Seized by beauty

It happened last month. I’d gotten flowers from my husband for our anniversary, a crisp collection of crimson, ochre, and cinnamon blooms surrounded by russet-colored oak leaves, seed pods and assorted greenery. Captivated by the autumn flowers and foliage, inhaling deeply, fingering the seeded eucalyptus and the golden mums, I found myself, and I know this sounds strange, seized by an inexplicable urge to jump into the vase. For a few fleeting moments, I could feel myself nestled in the warm company of those sunflowers, lilies, and what I thought was a decorative wooden fan but later learned was a large, glorious dried mushroom.  Almost as soon as it arrived, my Alice in Wonderland fantasy faded and so I carried the vase outside and sketched the bouquet in all its radiant glory, backlit by the sun.

Can you remember the last time you were seized by beauty? Stopped in your tracks by the colors, the textures, the scents and the sounds? Compelled to touch, to really look, to know with your nose? Intoxications like these, to borrow Beryl Markam’s words, feels like extra life. Do you remember autumns as a kid, captured by the reds and golds against a cloudless chilled-blue sky, rolling in crisp umber leaves, the crunch so close to your ears, that earthy smell, pulling leaves out of the collar of your coat? It occurs to me that my looking glass fantasy was most likely my own body remembering some of those early immersions into fall, into life, and longing for them still.

Attention generates wonder, which generates more attention and more joy. Paying attention to the more-than-human world doesn’t lead only to amazement; it leads also to acknowledgement of pain.

~Robin Wall Kimmerer

What seizes me most, though, about the particular beauty of autumn is that I succumb to it again and again with fully-informed consent, knowing all the while that this splendor will end, and almost always before I’m ready. I began this post a month ago and already the crimsons have dimmed, same for the ambers and saffrons, imperceptibly at first, but there’s now a fuller fading underway that won’t stop until the whole scene is one muted brushstroke of cool, uneventful gray.  That beauty fades, though, only magnifies the urgency of surrendering to loveliness now, what Brian Eno refers to as The Big Here and The Long Now. Why should the certainty of an end dilute by even a single drop our willingness to be captured and enlivened, even ignited, by beauty? If Dostoyevski is right, our world will be saved by it.

Nobody Cares

Nobody cares if you stop here. You can

look for hours, gaze out over the forest.

And the sounds are yours, too–take away

how the wind either whispers or begins to

get ambitious. If you let the silence of

afternoon pool around you, that serenity

may last a long time, and you can take it

along. A slant sun, mornings or evenings,

will deepen the canyons, and you can carry away

that purple, how it gathers and fades for hours.

This whole world is yours, you know. You can

breathe it and think about it and dream it after this

wherever you go. It’s alright. Nobody cares.

~William Stafford

Let the bacon burn.

My husband and I have harbored the same wish for almost 30 years now—that owls would build a nest in our yard. We’ve heard them in the distance, as we’re falling asleep and sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, the air poignant with their deep, minor-key hooting and cooing, and yet we’ve never seen signs of a nest. Occasionally we’ve spotted one soaring across the sunsetting sky and there have been a couple of times over the years when a pair of them appeared to be circling over our yard during nesting season, only to settle in at a property across the way.

Then last year, almost overnight, a fortress-of-a-nest appeared at the top of the old growth oak just behind our garage and for a brief moment it seemed as if our owls had arrived, only to learn that the builders weren’t owls but rather a pair of peregrine falcons, known for their voracious appetites, favoring songbirds as a particular delicacy, soon to include the beloved orioles and finches that frequented our hanging feeders (which we had no choice but to resolve by leaving them empty).

So imagine my delight when about a month ago, as I was filling the tea kettle one morning, just before dawn, I glanced out the window and saw this:

A great-horned owl, perched right next to what had been last year’s falcon nest. I hightailed it over to Wikipedia to learn that, yes, owls will do this, take over the nest of another bird.

Soon to be followed by this:

Preened by their mom and fed by their dad, these owlets had earlier on taken to careening their fuzzy little necks over the side of their crib to see where their folks go when they take off. I’d catch their gaze, too, every morning as I stared back from just outside our back door, a practice that continues today.

