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QUINTESSENCE

Frigates and Gossamer Threads

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

I found myself revisiting this blog post today from June, 2011. A lot has happened in my life in the last four years. And in yours, I would bet. I believe we can fairly say that life journeys - wanted or unwanted - push us warily towards a vast, unknown horizon. What lies ahead is unfamiliar and inevitably a challenge.

Here are a few of my thoughts from that original post:

Consider the fragility of life, of this precisely patterned web of intention we weave called "living." Now and then, the very fabric of the self comes unmoored. We drift. As the spider's silken thread surfs the sunlight on an unseen breeze, we ride this nothing until intention catches, tears, holds fast. Our thread, like the spider's, latches on to a twig, a leaf, a bit of solid something that is now a fresh stake, a new attempt at presence.

Are we not in fact that gossamer thread? Our lives arc through uncertainties - tiny trapeze artists flung far into the azure sky. Our elaborate constructions - legacies, careers, generations, poems composed in the bottom of scotch glasses - glimmer in the last light. We live within our own mental engineering, designing sky scrapers in our minds. Towers of ambition and steel accomplishment, glass reflections of accumulation, and perhaps, regret. We imagine our safety nets will hold. By choice or circumstance, threads break - and the web floats. Drift guides us to the next anchor.

Katrina Robert's poem hesitates at the edge of consciousness. That shore of separation we flirt with as we skim the waters - alive, damaged, struggling, stronger. And back. And gone. The leap from the trapeze begins the roll through space...and it is the catch that ends the plunge. Our lives, as Roberts eloquently puts it, are balanced in the wordplay of "frigate" and "forget." From the dangerous open seas we guide in the travelers. We rope our crafts in, snug at the dock. Journey's end. "Hello. I'm back."


Until we are loosed again.
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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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Pent In The Shadows

CHRISTMAS SPARROW
by Billy Collins

The first thing I heard this morning
was a rapid flapping sound, soft, insistent -

wings against glass as it turned out
downstairs when I saw the small bird
rioting in the frame of a high window,
trying to hurl itself through
the enigma of transparency into the spacious light.

Then a noise in the throat of the cat
hunkered on the rug
told me how the bird had gotten inside,
carried in the cold night
through the flap in a basement door,
and later released from the soft grip of teeth.

On a chair, I trapped its pulsations
in a shirt and got it to the door,
so weightless it seemed
to have vanished into the nest of cloth.

But outside, when I uncupped my hands,
it burst into its element,
dipping over the dormant garden
in a spasm of wingbeats
then disappeared over a row of tall hemlocks.

For the rest of the day,
I could feel its wild thrumming
against my palms as I wondered about
the hours it must have spent
pent in the shadows of that room,
hidden in the spiky branches
of our decorated tree, breathing there
among the metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn,
its eyes open, like mine as I lie in bed tonight
picturing this rare, lucky sparrow
tucked into a holly bush now,
a light snow tumbling through the windless dark.



This poem by Billy Collins, from a 2013 compendium of new and selected poems "Aimless Love" (Random House), evokes many feelings for me.

Interiority (noun): being within, inside of everything. Loosely that which is within; going inward, further toward a center.

For many of us, the holidays are not easy. We are the ones with grief tucked in a back pocket. Interiority a place we dwell in instinctive rebuff of a season frequently marked by chaotic family gatherings, lush sentimentality, bombastic festivities, and prickly, achingly nostalgic traditions. We take refuge, wait out the hours. Wary of the ways the social carousel tenders the blues. The mood is not exactly melancholy, certainly not joy, but more fragile. A splintered heart. A clear-as-glass gathering of the self.

I was reminded of all of this recently chatting with a friend in New York about the recent loss of her mother and her difficulty enjoying the season. "How is it for you?" she asked.

Indeed. How is it for me? After a decade of widowhood and a recent remarriage, I find myself in a different place now than in the years leading to this moment. The word I reached for was "serene" as I answered my friend. But that is not quite right. "Serene" implies a peaceful contentment when I am thinking of quiet still waters. The truth is I am not beyond it, even a decade later as I reflect on the death of my first husband, Ken. But I have come to accept it. And as time swallows the insignificant and polishes the pure, I have found comfort in the goodness of our years together. There is acceptance in surrender, knowing loss is nonnegotiable. I have learned I can thrive at the kinder edges of that once-gaping hole. I want to tell my friend, Time will gentle loss, and life will come to mean more than enduring sadness. There will be joy - and that is okay.

