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.
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’ve been working on a poem I began here on this blog. It is a process, a gentle undoing and reweaving. An opening and letting go.
Recently a confluence of events inspired me to write a new ending. First I read an article on the importance of helping children discover a sense of awe and how beneficial that is, making us more curious, more humble and altruistic. Taking them on nature walks was one way it suggested.
Then only days after I learned about my 9-year old granddaughter’s startling discovery that Santa isn’t real. It was a blow to her, although she had begged to know the truth. What about the Easter Bunny? she asked. Horror upon horrors. The Tooth Fairy? she cried in alarm. Even the Elf on a Shelf, alas, poor dear.
I shared her pain. It seems only yesterday I took her for a walk in the meadow behind our home after it had rained the night before. We were searching for toadstools to see if fairies might still be sheltering beneath them. We found patches of bright green moss and ran our fingers along the soft furry carpet knowing how fairies like to danced there in moonlight. We imagined them wearing the silvery, pearl-studded gowns made from the spider webs glittering with raindrops we found nearby.
Why does the mind devise such dreamy comparisons? What is its purpose? To inculcate the capacity to marvel? To help us see beyond the ordinary sense of things (moss, toadstools) to their vast potential? To encourage us to see the fractal similarities between disparate things? There is something important and necessary in such devising. It feeds the soul by giving free rein to the imagination. It helps us to see beyond the surface of things, to look for the invisible within the seen, and inspires us to create our own works of wonders.
To marvel at a tree, to find awe in it, we must see it with new eyes. It must come alive in our minds. We must see the sap flowing upward beneath the bark from root to leaves. We must see the dark labyrinth of gnarled roots below the ground. We must hear the whisper of voices flowing through the neural-like network of fungi as one tree communes with another. We must see autumn leaves like high-wire dancers letting go of all they’ve ever known so they can twirl for one endless moment in the air before falling gently on their sleeping sisters. All of this is true, scientifically speaking. None of it is false.
I wrote the poem Field Notes from Within as if I was a student of physiology wandering through the fields of my own body, looking for those awesome wonders within, noting how well the part serves the whole. Just as we might when taking a child into the forest as that article suggested to discover for herself a sense of wonder in the world that envelopes and sustains us.
What could be more awe-inspiring than the human body? Than a beating heart? Than the twirling atoms that comprise the very substance of all that exists? We, ourselves, are a marvel.
I’ve been searching for a way to end my poem, to perhaps make it more comprehensible to the reader. Do I end it as I did the first time, with “dervishes of devotion“? Or do I add clarity to that as I did in the second re-making? Is doing so like painting a second tail on a dragon, a redundant addition? Or does doing so make its eyes come alive and breath fire?
I do not know. But here is my latest trial and error. We’ll let it sit a moment and see.
I don’t know when this poem will ever be finished.
And that’s the marvel of every living thing that longs to be.
Field Notes from Within
My heart is a staunch defender of all I am, beating with relentless passion the wherewithal of my being.
My bowels are alchemists skilled in diplomacy, sifting silver from dross passing peacefully away.
My cells are seeds of a pomegranate, deftly designed for simple pleasures, lushly dense and sweetly sated.
My atoms are ballerinas, twirling on ecstatic toes, arms flung wide, faces like suns, dervishes of devotion.
Marvelous is the kingdom within and without all things. Marvelous the Mind that designs such things and marvels.
Either way, I believe this new ending is stronger–still hopeful, but less certain. More in keeping with the way things are for most of us when things we love go missing, or when struggling with our own demons and addictions.
I’ve decided something else too. Quite a few publishers have wanted to see more of the missing mother in my story, yet I wasn’t willing to do that. It would have unraveled the very premise of my novel, which was, how do we cope when the center holding everything together falls apart? When that upon which we most depend disappears?
I wanted the mother to be part of the puzzle, not a presence herself, but that “absent” presence we feel, even yearn for, but cannot quite pin down, and never really know for certain.
