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A Crooked Letter

Olive trees shading a stairway to The Acropolis, Athens

by Eva Saulitis

Why? Why is a crooked letter, my mother-in-law used to say. She held
no truck with useless inquiry, superstition. Buck up. Be present.

no fools, no dogma. When she died, I sleuthed her shelves. She read
everything - Buddhist philosophy, AARP magazine.
The Art

of Loving, Hawaiian poetry, books on aging, Asian painting,
and dying. She stopped short of a PhD in English lit, took acting. No

shrinking violet, she wore tennis whites on Sundays, permed and dyed
her hair various reddish shades, waited for her husband weekdays with

wine glasses frosted in the deep freeze.
You little ingrates, wait till your
father gets here. Protested his pollarding of her ornamental trees

in the garden. A closetful of peacock-hues to counter his muted same-same.
Years after he died, we found the glasses, the bottle of cream sherry still

frozen. She never gave his clothes away.
You better know how to laugh
at yourself, she said. Afraid she'd take me for the shrinking violet, the

suffering fool, tucked into the shade of a summer day,
why, my crooked
angel, I kept quiet, secretly studied her takings, finger along the spine of books

and facts. Her sons sang her past the last breath, hospital bed on
the living room's shag. In the mail we got her Hiroshima prints, a 1950s lamp,

a volume of bad Hawaiian poetry, costume jewelry, one conundrum - wooden
statute of mother Mary praying. To her tough and inscrutable hide, I offer up this day.
- 1.11.2013

Our days are a carousel of change and chances. We feel we are at last approaching some hard-earned purchase on the slope of our lives, only to lose our footing on the hard scrabble and helplessly fall away. We try again, we work at it, we latch on, and what happens next always surprises us. This haunting, intimate poem by Eva Saulitis, poet and biologist from Homer, Alaska, is from a book of poetry titled, "Prayer In Wind," published by Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press. The book's flap copy reveals to the reader:

"After a devastating diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, biologist and poet Eva Saulitis found herself gripped by a long buried childhood urge to pray. Finding little solace in the rote 'from the fox-hole please Gods' arising unbidden in her head, she set herself the task of examining the impulse itself, waking every morning in darkness to write poems, driven on by the questions: What is prayer? What am I praying to? What am I praying for? Who is listening? Each day's poem proposed a new and surprising answer as, over two years, she traced the questions back to her origins..."

What is comprised by this book of 58 numbered "prayer poems" is nothing short of a deep and openhearted song to living. To ancestry, geography, context, accident. To all that connects us to the earth and to one another; to the small stories that make us the quirky, eccentric souls that we are; to what we leave behind in the hearts of others and what we keep from those we love. It is never not the right time to pause in our ceaseless climbing and look out from where we find ourselves. Take in the expanse of life, the shadows of the forests left behind. What beckons on the horizon.

Ask of life again, Why?

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Carries a Notebook

by C.P. Cavafy (1911, translated from the Greek by Stratis Haviaras)

Guard well against the grandiose, my soul.
But if unable to curb your ambitions,
pursue them reluctantly, and with caution. the more you
progress, the more skeptical and aware you must be.

And when you achieve your full powers, A Caesar now,
assuming the distinction of a man of eminence,
be ever mindful, when you go into the street
(a master, conspicuous by your devoted entourage)
should someone from the crowd approach you,
someone called Artemidoros, to urge upon you
a letter, and to implore: "Read this without delay,
it concerns matters of grave importance." Don't fail
to pause; don't fail to put off any speech or affair;
don't fail to push aside those who hail and bow down to you
(you'll see them later). Even the Senate can have patience;
and without delay read the crucial message of Artemidoros.

I happened upon this poem of Caesar by Cavafy, and was struck by the parallels of fate, unheeded advisement, and the consequences of murderous secrecy and destruction then to what grips the world today. History offers the careful reader both preface and epilogue. What then will we do with the pages lived in between?

