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Sideways Into the Unfamiliar

Browsing, before dinner, at Books & Books, checking out the new poems in the new journals, the vast glass panes thrust against by shoppers and gawkers on Lincoln Road emit a particular cautionary hum as they insist upon delimiting inside from out, tongued and grimed by the fingerless gloves of the homeless, bodies gesturing and melding back into the pyroclastic flow, someone considering black lingerie next door, bedside lamps of Italian design, something sleek to refresh the kitchen—honey, a silver pasta fork?—tattooed dance clubbers and waitresses slaloming trays through the crowd, a woman selling jewelry knit from optical fibers lurid as stationary fireworks, pages of a Carioca newspaper turning, foil off a champagne bottle golden against the tile, pink straws, the splash of modest fountains in common space, a baby in green hip-harness staring back at me goggle-eyed, recording it all like the tourists with digital camcorders pre-editing their memories and the ringing of cellphones broadcasting a panegyric of need with whichever hooks and trembles we have chosen in the darkness to answer.
- Campbell McGrath

The true impact of travel shimmers in the newness of old things our eyes are used to seeing presented with a twist, a dash of the unfamiliar. The highway, the trees, the market, neon signs and school yards, the couples entwined on street corners. All fresh images, jumbled unexpectedly together and recast in ordinary ways. A place and people one might just be passing by, like the night train, on the way to yet somewhere else. I have come to British Columbia, Canada. To Vancouver - oddly gothic, modern city on the gray waters of the cold northern sound. I hear suddenly the shift of vowels in the mouth, experience the strangeness of a politeness so endemic to the habits of this city it may be that mere manners represent a cultural shift in human interaction.

I love this friendliness. I am drunk on this pleasant vibe the entire city seems to run on. Are they all just serenely nuts? Medicated? Where's the room safe, the usual posted warnings alerting travelers to crime on the jogging trail? I inquire about the goings on this weekend and am told enthusiastically about an exhibit on Surrealism along with a passing remark on theater, followed by an enthusiastic nod to catch the Canadian Football League game on television tonight and a big grin regarding available tickets for the preseason hockey opener tomorrow. A waitress in black spandex sheath dress at a cafe with, as my brother tactfully put it "an attractive staff," addresses me sassily as "mi lady" while bringing out no fewer than four beer samples for my friend to sample prior to ordering. How on earth has this city gotten this groove on? Certainly not from the coffee sold in those familiar green mermaid emblem cups across the street. (Yes, even here.)

So, today's salute goes to Canada, To Vancouver, BC. To the smooth sweet glide of pleasantries exchanged (much to my surprise) between tourist and citizen. Special thanks to the anonymous, well-dressed young banker in gray, who stood patiently behind me during the rush hour commute as I navigated the unfamiliar light-rail train ticket kiosk. (No, Dorothy, your debit card won't work in Oz, but used as a credit charge it will!) This same suave young man, when I was at last successful in holding up a ticket and scrambling to hunt for a possible receipt, did not bark at me to move on, get along, or "go home" but nodded and simply said, "Yes, that would be your ticket." Elated to be successful, accepted and not yelled at, I turned, about to relate this kindness to my travel companion. He instead looked at me in his own state of wonder and held up a red ticket. "Some guy just handed me this!" A paid one-day half of a round trip ticket into the city, useless to him, he said pleasantly, as he was headed to Europe.

Go Canada.
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Saddle Shoes and Tin Boats

Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time; for that's the stuff life is made of.
- Benjamin Franklin, "Poor Richard's Almanac," 1746

There's a theme this week...joyful living! My AARP card has not yet arrived in the mail, but it will soon, I can feel the sucker hovering in the same etherspace that used to contain my first grade Mighty Mouse lunchbox and black and white saddle shoes. (Oh I miss those shoes and crisp white ankle socks with lace trim, but that's another story.)

