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QUINTESSENCE

Story Work

We read stories to get experiences we've never known firsthand, or, to gain a clearer understanding of experiences we have had. In the process, we follow one or more characters the way we follow our 'self' in our dreams; we assimilate the story as if what happened to the main characters had happened to us. We identify with heroes. As they move through the story, what happens to them, happens to us. In comedy, heroes go through all the terrible things that we fear or face in our own lives - but they teach us to look at disaster with enough distance that we can laugh at it. In non-comic fiction, the hero shows us what matters, what has value, what has meaning among the random and meaningless events of life. In all stories, the hero is our teacher-by-example, and if we are to be that hero's disciple for the duration of the tale, we must have awe: We must understand that the hero has some insight, some knowledge that we ourselves do not understand, some value or power that we do not have.
- from "Characters & Viewpoint," Orson Scott Card

I was putting together some notes for a workshop and paused to reread this paragraph by the science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card from a chapter of his popular writing guide, "The Hero and the Common Man." The title reflects our innate inner duality. Our awareness of tandem weakness and potential greatness. Joseph Campbell explored the pull of the heroic ideal in his groundbreaking work on the psychology of the mythic hero. We are all both the ordinary and the extraordinary in any given moment. Yet in our reading we seek characters who inspire us through their predicaments and a surprising ability to rise to the occasion. To be brave, compassionate, courageous, inventive, adventurous, just, even powerfully cruel.

I have been thinking all morning about the heroic and the personal cost of heroism. How those situations which may bring out the best in us are often the most difficult to endure. That those events to which we respond most bravely are too often the ones that cost us the very most. If the gift of triumph over loss is a sense of ourselves as capable, will fewer future challenges feel overwhelming as our courage muscles flex, or will we find our enthusiasm for life dulled by an awareness of experience as a two-edged sword?

I confess I do not know the answer to this question - whether challenge strengthens our vitality for life or toughens us with scars - but I might hypothesize we exist on a pendulum of sorts between the two responses, boldness and aversion. I believe stories work our predicaments: that we challenge ourselves to play-act beside the hero, exploring our own paper courage. And in shadow-boxing, realize a true, real-world strength. We use story, our own or those of others, as allegory and call to action, fable and history. So do the story work. Take a step back to laugh and a thoughtful moment in contemplation of the day and its challenges. Be in awe. You are the hero of your own story.
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Gladly Beyond

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
by E. E. Cummings

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

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skillfully, mysteriously) her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully , suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands


I am revisiting e.e. cummings today, and this poem I quoted a few lines from a year ago, specifically then the opening stanza. The language is what holds me - unexpected phrases such as "the voice of your eyes," the chiseled core of "the power of your intense fragility," and the pang, the lonely yearning of "your eyes have their silence." How does someone, anyone, ever know language and the beloved sufficiently to paint the mystery so fully?

I think it perhaps this aspect of the poet that singes most deeply: this ability to encapsulate our longing, our disoriented suffering, the single note bittersweet rhapsodies. Human emotion is a melange of spices, a stew, and a salt. It is the poet who allows us to make a meal of tart and unsettling experience. The poet who labels the most heart-stirring wine, Reserve.
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The Way of Memories

XXXII
Rain has fallen all the day,
O come among the laden trees:
The leaves lie thick upon the way
Of memories.

Staying a little by the way
Of memories shall we depart.
Come, my beloved, where I may
Speak to your heart.
- James Joyce

This small stanza by the poet Joyce seemed to echo my mood of the last few days. Memories lie thick at my feet as I walk the sands of Priest Lake, run along the dusty paths, sit by the phone waiting for news of a big moment in my son's life, acknowledge the pang that never softens on the anniversary of my mother's passing. Memories float up as dust motes at the least disturbance it seems. My life feels thick with leaves of experience, laden with the musty sweetness of love and regrets, losses and hope. There is a quote I think of - "Only Hope remained there within the rim of the great jar" (after Pandora had let loose disaster and affliction). Is it not true that when life blows through us, the lingering outline of those great shifts and heaves through life is almost always hope?

Today is the 22nd day of the month. This is my number. I was born on the 22nd, the autumnal equinox. A special person in my life was also born on this day, in a summer month. My beloved Ken passed on the day of the 22nd. Passages - in and out of love and life and connection. I think all of us feel connected to one special day, in which memories seem to pivot around us like ribbons on the Maypole. Today is no exception. I am suffused - as though experience were saffron in the kitchen, heady with the flavors of life. Memories, the poet writes, tarry us along the way. Pause and welcome. The past grown gentle, accepted.

