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QUINTESSENCE

Bumps Along the Way

“She was all around me
like a rainy day,
and though I walked bareheaded
I was not wet.”
- “The Blue Wing,” Donald Hall, A Blue Wing Tilts at the Edge of the Sea,
1975

Moths seeking light, albeit with a bump or two along the way...

You might describe my life’s work as a writer as a study of moths. The mixed up and confused human kind. When I sit down to write on the project I call FINDING JOY, it is with an image in mind I am on an excavation. Joy has to be out there, somewhere. Deep in the hills perhaps - next to the mastodon bones? All I have to do is search out the right conditions, bisect through layers of detritus and stone, and there I will uncover joy, cached with the broken pots of some ancient dweller's fire pit.

How wrong I turned out to be! Joy is not lost, and it isn’t to be found, not really. We connect or disconnect with spontaneous happiness all the time, sometimes without awareness. Joy is as simple to embrace as taking a breath. We close our eyes and breathe in what is around us, what is in our memories, what is in our heart. There is joy to be found in dreams, among friends, running a wooded trail.

I think we are all hardwired to be joyful, in the way the nocturnal moth is drawn to light. We seek because we are meant to, because there is meaning in what we find. What is more than true is that it’s a rough ride. Crashes, bumps, walls and invisible barriers. We batter against screens, unable to cease sometimes and rethink the plan. We drop, rest in place, and try again with greater purpose. And with this quixotic relentless valor, eventual success. We bump into happiness.

Donald Hall’s poem, although ostensibly about love, seems true of joy. It is all around, and although it is raining, we are not wet. We float in the happiness we seek.  Read More 
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The Third Solitude

“It is the night of the ocean, the third solitude,
a quivering which opens doors and wings.”
- “Serenade,” Pablo Neruda, Fully Empowered, 1967.

Pablo Neruda is one of my most cherished poets. His language is shift in definition for me. Pure catalyst. A new understanding limned to a familiar object, a brash surprise. His words name the mystery, the unspoken ache. The poem “Serenade” is on one level about the wide deep night, the pulse of quintessence, the place where sea and sea life meet in the whisper of moonlight. On another level, it is about intimacy, the elemental purity of what breathes in darkness. Just the words “the third solitude” stop me in my tracks. Does this third solitude the poet speaks of in “the night of the ocean” describe a deep undercurrent in what never sleeps, life itself? What are the other two solitudes? Those of earth and sky, perhaps the soul? The word in Spanish that Neruda chose is "soledad," which means solitude. Or does the word more delicately infer aloneness. The alone. I wonder. The subtleties of word meanings give rich and secret freight to poems, private readings.

The purpose of poetry for me is to disengage the reasoning mind. Word mandalas that rearrange the furniture of ordinary thinking - push the chairs to the wall, roll up the rug, let’s dance! - and in so doing, invite in a conscious, unchained meditation. The poets allow me to step out of the borders of the habitual and contemplate the wonders of the everyday. Apple, star, stubbed toe, love. So go on, today write a poem.  Read More 
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Comfortable with the Crazy

“A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval.”
- Mark Twain

My son has returned east for his second year at the Naval Academy, my daughter has returned to Yale for her senior year. What is left in their wake are the sandals and dog-eared books and rumpled leftovers of these few rushed, splendid weeks of summer. The last few “summers at home”… Today the empty rooms are chock full of ghosts and I close bedroom doors with a tightening heart: I leave untouched on his desk his scribbled notations on a song he was writing, her gym bag perfume remains tossed in a ratty running shoe. The dog eyes me with soulful sadness. Where has the pack gone?

Add to the unsettled feelings that out there in the big world it has been “that kind of day.” Crazy in spades. A day thrown in the spin cycle. Our digital world means not only do events happen in a split second, but so do their consequences. A banker pushes a wrong button and economies collapse. A clerk forgets an input function and someone on the cross-town bus loses an interview. Today’s energy is all about these human vortexes - action and reaction, cause and effect - and I am struck by the enormous amount of bureaucratic puppeteering it takes to resolve the most practical issue. Emails wing across the prairies.

