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QUINTESSENCE

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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All Things Made New

Ostia Antica
OF THE MUSE
by May Sarton

There is no poetry in lies,
But in crude honesty
There is hope for poetry.
For a long time now
I have been deprived of it
Because of pride,
Would not allow myself
The impossible.
Today, I have learned
That to become
A great, cracked,
Wide-open door
Into nowhere
Is wisdom.

When I was young,
I misunderstood
The Muse.
Now I am older and wiser,
I can be glad of her
As one is glad of the light.
We do not thank the light,
But rejoice in what we see
Because of it.
What I see today
Is the snow falling:
All things made new.


This poem by New England poet May Sarton stands as the final poem in her book, "Halfway to Silence." What I love about this poem is the poet's quiet sense of slipping through experience into a sense, as English writer Julian Barnes defined it, of an ending. Opening to wisdom. Aged, reflective, and questioning still, Sarton seeks an elusive muse. A bolder, nobler inspiration. Answers.

"Of the Muse" reveals a distilled personal truth from Sarton: that her lifelong art has not been the gift of inspired flights of stark originality but the gift of incidental moments of awareness. Found truth along life's most ordinary path. Leaning in is looking closer. "We do not thank the light,/ But rejoice in what we see/Because of it."

Truth, not appearance or form, defines meaning; unvarnished and unaltered. Whether one speaks of the heart or the earth, ambitions or sins, perceiving honestly is the beginning point. "There is no poetry in lies," Sarton writes. Listen in, the poet advises. Hear the tighter, deeper, stronger, resonating beat of experience. There is no mantra or magic. No easy hack for enhancing creativity or making a life.

There is only this: honest awareness. A raw truth. "But in crude honesty/There is hope for poetry." Can the essence of understanding be put more beautifully or simply? Sarton lays aside the ego and its masks. Only comprehend, she asks. See that which is before you. Bow to the pre-eminence of what lies in all things, and therein, find wonder.

To see the snow fall, all things made new.

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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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Wooden Palace

I don't think I am old yet, or done with growing. But my perspective has altered - I am less hungry for the busyness of the body, more interested in the tricks of the mind. I am gaining, also, a new affection for wood that is useless, that has been tossed out, that merely exists, quietly, wherever it has ended up. Planks on the beach rippled and salt-soaked. Pieces of piling, full of the tunnels of shipworm. In the woods, fallen branches of oak, of maple, of the dear, wind-worn pines. They lie on the ground and do nothing. They are travelers on the way to oblivion... Call it Rest. I sit on one of the branches. My idleness suits me. I am content. I have built my house. The blue butterflies, called azures, twinkle up from the secret place where they have been waiting. In their small blue dresses they float among the branches, they come close to me, one rests for a moment on my wrist. They do not recognize me as anything very different from this enfoldment of leaves, this wind-roarer, this wooden palace lying down, now, upon the earth, like anything heavy, and happy, and full of sunlight, and half-asleep.

- WINTER HOURS by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver's essays in "Winter Hours" contain thoughtful observations, detached and yet deeply intimate, marked by crisp, curious writings of what it means to grasp one's life whole. An organic, evolving theme. Oliver explores the ways human endeavor is a construct. A shelter for creative thought and action.

This idea of settling into one's life. Oliver stands before a cabin in the woods she has hand built. A private retreat she intends for writing but which over time has devolved into a little-used potting shed. She realizes she built the cabin not for work, for poetry, but for the sake of building. To construct something with her hands. The task completed, she lies in its humble shade among the blue butterflies, free to make use of it or not. It matters not at all. Her presence simply is, she tells us. A part of nature. Neither something proven or disproven in construct.

Oliver points out it is instinctive to examine life. To ponder what makes things work, what influences one thing to nurture another. The linking of ideas and experiences creates the future out of the past, and while we understand ourselves as part of the vast natural interchange of what lives and dies, we are still stricken by the secret wish to be beyond all that. Thus, we build, Oliver concludes. She adds wryly, "You can fool a lot of yourself but you can't fool the soul. That worrier."

To have built the house.

We voyage through our days lost in the work of working at life. As another year comes to its close, we take stock of our "constructs." Family, work, home, friendships. These complex symbols of the living we have done. Have we lived up to the soul's expectations? Have we lived strong and true, within the essential principles as nature would have them? Are there places we have followed the blueprints of a construct, not life?

