Subscribe to Quintessence Blog
Quintessence ~ the essence of a thing in its purest and most concentrated form. Substance composing the celestial bodies.
The shoes that climbed Gonergrat, Switzerland
July 14, 2016
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
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
I have been rethinking a post that I wrote in 2011 on the tension between imagined life and reality. The fantasy in our heads and the truth. What we dream our lives to be in contrast with the ways they unfold.
In Louise Gluck's "August," her young narrator is confident she will be certain when "life" as she imagines it will spread in blazing technicolor across the white screen of summer days. Future selves dormant like ungerminated seeds within the ordinary hours. "Our lives were stored in our heads," the narrator observes, unaware life spools by even in the time spent imagining it. Can we not relate? How we grow lost in daydreams, absorbed in nostalgia, frequently swept to the banks by unbidden musings. "Today must not be a souvenir of yesterday," Robert Henri warned. For what would we have then but a hall of memories? Of recollections like mirrors, arrayed in an endless vision of the past.
We are now in the summer of another year. We may indeed sit in lawn chairs. But if we do so in the company of a friend, perhaps turn a page in a book, enjoy solitude in the pleasure of a favorite tune on the radio...it is all genuine, all everyday living. The ordinary hours produce the honey of life's busyness. Days to years rolling into a swell of gathered sweetness that rests in our hearts like morning dew in the throat of an iris.
This universe in the universe of one.
Beautiful. Ordinary. A summer of books, the radio, and colored lawn chairs.
July 1, 2016
VARIATION ON A THEME BY RILKE
Pebbles on the beach, San Juan Islands
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 it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.
I think we try so hard to be perfect, we miss life.
Let's stop the pendulum swing of self critique and judgement. Allow our souls to find center, to come to rest. To neither push nor desist but just hold space for awhile. And in that sacred space embrace our permission to be
. To luck into, to try, to change our minds, to give it a shot, maybe fail... Perhaps gently settle into ordinary happiness.
Daily human emotional and mental ebb and flows are not the antithesis to life success. Perfectionism is.
In the pursuit of "perfect" lies the negation of all that is not. Perfectionism is an eraser we drag across the life we are living and have lived. Crossing out what may have been our best efforts, our bravest moments. Scars of boot-strapped, gut-wrenching, all-out-there struggle. All those unwanted, unsettling gifts of deepest courage. When we devalue even our smallest efforts, be they honestly sufficient or perhaps barely forward motion, we also devalue the grand essence of human nature - which is to strive.
Humans are not born perfect, they are born to evolve. To seek to understand, to take action, to plan, to expand, to be joyful. Life is not a target. There is no bulls-eye that says, Bingo! Got it.
Life is about process. About being vividly, messily, actively present in our own skin. Accepting that however or wherever we may be today, just getting by or progressing along the spectrum of our goals... Well, good enough. This is today. Dame Judi Dench made the point spectacularly - unveiling a wrist tattoo to commemorate her 81st birthday. Carpe Diem.
Don't waste a single second on pointless judgement or wasteful regret. Put down that edit pencil. Stet.
Let today be a day of presence.
June 24, 2016
“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans. . .
With so many trees in the city, you could see the spring coming each day until a night of warm wind would bring it suddenly in one morning. Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat it back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing a season out of your life. This was the only truly sad time in Paris because it was unnatural. You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason.
In those days, though, the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed.”
- Ernest Hemingway, A MOVEABLE FEAST
After travels from Holland by way of the Rhine and up into the Alps of Switzerland, I experienced what Ernest Hemingway described when he said, “By then I knew that everything good and bad left an emptiness when it stopped. But if it was bad, the emptiness filled up by itself. If it was good you could only fill it by finding something better.” A wealth of deep thinking - new tapestries of symbolism - spilled over into my dreams. The richness of mingled languages, Dutch, German, French, and Swiss, murmured in my ears. To settle before sleep I read Ernest Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast," the restored version. Hemingway's sons, Patrick and Sean, contributed extensive introductory notes to the original chapters left by Ernest in this never-completed memoir of his early years in Paris.
