More on “The Writing Life” with Annie Dillard

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writer hc-annie-dillard-born-april-30-1945-20130225 Getty Images July 1987

Annie Dillard, July 1987, Getty Images

One of the things I love about Annie Dillard’s book “The Writing Life” is how it addresses both the drudgery and the ecstasy of writing, the torment and bliss, the good days and the bad.

It is both a comfort and an encouragement that other writers–esteemed writers, prolific writers–have felt at one time or another all the highs and lows of my own experience in pursuing the writer’s life.

Preparing to Write

Writing is both craft and art, but to move it from craft to art requires a certain kind of mental preparation that many writers refer to, sometimes as ritual, sometimes as muse. For Dillard, that preparation is particularly intense:

Writing a first draft requires for the writer a peculiar internal state which ordinary life does not induce. If you were a Zulu warrior banging on your shield with your spear for a couple of hours . . . you might be able to prepare yourself to write. If you were an Aztec maiden who knew months in advance . . . the priests were going to throw you into a hot volcano, and if you spent those months undergoing a series of purification rituals . . . you might be ready to write. By how, if you are neither Zulu warrior nor Aztec maiden, do you prepare yourself, all alone, to enter an extraordinary state on an ordinary morning?

How set yourself spinning? Where is an edge—a dangerous edge—and where is the trail to the edge and the strength to climb it?

How to set yourself spinning? That’s the question, isn’t it? What lights the spark within that catches fire and sends us breathless to the page to capture that flame before it dies. What brings us back there, again and again, each day, to complete the work? How to ignite it again? Sometimes it does seem that we have to enter that extraordinary state of mind that the Zulu warrior or Aztec maiden prepares for with such zeal and passion.

For me it often comes when reading poetry, or philosophy, or other writers I admire, and something catches–a phrase, a thought, an image, a rhythm in the way the words flow. I’m snagged, and I feel I am being carried to a new place, and I see things in a new light. This new seeing, this discovery, is so exciting, it looses something in me and I run to grab a pen so I can capture it before it disappears.

It’s returning to that, that “felt sense” of things, that spark of discovery, that brings me back into the state of mind where I can re-enter the work, and keep writing, keep unspooling what’s there, discovering as I go where I’m going.

“A dangerous edge” – yes. It is an edge, a precipice, beyond which “not-knowing” lies. We have to be willing to throw ourselves over that edge, enter the “not-knowing,” submit to it, let it take us where it will, and trusting it will take us where we need to go.

E. L. Doctorow once famously said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Writing Through the Flow

In that almost hypnotic, expectant, trustful state of mind, the writing is joyous, thrilling. We’re “in the zone.” As Dillard writes:

The line of words is heading out past Jupiter this morning . . . The line of words speeds past Jupiter and its cumbrous, dizzying orbit; it looks neither to the right nor to the left. It will be leaving the solar system soon, single –minded, rapt, rushing heaven like a soul . . . . Right now, you are flying. Right now, your job is to hold your breath.

Elsewhere she elaborates:

The sensations of writing a book are the sensation of spinning, blinded by love and daring.

The sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then—and only then—it is handed to you.

Writing Through the Resistance

But sometimes it’s not handed to us. Sometimes we search and break our heart and break our back only to find—nothing. Sometimes the work does not speak to us.

Sometimes the “not knowing” feels like a brick wall, huge, monstrous, holding us back, walling us out, keeping us stumped. We feel dumb, tongue-tied, speechless, like a brute trying to talk. We choke on our own words, the words that will not come, the words that weigh us down, the words that feel dry and brittle and useless in our mouths.

We’re stuck. Blocked. We hit that wall and would rather do anything but write.

At one point in her book, frustrated by her writing, Dillard exclaims: “I hate to write. I would rather do anything else.” She tells us:

I avoided writing, and mostly what I did by way of work was fool around.

One day, full of such thoughts, I tried to work and failed. After eight hours of watching helplessly while my own inane, manneristic doodles over stepped their margins and covered the pages I was supposed to be writing, I gave up. I decided to hate myself, to make popcorn and read.

Pacing the Writing

So how do we negotiate that space that lies between inspiration and resistance, between “not-knowing” as a precipice from which we gladly leap, flying, and “not-knowing” as a wall around which we cannot reach?

Pacing. Pacing is the answer. Slow and methodical, or brisk and determined, or steady and sure. Whatever. Just keep one foot moving forward at all times.

On plenty of days the writer can write three or four pages, and on plenty of other days he concludes he must throw them away. These truths comfort the anguished. They do not mean, by any means, that faster-written books are worse books. They just mean that most writers might well stop berating themselves for writing at a normal, slow pace.

I was working hard, although of course it did not seem hard enough at the time—a finished chapter every few weeks. I castigated myself daily for writing too slowly. Even when passages seemed to come easily, as though I were copying from a folio held open by smiling angels, the manuscript revealed the usual signs of struggle—bloodstains, teethmarks, gashes, and burns.

This revelation was particularly encouraging to me—how slow Annie writes. Doing so can be discouraging, but doing so still gets the work done.

You are writing a book. . . . you do not hurry and do not rest. You climb steadily, doing your job in the dark. When you reach the end, there is nothing more to climb. The sun hits you; the bright wideness surprises you; you had forgotten there was an end.

You do not hurry, you do not rest. My mantra now.

Pacing is key: Fast, slow, in-between. Doesn’t matter. Moving forward, steadily, one word after another, is all that does matter.

Pacing – II, Tending and Taming

Sometimes another kind of pacing is needed, knowing when to patiently nurse the writing, and knowing when to beat it into submission. Both are sometimes required, as Dillard will tell you.

I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.

This tender relationship can change in a twinkling. If you skip a visit or two, a work in progress will turn on you.

A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight . . . . As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room.

Pacing – III, Emotional Distance

A third kind of pacing, or maybe “spacing,” emotional distance, is also needed: The ability to regard our work from a “Goldilocks” zone: Not too close, not too distant.

