When we try to make everything clear, we make everything confused.
If, however, we admit one mysterious thing in the universe,
then everything else becomes clear in the light of that.
The sun is so bright, so mysterious, that one cannot look at it,
and yet in the light of the sun everything else is seen.
~Fulton Sheen, 1895 – 1979
Climbing the granite stairs, it seemed with each step I shed decades, growing smaller and smaller. By the time I reached the rose-colored building’s entrance, I was a youngster again. Pausing in front of the massive archway, I solemnly greeted the stone Arthurian figures gazing down at me from the cornice, admiring the crowns adorning their heads. Passing filigreed columns, I grasped the thick brass ring affixed to the entrance, its weight feeling awkward in my hands, and pushed open the heavy door, its heft requiring the exertion of my shoulder against the polished oak.
Inside, the golden light of late afternoon streamed through tall windows of leaded glass down into the cavernous hallway. I passed into the next room, tilting my head back to take in the high vaulted ceiling. I was drawn to a massive marble fireplace, above which rested an ornately carved mantle; from its center, a lion’s head roared. Below it, a pair of griffins adorned a pewter-colored andiron, standing sentinel over silvery birch logs. On either side of the hearth were giant chairs made of dark wood that resembled thrones—in the lap of each were brightly-wrapped presents.
Through a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows, I could see the sun beginning its descent in a wintery sky. As long shadows fell across the floor, the tiered sconces of an immense chandelier emitted a rosy glow and created a cozy warmth despite room’s enormity.
Returning to the grand entrance hall, I investigated a dark adjoining corridor, which was lined with rows and rows of books. The ceiling was a curiosity, made of thick glass and appearing to emanate a pale luminescence—refracted light from the second floor above. Climbing the stairs, on the next level the effect was reversed, with a gleaming glass pathway illuminating the surrounding dark wood and stacks of books.
In making my first visit to the Nahant Public Library, it of course wasn’t a surprise to find myself amidst a maze of books. I also knew the building was said to have a quirky character and yet I was still unexpectedly and pleasantly charmed by its Harry Potteresque atmosphere. The Library was founded in 1819, and is the third oldest in Massachusetts after those of Franklin and Harvard; it became a free public library in 1872. The present library building was designed by the Boston firm of Ball and Dabney, and opened June 1, 1895–at that time, it was the first electrified building in Nahant.
Back downstairs, I made my way to a counter, behind which was a small man. I introduced myself and said I was here to see Dan. The man smiled and held up his index finger in a gesture of patience and moved away from the counter. Seconds later, he emerged from around the corner and warmly shook my hand.
“Let’s go into the Children’s Room,” he said.
Dan led me to a low table set with little chairs, we sat down across from each other and he looked at me expectantly. I reached into my bag, grabbed the five books I had brought with me and set them down in front of us. Feeling like I was engaged in show and tell, I began to chatter, telling Dan my story.
I explained how five years ago I had achieved a career milestone and rather than feel elated, I found I was instead deflated. The long-sought-after accomplishment was supposed to mean I had “arrived” and could finally relax. Instead, I felt exceedingly uncomfortable, with the uneasy suspicion I had somehow missed something important. My inability to pinpoint just exactly what was causing my angst compounded it, and I became increasingly bewildered, worried and more than a little angry.
My refuge from this rut of irritability began as a random, restless reach for something to occupy my mind in the evening after work. What started as a momentary distraction soon became a great source of solace. Snuggling under a blanket on the cold fall evenings, I took great comfort in poring over quotation books, immersing myself in the wisdom of the sages of the ages. In hours of aimless page-turning—an unheard of activity for someone who drove herself like a drill sergeant–I recognized myself in the observations of pundits ranging from Ovid to Oprah.
Over a period of many months, I engaged in what felt like eavesdropping on personal accounts of profound epiphanies, and felt a slow-motion seismic shift within me. I gradually began to identify with the rest of humanity, rather than compare and compete, a mindset that somehow always had me falling short.
On Christmas morning, my husband handed me a slim package with a smile. Tearing it open, I found a disc with a computer program with which documents could be created using both photographs and text. Tom had given me my first camera in 1995, launching a beloved avocation. With this new gift a little more than a decade later, he provided me the means to marry my love of both images and words–and set in motion an epic journey of discovery.
Play re-entered my ever-so-serious existence and I enjoyed hour after hour of matching pithy perceptions about life with slice-of-life photographs from our travels to far-flung places. I loved the serendipity of finding the perfect quote to caption a quirky image, feeling a sense of delight that had long since vanished from most areas of my life.
Even a newfound source of joy and serenity was not enough to alter my Type A personality and within a year I had self-published a 365-day book of literary and visual inspiration. And with all that time in the company of luminaries like Pindar, Shakespeare and Twain, their chorus urging me to know myself, be true to myself and cast off the bowline, my courage grew to do just that.
