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QUINTESSENCE

Emerge On The Page

Swan on Lake Luzern, Switzerland
It requires faith in the process. The imagination has its own coherence. Our first draft will lead us. There's always time for thinking and shaping and restructuring later, after we've allowed something previously hidden to emerge on the page.
- Dani Shapiro, "Still Writing"

FATHER'S OLD BLUE CARDIGAN

Now it hangs on the back of the kitchen chair
where I always sit, as it did
on the back of the kitchen chair where he always sat.

I put it on whenever I come in,
as he did, stamping
the snow from his boots.

I put it on and sit in the dark.
He would not have done this.
Coldness comes paring down from the monotone in the sky.

His laws were a secret.
But I remember the moment at which I knew
he was going mad inside his laws.

He was standing at the turn of the driveway when I arrived.
He had on the blue cardigan with the buttons done all the way up to the top.
Not only because it was a hot July afternoon

but the look on his face--
as a small child who has been dressed by some aunt early in the morning
for a long trip

on cold trains and windy platforms
will sit very straight at the edge of his seat
while the shadows like long fingers

over the haystacks that sweep past
keep shocking him
because he is riding backwards.

- Anne Carson, from "Men In The Off Hours"

I chose these two things to share on the blog today because one quote is about the process of bringing our thoughts to the page - of trusting in the machinery of reflection and distillation - and the other a poem reflecting on the loss of the familiar from our thoughts.

Carson's poem is a beautiful example of the kind of poetry I feel lies within all of us. A cherished memory - Carson's father wearing his familiar blue cardigan - becomes a poem mourning abandonment by memory. Carson's observations open inward as if they were nesting dolls: the poem's primary theme of beloved familiarity is nested within yet another, more subtle theme of human connection. The poem begins with a simple blue cardigan, but as Carson lifts the layers of complexity in the memory she has of her father and this sweater, she reveals that within the beloved comfort of the personal keepsake is the memory of her father losing his memory. And in the process, the ties to his daughter.

Writing depends, as Dani Shapiro observes, on the pliable plasticity of memory. The ways we move within time as it exists in our minds to weave a narrative, a history. What is a line of poetry or a sentence of story but the distillation of the many "then and nows" of awareness ? When we describe an experience, examine something we have learned, we engage in a focused effort to scrap away reaction to reveal insight. We have faith our mental archive, our memory, holds the thread intact of all that was and is. When the thread begins to fray, or inexplicably breaks, we exist removed from our own narratives, lost and startled by all we do not recognize. "Riding backwards," as Carson describes her father. The shadows of time flying past us in the opposite direction.

I invite you to think of a "blue cardigan" in your life... an object that represents an embedded relationship or relationship of memories important to you. Create a mental picture, a poem, or perhaps a paragraph of memories connected to that object. What you feel is more than a memory. It is you.

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Bookmark, The Passing of Philip Levine


THE RETURN: ORIHUELA, 1965
for Miguel Hernandez

by Philip Levine

You come over a slight rise
in the narrow, winding road
and the white village broods
in the valley below. A breeze
silvers the cold leaves
of the olives, just as you saw
it in dreams. How many days
have you waited for this day?
Soon you must face a son grown
to manhood, a wife to old age,
the tiny sealed house of memory.
A lone crow drops into the sun,
the fields whisper their courage.


By chance does a poet become a bookmark in one's life. This small poem has a special place in my heart. Not only because "The Return: Orihuela, 1965" (THE SIMPLE TRUTH) describes hill country I know and love, but because the poet has framed a transfiguring moment - a tenuous tipping point in the human soul.

At some point in life we will each of us tilt between yearning and insufficient courage: afraid that what we remember, what we loved and left and dream to see again, must as the fates would have it, be gone. Revisiting what is memory, standing in the firmament of a dream, echoes the poignancy of that famous melancholy line, That is no country for old men, from Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium." In "Byzantium," Yeats's observer understands his time has passed.

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.


Levine however, stands in the shoes of a man on the brink of a return. A man stepping back toward his past; who comes "over a slight rise" awash in fear, hope embedded in memory.

