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QUINTESSENCE

The Last Passerby

ODE AND ELEGY OF THE STREETS

by C.P. Cavafy

 

The footfalls of the first passerby;

the first peddler's lively shouting;

the first windows opening,

the first door--these are the song

of the streets in the morning.

 

The steps of the last passerby;

the last of the peddlers shouting;

the doors and windows shutting--

are the elegiac sound

of the streets in the evening.

 

I am recently back from travel. Hiking and exploring in the Alps of Switzerland and the lakes of northern Italy. There is a rhythm to a faraway journey. First the excitement of planning the journey, then the taking leave and letting go. There is disorientation, a solitude, the opening of heart and mind. Finally, the thoughtful return. In chapters of travel we lose and find and redefine ourselves, along with our sense of the world we live in.

 

Travel gives us our definition of home. In strangeness are found the outlines of self and belonging. Where we are and where we are not. Yet what lingers of our explorations resets the familiar. We are somehow bigger in spirit, more generous, less partisan about our niche in place and time. We have come to know something of the larger world, the connected community of peoples and histories, and the unturned stones and sweet curiosities still to discover. 

 

When I was young, I traveled with my family in the military life of my father's career. I also traveled in books, reading voraciously across history and geography. In my early career I explored every corner of the planet, curious to know it all. To understand new things and to see the places I had only read of in books come to colorful life. Their grandeur, their ruin, their romance. The worn footprints of human history. The bold direction of change.

 

I travel now to understand myself and humanity. Pursuing what connects us to this earth and to each other. Translating the past. How will we engage with the future and our collective presence in the here and now? The Alexandrian Greek poet C. P. Cavafy (1963-1933) was himself a lifelong traveler. His poems of the Mediterranean and its history lead us from fabled Ithaca into the dusty streets of late afternoon in the medina. If you have not read much of Cavafy's work, I encourage you to do so. His is a way of seeing and writing about strangers and strangeness, the sensuality of unfamiliar places, and of the inscrutability of history in a way that, like storytelling, becomes the song of a journey.

 

Journeys are our own, very personal, human myth-making. In our curiosity we find our connectedness. In our solitude we make friends with ourselves. In reaching toward the unfamiliar we find home.

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The Ordinary Hours

Only connect.

- E.M. Forster

 

I think, to a poet, the human community is like the community of birds to a bird, singing to each other. Love is one of the reasons we are singing to one another, love of language itself, love of sound, love of singing itself, and love of other birds.
- Sharon Olds

 

Hello friends. The autumnal equinox is almost upon us, that great shifting of light across the world that heralds the dip toward winter here in the northern hemisphere. The equinox is also my birthday, the beginning of my personal new year. A perfect time to take stock, plan and dream, and celebrate another year on this incredible planet. Let us gather in the apples of hard work and sheaves of lessons learned. There's much about life we hurry past and neglect to notice, challenges and accomplishments eclipsed by newer goals and growing to-do lists. Acknowledging the work of the year and the fruits of our labors entails more than just a pause for applause. Giving attention to our efforts consolidates the foundation of goal-setting and confidence. It's good to take a compass reading now and then, don't you agree?

 

There is wry truth in what Helen Frankenthaler once observed, The price for living the life I have - for any serious, devoted person, is that at times one must live alone, or feel alone. So as fall draws us inward, let me remind you not to forget community, your people. Your friends, loved ones, peers. As we work and plan and create, we must remember to balance our focused hours alone with playful and gentle hours together. To give ourselves to others in their time of need, even as they support us in ours.

 

My birthday wish is probably an easy one to guess. I wish for all of us a new year of joy and connection. Faith in ourselves and in others to remember life is not ultimately about success, power, or fame, but about finding, nurturing, and celebrating love. The value of life lies in the meaning we give to the ordinary hours. May they be golden.

 

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The Last Flower

 

The last flower has opened on the stem,

the first two mostly done by now: call home.

 

I slipped my skin

walked off & left myself & left

 

feeling the first snow of the season falling

cold on my face running to catch that downtown bus leving

 

my life behind & abandoned my whole self, was I

a colt or a fresh coal afire with each chain of nerve

 

alive naked & loving the feeling of feeling

my heart beating feeling my blood too feeling

 

- Lightsey Darst, from "Thousands"

 

 

Lightsey Darst's quiet revolutionary poems, THOUSANDS, are written in journal form, in a notation of private thought that rages across the page. The above poem is taken from "Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2012."  A mysterious shift of awareness powers Darst's poem. I am drawn by the element of recovery. As though the shape of some unvoiced loss has only just revealed itself. The line "I walked off & left myself & left" traces the poet's slip from the familiar into the unexpected. Chasing her bus, a first cold snow swirling in her face, Darst surroundings dissolve on a wave of raw sensation. A transformation of presence. As if tasting a bite of watermelon we remember a summer in Kansas, a particular garden bothered by horseflies and dust. 