[A writer] must be sufficiently excited to rouse himself to the task at hand, and not so excited he cannot sit down to it. He must have faith sufficient to impel and renew the work, yet not so much faith he fancies he is writing well when he is not.

Finding the right balance in our relationship to the writing is important when it comes to evaluating and revising our work. The failure to do so can either distort or block the writing. Another hindrance, another kind of wall that can block the writing, or distort it, is our own evaluation of the work.

There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its action quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.

I’ve been snagged by this before, so much so that I could write a whole blog post about this, and probably will. So I’ll reserve that for later. The thing is, when we get too close to the writing, when it thrills us, we may think it’s magnificent, and forget, as Dillard writes below, that the reader, who is not sitting at the top of that roller coaster ride with you, may find our writing not quite so thrilling as we do. Dillard warns:

The writing that you do, that so thrills you, that rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else. The reader’s ear must adjust down from loud life to the subtle, imaginary sounds of the written word. An ordinary reader picking up a book can’t yet hear a thing: it will take half an hour to pick up the writing’s modulations, its ups and downs and sounds and softs.

On the other hand, in trying to distance ourselves from our own words so we can read them “objectively,” sometimes moves us so far away from our writing that we view it not as a living thing with breath and a beating heart, but as a cold-blooded stalker bent on murder might: as a thing, an object: cold and dead. Do not trust these kinds of reading, neither the cold-blooded kind, nor the thrilling roller-coaster kind. Step back, but not too far. Regard your writing kindly, and kindly look for ways to improve it, not destroy or abandon it.

Too many of us thin-skinned writers, I believe, are too eager to either kiss our darlings passionately to death, or to dispassionately murder them instead. I’ve never bought into the “murder your darlings” advice. Regard them kindly, wisely. Cut the fat, trim the ribbons, make sure she’s buttoned up nicely, and let her work her magic, if she can, upon the readers who, like me, eagerly look for and highlight “the darlings” we encounter.

Whatever you do, for the reader’s sake, don’t cut the heart out of your writing:

Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?

Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer . . . will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking.

The Heart of Writing

For many of us, writers as well as readers, what we’re searching for when we write, when we read, is the heart of the beast—that bloody, bleeding, throbbing heart. The place where you know you are holding something live and tender and immensely precious is in your hands and you hold it with reverence. Because you recognize it. It’s your heart. Yours. You are holding it in your hands. You are seeing it for the first time. And it’s beautiful.

Finding it, cutting it out, laying it on paper, as the writer does, is not easy. As Dillard knows.

The line of words fingers your own heart. It invades arteries, and enters the heart on a flood of breath; it presses the moving rims of thick valves; it palpates the dark muscle strong as horses, feeling for something, it knows not what . . . . [S]ome film of feeling, some song forgotten.

[T]hese fragments are heavy with meaning. The line of words peels them back, dissects them out. Will the bared tissue burn? Do you want to expose these scenes to the light? You may locate them and leave them, or poke the spot hard till the sore bleeds on your finger, and write with that blood. If the sore spot is not fatal . . . you can use its power for many years, until the heart resorbs it.

Writing as Dying

It is not easy, digging into the heart of things. But it’s what we live for, many of us, to reach the beating heart of existence. To hold it in our hands.

Perhaps this is why Dillard urges us to:

Write as if you were dying . . . write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. What would you begin writing if you knew you should die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?

Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object in a piece of art. Do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength.

Who but an artist fierce to know—not fierce to seem to know—would suppose that a live image possessed a secret? The artist is willing to give all his or her strength and life to probing with blunt instruments those same secrets no one can describe in any way but with those instruments’ faint tracks.

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.

Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.

The Aim of Writing

There’s another succinct piece of writing advice that Dillard gives, that if she said nothing else about the art of writing would suffice. She compares writing with chopping wood and tells us:

Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood, aim for the chopping block.

So what is the chopping block in this metaphor?

Call it the heart of the matter. Call it the “deepest mystery,” as Dillard does, that which lies beneath all things and upon which all things lay. But whatever we call it, when we write, we must aim past the words, past the writing itself, toward that “deeper penetration into the universe.”

What Are We Here For?

Toward the end of her book, Annie asks: “What are we here for?” I’m not sure if she is asking us that as writers, or as human beings. But her answer could be applied to either.

She replies: “Propter chorum, the monks say: for the sake of the choir.”

Our one small voice is essential to the whole.

“The Writing Life” ends with the following quote, and so too shall I end on this high, clear note:

“Purity does not lie in separation from but in deeper penetration into the universe,” Teilhard de Chardin wrote. “The world is filled, and filled with the Absolute. To see this is to be made free.”

* * *

If you missed part one of my dialogue with Dillard, you can read it HERE.

More on Dillard’s book can be found at Brain Pickings, which includes a link to a free public library e-book.

Dialogue with Annie Dillard on “The Writing Life”

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Writing Albert_Anker_(1831-1910),_Schreibunterricht,_1865__Oil_on_canvasI read Annie Dillard’s book “The Writing Life” years ago and reread it recently.

It was a huge inspiration to me then as now, full of practical advice about the craft of writing—its how and why and what–as well the thrill of writing, and the mystery that lies at its heart.

Below, you will find a “dialogue,” if you will, between Dillard and me on the practice and art of writing. Mind you, it will be a dialogue between master and novice. While I’ve been writing all my life, I haven’t done much with it, until recently. For all my years, and all my years writing, I’m still what you might call an “emerging” writer.

Still, from a very early age, I’ve always thought of myself as a writer. It’s what I am. Nothing else I could say about myself rings as true. How else could I identify myself?

As teacher, activist, community leader? I was all that, once upon a time. But it was what I did, not what I was. And besides, even then, even in those roles, writing was the way I made my biggest contribution to those fields. I taught writing, I wrote as an activist, I let my words and the passion of those words drive the work.

