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QUINTESSENCE

Settling Into One's Life


I don't think I am old yet, or done with growing. But my perspective has altered - I am less hungry for the busyness of the body, more interested in the tricks of the mind. I am gaining, also, a new affection for wood that is useless, that has been tossed out, that merely exists, quietly, wherever it has ended up. Planks on the beach rippled and salt-soaked. Pieces of piling, full of the tunnels of shipworm. In the woods, fallen branches of oak, of maple, of the dear, wind-worn pines. They lie on the ground and do nothing. They are travelers on the way to oblivion... Call it Rest. I sit on one of the branches. My idleness suits me. I am content. I have built my house. The blue butterflies, called azures, twinkle up from the secret place where they have been waiting. In their small blue dresses they float among the branches, they come close to me, one rests for a moment on my wrist. They do not recognize me as anything very different from this enfoldment of leaves, this wind-roarer, this wooden palace lying down, now, upon the earth, like anything heavy, and happy, and full of sunlight, and half-asleep.
- from "Winter Hours," Mary Oliver

I assure you my theme as the year ends is not old age and oblivion, but this idea of settling into one's life - having built the house to build it, and having done so, resting in its shadow a part of all that lives and occupies the geography of personal space and time. Mary Oliver's essays in "Winter Hours" are thoughtful: observations both detached and intimate, crisp exploratory writings about what it means to at last see one's life whole, an organic, evolving, theme of the self. One of the important passages of the New Year for me is checking in with my own evolving self. How have I fared in pursuit of my goals? How have I absorbed the unpredictable, the shift of borders, edged a toe through limitations? Have I learned anything?

Oliver writes perceptively of human endeavor as a construct, a shelter for creative thought. She stands before a cabin in the woods she hand-built, a private room for writing which in time became a little-used potting shed. She realizes she built the cabin not for writing, not for thought, but for the sake of building. The work done, she can lie in its humble shade among the blue butterflies. She becomes aware her presence lies in nature, not in her construct. Oliver points out that it is instinctive to examine life, ponder what makes things work, what causes one thing to nurture another, that creates the future out of the past. We view ourselves as part of the vast natural interchange of what lives and dies, but also are stricken by the secret wish to be beyond all that. Oliver concludes wryly, You can fool a lot of yourself but you can't fool the soul. That worrier.

As this year comes to its rapid close, I find myself taking stock of my "constructs." Family, work, home, friendships. All these organic symbols of my life, of the living I have done. Are they worthy of the sacredness of life, have I lived up to my own soul's expectations? More importantly, have I lived strong and true within the essential principles as nature would have them? My determination for this year end is simple - examine that which is foolish. Where am I following the blueprint of a construct, not a life? Where lies the potting-shed within the palace, the truth of lying down, now, upon the earth, like anything heavy, and happy, and full of sunlight, and half asleep. To find the sunspot of life, not travel lost in the work of working at it.
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The Art of Memory

THIS ROOM AND EVERYTHING IN IT
Lie still now
while I prepare for my future,
certain hard days ahead,
when I'll need what I know so clearly this moment.

I am making use
of the one thing I learned
of all the things my father tried to teach me:
the art of memory.

I am letting this room
and everything in it
stand for my ideas about love
and its difficulties.

I'll let your love cries,
those spacious notes
of a moment ago,
stand for distance.

Your scent,
that scent
of spice and a wound,
I'll let stand for mystery.

Your sunken belly
is the daily cup
of milk I drank
as a boy before the morning prayer.

The sun on the face
of the wall
is God, the face
I can't see, my soul,

and so on, each thing
standing for a separate idea,
and those ideas forming the constellation
of my greater idea.
And oen day, when I need
to tell myself something intelligent
about love,

I'll close my eyes
and recall this room and everything in it:
My body is estrangement.
This desire, perfection.
Your closed eyes my extinction.
Now I've forgotten my
idea. The book
on the windowsill, riffled by wind...
the even-numbered pages are
the past, the odd-
numbered pages, the future.
The sun is
God, your body is milk...

useless, useless...
your cries are song, my body's not me...
no good... my idea
has evaporated...your hair is time, your thighs are song...
it had something to do
with death...it had something
to do with love.

