It’s about the need to catch every falling cup “with soft hands” and fill it to the brim “with brimless being.”
This happens sometimes when writing poetry. A phrase will swim up from some primal depth, like a gift or some pressing urge—a fuzzy felt-sense of something that wants to be known, and, in the writing, becomes clearer, although not fully plumbed. Thus it returns, as if it has more to teach.
It means different things to me at different times. Sometimes it connotes a deep kindness that reaches out to save things that seem to be lost, fallen, ready to shatter—to hold them gently in our hands, our minds, and cherish everything good about them so much they become full to overflowing.
Other times it seems to suggest catching every moment before it disappears and just holding it gently in our awareness, feeling its fullness to such a degree that the moment stills and becomes its own kind of forever unending.
Doing this when it’s still and quiet is like stepping into a pool and swimming luxuriously through it. Steeping ourselves in every sound, texture, color, scent of that still moment—breathing it all in.
Trying to do so in those harried moments when you’re full of feeling—perhaps stressed, anxious, in a hurry and rushing around—is harder. But even then, the attempt to do so creates its own magic. Even as everything around you is in a rush, the moment slows and softens as the mind merges with its surroundings, savoring its suchness. That moment melts into the next in a never-ending stream. Nothing is lost. All remains full.
Me, you, our lives, each passing moment—We are the cup that must be caught with soft hands and filled to the brim with brimless being. That’s the urgent need.
What is it about the fragile, fleeting, and flagrant beauty of flowers that can so break a heart?
I wrote about this once in a photo-essay called Riffing on Roses. And then just this week I found this new-to-me poem by Mary Oliver, Peonies, which broke my heart again.
The poem speaks to the flagrant beauty of flowers that gives itself away, all that it is, so freely and readily to all that comes its way: the ants, the breeze, the sun’s soft buttery fingers, the poet’s breaking heart.
“Beauty the brave, the exemplary,” indeed.
I wish we all could live so bravely, so carelessly, giving all that we are to all there is. I wish we all, like those ants, craving such sweetness and finding it, would bore deep within that sap. We must cherish and adore all we are, all we have, all that is, while it’s still here to have.
This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready to break my heart as the sun rises, as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers
and they open — pools of lace, white and pink — and all day the black ants climb over them,
boring their deep and mysterious holes into the curls, craving the sweet sap, taking it away
to their dark, underground cities — and all day under the shifty wind, as in a dance to the great wedding,
the flowers bend their bright bodies, and tip their fragrance to the air, and rise, their red stems holding
all that dampness and recklessness gladly and lightly, and there it is again — beauty the brave, the exemplary,
blazing open. Do you love this world? Do you cherish your humble and silky life? Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?
Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden, and softly, and exclaiming of their dearness, fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,
with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling, their eagerness to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are nothing, forever?
Mary Oliver, New And Selected Poems. (Beacon Press; Reprint edition November 19, 2013)
When I created this blog ten years ago I named it “Living on the Edge of the Wild.” I saw this space as a place to explore what I saw as the borderlands between what we know as humankind and the vast wilderness of what we do not know. I wrote in my first blog post on July 12, 2012:
We all are, in some way, living on the edge of the wild, either literally or figuratively, whether we know it or not. We all are standing at the edge of some great unknown, exploring what it means to be human in a more-than-human universe.
We encounter the “wild” not only in the natural world, but . . . at the edges of science, the arts, and human consciousness.
I began my exploration into the wild quite literally, when our family was living aboard La Gitana and traveling around the world for six years. It became starkly apparent when I was sailing across the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by nothing but the sky above and the sea below, that I was living on the edge of something primitive and uninhibited, vulnerable to potentially terrifying forces that could rip us apart or swallow us whole. And yet those very same forces are what filled our sails and moved us forward, and what cradled us below, harboring in those depths the creatures that astounded us with their beauty and power.
I came to appreciate in the most intimate way how tiny and insignificant we humans appear in the natural world that surrounds and supports us. We are indeed living on the edge of the wild, the largely untamed and unknown world into which we are born, exploring the borderlands that lay between the human and the more-than-human worlds, and the ways they overlap and mirror each other.
