Regardless of your religious orientation, I think everyone needs Advent: four weeks a year dedicated to quieting the mind enough to be able to slowly hear the still, small voice within. A month of turning inwards to find the message in the growing darkness: a time of letting go, of listening more deeply. Advent is a time to focus on waking up, staying conscious and paying attention.
Like so many children, I loved having an Advent calendar. Every day, I eagerly opened the tiny numbered window to reveal the chocolate or picture or message hidden within. This year, I am going to create my own advent calendar to share with you, my dear readers: an expression of the themes of Advent through poetry, stories, art and music. To begin, an excerpt from T.S. Eliot's "East Coker":
I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope,
for hope would be hope for the wrong thing;
wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing;
there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
As the dawn rises today to greet the morning,
so, too, may your own heart awaken to meet the joy which awaits you.
May you have the presence of mind to feel
each gentle breeze, each shower of rain, each kiss of sunshine
as the blessing it truly is.
May your heart expand today to hold the memory
of all the love it has known:
The tender touch of friendship
The fervent heat of passion
The soothing balm of kindness
The abundance of unearned grace.
May you have the eyes to behold today
the reckless beauty of the eternal
woven into the tapestry of creation,
pouring forth from sea and sky
moonlight and meadow,
symphony and psalm.
In the hubub of the day's frantic tasks,
may you remember what most nourishes your being,
and return to the breath, the wonder and the gratitude that
illuminates the journey of your years.
As you travel through this day,
may you stretch forth your courage to
embrace the unexpected, so that
wherever you may find yourself,
you will find yourself deeply and gratefully
I wrote the blessing above today in homage to the great Celtic poet John O'Donahue. Every morning, I read from his gorgeous book To Bless the Space Between Us and then take a few minutes of silence to watch the sun rise over Mount Tamalpais until the birds are in full chorus with their own symphony. This has been one of the practices that has most opened my own heart this year and helped me plant my feet more deeply in the garden of gratitude. John urges us to take every opportunity to pause for a moment of wonder, to appreciate the fullness of even the dark and difficult moments of life, to bless the whole journey at every step.
William Blake encouraged us to embrace spiritual maturity by holding both hands full: one full of grief, the other full of joy and gratitude. J.S. Bach is one of the wisest guides to being able to do just that. Orphaned by the age of 10, Bach endured a lifetime of unimaginable loss, burying eleven children before he died. And yet, he never lost the capacity for joy and exultation. Bach gathered his remaining brood of nine musical children to sing and dance and tell stories and make jokes; his humble home was a place of wanton generosity and hospitality for visiting composers and friends. The later part of his career found him establishing a community concert series in a local cafe in Leipzig and for which he composed and performed the delightfully silly "Coffee Cantata".
In July of 1720, Bach left his beloved pregnant wife at home in Cothen in order to compose and perform music at the summer residence of his employer, Prince Leopold. He returned two months later (sans cell phone or internet technology), stunned to find four bereft children in mourning for their mother: Maria Barbara was dead and already buried.
At the baptismal font of Cothen a year later, a young golden-haired soprano stood next to Bach. Together, the two recited vows to serve as the godparents for the rosy cheeked infant of their mutual friend. Soon, Anna Magdalena Wieck and Johann Sebastian were making music together, and by December of 1721, they were married. A stage of astonishing musical fecundity followed in which the Cello Suites, Violin Concertos and many of the masterpieces of keyboard literature poured forth ( A current media debate hinges on the question of whether Anna Magdalena merely inspired and helped copy out this outpouring of works, or may perhaps have had a hand in actually composing it. For more information on this provocative issue, see the October 2014 article in the New Yorker at http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/case-mrs-bach).
How did Bach not just survive, but actually thrive in the midst of a life filled with so much grief? How was he able, after the anguish of so much death, to still open up to the possibility of new life, new hope, new love, new joy? I am not sure, but I suspect it had something to do with a radical surrender to all that life had to offer, both in the moments of intoxicating sweetness and passion and in the bitter dregs of defeat and despair.
