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QUINTESSENCE

A Memorial Day, Then and Now

 

And still it is not enough, to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the immense patience to wait till they are come again. For the memories themselves are still nothing. Not till they have turned to blood within us, to glance and gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves - not till then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.
~ Rainer Maria Rilke

I found myself reading back through old journals this week, thinking about Memorial Day. I stopped on one from seven years ago. Those of you who know me, know that I come from a long tradition of military service, and have many generations of family members, including my father, who lie in military cemeteries in the United States and around the world. Here is part of what I wrote in 2011:

My husband is buried above the wild and tumultuous Spokane River, downriver from the traintrestle bridges. Freight trains roll high above the river, making their way across the continental U.S. Great diesels haul palettes of stacked container goods and seemingly endless chains of barrel cars of crops, oil and chemicals, and the double-decker slatted stock cars. The cars sway down the tracks and then disappear from view through narrow granite cuts in the basalt mountains. We called them "wishing trains," because we'd whisper secret wishes crisscrossing the roads beneath them as they passed. My husband liked the idea that for all eternity he would lie beside the wide, wild Spokane River, in view of those industrious magical trains. Nature and commerce. Chaos and fortune. Our lives are ruled by them.

On this day, Memorial Day, breezes wave ribbons of color along narrow cemetery paths lined with the stars and stripes. Families, lost looks on their faces, clutch plot grids and wander the treed acres looking for their buried. The hands of little ones are tucked in the hands of grownups; in the little fists small flags or bunches of garden lilacs. America does not forget its loved ones. It does not forget its soldiers. Yet the numbers buried in the green shade seem to swell in a continuous sea of monuments. Already a newly engraved stone, a simple bench, stands next to my husband's. A nineteen year old boy, lost in Afghanistan. Someone's son, someone's brother. There are two flags flying in his honor, on the grass the gift of a baseball mitt.

Bending low, I place a flag in the ground the requisite distance (a boot length away) from my husband's marker. A Vietnam era Air Force veteran, he was proud of his service. I couldn't help but think of our own boy, now twenty, at the US Naval Academy, his life at a crux point as well. National service opens us to community beyond family. Opens us to our shared identity as American citizens. In the fall my daughter will run her first half-marathon for Team USO, proud of our soldiers, her brother, her father, and all those whose names she does not know. Those who came before her and follow her now, hands open and ready to do whatever work needs doing. Whether serving in the military, the Peace Corps, Teach for America, the USO, or organizations like Doctors Without Borders or the Red Cross, let us take a moment to thank the persons we meet giving of themselves to America and to the needs of the world.


In the time since I wrote this, my daughter has become a physician, committed to the well-being and needs of others. My son has become an electrical engineer, using science in the invention and service of technology and art. Their father still lies beside the murmuring river downriver from the rumbling trains. Time has passed, and things have changed. And yet, the families come to the cemetery this and every Memorial Day, bearing their tiny flags and garden flowers.

Let the poems of memories carry the day. Whomever it is you think of on this day, whomever it is you miss, I know you will find peace in the devotions of remembrance. I give you love.

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Hope and Sky

Today I am musing on the young, and the ways in which we tend the future singly and as community. Let me begin with work from Ohioan Maggie Smith and a poem written in answer to a question from her own three-year-old child. Maggie's poems, truth-telling wrapped in enigmas graced by flashes of magic, include last year's widely loved "Good Bones," the title poem of her forthcoming book of poems from Tupelo Press, Good Bones.

SKY
Maggie Smith

Why is the sky so tall and over everything?

What you draw as a blue stripe high above
a green stripe, white-interrupted, the real sky
starts at the tip of each blade of grass and goes
up, up, as far as you can see. Our house stops
at the roof, at the glitter-black overlap of shingles
where the sky presses down, bearing the weight
of space, dark and sparkling, on its back.
Think of sky not as blue, not as over,
but as the invisible surround, a soft suit
you wear close to the skin. When you walk,
the soles of your feet take turns on the ground,
but the rest of you is in the sky, enveloped in sky.
As you move through it, you make a tunnel
in the precise size and shape of your body.


