Trust The Hours

October 29, 2014

Tags: art and creation, patterns, nature, loss, intention, the moderns

An extraordinary poet passed today, Galway Kinnell. This Irish-American poet's work was awarded both a Pulitzer (for "Selected Poems," 1983) and an American Book Award. An ardent individualist, Kinnell stood apart from his peers and the literary influences of the Twentieth century; his a unique voice amidst the prevailing trends. As a poet and a citizen, Galway Kinnell immersed himself in the gritty issues of his day and was a passionate advocate for freedom of expression. A poet of almost photographic sensitivity, his poetry pulses with an exuberant love of language, a lyrical style distinctly his own and possessing a rare gorgeous musicality. Listen as you read -

by Galway Kinnell
All day under acrobat
Swallows I have sat, beside ruins
Of a plank house sunk to its windows
In burdock and raspberry canes,
The roof dropped, the foundation broken in,
Nothing left perfect but the axe-marks on the beams.

A paper in a cupboard talks about “Mugwumps”,
In a V-letter a farmboy in the Marines has “tasted battle…”
The apples are pure acid on the tangle of boughs
The pasture has gone to popple and bush.
Here on this perch of ruins
I listen for the crunch of the porcupines.

Overhead the skull-hill rises
Crossed on top by the stunted apple.
Infinitely beyond it, older than love or guilt,
Lie the stars ready to jump and sprinkle out of space.

Every night under the millions of stars
An owl dies or a snake sloughs its skin,
But what if a man feels the dark
Homesickness for the inconceivable realm?

Sometimes I see them,
The south-going Canada geese,
At evening, coming down
In pink light, over the pond, in great,
Loose, always dissolving V’s-
I go out into the field,
Amazed and moved, and listen
To the cold, lonely yelping
Of those tranced bodies in the sky,
Until I feel on the point
Of breaking to a sacred, bloodier speech.

This morning I watched
Milton Norway’s sky blue Ford
Dragging its ass down the dirt road
On the other side of the valley.

Later, off in the woods, I heard
A chainsaw agonizing across the top of some stump
A while ago the tracks of a little, snowy,
SAC bomber went crawling across heaven.

What of that little hairstreak
That was flopping and batting about
Deep in the goldenrod,
Did she not know, either, where she was going?

Just now I had a funny sensation
As if some angel, or winged star,
Had been perched nearby watching, maybe speaking,
I whirled, and in the chokecherry bush
There was a twig just ceasing to tremble.

Now the bats come spelling the swallows,
In the smoking heap of old antiques
The porcupine-crackle starts up again,
The bone-saw, the pure music of our sphere,
And up there the old stars rustling and whispering.

Did you hear those leaping phrases and alliteration? Sink into the imagery of "great/Loose, always dissolving V’s"? The thread that connects is the slender steel power of Kinnell 's mastery over the expressive word. The imperceptible balance of image with emotion. Never too much, always exactly enough. Poet, translator, essayist, teacher. Galway Kinnell wrote about life, and death, and the fragility of beauty. His obituary in the New York Times (October 29, 2014) concluded, "Through it all, he held that it was the job of poets to bear witness," ending on the words of the poet - ''To me,' he said, 'poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.'"

I invite you to explore his work if you are not already familiar with Galway Kinnell.
To close, from “Trust the Hours” (Wait) -
Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?

Galway Kinnell was 87.

Untrodden Ways

October 22, 2014

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

by William Wordsworth

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove.
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love;

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
~ Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and oh,
The difference to me!

Nature's transcendence over human life was a powerful theme for William Wordsworth, an English poet whose life straddled the turn of the eighteenth to the nineteenth century; a fluid time of traditions in neoclassicism and romanticism and growth in rational thinking and science. This beautiful, emotionally-compressed elegy, a poem written in 1800, is one of Wordsworth's famous "Lucy" poems.