The commitment to a new marriage - to growing, building, loving - helped free my life from loneliness. For loss is lonely. Others skirt its cold shadow. I will never not feel my grief, but that pain no longer paralyzes living. I have come to see grief and sadness as one more beautiful ring of color encompassing the soul. Much as a seashell forms bands of ridges, rings, and patterns in response to the ocean, so have I, living this life given me. Part of the beauty of Collins's poem is its inexpressible awareness of the nuanced shadows of danger and mercy, moonlight and grace - the very Christmas sparrow I want to place in the hand of my friend, closing her fingers gently around the gift. This is life. And someday, that acceptance will be enough to fly to joy again.

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Uphill From Here

MOVING
Our aunt, hunched over her hands stiff
with arthritis, squints out the window as the car
moves east under the shadow of a cliff
above the Columbia. It is not far,
eighty-two years, from the sweat and stink

of the farm to the nursing home in Spokane.
The sun lights her white hair to the pink
of her scalp. She doesn't complain.
When she turns to whisper, we lean near.
Yes, scrub for miles, and blue sky forever.

We packed her clothes with care. She said
to leave the photos, the Danish flag. We think
to bring dark glasses for her to wear.
She nods, settles into the ride.
It is all uphill from here.

- Mary Ann Waters

The most engaging thing about reading the words of another happens in our willingness to receive and engage with the pictures painted in our minds. A good poet, playwright, fiction, or nonfiction writer knows language is, as Barry Hannah once said, " the thing the deepest mind adores." When you read Mary Ann Waters's poem, did you not feel that vague ache in your knuckles, the hot sun on your scalp? The aunt's lostness - gazing out at an endless empty sky? Words, the narratives of others. Words selected for their freight of emotion, and their edged, specific sense of story. These are the muscles that heft us into the poem, buckle us into what eighty-two and leaving one's familiar life behind feels like. Keen in the details - the photos, the Danish flag - we know there was a life, a different life, a unique life here. We feel the loss. How the gentle acceptance of dark glasses convey all that is surrendered in changing from a life once lived to the unknown of what lies ahead. In this poem we are giver and the receiver, the aunt and the narrator.

I am what is around me.
- Wallace Stevens

When we write, we shake our bones, hard. Most writers suffer their creativity, convinced that only the profound or the dazzling bon mot is good enough. In the fight to be excellent, worthy, acknowledged by others, it is easy to forget Gloria Naylor's admonishment,"You're the first audience to your work, and the most important audience." Why is this important to remember? Because writing, like all creative work, and all good work period, must come from a place of authenticity. The human mind catches fire from the spark of truth in the lives of others. We take in what we recognize as deeply genuine. We are corroded by what is not. The soul's bedrock, as Polonius mused in Hamlet, is built of character, "This above all, to thine own self be true."

Sharing one's truth is an act of witness. Granting permission. Accepting an invitation to paint the world, your way. It is also intensely difficult: the soul fragile, shy. We are afraid of judgment, our own and that of others. When first we speak of our dreams, it is to ourselves in whispers. It is in the act of writing ourselves into words that we begin to openly inhabit our world. Cynthia Ozick declared, "If we had to say what writing is, we would define it essentially as an act of courage." To successfully craft a life, one built on choice, whether embraced by design or stumbled upon by luck, opens the road to satisfaction. The act of defining for oneself is an act of courage.

We are always "moving." Leaving things behind, Working new beginnings. We wrangle with chance and circumstance to hang on to the details, to sustain narration, to inhabit ourselves and live large. Shake your bones. Look deep. In the earth of us is our answer.

I don't know what the nature of the universe is, but I have a good ear.
- Mary Gordon

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Trust The Hours


An extraordinary poet passed today, Galway Kinnell. This Irish-American poet's work was awarded both a Pulitzer (for "Selected Poems," 1983) and an American Book Award. An ardent individualist, Kinnell stood apart from his peers and the literary influences of the Twentieth century; his a unique voice amidst the prevailing trends. As a poet and a citizen, Galway Kinnell immersed himself in the gritty issues of his day and was a passionate advocate for freedom of expression. A poet of almost photographic sensitivity, his poetry pulses with an exuberant love of language, a lyrical style distinctly his own and possessing a rare gorgeous musicality. Listen as you read -

RUINS UNDER THE STARS
by Galway Kinnell
1
All day under acrobat
Swallows I have sat, beside ruins
Of a plank house sunk to its windows
In burdock and raspberry canes,
The roof dropped, the foundation broken in,
Nothing left perfect but the axe-marks on the beams.

