A Brass Bowl
“Worn to brightness,
This bowl opens outward to the world,
Like the marriage of a pair we sometimes know.
Filled full, it holds not greedily.
Empty, it fills with light
That is heaven’s and it’s own.
It holds forever for a while.”
~ Wendell Berry
My sophomore year high school English teacher taught me about Object Poetry. Ms. Ward, I owe you a debt of gratitude for exposing me to this particular written form of art. The term Object Poem comes from the German word Dinggedicht, which translates: “poem of things” or, “thing poem”. The basic idea is to draw the reader into a more intimate relationship with the inanimate object. This object is not only the subject of the poem but often takes on the role of a character, a metaphor, even a life teacher.
In the poem above, Wendell Berry invites us to consider life through the examination of a common brass bowl. This poem is so rich with imagery. I admit that I have read it probably over a hundred times. This bowl that “opens outward to the world” takes me with it. Every time, we travel to a different vantage point and open out to the world together. I am not ashamed to say that, over and over again, I find myself unable to journey the full depth of the poem’s meaning. Yet, I seem to learn a new sliver of truth with every reading.
Many of you might remember a scene in the 1999 film American Beauty where Wes Bentley’s character Ricky is filming a plastic grocery bag caught twisting in the wind. Ricky explains that the bag seemed to be dancing with him – like a little kid begging him to play with it. He says, “Sometimes there is so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.” (Bentley/Ball) I think this scene can be humorous to some people. One might consider it completely absurd to feel so deeply toward a piece of trash.
What we know about Ricky is that he is different, and alienated by his peers. As viewers, we also learn that his father is terrifying and abusive. How might that influence Ricky and compel him to seek beauty in the most unlikely places? To give credence to Ricky’s perspective, I recommend watching Roberto Benigni create a world of fun and excitement amidst the brutality and darkness of the Nazi persecution of Jews in Life Is Beautiful (1997). Benigni’s Oscar winning performance of a father who protects his son from death, destruction and fear by imagining the circumstances are a game is a brilliant example of manifesting beauty where there seems to be none. It is somehow much easier to judge Ricky for finding beauty in a wind blown bag than to scoff at a young boy for finding hope in his father’s vision.
There is an exercise I like to use with clients that I learned from Carrie Newcomer. Newcomer is an American singer/songwriter with 13 solo albums. She was also my songwriting instructor one summer in the Cascade Mountains. She gave her students an assignment to choose five moments, seemingly insignificant in that day, and write about them. With just a few sentences, we were asked to find the beauty, uniqueness and richer value of that moment. Around the dinner table that evening, we couldn’t sharpen our pencils fast enough to write about a small boy with a cleft pallet struggling to eat a tomato that kept sliding off of his fork. The image, that I might have missed if I wasn’t looking through the lens of the assignment, still melts my heart and makes me laugh to this day.
The exercise was challenging for me and I think many of my clients wrestle with it as well. That fact is important because it helps to illustrate my point. There is so much that I want to write about being “worn to brightness”. Work, usefulness and struggle all carve us into sculptures. We live in a culture that values comfort over strife. We would much rather surround ourselves with safety than challenge ourselves to grow. We avoid pain and fear so much that we can only tolerate trace amounts of it. Many people I talk to are incapable of manifesting beauty where there seems to be none. They are too busy hiding from it all to even try and seek out a new perspective.
Putting it all together, it is the character of Ricky, beaten by his father and shunned by his peers who can find the beauty in the seemingly insignificant. It is the worn and empty bowl that in brightness opens outward to the world and “fills with light that is heaven’s and it’s own”. Pain, when healed, enables us to empathize. Fear, when faced, produces wisdom within us. Sacrifice can lead to so many gifts. Each of us has the power to search the corners and crevices of reality to find beauty for the people we love as well as ourselves. It is not my desire that you intentionally seek out addiction, devastation, or pain. My hope is that when you do face dark times you will emerge from them spreading a message of the wonders you found amidst the shadows. Stop and force your self if you must. And, look.