I wish so much that I could capture the magic that these exquisite creatures lend to my life. I bolt out of bed in the morning and rush home at the end of the day with unbridled eagerness to see them. The inescapable wildness of their existence—unprotected as they are from icy snows and torrential rains, feeding on prey dropped from the talons of their elders and facing the screeching return of the peregrine that yesterday circled the two young ones who stared up with fixed gaze from the coveted shelter of that falcon’s former home, permeating the atmosphere with such palpable threat and fear, in these owlets and also in me, only to fly off without incident—all of this somehow offers extra life, something altogether vibrant and alive, something ancient and eternal breaking through the ordinariness of what had heretofore been my regular life.

Which brings me to the bacon. We were making breakfast yesterday morning and I’d put bacon in the oven, taking note that in about 19 minutes it’d be done. Rounding to the sink, I glanced out the window to see that these little ones were taking their first, tentative steps out of the nest. I grabbed my camera and dashed out the door. Assuming the position, my body a tripod of sorts, the strap pulled taut around my neck and arms extended, steady lens on this moment, I can’t honestly say that I forgot about the bacon. It was a conscious thought, a question really: Which would you rather have? Bacon? Or this?:

I’d sacrifice every slice of bacon I’d ever have in my life to not miss this.

These owls will launch soon and the portal to all of this extra life will have closed once again, for the time being. When these eternal cycles of birth and growth, flight and soaring, decline and death—true for owls and all creatures, and also you and me—break through the temporal tasks of bill paying, laundry, and bacon cooking, life’s as good as it gets. Kairos erupting into chronos—I’m wishing for more of this, for myself and for you, for its nourishment and its sustenance. Can we ever get enough?

Eternity isn’t sometime later. Eternity isn’t even a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time. Eternity is that dimension of here and now that all thinking in temporal terms cuts off. And if you don’t get it here, you won’t get it anywhere. 

~ Joseph Campbell / The Power of Myth


The winter solstice, now just days away, will plant us once again in the season’s deepest darkness. How best to navigate under these shadowed conditions? “Hope begins in the dark,” says Anne Lamott, and while I agree I also know that hope is stronger when it’s been fortified by the light in all its many vessels–the stars, the sun, the effervescence of the human spirit when it refuses to stay buried for long. Krista Tippett offers a primer on hope, a workout regimen of sorts emphasizing hope’s inherent muscularity and underscoring the need for consistent strengthening if it is to serve when we need it most.

I think about those who embody hope, maestros of hope who unhesitatingly share their supply with the beleaguered or bereft, be it a neighbor or a stranger. I’m appreciating now more than ever those who’ve promoted and practiced hope on a wider scale, whose very lives have been a lighthouse for a community or a nation. On this, the anniversary of his death, I think of Václav Havel:

The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul: it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.  

Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.” It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.

While it’s true our world needs all the ambassadors of hope it can get, it’s as true that any one of us who can offer a dependable spot of light will help.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers-

That perches in the soul-

And sings the tune without the words-

And never stops – at all –

                                   ~ Emily Dickenson

Sometimes the answer is no.

The health-preserving—and for some, life-saving—benefits of art-making are well established in scientific journals and psychological literature. For this reason, researchers from various fields of study have for over 100 years sustained their explorations into the nature of creativity itself, garnering greater wisdom and insight into the magic elixer of creativity in ways that have fortified the health and wellbeing benefits of making and creating for the betterment of humankind.

Sometimes, though, these attempts to better understand creativity’s life-enhancing components are met with opposition, often from the artists themselves.  In Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, University of Chicago Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes in rich detail the declines he’d received from writers, painters, sculptors, dancers and business thought leaders in response to his invitation to be interviewed for his research:

Mr. Bellow informed me that he remains creative in the second half of life, at least in part, because he does not allow himself to be the object of other people’s “studies.” In any event, he’s gone for the summer. ~ spokesperson for Saul Bellow

Sorry—too little time left! ~ Richard Avedon

He is creative and, because of this, totally overworked. Therefore, the very reason you wish to study his creative process is also the reason why he (unfortunately) does not have the time to help you in this study. He would also like to add that he cannot answer your letter personally because he is trying desperately to finish a violin concerto which will be premiered in the Fall. He hopes very much you will understand. Mr. Ligeti would like to add that he finds your project extremely interesting and would be very curious to read the results. ~ spokesperson for George Ligeti

I am skeptical as to the investigation of creativity and I do not feel inclined to submit myself to interviews on that subject. I guess I suspect some methodological errors at the basis of all discussions about creativity. ~ Czeslaw Milosz

I’m sorry but I never agree to be interviewed on the process of work. Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty applies. ~ Norman Mailer

