Most years, when winter has waned and spring has sprung, I resume my (almost) daily walks. This year I had some additional motivation to start. On New Year's Day I committed myself to a 365 photo challenge: to take and post a new picture every day of the year 2017.
Once the walks returned, meeting the challenge was easy. Late winter and early spring flowers start the show. Soon trees are budding and blossoming. Tulips, daffodils, and iris dominate mid-spring. Finally, roses, clematis, and lilies oblige the photographer.
Recently, at the beginning of the second week in June, I was halfway through my walk when I realized I had not snapped a single photo. The spring riot of colors was reduced to a murmur. Green dominated.
My first reaction to this was a twinge of sadness. The situation quickly triggered a Robert Frost poem that I had taught many times to my students over the years:
Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
The poem and the lack of color other than green got me to thinking. At two thirds of a century, am I watching the dawn go down to day, as Frost would have it? Has the best--gold, Eden--passed?
I have nothing against summer. It is a beautiful season in its own right, but for me it can't hold a candle to spring or fall.
Aha moment! (Cue the lightbulb over my head!) The green is necessary to produce the next round of gold. Autumn foliage is by far my favorite thing to photograph. If I want to shoot in the fall, I must accept and embrace the green of summer. The color will return, just in a different form.
Frost’s poem seems to tell us that beauty is fleeting, temporal, ephemeral. Enjoy it because it won't last. He gets in John Keat’s face, who boldly claimed that beauty had a lot more staying power than Eden: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
Robert Frost won four Pulitzer prizes for poetry. Keats is, well, he’s Keats! These are heavyweight thinkers and artists. But when it comes to the seasons of my life, I’m going with The Chairman of the Board, Old Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra:
The best is yet to come...
We've only tasted the wine.
We're gonna drain that cup dry.
And so it is with my life. The beauty of truth may get scarred. The gold may be lacking at times. But they will come back.
And life will be better.
(c) 2017 Larry Pizzi
In the early 1980s I was an Army officer assigned to the faculty of the United States Military Academy at West Point. I taught writing to college freshman and literature to juniors.
One of my colleagues in our shared office was a young major, a year or so ahead of me in rank. He was a hard-core combat arms officer who taught, of all things, philosophy. He was one of the most personable and most intelligent people I've ever met.
He once wrote an article in which he proposed that one of the most important things a senior leader could practice was repose: time for calm and quiet reflection. This was a bit of a departure from the notion that combat officers were men of constant action. (Sorry ladies, but in those days, only men could be members of the combat arms branches.)
He was serious, despite the good-natured ribbing and sarcasm from some of his peers and superiors. Navel-gazing they called it. He was never bothered by the comments and usually answered the criticism with a smile.
That young major rose through the ranks to become a four-star general. In 2011, President Obama chose and the U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed him as the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This is the highest position possible for any officer of any branch of service. However small, a part of what took him to this height was a belief in the importance of silent reflection.
On a slightly less momentous level, my wife and I the have also learned the value of silence and reflection in our marriage of 42 years.
It seems that we are both aptly described by Juliet, the protagonist of the novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. She writes to a close female friend expressing frustration with her lack of a husband. As she vents, she notes, “I can't think of anything lonelier than spending the rest of my life with someone I can't talk to, or worse someone I can't be silent with.” (emphasis mine)
My wife and I have one constant in our otherwise variable days. We call it happy hour. We set aside an hour or so before dinner during which we reconnect, she, with her “cocktail” of orange juice and seltzer and I with an extra dry martini. It is no exaggeration to say that this is a sacred time for us, a time for nothing else but each other.
Most of these times involve a review of the day or plans for tomorrow. Occasionally we allow each other a forum to vent frustrations. More often, we just share bits of news or feelings.
Sometimes, though, we sit in silence. It’s not an awkward silence but a silence in which we are still connected, even still communicating.
More than once, one of us has broken that silence to hear the other say something like “I was thinking the same thing.
For a few minutes each day, my wife and I intentionally communicate in quiet conversation. Sometimes that conversation is silent. That silence is perhaps the most intimate communication of the day.
