Tag Archives: thinking

Picking peas without complaint.

Mr. Kierkegaard was very hard to take in the last two discourses of The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air. I was happy for the non-hearers of his non-sermons — you may remember, he was not ordained so he didn’t consider it appropriate to call them sermons — that they did not have to listen to him audibly, on and on repeating himself, and stretching the bird and lily metaphor into nonsense.

Or so it seemed to my small brain. I finished the book last evening, when my patience was already tried by my eyes that had been burning for two days, and for what reason? No one knows. By the late afternoon on Sunday I’d followed a doctor’s advice and used some very expensive eye drops that changed the burning to a sticky-scratchy feeling. The burning had made me want to keep my eyes shut, but with the latter condition open or shut didn’t matter, so I was able to distract myself with reading. (Today they are fine!)

I sat in the garden, because it is so delicious, I want to be there as much as possible, with the bees humming and sparrows singing and flying back and forth, eating the sunflower seeds I give them. It is true, what Kierkegaard says, echoing our Savior, that we must learn from nature. And in some way we need to be like the birds and the lilies if we are going to fulfill our humanity. But we can’t learn about thinking from them. Thinking is something we humans specialize in, to such a degree that our minds dominate our fragmented selves. And that mind tells us, among other irrational things, to worry.

Our mind is what we use to accomplish our daily lives, to plan and execute our work. But it’s also where swirl the same unproductive thoughts over and over again, thoughts of regret over the past, or anxiety over the future. Complaining and blaming and angry thoughts. How can we plan without worrying at the same time? How can we bring every thought captive to Christ? Lord, have mercy!

Kierkegaard says in the second discourse that the bird and the lily are unconditionally compliant with God’s will: “In nature everything is obedience, unconditional obedience.” Maybe he is trying to get at what I have heard from fathers of the Church, about how creatures other than humans act according to their God-given natures. Humans were made in the image of God, which means that our nature is to be of love, and unity. But we are typically at odds with ourselves, and with our Creator.

I haven’t been too successful myself of late, in thanking God for everything. For ten years now, I’ve found it helpful to use my writing to steer my mind in the right direction, but lately the load is too heavy to steer. Writing does not accomplish the task of “bringing the mind into the heart,” which is what Saint Theophan tells us we need to do. When my mind is burdened I can’t make sentences that would substitute for prayer, or other more receptive activities, say, watching a bee.

C.S. Lewis’s feeling, “Actually it seems to me that one can hardly say anything either bad enough or good enough about life,” comes to mind, but only weakly applies to my difficulty conveying a simple experience like picking peas this evening.

That Big Friendly Giant pea patch I’ve got is a wonder of my garden world. It just keeps growing and being green and lush, producing new baby pea pods every day. I wander around the edges of its kingdom and peer into the jungle of vines, trying not to miss any of the ripe ones, wondering if I should let this or that one grow one more day. I’m pretty sure that one day this week there are going to be about a hundred of the sugar snap peas all ready at once. Each pea pod is lovely and tender-crisp, and begs to be eaten the moment after being picked.

The day is filled with this kind of incomprehensibly good thing, which I would like to share. I think those are joys flowing out of my heart, so they are easier to express than sad things,  though of course I can’t say anything “good enough.” I’ve tried taking pictures of the pea mass, but this is a case where you have to have your nose following your arm into the dim and cool interior, all the while the sun warms your hair. Pictures are worthless.

As to the other side of Lewis’s quote, saying anything “bad enough” about life — that’s not my calling. I think that line might have been from a personal letter that he wrote, expressing empathy with someone who was suffering. I know I have had experiences that seemed very bad. And my cry amounted to, “This is not what I want!” But at this time in my life, if I ever manage to “take them captive,” I try to put those thoughts in quarantine.

Kierkegaard finally admits that we do have difficulties that the bird and the lily escape, when he writes of an “…enormous danger — a danger in which a human being is indeed situated by virtue of being a human being, a danger that the lily and the bird are spared in their unconditional obedience, which is happy innocence, for neither God and the world nor good and evil are fighting over them…”

That makes me think that if the author were writing blog posts today, he might remind us that we do not war against flesh and blood, viruses, stupid humans, wicked empires, etc, but against “principalities and powers” in the spiritual realm. Every time I get distracted it’s a waste of time and a missed opportunity to use my mind to better purposes. The pandemic is showing me how prone I am to this.

I did have three more friends in my garden last week after my godmother’s visit. Everyone wore masks. They were on two different errands. My goddaughter Sophia had found some plum wood for my wood stove, which she and her new husband delivered. And my goddaughter Mary’s father and brother came to finish my garden icon project that I began five years ago. But you know what? — it’s past my bedtime, and this post is too long already. I’ll explain tomorrow about the elegant completion of my garden. ❤

(The cactuses are not mine.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The wave is breaking in a deep sea.

