Wednesday, April 29, 2020
Month: April 2020
Saturday, April 25, 20201.
A famous man once said that meekness in a person is a blessed thing, and I think I’m finally starting to see his meaning. It now seems clear to me that meekness can be a strength instead of a deficiency. In meekness, surprisingly, we sometimes stand up stronger than in assertiveness. When we surrender, we sometimes win. Trees that survive are those that submit to strong winds instead of resisting them, and water almost always wins because it yields itself softly to obstructions. Meekness means a brave kind of obedience. Streams are obedient to boulders and thus flow effortlessly around them. Flowers are obedient to breezes and bow with ease and elegance. I am obedient to my heart and lungs and let them lead the way. In meekness we are mild in a daring way, gentle in just the way the strongest trees are.
It may seem strange to say that the solid rock cliff behind this house is ‘meek’,
but this cliff, after all, has meekly surrendered to winds and rain and sunlight and plants for thousands of years. It has simply sat silent and still, exactly where it is, while the world of nature whirled around it, doing anything it wished to this graciously submissive rock. This old cliff has been the model of meek obedience, and its spirit of acquiescence – its peaceful docility – is what has enabled it to stay strong for millennia. It’s a rock, we might say, of long-lasting, lamblike strength.
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Late in my career as a teacher, I came to believe that meekness is one of the most important qualities in a good teacher. This was contrary to what I believed when I was younger, having been raised in a culture in which bravado and machismo, at least for guys, were rated far higher than humility and gentleness. I grew up believing that a teacher must be strong, authoritative, and demanding, all of which seemed to cancel out any possibility of meekness. Back then, I thought of meekness as synonymous with weakness, and there was no room for weakness in my image of the master teacher. As time passed, however, I began considering meekness in a different way, as more closely associated with strength than weakness. The word derives from a Latin root meaning “soft”, and I gradually began to realize that many soft things are actually exceedingly strong. In fact, their strength is created by their softness. Think of water, air, and sunlight: because they are entirely soft and resilient, it is hard to imagine how they could be injured. Their softness is their strength. On the other hand, rock-hard things, including rock-hard teachers, are often rather easy to chip and damage and scar. So I worked hard, in my last 15 years as a teacher, on becoming a softer teacher, one who gains strength through meekness. Like water and sunlight and air, I wanted to yield and ebb and flow and recede and go around and settle. This is the opposite of hardness and rigidity, and I do think it made me a stronger teacher than I had ever been.
Friday, April 24, 2020
The word ‘refuge’ derives from the Latin word meaning ‘flee’, and over my 78 years, I’ve done more than my share of fleeing. For a large part of my life, I have been filled with fears – of illness, of storms, of other people, etc. – and I have spent numberless hours fleeing from one ominous adversary or another. During these flights, I have found refuge in food, television, friendships, reading, and especially alcohol, but none of these refuges kept me safe for long. Soon, the fears flowed back like rivers, and I once again started seeking refuge.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-40’s that I began to break through the belief that I was an isolated, vulnerable individual surrounded by countless threats. I guess I began to get some distance from my ‘self’. It was as if I was standing on a mountaintop and could see, for the first time, that what had seemed to be a separate, shaky, material ‘thing’ called Hamilton Salsich, was actually part of a vast and harmonious dance called ‘the universe’. With that distant view, I could see that what I called ‘me’ was, in fact, like an inseparable breeze in an immense cosmic wind, or a wave in an infinite ocean. What was especially surprising about this view from a distance was the way everything was obviously working in harmony – me, illnesses, good health, storms, sunshine, other people, failures, and successes all blended together and working in accord in a unified flow. It was a shockingly new view for me. Suddenly, life was more like a dance than a struggle, more filled with wonder than with fear. What I realized, too, is that this vision – this understanding of how life really is – was – finally! – the perfect refuge for me. I didn’t need to run from anything anymore. All I needed to do was understand – just be still and see the harmony that’s irrepressibly flowing in every single moment.
