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QUINTESSENCE

Walks in Beauty

Prince William and Catherine Middleton (photo credit: Mario Testino)

SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o'er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling place.

And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent.
- Lord George Gordon Byron, 1780

I have always loved the opening lines of Lord Byron's poem. There is something tenable in the honest praise of the words "She walks in beauty." We best impress when we inhabit those qualities we most value. Walk within virtues both given to us and borrowed, appreciated by others or rough-cut and unknown. These qualities that draw others to us are as natural and pure and principled as the stars in the sky.

I believe romantic love is the opening toast of a lifelong dance. Like beauty, the first blush of love is akin to bubbles of champagne that break on our tongues, the heady intoxication of light and delight. Without love's first romantic bliss, the tempered partnership of weathered marriage, while perhaps strong and steady and solid to its core, will still forever lack "The Story That Would Be Us." The tale we tell ourselves and our children of how we came to be. Marriage without that first breath-taking kiss begins as an arrangement of eyes cast elsewhere. A union, but not a transformation.

So here's to romantic love. To the blush and the confusion, the yearning and its bliss. The winters that follow are a steady long pull. But let us not forget to dance. May all the brides and grooms of summer waltz carefree, may Princess Diana's love smile on her son as he steps into his future, and may Kate be praised for the courage to follow her heart. For within the heart's folly lie the seeds of a good life.
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Embroidery

Union flag bunting hangs above Windsor high street with Windsor Castle in the background on April 24, 2011 in Windsor, England. Prince William will marry Catherine Middleton in Westminster Abbey on April 29, 2011. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

I have spent my life weaving the rainbow, treating light like a piece of embroidery.
- Claude Monet

Today my thoughts are taken by the extraordinary media focus on the upcoming British Royal Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. I remember the wedding of Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles, and the way the world watched a fairy tale unfold in gilded carriages, Calvary horsemen and tiaras, a first kiss on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Myself a child raised with the Disney "Princess" films, Diana's wedding was a fantasy come true. This week's wedding between the commoner Kate Middleton and Prince William, Diana's first born son, is a modern fairy tale: the well-considered union between a college-educated couple that has dated for eight years and lived together as today's couples do. Their wedding both a nod to the public's love of spectacle and a celebration of a sometimes tarnished monarchy, that somehow, in the 21st Century, still survives in the hearts and minds of not just the British, but all of us. The whole world loves a fairy tale.

It seems to me this "grand obsession" is a good thing, this faith in romantic love, magical endings, improbable Cinderellas. A young man aware of the high price of Royal love and another young woman willing to take on the demands of public life for the man she has given her heart to. We, the public, will savor with millions of onlookers the pageantry of kingdoms we no longer consider ourselves a part of played out on our televisions. Pageantry, history, and the biggest block champagne party the world has ever known.

I cheer for our human optimism - for our fascination with romance, our desire to celebrate the wonderment of pageantry when we could easily brush the story of an improbable Princess aside. Raise your champagne flute, don your flowered hat, polish your ceremonial sword. Here's to William and his Catherine: to life spent weaving rainbows and the embroidery of love.
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Gas Lamps


In Holland at daybreak, of a fine spring morning, one sees the housemaids beating rugs before the small houses of such a city as Amsterdam, sweeping, scrubbing the low entry steps and polishing doorbells and doorknobs. By night perhaps there will be an old woman with a girl on her arm, histing and whistling across a deserted canal to some late loiterer trudging aimlessly on beneath the gas lamps.
- William Carlos Williams, from "Kora in Hell: Improvisations, No. 3," 1918.

There is no particular reason for beginning with this improvisation today, other than the writing is a lovely example of the way in which two sentences can transform your reality. I am no longer at my desk, but on a sunny side street of a northern European city. I am in an era of housemaids and polished doorbells, and then in the pocket of an aimless wanderer who has caught the eye of a young girl. Two sentences, and I have traveled the globe and bridged two centuries.