I am greatly honored and flattered by your kind letter of February 14—for I have admired you and your work for many years, and I have learned much from it. But, my dear Professor Csikszentmihalyi, I am afraid I have to disappoint you. I could not possibly answer your questions. I am told I am creative—I don’t know what that means… I just keep on plodding… I hope you will not think me presumptuous or rude if I say that one of the secrets of productivity (in which I believe whereas I do not believe in creativity) is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours—productivity in my experience consists of NOT doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one’s time on the work the Good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do well. ~ Peter Drucker

Hearing no can be hard. I’ve heard my fair share and two in particular come to mind, the first in the early 1990’s, when I was working on my doctoral dissertation. I’d been captivated at that time to learn that a disproportionate number of accomplished artists had suffered the loss of a parent in early life and so I explored in my research the premise that creativity might be a form of grieving. I focused my study on Sophie’s Choice, a historical novel by William Styron, who’s mother died when he was 13 years old. I wondered whether it might be possible to speak directly with the novelist, rather than relying solely on information available in the literature and press regarding his life and work. I’d send Mr. Styron a letter and not long after received a handwritten notecard that read as follows:

Dear Ms. Bratu,

Thanks for the kind words. I think you have an interesting idea in creativity and early loss and I wish you well in pursuing it in your dissertation. As for myself, I’m afraid I’ve said about all I can say on the subject, so I can’t participate in your project but I do wish you the best of luck in exploring an intriguing subject.

Sincerely, William Styron

The second memorable no occurred in 2015, when the earliest inklings of The Well Within Workshop were beginning to come together, a place where mark-making for its own sake could be championed. I’d long been drawn to the work of a number of prominent mark-makers but none more than Lynda Barry, cartoonist, writer, and professor at The University of Wisconsin, Madison. Then and still, Barry promotes the making of marks and images as a way of amplifying a fuller, richer experience of life (as opposed to mark-making in the service of a finished work of art). I’d hoped to meet with this graphic trailblazer, to discuss how she’d landed on her maverick approach to creative work, to explore the roadblocks she’d encountered from both within herself and the outside world, to learn more about her own personal creative practice, and so forth. I emailed Prof. Barry and received this reply:

Thank you for this good email. I get so many requests like this one and it makes me feel terrible to have to decline but if I didn’t I’d have no time at all for my own work. I’m heartened by the interest in the subject though and I’m glad it’s something that you’re thinking about seriously.

Sincerely, Lynda Barry

If Prof. Mihaly was deterred by the regrets he’d received, it wasn’t for long. He went on to publish Creativity along with other seminal studies for another two decades, interviewing hundreds of creatives, propelled as he was by the desire to learn about and elucidate the very nature of creativity, and then to use this knowledge to enrich creative life for the rest of us.

There’s quite literally no end to what can be said about the foundational nature of creativity or, for that matter, about the power in saying yes to what brings you alive and no to what doesn’t. Having said this, I regret that I can’t say more—I think I hear my watercolors calling.

Elevated spaces

I pull into one of the few empty parking spots in the lot at the mall and walk with brisk anticipation through the front door of what used to be a Sears department store. The former home of Kenmore appliances and Craftsman tools now welcomes this:

and this:

and this and this and this:

I would’ve loved to have been in that heady room when this brainchild of an exhibition was born, swaddled as it must have been in the sure cloth of unbridled imagination and expansive possibility. 

Bringing 21st century digital technology to this moment of now-palpable hunger for beauty both ancient and enduring wherever it might be found, Michelangelo’s larger-than-life Sistine Chapel frescos have been brought down to eye level in an exhibit scheduled to travel the world, for a moment landing in Oakbrook, Illinois. Some viewers will no doubt find themselves captivated by biblical themes so passionately portrayed. For me, standing in such intimate proximity to these majestic, sometimes haunting figures with their billowing, colorful robes, animated gestures and evocative expressions, to witness this artist’s discerning command of storytelling and darkness and overarching light and to encounter all of this while standing in the same close proximity that Michelangelo himself stood as he created these works, is daunting to describe. I’d studied fine art in Rome as an undergrad and saw many of the most famous works by Michelangelo, da Vinci, Rembrandt and others in what might be considered their proper places, their true homes. This experience was an altogether different kind of immersion. The sheer feat of 5000 sq feet of painting, the painstaking, neck-aching 4-1/2 years to completion, the imaginative reach that propelled this genius’ magnum opus, and in turn the exhibition itself, with the works themselves all so improbably near, felt awesome in every sense of the word. Like being able to reach up into the sky and pull down Orion or Saturn for a closer look.

