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QUINTESSENCE

God of Dirt


The god of dirt
came up to me many times and said
so many wise and delectable things, I lay
on the grass listening

to his dog voice
crow voice,
frog voice; now,
he said, and now;

and never once mentioned forever

- from "One or Two Things," Mary Oliver

The ending of the calendar year represents a great benchmark for me. Although not as important as a personal birthday, in terms of marking new beginnings and reflecting on the journey of the recent past, the calendar new year represents a collective moment of gestalt. The whole world sighs and heaves itself into something fresh and open-minded. At least I hope so. As we mark the ninth year of war in Afghanistan, I have to ask, what has changed? How different are the goals and hopes that mark the end of this ten year period from those of the beginning? Are we going through the motions of thinking through change and action? Have we forgotten these moments of the future are received but one at a time? Are we living life consciously, or plodding around the wheel, yoked to the grindstone of blind habit and routine? What DO we expect of a new year?

The lines quoted from Mary Oliver speak to the pulse of life; the breath of living that is the present moment. We really do not have a luxury of days; only moments that slip through our fingers, spilling to the ground like grains, possible life in every seed. The god of dirt is the god of breath, of birdsong, of the solstice moon, of today and perhaps, tomorrow. It is not forever. As I meditate quietly in this week in which we bless the world and hope for peace on earth, I hope each of us looks ahead to the new year. And thinks, now. Let peace begin with me, now. Let it begin today. Speak from the earth, the voice of the earth. "Now, he said, and now."
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The Common Constant


SOLSTICE MOON
Outside the window
the full moon
shines though the clouds
and yet
always waxing or waning,
is never truly full
but for a fleeting moment.

And yet
the perfect companion
is always present.
Above
or
below the horizon,
always as it should be, present
or waiting.

Concealed or revealed,
perfection
the constant companion,
more common than many
appreciate.

I know.

- G. Scotford Miller


A three hour lunar eclipse led into this year's Solstice Moon. Black, then light. Illumination down the darkest alley of the year. The comparison to this year of struggle followed by breakthrough seems but a simple parallel to the pattern etched for us by the seasons and the heavens. Working life we heave and thrash, throw everything we have at the resistant and unsolvable. Taken to our knees in frustration, in exhaustion, boneheaded and determined, we dig our bare hands into the hard acreage of opportunity. Crack open barrenness. Through to the rich loess, the top soil roots take hold and thrive in. What is Winter Solstice but surrender to patience, to this season of gestation, of hibernation? The retreat and rethinking before the renewal and fresh effort?

Perfection of creation - the possibility of, the trust in - is the companion of our days. Within all that we strive for and dream of is perfection: the perfectness of genuine potential. All of life is imbued with this potential. I speak of the pattern and power within us to grow, to bloom into the fullness of our ingrained talents. The perfection of nature to become what is contained within the seed; the perfection of the seed itself to be.

The winter moon, these long hours of darkness, the still and dreamless nights of deep winter - these are moments of gestation within the soul. Under the Solstice Moon we dream in white light, pure intensity, in the promise of what we have always contained. You know. So do I. Nature's perfect patterns repeat endlessly within us, around us. And all that is required of us is awareness.

Happy Solstice, my friends.

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21 Nutcrackers


When the snow falls the flakes
spin upon the long axis
that concerns them most intimately
two and two to make a dance

the mind dances with itself,
taking you by the hand,
your lover follows
there are always two,

yourself and the other,
the point of your shoe setting the pace,
if you break away and run
the dance is over...

- from "The Dance," William Carlos Williams, 1949

On Saturday night my daughter, a senior at college, and I went together to her 21st Nutcracker Ballet. That night the concert hall was lit from within by brightly burning chandeliers, light pooling through the tall windows, bands of gold fanning across the velvet dark. We mingled with grandmothers in vintage fur, couples strolling the grand balconies in evening jackets and ball gowns, little girls in satin bows, fathers and daughters sharing candy canes in the foyer. I bought my daughter a glass of champagne.

The ballet, performed exquisitely here in Spokane by the Memphis Ballet, retells the familiar story of Clara and her Nutcracker dancing her dream of Christmas. What held my thoughts all night however was a vivid body memory. You know what I mean, memory you can feel in your bones and heart. I was thinking of Katy at the age of two at a long ago Nutcracker Ballet. Her blond hair pulled back in a pony tail and bow, she whirled about the foyer in her sapphire velvet dress and lacy ankle socks, giggling at the way her dress ballooned out around her. This ballet was a big production, we lived in Boston. The orchestra tuned in the pit. My little one was enchanted, clicking her red Mary Janes together at the heels as she sat on my lap and waited for the show to begin.

