instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

QUINTESSENCE

Water-logged

Annapolis Harbor at calm
1
Low tide -
The sea's slow motion,
The surge and slur
Over rocky shingle.

A few gulls ride
Rocking-horse waves.

Under blurred gray sky
The field shines white.

2
I am not available
At the moment
Except to myself.

Downstairs the plumber
Is emptying the big tank,
Water-logged.
The pump pumped on and on
And might have worn out.

So many lives pour into this house,
Sometimes I get too full;
The pump wears out.

So now I am emptying the tank.
It is not an illness
That keeps me from writing.
I am simply staying alive
As one does
At times taking in,
At times shutting out.

- from "A Winter Notebook," May Sarton

The stanzas above come from a long work in May Sarton's final book of poetry, Halfway to Silence - a period of rich imagery and lyrical poetry, prompted, she felt, by a keen awareness of the starkness of her own old age and the often violent passage of earthly seasons. During the onslaught of Superstorm Sandy on the mid-Atlantic coast, I worried for friends and family, and the fate of Americans, again, battered by nature's unpredictable chaos. There was a lesson in progress for me - that for all our vaunted technology and urban constructions, we are vulnerable to turns of nature we only superficially understand and not at all control. We are guests on this Earth, and among its most fragile. We learn this every generation.

Sarton's poem settled in my thoughts this morning as I sat at my writing desk. I found myself too full of yesterday's stress and anxiety to attend to the demands of the morning, too restless: The night before held hostage to worry, unable to believe the storm would pass, and then when it did, deeply aware of the calm underside of nature's violence - the grace and continuity. Sarton writes, "I lift my eyes/ To the blue/ Open-ended ocean./ Why worry?/ Some things are always there."

Sarton observes that as natures takes, she gives, and all things find equilibrium. "Sometimes I get too full.../At times taking in,/At times shutting out." It is our human ability to lift our eyes over mayhem and suffering to the poet's ocean, to trust in the serenity that is there just beneath that will empty overflowing sorrow and offer the hope and constancy needed to build again. I hope that today wherever you are in the stormy aftermath of Sandy, there comes a moment to love the world.
 Read More 
Be the first to comment

Reflection on Breath


THE LIFE OF RILEY: A DEFINITIVE BIOGRAPHY
He was born one sunny Florida morning
and napped through most of his childhood.
He spent his adult life relaxing in beach chairs,
always a tropical drink in his hand.

He never had a job, a family or a sore throat.
He never mowed a lawn.
Passersby would always stop to remind him
whose life it was he was living.
He died in a hammock weighing a cloud.

- Billy Collins

I laugh at this poem by Billy Collins. It is both tongue-in-cheek and deeply serious. Whose life is it anyway? The right question, it seems to me. And how do we choose to spend it? In some mixture of obligation, expectation, survival and dream. Upon reflection, it would appear the balance of that mix could be critical to a life well lived, to a meaningful life.

A woman I have known for years through many ups and downs in both our lives, sent me a text this morning in response to my question, "How are you doing?" Her answer - "Honestly? Tired." She manages a demanding career, is a wonderful single mom to her busy middle school-aged daughter, a good daughter to her mom, good friend to her friends...and well, she's tired. On some days, it's all too much. We've been there. On our knees exhausted when the key hits the latch at the end of the work day, yet with so much ahead before we can lay our heads down on our pillows. It's not that we resent the chores and obligations of our lives, we just can't stretch as far as we need to to feel present enough, accomplish enough, feel we've done anything but spin through another 24 hr revolving door.

Breathe. This is where I come to. Slow it waaaay down. Take a long breath. And then, hold that breath. When you begin to breathe once more, in that instant you will feel tingly, awake and deeply aware. Hold that. Breath is the metronome of life. Breathing reminds us that life is now, and now, and now, and now. And that even when we are utterly exhausted or crushed, that sorry moment is also life. On some level we owe ourselves the effort to shape the moments of no-joy into meaningful, positive passages to better next moments. Life is truly one long rope of unpredictable events strung together as beads; and even the ones we suffer through are part of us, have a worthy luster, tell us who we are.

Your day is, well, your day. The agenda is one to navigate as best you can. But remember to breathe, to let life swing gracefully between beats. Yes, allow the to-dos to be a little less perfect at the edges and more joyful in the middle. And live.