Wordsworth muses at greater length on transcendence in "Three Years She Grew." In this poem celebrating the entwined relationship of life and nature, surrendering to the fragility of human life in an otherwise omnipotent universe, the poet's reconciliation takes predominance over grief. The poet accepts the sovereignty of Nature, a pastoral realism captured in this opening line, "Three years she grew in sun and shower." In a following stanza in "Three Years She Grew," Wordsworth yields to Nature's claim on Lucy -
"The stars of midnight shall be dear
To her; and she shall lean her ear
In many a secret place

The poet then concludes the poem with, "The memory of what has been,/And nevermore will be." Returning to the personal, and acknowledging the final passing of a beloved physical presence into memory.

Return for a moment to the opening poem: What I appreciate about "Untrodden Ways" is the simplicity of language and emotion Wordsworth used to capture a universal truth - that loss takes place in a context of invisibility to the world at large. We are pained by our personal sorrow amidst the mute indifference of others. "The difference to me!" - Wordsworth's ending line - makes a powerful and poignant statement. Love is always personal, and yet in most ways, invisible to others. If you have loved and lost someone very close, you know the edged emotion expressed by Wordsworth in, "few could know/ When Lucy ceased to be." The truth that although any of us may "dwell among the untrodden ways," we shine "fair as a star" to those that love us.

Yesterday a short story I wrote inspired from a single line in an obituary I read a few years back was published online in an international journal, The Stockholm Review of Literature (www.thestockholmreview.org). The theme of this story keeps company with Wordsworth's Lucy poems - observing the ways we accept and inhabit our vulnerability loving others. An online link to "Sunday Dinner" is copied below, as well as to a poem "Coffee and Keys" featured in the same issue. You may copy and paste these links into your browser to read, or click directly to the story and poem from my home page where I include live links under New and Notable.

I hope you enjoy this recent work.
"Sunday Dinner"

"Coffee and Keys"

Sing Your World Into Being

October 15, 2014

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

Shadow, Licata, Siracusa
Think about place - the places you know, long for, disdain, the places that frame your life and make you what you are... What's real to you? Where would you rather be right now? Where would you most like to never set foot again? (Ironically, those places have a tendency to stick in your mind like flies on flypaper.)

Melville's geography was ships and the sea; Alice Adam's, her beloved San Francisco and her remembered American South...if it's yours, it's
yours. You can't really fake it. You can travel places to widen your horizons literally, as Jospeh Conrad went to Africa and Christopher Isherwood went to Berlin, or you can stick with what you've grown up with. Think of Larry McMurtry's Texas (he changed his hometown's name, Archer City, to Thalia, but he had to keep the real name of that mean little line of mountains outside of town, Misery Ridge). Waking outside Archer City in the soft buzzing underbrush, you can almost see where Gus and Lorena pitched their tent, taking those cattle from Lonesome Dove all the way to Montana.

Your world is as important to you as Conrad's and McMurtry's were to them; it had better be because it's the one you're living in. As Australian Aboriginals might say, if you don't "sing your world into being," no one else will.
- from 'Making a Literary Life," by Carolyn See

The idea of geography as theme is very dear to me. I wrote an entire memoir with geography, my childhood geography, as the frame for translating my early adult choices and midlife hungers. It seems we are always running from or to something. It's worth knowing what, even if the end game is not to write about it but simply to understand.

In my life, growing up in a family constantly on the move had a very big impact. I became both acutely aware of place and part of none. "Place" had exceptional importance to me, possessing almost a Holy Grail element of elusiveness and rescue. If I only knew where I belonged, life would fall perfectly into place and the outsider's restlessness leave me. As you might have guessed, restlessness is my place. I am the outsider. I was born into it, lived it as a child and a young adult, inhabit it still. Addressing what Carolyn See identifies as the personal "real" in her excellent book, "Making a Literary Life," emboldened me to articulate and finally make the truth of my life work for me: what's yours, is yours. Own it, work it, create from it.

Time, place, and geography in all forms of art can be real or imaginary. One can expand time forward or backward, place into the ideal the truth or the imagined confronted with reality. We can speak of geography from the muted hues and pastoral wildlife of grasslands and lakes or the fierce inner landscapes of emotion and pain. What is important, I feel, is to know our place on the map. To be sure of our footing first, and then brave enough, if we can, to step off the path. To look far into the valley or around those trees obscuring the corner.

