My Hearth Always Burned Brightly, Friend

January 21, 2015

Tags: art and creation, intention, finding joy, family, nature, the moderns


- Tomb Inscription, CE 477, Ager Tusculanus, Italy

I ask you as you pass by
Take a moment's pause and read
The lines I've dictated and
Ordered to be written.
The earth rests lightly on me
Which is as it should be,
And I lie quietly, encased in marble.
I've repaid my debt.

I always had a cluster of friends,
I disturbed no one's bedchamber, and
No complaint was lodged against me.
My dear wife lived with me
In harmony and always virtuously.

I performed the tasks I could,
Always gave place without recourse to the law.
I had just one friend who did all things honorably.
He surpassed all others in virtue:
Titus Flavius hermes, a court officer of quaestorian rank.
In those days my hearth always burned brightly, friend.

- from the translation offered by Paul Shore in "Rest Lightly: An Anthology of Latin and Greek Tomb Inscriptions," Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1997.

Then and now.

Centuries and tides of history separate the long-departed life of this Roman citizen and those of us living today in the 21st Century. This tomb inscription, from the slim but intriguing book of Latin and Greek tomb inscriptions translated by Paul Shore, "Rest Lightly," is particularly notable for its depiction of Roman domestic tranquility.

We take for granted that much about humanity and culture has changed over the millennia, but note the importance - and significance - of those virtues and values that have not: love, loyalty, righteousness, charity, peaceableness. I am struck by the deceased's abundant gratitude for a life well lived, and his outspoken adherence to a code of ethics and noteworthy friendship. Here is a man who honors the simple gift of a life without regrets. Here is domestic life conducted in harmony, with abundant affection and loyalty.

Could we ask for more?

A Single Wave

January 13, 2015

Tags: nature, art and creation, finding joy, solitude, intention, patterns

Wednesday, 11th April, 1804
"What a beautiful object a single wave is!" wrote Coleridge in his notebook. "I particularly watched the beautiful Surface of the Sea in this gentle Breeze! every form so transitory, so for the instant, and yet for that instant so substantial in all its sharp lines, steep surfaces, and hair-deep indentures, just as if it were cut glass, glass cut into ten thousand varieties, and then the network of wavelets, the rude circle hole network of the Foam."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, late 18th to early 19th century British poet, and beloved friend to William Wordsworth, wrote those words on board the Speedwell slipping down the Channel on a voyage to Malta. Coleridge had undertaken a sea-going journey in desperate spirits, a man who had "abandoned poetry," as he claimed to Wordsworth, and "being convinced," he bitterly added, "that I never had the essentials of poetic Genius, and that I mistook a strong desire for original power." (c.f. Alethea Hayter, "A Voyage in Vain: Coleridge's Journey to Malta in 1804," Faber & Faber, Ltd, 1973).

Hayter reflects on Coleridge's notes of his sojourn to the Mediterranean: "On his voyage to Malta he was never weary of watching the patterns of the waves as they lifted into crests of foam and sank in wrinkled slopes down to deep troughs, and swelled again in dimpling ripples to flash sun-glints from their summits." Coleridge, Hayter continues, tried to evoke the various surfaces of the sea "in phrases and notes scribbled into his notebook. Many of them were images of minerals - the waves had the sheen of soapstone, bright reflections such as he had seen on fireplaces of plumbago slate, the exquisite purple of tinted drinking glasses, shimmers of brass and polished steel and tin alloys."

In the Inland Northwest it is winter. The deep cold and the low gray skies lay a still hand on my pages. I find myself these last months in reflection; without "poetic Genius" as Coleridge put it, to create. To make something of nothing. The exquisite "nothings" of nature, the unseen part, possess undeniable splendor. Nature gives us all that we need - yet the silver frost and unmarred snow left me empty. Too much stillness, perhaps.

This week during my own sun-drenched sojourn here on the island of Maui, that "beautiful object a single wave" has also captured my attention. The rolling ocean has given me inspiration, encouragement the creative spark is not dead. Wave upon wave. Momentum and iridescence. Teals and mallard greens, pearls and garnets; colors that rise and curl and splinter white on the iron red of the broken shore. These waves sing, not unlike the whales spouting and breaching further out in Wailea Bay.