This is the week of Purim, the week of Easter, and a week of unthinkable violence as the world once more suffers an obliteration of peace. We do not know what time will reveal, or history finally discern, but we do know humanity has tread this path before and does so now with trepidation. How do we preserve life, accommodate our differences, and embrace good over evil? As I despaired of an answer, and wondered if the world was in fact lost, I came upon this poem by Denise Levertov in her book, "Sands of the Well."

by Denise Levertov

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.

More sacred than a prayer, this sacrament of the earth. Hymn to the beauty and miraculous wonder of all things given to us without reservation, lost at a terrible price. The more than and greater than that is the natural world. What can you or I do? What change might we be? What hope might we bring forth from our grief and sadness at this terrible human loss and pain, the senseless murder of the innocent?

Be the witness. Hold to the good. Sing of hope. Attend to nature's life-giving promise, her time and seasons. Remember, remember the love.

And finally, this poem.

by Mary Oliver

What is he scribbling on the page?
Is there snow in it, or fire?

Is it the beginning of a poem?
Is it a love note?

We are all poets of change and belief. Work the world. Record your wonder and gratitude. Learn from the lost innocence of the beloved, and the hard wisdom of history. Above all, give attention to what matters. Nourish love, family, all light. Place beauty in your heart.

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Of Talismans and Atriums

I had the opportunity to revisit the Houston Arts District, exploring the Rothko Chapel, The Menil Collection, and The Cy Twombly Gallery. This time spent immersed in great art under a canopy of spreading oaks encompassed visual and emotional fields of vision. Engaging with art, even in the company of others, remains a private singular experience. Whatever the "it" of art is - absorption of the media, the contemplation of shape and design, a shift in thinking - occurs from inner awareness.

The Rothko Chapel, if you haven't been, is a brick and stone octagon structure. Compact, plain, and lacking in adornment or outward ostentation. A selection of sacred texts from religions around the world are displayed on a bench outside the sanctuary. The chapel itself meant to be a place free of dogma or judgment, an invitation to meditation. One leaves bright Houston sunlight and enters the chapel through darkened glass doors. Inside, an intimate, silent interior of deep subdued natural light diffused through textured linen across the ceiling. Rothko's panels of dark, nearly black paint (not true black but composed of the weight and somberness of dense, layered color) hang suspended from unadorned walls in singular and triptych arrangements. Each painting faces a low bench for contemplation placed to form an inner octagon. The paintings loom in the dim light. The chapel holds all of it: the barely-there light, the dark panels, silence.

I walked close to one of the Rothko panels and and simply stood, resting in the dark hues, the mysterious shapes in the black-not-black strokes of the artist's brush. Meditation. Contemplation. The sacred within. I thought of another artist, the words hand-scrawled across one of Cy Twombly's expansive wall canvases - "In the atrium of melancholia."

The Rothko Chapel is an altogether different form of quiet than the sepulchral white space Cy Twombly designed for his own work. Walking distance from the Rothko Chapel, Twombly's gallery houses a bold narrative of paint and poetry: mega-sized panels of white paint energetically imbued with shapes and hints of color, hand-written lines of poetry from Rilke, and nuanced, fragmented thoughts of the artist's own. An atrium of melancholia. These words come back to me later in the Rothko Chapel with their suggestion of mood, an inward ache, openness. An atrium opens to light, growth, and greening. Perhaps Rothko and Twombly, in these oppositional spaces of dark and light, circle the same understanding.

