Saturday, September 23, 2006

Alan Ball, "The Most Beautiful Thing I've Ever Filmed"

It was one of those days where it's a minute away from snowing. And there's this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it, right? And this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid, begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes.

That's the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know that there was no reason to be afraid. Ever.

Video's a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember. I need to remember.

Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.

from American Beauty

Anne Carson, "Mortal Life and How It Is Ruined"

once in a while in the long night I ponder
mortal life and how it is ruined.
not from bad judgment
do people go wrong—many are quite reasonable—
no look, it's this:
we know what is right, we understand it,
but we do not carry it out.
Either from laziness,
or we value something else, some pleasure.

from Grief Lessons: Four Plays By Euripedes
by Anne Carson

Teddy Roosevelt on Critics

"It is far better to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory or defeat. Though many must surely wonder why you are doing what you are doing, while many may criticize you, I want you to remember it is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong mand stumbled or where the doers of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, in your case the baseball field: whose face is marred by dust and mud, sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes up short again and again; who know the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly."

from The Iowa Baseball Confederacy
by W.P. Kinsella

Leonard Cohen, "Where The Good Songs Come From"

If I knew where the good songs came from, I'd go there more often. So it is that we shuffle behind our songs into the hall of fame -- shuffle awkwardly, not quite believing that we wrote them but happy that you do.

Leonard Cohen
Induction Speech, Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame

G.K. Chesterton, "Saying Grace"

You say grace before meals.
All right.
But I say grace before the play and the opera,
And grace before the concert and the pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.

by G.K. Chesterton
cited in Frederick Buechner's Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought To Say)

Armaud Bamba, "Perseverance"

by Armaud Bamba, Cote d'Ivoire
Amnesty International Urgent Action Network

Hope is not necessary in order to begin a task; success is not necessary in order to persevere. Our actions often lead to success, and if we rejoice in this, we cannot forget that sometimes, they are not followed by any perceptible result. If we campaign for an ideal, we should not limit our actions to a few calculations of probability; because our goal is too big. We must not wait for hope, even a faint glimmer, in order to get involved. Neither must we wait for success to persevere, because the very notion of perseverance implies effort without an apparent result. However, even without hope, we will carry on, and we know that one day we will see signs of hope, and the day after that day, we will succeed.

Paul Elie, "Pilgrimage"

from The Life You Save May Be Your Own
by Paul Elie

A pilgrimage is a journey undertaken in the light of a story. A great event has happened; the pilgrim hears the reports and goes in search of the evidence, aspiring to be an eyewitness. The pilgrim seeks not only to confirm the experience of others firsthand but to be changed by the experience.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Margaret Visser, "Epiphanies"

from The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery and Meaning in an Ordinary Church
by Margaret Visser

The word "remember" comes from the same Indo-European root as "mind." And the English word "mind" is both a noun ("what is in the brain") and a verb ("pay attention to," "care"). When one has forgotten, to remember is to call back into the "attention span," to recall. Attention is thought of here as having a span - an extension in space. Forgetting, on the other hand, is like dropping something off a plate, falling off an edge, not "getting" it, but having to do, instead, without it. Remembering is recapturing something that happened in the past; it is an encounter of now with then - a matter of time. Buildings - constructions in space - may last through time as this church has lasted. Such structures can cause us to remember. Their endurance, as well as their taking up space, may counter time and keep memory alive.

This particular church reminds us of Agnes, who was killed by having her throat cut almost 1700 years ago. But like any church, it recalls a great deal more. One of a church's main purposes is to call to mind, to make people remember. To begin with, a church sets out to cause self-recollection. Every church does its best (some of them are good at this, others less so, but every church is trying) to help each person recall the mystical experience that he or she has known.

Everyone has had some such experience. There are moments in life when - to use the language of a building - the door swings open. The door shuts again, sooner rather than later. But we have seen, even if only through a crack, the light behind it. There has been a moment, for example, when every person realizes that one is oneself, and no one else. This is probably a very early memory, this taking a grip on one's own absolutely unique identity, this irrevocable beginning.

