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QUINTESSENCE

Pebbles


Each pebble in this world keeps
its own counsel.
- from "Poem Holding Its Heart In One Fist," Jane Hirschfield, Given Sugar, Given Salt, 2001

Yesterday was the kind of day in which little things kept going wrong, and in some cases big things - trucks and leaking transmission fluid, broken furnaces, the internet down. This kind of day can simmer and thicken into sludge in the soul, a weariness that drags down all the optimism and energy you possess, leaving tattered and disheartened dismay. Easy to give in and have a single malt, call it a day, right?

Well, and yes I did (have that scotch). Put my feet up on the coffee table and considered the wasted hours trying to gain purchase against the assignments still on my work list. But I also reflected on the simple things that crept into the same day, and in their unexpected sweetness, buoyed me back up. For example, a letter from a reader speaking from the heart about THE GEOGRAPHY OF LOVE. That touched my heart. A conversation through the book between the two of us about faith and spirit and life. A wonderful, unexpected thing. And there was the hug at the end of the day from my friend, the one with the broken truck, a road to plow, and a late night at work, saying "You make all the wrong things right." Again, unexpected. Joy in my pocket.

Even the unstoppable snow. Which now has set a record in the region for the month of November, and is the source of great consternation and anxiety for me as it piles on the roof and I slide the streets in the Jeep to get the kids to the airport to catch their respective flights back to school. Even all this is somehow - all right. The quiet, the softness, the empty promise of so many white fields. The pebbles under the snowy cold keep their own counsel.

Does your day find a way to end on a good note? Read More 
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Awake in the World


STARS
I'm awake; I am in the world -
I expect
no further assurance.
No protection, no promise.

Solace of the night sky,
the hardly moving
face of the clock."
- from "Stars," Louise Gluck, The Seven Ages, 2001

The winter snow has forced a slow down in the Northwest. Drawing the hours into long, quiet interludes. There is the work of winter - shoveling, getting down to the store, warming and scraping cars - and there is the rest of winter. The splendid, empty hours of snowbound retreat. Afternoons by the fire, reading as the snow piles in fat flakes on the head of the garden sculptures.

At last I am cracking open the collected stack of books by the chair. Heavens, I've read three now. "A Walk on the Beach," by Joan Anderson; "Why We Make Mistakes," by a journalist whose name I've quite forgotten (could that be only coincidental?); and the biggest of the three, former President George W. Bush's memoir, "Decision Points." The last book, an historical memoir, is fascinating in its detail. But also laugh out loud funny, and surprisingly candid in a guarded world. I see in these vignettes of a challenging presidency the many ways our political system twists well-intentioned policies; how power struggles polarize the public and caricature the good and decent leaders we send to Washington; and above all, the ways in which an alarmist invasive media robs our national debate of an encompassing mission of humanity. One thing is clear: our leaders endeavor far harder than we give them credit for in the struggle to make good and just decisions. This memoir is a true surprise to me. My friend commented, looking at me heft the tome through the airport, "Never judge a Bush by its cover."

Turkey soup is on the agenda. And leftover stuffing - the kind my son makes with cranberries and slivered almonds, sausage and porcini mushrooms. The sweet potato souffle, made with Vermont maple syrup. And bits of pies, dolloped with whipped cream spiced with Bourbon-Madagascar vanilla. Later tonight, ice skating at the outdoor rink.

I am thankful. For my beloved family, my great and fabulous friends. As I look out the frosted window, cradling Earl Grey tea, I am grateful to be awake in the world. I laugh at the Scottie in his dapper brown fleece jacket nosing around in the snow drifts. He looks up, his beard and eyebrows sparkle with ice. Under the thin Aspen the quail sit squashed back to back, fat as hens.

Even now, there are berries on the trees.
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Hush all the fields


NOW CLOSE THE WINDOWS
Now close the windows and hush all the fields:
If the trees must, let them silently toss;
No bird is singing now, and if there is,
Be it my loss.

It will be long ere the marshes resume,
It will be long ere the earliest bird;
So close the windows and not hear the wind,
But see all wind-stirred.

- Robert Frost, "A Boy's Will," 1913

An "Arctic blast" has swept in from northern Canada, blanketing the Northwest in snow and below zero temperatures. The storms are to continue on through the next few days, hopefully then to break into sun on Thanksgiving. As I write, the blizzard winds have ceased, and in their wake, a silence, heavy as the berms of snow banked against the house. The path worn by the dog chasing the gray squirrels that feast on the red fruit of the crab apple is erased. Blanketed under drifts of sharply angled snow.

Last night we shoveled in the bitter cold, bundled in hats and gloves, wooly mufflers softening our laughter as the dog ran under foot nipping at the edge of the snow shovels. The night sky was something to behold. Black as glass. Shards of ice scintillate in the vast dark. This the drift of distant galaxies? One falling star but one of a thousand diamonds lost. The dog is laughing now, his beard a carpet of snow balls. Our work done, the cocoa cups put away, the fire damped and boots drying by the door, the house falls asleep as the wind settles into the eaves. As the storm rages over our heads and the timbers of the house creak in the cold, I snuggle into the warm breath of love and think, This, this is joy.

