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QUINTESSENCE

Gratitudes

THE DEPTHS
When the white fog burns off,
the abyss of everlasting light
is revealed. The last cobwebs
of fog in the
black firtrees are flakes
of white ash in the world's hearth.

Cold of the sea is counterpart
to this great fire. Plunging
out of the burning cold of ocean
we enter an ocean of intense
noon. Sacred salt
sparkles on our bodies.

After mist has wrapped us again
in fine wool, may the taste of salt
recall to us the great depths about us.
- Denise Levertov

Raise a glass to friendship. Gratitude is the heart of the season. Gratitude for the year's harvest, for good fortune. Earth's breath cold and strong across our hearths. Welcome the coming season's wintry respite, the chance to lean back into the cold and silent nights.

I am grateful in this month that marks the end of autumn and tips to the end of the year. Grateful for so many experiences and gifts, but especially for the steady compass, the lighthouse shining, of friendship. I count myself fortunate to have original and authentic, deeply creative people - my "diamonds in the rough" - as intimate friends. What they possess as souls of intellect and compassion is given freely to those they love. They are funny, wise, steadfast, resilient. Like cedars they stand tall in the storms, and like willows bend but do not break beneath the fiercest wind. The roots cling, collective strength an expression of humble grace and hardiness. The shelter of friendship, my joy among these fabulous characters, offers me a tender place to reflect, recoup from losses, share the hilarious, celebrate the rare.

So my friends - and you know who you are - this Thanksgiving I am profoundly thankful for you. You are the rare find, the nonpareil without equal. Life in your company is full of wonder. Thank you for your presence in my life. Salut.
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Poised In An Awareness of Mortality


The problem is that we think we exist. We think our words are permanent and solid and stamp us forever. That's not true. We write in the moment. Sometimes when I read poems at a reading to strangers, I realize they think those poems are me. They are not me, even if I speak in the "I" person. They were my thoughts and my hand and the space and the emotions at that time of writing. Watch yourself. Every minute we change. It is a great opportunity. At any point, we can step out of our frozen selves and our ideas and begin fresh. That is how writing is. Instead of freezing us, it frees us.
- excerpted from "Writing Down the Bone," Natalie Goldberg

Tragedy, from my own experience, does seem to strike in pairs. I recently finished reading Joan Didion's sequel memoir, "Blue Nights," reflections on herself as a mother and the complex relationship she shared with her daughter, Quintana Roo. In 2003, Quintana fell ill with pneumonia shortly before the tragic, sudden death from cardiac arrest of Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne. Quintana passed away of septic shock complicated by bleeding in the brain days after Dunne. Didion's first memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking," was published in late 2005: a bare bones coming to terms with loss of so much at one time, but especially her life partner, her defining other. Didion has now turned to the painful emotions of her daughter's loss, writing a memoir imbued, for the reader, with the sense Didion is for the first time deciphering the intimacies of her daughter and their relationship even as she writes. To paraphrase Natalie Goldberg's words, this is writing that unfreezes the soul, freeing the author to define what very personal truths mean.

The title, "Blue Nights," comes from the twilight hours of long evening light that signal the summer solstice: "the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but also its warning." Which is to say, this is writing poised in an awareness of mortality. Echoed within each memory even as she shares with us, "Like when someone dies, don't dwell on it. "Blue Nights," is a spare read. Poetic, unintentionally raw. Didion's observations jab, pull back, wipe away what is sentimental. Yet, there is a yearning in her thinking. An exposed awareness of age and frailty and loss; a sense of the shortness of time that drives the writing. In sometimes painful reflection, Didion parses away the mystery of her daughter. As if she seeks a concrete understanding of the true shape of their connection, a sense of what balance holds together the intimacy/dissonance of a difficult relationship. Didion needs to perceive her daughter clearly in order to hold on to her; combing through the turning points of their connection to find an anchor, a sense of their relationship pulled from a well of murky, half-dismantled memories even as her own life enters a blue period of increased clarity and diminishing opportunity to make more (or less) of what is left, of what is.

Didion writes with great lucidity, poised on the tipping edge of her own mortality. A sole survivor, striving to understand the relationships that she now understands have defined her. A quest to find something in those relationships to accompany her as she travels alone through her own blue nights of uncertain faith. She leaves us with the question, Is there is anything more than memory itself at the end of life? And is that not an answer in and of itself?


