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QUINTESSENCE

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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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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Footprints, Weavers

Why do we explore? Beyond the obvious relaxation of leaving behind the familiar for the fresh freedom of non-routine, why do we travel? What is it about discovery that produces connection in our hearts and minds?

I have noticed of late that in contrast with the travels of my youth, thirty years or more ago, today's world is less diverse and more incrementally universal in character and habit. I am sure the same might be said thirty years before that, as we slide the marker backward. Somewhere in the distant past we would discover the once true diversity of the world, large and strange, that now, in the acceleration of the electronic web, creeps toward a newly homogenized blend mixed with flavors and echoes of the old.

The idea that the present is always settling toward homogenous stability. A stability altered by any exogenous factor that challenges, and stirs; that when rooted in time, evolves itself into a new homogeneity. And thus evolution occurs, over and over, spark to stability, old to new. We change because of what is new. We absorb change by making it part of who we are.

Travel is our window into the history of humanity, bookmarked in time. The Athens I visited in 1981 is not the Athens of 2015, nor the Athens of 400 BC. The ancient relics of classical antiquity loom, dormant; yet are erasing themselves, stone by cracked stone, from the present future. Travel draws for us the shadow of history, the footprint of the world in all its past uniqueness contrasted with the familiar present from which we translate our understanding. We are always of both then and now. Points in a continuum of events that loop infinitely through points of time. In journeys of exploration we frame our understanding of an evolving world.

I am both saddened by the erosion of global differences and heartened by our elbow-to-elbow humanity. We are, despite events in the headlines, losing many of the sharp-edged facades of nationalism even as we confront the deeper conflicts in human nature and behavior. As if humanity is collectively regressing through time from the many cities, to the one village, to the family. Fractious, occasionally peaceful. We are becoming more one even as that oneness is a larger collection of us.

Travel is a way to root in historical narrative. To contemplate ancient classical arts and dramas and the stories of human history through a great sieve. What might Antigone whisper within the dreams of Shakespeare? What faith and ambitions echo in the bog burials of the Vikings, travel the Silk Road, were won and lost in the battles of the Caesars? What familiar fear would we find in a soldier's journal during the trench warfare of WWI? What tribal art echoes in the cut-outs of Matisse, what dreams of flight from Icarus to the Wright brothers? Can we taste the connection between the milled bread of Roman Ostia Antica and the brioche of revolutionary Paris? The world is a kaleidoscope of intersecting evolutions, of invention busting out randomly and intermittently - the seeds of history scattered on the wind.

As we explore we sense the patterns that weave together all things and places and behaviors. We begin to see the potholes, the tears, the unraveling across time in the grand design. We also perceive the repairs, the transmutations, the inspirations. We are weavers seated at the fire - the ever-burning flame of human history. Our narrative traversing the seasons, displayed in the cycles of the constellations overhead as we weave. We weave, we endlessly weave.

I give you this remarkable poem by Richard Siken with this thought: Might history be all that which is already here?

LOVESONG OF THE SQUARE ROOT OF NEGATIVE ONE
by Richard Siken

I am the wind and the wind is invisible, all the leaves
tremble but I am invisible, bloom without flower, knot
without rope, song without throat in wingless flight, dark
boat in the dark night, pure velocity. As the hammer is
a hammer when it hits the nail, and the nail is a nail when
it meets wood, and the invisible table begins to appear
out of mind, pure mind, out of nothing, pure thinking.
Through darkness, through silence, a vector, a violence,
I labor, I lumber, I fumble forward through the valley as
winter, as water, I mist and frost, flexible and elastic to
the task. I am the hand that lifts the rock, I am the mind
that strings the worm and throws the line and feels the tug,
the flex in the pole, and foot by foot I find the groove,
the trace in the thicket, the key in the lock, as root breaks
rock, from seed to flower to fruit to rot, a holy pilgrim
moving through the stations of the yardstick. I track,
I follow, I hinge and turn, frictionless and efficient as an
equals sign. I flip and fold, I superimpose, I become
location and you veer toward me, the eye to which you
are relative, magnetized for your revelation. Hook and bait,
polestar and checkmate, I am your arrival, there is no
refusal, we are here, you see, together, we are already here.


