Monday, October 27, 2008

Respite

Birches

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust--
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
(Now am I free to be poetical?)
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows--
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

--Robert Frost, 1915

Every now and again we hit a spot in life where we are overcome with responsibilities and problems, where we feel lost in a pathless wood. My response to those times is usually a longing to go back to childhood. Not that my childhood was idyllic--it wasn't. But it did have a certain freedom to it. I would go out for hours and play in the woods in the nearby park, sitting in a tree or wading in the creek. The problems I faced at home did not follow me there.

And now, when I feel things are out of sorts with my world, I do the same thing, escape to the woods. I don't climb the trees now, but I walk among them. I set my troubles down and leave them be while I walk. Sometimes I find they have sorted themselves out when I pick them up again. And even if they haven't, they are often lighter to carry because I have set them aside for a time.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Assignable Portions

465

I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air--
Between the Heaves of Storm--

The Eyes around--had wrung them dry--
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset--when the King
Be witnessed--in the Room--

I willed my Keepsakes--Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable--and then it was
There interposed a Fly--

With Blue--uncertain stumbling Buzz--
Between the light--and me--
And then the Windows failed--and then
I could not see to see--

Emily Dickinson, 1862


Every now and again I like to pause and take stock of my life and I like to play a morbid little game while doing it: I make a mental will. It's not so much about my possessions--I have little of value and I like it that way. It's more about my friends and loved ones, and what it is that they cherish about me. The Nephews will get Clyde and Beans, the stuffed horse and dog they play with whenever they come to my house, my best friend the box of old high school hall notes I have saved for twenty years, my knitting friend will suddenly have a much larger stash.

I picture an improbable scene where all my friends and family gather to go through my stuff and pick out the one thing they want to have to remember me by. It won't happen, but it's a comforting thought nonetheless.

A few years back, my single, childless uncle died suddenly, and I went to Oklahoma with my aunt and uncle to go through his things and bring what we could back to the family. My uncle had accumulated a lot of stuff over the years, and there was a lot to go through in a short time. There were a few things that were obvious things to save: a bundle of family letters dating back to the Civil War, an old autoharp in the family for generations, photos. But there was also a lot of stuff that had significance only to my uncle, and that got piled up in a heap to be hauled off. As we surveyed the piles of built up detritus from my uncle's life, we marvelled at what he kept. And my uncle pulled out a small scrap of paper and showed it to me, fondly chuckling at the idea of a 60 year old man still holding on to this:

(click on it to see more detail)


It was a Treasure Map my uncle had drawn. The inscription in green pencil on the bottom, possibly added later, gives a phone number in Milwaukee that dates the drawing to his high school days or earlier.

When I saw the map, chills ran down my spine. I knew this map. I knew the island, with its hidden valley accessible only through the labyrinth of tunnels or the dangerous cave entrance. I knew it because the book it appeared in was one of my favorite childhood books: The Island Stallion by Walter Farley, author of The Black Stallion series. The premise of the book--one of a series about the island and its horses--is that a teen-aged boy gets shipwrecked on the island, discovers the tunnels leading to the secret inner valley, and finding treasure left behind by Spanish conquistadors as well as a herd descended from the horses they left behind. I had read all those books over and over, and imagined myself trying to find my way through the tunnels, and when I finally did, the glorious discovery of a green valley populated with horses. The imaginary island lingered in my memory as a hope of secrets revealed, treasure found, paradise gained. And it must have lingered in my uncle's mind, too, for him to have kept this carefully copied map through the years and through countless moves. I carefully tucked it away, and brought it back home. I knew I had found my inheritance from my uncle.

When I showed my mother the map, she was drawn into a series of reminiscences which revealed a side of my uncle that I had not known much about. He was always into treasure hunting and maps, she said, and went on to share some childhood memories. I took the stories in and added them to my own memories of him. He was a somewhat hard man to know. When I was a child, he was not always at the family gatherings and when he was, he tended to drink too much. He didn't have a lot of interest in children, and didn't have much to say to me. But as I grew older, our relationship deepened. He was good-humored, intelligent and well-informed on many topics. He loved nature and animals and wouldn't kill an insect in the house, but instead would capture it and release it outdoors. He had a sly sense of humor and enjoyed getting away with bullshitting me if he could. He seemed to enjoy it when I called him on it. When he died, he left a hole in the family.

I think about how odd it is, both of us remembering that book and never knowing it was important to each other's childhoods. I think about the moment of serendipity when my other uncle plucked that one piece of paper that would mean so much to me off that huge pile of other papers. I wonder what scraps of my life will mean something to my loved ones when I am gone.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Passion

One Hour To Madness And Joy

One hour to madness and joy!
O furious! O confine me not!
(What is this that frees me so in storms?
What do my shouts amid lightnings and raging winds mean?)

O to drink the mystic deliria deeper than any other man!
O savage and tender achings!
(I bequeath them to you, my children,
I tell them to you, for reasons, O bridegroom and bride.)

O to be yielded to you, whoever you are, and you to be yielded to me, in defiance of the world!
O to return to Paradise! O bashful and feminine!
O to draw you to me—to plant on you for the first time the lips of a determin’d man!

O the puzzle—the thrice-tied knot—the deep and dark pool! O all untied and illumin’d!
O to speed where there is space enough and air enough at last!
O to be absolv’d from previous ties and conventions—I from mine, and you from yours!
O to find a new unthought-of nonchalance with the best of nature!
O to have the gag remov’d from one’s mouth!
O to have the feeling, to-day or any day, I am sufficient as I am!

O something unprov’d! something in a trance!
O madness amorous! O trembling!
O to escape utterly from others’ anchors and holds!
To drive free! to love free! to dash reckless and dangerous!
To court destruction with taunts—with invitations!
To ascend—to leap to the heavens of the love indicated to me!
To rise thither with my inebriate Soul!
To be lost, if it must be so!
To feed the remainder of life with one hour of fulness and freedom!
With one brief hour of madness and joy.



Walt Whitman, 1860


I am not so sure one can feed the remainder of life with just one brief hour of madness and joy. I think it much more likely that, having climbed those heights once, one's instinct is to want to climb them again and again. And if those heights are forbidden besides, well, so much more the pull to them. I imagine it would be easy to fall into a trap that way, always looking for that same thrill and never finding it. And in the constant search, I also imagine it would be easy to overlook a different kind of joy. Maybe less madness to it, but that doesn't mean it can't be just as fulfilling. There is much to be said for the slowly accumulating joy of tiny little moments of everyday kindnesses and shared laughter and comforts of familiarity.



The truth is that, as we move through life and find each other, we gather more and more ties and lose more and more freedom. Sometimes it happens slowly, almost imperceptibly, other times we choose the ties deliberately and publicly. And while there is intoxication in the thought of breaking free from all those ties at times, I imagine regret would follow such an action. And surely that regret would, in time, overshadow the joy of the moment.

