French Lentil and Black Rice soup (and burgers) And the most beautiful short film I’ve seen in years

La Bienvenida by Fernando Eimbcke is a beautiful short film about commitment, hope, and a refusal to be disappointed. It tells the story of a band in a small town in Mexico. They are learning a piece by Mozart to welcome an unnamed dignitary to their town. The film focuses on the sousaphone player, who is having some trouble mastering his part. We follow him on the long walk home from practice, watch him sit outside his small house in the moonlight, playing his part. Watch him walk to two stores looking for milk for his crying baby, then feeding the baby, then practicing in the moonlight again, and waking the next day, still in the chair outside his house, slumped over his instrument. Then walking to the town to take his place with the band under banners and streamers. It’s a hot day, there’s a long wait, there’s a pale donkey. And I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s delightful, delightful.

Everything about this film is beautiful to me. It glows like it was filmed on the moon: shifting shadows and glowing lights. A crocheted blanket over a window, a convenience store in the middle of nowhere, the pale donkey, the sousaphone itself, the warm, kind face of the sousaphone player: everything is beautiful. I see echoes of Fellini in the town scenes, echoes of Kurosawa in the landscapes, echoes of Jarmusch and Ozu in the rhythm, pace, and stillness of the movement. But it has a language and aesthetic all its own. So much is left unexplained, and the dialogue is barely existent, but you feel real love for the man and his baby, and the white haired woman rocking the baby. Visually it’s got a remarkable cool-warmth, and the story itself also glows with a generosity and honesty and quiet humor. Take ten minutes and watch this remarkable film. Yes I used the word “glow” too often, but I love things that glow, I love the word “glow” and this film GLOWS.

The short is part of a collection of shorts by Mexican directors called Revolucion, and all of them are worth watching. Fernando Eimbcke also directed Temporada de Patos (Duck Season), one of my favorite films ever.

In a similar vein, we have a mixed CD of musicians from Lagos, which I’m slightly obsessed with at the moment. This morning I said, “I love this one.” and David said, “Oh yeah, that’s very Claire-y.” Turns out it’s by Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson. It’s not actually unlike La Bienvenida, with its cool melty warmth, its light and darkness, its slightly-out-of-tune horns. And here it is:

I was thinking of writing a cookbook of meals that you can turn into burgers or croquettes the next day if you have leftovers. It’s such a thrifty, depression-era way to cook, and I hate hate hate throwing food away. In my experience, anything you make with legumes and grains can easily be made into croquettes or burgers with a couple of additions. Generally if it’s saucy you want to add things to bulk it up and dry it out: bread or cracker crumbs, always, and lately I’ve been adding a small amount of chickpea flour and high gluten flour (which is what they make seitan from). This made a nice warm, smokey, brothy, substantial soup, and delicious burgers the next day.

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Petals (and filled yeasted-savory-crepes)

It’s petal-falling season in our town. On cherry-tree-lined streets the slightest of breezes will send delicate pink and white petals all around you in a soft warm tizzy. The petals from the cherry tree in our yard swirl into our open door, persistent, and end up somehow in every room, even in rooms we don’t use, like small worries or memories from a dream. Every year I think of the same thing: The Exile’s Letter by Ezra Pound (or by Li Po and translated from the Chinese by Ezra Pound). It’s foolish to have a favorite poem, of course, but this one has been in my head for years, indelibly, since I first read it. (I know Ezra Pound was a fascist, I understand that, and it does complicate my love for the poem). To be honest, though the whole poem is strange and beautiful, it’s the end that I really love:

And if you ask how I regret that parting?	
It is like the flowers falling at spring’s end,	
                    confused, whirled in a tangle.	
What is the use of talking! And there is no end of talking—	        
There is no end of things in the heart.	
 
I call in the boy,	
Have him sit on his knees to write and seal this,	
And I send it a thousand miles, thinking.

The language and the imagery, though simple, are both so pretty, and the feeling is of such longing and regret. And I love the construction “And I send it a thousand miles, thinking.” I don’t know if there’s a name for it, but I think anything would be beautiful written like this. “I scrubbed the toilet, remembering.” or “I left for work, wondering.” Love it. But it’s this, it’s this: “What is the use of talking! And there is no end of talking—There is no end of things in the heart.” It kills me.

