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QUINTESSENCE

The Manual On You

Temples bells, snow

There is no person without a world.
- from "Autobiography of Red," Anne Carson, 1998

The manual on you. What do you know about it?

If we fully understand that WE ARE OURSELVES - one complete and unique universe bordered within by our thoughts and infused by heart - then we know the Reference Text on Me, the schematic of how we function, lies in our own hands. The only expert on you, is you. Granted, most of the time we putter along like wood moles, blindly nosing down ruts in search of life's delicacies. And true, often enough it feels as though the best experts on ourselves seem to be the people we live with. How clearly they see our inanities! Our predictable and vulnerable weaknesses; our quiet and simple strengths. But in truth, the complex meaning of one person in their one world is known only within. We share vast continents of ourselves with our loved ones, but only we know our innermost wishes and dreams, wounds, misgivings, regrets.

I think it's important to become acquainted with ourselves. Update the manual. From time to time delete information that is outdated, add new chapters that speak to major changes. And with each rereading, don't forget to share some of what has shifted with those that have the "old you" on their shelves. How often have we been surprised by changes in a friend after an interlude apart, only to discover that more than an address or hair color is radically altered?

Most delightful of all? Knowing that we are each a "work in progress." In a good way. A story that adds to itself, edits and highlights, and on occasion leads down an untrod path. What's new in your world today?
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Footprints

Not to mention the need for everyday explorations,
the wandering we do, randomly as ants,
when we rove through woods without direction
or allow the diagram of a foreign city to lead us
through long afternoons of unpronounceable streets.

Then we are like children in playgrounds
who are discovering the art of running in circles
as if they were scribbling on the earth with their bodies.

We die only when we run out of footprints.
Then the biographers move in to retrace our paths,
enclosing them in tall mazes of lumber
to make our lives seem more complex, more arduous,
to make our leaving the room seem heroic.
- from "Pensee," by Billy Collins, 1991

Billy Collins wrote this poem about human nature and our inclination for exploration. To run in random circles. As if, as he says in the poem, we are "scribbling on the earth" with our bodies. I love this thought. That the ruin of all contentment, as the poet quotes of Pascal, arises because we are incapable of staying in our rooms.

The last shuttle launched from Earth yesterday, carrying its crew of brave astronauts and a boldly conceived spacebot - a robot designed to assist in repairs in blackest space and zero gravity, fearless and free of earthbound homesickness. (And hopefully, without inclination to mimic the fictional, disinclined-to-be-cooperative HAL.) I thought about this swashbuckling crew of explorers, scribbling in space, limited only by imagination. How bold! I thought too about the spacebot, at home where his power pack plants him. The only frontier an interior one. Perhaps, as moviedom's HAL found his inner moxie ticking off empty moments in space, we too find ourselves by moving outward in new directions.

If that is true, then before they make your final biography, the map framed and marked of who you once were and where you lived your days, let yourself wander. Let the story say that beyond the responsibilities, the stoic roles, the expected, admirable achievements - there was a squiggle of violet and yellow. An arrow off to one side, darting into space in lime green. Let them wonder about your wild side, just as you did.

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Picture of the World

It is enough to make you reach for the locker
in which you carry your picture of the world
as you glide closer and closer to it
over the cold streaming surface of these waters.
- from "A Wonder of the World," Billy Collins, 1999

When you experience a shift in your world view, the kind of shake-up that either makes you believe in the divine, or the divine comedy, or in the worst of situations, "hell on earth," life rushes into a transparency of experiences: part visceral, part emotional, part suspended belief, but bricked in at both ends by adrenaline. What is this unspeakable amazement? Sometimes this unexpected event is as delicious as the infatuation of new romance, or a breath-taking view, a cherished dream that takes form in front of you. Sometimes a shift in awareness occurs in the midst of a parody of life acted out around you. Sometimes shift is a complete and utter betrayal, an event that sucks the breath from your faith.

Billy Collins' poem refers in part to the genuine presence of a majestic mountain, but also touches on our human sense of wonder. What we hold in that inner place within ourselves; our unique view of the world, tucked away in "the locker" of pictures we carry, what we feel is magnificent about the world. Without caution we sail toward wonder, drawn to it, our hearts in our hands, our minds open to surprise. It is also without guard that we most often fall into turmoil; that life can bring us its worst.

