Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Last weekend I spent some time cleaning out the guest bedroom and the three-drawer oak dresser that’s in it. Both were in bad shape, because during the holidays the guest room becomes my Christmas gift staging area, and I hide the clutter in the dresser. There was also a large plastic bin in the room that I’d been using to collect stuff to take to Goodwill, and because we’re short of shelf space there were stacks of books on the floor. I found space for the books in different places, mainly the linen closet (which has more books than linens in it). During the process, a “Loose Change” envelope from Wachovia Bank fell out of Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin.

“Loose change” seemed like a pretty good sum-up of the stuff I discovered as I tidied the room and cleared out the dresser. I came across many long-forgotten and mildly interesting items in the drawers: a box of old letters and cards; a stained-glass star with the tip of one arm broken off; a decorative round box that held an orphaned earring, a pearl button, several red beads, and a safety pin; and a basket about the size of a baseball. Oh! I also found my two autographed baseballs! I am forever putting them away where the sun can’t fade the signatures and then forgetting where they are. It’s always a lovely surprise when I come across them. One was signed by Pee Wee Reese, and the other by Jim “Catfish” Hunter.

The letters and cards I found—from my friends Kathy and Ruby, and two from my grandmother—got me interested in seeing what I had written to them, so I checked my old computer files to re-read my side of the conversations. Here’s some of the loose change I found there (edited for clarity and loosely organized):

Fine Dining I

Jeanne and I decided we wanted to go to a lowbrow place for lunch, so we picked the Waffle House. When the waitress came over to take our orders, she looked down at her pen and clicked it a couple of times experimentally.

“There’s grits on my pen,” she said. “But I reckon it’ll still write.” 

We ordered, the pen worked fine, and while we waited for our food Jeanne took two dollar bills to play some songs on the juke box. She played “When I’m 64” by the Beatles and two of the Waffle House songs, including “Special Lady at the Waffle House.” That got all the waitresses riled up, and the oldest one—a tiny woman with a fierce expression—came to our table, brandishing a mop. She looked straight at me and said, “Hold my arm.”

I clamped my hand on her free arm. She turned to Jeanne and shook the mop at her. “You better be glad she’s holding my arm,” she said, “else I’d come after you for playing that dang Waffle House song!” 

Fine Dining II

Ernesto and I went out to dinner with my parents this weekend. We had finished our meal and paid the bill, and finally we got up to go. Ernesto and I went first, and my dad came along behind with Mama. She didn’t have her walker with her, so she was holding tight to Daddy’s arm. We made it to the door of the restaurant well before they did, and Ernesto held it open for them to come through. As they approached, Daddy noticed that Mama still had a grip on her extra-large cloth dinner napkin, which was nearly dragging the ground. He said, “Virginia, you’re about to walk out with your napkin.” At that moment, our waitress came up behind them, said, “I’ll take it,” and whisked it away. Daddy proceeded outside with Mama, and Ernesto let the restaurant door close behind them. At that point Daddy said, “Well, you’ll never get a whole set like that.”

The Church Bake Sale

I was working the church baked goods table at our annual craft fair and hot dog sale a few years back when two sisters, a short, pretty one with short dark hair, and a tall, pretty one with long red hair came at the end of the day. I had just put up a sign declaring that everything was half price. Each sister had a baby in a stroller, and as they chatted I learned that the red-haired sister was visiting the dark-haired sister for the weekend and both were concerned about having plenty of food for their combined families. They bought an apple pie, all of the muffins and sausage biscuits on the table, loaves of bread, and assorted cookies. Since they still wanted to go look at some of the craft tables, once they’d paid for the baked goods I helped them tuck it in the shade underneath the table for safekeeping.

Later, when the sisters returned, I started pulling everything out and placing it on the table. The last baked good to come up was the apple pie, with a tinfoil lid. When I put it on the white-clothed table I noticed a few tiny ants. “Oh, no,” I said, “I’m afraid the ants found the pie while it was under the table.”

The tall, red-haired sister removed the foil and examined the top crust carefully. “There are only two, or maybe five,” she said. She blew lightly across the surface of that pie, sending flakes of top crust sailing onto the grass. Then she blew again, a little harder, and a larger piece of crust broke off and flew. “There,” she said. She slapped the foil back on top and started stacking muffins onto the stroller.

