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QUINTESSENCE

Carries a Notebook


THE IDES OF MARCH
by C.P. Cavafy (1911, translated from the Greek by Stratis Haviaras)

Guard well against the grandiose, my soul.
But if unable to curb your ambitions,
pursue them reluctantly, and with caution. the more you
progress, the more skeptical and aware you must be.

And when you achieve your full powers, A Caesar now,
assuming the distinction of a man of eminence,
be ever mindful, when you go into the street
(a master, conspicuous by your devoted entourage)
should someone from the crowd approach you,
someone called Artemidoros, to urge upon you
a letter, and to implore: "Read this without delay,
it concerns matters of grave importance." Don't fail
to pause; don't fail to put off any speech or affair;
don't fail to push aside those who hail and bow down to you
(you'll see them later). Even the Senate can have patience;
and without delay read the crucial message of Artemidoros.


I happened upon this poem of Caesar by Cavafy, and was struck by the parallels of fate, unheeded advisement, and the consequences of murderous secrecy and destruction then to what grips the world today. History offers the careful reader both preface and epilogue. What then will we do with the pages lived in between?

This is the week of Purim, the week of Easter, and a week of unthinkable violence as the world once more suffers an obliteration of peace. We do not know what time will reveal, or history finally discern, but we do know humanity has tread this path before and does so now with trepidation. How do we preserve life, accommodate our differences, and embrace good over evil? As I despaired of an answer, and wondered if the world was in fact lost, I came upon this poem by Denise Levertov in her book, "Sands of the Well."

FLOWERS BEFORE DARK
by Denise Levertov

Stillness of flowers. Colors
a slow intense fire, faces
cool to the touch, burning.
Massed flowers in dusk, crimson,
magenta, orange,
unflickering furnace, gaze
unswerving, innocent scarlet,
ardent white, afloat
on late light, serene passion
stiller than silence.


More sacred than a prayer, this sacrament of the earth. Hymn to the beauty and miraculous wonder of all things given to us without reservation, lost at a terrible price. The more than and greater than that is the natural world. What can you or I do? What change might we be? What hope might we bring forth from our grief and sadness at this terrible human loss and pain, the senseless murder of the innocent?

Be the witness. Hold to the good. Sing of hope. Attend to nature's life-giving promise, her time and seasons. Remember, remember the love.

And finally, this poem.

THE POET ALWAYS CARRIES A NOTEBOOK
by Mary Oliver

What is he scribbling on the page?
Is there snow in it, or fire?

Is it the beginning of a poem?
Is it a love note?


We are all poets of change and belief. Work the world. Record your wonder and gratitude. Learn from the lost innocence of the beloved, and the hard wisdom of history. Above all, give attention to what matters. Nourish love, family, all light. Place beauty in your heart.


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Rewaking

Cypripedium acaule - lady slipper

THE REWAKING
Sooner or later
we must come to the end
of striving

to re-establish
the image the image of
the rose

but not yet
you say extending the
time indefinitely

by
your love until a whole
spring

rekindle
the violet to the very
lady's-slipper

and so by
your love the very sun
itself is revived.


- William Carlos Williams

The renewal of spirit, heart, and mind has a beautiful resonance for me. The limning of new green on the branches outside my study speak to budding hope. There is something about early spring that nudges us to get on with it. To pluck our rusty dreams up and tinker them back into play. To rethink the impossible, or the challenging. To build a bridge to somewhere. To throw the window open and breathe deep of sunshine and renewal.

William Carlos Williams' poem "The Rewaking," composed April 1o, 1961, reminds us joy may be continuously cultivated through love. Reality, and what we think of as the meaningful real, shift with perception. Souls lost in the darkness of winter, in the pressures of work and responsibility, need only trust in the innocence of what is future. The eternal essence capable of reviving even the sun.