The breaking of a wave cannot explain the whole sea.
-Vladimir Nabokov

On Sunday I taught my first Zoom church school class, on St. Thomas. That was after tuning in, and trying to tune my spirit, to the streamed Divine Liturgy in the morning. In the later afternoon about twenty of us women met on Zoom to chat for an hour and to chose the next book for those of us who read together. Before sundown, I picked peas.

All day my mind was trying to pull me away from that present moment’s demands, but not totally — because it seemed to be doing that which is its natural skill, to weave the latest input from that very moment into the grid of experience and memory. I do not at all like the idea of my mind being like a computer, but the concept of fragmented files occurs to me…

Keeping the contents in a cohesive, organized fashion is a challenging project at my age, when the “files” have mushroomed, and my “processor” is trying to save a hundred bits of data every day to the most logical place. I have an astounding human mind, which sees way more connections between all those thoughts and images and stories than a simple machine could ever do. It is constantly clumping and re-clumping and arranging things, all the while thinking in sentences about its strategies.

This afternoon my godmother came through the gate to my garden, and we visited across the patio for an hour. I shared a smidgen of the last few days, and how it seemed that about five blog posts were churning in a mass in my head, trying to sort themselves out.

Since she went home, I’ve been halfheartedly applying myself to the task, but there is so much I want to write. It seems hard now, during this world pandemic, to sift through all the noise, or turn one’s back on it, in order to hear communications from reliable and helpful sources. And the Source.

In my attempts today, I came upon the idea of making use of my large store of quotes, many of which are thought provoking on many levels and might come to my aid in keeping at my blog and my writing. Even if some days I can’t write one good and pertinent sentence, I might post a quote that helps at least me, and you can make of it what you will.

It may be that my own mind is like an ocean that is too turbulent for me to see anything clearly in the water, but that’s not why I chose the quote above. It brought to mind all the many statistics and news stories, sermons and anecdotes and directives flowing all around us, by which some people I know are trying to figure out, not just how to behave today, but what is The Meaning of it all.

Good shepherds and pink splashes.

I didn’t know the name for it at the time, but one morning last week I experienced an acute and painful case of Cognitive Overload. It was the day I had been looking forward to for two months, when I would drive up to Pippin’s; the day before that I’d started packing my car with the books and food and even a 50-ft garden hose I was going to take to the family there in far-Northern California.

The morning of, I read an article about the coronavirus before I got dressed, and for the next two hours I debated whether I should change my plans. What if I were asymptomatically infected already? I could be the one responsible for bringing the pathogen to a relatively remote area. That was my main concern, and I worked myself into tears not being able to decide what to do.

Eventually all of my daughters weighed in, and the Professor, too. They didn’t just say, “Go ahead,” or “Come!” but they gave their reasons, which helped me choose among my own jangling thoughts and pick a course of action. I went.

I took along a dozen Mars Hill Audio Journal CD’s for the ride because I thought I might catch up on some of the interviews. One of the first ones I listened to was of Alan Jacobs talking about his book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. Toward the end of the interview when he and Ken Myers were talking about how thinking takes time and effort, and how “practical discernment must be cultivated and developed over time,” he mentioned a discussion he had with Jonathan Rauch about an aspect of thinking that Rauch told him he hadn’t emphasized enough; here are some snippets I transcribed:

“Jonathan Rauch reminded him of the inability of any one human being to bear the cognitive load of decision making that we are called upon to do every day… there is a necessity to offload some of this responsibility to a reliable and healthy community. Each of us individually can’t know what we need to know about every issue; that means we have to trust other people to help guide us and inform us. We just don’t have the cognitive energy to be able to do this…. that triage is impossible for any of us to do on our own. Don’t listen to the people who tell you to think for yourself. It’s not possible to think for yourself… we are always embedded both socially and temporally…  That can work for us, if we see to it that we are properly and helpfully embedded.”

There I was, driving up Highway 5, peacefully following through on a decision that I had made by offloading some of my cognitive load. 🙂 When I had a husband to confer with, that would have been enough community. Various articles on the Internet aren’t helpful because they aren’t humans in my community, but thank God I am embedded in a family.

In the days since then, I’ve been grateful for other communities that I am part of, for better or worse, and the way they have taken some of the load. We pray that by God’s providence, whether the decisions of our civic authorities are always the best or not, they will turn out for the best in the end. The governor of my state said that everyone in my age group should stay home, period. Soon afterward, the more immediate area I live in came under “shelter in place” orders.

I remember the many years during which I would defer to my husband about many, many decisions that I didn’t always think he made with the most wisdom —  even then I was often glad not to have to think through every last decision on my own; it was enough that I had the good judgment to defer. Maybe my tears last week were partly the cumulative outflow of five years of pent-up frustrations, the weight of a widow’s decision fatigue.

