#5 When Wonder First Dawns Upon You

. . . it often comes through the discovery of words.

When and where did your marveling at words begin? If a picture is worth a thousand of them, here’s one that captures the emerging of that for four of us. With my sister and our baby cousin Marcia sitting in a chair at the bay window of our grandparents’ home, and my brother Tom looking on from the left as I am from the right, Marilyn — the only one of us who could read — unfolds our then just-dawning fascination with language, and its attendant wonder of making sense of everything that is.

But no word is ever just a label stuck on something from the outside; for it arises there on the inside of the person calling anything a ‘this’ or a ‘that’ — and thus, beyond the letters any word consists of, it is also an act or little deed, creating in a person the notion that connects a this with a that and turns anything into a definite something in the first place. (To me, if one but looks at the bodies of the four in this photo, you can plainly see the wonder in them all.)

To name something is also to do something, and to do something of that kind is also to create something, which is to bring something into being. And every time a person uses (or thinks, feels,  imagines — or anything on the long list of possibilities) a word, the same deed is done once again, the reality is brought into being once more or, if you will, re-created. That is what gives words their great power, the power to create the world in which we dwell and live our whole lives long.

This is what all human experiencing is made of, and that is what this blog is here to explore. It would be folly to attempt to explain experience when we understand it as little as we do. It’s not something one can get outside of enough to see it clearly from an external vantage point. It never stops operating from wherever you are. (And how would you be able to investigate it if it ever actually did?) Or take your understanding of yourself, for instance? Can you cast the net of your own understanding out far enough to encircle your whole life and draw it in? (To cite an inorganic analogy that finally doesn’t fit: You know how the upgrade on your browser cannot be put into effect until you turn off your computer and reboot. Well, how is it possible to apply this to oneself?) The path to a greater understanding of our experiencing leads through the unmatchable intricacies of its own actual operation. In this, there is no substitute for the thing itself.

And it is this matter of words that we meet right at the start:

A book is just ink, paper, and dried glue until someone comes along, picks it up, opens it, and starts to read. Then an amazing thing happens which even today we are not able to explain or fully understand. For as the eye moves along to take in what it sees, what are nothing more than marks on a page are transformed wondrously into words. Each word starts to stir like a little Pinocchio that can act on its own to speak, shout, soothe, sing, sting or startle. Now the book, a lifeless lump before, can “say something.” when it does, the door to a whole new realm is opened, and in that moment we enter into the world of what things mean.     (The opening paragraph of The Stuff of a Lifetime.)

But that is only the beginning because as the words mold the experience, the experience, in turn, leads on into everything that then follows from there. Allow me to give two far-reaching yet by no means rare examples of what I am referring to here.

First:  The year I was born there was a song way up near the top of the list of hits: Jerome Kern’s music with lyrics by a schoolteacher (who soon went into show business) Otto Harbach, from their 1933 operetta Roberta. In 1934 it soared to number one in the arrangement Paul Whiteman recorded, seeing its staying power boosted again in my birth year of 1935, thanks to the movie of it featuring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” went on to become an American standard, recorded by hundreds of artists in almost as many versions, a very famous one made by the Platters in 1958. [Once the piece starts playing, you want to click the ‘Next’ arrow right away, and that will take you to the Platters’s number; if not, keep clicking it until it does.]

A whole generation later, in 1989, that Platters version made its way into the film depicted here — a remake of classic World War II Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne film called A Guy Named Joe. This time it was called Always. It is filled with things very significant to me: Audrey Hepburn’s final appearance in film, the same planes in which (and wheat fields over which) I learned to fly, a piercingly poignant truth about a love not adequately expressed . . . and all of this, of course, set to music grand enough to do it justice. The song’s words never changed a letter from how they appeared when I entered the world, nor did the melody change a single note — as both were bonded to twists of plot and circumstance into a chain of events carrying the whole bundle across all those years right on up to now.

Second:  And here is another piece which, though wordless, played an indescribably revealing role at a pivotal point in my life. In the throes of a major turning-point and the rigorous compilations necessary to organize and launch an intensive doctoral program, this musical rendition, upon first hearing, with the haunting purity of its profound theme, etched the overall timeline of an individual’s existence traced in relation to the human life-process. The words finally chosen to express this will be presented later, but only after people interested in listening to this for themselves, to make of it whatever they may — or, equally appropriate, to simply absorb it for the finely rendered work of art it is. I still possess the very vinyl record from the jacket pictured here of Charlie McCoy‘s “Shennandoah.” I’ve used it in public speaking venues over the years many times since, with the last time being no more than a year or so ago. The record came out in 1973, but encountered this way you get to hear it without the scratches mine has — though they fade for me the instant the music pours through the speakers on its way into my soul.

These two pieces, then, illustrate what wonders words are, how arresting and varied their effects may be even stretched over years, and how they take root in the core of what we think and feel, forming there a lasting strand in whatever meaning life holds for us personally, showing clearly the hand they have in making us what we come to be.