Hope lights the path home.
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Breathing Time


Much happens when we're not there.
Many trees, not only that famous one, over and over,
fall in the forest. We don't see, but something sees,
or someone, a different kind of someone,
a different molecular model, or entities
not made of molecules anyway; or nothing, no one:
but something has taken place, taken space,
been present, absent,
returned. Much moves in and out of open windows
when our attention is somewhere else,
just as our souls move in and out of our bodies sometimes.
Everyone used to know this,
but for a hundred years or more
we've been losing our memories...
- from "Window-Blind," Denise Levertov

It seems to me that we breathe time. That time is partly the stuff of oxygen, water to the amphibious, sun to the chlorophyll-seeking leaf. Heedless of from where or whence the abundant moments pass, we breathe in, exhale what is now past, and move on.

I was running beneath the maple trees this morning - towering expansive ancients that guard the park allees, in the French style, along the gentle climb up the South Hill. I felt myself inhaling the openness of life as I traveled the shady streets. My heart pumped blood, my legs and muscles propelled me through dimensional space: in and out I breathed the quiet trees. Today's poem, the beginning of a work by Denise Levertov, came to mind as I passed through pools of cool shade, hot white sun. More moves in and out of us than we are aware. I breathe the maples: their leaves breathe me. Earth and water filter across a slim unknown in which everything, a revolving door of shape-changing molecules, shares custody of this experience we call life.

I continued my run and my feet struck the hard pavement, aware of the rebuff of manmade surfaces. The difference in the way my feet traveled earth the week before, running the giving dirt along the lake shore, jumping roots of towering pines, following the twist of deer trail. Never alone but held in the organic equation of nature. On the asphalt the equation changed, I became solitary, making my way across the surface of a road designed to stand fast against change, against the erosion of time. No longer in the solar stream, the flow of ions through my body, time passing through beats of heart and muscle and thought. It felt lonely to leave the trees for the vaulted and impenetrable constructions of anti-time.

An ocean of time. Breath propels consciousness as we consume life in awareness, in sleep, in lovemaking, laughter, sobs in a darkened room. Draw life deep to the core as trees do. Exhale. Again. An unlimited ribbon of gilded molecules loop through us and out to the stars. Breathe.

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An Exactitude

There is so much communication and understanding beneath and apart from the substantiations of language spoken out or written down that language is almost no more than a compression, or elaboration - an exactitude, declared emphasis, emotion-in-syntax - not at all essential to the message. And therefore, as an elegance, as something almost superfluous, it is likely (because it is free to be so used) to be carefully shaped, to take risks, to begin and even prolong adventures that may turn out poorly after all - and all in the cause of the crisp flight and the buzzing bliss of the words, as well as their directive - to make, of the body-bright commitment to life, and its passions, including (of course!) the passion of meditation, an exact celebration, or inquiry, employing grammar, mirth, and wit in a precise and intelligent way. Language is, in other words, not necessary, but voluntary. If it were necessary, it would have stayed simple; it would not agitate our hearts with ever-present loveliness and ever-cresting ambiguity; it would not dream, on its long white bones, of turning into song.
- from "Three Songs, Number 3," Mary Oliver

As a writer, the medium of language, the building blocks and substance of words, is endlessly fascinating to me. This paragraph from the poet Mary Oliver is an homage to the human effort to domesticate the wild word; and in itself, a beautiful block of language. It would behoove the budding writer to read carefully her sentence structure, attend her use of parenthetical thought, sentence break, extended meaning, clarity, acuity, and sensuous, open possibilities - all in explanation of how language couples and divides to expand our thinking and take thought beyond given boundaries toward discernment. That thinking itself is a kind of fluid design that has at its core an inner symbolic landscape: the complexity of mammals attending to existence. Language as reflection, as action, as description, as framing that which we do not know or dream to know. Language was no doubt the first art, the first creation. An ever-evolving map of human consciousness as it stretches, like the weed or the necks of geese, toward the necessity of sun.

