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A Warrior and A Monk

Bust of Alexander, Museum of Athens

Some things
you know all your life. They are simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter, and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.

- from "The Simple Truth," Philip Levine

I have shared this stanza of Philip Levine's poem "The Simple Truth," before with you. If you are not familiar with Levine's work, please, when you have a moment, read through the entire poem. And then perhaps browse the complete poetry collection by the same title. Levine's poems are earthy, powerful, they sear in your brain, they are moving. Distinct and subtle. Levine is sometimes referred to as the working man's poet. A tribute to his attention to the ordinary hours, to working lives, our empathy for the fates of others.

This stanza is about many things, but I often find myself coming back as I read to a reflection on core values such as loyalty, fidelity, love. The musculature and the power of attachment.

The human heart is capable of great patience, tremendous tenacity. It stretches, it builds - ever so slowly - like bone in the new body. All is a journey, this life. Connection and partnership; the hand-bricked construction of family. Our selves evolve into new ways of being, taking unique shape within the lives we lead. It is the simple truth to say that living is about ever-becoming. And while neither easy nor pristinely beautiful, and certainly not perfect in its process, for each one of us becoming is absolutely of whole and perfect intent. Perfect in joy, grounded in earth, heaven, and the never-ending soul. The human heart is a warrior and a monk. And it speaks a simple truth. Belong.

As we enter the quiet months of winter, listen to the song your life is singing. Speak the things you know to be true. Make these truths the pillars of conscious living.

Let the beauty we love be what we do. - Rumi

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The Solo and the Chorus

after Gabriel Mistral

by Maggie Smith

I began as one cricket singing
one song. Soon we were all singing,
The dusk was unintelligible.

I hadn't moved, but suddenly I was lost.
Which song is my song? Which cricket am I?

I will never be one cricket again.
I could wait for midnight's silences
and try to fill them. I could stop singing

and listen to the little me-shaped hole
torn in the roaring twilight. The sound

of me missing might be clearer
than my song. I could gift it to the night,
which misses its dear, departed silences.

Even the stars quiver on their own
high frequency. I'm sure they're lost, too.

This poem by Maggie Smith spoke to me today. I felt lost...a song in my own ear I could not hear in the world. We are, all of us I believe, acutely aware of the numbers of us struggling, competing, and practicing in our fields. The writers working, publishing, and singing their songs into the world. The number of musicians playing alone in their studios, recorded on YouTube, performing before a handful of others in cafes, alone for you on your headset. There are thousands of corporate experts, corporate leaders, start-up entrepreneurs from city to city. Uncounted actors on stages everywhere. Thinkers and teachers in universities, all the way down to the first grader puzzling out the alphabet.

Who will hear my song? Which song am I? Which me is me?

There are so many of us we feel drowned out by our numbers. Yet we are amplified by our chorus, powerful in unison. Smith's poem addresses the dichotomy between distinct individuality and the gathering of individuals in which what is distinct becomes lost. The feeling that the tiny hole left in the larger chorus if there were no "me" might be easier to pick out than our song.

It's hard to feel personal effort or individual work matters. We all tell the same stories over and again. Sure, striving for fresh and interesting, but, the same story. As are the songs, and the combinations of paint, and the marketing plans, the fashion design, the options in which engineers move wheels, raise walls, design thrust. Solos make the chorus.

Even the stars quiver on their own
high frequency. I'm sure they're lost too.

In this stanza Smith circles back around to a collective idea of brilliance. Stars, not star. Unknowable wondrous pinpoints of light. How do we keep track of our singular selves in a sky, a solar system, a galaxy, a universe formed of a plentitude of multiples? We shall always see ourselves from the smallness of one.

Listen to the little me-shaped hole/torn in the roaring twilight.

I love this tiny final thought Smith tosses into her lament, that we may gift our mute presence to the night, to "its dear, departed silences." We exist, Smith seems to say, in both song and silence.

We begin as one, singing one song.
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Emptying the Tank

North Sea at sunset
by May Sarton

Low tide -
The sea's slow motion,
The surge and slur
Over rocky shingle.

A few gulls ride
Rocking-horse waves.

Under blurred gray sky
The field shines white.

I am not available
At the moment
Except to myself.

Downstairs the plumber
Is emptying the big tank,
The pump pumped on and on
And might have worn out.

So many lives pour into this house,
Sometimes I get too full;
The pump wears out.

So now I am emptying the tank.
It is not an illness
That keeps me from writing.
I am simply staying alive
As one does
At times taking in,
At times shutting out.

Isn't this poem beautiful? To think of ourselves, the way Sarton observes, as full and changing as the sea. One moment surging with the flotsam of experience borne from the day; the next, emptying at low-tide, souls following the gulls out to sea.