Waves carry the music of their endlessness and ceaselessness, an unchained melody not unlike breath and the unending breeze.

Coleridge set out in hope, yet "arrived in resignation" as Hayter observes, having failed to reclaim his younger energies, to recharge his creative vision or regain his idealistic self. Yet no voyage is in vain. Experience is our wage: we are paid in scribbles and phrases, sketches of somethings from endless nothings.

Fare thee well!
Health and the quiet of a healthful mind
Attend thee! seeking oft the haunts of men,
And yet more often living within thyself,
And for thyself, so haply shall thy days
Be many, and a blessing to mankind

- from Wordsworth's "Prelude," thought to be a tribute to Coleridge

Time for Books

January 6, 2015

Tags: art and creation, intention, presence, patterns, solitude

by Louise Gluck

As I turned over the last page, after many nights, a wave of sorrow enveloped me. Where had they all gone, these people who had seemed so real? To distract myself, I walked out into the night; instinctively, I lit a cigarette. In the dark, the cigarette glowed, like a fire lit by a survivor. But who would see this light, this small dot among the infinite stars? I stood awhile in the dark, the cigarette glowing and growing small, each breath patiently destroying me. How small it was, how brief. Brief, brief, but inside me now, which the stars could never be.

This paragraph of poetry slays me.

Louise Gluck's (my apologies for the missing umlaut) 2014 National Book Award collection, "Faithful and Virtuous Night," will change the way you think about poetry. Each page in this slim book offers singularities of stunning language. Words break away in your thoughts. Images linger, haunt, cross into the interior. From the page in your hand to the wonder expressed back to the stars. The words, the lit cigarette. Brief, brief. Each breath patiently destroying me. This transmutation of language is what we crave. We secretly hope the books and poems we carry in our hands from work to table to bed will reach inside us in ways the grand physical world cannot. We crave writing so good it speaks from within; so precise, so startling the words marry wonder. We want books that change the way we comprehend the world. In her poems Gluck fiercely, delicately dissects the anatomy, the impact of language.

Do you want to read this year more than last? I do. There have been many year-end "Best of -" lists for books and authors in a year of well-deserved awards and accolades. But the real problem - carving out time for these wonderful books and poems - dogs me every year. What do I give up to find more time to read? Answering email? Classic movies? Leaving the house? The Strand Bookstore's Reading Resolutions for 2015 (above) is perfection. THIS I can do, and I'm excited to see where this approach will take me.

A decidedly practical guide to finding more time for reading was posted on Twitter recently by author Austin Kleon, who read 70+ books this past year. His tips are both tongue-in-cheek and perfectly serious. They adapt to both print and e-readers.

HOW TO READ MORE by Austin Kleon (Twitter: @austinkleon)
1. Throw your phone in the ocean
2. Make a budget, buy books you want to read, make a stack of them that you walk past every day (library is great, too, of course)
3. Carry a book with you at all times
4. If you aren't enjoying a book or learning something from it, stop reading it immediately (flinging it across the room helps give closure)
5. Schedule 1 hour of nonfiction reading during the day (commute/lunch break is good)
6. Go to bed 1 hour early and read fiction (it will help you sleep)
7. Write about the books you read and share with others, as they will send you more books to read

Have I inspired you to start a new book this week? Drop me a note and tell me what tips worked for you. Read to wonder.

Winter Stillness

December 23, 2014

Tags: art and creation, intention, nature, patterns, solitude

by William Carlos Williams

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.

Tis is the season of quiet. Slipping deep into the heart of who and why and wherever we happen to be. This lovely little poem, like so much of WCW's work, frames an oblique glance at life in mideas res...nature in the midst of narrative, without preamble. In "Winter Trees," Williams sketches an orchard emptied of fruit. The turning point in the cycle of things to do, and being done. Activity and rest. The deep cold months of waiting-in-stillness. The season of the "liquid moon."

