Friday, May 7, 2021

The Sounds of Morning

In a modern city in the U.S., the most quiet time is probably around 4:00 a.m.  At that hour, even most of the night-lifers have gone home (bars having in many cities closed around 2:00); and the alarm clocks of most workers have not yet rung.  Virtually the only sound is the faint background hum coming from an interstate or other highway.

But soon, -- even before the first hint of light in the sky -- come the first sounds of morning. Perhaps a car engine being started.  Or maybe a truck making its early deliveries to a grocery store or cafe.  If the windows of our homes are open, we might hear fainter sounds, such as a TV in another house being turned on to catch the morning weather and traffic report.

Even by 5:00 a.m., however, there still might not be any sounds from non-human life.  Rarely anymore is there the crow of a rooster in any U.S. city or suburb.  During the night, there might have been the twittering of a half-asleep pigeon.  But most birds will wait until the first hint of daylight on the horizon before calling out to see if its companions are awake.

Because I am very nearsighted, even during the daytime I have a hard time identifying birds by sight when they are at a distance, especially when they are partly obscured by the foliage of trees.  And so I especially enjoy the rich birdsong of morning.  Even without being able to see the birds, I can recognize a number of species by sound, and be thankful that the birds I am familiar with in my neighborhood have made it safely through the night.

Besides being a time for awakening, daybreak is a time for healing.  In the New Testament, Jesus on several occasions points to things in Nature as signs of the constancy of God’s love for the world. And, when providing an example of how we should love both our neighbors and our enemies alike, Jesus points not to some human being but to the sun -- saying that God “causes his sun to rise on the bad as well as the good.” (Matthew 5:45, NJB).  Jesus thus evokes an an image of an expansiveness of love wrapping around the Earth to its farthest bounds.

With the new glow the sunrise brings, often tinged with faint pink and blue, it can indeed call for a change of spirit.  A Native American prayer designed for being used at sunrise says:

"You, whose day it is,
make it beautiful.
Get out your rainbow colors,
so it will be beautiful."

Sunrise is thus a time for healing, forgiving, and awakening to the discovery of a new day.

Daybreak is thereby also a time for hoping.  It is a time when we can wake from any troubled dreams of the previous night, when we struggled on a subconscious level with the tumult of the day before.  Morning can be a time when we can be enlivened by our "dreams" in a different meaning of that word. The 20th-century poet Langston Hughes, a black man, readily knew tumult. But he encouraged his readers by writing:

"Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly." 

Daybreak can be a time in which even birds can wake to a newly spirited day.

~ ~ ~ 

(Do you remember any particular occasions soon after sunrise that brought you a feeling of grace? When and where did that occur?)

(The Native American prayer is a traditional Nootka song to bring fair weather.
It is quoted in Every Part of this Earth is Sacred:
Native American Voices in Praise of Nature
, edited by Jana Stone, © 1984.)
(The Langston Hughes quotation is from his poem "Dreams," from
The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, © 2002.)

Friday, April 2, 2021

Being Strengthened by Spring

The COVID pandemic beginning in 2020 brought so many types of losses. Losses of such things as:  Family members, friends, and acquaintances.  The ability to move about among people in public with ease and safety.  Gathering in indoor worship spaces to be inspired by beautiful music and words.  The relaxing conviviality of dining in restaurants while chatting with friends.

We can gain strength by naming those losses.  We can also be strengthened by turning our attention to the continuity of the cycles of Nature.  Such as spring's flowers -- which were the focus of the following article, first published in 2015.

~ ~ ~ 

A gift from Nature
The painter Georgia O'Keeffe once said, "A flower is relatively small."  And yet she depicted them as being enormous!  Her easily identifiable paintings of flowers, which were one of her favorite subjects later in her career, often depict a single, huge, brightly-colored flower spilling over the edges of the canvas.  One of O'Keeffe's flowers can cover a hundred times its square-area in real life.  A biologist could easily appreciate that out-of-scale depiction, although for biological rather than aesthetic reasons.  After all the flower was a revolution in the evolution of life on planet Earth.

Green plants with photosynthesizing chlorophyll did exist on our planet before there were flowers.  However, it could take those conifers over a year to produce seeds snugly nested in cones.  One revolution flowers brought (when they evolved 100 million years ago) was the ability to release a seed in only a month.  That was an explosion in reproductive capability. That flower-explosion also brought about a revolution in the prehistoric world of animals.  As flowers evolved into different shapes, the insect world evolved simultaneously, new insects being adapted to take advantage of new food-source shapes.  In turn, bird and mammal species found new food in the flowers, seeds, and insects, thus putting competitive pressure on the older species of dinosaurs.

“Beauty too rich for use”Today, understandably, few people are thinking about such significant events in the history of planet Earth when they purchase or pick a flower.  Flowers can be an earnest business for commercial flower-growers and florists.  But it is a flower's enjoyable color, fragrance, and shape that capture an average person's attention.