These days it's easy to suffer from sensory overload. It spills into and sometimes even defines our relationships. We live in a world where nearly half the global population has the ability to share anything, discreet or innocent, true or false, self-serving or helpful, with the rest of mankind. In 2013 nearly 86% of people on earth had access to a cell phone. Fewer than 65% had access to a working toilet.
Legendary news anchor Dan Rather once interviewed Mother (now Saint) Teresa of Kolkata. As only she could, she expressed profound truth with a wink and a grin, catching the interviewer off guard. Rather asked,
"What do you say to God when you pray?"
"Nothing," replied Mother Theresa. "I just listen."
"What does God say to you?" he responded, rather derisively.
"Nothing," replied Mother Theresa. "He just listens."
Seems like the highest ranking officer in the United States armed forces and the servant nun (who was also a Nobel Peace Prize laureate) had something in common.
And they were both right.
(c) 2017 Larry Pizzi
In 1963, I was 10 years old and in the fifth grade at St. Leo's Catholic School in Fairfax, Virginia. It was in the fall of that year that I decided that I had but one future: to be a priest.
I had been an altar boy for a year. (Girls weren't allowed to serve then so we were not yet called altar servers.) I had been admitted to the service after passing a strenuous examination by Sister Bernadette. Satisfied that I knew the entire mass and Latin, she informed the priest that I was ready for duty.
It's not clear to me today what brought about this absolute certainty of my vocation. I loved to serve mass and probably felt that my Latin mastery put me a notch or two above most of my male classmates. (My female classmates didn't count toward my stock of self-esteem at age 10.)
I do remember, though, that for some reason I kept my ambition a secret. I vividly remember waiting for the opportunity to steal a needle and thread from my mother's sewing basket as well as some old bath towels from her neatly folded store of rags. (Yes, the irony struck me even then that I was setting off on the spiritual journey by brazenly breaking the seventh commandment.)
I took my loot to my room and made a crude set of altar linens, a chasuble, and a stole, all of which displayed ample evidence of the fact that I did not know how to sew.
I “embroidered” a cross on each piece. Using a paper cup, some grape juice, and a squished piece of white bread I proceeded to imitate the priest celebrating Mass. I took it all quite seriously.
My assumption that I would be a priest lasted for five years. I had a like-minded friend in the 10th grade. We talked for hours about what seminary must be like and how great it would be to finally be a priest.
Alas, during those five years two seismic events rocked my world: The Second Vatican Council and puberty. The former left my Latin skill superfluous and the latter...well no need to elucidate.
By my junior year in high school, while still serving and attending Mass faithfully, the certainty of my vocation faded. Five more years passed, then marriage, an Army career of 21 years, and two children.
Occasionally in the more than 50 years since I “decided” to become a priest, I have wondered: Did did I screw up? Worse yet, had I sinned? Was my life based on good but wrong choices? Had I turned a deaf ear to a genuine call? Such questions, now, more than half a century later, are more amusing than troubling.
If I did sin by turning away from God's calling, he certainly has employed a strange manner of punishment and consequence: the love of a good and godly woman, children, family, and not one but three separate and successful careers.
In all of this is the infinite mercy of God. Perhaps I did ignore a genuine call. Even if I did, God's love and grace towards me were not diminished one whit. This is true of big choices like a vocation and little choices each day--some choices are good and some are not and neither has any effect whatsoever on God. They may change me for good or for ill, but they do not change God. His love for me is not changed by my actions. It’s why the biblical writers were so fond of the refrain, “His love endures forever.” I suppose that’s why it’s called perfect love.
As I've aged, the world I was so sure of in my earlier years, the world of black and white, has not only morphed into tones of grey but into vivid colors.
When I was a little boy, Sunday nights meant gathering around the TV with my brothers and watching Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. The one-hour TV show began with a song, the first words of which were “The world is a carousel of colors!” sung against the backdrop of the iconic Disney castle and bright multi-colored fireworks.
At least I assume they were colorful. We had a black and white TV.
Watching the Wonderful World of Color on a black and white TV is an apt metaphor for my earliest ability to reason and my earliest thoughts about the world around me. We eventually got a color TV when I was in high school, about the same time, to continue the metaphor, that my absolute conviction of my calling in life begin to fade.
I've wrestled many times in the last half century with the world around me and my part in it. I have come to a point today where I can feel liberated by the fact that I'm not smart enough to know what I don't know. Being less certain about things is not troubling, it's freeing!
