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Quintessence ~ the essence of a thing in its purest and most concentrated form. Substance composing the celestial bodies.
The shoes that climbed Gonergrat, Switzerland
December 2, 2016
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.
November 17, 2016
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.
November 25, 2012
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.
November 10, 2016
I'VE BROUGHT TO ART
Blue Lagoon, Capri
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.
October 31, 2016
FLOWERS BEFORE DARK
Flowers of Gutenberg
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.
- 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.
October 20, 2016
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.
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,
October 14, 2016
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
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.
September 21, 2016
VARIATION ON A THEME BY RILKE
[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?
September 13, 2016
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.
August 31, 2016
WAKING THIS MORNING DREAMLESS AFTER LONG SLEEP
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
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.
MONDAY MORNING, LATE SUMMER
On the fence
in the sunlight,
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.