Quintessence ~ the essence of a thing in its purest and most concentrated form. Substance composing the celestial bodies.
The shoes that climbed Gonergrat, Switzerland
May 16, 2013
"If you're an introvert, find your flow by using your gifts. You have the power of persistence, the tenacity to solve complex problems, and the clear-sightedness to avoid pitfalls that trip others up... So stay true to your own nature. If you like to do things in a slow and steady way, don't let others make you feel as if you have to race. If you enjoy death, don't force yourself to seek breadth. If you prefer single-tasking to multi-tasking, stick to your guns. Being relatively unmoved by rewards gives you incalculable power to go your own way. It's up to you to use that independence to good effect."
- Susan Cain, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking," Broadway Paperbacks, 2012.
Susan Cain published "Quiet" in 2012 and her book has sat on my bed table, waiting it's turn in the stack. The title of the book intrigued me and, left me feeling unaccountably defensive. I was, I admit it, reluctant to delve in. Quite right in guessing this unassuming, deeply researched book would shine a spotlight on precisely those aspects of myself I work very hard to "counterbalance."
Yes, I am an introvert; pretending, like thousands of others, to be at ease in the company of many - whether in a packed room, online, giving a presentation, navigating a crowded world. Over the years, roughly since the first grade, I observed our society rewards extroverts - the more social, vocally confident, group-oriented and popular, the better. So what to do if you are quiet, a book-lover, comfortable in solitude, drawn to a best friend not a posse? Fake it.
Susan Cain exposed my game. Her multi-faceted research explains the bias against introverts and how introverts cope in an extroverts' world. How introverts selectively use the tools available (for example, presentation and performance coaching, the written word, and online media) to function comfortably in an increasingly noisy, in-your-face connective culture. Organizational studies for "Quiet" (spanning an examination of the purposeful extroversion championed by the Harvard Business School, to the upper echelons of corporate and military America) exposes key ways the strengths of the introverted personality are frequently maligned or overlooked; the extremes to which extroversion is so highly valued for its confident hubris that others will follow an extrovert, right or wrong. Her work includes studies of reward feedback on human behavior, the effect of dopamine on the brain, and the linkage between the development of social appreciation for the characteristics of extroversion and the push for success in sales. Look a bit deeper however, and studies reveal the unexpected, quiet triumphs of non-charismatic thinkers in what are, after all, results-oriented paradigms.
Cain's work highlights the importance of knowing the difference between introverts and extroverts and appreciating the contributions of both styles of personality development. Her point is to know yourself and play to your strengths. Cain quotes Albert Einstein at the beginning of a chapter, "When Collaboration Kills Creativity" - I am a horse for a single harness, not cut out for tandem or teamwork... Full well do I know that in order to attain any definite goal, it is imperative that one person should do the thinking and commanding.
As a writer, an admitted introvert, and the parent of at least one happily introverted child, this declaration of independence in the pursuit of creative achievement has great meaning to me personally. Instead of instructors worrying about whether little Suzy or Johnny interfaces well in elementary school group-time, perhaps we should pay attention instead to what our children prefer to do
and how successful their efforts are.
Cain's point is that there are great strengths in what introverts do best that should be encouraged and allowed to flourish. Where would we be without the well known introverts of our world? The Van Goghs, Wozniaks, Einsteins, and Kafkas - even Theodore Geisel (Dr. Suess)... We are a powerful mixture of biology (psychological inclination) and free will - to work and perform in the ways we function best, to collaborate effectively not blindly, to focus on personal effectiveness, not frustration. And above all, to be at peace with ourselves. Cain quotes Anais Nin in her final chapter and it feels fitting to end this review of "Quiet" with Nin's words - Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts. We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for a center. So we lost our center and have to find it again.
May 7, 2013
In travel, as in most exertions, timing is everything.
Temple of Hera, Valley of Temples, Agrigento, Sicily
- Paul Theroux, "The Pillars of Hercules"
A good book is the kindest of companions. It accompanies one through airports, ferries and waiting, the inevitable delays and rain, cafes and sleepless nights, sunny shores and sweet mornings, shiny as new pennies. I happened upon such a wondrous book - now dog-eared and creased, pages fat from days of arid hikes followed by sea-going humidity, ably ringed in coffee stains - in the travelogue penned by Paul Theroux, THE PILLARS OF HERCULES (Fawcett Books, 1995).
