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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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Said Without Elegance

Lemoille Canyon
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," by Philip Levine

I had the joy of visiting with an old friend his weekend. Someone I have known since I was fifteen. We have been entwined, then apart, parallel and opposing. Like sparrows darting high above the bluffs of Mendocino we have danced our own dance. And now, here we are. His once curly mop of brown hair is short cut white, he talks of a 40th high school reunion, his face weathered by sun and work and life. His heart, like a pocket with a hole, loses days and moments with the woman he has spent his life with, even as she loses her place in the world. She sinks within an incurable illness. He works; pours his 4 am coffee alone in his kitchen. Weekends, he drives to visit her. She sits in the shadows of her losses. Gone are her mountains, her music and horses, replaced now with the quiet ticks of the clock above the clinic door, anchored in the voice of the man she married.

There was something about this visit. The unexpected ballast to what we carry of the past. The balance and heft of years in the work we have chosen, the sting of the losses within our marriages, the surprising transience of dreams and opportunity, this sturdy survivorship that has opened us to the truth of simple endurance. We celebrate the connection that is long friendship, bow to the evolution of our ambitions. In the mirror of one another we recognize the rubbing away of edges. The value of what we now know are the singular cornerstones of life experience. My friend and I share a good meal and talk late into the night beside the fire, single malt in our glasses. At my feet, the Scottie flops on his side and warms his belly.

My pal has gone, back to the Ruby Mountains and the inexorable unfolding of the fates given him to tend. I am here, with mine. The birch leaves in front yard are yellow now, small boats of gold sailing down from the trees. I feel this autumn. The season within changing with the trees. Good friends are these remarkable pebbles we collect on our journeys; like special bookmarks, we tuck them in our hearts to mark our favorite passages, pieces of life we give over to the polish of time.
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Through a Child's Eyes

You who have held yourselves closed hard
Against warm sun and wind, shelled up in fears
And hostile to a touch or tender word -
The ocean rises, salt as unshed tears.

- from "Of Molluscs," May Sarton

The tremor of new truth in yesterday's American observance of the terrors of the attacks of September 11, now ten years later, was mirrored perfectly in children's faces. My own two, now 20 and 22, were then children: old enough to understand, and young enough to still hold faith with the world. They were frightened. The attacks made no sense. The uncertainty and danger of the world fully evident, they clung to a belief that the fundamentally wrong was also fundamentally unreasonable, and therefore, surely not part of the structure of life? Such blind and unprovoked attacks shouldn't have occurred in a moral world, and yet they did. Many of us placed the violence within a paradigm of what we called "momentary insanity."

Ten years later, I see that my children do not think the violence of the world, the terrorism of global dissidence, is "momentary" at all. Insane, yes. But extreme catastrophic violence is now part of every day of every year as the world polarizes around class, religion, culture, and politics. The world has become more chaotic and less comprehensible with every passing year. The violence irrational and theoretical, the impact brutal and inhumane. What is really at stake is our faith in a rational universe, in which good works, good character, and good intentions mean something. If we are targets of destruction for what we symbolize because of our differentness, our oppositional values, then fundamental commonality has been hijacked by fear. What all of us possess, our humanity, becomes irrelevant. And in that world, random violence replaces understanding. The world teeters on the brink of a loss of faith in goodness.

The now adult children of September 11 were not nearly as swept away by emotion as their parents on this day of observance and remembrance. This is their world: violent, unpredictable, complicated. They do not remember the innocence of what the world felt like before. And that is a huge loss. The mark of what this day means to all of us now is that everything changed.
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The Way of Memories

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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July Grace

Hard blue skies
and solitude
cape the lost years.
Absence of grace,
of summer sweetness
borne to blackened limbs
of winter trees.
fruit of patience.
running juices down my chin
I eat of you, discover you.
Feed my heart
at the root of you.

In broken rough
the green limn of grace.
In grace
an answer to the years.
In you, July.

- Glenda Burgess

July, month of memories. Of birthdays, deaths, anniversaries, meetings and goodbyes. I wonder, does the power of memory deepen in the lengthening shadow cast from event to day of recollection? Perhaps the emotional punch of reminiscence arises from some scorched earth of the heart. A yellow line drawn around an experience etched into our souls, until finally the outline alone remains, a crime scene of a sort. Memory, minus catalyst, absent object, naked of touch.

