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QUINTESSENCE

Trying to Remember

Statue of The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen

THE ART OF DISAPPEARING
by Naomi Shihab Nye

When They Say Don't I Know You?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.

Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say Why?

It's not that you don't love them anymore.
You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.

Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven't seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don't start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.


This poem came to me via the wonderful tiny chapbook by Roger Housden, "Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime." (I have spoken of this collection before.) Housden has this to say: "I find the strong and sober stand of this poem a welcome inspiration. Yet I know there are those who feel otherwise. People have told me they feel it to be ungenerous and curmudgeonly in its attitude to others. On the other hand, I remember seeing Bill Moyers on PBS one evening, and him saying that ever since being called into the hospital for heart trouble, he has kept a copy of this poem by Naoimi Shihab Nye in his top pocket. For me, it's that kind of poem. A reminder poem, a shake-your-tree poem, a wake-up-and-live-your-own-life-before-it's-all-too-late poem."

Makes you pause, doesn't it? Housden calls a poem that speaks deeply a "message from a trusted friend," that is, "the persistent murmur in our own chest." He adds this observation by Keats - which I find the single greatest secret to cultivating poetry (or any art, for that matter) - "Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost as a Remembrance."

We plod through our promised-to's, the ought-to's, and endlessly defer personal must-do's. Last in priority are those experiences, projects, and commitments that call us to live deeply, exploring all the corners of our being. Pause for a moment and think about this: Do you remember the moment when you knew your life dream? When you crested from childhood into young adulthood and set your sights on the world's horizon? Do you recall the truth you felt in your bones that hot August afternoon, lying in the grass under the green willow branches, staring up and through an endless sky? Have you experienced a sudden shiver holding a newborn? Become aware of the life history in the still, veined hand of your grandmother as she held a tea cup and waited by the window?

Nye's poem is a call back home - live your life, know life, for life is finite.

I appreciate this poem's honest fierceness. Nye doesn't mince words. I need that. Her poem reminds me that a given day on earth is not about obligation. Being present for your own life is not the denial of relationship, responsibility or connection, but practicing purpose. Inhabiting the originality and truth that is yours alone. Answering the call. Whatever that "it" is that beats at the heart of every human spirit and reflected in these lines from THE ART OF DISAPPEARING I carry in my wallet.

You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bells at twilight.


So, I listen.


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Good Bread

The ponies of Shetland Island

Today I yearned for a clean, direct, open moment on the page, my friends.

To write something simple. To tell you something as I felt and thought about that something, without intellectualizing, filters, deeper or attenuated meanings. Like a sandwich. Start with good bread, crisp lettuce, garden tomato, your choice of deliciousness in the middle. Nothing complicated about a sandwich.

Why? Maybe because it's summer, the seasonal reminder that a peach plucked directly from the branch is the peach that is simply most worthy. Like you, I am chafing under the unbearable weight of the news of the world in all its foolishness, waste, and loss. I am also writing this morning in the lingering shadow of a pre-dawn dream of my mother and my dog (both long gone). A dream I did not understand but clung to like driftwood on the open sea upon waking. What is that but feeling the hard edge of life, the ache of what we cannot comprehend?

The hunger to pen sentences that lean against the door jamb, hands in pockets, at ease, reflects in part a working year of constructed essays, edits, and trenching in lines on the page - what it is to be a working writer. But I wonder, does this wish for ease hint at a sea change within? Toward a way of being and writing less constructed but warmly essential? Less clever, a little bit messy? Maybe there is a part of me that needs to sow a handful of words and let them bloom where they fall, full of will and wildness.

Poetry will always speak of life far truer than my words. The ways of poetry hold us bathed in the starlight of distant stars we do not yet see. In a poem what is, is given shape, a doorway. So I begin here, with this powerful poem by the late Philip Levine. Enjoy.

THE SIMPLE TRUTH
by Philip Levine

I bought a dollar and a half's worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. "Eat, eat" she said,
"Even if you don't I'll say you did."

Some things
you know all your life. They are so 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.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I'm saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.


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Book Review: HRC by Jonathan Allen & Amie Parnes

HRC by Jonathan Allen & Amie Parnes, Crown Publishers, 2014.

Researched by respected political journalists Jonathan Allen (White House Bureau Chief for Politico) and Amie Parnes (White House correspondent for The Hill newspaper in Washington), HRC roughly covers the time period in Hillary Rodham Clinton's political life from her defeat in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary (to then Senator Barack Obama) through the attack on the Benghazi Embassy in September of 2012, and its contentious aftermath during her tenure as Secretary of State in the Obama administration.

