In my inbox every morning is “The Writer’s Almanac,” which describes significant events in cultural history. A recent article noted it was the birthday of Claude Monet:
He and his friend Auguste Renoir were among the first European painters to take their canvases outside to paint directly from nature. They would often work as quickly as they could, so that their paintings looked like sketches, and that sketchy style became known as Impressionism. Monet spent the rest of his career exploring the idea that you can never really see the same thing twice. In a single day, he would often paint the same subject half a dozen times, from slightly different angles and in slightly different light, spending no more than about an hour on each canvas. In the last 30 years of his life, he painted almost nothing but the water lilies in his garden at Giverny. Monet bought the four-acre property in 1883, built the bridges, dug the lake, and selected all the flowers and plants himself.
It seems he painted 250 scenes in his garden as a way of “exploring the idea that you can never really see the same thing twice.”
Can we ever experience the same thing twice?
We have grandkids that are 7, 5, and 1, and feel blessed to watch them grow and develop. This week the one-year-old made the evolutionary leap from being a four-legged mammal to two, ending with a smile confirming she knew that she had just taken a “big step.” In one sense she’s the same wee person she was the week before – but she’s not exactly the same.
A golf teacher once made the point that your body and mind are always changing, and every time you play, you’ll need to adjust to who you have become.
A yoga teacher said that every day we begin our practice, something in our body has shifted. We may be a bit less flexible or a bit more – it’s hard to predict — but it is something we should expect.
And what tennis, soccer, or baseball player can completely control time after time where the ball will go?
Modern science tells us there is no such thing as solid, unchanging matter — it’s all energy in varying states and forms.
Every day, countless cells in our body are dying and others are being created; biologically we “are not the person we used to be.” (As we get older, looking in the mirror becomes vivid proof).
So maybe this was what fascinated Monet as he created this “Impression” of the lily pond in his garden…
…and then sometime later he captured the same pond in a different light:
On the one hand, it’s exciting to think “you can never really see the same thing twice.”
But on the other hand, it can be a bit unsettling. It makes me feel like I’m being carried away on a river when I’d prefer to have my feet planted on solid ground, at least occasionally. Where do we find stability?
This is a central question for many spiritual traditions.
Hinduism assumes we all have an “atman” within us, an essence that is rooted in the divine; it’s like a “witness” within ourselves, observing our life as it ebbs and flows and will be the awareness that continues beyond death. Buddhism disputes that, at least in the most simplistic form. Western traditions have often spoken of each person having a “soul.”
There’s a beautiful old English hymn that used to be common at memorial services: “Abide with Me, Fast Falls the Eventide.” The English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said these words sum up the universal longing of humanity: “Fast falls the eventide” acknowledges that all life is passing, while “Abide with me” is a plea that our connection with the divine will be a constant.
Two stories from my hospice work come to mind.
Serenity House is a beautiful residential hospice here in Santa Barbara. I knew the Executive Director of the organization as it was being designed and built, and she shared with me some of her hopes during that time. One key theme was integration with nature: every room has a porch where the patient can enjoy the landscaping as well as a view of the city and the nearby mountain range. Sometime after it opened, she told me that one patient had asked the gardener to not remove the fallen leaves on her porch but let them remain where they had landed. The patient said looking at the fallen leaves gave her comfort.
A friend of mine is a longtime volunteer at Serenity House. He has often been with patients as they are dying, and it is common for them to begin to sense there is something “on the other side.” Never – not once – has he seen people in those moments experiencing fear.
“We are born in mystery, we live in mystery, and we die in mystery,” Huston Smith said. Maybe our whole life is just a series of “impressions” as we try to capture important moments in the changing light. What a gift to be doing so. And what amazing colors the light reveals.
Top Image: Nymphea, 1903
Water Lilly Pond, 1917-1920