Easter Sunday Rumination

In my end is my beginning. –– T. S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’ from The Four Quartets

In the past few months, three of our longtime friends had died, one from Covid, two from other health issues, all unexpected. What hope do three heartbroken widows have if not for that very good Friday and the magnificent Sunday shedding the hope of reunion in a glorious eternity.

The poet John Donne puts into words boldly in his 1633 sonnet.

Death, be not Proud

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Centuries later, a Kentucky farmer has written some down-to-earth lines. Wendell Berry’s poem for Easter calls for turning the belief into action. Resurrection begins now:

A Poem on Easter

The little stream sings
in the crease of the hill.
It is the water of life. It knows
nothing of death, nothing.
And this is the morning
of Christ’s resurrection.
The tomb is empty. There is
no death. Death is our illusion,
our wish to belong only
to ourselves, which is our freedom
to kill one another.
From this sleep may we too
rise, as out of the dark grave.

…..

He is risen.

Live out that Hope.

Practice resurrection.

***

Spring Cleaning

A Purification

At start of spring I open a trench
in the ground. I put into it
the winter’s accumulation of paper,
pages I do not want to read
again, useless words, fragments,
errors. And I put into it
the contents of the outhouse:
light of the sun, growth of the ground,
finished with one of their journeys.
To the sky, to the wind, then,
and to the faithful trees, I confess
my sins: that I have not been happy
enough, considering my good luck;
have listened to too much noise,
have been inattentive to wonders,
have lusted after praise.
And then upon the gathered refuse
of mind and body, I close the trench,
folding shut again the dark,
the deathless earth. Beneath that seal
the old escapes into the new.

–– Wendell Berry

Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write by Claire Messud

Intrigued by the title? I was, and that prompted me to investigate further. The subtitle pushed me out of indecision: an autobiography in essays. I’ve read two of Messud’s novels, The Burning Girl and The Woman Upstairs, both I couldn’t embrace wholeheartedly. However, the title of this non-fiction jumped out at me.

I’ve appreciated Claire Messud the memoirist and critic much more than Messud the fiction writer, albeit I admit I’ve read only two of her seven novels. The first part of this autobiography in essays reveals her multicultural roots and the various geographical locales that had made up who she is as a writer. A French father born in colonial Algeria and a Canadian mother, what an interesting fusion of culture.

Messud has left footprints and therefore collected memories in many parts of the world. She writes about her growing up years moving from Connecticut to Australia then to Canada and back to the United States, and later her travel to Beirut, an emotionally torn, love trip both for her dying father who had spent his childhood there with fond memories, and for herself.

In the eponymous essay, ‘Kant’s Little Prussian Head’, she writes:

“I can echo Walt Whitman in asserting that ‘I contain multitudes.’ I am who I am because I was where I was, when I was; and almost all of it is invisible to the world. This is true, of course, for each of us” (80).

Messud is generous in sharing the intimacies of her family relationships, especially those of her parents’ and grandparents’. I’ve found too that certain parts of her novels are based on real life experiences and encounters, e.g. the character Cassie in The Burning Girl.

The second part is both taxing and satisfying as she critiques on various international writers and artists, making up a good list for me to explore. Even though I haven’t read some of them or seen their artwork, I find the essays informative, insightful, and exemplary in critique writing. Her prose is elegant and inspiring, and at times, exhilarating.

The Camus essays are captivating for me in terms of the historical backdrop and political situations of Algiers and the tough handling by the then French government. Camus the pacifist had to confront issues of violence, colonization and post-colonial dilemmas.

Her essay on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go elicits more poignancy from the already devastating fate of the characters Kathy and Tommy. In particular, she sheds new light into the moving scene where Kathy embraces the pop song Never Let Me Go longingly.

The essay on the photographer Sally Mann is mesmerizing. In an interview, Mann had said, “unless you photograph what you love, you are not going to make good art… it’s always been my philosophy to make art out of the everyday, the ordinary” (290).

Herein lies the dilemma of privacy and art making as Mann had candidly photographed her children growing up and her husband who is afflicted by muscular dystrophy, thus making her a highly controversial artist. Anyway, herein lies the dilemma of a memoirist, I suppose, like Messud’s book, there has to be the revealing of relational intimacy and private lives in order to imbue authenticity and truths in an autobiography.

