Fall is a late this year, but I think that it has finally arrived. You can never tell for sure, but I think we are finally done with Indian Summer. The nights have turned quite cold. There is that chill in the air most mornings. The color on the trees seems more subdued this year (matching the mood of the world, I suppose); but the leaves have started to litter the lawn (there will be plenty more where those came from); snatches of red and yellow and orange are readily to be seen; and once again, New England’s nature has begun her incomparable death dance of fall.
As fall finally gets here, even the most deskbound of us start wanting to be outside more, before the forced hibernation and isolation of winter begins in earnest.
As I was growing up, I didn’t spend a lot of time out of doors. I was a city boy, and I spent my free time in movie theaters and libraries—which were good, as far as they went. But whatever images of nature I had tended to come from the flickering black and white picture of the television screen.
But I do remember my grandmother’s flower garden…
It would have been a lovely spot anywhere, but it was especially glorious, I think, situated there, in that rundown, working class neighborhood in Woonsocket where I grew up:
The colors—lavenders and golds and deep violet blues—and lots and lots of pink, I seem to remember—all upheld by a sturdy, resilient foundation of life-giving green. And the smell—the scent of it all—jasmine and lilac; the aristocratic perfume of roses; and the almost overpowering aroma of the long, continuous carpets of chamomile, which my grandmother would grow, and harvest, and hang to dry, and from which she would make her own teas.
A truly amazing garden of an amazing flower of a woman! With what ease she could make the soil yield such treasures! With what care she tended the blessings of the earth!
My grandmother was not an educated woman, and I doubt she attended school for a day in her life. She never did master English completely, in spite of almost seventy years in this country, and she spoke, till her dying day, with a deep and unmistakable Ukrainian accent.
But she was a wise old soul—so very hard working—and the people around her knew that she was wise. Other members of the Ukrainian community in our city would come to her for advice and counsel, to find out how she felt about some matter they were facing. She wore well the wisdom that comes, not from books and schooling, but rather the deep inner wisdom that comes from being down to earth.
But even my grandmother wasn’t perfect.
I remember sitting with her one evening, watching the news on television. I don’t remember what the particular news story was, but, as so often is the case, it wasn’t good news. I remember her turning to me at the end of the broadcast, and with her thick Eastern European accent at its thickest and most Eastern European, she said: “Jeffrey, do you know what dee problem eez vit dees country?”
“No, babchu,” I answered, “what do you think the problem is?”
And she looked right at me, her eyes steely gray and cold, and she replied: “Too many foreigners!”
She was down to earth. She was wise. But there were connections she didn’t make. She didn’t make the (rather obvious) connection between her experience as a foreigner in a strange land at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the experience of refugees and immigrants in our own day. She was so narrow-minded sometimes; so alarmingly prejudiced and stubborn—as hard as the frozen ground in winter. She failed, too, to make the connection between the marvelous diversity of her garden—with its myriad colors and patterns and shapes—and the very same diversity which our human race exhibits. She did not tolerate differences in people well.
Sometimes, simply being down to earth just is not enough.
Just before his martyrdom, the fourth century Christian saint Jerome wrote: “I have revered always not crude verbosity, but sancta simplicitas (holy simplicity).”
A thousand years after St. Jerome, the Bohemian radical Jan Huss, the great precursor of the Protestant Reformation, stood condemned for refusing to countenance the greed and degeneracy of the Church of his own day. As he stood tied to the stake in Prague, Huss saw a simple old peasant approach, emerging out of the crowd, holding high another torch to throw upon the fire, one more piece of timber to keep lit the fires of superstition and hypocrisy. Huss looked at the old peasant, then repeated sadly those words of St. Jerome: “O sancta simplicitas!” he cried. Sancta simplicitas—holy simplicity.
Holy simplicity can sometimes be very unholy, indeed.
It may be tempting sometimes to want to jettison all of our intellectual sophistication; get rid of all of our book knowledge, our learning, and our theories; to jettison all of this and to return, somehow, to simpler and more primal and direct ways of knowing. Especially when the world seems to have grown too complex for us to handle, and when the complexity of the world puts us in chains and fetters; when it turns us all into vacillating Hamlets, unable to decide what to do, unable to act—then we may well yearn for those seemingly simpler ways.
In her delicate, beautiful masterwork, Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote:
“…We must consciously encourage those pursuits which oppose the centrifugal forces of today. Quiet times alone, contemplation, prayer, music, a centering line of thought or reading, of study or work. It can be physical or intellectual or artistic, any creative life proceeding from oneself. It need not be an enormous project or a great work. But it should be something of one’s own. Arranging a bowl of flowers in the morning can give a sense of quiet to a crowded day—like writing a poem, or saying a prayer. What matters is that one be for a time inwardly attentive.”
Perhaps this is what it means to be “down to earth” in a positive and healthy sense. It doesn’t mean being rude. It doesn’t mean stubbornly clinging to our prejudices. It doesn’t mean refusing to stray from the well worn path we’ve walked down so many times before.
But it does mean ordering our lives so that we are “inwardly attentive”. It means endeavoring to live our lives so that we are attuned to the natural rhythms within ourselves, and within the Earth—the natural ebb and flow of life all around us.
Ideas are wonderful things. Learning is a magnificent thing. We have before us now, through whatever media we choose, a storehouse of the excitement and wisdom of the ages, now made accessible for all of us.
But beware the clutter, my friends—clutter of ideas, no less than of stuff.
In our modern age, especially, where we are so overwhelmed by the sheer size and volume of everything before us, the tendency we have is to clutter things up. Sometimes, our lives, too, can become so cluttered by learning and ideas that it becomes very easy to lose sight of what we actually do think, and how we actually do feel. We can become so cluttered with ideas and intellectualization about life that we are no longer attuned to the living of life.
If we come to a fork in the road, and one path says “To life”, and the other says “To a discussion about life”, should there really be any doubt about down which path we would choose to proceed? But some of us, if truth be told, might not be sure… and that’s a problem.
Then it becomes our calling to find some way—creative work, prayer, meditation, therapy, a change of vocation, an escape to a cabin in the woods, whatever—some way to get back into life, back down to the earth, to get back in tune with the rhythm of life.
That rhythm is often “a lament in one ear and a song in the other," as Sean O’Casey once said. But if we are alive, can we do anything other than sing that song at the top of our voices, with fullness of heart?
If life is short (and it is sort, in the light of eternity, certainly), then let us love it all the more for its shortness. If we must be nothing more than worms, then as Churchill once suggested, let us be glowworms—human glowworms, vibrant, living, loving creatures, a delight to all who witness our work here. Let us be human glowworms with faith and hope and creativity enough to set even the darkest corners of our own gardens ablaze with our passion for life, and our love for this Earth which has brought us to birth.