Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What is is change.

Change is a measure of time and, in the autumn, time seems speeded up. What was is not and never again will be; what is is change.  -Edwin Teale

I went out into the misty autumn morning to find fine threads laced in and out among flower petals and fence rails. 

The only sun was in the form of letters labeling the Sunsugar tomato.
Unless you count the few remaining mini-globes of golden fruit.

But in the midst of leaves turning brown, under skies cast over with grey, the last flowers were even more obvious in their brilliance. So I gave them the attention they wanted.

A few Cécile Brunner roses had come out, a few miniature roses....

But the salvia blooms are in the thousands. The party they seem to be celebrating has clearly just begun.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Rosemary and The Bee

Like the bees, Mr. Glad and I have been using the last warm days of autumn to finish up some outdoor projects. I wanted to have a pot of flowers by the front door, and he had got us started on a new long triangle of lawn-replacement landscaping. Today we finished up the latter, and I took some pictures of various things in the front yard.

I have several pots now that I can rotate in and out sitting on the upended log by the door. The roses were blooming in the back yard so brought them out front to the place of honor without bothering to pull out the weeds.

This pic shows where the patch of lawn was replaced with some little shrubs and perennials that don't need much water. They are small now but will spread out before long. Parts of the front yard still need sprucing up for winter, but I wanted to take this picture before the flowers faded from the new plants.

Wouldn't you know it, the bees have not run out of flowers from which to gather nectar. They were working alongside us, in the rosemary bushes that are in full bloom. Now I think I've posted pictures of bees in five or six different flowers. I'll have to do some research on that and consider doing a bee album!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Trees live all over the world.

The oaks were of noble bearing: they did not trail their branches on the ground like willows, nor did their leaves have the dishevelled appearance of certain poplars, which can look from close-up as though they have been awoken in the middle of the night and not had time to fix their hair. Instead they gathered their lower branches tightly under themselves while their upper branches grew in small orderly steps, producing a rich green foliage in an almost perfect circle -- like an archetypal tree drawn by a child.

It's surprising how often the subject of trees comes up in Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel. The description above is from his visit to the Lake District in England, but while he is France he also notices trees with the help of Van Gogh's paintings. I like the word pictures the artist himself painted when he was working on a series of sketches of cypresses, words that tell us about the trees and about Van Gogh, too:
They are constantly occupying my astonishes me that they have not yet been done as I see them. The cypress is as beautiful of line and proportion as an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has a quality of such distinction. It is a splash of black in a sunny landscape, but it is one of the most interesting black notes, and the most difficult to hit off exactly.
Van Gogh was with his cypresses for quite a while, getting to know them. I have felt close to some particular trees over the course of my life, starting with a pear tree outside my back door, which for some reason made enough of an impression on my five-year-old  mind that it remained the only thing I remember from that house's yard.

We moved to another place with a significant tree, a huge oak that grew even bigger till it threatened the house in which I spent the remainder of my youth. So I can't help loving oaks, and I do think trees in general worth a whole post from this book on travel, even if they aren't that big a part of the book.

But, see here, Van Gogh couldn't leave out the trees when he wrote about his house:
My house here is painted the yellow colour of fresh butter on the outside with glaringly green shutters, and it stands in the full sunlight in a square which has a green garden with plane trees, oleanders and acacias. And it is completely whitewashed inside, and the floor is made of red bricks. And over it is the intensely blue sky. In this I can live and breathe, meditate and paint.
De Botton notices some trees by a stream on another occasion in the Lake District, while he sits on a bench enjoying a chocolate bar, "a scene so utterly suited to a human sense of beauty and proportion." But he didn't pay attention to them for very long, and seemed to forget them entirely when his trip was over. But one day he was in a traffic jam and mentally stressed by the cares of everyday life, and
...the trees came back to me, pushing aside a raft of meetings and unanswered correspondence, and asserting themselves in consciousness. I was carried away from the traffic and the crowds and returned to trees whose names I didn't know, but which I could see as clearly as if they stood before me. These trees provided a ledge against which I could rest my thoughts, they protected me from the eddies of anxiety and, in a small way that afternoon, contributed a reason to be alive.
I'm sad to realize that in my travels I've not spent enough time alone in one place to take proper note of foreign trees, but I do love them. And when we visited the Bristlecone Pines a year ago, I suppose it was the fact that they were the focal point of the place that enabled me to concentrate on them more than is typical for me. But instead of drawing them, I philosophized about them.

