A selection from:
Eve on Her Deathbed
In the end we are no more than our own stories:
mine a few brief passages in the Book,
no further trace of plot or dialogue.
But I once had a lover no one noticed
as he slipped through the pages, through
the lists of those begotten and begetting.
Does he remember our faltering younger selves,
the pleasures we took while Adam,
a good bureaucrat, busied himself
with naming things, even after Eden?
What scraps will our children remember of us
to whom our story is simple
and they themselves the heroes of it? …
But what I think of now,
in the final bitterness of age,
is the way the garden groomed itself
in the succulent air of summer—each flower
the essence of its own color; the way even
the serpent knew it had a part it had to play, if
there were to be a story at all.
One of my favorite guilty pleasures is perusing the poetry and interviews in The Paris Review. I don’t remember how or why I began reading it, but once I did I was hooked. Recently I was going through some poetry in the online archives and came across this interview with writer Shirley Hazzard. I especially enjoy what she says about poetry:
Poetry has been the longest pleasure of my life. It literally and figuratively saved my life, and enabled me to live inwardly. I do not know how people manage without it…
Vladimir Nabokov told his American students that they must saturate themselves in the poetry of their language, poetry in English, in order to develop the ear. This seems to me the most valuable advice one could give to readers or writers. Of course, he did not mean that this should be done with a “purpose” in mind, as if to exploit the power and beauty of great art. Accessibility to expressive language will not come that way. It is an act of love, with implicit humility, and must develop itself. So much of this is intuitive, and intuition itself must be developed from an early age if it is not to languish. Our era of interpretations and explanations and the piling up of convoluted lingo in the academic world–the self-gratification of many a “close reading,” the psycho-sociological overlaying and, often, undermining that commentators apply to works of genius–has been inimical to the nurturing of intuitive affinity and understanding. Much of that arises, I think, from a modern fear of immediacy and of the loss of the illusion of control. Housman’s reference to the hairs rising at the back of one’s neck as one reads a poem remains a test of quality. Such response is individual and cannot merely be generalized, dismantled, controlled.
I love that feeling of “the hairs rising at the back of one’s neck” from poetry. I know that sensation all too well. And it’s what keeps me coming back for more.
I came upon these white peonies at the market yesterday, their heads nearly as big as my own and their fragrance so potent. They found their way into my basket and into my living room (and into my viewfinder)…The poem below is a favorite from a dear friend, one that I’ve had pinned on the bulletin board in my kitchen for quite a long time.
Heart transplants my friend handed me:
four of her own peony bushes
in their fall disguise, the arteries
of truncated, dead wood protruding
from clumps of soil fine-veined with worms.
“Better get them in before the frost.”
And so I did, forgetting them
until their June explosion when
it seemed at once they’d fallen in love,
had grown two dozen pink hearts each.
each one girl on her first date,
excess perfume, her dress too ruffled,
the words he spoke to her too sweet–
but he was young; he meant it all.
And when they could not bear the pretty
weight of so much heart, I snipped
their dew-sopped blooms; stuffed them in vases
in every room like tissue boxes
already teary with self-pity.
~Mary Jo Salter
A friend shared the poem below on my Facebook page recently, and it literally left me breathless as I read (note: I’ve made a few changes here to make it a bit more female-positive).
A few days ago I was having a thoughtful chat with another friend and it struck me how hard my life has often been–in that I’ve had to bend and alter my path because of situations beyond my control. So many of my wishes and desires are unfulfilled. There are so many ‘what ifs’ to my life that I simply can’t pursue because of circumstance. But despite this, I feel as though I’ve surrendered myself to these restrictions and found even more freedom through doing so. In large part, I think my ability to surface from a morass is because I simply love life so much, and I find huge pleasure in the smallest of things. Perhaps that’s the result of having survived so much already, or perhaps it’s simply my nature. I don’t know. But it makes me feel buoyant and strong.
