Quintessence ~ the essence of a thing in its purest and most concentrated form. Substance composing the celestial bodies.

The shoes that climbed Gonergrat, Switzerland



October 20, 2016

Tags: loss, art and creation, faith, presence, grief, finding joy

Haleakala, sunrise

11/10 again
by Lucille Clifton

some say the radiance around the body
can be seen by eyes latticed against
all light but the particular. they say
you can notice something rise
from the houseboat of the body
wearing the body's face,
and that you can feel the presence
of a possible otherwhere.
not mystical, they say, but human.
human to lift away from the arms that
try to hold you (as you did then)
and, brilliance magnified,
circle beyond the ironwork
encasing your human heart.

Dear A,

I learned of your death this week. I was stunned. Bereft is too small a word to describe the pained sensation of the absence of your presence on this planet. Others have said your death was a perhaps a gift, a release from a more difficult illness. But I know it was, and always would be, too soon.

You have meant many things to many people, A. Theologist, professor, mentor, friend, father, lover, student of knowledge. You had many gifts, but I deeply admired the way you opened yourself to others and gave of your heart. You had an ability to forge human steel. To hammer together that blend of compassion and conviction that made the people around you stronger and good.

To me, you were my friend. It doesn't seem so long ago that we first met through my husband Ken. As the leader of a small group of entrepreneurs struggling to do better, be better, in the often souless corridors of Silicon Valley, you became both mentor and dear spiritual confidant to Ken. When Ken became ill, you left the boarding line of a flight to Paris - leaving with your lovely wife on a much deserved vacation - and instead flew north to sit and talk with Ken at his hospital bedside. Who does this? Many of us think we would for our closest friends. You actually did. You engaged with Ken in the deep questions, the unanswerable mysteries. You sat with him and wandered into the dazzling light that is not enough time and too much time all in the same moment.

You hugged me and let me scream at God, angry and desolate to my core. You were large enough of heart to carry all these things. And when the time came, without qualm you accepted Ken's request to co-lead his funeral, along with R, another member of your close friendship circle. And that was just what you did for us.

In the years after when I was alone and raising our children, you were always there. My quiet cheerleader. A note arrived each year, remembering Ken on the day he left this earth. Generous always, you stood up on my behalf as I sought to reconstruct a future. I treasure one particular memory: A visit here, with M at your side. We lunched, shared a good French wine. I felt nurtured in your company. There you both were, the embodiment of love and completeness in the presence of one another, and I warmed in your light.

I like to think of you on the bay. Taking a break in the late afternoon sun on your sailboat. I imagine you looking up at the sky. Surrendering all the world's heartbreaks along with your own to the quiet painted layers of blue on blue that deepen to night. You walked your faith on this earth, A. Stood for all that is beyond our understanding and yet particular to each of us. Even me, devastated and angry. You saying to me simply, God is big enough for your hurt.

God has surely welcomed back to his side one of the finest men I have ever known. Your gifts to others shine here on this earth. Your leaving us has stopped the clocks. I think of W.H. Auden's poem, Funeral Blues, and these lines, Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun/Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood. To those of us fortunate enough to know you, A, you were everything that is good.

Love and friendship,

Synergy and Healing

October 14, 2016

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

Sculpture Garden, gate detail, Bergen, Norway
by David Mason

The loneliest days,
damp and indistinct,
sea and land a haze.

And purple fog horns
blossomed over tides -
bruises being born

in silence, so slow,
so out there, around,
above and below.

In such hurts of sound
the known world became
neither flat nor round.

The steaming teapot
was all we fathomed
is and is not.

The hours were hallways
with doors at the ends
opened into days

fading into night
and the scattering
particles of light.

Nothing was done then.
Nothing was ever
done. Then it was done.

We are in the midst of a bitter and exhausting national election season. Who isn't exhausted by the level of negativity and conflict around us? Add on a recent minor surgery at the end of long months focused on the completion of a new novel, and I have had time to think at some depth on the meaning of body-mind synergy and the nature of depletion. What healing is, and is not.

I, like most of us, exist in my mind and forget I dwell in my body. And so it is often hard to appreciate the synergy of the two halves of personal wholeness. That is, until the body requires the full attention of the mind to navigate its needs. Only then do we understand the sustaining embrace of this partner in life, the body. Then does the mind release its instinctive drive, dwell in the present, and nourish the physical self.

