Posts Tagged ‘beauty’

Up close I could see dirt, some cracks and the cobwebs  — yuck!

Stepping back — beautiful!

It was our super attractive stone pavered outdoor stage at the REFINERY Church. Only a few months old, it already had the ubiquitous outdoor hodgepodge of collectivia, but if you stepped back only a few few — wow! The gorgeous parabolas, the symmetried tiers, the country manor brown stone and grey stone  — lovely.

It’s a simple approach to life, and it works, to keep us feeling better, moving forward, doing well, staying in touch with what is within but without the beauteous is.

It works — the step back —  on houses, gardens, organizations, communities, countries, the world — our brains.

A friend called me last night. She was traumatized  by  comparisons. I reminded her, “Yeah they this, but you — that!  Look at you, you gorgeous, much-accomplished, on-the-way mess!” Look how you have outstripped them all in this and maybe that. She stepped back, looked, laughed, and felt better.

Up close we see the flaws, the lack, the missing element — a man, a woman, a job, money, status, beauty, lunch  —  a little bit back and we set the overall shape, the puzzle pieces placed, the patchy, pitchy perfect panorama of the present.

Back off!

Your’ll feel better.



God is wasteful — with beauty.

He creates beauty, for no one to see, tossing a planet in an unknown corner of space here, a flower in an unseen field over there, a rare fish in an unreachable depth, a rare galaxy at an unthinkable distance — strewn, random, gorgeous, precious stuff (gold, diatoms, astroids and bromeliads) literally tossed everywhere across the planes and peaks and drops and seams of the universe.

We didn’t discover the rings of Saturn until Galileo spotted them in 1610 or really until Christian Huygen sorted them out in 1655. Those majestic, bright curves — so long wasted on no one.

A mile below the ocean surface lives the Viper fish, Chauliodus danae.

The deep sea vipers are hidden from us, the beautiful, iridescent green, silver and black fish with the huge, bulging eyes. On their backs they carry long dorsal spines with lights at the end called photophores to trick other creatures to come close — for dinner!

Or the corpse flower, Rafflesia arnoldii. — this rare, fascinating endangered bloom is found in the low lying tropical rainforests of Indonesia, its flower, more than a meter wide.

Most of the sea vipers and corpse flowers which have existed, strange and gorgeous and wonderful, were never seen by human eyes. In fact, more beautiful things have been not seen by us than have been seen.

Think of the universe, the vast reaches beyond our galaxy, beyond our local group, beyond our super galaxy, the billions of stars, their unseen planets, the supernovas we will never witness, the vast, lovely gas clouds, the great dark matter — all unseen.

Beauty, complexity, wonders, mysteries — never witnessed by any, but God. Why?

Because God himself — and this too has often gone unnoticed — must revel in beauty!

I want it. I want to snorkel it, I want to telescope it, I want to drive in it, I want to plant it in my backyard, I want to eat it, I want to look at paintings of it, I want to see buildings that revel in it;  I want to put it on the top shelf of my brain every night and sleep on it.  I want to happen upon it unawares on the ground or on a wall or on a face and be startled again by the drop-dead gorgeousness of the gorgeousness of the gorgeous.

Last week, I saw a man hand a woman a bag of free food – beautiful.

I saw a cat peak with yellow eyes, black face and white whiskers through a hole in a box—beautiful.

I saw the shadow of a tree on a wall, shadow art, lacey and intricate grey drawings,  caved paintings, duplications of the ideal forms of things. I was Platonic again in that moment.

I saw a baby crawling, sitting, clapping, bright eyed, expectant, insatiably curious – absolutely beautiful.

We live in a God-kissed world; his lipstick is all over the place.  This is why sunsets and Indian Paint Bush are red.

I couldn’t resist the charms of a pack of rosy colored Impatiens at Lowes last week. I brought six plants home, all blooming with best shade of red ever and planted them in my back yard along with some new bright green sod. I planted the flowers in front of my repainted, white, stucco terrace wall. I really like the rough surface of stucco; flowers and trees and grass look knock-you-out beautiful posing up against stucco. It never stops —  the divine smouching,  the physical evidence, the outrageous beauty.

On August 1, 2010 the sun flared, an arcing pillar of hot, white light rising up and flaring out from roiling surface. Recorded by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory at extreme-ultraviolet wavelengths, the photographs show a massive white, orange and yellow pillar of fire rising up off the sun.

Nice! Beautiful! We needed that, the flare, the flicker from the sun, the color in our eyes. Yellow fire, we’ve seen it before — the candles on Christmas Eve, flickering over the communion, highlighting the wine in the cup. The pure golden fire, lying on the beach as the sun sets, a glitter path of golden light running from the falling sun, across the waves and onto the sand.  

It’s good for us. On August 1 we  soaked in the flare, literally, the rays, as they flew on the solar wind to earth. One day a larger solar storm may stike us and destroy the electrical grid and wean us from TV and the Internet and managing our money online.  If that happens, it will be okay, really; it will give us more time to look around,  at the beauty.

I see that Lunt Solar Systems is now offering an affordable, compact hydrogen-alpha solar telescope that features a 35-mm etalon, with a bandpass narrower than 0.75 angstrom. It can show the Sun’s prominences and delicate surface detail. I want one. We all should have one. Iccarus should have left off with the wings and just sprung for one.  A solar flare, seen from afar, can make a day.

