March 10, 2014 at 12:51pm
If you wander through the Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco, you’ll find the lovely Samovar Teahouse near a little waterfall. And if you sit there, they’ll probably give you a menu that looks like this. Wabi-sabi is a lovely thing to ponder over a warm cup of tea on a chilly day.
Buddhism teaches that all things have three marks of existence: they are impermanent, they are interconnected, and they will cause us to suffer. These are quite profound, I think, and have a lot more to them beyond the immediate impression they give.
Apply them to some of the larger things in your life: for example, work, relationships, and your future. Each of them probably have differing levels of these three characteristics. Where Buddhism and wabi-sabi intersect, though, is in the simple acceptance of them.
We are bound to feel uncertain about our direction (impermanence), we are going to feel misaligned if one area of our life is out of balance (interconnectedness), and all of this will certainly create varying levels of un-ease (suffering). That doesn’t mean we’re unhappy or pessimistic, it means that we’re human. We can’t side-step the difficult things we must face — nor must we pretend they don’t exist or respond to them meaninglessly (“This is probably for the best!” comes to mind). There is plenty we don’t have to accept or tolerate.
What Buddhism and wabi-sabi both suggest, then, is that when we know that the world is imperfect (which it so beautifully is) and when we recognize that it is forever shifting around us, we begin to know that the fluctuations of our life are alright. They are so alright, in fact.
Wabi-sabi won’t let you control everything or ward off hurt or anxiety or sadness or worry. It won’t stop you from getting hurt. Nor will it immediately launch you into a state of carefree happiness (“insouciance” is quite amazing word to consider here). There will still be times where you need a little help walking — lean on people then. And in those other moments, the ones where your shoulder is the one being held for support, be strong and there.
And through it all, take the occasional chance to sit quietly in a garden sipping tea and thinking about the beautiful imperfection that is shuffling around you.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
— These lines end Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, the poem that Robert Frost called his favorite. It was published on this day in 1923. It was inspired one winter evening, when Frost was returning home from a failed attempt to sell produce at a market. He was broke, searching for ways to afford Christmas presents for his wife and children. As the snow fell, he stopped his wagon and started crying: “The snow gave me shelter; the horse understood and gave me time,” he said. This lovely poem — one often quoted by John F. Kennedy — is a fantastic expression of conviction, clearly shaped by a cold evening in New England where life felt too heavy.
the gray sea
was opening and shutting its wave-doors,
unfolding over and over
its time-ridiculing roar;
I looked but I couldn’t see anything
through its dark-knit glare;
yet don’t we all know, the golden sand
is there at the bottom,
though our eyes have never seen it,
nor can our hands ever catch it
lest we would sift it down
into fractions, and facts
and what the soul is, also
I believe I will never quite know.
Though I play at the edges of knowing,
truly I know
our part is not knowing,
but looking, and touching, and loving,
which is the way I walked on,
through the pale-pink morning light.
— This marks the fourth appearance (here are the first, second, and third) of the brilliant Mary Oliver, from her collection Why I Wake Early (a sentiment rather wonderfully echoed by the Wright Brothers). This poem is called Bone, and I’ve given you the final two parts. What I enjoy most is the way she talks about the unknown — the idea of playing at “the edges of knowing” — and the tragedy of reducing some of the world’s most lovely things to certainties. And so she doesn’t. Like Anaïs Nin before, Oliver is happy to look and touch and love, happily responding to the wells of emotion that live inside.
If you have never spent a day or a month getting lost in Leo Tolstoy, I would suggest doing so. This is from War and Peace, certainly his most famous. But his shorter writing is quite brilliant as well — I will never forget reading The Death of Ivan Ilyich one sunny afternoon in the main plaza in Antigua.
In our haste to live, in our quest for certainty and answers, it is occasionally important to heed the reminder he gives here: can we be patient enough to let the answers come? It sounds like a passive idea, but it hardly implies inaction.
Very often, it is the slow and steady accumulation of steps we take — most of them done without knowing where they will ultimately lead — that craft our path. They frustrate us and make us worry. They cause sleeplessness and self-doubt. But, it is our task to know (yes, to know) that if we forever act in accordance with what we believe to be right — whether the results appear immediately or not — the direction of our path will be just right.
"Roads," the proverb goes, "are made by walking."
To play without passion is inexcusable!
— On this day in 1802, the same Beethoven who said these words also published one of his most famous compositions for piano. It is formally known as “Piano Sonata No. 14 in C Sharp Minor, Opus 27, No. 2” with the Italian subtitle “Quasi una fantasia” (or, “Almost a fantasy”) — more popularly, though, it is known as the Moonlight Sonata, after a German critic compared it to moonlight over Lake Lucerne. Beethoven’s words remind me of similar ones said by Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut — each example a reiteration of Rumi’s brilliance.