I caught Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition on the final day of its Chicago run last month. It’s moved on to L.A., leaving the former Sears store empty once again.

Empty spaces are invitational, aren’t they? Too, works of art on almost any level have the power to elevate a space. It happened here—a place that once carried Craftsman now ascended to house the work of a Master Craftsman. Michelangelo took note of all of those empty, divided spaces in that 60-foot ceiling and allowed himself to imagine how they might be filled. Imagination itself is a space, with a ceiling that can always be raised.

The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim to low and achieving our mark. ~Michelangelo

Make your mark.

Why does the simple act of filling tiny squares with yellow ochre, raw umber, moss green, dots and dashes, circles and lines feel so soothing and restorative?

If for only 15 minutes you were to step away from the abstracted worlds of thought and digitalia, to distance yourself from the seemingly-intractable sister habits of go-go/do-do, and instead immerse yourself in the easy practice of mark-making, with lines, shapes and color flowing easily from your pencil, brush or pen, you might experience as I do an incomparable level of engagement, often with a feeling of full presence and inexplicable contentment. 

Mark-making is one of the most accessible portals into that enriching alternate universe known as be here now. While I’ve been fortified for over two decades by an imperfect meditation practice, I find that I can as easily (and sometimes more easily) get “there” via mark-making—not to be confused with “art-making” and all the pressures and stress that the prospect of making art can bring. Lynda Barry invites her students to avoid freighting their own marks with the burden of having to be beautiful, instead recognizing their lines, circles and color splashes as “a record of what your hand did on that day.” 

Making one’s mark has a long, illustrious history and it’s possible that vestiges of this primitive practice continue to deliver their soothing, comforting influence even to this day. In conversation with Krista Tippett, Robert Macfarlane talks about how our prehistoric ancestors would place their palm on the wall of the cave and, with fingers spread wide and with a mouthful of yellow or red ochre, blow the pigment on the back of their hand, leaving what’s known as a ghost print, a signature of sorts that says, “I was here.” 

I’ve often wondered whether it’s from this ancient lineage that our own lines are born. Isn’t it possible that the dashes, dots and lines that show up on the page today are impelled from a kind of primordial wellspring running through the ages and arriving here at the present, through our arms, down to our hands and onto the paper or canvas? The deep comfort, groundedness and connection that many experience from the simple practice of mark-making might be understood as our creative elderhood reaching out via lineage and line to a future that they knew they’d never see, the same as your own marks and lines might offer proof of your presence to those who’ll follow you.

Patagonia ghost print image courtesy of Dreamstime.

Solvitur ambulando

Bauhaus artist Paul Klee famously described his drawing process as “taking a line for a walk.” In all likelihood, he wasn’t referring to walking as so many of us practice it today—fuel-injected, over-committed, hoofing with a pre-determined purpose, a clear destination, running late. Instead, Klee invokes the sauntering, meandering approach made famous by the likes of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and Muir, those first-order naturalists who approached walking as an art form in its own right.

In her scholarly, thoroughly lovely World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, professor, poet and author Christian McEwen illuminates the role played by slow, ambulatory movements led by curiosity and fascination in the creative life.  McEwen notes that novelist Willa Cather “worked at her desk all morning, then wandered the woods and trails all afternoon in search of wildflowers. She told one of her friends that she needed ‘almost to dissolve into nature daily in order to be reborn to her task.’”

Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folksong, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars? ~ Milan Kundera

McEwen offers that walking in this gentle, unencumbered way taps our own innate interconnectedness with the world around us via chronobiology–our body’s entrainment to the ancient, powerful rhythms of the larger universe.

Poet, philosopher and scholar John O’Donohue carries our chronobiological connection to the land ones step further. In Walking in Wonder: Eternal Wisdom for a Modern World, O’Donohue offers that the body is in some primordial way comprised of the same raw material as the landscape itself:

One of the lovely ways to pray is to take your body out into the landscape and to be still in it. Your body is made out of clay, so your body is actually a miniature landscape that has got up from under the earth and is now walking on the normal landscape. If you go out for several hours into a place that is wild, your mind begins to slow down, down, down. What is happening is that the clay of your body is retrieving its own sense of sisterhood with the great clay of the landscape…To put it in a theological way, I feel that the landscape is always at prayer, and its prayer is seamless. It is always enfolded in the presence. It is a high work of imagination, because there is no repetition in a landscape. Every stone, every tree, every field is a different place. When your eye begins to become attentive to this panorama of differentiation, then you realize what a privilege it is to actually be here.