Reader Blog Note: Blog comments gone missing? A reader fortunately has recently let me know the "post a comment" function on my blog was not forwarding your comments through to me. (And here I thought you were all just exceptionally quiet!) Thankfully, everything is back in order - so write in and find your comments here.
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Best Worst Day

Why didn't the skeleton cross the road?
He didn't have any guts.

- Pediatric surgeon to young patient

It's Homecoming Weekend at colleges all across America. Football, dances, Halloween concerts. I'm in Annapolis, Maryland, for Parents Weekend for the USNA Second Class - one celebration specifically for junior year Midshipmen - a mark of having made it thus far and "earned" that all important double stripe of authority and responsibility within the Brigade. What a beautiful weekend of weather, all the proud families and Mids, the exciting home football game against Eastern Carolina in Marine-Navy Stadium. That game framed what I'd call "the proverbial streak of bad luck," what my grandfather called an ebb life tide, when it seems not much is ever going right. The much needed touchdown in the 4th quarter to win is ruled out on review, the saving field kick hits the standard and bounces smack back into the field. Navy is defeated. All the best effort met with successive waves of bad breaks, bad judgment, bad luck. Bad news.

I thought about this as I laughed hearing the joke I opened this day's essay with. So what if you get over the road in the most haphazard of ways, at the wrong corner? You had the courage to cross. I am so proud of these young men and women and their effort at all they do - from the rigors of Academy academics to the demands of leadership and upholding personal accountability at all times. These Mids are heroes to me in their selfless commitment to serve our country, and their determined endeavors to get what is required of them at all times right. Who among us upholds that standard? Precious few. It makes the man or woman from the inside, from character out. Bravo Zulu, Class of 2013.

Now the idea of an ebb tide of life, that life has its swells and shallows, times when everything we do is met with disappointment and failure, and we hang on to the hope of a turn in the tide, is one any of us over the age of 40 is well acquainted with. Somewhere along the line in my own hardening into adulthood I learned this phrase, "I don't understand, but I accept." And it has come to symbolize, to me, that forever-seeming balance point of not knowing if or will you endure but waking up each day and arming for battle. The Battle of Today: one more day living with struggle or heartbreak. The specter of cancer in the family, of the loss of a job, of the tragic death of a parent, of the unexpected illness in a child.

"I don't understand, but I accept," holds the heart's door open to perspective, to the tide coming in. To the sense of balance of good and not so good in life. And sure, the field goal smacked the post and kicked back at the kicker - a failed attempt if ever there was one - but that player made the effort. Attempted the summit to carry the day. And next time, he will. Because he had the guts.

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The Importance of Being Duff

Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend.
Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.

- Groucho Marx

I think the whole world knows about McDuff, our singing white Scottie. Well, technically, his color is more of a latte "wheaten" color as it's called in the land of official pedigrees, with creamy light patches on both shoulders and white white ears and whiskers that frame eyes as dark as chocolate.

It is the eyes that stop you. Expressive as a Scottish poet, the dog is both dignified and as emotionally transparent as a child. The tail is up and the bark fierce when he charges on the "invaders" - squirrels - sneaking up on the bird feeders in the yard. It is their game: the gray squirrels that live in the trees streak across the grass, take a lateral arabesque from the crabapple tree, flying over Duff's head as he circles the yard in a whirl, setting the leaves to dance. Job done, McDuff lies contentedly in the cool grass, big head on his stubby paws, dozing as the the quail and chickadee flock the feeders. Later, when he comes into the kitchen, tail wagging as he smells the salmon steaming on the table, I swear he smiles.

McDuff will be eleven soon. He was my young son's much desired surprise Christmas puppy. Not yet ready to be weaned, we presented David with a gift-wrapped photograph album of snapshots of McDuff growing. Nicknamed "Chubby" at the time, piled in a basket of litter mates, he was an easy going pup with an eye for lunch. Daivd looked through the album in delight, eyes shining. "Oh thank you, Mom and Dad! You gave me a book of dog pictures!" Ken and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. We explained that Duff could come home in three weeks. That Duffy was his dog, for real, and forever.

Last week I had to tell my son, away at the US Naval Academy, that his dog, our Duffy, has an unexpected illness. A quick and aggressive cancer that is changing everything, almost quicker than either Duff or I can cope. My big son held back his emotion. "He shouldn't suffer, Mom. I'll come back if you need me to be with you when its time."

And just like that my boy became the adult, and I cried in his dog's fur.