The Great Lover
by Rupert Brooke
I have been so great a lover: filled my days
So proudly with the splendour of Love’s praise,
The pain, the calm, and the astonishment,
Desire illimitable, and still content,
And all dear names [wo]men use, to cheat despair,
For the perplexed and viewless streams that bear
Our hearts at random down the dark of life.
Now, ere the unthinking silence on that strife
Steals down, I would cheat drowsy Death so far,
My night shall be remembered for a star
That outshone all the suns of all [wo]men’s days.
Shall I not crown them with immortal praise
Whom I have loved, who have given me, dared with me
High secrets, and in darkness knelt to see
The inenarrable god[dess]head of delight?
Love is a flame;—we have beaconed the world’s night.
A city:—and we have built it, these and I.
An emp[ress]:—we have taught the world to die.
So, for their sakes I loved, ere I go hence,
And the high cause of Love’s magnificence,
And to keep loyalties young, I’ll write those names
Golden for ever, eagles, crying flames,
And set them as a banner, that [wo]men may know,
To dare the generations, burn, and blow
Out on the wind of Time, shining and streaming….
These I have loved:
White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;
Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;
And radiant raindrops couching in cool flowers;
And flowers themselves, that sway through sunny hours,
Dreaming of moths that drink them under the moon;
Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon
Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss
Of blankets; grainy wood; live hair that is
Shining and free; blue-massing clouds; the keen
Unpassioned beauty of a great machine;
The benison of hot water; furs to touch;
The good smell of old clothes; and other such—
The comfortable smell of friendly fingers,
Hair’s fragrance, and the musty reek that lingers
About dead leaves and last year’s ferns….
And thousand others throng to me! Royal flames;
Sweet water’s dimpling laugh from tap or spring;
Holes in the ground; and voices that do sing:
Voices in laughter, too; and body’s pain,
Soon turned to peace; and the deep-panting train;
Firm sands; the little dulling edge of foam
That browns and dwindles as the wave goes home;
And washen stones, gay for an hour; the cold
Graveness of iron; moist black earthen mould;
Sleep; and high places; footprints in the dew;
And oaks; and brown horse-chestnuts, glossy-new;
And new-peeled sticks; and shining pools on grass;—
All these have been my loves. And these shall pass.
Whatever passes not, in the great hour,
Nor all my passion, all my prayers, have power
To hold them with me through the gate of Death.
They’ll play deserter, turn with the traitor breath,
Break the high bond we made, and sell Love’s trust
And sacramented covenant to the dust.
—Oh, never a doubt but, somewhere, I shall wake,
And give what’s left of love again, and make
New friends, now strangers….
But the best I’ve known,
Stays here, and changes, breaks, grows old, is blown
About the winds of the world, and fades from brains
Of living [wo]men, and dies.
O dear my loves, O faithless, once again
This one last gift I give: that after [wo]men
Shall know, and later lovers, far-removed
Praise you, “All these were lovely”; say, “[S]he loved.”
It’s a quiet morning, the members of my household all working in different tasks. Working together, but separate. There’s the sound of a neighbor’s friendly conversation that can be faintly heard through the window. The cawing of crows outside the front of our home is not so faint. But there are songbirds, too. And an occasional motorcycle or loud-ish car passing. There’s the tinkle of Ellycat’s bell as she wanders from room to room looking for a warm lap. And the living room is full of soft morning light.
A few days ago, Catgirl asked me about my synesthesia, specifically curious about the types of sensory cross-over that I experience. I don’t have the common variety of text-to-visual synesthesia. Rather, I have visual-to-sound and touch-to-visual. I explained to her that it’s why I can find it so difficult to shop in a mall or in an unfamiliar grocery store–the ‘loud’ designs of the displays create a tornado of sound in my head. It’s hard to process so much visual-sound all at once. It makes me want to find a dim quiet place to sit down and close my eyes. But, on the other hand, if I’m somewhere like an art museum and can take time to savor each painting, the result is far more melodic.
