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QUINTESSENCE

Old Regret

I thought of all the pain and how we met
Late in our lives yet lavishly at ease,
Having assumed an end to old regret..."
- from "The Balcony," May Sarton, 1980

The words of this poem are rich with layers of meaning for me. One voice of a couple, here acknowledging the joys and pains of life roughly lived: speaking of years past, damaged relationships, losses, longed for opportunities that melted with the passage of time. These brief lines from May Sarton's longer poem "The Balcony" ends with this final image, "And out of deprivation, a huge flower." These words are exquisitely beautiful. Drenched in a translucent pain fully comprehended, and because of the wisdom of such understanding, beauty.

How is it we find in ourselves the strength and desire to carry on? To begin again, starting over from the disappointments of the past? John F. Kennedy once described his father after his stroke, saying, "Old age is a shipwreck." From Sarton's words, I think old age is neither the limit nor the context, but a point along the living way. We are always beginning. Over and again. In life, in work, in love. Yes, the passage of time is worn in the lines on our foreheads, to be sure. But time - lost, burnt, wasted, empty, wronged, violated, hurt - needn't be the melody of the heart. I love the thought that once regrets are done and thrown over our shoulders, we are "lavishly at ease." Mistakes have their ends. Beginnings follow. The bridge between them? Acceptance.

So ease on into your day, your regrets behind you. And perhaps out of deprivation you may find in your cupped hands a huge bloom.  Read More 
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The Imagined

- O my characters,
my imagined, here are some fancies of crumbs
from under love's table.
- from "The Unswept," Sharon Olds, 2002

A writer's life is an intriguing and frustrating mix of the seas of imagination and drudgery. Of loosely formed characters invited to a feast in which the writer slaves all day to put food on the table. I dwell lately on the future of art and creation... In a world that has no time for stationary or telephone calls, a world of instant messaging and lightning fast downloads, where does the artist dwell?

Yesterday, my daughter, a prospective medical student deep in her science studies, pulled out her drawing pad and charcoals. An hour or two later she sent me a note (yes, a text, plus image) of the drawing she had made. What she wanted to tell me, what was evident in abundance in her large smile and the stains of charcoal across her fingers and shirt, was that for long moments of timeless time she'd floated in the vas of creativity. Found her joy. Lost in the making of something of raw elements and imagination, forgetful of all but the endeavor of her hands and inner mind to make what she imagined, she surfaced with not just a drawing, but the pure relaxation of a mind at play. We step out of the stresses and the gates of the ordinary world when we create. The mind finds renewal in creation, delight in imagination. A synthesis of hand and eye and brain brings our parts together to sing a kind of song of living. We feel what it is in the body to dance hand in hand with the mind. Mindful, we step outside and then inside and back again, to a place in ourselves we instinctively recognize.

We need to allow ourselves to unspool from time to time, slave for our characters, wobble on the sweep of strong winds like dandelion seeds lifting from the stalk. Those "fancies of crumbs from under love's table," are these not bits of ourselves we leave to mark the path out of the ordinary into joy's private garden?  Read More 
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Building Blocks


After all those years of listening
I thought you'd know
what a story was.
- from "Retreating Light," Louise Gluck, 1992

Listening. What exactly is it, and why is it so important? Listening anchors the give and take of conversation. Listening is a process of distillation, finding meaning in the noises and voices around us; the first step in understanding.

I spent a part of my week recently engaged in listening. I happened to be present in conversations marking the growth of two human souls toward one another; a recipient of their trust, witness to that particular courage that begins in one heart and seeks echo in another. We listen in love even as we speak it. I have often thought of love as a verb - an action. Culture celebrates love in iconic art and imagery, but the bond of lasting love is more than a delicious emotional dust-up. In observing one couple speak heart to heart, I felt love expressed more akin to what affectionate partnership really is - relationship built brick by brick with chunks of understanding and epiphany.

The success of our communications begin in the wholeness of listening. Not wih "half an ear," formulating our thoughts as the other is speaking. Not on "a deaf ear," our minds made up without engaging. Attentive and focused, we effectively listen to one another only to the degree we understand all that is being said. And comprehensive understanding is no small feat. Language is complex, not always straight-forward but often nuanced, analogous, indirect. We listen with our emotional filters, our experience, assisted by our willingness to ask for more or better words to paint a clearer picture. It is common, I think, to discover some are better at communication than others. We inevitably find ourselves misunderstood, or unable to say precisely what we mean. In my role as listener, I realized fully hearing what is being said is the foundation of meaningful interpretation. We begin to process and apply understanding.