Now, let me say for sure that this new understanding of life that came to me many years ago has by no means stayed constantly with me. For some reason, I still, on an almost daily basis – especially in these distressing times – slip back into the fears I lived with in my younger years. I still sometimes find myself seeking refuge in various fleeting diversions (though no longer in alcohol, thankfully), and life still sometimes seem small and scary.
However, that wondrous mountaintop view I had in my 40’s is still available to me, and I go back to it as often I think of it (which, sadly, sometimes doesn’t happen for days at a time). When I can get up on that mountain in my mind, I see a universe that’s neither fragmented nor scary, but unified, fearless, and free. I realize that life – because of things like pandemics – won’t always happen the way I want it to, but it will always happen the way the boundless, harmonious universe wants it to. When I’m on that mountaintop, I’m not always happy with what’s occurring, but at least I’m not fleeing from anything, not seeking refuge. I’m watching, accepting, trying to appreciate, and almost always being amazed.
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Thursday, April 23, 2020
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On our walk this morning – about 8 miles along the Mystic River – I had many epiphanies about the fundamental mysteriousness of life, about the fact that, the older I get, the less wisdom I seem to have. What’s so surprising about this, however, is that it makes me happy! I am strangely glad that I gradually know less and less, as if I am slowly being introduced to the wondrous truth about life – that its meaning has no boundaries, no beginning or end, and thus is entirely unknowable. It’s like I’m gradually entering, at the age of 78, the youthful paradise of constant and pleasant amazement.
On our walk, we came upon this unexceptional scene,
but as I stood silently for a moment, some unanswerable questions about the scene slowly came to me. How did those few leaves in the lower left corner get where they are? What is the history of their lives and travels? And how did each of the leaves on the hillside arrive there? What were all the turns and twists of their journeys from being buds on trees to being scattered leaves beside a river? And who made the telephone pole in the scene, and where were they born, and what sadnesses and joys have they had in their lives, and have they forgotten this tall and important pole which they made? And who built the low cable fence along the river, and what was their favorite subject in school, and is happiness more prominent in their lives than sadness? And what about the clouds above? Where did they start, and where are they sailing to?
And then … what about these two people?
Where did they come from? How did their great-grandparents meet and fall in love and thus sustain the process that led to two gray-haired, joyous, full-of-life faces along the Mystic River this morning?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, and I am honestly glad that I don’t. At the blessed age of 78, I am rejoicing in my slowly discovered innocence, delighted to be utterly lost in boyish bewilderment.
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Wednesday, April 22, 2020
On a walk several days ago, I took this picture, but later, when I looked at it at home, I wasn’t exactly sure why. Now, though, I think I know the answer, and it has something to do with the word ‘majesty’. For sure, at first glance, the twisted webs of branches and the scattered stones and leaves seem far from majestic, but the longer I looked at the photo this morning, the more stateliness I noticed in the scene, the saplings and limbs seeming almost statuesque in their singular poses, and the stones sitting silently in an imposing, princely manner.
And then we have the queenly and kingly shadows of the couple who are observing the scene, escorted there perhaps by a royal procession of attendants and stewards. (Or, perhaps they walked briskly by themselves in a stylish and sovereign manner from their courtly country cottage called Riverbend 44.)
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‘Glory be to God’ is a phrase I often heard growing up, but some mornings I think about ‘glory be to overflowing flower gardens’, and ‘glory be to blue skies’, and ‘glory be to a good cup of coffee’. I am not a member of a church, but I do worship the wonders of this world. I praise the power of a few flowers to stay strong on frosty mornings, and I praise the power of my hands that helped me write these words. I give homage to the holy eggs which sizzle on our stove each morning, and accolades to sugar-free jam and the juiciness of raisins. I say glory be to the greatness of this moment, and to the majesty of our small house in Mystic, and to the magnificence of the birds on our feeder day after glorious day.