A paper in a cupboard talks about “Mugwumps”,
In a V-letter a farmboy in the Marines has “tasted battle…”
The apples are pure acid on the tangle of boughs
The pasture has gone to popple and bush.
Here on this perch of ruins
I listen for the crunch of the porcupines.

2
Overhead the skull-hill rises
Crossed on top by the stunted apple.
Infinitely beyond it, older than love or guilt,
Lie the stars ready to jump and sprinkle out of space.

Every night under the millions of stars
An owl dies or a snake sloughs its skin,
But what if a man feels the dark
Homesickness for the inconceivable realm?

3
Sometimes I see them,
The south-going Canada geese,
At evening, coming down
In pink light, over the pond, in great,
Loose, always dissolving V’s-
I go out into the field,
Amazed and moved, and listen
To the cold, lonely yelping
Of those tranced bodies in the sky,
Until I feel on the point
Of breaking to a sacred, bloodier speech.

4
This morning I watched
Milton Norway’s sky blue Ford
Dragging its ass down the dirt road
On the other side of the valley.

Later, off in the woods, I heard
A chainsaw agonizing across the top of some stump
A while ago the tracks of a little, snowy,
SAC bomber went crawling across heaven.

What of that little hairstreak
That was flopping and batting about
Deep in the goldenrod,
Did she not know, either, where she was going?

5
Just now I had a funny sensation
As if some angel, or winged star,
Had been perched nearby watching, maybe speaking,
I whirled, and in the chokecherry bush
There was a twig just ceasing to tremble.

Now the bats come spelling the swallows,
In the smoking heap of old antiques
The porcupine-crackle starts up again,
The bone-saw, the pure music of our sphere,
And up there the old stars rustling and whispering.


Did you hear those leaping phrases and alliteration? Sink into the imagery of "great/Loose, always dissolving V’s"? The thread that connects is the slender steel power of Kinnell 's mastery over the expressive word. The imperceptible balance of image with emotion. Never too much, always exactly enough. Poet, translator, essayist, teacher. Galway Kinnell wrote about life, and death, and the fragility of beauty. His obituary in the New York Times (October 29, 2014) concluded, "Through it all, he held that it was the job of poets to bear witness," ending on the words of the poet - ''To me,' he said, 'poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.'"

I invite you to explore his work if you are not already familiar with Galway Kinnell.
To close, from “Trust the Hours” (Wait) -
Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?


Galway Kinnell was 87.

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Poetic Drama


It is a function of all art to give us some perception of an order in life, by imposing an order upon it. The painter works by selection, combination, and emphasis among the elements of the visible world; the musicians, in the world of sound. It seems to me that beyond the nameable, classifiable emotions and motives of our conscious life when directed toward action - the part of life which prose drama is wholly adequate to express - there is a fringe of indefinite extent, of feeling which we can only detect, so to speak, out of the corner of the eye and can never completely focus; of feeling of which we are only aware in a kind of temporary detachment from action. There are great prose dramatists - such as Ibsen and Chekhov - who have at times done things of which I would not otherwise have supposed prose to be capable, but who seem to me, despite their success, to have been hampered in expression by writing in prose. This peculiar range of sensibility can be expressed by dramatic poetry, at its moments of greatest intensity. At such moments, we touch the border of those feelings which only music can express. We can never emulate music, because to arrive at the condition of music would be an annihilation of dramatic poetry. Nevertheless, I have before my eyes a kind of mirage of the perfection of verse drama, which would be a design of human action and of words, such as to present at once the two aspects of dramatic and musical order. It seems to me that Shakespeare achieved this at least in certain scenes - even rather early, for there is the balcony scene of "Romeo and Juliet"- and that this was what he was striving toward in his late plays. To go as far in this direction as it is possible to go, without losing contact with the ordinary everyday world with which drama must come to terms, seems to me the proper aim of dramatic poetry. For it is ultimately the function of art, in imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality, and thereby eliciting some perception of an order in reality, to bring to us a condition of serenity, stillness, and reconciliation; and then leave us, as Virgil left Dante, to proceed toward a region where that guide can avail us no further.
~ T. S. Eliot, POETRY AND DRAMA, The First Theodore Spencer Memorial Lecture, 1950

Here is the challenge with which drama must come to terms: To go as far as it is possible to go without losing contact with the ordinary everyday world. The meat of all art lies in that single sentence. Eliot defines a powerful philosophy of creative endeavor - "For it is ultimately the function of art, imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality, and thereby eliciting some perception of an order in reality, to bring us to a condition of serenity..." And? And? Leave us. On the edge of an unfathomable abyss of the undefined; intuiting an understanding for which words fall short.