Spiders…

Earlier in the day, a lady came by the bake sale with a sort of dark blue medical device on her right foot, one of those cushiony things with two Velcro straps across the top of the foot.

“How’s your foot?” I asked. I figured she had sprained her ankle.

“It’s feeling pretty good,” she said, looking down at it. “I got bit by a brown recluse spider. It was hiding in the toe of the shoes I keep in my carport, so I can just slip them on when I want to run outside.” She looked up, and shook her head. “That spider bit me to the bone,” she said. “I lost a toe!”

I was horrified, but she added calmly, “You can bet that when I see a spider now, I stomp it good and hard.”

…and Snakes

My nephew, Will, has been in school in Idaho, and he came home this summer wearing a rattlesnake rattle on a leather cord around his neck. It wasn’t store-bought; he had actually killed the owner of the rattle. My sister told him that she did not wish him to tangle with rattlesnakes, and she told him about a colleague whose father was bitten by a rattlesnake while reaching into some brush to retrieve a bird he’d shot. “He nearly lost his hand!” she said. “He had to take anti-venom treatment for weeks.”

Will acknowledged the truth of this. The director of the school had already told him, “Whatever a rattlesnake bites, you should be prepared to lose.”

That same summer my dad found a black snake on the back porch steps, so he decided to relocate it. The snake attempted to flee, and slithered into a crack as if it planned to enter the crawl space (and from there the basement). Daddy was quick enough to grab the snake by the tail, but he said that a snake is surprisingly resistant to being dragged out of a crack, and he thinks he sprained the snake’s tail. He successfully relocated it to the woods, though.

Engineered Potato Salad

Daddy not only wrangles snakes when he has to, he also makes a mean potato salad. He printed the recipe in extra-large type from a site on the Internet. And because he is at heart an engineer and a craftsman, he is a stickler for precision.

“He would kill you, making potato salad,” Mama told me. “He gets his recipe out, and it calls for two pounds of potatoes. So he puts his potatoes in a bowl, and then he carries them down the hall to the bathroom. He weighs himself first, and then he gets back on the scale holding the bowl of potatoes.”

It’s good potato salad, too.

I Avoid Making a Pun (Until Now)   

Our minister has two granddaughters who were visiting this weekend. They are 4 and 3 years old, I would guess, and just as cute as they can be. They announced that they would like for the congregation to sing “Zacchaeus,” so he brought them up to the front of the church, and they led the singing. Both girls wore very pretty little butterfly clips in their hair. When I commented on the clips, their grandmother said, “The girls found them yesterday. They used to belong to their aunt.”

I started to say, “Ah, hairlooms,” but I was afraid that no one would get my joke and it really wasn’t good enough to survive a long explanation.

Adding It All Up

Pablo Neruda wrote a poem called “Ode to Things,” and I think that it is a decent sum-up of what it means when you revisit the bits and pieces that you’ve collected in your life, whether they are solid as a glass star or as light as a bake-sale memory. Here’s a fragment of his poem:

…these buttons
and wheels
and little
forgotten
treasures….

all bear
the trace
of someone’s fingers
on their handles or surface,
the trace of a distant hand
lost
in the depths of forgetfulness.

O irrevocable
river
of things…

many things conspired
to tell me the whole story.

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Image source unknown.

As the world prepares for the solar eclipse, I am feeling like the main character in Corduroy Mansions:

Was anybody’s life straightforward, he wondered, or did one have to go into a monastery for that? To be a monk and keep bees and make wine for the abbot and lead a life of quiet order and contemplation. Was it still possible, he wondered, or had the world become too complicated, too frantic, to allow such peace of mind? – Alexander McCall Smith

Honestly, having the moon blot out the sun isn’t exactly making an already fraught time more restful, is it? I don’t feel completely comfortable about the special glasses I ordered from Amazon, either, even though they are approved by NASA and haven’t been hastily recalled and don’t seem to be scratched—but who can say? Is staring at the sun really such a good idea?

This is only one of the reasons why peace of mind feels elusive; other reasons are obvious if you read the news. So I am doing what I can to gather about me some bits and pieces of comfort, which won’t protect my eyes but may soothe my troubled spirit. I offer them here for anyone else who needs them.