Do any of us ever, really, know our mothers? Don’t we only know them through our own often faulty and incomplete perceptions of them? What they’ve allowed us to see, or what we choose to believe? All knowledge is partial and open to revision. We may know the facts that lay before us. But do facts a person make?
Yet even while I’ve resisted the call to add the mother’s perspective to this novel, I can understand how a reader might want more of her, to hear about her journey as she travels away from her family and through South America. What does she learn as she discovers the world through the new lens of her photography? Does it lend insight into her past? Into herself as a mother and wife and now an artist? How does it shape her anew? Where does it take her?
I think it might be fun to give the mother her own voice and space, to see what shaped her past and how her journey shapes her future.
It’s the thing I love most about writing, discovering what I never knew I knew before I began to write it, as if the words themselves are drawn from some inner well of insight or vision I never knew I had.
“We create ourselves out of our innermost intuitions,” so writes a sage.
I believe that. And I also believe our characters are created in much of the same way. I wonder if we all contain multiple characters within us that make themselves known to us through our writing? Or are we just writing our larger selves?
Perhaps all the selves of all the people we’ve come to know, to experience, in this wider world, once known, become part of us, at least partially?
I believe there is a collective consciousness that we tap into from time to time, and writers, perhaps, most of all.
Sometimes I don’t know where I end and another begins.
My son says I have boundary issues. No doubt he’s right.
Often when I leave comments on a blog posts that moved me, I write “I love this post” or “I love the way you do [this]” or “I love that quotation.” Lately I’ve been wondering if I’m overusing the word “love”.
Am I really feeling this strong emotional attachment, or am I just being lazy, unwilling to take the time to precisely articulate what strikes me about a particular piece?
After reading an article in The Atlanticon the science behind love, I’m inclined to believe that, more often than not, I use the word “love” because that’s what I’m actually feeling– a “micro-moment of positivity resonance.” That’s how Barbara Fredrickson defines love in her new book Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do.
Fredrickson, a leading researcher of positive emotions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, presents scientific evidence to argue that love is not what we think it is. It is not a long-lasting, continually present emotion that sustains a marriage; it is not the yearning and passion that characterizes young love; and it is not the blood-tie of kinship.
Rather, it is what she calls a “micro-moment of positivity resonance.” She means that love is a connection, characterized by a flood of positive emotions, which you share with another person—any other person—whom you happen to connect with in the course of your day. You can experience these micro-moments with your romantic partner, child, or close friend. But you can also fall in love, however momentarily, with less likely candidates, like a stranger on the street, a colleague at work, or an attendant at a grocery store. Louis Armstrong put it best in “It’s a Wonderful World” when he sang, “I see friends shaking hands, sayin ‘how do you do?’ / They’re really sayin’, ‘I love you.”
So when I say I “love” Louis Armstrong’s song, now I know why—because I feel such a strong positive connection to what he’s saying, as well as with how he says it, and the music he says it with, that I experience a triple love-whammy!
What I feel when reading things by fellow bloggers, or see the images they’ve created, is similar—a deeply-felt resonating connection, often on several levels.
In “Tao and Creativity” Chang Chung-yuan describes this connection between poet and reader as a “spiritual rhythm.” It is the means by which the reader participates in the inner experience of the poet. He writes:
In other words, the reader is carried into the rhythmic flux and is brought to the depth of original indeterminacy from which the poetic pattern emerges. The reader is directly confronted with the objective reality which the poet originally faced. The subjectivity of the reader and the objective reality of the poem interfuse . . . .
This is very interesting because Fredrickson discovers a similar phenomenon when she compares the brainwaves of a storyteller and listeners. Smith describes this in her article:
What they found was remarkable. In some cases, the brain patterns of the listener mirrored those of the storyteller after a short time gap. The listener needed time to process the story after all. In other cases, the brain activity was almost perfectly synchronized; there was no time lag at all between the speaker and the listener. But in some rare cases, if the listener was particularly tuned in to the story—if he was hanging on to every word of the story and really got it—his brain activity actually anticipated the story-teller’s in some cortical areas.