I am musing today on favorite works of art and music. Books I have read for which this alchemy of order-imposed-upon-mystery rings true. You must have them as well. This morning I am listening to a recording of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Is this the voice of poetry? Hear the secrets. The weighted crack of heartbreak - the single clear notes quivering in the air. I am lost in the farewell aria Addio Fiorito Asil. She is singing, "The boy's name is Trouble, but he will be renamed Joy upon his father's return..." And then I glance at my bookshelf and think of the description of winemaking in Anne Carson's prose poem, The Beauty of the Husband, that lays forth all of what she will say about love in one devastating sentence - "An ideal wine grape/is one that is easily crushed." Or of late, closing the book on Anthony Doerr's exquisite All the Light We Cannot See, "Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world."

The perception of an order in life: words and images, a nuance. A tangible thing composed, danced, hammered, sketched, or sung from the everyday ordinary. The world arranged for us in transcendent verse. Awareness gathered in a glance, from a tear drop, plucked from a tide pool abandoned by the sea. The hint of possibility.

If you can, take a moment. Study the way light falls across the stubbled field. Hear the wind worrying in the birch leaves. Speak aloud the words of a love letter. Follow a painting in, in through the artist's eyes. All that life is, actually is, lies at the edge of comprehension. There but not there: the lingering strands of a dream. Find your way. Seek the brave unknowing. As Virgil left Dante.


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Wednesday Morning, Mid August

First Star - Priest Lake
Good morning, friends.

I'm heading up to the lake on Saturday for two weeks. I cannot begin to tell you how much I need this break from the world. A chance to regroup, rethink, recharge, reassess, recommit. I have promised myself to limit connections by internet: to take each day and absorb it as an experience, not some work data subset. Promised myself not to think about what to do with what comes my way, or how to share it, or why it should matter to anyone but me. I've come off a year of serious work and inner goal-setting and it's time to revisit those points. Do they still matter? Did I complete the work?

I find, looking back on old journals, that I knew myself better back then, back before the era of insta-share. I really understood the days, years, and moments were mine - my life, mine to learn from. Now there is this contemporary tendency to let experience - our personal contact with living - slide right through us into the greater pool of human busyness. What makes for great reading for others (these bits we share are, after all, stories), is in truth the giving of ourselves away without letting anything stick.

I plan to let things stick the next two weeks. To read the books I have stacked and set aside for a windfall of time. To read the poetry that I love that needs to sit awhile to seep into my soul. I will hike the forests and forage for huckleberries and sleep in the sun on an old wood dock rolling gently on the wake of passing boaters. I will use these days to talk to the ones I love without agenda, in an abundance of time. In the cool mornings take my coffee down to the shore and sit, silent as loons rise and wing across the water. Watch bats at twilight skim over the lake as the first star rises over the rose and lavender Selkirk Mountains. Beach fire nights with a mellow single malt, cosy in an old school sweatshirt, open to the thoughts that rise from within as sparks rise towards the sky and then leave us, or perhaps sink deeper into the fabric of who we are.

Of late the world has reminded me of the fragility of human resilience and the momentum of the tragic. Misfortune and hatred mow down the innocent as well as the brave. I wish for all of you a break from the world. However and wherever you may find it. Yes, the world will need us back, to proffer our small lights and carry on. But for now, seek peace. See you back here soon.

In closing, a post written last year at the lake -
August 26, 2013

MONDAY MORNING, LATE SUMMER
On the fence
in the sunlight,
beach towels.

No wind.

The apricots have ripened
and been picked.
The blackberries have ripened
and been picked.


- Robert Hass, from the poem "Cuttings"

The opening of the chest, the heart chakra - deep breathing and calm rhythms - profoundly affects the mind as well as the body. When we step out of the box, the stress-filled, demanding, unrelenting responsibilities of the 24/7, the break from routine can begin the restoration of the soul. An observer of fifty decades of living, I know the wide empty stretches on life's blue highways are far and few between in this unsettled 21st century. It's no news we live in a plugged-in, high demand, ever-changing, constantly stimulating world. Irregular dry spells, down time, wayside adventures, lags in scheduling - all have disappeared. We are "on" and plugged-in every moment of the day: pinged by messages, expanding lists of to-dos, global information, and social media even when we sleep.

