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The shoes that climbed Gonergrat, Switzerland

QUINTESSENCE

Claim Your Voice

February 15, 2017

Tags: art and creation, intention, presence, finding joy, the moderns

Forsyth, Limb's Shadow

We have trouble connecting with our own confident writing voice that is inside all of us, and even when we do connect and write well, we don't claim it. I am not saying that everyone is Shakespeare, but I am saying that everyone has a genuine voice that can express his or her life with honest dignity and detail. There seems to be a gap between the greatness we are capable of and the way we see ourselves and, therefore, see our work.
~ from "Writing Down the Bones," Natalie Goldberg

This observation, by beloved creative writing guru Natalie Goldberg, can apply to almost any form of endeavor. Art is work, work is art. Our personal capabilities are often hobbled by our fears of inadequacy. We must first believe we can. An act of faith even harder in the wake of actual failure. Goldberg's observation identifies two stumbling blocks. When we do connect and do something well, we don't claim it. And second, mind the gap. That span between capability and confidence.

We know well the two-edged sword that divides confidence from critical consensus. How can we be aware and supportive of our developing inner voice when the room may be shouting in unison to do better, differently, or altogether stop? We need to be able to tune in and tune out, as well as listen in when the world really has something to say. How do we know when it's the right time to listen? It's instinctive I think. That inner sense that says, "Hey, wait. That made sense." Our genuine selves are stellar expressions of being. Doing our best work may mean staying out of the traffic intersection of public comment as long as possible. As Goldberg advises, find and own the voice that is yours alone. Then be confident of a place in the room.

I generally urge new writers in my workshops to go slow moving from a "work in progress" to feeling a work is ready for critique. I think supportive and positive critique groups are useful in any form of project development, including writing, but they can also strangle innovation, strip the twinkle right out of pizazz. Not everyone should or will choose to be public with creative work but the first step remains the same. Be genuine. Silence the inner (or outer) critic, and create.

We all have something worthy to say about the world.

A Floating Transparency

January 31, 2017

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

Runner in the clouds. The Jungfrau, The Bernese Alps, Switzerland
At work on the novel in progress at my desk, editing and rewriting from revision notes, I chanced to revisit a post written near the beginning of an earlier project. At that time I faced the challenges of the blank page. Much of that novel was worked out on the trails that cut across the bluff near my house. Three years and a novel later, after laying down several drafts and as many complete revisions on this new writing project, I have the added benefit of two draft reviews from outside readers, each read from different but complementary perspectives.

There are manuscript questions for the writer anchored to grammar, plot, and character distinctions, and there are matters of intent, the art of language, and theme. I deeply appreciate both perspectives. I gleaned the most however from an insightful read by a national book critic. This kind of wholistic review, from a professional who reads widely and with an eye to what makes a book work, proved invaluable in understanding the big picture narrative. And yet, and yet. The final answers are found on the bluff.

Some thoughts from January 2014~

Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would not otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man would have dreamed would come his way. I have learned a deep a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets: 'Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it. Begin now."

- W. H. Murray, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition

This essay by Scottish mountaineer W. H. Murray, collected by Steven Pressfield in a little gem of a creative kick-starter titled, "The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles," explores the mystery of the power of commitment. When we choose, we accomplish. When we commit, we begin. We undertake the necessary steps to move forward from intention to deed.

Many poets and writers -- Wordsworth, Whitman, Yeats, and of course Thoreau, Emerson, and Oliver -- understood physical movement as preparation for deep thinking. A preamble to engagement. Walking through hoar-frosted grasses beneath an oyster-colored sky of low cloud this morning, I caught myself problem solving, working a tenacious creative dilemma, unaware my conscious mind had defaulted to autopilot. A floating transparency linked my body and winter and movement through space. Far down the trail I had my problem solved simultaneous with an awareness of a nearby crow, the knowledge hawks actively hunt crows, and appreciation for a grand pine frosted in white, its clustered needles encased in frozen fog.

In running, a calm inner balance rises from the primary focus on breathing and stride. Like meditation, this single and simple focus, running, restructures the overburdened, fragmented mind. As concentration relaxes into a rhythmic groove, we release actively piloting the run. Mental chatter falls to the wayside, big ideas step forward, stress seeps away. On a vigorous extended walk, the rhythmic physical groove finds us sooner, with less effort. The mind leans back, trusting in the body's instinctual balance, and begins to surf the mental intranet. In this state the mind observes, pages through phrases and ideas, and effortlessly connects the random and mysterious. For me, running is a form of mental strength training while a walk is a free-climb.

How does this insight impact productivity habits? I begin with this straightforward question: What is needed? A break or a reboot, inspiration or new thinking? Beginning a work project has multiple entry points, with differing yields. Am I facing distraction? Do I need to open my thinking and push through a creative block? Pace my focus through a long haul effort?

I believe there are patterns within all of us that enhance thought and breath, movement and idea. What works for you?

Old Regret and Lavish Ease

January 13, 2017

Tags: art and creation, loss, intention, finding joy

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.


Years That Answer

January 4, 2017

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

The Matterhorn, summit elevation 14,692 ft. Zermatt, Switzerland.

There are years that ask questions and years that answer.
- Zora Neale Hurston

Welcome 2017.

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.




As It Should Be

December 21, 2016

Tags: nature, solitude, presence, family, love, finding joy, intention

My two beloveds, Kate and David, 2008

SOLSTICE MOON
- by G. Scotford Miller

Outside the window
the full moon
shines though the clouds
and yet
always waxing or waning,
is never truly full
but for a fleeting moment.

And yet
the perfect companion
is always present.
Above
or
below the horizon,
always as it should be, present
or waiting.

Concealed or revealed,
perfection
the constant companion,
more common than many
appreciate.

I know.


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.

When It's Very Cold

December 14, 2016

Tags: nature, presence, love, family, solitude, finding joy

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 --
PJs
Hot Drinks
Fireplace
Hoar Frost
Creaking wood
Crisp air
Mittens
Furry pets
Animal tracks in snow
Soup
Books

A friend chimed in with
Knitting projects
Perry Mason reruns on the television

Another added --
Old radio
Working in the shed
Strumming my guitar
Roasting something in the oven

And more --
Ice Skating
Reeds on the banks of frozen ponds
Quilts
Cozy sweaters
Thick socks
Icicles
The call of geese
Sledding
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.



Becomes You

December 2, 2016

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


THE NAPE
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.

Some Things

November 17, 2016

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


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.

Simple Truth
November 25, 2012

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


- from "The Simple Truth," Philip Levine

The beauty of love is that it is capable of great patience, 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.

Lean on Art

November 10, 2016

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

Blue Lagoon, Capri

I'VE BROUGHT TO ART
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.

Stiller than Silence

October 31, 2016

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

Flowers of Gutenberg

FLOWERS BEFORE DARK
Stillness of flowers. Colors
a slow intense fire, faces
cool to the touch, burning.
Massed flowers in dusk, crimson,
magenta, orange,
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.