Monday, January 28, 2019

Fill The Well, Be Astonished, See The World With New Eyes

Paul Cézanne (French, 1839 - 1906)
Still Life with Apples, 1893–1894, Oil on canvas
65.4 × 81.6 cm (25 3/4 × 32 1/8 in.), 96.PA.8
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Downloaded with permission (Getty Open Content)

With January being a quiet month for me, I've had the wonderful opportunity to spend more time reading. Something for which I'm most grateful. Over recent days I've taken a small selection of books to my bosom and have been dipping into them as tonic for my soul. Filling the well, as it were. If you need more about filling the well, please refer to Julia Cameron's description here.

In today's post I want to share a little glimpse of these gleanings, a bit of what's stirring my mind and making my heart sing. First, a list of the books I'm dipping into at the present time:

  • New and Selected Poems (Vol 1), by Mary Oliver
  • Calm Things (essays), by Shawna Lemay
  • Book Girl, A Journey through the Treasures and Transforming Power of a Reading Life, by Sarah Clarkson
  • Beauty The Invisible Embrace, by John O'Donohue
  • The Best of George MacDonald, 120 Daily Devotions to Nurture Your Spirit and Refresh Your Soul, edited and compiled by Stephen W. Sorenson
  • Madeleine L'Engle Herself, Reflections on a Writing Life, compiled by Carole F. Chase 

I might read a paragraph or several in a sitting, maybe a page or two from one book, then float along to another. All the while gathering phrases, images, and thoughts of what I'm reading -- much the way a bee collects nectar from plants and makes it into honey. I might marvel at the brilliant way an author has crafted such a sparkling line so that it makes me stand still in my tracks. Or underline a well chosen phrase that evokes such tender feelings or sparks a memory, long lost, to burst into my mind.

As you know from past posts, I do love delving into old memories. So, I was tickled at the rush of one childhood memory that surfaced when I began to read Mary Oliver's poem "Creeks": 

"The dwindled creeks of summer
Unremarkable except,
Down pasture, through woodlot,
They are so many
And keep such a pure sound
In each roiling thread,
Trickle past the knees of trees, ..."

New and Selected Poems, Vol One, 1992, p 212
Oh yes, I remember the dwindled creeks of summer -- mostly dried up and quite unremarkable, just as Mary said. But, in my earliest childhood remembrances, there was a time when the creek came alive in the Spring Thaw. When the deep snow drifts started melting, the water rushed and roared its way from the back meadow down the gully through the fields, past the barns, around the 'knees of trees', gushing its way under the highway through the culvert, and out into the neighbour's slough. According to my mom, it was no place for little children to be found playing -- it was far too dangerous that time of year. As a child I used to wait for the Spring Thaw just for the thrill of hearing that great roar of water rushing past our yard. It only lasted a day or two, and then the creek would return to its trickle-y and creeky self. The worst that could happen then was the misfortune of swamping one's rubber boots and ending up with wet socks.

* * *

Since hearing the sad news of Mary Oliver's recent death, I've been reading the small cluster I have of her poetry. I used to followed her online and shall miss her daily offerings on my social media feeds.

I don't know why, but I tend to search out the works of many artists, singers or authors who pass away, people like Leonard Cohen, Aretha Franklin, and now Mary. I might dig out things I haven't read in ages, maybe finally listen to something I always meant to but never did, or learn a little more about who that person was as an individual. Makes me grateful to the news media for searching out these details and sharing them with us.

I wonder if it's an effort to grasp hold of that unique 'something' we hope won't disappear along with the person's last breath. Sometimes we don't know what a gift we have until it's gone, and then we realize we're going to miss them, so we take solace in their work, their contributions that remain. Perhaps it's a tribute, a recognition of that person's impact on our own lives, for even if we didn't know them personally, they are a part of us. After all, for a season we all spun around the sun on this planet together. We have something in common. We share the same era.

Back to Mary's poetry. This past week I have found myself charged by the lines from her poem "Sometimes": 

"Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it."

