Common Sense

Which is more common, sense or the mysteries around it?

Not everyone is sold on the idea that plants have any, which makes it difficult to explain how trees harmonize, not to mention what mushrooms are doing without it. It’s generally accepted as a feature of humans, hence so many references to basic sensibilities, to sensible and senseless behaviors, and comparisons on varying levels of sensitivities. There’s plenty to be studied on an anatomical level––communications between organs, organisms, within and across regions, species, and time––most of which serves to reinforce a foundational understanding, however paradoxical, about the layers of mystery we’re dealing with. 

These are challenging regions to chart: the matter of spirit, realities of imagination, bodies of mind, to say nothing of the minds of bodies. Which of these oversees sense, and which is to blame when it goes missing? And when we refer to that which is presumed common, is it one of these, or that which evades such reduction? There is reason to believe that these questions will linger as we continue to explore unmapped spatial, spiritual, and imaginative terrains. No sooner do we begin to chart a territory when another opens. 

I suppose if there were fewer unknowns it might be easier to treat senselessness, to say as with a child’s skinned knee, show me where it is, to clean and bandage the wound, and say gently, there we go. All better! Which raises two questions: can a creature adapted to mystery survive when plucked from its depths? And, when this perception becomes the coin of the realm, what is lost?

Lyric Suite

Room for discovery.

Sometime during the initial COVID lockdown, I came across The Artist Project series of videos by The Met, in which artists reflect on a work that inspires them. Each one I’ve watched has moved me to look at a work in a new way. It’s been a while since I visited, and this morning, a series of clicks beginning with an error brought me serendipitously back to Wenda Gu’s reflection on Robert Motherwell’s Lyric Suite, a series of one-thousand works of ink on rice paper, compositions that Wenda Gu describes as “lyric, bleeding ink” hauntingly suggestive of living forms: here a branch, here a horizon, here a suggestion of a person in silhouette, here a protozoa. The idea to use ink on rice paper happened when the artist was stopping by a Japanese store in search of a birthday gift. The paper he saw was called “Dragons and Clouds.” He bought a thousand sheets and decided to try painting without conscious thought. This was April 1965 and by the end of May, Motherwell had done six-hundred of these small paintings on the floor of his studio, all while listening to Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite (1925). Then he lost his best friend, artist David Smith. Motherwell was devastated. He boxed up the rice paper paintings and they stayed in the box for over twenty years. In 1986, Motherwell resumed the series, explaining “I half painted them and they half painted themselves.” Speaking of the harmony of seemingly accidental discovery moving through these paintings, Wenda Gu is quick to observe, “that’s the daily practice.” Here’s to keeping the door open.


Wenda Gu on Robert Motherwell’s Lyric Suite


For every living.

What knows, perceives, wills, animates––a body, while not of body. Moving a mind, but not quite a mind or of one. Plato considered a soul of the universe, and others saw it in the celestial bodies. Some confuse it with perceptible motion. Where is it before–– and after, this form and these forms? Before understanding, and after? Indivisible, and yet able to multiply, into greater unity, ever greater being, explaining nothing, with no guarantees.

Facing the Lion

No show, just a portrait of strength.

Persistence like a river until it’s bled dry, and no temper. Here is no coercion, no brash announcements, no bold statements. Most of what she is saying, facing what others call this beast, is so subtle it sounds like nothing. 

Everything is the opposite of nothing. Something is also the opposite of nothing. A robe but no armor, her hands in the mane, so near the jaw. He leans into her and she holds.

Someone wants to know who is calling the shots, but there are no calls happening here. No shots. Here is a wild creature renowned for ferocity, a feared killer, at rest. She is with him. They are breathing, still.


An interview with the curators of “Enough: an Exhibit of Curiosities.”

When did you first know you had it?

Had what?


Enough what?

You know.

I’m in the dark.

The life, you know. Like that Scandinavian word that got big a few years ago, about warm socks and cocoa by a fire.