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Our ‘majestic’ walk today …
Tuesday, April 21, 2020
I’ve been thinking lately that, now in my retirement years, I’m lucky to have so many ordinary days in my life. I realize that the word ‘ordinary’ can carry a negative connotation, suggesting monotony and tedium, but interestingly, it stems from the Latin word for ‘orderly’, and I do love the orderly look of these senior days of mine. Confusion occasionally seems to surface, but that’s usually because I’m not noticing the orderliness and rightness inside the seeming disorder. The fact is, my days – all of them – are made by the universe in just the right way, perfect for me, and the many occurrences in my days are set out before me in a meticulous display, exactly in the proper pattern – if only I could see things clearly. There’s an essential orderliness everywhere – in trees sprouting their blossoms at precisely the right times, in clouds crossing the sky just as they must, even in cars cruising the roads systematically with the help of lanes and lights and signals. This universe I live in is basically an orderly miracle, just as orderly as this lovely front-yard garden we passed on our walk yesterday.
I will admit that it’s not easy to see the order beneath the disarray and disasters of our times, but still, my senior days, like all the days of my long life, have so far been “ordinary” in the best way – full of graceful form and structure that I’m slowly starting to see and understand.
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Our walk this morning …
Sunday, April 19, 2020
Two scenes we passed on recent walks, with two haiku poems …
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The artist Paul Klee once said that art should be like a holiday – something to give the artist the opportunity to see things differently and to change her or his point of view – and I have gradually grown to feel the same about writing. Now, in my 79th year, when I sit at my computer and start tapping the keys, it’s as if I’ve set out on a holiday escapade, as if restrictions have been rescinded and boundaries broken down. The words seem to lead the way, and I just cheerfully follow along to see what surprises will show up. These days, when I begin writing, it’s like I’m leaving behind rules and strategies and boundaries, and simply wandering in a boundless land. Writing for me has become a sort of free-wheeling adventure, a time to celebrate the unlimited freedom of thought that all of us possess, a time to revel and carouse with phrases and sentences to see what wonders might arise. It’s my daily holiday in retirement, a vacation in the wide-ranging kingdom of words.
Thursday, April 16, 2020
We passed these lovely blossoming trees on our walk this morning, but I completely failed to notice another loveliness in the scene – the soft, spread-out spring sky.
It’s strange how I so often fail to see major miracles right in front 0f me. I did love looking at the quiet colors of the trees’ blooms, but I’m sorry I missed the majesty of this sky, with its shining blueness and wispy clouds. Delycia noticed it, however, and commented on it as we continued our walk, and I’m glad she did, because now, seeing the photograph, I do notice the sky’s grandness, and will surely be watching for – and hopefully noticing – wonderful skies on future walks.
Wednesday, April 15, 2020
“The practice of gratefulness that I’m concerned with is grateful living. That means every moment of your life you practice gratefulness.” – David Steindl-Rast
I came across this quote just this afternoon, and already it’s become important to me. I was thinking about it as I was having a cup of coffee in our sunroom, and I happened to glance at my 78-year-old hands
and suddenly – for the very first time, I think – I became grateful for them, these funny-looking, wrinkled, beautiful hands. They just seemed amazing to me as I looked at them – the lines and swirls flowing every which way, the many soft shades of color, the seeming tenderheartedness of them as they relaxed on my legs. I began thinking of their marvelous qualities – the way they can still move in countless ways, and how they’ve hung faithfully beside me for 78 years, and the fact that they’ve so often folded together in friendship in times of fear and sorrow, holding each other for comfort. I began wondering … where did they come from? and how did they become what they are today as they rest on my legs? and why haven’t I ever been grateful for them until now, these dear hands of mine?
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Tuesday, April 14, 2020
Yesterday, during our walk in Elm Grove Cemetery, I saw this single sculler out in the Mystic River,
and my first thought was that she or he was all by themselves. However, when I looked at this photograph back at the house, I suddenly could see that, of course, they were not alone, just like nothing is ever alone – no person, no ripple in a river, no ray of sun shining on a sculler. Everything is connected with everything else. One of the saddest illusions I’ve carried with me for most of my years is the belief in separateness – the assumption that everything is separate from everything else in a universe of comprehensive disconnection. Looking at this photo, however, helps bring back the simple and shining fact that everything is connected. The sculler, the river, the trees, the sky, the silent stones in the cemetery – all are inseparable from each other in this universe of constant and faithful connection.
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