A prolific and gifted novelist and essayist, Theroux is no stranger to journeys of open-minded discovery. His book was everything I wanted in a book to accompany me on a journey through the middle Mediterranean. A study of ancients: from the Spanish Steps of Rome to Pompeii, skimming the Amalfi Coast, touching Capri, exploring ancient Sicily to at last sail on to that pivot of ancient maritime history, the Island of Malta. A "Grand Tour" (within the given limits of modern work schedules) to explore these ancient shores and empires long gone, the temple remnants that stand alone, washed in watercolor sunsets. Prehistory 3600BC to citizens of Pompeii crouching in tombs of volcanic ash; from the artistic and architectural lineage of Greek and Roman temples to the scintillating hidden waters of the Blue Grotto.
Although it is a fat book, a good three inches, the essays span Theroux's explorations beginning at the mouth of Gibraltar following the northern European shores of the Mediterranean, to return to Gibraltar once more; arriving on the opposite shore via the southern Middle Eastern and North African coast (linking the so-called "Pillars of Hercules"). I debated carrying such heft, considered its burden in my pack. But as I explored these ancient lands some 18 years later than Theroux, I found his observations enabled interesting comparisons. Much had changed in the way of modern conflicts and outlook; yet in the geography itself, and its silent mysteries, not much at all. We still stand in the long shadow of the ancients.
I find it absolutely remarkable to come across a ruin older than I can imagine; to speculate on what the object once stood for, outlasted, represents in the modern context. I find it unspeakably touching, for example, that a nameless prehistoric culture on the Island of Malta constructed, with great deliberation, rolling 1200 pound slabs of stone on round boulders of rock, a stone temple with a view to a distant island framed beautifully between the standing pillars of the main altar. I find it moving, in the simplest of contexts, that these people celebrated what is beautiful, the fecund cycles of the equinox, left behind simple stone necklaces and clay figurines. That wherever humans have been, we build, plant, pray and gather around the hearth, leaving our stories behind.
Theroux is a literary wonder: an encyclopedia of literature and history dovetailed with a cynical yet surprisingly genuine ability to be touched, surprised. He is snarky, witty, and absolutely true to the telling detail that delivers the world in glance. I found him a terrific companion on my own curious travels. A point of reference on both modern context and subjective understanding. I will be sharing my own thoughts on my travels in the next few essays, so if you're curious, stay with me over the summer as I ruminate from a 21st Century perspective on the ancient empires.
Which reminds me to note some of the great books I gathered, many from a nifty travel-oriented bookshop, Longitude Books in Plymouth, Minnesota (www.longtiudebooks.com). If you are venturing out yourself, consider any or all of these terrific reads and references:
ON THE SHORES OF THE MEDITERRANEAN, Eric Newby
ON PERSEPHONE'S ISLAND, Mary Taylor Simeti
THE SPIRIT OF MEDITERRANEAN PLACES, Michel Butor
ANCIENT SHORE:DISPATCHES FROM NAPLES, Shirley Hazzard & Francis Steegmuller
D.H. LAWRENCE & ITALY, D.H. Lawrence
ITALY, A TRAVELER'S LITERARY COMPANION, Lawrence Venuti
EVERY DAY IN TUSCANY, SEASONS OF AN ITALIAN LIFE, Francis Mayles
THE MEDITERANNEAN IN HISTORY, edited by David Abulafia
April 22, 2013
Isadora Duncan, Photo Credit: Arnold Genthe, 1917
In the last weeks much has happened in America that deeply wounds the heart of all of us. Even if we are distant from the terror attacks at Newtown and the Boston Marathon, from the massive explosions at West, Texas, we feel the pain of the innocent, the victims. Before there is acceptance, before there is forgiveness, there is grieving. I came across this essay from Isadora Duncan from her memoir, My Life,
that speaks of inconsolable loss and what we may say or do that offers genuine companionship and solace to those grieving. Duncan lost both of her children in an accident when a taxicab in which they were riding drove off into the water and they were drowned. She then fled to her friend, Eleanora Duse, and stayed with her in Italy.
From MY LIFE
The next morning I drove out to see Duse, who was living in a rose-coloured vila behind a vineyard. She came down a vine covered walk to meet me, like a glorious angel. She took me in her arms and her wonderful eyes beamed upon me such love and tenderness that I felt just as Dante must have felt when, in the "Paradiso," he encounters the Divine Beatrice.