Hemingway described the life of an ex-pat in rich detail and as quoted above, paints a moment when the lingering melancholy of a late spring anchors the bold and unfamiliar. Vivid recollections need "to be made, not described," Hemingway stated. He writes with clean observation, attentive to distinct and simple elements...oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away.
Reading "A Moveable Feast," I tumbled into another time and place. Hemingway's essays on his artistic struggles to write his first novel, his appreciation of raw nature, stories of less innocent, darkly-undertoned friendships, and the details of the uncertain but stable domestic routine upon which he built life with Hadley and "Mr. Bumby," his young son, came alive on the page. Closing the book, I fell to thinking about what makes both the strangeness of new experience and
what is deeply familiar penetrate our consciousness. Why do we travel, and why do we always then make "home away from home"?
“Never to go on trips with anyone you do not love,” Hemingway noted after a convoluted, unsettling journey to Lyon with fellow writer and friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Travel highlights companions who are compatible with us by their nature as well as those for whom the burdens of a journey unleash additional friction and underscore hidden, rough-edged dissimilarities. I appreciated anew the genial nature of my fellow travelers on the Rhine even as Hemingway found solace within Sylvia Beach's "lending library" on the Left Bank and in the welcome aperitifs in the salon of Gertrude Stein. The places our minds and souls take comfort equally open us to companionship.
Hemingway writes his way into deeper understanding, opening himself to the journey, to what simply is. His words mark truth like the swift charcoal outline a painter draws to anchor a picture. Reflecting back on the loves and friendships of his Paris years, Hemingway concluded, "You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”
June 17, 2016
MY MOTHER'S NOVEL
by Marge Piercy
Married academic woman ten
years younger holding that microphone
like a bazooka, forgive
me that I do some number of things
that you fantasize but frame
I am my mother's daughter,
a small woman of large longings.
Energy hurled through her
confined and fierce as in a wind
tunnel. Born to a mean
harried poverty crosshatched
by spidery fears and fitfully
lit by the explosions
of politics, she married her way
at length into solid working-class:
a box of house, a car she could
not drive, a TV set kept turned
to the blare of football,
terrifying power tools, used wall
to wall carpeting protected
by scatter rugs.
Out of backyard posies
permitted to fringe
the proud hanky lawn
her imagination hummed
and made honey,
in mad queen swarms.
I am her only novel.
The plot is melodramatic,
hot lovers leap out of
thickets, it makes you cry
a lot, in between the revolutionary
heroics and making good
Understand: I am my mother's
novel daughter: I
have my duty to perform.
Marge Piercy included this poem in her book of poetry, "The Moon is Always Female," first published in 1984. I felt the ethos of her words in my bones, thinking of my own mother who desperately wanted to major in Forensic Science in the early 1950s, only to be told women were not allowed in the field and shunted into sociology. I think about my mother, top of her university class academically, working two secretarial jobs for male bosses possessing half her intelligence for a quarter of their wages. I think of my mother wanting so much more than her world would yield up; how she struggled for a foothold, demanding of me I carry that fierce hunger and hard work and do better.
Hit harder with the chisel and crack a few more walls.
I can't claim that I was able to do this with my life. Not in a way that encompasses grand change. But in my daughter's life I have seen change that matters. And so I think it goes. For mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. We crack doors more ajar with each generation, heart and shoulder to wood. Seek more, demand more. We may ourselves settle for less, but with hope the next set of shoulders will carry the day. And in time, I believe this is true.
On this Father's Day, as Mother's Day, let us celebrate the work of generations. Acknowledge the sacrifices of grandparents and parents - flags on the masts of a new generations of ships that set sail with rich cargos of more than fresh ambition. As Marge Piercy writes so eloquently, we are each someone's novel. The work-in-progress of a grand and daring world-building that began early in Grandma's kitchen, or Dad's garage, in the warmth of Mom's home-made soup.
I offer gratitude for these daring works of imagination.