And as I was thinking about this poem, I remembered another poem that is similarly lodged in my brain for decades, I Know a Man, by Robert Creeley:

As I sd to my   
friend, because I am   
always talking,—John, I

sd, which was not his   
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for   
christ’s sake, look   
out where yr going.

Perfection. So much spoken in so few words.

And then there’s Diary of a Country Priest, the film by Robert Bresson. It’s foolish to have a favorite film, of course, but this one spoke to me as few films have. I’ve written about it before, so allow me to quote myself:

His solemnity and his honesty raise him above the petty bickering of his parishioners. He doesn’t bother to defend himself from their accusations, because his understanding is on a completely different level. When he realizes this he says, beautifully, “I’d discovered with something bordering on joy that I had nothing to say.” I love that. The film is full of unexpectedly beautiful statements like this. His “old master” an odd sort of priest who appears throughout the film, follows a stream of advice with the words, “And now, work. Do little things from day to day while you wait. Little things don’t seem like much, but they bring peace.”

And I wonder what it is about these poems and films that they’re with me all the time. Why am I so drawn to examinations of talking and not talking? I love to talk, I love to discuss, and banter, and disagree, and agree, and connect, and despair of never connecting, and learn, and share a joke, and share things I love–songs and movies and books, and learn about those things that somebody else loves. I talk too much, there’s no doubt about that, and talking is strangely addictive, once I start, it’s hard for me to stop. It’s been a strange year for a talker. Sometimes I feel like a fizzy bottle of pop that’s been unwisely shaken.

But I’m also profoundly fond of silence, and aware that all that is most important transcends words. In a world of constant noise and bickering and shouting for attention, it’s sometimes a joy to remember the weight of silence.

And I hit publish on the post, thinking.

Here’s Jordi Savall with one of my favorite wordless pieces of music. The chaconne from Antoine Forqueray’s Pieces de Viole.

I had the idea of making savory crepes, but of frying them with the filling right inside, rather than making the crepes and filling them after. I also made a yeasted batter, which makes the crepe a little more substantial, almost like a flatbread in some ways. These turned out really good. I made some with spinach and ricotta and shallots and garlic and herbs for David and myself, and one without spinach for Isaac, who has now decided he only likes it in saag paneer, for the time-being. You could really fill it with anything you like, though. I’d thought about roasted mushrooms and sharp cheddar, or you could do roasted peppers and feta and olives. Whatever strikes your fancy! The cheese helps to hold it together, but if you’re vegan you could substitute mushy legumes. And if you’re vegan leave out the egg and use warm water instead of milk.

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Farro risotto with fennel & butternut squash and Veggie Burgers

On some days, at the change in seasons, you can walk into your own house and it feels strange to you. In the spring when you first open a window or a door–you might smell a spring rain or sunshine on dirt and grass. Or in the fall when you first turn the heat on, and the radiator kicks and hisses, and the smell is such a new but familiar comfort.

I walked into the house the other day, the back door was open and spring with all of its scents wafted in, and I was reminded of that moment when you come home after being away for a week or so, and can smell your house the way a stranger can–when something so close and so customary that your senses don’t register it becomes a step removed. And then as I passed through the house I imagined that all of it was new to me. The pictures of my beautiful adult or nearly-adult boys; the masses of stones and sticks and other odd treasures we’ve accrued over the years; pictures by David and the boys; all the beautiful nonsense we’ve collected–ticket stubs and feathers and corks and shells and hastily scrawled notes–most of which is only beautiful or valuable because of memories attached.

I imagined myself of 30? 40? years ago, walking through the house, never knowing this life was my life. It’s a strange house, and it’s a lovely life. After the long littleness of being stuck in the same few rooms for over a year, it’s good to float through your own life as in a dream, allowing everything to feel new and unexpected to you. Everyone should try it.

This time of year is all about nostalgia, April mixing memory and desire, as it does, stirring dull roots with spring rain. The cherry trees and Magnolia blossoms lining our streets don’t smell pretty or floral, but their scent will bludgeon you with the memory of playing with friends in backyards till the dusk fell all around you like flower petals, and you were called into the slumbering warm lights and smells of your familiar house, too close to notice.

