Monthly Archives: November 2009

Transmitters Of Life

I don’t like work,” Joseph Conrad once wrote. “No man does—but I like what is in the work— the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.”

How do we find ourselves in work, especially in menial chores? There is a stanza in a poem by D.H. Lawrence that I think points the way. “As we live,” the poem goes, “we are transmitters of life. And when we fail to transmit life, life fails to flow through us. Give and it shall be given unto you is still the truth about life. It means kindling the life-quality where it was not, even if it’s only in the whiteness of a washed pocket-handkerchief. “

I needed that poem today. I was cleaning the house and the way I approached my chores transmitted stress, not life. I was edgy and tense because I didn’t want to clean. I fought with a broken appliance I had to fix and felt victimized when one of the screws wouldn’t unscrew. I was like a trickster god was tightening the screw as I was trying to loosen it. I even became cross with my wife when I found the dishwasher loaded with dirty dishes. “That’s here job, not mine,” I mumbled to myself.  For the first half hour there was no order or flow to the way I worked. I was pushing through it, resenting having to do it and wanting to be done with it as quickly as possible.

Mercifully, I caught myself before the adrenals let loose with a dose of stress hormones that would tarnish the morning. I made myself sit in a chair in the dining room and follow my breath until I was breathing slow and easy.  I quieted my ego by looking out the window as a breeze blew through the trees outside and made the leaves shimmer. It took a few minutes but eventually my attitude shifted. A light inside me switched on and suddenly there was more daylight in the world.   I got up from the chair, went back to work and the remaining chores flowed like a dance.

 

As I was raking the last of the leaves at the front of the house, a bird flying by caught my eye and I watched it land in the Japanese maple tree across the street. The maple leaves had turned a most beautiful color of red. Some of the leaves had now shed, creating a velvet blanket of red on the sidewalk. I looked down the street and noticed that the Sycamores were now completely bare. Their branches were dull gray, though the winter light had given them the look of polished silver in places. From where I stood, the street gradually sloped down to the avenue. Across the avenue is a large field covered in tall green grass and overhead a falcon, suspended in mid air, scanned the field for rodents. Above everything was a lovely welkin. For a moment, my whole being merged with the beauty of this scene and my heart felt as if it might burst.

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The Magnificent Ascent Of Which You Are A Part

I once spent a glorious week in the Dordogne Valley in France, a place of pastoral splendor that is also one of the archaeological wonders of the world. As I drove into town, I passed a team of paleontologists digging in the ground, searching for the remains of our ancestors’ miraculous rise from near extinction to preeminence. Incredibly, 60,000 years ago, the total number of human beings on the planet had shrunk to less than 2,000. Half of that number traveled north across arid African savannahs and deserts into the bitter cold landscape of Europe. A small splinter group settled in the Dordogne and made one of the last stands for the human race. Against all odds, these people flourished.

Their descendant went on to create the first art we know, painting bison and deer on cave walls. They discovered the principles of farming, learned to forge steel, chisel rock, and generations later erected castles on hillsides along the river. Today, the quaint little village where I dined on wonderful French cuisine is surrounded by a patchwork quilt of farms. Adjacent to the town square is a museum of Impressionist art and a Romanesque church. The building of the villages are all made of stones, expertly fitted together, merging practicality with elegance. There is also a garden hotel, where the affluent spend their holiday, arriving in beautiful hi-tech, luxury automobiles.

Everything in Dordogne proclaims the will, love and ingenuity of our species. One cannot be in the embrace of its aura without feeling the magnificence of human spirit. The Dordogne is a monument of the climb we have made, through trial and error, as we developed the genius that would eventually decode genetics, split the atom, map the brain, and take us to the moon and back.

Our brain’s capacity to generate genius is personified throughout history, from Mozart to Beethoven, Copernicus to Einstein, Shakespeare to Picasso, Lincoln to Mandela. Their feats were not entirely or even largely individual. Their achievements are a synthesis of the contributions of other people, most of whom live ordinary lives. The story of human history is like a cathedral built stone by stone, carried and set in place by far too many hands for history to record. Instead, history represents each stone with the name of someone who stood above the crowd. In a very real sense, however, these feats belong to the whole of humanity. They belong to you and me as much as to Einstein and Shakespeare. Each of our lives carries a stone right now, representing our small contribution to the wing our generation has added to humanity’s cathedral. This spirit of legacy is captured in the lyrics of Gene Scheer: “Each generation from the plains to distant shores, with the gifts that they were given were determined to leave more.”

In these precarious times, we should honor our ancestors by focusing on the magnificence of what we are, the miracles we have achieved, and what we are capable of becoming.