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QUINTESSENCE

Becomes You


THE NAPE
by David Mason

In the cidery light of morning
I saw her at the table
reading the paper, her cup
of coffee near at hand,
and that was when I bent
and brushed the hair from her nape
and kissed the skin there, breathing
the still surprising smoothness
of her skin against my lips -
stolen, she might say,
as if I would be filled
with joy of touching her,
I the fool for love,
and all that history carried
back to me in the glide
of mouth on skin, knowledge
of who she is by day
and night, sleeping lightly,
rocked in gentle privacy,
or outside in the garden
probing earth and planting.
We had been this way for more
than twenty years, she
leading a life of purpose
rarely stated, and I
just back from somewhere else.
I brushed my lips on her skin
and felt her presence through me,
her elegant containment
there in the cidery light.


I talked with a friend recently who had moved across the Pacific and was feeling raw and lost in a distant land, about when the expatriate ever feels part of the unknown, at home in the unfamiliar landscape.

Eventually, I said, the new becomes you. Meaning, I suppose, that if one inhabits the strange long enough, it ceases to remain strange. The unfamiliar becomes, in time, painted in memories and recognition. The dream no longer a surprise but an experience one has walked before. The adopted reality resides parallel with all other known realities. A part of who the self is now, and therefore, no longer alien.

I meditated on my walk in the soft white fog of this winter morning, thinking about this process of smudging the borders of identity. The way we push personal boundaries forward when we welcome new experience. How we grow the curled and speckled exoskeleton that surrounds us; creating larger and more beautifully complex whorls simply by absorbing change and accommodating the unfamiliar. A hermit crab, when it outgrows its home of mortared sand and shell, departs for larger spaces. In time, the new boundaries become the old: the crab adapts to the room available. Are we not also designed to grow into the spaces and frontiers we give ourselves? Built to incorporate the challenges and loves and landscapes and languages we make personal?

This poem, The Nape, by David Mason, is about the way long love becomes familiar. How the wondrous strange and unknown evolves, and all that history, the gentle privacy, as Mason describes it, pierces through in a single touch, felt, her presence through me. I imagine the human soul, porous as papyrus, absorbing the inks of a lifetime of experience. Each human story unfurling in all the wrong turns, spices, songs and wisdoms of the other. Discovered in the surprise of a kiss, in the return and the departure.

Familiar begins at the edges of the unfamiliar. Eventually, the new becomes you.
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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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Lean on Art

Blue Lagoon, Capri

I'VE BROUGHT TO ART
by C.P. Cavafy

I sit here, yielding to reverie. I've brought to Art
desires and notions: certain things half-seen -
countenances or figures; certain vague recollections
of loves unfinished. Allow me to lean on Art;
Art knows how to fashion an image of Beauty,
doing so subtly, completing life
by blending impressions, mingling together the days.



My refuge is in words. So too, for many of you. Or perhaps for you it is the workshop behind the house, the camera in your hand, the yarn in your fingers, the land you till, music after dark, the lyrics in your thoughts, spices simmering on the stove. Art offers us the way through, and I find myself at her doorstep these days, knocking lightly.

I have a friend who is a painter. Her easel stands in the corner of her kitchen. When the light hits a certain way, she stops and paints. These last few weeks she has been passing her easel, searching. Searching for the light. Finally, she began to paint anyway, remembering what she needed to see.

Go walk through the last days of fall, my friends. Stack the firewood you will need in December. Send coats and sweaters to charity. Unpack the old movies. Bake that pumpkin bread. Pen the poem that has echoed in your dreams and carve the totem from the wood. Now are the dark days. We feed ourselves with light, serendipitous and imagined. Let Art lead you, as 19th century poet Constantine Cavafy so beautifully expressed. Lean on Art. Mingle the days.

Gather in the light.