I think I'll swing by my friend's office and drop a chai latte on her desk. She loves that 16 ounces of spice in a cup.
 Read More 
Be the first to comment

Before Dark

Flower box by river at dusk, Strasbourg, France

FLOWERS BEFORE DARK
Stillness of flowers. Colors
a slow intense fire, faces
cool to the touch, burning.
Massed flowers in dusk, crimson,
magenta, orange,
unflickering furnace, gaze
unswerving, innocent scarlet,
ardent white, afloat
on late light, serene passion
stiller than silence.

- Denise Levertov

Levertov's inexplicable phrase, "serene passion/ stiller than silence," holds my attention. What would that feel like, exactly? And how do we reach this point of perfect disequilibrium, tipped between motion and emotion, tranquility and fierceness?

I don't know. But I believe I've felt something that speaks of it. You may have too. A glancing tingling rooted awareness. That says This. Here now.

Invisible ribbons, slips of sensed awareness of The Real twist about us continuously. Stumbling upon a spectacular vista. Mist grazing skin on a lonely run. Wind across black rock. Dozing deep in the crook of an arm. Blinding splintered sunlight across snow. I admire Levertov's work for many reasons, but particularly for her balletic wordplay; these powerful verbal arabesques, both light and free, that pour through poems like "Flowers Before Dark." An exaltation of light. The unfettered sensuality of color. The exuberance of nature, unnamed.

 Read More 
Be the first to comment

Forms and Boundaries


Art doesn't transform. It just plain forms.
- Roy Lichtenstein




I found myself in Washington DC recently, at the opening of the Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective at the National Gallery of Art. A retrospective is a reflection of a range of works by a particular artist or artists. A comprehensive statement. Lichtenstein (b. October 27, 1923 – d. September 29, 1997) showed work predominantly through the 1960s in the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York alongside Andy Warhol - self-proclaimed painters of Pop Art. Lichtenstein felt Pop Art was elemental truthful representation, as the object forms the subject looking back at the world. The National Gallery's retrospective is an important, significant undertaking, occupying nearly two full floors of the East Wing. The exhibit takes the viewer through Lichtenstein's beginnings in comic book technique (romantic or combat themes), to experimentations with shading and contour dot matrixes, explorations of the boundaries of paintings themselves, stylized cartoon nudes, graphic and textural landscapes, and Picasso-esque experimental distortions in subject.

What does this have to do with reflection? The answer lies in my favorite part of the retrospective - Lichtenstein's period of what he called "perfect and imperfect" paintings - canvases in which the paintings either confined themselves to the limitations of the canvas edge, or in the case of "imperfect paintings" extended exuberantly beyond the framing, leaving an angle or line jutting outward in space. Why the idea of perfect and imperfect? To remind us, I suppose, that paintings are themselves arbitrary arrangements, and that the imperfect exists even in the arbitrary subject.

And that is worth reflecting on.

Our lives conform to arbitrary boundaries set by family, culture, even language. Yet how much of genuine, joyful, creative living splashes outside the black lines! Consider the influence of Picasso. As an homage to the artist, Lichtenstein re-interpreted several famous paintings, demonstrating the way painting and object are redefined by reflection, might still surprise, and even release new creative energy without devolving into caricature. Let's take a page from Picasso and Lichtenstein and open ourselves to the unusual and unexpected, welcome the dissonance between conformity and "imperfect" expression. We used to call that "play," back in the days before we lived and connected within the universal rules of information technology. I think we can learn spontaneity amongst other freedoms from the Pop Art generation: discover a fresh side to life we might otherwise miss in our earnest conformity.
 Read More 
Be the first to comment

The Gift of One Run

Before There Was a Reflecting Pool, There Was Me

On Satuday morning, my first morning in Washington DC on this short visit, I awoke early and headed out in the dark for an early morning run. I know this city well, spent my youth and early career years here - and returning from the distant West Coast felt like cracking open the attic and lifting the lid of a cedar chest. The bite of sudden and sensate body memories hits hard. Feeling an ache in my solar plexis of missing even what is not yet past, I took to the pavement in Georgetown in the predawn dark. Maybe not wise to run alone at the hour, but familiarity makes you fearless.

