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QUINTESSENCE

Motions

Mosaic, Pompeii

 

How came ye muffled in so hush a masque?

- "Ode on Indolence," John Keats


Waiting coils inside her and licks and licks its paws.

I go through motions already made in another life [wrote the husband].
The room is cold. I must unpack. But not yet. Night is almost here.
Another one without I was going to say but that would be weak.
Another one.
I stand firmly on the foundation of the love I fashioned, yes, our love.
You will disagree. But look inside yourself. there you see a world
traveling silently through space. On it two specks. We are
indissoluble. Three minutes of reality! all I ever asked.

She stands looking out at rain on the roof.

 

 - from "The Beauty of the Husband," by Anne Carson

 

A good book plucks us from the present and lifts us from our preoccupations to chart navigation coordinates we've never flown before. A good book sits in our parlor like the most charming and giving of guests, discussing the world at length long after the last page. A good book is an all-night diner, our favorite people seated across from us, stirring coffee with a bent spoon, chin in hand, asking, "And after you decided to do that, then what?"

 

Anne Carson, in her book-length prose poem, THE BEAUTY OF THE HUSBAND, a fictional essay in 29 tangos, examines the philosophy that beauty is truth, an ideal made famous by John Keats in his 1815 poem, "Ode on a Grecian Urn." In his meditation on the perfection of an object, in this case an antique urn, Keats reframes the poet's traditional use of ekphrasis to redefine beauty. Beauty is more than an aesthetic ideal, Keats argues, it is a reflection of an object's inherent, authentic truth. The organic essence is the perfection. Carson twists the ideal of beauty yet again in the story of a marriage, THE BEAUTY OF THE HUSBAND. In this sharply observed telling, Carson employs a framework of "tangos" to chronicle the passionate back and forth of the couple as the prose sweeps through a concentric narrowing to the truth of the couple's marriage. Truth becomes personal, subjective, illusory, intimate. The relationship's beauty released in the telling. Beauty, like truth, we understand can be cruel. Transcendent. To quote the poet Masahide, Barn's burnt down. Now I can see the moon. 

 

A good book dwells within because it resonates. We have touched the edges of understandings we sense to be universal, eternal. Motions we have already made. A good book offers truth, sometimes beauty. Always a new way of seeing. "The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit." A sentence from ULYSSES by James Joyce and perhaps the most beautiful sentence in the English language. I gift it to you. Be overwhelmed.

 

 

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The Slow Hours

 

MONDAY MORNING, LATE SUMMER
On the fence
in the sunlight,
beach towels.

No wind.

The apricots have ripened
and been picked.
The blackberries have ripened
and been picked.


- Robert Hass, from the poem "Cuttings"

 

I've been looking back at posts about writing and creativity, living and making meaningful choices. Have I done the things I said I would, made the changes I want, pursued priorities that matter? Sometimes. Admittedly, not always. There are days it is struggle enough to want to slow the busyness, savor the quiet moments. How hard in this modern world to make space for clarity, for peace of mind amidst the nonstop pings, alerts, and alarms that surround our work/life schedules. We live task to task, crisis to crisis. Have we forgotten how to slow the hours?

 

Summer gives us the long, hot day. The ripening of the fruit on the trees and the grain in the earth. Nothing happens in summertime that happens in a hurry. The baking heat and light-filled days are a tutorial in slowing the hours. An invitation to open to the quiet ripening in our own complicated lives. A pause to welcome the simple. To celebrate joy in singular moments.

 

Summer is nature's reminder to follow our instincts toward the life well-lived. All of us have that place, person, or time of day, where the spinning world slows, life opens, and we experience deep happiness. Where will you be in these last weeks of bright golden light? I am headed north to the remote quiet shores of the lake once again. You will find me on the deck at sunset, feet propped on the rail. Scotch in hand, I will end each day in rhythm with the hours as the evening star rises over the lake, bright against the rose-colored Selkirk Mountains. I will toast you, wherever your slow has taken you.

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Good Enough

 

VARIATION ON A THEME BY RILKE
by Denise Levertov

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me - a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day's blow
rang out, metallic - or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.


We try so hard to be perfect, we miss life. 

