She wrote me a letter after her death and I remember a kind of happy light falling on the envelope as I sat by the rose tree on her old bench at the back door, so surprised by its arrival wondering what she would say, looking up before I could open it and laughing to myself in silent expectation.
Dear son, it is time for me to leave you. I am afraid that the words you are used to hearing are no longer mine to give, they are gone and mingled back in the world where it is no longer in my power to be their first original author not their last loving bearer. You can hear motherly words of affection now only from your own mouth and only when you speak them to those who stand motherless before you.
As for me I must forsake adulthood and be bound gladly to a new childhood. You must understand this apprenticeship demands of me an elemental innocence from everything I ever held in my hands. I know your generous soul is well able to let me go you will in the end be happy to know my God was true and I find myself after loving you all so long, in the wide, infinite mercy of being mothered myself.
Behind all art is an element of desire. Love of life, of existence, love of another human being, love of human beings is in some way behind all art — even the most angry, even the darkest, even the most grief-stricken, and even the most embittered art has that element somewhere behind it. Because how could you be so despairing, so embittered, if you had not had something you loved that you lost?
One of the great functions of art is to help us imagine what it is like to be not ourselves, what it is like to be someone or something else, what it is like to live in another skin, what it is like to live in another body, and in that sense to surpass ourselves, to go out beyond ourselves.
And love of art itself, I would add. Mirica’s desire to capture in pencil, in black and white, all the intricacy and passion of Watt’s painting, of the two lovers’ elicit desire for each other. To render in pencil, oil, sculpture, poetry, music, and even blog posts, the things that move and inspire us, to share with others who might also be moved and inspired.
The circle of creation, of love and desire, repeats itself through the ages, a subject I’ve taken to heart recently. What is love? What is desire? What is the creative act? And what is the creation of art but the recreation of all those elements?
When poet Jorie Graham was three-years-old, she swirled her fingers through her mother’s still-wet oil painting. Her horrified mother picked her up and threw her across the room. What she learned from that experience, she said, was that the art her mother spent so much time creating was something urgent and necessary and real, “more real than me.”
It was a stunning revelation to one so young, and you might imagine it was accompanied by sense of self-pity or horror. But it wasn’t. It was accepted as a kind of revelation, or truth.
It would be a rather startling revelation for any of us, at any age, to realize. But it strikes me, too, as true: that “art” is more “real” than the individual, the one making the art or the one viewing it, or in Graham’s case, destroying it.
Mozart’s music, Van Gogh’s paintings, Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays are all in some ways more real than the individuals that produced them, having outlasted the individual and making more of an impact upon what we conceive as the “real world” which encompasses the here and now along with all the history and culture of ages past.
The art itself encapsulates something important, vital, and enduring about the individual who created it, something more “real” about them than the mere sum of their daily existence. And I dare say, something more real about the individual moved by that artwork than the mere sum of their daily existence.
We catch glimpses of that “art more real” in us when we’re moved by Mozart’s music, or Van Gogh’s paintings, or Graham’s poetry, and the works of other artist, architects, designers, filmmakers, and performers. We’re moved by them because we recognize or identify with something in them that touches us in an intimate or powerful way—or touches an intimate and powerful part of ourselves, that part which, like art, is more “real” than “me.”
The thing that’s more “real” than “me” moves through all of us and connects all of us, individually and collectively. It’s the “Thou art That” that encompasses both. When we tap into that, we feel it, we know it, we are it, it is Us, individually and collectively.
There’s a kind of holiness about it: these intense moments of being moved by music or art, experiencing that call and response that melts into a single wholeness of feeling, a unity of Being. It’s the “Thou art That” we hear of from so many sages and saints, the core of that Perennial Philosophy that Aldous Huxley wrote about in his book of the same name. Notice how the word “art” connects “Thou” and “That.”
There is something in “me” more “real” than me as a mere person. More real than my passage through time in a human body. And yet, it’s not separate from my individual being, this particular life with all its loves and heartaches. It includes that and all else: the collective I, as it were. The one in All and all in One.
There’s such a comfort in knowing this. Being this. A vast door opens in front of me and I walk through.
The spark for the first Earth Day was the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. A marine biologist and best-selling author, Carson showed the devastating effects of people on nature by documenting the effect of modern pesticides on the natural world. She focused on the popular pesticide DDT, which had been developed in 1939 and used to clear islands in the South Pacific of malaria-carrying mosquitoes during World War II. Deployed as an insect killer in the U.S. after the war, DDT was poisoning the natural food chain in American waters.
from Letters from an American, April 21, 2023, by Heather Cox Richardson
You can read the rest of Richardson’s story of how we came to celebrate Earth Day at this link. I’ve been following her Letters for several years now. She’s an American historian who writes about current political events from a historical perspective, a way to better understand what was going on in the world. This was such a godsend for me during the troublesome Trump years. I sorely needed something then, as I do still, to keep me sane and give me hope: We’ve been here before. This too will pass. We will survive.