A curious thing, when memory marks anniversary. We revisit importance, dip our toes in familiar waters. Feel again the tide of our lives pull against the shore of an important date, a significant choice, an unforgettable intimacy. Anniversaries become the old sofas of our souls. We lie on our backs in cushions shaped to our weight, at rest in the imprint of our loves, our years. Birthdays mark the new, the continuing, the next triumphant lap around the bend. Deaths, the last exit. But anniversaries linger in the then and now. They have certain beauty.

It seems memory is a koan. A wisdom teaching. Somewhere in the unassailable cause is an unfolding effect. In that tenuous blossom between moment and recollection lies some truth to be found, how we live and how we relive. Why regret, why fondness, why wonder? Why does night not obliterate day like the thousand passing suns of dark space? Love is the fruit of patience. Grace gives new green.

To July. To the book of friends and loves here and gone. To the tart taste of memory.
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Lost Fathers

1957 Sandia AFB, New Mexico

my lost father

see where he moves
he leaves a wake of tears
see in the path of his going
the banners of regret
see just above him the cloud
of welcome see him rise
see him enter the company
of husbands fathers sons

- Lucille Clifton

Father's Day is a national day of commemoration created by a young woman in Spokane in 1910 in honor of her father, who raised her on his own after his wife's untimely death. I spent part of the day yesterday thinking of my own father, Thomas. Dead at 45, a career AF officer and fatherless himself, having lost his own dad in combat in WWII, my dad was an introverted, scientific man. He cooked. He liked Hank Williams, he had migraines. He liked to tinker. My father worked with his hands on projects of his own design, and he liked the wilderness, he was an Eagle Scout. He never said much, but he had a gentle smile. He was a quiet, withdrawn man as he grew older. Some of that a result of the harsh life of the military service and secretive work in cryptography during the cold war. Some of that the companionship of vodka. And there was the widening gulf between my parents as we grew to be a family of six, all the while moving every other year of my childhood. The oldest, I find it comforting to think of the things he and I did together - the hikes through the national forests, the projects we worked on, his large hands patiently steadying mine. The pained moment in the car, just the two of us my senior year of high school, our family destroyed by divorce, when he turned to me and said, "You can be anything you want to be, Glenda." I am saddest that my siblings have no memories at all of him, such is the scarring destruction of life post-divorce.

And then there are my own children. Also fatherless, Ken dying of cancer in their very early preteen years. And yet their world is full of men who have come into their lives as powerful and caring mentors. Friends, music teachers, college masters, family men, military commanders, professors. When they celebrate Father's Day they feel the core of love they grew from, for their childhood had a vivid bright sun of love. There are no forgotten memories of their dad, but a roadmap to what a father's love was and can be. I see my son growing into the kind of man his father was - strong, committed, fun and compassionate. And I see my daughter wanting to love men principled and with character like her father. The legacy is different from my father to theirs, yet our memories occupy the same place in the heart.

As you think about your own father and what that legacy of love may be, remember also what it is not. What you take forward into your own family life and leave behind. What your children will learn based on their heritage of grandfathers and fathers. We are a chain of memories woven into the generations. Nurturing plaited into a rope of commitment and strength. Celebrate the love, and let time erase the rest.
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The Daily

photo: Max Waugh

I believe there is something else

entirely going on but no single
person can ever know it,
so we fall in love.

It could also be true that what we use
everyday to open cans was something
much nobler, that we'll never recognize.

I believe the woman sleeping beside me
doesn't care about what's going on
outside, and her body is warm
with trust
which is a great beginning.

- Matthew Rohrer

Today a personal essay of mine, "Suddenly Solo," was published in AOL's My Daily online journal. You will find a live link to the essay to the left, and also on my home page under *FEATURED RELEASE*.

The photographic art chosen by the editors at AOL to accompany the story is both fitting and lovely. This essay describes a moment of my life and the winter it entwined with the story of an old swan, known to wilderness rangers here simply as "Solo."