Before I learned of the governor’s edict, I had planned to attend church as soon as I returned, though everyone was debating about the prudence of that, even those of us who know that it’s not through the Holy Mysteries in the chalice that we could share pathogens. It’s all of us breathing parishioners and the surfaces we touch…. Here also I have been relieved of the exhausting effort to have perfect wisdom. My rector, with these words, has passed on to us the decision of our bishop to close the church for at least two weeks:

“Let us realize that we simply cannot know the burdens that our Bishops carry as pastors. We all heard the incredible words of the Savior on Sunday about the “Good Shepherd” in John 10 in honor of St Gregory Palamas, how a true bishop cares for the flock…. let’s remember that the bishop has the ‘mind of the Church’ and so we receive his words, actions and requests with joy, and yes, obedience.”

And Monk Seraphim of Mull Monastery, as he was embarking on a trip through five airports on his return to Scotland, wrote to us:

“This is not our time to ‘shine’ by showing empty courage and adolescent bravado. A Christian shines through humility and sacrifice of one’s self, sacrifice of one’s ‘courageous’ image in the world.

“We are human beings, made of flesh and bones. Flesh and bones can become Chalices of God’s presence in the world, but they can also become ill. As a Christian, my duty is to comfort and to love, to keep myself and my neighbour from harm.”

“Pray for the weak and those most exposed, and try to help any way you can. Forget about ‘playing it cool’ – no one rejoices in our pride except the evil one. Be human. Be a human being, surrounded by human beings, loving them, helping them, protecting them. In this simple, living, non ‘heroic’ attitude is the Cross that will lead to the Resurrection.”

I did try to protect my fellow humans as I traveled down the state. I used so many homemade alcohol wipes at gas stations and rest stops that my hands were in great need of TLC last night. Today I’m resting from the trip, and feeling comforted and joyful because of God’s care for me.

I want to tell you, too, more about my visit and fun with the grandkids, but for now I’ll just mention that I saw a thousand ? or so Western Redbud trees and bushes on my travels. The grass on the California hills is still mostly brown, changing to gray-green in some places, and these bright pink splashes all over the place are also speaking JOY!

Simply lolling and not wasting breath.

A couple of weeks ago I was writing about the muddiness of the pool (my mind) in which all the rich material of Japanese history and culture has been collecting. I anticipated the waters clearing eventually making it possible for me to compose a book review or two by way of participating more fully than I yet have in the Japanese Literature Challenge.

But just as things were coming into focus, the body in which my mind resides became afflicted with a fat head cold. My head feels huge and achey and that makes it hard to think. After picking up one book after another this morning, reading a few lines, realizing that I was not interested, I finally lit upon a novel I was already a couple of chapters into, Kusamakura (also known as The Grass Pillow), as the one that was not too heady and not boring either. This book by Natsume Sōseki is nothing like his other novels, and it was meant to be a “haiku-style” novel, hearkening back to old Japan just as most writers were eagerly embracing western culture. He published it in 1906.

The narrator is taking a little holiday for the purpose of contemplating the beautiful. I have been enjoying his lighthearted philosophical musings and descriptions that are not too hard to engage with in my compromised state of mind.

This afternoon I was reading by the fire, and became so sleepy and warm, I kept nodding off, so I went up to my bed and lay in the cool room, continuing to find on every page his delighted descriptions of the beauty of the tea sweet, the silvery bamboo in the distance, the pleasant arrangement of the rooms of the inn, and the calligraphy on the wall. When his mind was briefly agitated he wrote haiku as a way to practice mindfulness and calm down, and it restored his sense of humor.

Our narrator is an artist, and he wants to paint many things he sees; other times he says that he feels that he is in a painting, because of the sublimity of the scene he inhabits. When I came upon this passage as I lay on my bed I really engaged with his mood:

“Drawing a picture feels like too much trouble just now, and as for coming up with a poem, my mind is already immersed in the poetic — to actually compose something would be merely a waste of breath. Nor do I have any inclination to undo the box of two or three books that I’ve brought along, tied to my tripod, and read. I feel perfect happiness simply lolling here on the balcony in the company of the shadow cast by the blossoms, my back toasting in the warm spring sunlight. To think would be to sink into error.”

For different reasons than this man, I’m sure, I have felt that my trying to write anything  analytical about my readings thus far would surely have been to sink into error. The risk of reductionism is more of a certainty than a possibility. Rather, I will try to follow his example and pay attention to each “thing” I encounter without worrying about how it’s related to all the others. I know I won’t be writing any haiku to distill my experiences, but after contemplating the literary scene it might happen that I find something to “paint” here.

The Japanese Literature Challenge is going through March. The books I still want to delve into more or finish are:

Silence and Beauty by Makoto Fujimura
Kusamakura by Natsume Sōseki
Deep River by Shusaku Endo
The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura
Modern Japanese Literature edited by Donald Keene

I realize that during this read-along, a few of the things I’ve been reading are in the non-fiction category, not the literature genre. I chose them in hopes of getting a little more background knowledge so that I could better appreciate the literature, and I’m content with how it’s going.

My brief exposure to the literary world of Japan has started me on a deeper study of broader and universal aspects of our humanity. But more on that later. Right now, I’m going back to the countryside of Japan where I can loll about and absorb some beauty. Come to think of it, I’ll put the kettle on and brew a cup of tea for good measure.