Posts Tagged ‘T. S. Eliot’

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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.


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If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in May time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone.

– T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

Erin Rivers photographs places. She didn’t always. She used to be an artist in paint and ceramic, studying at Webster University and the Art Institute of Chicago. But in 2005 she inherited her father’s Hasselblad camera—and that camera took her in a new direction, on a route she likely would not have taken otherwise.

After learning to use the Hasselblad—which requires a far different set of actions and a vastly different timeframe than the simple point-and-shoot digital cameras and cell phones that we all use—Erin set out to retrace her father’s steps and visit some of the small towns and byways that he had once photographed. Along the way she discovered her own rough roads and special places.

Eagle Cliff/Miles Cemetery – Monroe County, Illinois

The cemetery has quite a history. It has been heavily vandalized over the years, including broken and knocked over headstones, theft and general destruction of property.… At the top of the cliff I spotted the mausoleum that I was looking for. For the first time that day I took the Jeep off-roading and double backed to what I thought was a cleverly hidden path that led to the top of the cliff. Then up a very steep, winding road, that at times, narrowed down to just one lane. After much more back-tracking and off-roading incidents, I looked off to the side of the road and noticed a large wood plank propped up. In reflective letters, the words “Eagle Cliff/Miles Cemetery” were clearly spelled out. I don’t know why I was still unsure. Maybe the crude “No Trespassing from Dusk till Dawn,” sign. I decided to just get on with it, and after passing the “No Trespassing” sign, found another sign (handwritten) that said “Visitor Parking.”

Burfordville • Bollinger Mill  Baptists

I made my way to the Burfordville Covered Bridge, but I was on the opposite side of Bollinger Mill. Crossing the bridge is an interesting experience; it is dark of course and you can smell the passage of time and many other unidentifiable things. Light passes through the splits and holes in the wood and creates an interesting pattern along the sides and the floor. Known as a Howe Truss, the Burfordville Bridge is the oldest remaining covered bride in the state of Missouri.

The architecture of the mill itself caught my eye, the stone base combined with the brickwork and several windows located on the upper floors. I was able to peek through the windows and see a little bit of the machinery that is on display, but nothing that I could really identify.

After a few more photos of the mill, an old bus and a caravan of cars squealed into the parking lot, honking their horns. I learned later that this was a Baptist church group getting ready for the day’s Easter egg hunt. I never would have guessed this based on their entrance.

For the Mind, Body & Spirit

Toward the end of “Little Gidding,” Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Erin’s photographs help us get to know some of the small towns and hidden places scattered through Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri—Fairmount, Burfordville, Atlanta, Greentown.  Nearly deserted, they often look like temporary backdrops that could be dismantled in a few hours and trucked away.

But you never know what may be about to happen, just outside the frame. There could very well be a passel of Baptists about to tear it up at an Easter egg hunt.

I think that the best part of picking up processed film and finding out what you have created is the moment just before you open the envelope.


Quotations were pulled from Erin’s travel log, and are reprinted here with her kind permission. To view more of her wonderful photographs, visit http://www.flickr.com/photos/erinrivers.

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Salon Monologue

Broadsheet Melbourne, 11/22/10

I walked into the hair salon with a long-standing, confirmed appointment and was greeted by my stylist, Heidi, telling me that she would be with me as soon as she had placed a call to the police. I’m sure I looked surprised, because she added, “It’s a long story, but since your highlights are going to take awhile, you’ve got time to hear the whole thing. Give me a minute.”

(Note to self: Find a hair salon that greets clients with a glass of sparkling water, not an announcement that the police are being called.)

Still, I sat in the chair and uttered not one word of complaint while Heidi disappeared to make her call. Instead I turned my mind to beautiful things, like the T. S. Eliot poem I had come across, La figlia che piange, that had seemed like an auspicious sign indeed for my salon day with its directive, “weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.” Yes, I would weave golden sunlight in my hair. At least Heidi would, once she finished calling the police.

Heidi returned and pumped the chair up in spasmodic bursts, without regard for my personal comfort. And without so much as a “How are you today?” she launched into her tale.

It seemed her chocolate Labrador, Sam, had learned he could jump one particular low spot in the back fence and get out. Usually he just walked around to the front yard and sat on the step waiting for someone to get home, but the neighbors had reported that sometimes Sam got into people’s garbage cans and made a mess, strowing it around.

“There have been afternoons,” Heidi said, briskly painting strands of my hair and wrapping them in silver foil, “when I have actually put plastic bags on my hands and gone out and picked up strange people’s trash. I kid you not. I’ve done that several times.”

I shuddered. Heidi wore wrinkled plastic gloves now; I had to trust that they were clean. 

“Well, one afternoon I get close to home, and I see a garbage can over on its side, and I see the rear end of a chocolate Lab sticking out, and I said to myself, ‘Sam! I’m going to kick your butt.’ I pulled the car over, jumped out, and went to grab his collar. That’s when I realized it wasn’t Sam. It was somebody else’s chocolate Lab. I don’t know whose. And who knows if it was actually Sam I’d been cleaning up after all that time? But that’s all in the past.

“What happened this week was my husband was home with the kids and the woman from next door comes over and bangs on the front door. I don’t know her nationality, but she’s banging on the front door and yelling in some language, and all Bryan understands is ‘help’ and ‘dog.’  He follows her to their back yard, where they have an inground pool. There’s a chocolate Lab that’s jumped in the pool, and now the dog can’t get out because all there is to get out is a ladder, and dogs don’t climb ladders.

“‘That’s not my dog,’ my husband tells her, but he’s a good guy and he goes into the pool—can you believe it?—and hauls the dog out.” Heidi paused, laughing.

“Do you know what I just remembered?  Couple of years ago my friend, Christy, who lives over near Bradenton—her husband worked at Tropicana, and Christy said he smelled sticky all the time—anyway, she called me, says, ‘There’s a baby manatee in my pool!’ ‘What?’ I said, ‘There ain’t no possible way there’s a manatee in your pool, baby or not. It’s not like Christy and them even lived close to where a manatee might be. But she insisted that yes, there was, and finally she went out there and took a picture and sent it to me. Laugh? I thought I’d die. Turns out a mole had fallen into her pool, drowned, and ended up in the filter.

“But back to my story, the point is that my neighbor has a fence around the pool, but the fence doesn’t have a gate, which is how the dog got in and ended up in her pool and the next thing will be one of my children wandering over there and falling in the pool, so I thought I better call the police.”

Heidi led me to the hairdryers and lowered a beehive over my head. My ears filled with the soothing buzz of wordless air, its heat activating the sunlight woven in my hair. She stuck a Lucky magazine in my hand, but I gazed straight ahead at the lavender walls and tried to meditate away the images of loose garbage, unruly dogs, dead moles in pool filters, and drowned children that Heidi had conjured for my entertainment.

(Note to self: Loyalty to a gifted stylist could only be carried so far. Heidi was a magician with the highlight wand, but these horrid monologues on ordinary life were not to be suffered. I needed a salon where I felt surrounded by the beauty I deserved.)

I closed my eyes and smiled. It was settled. This would be my last visit to Heidi’s salon, and I would not be leaving a tip.


Photo: “Oxhey & Bushey Relocate,” Broadsheet Melbourne, 11/22/2010.

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