Looking back over the past ten years of blogging, I’ve tried to stay true to that original vision. sharing my thought on what fascinates me in nature, the arts and sciences, as well as my own creative endeavors and explorations of what it means to be a mother, a writer and someone who worries about the world—who wants to save it and savor it—all its beauty and joy—at the same time.
Over the years I’ve managed to gather 10,000+ followers (according to the website metrics which is not always accurate). But interest in my posts wane and flow, and sometimes, for personal reasons, I’ve let the blogging trickle to a near stop. Eventually, I’ve always returned. Because there’s still so much I want to explore, so many things I discover (books, artwork, music) that give me such pleasure I want to share them with others, and because blogging meets a basic human need—to touch others and be touched in return.
We’ve all heard how physical touching is essential to human health and happiness. They say people can shrivel up and die for want of being touched or having someone to touch. A simple pat on the shoulder, a hug, a hand squeeze can make all the difference. Merely having a pet, they say, saves lives.
But there’s a basic human need for another kind of touching—from the inside out. Touching others with what means the most to us, our deepest responses to the world around us. Keeping those unspoken, unexpressed, can be as withering as being untouched physically. Which is why, perhaps, so many writers and artists will give their work away for free if need be, just to allow what’s inside out into the world where it can touch others, and “evoke responses.”
I’ve enjoyed reaching out and touching others over these past ten years, and being touched in return by your likes and responses, and by reading and responding to your blog posts. I’ve made several dear blogging friends whom I’ve never met but feel I know quite well. I’ve learned so much sharing this space with you.
So please accept my heartfelt thanks to all of you who have been with me from the very beginning, to those of you who have stopped by from time to time, and to those who have only recently tuned in to see what this space is all about. Thank you for helping me celebrate a decade of “Living on the Edge of the Wild.”
I took two months away from blogging, most of May and all of June. Some of that time was finishing the first draft of a new novel. Some of it was spending time with family. Much of it was preparing for a trial that has now been continued. I won’t go into the details, except to say it’s part of a long, ongoing saga dealing with the guardianship of my granddaughter. Not something I’m worried about, but due diligence is needed to keep her safe and in good hands. And this is the first time I’ve represented myself in the matter. A long, steep learning curve.
But I’m back. Kinda.
In a weird way, I feel like I’m standing at the prow of a ship and trying to decide where to go to next—with this blog, and the rest of my life. The way is wide open before me. So many choices.
Mary Oliver once ended a poem with this question: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
We sometimes forget her question comes right on the heels of another: “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”
And that follows this: “What else should I have done?”
Which leads, perhaps, to that old clich: “This is the first day of the rest of my life.”
I feel a bit like that now, with all the uncertainty and promise that comes with it.
“We create ourselves out of our innermost intuitions” is another favorite quote.
The seed knows within itself what it will become when it falls on fertile soil. But what of the acorn still clinging to the leaf? What does it dream of? Rebirth in the fertile soil below? Or that wild flight through the crystal air when the way is still wide open. Tethered neither to tree above (the past) nor the earth below (what is to come), but for one brief, infinite instant seeing the whole round world in all its wonders, and itself at the very center of it all.
Far at sea with no land in sight the horizon is round and there is no end to it. We lie at the still center of a vast spaciousness.
Still, the wind will rise before us, the seas will roll beneath, and our eyes will seek something within that vast spaciousness to set our sails for.
And so, while I’m back, I know not where I’m headed next. And, for now, I like this free-fall feeling. The round horizon. The way wide open. For now.
Please Do Not Disturb: That’s how I’ve felt these past few months, and even more so these past few weeks, so immersed in the work of finishing up my second novel, that I can’t spare the time to do anything else. And when I must take time away, I feel somewhat distraught or guilty, as if I’m cheating on a lover, or playing hooky from school. Even writing this now, feels like that, although I’ve been working eight hours straight since this morning.
