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QUINTESSENCE

The Honey of Life's Busyness

July 17, 2017

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

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

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

- from "August," Louise Gluck

The tension between imagined life and reality. The dream and the truth. What we dream our lives to be and the way we see them unfold; our tomorrows, construction projects of the imagination. Poet Louise Gluck's young narrator is confident she will be sure when actual life begins. When life, as imagined, will spread in technicolor across the white screen of summer days. The poet observes, "Our lives were stored in our heads."

Some of us wait, and are lost in the waiting. Some of lost looking longingly over our shoulders.

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

We are not meant to abandon our futures absorbed in nostalgia, lost in musings, in fixation upon the past. Today must not be a souvenir of yesterday, philosopher Robert Henri warns. Life is found within the common hours of our days, here in the honey of life's busyness. The vanishing moments that link days to years, that hang like droplets of dew in the throat of an iris.

This universe of one is a universe of many. And it is beautiful. And ordinary. A summer of books, the radio, and colored lawn chairs.

Rhythms

June 20, 2017

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

THE NEWS
by Joshua Mehigan

What happened today? Where did it go?
The raindrops dot the window and roll down.
One taps the glass, another, three at a time,
warping the view of black trees limbs and sky.
Long hush, quick crescendo. Wind leans on the sash.
Behind me in the shadows sleep two cats.
Nearby, like something small deposited
tenderly by a big wind on the bed,
my wife sleeps deeply through the afternoon.
The sky is gray. What color is the sky?
Rhinoceros? Volcanic dune? Moon dust?
Breast of mourning dove? Gray butterfly?
Blank newsprint. There's no news, no news at all,
and will be none,
until, at long last, in the other room,
one light comes on, and then another one.


Much of 2017 has unfolded for me as though it were an existential play. We are now somewhere in the middle act. A startled audience, debating amongst ourselves if this violent dramatic arc in world news, and personal local news, is growing exponentially more unreal and negative, or if our minds have simply not yet grasped, This is the way things are now.

I remember childhood conversations with my father as he told me the stories of his father, an army commander, a prisoner of war killed near the end of the second world war. How everyone around him in those days felt confused, dazed by the news of the day. This cannot be real, they said. No, this cannot be real. This falling of nations, these public squares of screaming fascism, plans for calculated genocide, squads of fanatic teenagers, dirt mounded on the unmarked graves of murdered children. An entire planet finally pressed by a horrific enormity of events that "could not be real" to take up arms against the most human of aggressions, power and hatred.

When we walk in the footsteps of the wars across Europe, these ghosts are never far. The wars before, and since. When we turn on the news of the day, the media box foments back at us with rage and hatred and murderous prejudice. Can this be real? Has nothing changed?

I don't have answers. I can't begin to foresee the future for our next generation. The world is rapidly and continuously changing its geography, cultures, and concepts of its own humanity. I sometimes feel as the poet above -- the news of our times is lost in translation. Is hatred a shape? Is that volcanic or stone disbelief? Rose red graves? Or the garden, there, half touched with dew in the midmorning sun.

I listen to the rhythm of the rain; of the dog, breathing heavily, stretched out on his side and asleep by the back porch door. The fast-beating fury of the hummingbird as it plunders the lavender. That unhurried galleon of trailing cloud tilting and slipping across the sky. Rhythms. The half-phrased poems of life. The heartbeat of the world, the word. The news.

Tending the Quiet

June 5, 2017

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


I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.
Loaf with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.


Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Song of Myself (5)

One of the lingering impressions of the wine country in France I carried home is of the peacefulness of the cultivated fields. Especially in early mornings. Alone I walked the dust and gravel paths at the perimeters of the many small and neatly tended vineyards in Champagne. The hour was not exactly quiet, but within, I felt quiet. And I found myself listening.

First there was the riotous joy of full-throated birdsong. Then there was the sound of the light breeze, ruffling its way down the neat rows of vines. The fields slept, the workday not yet begun. I looked at the growing vines. Each gnarled root dark and whorled with age, the young vines rising, unfurling along the trellised lines in a lattice of interlinking green bowers. I thought about the patient work that is a vineyard. Each vine hand-tended throughout the years. Its well-being shepherded through drought, or a too-cool spring or late hail storm. The hands of the vigneron testing vines and nipping suckers or ill-formed leaves, always encouraging the root to pump its life force into the strongest vines and ripen a bounty of grapes.

