A Spiritual Quest

I’m a keeper of journals. For as long as I can recall I have written my way through life. In copious notebooks I’ve documented and reflected on what’s been a mostly unremarkable story. Regardless, the earliest of these are drenched with angst. As I scan them now, I cringe. They read like an endless and urgent ‘quest’ for improvement or for reality different to the one I knew.

My religious upbringing did not help. The journey to Christian devotion — a quest of the most noble kind — was fueled by a dim view of the human heart and of the world in which we’re ‘entrapped’. The narrow road out and toward God was paved with words of obligation: repent, give up, let go, deny, quench, resist. It was an urgent business. Honestly, I felt more failure than progress as I trudged along, but the drive to ‘press on’ remained.

With the benefit of age, I wish now I could go back to that ernest young man and others like him. While he sits hunched over his journal I would stand behind him, my hands on his shoulders, and speak words of peace. “Go easy,” I would say, “this world is good and precious, and so are you.”

It is the psalmist who affirms all creation as filled with the beauty and majesty of God and St Paul who marvels at that all-encompassing love that leaves no peak or crevice of this life untouched. The Franciscan Richard Rohr describes true religion as “always a deep intuition that we are already participating in something very good, in spite of our best efforts to deny it or avoid it.” Indeed, this world declared ‘good’ and ‘very good’ in the creation story continues to be so. The great privilege of the Christian faith is not that we are on a journey toward God, but that we are in God and the life of God is in us.

Yes, I am still journaling and still questing. I still seek meaning in what I do. I still aspire to goodness in who I am and justice for those around me. But the urgency of it and the self-criticism, they are less. Rather than being driven by a rejection of the world’s darkness and a desire for improvement in myself, I find myself inspired by the beauty of all that’s around and even within me. Today there is less drive for personal progress and more longing for the grandeur, kindness and grace that fills this world of ours.

The gift of Winter trees

Winter has begun.

This morning, pulling in the folds of my coat as I walked to work, I was braced not only by the chill of the air but by the beauty of the bare trees that line the paths. There’s something elegant, mesmerising, about the naked branches of a tree that reach up against the blue of the morning sky.

There’s much about this season that’s challenging. We instinctively retreat. We might assume beauty goes dormant until brighter times. Yet the trees remind us otherwise.

The English farmer-poet Philip Britts knew this. Back in 1936, in a place much colder than mine, he said it beautifully.

Upon a Hill in the Morning

The timid kiss of the winter sun,
The waiting faith of the naked trees,
The breath of the day so well begun,
Take what you will and leave me these.

Leave me my love and leave me these,
Leave me a soul to feel them still,
Better to be a tramp, who sees,
Than a monarch blind upon a hill.

I worried

Mary Oliver

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally, I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

House & Home

I walked with a friend last week — a lockdown lap of the local park. In conversation we covered the well-worn territory of our work, its ups and downs. “If you could start over,” he asked, ‘what would you do?” “Architecture,” I said without pause, “I would be an architect.”

It’s true. As a kid I lay in bed at night sketching floor plans on little white cards. They were humble places — three bedrooms and one bath — reflecting my childhood. Our eleven squares of cream-brick veneer was all I knew. I discovered grander possibilities only when I was older.

I have just finished reading Dominic Bradbury’s beautiful book The Secret Life of the Modern House. Through nineteen chapters, Bradbury traces the last 150 years of evolution in house design. With extraordinary insight he charts the way our homes have been reinvented, reflecting changing tastes and ways of living. It’s a fascinating tale.

At the outset Bradbury reminded me of the words of the great modernist architect Le Corbusier, referring to the spirituality of the home. “To build one’s house is very much like making one’s will,” he said, “when the time does arrive, it is not the mason’s nor the craftsman’s moment, but the moment in which every man makes one poem in his life.”

I like that. We are all homemakers; we are all writers of our own residential poems. The homes we ‘build’ and within which we make our lives are among our most precious possessions. Whether we rent or own, our homes reflect us. They embody our aspirations and, in time, they house our deepest values. Poems indeed.

Of course, what irks me about Bradbury’s tale is what so commonly gets up my nose about domestic architecture more generally: it serves the rich. Of all the homes that Bradbury writes about — those that set trends and challenged traditional ways of thinking — there is barely one I could live in. At architecture’s cutting edge, it is as though only those who can afford it are gathered up in the sublime beauty of its poetry. The inference is that the rest of us are left with simple ditties that never quite make the grade.

Yes, I know. It is the breakthroughs in grand architecture that supposedly ‘trickle down’ into the design of more ordinary homes. Yet the absence of the ordinary in these great tellings of residential history risk missing the essence of our story. The truth is, my parents’ three bedrooms and one bath — the home in which I dreamed of my own future — was a poem as sublime and real as any other.

God … are you there?

God … are you there?
I’ve been taught and told
I ought to pray.
But the doubt wont go away;
yet neither will my longing to be heard.
My soul sighs
too deep for words.
Do you hear me?
God … are you there?