As I followed the path along the Potomac, dipping by the Thompson Boat House and moving briskly along under the terrazzo of the Kennedy Center torward the Lincoln Memorial, stars fade into a soft inky gray. October and chill - shorts and light long sleeve - and body heat does not compensate. Puffs of warm breath make me very aware of my animal physicality as I pound along in the dark. One runner passes in the dark headed the other direction; we exchange a silent recognition of something shared in darkness and the very run itself.

As I looped up a slight climb and passed the impressive gold-tipped pillars marking the bridge to Virginia, a blush color began to rise from the smooth surface of the Potomac River, and rising on warming mists, touched the still night-dark autumn tree leaves a startled pink and glinting yellow. I rounded the Lincoln Memorial and taking a deep breath, jogged the steep flight of white marble steps upwards to the pillared chamber, said my hellos to that great and abiding American, and then turned, facing the Reflecting Pool and the wreath monument to the terrible war in the Pacific and Atlantic. An expanse of vast beauty lay before me, full of silence and portent that at this hour stretched in my imagination across all of American history. The People's Place. Below, dawn flooded in ripples over aprons of white stone, tinged to blue-rose the water of the granite reflecting pool, and gilded the distant dome of the Capitol. I was aware of only a handful of others - professional photographers mostly, waiting for just this moment in the early morning when the monuments catch fire at the same moment, golden pearls in a lovely line from Lincoln to Capitol Hill.

I ran down the steps, looped the Reflecting Pool and headed back as I came - the image of a cloudless Washington dawn in my heart even as beside me on the river two 8-man boats from the Georgetown University crew beat their oars thru the water in time with my breath. They slipped by in the mists, disappearing around the bend toward the famous distant Georgetown spires. This, this whatever it is - is Why I Run.
 Read More 
2 Comments
Post a comment

Reflection: Light

Photograph by Michael Yamashita

Today is a day filled with the yellow gold halo of autumn. Sunlight filters through every tree of crimson and yellow, even gilding the deep greens fading to bronzed brown. The light of this season is one of the reasons I detour to run under the mile long canopy of grand old maples that line both sides of Manito Boulevard; why, like the old dog used to, I take a pause at the glass doors, soaking in the warm brightness of the morning sun, coffee cup in hand. Not thinking, particularly. Content to soak up the light without thought or agenda, just being. Autumn is to me the great Season of Contentment. To be, to appreciate, to dwell in these moments of living that are resplendent with the plentitude of all that grows and ripens and gives.

One of the most beloved poems, ever, is Mary Oliver's The Ponds. I'd like to share with you the last three stanzas to bless this day ~

Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled -
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing -
that the light is everything - that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

 Read More 
2 Comments
Post a comment

Tell Me A Story

Raven and the First Men, sculptor Bill Reid. Photo credit: Meredith Arnold

"Tell me a story" still comprise four of the most powerful words in English, words that are intimately related to the complexity of history, the origins of language, the continuity of the species, the taproot of our humanity, our singularity, and art itself.

Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear. If the writing is good, then the result seems effortless and inevitable. But when you want to say something life-changing or ineffable in a single sentence, you face both the limitations of the sentence itself and the extent of your own talent. When you come close to succeeding, when the words pour out of you just right, you understnad that these sentences are all part of a river flowing out of your own distant, hidden ranges, and all words become the dissolving snow that feeds your bright mountain streams forever. The language locks itself in the icy slopes of our own high passes, and it is up to us, the writers, to melt the glaciers within us. When these glaciers calve and break off, we get to call them novels, the changelings of our burning spirits, our lifework.

- Pat Conroy, "Stories," from the anthology Why I Write, edited by Will Blythe

Reflections. Why I write. Why sometimes I wish I did not. Why it inevitably feels inevitable that I do. I've thought a good long time about this artistic precipice that is " raw talent." Why would anyone choose to work at something which they may ultimately not be good at? I absolutely understand the attraction at the heart of professions in academia and highly-specialized skill: They comprise undertakings that are a) challenging but learnable, and b) honed better by practice. One is ultimately only as good or bad as some degree of smarts and disciplined learning married to rigorous ethical practice. But the professions of art? They are by their very nature blunted by an unknowable absolute: The limits of talent.

I think it is brave, honestly, to embark upon any life's work that treads at the edge of personal futility or inefficacy. If the artist does the work with a whole being, he or she is relentless pushing the boundaries of better. And then, as the saying goes - You're good until you're not. Gaining momentum until effort hits the wall, that peak of diminishing return. The artist's most secret fear is that the end point of one's authentic creative talent lies but a few steps out the door. A journey of not a thousand steps, but nay, two. That dreams of creativity will die in immutable impoverishment, sown in a soil of insufficient talent.

