This week it rained. This may not seem like an occurrence worth recording to many of you, but to those of us in this parched region of California, it was momentous. Our puppy, Snowy, had never encountered this before and had to be physically brought out into the yard to do her “business” since this stuff falling from the sky was just too much to handle. After the rain stopped the sky cleared to a clear, cold blue and a scent arose from the ground, a smell which brought with it the odors of earth and plant and humus.
The after-the-rain smell has a name, I discovered. Petrichor. Why do we humans like it? Various theories seem to be batted around: maybe ancient ancestors who depended upon the rain for sustenance developed a special appreciation for petrichor. Or maybe it’s just the natural human instinct to appreciate renewal.
In any case, the way in which this bracing smell brings a newness to everything reminded me of how some works of art are like a torrent of rain, leaving behind a sort of petrichor of the soul. Long dry areas of our mind and spirit can be awakened and filled by a book, some music, a painting, a film.
Here are a few arid spots I’ve had reawakened by this phenomenon.
Worship. After going through a period where I didn’t seem to be getting much out of the sacraments, I picked up a copy of The Spirit of the Liturgy by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Reading through this book and following along as he brought together seasons, music, art, tradition, psychology, and more to explore the liturgy of our Church brought back an intense feeling of devotion to what had become rather dangerously rote.
Empathy. One thing I am prone to is lapsing into judgmental attitudes about other people. So it’s healthy for me when a skillful author like Sigrid Undset is there to take flawed characters and depict them in such a way that my own flaws are also revealed. Ida Elisabeth isn’t her best-known work, but it’s one I recently read and which has often been on my mind since I did so. By having the faults of her characters described so clearly and with such realism causes me to realize that many of the faults I see in others are there in my own person as well. And since I so often let myself off the hook for bad behavior, this realization brings forth greater empathy for others.
Wonder. One of my favorite books by G.K. Chesterton is his novel Manalive. Its hero, Innocent Smith, is a man given to endless wonder and delight at the world around him, going so far as to decide one day to walk out one door of his house and keep on until he has circled the globe back to enter his home again through another door. Of all the writers I can think of, Chesterton is probably the one who best describes that feeling of seeing something anew.
Another work that inspires wonder is a quirky, strange little film by David Byrne, lead singer of the Talking Heads. Titled True Stories, it was inspired by various odd newspaper clippings collected by the singer during the early 1980s. In it, David Byrne (he directs the movie as well as appearing in it as The Narrator) says “I really enjoy forgetting. When I first come to a place, I notice all the little details. I notice the way the sky looks. The color of white paper. The way people walk. Doorknobs. Everything. Then I get used to the place and I don’t notice those things anymore. So only by forgetting can I see the place again as it really is.” It’s a good pairing with Manalive.
Contemplation. As I’ve said before here, one of the ways I keep my creativity going as a designer is to visit museums. There’s one small painting at the Legion of Honor museum here in San Francisco that I always return to when I visit: “A Cloud and Landscape Study by Moonlight” by Johan Christian Dahl. It’s not a stunning work of art or an enormously influential one. It’s just a simple, very well-observed study, but how it captures the optical effect of the moon’s light reflected out into the clouds at night shows a painter who slowed down and took everything in. I’m tempted sometimes to buy a reproduction, but part of the skill of the painting is how the paint itself is handled texturally; something impossible to replicate in a photo. So I revisit it from time to time, as a reminder to observe and contemplate.
Gratitude. There is a string quartet which assembles every few weeks at the commuter train station where I change from the BART train to the MUNI light rail in San Francisco. They almost always play selections from Beethoven, and whenever they are there I make a point of stopping to listen until they finish. It never fails to inspire a sense of gratitude: here I am, sleepily shambling from train to train at 6:45 in the morning, and a string quartet is there to provide music for me. God bless the musicians who do this.
It’s easy to regard art as a luxury, but just as the rain so long missing from our drought-stricken state is an essential part of the natural environment, art is an essential part of being fully human. We should all make a commitment to seeking out these kinds of encounters with art, lest the drought causes our own souls to dry up from lack of nourishment.