Back to the essay ‘Kant’s Little Prussian Head’, Messud has, in her ingenious way, explains to her readers how she gets the title from. I’ll leave it with you to explore instead of me clumsily paraphrase. However, I’d like to conclude by quoting this moving episode of Messud and her mother who was afflicted with dementia:

“In the last two years of her life, she was often quiet––she who had been so vitally social––and once, as she sat in silence, I asked her what she was thinking. With a wry and wistful smile, she answered, “Shards of memory, and new worlds discovered”(82).

To store up and share fragments gleaned from the ruins of the past is just one of the reasons for Messud to write, as well, for her readers to collect and keep in our own trove containing our own shards of memory, as we all share the magic of these lived experiences through the literary and the arts.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write: an autobiography in essays by Claire Messud, W.W. Norton & Company, NY, 2020. 306 pages.

______________

The Sound of Autumn Leaves

A few years ago, I flew a couple thousand miles and drove some more to see New England’s fall foliage. Today, within walking distance, I marvel at the colours of autumn right in my neck of the woods.

We don’t have maples trees here. Our fall colours are mainly yellow and rusty orange.

Birds have mostly flown south, what’s left is a scenery of silent gold… until I come to this aspen grove. No, they’re not silent at all, as I see how these trees put on a show of vibrancy.

Kawabata entitled one of his books The Sound of the Mountain. Here, I can hear the sound of flaming aspens, full of vitality and life.

Surely, Robert Frost had wisely noted that nothing gold can stay, and yet, I find these simple lines speak louder, as if in reply:

The leaves do not mind at all
That they must fall. *

If only for a short, ephemeral moment, they fulfill their purpose and shout out the sound of life.

_________________

*From the poem ‘The Leaves Do Not Mind At All” by Annette Wynne

Related Ripple Posts:

New England Road Trip begins here

The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata

One or Two Things

One or two things are all you need
to travel over the blue pond, over the deep
roughage of the trees and through the stiff
flowers of lightning–––some deep
memory of pleasure, some cutting
knowledge of pain.


For years and years I struggled
just to love my life. And then

the butterfly
rose weightless, in the wind,
“Don’t love your life
too much,” it said,

and vanished
into the world.

––– Mary Oliver, lines from “One or Two Things”

***


‘The Dig’ is a Visual Meditation on Time and Life

Don’t judge a movie by its title. The seemingly uninspiring title packs a lot of story and ideas. Based on a true event and the novel of the same name by John Preston, the dig refers to the historic excavation of an Anglo-Saxon ship and the treasures inside its burial chamber, the medieval grave of possibly a warrior king dating back to 600’s AD. The archaeological event took place at the start of WWII in 1939 on Edith Pretty’s Sutton Hoo property in Suffolk, England. For a historical reference point, just seventeen years earlier, English archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Director Simon Stone has chosen to turn a spectacular archeological find into a lyrical, visual narrative that is elegiac and ponderous in tone. His focus isn’t so much on the unearthed treasures but the process of the dig, and the human stories adhere to it. A valuable asset Stone holds in his helm is an excellent cast.

Carey Mulligan plays Edith Pretty, the widow of a Colonel whom she still mourns at his grave while raising their young son Robert (Archie Barnes). As an amateur archeology enthusiast, she has a feeling the mounds on her grounds have something significant buried. Hiring a local excavator, Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), she watches her hunch realized.

However, Edith’s deteriorating heart condition is a constant reminder of her own mortality, a tug at her soul, brewing a deep concern for her son Robert after she’s gone. Mulligan acts not just with her facial expressions; her whole body speaks to the fragility of life. While treasures are unearthed, her fears and sentiments are buried deep within.

To interplay with Mulligan’s delicate demeanor, Fiennes delivers an understated performance with the unglamorous character Basil Brown. A country excavator, stooped in posture, quiet yet determined, apparently knowing much more than he shows. It is gratifying to see the two of them interact in a naturalistic way, their expressions equally sensitive and nuanced.