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Stiller than Silence

Flowers of Gutenberg

FLOWERS BEFORE DARK
Stillness of flowers. Colors
a slow intense fire, faces
cool to the touch, burning.
Massed flowers in dusk, crimson,
magenta, orange,
unflickering furnace, gaze
unswerving, innocent scarlet,
ardent white, afloat
on late light, serene passion
stiller than silence.

- Denise Levertov

Levertov's inexplicable phrase, "serene passion/ stiller than silence," holds my attention. Passion contained, passion within the boundaries of serenity? And how do we reach this point of perfect disequilibrium, or is it equilibrium, a point tipped between motion and emotion, tranquility and fierceness?

I believe I've felt something that speaks of it. You may have as well. A glancing, tingling, rooted awareness. That says, This. Here. Now.

Invisible ribbons, threads and slips of awareness stiller than silence. The Real twists about us continuously - shimmering, shadowed, translucent, opaque. Mist grazing skin on a solitary run. Wind across crevassed black rock. Dozing, deep in the crook of a beloved's arm. Splintered sunlight across snow.

I admire Levertov's work for many reasons, but particularly for her balletic wordplay. Powerful en pointe verbal arabesques, light and free, pour through poems like "Flowers Before Dark." An exaltation of light. The unfettered sensuality of color. The exuberance of nature, unnamed. The length of view in the meaning of before dusk.

The passion of what it is to be alive.
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Synergy and Healing

Sculpture Garden, gate detail, Bergen, Norway
FOG HORNS
by David Mason

The loneliest days,
damp and indistinct,
sea and land a haze.

And purple fog horns
blossomed over tides -
bruises being born

in silence, so slow,
so out there, around,
above and below.

In such hurts of sound
the known world became
neither flat nor round.

The steaming teapot
was all we fathomed
of
is and is not.

The hours were hallways
with doors at the ends
opened into days

fading into night
and the scattering
particles of light.

Nothing was done then.
Nothing was ever
done. Then it was done.


We are in the midst of a bitter and exhausting national election season. Who isn't exhausted by the level of negativity and conflict around us? Add on a recent minor surgery at the end of long months focused on the completion of a new novel, and I have had time to think at some depth on the meaning of body-mind synergy and the nature of depletion. What healing is, and is not.

I, like most of us, exist in my mind and forget I dwell in my body. And so it is often hard to appreciate the synergy of the two halves of personal wholeness. That is, until the body requires the full attention of the mind to navigate its needs. Only then do we understand the sustaining embrace of this partner in life, the body. Then does the mind release its instinctive drive, dwell in the present, and nourish the physical self.

This synergy is not always perfect. When our bodies are fit and whole, our thinking expands. When the mind undertakes a major accomplishment, when our labors see us through, the body resonates. At times however the body does not fully heal but holds the mind within its scars. When stasis hits the red zone, our power depleted, do we know what to do? Is healing made of states of compartmentalized well being, or is it holistic? Can we heal the self in one area and continue to struggle in another?

We generally do limp along in some degree of dependence on a spare tire. But what struck me deeply recently is that very little of this healing work is intentional and it should be. We instinctively seek well being, but only tend to physical health as needed. When the world around us becomes actively oppressive and depressive, as it has this presidential election year, do we step away and disengage as necessary? Do we choose peace of mind for the benefit of the entire self?

Body wellness is the foundation of so much else. A wounded body derails a sharp mind. I had no choice but to embrace healing. I rested from the manuscript. I turned off the news and stepped away from media broadcasts. I focused on body healing. And then I returned to work.

As the poet concludes, Nothing was ever done. And then it was done.

I finished my novel.

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One Certain Day of Autumn


VARIATION ON A THEME BY RILKE
[The Book of Hours, Book I, Poem I, Stanza I]
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 was it I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.


Autumn in the northern latitudes is my favorite season with its brilliantly hued afternoons of slanted light, the warmth of the earth slow to rise and long to linger. The sun is bright but scraped of its blistering heat, the days crisp at the edges. September skies can be so hard a blue the light deflects and skitters away while white nimbus clouds pile into low slow banks on the horizon on their stately march.