I invite you into winter. Into the space between the years. Into the break among days marked by the distance between stars. I invite you not only into the quiet and the stillness, but to stand comfortably within this empty space. In my last post I talked about grief and the geography that is love, both present and gone. The "space" others hold in our lives, and the space our feelings occupy, is important to me. I believe we need space to find ourselves, space for what is truth to rise into consciousness. Space to rest and regroup, space to gather and rethink - and most of all, space to breathe in the beauty of all that is present. Bone-white moments of clarity, fragile barrenness, lush extravagant joy, tenuous fulfillment.... Whatever our circumstances, we take the essence of our experiences up as plants do oxygen, slowly. We absorb life on the broad leaves of our soul. We need space. Stillness. An expanse of stillness.

Do you know where you stand in this year as it "disattires" of its days? I am not sure that I do, not yet anyway. The time is here to stop and abide the hours. Our work is done. And in the quiet will come the story of what has been and what we hope will be. As the long branches fill with winter moon, celebrate or lay to rest, what came before. Allow tomorrow to seep into your awareness. Now is the time to dream.

To all my readers - dear friends one and all - thank you for a rich and meaningful year. I am grateful we travel the stars together. This adventure is less lonely and more grand because we do. See you in the new year.

Pent In The Shadows

December 16, 2014

Tags: art and creation, loss, love, grief, family, finding joy

by Billy Collins

The first thing I heard this morning
was a rapid flapping sound, soft, insistent -

wings against glass as it turned out
downstairs when I saw the small bird
rioting in the frame of a high window,
trying to hurl itself through
the enigma of transparency into the spacious light.

Then a noise in the throat of the cat
hunkered on the rug
told me how the bird had gotten inside,
carried in the cold night
through the flap in a basement door,
and later released from the soft grip of teeth.

On a chair, I trapped its pulsations
in a shirt and got it to the door,
so weightless it seemed
to have vanished into the nest of cloth.

But outside, when I uncupped my hands,
it burst into its element,
dipping over the dormant garden
in a spasm of wingbeats
then disappeared over a row of tall hemlocks.

For the rest of the day,
I could feel its wild thrumming
against my palms as I wondered about
the hours it must have spent
pent in the shadows of that room,
hidden in the spiky branches
of our decorated tree, breathing there
among the metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn,
its eyes open, like mine as I lie in bed tonight
picturing this rare, lucky sparrow
tucked into a holly bush now,
a light snow tumbling through the windless dark.

This poem by Billy Collins, from a 2013 compendium of new and selected poems "Aimless Love" (Random House), evokes many feelings for me.

Interiority (noun): being within, inside of everything. Loosely that which is within; going inward, further toward a center.

For many of us, the holidays are not easy. We are the ones with grief tucked in a back pocket. Interiority a place we dwell in instinctive rebuff of a season frequently marked by chaotic family gatherings, lush sentimentality, bombastic festivities, and prickly, achingly nostalgic traditions. We take refuge, wait out the hours. Wary of the ways the social carousel tenders the blues. The mood is not exactly melancholy, certainly not joy, but more fragile. A splintered heart. A clear-as-glass gathering of the self.

I was reminded of all of this recently chatting with a friend in New York about the recent loss of her mother and her difficulty enjoying the season. "How is it for you?" she asked.

Indeed. How is it for me? After a decade of widowhood and a recent remarriage, I find myself in a different place now than in the years leading to this moment. The word I reached for was "serene" as I answered my friend. But that is not quite right. "Serene" implies a peaceful contentment when I am thinking of quiet still waters. The truth is I am not beyond it, even a decade later as I reflect on the death of my first husband, Ken. But I have come to accept it. And as time swallows the insignificant and polishes the pure, I have found comfort in the goodness of our years together. There is acceptance in surrender, knowing loss is nonnegotiable. I have learned I can thrive at the kinder edges of that once-gaping hole. I want to tell my friend, Time will gentle loss, and life will come to mean more than enduring sadness. There will be joy - and that is okay.