Philip Levine has died. Prolific, thoughtful, humble, comfortable among the ordinary - the common man celebrated in his poetry - Levine (1928-2015), bookmarked an important cornerstone in my life's eclectic reading. One of those contemporary American poets whose work remained as honest and strong throughout his life as when I first encountered WHAT WORK IS, which was honored with the National Book Award in 1991, followed by THE SIMPLE TRUTH, honored with the Pulitzer in 1994. Levine was a poet without pretense. He offered insights that did not need to be made grander than the breadth of plain truth. He gave me a language of beauty, but not false.

Philip Levine's poems, to paraphrase Yeats, stand among "the singing-masters of my soul." Perhaps we do not know these influential voices until they are silenced. At the end of "Sailing to Byzantium," Yeats reflects on the soul, It knows not what it is... Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Philip Levine.
A lone crow drops into the sun.

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The Gratitude Stole

The Gratitude Stole
Which is to say, mi corazon, drink up the sunlight you can and stop feeding the good fruit to the goat. Tell me you believe the world is made of more than all its stupid, stubborn, small refusals, that anything, everything is still possible. I wait for word here where the snow is falling, the solitaires are calling, and I am, as always, your M.
- from "To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary," Incarnadine by Mary Syzbist

The Gratitude Stole is a tradition at Stanford University. The stole's only decoration is the University logo in gold thread at the bottom. Graduating seniors who choose to do so, wear this red silk stole through commencement. After commencement, the new graduate removes the stole and places it around the shoulders of that one person the student feels supported him or her most significantly, mentored their success, or inspired them toward their life calling.

My son placed the Gratitude Stole on me.

He didn't need to. I was forever and always his number one fan, yet other fine men and women had a hand in his success. We'd been though a lot together as a family. I knew he was thinking not just of me at that moment, but of his absent father, who passed away in 2003. I knew he was reflecting on the unexpected challenges and struggles he endured to grow into a young adult, a confident man, and today a university graduate. We both knew the accomplishment was entirely his; his alone that core of courage and determination. I was simply that someone who believed in him. I offered faith. Faith in his ability to meet his challenges, faith in his intelligence and talents, faith in his chosen dreams, and faith in our resilience and love as a family. I believed in my son, because that's what parents do. But I was believing for two: his father and me.

I know Ken would have been incredibly proud of David on this day. I know he would have been proud not only for the completion of his education, but for the character and integrity his son exemplified every step of his journey. I felt the twinness of their beauty, the father and the son. The light of the man gone illumined the sparkle of the younger man before me. Receiving the Gratitude Stole from my son made visible the love and faith carried forward by a long line of strong shoulders. The father. Grandparents no longer here. Our closest friends. All of us bearing witness to one young man's quiet triumph on this day.

I think symbolic ceremonies set apart life's important moments and teach us about continuity. These ceremonies mark one journey's end and embrace turning forward to the next. Symbols of recognition and accomplishment, while certainly cultural or institutional, live within the deeply personal. Behind a graduation or diploma stand the dreams and struggles every such achievement signifies. Years, perhaps entire lifetimes embroider the borders of ceremony. I like to think even the presence of those no longer with us.

We see ourselves in these moments, and I know that I saw myself in David's eyes.
Grateful.

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A Glimpse, Sideways (Revisited)

The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen
MY LIFE
By Billy Collins

Sometimes I see it as a straight line
drawn with a pencil and a ruler
transecting the circle of the world

or as a finger piercing
a smoke ring, casual, inquisitive,

but then the sun will come out
or the phone will ring
and I will cease to wonder

if it is one thing,
a large ball of air and memory,
or many things,
a string of small farming towns,
a dark road winding through them.

Let us say it is a field
I have been hoeing every day,
hoeing and singing,
then going to sleep in one of its furrows,

or now that it is more than half over,
a partially open door,
rain dripping from the eaves.