Lately, I’ve found that images with rich brown-grey colors are yielding such peaceful-quiet tones in my mind. There’s something about their softness that makes me breathe a little deeper and feel more relaxed. It’s almost beyond description, the way my mind makes sounds from images–so I don’t know if this makes any sense at all to someone who hasn’t experienced it. It’s similar to the way I feel when I read some poetry, such as the classic “Lake Isle of Innisfree.”
Here are some of my recent favorite “quiet” photos:
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
By William Butler Yeats
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
by John Updike
One size fits all. The shape or coloration
of the god or high heaven matters less
than that there is one, somehow, somewhere, hearing
the hasty prayer and chalking up the mite
the widow brings to the temple, A child
alone with horrid verities cries out
for there to be a limit, a warm wall
whose stones give back an answer, however faint.
Strange, the extravagance of it—who needs
those eighteen-armed black Kalis, those musty saints
whose bones and bleeding wounds appall good taste,
those joss sticks, houris, gilded Buddhas, books
Moroni etched in tedious detail?
We do; we need more worlds. This one will fail.
I’ve published this excerpt from Mary Oliver before, but I came across is again today as I remembered lessons learned in Cape Cod not too long ago. It brought back such potent memories of this journey that I’ve been on the past few years…
An excerpt from Mary Oliver’s “What is There Beyond Knowing”
What I know
I could put into a pack
as if it were bread and cheese, and carry it
on one shoulder,
important and honorable, but so small!
While everything else continues, unexplained
and unexplainable. How wonderful it is
to follow a thought quietly
to its logical end.
I have done this a few times.
But mostly I just stand in the dark field,
in the middle of the world, breathing
in and out. Life so far doesn’t have any other name
but breath and light, wind and rain.
If there’s a temple, I haven’t found it yet.
I simply go on drifting, in the heaven of the grass and the weeds.
When I’m in the proximity of wind and water, things just make sense in a way that they don’t in other places. I need the beach, I need to feel the pull and tug of waves. I need to walk in the rain and see pink petals falling on the sidewalk. I need to watch the clouds covering the moon. I need to remember that life doesn’t have “any other name but breath and light, wind and rain.”
Some moments from this week:
Meeting with students as we move into the final push for our big Oral History project. Realizing that this thing that we’ve been working on all year long is actually happening now. Seeing the fatigue and fear in their eyes, knowing that they will be so proud when this is done.
Paddling in the pouring rain. So cold I could hardly lift my paddle. But feeling so happy and alive to be on the ocean again.
Meeting with colleagues at the Huntington Library. Feeling satisfaction that the craziness of my life these past few months hasn’t quelled my academic ambitions.
Greeting the camellias at the Huntington once again. And the Japanese and Chinese gardens. Seeing that what was yellow just a few months ago is now green.
Hosting an evening for feminists. Strengthening old friendships and making new ones.
Being hailed as “Yawna” (the Czech pronunciation of Jana) and remembering how much I loved being called that so many years ago, and how right it sounds now.
And, as always, I am so excited for the upcoming weekend! There will be sand and sea. And more photography(!). And the dissertation chair (again). And pie. Doesn’t that all sound wonderful?
I Am Like a Rose
I am myself at last; now I achieve
My very self, I, with the wonder mellow,
Full of fine warmth, I issue forth in clear
And single me, perfected from my fellow.
Here I am all myself. No rose-bush heaving
Its limpid sap to culmination has brought
Itself more sheer and naked out of the green
In stark-clear roses, than I to myself am brought.
Poetry is such a personal thing. But it seems that more often than not, when friends share some stanzas of poetry with me, I find that it resonates with me at some level. Like the passage above, sent by a friend yesterday. It’s perfect for me and where I’m at right now…
These past few days have had me falling in love hard and fast. With just about everything. Some of these include
–My first few steps at learning parsel-tongue. So I can call myself a genuine digital humanist.
–Hot waffles full of melted cheese when it’s cold and rainy outside.
–Sitting cross-legged on my fluffy carpet every morning, as I contemplate the day ahead.
–Cooking crepes (in my new Calphalon pan) and pots of soup and cinnamon rolls and fresh bread.