From then on I lived at Viareggio, finding courage from the radiance of Eleanora's eyes. She used to rock me n her arms, consoling my pain, but not only consoling, for she seemed to take my sorrow to her own breast, and I realized that I had not been able to bear thew society of other people, it was because they all played the comedy of trying to cheer me with forgetfulness. Whereas Eleanora said:
"Tell me about Deirdre and Patrick," and made me repeat to her all their little sayings and ways, and show her their photos, which she kissed and cried over. She never said, "Cease to grieve," but she grieved with me, and, for the first time since their death, I felt I was not alone.
- Isadora Duncan, 1878-1927
April 18, 2013
people say they have a hard time
understanding how I
go on about my business
playing my Ray Charles
hollering at the kids -
seems like my Afro
cut off in some old image
would show I got a long memory
and I come from a line
of black and going on women
who got used to making it through murdered sons
and who grief kept on pushing
who fried chicken
swept off the back steps
who grief kept
for their still alive sons
for their sons coming
for their sons gone
- Lucille Clifton
Today, the haunting notes of YoYo Ma on the cello plays in elegy, the faces and pure voices of the Boston Childrens Chorus rise in song, carrying words they barely understand but certainly feel in the gospel hymnal "To the Mountain." Today we talk about honoring our lost and commit to moving on. The voice of the cello cries "Why?" The prayer surrenders and accepts. The faces of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters turn away. And those of us who can go on, do. We rise and work, we take the children to school, we load the washing machine, chop green beans, hug our husbands and wives and kids because we know, really know, how fragile the thin thread is.
I run today through the cold bright sun. The new green limns the trees. The robin tucks the last straw into her nest. I run because I can and perhaps another cannot. I run because each day it is a gift to do so. I run for Boston, for me, for you. The thin fragile thread. I run because it is my way to pray. My heart beats "Why?"
Feet just pushing.
April 12, 2013
copper pennies, cattle bones, pavers, wafers, black cloth
The Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin
The image in this essay is of an art installation at The Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas that occupies an entire space of its own. A room within a room, in which the art, "How to Build a Cathedral," fills the entirety of the subdued space.
The visitor is permitted to step inside the installation, curtained on four sides by ceiling to floor black mesh curtains (filmy and weighty), and stand or walk the square perimeter of the installation on an interior border of simple gray pavers. The ceiling within is a stalactite "chandelier" of cow bone: white bones suspended in uniform order from the ceiling and lit from above. The bones funnel visually into a thin cord of stacked Eucharist wafers falling into a sculptural sea of shiny new pennies. The space has the sacramental hush and reverence we associate with the interiors of cathedrals and the metaphoric elements with which we erect them: rock, money, sweat and death, sacrament, obscurity, light. It is a beautiful space. It feels sacred. The meaning, if one can say such exists outside the visual, feels immediately and profoundly understood. We make the profound from the material, we imbue the simple with meaning. What is sacred is born of the ordinary.
Does a poem enlarge the world,
or only our idea of the world?
- from "Mathematics" by Jane Hirschfield
April 4, 2013
Why not? Why not? Why should my poems not imitate my life?
Whose lesson is not the apotheosis but the pattern, whose meaning
is not in the gesture but in the inertia, the reverie.
Desire, loneliness, wind in the flowering almond -
surely these are the great, the inexhaustible subjects
to which my predecessors apprenticed themselves.
I hear them echo in my own heart, disguised as convention.
Balm of the summer night, balm of the ordinary,
imperial joy and sorrow of human existence,
the dreamed as well as the lived -
what could be dearer than this, given the closeness of death?
- from "Summer Night" by Louise Gluck
The Blanton Art Museum, located on the University of Texas campus in Austin, Texas, is a playground for the mind and spirit. Here, soaring open interior spaces lit by diffused skylights permit art to breathe, allow the mind to break formation, to wander and make stunning, exciting associations between paintings and sculpture, colors and form. Three specific pieces of art will be explored in upcoming blog essays that moved me in different ways. Pieces that somehow charged my sensibilities, as atoms ellipse around an idea whose time has yet to come.
I found myself longest in the Contemporary wing. The several large installations in this space shocked, astounded, and poked me fully awake. I had to look, walk around and then away, and then circle back once more. I stood immobilized by ideas that floated into my head as though the artists uncapped my skull and held a gravy boat of thoughts poured into my brain.
