Solace in Beauty

June 1, 2020 at 7:18 pm (Art, Current affairs, Music, Poetry)

I am deeply sorry for the pain being felt by many people right now in this country.

I fear that the beauty of this first day of June little avails aching hearts. So I would like to offer some words, sounds, and images of  beauty, as possible solace.

Willem Kalf (1619-1693), Pronk Still Life with Holbein Bowl, Nautilus Cup, Glass Goblet and Fruit Dish

About the chambered nautilus, Wikipedia tells us this:

Nautilus shells were popular items in the Renaissance cabinet of curiosities and were often mounted by goldsmiths on a thin stem to make extravagant nautilus shell cups, such as the Burghley Nef, mainly intended as decorations rather than for use. Small natural history collections were common in mid-19th-century Victorian homes, and chambered nautilus shells were popular decorations.

Here is a cutaway view showing the configuration of the shell’s chambers:

In his eponymous poem, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrests a deeper meaning from this curious artifact:

This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,
Sails the unshadowed main,—
The venturous bark that flings
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings,
And coral reefs lie bare,
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.
Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
And every chambered cell,
Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
Before thee lies revealed,—
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!
Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.
Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
Child of the wandering sea,
Cast from her lap, forlorn!
From thy dead lips a clearer note is born
Than ever Triton blew from wreathèd horn!
While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:—
Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!
To return to Wikipedia, the above entry led me in turn to an entry on goldsmiths. On that page, I found this image, which greatly appealed:
Entitled The Bagdadi Goldsmith, it is a creation of Kamal-ol-molk, This  artist was from Iran; he lived from 1848 to 1940.
This encounter brought to mind a haunting work by the great Russian composer Alexander Borodin. It is called In the Steppes of Central Asia. (The quality of this video is not great, but the visuals are arresting and the music…well, just listen:


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‘If you’re lookin’ for a miracle open your eyes; There was one this morning just about sunrise…’

May 2, 2020 at 10:51 pm (Current affairs, Music)

We’ve had day after day of wet, sunless, raw weather – suitable to the current mood of the world, I guess you could say. And then, this morning, this:


And this beauty, everyday yet extraordinary, unfolding against a  clear blue sky:

The title of this post comes from the lyrics to “This Island Earth.” Sung bt the Nylons, this has long been one of my YouTube favorites:

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A haiku, of sorts, for today

April 13, 2020 at 12:58 pm (Current affairs, Poetry)

It is hard for us to know
How to do battle with
This incorporeal foe.

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The Women’s March, 2017

January 23, 2017 at 1:59 pm (Current affairs)

Congratulations to all those who made it to the Women’s March on Saturday. My heart was with you.

Meanwhile, a column by the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, dated Inauguration Day, really got me down. It was about Chuck Schumer’s address. Here’s how it began:

It sounded at first, from my seat in the plaza below the inaugural platform, like a helicopter flying low over the mall, or perhaps an unusually loud jet taking off from Reagan National Airport. But I turned to discover the noise was the combined booing and jeering of thousands in the sea of red “Make America Great Again” caps.

They weren’t only booing and jeering Schumer, the highest ranking Democrat in the land; they were booing and jeering what he was saying.

“Whatever our race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, whether we are immigrant or native-born, whether we live with disabilities or do not, in wealth or in poverty,” the Senate minority leader said, “we are all exceptional in our commonly held, yet fierce devotion to our country.”

The booing intensified when Schumer mentioned “immigrant.” It continued as he read a letter from a Civil War soldier saying “my love of country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.”

The crowd responded: “Trump! Trump! Trump!”

Is this what we’ve come to, America?

And so I am doubly grateful to Saturday’s marchers. By being where they were and doing what they did, with joyous and exultant demeanor, they answered Dana Milbank’s question with a resounding, “NO!”

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Plenty of gloom and doom but also gratitude, reasons to believe, and occasions to ponder the strange and wondrous vagaries of human nature

November 28, 2012 at 2:23 pm (Animals, Current affairs, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Magazines and newspapers, Nature, Spiritual)

In the Review section of this past Sunday’s New York Times, there was a goodly helping of admonition and dire prediction, chiefly prompted by the destruction recently visited on the New York metropolitan area by Hurricane Sandy.

