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QUINTESSENCE

A Memorial Day, Then and Now

 

And still it is not enough, to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the immense patience to wait till they are come again. For the memories themselves are still nothing. Not till they have turned to blood within us, to glance and gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves - not till then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.
~ Rainer Maria Rilke

I found myself reading back through old journals this week, thinking about Memorial Day. I stopped on one from seven years ago. Those of you who know me, know that I come from a long tradition of military service, and have many generations of family members, including my father, who lie in military cemeteries in the United States and around the world. Here is part of what I wrote in 2011:

My husband is buried above the wild and tumultuous Spokane River, downriver from the traintrestle bridges. Freight trains roll high above the river, making their way across the continental U.S. Great diesels haul palettes of stacked container goods and seemingly endless chains of barrel cars of crops, oil and chemicals, and the double-decker slatted stock cars. The cars sway down the tracks and then disappear from view through narrow granite cuts in the basalt mountains. We called them "wishing trains," because we'd whisper secret wishes crisscrossing the roads beneath them as they passed. My husband liked the idea that for all eternity he would lie beside the wide, wild Spokane River, in view of those industrious magical trains. Nature and commerce. Chaos and fortune. Our lives are ruled by them.

On this day, Memorial Day, breezes wave ribbons of color along narrow cemetery paths lined with the stars and stripes. Families, lost looks on their faces, clutch plot grids and wander the treed acres looking for their buried. The hands of little ones are tucked in the hands of grownups; in the little fists small flags or bunches of garden lilacs. America does not forget its loved ones. It does not forget its soldiers. Yet the numbers buried in the green shade seem to swell in a continuous sea of monuments. Already a newly engraved stone, a simple bench, stands next to my husband's. A nineteen year old boy, lost in Afghanistan. Someone's son, someone's brother. There are two flags flying in his honor, on the grass the gift of a baseball mitt.

Bending low, I place a flag in the ground the requisite distance (a boot length away) from my husband's marker. A Vietnam era Air Force veteran, he was proud of his service. I couldn't help but think of our own boy, now twenty, at the US Naval Academy, his life at a crux point as well. National service opens us to community beyond family. Opens us to our shared identity as American citizens. In the fall my daughter will run her first half-marathon for Team USO, proud of our soldiers, her brother, her father, and all those whose names she does not know. Those who came before her and follow her now, hands open and ready to do whatever work needs doing. Whether serving in the military, the Peace Corps, Teach for America, the USO, or organizations like Doctors Without Borders or the Red Cross, let us take a moment to thank the persons we meet giving of themselves to America and to the needs of the world.


In the time since I wrote this, my daughter has become a physician, committed to the well-being and needs of others. My son has become an electrical engineer, using science in the invention and service of technology and art. Their father still lies beside the murmuring river downriver from the rumbling trains. Time has passed, and things have changed. And yet, the families come to the cemetery this and every Memorial Day, bearing their tiny flags and garden flowers.

Let the poems of memories carry the day. Whomever it is you think of on this day, whomever it is you miss, I know you will find peace in the devotions of remembrance. I give you love.

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Call and answer

Bernini, Rome

 

Hush, beloved. It doesn't matter to me
how many summers I live to return:
this one summer we have entered eternity.
I felt your two hands
bury me to release its splendor.


~ "The White Lillies," Louise Gluck

The aria and the catalyst.

I am deep in the quiet hours thinking back to an essay on passion posted here in 2010. My mind is looping down riverbanks of slow moving thought as it did then. I am thinking about connections, the bonds of romantic love. Eight years ago I wrote about the question of truthfulness between couples, saddened by the infidelity and subsequent breakup of the marriage of a friend of mine. At the heart of their parting lay a painful truth neither had wished exposed, and when brought to light fatally erased the foundation between them. He played roulette and lost. She wished she'd never known. What was their truth? Did it matter, or was its value entirely in what was lost?

The fundamental song in dramatic love is the aria. A longing opened wide across the octaves. And then from the wings, an echo. The entrance of a duet. A melody and a response. A call and an answer. A cry and a caress. Two voices that sing the heart's passion. In the twining melodies, in these whispered dreams, dwells a wordless language. What we ask for and what we are given. What we offer and what is taken.

The call and answer determine the fate of the lovers.

I am thinking now of the French film "Coco & Igor," the story of the complicated, secret, and oftentimes emotionally harsh relationship between Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. Who called out first? Who answered? Much of their exchange remains wordless, physical. The interplay of their passion, and the way obsession fuels their individual art underscores the importance of the secretive nature of this exchange. Two muses. The lives of others. What was sacrificed to art. The affair itself not important, what mattered to Chanel and Stravinsky was its bonfire of inspiration.

There are so many arias, so many whispers we do not hear.