John Ruskin tells us, "Your art is to be the praise of something that you love." Perhaps my first adult drawing effort will be of a tree.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

This poem feathers my nest.

I think I'll share a few of Dana Gioia's poems over the next weeks, some with a thin connection to the season or current events. The subject of money, for example, is always up-to-date for most of us. And for the nation, the ownership of it, the earning or the distribution or taxing of money are topics that often come up when people talk about the upcoming election. Let's take a short break from the usual to enjoy the poetry of it.

Money is a kind of poetry.  –Wallace Stevens

Money, the long green,
cash, stash, rhino, jack
or just plain dough.

Chock it up, fork it over,
shell it out. Watch it
burn holes through pockets.

To be made of it! To have it
to burn! Greenbacks, double eagles,
megabucks and Ginnie Maes.

It greases the palm, feathers a nest,
holds heads above water,
makes both ends meet.

Money breeds money.
Gathering interest, compounding daily.
Always in circulation.

Money. You don’t know where it’s been,
but you put it where your mouth is.
And it talks.

--Dana Gioia

Monday, October 22, 2012

Correct this ugliness.

The desire to be beautiful seems to be common to mankind, but the very atmosphere of this age is toxic with something that feeds a disease, making us obsessed with our image. One part of the toxic mix is the overwhelming abundance of pictures of faces and bodies in magazines and on every electronic device, forming a kind of lesson plan on How to Look. I was happy for a respite this morning when I read St, Nikolai's homily for the day in The Prologue of Ohrid.
on the beauty of Christ above all other beauty

Thou art fairer than the sons of men (Psalm 45:2).

Holy Scripture does not ascribe any particular value to physical beauty, and in general to anything transient. That is why everyone who reads Holy Scripture should take care to be sufficiently attentive and wise to transfer the praise of physical beauty to the soul and to spiritual values. Without a doubt, spiritual beauty gives a wondrous attractiveness to the most unattractive body, just as an ugly soul makes even the most attractive body repulsive. The Prophet David, pouring forth good words (Psalm 45:1), says to his King, the Lord Jesus Christ: Thou art fairer than the sons of men. 

The Lord Himself created His bodily cloak as He wanted. Had He wanted to appear in the world as the physically fairest of men, He could have done so. But there is nothing in the Gospel to indicate that He drew followers to Himself or influenced men by His appearance. He Himself said: the flesh profiteth nothing (John 6:63). Therefore, it is clear that David was not speaking of the physical beauty of Christ, but of His spiritual, divine beauty. This is clearly seen in the following words of the Psalmist: Grace is poured forth upon thy lips (Psalm 45:2). So it is that the unsurpassed beauty of the Son of God is not in the form and shape of His lips, but rather in the stream of grace that flows from His mouth. 

Again, the Prophet Isaiah speaks of Christ: He had no form or comeliness; and when we shall see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him (Isaiah 53:2-3). Do Isaiah and David agree? Perfectly well. David speaks of Christ's inward beauty, and Isaiah speaks of Christ's external abasement. Isaiah said that He would not be seen as a king or a rich man, but as a servant and sufferer.

O Lord Jesus Christ, Thou art fairer to us than all men and angels: glory to Thine immortal and unending beauty. O gracious Lord, correct the ugliness of our souls, which are disfigured by sin, we pray Thee.

