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QUINTESSENCE

Life With Soap and Needles


I see you washing my handkerchiefs,
hanging at the window
my worn-out socks,
your figure on which everything,
all pleasure like a flare-up,
fell without destroying you,
again,
little wife
of every day,
again a human being,
humbly human,
proudly poor,
as you have to be in order to be
not the swift rose
that love's ash dissolves
but all of life,
all of life with soap and needles,
with the smell that I love
of the kitchen that perhaps we shall not have
and in which your hand among the fried potatoes
and your mouth singing in the winter
until the roast arrives
would be for me the permanence
of happiness on earth.


- "Not Only the Fire," Pablo Neruda, THE CAPTAIN'S VERSES, 1952

This stanza, from a longer poem by the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, is subversive, subtle. The poet moves from love note to his lover into an intimate song to the same woman, the woman he has made his life with - "little wife of every day." I think often of this phrase and its aching tender recognition of the dignity of daily life. The hours, or perhaps years, past the fiery affair filled by the plain, sweet mundane. Neruda's recognition of his own joy in the simple wrenching domesticity of his life asks me to consider my ordinary tasks today.

Today's list of things to do is nothing fancy. My heart is not in them but is instead thinking of words and pages, the revising and editing I've still to complete. At the top of my list, dealing with bills that are due, then gathering the last of the tax data, followed by a trip to the post office to forward on packets of mail to my kids. A drop off at the dry cleaner, the return of an item to a store, and oh yes, getting in a work out. A chunk of time. A chunk of time not writing.

I read the list again, slowly this time. Where is the love here? In everything. Dropping this passport in the mail for a trip to South Korea and Japan will thrill the recipient, the tax help marks a new graduate's first professional job, the rose-patterned dress to return nonetheless reminds me of spring. I think of my family, their dear faces, the laughter and moments together. Aren't these humble tasks Neruda's "worn-out socks," the "hand among the fried potatoes," my celebration of "life with soap and needles"?

Hello chore list, little wife of every day. There is life to be lived here.
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Nothing Is Lost

Wedding Day, February 18, 1989

Permit me a moment, will you, of reflection and tenderness. Share with me the memory of a great and kind man. On this date, twenty-seven years ago, I married Kenneth Grunzweig. Were he still alive, tomorrow would be his 73rd birthday.

There were many years between us. As if Ken traveled the world once, and then traveled it again just for me. Ken's charm and brilliant wit were legendary. His inner grace and his capacity for compassion and loyalty endure in the hearts of those who knew him or called him friend. Since his passing, in 2003, I find comfort in the knowledge our children tenderly honor him; and that they have lived their lives in a way he would be proud of. I am grateful for the beautiful imprint of exuberant joy he left upon our souls.

The hidden pearl in the oyster, a marriage is nurtured in mystery. Its secret intimacies unique to its ways, and redolent in this sensuous imagery from Barbara Howes.

A LETTER FROM THE CARIBBEAN
by Barbara Howes

Breezeways in the tropics winnow the air,
Are ajar to its least breath
But hold back, in a feint of architecture,
The boisterous sun
Pouring down upon

The island like a cloudburst. They
Slant to loft air, they curve, they screen
The wind's wild gaiety
Which tosses palm
Branches about like a marshal's plumes.

Within this filtered, latticed
World, where spools of shadow
Form, lift and change,
The triumph of incoming air
Is that it is there,

Cooling and salving us. Louvres,
Trellises, vines -music also-
Shape the arboreal wind, make skeins
Of it, and a maze
To catch shade. The days

Are all variety, blowing;
Aswirl in a perpetual current
Of wind, shadow, sun,
I marvel at the capacity
Of memory

Which, in some deep pocket
Of my mind, preserves you whole-
As a wind is wind, as the lion-taming
Sun is sun, you are, you stay;
Nothing is lost, nothing has blown away.


There is grief. Disoriented yearning. The stunned understanding of wordless truths life sings deep in our souls. My love letter to this man, my warrior of fierce heart, became the memoir published by Broadway Books in 2008, "The Geography of Love." This was our story, the landscape of unforgettable relationship. And his story, a road of stunning loss, and courage. But where does the wounded heart turn?

DECADE
by Louise Gluck

What joy touches
the solace of ritual? A void

appears in life.
A shock so deep, so terrible,
its force
levels the perceived world. You were

a beast at the edge of its cave, only
waking and sleeping. Then
the minute shift; the eye

taken by something.
Spring: the unforeseen
flooding the abyss.

And the life
filling again. And finally a place
found for everything.


Something new roots slowly: a raw unfamiliar perspective. One that is not grief. Dark and strong as steel and forged from loss, yes. But also rare, intricate and fine. Frost on a windowpane. The human heart, a dragonfly in amber. Through the years I have grown stronger in my conviction that all living energies are connected, and nothing is truly lost. Memory, indelible if fleeting, will always find us. . . a scent in the air. We have only to know love.


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Packing for the Journey


All large tasks are completed in a series of starts.
- Neil Fiore

Better by far to write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all.
- Katherine mansfield

There you sit. Your notes are lined up, you've been dreaming the scenes, jotting down dialogue in the middle of the night. You fall asleep, thinking, Tomorrow is the day. Definitely the day. Only you wake up standing at the far edge of yourself. Your computer sits open, humming, waiting for you to give your work wings. You make another pot of tea, stand at the window of your work space and consider the sky. In time you walk to your desk, sit down and drop your head on those stacks of perfectly arranged notes and research.

Not today.

