Monday, April 23, 2007

Greed & Refreshment

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park

Some years ago I was told a story that has stuck with me and provided me with a guideline that I've thought about over and over again. It's about an executive in New York who apparently had a special talent for self care. When he was feeling hard-pressed and had a small amount of time that could be freed up, he would leave his office, go to one of the New York museums, and look at one work of art. He took the time for just that: out of the thousands of items he might have explored and the special exhibitions he could have selected, he chose one work of art and looked at that. And he came back refreshed and ready for the rest of the day.

Over the years I've thought a lot about how different that is from my own approach to museums. When I get to one I tend to try to devour everything I can see. I go from gallery to gallery. Sometimes I actually speed from gallery to gallery, desperately (and "desperate" is often the accurate word) trying to make sure I see everything. Often I come out exhausted - looking at that much art really is hard work.

But occasionally I've wondered if I might look at another way of operating. The story about the man in New York has gone deeply enough in me that I haven't ever forgotten it, and I have gone so far enough as to actually think about trying out his technique.

When I am at Cornell University to work with the ministry of the Episcopal Church at Cornell, I have made a point of taking advantage of some of the mass of opportunities that such a campus offers: I have heard a fascinating lecture on Peace Groups in Islam, attended a concert of the Women's Glee Club, and sat in on an impromptu talk on Bach and the Art of Fugue given by a world-class pianist. This time I noticed that the campus museum had a small exhibit of Japanese lacquer pieces - one of my favorites. So when some time presented itself I went off to the Johnson Museum, determined to take in this one exhibit. This one exhibit and no more.

And on the way to the museum I experienced something of a miracle. When I arrived in Ithaca on Wednesday there were 15 inches of snow on the ground. It was a perfect mid-winter scene. It was also pretty depressing: here it was in mid to late April and it looked like winter wasn't ever going to end. But by Friday the scene was quite different. The sun was warm, the weather was balmy, the snow was gone and the lawns were emerald. And in a totally unexpected burst of spring gifts, several of the lawns were full of wild flowers. There was the blue of Scilla, the purple of early Violets, the yellow of False Celandine, and a white flower that I didn't recognize. And in one lawn there was an unlikely treat: three tiny daisies in a perfect triangle.

I did have the grace to stop and contemplate this wonderful spring gift. And it did just cross my mind that there might be an opportunity here. I had a flash of insight in which I considered that this moment held the stuff that some Zen stories are made of: on his way to the museum, the Master finds a lawn full of beautiful flowers. He examines the wonder of them, takes the time to let them fill his heart, and then instead of continuing to the museum, he turns back, completely filled and refreshed. The unexpected moment has given him all he needed. Zen devotees delight in stories like this.

I, alas, am not an enlightened master. I did let the miracle of the flowers speak to me. At least I had that much grace. And then I put that moment aside and continued on to the museum, in search of more to see.

And it was wonderful to see. It was a small exhibit: a couple of dozen exquisite pieces, mostly done in black and gold, with occasional silver or red works. They were boxes - writing boxes, picnic boxes, boxes for storing cosmetics and for storing sweets and for documents. They were decorated with images of flowers and of birds and of lakes. They were exquisite, and they filled my sense of beauty and of wonder as I drank in that loveliness.

And I felt the tug of my greed, too. There was a gallery just beyond the one I was in that had lovely paintings of Japanese women. An exhibition of American Indian art called out. There was a small room with several massive pieces by a Scandinavian artist who was completely unfamiliar to me. All of them beckoned me to set aside my purpose and come and spend some lovely time with them.

And that might have been all right. No doubt I would have enjoyed them. But that wasn't my purpose on this one afternoon. Instead I took all the time that I had and that I needed and stayed with the lacquer boxes, limiting the range of my exploration, drinking in the beauty before me, and just being with those few small pieces.

And I went home refreshed.

It actually worked. If I will recognize my greed for what it is and set it aside, it is within my gasp to get a greater gift: the gift of the loveliness of small things and the miracle of the present moment. Those 45 minutes have renewed in me a lesson that I hope I won't forget. I'll probably continue to use my museum time in a number of different ways. But the way I explored last Friday afternoon was deeply enriching, and I don't want to ever forget that it is always available to me, in whatever moment I find myself.

And perhaps one afternoon I actually will stop to look at flowers and then go home, refreshed.

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