We do this. Bring innocence into the world. This world of love as well as darkness, a place at times without hope of joy. How difficult as new parents to question the essential goodness of the world. What "gift" do we bestow upon our children at their birth to protect them? There is no invincibility shield.

The gift we bestow is joy. To grow and play and pursue delight in a thousand adventurous ways. The good and the bad and the ugly all entwined together within risk, mortality, and the sparkle of being alive. It must be enough to believe each child shall find a good life in the midst of the world’s crushing disarray. We must remember each child brings the potential of change. This, this is how we build the world, lift it up and fix it, again and again. Not just for ourselves but for the future. Good. Good bones.

To parents everywhere, the young and the worn, you are the givers and builders and healers the world needs. To those who raise children not by birth but by intent, you are angels among us. And to those who give simply, widely and generously in cherished circles of the heart, unknown souls brighten and find shelter within your selflessness. All of you are constructing, infusing, singing a better world by your work, your passions, and those tired-everyday-but-I-go commitments.

The long shadow of the coming August solar eclipse presages life given of the world; for without light this world would be still and in darkness. Without love, there would be no garden of new green. Without wakeful midnights the young would not sleep. It is truth, that in the wisdom of ancestors and the strength of the aged there is hope. And we guard hope, because of the young.

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Years From Now

Pompeii

ONE HUNDRED YEARS FROM NOW
excerpt from Within my Power by Forest Witcraft

One Hundred Years from now
It will not matter
What kind of car I drove,
What kind of house I lived in,
How much money was in my bank account
Nor what my clothes looked like.
But the world may be a better place
Because I was important in the life of a child.



In 2009 my son's high school teacher for AP Senior English completed the academic year by having each student in his class submit two or three poems they particularly cared about for a class anthology. "Verses from Yesteryear for Future Perusal," the students titled their booklet. The poems ranged in subject and style from Khalil Gibran to Shel Silverstein, Robert Frost to Billy Collins, Stephen Crane to e.e. cummings. The poem cited above is taken from the poems submitted by the students in this class.

There are many reasons a poem may strike us as grand or meaningful or inspiring. But this poem, an excerpt from a longer verse, struck me as significant for the long view it offers of life and what constitutes a meaningful existence. And notably, that a seventeen or eighteen-year-old would choose this poem, find value in mentoring, and choose to continue that thread throughout adult life. We frequently dismiss our youth as self-centered or shallow, but in fact, I have found the opposite to be true. Ask a young person what truly matters in the world, and you will receive a very thoughtful answer.

Today in the aftermath of the dropping of MOAB, the biggest bomb in the US arsenal, on a vague and undefined target for vague and undefined reasons, I think about the state of the world we grown-ups are leaving our young. What we wear may not matter, but the world we leave behind for our children does. Next week, April 21 marks the anniversary of the founding of the great city of Rome. For 2770 years the old city has stood upon the seven hills above the Tiber. A crossroads of cultures, a place of magnificent temples and cathedrals, rare and beautiful art, old stone and older shadows still, marble war monuments, and layers upon layers of the triumphs and losses of human history.

Rome is a testament to the endurance of life, to the passage of beliefs and cultures and dominions. Proof our future is built upon the past. Should we not want to leave our children something they, too, can build upon? Should we not all want Rome?

Let me end this post with one last poem from the student anthology.

a song with no end
by Charles Bukowski

when Whitman wrote, "I sing the body electric"

I know what he
meant
I know what he
wanted:

to be completely alive every moment
in spite of the inevitable

we can't cheat death but we can make it
work so hard
that when it does take
us

it will have known a victory just as
perfect as
ours.




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As It Should Be

My two beloveds, Kate and David, 2008

SOLSTICE MOON
- by G. Scotford Miller

Outside the window
the full moon
shines though the clouds
and yet
always waxing or waning,
is never truly full
but for a fleeting moment.

And yet
the perfect companion
is always present.
Above
or
below the horizon,
always as it should be, present
or waiting.

Concealed or revealed,
perfection
the constant companion,
more common than many
appreciate.