Not to be maudlin here (well, way past that point I guess), but it's day at a time now. Duff has a new cushy bed, his days eased with homemade casserole and pain medications and the bits of smoked salmon my friend Greg sneaks him. I hold him and he looks at me with those great dark eyes, and I know he knows. He's been with me though some very tough times: always my hiking buddy, my companion as the kids one after the other left for college. A few weeks ago, the kids home for just a few days, we stood on the top of a bluff at Priest Lake, sharing water as we took in the view and late summer butterflies after a long hot hike. We followed the trail down to the shore and Duff waded into the cool water up to his belly and lapped water as he stood there, laughing. So happy to have "the herd" home.

Now, time is finite in a visible way. Duff sleeping in a slant of sun.

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Well Made

Raven and the First Men, Bill Reid. Photo credit: Meredith Arnold

One basic quality unites all the works of mankind that speak to us in human, recognizable voices across the barriers of time, culture and space: the simple quality of being well made."
- Bill Reid, Haida artist, Vancouver BC



Just days ago, at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, I stood in awe of floor to ceiling totem poles of the coastal native tribes of the Canadian Northwest. Collected and archived from a period of several hundred years ago to just past the end of 19th century - and reinterpreted and revived in the 20th century and today by artists such as Bill Reid - these ancient cultures speak through the silence. They communicate, as Reid said, across time. Through the artistry of the hand-hewn canoe, the enduring totem, the plaited basket left behind by long ago generations for modern discovery. The MOA display area for these totems, a vast soaring open space, constructed of rough cedar poles supporting glass walls rising three plus stories, barely accommodates some of these magnificent artifacts. Many totems are larger in diameter than three men might wrap their arms around - some of them cut and shipped in segments, they are so tall. Painted and unpainted, aged salt-stained gray, cracked, fragile, these totems are the long ago work of living peoples of today. The stories of these coastal peoples, their legends and family histories, are carved into the iconic shapes of raven, bear, dog fish, whale and human, to name just a few.

As I explored the museum, I found myself studying the "multiversity galleries," collections of fascinating and diverse examples of crafts and cultural arts of Pacific peoples that range from the Polynesian and Asian to the Inuit. The connection between objects well made and enduring cultural linkages began to emerge as I studied the collective display. The use of porcelain masks in ancient Japanese Samurai Noh Theatre, for example, reflects a similar importance in the carved and painted masks of Northwest native dance. Weaving patterns in basketry from Northwest coastal communities represent patterns of handcrafted art reinterpreted elsewhere around the Pacific. My illuminating day among the old carvings echoed with the enduring power of art. The voices of the past are heard by the people of the present in the things they have made.
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Committed

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
A MAN
'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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The Way of Memories

XXXII
Rain has fallen all the day,
O come among the laden trees:
The leaves lie thick upon the way
Of memories.

Staying a little by the way
Of memories shall we depart.
Come, my beloved, where I may
Speak to your heart.
- James Joyce

This small stanza by the poet Joyce seemed to echo my mood of the last few days. Memories lie thick at my feet as I walk the sands of Priest Lake, run along the dusty paths, sit by the phone waiting for news of a big moment in my son's life, acknowledge the pang that never softens on the anniversary of my mother's passing. Memories float up as dust motes at the least disturbance it seems. My life feels thick with leaves of experience, laden with the musty sweetness of love and regrets, losses and hope. There is a quote I think of - "Only Hope remained there within the rim of the great jar" (after Pandora had let loose disaster and affliction). Is it not true that when life blows through us, the lingering outline of those great shifts and heaves through life is almost always hope?

Today is the 22nd day of the month. This is my number. I was born on the 22nd, the autumnal equinox. A special person in my life was also born on this day, in a summer month. My beloved Ken passed on the day of the 22nd. Passages - in and out of love and life and connection. I think all of us feel connected to one special day, in which memories seem to pivot around us like ribbons on the Maypole. Today is no exception. I am suffused - as though experience were saffron in the kitchen, heady with the flavors of life. Memories, the poet writes, tarry us along the way. Pause and welcome. The past grown gentle, accepted.

Hope lights the path home.
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Last Page on Childhood

THE BOY WHO LIVED
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense.

