Failure of Imagination

We know there are many different kinds of intelligence – interpersonal, musical, logical…but let’s be honest, when we think of someone as smart we usually really only mean intellectually intelligent. Someone who is good with math or words, certified by college degrees and professional success.

I’ve written before about my fascination with Michael Pollan’s book, Botany of Desire, and the intelligence he ascribes to plant life. In the same way, a 2016 book by Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, studies the ways that trees communicate with, and even express empathy for, other trees. It’s so easy to scoff at the notion of intelligence in plant life,  but we only know what we know. What about all the things we don’t know…all that lies behind, beneath, and around what we perceive through our senses? Couldn’t any plant or animal life have forms of intelligence that we are unable to recognize or define?

I manage a concert series in downtown Washington DC (check out the link if you’re interested), and this past week I branched out a bit from the usual fare of chamber music, with a local dance ensemble, Word Dance Theater, which specializes in the work of Isadora Duncan.  I don’t know a lot about modern dance in general or Duncan in particular, but I’ve seen their work before and knew it expresses an integrity and passion for Duncan’s legacy which would be beautiful in the performance space, and which I hoped would communicate…well, something… to the audience.

Their performance was indeed colorful and thoughtful, and to me expressed uninhibited freedom. It made me think about how much more we should all be moving – gracefully and freely – throughout our days. As I watched, I thought about all the ways people get stuck – physically, emotionally, spiritually –  and wished we could learn to move with Duncan’s freedom to help us get unstuck.

2017-06-04+10.30.56Afterwards, someone I know to have considerable musical and intellectual gifts came up to me, and admitted he didn’t know enough about this kind of dance to see much of anything actually going on.  He wasn’t being judgmental, just perplexed and perhaps a bit bored by what he had seen. I would have wished for him to see something behind or around the dancers’ flowing garments and limbs, but art is unpredictable in its effect at any given time on any particular person.

I do think the gamut of intelligence includes an acceptance of what we don’t know, but what we might imagine to be possible, whether that is the possibility of messages traveling from one tree to another through a complex web of roots, or a dancer’s invitation to move with a freedom that helps to open our minds to what we cannot put into words or even fully understand. To say that something outside of human experience is impossible or ridiculous becomes, for me, simply a failure of imagination.

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Listen Up

This probably never happens to you, but sometime I find myself talking to the apparently unlistening. To be honest, sometimes they truly aren’t listening, but there are times when I’m happily surprised to find that my words were in fact heard. And to be really honest, there are certainly times when I’m not always the best listener either. I am reminded this week, as St. Francis of Assisi is celebrated in liturgical churches on October 4, of a charming legend in which Francis famously preached to the birds. Were they listening?

While I’m no St. Francis, I have often felt myself in conversation with nearby birds whenever I’m practicing  with the windows open at home.  I don’t have proof of this, but it really does seem that the birds are listening to the music, and responding in kind.

The 19th century composer Franz Liszt, who was dissuaded by his father from becoming a priest early in his life, and who took minor holy orders late in his life, wrote a piece about St. Francis preaching to the birds.  It obviously captures birdsong in pianistic figures, and seems to also capture the conversation between a gentle monk and his flock…of birds. I made a note in my score some years ago that observed how joyfully the birds sang whenever I practiced this piece.

A lesson in love for the natural world is certainly one of Francis’s best-known gifts to us. In the exuberant words of his Canticle of Brother Sun, with its almost child-like praise of creation, Francis inspires us to appreciate the wonders of our environment, emphasizing our kinship with the world around us.

For Brother Sun, whose brightness makes the light by which we see.
For Sister Moon, whose beams were formed to shine so clear and bright.
For Brother Wind, whose clouds and breezes blow across the land.
For Sister Water, so precious, humble, lowly, chaste and pure.
For Brother Fire, whose flames and light illuminate the night.
For Sister Earth, for grass and plants and flowers and all our food.

Francis went to Egypt in 1219 as part of a Crusade with intentions to convert the Sultan, and found himself instead in dialogue with the Islamic ruler, who himself was surrounded by Coptic Christians as advisors. Seems like more listening than “talking” occurred during that particular Crusade.

