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Posts Tagged ‘Pablo Neruda’

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?

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Writing is not just jotting down ideas. Often we say:  “I don’t know what to write.  I have no thoughts worth writing down.”  But much good writing emerges from the process of writing itself.  As we simply sit down in front of a sheet of paper and start to express in words what is on our minds or in our hearts, new ideas emerge, ideas that can surprise us and lead us to inner places we hardly knew were there.

One of the most satisfying aspects of writing is that it can open in us deep wells of hidden treasures that are beautiful for us as well as for others to see. – Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey

Henri takes a rather optimistic view of things, in my opinion. Writing often fails to open in me a deep well of hidden treasures, but instead taps into a vast, dismal swamp of stagnant water.

Ann Patchett, in an excerpt from This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, comes much closer to the truth:

For me it’s like this: I make up a novel in my head…. This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling… This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing — all the color, the light and movement — is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.

For me it’s like that, too.

Henry Williamson has not yet achieved the healthy level of self-awareness that Patchett and I have. In A Clear Water Stream, a wonderful book about his love of waterways and fishing, Henry waxes incoherent about the process of beginning a new writing project:

I sat in my writing room, pen in hand, white paper before me. A book has a beginning, a middle and an end. It must have a curve like the Sun in space, as seen from the earth. First the Sun mounts upon its orbit, brings wider illumination to all life. Then as the Sun reaches to the heights, it stays a while in glory, before descending to the west, where, among clouds hanging upon the earth it has enlivened, it reveals its colours through the vapours of the upper airs; and one more day is ended when it sets below the rim of ocean. Then darkness is to the earth; and the nightingale, which has migrated by the pattern of stars, sings to the night; while the river glows with fluorescent hues as seen by the eyes of fish, the rocks may be dark red, a white flower of crow’s-foot shines blue. Constellations underwater glitter with colours; every thing has its spirit; all things have life, even the dead. I could feel these presences, of the elements that composed me; but they would not take form.

Note to Henry: The butterfly is dead. Stand up, and walk away from the empty husk. Actually, by the end of that passage even Henry is aware that he has run out of juice–though you have to admire a man who can write a line like, “Then as the Sun reaches to the heights, it stays a while in glory.” Now that is excellent material for a hymn.

Even a fragment of a butterfly’s wing is a lovely thing, and worth preserving. Who knows what secrets may be revealed in the patterns of the wing? Last weekend we visited the North Carolina Zoological Park, where literary quotes about nature are sprinkled around on signs. One included a snippet of Pablo Neruda, who wrote in The Book of Questions:

When does the butterfly read
what flies written on its wings?

There is actually a butterfly in England called the white-letter hairstreak. The name is fantastic, and I wondered if there were secret messages written on them, only discernible to someone clever and patient enough to catch one. When I tried to find a picture of this butterfly, I saw that it is nearly always referred to as “the elusive white-letter hairstreak.” The photo featured above was taken on July 15, 2013 by a member of a party of folks on a Wildlife Field Visit with the Bradford City YMCA. A write-up of the excursion states:

[L]ate in the day a three-man search party set out to track down the elusive white letter hairstreak butterfly, which was found by Martin almost as it was time to leave the site.

Well done, Martin! Well done, indeed.

Now excuse me while I back my SUV over the elusive little creature.

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