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QUINTESSENCE

The Year Turns

HERE, THERE ARE BLUEBERRIES
When I see the bright clouds, a sky empty of moon and stars,
I wonder what I am, that anyone should note me.

Here there are blueberries, what should I fear?
Here there is bread in thick slices, of whom should I be afraid?

Under the swelling clouds, we spread our blankets.
Here in this meadow, we open our baskets

to unpack blueberries, whole bowls of them,
berries not by the work of our hands, berries not by the work of our fingers.

What taste the bright world has, whole fields
without wires, the blackened moss, the clouds

swelling at the edges of the meadow. And for this,
I did nothing, not even wonder.

You must live for something, they say.
People don't live just to keep on living.

But here is the quince tree, a sky bright and empty.
Here there are blueberries, there is no need to note me.

- Mary Szybist

I don't love the media end of the year reviews, the summations, the lists - the best of, worst of... These were not merely days, months passing, but the end of a period of history. The end of a shocking, fabulous parade of surprise and pageantry that is the conclusion of a year. Mary Szybist's poem, from her complex, rich, 2013 National Book Award collection "Incarnadine," evokes the inconsequential angst that sweeps through us when our world turns once more on its axis without thought or note of the human narrative. We are all of us small parts in the machinery of time.

In another poem, "Entrances and Exits," Szybist writes a line that has echoed in my thoughts for days: Duccio's subject is God's entrance into time: time meaning history, meaning a body. God steps into time through flesh and bone. Do we not wonder at the truth of this? That what is true of blueberries and sky is deeply essential to being human?

Consider the signature artistry of narrative history, of evolving thought. Is this not a footnote to the universe? Are we as individuals of note, or do we merely note ourselves? The vanity of the self, singing its odes of self discovery. Birds, so to speak, on branches of our own making. The one and the wave. Atoms studying themselves. But here is the quince tree, a sky bright and empty.

My thoughts on the last year are quiet: 2013 was a hard and incomprehensible year. Wind-twisted disasters, fires and floods and incomprehensible violence. Families struggling across the globe with loss, tragedy, war. My wishes for the new year are simple: I hope for blue skies. For moments of serenity; the grounding of commitment, good work. Goodness that pulses like breath from our chests, easy and true. I hope 2014 is good to you. Blessings.

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Winter Hours

Today I thought I would offer part of an essay from December of 2011. This post resonated with me, especially rereading Mary Oliver as I thought about Winter Solstice. The continuous nature of shifts, equalizations, balance. In the experience of finding center, the remix of things we value and give meaning to is in constant flux. Life ripples behind us across the glassy surface of time. The past we've lived leaving a fleeting mark on the present, hinting at choices for the future. This year the remix words for me are commitment, work, serenity. I want to work toward my goals with focus and effort, with an eye to the bigger picture, and in particular, toward inner peacefulness. The world has so much white noise, it's easy to become lost in the digital buzz and static. I hope to live purposefully. Find the notes that matter.

Happy Winter Solstice and Merry Christmas, friends.

December 2011:
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

This idea of settling into one's life: Having built the house to build it. And having done so, what rests in its shadow is 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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What We May Give

NOEL
When snow is shaken
From the balsam trees
And they're cut down
And brought into our houses

When clustered sparks
Of many-colored fire
Appear at night
In ordinary windows

We hear and sing
The customary carols

They bring us ragged miracles
And hay and candles
And flowering weeds of poetry
That are loved all the more
Because they are so common

But there are carols
That carry phrases
Of the haunting music
Of the other world
A music wild and dangerous
As a prophet's message

Or the fresh truth of children
Who though they come to us
From our own bodies
Are altogether new
With their small limbs
And birdlike voices

They look at us
With their clear eyes
And ask the piercing questions
God alone can answer.

- Anne Porter

From my earliest memory as a child, Christmas has always meant something special. Something unique to my family. For one thing, I had a Grandma and Grandpa who for most of the Christmases of my childhood, were dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus. My grandfather, a business executive and El Katif Shriner, cheered the children of The Shriners Childrens Hospital in Spokane all of December with his hearty laugh, smashing red velvet suit, reindeer bells, and thick white hair and twinkly eyes. He loved children, loved Christmas, and growing up a poor Scotsman, felt the very best gift was to cheer up ill children with a hug and toy. My grandmother stood at his side handing out smiles and the presents she wrapped nightly.

Christmas morning spent with my grandparents meant "Santa" would appear at the front door jangling his bells in his amazing Santa suit just for us, his grandkids, home for a week from wherever we were in our lives as a military family. My mother, one of the sick children herself the year she was seven with rheumatic fever, spent a year in isolation in a children's hospital. She both loved her father for his generous spirit (perhaps born of cheering her up in the hospital as a child) and pained by memories of the loneliness and isolation the holidays symbolized for her: separation at a time dedicated to family. Christmas also became the one acknowledged armistice in the conflicted relationship between my parents. Whatever sorrows, arguments or disappointments the year might contain, Christmas marked a time my family came together. My mother, an ice skater, built homemade rinks in our wintry back yards. There were trips to the mountains to hike through the snow and find our tree. There were lights and presents even when the money was tight; sledding, cocoa, and snowmen in the front yard. Christmas Eve was the one night it was okay to fall asleep under the tree, looking upwards at the beauty of the lights waiting for magical Santa. The one night God seemed real and close, an expression of peace and love.