But the deal it that there are a lot of things to distract us from seeing the good stuff, to interfer. Too much, we miss it.

Today, more than a solar telescope, I felt like I needed some protein, and so in the morning, I engulfed my soymilk, wheat checks and coffee. The brown, latticed squares crunched hard and fast, as well as the second bowl and the second slurped cup of coffee went down smooth. As the protein, carbs and caffeine weighed in, I began to near humanhood again.  The first grumble at our house is sometimes, “Just give me the coffee, and no one will get hurt.” Eating and drinking is good habit, a good habit, but good habits  can keep us from seeing better stuff — flares.

Last night, I  wanted sleep more than star light or meteors or other bright visual stuff. I know that because I closed my eyes at 8:30 pm. with the light still on for my wife’s reading, and went to sleep.  Running my reciprocating saw all morning cutting metal bolts and flanges in the backyard had dramatically depleted my stored energy. These bits and pieces of rusted metal were remnants of someone plan for a patio cover — never realized. We dream, of the sun and of shade, but sometimes, like Jonah by his withered plant,  we fail at it.

This afternoon, I wanted safety, not beauty. I know that because I slowed on the turn around the lake in my SUV, coming back from Lowe’s, negotiating the SUV lean, wishing I was driving the MGB that I owned in college, but being careful in what I was in – a living room on wheels, not much more negotiable in a turn than a book mobile. But speed will have to wait,  perhaps until the Infiniti G-35 sport coupe that I occasionally lust after and may some day fall for. I checked the intersection at H Street and Eastlake Drive before entering to avoid any Mr. Toad’s driving furiously by.  And last night, for more safety, I avoided watching the evening news. What I don’t know isn’t in my mind, to scare me. Safety is overrated. It too often wastes the use of our eyes.

And this evening, I felt like I needed a real kiss, not a solar kiss. I know that because when my wife came home from work, I was really happy to see her and gave her a big hug, and we ate Mexican food together on the patio and talked over the day’s trivial events, as good wives and husbands do all over the world, making sense of the day, calming the little things we did and said that day down, telling them in a story, settling them in for the night. We were Mrs. Darling in Peter Pan, folding and stacking the mental mess, putting the good on top, packing the undesirable at the bottom of our minds.  The Mexican food helped because Mexican food makes for good talk because it is multi-colored and beautiful  — green, red, yellow – and it can inspire multi-level thinking, and with a Corona to wash it down, it can inspire colorful conversations – sometimes.

But protein, sleep, safety and kisses are not enough. Something is still missing. We also need beauty. This is one thing I have sometimes forgotten but keep coming back to strong now. I need beauty, a cup full, a bowl ful, a world full, a sky full, everyday. So does everyone else,  but we all tend to forget it in all the pursuit of the other pursuits that pursue us.

During my recent garden project that resulted in a nice layer of sod in my backyard, I glued a lot of schedule 40 PVC irrigation pipe. To stick it together, I used Christy’s “Red Hot Blue Glue.” I love Christy’s glue. It’s beautiful with the lid off, ropy, as deep blue in color as my grade school girlfriend’s Teresa’s eyes and it makes me dizzy in the same way she did. To avoid Christy’s seduction on my recent project, I wore my snorkel and mask when gluing the pipe together in the trench. It’s the same breathing tackle I used in Maui on our last trip to the islands. But when you wear your mask and snorkel in the backyard while carrying a can of blue glue and some white pipe around, you risk the neighbors avoiding you forever hence forth. But it can’t be gotten around. The pipe must be laid. A beautiful lawn is really all about what’s underneath, schedule 40, some male and female connectors, some risers and Christy’s hot blue glue. One night I wore my mask and snorkel to bed, putting it on while my wife was in the bathroom. When she came out,  I was ready, looking out over the sheets through my silicon mask, breathing noisily. Her, not so much. 

It’s universal, the lunge toward beauty, the beauty projects, the willingness to lay pipe to create lawn.  Some of our greatest minds have been chronically in need of a daily dose of the gorgeous – obviously. Consider Xie He,  the Chinese art critic known of his six elements that define a painting,  Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch master of painted light, Carl Linnaeus, the Swiss father of taxonomy,  Antoni Gaudi,  the Spanish architect of biomorphic buildings, Coco Chanel, the French fashion designer, Satyajit Ray, the great Indian filmmaker, Auguste Escoffier, the French emperor of chefs, Leonardo da Vinci the Italian genius, Shakespeare, the English bard – all clearly ached for beauty.  All their art and art criticism and science and architecture, clothing, movies, culinary delight, intricate machinery, fine literature and a lot more stuff in our world bears witness to our wildly aesthetic bent, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, da Vinci’s flying machines, Coco’s little black dress – “Wow!” 

And we don’t merely need one beauty; we long for and crave many  beauties, one of them being that shapely thing we call size. We humans are wildly attracted to things cubic, things with circumference, with volume. When I was in college a friend and I shared rides to school. She was taking beginning Astronomy and loaned me one of her text books, The Stars by H. A. Rey. It is a children’s book and so it is very helpful to everyone.

