Feeling good

After my last post, and especially at the dawn of a new a year, it seems fitting to hit the reset button and start at a different starting point.

Musings to come in a subsequent post; for now, a three-part pairing of music, prose, and photography.

Music courtesy of Nina Simone, singing “Feeling Good.”

Prose courtesy of Herman Hesse, writing about trees.
(My favorite excerpts in bold)

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves.

Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them,whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. . . . Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.”

And see here for more on Hesse and trees and notes on wandering and belonging.

Photography courtesy of yours truly, taken during yesterday’s mid-afternoon walk.

20140116_153005Happy New Year!

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Mad dash (or, the Storm before the Calm before the Storm)

Yesterday, I awoke with a start — what day was it? Where was I? What time of which day was it?

And then, a calming thought: it was only Saturday. Despite two previous days free from meetings and human conversation — a kind of bliss that only few people can truly appreciate — it was just the start of the weekend. I was newly thankful for the holiday long weekend, into which breathing space was inserted into the days before the usually panicked-laced Sunday.

I have never fully appreciated the Thanksgiving break before — the holiday arrives at an awkward time for those who live by the academic calendar: much too late in the semester to provide the respite usually sought in the middle of October and too close to the winter break to feel like anything but a burdensome obligation to be a human being in the presence of family, many of whom cannot understand why you’d rather be sitting quietly, listening to Bach’s Cello Suites in the dark than engaging in human interaction of any type (ok, that might just be me). And, in another version of this solitude seeking, that we might relish time to attend to the many mundane items that linger, patiently awaiting proper attention (anything from writing letters of recommendation, completing revisions to articles, reading drafts of students’ dissertation chapters, to returning emails that have been languishing in your inbox).

It’s not that we solitude-seeking academic types (with newly acquired administrative responsibilities) would rather be doing any of those things, but we recognize that whole days free from meetings are like found time, blissful pockets of unscheduled time where wandering thoughts intersect with the ever-present and ever-growing todo lists, creating space for some much-needed self care — in my case, largely in the form of sleep and at least one meandering walk — within which to address these aforementioned mundane todos.

And so the mad dash of semester-end frenzy begins. December 1st. December 1st.

As the storm/calm/storm sets sail, my mind floats back a couple of weeks to the memorial service that was held in honor of a colleague who passed away this summer. Words were spoken in honor of this colleague, words that nearly brought back to life his intellectual heft and generosity, and, perhaps most importantly, his tremendous humanity. (Nearly.) How many storms and calms did he witness? Did he cause? Did he navigate? What came through most loudly — in stories, in memories, in photographs, poems, quotations, and artifacts — were the many ways this robust man embraced all contours of life. When does one learn to do this? When does one cultivate the practice of keeping the forest and the trees in perspective?

And then, this past week, a small victory. A glimpse of possibility. A hint that days, weeks, months of seeming triviality were laying the foundation for… something. And like this, a hint of humanity is restored (my cryptic recollections, notwithstanding).

So let the storms come. It must mean that there’s a calm ahead.

and enjoy the Cello Suites

Sun-day Afternoon

The song playing in my mind (and now on my laptop) is “Tuesday Afternoon” by the Moody Blues, although for the better part of three hours I was singing “Sunday afternoon” to myself.

Tuesday, afternoon,
I’m just beginning to see, now I’m on my way.
It doesn’t matter to me, chasing the clouds away.
Something, calls to me,
The trees are drawing me near, I’ve got to find out why?
Those gentle voices I hear, explain it all with a sigh.

I’m not sure what it was about a Tuesday afternoon that moved Justin Hayward to pen these words — the same could’ve been said about today, an afternoon with just the right dose clear blue skies streaked with fleeting, white clouds, with gentle breezes whispering softly and getting just a bit frisky with my hair as I strolled to a local park to enjoy one of the finest sandwiches (or, if you’re in Philly: hoagies) this side of the Atlantic. At its warmest, the temperature began in the low 60s and rose to a respectable 80 degrees — mention-worthy in late August, when phrases like “heat wave” and “oppressive heat” are the norm.

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Perhaps my pre-emptive nostalgia comes from the realization that this is my last summer Sunday of the year. Next week, this time, I will be cleaning out my office (long overdue) in preparation for the start of the coming academic year. The summer days in Philadelphia draw to an end as the slow frenzy of New York City prepares to takes it hold. The challenge this year, as it always is, will be to keep the stupid frenzy at bay.

