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QUINTESSENCE

Praise for the World

San Juan Islands Sunset

Writing poems, for me but not not necessarily for others, is a way of offering praise to the world... Think of them that way, as little alleluias. They're not trying to explain anything, as the prose does. They just sit on the page, and breathe. A few lilies, or wrens, or trout among the mysterious shadows, the cold water, and the somber oaks.
- May Oliver, foreword to "Long Life: Essays and Other Writings"

I respect and honor Mary Oliver's work . Her poetry and essays are truly about the world, the small things that catch her attention - the wild inhabitants and eternal rhythms of nature. She does not overlay or infuse nature with subjective emotions or human need, she simply engages. Gives it on the page as she finds it. This humble awe, Oliver's respect of the living, and her sense of the universal dance are what make her work, to me, insightful and grounding. Her sensibility more heir to Emerson than Thoreau. More singer of praises than intellect of treatises.

Lately, in the battles over the existence or limits of global warming and climate control, of crises with toxins, vanishing species, and population explosion, I wonder at the evolution of the human relationship with nature. Us versus them? Man versus beast. City versus wild. That can't be right. This mosaic of living things is only as perfect as each element of the sacred whole. And perfect and sacred it is, even in its incomprehensibility, its invisibility, its transience.

Nature is the pulse that is heard; my ear pressed against the heart of the world. I wander into the woods on a walk, or run the cedar trails. Stand on the bluff engulfed by a horizon exploding in sunset colors and know a truth I cannot define. The yellow finch, thistle, river bank turtle and child kissed awake by sunrise. The rising song of a new day some say only angels hear. Nature is our place of being. Our companion in this mystery.

So today I offer this poem from Mary Oliver's "Long Life," just one of her magnificent little alleluias.

POME: WAKING ON A SUMMER MORNING

Water
skidding down platforms of stone
ten miles
nothing to talk to but ferns

in the deep water
the eye of a trout
under a shelf of stone
not moving

no one will ever sully the water
the ferns will go on sleeping and dreaming
no one will ever find the trout
for a thousand years he may life there, gleaming.

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Tested

Lone runner in fog, Jungfrau, Switzerland

FOR HORSES, HORSEFLIES

We know nothing of the lives of others.
Under the surface, what strange desires,
what rages, weaknesses, fears.

Sometimes it breaks into the daily paper
and we shake out heads in wonder -
"who would behave in such a way?" we ask.

Unspoken the thought, "Let me not be tested."
Unspoken the thought, "Let me not be known."

Under the surface, something that whispers,
"Anything can be done."

For horses, horseflies. For humans, shame.

- Jane Hirschfield

This week a dear friend of mine faces a crisis of career and reputation. My friend, an upper midlevel corporate manger, has been caught in what is now a national scandal in her place of work that has placed her square at the apex of both responsibility and consequence. In ancient Rome, a general was expected to take a sword for Caesar in the heat of battle. In corporate America, in the heat of viral social media and trial by press, this is no less the case.

In the compressed moments of this crisis as it occurred, no time was afforded my friend to do what she does best - the right thing. My first reaction to the news was instantaneous: This allegation is not possible. This woman's character and values are impeccable. My second reaction: That matters not at all. My friend sits in a position of supervisory authority, which means her supervision is at question based on the wrongdoing of some of those in her division. Her corporation has suffered a severe blow to it's reputation, the situation has damaged both the victim and the staff involved, and the situation has gone viral, compounding the exposure and public reaction. It is up to her to make things right, if given the chance. That said, on a personal level, when under attack is it not our first instinct to withdraw? To hole up, head down, shield the ones we love?

I have not been able to reach my friend; I suspect she is not able to speak for on-going legal reasons as this situation plays out. But I hope my messages of love and support reach her. I believe that when the proverbial crap hits that mighty jet engine, we most need to hear from those who do not sit in judgment. To be reassured we are loved (still), valued for our true strengths, and remain well thought of. That the public court rushing to judgment does not include our inner circle. I think all of us would like to think we are this type of person: the true friend. And, that we have such friends. But there is something in human nature drawn to scandal, to the suspicion of a whiff of weakness or fallibility. And it seems the higher our aspirations or standing, the greater the secret public hope we stumble.

So this week, my small calling has been to put loyalty and support out there. To be a candle in the dark. All of us have our Waterloos, and in the world of corporate accountability and viral social media, we often fight those battles as one-sided wars in the public eye. Character and strength of conviction are the traits that carry us through, lead us to the next day. And the next day is where we find that necessary moment to share our side of the story.