There I first learned about the stars. Stars have circumference, a lot of it. They have pull, gravity, and an appetite; they eat and are eaten by each other. I was smitten by the huge, round, hot, white, blue and red orbs and their groupings in space.

Using her big blue book, I identified the constellations for the first time in my life. I thrilled over discovering Orion, as if I were the first discoverer, the belt, the sword, the nebulae therein.  I bought my own copy of Rey’s book. I went on a trip with her class and wandering innocently up to a telescope I bent down and saw the faded butterscotch orb and brilliant arching rings of Saturn.

“Incredible! It doesn’t look real. I didn’t know you could see the rings of Saturn in a little telescope. That’s the Cassini Division in the rings?  Wow! Superwow!”

I gushed. I grinned. This was it. This struck a chord in me; the ring was for me a beautiful F# minor 7th, a combination of harmonious notes to play again, to come back to whenever playing an E, an A2, a B2 and a C# minor 7th.  It fit, it belonged, it seemed to me that it wanted to belong in this measure of song, in this movement, of this piece, in this given universe. And perhaps it was more even than that, and indicated something fishy going on here, something behind the scenes, something weirdly wonderful in the physics of the stuff we live close to.   

The split between the A and B rings is one of the most beautiful splits in the universe to look into, much like the Grand Canyon or the split between the left and right brain. The rings on each side of the Cassini are flying flocks of rocks, shepherded by moons. How cool is that?  

“Gorgeous!  Amazing! Wow. Wow. Wow!”

I read in H. A. Rey that if you placed Saturn between the moon and the earth the rings would almost touch reach the moon on one side, the earth on the other. I celebrated that and still do, inside and out. That night I also saw the moons of Jupiter and its cloud belt. I was astonished, ripped, wrought. I went back home and bought a four inch reflector. I pointed it up and was astonished.  But it wasn’t big enough for my appetite. More light was needed.

I bought an eight inch Celestron — beautiful, in itself, in fact, so much so that  by it I was distracted from the stars for a moment  much in the way that cars distracted me from math in high school. What a gorgeous work of art is the Schmidt Cassegrain telescope —  the central opening in its primary mirror, the folded light path, the sleek and shiny corrector plate.  And the views it gave up, they were something to “ooh” and “ah” over — Saturn’s belts, Jupiter’s red spot, Venus’s crescent, Mar’s white polar cap against its dusky orange sphere, the perceptible disks of Uranus and Neptune.  

I went crazy for aperture. I found a used 13.1 inch Coulter Optical Dobsonian in the paper, bought it and refurbished it. It was a light bucket. I fell in love with the mirror. I cleaned it, stroked its silver skin, polished its gentle curve. I now owned an observatory. I could find and gawk at hundreds of fuzzy galaxies with 100 million stars in them, more, more, more, the hunt for the mystery, the look, through the eye piece at the wonders.  I couldn’t get enough celestial beauty; I still can’t. I adore the Orion Nebulae, the Ring Nebulae, the Veil Nebulae, the great globular cluster M-13, the Whirlpool galaxy. They never stop thrilling me. Anyone who has missed them should do nothing else at all until they have seen them. One should not exit earth wthout seeing what is beyond earth.

The other night I looked up. The moon was huge and far and white. I put it in my eye, and I washed a little bit of the difficult day out with it. This is it, the beauty washes us, it cleans us, it restores the orderly in us again; the beauty is Mrs. Darling, bent over our disturbing dreams, straightening the covers, kissing us on the foreheads and saying “Goodnight, my little sweethearts.”

We must go places where we can see further. It should be mandated that we frequent viewpoints and lookouts. This last spring, I went out to the Anza Borrego desert east of San Diego. From highway 79 just south of the town of Julian I stopped at the desert outlook. I squeezed through the sun roof of my SUV and sat on top. Thousands of feet below and miles away, were the beautiful, sandy desert and beyond the blue Salton Sea. I soaked my psyche in the far off.

But what is the beauty of distance, of size of volume, without the beauty of color. Color is fuel, drugs, the palate of the mind. I love color. This spring my wife and I hiked the trail from the top of Torrey Pines, south of Del Mar, down to the beach. Stopping half way down, the color palate was stunning, yellow Sea Dahlias, red Paint Bush, blue heliotrope, purple and white Black Sage and the red sand cliffs and the aqua marine ocean with the black dolphins riding on it, swimming south in the sea in lyrical, synchronized movements.

I needed this because I had worked too much in confined spaces, too close to sheet rock and neutral wall paint for too long. I went home cured, temporarily.

I love the watery beach with the same love that I have for the desert. They wear similar makeup. One year when we went out to hike the Palm Canyon in the Anza Borrego desert, just east of San Diego, it rained. There we were, hiking up the canyon, ogling the flaming red tips of the Ocotillo, the yellow clumps of brittle bush, the magenta explosions shooting out the tops of the beaver tails. Then it rained, and the canyon was transformed into a cathedral, the wet walls became stained glass windows, rich in reds and blacks and gleaming browns and yellows.

A few years back my wife and I toured Italy,  an art circle tour. In Assisi we visited the basilica of Saint Francis. We were struck by the frescoes in the lower church, said to be painted by Giotto in his revolutionary naturalistic style. The life of Christ was depicted in blue and red and green and brown, simple shapes, elemental colors, archetypal stories.  Linda cried. I asked her why.