The morning house smells of ginger cookies and warm oatmeal. The quail in the back yard search for seed, kicking the snow into sprays of white mist. Sun glints from the snow fields. The dazzling white blinds me as I pause, again armed with the shovel. I think, This, this is joy.

The days of gathering in the kitchen are upon us. We come together, preparing a feast of love, a feast for loving, a feast for thankfulness and the presence of grace. I count blessings, looking up as white-bellied geese skim the tips of the pines, beating away into an impossibly blue sky. Hush all the fields, and listen.
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Shoveling Snow


This morning I slept late, lulled into dreams by the silence of snowfall, steady and soft, drifting from a pigeon gray sky. I've just returned from a few days in southern California, exploring around The Cove in La Jolla: the ocean rolls in and the seals sun on the mossy rocks. I am struck by more than just the contrast in climates I experienced. There are "psychological seasons," traveling from one latitude and then back to a more northern one. Both locales and weather offer contemplation; both sway under the predominant rhythms of nature. Back north near the Canadian border, under a skiff of new snow, the world feels on pause, poised in the rest between beats. Down alongside the warm Pacific coast, the world felt simply mellow, a lazy metronome, beating out the steady row of the waves, the penetrating bath of sunshine.

Looking at the shovel by my door, I offer you a complete poem this morning from former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins' book "Picnic, Lightning" (1998):

SHOVELING SNOW WITH BUDDHA

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over the mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm and slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in a church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and rive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside the generous pocket of his silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck,
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.
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Dark Months

"Try to hold you (as you did then)
and, brilliance magnified,
circle beyond the ironwork
encasing your human heart."
- "11/10 Again," Lucille Clifton, The Book of Light, 1993

As early dark nights settle amongst the streets and houses, as the last of the geese call and beat their wings toward the southern horizon, as the dark grows cold and the mornings fall silent of bird song, now the deep ease of the winter begins. November in a northern country.

The letting go of fall is complete: the cycle of growth and harvest set aside. Welcome the interlude, the stillness. For some this will invoke a time of hibernation, a withdrawal toward the hearth, toward the heart it might be said. The space between beats is one of the purest gifts of the season. It is in this quiet contemplation that we mend, assess, and plan again. But our peace is often lost in the clamor of holiday plans and gatherings. The new year will come in on the heels of the days now past. What are we thankful for? What will we do differently? And how and when will we begin again?

The abbreviated days of Thanksgiving hesitate on the threshold. Can we look within for our personal tomorrows? Would we be surprised to find in the silence the songs we have yet to sing?  Read More 
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Veterans Day Salute

"The deepest words
of the wise men teach us
the same as the whistle of the wind when it blows,
or the sound of the water when it is flowing."
- "Rebirth," Antonio Machado

Today is a Thursday in the chill and gray month of November. It is Veterans Day. My thoughts this morning turn to the family heritage I honor: one of service and sacrifice. Like many families around our country this day, we salute the bravery, the dedication, the commitment and as may be, the ultimate sacrifice made by those we love. At this moment there are American soldiers on the front lines of conflict around the world. There are American soldiers on missions of rescue and mercy. And American soldiers miles apart from all they know and love, watching the seas and skies for our safety. My message today is heartfelt, and simple. Thank a service member, remember a Vet, acknowledge your family's generations of sacrifice. Freedom for any of us, whether those serving or those supporting or left behind, has a cost. Today we acknowledge the price paid.

My Drum Roll of Honor:

*Midshipman David G. Grunzweig, United States Naval Academy (my son)
*Kenneth A. Grunzweig, A1C, USAF, Vietnam era (my husband, deceased)
*Lt. Col. Thomas H. Burgess, USAF, career officer SAC Command, retired (my father, deceased)
*Louise W. Burgess, active duty military spouse (my mother, deceased)
*James Waugh, enlisted US Army, Korea (my uncle)
*Lt. Jeremy Tinder, USAF Reserve (nephew), and Kristin, his spouse
*John Loudon, enlisted former USAF Survival Instructor (brother-in-law) and Julie, his spouse (my sister)
*Lt. Col. Harland F. Burgess, US Army, career officer Calvary, WWII Pacific Theater, POW, decorated hero, KIA (my grandfather)
*Marion d'Ullay Burgess, active duty military spouse, widowed WWII, school teacher (my grandmother)
*Col. Walter Burgess, career officer USAF, Commander Recognizance Mission, Equador, WWII, KIA (my great Uncle)

Thank you.  Read More 
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This Moment

The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,"
- "The Moment," Margaret Atwood, Morning in the Burned House, 1995

This morning I came in from a long, brisk run. The winter dark and frosty mornings mean move the legs or freeze in place. But it is one of my favorite times of year for running. The fresh cold air in my lungs, the warm exhale that puffs away behind me, the sense of my body pumping, working, warming me as I move with a steady pad, pad, pad down the streets. The cold is very quiet. There is something about the empty streets and the trees denuded of their leaves - dark, mute soldiers on watch for the first snow. This is a time it is very easy for me to think.