The presence of happiness reshapes all things. Restores, what in world-weariness we believed lost - all optimism, lightness, ease, and hope. Drink of violet. Permit the tender shoot, "the image the image of the rose."
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Sojourn Through Stillness and Push


The incremental arrival of spring. A cycle of winds, light rains, brief stillnesses and squares of sun. Stillness and push. Reflection and awareness. The gravid lull that awaits transition in the seasons. A strong sense of push. The change in daylight and energies now. There is much to do, more to accomplish. Tender green shoots break earth beneath skies that battle for dominance between light and dark, cold and warm, stillness and push.

We are sojourners on this earth. Humanity born of a nomadic people's intimate knowledge of estrangement: a thinking people's intuition of loss. For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding. Are we not endlessly traveling the days and seasons, essentially animal? And inventing and imagining, seekers of meaning? We find ourselves uncertain of our ground of being.

We don't know where we belong, but in times of sorrow it doesn't seem to be here, here with these silly pansies and witless mountains, here with sponges and hard-eyed birds. In times of sorrow the innocence of the other creatures - from whom and with whom we evolved - seems a mockery. Their ways are not our ways. We seem set among them as among lifelike props for a tragedy - or a broad lampoon - on a thrust rock stage.
- Annie Dillard, "Teaching a Stone to Talk"

"Teaching a Stone to Talk," is fittingly subtitled "Expeditions and Encounters." Dillard's essays tease out the subtleties in nature, the hidden truths of human dislocation. Her thoughts on human solitude and our mysterious role as "sojourners of spirit" on a harsh, physical planet, reminds us the earth's seasons express the unambiguous truth of the elements.

Wind, rain, dark, light.


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Operating Instructions


There is no person without a world.
- "Autobiography of Red," Anne Carson, 1998



The manual on you. What do you know about your own operating instructions? There is no author's note. The expert on you, is you.

We are one complete and unique universe - patterned from spirit, bordered by skin, powered by the mind, guided by thought, and infused by heart. The Reference Text on Me - the schematic of how each of us functions - lies somewhere over there on the shelf. Dusty, dog-eared, coffee-stained, tear-stained, face-down and the spine broken. Consulted again and again. . .or perhaps not at all anymore.

Beryl Markham, the daring aviator and adventurer, renowned for her fearless explorations throughout Africa, once said, "You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself." We putter along like wood moles, blindly nosing down familiar ruts in search of life's delicacies and hidden secrets. Often enough the best experts on our inner lives are the people we live with. How clearly they see our inanities. Point out our predictable, vulnerable weaknesses; affirm our quiet and simple strengths.

We share vast continents of ourselves with our loved ones, but only we know the many facets of our innermost wishes and dreams, the languished old wounds, misgivings, regrets. In truth, the complex reality of one person's world is known fully only by that person. Yet 360* of self-awareness is not necessarily a place of understanding each of us is sure to summit.

Become acquainted. With you. Update the manual. From time to time delete information that is outdated, add new chapters that speak to major changes. And with each rereading, share wisely some of what has shifted with those that have the "old you" on their shelves. Have we not ourselves been surprised by changes in a family member or a friend after an interlude apart? That more than an address or hair color is radically altered? Changes may be so subtle we need to look closely, or highlight for others what they may have grown too familiar with to see. The manual basics may remain unchanged, but the troubleshooting section is certain to be frequently consulted.

We are each a "work in progress." In a good way. A story that adds to itself, edits and highlights, and on occasion leads down an untrod path only to circle back out again and dive off to the side.

What's new in your world today?
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Retreat

Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico

If ever I should wish for a retreat, whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know of none more promising than this little valley.
- Washington Irving, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

Bless the private interlude. A solitary chair under a tree. A corner of the kitchen table in a slant of sun. The third floor east corner of the library. Window table at the coffee shop. The car. Any space we beg, borrow, call our own.

A door. An island. As Virginia Woolf famously put it, "a room of one's own." Personal space dedicated to thought, to creativity, to the inner self. The poet Mary Oliver built herself a cabin in the woods of rough timber; the painter Jackson Pollock emptied a barn behind his cottage to which he retired day after day, contemplating his canvas. Entire books have been devoted to artists and writer's huts, islands, cafes, closets, desks, lofts, libraries.