***

First, I am pursuing meditation with a whole heart. I have learned that peace of mind is always available if we will only sit still and wait for it to catch up with us. The trick is to give it half a chance by not rushing around and doing things. So when my choice appears to be to either explode or start breathing into a paper bag, I turn to meditation. It is the simplest form of prayer. All that’s required is to focus your full attention on your breath as it goes in, and goes out. Since I began meditating daily about three months ago, my blood pressure has descended into much safer territory and Blue Cross/Blue Shield is excessively proud of me, at least judging from the messages they send me every time I log my blood pressure into their Healthy Outcomes website: “Congratulations, Vicki! You’ve got this!”

Meditation is like unplugging and powering down. Remember when Eric Clapton unplugged? “Layla” was my favorite song when I was in high school. I loved it so much that I called up radio stations and requested it all the time, that’s how much I wanted to hear it. (Evidently I didn’t want to hear it badly enough to buy the album; I only bought Fleetwood Mac and Elton John.) Anyway, decades later when Clapton performed the song on an acoustic guitar for the show “Unplugged,” I was appalled. What was “Layla” without the hot electric intro? Well, it was lovely. The unplugged version was as wonderful as the more frantic original, plus I understood the lyrics clearly for the first time. Being unplugged mentally is like that, too. Things are slower, clearer, and more meaningful. It’s the difference between watching a stone skip across a lake in silver flashes of light, as opposed to letting the stone drop into a deep, clear well and following its progress all the way down down down to the bottom. In fact, those exciting silver flashes of light may just be the warning signs of high blood pressure.

Of course, there are fancier ways of meditating, using guided meditation scripts and an app that allows you to listen to recorded scripts. Some time ago I printed a meditation script for compassion and placed it in a notebook where I tuck things that I want to keep, things like ridiculous news items, recipes, and e-mails that I print to read off-screen. Last week when I decided I needed to meditate on something more than my breath, and I pulled the meditation script out of the notebook, took a deep preliminary breath to relax, and read:

“Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.”

I had pulled out a recipe for tomato butter.

Cooking is a lot like meditation, though. Follow the steps with your full attention, and in the end you will gain peaceful acceptance, a jar of delicious tomato butter, or possibly both.

Here is Mary Oliver’s excellent guidance, from her poem “Praying.”

…just pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

***

Last week I received an e-mail from a dear friend in St. Louis:

Speaking of eclipse, how is it going to be out your way? Of course, Jefferson County and Southern IL are right in the path of the eclipse. They are expecting 300,000 people in IL and MO for it. I am taking the day off and spending it with my neighbor and Valerie at a winery that is not too far from my place. It is only 33 degrees off from being perfect. They are expecting 400 people that day and the fun will begin at 9 a.m. So now we just pray for a sunny day. 

I am praying for a sunny day and that Rachel’s special glasses are good ones and haven’t been scratched. But I can’t help being delighted to know that, as the moon travels across the sun, in the St. Louis area it will be only 33 degrees from perfect.

Speaking of eclipse glasses, which are occupying my thoughts constantly and stealing my peace of mind, my sister asked her younger son, Will, if he planned to view the eclipse in his part of the country (Denver, Colorado).

“I guess,” he said.

“Don’t look directly at the sun,” my sister warned.

“So how am I going to see it?”

I am now praying for Will, too.

***

Here is a quote that I saved and need to memorize for my own self-improvement.

We don’t set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people’s hearts. –Pema Chödrön

I will try in the future to wonder how other people are doing and to make sure that I’m not causing damage through my own words and actions. If we all did that and stuck to it, probably we could—slowly and with concentrated effort—move the world to about 33 degrees from perfect.

These fragments I have shored against my ruin.

Be safe out there.

Read Full Post »

Fragments of unwritten country songs seem to fall into my lap. Most of the time I end up saving them as-is, going no further than to marvel at their spirit, but once in a while I can squeeze an entire verse out of a sentence that strikes me as worthy. It’s amazing how often the people around me talk in country song language. Here are a few examples:

Pat was telling us about one Christmas in Vermont when a neighbor struck and killed a deer near her house. He came to the door and asked Pat’s husband to come help with the dressing of the meat. Pat described this to her daughter, who had called just before leaving to travel home for the holiday. Her daughter said, “Let me get this straight. We’re having roadkill for Christmas.”

This very morning Pat came to work with a picture of a creature she had passed on her way to her car. In a parking lot. In town. “Look what was in the parking lot!” she said, passing her phone for us to see. “I think I have a crawdad near my house.” You get a line, I’ll get a pole, honey.