After blending both Jewish and Christian traditions together in my own adult life, I discovered that, like my mother, I have a complicated adult relationship with the holiday now. When my husband Ken was ill with cancer and went into surgery on Christmas Eve of 2002, I sat the night beside him after that failed operation watching televised celebrations from the Vatican, marooned in the cold indifferent rhythms of the hospital and the disconnected attitude of the shift nurse on our floor. The night resonated with the utter absence of God. Where was the magic? The sacred? Simple compassion of the human kind? I held my husband's head as he retched uncontrollably, feeling like one of the lost souls my grandfather might have cheered, not the girl who loved and found solace, always, in this one exquisite night of the year.

Those moments gild the day with a particular melancholy. A poignancy in which the beauty of Christmas subtly marks the prelude to feelings of real loss.

Life goes on. My family and I make holiday cookies, decorate a tree with ornaments and vintage decorations that hold memories of people and places and times past. There is a "Just Married" ornament with Ken; a pewter engraved book celebrating my first published novel; framed pictures of the kids; glass ornaments from Germany my uncle bought my grandparents during the Korean War; a hand-painted ornament with my mom's and my name on it the year I turned one; the Christmas stocking my grandma made me of hand-stitched velvet and sequins, the stockings I made everyone in the family after that. My daughter's stocking from her Godmother and the quilting club that is 4 feet long. School ornaments from the kids' colleges, travel mementos gathered with my second husband, Greg; the dog and ski and music and Barbie collections. The album of my life is on that tree. I tell my life in Christmases.

Christmas isn't a religious holiday or a festive month on the calendar for me: the season signifies a willful decision to create joy, when the human need to love reaches across disappointment and misfortune. Christmas is my grandfather with a sick child in a hospital johnnie on his knee holding in his hand a new toy. It is my parents pulling something happy together. Christmas is the time of year, for me, when people try a little harder and often succeed at making the world a better place. Snowflakes and glowing lights, mystery packages and sweets. When we battle the darkness with as much light as we can muster.

So as James Taylor sings his particularly melancholy "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in my study as I write this, I smile. Yes, it is a world of chipped edges and tattered corners. But life is also beautiful in its capacity to reflect the best we give it.

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The Year in Gratitude

Be in a state of gratitude for everything that shows up in your life. Be thankful for the storms as well as the smooth sailing. What is the lesson or gift in what you are experiencing right now? Find your joy not in what's missing in your life but in how you can serve.
-- Wayne Dyer

Last Saturday all across America we celebrated our favorite local independent bookstores. Here in Spokane I joined fellow authors at Aunties Books. The experience of mingling with shoppers in the aisles, talking books, life, meeting other area authors…all of this was deeply affirming for me. I am grateful, beyond measure, for the beauty that writing has brought to my life. How much there is to give and receive.

I learned from a young Canadian man about adventure literature of the 1930s. ("The White Spider"...anybody?) I talked with a lovely woman who radiated such quiet gentle strength it was no surprise to learn her story of survival infuses the grace she lives by. And of course there was the funny family from Florida, in town for the holidays - all of them opinionated, smart, verbal - who split to the far corners of the bookstore, browsing and reading in the stacks. I met grandparents searching out perfect book gifts for grandchildren, young couples browsing, outdoorsy guys killing time before a Pearl Jam concert. The talk was so much about favorite books (and life stories) I jitterbugged my own little "Snoopy dance of joy' down the aisles. (Sorry if you saw that.) This season, may every good book find its devoted reader.

I am grateful for what is present, this very moment, in my life. A loving family. A quirky, funny, devoted spouse, who brings all that is fresh and new from his realm of medical science into the bookish hours of my day. I am grateful for the gifts of friendship - especially those of you I have known for years now, you are gold. I hope there are surprises of utter joy in store this coming year.

I am grateful for my publishing family. My "knights in industry" who do battle with the odds, flying their faith in books and writers, in me, daily. Where would I be without your loyalty and love and insight and determination? Where would writers be without you, and readers without writers? Thank you all for this amazing year, and for the work you do. I hope your stockings are filled with bows and garlands of royalties and accolades.

And finally, I want to express my gratitude to the unseen hands throughout the world - the angels that bring peace, ensure safer hours and places for children to play, bring knowledge to dark corners, protection in danger, leadership through passages of fear. I stand daily in awe of the many humans, anonymous, official, noble and humble alike, who give and serve and build community within the human race. We are all of us connected by family and community and hopes for a better world. May the stars atop your dreams cast the brightest light.

I wish you the long-abiding warmth of gratitude. Thank you. Thank you for your presence in my life and your presence in the world.

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