The private and the solitary. Personal contemplative space is a deep human need.

Empty space stands as an invitation. Come. Fill this void with vivid imaginings. A naked wall for the experimental, a safe space for the difficult and inscrutable, room for preliminary constructions, a protected silence for the focus and uninterrupted work itself. An arena for inspiration and angst. Private witness to the struggle, to dreamt success, pained failure.

Do you have such a space? What icons, what meaningful symbols have you placed within? A beloved parent's worn cardigan? Shells from distant beaches? A broken violin bow? Paintings that invite you into alternate landscapes of shape and color? Favorite books or music, a stone from another land? A catcher's mitt, a broken bell? Strange things inspire us. Georgia O'Keefe laid animal skulls and wind scraped rocks on her window sills at Ghost Ranch. Stark shapes that brought her subject, nature, directly into her studio. Above my writing table hang black and white photographs that plays with the shapes of objects; on the table, a playful glass zebra that reminds me not to take everything so seriously, a basket of fossils and bones that remind me of both durability and impermanence.

Take a day. Take a moment.
A corner by the cookbooks. The window over the kitchen sink. The worktable by the tool chest.
The riverbank where the heron stands.
The place inspiration flows without bidding.
Namelessness, spirit.
Permission to imagine.
The element of recharge.
Retreat to reengage.
Breathe. Listen.


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Settling Into Life

Cottage in the Faroe Islands
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.
- from "Winter Hours," Mary Oliver

This idea of settling into one's life.

Mary Oliver's essays in "Winter Hours" are thoughtful observations, both detached and intimate, marked by crisp exploratory writings that etch what it means to grasp one's life whole; as an organic, evolving theme of the self. Oliver writes perceptively of human endeavor as a construct - a shelter for creative thought and action.

She stands before a cabin in the woods she hand-built; a private room for writing, which in time has devolved into a little-used potting shed. She realizes she built the cabin not for writing as she believed, not for thought, but for the sake of building. The task complete, she can lie in its humble shade among the blue butterflies, making use of it or not. Her presence lies in nature, she tells us, not in her construct.

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

To have "built the house." To sit quiet in contemplation in its shadow, a part of all that lives and occupies the geography of space and time.

As this year comes to its close, I find myself taking stock of my own "constructs." Family, work, home, friendships. These complex symbols of life, of the living I have done. Are they worthy of the sacredness of living? Have I lived up to my soul's expectations? Have I lived strong and true within the essential principles, as nature would have them? Are there places where am I following the blueprints of a construct, and not a life?

We travel, lost in the work of working at living. Yet we must all find within ourselves the potting-shed within the palace, and rest upon the earth, like anything heavy, and happy, full of sunlight, and half asleep. In the sunspot of what we have made.

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The Solo and the Chorus


WHICH SONG, WHICH CRICKET?
after Gabriel Mistral

by Maggie Smith

I began as one cricket singing
one song. Soon we were all singing,
The dusk was unintelligible.

I hadn't moved, but suddenly I was lost.
Which song is my song? Which cricket am I?

I will never be one cricket again.
I could wait for midnight's silences
and try to fill them. I could stop singing

and listen to the little me-shaped hole
torn in the roaring twilight. The sound

of me missing might be clearer
than my song. I could gift it to the night,
which misses its dear, departed silences.

Even the stars quiver on their own
high frequency. I'm sure they're lost, too.



This poem by Maggie Smith spoke to me today. I felt lost...a song in my own ear I could not hear in the world. We are, all of us I believe, acutely aware of the numbers of us struggling, competing, and practicing in our fields. The writers working, publishing, and singing their songs into the world. The number of musicians playing alone in their studios, recorded on YouTube, performing before a handful of others in cafes, alone for you on your headset. There are thousands of corporate experts, corporate leaders, start-up entrepreneurs from city to city. Uncounted actors on stages everywhere. Thinkers and teachers in universities, all the way down to the first grader puzzling out the alphabet.

