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QUINTESSENCE

An Unforgettable Voice

"In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong..."
- "Piano," D. H Lawrence, The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence, 1964

This season at The Metropolitan Opera, New York, a young and passionate Italian tenor from Abruzza, Italy, debuted on stage as Rodolfo in La Boheme, Puccini's lyrical bittersweet tale of love and broken dreams among the artists and bohemians of Paris. This performance was one of the highlights of my visit to New York. Seated in Parterre level box seats, in direct view of the stage and in full sweep of the range of magnificent voices that performed Puccini's work, what I remember in particular was a moment I leaned so far forward in my seat I felt as though I was falling into the tenor's opening aria of dreams of love sung to the shy and innocent Mimi (Maija Kovalevska). My awareness dissolved in the texture and resonance of a voice so spectacular and powerful that it held the opera house like a sudden bath of sunlight from a broken sky. Much has been said about this stunning new tenor, the heir apparent of the stage presence and voice of the great Placido Domingo, but truly, nothing captures the transformational energy and brute power of the effortless talent of Vittorio Grigolo.

I sat back in my seat as the curtain fell on Act I, and found myself thinking about the degree to which talent exists amongst us in bits and sprinkles, and then, there are The Greats. Where an individual vein of precious metal is wide and deep and nothing can diminish the blinding pulse of light. Are these men and women of extraordinary ability just the particularly bright stars among us? Are they driven or enlightened by their gifts? Do we honor them enough when we stand in appreciation of their magnificence, yet often with little appreciation for their struggle to bring it forth? I have long believed extraordinary gifts require extraordinary people to express them and true grit to live the lives such talent demands.

Bravo, Signor Grigolo, young maestro of the voice. It was the privilege of a lifetime to sit in the hushed dark as you lifted a thousand people with your lyrical passion and poignancy. I salute you, I salute your talent, and most especially, I acknowledge the discipline and work you have embraced to bring it forth.  Read More 
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Pertinax

"Let chaos storm!
Let cloud shapes swarm!
I wait for form."
- "Ten Mills," Robert Frost, The poetry of Robert Frost, 1969

In continuing reflection on my week in the east visiting New York and New Haven, Connecticut, I think about the experience of standing in front of a painting by Mark Rothko at the Yale Museum of Art. My daughter, a gallery guide and art history major, had taken me on a quick visit to some of her favorite paintings. Rothko, one of those moderns whose color block work speaks emotionally - straight to the heart - nonetheless startled me in the degree to which "Untitled, 1954" seemed to vibrate in formlessness. My usual instinctive process of discerning shape and message in a painting was suspended. Instead, I dropped deep into the painting visually. I floated within the intensities of color, seeped through the borders, transcended the shifts between vibrant hues of orange and yellow, the subtle sheen of a translucent sweep of absolute white. I was diving within a solar flare, licks of heat singeing the paint where color collided.

"Untitled, 1954," was painted on unprimed canvas. Allowing the medium of paint and canvas to alter one another, to absorb and affect hue, to build texture and shade as part of the absorption of the paint itself as well as through brush stroke and finish. This painting was completed in an era we think of as one of staid conformity, the years of postwar boy band harmony and matched kitchens. Yet in front of me is an unconstructed pulse, a flame of a painting from those years. A punch from the wall, "Live Boldly!" Nearly a half century after Rothko made this painting, I find the work stirs me in an unexpected way. Let not the times nor the rhythms of life steal from us our voices, our hunger and passion, our energy for living. Like this flare of brilliance on the plain white wall of the museum, let us burn until we burn out. Read More 
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Wilderness

"I saw the open eye of night, all
guileless, all iris of a starshine grey,
scattered with clusters of brilliant pupils.
...I belong, as if
not only the earth while I am here, but space,
and death, and existence without me, are my home."
- "Wilderness," Sharon Olds, The Unswept Room, 2002

There is a feeling, living here in eastern Washington, across the continent from the beating heart of America that is New York, that we are somehow separated by a profound and unbridgeable gap of culture and perspective. As citizens of a country that offers something of everything in places both remote and dense, are we too large, too dissimilar to connect? What I felt in New York to my great surprise was the common imagination, the hunger of all humanity. Not a taste of one of the great states of America, but of the many-tongued and colored and gifted peoples of the planet. Wandering from exhibits of ancient antiquity through art collections and revolutions among the moderns, from minerals and asteroids of natural history to the anguish and love staged and sung in both theatre and opera, I felt how we are unbreakably bound by our humanity.

