Recently my wife and I took a weekend off, and basically turned off our cell phones so we would not need to face the people who demand our time, often without gratitude. Why are they not grateful? I suppose it is because people tend to be a bit egotistical, and feel we should feel privileged to even be dealing with them. For example, think of a little child agonizing about not making a grade school team. From their perspective making-the-team is important, and well worth our attention. If you are not careful, knowing about too many of these “important” issues, and arching your eyebrows in a sympathetic manner for each of them, can completely burn you out, so we took a break. Simply taking a weekend away was a sort of spiritual retreat, but there is a problem with such retreats: They must end. You must go back and face your worldly responsibilities.
I am always reluctant to return to humdrum reality, no matter how restful a spiritual retreat may have been. The simple fact of the matter is that a lot that is “worldly” is also petty. Pettiness is not merely in little children who agonize about things that will not matter, in the long run, but also pettiness is in supposedly adult people, like preachers and politicians, and in supposedly adult institutions, like churches and the U.S. government.
If I had my druthers, I druther would write poetry. When I look back to my school days, I see I was more interested in the clouds out the window than the chalk on the blackboard. The interests of schoolmarms were never as interesting to me as the interests of schoolboys.
Look at it this way: If heaven is the goal of life, why should our focus be on the non-heavenly things called “the worldly”?
The people in the world who I am most thankful to meet are those who have a certain light in their expressions that suggests they are seeing something heavenly. True, in some cases the light is merely due to them thinking they are seeing an end to pain. For example, a poor person may buy a winning lottery ticket, and their face may then shine, because they think their problems are solved. But soon their eyes cease beaming, as they discover filthy lucre is not an end to problems, and often increases them.
The light I like more, in people’s faces, is more lasting, and is not associated so strongly with worldly desires for wealth, sex, power, popularity, and intellectual achievement. Instead it simply recognizes heaven as a reality that exists even if you are poor, sexually frustrated, powerless, ignoble, and suffering intellectual writer’s-block.
There are simply some people who see a higher Truth, and whose moods are not controlled by the worldly circumstances of their lives. Sometimes they are saints like Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta, but sometimes they are people who you might think are entrapped by material success, but can be famous and wealthy without seeming to deny heaven exists.
Back in the early and mid Twentieth Century some of these people made decent livings as commercial artists for magazines. They produced the covers. Although it is true that “you can’t judge a book by its cover”, the editors of books and magazines knew a good picture could interest the general public, and sought artists talented in that respect.
One of the greatest was Norman Rockwell. I’ve praised him often. But another great artist, when it comes to sketching heaven, was Maxfield Parish. Norman Rockwell actually idolized Maxfield Parrish, when young.
Maxfield Parish became rich, simply portraying mortal humans during the most heavenly moments of their lives. (From a box of chocolates:)
His pictures were so beautiful that, as a commercial artist, he was an incredible success. At a time when a new house cost $2000, he made $100,000 a year. However all the money the public paid him apparently didn’t make him fond of the public. How can I say such a thing? Because, while his earlier pictures show a fondness for humans and their human nature, about the time he reached my age he stopped painting humans, and focused entirely on the beauty of landscapes. After around 1935 he painted landscapes which, in my humble opinion, have an amazing beauty, (surreal without Dali’s distortion), and yet they portray a world devoid of humanity. He painted right up to his death in 1966 at age 95, but did not seem to think humans were beautiful and worthy of being subjects within heavenly landscapes. He seemed to forget the way he saw when he was fifty years younger, in 1906, and painted “The Lantern Bearers” for Collier’s Magazine.
It should be noted, as an alternative, that Norman Rockwell did not retire from humanity, even though he too was wealthy in his old age. He did seem to become less romantic, and more concerned with social issues of the time, such as school integration (retaining a hint of Romanticism).
Which brings me around to the topic of myself. Which way will I go, as I approach retirement age?
When I was in my early twenties, and first noticed the difference between what Maxfield Parish and Norman Rockwell painted in their old age, I vowed I’d never become fed up with humanity. I would forever be optimistic, and never fail to see the beauty in my fellow man.
Well, I have failed. The first time I failed I was still in my early twenties, and I confess I have failed on multiple occasions since then. I have looked upon you, my fellow man, and seen nothing but rapscallions and self-serving mongrels posing as pure-blooded priests. I mean, look hard at yourselves. Are you any reason I should feel especially hopeful about the future of humanity?
And do you know what saves you, more often than not? It is the fact I become aware I am looking in a mirror; I am projecting; the reason I am such an expert in bad behavior is because I practice it.
That isn’t any reason for hope. Rather it diminishes my faith in myself even as I lose faith in the world. What on earth is there left to have faith in? Am I not a complete pessimist? I, the very same man who once vowed to become an eternal optimist! Which brings me to the 1922 Maxfield Parrish cover for “Life” magazine:
There was a contest to name the picture on the “Life” cover, and the winner was, “He is a rogue indeed who robs life of its ends, fostering doubt.” (Get it? “Life” becomes “If”.)
As a young man first learning this history I wondered if Maxfield Parish had such a trick in mind, as he painted the picture, or whether it was an accident, or perhaps subconscious. In any case, the winning title stuck with me, and any time I find myself becoming excessively pessimistic I think of the rogue in the picture above.
For the fact of the matter is that, even when we botch perfection, and all those we know botch perfection as well, there is a third Thing that you can have faith in, neither our self nor other humans. Call “It” what you will, “It” saves us from plunging to complete ruin. Without “It” there would be no reason to call foul behavior “inhumane”, because in many cases foul behavior is very human. Whatever “It” is, “It” redeems us.
And how do we recognize “It”? We see “It” in what we call “heavenly”. “It” is in humor that allows us to laugh at our mistakes rather than curse. “It” is in the joy that lets us walk singing in the rain.
Gene Kelly, and Maxfield Parish, and Norman Rockwell, made very nice amounts of money simply hinting at the heavenly. However the people who have really been a great blessing in my life, and at times even have been life-savers, never charge the price of admission. They simply had, and have, joy in their hearts, and made me, and make me, smile on the gloomiest day.
More than money, more than sex, more than power, more than acclaim, more than inspiration, I value the smiles such people begrudge from my grouchy old face. For all the other things come and go, but remembered jests still make me smile even after fifty years. Those jesters, even if long lost, are joys to remember, and be Thankful for, on Thanksgiving.
In the End of Ends a simple smile will crush the mighty, and defeat death itself.
Owen wrote, “I, too, have seen God in mud”
About the gruesome trenches, when men died
Like flies, (’cause two men, who shared royal blood,
King and Kaiser, saw war as sport, and tried
Out their new toys: Sputtering machine guns
And poison gasses).
How could Wilford Owen
Write such guff? When Chlorine greened the sun’s
Rays and men writhed like sprayed wasps, men
He’d laughed with moments before, how could he
I suppose it was because God
Is everywhere. There is nowhere to flee
In life where Life isn’t. Beneath the sod
We do not know, until we go, but here
We delve no dark mines devoid of men’s cheer.