I do this 7 days a week now and am making enormous progress. So I’m not complaining. I’m happy, if exhausted, at the end of the day, and looking forward to the next day of writing—revising mostly now, polishing, tying up loose ends, getting it ready to send off. My husband can’t understand how I can feel so exhausted sitting in a chair all day! It’s mental exhaustion, I try to explain. My mind feels washed out after 8 hours.
Even so, it feels good. There were many years when my problem with writing was the inability to find the time to write or the discipline to stay with it so long. So this is progress.
I wrote another blog post a few years ago about being “Immersed In One’s Art” using the same image of Frankenthaler. This is what I wrote then:
There’s something immensely satisfying to see Helen Frankenthaler immersed in her art this way. I found this image on Facebook, along with the following quotation:
“I’ve seen women insist on cleaning everything in the house before they could sit down to write . . . and you know it’s a funny thing about housecleaning . . . it never comes to an end. Perfect way to stop a woman. A woman must be careful to not allow over-responsibility (or over-respectabilty) to steal her necessary creative rests, riffs, and raptures. She simply must put her foot down and say no to half of what she believes she ‘should’ be doing. Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments only.” ― Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Why is it we women (is it only women?) too often put our personal passions last in line behind all else?
I’m trying more and more to put those passions (my writing, painting, music-making) first on my list of to-do’s. But it’s hard. Somehow even blogging comes first, although it too is writing, a kind of art-making. Or at least I try to make it so.
Perhaps because I’ve set firmer deadlines for my blog, or I see it as a commitment I’ve made, to keep this up and running, to not let readers go too long without hearing from me. And blogging is just another way for me to “riff and rapture” about the things I love, to share what inspires me with the world.
Still, to imagine myself immersed in my art as she is in this photo, surrounded by bright splashes of color, my bare legs curled beneath me on the cold floor, and that Mona Lisa smile, that dark gaze . . . it does my heart good.
Yes, it does do my heart good, to be immersed in my writing this way—Finally. But it means I’ve been blogging less these days and will probably be doing less in the coming weeks as well. But I’ll be back to “riff and rapture” again before long. I promise.
Days pass when I forget the mystery. Problems insoluble and problems offering their own ignored solutions jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing their colored clothes; cap and bells.
And then once more the quiet mystery is present to me, the throng’s clamor recedes: the mystery that there is anything, anything at all, let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything, rather than void: and that, O Lord, Creator, Hallowed One, You still, hour by hour sustain it.
O Sweet Irrational Worship, By Thomas Merton
Wind and a bobwhite And the afternoon sun.
By ceasing to question the sun I have become light,
Bird and wind.
My leaves sing.
I am earth, earth
All these lighted things Grow from my heart.
A tall, spare pine Stands like the initial of my first Name when I had one.
When I had a spirit, When I was on fire When this valley was Made out of fresh air You spoke my name In naming Your silence: O sweet, irrational worship!
I am earth, earth
My heart’s love Bursts with hay and flowers. I am a lake of blue air In which my own appointed place Field and valley Stand reflected.
I wrote this poem for a novel I’m writing about love and war in Central America. It’s written in the voice and style of a 19th century poet about the ceaseless, ongoing struggles that have ravaged his land since before the Conquistadors. As they have been going on Ukraine since the Vikings plundered tribal villages, before the Mongols came and slaughtered all of them, before Hitler, before Putin.
This poem speaks to the ceaseless cycles of peace and plunder that haunt our histories and our hearts, but also to the spirit of the people who weather such storms. Although it will no doubt undergo further revisions before the novel is ready to hand over to my agent, I wanted to share it with you now, in honor of the brave spirit of the Ukrainian people who are weathering this storm today.
This Sea Within, Without
This sea that lies within, without, all things, All bodies, minds, and soaring hearts and grasping hands, Past, present, and evermore. This ceaseless stirring, this Siren’s call, these froward thoughts And listless rhythms that know no end. This urgent quest.
This sea that it throws itself upon our shores With grand bluster, heaving boulders and breaking cliffs, Leaving in its wake a disaster of debris, The detritus of society and small broken things, A child’s bracelet, an empty bottle, shattered shells and battered lives, Fallen faces like Flies rummaging through abandoned seaweed.