This morning I thought about the sensation, new to me in midlife, of having completed - yes, fulfilled and finished - some very large and important life dreams and goals. I think back to when I was young and formulated these lofty ambitions, and to now, when I recognize I have done what I set out to do: A satisfying sense of release. Satisfaction in having accomplished the goal, release in stepping away, closing the door on something that has been a driving force for decades of adult life. Done. Complete. Letting go and moving on. A new design to frame the future. Like these trees I run past, barren of last season's growth, I am freed and open to the future. What will the next dream be? Is a dream even necessary? Is life a banquet I can finally enjoy?

I ponder these thoughts as I huff through the early gray morning. My journey to this place, the goals met along the way, the things I am done with, the space opening inside for something new. Winter, the season of contemplation and restoration, has enveloped me in her quiet. I am grateful for all that has been, and eager for the next bend in the road. A lighter load and a gentle freedom. Read More 
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More than Normal

"So let us think of people as starting life with an experience they forget, and ending it with one which they anticipate but cannot understand."
- E.M. Forster

One of the real pleasures of my time in the Big Apple was the theatre musical NEXT TO NORMAL, staring Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley. This is one of those story lines in which describing too much gives away secrets and surprises important to the drama. Music by Tom Kitt, and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, NEXT TO NORMAL is truly one of those stunning artistic surprises. Difficult and dramatic subject matter - tender and furious at the same time - this musical drama eviscerates contemporary life in a way I have not seen often done: honestly, candidly, compassionately, searingly truthful. Think Chekhof sung on stage. The music - sharp, lilting and strong - carries the vulnerable dramatic performances of Mazzie and Danieley, who play a middle-aged wife and husband struggling to deal with family life, loss, and raising teenage children. What seems like an "everyday everybody" story turns out to be heartbreakingly personal.

The darkness of the theater, the willingness of actors to meld their souls to their roles, affords us a rare opportunity to see our own lives reflected on stage. There is true intimacy in the theater. The interaction between play, actors, and audience is immediate, honest, and often palpable. At points in NEXT TO NORMAL, I looked around the audience: there were tears on faces fixed on the stage. What other artistic medium invites us into the performance, witnesses to our own lives played out before us?

I support the arts: good, bad, or simply indifferent. The arts represent our dialog with ourselves. What we think about life, feel about our hopes and losses, make of our dreams. The arts are brave. And even when they are bad, they are worthwhile I believe, because the subject matter nudges us to think and reflect and understand. And when they are great, we are transformed. Do you have plans for the weekend? Buy a ticket to something on stage...enjoy the richness of our complicated humanity. Read More 
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Where or Why

"Like love we don't know where or why,
Like love we can't compel or fly,
Like love we often weep,
Like love we seldom keep."
-"Law Like Love," W. H. Auden

Just a few more observations of my travels east. Today a note about the graduating Class of 2011. I visited my daughter, nearing the end of fall term in her senior year. She is deep in the stacks, working on her art history thesis and simultaneously completing pre-med classes and studying for her MCAT exams. All her friends and class mates, many of whom I have gotten to know well over the years, are interviewing furiously for consulting and banking positions, trying to nail down salaried internships with investment firms, applying to law schools, sending in applications to community outreach programs like Teach America. Walking this idyllic campus, drifting with crimson and gold leaves, I expected a light note of self-satisfaction and accomplishment among the Class of 2011. What I noted instead was a pervasive, low-key anxiety. A discernible level of dread and worry regarding the future.

The economy, unemployment, and the political climate of this November have become the cadence of the class song of graduates all over the United States. Will there be employment? Of any kind? Does the degree, and the debt that goes with it, carry any advantage in a job market where young graduates compete against mid-career adults willing to downsize to starter positions to land jobs after two plus years searching? Does a college graduate's idealistic commitment to service, education, and the principles they believe in, end on the other side of the gate of the college green? Will survival tactics replace that principled faith?

We have hobbled the opportunities of the next generation so badly that I cannot feel sorry for the mishaps of my own in this economy. I sympathize with the young. Those who fear they will never see an opportunity to even get a toe in the door. Who won't begin careers in their chosen professions but slip into marginal employment that carries the risk it might drag them down into darker prospects. How did we do this, America? HOW could we do this? Who exactly do we think will pay down the 3+ trillion debt of the future? We, the collective AARP community queueing up at the Costco? Buying ten packs of DVDs and multipack tissue?

On the plus side, perhaps housing will be affordable for our newest graduates - if bankers will lend. And perhaps the American lifestyle of "buy now, pay later" will fade into a smarter consumerism, where we get what we pay for, and get what we need. Hopefully the Class of 2011 will hang onto their ideals and their dreams and jump forward when the opportunity presents itself. In the meantime, smile at the barrista, tip the grocery bag girl, add a little to the tab on the lawn bill. That student you encourage may one day be the medical professional that cares for you, a Chief Justice, Teacher of the Year. Or just a kid struggling to make rent who dreamed of being an engineer. Read More 
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