Romantic love is, finally, what is made of it. Are we lovers content in the small, sacred moments of living? Or lovers skating uneasily across life's dangerous territories? Love is perhaps only as permeable, as pure an elemental essence, as what we give of ourselves. How we value one another. Do we build or destroy? Some of us love in a kind of rhythm of labor, an endless garden we diligently and attentively hoe. Some cast nets to the sea, discover the catch gone and love onward in sorrow or separation. Others hold the hand of someone in comfort. Others fall into that certain slant of light that gilds the heart, left with an imprint that haunts forever.

Love unfurls. Place a rose on your kitchen table and watch the bloom drench the passing moments with its grace. Unlike Coco and Igor, or the dramatic opera, most of us love in quiet, ordinary ways. We experience love as an act from the soul as transformative for the lover as for the beloved.

Yet there is no denying that elemental spark. Love is catalyst. Once lit, what will you make of it?


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Days in Goodness Spent

Gardens of Kyoto

 

SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o'er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling place.

And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent.

- Lord George Gordon Byron, 1780


I have always loved the opening lines of Lord Byron's poem. There is honest praise in the words, She walks in beauty. To walk within virtues both given and borrowed, appreciated by others, or rough-cut and unknown. Byron's poem celebrates an ideal, certainly. An ode to qualities pure and principled as the stars in the sky.

Romantic love is believed by many to be the opening toast of a lifelong dance. Like beauty, the first blush akin to bubbles of champagne that break on our tongues; a heady intoxication of light and delight. It is also the first step toward the tempered partnership. That which grows to become strong and steady, solid in its core. A union but not a transformation.

So here's to the blush and the confusion, the yearning and its bliss. Indeed the old poets are right. Let us not forget to dance. For within the heart's folly lie the seeds of a good life.
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Into the Next

Actium, western Greece. Where Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius came in from the sea
THE NEXT TIME
BY Mark Strand

Nobody sees it happening, but the architecture of our time
Is becoming the architecture of the next time. And the dazzle

Of light upon the waters is as nothing beside the changes
Wrought therein, just as our waywardness means

Nothing against the steady pull of things over the edge.
Nobody can stop the flow, but nobody can start it either.

Time slips by; our sorrows do not turn into poems,
And what is invisible stays that way. Desire has fled,

Leaving only a trace of perfume in its wake,
And so many people we loved have gone,

And no voice comes from outer space, from the folds
Of dust and carpets of wind to tell us that this

Is the way it was meant to happen, that if we only knew
How long the ruins would last we would never complain.


There is a deep truth about this poem. The poet, Mark Stand, has taken the idea of time and its passage and said something interesting about passage. Time is both a physical and experiential transition, a flow of moments here and gone, a cosmic bookmark continuously placed anew. We think of time as dynamic. But do we also experience time as architecture, nested windows of life, sometimes a ghost? Strand envisions time as the inexorable tumble of what was into what is. That "then and now" coexist, ever so briefly, before what is is then no more. THE NEXT TIME is a poem of moments. A poem that says be now. Let go.

The last sentence of Strand's poem is particularly poignant:
It is the way it was meant to happen, that if we only knew
How long the ruins would last we would never complain.


The architecture of time is beautiful. A long and vaulted hall. A soaring, columned esplanade forever arcing into the distance. Strand writes of the pull. We cannot stop, nor begin, time's flow. Time loosens our grip even as we claim it; pries loose our fingers. We struggle, lament, and then finally abandon our monuments, let go our losses, release our loves. The ring of footsteps swallowed in silence. The culmination of expired tomorrows behind us.

Measured hours lean into the next and the next.

A trace of perfume. How long the ruins last.


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Blossoms from Regrets

A wild thistle of Sicily
I thought of all the pain and how we met
Late in our lives yet lavishly at ease,
Having assumed an end to old regret..."


- from "The Balcony," May Sarton, 1980

Old Regret.

Sorrow chipped away over the passing years by forgetfulness or forgiveness, buried in moments and years we might choose not to remember. Large hearts of darkness. Is there an end to old regret?

These few lines of May Sarton's poem "The Balcony" expose rich layers of meaning. One voice of a couple, of a certain age perhaps, or world weariness, acknowledging the accidental accumulated joys and pains of life. Words that hint to the years past, to damaged relationships, shaded losses. Longed-for opportunities swept away with the passage of time.

"The Balcony" ends with this final tribute, And out of deprivation, a huge flower. What an exquisite image. The heart in its layered translucent suffering, finally and fully comprehended. From the wisdom of acceptance, this extravagant beauty.

