Monday, January 31, 2011

My Graces

"...if your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn
they will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem
."
The Sisters of Mercy
by Leonard Cohen


Two versions of this by Beth Orton from the documentary I'm Your Man exist on You Tube, and neither of them will arrive at or appear on this blog. It could well be that I am not savvy enough to manipulate around whatever the obstacle is or...someone doesn't wish to share it. Likely you know the tune and the words.

In the center of some unrelated task - boldly carving a path to empty a bookcase that has been semi-unreachable for a shockingly long time - the need for, the noticeable absence of, a grace-filled, embracing moment of pure love sweeps in and leaves me flattened. There is no extraordinary sorrow, no recent loss, no tears, no apparent cosmic shift. One moment is occupied with busy hands and the next admits an ache that might have appeared without name, if not for Cohen's knowledge of this state.

So I speak love to myself, I enumerate appreciations. I still the noisy flailing of my mind to let my heart be heard. I grow narrow in my thoughts so the voices of lack have no room to navigate.

To see myself in this light is a new skill, practiced repeatedly, still imperfect. Compassion, forgiveness, love without qualifications are not my habitual responses to moments when emptiness looms. However the Sisters of Mercy are interpreted, they are my imagined Graces, dwelling within. They bring their comfort, their song, their staying hands against grief. I never dreamed restoration could be home-grown.

An invitation to word play

Book available here.

The notebook I keep by the computer is called A GOREY Journal, featuring the art and words of Edward Gorey.  It contains a number of his "Thoughtful Alphabets," an example of which follows and presents an opportunity for word play.

THOUGHTFUL ALPHABET NO. 4

Always burn correspondence.
Disregard everybody.
Faint gracefully.
Howsoever interpret John Keats.
Learn macrame.
Nibble only.
Protest quid pro quos.
Remember seasons turning.
Untangle vines.
Walk extensively yonder.
Zero.

Here is my first attempt:

Abandon bureaucratic claptrap.
Dally enthusiastically.
Find Godot.
Heartily interrogate jackanapes.
Kayak.
Look menacing naturally.
Orate, pontificate.
Quell rumors steadfastly.
Traipse.
Unexamined wretched excess yields zilch.

I hope you will compose your own alphabets to share in the comments, be they thoughtful or otherwise.  No limit - and, as you see in Mr. Gorey's eXample, there is leeway in certain areas.  Enter early, enter often.

Illustration from www.linesandcolors.com

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Textile tales

Please visit today's posting at grrl+dog in which she shares information of a remarkable museum exhibit. I thought of the poetry these scraps could inspire.

Too early for Venus

Awake at 4 a.m., briefly. Not yet able to see bright Venus through the bedroom window. She is there to greet me at 6.

The dream that I left at 4 involved graffiti, art created from vegetables, affixed to utility poles. I was the documenting photographer. The artists I was aware of in the dream were Japanese, one a former high school classmate who had carved a daikon radish into a personable, smiling, somewhat ghostly creature. It worried me that, unlike inedible guerrilla art, these pieces would be removed and eaten. And that, once awake, took me to a passage from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass.

'You look a little shy: let me introduce you to that leg of mutton,' said the Red Queen. 'Alice—Mutton: Mutton—Alice.' The leg of mutton got up in the dish and made a little bow to Alice; and Alice returned the bow, not knowing whether to be frightened or amused.

'May I give you a slice?' she said, taking up the knife and fork, and looking from one Queen to the other.

'Certainly not,' the Red Queen said, very decidedly: 'it isn't etiquette to cut anyone you've been introduced to. Remove the joint!' And the waiters carried it off, and brought a large plum-pudding in its place.

'I won't be introduced to the pudding, please,' Alice said, rather hastily, 'or we shall get no dinner at all. May I give you some?'

But the Red Queen looked sulky, and growled 'Pudding—Alice: Alice—Pudding. Remove the pudding!' and the waiters took it away so quickly that Alice couldn't return its bow.

However, she didn't see why the Red Queen should be the only one to give orders; so, as an experiment, she called out 'Waiter! Bring back the pudding!' and there it was again in a moment, like a conjuring trick. It was so large that she couldn't help feeling a little shy with it, as she had been with the mutton; however, she conquered her shyness by a great effort, and cut a slice and handed it to the Red Queen.

'What impertinence!' said the Pudding. 'I wonder how you'd like it, if I were to cut a slice out of you, you creature!'

It spoke in a thick, suety sort of voice, and Alice hadn't a word to say in reply: she could only sit and look at it and gasp.

'Make a remark,' said the Red Queen: 'it's ridiculous to leave all the conversation to the pudding!'

