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QUINTESSENCE

The Written and the Unwritten

Blue Lagoon, Iceland
OPEN WINDOW
by Victor Hugo

Voices. Light on my eyelid. In full cry,
Bell of St Peter’s. Bathers’ merry shouts:
This way! No, that way! Nearer! Further back!
Birds twitter: Jean does too. George calls to her.
Cocks crow, a trowel scrapes a roof; horses
Pass in the lane; a rasping scythe cuts grass.
Impacts, impressions. Roofers overhead.
The harbour’s noises. Hiss of hot machines.
The gusting of a military band.
A hubbub on the quay. French voices. Thanks.
Morning. Goodbye. It must be late, because
My robin redbreast’s come up close, to sing.
The roar of distant hammers at a forge.
Clacking of water. Steamship’s puffing breath.
A fly comes in. Vast wheezing of the sea.


The idea is at play in my mind today of what comes to us, and what we seek. Words by Steven Pressfield, from his nonfiction book on creativity, "The War of Art," seem to resonate: "I'm keenly aware of the Principle of Priority, which states( a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what's important first." So what is important? On any given day what is important is the work. Or perhaps family, or harmony of spirit. What's important anchors the present, one eye on the future. What's important sorts out conflicts and uncertainties and confusions: above all, the right choice feels right.

Once we know what is important, our priorities get us there.

Have you read poet Louise Glucks's prose poem "The Open Window"? Still on the theme of what we seek and what comes to us, this poem, part of "Faithful and Virtuous Night" [Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014], a tremendous larger body of work, recently won the 2014 National Book Award for Poetry. As you read, float the images and thoughts that enter your mind.

THE OPEN WINDOW

An elderly writer had formed the habit of writing the words THE END on a piece of paper before he began his stories, after which he would gather a stack of pages, typically thin in winter when the daylight was brief, and comparatively dense in summer when his thought became again loose and associative, expansive like the thought of a young man. Regardless of their number, he would place these blank pages over the last, thus obscuring it. Only then would the story come to him, chaste and refined in winter, more free in summer. By these means he had become an acknowledged master.

He worked by preference in a room without clocks, trusting the light to tell him when the day was finished. In summer, he liked the window open. How then, in summer, did the winter wind enter the room? You are right, he cried out to the wind, this is what I have lacked, this decisiveness and abruptness, this surprise - O, if I could do this I would be a god! And he lay on the cold floor of the study watching the wind stir the pages, mixing the written and the unwritten, the end among them.


Will you leave the window open?

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Gatherings

We artists are mythmakers, and we participate with everybody else in the social construction of reality.
- Helen Mayer Harrison

Thanksgiving is near, and many of us turn our thoughts to upcoming gatherings. We may grow thoughtful as we noodle over grocery lists, our thoughts preoccupied by the complexities of hosting relatives from afar. Or we may be the ones to pack our bags, steeled for that bumpy emotional ride that so often comprises family immersion. The personal challenges and issues are real, but our anxiety is frequently intensified by overthinking. We are erecting moats, laying in reserves, presenting an obligatory delegation in lieu of our hearts.

Our modern century is tough on connection. We crave relationships, a sense of belonging that will endure. We need this. When we come together in celebration, let us bring our goodwill. Let us avoid the stresses of elaborate planning and impossible expectations. Oscar Wilde remarked, "Simple pleasures are the last refuge of the complex." Be simple. Take each moment as it comes. Tilt the table whenever possible toward joy and contentment and away from conflict. Thorny issues are not resolved over dinner tables.

Here is a Quintessence post from November 25, 2012 that opens on powerful words from poet Philip Levine:

Some things
you know all your life. They are simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter, and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.


- from "The Simple Truth," Philip Levine

The beauty of love is that it is capable of great patience and tremendous tenacity. Love stretches, it attaches, it builds, slow like bone. This life is a journey. Moving and changing, we experience the gestation of new forms of connection and partnership, new expressions of family. We evolve new ways of being, new shapes for the lives we lead. It is the simple truth to say living is ever-becoming. And while this process is neither easy nor pristinely beautiful, imperfect in process in fact, the becoming is perfect in intent - grounded in the earth and in the heavens. We find joy when we reach beyond the self. The human heart is a warrior and a monk. And it speaks a simple truth: Belong.

