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On Water Lilies and Letters

November 20, 2014

He who does not travel,

who does not read,
who does not listen to music,
who does not find grace in himself, dies slowly.

- Pablo Neruda



I never was one for celebrating birthdays, but this week marked two well worth mentioning:


The first is that of a man born on the 14th of November, many many years ago. At the age of seventeen, this young man made a discovery that changed his life: you could never be in the same place twice. Every minute, every hour, every instant of every day was full of fleeting moments of color and shade, constantly changing with light and weather then disappearing forever.


‘It was as though a veil was lifted from my eye and I understood at last […] I gained a real understanding of nature, and a real love of her as well.'


He became an artist. He captured instances, consecutive moments in time: the front of a cathedral mirroring ‘the remarkable gradations and variations of light from dawn to noon to dusk, under clear to foggy weather,’ a Japanese bridge, the river Thames… sometimes working on fourteen canvases in a single day.


He was mocked and then praised, patronized then glorified. Meanwhile, he painted. For the last eighteen years of his life, cataracts in both eyes left him almost completely blind. Still he painted. Water lilies. Two hundred and fifty captured moments of water lilies, of which a breathtaking final series of eight enormous floor-to-ceiling panels, four representing sunrise, and four representing dusk Claude Monet finished the series in 1926 and died.



The second birthday I will mention falls on the 20th of November. The man born on that day was the son of a metalworker in Salford, Manchester, who woke up one day and set off to discover America. There, he traveled, he read, and he wrote. In fact, he wrote a letter a week for fifty-eight years and read them on what is to this day the longest-running radio broadcast series in history: ‘Letter from America.’


When he first pitched the idea to the BBC, he promised ‘a weekly personal letter to a Briton by a fireside about American life and people and places in the American news. What he produced over the next six decades is a national biography.’


'I covered everything from the public lives of six presidents to the private life of a burlesque stripper; from the black market in beef to the Black Panthers, from the Marshall Plan to Planned Parenthood.'


He wrote splendidly. Of politics and art, culture, music, and food, changing seasons and assassinated presidents. His writings bridged the Atlantic and shaped foreign policy and public opinions, reaching millions of listeners in fifty-two different countries.


The Joint Houses of the United States Congress honored this metalworker’s son by inviting him to speak at their bicentennial celebrations, and her majesty the queen of England awarded him an honorary knighthood for his ‘outstanding contribution to Anglo-American understanding.’


'The cosy way he said 'Good morning...', with a seductive upward lilt on the last syllable, was enough to reassure middle-class British people as they rubbed their eyes at 08:45 on a Sunday morning. They couldn't feel frightened of America after that.'


The BBC originally signed him up for thirteen such letters. There would be 2,869. In fifty-eight years, Alistair Cooke missed only three Sundays. Illness made him retire on the 2nd of March, 2004, and he died three weeks later.



Perhaps the one thing we really are all born with is the allocation of an undefined chunk of time. A series of consecutive snapshot moments, neatly regimented by birthdays, of variable length but invariably finite. We make, lose, kill, find, waste, bide, and eventually run out of time, and we tell ourselves that this is being alive.


Except that ‘being alive requires an effort far greater than the simple fact of breathing.’ Being alive requires having something to breathe for. A reason for being. Cooke had his letters. Monet his water lilies. The French call it raison d’être: ‘the sole or ultimate purpose of something or someone.’


We all have different reasons for waking up every morning. Children. A nine o’clock meeting. A bus schedule. An anxious little dog with elusive bladder control. The promising smell of coffee and hot bread. Some people wake up for other sorts of things: for colors, light, sounds. For the beauty of life itself.


Do not undermine these people; the aescetes, the Monets, the Cookes. They have found their raison d’être, and they have conquered time.


Today marks the 106th birthday of a great man who made me want to write, so it is only right that he should have the last word. Happy birthday Mr. Cooke, and over to you:


In the best of times, our days are numbered anyway. So it would be a crime against nature for any generation to take the world crisis so solemnly that it put off enjoying those things for which we were designed in the first place: the opportunity to do good work, to enjoy friends, to fall in love, to hit a ball, and to bounce a baby.

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