Sunday, July 21, 2013

Moments Like Jewels

In my college days, I spent a fair amount of time studying Aristotelian ethics.  His system can also be termed ‘eudaimonism’ (cool word, I know), which derives from the Greek word ‘eudaimonia’ – happiness, or literally ‘being-well-in-spirit.’  Basically, he thought that every human being is naturally directed toward happiness.  That is the state in which he or she wishes to exist forever. 

The catch – there’s always a catch with ethics – is that in order to exist in happiness, human beings have to be good.  The goodness Aristotle means isn’t just an inborn state of being valuable and lovable, which depends solely on our humanity.  Everybody has that, but not everybody is happy, right?  Goodness, then, is a state of moral perfection in which a human being no longer has to struggle to behave always in the best way.  Instead, it is the habit of his or her life – the only thing possible. 

If that is the state required for total happiness, it’s no wonder we all feel sad sometimes. 

Nature offers free happiness!
Achieving the ideal of human behavior is very difficult, as we all know.  Often we’re impatient; occasionally we slip back into bad habits, even though we’ve worked years to overcome them; frequently we care more about our own comfort than the needs of someone else.  After such small or big failures, we feel disappointed with ourselves, and even angry at others for causing the situation which made us slip up.  Happiness remains elusive.

And yet, we feel moments of it.  For example, the other night I was driving in the evening.  The sun was setting in a halo of fuchsia and orange; the air was soft and warm; birds were twittering and flickering through the sky.  For a moment, I felt utterly serene and at ease.  This was in spite of the fact that I was heading to another night of house-sitting, which meant dealing with a very hyper dog and probably getting as little sleep as on the previous four nights.  Something about the peace of the evening, and the security of having a job to go in that calm atmosphere – a destiny and a purpose – soothed every worry and all my tiredness.  I felt happy, in short.

Of course, being a writer, then I started to think about the reason for moments of happiness.

The practical reason is pretty obvious, I’d say.  We human beings are pretty susceptible to discouragement.  We all know, somewhere deep down, that goodness will help us become happy, so we work on improving ourselves.  It’s a long and uphill battle, though, so some give up altogether, some get distracted, some take one step forward for every two (or ten) steps back. 

The thing that counteracts distraction, discouragement and slow progress, though, is the promise that something better is waiting.  A moment of pure happiness, when everything in ourselves is in harmony with everything outside ourselves – what better thing could we have to balance more negative reactions?  Such a moment, brief or long as it may be, reminds us that there is hope for us to reach that state more permanently. 

It also gives us a hint about how to do so.

Beethoven: my favorite composer!
Harmony is the key – or balance, you might say.  Of course, as the name of my blog reveals, I think about balance a fair amount.  In striving for goodness, we’re striving for equilibrium in our thoughts, our emotions, our relations with others, our jobs, our families, etc. etc.  There are so many elements which go into human life that harmonizing them all becomes a symphonic experience.  We’re all Beethovens of sorts: deaf people trying to translate the imagined music of perfection into reality. 

The lesson to learn, I think, is how beautiful the gifted moments of happiness are.  Like a perfect chord, they can inspire us to create an entire work – the artistry of our lives.  Sometimes they can also inspire other, more concrete artworks, too.  Who hasn’t been uplifted enough by a transcendent instant to turn to drawing, painting, poetry, essay, fiction, music, dance or some other equally beautiful creation?  We are raised up and transfigured briefly, so that the flash of glory may unveil for us the path we should follow in our lives.  

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Day of Firsts

When I was a pre-teen and teenager, as ungrateful as this sounds, I grumbled a lot about my boring parents. 

The chief cause of my complaint was that ‘we never did anything.’  I remember sitting in the vegetable garden as an 8th grader, weeding in company with my 12th grader brother.  Both of us murmured about the searing sun (and I can assure you that in August in the semi-arid prairie where we live, the sun is definitely searing) and muttered that this was the third or fourth day in a row we’d been commissioned to weed the truly unnecessary number of gardens our parents insisted on cultivating.  That, at least, is how we felt about it at the time. 

Lakes, Rivers and Mountains, oh my!
Looking back, of course I realize how spoiled we sounded, but at the same time our family never had any particular genius for finding means of entertainment other than work.  My mom seems really and truly to enjoy the tasks she takes on – especially anything that leaves her house and gardens clean.  If my dad came in one morning and said, ‘My dearest love, today we are going to do nothing but weed together,’ Mom would probably think it was romantic.  Teenagers see nothing romantic about such projects, though. 

My brothers and I wanted to explore the beautiful lakes and rivers and mountains and prairies which adorn the north of Idaho where we live.

Sadly, though, we never did.  More than a decade has passed since those grumbling days of weeding and I’ve not seen much more of my state than I had as a 12 year old.  Luckily, though, I have friends with better exposure. One in particular is the outdoors type and comes from a family to whom camping, hunting, hiking, biking, etc., are important.  Ever since I met him, in fact, he’s been a bit horrified that I had done so little exploring in the area.  This past 4th of July, he decided to remedy this fact. 

Comparatively early in the morning for us night-owls, we rallied our forces (with the help of plenty of coffee, needless to say) and headed up north to the Cabinet Mountains.  One of the deepest lakes in the States is Lake Pend Oreille, and its northern end noses into two impressive mountain ranges, one of these being the Cabinets.  They are relatively wild areas, with bears, moose, bighorn sheep and many other animals.  We ourselves saw two bear prints and a moose cow who crashed away from us into the brush early in the hike. 

