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Poetry Fodder

Sheep pull toy, found at Worthpoint.com

Sheep pull toy, found at Worthpoint.com

Pablo Neruda’s essay, “Childhood and Poetry” tells the story of a gift that he remembered for the whole of his life:

One time, investigating in the backyard of our house in Temuco the tiny objects and minuscule beings of my world, I came upon a hole in one of the boards of the fence. I looked through the hole and saw a landscape like that behind our house, uncared for, and wild. I moved back a few steps, because I sensed vaguely that something was about to happen. All of a sudden a hand appeared — a tiny hand of a boy about my own age. By the time I came close again, the hand was gone, and in its place there was a marvelous white sheep.

The sheep’s wool was faded. Its wheels had escaped. All of this only made it more authentic. I had never seen such a wonderful sheep. I looked back through the hole, but the boy had disappeared. I went into the house and brought out a treasure of my own: a pinecone, opened, full of odor and resin, which I adored. I set it down in the same spot and went off with the sheep.

I never saw either the hand or the boy again. And I have never seen a sheep like that either.

That exchange inspired Neruda to make a life of writing poetry, which is similar to leaving gifts for strangers. Authentic gifts, unique and from the heart.

I’m always looking for a hand to come through a fence and give me something amazing. Other times I’m watching the ground in hopes of finding an arrowhead or a bluebird feather. Watching the ground is not much fun, though, and the best surprise gift is a story that lights up the room, or a shared laugh that flattens the walls. Here are a few of the stories that lit up my world recently: 

  1. My friend J. attended a celebratory luncheon at a Mexican restaurant. The attendees, including 90ish-year-old Granny D, lined both sides of a long table, and at each place setting was an individual bowl of salsa. During the clatter and clang of conversation while waiting for the food to arrive, J. looked up to see Granny D. drinking salsa from her bowl with a straw.
  2. J., M., and I were driving to lunch on Friday, and J. said she wanted to get her nails done. “I need a pedicure,” I said, “because my feet are in bad shape.” M. snorted. “Do you both have all your toenails?” she asked. J. and I admitted that we did, in fact, have all our toenails. “Sexy ladies,” M. said. She said no more, other than to claim that only one of her toenails is currently missing.
  3. J. (whose story-cup has been running over this week) told of a time when she was going through security at the airport. I believe it was an emergency trip; she had packed in a big hurry, and threw her makeup case into the suitcase without checking it for bottles that held more than 3 ounces of liquid, etc. She was stopped by a TSA agent who discovered, within the makeup case, a pen made from a deer antler with a bullet for a tip. A bolt-action ink pen! The agent did not confiscate the pen, but he told her not to bring it back through the airport, ever. “Why was it in your makeup case?” I asked, but J. had no answer for that.

These bits and pieces–and the many others that enliven my world–often inspire me to write poetry, just as they might have inspired Neruda. Unfortunately, the best I can do is an occasional limerick. Here’s one now! I call it “Proverbs.”

A sheep toy with no wheels means it’s real hard to pull it.
Don’t board planes with a pen if the tip is a bullet.
And if you find you can’t draw

Your salsa through a straw,
Well, it wouldn’t affect your toenails, now would it?

 

2016-03-17 08.02.14

There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees,
A quiet house, some green and modest acres
A little way from every troubling town,
A little way from factories, schools, laments.
I would have time, I thought, and time to spare,
With only streams and birds for company,
To build out of my life a few wild stanzas.
And then it came to me, that so was death,
A little way away from everywhere.

2016-03-17 08.01.51

There is a thing in me still dreams of trees.
But let it go. Homesick for moderation,
Half the world’s artists shrink or fall away.
If any find solution, let him tell it.
Meanwhile I bend my heart toward lamentation
Where, as the times implore our true involvement,
The blades of every crisis point the way.

I would it were not so, but so it is.
Who ever made music of a mild day?

— Mary Oliver, “A Dream of Trees”

2016-03-17 08.00.37

ice spike 1

A gleam in the gloaming.

In the dead of winter, the evenings are cold and dark and the mornings begin with a painfully slow return of the light. It’s as if the machinery that lifts the sun is a hand-cranked wooden device operated by an unnaturally decrepit wee person, whose tiny boots are lifted off the ground each time he reaches the top of the turn. On frosty mornings I can almost hear the creakings of the machine and the wee person’s bones.