The photograph above is of a piece by El Anatsui, of Nigeria, called simply "City Plot 2010." The sculpture is a wall-sized installation; wholly composed of aluminum liquor bottle caps and copper wire. These crude components weave unexpected visual shapes of varied color mobile to the eye from a distance like the scales of river trout or flags whipping in wind. A woman's profile is suggested in yellow lashes, red lips, an exotic headdress. Or do we see a street dog? A flag form registers with the viewer as both anthem and political identification and irony. More sculptural shape-shifting might suggest tribal dress; look again and see the flap and tear of trash caught in fencing along city freeways.
Anatsui's work is deliberate; delicately formed of debris collected from the streets and empty city lots of Nigeria. The project components, simple yet lofty in association, prompt unfamiliar wonder. Obliquely we see even city garbage carries the rich stamp of civilization in unexpected ways. That the ordinary is
the everyday extraordinary. Or can be...if we but look and see differently.
Take time to glance around your daily landscape. What do you see of an essential, hidden belongingness
in human culture?
March 27, 2013
On Friday, my husband and I are flying to Houston to attend the wedding of his middle son. It is the second wedding within a year's time, and as his sons walk through this very singular, personal, and deeply spiritual threshold into their own adulthood, it is profoundly moving for a parent to witness.
They start out small, and look where they end... Our work as parents seems to conclude as they let go of one hand and take another, cleave as Ruth said, to the hand of another. Mark 10:7-9 "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." Bless the beginning, release with love, and let the moment mark the years. They start out so small.
Originally posted, 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 new body. It has been a journey, for me, this life. And in the coming...the gestating of new forms of connection and partnership, of family. Evolving in new ways of being, new shapes to the lives we lead. It is the simple truth to say that living is a cycle of ever-becoming. And while neither easy, nor pristinely beautiful, not perfect in process, the becoming is perfect in intent. It is perfect in joy, grounded in the earth, heavens, and self. The human heart is a warrior and a monk. And it speaks a simple truth. Belong.
March 20, 2013
We could do worse.
photo credit: James Peat, South Dorset, UK
I alternate between thinking of the planet as home - dear and familiar stone hearth and garden- and as a hard land of exile in which we are all sojourners. Today I favor the latter view. The word "sojourner" occurs often in the English Old Testament. It invokes a nomadic people's knowledge of estrangement, a thinking people's intuition of sharp 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."
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"
The weather is harsh today. A spin cycle of winds, driving rains, brief stillnesses and spots of sun followed by steely skies. The way in which winter fights the incremental arrival of spring, today the first day of spring, is played out in the heavens. Tender green grass and flower stems break earth, but the skies battle on a galactic level for dominance between light and dark, cold and warm, still and push.
My writer's thoughts are also caught between still and push. There is a lull toward stillness: to invite in the transitions in the seasons with reflection and awareness, and yet there is a strong sense of push. To birth the change in day, daylight, and energies now
. There is much to do, more to accomplish, and time is a precious gift to waste.
Annie Dillard's timeless work "Teaching a Stone to Talk" is subtitled "Expeditions and Encounters." Her essays explore nature, they tease out subtleties, lift the skin on human dislocation. Her thoughts on solitude as "sojourners of spirit" on a harshly physical planet come to mind as I watch the wind and rain hammer the young weeping cherry. A hint of new bud on its branches, barely limned green, the slight tree bends to the lashing winds. I observe its travails, think about what I am, the "I" that is spirit and mind, and what I am trying to do here in my study, my words and thoughts weaving these works of imaginary tapestry. Out there beyond my window, earth expresses the hard unambiguous truth of the elements. Wind, rain, dark, light. Whereas inside, literally and metaphorically, I live and work in another realm.
I am a sojourner in one world, traveling the days and seasons, defined by my humanity yet essentially animal, a living being - and an alchemist in the other, an artist, inventing and imagining, seeking meaning. Which is more true? Or am I both in both? Is it any wonder we find ourselves uncertain of home?
March 13, 2013
The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.
Pope Francis, The Vatican: photo credit Peter Macdiarmid, Getty Images
- Walt Whitman
My thoughts were swept away today. I abandoned working on my writing project to witness the choosing of a new pope in the great city of Rome. Perhaps the last time in my life this ancient religious event, a papal conclave of 114 Cardinals gathered from the farthest corners of the globe, will occur. For me, the great wonder of Roma lies in the rich intersection of Roman history in ruin and architecture, the artistic wonders present in every fountain, church, and piazza, in the venerable Jewish Ghetto, and in the Vatican's artistic and religious treasures. Within this city mingle centuries of letters, art, and the great philosophical ideals of human history.