Yesterday afternoon, when the sun was warming our walk home, I gave my parents a little bit of room to be together. It was after Mom had finished rowing — securing a strong third place in her final race, beating four boats full of college students, all of whom were years younger than her youngest child. A few minutes after the photo, we decided to stop and celebrate with a little bit of champagne. Somewhere between both events (going from races to clinking glasses is a something of a common family routine) I took this photo, one that shouldn’t surprise anybody — for nearly 40 years now, their hands and arms have found each other.
Part of its beauty is the togetherness, the almost indescribable amount of love they combine to create. The other magnificent part, though, are the pieces themselves — not “my parents” as a whole, but "my Mom" and "my Dad" as two unique pillars holding up a single roof. That roof is certainly the most magical structure I have ever seen, and one that I find hard to describe in a satisfactory way.
I dropped them at the airport this morning, their year in Austin officially over. You don’t say “thanks” or “what a lovely year” or “I’m going to miss you” at moments like those, but that’s because you realize how woefully insufficient words can be when they try to replace emotion. So you don’t try. Instead, you give a couple of hugs and drive away, returning to a city that is colored with happy memories of wine and yoga, conversation and bike rides, laughter and love. Footprints everywhere.
And you take a moment here and there throughout the day — actually, you take hundreds of them — and you remember and smile. The tinges of sadness about chapters that have closed must now begin their transformation into things that are to be celebrated. When you are given an unexpected year that overflowed with things that life should be full of, what else is there to do?
One of the joys of living are the ceremonies we create — the little things we do that let us soak in the deepest sensations of being alive. They may be candles at dinner, prosecco with some home-made brunch, unprompted gifts or notes, hugs before and after races, races themselves, books on roadtrips to baseball games, walking side-by-side with arms around each other — whatever they are, most importantly, they are our own creation, and they should be done because life affords us only a finite amount of time to do them.
It means that when you are blessed by a year with your parents, you should go on a road trip with them — yes, when you’re 31, you should drive your parents through New Mexico, your mother knitting in the front seat, your father lecturing and sleeping from the back. Absolutely you should. And you should eat meals in old chapels and take pictures on top of roadrunners and spend Christmas Day in a casino on an Indian Reservation in Ruidoso. You should wander through Santa Fe, eat tapas a couple of times, and listen to some live jazz. You should drive across a gorge outside Taos, hand your phone to your Dad, and ask him to film you as you run and slide across the snowy parking lot. And when you take the phone back, you should have that split-second where he looks at you and wonders how much has changed — really, how much has changed — in the last thirty years. And you should do all of it because place and scenery will always shuffle around in the background, but the things that you can control — what you take with you in the little bags you carry throughout your life — matter most.
So you should take every sacred chance you have to show someone that you care about them, that they mean something to you and the world. You should err on the side of listening to your deepest convictions, as “absurd” as the world tells you they are, as unachievable as convention will often remind you. You should be ruthless in your pursuit of the things you know you deserve, you know you are worth — and, by God, you must know how worthy and deserving you are. And you must not settle. In fact, there may be no greater crime.
It means that a Friday-morning yoga class with your Mother will be over in an hour, a lunch-time chat with your Dad about dreaming and writing and traveling will be over in two-and-a-half, an Ironman will be over in 11 (or 10 or 12), a weekend with your sister-turned-mother building trains with your nephew will be over in a few days, a baseball season will certainly end in six months, that time you lived with your brother in Austin and that time before where you lived with your sister in a different part will be over in a year. And like everything before it and everything after, that year with your parents also comes to an end in, well, a year. It means that everything we do, from the smallest ceremony we create to the totality of our existence, has a finish line. Everything begins and ends.
We are best off, then, getting on a trail by a river and spreading our arms around someone we love and walking with them as we leave a race and a city, saying silent words that nobody else but the two of you will ever hear, heading toward a glass of champagne. We are best off, then, celebrating the moments we are afforded for no other reason than both they and we are worthy of being celebrated. And then celebrating them again and again and again.
Let’s pretend that immediately after I took this photo, my parents stopped and turned around, taking a second to look at all that they had left behind. They would have seen a long line of people whose lives they have bettered, from their children on down. Whether it is one of Mom’s hand-knitted sleepy animals, or one of Dad’s trademarked lectures on life, there are little bits of Peter and Maree Stephens in thousands of lives. It is a legacy of happiness and love, one that began years ago, when two poor, young kids decided to celebrate a moment the same way they have thousands and thousands of times since: being together over a cup of tea, sometimes chatting, other times more silently.
Now, though, it is time to shift the gaze back to the uncertain future, knowing that the next time — the next random ceremony — will be just as wonderful as all the last times have been.
