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QUINTESSENCE

In Its Place

The moth and fish eggs are in their place,
The suns I see and the suns I cannot see are in their place,
The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.
Do you guess I have some intricate purpose? Well I have...
for the April rain has, and the mica on the side of a rock has.

- Walt Whitman

Beyond my study window the wind sighs hard and angry. A storm from over the Pacific has pounded the Cascade Mountains the last few days, hurled across the sage high desert and now catches in the pines and canyons of these inland northwest river valleys. The autumnal equinox of just a week ago felt gentle; a graceful tipping of the scale into another season. This day feels rough and furious, the energy of nature unleashed without temperament or caution. The earth is a monumental force of combative physics, a blue ball hurtling in black space, the whims and fractions of the elements wrecking havoc across the oceans and continents. Whitman's words fill me with a sense of belonging and serenity, even as nature is making it clear everything is for the taking. Stand and I will shred you of your leaves, your shingles, your habitat, your peace.

It is interesting to me the way in which I, as most humans, move in and out of awareness of myself as a precarious biological presence. Rooted lightly in an otherwise inorganic earth. The rock and wind, the heat and cold and pounding rains break down the living, the once living, all that is organic, and incorporate all things over and over again into an ecosystem we usually take for granted, forget, hold in false dominion. I have a healthy respect for wind like this. The long delicate branches of the birch trees snarl and toss as the old soldiers lean in against the gusts. Birds are nowhere to be seen but for the hunting falcons high above on the thermals. The backyard squirrels are snugged deep in the embrace of the boughs of the blue spruce.

Sometimes our lives feel as if they are ravaged by forces such as this, subject to events and elements beyond our small selves. We bend under the onslaught, scurry for shelter in hopes of riding out the storm. We are shredded by winds of disappointment, of loss, by harm or even danger. When I received news today a dear friend was the targeted victim of a smash and grab robbery while stopped in traffic in a taxi in Paris, I trembled. The wind roars. But she is safe. Her belongings and valuables are certainly gone, but her loved one and her life are intact. Memories remain when things do not. The wind passes, and we gather the downed limbs.

I return to the words of Whitman at the beginning of this essay. I take comfort.
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Connection


Only connect.
- E.M. Forster

I think, to a poet, the human community is like the community of birds to a bird, singing to each other. Love is one of the reasons we are singing to one another, love of language itself, love of sound, love of singing itself, and love of other birds.
- Sharon Olds

Hello friends. The autumnal equinox is almost upon us, that great shifting of light across the world that heralds the dip toward winter. The equinox is also my birthday - the beginning of my personal new year. Personal new years are a perfect time to take stock, plan and dream, collect ourselves and celebrate. Along with the farmers working the late harvest, I gather in the apples of hard work and the sheaves of lessons learned. And while I could torture the metaphor further, I'm sure you've taken my point. Whether you're relaxing from a strenuous summer and looking forward to fall or gearing up to take on a personal goal just around the corner, take a beat to celebrate yourself. There's much about life we hurry past and neglect to notice - accomplishments eclipsed by newer goals or growing to-do lists. Acknowledging the work of the year and the fruits of our labors is more than just a pause for applause: giving attention to our efforts consolidates the foundation of goal-setting and confidence. This is life lived. It's good to take a compass reading from time to time.

I wrote in an earlier blog late this summer about reaching the end of a novel manuscript and moving forward toward submission. This novel is a big project, a marriage of research and imagination, and often one side of the work depended heavily on accomplishment in the other. This one novel took the longest to write of any of my books, and I am surprised, pleasantly, by the way that resounds in my soul in a good way, and also by the degree of hope I have for this project. I promised you I would share the journey, and so I will. First step? Take a deep breath and send the manuscript to my agent.

Literary agents work incredibly hard out of deep love for books and the written word. This first professional review of any writer's work is very meaningful. Neither writer nor agent wish to waste one another's time. A writer's creative effort will be leveraged through an agent's market expertise: at it's best, the agent-writer relationship functions as smoothly as a two-man crew, rowing in perfect rhythm, powering forward. I rely on my agent for her market savvy and her guidance, her knowledge of everything that lies outside building a book in my head. The best moment to date? When my agent finished reading the lengthy manuscript and sent me the literary equivalent of a big kiss and a bow.

The manuscript is then readied for submission to publishers, accompanied by a scintillating book synopsis (one hopes), an author bio, a page of sterling past reviews... And the not-so-small matter of sales track. Certainly literature and poetry are the classic face of the book business, but they aren't the bread and butter of publishing. The book market is frequently driven by block-buster sales and a question mark hangs over every experienced author's head. Do sales numbers (collected by Bookscan and available in perpetuity) justify a publisher launching the newest book, or the promotional expenses involved? Modest sales, good reviews? Was the author a victim of a bad economy or a stroke of bad timing? Is the author's work undiscovered or is the writer's artistic run spent? Do good reviews guarantee a loyal reading audience? Is it just about Facebook follows? An expert platform? In the end, I have faith it always comes down to the strength of the writing.

