Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Practice Watching How Light Changes--a slow and tardy blog post

Right outside my kitchen window, which faces north, is crabapple tree.  It was in bloom the weekend I brought my eleven-year-old daughter to Regina to buy a house and was certainly one of its attractions, along with the many, many windows.  It's a gnarly old tree, a kind of grown-up bonsai, and it helps keep my kitchen cool in the summer when I hardly mind the calm greeny light it casts into the kitchen, especially when I'm cooking, however minimally, on a hot day.  But there's a time of the year when it frustrates me.  In late summer and early fall, when the sun has moved south enough to leave most of the back yard in shadow, my kitchen simply seems dark.  And then, at first slowly, and then suddenly, its leaves turn yellow-gold and a golden light enters my kitchen.  And there will be a third kind of light, soon, when all the leaves have dropped.  If I haven't watched carefully, I miss this marking of the year.  (The photo above is of that tree today.  It's taken me a while to write this.)

If I were entirely rational, fall would be just the beginning of the dread I will feel as the days get shorter.  But since one of my mottos is "Be here now" and the other is "Just be curious," I really lean into autumn.  Besides, I never know in advance how bad December and January are going to be, so why dread what isn't inevitable? Instead, I walk and admire.  I've noticed that a row of elms that's lost about half their leaves has a kind of tenderness about it, like a beautiful older person whose skin is translucent.  When I walk on the creek bank, I see colours, particularly the leaves of the wild roses, that I can't name.  How can something be red and green at the same time?  There isn't a green space and a red space:  the leaf is red-green. As the leaves fall from trees, the heroic little cotoneasters turn gold and orange and red.  Eventually enough leaves will fall that I have to actually seek out autumnal beauty on my walk.  But that's a practice that late fall encourages in me.

When I was still teaching, I had a wonderful office with two floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out on the "podium," a second-storey outdoor space that unites the university's buildings.  If you lived on the third floor of the AdHum Building and taught a class on the third floor of the Classroom Building, you could simply walk down a single flight, go outside, cross the podium, and then climb a single flight to your classroom. I stared out my windows a fair amount, since I also had a slice of Wascana Park and its lake within my view.  One day I watched as a skate boarder sped across the podium toward a small flight of stairs leading down to the library doors.  Sometimes he bailed, pulling up before the stairs.  Sometimes he washed out.  But once he made it.  I tunked on my window; he looked up; I gave him a thumbs up.  Someone had seen his many attempts and his single success, so it was real. All that practice made more sense with an unexpected audience.

You know I love Future Crunch.  At the end of an August newsletter they gave us a link to Hajime Miura's winning performance at the World Yo-Yo Contest, which was in Tokyo this year.  Miura uses two yo-yos to do the most amazing things; I would give you a link, but the World Yo-Yo Contest discourages that.  You can find them easily online.  You will be grinning from ear to ear.  The practice that went into those tricks and the seamless choreography that links one to another--and the young man's obvious humility--are mind-boggling and astounding.  The year I lived in Boston, the first year of my first marriage, grey days sent me dialing up the local Audobon bird line to listen to the birds that had been sighted.  About the time it told me that two yellow-bellied sapsuckers had been sighted in Woburn, I would begin to smile.  You could use Haijime Miura's performance the same way.  Or go to it now and then revisit when needed.

I keep working on Bach's English and French Suites.  It may take me an entire year to truly get one of these under my fingers and to find the dynamics and phrasing that make them musical, but it's a discipline in my week that gives me so much joy.  I love them, love the order, the disorder, the surprise, the bending of music to Bach's ends.  To be inside them, gaining glimmers of understanding of how they work and narrowing the enormous distance between what I can do and what Bach wrote, is a privilege.  Recently, Ken Wilson posted a quotation from sculptor Henry Moore who averred that the secret of life is to devote yourself to a task--every hour of every day--that you cannot possibly accomplish. I disagree with this in part--but then I'm not an artist of the greatness of Henry Moore, so what do I know?  Maybe greatness requires a single-mindedness I am unwilling to pay to my writing.  But I know that I have to pay attention to other things in my life--to people, creatures, nature, culture, art, politics, war, human suffering and human flourishing.  But I agree with Moore's sense that you need to aim for something beyond your reach--or that you believe you cannot do.  That's what keeps us honest about our gifts and our shortcomings. 

I started this post a couple of weeks ago, when the elms were nearly finished but the cotoneasters blazed.  Then the attempt to finish up and polish another chapter of The Frosted Bough:  Essays on Minimalism intervened.  Last Tuesday we woke  up to snow in Regina; I knew it was there even before I looked out the window because the dawn light had changed.  Or was it two Tuesdays ago?  In the furtive stillness, time seems to be hanging out and moving at an uneven pace. People around me averred that this was winter, come down like a curtain on fall's final act.  I disagreed.  We're far under normal lows and highs, and La Nina is afoot, creating warmer oceans and monstrous hurricanes.  

Be here now.  Since last Tuesday, if I'm right, we've had maybe one sunny day.  In the past, I would have been part way down into the catacombs, which is where I seem to go when I don't have the energy to be myself, find myself, nurture myself. Though I admit it took two naps to get through snoozy Sunday. I don't honestly know how I've been able to accommodate my moods to the cloud, to be curious to subtle changes in the the way it envelopes the lacy, empty trees or traces them in blank ink with the rain.  I'm guessing the answer is to be observant, to practice being observant even when it doesn't seem like there's much to observe. 

Happiness Studies, aka Positive Psychology is continuously finding ways of nudging us in the direction of lives that are deeply satisfying.  Dacher Keltner did this with Awe:  The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.  It's essentially a book about paying attention to the moral beauty that happens around us, to the wonders of nature, to our struggling attempts to make sense of the world that result in awesome epiphanies, to that song or symphony that gives us goosebumps.  Take an awe walk, Keltner advises.  Go looking for awe in the natural world and you will inevitably find it, both in nature's vastness and in its attention to detail.  Look for awe in the moral beauty of small acts of kindness or courage--an awe we deeply need to experience in a time when world events are tending toward anything but kindness.  Practice looking for awe and you will get better at seeing it.

This fall I discovered another lovely concept:  glimmers.  Coined by psychotherapist Deb Dana in 2018, glimmers are tiny micro-moments of joy that allow us to feel calm and give us a sense of inner peace.  The more you find, the more  you see.  I am thinking of the poetic collaborationo of Ariel Gorden and Brends Schmidt in Siteseeing.  During a very difficult time--between the pandemic and the threats to the natural world--the collaboration prompted both of them to look carefully and create a glimmer out of whatever the world delivered that day.  I think I'll be writing about them again.

I began this blog post in mid-fall.  Today winter has brought us one of its most graceful beauties:  a tall slice of white on every branch and twig and bird feeder.  When I was coming home from breakfast with Katherine, I even saw a young man walking east with two or three inches atop his toque.  Snowfalls like this make me want to step back and try to grasp the beauty of the whole.  It's a landscape for taking the long view, working to get some perspective.  It's also a time of year when I tend to pull inward; at least it's warm and dry in the catacombs.  It's time to do inner work, time to reflect, time to contemplate and learn more about those close to me.  Oddly enough, that sense of perspective and of pulling inward are connected because that inner work, that stretch for inner knowledge and discernment paradoxically lends itself to wider, clearer views of larger times and spaces.

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