All that aside, reading this poem, don't you just want to jump off that cliff anyway?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Habit


Árbol que crece torcido jamás su tronco endereza.

--Mexican Proverb


A tree which grows bent will never get straight again.


I wonder how twined I have become around my past. If one were to remove the central supports of my life, would I remain twisted around, contorted to accommodate rigidity that is no longer there? Or am I still supple enough to straighten out, to reach directly upward to the sky? Am I too crooked now to stand alone? Are the habits and philosophies of my mind set forever in the paths they took when I was still young and green and flexible? Those paths wove in and around, careful not to disturb, but still longing to maintain contact, forming myself around others, bending to their convenience and liking. If I remain rooted, will not the center grow, straight and thick, until it has me locked into place, eventually consuming me, melding with me and taking from me my individuality?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Grudge

A Poison Tree

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears;
And I sunnéd it in smiles
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine,

And into my garden stole,
When the night had veild the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretchd beneath the tree.

William Blake, 1794

I am a grudge-holder. It is not an attractive quality, this I know. In my defense, I am extremely slow to anger, and cheerfully can bear numerous slights, insults and outright injustices while turning the other cheek and walking a mile in the other person's shoes. But I have my line, and when it it crossed, it is like crossing the Rubicon; there's no going back. The particularly unattractive part of it is that my foe may not know the Rubicon has been crossed. Because my reaction of a real, unmendable breach of friendship is simply silence. Transitory arguments that can be resolved are met with either outbursts of anger or carefully worded confrontations. The anger flares up and burns out or is carefully extinguished. But the unforgivable, the permanent breach is looked upon wordlessly and then walked away from, never to return, never to forget, never to forgive. Knowing this, I am careful, extremely careful, to be sure the offense is indeed unforgivable. Because it is a terrible thing to knowingly and deliberately poison a friendship to death.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Articulation

952

A Man may make a Remark--
In itself -- a quiet thing
That may furnish the Fuse unto a Spark
In dormant nature -- lain --

Let us deport -- with skill --
Let us discourse -- with care --
Powder exists in Charcoal --
Before it exists in Fire.

Emily Dickinson, 1864



1212

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say

I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

Emily Dickinson, 1872

Most of my life I have been a fairly impetuous speaker. I could blame it on the stars: Sagittarians are said to be tactless and prone to blurting out their thoughts without thinking. Or you might blame it on self-absorption: I frequently am so wrapped up in my own thoughts that I hardly stop to listen to what I am saying. Or you might say I think best when I'm talking. I tend to hold many vague ideas and beliefs in my head, swimming around lazily, coming in and out of focus, and am often unaware of them myself until a conversation leads to me voicing them. Once I am called upon to give an opinion, I realize that I have slowly been formulating the ideas all along, and they pop into sharp focus, and tumble off my lips. And the same holds true for writing. Often when I sit down to write, I have only a shadow of an idea what I want to say, but once I write a sentence or two, my fingers take over from my brain with minimal instruction and write the words I have been hiding from myself. And I often write without editing, because it often seems to me my words have taken on their own life, separate from me, and it's no good telling them what to be once they have earned their freedom from my mind.

But lately, I have more and more frequently found myself at a loss for words. When called upon to explain what I mean by an uttered statement, or asked what I am thinking or feeling, I have come up blank. Partly to blame for this silence, I think, is a new unwillingness to engage in conflict of any kind. I come from a long line of arguers, and have always held my own among them. Debate, dissent, discord: all have been part of my family's mode of communication and I have never before shirked in making my voice and my opinion heard. Almost imperceptibly, however, I have wearied of this type of exchange of ideas. A reasoned discourse is all very well, but it almost always tends to escalate and I no longer care to climb those heights.

More than a new dislike of my own discomfort at conflict is a new dislike of causing that discomfort in others. Previously I have been so eager to prove my own point that I did not much care whether the other party in the debate could be made uncomfortable. Not to say that I went around picking fights all the time, I didn't. But I never turned away from an offered argument, no matter who was offering. Now I am much more likely to allow points to go uncontested, and am more comfortable in silently holding my own opinion and allowing my adversary to believe I have been out-argued.

One final factor in my reticence, however, gives me the most pause. More and more frequently, when called upon to give voice to my thoughts, I find I cannot find the words. The stream of language I have effortlessly tapped to convey my thoughts all my life is suddenly unruly and truculent. It is as though that stream has been dammed upstream and only a trickle of the most mundane and colorless words can get through. The big question, in my mind, is the nature of that dam. The suspicion has been growing upon me, slowly but steadily, that I have something I need to express, but have not. Day by day this suspicion becomes more clear and distinct, and although I scoffed the idea when it first occurred to me, now I find myself turning it over and over in my mind. Several times I have nearly blurted it out, like the old me would have, but I have edited myself each time. What is stopping me from expressing this thought, this truth that is blocking my formerly glib words?

I am afraid. Once it is said, it cannot be unsaid.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Alive

beware  :   do not read this poem

tonite ,   thriller was
abt an ol woman , so vain she
surrounded herself w /
  many mirrors

it got so bad that finally she
locked herself indoors & her
whole life became the
  mirrors

one day the villagers broke
into her house  ,   but she was too
swift for them  .   she disappeared
  into a mirror

each tenant who bought the house
after that  ,   lost a loved one to
  the ol woman in the mirror :

  first a little girl
  then a young woman
  then the young woman/s husband

the hunger of this poem is legendary
it has taken in many victims
back off from this poem
it has drawn in yr feet
back off from this poemit has drawn in yr legs

back off from this poem
it is a greedy mirror
you are into this poem  .   from
  the waist down
nobody can hear you can they  ?
this poem has had you up to here
  belch
this poem aint got no manners
you cant call out frm this poem
relax now & go w / this poem
move & roll on to this poem

do not resist this poem
this poem has yr eyes
this poem has his head
this poem has his arms
this poem has his fingers
this poem has his fingertips

this poem is the reader & the
reader this poem

statistic  :   the us bureau of missing persons reports
      that in 1968 over 100,000 people disappeared
      leaving no solid clues
        nor trace   only
    a space     in the lives of their friends

Ishmael Reed, 1970

Sometimes the problem with poetry is that it can suck me in, capture me, slowly but steadily take me over--not just for the moments I am reading the poem, but after I have put the poem away. This, of course, is not a problem if the poem is uplifting or cheerful or otherwise positive. Other poems, however--the melancholy, the bitter, the hopeless--those poems can bounce around and around in my mind. Sometimes I begin to react to the poem in my head instead of the people and events around me.

It can be hard, too, for me not to take poetry personally, as though it had been written and published just for me to see or hear. As though it were meant for me and each line, each syllable holds a secret message that only I can unlock if I try hard enough. Some will argue that of course poetry is written for the reader and the reader is me. I'm not sure that's always true. Sometimes, I think poems, as well as other kinds of writing, take on their own life, and break away from the author's original intent. Sometimes, I think, poems are written just because they needed to be heard.



Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Advice

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he's to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may for ever tarry.

Robert Herrick, 1648


Screw you, Robert Herrick. Like I don't have enough to worry about already.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Faith, Part Three

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts, the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the learned astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

Walt Whitman, 1865


I had convinced myself, through science and logic, that faith was nothing but a game humans played on themselves and that the enlightened ones had no need of it. And I viewed all religions with a faint scorn, all right for those who needed such a crutch, but I was not such a person. I had the figures and charts, and I could see that it was a sham.

But still, in all my certitude of the non-existence of the divine, I had flashes of it. I remember clearly, one half hour late at night, when I was at work, alone, in winter and the first snowfall of the season came down. And I had a longing to believe again, a yearning for Jesus as the Son, and I let it in. For a full half hour, I was a believer again, just as sure as when I was a child, and comforted in the faith. And just as suddenly, it left me, without warning and without me pushing it away. One moment I believed, and the next moment I was atheist again, utterly incapable of that belief.

And I was sometimes envious of the faithful. A woman I know lost two teenage sons a year apart, a terrible tragedy that would have sunk many. But a simple and unwavering faith saved her, leant her strength, and I wished to have such a source of support. But wishing did not make it so. I experimented, told myself that all I needed to do was allow myself to believe. But that scientific, coldly logical side prevented me every time, told me that I could not believe what I did not believe.

It was at this point of my life that I began seriously to observe nature. While I had camped and hiked all my life as a family activity, now I began to go out into the woods and fields alone. And what started as simple walks began instead to be meditations. My scientific side was satisfied with learning the birds and the flowers and the trees and the constellations, but my spiritual side was busy soaking in the beauty and the majesty and the perfection of nature.

The Beauty of nature, the Truth of the universe all around me began to be proof enough of something Divine. Whether it is a Being or a Force, I do not know, I do not believe I can know while I live, but I believe it exists. It is the mechanism through which flowers reflect light in broken prisms of color, it is the power of the water eroding the canyon, it is the push and pull of the stars which keep all in balance. It has taken me into account from my beginning, and it marks my footsteps upon the earth, for I am part of the whole; I cannot separate myself from the universe. The Divine knows all things past, present and future, for it encompasses it all, and if it does not direct all things, it at least knows the potential of all. It is the spark within me, as it is within all things, and it is what defines the essence of all things. It connects us all to each other, living, dead, inanimate, perhaps even intangible. I hope--I cannot say I believe--that when I die, I will enter the consciousness of the Divine, and know all things, be all things. It is perhaps more likely that I will simply drift into oblivion in a million pieces, to be reassembled and used again as the Divine sees fit. That would be all right, too.

Faith, Part Two

185

"Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see --
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

Emily Dickinson, 1860


I suppose I am not the only one to go off to college and come out the other side without her faith. It was a combination of heavy emphasis on the science aspect, exposure to people of other, non-Christian religions which my small hometown was conspicuously lacking, and a certain sense of glamor to becoming a non-believer.

I took Physics classes that explored different theories of the beginning of the Universe. I took Biology classes that postulated theories for the beginning of life. I took Psychology classes that studied the formation of cults. I took Sociology classes that described the human need for religion.

I took all these into account, and I thought to myself that if I had been born in India, I would no doubt be a Hindu. If I had been born in Saudi Arabia, I would have been a Muslim. If I had been born in Greece four thousand years ago, I would be a worshipper of Zeus and Athena and Ares. It seemed to me that religion was almost wholy dependent upon what family in which culture you are born in. And it also seemed to me that all those people practicing all those other faiths believed in them just as strongly as the Catholics I grew up with. And what right did I have to decide that one is more true than the other?

Faced with the idea that all these religions could be the one true religion, I rejected them all as being equally false. Well, not necessarily false, but manufactured. Created by humans to fill a societal, psychological, emotional role. Religion helped people live together in harmony, provided shelter from the thought of death, gave people hope and inspiration. It was good enough for those who needed it, but for those who didn't, who could see through all the hocus-pocus, it was unnecessary.

And so I entered into my atheist stage.

to be continued

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Faith, Part One

1052

I never saw a Moor --
I never saw the Sea --
Yet know I how the Heather looks
And what a Billow be.

I never spoke with God
Nor visited in Heaven --
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given--

Emily Dickinson, 1865


As a child, I was raised in the Catholic faith, and I was a fervent believer. I drank it in, I believed it all, I revered the Church. The mysteries of Mass, the poetry of the Bible, the grouped voices singing the hymns, the solemn look of those who received the Eucharist all enthralled me. I had no doubt that all the teachings of the Church were true, were absolute Truth.

Then, my parents' marriage fell apart, or rather, my mother decided to stop trying to hold it together. And the Church, once a refuge and a place of belonging, suddenly became a source of condemnation and rejection. I began to see it was, at its root, a collection of people, led by an old-fashioned, strict priest who did not approve of my mother's divorce, and seeing how they withheld support for her at a time when she needed it most, I began to wonder if the Church was all that I had believed.

At first, I questioned only our church, and the people who ran it. But soon I started delving more into the history of the Catholic Church. And the history is filled with injustices and corruption and despicable acts and very few apologies or attempts to amend. And then I began to question some of the basic tenets of the Church. In particular, the degrading of women stuck in my Child of the 70's throat. By the time I reached high school, I no longer considered myself a Catholic.

But that did not mean I did not believe. I rejected all the proofs and shackles of the Catholic Church, but the underpinnings, God, the Bible, the Holy Trinity, I was as assured of as ever. I just didn't want to go through priests--those wrinkled, dried-up old men of my childhood, what did they know of life?--to get to it all.

And for a while, a good while, I was content. I had my faith, and it was strong and unquestioned, and I did not need pointless rules to get in the way. Until I went down a different path.

to be continued

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Predator

986

A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides--

You may have met Him—did you not?
His notice sudden is--


The Grass divides as with a Comb--

A spotted shaft is seen--
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on--


He likes a Boggy Acre
A Floor too cool for Corn--

Yet when a Boy, and Barefoot--
I more than once at Noon
Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash
Unbraiding in the Sun

When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled, and was gone--


Several of Nature’s People
I know, and they know me--

I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality--

But never met this Fellow,
Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing,
And Zero at the Bone--


Emily Dickinson, 1865

One day last fall, as I was hiking in the woods, I heard a rustling in the underbrush, and spotted a strange sight: a chipmunk with a garter snake draped across its back. I stepped forward for a closer look, and the animals became aware of my presence. The chipmunk darted off one way, and the snake slithered off the other. I puzzled and puzzled over this scene as I finished my walk, and when I got home, I read up on chipmunks and garter snakes. According to my guidebooks, garter snakes occasionally eat small mammals and chipmunks eat what the guide book vaguely described as meat. So I am still left wondering. Did I rob the snake or the chipmunk of his lunch? If one wasn't stalking the other, how did they come to be tangled up?

