This Day We Are Living–An Experiment in Noticing

Sonnet 73, That Time of Year When Thou Mayst in Me Behold

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

—–

It’s late spring in Delhi, which means the leaves are falling from the trees. Yellow leaves, and gold gather on the streets, pile on curbsides in drifts. The flowers that the city plants in the parks so that that were in full bloom in February and early March, are now growing spindly as stalks lean into each other, heads droop, and their bodies begin to turn to seed. The seeds are their gift for the future, the brown, withered looking things that hold the future generosities of spring. After the six or eight weeks of flowers, fall arrives. Then the months of monsoon–the floods of rain. That’s the season we’re in now, the season between seasons–between the dry and the wet.

When I was attending what was then called Bethel College in St. Paul, MN, my poetry teacher read Shakespeare’s 73 sonnet to us, and asked us to go out and look at the fall leaves–the fiery Dutch elms that grow in profusion throughout the city’s streets, and that crowd along the Mississippi’s river banks. Leave your books, she suggested, and go out and notice them before they are gone. They don’t last long.

A native of southern California, I knew what it felt like to live through the Twin Cities long months of winter’s color deprivation and cold that followed September’s autumn.  For the most part, it seemed to me that Minnesotans loved their snowy winters. I had  heard various people I met there describe how they looked forward to winters–the snowshoeing and cross country skiing, the briskness in the air. But coming from the land of sun, where winters didn’t usually require much more than a light jacket and shoes that covered the toes, that anticipatory attitude was difficult for me to understand. I hadn’t learned to ski or skate, and for me getting bound up in sweaters and mittens, hats, thick socks any time you went out wasn’t something I looked forward to. Change is interesting, but I truly missed the freedom of wandering outside for a stroll, run, or bike ride. So, I followed my teacher’s suggestion, and went out to walk through trees on campus, and visited other campuses along Snelling Ave. whose campuses were thick with trees. I went down by the Mississippi as she suggested. It was glorious–all that color shining in the myriad leaves. All that sugar burning inside them as temperatures turned. The whole world a flame. As my teacher said, the trees were all the more beautiful, for knowing what would come next.

And what came next was winter. Dark branches silhouetted against white for months. Beautiful things often have a way of piercing the heart, of opening us–the last yellow leaf falling from a tree, rainbow color glistening from a spider’s web, the way clouds roll in low over the ocean at sunset. As Dana Jennings says in her NY Times article “Scratching a Muse’s Ears”, about Mary Oliver’s poetry book, Dog Songs, says, there are tears inside of things. Because we know this, it can make our heart ache when we see something beautiful. We’ve all eaten from the tree that lets us know we are not living in the garden anymore–but we know what it looks like, that last leaf falling from the tree before winter, and how it feels to watch it fall, joining the fire floating down the river or resting on the forest floor before it turns to dust.

So, all of you who have sat at your desk all day, I encourage you. Get up, leave your books or your office, you papers and your e-mail, and go outside and notice this day. Find what there is to love in this day, before you have to leave it. Notice life. What is it you are living?

THE TABLES TURNED 
William Wordsworth

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless—
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

___

Okay, so I took my own advice and got up and went out for a walk. I didn’t have a wood to walk in, so I took a walk around the block where I live. The wisps of clouds turning from pink to salmon against a pale turquoise sky–the kind of sky that is rare in Delhi.

It was a short walk around a city block. The first quarter of the block I couldn’t stop staring up in amazement. The second quarter of the block, I grew aware of the traffic noise as it hustled by.  As I turned the corner, I noticed a billboard that read “Platinum Living” with a sleek, blond-haired woman wearing an elegant low cut black gown and a long strand of pearls leaning back against a comfortable couch. I glanced down at the pair of abandoned black slippers at my feet on the sidewalk and wondered who this ad was aimed at speaking to in a city where a quarter of its population is below the poverty line, 30% live in slums, and in a country where the World Bank estimates that 21% of the deaths in India are related to unsafe water.  As I continued to walk, the acrid smell of burning leaves permeated the air, scratched at my throat, and made me cough. (Sadly, too many things here seem to makes me cough.) By the time I turned the last corner and entered my apartment door again, the sky’s color had drained away.

Wordsworth’s poem admonishes us to go out into nature with a listening heart, one that watches and receives. That is definitely the heart I stepped out of the door with, and is the one I want to hold on to. I live in a city, though. It’s not the same as standing at the ocean’s edge or walking amidst the redwoods. What was I expecting, anyway? In truth, I was just expecting to enjoy the early evening coolness and to take in the color-brushed clouds. I just happened to get the other experiences in addition because they are a part of this environment. The walk makes me wonder, though, can experiencing beauty motivate us to protect it, nurture it? Or are we so used to the traffic, the billboards, the burning leaves and discarded shoes, to the poor living in substandard housing, that we give up on beauty, that we forget to notice those gestures of grace nature gives us even in the city from time to time–those rare moments of clear sky and color-streaked clouds that open our eyes, move us out of our routines, the moments that call us to step out of our brokenness into the possibility of another way of being?

On the other hand, maybe its that very poverty and brokenness around me that encourages me to notice the way the sky sometimes opens into a canvas of shinning color, as it did this evening. Either way, I need those moments of open sky and color. They carry me through winters. The winters I’m talking about don’t always necessarily always come with snow and cold. They can look like a multitude of cities flung across this world, or any place where we are too busy to notice or take care of what nurtures us.

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