“They are so beautiful,” she said.

She is on to it. Everywhere we go we should be weeping, over the beauty, everywhere, in nature, in art, in each other, in faces. Just consider the glorious beauty of faces. I recently looked into the face of a woman with cancer and then into the face of her mother who had just prayed for her, thanking God for giving her, her little girl so long ago, a very old woman praying for her aging daughter and all the beauty she was at the beginning and is now, perhaps near the end.  I looked in their faces as they looked in each other’s familiar faces and there was pure, love-drenched beauty..

A few Sundays back, I saw a little girl walk to the front of the church by herself, standing in line, only eight and yet making her own decisions to take the sacrament, making her own choices to put herself in the moment of holiness. 

She stood expectant before the woman serving her, like Vermeer’s girl at the window, caught in the light, reaching to open the glass to something beautiful.  The little communicant held the bread, her short black hair cropped straight along the bottom of her chin, her head tilted as in the painting, angled slightly down and yet opening to something outside of herself.

Then she took the cup, and held this too, perhaps too long, certainly longer than the adults before and after her, either not sure what to do or simply savoring the moment, maybe a little embarrassed, always looking down at the hem of her dress, sipping the blood of Jesus so carefully, half emptying the cup and handing it over, as if it were too special to drink it all. Vermeer would have been frozen, stunned silent and motionless by the beauty.

We need such beauty, often, close, experienced, savored. We would do well to know that more and to make the conscious aesthetic choice to really see it when it is in front of us and to go find it when it is not,  to know it, to treasure it, to soak in it, and to let it inside of us to fill us up again.

I paused under a tree recently and to notice the little bright circles on the ground. It was the sun, shining through the leaves, reproduced, the solar pinhole effect, 386 billion billion megawatts of energy, in a tiny, me-sized, accessible image! I was reminded; we are here to pause, to Sabbath, to enjoy! This is it — the pause; we need to pause; we must pause.

I striped my church’s parking lot recently, laying down new white parking lines on the black asphalt. When I was finished, I paused, it was the divine pause; I enjoyed my work. This is how God must have felt after making the zebra. Stripes! It’s good. My striped parking lot is of the divine order of things.

I like the Hebrew Psalm, number 148. It’s a hymn of creation, the writer exulting in the galaxies, angels, sun, moon, rain – everything up there praising, the writer exulting in everything down here, including little creatures, praising. ”Praise the LORD …  “small creatures,” the Psalmist writes. I guess that includes ants and fleas. The Psalm presents a world-view that reveals a vast, universal hymn going up from the earth, from flea to galaxy, creation — all praising the maker of the beauty. It makes me think, hard.

It is a privileged to see the living Vermeers, and yet,  while we do our best to pile up beauty around us, art on the walls, food plated and presented perfectly, the faces we love captured and framed, the pet fur that we love kept near us in a box or a cage or a yard, our chromey and zoomy cars in the garage, our flowers on the table, much of the beauty of life isn’t in our hands to give and take. We go looking with our telescopes, but the event isn’t within our grasp. It’s cloudy or not; it’s given, or not.

On a recent warm, San Diego afternoon my wife and I paddled out into San Diego Bay from J Street Marina over arched by a steeply angling sun. We had come out to gape at the wonders. Sitting off-shore from the Chula Vista power plant, we turned in the kayak and looked west toward the Pacific Ocean. The roar of cars on Freeway 5 at our backs, we could see the Silver Strand running north from Imperial Beach to the almost-island town of Coronado,  a beautiful narrow strip of sand crowned with red tiled roofs and glowing palms. Condos, big houses, boat slips, the famous Hotel Del Coronado, upscale retail – more contrast to the industrial shore line behind us. 

We luxuriated in this watery commons, we soaked in the distances, we beheld the reflective plane, the flat lines as beautiful as those in a John Marin seascape, and then we turned back toward the power plant. My eyes traced the long line of one of the earthen dikes built to create its intake and discharge channels. What a contrast to Coronado’s strand. Chula Vista’s thin strips of fill material are as ugly as a ransacked room, narrow lines of eroding fill dirt and pieces of broken concrete. As we sat in our quiet watery moment, the beauty of the bay broke through like a shy smile.  The departing sun glittered across the ocean, over the strand, down the bay and onto our faces. The breeze became gentle, the water smoothed and then suddenly, very near, we saw what we had come to see.

A large curious head and curving protective shell broke the surface of the water. We aren’t alone. Swimming very near was a giant, green sea turtle, one from the group turtles that have made their residence in the warm waters of the power plant. One doesn’t have to go far in Chula Vista to see the marine treasures.  In 2009, Forbes magazine rated Chula Vista as one of the most boring cities in America. That’s interesting. Are there boring places? Or are there only bored people in uninvestigated, beautiful places?

We watched transfixed as the turtle broke the surface, opened its mouth, and then slipped back into the depths. It was a sighting of a wonder. It fell into the neural folder in my mind that held all the other sea turtles I have ever encountered. It found space beside the turtle I swam with two years ago on a gorgeous California summer day in La Jolla. That day, my marine buddy and I paddled together from Jolla Shores to the La Jolla Cove through glitteringly clear water, moving in tandem through the sparkling blue Pacific.