 

What if we stop the pendulum swing of self critique and judgement. Allow our souls to find center, to come to rest. To neither push nor desist but just hold space for awhile. In that sacred space embrace our permission to be. To luck into, to try, to change our minds, to give it a shot, maybe fail... Perhaps settle, ever so gently, into ordinary happiness.

 

Emotional and mental ebb and flow are not the antithesis to life success. Perfectionism is. In the pursuit of "perfect" lies the negation of all that is not. Perfectionism is an eraser we drag across life. Crossing out what may have been our best efforts, our bravest moments. Scars of bootstrapped, gut wrenching, all-out-there struggle. All those unwanted gifts of deepest courage. When we devalue our smallest efforts, be they honest, sufficient, or barely forward motion, we also devalue our human nature to strive.

 

Humans are not born perfect, they are born to evolve. To seek to understand, to take action, to plan, to expand, to be joyful. Life is not a target. There is no bulls-eye. Life is about process. About being vividly, messily, actively present in our own skin. Accepting that wherever we may be in our lives, just getting by or progressing along the spectrum of our goals... Well, good enough. This is today.

 

Carpe Diem. Put down that edit pencil. Stet. Let today be a day of presence.

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a call back home

Hans Christian Andersen's LITTLE MERMAID, Copenhagen

 

THE ART OF DISAPPEARING
by Naomi Shihab Nye

When They Say Don't I Know You?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.

Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say Why?

It's not that you don't love them anymore.
You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.

Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven't seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don't start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.



This poem came to me via the wonderful tiny chapbook by Roger Housden, TEN POEMS TO LAST A LIFETIME. (I have spoken of this collection before.) Housden has this to say: "I find the strong and sober stand of this poem a welcome inspiration. Yet I know there are those who feel otherwise. People have told me they feel it to be ungenerous and curmudgeonly in its attitude to others. On the other hand, I remember seeing Bill Moyers on PBS one evening, and him saying that ever since being called into the hospital for heart trouble, he has kept a copy of this poem by Naoimi Shihab Nye in his top pocket. For me, it's that kind of poem. A reminder poem, a shake-your-tree poem, a wake-up-and-live-your-own-life-before-it's-all-too-late poem."

Housden calls a poem that speaks deeply a "message from a trusted friend," that is, "the persistent murmur in our own chest." He adds this observation by Keats [which I find the single greatest secret to cultivating any art]: Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost as a Remembrance.

The promised-to's, the ought-to's...how we endlessly defer our personal must-do's. We shelve for later the experiences, projects, and journeys that call us deeply, explorations that delve into the corners of our being. Do you remember the moment when you knew the shape of your personal life dream? When you crested from childhood into young adulthood, and set your sights on the world's horizon? Do you recall how you felt the truth in your bones that hot August afternoon, lying in the grass under the silver branches, staring up through an endless sky?

That sudden shiver holding a newborn. The life history suddenly recognized in the still, veined hand of your grandmother as she held that tea cup and waited by the window. Nye's poem is a call back home. Live your life, know life; for life is finite.

I resonate with the honest fierceness of Nye's poem. This poet doesn't mince words. I need that. She reminds us that a given day on earth is not about obligation. Being present for our own life is essential. "Being present" is not the denial of relationship, an avoidance of responsibility or connection, but it is practicing our purpose. Inhabiting the originality and truth that is ours alone. Answer the call.

You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bells at twilight.



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Father's Day

Capt. Thomas Kelsey Burgess, Sandia AFB, New Mexico

 

my lost father
by Lucille Clifton

see where he moves
he leaves a wake of tears
see in the path of his going
the banners of regret
see just above him the cloud
of welcome see him rise
see him enter the company
of husbands fathers sons





My father and me.
I lost this lovely man when he was but forty-five, and I was turning twenty. I've missed him all my life.

Happy Father's Day, Daddy.

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Wings

 

WINGS
I saw the heron
poise
like a branch of white petals
in the swamp,

in the mud that lies
like a glaze,
in the water
that swirls its pale panels

of reflected clouds;
I saw the heron shaking
its damp wings -
and then I felt

an explosion -
a pain -
also a happiness
I can hardly mention

as I slid free -
as I saw the world
through those yellow eyes -
as I stood like that, rippling,

under the mottled sky
of the evening
that was beginning to throw
its dense shadows.