 

The daily self has met the deeper dreamer. 

 

I thought of this poem today and that opening, The last flower..., noting an unmistakable mark of fall color, of rust, crimson, and dry brown, in the wilderness foliage. Trees standing silent in a stagnant haze of wildfire smoke and heat. No breeze rustles the leaves, there is no murmur of birdsong or insect life. It has been a difficult, burning summer in the Northwest. Yet the turn toward a changing season is unmistakable here. The downshift. Letting go after a fierce season of difficult growth. This transition in seasons feels equally personal. As though I, too, will turn a corner. That I will have "left myself & left," rediscovering what is lost as though new again, experience what is hidden as seen.

 

Autumn can be a rest or a beginning. Perhaps both.

I am ready for my heart beating feeling my blood too feeling. Aren't you?

 

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Motions

Mosaic, Pompeii

 

How came ye muffled in so hush a masque?

- "Ode on Indolence," John Keats


Waiting coils inside her and licks and licks its paws.

I go through motions already made in another life [wrote the husband].
The room is cold. I must unpack. But not yet. Night is almost here.
Another one without I was going to say but that would be weak.
Another one.
I stand firmly on the foundation of the love I fashioned, yes, our love.
You will disagree. But look inside yourself. there you see a world
traveling silently through space. On it two specks. We are
indissoluble. Three minutes of reality! all I ever asked.

She stands looking out at rain on the roof.

 

 - from "The Beauty of the Husband," by Anne Carson

 

A good book plucks us from the present and lifts us from our preoccupations to chart navigation coordinates we've never flown before. A good book sits in our parlor like the most charming and giving of guests, discussing the world at length long after the last page. A good book is an all-night diner, our favorite people seated across from us, stirring coffee with a bent spoon, chin in hand, asking, "And after you decided to do that, then what?"

 

Anne Carson, in her book-length prose poem, THE BEAUTY OF THE HUSBAND, a fictional essay in 29 tangos, examines the philosophy that beauty is truth, an ideal made famous by John Keats in his 1815 poem, "Ode on a Grecian Urn." In his meditation on the perfection of an object, in this case an antique urn, Keats reframes the poet's traditional use of ekphrasis to redefine beauty. Beauty is more than an aesthetic ideal, Keats argues, it is a reflection of an object's inherent, authentic truth. The organic essence is the perfection. Carson twists the ideal of beauty yet again in the story of a marriage, THE BEAUTY OF THE HUSBAND. In this sharply observed telling, Carson employs a framework of "tangos" to chronicle the passionate back and forth of the couple as the prose sweeps through a concentric narrowing to the truth of the couple's marriage. Truth becomes personal, subjective, illusory, intimate. The relationship's beauty released in the telling. Beauty, like truth, we understand can be cruel. Transcendent. To quote the poet Masahide, Barn's burnt down. Now I can see the moon. 

 

A good book dwells within because it resonates. We have touched the edges of understandings we sense to be universal, eternal. Motions we have already made. A good book offers truth, sometimes beauty. Always a new way of seeing. "The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit." A sentence from ULYSSES by James Joyce and perhaps the most beautiful sentence in the English language. I gift it to you. Be overwhelmed.

 

 

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The Slow Hours

 

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"

 

I've been looking back at posts about writing and creativity, living and making meaningful choices. Have I done the things I said I would, made the changes I want, pursued priorities that matter? Sometimes. Admittedly, not always. There are days it is struggle enough to want to slow the busyness, savor the quiet moments. How hard in this modern world to make space for clarity, for peace of mind amidst the nonstop pings, alerts, and alarms that surround our work/life schedules. We live task to task, crisis to crisis. Have we forgotten how to slow the hours?

 

Summer gives us the long, hot day. The ripening of the fruit on the trees and the grain in the earth. Nothing happens in summertime that happens in a hurry. The baking heat and light-filled days are a tutorial in slowing the hours. An invitation to open to the quiet ripening in our own complicated lives. A pause to welcome the simple. To celebrate joy in singular moments.

 

Summer is nature's reminder to follow our instincts toward the life well-lived. All of us have that place, person, or time of day, where the spinning world slows, life opens, and we experience deep happiness. Where will you be in these last weeks of bright golden light? I am headed north to the remote quiet shores of the lake once again. You will find me on the deck at sunset, feet propped on the rail. Scotch in hand, I will end each day in rhythm with the hours as the evening star rises over the lake, bright against the rose-colored Selkirk Mountains. I will toast you, wherever your slow has taken you.

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Good Enough

 

VARIATION ON A THEME BY RILKE
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 it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.


We try so hard to be perfect, we miss life. 