Within ourselves is a potting shed in the woods. There we may rest "upon the earth like anything heavy, and happy, full of sunlight, and half asleep."

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Goldenrod


On roadsides,
in fall fields,
in rumpy bunches,
saffron and orange and pale gold...

- from "Goldenrod," Mary Oliver, 2004

I hiked the bluff trails early this morning. In these mountains the coming fall brings crisp air to the lingering warmth of summer. The trails were absent of a certain joy however. Absent my dog, McDuff, a sturdy little wheaten-colored Scottie. McDuff passed in December of 2012, and the years since are marked by the absence of his beautiful presence at my side. Today I dedicate my blog post to McDuff, and revisit a post from late summer 2010.

September 3, 2010:
Yesterday afternoon McDuff and I headed out to the bluff, lulled outdoors by a late afternoon warmth. Pools of mellow light fell through the trees. We walked through wild oat and dried thistle, the hillside adorned in a palette of caramel, dusty tan, and white yellow, the sweetness of summer at its fullest. Fall hovers at the edge of the valley in crisp mornings and cool nights, but here on the bluff, summer fiercely holds court.

As we walked, a wordless song played through my thoughts and Duff fell behind, his nose in a rabbit hole. I stopped and stood a moment, looking across the valley. A raven cry drifted up from somewhere near the creek and I was filled with an inexplicable happiness. As if everything truly had its moment, and this moment had now. My thoughts touched on my son and daughter, far away, anchoring into a new school term at university. I felt the river width of time, the slow flood across geography. The delicate knots and stitches that bind us, one to another.

Here, the final stanzas of Mary Oliver's poem, "Goldenrod" -

I was just minding my own business
when I found myself on their straw hillsides,
citron and butter-colored,

and was happy, and why not?
Are not the difficult labors of our lives
full of dark hours?
And what has consciousness come to anyway, so far,

that is better than these light-filled bodies?
All day
on their airy backbones
they toss in the wind,

they bend as though it was natural and godly to bend,
they rise in a stiff sweetness,
in the pure peace of giving
one's gold away.


May all of you find delight in summer's last song.

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Eye of Night

WILDERNESS
When I lay down, for the night, on the desert,
on my back, and dozed, and my eyes opened,
my gaze rushed up, as if falling up
into the sky,
and I saw the open eye of night, all
guileless, all iris of a starshine grey,
scattered with clusters of brilliant pupils.
I gazed, and dozed, and as my eyelids lifted I would
plummet up out of the atmosphere,
plunging and gasping as if I'd missed
a stair. I would sleep, and come to, and sleep,
and every time that I opened my eyes
I fell up deep into the universe.
It looked crowded, hollow, intricate, elastic,
I did not feel I could really see it
because I did not know what it was
that I was seeing. When my lids parted,
there was the real -- absolute,
crisp, impersonal, intimate,
benign without sweetness, I was roaring out, my
speed suddenly increasing in its speed, I was
entering another dimension, and yet
one in which I belong, as if
not only the earth while I am here, but space,
and death, and existence without me, are my home.

- Sharon Olds

This poem by Sharon Olds transports us into the boundless mystery of the universe. To be under the stars, open to the darkness, where as Olds shares, "there was the real -- absolute, crisp, impersonal, intimate, benign without sweetness." Olds unveils the familiar strangeness of the universe at night. The presence of what can only be described as an encompassing unbounded living pulse. A life force more felt than it is defined. And so we trek to the wilderness. To reach and touch a greater-than-the-known truth, singing from afar.

A song deep in the quiet.

We encounter moments of unbounded awareness throughout our lives. Sensing what more there may be to what we think of as the entirety of our existence. Perhaps lying on a lake dock under a tent of a million distant stars, or seated by a beach bonfire, watching as sparks pop and pirouette and splinter upward into the dark. That moment that causes us to pause, chasing fireflies in the dark of a meadow. Before dawn, bathed in the illumination of the Milky Way.

At the edge of a pond, unaware of the night heron yet aware of us.

We experience a shift of dimensions as the poem "Wilderness" opens. A softening of borders, an awareness of strange yet familiar truth. As though diving beneath the surface of a still lake, into a universe hidden below what we take for granted every day. One dimension among many. One part of an integrated, endless layering of existences. Visible and unseen. Present and past, known and distant.