It is slow work in the fields. A worker may sit with pruning tools on his stool in the sun and work a single long row for an hour, or perhaps half a day, the time it takes to do the work thoroughly and perfectly. There is no rush with wine.

One morning I noticed there was evidence of blackened earth at the base of the low stone wall that bordered the fields, and nearby piles of loose straw, eight to fifteen feet apart. I learned there had been an unexpected May frost and fires were lit in the night from the straw along the stone walls, the smoke furling along the rows, its warmth protecting the young vines. I thought about the truth of nurturing any growing thing. It is a partnership, an understanding, and a rhythm. The process cannot be rushed, each task must suit its need; born of everything unpredictable about life itself. When we nurture a thing we take responsibility for it. We must give nature space and accept the variability of what lies ahead. It may be a season of sun and perfect rain. It may be a season throttled in the soil, or by a killing frost, a blight. But still we cultivate, we tend, we are patient. We hope.

I was thinking of Whitman this morning on my walk through the green sunlit neighborhoods. About the whisper of the soul and how it frequently speaks to us in the quiet, in the ambient lull, the pause. And that we must listen. As our hands tend the vines of our daily tasks perhaps we can slow our hours down, give the soul a space to speak in. Cultivate ourselves.

Threshold Between Worlds

May 4, 2017

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

BOTH WORLDS

Forever busy, it seems,
with words,
finally
I put the pen down

and crumple
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
keeps happening:

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, as many do, on the threshold of crisis, unsure of your next step, may you find comfort as I have in the truth of Mary Oliver's simple observation, "out of the silent dirt the blood-red roses rise."

Take a moment. Leave your work, set aside worry, step gratefully into the world. We exist at the threshold of possibility.

Years From Now

April 14, 2017

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

Pompeii

ONE HUNDRED YEARS FROM NOW
excerpt from Within my Power by Forest Witcraft

One Hundred Years from now
It will not matter
What kind of car I drove,
What kind of house I lived in,
How much money was in my bank account
Nor what my clothes looked like.
But the world may be a better place
Because I was important in the life of a child.


In 2009 my son's high school teacher for AP Senior English completed the academic year by having each student in his class submit two or three poems they particularly cared about for a class anthology. "Verses from Yesteryear for Future Perusal," the students titled their booklet. The poems ranged in subject and style from Khalil Gibran to Shel Silverstein, Robert Frost to Billy Collins, Stephen Crane to e.e. cummings. The poem cited above is taken from the poems submitted by the students in this class.

There are many reasons a poem may strike us as grand or meaningful or inspiring. But this poem, an excerpt from a longer verse, struck me as significant for the long view it offers of life and what constitutes a meaningful existence. And notably, that a seventeen or eighteen-year-old would choose this poem, find value in mentoring, and choose to continue that thread throughout adult life. We frequently dismiss our youth as self-centered or shallow, but in fact, I have found the opposite to be true. Ask a young person what truly matters in the world, and you will receive a very thoughtful answer.

Today in the aftermath of the dropping of MOAB, the biggest bomb in the US arsenal, on a vague and undefined target for vague and undefined reasons, I think about the state of the world we grown-ups are leaving our young. What we wear may not matter, but the world we leave behind for our children does. Next week, April 21 marks the anniversary of the founding of the great city of Rome. For 2770 years the old city has stood upon the seven hills above the Tiber. A crossroads of cultures, a place of magnificent temples and cathedrals, rare and beautiful art, old stone and older shadows still, marble war monuments, and layers upon layers of the triumphs and losses of human history.

Rome is a testament to the endurance of life, to the passage of beliefs and cultures and dominions. Proof our future is built upon the past. Should we not want to leave our children something they, too, can build upon? Should we not all want Rome?

Let me end this post with one last poem from the student anthology.

a song with no end
by Charles Bukowski

when Whitman wrote, "I sing the body electric"

I know what he
meant
I know what he
wanted:

to be completely alive every moment
in spite of the inevitable

we can't cheat death but we can make it
work so hard
that when it does take
us

it will have known a victory just as
perfect as
ours.