As I stand in the midst of the wreck of my day, holding pieces of fallen plaster from what normally passes for a sane and practiced routine, I accept the chaos. I accept my inability to do much about it. I accept my family world is transitioning to one of individual independences. And with that thought comes a deep breath. Mark Twain is my inspiration. I can be comfortable with this chaos if I have my own permission. I imagine Twain’s remark refers to a more profound, inward approval - that of the conscience, the wrestling match between morality and an uneasy heart – not my struggle to find balance in upheaval. But for today, it is enough to just throw up my hands, yield to the crazy and be okay with it. I don’t have to fix the world. I can just be…comfortable with the crazy.  Read More 
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Strings of Galaxies

“and the body wouldn’t send out light from every edge
as a star does…for there is no place at all
that isn’t looking at you. You must change your life.”
-Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” Selected Poems, 1957

The imprint of poetry is visceral, assimilated by both the body and the brain. Just as the beat that moves our limbs in dance is also music in poetic syntax and meter. What causes our tongues and imaginations to fire like torches in the dark? Poetry. Strings of galaxies, pearls that spiral through our brains. The double helix, the Milky Way, inchoate dustings of fractured light. A poem is a doorway through. To where? You alone decide. Imagine the power in the pen of a poet!

This morning I gave to reading poetry, breathing air into my lungs. I have doubted all I know about myself as a writer this week. The drive and faith that pushes me through the unknown, across the dark crevasse, has abandoned me this day. And so, I read poetry. I allow the moment to find bottom.

Standing in my office, my hands take a book from the shelf and open randomly to an essay by Mary Oliver in “Blue Pastures,” a writing on the essence of the poet’s voice. Not limited to a discussion of the unique, the poetic vision or timbre of thought, Oliver writes of "one voice, above all others," that has the power to reach into our chest and pound us back to life. The poet’s handful of lines, formed long ago and for what cause, find purchase in darkness. Without awareness, or permission even, a spark is coaxed back, ever so gently. And we know it was that voice.

For Oliver, and for me, that voice is expressed in Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” a strange meditation upon a timeless marble statute. This is a poem that explores beauty; the holistic truth, thoughtful and unpremeditated - our transformation in the presence of utter beauty. Rilke writes in simple observations, identifying what is and isn’t revealed within the fluid shape of the sculpture; a tracery of close observation that rises like an incantation, intensifying like light itself. Truth from living stone. We anchor deep in the world, pinned to the stars.

When I finish Rilke's last stanza, quoted at the beginning of this essay, I surface - sucking huge gulps of language, raw but alive. The very best art has this effect on us. A spark revived, a truth that speaks our name. Read More 
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The Aria & the Catalyst

"Hush, beloved. It doesn't matter to me
how many summers I live to return:
this one summer we have entered eternity.
I felt your two hands
bury me to release its splendor."
- "The White Lillies," Louise Gluck

I am deep in the quiet hours. The summer heat of August has abated behind the low clouds off the distant ocean. Almost an act of grace, my mind is tranquil, moving in loops down river banks of slow-moving thought. I have been thinking about the connections, the bonds of love. I began thinking about truthfulness between couples, saddened by the infidelity and break-up of the long marriage of a friend of mine. At the heart of their parting, a painful truth that neither wished exposed, but when brought to light, erased even the pretense of a loyal foundation between them. He played roulette and lost; she wished she'd never known. What was their truth?

The fundamental song in dramatic love is the aria. A melody and a response. A call and an answer. A cry and a caress. Two voices that sing their passion and expose the story of the human heart. In the intertwining melodies of song, in the weaving of dreams lie secrets, a wordless language. The call and answer determines the fate of the lovers. What we ask for and what we are given. What we offer and what is taken. Recently I saw a French film, "Coco & Igor," the story of the relationship - complicated and inspirational, secret and harsh - between Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. A story of two muses, lives sacrificed to art. Who called out first, who answered? So much of their exchange remained wordless, physical, understood. Watching the interplay of their passion and the ways in which its fires fueled their individual commitment to art, I sensed the secret nature of this one kind of love. The affair was not important, what mattered was the bonfire of inspiration. There are so many arias, so many whispers we do not hear.