Like yours, it could be anything,
a nest with one egg,
a hallway that leads to a thousand rooms—
whatever happens to float into view
when I close my eyes

or look out a window
for more than a few minutes,
so that some days I think
it must be everything and nothing at once.

But this morning, sitting up in bed,
wearing my black sweater and my glasses,
the curtains drawn and the windows up,

I am a lake, my poem is an empty boat,
and my life is the breeze that blows
through the whole scene

stirring everything it touches—
the surface of the water, the limp sail,
even the heavy, leafy trees along the shore.

The first time I read My Life by Billy Collins, past poet laureate of the United States and arguably one of the most popular and well read contemporary poets in America, I was years younger than I am today. What stands out this morning as I share this poem with you is how different stanzas resonate for me now than did then. Lines once evocative but not familiar are now familiar, evoke an accumulation of yesteryears. Perhaps a poem taps a tuning fork within us, the base note ever changing. How can one poem do this? Ripple through our consciousness, pick and thread through dreams? My Life offers language to rest on as we journey the unknown. We read "everything and nothing at once" and find solace and recognition. A stream of islands that glisten in an existential sea - some inhabited, some not at all. Delicate, ephemeral, sturdy, sharp. Bones cast shadows in sunrises of wishfulness. Tide pools of regret shimmer at our feet, and above our heads move clouds of utter hunger. Our feet find "a dark road winding" and cross toward tomorrow - making, leaving, already moving on.

A glimpse, sideways.


I wrote the above post August 8, 2013, and thought of Billy Collins's poem again today while exploring the Danish National Museum, thinking about the ways in which travel - "transecting the circle of the world" - changes our frame, alters perspective, and pulls what we take for granted out from under our feet. A shift that enables us to think about and see with uncommon acuity the ordinary human customs familiarity blinds us to. All day I wandered the centuries, steeped in the Danish perspective on natural and cultural world history, their own place in the human story. Theirs is a perspective of small politics in an empire world. Nordic adventure and discovery. Sustainment. Devastation and damage at the intersection of too many continental wars. Intertwined cultural realities. An awareness of the linkage between the development of human liberties and the building of peaceful borders. The unique heritage of belonging to continent and sea.

Denmark is a self-aware, self-questioning country. I am struck by an uncommon intelligence in the national cultural dialogue regarding modern issues of ecological preservation and human happiness. From my limited, evolving perspective, my sense is that the central idea in Billy Collins's poem MY LIFE mirrors a personal cultivation and reverence for small scale intimacies Danes are well-aquainted with. The water, the wind, the moment. An empty boat; air and memory.
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Travelers

Kathe Kollwitz, Köln, Germany
7
still there is mercy, there is grace

how otherwise
could i have come to this
marble spinning in space
propelled by the great
thumb of the universe?
how otherwise
could the two roads
of this tongue
converge into a single
certitude?
how otherwise
could i, a sleek old
traveler,
curl one day safe and still
beside You
at Your feet, perhaps,
but, amen, Yours.


- Lucille Clifton, from the poem "Brothers"

I think frequently about the matter of grace. What it means to be given a certain unconditional regard in this life. We are travelers on this planet, passing through the uncertain ambitious foothills of ego and desire. By what measure are grace and mercy so freely given us? Is grace the wide embrace of a spiritual or primeval forgiveness? A kind of No Fault clause provided as part of the whole "living on earth" enterprise?

Forgiveness is not quite the correct word, I think. There is no judgment in grace. Grace rains upon every living thing, generous as the beat of our hearts. Mercy on the other hand, falls closer to an individual acknowledgement of the real-world struggle and challenge of life. The human soul grasps and yearns. We are capable of craven, violent, selfish choices - the most despicable actions on the behavioral spectrum. Yet often we give what might be gained away, without regard for self or reward. Generosity and compassion, tender and courageous. Grace offers acceptance of this imperfect free will. Mercy is benevolence toward its imperfect expression.

