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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
July 22, 2015
For whom and to whom in the shadow
Ostia Antica, Italy
does my gradual guitar resound,
being born in the salt of my being
like the fish in the salt of the sea?
- from "Songs," Residence on Earth
, Pablo Neruda
I was born on the 22nd of September. Today is the 22nd of July - the day my first husband, Ken, passed away...and birthday of my second husband, Greg. Reverberations pass through our lives - touched by this one number, 22.
A strange and mysterious, sad and joyful tumbler of emotions accompanies every July 22nd for me. I am twinned in both my past and my present on this one, extraordinary day. Acknowledging loss while acknowledging joy, aware of what is missing and what is found. Greg was aware of the synchronicity of these dates before I was. We had just met; Greg had read THE GEOGRAPHY OF LOVE and he texted me that day, wishing me peace and comfort, as he knew my son and I were out at Ken's gravesite. Greg never told me that day it was also his birthday, which speaks to his sensitivity and respect for Ken's place in my life, although later it caused me some remorse as his birthday should have been something to celebrate. If only I'd known. Would I have believed it? Would the shared dates have shaken me?
Since our marriage, Greg and I, as well as my children, dance in the complex realities of this date. We've embraced it as uniquely ours. The anniversary of Ken's death is etched on July 22nd, Greg came into life on July 22nd, the 22nd day is the day of my birthday in the fall...it seemed natural that going forward we would chose the 22nd day of any month as our choice for important events and decisions. We married on the 22nd of April. My daughter schedules major exams for this date (she is taking one today), and my son releases new music projects whenever he can on the 22nd.
How fitting that last night my beloved Ken was spoken of in the course of a writing workshop I taught at Auntie's Books on memoir - and I came home that same night to share and celebrate the class with my dear Greg. Today, Greg's birthday, is full of joy. We celebrate the doorway that opened between our lives and loves, and the powerful synchronicity that is for us, the number 22.
July 15, 2015
Human judgment can be divided into two broad types: intuitive and rational. When it comes to selecting what to discard, it is actually our rational judgment that causes trouble. Although intuitively we know that an object has no attraction for us, our reason raises all kinds of arguments for not discarding it, such as "I might need it later" or "It's a waste to get rid of it." These thoughts spin round and round in our mind, making it impossible to let go.
I am not claiming it is wrong to hesitate. The inability to decide demonstrates a certain degree of attachment to a particular object. Nor can all decisions be made on intuition alone. But this is precisely why we need to consider each object with care and not be distracted by thoughts of being wasteful.
To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose.
- "The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Declutttering and Organizing," by Marie Kondo
This small book (it is quite compact) has now sold over two million copies, a #1 New York Times Bestseller. What that says to me is that Americans are buried in stuff, desperate for guidance, hungry for personal organization, and stymied by the conflicting messages of "keep" or "toss." As I am an organized type by nature, even as a child my toys and books were boxed or alphabetized, I initially read this book out of curiosity. But half way through I realized I was learning, finally, how to really
make decisions about the things I own without falling sway to the usual tired aphorisms such as "Waste not, want not," or "You might need/fit into/get back into this someday," and the ultimate trump card - "But I plowed so much money into that!"
Arranged into fun and cogent sections, with titles such as -
You can't tidy if you've never learned how
Storage experts are hoarders
Selection criteria, does it spark joy?
If you're mad at your family, your room may be the cause
Komono (miscellaneous items): keep things because you love them - not "just because"
Don't underestimate the "noise" of written information
An attachment to the past or anxiety about the future
- Kondo's book explains the deeper principles behind why we keep things, how best to organize them, ways to treasure them (proper storage), and finally, how to live firmly in the present
in our day-to-day relationship with things.
I found my personal Waterloo in Kondo's section regarding books (apparently common enough to require its own section). While not so tenacious I finish books I do not like, or hang onto books I'm not sure I'll ever read (and have felt that way about for more than a year), I do keep the majority of books I buy. I consciously curate my book choices, in terms of personal esteem for the work, or with an eye toward collection completion (for example all the works by a favorite author, not just the few I enjoy). I collect print, not e-books (I like the physical beauty of books, and dip into pages at random), so the storage requirements for my books are impressive. Kondo suggests we consider things we own in multiples (e.g. sports equipment, clothes, books, music, toys, etc.) in terms of the pleasure
they provide. This nudged me to rethink my approach. Unless I am investing in a complete collection for its future resale value, what is the personal value to me
of the complete set? If, say, only one of three books by a certain author brings me genuine pleasure maybe I should let go of the others. The result would be fewer books taking valuable space, and of those books, having the ones I love.