Once you own your territory, surprise us with what you know and what you imagine - but begin from a place we trust. A truth we believe because it is a place you are sure of. Your reality. As See goes on to say, "No one else has your information - that's the great part. Your geography cradles your work, rocks it, beings it alive, makes it real."

As we construct our fictions and poems, line out our plays and essays, geography stands as important as point of view. The literary debate about plot, or character, and which comes first, which does the heavy lifting of our narrative, begs half the question. Where does the drama take place? I have found in both my own work and work I love that the unique framing of time, place, and geography offers the authentic twist that brings plot and character alive. Where would "The Princess Bride" be without the journey across the rocky moors, or "Heart of Darkness" without it's untamed merciless river? Unless grounded however indirectly in the personal, in authentic truth, what will your work offer?

Carolyn See reminds us, "sing your world into being." And if not you, then who? Spend time getting to know your history. Your narrative begins with you.


October 8, 2014

Tags: art and creation, solitude, patterns, intention

Sled Carving, Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, Norway

I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm.
- Saul Bellow

To honor our dreams and to honor our loved ones and to honor our rituals and our lives is precisely what literature is endlessly trying to teach us.
- Allan Gurganus

Permission to express our inner drive and creative vision is perhaps that one thing that most mysteriously holds the scientist, writer or artist back. Permission to begin, to commit, comes from within. Articulating a decision to take action - to do something - creates accountability. This can be intimidating. We are deeply afraid of failing ourselves. And secondarily, failing those that depend upon or observe our ambitions. William Styron stated the whole concept of his novel Sophie's Choice was the result of a dream, a kind of waking vision. What if he had never written the vision into words? Dreams we merely toy with fragment and fade, whereas dreams hammered into projects are testament to attention and hard work. Allowing commitment - permission - is what separates the two, and sometimes permission represents the hardest part of the idea-product equation.

The writing process itself is part inspiration, part mental compost. Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote that it is written in the kabbalah that when words in a dream are loud and distinct and seem to come from no particular source, these words are from God. I personally don't know if the source of such inspiration is a higher being or an awakened inner wisdom, but I do practice receptiveness. Nicholas Delbanco describes it well when he writes, "The writer gleans wind scraps; he listens wherever he can. Each day is full of instances; what counts, as with all stimuli, is the sympathetic response." In other words, allowing the idea or insight to seed, and actively encouraging its growth.

What follows is not a volley of thunder from the heavens or celestial illumination. Work unfolds. Within work burns creativity - whether in the routine of the farm, at a desk in an office, or in the cockpit of a plane. Here is how Eudora Welty described her writing work day: After she got up, had her coffee and "an ordinary breakfast," she went to work until at the end of the day, around five or six o'clock, she'd stop, have a bourbon and water and watch the evening news. Put in the hours, write the words, build the book.

Why is work that honors the creative important? Why bother at all? Because to honor our creative impulses is to honor the impetus of the soul to do more and be more. The human psyche craves expansion, greater personal growth, discovery. Refusing to honor the push forward sinks us where we stand. We are done with life when we cease to engage with our dreams.

In closing, consider this beautiful set of opening lines from W.S. Merwin's poem, "Losing a Language" -
A breath leaves the sentences and does not come back
yet the old still remember something that they could say

Links Between Lives

October 1, 2014

Tags: the moderns, art and creation, intention, solitude

Let me begin by sharing this private letter from 1955, from one writer to another. The book of short stories above and this letter connect for me: taken together, they define something of interest between a writer's courage to do the work and what validation is worth.

[December 1955]
Bellapaix, Cyprus

Dear Henry -
A brief line to thank you for the two great parcels of books which arrived, followed rapidly by two more. It was wonderfully generous of you, and its good to have something to read in this fragmented life. I'm pushing my book about Alexandria along literally sentence by sentence. I'm dog-tired by the time I get home in the evening, but every waking moment is possessed by it so that by the weekend when I type out my scribbles I usually have about 1500 words. I feel like one of those machines for distilled water - it is coming drop by drop, running contrary to physical fatigue etc. This is really writing one's way upstream with a vengeance! Never mind - i remember your struggles and blush to think of my own.