This makes the early light more precious, and I look to the east each morning to catch the first signs of illumination. During January I was usually halfway to work before they appeared.

Maybe we have to endure the longer darkness of this season as a reminder of the importance of light and hope. Common wisdom in North Carolina is that it takes two bitterly cold months to annihilate all the fleas and ticks; perhaps it’s the same for people, and long spells of cold and dark eradicate some of our more toxic qualities and cause us to seek the light more purposefully.

In a winter-hammered landscape, the light creates a feeling of compassion…it is possible to imagine a stifling ignorance falling away from us. – Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams, as quoted by Robert Macfarlane in his wonderful book, Landscapes.

Even during the gray weeks of Lent there are signs of hope. One Sunday morning this winter I glanced outside and saw a bright flash in the birdbath, like a bit of mirror reflecting the first fragments of sunlight, even while the rest of the landscape lay steeped in gloom. I stood at the back door in my pajamas, trying to figure out what the gleam meant. I looked at it through our binoculars, then Ernesto looked.

“It’s ice,” he said.

“It isn’t,” I replied.  

Finally I put on socks and a jacket over my pajamas and went to check it out. It was ice. (“I told you,” E. said.) The ice had grown out of the birdbath to form an inverted pyramid, about 1.5” tall and filled with water.

Ice Spike 2

I searched for “ice formation in birdbath” online and found the web pages of Dr. James R. Carter, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Department of Geography-Geology. Dr. Carter specializes in ice formations, and he has conducted many interesting experiments in his own yard:

To my surprise, one night at about 11:00 PM I found the water in one bottle cap formed into what is called an Ice Spike.  I had read about these but suddenly I had my own. I have been able to produce ice spikes on occasion but have not been able to do it consistently.   

Dr. Carter’s site features a picture of an ice pyramid similar to mine. It had been sent to him by someone like me who had found him through the magic of the Internet. Dr. Carter writes:

This triangular ice in the birdbath is not unique in the world. The Weatherwise explanation provides a link to a web page of a couple in Scotland where they show a number of such ice formations that they found in their garden. And I have received photos from other persons showing triangular wedges of ice growing in birdbaths.  I appreciate seeing such photos so please share them with me.

Well, of course I would share. I immediately sent an e-mail to Dr. Carter with a photo of our ice vase (that’s what Fred and Sarah, the couple in Scotland, call them). He wrote back straight away, telling me he’d never seen one with a four-sided top; they’re usually triangular. He added that he may post my photos to his website, but he made no firm promise, as he doesn’t update the pages very often.

Ice vase, after I displaced some of the water inside by sticking my finger in it.

Ice vase, after I displaced some of the water inside by sticking my finger in it.

What a lovely thing to find by accident in one’s backyard. As Henry David Thoreau once said of snowflakes: “How full of the creative genius is the air in which these are generated! I should hardly admire more if real stars fell and lodged on my coat.”

Star-like or not, in the grand scheme of things our ice vase—which melted in the afternoon sun—is hardly important. Maybe you’ve noticed there’s a lot going on in the world right now. In America alone, politicians have been taken over by a sort of lunacy, every symptom of which is reported with great zeal. Instead of falling away, a stifling ignorance seems to be closing in on us. Why isn’t the cold and dark creating a feeling of compassion in the political arena, or at least killing off the hateful fleas and ticks? No wonder I want only to turn away, and look for light on the horizon—which happily comes a wee bit earlier every morning and lingers a tad bit longer every evening.

Anyway, E. B. White has given me permission to turn away:

A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down.

In ‘The Ring of Time,’ I wrote: ‘As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost.

I have always felt that way, too. So I’m taking care to preserve evidence of our item of enchantment here, in my virtual cabinet of curiosities. Maybe a portion of the light that it held for one winter morning will be preserved with it, for the betterment of us all.

Merry cupid2

Some fragments of Christmastime cheer to help you stay merry:

I was standing in line at the post office to mail a package to my nephew in Colorado. There was only one customer ahead of me—a woman with two parcels on the counter. A young girl stood next to her with two more brown-paper packages in her arms. On the side of one of the packages, in large green letters, was written: “No socks inside!”

My sister Holli got a large, real tree and set it up in the living room of her house. She filled the tree stand with water, and checked it the next day. She was pleased to find that the tree had sucked up a good bit of the water. “That’s a good sign!” she told her husband Bobby, as she added more. She added more water the next day.

