Laid Low

Ever since I first read the English author Jane Austen when I was a girl, I’ve been in love with her and everything she wrote. I’ve reread all of her novels periodically over the years. Winston Churchill read Jane (her devotees tend to call her by her first name, a practice she herself would have despised) at night in the bomb shelters during World War II for solace and equanimity. At difficult points in my own life, I’ve done the same.

And yet, despite my reverence and respect and adoration, there’s always been one single note in her work that’s rung untrue for me. It’s an episode in arguably her greatest novel, and certainly my favorite, Pride and Prejudice. 

The older sister, Jane, of the heroine Elizabeth Bennet, has gone to visit new neighbors (with a most attractive and eligible son). Their mother has insisted that Jane go on horseback, even though it looks like rain. Mrs. Bennet’s hope is that it WILL rain, and Jane will be caught in it, and therefore have to be asked to spend the night. All of which happens. Even more to Mrs. Bennet’s delight, Jane — having been soaked on the ride over — catches a violent cold.  So alarmed is everyone by Jane’s terrible cold that the doctor is sent for, and she ends up spending a week with the Bingleys. Because of everyone’s alarm and concern, Elizabeth Bennet walks over (yes, all three miles) on the second day, and she stays on as well to help attend to her sister.

For plot purposes, this all works brilliantly. Mr. Darcy, the friend of the attractive and eligible Bingley, comes more and more to be attracted (much against his conscious will) by the vivacious and clever Elizabeth. What does NOT work, from my point of view, is Jane’s cold.

I mean, really! Everyone is so concerned that Jane is kept in bed and then remains delicately convalescing for an entire week? Hey, people, it’s just a cold! Jane Austen might have figured out an episode a little more convincing.

Yet here I am, just beginning to recover — after SIX WEEKS — from a cold that has laid me so low that this is my first post since Christmas!

And yes, it’s been just a cold. Not the flu, not bronchitis, not pneumonia. A cold. With a cough sounding like whooping cough for weeks and weeks, and not 100% gone even now. An overwhelming drain of energy, and an oppression, even depression, clinically worthy of the flu. I began to despair of ever feeling better. I even went to the doctor to make sure; I couldn’t believe that it was simply a cold that had laid me so low. But that’s what it was.

Well, it comes belatedly, after many many years, but my very dear Jane Austen, I humbly apologize. Not only was your little plot episode with Jane Bennet’s cold dramatically effective — it was also accurate to a degree I never credited, but should have. I should never have broken faith with you, Jane.

(P.S. At one point, perhaps after a month or so, I managed to think of the blog, and I took a selfie to show you why I was being so neglectful. But when I looked at it, I realized that there is NO ONE in the world upon whom I could inflict such an ordeal, and I trashed it. So there’s no photo accompanying this post. Let your worst imaginings fill the gap, and that’s it!)

Posted in Health, Medicine | Tagged , , , , , , | 39 Comments


Different Beaks

“Each bird sings the song its beak allows.”

                                             Mère Tarsisius

This piece of wisdom has long been an important one for me, because I am too much given to repining, that is, feeling (and expressing!) dejection or discontent. Complaining is part of it. But it isn’t simple complaining, actually; it includes a nuance of longing for something, something which one does not have, and hence — dejection or discontent.

Repining is the opposite and enemy of contentment.

Instead of enough, there is only what’s missing. Instead of satisfaction, envy. This sad dynamic plays out in a realm that’s very important to me, the realm of blogging. I work hard on my two blogs. I take them seriously. I try to be informative, or entertaining, or amusing, or whatever takes my fancy at the time. I try to generate conversation, which is in the end what I (and many others) blog FOR. To expand my own narrow limited experience, to stretch my own limited imagination and boundaries.

And it works. I have a global acquaintance, through blogging, that puts me in contact, even friendship, with men and women here in the U.S., but also in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Japan, Singapore, England, France, Germany, Canada, all over! These are my extraordinary companions in the blogging world.