I'm writing this at 4:50a.m. A faint lilac dawn breaking accompanied by bright moonlight - weird. Nightingales singing intoxicated by the first rains. Everything damp. In a little while I take the car and sneak down the dark road towards a dawn coming up from Asia Minor like
Paradise Lost.


- from "A Private Correspondence: Lawrence Durrell & Henry Miller," edited by George Wickes

In 1935 a young Brit, Lawrence Durrell, wrote a letter to the then 43 year old American writer Henry Miller, living in Paris, in praise of his new novel, Tropic of Cancer: "I have never read anything like it. I did not imagine anything like it could be written; and yet, curiously, reading it I seemed to recognize it as something which i knew we were all ready for." What followed was an animated friendship devoted to an exchange of ideas, reactions to art and writing and the damnation of censorship. In 1937 the two met in Paris, and a life-long personal friendship was forged. Miller was often the encouraging mentor Durrell needed; "Now don't my dear good Durrell, ask me to weep with you because you are alone. That's in your favor. You can't be alone and be with the herd too. You can't write good and bad books...The toll is disintegration."

We all need our own. Those people who have our backs, support our work, encourage. Good folk that open doors and pick up pieces. Scientists to farmers, astronauts to teachers, we push and define our work from within. Artists, perhaps more than others, depend on a tight, small community of like-minded others for more than just company: beyond pounding back a beer at the end of the successful mounting of a new play or coffee at the corner after a bank account, a book, and a relationship have gone up in flames. The peaks and valleys of the creative struggle are real. Life in the unpredictable, rarely financially stable "arts" takes guts. But generous people hold us together.

It is ordinary kindnesses - the generous word, a positive outlook, sometimes even that unasked-for-validation from a competitor in our field - that floats the solitary human boat. Henry Miller was right: it is challenging to "be alone and be with the herd too." In today's digitally-connected world in which we can form community across the globe, at the end of the day many work alone. I am most familiar with books and writing, so I think of the writer at her desk. The manuscript written word by word, in solitude. Self-employed and self-motivated, the artist, without market or capital, struggles "one's way upstream." The painter at the easel, a dancer at the barre, a sculptor welding in the barn, a violist running scales - whoever we may be and whatever our artistic or life pursuit, we work in a piercing dissonance of determination mixed with doubt.

On Monday in New York City, a local Spokane journalist at our regional newspaper, The Spokesman Review, won a prestigious national literary award for his debut short story collection: Shawn Vestal's Godforsaken Idaho is the 2014 winner of the PEN Bingham Award. I know Shawn and am a huge fan of his short story collection. I couldn't be more happy and proud for him. He's a humble guy, a hardworking journalist, a devoted father. (We last said hello at Aunties Bookstore, where he attended a Harry Potter Birthday Book Party with his son.) Recognition from peers and leaders in the publishing industry is priceless, but at the end of the day, a box-full of solitary hours went into producing that genius work - as in any difficult creative challenge for that matter, building design to lab science.

All of us depend on one another for validation at some point - whether the fan letter Durrell sent Miller amidst the critical uproar following the publication of Tropic of Cancer, or the box of books Miller mailed to Durrell to sustain him in his isolation on Cyprus. Why not send some validation out today. Just my nudge, but why not go to a bookstore or click on the book image above and order Vestal's Godforsaken Idaho. Any book you feel strongly connected to deserves your voice of support. Claim what is worthy in the world.