As a mother? Maybe. Although my children are grown and no longer need mothering, or at least need less of it than I have to give. I mother my writing now.

As wife? Perhaps. Although my husband and I grow more apart the older we grow. We still connect, but sparsely. Our marriage is mostly skeletal now: bone, little flesh. But it still provides a kind of structure for our lives, shapes our days, a spare drawing: a few lines, lots of white space. The space that holds my writing, or waits for it.

As lover? Oh yes. I am that. My life is shot through with love. I cannot lift my head without finding something to love. I could sit still and do nothing all day but love. I dither away my days loving sky and oak and bird and bee. Loving rock and rose and river. But the writing is all wrapped up in that. The loving and the writing are so closely intertwined, it’s hard to tell them apart sometimes.

Truth-Seeker? Without a doubt. My reading is endless, and the thing I am looking for in my reading is that nugget of truth, the thing that pierces me with its truth, that hits me full in the face, that I taste and say, yes, salt. That I taste and say, yes, bitter. That I taste and say, yes, sweet, and I feel that sweetness spreading through me. And I know then, this is true.

But the truth-seeking is all wrapped up in writing, the reading and the writing wrapped together, and all of it is tied up in love. A big, bright bow of love.

I seek the truth of the things I love, and writing is the instrument I use to do that.

So how does one write? How and when and what?

Let’s see what one master has to say on the subject. Below are a few nuggets of wisdom drawn from Dillard’s book, and my responses to them.

Learning to Write

At one point, a student asks Dillard: “Who will teach me to write?” She answers:

The page, the page, that eternal blankness . . . ; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act . . . ; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against with you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write.

Practice and persistence are her answers. And perhaps, too, simply having the will to write, and the courage to face a blank page, to “ruin it,” knowing that so much you write will be thrown away.

It’s sitting down, again and again and again, and simply doing the work. We learn from that. Like practicing scales on a piano, over and over again—monotonous but necessary. Doing so, we learn something about the simple mechanics of writing as well as its rhythms, its flow, its necessity. And if we are lucky, the very act will carry us into the flow. We will no longer be practicing. We will no longer be playing those notes. We will become the music, and feel it pouring effortlessly through us, as us.

This more than anything may be how we learn to write: When we learn to love it, love being the writing, love letting it flow from us. This is what brings us back to that blank page, again and again. The chance to experience that, to let the writing flow through us as mere instruments of the muse.

It doesn’t happen often. It’s not what gets the work done, the novel written. But, for many of us, for me at least, it’s what fuels the desire to write, what makes me think I am a writer, that mind-soul-meld. When I’m there, in that, I’m home, in a way I rarely experience outside that, except, sometimes, in meditation, in mindful contemplation, in deep moments of love, when I’m all love, when there’s only love. That’s why I write. To be that. To be me.

What to Write

The passage below is probably my favorite in her whole book, because she’s saying something I had not heard another writer say in quite the same way. And it strikes me as “true.” It gives me license to pursue some of my own quirky interests.

A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all. Strange seizures beset us. Frank Conroy loves his yo-yo tricks, Emily Dickenson her slant of light; Faulkner the muddy bottom of a little girl’s drawers visible when she’s up a pear tree.

Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it is up to you.

You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.

My own astonishment, yes. To give voice to the things that seize me, that take me by the throat and shake me. Or is it me taking the thing by the throat and shaking it? Trying to shake loose its truth, the thing I want to know, the thing I know is there, but haven’t quite gotten it yet. The thing that must be seen, must be spoken. The thing I need to say.

When I look at the things I write about, that I’m drawn to write about, that seize me, here’s what I see, what I’m drawn to explore:

The gap between appearance and reality; between what’s real and what’s not, and how we can ever truly know for sure. If it’s possible at all.

The dark and the light, good and evil, beauty and brutality, the foolish and profound: how they play together, how they are all wound up in each other, how it’s almost impossible to tear them apart, as least in our ordinary, daily experiences. They lay side by side, or one on top of the other; they copulate over and over, and we, this life itself, is what they give birth to.

Mind and matter, nature and art, science and spirituality: They too seem rolled into one. It’s hard to separate the one from the other. They are shot through with each other. What fascinates me is how certain patterns emerge over and over. How they seem to tell us something about Life, about ourselves, about what this whole world stretching out beyond the cosmos is all about. If you pay attention to the patterns, to the fractal self-similarities, you taste something that smacks of truth. Of what we were created to discover.

When to Write

This is my great failing, my falling, my torment.

One day when I was a young mother, I decided that I would put off my writing. I would wait until my children were grown. I found when I wrote I worked myself into such a torment, into such a heated frenzy, that when my children came home from school or needed something when I was writing, I could not tear myself away. Or if I did, I was in a rage, and I resented them. I did not want to spend time with them. I wanted to write. That’s all I wanted.

And I hated that. Hated being that way, feeling that way, toward them. I thought: they are little only a little while. I want to enjoy them, every minute I can of their young lives. I want to be here now, with them. So I put my writing away, taking it out only when I knew for certain I had the time to devote undisturbed, with the understanding that my children came first. My writing was hidden away in a drawer like a caged beast. It growled at me. It said: I will make you pay for this.

So I wrote less and less. And the years went by, and the children grew up. But there was always something more important than writing to devote myself to: teaching, social justice, community work, politics; saving the world, preserving the environment, protesting for peace, for a living wage; helping the poor, the homeless, the disenfranchised.

And the years went by and all the writing I had done was work related: political, social, economic.

Then I retired to write full-time. And here I am. But do I write full-time? No. There’s beds to make, and floors to shine, and gardens to weed, and windows to wash. There’s non-stop news on cable aabout wars and scandals and school shootings and missing planes and police brutality and social unrest. The whole world, it appears, spinning out of control, and I must witness its unraveling.

There’s the internet too, Facebook and Twitter and Google and a thousand interesting stories, important stories, must-read stories, calling me like Odysseus’ sirens, driving my boat onto those rocky shores, turning me into a grunting boar, rooting for the latest news; or turning me into a statue of myself, frozen, unable to move.