To Thee be glory and praise forever. Amen.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Power of a Great Melancholy

"Automat" is a picture of sadness -- and yet it is not a sad picture. It has the power of a great melancholy piece of music. Despite the starkness of the furnishings, the location itself does not seem wretched. Others in the room may be on their own as well, men and women drinking coffee by themselves, similarly lost in thought, similarly distanced from society: a common isolation with the beneficial effect of lessening the oppressive sense within any one person that they are alone in being alone. In roadside diners and late-night cafeterias, hotel lobbies and station cafés, we may dilute a feeling of isolation in a lonely public place and hence rediscover a distinctive sense of community. The lack of domesticity, the bright lights and anonymous furniture may come as a relief from what are often the false comforts of home. It may be easier to give way to sadness here than in a living room with wallpaper and framed photos, the décor of a refuge that has let us down.
In this second chapter of his book The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton writes about people who travel more from an unhappiness at being home than from a desire for recreation. He includes reproductions and commentary on other paintings by Edward Hopper (whose "Automat" is the painting at the top of the page): "Gas," "Compartment C, Car 293," and "Hotel Room."

The themes in the paintings here seem primarily to be isolation and loneliness, but to expand the scope of the chapter titled "Travel Places," the author also introduces the life and writings of Charles Baudelaire, whose work was a significant influence on Hopper, it turns out.

Baudelaire, who from an early age wanted nothing more than to flee from home, all his life "felt more at home in the transient places of travel than in his own dwelling." Not that he ever seems to have escaped the restlessness he describes: "Life is a hospital in which every patient is obsessed with changing beds. This one wants to suffer in front of the radiator, and that one thinks he'd get better if he was by the window."

My own childhood and temperament having made me a perpetual home-lover, I'm unable to fully understand these dissatisfied impulses, but I have done a bit of solitary traveling now and again. I liked it because I like being alone, but I also always had caring people on one or both ends of my journey, and a measure of peace knowing that the One Who loves me most was right with me. 

Otherwise, I might have said with Baudelaire,
Carriage, take me with you! Ship, steal me away from here!
Take me far, far away. Here the mud is made of our tears!
I've struggled for weeks to write on this part of de Botton's book, knowing that the topic is really too difficult for me, but wanting to tackle it because it's fundamental to our existence. What line divides a peaceful solitude and a painful loneliness? Can any one of us hope to understand another person's experience of isolation? Is loneliness an essential ingredient of human life, at least a step on our way to maturity?

In this book on travel we can't expect to find a deep exploration of these ideas. Or even a nod to the question of whether we in the 21st century experience our loneliness any differently from Hopper's subjects. In the whole book there is not a mention of cell phones or the array of social networking tools that seem to prevent any of us from being part of a scene such as de Botton describes in the paragraph above. Perhaps it's a deliberate omission, and he hopes to gently propel the reader back to a low-tech experience of being alone.

But being with strangers in an airport or service station nowadays likely means being surrounded by people using electronic devices that exclude them from any here-and-now community, lonely or otherwise. We know that many of them/us are doing this in an effort to have friends, to be in community, all the while missing possible opportunities to connect with people present in the same room. How might this development change the dynamics of a place like the automat?

De Botton writes about his own bad feelings being transformed while sitting in similar place, into a "gentle, even pleasant kind of loneliness," and he values Hopper's paintings that "allowed their viewers to witness an echo of their own grief and thereby feel less personally persecuted and beset by it."

Hopper - Night Shadows
As I pondered the meaning of loneliness, I thought for a long time that de Botton is trivializing it. Along the way I read various writers on the subject in hopes of understanding everything better. Of course de Botton writes from his own experience, and it must be that his own feelings are not on the level of acute alienation, nor is he destitute of support, to use some synonyms. If he had known what some people feel as catastrophic and terrifying, what John O'Donohue, in Anam Cara: The Book of Celtic Wisdom, calls "...the solitude of suffering, when you go through darkness that is lonely, intense, and terrible. Words become powerless to express your pain..." I don't know that he would make these fairly easy remedies, such as looking at paintings and riding on trains, sound plausible.

De Botton is such a pragmatist, as evidenced by his use of religion, that if he had in fact suffered an agony of soul I would expect him to be one of the many people who tell us that loneliness is the human condition. Get over it, make use of it, learn to live with yourself and with the knowledge that you are completely alone and there is no fixing it.