It landed in the same neurological row as the baby turtle I discovered while snorkeling off the west coast of Maui last summer. I found this little one on the bottom, sleeping under a rock shelf, then coming up to breathe with me and descending again in a slow arc to safer quarters.

Sea turtles, something given, offered  —  they are part of the beauty that we paddle through life with.

Last week on a bike ride with my wife, I saw a Snowy Egret fishing in a mud flat along the strand in Coronado — beautiful.

Today I say a large white bloom crowning the top of a dark green, glossy-leafed Magnolia tree on the main street running to my house — gorgeous.

And today I watched water cascade over the rock waterfall that I built in my backyard pond, glistening silver in  the sunlight and splashing happily onto the green lily pads that I have planted and carefully nurtured there — spectacular. Monet would approve.

It’s given, non-stop, everyday, offered, to us, out of love, for us — the beautiful!

We Need Beauty

Posted: March 30, 2010 in beautiful
Tags: , ,

We need protein. We know that and so we go find it in the morning, at lunch time  and in the evening, sometimes making too many trips back to the refrigerator for what we know we need.

We need sleep. We know that at night, and sometimes in the afternoon and after we have performed for too long and given away too much of our stored energy.

We need safety. We know that when we drive and when we fly and sometimes when we read or watch the news.

We need love. We know that when we are alone too much, and when we lose someone treasured and valued and when we want to be hugged or held.

We need beauty. Too often we don’t know that.

We need the beauty of volume, of things cubic, of things with circumference. The other night I looked up. The moon was huge and far and white. I put it in my eye, and I washed a little bit of the difficult day out with it.

We need the beauty of distance. A few weeks ago I went out to the Anza Borrego desert east of San Diego. From highway 79 just south of the town of Julian I stopped at the desert outlook. I squeezed through the sun roof of my SUV and sat on top.  Thousands of feet below and miles away, the beautiful, sandy desert and beyond the blue Salton Sea. I soaked my psyche in the far off.

We need  the beauty of faces. I recently looked into the face of a woman with cancer and then into the face of her mother who  had just prayed for her, thanking God for giving her her little girl so long ago,  a very old woman praying for her aging daughter and all the beauty she was at the beginning and is now, perhaps near the end.  I looked in their faces as they looked in each other’s familiar faces and there was pure, love-drenched beauty.

We need the beauty of color. Last weekend my wife and I hiked the trail from the top of Torrey Pines, south of Del Mar, down to the beach. Stopping half way down, the color palate was stunning, yellow Sea Dahlias, red Paint Bush, blue heliotrope, purple and white Black Sage and the red sand cliffs and the aqua marine ocean. We needed this because we had worked too much in confined spaces, too close to sheet rock and paint for too long.

We desperately need beauty, the beauty of motion. Last weekend, when we reached the beach at Torrey Pines, there sliding through the waves, we watched pod after pod of dolphins swim south in the sea. They swam in lyrical, synchronized  movements, up and down with each other by threes and fours. Their arcing, slicing motion was  beauty,  healing and good.

A few days ago some friends and I got together with an artist; she spread out her water paints, and we went at it. In color and shape we expressed life, fresh life, changing life.  We broke free from amateur attempts at realism and painted our feelings of renovation, innovation and exhilaration. The results were astonishing — beautiful, inspiringly beautiful. Some of my friends had Down Syndrome. Their art? Simple and beautiful.

We need beauty, often, close, experienced,  savored.  We would do well to know that more and to make the conscious aesthetic choice to go find it, to know it, to treasure it, to soak in it, and to let it inside of us to fill us up again.

Two October ago, we trekked three thousand miles to see if the carotenoids and anthocyanins might heal us. The days were shortening. The Pacific Ocean was getting colder. Christmas was months away. None of that would have mattered a bit, if life hadn’t just smashed us sideways and flipped us upside down in a multi-person, relational train wreck. We were reeling through the autumnal equinox, staggering from the scene of a social crime and we needed treatment.

Every year people hailing from sunless, rainy climates migrate to Southern California for light therapy; we were reversing the journey, pioneering from San Diego to Maine for the reds and yellows and oranges of northeastern chromotherapy.

Arriving in the dark, we drove from Portland down to South Berwick. Our Maine hosts, Ralph and Donna, said they preferred to take the back roads and avoid what they called the “turnpike,” so we did. I leaned against the dark car window on Fox Ridge Drive.  In the headlights, I could just see the trees starting to blush. We hadn’t come too early.

The pigments were at work. The same elements that color the bright yellow squashes in our California backyard gardens, the purple lupines along our roads, and the red strawberries in our bowls, color the trees in Maine. They are the pigments, the carotenoids and anthocyanins. When they hang out and mix it up with sunlight and rain, heat and cold, place and genetics — and who knows what else — they saturate the world with color.  They are a virtual botanical mixed drink.  Leaves tanked up primarily on anthocyanins dress up and go out to party in red or purple. Leaves having downed  good shots of both anthocyanins and carotenoids parade about shamelessly in pure orange. Leaves drunk with carotenoids but little or no anthocyanins stagger happily through autumn decked out in yellow.