A close friend of mine recently had the foundation of her long marriage pulled out from beneath her. She feels shaken, defensive, wounded. Suspended midair, questioning her assumptions, her beliefs; her trust dissolved by the one person in her life she understood would uphold life. Her picture of the world is shaken. But it is also clearly evident in her brave smile that she believes in the pictures she carries, in the goodness of life, in the unending redemptive power of the heart to sweep us to a higher awareness. That the world is magnificent, even as we glide across the "cold, streaming surface of these waters."
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What You Had To Do

David, summit Mt. Yale, Colorado
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice

- from "The Journey," Mary Oliver 1986

It is strange, that moment we realize our inner compass is about to take us off the beaten path, the one we could follow, nose to tail, like mules ambling the well trod path of friends and family before us. Then shift happens. The comfort of the familiar is about to fall away. Our hearts quicken, both thrilled and frightened by our own boldness, the risk we choose.

The risk we choose. This idea has been in my thoughts all day, although this was anything but a risky day - full of "laundry music" and grocery lists, reading the papers, lazy hours contemplating the sunny warmth spilling through the windows. But a chance conversation with my daughter, talking about the difference in personal power imbued by "choice" versus "discipline" or "sacrifice," and how the importance of the semantics, the words themselves, highlight a challenging course of action with confidence and self-actualization as opposed to trepidation or foot-dragging, all this made me think about the scary decisions in my own life from the vantage of choice. The inner voice - you know, that sudden intuition or clarity of self awareness that despite it all things must change because they do not suit us ?- this is the genesis of choices that matter the most. Choices that perhaps come wrapped in courage, personal valor, integrity, or honor. But oftentimes arrive within a cacophony of nay-sayers, of complaints, even deafening, unaccepting silence. At that moment, the decision to change course is more than just a choice, it is self-defining.

Consider any decision that was difficult for you in the past twelve months. In retrospect, was it the risk you feared? The reward you hoped for? Still completely uncertain? Does your inner compass still whisper, go, go forward? You can feel the dark and sense the light. Our way is almost always unknown for that is how we become known. In choosing to be brave, we discover.  Read More 
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A Glimpse

Ken, March 2003

JUST ONCE
Just once I knew what life was for.
In Boston, quite suddenly, I understood;
walked there along the Charles River,
watched the lights copying themselves,
all neoned and strobe-hearted, opening
their mouths as wide as opera singers;
counted the stars, my little campaigners,
my scar daisies, and knew that I walked my love
on the night green side of it and cried
my heart to the eastbound cars and cried
my heart to the westbound cars and took
my truth across a small humped bridge
and hurried my truth, the charm of it, home
and hoarded these constants into morning
only to find them gone.
- Anne Sexton, 1968

This poem spoke to me in an unusual way this morning. I stood in my kitchen, a book of Anne Sexton's poems in my hand, blowing the steam off a fresh cup of coffee. I'd just come in from a solitary run through the neighborhoods. The early morning light, flat on the wet asphalt, was thick, soft gray. The air a wooly mantle. A world on the cusp of spring, texture of pussy willow buds. Not yet green, no longer the colorless color of cold. I stood beside the window, still in my running tights and jersey, bare socks on the cold tiles. In the yard a wisp of thin mist twisted between the humps of lavender, a silver snake in the barren branches. And abruptly, I knew my truth, what living was for. I had run through the silence of it, through the palpable shift in the earth's changing seasons, headlong into the widening light of the new sun. And done, rested with loosed breath hot and steady, home again in my own yard.

Standing with Anne Sexton's poems open in my hand, I read these lines, "and hoarded these constants into morning /only to find them gone." How wise the poet. It is enough, I think, to be awarded a glimpse - wherever we are, whatever we might be doing. To know the truth of life. Even just once.
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The Importance of Love


I turn around, and face the sun.
O what have I learned of atoms and love?
They dance.

- THE GEOGRAPHY OF LOVE, 2008


In my own quiet salute to a day devoted to love, I include the final lines from my memoir, THE GEOGRAPHY OF LOVE. As many of you know, in 2003 I lost my love and life partner. The journey that followed has been challenging: a sometimes lost, often heartbreaking, breathtaking path toward finding joy. Without the gift and love of our children, and the steadfast dailiness of everyday life - "the purposefulness of purpose" as the Buddhist teachings describe it - I might not have arrived at this place where I can talk about love again with an open heart. Hurt often closes us down in life. It is the work of love to break the barriers back open. To set hope free.

In a new writing project I am at work on the opening lines are these: "What love taught me was the inevitability of loss. And what loss taught me was the importance of love." There is great meaning in these lines for me. They begin where love takes all of us sooner or later- into uncharted, uncertain terrain. Sometimes, to the dark side of the story. Might there be a reprise in our narratives? Love seems to be a wave that rolls through our lives. We ride the crest that swoops us up, tumble in the crash, surface with the glistening wash. But as often as we tumble, we also rise. Love is a movement in perpetual motion, a pendulum in synch with the pulse of life. There is an instinct seeded within us to attach and nurture, to cherish and defend. Love is there, always there, and we are only asked to engage.