Thoreau was unbridled in promoting the many benefits of his wandering practice. In Walking he writes, “I think I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

We’ve got a number of local trails and forest preserves near my home and, with the spillover from the year we’ve just moved through, I find myself spending increasing amounts of time in these hallowed spaces.  I welcome the feeling of coming back to my senses—metaphorically and literally—that these pristine parcels of earth provide. I enjoy the break from thinking and the ways in which answers to questions I didn’t even know I had present themselves, seemingly all on their own—solvitur ambulanto, Latin for it is solved by walking. There’s something about immersing myself in nature as a whole that can beckon a feeling of wholeness and completeness within myself, of being held and supported. A feeling of coming home.

Are you walking much these days? What about walking without a destination, or your phone? A walk with just your two eyes, two ears, two hands and two feet is an altogether different kind of experience, possibly one worth repeating. 

I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown; for going out, I found, was really going in. ~John Muir

The majesty of small things

Hummingbird nest, DuPage County Illinois–held together with sticky threads from spider webs.

Think, for a moment, about the tiny treasures in your home. Is it the aesthetics of these beauties that you like? The stories connected to them? Maybe both? If you wanted to hold one of these finds in your hand right now, where would you find it? Stuck in the back of a drawer or out where you can see it?

1901 spoon, 4 inches long


Maple seed pods


3 inch tall face, carved into the handle of a hand-crafted broom

Unadorned by deep-pocketed branding campaigns and maybe just sitting there in all their unassumingness, tiny, beautiful things have a way of turning a tabletop into an altar, a corner shelf into a shrine.

Handcrafted pottery, Petoskey, Michigan, 2.5 inches tall

My own small gems hold history, craftsmanship, and warm imperfection, having come about either through the work of human hands or the determined handiwork of Mother Nature or one of her industrious creatures. I love the way these wee treasures telegraph their own fundamental sense of completeness, as if to say, This is all there is, and it’s enough. 

I find that I’m able to bring a concentrated, saturated type of attention to a two-inch tall forged brass bell, with its scattered spots of tarnish and intricate leaf motif, in a way that’s just not possible with, say, the Taj Mahal, Grand Canyon, or any number of the more expansive splendors. Too, small spots of magnificence— just-opening seedpods, hand-carved broom handles—have a way of inviting any one of us out of the abstracted world of our own over-churned thinking and planting us more deeply right where we are, smack dab in the middle of the here and now.

Circa 1945 5-inch hand-crafted paintbrush
3-inch glass disk, a gift from a now-longtime friend

How to be what Saul Bellow referred to as a first-class noticer?  Small things can be particularly gratifying to notice, worthy of full, undivided attention and found quite literally everywhere, quietly regal in their presence and often bringing with them, if even for a moment, a welcome, much-needed diversion from whatever it is that’s laying claim to you right now.

Winter’s invitation

Here we are in February, the longest month of the year.

A good-humored, middle-aged client I worked with many years ago, a spirited gentleman who returned to treatment around this time of year for help with seasonal affective disorder, opened each of his weekly February sessions with this pronouncement. As I worked with him through a handful of Februarys, I associate this month with him, along with a few other clients for whom the mid-point of winter proves especially difficult. 

And here we are again in Midwest USA, nearing what Marv Hiles refers to as “the very bottom of winter.” Even as intimations of spring hide in plain sight, nature doesn’t privilege the warmer seasons the way many of us might. She allows each to offer what it will, to unfold seamlessly and effortlessly, one leading into the next in a continuing, life-sustaining, cyclical choreography.


What is it that winter offers? And might we allow ourselves to accept the offering, as other living creatures and life forms seem willing to do? Is it possible to accept winter’s invitation, especially now, fresh on the heels of the year we’ve just moved through?

In her book, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, Katherine May writes:

Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Wintering is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.

It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order. Doing these deeply unfashionable things — slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting — is a radical act now, but it’s essential. 

