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

Proof it Sometimes Pays to Do Nothing — a very short story

Tuesday, 7:33 or so in the pm; if one tried, the barest hints of the passing day were still visible (or maybe that was just wishful thinking).

Groceries slung over my shoulders, nestled safely inside my unintentionally socially conscious canvas bag, I stare into the headlights of oncoming traffic and assess that I have at least a few minutes before the M11 approaches ready to take me to my destination.

I take out my mobile phone, lean against the glass wall of the bus stop, and search for a nearby Verizon store; reception is a foreign to my device. Perhaps, I hoped speculatively, they might suggest something that would put an end to the pirouettes and yoga poses I must perform in order to have a conversation inside my apartment.

And in a flash, my mobile device — the one I had just been admonishing for its lackluster performance of late — is lying on the asphalt a few feet in front of me. A fellow passenger, rushing to catch the slowly departing M7, knocks my balance and my phone and we both are temporarily startled. The screen on my misbehavin’ phone is shattered (and no, not metaphorically); thankfully, I fare better.

And then momentary panic: never have I had a broken phone and the idea of paying for a replacement was loathsome to me.

I enter the Verizon store today with trepidation, bracing myself for the dollar signs output in my future. Do you have insurance, the young man at the front entrance asks me. I’m not sure, I answer, fully convinced that I most definitely do not.

20 minutes, 3 customers, 1 paranoid toddler (who was convinced that his mother had brought him to the doctor’s office) later, I learn the following: I do have insurance on my phone; the deductible is minimal; my new phone will arrive tomorrow.

The moral of the story: apparently I forgot to either opt in or opt out of something, and for once it worked in my favor. Thank you Zeus or Hera or whichever Greek mythological figure is responsible for forgetfulness.

May everyone forget just enough for his or her own good today.

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.