Speaking of things that make me weepy (it doesn’t take much these days) here’s Johnny Flynn with The Water. I like all the versions, but especially the ones with his sister.

I like a Farro risotto. It’s not as soft and squish as a rice risotto, and I like the fact that it asserts itself in that way. I’m also a bit obsessed with fennel at the moment. And licorice all sorts, though those do not feature in this dish. It’s a bit of a joke in my family–you have the impossible burger, the Incredible burger, but we have the inevitable burger, because if I make something with grains and beans, as I so often do, I will turn the leftovers into burgers. This could be black rice, black bean and beet chili, or couscous and chickpeas, or this very dish. It works well, it’s economical and it’s delicious. Try it yourself! Recipe after the break

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Mood

Strange day, strange nights’ sleep for many nights, strange dreams. Went for a walk with Clio at twilight when the sunset was pale pink against an indefinable grey in the trees and shadows. This time of year is like that–all that is pretty and warm and bright trying to assert itself against all that slumbers. This year, I’m not sure what I’m more comfortable with, because it’s been a strange dream of a year, and I know I’m not ready to wake up yet. I know that. There has been a strange comfort in the closing-in this year, despite everything or because of everything. But walking along home, half-asleep, my thoughts started petty, worried, anxious, and then along the way as the light deepened, my spirits elevated, my thoughts lightened. And I realized that I love my thoughts and nobody can take that from me. Just walking through a small city in a big, troubled country, past houses with the warmth of lights just turning on at close of day. Houses full of people I don’t know, lives and worries and joys I’ll never know. All these people with their own thoughts and cares. Nobody can take our thoughts from us, and I know that is a burden sometimes, but I have to believe that ultimately it is a gift. Nobody can take our thoughts from us, so we must try to cultivate them, as simple and impossible as shaping our dreams.

Dream a Little Dream of Me is the song of the day, and I’ve chosen this version. I’ve been thinking about this movie lately. What a perfect thing this Beautiful Thing was.

Marginalia (and roasted golden beet, olive, and feta salad with fennel vinaigrette)

My friend Laura posted a picture of a stick library for dogs; basically a pile of sticks with a sign saying take-a-stick-leave-a-stick. (NO, Claire, NO! Leave it! Drop it! No more talking about dogs and sticks!) When I saw the picture I instantly thought that Clio would be way more interested in the dogs who had carried the sticks than in the sticks themselves. When she finds a well-gnawed stick she reads it, she studies it. She can probably tell every dog who carried it, what they had for breakfast, what mood they were in when they ate that breakfast.

Then I was thinking about books you get from an actual library–a book library–and how one of the pleasures of a book-library-book used to be seeing the names of the people who had checked the book out before you. I think nowadays they just stamp a date due, but if you get an older book you can still see the names of everyone who borrowed it, and the dates they did. Seeing those hand-written names evokes a rare wistfulness and curiosity. Sometimes people would check the book out multiple times, and you wonder what was happening in their lives that distracted them from it. Probably they just got bored, but maybe they set it aside to tend to someone with an illness. Or did they have an illness? Did they have a sudden chance for a trip around the world, and were they worried about taking a library book with them because they might lose it? Sometimes the same person would check the book out and then check it out again years later. And you can imagine them reading the book, setting it aside, and then something reminding them of it later, as they sat outside on a spring evening, with the light slanting just a certain way, and the birds singing a song they didn’t remember that they remembered. You think about what was going on in their life that made the book important to them again at that time.

And remember in high school, when you’d see the list of names in a well-worn text book, and you’d recognize, maybe, someone’s cool older sister? And how she wrote the name of her favorite band in bubble letters all over the inside covers, and you’d wonder what life was like when she walked the halls, if the school smelled the same, if the light was the same, or if it has that pale yellow glow of old home movies as it did in your imagination.

And when you buy a book from a used book store, if you’re lucky, whoever had it before you (or all the many people who had it before you!) left notes, and replies to the notes, and doodles. My favorite marginalia is that of my son Isaac, in every single math workbook or history worksheet ever. Of course I should tell him to concentrate on his studies, of course I should discourage him from making a world of sketches instead of focussing on his assignment. But his doodles are so perfect, so beautiful.