As essential, I think, perhaps in any winter but particularly so in this one, might be our willingness to allow for the unfolding presence of normal human sadness. When you consider the abundant, unbidden aloneness of the past year, with so much of our previously-relied-upon cycles of daily living so dramatically disrupted, and for so long, if not lost altogether, and with so many whom we’ve collectively lost, it makes good sense that we’d find ourselves invited if not impelled into a place of sadness. We are perhaps among the most feeling of creatures, certainly so with regard to conscious awareness of feeling, and so making room for sadness, especially now, here, in the very heart of winter, could be to our benefit. The hollowed, hallowed inwardness of winter may be uniquely designed to invite us in, to help us bear the weight of our sadness and also our collective grief.

But won’t opening the door to sadness lead to depression? Maybe it’s better to keep a stiff upper lip, compel cheeriness and soldier on.

Depression and sadness are two different things. While depression is a serious clinical disorder with clear symptomatology and often requiring treatment, sadness is woven into the fibers of being human. In our eagerness to champion chipper-ness, even sometimes within ourselves, we can forget that  fears are real, losses hurt, and sadness, along with joy and hope, lives at the very heart of humanity. In the Pixar classic, Inside Out, sadness was the star of the show. 

I realized that in depression, nothing matters. And in sadness, everything matters. ~Gloria Steinem

Being able to accept feelings of sadness, and then tending to ourselves in ways that nurture and comfort and heal, can over time give way to what some experience as an enlivening of the human spirit, allowing for a sense of fullness and wholeness, as if all of our collective emotional parts now have a place and a purpose and even a welcoming. We can expend enormous amounts of energy in our attempts to ward off feelings of sadness, resources that would otherwise be harnessed for productivity, creativity, and so forth. Best perhaps to just let it in, and even to welcome it, especially in times like these, when its presence makes so much sense.

Katherine May adds:

I’m beginning to think that unhappiness is one of the simple things in life: a pure, basic emotion to be respected, if not savored. I’d never dream of suggesting that we should wallow in misery or shrink from doing everything we can to alleviate it, but I do think it’s instructive. After all, unhappiness has a function: it tells us that something is going wrong. There will be moments when we’re riding high and moments when we can’t bear to get out of bed. Both are normal. Both in fact require a little perspective.

Sometimes the best response to our howls of anguish is the honest one. We need friends who wince along with our pain, who tolerate our gloom, and who allow us to be weak for a while, while we’re finding our feet again. We need people who acknowledge that we can’t always hang on. That sometimes everything breaks. Short of that, we need to perform those functions for ourselves: to give ourselves a break when we need it and to be kind, to find our own grit, in our own time.

Looking more closely at winter’s invitation, within the architecture of cold and stillness and silent white, we see the unmistakable evidence of a coming spring.


In the midst of winter I finally learned that I had within me an invincible summer. ~ Albert Camus


Darkness and light


I loved the word chiaroscuro from the moment I first heard it, back in 1979, sitting in Prof. Michael Fink’s Italian Art course as an undergraduate studying fine art in Rome. In his inimitable style, Dr. Fink elucidated the term (an Italian word that roughly translates into “light-dark”) as an artistic technique that captivated some of the most renowned painters of the Renaissance. Employing extreme lights and darks, chiaroscuro offered artists a novel way to illuminate volume, dimensionality, and beauty. 

Drawn to its smooth sounds juxtaposed against those hard C’s, I’d practice saying chiaroscuro silently and aloud. I still do this. There’s something in the cadence of the word that sounds like music to me and, more broadly, I’m drawn to what the concept intimates, even now. Maybe especially now.

This eventful year, with its immeasurable darkness and its persistent, promising light, comes to a close here in the States in less than six hours. London, Wagga Wagga, and Shanghai have already bid 2020 adieu. What are we to do with the many shadows left behind as this passing year departs for good?

It might be helpful to remember that the Italian Renaissance was historically preceded by the Dark Ages, a time when the country found itself gripped by war, famine, and the Black Death pandemic that killed 20 million people across all of Europe. Some historians have gone so far as to suggest that the Dark Ages were responsible for the birth of the Renaissance, bringing with it the philosophical, intellection, scientific, and artistic contributions of da Vinci, Descartes, Galileo, Copernicus, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Michelangelo.

Civilization has been here before. Might it be possible for us, as a nation, as a planet, to harness those shadows that 2020 leaves behind, offering us a kind of motoric force that could carry us across the threshold to a renaissance all our own, one with global proportions and possibilities? As wombs and mushrooms and history have taught us, darkness can give birth to so much unprecedented life.

May your new year bring you and your loved ones plenty of life and light, health and hope. I thank you for being here with me for another year—we’re all with boundless reading options and so your time and your attention mean so much to me.