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Quintessence ~ the essence of a thing in its purest and most concentrated form. Substance composing the celestial bodies.
The shoes that climbed Gonergrat, Switzerland
January 13, 2017
I thought of all the pain and how we met
Late in our lives yet lavishly at ease,
Having assumed an end to old regret...
- from "The Balcony," May Sarton, 1980
These words carry rich layers of meaning. Here we meet a couple at the theatre, one voice, acknowledging the joy and pain of life lived. Their mistakes and dashed hopes washed to the faintest of outlines by the passage of time. A lifetime of opportunities lost. And yet somehow, in the fullness of release, unexpected late love.
These lines are from May Sarton's longer poem "The Balcony" which ends with this final image, And out of deprivation, a huge flower.
Exquisitely beautiful. Words drenched in a translucent grace fully comprehended by the unknown speaker. In the wisdom of all that has come before, beauty.
We must find for ourselves the strength and desire to carry on. To begin again, to renew, starting over from disappointments past. I do not believe the sediments of personal history must pile ever higher within us, condemning our hearts to an inevitable jam in forward motion, an inward collapse from accumulated debris. Nor do I believe that world events freely form the personal, or that age alone steals from us anything we do not give away.
John F. Kennedy once described his father after his stroke, saying, "Old age is a shipwreck." Yet from Sarton's words, I imagine old age as neither the limit nor the context. Age is a translation of experience. It is an arrival. A departure. A point along the living way. We are always beginning. In life, in work, in love. Over and again, the passage of time lies worn in the lines on our foreheads. But time itself -- lost, found, burnt, wasted, empty, celebrated, shortened or prolonged -- needn't mark the melody of the heart. I love the thought that when regrets are tallied and done, thrown over our shoulders in daring abandon, we may at last arrive lavishly at ease.
Time is a construct. Our bodies physical. Each life an interplay of the two, mapped by love. Out of all that has come to pass we may find cupped in our hands a spectacular bloom.
January 4, 2017
There are years that ask questions and years that answer.
The Matterhorn, summit elevation 14,692 ft. Zermatt, Switzerland.
- Zora Neale Hurston
I must say, I hope you are the kinder, gentler sister to 2016. Last year was a rough one, and I really think we collectively, the world of us, need an easier stretch now to catch our breath and regroup. The quote above, by Zora Neale Hurston, is one of my favorites. It speaks to the feeling I think we all have that sometimes we're lost, simply swept up in a maelstrom of events and calamities, doing our best just to hang on. But eventually, there will come a time when the dust settles, the water stills, and reflections clear. The answers distill from the questions.
But what if the questions themselves feel overwhelming? Outside the frame we are familiar with or consider even rational? Beyond our ability to articulate or seek answers? This is the territory of faith. Some would say grace. Religions offer many different definitions of these concepts. To me, grace is an undefinable sheltered state of being. The strong unseen hands that cup the world. Second chances granted from outside of ourselves. Enlightenment. Faith is a belief in grace. In trusting we have a soft place to fall.
Whatever your personal interpretation of faith and grace, I believe this is a year of answers. That if we hold to our questions, trust in the future, and perhaps most importantly, proceed with hope, there will be grace. Welcome 2017. May our questions find answers and our faith in grace be justified. May we be blessed by a year that answers.
December 21, 2016
My two beloveds, Kate and David, 2008
- by G. Scotford Miller
Outside the window
the full moon
shines though the clouds
always waxing or waning,
is never truly full
but for a fleeting moment.
the perfect companion
is always present.
below the horizon,
always as it should be, present
Concealed or revealed,
the constant companion,
more common than many
Winter Solstice. And indeed, as we mark the beginning of winter the days end early in deep velvet dark. What I love about northern winter is the still, enfolding quiet. The hush on the landscape that snow brings. I appreciate the clarity. The crisp, sharp edges of cold. The glittering white, steel gray, slate blue beauty. Nature's delicate craftsmanship, revealed in the embroidered crystals within a single snowflake, the hoar frost on the cattail. The marine hues of winter sunsets that remind one of the secret interiors of abalone shells.
The holiday song "I'll Be Home for Christmas" has become one of my very favorites over time. As my children have grown, left home and begun their own lives, their gathering at the holidays holds a special meaning. Where once sentimental and traditional Christmas festivities were for the children, now I feel they are for parents -- those of us who have gently let our children go. The holidays bring the joys of family back home, at least for the holidays.
