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QUINTESSENCE

Eyes On the Horizon

And the longer he thought
the more plain to him how much
still remained to be experienced,
and written down, a material world heretofore
hardly dignified.

And he recognized in exactly this reasoning
the scope and trajectory of his own
watchful nature.

- from "Roman Study," Louise Gluck

Fog has filled the valley and spilled over the rim of the bluffs I live on, threading gray and impenetrable through the bare trees. In this shifting uncertainty of cloud and cold I went for my early run. I ran through the quiet neighborhoods, noting families gathered at breakfast tables in kitchens that spilled yellow light, the harried parents loading preschoolers bundled up against the cold into warming cars. I began thinking about this year, 2011, and how it has been both wonderful for me personally, extremely tough on some of those I love, and difficult overall for our country both economically and for our soldiers overseas. Were all these twists of event luck and suffering on the way to a larger destiny, or simply accidental? Was a greater purpose, a meaningful impetus, behind each of our lives? Or was life merely chance made of fortune both good and bad? What ruled our daily experiences? Was it all a grand roller derby of impersonal collisions circling the risks of existence? I ran the streets thinking, What do we do with that? How in the midst of "the careless random" do we make successful choices, right outcomes, peace with the truly awful?

My late husband, Ken, used to say of his faith, "I work at the art of reasoning away bad luck." He was teasing me to some extent, as I am a tentative proponent of clinging to faith in the shape of greater things to come through both hard times and things I do not understand. Ken pointed out that you can't change what is, but you can deal with it. Your way. I would throw prayers out like a fisherman's net, hunting for the meaning in the misfortune. Both to understand if I could and to learn and possibly avoid future similar pitfalls, and to convince myself that at the end of the bad news would be a happy breakthrough into a better life. Which of us is the more correct? The one who accepts bad luck and rationally chops it into intellectual bite-sized bits better absorbed into the tasks of any given day, or the one who defends hope as the rough edge of a smoother evolution to follow?

I don't honestly know. To me, life is best symbolized by a sail boat tacking across open waters. The seas and winds change, and with shift, the set of sails and tiller change as well. Are we not at our best if the hand is steady, our gaze fixed on the horizon, regardless of the conditions we navigate? Perhaps any kind of philosophy that props us at our post, eyes forward, ensures survival and success. When we look back, some experiences reveal complete and meaningful narratives, while other events register like asteroid hits, shaking our foundations until the dust settles. Either way, life is lived forward. I embrace the spirit of the poem. How much remains to be experienced.
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Gratitudes

THE DEPTHS
When the white fog burns off,
the abyss of everlasting light
is revealed. The last cobwebs
of fog in the
black firtrees are flakes
of white ash in the world's hearth.

Cold of the sea is counterpart
to this great fire. Plunging
out of the burning cold of ocean
we enter an ocean of intense
noon. Sacred salt
sparkles on our bodies.

After mist has wrapped us again
in fine wool, may the taste of salt
recall to us the great depths about us.
- Denise Levertov

Raise a glass to friendship. Gratitude is the heart of the season. Gratitude for the year's harvest, for good fortune. Earth's breath cold and strong across our hearths. Welcome the coming season's wintry respite, the chance to lean back into the cold and silent nights.

I am grateful in this month that marks the end of autumn and tips to the end of the year. Grateful for so many experiences and gifts, but especially for the steady compass, the lighthouse shining, of friendship. I count myself fortunate to have original and authentic, deeply creative people - my "diamonds in the rough" - as intimate friends. What they possess as souls of intellect and compassion is given freely to those they love. They are funny, wise, steadfast, resilient. Like cedars they stand tall in the storms, and like willows bend but do not break beneath the fiercest wind. The roots cling, collective strength an expression of humble grace and hardiness. The shelter of friendship, my joy among these fabulous characters, offers me a tender place to reflect, recoup from losses, share the hilarious, celebrate the rare.