I know.


Winter Solstice. And indeed, as we mark the beginning of winter the days end early in deep velvet dark. What I love about northern winter is the still, enfolding quiet. The hush on the landscape that snow brings. I appreciate the clarity. The crisp, sharp edges of cold. The glittering white, steel gray, slate blue beauty. Nature's delicate craftsmanship, revealed in the embroidered crystals within a single snowflake, the hoar frost on the cattail. The marine hues of winter sunsets that remind one of the secret interiors of abalone shells.

The holiday song "I'll Be Home for Christmas" has become one of my very favorites over time. As my children have grown, left home and begun their own lives, their gathering at the holidays holds a special meaning. Where once sentimental and traditional Christmas festivities were for the children, now I feel they are for parents -- those of us who have gently let our children go. The holidays bring the joys of family back home, at least for the holidays.

In Solstice Moon, the poet reminds us that the promise is always present...concealed or revealed. I like to think the bonds of love between couples, families, friends, people and their pets -- any love you can imagine -- are the poet's constant moon, always present, even in the comings and goings of busy lives, distance or separation. We are linked at the heart, my friends. A timeless and limitless bond. Geography and years matter not.

So rest in joy. As the poet writes, life is always as it should be. It is our task to keep our eyes on the horizon and our lives warmed by hope.

Love to you all this holiday season.
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When It's Very Cold

STOPPING BY THE WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING
by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.


This famous and beloved Frost poem is one my great uncle kept earmarked in a book of poems in his sprawling white farmhouse -- the family homestead on the Palouse. I remember the book of poems well. And my uncle, reading in the winter by the lamp on the reading table next to the picture window. Indeed, the woods, lovely, dark, and deep, are as familiar to those of us who live in the Pacific Northwest and the rolling hills of the Palouse as New Hampshire and the northern woods were to Frost, and you, wherever you may look out on the trees of winter.

I love the imagery in this poem. The cold quiet. The slight flurry of snow swirling through the trees, the impatient horse jingling his harness. One can see the frosted breath of man and horse in the air. The long fields of white, the village in the distance. Together we pause, and reflect. And eventually, begin again to make our way.

These times are grave and dark, my friend. There is no denying the dire state of the world and all that is not good. But today, I ask you to linger, to stop by the woods on your hectic way and deeply feel the quiet. Enjoy the beauty of what you see. Let us be thankful for the constancy of nature, the seasons, and the warm embrace of those we love. Can you hear the bells of the days to come? The promise of tomorrows? And miles to go before I sleep... Yes. But there is this moment. Today.

THINGS THAT ARE GOOD IN COLD WEATHER --
PJs
Hot Drinks
Fireplace
Hoar Frost
Creaking wood
Crisp air
Mittens
Furry pets
Animal tracks in snow
Soup
Books

A friend chimed in with
Knitting projects
Perry Mason reruns on the television

Another added --
Old radio
Working in the shed
Strumming my guitar
Roasting something in the oven

And more --
Ice Skating
Reeds on the banks of frozen ponds
Quilts
Cozy sweaters
Thick socks
Icicles
The call of geese
Sledding
The silhouettes of trees

Perhaps today you can build your own list, or feel free to add to mine. Enjoy the pause. There's such beauty in winter time. Joy, right where you are. I see you there, standing by your window with your coffee, gazing out at the snowy cold. Hello.



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Some Things


Going into the Quintessence archives, I wanted to repost this essay from four years ago. It feels timeless to me, and appropriate to the season and events of history, both personal and within the world. As you gather at Thanksgiving tables, please know what matters is here, in your heart. I send you my very warmest blessings and love.

Simple Truth
November 25, 2012

Some things
you know all your life. They are 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.


- from "The Simple Truth," Philip Levine

The beauty of love is that it is capable of great patience, tremendous tenacity, it stretches, it attaches, it slowly builds like bone in the body. It has been a journey, for me, this life. And in the becoming there is miracle. The gestation of new forms of connection and partnership, of family. Evolving into new ways of being, grafting new shapes onto the lives we lead. It is the simple truth to say living is a cycle of ever-becoming. And while neither easy, nor pristinely beautiful, nor perfect in process, this becoming is perfect in intent. It carries the seed of joy, grounded in the earth, the heavens, and self.

