4 July 2017      

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Where Quality Comes From (an excerpt)
H. Charles Romesburg

Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

Two Smiles
tom walsh

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Without music, life would be a mistake.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Love the moment.  Flowers grow out of dark moments.  Therefore, each moment is vital.  It affects the whole.  Life is a succession of moments and to live each one is to succeed.

Corita Kent

That we think we know how anything
ought to be is killing us, slowly.

K Bradford Brown

Where Quality Comes From
H. Charles Romesburg

What it comes down to is that quality is as much or more about creators than about the things they create.  Hear Barbara Tuchman on this:

. . . As I understand it, quality means investment of the best skill and effort possible to produce the finest and most admirable result possible.  Its presence or absence to some degree characterizes every human-made object, service, skilled or unskilled labor--laying bricks, painting a picture, ironing shirts, practicing medicine, shoemaking, scholarship, writing a book.  You do it well or you do it half-well.  Materials are sound and durable or they are sleazy; methods are painstaking or whatever is easiest.  Quality is achieving or reaching for the highest standard as against being satisfied with the sloppy or fraudulent.  It is honesty of purpose as against catering to cheap or sensational sentiment.  It does not allow compromise with the second-rate.

Going on, she describes Michelangelo's project of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Intolerant of the lesser standards of his five assistants, he dismissed them and for four years worked alone to shape the masterpiece.  She concludes, "That is what makes for quality--and its costs--and what helped to make Michelangelo one of the greatest artists, in not, as some think, the greatest, of all time.  Creating quality is self-nourishing."

Examine the words she uses to explain quality.

They are about a human, a creator, not about a painting:  "investment of the best skill and effort possible"--"you do it well or you do it half-well"--"reaching for the highest standard"--"honesty of purpose."

Holding the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in view is like watching a fresh comet render those that came before it less fit to dwell in the heavens.  Michelangelo's painting, the outer excellence he produced, delights our aesthetic sensibilities.  But the fresh comet that gives the spirit life is not so much this immaculate object of our outward-looking eyes, but is what must have been Michelangelo's inner excellence, his immaculately engaged self which we catch through our inward-looking spiritual eyes, his place in the enshrined constellation of great creators, turning on in us respect for what may be called "creator-hood."

To show how the spirit imputes inner excellence from outer excellence, suppose there is a week-long contest among a hundred cooks to conceive new meals, where each day they receive like packages of a surprise selection of vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains, mushrooms, and spices.  They work in identical kitchens, for equal time, and their conceptions are judged by a panel.  At the end of the week, the daily rankings are averaged to balance out chance variations, and the five cooks of the best meals are awarded stars.

The material resources and working conditions are the same, but the delectableness of the meals is not.  Something else must be entering the top recipes, an intangible ingredient, an efficacy for creating excellent meals.  It is excellence of mind, compounded of intelligence, values, imagination, creativity, standards, dedication, effort, tenacity, sincerity, courage, curiosity, attentiveness, assertiveness, and an attitude that rejects the best that has been done as not good enough.

In every walk of life, the spirit's respect for inner excellence goes less to the creator's inborn talents and more and more for the creator's made talents.  Katherine Mansfield created extraordinarily fine stories; it can only be concluded she was extraordinarily responsible to her education and work.  Igor Sikorsky invented the first practical helicopter, a height of goodness previously unreached; we must say he was wonderful for making himself be this wonderful engineer.

Finally, inner excellence is more widespread than we are aware of.  Although the names that come to mind are of those whose works stand high in the public eye--Paul Robeson, Wernher von Braun, Christian Doppler, Goethe, Martha Graham, Geoffrey Chaucer, Roger Tory Peterson, Louis Armstrong, Barbara Tuchman, and the like--we overlook the legions of un-quoteworthy creators whose respect and eminence is local:  librarians, family doctors, blacksmiths, homemakers, luthiers, mechanics, and all manner of inconspicuous fighters for mattering causes.  Nor should we overlook serious hobbyists, many with livelihood vocations consisting of humdrum tasks, as the steelworker who after working by the book from eight to five, with little chance for originality and independence, goes into the garage on evenings and weekends, aiming to conceive and build an uncommonly good experimental airplane.

Likewise not to be forgotten is the Creator of nature.  A breeze shapes and whitens a geyser's plume against the blue Yellowstone sky, and the quality felt derives from where?  That is easy--from the responsible agent, God.


This plain-covered, inconspicuous book is more than 350 pages long. The first 165 pages are Dr. H. Charles Romesburg’s own, and the rest of the book is a collection of wonderful excerpts from the writings of many artists and 'creators,' ranging from Georgia O’Keeffe to Bertrand Russell to Rainer Maria Rilke to Maria Callas. So readers are treated not only to the rich fabric of thought of humanist and professor of forestry Romesburg as he examines what cultivates a creative life but also to inspiring musings about creativity by noted artists, writers, and thinkers.