The commitment to a new marriage - to growing, building, loving - helped free my life from loneliness. For loss is lonely. Others skirt its cold shadow. I will never not feel my grief, but that pain no longer paralyzes living. I have come to see grief and sadness as one more beautiful ring of color encompassing the soul. Much as a seashell forms bands of ridges, rings, and patterns in response to the ocean, so have I, living this life given me. Part of the beauty of Collins's poem is its inexpressible awareness of the nuanced shadows of danger and mercy, moonlight and grace - the very Christmas sparrow I want to place in the hand of my friend, closing her fingers gently around the gift. This is life. And someday, that acceptance will be enough to fly to joy again.

Thoughts On Settling Into Life

December 10, 2014

Tags: nature, presence, intention, the moderns

Season's greetings, friends. I'd like to share with you part of a post from December 30, 2011. This essay was simply about taking stock - throughout life - of both our intentions and our accomplishments. Do they match up? Did we complete the goals set for ourselves? Are we living and loving and giving as we intend to? Poet Mary Oliver's beautiful words from "Winter Hours" set the tone for this reflection, and I invite you to join me again as 2014 draws to a close and we look forward to a new year.

I don't think I am old yet, or done with growing. But my perspective has altered - I am less hungry for the busyness of the body, more interested in the tricks of the mind. I am gaining, also, a new affection for wood that is useless, that has been tossed out, that merely exists, quietly, wherever it has ended up. Planks on the beach rippled and salt-soaked. Pieces of piling, full of the tunnels of shipworm. In the woods, fallen branches of oak, of maple, of the dear, wind-worn pines. They lie on the ground and do nothing. They are travelers on the way to oblivion... Call it Rest. I sit on one of the branches. My idleness suits me. I am content. I have built my house. The blue butterflies, called azures, twinkle up from the secret place where they have been waiting. In their small blue dresses they float among the branches, they come close to me, one rests for a moment on my wrist. They do not recognize me as anything very different from this enfoldment of leaves, this wind-roarer, this wooden palace lying down, now, upon the earth, like anything heavy, and happy, and full of sunlight, and half-asleep.
- from "Winter Hours," Mary Oliver

Settling into one's life - having built the house to build it and having done so, resting in its shadow - marks a passage. A journey toward seeing oneself as a part of all that lives, all that occupies the geography of the most personal space and time. Mary Oliver's essays in "Winter Hours" are thoughtful; her observations crisp and intimate. Exploratory writings about what it means to see one's life whole - an organic evolving theme of the self. For me, one of the important tasks of the new year is taking stock. How have I fared in pursuit of my goals? Have I absorbed the unpredictable, the shift in borders, edged a toe through limitations? Have I learned anything?

Oliver perceptively writes of human endeavor as a construct, a kind of shelter for creative thought. She stands before a cabin in the woods she has hand-built, a private room for writing, which in time has become a little-used potting shed. She realizes in retrospect she built the cabin not for writing, not for deep thought, but for the sake of building. The work done, she will lie in its humble shade among the blue butterflies, aware her presence lies within nature, not in her construct. Oliver points out that it is instinctive to examine life; to ponder what makes things work, what causes one thing to nurture another, create the future out of the past. Faced with mortality, we view ourselves as part of the vast natural interchange of what lives and dies, but hold the secret wish to exist beyond all that. Oliver observes, "You can fool a lot of yourself but you can't fool the soul. That worrier."

As this year comes to its rapid close, I am taking stock of my "constructs." Family, work, home, friendships. All these organic symbols of the living I have done. Are they worthy of the sacredness of life, have I lived up to my soul's expectations? More importantly, have I lived strong and true within the essential principles, as nature would have them? My determination is simple: examine what is foolish. Where am I following the blueprint of a construct but not a life? Where is the potting shed within the palace?

Lie down, now, upon the earth like anything heavy and happy and full of sunlight and half asleep. Find the sunspot of life, lest we travel lost in the work of working at it.

