Making space to find- and create- beauty where we need and want it.

Cole Arthur Riley:

The type of camera that Leela carried in zir pocket in Chicago:

Transcript and notes:


Cole Arthur Riley says, "If you want to know if you've forgotten how to marvel, try staring at something beautiful for five minutes and see where your mind goes."

This is one of those moments where I can decide to do something risky, or I can decide to do nothing at all. But it's a small risk, barely a risk. I find it's useful to practice doing barely risky things, instead of nothing at all. So that when the big risks come along, I've practiced.

When I was a child, I had a terrarium. It was a funny plastic sphere with four stabilizing feet that my mom had gotten at a place called The Amazing Stores, which was an early early insurance liquidation retailer type place. You never knew what you would find. It was all kinds of stuff. Half of it was stuff you didn't know you needed till you saw it. The other half you couldn't imagine needing under any circumstances whatsoever. You didn't go there to find things that you wanted. You went there to find out if there were things you wanted. It was a great playground for imaginations.

Anyway, my mom loved terrariums. I don't know she still does, but she did at the time. And so she bought, I don't know, five, maybe of those plastic balls. Maybe she only bought several. Three, one for me, one for my brother, one for herself. I don't know. What I do know is that I ended up with a terrarium in my room. It was big for for an in house terrarium, maybe 10 or 12 inches across. And I can't really imagine anything else that that plastic ball would have been good for.

The lid came off, it came apart in half. And so I imagine, although I don't remember, that we filled it with dirt from the yard and plants from the yard. Our yard had a seemingly infinite number of plants in it and some moss probably. I remember there was one plant that was a little taller, that overhung, that created a shady spot.

And I remember spending hours and hours in my bed curled up on my side, staring into the terrarium. Being in the terrarium. Being in the world of the terrarium. Making myself so small, letting those overarching leaves be trees above my head. Wandering among little tiny bits of moss. The way that some kinds of moss will send up a little thread at the top of which is something maybe a seed? I don't even know. But what I remember, what I remember is that for a little while, inside that terrarium, there was peace.

And the idea of having even half an ecosystem, enough of an ecosystem to sustain itself without daily or weekly watering, was captivating to me. And it gave me a concrete visual, irrefutable sense of how the earth worked. Of how our planet worked. More complex, of course, but I could see the water come up from the soil and bead up on the lid and then run down the sides back into the soil.

I could see the moisture inside being thicker than the moisture outside. I could see things growing, I could see that I didn't need to water it. I could feel, when I took off the lead occasionally- never for too long- I could feel that the soil was moist in the air was damp and it was another world. And I could go in there and I could stare at something beautiful. Even when my room was a mess, a foot deep all through the floor with stuff. Even when the inside of my head was a mess. I could always get still and present and go into the terrarium.

And so a couple of mornings ago, when I woke up and my brain weasels were throwing an epic party, and I was fighting really hard to even be able to move the tiniest bit, I took the bag of gravel that I had finally managed to find after three stores, and I went outside and I scooped up some dirt. And I put the gravel in the dirt in an empty olive jar. I made myself a terrarium.

Not just because it's cute and popular and there are these terrarium stores popping up all over the place. And I recognize the beauty of a terrarium store and also the New Englander in me is deeply baffled by the idea of a terrarium store. Or a terrarium class for that matter. So in my DIY sort of way, I took my olive jar, and my gravel, and my dirt, and some plants from the yard, and I made myself a little red-lidded terrarium that's doing just fine.

It's starting to take over its own space, it's starting to be its own thing. Terrariums are kind of amazing. But I made it because it was a little peaceful world that I could create. And that I knew I could go into.

It's been kind of a messy ruckus in my head lately. And this is the part that I haven't talked about much for intensives: is that the way that we are in the world and the way that we don't always fit into the world can heighten our depression, our anxiety, our other mental health issues. And in an effort to manage those, we can sometimes end up with bigger problems than we started with. I know when I'm walking along that dangerous edge. And I don't usually like to talk about it in public until the danger has passed.

But the fact is, I think we need to start talking about it as though it is an everyday reality. Because sometimes it's an everyday reality.

When I went to Chicago for seminary- I had sworn previously that I was never going to live in Chicago and I was never going to seminary. And the universe laughed. As it does. Several years later, I ended up in seminary in Chicago. And honestly, I don't really like Chicago, I don't find it a beautiful city. There's something about it that doesn't fit for me. I'm much more in New York City person. And I find beauty in Mumbai. And I adore Lisbon. I have cities I like, but Chicago is not really one of them. But I had to live in Chicago to be in school in the way that I wanted to be.

And so I set about finding the beauty. I took my little point and shoot film camera that I had been given in fifth grade that still operated. It was called a Canon Micro Compact. And it had a sliding lens cover and took 35 millimeter film. And I carried that camera in my pocket, basically the entire first year. And I kept looking for things that I could crop in frame until they looked beautiful. Sometimes I had to crop a lot. But I didn't have a macro lens so not that much.

One time I got down on my knees in the middle of 55th Street and shot across the traffic circle in the middle of the intersection that had been planted with prairie grass, so that you couldn't tell you were in a city at all.

It was a useful project. It attuned my eyes and heart to the tiny microcosmic beauty that was all around me. Paths between four unit apartment buildings that looked like they were British garden paths. Cherry trees against brick walls, beautiful pastries, carved lintels above doors. Sometimes the beauty was right there. Sometimes you had to find it. But this is before digital. So all my editing was done in the camera itself. So whatever I took a picture of was really there. Exactly as I shot it.

The terrarium is kind of like that. It's really there. And those things are really here, those plants are, are here. They're in the yard. Shaded by the overgrown kale from last year. Shaded by the persistent shadow of the house and the deck. Dug up by the squirrels over and over again, as they search for something to eat. But they're here, they're here. And so am I. Here. And at least I can witness them.

And in that witnessing in that moment, in that witnessing moment, there is neither before nor behind. There is neither criticism, nor anticipation, nor struggle to please anybody at all. Not even myself. There's only this one leaf. This one piece of moss. This one sunbeam. This one, one flake of snow. One handful of snow. This one moment of remembering to hold my parka wadded tightly in my fist. So that snow doesn't get up the sleeve as I use my arm to wipe the snow off the table. So I can put out some nuts and some seeds for the creatures that are undoubtedly at least as startled as everyone else by the amount of snow we got yesterday.

And there's just that moment of cold. Cold in the lungs cold on the toes. Cold. Just that moment of this particular scattering of nuts, itself some kind of mathematical art, intersection of space and time and gesture... and peanuts. The puzzling footprints that come halfway up the driveway in one direction and stop. Neither returning whence they came, nor proceeding to the house. Just stop.

What if we just stop, drop our errands, drop our obligations, just for a moment. Create a tiny world, plastic bubble, glass jar, that allows us to stare at something beautiful.

Talk to you soon.