I admit my instinct was that the snake was the aggressor. It is hard to look at a chipmunk and see it as a threat to other living creatures. The bright eye, the bushy tail, the smooth fur--they all seem so cuddly and cute. But the chimpunk also has sharp teeth and claws. If it wanted to, it could do damage proportionate to its size. The snake, on the other hand, has everything going against it. The cold dry scaliness of it, the alien way of moving, the heavy weight of cultural prejudice all combine to elicit that "zero at the bone".

In the end, though, I had to leave the question open. Looks can be deceiving, and just because culture tells us one of them is untrustworthy and dangerous does not mean in this case that the snake was fulfilling its iconic role. Perhaps the softer-seeming chipmunk was the danger to look out for. And that can be true in human pairings, too. We do not always fill the role culture dictates for us. One cannot always be sure who is the predator.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Electricity


you
heart pure and raw
you say
high voltage pumping desire
you say you
to your limbs, your fingers electric
you say you ache
our embrace
you say you ache for me
a closed circuit


Kirsten Larsen, 2008


What is the electricity of pure desire worth? If you know, through experience, that it will lead to disaster in the end, do you still plunge forward, for the sake of the jolt of the joining? Can you ignore the warnings your head screams at you and listen instead to the blood rushing through your veins? Can either be trusted? Does it make a difference if you fall into a pit because you didn't see it or if you jump into it with your eyes wide open?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Intimacy

303


The Soul selects her own Society --
Then -- shuts the Door --
To her divine Majority --
Present no more --

Unmoved -- she notes the Chariots -- pausing --
At her low Gate --
Unmoved -- an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat --

I've known her -- from an ample nation --
Choose One --
Then -- close the Valves of her attention --
Like Stone --

Emily Dickinson, 1862


How do we choose those we let in to the society of our soul? Of the thousands of people we interact with, what causes us to pick just a handful or so? With some, I suppose, it is a shared history, a familiarity with our past and our personalities, a long build up of storms weathered and sunny days enjoyed together. With others, perhaps, it is simply proximity. We see them day in and day out and force of habit creates a sort of convenient intimacy. But then there are others who we meet and we suddenly know. We deliberately open ourselves, show our vulnerable spots, tread lightly around theirs. Often there is a heady rush of infatuation or passion, and we do not know whether that in time will mellow out into friendship or love or simply fade away into indifference. One cannot know at the beginning what end will come, or when.

It is a risk, then, to choose one above all others and then to shut the Door. What if the one you choose does not choose you? Or what if the one you choose today is not the one you would have chosen tomorrow? And one can be tempted to minimize that risk--by choosing no one, or by never shutting the Door. The first way is cold and lonely, the second way perhaps leads to the same thing in the end. For if we are constantly looking for the next chariot to stop at the gate, how can we welcome in the one that is already there?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Mental Slideshow

I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed---and gazed---but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

William Wordsworth, 1807

What Wordsworth calls the bliss of solitude, a friend of mine calls her eyelid slideshow. I keep a stock of slides, too, to pull out whenever I need a shot of beauty. An eagle flying overhead, a mist of blue forget-me-nots in a green wood, a road arched over with scarlet maples and yellow birch--they have all brought me comfort and joy in a grey moment. And I have not only an inward eye, but also an inward ear, and I remember snips of poetry or beautiful words or music. The inner world of my mind is ever-present, ever-ready to provide me beauty and joy. If I can remember to call upon it.

Anyway, spring is upon us, and I have been adding to my mental slideshow today with a walk in the maplewood. I took a few pictures to share with you, but one I can't share: a clear, liquid birdsong I did not recognize. I couldn't find him in the tangle of branches, but if I hear the song again I will remember it. It is playing over and over in my inward ear.



Bloodroot

Hepatica

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Domestic Beauty

Home Thoughts From Abroad

Oh, to be in England
Now that April's there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England--now!


And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops--at the bent spray's edge--
That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children's dower
--Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!



Robert Browning, 1845

Because I am an anglophile, I do long to be in England in the spring, to see each small beauty gently spring forth. England, like Wisconsin, is a land of domestic beauty. Not grand, sweeping landscapes, but gentle vistas. It has a home-like quality that draws me strongly.

I do not discount the dramatic beauty of mountain ranges or the immensity of the ocean, and I love to drink those glories in. But the things which resonate most in my soul are not the grand, the overwhelming, but the tiny shots of beauty: the lone wildflower blooming in the dead leaf-mould of the woodland floor, the musical song of the common house finch on the lilac bush, the liquid babble of a melt water stream. Things that can be missed if one is not paying attention, things that must be discovered, or noticed--those are the beauties that uplift me the most.

I understand the pull of the remote places, too. The thrilling thought that perhaps I am the only one to have ever stood just here, to have ever seen just this, is intoxicating indeed. But the opposite feeling, the knowledge that many others have stood where I am standing and seen what I am seeing is even better. A tree stands on a particularly favorite walk of mine: its trunk was bent by a long-dead Native American in two ninety-degree turns as a sign-post. I stop at that tree every time, and look in the direction it points, off into the maple woods, toward the small pond where the frogs sing in early spring. It so happens that the tree also points in the direction of my home, twenty or so miles beyond. I like to think perhaps it also pointed to the home of the original sign-maker.



Saturday, April 5, 2008

Pathways

Determinism

There was a young man who said, "Damn!"
It appears to me now that I am
Just a being that moves
In predestinate grooves
Not a taxi or bus, but a tram.

Anonymous

When I was a child, I could see life's track laid out straight and clear in front of me: high school, college, career, marriage. I knew what would happen and I knew when. I would have three children and live on a chunk of land and have horses and dogs and generally live happily ever after. All went according to plan. Early on in high school, I decided I would study biology in college, so study biology I did. I was, and am, fascinated by how things work, but that did not translate to a career. I did not want to become a doctor or a researcher. I worked my way through college, never wavering from the pre-determined course. It was the path I had laid out for myself, so it was the path I took. And then, when I attained the degree, and began interviewing for jobs in biological research, I slowly became aware that, while I was fascinated with the mechanisms of life, I could not work the kind of job such knowledge gained one. I was, for the first time in my life, without a clear path in front of me, so I stopped. I could not see a way forward, so I did not move forward. Paralyzed by the indeterminate outcome of any decision I might make, I chose instead to make no decisions.

And the uncertainty of my life in career terms leached over into all aspects of my life. Stagnation, indecision, inertia. At first I struggled against the quagmire that had me in its grasp, tried desperately to break free, but each failed attempt chipped away more and more at my strength of will, and I gradually gave up all attempt.