June 7, 2016
by Mary Oliver
Under the orange
sticks of the sun
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again
and fasten themselves to the high branches—
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands
of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails
for hours, your imagination
And if your spirit
carries within it
that is heavier than lead—
if it's all you can do
to keep on trudging—
there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted—
each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.
I have just spent the last six days in the company of my daughter, a new MD, on a cross-country drive from Seattle to Cleveland - where she will begin her surgical residency training. The interesting thing about road trips is that changes in life circumstances - the process of shift - are richly reflected in passing landscapes. The pitch and roll of mountain ranges and valleys, the changing color of dirt and rivers, vistas opening to prairie then to lakes, the populating of wilderness by farms, and those wide, cultivated acres narrowing to industry, cities rising upon concrete overpasses, the towering downtown skyscrapers... These are all echoes of personal relocation.
All we travel through echoes what we feel inside the midst of great shift. One known thing gives way to a new and unfamiliar thing. The translation between experiences gaps. We stand, stranger in a strange land, "grokking" as Heinlein would have it, the essence of all that looms before us. There is real dissonance in change. We thrill to the adventure and call of new challenges and stimuli: and we step back, trembling at the edge of our comfort zone. The new world is both attractive and unsettling at the same time.
Yes, we grow when we adapt and challenge ourselves to conquering unknown circumstances. But we also experience a poignant sense of loss stepping away from our established lives. The known is familiar, perhaps even beloved; the past represents the most grounded we have felt in recent memory. What lies ahead is a question, and the potential to fail, to find life wanting, or severely disappoint ourselves is achingly real.
Arriving in Cleveland entailed a profound geographical shift, a cultural shift, and an immersion in learning to navigate on the fly. Nothing is known: not routes nor directions, location of services or grocery stores - not even whether the nod in the elevator is ritually feigned or sincere. Does one say hello or keep a respectful peace? Mistakes abound. Amusement frequent. Surprise and alarm a daily occurrence. All of this shift: the dissonance of change. What is familiar, surrendering to the strange.
Moving from one part of these United States to another is difficult. The goodbyes to friends, paperwork hoops, proofs of identity and legality, even the establishing of credentials - finances to vehicle licenses - it's all just huge
. But here's the fun thing: every step in life that enlarges personal boundaries in fact enlarges the self.
So, hang on little tomato
, as Pink Martini sings it, and grow. Let it be in your nature to be happy.
May 24, 2016
"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.
May 19, 2016
I have looked and looked
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.
May 12, 2016
THE SOUL FOX
Gardens of Kyoto: branch supports, moss, cherry blossom petals
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.
April 13, 2016
The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.
Musician, Berne, Switzerland
– St. Augustine
There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.
– Robert Louis Stevenson
The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.
– Samuel Johnson
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.
– Mark Twain
All the pathos and irony of leaving one’s youth behind is thus implicit in every joyous moment of travel: one knows that the first joy can never be recovered, and the wise traveler learns not to repeat successes but tries new places all the time.
– Paul Fussell
Five quotes about traveling. Five ways of looking at the world from the perspective of first glance
- of experiencing what it is to be a "stranger in a strange land" as Robert Heinlein penned so succinctly. As Johnson and Fussell would have it, the importance and education of travel is to know things as they actually are, in all their strangeness or surprise, and perhaps, recapture some of that lost innocence and sense of adventure left behind with youth.
Travel promotes self-reflection. The more we place ourselves in the unfamiliar, the more we see the edges of ourselves.
We begin to experience displacement and struggle; test identity and belief in our opennesss to the new. Travel keeps our feet firmly grounded not in our differences but in our common humanity. Cultural and ethnic diversity offer all of us things we delight in and appreciate, ancient spiritual beliefs to textiles and spice palates. But it is our commonality that allows us to absorb the differing wisdom and knowledge of the world's peoples.
All my life I have been a traveller. I grew up in the military system - eighteen addresses by the time I was twenty-one. I then joined the US State Department and continued this trek through the amazing world, discovering the more we are different, the more we are the same. To be a citizen of the world is to understand our differences reflect our constructs, our culture, our geography. Our sameness defined by our humanity.