I let my fierce beast out of its drawer at long last, and it curled up like a kitten and went to sleep.

So now I must wake it, shake it, make it roar again. And then I must tame it. But how, how?

I read what Dillard says about taming the beast. And I cling to it like a life boat.

What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being: it is a life boat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.

So I create my schedule. I cling to it like a life boat. And someday, someday soon, I hope to climb all the way inside. I hope to inhabit my life boat. To live there. Waiting for the writing to emerge as a “blurred and powerful pattern” stitching my days together.

There’s more. So much more from Dillard’s book I want to share with you. Next time.

But today, today I must shake out my schedule. I must return to my novel. I must resist the news and internet and beds and gardens. I must be a shut-in. I must shut myself into my novel. I must do the work of writing.

READ PART TWO OF THIS DIALOGUE

More on Writing with Annie Dillard

OTHER BLOG POSTS ON MY WRITING

Selling My Babies: Where’s the Joy?

Writing on Writing

A Writing Milestone

Making Music Wherever We Go – The Rhymes and Rhythms that Move Us

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4.2.7Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross
To see a fine lady upon a fine horse.
Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
She shall make music wherever she goes

When I recite these lines from Mother Goose, especially the last two, the pleasure centers of my brain light up. I relish the rhyme and rhythm and repetition. I feel them in my body. I delight in the silliness, the leaps of logic, and the rich imagery.

I sense something deep at play here. Something serious. Something I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around for a long time now.

I grew up on nursery rhymes and fairy tales, as many children do. I read them to my own as well. My mother bought a whole set of books, twelve in all, meant to carry a child from the nursery into middle school. They were called My Book House and edited by Olive Beaupre Miller. I have them still, full of poems and stories, myths and legends, and fairy tales from all over the world.

The rhythms and rhymes and images of those books seeped into my growing bones and imagination and made me who I am today. I am sure of it. And the older I grow and the wider I read, the more I realize how these nursery rhymes speak to us on a deeper level than we might suspect.

Babies’ brains crave repetition, rhythm, and rhyme. They lap it up the way cats do rich cream, according to child psychologists. Reading nursery rhymes to infants facilitates language acquisition and creates early readers and lovers of words.

Even as adults, when engaged in rhythmical activity, whole portions of our brains light up in anticipation and pleasure, so musicologists will tell you.

We’ve long known how rhyme, rhythm and repetition are used by oral traditions as mnemonic devises to store and retrieve information. Somehow they tap into the deep roots of our memories, even as they light up the pleasure centers of our minds.

I can’t help wondering if it’s all linked somehow: rhyme, rhythm, pleasure, memory. Something deep and primal is going on.

No doubt some of the pleasure infants take in listening to these nursery rhymes comes from associating these sounds with similar sensations while being held in their mother’s arms: The rhythm of her rocking body, the sound of her heartbeat, the movement of her breath flowing through her. others they hear being held in their mother’s lap, or rocked in their father’s arms. I wonder if they hear in these rhythms and rhymes their own heartbeats and the feel of their breath moving through their bodies. Perhaps they recall the other pleasant and soothing sounds they hear all around them, day by day: their parent’s footsteps going up and down the stairs, the tap of raindrops on rooftops, and creaks of trees in wind storms, the chatter of squirrels and trills of songbirds when they wake in the morning?

It could be that listening to nursery rhymes recalls even the deeper memories. The pleasure of being in their mother’s womb, perhaps. Feeling the sway of her body as they walk together. Hearing the cadence of voices they recognize and take comfort in, even when they make no sense.

Perhaps the rhythms and rhymes and rich imagery first heard in the nursery tap into some ancestral memory still stored within the cells of our bodies, recalling the dreaming earth and seas from which life evolved. Perhaps we feel ourselves once again drifting in those ancient tides, swaying among the sea fans. We feel within ourselves the circling of the sun, the swirling of the galaxies, and hear the morning stars singing together.

Some linguists and philosophers say that language, rather than being some purely abstract phenomena, has its roots in the sensuous world around us.

“Ultimately, then, it is . . . the whole of the sensuous world that provides the deep structure of language. As we ourselves dwell and move within language, so, ultimately, do the other animals and animate things of the world: if we do not notice them there, it is only because language has forgotten its expressive depths. . . . .It is no more true that we speak than that the things, and the animate world itself, speak within us.” (David Abram from The Spell of the Sensuous)

“Language,” writes the philosopher Merleau-Ponty, “is the very voice of the trees, the waves, and the forests.”

This I know: The use of rhyme and rhythm in language, the repetition of alliteration, speaks to our deeper selves. In a way, we were made to make music, and to hear it, wherever we go. We carry the rhythms and rhymes of the universe in our swaying bodies and singing voices, in the memories and dreams that we weave and weave us, in our poetry and art and nursery rhymes. And in the language we spill across our pages like the patterns moonlight makes tracing tree leaves across grassy meadows.

POSTSCRIPT – I think my love of art began when browsing through the gorgeous illustrations of nursery rhymes and fairy tales found in My Book House. I created a Pinterest page to bookmark some of my favorites. You can view it HERE. It’s a work in progress

Song from a Dream – “My Queen’s Soul Lies Naked”

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henri_rousseau_-_il_sogno

Henri Rousseau – Il Sogno

My dreams have always been enticingly rich and evocative. Often it’s as if I’m watching an elaborate film in gorgeous Technicolor, exquisitely choreographed. Sometimes I am a character in that film. But often I’m standing outside the action, waiting to see what happens.

When we were sailing my dreams were especially vivid. One morning I woke with a song playing in my mind that had been sung in my dream by the people of some ancient kingdom. It was almost as if they were chanting it, as if they were singing something that had been handed down to them over the ages, something to be sung on special occasions.

