February 10, 2016
“But the winter was not given to us for no purpose. We must thaw its cold with our genialness. We are tasked to find out and appropriate all the nutriment it yields. If it is a cold and hard season, its fruit, no doubt, is the more concentrated and nutty. . . ”
— Henry David Thoreau, Journal
The sun was shining — a rare occurrence this winter season — and I was moved to go outside for a walk. In the spirit of adventure, I made my first visit to the Joseph A. Witt Winter Garden at Seattle’s Washington Park Arboretum. What a delight to see things blooming in this seasonal garden, proving that even winter yields its fruits.
February 9, 2016
“January and February are my favorite months. I like the bare branches of trees, structure become visible, and the subtle colors, all sorts of varieties of browns and grays that are seen only at this time of year, brought into focus by the pellucid light that is as close an analogy as I know to the silence out of which my work emerges.”
— Anne Truitt, Prospect: The Journal of an Artist
Here are some of the beautiful grays and browns in my Seattle landscape this February:
February 5, 2016
I had been wanting to read Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air after reading a thoughtful review on the Brainpicking’s website. It was a poignant experience, knowing that its author was dealing with a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer while he was writing it, and that he died before seeing its publication. Somehow we think that these messages from dying people and from beyond the grave will be wiser than the thoughts of ordinary people like us who are so often mired in rote routines of daily living. We forget that life is always a terminal diagnosis. Books like this are a good reminder.
Kalanithi says, “I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”
Life is full of wake-up calls — chronic and acute illnesses, betrayals, divorces, deaths of friends and family, losses of jobs and homes, etc. One cannot minimize how disorienting and dislocating such blows can be. Kalanithi says, “Severe illness wasn’t life-altering, it was life-shattering. It felt less like an epiphany — a piercing burst of light, illuminating What Really Matters — and more like someone has just firebombed the path forward.” He goes on to describe what this was like for him: “I was physically debilitated, my imagined future and my personal identity collapsed, and I faced the same existential quandaries my patients faced. The lung cancer diagnosis was confirmed. My carefully planned and hard-won future no longer existed. Death, so familiar to me in my work, was now paying a personal visit.”
The most obvious lesson from coming face to face with one’s own mortality is to focus your remaining days and hours and minutes on what is most valuable to you. But making a meaningful life is often a struggle even for those of us in good health. Understanding what makes life worth living is a slow, incremental process, filled with the consequences of choices, blockages, and starting over again and again. Imagine working through these choices — to build on an old life or find a new one — while facing your own death and while grieving the loss of the future you had planned: “Grand illnesses are supposed to be life-clarifying. . . . The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you’d live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day?”
Well-meaning colleagues would say to Kalanithi, “Shouldn’t you be spending time with your family?” He wondered, “Shouldn’t you?” And that’s the rub. We should all be spending time doing what is most important to us. Every day.
And here’s another lesson from Kalanithi’s book: what is most important to us changes. It changes with time and again when time is running out. “The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out. . . . Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.”
I loved how Kalanithi found solace in literature as he struggled with how best to live even while he was dying. ” . . . I began reading literature again. . . . I was searching for a vocabulary with which to make sense of death. . . . I needed words to go forward. And it was literature that brought me back to life during this time.”
I have no doubt that had Kalanithi been cured and gone back to work as a doctor/writer/scientist, he would have become more understanding and empathetic with his patients. He was fortunate in having an oncologist whose advice was repeatedly to figure out what was most important to him. His own experiences taught him an important lesson: “. . . I had learned something, something not found in Hippocrates, Maimonides, or Osler: the physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.”
May we all face death with such grace.
February 4, 2016
by Raymond Carver
Woke up this morning with
a terrific urge to lie in bed all day
and read. Fought against it for a minute.
Then looked out the window at the rain.
And gave over. Put myself entirely
in the keep of this rainy morning.
Would I live my life over again?
Make the same unforgiveable mistakes?
Yes, given half a chance. Yes.
I can see myself in this poem. I can easily give myself over to books. I can’t keep up with all the tantalizing titles that pass through my hands at work. A couple of days ago, I shelved a book called The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs by Tristan Gooley. By the time I got home and went online to place the book on hold, I couldn’t remember the exact title. So I searched the library’s online catalogue for “signs of the seasons.” I did find the book I was looking for, but some other intriguing titles, too — Pilgrimage to Vallombrosa: from Vermont to Italy in the Footsteps of George Perkins Marsh; Iambics of Newfoundland; The Road is How: A Prairie Pilgrimage through Nature, Desire, and Soul; and Nature-Speak. So I added those titles to my request list as well. Is it no wonder I can’t stay ahead of my reading?
January 23, 2016
“Libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace and wit, reminders of order, calm and continuity, lakes of mental energy, neither warm nor cold, light nor dark … In any library in the world, I am at home, unselfconscious, still and absorbed.”
— Germaine Greer
Seattle’s Folio Athenaeum opened this week, and I joined this subscription library — not because I needed access to more books to read (I’m already buried in books) — but to have a convivial space to retreat to away from home and its distractions. I spent a few hours there on my day off work and I was able to take some photos and complete a couple of small watercolor sketches. Folio is a comfortable, light-filled, quiet place to work. I will use the space regularly, I hope, for blogging and sketching, painting and writing. Maybe having a place like this will help me to sit down and make art more regularly!
Folio’s lending collection is tastefully arranged for serendipitous browsing. Books are arranged, not by Dewey decimal system, but more intuitively by theme. There were several subject areas where I found enticing books, but I refrained from borrowing because I have too many books currently checked out of the public library.
How does Folio and an athenaeum differ from a public library? This article gives more information. I look forward to attending Folio’s literary events and rubbing shoulders with fellow readers and book lovers.
January 21, 2016
“Still pouring, only worse. Poor world, she looks so desolate and depressed, as if she did not know what to do with all the wet. The earth won’t hold anymore. The sea is full and the low clouds are too heavy to hold up. The sky leaks, earth oozes, so the wetness sits in the air between and grumbles into your breath and bones . . . ”
— Emily Carr, from Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of an Artist
“Everything broods today, the sky low and heavy. Was there ever a sun?”
— Emily Carr, from Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of an Artist
January 18, 2016
“Even if it’s called your lot to be a street sweeper, go out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.