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The All of Life

I see you washing my handkerchiefs,
hanging at the window
my worn-out socks,
your figure on which everything,
all pleasure like a flare-up,
fell without destroying you,
little wife
of every day,
again a human being,
humbly human,
proudly poor,
as you have to be in order to be
not the swift rose
that love's ash dissolves
but all of life,
all of life with soap and needles,
with the smell that I love
of the kitchen that perhaps we shall not have
and in which your hand among the fried potatoes
and your mouth singing in the winter
until the roast arrives
would be for me the permanence
of happiness on earth.

- from "Not Only the Fire," Pablo Neruda (THE CAPTAIN'S VERSES, 1952)

This stanza from a verse by Pablo Neruda marks the shift mid-poem from a love note to his lover to a deeply intimate song to the same woman he has made his life with. I found myself thinking of the phrase, "again,/little wife/of every day/." There is something achingly tender in the poet's recognition of the humble work of daily life, the hours after love filled by the mundane. It is his recognition of the precious happiness in these moments, his joy in the simple wrenching domesticity of his own life, that made me sit quietly for a moment in the midst of my own chores today.

My list of things to do, errands and tasks, is long. My heart not in them but thinking of words and pages I want to write. I look at the list. At the top - fill a box of things for my son away at the Naval Academy and mail. Followed by drop-offs at the dry cleaner, return items to a store, pick up groceries. A chunk of time, lost. More than an hour, or two, away from my desk. I read the list again, slowly this time. Where is the love here? The box for my son? These are things he needs and a few treats to mark his 20th birthday. I smile, knowing how he will grin to get thermal muscle wraps, protein bars and sour jelly beans in the same box. The dry cleaner? Reviving clothes worn to the symphony, both for myself and for my friend, as a favor. The return items? Dresses never worn, but the idea of them, of spring, makes me smile. And the groceries? Ingredients for a nurturing chicken soup for a pal with a cold. I think of their dear faces, the laughter and moments together. Aren't humble tasks such as these the "worn-out socks," the "hand among the fried potatoes," Neruda's celebration of "life with soap and needles"? In every way the "all of life"?

Today I know the words and pages will wait a bit for life to be lived. Little wife of the everyday... The pages will get written.
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A Gift to Remember Us By

Epitaph, 1978. The Cy Twombly Gallery, Houston

In the hospitality of war
we left them their dead
as a gift to remember
us by
- Archilochus

These words by the 7th Century Greek Greek poet Archilochus appear as part of two pieces by Cy Twombly in The Cy Twombly Gallery in Houston. The thoughts of the poet from Paros appear within an enormous painting (15 feet high by 53 feet wide) identified as "Untitled, Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor" from 1994, a great monumental work that fills one entire space of the gallery. A visual tour de force of whites and neutrals with splashes of color and subtle marks of ink and charcoal phrases and mixed ideas, the painting dominates. Yet I could not forget the smudged scrawl, the quiet, devastating words.

I found the phrase again, this time the focus of a sculptural Twombly piece (Epitaph, 1978). Archilochus' words written across the top of a heavily painted, whitewashed wooden box overflowing with painted, plastered ivy. Again, all white. The bits of textural adornment symbolic: echoes of an almost nihilistic use of non-color layered upon excessive dense texture. A memorial about memorials.

As our country considers its moral calling in Libya, balancing principles with human rights and loss of life, these ancient words take on a particularly significant meaning. "In the hospitality of war we left them their dead as a gift to remember us by." We are in conflict in many places in this second decade of a new century. Would Archilochus have written these words across our times as well as his own?
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The Atrium of Melancholia

"Shining white air/ trembling
white light/
reflected in the white/
flat sea"
- scrawled by Cy Twombly in charcoal on a painting, The Cy Twombly Gallery

Yesterday I spent the day in the Houston Arts District, exploring the Rothko Chapel, The Menil Collection, and The Cy Twombly Gallery. The time under the canopy of spreading oaks allowed new ideas to flow: fresh thoughts into visual and emotional fields of vision. I noticed one thing in particular about engaging with art - even if you are in the company of others, art is a singular private experience. Whatever the "it" of art is - the absorption of the media, the contemplation of shape and design, the shift in thinking - this occurs within. An awareness born of solitude.