HRC is a thick book, totaling in at 405 pages. A breezy behind the scenes cliff-hanger in places, and a backstory slog in others, HRC the book is much like the political arena it covers. Moving with rapid fire momentum, and employing an open, witty tone at times bordering on insider snark, HRC is primarily an anecdotal narrative compiled with noteworthy attention to timelines, facts, details, and citations. The authors state more than 200 sources were interviewed and freely granted anonymity to discuss their knowledge of Hillary Clinton and the events in this book.

I found HRC engaging, and in places surprising, and, oddly irritating. I felt the book frequently devolved into gossip when not strictly necessary (the events and the woman are fascinating enough). HRC falls off the fence frequently - balancing between a pro versus anti-Clintonism - not quite successfully hitting that sweet spot of observational neutrality. Allen and Parnes seem unable to leave out the easy dig. When the Clintons are funny, as they often are in their hubris and stealth politics, you can't really fault the authors. The Clintons - singularly always still a plural - all too frequently load themselves in the political clay pigeon launcher, with a proverbial "Pull!"

Anecdotes and instances of Hillary Clinton's intellect, tenacity, political paranoia, bull-dogged backbone, sagacity, and fierce dedication interweave throughout Allen and Parnes's political biography with moments of warm reserve, long memory, an endless loyalty, quiet protectiveness of her family, and personal courage. As Hillary Clinton moves forward in her 2016 Presidential campaign - the approximate point in time the book leaves off - the chronology of facts and detail provided by the authors in HRC fill in many of the "Who really is Hillary?" blanks held in the mind of the average voter.

Allen and Parnes predicted Hillary would run in 2016, and I suspect, believe she will be an exceptional, if flawed, contender in the campaign and if she wins the Presidency, the job. By the end of HRC, Hillary's campaign does indeed loom as a given, if not its outcome. To close in a quote taken from HRC:

"I never know what's going to happen next,"she [Hillary Clinton] said. "And I really never have lived my life thinking I knew what was going to happen next. I really try to - I mean it is very John Wesleyan, believe me. I really try to just do the best I can every day, because who know's what's going to happen next? I don't have any idea. So I'm one to just fell like every day I'm being true to my values and I'm contributing in some way, and maybe trying to do some good."



*I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.
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Frigates and Gossamer Threads

FRIGATE
The anesthetist said sometimes this happens. It felt
like forever. We leaned in over your body to see what

your face might reveal. What your eyes were seeing
beneath closed lids, we'll never know and you won't tell.

Since we had urged you into surgery we felt responsible.
The ash pallor of skin, how shallow the breath

that curled from your lips and each fine line of sweat
beading high across your cheeks. Once years ago, when

you spoke, we leaned toward the fire. And they sped over
water in a frigate...we remember you saying, though

what we heard was "forget." Smoke hung in our sweaters
and hair all the next day and for the week after. Finally

you came to to peer at our stricken faces lining the shore
of your bed; splattered our shoes. I'm back, you said, hello.

- Katrina Roberts

I found myself revisiting this blog post today from June, 2011. A lot has happened in my life in the last four years. And in yours, I would bet. I believe we can fairly say that life journeys - wanted or unwanted - push us warily towards a vast, unknown horizon. What lies ahead is unfamiliar and inevitably a challenge.

Here are a few of my thoughts from that original post:

Consider the fragility of life, of this precisely patterned web of intention we weave called "living." Now and then, the very fabric of the self comes unmoored. We drift. As the spider's silken thread surfs the sunlight on an unseen breeze, we ride this nothing until intention catches, tears, holds fast. Our thread, like the spider's, latches on to a twig, a leaf, a bit of solid something that is now a fresh stake, a new attempt at presence.

Are we not in fact that gossamer thread? Our lives arc through uncertainties - tiny trapeze artists flung far into the azure sky. Our elaborate constructions - legacies, careers, generations, poems composed in the bottom of scotch glasses - glimmer in the last light. We live within our own mental engineering, designing sky scrapers in our minds. Towers of ambition and steel accomplishment, glass reflections of accumulation, and perhaps, regret. We imagine our safety nets will hold. By choice or circumstance, threads break - and the web floats. Drift guides us to the next anchor.

Katrina Robert's poem hesitates at the edge of consciousness. That shore of separation we flirt with as we skim the waters - alive, damaged, struggling, stronger. And back. And gone. The leap from the trapeze begins the roll through space...and it is the catch that ends the plunge. Our lives, as Roberts eloquently puts it, are balanced in the wordplay of "frigate" and "forget." From the dangerous open seas we guide in the travelers. We rope our crafts in, snug at the dock. Journey's end. "Hello. I'm back."


Until we are loosed again.
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