Neighbors are always a rich source of material. Talat described one of her former neighbors who led a very independent life, but who did have a sometimes relationship with a gentleman of means. “They take nice vacations together, cruises….” She shrugged. “Well, he’s got the money, and she’s got the time.”

It’s a match made in heaven
Like mojitos: rum and lime.
He’s got the money, honey;
She’s got the time.

(Now that I think about it, “a sometimes relationship with a gentleman of means” has rather a nice lilt to it, too.)

This spring, Jeanne helped plan and execute a lecture and small reception that featured Diane Rehm. Later, I asked her via email, “Hey, did you get to actually meet Diane Rehm?”

She responded right away. “YES!!!!  She is tiny and pretty and wore stiletto heels. She held my hand while she drank champagne. Lovely.”

She held my hand while she drank champagne
And my heart whirled up toward the sky
I might have been holding a bird in my hand
And I prayed that it would not fly.

I prayed that it would not fly away
I prayed that it would not fly,
I held her hand while she drank champagne
And prayed that she would not fly.

Lovely, indeed. Don’t you agree? You don’t have to.

Julie, too, is often involved with special events. She recently managed one that involved lunch at Point A followed by a short bus ride to Point B for a tour of a new building, after which the bus would bring everyone back to Point A. One of the guests arrived terribly late and asked that her lunch be packed in a to-go box so she could take it along. Sadly, she left the box on the bus while taking the tour, during which time the bus driver determined that he had a spot of engine trouble. He drove back to the garage and traded to a better bus to complete the trip. A minor fuss ensued when, upon getting back on the bus, the hungry guest discovered that the boxed lunch was gone. Julie shook her head. “She left her lunch on a broken-down bus!” she said.

“She Left Her Lunch on a Broken-down Bus (and the Sandwich Was Made of Ham)”

I haven’t been able to get further than a title for that one, but isn’t it a fine title?

Finally, we were enjoying a little family dinner with my nephew, recently returned from a semester abroad. We had Hursey’s barbecue and chicken with the appropriate sides, supplemented with some items from my parents’ fridge. Daddy set out a dish of dill pickles and jalapeno pickles. As we finished eating, he asked if anyone wanted the last of the jalapenos.

My sister said, “I don’t want to take your last one.”

Daddy said, “Oh, I’ve got more in the pantry. This the just the last of the ones that were in the refrigerator. I like my hot pickles cold.”

Daddy has opinions on the news;
I don’t always share my Daddy’s views.
Sometimes we come to disagreement,
And our voices start to rise,
That’s when Daddy turns the tide
With words both calm and wise.

He’ll tell me:
I may not know everything or very much at all,
The limits of my knowledge are not wide, nor are they tall;
I don’t know where we’re headed, who is wrong, and who is right—
But I know exactly what I like.

I like my iced tea good and sweet,
I like my coffee strong and bold,
I like red-eye gravy with my ham,
And I like my hot pickles cold.

I have my own opinions on the news,
And Daddy doesn’t always share my views.
Now, I am seldom calm and only very rarely wise,
But like my Daddy, I know what I like.

I like my coffee topped with cream,
I like my green tea cold, with lime,
I like to watch the nighttime sky,
And I like to play around with rhyme.

Now Mama claims no interest in the news,
And she prefers to not share all her views,
But I’ve been watching Mama all my life,
And I know pretty well what Mama likes.

Mama likes to sleep late when she can,
She likes to win the family Scrabble prize,
Mama likes Duke basketball a lot,
And Mama likes to laugh until she cries.

We all like watching baseball in the spring,
(The Braves are going to win the Series yet.)
Sometimes we like to sit around and sing,
And we like fishing every chance we get.

Well, yes, I did get carried away with that one. There are two lies in it: Daddy doesn’t drink coffee, and there are no known limits to his knowledge.

Do you ever come across naturally occurring country song fragments? Send them my way, and I’ll see what kind of mess I can make with them. You know that’s what I like.