Who will hear my song? Which song am I? Which me is me?

There are so many of us we feel drowned out by our numbers. Yet we are amplified by our chorus, powerful in unison. Smith's poem addresses the dichotomy between distinct individuality and the gathering of individuals in which what is distinct becomes lost. The feeling that the tiny hole left in the larger chorus if there were no "me" might be easier to pick out than our song.

It's hard to feel personal effort or individual work matters. We all tell the same stories over and again. Sure, striving for fresh and interesting, but, the same story. As are the songs, and the combinations of paint, and the marketing plans, the fashion design, the options in which engineers move wheels, raise walls, design thrust. Solos make the chorus.

Even the stars quiver on their own
high frequency. I'm sure they're lost too.


In this stanza Smith circles back around to a collective idea of brilliance. Stars, not star. Unknowable wondrous pinpoints of light. How do we keep track of our singular selves in a sky, a solar system, a galaxy, a universe formed of a plentitude of multiples? We shall always see ourselves from the smallness of one.

Listen to the little me-shaped hole/torn in the roaring twilight.

I love this tiny final thought Smith tosses into her lament, that we may gift our mute presence to the night, to "its dear, departed silences." We exist, Smith seems to say, in both song and silence.

We begin as one, singing one song.
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Emptying the Tank

North Sea at sunset
A WINTER NOTEBOOK
by May Sarton

1
Low tide -
The sea's slow motion,
The surge and slur
Over rocky shingle.

A few gulls ride
Rocking-horse waves.

Under blurred gray sky
The field shines white.

2
I am not available
At the moment
Except to myself.

Downstairs the plumber
Is emptying the big tank,
Water-logged.
The pump pumped on and on
And might have worn out.

So many lives pour into this house,
Sometimes I get too full;
The pump wears out.

So now I am emptying the tank.
It is not an illness
That keeps me from writing.
I am simply staying alive
As one does
At times taking in,
At times shutting out.


Isn't this poem beautiful? To think of ourselves, the way Sarton observes, as full and changing as the sea. One moment surging with the flotsam of experience borne from the day; the next, emptying at low-tide, souls following the gulls out to sea.

The stanzas above come from a longer work in May Sarton's final book of poetry, "Halfway to Silence." Sarton spoke of this writing project as a period of rich imagery and lyrical poetry, prompted, she felt, by a keen awareness of the starkness of her own old age and the often violent passage of earthly seasons. How age may leave us battered by the endless cycles of nature's unpredictable chaos. We are endlessly vulnerable to the turns of nature, to these elemental forces we superficially understand and do not at all control. We are guests on this earth, and in our bodies, and among the most fragile. We learn this, it seems, every generation.

Sarton's poem settled in my thoughts this morning as I sat at my writing desk, not writing but thinking. Out my window the gentle presence of a warm, sun-filled morning, among the few left in the year, beckoned. Yet I felt pensive, weary from a long weekend of travel. What strange, almost surreal weightlessness; floating between my fatigue and the beauty beyond. The seasons were turning and I was not. Not so much water-logged as life-logged. There will be harsh, challenging months ahead as winter settles in. There will likely be difficulties and setbacks in the weeks and months to come in our personal lives as well.
Light and dark, warmth and cold.
Assertive and receptive, strong and vulnerable.

What is ordinary is this natural state of flux.

The seasons change and change back again. Nature continuously offers us grace and continuity. Sarton writes, "I lift my eyes/ To the blue/ Open-ended ocean./ Why worry?/ Some things are always there." She observes that as nature takes, she gives, and all things find equilibrium. "Sometimes I get too full.../At times taking in,/At times shutting out."