No! said my heart, and drew back.
But my bones knew something wonderful
about the darkness-
and they thrashed in their cords,

they fought, they wanted
to lie down in that silky mash
of the swamp, the sooner
to fly.

~ Mary Oliver

There is something about the delicacy of the transitions from spring into early summer and then from summer into late fall that always remind me of the poetry of Mary Oliver. The way in which Oliver captures the voice and imprint of the unseen; the song of living things, the guardian silence of the skies. When I read this poem, it reminds me of my late husband Ken, who passed away in 2003. His presence still among us is the heron at the water's edge below the cliffs where he is buried. For a week after his death, a single gray heron waited there at the river's elbow, braced against the rushing waters. Still and tranquil, it watched us where we stood on the bluff above him, mute with grief. Eventually on the last day, as twilight fell to its deepest hue, our heron spread its feathered wings and rose into the sky. Lost in the dark.

All of us sing an unfamiliar song when it comes to life. We receive, we give. We perhaps only imperfectly hear the melody as we progress through the years. But how important it is that we celebrate life. Cherish family, love, the accomplishment of big dreams. The having of big dreams. The still moments though they become years. The translucent ice newly veined with cracks. The reflecting clouds. The trace of the past like the taste of cold water in an iron cup. The bloom, and the fossil. The liminal presence.

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A Memorial Day, Then and Now

 

And still it is not enough, to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the immense patience to wait till they are come again. For the memories themselves are still nothing. Not till they have turned to blood within us, to glance and gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves - not till then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.
~ Rainer Maria Rilke

I found myself reading back through old journals this week, thinking about Memorial Day. I stopped on one from seven years ago. Those of you who know me, know that I come from a long tradition of military service, and have many generations of family members, including my father, who lie in military cemeteries in the United States and around the world. Here is part of what I wrote in 2011:

My husband is buried above the wild and tumultuous Spokane River, downriver from the traintrestle bridges. Freight trains roll high above the river, making their way across the continental U.S. Great diesels haul palettes of stacked container goods and seemingly endless chains of barrel cars of crops, oil and chemicals, and the double-decker slatted stock cars. The cars sway down the tracks and then disappear from view through narrow granite cuts in the basalt mountains. We called them "wishing trains," because we'd whisper secret wishes crisscrossing the roads beneath them as they passed. My husband liked the idea that for all eternity he would lie beside the wide, wild Spokane River, in view of those industrious magical trains. Nature and commerce. Chaos and fortune. Our lives are ruled by them.

On this day, Memorial Day, breezes wave ribbons of color along narrow cemetery paths lined with the stars and stripes. Families, lost looks on their faces, clutch plot grids and wander the treed acres looking for their buried. The hands of little ones are tucked in the hands of grownups; in the little fists small flags or bunches of garden lilacs. America does not forget its loved ones. It does not forget its soldiers. Yet the numbers buried in the green shade seem to swell in a continuous sea of monuments. Already a newly engraved stone, a simple bench, stands next to my husband's. A nineteen year old boy, lost in Afghanistan. Someone's son, someone's brother. There are two flags flying in his honor, on the grass the gift of a baseball mitt.

Bending low, I place a flag in the ground the requisite distance (a boot length away) from my husband's marker. A Vietnam era Air Force veteran, he was proud of his service. I couldn't help but think of our own boy, now twenty, at the US Naval Academy, his life at a crux point as well. National service opens us to community beyond family. Opens us to our shared identity as American citizens. In the fall my daughter will run her first half-marathon for Team USO, proud of our soldiers, her brother, her father, and all those whose names she does not know. Those who came before her and follow her now, hands open and ready to do whatever work needs doing. Whether serving in the military, the Peace Corps, Teach for America, the USO, or organizations like Doctors Without Borders or the Red Cross, let us take a moment to thank the persons we meet giving of themselves to America and to the needs of the world.


In the time since I wrote this, my daughter has become a physician, committed to the well-being and needs of others. My son has become an electrical engineer, using science in the invention and service of technology and art. Their father still lies beside the murmuring river downriver from the rumbling trains. Time has passed, and things have changed. And yet, the families come to the cemetery this and every Memorial Day, bearing their tiny flags and garden flowers.

Let the poems of memories carry the day. Whomever it is you think of on this day, whomever it is you miss, I know you will find peace in the devotions of remembrance. I give you love.