The postcard Donna wrote said, “Please come visit. Ralph will take off work and we’ll go around with you. We’d love to have you as guests at our home.”  It was a gracious, welcoming invitation, carrying a faint sense of a sweet-smelling kitchen, a fire heating up the family room, a tail-whopping dog on the rug and hot chocolate in mugs. We were touched by the genuine gesture of hospitality — and the timing. The things that have just happened in our lives affect how we read our invitations.

I recently ran into a friend, Jean, at a party given by another friend who had just gotten back from a summer in Kenya.  Our Kenya trekking friend was showing her travel pictures. I’ve been to South Africa. I have friends there, and the pictures brought back vivid memories for me. While standing in the living room watching the photo journal of the trip, the back of my mind ran silent movies of eating with my own South African friends in a cinder block home in Soweto, touring the Pilanesberg Game Reserve with them and traveling across the veld to visit a rural school in Swaziland. My whole trip to South Africa was so much about people. Perhaps healing is pretty much that too.

While photos of giraffes, AID’s orphans and dancing African teenagers scrolled on a flat screen behind her, Jean asked how I was doing. I paused, an African child squatting over her shoulder. I needed a second. The Africans kept moving as I tried to call up what I told her the last time I saw her. I was also sketching out how to respond to her question about my condition. Whenever someone asks me how it is going, I make up a short story, fast. We all do. Even when we offer only a word, or a few words, we play the raconteur, laying out one plot over another, one point of view over another, our story choices made with split second judgments of the social milieu we spin our narratives into. And it’s complicated, how it comes out and how it is interpreted. The story we tell is always embedded within the story happening in the present moment and both those stories interact with a story about us that already exists within the listener.

I said, “I’m recovering. It was tough to lose my job in the recession. But I really like my new place. We are working on social justice stuff, feeding homeless people here in town, helping Burmese refugees in City Heights, working with foster children. I’m moving on, but it takes time, to get over what happened.”

It is awkward, the thing about moving on. I didn’t really want to talk about it. It was way too painful. I really didn’t feel like ripping into some of my former colleagues at a party with unsuspecting friends present. It’s in such poor taste and can upset the host. It’s also bad for digestion. I avoid it, generally. Besides, I didn’t have to go on. She took up the story and began telling me about the church in town she didn’t go to anymore. Stories beget similar stories. She had just been to a reunion. Certain people were there. She didn’t elaborate. I didn’t really know what she was talking about. Her voice quieted as she said, “It brought up some feelings I thought I’d worked through.”  As she was talking I was thinking about how the craziness beats in on all of us at times, turning boring, commonplace narratives surreal. Homey places where we put our feet up and sip hot drinks become places we run from scalded.  People who were safe become people we fear. Rwanda and Burundi, in 1994, come to mind.

At that moment, I didn’t see the African orphans behind her anymore, just her face near me, looking up at me. Our half-veiled emotions riveted us together. I stood there processing the narrative before us, the story I did know within the story I didn’t know, and then I said to her, “It’s okay.”  I paused, formulating more words. “It’s okay to have people you don’t want to see. I have a couple of people like that, from what happened to me. Perhaps, in time…” She nodded, silently, looking straight at me. I wasn’t sure what she was thinking. Then she wiped her eyes with the skin on the tops of her knuckles. “Thank you,” she said with a slight smile.”I needed that.”

Maine was something my wife and I needed.  I remember standing in the yard at Ralph and Donna’s home watching the leaves fall. It was just what I’d hoped for. The wind gusted in the big tree in the center of the meadow, and a flurry of yellow leaves wobbled down with papery sounds. They fell in slow flutters and occasional arcs toward the ground. Donna told me that when it is quiet in the woods, on freezing winter nights, that you can hear the leaves snap off the trees. I walked up the road with her dog, to the top of the hill where a red maple was on fire with color. I walked back down in the leaves that lay piled at the edges of the road. When a car came by the leaves gusted up, as if raised from the dead for a few seconds only to sink back to a quiet resting place again.

The next day, Donna and Ralph drove us over to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. There is a photo album on the end table in my home where I read that has pictures of that trip to New Hampshire in it, one of a blue stream full of yellow leaves,  one of a smooth lake mirrored with vermilion, gold and lime colored trees, one of hill after hued hill, piled up to the horizon with a dusting of orange, brown, green, red and yellow. They strike me as some of the softest and most therapeutic color tones I have ever seen. There is something about the miles and miles of celebrating colors, something festive, party-fun, good. I remember now, looking at these pictures, that the days Ralph and Donna escorted us through the wonders, every turn in the road made me reel one way or another with delight. I was drinking with the leaves, inebriated with color, happy to be alive.

Back at their house, after our day in the White Mountains,  I remember sitting at their kitchen table.  Donna put a big casserole of shepherd’s pie in front of us. Fluffy mashed potatoes crowned the dish in a flurry of peaks, paprika accenting them with a dusting of red. Tall glasses of white milk sat in front of the plates. We ate and talked.

Ralph and Donna talked about the accident. I had heard them speak about this before. But it was sacred, listening to them again. Their feelings, thoughts and words arced down deep inside of me. As they took turns talking, I listened with the intensity of a soldier with a deep unsown gash, hanging onto every movement and word from the field doctors bent over him.