I remember myself, walking along a narrow path in the Zambian bush. The grass was brown and stiff, more than waist-high. I was wearing a green-and-white checked dress with buttons down the front. I was alone. I said aloud, stunned, "Tomorrow I'm going to be five! Tomorrow I'm going to be five!" I stopped still with amazement: fiveness was about to be mine! I had already had four. The whole world seemed to point to me in that instant. The world and I looked at each other. It was huge and I was me. I was filled with indescribable delight. I took another step, and the vision was gone. But it's still there, even now, even when I am not recalling it.

This was a mystical experience. As such, one of its characteristics was that in it my mind embraced a vast contradiction: both terms of it at once? I was me and the world contained me, but I was not the world. I was a person, but I wasn't "a person" - I was me. A mystical experience is before all else an experience, and beyond logic. It is concrete, and therefore unique. It is bigger than the person who experiences it; it is something one "enters."

People have always, apparently in all cultures, conceptualized the world as participating in, or expressing, or actually being a tension between a series of opposites: big and small, high and low, same and different, hot and cold, one and many, male and female, and so on. Societies of people can have very idiosyncratic ideas about what is opposite to what: a culture can find squirrels "opposite" to water rats, oblongs "opposite" to squares, bronze vessels "the opposite" of clay ones. Anthropologists dedicate themselves to finding 'out what such classifications could mean; the answers they give us usually show how social arrangements are reflected outward upon the world, and determine human perceptions of how nature is ordered. One result of a mystical experience, therefore, can be a profound demystification.

For no sooner has a culture organized its system of contradictions, than the mystics arise. They steadfastly, and often in the face of great danger, assure their fellow human beings that they are wrong: what appears to be a contradiction in terms is merely a convention, a point of view, a façon de parler, no matter how self-evident it may appear. These are people who believe and convince others that they have been lifted out of this world and have seen a greater truth: the opposites are, in fact, one. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus can say, "The way up and the way down are the same." Or: "Step into the same river twice, and its waters will be different."

Such mystic realizations (up and down are one, sameness and difference coincide) have to keep occurring, both for the sake of truth, and for the necessity of realizing that neither our senses nor our thinking faculties have access to, or are capable of encompassing, everything. ("The last proceeding of reason," wrote Pascal, "is to recognize that there is an infinity of things beyond it.") For all the outrage-and bafflement with which the pronouncements of the mystics are greeted, we remember their words; in time we learn to appreciate and value them. In our own day, physicists have been talking like mystics for some time: expressing physical reality, for example, as conflating space and time, or declaring that waves and particles (lines and dots) can be perceived to be "the same." The rest of us are only beginning to take in what they are saying.

From the point of view of the person experiencing them, privileged moments - those that allow us to see something not normally offered to our understanding - do not last. Regretfully, necessarily, we cannot remain in such an experience. We move on, into the practical, the sensible, the logical and provable, the mundane. But after one such glimpse of possibility, we henceforth know better. We know what it is to experience two or more incompatible, mutually exclusive categories as constituting in fact one whole. We have seen both sides of the coin, at one and the same time. An impossibility - but it has happened. We may bury this experience, deny it, explain it away-but at any moment something could trigger it, raise it up, recall it. Because it has happened, and cannot unhappen.

One of the consequences of having had a mystical experience is a sense of loss. If only it could have gone on and on, and never had to stop; if only the door would open again! One of the hardest lessons we have to learn in life is that we cannot bring about such an experience, any more than we can make it last. Sex can remind us of it because, like a mystical experience, sex is ecstatic, overwhelming, and delightful; it feels bigger than we are. Drugs can also make us feel as if we're "there" again. So people pursue sex and drugs - experiences they can get, they can have. This other thing, this greater and unforgettable thing, this insight, is not anyone's for the asking. It comes (it always comes, to everyone, at different times and in different ways), and there is no telling what it will be or when or where, let alone how. You can't buy it or demand it or keep it. It is not a chemical reaction, and there is nothing automatic about it.