Benjamin Franklin hit the nail on the head. Time is life, and living is measured in ticks of the clock. Some of us are lucky enough to know this instinctively, pushing through the seasons with an eye on the lengthening shape of life and love. But others of us circle around the eddy in our galvanized tin boats, beating out the lamest rhythm with our broomstick oars. It's been said the definition of insanity is repeating the same actions again and again, expecting different outcomes. Some of us live our time on the planet this way, trudging through the ruts that depress us, stuck in the habits we loathe, disappointed in our choices one moment to the next. Perhaps the very reason to risk change, the unknown, failure, is to force ourselves to choose something unfamiliar. The simple fact of stepping outside our comfort zone breaks a pattern.

Modern life has robbed us of many of the opportunities our forebears had to shake things up a bit. We are a generation focused on the long term (and oddly, the instantly disposable). Everything we do, from education that extends from childhood to our middle twenties, to career planning, mortgages and 401Ks, stacks like Jenga towers teetering over our heads. Were we meant to find a single niche and stay in it? Yes and no. Stability, security, and productivity are found tilling the ground we know best; yet opportunity, adventure and learning come from the road not yet taken. In there lies balance, a way to utilize time effectively and still leverage unexpected richness from spontaneous choices, risks that open us to play. Time is both predictable and surprising. A little like pairing those saddle shoes with striped socks.
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Old woman, I meet you deep inside myself.
- May Sarton

The first time I read this line in May Sarton's essays, I was young. Young enough to feel unformed and uncertain of anything, much less a sense of an evolving self within. I wasn't sure I had the future adult me inside, let alone the future old me. And honestly, perhaps shadows of maturity only seep in across the sills of experience, lengthening across the floorboards of our days unnoticed. We don't know the old self we inhabit until midday has set and the afternoon light slants across life.

I had a big birthday this week on the Autumnal Equinox. Celebrated in part with a much older friend, a vintner celebrating his 77th birthday. "Every day is a good day," says Jerry. Who in this one night of celebration uncorked a 2000 Dunn, an '86 Woodward Canyon, a 2001 Caymus, and a bottle of his own Overbluff Reserve, to mention just a fabulous few. Jerry pours freely, sharing with all. Nothing, he says, is sacred in his cellar. All wine is to be enjoyed (and spit out if you don't, rarity and investment entirely beside the point). I couldn't help but feel that what Jerry was really telling us was that all life is to be enjoyed. Every day is a good day. The moment reminded me of a line from the film "Sideways," after Miles tells Maya, a waitress, about a special vintage in his collection peaking and ready to drink, which he hesitates to open, waiting for a "special occasion." She smiles gently at him. "You know, the day you open a '61 Cheval Blanc … that's the special occasion." And indeed, later we see Miles alone in a fast food restaurant, surreptitiously enjoying the rare wine from a plastic cup as he licks his wounds, literally and figuratively, in the sure knowledge life, and his ex-wife, have moved on.

Tasting Jerry's wines, thinking about the life of the wine - how it was grown, cut, crushed and blended - led me to ruminating on May Sarton's observation. Was I at last coming into the last self I would ever know? Was this the beginning of the Old Woman, the years in which all the life that went into the making of me would begin to peak, and should be drunk freely? The thought pleased me. It felt humble, and real, and appreciative. Me, like the wine, embodied by the seasons, the organic experiences carried deep within. The self ever evolving, and never twice the same: different whether the day I am complete is now or some more distant tomorrow.

I like the idea I might enjoy life from a plastic cup or a wine glass, toasting friends any day or a birthday. Knowing, as our friend Miles resolved to do drinking the cherished vintage of his humble cellar, that life is not meant to pass us by. Every day is a good day.
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They Blend

Somewhere there waiteth in this world of ours
for one lone soul, another lonely soul -
Each chasing each through all the weary hours,
And meeting strangely at one sudden goal;
Then blend they - like green leaves with golden flowers,
Into one beautiful and perfect whole -
And life's long night is ended, and the way
Lies open onward to eternal day.
- Sir Edwin Arnold (1832-1904)

In keeping with the theme of recent blogs on commitment and relationship, I found myself studying this small poem by the old English poet Sir Edwin Arnold. What struck me was his interchanging use of the words "lone" and "lonely," and the image conjured from his use of the phrase of "they blend." Not as one might think blue and red blend to purple, but that the colors combine to make something new, something not present before. In this poem, Arnold chooses symbolism wherein leaves join petals and make a whole fresh thing- a flower.