I recommend you take a look at this spunky, practical little book. It is terrific. Kondo genuinely understands the complicated relationships humans have with things. The feelings tied up in objects - the obligation we feel to retain family heirlooms (my husband an I are currently discussing a certain unusable - to us - wood Norwegian cradle), the guilt over past purchasing mistakes (my sister bemoans the trend in jeggings), fear of an uncertain future, and its twin, an intrinsic appreciation of the value in a buck, and that perennially hopeful assessment that borders on wishful thinking (sure I'll be a size 4, go camping/river rafting/repelling again).
Kondo respects the true joy an object can provide. The principles of decluterring are not just to lighten the load (although that has undeniable merit), but to absolutely love and appreciate what we choose to keep in our lives. Now, today.
July 8, 2015
WHAT ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO DO ANYWAY?
by Jack Ridl
Trying to know what to do is difficult
enough, let alone knowing what to do
anyway. I could take that at least two ways,
maybe more. For example, I could take a walk,
even a long walk and I would expect to walk
through the woods or a field or a park or downtown.
But what if i take a walk and instead just kept
the walk to myself, kept it here amid all the indecision
about where to take that walk? I might pop open a Coke,
kick off my hiking boots, put on a smoking jacket,
and pile up some Jane Austen and some Henry James,
just pile them up. And then maybe I'd talk with you
even though you are no longer here. It could be like that,
or maybe it is like that. And at night the sky would be full
of the same stars as the night before last. At least it seems that way.
Jack Ridl, midwesterner, poet and professor, dedicated this poem to John Bartlby. But what he means us to know at the end of our reading is expressed in the last three lines. A man misses his friend. And this sudden, shattering absence measures, for our poet, the width and depth of the gulf between the tenuous temporal and the fixed eternal. Our poet glances upward. Stars. In their infinite lives, so much longer than our own, they fill the night, evidence of continuum. Today like yesterday - is it not full
? But he feels the difference, our poet. A light has dimmed and changed the sky.
Ridl's poem begins in the physical. In the body of the poet and what he will do with himself. The living, and the no longer living. Failed by the futility of action, unable to find release in the movement of his muscles and breath, the poet moves into the hypothetical, the wondering, the hungering, the intimate. Again he returns to what is physical as he seeks comfort in the presence of what still is
. Stars. Stars that remain the same, yet that some, now, do not see. Is it still as it always is? "It could be like that,/or maybe it is like that."
We know absence. We know loss. Take a walk. Or not. Boots on, or not. Books...or not. Thinking about the thing and internalizing the thing that thought signifies. Where do we go with vastness? An endless night? How does the heart embrace space too big for words?
What are you supposed to do anyway?
July 1, 2015
THE GOOD LIFE
My children at the beach with our dog, Scooter
by Mark Strand
You stand at the window.
There is a glass cloud in the shape of a heart.
There are the wind's sighs that are like caves in your speech.
You are the ghost in the tree outside.
The street is quiet.
The weather, like tomorrow, like your life,
is partially here, partially up in the air.
There is nothing you can do.
The good life gives no warning.
It weathers the climates of despair
and appears, on foot, unrecognized, offering nothing,
and you are there.
We stand in the tracks of tangled footpaths among dreams, ambitions, regrets, loss. At every vantage, we take in the long view. There is something about our hearts that needs the wideness of the unknown, the promise of discovery around the next bend. Mark Strand's line, "like tomorrow, like your life,/is partially here, partially up in the air," reminds us we exist in becoming
- in shift between hard realties and bright imaginings. Partially here, partially up in the air.
In a week marked by deep suffering and wordless pain for our own communities and others around the world, of shocked disbelief, and moral agony, I find unexpected comfort in these lines of Strand's last stanza:
The good life gives no warning.
It weathers the climates of despair
The ability of life to rebound, for wounds to heal and the human journey to continue - mindful of events that have occurred - moves me. I don't know if someday the world will end on a high note or a whimper, but life continues to seek what is good. We must rise. The celebration of The Fourth of July blesses the founding anniversary of our nation, symbolized in part by family gatherings and communal celebrations. In the wake of all that has been tragic and awful, let us lift one another, step forward, and stand strong in community.