I had the feeling upon waking that something momentous was about to take place. A royal wedding? A coronation? A sacred initiation?

Upon waking I wrote down all that I remembered—which is quite unlike anything else I’ve written. But all these years later, I am still mesmerized by its beauty.

Truly, it is not mine, but something I overheard. It’s time I share it.

Song from A Dream

Five golden rings adorn her toes,
But the Queen’s sole lies naked.

Garlands of lilies lace buttocks to hips,
But between them her belly beckons.

Sashes of satin encircle her waist,
But her legs lie loose and languid.

Sapphires and rubies stream from her neck,
But her breasts are bare as mountains.

Bracelets of silver ring her wrists,
But her arms are free and fervent.

Rivers of ribbon flow through her hair
But her back is a gleaming dessert.

Ashes of coal shadow her lids,
But her eyes are two burning candles.

Juice from wild cherries stain her lips,
But her breath is the Khamsin blowing.

Mysteries and marvels flow from her mouth,
But my Queen’s soul lies naked.

I don’t know what the song means, if anything. It reminds me of a favorite nursery rhyme:

With rings on her fingers, and bells on her toes,
She shall make music wherever she goes.

This nursery rhyme has no meaning that I know. Nonetheless, its playful images are so enticing.

This dream fragment may be like that. But I sense there’s something deeper going on, which the play on the words sole and soul in the first and last lines calls to mind—a reminder perhaps that for all our attempts to adorn ourselves, our most pleasing and precious parts, our very essence, our souls, perhaps, are best seen naked.

What do you think? Is this a meaningless but pleasing rhyme? Or something deeper?

Your guess is as good as mine. I was only taking dictation.

The Slant of Afternoon, Playing with Light

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Afternoon_Stroll_by_William_Merritt_Chase,_San_Diego_Museum_of_Art

Afternoon_Stroll_by_William_Merritt_Chase

A notebook full of poetry I had worked on for years has disappeared. Vanished. Many of the poems I never copied into a word document. They may be lost forever. But several I know by heart, I’ve recited them so often. They are heavy with rhyme and rhythm, and I know that is why I remember them. The bards of long ago who sang their stories knew that we remember best verses that rhyme. Somehow our brains are made to carry these tunes in our swaying bodies. We feel them in our bones.

Here’s one I remember well, that I wrote when we were sailing, anchored in Bora Bora, of all places. It’s a “light” poem, pun intended. In fact, it was first entitled “Light Thoughts.” I’ve renamed it below, but reserve the right to switch it back. You never know.

I like it for its lightness. And I hesitate to share it for the same reason. It’s lightness, and its use of rhyme and rhythm, which serious poets seldom use today. For obvious reasons. Use of rhyme and rhythm seems too heavy-handed, too showy and childish, decidedly old-fashioned.

Serious poetry loses something when it rhymes. Alexander Pope and Shakespeare, and some of the other old masters could pull it off—-it was all the rage then. But now it sounds too much like greeting cards or the jingles you hear on TV to sell soap and cat litter. Or the picture books we read to children. The nursery rhymes we all grew up with, if we were lucky.

This poem could be found in a book of poetry for children. But it was written for adults. For me, to be more precise. And for others like me who see the world in a particular slant of light, and like to play with it.

Playing With Light

I like the slant of afternoon,
The shadows cut so clear,
Light lays down as if it’s found
A home on earth more pure.

I like the way each melting ray
Slides across the land,
To flow beneath the lowest leaf
And lift it in its hand.

The smallest stone is sudden grown,
A blade of grass stands tall.
The hills unwind one at a time
To dance before us all.

I like the way light likes to play
And catch me from behind,
Igniting hair with light so rare
It catapults the mind.

Yet when the light is laid so low
It tumbles from the earth,
And afternoon succumbs too soon
Mere embers on the hearth,

I find in night a keener light
To prick the bounds of thought.
Upon the spires of whirling stars
My reeling mind is caught.

On Herds, Husbands & Riffing on Writing

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Cattle_herd public domainSerendipity, it’s sometimes called. Those happy coincidences that lead to some unexpected pleasure or insight. Or synchronicity. Those meaningful encounters that, touching tangentially upon something you’ve been musing upon, spark a new way of thinking about it. Then off you go, riffing on the topic the way jamming jazz musicians will do.

Here’s how it happened recently. I was grazing on Twitter and found a link to an essay that sounded interesting, taking me to new site called The Toast. The essay that drew me there did not pan out, but I found a link to something else that sparked my interest: “Some: Poetic Essay” by Julia Shipley. So I went there.

Now the essay starts out talking about horses and cows and the poets who write about them. Normally I’m not much interested in barnyard animals, but once when I was looking for a particular poem by Hayden Carruth, I came across his “Cows at Night” which I loved so much I blogged about it. (Another example of serendipity.)

Hoping that Shipley’s essay on cows might provide a similar unexpected pleasure, I continued reading. That’s when I came across these lovely lines and immediately tweeted my pleasure to others.

“The names of the herd tell a story, the way a group of stars makes a constellation.”

As I continued reading, the essay took an interesting turn, morphing from a mediation on cows, to a mediation on men, or on prospective husbands, to be exact.

A line about how some couples “pull together” in a marriage “like a pair of horses working in a synchronized pace” caught my attention. I’d been musing a lot lately about marriage, how it goes through different stages, and how while my husband and I still pull together in the same direction from time to time, more often than not we wander off in different directions. It’s becoming apparent how little we have in common.

While we both took early retirements, and we’re both home bodies, we seldom see each other and do little together. We eat at different times mostly, take walks at different times, swim at different times. We watch different shows on TV and pursue separate hobbies. Our paths cross only intermittently throughout the day, and while those crossings are pleasant enough, they are usually unplanned.

Sometimes I worry about us. Our marriage. Do we spend too much time alone? Is this healthy? Should we try to find ways to spend more time together? But then I realize: I’m quite content this way. As a writer, I like having time to myself. I like knowing he doesn’t need me or feel neglected when I’m off by myself. We’re alone, but not lonely.