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Bringing sticks home

Every morning Clio and I go for some sort of run/walk/amble/stumble. For a while in the winter it was more of a slog-and-fall over feet of mush or ice. But lately…WHAT? You don’t want to hear about another walk with my dog? Yeah, nobody does, I get that. But, this is the story I wanted to tell: Every walk lately, the last week or so, she brings home a stick. She can run around the field, trying one stick or another, but once she’s found a good stick there’s no dillydallying and stopping to smell anything or talk to a dog-friend or listen for important dog-news. She’s just home as fast as she can, doggedly, navigating all obstacles with the stick in her mouth. And when we get home she leaves the stick by our front door. David gathers the sticks and puts them in the fire pit in our very slowly thawing back yard.

Clio doesn’t have plans for the stick when she gets home–it’s all about the journey, the process, the act of carrying the stick home. I feel like this is an important life lesson. Others have written about this, but nobody so well as Clio.

Writing this blog, for instance, is like carrying sticks home. I know nothing great is going to come from it, I don’t have big plans for it, but when I have a thought I like, maybe out on a walk with Clio, I’ll carry it home, doggedly, and try to leave it by the Ordinary’s front door when I get here. And I had a dream the other day, that I made a painting of a dream I’d had earlier in the week. And I spent all weekend painting the dream. I’m not the best at painting, but the process of painting was a pure pleasure to me. (As is the process of dreaming.) I don’t have plans for it when it’s done, it’s just about the process of carrying it home from my head to a piece of paper.

If I questioned painting my dream–if I question what I write for the Ordinary, (and believe me, I do) it’s hard to write anything. If I think “what’s it all in aid of?” “what good will it do?” I don’t know, maybe I’d never get out of bed! But the process is so appealing. The process of walking, during all the seasons, of making meals, of thinking thoughts and writing them down, of dreaming dreams and trying to paint them. Of bringing sticks home, proudly, and leaving them by the door, even in the knowledge that they’ll go up in sweet-smelling smoke on a cool spring evening.

That’s what it’s all in aid of. Why does it make it all worthwhile? I honestly don’t know, and yet it does, I have to believe that it does. Carry your stick home, friends. Don’t question it, carry it with pride, nose high, and enjoy every second of the journey.

Vines (and green sauce)

David has been watching bonsai videos lately. One in particular is crazy-charming to me. It’s a man from Nottingham, who is perhaps unlikely as a bonsai expert. He’s a bit burly, a bit brusque, though he has a lovely soft and matter-of-fact voice. As David pointed out, his hair is slightly wild and unruly, his beard is slightly wild and unruly, his dog’s fur is slightly wild and and unruly, but his bonsai work is beautifully precise. Do I love this? Of course I do. And I love the fact that watching bonsai videos has made David look at all of the trees in town with different eyes–the shape of them, the way they grow.

For some reason the bonsai videos have made me look at the vines along the towpath in a new way. Something about the traces of years’ past vines–their scars and skeletons–still showing against the new and growing vines is incredibly moving to me. With a bonsai tree (which could be 400 years old), with every little change or pruning you have to wait a year at least for it to grow. But the vines come back year after year, clinging to the warming stone and brick walls, twining with the dried remains of their ancestors. Growing faster than you can believe.

And along the same towpath, just a little farther down, they recently blocked off a bridge with big construction vehicles, with all the bells and whistles: warning signs and big men in High-Vis suits and lots of gear. But when I walked by with Clio one morning, it was just a few small pontoon platforms set on the canal against the wall, and the men in all their gear sitting next to each other on small chairs, building an old stone-on-stone wall with small trowels, spreading sand, stacking stones, chatting quietly in the chill but rapidly warming March morning. I like to think about the vines that will grow on that wall some day.

I also like to think that everywhere in the world right now, people are eating some version of green sauce. They might be dipping a pakora in mint sauce, or twirling pasta with basil pesto, or topping an empanada with salsa verde, or dabbing some pistou on their soup, or enjoying aji verde with whatever they eat it with in Peru. It’s herbs and aromatics and alliums. Perhaps some spice, some nuts, some oil and lime or lemon or vinegar. This version is loosely based on a variety of reports of the Peruvian Aji Verde, mixed with a middle eastern tarator sauce and a bit of Italian Pesto. It turned out very delicious. Holy trinity of lime, jalapeño and cilantro in play here. Recipe after the jump.