The following is from my very first post, July of 2010:
Welcome summer! Collect your flip flops, grab your beach bag and throw in a basket of great books to indulge in. These are the slow days of simmering heat and sun. The pastimes of childhood call. Riding barefoot on a bicycle, playing cards clothes-pinned to the spokes of the wheel,
ratta-tatta-tat down the block for an ice cream. Hot afternoons at the city pool, sleepovers under the stars, lemonade stands in red Flyer wagons. The boom of thunder and the salted tar smell of cool rain as it hits a hot street. The vacation trip to the beach. Crammed in the family station wagon packed to the gills, counting state license plates...
Life is forever "partially up in the air." Choose faith. Choose joy. Choose optimism. Find time for yourself and those you love.
June 24, 2015
THE ART OF DISAPPEARING
Statue of The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen
by Naomi Shihab Nye
When They Say Don't I Know You?
When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
If they say We should get together
It's not that you don't love them anymore.
You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.
When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven't seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don't start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.
Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.
This poem came to me via the wonderful tiny chapbook by Roger Housden, "Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime." (I have spoken of this collection before.) Housden has this to say: "I find the strong and sober stand of this poem a welcome inspiration. Yet I know there are those who feel otherwise. People have told me they feel it to be ungenerous and curmudgeonly in its attitude to others. On the other hand, I remember seeing Bill Moyers on PBS one evening, and him saying that ever since being called into the hospital for heart trouble, he has kept a copy of this poem by Naoimi Shihab Nye in his top pocket. For me, it's that kind of poem. A reminder poem, a shake-your-tree poem, a wake-up-and-live-your-own-life-before-it's-all-too-late poem."
Makes you pause, doesn't it? Housden calls a poem that speaks deeply a "message from a trusted friend," that is, "the persistent murmur in our own chest." He adds this observation by Keats - which I find the single greatest secret to cultivating poetry (or any art, for that matter) - "Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost as a Remembrance."
We plod through our promised-to's, the ought-to's, and endlessly defer personal must-do's. Last in priority are those experiences, projects, and commitments that call us to live deeply, exploring all the corners of our being. Pause for a moment and think about this: Do you remember the moment when you knew
your life dream? When you crested from childhood into young adulthood and set your sights on the world's horizon? Do you recall the truth you felt in your bones that hot August afternoon, lying in the grass under the green willow branches, staring up and through an endless sky? Have you experienced a sudden shiver holding a newborn? Become aware of the life history in the still, veined hand of your grandmother as she held a tea cup and waited by the window?
Nye's poem is a call back home - live your life, know life, for life is finite.
I appreciate this poem's honest fierceness. Nye doesn't mince words. I need that. Her poem reminds me that a given day on earth is not about obligation. Being present for your own life is not the denial of relationship, responsibility or connection, but practicing purpose
. Inhabiting the originality and truth that is yours alone. Answering the call. Whatever that "it" is that beats at the heart of every human spirit and reflected in these lines from THE ART OF DISAPPEARING I carry in my wallet.
You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bells at twilight.
So, I listen.
June 17, 2015
The ponies of Shetland Island
Today I yearned for a clean, direct, open moment on the page, my friends.
To write something simple. To tell you something as I felt and thought about that something
, without intellectualizing, filters, deeper or attenuated meanings. Like a sandwich. Start with good bread, crisp lettuce, garden tomato, your choice of deliciousness in the middle. Nothing complicated about a sandwich.
Why? Maybe because it's summer, the seasonal reminder that a peach plucked directly from the branch is the peach that is simply most worthy. Like you, I am chafing under the unbearable weight of the news of the world in all its foolishness, waste, and loss. I am also writing this morning in the lingering shadow of a pre-dawn dream of my mother and my dog (both long gone). A dream I did not understand but clung to like driftwood on the open sea upon waking. What is that but feeling the hard edge of life, the ache of what we cannot comprehend?
The hunger to pen sentences that lean against the door jamb, hands in pockets, at ease, reflects in part a working year of constructed essays, edits, and trenching in lines on the page - what it is to be a working writer. But I wonder, does this wish for ease
hint at a sea change within? Toward a way of being and writing less constructed but warmly essential? Less clever, a little bit messy? Maybe there is a part of me that needs to sow a handful of words and let them bloom where they fall, full of will and wildness.
Poetry will always speak of life far truer than my words. The ways of poetry hold us bathed in the starlight of distant stars we do not yet see.
In a poem what is, is given shape, a doorway. So I begin here, with this powerful poem by the late Philip Levine. Enjoy.
THE SIMPLE TRUTH
by Philip Levine
I bought a dollar and a half's worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. "Eat, eat" she said,
"Even if you don't I'll say you did."
you know all your life. They are so 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.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I'm saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.
June 10, 2015
HRC by Jonathan Allen & Amie Parnes, Crown Publishers, 2014.
Researched by respected political journalists Jonathan Allen (White House Bureau Chief for Politico
) and Amie Parnes (White House correspondent for The Hill
newspaper in Washington), HRC roughly covers the time period in Hillary Rodham Clinton's political life from her defeat in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary (to then Senator Barack Obama) through the attack on the Benghazi Embassy in September of 2012, and its contentious aftermath during her tenure as Secretary of State in the Obama administration.
HRC is a thick book, totaling in at 405 pages. A breezy behind the scenes cliff-hanger in places, and a backstory slog in others, HRC the book is much like the political arena it covers. Moving with rapid fire momentum, and employing an open, witty tone at times bordering on insider snark, HRC is primarily an anecdotal narrative compiled with noteworthy attention to timelines, facts, details, and citations. The authors state more than 200 sources were interviewed and freely granted anonymity to discuss their knowledge of Hillary Clinton and the events in this book.
I found HRC engaging, and in places surprising, and, oddly irritating. I felt the book frequently devolved into gossip when not strictly necessary (the events and the woman are fascinating enough). HRC falls off the fence frequently - balancing between a pro versus anti-Clintonism - not quite successfully hitting that sweet spot of observational neutrality. Allen and Parnes seem unable to leave out the easy dig. When the Clintons are funny, as they often are in their hubris and stealth politics, you can't really fault the authors. The Clintons - singularly always still a plural - all too frequently load themselves
in the political clay pigeon launcher, with a proverbial "Pull!"
Anecdotes and instances of Hillary Clinton's intellect, tenacity, political paranoia, bull-dogged backbone, sagacity, and fierce dedication interweave throughout Allen and Parnes's political biography with moments of warm reserve, long memory, an endless loyalty, quiet protectiveness of her family, and personal courage. As Hillary Clinton moves forward in her 2016 Presidential campaign - the approximate point in time the book leaves off - the chronology of facts and detail provided by the authors in HRC fill in many of the "Who really is Hillary?" blanks held in the mind of the average voter.
Allen and Parnes predicted Hillary would run in 2016, and I suspect, believe she will be an exceptional, if flawed, contender in the campaign and if she wins the Presidency, the job. By the end of HRC, Hillary's campaign does indeed loom as a given, if not its outcome. To close in a quote taken from HRC:
"I never know what's going to happen next,"she [Hillary Clinton] said. "And I really never have lived my life thinking I knew what was going to happen next. I really try to - I mean it is very John Wesleyan, believe me. I really try to just do the best I can every day, because who know's what's going to happen next? I don't have any idea. So I'm one to just fell like every day I'm being true to my values and I'm contributing in some way, and maybe trying to do some good."
*I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.
June 3, 2015
The anesthetist said sometimes this happens. It felt
like forever. We leaned in over your body to see what
your face might reveal. What your eyes were seeing
beneath closed lids, we'll never know and you won't tell.
Since we had urged you into surgery we felt responsible.
The ash pallor of skin, how shallow the breath
that curled from your lips and each fine line of sweat
beading high across your cheeks. Once years ago, when
you spoke, we leaned toward the fire. And they sped over
water in a frigate...we remember you saying, though
what we heard was "forget." Smoke hung in our sweaters
and hair all the next day and for the week after. Finally
you came to to peer at our stricken faces lining the shore
of your bed; splattered our shoes. I'm back, you said, hello.
- Katrina Roberts
I found myself revisiting this blog post today from June, 2011. A lot has happened in my life in the last four years. And in yours, I would bet. I believe we can fairly say that life journeys - wanted or unwanted - push us warily towards a vast, unknown horizon. What lies ahead is unfamiliar and inevitably a challenge.
Here are a few of my thoughts from that original post:
Consider the fragility of life, of this precisely patterned web of intention we weave called "living." Now and then, the very fabric of the self comes unmoored. We drift. As the spider's silken thread surfs the sunlight on an unseen breeze, we ride this nothing until intention catches, tears, holds fast. Our thread, like the spider's, latches on to a twig, a leaf, a bit of solid something that is now a fresh stake, a new attempt at presence.
Are we not in fact that gossamer thread? Our lives arc through uncertainties - tiny trapeze artists flung far into the azure sky. Our elaborate constructions - legacies, careers, generations, poems composed in the bottom of scotch glasses - glimmer in the last light. We live within our own mental engineering, designing sky scrapers in our minds. Towers of ambition and steel accomplishment, glass reflections of accumulation, and perhaps, regret. We imagine our safety nets will hold. By choice or circumstance, threads break - and the web floats. Drift guides us to the next anchor.
Katrina Robert's poem hesitates at the edge of consciousness. That shore of separation we flirt with as we skim the waters - alive, damaged, struggling, stronger. And back. And gone. The leap from the trapeze begins the roll through space...and it is the catch that ends the plunge. Our lives, as Roberts eloquently puts it, are balanced in the wordplay of "frigate" and "forget." From the dangerous open seas we guide in the travelers. We rope our crafts in, snug at the dock. Journey's end. "Hello. I'm back."
Until we are loosed again.
May 29, 2015
Into The Roman Theater, Ostia Antica, Italy
Forever busy, it seems,
I put the pen down
most of the sheets
and leave one or two,
sometimes a few,
for the next morning.
Day after day -
year after year -
it has gone on this way,
I rise from the chair,
I put on my jacket
and leave the house
for that other world -
the first one,
the holy one -
where the trees say
nothing the toad says
nothing the dirt
says nothing and yet
what has always happened
the trees flourish,
the toad leaps,
and out of the silent dirt
the blood-red roses rise.
- Mary Oliver
This is a beautiful time of year. Even if you stand on the threshold of change unsure of your next step, may you find comfort as I have found comfort, in Mary Oliver's words, "out of the silent dirt the blood-red roses rise."
Look ahead. Step forward. Keep on swimming
, as Dory says in "Finding Nemo." Make something of something, even if you cannot yet imagine what. Change is the alchemy of circumstance brought about by choice. And choice is a universal endowment: the gift of potential.
Take a moment. Leave your work, set aside worry, ever so briefly abandon ambition and struggle and step gratefully into the receiving world. We exist at the threshold of possibility. We have only to step through one world to find another.
May 21, 2015
I recently was on travel in the Mediterranean. The point of my trip was to research places in seven countries that border, or are island nations, of this "sea of destiny." Places which figure in the continuum of history as evidenced by patterns of ancient and modern conflict. The antiquities of Greek and Roman classic battle sites - for example Troy (now in modern day Turkey), or the battle between Octavian and the fleet of Cleopatra and Marc Antony in Prevezza - to the sprawling Mediterranean battlefields of World War II in North Africa, Italy, France and Sicily. War history is profoundly emblematic of the impact of leadership and character on events in human history.
I took with me on this journey David Brooks' new nonfiction book, "The Road to Character." I knew his study of human character would reference Eisenhower, Marshall, Augustine among others, and thought it might dovetail nicely with my travels. Brooks is a readable writer, his voice genial on the page. His book is structured around separating what he terms "eulogy character" from "resume character": that is, those qualities rooted deeply within one's nature and upbringing that make a deeply moral and resilient self, versus those qualities primarily developed as window-dressing and acquired for specific goals or situations to serve the ambitions of the ego. A diametric Brooks terms simply as Adam I versus Adam II.
Setting aside for the moment the framing of a discussion of character in religious context, or the mild sexism by today's standards of the choice of the term "Adam" (as in Adam and Eve, coined in the 1965 work by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in "Lonely Man of Faith") as the framework for talking about the deepest aspects of humanity, the real problem for me is that Brooks is writing around a schematic of character he never quite defines and then bolsters with case biographies to substantiate arbitrary conclusions. This makes for a confusing read as the book moves back and forth through history discussing an odd range of men and women selected to exemplify some aspect of personal character development Brooks has deemed important to their ultimate role in events of historical importance.
Brooks organizes his chapters around ideas such as struggle, self-conquest, dignity, love, ordered love, the big me, etc., and case biographies are used to order his arguments about Adam I inner authenticity as opposed to Adam II egoism, and the development of meaningful character. The problem for me is that without Brooks defining "character" beyond its implicit religious or moral codes or otherwise hinged upon command leadership or charity, he's defaulted on something extremely hard to pin down. I found myself yearning for a solid discussion of human character not
explicitly tied to historical achievement: a discussion of that slate of human traits that define and empower people to do the things they do. The very word "character" is value loaded. In Brooks' book it is used as a euphemism for admirable, and that which distinguishes someone from the greater masses.
I truly wanted to like "The Road to Character" but the narrative is uneven, and without what I would consider a meaningful metric of "character." In the end, Brooks' study is about grand personalities.