Tunnels of Time

March 29, 2017

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

Ostia Antica, Italy
BUDAPEST
My pen moves along the page
like the snout of a strange animal
shaped like a human arm
and dressed in the sleeve of a loose green sweater.

I watch it sniffing the paper ceaselessly,
intent as any forager that has nothing
on its mind but the grubs and insects
that will allow it to live another day.

It wants only to be here tomorrow,
dressed perhaps in the sleeve of a plaid shirt,
nose pressed against the page,
writing a few more lines

while I gaze out the window and imagine Budapest
or some other city where I have never been.

- Billy Collins



This complicated, imperfect, imbalanced journey through life.

To you. To all that is required. To that parenthesis around the ridiculous dead-ends; the difficult, often needless "learning experiences." The self-confidence that maybe didn't arrive until late, almost passing us by. Here we are, arrived at some embarrassing "what-have-you-been-up-to" adult decade, arm-chair fossils of thinking and living. And yet. Your tales of self-discovery, the thrashing near-drowning. The bumbling, insecure, hopeful human being that miraculously aged into self-assurance by sheer survival. Has not time left a thing fine and unbreakable in youth's place?

Time occasionally finds us on the right or wrong side of some imaginary mark in the sand. A bar others seem to vault with greater ease. A cherished goal, unmet. Let the anxiety go. Celebrate victories. Live life on your own terms. This is the true prize. The becoming of you.

We are here, my friends. Lost and found. Here in the raw, relentless beauty of the world.

Rewaking

March 15, 2017

Tags: nature, patterns, finding joy, intention, love

Ladyslipper
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 theme of renewal this month - of spirit, heart, and mind - has a beautiful resonance. The limning of new green on the tree branches outside my study speaks to the budding within of hope and expectation. There is something about 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 and build a bridge to somewhere. To throw the window open and breathe deep of sunshine and the dazzling colors of spring.

This poem by William Carlos Williams is a favorite. "The Rewaking" reminds me that some essential essence of life and joy may be re-found through the mysteries of love. That perceived reality and the invisible real dance in many robes of perception, and the presence of happiness reshapes all things. The poet speaks of love as a force of nature, capable of reviving even the sun. And so we pause, and notice the new violet in the garden. We rekindle joy, restore what weariness may have caused us to believe forever lost, and come again to "the image the image of the rose."

Solitaire

February 28, 2017

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


BEARING THE LIGHT
by Denise Levertov

Rain-diamonds, this winter morning,
embellish the tangle of unpruned
pear-tree twigs; each solitaire,
placed, it appears, with considered
judgement, bears the light
beneath the rifted clouds -- the indivisible
shared out in endless abundance.


I love this poem for the imagery -- rain-diamonds -- and the concept of light, intense and undeniable, a force or perhaps presence, cast freely into the world. Light, magnified and scattered with considered judgement through uncounted natural solitaires. One thinks of not just literal raindrops sparkling on naked pear-tree branches in the winter light, but of each living thing. The prism of light cast into the world. Our human presence, each solitaire embellishing the universe with our brilliant, bright individual lives. In the coming weeks, in the slow limning of the bare branch in tender green and velvet bud as the sun returns from the south, let us hold close this pure and simple imagery. Rain-diamonds on tangled twigs.

In every day of every month, in each corner of sky and earth, seek the light and praise the solitaire. Let us gather the joy, share it widely, be light-filled and welcome light into our lives, the indivisible shared out in endless abundance.

Claim Your Voice

February 15, 2017

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

Forsyth, Limbs Shadow

We have trouble connecting with our own confident writing voice that is inside all of us, and even when we do connect and write well, we don't claim it. I am not saying that everyone is Shakespeare, but I am saying that everyone has a genuine voice that can express his or her life with honest dignity and detail. There seems to be a gap between the greatness we are capable of and the way we see ourselves and, therefore, see our work.
~ from "Writing Down the Bones," Natalie Goldberg

This observation, by beloved creative writing guru Natalie Goldberg, can apply to almost any form of endeavor. Art is work, work is art. Our personal capabilities are often hobbled by our fears of inadequacy. We must first believe we can. An act of faith even harder in the wake of actual failure. Goldberg's observation identifies two stumbling blocks. When we do connect and do something well, we don't claim it. And second, mind the gap. That span between capability and confidence.

