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QUINTESSENCE

The Drift of Things

"Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?"
- "Reluctance," Robert Frost

My front steps are a carpet of wind swept yellow birch and red maple leaves. In a few days it will be October, the month that marks the crumbling of summer into the glowing parasol of autumn. I find myself already nostalgic for the ease of summer: the long, bright days; the bounty of the growing season. Even as I mourn flip flops and bare arms, I turn my attention to the delights of apple-picking in the orchards, the warmth of soft merino wool, the jewel tones of fall that inspire everything from paint chips to runways.

This blog, "Quintessence," is devoted to the distillation and understanding of joy, and to contemplation of the essence of all things. In particular, those threads of our lives connected to the pursuit of meaning. In transition into this next season in the great revolution of the earth, I invite you to consider Frost's words. Are we in our hearts "ever less" devoted to the good life if we allow ourselves "To go with the drift of things"? We sometimes ask of ourselves, Are we sliding into the change of days, or following a plan of action? One state of mind may lead to the other, even as fallow seasons lead to days of planting and harvest.

As we contemplate what the change of the calendar might bring, consider that the rhythms of transition might mark the ideal time to take a long look at our goals. To determine what it is we require and seek. Is it the focus to initiate, the tranquility to wait, or industrious energy to gather the fruits of our efforts? Whichever it is, in the words of Frost, let us "yield with a grace to reason." Read More 
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Light They Burn

“What the old lovers have had time to learn,
That the soul is a lithe and serene athlete
That deepens touch upon darkening air.
It is not energy but light they burn,
The radiant powers of the Paraclete.”
- “Old Lovers at the Ballet,” May Sarton, Halfway to Silence, 1980

Perhaps it is my recent birthday, but bear with me as I continue with more thoughts from midlife...

I have been musing on the odd dissonance between the aging of the body and the freshening of the soul. It seems that as wisdom deepens and the long view sharpens in contrast our bodies begin to wobble, falter, losing the strength we have taken for granted. Young, we ran wild on thin legs through fairy forests, our imaginations unfettered, our knowledge framed by the delights or sorrows of the day. Older now, we walk those forests aware of all we once did not see, carry in our hearts the things we now know.

The cliche is that youth is wasted on the young; reflecting a truism that if we were but armed with old age’s self-knowledge along with the physical stamina and courage of youth, we should finally conquer those peaks unchallenged. What I have noticed is something has "settled" which feels more subtle than an either/or (young or old) duality to me. In middle age, I feel confident of an inner prowress, a deep knowledge of my body and being that still reflects a much younger "me." I take inventory: These are my running legs; the lanky arms that haul book crates up the stairs; the length of elbow, knee and calf that curled in sleep through a Sunday rainstorm. But there is also a keen new awareness of the importance of the moment: I am not thirty, however thirty I may feel. The accumulation of time is fully evident in the detritus of living - the mementos of travel, collected photographs, overstuffed business files, books on the shelf, tickets to theater, the bright fat folder of kids' art - time that in my youth I often squandered. Moments tossed, half-tasted in the rush to better, future things. In mid life I still value what I wanted when I was young, but I appreciate why so much more. What the "having" means and consists of, what this brings to the enjoyment of life.

May Sarton’s poem begins with two aging lovers at the ballet, aching at the mirrored contrast, the reflected ridicule in the youthful dancers' performance of physical and lissome movements they feel but can no longer accomplish. And then, through immersion in the beauty of the dance, the old couple realize that it is not the body but the self that is forever in movement. That they are not limited by age, but only their imaginations. “It is not energy but light they burn….”  Read More 
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A Birthday and the Autumnal Equinox

"I look for you in the pockets of my raincoat
it's late afternoon - and the fingers
of my gloves - you're gone"
- "Gone," Mary Jo Salter, The Exact Place, 1987

Birthdays are more than anniversaries, they mark a personal new year. Today is mine, and coincidentally marks the last day of summer and the first day of fall - the autumnal equinox. The sun crosses the plane of the earth's equator, a point of balance in the length of days. The end of northern summers and the beginning of fall acknowledges the ebb and tide between cycles of life. As a child I always thought being born on the cusp between two seasons was somehow significant to my life: caught between the closing of one door and the opening of another, I am a soul in transition, at home in shift, guided by a restlessness I recognize marks an awareness of inner transition.