True, flowers do sometimes become a part of solemn ceremonies.  A wreath of flowers can soften the hard edge of a coffin, thus soothing the hearts of the bereaved.  Despite the flower's fragility, symbolizing the transitoriness of life, its reproductive associations bring a hint of life into the acceptance of death.

More frequently, however, flowers shout out "life!"  The humorist Mark Twain made the earnest observation that "Whatever a man's age, he can reduce it several years by putting a bright-colored flower in his buttonhole."  Over a century later, men wear boutonnieres much less often. But the symbolic tie between flowers and restored life endures.  All the way down to anti-war demonstrators inserting flowers into phalanxed soldiers' rifle barrels.

With their colorful intensity and their message of new life, specific flowers have gained a role as a prominent symbol in many of the world's faith-traditions:  The lily of Easter resurrection in Christianity. The lotus of life-giving tranquility in Buddhism. And the light-giving Golden Flower in Taoism.

For the billions of bees and other insects who search for food each day, flowers are a serious business.  But for most people, flowers are just plain fun!

Life can open up at spring.
Where do you encounter flowers?  Do you have any favorites?  What do they express?

Friday, February 5, 2021

Still One Sun and One Moon

The poem by Amanda Gorman that she read during the presidential inauguration in January of 2021 evoked my memories of other inauguration poets.  The following thoughts -- which I wrote five-and-a-half years ago -- still seem relevant. Perhaps poets' reflections are of more lasting value than much of  today's tweets.
~ ~ ~

A memorable inaugural reading by poet Robert Frost.
The reading of a poem by a designated poet has now become a regular part of U.S. presidential inauguration ceremonies. The first reading was at the inauguration of JFK in 1961.  The already well-known and highly esteemed poet Robert Frost brought a copy of his new poem "Dedication" to read.  No inaugural poet has had to face the elements and imperfect technology the way Frost did.  I remember watching on TV. Frost stood at a podium where an electrical fire had been put out; a bitterly cold wind rattled the sheets of paper he held; and the intense sun blinded his eyes.  The sun won out.  And so, unable to read further, Frost finished by reciting from memory an older poem, "The Gift Outright."

Over the past decade or so, inaugural poets have been less known, but that has not meant that their poems, usually written for the occasion, have been forgotten.  I remember in particular there having been quite of bit of favorable comment about the poem "One Today" read by Richard Blanco at the Obama inauguration in 2013.  The comments about the poem afterwards on radio and TV showed how it had been especially accessible and meaningful to many.  In his poem, Blanco employed the opening image of "one sun" rising in the eastern U.S. and moving across the continent to depict and tie together the varied lives of people as they awoke and arose to their day's regular activities.  Occasionally, a specific detail added depth to the more general descriptions:
"My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors,
...on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives --
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did...."
The poem continued the theme of unity by using the phrases "one sky" and "one moon."

That modern poem came back to my mind when I recently read, of all things, an 8th-century Buddhist stanza.  It was by Yung-chia Ta-shih, and goes like this:
"One Nature, perfect and pervading, circulates in all natures,
One Reality, all comprehensive, contains within itself all realities.
The one Moon reflects itself whenever there is a sheet of water,
And all the moons in the waters are embraced within the one Moon."

Even when I was in early elementary school, and read introductory books about astronomy, scientists knew that the planets of our own solar system varied in whether they had one moon, no moon, or more than one.  Astronomers' inventory of our universe is now so vast that we have numerous examples of the variety of moons that orbit about each planet in many planetary systems.  We also now know that other planetary systems sometimes have not a single star but a star system at their center.

Viewing the moon, and discerning more.
If our own solar system did have more than one sun, or if our Earth had more than one moon, I would hope we would still have poets to remind us that we are all ultimately one people.  And also have poets to at times stretch our minds a little farther, by reminding us that all Life on this planet is ultimately One Life.


Is there some way you try to come back to an awareness of our unity amidst differences?

(The Japanese print is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.)
(The Buddhist verse is taken from The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley, © 1945, p. 8.)
(The 2013 poem "One Today" by Richard Blanco can be read at this external link:  "One Today".)

Friday, January 1, 2021

“Turning the Page” on a Year

When each New Year arrives, many of us hang up a new wall-calendar or insert a new set of pages in our day-timers.  And we sometimes make a resolution to behave differently, perhaps employing a book-related metaphor to describe the hoped-for change:  We say we are going to "turn over a new leaf" (the pages of books sometimes being called its "leaves").  Or we say we are going to "close the chapter" on something we wish to leave in the past.  Especially when the passing year was filled with trouble (as 2020 was with its COVID pandemic), we might say we are eager to "close the book" on the year gone by. 

But with that last example, we can understand the limitations of such metaphors:  A challenge such as a viral pandemic does not come to an end because we have labeled one particular day the end of a calendar year.  And even those processes in our lives that bring good things are continuous flows.  They are less like the flipped pages of a book and more like the slow advancement of a scroll.  Bringing about changes in human affairs is even better described as being like nurturing a green shoot, which in time becomes a larger plant.

