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QUINTESSENCE

Winter Stillness


WINTER TREES
by William Carlos Williams

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.


Tis is the season of quiet. Slipping deep into the heart of who and why and wherever we happen to be. This lovely little poem, like so much of WCW's work, frames an oblique glance at life in mideas res...nature in the midst of narrative, without preamble. In "Winter Trees," Williams sketches an orchard emptied of fruit. The turning point in the cycle of things to do, and being done. Activity and rest. The deep cold months of waiting-in-stillness. The season of the "liquid moon."

I invite you into winter. Into the space between the years. Into the break among days marked by the distance between stars. I invite you not only into the quiet and the stillness, but to stand comfortably within this empty space. In my last post I talked about grief and the geography that is love, both present and gone. The "space" others hold in our lives, and the space our feelings occupy, is important to me. I believe we need space to find ourselves, space for what is truth to rise into consciousness. Space to rest and regroup, space to gather and rethink - and most of all, space to breathe in the beauty of all that is present. Bone-white moments of clarity, fragile barrenness, lush extravagant joy, tenuous fulfillment.... Whatever our circumstances, we take the essence of our experiences up as plants do oxygen, slowly. We absorb life on the broad leaves of our soul. We need space. Stillness. An expanse of stillness.

Do you know where you stand in this year as it "disattires" of its days? I am not sure that I do, not yet anyway. The time is here to stop and abide the hours. Our work is done. And in the quiet will come the story of what has been and what we hope will be. As the long branches fill with winter moon, celebrate or lay to rest, what came before. Allow tomorrow to seep into your awareness. Now is the time to dream.

To all my readers - dear friends one and all - thank you for a rich and meaningful year. I am grateful we travel the stars together. This adventure is less lonely and more grand because we do. See you in the new year.
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Pent In The Shadows

CHRISTMAS SPARROW
by Billy Collins

The first thing I heard this morning
was a rapid flapping sound, soft, insistent -

wings against glass as it turned out
downstairs when I saw the small bird
rioting in the frame of a high window,
trying to hurl itself through
the enigma of transparency into the spacious light.

Then a noise in the throat of the cat
hunkered on the rug
told me how the bird had gotten inside,
carried in the cold night
through the flap in a basement door,
and later released from the soft grip of teeth.

On a chair, I trapped its pulsations
in a shirt and got it to the door,
so weightless it seemed
to have vanished into the nest of cloth.

But outside, when I uncupped my hands,
it burst into its element,
dipping over the dormant garden
in a spasm of wingbeats
then disappeared over a row of tall hemlocks.

For the rest of the day,
I could feel its wild thrumming
against my palms as I wondered about
the hours it must have spent
pent in the shadows of that room,
hidden in the spiky branches
of our decorated tree, breathing there
among the metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn,
its eyes open, like mine as I lie in bed tonight
picturing this rare, lucky sparrow
tucked into a holly bush now,
a light snow tumbling through the windless dark.



This poem by Billy Collins, from a 2013 compendium of new and selected poems "Aimless Love" (Random House), evokes many feelings for me.

Interiority (noun): being within, inside of everything. Loosely that which is within; going inward, further toward a center.

For many of us, the holidays are not easy. We are the ones with grief tucked in a back pocket. Interiority a place we dwell in instinctive rebuff of a season frequently marked by chaotic family gatherings, lush sentimentality, bombastic festivities, and prickly, achingly nostalgic traditions. We take refuge, wait out the hours. Wary of the ways the social carousel tenders the blues. The mood is not exactly melancholy, certainly not joy, but more fragile. A splintered heart. A clear-as-glass gathering of the self.

I was reminded of all of this recently chatting with a friend in New York about the recent loss of her mother and her difficulty enjoying the season. "How is it for you?" she asked.

Indeed. How is it for me? After a decade of widowhood and a recent remarriage, I find myself in a different place now than in the years leading to this moment. The word I reached for was "serene" as I answered my friend. But that is not quite right. "Serene" implies a peaceful contentment when I am thinking of quiet still waters. The truth is I am not beyond it, even a decade later as I reflect on the death of my first husband, Ken. But I have come to accept it. And as time swallows the insignificant and polishes the pure, I have found comfort in the goodness of our years together. There is acceptance in surrender, knowing loss is nonnegotiable. I have learned I can thrive at the kinder edges of that once-gaping hole. I want to tell my friend, Time will gentle loss, and life will come to mean more than enduring sadness. There will be joy - and that is okay.

The commitment to a new marriage - to growing, building, loving - helped free my life from loneliness. For loss is lonely. Others skirt its cold shadow. I will never not feel my grief, but that pain no longer paralyzes living. I have come to see grief and sadness as one more beautiful ring of color encompassing the soul. Much as a seashell forms bands of ridges, rings, and patterns in response to the ocean, so have I, living this life given me. Part of the beauty of Collins's poem is its inexpressible awareness of the nuanced shadows of danger and mercy, moonlight and grace - the very Christmas sparrow I want to place in the hand of my friend, closing her fingers gently around the gift. This is life. And someday, that acceptance will be enough to fly to joy again.