In Solstice Moon, the poet reminds us that the promise is always present...concealed or revealed.
I like to think the bonds of love between couples, families, friends, people and their pets -- any love you can imagine -- are the poet's constant moon, always present, even in the comings and goings of busy lives, distance or separation. We are linked at the heart, my friends. A timeless and limitless bond. Geography and years matter not.
So rest in joy. As the poet writes, life is always as it should be.
It is our task to keep our eyes on the horizon and our lives warmed by hope.
Love to you all this holiday season.
December 14, 2016
STOPPING BY THE WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING
by Robert Frost
Whose woods these are I think I know
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
This famous and beloved Frost poem is one my great uncle kept earmarked in a book of poems in his sprawling white farmhouse -- the family homestead on the Palouse. I remember the book of poems well. And my uncle, reading in the winter by the lamp on the reading table next to the picture window. Indeed, the woods, lovely, dark, and deep
, are as familiar to those of us who live in the Pacific Northwest and the rolling hills of the Palouse as New Hampshire and the northern woods were to Frost, and you, wherever you may look out on the trees of winter.
I love the imagery in this poem. The cold quiet. The slight flurry of snow swirling through the trees, the impatient horse jingling his harness. One can see the frosted breath of man and horse in the air. The long fields of white, the village in the distance. Together we pause, and reflect. And eventually, begin again to make our way.
These times are grave and dark, my friend. There is no denying the dire state of the world and all that is not good. But today, I ask you to linger, to stop by the woods on your hectic way and deeply feel the quiet. Enjoy the beauty of what you see. Let us be thankful for the constancy of nature, the seasons, and the warm embrace of those we love. Can you hear the bells of the days to come? The promise of tomorrows? And miles to go before I sleep...
Yes. But there is this moment. Today.
THINGS THAT ARE GOOD IN COLD WEATHER --
Animal tracks in snow
A friend chimed in with
Perry Mason reruns on the television
Another added --
Working in the shed
Strumming my guitar
Roasting something in the oven
And more --
Reeds on the banks of frozen ponds
The call of geese
The silhouettes of trees
Perhaps today you can build your own list, or feel free to add to mine. Enjoy the pause. There's such beauty in winter time. Joy, right where you are. I see you there, standing by your window with your coffee, gazing out at the snowy cold. Hello.
December 2, 2016
by David Mason
In the cidery light of morning
I saw her at the table
reading the paper, her cup
of coffee near at hand,
and that was when I bent
and brushed the hair from her nape
and kissed the skin there, breathing
the still surprising smoothness
of her skin against my lips -
stolen, she might say,
as if I would be filled
with joy of touching her,
I the fool for love,
and all that history carried
back to me in the glide
of mouth on skin, knowledge
of who she is by day
and night, sleeping lightly,
rocked in gentle privacy,
or outside in the garden
probing earth and planting.
We had been this way for more
than twenty years, she
leading a life of purpose
rarely stated, and I
just back from somewhere else.
I brushed my lips on her skin
and felt her presence through me,
her elegant containment
there in the cidery light.
I talked with a friend recently who had moved across the Pacific and was feeling raw and lost in a distant land, about when the expatriate ever feels part of the unknown, at home in the unfamiliar landscape.
Eventually, I said, the new becomes you. Meaning, I suppose, that if one inhabits the strange long enough, it ceases to remain strange. The unfamiliar becomes, in time, painted in memories and recognition. The dream no longer a surprise but an experience one has walked before. The adopted reality resides parallel with all other known realities. A part of who the self is now, and therefore, no longer alien.
I meditated on my walk in the soft white fog of this winter morning, thinking about this process of smudging the borders of identity. The way we push personal boundaries forward when we welcome new experience. How we grow the curled and speckled exoskeleton that surrounds us; creating larger and more beautifully complex whorls simply by absorbing change and accommodating the unfamiliar. A hermit crab, when it outgrows its home of mortared sand and shell, departs for larger spaces. In time, the new boundaries become the old: the crab adapts to the room available. Are we not also designed to grow into the spaces and frontiers we give ourselves? Built to incorporate the challenges and loves and landscapes and languages we make personal?
This poem, The Nape, by David Mason, is about the way long love becomes familiar. How the wondrous strange and unknown evolves, and all that history
, the gentle privacy, as Mason describes it, pierces through in a single touch, felt, her presence through me
. I imagine the human soul, porous as papyrus, absorbing the inks of a lifetime of experience. Each human story unfurling in all the wrong turns, spices, songs and wisdoms of the other. Discovered in the surprise of a kiss, in the return and the departure.