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My Hearth Always Burned Brightly, Friend


TE ROGO, PRAETERIENS FAC MORA ET PERLEGE VERSUS
QUOS EGO DICTAVI ET IUSSI SCRIBERE QUENDAM.
EST MIHI TERRA LEVIS MERITO, SED QUIESCO MARMORE CLAUSUS
REDDEDI DEPOSITUMM COAGLAVI SEMPER AMICOS,
NULLIUS THALAMOS TURBAVI, NEMO QUERETUR.
CONIUNX KARA MIHI MECUM BENE VIXIT SEMPER HONESTE.
PRAESTITI QUOD POTUI, SEMPER SINE LITE RECESSI.
UNUS AMICUS ERAT TANTUM MIHI QUI PRAESTITIT OMNIA SEMPER HONESTE,
T.L. HERMES V(IATOR) Q(UAESTORIUS),
TUNC MEUS ADISDUE SEMPER BENE LUXIT, AMICE, FOCUS.

- Tomb Inscription, CE 477, Ager Tusculanus, Italy

I ask you as you pass by
Take a moment's pause and read
The lines I've dictated and
Ordered to be written.
The earth rests lightly on me
Which is as it should be,
And I lie quietly, encased in marble.
I've repaid my debt.

I always had a cluster of friends,
I disturbed no one's bedchamber, and
No complaint was lodged against me.
My dear wife lived with me
In harmony and always virtuously.

I performed the tasks I could,
Always gave place without recourse to the law.
I had just one friend who did all things honorably.
He surpassed all others in virtue:
Titus Flavius hermes, a court officer of quaestorian rank.
In those days my hearth always burned brightly, friend.


- from the translation offered by Paul Shore in "Rest Lightly: An Anthology of Latin and Greek Tomb Inscriptions," Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1997.

Then and now.

Centuries and tides of history separate the long-departed life of this Roman citizen and those of us living today in the 21st Century. This tomb inscription, from the slim but intriguing book of Latin and Greek tomb inscriptions translated by Paul Shore, "Rest Lightly," is particularly notable for its depiction of Roman domestic tranquility.

We take for granted that much about humanity and culture has changed over the millennia, but note the importance - and significance - of those virtues and values that have not: love, loyalty, righteousness, charity, peaceableness. I am struck by the deceased's abundant gratitude for a life well lived, and his outspoken adherence to a code of ethics and noteworthy friendship. Here is a man who honors the simple gift of a life without regrets. Here is domestic life conducted in harmony, with abundant affection and loyalty.

Could we ask for more?

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Pent In The Shadows

CHRISTMAS SPARROW
by Billy Collins

The first thing I heard this morning
was a rapid flapping sound, soft, insistent -

wings against glass as it turned out
downstairs when I saw the small bird
rioting in the frame of a high window,
trying to hurl itself through
the enigma of transparency into the spacious light.

Then a noise in the throat of the cat
hunkered on the rug
told me how the bird had gotten inside,
carried in the cold night
through the flap in a basement door,
and later released from the soft grip of teeth.

On a chair, I trapped its pulsations
in a shirt and got it to the door,
so weightless it seemed
to have vanished into the nest of cloth.

But outside, when I uncupped my hands,
it burst into its element,
dipping over the dormant garden
in a spasm of wingbeats
then disappeared over a row of tall hemlocks.

For the rest of the day,
I could feel its wild thrumming
against my palms as I wondered about
the hours it must have spent
pent in the shadows of that room,
hidden in the spiky branches
of our decorated tree, breathing there
among the metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn,
its eyes open, like mine as I lie in bed tonight
picturing this rare, lucky sparrow
tucked into a holly bush now,
a light snow tumbling through the windless dark.



This poem by Billy Collins, from a 2013 compendium of new and selected poems "Aimless Love" (Random House), evokes many feelings for me.

Interiority (noun): being within, inside of everything. Loosely that which is within; going inward, further toward a center.

For many of us, the holidays are not easy. We are the ones with grief tucked in a back pocket. Interiority a place we dwell in instinctive rebuff of a season frequently marked by chaotic family gatherings, lush sentimentality, bombastic festivities, and prickly, achingly nostalgic traditions. We take refuge, wait out the hours. Wary of the ways the social carousel tenders the blues. The mood is not exactly melancholy, certainly not joy, but more fragile. A splintered heart. A clear-as-glass gathering of the self.

I was reminded of all of this recently chatting with a friend in New York about the recent loss of her mother and her difficulty enjoying the season. "How is it for you?" she asked.