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Call and answer

Bernini, Rome

 

Hush, beloved. It doesn't matter to me
how many summers I live to return:
this one summer we have entered eternity.
I felt your two hands
bury me to release its splendor.


~ "The White Lillies," Louise Gluck

The aria and the catalyst.

I am deep in the quiet hours thinking back to an essay on passion posted here in 2010. My mind is looping down riverbanks of slow moving thought as it did then. I am thinking about connections, the bonds of romantic love. Eight years ago I wrote about the question of truthfulness between couples, saddened by the infidelity and subsequent breakup of the marriage of a friend of mine. At the heart of their parting lay a painful truth neither had wished exposed, and when brought to light fatally erased the foundation between them. He played roulette and lost. She wished she'd never known. What was their truth? Did it matter, or was its value entirely in what was lost?

The fundamental song in dramatic love is the aria. A longing opened wide across the octaves. And then from the wings, an echo. The entrance of a duet. A melody and a response. A call and an answer. A cry and a caress. Two voices that sing the heart's passion. In the twining melodies, in these whispered dreams, dwells a wordless language. What we ask for and what we are given. What we offer and what is taken.

The call and answer determine the fate of the lovers.

I am thinking now of the French film "Coco & Igor," the story of the complicated, secret, and oftentimes emotionally harsh relationship between Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. Who called out first? Who answered? Much of their exchange remains wordless, physical. The interplay of their passion, and the way obsession fuels their individual art underscores the importance of the secretive nature of this exchange. Two muses. The lives of others. What was sacrificed to art. The affair itself not important, what mattered to Chanel and Stravinsky was its bonfire of inspiration.

There are so many arias, so many whispers we do not hear.

Romantic love is, finally, what is made of it. Are we lovers content in the small, sacred moments of living? Or lovers skating uneasily across life's dangerous territories? Love is perhaps only as permeable, as pure an elemental essence, as what we give of ourselves. How we value one another. Do we build or destroy? Some of us love in a kind of rhythm of labor, an endless garden we diligently and attentively hoe. Some cast nets to the sea, discover the catch gone and love onward in sorrow or separation. Others hold the hand of someone in comfort. Others fall into that certain slant of light that gilds the heart, left with an imprint that haunts forever.

Love unfurls. Place a rose on your kitchen table and watch the bloom drench the passing moments with its grace. Unlike Coco and Igor, or the dramatic opera, most of us love in quiet, ordinary ways. We experience love as an act from the soul as transformative for the lover as for the beloved.

Yet there is no denying that elemental spark. Love is catalyst. Once lit, what will you make of it?


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Herd Me Homewise

 

AMEN
by Ellen Dore Watson

I believe in trees. Sun-stunned,
forking, house ofshade and moan
and burning. I don't want a god who
bleeds, I want a shepherd to herd me
homewise, toward wood and stone
and making. Tomorrow is the place
we put what we're afraid of. Today,
lists. Give me a now where whispers
come bidden and unbidden, visions
follow. Give me belief not outward
but in -- I want what's waiting to out.


Here we are, one third into 2018. As promised, time to revisit my resolutions and see how I’ve fared implementing these changes to date.
Welcome to the New Year. I know all of us hope that 2018 will be kinder and more positive than its predecessor. It seems fair to simply state we know this not to be the case thus far. This morning the news is filled with distressing photographs of Guatemalan refugees held at our southern border with Mexico. The last weeks nothing but a Scrambler ride of government and White House scandal that make me wonder if, indeed, civility is dead. Or perhaps, abroad. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could tweak our routines more favorably toward both productivity and joy? Here’s to trying.

Let’s revisit my ten goals for 2018:
1. Back to paper journals
Returning to journaling and drafting book notes on paper has been relatively simple, and I can report, productive. Folding together my morning cup of tea with time at the kitchen table organizing the day has made my writing goals come together and also helped me to step back and find a mental center. I added a Lemome bullet journal specifically for mapping writing goals and progress, and am happy to report bullet journaling is as productive as those of you who use one told me it would be.