Only Look

December 2, 2014

Tags: art and creation, intention, patterns, presence

by Philip Levine

When the young farm laborer
steals the roses for his wife
we know for certain he'll find
her beyond their aroma
or softness. We can almost
feel with how soft a step
he approaches the cottage
there on the edge of the forest
darkening even before supper,
not wanting to give away
the surprise, which shall be his
only, for now she sleeps beyond
surprise in the long full,
dreamless sleep he will soon
pray for. And so they become
a bouquet for a grave, a touch
of rose in a gray and white
landscape. All this years ago
in the imagination of a poet
who would die before the book
was published. Did the thorns
picture the young man's fingers
as he pressed the short stems
through the knife blade? Did he
bleed on the snow like a man
in a film, on the tight buds,
on her face as he bent down
to take her breath? Did that
breath still smell of breakfast,
of raw milk and bread? What does
breath that doesn't come smell of,
if it smells at all? If I went
to the window now and gazed
down at the city stretching
in clear winter sunlight past
the ruined park the children
never visit, out over the rooftops
of Harlem past the great bridge
to Jersey and the country lost
to me before I found it,
would I cry and for whom?

This poem by Philip Levine, from his outstanding 1994 Pulitzer Prize winning collection "The Simple Truth," is not familiar to most readers. It is perhaps a "writer's poem," a work born inside the thoughts of a poet ruminating on the nature of both imagination and reality. Writers will do this: step back and assess both craft and artist. Examine for meaning all that is, as Robert Frost put it, "lost in translation."

There is subtle dissonance between artist and intention, vision and reality. Art is often that struggle, that compromise trapped between concept and execution. Writers, and I suspect artists of all ilk, are inclined to be keen observers. Of life, object, action, self, emotion, consequence...the other, the moral. And with our tools we devise the rose: the imagined metaphor, allegory, or analogy that speaks the truth we see, however narrowed or grand the perspective. Why? Why do this? Why do we ask questions of life voiced through art?

Natalie Goldberg, in her iconic 1986 writing guide, "Writing Down the Bones," once asked her writing group this question: "Where do you want to go with writing? You have this strong creative voice; you've been able to separate out the creator and editor. What do you want to do with it?" The answer, if one can define it, establishes the foundation for all creative work. Because you see, once technique is mastered, intention is everything. And in speaking of life in its larger context, I might argue that when humans become aware of their deepest questions, they then feel compelled to express what answers they find. Questions stand answered all around us: from skyscrapers and bridges to scalpels and computer software, plays to parks.

We have only to look.

The Written and the Unwritten

November 25, 2014

Tags: art and creation, intention, patterns, presence, the moderns

Blue Lagoon, Iceland
by Victor Hugo

Voices. Light on my eyelid. In full cry,
Bell of St Peterís. Bathersí merry shouts:
This way! No, that way! Nearer! Further back!
Birds twitter: Jean does too. George calls to her.
Cocks crow, a trowel scrapes a roof; horses
Pass in the lane; a rasping scythe cuts grass.
Impacts, impressions. Roofers overhead.
The harbourís noises. Hiss of hot machines.
The gusting of a military band.
A hubbub on the quay. French voices. Thanks.
Morning. Goodbye. It must be late, because
My robin redbreastís come up close, to sing.
The roar of distant hammers at a forge.
Clacking of water. Steamshipís puffing breath.
A fly comes in. Vast wheezing of the sea.

The idea is at play in my mind today of what comes to us, and what we seek. Words by Steven Pressfield, from his nonfiction book on creativity, "The War of Art," seem to resonate: "I'm keenly aware of the Principle of Priority, which states( a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what's important first." So what is important? On any given day what is important is the work. Or perhaps family, or harmony of spirit. What's important anchors the present, one eye on the future. What's important sorts out conflicts and uncertainties and confusions: above all, the right choice feels right.

Once we know what is important, our priorities get us there.

Have you read poet Louise Glucks's prose poem "The Open Window"? Still on the theme of what we seek and what comes to us, this poem, part of "Faithful and Virtuous Night" [Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014], a tremendous larger body of work, recently won the 2014 National Book Award for Poetry. As you read, float the images and thoughts that enter your mind.


An elderly writer had formed the habit of writing the words THE END on a piece of paper before he began his stories, after which he would gather a stack of pages, typically thin in winter when the daylight was brief, and comparatively dense in summer when his thought became again loose and associative, expansive like the thought of a young man. Regardless of their number, he would place these blank pages over the last, thus obscuring it. Only then would the story come to him, chaste and refined in winter, more free in summer. By these means he had become an acknowledged master.