Indeed. How is it for me? After a decade of widowhood and a recent remarriage, I find myself in a different place now than in the years leading to this moment. The word I reached for was "serene" as I answered my friend. But that is not quite right. "Serene" implies a peaceful contentment when I am thinking of quiet still waters. The truth is I am not beyond it, even a decade later as I reflect on the death of my first husband, Ken. But I have come to accept it. And as time swallows the insignificant and polishes the pure, I have found comfort in the goodness of our years together. There is acceptance in surrender, knowing loss is nonnegotiable. I have learned I can thrive at the kinder edges of that once-gaping hole. I want to tell my friend, Time will gentle loss, and life will come to mean more than enduring sadness. There will be joy - and that is okay.

The commitment to a new marriage - to growing, building, loving - helped free my life from loneliness. For loss is lonely. Others skirt its cold shadow. I will never not feel my grief, but that pain no longer paralyzes living. I have come to see grief and sadness as one more beautiful ring of color encompassing the soul. Much as a seashell forms bands of ridges, rings, and patterns in response to the ocean, so have I, living this life given me. Part of the beauty of Collins's poem is its inexpressible awareness of the nuanced shadows of danger and mercy, moonlight and grace - the very Christmas sparrow I want to place in the hand of my friend, closing her fingers gently around the gift. This is life. And someday, that acceptance will be enough to fly to joy again.

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Gatherings

We artists are mythmakers, and we participate with everybody else in the social construction of reality.
- Helen Mayer Harrison

Thanksgiving is near, and many of us turn our thoughts to upcoming gatherings. We may grow thoughtful as we noodle over grocery lists, our thoughts preoccupied by the complexities of hosting relatives from afar. Or we may be the ones to pack our bags, steeled for that bumpy emotional ride that so often comprises family immersion. The personal challenges and issues are real, but our anxiety is frequently intensified by overthinking. We are erecting moats, laying in reserves, presenting an obligatory delegation in lieu of our hearts.

Our modern century is tough on connection. We crave relationships, a sense of belonging that will endure. We need this. When we come together in celebration, let us bring our goodwill. Let us avoid the stresses of elaborate planning and impossible expectations. Oscar Wilde remarked, "Simple pleasures are the last refuge of the complex." Be simple. Take each moment as it comes. Tilt the table whenever possible toward joy and contentment and away from conflict. Thorny issues are not resolved over dinner tables.

Here is a Quintessence post from November 25, 2012 that opens on powerful words from poet Philip Levine:

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 and tremendous tenacity. Love stretches, it attaches, it builds, slow like bone. This life is a journey. Moving and changing, we experience the gestation of new forms of connection and partnership, new expressions of family. We evolve new ways of being, new shapes for the lives we lead. It is the simple truth to say living is ever-becoming. And while this process is neither easy nor pristinely beautiful, imperfect in process in fact, the becoming is perfect in intent - grounded in the earth and in the heavens. We find joy when we reach beyond the self. The human heart is a warrior and a monk. And it speaks a simple truth: Belong.

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Wednesday Morning, Mid August

First Star - Priest Lake
Good morning, friends.

I'm heading up to the lake on Saturday for two weeks. I cannot begin to tell you how much I need this break from the world. A chance to regroup, rethink, recharge, reassess, recommit. I have promised myself to limit connections by internet: to take each day and absorb it as an experience, not some work data subset. Promised myself not to think about what to do with what comes my way, or how to share it, or why it should matter to anyone but me. I've come off a year of serious work and inner goal-setting and it's time to revisit those points. Do they still matter? Did I complete the work?

I find, looking back on old journals, that I knew myself better back then, back before the era of insta-share. I really understood the days, years, and moments were mine - my life, mine to learn from. Now there is this contemporary tendency to let experience - our personal contact with living - slide right through us into the greater pool of human busyness. What makes for great reading for others (these bits we share are, after all, stories), is in truth the giving of ourselves away without letting anything stick.

I plan to let things stick the next two weeks. To read the books I have stacked and set aside for a windfall of time. To read the poetry that I love that needs to sit awhile to seep into my soul. I will hike the forests and forage for huckleberries and sleep in the sun on an old wood dock rolling gently on the wake of passing boaters. I will use these days to talk to the ones I love without agenda, in an abundance of time. In the cool mornings take my coffee down to the shore and sit, silent as loons rise and wing across the water. Watch bats at twilight skim over the lake as the first star rises over the rose and lavender Selkirk Mountains. Beach fire nights with a mellow single malt, cosy in an old school sweatshirt, open to the thoughts that rise from within as sparks rise towards the sky and then leave us, or perhaps sink deeper into the fabric of who we are.

Of late the world has reminded me of the fragility of human resilience and the momentum of the tragic. Misfortune and hatred mow down the innocent as well as the brave. I wish for all of you a break from the world. However and wherever you may find it. Yes, the world will need us back, to proffer our small lights and carry on. But for now, seek peace. See you back here soon.