The timing of this essay was completely unexpected - months and months from the time it was written and submitted, and honestly the essay was forgotten by me in the river of events that swept my life and probably Solo's as well downstream into new seasons and different geography. The thought I had when this essay resurfaced yesterday, and published today, was how all of life's currents travel in huge unseen eddies. We do not truly know when things will return to us, when people and history reconnect, intersect, bump up again in new elbows of time. All things and all time sweep forward through a great unknown. I find these deep unseen linkages to be comforting, an eternal mystery.

The poem, CREDO, by Matthew Rohrer reminded me today of the ways we simply wake up, love, and plunge our hands into the raw stuff of a given day. There may be something more. And possibly not. I believe there is. But what we do have is love, the "body is warm with trust which is a great beginning."

And that is the message of the story of Solo, who I hope returned once more with spring.
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The Light Gets In

"Love in the Air," Munkramser

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
- Leonard Cohen

I have thought on this idea of the balance of the extraordinary and the ordinary in our lives, and found myself drifting to contemplating the concept of construction in the chaos of unexpected de-construction. We rise instinctively from the debris of the accidental, the tragic, the disaster. Images of the citizens of Joplin, MO standing and singing Sunday hymns in the tornado wreckage of a community church inspire me. When lives unravel, are we not compelled to engage in rebuilding, to work our hands? The picked apart stitches, re-rolling skeins of yarn rethinking the design, starting over with the raw materials at hand.

"There is a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in." Leonard Cohen's words possess a sureness of fundamental truth. Light permits seeing with clarity. Light comes through in unexpected openings. Behind broken dreams, the closure of opportunity and breaks in faith. Fresh vision like the rainbow shimmers in shattered paradigms. Creation embodies all that is new, born of necessity. And sometimes I think Destiny arrives in the midst of chaos like a fallen star, an explosion of fractured light that reaches deep into the corners of our darkest moments.

I invite you to ponder a wall that truly forced a turn in your life; a disaster that inspired a better life. Consider the shut door - a disappointment that forced you to turn around and become aware of the wide world behind you, open to exploration. What crack in the pattern of your days, in the dream once pursued so avidly, what crack in that perfect world held tight within your grasp led to this moment's sense of completion and satisfaction? Disappointment, chaos, disaster, misfortune...cracks open in our hearts that let the light of compassion in. And inspiration. Signs of life truly lived.

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Memories on Memorial Day

Memorial Day 2011
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

My husband is buried above the wild and tumultuous Spokane River, down from the high train trestle bridges we call the "wishing trains" because we so often whisper secret wishes as we cross under the train cars suspended high above. They thunder overhead on their way across the continental U.S., great diesels hauling container goods, crops, oil and chemicals, slatted stock cars swaying down the tracks before they disappear through granite cuts into narrow pine valleys. My husband quite liked the idea that he would have a view of the river and the trains. Nature and commerce. Chaos and fortune. Our lives are ruled by them.

Today, cemetery breezes wave ribbons of color along narrow paths that are lined with the stars and stripes. Families with lost looks on their faces, clutching plot grids, wander the acres under the ponderosa looking for the buried but not forgotten. Children's hands are tucked in the adults', and in the little fists more small flags, bunches of lilacs. America does not forget its loved ones. It does not forget its soldiers. Yet the numbers buried in the green shade seem to be a continuous sea of monuments. A new engraved stone, a simple bench, stands next to my husband's - a nineteen year old boy, lost in Afghanistan. Somebody's son, someone's brother. There were two flags flying in his honor, 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. He met men in those years who were friends and mentors. I couldn't help but think of our own boy, now twenty, at the US Naval Academy. His life is at a crux point as well. What direction will it turn? How will he think of his service, years from now? National service opens us to the community beyond family - opens us to the identity we share as Americans. Whether in the military services, the Peace Corps, Teach for America, the USO, the Red Cross - take a moment to thank the next young or old person you meet giving of themselves to all of America.

This 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 who came before her and follow her now. Service requires only that we show up, hands open and ready to do whatever work needs doing. Let the poems of your memories carry the day.

And finally, as I think of my son and how proud his father would be of him, as I wonder about his future, I think of Eric Greitens, the decorated Navy war hero and author of "The Heart and the Fist - The Education of a Humanitarian, The Making of a Seal." Eric penned a personal note to my son on the title page - "Follow your heart and continue to live with courage." Words that might inspire us all I think.

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