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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
December 16, 2014
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.
December 10, 2014
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.
December 2, 2014
WINTER WORDS, MANHATTAN
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.
November 25, 2014
Blue Lagoon, Iceland
by Victor Hugo
Voices. Light on my eyelid. In full cry,
Bell of St Peter’s. Bathers’ 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 harbour’s 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 redbreast’s come up close, to sing.
The roar of distant hammers at a forge.
Clacking of water. Steamship’s 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
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.
THE OPEN WINDOW
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
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:
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.
November 11, 2014
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?
November 4, 2014
Our aunt, hunched over her hands stiff
with arthritis, squints out the window as the car
moves east under the shadow of a cliff
above the Columbia. It is not far,
eighty-two years, from the sweat and stink
of the farm to the nursing home in Spokane.
The sun lights her white hair to the pink
of her scalp. She doesn't complain.
When she turns to whisper, we lean near.
Yes, scrub for miles, and blue sky forever.
We packed her clothes with care. She said
to leave the photos, the Danish flag. We think
to bring dark glasses for her to wear.
She nods, settles into the ride.
It is all uphill from here.
- Mary Ann Waters
The most engaging thing about reading the words of another happens in our willingness to receive and engage with the pictures painted in our minds. A good poet, playwright, fiction, or nonfiction writer knows language is, as Barry Hannah once said, " the thing the deepest mind adores." When you read Mary Ann Waters's poem, did you not feel that vague ache in your knuckles, the hot sun on your scalp? The aunt's lostness - gazing out at an endless empty sky? Words, the narratives of others. Words selected for their freight of emotion, and their edged, specific sense of story. These are the muscles that heft us into the poem, buckle us into what eighty-two and leaving one's familiar life behind feels like. Keen in the details - the photos, the Danish flag - we know there was a life, a different life, a unique life here. We feel the loss. How the gentle acceptance of dark glasses convey all that is surrendered in changing from a life once lived to the unknown of what lies ahead. In this poem we are giver and the receiver, the aunt and the narrator.
I am what is around me.
- Wallace Stevens
When we write, we shake our bones, hard. Most writers suffer their creativity, convinced that only the profound or the dazzling bon mot
is good enough. In the fight to be excellent, worthy, acknowledged by others, it is easy to forget Gloria Naylor's admonishment,"You're the first audience to your work, and the most important audience." Why is this important to remember? Because writing, like all creative work, and all good work period, must come from a place of authenticity. The human mind catches fire from the spark of truth in the lives of others. We take in what we recognize as deeply genuine. We are corroded by what is not. The soul's bedrock, as Polonius mused in Hamlet,
is built of character, "This above all, to thine own self be true."
Sharing one's truth is an act of witness. Granting permission. Accepting an invitation to paint the world, your way. It is also intensely difficult: the soul fragile, shy. We are afraid of judgment, our own and that of others. When first we speak of our dreams, it is to ourselves in whispers. It is in the act of writing ourselves into words that we begin to openly inhabit our world. Cynthia Ozick declared, "If we had to say what writing is, we would define it essentially as an act of courage." To successfully craft a life, one built on choice, whether embraced by design or stumbled upon by luck, opens the road to satisfaction. The act of defining for oneself
is an act of courage.
We are always "moving." Leaving things behind, Working new beginnings. We wrangle with chance and circumstance to hang on to the details, to sustain narration, to inhabit ourselves and live large. Shake your bones. Look deep. In the earth of us is our answer.
I don't know what the nature of the universe is, but I have a good ear.
- Mary Gordon
October 29, 2014
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 -
RUINS UNDER THE STARS
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.
October 22, 2014
SHE DWELT AMONG THE UNTRODDEN WAYS
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.
"Coffee and Keys"
October 15, 2014
Shadow, Licata, Siracusa
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.