True listening is the first step. If I hear what you are saying, I am engaging with you in an authentic way. If you hear what I am saying, we are exchanging, sharing. In sharing we build connections. In connections, relationship. Now is the time to tell me your story. I am listening.
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A Day to Remember


“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul." ~ John Muir

That kind of day. A true vacation day. You're off the clock. And by that I mean the clock isn't just tucked for the moment in your pocket, your thoughts playing in the background over all the things left undone in your inbox. This day it's warm out and the sky mirrors the wide expanse of turquoise water. The breeze so soft it barely stirs the grasses that fringe the edge of the lake.

I trailed my hand in the water, a passenger in a boat navigating the shady canals separating Lake Osceola from Lake Virginia and Lake Maitland. The boat rounded each of the curved bays that form the heart of picturesque Winter Park, Florida, and somewhere out there I found that elusive grace note - a timeless moment of utter peace. The long arc of the sun overhead. The water calm, the agenda mellow. Graceful oaks dip tangled braids of Spanish moss into the shallows as we slip under their shadowy limbs. Egret and tern, cormorant and heron work silently in the cool waters. The stir of philodendron hints at the passing of the brown bandit snake. Time unhooks from the present, the moments spool into a richness of sunlight and ease. Turn your face to the sun, breathe deep.

Later, I thought about the gift of that timeless peace. I hadn't felt without care or agenda, anxiety or deadline in, well, forever. What does it take for us to slow down? How does nature live so effortlessly in the parenthesis between yesterday and tomorrow? I was given the now, allowed to float in the pulse of the universe...riding a slow flat-bellied pontoon boat under a cloudless sky. A day to remember.
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Modern Dating 101

"There are three possible parts to a date, of which at least two must be offered: entertainment, food, and affection. It is customary to begin a series of dates with a great deal of entertainment, a moderate amount of food, and the merest suggestion of affection. As the amount of affection increases, the entertainmentcan be reduced proportionately. When the affection IS the entertainment, we no longer call it dating. Under no circumstances can the food be omitted. " - Source Unknown

The modern world is definitely one with a new set of challenges and rules. This was recently brought to my attention in a very personal way - a flight to Florida with the great guy I'm dating. Enter into the mix the magic of airline upgrades and you have a modern day dating conundrum. Ready to weigh in?

If one of the two of you is offered a bump to First Class, is it okay for a) the guy to take it - after all it was his mileage that qualified him, b) he makes the gallant gesture to decline and sit with his now-stranded date back in coach, as originally planned, c) the woman agrees to take it - her date immediately offered, or d) both decline and remain in coach, thus ensuring the upgrade gods never visit their house again.

As it turned out, the woman (me) would not take any upgrade earned by her date to leave him languishing in coach on their vacation trip across the US. He earned it. It's his, fair and square. Post-feminism at its finest. Thus my date did take the seat in the cush section, a look of duress on his gentle face as the flight attendant slid the curtain closed. "They were supposed to upgrade us both," he whispered, perturbed. "We're on the same itinerary!" She handed him a chilled glass of wine. I folded my knees to my chest and settled in. The demarkation of social class was complete.

My seat mates, having gleaned the details of the unfolding mini-drama from the last minute upgrade call, smiled at me in jovial comraderie. Within moments an informal poll had taken place in rows 26 and 27. The Army Captain shook his head, "No way he should have taken that seat, man, even if you wouldn't. Not if he expects you to date him long, I mean no way." The Gramma in 27E pulled out her knitting and studied me kindly over the top of her half-glasses. "Dear, the time will fly and we'll be there in no time." Her husband grunted, "At least one of you will be rested." The tall guy in the neon orange hunting cap and camouflage jacket stared at the closed curtain in horror - "My girlfriend would have killed me." I texted my daughter and son at their respective colleges. My son, captive at the US Naval Academy laughed, "Haha, poor you. You're going to Florida." My daughter, the Yalie, "Oh, poor form!" The older guy in his wrinkled brown suit unlocked his laptop and merely sighed. I began to think about the dilemma as a rite of modern dating: The Issue of the Upgrade. What is the chivalrous male or female to do?

While it feels on the surface that the best idea is to just not take the upgrade for either, and thus nullify the angst, the entire purpose of the airline reward program is sidestepped by such a choice and the considerable benefit missed. Why fly if you don't utilize the benefits earned by that frequent do-si-do down the coach aisle? On the other hand, most of the single men voted for "decline and offer to the lady." The intrinsic value of the gesture, combined with any actual pleasure your date gleans sitting in the luxury seat is worthy of the sacrifice. "Date with your best foot forward" seems to be the gist of the single male argument. The married men were by far more practical - trade it off, take it yourself, whose driving when you get there, whose got the bad back? The single women, especially the business travelers, voted most for "decline and sit together." The point apparently the date itself - travel chat, seating side by side, an opportunity to nod off and sleep on someone's shoulder.

Now while I didn't nod off and lean on the Captain's shoulder, and Gramma and I ran out of conversational steam after the first row of knit-purl, and my date later informed me food service in his leg of First Class consisted of chips and flat wine, I decided this was just one of those issues you couldn't really answer right or wrongly. We agreed to hope it didn't arise again. Click the upgrade option "Together or not at all" and that would be that.