Reading about Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tuktankamun, Edith is apprehensive about finding human remains in the dig, as that’s like disinterring the dead. Brown answers with his view of the philosophy of the discipline: “… that’s life what’s revealed. And that’s why we dig.” And, as his wife May (Monica Dolan) points out, it’s about continuity for the next generations, so they know where they come from.

The ‘untrained’ Brown––with no academic credentials but learned the skill from his father passed down from his grandfather––has to yield to the authority of the famous archaeologist from the British Museum, Charles Phillips (Ken Stott). Phillips takes over the dig as soon as he arrives on the site with his team of specialists.

Among them are the archaeologist couple Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) and his young wife Peggy (Lily James). Their incompatibility is obvious; Stuart is happier with fellow team member John Brailsford (Eamon Farren) than with his wife. Later, the arrival of Edith’s cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn, Mr. Knightley of Emma, 2020) further alters the relational dynamics. While at the dig, Rory is called up by the RAF, a worrisome commission as war with Germany breaks out.

There’s interesting play with sound, or the lack of. For some short moments in certain scenes, there’s just silence. All sound and music halt. Most other times, the score is meditative, quiet piano playing. There are often juxtapositions of scenes linked by voice-overs, offering a fresh way of storytelling. This is effective not just to show what’s happening at different places or time, but that the dialogues can be relevant for different people in other situations as well.

Cinematographer Mike Eley captures on screen some exquisite sights of the English open country, wide shots shrouded with a hazy light, sometimes teal, sometimes golden. Terence Davies’s Sunset Song comes to mind, albeit The Dig is a much quieter film.

Young Robert’s fantasy with the cosmos and his imaginary tales cannot be brushed away as just spice to animate the mood. Kudos to Moira Buffini’s screenplay, the film wraps up with mother and son laying close together in the dug-up ship under a starry sky at night, as Robert tells his mother and Brown observing nearby, his woven tale of the ship taking the queen home to the stars to meet the king, leaving everyone behind, a poignant metaphor and a fable-like send off. Mulligan and Barnes are treasures here. That aerial shot is magical.

The Dig begins streaming January 29, 2021 on Netflix. I’ve watched it twice so far, once isn’t enough to capture all that need to be noted to appreciate.

~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples

Parable of the Migratory Birds

Fall is migration season. The Pond is a stopover for avian migrants enroute to coastal NW United States, or further south to the Gulf Coast and even Mexico. This year, for some reasons, the traffic at the Pond and the adjacent lake is particularly busy, all to a birder’s delight.

October came in like a lion and out like a lamb. We had heavy snow by the middle of the month when the leaves had not all fallen off from the trees and the grass was still green. The lowest temperature reached was -18°C, that, my friend to the south, is 1°F. The water at the Pond was frozen by the third week. But after that premature winter, we were blessed with warmer days towards the end of the month, and even breaking a one day record high on Nov. 2, reaching 23°C, or 73°F.

But it’s not the temperature that interests me. What I find amazing is the variety of waterfowl converging here on their way to the south and the way they come together.

Here are some photos in the past couple of weeks. Mallards, Mergansers, and Ring-billed Gulls side by side. I think I heard Lady Merganser say: so what if my Lucille Ball hairstyle or its colour is different from yours, just let me be and swim to my heart’s delight. Whether you dip or dive for your food, these diverse avian species know how to get along and enjoy the warm sun, fresh air, and clear water:


What does it matter that a female Goldeneye is leading a flock of Buffleheads:

From the front of the line: Female Goldeneye, Male Buffleheads (wearing white hoodies), followed by two Female Buffleheads (white patch on cheek).

At a lake nearby, more migrants converged. It was a pool party of diversity: Canada Geese, Goldeneyes, Mallards, Coots, Gulls… those were just the ones I could see from afar. Only when there’s peaceful coexistence can they conserve energy for the long haul, and leisurely soak up the sun, preen their plumage, do yoga stretch, and of course, fuel up on nature’s buffet.