Poetic Drama

September 25, 2014

Tags: art and creation, intention, presence, loss, love, the moderns

It is a function of all art to give us some perception of an order in life, by imposing an order upon it. The painter works by selection, combination, and emphasis among the elements of the visible world; the musicians, in the world of sound. It seems to me that beyond the nameable, classifiable emotions and motives of our conscious life when directed toward action - the part of life which prose drama is wholly adequate to express - there is a fringe of indefinite extent, of feeling which we can only detect, so to speak, out of the corner of the eye and can never completely focus; of feeling of which we are only aware in a kind of temporary detachment from action. There are great prose dramatists - such as Ibsen and Chekhov - who have at times done things of which I would not otherwise have supposed prose to be capable, but who seem to me, despite their success, to have been hampered in expression by writing in prose. This peculiar range of sensibility can be expressed by dramatic poetry, at its moments of greatest intensity. At such moments, we touch the border of those feelings which only music can express. We can never emulate music, because to arrive at the condition of music would be an annihilation of dramatic poetry. Nevertheless, I have before my eyes a kind of mirage of the perfection of verse drama, which would be a design of human action and of words, such as to present at once the two aspects of dramatic and musical order. It seems to me that Shakespeare achieved this at least in certain scenes - even rather early, for there is the balcony scene of "Romeo and Juliet"- and that this was what he was striving toward in his late plays. To go as far in this direction as it is possible to go, without losing contact with the ordinary everyday world with which drama must come to terms, seems to me the proper aim of dramatic poetry. For it is ultimately the function of art, in imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality, and thereby eliciting some perception of an order in reality, to bring to us a condition of serenity, stillness, and reconciliation; and then leave us, as Virgil left Dante, to proceed toward a region where that guide can avail us no further.
~ T. S. Eliot, POETRY AND DRAMA, The First Theodore Spencer Memorial Lecture, 1950

Here is the challenge with which drama must come to terms: To go as far as it is possible to go without losing contact with the ordinary everyday world. The meat of all art lies in that single sentence. Eliot defines a powerful philosophy of creative endeavor - "For it is ultimately the function of art, imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality, and thereby eliciting some perception of an order in reality, to bring us to a condition of serenity..." And? And? Leave us. On the edge of an unfathomable abyss of the undefined; intuiting an understanding for which words fall short.

I am musing today on favorite works of art and music. Books I have read for which this alchemy of order-imposed-upon-mystery rings true. You must have them as well. This morning I am listening to a recording of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Is this the voice of poetry? Hear the secrets. The weighted crack of heartbreak - the single clear notes quivering in the air. I am lost in the farewell aria Addio Fiorito Asil. She is singing, "The boy's name is Trouble, but he will be renamed Joy upon his father's return..." And then I glance at my bookshelf and think of the description of winemaking in Anne Carson's prose poem, The Beauty of the Husband, that lays forth all of what she will say about love in one devastating sentence - "An ideal wine grape/is one that is easily crushed." Or of late, closing the book on Anthony Doerr's exquisite All the Light We Cannot See, "Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world."

The perception of an order in life: words and images, a nuance. A tangible thing composed, danced, hammered, sketched, or sung from the everyday ordinary. The world arranged for us in transcendent verse. Awareness gathered in a glance, from a tear drop, plucked from a tide pool abandoned by the sea. The hint of possibility.

If you can, take a moment. Study the way light falls across the stubbled field. Hear the wind worrying in the birch leaves. Speak aloud the words of a love letter. Follow a painting in, in through the artist's eyes. All that life is, actually is, lies at the edge of comprehension. There but not there: the lingering strands of a dream. Find your way. Seek the brave unknowing. As Virgil left Dante.

Fast and Slow

September 18, 2014

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

North Sea at Sunset

There are times to work rapidly and times to go slowly. In the beginning one sets a fast pace, blocking it in, pushing the paint or clay around - large forms, areas of color. Later on in the work, one makes subtle refinement - details, smaller forms - the pace slows down and a meditative state takes over.

When all parts of the work start coming together, a renewed excitement is generated and builds until the harmony and balance of what you have been trying to accomplish work. You feel like a conductor bringing the full sound of an orchestra to its grand finale. You have reached the peak experience toward which all artists work. It is at these times you can see me back dancing, clogging, discoing, and Indian tribal dancing around my studio.

- "Art & Soul: Notes on Creating," Audrey Flack

I woke up with Scotland on my mind. The English and Scottish threads of my family heritage have always been happiest entwined, and so I personally hope these two countries stay united. But change is always difficult, and its value impossible to discern from that hundred foot balcony safe above the tumultuous zone. "Both feet in," my Dad used to say, right before he tossed us in the water to practice our swimming. He had something there. Nothing is worth a bean, half-assed. Right or wrong, what we commit to should at the very least have our whole-hearted engagement. Arm-chair quarterbacking the play can be saved for later. For now, are we in or not? Is what we are doing THIS VERY MOMENT receiving our full attention and effort?