After loss, engaging with the tides of the heart can seem the very antithesis to survival. That age-old question, "Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?" especially sharp. Next steps represent a journey of opening. For me, to understand the lesson of loss is to reiterate the importance of love. So wherever you might be in your life with regard to love, fold the wings of your heart close and rest in the possibility of flight. Read More 
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Looking Inside

If you haven't visited the thoughtful, popular blog A DESIGN SO VAST, written by Lindsey Mead Russell - her ongoing dialogue of the journey through the challenges and epiphanies of everyday life - then I urge you to do so today. Lindsey is one of the muses of my life, a steady voice, stunning writer, parent, wife, and wise and generous friend to many. What she offers in her writing defies categorization. She is perhaps best described as a lightning rod for practical truth, for the kind of candid, unflinching honest empathy that describes surviving in the trenches in the companionship of a trusted friend. A "battle buddy," as my son the U.S. Naval Midshipman would say. Yesterday her blog featured a questionnaire named THE PROUST QUESTIONNAIRE. You can find this fascinating list of questions and register answers on her blog at www.adesignsovast.com/2011/02, or click above under the picture of Katy, McDuff, and me on the cabin steps at Priest Lake.

This funky questionnaire seemed worth reproducing here because it is thoughtful in the kind of way that helps define us to ourselves. Sometimes we need that. To see the outlines, dark and firm on the page, that prompt us to color in the subtleties. To think about ourselves and daily living in a way we have yet to explore. If it's true that you are how you live, then truth lies in the obvious. So for today's blog I am going to answer the questionnaire for myself here for you, and invite you to do so for yourself, or to me, or on Lindsey's blog.

Here is Vanity Fair's The Proust Questionnaire:
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Late night worry. Despite knowing worry presumes the future, this is the moment that challenges me to find my inner optimist (generally off worrying).

Where would you like to live?
Spokane is welcoming. The shores of Priest Lake. Perhaps a small coastal town with a stimulating university. Close candidates include San Luis Opisbo, Palo Alto, the Carolina coastline, any of the villages of Cinque Terre on the southern Italian Riviera if we're dreaming.

What is your idea of earthly happiness?
Sleeping in with the warm sun baking through the shades, half in and out of a dream that may or may not be life designing. Walking the bluff, or the trails of Priest Lake. A glass of wine by an open fire under a thousand stars.

To what faults do you feel most indulgent?
The faults of people striking a bold pose in the heart of deep insecurity. Those who strive hard from fear.

Who are your favorite heroes of fiction?
Off the top of my head - Winnie the Pooh, Edmund Dantes (The Count of Monte Cristo), Pi (Life of Pi), Yoda.

Who are your favorite characters in history?
Epictetus, Marc Antony and Cleopatra, Katherine of Aragon, John Quincy Adams, Voltaire, Simone de Beauvoir, Verdi, Beethoven, Patton, Churchill, Ghandi, JFK.

Who are your favorite heroines in real life?
My son and daughter, who challenge themselves to live life with zero qualifications. Full on engagement.

Who are your favorite heroines of fiction?
Clarissa Dalloway (Mrs. Dalloway), Irina (Three Sisters), Emma (Jane Austen), Mead (Searching for Grace), Mirabelle (Shopgirl)

Your favorite painter?
Renoir, Mary Cassatt, Pollock, Mark Rothko, Louise Bourgeois, Georgia O’Keeffe

Your favorite musician?
Chet Baker, Sarah Vaughan, James Taylor

The qualities you most admire in a man?
Brilliance, wit, kindness, character. Sensuality.

The qualities you most admire in a woman?
Loyalty. A sense of humor. Spiritual grounding. Emotional courage & risktaking.

Your favorite virtue?
Quiet courage.

Your favorite occupation?
Writer. Bird watcher/shell collector. Student of the world. Book critic. Mother, wife and lover.

Who would you have liked to be?
Katherine Hepburn hanging out with Humphrey Bogart on The African Queen!
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Shelving Valentines


somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me.
or which i cannot touch because they are too near
- E.E. Cummings

Have we lost the personal intimate language of love? Yesterday as I stopped by the grocer's for a quart of milk, a young clerk stood fixated at her task, shelving Valentines. The cards in her hand, the red and pink envelopes with their eye-popping glitter hearts and cursive sentiments, all seemed to be little passports to happiness. A Valentine destined for someone on this upcoming day of hearts - what could be more innocent, warm and fuzzy? Why not drop five bucks on a card, and as the song goes, "make someone happy"?

Call me Cupid's Scrooge, but if the retail industry can make profitable sales out of February 14th from the farewell love note of one ancient Roman signed "your Valentine," then what is the meaning of the other 364 days of the year? Do we think less of the one-month anniversary, toasted with a latte and breakfast between new lovers, the fiftieth anniversary celebrated over sheet cake in the living room of middle-aged children, the quiet day that marks a lover's loss, or the first poem penned to a crush in the second grade?

All the days and weeks and months of love in our lifetime shape a melody of the very personal. If coworkers do not witness a bouquet delivered to the desk, does this mean life is meager, diminished? Does one February day fully circumscribe the crazy must-have compulsions of new love or the worn, broken-in familiar, the hand that finds another's when the news is bad, the joyful kiss when it's good?

The lines of E.E. Cummings quoted above are among my favorite. Few and simple, words that reach into the mystery between lovers, "your eyes have their silence," "things which enclose me," "I cannot touch...too near." Love's language is more than words on red stationary, greater than a box of candy. Although the gesture is sweet (ah yes, pun intended), the truest expression of love must always simply be what two in love witness. What does not come gift-wrapped, colored pink, or dressed by the florist. Love, in my humble opinion, is what moves us to "go somewhere i have never travelled."
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Practice Yes

Here in this spring, stars float along the void...

- from "Here in This Spring," Dylan Thomas, 1939

One of my New Year's resolutions this past January was to say "Yes" to new things. Not to hem or find excuses, prevaricate or grump through...just to say "Yes!" Get up and do it. See where an affirmative approach to any unexpected opportunity might take me. Perhaps all the missed signals and turns in my past were because I wasn't taking road signs seriously. Caution: Curve Ahead. Last Gas 20 Miles. Scenic View. This reminds me of the old joke about the man on his roof in a rising flood shaking his fist at God, "I prayed for rescue! I waited for your sign and now the water's at my feet!" God answers, "Did you not turn away the boat, the helicopter, and the raft?" Wanting life to be bigger, richer, more stimulating and engaging, but refusing to do what is new or unfamiliar, well, it's a bit like wondering why we can't give up donuts standing in line at the baker's. Time to push our feet in a new direction.

Sounds simple enough. Just push. Nudge past the natural social reticence and forward into new experiences, new adventures - jump into what would usually loom uncomfortably. Uncertainties create anxiety, but staying safe in "No" sustains the same old rut. As I began to practice openness a strange thing happened...I began to have fun! New people weren't as difficult to make friends with as I worried. Turns out, I like okra. A week at a stranger's home cemented a deep and lasting friendship. A Bluegrass concert, and Sierra Hull fills the quiet of my car. Visited a Glass Museum. Read a book on time and philosophy. Tried wild pheasant. What happens when we say yes is that life opens the door to a banquet of experiences. What is unknown is simply new. We float into the void on stars.

So give it a try. When someone calls, "Heh, what about trying the rock wall on Tuesday?" Swallow your inner vertigo and grab your sense of play. It might be fun! It might even lead to the person you needed to meet to get that project noticed at work. The romance you'd never find on your usual treadmill at the gym. The friend that becomes a best friend. The blind date that leads to love. The life path you were meant to follow. A real and genuine sense of confidence. Say yes to what the universe sends. Might just be the answer to your prayer.
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The Tug of It

THE THREAD
Something is very gently,
invisibly, silently,
pulling at me - a thread
or net of threads
finer than cobweb and as
elastic. I haven't tried
the strength of it. No barbed hook
pierced and tore me. Was it
not long ago this thread
began to draw me? Or
way back? Was I
born with its knot about my
neck, a bridle? Not fear
but a stirring
of wonder makes me
catch my breath when I feel
the tug of it when I thought
it had loosened itself and gone.
- Denise Levertov, 1965

Destiny or chance. Do the important things in our lives fall into place or just find a place to fall?

We might look backwards at the choice points in our lives, at pivotal successes and disappointments and think, Of course, this was always how it was going to be. Or perhaps we greet each day as a complete new day, adopting a 24 hour "reboot" on destiny. Then what happens in any given moment is just the "special of the day." As random as the fisherman's catch.

What do you think? Do you feel, as Levertov writes in her poem, the pull of a thread that seems to bind your path through time, nudging you onward along a particular plane of navigation understood only in retrospect as your life unfolds? Or do you feel a tug more like a question mark in your heart; a cosmic mystery left to sleuth to conclusion? Whether powered by destiny or chance, each "next day" is ultimately made up of a significant portion of the unknown. There are mornings we start with a plan, finish with confusion. Begin with uncertainty, end with epiphany. Wander into ourselves accompanied by a large measure of inattention and come to a standstill, wowed by what we unexpectedly "get."

When next you feel that catch in your breath tug back, test the strength. Follow the wonder of it.
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