Look long into the velvet sky with me. Seek the tiniest point of fractured light. Do you feel how we belong?
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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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Right Words

THE NOTEBOOK
by Mary Oliver

Six a.m. -
the small, pond turtle
lifts its head
into the air
like a green toe.
What it sees
is the whole world
swirling back from darkness:
a red sun
rising over the water,
over the pines,
and the wind lifting,
and the water-striders heading out,
and the white lilies
opening their happy bodies.
The turtle
doesn't have a word for any of it -
the silky water
or the enormous blue morning,
or the curious affair of his own body.
On the shore
I'm so busy
scribbling and crossing out
I almost miss seeing him
paddle away
through the wet, black forest.
More and more the moments come to me:
how much can the right word do?
Now a few of the lilies
are a faint flamingo inside
their white hearts,
and there is still time
to let the last roses of the sunrise
float down
into my uplifted eyes.


I have been looking through old journals lately. On a mission to muck out files, sort through my book shelves. A surprising thing struck me rereading a period of journals from 1998-2001...the mixture of notes, fragments of creative idea, the pen and pencil sketches. I was equally taken aback by the implacable boundaries time brackets around words. As Mary Oliver writes, "How much can the right word do?"

I was drawn to sketches in the margins of journals. Drawings of strangers in coffee shops, interesting hands, a peculiar expression on a face in a workshop. All these drawings triggered a kind of memory muscle for me. There were several of my daughter's cello teacher and his centuries-old cello, for example, dashed off in ink on college-rule paper during a lesson. Looking at a cello sketch I remembered sitting uncomfortably on the low sofa, the confines of the tiny practice room, the dim light from the drawn venetian blinds, the rustle of sheet music on the music stand...even the strange plastic wrap this expressive Russian refugee, who had once performed in Leningrad alongside Rostropovich, had so carefully layered around the neck of his beautiful instrument to protect the wood from the sweat of his hands and forearms.

There was no "right word" in my notebook to describe these scenes or events. Instead, a drawing; imbued with shape, mood, unusual detail. Seeing the thing or person before me, and seeing completely. Translating everything imperfectly but somehow accurate in its essence. All too often as writers we glance, and then look away to think, searching for le mot juste, the perfect word. And in doing so, we may step away from the experience, abandon our own innate presence in the moment. I find myself keeping these pages with sketches and half-lines of poems, the penciled scenes from travels with my husband and children. We were all keepers of travel notebooks. We lingered places; taking all the generous, unhurried time required to sketch something of what we saw.

I re-experienced this slow pleasure on a recent trip abroad. There was a gentleman with our group, a painting conservator from a major museum, who did not dash off frenzied smartphone shots of ancient ruins and excavated pottery. He stepped aside as we hiked, opened his sketch book, and freehanded a perspective, employing a few strong lines and shading to capture the heart of the object, the mood of the light. And then he moved on. His notebook of sketches becoming a sensual, visual encounter with objects of mystery -- fallen stones, abandoned boats on the sand, a whalebone, a rune obscured by moss. Looking over his shoulder, these thoughtful sketches were themselves experiences.

My late husband Ken, a black and white photographer, used to say that the reason a photographer lifts a camera is not in order to preserve what he sees, or to interpret the object his lens is focused on. No, the photographer photographs to see. The photographer does not step outside the experience to think through how to describe it as the writer does. The photographer steps into it and lets the moment speak for itself. The photographer encounters the material world as it is, shaped only by his own aesthetic, the light, and perhaps the incidental intrusion of equipment or the development environment. There are only unexpressed truths.

Mary Oliver's observed turtle sees the morning rise around him, registers the universe with simple awareness. The poet knows her awareness, her thoughts about this exchange are somehow stealing her from the fullness of her own experience. She notes this distance, this distraction, and returns her thoughts again to observing, to awareness without translation. A meditation on essence, not story. She makes a poem of her observations on the failures of observation that manages nonetheless to convey what is lost in translation.

Writing may be impressionist, subjective, symbolic, abstract - all these things. Narratives, knotted together by insight, observation, and imagination. But first comes simply being present.