I’m coming to think of us like the lines in a sparse drawing. We rarely touch, but we cross now and then, and our crossings shape our days and our lives and fills up the space that surrounds us in meaningful and comforting ways. Spare lines and plenty of white space, but pleasantly so.

Shipley writes about all the men she met over the years and cultivated relationships with, but who never turned out to be the husband she was looking for. She thought perhaps she was in love with the idea of love more than in wanting any particular man.

I wonder that myself sometimes. I like having a husband, I love him deeply, but I’m not “in love” with him. I am, however, “in love.” It’s just not with a man, or perhaps, more truthfully, it’s with so much more than the man. It’s the man and the life and the kids and the cows at night and names like constellations. And the walking and swimming and writing. Just this, right here, right now. Riffing about the things I love.

Her essay ends with something similar:

“Once I approached another heroine, former dairy farmer Gertrude Lepine, who never married or had children, but farmed with her sisters in a Vermont hinterland called, Mud City. I asked if she missed her cows. Her herd was famous, her registered Jerseys attracted buyers from as far away as California when she retired. Sure there were some favorite cows, she told me, But it’s The Land that I love the most.

The Land.”

Yes, I’m in love with The Land too. The Land, and all it holds.

Just before her essay ends Shipley quotes a passage in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers :

The passage describes Alexandra, who took over her father’s Nebraska farm and coaxed it to glorious success, and who is now a single middle aged woman.

“ . . . she lay late abed . . . luxuriously idle, her eyes closed, she used to have the illusion of being lifted up bodily and carried lightly by someone very strong. It was a man, certainly, who carried her, but he was like no man she knew; he was much stronger and swifter, and he carried her easily as if she were a sheaf of wheat.”

What held her lightly “as if she were a sheaf of wheat” was something so much more than mere man. I feel that way too sometimes. Like I’m being tenderly picked up and carried away. By life. The joy of living. These unexpected, serendipitous pleasures. By the act of writing–taking chance encounters and spinning them into something else, tossing them out into the universe, watching them drop down into a poem, a painting, a song. A blog post perhaps.

Here’s wishing you today many serendipitous pleasures that pick you up lightly and carry you away.

The Wildness of Water

deborahbrasket:

With summer here and my 2-year blogging anniversary approaching, I thought I’d reblog one of my early posts (my second) about the pleasures of swimming and our primal connection to water.

Originally posted on Living on the Edge of the Wild:

Now that the weather has warmed and heated our pool, Dale and I go swimming every afternoon. It’s not just the exercise we look forward to, or the relief from the heat, or a pleasant way to wind down the day together. There’s something sensual and delicious about slipping into the cool water, gliding hands over head through folds of flowing silk, becoming weightless and transparent suspended beneath the sky.

I haven’t swum so much since we were living aboard La Gitana and sailing along the coasts of Baja and across the south Pacific. Then it was mostly snorkeling along the reefs, chasing schools of colorful fish, or diving for rock scallops.

Chris and Kelli snorkeling

We’d go early in the morning to forage for food and stay for hours, swimming in pairs. Dale and our son Chris would hunt for fish and lobster with spears. Our daughter Kelli and…

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Writing on Writing – A Writing Process Blog Hop

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Writing 800px-Bartholomeus_van_der_Helst_-_Regents_of_the_Walloon_Orphanage_-_WGA11346Writers love to write about writing. It’s not surprising. It’s our passion.

So when I was invited to participate in a blog-hopping writing process tour, I jumped at the chance to talk about one of the great loves of my life—writing.

The first to invite me was the lovely Rebecca Koonst, a new blogger at Mom’s So-Called Life. She writes about the pleasures and struggles of being a mom, a woman, and a wife, in a light-hearted, heartfelt way.

Author Kelly Hand also tagged me. Or maybe I tagged her. Let’s just say we got caught up in a game of tag, and we’re featuring each other in our Writing Tour posts. She wrote the Au Pair Report, a novel I loved about childcare and politics in Washington DC.

In turn, I’ve invited three other blogger-writers that I admire to join the tour on June 23: a novelist from Australia, a poet from Canada, and a fellow blogger who writes about the creative process. I hope you will hop over to their blogs next Monday. There’s more about them and links to their blogs below.

So, first question, what am I working on?

Well, it’s a bit of a jumble. I have four writing projects in various stages of completion.

From the Far Ends of the Earth, a novel: I’m in the final stages of editing this, which has gone through several sets of beta readers. It’s about what happens when the mother who has been holding together a hopelessly dysfunctional family mysteriously disappears. It’s told through the perspectives of the three family members left behind—a cranky graduate student, a heroin addict, and their emotionally distant father. How they cope with the mother’s disappearance, learn to reconnect with each other, and forge new relationships in her absence, create the heart of this novel. I wrote more about this book in a blog post celebrating the completion of my first draft, and also in the post When Things Go Missing, which includes a link to a short story based upon one of the chapters.

A Play of Dark and Light: a short story collection. I’m also working on a collection of short stories, many that I wrote long ago—getting them dusted and polished and out to literary journals. Four have been published so far. You can read more about them, with links to the stories here:
13 Ways of Looking at Dying, Just Before and the Moment After; Us, Ancient; When Things Go Missing, and Looking for Bobby.

The Adventures of La Gitana, a series for middle graders. I have the first book completed in what I envision as a series for middle-graders about a family that sails around the world, based loosely on our own family’s experience. I’ve put this on hold until I get the literary novel out to agents. You can read more about this adventure series on my writing website at www.djbrasket.com

Living on the Edge of the Wild, my blog. When I began blogging, I saw this as something I needed to do to be a serious writer, as a means toward an end. Now it’s become an end in itself, as important to me as the other writing. It’s a way to explore ideas and share them with others. It’s part memoir, part reverie, part reflection, and partly a way to share my love of art and literature with others, as well as things I’ve written and am writing (like today’s post!).

