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.
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.
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.
I am both watcher and watched. The woman walking in her garden and the one watching her walk. Two halves, back to back. Both named and namer. I am the cat in Schrödinger’s box and the one lifting the lid.
Deborah J. Brasket, 2021
I came across this poem in a notebook I keep and decided to share it.
I’ve always had this sense of twoness. But the more I’ve learned about the nature of reality, the metaphysical as well as the quantum mechanics of it, the more sense it makes. And the more comfortable I’ve become with it, the more comforting it seems. I rather like it now. This sense of spaciousness.
It wasn’t always so. It’s something I struggled with when I was young. A sense that I wasn’t quite normal, or even quite real. I felt like I was loosely “tethered” to reality. I was in it, but also floating a bit above it at the same time.
It was hard to be in the moment, because I was always standing at the side of myself, watching. It was a bit like trying to carry on a telephone conversation when you hear the echo of your own voice at the same time.
I wrote a short story about that experience called “Fine and Shimmering,” which is how the character Sheri experienced the “tether” that kept her somehow connected to earth, to reality. I blogged about the story in “The Lightness of Being, Unbearable or Otherwise.”
Sheri was always tempted “to take that fine and shimmering thread between sharp teeth and snip it clean through. To drift aimlessly, like the merest wisp of cloud, a lingering trace of dawn, upon an otherwise immaculate sky. Awaiting that final dispersal, into the blue.”
My actual experience of the “twoness” I felt growing up was nothing nearly so drastic or literal. And in the end, I never actually “let go” of it. Instead I settled into it more comfortably by embracing the Zen notion of “not-two.” Now it’s the division between subject and object that seems more ephemeral and “not real.” I wrote at the end of my blog post this:
When that wall of “otherness” disappeared, I felt deeply connected to this ephemeral world. I felt a lightness of being that is “unbearable” only in the sense of being too sweet, too rich, too beautiful “to bear.” And so I didn’t try to hold onto it. I just let it wash though me.
I read an article in Scientific American yesterday called “Does Quantum Mechanics Reveal That Life Is But a Dream?” and discussed it with my husband. Then last night I had a dream in which several strange things were taking place and so turned to my husband, who was also in the dream, and said with amusement, “Maybe that article was right and this really is a dream.”
Only I didn’t think I was dreaming at the time. It all seemed quite real. Until I actually woke up, of course. Now it’s kind of like that old conundrum: Am I a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I’m a man?
I rather like the idea that we could be both. And perhaps we are, or will be, when this wall of otherness finally does fall away. Maybe there is just “not-two.” Maybe the enigma is all there is.
Three summers I spent by the river in the heat of a homeless camp. (Having left my father’s home, which was my home, though I knew it not.)
Three summers of night terrors howling through my tent as the stars threw down their furious spears. (Having left my mother’s home, which was my home, though I knew it not.)
Three summers trolling the streets in blistered feet while eyes turned sideways at my glance. (Having lost all I loved, which loved me still, though I knew it not.)
As I walked the flesh melted from my bones, my teeth melted from my mouth. My thoughts dried up and blew away. Past and present dried up and blew away.
Nothing was left behind to claim a name, to know what I was or wasn’t.
Empty, careless and carefree, I danced along the street like a wind-tossed leaf, like a moon-mad fool, marveling at how all I saw danced with me.
Now my tent is my temple and the river flowing past me washes through me—mother and father and all I love and always was and ever will be.
Now as I walk the streets flowers grow at my feet, and every eye turned toward me is mine.
By Deborah J. Brasket
The story of the Prodigal is a favorite found in almost every faith because it tells deep truths we all recognize. We are all prodigals in some ways, whether living homeless on the streets or in the home of our dreams, if we have not, as this Prodigal has, returned home to our true self. If we have not gone through the weaning process that strips us of all we never were and gives back to us all we are, the magnificence of our oneness with the All-in-all.
This poem, too, is influenced by the tales of the old Zen Masters, relating their journey to enlightenment, a process known as “losing and losing.” Often they began their journey in abject poverty. Chuang Tzu describes how he was able to free himself from the limitations of the finite mind and gain an insight into his innermost being: First freeing himself from the concerns of the world, then from all externalities, from gain and loss, right and wrong, past and present. Finally he was freed from his own existence, from birth and death, I and Other. He sees the One and becomes part of the One. At that point, he was able again to enter again into the world of men, but this time with “bliss-bestowing hands.”
The photo above is one I took at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. I wrote a blog post about that visit called “Fascinating Faces, Tao and the Arts.” I wrote: “Some works of art speak to you on a level that is hard to define. You gaze and are drawn inward. Something in you identifies with what you see there. It’s not outside, it’s in here. It was there before you saw it, and the seeing is just a reminder of its presence.” I felt an especial affinity with this face.