We know well the two-edged sword that divides confidence from critical consensus. How can we be aware and supportive of our developing inner voice when the room may be shouting in unison to do better, differently, or altogether stop? We need to be able to tune in and tune out, as well as listen in when the world really has something to say. How do we know when it's the right time to listen? It's instinctive I think. That inner sense that says, "Hey, wait. That made sense." Our genuine selves are stellar expressions of being. Doing our best work may mean staying out of the traffic intersection of public comment as long as possible. As Goldberg advises, find and own the voice that is yours alone. Then be confident of a place in the room.

I generally urge new writers in my workshops to go slow moving from a "work in progress" to feeling a work is ready for critique. I think supportive and positive critique groups are useful in any form of project development, including writing, but they can also strangle innovation, strip the twinkle right out of pizazz. Not everyone should or will choose to be public with creative work but the first step remains the same. Be genuine. Silence the inner (or outer) critic, and create.

We all have something worthy to say about the world.

A Floating Transparency

January 31, 2017

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

Runner in the clouds. The Jungfrau, The Bernese Alps, Switzerland
At work on the novel in progress at my desk, editing and rewriting from revision notes, I chanced to revisit a post written near the beginning of an earlier project. At that time I faced the challenges of the blank page. Much of that novel was worked out on the trails that cut across the bluff near my house. Three years and a novel later, after laying down several drafts and as many complete revisions on this new writing project, I have the added benefit of two draft reviews from outside readers, each read from different but complementary perspectives.

There are manuscript questions for the writer anchored to grammar, plot, and character distinctions, and there are matters of intent, the art of language, and theme. I deeply appreciate both perspectives. I gleaned the most however from an insightful read by a national book critic. This kind of wholistic review, from a professional who reads widely and with an eye to what makes a book work, proved invaluable in understanding the big picture narrative. And yet, and yet. The final answers are found on the bluff.

Some thoughts from January 2014~

Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would not otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man would have dreamed would come his way. I have learned a deep a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets: 'Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it. Begin now."

- W. H. Murray, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition

This essay by Scottish mountaineer W. H. Murray, collected by Steven Pressfield in a little gem of a creative kick-starter titled, "The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles," explores the mystery of the power of commitment. When we choose, we accomplish. When we commit, we begin. We undertake the necessary steps to move forward from intention to deed.

Many poets and writers -- Wordsworth, Whitman, Yeats, and of course Thoreau, Emerson, and Oliver -- understood physical movement as preparation for deep thinking. A preamble to engagement. Walking through hoar-frosted grasses beneath an oyster-colored sky of low cloud this morning, I caught myself problem solving, working a tenacious creative dilemma, unaware my conscious mind had defaulted to autopilot. A floating transparency linked my body and winter and movement through space. Far down the trail I had my problem solved simultaneous with an awareness of a nearby crow, the knowledge hawks actively hunt crows, and appreciation for a grand pine frosted in white, its clustered needles encased in frozen fog.

In running, a calm inner balance rises from the primary focus on breathing and stride. Like meditation, this single and simple focus, running, restructures the overburdened, fragmented mind. As concentration relaxes into a rhythmic groove, we release actively piloting the run. Mental chatter falls to the wayside, big ideas step forward, stress seeps away. On a vigorous extended walk, the rhythmic physical groove finds us sooner, with less effort. The mind leans back, trusting in the body's instinctual balance, and begins to surf the mental intranet. In this state the mind observes, pages through phrases and ideas, and effortlessly connects the random and mysterious. For me, running is a form of mental strength training while a walk is a free-climb.

How does this insight impact productivity habits? I begin with this straightforward question: What is needed? A break or a reboot, inspiration or new thinking? Beginning a work project has multiple entry points, with differing yields. Am I facing distraction? Do I need to open my thinking and push through a creative block? Pace my focus through a long haul effort?

I believe there are patterns within all of us that enhance thought and breath, movement and idea. What works for you?