One of the great poets of our time, W. S. Merwin, passed away recently. A brilliant writer and conservationist, Merwin spent the final period of his life on a former pineapple plantation in Hawaii, working to restore the surrounding rainforest. … I’ve drawn inspiration from Merwin’s writing because it teaches us about ourselves, our world, and how we as humans connect to nature. Most of us don’t spend a lot of time on poetry but Merwin’s death reminded me of how a good poem can inspire and instruct. So if you’re in the mood, give one of them a try.
Obama’s pointer took me to a recently published collection of Merwin’s poetry: “The Essential W. S. Merwin“. Yesterday, on Father’s Day, I was flipping through this collection and happened to come across his poem “The Unwritten” which I really enjoyed. It’s about a pencil – and how the pencil holds words “that have never been written, never been spoken, never been taught”. He concludes with:
it could be that there’s only one word and it’s all we need it’s here in this pencil
every pencil in the world is like this
And, that word is not just in every pencil in the world – but in every human too!…
Here’s one of my favorite photos from my younger days – my Dad helping me along on that big two-wheeler bicycle! Dad would have been 98 years old this year – and we all miss him dearly. On this Father’s Day 2019 we have lots of great memories of our wonderful Dad!
While I knew I couldn’t devote the time required to actually enroll in the course, I hadn’t heard of the book before – so I thought I might enjoy just getting a copy. As it turns out, the book is priced like a textbook – but I still decided to get it. For the last couple of months it’s just sat on a bookshelf in my home office – until today.
This afternoon – looking for a pre-holiday relief from work work – I picked up the book and found a cozy place away from the office to begin exploring. I read the book’s Introduction and its explanation of the book’s structure (Stories, Commentaries on specific stories, Casebooks on specific authors, and an appendix with Charters’ discussions about short stories, the genre, etc.)
One of my favorite writers – ever – is John Steinbeck. There’s one story by Steinbeck in Charters’ book – “The Chrysanthemums“. The story, like much of Steinbeck’s work, is based in California’s Monterey County – and, specifically, in Salinas.
Steinbeck begins the story:
The high grey flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world. On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot.
Many years ago I owned a small airplane and, from time to time, I would need to fly in actual instrument conditions to maintain my proficiency for instrument flight. I have vivid memories of one morning taking off and flying purposely to Salinas – which was fogged in at the time and, as a result, would provide me the opportunity to shoot an instrument approach into Salinas Airport in actual instrument conditions. Steinbeck’s story – and his opening sentences – brought those memories flooding back.
That morning was just as Steinbeck described – the fog was a lid on the valley. It was a closed pot. Approaching Salinas, I was in clear blue sky above but I needed to penetrate that fog to get below it and land at Salinas. As I was communicating with the approach controller, he cleared me for an instrument approach and I began descending into the fog – transitioning from clear blue sky to only flying from the instruments in the cockpit of my airplane.
My approach began normally – me feeling good about getting into actual IMC. But then something happened – the directional gyro suddenly began spinning. This was not supposed to happen!
The directional gyro provides the pilot with information on the heading the aircraft is pointed. It’s one of several important instruments which pilots need to continuously scan when they’re flying in the clouds. One of the risks pilots face when flying in instrument conditions is a failure of one of these critical instruments. So – here I was – in the fog, descending into Salinas, but with a spinning directional gyro.
Pilots are taught that maintaining the scan of all of the critical instruments is vital while flying on instruments. If one of the critical instruments fails, a pilot can become fixated on the failed instrument, stop scanning the others, and lose situational awareness. When I was flying, there were circular plastic covers with suction devices on the back that you could use to quickly slap over a malfunctioning instrument to prevent it from becoming your sole focus. I had a couple of those – but when the moment strikes they’re not handy – being tucked away in a flight bag in the back seat!
So I forced myself to just ignore the damn spinning directional gyro – and figure a way out.
The fog layer was perhaps 1,500 feet thick – maybe even less. I knew I had blue sky above me. If I could break off the approach, applying power and keeping the wings level, I could get back up to that clear blue sky air. And that’s what I did. I radioed Salinas Tower that I was breaking off the approach. He responded with “State your intentions” – and I cancelled my instrument approach as I climbed above the fog and headed back home. I never did land at Salinas that morning. I also never trusted that directional gyro again – and had it replaced.
As I read the opening sentences of Steinbeck’s story, the memories of my foggy morning encounter with Salinas came flooding back. In Steinbeck’s story, Elisa has her own challenges with the Salinas fog as a metaphor for her life. She lived there. For me it was just a close encounter. I made it back.
Looking at Krasny’s course syllabus, I think I’ll begin exploring the other writers he’s featured in Charters’ book – as I move beyond this initial Steinbeck story. The book is such a treasure trove of stories – I know I need – and want – to dive deeper. I’m sure more memories await!
Donald Neff is an old friend and business colleague – who’s also a great painter of landscapes. We worked together as computer geeks in prior lives – and, while my journey into photography is a recent passion, painting is something for Don that goes way back. And he’s great at it!
This afternoon Don gave a talk at the Don Edwards National Refuge Education Center in Alviso about his most recent project – The Creeks and Rivers of Silicon Valley. Don started this project in November 2013 and, over the next twelve months, painted a series of sixty plein air paintings in the nooks and crannies of Silicon Valley. During today’s presentation, he told some wonderful stories about several of these places – full of suspense and delight. His exhibition at this venue will continue for a few more weeks.
I’ve had a page titled “Inspiration” here on my blog for a while. I’ve been less than diligent in keeping it current – but tonight I made some major updates to it reflect some recent learnings – as well as filling out some of the actual experiences I’ve learned from those who have inspired me.
In my life, I’ve come to appreciate the power of serendipity in inspiration – how sometimes it seems that random events trigger a new insight, understanding – or just pique my curiosity to explore deeper. Increasingly, I’m finding new sources of serendipity – in my RSS feed reader and in both Twitter and Facebook – enabled by the current state of web technologies.
I wonder what we’ll be doing in five years to be inspired – wearing our VR headsets and exploring further/deeper?
Meanwhile, I’ll try to do better at sharing what I find inspirational – and welcome your comments here sharing what you’ve found inspirational.
I’ve been enjoying this 1999 documentary recommended by my friend Jamie Smith. It’s available for free streaming on Amazon Instant Video.
I started on episode 5 which began in 1919 and went through the building and opening of the Empire State Building in 1931. I’m now into episode 6 which starts out lamenting the impacts of the automobile on city life.
Filmed before 9/11, many of the images include the World Trade Center twin towers.
The holiday season for me this year has had an unusual and special quality to it. Our get togethers on Christmas Eve and Christmas day with family and friends were wonderful and joyful. Our 90 year old Mom is in great spirits and we had fun watching her interact with her two great granddaughters as they opened a few gifts (tossing the wrapping paper in the air doesn’t really describe their energy!). Exuberance!
My Dad’s birthday is tomorrow – New Year’s Eve. His father’s birthday – my grandfather – was Christmas Eve. Carl Sr and Carl Jr – father and son. Dad would have been 93 tomorrow – but we’re sure he also shared in our holiday cheer again this year as we constantly had him in our thoughts – and will be remembering him on his birthday tomorrow. Dad died of side effects from prostate cancer in 2010.
Quite a year it’s been – this twenty fourteen. Along the way, there’s been so much joy from new experiences with great people – old and new friends – and those wonderful moments of serendipity that always leave me with that new sense of wonder about how it all just fits together. I try to remember to slow down, step outside, breathe deeply and be in the moment – to appreciate these wonderful gifts of experience.