For anyone who loves novels that stimulate awareness of the incredible unity-in-diversity we live in, Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr is a wonderful addition to world literature. It is, I believe, a celebration of how human imagination, at its best, is both uniquely personal and profoundly collaborative and unifying. It also reminds me of these famous words by William Blake (from Auguries of Innocence): “Joy and woe are woven fine, A clothing for the soul divine. Under every grief and pine, Runs a joy with silken twine.” Surely, the finest novels depict the inseparability of “joy and woe” (and other supposed opposites) in a life-enhancing, rejuvenating way, just as this book does. And isn't it the case that the best of the best do this by making the overarching conception and construction of the book reflect its individual elements, again, just as Cloud Cuckoo Land does.
At a time when our world desperately needs uplifting reflections of human creativity, this novel is a magnificent gift, and certainly deserves all the accolades it has received.
Movies tell stories, and the best of our stories—the most enlightening and/or rejuvenating—are those that deepen our experience of interconnectedness. I was reminded of this way of understanding storytelling by the recent film, On the Basis of Sex. This film depicts Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s rise to prominence in the early 1970’s, when, with help of family and associates, she successfully challenged systemic sex-discrimination in the American legal system. Notably, the movie makers portray this achievement in a way that gives due recognition to the mutuality of all accomplishments, rather than cater to the cult of individualistic heroism (which is a kind of idolatry) that characterizes so much of contemporary cultural life.
I think it’s fair to say that On the Basis of Sex is as much about human relationships as it is about a landmark legal event. I found it heartening to watch the wonderfully supportive partnership of Ruth and Martin Ginsburg navigate various life-challenges, which they did largely by espousing an ethos of genuine participation. Even in contentious circumstances (with their daughter, colleagues, and ideological opponents), they avoided the toxic consequences of direct confrontation by acting with respect for others in spite of whatever differences arose in their interactions.
Just as a participatory (rather than confrontational) mindset is our finest, most life-enhancing asset in terms of nurturing relationships, it is also at the heart of all significant, lasting change. In our personal lives, genuine change comes about as the result of recognizing that our current attitudes and activities no longer fit our current circumstances and may interfere with (or even prevent us from) participating as fully as possible in everyday life. Similarly, in the public sphere, genuine change comes about as the result of public leaders realizing that existing policies and practices are outmoded, out of step with current widespread opinions and behaviors. This recognition of a need for change in the American legal system because current laws and precedents do not adequately reflect existing societal norms is precisely the point that Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her colleagues make in their historic legal presentation.
I think the makers of On the Basis of Sex are to be commended for drawing attention to the indispensable value of having a participatory mindset in all that we do. In all of our relationships (whether supportive or oppositional) and in all types of significant change (whether personal and public), nothing can be more life-enhancing than acting in ways that strengthen our fundamental interdependence. Surely, it is by living as genuine participants of a universal community that we express our full humanness: our individuality and our mutuality.
“It is our destiny to live always in some form of community. . . .The fact that we
belong to a community as well as being individual persons requires that we
acknowledge this destiny and relate to each other with compassion. Compassion
limits or freedom, but it renders freedom human at the same time.”
Rollo May: from Freedom and Destiny (1981), pp. 232-233.
Good novels invariably resonate on many levels: a captivating story; unique perspectives; profound insights; believable, multifaceted characters; entertaining situations; realistic portrayals or people and events; glimpses into “other worlds,” whether historical or fantastical; magnificent language. And sometimes one has the good fortune of reading a book that satisfies on all these levels—a book such as Godric, one of many novels by the eclectic and prolific writer, Frederick Buechner.
Godric tells the story of Godric of Finchale (1065–1170), an extraordinary twelfth-century Englishman who exemplified “living life to the full.” As a young man he worked as a merchant, entrepreneur, and sailor/adventurer, and later adopted the mantle of a pilgrim, hermit, great lover of animals, mystic, and was eventually acclaimed (though never officially canonized) as a popular saint. Although there are several accounts of Godric’s life, Buechner’s remarkable reimagining of his life has Godric himself telling the tale. And what an adventure it is. And what an eye-opening and heart-throbbing evocation of medieval life.