In 1962 In Silent Spring, Carson writes:
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost‘s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”
In 2023, sixty-one years later, much has changed, as Richardson writes about in her Letter about the history of Earth Day, but much remains unchanged. We are as fragile and threatened as ever before. We still have so much more to do to preserve this beautiful blue marble suspended in space that we call home. She’s worth our concerted effort. All she has is us to defend her.
On Good Friday, my husband and I went searching for spring wildflowers in the hills of California. We do it every year, but since all the rain we’ve been having lately, we expected it to be super good. We weren’t disappointed. All the photos you see here were found along Shell Creak Road in San Luis Obispo County, near Santa Margarita. Such a delight to see such variety along one road!
On the day the world ends A bee circles a clover, A fisherman mends a glimmering net. Happy porpoises jump in the sea, By the rainspout young sparrows are playing And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.
On the day the world ends Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas, A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn, Vegetable peddlers shout in the street And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island, The voice of a violin lasts in the air And leads into a starry night.
And those who expected lightning and thunder Are disappointed. And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps Do not believe it is happening now. As long as the sun and the moon are above, As long as the bumblebee visits a rose, As long as rosy infants are born No one believes it is happening now.
Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy, Repeats while he binds his tomatoes: There will be no other end of the world, There will be no other end of the world.
The World By Czeslaw Milosz
It appears that it was all a misunderstanding. What was only a trial run was taken seriously. The rivers will return to their beginnings. The wind will cease in its turning about. Trees instead of budding will tend to their roots. Old men will chase a ball, a glance in the mirror– They are children again. The dead will wake up, not comprehending. Till everything that happened has unhappened. What a relief! Breathe freely, you who have suffered much.
Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. He spent his childhood in Czarist Russia, watched the rise of the Soviet Union, witnessed two World Wars, working as a resistance fighter in Poland when Hitler invaded, and eventually came to the United States. He became an American citizen in 1970, living his final years in California and writing well into his 90’s. He died in his native Poland, home of my own ancestry.
Yet through it all Milosz maintained his faith as a devout Catholic, and his belief in humanity. “The act of writing a poem is an act of faith,” he claimed. In these troubled times his poetry has much to teach us. I wonder what he would think of the world today, with the new rise in the totalitarianism he escaped in Europe and the threat to Democracy in his adopted homeland.
“At a time when voices of doubt, deadness, and despair are the loudest; when writers are outstripping each other in negation of man, his culture, and nature; when the predominant action is destruction . . . . [Milosz] leads the reader to a place where one can see—to paraphrase the poet’s own formula regarding time—Being raised above being through Being.” –Krzysztof Dybciak in World Literature Today.
Just what I needed to hear this Easter morning in these troubling times.
He passed his fingertips over her skin almost without touching her, and experienced for the first time the miracle of feeling himself in another body.
— Gabriel García Márquez, Of Love and Other Demons.
Woman, I would have been your child, to drink the milk of your breasts as from a well . . . .To feel you in my veins like God in the rivers.
— Pablo Neruda, From “Love.”
Both of them remained floating in an empty universe where the only everyday and eternal reality was love.
— Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude.
All the beauty I thought lost in the world is in you and around you . . . . This fatigue I feel when I am not with you is so enormous that it is like what God must have felt at the beginning of the world, seeing all the world uncreated, formless, and calling to be created.
— Anaïs Nin, from Under a Glass Bell and Other Stories
Perhaps it is true that we do not really exist until there is someone there to see us existing, we cannot properly speak until there is someone who can understand what we are saying. In essence, we are not wholly alive until we are loved.
― Alain de Botton, On Love
What does it matter how many lovers you have if none of them gives you the universe?
— Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge
We are eternal travelers of ourselves, and the only landscape that exists is what we are. We possess nothing, because we do not even possess ourselves. We have nothing because we are nothing. What hands will I reach out to what universe? The universe is not mine: it is me.
— Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
I Live My Life in Growing Orbits
I live my life in growing orbits which move out over the things of the world. Perhaps I can never achieve the last, but that will be my attempt.
I am circling around God, around the ancient tower, and I have been circling for a thousand years, and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm, or a great song.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, From Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God.
My last post about the “Slant-wise & Slippery” retelling of Little Red Riding Hoodreminded me of a fun and sexy song about Little Red by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. It was popular when I was a young teen experiencing those first faint stirrings of lust and longing that comes with sexual awakening. I sensed the power-struggle going on between Red and the Wolf. His lust made him a danger to the unaware Little Red, but his longing for her tamed him in the end. He became captive to his own lust, and Little Red, (still unaware in this retelling), held all the power.