In closing, a post written last year at the lake -
August 26, 2013

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 - deep breathing and calm rhythms - 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. An observer of fifty decades of living, I know the wide empty stretches on life's blue highways are far and few between in this unsettled 21st century. It's no news we live in a plugged-in, high demand, ever-changing, constantly stimulating world. Irregular dry spells, down time, wayside adventures, lags in scheduling - all have disappeared. 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.

Peace, walking in the silence of tall cedars. Peace, lulled to sleep by waves that lap slowly against the shore. Listen 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 health of the human soul, and frankly, so am I. I found it interesting to observe my family traveling to our rustic cabin on the lake shore with all four smart phones, two laptops, three iPads, two iPods and one Shuffle. The first day making the long trek down the trail to the nearest wifi center for internet signal, until eventually, mournfully, the acceptance there would never be more than one half-bar of cell service off the lake. At last letting the devices sit in their cases, untouched.

Withdrawal from the digital world is both painful and amusing - catching ourselves automatically engaged in that pointless click to check email, Twitter, FB. The urge to connect releasing, slowly releasing its grip, replaced by long naps, the dulcet jazz of acoustic guitar on the porch, long conversations by wine and candlelight at the picnic table. Time to delve into not just a chapter, but an entire book; board games and cards accompanied by a crackling fire.

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 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 delicious huckleberry has made its way to a pancake drizzled in maple syrup, the last pot of camp coffee poured to the dregs - well, then 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 simultaneously ping, buzzing, downloading in a hive of fury and we have to laugh. The world. It doesn't wait, and it doesn't matter.

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Hearts and Boxes

THE LITERARY LIFE
by Billy Collins

I woke up this morning,
as the blues singers like to boast,
and the first thing to enter my mind,
as the dog was licking my face, was Coventry Patmore.

Who
was Coventry Patmore?
I wondered, as I rose
and set out on my journey to the encyclopedia
passing some children and a bottle cap on the way.

Everything seemed more life-size than usual.
Light in the shape of windows
hung on the walls next to the paintings
of birds and horses, flowers and fish.

Coventry Patmore,
I'm coming to get you, I hissed,
as I entered the library like a man stepping
into a freight elevator of science and wisdom.

How many things have I looked up
in a lifetime of looking things up?
I wondered, as I set the book on the piano
and began turning its large, weightless pages.

How would the world look
if all of its things were neatly arranged
in alphabetical order? I wondered,
as I found the
P section and began zeroing in.

How long before I would forget Coventry Patmore's
dates and the title of his long poem
on the sanctity of married love?
I asked myself as I closed the door to that room

and stood for a moment in the kitchen,
taking in the silvery toaster, the bowl of lemons,
and the white cat, looking as if
he had just finished his autobiography.


This poem spoke to me this morning for the simple reason I, too, woke up with an odd question occupying my mind. Not about a poet, but about the boundaries of autonomy. Is it possible, I wondered, for independence (the state of being independent) to nest in dependence or codependence, like so many Russian nesting dolls that symbolize the various degrees of autonomy and community? When we speak of personal independence do we mean the standard dictionary meaning - "freedom from the control, influence, support, aid, or the like of others" - or sweep all that definition of the body-politic and more into a proclamation of self-thinking? A cultural salute to the "solitary intelligence"?

The world itself is a loosely-stitched global quilt of independencies and co-dependencies, and intermingled, shifting national states between the two. Hearts and boxes. In some ways happily delineated, organized, and in others roughly folded, crunched at the corners. In my house for the next twelve weeks we will practice our own independent-comingling as my daughter, a third year medical student, takes up her old room, now guest room, for a brief set of clinical rotations at nearby hospitals, all part of her required medical training. I am beyond thrilled. It is a gift to have her home. It is also my challenge to respect and observe the shift in borders in the shadow of the old. Is she wary behind that easy smile? Does she wonder if her sturdy independence will wobble as she takes up her old seat at the family dinner table? Will she miss her personal space and newly adult world, however short the time home or respectful the daily routine? I suspect so. I would. But we love time together, and this can be an opportunity to invent a new degree of "us."

The sun this morning seems more brilliant in her presence, the kitchen tomatoes red and ripe in the bowl. The sauvignon blanc I pour for the two of us as we share the wide rocker and discuss the day under the shade of the cherry tree, ever more sweet and satisfying on the tongue. Here's to Independence, my friends. Of whatever varietal you celebrate this weekend, personal or national. It's all good.