Pat Conroy's description of writing, his celebration of the yeoman's labors that are the craft of writing, and his inner joy in "the painterly loveliness of the English language," capture the plainsong of what Conroy calls the "hunt for fabulous books that will change me utterly and for all time." Just that word - fabulous - says enough for me. Yes, Mr. Conroy, Great writing sticks to the soul.
 Read More 
Post a comment

Reflection: The Doing of Words


I like the feeling of words doing as they want to do and as they have to do.
- Gertrude Stein

Words bounce. Words, if you let them, will do what they want to do and what they have to do... What is an adjective? Nouns name the world. Verbs activate the names. Adjectives come from somewhere else. The word adjective (epitheton in Greek) is itself an adjective meaning "Place on top," "added," "appended," "imported," "foreign." Adjectives seem fairly innocent additions but look again. These small imported mechanisms are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being."
- Anne Carson, "Autobiography of Red"

The power of words. You've just read an excerpt from Anne Carson's introduction to her prose poem "Autobiography of Red." Sourced from the lyric poem "Geryonesis" by the 650 B.C. poet Stesichoros, born on the north coast of Sicily and famously struck blind during his early life by Helen of Troy (for reasons unknown), Anne Carson's "Autobiography of Red" is an invention of art in its own right, bringing to life the mysterious red-winged monster and his little dog living in solitude on the island of Erytheia (a simple adjective meaning "the Red Place") who quietly guards a herd of magical red cattle until the day the hero Herakles crosses the sea and kills him and his little dog for the cattle. Carson's 1998 work, constructed on pillars of scholarship and fragmented manuscripts and translations of Stesichoros' lyric poem, re-imagines the unknown mystery of the monster Geryon.

While part of Carson's scholarship and fascination surrounds unearthing the thread and veracity of the mythic story itself through its many edited and lost translation fragments, she pays homage to the fluidity and chameleon quality of the language of Stesichhoros' "Geryonesis." Stesichoros, Carson tells us, developed a "passion for substances": searching beneath the surface of accepted identities, the easy label of familiar words, he began "to undo the latches." In her words, Stesichoros "released being. All the substances in the world went floating up. Suddenly there was nothing to interfere with horses being hollow-hooved. Or a river being root silver." What makes story compelling is the way language both glistens and resonates: We are allowed, indeed required to imagine many meanings "unlatched" in the myth of Geryon. Interpretations of text become reductive, wildly fluid translator to translator, of fractured meaning. As Gertrude Stein is quoted at the beginning of this essay, the words will do as they want to do.

How do myth and poetry tap into the theme this month of reflection? Our words. The adjectives we assign our lives reflect an essential "us," language that is personal and powerful. How we describe ourselves, our loves, life and work, are descriptive tools of autobiography. We are continually telling details of the tale of the self. What we notice, speak about, embrace or reject is both concrete and limiting. Words that "bears arms" so to speak, that distinguish the particular from the vast mash of things, that separate the singular by subtlety, are as powerful as the nouns and verbs with which we name thing and action. Listen to what you say about your world. You are constant in your definition of who you are.

When I hit a bump of dissatisfaction with myself or my life, I first pay attention to how I express my frustration. Is something mind-blowing dull or crushing insane, a rat maze, cushy-hollow, sweet like a toothache? Words are telling. Reflection begins with attention to imagery. Writing recently about simplifying routines to find more personal time for reflection, "simplify" translated as "de-stress." But in fact some of my new choices, like rising at an earlier hour, were initially more stressful. When I revisited my decision, I found creating connection and space (more time) were the true goals. I tapped into the broader possibilities of the idea to "rise early." The value was not in setting an alarm clock hours earlier but in redefining how I spend my mornings.

Anne Carson titles her long poetic work "Autobiography of Red, A Romance." The word choice "romance" gave me pause. Besides the typical usage to describe love and courtship, romance - from the Old French romans, romance, work written in French - may also mean "a long fictitious tale of heroes and extraordinary or mysterious events, usually set in a distant time or place," and "the class of literature constituted by such tales." But the word may also connote "a fictitiously embellished account or explanation." What we write, the words we choose, the life we describe for ourselves may be as much of heroes and faraway places as imagined embellishment. The gift of imagination as useful for self as other. How we define ourselves in our own words is the reflection we must first see clearly, and then kindly. And then with a sense of possibility. We are only as we imagine ourselves to be, down to the telling detail.