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Warmth

Our small yard doesn’t get much light this time of year. Despite some warm days, full of grace (as all warm days in March are full of grace and gratitude), our yard is stubbornly covered in mounds of snow and ice. But the last two days have been so warm I could take a chair out of its winter home in our shed and sit outside to drink my tea and play my cards. Everything is coming to life, everything is talking. Not to me, I know, but I was listening anyway–and the speaking things don’t care, they don’t mind that I’m eavesdropping, because I mean nothing to them. The tree next door, whose branches spread over all the little interconnected yards, has bark like loose paper, and the wind this morning rustled through it with such busy-ness and importance, such a stirring I could feel in my heart. The birds in the bushes make their own small bright important noise. You can almost hear the snow melting, you can almost hear the springtime slant of the sun reclaiming the towpath, struggling to reclaim even our stubborn backyard.

I was thinking about this, all day, and then I got a text from Malcolm, away at college, “Wanna know a fun game?” He’s 18, and fearless, and sometimes the things he finds fun a mother does not want to hear about. But I said, “yes?” And he said, “If you go for a walk look at things and notice that you know what they feel like.”

And I asked if he meant to hold in your hand, and he said, “yes, and it’s crazy. I think memory is strongest in feeling.” And I countered with taste and smell, because…c’mon! And he said he likes to know what everything feels like. And I had such a strong memory of walking with him when he was little, and we’d put our hands on the stone wall, warmed by the sun, that stayed warm even after the sun went down. Then I told him about listening to the paper bark and leaves and dried grass, and he said, “Nature is far quieter in the city, but it speaks a lot louder.”

It’s strange to me how love for my boys is something I can hear like the changing light and the wet earth and feel like a sun-warmed stone in my hands.

And then weirdly, I just watched a video today of a man who’d had a strange illness and been in a coma for 2 months, and in his dream his grandmother told him to start a restaurant. So when he miraculously woke up, he did open a restaurant. And he makes everyone eat with their hands, because taste, sight, hearing and smell are spiritual to him, but touch is what makes sense of it all — your five fingers combine the other senses.

Over the years the boys have dropped stuff on my desk as they walk by. Stones, bits of paper, tiny boats carved out of crayons, more stones, sticks, stickers, more stones. Sometimes I’ll just sit and hold the smooth stones in my hand, where they become warm and fit perfectly. It means a lot. It is important to look at things and notice what they feel like, in so many ways. It’s important to look at things and notice.

Me, right now:

Perfect bagels and flying dreams

We watched one of those movies that goes through a person’s whole life in under two hours. [A biopic, I guess it’s called–and is that pronounced bio-pic or biOpic? (I’ve never known, and I studied film theory.)] They always make me a little melancholy, a little thoughtful, but I guess this one infected my dreams. Maybe because I’m getting so very old and the boys are growing so fast, so fast, into adults, when I’m not ready to be an adult myself.

In the dream I was a young woman, but not myself–I was a character. And then I got older and older in minutes. But at one point I could fly, in the way you can fly in dreams, where you just sort of take off into the air, and it’s a little frightening because you can’t control how high or how far you go, but it’s exhilarating none-the-less. And I kept singing, “I’m going to fly over the lovely lovely Firth of Forth.” Then I got older and somehow I had written a famous book and there was a sort of slideshow of my kids and grandkids falling in love, and then, mercifully for the reader of this post, I awoke. BUT, I also had a dream about a hummingbird in my bedroom, who landed on my arm and my face and was very affectionate.

That’s it for the dreams. But there are tiny flowers, and cardinals singing their mouthy-primadonna-lovely hearts out every morning. And very very hopeful light.

And after months (or is it years? Decades?) of snow-covered earth Clio can roll on her back in a patch of winter-wasted grass. She LOVEs to roll on her back in the grass.

