The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. Christopher McCandless
There are moments in our lives, there are in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual — become clairvoyant . . . We reach then into reality . . . Such are the moments of our greatest happiness . . . Such are the moments of our greatest vision. At such times, there is a song going on within us, a song to which we listen. It fills us with surprise. We marvel at it . . . Robert Henri
Always be on the look out for the presence of wonder. E.B. White
I’ve been thinking about my grandfather lately. And, it is a pleasure to think about him, my grandfather the artist who lived such a long long time ago and died in a car accident in 1925. He is alive for me as I skate-ski on the wide-groomed snow-packed trails through the forests of Upper Michigan. I focus on the trees as I push forward in long skating strides, the bare-branched maples and oaks, and the tall stalwart pines, and, sometimes, it is as though I am skiing through a wintertime gallery of his etchings, for it was the trees that were a passion and etching his medium. And as I skate-ski my way to the top of a hill, about half-way through one of my favorite loops, and look out over its crest into a field scattered with jagged trunks and seedlings and into the sea of trees beyond, he becomes more than a thought, this grandfather of mine. He becomes real. I’m not sure why it is here that I sense him, as though he is stepping out of the snowy dusk and greeting me with his full-bodied flesh-and-blood exuberance, but it happens often, and I welcome him warmly into my wintertime experience.
For years, my grandfather was a tall tree, the etching of a giant California oak that hung on a wall at the bottom of our staircase. “Goodnight, Mr. Oak Tree!” my siblings and I would sing as we made our way up to bed. “Good morning, Mr. Oak Tree!” was our call when we would clamor down the stairs the next day. He was the Maine coastal pines and the wind-swept Monterrey cypress. He was the willows at Winnegance and the apple trees on farms near our summertime home at the cove. His etchings graced our walls and he graced us with his presence, Grandpa Haskell, the artist who died too young, as the tallest tree among us. It only has been in the past few years, since I have dived into the extensive archives filled with letters and journals, with articles and sketches and photographs, in his words, in the words of others who knew him or admired him, that he has become human to me, a grandfather whose life is an artful template as I etch out my own handcrafted existence.
And sure, as I have swum my way through this ocean of material, as I have immersed myself in these letters and articles and journal entries, as I have examined more closely the vast collection of etchings that I have inherited, I have found myself with a greater appreciation for his talent and his productivity and his willingness to hone his skills. He was a supreme craftsman and a focused self-taught artist and he poured reverence into his work. What he achieved in the art world is impressive and he deserves his Wikipedia place on the world wide web. But that’s not what I want to talk about now; that’s not the only thing I have found compelling during my grandfather search. It has been the Wikipedia of his living, the details that I have encountered in these archives that I also hold dear to my heart. These details have been the magical wind that has blown breath into my wooden-tree myth of a grandfather.
Ernest Haskell wasn’t an etching on the wall, wasn’t the well-written and thorough Wikipedia page on the web, or an art exhibit at a New York gallery. He was a man who loved his mid-coastal Maine summer house and the two coves on his property and the waters beyond which he explored in his sailing canoe. He was a man who loved to laugh loudly — people mention this often in letters and remembrances — and his voice boomed with enthusiasm. He drove fast and food was a passion. He collected his own mushrooms and greens and cooked recipes he had learned during his self-study years in Paris. He loved his wife, Elizabeth, first saw this New York beauty when he was studying abroad and she was traveling to Italy and he told his friend that this was the woman he was going to marry. And he did, and together they refurbished the old saltwater farm that my cousins still own and designed the stone wall that surrounds the garden, and, on sunny summer mornings, he would shave in this garden among the peonies and iris. And they drank the milk from their own cow and had horses and entertained friends — and people say that Ernest could get along with anybody; the fishermen who lived in the village nearby, the theater people in New York who found their faces on the posters he created for their shows, they were all his friends. He loved Maine where he summered and New York where he wintered and California, too, was smitten at first sight, at the 1914 World’s Fair in San Francisco. And years later, after Elizabeth died in the 1918 flu epidemic, it was California that brought him healing with its Pacific blue waters and inland mountain parks, California that brought him his second wife, my California grandmother. He loved the big things, his wives, his children — and the everyday things too. He loved the theater and the movies, on their first date, taking my grandmother to Dr. Jeckly Mr Hyde in San Francisco and watching it twice. He loved his L.L. Bean boots and his New York Opera top coats. He loved his life. It was a feast to him. And he squeezed the juice out of its moments — and it is through the details in these archives that I, too, can feast at my grandfather’s table.
That’s what I want to tell you — the details matter, the details of our own handcrafted lives. It is all art, the art of living, and it is up to each us to taste it. And my grandfather, the grandfather who I sense walking up the groomed trail to meet me on wintery days, he can be our role model and friend. He whispers to me that it is a part of the feast, the day to day details, the art of bringing presence and joy to them all, and, and — at this point, I sense his voice growing stronger, louder with his earnestness and enthusiasm — and, it is another part of the feast, the art of digging deep into our personal passions, following their unique and compelling call. I take his message to heart. The copper plate and the tools of an etcher may not hold power for us, and trees might not draw us in the way they spoke to my grandfather. But we all have passions that propel us forward and we can claim the time to heed their call — and we also can relax into the soulful richness of the every day ordinary details of our personal lives, as if it is poetry, art, as if our spirits and our bodies and our minds are in sync and every moment is packed with something to savor.