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Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

We begin our lives listening to the many sounds surrounding us in the womb.  When we are dying, the last faculty to shut down is usually hearing.  In between, there is so much to see that we seldom take the time to cultivate the art of listening.

Listening uses other practices:  attention, being present, openness.  It is holy work, involving the inventive phrase of W.A. Mathieu, a Sufi musician, "making an altar out of our ears."

Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, notes that "Hear O Israel" is "the central mantra of the Jewish people."  Christians are challenged to listen to the Word of God, and Buddhists to the dharma talks going on around them.

"God speaks to us every day only we don't know how to listen," the great Indian spiritual leader Mohandas Gandhi states.  Perhaps St. Benedict, founder of a Catholic order, gives the best advice of all:  "Listen, my children, with the ear of your heart."

"All things and all people, so to speak, call on us with small or loud voices," Protestant theologian Paul Tillich proposes.  "They want us to listen.  They want us to understand their intrinsic claims, their justice of being.  But we can give it to them only through the love that listens."

All things in the universe want to be heard.  The Divine Ear helps us lean toward them so we can hear more clearly.

We are also challenged to listen to the many voices inside us, particularly the voices of conscience and intuition.  And we need to be willing to lend an ear to the stories of others.  As Quaker writer Douglas Steere put it, "Holy listening--to 'listen' another's soul into life, into a condition of disclosure and discovery, may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another."  This kind of listening is life-giving.

"A wealth of [spiritual] teaching is available," rabbi and retreat leader David A. Cooper suggests.  "Our work is not so much to find a teacher as to improvise our own receptivity and sharpen our ability to hear the teachings all around us."

There are the spiritual teachings of the old house that creaks in the wind, the cat who signals pleasure with a purr, and the waitress at the corner cafe whose cheerful chatter brightens the days of all who come in her orbit.

There are other important teachings to hear as well--those that come from obstacles, enemies, and the demons which haunt us.  Are you listening?

Finally, as psychologist and scholar Jean Houston reminds us, we need to listen to the voices of people throughout the global village.  She calls it the "habit of multicultural deep listening."  And it is critical to the survival of the planet.

Listening is a spiritual craft because it plugs us into the world in so many ways.  Keep listening.


A book that belongs in every seeker's home, Spiritual Literacy answers the universal question, "How can I live a spiritual life every day?" Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat reveal a way to read the texts of our lives and of the world around us for sacred meaning. Using more than 650 brief examples from contemporary books and movies, they tutor us in the art of lingering with our experiences and seeing the world with fresh eyes. They present spiritual perspectives on things, places, nature, animals, leisure, creativity, service, body, relationships, and community.


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You can't keep saying and doing the same things and expect
better results.  When you see your behavior clearly you can
frame new responses.  There are many techniques for
increasing self-awareness.  Most involve mindfulness--
observing what's happening in the present moment:
your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations.

Joan Duncan Oliver


Two Smiles

This is a story of two moments that in space are separated by perhaps half a mile, but that in time are separated by eight full years.  Amazingly enough, the two incidents are extremely similar in many regards, and they both taught me the value of sharing a smile with a stranger.

Both moments happened in Salamanca, Spain, and both happened in the spring.  The first time, it was in 1984 and the early spring was a cold one, more like an extension of winter than an onset of a warmer season.  My days started fairly early partly because I'm an early riser and partly because I taught a class rather early in the morning.  On one particular morning, I was feeling a bit down--being alone in a foreign city for a very long time can do that to a person--and the cold and cloudy morning wasn't doing anything to lift my spirits.

It was pretty cold as I was walking downtown, and the streets were full of people, as always.  That's one of the things that I truly love about Spain--there are always people out and about, on the streets, and you never feel as isolated and alone as you can often feel in the States.  Of course, it's still possible to feel lonely among a crowd of people--especially if you're a foreigner and you don't necessarily belong there--but at least there's human contact, hearing human voices, seeing human faces, looking people in the eye.

Among the crowd suddenly there was a mother walking her daughter to school coming towards me.  The girl was seven or eight, I would guess, and she just looked like a nice kid.  I looked her in the eyes and smiled at her, and suddenly the little girl gave me one of the biggest, most beautiful smiles I had ever seen.

My heart kind of melted right then.  We kept eye contact for as many seconds as it took to walk by one another, and after we passed, I looked back at her--and she was looking back at me, still smiling.

My whole day was made, early on a grey and somewhat dismal morning, weather-wise.