The next leg of our trip we paused in the terminal and eagerly looked up at the upgrade board. Maybe this time they would take us both! There it was, the upgrade priority list. He was #7... I was #19. Can't beat the peanuts. Read More 
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No Word for War


THE ESQUIMOS HAVE NO WORD FOR "WAR"

Trying to explain it to them
Leaves one feeling ridiculous and obscene.
Their houses, like white bowls,
Sit on a prairie of ancient snowfalls
Caught beyond thaw or the swift changes
Of night and day.
They listen politely, and stride away

With spears and sleds and barking dogs
To hunt for food. The women wait
Chewing on skins or singing songs,
Knowing that they have hours to spend,
That the luck of the hunter is often late.

Later, by fires and boiling bones
In steaming kettles, they welcome me,
Far kin, pale brother,
To share what they have in a hungry time
In a difficult land. While I talk on
Of the southern kingdoms, cannon, armies,
Shifting alliances, airplanes, power,
They chew on their bones, and smile at one another.

- Mary Oliver, 1972

My thoughts have been restless for days, in turmoil over the tragic violence that has claimed so many lives and damaged others in the quiet, lovely town of Tucson, Arizona. What does the senseless, polarized assassination of citizens and elected officials alike mean for our democracy, for the human race? Does our national shock and quick readiness to memorialize, to call for a verbal peace among political factions, mean we are inured to events like these, too ready to cleanse and forget? Random violence, once infrequent in our national awareness, is now nearly as common as reports of corruption and fraud among our leaders. How numb I feel. How helpless to engage the problem.

The question I consider is the invention and survival of barbaric violence in the construct of the human psyche: there it roots, like some kind of weed. Noxious and vile and fully able to profligate or abide in a vacuum in the dark, for ages if need be. Why? What is our answer?

When I read Mary Oliver's poem, I think of how context defines us. When we work to survive, we work together. When we work to dominate, we work in opposition. When we work to annihilate, we work in secret. The very restrictions and controls it would take to keep the general populace safe are anathema to our cherished principles of self-governance. But when we are without self-governance, and waltz with chaos and paranoia, are we still deserving of those rights?

The question of self-sustaining economies and business for profit in all things meets the burden of community care, the cost of treatment for those that require intervention. The unhinged roam freely, raining destruction in their solitary insanities. Whose responsibility IS the gunman's mental health? The city, the family, the state, the church, no one's?

And so we bury the dead. Those souls - children, brothers, sisters, husbands, friends, wives - who died participating in the very democracy that protects the gunman's right to bear arms, which allowed him the freedoms to act without reason or rule of law. My heart demands change. We must, or perish the many at the hands of the few, work together to survive together. We are community.
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Waking Souls


I wonder, by my truth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved?

And now good morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear.

- from "Good Morrow," John Donne, 1572

I have recently been reading Anna Rabinowitz' book-length poem, PRESENT TENSE (Omnidawn Publishing, 2010). This stunning work of lucid but uncomfortable insight, and her use of powerful, transforming imagery and language, has resonated in my subconsciousness for days. What does it mean to possess a soul, to be biological, to invent time - primarily to establish purpose - and with this new and sterile construct of history, devolve to violence? Barbarism lurks beneath a thin veneer of civilization. War, that which we invent from a cold core of primal fear; lost in our alienation, lost as self-defined beings. Can we ever erase the seeds of self-destruction once sown? Where, Rabinowitz asks in her review of the scroll of history, does love dwelleth?

I resonate with this poet's work: with her compassion for humanity, with the sense of strangeness experienced in the very act of "living." PRESENT TENSE is a poet's quest, for holding in her mouth once more the language and pure instinct the green things possess - regeneration, survival, abundance. The human helix of violence and our awareness of our own vulnerability has erased this core of quiet belonging from our lexicon. Our very comfort as creatures of biology and purpose. But to what purpose, the poet asks. "Invention is the mother of intention," Rabinowitz writes. When faced with a void, and fear, brutal barbarism erupts. Why? Rabinowtiz answers: "'Fear and sorrow are the true characters and inseparable companions of most melancholy,"(The Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton).

I come tonight to the lines of John Donne, "And now good morrow to our waking souls." It cannot be too late to open ourselves to the power of the present moment. Find the place where love dwelleth as the poets urge, and there find solace and the lost language of the green things.
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To Comprehend a Nectar


Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
- From poem "67," Emily Dickinson, 1859

I was taken aback today by an unlikely source in the Sunday paper: an Arts & Leisure essay in The New York Times by Anthony Tommasini, titled "The Greatest, a Critic Tries to Pick the Top 10 Classical Composers."