Shining white air/ trembling
white light/
reflected in the white/
flat sea

- scrawled in charcoal on a painting, Cy Twombly, The Cy Twombly Gallery

There is so much more to say about this, but let me leave with this idea: Art invites us into ourselves. What we take from art is not what the artist frames on the wall, but what we give to what we see, feel, experience. We find our own talismans. Art is an experience that takes place within, in the atrium of the self.
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Packing for the Journey

All large tasks are completed in a series of starts.
- Neil Fiore

Better by far to write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all.
- Katherine mansfield

There you sit. Your notes are lined up, you've been dreaming the scenes, jotting down dialogue in the middle of the night. You fall asleep, thinking, Tomorrow is the day. Definitely the day. Only you wake up standing at the far edge of yourself. Your computer sits open, humming, waiting for you to give your work wings. You make another pot of tea, stand at the window of your work space and consider the sky. In time you walk to your desk, sit down and drop your head on those stacks of perfectly arranged notes and research.

Not today.

I think the difficulty of starting a major work or undertaking a chunk of new work on something already in progress is different than the experience of procrastination. Procrastination, for me, suggests a deep-seated discomfort or dislike of the work itself that renders any other activity or errand vastly more appealing. We procrastinate our taxes. We procrastinate cleaning out the boxes in the basement. We procrastinate caulking the tub. Writing is something I LOVE to do. A way of stepping out of time, riding the electric current as far and fast as it will take me. So why am I right this minute avoiding the start of a major revision?

Art psychologist Eric Maisel notes that many, if not most artists have trouble starting. His opinion is that "It is not the journey that daunts so much as the packing for the journey; not the writing of the song, but the packing away of the untidy doubts, fears, and self-recriminations."

This hit home.

Packing for the journey. Emotional readiness. In my case, staring down a third-pass revision. Managing an intricate reworking of characters and plot, and developing as-yet unimagined new material into the core of my story. Shoot me now.

I have the skills. I know how to do this. I have done it before. I also know this is a process that wholly consumes my mind and my time. Dinners are not made, sleep is scant, the telling ache of carpal tunnel creeps back into my wrists, I miss the sun as it rises and sets. Day after day I tap away on my keyboard, butt numb in the chair. This is about going under, going deep, holding my breath as long as I possibly can and getting as much done on each dive as possible. Urgency hovers in my thoughts. Fear of losing a promising thread or floundering in a firehose of inspiration. Life flows somewhere above the surface of this project, marching on without me, leaving me behind in the time I am down deep, deep in the dark murk of what I will have to trust my instincts to navigate and that alone scares the hell out of me. After all, instincts get you to a draft, and that gets you to revision, but all along you're making mistakes and only occasionally hitting the mark. The work doesn't stand as a whole yet. We mine in the dark.

Maisel is right. This thing that has me dodging my office in favor of sorting the junk drawer in the kitchen is fear. Fear of not getting the words right; of working hard and coming up empty - or worse, wrecking what I already have. It is fear of not being good enough, trained enough, or capable of the herculean challenges ahead. Of wasting time. A lifetime. Fear crouches on the moment we open the paint tube, label the word document, adjust the camera aperture, declare ourselves ready to begin. It feels impossible to pack enough courage and faith.

We circle the entrance to the maze, unable to step in.

The antidote to fear is faith. Faith in the work. Trust we will accomplish what we set out to do. Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa's mouth many, many times. Not because the painting was difficult, but because there was something more to be said. He worked to capture an expression he had yet to paint to his satisfaction. And because of this, the Mona Lisa's originality haunts us. Picasso famously declared, "To copy oneself is pathetic." We admire the bull-headedness and willingness to take risks of writers and artists like Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso. When I think about the novel revision ahead, my goal is no less determined. My intention is not to produce patches and fillers but more daunting and intangible: getting the story right.

But personally, if I ever felt good enough to copy myself I'd be thrilled.

Let me leave you with this quote from Hemingway to Robert Cantwell in 1950, addressing criticism but more to the point, the importance of answering only to the critic within:

Book is truly very good ["Across the River and Into the Trees"]. You pan it to hell if you don't like it. That is your right and duty. But I have read it 206 times to try and make it better and to cut out any mistakes or injustices and on the last reading I loved it very much and it broke my fucking heart for the 206th time. This is only a personal reaction and should be dis-counted as such. But I have been around quite a while reading and writing and can tell shit from the other things. . . But pan it, ride it, or kill it if you should or if you can.