This is a time of preparation, renewal, and focus. Monarch butterflies begin their global migration to Mexico. The field mouse scurries to gather seeds, the squirrels stuff nuts into holes excavated about the yard. Overhead the Canadian geese are on wing, their southern flight marked by a chorus of honking. The singing birds dart to the feeder, building fat reserves, their summer songs set aside. Nature offers its harvest bounty and we gather it in.

Feel the gathering of energies, the tingle of change in your bones.

Levertov's poem speaks of acute wholeness, aliveness, presence. I feel this exquisitely in autumn. Now is the season of epic journeys. The new school year somersaults childhood forward a year, the days of rest and play set aside. The change in seasons signals an accounting and an assessment, a refresh of goals, and plans for tomorrows yet to come. We gather and tend and set aside. What is there yet to do? What is there that must be done? What do we dream of?

Autumn strikes a bell that all may hear. If we listen, we hear the tone within ourselves. What does the sound of your whole self ringing sing to you?
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One Wing of the Silence

Ortigia, Sicily

XLIV
by Pablo Neruda

You must know that I do not love you, and that I love you,
because everything alive has its two sides;
a word is one wing of the silence,
fire has its cold half.

I love you in order to begin to love you,
to start infinity again
and never stop loving you:
that's why I do not love you yet.

I love you, and I do not love you, as if I held
keys in my hand: to a future of joy -
a wretched, muddled fate -

My love has two lives, in order to love you:
that's why I love you when I do not love you,
and also why I love you when I do.


The last heat of summer glances off the hard enamel sky and the late summer grasses are bleached the color of dust. All the tender green on the trees has been leached away by the hungry sun. I walk the bluff, thinking about the human heart and our desire to protect it, and keep its secrets, and yet somehow remain open and willing to trust.

We yearn to be in a state of love yet fight against the vulnerability of surrender as does the drowning man combat the surf. The heart seems to always be searching. Turning over each leaf, each stone. I once thought this search was uninformed, reflexive, blind. I suspect it is anything but. In time we learn to trust the instinct at our core and to translate what the heart has found.

The human heart takes the hand and leads the way when rightness is present. Rightness meaning alignment. When the centeredness of our being resonates as a whole. No division of soul versus ego, or mind versus emotion. Think of how the willow switch vibrates over the course of hidden water, so too does the heart divine love. The human brain seeks reassurance in equations, spreadsheets, cross-lists, the satisfaction of endless rationales: the heart vibrates within us like the tuning fork at perfect pitch.

Heart and mind are frequently at odds. We make mistakes, omissions, blunders of innocence, and sometimes ignorance. We extricate ourselves from things our brains advised but our hearts never blessed, things our egos crave when our hearts fold closed. Perhaps, and worst of all, we leave behind the very thing the heart most desires because the mind is not convinced. There is no harmony of self.

Under the soles of my shoes, red dirt rises in little dust devils that settle on the dry leaves of the trees along the trail. The mistakes of my heart are also as dust rising from my steps. They both mark passage and are the mark of time. Footprints through life. What comes of our hunger for love, is in the end, a matter of interior mystery and personal history. The answer for each of us lies in the place our steps begin and end.

A word is one wing of the silence.
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Synchronicity With Mystery

Mt. Shasta, dawn

WAKING THIS MORNING DREAMLESS AFTER LONG SLEEP
by Jane Hirschfield

But with this sentence:
"Use your failures for paper."
Meaning, I understood,
the backs of failed poems, but also my life.

Whose far side I begin now to enter -

A book imprinted without seeming reason,
each blank day bearing on its reverse, in random order,
the mad-set type of other.
December 12, 1960. April 4, 1981. 13th of August, 1974 -

Certain words bleed through to the unwritten pages.
To call this memory offers no solace.

"Even in sleep, the heavy millstones turning."

I do not know where the words come from,
what the millstones,
where the turning may lead.

