September 18, 2014 at 1:21pm
At a teahouse in San Francisco, I found wabi-sabi on a menu. As I explored more then, it is the Japanese idea that true beauty lies in the natural imperfection and impermanence of things (sort of like the antithesis to everything Dorian Gray stands for). In some sense, it’s a difficult concept to grasp, but it’s by no means abstract: think of something that makes you yearn — even that word is perfect, can’t you just feel it naturally stretch into yeeeeeeaarn? — it’s usually composed of some combination of exhilaration and melancholy. Then think of why it makes you feel that way. Perhaps because you know it won’t last forever, maybe it’s already past, or it could just be something unique to you, something very much of your own creation and ownership, something you breathe life into. Someone you love? Someone you loved? A memory of that summer you spent on the French Riviera? That’s wabi-sabi.
Zen Buddhism expresses this concept with a beautifully simple image — the ensō. In a world overwhelmed by the never-ending conquest of certainty, the avoidance of chance, and the clamor for needing to know what’s next, I think people should grab a paint brush and try their hand at an ensō or two.
Adding to our list of amazing words, there’s yūgen, a wonderfully ironic word to try and describe. You see it’s definition above, but one of the reason these posts are difficult for me to write is because of what yūgen actually means: there are some things, some emotions, that are too deep and mysterious for words. And I’m glad that is the case. The romantic Buddhist in me hopes that if I am ever able to perfectly describe why I love someone, I will know it’s time to walk away. Regardless, perhaps my favorite version of this comes from Silesius: tell me one more time, why is the rose?
The curse of writing is exactly that disconnect — taking an emotion you so powerfully feel, and trying to re-cast it on paper. If you’re supposed to write about what you know — and let’s say you know what love and heartbreak are — if you can’t find the right words, or the right characters or places, how are you supposed to write about what you know? In a sense, you know it so well that you are left wordless. It’s the endlessness of complexity that Alice Munro talks about.
So you have two choices: reduce it to words and feel like it loses a dimension or two, knowing that no matter how well it gathers itself into sentences or paragraphs, it never quite carries the same weight as it does inside. Or, collect your pens, find some paper, torment yourself with the simultaneous experience of creating and destroying sentences, and when the day draws to an unsatisfactory close, only you will truly know the effort and anguish that has gone into creating such a perfectly blank page.
I hope this doesn’t have the unintended consequence of suggesting that without answers, questions are gutless. Quite the opposite, I hope it encourages more of them. What I hope instead is that there is a profound comfort with not knowing.
That mystery, that uncertainty, that yūgen. Somewhere swirling amidst all three are the secrets of Rumi’s morning breeze, the whatever of life — the thing and the things that don’t belong on paper, but live somewhere indescribably deep and honest. Those things deserve your biggest smile.
September 15, 2014 at 1:12pm
It’s been a dead parade
of hours since 5 AM
a march of the bland
with the meaningless and
I can think of nothing
I have done to merit
But now, at 8 pm,
I am bathing my son
in a tub filled with bubbles
and blue battleships,
the soapy water over
his Irish white skin
makes him glisten
like a glazed doughnut
and I should tell him
to stop splashing
but this is the first time
all day I have felt like living
so how can I scold
my boy who’s found joy
in something ordinary
as water? And when
I wash his hair
with Buzz Lightyear
closes his eyes and
smiles like a puppy
being petted as I massage
the sweet lotion into
his red curls and I know
this is one good thing
I have done with my life
this day that has waited
for this moment
of water on my sleeve
and soap on my nose
to turn emptiness
— One Good Thing, by Edwin Romond. It’s a poem about moments — in this case, a singular one — that give purpose and significance to life. They can be as simple as running through the rain or as quiet as togetherness, but they should be sought. And protected.
September 14, 2014 at 1:35pm
Kindness. We’ve seen George Saunders, Mary Oliver, William Wordsworth, and my Dad talk about it quite beautifully (you can see all of them here) — now it’s Michael Blumenthal’s turn. This is a piece of a longer poem which I find lovely at parts, and a little overdone at others.
The title of the poem is a reference to some advice Henry James gave to his nephew (“Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind”) and its simplicity should not mask its truth. Little acts of kindness, regardless of how the world responds, are beautiful things.
September 11, 2014 at 12:49pm
Yes, Dorian, you will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you have never had the courage to commit.