God's grace, his mercy, and his forgiveness are prisms that radiate his light and love. They result in color.
The world looks a lot better in color.
(c) 2017 Larry Pizzi
In a previous post, I wrote about my passion for collecting fountain and dip pens. I noted that these pens were very much like people and that they teach me much about myself and my relationships with others.
The same is true for my other collection mania: clocks. I have more than 100 clocks. Some are fairly modern; some are vintage, and some are antiques. Some are weight driven; some are pendulum driven. Some are spring driven, and some are electric. Some are wall clocks and some are mantel clocks. Some are even vintage or antique alarm clocks.
Like pens, clocks teach me much about myself and my relationships with others.
Like people, some of my clocks need more attention and care than others. Some need winding once a week, others twice a week, and others daily. Some are temperamental and sometimes irritating. Some are laid back and easy going. Each clock (except those that are weight driven) gets wound with a different key. As in the real world, the world of clocks is not a one-size-fits-all world.
Old clocks need more than just being wound to work properly. As a rule, a clock must be perfectly level to function. When I first started collecting clocks, I used a bubble level to keep the clocks straight. Some clocks, though, would balk at being perfectly level. I soon learned the secret to leveling a clock: toss the rules and the tools and listen to it.
The ticking in clocks comes from the motion of a pendulum or a flywheel, back and forth. A working clock sounds like “tick” in one direction and “tock” in the other. In cases when levelling a clock with a level doesn’t work, I have to adjust it by listening to it. An out of sorts clock may sound like “tick-tick” or “tock-tick” or even “tock-tock.” Each clock is different. By listening, I learn what each clock needs to work properly. Just as with people, each clock is unique, and I must treat it accordingly. It all begins with listening.
I have a couple of wall clocks that simply won’t work unless that are so far askew that they are actually crooked on the wall. So I must accept the quirkiness of a clearly crooked clock hanging on my wall, and smile when I see it. I could insist that the clock hang straight, but then the clock would not work. I would have an aesthetically pleasing, perfectly level clock that would not tell time. It’s as if the clock is saying, “Please accept me for who and what I am, quirks, idiosyncrasies and all.”
Collecting clocks, like collecting anything antique, is a mixture of archaeology and anthropology. I dig through the internet to look for clues to the age or the maker of a clock. I scour the clock with a magnifying glass and a flashlight looking for dates, numbers, markings, words, anything that will help me place the clock in its historical context.
But there's also some anthropology involved. A Victorian inspired design is very different from an art-deco design. Each tells me something about the aesthetics and values of the maker and of the person who first made or bought the clock. I have more than one clock that proves the old saying, “There's no accounting for taste.” One of my oldest clocks has a common saying in Old Dutch written on it: “To each, his own!”
I wonder about previous owners and imagine the clock in their lives and homes. Perhaps this ornately carved gingerbread clock had pride of place on a mantel in a drawing room. Perhaps this lowly alarm clock wakened someone grudgingly to his daily tasks. (Old alarm clocks didn’t have snooze buttons!)
Some of my clocks are “fakes.” I do have a couple of Art Deco clocks from the early 20th century, but some are more recent, made to imitate an older design. Not every clock is what it appears to be. But I care for it the same as the genuine one.
Like a person, each clock has its own story, and I love to discover and listen to that story.
Many of my clocks strike the hour and half-hour. Some chime as well as strike, making a melody to announce the time. Some used to strike, but don't anymore. Some still strike, but not always the right hour. These clocks are still beautiful to me, even if age or abuse has limited their abilities. More than once, I have bought a battered old clock because my wife has seen past its ugliness to the beauty that might be restored with some loving care.
As with people, some clocks can have limited abilities, but still have great worth and a beauty of their own.
Over time, I learn to identify a clock by its strike or its chime, even if I'm not in the same room. As with people, I don’t actually have to be with the clock to enjoy it and to receive from it.
My clocks remind and teach me daily things about myself and my relationships with others. As different as each clock looks, sounds, and acts, I still take pleasure in caring for it, looking at it, and listening to it.
Each has its place. Each enriches me.
(c) 2017 Larry Pizzi
50 years of photographs and 35 years of keeping a commonplace book.