The Luminous Particular

The poet Jane Kenyon was known for her mastery of the style known as “the luminous particular”. The phrase is a reference to imagery, expression and ideas, that ground us in the local, personal, intimate, in ways that illuminate our experience of existence and of truth. She can define the undefined by writing that happiness “comes to the woman sweeping the street / with a birch broom”, “to the boulder in the perpetual shade of pine barrens”, or “to rain falling on the open sea…” Her excellence in bringing the reader into the intimate space of detail informs my own thinking about writing, meaning, and what we value and how.

The particular is what we tend to find most luminous, but our political language is full of the assumption that the opposite is true and correct. This often leads to conflict between what we talk about and what we value.

For Pablo Neruda, “dwelling on Earth” was more than a fact of our existence, and more than a way of thinking about the world. In the book Residencia en la Tierra, he inhabits and explores the world of human experience with a way of using language so unique it seems to speak from all perspectives at once: from the curiosity of the inner life, that seeks meaning in the world, to the ambition of the rhetorician, who seeks to define what is possible, and then to redefine it in new and more dazzling terms, from the heart of the one who desires to the mind of the prophet discovering prophecy on a kitchen table. He crosses expanses of meaning that range from the surreal to the sublime, an mixes mundane, dark, and threatening realities, with flashes of joy described as “the lifting-off of butterflies”, “the unexpected flame-matter of you”, “dawn dripping”, “a faithful nutrition”, a sudden ability to “write the saddest verses”, or, simply, as love.

This is the world we live in—a vast and life-giving tangle of luminous particulars that makes each of our stories fertile ground for new discovery, every time we engage in dialogue with others. But the particular is luminous in other ways as well, blinding us at times to the value of the views of others. For many people, letting the experience of others in feels like a near guarantee that their own luminosity will be dampened, that the particular details of the world that matter most to them will somehow be sidelined.

Attention is not a zero-sum game, however. Human awareness can expand dramatically, as new information comes to light, and new information emerges not only from your ideas or from mine, but from what happens when they flow together, and make new insight.

September 2015 was a landmark moment in the evolution of open and inclusive, morally driven, civic spaces. Pope Francis came to Cuba and the United States, with a message of dialogue, tolerance, deep-rooted human sympathy, and mutual empowerment. The 193 member states of the United Nations formally adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals as the structure of the global strategy for development assistance, economic policy, environmental protection, trade, and diplomacy, for the next 15 years.

After 70 years of striving to establish protections against violence and improve the human condition, the United Nations General Assembly formally committed to ending poverty, hunger, disease, discrimination, and to a project of resilient, responsible environmental stewardship in relation to all areas of development policy.


In the powerful current of this moment, it can feel as if we are tossed on the tides of history, so we need to ask: What is our role in the world? Yesterday, I attended the announcement of the People+Planet Project, at the United Nations, in New York. Everyone who was there came for a single purpose: to ensure that individual good will and wisdom can play a leading role in how we shape the future.

The luminosity of your particular way of being in the world can be catalytic for good outcomes, or add to the momentum of degradation from which we are trying to escape. Local action starts within, and has a global impact.

[ The Note for September 2015 ]

Opportunities for Catalytic Engagement

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