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Archive for August, 2012

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Until I visited Santa Fe I had no idea that there was a patron saint of cakes and cookies. But sure enough, there he was in a little shop that sold a really astounding variety of saintly goods – Saint Von Nicholas of Myra.

Often when someone travels from our office they bring back candies or treats from the place they visited—salt water taffy from the beach, chocolates from Vienna. In keeping with that same spirit, I picked up one to the little St. Von Nick icons as an office gift. Since he was the patron of cakes and cookies, I decided we could hang him up in the area where we always share treats at work and maybe he’d have a beneficial effect on our supply of baked goods.

When I got back to the office I hung him up and sent an e-mail message to the department:

“Rather than bring you back something perishable from Santa Fe, I elected to bring a gift that (I hope) will keep on giving: A small wooden icon of St. Von Nicholas of Myra, Patron of Cakes and Cookies. I will hang St. VN over the usual cake & cookie place, and if we’re all very, very good perhaps he will bless us. Soon.”

When I arrived at work the next morning at 8:30, a colleague said, “Vicki! Did you see? The saint worked!” A pan of brownies graced the treats counter beneath the icon.  They were brought in by a co-worker who had not been in the office on Monday, and therefore had not yet read the e-mail. Truly a miracle.

I once wrote a story called “Nonperishables,” about a woman who decides to enter her pound cake at the state fair, but ends up giving it to a friend instead. “What’s the use of pouring your love into a pound cake,” she asks, “and then having three bites taken out of it just for purposes of criticism? You should spread them around! You should give them to the poor, the bereaved, the sick, and the lonesome. You know what? That’s what’s nonperishable! Not the cake, but the thought and the love that make you give it.”

I am looking at a counter filled with love right this minute. I have zucchini bread, and low-carb peanut butter cookies, and leftovers from a delicious Thai lunch. Not to mention bouquets of flowers, which feed the soul and are themselves perishable. All of this to help me heal from a small surgery. It’s working like a charm, too.

I wonder if we shouldn’t have special healers with the power to write prescriptions for brownies, fruit pies, breads, and cookies, casseroles and soups and salads. I think there could be a great deal of value in that.  And no risk of dangerous side effects, even in the event of an overdose.

On the day that St. Von Nicholas set up residence in our office, a gentleman, B., came to my doorway and explained that while he liked brownies just like everyone else, he was really a pound cake man. So later that week I took a pound cake, sliced, individually wrapped, and packed in a basket. I set the basket beneath the icon at 8:30, and at 9:30 B. brought the empty basket to my office.

“We need more,” he said.

I shook my head. “I hope you got more than one piece,” I told him, since he really was the only reason I had made pound cake in the first place.

His big blue eyes got rounder—and yet they conveyed a terrible sadness. Then he held up four fingers.  

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3-D view from the front of Curiosity, courtesy of NASA.

The time that my journey takes is long and the way of it long.

I came out on the chariot of the first gleam of light, and pursued my voyage through the wildernesses of worlds leaving my track on many a star and planet.

It is the most distant course that comes nearest to thyself, and that training is the most intricate which leads to the utter simplicity of a tune.

The traveller has to knock at every alien door to come to his own, and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end.

My eyes strayed far and wide before I shut them and said “Here art thou!”

The question and the cry “Oh, where?” melt into tears of a thousand streams and deluge the world with the flood of the assurance “I am!”

— Song XII, Gitanjali, 1913, by Rabindranath Tagore

 

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Aug 10 2012 003

We came across a row of mysterious doors in the park last Friday evening. There was no explanation for them, although signage is abundant everywhere else in the park— especially next to the creek, which the locals call a river. Stern warnings advised us repeatedly not to swim, fish, or dabble in the waterway, which is a possible conduit for sewage when the rains fall heavy.

If playing in the water is forbidden, maybe it would be all right to play with the doors. There is no posted warning not to, nor is there any explanation of what they are for. A child’s elaborate play village?  Representative of a pretend motel or apartment complex?  I decided the doors must be part of an art installation, perhaps in the process of being dismantled. I went online to see if I could find anything about it. I couldn’t.

What I found instead was artist Jeff Waldman, who installed tiny, unexplained portals around the San Francisco Bay Area. He sent out a call for artists to create little Alice-in-Wonderland fairy doors, and then he attached them randomly around town for people to discover and enjoy.

Jeff Waldman is all about joy.  Here’s how he describes another of his Happiness Projects, one that involved swings:

To start, we set out across San Francisco and installed swings. A lot of them. The first in a series of projects aimed at discovering the unexpected, lost and often ignored pleasures that make life so amazingly joyous.

The moment when you first surrender yourself—for many, the first time in decades—your stomach rises a bit, the wind catches your hair and at the apex of that first swing it’s instant smiles. Lying on your back, staring up the sky through a few lofty branches and for a second gravity is only teasing about pulling you down. Some giggled. Most laughed. No one walked away without a huge grin and sunnier disposition.People passed these on their way to work. Walking home. Running errands. Going through the motions of a mundane existence. Almost all of them stopped to see what we were doing. Some asked to try them. Others had to be offered an excuse to succumb to something so child-like. Every one of them learned an incredible lesson in giving yourself up to simplistic delights that every child knows so well and so many adults have dismissed and forgotten.