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Thoughts On Settling Into Life

Season's greetings, friends. I'd like to share with you part of a post from December 30, 2011. This essay was simply about taking stock - throughout life - of both our intentions and our accomplishments. Do they match up? Did we complete the goals set for ourselves? Are we living and loving and giving as we intend to? Poet Mary Oliver's beautiful words from "Winter Hours" set the tone for this reflection, and I invite you to join me again as 2014 draws to a close and we look forward to a new year.

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

Settling into one's life - having built the house to build it and having done so, resting in its shadow - marks a passage. A journey toward seeing oneself as a part of all that lives, all that occupies the geography of the most personal space and time. Mary Oliver's essays in "Winter Hours" are thoughtful; her observations crisp and intimate. Exploratory writings about what it means to see one's life whole - an organic evolving theme of the self. For me, one of the important tasks of the new year is taking stock. How have I fared in pursuit of my goals? Have I absorbed the unpredictable, the shift in borders, edged a toe through limitations? Have I learned anything?

Oliver perceptively writes of human endeavor as a construct, a kind of shelter for creative thought. She stands before a cabin in the woods she has hand-built, a private room for writing, which in time has become a little-used potting shed. She realizes in retrospect she built the cabin not for writing, not for deep thought, but for the sake of building. The work done, she will lie in its humble shade among the blue butterflies, aware her presence lies within nature, not in her construct. Oliver points out that it is instinctive to examine life; to ponder what makes things work, what causes one thing to nurture another, create the future out of the past. Faced with mortality, we view ourselves as part of the vast natural interchange of what lives and dies, but hold the secret wish to exist beyond all that. Oliver observes, "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 am taking stock of my "constructs." Family, work, home, friendships. All these organic symbols of the living I have done. Are they worthy of the sacredness of life, have I lived up to my soul's expectations? More importantly, have I lived strong and true within the essential principles, as nature would have them? My determination is simple: examine what is foolish. Where am I following the blueprint of a construct but not a life? Where is the potting shed within the palace?

Lie down, now, upon the earth like anything heavy and happy and full of sunlight and half asleep. Find the sunspot of life, lest we travel lost in the work of working at it.
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Only Look


WINTER WORDS, MANHATTAN
by Philip Levine

When the young farm laborer
steals the roses for his wife
we know for certain he'll find
her beyond their aroma
or softness. We can almost
feel with how soft a step
he approaches the cottage
there on the edge of the forest
darkening even before supper,
not wanting to give away
the surprise, which shall be his
only, for now she sleeps beyond
surprise in the long full,
dreamless sleep he will soon
pray for. And so they become
a bouquet for a grave, a touch
of rose in a gray and white
landscape. All this years ago
in the imagination of a poet
who would die before the book
was published. Did the thorns
picture the young man's fingers
as he pressed the short stems
through the knife blade? Did he
bleed on the snow like a man
in a film, on the tight buds,
on her face as he bent down
to take her breath? Did that
breath still smell of breakfast,
of raw milk and bread? What does
breath that doesn't come smell of,
if it smells at all? If I went
to the window now and gazed
down at the city stretching
in clear winter sunlight past
the ruined park the children
never visit, out over the rooftops
of Harlem past the great bridge
to Jersey and the country lost
to me before I found it,
would I cry and for whom?


This poem by Philip Levine, from his outstanding 1994 Pulitzer Prize winning collection "The Simple Truth," is not familiar to most readers. It is perhaps a "writer's poem," a work born inside the thoughts of a poet ruminating on the nature of both imagination and reality. Writers will do this: step back and assess both craft and artist. Examine for meaning all that is, as Robert Frost put it, "lost in translation."

There is subtle dissonance between artist and intention, vision and reality. Art is often that struggle, that compromise trapped between concept and execution. Writers, and I suspect artists of all ilk, are inclined to be keen observers. Of life, object, action, self, emotion, consequence...the other, the moral. And with our tools we devise the rose: the imagined metaphor, allegory, or analogy that speaks the truth we see, however narrowed or grand the perspective. Why? Why do this? Why do we ask questions of life voiced through art?

Natalie Goldberg, in her iconic 1986 writing guide, "Writing Down the Bones," once asked her writing group this question: "Where do you want to go with writing? You have this strong creative voice; you've been able to separate out the creator and editor. What do you want to do with it?" The answer, if one can define it, establishes the foundation for all creative work. Because you see, once technique is mastered, intention is everything. And in speaking of life in its larger context, I might argue that when humans become aware of their deepest questions, they then feel compelled to express what answers they find. Questions stand answered all around us: from skyscrapers and bridges to scalpels and computer software, plays to parks.

We have only to look.


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