This lovely stanza from Lucille Clifton's long poem "brothers," is part of an eight part poem conversation between an aged Lucifer and God, although only Lucifer's voice is heard. I read these wonderful poem conversations in their entirety and think of humanity and its perilous, hungry, blind tangle of infinite strength and yearning. Perhaps universal grace and individual mercy are the balance given to human nature. Perhaps we are not merely to acknowledge but practice both qualities. For ourselves and others. To find our way, the "traveler,/ curl one day safe and still/ beside You."

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In Its Place

The moth and fish eggs are in their place,
The suns I see and the suns I cannot see are in their place,
The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.
Do you guess I have some intricate purpose? Well I have...
for the April rain has, and the mica on the side of a rock has.

- Walt Whitman

Beyond my study window the wind sighs hard and angry. A storm from over the Pacific has pounded the Cascade Mountains the last few days, hurled across the sage high desert and now catches in the pines and canyons of these inland northwest river valleys. The autumnal equinox of just a week ago felt gentle; a graceful tipping of the scale into another season. This day feels rough and furious, the energy of nature unleashed without temperament or caution. The earth is a monumental force of combative physics, a blue ball hurtling in black space, the whims and fractions of the elements wrecking havoc across the oceans and continents. Whitman's words fill me with a sense of belonging and serenity, even as nature is making it clear everything is for the taking. Stand and I will shred you of your leaves, your shingles, your habitat, your peace.

It is interesting to me the way in which I, as most humans, move in and out of awareness of myself as a precarious biological presence. Rooted lightly in an otherwise inorganic earth. The rock and wind, the heat and cold and pounding rains break down the living, the once living, all that is organic, and incorporate all things over and over again into an ecosystem we usually take for granted, forget, hold in false dominion. I have a healthy respect for wind like this. The long delicate branches of the birch trees snarl and toss as the old soldiers lean in against the gusts. Birds are nowhere to be seen but for the hunting falcons high above on the thermals. The backyard squirrels are snugged deep in the embrace of the boughs of the blue spruce.

Sometimes our lives feel as if they are ravaged by forces such as this, subject to events and elements beyond our small selves. We bend under the onslaught, scurry for shelter in hopes of riding out the storm. We are shredded by winds of disappointment, of loss, by harm or even danger. When I received news today a dear friend was the targeted victim of a smash and grab robbery while stopped in traffic in a taxi in Paris, I trembled. The wind roars. But she is safe. Her belongings and valuables are certainly gone, but her loved one and her life are intact. Memories remain when things do not. The wind passes, and we gather the downed limbs.

I return to the words of Whitman at the beginning of this essay. I take comfort.
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Welcome the Good

When the good comes, recognize it as such; you’ve worked hard to get here, readied yourself in a hundred ways so that it could find a home in you. When the good comes, nod to it and the circuitous route it had to take to find you in this exact moment of rightness. When the good comes, seat it comfortably while you tend to your old companions fear and doubt – they have done their best to protect you, but their journey with you must end here. When the good comes, meet it with an open heart and a willingness to explore. It’s your time.
- Kathy Freston, "The Daily Lean"

The juncture when a writer turns in a manuscript and waits, full of hope and apprehension as the nascent work's first critical review progresses, the all important assessment that evaluates the work on merit, the market, the quality of writing, and against the professional reader's own taste and expectations, is a very hard crossroads indeed. One direction lies elation, the other disconsolation. Whenever I submit work, I think of Cynthia Oznick's comments "Writers have a little holy light within, like a pilot light which fear is always blowing out. When a writer brings a manuscript fresh from the making, at the moment of greatest vulnerability, that's the moment for friends to help get the little holy light lit again."

Kathy Freston's post today from her wonderful blog "The Daily Lean" spoke deeply to me. As you know, two plus weeks ago my new manuscript entered review with my literary agent. As I waited (paced?) there were bread crumbs along the way as she read (it's a big book - 445 pages) - "Reading...and loving it!" Glimpses of what every writer hopes for: a book that captures a reader, pulls them through, delivers the goods. When she finished the manuscript on Sunday she sent me an immediate email that began "Brava!...."