And now here we are. She is grown, beautiful and accomplished, her dreams set on a not too distant future. Her way clear before her. And I feel as though I am still in the dark holding her again close to my heart, lightly, feeling her about to take wing.

I began attending my own Nutcrackers at about the age she is now, and through successive seasons of pas de deux, stunning bravura solos, the delicate, elegant corps de ballet under stage snow falling through the spot lights, I envisioned a future with my own children: the Christmases coming to the Nutcracker ballet, humming the Tchaikovsky score, the music sweet and dear. Laying down the bricks of our own sparkling road of Sugar Plum memories. It's a distinct feeling, the clarity of retrospection. To be of an age where the patterns of our lives begin to reveal like magic ink exposed under black light. The sense of awe and "ah!" that comes with our revelations of the dance that life has been. Snowflakes two by two. Hearts, two by two. The years twirl down and down, and a satin toe shoe spins among them, memories flying and tumbling about the dancer's feet.

Twenty-one Nutcrackers. A little girl finds her way to becoming a woman. Another woman with experience in her years holds her family in her heart, quiet in the dark of the audience. How we have grown. Where will the dance take us from here?
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Second Chance


The unexamined life is not worth living.
-Socrates, in Plato, Dialogues, Apologia
Greek philosopher in Athens (469 BC - 399 BC)

The intensity of the holiday season, which seems to climax with the end of the month of December and the current year before rolling over in a fluff of expectation the first day of the new one, begs the question "What do you want to be different in your life next year?"

Lifestyle choices, work? Financial security, intimate relationships adrift? There are so many ways we build our thoughts about what a meaningful life requires and what we are prepared to undertake. Resolutions are just ideas. Ideas about the disparity between expectation and reality. Are you in synch with yourself? Let me suggest a homework assignment over the remaining days of 2010: What do you feel is worthy of adding, deleting, doing differently or celebrating for greatness as it is? I will close with the words of a poet friend of mine, from her poem, "Blue":

"Years after, I will admit to only so much. Blue

moon tomorrow. Do we ever get a second
chance? It's what I don't say that speaks loudest."

- Katrina Roberts, Friendly Fire, 2008
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The Field of Competition


each sweep and gesture
trained and various
echoing the other's art
- "The Great Tree," Michael Ondaatje, 1998

On Saturday I joined in on a great tradition in the city of Philadelphia. A football game held between two military academies meeting in the spirit of rivalry and brotherhood on the green of a football grid. Played in Philadelphia, halfway between West Point and Annapolis, America's finest young men suited up to battle in sport. At their backs, their comrades in service, young men and women, Midshipmen and Cadets in dress uniform, standing in honor as they cheered on the effort displayed on the field. This was my first Army-Navy game. The 111th meeting of these two academeis in the "oldest football rivalry in the history of our country."

Sitting in the stands within a sea of Navy colors and caps worn proudly by the veterans, the parents, and the active duty cheering on their own, I suddenly felt keenly aware of the difference between this game and any other. Spectacular? Yes. The cadet and mishipmen march-on, lining up on the field company after company to salute their fans, was an unforgettable visual. A black and gray sea of precision and erect bearing, youth and deternination. But the difference was not this; nor the presence of the miliatry brass, the parachute jumps to the 50 yard line by the Navy Leapfrogs (SEALS) and Army Golden Knights, not the flyover by the Jolly Roger F-18s or the battle helicopters in perfect formation across a cloudless sky.... None of these things in and of themselves make this event more than an astonishing spectacle.

What makes the game, why fans and family come year after year, is this simple fact: each and every mid or cadet, in the stands or on the field, is on active duty. Whether standing at attention for the entrance of their brethren who have run the game ball 36 hours overnight to Philadelphia - arriving at center field to the cheers of all - or on duty, standing watch back at the academy, or perhaps seeing a familiar face in the crowd, attempting to cross three tiers of packed stands to say hello to a little brother or a parent in the nosebleed section... All of these young men and women serve active duty in our country's great military academies. These men and women first and foremost took an oath of office to protect and defend our country and its principles. What happens on the football field is sport. What happens in their lives is serious, as real as it gets. And with that knowledge in my heart, their sportsmanship is keenly beautiful in its translucent goodwill. On this field they growl and cheer and glorify in a contest of athletics, but on the battlefield you know the comraderie is absolute - "I've got your back, you've got mine."

