? For a Doubting Thomasina, a Daughter of Descartes, a Western Girl With Glasses, it's not always easy.

Honestly now, what kind of person are you if your circumstances don't impact your state of mind? Isn't that kind of like Oliver singing, "If you don't mind taking it like it turns out / it's a fine life"? But that's not what we believe, is it? What if you do mind? Despite the song, it was not a fine life for Oliver, nor for Charles Dickens. Was Dickens any more Eastern than I?

Was Walt Whitman?

I think I could turn and live with animals,
they're so placid and self-contain'd,
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied,
not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another,
nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the earth.
(from Song of Myself, #32)

I loved this stanza as a student and for a very long time afterward, even now I guess. Yet I have to agree with the critic who said that Whitman probably didn't mean it -- maybe about the animals he did; but surely not about himself. After all, he lived a life of highly refined intellect, not possible (as far as we know) for cows or cats.

When reading Hugh Prather's book, I couldn't help but notice how often his examples were about puppies. Very appealing and touching, but hello we are not dogs or cats or cows. We are humans with baggage and memory and very complicated brains and the need for discourse. On the more useful side, however, Prather says that progress matters more than achievement, direction more than perfection. We can choose, we can decide. In the best interest of inner peace, we can wear our socks inside out.

P.S. Christmas is coming!
Next post will be on Monday, December 14th
Between now and then, be sure to read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts on

(Ginkgo trees, leafless trees, Christmas trees)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Through A Glass Brightly

Stained Glass Design in Fireman's Hall Museum, Philadelphia


Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, "Experience" (written in 1844)
is full of great observations:

"The years teach much which the days never know."

"From the mountain you see the mountain."

"People forget that it is the eye which makes the horizon."

"Five minutes of today are worth as much to me,
as five minutes in the next millennium."

"Let us treat the men and women well:
treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are."

"The great gifts are not got by analysis. Everything good is on the highway."


Stained Glass Windows in Wells Cathedral, England

"Experience" also contains many beautiful descriptions of color and light. For Emerson, uncertainty and brightness go hand in hand. We live our lives almost not knowing what is happening to us: "Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes . . . All things swim and glitter. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception" (141). It is not lack of light, however, that impairs our inner vision; it is not through a glass darkly that we try to see. Instead, our distorted vision causes all to "glitter." Distortion, but not gloom, not dullness. We are in the light not in the dark.

Emerson unites illusion, perception, and limitation: "Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and as we pass through them they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus" (144). We hold beads of experience to the light, watching them become prisms, deciding which of the many colors we feel most moved by, which bead, which color we will choose. To choose but one hue is to choose a dream, an illusion, but such is our inability to perceive experience in more than one way at a time.

Writing in France a few years later (1857), Gustave Flaubert -- in a section sadly omitted from the final version of his novel -- would picture Madame Bovary standing before the colored windows at Vaubyessard. She looks out at the countryside through variously colored window panes in a passage strangely reminiscent of Emerson's colored beads and lenses. Moving as from dream to dream, Emma Bovary looks at the illusion offered by each pane. Through the blue pane, all seems sad; through the yellow pane everything grows smaller, lighter, and warmer; through the green pane everything she sees appears leaden and frozen. She remains longest in front of the red glass, looking at a landscape that frightens her, until she averts her eyes to the ordinary daylight of a transparent pane. [Continued below, in "Comments."]

Like Emerson's image of the many - colored beads, this picture of Madame Bovary offers both variation and restriction. In an expansive description of light and brightness, Emerson illustrates our limited ability to fully understand experience and offers Surprise as a method of perceiving life. He talks of both the uncertainty and the blessedness of Surprise. Our perception may be obscured, and we may be isolated from comprehension of a grand design, but it is, as Emerson portrays it, a panoramic isolation:

"Life is a series of surprises, and would not be worth taking or keeping, if it were not. God delights to isolate us every day, and hide from us the past and the future. We would look about us, but with grand politeness God draws down an impenetrable screen of purest sky, and another behind us of purest sky. You will not remember, God seems to say, and you will not expect." (152)

The reader cannot help but see this "pure" sky as one of the clearest, brightest blue. Despite isolation and limitation, this is not a vision of darkness or despair. It is a climactic image of color and light that dispels the gloom of our imperfect understanding. Emerson offers hope and affirmation amidst uncertainty and fragmentation. A human being, says Emerson, "is a golden impossibility" (152). Through our sleep - filled eyes we can glimpse the truth of our experience, glittering through a colored lens, on the horizon where small but distinct we see something as beautiful as our own natures.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Prose and Poetry, 2nd Edition, Ed. Reginald L. Cook, (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969) 141 - 161.

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (Norton Critical Edition), Ed. and Trans. Paul de Man, (New York: Norton, 1965), 269 - 70.

Next post will be on Saturday, November 28th
Between now and then, be sure to read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts on

(more Bill Bryson, autumnal poetry, etc.)