He worked by preference in a room without clocks, trusting the light to tell him when the day was finished. In summer, he liked the window open. How then, in summer, did the winter wind enter the room? You are right, he cried out to the wind, this is what I have lacked, this decisiveness and abruptness, this surprise - O, if I could do this I would be a god! And he lay on the cold floor of the study watching the wind stir the pages, mixing the written and the unwritten, the end among them.

Will you leave the window open?


November 18, 2014

Tags: family, love, art and creation, the moderns, presence, finding joy

We artists are mythmakers, and we participate with everybody else in the social construction of reality.
- Helen Mayer Harrison

Thanksgiving is near, and many of us turn our thoughts to upcoming gatherings. We may grow thoughtful as we noodle over grocery lists, our thoughts preoccupied by the complexities of hosting relatives from afar. Or we may be the ones to pack our bags, steeled for that bumpy emotional ride that so often comprises family immersion. The personal challenges and issues are real, but our anxiety is frequently intensified by overthinking. We are erecting moats, laying in reserves, presenting an obligatory delegation in lieu of our hearts.

Our modern century is tough on connection. We crave relationships, a sense of belonging that will endure. We need this. When we come together in celebration, let us bring our goodwill. Let us avoid the stresses of elaborate planning and impossible expectations. Oscar Wilde remarked, "Simple pleasures are the last refuge of the complex." Be simple. Take each moment as it comes. Tilt the table whenever possible toward joy and contentment and away from conflict. Thorny issues are not resolved over dinner tables.

Here is a Quintessence post from November 25, 2012 that opens on powerful words from poet Philip Levine:

Some things
you know all your life. They are simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter, and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.

- from "The Simple Truth," Philip Levine

The beauty of love is that it is capable of great patience and tremendous tenacity. Love stretches, it attaches, it builds, slow like bone. This life is a journey. Moving and changing, we experience the gestation of new forms of connection and partnership, new expressions of family. We evolve new ways of being, new shapes for the lives we lead. It is the simple truth to say living is ever-becoming. And while this process is neither easy nor pristinely beautiful, imperfect in process in fact, the becoming is perfect in intent - grounded in the earth and in the heavens. We find joy when we reach beyond the self. The human heart is a warrior and a monk. And it speaks a simple truth: Belong.

The Foundation Stone

November 11, 2014

Tags: art and creation, nature, presence, solitude, intention, finding joy

The mountains are great stone bells; they clang together like nuns. Who shushed the stars?... The sea pronounces something, over and over, in a hoarse whisper; I cannot quite make it out. But God knows I have tried.... At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive.
- from "Teaching a Stone to Talk," Annie Dillard

Fierce winds and bitter cold descended from the north last night. It is bright out today but the winds push and push against the house windows and whip in the trees. Oak and maple leaves, the last to fall behind the yellow birch and dark chestnuts, twist and snap loose. Drifts of leaves. Sailing ships. Crisp papery curls whirling on the wind down the road. Early this morning when I awoke, ice had formed on the bird bath and frost covered the picnic table. Ruby berries cling naked to the trees, gray squirrels in the branches.

There is a presence to the white cold, blue-stone dark of winter that invites contemplation for me. But not yet. First we yield the fire hues. Leave behind the late liquid gold light. Color and warmth are scoured from the earth.

What is left is elemental. Profound. Foundation stone.

This is the time when reflection deepens. The fallow time is upon us. Listening to the wind scrape the bare branches across the roof I feel the weight of mistakes, of yearnings unfulfilled, and all that I have gleaned throughout the year. Perhaps these cycles of the earth invoke cycles of growth in our souls. Dare we embrace the wind? The winters that clear bedrock of season after season of slow, tangled growth? There is much for me to contemplate in the bare silence of winter: quiet wisdoms and glimmers of insight, the genesis of creative projects, the deepening truth in my relationships.

Pruning away what is unnecessary reveals the essential: the bones of who we are. Are you pruning? Sweeping your steps clean?