 

What if we stop the pendulum swing of self critique and judgement. Allow our souls to find center, to come to rest. To neither push nor desist but just hold space for awhile. In that sacred space embrace our permission to be. To luck into, to try, to change our minds, to give it a shot, maybe fail... Perhaps settle, ever so gently, into ordinary happiness.

 

Emotional and mental ebb and flow are not the antithesis to life success. Perfectionism is. In the pursuit of "perfect" lies the negation of all that is not. Perfectionism is an eraser we drag across life. Crossing out what may have been our best efforts, our bravest moments. Scars of bootstrapped, gut wrenching, all-out-there struggle. All those unwanted gifts of deepest courage. When we devalue our smallest efforts, be they honest, sufficient, or barely forward motion, we also devalue our human nature to strive.

 

Humans are not born perfect, they are born to evolve. To seek to understand, to take action, to plan, to expand, to be joyful. Life is not a target. There is no bulls-eye. Life is about process. About being vividly, messily, actively present in our own skin. Accepting that wherever we may be in our lives, just getting by or progressing along the spectrum of our goals... Well, good enough. This is today.

 

Carpe Diem. Put down that edit pencil. Stet. Let today be a day of presence.

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a call back home

Hans Christian Andersen's LITTLE MERMAID, Copenhagen

 

THE ART OF DISAPPEARING
by Naomi Shihab Nye

When They Say Don't I Know You?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.

Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say Why?

It's not that you don't love them anymore.
You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.

Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven't seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don't start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.



This poem came to me via the wonderful tiny chapbook by Roger Housden, TEN POEMS TO LAST A LIFETIME. (I have spoken of this collection before.) Housden has this to say: "I find the strong and sober stand of this poem a welcome inspiration. Yet I know there are those who feel otherwise. People have told me they feel it to be ungenerous and curmudgeonly in its attitude to others. On the other hand, I remember seeing Bill Moyers on PBS one evening, and him saying that ever since being called into the hospital for heart trouble, he has kept a copy of this poem by Naoimi Shihab Nye in his top pocket. For me, it's that kind of poem. A reminder poem, a shake-your-tree poem, a wake-up-and-live-your-own-life-before-it's-all-too-late poem."

Housden calls a poem that speaks deeply a "message from a trusted friend," that is, "the persistent murmur in our own chest." He adds this observation by Keats [which I find the single greatest secret to cultivating any art]: Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost as a Remembrance.

The promised-to's, the ought-to's...how we endlessly defer our personal must-do's. We shelve for later the experiences, projects, and journeys that call us deeply, explorations that delve into the corners of our being. Do you remember the moment when you knew the shape of your personal life dream? When you crested from childhood into young adulthood, and set your sights on the world's horizon? Do you recall how you felt the truth in your bones that hot August afternoon, lying in the grass under the silver branches, staring up through an endless sky?

That sudden shiver holding a newborn. The life history suddenly recognized in the still, veined hand of your grandmother as she held that tea cup and waited by the window. Nye's poem is a call back home. Live your life, know life; for life is finite.

I resonate with the honest fierceness of Nye's poem. This poet doesn't mince words. I need that. She reminds us that a given day on earth is not about obligation. Being present for our own life is essential. "Being present" is not the denial of relationship, an avoidance of responsibility or connection, but it is practicing our purpose. Inhabiting the originality and truth that is ours alone. Answer the call.

You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bells at twilight.



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Father's Day

Capt. Thomas Kelsey Burgess, Sandia AFB, New Mexico

 

my lost father
by Lucille Clifton

see where he moves
he leaves a wake of tears
see in the path of his going
the banners of regret
see just above him the cloud
of welcome see him rise
see him enter the company
of husbands fathers sons





My father and me.
I lost this lovely man when he was but forty-five, and I was turning twenty. I've missed him all my life.

Happy Father's Day, Daddy.

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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 from spring into early summer and then from summer into late fall that always remind me of the poetry of Mary Oliver. The way in which Oliver captures the voice and imprint of the unseen; the song of living things, the guardian silence of the skies. When I read this poem, it reminds me of my late husband Ken, who passed away in 2003. His presence still among us is the heron at the water's edge below the cliffs where he is buried. For a week after his death, a single gray heron waited there at the river's elbow, braced against the rushing waters. Still and tranquil, it watched us where we stood on the bluff above him, mute with grief. Eventually on the last day, as twilight fell to its deepest hue, our heron spread its feathered wings and rose into the sky. Lost in the dark.

All of us sing an unfamiliar song when it comes to life. We receive, we give. We perhaps only imperfectly hear the melody as we progress through the years. But how important it is that we celebrate life. Cherish family, love, the accomplishment of big dreams. The having of big dreams. The still moments though they become years. The translucent ice newly veined with cracks. The reflecting clouds. The trace of the past like the taste of cold water in an iron cup. The bloom, and the fossil. The liminal presence.

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A Memorial Day, Then and Now

 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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