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?
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.
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.
I’ve been reading (again) Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, a collection of essays on the art and craft of writing poetry. There’s so much here to mine for writers of any stripe, or for anyone engaged in the creative process.
My favorite essay—and certainly the most underlined and annotated—is the last, “Writing and the Threshold Life.” It’s here where she speaks of the liminal, the time and space of transition integral to all rites of passage. It’s where, she writes, “a person leaves behind his or her old identity and dwells in a threshold state of ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy.”
Most people dip in this space only temporarily for specific purposes. But for some “the liminal becomes their only dwelling place—becomes home.”
This was true for me when our family sailed around the world. The sea was our home. We were in a constant state of transition, travelling within the circle of an ever expanding horizon, with no landfall at all sometimes for weeks, months, at a time.
The sea was “a threshold state of ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy” as we sailed upon its surface or dived beneath it, weathered its storms and doldrums, watched lightening forking the sky and striking down all around us, greeted herds of dolphins rising up from the deep to play by our side before dipping back into the world from which they rose.
Our world was in constant motion as the waves rushed past our hull during the night and the stars circled over head while the boat rocked us to sleep. One after another port or cove, island or atoll, would disappear behind us new ones came into view.
When our travels ended, coming back to a so-called conventional life ashore did not dispose me of this deep sense of the liminal, of living always within a state of transition, for so many transitions I’ve made between then and now.
When I deeply examine the fabric and construction of this world we live in, I become more and more convinced that we all are living within a liminal state all the time. For nothing stays the same, nothing is as it first appears, everything is always becoming something else.
We pass through one doorway to another, one room to another, one place to another—so many thresholds we pass through every single day. Dusk to dawn, toddlers to teens, acorns to oak trees. There’s no end to it.
But the poet or any person on a creative or spiritual journey lives this liminal life even more keenly, or at least more consciously, more deliberately, perhaps, than others.
Hirshfield quotes from a poem by Czeslaw Milosz:
The purpose of poetry is to remind us How difficult it is to remain just one person, For our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, And invisible guests come in and out at will.
She elaborates: “Speaking from the point of view of multiplicity, betweenness, and visitation, the writer can become a person in whom both individuality and community may ripen into true expression.”
When writing, she tells us, we assert who we are and what we think, but we also surrender those things “to stand humbled and stunned and silent before the wild and inexplicable beauties and mysteries of being.”
The writer’s task is to become “permeable and transparent.”
It’s about “stepping past what we already think we know and into an entirely new relationship with the many possibilities of being, with the ultimately singular and limitless mystery of being.”
“Above all it is about . . . the affection for all existence,” the hawk as well as the rabbit it hunts.
But isn’t this, or shouldn’t this be, the task of all of us as we transit this life? To stand humbled, stunned, and transparent as we move from what we were before this life began to what we will become when we travel beyond it?
Hirshfield’s book ends with this poem by Gary Snyder:
On Climbing the Sierra Matterhorn Again After thirty-One Years
Range after range of mountains Year after year after year, I am still in love.
It’s about the need to catch every falling cup “with soft hands” and fill it to the brim “with brimless being.”
This happens sometimes when writing poetry. A phrase will swim up from some primal depth, like a gift or some pressing urge—a fuzzy felt-sense of something that wants to be known, and, in the writing, becomes clearer, although not fully plumbed. Thus it returns, as if it has more to teach.
It means different things to me at different times. Sometimes it connotes a deep kindness that reaches out to save things that seem to be lost, fallen, ready to shatter—to hold them gently in our hands, our minds, and cherish everything good about them so much they become full to overflowing.
Other times it seems to suggest catching every moment before it disappears and just holding it gently in our awareness, feeling its fullness to such a degree that the moment stills and becomes its own kind of forever unending.
Doing this when it’s still and quiet is like stepping into a pool and swimming luxuriously through it. Steeping ourselves in every sound, texture, color, scent of that still moment—breathing it all in.
Trying to do so in those harried moments when you’re full of feeling—perhaps stressed, anxious, in a hurry and rushing around—is harder. But even then, the attempt to do so creates its own magic. Even as everything around you is in a rush, the moment slows and softens as the mind merges with its surroundings, savoring its suchness. That moment melts into the next in a never-ending stream. Nothing is lost. All remains full.
Me, you, our lives, each passing moment—We are the cup that must be caught with soft hands and filled to the brim with brimless being. That’s the urgent need.
What is it about the fragile, fleeting, and flagrant beauty of flowers that can so break a heart?
I wrote about this once in a photo-essay called Riffing on Roses. And then just this week I found this new-to-me poem by Mary Oliver, Peonies, which broke my heart again.
The poem speaks to the flagrant beauty of flowers that gives itself away, all that it is, so freely and readily to all that comes its way: the ants, the breeze, the sun’s soft buttery fingers, the poet’s breaking heart.
“Beauty the brave, the exemplary,” indeed.
I wish we all could live so bravely, so carelessly, giving all that we are to all there is. I wish we all, like those ants, craving such sweetness and finding it, would bore deep within that sap. We must cherish and adore all we are, all we have, all that is, while it’s still here to have.
This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready to break my heart as the sun rises, as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers
and they open — pools of lace, white and pink — and all day the black ants climb over them,
boring their deep and mysterious holes into the curls, craving the sweet sap, taking it away
to their dark, underground cities — and all day under the shifty wind, as in a dance to the great wedding,
the flowers bend their bright bodies, and tip their fragrance to the air, and rise, their red stems holding
all that dampness and recklessness gladly and lightly, and there it is again — beauty the brave, the exemplary,
blazing open. Do you love this world? Do you cherish your humble and silky life? Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?
Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden, and softly, and exclaiming of their dearness, fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,
with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling, their eagerness to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are nothing, forever?
Mary Oliver, New And Selected Poems. (Beacon Press; Reprint edition November 19, 2013)
Days pass when I forget the mystery. Problems insoluble and problems offering their own ignored solutions jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing their colored clothes; cap and bells.
And then once more the quiet mystery is present to me, the throng’s clamor recedes: the mystery that there is anything, anything at all, let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything, rather than void: and that, O Lord, Creator, Hallowed One, You still, hour by hour sustain it.
O Sweet Irrational Worship, By Thomas Merton
Wind and a bobwhite And the afternoon sun.
By ceasing to question the sun I have become light,
Bird and wind.
My leaves sing.
I am earth, earth
All these lighted things Grow from my heart.
A tall, spare pine Stands like the initial of my first Name when I had one.
When I had a spirit, When I was on fire When this valley was Made out of fresh air You spoke my name In naming Your silence: O sweet, irrational worship!
I am earth, earth
My heart’s love Bursts with hay and flowers. I am a lake of blue air In which my own appointed place Field and valley Stand reflected.