Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Kaua'i: A new way of looking at things

When I first decided to start this blog, I wanted the title to contain the word perspective. You see, I think perspective--how we look at our lives and the lives of others--is vitally important. Unfortunately, every title I wrote in my head that contained the word sounded pretentious and preachy.

Definitely not the vibe I was going for.

But most of my posts are about perspective in some way, so imagine my delight when I recently found this quotation from Henry Miller: "If we are always arriving and departing, it is also true that we are eternally anchored. One's destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things."

This summer, my sense of arriving and departing was magnified by our trip to Kaua'i, but two books I read before and during the trip significantly enhanced that sense of everything being eternally anchored.

A few weeks before we left for Kaua'i, I read A Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. Jacobs' first book, The Know-It-All, entertainingly documented his year of reading the Encyclopedia Britannica, and for his second year-long adventure, he took on the Bible. Jacobs is a non-observant Jew/agnostic who decided to experiment with living the Bible's laws as literally as he could.

At the end of that year, he writes:

"As with most biblical journeys, my year has taken me on detours I could never have predicted. I didn't expect to herd sheep in Israel. Or fondle a pigeon egg. Or find solace in prayer. Or hear Amish jokes from the Amish. I didn't expect to confront just how absurdly flawed I am. I didn't expect to discover such strangeness in the Bible. And I didn't expect to, as the Psalmist says, take refuge in the Bible and rejoice in it."

Jacobs didn't become a conservative (or even merely observant) Jew nor did he convert to fundamentalist Christianity as a result of his year-long travels in the Bible. He remained anchored in his secular world view, but his perspective changed and felt enriched by the journey nevertheless.

Near the end of his year, he was dancing at a bat mitzvah with his young son Jasper, who was starting to fuss. He describes the moment:

"I feel something happen. I feel something envelope me and then envelop Jasper. And then I feel it keep going.... I'd had some close calls all year. There was that hypnotic trance while watching the serpent-handling preacher. But I've never fully let myself go, always hovering a few feet above the ground like a hot-air balloon still stuck to its tether.

"So at this suburban Jersey country club, my son's hands locked around my neck, his head pressed against my shoulder, I chose to accept this feeling and ride it to the end. To surrender. If I had to label it, I'd say the feeling is part love, part gratefulness, part connectedness, part joy. And that joy was like joy concentrate.... My altered state only lasted all of ten seconds. Maybe less. And then it faded away. But not totally. There's still some background radiation--which I hope to God stays there for weeks, months."

I've felt that love/gratefulness/connectedness/joy concentrate Jacobs describes and have written about it myself. That altered perception of life, which I describe as sinking into the spirit, happens when we surrender to the moment, and surrender means we open ourselves to the fullness of life.

It's a hard feeling to describe, but Jacobs does a nice job of it. I'm struck by how similar our word choices were, despite our different perspectives. With the thoughts of Jacobs' experience fresh in memory, I sank into the spirit several times on Kaua'i. Beaches and gardens do that to me. These moments came on so intensely, so powerfully, and so fleetingly.

Putting yourself in a new place and surrendering to it is a great way to encourage these moments. You can't force them, but you can encourage them, rig conditions to be highly favorable to that sinking feeling: staring into an exotic blossom while simultaneously smelling it and the damp earth and hard, warm tree trunks, and hearing the water flowing in a stream and the birds and bugs making their noises and a soft sussurus people talking a little further up the trail and of your own breath, and feeling the dirt sink slightly under your feet, and giving thanks to the Creator of it all, being aware of His presence, and knowing with absolute certainty that it--all of it--is good.

I felt the connection to everything.



And I can still feel the background radiation of it all, as Jacobs puts it, the memory of sand between my toes and sunrise on an endless ocean and plumeria blossoms around my neck. Joy concentrate.

Putting yourself deliberately in a strange new place to grow yourself and to expand your perspective is by no means a new idea. It's been around at least since St. Augustine's time. He wrote, famously, "The world is a book, and those who don't travel read only a page." Last year, I listened to Diane Rehm interview David McCullough after the publication of his book The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.

Now, I love McCullough's voice (Ken Burns' Civil War documentary wouldn't have been the same without him), but I was absolutely smitten by his enthusiasm for the experience of Americans in Paris during the 1800s. I started his book shortly before leaving for Kaua'i, and found it engrossing and oddly appropriate for my tropical adventure.

Plus, it was delightful how clearly McCullough narrated the book to me in my own head. Better than a book on tape, that was.

There's just something wonderful about the random and diverse mix of people who were in Paris in the 1800s. New ideas flourished in that mix, and gave rise to changes in the way things had been done for centuries. Women broke into the male-dominated world of medicine, artists discovered new techniques and styles, writers found material, statesmen learned leadership and the power of ethical decisions.

Creativity flourishes in a bit of chaos, and Paris provided that. It also gave novelty, craftsmanship, connections, and influence to Americans who blossomed and grew in that creative bath.

Spending a week in Kaua'i on vacation isn't quite the same thing as spending years in Paris, but in the aftermath of the trip, I find myself overwhelmed and needing time to process the experience in much the same way those Americans in Paris did.

Immediately upon my return, I hit my craft room with a vengeance. I didn't make any cards picturing surf boards or plumeria, but I did make this greeting card, which utilizes cheese cloth from the grocery store.

Yeah, I was walking through Kroger, saw a display of cheese cloth, and thought, "DANG! I could use that on a card."


It's not the sort of thought that pops into my brain regularly. I'd seen cheese cloth at the store for years, had bought it for George's cheese-making experiments, and never once thought to use it on a craft project. Did it strike me then because my travels opened up my mind to new ideas for old things? I've no idea.

But quickly following this creative flourish, I experienced complete creative block. And ever since, my creativity--even in my writing--has moved on in fits and starts, moments of incandescent thrill and moments of...confusion? ...loss? ...drifting? It has arrived and left again and again, much more erratically than before.

Seems the anchor of my creativity is shifting around a bit on a sandy ocean floor.

Who knows what will happen next?

I sure don't.

But that's okay. Totally okay. The new way of looking that things I experienced in Hawai'i isn't fully focused and perhaps never will be. But it's there, right in front of me like that sea turtle at 'Anini Beach, a beautiful gift I can't control and don't want to.

I just want to surrender to it.

What oddly appropriate books have you read at a particularly meaningful time in your life? How did they weave themselves into your thoughts and change or enhance your perspective?

1 comment:

  1. Wonderfully written as always :) Hawaii is truly beautiful and the visible creation awe inspiring and beautiful to drink deep of.

    A book I read years ago and just loved was Too Busy Not To Pray by Bill Hybles. I also use Rivers of Eden by Brad and Eden Jersak as a devotional - 40 days of questions to ask Jesus - amazing revelations to ponder upon. Chuck Swindoll's book The Awakening Church is near and dear to my heart too.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!