What impressed me above all else about this book was the extravagant beauty of the language. From the very first sentence to the last, readers are inundated with colorful images and compelling anecdotes that make it feel as if you are in the presence of the speaker. For instance, how’s this for an arresting opening sentence: “Five friends I had, and two of them snakes.” And how’s this for a description of taking delight in the surrounding world in spite of feeling deeply sorrowful over the troubles and suffering of the poor:
“But when melody wells up in thrushes’ throats, and bees buzz honeysong,
and rock and river clap hands in summer sun, then misery’s drowned in minstrelsy,
and Godric’s glad in spite of all.”
In a more philosophical mode, here is Godric’s brief reflection on the enigmatic nature of time:
“But what is time itself, dear friend? What is the sea where hours float?
Am I daft, or is it true there’s no such thing as hours past and other hours
still to pass, but all of them instead are all at once and never gone? Is there
no time lost that ever was? Is there no time yet to come that’s not here now?”
And as a final example of Godric’s exuberantly poetic prose, here’s how he self-reflects on the nature of prayer.
“What’s prayer? It’s shooting shafts into the dark. What mark they strike,
if any, who’s to say? It’s reaching for a hand you cannot touch. The silence
is so fathomless that prayers, like plummets, vanish in the sea. You beg. You
whimper. You load God down with empty praise. You tell him sins that he already
knows full well. You seek to change his changeless will. Yet Godric prays the way
he breathes, for else his heart would whither in his breast. Prayer is the wind that
fills his sail. Else waves would dash him on the rocks, or he would drift with witless
tides. And sometimes, by God’s grace, a prayer is heard.”
In a review of Godric published in the New York Times Book review, it is observed that that, in writing this historically based but highly imaginative rendering Godric’s life, Buechner displays “a fine readiness to invent what history doesn’t supply.” To my mind, this remark reminds us of an important, but often overlooked, insight about life in general. What we can see and make a record of (as history) does not reveal all there is to know and understand about anything. Yes, our brains are wonderfully adept at observation and analysis, but how woefully inadequate this knowledge would be without our equally amazing capacities for imaginative insight, for reaching into areas of thought and feeling that go beyond surface characteristics into the deeper and truer nature of what is being presented to us. And isn’t that what both self-reflection and inspiring literature are all about?
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013).
When I first read about its publication in 2013, I sensed right away that Braiding Sweetgrass would resonate positively with me. Now, having read the book after an inexplicable delay of over seven years, I find that my expectations have been surpassed. Seldom have I experienced a stronger sense of being in tune with the content and spirit of a book.
Much has been written about this compilation of essays and stories celebrating our interdependence with the natural world, and warning us about the dire consequences of not honoring it. The book has been called an “eco-bible” as well as “a hymn of love to the world,” deservedly so, I think, because it is grounded in a deep concern for sustaining the health of the untold number of relationships we participate in as people of planet earth.
In keeping with the wisdom of indigenous peoples, this book takes as a given that everyone and everything belongs to a universal family. But it also recognizes that, as a species, we humans do not always honor he fact that we share the abundance of our planet with a host of other beings, all with unique life-processes that are in some way interwoven with our own. Hence, our need to be continually reminded of our fundamental interconnectedness and the life-enhancing lessons to be learned from it—exactly what this book focuses on.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is obviously a multi-talented scientist and teacher, as well as a captivating story-teller. These personal gifts allow her to make every chapter of her book a way of integrating what she has to say with issues and concerns that arise in our everyday lives. For instance, she draws attention to the problems associated with various kinds of non-acceptance of “others”—from overt racism and xenophobia to various forms of social intolerance and inequality—in a chapter that describes helping salamanders cross a road at night (so they can safely make their way to the pool where they were born and, therefore, reproduce successfully). “Each time we rescue slippery, spotted beings,” she observes, “we attest to their right to be, to live in the sovereign territory of their own lives.” (p.358)
Another example of the author’s ability to mingle story-telling, scientific exploration, and philosophical insight occurs in a fascinating chapter about “witnessing” the rain (set in the Oregon rain forest). Here, Kimmerer links a description of “paying attention” to the distinctive characteristics of individual raindrops to a beautiful reflection on the nature of time and the efficacy of living as fully as possible in the present moment. She writes: "Paying attention acknowledges that we have something to learn from intelligences other than our own. Listening, standing witness, creates an openness to the world in which the boundaries between us can dissolve in a raindrop." (p.300)
Braiding Sweetgrass is a book overflowing with information and inspiration, often capsulized in beautifully succinct and memorable phrases. One such phrase, which has garnered a lot of attention, is this: “All flourishing in mutual” (p. 15, also, pp. 166 & 382). For me, this little phrase epitomizes the book’s central thesis and message as well as any. Not only does it underscore our basic interdependence, it also points to the importance of nurturing cultures of “gratitude and reciprocity” as a means of alleviating the debilitating epidemic of individualistic, me-first or us-first behaviors at work around the globe. Surely, responding to this insight is something that most thoughtful observers of contemporary life can agree is urgently needed.
Braiding Sweetgrass tells us that sweetgrass is nurtured best, not by existing on its own, but when humans create the optimal conditions for its growth by harvesting it (see p. 164). In a similar way, our lives unfold in ways that are most beneficial for ourselves and our world when they unfold in the context of meaningful, symbiotic relationships. Just imagine what our world would be like if we truly believed that everyone and everything we are involved with has something significant to say to us!
"I envision a time when the intellectual monoculture of science will be
replaced with a polyculture of complementary knowledges."
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p. 139.
Common sense tells us that our emotions and artistic sensibilities can sometimes be at odds with our intellectual and moral beliefs. Who hasn’t been pulled towards something attractive, desirable, or compelling in some way, while at the same time realizing it isn’t compatible with one’s core values? Recently, I had this experience after watching a film on Netflix, Supernova, which I thought was both an incredibly moving and beautiful work or art as well as an endorsement for a mindset that runs counter to one of my core beliefs, namely, the sanctity of interdependent life. By sanctity, I mean to imply a way of living that is spiritual in the sense of being fundamental and universal. And by interdependent, I mean to imply an intrinsic unity, an innate entwinement of one’s life as an individual with the lives of others, and ultimately, with the life of all others.
I think “Supernova” is a superbly crafted film in every way (artistically and technically). It tells the story of a writer’s plan to take his own life before his dementia develops into something that takes away his ability to control his life as he wishes. It is told within a series of events that emphasize his longstanding and intensely felt intimate relationship with his partner, a musician. Although his intention is to carry out his plan privately, his partner discovers it (by chance), becomes deeply distraught, and tries desperately to convey his willingness to live with whatever consequences may emanate from the threatening disease. At the conclusion of the film, the writer’s conviction to end his life on his own terms remains unchanged, and his partner accepts this situation by asking to be present “when it happens.”
Watching the final moments of Supernova--which involved seeing a breathtaking depiction of a star-filled night sky—was a decidedly paradoxical moment for me. It was a moment filled with a sense of the unfathomable beauty and mystery of life, but something about it did not “ring true” for me. Almost immediately I felt that the film did not reflect what I believe is the ultimate source of beauty and mystery: the unconditional love that flows from experiencing the absolute unity of life. This unity is a flowering of genuine mutuality, which implies an awareness of the power of vulnerability, of submitting oneself to the creative interdependence of life. Because the film ended by showcasing someone’s supposed right to autonomously control his life, I could not relate to it as a representation of either the fundamental interdependence of life or genuine, unconditional love.
A person who is genuinely loving and interdependent is someone who lives as a full-fledged participant in our world: someone who is always willing and ready to adjust one’s perspective in the light of unfolding events. To live in this way is the antithesis of “being in control” of one’s life, because it recognizes that the natural flow-of-life is a co-creative energy, a coming-together of myriad influences as one responds to the events of one’s life, moment by moment. To resist this flow by clinging to entrenched ways of thinking and feeling is to deny the fundamental efficacy of living as fully as possible in the present moment. It is also a type of control that I believe is a denial of the creative potency of unconditional love. Of course, there are many aspects of life that require the use of some measure of control. But are our close, personal relationships among them?
Is it not fair to say that genuine participation, mutuality, and love express very different approaches to life than “being in control”? Being in control implies an effort to regulate what one receives from others, or even close oneself off entirely from participating in something. But surely, genuine participation and love are always reciprocal, always about living on a two-way street, about receiving from others as well as giving to others, about being persons who are more than what occurs within each of us individually.
Today, it is not surprising that a major film depicts love in a self-serving (independent) way rather than as a self-sacrificing expression of interdependent life. Why? Because most of us live in commercially and ideologically driven technocultures that daily bombard us with messages urging us to take control of our lives in ways geared towards becoming self-made individuals.
But if “becoming someone” is held to be the prime motivator of one’s life, what does that say about the importance of “being someone”? Surely, “being” is our fundamental experience, without which there can be no “becoming.” And surely, authentic, life-enhancing “being” always involves being in a relationship of some kind, which in turn implies always being ready and willing to act, not as an ultimate controller of what occurs, but as a co-creator—a genuinely loving co-creator.
As it has for many others, Jedediah’s Purdy’s book For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today (New York: Vintage Books, 2000) resonates with me as an intellectually and emotionally stimulating social commentary. By turning our attention toward a need to reinvigorate a sense of public responsibility, it encourages a multifaceted stewardship that embraces educational, environmental, cultural, and legal/political issues and concerns. It does this by highlighting certain values and practices that are deemed necessary for the common good but have been neglected in recent history because of an overheated obsession with the pursuit of self-interest.
Near the end of the book there is a summary of these neglected values and practices that situates them in the contexts of three “interrelated ecologies.” The first is an interpersonal, moral ecology, which is fostered by people who exemplify qualities such as generosity, thoughtfulness, commitment, and diligence (p.186). The second is the institutional, social ecology of politics and civic life, which is guided by an informed and passionate engagement with ideas and practices that have a profound effect on public life, such as those surrounding energy production, or matters of genetic engineering. The third ecology pertains to what is normally associated with the word: our natural environment, which is nurtured by interacting with it in ways that are mutually beneficial for all forms of planetary life.
In commenting on these three ecologies, Purdy emphasizes that they all “belong to one another,” and that given this interconnectivity, our private and public lives are inescapably intertwined. Hence the necessity of embracing some form of public responsibility. He urges that “we live our personal lives with an eye to the maintenance of public concerns” in a way that “permits us to move beyond ourselves and back again” so that we can participate as fully as possible in “the necessary work of common things” (p. 189).
To reinforce his call for our ongoing support of “common things,” Purdy explores a number of ethically-charged political issues, ranging from strip mining (coal production) in West Virginia to the use of biotechnologies. He also invokes eminent political philosophers—in particular, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) and Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859)—as well as notable political activists and intellectuals in recent years, such as Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Adam Michnik and Czeslaw Milosz in Poland. In short, he presents his ideas as part of a longstanding public dialogue about the importance of understanding the inseparable nature of our individual and social lives.