Peace, walking in the silence of tall cedars. Peace, lulled to sleep by waves that lap slowly against the shore. Listen to the creak of wind in the trees. Bird call in the quiet dawn.

Thoreau was a relentless champion of "disconnect and rediscover" for the health of the human soul, and frankly, so am I. I found it interesting to observe my family traveling to our rustic cabin on the lake shore with all four smart phones, two laptops, three iPads, two iPods and one Shuffle. The first day making the long trek down the trail to the nearest wifi center for internet signal, until eventually, mournfully, the acceptance there would never be more than one half-bar of cell service off the lake. At last letting the devices sit in their cases, untouched.

Withdrawal from the digital world is both painful and amusing - catching ourselves automatically engaged in that pointless click to check email, Twitter, FB. The urge to connect releasing, slowly releasing its grip, replaced by long naps, the dulcet jazz of acoustic guitar on the porch, long conversations by wine and candlelight at the picnic table. Time to delve into not just a chapter, but an entire book; board games and cards accompanied by a crackling fire.

We learned the nurturing quality of quiet. The sweet richness of intimate conversation. Walking the mountains. Taking in the whole of life.

We disappear to the cabin every year, coming from wherever we are in the four corners of the world, from whatever education, work, or travel schedules occupy us, ready to find our way back to ourselves. To recharge in the power of tranquility, the open spaces of daydreams, sunny contentment, the deep night and undisturbed sleep. We reconnect not just within, but together. And when the last spider is slapped with a sandal and tossed out the door, when the last delicious huckleberry has made its way to a pancake drizzled in maple syrup, the last pot of camp coffee poured to the dregs - well, then we pack up our beach chairs and book bags and return to the world.

Halfway down the road to civilization the electronics buried in our duffles simultaneously ping, buzzing, downloading in a hive of fury and we have to laugh. The world. It doesn't wait, and it doesn't matter.

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Wings

WINGS
I saw the heron
poise
like a branch of white petals
in the swamp,

in the mud that lies
like a glaze,
in the water
that swirls its pale panels

of reflected clouds;
I saw the heron shaking
its damp wings -
and then I felt

an explosion -
a pain -
also a happiness
I can hardly mention

as I slid free -
as I saw the world
through those yellow eyes -
as I stood like that, rippling,

under the mottled sky
of the evening
that was beginning to throw
its dense shadows.

No! said my heart, and drew back.
But my bones knew something wonderful
about the darkness-
and they thrashed in their cords,

they fought, they wanted
to lie down in that silky mash
of the swamp, the sooner
to fly.

- Mary Oliver

There is something about the delicacy of the transitions into early summer and late fall that always remind me of the poems of Mary Oliver. The way in which she captures the voice and imprint of the unseen, the song of the living things, the guardian silence of the skies. When I read this poem, it reminded me of my late husband Ken, who passed away in 2003. His presence among us is the heron at the water's edge below the cliffs of the place he is buried. For a week after his death, this single gray heron waited there at the river's elbow, braced against the rushing waters. Still and tranquil, he watched us. Eventually, as twilight fell to its deepest hue, our heron would spread its feathered wings and lift into the sky, lost in the dark.

This weekend, our son, David, our youngest, graduates from Stanford University. Ken would be so proud. He understood dreams, and struggle, disappointment, integrity, and determination. He experienced the accomplishment of great ambitions, and the loss of things the heart can only imagine. I will be celebrating David's accomplishment for him, and for us. For what that beautiful man did not live to see. Yet I know he will be there beside us - in that great silky mash of life, memory, love. David thrives, brilliant in his passion for life, rooted in the deep strength of his father. His commencement this weekend marks something wonderful; a milestone in a great and terrible journey of his own, through experiences a young man should not have to weather at such a tender age. All of us sing from an unknown song sheet when it comes to life. We receive, we give. We begin to hear the melody in our song as we progress through the years.

I celebrate life. I celebrate family, love, the accomplishment of big dreams, and yes, the reflecting clouds. The presence of the heron.

To you, my son, shining so bright this moment.