Elation, my friends. The pilot light is lit once more. And yet... I'm already worried about what comes next. I have barely allowed this precise shimmering moment of goodness to sink in.

Freston reminds us we must accept our good inwardly or we devalue ourselves, our work, our dreams. Why is it so hard to feel deserving? It's easy to toss good moments off to luck, or accident, to cheat ourselves of the satisfaction of appreciating what we worked for. This is very different from the lovely bounty that comes solely of grace. (As I write this a random selection on my music playlist fills my study with Ray Lynch's ebullient, transcendent soundtrack "Deep Breakfast" and the track "Rhythm in the Pews." Joyful music!)

What comes next? Stage 2: Spending the next days doing light turnaround edits. However many times you comb through your work, there is always one dastardly cliche or an exclamation mark to weed out, a dropped verb missing in a sentence, an anchor the writer needs to craft to better anchor the reader in the narrative - all of which the critical reader meticulously sieves from the manuscript. (Do the dedicated and tremendously talented professionals in literary agencies and publishing ever get thanked enough?) As my manuscript gets this final grooming, a synopsis of the novel, an author bio, and critical reviews of previous works must be crafted and gathered together. The manuscript, our race horse - prances in its gate, ready to fly down the track. The grand prize? Win an offer from an acquisition editor in a well-respected publishing house.

Why am I once again anxious? Stage 3: selling to the capricious and uncertain publishing market. Books are a gamble full of inherent risk. This stage is a stride by stride commentary of trips, surges, and wobbles as our book charges through packs of rejections and lukewarm interest, never stopping, utterly focused on landing that one all-significant "Yes." You can race your heart out on that track. Cross the finish line dead last, or not at all. The writer's pilot light, as Oznick puts it, faces a great vulnerability when a book goes to the market. Publishing is, after all, a business. Perhaps Steinbeck summed it best when he wrote, "The profession of book-writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business."

As promised, that's the latest update on my hopeful new manuscript. Let you know how that horse race goes.... Wish me luck!

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Tested

Lone runner in fog, Jungfrau, Switzerland

FOR HORSES, HORSEFLIES

We know nothing of the lives of others.
Under the surface, what strange desires,
what rages, weaknesses, fears.

Sometimes it breaks into the daily paper
and we shake out heads in wonder -
"who would behave in such a way?" we ask.

Unspoken the thought, "Let me not be tested."
Unspoken the thought, "Let me not be known."

Under the surface, something that whispers,
"Anything can be done."

For horses, horseflies. For humans, shame.

- Jane Hirschfield

This week a dear friend of mine faces a crisis of career and reputation. My friend, an upper midlevel corporate manger, has been caught in what is now a national scandal in her place of work that has placed her square at the apex of both responsibility and consequence. In ancient Rome, a general was expected to take a sword for Caesar in the heat of battle. In corporate America, in the heat of viral social media and trial by press, this is no less the case.

In the compressed moments of this crisis as it occurred, no time was afforded my friend to do what she does best - the right thing. My first reaction to the news was instantaneous: This allegation is not possible. This woman's character and values are impeccable. My second reaction: That matters not at all. My friend sits in a position of supervisory authority, which means her supervision is at question based on the wrongdoing of some of those in her division. Her corporation has suffered a severe blow to it's reputation, the situation has damaged both the victim and the staff involved, and the situation has gone viral, compounding the exposure and public reaction. It is up to her to make things right, if given the chance. That said, on a personal level, when under attack is it not our first instinct to withdraw? To hole up, head down, shield the ones we love?

I have not been able to reach my friend; I suspect she is not able to speak for on-going legal reasons as this situation plays out. But I hope my messages of love and support reach her. I believe that when the proverbial crap hits that mighty jet engine, we most need to hear from those who do not sit in judgment. To be reassured we are loved (still), valued for our true strengths, and remain well thought of. That the public court rushing to judgment does not include our inner circle. I think all of us would like to think we are this type of person: the true friend. And, that we have such friends. But there is something in human nature drawn to scandal, to the suspicion of a whiff of weakness or fallibility. And it seems the higher our aspirations or standing, the greater the secret public hope we stumble.