My birthday invites personal review - using the day to look back over the year, sometimes the decade itself, and take stock of my life. Have I met my goals, or diverged into unexpected but rewarding new directions? Found things I never anticipated, dealt with setbacks no one could predict? What would I like for the coming year? Do I have new goals, or need to push through to closure on old ones? Lately I have felt the subtlety of surrender: an invitation, surprise, room for luck and mystery.

This year I am thinking about my personal journey as author of THE GEOGRAPHY OF LOVE, the memoir of my marriage, and the beginning of an uncharted chapter in life - post loss, post grief, post the incandescent exposure writing a memoir brings. I am in the midst of discovering new things about myself, about the wisdom and creativity of mid life, and about the genesis of change. Second chances - broad shifts in life and life patterns - seem to begin in submerged currents, in an arrhythmia of the heart within powerful transitions. These pivots, like the balance point in the length of days, promise genuine power: a glimpse into a future we struggle to imagine but nonetheless anticipate in our most secret thoughts and desires. I think about what I have done this past year, laying the foundation for shift in both my personal life and work, and the sense I have is that the year to come will bring a surge, a sweeping flow of new experiences and challenges. A sea change.

The equinox is a place of balance on the verge of transition. Between what is and what will be: In the doorway. What more can we ask of life than to be offered the opportunity to make meaningful choices, step in directions that surprise us?

"I look for you in the pockets of my raincoat..." What a beautiful turn of phrase to echo what was, and what is now. Happy autumnal equinox, my friends.
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Alchemy of Thought

“We must always look at things
from the point of view of eternity.”
- “Velocity,” Billy Collins, Nine Horses, 2002

I am always struggling with the measure of what is good writing. One yardstick is public success: marquee agents, mega book deals, chart shaking sales. Another measure as simple as a satisfied sigh pushing away from the writing desk. Like all art in fluid form, good writing is both the shape of expression and subjective reaction. I have no clear perspective on when writing that I feel is worthy will be perceived by others as equally so. It’s a conundrum, in that the measure of good craft should be consistent, and usually is, but craft is also frequently the least important criteria in the measure of a book’s impact. Excellence may be unrelated to public or market success. What is successful is not solely anchored to talent but may be more often linked to concept and marketability, to timing, to mass appeal.

When a writer sits at his or her desk and begins to work that alchemy of thought and imagery, etching language to paper, how is the writer to know if the ideal has been achieved? When do we know the writing is good?

I have come to this conclusion: When the writing stands for itself - strongly, and without apology or uncertainty. It does not matter how the page or novel is sold, publicized, packaged or touted. Good writing is undeniable. Good writing makes people listen. A writer can feel in his or her gut when something is really good. The word sizzles on the desk, burns holes in the slant of afternoon light, the space above the lamp buzzes with electric thought. Although gut instinct does not always translate into a novel that makes the bestseller lists, this brave, private act of creation in and of itself makes a writer successful. We bless the word, fiercely. Read More 
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Blue Glass

“Parampara….from generation to generation.”
- from the Sanskrit

The last heat of summer glances off the hard enamel sky, the grasses bleached white, the tender green leached by the sun. I walk the bluff, thinking about the human heart and our desire to protect it, keep its secrets, yet open and trust. Ah, we yearn to be in love - yet fight against the vulnerability of surrender like a drowning man in the surf. The heart seems to always be searching, turning each leaf, each stone. I used to think the search was instinctual, blind; now I suspect it is anything but. Someday we will recognize what our heart tells us it has found.

The heart takes the hand and leads the way when rightness is present. As the willow switch vibrates over the course of hidden water, the heart divines love. The brain, seeking reassuring equations, makes spreadsheets, cross-lists, endless rationales. Heart and mind so often at odds, we extricate ourselves from things our hearts never told us to get into, dive into things our hearts scream “No!” Where is the harmony of the self?