Wow, are we to sit in judgment of all musical history? Cultural critics, as opposed to historians, often feel an inherent right to sit in judgment. An historian does not make "best of" lists, inadvertently making light of history by penning popularity pageants pegged to the accomplishments of the past. To my way of thinking, historians, as a general rule, who are thankfully not entertainment critics, endeavor to elucidate not market the events and meaning of the past. The so-called cultural critic on the other hand, merely assigns the arts a comparative value. And I say "merely" on purpose, invoking the lines of Dickinson above. If the work of the creative process has not been undertaken in a serious fashion by the commentator him or herself, thus informing an educated opinion of the art form, then how is an artistic process truly comprehended? Fairly assessed?

The revelatory lines of food critic Antono Ego in the animated film "Rataouille" ("The Grim Eater," voiced by Peter O'Toole) came to mind when I read of Tommasini's plans to debate 'The Greatest" among classical composers. In the film, Ego, a feared and revered food critic whose reviews can make or break a chef, writes of a meal served to him under the most unexpected of circumstances by an equally unexpected "chef." He outs himself and his profession as the easiest of arrogant fault-finders, pointing out it is far easier to criticize than create. To judge rather than risk invention.

Tommasini's call to categorize the stars among classical composers likewise struck me as less a discussion of merit than as an entertainment. I began to think of this form of comparative cultural criticism as, in truth, a rather superficial artifice. Let such "ranking" discussions of the arts belong to those who do so for their simple preference - amongst those who are the audience, the consumers, to establish for their own pleasure that which they enjoy. And to those studying their predecessors and contemporaries, engaging in the scholarly advancement of their own subject or art form. Let the two forms of evaluation remain distinct.

But, if we should feel compelled to establish a Top Ten of Classical Musicians, or hamburgers, thriller DVDs, lip gloss or pet trainers, then let us please try to keep a humble perspective. We are one judging another. Whether generation, century, symphony or invention. The historians have it rightly: let us learn from the past, not discount it. Let us be inspired, not find the work of others wanting. Let us each to our own limitations be true. The classical composers have earned the right to let timelessness be their judge.
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Faces in the Crowd


IN A STATION OF THE METRO

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
- Ezra Pound, 1913

As the holidays conclude and the airports fill and empty with travelers, I am reminded of the opening sequence of the film "Love Actually." The narrator, observing the flow and shift of crowds at the arrivals gate, speaks of the comforting presence, the reminder even, of human connection reflected in the anonymous faces that seek out and greet loved ones from the throngs of strangers. As I read the brief lines from Ezra Pound, I thought of the connections among strangers in a fresh and unexpected way - individual blossoms among the branches of the human tree.

This Friday, when I take my son and daughter back to the airport to return east to school, I too, will make it a point to observe the many hugs and tears and smiles among the strangers in the milling crowds. My family is but one group of petals in a bushfull of abundant love stories. All the arms and smiles that connect one loved one to another, connect strangers as well. All of us stand in the midst of love. To quote from the film mentioned, "Love is, actually, all around."
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Frontier

In the depths of the deep sea,
in the night of long lists,
like a horse your silent
silent name runs past.

Lodge me at your back, oh shelter me,
appear to me in your mirror, suddenly,
upon the solitary, nocturnal pane,
sprouting from the dark behind you.

- from "Madrigal Written in Winter," Pablo Neurda, 1958

The newest year breaks into morning on air that shatters in sun it is so cold. Outside my window light fractures and prisms deep within the Arctic blue sky. The date is 01-01-2011. Or 1-1-11 in shorthand. The day, the date, and I, all feel as new as that number. One, the first step. The first day of a new journey. Where will we go with this new madrigal of seasons? Where will the events of, as yet, unlived history ebb and flow? Will we feel the bite of the unexpected, or will it fall in our laps as joy?

It is said we are either optimists about life, or cynics. The glass is half-full or half-empty. I think it is within all of us however to feel the new year, on the first day, is a full tank. We've been given 365 days to do something truly different, or better, for the last time or the first time in a brand new box of days. The galaxy twinkles in delight. The frontier has opened another fraction forward into the unformed future; time siphons from the pulse of life itself a palette of newborn days. I'm ready to ride, are you?

The colors, the design, the purpose and creativity we bring to this year are all ours to play with. I hope to live this year in a fresh way, without expectations, without borders. I will stand at this blank canvas of days with an open heart and a willing mind. This first part of the year, much as Neruda pens in his "Madrigal Written in Winter," will be about longing and surprise. Let the love I have for life be my longing to live fully and completely, and let my delight come in the surprise of uncertainty. I hope to make friends this year with that which is beyond my control, with the unpredictable. The spice of chaos thrown into play by chance and circumstance.

In the unpredictable there is great energy. The energy of our core, the fierce intensity of hot and unformed stars. Let the atoms dance, and me with them.

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