By the way, "Across the River and Into the Trees" is soon to be made into a major film. Hemingway knew his work would stand the test of time. So pack your bag for the journey. Leave your doubts and worries in the drawer. Take only what you need to make the most of your time in the deep end. As for me? I start tomorrow.
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Operating Instructions

There is no person without a world.
- "Autobiography of Red," Anne Carson, 1998

The manual on you. What do you know about your own operating instructions? There is no author's note. The expert on you, is you.

We are one complete and unique universe - patterned from spirit, bordered by skin, powered by the mind, guided by thought, and infused by heart. The Reference Text on Me - the schematic of how each of us functions - lies somewhere over there on the shelf. Dusty, dog-eared, coffee-stained, tear-stained, face-down and the spine broken. Consulted again and again. . .or perhaps not at all anymore.

Beryl Markham, the daring aviator and adventurer, renowned for her fearless explorations throughout Africa, once said, "You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself." We putter along like wood moles, blindly nosing down familiar ruts in search of life's delicacies and hidden secrets. Often enough the best experts on our inner lives are the people we live with. How clearly they see our inanities. Point out our predictable, vulnerable weaknesses; affirm our quiet and simple strengths.

We share vast continents of ourselves with our loved ones, but only we know the many facets of our innermost wishes and dreams, the languished old wounds, misgivings, regrets. In truth, the complex reality of one person's world is known fully only by that person. Yet 360* of self-awareness is not necessarily a place of understanding each of us is sure to summit.

Become acquainted. With you. Update the manual. From time to time delete information that is outdated, add new chapters that speak to major changes. And with each rereading, share wisely some of what has shifted with those that have the "old you" on their shelves. Have we not ourselves been surprised by changes in a family member or a friend after an interlude apart? That more than an address or hair color is radically altered? Changes may be so subtle we need to look closely, or highlight for others what they may have grown too familiar with to see. The manual basics may remain unchanged, but the troubleshooting section is certain to be frequently consulted.

We are each a "work in progress." In a good way. A story that adds to itself, edits and highlights, and on occasion leads down an untrod path only to circle back out again and dive off to the side.

What's new in your world today?
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An End to Old Regret

Provence, France

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

Old Regret. Losses carried forward. Sorrow chipped away over the passing years, perhaps by forgetfulness or forgiveness. Bitter sorrow buried intact in the back of our mind. Large hearts of darkness. Is there an end to old regret?

These few lines of May Sarton's poem "The Balcony" expose rich layers of meaning. One voice, of a couple, of a certain age perhaps or world weariness, acknowledging the accidental accumulated joys and pains of life. Words that hint to the years past, to damaged relationships, losses. Perhaps longed-for opportunities swept away with the passage of time. "The Balcony" ends with this final tribute, And out of deprivation, a huge flower. Exquisite image. The heart, in its layered translucent suffering, fully comprehended. From the wisdom of acceptance, extravagant beauty.

There is a thread of durability in Sarton's observer. How is it we find within ourselves the strength and desire to carry on? To begin again. To start over from the disappointments of the past. John F. Kennedy once described his father after the elder man's stroke, saying, "Old age is a shipwreck." From Sarton's words, perhaps old age is neither the limit nor the context. We are always beginning. Over and again. In life, in work, in love. The passage of time has worn the lines on our foreheads, to be sure. But time - lost, burnt, wasted, empty, wronged, violated, hurt - needn't be the melody of the heart. I love the thought that once regrets are released and thrown over our shoulders, we blossom, "lavishly at ease."

Mistakes have their ends. Beginnings follow. The bridge between them? Acceptance. Ease on into your day, leaving your regrets behind you. You may find cupped in your hands a bloom of startling joy.

by May Sarton /after Baudelaire

Lover of silence, muse of the mysteries,
You will remember how we supped each night
There on your balcony high in the trees
Where a heraldic lion took late light,
Lover of silence, muse of the mysteries.

