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QUINTESSENCE

Beautiful Day

Into The Roman Theater, Ostia Antica, Italy

BOTH WORLDS

Forever busy, it seems,
with words,
finally
I put the pen down

and crumple
most of the sheets
and leave one or two,
sometimes a few,

for the next morning.
Day after day -
year after year -
it has gone on this way,

I rise from the chair,
I put on my jacket
and leave the house
for that other world -

the first one,
the holy one -
where the trees say
nothing the toad says

nothing the dirt
says nothing and yet
what has always happened
keeps happening:

the trees flourish,
the toad leaps,
and out of the silent dirt
the blood-red roses rise.

- Mary Oliver

This is a beautiful time of year. Even if you stand on the threshold of change unsure of your next step, may you find comfort as I have found comfort, in Mary Oliver's words, "out of the silent dirt the blood-red roses rise."

Look ahead. Step forward. Keep on swimming, as Dory says in "Finding Nemo." Make something of something, even if you cannot yet imagine what. Change is the alchemy of circumstance brought about by choice. And choice is a universal endowment: the gift of potential.

Take a moment. Leave your work, set aside worry, ever so briefly abandon ambition and struggle and step gratefully into the receiving world. We exist at the threshold of possibility. We have only to step through one world to find another.

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Book Review: The Road to Character by David Brooks

I recently was on travel in the Mediterranean. The point of my trip was to research places in seven countries that border, or are island nations, of this "sea of destiny." Places which figure in the continuum of history as evidenced by patterns of ancient and modern conflict. The antiquities of Greek and Roman classic battle sites - for example Troy (now in modern day Turkey), or the battle between Octavian and the fleet of Cleopatra and Marc Antony in Prevezza - to the sprawling Mediterranean battlefields of World War II in North Africa, Italy, France and Sicily. War history is profoundly emblematic of the impact of leadership and character on events in human history.

I took with me on this journey David Brooks' new nonfiction book, "The Road to Character." I knew his study of human character would reference Eisenhower, Marshall, Augustine among others, and thought it might dovetail nicely with my travels. Brooks is a readable writer, his voice genial on the page. His book is structured around separating what he terms "eulogy character" from "resume character": that is, those qualities rooted deeply within one's nature and upbringing that make a deeply moral and resilient self, versus those qualities primarily developed as window-dressing and acquired for specific goals or situations to serve the ambitions of the ego. A diametric Brooks terms simply as Adam I versus Adam II.

Setting aside for the moment the framing of a discussion of character in religious context, or the mild sexism by today's standards of the choice of the term "Adam" (as in Adam and Eve, coined in the 1965 work by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in "Lonely Man of Faith") as the framework for talking about the deepest aspects of humanity, the real problem for me is that Brooks is writing around a schematic of character he never quite defines and then bolsters with case biographies to substantiate arbitrary conclusions. This makes for a confusing read as the book moves back and forth through history discussing an odd range of men and women selected to exemplify some aspect of personal character development Brooks has deemed important to their ultimate role in events of historical importance.

Brooks organizes his chapters around ideas such as struggle, self-conquest, dignity, love, ordered love, the big me, etc., and case biographies are used to order his arguments about Adam I inner authenticity as opposed to Adam II egoism, and the development of meaningful character. The problem for me is that without Brooks defining "character" beyond its implicit religious or moral codes or otherwise hinged upon command leadership or charity, he's defaulted on something extremely hard to pin down. I found myself yearning for a solid discussion of human character not explicitly tied to historical achievement: a discussion of that slate of human traits that define and empower people to do the things they do. The very word "character" is value loaded. In Brooks' book it is used as a euphemism for admirable, and that which distinguishes someone from the greater masses.

I truly wanted to like "The Road to Character" but the narrative is uneven, and without what I would consider a meaningful metric of "character." In the end, Brooks' study is about grand personalities.

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Footprints, Weavers

Why do we explore? Beyond the obvious relaxation of leaving behind the familiar for the fresh freedom of non-routine, why do we travel? What is it about discovery that produces connection in our hearts and minds?

I have noticed of late that in contrast with the travels of my youth, thirty years or more ago, today's world is less diverse and more incrementally universal in character and habit. I am sure the same might be said thirty years before that, as we slide the marker backward. Somewhere in the distant past we would discover the once true diversity of the world, large and strange, that now, in the acceleration of the electronic web, creeps toward a newly homogenized blend mixed with flavors and echoes of the old.

The idea that the present is always settling toward homogenous stability. A stability altered by any exogenous factor that challenges, and stirs; that when rooted in time, evolves itself into a new homogeneity. And thus evolution occurs, over and over, spark to stability, old to new. We change because of what is new. We absorb change by making it part of who we are.

Travel is our window into the history of humanity, bookmarked in time. The Athens I visited in 1981 is not the Athens of 2015, nor the Athens of 400 BC. The ancient relics of classical antiquity loom, dormant; yet are erasing themselves, stone by cracked stone, from the present future. Travel draws for us the shadow of history, the footprint of the world in all its past uniqueness contrasted with the familiar present from which we translate our understanding. We are always of both then and now. Points in a continuum of events that loop infinitely through points of time. In journeys of exploration we frame our understanding of an evolving world.