- Chapter One, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," J. K. Rowling, 1997

The end of childhood was celebrated this weekend. My daughter and son, aged 22 and 20, grew up with Harry Potter, the self-doubting, bespectacled misfit boy, aged eleven, who enchanted young readers from the moment Hagrid, the Keeper of Keys and Grounds at Hogwart's, left him on the Dursley's front doorstep. Hooked from the beginning, the kids and I would race to the bookstore for the latest book of Harry's adventures in the wizarding world. We would stay up late nightly as I read the early books aloud, the kids tumbled across my lap in their pajamas. Harry's misfortunes, friendships, and madcap mastery of both his fate and talents held us enthralled. The final 759 page adventure, "The Deathly Hallows," was claimed from the postman by my then high school-aged daughter, who holed herself up in her room and read the book straight through. And joy! The films and J. K. Rowling's imaginary world were brought to life by gifted actors and evocative stage settings cast perfectly to the story, kept true by the author herself.

It isn't often I say thank you to another author for more than just his or her sheer talent. But Rowling deserves credit for more than the gift of young reader books so well written they turned thousands of children, including my own, into avid readers. Suddenly kids lined up with Harry Potter books in their clutches at our elementary school Scholastic Fairs, asked for the new Potter books for birthdays, read and reread the stories. Harry Potter books gave parents a reason to chuckle as they read them aloud, enjoying J. K. Rowling's subtle wit and word play, and thankful for the occasional direct words of wisdom all parents hope their children absorb. At one point the Head of Hogwarts School of Wizardry, Professor Dumbledore, says to a young Harry, "It is our choices Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." The great wise wizard isn't speaking of magic or great accomplishments and awards, but of values and integrity, choosing good from evil. It is not our talents that make us who we are, it is what we choose to do with them.

J.K. Rowling has my unending respect as a fine writer, a spinner of tales, and someone who did her homework - knowing precisely what each successive group of readers would want in a gripping tale as Harry's young fans grew up with her hero and his friends. The writing grew a bit more complex, deeper, darker, riskier, her young protagonist and his friends ever more aware and affected by the struggles and danger of the outside world. Part II of "The Deathly Hallows" film finale, released this weekend, left my daughter and her friends teary eyed in a packed Manhattan IMAX theatre. "That was the end of my childhood, Mom," she said to me over the telephone. She sounded sad and grateful and wistful all at once. Me too. I will always look at those seven books on our family room shelf and think of the small children I held in my arms as we read until little eyes grew tired, and of the young teens later sprawled on their beds, deep in the latest installment.

Thank you J.K. Rowling. And thank you Harry Potter.
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Risk

FRIGATE
The anesthetist said sometimes this happens. It felt
like forever. We leaned in over your body to see what

your face might reveal. What your eyes were seeing
beneath closed lids, we'll never know and you won't tell.

Since we had urged you into surgery we felt responsible.
The ash pallor of skin, how shallow the breath

that curled from your lips and each fine line of sweat
beading high across your cheeks. Once years ago, when

you spoke, we leaned toward the fire. And they sped over
water in a frigate...
we remember you saying, though

what we heard was "forget." Smoke hung in our sweaters
and hair all the next day and for the week after. Finally

you came to to peer at our stricken faces lining the shore
of your bed; splattered our shoes. I'm back, you said, hello.

- Katrina Roberts

Consider the actual fragility of life, of this precisely patterned web of intention we weave called "living." Now and then the fabric of the self comes unmoored and drifts. I have watched the spider's silken thread surf the sunlight on an unseen breeze, riding the nothing until the gossamer catches, tears, holds fast. To what? A twig, a leaf, a bit of solid organic something that is now a fresh stake, a new attempt at presence.

Not to fall too far into the esoteric or fanciful, but are we not in fact that spider web? Our lives arc through the uncertainties, tiny trapeze artists far in the azure sky. We imagine our safety nets will hold. Our elaborate constructions - legacies, careers, generations, memories, poems in the bottom of scotch glasses - all things that glimmer in the last light. We live within a kind of mental engineering, as though designing sky scrapers in our minds. Towers of ambition and steel accomplishment, shining glass reflections of accumulation and regret. When I read Katrina Robert's poem I hesitated on the reminder of the uncertainty of consciousness. This shore of separation we flirt with as we skim the waters - alive and damaged by life and struggling with life. And back, and gone. The threads break and the web floats. And perhaps it is the awareness of the drift that guides us to the next anchor. I have no answers here, but I do know that it is the risk of that leap from the trapeze bar that begins the roll through space, free. And it is the catch that ends the plunge.

From the open sea we guide in the travelers; rope our crafts back in snug at the dock. Journey's end. Until then, our lives, entwined in our memories as Roberts so eloquently put it, are balanced in the wordplay of "frigate" and "forget." Ships built for journeys. Risk. Hello. I'm back.

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