The big dogs slumbered near us like good bears;
The old cat begged a morsel from my plate,
And all around leaves stirred in the warm airs
Breathed from the valley as the red sun set.
The big dogs slumbered near us like good bears.

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
In the eternal presence of the trees -
I thought of all the pain and how we met.

There every night we drank deep of the wine
And our love, still without history,
Yet the completion of some real design
Earned with much thought, muse of the mystery.
There every night we drank deep of the wine.

While out of deprivation a huge flower,
The evening's passion, was about to bloom.
Such intimacy held us in its power
The long years vanished in a little room,
And out of deprivation, a huge flower.

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Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico

If ever I should wish for a retreat, whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know of none more promising than this little valley.
- Washington Irving, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

Bless the private interlude. A solitary chair under a tree. A corner of the kitchen table in a slant of sun. The third floor east corner of the library. Window table at the coffee shop. The car. Any space we beg, borrow, call our own.

A door. An island. As Virginia Woolf famously put it, "a room of one's own." Personal space dedicated to thought, to creativity, to the inner self. The poet Mary Oliver built herself a cabin in the woods of rough timber; the painter Jackson Pollock emptied a barn behind his cottage to which he retired day after day, contemplating his canvas. Entire books have been devoted to artists and writer's huts, islands, cafes, closets, desks, lofts, libraries.

The private and the solitary. Personal contemplative space is a deep human need.

Empty space stands as an invitation. Come. Fill this void with vivid imaginings. A naked wall for the experimental, a safe space for the difficult and inscrutable, room for preliminary constructions, a protected silence for the focus and uninterrupted work itself. An arena for inspiration and angst. Private witness to the struggle, to dreamt success, pained failure.

Do you have such a space? What icons, what meaningful symbols have you placed within? A beloved parent's worn cardigan? Shells from distant beaches? A broken violin bow? Paintings that invite you into alternate landscapes of shape and color? Favorite books or music, a stone from another land? A catcher's mitt, a broken bell? Strange things inspire us. Georgia O'Keefe laid animal skulls and wind scraped rocks on her window sills at Ghost Ranch. Stark shapes that brought her subject, nature, directly into her studio. Above my writing table hang black and white photographs that plays with the shapes of objects; on the table, a playful glass zebra that reminds me not to take everything so seriously, a basket of fossils and bones that remind me of both durability and impermanence.

Take a day. Take a moment.
A corner by the cookbooks. The window over the kitchen sink. The worktable by the tool chest.
The riverbank where the heron stands.
The place inspiration flows without bidding.
Namelessness, spirit.
Permission to imagine.
The element of recharge.
Retreat to reengage.
Breathe. Listen.

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The Matterhorn, Zermatt, Switzerland

Artists don't get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.
~ Stephen DeStaebler

Blocks produce in the artist an attitude of pessimism and defeat. He loses that necessary touch of arrogance; the drive to produce new things fades; the mind is blunted.
~ Lawrence Hatterer

A creative block is the wall we erect to ward off the anxiety we suppose we'll experience if we sit down to work. A creative block is a fear about the future, a guess about the dangers dwelling in the dark computer and the locked studio. A block is a sudden, disheartening doubt about our right to create, about our ability, about our very being. And the cure? A melting surrender, a little love, a little self-love, a little optimism, and a series of baby steps toward the work.
~ Eric Maisel

January can feel like a month stacked in "fresh start" pressure: time to reboot, dive in, focus, bootstrap full-on motivation. And then the days stall out. Our ideas are not quite gelling. Or worse, lie prone in the ditch. Road kill. Nothing fresh here, folks. Move along. Inertia. Excuses. Diversion. Frustration.