Are you where love is?
I don’t love well,
or often, anything, or anyone.
But when I do,
when I take the risk,
there’s a sudden awareness
of all I’ve missed;
and it’s good,
it’s singing good.
For a moment
life seems as it should.
But, I forget, so busy soon,
that it was, or what or whom.
Help me!
God … are you there?

Ted Loder, Guerrillas of Grace, 1981.

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free

I first read this poem sometime after the events of 9/11. Partnered with a US citizen, I had two young children born in Los Angeles. Watching the horrific events play out in New York and Washington, it felt to me like the world was coming apart.

These words from poet Wendell Berry came to me from somewhere. I don’t recall how, but they embodied fragility and beauty in a way I needed at the time. I remember laying on the grass of neighbouring Royal Park with my son, looking up at the stars and feeling despair and grace in equal measure. One did not discount the other, but grace held.

The Peace of Wild Things

Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Gravy. It’s all gravy.

At just 39 years of age and an alcoholic, the American poet Raymond Carver was given six months to live. In and out of rehab, he was destitute, his marriage over and his career stalled. Somehow Carver found the courage to change. He stopped drinking and began a slow journey back to himself. Ten years later Carver faced a new challenge: lung cancer. At age 50, without bitterness, Carver spent his final days with a deep sense of gratitude for every moment beyond his expectation.

Gravy

Raymond Carver

No other word will do. For that’s what it was. Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. ‘Don’t weep for me,’
he said to his friends. ‘I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure gravy. And don’t forget it.’

In Praise of Walking

Long before the pandemic, walking the city and its neighborhoods was, for me, a practice as life-giving as it was routine. Amidst Melbourne’s multiple lockdowns, it’s been a gift to my sanity.

For a long time, the Scottish poet Thomas A Clark has paid attention to the practice of walking. He finds in it the life I’ve so often experienced. In this particular poem, Clark provides a series of propositions or ‘truths’ about walking. Many of them resonate.

In Praise of Walking

Thomas A Clark

Early one morning, any moment, we can set out, with the least possible baggage, and discover the world.

It is quite possible to refuse all the coercion, violence, property, triviality, to simply walk away.

That something exists outside ourselves and our preoccupations, so near, so readily available, is our greatest blessing.

Walking is the human way of getting about.

Always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with paths, visible and invisible, symmetrical and meandering.

There are walks on which we tread in the footsteps of others, walks on which we strike out entirely for ourselves.

A journey implies a destination, so many miles to be consumed, while a walk has its own measure, complete at every point along the way.

There are things we will never see, unless we walk to them.

Walking is a mobile form of waiting.

What I take with me, what I leave behind, are of less importance than what I discover along the way.

To be completely lost is a good thing on a walk.

The most distant places seem most accessible once one is on the road.

Convictions, directions, opinions, are of less importance than sensible shoes.

In the course of a walk, we usually find out something about our companion, and this is true even when we travel alone.

When I spend the day talking I feel exhausted, when I spend it walking I am pleasantly tired.

The pace of a walk will determine the number and variety of things to be encountered, from the broad outlines of a mountain range to a tit’s nest among the lichen, and the quality of attention that will be brought to bear upon them.

A rock outcrop, a hedge, a fallen tree, anything that turns us out of our way, is an excellent thing on a walk.

Wrong turnings, doubling back, pauses and digression, all contribute to the dislocation of a persistent self-interest.

Everything we meet is equally important or unimportant.

The most lonely places are the most lovely.

Walking is egalitarian and democratic; we do not become experts at walking and one side of the road is as good as another.

Walking is not so much romantic as reasonable.

The line of a walk is articulate in itself, a kind of statement.

Pools, walls, solitary trees, are natural halting places.

We lose the flavour of walking if it becomes too rare or too extraordinary, if it turns into an expedition; rather it should be quite ordinary, unexceptional, just what we do.

Daily walking, in all weathers, in every season, becomes a sort of ground or continuum upon which the least emphatic occurrences are registered clearly.

A stick of ash or blackthorn, through long use, will adjust itself to the palm.

Of the many ways through a landscape, we can choose, on each occasion, only one, and the project of the walk will be to remain responsive, adequate, to the consequences of the choice we have made, to confirm the chosen way rather than refuse the others.

One continues on a long walk not by effort of will but through fidelity.

Storm clouds, rain, hail, when we have survived days we seem to have taken on some of the solidity of rocks and trees.

A day, from dawn to dusk, is the natural span of a walk.

A dull walk is not without value.

To walk for hours on a clear night is the largest experience we can have.

For the right understanding of a landscape, information must come to the intelligence from all the senses.

Looking, singing, resting, breathing, are all complementary to walking.

Climbing uphill, the horizon grows wider; descending, the hills gather round.

We can take a walk which is a sampling of different airs: the invigorating air of the heights; the filtered air of a pine forest; the rich air over ploughed earth.

We can walk between two places and in so doing establish a link between them, bring them into a warmth of contact, like introducing two friends.

There are walks on which I lose myself, walks which return me to myself again.

Is there anything that is better than to be out, walking, in the clear air?