How does my work differ from others in its genres?

If From the Far Ends of the Earth differs from other literary novels, it may be in that one of the main characters, the mother at the center of the story, is absent. Apart from the prologue, which is written from her perspective, the reader only comes to know her through the eyes of the people she leaves behind. And through the photographs she mails her son, and the messages she leaves on her daughter’s answering machine. Otherwise, she remains an enigma, as I believe we all remain in the end to a large extent. This is one of the main themes of the book, how we see each other subjectively, filtered through our own desires and fears, memories and misconceptions. While the “truth” about each other remains largely a mystery.

My short stories may be unique in how they explore psychological states of mind. While they have plots—things happen–what’s of interest to me, and I hope the reader, is what’s going on inside their heads and hearts, what makes them tick, or not tick. There are some elements of magical realism:

Fine and Shimmering tells the story of a young woman in a bad marriage who feels she’s not quite real, but lightly tethered to earth by a fine and shimmering cord.
In Tamara in Her Garden, the daughter of a Jeffry Dahmer-type mass murderer recognizes traits of her father in herself and retreats from her lover and analyst to her garden which becomes a metaphor for the beauty and brutality she sees rolled up together in the world and others.
The Man in the Attic is about a woman who has become so hyper self-conscious she believes she is being constantly watched by a romantic admirer who eventually takes up residence in her attic.
On the lighter side is Joshua’s Tea Cup, the story of a young autistic man who sees galaxies floating among his tea leaves.
And Petite Marmite is love story about an habitual liar and his gullible wife with an O’Henry style ending.

These are just a few of the stories in my collection so far.

The middle-grade series may be unique in that I’ve yet to encounter a book written for that age group about children growing up while sailing around the world.

I’m not sure if my blog is unique. My readers will have to answer that question.

Why do I write what I do?

As I’ve written here about my blog, I like exploring the edges of things, the borderlands between states of consciousness, and states of reality—the social and psychological, the human and more-than-human, the physical and spiritual, the known and unknown, the world we know outside ourselves and within our own minds–and how they overlap and re-create each other. I see the creative arts as existing on that fringe, the thing that helps us negotiate the borderlands and translate one to the other. Writing is my point of entry.

All this is true for my novel and short stories and blog. But for the sailing adventure, I’m writing that to preserve for myself and my family, what it was like to live at sea, and to share that adventure and my love of the wild with others, especially children.

I could say much more on the topic of why I write, and have. But I will spare you here and refer you to the following posts if you want to know more about why I write and how: Writing, A Leap of Faith; Wabi Sabi Writing.

How does my writing process work?

A lot of my writing springs from my reading. Stories and poems and other blog posts trigger a new line of thought, and off I go off in that direction, allowing it to take me where it will. I think of it as “riffing” on other’s works, as jazz musicians will do when they jam together. The same happens when I engage with nature, go for walks or hikes, or merely sit on the patio taking in all the sights and sounds around me. Thoughts and images will spring to mind, and I’ll grab a notebook and start writing.

I usually start writing in the morning, sometimes in long hand while sitting in bed with my coffee. Then I’ll go to my office and type what I’ve been writing into a word document, revising as I go. Most of my revising is done on the computer. But I’ve printed out my novel to revise as I read it, as well.

I keep a writing log, setting weekly goals, and tracking my hours. This has helped a lot, because I can get pretty scattered and off-track otherwise.

Who’s Up Next?

Don’t miss the next installments of the Writing Process Tour on June 23. The following bloggers will be sharing their writing process.

Author Nikki Tulk, Shadow, Wings & Other Things - Niki loves” to write, dream, read, learn and make art in many different media from theatre and music, to making up her family’s next weekend breakfast menu.” She is also the author of the lovely and lyrical book Shadows and Wings, which I highly recommend.

Poet, Jeremy Nathan Marks, The Sand County - Jeremy’s blog is “an exploration of the natural world, our relationship with it and the necessities that govern life on Earth. Here you will find a little bit of everything that brings us to that interface of human dreams, desire, repose and the wisdom, austerity and sublime power that the natural world offers.” Jeremy also writes some amazing poetry that he shares on his blog.

Writer, Kim Hass, The Art of Practice, The Practice of Art - Kim blogs about “Creating Mindful, Joyful, Compassionate Moments of Being.” She writes about the creative process and “what makes a Writer with a capital W–no credentials needed.” I love that!

“I See You But Do You See Me?” – Artist Marc Clamage, Bearing Witness

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Marc Clamage - Maxine

“I see you but do you see me?” Maxine by Marc Clamage

Since my last post, I discovered another artist who refuses to turn away. He bears witness one face at a time by painting panhandlers he sees in Boston Harvard Square near his workplace.

“I used to hurry by them,” writes artist Marc Clamage, “but then I began to stop. Each face tells a story, I realized, and I would try to capture as many as I could through a series of oil paintings.”

Rosie and David with pet guinea pig, by Marc Clamage

Rosie and David with pet guinea pig, by Marc Clamage

He’d noticed there were more than usual that year, and that they seemed “younger, and more troubled.” Sometimes even whole families begging on the streets.

Many of the people he encountered were simply passing through, on their way to a new job or to visit family. Some panhandled to supplement a low-wage job, or help pay the rent.

Others were homeless. Panhandling was their only source of income. A few of these were mentally disturbed, or drug addicts. Some were sick and dying.

 Marc writes: “I do not ask the panhandlers to ‘pose’ for me, but to carry on with their business. I pay each person $10, though I wish I could afford more, because they earn that small fee in the hour or two it takes me to paint them.

"Newly Engaged, Need Motel to Celebrate" -  Justin and Lauren (The Lovebirds) by Marc Clamage

“Newly Engaged, Need Motel to Celebrate” Justin and Lauren (The Lovebirds) by Marc Clamage

Over that time, we often get to talking, which has been a privilege and an education.