First, James Atlas warns of the coming submersion of New York City in Is This the End? An appropriately scary title, especially for those of us who know and love the place. (Venerating the city’s cultural riches, my mother could never understand why a person would want to live anywhere else.) 

In  Rising Seas, Vanishing Coastlines, Benjamin Strauss and Robert Kopp paint a disturbing picture of  the effect that rising sea levels will have on this country’s coastal regions. To begin with, the authors offer up this astonishing statistic: “More than six million Americans live on land less than five feet above the local high tide.” Even granted that Strauss and Kopp are describing eventualities that may be several centuries down the road, their projections are extremely disturbing. Click on What Could Disappear for maps. I did, and it just about broke my heart. Among the places slated to become a latter day Atlantis is Miami Beach, Florida, where I attended junior high and high school. Alas, farewell to the land of bougainvillea, hibiscus, cocoanut palms, and rampant overdevelopment…. (For additional searchable maps, go to

Finally, Erwann Michel-Kerjan and and Howard Kunreuther tackle the subject of Paying for Future Catastrophes. They begin with this statement: “Hurricane Sandy could cost the nation a staggering $50 billion, about a third of the cost of Hurricane Katrina — to date the most costly disaster in United States history.”

A collapsed complex of cabanas at Sea Bright, NJ

In the November 26/ December 3 issue of Newsweek, David Cay Johnston tallies the dangers inherent in our aging and inadequate infrastructure. Johnston goes on to suggest “12 ways to Stop the Next Sandy;”  however, his ambitious manifesto will require a colossal act of will on the part of the citizens of this country, not to mention an equally colossal outlay of funds. Can it be done? Will it be done?  (As Newsweek prepares to go digital, I’d like to express a personal sense of loss. I’ve been a subscriber since my college days in the 1960s.)

All of this would seem to portray a nation in a heap of trouble. In his book Too Much Magic, published in June of this year, James Howard Kunstler writes the following:

The British Petroleum company’s 2010 Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico tempered the public’s zest for risky deepwater drilling projects. Oil is back in the $100 range. The Fukushima nuclear meltdown in the following year sobered up many nations about the prospects for the only well-developed alternative energy method capable of powering whole cities. Whether you believe in climate change or not, or contest that it’s man-made or is not, the weather is looking a little strange. In 2011 tornados of colossal scale tore through the American South, hurricane-induced five-hundred-year floods shredded Vermont, and Texas was so drought-stricken that Texans wondered if ranching there would even be possible in the years ahead. People have begun to notice a number of signals that reality is beaming out.

He goes on to inquire plaintively: “Who can fail to notice all the obvious trouble our country is in?” 

All this is enough to send a person running for the nearest bunker. But wait – there is hope, and it has been proffered by people with vigorous minds and open hearts. I’ve already written about the solace and encouragement to be derived from the works of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Rev. Timothy Keller. And now I’m cheered by the prospect of reading Anne Lamott’s new book:   In a recent interview in the Washington Post, she explains its rather piquant title:

I think sometimes we don’t know that what we’re doing is a form of prayer. “Help” is the main prayer. “Help” is the prayer of surrender and having a real shot at things beginning to change because you’ve finally run out of good ideas. “Help” is the hardest prayer, and it’s the most poignant. It’s a person being humbled. People say “Thanks” all the time in so many ways. Even people who don’t believe in God or in any kind of higher power notice when their family catches a break: The diagnosis was much better than it could have been; it really isn’t a transmission, it’s a timing belt; it’s something manageable instead of huge and awful. “Wow” is the praise prayer. I think every time you see a night sky full of stars, you say, “Wow.” It was so cold here today, I had to get up really early, and I stepped outside, and I was like, “Whooooa!” which is a cousin of “Wow.” It was so crisp, so beautiful. It’s like getting spritzed with a plant mister. It kind of wakes you back up.

I love The Once Born and the Twice Born, an essay by Gertrude Himmelfarb that appeared in the September 28 issue of the Wall Street Journal. Reading her cogent and graceful explication of  William James The Will To Believe, I felt as though I’d been given a very special gift. (This sense was amplified by the fact of my recent immersion in the life William’s brother Henry, courtesy of Michael Gorra’s magisterial work of criticism and biography, Portrait of a Novel.)

