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.

awaken at the beach

Limantour Beach
Limantour Beach. Robin L. Chandler, 2018.

Winter is my favorite time of year; I love the journey to the year’s shortest day and the new pilgrimage for the year’s longest day. Precious the light of day and the warmth of the sun; most welcome is the night when blessed with a good book by the fire and my cat curled sleeping in my lap.

On Christmas Eve, I walked the landscape of Drakes Estero and Limantour Beach with my beloved wife and dear friend. Just a few days past the solstice the day remained short, and to commemorate the day, I made a watercolor sketch and reflected on darkness and light asking myself what can well-meaning souls do to make the world a better place?

And by a better place I mean: end the rapacious exploitation of the earth’s flora and fauna; take measures to resolve the increasing disparity between rich and poor; respect the diversity of global cultures; and stop the egregious use of violence. No small challenge. No simple answer. In fact, it sounds so impossible to resolve, I might as well give up and run away. Run as far away as possible from the suffering and the death, building tall strong walls to protect me from the pain.

It takes great courage to sit and listen to the suffering, the death, and the pain: within yourself and in others. Many of us feel compelled to fix the problems, and when we can’t we give up and salve our pain with whatever money can buy. Not knowing what to do or how to fix a problem is impossibly hard. But through my Buddhist studies, I have learned that there is a place to begin: listen, stay open minded and be generous. This is how the suffering ends and the healing starts. We are not born knowing all things, and will never learn all there is to know. Mitchell Thomashow writes in his essay Nature. Love. Medicine. Reciprocity. Generosity. “…we can cultivate generosity, open-mindedness, graciousness, and humility in the space of that glorious unknowing. I don’t have the capacity to love every species and every person, but I can develop the capacity to be more generous with those people and species that I do encounter.” Blessings on us all for this New Year!

The Library restored: a place to nourish the soul and feed the imagination

Fortitude, Lion of the North guarding the NYPL's entrance. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.
Fortitude, Lion of the North. guarding the NYPL’s entrance. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

The cold winter wind blew me up the stairs and past the Lions, Patience and Fortitude, guarding the entrance to the New York Public Library (NYPL). In my opinion, every trip to New York must include a visit to NYPL, or the trip is not properly consecrated. Designed in the classic beaux-art style by the architecture firm Carrere and Hastings, the building opened its doors to the public in 1911 with over one million items. Today, the collection numbers over fifty-one million items. Washington Irving, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, was one of the first curators of the collection. A beacon and haven for scholars, the main reading room, the Rose Room, named for the generous donor family, and the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room are being restored and will reopen during the Fall 2016. The historian David McCullough places NYPL among the five most important Libraries in the United States including the Library of Congress, Boston Public Library and the university libraries of Harvard and Yale. The restoration includes, asbestos removal, reinforcing the ceiling and restoration of the Rose Room’s murals of blue skies and clouds.

Fred Lerner in his book The Story of Libraries from the Invention of Writing to the Computer Age described Vladimir Lenin’s admiration for NYPL. In 1913, the Russian Revolutionary wrote “…in the Western countries…they hold that great public libraries, with hundreds of thousands and millions of books, ought not to be the property only of scholars…they are anxious for readers to read books bought at public expense in their own homes; they see the pride and glory of the public library not in the number of rarities is possesses…but in the extent to which books circulate among the people”…..nourishing their souls and feeding their imagination.

Underneath the Rose Room’s spacious skies, many authors have nourished their souls, fed their imagination, and found context within the 40,000 volume reference collection housed in the reading room. Literary greats such as Issac Bashevis Singer, Elizabeth Bishop, E. L. Doctorow, Alfred Kazin, and Henry Miller found inspiration within the Rose Room’s walls. Many of these authors were immigrants, or their sons and daughters born in this new world, New York. The Library opened its doors and its books and gave these newcomers the world, restoring, nourishing and feeding their souls and imaginations. Excitedly, I await the next generation of immigrants, who will grapple with their ideas, applying patience and fortitude, as they create underneath these spacious skies.

Patience and fortitude are touchstones for life; wise words for guiding a lifetime of work, a long-term relationship, or perhaps just simply life. Leaving the library, I pause near Fortitude and whisper from the Mourner’s Kaddish “may there be abundant peace from heaven, and life for us all Israel, to which we say Amen.” Until we meet again Evelyn, daughter of immigrants, blessings on you on your next journey.

Washington Square. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016. Built to honor our first President, for me it is a monument for the departed.
Washington Square. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016. Built to honor our first President, for me it is a monument for the departed and a portal to the next journey.