But what of the idea of two souls lone and lonely? Are these words contextually or even metaphorically the same? I would argue not, at least not in the way I define them. "Lone" is for me the definition of alone: to be by one's self, in solitude, unaccompanied. The fact of the self alone may be separate from how one feels about such solitude. I personally value my alone time a great deal. It is fecund, creative, inward. Necessary to spiritual balance. Time devoted within self, both rich and treasured. But the poet uses "lonely" as the companion to his "lone," suggesting the solitariness of alone is met with an emotional vacancy that is of infinite melancholy; unfulfilled, pining in the absence of companionship. A condition of longing that may only be relieved by the presence of the perfect other.

There are those who might tartly suggest there is greater loneliness in life paired to the wrong other. That human loneliness is resolved less by conjoined physical presence than by something more intrinsic; a comfort anchored in the blend of two souls in genuine companionship. And what is such companionship? The presence of feeling shared. The equation of you plus me equals more than either of us taken alone. We are all, I suppose, Looking for Arnold's perfect blend "into one beautiful and perfect whole." And yes, I think we seek those idealistic relationships which transcend the individuals involved and stand apart - unique and worthy and strong. Rare, I believe. But real. But perhaps the ideal is always in flux: somewhere between lone and lonely, blend and whole.
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Forgive me then if at the end of my story I seem to be grasping at straws in order to reach a comforting conclusion about matrimony. I need those straws; I need that comfort. Certainly I have needed Ferdinand Mount's reassuring theory that, if you look at marriage in a certain light, you can make a case for the institution being intrinsically subversive... I have finally found my own little corner within matrimony's long and curious history. So this is where I will park myself - right there in this place of quiet subversion of all the other stubbornly loving couples across time who also endured all manner of irritating and invasive bullshit in order to get what they ultimately wanted: a little bit of privacy in which to practice love.
- from "Committed," by Elizabeth Gilbert

I have been exploring lately the idea of what marriage is and isn't at different stages of one's life and experience. The romantic bond, the social contract, the partnership, the spiritual sealing - are two bonded souls side by side, sharing of life, or zipped together like two halves of a sleeping bag? Is marriage the ultimate legalized zipper or something else entirely?

Liz Gilbert's account (quoted above) of her year of wandering with her exiled Brazillan boyfriend as they awaited permission to marry, a condition of her boyfriend's legal admittance to the United States (excerpt from COMMITTED by Elizabeth Gilbert, Penguin), made for some strange reading. Homeland Security played a very big role in the most important decision of their lives. And as two scarred, and skeptical divorced adults, the idea of second marriage had not, until then, been on the agenda. Now, marriage it seemed, was the only agenda if they were to be permitted to live in the United States. Gilbert's book is, frankly, depressing. If you really want a close look at the ugly side of the institution of marriage, as both limiting and damaging, as the controlling institution in which the State holds and enforces conditions of personal incorporation as Mr. and Mrs. Inc., then by all means go with Gilbert down her path of study of the history of marriage. Her personal solution, ironically motivated by love of the most romantic nature, is to find meaning in marriage based in a kind of ultimate subversive freedom: a private and personal space within the legal construct that even the state may not pry into. Marriage means to you, Gilbert argues, what you make of it, regardless of the license, ceremony, or social practice.