At the end of the game, a great and awesome show of team force on both sides, Navy carried the day. But what brought me to tears was each team marching to the other's side at the end of the game to stand in respectful attention during the playing of the opposing team's academy song. The lump in the throats of all were real. This game is done, but god speed them all in what lies ahead.
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Two Endings


POEM WITH TWO ENDINGS

Say "death" and the whole room freezes -
even the couches stop moving,
even the lamps.
Like a squirrel suddenly aware it is being looked at.

Say the word continuously,
and things begin to go forward.
Your life takes on
the jerky texture of an old film strip.

Continue saying it,
hold it moment after moment inside the mouth,
it becomes another syllable.
A shopping mall swirls around the corpse of a beetle.

Death is voracious, it swallows all the living.
Life is voracious, it swallows all the dead.
Neither is ever satisfied, neither is ever filled,
each swallows and swallows the world.

The grip of life is as strong as the grip of death.

(but the vanished, the vanished beloved, o where?)

- Jane Hirshfield, from "Given Sugar, Given Salt," 2001


A dear friend, who is a Zen Buddhist priest, recently spoke to me of her journey supporting her religious mentor through imminent death. A remarkable, much loved priest: a woman at the end of long illness, a long fight. My friend spoke of her mentor's graceful and accepting release, teaching and offering wisdom without regret or rancor. Her core grief, her unspoken question, echoes the final line of Hirshfield's beautiful poem. We love. Life is not a content-free experience but a weave of meanings and symbols, memories and attachments. After death, what fills empty hands that once held another's? Where does the love go?

Today I heard the news that Elizabeth Edwards has unwillingly, but with grace, surrendered her fight against her cancer: grace, her hallmark in life and it seems, death. Hirshfield's poem focuses on the truth, life exists in balance with death, and hints at the durability of love. That we love beyond the grave. The heart supersedes the temporal moment, the past; yearning into the future. The beloved dies. The bond is broken and the poet asks, "o where?" Oh where goes love when the body ceases?

In my own journey of loss - my father in my youth and then as an adult my husband and my mother within weeks of one another - I acknowledge simultaneous losses entwine with mine. My children. Their loss borne in the depth of mine. We seek the path between then and now, toward an unformed future. The way toward balanced, confident hearts. To love, still. To live forward. To accept the barb within the tender hold.

The word "faith" is one I think on. Not theological faith, but the verb: an act of faith, belief in what lacks substantiation. What it means to the self. What it means applied to life, the work of life; and death, the work of death. Faith flexes, it shimmies with strain, eases into acceptance. Faith addresses the poignant agony in the "o" of "o where?"
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Adjectives of Scale


Basho said: avoid adjectives of scale, you will love the world more and desire it less.
- from "Vintage," Robert Hass, Human Wishes, 1989

Outside my window is a world that of late I have classified in terms of weather. Partly in restless frustration with the challenges of winter. The days like today I can not run outside, impossible in snow-cone slush 8 inches deep down the streets. Winter is just so extravagant in her moods. When I think about the line of Basho quoted in the Robert Hass poem, I am reminded that the twin Sybils of hyperbole and grandiosity dilute the subtleties of what actually is. It is this last idea - to see, appreciate, and love what is - that speaks to me. Winter is outside my door. In a forceful palette of fog, ice, snow and cold, the many shades of white and gray force me to look more closely. To see what is really there. The red berry. The speckled Harrier hawk at the bird feeder, how the icicle reflects light like a frozen waterfall.

Adjectives of scale. We might speak of love. How the gentle comfortableness of long and nubby love feels like a well-worn sweater, hugging the heart with familiarity and belonging. The Velveteen Rabbit is perhaps the virtue of being loved by and loving "what is." Love is not a show of strength. Love displays itself not just in flushed cheeks and shades of rose, but in kitchen burns and paper cuts, gray hairs and tired backs. The fresh cup of coffee set by your elbow. I believe we find joy when we begin first with accepting what is, and then finding what this means to us. From there, understanding unfolds in a path of quiet gratitudes. Love the world more and desire it less. Words that settle me in the center of a patient heart. Read More 
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