Under the soles of my shoes, red dirt rises in little dust devils that settle on the dry leaves of the trees. The mistakes of my heart are like the dust rising from my steps - both a mark of passage and the mark of time, footprints on the trail. What comes of our hunger for love is a matter of mystery and history - the place where our steps begin and end. And this I trust my heart to know.

The sky is the color of blue glass. Read More 
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Characters at Sea

“We live, as we dream – alone.”
-Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

I am an admirer of Joseph Conrad - the man, the writer. Born of the Polish upper class, Conrad’s youth was spent interred between the changing fortunes of warring, landlocked European nations - politics whispered over sherry, restricted travel, a youth devoted to long mountainous rambles with his Oxford tutor. By contrast, as if eschewing limits, his early adult years were spent sailing the east-west trades in the British merchant marine. Not surprisingly, the exotic, surprising way of the world salts his work with a peculiar roughness. For although stylistically Conrad is long in words, his meaning is short to the point. I greatly miss the language of this part of the early Twentieth Century. When writing offered both meaning and melody, a careful layering of intention and nuance: the kind of sentence that rolls the tongue like cognac. The quote “We live, as we dream – alone,” speaks of Conrad’s years at sea. Holed up in an officer’s cabin on a heavy sea, lamp swinging over the port hole, his journal and pen at hand, writing of distant lands and characters encountered. Somewhere on those ocean crossings he began to write about the darkness that is the human heart. The essential alone.

Although Conrad ended life in the rural hills at a decent old age, comfortably ensconced with his devoted wife, children, and hunting dogs, his concept of the lonely heart was one he took with him even into marriage. I think about this curious dissonance - the impulse to love even while pulled apart, unbreakably solitary in our human ways. Why seek to bind ourselves to others if our restless dreams drive us onward alone?

Perhaps it is a question of balance. Love stokes the same fire that fuels our ambitions, and vice versa. The twining of what we dream for our lives, and what we nurture, inevitably welds powerful ties, links that bind us to what we have made. Dreams accompanied by characters at sea. Read More 
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Secret Machine

“My loneliness is a secret machine,
a flying feather bed in the blue
of a hydrangea…”
- “Galileo,” Christopher Howell

A word on the solitary heart... The reality of life, we are led to believe, is that we row our little boats alone. Loneliness something we are more or less always aware of, there in the secret rooms of our memories. I've found something else to be true: we are truly part of a parenthesis in eternity - a set of those we come from and those that come from us. I think one reason our children can break our hearts just in looking at them, is that we feel ourselves in their innocence, reflected in their laughing eyes. Holding the kids on our laps, or leaning shoulder to shoulder with a grown son on a log by a beach fire, we look down the length of them: recognize our own bony feet in theirs, laugh at the slightly longer second toe. In the shadows of our parents, our grandparents, our children, we experience ourselves as unbounded in the universe. Something of us spools in from the past and through us, forward.

I love this poet's imagery, the idea loneliness takes wing as a secret machine. A trapeze, a buggy, a spaceship, a bed flying blue through dark skies. We are the machine, our secrets safely stashed in our hearts. When loneliness swims up inside, cling to the faces of those you love, anchor to the weight of the old dog’s head on your foot. Love is the skin, the silver, the fierce aluminum, the slingshot of hope that catapults us through space. Space, the blue of wild hydrangea.  Read More 
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Archeology

“…summer as an absolute,
Pure State of Light and Heat, the height
to which one cannot raise a doubt.”
- “Absolute September,” Mary Jo Salter, A Kiss in Space, 1999

I met the poet at an Aspen writers workshop years ago, when my own writing was a small hot flame of raw desire. We gathered in a courtyard of grass and cottonwoods and freely sown wildflowers. She read to us from her poems. In the back, behind the rows of chairs, a woman in a straw hat strolled out from under a white tent, white wine in hand. An old man with suspenders sat on a stump, head bent, leaning on his cane as he listened.