I thought this discussion of relationship might open up some interesting explorations of commitment here on this blog: What we mean when we choose one another. What it means when a relationship is legalized, or spiritually sanctified, or simply given significance between two individuals. This is of course a huge topic - and inclusive of elements of cultural anthropology, history and feminism, property, religion, law, hetero and homosexual distinctions, etcetera. But I assure you, I don't plan the definitive treatise here in these musings. I will open the debate to discussions of what commitment means to me, to you, our loved ones, friends and community.

So today's question is this: If you or your beloved's legal residency required marriage and you were not philosophically inclined to support marriage, would you, as Gilbert did, marry to permit freedom of choice of country where you were allowed to live, or stand outside the system and refuse to play? Is marriage primarily a bond or a construct, or move fluidly between the two? Is something lost in translation?

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Living a Life

Old Man, India
'Living a life'-
the beauty of deep lines
dug in your cheeks.

The years gather by sevens
to fashion you. They are blind,
but you are not blind.

Their blows resound,
they are deaf, those laboring
daughters of the Fates,

but you are not deaf,
you pick out
your own song from the uproar

line by line,
and at last throw back
your head and sing it.
- Denise Levertov

All week I have been thinking about what it means to "live a life." A life as full and long as perhaps ever intended to be, regardless of when or how life ends. Life is defined in part because of the finish. Are we any less masters of our fates then architects of endings? What is meant to be versus what happened to be? I have been thinking of the men and women of September 11, caught in mid-sentence on an ordinary day; I think of those that struggle with illness and its final conquest; I think of the accident, the blow, the abrupt conclusion. Like forceful sentences, what is short and punctuated possesses both intensity and density. The haiku is to the ballad as "Yes!" means a thousand things. Meaning is rich in reduction, much is said when we embrace our elemental essence.

I wonder if we color our lives in the laying down of days or distinguish them in the brevity of brilliant moments. Are we filled with love's completeness solely in the aftermath of tender ecstasy or in the reckoning of anniversaries? We talk about degrees of shading, of piecing together the whole of a design in all its complexity and originality. Somehow we pick our "own song from the uproar."

As the poet has written of life, "throw back your head and sing it."
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Through a Child's Eyes

You who have held yourselves closed hard
Against warm sun and wind, shelled up in fears
And hostile to a touch or tender word -
The ocean rises, salt as unshed tears.

- from "Of Molluscs," May Sarton

The tremor of new truth in yesterday's American observance of the terrors of the attacks of September 11, now ten years later, was mirrored perfectly in children's faces. My own two, now 20 and 22, were then children: old enough to understand, and young enough to still hold faith with the world. They were frightened. The attacks made no sense. The uncertainty and danger of the world fully evident, they clung to a belief that the fundamentally wrong was also fundamentally unreasonable, and therefore, surely not part of the structure of life? Such blind and unprovoked attacks shouldn't have occurred in a moral world, and yet they did. Many of us placed the violence within a paradigm of what we called "momentary insanity."

Ten years later, I see that my children do not think the violence of the world, the terrorism of global dissidence, is "momentary" at all. Insane, yes. But extreme catastrophic violence is now part of every day of every year as the world polarizes around class, religion, culture, and politics. The world has become more chaotic and less comprehensible with every passing year. The violence irrational and theoretical, the impact brutal and inhumane. What is really at stake is our faith in a rational universe, in which good works, good character, and good intentions mean something. If we are targets of destruction for what we symbolize because of our differentness, our oppositional values, then fundamental commonality has been hijacked by fear. What all of us possess, our humanity, becomes irrelevant. And in that world, random violence replaces understanding. The world teeters on the brink of a loss of faith in goodness.

The now adult children of September 11 were not nearly as swept away by emotion as their parents on this day of observance and remembrance. This is their world: violent, unpredictable, complicated. They do not remember the innocence of what the world felt like before. And that is a huge loss. The mark of what this day means to all of us now is that everything changed.
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The Fierce Within

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
- William Ernest Henley

I found myself drawn to this poem today on the news that journalist Andrea Mitchell is fighting breast cancer. Another warrior on the road. A road only her soul can travel, lighting the way from within. And even as we wish there were things we could do beyond the obvious to offer our support and care, the obvious is genuinely enough. The spiritual battle belongs to the warrior alone. The medical battle to the advances of science. You and I bring soup and good books. A foot massage. Love.

