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QUINTESSENCE

A Memorial Day, Then and Now

 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Call and answer

Bernini, Rome

 

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


~ "The White Lillies," Louise Gluck

The aria and the catalyst.

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

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

The call and answer determine the fate of the lovers.

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

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

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

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

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


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sacrament, mystery, light

"How to Build a Cathedral," Cildo Meireles, 1987 copper pennies, cattle bones, pavers, wafers, black cloth. The Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin

 

Does a poem enlarge the world,
or only our idea of the world?

- from "Mathematics" by Jane Hirschfield

This image is of a 2013 art installation at The Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas. The installation occupied (at that time) an entire room of its own. A room within a room, in which the art work, "How to Build a Cathedral," filled the entirety of the subdued space.

The light dim, the atmosphere quiet. The visitor is permitted to step inside the installation, which is curtained on four sides by filmy ceiling-to-floor black mesh curtains. Inside the closed mystery of the curtains, one may stand or walk the square perimeter of the installation upon an interior border of plain gray pavers. The ceiling within the space is constructed of a mammoth "chandelier" of cow bones suspended in uniform order from the ceiling and lit from above. The white bones funnel downward to join with a thin central cord constructed of stacked Eucharist wafers, and downward still into a sculptural seabed of shiny new copper pennies.

This art space has all of the sacramental hush and reverence we associate with the interiors of cathedrals, composed of the metaphoric elements with which we erect them. Rock. Bone and muscle. Ritual. Money. And death.

Sacrament, mystery, light.

Cildo Meireles has conceived an experience for us that improbable as it would seem, is made profound by our innate human inclination and worldly cultural intention to honor what we believe to be sacred. A space for contemplation. A space constructed of the elemental world. What is sacred, born of the ordinary.

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Eyes of An Observer

Harbor, Malta


Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematicians subtle; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend.
- Francis Bacon, essays, "Of Studies"

Acts themselves alone are history... Tell me the act, O historian, and leave me to reason upon them as I please; away with your reasoning and your rubbish! All that is not action is not worth reading.
- William Blake

History, as an entirety, could only exist in the eyes of an observer outside it and outside the world. History, only exists, in the final analysis, for God.
- Albert Camus, "The Rebel"

I have been musing on the distinctions lately between fiction and history. History is most often defined as a factual narrative, a narrative based on defined action and without speculation. Perhaps as Francis Bacon declared, "history" is a particular reasoning applied to aspects of human life in order that we may define a meaningful past. A greater understanding of event and consequence than the restatement of a simple timeline. The writer Jorge Luis Borges argued in "Other Inquisitions," that Universal history is the history of a few metaphors. Is there a worthy difference then in how we understand ourselves through history versus narratives of fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction? Do these ways of telling bleed across lines?

Take as an example "narrative nonfiction," sometimes called creative nonfiction, and defined loosely as creative embellishment without factual distortion of the structure of true information. This is how many of us think of classical history. The past relayed to us by the ancients in essay, epic or ballad, in religious texts, song and theatre. And then there is the truly personal narrative. Memoir differs from biography beyond its intimate focus and use of dramatic structure. Memoir is inherently less universal a narrative form than biography, more personal. What may or may not be true is accepted for its subjectivity. We have wandered some distance from pure event and into its interpretation.

Many have argued the metaphor is the doorway into fiction. The fable, the parable, the psalm. But what is fictitious is not necessarily untrue though it may not be fact. The parenthesis of information in any given story may only be that of one perspective, or a subjective retelling. Does an oversight differ from a lie? A misrepresentation from an omission? To look at the question sideways for a moment, if fiction lets us view life through an artful staging of inventions, does that form differ from the craft of a reasoned essay, an interview, or newsprint bulletin "from the front" if the basic premise of truth-in-telling is observed?

Truth in telling. Consider always the filter of the narrator. These events are, what is, what could be, might have been, or surely were once upon a time. The beloved preamble to all narrative, "Once upon a time" pardons the telling. My favorite histories of the world weave fact with interpretation, story with reflection, event with consequence. Day after day we lay speculation across fact and spark an invention of story. We retell mystery, catalog observations of crumbling or evolving culture, make sense of old tragedies and recurring dreams in our use of story.

