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QUINTESSENCE

Make This Place

World Peace Flame, The Hague, Netherlands

GOOD BONES
by Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.


This poem by Ohioan poet Maggie Smith was published recently in Waxwing Literary Journal. "Good Bones" then flashed across Twitter, reader to reader. Here was a poem that acknowledged risk yet expressed gritty, guarded optimism about life. How we needed this, reeling, tumbling, weeping through waves of terrorist attacks and violent shootings.

Smith's poem echoed the unspoken fear I felt twenty-seven years ago, when my eldest child was born. I remember looking at my tiny newborn infant, her head cradled in my palm, her small body resting half the length of my forearm, and thinking, Dear heavens, what have I done. I had brought innocent life into the world. But into a world of opportunity and love, or darkness, without hope of joy? This was 1989 and long shadows fell across history. In my work overseas I had experienced tremors of global unrest and growing sectarian violence and terrorism. Home in America, we had yet to experience 9/11. Today, fundamentalist intolerance and terror are at levels that threaten to choke out the quieter voices of peace. Everything is "at least half terrible" as Smith writes, "and that's a conservative estimate."

What tore up my gut all those years ago was feeling forced to question the essential goodness of the world. The moral rightness of bringing children into a world of certain risk and chaos. What "gift" do we bestow upon our children at their birth to protect them? There is no invincibility shield.

The secret, as Smith shares, is that life is delicious. The gift we bestow is joy. To pursue pleasure in a thousand risky ways. At every turn we may be disappointed, scammed, a victim, grow ill. Yet the good and the bad and the ugly are entwined together. Risk, mortality, and the joy of being alive. It must be enough to believe each child might find a good life in the midst of a world in crushing disarray. Each child brings the potential of change.

Maggie Smith's poem ends on promise. It ain't much, but things can be done. This, this is how we build the world. Lift it up and fix it, again and again. Not only for ourselves, but for the future.

Good. Good bones.

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In Our Heads


Our lives were stored in our heads.
They hadn't begun, we were both sure
we'd know when they did.
They certainly weren't this.

We read, we listened to the portable radio.
Obviously this wasn't life, this sitting around
in colored lawn chairs.

- from "August," Louise Gluck

Today must not be a souvenir of yesterday, and so the struggle is everlasting. Who am I today? What do I see today? How shall I use what I know, and how shall I avoid being victim of what I know? Life is not repetition.
- Robert Henri

I have been rethinking a post that I wrote in 2011 on the tension between imagined life and reality. The fantasy in our heads and the truth. What we dream our lives to be in contrast with the ways they unfold.

In Louise Gluck's "August," her young narrator is confident she will be certain when "life" as she imagines it will spread in blazing technicolor across the white screen of summer days. Future selves dormant like ungerminated seeds within the ordinary hours. "Our lives were stored in our heads," the narrator observes, unaware life spools by even in the time spent imagining it. Can we not relate? How we grow lost in daydreams, absorbed in nostalgia, frequently swept to the banks by unbidden musings. "Today must not be a souvenir of yesterday," Robert Henri warned. For what would we have then but a hall of memories? Of recollections like mirrors, arrayed in an endless vision of the past.

We are now in the summer of another year. We may indeed sit in lawn chairs. But if we do so in the company of a friend, perhaps turn a page in a book, enjoy solitude in the pleasure of a favorite tune on the radio...it is all genuine, all everyday living. The ordinary hours produce the honey of life's busyness. Days to years rolling into a swell of gathered sweetness that rests in our hearts like morning dew in the throat of an iris.

This. This universe in the universe of one.

Beautiful. Ordinary. A summer of books, the radio, and colored lawn chairs.

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Carpe Diem

Pebbles on the beach, San Juan Islands

VARIATION ON A THEME BY RILKE
by Denise Levertov

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me - a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day's blow
rang out, metallic - or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.



I think we try so hard to be perfect, we miss life.

Let's stop the pendulum swing of self critique and judgement. Allow our souls to find center, to come to rest. To neither push nor desist but just hold space for awhile. And in that sacred space embrace our permission to be. To luck into, to try, to change our minds, to give it a shot, maybe fail... Perhaps gently settle into ordinary happiness.

Daily human emotional and mental ebb and flows are not the antithesis to life success. Perfectionism is.

In the pursuit of "perfect" lies the negation of all that is not. Perfectionism is an eraser we drag across the life we are living and have lived. Crossing out what may have been our best efforts, our bravest moments. Scars of boot-strapped, gut-wrenching, all-out-there struggle. All those unwanted, unsettling gifts of deepest courage. When we devalue even our smallest efforts, be they honestly sufficient or perhaps barely forward motion, we also devalue the grand essence of human nature - which is to strive.

Humans are not born perfect, they are born to evolve. To seek to understand, to take action, to plan, to expand, to be joyful. Life is not a target. There is no bulls-eye that says, Bingo! Got it. Life is about process. About being vividly, messily, actively present in our own skin. Accepting that however or wherever we may be today, just getting by or progressing along the spectrum of our goals... Well, good enough. This is today. Dame Judi Dench made the point spectacularly - unveiling a wrist tattoo to commemorate her 81st birthday. Carpe Diem.

Don't waste a single second on pointless judgement or wasteful regret. Put down that edit pencil. Stet. Let today be a day of presence.

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