Stretched out on my chaise under a comforter, I pondered axioms from esteemed thinkers over the eons, and heard the rumbling of a life-changing revelation. I was astonished to realize that for many of my heroes, the still small voice prodding them on to distant horizons and grander accomplishments was not issuing minute, blow-by-blow directions like an internal GPS. Rather, the call to change seemed often to be more like an annoying telemarketer, whose unwelcome and incessant intrusions always seem to come at the most inopportune times and yet are impossible to ignore.
Without a plan of any sort beyond penning the next “Eat, Pray, Love” and appearing on Oprah within a year, I resigned from the career that had defined me for so long and, inexplicably, had become unfulfilling. Dispensing copies of my ten-pound tome to soon-to-be former colleagues, I startled myself by actually relishing the fact that I had absolutely no idea whatsoever what the days ahead would bring. It was a giddy, exhilarating feeling and a foreign one for someone who always had “to do” lists longer than the Dead Sea scrolls. In an uncharacteristic carefree act for a lifelong control freak, I took a running start and hurtled over the precipice and into the unknown.
The sound of Dan clearing his voice brought me back from my reverie. I felt myself blush and stammered “Sorry—I get carried away!”
I explained that the books I had brought to show him were slimmer, themed outgrowths of my original 365-page hardcover edition, now printed almost four years ago.
“I have to confess—while I have had incredible adventures and harbor no regrets, the unknown isn’t quite as thrilling to me now as it was then,” I admitted to Dan. “I’m a little crestfallen that I didn’t figure out the secret formula for following my bliss.”
In a soft voice, he said “I came across a quote more than forty years ago that has always stayed with me. It was a remark made by Lord Rutherford in either 1901 or 1902 and it typified the arrogance of the times, the gilded age. Rutherford said that in a very short time, man would know all that there is to know.”
Dan went on to cite a litany of major discoveries that of course have continued to this day. For example, he said, after years of widespread belief that man had first migrated to the North American continent by land, a new theory is gaining currency. He said that there is now evidence that a chain of islands had at one time spanned the Atlantic, potentially making it viable that man navigated to the New World by water.
I had heard of this postulation and nodded my head fervently. I was mesmerized by Dan’s discourse on open-mindedness and delighted to be his pupil.
He quoted Lao Tzu—in Mandarin—then translated, saying “T’ao deh wei wu wei” is often translated as “The correct path is action (wei) through inaction (wu wei). Note the symmetry and balance, so that action matches equally with inaction. The aim of this paradox is to achieve a state of perfect equilibrium. This concept of “effortless action” is a part of Taoist martial arts such as T’ai chi.
Dan explained that Wu wei involves knowing when to act and when not to act. Another perspective to this is that “Wu Wei” means natural action. As planets revolve around the sun, they “do” this revolving, but without “doing” it; or as trees grow, they “do,” but without “doing.” Thus, knowing when and how to act is not knowledge in the sense that one would think “now” is the right time to do “this,” but rather just doing it, as a natural process.
Dan told me that in the original Taoist texts, wu wei is often associated with water and its yielding nature. Although water is soft and weak, it has the capacity to erode even solid stone—the Grand Canyon being a case in point.
He explained that Taoist philosophy recognizes that the Universe already works harmoniously according to its own ways; as a person exerts their will upon the world, they disrupt the harmony that already exists. This is not to say that a person should not exert will. Rather, it is how one acts in relation to the natural processes already extant. The how–the Tao of intention and motivation–is the key.
The room was suddenly illuminated with fluorescent light and Dan and I exclaimed at realizing we had been sitting in near darkness. His colleague stuck her head around the corner and apologized for surprising us and I took my cue to leave. Dan and I shook hands again and I agreed to get back to him with a date for a talk to be held there.
I walked home in the falling dusk and impulsively decided to duck through a gate to a hidden stretch of beach. An extended family was gathered on the shoreline, and two young girls danced with each other and the incoming tide. I smiled watching their energy and sheer joy of just moving.
Focusing my trusty camera on the small gathering, the sun setting over the ocean and the Boston skyline, I thought about Dan’s dissertation on Taoism and his final observation before the bright light startled us. He had said that in Zen calligraphy, Wu Wei is represented as a circle.
I realized I had indeed come full circle. My existence of late had become as stale as the state I was in when I made my leap into the unknown four years ago. My magical conversation with the chief librarian was the first bit of serendipity I had experienced in some time—but its potency more than made up for the dry spell.
As I walked across ancient slabs of sedimentary rock shaped by the relentless force of the Atlantic, I realized that another timeless pull was in play: the invisible, inevitable agency of change. I remembered that my past enthusiasm for new endeavors was almost always preceded by a little divine discontent. Perhaps rather than being a sign of something being wrong, my recent irritability is a healthy sign I am in sync with the Universe, and ready for another new beginning.
While travel is my passion, I am grateful to call Nahant Massachusetts my home.
My thanks and best wishes to Dan deStefano as he embarks on his own new journey with his upcoming retirement as Chief Librarian of Nahant Public Library, after 21 years of service. I regret our paths didn’t cross sooner!
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For more images of Nahant see my Travel Photos.