On the day after that, Bobby noticed an unpleasant smell in the room and asked Holli to come smell it with him. They sniffed at the fireplace, thinking a varmint had died in the chimney. They checked under the house, but no, the smell was definitely inside. “Do you think something came in with the Christmas tree?” Holli asked. (I pictured a wee field mouse clinging to the trunk, dying of fright during the ride on top of the car, and then having tinsel and lights draped over its tiny corpse.)

They began a more careful check of the living room and soon found that the quarts of water from the tree stand had leaked out and been sucked up into the area rug. “And there I was bragging about my Christmas tree drinking so much water,” Holli said, sadly.

Well, it’s a simple fact that not everything goes smoothly during the holidays, does it? Our church Christmas program was planned for simplicity so that we could put it together in a short amount of time with a small number of people and not mess it up. The minister’s wife said, “It’s all songs that we know, with a narration of the Christmas story, and we’ll practice twice.” We practiced twice, and found that, unschooled and mostly lacking in talent, we were simply not up to the task of singing “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” or “Angels From the Realms of Glory.” Those two songs were edited out of the program almost immediately. Anyway, angels and shepherds appeared in the lyrics of some of the other songs, so it hardly mattered. Simplicity—that was the ticket.

It came to pass that on the day of the Christmas program, the music left propped on the organ had been mysteriously scrambled. Instead of following “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” with “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the minister’s wife began playing “We Three Kings,” which should have come nearer the end of the production. Those of us in the choir made that shift successfully, but then had no idea of what we were expected to sing next. After much rustling of song sheets and a stage-whispered consultation with the minister’s wife, we got back on track and limped to the finish in record time. I believe that in at least two cases we finished singing our song before the minister’s wife had quite finished playing it.

Afterwards the minister said, “Well, wasn’t that a lot of fun!” His wife, still seated at her instrument, shook her head no. He didn’t get a single “Amen” from the congregation, either, but with no decrease in enthusiasm he added, “And don’t you know that Jesus enjoyed it!”

Finally, from my friend Elizabeth von Arnim we get a sweet illustration of a German country Christmas, complete with three Christmas trees in the library:

It is the fashion, I believe, to regard Christmas as a bore of rather gross description, and as a time when you are invited to over-eat yourself, and pretend to be merry without just cause. As a matter of fact, it is one of the prettiest and most poetic institutions possible, if observed in the proper manner…. [F]or days beforehand, every time the three babies go into the garden they expect to meet the Christ Child with His arms full of gifts. They firmly believe that it is thus their presents are brought, and it is such a charming idea that Christmas would be worth celebrating for its sake alone.

When the trees are lighted, and stand in their radiance shining down on the happy faces, I forget all the trouble it has been, and the number of times I have had to run up and down stairs, and the various aches in head and feet, and enjoy myself as much as anybody.

(There follows a description of the singing of carols, and the distribution of gifts to all of those who work on the family’s estate, until finally the festivities come to an end.)

When [the babies] came to say good-night, they were all very pale and subdued. The April baby had an exhausted-looked Japanese doll with her, which she said she was taking to bed, not because she liked him, but because she was so sorry for him, he seemed so very tired. They kissed me absently, and went away, only the April baby glancing at the trees as she passed and making them a curtesy.

“Good-bye, trees,” I heard her say; and then she made the Japanese doll bow to them, which he did, in a very languid and blasé fashion. “You’ll never see such trees again,” she told him, giving him a vindictive shake, “for you’ll be brokened long before next time.”

She went out, but came back as though she had forgotten something.

“Thank the Christkind so much, Mummy, won’t you, for all the lovely things He brought us. I suppose you’re writing to Him now, isn’t you?”

I cannot see that there was anything gross about our Christmas, and we were perfectly merry without any need to pretend, and for at least two days it brought us a little nearer together, and made us kind.

So may we all be brought nearer together, and as we are merry we should remember also to be kind. If we chance to over-eat ourselves, let us not forget in our stupor to write our own thank-yous to those who bring us gifts—even if we find upon unwrapping the package that there are, in fact, socks inside.

 

Christmas Memory

I’ve been reading the collected works of Elizabeth von Arnim, mainly because I was able to buy 11 of her novels for $1.99 via Kindle. I came across her when reading about British author Barbara Pym, who was heavily influenced by von Arnim. Pym is one of my favorites for low-key humor, so I collected the 11 works and set to reading.