Even Jesus was lonely, after all. In his darkest hour, when he might have taken some comfort from his friends at least standing by, they fell asleep and left him all alone and feeling forsaken. And this shows that he did take on the whole of the plight of being human.

It's an aspect of our lives that we in the modern age are especially prone to and sickened by, but it's not what we were made for. We were made in the image of God, The Holy Trinity, where all Life resides -- God in three persons, a unity of Love, as Bishop Timothy Ware explains in his book The Orthodox Church

Our social programme, said the Russian thinker Fedorov, is the dogma of the Trinity. Orthodoxy believes most passionately that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not a piece of ‘high theology’ reserved for the professional scholar, but something that has a living, practical importance for every Christian. Man, so the Bible teaches, is made in the image of God, and to Christians God means the Trinity: thus it is only in the light of the dogma of the Trinity that man can understand who he is and what God intends him to be.
God is personal, that is to say, Trinitarian. This God who acts is not only a God of energies, but a personal God. When man participates in the divine energies, he is not overwhelmed by some vague and nameless power, but he is brought face to face with a person. Nor is this all: God is not simply a single person confined within his own being, but a Trinity of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of whom ‘dwells’ in the other two, by virtue of a perpetual movement of love. God is not only a unity but a union.
If all the humans you know fail in their love toward you -- and they likely will -- and if you feel alienated from society, from God, even from your true self, your salvation does not lie in accepting this situation as All There Is. As St, Augustine said, "Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee."

In the Church we can be brought into communion with the Holy Trinity and with other people who are learning to participate in that "perpetual movement of love." This is the opposite of alienation, but we may have to go through the Valley of the Shadow of Death to get there. If that's what it takes for us to realize our need, and to become desperate enough to cry out to the only One who will never disappoint us or hurt us, we might consider it the power of a great melancholy. 

This is the fourth in a series on The Art of Travel. The other posts are
Possessing Beauty
What Van Gogh Can Do

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Funny Stories, Stew and Rescue

I'm having a good week, in spite of the Giants being behind in the NLCS. Today was 90°! so we opened the window to the front yard and for a few minutes, as I stood watching my favorite baseball players at bat, the aroma of sweet olive wafted through the window. Heaven came down.

I made brownies for my husband, took a walk, bought some groceries and did laundry, caught up with a dear friend, and even worked on a book review that's giving me a hard time...and now I'm passing on to my blogging friends some fun things I found in my blog treasure box. Yes, thanks be to God.
The funniest story I have read in a long while, at Bread and Roses, about a kitchen wall.

An oh-so-practical and realistic, encouraging list of Ways to Rescue a Bad Day for mothers with children at home, from Like Mother, Like Daughter. I think it could also serve nicely for menopausal women, those recovering from the flu, or just generally low-energy homemakers.

A chicken stew that sounds like an easy way to use my Costco boneless chicken thighs, and that includes Persian spices, walnuts, AND exotic pomegranates, some of my favorite foods.

A dad comedian who made me laugh and laugh over his stories of having four kids:

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Not Grumbling or Visible

Sandra posted a stimulating group of quotes today for her Sabbath Keeping, with the theme of Work. I usually have to-do lists in many categories stacked on my desk, with some of the entries also boxed in on weekly calendars, so Work is an entity, an idea, a reality that I spend a lot of time on -- I'm human, after all, made in the image of God, and in John 5:17, "... Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto, and I work."

I have a pretty good collection of quotes on this subject myself, and one anonymous maxim from The Salt Cellar collection of Charles Spurgeon is a favorite: "They never wrought a good day's work who went grumbling about it."

I also love this one by Teresa of Avila: "It is only mercenaries who expect to be paid by the day." Those two might just about sum up, my apophatic theology of work.