— Oscar Wilde was hardly religious — earlier in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry says: “…the terror of God, which is the secret of religion…” — so his reference to “sin” here is perfectly secular. It also couples nicely with another one of Lord Henry’s lines, equally encouraging of greater levity and enjoyment: “Humanity takes itself too seriously. It is the world’s original sin. If the cave-man had known how to laugh, history would have been different.” From Sam Spade to Duke Ellington, Hunter S. Thompson to Thoreau, history (and little hunches) drips with advice on what it means to truly live. Now we have Oscar Wilde’s version — get sinful.
September 10, 2014 at 1:19pm
Sputnik Sweetheart is the third Murakami book I have read — Norwegian Wood and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle being the other two — and I loved it. Along with Notes From Underground (or perhaps Kafka’s The Trial — indeed, Murakami’s narrator in Sputnik Sweetheart is also named “K”), I’m not sure I’ve ever read a better existential novel.
It has many wonderful, typical Murakami elements: blurred lines between reality and fantasy, people gone missing, long correspondence over the phone or through letters, references to Western music and literature, loneliness, searches for meaningful connection, bizarre relationships with love, cats, unclear endings — but the combination here is one that caught me quite surprisingly.
I firmly believe that the impact of a book is inseparable from the time (and place) you read it. It’s why I write so much in the cover of books I read, and why I also find it hard to recommend books for people: I loved Infinite Jest, but the reasons why extend far beyond the tortured prose found between the covers. I have plane tickets from Central America wedged in its pages, receipts from bars in Belize where I read it over the course of a few beers and the afternoon, and troubled, confused notes stacked on top of each other in the margins. They all combine into something incomplete that begins to suggest why it was such a special book for me. All of those things, however, would most likely mean nothing to anyone else.
The same applies here. I loved this book because I loved it — sort of the why-less response that many people find unsatisfactory. There was one passage in particular, extremely bleak and dark, that made me put the book down for a while and think:
"So that’s how we live our lives. No matter how deep and fatal the loss, no matter how important the thing that’s stolen from us — that’s snatched right out of our hands — even if we are left completely changed, with only the outer layer of skin from before, we continue to play out our lives this way, in silence. We draw ever nearer to the end of our allotted span of time, bidding it farewell as it trails off behind. Repeating, often adroitly, the endless deeds of the everyday. Leaving behind a feeling of immeasurable emptiness."
The reaction to this shouldn’t be one of rightness or wrongness. It’s not whether or not you agree, squirm, want to think happy thoughts, or could never imagine diving into a world of such isolation or solitude. Not at all. I believe that he forces you into an intensely personal realm — one he mentions more positively in the quote you see in the photo above — where you will only truly experience the world you are born into if you don’t let anything stop you from knowing yourself. The small things and the large things, the nicer edges and the ones you’d like to file, the hours of sadness and the hours of joy. And, like it or not, I would bet that we have all felt the way he just described at one point or another.
It’s another way of saying what Martin Buber — the Austrian-born existentialist — did: “All real living is meeting.” Or the common Buddhist refrain about facing the world and not hiding from it. Or what James Joyce had Leopold Bloom spend his ordinary day in Dublin doing in Ulysses.
Time will pass and the world will spin irrespective of our participation. But life — in all its smiles and tears — is the briefest of experiences. Fill it as you may, but let it unfold as it will, meeting it at every corner.
September 8, 2014 at 7:59am
Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.
— Bemoan Jack Kerouac’s self-pity all you like — I certainly do — but if you wander and search and explore, your paths will definitely cross. This is from On the Road, a wonderfully tortured and scattered book that people inevitably love or hate. I read it in New Jersey when I was 19 after I drove there from Tennessee, and after a couple of weeks there, I took a Greyhound Bus to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. And today, like then, with my battered suitcases piled on the sidewalk, I have the same yearning for more: other languages, delicious local food, falling asleep to the unfamiliar chorus of a new city, looking out across a different river, and finding cozy places with fireplaces to sit and read and write and watch the snow fall at Christmas time. I’m not sure what’s next or where’s next, but I do know that everything unsolved in my heart is nothing to warrant worry. A smile, yes, but not worry.
September 2, 2014 at 1:07pm
These are the final lines of his poem, which begins: “Wayfarer, the only way is your footsteps, there is no other.” It’s another, more beautiful way of saying something else I love — also originally written in Spanish — “Roads are made by walking.”
I consider my path quite often — sometimes peacefully, sometimes more judgmentally — and it’s something of a challenge to calmly accept the foam trails left behind. But that is supposed to be the challenge: how to shift from making to accepting, finding the love that comes with “at-one-ness” with whatever.
And so, I find myself leaning forward a little more, enjoying the shift of things as they come to pass.