The Rothko Chapel is a simple brick and stone octagon structure, an empty interior illuminated by diffuse light that is absorbed silently by painted panels of black (not true black but in fact many colors) suspended on the walls both in singular and triptych arrangements. The paintings are faced by simple benches. The only media is a selection of Holy texts from religions around the world arraigned on a bench outside the sanctuary. The chapel is meant to welcome all, a place free of dogma or judgment, an invitation to meditation. On this day, workers noisily scraped and dragged chairs out of the interior from a lecture held the previous night. The space was violated both by noise and indifference and disregard. Disturbed, I walked close to one of the Rothko panels and and simply stood, resting my eyes rest in the many dark hues and shapes suggested in the black-not-black largesse. Solitude was lost to me within the room itself yet cupped within the painting, and I drank it in.

I thought of words hand-scrawled across one of Cy Twombly's panels. Yes, here we are, "in the atrium of melancholia." The Rothko Chapel is an altogether different space than the sepulchral space Cy Twombly designed. His gallery houses a narrative of paint and poetry, mega-size panels of white paint freely imbued with shapes and hints of color, bits of hand-written Rilke and broken, nuanced thoughts of his own. I came back to that phrase - an atrium of melancholia. The words suggest a mood of inward ache, yet openness as well, as an atrium is to growth and greening. Perhaps the greenhouse of insight and awareness seeds in the dark? Were Rothko and Twombly, spaces of dark and light, circling the same understanding? A conversation with my daughter came to mind, that when we feel ourselves entering a growth phase we seek to go apart. Perhaps then art invites us to "go apart," to grow.

There is so much more to say about this, and I will revisit these thoughts soon, but let me leave you with this idea: Art invites us into not the framed displayed work itself, but into ourselves. The artist gives us the gift of technique, talent, and insight not as a "work," but as a catalyst to new thinking. What you take from art is not what the artist gives you, but what you give back to what you see. Art, It seems to me, is an experience that takes place within. Like poetry, one person's meaningful art is not necessarily another's. We find our own talismans. Experiences through and with art which represent inner unformed languages within the atrium of the self. Through our senses we journey. Go happily.
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Poetry & the Moon

Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls (PhysOrg.com) -- The full moon is seen as it rises near the Lincoln Memorial, Saturday, March 19, 2011, in Washington.

Here I love you.
In the dark pines the wind disentangles itself.
The moon glows like phosphorous on the vagrant waters.
Days, all one kind, go chasing each other.

The moon turns its clockwork dream.
The biggest stars look at me with your eyes.
And as I love you, the pines in the wind
want to sing your name with their leaves of wire.

- from "Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair: XVIII, Here I Love You," Pablo Neruda, 1924

This month's O Magazine features a tribute to poetry, offering a sampling of the inspiration of our collective poets. I found it telling how overjoyed I was with this surprise edition. As a culture, particularly in the mass media, we rarely talk about poetry. Hungry for this dialog, I was delighted to read the variety of insights and heart-polished poems alive in the lives of others.

Poetry is something treasured by many, in the most intimate and private way. At some point we learn to publicly recite poetry. (How I remember my daughter in middle school, trolling through Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" and the prerequisite Kipling as she sat in the back of the car on our after school errands.) Somewhere along the way as young adults we begin to find our thoughts echoed in those of the poets. Translated from a feeling into an insight. I remember this same daughter at twenty, living in London at the time, telling me how she discovered the personal meaning of T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" (1922) while walking old industrial London along the edge of the Thames. Something about being there in the city, seeing what Eliot saw through her own eyes, and feeling the rhythm of the poem in her steps brought her deep within the hymn of the meaning of this story of London.

Poetry is a doorway into our most private thoughts. For each of us there will come a poem, personal and beloved, which lives within us all our lives. An anthem to our journey, to who we are and what we know, a truth captured in words given to the world by some other. Last Saturday the world marked the nearest passage of the moon to our earth in eighteen years. A "super perigee" - a cycle in the lunar orbit that brought the moon in close proximity to the earth. A moon appearing fourteen percent larger and thirty percent brighter. A pearl from the heavens, riding the night clouds.

Bring poetry near. Let language loom large and bright. May we remember the poets as we look at our world, and live graced within their words.
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Hands Together

Palm of the hand. Sole that walks now
only on feeling. It turns over,
becomes a mirror,
shows sky roads, which
themselves are walking.
It has learned to walk on water,
when it dips down,
moves on springs,
causes all roads to fork.
Comes forward into other palms,
those like itself
turn into a countryside,
through them it travels and arrives,
fills them with having arrived.
- Rainer Maria Rilke