Until a series of events--a death of a friend, making new friends, a remembrance of the person I was before I slowed to a stop--freed my feet from the immobilizing muck. Slowly, dimly, fitfully, the tracks ahead of me become illuminated. No longer one track moving straight forward on its pre-determined line, but a myriad of tracks, shadowy, uncertain, but thrilling nonetheless. Where before I followed the line to its end, now I see before me a spider web of inter-connected, criss-crossing paths, each one leading off in a labyrinthine track of uncertain end. And as I reach each intersection, I merely have to decide which path seems right at that point, and I need not worry about the end. If the path I choose leads me somewhere I do not wish to go, I only have to pick another at the next crossing.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Metaphor XXX

The Vine

I dreamed this mortal part of mine
Was metamorphosed to a vine,
Which crawling one and every way
Enthralled my dainty Lucia.
Methought her long small legs and thighs
I with my tendrils did surprise;
Her belly, buttocks, and her waist
By my soft nervelets were embraced.
About her head I writhing hung,
And with rich clusters (hid among
The leaves) her temples I behung,
So that my Lucia seemed to me
Young Bacchus ravished by his tree.
My curls about her neck did crawl,
And arms and hands they did enthrall,
So that she could not freely stir
(All parts there made one prisoner),
But when I crept with leaves to hide
Those parts which maids keep unespied,
Such fleeting pleasures there I took
That with the fancy I awoke;
And found (ah me!) this flesh of mine
More like a stock than like a vine.

Robert Herrick, 1648

Isn't that always the way with dreams? You wake up just when you get to the good bits.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Fate

Hap

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”

Then would I bear, and clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased, too, that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan….
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.


Thomas Hardy, 1866.

Does Fate exist, or not? The things that happen to us--the joys, the pains--are they planned for us? Or does Chance rule our lives? It is a much-discussed question, with apparently little common ground between the two factions. But what about the third option? What about making our own fate, our own chances? Isn't that the hardest truth to come across? And the option with the most hope? Because we can't fight either Fate or Chance. But habits and attitudes and choices, those we can influence. We can become aware of them, determine those that are useful and those that block our way. And when we are aware, can we not weed out the bad and harbor the good?

It's a lot more work than just accepting Fate or Chance. It requires a clear eye and vigilant conscience. It carries risk of dissatisfaction of oneself and recriminations with it. But what greater reward is won, knowing what we have is due to our own actions, our own decisions.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Omens

The Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
`'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.'

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
`'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door -
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; -
This it is, and nothing more,'

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
`Sir,' said I, `or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you' - here I opened wide the door; -
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, `Lenore!'
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, `Lenore!'
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
`Surely,' said I, `surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore -
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; -
'Tis the wind and nothing more!'

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door -
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door -
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
`Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,' I said, `art sure no craven.
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore -
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning - little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door -
Bird or beast above the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as `Nevermore.'

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only,
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered - not a feather then he fluttered -
Till I scarcely more than muttered `Other friends have flown before -
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.'
Then the bird said, `Nevermore.'

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
`Doubtless,' said I, `what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore -
Till the dirges of his hope that melancholy burden bore
Of "Never-nevermore."'

But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore -
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking `Nevermore.'

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
`Wretch,' I cried, `thy God hath lent thee - by these angels he has sent thee
Respite - respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! -
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted -
On this home by horror haunted - tell me truly, I implore -
Is there - is there balm in Gilead? - tell me - tell me, I implore!
'Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us - by that God we both adore -
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named Lenore?'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!' I shrieked upstarting -
`Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! - quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!
'Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!

Edgar Allen Poe, 1845

I saw an odd thing today. A crow, in the face of a strong westerly wind, flapping his strong wings with all his might, flying backwards. He traveled twenty or thirty feet the wrong way, vainly trying to fight the wind, and losing. Suddenly, he tipped his wings, dropped sideways ten feet or so, and flapped again. He had freed himself from the current of wind, and he flew forward again. I wonder how long I might try to fly in the face of the wind, making backward progress, before I think to rest a bit, to reposition, and try again from a fresh angle. How long it might take me to realize flying straight forward does not always mean forward progress is made.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Eastertide

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Lovliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

A. E. Housman, 1896

Here in Wisconsin, thanks to a snow storm on Friday, the cherry trees are hung with literal snow, and blossom season seems far away. It will not be long, however, before this latest batch of snow melts away and runs off into the streams. Then the skunk cabbage will sprout and the pussy willows will bud. Soon after, the marsh marigolds will appear in the spring beds, clumps of yellow in the wet ground. And I will walk in the maple woods, and spy the hepatica, blooming clear blue and purple at the base of the oldest trees. One day I will look up and see the pale yellow-green new leaves of the quaking aspen against a blue sky, and I will spot an oriole or a tanager. Then, suddenly, I will not have to look for these tiny signs of spring. They will be everywhere I look: the waves of delicate spring beauties, and trilliums, and bloodroot, and amenomes, laid out in a white carpet on the forest floor. And the yellows of the forsythia and the bellwort and even the dandelions will reflect the yellow slant of the sun. The purples and blues and pinks of violets and cranesbill and columbine and dame's rocket will show off the new green of the understory, and the woods will be filled with birdsong and the rustling of leaves in the breeze.

I know this will happen because I have seen it happen every year for 37 years. If I am indeed granted three-score year and ten, then I only have 33 more springs to bear witness to this miracle. And that does not seem near enough time to fill myself with that beauty.

Monday, March 17, 2008

An Irish Poet for an Irish Day

When You Are Old

When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

William Butler Yeats, 1893

I think of this poem as a sort of last-ditch effort of the poet to win the heart of his love. If it had been written to me, it probably would have worked. Who would not prefer to be loved for one's soul, whether young or old, than one's beauty?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Sodality

I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing

I saw in Lousiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of
       dark green,

And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
But I wonder'd how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone
      there without its friend near, for I knew I could not,

And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it,
      and twined around it a little moss,

And brought it away, and have placed it in sight in my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly
      love;

For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana
      solitary in a wide flat space,

Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,
I know very well I could not.

Walt Whitman 1860

Lately I, too, have thought of little else than my friends. Friends near and far, some known to me for decades, others only months, friends who have cried with me, and laughed with me, those who have supported me, and those to whom I have lent what support I could--I hold them all in my head and my heart. In times of celebration and contentment, I take joy in their happiness, in times of fear and anxiety, I offer my ear, hoping to soothe them, and in times of loss and sorrow, I mourn with them in hope that they feel less alone. The friendship they have offered me in return gives me the strength and the desire to utter my own joyous leaves. Without them, my branches would be bare.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Still Seduced

Lady Midnight

I came by myself to a very crowded place;
I was looking for someone who had lines in her face.
I found her there but she was past all concern;
I asked her to hold me, I said, "lady, unfold me,"
But she scorned me and she told me
I was dead and I could never return.