February 27, 2014 at 11:55am
…bridges produce houses before palaces…
— Victor Hugo — the quintessential Romantic — has appeared here before, but this has long been one of my favorite lines of his. It’s quietly tucked away in Notre Dame de Paris when he’s taking us on a “birds-eye” tour of Paris, from one neighborhood to the next, spending a lot of time on the varying architecture. His point is quite beautiful: when a bridge connects one side of the Seine to the other, it takes a moment for the newly accessible side to develop. First it’s the bridge, then roads, then houses, and then — maybe — palaces. On this, the birthday of both Longfellow and Steinbeck, it’s worth pondering how Hugo’s words apply to the stages of personal growth. It may just be the case that we grow and change in phases, one thing leading to the next in a patient sequence of unpredictable steps, palaces somehow resulting from bridges built years before.
February 24, 2014 at 2:23pm
A lesson in empathy from some of the best animals on the planet. It seems to match perfectly with the lovely poetry of Mary Oliver, and it reminds me of the practical advice given by Kurt Vonnegut. A legacy of kindness is a wonderful thing.
February 18, 2014 at 12:49pm
A little hunches hero returns (enjoy this one of his as well). Like the phrasing of Rumi, the wit of Wilde, the genius of Borges, or the art of Picasso, the magnificent Antoine de Saint-Exupéry has the rare ability to take things we know and feel — the idea of dreaming and inspiring, for example — and turning them into delightful visions.
February 17, 2014 at 9:08am
A few thoughts on an incredible city (with a little Borges as well). Maybe Paulo Coelho was thinking of San Francisco when he wrote this lovely line.
February 14, 2014 at 11:31am
If there are five pieces of writing that have affected me more than any other, they would be (and not surprisingly, each author has appeared on here before):
- Dubliners, by James Joyce
- Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
- Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
- Death in the Afternoon, by Ernest Hemingway
- The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde
On this day in 1895, The Importance of Being Earnest premiered at St. James’s Theater in London (the original program is above). There is no way to summarize the plot in a way that conveys its true brilliance, but it is exceptionally witty and hilarious.
I would advise everyone to find a few hours to meet two of the world’s best characters: John Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff.
(The above photo comes from here.)
February 13, 2014 at 11:18am
You’ll notice three things about this wonderful piece of writing:
- It is beautifully crafted
- It contains one of the most wonderful, feeling, and true descriptions of family that I have read
- My sister — and amazing mother of three — wrote it
When I write about "feeling alive," I don’t have to look much beyond my sister’s happy little family (and here) for examples of what that means.
February 12, 2014 at 11:13am
This is a magnificent line from Paulo Coelho’s The Valkyries. It’s a lovely — and perhaps more captivating — way of advocating for the self-belief we should all have in our ability to do wonderful things. I often write about "writing your own story" (or, as Winston Churchill once confidently said, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it”) and this is quite the same. It should be done wholeheartedly.
Think of the music The Beatles made, the poetry that Leonard Cohen turned into song, the words of Jennifer Egan, or the magic of Rumi — all of them came along, leaving wonderful “noise” in their wake.
February 11, 2014 at 6:31pm
When a man has lived in one place for most of his life, he walks around hip-deep in history. He sees that life is not so brief; it is vast and contains multitudes.
— In a lovely National Geographic essay, Garrison Keillor spends a few paragraphs getting nostalgic: about life and family, growing up and living in Minnesota, death and finality. Keillor has long had wonderful associations for me: cold, cold DC mornings when I was growing up. Dad and I would listen to the radio on our way downtown (to school for me and work for him), and somewhere before we parked and he would buy me a hot chocolate, "The Writer’s Almanac" would come on NPR. It’s quite the way to begin your day: a calm voice reading you a poem behind some soft piano music, a few small facts about what has happened on this day in years past. I didn’t always understand the poem or the historical references, but it must have triggered something in me that has, in some way, led to the creation of little hunches.
February 10, 2014 at 1:30pm
In a lovely lecture given in Buenos Aires, Jorge Luis Borges (one of my absolute favorite writers) was speaking about poetry. He spent quite a bit of time on it, running through reasoned arguments to make a point that may seem quite simple: poetry is beautiful because it is beautiful. He could not explain it much more than that, though he has some fittingly simple lines about it:
"Beauty waits in ambush for us."
“Beauty is everywhere, perhaps in every moment of our lives.”
He ends with the quote you see above. To Picasso, we are all innately artists; to Miles Davis, jazz is just jazz; to Michelangelo, the marble already contains the sculpture; and to The Beatles, The White Album was exactly that — The White Album.
The wonderfully indescribable things we are made of — how lovely it is that so many of them are because, well, they just are. And they should be celebrated. And celebrated, and celebrated.