Pick a pin dot in the sky. Draw it down to you. People this small bit of glittering space with all you know, don't know, love and have not met, and you have a parenthetical symbol of our world. As Sharon Olds speaks to in her poem, we belong. In all the ways we do, and do not conceive, our connection is indivisible. My love to the great city of New York. What a wonder to feel so at home in another sky.  Read More 
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Stones of the Sky

"I am not ready for so many mysteries;
I open my eyes and see nothing;
I touch the earth and move on,
while flame and flower, scent and water
are changed into clans of crystal,
eternalized in works of light.
- "XXlX," Pablo Neruda, Stone of the Sky, 1987

The last few days I have been making friends with my new bike. Now it has been a long time since I rode a bike - since one of my kids perched on the back of my mountain bike and I grunted up the rolling hills of Wellesley and then later, sped along the quick and easy flats of Stanford. As my son began to seriously bike as a teenager, and eventually joined the USNA Cycling Team, I found myself drawn into the love of the sport from my role as his event "support person." What it took for me to wade in and make the commitment (buy a modern era bike in fact) was the steadfast support of a fabulous woman friend (and a fit athlete), and the excitement of another friend who had lost a substantial amount of weight and was avid about the joys of cycling, both the physcial and social. Always a runner, I was used to disciplined, solitary workouts. The idea of a group ride, and the shared experience of enjoying the outdoors, appealed.

My beautiful bike was built for my long legged frame by the "king of custom bikes" in Spokane, Steve ; and I found myself with a fast turquoise filly of a road bike that had gears more complex than my car. Oh boy, I thought, thinking that if clip-in pedals didn't kill me (who doesn't remember that famous Laugh-In moment when the old guys falls over sideways on his trike?), well then, the complicated gears or thin thin seat surely would. But my girlfriend, a formidable athlete, remained firm. "Let's go Wednesday," she said. "I have a break in my schedule and it might be the last great day of weather for awhile." She took me to Fish Lake Trail. A new bike and hiking path that follows the train egress through the stone escarpments of Spokane-Cheney valley. The sun shone through the pines, the air was crisp, my body felt as though I were a ten year old loosed on the wind. What fun! Stones from the sky and wind at my feet. Later I realized the gentle support my friend had given me: from saftey tips, to setting a speed I could manage, although it must have felt like dawdling to her. She gave me the gift of her patience and joyful company, and I was bitten. I love my bike and biking with friends!

The next ride was with my athletic guy friend. Fast out the gate, he checked in on my "cycling body dynamics": fine-tuning my rather gaffe handling of gears and clipping in to the pedals, pushing to show me the athletic bite of the sport. This is the comaraderie of the sport. And the result of a week of cycling? One sore butt, a great new attitude, calf muscles, and twenty new pages of draft on the book project! Viva outdoor exercise and the company of amazing friends. Go forth, friends, and dust off your bikes!

I'm heading off to New York and New Haven next week. Do comment on the essays, and I'll have some fresh stories to share with you when I return. Take care. Read More 
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Cuttings

"Body Through Which the Dream Flows

You count up everything you have
or have let go.
What's left is the lost and the possible.
...October on the planet.
Huge moon, bright stars."

- "Cuttings," Robert Haas, Human Wishes, 1989

Good morning, friends. Next week I will be heading east to New York. About as long a continental journey as you can make from Eastern Washington, especially if you consider I am trading my midnight trestle trains and backyard quail for the night lights and electric pulse that is one of our greatest cities. I will be taking in great chefs, musical theater, museums, and the Met for Puccini's La Boheme. This is an opportunity for surprise and delight!