Fortunately, we have been at this process of becoming since the day we were born.  We have a lot of practice with it because becoming is built into our biological nature.  As the neurobiologist Steven Rose explains:

Every living creature is in constant flux, always at the same time both being and becoming.... A newborn infant has a suckling reflex; within a matter of months
the developing infant begins to chew her food....
The paradox of development is that a baby has to be at the same time
  a competent suckler and to transform herself into a competent chewer. 
To be, therefore, and to become....

Our faith-traditions encourage us onward into unknown territory by reminding us that the ultimate Source of Life is also the very Ground of our Being that remains beneath us, supporting us even as we sometimes stumble.

Interestingly, the idea that even God cannot predict exactly what will be and what will be demanded in our engagement with the Divine is expressed in a pivotal story in the Christian Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible).  In Exodus 3:12-14, Moses, after being given a challenging long-term assignment by God, is promised by God, "I will be with you."  Nevertheless, Moses tries to gain more control over the situation by requesting to be told God's name.  Moses wants more control over the future than even God can promise.  And so, God provides to Moses the open-ended enigmatic reply, "I AM WHO I AM."  Translators sometimes add a footnote to this verse in order to express that God will be with Moses in both "being" and "becoming" -- just like that baby who both suckles and chews.  Such footnotes explain that what God has said could also be translated as "I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE," or even "I WILL BECOME WHAT I WILL BECOME."

Even though ending a year cannot be an abrupt endpoint the way a book's chapter can be, maybe there can be value in a New-Year resolve to foster a new spirit that might lead to something better --  even if we can now only glimpse what that green shoot will become.

  ~ ~ ~ 

Is there a new shoot emerging that you would like to help cultivate?

(The Rose quote is from his chapter in Alas, Poor Darwin,
ed. by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, © 2000. p. 310.)

Friday, December 4, 2020

A Little Light — But What a Light!

 It seems like such a little act:  lighting a candle.  But I have discovered in that act much to meditate upon.

An ungrand beauty.As the year heads into its last few months, more tiny flames are lit around the world as particular religious festivals arrive:  Diwali, Hanukah, Christmas, even the newcomer Kwanza.  All these celebrations light candles in some form as part of their ceremonies.  Sometimes the wicks being lit are at the tip of hard candles; sometimes in a tiny cup of liquid.  But the visual effect is the same.  And it is beautiful.

In the northern hemisphere, the lighting of candles on those holidays late in the year carries an added spiritual meaning through the warmth the candles bring in cold weather.  But even when those religious holidays are practiced in the southern hemisphere, with days getting longer, candle lights can bring a soft yellow glow to what was darkness.  Although I am not a Roman Catholic, I have (as long as I can remember) found pleasing any pictures of Catholics lighting candles in a sometimes dim sanctuary, often accompanied by private prayers.

Before electricity came to our modern world, candles were used where today we use tiny light bulbs.  I feel nervous when I see pictures of some Europeans lighting candles on the branches of evergreen Christmas trees.  And I know the firefighters at my local fire-department can sleep easier knowing that electric lights decorate our trees in the U.S.  But we still desire to light candles in other ways during these festive months.

Before our petroleum age, the material for candles was wax from bees or tallow from sheep or cattle.  We might do well to recognize the flame as also being a gift from Nature.

A power with a string attached.
Scientists who work in the area of evolutionary psychology try to project their thoughts back upon the path of human evolution.  Certainly a significant step in that story would have been being able to start a fire.  The European cultural heritage expresses how momentous that discovery was with its mythological story of Prometheus, who steals fire from the gods.  In the playwright Aeschylus's adaptation Prometheus Bound, Prometheus is also viewed as being the bringer of civilization.  But the god Zeus knew all too well how dangerous humans could be without bounds.  And so, Prometheus is bound to a rocky mountain as punishment.

That danger of possessing fire is why my reflections upon candle-lighting have led me to see it as an example of behaving in a restrained, respectful manner.  In humankind's use of candles, we have found a way to handle fire in a controlled way. If in mythology fire brings civilization, can lighting a candle be a civilizing act today?  In our religious and spiritual lighting of candles, can we—instead of fanning the flames of anger in ourselves and others—turn our hearts toward worship?

The commonality across faith-traditions of lighting candles (whether in sticks or cups of liquid) might enable us to share in the emotions of Howard Thurman, even if our faith-tradition is non-Christian, or if we have none.  He writes in part:
"I Will Light Candles This Christmas.
Candles of joy despite all sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens."

~ ~ ~

Do you light candles on particular occasions?  When?  What feelings does it bring?

(The lines from "Candles for Christmas" by Howard Thurman are from Meditations of the Heart, © 1953, used under Fair Use.)
(The painting of Prometheus by Jan Cossiers is in the Public Domain.)