What distinguishes stupid frenzy from, say, beneficial or even useful frenzy you ask? In simplest terms, the degree of agita that it induces. It is why I work hard to avoid all known persons during the summer (save my friends, of course); to wit — while walking out of our main building last week (during one of my 24-hr visits to the city for semester-related prep), using guerrilla-like maneuvers, I rerouted myself three times when I spotted oncoming agita from afar. Call me a coward, but I was the better for it.

Of course, an active embrace of one’s inner zen is probably the more healthy approach. I’ll work on it, and in the meantime, as summer recedes into the land of memories, the Moody Blues can soothe my soul.

 

And now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a bit more sun to be had on this summer afternoon.

today’s playlist

Those of us who write — for work, for play, for all the bits in between — think and talk to a great degree about voice. But so rarely in all that talk is there discussion of what the damn words actually sound like — the timbre, resonance, rhythm, cadence. What do our words sound like in the world? Spoken by others we may never meet? Or, for that matter, what is the sound of our voices as we dare to say the words we so boldly write, as we so baldly claim our voice.

And then, thoughts of voice — of timbre, resonance, rhythm, and cadence — took me to these voices, and I was soothed, intoxicated, transported.

It amazes me what people can do with their voices, what they choose to do, what they think to do. Alexi Murdoch is a recent discovery. The live rendition of “All my days” has been on a loop for the past hour and half. Can ears be transfixed? Mine are. (It only underscores the abject lack of quality of my own voice as I have participated in a few renditions of “happy birthday” in recent weeks…)

Near the end of a conversation (included below) between John Berger and Michael Ondaatje, all of which I love and highly recommend that everyone give a good listen to, they each reveal what path they might have pursued if they were not writers.

The question is proffered by Berger to his friend and interlocutor at around the 39:50 mark. He says, with his inimitable and somewhat rounded style of articulation, “If you could swap  your talents you for another of any kind, do you know you’d choose?”

Ondaatje responds with an eager “Oh yeah…” even before the question completes its exit from Berger’s mouth.

“I would want to be a piano player.” And, having said this, Ondaatje smiles momentarily, as if to take in his own response — one that he has clearly pondered many times before this one.

Berger: “huh…”

Ondaatje: “Well, what would you do?”

Berger — smiling, perhaps self-consciously or in a self-congratulatory manner, and nodding, his tan head prominent against his white shirt whose sleeves are messily rolled up — responds: “I would want to be a singer.”

Ondaatje: “And what kind of singing?”

Berger: “Doesn’t matter [shaking his head]… just … it–it doens’t matter…uhh… the devil or the fairy decide.”

Ondaatje: “Well we’ll meet in the next life and join up.” [laughing, and joined by Berger’s enthusiastic laughter at this proposition]

The guitar fantasy — the one about being able to create altogether new worlds with a simple wooden object, strings, and fingers in concert with voice — still lingers… Maybe in another life, indeed…

For now, in honor of the Nick Drake kind of week I’ve been having, thank you to my friend who first brought his music into the realm of my consciousness all those many, many years ago. A classic (albeit somewhat overused classic at this point):

shifting materiality of the “work week”

This week, teaching meant being a student — returning to joyfulness, to receiving without the expectation of giving (in the familiar and staid ways), to sharing vulnerabilities through silence and observation, to giving oneself over to the unexpected shapes or sounds that occurred, to being free from expectations of replicability — I return to some favorite words from a favorite theorist:

“Whereas a work has something irreplaceable and unique about it, a product can be reproduced exactly, and is in fact the result of repetitive acts and gestures.” — Henri Lefebvre

3 moments:

Learning printmaking (with paints and “stamps” or plates that we made) under the guidance of the incomparable O.

 

Delighting in the nervous giddiness of graduate students’ verbal and embodied articulations when given the invitation to make movies in class using Animoto.

 

Becoming transfixed by the vocal tenderness of Nina Simone.

 

 

Oh, and the bliss of sharing Sebald with someone for the first time (highlighting is mine) and thus being made, in the process, to revisit his poetry again, anew.

teenage wasteland

the song comes on overhead, here at fleet river bakery where the early-morning rush has given way to a mid-morning buzz, and i am instantly transported to the many other times i’ve heard and been consumed by this song. getting lost in the drum solo, more than a few turns at air-guitar and air-violin, and channeling my inner roger daltrey when no one was looking. what were the circumstances that brought pete townshend to write this song. sure, wikipedia speculates and the artists themselves offer memories. but what was it like when that final riff was played for the first time? and why has my adoration for it only deepened over time?

it’s over now. and i can’t wait to hear it again.

good wednesday morning.