- Li-Young Lee

The beauty in the lines of Young's poem, in particular the opening stanzas, remind me today of memory and the purpose our reflections serve in constructing, as Jean Paul opined, a refuge where "Memory is the only Paradise from which we cannot be driven." I find myself touching on this thought as I reflect on the year passing and those decades before that. The New Year brings a certain personal melancholy now, a telltale sign I am sure. Too old to believe in absolute fresh starts, too aware of the ebb and flow of fortune to forget a good year may be backed by one less so and a bad year never necessarily grants a change in luck ahead. I find myself, like the shipwrecked tourist clinging to shards of golden days that bob away toward the horizon, possessed of a rather existential anxiety - irrationally sorry to see even hard days depart because they may be kinder than any ahead.

Is this wisdom? Or the wear and tear of survival? This sense that a happy life is a parenthesis of joyful pauses in a long run of accidental flats and sharps that not only leave us breathless but disoriented and dismayed the song remains, still, so unfamiliar? Perhaps the longer we live the clearer we comprehend unexpected joy greases the skids, so to speak; gives life the glide and momentum we need to enthusiastically ride the wave back to the crest. I find, as 2011 winds down, that I am grateful to the unencumbered, lighthearted moments within the march of days; that I will remember the tough as nails transitions and sorrows, but what lingers in my heart is joy. That all we experience, love, and regret, is"of spice and a wound/I'll let stand for mystery."

Young writes of love and his lover and a road ahead both long and hard and I envision embracing the new year with hope. That like the poet, I am "letting this room/and everything in it" speak my ideas about life. That presence, awareness, even the imprint of detail, forms the continuum that is the "art of memory."
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Bye My Friend

McDuff 11/17/2001 to 12/17/2011

McDuff was our "wheaten" Scottish Terrier, born eleven years ago on Canfield Mountain. A beautiful cream-color dog with a bearded mailbox head, perky ears, and expressive chocolate eyes - two splashes of cappuccino cream over both shoulders. McDuff lost his battle with cancer Saturday. He leaves behind his adoring family as well as the backyard squirrels, who have for generations taught their young to run fast and jump far over the head of the barking "white terror." He is missed by the quail families he protected from the marauding cats of the "dark side" of the fence and missed by his beloved pet sitter Suzanne, with the home baked treats. Duff leaves behind the dusty winding bluff trails he knew and loved to ramble, his snooze spot by the back door, and nose prints on the car window. We will forever look for his face at the kitchen table window, waiting for us to come home.

Goodbye, my friend. You were there for me after Ken died and the whole world lay on my shoulders. Beside the kids as they clung to you through uncertain nights. At my side as first Kate, and then David, headed out across the continent to school. (You were certain I was losing the herd!) There in the nights, and for shoveling snowy mornings, sunny backyard days lazing by the barbecue, our long daily hikes wherever the whim took us. You were our scout with your amazing nose for hunting huckleberries at the lake, underfoot at Thanksgiving waiting and hoping for a tasty morsel to drop from the carving platter. Just a pup, you decided to "eat" new dental molding into the baseboards around the dining room...bored and awake on your own at night, you raked your teeth down David's bedroom wall like a kid with crayons. How patiently you wore the pumpkin costume at Halloween as the little kids loved on you, and listened to the "little white dog" ditty as you boys shared "last call" in the backyard. You had a tail wag for all the souls that crossed our front door. Duffy, Duffers, Mackleduff, Doofers, Duff. We will miss your snores at the foot of David's bed, from behind the couch and under the coffee table, from wherever you caught a nap. Your presence anchored this house with love and devotion. Your absence has dimmed the light of our every day.