The last few days I have been preoccupied with a personal choice, and the question of what to do has robbed me of both sleep and confidence, as all decisions with great stakes will. In the middle of ruminating on the matter in the bath last night, I remembered the most profound lesson of my life. Sad isn't it, that I had to "remember" something so important? That it wasn't ingrained in my brain as a "systems check" for all such moments as this? But no, I am living proof we learn, and forget, and must come to the same realizations over and over again. The lesson was this: In great decisions that involve not just you but someone else, you must first make the the right decision for yourself. And perhaps this decision will be the right decision for the other person too. But they must choose what is right for them, independent of you.

As I thought through this truth (it has really saved me more than once), I realized that this hard-learned rubric simplified my current dilemma into an essential element: What was right for me? For the dreamer, woman, artist, explorer of the only life I have to lead? If I give that integral consideration away before weighing the options, then are the odds of that decision being right or lasting not skinned down to nil? So thank you, past, for the lessons learned. Oh, and a note here: The right choice for me has almost always dovetailed with the choice made by the other person. Funny how life works that way.
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Pilgrim Soul

Moonrise over Lake Coeur d'Alene

WHEN YOU ARE OLD
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

- William Butler Yeats, 1893

My Uncle turns 83 this week. He is a life-long bachelor. A friend's father is visiting from the north plains, a forthright man of 79. One man lives a life marked by a lack of intimate commitment to others, while the other stands as the patriarch of a family that swings as a pendulum to his needs and decrees. Reading this poem by Yeats, I think about the degree to which we invite connection into our lives, and what we do with its thorny, fragile presence. We let intimacy pass us by, uncertain the waters are friendly. Or we put our backs into love's labors, build our fortress and imprison ourselves within. Or perhaps we are simply loved, taking our place among "a crowd of stars."

Walt Whitman wrote a famous poem on reconciliation, by the same eponymous title, with these lines: "That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil'd world;/ For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead." What is loved may be hated. What is needed, denied. At the end of our time, however, strife and conflict sift through our fingers in forgotten dust. What remains, as Whitman writes, is "Word over all, beautiful as the sky." The grace of life, the gift of individuality, the transcendent ability to love. The bachelor, the patriarch, the warrior, the singer of songs... Each of us identical in death, and yet so vastly different in the love we define.

As the sun opens in the new spring sky, I think of Yeats, "How many loved your moments of glad grace." Perhaps it is enough to honor within ourselves and in others, the pilgrim soul.
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Time Consumes Time

LYING IN A HAMMOCK AT WILLIAM DUFFY'S FARM IN PINE ISLAND, MINNESOTA

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down in the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year's horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

- James Wright

I found the last line of this poem shocking. The idyllic scene - distant cowbells, a shady hammock, the lazy feel of sun. And then, "I have wasted my life."

This one line yanks me from the poem's soporific beauty, from the heat and haze and distances of the natural world, the mellow cadences and honeyed imagery of the previous lines. This blunt declaration plunges me into the pulse below the words - deep into the tensions, uncertainties, the humble gorgeousness of moments that make up my life. That last sentence reminds me that life is to be consumed, lived; not savored from a distance.

My daughter's academic dean recently sent out an email reflecting on the nearness of Commencement, the imminent conclusion for her and her fellow seniors of four communal years at school. He spoke of the bittersweet way in which "Time consumes time." That phrase has stuck with me in recent days. I've thought about the amount of time we devote to preparing ourselves for life, learning what we need (or think we need) to navigate our frenetic, modern world. Poised to engage, we join the fray. Bumping along in the flow, we float like rubber ducks through the odd mix of biological directive and social construct that is modern life. If we're lucky, we retire to Wright's hammock from time to time to reflect on the beauty of a lazy day. But what of the truth within the poet's reflection? Will we feel we have lived the right life, a full and meaningful existence? Or will we think of missed adventures, skipped reunions, the variable rate mortgage, Medicare Part D?

