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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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Two Poems, Facing the Blue Half of the World

Starry Night Over the Rhone, Vincent van Gogh

Dear Readers,
Because you mean so much to me, each blessed one of you. Love and Joy.
Two poems from my private writings.

by Glenda Burgess

The moon turned
backlit by the sun
the blue half of the world
where passion slept on,
Darwin's theorems, the
white poems of Epictetus,
the dark pause familiar now strange
thus toss midnight a

by Glenda Burgess

The sun
and the ash-winged moon
canopy the sky,
in the bower.
Hearts pendulate the slow one-two.

Summer storm
builds, breaks above us,
where we sit on the steps
knee to knee,
mouths full of garden berries and promises.

Lightning cracks over Hangman Bluff. The gutters
rattle with song.
Your lashes darkling fronds of question.
Little roofs – yellow napkins, the Sunday Styles -
tumble as you grab my hand,
a couplet
a secret alexandrine.

puddles in the grooves
of the old stones. Rain
will wash the glasses.
Beyond the open window green stars
drench twilight across tin roofs.

I breathe you in.
Decode collarbone, earlobe, bent toe,
the hollow of hip.
This language of learning, of becoming
within two.

behind night,
sun in the arms of moon,
the long waltz of always. What
is solitary.
What is not.
Hearts pendulate the slow one-two.

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Patio table, Nice, France

The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of early morning, sweeping up and mopping, were all you needed. For luck you carried a horse chestnut and a rabbit's foot in your right pocket. The fur had been worn off the rabbit's foot long ago and the bones and the sinews were polished by wear. The claws scratched in the lining of your pocket and you knew your luck was still there.
- Ernest Hemingway, "A Moveable Feast"

Ordinarily I never read anything before I write in the morning to try and bite on the old nail with no help, no influence and no one giving you a wonderful example or sitting looking over your shoulder.
- to Berenson, 1952, "Selected Letters"

However am now going to write a swell novel - will not talk about it on acct. the greater ease talking about it than writing it and consequent danger of doing same.
- to F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1927, "Selected Letters"

I am more a fan of Hemingway on writing than Hemingway's collective works themselves. Which is saying something, as I admire his work very much. I find Hemingway's insights on the culling of inspiration, on ways to structure the discipline required to make worthy stories from slips of ideas, frequently hit the mark with me. I am often, as Hemingway puts it, facing "the blank paper, the pencil, and the obligation to invent truer things than things can be true." Dear friends, there is a vast Senegeti between the thought and the finished story.

Hemingway often spoke about pitfalls and insights in the writing process in his witty, frank letters to literary friends and editors. The "Selected Letters," and "Ernest Hemingway on Writing" (ed. Larry Phillips) span Hemingway on everything from writer's block to politics, indulgence and the dangers of success.

Sometimes, like today, when I am stumped for the right critical filter to evaluate a work I've finished and determine if it really is done, I turn to Hemingway's strong self-critical drive and let him be my guide. He once wrote Fitzgerald, "I think you should learn about writing from everybody who has ever written that has anything to teach you." They had been discussing Dostoevsky, and a line Hemingway later included in "A Moveable Feast" was to resonate from his own search to master the nuances of the perfect story. "How can a man write so badly," he wrote, "so unbelievably badly, and make you feel so deeply?"

There is more to effective writing than grammar or form. There is a spark, the cadence of empathy. The necessary, powerful word that conveys the whole of the thing. The rest, as Hemingway might say, is but plaster smacked up on the wall.

And finally, for me, there is Hemingway's unquestioned loyalty to story. Telling a tale in the way one might carve a facet from a rough stone, making it worth the read. A man of extraordinary passions and talents, there is no end to what Hemingway might have done in life besides inhabit cafes and rewrite drafts. But consider this, from "Green Hills of Africa,"

"Do you think your writing is worth doing - as an end in itself?"
"Oh yes."
"You are sure?"
"Very sure."
"That must be very pleasant."
"It is," I said. "It is the one altogether pleasant thing about it."

As I review my work and think about whether it satisfies me, and then if what I have written measures up to an imagined reader's expectations, I bear in mind what Hem said in a letter to Ivan Pushkin in 1935, ". . .writing is something that you can never do as well as it can be done. It is a perpetual challenge and it is more difficult than anything else that I have ever done - so I do it. And it makes me happy when I do it well."

A thousand ways this hits the old nail on the head.

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Settling Into Life

Cottage in the Faroe Islands
I don't think I am old yet, or done with growing. But my perspective has altered - I am less hungry for the busyness of the body, more interested in the tricks of the mind. I am gaining, also, a new affection for wood that is useless, that has been tossed out, that merely exists, quietly, wherever it has ended up. Planks on the beach rippled and salt-soaked. Pieces of piling, full of the tunnels of shipworm. In the woods, fallen branches of oak, of maple, of the dear, wind-worn pines. They lie on the ground and do nothing. They are travelers on the way to oblivion... Call it Rest. I sit on one of the branches. My idleness suits me. I am content. I have built my house. The blue butterflies, called azures, twinkle up from the secret place where they have been waiting. In their small blue dresses they float among the branches, they come close to me, one rests for a moment on my wrist. They do not recognize me as anything very different from this enfoldment of leaves, this wind-roarer, this wooden palace lying down, now, upon the earth, like anything heavy, and happy, and full of sunlight, and half-asleep.
- from "Winter Hours," Mary Oliver

This idea of settling into one's life.

Mary Oliver's essays in "Winter Hours" are thoughtful observations, both detached and intimate, marked by crisp exploratory writings that etch what it means to grasp one's life whole; as an organic, evolving theme of the self. Oliver writes perceptively of human endeavor as a construct - a shelter for creative thought and action.

She stands before a cabin in the woods she hand-built; a private room for writing, which in time has devolved into a little-used potting shed. She realizes she built the cabin not for writing as she believed, not for thought, but for the sake of building. The task complete, she can lie in its humble shade among the blue butterflies, making use of it or not. Her presence lies in nature, she tells us, not in her construct.

Oliver points out it is instinctive to examine life; to ponder what makes things work, what causes one thing to nurture another. This linking of ideas and experiences creates the future out of the past. We understand ourselves as part of the vast natural interchange of what lives and dies, yet are stricken by the secret wish to be beyond all that. Thus, we build. Oliver concludes wryly, You can fool a lot of yourself but you can't fool the soul. That worrier.

To have "built the house." To sit quiet in contemplation in its shadow, a part of all that lives and occupies the geography of space and time.

As this year comes to its close, I find myself taking stock of my own "constructs." Family, work, home, friendships. These complex symbols of life, of the living I have done. Are they worthy of the sacredness of living? Have I lived up to my soul's expectations? Have I lived strong and true within the essential principles, as nature would have them? Are there places where am I following the blueprints of a construct, and not a life?

We travel, lost in the work of working at living. Yet we must all find within ourselves the potting-shed within the palace, and rest upon the earth, like anything heavy, and happy, full of sunlight, and half asleep. In the sunspot of what we have made.

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