I hope you're romping the fields with crazy Scooter now. Your collar hangs on the hook with his. Best dog, ever.
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Beginnings

COFFEE & KEYS
First light
to last star at night
place me in your pocket
toss me with your keys beside
your coffee
drop me on the papers
under crooked glasses.
Use me find me lose me use me again
in the spaces of the days
you live in.
What continents of meaning
sleeps in the naked word
in the crook of your arm
knotted
in the tangle of hair and feet
the heart roots
breathes in and out
of this room
we lie in.

- Glenda Burgess

This entry today might as well be titled "Courage," or perhaps "Second Chances." I settled on "Beginnings" to express the sense that who I am at this moment in time is not just a retread of who I used to be, doing old things in a new way, but someone refreshed from within, rebuilt in cellular layers by life and erosion, growth and design. To tell you I am me, but I am also a me I have not been before, about to embark on a new adventure.

Love in Middle Age! Friends, I am happy to share with you that I am engaged to be married. In love. And that is no small feat given the life journey that has been mine, my love's, or for that matter any old soul among us that has made it thus far by luck or determination. Magic and bravery, kindness and fortune, destiny perhaps, and a dash of boldness... All the spices of life were required for one blind date arranged by mutual friends to become an affair of the heart. Limning the new green, a mid-story beginning for both. My sweetheart's name? Gregory. He is a physician with three grown boys. Added to my grown son and daughter, that gives us five between us. All are in the sciences (medicine or engineering) with the exception of me, lone Defender of Humanities in dinner debates. Vino Scrabble, playing words (real or convincing) fueled by imagination and wine, is hilarious and challenging with this crew.

Gregory and I stir up pretty spicy blends! Our votes cancel. Vegetarian meets carnivore. Twenty year old blood donor t-shirts versus the silk scarf. The pacifist and the hunter. The two of us are Greenacres to the max - cityscape versus country quiet. Chance and destiny. The Discovery Channel flips to Turner Classics. Hockey or MythBusters? Old wine dates the single malt. And it is so fun.

The nearly year and three-quarters it has taken to this moment, formalizing a growing relationship, is in itself an epic story. I promise you tales of the journey as we talk of adventure, reinvention, commitment, fear of loss, courage, independence, blending, solitary work, life lived loving. But for today, the word is beginnings: The instinct to move forward that dwells at the core of us all.
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Poem of the Air

SNOW FLAKES (Birds Of Passage. Flight The Second)

Out of the bosom of the Air
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent, and soft, and slow
Descends the snow.

Even as our cloudy fancies take
Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled heart doth make
In the white countenance confession
The troubled sky reveals
The grief it feels.

This is the poem of the air,
Slowly in silent syllables recorded;
This is the secret of despair,
Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
Now whispered and revealed
To wood and field.

- by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

There is something about Christmastime, and winter's long blue nights, that sing the lament of the year's end. Especially here in the north and in the mountains, where seasons are as distinct as spices. Nature is now absent in her abundance: what remains is the skeletal architecture of what has been, and what might be, once the seasons turn. The landscape stands in the hollow grief of what is not. The benevolence of life has fled with the geese on wing, and we feel the hard and frozen earth turn within and away from us. The melancholy note in so many Christmas melodies, the lone light that shines in a pool of yellow from a dark house, the snow quiet and undisturbed in the fields...these are the bookends of our rush through the year. The frenzy of growing, constructing, creating and promoting the things we do in the cities we live in comes to a kind of stand-still. We tally the year, reflect on the days past, plan those to come. Outside the winds blow, the snow falls. We build a fire, our instincts guiding us to stay in, to stay together and warm, to wait out the inhospitable winter for the warming sun rays of spring.

I am drawn to the powerful wisdom in winter's instinct to draw within. To accept and embrace the quiet solitude of winter's dove gray skies, the pink brush of sunset that has walked the horizon without warmth or luminescence. In the quiet are thoughts we are otherwise too full of noise to hear. In the darkness we rest. With one another we realize the joy and warmth of family. In winter we release what has been, release and grieve our misfortunes and losses, we burnish and repair the good for the work to come. In winter, as the poet pens, "the troubled heart doth make in the white countenance confession." Absolution. Comfort.