But in truth, the journey is to pose the city a question, Do I wish to continue to write? I didn't realize this was the nagging uncertainty of my life lately that has simply translated into this need to return to New York. I thought the trip was about Parents Weekend in New Haven, with a little music and theatre along the way to Connecticut. But this morning I faced my computer and the question floated across my screen. Do I have anything left to say? My last few novels in draft rest on my desk - in limbo, somewhere between "not quite there" and "a must have" for a publisher. I hear editors sigh: What we need is an unexpected hook, fresh, the "wow" factor. My writing and my love for writing sink in an awareness I do not know what a reader wants, nor can I imagine it. Will it ever be possible to write with innocence and trust the unfiltered impulse? Trust the commonality of hearts will draw readers to my words?

I think in New York there is an answer for me. A resonance in the pavement, translation in the streets, something I can close my eyes and cling to at the opera. Yes, or no, the time is now to ask the question. As Haas writes so beautifully, the possible is always what is left to us. Read More 
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Old Friends, A Farewell

"What is my name,
o what is my name
that I may offer it back
to the beautiful world?"
- "From The Book of Time," Mary Oliver, The Leaf and the Cloud, 2000

I ask myself - if the earth and the stars can know the length of light and dark, the seasons, the orbit and eclipse - why can we humans not know the length of our days? Mortality springs open in our midst, the music box with a mocking clown. Today I learned that a friend from long ago had recently died. His daughter wrote to me, knowing of our past friendship. I was deeply grieved to hear this news. In midlife, an early death. Never an exit one expects or welcomes.

I have been thinking about this friend all day. Remembering his affinity for soft guitar, ability with song writing, the compassionate and gentle nature of his heart. While we drifted apart over the years, he was once a very important cornerstone in an unsettled time. The kind of friend who was willing to talk about the deep stuff, the unanswerable, the painful. Was I ever particularly important in his life? I do not know. I can only presume that in the way friendships have, how they reside in our memories like dog-eared books, ready to be read and revisited when life permits, that he had a similar set of memories of me.

Mary Oliver ends her poem "From The Book of Time" with these five lines, which I offer in memory of my friend, Patrick -

"the salt of the stars
the crown of the wind

the beds of the clouds
the blue dream

the unbreakable circle."

We'll miss you. Read More 
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The Quiet Within Rain

"I am touching a few leaves.
I am noticing the way the yellow butterflies
move together, in a twinkling cloud, over the field.

And I am thinking: maybe just looking and listening
is the real work.

Maybe the world, without us,
is the real poem."
- "From The Book of Time," Mary Oliver, The Leaf and The Cloud, 2000


There is a feeling among runners, what I call "restless" legs, that tell you it's time to run. Suddenly the body wants to be in motion. Thigh muscles tingle, the arch of the feet poise to push off as you stand at the window, nursing your cup of coffee. This morning around 6:30 I drove home on slick dark streets through a predawn drizzle. Thick mist bunched around the trees, pooling in the distance in lakes of spun white cloud between the forested ridges. I knew I wanted to run. Felt the tingle in my legs.

The world is quiet in the predawn. The rain is slight, a refreshing bite of mist rising in wraiths that ebb from my feet as I run along the edge of the cliffs. Lightly clothed, I am grateful for my new REI ponytail polartec beanie and gloves. The chill of October is unmistakable this morning: sweat cools instantly on my skin. Breath frosts my lungs. I am alone in the utter silence of the fog, solitary with my thoughts, attuned to the pounding of my feet, my heart beats. In the dreaming quiet I seem to find what there is that makes me happy. I cannot tell you precisely what that something is, but the joy lasts the day. One foot following the other I unleash a sense of my own animal power, empty negative thought and emotion; float in a world outside the borders of my own mind. Somewhere in the run is where I find faith, my understanding of God. Within the quiet is the presence of the world. What is not me, and yet that of which I am a part: this vast silence that is anything but quiet. Around me the silence is surging with life. I imagine Gregorian chants - hear the prayers of deep space that whisper the songs of the universe.

I round the last corner from my house, legs strong, breath even, and suddenly I appreciate in a way I don't often, the simple perfection of the body. The grace of this experience, living. What we have been given, you and I. All there. In the quiet within rain. Read More 
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Old Friends

"memory demands so much,
it wants every fiber
told and retold."
- Denise Levertov, "The Great Unknowing," 1999

I have spent the last two days in the company of an old friend. Someone I have not spoken to since I was in my twenties. My life took me overseas and into the cities, his to the remote west. Imagine! To have a luxury of days to catch up on nearly three decades of living. Connect the bookends on memories of high school to the worn, slightly frayed tales of midlife marriage: the growth of children, fulfillment of careers, and once again wanderlust for the chance to "do life big again" and make bold and interesting new choices.

