Sunday, July 31, 2011

Frame of Reverence

We all talk about "frame of reference."  In fact, I was typing that phrase today and I screwed up and it came out "frame of reverence."

And I looked at it and thought, Hmmmm.  It was early and I hadn't had much coffee, and Hmmmm was the best I could do.

But now that I've rectified the caffeine deficit, the phrase seems to be kind of useful.

If I'm anything, I'm Buddhist, but in terms of conventional religious belief (since Buddhism is more a guide to life than it is a religion) I'm atheist.  And yet I have religious, or at least reverential, reactions to many things, and  I've decided -- just this minute -- that they comprise my frame of reverence.

So, for those of you who have read this far, what are these things?

Natural beauty.  As I've said here before, nature seems to default to beauty.  I've heard the arguments that we perceive these things as beautiful because of some aesthetic aspect of the anthropic principle, but I don't care.  Surely, since beauty is a dialog between the seer and the seen, what seems beautiful is beautiful, period.  So I'll use as part of my frame of reverence the feeling provoked in me by the coast of Mykonos (thanks, Jeff) or the tumbled-stone cathedrals of Joshua Tree or the luminosity inside an abalone shell or the spiral of a galaxy or the contrast between the blue and the brown on this bird.

 Music, painting, writing, science, and other activities in which humans find something inside themselves, develop it, and put it out into the world, creating something where nothing was before.  But especially music, and most especially instrumental music, which is abstraction piled on abstraction, played through instruments that are themselves triumphs of the creative spirit, all adding up to an invisible structure of beauty, churches made of air.

Kindness.  The woman in a Southeast Asian village who picks up a crying child that's not hers and makes the day okay again.  People who slow to let you turn left.  Anyone who smiles at me on the sidewalk, which is probably the main reason I love Thailand so much.  A tiny act of kindness is something good and pure breaking through the noise and smoke to say hello.

Mockingbirds:  They look like God's first draft of birds but nothing in the world lifts my spirits faster than a mockingbird doing a little avian Mozart somewhere invisible (you can almost never see them), just ripping through song after song without repeat.  No conservation at all, just abundance.  On a very minor level, this says something to me about the infinity of good that surely exists beside, and is sometimes intertwined with, the infinity of evil.

And, okay, Love.  I've been with one person for 33 years now, and we're just beginning to know each other.  Love is the thing that shows me, by implication, that people aren't solely the short-lived silhouettes most external evidence seems to suggest they are.  Instead, like the mockingbird's song, they're pretty much an infinite series of surprises and discoveries -- both good and bad, beings who have internalized some part of the universe and are much bigger on the inside than they are on the outside.  And we should always be grateful for the opportunity to explore one of them.

I could go on for days, but what about you?  Any signposts that help you define your frame of reverence?

(Photo: Bartram Gallery)


  1. Tim, I belong to the same church as you! My frame contains many pctures--not of exactly the same visions, but of the same sort of stuff: a lot of my favorite nature is African wilderness--the Okavongo Delta, the Ngorongoro Crater, the lionesses of the Serengetti, a lilac breasted roller. Music, for sure, but I like singing,too. Marilyn Horne or Joe Williams, to name but two. In instrumental music, I find the mystical in how Gerry Mulligan and Stan Getz could improvise together. Kindness: the way it lightens people in their workaday worlds when you strew a little around and lifts the heart of the giver.

    I don't know any mockingbirds, but I never tire of seeing that lady cardinal at the bird feeder. Her husband is all showy and gorgeous, while she wears only brown, but that red beak of hers? She seems to be wearing lipstick.

    The people I love, especially the fact that my husband (our relationship is of the same vintage as yours) still often cracks jokes that make me laugh out loud.

    What a great way to wake up in the morning! Your post is splendid. We should ask ourselves this question every day.

  2. A very interesting post--if you have never done so, you should read Poe's "The Domain of Arnheim," and "The Poetic Principle"--they are both extensions of exactly what you've written.

  3. "Any signposts that help you define your frame of reverence?"