The man in the parting shot of the video let his young autistic son try out our second install of the day. You could see Dad eyeing the swing the whole time with a little jealousy. That itch in the back of his brain that hadn’t been scratched in forty years. We asked him if he would please get on it…that it would make our day. He didn’t require much goading. He wedged himself in and gave a little shake to get going. He didn’t have much luck so we offered to give him a push. He scoffed just a bit. Everyone old enough to have a mortgage thinks they’re above a push. But he relented. Surrendered to that basic urge to indulge in something joyous. The very second he took off there was a giggle. I swear to God, a giddy little scream escaped that man and his legs kicked out instinctively. His son laughed near the point of tears, probably not having seen his dad let go like that in quite some time. Instant and utter happiness.

We could all use more happiness. So get out there. Open a mysterious door. Swing. Let yourself be pushed, especially if you have a mortgage.

Enjoy the ride.

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“Wilson’s Bird of Paradise,” by Diana Sudyka (2007).

“Here is an entry from my journal that fell off my desk and landed on my lap and opened to this page.”

This quote is from an article (“Prayer, Poverty, and Creativity”) by Brother Paul Quenon in Parabola’s Spring 2012 issue. The quote had been pulled out and featured in a largish text box, so it was impossible to miss. And since I’ve been having trouble figuring out what to write about, I took it as a sign and used it as a writing prompt: I would randomly choose a page from my own online journal and use it as a jumping-off point for a blog post.

This was a risky move. Brother Paul’s journal entry was a meaningful and beautifully written meditation on prayer; he used it as the foundation of a piece about contemplation and creativity. He wove in some lovely poetry by Thomas Merton and Emily Dickinson. Altogether it was so wonderful I could hardly stand it.

But I randomly opened one of the journals I keep on the computer and landed on a passage that was quite colorful and referenced an original poem of my own—a bonus. I dug the poem out of the archives to include as decoration and make my post more like Brother Paul’s piece. Not that I am presenting my journal entry + poem as comparable to Brother Paul’s—far from it.

(In fact, as I tried to jot down some notes about the article so I wouldn’t forget them, I found that my pen sputtered and spit in a really aggravating way. It’s my favorite pen, mind you. Usually it writes very smoothly and is a pleasure to use, but once in a while it becomes cantankerous, distributing ink unevenly or not at all. It seems to like only the finest paper, and performs well only at a certain temperature. This led me to contemplate that I am exactly the same, myself. Once in a while I am able to write clearly and say precisely what I wish; other times I have a devil of a time getting anything down at all, or it comes out in such an unholy mess that it makes me stamp around and sulk.)

The journal entry that fell open (though not on my lap) was about just such a day. So without further ado, here it is, with a poem in the middle:

I have started a story, but it’s not going well.  I got distracted and had to write a poem for Will’s birthday, because I forgot his birthday until several days after it had passed.  Lateness required that I write him a poem to make up for it….  Funny thing is, last year I wrote him a birthday poem because he whined for one, and I ended up writing about the Florida wildfires. I got up this morning and there it was on the news:  more Florida wildfires.  There must be a connection between Will’s birthday and conflagration. 

William’s birthday?
No, it’s not!
(Yes, it was.
I just forgot.)
My perfect record
Has a blot
His birthday passed,
And I forgot.
Blame it on
A wicked plot!
Faulty calendars!
Advanced brain-rot!
Blame on, blame on,
It matters not—
The simple truth is
I forgot.
But William, here’s
A worn ten-spot.
Is all forgiven…
…and forgot?

A couple of nights ago we watched “Attenborough in Paradise” on PBS. David Attenborough went deep into the jungles of New Guinea to film birds of paradise. They are really amazing things, with brightly colored feathers that shoot out in all directions like fireworks.  My personal favorite was the Wilson’s Bird of Paradise.  The little curled tail-feathers are precious, and the Carolina-blue helmet is nice, too.  I found the most adorable painting of this bird at The Tiny Aviary blog, and the artist, Diana Sudyka, wrote underneath it: “I swear I did not make this bird up.”  It does look like a made-up bird.

Speaking of birds, last night on “Bizarre Foods” Andrew Zimmern was in Spain. He traveled out into the countryside and stopped at a restaurant where the chef prepared sautéed rooster combs and served them with rice. Andrew tried one and said, “Oh, they just melt in your mouth.”  Here’s what he wrote about it on his blog:  “A rooster crest really is the zigzag crown that sits on top of a rooster’s head. They are braised, peeled, and then some of the crests are chopped and stirred into the risotto, while several others are napped with a chicken glacé and perched atop the finished dish. If you love chicken feet, imagine all the gelatinous delight of those morsels multiplied by a factor of 100.”

The next day, Ernesto was still talking about his suddenly urgent desire to go to Barcelona, stay in the country, and eat delicious cheeses and ham.  “And rooster combs,” I reminded him.
“Rooster combs?” he said. “Oh, no. No, no, no.”
“Why not? Andrew says they melt in your mouth.”
Ernesto considered this.  “They will have to melt somewhere else,” he said.

Now that I’ve pieced together my journal entry and poem, illustrated it with Diana Sudyka’s wonderful painting (used with permission), and have run out of ink, as it were, I’m going to go back to Brother Paul’s article and pull out the essence of what he had to say about creativity:

True creativity does not need an excuse. It is its own motivation. It is spontaneous. It need not win public recognition, and its aim is not success.

Success is not the goal of creativity. Success can be a threat to creativity and become an end to itself. As Merton said, “If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.” Creativity, as life itself, is grounded in and shares in the sacred. … St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries opens with an appeal: Listen. … Listen, obaudire, also means obey. In listening, something new can emerge, something beyond my own assumptions, control and agenda.

I hear you, Brother Paul. I hear you.

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