Be the friend you would want your friends to be.
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Sweet Goodbye to Regret

Lake Luzern, Switzerland

DANCING TOWARD BETHLEHEM

If there is only enough time in the final
minutes of the twentieth century for one last dance
I would like to be dancing it slowly with you,

say, in the ballroom of a seaside hotel.
My palm would press into the small of your back
as the past hundred years collapsed into a pile
of mirrors or buttons or frivolous shoes,

just as the floor of the nineteenth century gave way
and disappeared in a red cloud of brick dust.
There will be no time to order another drink
or worry about what was never said,

not with the orchestra sliding into the seas
and all our attention devoted to humming
whatever it was they were playing.

- Billy Collins

My husband and I were sitting in the back yard yesterday evening, a glass of good Spanish wine in hand, chatting as the sun set. I had been thinking of late about regrets. The big ones. The thoughts that anchor the good night's sleep on the shore of insomnia. "If I were to pick one decade that bookended all my worst decisions," I said, "hands down my twenties."

In the decade of my twenties I made several of the largest and most important decisions of my life shaping who I would become and how I would live my life. Key decisions in that parenthesis of a decade were absolutely right for me: pursuing an education, policy work with the U.S. Senate and the U.S. State Department, and the experience gained and mentoring provided through the Presidential Management Fellowship.

Nearly everything else was a trip up the stairs.

On my own from the age of 18, I made the decisions and choices needed to be made as a young adult. Regrettably - perfect use of the word: "unfortunately, in a regretful manner, with regret" - not all of those decisions were informed, wise, or served me well. Yes, we've all been emotionally fragile at times we should somehow have managed to rein it in. Did not seek key support at times we needed to reach out, personally or professionally. Tried on relationships utterly wrong or went too deep into them. I chose the wrong type of university (twice); tried to finesse workplace politics without a developed skill set; tip-toed through life with my accomplishments and self-esteem bubble-wrapped in what Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In calls "the fear of being found out" - that is, identified as inauthentic, an impostor. I did not own my strengths.

As the hubby and I talked, enjoying the evening shift in hues from fiery orange to soft plum, I realized that although my twenties were the one decade in my life I would accept a do-over (if offered by that cosmic referee), this choice would be different for others. Do most of us have a period in life we recognize as the catch-all of our regrets? This makes for a very interesting conversation. Somewhere in the evening I had my small personal ah-ha moment: While the past cannot be undone, it can be set free. Forgiveness, forgiving me, is the answer to my regret. The way through the ache is to let go: forgive. You, them, then, when. Billy Collins' poem "Dancing Toward Bethlehem," offers us the sweet goodbye - humming the notes of what brings us joy free of "worry about what was never said."

Let us dance. My palm in the small of your back. Our hearts wise and accepting.
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Curves of Stone

Ancient Greek Amphitheater, Licata, Sicily
ANCIENT STAIRWAY

Footsteps like water hollow
the broad curves of stone
ascending, descending
century by century.
Who can say if the last
to climb these stairs
will be journeying
downward or upward?


- Denise Levertov

One of the beautiful gifts of travel is the tangible, vertical sense of history that settles into your bones. The knowledge that we, in common with the foot voyagers of the Levertov poem, are forever "ascending, descending" - following a common stairway. Making our way through history, through disparate cultures and across great expanses of both wild and domesticated geography. Our lives "like water hollow" the hard uncut material of what is Time.

Seated on a weathered granite stone, a circular "seat" in a grassy ancient Greek amphitheater in Licata, Sicily, I abruptly lost my sense of place. I absorbed the hardness, the truth of the sun-baked stone under my butt, and I suddenly "got" it. How many others had sat here before me, preparing to see the performance of an ancient tragedy or song poem? I experienced this dizzying awareness; a sense of time as an elevator. We plunge forward and backward, upward and down. All of us, everywhere and all the time. We live our lives in these narrow personal holograms, defined by axises of where, and when, and how. We, the "Who" of our stories, take humanity's well-traveled stairs again and again; overlaying the footprints of the many others who walked before us, who sat on our stones, danced our songs.

This sense of time as not chronological but vertical - a permanence, a layering of centuries and centuries of chosen and expended experiences - translated the ancient ruins and cultures of the Mediterranean in a dazzling new way for me. I was not witnessing, or visiting, or examining the world that once was. I was experiencing it. Tasting it. Smelling it in the wild grasses. Hitting the play button and stepping directly into projections of events past. The ancient world lives on in the old stones. It steps out of the shadows and kick pebbles at my feet.
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