In Wright's poem truth is grounded in the natural world. Here is our touchstone. But how we live within the world is the challenge that matters. The hawk sailing home has lived its day. Have we?
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The Best Friend

Best friends. My son and daughter, 2007

I have heard this music before,
saith the body.
- "5. At the Edge of the Ocean, Rain," Mary Oliver, 1992

We've all been there: the moment our ordinary lives tumble into the disordinary, the uncertain, into crisis that burns moments as dried fields. For me, critical tilt hit late Wednesday night with the sudden onset of a serious illness and hospitalization my son experienced away at school. A continent away, to be precise. Fortunately, the ultimate outcome is his return to good health, but the experience of being his parent through an unimaginable unknown - yet again - shook me deeply. A close friend, both physician and mother, told me about seeing an older patient one day in her office who wrung her hands over the well being of her children. Concerned, my friend asked her patient, "How old are your children?" "57 and 53," was the weepy reply. My friend said to me later in some wonder, "It just never ends, does it?"

No, it doesn't. We are never not parents, I have realized. Our prime directive to protect meets our ultimate impotence to control the big things. To mitigate the harsh risks in this wild unfathomable universe, to sidestep or diffuse danger and misfortune whenever it unfolds for those we nurture and protect.

At dinner last night, a young man, his arm loosely around the woman he loves, tossed out a blithe remark about atheism. I laughed, sympathetic with his honesty. But an unexpected personal truth flew from my own lips before I could so much as filter myself, "Ah, but wait till you become a parent! God will be your new best friend." The father sitting next to me met my eyes with a wry smile. There was a world of shared knowledge in that communal glance - unspoken memories of babies crying their hearts out, prayers behind the wheel of a car racing somewhere after an emergency call, visiting hours in cheerfully painted hospital rooms, negotiations in principal's offices, the heart-crunching rush to roadside accidents, anxiety and college admission envelopes, waiting out a prom.

My friend is so right. It just never ends. Thank heavens for that best friend.
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The Nakedness of Meaning

Image courtesy of Rothko Chapel - Houston, Texas

"The Rothko Chapel is oriented toward the sacred and yet it imposes no traditional environment. It offers a place where a common orientation could be found - an orientation towards God, named or unnamed, an orientation towards the highest aspirations of Man and the most intimate calls of the conscience."
- Dominique de Menil

My first visit to the Rothko Chapel was caught in the milieu of school kids on a field trip, and maintenance staff hauling out folding chairs and a lectern from the night before. It wasn't, as I wrote here earlier, an experience of the Chapel and its intimacy, but rather, one of finding the sacred (and the tranquility) offered within a Rothko painting itself.

I went back. And my wish was granted: complete solitude. I stood in the center of the octagonal space. I could hear the brush of leaves on the roof above me. Linen panels diffuse the interior overhead natural light. There is no flourescent hum, no behind-the-walls mechanical white noise, just this soft weight of silence. Rothko's paintings consume the structure and recline within it. Fourteen imposing darkly-painted textured spaces to rest my thoughts in. I absorbed the surroundings fully, and in that quiet commune, experienced more than physical sanctuary. I felt abruptly freed of the certain, intellectual gravity of daily thought. The inner weight of consideration, idea, dogma. These paintings felt limitless. As though doorways into distant space, the undefined - beyond the white dazzle of planetary atmospheres and star sparkle, out into the deepest cut of darkness. Here lies potential, I thought. Possibility. Answers to every question imaginable lie in this dark.

Mark Rothko had this to say - "The familiar identity of things has to be pulverized in order to destroy the finite associations with which our society increasingly enshrouds every aspect of our environment." We break the seal to let in the light, lift definitions to invite in understanding.

Today was not to write about the Chapel, per se, but to think about writer's block. Mine. And how revisiting the Chapel in my thoughts helps me step out of the box I put myself in under pressure to be creative. To pause in Rothko's deepest space frees my essential mind. These paintings take me out of the box. The nonshape, the nonrecognition of what they contain invites me to actively define them - or not. I choose not to define, but to rest, accepting "beingness." Knowing a thing without labeling it. In this case, grounding the creative space within me, The Writer. The "me" trained to wring my mind dry of words; to hack away in the name of productivity and deadline. The gifts of the Rothko Chapel are many, but for me - to float in the potential of my own creative potential. I am refreshed by this space in ways I cannot articulate. And this experience means something; although, like Rothko, I can only tell you meaning is best utterly naked.
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