The tragic natural disaster in Japan, complicated by the fierce and frightening man-made nuclear crisis looming over the days since the earthquake and tsunami, offer a compelling narrative of the tenacious soul of mankind. How we live in the face of the unknown. How we respond when the horrific and unexpected sweeps all that we love and care about away. How we struggle to gain the upper hand on the most frightening of unfathomable threats and uncertainties. We live and work in harmony with the risks of the world. We struggle to master the limits of our own inventions and uncertain science. We dwell in the faith that the unknowable mystery, the core of life, the pendulum rhythm that turns the night into day and back again, will swing us once more into the light. We can not undo all that we have done. We can not undo what breaks in nature. But we can endure. We can hold out a helping hand. We can turn our palms to the sky and mirror one another, multiply the light. We can care. We can be compassionate. We hold life in our hearts. Hand in hand, salvaging the broken world.
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Point of View

What is the story? (Storm King Art Center, New York)
I should be content
to look at a mountain
for what it is
and not as a comment
on my life.
- David Ignatow

The storyteller doll in Native American Pueblo tradition is generally depicted with many clamoring children on her lap or skirt hem; and the stories are those of the people, their history inhabiting the land. In every story the children are either listening to the adventure, or at the very center of it. I know when I was a child I was excited when the story was about me, but always learned something important from the story when it was not. When we listen to a narrative do we learn best by example?

The Japanese poet Basho, born in the outskirts of Kyoto in 1644 once commented, "The trouble with most poetry is that it is either subjective or objective." Yes. And isn't this the truth of life? It is either happening TO us, in objective, factual chronology, or happening WITHIN us, in ice flow chunks of emotional epiphany and dark undercurrents of thought. Which is the better truth? The bigger truth? Or perhaps the more meaningful question is, Which of these - the objective or the subjective - is the more useful truth?

I don't have a ready answer. Perhaps "usefulness" is situational. Are you about to be eaten by a lion? The location of the nearest tree is objectively more useful than your sudden blinding fear. Are you thinking of cliff diving to impress your sweetheart? That twist in your gut and fear of heights might be more significant than the height of the dive. Our lives have multiple points of view. I believe synthesis is best when we can achieve it - combine the intelligences of our objective and subjective learning. But when we can't, perhaps its best to let a mountain be a mountain. Are we listening to a story or is the story happening within us?

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21 to Enter

"Puppy," my favorite stuffy

No Exit.
Must be 21 to Enter.
- sign on a door

Adulthood, the final frontier. We can hardly wait as kids to be teenagers and as teens to have all the rights and privileges of adults. We open our first champagne. But to our surprise, life, as my daughter tells me, is revealed not to be an endless "spring break" as imagined, but "haaaard," she sighs.

No kidding, kid. The sign on the door says it all. Must be 21 to enter. And once you do, no exit. "Wallow in it," I used to say to the kids. "Don't grow up so fast, you'll miss these years later." Life is complicated. A challenge. Adulthood will engage all the skills we bring to it. I could sum aspects of my own adulthood as one constant struggle to simplify the struggle: to find the ease. To identify Joseph Campbell's elusive "bliss" and surf within it. What I discovered is that we can in fact simplify the obligations and busyness, chill the stress, unknot a number of tangled threads. Life can be gentled. Lived in manageable, meaningful bite-sized experiences. The ingredients of successful living can be boiled down to essential goodness in the most important elements: family, work, friends, faith, health. Five ingredients that demand all the attention we can give them. Anything - at anytime - can go wrong in life. The curve balls are relentlessly unpredictable and come at us fast. My daughter's big sigh admitting adulthood feels hard, reflected her awareness she was catching her own fast balls now. Adulthood says "suit up and play." We stand on our own merits, and survive on our wits. Who doesn't feel unprepared?

Not surprisingly, we talk a lot - my friends, my kids and I. About work, family, those basic elemental blocks of life. The goal is not to reduce our daily lives to a master check list and a punch clock, to sieve the spontaneous richness out of what is essentially the adventure of all adventures, but to ensure we've addressed the fundamentals. Combine well the basic five ingredients. Sprinkle on the spice. Perhaps adulthood can be less struggle in the making and more joy.
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Advice to Lean Into

If you don't like it, get out of it.
If you can't get out of it, get into it.
- Grampa Glenn

Recently I had cause to think of these words of my grandfather's. Grampa Glenn we called him. A Scottish fellow, he stood about 6'3" with snowy white hair, with laughing blue eyes and a booming laugh. Grampa had offered me this advice a time or two in my turbulent twenties, whenever I sought his guidance on a tough job that was hard to get a grip on, or a relationship potholed with more cons than pros. He summed up so many life situations in those two lines of advice I was beginning to think that the only wisdom he had to offer was basically fix your attitude or fix your life.