It strikes me that an important part of listening includes listening to ourselves – noticing what we say (or do) and its effect on others (or our planet). At the heart of listening there has to be a moment when we are willing to be changed by what we hear. Thanks, Brother Francis, for the reminder.

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Summer Reading

Somehow, being able to wade into a book and stay there has become a benchmark of mental health for me in recent years. Happy to report then that I must be doing great, because this was a really good summer for reading.  Besides some rather serious non-fiction books about health care in America…sigh, those were depressing… here are a few that I’m happy to recommend for your own very late summer – ok, autumnal – reading.

Children of Men by P.D. James – I picked this out of a bag of books my mother was giving away when she downsized earlier this year, and grabbed it up for a trip my husband and I took in June. It was lightweight and fit into my carry-on bag, the only criteria that mattered in the moment. I had no idea what it was about, but soon learned that, like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, this story too is disturbingly possible. If you saw the movie, you did not experience the nuances and gradual unfolding of James’ story. I couldn’t wait to see the film after reading the book, but I soon learned that the book and movie have almost nothing in common. Honestly, I haven’t disliked a movie so much in a long time. Books don’t always triumph over film adaptations…well, actually I think they probably do.

Bettyville: A Memoir by George Hodgman and The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen 83¼ Years Old by an unknown author: These two books were enthusiastically recommended by friends, neither of whom was really thinking about the fact that they would hit very close to home for me. As my mother journeys into dementia, and I learn to be the daughter she needs me to be, these are both books that gave me insights and a few laughs and reminded me that I am not alone in all of the watching, worrying, and loving that I’ve done these past few years as I travel alongside her into a future that frightens us.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens: One of the most popular books this summer, thanks to Reese Witherspoon, who picked up where Oprah left off. I don’t often enough connect with the rest of popular culture, and this was my chance to do so. The author, well known already for writing about her conservation work in Africa, wanted to explore human nature by writing about nature, and she exposes the dark sides of both. And I used to so love fireflies…

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro: This one was given to me by my son, and I was immediately drawn into the story, even though so very little actually happens.  He asked me recently if I had finished it and I admitted that I didn’t completely understand the author’s intent, and wished for a different ending.  He responded by text: “yeah, I know what you mean, but I think it’s about dehumanization of the other in general, and how easily we can see others based on some criteria as less than human, but also it’s about what it means to be human etc… But yeah, so tragic a story in general.” Getting that text alone made reading the book worthwhile.

All of these books are in one way or another about marginalizing “the other,” but as I think about it, isn’t much great art an attempt to explore that theme?

There’s one more, and it’s the truth that gets marginalized in this one: Fake, by my friend John DeDakis, is the fifth in his series of mysteries. The reader is given an insider’s glimpse into the world of journalism, politics, and the all too real experience of being unable to detect the truth amid the posturing and agendas of those we allow to be in positions of power.

Have you seen some of the studies about the the effect that reading fiction has on our brains? Science tells us that it helps us develop greater empathy and emotional intelligence.  Read more. So, no more guilt about escaping the stress of your day with a good book.

Happy reading!

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Pilgrimage: Reflection

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

During this time I’ve been writing most nights in a beautiful journal, covered in the softest green leather the color of peridot (which happens to be my birthstone), and which has been a companion on this journey.  There are quotes scattered throughout its once empty pages, things such as Emptiness is the beginning of holiness (Emilie Griffin), or from the 14th century’s guide to mysticism, The Cloud of Unknowing:

Pay attention then, to how you spend your time. You have nothing more precious than time. In one tiny moment of time, heaven may be gained or lost.

On this final day of our pilgrimage, today’s quote:

Humility is what created the space within us – within our hearts and minds and souls and spirits – for obedience to grow. – Robert Benson

Well, walking this way of St. James is most definitely humbling! But as we neared the city of Santiago de Compostela our packs seemed lighter, the greetings between pilgrims more jovial. Our paths were leading us all to the same place, the town’s main square in front of the cathedral, and what greeted us in the gateway to the square but a Galician bagpiper. It sounds scripted now, but in the moment it felt entirely natural and right to hear the music of this region playing in accompaniment to our final pilgrimage steps.