I’ve been making bagels for YEARS now. Years. I’ve followed a bunch of recipes. I’ve tried Montreal-style bagels, New York-style bagels, This-is-all-you-have-in-your-cupboard-cause-of-quarantine bagels. I make bagels at least once a week. And the last few weeks they have come out just mother-flipping perfect. AND I DO SAY SO MYSELF. So I decided to try to account for the measurements and timings and share here. They have some elements of a Montreal bagel (boiled in honey, though you could use Maple syrup if you’re vegan.) Some elements of a New York Bagel) a little thiccer, so they hold up well to fillings. If you have some malt syrup, you should probably add it at some point, but I haven’t been able to find any in a while. I always separate out enough for two cinnamon raisin bagels, though you certainly don’t need to. I always try to do a couple with “tuxedo” black-and-white sesame seeds (from the Asian foods section) because it’s pretty. And my favorite is poppyseeds. But you could throw anything you want on there, or nothing at all. If you’re vegan, try maple syrup instead of honey, and just leave the egg out. It will still be good.

As with all bread-ish recipes, amounts and cooking times vary. You’re going for more of a feeling than a precise measurement or timing. Err on the side of more with the flour.

This is very very stuck in my head. And there’s nothing in it.

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Bright visions

I’m not on TikTok, but I sorta love the idea of it. [I realize that these platforms geared towards the youths probably (definitely) contain very dark channels; I’ve read horror stories.] But the TikTok videos I have seen, as shared on Instagram and Facebook (the old peoples’ social media platforms) are mostly delightful. And beyond that, they make me really hopeful about the future of film and music and art. The complex creativity of some of the videos rivals the work of Melies the cinematic magician. I saw a video of a man fighting several versions of himself, his own arms and fists flying everywhere. I saw a video of men hugging themselves. I’ve seen videos of people changing their moods or their clothes or their very bodies within the space of a couple of minutes. And sometimes dancing while they do it. Ordinary people, in ordinary homes, making something extraordinary.

The tools to create this magic are available to anyone who can afford a phone, but the creativity and commitment are commendable. I adore film, real film, I love the smell of it, the feel of it, the (gooseberry-like) amount of time it takes to transform it into something watchable, and the fact that all of that is literally in your hands. I love the idea of light passing through the image and projecting somewhere else, which is, frankly, so much more beautiful than a little video watched on a little screen of someone’s pocket-sized phone. But everything about real film is insanely expensive, unwieldy and increasingly unavailable. These days a kid can record a little film, a full song, a video of themselves making a drawing or a painting. AND THEY DO! And then there’s a whole network to SHARE this creativity, and LIKE it, and COMMENT on it. At no expense to anyone, no agents or salesmen or marketing directors necessary.

The movie industry, at least in Hollywood, has always been BIG. Everything’s a blockbuster and bloated and expensive and just generally too much. Films seemed to just be getting bigger and bigger and more and more expensive and bloated. But now all the cinemas are shut down because of Covid–the nearest to me possibly forever. I’m not happy about that, I love love a couple hours in the movie theater, dreaming other peoples’ dreams in flickering images in the salty, sticky, sugary communal dark. Love it. But maybe we can take this time to reassess. To celebrate the creativity of kids making tiny films on their phones, and sharing them with anyone who will watch, to celebrate the fact that so many people do watch. To celebrate the tools that aren’t out of anybody’s reach.

I love the passionate and earnest writings of critics and filmmakers on early cinema. They were parentally possessive about this tender new technology; this art so full of potential magic. They wanted to shape the language and the aesthetics of this brand new beautiful medium. I’d love to see something like that for phone-made-videos. Some manifesto of where we’re going with all of this. Maybe there is one (or many), I’m old, I wouldn’t know. (I don’t need to know, and I shouldn’t know.) Because I also love the language they use … Pure or Clean. Pure is my favorite. It means sincere, I think, and I’m glad it’s a quality that is admired. My favorite “pure” video showed the poster’s mother doing a little dance at the bottom of the stairs waiting for the poster’s boyfriend to come down and see his birthday surprise. Honestly, everything about that is beautiful to me. The kids are alright. We have to believe that they are.

Films made with just love and friends and vision. I love that, I really do. I’m happy, excited, to see what bright visions we will be privileged to watch.

I guess this is unrelated, but I love everything about it.