    Yes, posts like this one of yours.

  4. Many signposts:

    The Bandlands of South Dakota.

    The coos and giggles of my 7 m/o triplet grandchildren.

    When my 12 y/o daughter snuggles on my shoulder despite her struggles to be "independent."

    When someone mentions my mom in conversation even though she died more than 20 years ago.

    Music that makes me want to dance and a lovingly prepared dinner that is so good it makes me want to swoon.

    Love, nature, kindness, art. Yep. That about sums it up.


  5. To me, life is just too much of a miracle for God not to be behind the whole thing.

    But the really simple, almost always thing, that puts me in awe is a feather. One lone feather.

  6. The beauty of the natural world which balances all the craziness in our world, the innocence of children, the smell of a (rare) warm day on our coast, the shared laughter of friends. Beautiful post today. A reminder is good.

  7. Thanks to all of you. I typed that phrase accidentally yesterday answering fan mail (yes, I get the very occasional piece of fan mail) and sat there, uncaffeinated, staring at it with my mouth open.

    I'm glad it struck a chord with all of you. (I downloaded the Poe, Undine.) And how about those two colors on that bird? Although I don't believe in God, I keep coming up against beauty that's way beyond the demands of natural selection.

  8. Butterflys do it for me. The kind one finds in nature, not the ones in the bars.

  9. Although I've often felt that frame of reverence and know its boundaries, I've never tried to define it. Sometimes it's quiet and seems like the biggest small moment ever. Sometimes it's big and exhiliarating and I want to shout "Top of the world, Ma" like Cagney.

    I know it's there when my mare puts her muzzle against my cheek and closes her eyes. Last Saturday, I felt it watching my friend with her 3-week old baby. It's also in watching my son sing in the jazz group at CSULB and listening to him talk about the mechanics of music with so much passion. I feel the same when my hubby and I have that teeny conversation of a few words that translates to a strong connection between us. And when I ride my gelding in a perfect pattern and we are so united that my mere thought becomes his deed.


    I've always considered myself a Christian, but perhaps I'm a Buddhist in practicality, as my frame of reverence seems to be about the connection of things and people in the Universe.

  10. Tim!
    Ahhhh the power of, or lack of caffeine:) made me say :Hmmmmmm.
    Wonderful post! I forwarded it to a few friends. Thank you:)

  11. Tim,

    Every week you make me proud to share the same page with you, and every once in a while the same planet. This post was definitely one of the latter ... but give the bird an assist.


  12. Despite not knowing what frame of reverence means I truly loved this post. English has so many words, the combinations of them endless and you again manage to line them up exactly perfectly. Thank you Tim.


  13. What a great post!

    There is so much beauty in nature that is awe-inspiring all over the world. While an atheist also, I can see why people look at an incredible scene and think it came from the gods.

    There were some such scenes in Brazil posted at this site recently.

    What also gives me feelings of reverence often is art, whether it by great artists or people in past cultures who made art out of whatever materials they had, with whatever tools they fashioned. Whether it's a celadon horse from China made in 400 BCE or statues from Mali, vases from ancient Greece or pre-Colombian art from South America, I am in awe of it and of the innate human drive to produce art however they can do it.

    And this is also true about music. People have made music for thousands of years with whatever instruments they could make. They've played, sung and danced all over the world. It all amazes me.

    And love, too. That is awe-inspiring -- all types of love that exists, among spouses, with children, friends, even pets.

    And reverence also for all of the courageous and heroic people throughout the years who've threatened their own existence by standing up to protect or defend others -- as in WW II.

    Additionally, moments that happen in a day that make that a day to remember, including thanking someone for doing a great job, someone one doesn't know, and getting a terrific smile in return; having an deep conversation with a cab driver and making a connection on something important; meeting someone in the street and discussing how much we love libraries and books. Those and many other moments are to be revered.

    And then there's life. How awe-inspiring to see a newborn human ready for life with a personality and expression. And even animal births are incredibly awesome: a baby giraffe who stands up on wobbly legs right after being born.

    It's all great and things to be revered.