No, this is about standing up in the midst of the world that you live and not hiding — turning back towards what’s actually happening.
— I had originally planned on featuring these words instead — "We are all messy miracles, but we deny the miraculous when we identify only with the mess" — but, quite obviously, did not. Both belong to Flint Sparks, the first from his talk at TEDx Austin in 2011, the second from this lovely blog. One of the greatest gifts Flint has given me is true belief in the first quote, and because of that, I have been able to find comfort in the messy miraculousness I used to so deeply question. In other words, the first quote empowered belief in the second, and although my many questions have not disappeared (quite the opposite, they are encouraged), the anxiety about non-perfection is no longer so weighted and haunting. It all reminds me of this, and because it does, it is not so difficult for me to imagine a lovely, peaceful meeting between Flint and Rumi — both sitting peacefully in a field, meeting the world and themselves in all their miraculous messiness.
The incomparable Mary Oliver is back for her seventh appearance on little hunches (click through this link to see her other six). Her words stand so beautifully on their own, and I had every intention to leave them that way. The only problem, though, is that when I read this — especially the final line — I hear Neil Young singing, and I also think of David Whyte and his perfectly simple advice for everyone who wants more out of life: start close in.
The three of them make a powerful combination.
August 25, 2014 at 3:17pm
My brother sent me this a while ago, and if you’re interested in a longer piece about creativity and genius — or if you want to understand little hunches
from a more scientific perspective — give it a read. My website exists to provoke thought, not to spew cliches or inspiration. And my goal is for you to take what lives here and connect it to the rumblings of your mind.
By definition, that combination is unique to each of us, and any result is entirely unpredictable. You may pass along what you read, write it in a journal, vociferously condemn it, or ignore it altogether. Regardless, there is
a reaction, and that’s what I care about.
The point, though, is to string these reactions together — to collect all these little hunches purposelessly, uncertain where they may lead, or what effect they have.
Because, as I believe (and as this article maintains), the root of creativity and innovation — or, “bigger” hunches — lies not in a single moment, but in the accumulation of hundreds or thousands of them. Or, as Victor Hugo would say, "…bridges produce houses before palaces…"
"Although we have a definition of creativity that many people accept—the ability to produce something that is novel or original and useful or adaptive—achieving that ‘something’ is part of a complex process, one often depicted as an ‘aha’ or ‘eureka’ experience."
She uses Isaac Newton and his “discovery” of gravity as an example, and indeed, it may the the quintessential one:
"This narrative is appealing—for example, “Newton developed the concept of gravity around 1666, when an apple fell on his head while he was meditating under an apple tree.” The truth is that by 1666, Newton had already spent many years teaching himself the mathematics of his time (Euclidean geometry, algebra, Cartesian coordinates) and inventing calculus so that he could measure planetary orbits and the area under a curve. He continued to work on his theory of gravity over the subsequent years, completing the effort only in 1687, when he published Philosophiœ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. In other words, Newton’s formulation of the concept of gravity took more than 20 years and included multiple components: preparation, incubation, inspiration—a version of the eureka experience—and production. Many forms of creativity, from writing a novel to discovering the structure of DNA, require this kind of ongoing, iterative process.”
It’s a fascinating revelation, because it applies to the world, not just renowned inventors:
"[A]lmost all of my subjects confirmed that when eureka moments occur, they tend to be precipitated by long periods of preparation and incubation, and to strike when the mind is relaxed…"
And one concluding point:
"Creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way—seeing things that others cannot see."
To me, this means that you should encourage the wanderings of your mind. Believe in its beauty, do things your way, and go on creating yourself endlessly.
Then he continued: “And I can sing the blues so deep, until you can have this room full of money and I can give you the blues.” He was born on this day in 1920 (we only know the Mississippi county in happened in), and spent most of the next eight decades rambling up and down the fretboard on his guitar, talking and telling stories. Blues guitarists from the Mississippi Delta sang of a few things, but hardship was one of them, and Hooker recognized this early on: “They wasn’t gonna to give you nothin’.” And again, he then continued: “I didn’t care as long as they let me play my music.”
Music appears often on little hunches, from Neil Young to John Cage, Led Zeppelin (is there any band more blues-inspired?) to the poetry of Theodore Roethke, and there’s a reason: it’s such a beautiful medium for emotion — sometimes in its most honest form.
There may not be many more truly American things than the blues, and what an incredible part of its creation. It’s simple, honest, and everywhere — as Leadbelly once said, “When you lie down at night, turning from side to side, and you can’t be satisfied no way you do, Old Man Blues got you.”
