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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Uses of Simple

by Bradly Baird (bio)

That Tree, photography by Mark Hirsch

It is raining at our house today. It is a gentle rain made up of large friendly droplets that 'smoosh' against the pavement in a nice way. They hit cars and make an engaging rhythm, they fall through the leaves of a nearby tree and run down its branches in gentle rivulets. This inviting scene compels me to step through our front door and onto the porch. I feel a rush of cool air and fight back the urge to strip down, run barefoot up the street, and splash about in the large puddles and streams forming over the pavement.

I don't really put any effort into fighting the temptation and it very quickly overwhelms my mind. I start to pull off my shirt and unbutton my pants (don't worry, the entire neighborhood is at church while I stay at home to nurse my sick wife), when a movement catches my eye. Between a couple of cars about fifty yards away, I catch a glimpse of something red moving about. I readjust the focus of my eyes towards the moving object and notice a young girl with a red umbrella dancing about.

She holds the umbrella above her head and spins, while her feet tap an unknown rhythm in shallow puddles. I cannot clearly see the details of her face because of the distance, but this is the happy dance of an elated child who understands the joys of playing in the rain. I am certain she does not know that I am watching her, but I doubt it would matter. She is so consumed with her joy at finding a perfect childhood moment that nothing else matters. I am entranced by the scene, and after a few more minutes of watching her spin like she's imitating Gene Kelly, I realize that I am smiling broadly and laughing quietly.

Eventually, the girl with the red umbrella disappears behind the edge of a car and I am left alone with the rain that still beckons me to come outside and play. In my mind, the joy from watching the little girl lingers and a wonderful sense of peace comes over me. I stare out into the rain for a while longer, watching and listening, and enjoying the weather (delightedly musing on the reasons why we so often refer to these atmospheric conditions as bad).

Then, very gently, a series of images stream like a movie in the back of my mind: a tall glass of milk; my cats; my children; our family's favorite tarragon chicken salad; the words of Genesis: 1:21; a recent walk across the Utah State University campus with my mother and father; the lights at night on the west face of the Wasatch Front; sitting by my wife at night while reading a book; the wedding scene from the movie Little Women where the family sings the hymn, For the Beauty of the Earth; Kate Royal singing the Mahler Fourth Symphony; and a razzleberry pie from Marie Calendar's.

These are all things that would be near the top of my list of most favored simple pleasures and I am reminded for a moment about the usefulness of these things. I am reminded that moments like this don't come along very often in our noisy, busy lives and that I should savor it and allow the pleasure of this afternoon to overwhelm me for a while, and not be in a hurry to accomplish whatever is next on my list. I am reminded that these things are God-given and may play a powerful role in our lives when the time is right.

These points were reinforced for me when I happened to see a commentary by photographer Mark Hirsch on the program, CBS Sunday Morning. Photographer Hirsch described a recently completed project called That Tree, in which he takes a photograph with his iPhone of the same tree everyday for a year and which, incidentally, helps heal him from a near-fatal car accident. The experience of the simple things of life in, on, and around the tree made a difference to his own humanity, and the lives of the 18,000+ followers he garners on Facebook.
"I decided to make a photo of that tree everyday for a year. Before sunrise. After sunset. Anytime really. I was there. Waiting and watching. Taking note of the simple beauty I had missed for so long: a darting blackbird, a nest of eggs, the full moon setting. The valley of that tree became for me a foreign land, full of strange and wonderful discoveries: a katydid backlit by the sun, a moth camouflaged against the tree's bark, a firefly painting a yellow brush stroke as it flew past my lens ... That tree gave me healing and inspiration more than I had realized. And it taught me to slow down, take time to look around and appreciate the almost - but not quite - hidden beauty that abounds in our world. Sometimes even in your own backyard."
The songwriter, Adam Gwon, agrees wholeheartedly with Hirsch and sums up the uses of simple in the following stanza from his musical, Ordinary Days: "Things aren't beautiful all on their own. Beautiful comes from reflection. Beautiful takes a person who makes a connection. For beautiful to happen, the beautiful has got to be seen ... I like that shade of red right there, the spot where the apple is peeling. It is deep as an ocean, but lighter than air. It's simple, familiar and full of feeling ... the color of an ordinary day."

We certainly shouldn't romanticize simple things, as though they are somehow the philosophical answer to life, the universe, and everything (no more than we should think the answer is '42'); but, we should value the simple and uncomplicated. For it is these things, the everyday things, the uses of these simple things that form a private utility in our lives: they anchor us, provide variety, give us a reason to take stock of where we are and what it is that we do, and, most of all, offer balance against the more complex and frenetic places in which we choose to stand.

*Genesis 1:21 -- "And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good."

*For The Beauty of The Earth -- "For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies, for the love which from our birth over and around us lies; Lord of all, to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise ..."

*Stanza of Translated Text from Mahler's Symphony No. 4 -- "We enjoy heavenly pleasures and therefore avoid earthly ones. No worldly tumult is to be heard in heaven. All live in greatest peace. We lead angelic lives, yet have a merry time of it besides. We dance and we spring, We skip and we sing. Saint Peter in heaven looks on ..."

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