A sensorial serenade to the art of awareness.
Looking back on the most important things I have learned about life, I keep returning to a central paradox of our culture: We know that the flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst, yet we crave stories of overnight success and spontaneous self-actualization, disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming, in the incremental ripening by which we become who we are, the innumerable tiny choices, the imperceptibly small steps by which we pave the path to our own destiny in the very act of walking it. We are each a continuous becoming, our future a rosary of presents strung along the strand of presence — presence with the smallest corpuscles of existence: the smell of a neighbor’s curry slipping through the window cracked in midwinter, the atlas of wrinkles on the hands of the cashier scanning the box of strawberries at the grocery store. Sensing, noticing — the raw materials of presence, and thus the elemental stardust of our becoming. Emerson knew this when he reflected on how to live with presence and authenticity in a culture of busyness and surfaces a century and a half before the Age of Haste:
Life goes headlong… Now pause, now possession is required, and the power to swell the moment from the resources of our own heart until it supersedes sun & moon & solar system in its expanding immensity.
That is what author Julia Denos and illustrator E.B. Goodale invite in Here and Now (public library) — a kind of illustrated guided meditation, tender and soulful, and a splendid belated addition to the loveliest children’s books of 2019.
The book begins where all presence must always begin — exactly where we are: The reader is invited to attend to the actuality of reading — the sensorial meta-reality of being with the book. Presence then radiates outward in widening circles of awareness — the floor under the feet, the grass and soil under the floor, the earthworms and fossils in the the hidden universe of the underland.
We are reminded that the Earth is spinning in the vast expanse of spacetime, and so are we, along with it; that during each now we experience here, countless things are happening in countless elsewheres — “rain is forming in the belly of a cloud,” “an ant has finished its home on the other side of the planet,” “an idea is blooming,” “grass is pushing up through cement,” “unseen work is being done.”
What emerges is a delicate reminder that we snatch our freeze-frame of life from the simultaneity of existence. “Right here, right now, YOU are becoming,” Denos writes.
In a postscript, Denos explains that the book grew out of a poem she had written as part of her meditation practice — a kind of lyric breathwork. Two millennia after Seneca offered his Stoic’s key to living with presence and a generation after Wendell Berry began his formula for how to be a poet and a complete human being with “Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet,” she writes:
Meditation is just another way of noticing and a little bit like magic. It brings us, just as we are, into the present moment, just as it is. This freedom is a place I call “Here and Now.” It is a land well known by young children and plants and animals; it is a place and possibility root, a place where we feel connected to the greater unfolding story. Sometimes, when our minds and bodies are busy, we forget how to get back. But all we need to do to return again is to notice the world around us. We don’t need to sit down, or stop what we are doing. We don’t even need to close our eyes. Let’s open our senses instead.
Complement Here and Now with Be Still, Life — a kindred-spirited songlike illustrated invitation to living with presence — and Sidewalk Flowers — a picture-book serenade to the art of noticing — then revisit Annie Dillard’s timeless clarion call for choosing presence over productivity, Hermann Hesse on breaking the trance of busyness by learning to savor the little joys, and poet Ross Gay’s yearlong experiment in training the delight muscle.
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