This one has great camera skills and instant rapport with strangers, and she produces marvelous posts of photo journalism (Nylon Daze). That one, actually two, go adventuring all over by kayak, and their blogposts give me a waters-eye view I would in a million years never see on my own. (Wind against Current) The other one may or may not be able to sing like a bird (it doesn’t come up on her blog) but she is on intimate terms with all feathered creatures, and her posts generously introduce them to all of us. (Time and Tide)

Then there is the blogger whose world most often runs on metalled tracks (Thoughts from Finchley) and the naturalist who looks UP and DOWN and all around on her fearless explorations in the woods (Random Acts of Writing). There is an around-the-world adventuress of graceful prose, extraordinary photos, and a bent for justice (The Urge to Wander); and an elegant lady who recounts her doings (and misdoings) with wit and pointed humor (Being Mrs. Carmichael); and a photographer/philosopher who leaves many gaps for us to fill in on our own (Empire of Lights).

I’m leaving out the poets, and the bon vivants and so many! I wish I could cite each and every one. My blogroll testifies to many of these amazing people. Check them out! But when the moon is in a dark place, perhaps, and the wind blows out of the north — I also repine, because I can’t do all these things. And I wish I could. Actually, it’s worse than that. It isn’t just that I want to do everything. There’s some kind of scold or taskmaster in me who says I should be able to do everything. And I, poor chump, believe that inner Simon Legree.

To return to some sort of balance and perspective is always an exercise in humility. I repeat to myself the wise saying of Mère Tarsisius: Be content with the shape of your own beak. Don’t waste time repining. Sing the song that your mouth allows. Do what you can do. Each of these bloggers whom I so admire is doing what they can do. Each one is singing the song that his or her beak allows.

A browse through WordPress and other blogging platforms reveals are so many beaks, so many songs. In a world of hatred, furor, violence, and disrespect — perhaps we are creating a contrast, a sign of harmony, a true sign of hope. Put all our songs together, and what resounds is a mighty chorale of human aspiration, dreams, and desires. A mighty song, a beautiful song — and none of us has to sing it alone.

Going Global

Who was Mère Tarsisius? The Mother Superior of the order of St. Andrew, one of whose houses is in Taizé, in Burgundy, where the sisters work together with brothers of the Ecumenical Community of Taizè in a mission of reconciliation. She was a living legend in the days when the Hub and I went frequently to Taizè, but I never got to meet her in person. Various people would relate her teachings, and tell stories about her, and that sufficed. She was Belgian, and doubtless she taught: Chaque oiseau chante le chanson que permet son bec. Wisdom comes to us in many ways.


Posted in Friendship, Personal Essay, Quotes, Wisdom | Tagged , , , , , , | 41 Comments

In Solidarity

Image from "Charlie Hebdo"

Image, “Charlie Hebdo”


Today in Paris, the other shoe dropped.

The satirical cartoon magazine Charlie Hebdo has been under threat for years now from militant Islamists for “blasphemy.”  Their offices have been bombed, and the editor, Stephane Charbonnier, has lived since 2011 with a personal bodyguard. All to no avail — as today two masked gunmen armed with assault rifles invaded their offices and unleashed blood fury. Within minutes they had killed twelve people, including Charbonnier, and two police officers, one executed gangland style as he lay writhing wounded on the street. Ten more people were wounded, at least four of them critically.

As they raced to their waiting getaway car, the assassins shouted in Arabic, Allahu Akbar, God is great.

What God? What is “great?” Is spilling blood wantonly and viciously the directive of God? And if so, is such a God great? Or is this yet another display of the egoism that is always the hallmark of a criminal, in any language and in any nation? From Cain onward, those who place “I,” “me,” and “my” above any other value are scarred by the mark of evil. Perhaps that is why such assassins need to go masked, to hide that mark from others, so they will not be recognized as the man-eating tigers that they are.

The simple image above represents Charlie Hebdo’s response: “Les canards voleront toujours plus haut que les fusils,” in English, “The press (*Fr. slang) will always fly higher than the guns.” We will certainly hope so.

I’ve long thought that the study of history reveals something more subtle than it’s usually said to prove, namely, that in the end, good will conquer. By might, or by moral suasion, or by some kind of action taken by the good. But I think that in the end, the force that brings down evil (and I do believe that in the end good will prevail) is what the ancient Greeks called hubris. A kind of overweening pride that will not recognize limits, or morals, or any kind of decency. It’s what took down even mostly decent men in Greek drama. It took down Macbeth in Shakespeare. Hubris is what today we might call over-reaching.