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We dropped our packs off at the hotel – no more bunkbeds for us – and went to the Cathedral in time for the noon pilgrim’s mass. We were early enough to get fairly close, and learned the songs that the nun taught the congregation before mass began. The words were in Latin, so familiar enough, and we sang loudly, in a vain attempt to encourage those around us to do likewise. And we saw the famously huge botafumeiro swing across the transepts, dispensing incense over the crowds – an attempt to perfume pilgrims fresh off the camino perhaps?  In medieval times most likely done with a hope of fumigating unwashed pilgrims! When the swinging ended, even the eight attending priests joined in the applause.

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With the distance of six years now, I wonder still at the hold that these three weeks of walking have on me. To have done something that connects me with over a thousand years of pilgrimage, to have stepped out of all my normal patterns of life, to have become empty and paid attention and been humbled – these are all experiences that crystallize moments of learning and awareness about our place in creation. Unforgettable. I long to return, but even if I never do I know that I carry all I learned on that route through northern Spain in my heart on this life’s pilgrimage, wherever it takes me.

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Buen camino!

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Pilgrimage – Days Twenty and Twenty-One

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

My sore foot slowed the pace, but we walked to Arca – 22 km I think. A beautiful day and many pilgrims on the camino. There is a real sense of community now as you meet up with people who you’ve seen along the way. Even people we recognized, but whom we had never actually spoke to, seemed like old friends.

SMELLS:  Today was filled with smells. Stretches of eucalyptus mixed with mint, patches of the most delicate sweetness contrasting with manure – and that’s everywhere, though usually not such a powerful part of the experience. We came upon a scene of manure being thrown onto a field – compost instead of compostela! – and that took the smell beyond pungent.SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503

ALCOHOL: Most pilgrims enjoy the wine served with every pilgrim meal. Many are laughing about drinking more than they ever do at home. What seems obvious to me is that a lower alcohol content in the local wine, and perhaps more important, an absence of sulfites, makes the wine tastier and less affecting. It doesn’t go to my head in the same way as a glass of wine immediately does at home.  And better yet, people don’t seem to feel ill effects the next day!

I’ve seen no signs that this is a culture plagued by alcoholism, but I don’t really know about that. I was amazed one morning in a restaurant, drinking my freshly squeezed orange juice, to observe a local man making quick work of  a substantial quantity of vodka.  It was 7:30 a.m. and no one seemed to raise an eyebrow.

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SOUNDS: Sadly, I’ve heard very little music along this way. A couple of albergue-keepers have loved classical music and played it as background music, but so little local/folk music so far. Perhaps when we reach Santiago I will finally hear the famous Galician bagpipes. The bells have gotten most of my attention. Every church has two bells, and they often tell the time. The small bell rings the quarter hours, once (0:15), twice (0:30), thrice (0:45), and 4 times at the hour.  And then the larger bell rings the hour itself.  A charming addition to rural life? NO! The bells almost never have any resonance. Clunk, clunk, clunk…the sound usually made me laugh, or wince. What a missed opportunity for a little extra beauty in the day.

The albergue in Arca was new and seemed nice enough, but beginning at 3:45 a.m. it became very noisy all of a sudden, and we decided we couldn’t sleep anymore, so we left at 5 a.m. It was still very dark – the kind of “darkest before the dawn” dark – and we really didn’t know where we were going. Fortunately, a group of four young Spaniards were also leaving, seemed to know the way, and best of all, had flashlights. We followed them, along with a woman from Kentucky named Georgia, for more than an hour. At dawn we were three, picking up a fourth – a Brit named Deva, who we had met before – and together we walked the final 10 km into Santiago de Compostela.

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Pilgrimage – Days Eighteen and Nineteen

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

Wednesday: A beautiful day for walking, no rain, and it was a 30 km day. The owner of the albergue where we stayed in San Xulion has a daughter who is an opera singer, on the faculty of the University of Barcelona. Once we got talking (well, he only spoke Spanish so my son translated as best as he could), he put on Mozart’s Requiem, and then only classical music thereafter. He said, with some disdain, that peregrinos have no culture!  His words, not mine.