Their son Josh died in a motorcycle accident. It happened when he was on a trip with their church. He got on a bike in a parking lot for fun, zoomed off down the street, and then they didn’t have their son to hug anymore. His room was upstairs, across the hall from the room where we were sleeping. Some of his things were still there. There were stars on the ceiling.

There isn’t simply one thing that gets at it. The leaves don’t change colors simply because the days get shorter. There aren’t any certain lines on which all leaves fall, neither are there any perfect lines that end our discussions of things. Ralph talked about questions that lead to more questions. He offered me no formula to write in my journal, carry back home, mix up in my kitchen lab and apply to my wounds and bandages.

But of course, I didn’t want that. I have had the privilege and burden of teaching writing at the college.  I have sat at home reading papers that only a teacher could, should or would read. Over time I have come to see that a formulaic interpretation of psychologically painful events is much like an amateurish freshman paper critiquing a novel only partly read. It is a thing awkwardly cobbled together late, under the disabling influence of a deadline —  a hodgepodge of unsupported quotes, blown transitions and an unproven thesis.

But that is not what Donna and Ralph offered. As I listened to them story their life, I was struck by a scenic beauty that acted as a backdrop to everything they said. There was a soft shade of gentleness behind every question and commentary. In all their thinking, in their psychology of loss, in their sociology of survival, in their theology of pain, ran a dusted hue of kindness. I noticed that Sunday, when they took us to their church, as they spoke to friends there, they were as tender with them as they were with us. And in these interactions something unexpected began to happen to our stories.  Ralph and Donna’s story began to intersect and merge with my story and the stories of all my friends and their friends. A kind of narrative fusion began to take place — all our terrifying experiences, our tragically lost relationships, our agonizingly arranged  interpretations blew from the road to the air again, to lift and turn and arc down, to settle and to rest where the pigments cover the rising mountains to the horizon.

People think of the Jewish story teller, Jesus as primarily a great teacher; he is known for his sayings, parables, stories, but he was as much a healer as teacher. The accunt of Jesus reports that once when Jesus saw a man with leprosy, he was “filled with compassion.”  I think his compassion was not justfor the physical problem, although I believe he must have cared much about that, but also for the man’s damaged sence of self,  his lost connections, his broken relationships with family and friends. To be a leper was to be a pariah, to be separated from  hugs and kisses and sexuality and love. It was brutal and agonizing, the distancing factor of having scary skin. And we are told that Jesus had compassion. In other words,  Jesus felt the deep pain of the man, the loss of his identity, the loneliness of his existence, the anger he had inside, the stunned confusion, the cry of  injustice. “I am left out,” cried the leper and Jesus said, “Be in.” The account reports that Jesus healed him.

Make what you might of it, not much beats compassion when you are suffering. A daughter rubs her father’s feet on his death-bed, saying by touching him, you are still a person, worthy of attention, deserving to be touched. Touch, compassion, psyche healing even when the physical  deterioration cannot be stopped, is eloquent to a watching universe, a shout int the dark, “I love you!”  When I was so sick after a surgery, lying in the bathroom alone one night on the floor, one of our small kitten came and lay down with me. The gesture, from an animal, the soft warmth close — I haven’t forgotten it. Not being alone in that isolating moment of suffering — significant! The color of compassion is shifted toward the warm, fallish end of the light spectrum.

It always astonishes me, how close truth hovers in the backdrop of life. On the day that we went driving in the White Mountains we came to where the “old man” had fallen down above Profile Lake. The old man had been a series of five granite ledges, that when viewed from the right angle, looked like a man’s face. He was a state emblem, but a fragile one at best. During much of the 20th Century he was held in place by cables and spikes. Between midnight and 2 am on May 3, 2003, with a rocky roar, the old man just slid down the mountain. People were so dismayed they left flowers at the bottom of the cliff.

The time goes so quickly. We are back from Maine. Southern California, along the coast, is such a beautiful thing. The palms here stay green and bright all year long. One of the many lantanas in my yard is always in bloom — purple, yellow or orange. But I don’t need seasonal reminders that things change because I know they do.  And when that change is for not for the better, I am of the opinion that the carotenoids and anthocyanins are among the things that heal, and love.

When I go shopping at the grocery store, I pick out the small orange and red and yellow peppers. At lunch, I sometimes edge my plate with them. And when I make smoothies in my blender, I dump in the bluest blueberries and darkest red strawberries. They are rich with the pigments I love. They sooth me, but I know what they are and what they aren’t. I know that they aren’t a spike or a cable, certain to hold me up forever. It’s not a dark perspective, just true: the bottom of the cliff waits.

But so do other things — friends yet to travel to, places yet to surprise, narratives yet to be shared. We have been through a few things that have changed us very much, my African friends, Donna and Ralph, Jean, my wife and I. And for some of us, there may be places that we are not quite ready to visit and people who for now are perhaps best not seen.  But we know that in the fall, the hills change. They brighten with the therapeutic pigments. And lately, I have been hearing more and more stories of loss that sound, at the emotional core of the narrative, similar to mine.

I lean toward the voices that tell them and hope to grow more gentle, like other story tellers I know.

Here Comes the Sun

Posted: January 17, 2008 in nature
Tags: , , , ,


“The jewel that we find, we stoop and take it,

Because we see it; but what we do not see

We tread upon and never think of it.” 