I’ve seen or heard many human dramas: the tragic love story of Gary and Whitney; squabbles over the best places to work; the mysterious figure everyone calls “The Rabbi,” stuffing $20 bills into cups and disappearing before anyone can see his face.

“I’ve witnessed a few instances of cruelty, but many more of thoughtfulness and generosity. And when I head home, I’m always struck by one thought: There but for the grace of God go the rest of us. Perhaps that’s why we find panhandlers so hard to look at.”

I was deeply touched by Marc’s paintings and by the stories of the people who posed for him. You can view more of his paintings and read the stories on his website “I Paint What I See“, or at his blog.

Marc Clamage - Gary

Gary, Desert Storm Vet, by Marc Clamage

I also like what he says about how he paints:

“I paint what I see, only what I see, only with it right in front of me, only while I’m looking right at it. I do not work from photographs, or imagination, or memory, or even from sketches. I paint exclusively from life. The essence of representation is that every choice, every brushstroke must be made in direct response to the experience of visual reality.”

To really “see” someone, the way an artist does, objectively, without judgement, and yet responding to what is seen, the pain, or loneliness, or confusion, or anger; to see and be seen like that, must be freeing, for both the painter, the one painted. And for the viewer as well.

To simply behold what we see–the good and bad and beautiful and ugly–without judgement, but with compassion and humility, is the essence of “bearing witness.” And it must have a healing effect.

Bernie Glassman in “Bearing Witness: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Making Peace” wrote:

“In my view, we can’t heal ourselves or other people unless we bear witness. In the Zen Peacemaker Order we stress bearing witness to the wholeness of life, to every aspect of the situation that arises. So bearing witness to someone’s kidnapping, assaulting, and killing a child means being every element of the situation: being the young girl, with her fear, terror, hunger, and pain; being the girl’s mother, with her endless nights of grief and guilt; being the mother of the man who killed, torn between love for her son and the horror of his actions; being the families of both the killed and the killer, each with its respective pain, rage, horror, and shame; being the dark, silent cell where the girl was imprisoned; being the police officers who finally, under enormous pressure, caught the man; and being the jail cell holding the convicted man. It means being each and every element of this situation.”

Marc Clamage - Whitney

Whitney, cancer victim, by Marc Clamage

To bear witness in that way must be the hardest, the most healing, and the most humbling thing we could ever do. And the most needed.

Elsewhere, Glassman writes: “When we bear witness, when we become the situation — homelessness, poverty, illness, violence, death — the right action arises by itself. We don’t have to worry about what to do. We don’t have to figure out solutions ahead of time. . . . Once we listen with our entire body and mind, loving action arises.”

More of Marc’s paintings follow. See if you see what inspired him to paint these people. Sometimes we see something that cannot be “passed over” lightly, but must be “passed on” to others in whatever way we have of preserving them:  in paint or print, or images on a blog site. So I pass these on to you.

Marc Clamage - Colleen

Colleen, by Marc Clamage. Died of exposure and a drug overdose.

Marc Clamage - Gideon

Gideon, by Marc Clamage

Marc Clamage - Anthony

“Too ugly to prostitute, too kind to pimp.” Anthony by Marc Clamage

Marc Clamage - maria

Maria by Marc Clamage

Marc Clamage - Laurel

Laurel by Marc Clamage. Her sign says she’s a mother of 4 and victim of domestic violence. On the flip side it says “I’m not a whore, asshole.”

Marc Clamage - Carrie

Carrie by Marc Clamage. Now clean and sober and off the streets.

[This post originally appeared on another blog in a slightly different form]

Bearing Witness – Refusing to Turn Away

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A Beggar

Italian painter Gaspare Traversi (1732-1769) Mendiant accroupi or A Beggar – Courtesy of the Narbonne art museum.

I found this painting of a beggar at the blog site of an artist that I admire. She found it on a rainy day in Narbonne, France where she’s traveling, and wrote:

It is the emotion and compositional strength of this image as well as pure skill in foreshortening that had me coming back to this painting several times. Every centimeter of this canvas is in full use and allows you no room to shrink from the image. The beggar has seen us. We must respond in some way and whatever that way is he and the world will know. It is our human condition we are facing in this painting. (Terrill Welch – Creative Potager)

It struck me how often we are tempted to turn away from images, people, situations, that seem too horrible, too hopeless, that make us feel too helpless to even think about it, let alone do something ourselves to help. Like extreme poverty, hunger, homelessness, addiction, rape, human trafficking, mass murder, mental illness . . . the list goes on.

It’s human nature to do so, to turn away from the ugly faces that our human condition sometimes shows us. To pretend it’s not there, or doesn’t affect us, or isn’t us, or won’t be us, or someone we care about, some day.

But it’s important to resist that urge to turn away, even if we have no way to address it. It has to do with what I’ve come to think of as “bearing witness.” It has to do with, not only, bearing witness to an atrocity that should not be forgotten nor repeated, as the holocaust survivors have done, as we’ve come to regard the towers falling on 9/11.

It also has to do with simply being there for another human being in pain, “bearing” that pain with them, in that we acknowledge it and in whatever small way we can show them they are not alone. That we stand with them, if only in spirit, if only in refusing to turn away, to pretend it doesn’t exist, or that they don’t matter.

I’ve found myself returning to this motif in my writing again and again: the need to look, to not turn away; the importance of bearing witness to another’s pain and suffering.

And there are so many other writers and artists and activists who are doing the same thing. Who are refusing to turn away, and instead bearing witness to the pain they see and experience when encountering the dark side of the human condition. As this artist was doing when he painted “The Beggar” so long ago.

Sometimes it’s all we can do to help another. Bear witness. Sometimes it’s all that’s needed.

I feel blessed by the Traversi’s painting. His refusing to turn away, but looking deeply at it, revealing the humanity he saw in the face of suffering, reveals his own deep humanity, and challenges us to do the same.

[This post originally appeared on another site in a slighty longer version]

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