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Rhythms

THE NEWS
by Joshua Mehigan

What happened today? Where did it go?
The raindrops dot the window and roll down.
One taps the glass, another, three at a time,
warping the view of black trees limbs and sky.
Long hush, quick crescendo. Wind leans on the sash.
Behind me in the shadows sleep two cats.
Nearby, like something small deposited
tenderly by a big wind on the bed,
my wife sleeps deeply through the afternoon.
The sky is gray. What color is the sky?
Rhinoceros? Volcanic dune? Moon dust?
Breast of mourning dove? Gray butterfly?
Blank newsprint. There's no news, no news at all,
and will be none,
until, at long last, in the other room,
one light comes on, and then another one.


Much of 2017 has unfolded for me as though it were an existential play. We are now somewhere in the middle act. A startled audience, debating amongst ourselves if this violent dramatic arc in world news, and personal local news, is growing exponentially more unreal and negative, or if our minds have simply not yet grasped, This is the way things are now.

I remember childhood conversations with my father as he told me the stories of his father, an army commander, a prisoner of war killed near the end of the second world war. How everyone around him in those days felt confused, dazed by the news of the day. This cannot be real, they said. No, this cannot be real. This falling of nations, these public squares of screaming fascism, plans for calculated genocide, squads of fanatic teenagers, dirt mounded on the unmarked graves of murdered children. An entire planet finally pressed by a horrific enormity of events that "could not be real" to take up arms against the most human of aggressions, power and hatred.

When we walk in the footsteps of the wars across Europe, these ghosts are never far. The wars before, and since. When we turn on the news of the day, the media box foments back at us with rage and hatred and murderous prejudice. Can this be real? Has nothing changed?

I don't have answers. I can't begin to foresee the future for our next generation. The world is rapidly and continuously changing its geography, cultures, and concepts of its own humanity. I sometimes feel as the poet above -- the news of our times is lost in translation. Is hatred a shape? Is that volcanic or stone disbelief? Rose red graves? Or the garden, there, half touched with dew in the midmorning sun.

I listen to the rhythm of the rain; of the dog, breathing heavily, stretched out on his side and asleep by the back porch door. The fast-beating fury of the hummingbird as it plunders the lavender. That unhurried galleon of trailing cloud tilting and slipping across the sky. Rhythms. The half-phrased poems of life. The heartbeat of the world, the word. The news.

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Tending the Quiet


I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.
Loaf with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.


Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Song of Myself (5)

One of the lingering impressions of the wine country in France I carried home is of the peacefulness of the cultivated fields. Especially in early mornings. Alone I walked the dust and gravel paths at the perimeters of the many small and neatly tended vineyards in Champagne. The hour was not exactly quiet, but within, I felt quiet. And I found myself listening.

First there was the riotous joy of full-throated birdsong. Then there was the sound of the light breeze, ruffling its way down the neat rows of vines. The fields slept, the workday not yet begun. I looked at the growing vines. Each gnarled root dark and whorled with age, the young vines rising, unfurling along the trellised lines in a lattice of interlinking green bowers. I thought about the patient work that is a vineyard. Each vine hand-tended throughout the years. Its well-being shepherded through drought, or a too-cool spring or late hail storm. The hands of the vigneron testing vines and nipping suckers or ill-formed leaves, always encouraging the root to pump its life force into the strongest vines and ripen a bounty of grapes.

It is slow work in the fields. A worker may sit with pruning tools on his stool in the sun and work a single long row for an hour, or perhaps half a day, the time it takes to do the work thoroughly and perfectly. There is no rush with wine.

One morning I noticed there was evidence of blackened earth at the base of the low stone wall that bordered the fields, and nearby piles of loose straw, eight to fifteen feet apart. I learned there had been an unexpected May frost and fires were lit in the night from the straw along the stone walls, the smoke furling along the rows, its warmth protecting the young vines. I thought about the truth of nurturing any growing thing. It is a partnership, an understanding, and a rhythm. The process cannot be rushed, each task must suit its need; born of everything unpredictable about life itself. When we nurture a thing we take responsibility for it. We must give nature space and accept the variability of what lies ahead. It may be a season of sun and perfect rain. It may be a season throttled in the soil, or by a killing frost, a blight. But still we cultivate, we tend, we are patient. We hope.

I was thinking of Whitman this morning on my walk through the green sunlit neighborhoods. About the whisper of the soul and how it frequently speaks to us in the quiet, in the ambient lull, the pause. And that we must listen. As our hands tend the vines of our daily tasks perhaps we can slow our hours down, give the soul a space to speak in. Cultivate ourselves.

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