There is a thread of durability in the poem's voice. How do we find within ourselves the strength and desire to carry on? To start over from the disappointments of the past? John F. Kennedy described his father, after the elder man's stroke, saying, "Old age is a shipwreck." Yet we feel from Sarton's words that perhaps the collection of years is not limit but context. We are always beginning. Over and again. In life, in work, in love. The passage of time has worn lines upon our foreheads, to be sure. But the times we regret -- lost, burnt, wasted, empty, wronged, violated, wounded, misspent -- needn't be the only melody of the heart. I love the thought that releasing regrets might allow us to blossom, "lavishly at ease."

Here is May Sarton's entire poem. Enjoy.

THE BALCONY
by May Sarton /after Baudelaire

Lover of silence, muse of the mysteries,
You will remember how we supped each night
There on your balcony high in the trees
Where a heraldic lion took late light,
Lover of silence, muse of the mysteries.

The big dogs slumbered near us like good bears;
The old cat begged a morsel from my plate,
And all around leaves stirred in the warm airs
Breathed from the valley as the red sun set.
The big dogs slumbered near us like good bears.

I thought of all the pain and how we met
Late in our lives yet lavishly at ease,
Having assumed an end to old regret
In the eternal presence of the trees -
I thought of all the pain and how we met.

There every night we drank deep of the wine
And our love, still without history,
Yet the completion of some real design
Earned with much thought, muse of the mystery.
There every night we drank deep of the wine.

While out of deprivation a huge flower,
The evening's passion, was about to bloom.
Such intimacy held us in its power
The long years vanished in a little room,
And out of deprivation, a huge flower.

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Against A Sure Winter

Ghost Ranch, New Mexico
WINTER TREES
by William Carlos Williams

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.


'Tis is the season of quiet. We slip deep into the heart of who and why and where we happen to be. This lovely small poem, like so much of Williams's work, frames nature in mideas res. In the midst of narrative, without preamble. In "Winter Trees," Williams sketches an orchard, emptied of fruit. Nature at her turning point in the cycle of do and done.

Activity and rest. We enter the deep cold months of waiting in stillness. The silver season of the "liquid moon."

I invite you into winter. Into the space between moments and years. The break among days, marked by small distances between stars. I invite you to the quiet and the stillness, to stand comfortably with me in this fallow space; in the geography that is love, both present and gone. As many of you know, the place others hold in our lives and the space our feelings occupy is important to me. I believe we find ourselves and welcome truth into consciousness in the pause between event and stillness. All life requires space to rest and regroup. People in particular need a pause to gather and consider, and most of all, breathe beauty. Breathe in the essence of the present.

Bone-white moments of clarity, fragile barrenness, lush extravagant joy, tenuous fulfillment. We take our experiences up even as plants absorb oxygen, slowly. We absorb living on the broad leaves of our soul. And with growth, even as the wise trees, we collect ourselves in stillness. An expanse of stillness.

Do we know where we stand as this year "disattires" of its days? I am not sure that I do, not yet anyway. The time is now, to stop and abide the hours. In the quiet comes the story of what has been, and what we hope will be. Barren branches fill with winter moon as we celebrate or lay to rest what has come before. Tomorrow seeps into awareness. Now, in the time to dream.

To all my readers - dear friends one and all - thank you for a rich and meaningful year. I am grateful we travel the stars together. See you in the new year.

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Warrior, 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 pithy, fibrous. Earthy and powerful. They sear in your brain. They move your heart.

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, his curiosity and empathy for the fates of others. The stanza above speaks to me as a reflection on loyalty, fidelity, love. The musculature and the power of attachment.

The human heart is capable of great patience, tremendous tenacity. It stretches, builds ever so slowly like bone in the body. All is a journey, this life. Connection and partnership. The hand-bricked construction of that we define as family. Our layers of self, like the rings of the oak, evolve continual ways of being. It is the simple truth to say that living is about ever-becoming. And while neither easy, nor pristinely unmarred, and certainly never perfect in process, for each one of us becoming is whole and perfect intent. Perfect in joy. Grounded in earth, heaven, and the unending soul. The human heart is a warrior and a monk. And 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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Things Which Enclose Me

Moonshell


somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
by E. E. Cummings

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skillfully, mysteriously) her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully , suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands



I am revisiting e.e. cummings today, and this poem which I have shared here in the past. The language is what holds me. Unexpected phrases such as "the voice of your eyes," the chiseled coiled core in "the power of your intense fragility," and the pang, the lonely yearning within "your eyes have their silence."

How does someone, anyone, ever know language, and the terrain of the beloved intimately enough to paint mystery so fully? Truly, what we find beloved encompasses all compass points of the heart, be they person, place, or thing.

Poetry sings deeply for me. The ability of the poet to encapsulate our longing, our disoriented suffering. The single note bittersweet rhapsodies. Human emotion is a melange of honey, spice, and salt, and it is poetry that invites us to cup the exquisite, grapple the unsettling. Even in times like these, of great moral tremor, of polar conflicts between ideologies, virulence and decency, we may find solace in poetry. Words are not mere window-dressing. They are bricks and swords and ointments and shelter. They are so many things, things which enclose us. Possessed of intense fragility, silence.