But I am in the dark when it happens. There wasn’t a fire. No light, no socks, no cocoa.

And then what?

I breathed anyway.


Bodies outside time and space.

Consider this illumination here now. Not quite us, and yet. Neither fact nor fiction, mortal or immortal. Who are you, and what? Illuminated form without matter, creature of eternity, yet not without beginnings of your own; how many of you are standing here now, on the point of this needle, stitching time? You move in space, yet are outside it, jumping through without passing. You know without thinking, sense without feeling, speak without words. Move love into light and back again. There is a common preference these days, not to see you. It is supported by argument and reason and other human tools, but for these you haven’t had much use. 


In the still of a long night.

In the dark hours, we came together by the fire, the St. Lucia’s girls crowned by candle wreaths, in honor of the flames that lit the way when she brought food to the persecuted in hiding, a trespass that got her killed by the law. Now, in the somber mist, in the places once wooded with dark trees, we wait by kindled light for the rebirth of the sun. There is a moment when it is still, and in the full dark, a pause, holding breath, and then then comes a long, cry, like mourning. That’s when you know it is here, the hour when it stops pulling away, and begins a slow return. Against our mourning, we keep watch until it comes. Look east. At first light, say the word. 

Reading and the Ark

From contemplation to reason, against the storm.

A lesson in the voice of Hugh of St. Victor, adapted from his writings on education in the art of reading, and his interpretation of the story of Noah’s Ark.

When it comes to knowing, logic is the last to be discovered. For learning, it is a good place to start. Just remember, real things do not always conform to the conclusions of reasoning. One needs to learn for certain, what forms of reasoning to trust, and which to hold suspect. Without such discernment, reasoning may mislead as often as it may lead. The ancients offer plenty of examples. Take Epicurus, for example, equating pleasure and virtue. Yikes, but he meant well.

Better to start with the true and whole nature of argument. Consider this: exposition includes the letter and the sense–– beyond both, the inner meaning. No study of a worthy text is complete until the last of these is reached, but most stop short. The great depths resound beyond the words, like strings resound toward music. And yet, the music is not the strings.  The pleasure of honey is enhanced by its enclosure in the comb.

It is one thing to understand words, another the meaning of phrases, passages. But what about the whole? That is another matter altogether. There is much confusion about the old texts, written in the idioms of an unfamiliar language. Many, professing with confidence, miss the point entirely. But the divine deeper meaning can never be absurd, and never false.

Now I want to tell you about the ark. It is the house of mystery within the heart, which each must protect against the world’s storms. You build a great ark, three stories, welcome inside all the creatures of the earth. Protect them, too. But we are not made to stay in contemplation. That’s why there’s a door and a window. The window offers a way out through thought, and the door a way out through action. But neither thought nor action will be right, unless it begins here, within the sacred ark. Let’s begin here.

Adapted and using borrowed phrases from Jerome Taylor’s translation of The Didascalicon, or On the Study of Reading (1125) and also The Mystic Ark as interpreted by Conrad Rudolph.

Matters of Transformation

Wisdom from the dung beetle.

If you are going to transform dung into treasure, it is best to act quickly and move in a straight line, away from the hordes. None of us move easily in straight lines unless we can see where we are going, but the beetles move backwards, each propelling a relatively massive ball with their hind legs, reading the shadows and the light. When the sun is directly overhead and there are no shadows, they read the wind. Nocturnal foragers take cues from the polarized light of the moon, and when the moon is not visible, they follow the Milky Way. These agents of transformation and rebirth tend to ignore cues from the ground, keeping their focus far above their grounded bodies. For their size, they are among the strongest creatures on the planet. Up here, we don’t like to touch what they treasure. We prefer to draw hopes for rebirth in soft pastel hues, and this may have something to do with the puzzlement of the researchers. Brain the size of a poppy seed, they say, but we still don’t understand.  


Inspired by “How Dung Beetles Steer Straight” in the Annual Review of Entomology