That Which is Bread

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? – Isaiah

“The achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”

Audubon’s portrait of a Great Blue Heron

In my daily walk to the Post Office of our village, I often stop on the bridge that crosses Wheeling Creek. Sometimes I can see muskrats in the water; often I’ll see a Great Blue Heron standing motionless in the water, fishing. Herons are common along our creek, and I love watching them — for me they’re an image of stillness, focus, simplicity. They don’t like to be seen, and this one will usually fly away, showing his magnificent six-foot wingspan, when he notices me.

Not long ago, as I crossed the bridge I noticed “my” heron in his accustomed spot in the creek. Instead of standing upright (herons are perhaps four feet tall when erect) he was crouched down, his head tilted slightly, looking intently into the water. After holding this position for what felt to me like a long time, he stabbed his head into the water and emerged with a large fish, maybe ten inches long, in his bill. With a few precise movements he maneuvered the wriggling fish until its head was in his mouth, then swallowed it whole. (A heron’s neck is probably no thicker than this fish — herons must have flexible gullets.)

It occurred to me that, for all the years that I’ve spent watching these magnificent creatures, I’d never actually seen one catch a fish. I went home satisfied and thankful.

The title of this post is from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Windhover”

Unmoving Movies

Yasujiro Ozu (1903–1963)

We’ve been watching several DVDS of movies by the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu — my first exposure to his work.

The first one I saw was Tokyo Story, which some consider his masterpiece.  I loved it. The story is extremely simple, mundane in a way. Acting great. What’s most striking is its whole approach to movie-making. the camera virtually never moves; each shot is precisely framed, then there’s a cut to the next precisely-framed shot. If you’re not used to his films, little seems to happen, though with some exposure you learn to slow down, focus, and see the drama in his simple stories. When something approaching drama happens in the story, Ozu seems to deliberately avoid showing it — we learn about it later through its consequences. (Favorites since Tokyo Story have been Late Spring — maybe my favorite — and Floating Weeds)

It’s hard to think of an American (or even another Japanese) film-maker who works this way. Jim Jarmusch, especially in Stranger than Paradise, is the only one who comes to my mind.

Watching these films has made me realize how much I enjoy what I’d almost call anti-movies: very quiet, contemplative films that eschew most of the film-maker’s bag of tricks designed to tug at the passions. I think of Into Great Silence, a documentary about Carthusian monks that I’ve watched several times. A couple of Jarmusch films. Andrei Tarkovsky’s films might also qualify, though to me they feel weighed down by murky symbolism when set next to the here-it-is approach that I’m trying to describe.

I read an article recently about how contemporary films are edited more and more to reflect our minds’ natural attentional cycle. It seems that, even when we are focusing on one thing, our attention shifts subtly (and rather rapidly) according to a predictable rhythm. Modern films have discovered and exploited this rhythm, and are paced so that our attention is grabbed and held almost against our will. Thus we often find ourselves enthralled by movies that we are only later able to realize are cheap, empty and repulsive.

Perhaps my delight in Ozu lies in my gratitude that there’s another way to practice movie art, a way more akin to Basho’s writing or even to iconography; movies that approach non-movement.

Ozu’s grave

Ozu died in 1963. His grave displays, instead of his name, the Japanese character Mu: ‘Nothing’.

Elder Thaddeus (+1992): Our thoughts determine our lives

Elder Thaddeus of Serbia (cover of "Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives")

Elder Thaddeus, despite his Grace-filled beginnings in the spiritual life, spent many years fighting against the very ailments that afflict so many people in our own era: stress, depression, and nervousness. Because of his own experience in warring against these life-destroying diseases, he was able to console and comfort the thousands of visitors who came to him later in life. His counsel was always tailored for whoever was in front of him, but at the same time he never strayed far from his central instruction:

“Our life depends on the kind of thoughts we nurture. If our thoughts are peaceful, calm, meek, and kind, then that is what our life is like. If our attention is turned to the circumstances in which we live, we are drawn into a whirlpool of thoughts and can have neither peace nor tranquility.”

— from the introduction to Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica.