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The shoes that climbed Gonergrat, Switzerland
April 13, 2016
The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.
Musician, Berne, Switzerland
– St. Augustine
There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.
– Robert Louis Stevenson
The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.
– Samuel Johnson
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.
– Mark Twain
All the pathos and irony of leaving one’s youth behind is thus implicit in every joyous moment of travel: one knows that the first joy can never be recovered, and the wise traveler learns not to repeat successes but tries new places all the time.
– Paul Fussell
Five quotes about traveling. Five ways of looking at the world from the perspective of first glance
- of experiencing what it is to be a "stranger in a strange land" as Robert Heinlein penned so succinctly. As Johnson and Fussell would have it, the importance and education of travel is to know things as they actually are, in all their strangeness or surprise, and perhaps, recapture some of that lost innocence and sense of adventure left behind with youth.
Travel promotes self-reflection. The more we place ourselves in the unfamiliar, the more we see the edges of ourselves.
We begin to experience displacement and struggle; test identity and belief in our opennesss to the new. Travel keeps our feet firmly grounded not in our differences but in our common humanity. Cultural and ethnic diversity offer all of us things we delight in and appreciate, ancient spiritual beliefs to textiles and spice palates. But it is our commonality that allows us to absorb the differing wisdom and knowledge of the world's peoples.
All my life I have been a traveller. I grew up in the military system - eighteen addresses by the time I was twenty-one. I then joined the US State Department and continued this trek through the amazing world, discovering the more we are different, the more we are the same. To be a citizen of the world is to understand our differences reflect our constructs, our culture, our geography. Our sameness defined by our humanity.
I have traveled with my children from the years they were very young to a planned upcoming trip with my daughter marking her completion of medical school. Travel has opened their hearts and minds to the enormity of the planet and all of its wonders and struggles.
These past two years for me have been a Herculean journey as a writer. I feel the need to step back, assess, recenter, and recommit. When personal changes are in the offing, when they are necessary, travel is one way to shake loose the old and crack open the brain. Next week I leave for two weeks - exploring Japan and her surrounding islands by land and sea. Digging deeply into the history, the art and the culture, from war to state-of-the-art ecosystem innovations, maiko
apprentice to geisha
, robotics, Kibuki theatre, Bullet trains, the sea and cuisine. Somewhere in there, I will also visit South Korea. And when all is done, my mind and my soul will be refreshed, reset, and engaged.
My next blog will be sometime on my return in May. I'll send a picture or two along the journey via twitter or FB. After my return, I'll post more images of the unique and wonderful things I've encountered, even as I let the complexity of the experience settle in. It is my hope this trip will be the basis of my next writing project, and deeply refresh my soul.
What we bring home from our wanderings is not only what we have seen and learned, but a new personal map. A new pin, placed somewhere in the geography of the self.
April 6, 2016
Olive trees shading a stairway to The Acropolis, Athens
by Eva Saulitis
Why? Why is a crooked letter, my mother-in-law used to say. She held
no truck with useless inquiry, superstition. Buck up. Be present.
no fools, no dogma. When she died, I sleuthed her shelves. She read
everything - Buddhist philosophy, AARP magazine.
of Loving, Hawaiian poetry, books on aging, Asian painting,
and dying. She stopped short of a PhD in English lit, took acting. No
shrinking violet, she wore tennis whites on Sundays, permed and dyed
her hair various reddish shades, waited for her husband weekdays with
wine glasses frosted in the deep freeze.
You little ingrates, wait till your
father gets here. Protested his pollarding of her ornamental trees
in the garden. A closetful of peacock-hues to counter his muted same-same.
Years after he died, we found the glasses, the bottle of cream sherry still
frozen. She never gave his clothes away.
You better know how to laugh
at yourself, she said. Afraid she'd take me for the shrinking violet, the
suffering fool, tucked into the shade of a summer day,
why, my crooked
angel, I kept quiet, secretly studied her takings, finger along the spine of books
and facts. Her sons sang her past the last breath, hospital bed on
the living room's shag. In the mail we got her Hiroshima prints, a 1950s lamp,
a volume of bad Hawaiian poetry, costume jewelry, one conundrum - wooden
statute of mother Mary praying. To her tough and inscrutable hide, I offer up this day.
Our days are a carousel of change and chances. We feel we are at last approaching some hard-earned purchase on the slope of our lives, only to lose our footing on the hard scrabble and helplessly fall away. We try again, we work at it, we latch on, and what happens next always surprises us. This haunting, intimate poem by Eva Saulitis, poet and biologist from Homer, Alaska, is from a book of poetry titled, "Prayer In Wind," published by Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press. The book's flap copy reveals to the reader:
"After a devastating diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, biologist and poet Eva Saulitis found herself gripped by a long buried childhood urge to pray. Finding little solace in the rote 'from the fox-hole please Gods' arising unbidden in her head, she set herself the task of examining the impulse itself, waking every morning in darkness to write poems, driven on by the questions: What is prayer? What am I praying to? What am I praying for? Who is listening? Each day's poem proposed a new and surprising answer as, over two years, she traced the questions back to her origins..."
What is comprised by this book of 58 numbered "prayer poems" is nothing short of a deep and openhearted song to living. To ancestry, geography, context, accident. To all that connects us to the earth and to one another; to the small stories that make us the quirky, eccentric souls that we are; to what we leave behind in the hearts of others and what we keep from those we love. It is never not the right time to pause in our ceaseless climbing
and look out from where we find ourselves. Take in the expanse of life, the shadows of the forests left behind. What beckons on the horizon.
Ask of life again, Why?
March 25, 2016
THE IDES OF MARCH
by C.P. Cavafy (1911, translated from the Greek by Stratis Haviaras)
Guard well against the grandiose, my soul.
But if unable to curb your ambitions,
pursue them reluctantly, and with caution. the more you
progress, the more skeptical and aware you must be.
And when you achieve your full powers, A Caesar now,
assuming the distinction of a man of eminence,
be ever mindful, when you go into the street
(a master, conspicuous by your devoted entourage)
should someone from the crowd approach you,
someone called Artemidoros, to urge upon you
a letter, and to implore: "Read this without delay,
it concerns matters of grave importance." Don't fail
to pause; don't fail to put off any speech or affair;
don't fail to push aside those who hail and bow down to you
(you'll see them later). Even the Senate can have patience;
and without delay read the crucial message of Artemidoros.
I happened upon this poem of Caesar by Cavafy, and was struck by the parallels of fate, unheeded advisement, and the consequences of murderous secrecy and destruction then to what grips the world today. History offers the careful reader both preface and epilogue. What then will we do with the pages lived in between?
This is the week of Purim, the week of Easter, and a week of unthinkable violence as the world once more suffers an obliteration of peace. We do not know what time will reveal, or history finally discern, but we do know humanity has tread this path before and does so now with trepidation. How do we preserve life, accommodate our differences, and embrace good over evil? As I despaired of an answer, and wondered if the world was in fact lost, I came upon this poem by Denise Levertov in her book, "Sands of the Well."
FLOWERS BEFORE DARK
by Denise Levertov
Stillness of flowers. Colors
a slow intense fire, faces
cool to the touch, burning.
Massed flowers in dusk, crimson,
unflickering furnace, gaze
unswerving, innocent scarlet,
ardent white, afloat
on late light, serene passion
stiller than silence.
More sacred than a prayer, this sacrament of the earth. Hymn to the beauty and miraculous wonder of all things given to us without reservation, lost at a terrible price. The more than
and greater than
that is the natural world. What can you or I do? What change might we be? What hope might we bring forth from our grief and sadness at this terrible human loss and pain, the senseless murder of the innocent?
Be the witness. Hold to the good. Sing of hope. Attend to nature's life-giving promise, her time and seasons. Remember, remember the love.
And finally, this poem.
THE POET ALWAYS CARRIES A NOTEBOOK
by Mary Oliver
What is he scribbling on the page?
Is there snow in it, or fire?
Is it the beginning of a poem?
Is it a love note?
We are all poets of change and belief. Work the world. Record your wonder and gratitude. Learn from the lost innocence of the beloved, and the hard wisdom of history. Above all, give attention to what matters. Nourish love, family, all light. Place beauty in your heart.
March 17, 2016
Cypripedium acaule - lady slipper
Sooner or later
we must come to the end
the image the image of
but not yet
you say extending the
your love until a whole
the violet to the very
and so by
your love the very sun
itself is revived.
- William Carlos Williams
The renewal of spirit, heart, and mind has a beautiful resonance for me. The limning of new green on the branches outside my study speak to budding hope. There is something about early spring that nudges us to get on with it. To pluck our rusty dreams up and tinker them back into play. To rethink the impossible, or the challenging. To build a bridge to somewhere. To throw the window open and breathe deep of sunshine and renewal.
William Carlos Williams' poem "The Rewaking," composed April 1o, 1961, reminds us joy may be continuously cultivated through love. Reality, and what we think of as the meaningful real
, shift with perception. Souls lost in the darkness of winter, in the pressures of work and responsibility, need only trust in the innocence of what is future. The eternal essence capable of reviving even the sun
The presence of happiness reshapes all things. Restores, what in world-weariness we believed lost - all optimism, lightness, ease, and hope. Drink of violet. Permit the tender shoot, "the image the image of the rose."
March 9, 2016
I had the opportunity to revisit the Houston Arts District, exploring the Rothko Chapel, The Menil Collection, and The Cy Twombly Gallery. This time spent immersed in great art under a canopy of spreading oaks encompassed visual and emotional fields of vision. Engaging with art, even in the company of others, remains a private singular experience. Whatever the "it" of art is - absorption of the media, the contemplation of shape and design, a shift in thinking - occurs from inner awareness.
The Rothko Chapel, if you haven't been, is a brick and stone octagon structure. Compact, plain, and lacking in adornment or outward ostentation. A selection of sacred texts from religions around the world are displayed on a bench outside the sanctuary. The chapel itself meant to be a place free of dogma or judgment, an invitation to meditation. One leaves bright Houston sunlight and enters the chapel through darkened glass doors. Inside, an intimate, silent interior of deep subdued natural light diffused through textured linen across the ceiling. Rothko's panels of dark, nearly black paint (not true black but composed of the weight and somberness of dense, layered color) hang suspended from unadorned walls in singular and triptych arrangements. Each painting faces a low bench for contemplation placed to form an inner octagon. The paintings loom in the dim light. The chapel holds all of it: the barely-there light, the dark panels, silence.
I walked close to one of the Rothko panels and and simply stood, resting in the dark hues, the mysterious shapes in the black-not-black strokes of the artist's brush. Meditation. Contemplation. The sacred within. I thought of another artist, the words hand-scrawled across one of Cy Twombly's expansive wall canvases - "In the atrium of melancholia."
The Rothko Chapel is an altogether different form of quiet than the sepulchral white space Cy Twombly designed for his own work. Walking distance from the Rothko Chapel, Twombly's gallery houses a bold narrative of paint and poetry: mega-sized panels of white paint energetically imbued with shapes and hints of color, hand-written lines of poetry from Rilke, and nuanced, fragmented thoughts of the artist's own. An atrium of melancholia.
These words come back to me later in the Rothko Chapel with their suggestion of mood, an inward ache, openness. An atrium opens to light, growth, and greening. Perhaps Rothko and Twombly, in these oppositional spaces of dark and light, circle the same understanding.
Shining white air/ trembling
reflected in the white/
- scrawled in charcoal on a painting, Cy Twombly, The Cy Twombly Gallery
There is so much more to say about this, but let me leave with this idea: Art invites us into ourselves. What we take from art is not what the artist frames on the wall, but what we give to what we see, feel, experience. We find our own talismans. Art is an experience that takes place within, in the atrium of the self.
March 3, 2016
The incremental arrival of spring. A cycle of winds, light rains, brief stillnesses and squares of sun. Stillness and push. Reflection and awareness. The gravid lull that awaits transition in the seasons. A strong sense of push. The change in daylight and energies now. There is much to do, more to accomplish. Tender green shoots break earth beneath skies that battle for dominance between light and dark, cold and warm, stillness and push.
We are sojourners on this earth. Humanity born of a nomadic people's intimate knowledge of estrangement: a thinking people's intuition of loss. For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding.
Are we not endlessly traveling the days and seasons, essentially animal? And
inventing and imagining, seekers of meaning? We find ourselves uncertain of our ground of being.
We don't know where we belong, but in times of sorrow it doesn't seem to be here, here with these silly pansies and witless mountains, here with sponges and hard-eyed birds. In times of sorrow the innocence of the other creatures - from whom and with whom we evolved - seems a mockery. Their ways are not our ways. We seem set among them as among lifelike props for a tragedy - or a broad lampoon - on a thrust rock stage.
- Annie Dillard, "Teaching a Stone to Talk"
"Teaching a Stone to Talk," is fittingly subtitled "Expeditions and Encounters." Dillard's essays tease out the subtleties in nature, the hidden truths of human dislocation. Her thoughts on human solitude and our mysterious role as "sojourners of spirit" on a harsh, physical planet, reminds us the earth's seasons express the unambiguous truth of the elements.
Wind, rain, dark, light.
February 25, 2016
I see you washing my handkerchiefs,
hanging at the window
my worn-out socks,
your figure on which everything,
all pleasure like a flare-up,
fell without destroying you,
of every day,
again a human being,
as you have to be in order to be
not the swift rose
that love's ash dissolves
but all of life,
all of life with soap and needles,
with the smell that I love
of the kitchen that perhaps we shall not have
and in which your hand among the fried potatoes
and your mouth singing in the winter
until the roast arrives
would be for me the permanence
of happiness on earth.
- "Not Only the Fire," Pablo Neruda, THE CAPTAIN'S VERSES, 1952
This stanza, from a longer poem by the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, is subversive, subtle. The poet moves from love note to his lover into an intimate song to the same woman, the woman he has made his life with - "little wife of every day." I think often of this phrase and its aching tender recognition of the dignity of daily life. The hours, or perhaps years, past the fiery affair filled by the plain, sweet mundane. Neruda's recognition of his own joy in the simple wrenching domesticity of his life asks me to consider my ordinary tasks today.
Today's list of things to do is nothing fancy. My heart is not in them but is instead thinking of words and pages, the revising and editing I've still to complete. At the top of my list, dealing with bills that are due, then gathering the last of the tax data, followed by a trip to the post office to forward on packets of mail to my kids. A drop off at the dry cleaner, the return of an item to a store, and oh yes, getting in a work out. A chunk of time. A chunk of time not writing.
I read the list again, slowly this time. Where is the love here? In everything. Dropping this passport in the mail for a trip to South Korea and Japan will thrill the recipient, the tax help marks a new graduate's first professional job, the rose-patterned dress to return nonetheless reminds me of spring. I think of my family, their dear faces, the laughter and moments together. Aren't these humble tasks Neruda's "worn-out socks," the "hand among the fried potatoes," my celebration of "life with soap and needles"?
Hello chore list, little wife of every day. There is life to be lived here.
February 18, 2016
Wedding Day, February 18, 1989
Permit me a moment, will you, of reflection and tenderness. Share with me the memory of a great and kind man. On this date, twenty-seven years ago, I married Kenneth Grunzweig. Were he still alive, tomorrow would be his 73rd birthday.
There were many years between us. As if Ken traveled the world once, and then traveled it again just for me. Ken's charm and brilliant wit were legendary. His inner grace and his capacity for compassion and loyalty endure in the hearts of those who knew him or called him friend. Since his passing, in 2003, I find comfort in the knowledge our children tenderly honor him; and that they have lived their lives in a way he would be proud of. I am grateful for the beautiful imprint of exuberant joy he left upon our souls.
The hidden pearl in the oyster, a marriage is nurtured in mystery. Its secret intimacies unique to its ways, and redolent in this sensuous imagery from Barbara Howes.
A LETTER FROM THE CARIBBEAN
by Barbara Howes
Breezeways in the tropics winnow the air,
Are ajar to its least breath
But hold back, in a feint of architecture,
The boisterous sun
Pouring down upon
The island like a cloudburst. They
Slant to loft air, they curve, they screen
The wind's wild gaiety
Which tosses palm
Branches about like a marshal's plumes.
Within this filtered, latticed
World, where spools of shadow
Form, lift and change,
The triumph of incoming air
Is that it is there,
Cooling and salving us. Louvres,
Trellises, vines -music also-
Shape the arboreal wind, make skeins
Of it, and a maze
To catch shade. The days
Are all variety, blowing;
Aswirl in a perpetual current
Of wind, shadow, sun,
I marvel at the capacity
Which, in some deep pocket
Of my mind, preserves you whole-
As a wind is wind, as the lion-taming
Sun is sun, you are, you stay;
Nothing is lost, nothing has blown away.
There is grief. Disoriented yearning. The stunned understanding of wordless truths life sings deep in our souls. My love letter to this man, my warrior of fierce heart, became the memoir published by Broadway Books in 2008, "The Geography of Love." This was our story, the landscape of unforgettable relationship. And his story, a road of stunning loss, and courage. But where does the wounded heart turn?
by Louise Gluck
What joy touches
the solace of ritual? A void
appears in life.
A shock so deep, so terrible,
levels the perceived world. You were
a beast at the edge of its cave, only
waking and sleeping. Then
the minute shift; the eye
taken by something.
Spring: the unforeseen
flooding the abyss.
And the life
filling again. And finally a place
found for everything.
Something new roots slowly: a raw unfamiliar perspective. One that is not grief. Dark and strong as steel and forged from loss, yes. But also rare, intricate and fine. Frost on a windowpane. The human heart, a dragonfly in amber. Through the years I have grown stronger in my conviction that all living energies are connected, and nothing is truly lost. Memory, indelible if fleeting, will always find us. . . a scent in the air. We have only to know love.
February 11, 2016
All large tasks are completed in a series of starts.
- Neil Fiore
Better by far to write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all.
- Katherine mansfield
There you sit. Your notes are lined up, you've been dreaming the scenes, jotting down dialogue in the middle of the night. You fall asleep, thinking, Tomorrow is the day. Definitely the day.
Only you wake up standing at the far edge of yourself. Your computer sits open, humming, waiting for you to give your work wings. You make another pot of tea, stand at the window of your work space and consider the sky. In time you walk to your desk, sit down and drop your head on those stacks of perfectly arranged notes and research.
I think the difficulty of starting a major work or undertaking a chunk of new work on something already in progress is different than the experience of procrastination. Procrastination, for me, suggests a deep-seated discomfort or dislike of the work itself that renders any other activity or errand vastly more appealing. We procrastinate our taxes. We procrastinate cleaning out the boxes in the basement. We procrastinate caulking the tub. Writing is something I LOVE to do. A way of stepping out of time, riding the electric current as far and fast as it will take me. So why am I right this minute avoiding the start of a major revision?
Art psychologist Eric Maisel notes that many, if not most artists have trouble starting
. His opinion is that "It is not the journey that daunts so much as the packing for the journey; not the writing of the song, but the packing away of the untidy doubts, fears, and self-recriminations."
This hit home.
Packing for the journey
. Emotional readiness. In my case, staring down a third-pass revision. Managing an intricate reworking of characters and plot, and developing as-yet unimagined new material into the core of my story. Shoot me now.
I have the skills. I know how to do this. I have done it before. I also know this is a process that wholly consumes
my mind and my time. Dinners are not made, sleep is scant, the telling ache of carpal tunnel creeps back into my wrists, I miss the sun as it rises and sets. Day after day I tap away on my keyboard, butt numb in the chair. This is about going under, going deep, holding my breath as long as I possibly can and getting as much done on each dive as possible. Urgency hovers in my thoughts. Fear of losing a promising thread or floundering in a firehose of inspiration. Life flows somewhere above the surface of this project, marching on without me, leaving me behind in the time I am down deep, deep in the dark murk of what I will have to trust my instincts to navigate and that alone
scares the hell out of me. After all, instincts get you to a draft, and that gets you to revision, but all along you're making mistakes and only occasionally hitting the mark. The work doesn't stand as a whole yet. We mine in the dark.
Maisel is right. This thing that has me dodging my office in favor of sorting the junk drawer in the kitchen is fear. Fear of not getting the words right; of working hard and coming up empty - or worse, wrecking what I already have. It is fear of not being good enough, trained enough, or capable of the herculean challenges ahead. Of wasting time. A lifetime. Fear crouches on the moment we open the paint tube, label the word document, adjust the camera aperture, declare ourselves ready to begin. It feels impossible
to pack enough courage and faith.
We circle the entrance to the maze, unable to step in.
The antidote to fear is faith. Faith in the work. Trust we will accomplish what we set out to do. Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa's mouth many, many times. Not because the painting was difficult, but because there was something more to be said. He worked to capture an expression he had yet to paint to his satisfaction. And because of this, the Mona Lisa's originality haunts us. Picasso famously declared, "To copy oneself is pathetic." We admire the bull-headedness and willingness to take risks of writers and artists like Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso. When I think about the novel revision ahead, my goal is no less determined. My intention is not to produce patches and fillers but more daunting and intangible: getting the story right.
But personally, if I ever felt good enough to copy myself I'd be thrilled.
Let me leave you with this quote from Hemingway to Robert Cantwell in 1950, addressing criticism but more to the point, the importance of answering only to the critic within:
Book is truly very good ["Across the River and Into the Trees"]. You pan it to hell if you don't like it. That is your right and duty. But I have read it 206 times to try and make it better and to cut out any mistakes or injustices and on the last reading I loved it very much and it broke my fucking heart for the 206th time. This is only a personal reaction and should be dis-counted as such. But I have been around quite a while reading and writing and can tell shit from the other things. . . But pan it, ride it, or kill it if you should or if you can.
By the way, "Across the River and Into the Trees" is soon to be made into a major film. Hemingway knew his work would stand the test of time. So pack your bag for the journey. Leave your doubts and worries in the drawer. Take only what you need to make the most of your time in the deep end. As for me? I start tomorrow.
February 5, 2016
There is no person without a world.
- "Autobiography of Red," Anne Carson, 1998
The manual on you. What do you know about your own operating instructions? There is no author's note. The expert on you, is you.
We are one complete and unique universe - patterned from spirit, bordered by skin, powered by the mind, guided by thought, and infused by heart. The Reference Text on Me - the schematic of how each of us functions - lies somewhere over there on the shelf. Dusty, dog-eared, coffee-stained, tear-stained, face-down and the spine broken. Consulted again and again. . .or perhaps not at all anymore.
Beryl Markham, the daring aviator and adventurer, renowned for her fearless explorations throughout Africa, once said, "You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself." We putter along like wood moles, blindly nosing down familiar ruts in search of life's delicacies and hidden secrets. Often enough the best experts on our inner lives are the people we live with. How clearly they see our inanities. Point out our predictable, vulnerable weaknesses; affirm our quiet and simple strengths.
We share vast continents of ourselves with our loved ones, but only we
know the many facets of our innermost wishes and dreams, the languished old wounds, misgivings, regrets. In truth, the complex reality of one person's world is known fully only by that person. Yet 360* of self-awareness is not necessarily a place of understanding each of us is sure to summit.
Become acquainted. With you. Update the manual. From time to time delete information that is outdated, add new chapters that speak to major changes. And with each rereading, share wisely some of what has shifted with those that have the "old you" on their shelves. Have we not ourselves been surprised by changes in a family member or a friend after an interlude apart? That more than an address or hair color is radically altered? Changes may be so subtle we need to look closely, or highlight for others what they may have grown too familiar with to see. The manual basics may remain unchanged, but the troubleshooting section is certain to be frequently consulted.
We are each a "work in progress." In a good way. A story that adds to itself, edits and highlights, and on occasion leads down an untrod path only to circle back out again and dive off to the side.
What's new in your world today?