Well, I argued all night like so many have before,
Saying, "Whatever you give me, I seem to need so much more."
Then she pointed at me where I kneeled on her floor,
She said, "Don’t try to use me or slyly refuse me,
Just win me or lose me,
It is this that the darkness is for."

I cried, "Oh, lady midnight, I fear that you grow old,
The stars eat your body and the wind makes you cold."
"If we cry now," she said, "it will just be ignored."
So I walked through the morning, sweet early morning,
I could hear my lady calling,
"You’ve won me, you’ve won me, my lord"

Leonard Cohen, 1968

Still obsessing, slightly. I love the imagery here, especially the stars eat your body. Pure poetry.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Discovery

Take This Longing

Many men have loved the bells
you fastened to the rein,
and everyone who wanted you
they found what they will always want again.
Your beauty lost to you yourself
just as it was lost to them.
Oh take this longing from my tongue,
whatever useless things these hands have done.
Let me see your beauty broken down
like you would do for one you love.

Your body like a searchlight
my poverty revealed,
I would like to try your charity until you cry,
"Now you must try my greed."
And everything depends upon
how near you sleep to me
Just take this longing from my tongue
all the lonely things my hands have done.
Let me see your beauty broken down
like you would do for one you love.

Hungry as an archway
through which the troops have passed,
I stand in ruins behind you,
with your winter clothes,
your broken sandal straps.
I love to see you naked over there
especially from the back.

Oh take this longing from my tongue,
all the useless things my hands have done,
untie for me your hired blue gown,
like you would do for one that you love.

You're faithful to the better man,
I'm afraid that he left.
So let me judge your love affair
in this very room where I have sentenced
mine to death.
I'll even wear these old laurel leaves
that he's shaken from his head.

Just take this longing from my tongue,
all the useless things my hands have done,
let me see your beauty broken down,
like you would do for one you love.

Like you would do for one you love

Leonard Cohen, 1974

I have a tendency, when discovering a new author or poet, to immerse myself, to the point of near-obsession. Leonard Cohen, songwriter and singer, had escaped my notice until a few months ago, when lizarddrinking posted a song of his on her blog. I was mildly intrigued, but did not follow up. Then, a few weeks later, he cropped up again, mentioned by another friend, as the writer for the sublime song Hallelujah. I was seduced by the longing and emotion of the song, and had to check out the original. And so I was hooked. Now, a few weeks later, his songs are still haunting me. In general, they are sparse and straightforward, and his singing is almost deadpan and unmelodic, but the emotion in the lyrics draws me in further and further. Love and longing, bitterness and joy, whimsy and anger--they are all there and more. It would be impossible to pick a favorite, but Take This Longing is certainly in the running. It has been quite a while since I was so taken by music, and I am enjoying giving in to the seduction.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Sunshine

214

I taste a liquor never brewed--
From Tankards scooped in Pearl--
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of Air--am I--
And Debauchee of Dew--
Reeling--thro endless summer days--
From inns of Molten Bue--

When "Landlords" turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove's door--
When Butterflies--renounce their "drams"--
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats--
And Saints--to windows run--
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the--Sun--

Emily Dickinson, 1860


Today, it is still cold, it is still winter, but the sun is blazing forth and I am drinking it in. I soon will be getting tipsy upon flowers and birdsong. Spring is near.








Thursday, February 28, 2008

Eternity

Eternity

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the wingéd life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sunrise.

William Blake, 1800


It is only natural, I suppose, to wish to grab hold of the joyous moments of our lives. The shining hours seem all too brief when laid against the everyday hours, the darker hours. We wish to make the most of the golden moments and the first instinct is to grasp at it, just as an infant grasps at an outstretched finger. But the act of grabbing, binding, only disperses the joy. It slips through our fingers like smoke, and swirls and disperses. So we must fight that first instinct, and allow the joy to come into our lives and pass out of our lives on its own schedule. Relish it, cherish it, never take it for granted. For that way, we can keep the memory within us, pure and radiant, without regret, without shame. And the memory of the joy is enough to sustain us until the next shining hour is upon us again.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Reason

280

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading--treading--till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through--


And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum--
Kept beating--beating--till I thought
My Mind was going numb--


And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space--began to toll,


As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here--


And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down--
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing--then--


Emily Dickinson, 1861

When I first read this poem, I assumed it was about death. I took the funeral imagery literally, and did not look further. The ending, particularily, struck me as the expression of the unknowable aspect of death.

But I was rather young and had not yet experienced what Emily describes here. It was only years later, after a bout of extreme mental stress that I gained a new insight to this poem. To ease the restless repetitive thoughts in my brain, I took to pacing. And the rhythm of that pacing was perfectly echoed in the poem. I could feel those same boots of lead in my head, wearing away at the thin layer of sense, and even through the numbness, I could hear the drums beating as well.

It was a time of strange dichotomy. I could see myself, as though from the outside, and I could see that I was losing my grip on reason. But at the same time, the thoughts crowded out that more rational view and I gave myself over to the rhythm of the pacing, and the rhythm of the thoughts.

The planks of reason held for me, though. I did not drop down and down. But the thought that I might have, that I came close to that loss of inner self-control haunts me to this day. Mostly, I think, because I do not know what brought me out of it.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Good Night


Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.


Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.


Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Dylan Thomas, 1952





In Memoriam

Joseph C. Kopeck

January 22, 1914-February 23, 2008


for more about my grandfather, read this entry


Friday, February 22, 2008

Winter Continues

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and nothing that is.

Wallace Stevens, 1923


I did have a mind of winter, many long years, and when winter came, I did not mind. It was all winter to me, then, so what did it matter that the ice outside reflected the ice within me?

Then I experienced a thawing and meltwaters carried the snow and ice away. And now I feel the cold wind and the ice approaching once again, and it is so cold it burns.

The difference this time will be, I hope, that the winter is only temporary. Some day, sooner or later, the wind will shift and blow mildly from the south, and the grass will be uncovered and the daffodils will push their way out of the earth. When that happens, I will drink it in, and welcome spring into myself, and I will make room for all the seasons within me.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Synonyms

449

I died for Beauty -- but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth, was lain
In an adjoining Room --

He questioned softly "Why I failed"?
"For Beauty", I replied --
"And I -- for Truth --Themself are One --
We Brethren, are", He said --

And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night --
We talked between the Rooms --
Until the Moss had reached our lips --
And covered up -- our names --



Emily Dickinson 1862



I have sought beauty all my life. It is easy to find, in Nature, in music, in people. It can be absorbed unconsciously and present itself later, or it can hit so hard, so unmistakably, it stuns and awes. Beauty can be seen and heard and felt, even smelled and tasted. When I forget for a while to collect the beauty, when I close my eyes and ears and heart to it, beauty seeks me out, stands before me and compels me to gaze upon it. And I remember again, and the world is new.