The human heart is a warrior and a monk. And it speaks a simple truth. Belong.
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Seclusion

Priest Lake Moonrise

Back to the archives today, my friends. This post is from August 26, 2013. Tomorrow I head to Priest Lake for a vacation of mountain hiking, huckleberry picking, and that mellow glass of wine on the deck in the company of a gorgeous sunset.

My favorite time of day at the lake is early morning. Out on the deck with a mug of coffee as the mist and loons drift away across the bay under a pink sunrise.

I'll see you back here at the end of August. Enjoy these last days of summer.


MONDAY MORNING, LATE SUMMER

On the fence
in the sunlight,
beach towels.

No wind.

The apricots have ripened
and been picked.
The blackberries have ripened
and been picked.


- Robert Hass, from the poem "Cuttings"

The opening of the chest, the heart chakra - literally opening to the deep breathing and calm rhythms of a lengthy period on break - profoundly affects the mind as well as the body. When we step out of the box, the stress-filled, demanding, unrelenting responsibilities of the 24/7, the break from routine can begin the restoration of the soul. As an observer of my own fifty decades of living, the wide empty stretches on life's blue highways are far and few between in the 21st century. It's no news we live in a plugged-in, high demand, ever-changing, constantly stimulating world. The irregular dry spells, down time, wayside adventures, lags in scheduling all seem to have disappeared along with party-lines and land lines. We are "on" and plugged-in every moment of the day: pinged by messages, expanding lists of to-dos, global information, and social media even when we sleep.

Small wonder we find peace walking in the silence of tall cedars, lulled to sleep by lapping waves on the lake shore, listening to the creak of wind in the trees, bird call in the quiet dawn. Thoreau was a relentless champion of "disconnect and rediscover" for the human soul, and frankly, so am I. I found it interesting to watch my family, traveling to our rustic cabin on the lake shore with four smart phones, two laptops, three iPads, two iPods and one Shuffle, slowly adapt to first making the long trek down the trail to the nearest wifi center for internet signal, to eventually, mournfully, accepting there would never be more than one half-bar of cell service off the lake, to at last letting the devices sit in their cases, untouched. Withdrawal from the digital world was both painful and amusing - catching ourselves automatically engaged in a pointless click to check email, Twitter, FB. The urge to connect releasing, ever so slowly releasing its grip, to be replaced by long naps sunning on beach towels on a gently rolling dock, acoustic jazz guitar on the porch, long conversations by wine and candlelight at the picnic table, delving into not just a chapter but an entire book, board games and cards accompanied by a crackling fire and mellow whiskey.

We learned the nurturing quality of quiet. The sweet richness of intimate conversation. Walking the mountains, taking in the whole of life.

We disappear to the cabin every year, coming from wherever we are in the four corners of the world, from whatever education, work, or travel schedules occupy us, ready to find our way back to ourselves. To recharge in the power of tranquility, the open spaces of daydreams, sunny contentment, the deep truthful night and undisturbed sleep. We reconnect not just within, but together. And when the last spider is slapped with a sandal and tossed out the door, when the last huckleberry has made its way to a pancake drenched in maple syrup, the last pot of camp coffee poured to the dregs, we pack up our beach chairs and book bags and return to the world.

Halfway down the road to civilization the electronics buried in our duffles ping on, buzzing and downloading in a bursting hive of fury and we have to laugh. The world. It doesn't wait, and it doesn't matter.
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Stones Against Worry


THE OCTOPUS
by Benjamin Harnett

Out into the wary wideness
eight minds dragged it, sunlight
fire here, the cool of dark
downwardness. Tentacles go
self, self, self, self, stone!
Ah, lifted to the eyes, this the one.
Quick, back to the closeness
of home.

Felt air, once, a pitiless
flattening, the bright roar, God.
It worries an old scar
balancing self-wrapped rock
on others like a bone. What
was the self, but worry
without comfort, and ache
for food.