As a human, I sympathize with Blake. Let us deem for ourselves the meaning of things. Yet Camus hit the nail squarely on the head. Who but some being who is not us will ever know the complete history of mankind and what meaning it may possess?

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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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Into the Next

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Measured hours lean into the next and the next.

A trace of perfume. How long the ruins last.


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New Year, New Me

Coming down on the tram after the hike up Gonergrat Peak, Switzerland
Variation on a Theme by Rilke
(The Book of Hours, Book I, Poem I, Stanza 1)
by Denise Levertov

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me—a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day’s blow
rang out, metallic—or was it I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew:
I can.

Welcome to a NEW YEAR. I know all of us hope that 2018 will be kinder and more positive than its predecessor. I have spent the first days of this year thinking about the various personal changes I wish to incorporate in my life. I always make January goals, but this year a fresh outlook struck me as critical. Last year felt like an endless struggle, to be honest. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could tweak our routines more favorably toward both productivity and joy?

Here, then, are my ten goals for 2018:

1. Back to paper journals
A journal keeper all my life, I have tried in past years to migrate to digital records, that ready-anywhere-laptop-on-my-knee kind of writing, but have found that introspection, for me, runs counter to the charge, reboot, wifi-hunt environment of tech. When I am at my most thoughtful it is the weight of a pen in my hand and the texture of paper, the fluidity of words written in formation with my thoughts, that works best. A notebook is ideal on airplanes, writing in bed, at a café, waiting in an airport, on the deck of a ship… So back to those beloved medium-size Moleskines with their lovely weight paper and convenient elastic band to keep your notebook closed and pages flat in your tote.

2. Slow down first drafts
In keeping with the connection between handwriting and thinking, well documented in science and more than evident to me as a journal writer, I plan to return to handwriting first drafts on yellow pads. I find that while typing a story draft allows for the speed that catches every thought as it fires in my brain, that is also its own problem. Most of my second draft edits could be skipped (straight on to the third, thank you) if I slowed down the writing process and let my mind work through a creative idea, choosing a better thought BEFORE it's written. There will always be drafts, yes; but the first draft could be a better than it currently is for me. Slowing down is the key.

3. Rethinking social media
I find mornings catching up on Twitter timelines or Facebook posts a drain of time I can never recoup. While a FB author page and official website are part of a working writer’s platform, these updates can be dispatched with thoughtfulness and efficiency detached from browsing. I find the beauty of Instagram is that it is quick, a pleasing interaction with likeminded souls. People whose experience of life inspires your own, and whose posts are uplifting. To that end, I intend to roll back my time on Twitter to my evening “Goodnight, world” offerings of natural beauty, and to let FB roll on pretty much without me. I never was much good at chatting anyway, y’all.

4. Self-attunement
It’s time to put my energy and focus into self-attunement. By which I mean, dialing in to that which makes me a better, more happy and productive being, living a better, more productive life. The time is now for “happiness practices.” And in my creative practices focusing on morning pages and works in progress. Not a moment more to bull crap, idiot politics, social media flashes and/or updates, nor moods or moments of blah mental absence. My personal intention is to be fit, and own that energy; to have and follow a daily life routine that gives me joy and a feeling of balance; and to keep my mind focused and my efforts engaged on what matters to me.

5. A year without shopping
Ann Patchett described her "year without shopping" (with the exception of specific requirements related to her family life, her bookstore, and life as a writer) in a recent New York Times Op-Ed. The point for me of a year of no shopping is to reuse, recycle, and rethink our relationship with material things and functioning within a society that pushes consumerism as both a habit and need. I have always been one to travel light; clutter makes me crazy. But I have not always taken the time to think through whether that latest tech invention, fashion trend, or music release, for example, is something worth my money or my time (ownership, after all, requires both mental space and physical space and upkeep). I intend to use this year to reset my expectations and habits on what is truly needed. What, to quote Marie Kondo, “brings joy.”