The manuscript stands naked. Success often comes down to one editor, one reader, a stroke of luck - connecting with an editor who falls in love with a book they will fight to bring out even against the competing submissions of their own colleagues. Is it any reason we all drink? But seriously. There is wry truth in what Helen Frankenthaler observed, The price for living the life I have - for any serious, devoted person, is that at times one must live alone, or feel alone. I think loneliness is associated in many people's minds when they think about success.

My birthday wish is probably an easy one to guess. My hopes and plans for this next year are focused on placing this book in your hands. Keep the faith. And send good thoughts!

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Getting to Work

section installation of "Summer Circle," Richard Long

Just as appetite comes by eating, so work brings inspiration, if inspiration is not discernible at the beginning.
- Igor Stravinsky

It was Emile Zola who kept a motto in his workroom: Null dies sine linea. "No day without line.' He wrote one thousand to fifteen hundred words a day, until in thirty-one years he finished with businesslike dispatch something like twenty-five novels and twenty-three other books. When you have nothing to say, you write anyway, if only to keep in practice.
- Sophy Burnham

There are many divergent arguments for how and when to write best. There are "sit down and do it anyway" disciplinarians who manage to scratch out something even in the grip of a creative block to make their page a day; those who, as Sophy Burnham points out, find putting pen on paper (fingers on keyboard) is plain good practice. Stravinsky points out quite accurately that simply beginning may be the best catalyst - inspiration may arrive in the middle of what was just until then, aimlessness on the page.

Then there is the other school - first dream the idea, and write when the spark ignites. Famously championed by Truman Capote, who confessed, "I am a completely horizontal author. I can't think unless I'm lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee hand." Now if that were me, I'd fall asleep. Agatha Christie cleared a space on a kitchen table - any flat stable surface would do. While some writers need a blank wall, a closed door, and zero distraction, others, like Harriet Doerr, begin with visual stimulation - "I have everything I need. A square of sky, a piece of stone, a page, a pen, and memory raining down on me in sleeves."

I think the key to a successful work life in the arts begins with an acknowledgment that creative effort is exactly that: creativity plus effort. For a writer, it may put the cart before the horse to pound out 500 words without a clue as to what you're going to say. Then again, halfway through that paragraph, the theme may announce itself and you're off and running. Musicians often find a composition riff follows routine practice, when fingers and mind are warmed to the music. Painters discover a color palette and stroke that inspires. Dancers choreograph in the process of working out their moves. There is some essential part of art that occurs in execution, some other part that is guiding concept. But idea without effort is just fancy, and effort without direction is aimless.

But back to Capote on his couch and Zola scribbling out his pages. Both writers are maximizing their capabilities. Both understand how they work best. First and foremost, we must look within to understand how we get work done. When desperate for inspiration, how do we encourage flow to occur conceptually, to anchor a viable theme or idea? Is dead time mental gestation, or procrastination, a question of sitting down and doing the work? An artist has to be self-aware, and honest, and willing to own the solution as well as the problem.

It took me a long time to realize I could work continuously - and effectively - balanced between two brackets of writing: practice writing (journaling, idea sketches, bits of essays, drafts of book reviews) and purposeful writing (putting a theme into structure on the page.) Personally, I would shrivel faced with a wall without a window, a bit of nature to gaze on, mementos and iconographic art surrounding me. I've learned I need utter quiet; unless I am editing, in which case, jazz is best. And on days I just don't want to sit down and do any of it, I don't. That's the day for a hike, for reading, for laying on Capote's couch. The big lesson in my writing life has been to TRUST THE FALLOW time. The days of zero output are in fact days of work on the couch. Ideas are gelling, the corner you've back yourself into in chapter 20 is untangling in the back of your brain even as you prune the apple tree. The muse hangs out in your dreams, appears on mile 5 of your morning run.

"Getting to work" balances Creativity + Effort. It truly doesn't matter which side of the equation you solve for first.

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Falling up

Night heron
WILDERNESS

When I lay down, for the night, on the desert,
on my back, and dozed, and my eyes opened,
my gaze rushed up, as if falling up
into the sky,
and I saw the open eye of night, all
guileless, all iris of a starshine grey,
scattered with clusters of brilliant pupils.
I gazed, and dozed, and as my eyelids lifted I would
plummet up out of the atmosphere,
plunging and gasping as if I'd missed
a stair. I would sleep, and come to, and sleep,
and every time that I opened my eyes
I fell up deep into the universe.
It looked crowded, hollow, intricate, elastic,
I did not feel I could really see it
because I did not know what it was
that I was seeing. When my lids parted,
there was the real - absolute,
crisp, impersonal, intimate,
benign without sweetness, I was roaring out, my
speed suddenly increasing in its speed, I was
entering another dimension, and yet
one in which I belong, as if
not only the earth while I am here, but space,
and death, and existence without me, are my home.