So my friends - and you know who you are - this Thanksgiving I am profoundly thankful for you. You are the rare find, the nonpareil without equal. Life in your company is full of wonder. Thank you for your presence in my life. Salut.
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Poised In An Awareness of Mortality


The problem is that we think we exist. We think our words are permanent and solid and stamp us forever. That's not true. We write in the moment. Sometimes when I read poems at a reading to strangers, I realize they think those poems are me. They are not me, even if I speak in the "I" person. They were my thoughts and my hand and the space and the emotions at that time of writing. Watch yourself. Every minute we change. It is a great opportunity. At any point, we can step out of our frozen selves and our ideas and begin fresh. That is how writing is. Instead of freezing us, it frees us.
- excerpted from "Writing Down the Bone," Natalie Goldberg

Tragedy, from my own experience, does seem to strike in pairs. I recently finished reading Joan Didion's sequel memoir, "Blue Nights," reflections on herself as a mother and the complex relationship she shared with her daughter, Quintana Roo. In 2003, Quintana fell ill with pneumonia shortly before the tragic, sudden death from cardiac arrest of Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne. Quintana passed away of septic shock complicated by bleeding in the brain days after Dunne. Didion's first memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking," was published in late 2005: a bare bones coming to terms with loss of so much at one time, but especially her life partner, her defining other. Didion has now turned to the painful emotions of her daughter's loss, writing a memoir imbued, for the reader, with the sense Didion is for the first time deciphering the intimacies of her daughter and their relationship even as she writes. To paraphrase Natalie Goldberg's words, this is writing that unfreezes the soul, freeing the author to define what very personal truths mean.

The title, "Blue Nights," comes from the twilight hours of long evening light that signal the summer solstice: "the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but also its warning." Which is to say, this is writing poised in an awareness of mortality. Echoed within each memory even as she shares with us, "Like when someone dies, don't dwell on it. "Blue Nights," is a spare read. Poetic, unintentionally raw. Didion's observations jab, pull back, wipe away what is sentimental. Yet, there is a yearning in her thinking. An exposed awareness of age and frailty and loss; a sense of the shortness of time that drives the writing. In sometimes painful reflection, Didion parses away the mystery of her daughter. As if she seeks a concrete understanding of the true shape of their connection, a sense of what balance holds together the intimacy/dissonance of a difficult relationship. Didion needs to perceive her daughter clearly in order to hold on to her; combing through the turning points of their connection to find an anchor, a sense of their relationship pulled from a well of murky, half-dismantled memories even as her own life enters a blue period of increased clarity and diminishing opportunity to make more (or less) of what is left, of what is.

Didion writes with great lucidity, poised on the tipping edge of her own mortality. A sole survivor, striving to understand the relationships that she now understands have defined her. A quest to find something in those relationships to accompany her as she travels alone through her own blue nights of uncertain faith. She leaves us with the question, Is there is anything more than memory itself at the end of life? And is that not an answer in and of itself?


Reader Blog Note: Blog comments gone missing? A reader fortunately has recently let me know the "post a comment" function on my blog was not forwarding your comments through to me. (And here I thought you were all just exceptionally quiet!) Thankfully, everything is back in order - so write in and find your comments here.
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Holiday, Packaged

A CONTEMPT LAMENT
Everything costs too much
so is on sale. However
the miracle of walking upon a parking lot
must not be discounted. There were
boys in a car with a
wrecking ball taking on
their speakers. A girl
talked in a window to them and
just where was her skirt?
I'm getting old. So old I read
obituaries for
hints on the personal narrative. I'd gone
to the mall in search of
a solid sweater and was
met by headless mannequins
dressed I guess
for the season's decapitation parties.
Surely somewhere
John the Revelator points to the practice of
taking an additional half off the sale price at the register
and says See?
- John Marshall

Hang on, Citizens of Cable TV...we are entering the holiday season. Last night, I kid you not, the countdown to Christmas was featuring "made for television" mini-dramas one after the other with holiday magic as the theme. (Did we miss Thanksgiving?) I noticed, perusing the program descriptions, that these were misty-eyed dramas built on themes of the dysfunctional modern life. Mom and dad, more in step with their careers and smart phones than their lonely children; single women abandoned by their men, raising children alone in quaint towns hoping to win the Holiday Lottery; Mrs. Claus, on a reconnaissance mission to save a family from divorce, trying to prove to her tired old stalwart of good cheer, Mr. Claus, that Christmas still matters; bitter singletons hoping for a little Hanukkah lantern magic on the night bus. Over and over, themes of urban loneliness and relationship estrangement. Families are not families anymore, they are battlegrounds for attention deficit.