David Bayles and Ted Orland wrote a small chapbook in 1993, "Art & Fear: Observations of The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking." A refreshingly honest, insightful exploration of the creative process, the workplace experience, and the potholes and bridges between. In the introduction the authors write, "Making art is a common and intimately human activity, filled with all the perils (and rewards) that accompany any worthwhile effort. The difficulties artmakers face are not remote and heroic, but universal and familiar... This book is about what it feels like to sit in your studio or classroom, at your wheel or keyboard, easel or camera, trying to do the work you need to do. It is about committing your future to your own hands, placing Free Will above predestination, choice above chance. It is about finding your own work."

What comes next stopped me in my tracks. The authors observe, "Those who continue to make art are those who have learned how to continue - or more precisely, have learned how not to quit."

Did you reread that? What a powerful statement in support of tenacity. Quitting, the authors argue, is different than stopping. Stopping happens all the time - an idea runs dry, an attempt is scrubbed at the point of diminishing returns. But quitting happens just once. Quitting marks the last thing the artist does. Baylee and Orland go on to identify pitfalls that lead to blocks and defeat. Stalemates. Obstacles. Potential failure points that cling like lint around two very specific moments: When artists convince themselves their next effort is already doomed to fail; and when artists lose sight of the destination for their work, the place their work belongs.

Making art can feel dangerous and revealing. It gives substance to sense of self as well as the corresponding fear that one is not up to the task, not real or good. That we have nothing to say. "Making art precipitates self-doubt," write Bayles and Orland. "Stirring deep waters between what you know you should be, and what you fear you might me." Doubt can be enough to stop the artist before he or she even begins, and often appears again and again throughout the cycle of making, and then releasing work to critical review in the world. The key, according to the authors, is to learn to challenge that fear every step of the creative process from initial vision to execution, imagination, struggles with materials, through uncertainty. To continue anyway.

Losing sense of place, losing confidence, can mark the precise moment a driving goal is achieved. Success frequently and easily transmutes into depression because the artist feels abruptly lost. Embracing a new project means leaving behind the comfort of the loose thread. Setting aside that unresolved creative idea or issue to move forward into the next piece. Beginning fresh.

Tolerance for uncertainty is a prerequisite for working in the arts, according to the authors of "Art & Fear." Creativity is not about control. Uncertainty arrives unannounced at critical junctures in the creative process. What did I start out to say? Were the materials right, the length of the piece? Is the way I've done this right? Tolstoy rewrote "War & Peace" by hand eight times. (Heh, this is a large book.) He was still revising galley proofs at press. Art happens between the artist and something else - a chunk of stone, a slant of light in a landscape, a subject, an idea or technique. Creativity is unpredictable. The working artist learns to respond authentically, challenge to challenge, each step of the way.

Which brings me back to creative blocks, those frustrating mental tar pits. Bayles and Orland identify endpoints - shifts in destination or goals - as creative tripping points. Ease the transitions between stages, drafts, critiques. If we take psychologist Eric Maisel's advice, we should address our fears and anxiety over our works in progress by initiating baby steps toward engagement. Write two lines a day, then two pages a day. Put one brush stroke of color dead center on the white canvas. Mar that empty perfection and free your fear.

Can the artist find a way through almost perpetual uncertainty? Yes.
Intention requires strange and uncomfortable openness. Receptiveness. Belief. Tenacity.
Do not quit.

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Open Window

by Dorianne Laux

Someone spoke to me last night,
told me the truth. Just a few words,
but I recognized it.
I knew I should make myself get up,
write it down, but it was late,
and I was exhausted from working
all day in the garden, moving rocks.
Now, I remember only the flavor -
not like food, sweet or sharp.
More like a fine powder, like dust.
And I wasn't elated or frightened,
but simply rapt, aware.
That's how it is sometimes -
God comes to your window,
all bright light and black wings,
and you're just too tired to open it.