Evil knows no limits. So it pushes past the point of prudence or wisdom or even common sense. The armies that invaded Russia — the French under Napoleon, the Germans under Hitler — were indifferent to the lessons of history, or to their own reality. They knew no bounds, no limits. But they learned. So it is always with tyrants, eventually. What is heartbreaking is the suffering and misery and bloodshed inflicted on their victims in the violent course of their lunatic dash toward doom.

World leaders have rushed to declare unanimity with the French on this sad day.  Al-Qaeda and ISIS are rejoicing. How shall I, who am quite ignorant of Islam, be able to understand who and what Mohammed and Allah actually are? Are they actually who and what these two gangs of thugs claim they are? The prophet and the God of murderers?

If they are not (and everything in me says they cannot be), I need to hear the truth from Muslims who are like me, ordinary everyday people who love their parents, love their children, worry about making a living, try to live reasonably godly lives. Because, make no mistake — among the victims of today’s cowardly attack are exactly such followers of Islam as I describe. They have been spattered with blood purportedly shed in their name. It is theirs to speak out, just as Westerners have spoken out, in solidarity with all brothers and sisters of the human race.

We say in English, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Perhaps. Sometimes. Eventually. We trust in the power of the pen. But I think we can also count on the power and might of blood, the innocent blood that “cries out to heaven from the ground.” (Do you recognize that?) The Catholic church always recognized that power, recognized that the church fed and grew upon the blood of martyrs.

In going back again and again to read the appalling accounts of today’s massacre in Paris, words kept echoing in my mind, words I transcribed into a commonplace book decades ago. They are, fittingly enough, in French: “La mort des fusillès a ètè plus efficace que des triomphes plus èclatantes.” 

I understand it, but I’m not so good at translation, so all I can offer you is a kind of literal transcription: “The death of those who were shot has proved to be more powerful than the most glittering triumphs.” Words I would wish by some efficacy of thought could be transmitted into the bloodthirsty heads of all terrorists, to echo there until they were deafened with the sound. If such a thing could happen, I would be the first to shout Allahu Akbar!



Posted in Challenge, Definitions, Freedom, Life and Death, Personal Essay, Quotes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 36 Comments

We Are All Invited —


Caravan in the Desert

Come, come whoever you are,

Wanderer, worshipper, lover of learning,

It doesn’t matter.

Ours is not a caravan of despair.

Come, even if you have broken your vow a thousand times.

Come, come yet again, come.

—-     Jelalu’ddin Rumi  (13th century Sufi mystic)

I’m reproducing here a post I put up on sister blog A View from the Woods way back in 2010. I loved the Rumi poem then, and I love it now, but what impels me to repost it is an instance of synchronicity, the phenomenon that always seems unique and remarkable, yet is in fact amazingly common.

Here’s the back story to what I think of as the caravan of hope.

The Hub and I watch a lot of Great Courses, DVD’s that are like going to college, but on TV, in our den. The idea is simple enough. Outstanding professors from universities around the country develop courses in their specialties, 12 lectures, or 24,  sometimes even 36. People like us,  gluttons for continuing education and never so happy as “in” a classroom, wait for a sale (NEVER buy at the list price),  then choose a subject that appeals to us, and off we go.

Currently we’re watching “The Great Tours: Greece and Turkey, from Athens to Istanbul.” There are four six-lecture discs in this course. We were all the way to Lecture 17 on Disc 3, Central Turkey — Ankara, Konya, Cappadocia — last night when suddenly I heard the professor, John R. Hale, begin reciting these words: “Come, come, whoever you are”, and, astounded,  I was right there reciting along with him.

It turns out Konya is Rumi’s city, a place of poetry, and spirituality, and dervishes. And who knew! Certainly not me. I had hazily placed him in my mind somewhere in “Arabia,” itself a kind of imaginative construct  without latitude or longitude. An indefinite geography. And all the time he was solidly somewhere, in Turkey, actually.  I felt both exceedingly stupid, and happily enlightened. (Not a bad state to be in, actually.)

Synchronicity deserves to be respected, is my belief. So I’m repeating these beloved words of Rumi, in the assurance that whether it’s your first time hearing them, or the fifth or fifteenth, they always add to the sum of hope and joy in the world.