Enjoy what you speak today. Hold words like wine on the tongue. Write, and look at the shapes of meaning, the flows of thinking, the mystery in where these small strokes of creativity come and drift away to. Your mouth a brushstroke, your hands a drum. Let language tell you about you. Words contain more than the known vegetable, mineral world. They seep the quintessence of the mind. They create as they describe. Mirrors, lakes, panes of glass. Reflections of reflection. Lightning from thunder. May a new word find you today.
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On the Wing

When Hope but made Tranquillity be felt--
A Flight of Hopes for ever on the wing
But made Tranquillity a conscious Thing--
And wheeling round and round in sportive coil
Fann'd the calm air upon the brow of Toil--

- "When Hope but made Tranquillity be felt" (fragment),
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

As I sit by the edge of the blue wild waters of Priest Lake, the sky stretches over the ripped edges of the Selkirk Mountains - untamed, vast. This quality of hugeness is the prime power plug of tranquility for me. That something, perhaps everything, lies outside the venue of human control and to a certain extent, destruction. The world exists around us, and despite us.

Over the still waters, beyond the bald scarred peaks of granite, rise the wishes of others winging back at me. Somehow, in this shared hope, I feel the connection to Colegridge's words. "A Flight of Hopes," as he put it, "for ever on the wing."

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Less Rill Than Rivulet

Hello Friends,
Normally I begin the blog with a line or two of poetry that anchors the essay to follow. Today I give you a poem as the essay. Campbell McGrath is to me, a poet with a soul as subtle and shining the inside of an abalone shell. As a poet his themes and ideas are so concise they cut through murk with an un-dissuaded intention. As a wordsmith, he gets you there on the blue highways; the scenic route, the path of surprises. And as a writer, his poems are imbued with a respect and mastery of language and subject matter that cannot be falsely constructed. The wizardry of McGrath's art burns from within, the sun in the orbit of his seeking, the light that guides his unique and questing intellect. As most of you know, I chose Campbell's astounding neon poem, "The Human Heart," as the epigram to my memoir, THE GEOGRAPHY OF LOVE - a poem that says all I think I would want to say about love, and its small stories of human frailty, survival and that schmaltzy thing that makes us string Christmas lights on the turquoise-white Dew Drop trailer.

The poem below tells you all I would want to tell you about landscape and language and the paintings we make with our imaginations. So for today, my gift to you is Campbell McGrath. Enjoy.

The Prose Poem
by Campbell McGrath

On the map it is precise and rectilinear as a chessboard, though driving past you would hardly notice it, this boundary line or ragged margin, a shallow swale that cups a simple trickle of water, less rill than rivulet, more gully than dell, a tangled ditch grown up throughout with a fearsome assortment of wildflowers and bracken. There is no fence, though here and there a weathered post asserts a former claim, strands of fallen wire taken by the dust. To the left a cornfield carries into the distance, dips and rises to the blue sky, a rolling plain of green and healthy plants aligned in close order, row upon row upon row. To the right, a field of wheat, a field of hay, young grasses breaking the soil, filling their allotted land with the rich, slow-waving spectacle of their grain. As for the farmers, they are, for the most part, indistinguishable: here the tractor is red, there yellow; here a pair of dirty hands, there a pair of dirty hands. They are cultivators of the soil. They grow crops by pattern, by acre, by foresight, by habit. What corn is to one, wheat is to the other, and though to some eyes the similarities outweigh the differences it would be as unthinkable for the second to commence planting corn as for the first to switch over to wheat. What happens in the gully between them is no concern of theirs, they say, so long as the plough stays out, the weeds stay in the ditch where they belong, though anyone would notice the wind-sewn cornstalks poking up their shaggy ears like young lovers run off into the bushes, and the kinship of these wild grasses with those the farmer cultivates is too obvious to mention, sage and dun-colored stalks hanging their noble heads, hoarding exotic burrs and seeds, and yet it is neither corn nor wheat that truly flourishes there, nor some jackalopian hybrid of the two. What grows in that place is possessed of a beauty all its own, ramshackle and unexpected, even in winter, when the wind hangs icicles from the skeletons of briars and small tracks cross the snow in search of forgotten grain; in the spring the little trickle of water swells to welcome frogs and minnows, a muskrat, a family of turtles, nesting doves in the verdant grass; in summer it is a thoroughfare for raccoons and opossums, field mice, swallows and black birds, migrating egrets, a passing fox; in autumn the geese avoid its abundance, seeking out windrows of toppled stalks, fatter grain more quickly discerned, more easily digested. Of those that travel the local road, few pay that fertile hollow any mind, even those with an eye for what blossoms, vetch and timothy, early forsythia, the fatted calf in the fallow field, the rabbit running for cover, the hawk's descent from the lightning-struck tree. You've passed this way yourself many times, and can tell me, if you would, do the formal fields end where the valley begins, or does everything that surrounds us emerge from its embrace?