This small poem is from a chapbook by Dorianne Laux titled, "What We Carry." The poems here remind me allegorically of the potent imagery from Tim O'Brien's short story collection, "The Things They Carried," stories exposing individual lives in a platoon of soldiers from their smallest possessions. Who we are, who we were before. . .ported forward into an uncertain future. Although not about war or anonymity, the poems in this slender volume are sharp, tight: transparent yet troubling. As though each poem, each moment or memory, has become an object in the poet's pocket.

I intended to begin 2016 on Quintessence with an upbeat poem: something about a clean slate, new possibilities. Instead, I found myself drawn to the flow of existence, of glimpses of truth from one moment to the next, My 2016 is also 2015 - as well as every accumulated year prior - just by another label. This idea that I am continuously silting new experiences, year to year. It will never be a "new" me, but a more layered me. More depth at the bottom. More debris and lost gold.

Someone spoke to me last night. . . Laux captures the experience of that rare awareness at the core of a chance conversation. In quiet, or sleep. We brush up against the profound. No words but a footprint. Laux tastes the truth, and it sits light, insubstantial; a micro imprint of muted history. Exhausted, vulnerable, she knows. She feels it, and lets it go. But she remembers the essence, and it settles within.

I look to this new year hoping the nuggets of truth discovered and absorbed along the way stay with me. That bright light and black wings find me. Praying the crack in the window widens, until finally and fully, I understand. To exist within the flow, and release what floats, absorb what lies still, sift the layers deep within. Is it not possible life will be ever more nuanced, meaningful, profound, if we honor the work and the fatigue of ordinary living? Open windows.

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One Life

by Billy Collins

This is the only life I have, this one in my head,
the one that travels along the surface of my body
singing the low voltage song of the ego,

the one that feels like a ball between my ears
sometimes, and other times feels absolutely galactic,

the life that my feet carry around like two blind
scholars working together on a troublesome manuscript.

This is the only life I have, and I am standing
dead in the center of it like a man doing a rope trick
in a rodeo, passing the lasso over his body,
smiling inside a twirling of ovals and ellipses.

This is the only life I have and I never step out of it
except to follow a character down the alleys of a novel
or when love makes me want to remove my clothes
and sail classical records off a cliff.

Otherwise you can always find me within this hoop of
the rope flying around me, moving up to encircle my head
like the equator or a halo or a zero.

What a dazzling sketch of imagery. Billy Collins's One Life to Live swoops us from the rodeo grandstands down into the dirt of daily existence. Man against beast. The mundane wrestling the extraordinary. What are we breaking, what are we taming? Our wants, our transgressions? Collins's poem breaks open a nugget of strange truth: to be human is both small and "absolutely galactic." How self-limiting and limited by the self the experience of living may be. Our days and thoughts, our sense of self, loop in continuous gyration. As if this one life were a tilting, dizzying, ticket to ride.

We end one year and begin another - an arbitrary division of breaths if there ever was one - and I imagine that poetic lasso whirling, whirling, circling endlessly over our heads. Is this the year the hoop will drop and there will be no further evolutions of time? Or is this to be another year of halos and zeros...a haphazard, inadequately appreciated journey through the day by day? Perhaps this is the year of mastery, and the lasso sails around with ease.

I'm not a fan of year-end lists, "best of" summations, resolutions, or fresh starts. But I do welcome the idea of a personal review: a long moment of reflection and contemplation. An aware acknowledgement what is past is behind us, and what is yet to come whirls above, a rope trick in the making. As we stand within the oval of this life, this one life we have to live, we command the equator of both potential and actual, good and failed, promise and regret. This "one life" is forever an act in progress. A flick of the wrist. A halo around the ego. Me. You.

If you celebrate the New Year, then I wish for you in 2016 the joy of belting out your own song, finding perfect pitch and an endless chorus when days fade or grow weary. Let life be that tune you hum in your head, the beat that carries you along, what holds you in the center of your evolutions, in the sweet spot of this one life.

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