I’m working again on that novel I wrote about in The White Hot Flow of Writing some time ago. I feels good to be back in the saddle after that long interval. I’m making good progress so far, putting in 30 hours of writing a week, or more if you count the reading research, of which there is plenty. I enjoy the research almost as much as the writing.
I started in again with the intention to write one full draft and one full revision in one year. It’s more of an experiment, actually. To see if it’s possible, especially with a historical novel set in Central America in the 70’s during all the political unrest and guerrilla warfare going on at that time.
In the White Hot Flow post, I wrote in more detail about the characters and plot, and especially more about my writing process, which I’ve copied in part below. It remains pretty much the same process as now, even after such a long break.
First there’s a germ of an idea, and then the need to anchor it in reality. The need to immerse myself in some aspect of the history, the setting, the geography, the larger ideas that underpin what I’m aiming to write: Research.
( I’m still researching now, and that “germ” keeps growing the more I learn.)
Next in the process comes the need to discover the names and voices of my main characters. I cannot write a word without that. This almost happens simultaneously. The voices must have names to embody them, the names must have voices to bring the alive. The names evoke the voices, the voices evoke the names: Lena and Raoul.
(This remains the same, although the list of names grow as I add characters. within out their name, how can I embody them?)
Once I have these, there’s no stopping them. They take over my life. They start telling me their stories and I run and grab a pen. I keep on writing, pages after pages in my notebook and on my computer. I look up and morning has turned to nightfall. It doesn’t matter. They follow me to bed. I sleep with them. I dream them. I wake up writing love poems in their voices.
(Yes, this is the sweet spot, the white, hot flow of writing, and I still have mornings where I sit in bed till noon with my yellow writing pad and blue pen, taking dictation from my characters.)
Then I need at least a vague sense of how the novel will open, how it will close. It may change along the way, but I need this parenthesis to contain my writing and to show me where it’s moving. They tell me.
When I have the beginning and the ending, keys scenes in between emerge. I write them down quickly before they disappear. They may change over time, but at least I have key points upon which to hang my novel.
By then my characters have become real to me. They have flesh and bone, names, voices, histories. They have deep, deep urges, conflicting desires, inner and outer struggles, a sense of transformation.
It’s like watching a miracle unfold. How they seem to come from nowhere, out of thin air, then suddenly they are breathing bodies, passionate, possessed.
(It still feels that way.)
Eventually I had so many handwritten scenes and research notes and ideas I had to organize them into folders of where they will fall in the novel, which I’ve divided now into 5 parts.
Now I’m in the messy process of inputting the raw material into word documents and shaping them into actual chapters. This is the hard work of writing—not flow, but fits and starts and stops: slowing down when I hit a snag, reversing course as I try out a new plotting strategy, or staring blankly at the screen as I try to reimagine how a scene could unfold. Sometimes I stop to do more research, or put on a load of laundry to give myself a break, or take a walk to clear my head. I take a notebook with me where ever I go in case the dam breaks and the words start flowing again.
But it’s all good, even when the little trolls in my head start complaining: Isn’t this a bit too ambitious? Do you think you might have bitten off more than you can chew? Do you really want to be a slave to this novel for the next year, or two, or whatever it takes? No, no, and yes, I reply.
I chose this. For now. And I’m loving it, even the hard work and crazy-making of the fits and stops and starts of the writing process, as well as the white, hot flow.
Lena and Raoul deserve to have their story told, and who is there to do it but me? I’m writing the kind of novel I would love to read, and even if no one reads it but me, well, that may just be enough.
My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and unfamiliar, like what I remember of love when I was young —
love that was so often foolish in its objectives but never in its choices, its intensities Too much demanded in advance, too much that could not be promised —
My soul has been so fearful, so violent; forgive its brutality. As though it were that soul, my hand moves over you cautiously,
not wishing to give offense but eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance: it is not the earth I will miss, it is you I will miss.
A New Beginning for Our Ending
I too feel a new tenderness toward this body that holds me so tenderly in return, within its soft, wide confines. That moves me and moves with me wherever I go. That holds within all that I am, memories and emotions that ebb and flow, that mere touch, taste, scent, releases. And even now, after all this time together, when a foot or knee fails, when bones creak and muscles sigh, and the weight of you seems too much to bear, still, still, you gather me in your arms. You hold me near, breathe me in, lift me up, and lay me down. You try so hard to be what I need, to do what needs doing. Too often I have railed against you, dismissed you, disowned you. Let me see you now as friend, as lover, as mother. As dear to me as sky and earth and tree and sea. Let me cherish you as you have cherished me, and when the end comes, let us rest and rise together.