Slow down first drafts
The plan was to return to handwriting first drafts on yellow pads. The flexibility of a notepad has opened up many more writing opportunities in impromptu places (waiting on a delayed flight anyone?) and freed me from the usual outlet hunt. The process of later translating handwritten pages onto the computer has resulted in draft pages that feel stronger and more clarified, and help target the following sections of work.

2. Rethinking social media
Hello, Facebook, privacy anyone? Deleted my Facebook account (as I detailed here in an earlier post). I find Twitter and Instagram offer excellent outreach and connection. You are all so creative on Instagram! I think we connect more meaningfully than ever, honestly.

3. Self-attunement
Certainly the return of spring has made daily exercise an easier, more pleasurable outdoor pursuit, and after having read the nutritional, eye-opening fact-fest of “How Not to Die” by Dr. Michael Greger with Gene Stone, my commitment to a more thoughtful vegetarian diet has resulted in genuine better health. Cutting social media and television out of my late evenings in favor of reading has also been good for a solid night’s rest.

4. A “year without shopping”
Ann Patchett described her year without shopping (with the exception of books and a few requirements related to family life, her bookstore, and life as a writer) in her 2017 New York Times Op-Ed. I intend to use this maxim to reset my own expectations and habits. To strive to own or purchase only what, to quote Marie Kondo, “brings joy.” To date that has meant the purchase of books (of course), support for the arts (museum and all varieties of performance), cuisine (the pleasures of dining out), travel, etc.

6. The vegetable and me
The health pay-offs in terms of my annual medical labs and health have proven the value to me of a fruit and vegetable diet. Reducing alcohol intake, upping exercise—all the usual suspects, yes.

7. Books Read List
Time to get back to keeping an annotated list of books read each year. This has proved to be more of a challenge than anticipated. I discovered how many books I keep going and stashed in different places. One for travel, one by the bed, several in my study… Getting organized and finishing books and entering them into the list will require more focus. I'm on it!

8. Off the fence
Warren Buffet recently tweeted that “sometimes it’s necessary to unfollow people in real life.” Time to clean house (declutter emotionally) the obvious dysfunctional relationships in my life, and deal with fence-sitter issues. Initially tough, the aftereffect is a true tranquility. While a work in progress, I am taking steps to release the not-good and nourish the good.

9. Tech diet
So tired of life on screens! I gave away the iPad. I reduced my devices to my laptop and my smart phone. They “do it all” with minimal fuss and interconnected efficiency. I've freed the rest of my life for actual people and actual conversations, reading books (paper books) and listening to audible books on my phone while I exercise or travel.

10. Balance
The goal is to seek a wide range of input from books, film, television, music, live entertainment (concerts, dance, theater), museums, lectures, podcasts, etc., to achieve a satisfying balance of the best of culture and critical thought this life has to offer. Working on it!

I’d love to hear from you about things that you've changed, routines that work for you! Send me your comments here or on Twitter. Here's to more joy!

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sacrament, mystery, light

"How to Build a Cathedral," Cildo Meireles, 1987 copper pennies, cattle bones, pavers, wafers, black cloth. The Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin

 

Does a poem enlarge the world,
or only our idea of the world?

- from "Mathematics" by Jane Hirschfield

This image is of a 2013 art installation at The Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas. The installation occupied (at that time) an entire room of its own. A room within a room, in which the art work, "How to Build a Cathedral," filled the entirety of the subdued space.

The light dim, the atmosphere quiet. The visitor is permitted to step inside the installation, which is curtained on four sides by filmy ceiling-to-floor black mesh curtains. Inside the closed mystery of the curtains, one may stand or walk the square perimeter of the installation upon an interior border of plain gray pavers. The ceiling within the space is constructed of a mammoth "chandelier" of cow bones suspended in uniform order from the ceiling and lit from above. The white bones funnel downward to join with a thin central cord constructed of stacked Eucharist wafers, and downward still into a sculptural seabed of shiny new copper pennies.

This art space has all of the sacramental hush and reverence we associate with the interiors of cathedrals, composed of the metaphoric elements with which we erect them. Rock. Bone and muscle. Ritual. Money. And death.

Sacrament, mystery, light.

Cildo Meireles has conceived an experience for us that improbable as it would seem, is made profound by our innate human inclination and worldly cultural intention to honor what we believe to be sacred. A space for contemplation. A space constructed of the elemental world. What is sacred, born of the ordinary.

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