- Sharon Olds

This poem of Sharon Olds' never loses its power to transport me into the boundless mystery of the universe. Olds declares, "there was the real - absolute, crisp, impersonal, intimate, benign without sweetness." Describing so aptly the familiar strangeness; the presence of an encompassing unbounded living pulse. There is a greater-than-known truth singing from afar, a song deep in the quiet. It is in nature I encounter moments of intuitive awareness of how much more there is, as Olds herself experiences in "Wilderness." Unaware of the night heron, aware of me. Silent on the lake dock under a tent of a million distant white stars. By the bonfire as sparks pop and pirouette and splinter into the sky into the illumination of the Milky Way. I experience a shift of dimensions diving beneath the surface of the cold clear lake, beckoned by a universe below what I take for granted every day. Truly, we live in one dimension among many. One small part of an integrated endless layering of existences, present and past, known and distant.

Next time you step out into the deep night, look long into the sparkling sky. Do you feel how you belong?

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Two Reviews: Lives in Crisis, Part II

"Mr. Grosz?"
"Yes?"
"I don't really have a house in France. You do know that, don't you?"


- from "The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves," Stephen Grosz



It may strike you, as it did me, that the power of the human mind and the empathy of the human spirit speak clearly through the quotes above. Both of these books, THE EXAMINED LIFE by Dr. Stephen Grosz and ON CALL by Emily Transue MD, deal with the human condition. Dr. Grosz is a psychoanalyst in practice in London, and Dr. Transue is a teaching and clinical internal medicine specialist at the University of Washington. They are both in the healing professions, and their personal lives intwine intricately with those they endeavor to help, forming the engaging and oftentimes deeply moving content of their work.

I was struck by the power of empathy after reading these two authors. It is one thing to bring peerless technique and insight to treating the human mind and body, it is altogether another gift to bring deep compassion, empathy, even intuition to collaboration with patients in pursuit of understanding/healing. Stephen Grosz' book reads as a series of mysterious human fables, patients grappling with the big issues of their lives in telling and symbolic ways. In the quote above, Dr. Grosz is treating a man for whom "a safe house" has many deep-rooted psychological implications. It is not until the end of his tale that we understood the man's beloved house in France that at first appears so literal and substantive, is in fact a figment of imagination. A coping choice. What wonders there are in the way human beings navigate an uncertain world!

Dr. Transue's story is a collection of hospital vignettes that span three years in residency training following medical school as she completes her internal medicine training. ON CALL is a narrative of both the making of a doctor, and the beauty that comes when we bring an ear for the complexities of the human context to our work. Transue finds the story in each of her patients; she engages medicine - herself - and steps beyond the symptom or problem to understand the whole person, ever cognizant of the limits of the doctor-patient relationship, of medicine itself, and human idiosyncrasy.

Life, these authors show us, is both a task of adjustment and commitment to forward momentum. Consider the epigram to Dr. Grosz' work, taken from the author Andre Dubus II, "Broken Vessels,"We receive and we lose, and we must try to achieve gratitude; and with that gratitude to embrace with whole hearts whatever of life that remains after the losses.

I was moved and deeply engaged by both these books. The humanity and insight of both authors is stunning: every page offered a life lesson from both sides of the patient-professional story. I found myself marveling at the human capacity to care, as well as the honest, spiritual uncertainty when working in tandem with the vulnerable toward positive outcome. THE EXAMINED LIFE offers many surprising insights on our instinctive human coping mechanisms and their twisted, often marvelous purposefulness, while ON CALL offers a moving look at those moments life hangs in the balance and what it means to fight that fight. Both highly recommended.

*Because of a file limit on my website blog software, the book cover image for ON CALL by Emily Transue, MD is provided in second post above.

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Two Reviews: Lives in Crisis, Part I

"And then she says: 'Do you think I'll be well enough in March to have the wedding?' March was when they had been supposed to get married. You have no idea how terminal she was - I mean really. Just slipping away. What do you say? I have no idea what I even said. Whatever I could think of to get through the moment somehow. And I went back to the residents' room, and I just lost it. The rest of the team came in and I was there sobbing, and they were like, what, what? And I told them, and you know what they said? They said: 'If you're that thin-skinned, if you're going to let things get to you like that, you shouldn't be in medicine.' That's what they said. And I spun on them and I said: 'If I ever stop letting things get to me, that's when I'll quit medicine.' And it turned out the chief resident in psychiatry was sitting there, listening to all this - I hadn't seen him - and he stood and said, 'That's the sanest thing I've heard all week.'"

- from "On Call: A Doctor's Days and Nights in Residency," By Emily Transue, MD

*Part I continues in Part II blog entry below: Two Reviews: Lives in Crisis.
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