This question relates to what Audrey Flack has to say about creating, in that life change - personal change - is akin to creative work of any kind: it comes fast and slow. There may initially be a pile on of ideas, a surge of wants and dissatisfactions, an itch to move on. We study the ground, and then build new framing. Slow, we layer thoughts in; translate our ideas into elements. Energy compounds. Integration. The momentum in our undertaking physically redefines the shape of our lives. Shift happens.

I am contemplating a large change in my own life: committing to an undertaking I am unable to really evaluate properly beforehand. I only sense this new direction needs to be explored; and even so, I may not accomplish what I set out to do. How does that make me feel? Wracked by doubt. Nervous as hell.

In the midlife years the rush of all that is passing - the essential zeroing out that is expiring time - reaches the level of continuous white background noise. In this noise floats a quiet question: Is this moment, this action, this decision, the right choice among all the possibilities for this one life I have to lead? When we are young we are growing, our real challenges yet to unfold. In the middle years - in the prime of adult capability and prowess and courage - what we let go, choose not to do, has as significant a weight in our happiness and fulfillment as what we do choose. We feel the truth: Now is when the most can and may be accomplished; and when a thing is let go, it will not circle by again. Poised on the edge of the diving board we curl and bend deep and then push off, rocket high into the air to execute - what? Choose, choose.

I've had some laughs at myself lately, making my way with all the sideways, suspicious scoot of a tidal crab into this sea of change. We forget that until our last breath, life is an adventure. Somewhere along the way we wobble into our ruts, dig ourselves in deeper, and eventually roll to a stop. Yet to begin is as simple as possessing the courage to want to. Whether we are speaking of Scotland and what may be an uncertain future, my writer's life the next few years, or any one of us, tomorrow, placing our hand on the doorknob of any door we both dread and need to open - be brave. Begin. Be slow. Let the harmony and balance of what you are endeavoring to create come gently, intentionally together. Let it be crazy. Open to the dance.

When you're in the studio painting, there are a lot of people in there with you. Your teachers, friends, painters from history, critics...and one by one, if you're really painting, they walk out. And if you're really painting, you walk out."
- Philip Guston

Autumn Strikes A Bell

September 10, 2014

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

[The Book of Hours, Book I, Poem I, Stanza I]
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 was it I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew:
I can.

Time to revisit this beautiful poem by Denise Levertov. Autumn is my favorite season: afternoons of long golden light, the warmth of the earth slow to rise, seeking to linger. The sun bright and scraped of heat, days clear and crisp at the edges. September skies can be so hard a blue your gaze deflects, skitters away. White nimbus clouds pile into low banks of gray on their stately southern march.

This is a time of preparation, renewal, focus. The field mouse scurries to gather seeds, the squirrels are stuffing nuts in holes all about the yard. Overhead the geese are on wing and the small singing birds dart about building fat reserves, their songs set aside. Nature offers its harvest bounty and the creatures of the earth gather it in. Do we not also feel this gathering of energies, the tingle of change in our bones?

Levertov's poem so clearly speaks of wholeness, aliveness, presence. Easing from the months of warm summer into bleak winter signals something to our souls. We know this as the Monarch butterflies know now is the time to begin their journey to Mexico. We stretch. We shake off summer somnolence and look to the future. The new school year turns childhood forward a year, our days of rest and play behind us. We gather and tend and set aside. What is there yet to do? What is there that must be done? Autumn signals an accounting and an assessment, a refresh of goals and plans for our tomorrows yet to come.

Autumn strikes a bell that all may hear. If we listen, we hear the reverberations within ourselves. Gather the ripe September apples and take a bite of the tart goodness. What does the sound of your whole self ringing sing to you?

Summer's End

September 2, 2014

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

Moonlight, Priest Lake, Idaho

by Mary Oliver

I went out of the schoolhouse fast
and through the gardens and to the weeds,
and spent all summer forgetting what I'd been taught -

two times two, and diligence, and so forth,
how to be modest and useful, and how to succeed and so forth,
machines and oil and plastic and money and so forth.