Nine years later I was back in Salamanca.  I took a bus over there to visit the place I had lived, since I was stationed in Germany with the Army, and it was pretty cheap to take a bus to the Costa Brava and then a train over to Salamanca.  I didn't have much of an agenda, just a couple days of a visit.  I was in a small hotel downtown, and my first morning there I was eating breakfast in the dining room when a family of three came in--mother, father, and daughter.  The daughter was about the same age as the little girl I had seen nine years earlier, and they sat down at a table about halfway across the room from me.

Almost right away, the little girl and I started to make eye contact for short moments.  It's something I like to do with kids in public places, simply because they're a little bit more playful than adults and they're willing to play the little game with me.  She was a little shy at first, but soon she got bolder.  We would look each other in the eyes and then look away, then a little later catch the other's eye and then look away again.  Finally, I had to smile because it was a lot of fun, and the girl smiled back, one of the brightest and most beautiful smiles I had ever seen.

And the next time I caught her eye, she actually winked at me!

There I was, alone again in a fairly large city, just eating breakfast in a hotel at which I meant nothing to anyone there, and I was blessed with a sign of caring and acceptance that I had done nothing to deserve, and that meant an incredible amount to me.

It's amazing how such a simple and innocent moment can mean so much to me--of all the time I've lived on this planet, these are two of the moments that mean the most to me, and that I remember above so many other moments.  When I ask myself if I would rather think about my college graduation or about these two little girls, the answer is immediate and simple--the girls win out.  The innocence and the brightness of the moments make them so very special to me that I never want to forget them.  And thinking about them reminds me that right now, there are many people in this world who could use a smile themselves--and perhaps I can be the person who gives one to them.  It wouldn't cost me anything to do so, and it may have some important benefits.

Thinking about those two little girls reminds me of just how connected we are, and how much more connected we can feel when we let down our guards a bit and share some little piece of ourselves, be it only a smile or a greeting or an encouraging word.  How can it be that these two moments, one of which lasted a matter of seconds and the other which lasted a few minutes, stay so strong in my memory?  How can it be that simply thinking about them still makes me feel good, feel accepted, and feel connected?  Those little girls have long forgotten the moments, I'm sure--but they've given me a gift that I can never forget, and never want to forget.

Perhaps we can give just such gifts to others, to strangers whom we see on the street.  Perhaps our next greeting or smile that we share will be very special to someone else.  It's important that we remind ourselves that we don't have to see immediate results for something to have a positive effect on someone else.  It's probably true that 95 out of our next 100 smiles and greetings will be forgotten by their recipients almost as soon as they're in the past, but what about those other five?

If the other five have any sort of positive result at all, then all 100 of them were more than worthwhile.
A Matter of Moments

This is a new column for me, a way to examine and explore things that have happened to me in my life that have been extremely positive and extremely negative--things that have helped me to learn about life and living and about myself and my strengths and my weaknesses, my prejudices and abilities, my shortcomings and my gifts.  It's based on the idea that while life is long and varied, there are many moments that stand out, times when we've learned important lessons and developed significantly as human beings in a very short time.  One of the reasons I'm doing it here is simple:  I've wanted to write this as a book for a long time, and if I do  the separate entries each week, by the end of a year or so, the book will be written and will need just a bit of work to tie everything together.  So please enjoy these moments!

More on smiles.


One of the most important elements of living life fully is awareness-- awareness of our surroundings, of other people and their motives and fears and desires, of the things that affect us most in our lives, both positively and negatively. In the twelve years of livinglifefully.com's existence, this essay series has been a mainstay of the weekly e-zine--a series that has explored not just the things that exist and that happen around us, but also our reactions to those things. The first five years of the column are now available exclusively on Kindle.



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A fresh attitude starts to happen when we look to see that yesterday was yesterday, and now it is gone; today is today and now it is new.  It is like that--every hour, every minute is changing.  If we stop observing change, then we stop seeing everything as new.

Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche

The Hasidic masters tell the story of the rabbi who disappeared every Shabat Eve, "to commune with God in the forest," his congregation thought.  So one Sabbath night they deputed one of their cantors to follow the rabbi and observe the holy encounter.  Deeper and deeper into the woods the rabbi went until he came to the small cottage of an old Gentile woman, sick to death and crippled into a painful posture.  Once there, the rabbi cooked for her and carried her firewood and swept her floor.  Then when the chores were finished, he returned immediately to his little house next to the synagogue.

Back in the village, the people demanded of the one they'd sent to follow him, "Did our rabbi go up to heaven as we thought?"

"Oh, no," the cantor answered after a thoughtful pause, "our rabbi went much, much higher than that."

Joan Chittister
There Is a Season


Don Juan assured me that in order to accomplish the feat of making myself
miserable I had to work in the most intense fashion, and that it was absurd.
I had now realized I could work just the same in making myself complete and strong.
"The trick is in what one emphasizes," he said.  "We either make ourselves miserable,
or we make ourselves strong.  The amount of work is the same."

Carlos Castaneda


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