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

The shoes that climbed Gonergrat, Switzerland

QUINTESSENCE

Riding the Dream

May 24, 2016

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

"Riding the Dream," Cross-Country America, 2016

This week's post is in special honor of two extraordinary guys. My first husband Kenneth Grunzweig, and, his best friend, Perry. Ken died of lung cancer in 2003. A lifelong marathoner and long-distance cyclist, his unexpected illness and death was a shock and a terrible loss. Perry had been friends with Ken for most of their San Francisco years, and he is the godfather of our daughter, Kate. On May 7th, Perry and his fellow adventurers embarked on a cross-country cycling challenge: Los Angeles to Boston. Perry is riding in honor of Ken, an incredible tribute to their friendship.

Briefly, here is an excerpt of Perry's letter to his cycling mates, friends, and our family:

As an introduction, my name is Perry. I am 68 and Durango, Colorado has been my home for the last 20 years.

This bicycle thing got a hold of me at a young age when I ordered a new 10 speed bicycle from Birmingham, England. Shortly thereafter I achieved my Boy Scout Cycling merit badge and it was all down hill from there, so to speak.

The seed for a bike ride across America was planted by my very best friend and bicycle buddy, Ken. He and I were on a three week self-contained bike tour from Missoula, Montana to Jasper, Alberta. We were resting somewhere in the Canadian Rockies, looking at our 50 pound bicycles, when Ken said to me, " Ya know Perry, we could take a credit card and a change of clothes and motel our way across the country without all this shit we are hauling with us." We shared that dream and talked about it every once in awhile, but sadly, Ken died of lung cancer before we could make that ultimate ride.

Ken died, but the dream did not. So with Ken in my heart, and with a photo of him front and center on the head tube of my bicycle I am going to ride our dream in his honor and in his memory.

My efforts to ride across America have been recognized by a private philanthropist, who, upon my successful arrival in Boston, will make a donation to the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation (lungcancerfoundation.org)

My family and friends have been very supportive, some are amazed, and some think I should have done ride this 30 years ago.


I know you will understand when I tell you how moved I am by Perry's undertaking and fundraising in Ken's name. How deeply honored my kids and I are by Perry's tribute. Indeed, this ride is just the thing Ken would do. When Kate was born, he made her a tiny personalized American Express card. She had his heart, his wallet, and a ticket to her dreams, he said with a chuckle. Often, especially on a family camping trip, Ken would muse that his real idea of roughing it was the "nearest Hilton in the woods." In a summer during high school my son cycled with an adventure group across the country - porting his gear and supplies, camping coast to coast - something he would have done with his father had they the opportunity. David is cheering Perry on. We all are.

I know Ken will be Perry's guardian on his adventure. Keep him out of trouble and make sure he has fun. Ken, always funny, deeply loyal, adventurous, and courageous, knew how to cherish and protect the ones he loved. He also knew how to have a good time - even if he had a famously terrible sense of direction and zero skills as a camp cook, the man could be counted on to bring a great wine. He was the wit and laughter of the party. As you may know, Ken is the central subject of my 2008 memoir, THE GEOGRAPHY OF LOVE.

So here's to you, Perry. You've got the Rocky Mountains over your shoulder by now. And here's to the end of lung cancer - to all cancers. We lose too many of those we love too soon.

Archeologists On Site

May 19, 2016

Tags: intention, nature, the moderns, art and creation, patterns


I have looked and looked
for myself,
not sure

who I am, or where,
or, more importantly, why.


- Mary Oliver, from A River Far Away and Long Ago

My daughter graduates from medical school next week. From California and from across Washington we will gather at her hooding ceremony as she receives her degree with honors in medicine. I will be filled with thoughts that if they weren't so familiar to all of you... What a long strange journey it's been. The years bound up in talismans and objects, symbols and charms.

