Learning to Live Deeply

How are you, friends? How have you been spending your time? This time of social distancing, self-isolation and Covid-19 has us thinking, reading, watching, making, walking, cooking, writing. Life is not a whole lot different except that we now socialize by FaceTime or Zoom, by text and phone, by email and written word. We’ve enjoyed face-to-face chats, at a distance, of course. We visit Julie’s dad from below his window at the long-term care home around the corner. Our new normal is necessary.

Still, we miss close contact with friends and family. We miss sharing meals with them, with you. We miss clinking glasses and celebrating together. We look forward to being able to partake in those activities again whenever that may be. And we so look forward to being able to wander, to travel again.

We have been thinking about what it means to stay in one place for an extended period. For our world to be reduced to approximately 30 square kilometres. About what it means to appreciate our immediate surroundings. And about people who live out their whole lives in one place, perhaps without a desire to explore any further. And some of our recent readings have contributed to that exploration.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

We feel like it was the perfect time to read A Gentleman in Moscow. In the story, Count Alexander Rostov was exiled to live out his life in the grand Metropol Hotel. In a small corner of the attic. With only a few of his most prized possessions. And without the comforts to which he was accustomed. Imagine living out your life within the confines of a hotel. For forty years! Never leaving. Never being allowed to wander the streets or parks of your city or country. Except in your mind and memories. And yet, finding ways to live a purposeful and fulfilled life. A life built largely around routine. A life enhanced by your favourite pleasures. A life with friendship and love. It is a very timely example of living deeply, not widely.

If we were exiled to live out the next 40 years in a hotel we would prefer a view of the water, possibly some outdoor seating for meals. Though if exiled you likely don’t get a choice of location.

At one point the Count, in an attempt to encourage his young protégé, Nina, suggests that education would broaden her horizons, ‘give you a sense of the world’s scope, of its wonders, of its many and varied ways of life.’ In response she asked him, ‘wouldn’t travel achieve that more effectively?’ ‘We are talking about horizons, aren’t we? That horizontal line at the limit of sight? Rather than sitting in orderly rows in a schoolhouse, wouldn’t one be better served by working her way toward an actual horizon, so that she could see what lay beyond it?’

We are resigned to the act of living deeply for the time being but we are still itching to see what lay beyond the limits of our sightlines.

‘The hardest thing of all is to see what is really there.’ J.A. Barker, The Peregrine

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane

In the interim, we should be thinking about the true value of our fragile little bundle of life, and how it can live in harmony with nature at large. If we can do this, then no sort of political opinion, religion, war, or any other of the various concerns of mankind should be able to block our quest for survival. This is a question of philosophy that goes well beyond medical science or the arguments of politicians. A philosophy is realized only in the details of the joys and pains of human experience. 

Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh (1904–67), wrote: … we learn by scrutiny of the close-at-hand…

‘All great civilizations are based on parochialism,’ he wrote. Kavanagh believed parish was not a perimeter but rather an aperture: space through which the world could be seen.

‘To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience, it is the depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields – these are as much as a man can fully experience.’

You can walk the same pathways many times a day for weeks and months, even years on end and never see exactly the same thing in the same way ever again. Perhaps this is living deeply and seeing fully.

Regardless, now is as good a time as any to contemplate this perspective. That is, while our world, our interactions and our experiences must remain so small, so few and so limited. Appreciating what is immediately in front of us is, after all, never a bad idea.

Underland by Robert Macfarlane

His name was Wood. Trees grew through his life and thought. Sap ran through his veins. The wood wide web was his home. Trees know when another is sick or under stress, no matter what kind of tree, and they share nutrients utilizing an underground system that conjoins their roots beneath the soil, nursing the sick tree back to health. Nature is our teacher. We just need to follow her lead. Rearranged words from Underland.

The term ‘wood wide web,’ was coined by Canadian forest ecologist, Suzanne Simard in 1997.

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

Shepherd came to know the Cairngorms in Scotland ‘deeply’ rather than ‘widely’, and they are to her what Selborne was to Gilbert White, the Sierra Nevada were to John Muir, and the Aran Islands are to Tim Robinson. They were her inland-island, her personal parish, the area of territory that she loved, walked and studied over time such that concentration within its perimeters led to knowledge cubed rather than knowledge curbed.

She wrote, ‘But to aim for the highest point is not the only way to climb a mountain…’

‘I knew when I had looked for a long time,’ she writes, ‘that I had hardly begun to see.’ Her descriptions often move beyond the material. Up on the mountain, after hours of walking and watching: the eye sees what it didn’t see before, or sees in a new way what it had already seen. So the ear, the other senses. These moments come unpredictably, yet governed, it would seem, by a law whose working is dimly understood.

We know that if we keep looking we will see something we haven’t seen before. It is never about getting from point A to B for us. It is about everything in between. Life. And so, even this, being stationary, living through a worldwide pandemic is the in-between. We are attempting to see the earth ‘as the earth must see itself.’ Thank you, Nan Shepherd, Robert Macfarlane, Patrick Kavanagh, Amor Towles and J.A. Barker. 

“The world is very, very beautiful if you look at it. But most people don’t look very much. They scan the ground in front of them so they can walk, but they don’t really look at things incredibly well, with intensity. I do, and I’ve always known that.” 

– David Hockney

Hockney shared the story of how a philosopher on a news program was asked how he could be optimistic with the current news: “And he said: Well, that’s television. Bad news sells.” The reporter then inquired what the good news was, to which the philosopher responded: “Well, the arrival of spring,” Hockney continues laughing. Everyone, he said, used to notice and rejoice in the arrival of spring. When was it that people stopped celebrating spring? When was it that people stopped noticing? What if we all started looking beyond what is directly in front of us? We might just all see how incredibly beautiful the world really is!