What does seem true is that even for the most ordinary of us, love is what we make of it. Are we lovers for the small, sacred moments of living, or lovers running from life's dangerous territories? Do we build or destroy? Love is only as permeable, as pure an elemental essence, as what we give of ourselves. What is demanded of us, how we value one another. Some of us love in sorrow or separation, others hold the hand of someone to comfort, others fall into that certain slant of light that becomes the gilded heart. Love unfurls. Place a rose on your kitchen table and watch the bloom drench the moment in grace. While most of us, unlike Coco & Igor, love for what love itself is, an act of the soul as transformative for the lover as the beloved, there is no denying elemental spark. Love is catalyst.  Read More 
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The Butterfly in Physics

“That butterfly in physics
moves its wings
and something happens
across worlds.”
- “Arlene,” Sheryl Noethe, The Ghost Openings, 2000

There is mystery in the relationship of cause and effect. It is not, as science would convince us, a given. Sometimes there is an effect, with no discernible cause; a cause that boomerangs away without effect.

On the bluff today, McDuff and I encountered a solitary coyote slipping down to the stream for a drink. The thin body, fur color of driftwood, leaned into the shadows as we neared. I felt its eyes on us before we actually saw him. Duff smelled the coyote before that. After a moment observing us coming along the trail, the animal slipped down the bank. With the slightest rustle of grass it was abruptly gone, invisible amongst the tall canes in the marshy creek bottom. This encounter was unusual. The coyote is an animal accustomed to solitude, yet never alone. A call flung to the sky and another voice answers.

Solitude and aloneness are not the same state of being. I think of relationships in which the partners are not alone but their hearts are. A long distance sailor who though often in solitude on the world’s great oceans and seas, yet rarely alone. His days full of adventure and dreams and his mind filled with the voices of those he loves. The coyote challenges me. Dig my hands into the earth, define my own life. I am searching for the elusive. The single beat of a butterfly wing that might, as the poet says, move worlds.

McDuff stares into the reeds ferociously. The coyote is gone even as he hopes it is not. As the dog and I head away from the river, his ears perk for another exciting encounter. I think what the dog does is worth imitating. He does not stamp the present moment on the next. The coyote has come and gone and there may be nothing but bees in the larkspur, but tigers might lurk around the bend and wouldn't that be grand? Read More 
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Life 101

“We have met the enemy and they is us.”
-Pogo

A week or two ago my phone rang at the crack of dawn. (Children and emergencies have no time zones.) My daughter, fully distraught, had found herself in an academic crisis during an intensive summer science course. Being my daughter, her first response was to emotionally dissolve. I am her “safe place.” I know from experience that within a day, perhaps just hours, she will have vented the bad stuff and settled down into her ever-so-capable cranium and begun to solve her way out of whatever dilemma she has found herself in.

But what greets me on the phone is a serious wobble. The world is out of tilt. Here we go, I think. I can sense the tears trembling within her words. But for the first time I am not whirling around in her tornado as I usually am, but listening, knowing she is far more equipped to handle this than she realizes. That she can, and will, resolve things in a positive way, and soon. In my double-decade span of parenting, I’ve come to call this resting within crisis “the sweet spot” - when the right touch somehow finds the right wisdom and lands perfectly in the heart.

Sure enough, within a few hours she had recouped her composure, contacted the professor, and together they unearthed a massive classroom computer error. I enjoyed the rest of my morning quiet in my office, content to watch the rain, thinking how, as Pogo so cannily observed, we are our own worst enemies. Perhaps this "supportive detachment" is an echo of the universe toward chaos amongst our human souls on earth?

We are more equipped to handle life than we realize.  Read More 
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Be the Buffalo

“The angel, ‘Yes we have met…
My gifts have human faces
hieroglyphs that command
you without yielding what they mean.’”
-“At the Well,” Marge Piercy, The Moon Is Always Female, 1984

Let's talk about bravery in the most ordinary of circumstances. Not heroic courage, but the quiet inner courage that lays the brickwork of character. Courage to do the right thing, tell the truth when it would be far easier not to, face the things that cause trepidation in your heart, keep going when you find yourself discouraged. There comes a point when you’re done being scared, and finally, you decide to “be the buffalo,” as Donna Brazile, a Washington DC political consultant, puts it. She is referring to the words of Wilma Mankiller, a High Chief of the Cherokee Nation, describing the difference between cattle and buffalo in an approaching storm. The cows, it seems, will stampede off ahead of the storm. Run themselves into the ground, exhausted. The buffalo however will turn and face into the storm, plunging straight through it. The point is not lost on me. When all hell breaks loose, better to be the buffalo and break through – there’s daylight on the other side.