This sea within, without, unbroken in its vastness, Spreads out like a calm comforting blanket of blue, its lacy Traces whispering secrets in our ears, Seducing us with sleepless dreams as it Reaches across the sand to wash our feet and sings its pleasure in the sun, Its tender kisses everywhere, Its mesmerizing music everywhere, Calling children, and lovers young and old, to its shores, To romp among its waves like playful porpoises, Safe as sand.
And so it lures and soothes and laments, Before it lashes out, breaking Whole continents apart Leaving all in ruin.
This Sea within, without, Pouring across the centuries in Endless rhythmic cycles of peace and plunder, Plunder and peace, Ever restless, relentless.
This sea within, without Each heart, each nation, each age and eon. We and sea and all that lies between, Taking our pleasure where we may in warm, balmy breezes, Finding our strength in broad strokes as we surf and swim, Taking our lives into our hands as we resist Its uprising roar As it crashes down and drowns our dreams.
O drowning heart, O vale of tears O lovers lost, O sons and daughters, O detritus of raging storms, Be not dismayed. As ceaseless as the turmoil is, so is the spirit that rides upon it And survives to rise again.
Savor the sun’s sweet kisses and the balmy breezes, Hold them close, don’t let go. Even when the broad drowning seas rise up and crash down, Do not despair. Tis the way of weather, And of weathered hearts, and leathered minds, And grasping hands, and the sons of man.
So we lay our hearts and histories Upon such shores as storms do rage And retreating bare all to see Such luster still in the strong arms and stalwart hearts Of souls long lost.
Where all that’s left of mighty ships’ splintered rails And torn sails sink below and wait to rise Once more. Once more.
By Deborah J. Brasket, 2022, from the novel This Sea Within
The poem is read by the protagonist of my novel on a plane heading toward a war-torn country in Central America in 1973. On the plane she’s been reading the history of Latin America starting with the conquistadors and the destruction of two major civilizations that had persisted for 3500 years until the Cortez arrived. The history continues with ongoing struggles of so many countries in Central America to become independent nations, and then to break the hold of one brutal dictator after another, each propped up by the United States after the Monroe Doctrine went into effect. The constant civil wars and guerrilla warfare in the region, and her own country’s involvement in that is disheartening, to say the least, to the young, idealistic woman.
But then she reads the poem of one of the most cherished poets from that region which speaks to this very condition of constant strife, and surprisingly, it heartens her.
I don’t know if it will hearten you as well, but I thought I’d offer it here in that spirit.
The article features Bruegal’s paintings and W. H. Auden’s poetry. It’s about how human suffering and complacency go hand-in-hand. How it’s all, perhaps, a matter of perspective. How distant are we from the suffering: Is the war taking place in our city or on a distance continent? Are we watching its horrors on TV, or have we moved on to sipping wine with friends on the patio?
Here’s the poem by Auden that expounds on the painting above by Brueghal.
Musee des Beaux Arts W. H. Auden
About suffering they were never wrong, The old Masters: how well they understood Its human position: how it takes place While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting For the miraculous birth, there always must be Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating On a pond at the edge of the wood: They never forgot That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
The article is also a master course in reading poetry and art. It explains how lines five and 8 refer to the miraculous birth of Christ that the aged are waiting for. This glorious occasion is juxtaposed in lines 5 and 6 with the skating children oblivious to the coming slaughter by Herod’s hand.
The Brueghal painting depicting it is pictured below
The following five lines in Auden’s poem refer to another Bruegal painting where dogs chase and play with each other while soldiers slaughter a village.
Horror is hard to sustain. It dulls, it grows weary, it becomes a drudgery. The mind drifts. Life goes on. The sun continues to rise. We need its warmth and comfort. The trill of the songbird still thrills us. We need this too.
Yet all of our justified condemnation and horror at Putin’s brutal bombing of innocent civilians should not allow us to forget the 400,000 Vietnamese whose lives were lost when Agent Orange was sprayed over their villages and forests, destroying all of it. For what? Are we more innocent than Putin?