She really says it in a nutshell, doesn't she? Great words for poets and writers to heed ... in truth, for any and all of us. I'm particularly drawn to the line "Be astonished" and you'll see why in a minute.

The whole poem is worth reading, you can find it here.

I have been reading Shawna Lemay's book Calm Things where she muses about still life art. She mentions going to the grocery store one day and, seeing a display of apples, remembers that apples became a motif for the French artist Paul Cézanne.  

"Cézanne said, I want to astonish Paris with an apple!
When I pick through apples at Safeway, I talk to them, say,
Astonish me."

There's the word "astonish" again. Is it possible to still be astonished? By something as ordinary as an apple in a grocery store display? Two poets and an artist seem to think so. Do you recall a moment in your life -- maybe it was just this morning -- when you felt yourself in awe or wonder at something as simple and beautiful as a piece of fruit?

With Shawna's mention of Cézanne, I went in search of some of his paintings, particularly any with apples in them. After all, he said he wanted to astonish Paris with an apple. As it turns out, I think the apples astonished him, because during the last thirty years of his life, Cézanne painted the same objects--the green vase, the rum bottle, the ginger pot, and the apples--over and over again. You'll see them in the painting at the beginning of this post.

* * *

I want to mention a book that I don't have in my current reading pile, but the author writes something that fits with this theme of paying attention, being astonished, and telling about it. In her award winning book A Sense of Wonder -- a book I keep borrowing from the library -- Rachel Carson shows her readers how to see the world with new eyes. In this lovely essay, Rachel tells us about the summer when she and her grandnephew, Roger, wandered the woods and tide pools near her cottage in Maine, USA. And as she introduced Roger to the natural wonders around them, she realized she'd found her own renewed sense of wonder again. 

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful,
full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune
that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct
for what is beautiful, is dimmed and even lost
before we reach adulthood.

“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder,
he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it,
rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery
of the world we live in.”

* * *

Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.

"When the soul is alive to beauty,
we begin to see life in a fresh and vital way."

On that note, I'm wishing you a beautiful day with
eyes to see with fresh awareness.

With love and hugs,

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Monday, January 14, 2019

Easing With Joy Into The New Year

"The shortest day has passed, and whatever nastiness of weather we may look forward to in January and February, at least we notice that the days are getting longer. Minute by minute they lengthen out. It takes some weeks before we become aware of the change. It is imperceptible even as the growth of a child, as you watch it day by day, until the moment comes when with a start of delighted surprise we realize that we can stay out of doors in a twilight lasting for another quarter of a precious hour." ~ Vita Sackville-West

I woke up the other day and knew something had shifted -- I felt at last ready to begin my New Year in earnest. I know other folks have had their decorations down for ages and have been busy making plans and setting their goals for 2019. As for me, since the holidays, I only wanted to hide, hibernate, and be quiet. And that's what I've been doing. I took time to read my new books, puzzle out some jigsaws, write in my journal, finish off the rest of the potato chips and juicy clementines -- well, that last one was a joint effort by the pair of us living in this house.

I admit these days in bleak midwinter are some of my favourite days in life. I love winter and, no, I'm not yet bored or tired of cold, crisp days. I am happily settled into these weeks of early twilight winter, using this time to move slower, to putter, to make the kitchen a happy place as we savour freshly baked biscuits, homemade turkey soup, and hearty stews. Still, as Vita Sackville West points out in her quote above, there is something wonderfully sweet when we see daylight filling the backyard a wee bit earlier. For, no, I do not wish to live in a Narnia where it's always Winter and where Spring never comes, but I'm quite happy to enjoy the season we are in now.

In my previous post, I mentioned planning to see Mary Poppins Returns with a friend over the holidays. We went and we enjoyed ourselves. It was fun but I felt something was missing from this spectacularly produced movie—they didn't have a single song in it that I found hummable. I truly think the producers missed the most important thing: in the old movie, we all remember the tunes and sing along with Mary Poppins or Burt or the chimney sweeps. To me, that's why the movie stayed with us all these years—we remembered the songs and they've become part of us.