Dive under, swim deep under the surface. Find your peace.

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Hope and Sky

Today I am musing on the young, and the ways in which we tend the future singly and as community. Let me begin with work from Ohioan Maggie Smith and a poem written in answer to a question from her own three-year-old child. Maggie's poems, truth-telling wrapped in enigmas graced by flashes of magic, include last year's widely loved "Good Bones," the title poem of her forthcoming book of poems from Tupelo Press, Good Bones.

SKY
Maggie Smith

Why is the sky so tall and over everything?

What you draw as a blue stripe high above
a green stripe, white-interrupted, the real sky
starts at the tip of each blade of grass and goes
up, up, as far as you can see. Our house stops
at the roof, at the glitter-black overlap of shingles
where the sky presses down, bearing the weight
of space, dark and sparkling, on its back.
Think of sky not as blue, not as over,
but as the invisible surround, a soft suit
you wear close to the skin. When you walk,
the soles of your feet take turns on the ground,
but the rest of you is in the sky, enveloped in sky.
As you move through it, you make a tunnel
in the precise size and shape of your body.


We do this. Bring innocence into the world. This world of love as well as darkness, a place at times without hope of joy. How difficult as new parents to question the essential goodness of the world. What "gift" do we bestow upon our children at their birth to protect them? There is no invincibility shield.

The gift we bestow is joy. To grow and play and pursue delight in a thousand adventurous ways. The good and the bad and the ugly all entwined together within risk, mortality, and the sparkle of being alive. It must be enough to believe each child shall find a good life in the midst of the world’s crushing disarray. We must remember each child brings the potential of change. This, this is how we build the world, lift it up and fix it, again and again. Not just for ourselves but for the future. Good. Good bones.

To parents everywhere, the young and the worn, you are the givers and builders and healers the world needs. To those who raise children not by birth but by intent, you are angels among us. And to those who give simply, widely and generously in cherished circles of the heart, unknown souls brighten and find shelter within your selflessness. All of you are constructing, infusing, singing a better world by your work, your passions, and those tired-everyday-but-I-go commitments.

The long shadow of the coming August solar eclipse presages life given of the world; for without light this world would be still and in darkness. Without love, there would be no garden of new green. Without wakeful midnights the young would not sleep. It is truth, that in the wisdom of ancestors and the strength of the aged there is hope. And we guard hope, because of the young.

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Years From Now

Pompeii

ONE HUNDRED YEARS FROM NOW
excerpt from Within my Power by Forest Witcraft

One Hundred Years from now
It will not matter
What kind of car I drove,
What kind of house I lived in,
How much money was in my bank account
Nor what my clothes looked like.
But the world may be a better place
Because I was important in the life of a child.



In 2009 my son's high school teacher for AP Senior English completed the academic year by having each student in his class submit two or three poems they particularly cared about for a class anthology. "Verses from Yesteryear for Future Perusal," the students titled their booklet. The poems ranged in subject and style from Khalil Gibran to Shel Silverstein, Robert Frost to Billy Collins, Stephen Crane to e.e. cummings. The poem cited above is taken from the poems submitted by the students in this class.

There are many reasons a poem may strike us as grand or meaningful or inspiring. But this poem, an excerpt from a longer verse, struck me as significant for the long view it offers of life and what constitutes a meaningful existence. And notably, that a seventeen or eighteen-year-old would choose this poem, find value in mentoring, and choose to continue that thread throughout adult life. We frequently dismiss our youth as self-centered or shallow, but in fact, I have found the opposite to be true. Ask a young person what truly matters in the world, and you will receive a very thoughtful answer.

Today in the aftermath of the dropping of MOAB, the biggest bomb in the US arsenal, on a vague and undefined target for vague and undefined reasons, I think about the state of the world we grown-ups are leaving our young. What we wear may not matter, but the world we leave behind for our children does. Next week, April 21 marks the anniversary of the founding of the great city of Rome. For 2770 years the old city has stood upon the seven hills above the Tiber. A crossroads of cultures, a place of magnificent temples and cathedrals, rare and beautiful art, old stone and older shadows still, marble war monuments, and layers upon layers of the triumphs and losses of human history.

Rome is a testament to the endurance of life, to the passage of beliefs and cultures and dominions. Proof our future is built upon the past. Should we not want to leave our children something they, too, can build upon? Should we not all want Rome?

Let me end this post with one last poem from the student anthology.

a song with no end
by Charles Bukowski

when Whitman wrote, "I sing the body electric"

I know what he
meant
I know what he
wanted:

to be completely alive every moment
in spite of the inevitable

we can't cheat death but we can make it
work so hard
that when it does take
us

it will have known a victory just as
perfect as
ours.




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