Posted in Desert, Enlightenment, Memory, Poetry, Wisdom, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 39 Comments


“Take a music bath once or twice a week for a few seasons, and you will find that it is to the soul what the water bath is to the body.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes

At the close of 2014, a year of such over-the-top grimness and dismay that I for one am tempted to despair over belonging to such a race as the human race is proving to be, I find that Oliver Wendell Holmes’s advice is spot on. I can bathe in music and refresh my soul. But not just any music. For me, it’s glorious music, the music of JOY! And who else is the supreme creator of the music of Joy but Ludwig van Beethoven? He, who was master of the sublime in sound, was deaf himself, and most of the the time, black of mood. No matter.

The final movement, the fourth, of his towering 9th Symphony ends with the renowned Ode to Joy. It fully lives up to its name. There’s a long time of waiting and listening to three full movements, however, before spying that mountain peak.

I think of Beethoven’s less well-known Choral Fantasia in C Minor, Op. 80, as the little brother of the Ode to Joy. In less than half an hour it transports us, like a chair lift, right up to the mountain’s peak, from where we can gaze at a world transfigured, bathe in that bath of music, and be reconciled to humanity.

Think I’m exaggerating? Try it. Here’s my Christmas gift to each of you, a very short YouTube, only 3 minutes or so, of just the finale to the Choral Fantasia. This version is by the Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Claudio Abbado, with pianist Maurizio Pollini. (If you look quickly, you’ll recognize the soprano soloist as blonde Finnish bombshell Karita Mattila, who two years ago or so sang Salome, a rather different matter, at the Metropolitan Opera.)

There are lots of full-length versions of the Choral Fantasia on YouTube, most are excellent, and when you have need of a spiritual cleansing and  a half hour to spare, I highly recommend any of them. You might especially look for the version featuring a youth orchestra of bright and shining young people. But right now if you’re still with me, treat yourself and watch and listen to this passport to Joy:

If you’re allergic to “classical music” — then close your eyes and simply listen. The final moments will lift the hairs on the back of your neck —

Posted in Art, Happiness, Music | Tagged , , , , | 22 Comments

To The Lighthouse —

Lighthouse, Japan Sea

“If you are writing the clearest, truest words you can find and doing the best you can to understand and communicate, this will shine on paper like its own little lighthouse. Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”

—– Anne Lamott

Hinomisaki Lighthouse

Hinomisaki Lighthouse, Shimane prefecture

High above the Japan Sea a little farther on the trail to the right in the photo stands a tall white lighthouse. It doesn’t pick itself up and run about, looking for readers, er, boats to rescue. It’s just waiting there for boats out in the dark and in the storm, boats that need to know where the land is. Just so, when we’re seeking, when we’re climbing and clambering, in our own dark and storms, we need words that shine for us, that guide us to safety. At times of great gratitude and thankfulness, we may even long to write such words for others. How to do that?

Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life tops my very short list of must-reads for for anyone who writes, or wants to, or wants to write better.  Also on my personal short list are Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within and Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Do you have your own list of writer-lighthouses? And if so, who’s made your list?

Posted in Japan, Quotes, Reading, Writers | Tagged , , , | 29 Comments

Winter Closet

Thanksgiving arrived along with the first winter storm of the season here in the Northeast United States. Biting cold, snow, wind — please, Mother Nature, I’m not ready yet! The older I get, the less ready I am for the arrival of winter.

New England is mostly a landscape of pastels at the best of seasons. From November on, that palette dwindles to brown, beige, charcoal gray, misty white. My front closet — the one that holds my winter armament of coats and gloves and scarves — reflects that palette.

In my winter closet ---

Leather and down and wool, pretty dull, huh? But then an anomaly leaped to my eyes. Here it is:

Summer Straw

A summer straw hat with its jaunty sunflower, perched atop a garment bag cheek by jowl with umbrellas and scarves and those drab winter coats —

Why haven’t I put this away, I wondered. And then I realized why. That straw hat is my token that winter is not all there is. Spring will come eventually, and not simply spring, but summer.

There is a time for everything under the sun, a time for leather and down and wool, for gloves and hats and scarves. That time is now. But there is also a time for sunlight and warmth and straw and sunflowers, and that time will come. We take our signs of hope where we find them.

Do you take winter (whenever that comes for you) in your stride? Or do you, like me,  have to work with it?



Posted in Color, Flowers, Nature, winter | Tagged , , , | 37 Comments