We must open to the ebb and flow of energy, open to the slow curve of understanding, be willing to release our frustration with the incomprehensible. It is our ability to lift our eyes above mayhem and suffering, to look to the constants - to the poet's ocean - that gives us faith in this world. We must trust in the serenity beneath the turmoil; rebuild upon the hope and constancy within the chaos of change. And sometimes, like Sarton, we need to become unavailable to any but ourselves. Empty the tank. "So many lives pour into this house."

I hope that wherever you are in the demands of the day, or the turn of seasons, you love your wildness. Solace and inspiration abide in our place in nature and the world.

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Detail

Meadow thistle below the Bridge of Primasole, Sicily

DETAIL OF THE WOODS
by Richard Siken

I looked at all the trees and didn’t know what to do.

A box made out of leaves.
What else was in the woods? A heart, closing. Nevertheless.

Everyone needs a place. It shouldn’t be inside of someone else.
I kept my mind on the moon. Cold Moon. Long Nights Moon.

From the landscape: a sense of scale.
From the dead: a sense of scale.

I turned my back on the story. A sense of superiority.
Everything casts a shadow.

Your body told me in a dream it’s never been afraid of anything.


Fall, with its passion-drunk, scorching ignitions of color that burn across the landscape, slows, as the cold deepens, into mysteries of poetry. Perhaps a yearly melancholy. Acceptance of the inward-looking self. In the quiet hours, poems, themselves fog-like tendrils of smudged meaning and obliterations of shape and form, mirror the mists threaded among the cattails along Latah Creek. What is there, and what is unseen. A landscape recognized; another of illusion and shift.

"War of the Foxes" (Copper River Press), Siken's long-awaited follow-up to "Crush," winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, states on its book jacket, "Filled with truths and fabrications, the poems in War of the Foxes investigate the fallacies and epiphanies inherent in any search for perfect order or truth. Violently romantic, Silken’s poetry takes the self and turns it, over and over, in an unsettling conflagration of thought, dream, and speech."

Forking over the compost of the self. The hunger for a philosophy of truth.

Detail of the Woods. This opaque, aching poem speaks of lost love to me, and to the singularity of our physical existence in the world. The body, the solitude, the death. And yet the heart. Timeless, nested, connected. How can we be of one truth while only home within the other? Siken writes,"Everyone needs a place." We exist in finite dimensional space, yet we live, we find solace, "inside of someone else." This is true and bleak beauty. A juxtaposition of limitations and boundarylessness. A hypothesis that what we are is both less and more than we know.

The imagery of this poem haunts me. A box made out of leaves. Both suggestive of a coffin in the earth and the closing in of a vast unfamiliar forest around our narrator, defining his solitude, his existential isolation. I turned my back on the story. Haven’t we all, at one point or another in our relationships, done the same? Accept the fact, discard the myth. Abandon the intangible and dwell on what is real. A sense of scale.

Lastly there is our awareness of the loss imprinted within the loss. The decision to let go, to forget. To excise our attachment. Cold Moon. Long Nights Moon.

A heart, closing.


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Summer's Last Song, McDuff


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


- from "Goldenrod," Mary Oliver, Blue Iris, 2004

I hiked the bluff trails early this morning breathing in the crisping of the air that in the mountains the coming fall brings to the lingering summer. The trails were absent of a certain joy - absent my dog, McDuff, that sturdy little wheaten Scottie. McDuff passed in December of 2012; the years since marked by the absence of his beautiful presence at my side. Perhaps it's silly to mourn a dog. Perhaps. But today I dedicate my blog post to McDuff, and revisit a post from late summer 2010, when all our trails were still before us.

September 3, 2010:
Yesterday afternoon McDuff and I headed out to the bluff, lulled outdoors by a late afternoon warmth and the pools of mellow light that fell through the trees. As we walked through the wild oat and dried thistle, the hillside around us caught an angle of light 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 the crisp mornings and cool nights, but here on the bluff summer holds court.

As we walked, a wordless song played through my thoughts. 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, their lives anchoring down in the new school term at university. I felt the width of time, the slow erasure of 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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