I thought back to a post here, written exactly two years ago. I was having a conversation with my daughter on the ways her college major in Art History prepared her for medicine. The study of art was a path of joy for her, a genuine, lifelong passion, and midway through her medical studies, she noted the unexpected ways one passion had bridged to another. Art History had become her foundation for the study of medicine. She spoke about the ways understanding, cataloguing, researching, and appreciating art taught her to notice details; trained her to retain enormous amounts of relevant, sometimes incomplete data; underscored the importance of provenance (source and diagnosis); and developed skills in correlation and interpretation. "Learning to see," she said, "comes before knowing what it is you're looking at."

This thought has stayed with me. I had the experience, as many of us have, of helping someone close down a house awhile ago. As I helped to sort and toss, piling things for charity, for the dump, for storage, I thought about all the ways "stuff" stands as this great, strange emporium of our lives. A map of experiences and transitions. A personal imprint left behind. A room of 1000-piece puzzle boxes... Owned by someone who loved intricate challenges, or an extremely lonely person? Baby gifts in their original wrapping, never given. Canning jars in multiples; light bulbs, winter tires. A wine cellar with an impressive collection hidden behind a messy and cluttered junk room. A grand unfinished library. A cross-bow. A broken violin. Bulk stale chocolates. Mismatched diningware and drawers and drawers of holiday tea towels. Fake flowers with the price tags on. A dog's ashes in an unmarked tin canister on the mantle.

Personal belongings speak a strange truth: what we are drawn to, once found precious, what things we ignore or leave behind. Some of us believe everything, even junk, has value and nothing of value should be dismissed. Or we are minimalists - too burdened by objects to invite them in. Maybe we are sentimentalists carrying the objects of generations around with us - human "family attics."

Kristine Trego, PhD, Professor of Classics at Bucknell University and underwater shipwreck archeologist, spoke to a group of us in the Mediterranean about her work on ancient Greek trading vessels off the coast of Turkey. From the most mundane daily objects in a sunken ship's galley she was able to gain insight into the daily lives of people from long ago: a weighted candle cup, a remnant of navigation, small good luck charms. Foods from multiple lands suggest the origin of the crew or the ship's trading path.

Dr. Trego was fascinated by the human tendency to collect: a passion shared with other species as it turns out. Inside an almost perfectly preserved amphora found on the sea floor, her divers disturbed a small octopus. Inside his watery pottery "home" were artifacts from a nearby shipwreck the archeologists were interested in recovering. When they reached into the jar remove an item, the octopus snaked out an arm and pulled it back. This tug-of-war went on without end, much to the amusement of the divers, finally prompting the crew to make a rule in honor of this creature's tenacity: No one was allowed to catch or eat any of the critters inhabiting the objects of the wreck. Bad karma, their thinking went. The sea dwellers were the "archeologists on site" before the humans were.

I've often wondered at the public appeal (and melancholy) of anonymous thrift stores, yard sales, and auctions. Curiosity and sadness lies in the exposure of the contents of our "jars." When we are gone or move on, without context these once-important things seem to diminish and lose their luster, take on a worn fragility. We turn the objects over in our hands, wondering what on earth someone would do with a can of bent nails.

As my daughter packs up her student life to head east for residency, she is thinning through the objects - the stuff - in her young life. Parsing memories from objects, aligning value and function. Wrapping with care. As the great British designer and curator William Morris, the focus of her thesis, famously said, "Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful."

It's not a bad rule for the inside of our heads either.

Transience and Imperfection

May 12, 2016

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

Gardens of Kyoto: branch supports, moss, cherry blossom petals

THE SOUL FOX
by David Mason

My love, the fox is in the yard.
The snow will bear his print a while,
then melt and go, but we who saw
his way of finding out, his night
of seeking, know what we have seen
and are the better for it. Write.
let the white page bear the mark,
then melt with joy upon the dark.


My recent travels throughout Japan and her islands have left me with a profound appreciation of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, as indelible to the Japanese expression of beauty as classical composition and line is to the Greek.