His 1896 lecture “The Will to Believe” was prompted, James said, by the “freethinking and indifference” he encountered at Harvard. He warned his audience that he would not offer either logical or theological arguments supporting the existence of God or any particular religion, ritual or dogma. His “justification of faith” derived instead entirely from the “will” or the “right” to believe, to “adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, despite the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.” James knew this would not go down well with the students and philosophers in the eminent universities. To the obvious objection that the denial of the “logical intellect” is to give up any claim to truth, he replied that it is in defense of truth that faith is justified—the truth provided not by logic or science but by experience and reflection. Moral questions, he pointed out, cannot be resolved with the certitude that comes from objective logic or science. And so with religious faith….

Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, an intellectual among intellectuals, turned ninety in August.

I never ceased to be moved by the trouble to which people will go to render aid to animals in distress. A particularly impressive instance of this compassionate response is recounted in a recent Washington Post article entitled   Injured Owl Is Rescued in Mount Vernon.

I deeply appreciate the sentiments voiced with wit and warmth on the occasion of Thanksgiving  by Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. In Family, Friends, Health and Freedom,  she asked a number of friends and family members what they were thankful for. At one point, she pressed a friend to be more specific; she received this response:

“Buddy the cat. He literally came out of nowhere one night, and has never left since. He sleeps in the window most of the time, and looks in as if to say: ‘I’m home.’ He always lets the others in the pack eat first. ‘Slow down,’ I say to myself. The world on my screen may be spinning and sizzling, but Buddy’s ends up being the preferred reality.”

Speaking of matters of a  feline nature, there was recent post-election news in the Metro section of the Post   concerning an illustrious member of that community:

Hank the Cat, in election day garb

Finally, from the November 26 issue of the New Yorker, the recent travails of General David Petraus and others elicited this wry observation from Adam Gopnik:

Petraeus, and his defenders and attackers alike, referred to his “poor judgment,” but if the affair had had anything to do with judgment it never would have happened. Desire is not subject to the language of judicious choice, or it would not be desire, with a language all its own. The point of lust, not to put too fine a point on it, is that it lures us to do dumb stuff, and the fact that the dumb stuff gets done is continuing proof of its power. As [Philip] Roth’s Alexander Portnoy tells us, “Ven der putz shteht, ligt der sechel in drerd”—a Yiddish saying that means, more or less, that when desire comes in the door judgment jumps out the window and cracks its skull on the pavement.

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The earthquake in Haiti: one way to help

January 13, 2010 at 9:56 pm (Current affairs)

Toward the end of this post, I mentioned Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains. In it, he describes the efforts made by the remarkable Dr. Paul Farmer to deliver quality health care to some of the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged people. Dr. Farmer’s organization Partners in Health maintains a clinic in Haiti; the staff there are currently engaged in helping the victims of the earthquake that has devastated that  island nation. To assist them, you can make a donation here.

Kidder’s book takes its name from the Haitian proverb, “Beyond mountains, there are mountains.” As you solve one problem, another one presents itself and must also be dealt with. At present,  Haitians are dealing are dealing with a catastrophe almost beyond imagining. One hopes that the compassion and outreach of fellow citizens of the world will provide help and consolation.

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“His choice to stay in the city had been God’s will.” – Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

September 16, 2009 at 7:18 pm (Book review, books, Current affairs)

zeitoun Let me tell you about this book: during the entire second half of it, I was in a state of utter disbelief and rage! I’ve since calmed down, but if reading about the nightmare scenario described by Dave Eggers got me that angry, I hate to think of how the people forced to endure the experience actually felt. People like Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun.

Like most Americans, I was saturated with news of  New Orleans and Katrina around this time four years ago. I read about the convention center  and the Superdome, the pollution and the destruction, the deaths and the displacements. I also heard tales of lawlessness, but I assumed that this was more or less par for the course in the chaos that followed the hurricane. Often, in the wake of a catastrophe like Katrina, there is a period of civil disorder. I assumed that this period would be  short lived. I didn’t consider crime to be a major part of the story.

I know now that I was wrong.