This synergy is not always perfect. When our bodies are fit and whole, our thinking expands. When the mind undertakes a major accomplishment, when our labors see us through, the body resonates. At times however the body does not fully heal but holds the mind within its scars. When stasis hits the red zone, our power depleted, do we know what to do? Is healing made of states of compartmentalized well being, or is it holistic? Can we heal the self in one area and continue to struggle in another?

We generally do limp along in some degree of dependence on a spare tire. But what struck me deeply recently is that very little of this healing work is intentional and it should be. We instinctively seek well being, but only tend to physical health as needed. When the world around us becomes actively oppressive and depressive, as it has this presidential election year, do we step away and disengage as necessary? Do we choose peace of mind for the benefit of the entire self?

Body wellness is the foundation of so much else. A wounded body derails a sharp mind. I had no choice but to embrace healing. I rested from the manuscript. I turned off the news and stepped away from media broadcasts. I focused on body healing. And then I returned to work.

As the poet concludes, Nothing was ever done. And then it was done.

I finished my novel.

One Certain Day of Autumn

September 21, 2016

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

[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.

Autumn in the northern latitudes is my favorite season with its brilliantly hued afternoons of slanted light, the warmth of the earth slow to rise and long to linger. The sun is bright but scraped of its blistering heat, the days crisp at the edges. September skies can be so hard a blue the light deflects and skitters away while white nimbus clouds pile into low slow banks on the horizon on their stately march.

This is a time of preparation, renewal, and focus. Monarch butterflies begin their global migration to Mexico. The field mouse scurries to gather seeds, the squirrels stuff nuts into holes excavated about the yard. Overhead the Canadian geese are on wing, their southern flight marked by a chorus of honking. The singing birds dart to the feeder, building fat reserves, their summer songs set aside. Nature offers its harvest bounty and we gather it in.

Feel the gathering of energies, the tingle of change in your bones.

Levertov's poem speaks of acute wholeness, aliveness, presence. I feel this exquisitely in autumn. Now is the season of epic journeys. The new school year somersaults childhood forward a year, the days of rest and play set aside. The change in seasons signals an accounting and an assessment, a refresh of goals, and plans for tomorrows yet to come. We gather and tend and set aside. What is there yet to do? What is there that must be done? What do we dream of?

Autumn strikes a bell that all may hear. If we listen, we hear the tone within ourselves. What does the sound of your whole self ringing sing to you?

One Wing of the Silence

September 13, 2016

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

Ortigia, Sicily

by Pablo Neruda

You must know that I do not love you, and that I love you,
because everything alive has its two sides;
a word is one wing of the silence,
fire has its cold half.

I love you in order to begin to love you,
to start infinity again
and never stop loving you:
that's why I do not love you yet.

I love you, and I do not love you, as if I held
keys in my hand: to a future of joy -
a wretched, muddled fate -

My love has two lives, in order to love you:
that's why I love you when I do not love you,
and also why I love you when I do.

The last heat of summer glances off the hard enamel sky and the late summer grasses are bleached the color of dust. All the tender green on the trees has been leached away by the hungry sun. I walk the bluff, thinking about the human heart and our desire to protect it, and keep its secrets, and yet somehow remain open and willing to trust.

We yearn to be in a state of love yet fight against the vulnerability of surrender as does the drowning man combat the surf. The heart seems to always be searching. Turning over each leaf, each stone. I once thought this search was uninformed, reflexive, blind. I suspect it is anything but. In time we learn to trust the instinct at our core and to translate what the heart has found.

The human heart takes the hand and leads the way when rightness is present. Rightness meaning alignment. When the centeredness of our being resonates as a whole. No division of soul versus ego, or mind versus emotion. Think of how the willow switch vibrates over the course of hidden water, so too does the heart divine love. The human brain seeks reassurance in equations, spreadsheets, cross-lists, the satisfaction of endless rationales: the heart vibrates within us like the tuning fork at perfect pitch.

Heart and mind are frequently at odds. We make mistakes, omissions, blunders of innocence, and sometimes ignorance. We extricate ourselves from things our brains advised but our hearts never blessed, things our egos crave when our hearts fold closed. Perhaps, and worst of all, we leave behind the very thing the heart most desires because the mind is not convinced. There is no harmony of self.