Above the poet’s voice, above her words of expansive kitchen views and unexpressed ambitions, my own thoughts hummed with the bees in the honeysuckle. I turned the slim book of poetry over in my hand, studying the noble imprint on the spine. My secret unexpressed ambition? To be published by one of the grand old houses - the editorial lions that guard the gates of literature. To be invited someday to talk to people who love reading, people like me, plain folk who gather to celebrate the written word. I remember gazing at the speaker as though she were my sister, my friend. To be you, I thought. Standing there at the podium in your sundress with your easy confidence, your unkempt hair, your skin blotched by too much sun from somewhere in Kansas. You have it all, there at your fabled kitchen sink gazing into the distance. In this introverted blindness to the world, this whole and innocent self-centeredness, I know you are studying symbols written on inner walls, peering in close through the shadowed light. Paper in hand, you copy down what some part of you has left for another part of you to find. You are my archeologist, my hero.

Poet in a sundress. Read More 
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Summer at its Fullest

"On roadsides,
in fall fields,
in rumpy bunches,
saffron and orange and pale gold..."
-"Goldenrod," Mary Oliver, Blue Iris, 2004

Yesterday afternoon McDuff and I headed out to the bluff, lulled outdoors by a late afternoon warmth, pools of mellow light that fell through the trees. As we walked through the wild oat and dried thistle, the hillside around us caught the angle of light in a palette of caramels, dusty tans and white yellows. The sweetness of summer at its fullest. Surely fall hovers at the edge of the valley in the crisp mornings and cool nights, but here on the bluff summer holds court.

As I walked, a wordless song played through my thoughts. Duff fell behind, his nose in dusty rabbit holes. I stopped and just stood in the champagne light, looking across the valley. A raven cry drifted up from somewhere near the creek. I was filled with inexplicable happiness. As if everything had its moment and this moment had now. Floating, ebullient joy. My thoughts touched on my son and daughter, far away, their lives anchoring down for the new school term at university. I felt the erasure of geography, the delicate knots and stitches that bind us, one to another.

I offer the final stanzas of Mary Oliver's "Goldenrod" here -

"I was just minding my own business
when I found myself on their straw hillsides,
citron and butter-colored,

and was happy, and why not?
Are not the difficult labors of our lives
full of dark hours?
And what has consciousness come to anyway, so far,

that is better than these light-filled bodies?
All day
on their airy backbones
they toss in the wind,

they bend as though it was natural and godly to bend,
they rise in a stiff sweetness,
in the pure peace of giving
one's gold away."

May all of you find delight in summer's last song. Read More 
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Handprint

“To will what God wills is the only Science that gives us rest.”
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I am one who believes in the dance between science and chaos. In that dance exists the spark of magic. Uncertain, I look for the handprint of destiny in life. And while patterns can be seen in retrospect, forks in the road loom clear only once we’ve taken new direction. It doesn’t always appear to be a preordained plan we are following. Rather, it feels more as though we uncover the path; building a stairway across space even as we take the next step into an empty dark we are not certain we trust.

There is a simple truth in Longfellow’s words – inner peace is essentially found within surrender to an ultimate power we cannot define nor commune well with, let alone identify or prove. While we seek to master the laws of science and take security in the material laws of the universe, life in its entirety is mystery undefined. Whatever creation is, creation wills. Is this destiny? I don’t know. Free will? That would account for our choices and refusals. Perhaps chaos and a corner pocket shot of stardust. I do sense that the science that we speak of, Longfellow and I, is big enough to define itself as it sees fit. While I may need to discover magic and serendipity, another person might need the rule of reason, or perhaps a sense of preordained fate, the mystery of surrender. We are all quite possibly right.

As I stand in the doorway between who I have been for most of my adult life - woman, partner, mother, writer – I look to the stars. There is a star out there for each of us. A point of light that reminds us the distance we’ve come, and how limitless our possibilities might be. In tonight's cloudless sky, a cerulean midnight fluted with deep purple, a white crescent moon hangs above the birch trees. A moon as improbable as a prop, a Matisse cutout pinned above a dark and curtained theatre. The moon...a planet captive in our orbit, catalogued by our most knowledgeable sciences. Humans have reached the gray rock on rocket ships. But to me that luminescent crescent is a symbol of the improbable, the mystery that makes every moment of life a question mark. The moon and I have so much in common - we exist, we have no idea why. Read More 
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