I think the difficulty of starting a major work or undertaking a chunk of new work on something already in progress is different than the experience of procrastination. Procrastination, for me, suggests a deep-seated discomfort or dislike of the work itself that renders any other activity or errand vastly more appealing. We procrastinate our taxes. We procrastinate cleaning out the boxes in the basement. We procrastinate caulking the tub. Writing is something I LOVE to do. A way of stepping out of time, riding the electric current as far and fast as it will take me. So why am I right this minute avoiding the start of a major revision?

Art psychologist Eric Maisel notes that many, if not most artists have trouble starting. His opinion is that "It is not the journey that daunts so much as the packing for the journey; not the writing of the song, but the packing away of the untidy doubts, fears, and self-recriminations."

This hit home.

Packing for the journey. Emotional readiness. In my case, staring down a third-pass revision. Managing an intricate reworking of characters and plot, and developing as-yet unimagined new material into the core of my story. Shoot me now.

I have the skills. I know how to do this. I have done it before. I also know this is a process that wholly consumes my mind and my time. Dinners are not made, sleep is scant, the telling ache of carpal tunnel creeps back into my wrists, I miss the sun as it rises and sets. Day after day I tap away on my keyboard, butt numb in the chair. This is about going under, going deep, holding my breath as long as I possibly can and getting as much done on each dive as possible. Urgency hovers in my thoughts. Fear of losing a promising thread or floundering in a firehose of inspiration. Life flows somewhere above the surface of this project, marching on without me, leaving me behind in the time I am down deep, deep in the dark murk of what I will have to trust my instincts to navigate and that alone scares the hell out of me. After all, instincts get you to a draft, and that gets you to revision, but all along you're making mistakes and only occasionally hitting the mark. The work doesn't stand as a whole yet. We mine in the dark.

Maisel is right. This thing that has me dodging my office in favor of sorting the junk drawer in the kitchen is fear. Fear of not getting the words right; of working hard and coming up empty - or worse, wrecking what I already have. It is fear of not being good enough, trained enough, or capable of the herculean challenges ahead. Of wasting time. A lifetime. Fear crouches on the moment we open the paint tube, label the word document, adjust the camera aperture, declare ourselves ready to begin. It feels impossible to pack enough courage and faith.

We circle the entrance to the maze, unable to step in.

The antidote to fear is faith. Faith in the work. Trust we will accomplish what we set out to do. Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa's mouth many, many times. Not because the painting was difficult, but because there was something more to be said. He worked to capture an expression he had yet to paint to his satisfaction. And because of this, the Mona Lisa's originality haunts us. Picasso famously declared, "To copy oneself is pathetic." We admire the bull-headedness and willingness to take risks of writers and artists like Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso. When I think about the novel revision ahead, my goal is no less determined. My intention is not to produce patches and fillers but more daunting and intangible: getting the story right.

But personally, if I ever felt good enough to copy myself I'd be thrilled.

Let me leave you with this quote from Hemingway to Robert Cantwell in 1950, addressing criticism but more to the point, the importance of answering only to the critic within:

Book is truly very good ["Across the River and Into the Trees"]. You pan it to hell if you don't like it. That is your right and duty. But I have read it 206 times to try and make it better and to cut out any mistakes or injustices and on the last reading I loved it very much and it broke my fucking heart for the 206th time. This is only a personal reaction and should be dis-counted as such. But I have been around quite a while reading and writing and can tell shit from the other things. . . But pan it, ride it, or kill it if you should or if you can.

By the way, "Across the River and Into the Trees" is soon to be made into a major film. Hemingway knew his work would stand the test of time. So pack your bag for the journey. Leave your doubts and worries in the drawer. Take only what you need to make the most of your time in the deep end. As for me? I start tomorrow.
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Operating Instructions


There is no person without a world.
- "Autobiography of Red," Anne Carson, 1998



The manual on you. What do you know about your own operating instructions? There is no author's note. The expert on you, is you.

We are one complete and unique universe - patterned from spirit, bordered by skin, powered by the mind, guided by thought, and infused by heart. The Reference Text on Me - the schematic of how each of us functions - lies somewhere over there on the shelf. Dusty, dog-eared, coffee-stained, tear-stained, face-down and the spine broken. Consulted again and again. . .or perhaps not at all anymore.

Beryl Markham, the daring aviator and adventurer, renowned for her fearless explorations throughout Africa, once said, "You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself." We putter along like wood moles, blindly nosing down familiar ruts in search of life's delicacies and hidden secrets. Often enough the best experts on our inner lives are the people we live with. How clearly they see our inanities. Point out our predictable, vulnerable weaknesses; affirm our quiet and simple strengths.

We share vast continents of ourselves with our loved ones, but only we know the many facets of our innermost wishes and dreams, the languished old wounds, misgivings, regrets. In truth, the complex reality of one person's world is known fully only by that person. Yet 360* of self-awareness is not necessarily a place of understanding each of us is sure to summit.

Become acquainted. With you. Update the manual. From time to time delete information that is outdated, add new chapters that speak to major changes. And with each rereading, share wisely some of what has shifted with those that have the "old you" on their shelves. Have we not ourselves been surprised by changes in a family member or a friend after an interlude apart? That more than an address or hair color is radically altered? Changes may be so subtle we need to look closely, or highlight for others what they may have grown too familiar with to see. The manual basics may remain unchanged, but the troubleshooting section is certain to be frequently consulted.

We are each a "work in progress." In a good way. A story that adds to itself, edits and highlights, and on occasion leads down an untrod path only to circle back out again and dive off to the side.

What's new in your world today?
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