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The Gratitude Stole

The Gratitude Stole
Which is to say, mi corazon, drink up the sunlight you can and stop feeding the good fruit to the goat. Tell me you believe the world is made of more than all its stupid, stubborn, small refusals, that anything, everything is still possible. I wait for word here where the snow is falling, the solitaires are calling, and I am, as always, your M.
- from "To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary," Incarnadine by Mary Syzbist

The Gratitude Stole is a tradition at Stanford University. The stole's only decoration is the University logo in gold thread at the bottom. Graduating seniors who choose to do so, wear this red silk stole through commencement. After commencement, the new graduate removes the stole and places it around the shoulders of that one person the student feels supported him or her most significantly, mentored their success, or inspired them toward their life calling.

My son placed the Gratitude Stole on me.

He didn't need to. I was forever and always his number one fan, yet other fine men and women had a hand in his success. We'd been though a lot together as a family. I knew he was thinking not just of me at that moment, but of his absent father, who passed away in 2003. I knew he was reflecting on the unexpected challenges and struggles he endured to grow into a young adult, a confident man, and today a university graduate. We both knew the accomplishment was entirely his; his alone that core of courage and determination. I was simply that someone who believed in him. I offered faith. Faith in his ability to meet his challenges, faith in his intelligence and talents, faith in his chosen dreams, and faith in our resilience and love as a family. I believed in my son, because that's what parents do. But I was believing for two: his father and me.

I know Ken would have been incredibly proud of David on this day. I know he would have been proud not only for the completion of his education, but for the character and integrity his son exemplified every step of his journey. I felt the twinness of their beauty, the father and the son. The light of the man gone illumined the sparkle of the younger man before me. Receiving the Gratitude Stole from my son made visible the love and faith carried forward by a long line of strong shoulders. The father. Grandparents no longer here. Our closest friends. All of us bearing witness to one young man's quiet triumph on this day.

I think symbolic ceremonies set apart life's important moments and teach us about continuity. These ceremonies mark one journey's end and embrace turning forward to the next. Symbols of recognition and accomplishment, while certainly cultural or institutional, live within the deeply personal. Behind a graduation or diploma stand the dreams and struggles every such achievement signifies. Years, perhaps entire lifetimes embroider the borders of ceremony. I like to think even the presence of those no longer with us.

We see ourselves in these moments, and I know that I saw myself in David's eyes.
Grateful.

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Wings

WINGS
I saw the heron
poise
like a branch of white petals
in the swamp,

in the mud that lies
like a glaze,
in the water
that swirls its pale panels

of reflected clouds;
I saw the heron shaking
its damp wings -
and then I felt

an explosion -
a pain -
also a happiness
I can hardly mention

as I slid free -
as I saw the world
through those yellow eyes -
as I stood like that, rippling,

under the mottled sky
of the evening
that was beginning to throw
its dense shadows.

No! said my heart, and drew back.
But my bones knew something wonderful
about the darkness-
and they thrashed in their cords,

they fought, they wanted
to lie down in that silky mash
of the swamp, the sooner
to fly.

- Mary Oliver

There is something about the delicacy of the transitions into early summer and late fall that always remind me of the poems of Mary Oliver. The way in which she captures the voice and imprint of the unseen, the song of the living things, the guardian silence of the skies. When I read this poem, it reminded me of my late husband Ken, who passed away in 2003. His presence among us is the heron at the water's edge below the cliffs of the place he is buried. For a week after his death, this single gray heron waited there at the river's elbow, braced against the rushing waters. Still and tranquil, he watched us. Eventually, as twilight fell to its deepest hue, our heron would spread its feathered wings and lift into the sky, lost in the dark.

This weekend, our son, David, our youngest, graduates from Stanford University. Ken would be so proud. He understood dreams, and struggle, disappointment, integrity, and determination. He experienced the accomplishment of great ambitions, and the loss of things the heart can only imagine. I will be celebrating David's accomplishment for him, and for us. For what that beautiful man did not live to see. Yet I know he will be there beside us - in that great silky mash of life, memory, love. David thrives, brilliant in his passion for life, rooted in the deep strength of his father. His commencement this weekend marks something wonderful; a milestone in a great and terrible journey of his own, through experiences a young man should not have to weather at such a tender age. All of us sing from an unknown song sheet when it comes to life. We receive, we give. We begin to hear the melody in our song as we progress through the years.

I celebrate life. I celebrate family, love, the accomplishment of big dreams, and yes, the reflecting clouds. The presence of the heron.

To you, my son, shining so bright this moment.

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