The line of poetry that caught my thoughts today is rich in puzzles. I love the idea of human faces as hieroglyphics, the idea of the indecipherable as a gift. Destiny is shaped in the palms of these angels, pounded like clay.

Great determination and vision is required to create anything of ourselves in this world. And then there is the fortitude to see it through. To accept how much is beyond our control. We do all that we can and then release our dreams along with our apprehensions. As fear is released, ideas catch the wind. Be the buffalo. Read More 
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What Is Is Well

“What will be will be well, for what is is well”
- “To Think of Time,” Stanza 6, Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1882

These are the days of summer that ripen in the hot sun, we are deep in the happy hours. Working in the flower gardens, I take note of the quail perched on the fence post, barking its cat-yowl call, a lazy conversation with the shades of afternoon. The yellow finch darts into the birdbath, the dog is asleep in the grass. And when all the chores of the yard are done, I take my book and read for several hours under the flowering crab tree.

As I watch the yellow finch camouflaged in the birch leaves, I think of the Galapagos Islands and the field notes and research conducted by English scientist and explorer, Charles Darwin. Darwin’s ideas, the foundation of modern theories of genetic evolution, evolved in part from his fascination with the island’s population of more than fifty species of finch. Darwin made detailed studies and hand-drawn illustrations of the precise, often subtle differences among finches observed in neighboring geographical locations throughout the islands. The finch populations in Galapagos had evolved minute and diverse capabilities for mining the available sources of food and shelter: some with long bills for drinking nectar from trumpet bell-shaped flowers, others with short, sharp beaks for hunting insects. I wondered about the way we evolve as humans in the pursuit of happiness. Do we develop different strengths and skills depending on our communities, our opportunities?

The line of Walt Whitman’s prose poem, “To Think About Time,” seems to speak to the long view to me. While time must be lived forward, and understood in retrospect, we understand our evolution contemplating the whole. A life is more than moments lived. It is also the song of the times, the hunt of the dreamer. What is, is as it should be Whitman seems to say, because if a life exists, it is sustained by a natural order of things. When we doubt the journey, question ourselves, what we observe about the world is the foundation of our thoughts about life itself. Whitman reminds us, “The soul is always beautiful/ the universe is duly in order, every thing is in its place/What has arrived is in its place and what waits shall be in its place.”  Read More 
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Wherever You Are

“Remember every new beginning is some beginning’s end…”
- “Welcome to Wherever You Are,” Bon Jovi, Have a Nice Day, 2005

A bright morning, a blue enamel sky. Duff and I head off down the bluff trails before the heat of the day, when cool shadows lie deep in the valley. We walk in solitude for awhile, his nose deep in the fresh morning scents of wildlife and grasses, mine in the clouds. We are earlier than the usual fleet-footed trail runners, the occasional mountain biker. We have the world to ourselves.

The fresh air feels cool on my cheek. Stalks of larkspur whip against my shins. I let the dog run up ahead, and then we pause at the bluff, side by side. I look at my Scottie, more the color of the cream in cappuccino actually. His joy in the moment is evident, his acceptance of the sovereign right to be happy, infectious. How wise, this stocky, oratorio Falstaff of a dog; a noble beast, if vertically challenged and with a head shaped like a mailbox. I laugh. We stand on a high ledge, surveying the rumpled hills of the valley. The morning expands across the land in utter perfection.

“Walk on,” I say to McDuff, and he trots off, tail high.

William Carlos Williams, the poet, admonished, “Beware the writer who does not walk, for in long walks great thought problems resolve.” Whether wrestling with words on the page or life itself, the trails bring clarity, peace. My ear buds are in as my iPod scrolls randomly through its play list. Suddenly a song by Bon Jovi comes on, “Welcome to Wherever You Are.” The words and music mesh with the beat of my heart, the rhythm of my body. I feel shift. Real shift, inside. The words are an anthem of sorts: take courage, life is a bumpy ride, hold to your dreams. Wherever you are is where you are meant to be - whatever that place may look or feel like. The words say, wait, just wait, you’re perfect as you are, your dreams are yet to be.

As I come out of the woods into the sunshine I realize I have found what I need for this day. Welcome to wherever you are. Read More 
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