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QUINTESSENCE

Monday Morning, Late Summer

Priest Lake moonrise

MONDAY MORNING, LATE SUMMER
On the fence
in the sunlight,
beach towels.

No wind.

The apricots have ripened
and been picked.
The blackberries have ripened
and been picked.

- Robert Hass, from the poem "Cuttings"

The opening of the chest, the heart chakra - literally opening to the deep breathing and calm rhythms of a lengthy period on break - profoundly affects the mind as well as the body. When we step out of the box, the stress-filled, demanding, unrelenting responsibilities of the 24/7, the break from routine can begin the restoration of the soul. As an observer of my own fifty decades of living, the wide empty stretches on life's blue highways are far and few between in the 21st century. It's no news we live in a plugged-in, high demand, ever-changing, constantly stimulating world. The irregular dry spells, down time, wayside adventures, lags in scheduling all seem to have disappeared along with party-lines and land lines. We are "on" and plugged-in every moment of the day: pinged by messages, expanding lists of to-dos, global information, and social media even when we sleep.

Small wonder we find peace walking in the silence of tall cedars, lulled to sleep by lapping waves on the lake shore, listening to the creak of wind in the trees, bird call in the quiet dawn. Thoreau was a relentless champion of "disconnect and rediscover" for the human soul, and frankly, so am I. I found it interesting to watch my family, traveling to our rustic cabin on the lake shore with four smart phones, two laptops, three iPads, two iPods and one Shuffle, slowly adapt to first making the long trek down the trail to the nearest wifi center for internet signal, to eventually, mournfully, accepting there would never be more than one half-bar of cell service off the lake, to at last letting the devices sit in their cases, untouched. Withdrawal from the digital world was both painful and amusing - catching ourselves automatically engaged in a pointless click to check email, Twitter, FB. The urge to connect releasing, ever so slowly releasing its grip, to be replaced by long naps sunning on beach towels on a gently rolling dock, acoustic jazz guitar on the porch, long conversations by wine and candlelight at the picnic table, delving into not just a chapter but an entire book, board games and cards accompanied by a crackling fire and mellow whiskey.

We learned the nurturing quality of quiet. The sweet richness of intimate conversation. Walking the mountains, taking in the whole of life.

We disappear to the cabin every year, coming from wherever we are in the four corners of the world, from whatever education, work, or travel schedules occupy us, ready to find our way back to ourselves. To recharge in the power of tranquility, the open spaces of daydreams, sunny contentment, the deep truthful night and undisturbed sleep. We reconnect not just within, but together. And when the last spider is slapped with a sandal and tossed out the door, when the last huckleberry has made its way to a pancake drenched in maple syrup, the last pot of camp coffee poured to the dregs, we pack up our beach chairs and book bags and return to the world.

Halfway down the road to civilization the electronics buried in our duffles ping on, buzzing and downloading in a bursting hive of fury and we have to laugh. The world. It doesn't wait, and it doesn't matter.
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In August

Huckleberries
SWIMMING, ONE DAY IN AUGUST
It is time now, I said,
for the deepening and quieting of the spirit
among the flux of happenings.

Something had pestered me so much
I thought my heart would break.
I mean, the mechanical part.

I went down in the afternoon
to the sea
which held me, until I grew easy.

About tomorrow, who knows anything.
Except that it will be time, again,
for the deepening and quieting of the spirit.

- Mary Oliver

Tomorrow I head north to a cabin on Luby Bay, to the remote tranquil beauty of Priest Lake, Idaho - a long, deep, cold water lake surrounded by the forested Selkirk Mountains. The northernmost tip of Priest Lake narrows to a shallow canoe and kayak thoroughfare that connects to a pristine unsettled upper lake. We hike every year through the spice trees along the shores of the thoroughfare to picnic by the upper lake, picking huckleberries, basking in the wisdom of the wilderness and its quiet. For me, this is the week that restores the soul; the place and time, as Mary Oliver writes so beautifully, for the "deepening and quieting of the spirit."

I am taking a sack of books with me (yes, actual print books, bright and beckoning in their artistic jackets) and I thought I would share with you my mixed fiction, poetry, and nonfiction reading for the week:
"& Sons" by David Gilbert
"The Love affairs of Nataniel P." by Adelle Waldman
"The Examined Life" by Stephen Grosz
"First, Do No Harm," by Lisa Belkin
"Long Life, Poems & Essays" by Mary Oliver
"The Interestings" by Meg Wolitzer
"Beautiful Day," by Elin Hilderbrand

Who knows how far through these treasures I'll get between swimming in the lake, hiking the trails, basking on the beach...but trust me, I will be reading, feet propped on the porch rail in the shade of the cedars, glass of wine in hand. It will be lovely to sail into seas of new thinking. At ease.