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#4 What Do You Call The Watchamacallit?

“And as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.”  — William Shakespeare

Signature of William Shakespeare from Page 3 o...
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Sir John Gilbert's 1849 painting: The Plays of...

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“His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself . . . it and its volcanic fires that toss and boil, and never rest night or day. These are his life, and they are not written, and cannot be written.”  — Mark Twain

Anti-Stratfordian Mark Twain, wrote "Is S...

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“It is only the language of another that I can master, my own does with me whatever it wants.” — Karl Kraus 

Karl-Kraus-Tafel am Geburtshaus
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“We are continually living a solution of problems that reflection cannot hope to solve.”  — J. H. Van den Berg

Cover of "The Natural (Director's Cut)"

Cover of The Natural (Director’s Cut)

I think we have two lives: the life we learn with, and the life we live with after that.”  –Iris’s line from the film based on Bernard Malamud‘s novel The Natural.

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One notion above all else remains abidingly clear: It is our words that define the experiential realm in which we continually dwell. Without them what we live would simply not be there. It would be replaced by an unimaginable existence in an altogether unrecognizable world, something unutterable, indescribable, and even inconceivable. In other words, it would not be and could not be anything we know.

So, before the conductor shouts “All Aboard” and the train pulls out of the station, it’s worth taking a few minutes to make certain everything is ready and at hand for this undertaking. It’s purpose is not to “wrap things up” but to open them up. Were that not so we would be finished before we start. And no use going on a trip that doesn’t actually travel anywhere, right? What thing or things are we talking about here? Life . . . that stuff you and I are living all the time, have been since our first moments ever, and will continue to right on up to the last breath of us both.

There are three aspects of life to keep in mind throughout this venture. First, that any life is unlike any other to be found anywhere. Second, it isn’t something “in general” but something “in particular.” It is specific, unique, and individual. It exists as something real, one of a kind, and finite — which means it has limits, an outer edge, within which it exists and outside of which it doesn’t. Third, and where is the whole of this reality of which we are speaking? It is in your body — within the boundaries of your own skin — the outer perimeter of your very self. For whatever affects your body also affects your soul. What happens to one happens to the other, for as long as you live you are both. Whoever wants to know you must deal with your body — for your identity lives and breathes there — just as that of anyone you want to know can only be fully found in their body. And these boundaries and limits permeate life, so that to simply to live involves one in dealing with both of these, and with the endings and beginnings that all life inevitably entails.

#2 On The Photograph In Posting #1

[About the photograph in posting #1: It’s one by my friend Jerry Uelsmann, a photographer I’ve known for over forty years. His arresting and evocative works are found in museums all over the world. Later on, I’ll share with you a story of this specific version of it, but let’s start off with the picture itself:]

To me, this work of Jerry’s — with its surreal room and sky for its ceiling, desk, the book opened to a map, with a tiny human figure emerging from the book’s pages to step out into the world — is more a question than an answer. It stopped me in my tracks when I first came across it in the calendar section of a Barnes & Noble store about six years ago. I said to myself, “That looks like Jerry’s work.” When I picked up the calendar to have a look, I saw every photo in it was one of his. (And did you notice that door at the back of the room is open?)

When you want answers you start with questions. That’s what Einstein did, when at age fourteen he asked’ What would the world look like if I rode on a beam of light.’ By the time he was twenty-five, he had come upon some big answers (which he put into a paper in 1905 titled The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.)

English: Albert Einstein Français : portrait d...

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That is how it can go if your questions are big enough to lead somewhere. And if you’re very fortunate, the answers will serve to keep your questioning alive (as they certainly did with him.) So, that is where we will start in this blog too — with the questions. Below are a handful directly related to the matter we are dealing with in this blog — ‘Sensing the way . . . as your life unfolds‘ — the thing we are living all the time that we haven’t yet found a clear and definite beginning to, and which, if we ever really do “come to it” at all, we can only manage to find ourselves somewhere in the middle of:

Getting On With It

    What do we have but life?

    What is it for but to live?

When shall we live it more than now?

Where will we live it more than here?

How can we live it unless we act?

Who is able to act more than you?

What do you have but life?

What is it for but to live?

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#1 To Make Something Of This Blog . . .

How often are we told to “Start at the beginning.”? Well, that may be fine with some “things,” like a topic, but sometimes one cannot do that. Take life, for instance. It was there before you and I arrived and will be there long after we are gone. In life nobody ever starts at the beginning. One simply never gets that chance. The only real choice anybody has is to jump into the thick of wherever it happens to be — without a clue as to what it’s all about.

So, if this blog is to have anything at all to do with life — and by definition it does — it’s must start  with where we find ourselves at the moment. And the best way to do that? By beginning where we are.

We don’t have to “make up something” about life. It’s already there. All we have to do is open ourselves up to it. Let’s do that this way. Take a look at this photograph, if you will . . . and give yourself a minute to take in everything you see.

(a work by Jerry Uelsmann)

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