Under the soles of my shoes, red dirt rises in little dust devils that settle on the dry leaves of the trees along the trail. The mistakes of my heart are also as dust rising from my steps. They both mark passage and are the mark of time. Footprints through life. What comes of our hunger for love, is in the end, a matter of interior mystery and personal history. The answer for each of us lies in the place our steps begin and end.

A word is one wing of the silence.

Synchronicity With Mystery

August 31, 2016

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

Mt. Shasta, dawn

by Jane Hirschfield

But with this sentence:
"Use your failures for paper."
Meaning, I understood,
the backs of failed poems, but also my life.

Whose far side I begin now to enter -

A book imprinted without seeming reason,
each blank day bearing on its reverse, in random order,
the mad-set type of other.
December 12, 1960. April 4, 1981. 13th of August, 1974 -

Certain words bleed through to the unwritten pages.
To call this memory offers no solace.

"Even in sleep, the heavy millstones turning."

I do not know where the words come from,
what the millstones,
where the turning may lead.

I, a woman forty-five, beginning to gray at the temples,
putting pages of ruined paper
into a basket, pulling them out again.

On our last morning at the lake this year, the unmistakable honk and beating wings of silver-bellied Canadian geese rose from the far cove. The geese were not straggled loosely, aligned casual arrows heaving across the sky as is customary, but carved in their flight close to shore. Low to the water, their V formation tipped on its side, they skimmed beyond the shore pines above the water's edge as the bats at twilight do.

And again this morning in the city I awoke to the call of geese breaking across the dawn. How is it these migrating birds infallibly mark the new crisp in the air? Do they taste the coming wet cold I have inhaled deeply on my early morning hikes? Season after season the geese know when it is time to veer southward. They keep synchronicity with mystery.

It is here: the changing of the season.

I was born in the autumn and it has always been my favorite time of year. I am partial to the slant and slow mellow gold of light, the deepening colors of the earth. But as I age, and turn over longer pages of days, and life, writing and rewriting on the backs of other days and discarded moments, I notice I've begun to tune to the subtle change of seasons. Particularly the glide from summer into autumn. Before winter.

I too, have turned from late summer into fall, and stand at the edge of winter. Each passing season, which once I believed I possessed in abundance, now feels quite precious.

I take my fill of the hours of each day. I linger. I do not rush them onward and into the next. I hold back a little. Try to draw the days and weeks and months closer. I have just begun to understand how to use this life I have been given. And I am grateful.


August 19, 2016

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

Priest Lake Moonrise

Back to the archives today, my friends. This post is from August 26, 2013. Tomorrow I head to Priest Lake for a vacation of mountain hiking, huckleberry picking, and that mellow glass of wine on the deck in the company of a gorgeous sunset.

My favorite time of day at the lake is early morning. Out on the deck with a mug of coffee as the mist and loons drift away across the bay under a pink sunrise.

I'll see you back here at the end of August. Enjoy these last days of summer.


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 - literally opening to the deep breathing and calm rhythms of a lengthy period on break - 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. As an observer of my own fifty decades of living, the wide empty stretches on life's blue highways are far and few between in the 21st century. It's no news we live in a plugged-in, high demand, ever-changing, constantly stimulating world. The irregular dry spells, down time, wayside adventures, lags in scheduling all seem to have disappeared along with party-lines and land lines. 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.

Small wonder we find peace walking in the silence of tall cedars, lulled to sleep by lapping waves on the lake shore, listening 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 human soul, and frankly, so am I. I found it interesting to watch my family, traveling to our rustic cabin on the lake shore with four smart phones, two laptops, three iPads, two iPods and one Shuffle, slowly adapt to first making the long trek down the trail to the nearest wifi center for internet signal, to eventually, mournfully, accepting there would never be more than one half-bar of cell service off the lake, to at last letting the devices sit in their cases, untouched. Withdrawal from the digital world was both painful and amusing - catching ourselves automatically engaged in a pointless click to check email, Twitter, FB. The urge to connect releasing, ever so slowly releasing its grip, to be replaced by long naps sunning on beach towels on a gently rolling dock, acoustic jazz guitar on the porch, long conversations by wine and candlelight at the picnic table, delving into not just a chapter but an entire book, board games and cards accompanied by a crackling fire and mellow whiskey.