Read Full Post »

still-life-2

The Sheraton in Clearwater Beach provides free copies of the Wall Street Journal, neatly stacked on a narrow table near the elevators. We were there in early September, and I picked up a copy of the WSJ Magazine that someone had discarded, as if it were a blow-in card that had fallen out of a catalog. This particular issue was built around a theme of “men’s style.” I flipped past ads for manly cologne and leather messenger bags with my lip curled, until I came to the very last page. Centered under the heading “Still Life” was a photograph of a table not unlike the one in the lobby of the Sheraton. The table contained a display of about a dozen objects—African art, masks, books—carefully arranged. I read that these were the favorite things chosen by a renowned photographer, who described her interests and enthusiasms in a few paragraphs of text beneath the photo.

I would require something more than a table to hold my personal Still Life. I would like something more along these lines:

After we had eaten, he took me up to a south-facing room that was thick with summer light, and there he opened the two pale-blue doors of a large wooden cabinet that stood against the back wall. It was, he explained, a cabinet of curiosities of his own devising… in which examples of natural history (naturalia), precious artifacts (arteficialia), scientific instruments (scientifica), findings from distant realms (exotica) and items of inexplicable origin and form (mirabilia) were gathered and displayed.

That’s a description of writer and art historian Peter Davidson’s collection of favorite things, as described by Robert MacFarlane in the book Landmarks. MacFarlane says that Davidson’s writing, like his cabinet of curiosities, is an attempt “to capture the moment, lost and yet preserved forever.”

The paragraphs of his essays, the verse of his poems: these act as what Thomas Browne in Urne-Buriall…beautifully calls a ‘conservatorie.’ Yet none of these ‘conservatories’ is quite reliable, none fully sealed. All leak a little light.

Davidson’s house and garden are extensions of the cabinet, filled with meaningful bits and collected pieces. “We have gathered things about us which are of the place where we live,” he told MacFarlane.

I have my own collection of jars; the urns in my conservatorie contain photos, postcards, pebbles and shells, all sorts of small reminders of people and places I love. My conservatorie leaks a great deal of light. One jar holds an e-mail that I received from Ernesto this August. I had sent him a message to let him know I planned to stop at the grocery store on my way home from work, and I asked if he needed anything. He responded with a sort of poetic still life:

Get some bananas and Potato chips.
Good chocolate ice cream, to go with that cake.
More bacon and sausage for grilling on Saturday morning.

(Possibly my favorite line in the English language: “Good chocolate ice cream, to go with that cake.” Like a snippet from a song, it runs through my head every time I turn the corner in our local Food Lion and walk past the frozen foods.)

But there are many marvelous things that are impossible to preserve. In August, I looked forward to the Perseid meteor shower with great anticipation, since this year’s shower was supposed to a really good one. On the first evening, I put my mini-trampoline (for low-impact running) on the back deck and tried to get comfortable with my upper body on it and my legs hanging off. Ernesto crammed onto the trampoline next to me, and we gazed upward. We counted three airplanes and two or three meteors. Ernesto wanted to talk the entire time, but his conversation failed to match my mood. I wanted shooting stars, a fathomless universe, mysteries and magic. He bounced his shoulders on the trampoline and said, “I smell the grill.”

We saw about five meteors that evening, and then we decided to get up and go to bed.

At our age, when you rise to your feet after lying pronish on a mini-trampoline with your head thrown back to look into limitless space, regaining one’s balance is a trick. We both staggered a bit, grabbing onto each other (unwise) and the grill and finally the back door doorknob. By the time we fell into the house we were weak with laughing and dizziness.

Not yet having had my fill of falling stars, I prepared more thoroughly for my second night of star-gazing. I own a heavy cotton area rug that I love but which has an unfortunate stain in the center. I situated it on the back deck, and then placed our heavy winter comforter on top. I pulled an old bedsheet from the linen closet to use as a sort of mosquito net and settled into my cozy nest with a pillow.

Ernesto had had enough of the Perseids and declined to join me. Well, he missed out, because it was lovely. The temperature had dropped into the 70s, with a light breeze, and the crickets and frogs made a pleasant sort of white noise. I saw the first meteor fairly quickly, but after the first there were long spells of quiet time. It was hypnotic, and wonderful. In fact it was very much like meditation and fishing, which I also love. After a long spell of quiet waiting, you get an electric moment of total delight—and then a return to more patient, quiet waiting.

That is not the type of life experience that can be preserved in a jar or displayed in a cabinet. I will conserve it here, instead, as a memory, a memory of lying back and looking up into the dark sky while the crickets fiddle, the entire world spins, stars are falling, and I alone am still.

 

Read Full Post »

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?

Read Full Post »

 

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

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »