Of Towers and Silos

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Tour Barberousse. Robin L. Chandler, 2019

After the Flood, all of Noah’s descendants spoke the same language. And since it was easy for everyone to share their thoughts and ideas because they used the same words, they decided to build a city with a tower that reached to the heavens so they could make a name for themselves and not be scattered throughout the earth. And the Lord came from heaven and inspected the city and the tower and found humans overreaching and thinking far too much of themselves and too little of God. So the Lord acted, confusing human speech so they could no longer understand one another and scattered them all over the earth, leaving behind the Tower of Babel half-built.

While there are great lessons to take from this story about guarding against hubris and arrogance in our individual actions, ironically, it serves as an origin story for the silos in which we now live. Increasingly isolated, we seem unable to communicate with each other; we are fearful, on the defensive, not seeing a human, only seeing the other. And when we do communicate, it is often blunt, harsh, angry and sometimes anonymous protected by walls of technology. Communication has become “H” speech. Rabbi Jeffrey Myers insists that love is stronger than the “H” word even after the October 2018 tragedy at the Tree of Life Synagogue. In the Southern Poverty Law Center Summer 2019 magazine article Stop ‘H’ Speech, and Let Goodness Prevail, Rabbi Myers writes “we all want the same things for ourselves and our families…upon closer examination, we are far more alike than different…when we work together, we demonstrate capacity for greatness that would make any generation immensely proud…we need to find ways to continue to focus on the flowers – the good people – and the wondrous, selfless acts that they perform routinely and automatically to improve our society…it must start by choosing our words carefully…I choose to eliminate the “H” word. What do you choose to do?”

letters to Theo from Vincent

Vineyard in Southern France

old vineyard, Southern France. Robin L. Chandler, 2019.

August 1888 

“And in the same way a child in the cradle, if you watch it at leisure, has the infinite in its eyes. In short, I know nothing about it, but it is just this feeling of not knowing that makes the real life we are actually living now like a one-way journey in a train. You go fast, but cannot distinguish any object very close up, and above all you do not see the engine.”

September 1888

“And in a picture I want to say something comforting as music is comforting. I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to confer by the actual radiance and vibration of our colourings.”

“If we study Japanese Art, we see a man who is undoubtedly wise, philo-sophic and intelligent, who spends his time how? In studying the distance between the earth and the moon? No. In studying the policy of Bismarck? No. He studies a single blade of grass. But this blade of grass leads him to draw every plant and then the seasons, the wide aspects of the countryside, then animals, then the human figure.”

September 1889

“My dear brother, you know that I came to the South [of France] and threw myself into my work for a thousand reasons. Wishing to see a different light, thinking that to look at nature under a brighter sky might give us a better idea of the Japanese way of feeling and drawing. Wishing also to see this stronger sun, because one feels that without knowing it one could not understand the pictures of Delacroix…”

“What a queer thing touch is, the stroke of the brush.”

“…if you work diligently from nature without saying to yourself beforehand – I want to do this or that – if you work as if you were making a pair of shoes, without artistic preoccupations, you will not always do well, but the days you least anticipate it you will find a subject which holds its own with the work of those who have gone before us. You learn to know a country which is fundamentally quite different from its appearance at first sight.”

“…confronted by the difficulties of weather and of changing effects, [ideas] are reduced to being impracticable, and I end by resigning myself and saying that it is the experience and the meager work of every day which alone ripens in the long run and allows one to do things that are more complete and true. Thus slow long work is the only way, and all ambition and resolve to make a good thing of it, false. For you must spoil quite as many canvases when you return to the onslaught every morning as you succeed with.”

Excerpts from The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, edited by Mark Roskill.

legendarium

Middle-earth deluged by Sauron

Middle-earth. Robin L. Chandler, 2019.

Sitting in an Oakland coffee shop, on a gray morning, savoring a cup of coffee…one of life’s precious moments. I am reading, and I am loving this time, when my imagination can soar, inspired by a good book, before I must return to work.

A few weeks ago, I saw Tolkiena film seeking to capture key moments in J.R. R. Tolkien’s life that inspired his epic novels The Lord of the Rings. In his May 2019 New Yorker article, Anthony Lane described Director Dome Karukoski as “determined to map Middle-earth onto the life of its creator. Thus, the club of school comrades foretells the brotherhood of Frodo and his fellow-hobbits; flamethrowers, in the trenches, turn to dragons in Tolkien’s fevered eyes; mustard gas slithers and drifts like the Ringwraiths.” Being a fan of Tolkien’s books, Peter Jackson’s film adaptations, and now intrigued to learn more about Tolkien the author (after seeing the literary bio-picture),  I found Joseph Laconte’s A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and A Great War.  Sometimes you can judge a book by its’ cover because I quickly moved from browse to buy inspired by the book’s synopsis: J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis enjoyed one of the most consequential friendships of the twentieth century – a friendship that emerged from the suffering and sorrow of the war. Both men fought on the front lines during the First World War…influencing the life of each writer and subsequently shaped the nature and character of their respective towering achievements, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia.” Laconte’s book has given me a greater understanding of how a writer can draw upon their deepest experiences to produce works of art inspiring audiences to reflect upon humanity’s greatest strengths and most egregious tragedies.

 Although the Great War ended over a century ago, some of us continue to live on in its’ shadow. Most Americans paid scant attention to Europe’s 100thyear commemoration of the end of the Great War’s on November 11, 2019, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The names of battles (Ypres, Somme and Verdun) mean little to many. But millions of humans perished in the Great War and the Belgian and French countryside was so drastically decimated and scarred that the landscape quickly became a known as “no man’s land.” Western Leaders in the years leading up to WWI ascribed to the Myth of Progress believing in the benefits of technology and that ever greater days lay ahead. “Railway engines, steam engines, blast furnaces, textile plants, coal and iron mines were turning nature into the handmaiden of humanity…technology was improving life for ordinary people.” Tolkien’s “love of the English countryside, his attachment to nature, rebelled against the chaotic industrialization of his day…the over reliance on technology, ‘the Machine,’ as a step towards dominating others.” Tolkien believed “the act of bulldozing the real world involves coercing other wills.” World War I was chaotic industrialization for Tolkien, and he wrote novels cherishing nature and the human spirit’s ability to rise above the tragedy of misguided industrialization.

blessings in the night sky

April Planets

Night passages. Robin L. Chandler, 2019.

Last week on Tuesday April 23, 2019 I was up early before the sunrise. There was much to do: an early swim at the gym, before an early day at work. Quietly closing the door so as not to wake the sleeping family, bounding down the stairs towards the car, I stopped in my tracks. The waning gibbous moon shone bright, but what captured my attention was the shining planet just beneath the moon visible to my naked eye. What celestial body briefly shared a trek across this late April night sky with our moon? Quickly searching Google, I learned the planet was Jupiter, the fifth planet from our sun and the largest in our system, a gas giant like Saturn; Jupiter sacred to the principal god in Roman mythology, and visible in the night sky to astronomers since antiquity. Two days later on Thursday April 25, I was once again awake early before the sun, once again on my way to swim. That morning, Saturn was the moon’s companion, although much dimmer than Jupiter, it was still the brightest celestial body closest to the moon. Saturn is the sixth planet from the sun and the second largest planet in our solar system. It is the most distant of the five planets visible to the naked eye, the other four being Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter. The Heavens gave me a glorious gift this week: a full moon and two rare planets. Jupiter and Saturn dancing with the moon consecrated the rare coincidence of Pesach and Easter, a conjunction giving us here on Earth a special time to consider the interconnectedness of deliverance, freedom, redemption, and forgiveness.

the infinite

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View to the Caspar Headlands State Reserve. Robin L. Chandler, 2019.

Darkness punctuated only by the light emitted by stars hundreds of thousands of miles distant and the embers of our fire; and a quiet stillness, broken only by the sounds of waves crashing upon the beach and my wife’s slumbered breathing, measured exhales. The sound of the infinite, slow and steady. We came to Mendocino to slow life’s rapid pace and savor special moments, but, we were unexpectedly blessed to briefly experience the infinite.

Caspar is situated on coastal prairie between the communities of Mendocino and Fort Bragg. An active lumber company town in the 19thand 20thcenturies, it is now a quiet village whose headlands, once the location of a lumber mill, are now conserved as the Caspar Headlands State Reserve. The terrace grasslands are home to meadowlarks, white crowned sparrows and harrier hawks and the beach and estuary below host cormorants, gulls and oystercatchers and the endangered Coho salmon and steelhead trout.

From the balcony of our lodgings, we have a good view of the headlands and the Pacific and on Saturday we were rewarded with a sighting of a pod of gray whales migrating north. The whales were surfacing, exhaling and spouting warm, moist air before diving, their flukes breaking the surface as they plunged.  Now as I lay in my bed after midnight, listening to the sounds of the surf, I imagined the gray whales swimming through a deep blue sea, and the sounds of their breathing as they steadily continued north to Alaska, guided by an ancient knowledge passed from cetacean to cetacean. The infinite.

“Close your eyes, prick your ears, and from the softest sound to the wildest noise…it is by Nature who speaks, revealing her being, her power, her life, and her relatedness so that a blind person, to whom the infinitely visible world is denied, can grasp an infinite vitality in what can be heard. ” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

ember

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Luminous and the Grey. Robin L. Chandler, 2019.

“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor grey ember of Creation and it turns to radiance – for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire or light…wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”

Marilynne Robinson Gilead

the spirits aren’t lost

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East Side of the Sierras. Robin L. Chandler, 2019.

In mid-January, we drove northward on 395 through the Owens Valley from Los Angeles to Mammoth Lakes. Late afternoon, the sun flirted among the storm clouds and the Eastern Sierra mountain peaks creating a dramatic bright yellow light shining on the valley floor turning the White Mountains a mysterious blue. Ahead, a red cinder cone, a volcanic legacy, grew larger as we made our way closer to the sleeping Long Valley Caldera. The cinder cone, a beautiful rich red, still captivates my imagination.

Rebecca Fish Ewan wrote in A Land Between: The Owens Valley“ the landscape…reveals that stability in the West is both precious and fragile; the relationship between people and the land is deep and passionate, yet the balance of this union can be shaken overnight.” When settlers brought cattle to the Owens Valley in the 19thcentury, the new grazing animal destroyed the grasses and marshland environment that had been vital to the lives of the Pauite-Shoshone. When Los Angeles Water and Power Department diverted and transported snow-fed lakes, creeks and rivers of the Owens Valley to the Los Angeles basin, the ecosystem of the region was changed forever.

The Buddha teaches that we must accept that impermanence characterizes existence. But the Buddha’s noble eightfold path also teaches us to have right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort right mindfulness and right concentration.  The recent damage to Joshua Tree National Park caused during the Federal government shutdown may last for centuries. It is difficult for me to grasp the consciousness of people who cause such damage.  Are they mindful of their actions consequences? Do they lack a relationship with place and community? Do they believe their “life” exists somewhere else in a different time and space? How can I teach that every moment is precious and our actions reflect our consciousness? We must understand our impact on the land and it’s inhabitants; our choices must be guided by sensitivity to the needs of others and not by our desires alone. Stewardship means never having to say your sorry.

In the 1970s, Gary Snyder heard a Crow elder say at a conference in Bozeman, Montana “you know I think if people stay somewhere long enough the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of the spirits coming up from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them.”[1]

It is a tiny step, but all great things have small beginnings. I start my teaching by sharing these thoughtful commandments I learned recently from an East Bay Regional Park District Park Supervisor:

  • The earth is your mother, care for Her!
  • Honor all your relations!
  • Open your heart and soul to the Great Spirit
  • All life is sacred; treat all beings with respect!
  • Take from the Earth what is needed and nothing more
  • Do what needs to be done for the good of all!
  • Give constant thanks to the Great Spirit for each new day
  • Speak the truth, but only the good in others
  • Follow the rhythms of Nature; rise and retire with the sun
  • Enjoy life’s journey, but leave no tracks

 


[1]Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild. “The Place, The Region, The Commons.” p.42 San Francisco: North Point Press. 1990.