[Note: "Red Doc," by Anne Carson, will be released by Random House, March 5, 2013. From the RH Catalog: A follow-up to the internationally acclaimed poetry best seller Autobiography of Red that takes its mythic boy-hero into the twenty-first century to tell a story all its own of love, loss, and the power of memory. In a stunningly original mix of poetry, drama, and narrative, Anne Carson brings the red-winged Geryon from Autobiography of Red, now called "G," into manhood, and through the complex labyrinths of the modern age. ]
 Read More 
Be the first to comment

Reflection


The ability to honestly and quietly reflect on one's life is one of the most powerful tools for personal growth. Reflection means to bring to life the truth of what's really going on. It's similar to meditation in that you are allowing the truth of the moment, without bias or personal agenda, to surface. Reflection allows you to see your own contribution to a problem, the ways you might improve, and the blind spots in your thinking. It helps you eliminate any tendency you might have to blame others for your mistakes, make excuses that don't serve you, and break free of old habits. In this way, rather than repeating mistakes, as so many of us do... make graceful adjustments that guide toward success.
- Richard Carlson

October 1 marks the beginning of the season of spice. Days imbued by the garnet and golds of autumn. And, a slowing down process. I feel myself easing into an acceptance of the quiet, cold dark ahead that will be winter. October is basking in the last golden afternoons of sun; lying in pastures of green turning brown under summer's final blue enamel skies. At the farmer's fruit orchard this Sunday we picked apples and pears - the pears so ripe off the tree the juice ran down my chin. Surrounded by kids and red wagons, we chose our front porch "Cinderella" pumpkin. This rich cornucopia of harvest traditionally marks the end of the growing season.

Here's a secret: fall marks the beginning of my personal growing season. The season for reflection. For reviewing the active pursuits and plans of the past year and determining those goals and activities that yielded positive results and those that did not. Now is the time I set aside for day-dreaming and assessment. What am I glad of? What still feels missing? How do I want life to be different next spring? I suppose I view myself as a kind of natural perennial coming into my own dormant season. After the hard push and work of the warm, bright part of the year, I kick back and go quiet. Fall leads to a thinking, inner nurturing period.

Over the years, I've learned to work with this aspect of a seasonal nature. To plan my writing projects around cycles of action and reflection. I respect what Richard Carlson has to say regarding the importance of reflection as "one of the most powerful tools for personal growth." Without this pause to assess, we might very well muddle on indefinitely - failing to reboot our internal compass as needed. One thing I've learned in life is that when that "check engine" light comes on it's more than a warning. Ignore at your own risk.

This month's essays will encompass a theme of reflection. Beginning with mental and physical housekeeping: Simplifying daily life. Emptying the extraneous stuff from the day. Letting go of the white noise and narrowing in on the steady signal we all send from within ourselves about how we're doing, what we need, what we love or need to cut free. Symbolically, stillness can be as simple as focus on just one project or goal - holding that one thing in a sea of mental space to invite it to expand and take hold. Practically, we might decide to redesign the morning routine so the family gets to the breakfast table with time to enjoy the meal without the usual chaos and rush. I have discovered that for me meaningful shifts of understanding arise within dedicated moments of "open emptiness." The quiet in stillness. Silence on a solo run. The connection of just holding someone's hand.

I made a revision of my own morning that invites in more of the tranquility I crave: rising earlier (something I am organically indisposed to do). My husband, an anesthesiologist, begins his day at 5:40 a.m. The effort to be at the table beside him, hot coffee in our cups, has yielded an unexpected "together" time I treasure. Outside all is dark and cold, but we sit within a halo of yellow light pooling over the breakfast bar, sharing the quiet. And bonus! After he leaves for the hospital, I have this wonderful extra hour before my morning run to enjoy silence, sip a second cup of coffee, and reflect.

So my friends, what one thing can you simplify - today - that will give you space for deeper reflection? I suspect it's worth the effort to examine those routines, distractions, obligations. Yank the weeds. In that uncluttered earth more you will grow.
 Read More 
Be the first to comment