But today I was comforted by Victor Hugo's reminder that Sandra passed on:
A man is not idle because he is absorbed in thought.
There is visible labor and there is invisible labor.  --Victor Hugo

Reading all these quotes about work and thinking about many things, I was fortified by drinking a new herbal tea that Soldier gave me a while back. It is my latest favorite. I made a potful to keep me going for a couple of hours of my favorite kind of work. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

What Van Gogh Can Do

Van Gogh frequently paid tribute to painters who had allowed him to see certain colours and atmospheres. Velazquez, for example, had given him a map that allowed him to see grey. Several of Velazquez's canvases depicted humble Iberian interiors, with walls made of brick or a sombre plaster, where even in the middle of the day, when the shutters were closed to protect the house from the heat, the dominant colour was a sepulchral grey, occasionally pierced, where the shutters were not quite closed or a section had been chipped off them, by a shaft of brilliant yellow. Velazquez had not invented such effects, many would have witnessed them before him, but few had had the energy or talent to capture them and turn them into communicable experience. Like an explorer with a new continent, Velazquez had, for Van Gogh at least, given his name to a discovery in the world of light.

Van Gogh - Field of Poppies

The above paragraph, from Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel, is taken from the section in which the author presents his case for how works of art can help us to really see and appreciate the real thing when we get the opportunity, as in our travels. Even Van Gogh's eyes were opened to the depth of natural phenomena by this means.

I am not aware of this aspect of my own developing appreciation for the beauty of various places. I can't even think of any word pictures that primed me to love the places I do. That art is an influential power I do believe, but I mostly post excerpts here as an example of de Botton's art. His words are a pleasure to read and also add a good deal to my meager foundation in art appreciation.

Come to think of it, I will have to take back what I just said, because I find myself influenced after all. Before reading this book, I had no interest in visiting Provence. The following paragraph has changed my mind.
After Van Gogh, I began to notice that there was something unusual about the colours of Provence as well. There are climatic reasons for this. The mistral, blowing along the Rhone valley from the Alps, regularly clears the sky of clouds and moisture, leaving it a pure rich blue without a trace of white. At the same time, a high water table and good irrigation promote a plant life of singular lushness for a Mediterranean climate. With no water shortages to restrict its growth, the vegetation draws full benefit from the great advantages of the south: light and heat. And fortuitously, because there is no moisture in the air, there is in Provence, unlike in the tropics, no mistiness to dampen and meld the colours of the trees, flowers and plants. The combination of a cloudless sky, dry air, water and rich vegetation leaves the region dominated by vivid primary, contrasting colours.
Van Gogh - The Yellow House, Arles
Speaking of colors, every chapter of The Art of Travel includes several black-and-white illustrations, photographs from the author's travels and of the featured artists' paintings. In this section of the book in which there is so much about colors, the lack of them was particularly conspicuous.

As is hinted above, De Botton did not love the scenery of the French countryside at his first encounter, because at the time he was bored, impatient, and uncomfortably hot, not disposed to be charmed. He says he needed to be taught by Van Gogh, but I think he also just needed a good night's sleep.

This chapter "On Eye-Opening Art" includes many quotes from Van Gogh's letters, which were for me, trained more in reading than in art, more impressive and evocative than his paintings. De Botton's eyes began to be opened as he read the artist's own descriptions of Provence, and in Arles he was lucky to get in on a guided tour of "The Van Gogh Trail." At stops along the walk the tourists gazed upon scenes that long ago had been the subjects of Van Gogh paintings, while the guide held up large photographs of the finished works. The seeds of love were planted and watered by these lessons, and sprang up in the heart of Mr. de Botton.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Possessing Beauty

No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us the one whit stronger, happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things  are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast, and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.
      --John Ruskin, quoted in The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

John Ruskin
Ruskin is one of the "guides" the author takes as a teacher in his study of this art of travel; this particular guide yearns to give us his students the tools to understand and possess beauty. Ruskin believed that we can only understand beauty by paying close attention to it, and that attempting to describe nature through writing or drawing was the surest way to focus the mind sharply enough.

On the topic of drawing Ruskin published two books in the 1850's and gave lectures in London, but the point of his instruction was never to produce students who could draw well. He wanted to teach people to notice, and to "direct people's attention accurately to the beauty of God's work in the material universe."