August 21, 2014 at 3:24pm
He has changed the responsibility of the composer from making to accepting. To accept whatever comes regardless of the consequences is to be unafraid or to be full of that love which comes from a sense of at-one-ness with whatever.
— This lovely line comes from John Cage’s Lecture on Something. It’s natural for a composer to talk about his craft, but it’s much more infrequent that it’s put so beautifully. And so differently. There’s something extremely Rilke and Voltaire and in his words, and that’s hardly a surprise — the gradual infusion of Zen Buddhist thought into his life seamlessly affected his music. Regardless, I love the concept: at-one-ness with whatever.
The ensō is one of the more sacred symbols of Zen Buddhism. It’s a single stroke of paint on paper, and is full of representations: individuality, the state of mind of the artist, the idea of “perfection,” fullness, simplicity, spontaneity, circularity of existence, openness (and, in turn, its opposite), absence, grace — in a way, the drawing of ensō is said to reveal the depths of its creator’s enlightenment. Another way to look at ensō would be as the physical representation of wabi-sabi (the ability to see beauty in all that is imperfect, incomplete, and impermanent).
An easy, tempting way to consider ensō would be to immediately notice all it lacks: the gaps in paint, the irregular circle, the early fading, the unevenness — indeed, these “flaws” we notice in ourselves or our performance seem to always draw our most vehement criticism. Another way to consider ensō would be to notice our reaction to it. Not to the drawing itself, but to the immediate urge to find fault in it.
And if you saw the ensō of someone you loved — your husband, your child, your mother — what words would you use? Misaligned, misshapen, ugly, too thick, a little rushed? Or beautiful, perfect, “just so you,” wouldn’t-change-a-thing…
I ask because the answer is obvious, and the point is quite simple: we carry around toxic words and poisonous phrases that we wouldn’t dare unleash on anyone but ourselves. But they don’t have to be there, nor should they be there.
Draw your ensō and smile at its beauty.
My friend and I mull over the teas
displayed in square jars
with beveled glass labeled by type.
Each name seems part of a haiku:
“After the Snow Sprouting.” “Moon Palace.”
“Mist Over the Gorges.”
I’m drawn to green teas
with unoxidized leaves that don’t wither,
hold their grassy fragrance
like willow under snow in winter.
The proprietor offers real china for the Chinese tea.
Animal bones, fine ground, give whiteness,
translucency and strength
to the porcelain that appears delicate,
The rim of the cup is warm and thin.
My friend’s lips are plush: her lovely
mouth opens to give advice I ask for.
We talk about memory of threshold events,
like a first kiss or a poem published.
She can’t remember…
I tell her about my brother-in-law’s
chemotherapy—his third bout of cancer.
He wants his family to put a pinch
of his ashes in things he liked:
his banjo, the top drawer of his desk, the garden.
I wouldn’t mind becoming part
of a set of bone china that serves tea
in a cozy teahouse smelling of incense,
cinnamon, musk, and carved teak.
I’d like to be brought to a small table,
sit between friends’ quiet words,
held in hands so close that breath
on the surface of warm drink
makes mist rise over their faces.
— This is At the Tea Garden, by Margaret Hasse. It’s quiet and beautiful, immediately reminding me of a lovely tea garden I visited in San Francisco. It was a calm place surrounded by bustle and I often enjoyed sitting by the fountain and looking out over the grass, half covered by sun, half not.
I posted this a few weeks ago, and in it, there’s a link to a longer piece of writing that contains the line you see above. Spend some time with all of it.
George Saunders spoke of something similar, and he phrased it nicely. His regrets, he said, are almost exclusively "failures of kindness" — those chances you have to show love or care, simple as they may be, yet you stand and let them pass. The note you didn’t write, the champagne you didn’t buy, the hug you didn’t give.
The beautiful Mary Oliver wrote of starting her day with the necessarily intertwined tandem of happiness and kindness. It’s an idea that Henry David Thoreau would have agreed with, which is why I put her words over the serenity of Walden Pond.
And then there’s William Wordsworth, including kindness in the very essence of how people should be remembered.
The words you see above belong to my Dad, a man devoted to kindness in every manner possible. Perhaps devoted isn’t exactly right, because that suggests a commitment or a conscious effort. When something is seamlessly a part of someone, by definition it doesn’t exist apart from them, and so it is with my Dad and his inextricable kindness.
These four make a nice group, each linking arms with the other in support of things the world will forever need more of: unobstructed love and goodness.