Familiar begins at the edges of the unfamiliar. Eventually, the new becomes you.
November 17, 2016
Going into the Quintessence archives, I wanted to repost this essay from four years ago. It feels timeless to me, and appropriate to the season and events of history, both personal and within the world. As you gather at Thanksgiving tables, please know what matters is here, in your heart. I send you my very warmest blessings and love.
November 25, 2012
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, tremendous tenacity, it stretches, it attaches, it slowly builds like bone in the body. It has been a journey, for me, this life. And in the becoming there is miracle. The gestation of new forms of connection and partnership, of family. Evolving into new ways of being, grafting new shapes onto the lives we lead. It is the simple truth to say living is a cycle of ever-becoming. And while neither easy, nor pristinely beautiful, nor perfect in process, this becoming is perfect in intent. It carries the seed of joy, grounded in the earth, the heavens, and self.
The human heart is a warrior and a monk. And it speaks a simple truth. Belong.
November 10, 2016
I'VE BROUGHT TO ART
Blue Lagoon, Capri
by C.P. Cavafy
I sit here, yielding to reverie. I've brought to Art
desires and notions: certain things half-seen -
countenances or figures; certain vague recollections
of loves unfinished. Allow me to lean on Art;
Art knows how to fashion an image of Beauty,
doing so subtly, completing life
by blending impressions, mingling together the days.
My refuge is in words. So too, for many of you. Or perhaps for you it is the workshop behind the house, the camera in your hand, the yarn in your fingers, the land you till, music after dark, the lyrics in your thoughts, spices simmering on the stove. Art offers us the way through, and I find myself at her doorstep these days, knocking lightly.
I have a friend who is a painter. Her easel stands in the corner of her kitchen. When the light hits a certain way, she stops and paints. These last few weeks she has been passing her easel, searching. Searching for the light. Finally, she began to paint anyway, remembering what she needed to see.
Go walk through the last days of fall, my friends. Stack the firewood you will need in December. Send coats and sweaters to charity. Unpack the old movies. Bake that pumpkin bread. Pen the poem that has echoed in your dreams and carve the totem from the wood. Now are the dark days. We feed ourselves with light, serendipitous and imagined. Let Art lead you, as 19th century poet Constantine Cavafy so beautifully expressed. Lean on Art. Mingle the days.
Gather in the light.
October 31, 2016
FLOWERS BEFORE DARK
Flowers of Gutenberg
Stillness of flowers. Colors
a slow intense fire, faces
cool to the touch, burning.
Massed flowers in dusk, crimson,
unflickering furnace, gaze
unswerving, innocent scarlet,
ardent white, afloat
on late light, serene passion
stiller than silence.
- Denise Levertov
Levertov's inexplicable phrase, "serene passion/ stiller than silence," holds my attention. Passion contained, passion within the boundaries of serenity? And how do we reach this point of perfect disequilibrium, or is it equilibrium, a point tipped between motion and emotion, tranquility and fierceness?
I believe I've felt something that speaks of it. You may have as well. A glancing, tingling, rooted awareness. That says, This. Here. Now.
Invisible ribbons, threads and slips of awareness stiller than silence.
The Real twists about us continuously - shimmering, shadowed, translucent, opaque. Mist grazing skin on a solitary run. Wind across crevassed black rock. Dozing, deep in the crook of a beloved's arm. Splintered sunlight across snow.
I admire Levertov's work for many reasons, but particularly for her balletic wordplay. Powerful en pointe verbal arabesques, light and free, pour through poems like "Flowers Before Dark." An exaltation of light. The unfettered sensuality of color. The exuberance of nature, unnamed. The length of view in the meaning of before dusk
The passion of what it is to be alive.
October 20, 2016
by Lucille Clifton
some say the radiance around the body
can be seen by eyes latticed against
all light but the particular. they say
you can notice something rise
from the houseboat of the body
wearing the body's face,
and that you can feel the presence
of a possible otherwhere.
not mystical, they say, but human.
human to lift away from the arms that
try to hold you (as you did then)
and, brilliance magnified,
circle beyond the ironwork
encasing your human heart.
I learned of your death this week. I was stunned. Bereft is too small a word to describe the pained sensation of the absence of your presence on this planet. Others have said your death was a perhaps a gift, a release from a more difficult illness. But I know it was, and always would be, too soon.