Right here is a good place to propose that we who believe in God the Creator also take as our teacher John Ruskin, rather than Mr. de Botton, because I doubt that we can learn much directly on the subject of beauty, especially on how to possess it, from a man who doesn't understand that beauty, and in fact all that he possesses, are gifts from his Father God.

De Botton's most recent book is Religion for Atheists, which he wrote from the conviction that a disbelief in God should not prevent atheists such as himself from making use of various aspects of the major world religions to better their lives. No doubt many professing Christians have a similar pragmatic outlook, and are missing out on the essence of the faith, Who is Christ Himself, the Bread of Life, the Glory of God the Father.

In musing about the beauty of God, I came upon a website with that title, featuring quotes from Jonathan Edwards. Many people have caught a bad impression of Edwards from those who speak of what they know not, but long ago I learned that the most frequent word in the preacher's sermons was "sweet," in reference to God and fellowship with Him. It's not surprising that he had something to say about beauty as well. (The following paragraphs from Edwards were taken from his writings "The Mind" and "True Virtue" and bundled on the webpage with the added headings.)

God is Beautiful: "For as God is infinitely the greatest Being, so he is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent; and all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation, is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fulness of brightness and glory."

Jonathan Edwards
Beauty is a kind of consent or harmony: "[Beauty is] a mutual consent and agreement of different things, in form, manner, quantity and visible end or design; called by the various names of regularity, order, uniformity, symmetry, proportion, harmony, &c. . ."

“One alone, without any reference to any more, cannot be excellent; for in such case there can be no manner of relation no way, and therefore no such thing as Consent. Indeed what we call One, may be excellent because of a consent of parts, or some consent of those in that being, that are distinguished into a plurality in some way or other. But in a being that is absolutely without any plurality, there cannot be Excellency, for there can be no such thing as consent or agreement.”

Love is the highest kind of beauty: “The reason, or at least one reason, why God has made this kind of mutual agreement of things beautiful and grateful to those intelligent beings that perceive it, probably is, that there is in it some image of the true, spiritual, original beauty, which has been spoken of; consisting in being’s consent to being, or the union of spiritual beings in a mutual propensity and affection of heart. . . . And so [God] has constituted the external world in analogy to the spiritual world in numberless instances. . . . [He] makes an agreement of different things, in their form, manner, measure, &c. to appear beautiful, because here is some image of an higher kind of agreement and consent of spiritual beings.”

“When we spake of Excellence in Bodies, we were obliged to borrow the word Consent, from Spiritual things; but Excellence in and among Spirits is, in its prime and proper sense, Being’s consent to Being. There is no other proper consent but that of Minds, even of their Will; which, when it is of Minds towards Minds, it is Love, and when of Minds towards other things, it is Choice. Wherefore all the Primary and Original beauty or excellence, that is among Minds, is Love.”
God is beautiful because He is a Trinity: “As to God’s Excellence, it is evident it consists in the Love of himself; for he was as excellent before he created the Universe, as he is now. But if the Excellence of Spirits consists in their disposition and action, God could be excellent no other way at that time; for all the exertions of himself were towards himself. But he exerts himself towards himself, no other way, than in infinitely loving and delighting in himself; in the mutual love of the Father and the Son. This makes the Third, the Personal Holy Spirit, or the Holiness of God, which is his infinite Beauty; and this is God’s Infinite Consent to Being in general. And his love to the creature is his excellence, or the communication of himself, his complacency in them, according as they partake of more or less of Excellence and beauty, that is, of holiness (which consists in love); that is, according as he communicates more or less of his Holy Spirit.”

Jonathan Edwards did not have a perfect understanding of Trinitarian doctrine, but I am still very blessed by his giving glory to the Holy Trinity for Beauty, which of course can have its source and perfect demonstration no where else. For readings on the Holy Trinity I commend to you these pages.

Above a storefront in Carmel, California
Now, back to the subject of travel...I suppose no one wonders what all this beauty-talk has to do with our goings, because don't we all like to look at beautiful things when we travel? And when we have to move on, we also like to keep something to take home with us. How to not lose everything of the experience of a new place?