Thanks to other birders alerting me, that’s the first time I saw Swans here. From a far distance, I sighted several of them on the half frozen lake (or, half melting lake):


I can’t decide even after researching online whether they were Trumpeters or Tundra Swans as I was unable to see their bills from so far away, not even from the enlarged photo later. The two on the right in the picture above are juveniles as they’re greyish in colour. The one in the middle in the foreground standing on one leg is a Canada goose. Note the difference in size.

That day, I had my fill of avian sightings, albeit just watching from the shore far from the activity. The swans stood out in their sheer physical impression among all the ducks and geese, yet they were gentle and not bullies.


Maybe the migratory birds know that they’re only here temporarily, as they’re all in transit. As time is short and their presence ephemeral, might as well be at peace with each other and indulge in what they are given: Nature’s bounty, and enjoy their fill of common grace.

***

Clashing Beauty

Whenever I photograph birds, I try to avoid any human structures in the frame, even houses from a far distance, but that’s not possible all the time. Sometimes, the juxtaposition of human society and nature can be seen aesthetically, and not as a clash.

These pelicans are like dancing musical notes flying into the sky.

A steel and concrete bridge could be a major obstruction to natural beauty, but it’s there because a river runs through it:

A sunset is still a sunset, even from the parking lot of a Costco. This is the first Costco opened on First Nation land in North America. Located in the Tsuu T’ina Nation bordering the southwest boundary of Calgary, Alberta, not too far from the Pond. A sunset is still a sunset no matter where you see it.


That voice from 1992 LA still rings true: we need to get along, human and nature, human and human. Signage in that Costco is bilingual, English and the Dene language (Northern Athabaskan) of the Tsuu T’ina Nation. We’re used to bilingualism in Canada, but this is the first time I see an Indigenous language posted together with English.

A needed directional pointer for things to come, not to stop but to press forward to accommodate multiplicity and live in harmony. That too, is a form of beauty.

***

One Duck at a Time

I went to the Inglewood Bird Scanctuary last weekend. The famous migratory visitors there are the Wood Ducks. They come every spring to breed, stay for the summer, and fly away in the fall. But strangely, you can’t always see them there. So it’s a delight just to catch one or two hanging out.

Last weekend, I was excited to find not just a couple but a flock of Wood Ducks there. That could well be my last glimpse of them before they take leave. How we need something beautiful to look at this fall. Like canning your summer harvest for winter enjoyment, the photos I take will be my winter treats.

See the fallen tree trunks in the centre of the water in the above photo? That’s their hub. See them? Here’s a closer look:

Some might just walk by and not give them a second look, just some ducks they might think. But in my limited birding experience, the Wood Duck is probably the most beautiful ducks I’ve seen.

Beauty in a tangled mess of broken trunks and decaying wood makes me think of the Japanese notion of Wabi-sabi:

They like to gather on the branches, often just sleeping, preening, or sunbathing. So, it’s a real treat to see them swim out so I can take these photos. I can see how Monet would paint the scene if he were here:

Check out this slide show below:

Don’t know if I have the chance to see them again this fall, so I’ll just bid them adieu until next year. Don’t know much about anything these days, but I’ll take one duck at a time, and be glad to count my blessings, bird by bird.

***

Up in the Trees

What I find walking in the woods can be redundant and mundane, that goes for my photos too. But looking up into the trees can be therapeutic psychologically, especially these days, not to mention beneficial for the neck muscles.

Mundane or unusual, here are some sightings during my walks in the past weeks.

You see them everywhere, their by-products littering your grounds. But the Canada Geese in my neck of the woods don’t gather at the Pond or on the ground, but high up on trees. I think they nest there too:

Another CG on tree

Here’s one taking the abode of a previous tenant, the owl family. How do their young come down from so high up? They’ll have to learn to fly first, just like other birds, another birder said when I asked. Or, the mother could carry them on their wings, my imagination added.

New Tenant

occupying the nest of the owls

A Robin, never too common for me, especially when I capture a handsome one:

Robin not common

One time, I saw this ball from afar:

Ball on tree

Walked closer and found this. Do porcupines nest on trees too, or just for naps? Or, is it something else? The next day I went back to look for it and it was gone.