Absurd and surreal, the welcome companions who add what humor can be found to our daily lives. We have two remaining episodes to watch from Amy Poehler's comedy, Parks and Recreation, Season Two. I know that what makes us laugh is so individual, so personal that without knowing someone well, it is unwise to say about something one enjoys, "You'll love it." Let's try it, shall we?



By the time I reached the kitchen, both Venus and the third quarter moon, 50% full, according to those who keep track of such things, were framed by palm trees outside the kitchen window. As we ate our oatmeal (yes, we have converted), the thin wash of clouds turned a shade close to lavender. The lime-colored parrots, who careen raucously through the dawn skies as though to tell anyone whose curtains are closed that the sun has risen, began to settle on winter branches and utility lines for their morning ritual of grooming/squabbling.

What I can tell you is the vegetable-based street art seemed real, inspired...my dream self was in a state of continual surprise and admiration. I took it as an urging to spend today living from my unconscious mind - if that is possible - and not the fault-finding other one.

Leaving bickering to the parrots. Off to discover.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Using our resources

When the zucchini crop begins to multiply like cells dividing we give the squashes away, to co-workers, neighbors, we set them out on a table in the church hall, some preserve them, others grate them for breads and muffins. Their abundance is put to use.

On her blog Melissa Shook wondered what she might "do" with the 50 inches of snow that have fallen already in January. Mine is the reverse question: is there something beneficial I can do with sunshine?

Our apartment building, constructed around a courtyard, has two patches of what might be called land in the center. From one grows a jacaranda tree. The other has rose bushes inside an 18-inch-wide frame of lawn. The plantings next to the building are mostly in perennial shade. I will not be raising tomatoes or herbs here.

Obvious sun benefits are Vitamin D, our solar-powered water heaters, warmth, a balm for aching joints, good light for art projects - the colors are more true in natural light. I have made some unappetizing choices when working under incandescents. An Ott light helps, but as a second choice.

It seems that something so plentiful, so rich as an element in song and story, could be whisked like egg whites into a frothy meringue, creamed with sugar and lemon into a piquant curd to spread on toast. Could it be captured to fill quilts and pillows and mattresses, fluffy as polyester batting, lighter than air?

Such a blazing gift could surely be converted to a form that would heal our inner darkness. Compressed into tablets with no side effects, see its glow spreading along tired limbs, brightening glum thoughts, sparking like a jumped battery to restart a discouraged heart. Perhaps what ails us is the inability to ingest pure sunlight. It may be that we need to breath it in, not swallow. Every particle, nourished with oxygen and sun, if only it worked that way.

Dark days come, unannounced and unwelcome. They may or may not have any connection to real-world events. It could just be time for the inner rivers to crest, for the flood of uncertainties to sweep away yesterday's optimism, the goals so nearly achieved. A commodity so limitless and bright must have value in the soothing of our great or small sorrows. Even knowing they are temporary, possibly untrue, does not make them easier to bear in the moment.

In lieu of whatever magic it would take to transform day after day of benevolent sunshine into medicine, I can see why faith in its countless forms is turned to for respite. Whether it is trust in some underlying universal force, a more organized religious belief, the strength and suport of those who love us or intentionally choosing to see the glass as half full, grim imaginings are better faced in company.

But when the occasional shadows fall across what is hard-won and placid and I stare out the window at evidence of dispelling light in endless supply, I wonder how it is possible to stand beneath its radiance and still shiver. This may be why I so often draw the sun. Over here, I think, just enough so I can see the good outcome.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Robert Bly and the poetry of 1999

As guest editor of The Best American Poetry 1999, Robert Bly tells that the poems in the collection display many different kinds of heat. He says:

"Heat in itself has been disappearing for some years from our English. It is said that in a single day in the United States more words appear on computer screens than are secreted in all the books in the Library of Congress. But as these words stream across our screens, freed from doubt or elegance, we can see that computer verbiage has become the model of cool and empty language. I'm not making an original claim here; we all agree that the language of the chat rooms is empty. It's as if some worldwide force were trying to free us all from literary style, and is succeeding. Many contemporary writers persuade themselves it is good not to have inwardness, not to have intensity, not to engage layers of meaning, not to have pungent phrasings, not to allow the heat of that sort of language that springs from the fight between God and donkey. It's possible that the particular heat which we call style amounts to recognizing and remembering the flavor of the decade in which one became an adult. We more and more have English now no longer stung by the mood of an Oklahoma afternoon in the thirties, or the flavor of an Illinois dusk in the forties. Hardy's language we recognize to be blessedly imprisoned in the mood of Sussex in 1880. When the irreplaceable flavor of a given decade disappears, our language loses its vigor and becomes merely useful. Sven Birkerts, in his new book of essays Readings, points directly to the decline of intensity that results from the shift from the page to the screen. "We are losing our grip, collectively, on the logic of complex utterance, on syntax; we are abandoning the rhythmic, poetic undercurrents of expression." He suggests that "postmodern" merely means the destruction of all style. Postmodern novelists have fallen headfirst into this release from period style, producing novels that contain only the melancholy emptiness that follows from the longing to become universal. When language cools, it becomes a corpse.