Crime is a huge component in the story what happened to the Zeitouns, not because they committed it but because of what was done to them. Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun ran (and still run) Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor LLC, an extremely successful home repair and renovation business. Their work was known and respected throughout New Orleans. They were upright and compassionate in their dealings with their employees and their clients. Abdulrahman, a Syrian by birth and a Muslim, came from a large and loving family; Kathy, whose brief first marriage had ended in divorce, was a convert to Islam. At the time Katrina struck, they had four children; the oldest, Zachary, was Kathy’s son by her first husband.

I was not far into this book when I began to care deeply for these people; and to feel an anxiety on their behalf which, in the event, proved more than justified.

the Zeitoun family

the Zeitoun family

When Katrina began bearing down on New Orleans, Kathy and Zeitoun – he was called that by friends and clients who had trouble pronouncing his first name – faced an agonizing choice. They knew they should leave, but they felt responsible for their various rental properties and jobs in progress. There was the office to look after, and even more important, their home on Dart Street. With some reluctance, they decide that Kathy and the children would go to Baton Rouge and stay with family there, while Zeitoun remained behind in New Orleans. Then, they reasoned, either Kathy would return or Zeitoun would join the family in Baton Rouge. They were counting on the separation lasting no more than a couple of days.

As we crime fiction aficionados are wont to say, Had they but known…

Several years prior, Zeitoun had bought secondhand canoe, a standard aluminum model that a client no longer wanted. When he arrived home with his purchase tied to the top of his van, Kathy took one look and exclaimed: “You’re crazy.” But in the first few days after Katrina struck, the canoe proved to be a Godsend. Zeitoun rescued, or arranged for the rescue of, several elderly persons stranded by high water on the upper floors of their houses.  He also rowed to homes where dogs had been abandoned in order to feed and water the animals.

He began to  feel quite literally that the canoe had been sent by God and that it was God’s will that he stay behind in order to assist stranded individuals and animals in distress. And that is the work that he and some of his friends were engaged in when something happened that he could never have anticipated, never have thought possible, not in the adopted country that he loved…

If you have already read about Zeitoun, you’ll know what transpires at this point in the narrative. I did not know, so for me, the impact of the story was that much more profound.

I will say no more, except for this: Dave Eggers is directing all the proceeds from the sale of this book to the Zeitoun Foundation, which he and the Zeitoun family set up this year. This gesture on the part of the author is, I think, admirable and generous. (It reminds me of one made by Jon Krakauer in similar circumstances.) So by all means read Zeitoun – and consider purchasing the book as well!

Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers

I have never been to New Orleans. This chronicle of devastation and rebirth has made me want to go there.

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I knew that some day soon I would wake up to this news…

August 26, 2009 at 12:01 pm (Current affairs, In memoriam)

Nevertheless, the news of Ted Kennedy’s passing came as a jolt.

For some of us who came of age in the 60’s, it feels like the end of an era.

Edward Moore "Ted" Kennedy:  February 22, 1922 - August 25, 2009

Edward Moore "Ted" Kennedy: February 22, 1932 - August 25, 2009

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President Barack Obama

January 20, 2009 at 8:48 pm (Current affairs)

As I was watching history unfold today, I couldn’t help thinking: He’s the man with the million dollar smile…



Congratulations to our new president!

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The Hay Adams Hotel

January 17, 2009 at 7:16 pm (Current affairs, History, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

In a letter to today’s Washington Post, James Symington fills us in on the fascinating story of Washington’s Hay Adams Hotel, where the Obamas stayed before moving to Blair House this past Thursday. Symington’s own family played a part in the hotel’s history – or rather, its pre-history.

The Hay Adams

The Hay Adams


John Hay

Henry Adams

Henry Adams

The Hay Adams was built in 1928 on the site where the homes of Henry Adams and John Hay once stood.

five In his letter, Symington mentions Patricia O’Toole’s The Five of Hearts, a history of the Adams and Hay families during America’s Gilded Age. I note with dismay that our local library no longer owns this title, which, until recently, was out of print. The good news is that it was re-issued by Simon and Schuster in 2006. (Here is the  library’s request to purchase form.) Since its original publication in 1990, The Five of Hearts has been one of the many books I’ve always meant to read; Mr. Symington’s letter has jumped it up to a spot near the top of an admittedly absurdly long list!

In addition to the list of must-reads, there’s a list of things I must see. One of them is the Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Park Cemetery. This sculpture by Augustus Saint Gaudens was commissioned by Henry Adams for his wife, Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams.


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