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What is a suitable, lasting, reliable standard for life? What, in short, is the Way?
This morning I went for a run on Houston street. A canopy of golden ash was backlit by a pale-yellow sun. The preaching of these luminescent leaves reminded me that, despite the frustration and difficulty of cooking, cleaning, shopping, and working with hardly a moment to rest, (since I usually share these duties with Deva — my best friend and wife — who is currently away on pilgrimage for a month visiting religious sites and studying Buddhism in Japan), even in this difficult time, my nature is to live. “You are life itself,” preach the leaves. And I take their offering of ethereal yellow, so bountiful now, as their reminder and encouragement for me to do my best, to do as they do and bring as much joy as I can to the world, to inspire others as they inspire, with hope and beauty—to give, to raise, to lift life—in the season of shortening days.
What is the Way?
Writing this letter, close to where I’m sitting, stands a three-foot tall bronze sculpture, on a pedestal. The sculpture is of a girl, a young woman, between the ages of Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White. The black leather boot on her right foot tells me that she’s something of a punk-rock rebel. Her body seems to be made of clay, and it’s not clear from the deep gouges and gashes in her thighs and arms and back and legs, and the exposed bolt protruding from her dorsal spine, whether she is being put together or taken apart. Either way, she is surely being molded. But looking closely one comes to realize that the clay, is, in fact, bronze. Beholding the sculpture one is fooled into thinking by virtue of an impressive tromp-l’oeil effect that the most stable of materials (bronze), is clay. The illusion confronts one with an existential question: what can I rely on, if not what I see and think? What is a suitable, lasting, reliable standard for life? What, in short, is the Way?
I like the sculpture because it invites me to reflect on what is permanent, meaningful, steadfast and pure in the world, — qualities that are symbolized by a (bronze) wooden staff in the girl’s right hand, and a black bird, with whom the girl is communicating, with a curious, friendly, gaze. The stick and the bird are refreshing, joyful references to the absolute, eternal world of purity and order in contrast to the unsteady, unreliable — some would say ‘Evil’ for the misfortune and struggle it brings — world of self, phenomena, and material form.
Glance for a Moment
Most of the people who see this sculpture don’t look at it very closely. Sometimes it challenges the spectator. It doesn’t dazzle like a Frank Stella Moby-Dick-series painting with its stunning pinks, greens, and blues on coruscating taffy-like metal. Rather, this sculpture’s gestures are quiet. Its beauty doesn’t open to the casual onlooker. It’s not made for a corporate lobby. It’s not a money-maker. But to those with the eyes to see and the ears to hear it, the sculpture speaks eloquently about the struggle of artists and the artistically minded, a struggle whose aim Joseph Conrad tried to describe in 1897 when he wrote:
“To arrest, for the space of a breath, the hands busy about the work of the earth, and compel men entranced by the sight of distant goals to glance for a moment at the surrounding vision of form and colour, of sunshine and shadows; to make them pause for a look, for a sigh, for a smile—such is the aim, difﬁcult and evanescent, and reserved only for a very few to achieve. But sometimes, by the deserving and the fortunate, even that task is accomplished. And when it is accomplished—behold!—all the truth of life is there: a moment of vision, a sigh, a smile—and the return to an eternal rest.”
Love, Trust, and Respect
The sculpture in front of me is a companion that like November’s turning foliage reminds me to rest—to turn off the impulse for irony and cynicism to that in art which makes life worth living. One cannot ask more of a friend. And as my teacher says, no friendship worth the name is governed by anything less than abundant evidence of love, trust, and respect, the three of which together clearly express the essence of all we find important in life.