Purdy suggests that our current neglect of “common things” can be seen in two major aspects of contemporary life. The first of these is a predilection for irony as a way of avoiding or distancing ourselves from the demands and challenges of living in genuinely interdependent ways. The basic premise of irony is that the surface meaning of what is said is significantly different from what the actual meaning is. For instance, it is ironic to say to a group of silent people, “don’t everyone speak at once,” or to walk out into a storm and say, “nice weather we’re having.” As a rhetorical device, irony can be used effectively in the service of projecting strongly held opinions, but when it is adopted as a kind of persona (personal façade) it can also be used as a kind of defense mechanism, which is the kind of irony Purdy refers to when he describes it as “a quiet refusal to believe in the depth of relationships, the sincerity of motivation, or the truth of speech—especially earnest speech” (p. 10). In the context of the individualistic attitudes so prevalent in contemporary lifestyles, it is not surprising that this type of defensive (protective) irony has been widely adopted as a way of avoiding the often messy and difficult ramifications of becoming “too involved” in something.
Purdy refers to a second significant way we neglect the nurturing of what we hold in common as a “reckless credulity,” which he describes as “the embrace of illusions bound together by untested hope.” And the most significant of these illusions is that “life’s best things can be had in solitude” (p. 185). Although I would prefer using a different word than “solitude” (such as “alone”) when speaking about illusory experiences, I think Purdy’s intention is to suggest that life is most meaningful when it is in tune with what is most basic about our existence: our universal interdependence. Indeed, when discussing the work of Michel de Montaigne (a philosopher he obviously admires greatly), he writes, “the interdependence of public and private is so great that speaking of them as separate is often misleading” (p.75). Montaigne’s insight, and Purdy’s elaboration of its substance throughout For Common Things, is clearly one that we need to be reminded of and reflect on. Given the individualistic, intensely “doing-oriented” tenor of contemporary techno-cultures, we are far too prone to seek our own comfort and advantage at the expense of what is reasonably good for others.
“After centuries of identifying triumph with the development of technology,
from the steam engine to the lunar module, our greatest challenge now is
the decision not to do what it is in our power to do. We will have to do so
against our present convenience, for those to whom our comfort could deed
great and uncompensated unhappiness. We will have to do so for common
Jedediah Purdy, For Common Things, p. 184.
After Reading “Mozart’s Starling” by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Even though I have relished studying, performing, and teaching the music of Mozart for most of
my life, until I picked up the book “Mozart’s Starling” by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, I did not know that,
for three years, this universally admired composer kept a starling, probably one of the world’s
most common and least admired birds, as a household pet. Perhaps I had a vague awareness
that Mozart was fond of birds, but if so, I paid scant attention to the fact. And after reading
Mozart’s Starling, I realize that this lack of attentiveness was a significant missed opportunity
for enhancing my understanding of the beauty and bounty of connecting with the natural world
In keeping with the best books I have read, Mozart’s Starling is both informative and inspiring.
It tells two interwoven stories of human-animal friendship: the story of Mozart and his pet starling,
Star, and the story of the author and her pet starling, Carmen. In the telling of these stories, readers
are treated to a plethora of scientifically based information about the life of birds (starlings in particular) and the nature of sound, music, and language, as well as a breathtaking array of lyrical reflections
on such wide-ranging topics as consciousness, creativity, and time.
But of course, at the heart of these stories is a cherished relationship between a person and a bird, with all the joys and woes implied in living day by day with a creature hugely different from oneself. So, for me, the life-enhancing impact of this book stems from its depiction of the extraordinary creativity that flows when we abolish the boundaries that so often keep us from involving ourselves as fully as possible with the world around us.
“Mozart found inspiration in the presence of a common bird. For us, too, the
song of the world so often rises in places we had not thought to look.”
From Mozart’s Starling, p. 75.
Haupt, Lyanda Lynn, Mozart’s Starling (New York: Back Bay Books, 2017).
Lyanda Lynn Haupt is a naturalist, eco-philosopher, and the author of several books. She describes her evolving thoughts as a writer in terms of “cultivating a connection to the ever-present natural world, and crafting a rooted, creative, authentic life.”
About the Blog
Living in the middle of things involves a willingness