By fall I had healed somewhat, but was summoned back
to the chalky rooms and the desks, to sit and remember

the way the river kept rolling its pebbles,
the way the wild wrens sang though they hadn't a penny in the
the way the flowers were dressed in nothing but light.

So here I am. Down from the mountains, down from the blue lake, seated once again at my desk in my study of wood and dog-eared books, baskets and pottery and black and white photographs of wild and beautiful places. I am of the two places; and of two minds about where I belong. Needless to say the contrast between each place enhances the beauties of the other. They beckon when missed.

I learned much on my digital-free retreat. A cup of tea on the deck first thing in the morning as a gold sunrise steams mist off the lake is about as close to heaven as this girl can get. Or perhaps that last tumbler of scotch, underneath the maypole dance of twilight bats as stars debut in the indigo night. And how well one sleeps after fourteen days straight of mountain hikes and simple meals! How perfect to wile away an afternoon on the edge of the dock, legs dangling in cool water as the sun heats your back, a book open on your lap, gazing on distant islands.

I learned that disconnecting from all things digital is as jittery a process as breaking away from caffeine. Online business, friendships, news, happenings...these are real and important, and yet not and not at all. I was hungry to know, and out of the loop, feelings that sit like an itch in the brain. In my two weeks offline, the world spun neither better nor worse for my absence.The cohorts of the Today Show and CNN held up daytime civilization as always, as Atlas must have done, unthanked and unseen. Publishing seemed to bring out more good books and still bemoan the end of print. Celebrities had pictures become public that maybe shouldn't have been pictures to begin with and the rage goes on about "the cloud" and secrets and idiocy and ignorance and meanness. Democracy got beat up pretty bad in my absence however, especially the right to a free and open press. Weeds took over my back yard, but then that was always their master plan. It took two books (Provence 1970 by Luke Barr, and the incandescent All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr) and the poetry of Campbell McGrath to free myself from tech anxiety. This real-time feed we imbibe daily, all urgency and immediacy and shock packaged as "Breaking News,""Breaking Update." An endless media headline crawl of tragedy and scandal.

I learned that intending to be digital-free and being given NO CHOICE about it is a quite different power struggle for the ego. Near the Canadian border it was quite a hike out to find a bar of cell reception: wifi the random echo of a fishing lodge. Initially my frustration yielded to hard surrender, which finally softened to acceptance. A funny thing began to occur - conversation. In pleasant pockets around comfortable silences. Balance in the mind's inner ear. Conversation with strangers opened up as real news, big news, found its way into boat-side conversations and shared newspapers, headlines two days old. The world could be perceived with sense and clarity. Not only was unimportant hype and hyperbole scrubbed out of the day, but real nuggets of importance stood out and meant something. Information that could be taken in and thought about, perhaps resolved - truly absorbed.

I'm no idealist. We live in a wired world and that's a one-way avenue in our technological evolution. There is no "back to Eden" pulpit beside the backpack I left hanging in the garage. But I do feel stepping back gives needed perspective, and for me, that was useful. I could see at a glance after two weeks disconnected the ways in which I waste my time with social media and google tourism and Twitter chat. But I also sifted the real and important relationships from the chat, value the abundance of knowledge at my fingertips, have proof the paper book is not dead (and vastly more lake friendly than its electronic doppleganger), and yes, "Dots" on the iPad is no better or worse than a bus station hand of solitaire. We choose our ways to work, our ways to play, our connections, our solitude. What two weeks in the mountains taught me was the difference between habit and choice. And that, is a good thing.

Wednesday Morning, Mid August

August 13, 2014

Tags: nature, art and creation, solitude, loss, finding joy, family

First Star - Priest Lake
Good morning, friends.

I'm heading up to the lake on Saturday for two weeks. I cannot begin to tell you how much I need this break from the world. A chance to regroup, rethink, recharge, reassess, recommit. I have promised myself to limit connections by internet: to take each day and absorb it as an experience, not some work data subset. Promised myself not to think about what to do with what comes my way, or how to share it, or why it should matter to anyone but me. I've come off a year of serious work and inner goal-setting and it's time to revisit those points. Do they still matter? Did I complete the work?