I, a woman forty-five, beginning to gray at the temples,
putting pages of ruined paper
into a basket, pulling them out again.


On our last morning at the lake this year, the unmistakable honk and beating wings of silver-bellied Canadian geese rose from the far cove. The geese were not straggled loosely, aligned casual arrows heaving across the sky as is customary, but carved in their flight close to shore. Low to the water, their V formation tipped on its side, they skimmed beyond the shore pines above the water's edge as the bats at twilight do.

And again this morning in the city I awoke to the call of geese breaking across the dawn. How is it these migrating birds infallibly mark the new crisp in the air? Do they taste the coming wet cold I have inhaled deeply on my early morning hikes? Season after season the geese know when it is time to veer southward. They keep synchronicity with mystery.

It is here: the changing of the season.

I was born in the autumn and it has always been my favorite time of year. I am partial to the slant and slow mellow gold of light, the deepening colors of the earth. But as I age, and turn over longer pages of days, and life, writing and rewriting on the backs of other days and discarded moments, I notice I've begun to tune to the subtle change of seasons. Particularly the glide from summer into autumn. Before winter.

I too, have turned from late summer into fall, and stand at the edge of winter. Each passing season, which once I believed I possessed in abundance, now feels quite precious.

I take my fill of the hours of each day. I linger. I do not rush them onward and into the next. I hold back a little. Try to draw the days and weeks and months closer. I have just begun to understand how to use this life I have been given. And I am grateful.

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The Hero, The Story

David Grunzweig, 14,202 ft summit Mt. Yale, Colorado

We read stories to get experiences we've never known firsthand, or, to gain a clearer understanding of experiences we have had. In the process, we follow one or more characters the way we follow our 'self' in our dreams; we assimilate the story as if what happened to the main characters had happened to us. We identify with heroes. As they move through the story, what happens to them, happens to us. In comedy, heroes go through all the terrible things that we fear or face in our own lives - but they teach us to look at disaster with enough distance that we can laugh at it. In non-comic fiction, the hero shows us what matters, what has value, what has meaning among the random and meaningless events of life. In all stories, the hero is our teacher-by-example, and if we are to be that hero's disciple for the duration of the tale, we must have awe: We must understand that the hero has some insight, some knowledge that we ourselves do not understand, some value or power that we do not have.
- from "Characters & Viewpoint," Orson Scott Card

Preparing for an upcoming speaking panel for Bouchercon 2016, a mystery writers conference in New Orleans this September, I reread this paragraph by science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card from his popular writing guide, "The Hero and the Common Man." I frequently write about human duality. Mankind's possession of tandem weakness and potential greatness. Joseph Campbell famously explored the attraction of the heroic ideal in his groundbreaking work on the psychology of the mythic hero, writing we are both the ordinary and the extraordinary in any given moment.

In choosing what we read, we predominantly seek characters who inspire us through their vulnerabilities and predicaments. Fallible characters who uncover a surprising ability to rise to the occasion. We seek the ideal: To be brave, compassionate, courageous, inventive, adventurous, just. Powerful in defense of truth and right.

In the individual stories of the athletes of the Summer Olympics in Rio we confront the heroic and personal cost of heroism at every turn. How situations that bring out the best in us are often the most difficult to endure. Events we respond to bravely are often the ones that cost us the most. If the gift of triumph is permission to define ourselves as great and capable, future challenges will be met with battle-tested courage.

I confess I do not know whether challenge strengthens our vitality for life or merely toughens us with protective scars. Perhaps we exist on a pendulum between the two responses - boldness and aversion. The heroic stories we read challenge us to imagine greatness for ourselves, explore our own courage. And in our mental shadowboxing, realize a true, real world strength. As readers we use story. Stories are allegory. A call to action. We embolden ourselves to undertake the unimaginable, to find our personal greatness.

Push your boundaries. Celebrate the day and its challenges. Be in awe. You are the hero of your story.
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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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