One of the greatest works to emerge following Bach's second marriage was the Well Tempered Clavier, Book One . I believe it would have been better named The Encyclopedia of Emotion. Written in 1722, it is a musical compendium of astonishing scope, alternating freely- formed Preludes and tightly constructed Fugues in a succession of light and dark color palettes. For this work, Bach has been justly celebrated as the first composer to write music in every key, even such "impossible" and thorny key signatures as C# Major and eb minor Beyond dazzling us with such technical expertise, however, the Well Tempered Clavier should move us with what such effort signifies: a radical acceptance of the full spectrum of human experience. In Bach's time, each key was associated with an emotional state. The darker palette of minor colors ranged from "solemn and introspective" f minor to "funereal and even suicidal" Bb minor, while the brighter major keys range from "simple and serene" C Major to the "unbridled and energetic joy" of Bb major. Many of these keys were thought not only to be unplayable ( because of the number of sharps and flats), but were viewed as downright distasteful, being too morbid or bizarre to listen to . Yet Bach uses them all. There is no key he will not explore, no musical emotion he will not give voice to. The quick alternation of dark and light, suffering and solace, despair and delight is truly one of the most profound works of alchemy every crafted: a total embrace of the tension of the opposites. I believe that the Well Tempered Clavier gives musical expression to a theme the 13th century Persian poet Rumi evoked in the following poem:
THE GUEST HOUSE
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
-- Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks
This Thanksgiving, I wonder if we can, like Bach and Rumi, give thanks for it all, for the whole glorious tragedy, the entire bittersweet and beautiful catastrophe of being human.
Carl Jung believed that the most dangerous capacity within humanity was the tendency to become one-sided. The refusal to acknowledge the inevitable messiness of ourselves and life itself can give rise to a ruthless judgmentalism that murders vitality. "The perfect is the enemy of the good", wrote Voltaire. So often in our search for perfection, monsters are born. I think of teenaged girls I have known who have starved themselves to the point of death in a search for a physically impossible ideal. I think of cherished friends who still carry the burden of shame for misspelling a word or peeing in their pants as children. I think of the adults who sat trembling on the piano bench of my music studio as long-buried memories of their knuckles being wrapped with rulers for playing a wrong note washed over them and froze their ability to play. The political and religious leaders whose quest for perfection led to such horrors as the Final Solution of Nazi Germany and the Spanish Inquisition illustrate how dangerous the capacity for one-sidedness truly is. When we believe that anything or anyone is all good or all bad , a tyrannical consciousness arises that at best, blinds us to messy beauty of reality and at worst, imposes a cruel dictatorship that creates a hell on earth.
The great wisdom teachers have a capacity to honor and hold the paradox of both sides of life: it beautiful and brutal, harsh and sublime, full of unbounded grace and devastating heartbreak. Inside each of us is both the sinner and the saint, a sage and a fool. Thich Nhat Han, Buddhist teacher and survivor of the horrors of the Vietnam War, exquisitely conveys this idea in his poem "Call Me By My True Names" when he urges us to identify with both victim and victimizer, urging us to name the totality of human experience and acknowledge the intense interweaving of joy and pain.
Below is a videotape made of Thich Nhat Hanh reading his poem. As you listen to it, hold this dear man in your own compassionate heart: he lies in a hospital in France where he is recovering from a brain hemorrhage.
This past week, I finished my latest class on Dante, suggesting that the pivotal question of Heaven is not "How good have you been?" but, "How much beauty can you bear?". All too often, we stumble and stagger through our days, so preoccupied with our own internal dramas and anxieties that we are blind and senseless to all the amazing things around us. I left my class with this challenge to my students: increase your own capacity for beauty. Today, start by noticing one thing in your world that is truly beautiful, Tomorrow, find two, The next day, three. And so on. I've found that the more I demand that I pay attention and actively look for the beauty around me, the more there is to see: the waves of fog rolling over the gold and green mountain I live on, the hummingbird's feathers as they shiver with the delight of sipping nectar from the red passion flower vines, the sound of the lone owl late at night, the way the rosy sun kisses the pine trees with morning light and they blush. The soft fur of my cat, Schubert, and the reckless way he throws love at me with his sloppy kisses and insistent purr. And so it goes, on and on and on, all to savor if only I can stop and breathe it in.
I think Mary Oliver says it best in the following poem:
by Mary Oliver
I see or hear
that more or less
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
It was what I was born for-
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world-
to instruct myself
over and over
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant-
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean's shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?
So, dear reader, I challenge you: how much beauty can you bear today?