A mystical experience is something perceived, and it calls forth a response. But you are free to turn away from the vision, to behave as though it never happened; you are free not to respond. (This is something I have had to learn: when I was almost five there was no question of not responding.) The invitation cannot be made to anyone else but you - and not even to you at any moment in your life other than the one in which it is made. I shall never be five again, so no other mystical experience I have will ever again be that one. I shall never again wear that green-and-white checked dress; it is very likely that the path through the brown grass has disappeared. What I have left is the enormous memory, and the fact that it has enlarged all of my experience ever since.

Now a church (or a temple or a synagogue or a mosque - any religious building) knows perfectly well that it cannot induce in anyone a mystical experience. What it does is acknowledge such experience as any of its visitors has had, as explicitly as it can. A church is a recognition, in stone and wood and brick, of spiritual awakenings. It nods, to each individual person. If the building has been created within a cultural and religious tradition, it constitutes a collective memory of spiritual insights, of thousands of mystical moments. A church reminds us of what we have known: And it tells us that the possibility of the door swinging open again remains.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "Tales That Really Matter"

from The Lord Of The Rings (Book IV, Chapter 8, "The Stairs of Cirith Ungol")
by J.R.R. Tolkien

"I don't like anything here at all," said Frodo, "step or stone, breath or bone. Earth, air and water all seem accursed. But so our path is laid."
"Yes, that's so," said Sam. "And we shouldn't be here at all, if we'd known more about it before we started. But I suppose it's often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually - their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. And if they had, we shouldn't know, because they'd have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on - and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same - like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren't always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we've fallen into?"
"I wonder," said Frodo. "But I don't know. And that's the way of a real tale. Take any one that you're fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don't know. And you don't want them to."
"No sir, of course not. Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that's a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it - and the Silmaril went on and came to Earendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We've got - you've got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we're in the same tale still! It's going on. Don't the great tales ever end?"
"No, they never end as tales," said Frodo. "But the people in them come, and go when their part's ended. Our part will end later - or sooner."

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, "Baboons"

from Finding Flow
by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Baboons who live in the African plains spend about one-third of their life sleeping, and when awake they divide their time between traveling, finding and eating food, and free leisure time - which basically consists in interacting, or grooming each other's fur to pick out lice. It is not a very exciting life, yet not much has changed in the million years since humans evolved out of common simian ancestors. The requirements of life still dictate that we spend our time in a way that is not that different from the African baboons. Give and take a few hours, most people sleep one-third of the day, and use the remainder to work, travel, and rest in more or less the same proportions as the baboons do. And as the historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie has shown, in thirteenth centruy French villages - which were among the most advanced in the world at the time - the most common leisure pursuit was still that of picking lice out of each other's hair. Now, of course, we have television.

Annie Dillard, "Cranking The Flywheel"

from The Writing Life
by Annie Dillard

Every morning you climb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. The desk and chair float thirty feet from the ground, between the crowns of maple trees. The furniture is in place; you go back for your thermos of coffee. Then, wincing, you step out again through the French doors and sit down on the chair and look over the desktop. You can see clear to the river from here in winter. You pour yourself a cup of coffee.

Birds fly under your chair. In spring, when the leaves open in the maples' crowns, your view stops in the treetops just beyond the desk; yellow warblers hiss and whisper on the high twigs, and catch flies. Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.

Oblation: Robert, Andy, Auggie, Ricky

from An Offering Of Uncles: The Priesthood of Adam and The Shape of the World
by Robert Farrar Capon

I take my children to the beach. On the north shore of Long Island it is a pretty stony proposition. The mills of the gods grind coarsely here; but, in exchange for busied feet and a sore coccyx, they provide gravel for the foundation of the arts. Every year we hunt for perfect stones: ovals, spheroids, lozenges, eggs. By the end of the summer there are pebbles all over the house. They have no apparent use other than the delight that they provide to man, but that is the whole point of the collection. The very act of hunting them is an introduction to the oblation of things. Look at this one! Do you think it will split evenly enough for arrowheads? What color is that one when it's wet? Lick it and see. Daddy wants a big flat round one to hold the sauerkraut under the brine. Will this one do? We walk down the beach lifting stones into our history: we are collectors, ingatherers of being. Man is the lover of textures, colors and shapes – the only creature in the whole world who knows a good pickling stone when he sees one. The arts go way beyond that; but that is where they begin.