It’s a matter of perspective. That was then, this is now. A year or two or three from now, will the horror of this war fade? It will. Unless this all breaks out into WWIII as some fear.
Below is Auden’s poem on the day after Hitler invaded Poland. It’s a long poem so I’ve included only the 1st, 5th, and last two stanzas, the 8th and 9th. You can read the whole poem at this link.
September 1, 1939
I sit in one of the dives On Fifty-second Street Uncertain and afraid As the clever hopes expire Of a low dishonest decade: Waves of anger and fear Circulate over the bright And darkened lands of the earth, Obsessing our private lives; The unmentionable odour of death Offends the September night.
Faces along the bar Cling to their average day: The lights must never go out, The music must always play, All the conventions conspire To make this fort assume The furniture of home; Lest we should see where we are, Lost in a haunted wood, Children afraid of the night Who have never been happy or good.
All I have is a voice To undo the folded lie, The romantic lie in the brain Of the sensual man-in-the-street And the lie of Authority Whose buildings grope the sky: There is no such thing as the State And no one exists alone; Hunger allows no choice To the citizen or the police; We must love one another or die.
Defenceless under the night Our world in stupor lies; Yet, dotted everywhere, Ironic points of light Flash out wherever the Just Exchange their messages: May I, composed like them Of Eros and of dust, Beleaguered by the same Negation and despair, Show an affirming flame.
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” another poet wrote. We will. We have no choice. The plowing, the fishing, the wine and the laughter must go on.
Isn’t that our fervent wish for the people of Ukraine, that they regain this normalcy? Even Vietnam has rebounded. Forgiven us.
Life must go on, we say from our safe, complacent distance. As it does, with or without us. Despite everything there’s a new birth taking place every second of every day.
The joy and sorrow, beauty and brutality of the human condition are woven into one seamless tapestry, glorious on one side and a hopeless tangle of knots on the other. All a matter of perspective, which side we are looking at in the moment.
Auden once said that the only true value of poetry and art is in the truth-telling that disenchants and disintoxicates.
Well, that’s one value of truth-telling for sure. But turn it over and the other is the truth-telling that enchants and intoxicates. Both are necessary. Especially in times like these.
I’ve been in a romantic mood lately. Both in the sensual and spiritual sense. This lust for life. This sense of wanting to “crack open our ribs and merge with” . . . well, everything.
After writing my valentine for lovers in my last post, I’ve been reading more of Neruda’s love poetry. The one below inspired this post. It too speaks to that sense of being one with what one loves.
I’ve paired it with two other Spanish romantics, Sorolla’s art, and the Spanish guitar music of Jacob Gurevitsch. His song “If Da Vinci Was a Girl” is a favorite, and the accompanying video speaks to that tender regard for the everyday beauty so often overlooked. As does the painting above of the artist’s wife and daughters at siesta. Those lush sensuous lines falling across a cool grassy knoll. Sigh! Makes me want to curl up beside them. Enjoy!
I crush her against me. I want to be part of her. Not just inside her but all around her. I want our rib cages to crack open and our hearts to migrate and merge. I want our cells to braid together like living thread.
— Isaac Marion, Warm Bodies.
Full woman, fleshly apple, hot moon, thick smell of seaweed, crushed mud and light, what obscure brilliance opens between your columns? What ancient night does a man touch with his senses?
Loving is a journey with water and with stars, with smothered air and abrupt storms of flour: loving is a clash of lightning-bolts and two bodies defeated by a single drop of honey.
Kiss by kiss I move across your small infinity, your borders, your rivers, your tiny villages, and the genital fire transformed into delight
runs through the narrow pathways of the blood until it plunges down, like a dark carnation, until it is and is no more than a flash in the night.
— Pablo Neruda, Selected Poems.
Where did love begin? What human being looked at another and saw in their face the forests and the sea? Was there a day, exhausted and weary, dragging home food, arms cut and scarred, that you saw yellow flowers and, not knowing what you did, picked them because I love you?
— Jeanette Winterson, Lighthousekeeping.
love is the voice under all silences, the hope which has no opposite in fear; the strength so strong mere force is feebleness: the truth more first than sun more last than star