Living a Fine Life


In honor of the old New Year’s Day (today), I thought I’d offer some new old words — the text of a sermon I gave about a month ago. It’s a bit longer than my usual post, but you’re free to stop at any point — I’ll never know!


First of all, I need to admit that the title of this morning’s sermon comes from the cork to a wine bottle. I feel a little bad about that, though obviously not bad enough. The full inscription reads: Living a fine life is an art form. I like this. It did lead me to wonder what Robert Mondavi considers a fine life. Probably safe to assume it includes a lot of wine.

Whether or not we paint, play music, or dance, we’re all the artists of our own lives. Although we sometimes experience the events of life as random, true randomness is rare. Everything has a cause, and even when we’re not trying to make a design, patterns are created.

The circumstances of our lives sometimes feel beyond our control, and in fact they often are. But this is part of the art: every medium has its potentials and limits, and it’s these idiosyncrasies that make creativity possible. Creativity isn’t making something out of nothing, or out of anything; it’s making something out of a given set of materials and conditions.

The sculptor Andy Goldsworthy makes art in nature, using materials he finds at hand: arches and cairns of ice and stone, leaves of rainbow colors sewn together with thorns. He has a vision of what he wants to make, and then his vision meets the conditions of the given day – temperature, light, wind, rain.

He says, “Perfection in every work is not the aim. I prefer works that are fashioned by the compromises forced on me by nature, whether it be an incoming tide, the end of the day, thawing snow, shriveling leaves, or the deadline of my own lifetime.”

We’re given certain bodies and minds, talents and shortcomings, families and environments, and challenged to make something of them. We do this through a lifetime’s worth of choices—how we spend our time and energy, what we think about, the stories we tell ourselves about our lives.

These stories, our interpretations of our lives, are powerful. They can give us enthusiasm and inspiration for the future, or mire us in a version of the past, accurate or not, that saps our vitality and will. In our effort to create lives we can believe in and be inspired by, some of our greatest obstacles are the force of habit, the weight of who we think we are, our conditioning.

How do we liberate ourselves from these habits of mind that impede our freedom of action and choice? We pay attention to our patterns, imagine alternate ways of thinking and being, and fire our determination to transform ourselves and our world.

This is a kind of artistic alchemy … turning bitterness into beauty. An oyster does this instinctively, transforming an irritating grain of sand into a pearl. We have to use our creativity. Although we have limited power to control the experiences we have, we get to choose how we interpret them, what we make of them, and most importantly, what we allow them to make of us.

In our daily lives, we can ask ourselves, What am I doing exactly? Am I really doing that again? Yes, I am. I’m doing that pointless, destructive thing againAnd you watch yourself doing that stupid thing for awhile, as if you were a character in a movie. Part of you is shouting at the top of your lungs, “Stop!” The rest of you is moving like a robot on autopilot, unstoppable.

It’s painful, because you know how this story ends; you’ve seen it play out a million times. You know it’s not a happy ending, and yet you can’t change it. And it feels like you never will. But after a lot of attention, instead of noticing your pattern belatedly or as a crime in progress, you start to see what you’re about to do before you do it. This is good. Although you still might find yourself powerless to intervene. You know you should, but you can’t help yourself. Yet.

However, each time there’s a fraction more space between perception and action. And one shining day, there’s enough space that you can take a few deep breaths and say, “You know what? I’m not going to do that thing this time. I’m going to do something else…ANYTHING else.”

Each time you choose to do something else, you exercise your freedom, and your freedom grows stronger. And each time you see the results of taking a different action, you’ve conducted a successful experiment in cause and effect, which gives you more data to inform your next choice.

We believe that the past influences the future, and that’s true. But it’s one of the strange and wonderful properties of art and life that the future also alters the past. History, memories—these things are revised continually in light of new insights and unfolding events.

We have one experience of a story or a life in the moment, and then we have different understandings and experiences of it, depending what happens next, depending how it ends. Miles Davis said, “If you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note you play that determines whether that note was good or bad.”

This means that our lives are completely redeemable in each moment, depending what we do now, what we do next. This moment is the culmination of everything that has happened before now, and the seed of everything to come. So nothing is lost or wasted. Although some things take a long time to learn. “Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.” This is how delusion becomes enlightenment.

The truth is that after a certain age, we’re responsible for how our lives look, for what they are. To the extent that we shift this responsibility onto circumstance or other people, we deprive ourselves of our creative agency, our power, to make and remake ourselves and our lives according to our deepest values.

The meaning of life isn’t something “out there,” an objective truth waiting to be discovered; it’s something each of us makes for ourselves, a tapestry woven from within. The writer and photographer Wright Morris says: “The final act of coherence is an imaginative act, and the person who created the parts of a life must create the whole into which they fit.”

The point isn’t to fashion your life or your self to fit some ideal image. Instead, it’s a matter of attending to what’s real, to who you are and what your life is. How can you create beauty and meaning, according to your own definitions, from the raw materials of your life as it is now? Because the quality of your everyday life is your most honest answer to the question, “What do you love?”

And this brings us to the motivation for this life’s work of choosing and refining, of crumpling paper into a ball and starting over. The motive isn’t only aesthetic, the appreciation of a good story, the desire for a happy ending. Making our life into something of beauty is an offering to the people and things we love.

The poet Rilke wrote: “Love does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent?). [Love] is a high inducement for an individual to ripen, to become something in himself…to become world in himself for the sake of another.”

I believe this is the greatest offering we can make, not only to those we love, but to the world at large: the gift of creative engagement with our lives, the gift of our attention and reverence. I love winter, but lately my mind’s been turning to thoughts of summer. So I’ll end with a poem some of you may know.

The Summer Day
by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

This is the question life asks us, freshly in every moment. It’s never too soon, or too late, to answer.

Thank you for your attention.



Shoveling Snow with Buddha


I’m a bit written out at the moment because of preparing my sermon as guest minister at church this Sunday, so I’ll simply offer this poem as an emblem of life in the Northeast over the past several days; I think Billy Collins has captured it beautifully — “so much better than a sermon in church”!

Shoveling Snow With Buddha

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.