Not to go overly sentimental here, but has the world really changed this much? Are cable television "holiday specials" a true mirror of today and the chaotic desperation of modern family life? The classic "It's a Wonderful Life," for all its small town smaltz, nonetheless was a reflection of its times: George Bailey dealt with real world problems and people with humble expectations. But there was an inherent (and perceived) dignity to life. In contrast, the film dramas of today seem to have a kind of self-mockery and toss-off ennui. The jokes are on us, and they're not kind. The old twentieth century animated specials made us laugh, merry stories familiar to the season. They were sweet, and entertaining. It wasn't all so depressing.

At the risk of sounding much like John Marshall assessing the headless mannequins on his search for a sweater, feeling like life has become a kind of "decapitation party," I'll go out on a limb here and say - "So What?" So we are that broken, occasionally skirt-less and shallow, on sale, overpriced and miraculous. We sit with our cell phones at the table and our kids can't hear their teachers over their earbuds. All generations look on the problems of today and think of the simpler answers that seemed to work yesterday. Wisdom, like politics and history, is mostly rearview mirror revelation. I agree with the poet. I am getting old. Old enough to miss the days when the enemy was not us but practical misfortune...the broken axle on a road trip. If television is any judge, our kids are going to have trouble simply remembering what holidays are for.

Curmudgeon signing off. (Have to meet the headless mannequin.)
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World of Another

The scientific study of animals was changed by a German biologist of the early twentieth century named Jakob von Uxekull. What he proposed was revolutionary: anyone who wants to understand the life of an animal must begin by considering what he called their umwelt: their subjective or "self-world." Umwelt captures what life is like as the animal. Thus two components - perception and action - largely define and circumscribe the world for every living thing. All animals have their own umwelten - their own subjective realities, what Uxekull thought of as "soap bubbles" with them forever caught in the middle. We humans are enclosed in our own soap bubbles, too. In each of our self-worlds, for instance, we are very attentive to where other people are and what they are doing or saying. On top of that each individual creates his own personal umwelt. full of objects with special meaning to him... We are bombarded by stimuli, but only a very few are meaningful to us.
- excerpted from "Inside of a Dog," Alexandra Horowitz

My dog is dying. He is under attack by an aggressive and relentless mouth cancer that each day steals a little more well-being and life from him. It's been a balance the last few weeks to provide pain relief and nutrition - and in the process, joy in the form of his favorite home-cooked meals. He comes to the bowl and waits, disoriented on medications to the degree he often forgets he has just eaten. There he stands, large chocolate eyes luminous in his dignified Scottie head, the bones of his skull prominent now, framed by white whiskers and silky brows. His expectation of food is his whole world just now, the instinctive fight to life, a break in the numb ache. And so, too, are our long rambles through the last warm November sun rays that slant against the wild bluff. These are the trails he loves to explore, nose deep in the grasses, the flag of his tail high as he trots ahead of me. It astonishes me how on these paths today, his body a war zone of illness and medication, he forgets his limitations and opens fully to the umwelt of a dog - the fresh scents, the freedom to run, explorations that expand each moment and carry the day into true happiness.

Late last night McDuff had another of the seizures that have wracked him more increasingly as the cancer deepens into his brain. And as I held him and comforted him and wept, soothing the trembles and the fear of his pure and dependent confusion, I became aware of the naked power of touch. The comfort of a known voice, the gentle support in a loving stroke, the truth of what a friend of mine had just said to me, regarding the often crushing challenges faced by our children as they move out into the world alone - "We want to protect them, but all we can do is walk beside them through their difficulties." All I could do was hold my dog as he fought for consciousness, orientation; breathing along beside his own unsteady heart. All I could do was be there.