First, about the author: She was a mess. Elizabeth was born (under about three different names, none of which matter for our purposes) in Australia, grew up in England, married a Prussian aristocrat and lived in Germany, married the elder brother of Bertrand Russell, split with him, carried on with H. G. Wells for about three years, had a lengthy relationship with a British publisher who was 30 years (thirty years!) younger, and died in Charleston, SC in 1941 at age 74. I expect she was exhausted.

But I enjoy her writing immensely. I started with Elizabeth and Her German Garden, and then read The Pastor’s Wife and Enchanted April. Elizabeth is, besides being a mess, a hoot. There is one passage in German Garden (which is autobiographical) in which her small daughters attempt to tell her the story of Moses in the bulrushes, using a mix of German and English:

“He wasn’t a cat,” [the April baby said.]

“A cat?”

“Yes, he wasn’t a cat, that Moses—a boy was he.”

“But of course he wasn’t a cat,” I said with some severity, “no one ever supposed he was.”

“Yes, but mummy,” she explained eagerly, with much appropriate hand-action, “the cook’s Moses is a cat.”

“Oh, I see. Well?”

“And he was put in a basket in the water, and that did swim.” [There follows a bit of back-and-forth about how the Konigstochter and her ladies discovered the basket.]

“And then they went near, and one must take off her shoes and stockings and go in the water and fetch that tiny basket, and then they made it open, and that Kind did cry and cry and strampel so”—here both babies gave such a vivid illustration of the strampeln that the verandah shook—“and see! It is a tiny baby. And they fetched somebody to give it to eat, and the Konigstochter can keep that boy, and further it doesn’t go.”

That is the most entertaining retelling of the Moses story that I have read, though I have seen a modern e-mail circulate that featured children’s views of various Bible stories. My favorite was: “Jesus also had twelve opossums. The worst one was Judas Asparagus.”

Another von Arnim book, In the Mountains, contains no children or Bible stories. In it, the main character returns to her family’s summer home after five years away and finds that the books have shifted about on the shelves during her absence:

There is the oddest lot of books in this house, pitchforked together by circumstances, and sometimes their accidental rearrangement by Antoine after cleaning their shelves each spring… would make their writers, if they could know, curdle between their own covers. Some are standing on their heads—Antoine has no prejudices about the right side up of an author—most of those in sets have their volumes wrong, and yesterday I found a Henry James, lost from the rest of him, lost even, it looked like, to propriety, held tight between two ladies. The ladies were Ouida and Ella Wheeler Wilcox. They would hardly let him go, they had got him so tight. I pulled him out, a little damaged, and restored him, ruffled in spite of my careful smoothing, to his proper place. It was the Son and Brother, and there he had been for months, perhaps years, being hugged. Dreadful.

But it is impossible, I find, to tidy books without ending up by sitting on the floor in the middle of a great untidiness and reading. The coffee grows cold and the egg repulsive, but still I read. … Perhaps I had better not get arranging books before breakfast.

(Later in the book, she has this to say about breakfast: “There is a great virtue in a hard boiled egg. It holds one down, yet not too heavily. It satisfies without inflaming.”)

The description of books being jammed together inappropriately on the shelves reminded me of the book-spine poems I had so much fun writing. But they are not as easy as you may think, and I tore up several rooms looking for a good combination. I’m not as happy with it as with my earlier efforts, which were satisfyingly sing-songy, but it is appropriate for the season:

A Christmas Memory
Refiner’s Fire
Celestial Navigation
A Lovely Light

Now I sit in the middle of a great untidiness, with books scattered all over and stacked in threes and fours across two rooms. I’ll pick them up tomorrow, before a satisfying (but not inflaming) breakfast.

And further it doesn’t go.

 

 

A November Bear Story

Pilot Mtn

View from Pilot Mountain 11/6/15

Back on February 9th I made a note in my journal:

I am working on my bear story, which grows more complex and then slims down again. I think that the gain/loss cycle is healthy for a story, though, even if it’s bad news for people.

Today my bear story (which in fact did end up quite slim) has been posted in Deep South Magazine, an online publication.  It has actually been finished since August, but they have held onto it because it is set in November. If you have time, head over there and read “The Last Bear,” then let me know what you think.

