Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Call to Beauty

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Cathédrale Saint Bénigne in Dijon, France

As I got out of the car this afternoon my mind was focused on the never-ending to-do list.  The heavy canvas bags full of groceries reminded me of the dinner I would have to start soon.  Dog poops needed to be picked up.  Front and back lawns, growing at warp speed because of the weekend rain, required mowing before the day’s gray sky sent rain again.  A post-it note stuck on a kitchen cabinet door had a list of phone calls I had to make before another hour passed.

But as I began to trudge up the front walk, the bells began to sing.  It was three o’clock on an ordinary April afternoon when the air filled with the soft melody of the carillon bells in the tower at the Concordia Lutheran seminary in the neighborhood that backs up to mine.  During the summer we’re blessed to hear a full bell concert one evening each week as we go about our business of grilling out dinner, weeding the garden, emptying the trash.  This afternoon serenade, though, was an unexpected respite at the lowest point of the day – when there was so much to do and little energy left with which to do it.

I paused to listen until the music faded.  Brief (certainly not a concert), the notes had probably marked a call to the seminarians for a special service in their chapel.  As the chimes floated over me, however, they also carried me back to France almost a year ago.  The weekend that Brad and I had arrived in Dijon I saw a flyer posted about a carillon concert at the historic Cathédrale Saint Bénigne on Sunday evening.  In fact, it was in front of the cathedral on the street, the 53 church bells mounted on a mobile cart and transported from city to city to maintain the musical tradition.  People sat in the street, children danced to the accompanying jazz band, and during the hour-long concert it seemed the entire Dijon citizenry strolled through the square to listen for a few moments before moving on with a smile.  This was so . . . well . . . normal for these people to encounter beauty so casually.

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The Dijionaisse enjoying their street concert

In France, beauty appears in a flower pot full of sunflowers or red geraniums sitting on an a windowsill, in a cellist busking on a sidewalk in the middle of the street market, in the design of shop window display of chocolate treats, in the presentation of food on a plate, and in the ancient architecture that defines a city.  In America, however, one of the best violinists in the world can play in a public place on an instrument that cost $3.5 million and no one stops to listen (see the story and video of the Joshua Bell experiment here).

I know that as I grow older I’m more and more inclined to stop and listen.  I try to be more deliberate in my focus.  I try to keep my eyes open for unexpected beauty in my day.  I know when the peonies bloom.  I see the cardinal flash red as it takes off from its branch.  I look a particularly efficient supermarket checker in the eye and say, “Have a good day” and mean it.  I leave my ears unplugged from electronics to hear the rhythms of the world around me.  When I connect, momentarily, with a divine object I find myself more eager to offer something just as worthy to the universe.  The inspiration may last for only ten minutes or it may last all day.  But for that space I’m trying to ring my bells for glory.

So today I just want to remind you to do one small thing to create some beauty in the world or take a moment to notice the art in unexpected places.  You can start by listening to a bit of the bells from Dijon:

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If you enjoy what you read here, join the conversation by telling your own story of beauty in the comments box below.  Share this link with your friends.  Thanks for reading.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Cultivating My Garden

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Wild violets storming the gates of my garden

I spent more time last weekend taking plants out of my garden than putting in.  Dandelion plants the size of dinner plates.  Wild violets carpeting the area with dramatic indigo blossoms and broad, rounded leaves that choke out the yarrow plants and the ferns.  Grass migrating across the stone edging that is supposed to separate the lawn from the flowers.  Thousands of tiny little plants I don’t recognize and that I eliminate with Round-up because they’re too small to yank. I plucked out at least a dozen volunteer redbud tree sprouts.  All of these small beauties when viewed from the neighborhood sidewalk, unfortunately, form a natural “weed barrier,” preventing my carefully selected bulbs and perennials from flourishing.  So plunging the tongs of my garden claw into the earth (world’s best garden tool), I twist, then bend over to separate the green invaders from the clumps of dark earth and useful worms who’ve been so rudely unhoused.  Tossing the weeds into my lawn bag, I repeat the process at least a hundred more times.

Scattered throughout the garden space in their plastic pots are my new lavender and white primroses, a columbine plant weighted down by its orange and yellow bells, and a bleeding heart waiting to burst into bloom once it has a home.  But so often the putting in becomes secondary to the taking out.  When I began this garden the first year we moved into the house, the space beneath the intoxicating viburnum bush and graceful dogwood tree seemed like a blank canvas of rich soil and promises once I cleared the scrub juniper and forest of fig bushes.  I was going to shape this space as inspiration struck until at some distant time it rivaled any Cotswold cottage garden of Gertrude Jekyll.  But just below the surface was an army of unwanted seedlings ready to lay siege to what was supposed to be my green oasis.  And so every spring and fall, with a combination of patient brute force and a carefully controlled distribution of toxins I beat them into submission so that I may transplant a few more of the flowers to fulfill my vision.

Too often it seems like the rest of my life is likewise occupied.  I know what my world should look like.  I can imagine projects that would bring beauty, joy, and a sense of order to my days.  Yet somehow I always seem to be weeding, tending to the unexpected irritations lying just below the surface.  Is there some “life barrier” that I should have put down at some earlier age to prevent the unwanted interruptions that spread across my hours so that I expend more energy rooting out one nuisance after another than nurturing new blooms? Even goals as simple as creating 600 words once or twice a week for this blog fall victim to the wild overgrowth of my to-do list.  I look around at friends, family, strangers and see so much thriving in their patch of earth.  They have time to position a lovely garden bench and contemplate what they’ve sown in their lives while I continue to stab, twist, and pluck the never-ending weeds choking my most carefully thought-out agenda.

After years of chasing across the earth in a ship of blind optimism and absurd adventures in search of the best possible world, Voltaire’s Candide returned home.  When friends and family who had been part of these exploits asked what they should do now, he replied, simply, “You must cultivate your garden.”  And so I do.  This year the Sweet William I planted as ground cover a couple of springs ago has noticeably spread.  Soon it will block any possibility of weeds poking through in its vicinity.  And the old-fashioned bearded irises I bought at Iris City Gardens (outside Nashville) on impulse and poked into the ground, higglety-pigglety, are about to burst gold and purple fireworks in my garden.  So it goes with my life.  I will continue plucking the weeds one at a time, believing the back-stiffening labor eventually will bring the blooms – in their due season.

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