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The Foundation Stone

The mountains are great stone bells; they clang together like nuns. Who shushed the stars?... The sea pronounces something, over and over, in a hoarse whisper; I cannot quite make it out. But God knows I have tried.... At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive.
- from "Teaching a Stone to Talk," Annie Dillard

Fierce winds and bitter cold descended from the north last night. It is bright out today but the winds push and push against the house windows and whip in the trees. Oak and maple leaves, the last to fall behind the yellow birch and dark chestnuts, twist and snap loose. Drifts of leaves. Sailing ships. Crisp papery curls whirling on the wind down the road. Early this morning when I awoke, ice had formed on the bird bath and frost covered the picnic table. Ruby berries cling naked to the trees, gray squirrels in the branches.

There is a presence to the white cold, blue-stone dark of winter that invites contemplation for me. But not yet. First we yield the fire hues. Leave behind the late liquid gold light. Color and warmth are scoured from the earth.

What is left is elemental. Profound. Foundation stone.

This is the time when reflection deepens. The fallow time is upon us. Listening to the wind scrape the bare branches across the roof I feel the weight of mistakes, of yearnings unfulfilled, and all that I have gleaned throughout the year. Perhaps these cycles of the earth invoke cycles of growth in our souls. Dare we embrace the wind? The winters that clear bedrock of season after season of slow, tangled growth? There is much for me to contemplate in the bare silence of winter: quiet wisdoms and glimmers of insight, the genesis of creative projects, the deepening truth in my relationships.

Pruning away what is unnecessary reveals the essential: the bones of who we are. Are you pruning? Sweeping your steps clean?




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Uphill From Here

MOVING
Our aunt, hunched over her hands stiff
with arthritis, squints out the window as the car
moves east under the shadow of a cliff
above the Columbia. It is not far,
eighty-two years, from the sweat and stink

of the farm to the nursing home in Spokane.
The sun lights her white hair to the pink
of her scalp. She doesn't complain.
When she turns to whisper, we lean near.
Yes, scrub for miles, and blue sky forever.

We packed her clothes with care. She said
to leave the photos, the Danish flag. We think
to bring dark glasses for her to wear.
She nods, settles into the ride.
It is all uphill from here.

- Mary Ann Waters

The most engaging thing about reading the words of another happens in our willingness to receive and engage with the pictures painted in our minds. A good poet, playwright, fiction, or nonfiction writer knows language is, as Barry Hannah once said, " the thing the deepest mind adores." When you read Mary Ann Waters's poem, did you not feel that vague ache in your knuckles, the hot sun on your scalp? The aunt's lostness - gazing out at an endless empty sky? Words, the narratives of others. Words selected for their freight of emotion, and their edged, specific sense of story. These are the muscles that heft us into the poem, buckle us into what eighty-two and leaving one's familiar life behind feels like. Keen in the details - the photos, the Danish flag - we know there was a life, a different life, a unique life here. We feel the loss. How the gentle acceptance of dark glasses convey all that is surrendered in changing from a life once lived to the unknown of what lies ahead. In this poem we are giver and the receiver, the aunt and the narrator.

I am what is around me.
- Wallace Stevens

When we write, we shake our bones, hard. Most writers suffer their creativity, convinced that only the profound or the dazzling bon mot is good enough. In the fight to be excellent, worthy, acknowledged by others, it is easy to forget Gloria Naylor's admonishment,"You're the first audience to your work, and the most important audience." Why is this important to remember? Because writing, like all creative work, and all good work period, must come from a place of authenticity. The human mind catches fire from the spark of truth in the lives of others. We take in what we recognize as deeply genuine. We are corroded by what is not. The soul's bedrock, as Polonius mused in Hamlet, is built of character, "This above all, to thine own self be true."

Sharing one's truth is an act of witness. Granting permission. Accepting an invitation to paint the world, your way. It is also intensely difficult: the soul fragile, shy. We are afraid of judgment, our own and that of others. When first we speak of our dreams, it is to ourselves in whispers. It is in the act of writing ourselves into words that we begin to openly inhabit our world. Cynthia Ozick declared, "If we had to say what writing is, we would define it essentially as an act of courage." To successfully craft a life, one built on choice, whether embraced by design or stumbled upon by luck, opens the road to satisfaction. The act of defining for oneself is an act of courage.

We are always "moving." Leaving things behind, Working new beginnings. We wrangle with chance and circumstance to hang on to the details, to sustain narration, to inhabit ourselves and live large. Shake your bones. Look deep. In the earth of us is our answer.

I don't know what the nature of the universe is, but I have a good ear.
- Mary Gordon

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