personal, ruminations

The Joys of Life, the Moon, and Reading

Source: eye of einsteinMoon Sliver

Last Wednesday evening, as I got up from the computer, I looked out the window. There in the sky, fragile and held aloft by what seemed to be nothing was a sliver of the moon. The horizon I could see over the nearby houses was an enchanting shade of mild orange, which melted into a thin rainbow of yellow and green under a sky of beautifully darkening blue.

To improve the image, the trees, long since little more than needle-like lines in the sky, pointed up everywhere. And below, a thick layer of recently fallen snow made the evergreens look like the quintessence of winter.

Were I feeling vulnerable, I though, I might just have to shed a tear or two at this sight. A sight made all the more valuable because of all the times I know I’ve forgotten to look out the window and say “My God, it’s grand to be alive.”

It’s exceptionally easy to forget what a wonder life is, as we bustle from meetings to errands to television and bed. And it’s when we lose sight of these sights, that thin sliver of a moon held aloft over a perfectly darkening horizon, that we begin to stress about things unworthy of our care.

Getting a raise, or a Christmas bonus, are perhaps not trivial concerns. Making certain you’ve got a shelter for warmth, and food and water to keep you alive certainly are not. But when I stood there and looked at the moon, not a single thing in the world seemed to matter much at all.

Were I to have died, right then, right there, I would have been satisfied. Sure I haven’t accomplished all I’d like. I’m not confident that the world’s a better place than it would have been without me. But to know I got to fully enjoy that view of the moon over my horizon when no one else did was enough. And that can alway be enough.

It’s that feeling, that deep awareness of the importance of that moon over that horizon, that has inspired my undying love for both The Little Prince and the poems of William Stafford. Like no other writers, Saint ExupĂ©ry and Stafford seem aware of the amazing power that’s contained in watching the last flickering momemts of the sunset, as the thin moons floats aloft exactly where you want it to be.

Sharing that feeling of love and peace communicated by those men is perhaps the highest ambition of this man.

big ideas, poetry

In Praise of Simplicity

I think that one of greatest poems ever written is “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. You’d be hard pressed to find something that said so much with so little:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

The image is stark and clear, and though we may not know what the “so much” is that depends upon this beautiful image, it’s better that we’re left to guess.

I like to assume that “so much” is the fate of the known world. That all the things that I and you hold dear are at risk. Not in the absolute way that they may be threatened from an angry neighbor or a nuclear bomb, but something about our existence would be the less if this image didn’t happen. If this instant of reality wasn’t captured in these words.

But this poem isn’t great just because of its length and simplicity of structure. Surely poems have been written with fewer letters, or with a less delineated structure. This is about the density of the images and their meaning.

And don’t think that this is only about poems. I would contend that some of the greatest books, movies, and paintings are also starkly simple. The Little Prince or any Dr. Seuss is simple. But in their simplicity there is also something crucial. Saint Exupery’s story is brimming given its length. Dr. Seuss is fun, but he’s also teaching us something. Always teaching us something we really should know.

Movies. Too many people are too concerned with displaying the weakness of men, their personal struggles and the deeper meaning of those struggles. I’m not saying these aren’t worthy and sometimes interesting quests, but the measure of a films worth should not be the number of meanings that we can only guess at. David Lynch makes interesting movies, but they are not fun nor joyful.

Sometimes what we need is simple easy joy. Sometimes (maybe a lot) we need to put down The Brothers Karamazov and look for a time at a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water and just, for a time, soak in the glow of simplicity.


Retroview: The Little Prince

An explanation of what a Retroview is can be found here, though it should be pretty clear from this text.

The first time I read The Little Prince, I think i was probably around 16. That’s pretty old for a book stereotypically for kids, but I’ve never believed in being held back because my parents didn’t know that there were better books out there.

I was actually reading it (in English) because we were going to read it soon in French class (in French) and I believe in having as many advantages as you can. But I was surprised by the book. In the best possible way. Though the translation was sometimes clunky, it was always charming in a way that made it clear that the original was too.

The story of the little prince is rather simple. A little boy leaves his home planet, of which he was the only inhabitant, except for his rose, and travels awhile before arriving on Earth and meeting our narrator, a stranded pilot, in the desert. It’s not the plotting of the book which makes it great though, it’s the quiet charm of the way in which it is told.

It begins with the narrator explaining that in his childhood, he was discouraged from drawing because he had no great talent for it, nor was there any respectable future in it. But this serves only as an excuse for the poor pictures that accompany the story.

Most notable though, are the little jibe against adults that pervade the story. The five men that the little prince meets on his journey that leads him to earth serve to remind all of us of our predisposition to self-importance, even when we lack any legitimate reason for feeling that way.

The narrator also subtlety suggests that all our values are wrong. That those of the little prince, of simple wonder at life, of the role of little things that are personally rather than publicly important, are far more worthwhile.

This is what I always have, and still do, love so much about the book. It offers an alternative to all the way that we can go wrong.

If one refuses the possibility that a child can be wiser than an adult, this book could become grating. But if you’re at least willing to accept the possibility, give this charming little book a chance.

big ideas, metablogging, retroview, review

Retroviews, An Introduction

A REtroVIEW (or simply retroview) is an idea I have been kicking around for some time. It is, at the lowest-level, a review of something old.

More importantly, it is a review of something old which has long-standing personal importance. That is, it’s a review of a book you always loved, a movie you always hated, or a thing that scared you when you were seven years old.

What makes the composition of a retroview different from that of a review is that a retroview both acknowledges and utilizes the personal meaning of the object in question.

Where in a review you are to make a judgment on the value of the work alone: how it exists in itself, without any attached emotional or personal significance; in a retroview you are freed from any such pretension. By acknowledging upfront that you have prejudices about the material, you are freer to discuss it honestly and less likely to come off sounding unjust.

Personally, one of the first books that I ever really loved intensely was The Little Prince. And as a blogger I may want to bring attention to said book by reviewing it, despite its age. Thus, I can write a retroview about the book acknowledging, both implicitly in my header and explicitly in my text, it’s past and continuing significance for me.

Retroviews are often done, but without acknowledgment of this inherent nostalgia. They are usually given other, but less useful, guises: as reviews of the new DVD release or the 40th anniversary edition. I’m not accusing such labellings of dishonesty, but rather an extreme lack of creativity in its titles.

If you doubt the substantial biases of retroviews, look at any reviews written of Citizen Kane, or a similarly old movie, written in recent time. You will certainly find in these reviews an undue tenderness for the review’s subject. One that is perhaps undue and certainly different from an initial or more immediate reaction to such a film.

Citizen Kane got notoriously bad reviews (especially, but not exclusively, from the papers of William Randolph Hearst) when it was released in 1941. Orsen Welles, the boy genius, had failed to live up to his own hype.

Yet reviewing this movie today no one, not even one working at a former Hearst newspaper, would dare to say a single bad thing about it. It would be bad for their reputation as a critic (the consensus is too well established), and to their fond memories of their first discovery of the film.

So whether or not you chose to use this moniker on your own REtroVIEWs is your own decision. But for me, that’s what they’ll always be.

And do expect the first one to come soon.