You have meant many things to many people, A. Theologist, professor, mentor, friend, father, lover, student of knowledge. You had many gifts, but I deeply admired the way you opened yourself to others and gave of your heart. You had an ability to forge human steel. To hammer together that blend of compassion and conviction that made the people around you stronger and good.
To me, you were my friend. It doesn't seem so long ago that we first met through my husband Ken. As the leader of a small group of entrepreneurs struggling to do better, be better, in the often souless corridors of Silicon Valley, you became both mentor and dear spiritual confidant to Ken. When Ken became ill, you left the boarding line of a flight to Paris - leaving with your lovely wife on a much deserved vacation - and instead flew north to sit and talk with Ken at his hospital bedside. Who does this? Many of us think we would for our closest friends. You actually did. You engaged with Ken in the deep questions, the unanswerable mysteries. You sat with him and wandered into the dazzling light that is not enough time and too much time all in the same moment.
You hugged me and let me scream at God, angry and desolate to my core. You were large enough of heart to carry all these things. And when the time came, without qualm you accepted Ken's request to co-lead his funeral, along with R, another member of your close friendship circle. And that was just what you did for us.
In the years after when I was alone and raising our children, you were always there. My quiet cheerleader. A note arrived each year, remembering Ken on the day he left this earth. Generous always, you stood up on my behalf as I sought to reconstruct a future. I treasure one particular memory: A visit here, with M at your side. We lunched, shared a good French wine. I felt nurtured in your company. There you both were, the embodiment of love and completeness in the presence of one another, and I warmed in your light.
I like to think of you on the bay. Taking a break in the late afternoon sun on your sailboat. I imagine you looking up at the sky. Surrendering all the world's heartbreaks along with your own to the quiet painted layers of blue on blue that deepen to night. You walked your faith on this earth, A. Stood for all that is beyond our understanding and yet particular to each of us. Even me, devastated and angry. You saying to me simply, God is big enough for your hurt.
God has surely welcomed back to his side one of the finest men I have ever known. Your gifts to others shine here on this earth. Your leaving us has stopped the clocks. I think of W.H. Auden's poem, Funeral Blues, and these lines, Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun/Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood
. To those of us fortunate enough to know you, A, you were everything that is good.
Love and friendship,
October 14, 2016
Sculpture Garden, gate detail, Bergen, Norway
by David Mason
The loneliest days,
damp and indistinct,
sea and land a haze.
And purple fog horns
blossomed over tides -
bruises being born
in silence, so slow,
so out there, around,
above and below.
In such hurts of sound
the known world became
neither flat nor round.
The steaming teapot
was all we fathomed
The hours were hallways
with doors at the ends
opened into days
fading into night
and the scattering
particles of light.
Nothing was done then.
Nothing was ever
done. Then it was done.
We are in the midst of a bitter and exhausting national election season. Who isn't exhausted by the level of negativity and conflict around us? Add on a recent minor surgery at the end of long months focused on the completion of a new novel, and I have had time to think at some depth on the meaning of body-mind synergy and the nature of depletion. What healing is, and is not.
I, like most of us, exist in my mind and forget I dwell in my body. And so it is often hard to appreciate the synergy of the two halves of personal wholeness. That is, until the body requires the full attention of the mind to navigate its needs. Only then do we understand the sustaining embrace of this partner in life, the body. Then does the mind release its instinctive drive, dwell in the present, and nourish the physical self.
This synergy is not always perfect. When our bodies are fit and whole, our thinking expands. When the mind undertakes a major accomplishment, when our labors see us through, the body resonates. At times however the body does not fully heal but holds the mind within its scars. When stasis hits the red zone, our power depleted, do we know what to do? Is healing made of states of compartmentalized well being, or is it holistic? Can we heal the self in one area and continue to struggle in another?
We generally do limp along in some degree of dependence on a spare tire. But what struck me deeply recently is that very little of this healing work is intentional and it should be. We instinctively seek well being, but only tend to physical health as needed. When the world around us becomes actively oppressive and depressive, as it has this presidential election year, do we step away and disengage as necessary? Do we choose peace of mind for the benefit of the entire self?
Body wellness is the foundation of so much else. A wounded body derails a sharp mind. I had no choice but to embrace healing. I rested from the manuscript. I turned off the news and stepped away from media broadcasts. I focused on body healing. And then I returned to work.
As the poet concludes, Nothing was ever done. And then it was done.
I finished my novel.