6. The vegetable and me
To continue my journey as a pescetarian, adding fish occasionally to my vegetarian diet as desired. It is a challenge, cooking for my meat-loving family, but the health pay-offs for me in terms of my annual medical labs and overall health have proven the value to me of a leafy diet. Reducing alcohol intake, upping exercise—all the usual suspects, yes.

7. Books Read List
Time to get back to keeping an annotated list of the books I read each year. This is something I used to do for its personal pleasure, and as a resource for both blog entries and reviews posted online, etc. The first book of this year? Devotion, by Patti Smith, finished over the holidays. The goal is a book a week, and a classic every month, across genres, and as diverse as possible.

8. Off the fence
Warren Buffet recently tweeted that “Sometimes it’s necessary to unfollow people in real life.” Indeed. Toxic relationships come in all mediums—the long-entrenched dysfunctions as well as the difficult and unresolved potboilers, the time-sucks and the time wasters, and yes, the fence sitters. This year I resolve to clean house (decluttering emotionally) the obvious dysfunctional relationships in my life; but more importantly, to deal with fence-sitter issues. Better to be wrong than to continually swing on the pendulum of uncertainty, caught in that rush of optimism followed by dashed hopes. Rinse, repeat.

9. Tech diet
I love my laptop and my smart phone. They “do it all” with minimal fuss and interconnected efficiency. What I don’t love are all the other gadgets and the updating and charging and linking and sharing across devices like iPads, kindles, iPods, or tablets that end up adding tech issues and maintenance (and subscriptions service costs) to my life. Half a Luddite I am, and that’s okay. I can write, blog, and bank as needed on tech, and free the rest of my life for actual people and actual conversations, reading books (paper books) and listening to audible books on my phone while exercising and running errands.

10. Content balance
The goal here is to seek a wide range of input from books, film, television, music, live entertainment (concerts, dance, theater), museums, lectures, podcasts, etc., to achieve a satisfying mix of the best of cultural and critical thought this life has to offer. That means to me continued travel; and time dedicated to the arts and to reading the work of journalists who investigate important issues and speak to us intelligently about them. And let us not forget the painters and the poets. Much is learned in a glance.

There you have it. My list of resolutions for 2018. I’ll check in throughout the year on how this is going for me. But I’d also love to hear from you about the things you're planning to change and the positive routines that work for you. To a GREAT year!

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How Much Still Remained

And the longer he thought
the more plain to him how much
still remained to be experienced,
and written down, a material world heretofore
hardly dignified.

And he recognized in exactly this reasoning
the scope and trajectory of his own
watchful nature.


- from "Roman Study," Louise Gluck

Fog has filled the valley and spilled over the rim of the bluffs I live on, threading, gray and impenetrable, through the bare trees. In this shifting uncertainty of cloud and cold I take my early walk. Through the neighborhoods, past houses with families gathered at breakfast tables in kitchens that spill yellow light. Harried parents load preschoolers into warming cars, bundled against the cold. The asphalt sparkles with frost and I push my hands deep in my pockets, thinking about this year, 2017. The past year has been both wonderful and extremely tough on some of those I love, difficult overall for our country.

Are these twists of luck and suffering part of a larger meaning, or simply accidental? Life so often feels composed of chance, of fortune both good and bad. Surely this mortal journey is more than a grand roller derby of messy and spectacular collisions. How in the midst of a careless random are we to make successful choices? Seek right outcomes, make peace with the truly awful?

My late husband Ken used to say of his outlook on life, "I work at the art of reasoning away bad luck." I think about this often now. He was teasing me to some extent, as I tend to cling to a faith in greater things to come, especially through sorrows or tragedies I do not understand. He pointed out you can't change what is, but you can choose how to deal with it. Your way. Even now, I still throw prayers out like a fisherman's net, hunting meaning in misfortune, convinced there must be an eventual breakthrough into a wiser, if not better life.

The best I've come up with is life is a sailboat tacking across open waters. The seas and winds change, and with shift, the set of the sails and tiller must change as well. We are at our best if our hand stays steady, gaze fixed on the horizon regardless of the conditions we navigate.

I embrace the spirit of the poem. Life is lived forward. The fog lifts. How much remains to be experienced.

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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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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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