"American poets are fighting against this cooling in several ingenious ways. Not all poets, of course. One group of poets who call themselves "Language" poets work very hard to drain all the meaning out of the words they use, and in this way resemble those eighteenth-century doctors who treated all problems by bleeding, occasionally failing to notice that the patient had died from loss of blood. All of us, poets, essayists, and fiction writers alike, are being pressured by example to remove flavor from our work, along with our idiosyncrasies. We are fighting a front-line action against the cooling of language..."

Bly's introduction was written 11 years ago, yet I suspect we have not been able to abandon the front-line position. Considering his observation that we are "...recognizing and remembering the flavor of the decade in which we became an adult," I know the reading which brought me to that decade, the sixties, stretched back to earlier times. I carry the influence of that Oklahoma afternoon in the thirties followed by eavesdropping outside the walk-up office where an idealistic detective was hired but never told the whole story. From South Pacific battles of the forties to the beats or post-apocalyptic predictions of the fifties, this is some of the language I absorbed.

I am not sure what all this means since, at the moment, I write for pleasure. There is no editor, no publisher, no one to bully me into using English in any way other than the one I know. The word "postmodern" confuses me. It didn't come up all that often in the newsroom at my first daily writing job where words were called copy and the demand for them was immediate and insistent. I hope language is regaining heat. Judging by the writers whose blogs I follow, I know there are subversive pockets, muy caliente, where it scorches.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

today...writing

As a teenager, I worked at the Huntington Library Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, then called simply the Huntington Library. Access was more limited in those times. The public was not admitted until early afternoon. That meant staff had some 120 acres of orange groves, desert planting, lily ponds, bamboo forest and meditative settings all to itself to explore during morning coffee breaks and lunch hours.

A writer walks each day, each waking moment, really, through acres of words, species rare and common from which to choose. As each sentence is built, we hope for a combination that is, improbably, unlike any that came before. Memory, vocabulary, experience, education, ear, subtle neurological connections, all determine the expanse from which we select.

This is a way of reminding myself that each seed, every stem, the entire observable world and what may hide behind its face, can find its way into the story. Today I read poetry, written as a list, a list that told me to reach farther than I think I can. When my fingers close around the exact phrase, I will know. Pull it from whatever obscure corner it has occupied and let it speak.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Q and A

Deepak Chopra was waiting for me to finish with my email yesterday. AOL sent him to tell me that I am not my DNA. Looking into my eyes, he said that I need to ask the big questions, that I need to live the questions. I am not fully certain that we have very much other than questions.

The Real Work by Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.



Yesterday, today, are not different than the days around them. The questions are not bigger or more plentiful. It is just that they are constant, though for many no answer is required.

These are not false starts, these first steps along what proves to the unanticipated path. It is not the wrong road. The explorers traveled this way, celestial guidance and maps of questionable accuracy. I believe this: I will arrive where I need to be.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The joy of beautiful things

Top photo: Garden Dance Goblet
Bottom photo: Rustic Line
Art and photos courtesy of Melinda Wellsandt

Deep in winter, which, officially, is not yet one month old, some part of us longs for spring. The volume of snow and rain already experienced must cause vast sections of the country to feel closer to April than December. That which is lovely is capable of lifting us out of whatever state - gloom, funk - we are in. Even those who are cheered by two feet of snow may take pleasure in viewing this work.

At Mary-Melinda's World, discovered through Premium T's blog, there is art glass of breath-catching beauty. Calling herself a "maker of pretty things" rather than an artist, Melinda shares photos of her work and behind-the-scenes activity. Once you've linked to her blog, click on the link under My Photos on Flickr at the right side of the page. Prepare to be transported.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Plant seeds. Wait.

In the Calendar section of today's Los Angeles Times, Patrick Goldstein has a page one interview with writer David Seidler. What makes it news is that Seidler is 73 and wrote the screenplay for "The King's Speech." Should he be nominated for and win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, which seems possible and even likely, he will be the oldest writer to win in that category. Goldstein said, "In a career that stretches back to the 1960s, he'd never written a hit movie."