Here’s an excerpt, a small taste of what can happen when a beloved member of a Southern community passes away:  

Granddaddy Sloane’s refrigerator was full to bursting. The table and counters held all that they could. Extra tea, lemonade, orange juice, soft drinks, a carton of eggs, and a gallon of milk were stashed in two large coolers outside the back door. Apple, sweet potato, and pecan pies were stacked on top of the refrigerator. A pound cake, a chocolate pound cake, chocolate chip cookies, brownies, yeast rolls, cornbread, and a dozen doughnuts were in the living room.

Anything that could be frozen for later consumption went straight to the chest freezer in the laundry room, and we piled more food on top of the washer and dryer. Finally, Graham and Scott emptied four bags of ice into the bathtub, and now a flotilla of cream- and meringue-topped pies sailed on the surface. It made a pretty sight.

That’s just straight-up bragging. I am excessively proud of having written those cream pies into the bathtub.

(The photograph has nothing to do with the story, of course. But it is a nice memento of my early-November visit to Pilot Mountain.)

Beauty

A review of Beauty as a State of Being: Mastering Mind and the Spiritual Path
Dr. Solomon Katz
Deeper Currents Press (2013)

Who doesn’t need a treasure map to inner peace? Beauty as a State of Being, which won a Silver Medal from the 2014 Nautilus Book Awards, is a 21st-century treasure map for pilgrims, showing us a way out of our mental Slough of Despond and onto a more serene path to the Heavenly City.

The author, Dr. Solomon Katz—the child of Holocaust survivors and a former Buddhist monk—called upon his study of meditation, world religions, and clinical psychology to create this guidebook to a richer spiritual life. It mixes prose, delivered in carefully presented, concise packages, with poetry. The prose itself is remarkably poetic, written with a direct simplicity and a light, sometimes whimsical, touch.

(At one point I found myself so captivated by the writing that it reminded me of an image from some other book. The writer of that book had described small packets of grape leaves that, when unwrapped, revealed delicious, fragrant raisins in the center. When I couldn’t shake that image, I tried to track down the book. A full-house search followed. I looked in the office bookshelves, and then I looked in the guest room because that’s where I thought it should be, but it wasn’t. I looked in the bedroom and living room, and never did find it and felt rather forlorn. Then, as if by magic, last night I remembered that it wasn’t in that book, it was in a completely different book! Which I found! But it turned out that it wasn’t grape leaves, it was lemon leaves.)

And that, my friends, is not only a serious detour from the book I was enjoying, but is also a pretty good analogy for what Katz’s book is about: Our minds are remarkable and dangerous. Our minds follow noisy, crowded paths that were learned over the years and are too comfortable to desert. Our thoughts get stuck in relentless traffic circles. They are easily hijacked. We try to concentrate on one thing, but before long we are off on a twisting side road, or following multiple lines of thought at once (doing none of them justice), or are fixated on thoughts of the many, many ways that we are deficient. Oh, aren’t we good at dwelling on the ways that we are imperfect!

Or am I the only one who feels this way?

Katz describes the mind as a chainsaw—capable of great power when used for its proper purpose, and capable of absolute havoc when it is not. We must find the proper balance in how we use our buzzing, energetic minds to avoid mental disarray and anxiety. 

I will sometimes tell patients to listen not to the voice of doom and catastrophe but to the inner voice of compassion. Find a kinder voice within to counter the clamoring of fear. (p. 69)

You are like a painter facing a blank canvas. Your life is the canvas. You can paint any picture or series of pictures. How do you want to picture your life? What would you want your life to look like? The canvas is blank, awaiting your creativity. Try to paint heaven on earth. (p. 75)

Katz weaves together simple exercises for finding the mental balance we all need with examples of patients whose lives were improved as they used meditation, prayer, and repetitive affirmations to change self-defeating thought patterns. These are some of the passages that I would like tattooed on my forearms for easy reference:

If you can work yourself up, you can work yourself down. If you can generate panic by imagining catastrophe, you can generate bliss by imagining heaven. (p. 98)

The secret of peace of mind is:
Don’t talk, Listen. (p. 148)

If you are not peaceful and wish to be peaceful, abandon whatever story you are embedded in and return to listening, to stillness. Be still. (p. 149)

After reading Beauty as a State of Being, I came across a snippet from the poem “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” by W. B. Yeats. It reminded me of what I had learned:

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything.
Everything we look upon is blest.

And so it is.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received my copy of Beauty as a State of Being free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

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