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I sat outside on a flower-filled patio and spent a long time talking to a Finnish couple. This is funny because they told me themselves that Finns are famous for the loooong silences in their conversations. They said that the Swedes are non-stop talkers in comparison. I’ve been to Sweden, so I know that is REALLY funny. These Finns, however, were some of the chattiest people I’ve ever met, perhaps explained by the fact that they told me they live very close to the Swedish border!

Dinner was equally chatty. We sat with a British woman, Jane, who lives in Glastonbury. I asked her first thing if she was a Druid, but she’s not. She didn’t laugh at my question though. She loves Glastonbury because she finds the people there very different from the rest of her countrymen, so she says. She loves nearby Wells Cathedral too, and I urged her to go to Evensong immediately upon returning to England.

Thursday: Well, it had to happen, I suppose. Everyone’s fear on the camino is an injury or a fall.  And because I was feeling rather great about having no pain this morning, and perhaps just a little too sure about myself on a long downhill stretch of muddy rocks…I fell. It was inelegant, as these things always are. My body went one way – down – and my right food another – backwards. Nothing broken, but I walked 20 km or so on a very sore foot and it’s swollen now.  (and six years later, my right toe reminds me that it probably did break that day and I should have been more respectful of my pain!)

After I fell I was immediately surrounded by four young men, my son included, who were quite worried.  I had been hearing the group of three Americans near us on the path singing, and when I looked up into their concerned faces, my first question was if they belonged to an a cappella group.  A non-sequitur under the circumstances. I sent the three away, though they were reluctant to leave me on the ground, as I insisted.

Hobble, hobble, hobble. We reached an albergue with space around 2:00 and went across the street for an early dinner. A large circle of mostly Americans, and Jane, were there, including my three young men. I went over to thank them for wanting to help, and met a few others. One from Cape Cod, another from Albuquerque. Everyone is feeling more congenial now that the end is in sight. 40 km to go.  One and a half days to do it. Hobble…hobble.

I finished The Age of Innocence. A book about judging others, and doing the right thing. I guess it wasn’t as inappropriate for the camino as I originally thought. I started another book I’ve picked up along the way, The Red Tent, which I’ve been meaning to read for a long time.

I awoke in the night, my foot absolutely throbbing and I called out to anyone in hearing distance within the large bunk room, asking if someone had any aspirin. An angel of mercy appeared with aspirin and water, and sleep became possible.

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Pilgrimage – Day Seventeen

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

Emptiness. That is the feeling – or the outcome maybe – that best describes my experience on the camino. Thoughts come, judgments, fears – but they all seem like things to let go of, to empty myself of. There is a basic simplicity to each day. Perhaps as close as I’ll come to living like our ancestors. Each day has one purpose – walking to Santiago. Food and water  are usually rather spare for most of the day, and when I do drink water or eat an orange I can almost immediately feel it going to work in my body. After walking comes rest, then dinner, then sleep. Simple.

The biggest disappointment for me is the lack of deeper conversations with other pilgrims. Each day you meet new people and have many of the same superficial conversations. I think maybe people are just too tired – or too empty.

And my hope is that this emptiness will be filled by good things. Love, acceptance, joy, fearlessness, optimism…

The camino changed in Sarria. Those walking just the final 100 km have now joined us, and it does feel crowded and a bit competitive. But I’m trying to let go of those judgments…how wonderful that so many people are getting a taste of the camino!  Perhaps they will come again and begin further back, spending more time as peregrinos.

Today was a 23 km day, walking from 8 am to 2:30 pm. We are staying in a really wonderful albergue run by a South African couple. They tell us that some parts of the building are 1,000 years old. The bunk room itself looks at least 500 years old. We stopped in a little restaurant that had only been open for 15 days, run by a Filipino-Spaniard and her husband (from Malta I believe), and their beautiful little daughter, Mereia. It was a really good day, despite all those niggling resentments towards the new pilgrims on the road.

Let go!

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