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 truthful 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 huckleberry has made its way to a pancake drenched in maple syrup, the last pot of camp coffee poured to the dregs, 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 ping on, buzzing and downloading in a bursting hive of fury and we have to laugh. The world. It doesn't wait, and it doesn't matter.

The Hero, The Story

August 11, 2016

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

David Grunzweig, 14,202 ft summit Mt. Yale, Colorado

We read stories to get experiences we've never known firsthand, or, to gain a clearer understanding of experiences we have had. In the process, we follow one or more characters the way we follow our 'self' in our dreams; we assimilate the story as if what happened to the main characters had happened to us. We identify with heroes. As they move through the story, what happens to them, happens to us. In comedy, heroes go through all the terrible things that we fear or face in our own lives - but they teach us to look at disaster with enough distance that we can laugh at it. In non-comic fiction, the hero shows us what matters, what has value, what has meaning among the random and meaningless events of life. In all stories, the hero is our teacher-by-example, and if we are to be that hero's disciple for the duration of the tale, we must have awe: We must understand that the hero has some insight, some knowledge that we ourselves do not understand, some value or power that we do not have.
- from "Characters & Viewpoint," Orson Scott Card

Preparing for an upcoming speaking panel for Bouchercon 2016, a mystery writers conference in New Orleans this September, I reread this paragraph by science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card from his popular writing guide, "The Hero and the Common Man." I frequently write about human duality. Mankind's possession of tandem weakness and potential greatness. Joseph Campbell famously explored the attraction of the heroic ideal in his groundbreaking work on the psychology of the mythic hero, writing we are both the ordinary and the extraordinary in any given moment.

In choosing what we read, we predominantly seek characters who inspire us through their vulnerabilities and predicaments. Fallible characters who uncover a surprising ability to rise to the occasion. We seek the ideal: To be brave, compassionate, courageous, inventive, adventurous, just. Powerful in defense of truth and right.

In the individual stories of the athletes of the Summer Olympics in Rio we confront the heroic and personal cost of heroism at every turn. How situations that bring out the best in us are often the most difficult to endure. Events we respond to bravely are often the ones that cost us the most. If the gift of triumph is permission to define ourselves as great and capable, future challenges will be met with battle-tested courage.

I confess I do not know whether challenge strengthens our vitality for life or merely toughens us with protective scars. Perhaps we exist on a pendulum between the two responses - boldness and aversion. The heroic stories we read challenge us to imagine greatness for ourselves, explore our own courage. And in our mental shadowboxing, realize a true, real world strength. As readers we use story. Stories are allegory. A call to action. We embolden ourselves to undertake the unimaginable, to find our personal greatness.

Push your boundaries. Celebrate the day and its challenges. Be in awe. You are the hero of your story.

Stones Against Worry

August 3, 2016

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

by Benjamin Harnett

Out into the wary wideness
eight minds dragged it, sunlight
fire here, the cool of dark
downwardness. Tentacles go
self, self, self, self, stone!
Ah, lifted to the eyes, this the one.
Quick, back to the closeness
of home.

Felt air, once, a pitiless
flattening, the bright roar, God.
It worries an old scar
balancing self-wrapped rock
on others like a bone. What
was the self, but worry
without comfort, and ache
for food.

To be a child again, all eye
and jelly, drift among ignorant
millions, and be swept up into
a world-mouth with one's family,
to dissolve instead of being
torn by iron to die alone.
Yes, the new cave needs
another stone.

Can you feel the flex in the spine of this poem from Benjamin Harnett's chapbook, "Animal"? The Octopus captures the essence of self, survival, and aloneness, but in a way that spotlights attention on the pure and directive nature of life. The centering of home, cave or nest. The binary reality of safety. The collective comfort of our others. Our known.

It's been a rough month around here, and in the world. There were times when I felt more than a few stones extra were needed to shore up the cave. Life has a way, doesn't it? Lobs in chance, and everything changes. Events occur that destroy calm and defy stability; that undercut every effort at organized living. A disaster or tragedy blocks our pathways, shuts down options, blows a hole in our every effort at risk management. We panic. We howl. Then we get it together and get it done.

Humans, like the octopus, endlessly gather stones against worry - fearing that moment fate yanks us in a new direction.