Truth is found in words, in thoughts, in deeds. It can be more evasive than beauty, and harder to take in. Many days I have walked in Nature, reveling in beauty, while hiding from truth. Where beauty is calm and soothing, truth can be sharp; it can hurt; it can agitate. But when it is recognized as truth, and therefore beauty, it can heal and renew.

I am accustomed to searching alone for beauty and truth. I have walked alone in forests and meadows soaking in the plants and birds and sky and earth. I have read poetry and prose that speak so honestly of life that I wept as I read it, and spoke to it of no one.

But I have had occasion, too, to share the wonderment that comes with the recognition of beauty and truth. To be hiking with a loved one, and to come over a rise to see a blanket of wildflowers laid at our feet, and gasping as one at the beauty, or to acknowledge to another soul the truth that lies within me, and to receive the gift of truth in return, these are the moments which shine in my memory. The joy that is born of beauty and truth is multiplied when it is shared, rather than divided. It is an odd arithmetic of the soul, but I know it to be true.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Valentines

Cupid and My Campaspe

Cupid and my Campaspe played
At cards for kisses; Cupid payed.
He stakes his quiver, bow and arrows,
His mother's doves and team of sparrows,
Loses them too; then down he throws
The coral of his lips, the rose
Growing on 's cheek (but none knows how),
With these the crystal of his brow,
And then the dimple of his chin:
At last he set her both his eyes;
She won, and Cupid blind doth rise.
  Oh Love! has she done this to thee?
  What shall, alas, become of me?

John Lyly, 1632

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


A Red, Red Rose

O my luve's like a red, red rose,
  That's newly sprung in June;
Oh my luve's like the melodie
  That's sweetly played in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
  So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
  Till a' the seas gang dry.

Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
  And the rocks melt wi' the sun:
O I will love thee still, my dear,
  While the sands o' life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only luve,
  And fare thee weel awhile!
And I will come again, my luve,
  Though it were ten thousand mile.

Robert Burns, 1796

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


One Perfect Rose

A single flow'r he sent me, since we met.
  All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet--
  One perfect rose.

I knew the language of the floweret;
  "My fragile leaves," it said, "his heart enclose."
Love long has taken for his amulet
  One perfect rose.

Why is it no one ever sent me yet
  One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it's always just my luck to get
  One perfect rose.

Dorothy Parker, 1926



Happy Valentine's Day. Pick your mood: infatuation, true love, or cynicism. Guess which one I'm going with today?

Friday, February 8, 2008

Nothingness

When I Have Fears

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piléd books, in charact'ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance,
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love! --then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

John Keats 1818


In fact, John Keats did not have time to glean his teeming brain. He died in 1821, at the age of 25, which only adds to the wistfulness of this poem.

I have sometimes felt the pressure to describe all that roils around in my head, and feared I did not have the time to say it all. Life, whether it is lived for 25 years or 85, sometimes seems too short to see everything, learn everything, feel everything I wish to see, to learn, to feel. And I, too, sometimes crave Fame, or at least to know that what I have to say has been heard. To be heard, and understood, to know that the words and thoughts I cast out upon the world do not fall upon unhearing ears; I do crave that.

But then come other times. Other times when I seem to be standing alone upon the shore, and all seems so insignificant. What does it matter what thoughts I have had, what words I have written? All is fleeting, in the end. Every word and thought will surely be erased as though I had written them in the sand, and watched the waves smooth them away. In the end, come sooner or later, I will be forgotten. The joys and sorrows that are felt so keenly to me today will be gradually wiped out, filled in by the inexorable tide. The impression I leave behind will slowly fade, until it is as though I have never been, and no one will remain to think of me.

I am not sure if these thoughts are comforting, or terrifying. I suppose they are a bit of both.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Reality



My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hair be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

William Shakespeare 1609


This is my favorite of Shakespeare's sonnets. It is, to me, so much more romantic, more swoon-worthy, than Shall I compare thee to a summer day, which many people would probably identify as the Bard's most romantic sonnet. To be seen by a clear eye, to have one's imperfections acknowledged, and to be found fair, to be loved anyway, that would be something worth having. To be seen with the heart as well as the eye, and to have the heart triumph over the eye in the end, that is what I wish for.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Grampa



Old Men

People expect old men to die,
They do not really mourn old men.
Old men are different. People look
At them with eyes that wonder when...
People watch with unshocked eyes;
But the old men know when an old man dies.

Ogden Nash



My grandfather is an old man. 94 years old. I visited him today, in his nursing home. It was a good visit, and a bad visit. The good part was that he was awake and sitting up, he could talk and did not fret or complain. Too much. The bad part was that I am not sure he knew who I was, and his eyes have changed color.

For 90 years of his life, he was a vibrant, stalwart, upright man whose blue-green eyes shone out of his sun-darkened face with a clear, piercing light. For 90 years of his life, he worked his lands, he worked with his hands, and he worked his mind. He went to college at age 16, graduated with an engineering degree two years later, and enjoyed a successful career as a tool engineer. He was filled with knowledge of birds and trees and building and gardening and he told endless stories of our family's history. He was steady on his feet, never sick, and ever thrifty.

When I was a child, he delighted in rubbing his stubbly beard on my tender arm, and he called me Sousa. After he retired, he spent his winters in Florida, and his summers on one hundred acres of land in rural Wisconsin. Part he rented out to a local farmer to plow, part of the wetland he drained to make a pond, and part he left wild. I remember summer Sundays, driving up the tire-tracks that crossed his land, grasshoppers leaping out of the way of the car. The family would gather, and we would pick raspberries, and play baseball, and eat potato salad. Then Grampa would hitch up the old blue trailer he had built himself to his sputtering tractor and we would tour The Farm. Down we went through the cornfield to the pond, where we would get out and look for snapping turtles and bullfrogs. Then we drove along the tree line, where we always seemed to get stuck in the mud or threaten to tip over, skirting the wetland where we could sometimes spot a pair of Sandhill cranes that returned year after year to nest. Then back up the hill at a precarious angle, we laughed while sitting crammed in the trailer, the youngest children on their mothers' laps, the older ones leaning out the side. And Grampa, driving the tractor, deliberately slowing down and speeding up, laughing and delighting in his family's mock terror. And his eyes shone out that piercing blue-green light.

Today, his eyes were a dull grey. His hands shook. He did not speak of the family. When I tried to interest him in a magazine filled with birds, he identified a goldfinch as a cardinal. And he did not call me by name.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Winter, again

258

There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons --
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes --

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us --
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are --

None may teach it -- Any --
'Tis the Seal Despair --
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air --

When it comes, the Landscape listens --
Shadows -- hold their breath --
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death --

Emily Dickinson 1861

When I tell people my favorite poet is Emily Dickinson, I often get a remark that she is too depressing. It is true that she writes about death a lot. She writes of death intellectually, questioningly, ambivalently, even tenderly, exploring the concept and inviting me to explore with her. Those poems I do not find depressing.