Now, in my mid life, I realize he pretty much nailed it on the head. We've talked a lot in this blog about owning our choices - and the power to make them. That's Part A - if you don't like it, get/do/love/be someplace else. Let your feet change the scenario. Choose a better life. But what about Part B? And isn't most of life Part B? Something we're stuck with? What then? If you can't get out of it, get into it? That's supposed to work? The first time I heard those words I instantly thought of the prisoner serving ten to life that learns to knit. His bunk mate who signs up for an advanced correspondence course in Flemish Medieval Musicology. Lots of time? Do something time consuming. What kind of advice is that? Surrender and accept the miserable horrible life you lead is supposed to cheer me on?

It took me, oh, three decades to get the real meaning of that advice. Get into it. The same powerful choice as get out of it, but applied to a situation that practically or realistically is something that must be honored. Rather than be an anchor on board the party boat, whining and complaining, dragging our way through the cruel lot we feel our life is, we have the option to find a new dial on the attitude wheel. One that has the potential to genuinely make us happy(er).

Right, you say. But hear me out. If we choose to look at our circumstances in a way that suggests they are limiting only in what we haven't yet done to improve them, then the horizon is endless. Many a dreaded job, miserable week in the bedroom, fight with a friend, or slog through a chore has been lightened and inevitably enhanced by a forthright change in attitude. This was aptly demonstrated to me by a college summer job I had as a cashier at a big box store for all of two weeks. Day 1, hated it. Day 2, hated it. Day 3, decided to say hello to everyone who seemed to hate their day more than I hated mine as we exchanged our required checkout transactions. Day 4, added a compliment to the hello. Day 5, began smiling first and last after our contact. Day 6, added comfy shoes (the kind with one inch foam platforms!). Day 7...and so on. What a difference occurred in my satisfaction with the content of the work itself, not to mention the contact with my fellow humanity. To say I found my calling selling twelve pack paper towels is not the win here, or that making employee of the month is the best option in every situation. On day 14 I employed the first part of the advice. I quit my job. But not without having learned the powerful effect of both attitude and choice.

So thanks Grampa Glenn. I know now what to say to my friend wavering in the midst of a punishing relationship. And I'm about to apply the rule to myself. My taxes are waiting. Still waiting. What if I used colored Post It notes, or two squares of chocolate for every perfect set of "zeroes/no change" I ring up on the calculator? That definitely gets me into the mindset. My bank account is ever so familiar with zeroes, smile.
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Growing Orbits

The Lion of March

I live my life in growing orbits
which move out over the things of the world.
Perhaps I can never achieve the last,
but that will be my attempt.

I am circling around God, around the ancient tower
and I have been circling for a thousand years.
And I still don't know if I am a falcon,
Or a storm, or a great song.
- Rainier Maria Rilke, "Book for the Hours of Prayer, 1899
(translated by Robert Bly)

Growing Orbits. The idea of personal expansion in our lives, of opening to challenge, of accepting a dash of the unknown and embracing the unpredictable, seems to have fallen victim to the science of predetermined probabilities in an era of social data matrixes. In modern love, the idea of personal fluidity - that who I am today is in progress toward an imagined tomorrow - is somehow lost in translation. Romance bolts out of the gate, a race horse with blinders plunging down the track in tandem with another contender handicapped to be a "good match." There is no longer room for fuzzy edges.

On the Internet dating sites we are strategically "paired" to our own so-called cluster of perfect others. Our chemistry is calibrated, our interests indexed, our sex appeal rated, our faith examined, hobbies tallied before we are even admitted to the dance. There are as many ways to connect the dots between people now as there are systems of relationship - by geography, education, sport, religion, age, wealth. But no one mentions the elephant in the room: love is not particularly a matter of proximity, say, or religion - or we'd all of us be hitched to our closest neighbor on the cul de sac sitting behind us in temple or Sunday school. Nor is love the by-product of implacable destiny; we do not necessarily fall for the one whose heart line is marked as ours is in the palm of our hand.

What love is, is a matter of wonder. Of how in the heck? Of one part pheromones and two parts luck, and perhaps a dash of repartee thrown in. The magic of being human, of falling in love, lies is in the fuzzy edges. The unexpected. What makes us laugh, or reach out and take someone's hand in a tough moment of loss. Sometimes the very someone we fall for is the opposite of all the things we like about ourselves. A balance in the universe, so to speak.

So as we come out of the halo of hearts and chocolates that obliterated the middle of February, think about the spring robins stalking the yard. The robin builds a nest knowing that a mate will arrive to inhabit what is built, to join in the ambition of family. Another will share the song. In our own search for love in the modern era, let us from time to time put aside the checklists and demography stats, and remember to put ourselves out there, alive in the world. Build, and love will come.
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