Porcupine ball

Mundane or unusual, my curiosity is piqued walking the same paths year after year. This curious Yellow Warbler well represents my feelings:

Curious Yellow Warbler

Here’s another curious one:

Curiosity

In a previous post about the Yellow-rumped Warblers, I’d noted that the white-throated one is called the Myrtle Warbler of the East and far north, and the yellow-throated one the Audubon’s Warbler from the West. Just curious, what do you call this one with both white and yellow on the throat:

Yellow-rumped Hybrid

Curiosity in the mundane. Maybe that could get me out of bed on those days when I get too used to that stay home mandate.

.

***

Birding with Annie Dillard

This is not merely wishful thinking.

I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek years ago. At this moment in time, with the pandemic and disruptions, it seems like what she describes in her book is a piece of Arcadia, a setting in a totally bygone era, idyllic, clean and pristine, and also something I’ve long swept to the back of my mind. Just this week, I’ve the chance to listen to the audio version of the book, read by the marvellous Tavia Gilbert, a very ‘Dillardy’ voice. Her narration prompted me to dig out my copy of Tinker Creek.

This time, Dillard’s nature writing meant much more to me. When I first read it years ago, I wasn’t a birder, couldn’t even ID a chickadee. Now, though still with minimal knowledge, at least I know what bird it is she’s describing.

It’s her chapter entitled “Seeing” that grabs me most. Her words I must quote directly:

Unfortunately, nature is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t affair… the brightest oriole fades into leaves. These disappearances stun me into stillness and concentration; they say of nature that it conceals with a grand nonchalance, and they say of vision that it is a deliberate gift…

I know how hard it is to capture an oriole before it ‘fades into leaves’:

Oriole

For nature does reveal as well as conceal: Now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do. For a week last September migrating red-winged blackbirds were feeding heavily down by the creek at the back of the house. One day I went out to investigate the racket; I walked up to a tree, an Osage orange, and a hundred birds flew away.  They simply materialized out of the tree. I saw a tree, then a whisk of color, then a tree again. I walked closer and another hundred blackbirds took flight. Not a branch, not a twig budged…

Even though I haven’t seen an Osage orange before, I know exactly what Dillard means by hundreds of blackbirds taking flight from one single tree. I’ve seen not blackbirds, but waxwings or starlings like that. As for our blackbirds, they usually gather at the Pond, solitary among cattails, seldom in flocks of hundreds:

RWBB

How I get what she means by nature reveals as well as conceals. Just a few days ago, I had both of these experiences.

I saw a pelican swimming peacefully on the Pond:

Pelican in serenity

Just as I went closer, she flew away. It happens a lot of times when I try to take bird photos:

Pelican Flying Away

And conversely, I also have a now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do moment. Walking in the woods, I suddenly caught sight of something in a distance, a ghostlike appearance:

Distant finding

As I waded around fallen trunks and leaves to get closer to investigate, hopefully to get to the front to take a picture, I lost sight of it. Then suddenly, something huge close by me flew away. It was right beside me!

GB Fly away

GBH Fly 2

It was a Great Blue Heron. I’d never seen it in the woods perching on a tree, only by the water. Just as I didn’t expect it, I saw it, and just as I realized what it was, it disappeared.

Now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do, now-you-don’t again. “These disappearances stun me into stillness and concentration,” Dillard writes. Too mundane to even mention? Far from it. “The grand nonchalance” of nature keeps us in a place of humility and evokes our need for sharper senses.

Yes, a better camera.

 

***

Easter Sunday Paradox

Light rising out of total darkness makes the most stark contrast.

I took this photo at sunrise two days ago. It wasn’t that dark in the environs but my camera pointing at the light source darkens everything else.

 

Rising Light

 

Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.

Let me find Thy light in my darkness,
Thy life in my death,
Thy joy in my sorrow,
Thy grace in my sin,
Thy riches in my poverty
Thy glory in my valley.

–– excerpt from The Valley of Vision

 

On that first Easter Sunday, the ultimate paradox came to pass, for without a willing death, there would not have been a resurrection.

He is risen!

***

 

HAPPY EASTER!

Thanks to the Quarantine Resource List from Alison Chino, I followed the link to her Trinity Aberdeen Pastor’s message from which the above prayer is quoted.