I am both saddened by the erosion of global differences and heartened by our elbow-to-elbow humanity. We are, despite events in the headlines, losing many of the sharp-edged facades of nationalism even as we confront the deeper conflicts in human nature and behavior. As if humanity is collectively regressing through time from the many cities, to the one village, to the family. Fractious, occasionally peaceful. We are becoming more one even as that oneness is a larger collection of us.

Travel is a way to root in historical narrative. To contemplate ancient classical arts and dramas and the stories of human history through a great sieve. What might Antigone whisper within the dreams of Shakespeare? What faith and ambitions echo in the bog burials of the Vikings, travel the Silk Road, were won and lost in the battles of the Caesars? What familiar fear would we find in a soldier's journal during the trench warfare of WWI? What tribal art echoes in the cut-outs of Matisse, what dreams of flight from Icarus to the Wright brothers? Can we taste the connection between the milled bread of Roman Ostia Antica and the brioche of revolutionary Paris? The world is a kaleidoscope of intersecting evolutions, of invention busting out randomly and intermittently - the seeds of history scattered on the wind.

As we explore we sense the patterns that weave together all things and places and behaviors. We begin to see the potholes, the tears, the unraveling across time in the grand design. We also perceive the repairs, the transmutations, the inspirations. We are weavers seated at the fire - the ever-burning flame of human history. Our narrative traversing the seasons, displayed in the cycles of the constellations overhead as we weave. We weave, we endlessly weave.

I give you this remarkable poem by Richard Siken with this thought: Might history be all that which is already here?

LOVESONG OF THE SQUARE ROOT OF NEGATIVE ONE
by Richard Siken

I am the wind and the wind is invisible, all the leaves
tremble but I am invisible, bloom without flower, knot
without rope, song without throat in wingless flight, dark
boat in the dark night, pure velocity. As the hammer is
a hammer when it hits the nail, and the nail is a nail when
it meets wood, and the invisible table begins to appear
out of mind, pure mind, out of nothing, pure thinking.
Through darkness, through silence, a vector, a violence,
I labor, I lumber, I fumble forward through the valley as
winter, as water, I mist and frost, flexible and elastic to
the task. I am the hand that lifts the rock, I am the mind
that strings the worm and throws the line and feels the tug,
the flex in the pole, and foot by foot I find the groove,
the trace in the thicket, the key in the lock, as root breaks
rock, from seed to flower to fruit to rot, a holy pilgrim
moving through the stations of the yardstick. I track,
I follow, I hinge and turn, frictionless and efficient as an
equals sign. I flip and fold, I superimpose, I become
location and you veer toward me, the eye to which you
are relative, magnetized for your revelation. Hook and bait,
polestar and checkmate, I am your arrival, there is no
refusal, we are here, you see, together, we are already here.


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Meditations at Sea

WE TRAVEL
We travel too fast
through time. Skimming, crushing,
small worlds of breath.
We travel too fast
through sky, water, waves
that carry one unvoiced song.
The sun is gone
before we know that warmth,
folded, encompassing.
Behind the frayed gold ribbons
the thunder of death.
We travel too fast
through birthdays, anniversaries, one unfathomable
kiss.
We blow through the door, throw down
our keys,
too hurried, rushed.
This.
The sinking sun on an ancient sea.
The destiny that brought you
here.
We travel too fast
from the worlds
of becoming to the worlds
of dust.
We must slow.
Tardy.
And hear the song.


- GB 5/2/2015 drafted on board the small ship Island Sky


The last two weeks I have been at sea, anchoring at various ports in countries that shoulder the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean and its mythic seas, the Ionian, the Aegean, the Tyrrhenian, the Ligurian, are part of a vast and ancient seaway that traders, travellers, and warriors have journeyed upon for centuries. This nearly landlocked sea feels a bit like the block on the corner, quite honestly - alive all hours of the day with conversations and chance meetings. The chaotic internationalized ports; the vessels on the horizon pushing the sun, others looming large at daybreak.

There is a hypnotic beauty characteristic of the sea. Fresh landscapes whip in on the winds, in the ever-changing cool mists and layered clouds. These are thoughts, echoes, impressions that rise in our thinking when we still and let what lies outside of us expand and fill our inner horizons. Sailing on the sea exposes human unease, knotted emptions, longings bottomless as the deep. The sea demands surrender to her moods and inclinations: and with surrender, ease. Freedom. Keeping with the natural tides and winds. We respect the sea. The marine blue of her waters may darken to a cold gray, churn, furl, flatten like glass. The sun and moon cast ladders of light from there to nowhere.

We travel too fast through time. We skewer the seconds together as though they were not small worlds to be savored, one and then another. The sky is so vast to be contemplated, not split in transit in a sonic boom. The sea is an undulating song, a meditation, a solitary passage into the soul; an aria of what the natural elements mean to all living things.

Do not travel so fast. Slow. Feel out the surface of your time alive, let it roll, let it thunder, let it settle, but let it be expressed. Slow. Do not jet through a sunset missed in the rearview mirror; let the sinking sun fold around you and carry you with it over another horizon. The poetry of the sky belongs to everyone.
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