3/13/13...a day of significance.
The rituals of faith have once more brought forth change. Cloistered deep within the Vatican, where Judeo-Christian spiritual history may be felt in the worn stones of St. Peter's Basilica, seen glorified in Michelangelo's great artistic homage to human faith in the Sistine Chapel, found written on ancient Aramaic burial stones protected in the Vatican's Judaic collection, a new leader has been chosen for the Catholic Church. An elder of the South American faithful, a Jesuit known for his work as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, this humble man represents virtues of simplicity of faith, tending to the needs of the poor, and building a strong - and honest - church. His chosen name as Pope is Francesco: Francis, for St. Francis of Assisi, the historical voice of the poor and great reformer of the church. A declaration that faith is not about power but purpose.
What destroys faith most fully is hypocrisy. All of us, I believe, want faith to begin in spiritual honesty, to be lived genuinely, and defended in truth. This humble man, who has re-christened himself after the most plain of saints, offers hope; dedication to the reforms and healing needed within Catholicism around the world. As Pope Francis led the faithful from the balcony of the Vatican tonight in the Lord's Prayer, I could not help but feel deeply moved. His simplicity is authentic : there is an experience of purity in his humble smile, in his joy in the people, in his obvious love of his church. The moment stands as a great sweep of fresh air through the spiritual work of humanity on this planet. I wish Pope Francis many blessings in bringing forth meaningful change.
Habemus Papam Franciscum.
March 6, 2013
Technology and life only become complex if you let it be so.
~ John Maeda, "The Laws of Simplicity"
WOMEN IN MEDICINE
Saturday, March 16, 2012
Bozarth Center, Spokane Washington
Breakfast meeting & 9:00am talk on The Geography of Love,
"Compassion as a Pillar of Medicine: the Art of Care."
This upcoming Saturday the 16th of March, I will have the joy and privilege of addressing the Spokane County Medical Society. In particular, the women physicians of the SCMS, gathered at the Bozarth Center in Spokane, Washington, for their annual retreat.
This is an honor for me on many levels. To begin with, these busy and generally overworked physicians have made time
for reading, and not just the professional journals and scientific work necessary to keep current in their specialities. These physicians also read for discovery, to engage in new ideas, for pleasure. These medical professionals, many who are also in book clubs, are terrific examples for all of us who feel that our lives have become impossible to tame - slaves to our calendars - and wonder where the days have gone where we used to get "lost in a book." Yes, we can still find time for reading: through a book club, a book event, e-readers on our exercise bikes, a book last thing we dip into before sleep. It takes commitment.
But all of life takes commitment, right? In my upcoming talk with these medical professionals, for whom "commitment" is organic to their ethic and calling, the concept of committing to care
about the experiences of patients, the importance of compassion in scientific practice, and one's own emotional life in and out of medicine...all these ideas are both familiar and difficult. Who has the time? What will be the pushback from health care organizations slicing away minutes and hours; or insurance practices imposed on medical practitioners unable to spend that extra moment with a sorrowing, shocked, or uncertain patient or their family?
I recently finished a book by John Maeda, MIT professor and digital artist, called "The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life" (MIT Press, 2006), wherein he tells a story regarding the importance of balancing meaning and clarity. The story goes loosely as follows: A wealthy socialite in Italy, given the news of a terminal cancer diagnosis (certainly clarity of message), was then told by her physician, "I have a ten minute limit per patient." In her fragile state this woman left her doctor's office in understandable shock, without either a sense of support or life options. In her last five months this brave woman decided to address this glaring gap in compassionate care and created a foundation to build beautiful, intensely artful areas in oncology centers where patients receiving this kind of life changing/shattering news would have a place to, as Maeda so gently puts it, "soak their minds and hearts." Maeda's point was that art gives a reason to live, and design, clarity of message. In the practice
of medicine (design devoted to clarity of diagnosis and treatment), the art of care,
compassion, is one pillar of patient care that addresses a genuine human spiritual need but is often overlooked.
I am deeply grateful to this gathering of physicians for their interest in my memoir, The Geography of Love
, and my individual journey through the harrowing and enlightening experience of terminal illness with a loved one. But I especially love the strong energy of their personal commitment to the art of care, to literature, reading, and renewal. What we do says so much about who we are.