So this week, my small calling has been to put loyalty and support out there. To be a candle in the dark. All of us have our Waterloos, and in the world of corporate accountability and viral social media, we often fight those battles as one-sided wars in the public eye. Character and strength of conviction are the traits that carry us through, lead us to the next day. And the next day is where we find that necessary moment to share our side of the story.

Be the friend you would want your friends to be.
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Deconstruction

copper pennies, cattle bones, pavers, wafers, black cloth
The Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin

The image in this essay is of an art installation at The Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas that occupies an entire space of its own. A room within a room, in which the art, "How to Build a Cathedral," fills the entirety of the subdued space.

The visitor is permitted to step inside the installation, curtained on four sides by ceiling to floor black mesh curtains (filmy and weighty), and stand or walk the square perimeter of the installation on an interior border of simple gray pavers. The ceiling within is a stalactite "chandelier" of cow bone: white bones suspended in uniform order from the ceiling and lit from above. The bones funnel visually into a thin cord of stacked Eucharist wafers falling into a sculptural sea of shiny new pennies. The space has the sacramental hush and reverence we associate with the interiors of cathedrals and the metaphoric elements with which we erect them: rock, money, sweat and death, sacrament, obscurity, light. It is a beautiful space. It feels sacred. The meaning, if one can say such exists outside the visual, feels immediately and profoundly understood. We make the profound from the material, we imbue the simple with meaning. What is sacred is born of the ordinary.

Does a poem enlarge the world,
or only our idea of the world?
- from "Mathematics" by Jane Hirschfield

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Sojourners

photo credit: James Peat, South Dorset, UK
We could do worse.
I alternate between thinking of the planet as home - dear and familiar stone hearth and garden- and as a hard land of exile in which we are all sojourners. Today I favor the latter view. The word "sojourner" occurs often in the English Old Testament. It invokes a nomadic people's knowledge of estrangement, a thinking people's intuition of sharp loss. "For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding."

We don't know where we belong, but in times of sorrow it doesn't seem to be here, here with these silly pansies and witless mountains, here with sponges and hard-eyed birds. In times of sorrow the innocence of the other creatures - from whom and with whom we evolved - seems a mockery. Their ways are not our ways. We seem set among them as among lifelike props for a tragedy - or a broad lampoon - on a thrust rock stage.

- Annie Dillard, "Teaching a Stone to Talk"

The weather is harsh today. A spin cycle of winds, driving rains, brief stillnesses and spots of sun followed by steely skies. The way in which winter fights the incremental arrival of spring, today the first day of spring, is played out in the heavens. Tender green grass and flower stems break earth, but the skies battle on a galactic level for dominance between light and dark, cold and warm, still and push.

My writer's thoughts are also caught between still and push. There is a lull toward stillness: to invite in the transitions in the seasons with reflection and awareness, and yet there is a strong sense of push. To birth the change in day, daylight, and energies now. There is much to do, more to accomplish, and time is a precious gift to waste.

Annie Dillard's timeless work "Teaching a Stone to Talk" is subtitled "Expeditions and Encounters." Her essays explore nature, they tease out subtleties, lift the skin on human dislocation. Her thoughts on solitude as "sojourners of spirit" on a harshly physical planet come to mind as I watch the wind and rain hammer the young weeping cherry. A hint of new bud on its branches, barely limned green, the slight tree bends to the lashing winds. I observe its travails, think about what I am, the "I" that is spirit and mind, and what I am trying to do here in my study, my words and thoughts weaving these works of imaginary tapestry. Out there beyond my window, earth expresses the hard unambiguous truth of the elements. Wind, rain, dark, light. Whereas inside, literally and metaphorically, I live and work in another realm.

I am a sojourner in one world, traveling the days and seasons, defined by my humanity yet essentially animal, a living being - and an alchemist in the other, an artist, inventing and imagining, seeking meaning. Which is more true? Or am I both in both? Is it any wonder we find ourselves uncertain of home?
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