The stanzas above come from a longer work in May Sarton's final book of poetry, "Halfway to Silence." Sarton spoke of this writing project as a period of rich imagery and lyrical poetry, prompted, she felt, by a keen awareness of the starkness of her own old age and the often violent passage of earthly seasons. How age may leave us battered by the endless cycles of nature's unpredictable chaos. We are endlessly vulnerable to the turns of nature, to these elemental forces we superficially understand and do not at all control. We are guests on this earth, and in our bodies, and among the most fragile. We learn this, it seems, every generation.

Sarton's poem settled in my thoughts this morning as I sat at my writing desk, not writing but thinking. Out my window the gentle presence of a warm, sun-filled morning, among the few left in the year, beckoned. Yet I felt pensive, weary from a long weekend of travel. What strange, almost surreal weightlessness; floating between my fatigue and the beauty beyond. The seasons were turning and I was not. Not so much water-logged as life-logged. There will be harsh, challenging months ahead as winter settles in. There will likely be difficulties and setbacks in the weeks and months to come in our personal lives as well.
Light and dark, warmth and cold.
Assertive and receptive, strong and vulnerable.

What is ordinary is this natural state of flux.

The seasons change and change back again. Nature continuously offers us grace and continuity. Sarton writes, "I lift my eyes/ To the blue/ Open-ended ocean./ Why worry?/ Some things are always there." She observes that as nature takes, she gives, and all things find equilibrium. "Sometimes I get too full.../At times taking in,/At times shutting out."

We must open to the ebb and flow of energy, open to the slow curve of understanding, be willing to release our frustration with the incomprehensible. It is our ability to lift our eyes above mayhem and suffering, to look to the constants - to the poet's ocean - that gives us faith in this world. We must trust in the serenity beneath the turmoil; rebuild upon the hope and constancy within the chaos of change. And sometimes, like Sarton, we need to become unavailable to any but ourselves. Empty the tank. "So many lives pour into this house."

I hope that wherever you are in the demands of the day, or the turn of seasons, you love your wildness. Solace and inspiration abide in our place in nature and the world.

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Old Thread, Old Line

Old thread, old line
of ink twisting out into the clearness
we call space
where are you leading me this time?
Past the stove, the table,
past the daily horizontal
of the floor, past the cellar,
past the believable,
down into the darkness
where you reverse and shine.

- Margaret Atwood, from Down

At a recent creative writing workshop, a gristled middle-aged man wearing a cabled fisherman's sweater, bagged at the elbows, and smudged half-glasses, lifted the nicotine-stained fingers of his right hand and asked me with a bit of a hesitancy in his speech, "How do you know you have an idea worth writing about?"

The pat answer, the one you hear repeated at conference panels, is the question flipped back on itself. "Does it inspire you? Do you feel passionate about your idea? If you do, then dive in and write what only you can."

I have no real problem with this response. In most ways, it is true. Our best ideas are almost always the ones we believe in with all our heart. Passion will lift an idea from flat ink on the page into a three-dimensional vision. It takes our senses, mastery of time, truthful detail, and human drama to tell a good story for our readers. Is passion enough? Can a story be successfully constructed without it?

Writers are a hardy lot, self-disciplined, committed to work even when inspiration fails. Willing to drum up enthusiasm when inspiration lags. I knew my gentlemen with the pipe was asking more than what particular subjects to consider.

He thumped his laptop, asked, "What works?"

He wanted to know what projects would be successful. In truth, I began toying with the ideas in this post back in October of 2013. The business of writing to publish occurs on a level beyond what is a good, passionate story on the page. An acquisitions editor reads for more than the well-executed novel or short story. The editor's interest in a manuscript is often a phenomenon of timeliness, of fresh and unexpected writing, innovative storytelling, the year's published books. Many editors are actively searching for something they can love - that undefinable "word magic" - that something extra that takes a work of private solitary imagination and lifts it into the world of published books and the hands of readers.

The answer to my gentleman's question, the answer to what follows "Are you passionate about your story?", is this simple, not-so-easy qualifier, "Can you write this idea so that others will feel about your story as you do?"

At the end of reading a novel submission, an editor has his or her answer in hand. On this basis, proposals are judged as well. If you are fortunate to have your "yes," what follows is amazing, important, industry interest in your fledgling project. Old-fashioned word of mouth enthusiasm is still the way your editor wins advance support within the publishing house: collecting author blurbs, sending out your book to reviewers, to bookstore owners, and others whose opinions influence what we read. Success depends on readers falling in love. It's quite the journey your unique story, the idea you were so passionate about, undertakes to arrive in Aunt Edna's hands.

You do the work, and the work then takes on a life of its own. Margaret Atwood's imagery of inked lines flying from the table, past the believable to that point at which words shine, is one I return to frequently when I think how grateful I am to the professionals I work with in publishing.

They hear our words. And pass the magic on to readers everywhere.

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