To be a child again, all eye
and jelly, drift among ignorant
millions, and be swept up into
a world-mouth with one's family,
to dissolve instead of being
torn by iron to die alone.
Yes, the new cave needs
another stone.


Can you feel the flex in the spine of this poem from Benjamin Harnett's chapbook, "Animal"? The Octopus captures the essence of self, survival, and aloneness, but in a way that spotlights attention on the pure and directive nature of life. The centering of home, cave or nest. The binary reality of safety. The collective comfort of our others. Our known.

It's been a rough month around here, and in the world. There were times when I felt more than a few stones extra were needed to shore up the cave. Life has a way, doesn't it? Lobs in chance, and everything changes. Events occur that destroy calm and defy stability; that undercut every effort at organized living. A disaster or tragedy blocks our pathways, shuts down options, blows a hole in our every effort at risk management. We panic. We howl. Then we get it together and get it done.

Humans, like the octopus, endlessly gather stones against worry - fearing that moment fate yanks us in a new direction.

Stones Against Worry.

"Emergency Fund" was a real thing for us this month. Why you have one, when to use it. Others scoot encouraging stones our way. A box arrives, unannounced. Inside, personal, sentimental things to restore equilibrium, offer faith in good memories, a reminder of good things yet ahead. When good people do good things, it is as if God hands you a star. However dark things may be...there is that star, casting its comforting glow.

So thanks, good souls. You know who you are. No gesture, however humble by any of us, goes without casting its ripple in this world. Those smallest of ripples build into waves of good things. Before we know it there are stars everywhere, lighting the dark.



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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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World Building


MY MOTHER'S NOVEL
by Marge Piercy

Married academic woman ten
years younger holding that microphone
like a bazooka, forgive
me that I do some number of things
that you fantasize but frame
impossible. Understand:
I am my mother's daughter,
a small woman of large longings.

Energy hurled through her
confined and fierce as in a wind
tunnel. Born to a mean
harried poverty crosshatched
by spidery fears and fitfully
lit by the explosions
of politics, she married her way
at length into solid working-class:
a box of house, a car she could
not drive, a TV set kept turned
to the blare of football,
terrifying power tools, used wall
to wall carpeting protected
by scatter rugs.

Out of backyard posies
permitted to fringe
the proud hanky lawn
her imagination hummed
and made honey,
occasionally exploding
in mad queen swarms.

I am her only novel.
The plot is melodramatic,
hot lovers leap out of
thickets, it makes you cry
a lot, in between the revolutionary
heroics and making good
home-cooked soup.
Understand: I am my mother's
novel daughter: I
have my duty to perform.


Marge Piercy included this poem in her book of poetry, "The Moon is Always Female," first published in 1984. I felt the ethos of her words in my bones, thinking of my own mother who desperately wanted to major in Forensic Science in the early 1950s, only to be told women were not allowed in the field and shunted into sociology. I think about my mother, top of her university class academically, working two secretarial jobs for male bosses possessing half her intelligence for a quarter of their wages. I think of my mother wanting so much more than her world would yield up; how she struggled for a foothold, demanding of me I carry that fierce hunger and hard work and do better. Hit harder with the chisel and crack a few more walls.

I can't claim that I was able to do this with my life. Not in a way that encompasses grand change. But in my daughter's life I have seen change that matters. And so I think it goes. For mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. We crack doors more ajar with each generation, heart and shoulder to wood. Seek more, demand more. We may ourselves settle for less, but with hope the next set of shoulders will carry the day. And in time, I believe this is true.

On this Father's Day, as Mother's Day, let us celebrate the work of generations. Acknowledge the sacrifices of grandparents and parents - flags on the masts of a new generations of ships that set sail with rich cargos of more than fresh ambition. As Marge Piercy writes so eloquently, we are each someone's novel. The work-in-progress of a grand and daring world-building that began early in Grandma's kitchen, or Dad's garage, in the warmth of Mom's home-made soup.

I offer gratitude for these daring works of imagination.
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