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What We May Give

NOEL
When snow is shaken
From the balsam trees
And they're cut down
And brought into our houses

When clustered sparks
Of many-colored fire
Appear at night
In ordinary windows

We hear and sing
The customary carols

They bring us ragged miracles
And hay and candles
And flowering weeds of poetry
That are loved all the more
Because they are so common

But there are carols
That carry phrases
Of the haunting music
Of the other world
A music wild and dangerous
As a prophet's message

Or the fresh truth of children
Who though they come to us
From our own bodies
Are altogether new
With their small limbs
And birdlike voices

They look at us
With their clear eyes
And ask the piercing questions
God alone can answer.

- Anne Porter

From my earliest memory as a child, Christmas has always meant something special. Something unique to my family. For one thing, I had a Grandma and Grandpa who for most of the Christmases of my childhood, were dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus. My grandfather, a business executive and El Katif Shriner, cheered the children of The Shriners Childrens Hospital in Spokane all of December with his hearty laugh, smashing red velvet suit, reindeer bells, and thick white hair and twinkly eyes. He loved children, loved Christmas, and growing up a poor Scotsman, felt the very best gift was to cheer up ill children with a hug and toy. My grandmother stood at his side handing out smiles and the presents she wrapped nightly.

Christmas morning spent with my grandparents meant "Santa" would appear at the front door jangling his bells in his amazing Santa suit just for us, his grandkids, home for a week from wherever we were in our lives as a military family. My mother, one of the sick children herself the year she was seven with rheumatic fever, spent a year in isolation in a children's hospital. She both loved her father for his generous spirit (perhaps born of cheering her up in the hospital as a child) and pained by memories of the loneliness and isolation the holidays symbolized for her: separation at a time dedicated to family. Christmas also became the one acknowledged armistice in the conflicted relationship between my parents. Whatever sorrows, arguments or disappointments the year might contain, Christmas marked a time my family came together. My mother, an ice skater, built homemade rinks in our wintry back yards. There were trips to the mountains to hike through the snow and find our tree. There were lights and presents even when the money was tight; sledding, cocoa, and snowmen in the front yard. Christmas Eve was the one night it was okay to fall asleep under the tree, looking upwards at the beauty of the lights waiting for magical Santa. The one night God seemed real and close, an expression of peace and love.

After blending both Jewish and Christian traditions together in my own adult life, I discovered that, like my mother, I have a complicated adult relationship with the holiday now. When my husband Ken was ill with cancer and went into surgery on Christmas Eve of 2002, I sat the night beside him after that failed operation watching televised celebrations from the Vatican, marooned in the cold indifferent rhythms of the hospital and the disconnected attitude of the shift nurse on our floor. The night resonated with the utter absence of God. Where was the magic? The sacred? Simple compassion of the human kind? I held my husband's head as he retched uncontrollably, feeling like one of the lost souls my grandfather might have cheered, not the girl who loved and found solace, always, in this one exquisite night of the year.

Those moments gild the day with a particular melancholy. A poignancy in which the beauty of Christmas subtly marks the prelude to feelings of real loss.

Life goes on. My family and I make holiday cookies, decorate a tree with ornaments and vintage decorations that hold memories of people and places and times past. There is a "Just Married" ornament with Ken; a pewter engraved book celebrating my first published novel; framed pictures of the kids; glass ornaments from Germany my uncle bought my grandparents during the Korean War; a hand-painted ornament with my mom's and my name on it the year I turned one; the Christmas stocking my grandma made me of hand-stitched velvet and sequins, the stockings I made everyone in the family after that. My daughter's stocking from her Godmother and the quilting club that is 4 feet long. School ornaments from the kids' colleges, travel mementos gathered with my second husband, Greg; the dog and ski and music and Barbie collections. The album of my life is on that tree. I tell my life in Christmases.

Christmas isn't a religious holiday or a festive month on the calendar for me: the season signifies a willful decision to create joy, when the human need to love reaches across disappointment and misfortune. Christmas is my grandfather with a sick child in a hospital johnnie on his knee holding in his hand a new toy. It is my parents pulling something happy together. Christmas is the time of year, for me, when people try a little harder and often succeed at making the world a better place. Snowflakes and glowing lights, mystery packages and sweets. When we battle the darkness with as much light as we can muster.

So as James Taylor sings his particularly melancholy "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in my study as I write this, I smile. Yes, it is a world of chipped edges and tattered corners. But life is also beautiful in its capacity to reflect the best we give it.

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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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