This one I do. It's been running through my head all day. I've had too much winter, I think. Literally and figuratively.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Talents

Fable

The mountain and the squirrel
Had a quarrel;
And the former called the latter "Little Prig."
Bun replied,
"You are doubtless very big;
But all sorts of things and weather
Must be taken in together
To make up a year
And a sphere.
And I think it's no disgrace
To occupy my place.
If I'm not so large as you,
You are not so small as I,
And not half so spry.
I'll not deny you make
A very pretty squirrel track;
Talents differ: all is well and wisely put;
If I cannot carry forests on my back,
Neither can you crack a nut."

Ralph Waldo Emerson



I try to remember this poem whenever I have occasion to sing. Because I can't sing, and I admit to envy of those who can. And I feel embarrassed--ashamed, even--not to be able to carry a tune. It seems such a simple thing to most people I meet, to be able to sing "Happy Birthday" and not throw off all around you, to sing the national anthem at a ball game and not have the people in front of you turn around and look. Why can't I?

I can't say why I am so hard on myself for such a trivial shortcoming; I certainly would never think less of someone who couldn't do something I am good at. One of my dear friends cannot spell, but can write clearly and succinctly. My sister cannot read a map, but she can remember the address of the place you are looking for. My brother-in-law can't bake a batch of brownies out of a box, but he can build anything you like out of wood. I do not scorn them for having shortcomings--on the contrary, it just makes them all the more dear to me.

So I try to content myself with occupying my place, and I remind myself some things I am good at: I can tell a good story, I'm a good troubleshooter, I have an eye for detail. Some of my talents are useful, such as always knowing which direction I am facing, and some are obscure and not so frequently needed, such as the ability to recall the color of objects I have seen and match them perfectly. Besides my singing, I have some major downfalls: I procrastinate, I start things I don't finish, and I have a terrible tendency to fall into sarcasm. Yet somehow, these more serious deficiencies do not bother me as much as the inability to sing.

It is good to remember we all have our talents, big and small. What are some of yours?

Monday, January 28, 2008

Winter

Desert Places

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it--it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less--
A blanket whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert spaces.

Robert Frost


Winter is a struggle for me. It is the time of year when it is easiest to dwell upon my own desert spaces within me. Spring, summer, fall all bring with them opportunities to fill myself in the joy and beauty of nature. But when winter comes and that blankness seems to fall across the land, it also falls in me.

I do my best to keep it at bay. I have my little interests and my daily escapes, into books, or handiwork, or entertaining friends. But the little shocks of horror that come when I glimpse the stretches of expressionless blankness come more frequently in winter. The silences that in spring are drowned in rushing streams and in summer are eclipsed by the buzz of the locust and in fall are masked by the crunching of leaves underfoot are allowed to ring in the silence of falling snow. And the emptiness that is filled in spring with new green grass and in summer with riots of flowers and in fall with the blaze of the turning leaves is in winter echoed everywhere by white blank snow and a grey blank sky.

But although it is harder in winter to resist the desert places, it is not impossible. It is just necessary to look harder for the beauty to escape them. One morning, I went out after a snowfall, and I expected a world of blank whiteness. What I found instead was a world of color just awaiting my eyes, should I trouble to see. And I saw the snow at dawn was clear blue, not white. And the vibrant red of the crabapples and the solid, reassuring brown of the branches were all willing to be seen.











Sunday, January 27, 2008

Rabbit Hole Day

The Mad Gardener's Song

He thought he saw an Elephant
That practised on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
A letter from his wife.
'At length I realize,' he said,
'The bitterness of Life!'

He thought he saw a Buffalo
Upon the chimney-piece:
He looked again, and found it was
His Sister's Husband's Niece.
'Unless you leave this house,' he said,
'I'll send for the Police!'

He thought he saw a Rattlesnake
That questioned him in Greek:
He looked again, and found it was
The Middle of Next Week.
'The one thing I regret,' he said,
'Is that it cannot speak!'

He thought he saw a Banker's Clerk
Descending from the 'bus:
He looked again, and found it was
A Hippopotamus.
'If this should stay to dine,' he said,
'There won't be much for us!'

He thought he saw a Kangaroo

That worked a coffee-mill:
He looked again, and found it was
A Vegetable-Pill.
'Were I to swallow this,' he said,
'I should be very ill!'

He thought he saw a Coach-and-Four
That stood beside his bed:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bear without a Head.
'Poor thing,' he said, 'poor silly thing!
It's waiting to be fed!'

He thought he saw an Albatross
That fluttered round the lamp:
He looked again, and found it was
A Penny-Postage-Stamp.
'You'd best be getting home,' he said,
'The nights are very damp!'

He thought he saw a Garden-Door
That opened with a key:
He looked again, and found it was
A Double Rule of Three:
'And all its mystery,' he said,
'Is clear as day to me!'

He thought he saw an Argument
That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap.
'A fact so dread,' he faintly said,
'Extinguishes all hope!'

Lewis Carroll, from Sylvie and Bruno

In honor of Lewis Carroll's birthday. A bit of nonsense and fun.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Silence

A Minor Bird

I have wished a bird would fly away,
And not sing by my house all day,


Have clapped my hands at him from the door
When it seemed as if I could bear no more.


The fault must partly have been in me
The bird was not to blame for his key.


And of course there must be something wrong
In wanting to silence any song.


Robert Frost



I long have wished to silence the bird song that lives within me. To allow my heart to sing a joyful song, unfettered, all day long--how glorious, but how dangerous that would be. In singing, do I not perhaps attract the attention of predators, or put myself at risk? How much safer it is to sit snug in the bushes, not making a sound. Hidden among the leaves, unnoticed, unmolested. Alone to arrange my nest without interference from others. No need to tie myself to others, to allow myself to become dependent upon another living being. To be hurt.

But to gain that safety, I must stifle the heart, layer by layer, with cynicism, self-doubt, false indifference. I build it up, day by day, until I do not remember that the heart still beats beneath the rigid shell. It has always been this way; I have always been this way. The jaded eye, the deflecting quip, the curling lip, are all used to convince myself this is how I want it. Alone, independent, unable to be hurt.

But then something happens. I hear a new voice singing from a nearby tree, and its beauty, its keenness, its utter truth vibrates within me until the hardened shell around my heart chips, cracks, shatters. My inner self is laid open, exposed, raw, vulnerable. It is frightening but exhilarating. My stifled voice sings out in a torrent, feverish, uncontrolled, unstoppable. And after the flood, when I am calmer, I see the truth. The shell I built for safety did not only stop inward barbs from piercing me. It also blocked all attempts at outward seekings.

So now, a new beginning. A way to sing my song, for it to be heard. And, therefore, to hear the songs of others around me. I hear them all singing in the forest: trills, whistles, chirps, coos, shrieks, clucks, all calling to me, and I hear them, and I answer. I add my song to the symphony around me and I revel in the harmony.