The child who runs the satin binding of his blanket between this fingers, the boy who carefully oils his collection of ball bearings so they will not rust, the woman who loves to handle thick braids, the man who opens his pocket-knife just to hear the satisfying click with which it closes – all these are priestly builders. It is in his simplest oblations that man is at his historical best. When he rises higher, he makes more mistakes – he diagrams and spiritualizes what should have been loved and offered as a thing; but at these low levels he is a success. The world has seen few badly offered blanket bindings, few profaned ball bearings. As long as man can hunt stones, he will know that the fire of his priesthood has not gone out.

But the oblation of things goes far beyond such simplicities. It is in the arts and the crafts that man most displays his priestliness and historicity. ...

It is a common error to suppose that the artist does what he does for himself – that he is a peculiar being who loves certain things in a way not open to others. It is also common to dismiss the craftsman as a fellow who does things for money. To some degree, of course, that is all true. Artists are usually a little odd; the laborer commonly, and legitimately, looks forward to his hire. But after that it falls short. For each is engaged in an offering of things not simply for his own benefit, but for the sake of the things themselves – and for the sake of other men. The painter paints because he loves the way things look and wants to offer his sight of them to others. The poet speaks because he loves words and longs for them to be heard as he hears them. And the cabinetmaker fashions and the joiner joins, and the chef cooks and the vintner toils because they love the conjunctions of things and will them to be moved into the weaving of the web. All arts come from having open eyes; and all arts are performing arts. Even the solitary artist in the cave draws to be seen, offers up what he looks at as a priest for other men. It is only in bad drawing, bad writing and bad woodwork that motives other than priestly ones become primary. It is when man stops loving what he does and stops caring whether others see that he becomes guilty of artistry that is not art and of craftsmanship that is only shoddy. ...

If speech is the crowning gift of man, then the arts of language probably qualify as the most nearly universal. Not all men can draw, many men cannot sing, and the world is full of cooks who ought to be allowed to rise no higher than the scullery; but all men speak, and practically no one is immune to the delights of rhyme and reason. The child, as soon as he learns words, plays with words. The teen-ager, with his stock of current clichés and his mercurial pattern of jargon, is a poet. He may recite only commercial slogans and comparable idiocies; but he recites them, at least partly, because he loves the way the words rattle. And somewhere along the line he will, unless he is starved to death, come to love some very grand rattles indeed.

I remember the first time I read Shakespeare's sonnets. "Lillies that fester smell far worse than weeds" stuck in my head for weeks – not so much for its meaning as for its marvellous wordiness. The city of speech is old and new, and rich beyond counting. ...

That only a few have the craft to forge such words takes nothing off the edge of the marvel by which man can sense the priestliness of their oblation And it is not only the grand and the gorgeous that qualify. ...

Speech is no mere tool of communication; it is a joy in itself. ... Speech should indeed inform, as food should indeed nourish, but what sane man will let either subject go at that? ...

Man's failure in music is like his failure in all the arts – a failure to make them really priestly, a penchant for non-historical and irrelevant forms. Far too much of the music we now have is only heard, not played or sung. It makes no demands, does not ask to be lifted; it just hangs around. We have canned music, background music, and music to do everything but listen to music by. But music cannot be only entertainment any more than speech can be only communication. We aim too low. Both are major oblations, and they will settle for nothing less. Neither can be merely used: they must be played.