De Botton suggests three ways that we often try: 1) Taking pictures with a camera, 2) imprinting ourselves physically, as in carving our names in a tree trunk and thereby leaving a bit of ourselves behind, 3) buying something, "to be reminded of what we have lost." And none of these actions can have as much effect on the whole person as drawing.

In explaining his love of drawing (it was rare for him to travel anywhere without sketching something), Ruskin once remarked that it arose from a desire, "not for reputation, nor for the good of others, nor for my own advantage, but from a sort of instinct like that of eating or drinking." What unites the three activities is that they all involve assimilations by the self of desirable elements from the world, a transfer of goodness from without to within. As a child, Ruskin had so loved the look of grass that he had frequently wanted to eat it, he said, but he had gradually discovered that it would be better to try to draw it: "I used to lie down on it and draw the blades as they grew -- until every square foot of meadow, or mossy bank, became a possession to me."

De Botton chronicles his own efforts to follow Ruskin's advice, and when he attempts to draw a window frame in his hotel he finds that he had never actually looked at one before, in all its complexity of construction.

Many passages in the book also paint exemplary word-pictures, such as a paragraph on olive trees, of which the author at first "dismissed one example as a squat bush-like thing." On closer consideration, with the help of Van Gogh's art as well as Ruskin's tools, he sees the trees in all their magnificence, telling us that "the taut silvery leaves give an impression of alertness and contained energy."

There is another way that this description by de Botton follows Ruskin: in his anthropomorphizing of natural objects, attributing to them qualities that only humans or at least animals would actually have, and feeling that "they embody a value or mood of importance to us."
In the Alps, he described pine trees and rocks in similarly psychological terms: "I can never stay long without awe under an Alpine cliff, looking up to its pines, as they stand on the inaccessible juts and perilous ledges of an enormous wall, in quiet multitudes, each like the shadow of the one beside it -- upright, fixed, not knowing each other. You cannot reach them, cannot cry to them; -- those trees never heard human voice; they are far above all sound but of the winds."
My two-year-old grandson Scout is already a traveler following in Ruskin's (and his mother's) footsteps. He loves to hike and to stop and look at everything. On a recent outing he said, as he wandered off, "I'm going to climb up here, Mama, and the rocks will take care of me..."

That's what I call the spirit of good old-fashioned traveling. Not the sort that Ruskin himself decried, in the 19th century: "Modern travelling is not travelling at all; it is merely being sent to a place, and very little different from becoming a parcel." 

When I am loaded on to a jet plane, I confess to feeling a bit like a parcel squeezed into a big crate of parcels. But Ruskin, and yes, even de Botton are helping me to be a more joyful and observant traveler, even if it's only on a trip down the neighborhood footpath.

Before I had read just the small number of Ruskin's words that are in The Art of Travel, I didn't have the nerve to try my patience with drawing anything. But the man who wanted to teach me to notice has given me a vision of myself drawing a flower or a rock or a building. On my last car trip, I was even so bold as to pack into my bag a box of colored pencils.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

So Much Warmth

We're having a lovely Indian Summer this week, maybe a good time to post this poem by Robert Frost, one that I copied for my own re-reading from a library book, back when the children were copying their own selections to memorize.

I hadn't yet read the quote from C.S. Lewis that I can't locate at the moment, where he also points out (here's my very rough paraphrase) how life is mostly full of troubles, but that God sprinkles in enough joy-filled moments to keep us from losing heart. This poem speaks of that experience.

Happiness Makes up in Height for What it Lacks in Length
Oh, stormy stormy world,
The days you were not swirled
Around with mist and cloud,
Or wrapped as in a shroud,
And the sun's brilliant ball
Was not in part or all
Obscured from mortal view --
Were days so very few
I can but wonder whence
I get the lasting sense
Of so much warmth and light.
If my mistrust is right
It may be altogether
From one day's perfect weather,
When starting clear at dawn,
The day swept clearly on
To finish clear at eve.
I verily believe
My fair impression may
Be all from that one day.
No shadow crossed but ours
As through the blazing flowers
We went from house to wood
For change of solitude.

--Robert Frost