As the credits rolled, I found myself longing to have a go at one of them -- I wanted to skip out of the theatre singing Let's Go Fly A Kite. I didn't skip but I hummed.

To ease our way into blogging again after being away a few weeks, I thought a post of 'this and that' would fit the bill. Wishing you joy....

'joy in shapes and shadows' 

"The dry grasses are not dead for me.
A beautiful form has as much life at one season as another."

I happened to glance out the front window one afternoon and had to run to get the camera. For the light and shadows were dancing on snow laden plants, bunny and kitty footprints adding to the shadow play. I loved how the dry grasses rise up like shots of sunshine from iron grey shadows.

That's me out for a walk in my heavy parka and new Fair Isle knitted hat. Don't you love the bobble at the top? After eating my more-than-fair-share of treats over the holidays, it feels so good to get myself out into the sunshine and freezing air, and to get my lazy limbs moving again. From the shrubberies, finches and sparrows sing their little hearts out. Chickadees add to the chatter. All are busy at the feeders. I marvel at their courage to whistle so cheerily -- perhaps it helps keep them warm. Or maybe they too appreciate life's good gifts, even on the coldest days.

I get a real kick from seeing how snow-topped sidewalks can turn into mosaic works of art. A trail mix of tracks from the bottoms of people's shoes, animal paw prints, and wagon treads (which look to me like long knitted scarves). Oh, the little pleasures in winter walks.

'joy in window sill offerings'

It's two in the morning and I'm wide awake. Sitting at my desk, I notice the old dried flowers on the window sill. I don't go out of my way to dry flowers, but here in Alberta where the air is quite dry, along with my oft neglect to add fresh water to vases as days whisk by -- before I know it, blossoms dry into something strangely beautiful. I can't bear to toss them out so they gather in tiny vases, on bookshelves, and along my window sill. They can sit there for months -- dusting is out of the question, for in trying to lift them up the blossoms disintegrate into myriad petals.

I hardly dare to point out the other little thing I notice as I sit here at this odd hour. But, if you peer closely, you will surely wonder why on earth I didn't wipe the ledge before taking photos, what with all those darn fly specks messing up the view. Refer to previous paragraph and you'll know why. Funny what a person notices in the middle of the night.

'joy in winter reading'

"In winter we lead a more inward life.
Our hearts are warm and cheery, like cottages under drifts."

I started my holiday with book Becoming Mrs. Lewis, the story about Joy Davidman, C.S. Lewis's wife. I read her story years ago, so the amazing story of her life was not new to me. Still, it was a lovely read, the story of Joy's bumpy journey towards her becoming Mrs. Lewis. And it all started with a letter she wrote to Mr. Lewis about some work he had written. "In a most improbable friendship, she found love. In a world where women were silenced, she found her voice."

After I finished it, I felt moved to dig out my old copy of Lenten Lands, the memoir written by Joy's son, Douglas Gresham. Written in 1988, the account is similar but it's shared from the memories of a little boy traveling to England with his mother across the Atlantic to meet C.S. Lewis. He tells of his disappointment the first time he met his hero, the author who dreamed up Narnia.
"He was wearing the oddest clothes, too! Baggy grey flannel trousers, dusty with cigarette ash and sagging at the turn-ups (equally full of ash), an old tweed jacket with the elbows worn away. ... I think I hid my face in Mother's skirt, for I was keenly disappointed. Here was a man who was on speaking terms with King Peter, with the Great Lion, Aslan himself. Here was the man who had been to Narnia; surely he should at least wear silver chain mail and be girt about with a jewel-encrusted sword-belt. This was the heroic figure of whom Mother had so often spoken? Well, so much for imagery." 

'take courage with joy...and tea'


For the most part, I tend to ignore the trend of selecting a focus word or phrase for a new year. I've tried different times, but any word I choose inspires me for a few weeks, and then it's old. My attention span is short these days. But there came a moment, during one of those deep and sleepless nights I've had recently, this time laying wide awake under the covers, when I did play with the idea of choosing a word I could use as a focal point.