What is true is that we remain who we think we are, even as we age; and those who once knew us, know us still. We also change, but in the ways a river meanders - serpentining through setback and challenge, but always flowing forward. Toward more of who we are, filling in the borders each year the shape we were born with, the shadow we will cast. What isn't true is that we are static in our desires and needs. What we want, changes. What we seek, evolves. The astonishing thing about reconnecting with my friend was the subtle satisfaction of closing the loop on the stories of our younger selves left dangling; sharing the questions of the years ahead. The friends of our lives are embedded in the stage sets of all our memories. They are there with the faded orientals, the paintings on the wall, in the chairs around our kitchen tables. It's so wonderful to sit down and visit. Read More 
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The Crush

"crush
the grapes for wine.
You cannot imagine the feeling if you have never done it -
like hard bulbs of wet satin exploding under your feet,
between your toes and up your legs arms face splashing everywhere -"
- Anne Carson, "The Beauty of the Husband," 2001

Last Monday the merlot grape for the '10 Overbluff Merlot was driven from Walla Walla to Spokane to the stone processing rooms of Overbluff Cellars, an intimate, boutique winery on the South Hill. I sat beside Jerry Gibson as he watched his partner John load a ton of grape on a bobcat and tilt the container of gorgeous dense velvet-blue purple fruit - just cut, clinging to the stem, mounds of ripeness - over the shiny metal functionality of the crusher. Not Lucille Ball, I remember thinking, realizing we were not to stomp the grape, our skirts held high, Las Reinas of the villages of Argentina. Young girls crowned Queens of the Crush. No, no dancing in the grape, no fruit squishing between our toes, staining our feet.

A hose is hooked to carry the pulp from crusher to fermentation vat. I wash my hands at the stone sink, preparing to reach into the tilted container of fruit and pull out clusters in my hands by the armful. I shake and search the bounty for stray leaves and grape past intensity, wrinkle-dry on the vine, throw this to the ground, and then drop the good grape into the whorling gut of the crusher. The stems are spit from the crusher to the left at my feet as the fragrant pulp snakes slowly through the hose toward the vats. Smiling with delight, I hold up a perfect cluster of grape on the stem, the fruit fat and shiny. John shakes his head. "Nearly worthless," he mouths over the roar of the crusher. "You want them separated, not bunched tight. And small, stressed. Then the sun intensifies their sweetness." He hands me one of each to taste. Indeed the fat grape is watery, empty of tang on my tongue, and the small, striving grape is full of sweet bite.

I think about this bit of vineyard lore the hours I work the crush. Stressed but not broken, the sweetness intensifies. The metaphor is not lost on me. I vote for the sweet. Read More 
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Imagining Into Another

"one of the most mysterious of semi-speculations is, one would suppose, that of one Mind's imagining into another."
- John Keats, note on his copy of "Paradise Lost," 1.59-94

The topic of confidences is on my mind. The confession of one to another. The most secret troubles, most precious joys. The way in which we map ourselves from what we give and receive as language - words shaped like gemstones of differing clarity and purity - truths that ping home from the unfathomable universe that shelters those we love. Small stars in the deep darkness. Do we hear what is said, or imagine ourselves into the mind of the other? If this were me, this would be my truth as I tell it to you? I do not really know. I am not entirely sure it matters. What you intend to say, what I keep of that. I think what is beautiful about intimacy is the sacred space itself. The room two souls build to light a candle around an idea, or perhaps an ideal, but the significance is in the joining together in empathy. Confidences are about bridges, connections, designs that float like diamond webs in the ether of uncertainty.

We do not know one another as well as we wish. So we open our hearts and share. And in that moment the fragile web trembles as the soul finds purchase outside the box of the body, the box of the life, and spirit meets spirit on its own terms. The mind, unimaginable imagination... These membranes of the self, be they permeable or not, fray the edges of isolation. Thoughts and feelings, offered from innocence, may mend. Confidences map the world we do not understand. The sacred truth of what we share is in the companionship of those we love, in the familiarity of night and the constant stars. Read More 
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