Noon Chorus

The oaks are lightly touched with the first tints of rust and gold and the cool breeze, bearing the scent of dying leaves, sets the birches shimmering like a Klimt painting. The clouds are thin and stretched like cotton gauze across the sky.

The stream which has been so dry for so long is wet again from last weekend’s rains. A few ducks investigate the yellowing reeds along the bank as a lone man, head down, hands in pockets, slowly walks along the stream pensively looking into the slowly flowing water. He passes an old lady sitting on a park bench wearing a red knit hat, her hands grasping a long leash that holds in check a jumping white poodle who is trying to chase a squirrel scrabbling in the grass for nuts.

An oversized van pulls up and the occupants disembark. Two white-haired crones sitting in shiny steel wheelchairs slowly roll down the path that leads to the pond. They are soon followed by two red walkers and one blue, pushed by two women and a man, shoulders bent, heads down, eyes to the ground, feet shuffling. The young black man who has driven the van pulls up the rear, his arms filled with brown paper lunch bags. Stumbling after them he loudly exhorts, “Be careful how you go!”

Nearby, the fountain shoots white plumes high above the pond. Splashing down they pepper the surface of the water to create thousands of ripples that race outward like the young boy wearing inline skates who speeds by, body crouched, head forward, hair streaming as he rounds the corner of the path and disappears. He is pursued by a teenage boy riding his skateboard like a surfer, birdwing arms out-stretched, baseball hat blocking the sun from his eyes.

Strollers filled with wide-eyed babies pushed by tired young mothers rumble by while an old man pulls a shopping cart piled high with old clothes and plastic bags. A thin woman wearing scuffed sandals and a Mumu holds a Chihuahua under one arm and carries a bag in her hand. Methodically stopping at each trash barrel, she selects only the best bits of discarded lunches and recyclable cans.

Two wolf-like German shepherds determinedly pull a small man wearing a yellow shirt and pass a young woman wearing a black t-shirt and gold chains around her waist. Meanwhile a large white labradoodle named Marilyn and a small brown terrier named Ted lead a beautiful black girl down the path and bark at the paper bag somersaulting across the field.

A gaily painted purple van arrives and a party planner quickly erects a large yellow canopy that will mark the center of the coming celebration and provide the proper setting for the multi-tiered birthday cake and bobbing yellow and orange balloons. A small boy with blond curls accompanied by his short father and tall mother is soon joined by children who scamper from arriving cars, their voices high and chirping with excitement.

A passing cloud hides the sun and the air cools instantly. Then the sun peeks out, blinks, and disappears again. A lone crow calls plaintively in time with the noontime bells of a nearby church.

 

Luminous Things

For some reason, Saturday evenings seem the perfect time for curling up in my bedroom chair and reading poetry. One of my favorite go-to books is “A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry,” edited by Czelaw Milosz (1911 – 2004), a Polish poet, prose writer, translator and diplomat of Lithuanian origin who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980.

After reading this collection many times, I finally got around to reading the book’s introduction where I found some very interesting and provocative observations about art and writing. In quoting Schopenhauer, Milosz states …

“Among works of painting, Schopenhauer assigned the highest place to Dutch still life: ‘This is shown by those admirable Dutch artists who directed this purely objective perception to the most insignificant objects, and established a lasting monument to their objectivity and spiritual peace in their pictures of still life, which the aesthetic beholder does not look on without emotion: for they present to him the peaceful, still frame of mind of the artist, free from will, which was needed to contemplate such insignificant things so objectively, to observe them so attentively, and to repeat this perception so intelligently.’

“The secret of all art, also of poetry, is, thus, distance.”

I pondered that last statement – the secret of art is distance – for quite a while. At first I felt I disagreed, thinking of the subjective art and writing so popular in the last century. But then I reconsidered. If I substituted the word detachment for the word distance, I saw another interpretation.

Any art that is too personal or too subjective runs the risk of egocentricity; one of the characteristics of great art is its universality. If an artist can create from a distant or detached position he will be in that peaceful, still place that invites the muse, and the audience, to enter.

In another section of the Introduction, Milosz says the Old Chinese and Japanese poetry has had a significant influence on American poetry since the turn of the century (20th). “Undoubtedly, what accounts for much is the very discovery that we can understand them, that through their lips eternal man speaks, that love, transience, death were the same then as now.”

This is exactly what I had discovered during my reading of the poetry in “The Book of Luminous Things.” I understood so many of the poems at an intimate level – the sadness of the Chinese traveler when parting from his friend 700 years ago is as real and immediate as it is today; the loss of the loved one just as poignant as that which took place a thousand years ago.

Good poetry enables us to speak to each other across the continents and across the centuries. What makes us human is not the color of our skin, not our politics, geography, philosophy or religion; it is our experience of this happening we call life.

After painting for the last several months, the quietness of autumn is drawing me back to words. As I reread some of my favorite poetry books, I’ll share them with you.

Winter Dawn by Tu Fu

The men and beasts of the zodiac
Have marched over us once more.
Green wine bottles and red lobster shells,
Both emptied, litter the table.
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” Each
Sits listening to his own thoughts,
And the sound of cars starting outside.
The birds in the eaves are restless,
Because of the noise and light. Soon now
In the winter dawn I will face
My fortieth year. Borne headlong
Towards the long shadows of sunset
By the headstrong, stubborn moments,
Life whirls past like drunken wildfire.

Appearances

At a busy intersection near the mall I often see a man standing on the medial strip begging for money from passing motorists. This is not your typical out-of-work guy, street person or welfare mother asking for charity. This is a black man who has been crippled and scarred, probably from a fire. His legs are skinny and bowed, a hand is missing one finger and bent back at a ninety degree angle to his wrist; his head is bald and the skin discolored in patches; his mask-like face is grotesque and deformed. He hobbles when he walks and his arms stick out at angles.

When he comes up to my car window and I hand him a dollar, he mumbles, “Sorry to bother you,” and stumbles to the next car. As I drive away I ponder his comment. Did he mean he was sorry to ask for money? Did he think his appearance was so frightening, he was sorry to show his face? Was he being ironic and making a comment on charity?

This incident also reminds me about the renowned physicist, Stephen Hawkins who has motor neuron disease (ALS) and can do nothing on his own. In an interview he was asked about his life. He replied, “Who could have asked for more!” When I heard this I was at first astounded. Yes, he had fame, his name would be listed in history, he was probably wealthy, but how could that in any way compensate for the state of his health, his life. I would be asking for a lot more, I thought.

It is instances like this that may cause us to ponder why things happen to people. Is it karma? Is it just bad luck? Is there a way we can act, believe, intend that may keep such a fate from our own lives? This then led me to remember a Sufi story in which a beggar dies in the street while a rich man is passing in his carriage. An angel explains that the whole purpose in the beggar’s life (who was a very evolved soul) was to awaken compassion in the rich man’s heart.

In both the street beggar and the physicist we must be careful not to judge the quality of their lives by how they look, their place in society, the state of the physical body. We really do not know what goes on in each person’s soul, the state of grace they may enjoy, the peace of mind they may have. Before we feel sorry for someone in a mistaken feeling of compassion, we should examine the beam in our own eye.

Who knows why things happen the way they do? Who can understand the meaning of life or the depth of eternity? Why is one person born healthy, rich and handsome while another has so little? To say it is karma is a facile explanation but most likely not true. As in the Sufi story, maybe those who in our eyes are less fortunate than ourselves have a different and higher mission that we cannot understand.