                                                                               Angelo – Measure For Measure

To live in San Diego is to live among jewels, and to really thrive here one must be constantly looking down. There is one precious treasure San Diegans walk on daily — it is the sun, the jewel that defines the city.

Sun, sun, sun – in this town you walk all over it. Check the bottoms of your shoes. They are probably warm. San Diegans bask in sunshine about 70% of the daylight hours. City hall scandals, half-a-million dollar house prices, Qualcomm stadium, Balboa Park, the San Diego zoo, Sea World – all and more make up the local identity, but it is the average daytime temperature, the 70.5 degrees, that best defines this city. The essence of San Diego, in the long run, is what piles up on the red tile roofs, covers the sidewalks and fills the potholes in the streets most everyday – sunshine! Sunshine is San Diego’s bejeweled identity.

The experts say that the Sun’s energy output is about 386 billion billion megawatts, and  in San Diego the sun certainly rules as Shakespeare’s jewel multiplied by billions. The sun is warmly overhead and underfoot here often and it’s worth taking a second look at it. If you live here, if you pay the local sun tax, if you visit here — don’t miss this radiant gift.  How could you? You could. We all tread on jewels.

Illumination 101

One of the primary lessons the impressionist painters taught is to catch light on the smooth surfaces. In 1892 the French Impressionist Monet rented a room opposite the Cathedral of Rouen and painted the church’s facade over and over again. Each painting is a unique study in light, because with the changes in light, the colors and angles of the walls were ever changing. This approach still yields treasure.

When the sun is out, San Diego’s architecture is a vast sun catcher. In the afternoon the huge windowed walls of San Diego’s downtown buildings turn into great sheets of fire as the sun sets over the Pacific. Solar fire falls onto all unblocked offices and homes facing west. Every window becomes the sun’s picture frame. Some places in the world are defined by ice. San Diego is defined by fire.

On a sunny afternoon, the edges of the city, an overhead street sign, the top of a building, a fender speeding down the Interstate 5 – all turned to California gold. A custom wheel spins the local yellow star into a perfectly straight thread of gold. Here, the ordinary commute home is a solar fantasia.


Natural Sun Catchers

Although the sun is the largest object in the solar system and contains more than 99.8% of the systems total mass, the small, thin, fragile surfaces of the natural world finely show it off. 

San Diego is a city where the trees work for the city as a force of light gatherers. San Diego’s palms are sun harvesters, and they fill up and literally drip with light. Their dark green and shiny surfaces turn sunshine into sterling silver. The tall Mexican fan palms drip silver light from their glowing fan tips. The graceful queen palms grab light with their long silver-green fingers. “Catch more,” they cry, holding up their hands to the sun.

Kate Sessions, San Diego’s early 20th century “city gardener,” who imported, propagated and popularized many trees here helped set the stage for a tree lit city. The trees in this city are the daytime street lamps.

The magnolias, bearing dark green shiny leaves, function as sun spades, slicing light in half. The avocados do the same. The secret to being a leafy street lamp is in having shiny leaves. Banana leaves glow like pale green lamp shades. Jacarandas blaze with an inspired blue-lavender splendor.

Light Remixed

Walls, shadows, leaves — it’s all good, but to see San Diego’s light in a special glory, one should see it mixed, and remixed with water. Along the cliffed beaches, the swells toss the water joyfully against the sandstone. Then as the salty sea runs back into the ocean, it grabs the light from the air and hangs glowing icicles of light between rock and sea.  Along the sandy beaches, the sun and water mix in another form as the waves  fall and break into tiny white water bubbles. The bubbles are lenses, they focus the light.  With the sun directly overhead, each single bubbles catch a bit of it and casts a tiny star-shaped bright spot onto the sandy floor below. Astonishing — the sun in a bubble!

It has been computed that one hundred and nine earths would fit across the sun’s disk. Its interior could house about 1.3 million earths and in this beach city, every sunny day the sun is as tiny and accessible to San Diegans as a bubble floating at the edge of the sea.

Stay at the shoreline that is filled with suns long enough and the light will get by you and head for the water, like some huge solar bonfire falling out of the sky. Every San Diego day ends with the sun in the sea. Down the bright light tumbles, past a bit of glowing dust wafting by like a planet, past the illuminated sea gulls, past the radiated tourists, past the silver palms. As it cartwheels toward the Pacific, it distorts in the thick atmosphere at the horizon, and its brilliant golden light trickles down its sides and puddles in the water. There it flows in a long glitter path, a sun road across the salty blue, collected finally in the tide pools, pure California gold.

At the end of the day, every San Diego frond and flat wall celebrates the sun. Every shell fragment lying on the shore and every wispy cloud above is baptized together for one glorious moment in golden fire until at last a tiny gold rim remains on the ocean’s horizon, and then is gone. The copies dissolve, the gold fades, and the light vanishes!  It was the jewel of the city.

Did they see it? Perhaps some San Diegans didn’t. Not to worry. In San Diego the sun will almost always come out tomorrow. And mostly likely, it will come out the day after that and the day after that. And although it may be tread upon,  there is the frequent opportunity here to stoop and take it — even for the briefest of flickering, sentient moments – the jewel of the city, the  beautiful, glorious San Diego sunshine.