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Rhapsody

I am so busy among
Shelley's long poems, Plato. Godwin's
Enquiry, Carlyle concerning
the failed revolution that bloody sorrow, and,
as always, Emerson.

Now and again, of course, I look up; a person must.
Maybe I eat an apple or a pear.
Maybe I walk out with the happy dogs.
Maybe I come back into the house, calling your name.

Or maybe you whisper mine.
- from "Rhapsody," Stanza 3, Mary Oliver

I am leaving for the wilds of northern Idaho this weekend, for a luxury of days, a long desired vacation at the lake. Accompanied by my books, notebooks, sketch pad and pen, running shoes for the forest trails, trusty Macallan. And yes, the dog McDuff, and happily, a daughter flying in from the east coast. When I read this excerpt of Mary Oliver's "Rhapsody," a poem that weaves between exquisite small joys of the heart, in and amongst moments, ordinary and fabulous, abundant in nature, I think of how much I love this summer sojourn out of the city. Up to the lake - cold clear waters, inky lavender skies empty of all but the glittering stars, the dark, silent forests shouldered against the shore. Distant from the quotidian, the endless chores and errands. Far away from the brick-colored walls of my office: the stacks of work lined in tilted stanchions at the foot of bookshelves, the mysterious glinting new ideas already gathering dust under the sharp, evocative photographs by Sexton and Caponegro of glassy, rippled brooks, of mist in black trees. And the Don Worth trio - selenium black and whites - the cactus, the beach rock, rain drops on glass. I know that feeling in the center of my chest. The urge to breathe. Once again it is necessary to re-infuse what has become image with the sensory alphabet of the objects themselves. The feel of round stones under bare feet along the beach, the rough cracked bark on the windward tree, the tap-tap drumming of rain on the mossy roof.

It seems as though work and ideas will only once more begin their pirouette across my consciousness after I empty my thoughts in the quiet woods. The lap of lake waves smoothes the sand. The stress and detritus drains from my soul, leaving a blank canvas for creativity to scrawl large.

I am so busy, as Oliver notes. Maybe I will walk out with the happy dogs. Maybe I will come back into the house, calling your name.

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Word Play

I would rather see words out on their own, away
from their families and the warehouse of Roget,
wandering the world where they sometimes fall
in love with a completely different word.
Surely, you have seen pairs of them standing forever
next to each other on the same line inside a poem,
a small chapel where weddings like these,
between perfect strangers, can take place.
- from "Thesaurus," Billy Collins

This idea of words adventuring into the world, finding new meanings, new bonds between strangers, is delightful to me. You could probably replace "words" in this poem with "youth" and have yet another new construct on the idea of the universe of one personality discovering another. Today I have buckets of words on my mind. Pages and paragraphs - words still on the tip of my tongue, lost in the fog alleys of my mind on a morning following half-painted dreams.

As a writer, my days often begin with a long half-awake gaze out the windows at the birds, the delicate quail bobbing and dashing across the patio, the Scottie with his nose in the fresh scents in the grass. The days debut with half-formed sentences (alas, I've continued to write in my sleep, dreaming edits and scene changes, a keen line judge over volleys of language). Sometimes, to make sense of these fragile, half-shell sentences, or escape the endless cargo trains of coupled words thundering around inside my skull, I hit the trails for an early run. In the slant of early sun through pines my thoughts find tranquility. Colors and pens and crayons - pots of unbundled thoughts held aloft, midpoint, content to float until called into action.

Billy Collins' poem suggests ways in which words might be set free to find themselves and others, to play and adventure in ways we usually do not permit. Isn't this an idea for us to consider as well? Now and then set ourselves free to explore in ways that awaken us inside, that open our thoughts to chapels of new meaning and fierceness and beauty in unexpected places? I like to think so. Plot the constellations that lie beyond the North Star. Throw the shovel out of the sandbox and unearth the power of the silly and unexpected.

Why not find a simmering, chuckling, restless book this summer and see what happens inside? Follow those bird tracks across the white pages. Invite your imagination to a wedding.
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