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QUINTESSENCE

A Floating Transparency

Runner in the clouds. The Jungfrau, The Bernese Alps, Switzerland
At work on the novel in progress at my desk, editing and rewriting from revision notes, I chanced to revisit a post written near the beginning of an earlier project. At that time I faced the challenges of the blank page. Much of that novel was worked out on the trails that cut across the bluff near my house. Three years and a novel later, after laying down several drafts and as many complete revisions on this new writing project, I have the added benefit of two draft reviews from outside readers, each read from different but complementary perspectives.

There are manuscript questions for the writer anchored to grammar, plot, and character distinctions, and there are matters of intent, the art of language, and theme. I deeply appreciate both perspectives. I gleaned the most however from an insightful read by a national book critic. This kind of wholistic review, from a professional who reads widely and with an eye to what makes a book work, proved invaluable in understanding the big picture narrative. And yet, and yet. The final answers are found on the bluff.

Some thoughts from January 2014~

Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would not otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man would have dreamed would come his way. I have learned a deep a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets: 'Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it. Begin now."

- W. H. Murray, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition

This essay by Scottish mountaineer W. H. Murray, collected by Steven Pressfield in a little gem of a creative kick-starter titled, "The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles," explores the mystery of the power of commitment. When we choose, we accomplish. When we commit, we begin. We undertake the necessary steps to move forward from intention to deed.

Many poets and writers -- Wordsworth, Whitman, Yeats, and of course Thoreau, Emerson, and Oliver -- understood physical movement as preparation for deep thinking. A preamble to engagement. Walking through hoar-frosted grasses beneath an oyster-colored sky of low cloud this morning, I caught myself problem solving, working a tenacious creative dilemma, unaware my conscious mind had defaulted to autopilot. A floating transparency linked my body and winter and movement through space. Far down the trail I had my problem solved simultaneous with an awareness of a nearby crow, the knowledge hawks actively hunt crows, and appreciation for a grand pine frosted in white, its clustered needles encased in frozen fog.

In running, a calm inner balance rises from the primary focus on breathing and stride. Like meditation, this single and simple focus, running, restructures the overburdened, fragmented mind. As concentration relaxes into a rhythmic groove, we release actively piloting the run. Mental chatter falls to the wayside, big ideas step forward, stress seeps away. On a vigorous extended walk, the rhythmic physical groove finds us sooner, with less effort. The mind leans back, trusting in the body's instinctual balance, and begins to surf the mental intranet. In this state the mind observes, pages through phrases and ideas, and effortlessly connects the random and mysterious. For me, running is a form of mental strength training while a walk is a free-climb.

How does this insight impact productivity habits? I begin with this straightforward question: What is needed? A break or a reboot, inspiration or new thinking? Beginning a work project has multiple entry points, with differing yields. Am I facing distraction? Do I need to open my thinking and push through a creative block? Pace my focus through a long haul effort?

I believe there are patterns within all of us that enhance thought and breath, movement and idea. What works for you?
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Old Regret and Lavish Ease

I thought of all the pain and how we met
Late in our lives yet lavishly at ease,
Having assumed an end to old regret...


- from "The Balcony," May Sarton, 1980

These words carry rich layers of meaning. Here we meet a couple at the theatre, one voice, acknowledging the joy and pain of life lived. Their mistakes and dashed hopes washed to the faintest of outlines by the passage of time. A lifetime of opportunities lost. And yet somehow, in the fullness of release, unexpected late love.

These lines are from May Sarton's longer poem "The Balcony" which ends with this final image, And out of deprivation, a huge flower. Exquisitely beautiful. Words drenched in a translucent grace fully comprehended by the unknown speaker. In the wisdom of all that has come before, beauty.

We must find for ourselves the strength and desire to carry on. To begin again, to renew, starting over from disappointments past. I do not believe the sediments of personal history must pile ever higher within us, condemning our hearts to an inevitable jam in forward motion, an inward collapse from accumulated debris. Nor do I believe that world events freely form the personal, or that age alone steals from us anything we do not give away.

John F. Kennedy once described his father after his stroke, saying, "Old age is a shipwreck." Yet from Sarton's words, I imagine old age as neither the limit nor the context. Age is a translation of experience. It is an arrival. A departure. A point along the living way. We are always beginning. In life, in work, in love. Over and again, the passage of time lies worn in the lines on our foreheads. But time itself -- lost, found, burnt, wasted, empty, celebrated, shortened or prolonged -- needn't mark the melody of the heart. I love the thought that when regrets are tallied and done, thrown over our shoulders in daring abandon, we may at last arrive lavishly at ease.

Time is a construct. Our bodies physical. Each life an interplay of the two, mapped by love. Out of all that has come to pass we may find cupped in our hands a spectacular bloom.


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Years That Answer

The Matterhorn, summit elevation 14,692 ft. Zermatt, Switzerland.

There are years that ask questions and years that answer.
- Zora Neale Hurston

Welcome 2017.

I must say, I hope you are the kinder, gentler sister to 2016. Last year was a rough one, and I really think we collectively, the world of us, need an easier stretch now to catch our breath and regroup. The quote above, by Zora Neale Hurston, is one of my favorites. It speaks to the feeling I think we all have that sometimes we're lost, simply swept up in a maelstrom of events and calamities, doing our best just to hang on. But eventually, there will come a time when the dust settles, the water stills, and reflections clear. The answers distill from the questions.

But what if the questions themselves feel overwhelming? Outside the frame we are familiar with or consider even rational? Beyond our ability to articulate or seek answers? This is the territory of faith. Some would say grace. Religions offer many different definitions of these concepts. To me, grace is an undefinable sheltered state of being. The strong unseen hands that cup the world. Second chances granted from outside of ourselves. Enlightenment. Faith is a belief in grace. In trusting we have a soft place to fall.

Whatever your personal interpretation of faith and grace, I believe this is a year of answers. That if we hold to our questions, trust in the future, and perhaps most importantly, proceed with hope, there will be grace. Welcome 2017. May our questions find answers and our faith in grace be justified. May we be blessed by a year that answers.




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