Someone recently wrote they objected to the word "war" and battle terminology to describe fighting cancer. That cancer, in their view, was something that happens, and was not therefore an enemy we oppose ourselves to but rather address as we would any other unwelcome situation. I thought back on my husband and my mother's and brother's experiences with cancer and realized how profoundly I disagree. Fighting cancer does not establish conflict against our own bodies. Because this is a disease that is not an event but a takeover, not a minor malfunction but an invasive cascading meltdown, we build a battle team, a battle front, and a battle plan.

As I read Henley's poem, I thought of the triumph of spirit against all odds. The human spirit is the one element in any fight we own. Unconquerable. Immeasurable. I offer those I cheer on a supportive spirit, and faith to prevail. I offer myself my own inner flght. What we bring to the world is a collective light.
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Summer Feast

There were never strawberries
like the ones we had
that sultry afternoon
sitting on the step
of the open french window
facing each other
your knees held in mine
the blue plates in our laps
the strawberries glistening
in the hot sunlight
we dipped them in sugar
looking at each other
not hurrying the feast
for one to come
the empty plates
laid on the stone together
with the two forks crossed
and I bent towards you
sweet in that air
in my arms
abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memory
lean back again
let me love you

let the sun beat
on our forgetfulness
one hour of all
the heat intense
and summer lightning
on the Kilpatrick hills

let the storm wash the plates
- Edwin Morgan

Labor Day concluded the last days of summer freedom for the children of this city. A day of biking, picnics, listening to concert music lying in the green grass of the city park under the trees. Summer is a prime number, cornerstone of the mathematical biological calendar of flora and fauna, the apex of bloom. Over our head, the leaves of the trees rustle in dark silhouette, fat against the blue enamel sky.

I'll spool away a moment, maybe several this week, in the exuberance and promiscuous abandon of these verdant days. So much green, too much sun, the garden bursts over the fence and the stakes holding the climbing beans sigh. The white Scottie lies on his belly in the cool grass in the shade of the plum tree, nose buried in the scent of warm earth. He doses. The sun bakes the roof tiles.

Peaches, plums, strawberries. The abundance of the farmers market. In just a few short weeks we will drift, dropping like the leaf, into apples and berries, the flame-colored gourds, darkening nights and chill mornings. But today, the wind shakes the leaves of summer trees.

And I had strawberries.
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Just a Breather

"Hope" is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I've heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.
- Emily Dickinson

Recently a friend said to me about a difficult time someone I care about is going through - "Now is when to take note of these difficult emotions, for the future will hold similar challenges. But when that day comes, we know, really know, we're up to them."

How true. Unfortunately, there will be more pot holes and many unforeseen complications in our lives. Moments we did not anticipate or even imagine. Struggles that seem to last too long, and disappointments that leave us feeling rather roughed up. We think we're ready for what life has to offer - good and bad - and then we trip, fall flat. The sky spins as we lay there, the breath knocked out of us. A thousand thoughts run through our minds. Did I deserve this? Am I just unlucky? Why am I always hitting turbulence? If I knew how to avoid such crashes, I would, right? It's as if our LIFE tool kit has run thin on resources to get us through.

Well then, hope. What the poet Emily Dickinson calls, "the thing with feathers." Hope flies through the storm, over the chasm and disaster, past the hurdle, across the divide. It is unbound. And this idea, that hope is of unlimited potential and abundance, is the one tool I try to put my hand on in a moment that pinches. Just get through this, I remind myself. And remember, remember how it felt in the fire. Sift out the ashes. Confidence remains. Something for the future.
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