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Deep Writing

All the deep writer can do is honestly chew on something. All she can ask of herself is honest effort and right intention. Deep writing arises from this effort to really wrestle with something, to honorably and truthfully make sense of something, making use of the known and acknowledging, as best as one's defenses permit, all that is not known. If a writer does that, sometimes miracles will happen.
- excerpt from "Deep Writing," Eric Maisel

Occasionally sprinkled in this blog, like cranberries in a salad a bit of tart and unexpected flavor, will be the occasional essay on writing. Many writers have a "writing tips" page on their web sites, but in my experience the material sits, grows stale. But if it lands in the blog from time to time, it may interest both writers and readers in matters of the literary craft.

Eric Maisel's comments on deep writing pivot on the idea that some writing is intended to mean something, not just to entertain. He speaks of Hiroshima, 1964, On the Beach, Crime and Punishment, The Death of the Heart, The Stranger, Giovanni's Room - all books he read in his youth that he felt were written to convey a dream, solve a problem, had a truth to tell, a moral imperative, a holy quest, all mixed up together. Maisel prompted me to think about the books of my life that speak to me: how, as he quotes Freud speaking of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, such writers may achieve a "perfectly motivated" novel, or a brilliant, beautiful, truthful book of nonfiction.

I think much of what is missing in modern literature, and no doubt what has prompted critics to "hang the crepe" on the future of the literary novel, is precisely a lack of genuine meaning and depth of thinking, truthfully, on the part of the writer. One can not easily shoehorn a life's work of art into the flash commercial model of something written for inexpensive entertainment, adaptation to a film, or a book du jour on a topic soon to fade from interest. In a sound bite culture, the book that delves deeply into a topic, that requires the reader follow a complex story, think through meaning, and spend more than a train ride or two reading, well, publishers are convinced that is the book that gets dropped. If publishers can't make money in quantity, the quality is of little value, and we are left with books that evaporate from our minds and hearts like powdered sugar on the tongue.

I've spent time recently thinking about books that have meant something to me in my reading life, and why. I'm sure we would all have differing lists; books we deem important, that speak to our innermost thoughts. Such a list reveals much about our own intellectual and emotional history. So let me say that the most recent good book that I've read (in my humble opinion), was the nonfiction study by Jane Horowitz, Inside of A Dog. Horowitz's research revealed to me why my dog seems to live in a different world than mine, and why the bond I share with my dog means so much to me. Good stuff. It doesn't have to be Shakespeare to be meaningful.
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Working Hands

IN PRAISE OF IRONING
Poetry is pure white.
It emerges from water covered with drops,
is wrinkled, all in a heap.
It has to be spread out, the skin of this planet,
has to be ironed out, the sea's whiteness;
and the hands keep moving, moving,
the holy surfaces are smoothed out,
and that is how things are accomplished.
Every day, hands are creating the world,
fire is married to steel,
and canvas, linen, and cotton come back
from the skirmishings of the laundries,
and out of light a dove is born -
pure innocence returns out of the swirl.
- Pablo Neruda

In praise of simple work. Intention and creation. These are the elements that human nature brings to bear on the living world, and they are not to be underestimated. In the ability we have to help and heal, to create from imagination, to form from clay, to fail and begin again, we are stewards of the living planet. We are learning as we nurture the living biosphere, even as we are learning as we see ourselves evolve in this work, deepening our understanding of the importance of what we do as people going about our daily lives. We can be a contributor toward the betterment of all, or part of the senseless erosion of finite resources.

Neruda's poem is both about the caldron of work and its power to transform things, the nature around us, and about poetry and its ability to transform our thinking. I'd like to throw this idea out today - think about the work you do. What your hands do in a given day as you shape the hours and bring personal intention into the world. Is work simple? Or is it much more, part of a complex kinetic fire that strikes the elements of the physical world into the forms of imagination. I am honestly in awe as I type these words on a laptop someone has invented, at our human ability to shape existence. I feel as Neruda that honest work releases light back into the world. That creation furthers creation, and primal innocence is continuously reborn in the value of what is good.

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