Years later I read (and later watched the film) “In the Company of Wolves,” another retelling of Little Red Riding Hood by Angela Carter from her book of fairy tales The Bloody Chamber. In this story the innocent girl meets a handsome hunter in the forest while on her way to visit Granny. They flirt with each other and then part company to see who can reach Granny’s house first. If he wins, his prize is a kiss. She takes her time getting there, wanting to make sure he wins.
But when she arrives, she’s disappointed that it’s only Granny waiting there for her in bed. But what big eyes she has! What sharp teeth! Eventually she sees though his disguise. He throws off Granny’s clothes and reveals himself to be a man-eating wolf rather than the hunter. But when she sees her old Granny’s bones thrown into the fireplace and realizes she’s next on the menu, she turns the tables on him. She starts removing each of her garments and throws them into the fire until she’s as naked (and dangerous) as he is. When he is about to attack her, she laughs at him, knowing “she was nobody’s meat.” By the end of the story she is sleeping “sweet and sound” between the paws of “the tender wolf.”
Not long ago I came across another fun and sexy overturning of the Red/Wolf power struggle in Leonard Cohen’s song “I’m Your Man.”
“All lower love is but a schooling for the highest love,” says mystic Rudolf Steiner.
One last song, having nothing to do with Red or the Wolf, but it beautifully expresses the confusion and inward struggle that comes when transitioning from the lower to the highest form of love. It’s from the musical Jesus Christ, Superstar, and is sung by Mary Magdalene, who has only known love of the lower sort and is trying to understand this new sense of spiritual love for the Beloved.
I’ve always loved fairy tales, especially the darker, deeper, originals where good did not always overcome evil. As a young adult I was drawn toward those gothic love stories that were a type of grown-up fairy tale—Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Bellefleur, Song of Solomon, Beloved, and others that blurred the boundaries between the real and the fantastic.
Tales that told the truth but told it slant, as Emily Dickenson advised. Stories that show how slippery the truth is, how slantwise the world lies.
So when my friend and fellow blogger, Luanne Castle, came out with Our Wolves, a chapbook of poetry about “Little Red Riding Hood,” I eagerly scooped it up. I discovered with delight that she explores the slippery, slantwise versions of the classic tale, re-imagines various retellings, and poses intriguing questions.
Who are the “wolves” in our own lives, those who would devour or diminish, strangle or silence us? Who are these little Reds with their erotic cloaks and bobby socks? Their “do-good” Granny baskets and daring treks through dark woods warned by all as dangerous?
And what of the Mother who sends her daughter off on such a risky mission? What of the Granny who chooses to live in such a dark and dreadful place?
What of the Hunter or Woodcutter, who in some versions and not others, comes to save—whom? The Granny or the Girl? Or is it the Woodcutters own blood-lust that lifts the axe that splits the Wolf? Is it lust for the Wolf’s silky pelt that brings the Hunter to Granny’s door?
And what of the Wolf? Misunderstood? Maliciously maligned for being what he is, a Wolf?
If you love fairy tales and poetry, and enjoy exploring the slippery and slantwise, then I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading Luanne’s Our Wolves available on Amazon.
Here’s a nibble from the last lines of the last poem to whet your appetite:
It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness. With sadness there is something to rub against, a wound to tend with lotion and cloth. When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up, something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
But happiness floats. It doesn’t need you to hold it down. It doesn’t need anything. Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing, and disappears when it wants to. You are happy either way. Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house and now live over a quarry of noise and dust cannot make you unhappy. Everything has a life of its own, it too could wake up filled with possibilities of coffee cake and ripe peaches, and love even the floor which needs to be swept, the soiled linens and scratched records . . .
Since there is no place large enough to contain so much happiness, you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you into everything you touch. You are not responsible. You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit, for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it, and in that way, be known.
From Words Under Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, published by Far Corner Books, 1995.
This poem speaks to me. Sorrow is something heavy you carry in your body. It’s personal. It belongs to you. But happiness is too large to carry in your body. It comes from without and carries you along with it. It’s not personal. It doesn’t belong to you. It blows “you” away and leaves you with this “belongs to everyone” feeling. The whole world is included in happiness. It just shines everywhere, through you and to everything that surrounds you. Everything glows in that golden light, even the soiled linens and scratched records, as Nye writes.
It’s like the painting by Pierre Bonnard above. Happiness shines through every line–from the lax layered leaves at the bottom, the elegantly twisted trunk, the bursts of red and yellow at the center, the far-faint mountain in the background, to the snowy blossoms bursting heavenward.
There’s no reason for the happiness I feel when I look at this painting. It just is.