Tag Archives: nature

Transcendent Experiences

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Famed journalist, David Brooks, was the featured speaker at a recent conference at Pepperdine, and much of the conversation focused on an op-ed he wrote a year ago in The New York Times titled, “The Big University.”  The thought behind the article is summed up in a single sentence/paragraph:

In short, for the past many decades colleges narrowed down to focus on professional academic disciplines, but now there are a series of forces leading them to widen out so that they leave a mark on the full human being.

Brooks applauded this development and prescribed four tasks for colleges and universities:

  1. Reveal moral options.
  2. Foster transcendent experiences.
  3. Investigate current loves and teach new things to love.
  4. Apply the humanities.

While all four are worthy of reflective conversation, I am particularly drawn to the call to foster transcendent experiences.  Brooks wrote:

If a student spends four years in regular and concentrated contact with beauty—with poetry or music, extended time in a cathedral, serving a child with Down syndrome, waking up with loving friends on a mountain—there’s a good chance something transcendent and imagination-altering will happen.

Yeah, I dig it.

Last week, I was thousands of miles from home in Akron, Ohio, with a couple of unexpected hours and zero plans and somehow ended up hiking through a beautiful park amid the blazing colors of autumn.  The very next day, even farther from home in the heart of Manhattan in New York City, I had more unexpected time to spend while awaiting a meeting in a Fifth Avenue skyscraper and wandered into iconic St. Patrick’s Cathedral to experience an early afternoon Mass in that stunning venue.

A peaceful forest.  A majestic cathedral.  Two good choices.  And why did I have to travel so far to make such choices?

Brooks’s encouragement may have simply been intended for college students, but seeing that I feel a little thirsty for transcendence myself, my choices in those two moments make me wonder what might happen if I altered my routines to create “regular and concentrated contact with beauty.”

I just might do it.  And if nothing else, fostering transcendent experiences in my own life might make me more effective in fostering such moments for others.

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Dawn

I rise at dawn, lace up my running shoes, and step out into the cool pre-morning air.  There is no sign that anyone in the world is awake, other than the faint chirping of the early birds whom I presume are getting the worms.  For a moment, I feel privileged.

The sky is a bold shade of ambiguity.  It is neither dark night nor bright day, and if forced to decide I would declare it silver, although it is a bluish-grayish silver like the color of the Dallas Cowboys britches that I never have been able to properly identify.  The conservative moon shines brightly overhead to testify that night remains, but there is an unmistakable sense that night is transforming into a new day.  You can see the anticipation in the air.

On days like this, the day simply arrives without fanfare.  I like it that way.  The glorious sunrise is such a showoff, demanding adjectives like “glorious” and bursting on to the sky like Justin Bieber enters a party.  Sure, everyone wants to see a sunrise, but there is something comforting about the typical, understated way most days just seem to happen.  For those of us who struggle to keep it together, it is nice to know that you might just wake up and discover a new day.

I salute the dawn, nature’s way of saying that life and light are on the way.

Hope SPRINGs Eternal

“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball.  I’ll tell you what I do.  I stare out the window and wait for spring.” — Rogers Hornsby

Well, spring has sprung, or so I hear: it is hard to tell living in a land of perpetual spring, but the calendar seems rather confident about it.

There is an idyllic conception of spring where the frigid death of winter awakens to butterflies and chirping birds, colorful explosions of flowers, cottony clouds floating across a bright blue sky, and Julie Andrews twirling in musical exultation.  This has not always been my experience, at least on the first day or two.

But spring is real.  Nature is rhythm, and the very planet is predictably reincarnated each year in a birth-death-birth cycle that generates hope in all things if you let it.  In an increasingly insulated and distracted world, however, it takes effort to notice.

Anne Lamott wrote, “I am going to try to pay attention to the spring. I am going to look around at all the flowers, and look up at the hectic trees. I am going to close my eyes and listen.”

I’m with her.  I want to sense hope in every way—to see it, and hear it, and smell it, and taste it, and touch it—and even engage an ineffable (sixth) supernatural sense.¹  I will work at it.  Hope is imperative.

The woods and pastures are joyous
in their abundance now
in a season of warmth and much rain.
We walk amidst foliage, amidst
song. The sheep and cattle graze
like souls in bliss (except for flies)
and lie down satisfied. Who now
can believe in winter? In winter
who could have hoped for this?

– Wendell Berry, Given 58 (2005).

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¹ Inexplicable hope is the substance that undergirds Easter.

 

You Can’t Control the Weather

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A Malibu winter is, well, two mismatched words, yet visitors throughout the year often find the weather cooler than expected in this famous little town. I mostly blame the Beach Boys for misrepresentation. Still, the weather is pretty great, and in January you have to get past the general sunshine and spectacular sunsets just to imagine cold and dreary.

But we saw a lot of snow on our cross-country flight last weekend, and when we hit the Rocky Mountains (metaphorically, thank God), the aerial view was breathtaking and demanded an iPhone picture attempt through a dirty window at however many thousand feet. Thankfully, iPhones apparently know everything and mine let me know that I took the picture (above) in Fort Garland, Colorado. This thriving metropolis has a population of four hundred (or eight hundred for about fifteen seconds when our plane passed overhead).

Winter can be spectacular, but I remember enough from past lives to know that winter can also be a pain, and the bitter and numbing kind. Life is like that, too: spectacular at moments, and bitter at others.

Emily Dickinson presumably looked out her window once and wrote:

The sky is low, the clouds are mean,
A travelling flake of snow
Across a barn or through a rut
Debates if it will go.

A narrow wind complains all day
How some one treated him;
Nature, like us, is sometimes caught
Without her diadem.

That Emily Dickinson sure had a way with words. Nature has its glorious days, but it has its bad days, too, complete with mean clouds and complaining winds. As do we.

Today may be one of your glorious days, but then again, odds are that it could just as well be a day when you misplaced your diadem (editorial note: not a dirty reference if diadem is new to you, but it sort of sounds like it, doesn’t it?).

Good days come and go, just like the weather, and much of that is out of our control.

How we choose to respond is not.