–Hamburgers (at Haven and Bruxie and Ruta’s and In-n-Out and Norm’s and the Grinder and…) Have I mentioned that these past few months I have been craving hamburgers? Just craving.
–Making travel plans (with a flight leaving in just a few hours!).
–A friend’s offering of Girl Scout cookies, after an evening of talking, talking, talking.
–Joan Jett (she is so rocker-tough-cool).
–Being in first place until the final round of pub trivia, on our team’s very first attempt at working together (and I so want them all on team next time!).
–Snuggling into the cozy purple chair for movie night.
–Sepia-toned photos (for decoupage).
–A somewhat spontaneous piano concerto concert and the good conversation afterwards.
–An important package that arrived in the mail today and the awesome friends who signed for it while I was away at work.
–Huge hugs from CatGirl and GameBoy when I walk in the door each evening.
–Tea and shawls. Tea and shawls. Tea and shawls….
Have you ever thrown a fistful of glitter in the air?
Have you ever looked fear in the face and said I just don’t care?
I came across this song today on Pandora, and it struck me as so poignant and beautiful. I just had to share.
I’ve listened to some pretty spectacular and melancholy break-up songs these past few weeks. Most don’t entirely reflect my experience, but have some nuggets of emotion that resonate with the various stages of feelings that have accompanied my divorce.
For example, this one is excellent for those moments that I’m screaming at the universe (and my ex) (and, oh, that hair. I want that hair!).
And this one works for those moments when I’m feeling overwhelmed with a path that wasn’t of my choosing:
And certainly Piaf is apt when I consider whether I could have done something different along the way, or could have better protected myself from the pain that came from investing myself so fully in my marriage.
I’m not really in break-up mode any longer so these songs bring back specific memories of those first few days rather than reflecting the place where I’m at right now (which is, generally, one where I’m listening to less angry/sad music). But given how significant some of these songs were in my process, they seemed worth sharing here…
What about you, what songs have you listened to during a break-up?
A friend sent over this link, letting me know how the words of this song apply to my situation in many ways. I love it for numerous reasons, although it did make me desperately hungry for the ocean as I’m sitting in my office today…(oh, and reminded me how much I need to add some ab-strengthening exercises to my workout routine!)
An excerpt from “Daisies” by Mary Oliver:
…What do I know.
But this: it is heaven itself to take what is given,
to see what is plain; what the sun
lights up willingly; for example–I think this
as I reach down, not to pick but merely to touch–
the suitability of the field for the daisies, and the
daisies for the field.
After realizing how my skewed “sunny-side up” view of the world contributed to the breakup of my marriage (because I simply wasn’t able to see what was in front of my eyes since I was so comfortable in my own view of the world), I decided I should probably tone down my rosy-colored outlook. It seemed that I would be better served by having a more realistic, perhaps even more somber, perspective. I began to wonder if I even really felt the events of my breakup, since even in the dark times so many moments of beauty came bubbling through. And even in the midst of those first few awful days, I could still see so much good on the horizon. What was wrong with me, I wondered, that I didn’t cry and scream and yell and melt into a ball of sorrow? Instead, I wandered gardens and embraced friends and enjoyed my children.
My insistence on optimism is a long-honed skill that stems from the difficulties of living with a disability and the residue of having survived cancer, as well as a variety of other personal setbacks. I simply can’t seem to sit in the midst of a storm without seeing a silver lining. I deliberately choose happiness over sorrow, every time. Like the poem fragment above, I believe in “taking what is given” and seeing the light, whatever difficulties are thrown my way.
But I don’t sit around with my head in the sand denying life’s cruelties, either. For example, for my dissertation research I purposefully chose to study the awfulness of life. Children suffering from horrific incurable diseases. Scores of soldiers dying for want of care. I pore over case studies of bodies mangled by machinery, or injured by the foolishness of quack remedies. I hold these stories in my heart, trying to make sense of a world where people suffer so often and so deeply (and, so needlessly)…
But I think you can know the awful and still see the beauty. Which reminds me of a favorite quote from The Man of La Mancha:
When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness…Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!