I was slightly surprised when the word "courage" bubbled up. I didn't even need to muse a lot to wonder why I should need courage. I don't know about you, but some mornings, it's hard getting up to face a world that is so filled with sorrow, ugliness, and bad news. And even when it's not in my own backyard, there are so many people to care about, the burdens seems overwhelming. Dismaying. I just want to hide in my own little world some days. But we can't, can we? I mean, we can hide away for a season, but we must enter the fray again and reach out to help share some of the burden with others. That's what being human is about, wouldn't you agree?

Remembering words I've turned to many times over the years, I opened the Book to those lines spoken to Joshua in the Old Testament, "Be strong, vigorous, and very courageous. Be not afraid, neither be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go." I feel buoyed already.

Opening Sarah Clarkson's recently published work Book GirlI found somethinge that speaks so perfectly to this I had to pass it along. By the way, if you are a book girl at heart, then I recommend this lovely volume -- part book list, part memoir journey of this beautiful author who lives with her little family in Oxford, UK.
"... I encountered the reality that a girl who reads is a girl who understands that she has a part to play in the drama of the world. A woman who reads is a woman who knows she must act: in courage, in creativity, in kindness, and often in defiance of the darkness around her. She understands that life itself is a story and that she has the power to shape her corner of the drama. She has learned with Frodo (character in Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring), that reluctant but faithful hero, that the heroes in the best stories are simply the ones who "had lots of chances . . . of turning back" but didn't. To know yourself as an agent in the story of the world, one able to bring light and goodness in the midst of suffering, is a profoundly empowering knowledge, one that I believe comes to every woman who reads." excerpt from p. 92 
Such beautiful words on which to sail forth into the new year. How can we not be heartened and strengthened by them?

'joy in gentle plans'

Gentle Plans 

To create days filled with variety of activities, experiences, and people. I chat about it in a previous post here
To renew my commitment to live healthier. To be ever mindful of what I eat, walk daily for exercise, and connect to nature's beauty while I'm out there.
To put my house in order. To physically, mentally, spiritually clear out the clobber; put things back in their place; get paper, encroaching bad habits and negative thoughts back under control. Give away the excess collection of notebooks stored in the desk drawer -- yes, I am ever beguiled by beautiful notebooks, but really I don't need all of them, do I?
To pick up once again the work of writing out my life stories, to tell them in such a way that might be useful to someone else. These words by author Shawna Lemay motivate me in this: "What is it you want to write with the time remaining? Believe in the one person who will someday pick up your book...".
To spend more time reading, less time scrolling on social media.
To keep my heart close to Jesus.
To walk in the spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness ... ever mindful of the shoes other folks might be walking in.
To light a candle rather than curse the darkness.

'joy in something fun, funny'

Alexis Carrington Colby (Joan Collins) on Dynasty

The other evening hubby and I turned on the television to find PBS running their documentary series Pioneers of Television, Prime-time Soaps. Oh my goodness, what fun. If you are of a certain age, who of us can forget Dallas or Dynasty from the late 1970s to 1980s?

I especially loved Dynasty, that show with the 'gloriously over-the-top trials and tribulations of the fabulously wealthy and none-to-nice Carrington and Colby clans'. I loved seeing all the stars with their big hairdos, big earrings, and ginormous hats. Not to mention the shoulder pads. It was so much fun to see snippets of the old actors talking about the great fun they used to have making those shows. I didn't realize they got the nickname “soap operas” because the early adopters of television advertising were soap companies. There you go.

I went and dug out my old big earrings (oh yes, I still have them), poofed-up my hair that old way, and staring back at me in the mirror was that thirty-something woman I used to be. For a brief moment, I was transported back in mind and spirit to that era where I had the time of my life. If you don't peer too closely, you might not even notice baggy eyelids or the wrinkly neck and décolletage. I put the earrings away, got out the face cream, and returned myself to 2019.

* * *

Now that we're primed, here's wishing you a beautiful day and much grace for the journey ahead in 2019. Here's to good days ahead.