Thank God for wine. Without it we would have almost no singing at all. Practically the only place where men now sing when they are cold sober is in church; and, to tell the truth, it sounds like it. As a professional religionist, I wish I could make a more glowing report; but, by and large, it is wretched. It is a triumph of use, not play. And for every man in church who sings, there are five who stand aloof from the whole business as if it were faintly disreputable.

Why? Because they are embarrassed by the sound of their own voices: they are ashamed of their priesthood. The city of music, which fairly cries for lifting into their history, is firmly and permanently locked out. I think that secretly, in their heart of hearts, perhaps, they envy people who play. But they do not show it often. If only they would. It isn't a matter of working themselves into miniature Isaac Sterns; the harmonica will do if it comes to that – or even tenth-rate four-part harmony. They underestimate the power of the arts. A man can practice for weeks on the strength of one-chord progression. Even the smallest oblation will lift the priest as he makes it; even a little attention to what is really there will be a historical triumph.


Rivers & Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time

Andy: I think its chances of survival are a bit slim.
I need a very heavy stone right here. "Can you bring me a very heavy stone? A kind of lumpy squarish one." Maybe I shouldn't have put that one on.
(They add the new stone. Two or three more. It collapses.)
That's the fourth… The fourth collapse. And the tide is coming in.
I think it would be better to wait.
The moment when something collapses is intensely disappointing. And this is the fourth time it's fallen. And each time I got to know the stone a little bit more. And it got higher each time. So it grew in proportion to my understanding of the stone. And that is really one of the things that my art is trying to do, is trying to understand the stone.
I obviously don't understand it well enough yet.

(Jump to the intercutting of the two stone cairns.)



by Paul Auster

Paul: Looks like someone forgot a camera.

Auggie: Yeah. I did.

It's yours?

That's mine alright. I've owned that little sucker for a long time.

I didn't know you took pictures.

Well, I guess you could call it a hobby. Only takes me five minutes a day to do it but I do it every day. Rain or shine, sleet or snow. Sort of like the postman.

So you're not just some guy who pushes coins across a counter.

Well that's what people see. But that ain't necessarily what I am.

(Cut to black and white photos, arranged in an album)

They're all the same.

That's right. More than four thousand pictures of the same place. The corner of third street and seventh avenue at eight o'clock in the morning. Four thousand straight days in all kinds of weather. That's why I can never take a vacation, I've got to be in my spot every morning at the same time. Every morning in the same spot at the same time.

I've never seen anything like this.

That's my project. What you'd call my life's work.

It's amazing. I'm not sure I get it, though. I mean, what was it that gave you the idea to do this… project.

I don't know. It just came to me. It's my corner after all. I mean, it's just one little part of the world, but things take place there too, just like everywhere else. It's a record of my little spot.

It's kind of overwhelming.

(He finishes with one book. Auggie give him another.)

You'll never get it if you don't slow down my friend.

What do you mean?

I mean you're going too fast, you're hardly even looking at the pictures.

They're all the same.

They're all the same, but each one is different from every other one. You've got your bright mornings and your dark mornings, you got your summer light and your autumn light, you got your weekdays and your weekends, you got your people in overcoats and galoshes and you've got your people in T shirts and shorts. Sometimes the same people, sometimes different ones. Sometimes the different ones become the same, or the same ones disappear. The earth revolves around the sun, and every day the light from the sun hits the earth at a different angle.

Slow down, huh?

That's what I recommend. You know how it is. "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, time creeps on its petty pace."

(We look at the photos, more slowly)

Oh Jesus. Look. It's Ellen.

Yeah, that's her alright. She's in quite a few from that year. Must have been on her way to work.

It's Ellen. Look at her. Look at my sweet darling.

(He cries. New scene: Auggie takes a picture of his corner.)



American Beauty
by Alan Ball

Ricky: What's wrong?

Jane: Nothing.

No, you're scared of me.

No I'm not.

You want to see the most beautiful thing I've ever filmed?

It was one of those days where it's a minute away from snowing. And there's this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it, right? And this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid, begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes.

That's the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know that there was no reason to be afraid. Ever.

Video's a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember. I need to remember.

Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.