I offer this a further evidence that it is never too late.

Next month I will be 66. I don't follow numerology so I can't say if that is a significant number. What does feel significant is the fact that, in so many ways, I am just getting started.

Tales of endurance, resilience and triumph thrill me. Inspiration does not have an age limit, nor does determination. One of my deeply-held beliefs is that the dreams of our hearts are not there by chance. From wherever they spring, they belong to our true, authentic selves. When they arrived, they came with a small, perhaps poorly marked packet of seeds with which to grow them.

That I went back and replaced the word container with packet in the previous sentence tells me I have not run out of options. There are more precise words to be found, tighter, clearer sentences to be constructed. Where these exercises take me is less important than knowing a journey is under way. I am the passenger absorbing every scene that rushes past, grateful for a window seat.

At one time I thought of myself as a late bloomer, now I would use the term gradual bloomer. Not slow, for that hints at running behind schedule. Yes, in terms of human lifespan it is more late than early, but how can I know it is not perfectly timed?

David Seidler's history, familiar for its non-linear quality, did not seem to foretell success a long way down the road. Yet he worked at his craft, I would say because that is what a writer does. In his new success, he laughs and says he is still the same ass he was three months ago. We are, most of us, still whatever we were three months - or three years - ago, curious to discover what we may be tomorrow.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Dreamer, awake


A friend found this image on Facebook. She sent it with a quote from Carl Jung:

Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.

I, happily, willingly, embrace both states, though I suppose one may be considered more productive than the other.

For those of us who give ourselves moments of intentional quiet, the call to become more conscious never abates. Living unconsciously, speaking and acting without thought, may well be, in part, responsible for the tragic shootings in Arizona on Saturday. Or the atmosphere of intolerance may be fully intentional, a conscious, considered option, the consequences of which were understood and dismissed.

However much time I am given to be here, the less of it I spend running willy-nilly, the happier I am. That there have been many willy-nilly moments, or why downplay it...years...is not self-criticism. The aspiration to live more mindfully is not one I imagine makes the Top Ten on most to-do lists. And at its best, even the most practiced at meditation and mindfulness say, it will remain an aspiration. We are not learning to drive a car or recreate Julia Child's recipes.

So, one wonders, why attempt a practice which cannot be, by common definition, mastered? I can only answer for myself. A quiet mind has a greater capacity for appreciation. Gratitude, like compassion, like acceptance, like love, allows us residence in a state of expanded peace.

My heritage too often emphasized anxiety, pessimism, mistrust and, at times, misinformation as a result of judgment. These are not the companions of enlightenment. To be happy, simply, in-spite-of-everything content in most moments, to see that I have a choice, transforms the human experience. Life will always be life, bringing the welcome and the unwelcome, probably in equal measure.

That stillness may be found by looking within seems contrary to the messages I absorbed growing up. In fact, stillness would have been seen as something only a fool would want. We need to be busy and resentful, frightened and bullying and shaming. But I have the model of how poorly that worked, unless all I wanted was more of the same.

Thank you, Marta, for the image, Jung's words and your company as we practice becoming awake. In its way, it is a bit like driving or cooking, for there is pleasure in the practice, it is time well spent.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Breakfast of...

In one of last night's dreams I was caretaking my grandparents' house. It was just as it had been the last time I was there, 1959 or 1960. Most of the dream was spent locking and unlocking the front door as I was conveying people to and from Burbank Airport. Before the age of three, I lived in that house, and lived there with my parents when my father's active Navy duty ended, then again later, when we were between homes.

During the local evening news I was on the computer so my son relayed excerpts that I think of as signs of the apocalypse, which I worked to purge from my mind. With blessed swiftness, the vision of Congress pulling on its collective work gloves in preparation for throwing all of us under the bus swept across my mind and dissipated.

With the impenetrable linking that our brains conjure, the disparate elements of news meant to alarm, the airplane bungalow of my early childhood and its light-infused breakfast room and thoughts of what I might add to our menus that would make a cardiologist happy pooled together in one word: oatmeal.

Oatmeal was a breakfast staple. My grandfather had his with a generous pat of butter melted on top before the milk and sugar were added. My grandmother saved the cylindrical Quaker boxes and used them as hat stands in the upstairs linen cupboard. In searching for a sturdy and unfailing thread through all the uncertain times we've faced, for yesterday's news was not really news, something with the ability to sustain us, if not turn us in an about-face from fear, oatmeal seemed, as it always has, warming, grounding, setting us up to have a good day.