Stones Against Worry.

"Emergency Fund" was a real thing for us this month. Why you have one, when to use it. Others scoot encouraging stones our way. A box arrives, unannounced. Inside, personal, sentimental things to restore equilibrium, offer faith in good memories, a reminder of good things yet ahead. When good people do good things, it is as if God hands you a star. However dark things may be...there is that star, casting its comforting glow.

So thanks, good souls. You know who you are. No gesture, however humble by any of us, goes without casting its ripple in this world. Those smallest of ripples build into waves of good things. Before we know it there are stars everywhere, lighting the dark.

Make This Place

July 27, 2016

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

World Peace Flame, The Hague, Netherlands

by Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and Iíve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
Iíll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and thatís a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

This poem by Ohioan poet Maggie Smith was published recently in Waxwing Literary Journal. "Good Bones" then flashed across Twitter, reader to reader. Here was a poem that acknowledged risk yet expressed gritty, guarded optimism about life. How we needed this, reeling, tumbling, weeping through waves of terrorist attacks and violent shootings.

Smith's poem echoed the unspoken fear I felt twenty-seven years ago, when my eldest child was born. I remember looking at my tiny newborn infant, her head cradled in my palm, her small body resting half the length of my forearm, and thinking, Dear heavens, what have I done. I had brought innocent life into the world. But into a world of opportunity and love, or darkness, without hope of joy? This was 1989 and long shadows fell across history. In my work overseas I had experienced tremors of global unrest and growing sectarian violence and terrorism. Home in America, we had yet to experience 9/11. Today, fundamentalist intolerance and terror are at levels that threaten to choke out the quieter voices of peace. Everything is "at least half terrible" as Smith writes, "and that's a conservative estimate."

What tore up my gut all those years ago was feeling forced to question the essential goodness of the world. The moral rightness of bringing children into a world of certain risk and chaos. What "gift" do we bestow upon our children at their birth to protect them? There is no invincibility shield.

The secret, as Smith shares, is that life is delicious. The gift we bestow is joy. To pursue pleasure in a thousand risky ways. At every turn we may be disappointed, scammed, a victim, grow ill. Yet the good and the bad and the ugly are entwined together. Risk, mortality, and the joy of being alive. It must be enough to believe each child might find a good life in the midst of a world in crushing disarray. Each child brings the potential of change.

Maggie Smith's poem ends on promise. It ain't much, but things can be done. This, this is how we build the world. Lift it up and fix it, again and again. Not only for ourselves, but for the future.

Good. Good bones.

In Our Heads

July 14, 2016

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

Our lives were stored in our heads.
They hadn't begun, we were both sure
we'd know when they did.
They certainly weren't this.

We read, we listened to the portable radio.
Obviously this wasn't life, this sitting around
in colored lawn chairs.

- from "August," Louise Gluck

Today must not be a souvenir of yesterday, and so the struggle is everlasting. Who am I today? What do I see today? How shall I use what I know, and how shall I avoid being victim of what I know? Life is not repetition.
- Robert Henri

I have been rethinking a post that I wrote in 2011 on the tension between imagined life and reality. The fantasy in our heads and the truth. What we dream our lives to be in contrast with the ways they unfold.

In Louise Gluck's "August," her young narrator is confident she will be certain when "life" as she imagines it will spread in blazing technicolor across the white screen of summer days. Future selves dormant like ungerminated seeds within the ordinary hours. "Our lives were stored in our heads," the narrator observes, unaware life spools by even in the time spent imagining it. Can we not relate? How we grow lost in daydreams, absorbed in nostalgia, frequently swept to the banks by unbidden musings. "Today must not be a souvenir of yesterday," Robert Henri warned. For what would we have then but a hall of memories? Of recollections like mirrors, arrayed in an endless vision of the past.

We are now in the summer of another year. We may indeed sit in lawn chairs. But if we do so in the company of a friend, perhaps turn a page in a book, enjoy solitude in the pleasure of a favorite tune on the radio...it is all genuine, all everyday living. The ordinary hours produce the honey of life's busyness. Days to years rolling into a swell of gathered sweetness that rests in our hearts like morning dew in the throat of an iris.

This. This universe in the universe of one.

Beautiful. Ordinary. A summer of books, the radio, and colored lawn chairs.