It’s amazing to think of such pure land preserved just an hour from a sizable city.

Sego Lily: a Study in Three
We climbed some 2500 feet in elevation in our climb, and sat on top of a mountain in the meadow grass, with lupin and sego lilies blowing about us in the stiff wind.  Far off in the blue distance, the rest of the Cabinets marched away into Montana.  The highest, most jagged peaks of the range were visible from the height we reached.  With shining striations of white glacier on their highest flanks, they stood both beautiful and forbidding. 

There’s something so challenging and yet so entrancing about mountains.  At the same time you feel dwarfed and made secure.  Mountains are our Atlases, holding the sky off our heads.  Somehow their high, pure heads remind us that some things abide forever.  It’s not very surprising then, that so many people feel the appeal of hiking and mountain-climbing. We want to be part of that eternity, to feel that something of us will abide forever. 

I’ve often thought that human reactions to natural phenomena reveal the deepest parts of our nature. 

Both on a literal and on a metaphorical level, nature speaks to us.  Since I’ve begun reading blogs more, I’ve become acquainted with the ‘small stone’ method of writing, which seeks to encapsulate a moving experience in a few words.  So many of the small stones I’ve read address the writer’s interaction with nature.  Japanese haiku have a similar effect.  Nature inspires our creativity.

This rushing brook shares my enthusiasm!
At the same time, it reminds us of our desires and our accomplishments.  A forest seethes with mystery and we fear it and wish to explore it in much the same way as we fear and explore our own minds.  Mountains mirror the challenges we set ourselves.  Sometimes they seem insurmountable, but have we not even scaled Everest?  Flowers have the delicacy and ephemeral nature of our emotions, and yet the same beauty of intensity.   I could go on, but it’s easy to find the mirror of nature, since it surrounds us every day. 

On my first major hike, I was reminded of this mirror very vividly.  The mountain crags, the unfamiliar but lovely vegetation, the mountain creeks tumbling over stones – all these spoke to me.  They reminded me how glad I am to be alive, and to be a writer who remembers these vistas and lets them ferment into the fullness of story. 

Sometimes, perhaps oftener than we think, we all need to look back at nature to rediscover our reflection and our inspiration.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

New Work

Since I’ve just finished my teaching career (for now, at least), I had to find a new job.  One of my best friends, the Fashionista, knew this and about two months ago, she called me up and asked if I were interested in working at her office. 

I actually worked there a few years ago as a sort of jack-of-all trades, since I did everything from curriculum redesign to book binding, with filing, mailing, stocking, etc., in between.  The business is a home school program and therefore deals in an enormous amount of paperwork, covering book orders and providing tutoring services.  It’s a pretty impressive institution, especially considering what a small operation it is.  However, due to an increasing work load at the school where I taught, I decided to leave the business. 

It’s funny that sometimes when a job is needed, an old option pops up under a new disguise. 

One of the older employees at the business unexpectedly became a CPA and went off to new adventures, leaving the office rather burdened with the extra work.  This was when the Fashionista called me.  I hesitated for a little while when she gave me the news and the job offer.  You see, I’d already worked there and I was imagining a totally new experience employment-wise.  

On the other hand, I really enjoyed the pleasant atmosphere at the office during my original 14 months there.  The offer was certainly tempting.  I began to think it over, and realized that this opportunity was offering me something I really needed:  spare time.  Anyone who has ever taught or worked in a school can confirm with me that time for pursuing non-scholastic interests (anything from exercise to higher education to writing) is somewhat compromised.  I’ve managed to do a lot of writing during my four years of teaching, but not much editing and very little self-promotion to agents and publishers. 

One of the chief reasons I decided to leave teaching behind was to give me the time to get published. 

That perhaps sounds a bit presumptuous, but it’s true anyway.  Whether or not I actually get published, I have to have time to work on query letters and editing and the other preliminary things involved in the process.  As I thought about other potential jobs – in retail, at a bank, as a librarian – I realized that there was no way to tell how busy I’d be.  Would I be giving up teaching simply to plunge into a new, equally time-consuming job? 

That was what allowed me to make the decision to go back to the homeschooling office.  From personal experience, I know that the day’s work there may sometimes be involved and tiring, but in any case, when the day ends, the work ends.  Then I can go home with enough time and energy to really make strides on writing. 

I find that when making decisions, making just one thing a priority allows everything to fall into place. 

What is the most important thing? I asked myself.  The answer was clear:  writing and shaping up my writing career.  Once that idea was clear in my mind, I realized that new job experiences can always be had, but time to work on writing is more elusive.  If I see a chance for the latter, I have to seize it – which is what I’ve tried to do, in taking my new job. 

Of course, the fact that I’ll get to work side by side with the Fashionista (and other people whom I already know and appreciate) was a definite added attraction!  The other element which eased my decision was the fact that I’m going to have a specific job-description at the office this time.  I’ve been training for it, and it’s the one thing I never did in my previous days there, so I get the comfort of a familiar place with the excitement of a new endeavor.  Pretty ideal, really!

I start full time this coming Tuesday, and in order to start off on a good foot, I’m also going to start editing House of Mirrors that evening.  I’ve also already updated my query letter for The Art of Dying (since it’s fully edited, at long last), so I think that everything is shaping up for a productive summer.  I’m looking forward to it, and I wish my readers similar good fortune!