I find comfort in continuity. Living just outside the city limits of my home town does not cause me to feel confined or stifled. What personal, iconic landmarks remain are minutes away. Visitors will, like it or not, be driven past the elementary school, my friend Claire's house around the corner, the building where I worked as a reporter, its presses and Linotypes long ago sold for scrap, or the Norton Simon Museum, visible in Rose Parade coverage and once the site of a par-three golf course where my brother, father and I played on Saturday mornings.

The truth is that times have always been dicey, it is their nature. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, change wins. It has better lawyers and no place else it needs to be. In the spirit of familiar 12-step teachings, I find that the more I can align myself with what is, surrender, the more peaceful I remain. In blog browsing yesterday, I found these words left in a comment: grace comes from a state of uncertainty.

On the shopping list this weekend the word oatmeal will appear. Why it has been missing for so long I can't explain. It is back, not grumbling about having been ill-treated, holding no grudge, bearing no malice. Oatmeal may be, in its way, a man for all seasons, an underpinning of civilization. It is a constant of my heritage and, periodic indifference aside, has seen me through so far.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Open windows

Early morning blog visits had the feel of looking in through lighted windows at lives not my own, a topic touched upon elsewhere recently. Winter's early nightfall gives us reasons to be silent witnesses along darkened streets. The glow of a still-displayed Christmas tree catches the eye, but so does a living room before the curtains are drawn. We have so much in common, simply being part of the same species. The ways in which we differ may be even more vast.

Before 8 a.m. I observed rural landscapes, territory where January has backyards and open country held immobile by ice and snow. Scrolling back through posts I'd missed I found mention of holiday reunions, saw the Nativity cast with a whimsical eye and was taught how to make a proper cup of tea. In another country I discovered job opportunities in pattern and surface design, then learned that a baby held in prayer was home from the hospital. At my first blog stop I was reminded of my mother, how assuming the role of caregiver leaves no part of our ordinary world untouched.

There is a mystical connection in finding so many hearts offered so freely. It is impossible to remain unmoved by some of the experiences that unfold or the reverence with which they are examined. It is a vast planet. Several dozen sites where writers seek meaning and the steadiness of truths that don't shift may not tell us all there is to learn of histories, shared yet separate, but they hint at bonds that hold more tightly than we believed.

Allowing ourselves to be known to strangers, an act I once thought foolish, even dangerous, is neither, but instead so much more. Fear deflates, isolation releases us as identifiable reality steps toward us from these open doors. Our stories may vary in detail but what prompts us to tell them is where out hands meet, proof that the marvelous cannot be overestimated. Honesty rises early and, before its hands are warm, starts typing.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Some small magic


From Christmas, sent by my sister, Tracy Gallup's A ROOMFUL OF QUESTIONS, which opens with following quote:

"...be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not seek the answers...Live the questions now."
-Rainer Maria Rilke
from Letters to a Young Poet

Among the questions we are asked to love is at least one to which I may have an answer. Is magic in every one of us? Yes.

We've discussed here Carl Sagan's belief that we are star stuff, Shakespeare's description that we are such stuff as dreams are made of. How is it possible to be that and not possess magic?

Instead of rising each day, secure in the knowledge that we will either witness or accomplish at least one impossible thing, we shuffle magic to the bottom of the pile. It surrenders its place in line to health insurance forms, an oil change, radical hair loss, phone calls we don't want to take. Lime deposits, using the last Swiffer dust cloth, fatigue and the narrowing of vision that comes from the task being alive conspire to dim our memories of our true natures.

This is not show business magic, we are not going to escape from straight jackets in sealed, water-filled tanks. We will not go "presto change-o" with a very large silken cloth and show you the empty spot where Jumbo the elephant just stood. Illusion is skill. Real magic is simply part of us. We arrived with it in our satchels and no amount of distraction or forgetfulness will change that.

Magic is our accessory, it is our super power, our salvation. When it is alert and present, our lives expand, senses and dimensions increase. Our unsteady heartbeats normalize, our brain chatter quiets, we become peaceful and serenely, foolishly happy. We are home, for the moment nothing else matters.

With crazy genius luck, one dose of magic will stretch until the next. For as long as it lasts, we can walk it like a high wire above ordinary concerns which will seem to resolve themselves. To sustain magic takes intention. It requires a single-mindedness for which everyday life leaves scant opportunity.

So we learn to treasure it, to recognize its least obvious forms, to shelter its tentative flames and keep them burning.

Magic, of course, is all about questions. They are the place it begins and the core of its nature. What we are allowed to know is that it is. And that it is us.