See all of you in a week or so.
En Vacance
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Welcome the Good

When the good comes, recognize it as such; you’ve worked hard to get here, readied yourself in a hundred ways so that it could find a home in you. When the good comes, nod to it and the circuitous route it had to take to find you in this exact moment of rightness. When the good comes, seat it comfortably while you tend to your old companions fear and doubt – they have done their best to protect you, but their journey with you must end here. When the good comes, meet it with an open heart and a willingness to explore. It’s your time.
- Kathy Freston, "The Daily Lean"

The juncture when a writer turns in a manuscript and waits, full of hope and apprehension as the nascent work's first critical review progresses, the all important assessment that evaluates the work on merit, the market, the quality of writing, and against the professional reader's own taste and expectations, is a very hard crossroads indeed. One direction lies elation, the other disconsolation. Whenever I submit work, I think of Cynthia Oznick's comments "Writers have a little holy light within, like a pilot light which fear is always blowing out. When a writer brings a manuscript fresh from the making, at the moment of greatest vulnerability, that's the moment for friends to help get the little holy light lit again."

Kathy Freston's post today from her wonderful blog "The Daily Lean" spoke deeply to me. As you know, two plus weeks ago my new manuscript entered review with my literary agent. As I waited (paced?) there were bread crumbs along the way as she read (it's a big book - 445 pages) - "Reading...and loving it!" Glimpses of what every writer hopes for: a book that captures a reader, pulls them through, delivers the goods. When she finished the manuscript on Sunday she sent me an immediate email that began "Brava!...."

Elation, my friends. The pilot light is lit once more. And yet... I'm already worried about what comes next. I have barely allowed this precise shimmering moment of goodness to sink in.

Freston reminds us we must accept our good inwardly or we devalue ourselves, our work, our dreams. Why is it so hard to feel deserving? It's easy to toss good moments off to luck, or accident, to cheat ourselves of the satisfaction of appreciating what we worked for. This is very different from the lovely bounty that comes solely of grace. (As I write this a random selection on my music playlist fills my study with Ray Lynch's ebullient, transcendent soundtrack "Deep Breakfast" and the track "Rhythm in the Pews." Joyful music!)

What comes next? Stage 2: Spending the next days doing light turnaround edits. However many times you comb through your work, there is always one dastardly cliche or an exclamation mark to weed out, a dropped verb missing in a sentence, an anchor the writer needs to craft to better anchor the reader in the narrative - all of which the critical reader meticulously sieves from the manuscript. (Do the dedicated and tremendously talented professionals in literary agencies and publishing ever get thanked enough?) As my manuscript gets this final grooming, a synopsis of the novel, an author bio, and critical reviews of previous works must be crafted and gathered together. The manuscript, our race horse - prances in its gate, ready to fly down the track. The grand prize? Win an offer from an acquisition editor in a well-respected publishing house.

Why am I once again anxious? Stage 3: selling to the capricious and uncertain publishing market. Books are a gamble full of inherent risk. This stage is a stride by stride commentary of trips, surges, and wobbles as our book charges through packs of rejections and lukewarm interest, never stopping, utterly focused on landing that one all-significant "Yes." You can race your heart out on that track. Cross the finish line dead last, or not at all. The writer's pilot light, as Oznick puts it, faces a great vulnerability when a book goes to the market. Publishing is, after all, a business. Perhaps Steinbeck summed it best when he wrote, "The profession of book-writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business."

As promised, that's the latest update on my hopeful new manuscript. Let you know how that horse race goes.... Wish me luck!

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A Glimpse, Sideways

MY LIFE
By Billy Collins

Sometimes I see it as a straight line
drawn with a pencil and a ruler
transecting the circle of the world

or as a finger piercing
a smoke ring, casual, inquisitive,

but then the sun will come out
or the phone will ring
and I will cease to wonder

if it is one thing,
a large ball of air and memory,
or many things,
a string of small farming towns,
a dark road winding through them.

Let us say it is a field
I have been hoeing every day,
hoeing and singing,
then going to sleep in one of its furrows,

or now that it is more than half over,
a partially open door,
rain dripping from the eaves.

Like yours, it could be anything,
a nest with one egg,
a hallway that leads to a thousand rooms—
whatever happens to float into view
when I close my eyes

or look out a window
for more than a few minutes,
so that some days I think
it must be everything and nothing at once.

But this morning, sitting up in bed,
wearing my black sweater and my glasses,
the curtains drawn and the windows up,

I am a lake, my poem is an empty boat,
and my life is the breeze that blows
through the whole scene

stirring everything it touches—
the surface of the water, the limp sail,
even the heavy, leafy trees along the shore.


The first time I read My Life by Billy Collins, past poet laureate of the United States and arguably one of the most popular and well read contemporary poets in America, I was years younger than I am today. What stands out this morning as I share this poem with you is how different stanzas resonate for me now than did then. Lines once evocative but not familiar are now familiar, evoke an accumulation of yesteryears. Perhaps a poem taps a tuning fork within us, the base note ever changing. How can one poem do this? Ripple through our consciousness, pick and thread through dreams? My Life offers language to rest on as we journey the unknown. We read "everything and nothing at once" and find solace and recognition. A stream of islands that glisten in an existential sea - some inhabited, some not at all. Delicate, ephemeral, sturdy, sharp. Bones cast shadows in sunrises of wishfulness. Tide pools of regret shimmer at our feet, and above our heads move clouds of utter hunger. Our feet find "a dark road winding" and cross toward tomorrow - making, leaving, already moving on.

A glimpse, sideways.

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