I find, looking back on old journals, that I knew myself better back then, back before the era of insta-share. I really understood the days, years, and moments were mine - my life, mine to learn from. Now there is this contemporary tendency to let experience - our personal contact with living - slide right through us into the greater pool of human busyness. What makes for great reading for others (these bits we share are, after all, stories), is in truth the giving of ourselves away without letting anything stick.

I plan to let things stick the next two weeks. To read the books I have stacked and set aside for a windfall of time. To read the poetry that I love that needs to sit awhile to seep into my soul. I will hike the forests and forage for huckleberries and sleep in the sun on an old wood dock rolling gently on the wake of passing boaters. I will use these days to talk to the ones I love without agenda, in an abundance of time. In the cool mornings take my coffee down to the shore and sit, silent as loons rise and wing across the water. Watch bats at twilight skim over the lake as the first star rises over the rose and lavender Selkirk Mountains. Beach fire nights with a mellow single malt, cosy in an old school sweatshirt, open to the thoughts that rise from within as sparks rise towards the sky and then leave us, or perhaps sink deeper into the fabric of who we are.

Of late the world has reminded me of the fragility of human resilience and the momentum of the tragic. Misfortune and hatred mow down the innocent as well as the brave. I wish for all of you a break from the world. However and wherever you may find it. Yes, the world will need us back, to proffer our small lights and carry on. But for now, seek peace. See you back here soon.

In closing, a post written last year at the lake -
August 26, 2013

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"

The opening of the chest, the heart chakra - deep breathing and calm rhythms - profoundly affects the mind as well as the body. When we step out of the box, the stress-filled, demanding, unrelenting responsibilities of the 24/7, the break from routine can begin the restoration of the soul. An observer of fifty decades of living, I know the wide empty stretches on life's blue highways are far and few between in this unsettled 21st century. It's no news we live in a plugged-in, high demand, ever-changing, constantly stimulating world. Irregular dry spells, down time, wayside adventures, lags in scheduling - all have disappeared. We are "on" and plugged-in every moment of the day: pinged by messages, expanding lists of to-dos, global information, and social media even when we sleep.

Peace, walking in the silence of tall cedars. Peace, lulled to sleep by waves that lap slowly against the shore. Listen to the creak of wind in the trees. Bird call in the quiet dawn.

Thoreau was a relentless champion of "disconnect and rediscover" for the health of the human soul, and frankly, so am I. I found it interesting to observe my family traveling to our rustic cabin on the lake shore with all four smart phones, two laptops, three iPads, two iPods and one Shuffle. The first day making the long trek down the trail to the nearest wifi center for internet signal, until eventually, mournfully, the acceptance there would never be more than one half-bar of cell service off the lake. At last letting the devices sit in their cases, untouched.

Withdrawal from the digital world is both painful and amusing - catching ourselves automatically engaged in that pointless click to check email, Twitter, FB. The urge to connect releasing, slowly releasing its grip, replaced by long naps, the dulcet jazz of acoustic guitar on the porch, long conversations by wine and candlelight at the picnic table. Time to delve into not just a chapter, but an entire book; board games and cards accompanied by a crackling fire.

We learned the nurturing quality of quiet. The sweet richness of intimate conversation. Walking the mountains. Taking in the whole of life.

We disappear to the cabin every year, coming from wherever we are in the four corners of the world, from whatever education, work, or travel schedules occupy us, ready to find our way back to ourselves. To recharge in the power of tranquility, the open spaces of daydreams, sunny contentment, the deep night and undisturbed sleep. We reconnect not just within, but together. And when the last spider is slapped with a sandal and tossed out the door, when the last delicious huckleberry has made its way to a pancake drizzled in maple syrup, the last pot of camp coffee poured to the dregs - well, then we pack up our beach chairs and book bags and return to the world.

Halfway down the road to civilization the electronics buried in our duffles simultaneously ping, buzzing, downloading in a hive of fury and we have to laugh. The world. It doesn't wait, and it doesn't matter.