Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/12/2009

My connection to life: the splendor of earth and sky

Grandmother's plant

To my posting yesterday, for reasons that were more emotional than logical (which comes as no surprise), and which even I didn’t understand, I attached a copy Norman Rockwell’s painting illustrating the second of the “Four Freedoms” Franklin Roosevelt named in his State of the Union Address on January 6, 1941—“Freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.” The painting, as I look at it now, seems to have little to do with my writing. However, the emotion I was coping with was one that escapes me much of the time—gratitude (let’s not quibble with semantics; I suppose “gratitude” isn’t properly an “emotion,” but that’s an argument for another day). 

As I’ve written before, my religious beliefs have nearly disappeared as I have aged. I simply don’t get it most of the time. I don’t get how one can, with apparent ease and without apparent questioning, cling to a belief system that seems to me to deny the realities of existence (at least existence as I understand it). I wonder that anyone who reads even the tiny bit about abiogenesis—the study of the process whereby life arose from inanimate matter on earth—or astrobiology—the study of the origin, evolution and distribution of life in the Universe—that I’ve read can possibly hold to an understanding of “creation” as the origin of life, or of heaven as the end of life. 

There, I’ve said it. Call me anti-Christian or anti-Muslim if you want to (a cantankerous and arrogant old man about to turn sixty-five and not amused by that is more to the point, most likely.) 

A one hundred (perhaps) year old plant sits on a milk can of about the same age in my living room. It’s a miracle that it’s alive because, like most of my “possessions,” it does not get proper care. The 100 years may be an exaggeration, but not much. I watched my late partner cut a branch off the philodendron plant in his mother’s sun porch in a small town in Vermont at Christmastime in about 1998. He brought the branch home to Dallas in his suitcase and planted it in the not-so-attractive pink plastic pot where it has lived since then. It has sat on the same milk can since then. The milk can came from the dairy farm (now a famous New England inn) established by his father’s family in the 18th century. The plant in his mother’s sun porch belonged to her mother, and she had had it from before her mother died in the 1960s. My partner’s grandmother had had it since before he was in high school. The last time I was in my partner’s mother’s home (in 2000), it was there. 

That plant gives me great comfort (I have another one of—I assume—the exact DNA on the counter in my kitchen; I cut a slip from the original and planted it). Whether or not it is 100 years old is beside the point. That it has lived as long as it has (I suppose strictly speaking “it” has not—it is a clone of the 100-year-old plant) gives me a sense of connectedness to the past, even though it’s not my family’s past. Part of that past includes standing with my partner’s mother on either side of his bed when he died in 2003. 

Norman Rockwell painted his most famous works from photographs. I’ve seen original prints of the photographs from which he worked for the “Four Freedoms” paintings. Of course, snobs of the art world have for decades looked down on Rockwell for two reasons. His paintings are too realistic and too common to be real art. And he worked from photographs—the photographs not even real-life pictures but carefully posed so Rockwell had exactly the composition he wanted. Tacky, tacky, tacky, say (or used to say) the critics. 

Seeing those photographs was not a fluke or a museum tour. One of my late partner’s great-grandmothers (which side of the family I have forgotten) is the elderly woman, Mrs. Harrington, the central figure in the “Freedom to Worship” painting. My late partner’s family owns original prints of the photographs of all four of the “Freedom” paintings. I saw them when I was in Vermont for his funeral. 

This, by the way, is not an exercise in “name dropping.” It must, I am sure, seem like an attempt at self-aggrandizement, but it is not. It’s about connections. Connections for which I am grateful, connections that give me hope, connections that (perhaps) even prevent despair. 

Let’s see if I can put this all into perspective. One could say that I am three (perhaps even two) communications links (remember that old game?) away from three important Americans—Mrs. Harrington (the “Four Freedoms” paintings traveled around the country and helped the War Department raise $130,000,000 in bonds for the war); Norman Rockwell; and President Roosevelt who commissioned the paintings and welcomed the “models” to the White House. I am connected to these people through Mrs. Harrington’s family, and through other neighbors who knew Norman Rockwell. But more importantly, I am connected to Mrs. Harrington’s family directly: I have a plant that belonged to her great-grandson, my life’s partner. Not famous Americans. People I love.

Is this too corny and self-serving for words? Perhaps. But I have just begun to be maudlin. 

Will Durant and students

These connections—the ones prompted by the gratitude I felt yesterday and all the rest—are, these days, my reality. Will Durant, America’s best-known historian at the time, wrote an essay to accompany Rockwell’s “Freedom to Worship” when the Saturday Evening Post published it in 1943. His language is not like mine (ours, yours or mine) and his understanding of American history is out of fashion these days. But I (cantankerous and arrogant old man that I’m turning out to be) love this: 

They [Vermont farmers] have watched patiently the movement of the stars, and found in them a majestic order so harmoniously regular that our ears would hear its music were it not eternal. Their tired eyes have known the ineffable splendor of earth and sky, even in tempest, terror, and destruction; and they have never doubted that in this beauty some sense and meaning dwell. They have seen death, and reached beyond it with their hope. 

“The ineffable splendor of earth and sky” has become the basis of my beliefs (whatever they are). My guess is that whatever beliefs the farmers of Vermont (including my partner’s ancestors) held, they would have understood Will Durant. I can scarcely believe I’m writing this—I want to be ever-so-much-more intellectual—but the central idea of Durant’s little essay says about all I can say about religion or astrobiology or abiogenesis or my life: 

They have felt the mystery of consciousness within themselves. 

The mystery of consciousness. The mystery of consciousness I hold within myself is centered in connectedness to those I love. The 40th anniversary of my sister’s marriage to her late husband (the second of those anniversaries since he died) would have been this weekend. He helped me understand “the ineffable splendor of earth and sky.” Understanding the splendor of earth and sky was his passion. The connections of families and of times and of places continues and grows. Even as my “beliefs” contract, I understand more widely that “in this beauty some sense and meaning dwell.”

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Responses

  1. the universe holds you tight in wonder. Jerry and David must be having quite a conversation about us.

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