Being there. This is something I understand; taught by love how to tend the suffering of others, to deepen my own reserves, how to become the sustaining energy in a crisis. Pumping all that you have into the moment to glue life together from one moment to the next. My dog is important to me, he is part of my umwelt. My circle of life. And somewhere deep in his own sense of the world, I am part of his. For now, as long as joy illuminates the suffering more than suffering takes away, McDuff and I will walk beside each other. At some point, we surrender to the losses and let go. But that should be on the last beautiful note of the symphony, don't you think?
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Duality

The beauty of the world has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.
- Virginia Woolf, "A Room of One's Own"

At a recent workshop on writing, a young woman asked me how I came to write my memoir, in fact how I came to write at all. I was surprised by the question, as writing as been a part of my life since I realized the penmanship lessons in grade school were in fact, keys to a cipher, the code to a secret, world-shaping power. And more than that, a code to Me: what I thought, how I thought, what sense I made of the world. A way to make a friend of the never-silent voice within my head. As we talked, the young student confessed she'd been a journal keeper since middle school, but then the advent of social media - texting and My Space, Facebook and Twitter - somehow meant less time for actual writing. I thought she meant she was now admitting to becoming a citizen of the "text bite" world, life experience condensed to smile icons and a bland, perhaps cryptic one-liner. But no, she meant actually writing. The art of putting a pen to paper. Of somehow channeling her thoughts through the tip of her pencil, finding herself in her own unexpected words on the page.

The connection between the movement of the hand and the mind has long been well established: we learn by movement. Writing things out by hand can be the best way to lay down learning in long-term memory; and later, to recall rote responses in emergencies, or crack open the brain to creative cross-overs when pondering problems or navigating the groundwork of creativity. But I never thought of the act of writing as the synthesis of the duality between the inner and outer self. The voice within connected to the life lived. Our words are modern pictographs written large on the world. My soul was here, our words say.

So what lies ahead for this generation that lives in instantaneous exclamation points? In a world of chatty interjections and quickly forgotten interactions? Where will reflection find its shadow in this evolving environment of 140 character expressions of human content? Everything about us has become instant and disposable and yet, this meaninglessness is accompanied by a cutting edge: our jibbering toss-offs are cataloged forever in web space. That game of beer pong in college will live on until even your grandchildren get tired of laughing at you; the love affair once so important it changed your life disappears, lost in a stream of text messages erased from one day to the next. I feel we must reclaim our right to make something more meaningful than a "tweet" of our everyday moments. To use language to draw bigger, more vivid pictures of our lives. A Facebook scrawl might be personal graffiti. But the letter written to a daughter on the day she is born will travel with her through time.

I handed the young woman at the workshop my favorite red pencil, a token received speaking at the Wordstock Book Festival in Portland, Oregon. The pencil sports the slogan, "Let's make slang." I smiled at the young writer. "So who are you? "

It's all in the pencil.
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The Honesty of Space


now air is air and thing is thing: no bliss

of heavenly earth beguiles our spirits, whose
miraculously disenchanted eyes

live the magnificent honesty of space.

Mountains are mountains now; skies now are skies-
and such a sharpening freedom lifts our blood
as if whole supreme this complete doubtless

universe we'd (and we alone had) made

-yes; or as if our souls, awakened from
summer's green trance, would not adventure soon
a deeper magic: that white sleep wherein
all human curiosity we'll spend
(gladly, as lovers must) immortal and

the courage to receive time's mightiest dream

- e.e. cummings

I was pondering the meaning of meaning (yes I know, yawn) and came across this poem by e.e. cummings exploring the spiritual honesty of space. That the reality of what is supercedes the imagined larger meaning or rationale with which we may adorn our earthly lives. Cummings suggests "time's mightiest dream" is nested in our own mortal existence, and yet... is that an existence in which "mountains are mountains," or sourced within some immortal "deeper magic"? It seems possible to argue for the harmonious and mysterious coexistence of both. We are the air, the mountain, the honesty of space; and, we dwell within the immortal stuff of time.

The relevance of this idea of the coexistence of life's elemental simplicity and the immortality of time pivots around a philosophy I shared in my last essay - that yielding, "I don't understand, but I accept," is one way of acknowledging the concrete truth of real challenge while opening the self to an underlying direction. Stand in the honesty of space, open to the conundrum of the meaning within. Sometimes a challenge is just that - a rock-hard challenge. Real, practical, problematic. Often it becomes more, a kind of inner shift expressed by a broken life path that alters our compass direction and redefines purpose. Do challenges cause us to lose cherished goals or set new ones? Undoubtedly both. Somewhere in the "complete doubtless universe" is the adventure of living. The personal discovery of meaning.
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