Often described as an aesthetic infused with the beauty of "the impermanent, the imperfect, and the incomplete," wabi originally referred to the loneliness of living in nature, remote from society, and sabi meant "chill", "lean" or "withered." Wabi now connotes a gentler rustic simplicity, freshness, or quietness of both natural and human-made objects. An understated elegance. It can refer to the unexpected unique: the marks or anomalies in construction that add originality and elegance to the object. Sabi is that beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear. Sabi encompasses the imperfection and its visible repairs. I think of a cracked piece of worn pottery. The 300 year old branches of a pine tree leaning on man-made supports across the pond. Wabi-sabi mirrors the inherent integrity of the natural world. Extended to the arts, or to a philosophy of life itself, wabi-sabi connotes elements of the unique, asymmetry, asperity, austerity, simplicity, intimacy, modesty. The appeal and the flaws in all that is organic.

Buddhist author Taro Gold has described wabi-sabi as "the wisdom and beauty of imperfection." Several definitions of wabi-sabi address the lingering emotional impact of the artistic world I experienced in Japan. Performances from drumming to geisha dance, curated objects of both the ordinary everyday and those of prized rarity. Extraordinary landscape gardens both grand or intimate, and the elaborate but intriguing meal presentations. "Wabi-sabi," Richard Powell writes, "nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect." Andrew Juniper succinctly addresses what I frequently felt throughout Japan, "If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi."

Understanding emptiness and imperfection is honored as the first step to satori, or enlightenment. In today's Japan, the meaning of wabi-sabi is often condensed to "wisdom in natural simplicity." In art books, it is typically defined as "flawed beauty." For me, wandering through zen gardens perfected in moment by moment evolutions...where the smallest corner of a garden holds a rock basin of rain water reflecting leaf and sky, wabi-wabi carries within it a sense of presence. Attention to the moment; to existence in all its profound renewal and decay. And to balance between what is natural and man-made design. The raked white rocks of the Zen meditation garden are not to be trod upon but to invite reflection. The fallen pink cherry blossoms scattered by the breeze on the forest moss are a distinct beauty: a perfection separate from the riotous bloom of the blossom upon the tree. When we pause to appreciate the patina of an antique, the weathered barn, the accidental poetry of birdsong against a thunderous sky, we experience wabi-sabi.

The Japanese venerate the old. The poignancy of time on all things. What I brought home with me from my travels was a sense that everything is at all times in transience and imperfection. This asymmetry, this attachment and release, is our deepest sense of understanding of what it is to exist.

Traveling

April 13, 2016

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

Musician, Berne, Switzerland

The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.
– 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.

Sayonara for now.

A Crooked Letter

April 6, 2016

Tags: patterns, nature, art and creation, intention, family, loss, finding joy

Olive trees shading a stairway to The Acropolis, Athens

PRAYER 26
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.
Suffer

no fools, no dogma. When she died, I sleuthed her shelves. She read
everything - Buddhist philosophy, AARP magazine.
The Art

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.
- 1.11.2013


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?

Carries a Notebook

March 25, 2016

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


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,
magenta, orange,
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.


Rewaking

March 17, 2016

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

Cypripedium acaule - lady slipper

THE REWAKING
Sooner or later
we must come to the end
of striving

to re-establish
the image the image of
the rose

but not yet
you say extending the
time indefinitely

by
your love until a whole
spring

rekindle
the violet to the very
lady's-slipper

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."

Of Talismans and Atriums

March 9, 2016

Tags: art and creation, solitude, presence, intention


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
white light/
reflected in the white/
flat sea

- 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.

Sojourn Through Stillness and Push

March 3, 2016

Tags: nature, patterns, presence, solitude, art and creation


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.


Life With Soap and Needles

February 25, 2016

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


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,
again,
little wife
of every day,
again a human being,
humbly human,
proudly poor,
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.