Words from today’s pages:

“. . . the contemplative habit of mind can encourage ordinary citizens to tolerate the free expression of different points of view even when these conflict with their own.”
— Howard Woodhouse, from the Introduction, In Praise of Idleness

Wow.  Maybe our current dysfunctional state of name-calling, bullying, and mud-slinging is a symptom of our lack of contemplative time.  Bertrand Russell’s essay on idleness was first published in 1935.  In the introduction to the Routledge Classics edition of In Praise of Idleness, Woodhouse summarizes Russell’s thesis this way:  a contemplative habit of mind fosters social harmony.  When we do not take the time to pause and reflect, we act in ways that undermine tolerance and freedom of expression and respect for diversity.  He says these unreflective actions result in a “risk of immobility, namely, a stick-in-the-mud attitude resulting from a refusal to consider alternative viewpoints or courses of action.”

Russell’s insights seem prescient. We see these locked-in, recalcitrant, defiant attitudes everyday when we read the news.  It’s scary.  Could it be because our lives are simply too busy and filled with distracting and competing and nonstop images?




Appreciating the taste of summer in a Hermiston watermelon

Appreciating the taste of summer in a Hermiston watermelon

“The habits of living day to day dull the senses — the ritual of getting up each morning, brushing your teeth, commuting to work, desk tasks, coming home, preparing for another day and heading to bed — so that I often cannot see the small wonders of the everyday world (grass growing, a cloud fleeting by in the shape of a bra, the child across the street learning to ride her bike; all ordinary miracles).  It is only when I am removed from habit that I can see a work of art that reveals a new mind’s vision, or when I am traveling in a foreign place, or when I fall in love.  And this seems a definition of love: the removal of habit, the ordinary world made foreign and wonderfully strange, life as a great visionary work of art.”
— Brian Bouldrey, Honorable Bandit: A Walk Across Corsica

I am spending my July and August months at home — no summer vacations for me.  But I like the message of today’s quote — that I can bring a vacation attitude to my daily life at home, step out of mindless habits, and look with beginner’s eyes at the ordinary things in my day.  And so I will savor the soft red flesh of this Hermiston (Oregon) watermelon, one of the miracles of this summer.  A small wonder, but precious because it is a seasonal gift in my everyday world.  It’s these small pauses of appreciation that can make an artful life.

“Commonplaces never become tiresome.  It is we who become tired when we cease to be curious and appreciative. . . . [We] find that it is not a new scene which is needed, but a new viewpoint.”

— Norman Rockwell, from Norman Rockwell: Pictures from the American People by Maureen Hennessey and Anne Knutson



I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there.  Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare more time for that one.  It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Reading Walden

Title page of one edition of Walden with Thoreau's portrait

After more than two years at Walden’s Pond, Henry David Thoreau left his little cabin in the woods.  His experiences there are a reminder to me to follow my dreams and the urgings of my heart.

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment:  that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Writing these weekly Thoreau posts has become something of a habit.  And as Thoreau observes in this week’s quote, we are creatures of habit and find comfort in them.  Habits do bring a reassuring structure to one’s days.

But this post concludes my year of reading Walden.  I think I will be at a bit of a loss for a while as I move away from Thoreau Thursdays to new projects.  But I, too, have several more lives to live, and it’s time to move on.

My life feels quite satisfying when I structure it as a series of personal projects, and part of the fun is finding something I can be passionate about and devote my energies to during the finite time I have left in this world.  I want to continue to challenge myself to not just repeat past successes, but to step into the uncertainties beyond, to push my boundaries, and to explore the unfamiliar.  I will move forward bolstered by the gifts I’ve received from reading Thoreau this past year.

Thanks for coming along for the ride.

The Layers
by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principles of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angles
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

The end of the road for Thoreau Thursdays

Watercolors and sketchbook on my work table

I’ve lately had a hard time finding time to paint.

No, that’s an excuse.  I haven’t committed to making painting my top priority, and maybe because it is important to me, it’s become in my mind a “big thing.”  And you know how “big” projects can sit like an elephant in the room, too large to tackle, and so you fritter away your time accomplishing smaller tasks that are actually do-able.

I am old enough to know that you can’t just wait until you are inspired to make art.  Thinking about being an artist won’t turn me into one.  I will only become a painter by sitting down and painting.

“Inspiration comes during work, not before it.”
— Madeleine L’Engle, Irrational Seasons

“. . . a writer who writes only when she is inspired will work three or four days a year.”
— Katherine Paterson, Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children

I also know, from long experience, that the first step to being productive is to simply jump in and get started.  There is no need to wait until I have a full day free to get out my watercolors, brush and paper.  I just need to commit to five minutes.  And then I’ll be over the hump, the procrastination, and invariably those five minutes turn into an hour or two.

I recently read a passage in a book about Georgia O’Keeffe that talked about an interesting exercise for artists:  “During her first stint at the Art Students League, when she was a mere babe of twenty, she learned and absorbed a lesson from William Merritt Chase that would serve her well for the length of her long life:  Paint a picture a day.  The idea was a multifaceted lesson of genius.  Painting a picture a day trains you to:
a)  not take your work or yourself too seriously;
b) capture the energy that led you to paint this particular thing in the first place;
c) loosen up (you’ve only got a day, so no fussing around);
d) remember there are more where this came from (there’s always tomorrow); and
e) love the process; the enjoyment you had painting that kitten in a basket is more valuable than the painting itself.”
— Karen Karbo, How Georgia Became O’Keeffe:  Lessons on the Art of Living

I’m intrigued by that idea, but given my work schedule at the library, I don’t think I can commit to painting a picture a day.  I would be setting myself up for yet another failed New Year’s resolution.  Maybe in the future.  For now, I am hoping that talking about my struggles to sit down and paint in this blog will help me to keep my nose to the grindstone.

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind.”
— Henry David Thoreau

Footpath at Green Lake in Seattle

Gravel footpath -- an alternative to the paved path around Green Lake

A crow on the beaten path, Green Lake

The less-travelled route, a footpath at Green Lake

“To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”
— Henry David Thoreau

“Every thought that passes through the mind helps to wear and tear it and to deepen the ruts which as in the streets of Pompeii evince how much it has been used.”
— Henry David Thoreau, July 7, 1851 journal entry

Today’s quotes are not from Walden, but from Thoreau’s other writings. His observations seem timely, as we look forward to the New Year and think about resolutions for the year ahead.

Habits are interesting.  Sometimes you feel like you are in a rut and want to make a change, to feel energized by bringing something new into your life.  Other habits make life efficient — so efficient, in fact, that we breeze through our days without stopping for conscious thought.  That’s the opposite of awareness, really living and appreciating each moment.  I have a few “bad” habits that I’d like to change — eating too-large portions, eating on the run, eating a sweet treat with coffee, etc.

Like anything, you can outgrow your habits.  It may be time to make some changes, to adopt some new habits, to carve new pathways in your brain.

I like what Leo Babauta says about how to become successful making lasting changes in life.  He’s narrowed it down to four steps:

1. Start very small.
2. Do only one change at a time.
3. Be present and enjoy the activity (don’t focus on results).
4. Be grateful for every step you take.

Happy New Year, and I wish you success with your resolutions!