I have traveled with my children from the years they were very young to a planned upcoming trip with my daughter marking her completion of medical school. Travel has opened their hearts and minds to the enormity of the planet and all of its wonders and struggles.
These past two years for me have been a Herculean journey as a writer. I feel the need to step back, assess, recenter, and recommit. When personal changes are in the offing, when they are necessary, travel is one way to shake loose the old and crack open the brain. Next week I leave for two weeks - exploring Japan and her surrounding islands by land and sea. Digging deeply into the history, the art and the culture, from war to state-of-the-art ecosystem innovations, maiko
apprentice to geisha
, robotics, Kibuki theatre, Bullet trains, the sea and cuisine. Somewhere in there, I will also visit South Korea. And when all is done, my mind and my soul will be refreshed, reset, and engaged.
My next blog will be sometime on my return in May. I'll send a picture or two along the journey via twitter or FB. After my return, I'll post more images of the unique and wonderful things I've encountered, even as I let the complexity of the experience settle in. It is my hope this trip will be the basis of my next writing project, and deeply refresh my soul.
What we bring home from our wanderings is not only what we have seen and learned, but a new personal map. A new pin, placed somewhere in the geography of the self.
April 6, 2016
Olive trees shading a stairway to The Acropolis, Athens
by Eva Saulitis
Why? Why is a crooked letter, my mother-in-law used to say. She held
no truck with useless inquiry, superstition. Buck up. Be present.
no fools, no dogma. When she died, I sleuthed her shelves. She read
everything - Buddhist philosophy, AARP magazine.
of Loving, Hawaiian poetry, books on aging, Asian painting,
and dying. She stopped short of a PhD in English lit, took acting. No
shrinking violet, she wore tennis whites on Sundays, permed and dyed
her hair various reddish shades, waited for her husband weekdays with
wine glasses frosted in the deep freeze.
You little ingrates, wait till your
father gets here. Protested his pollarding of her ornamental trees
in the garden. A closetful of peacock-hues to counter his muted same-same.
Years after he died, we found the glasses, the bottle of cream sherry still
frozen. She never gave his clothes away.
You better know how to laugh
at yourself, she said. Afraid she'd take me for the shrinking violet, the
suffering fool, tucked into the shade of a summer day,
why, my crooked
angel, I kept quiet, secretly studied her takings, finger along the spine of books
and facts. Her sons sang her past the last breath, hospital bed on
the living room's shag. In the mail we got her Hiroshima prints, a 1950s lamp,
a volume of bad Hawaiian poetry, costume jewelry, one conundrum - wooden
statute of mother Mary praying. To her tough and inscrutable hide, I offer up this day.
Our days are a carousel of change and chances. We feel we are at last approaching some hard-earned purchase on the slope of our lives, only to lose our footing on the hard scrabble and helplessly fall away. We try again, we work at it, we latch on, and what happens next always surprises us. This haunting, intimate poem by Eva Saulitis, poet and biologist from Homer, Alaska, is from a book of poetry titled, "Prayer In Wind," published by Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press. The book's flap copy reveals to the reader:
"After a devastating diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, biologist and poet Eva Saulitis found herself gripped by a long buried childhood urge to pray. Finding little solace in the rote 'from the fox-hole please Gods' arising unbidden in her head, she set herself the task of examining the impulse itself, waking every morning in darkness to write poems, driven on by the questions: What is prayer? What am I praying to? What am I praying for? Who is listening? Each day's poem proposed a new and surprising answer as, over two years, she traced the questions back to her origins..."
What is comprised by this book of 58 numbered "prayer poems" is nothing short of a deep and openhearted song to living. To ancestry, geography, context, accident. To all that connects us to the earth and to one another; to the small stories that make us the quirky, eccentric souls that we are; to what we leave behind in the hearts of others and what we keep from those we love. It is never not the right time to pause in our ceaseless climbing
and look out from where we find ourselves. Take in the expanse of life, the shadows of the forests left behind. What beckons on the horizon.
Ask of life again, Why?