“The mutual understanding and shared emotions, especially in that third category of listener, generated a micro-moment of love, which ‘is a single act, performed by two brains,’” as Fredrickson writes in her book.
Fredrickson also discovered that the capacity to experience these daily love connections in our lives can be increased through simple loving-kindness meditations, where, as Smith describes, “you sit in silence for a period of time and cultivate feelings of tenderness, warmth, and compassion for another person by repeating a series of phrases to yourself wishing them love, peace, strength, and general well-being.”
“Fredrickson likes to call love a nutrient,” Smith writes. “If you are getting enough of the nutrient, then the health benefits of love can dramatically alter your biochemistry in ways that perpetuate more micro-moments of love in your life, and which ultimately contribute to your health, well-being, and longevity.”
So remember, fellow readers, as you go meandering from one blog site to another like busy little bees, making those “micro-moment” connections with people whose work you admire, that you are engaged in a kind of virtual love-making. You are distributing a pollen-like “nutrient” that nurtures others, as well as yourself.
As Louis says, “what a wonderful world” we live in!
This essay was first posted in a slightly altered version in 2013.
Lately I’ve become obsessed by scent. Perfume, to be more precise. I seldom wear it, which is why this obsession is so strange.
It all started with the quest to find the perfect perfume for my daughter’s bridal shower. I wanted something intimate and earthy, something that would literally become her. A signature scent that would be all her own. It had to be perfect, like her–warm and rich and exciting, and deeply satisfying. Something that made you want more. That you would never forget and never forget wanting.
And in this quest I tumbled down a rabbit hole into a rich and sensual world where one single sense seldom privileged—smell—was given full rein to romp and roam and sate itself in scent.
We humans rarely give ourselves that pleasure. We privilege sight, touch, sound, taste, and the feel of things. Poor scent is a step-child to the other senses, neglected, forgotten. Not so for other species where the sense of smell is primary with a full palette of colors and a symphony of sounds.
Often when I sit on our front patio overlooking the surrounding hills and valley below, my little dog sits with me, looking out as if as mesmerized by the beauty of the landscape as I am. She seems totally enraptured, her nose raised, nostrils quivering, her whole body trembling in delight. But she’s reveling in smell not sight. She’s drinking in that delicious flood of scents flowing uphill from the valley below.
I imagine her savoring each scent the way we savor each note when listening to a symphony, carried away by the trill of arpeggios, deep thundering drums, long sweet notes like violin strings, the soft low moans of cellos, blasting trumpets, cascading piano keys, all washing over her, tumbling together, fading away, like movements in a symphony of scent that I am deaf to. How I envy her!
We’ve long known how smell and taste are intricately connected—in fact, we can distinguish far more flavors through smell alone—inhaling and exhaling—than we can by our tongues.
What’s new and interesting is how scientists are discovering a similar interconnection between smell and sound that gives rise to a new sensory perception quaintly coined “smound.” If this new science bears out it will only confirm the old science. In 1862, the perfumer G. W. Septimus Piesse noted how “Scents, like sounds, appear to influence the olfactory nerve in certain definite degrees,” and he developed an “octave of odour” to measure those scents.
Musical metaphors are used in describing perfumes, which are said to have three sets of “notes” that unfold over time, each interacting with the others to create a “harmonious scent accord.”
As I wandered along countless cosmetic counters in the search for the perfect perfume for my daughter, spraying sample scents on slips of paper and waving them in the air, or daubing them on my wrists and forearms and inner elbow, knowing how scents change when applied to skin, mixing with our natural pheromones and warm pulses, I was savoring those musical notes: light florals steeped with sandalwood floating on a musky base. Amber and lotus blossoms with a hint of peach. Cardamom married to rosewood. Lavender and rosemary. Vanilla and violets dampened by oak moss.
But there was more to the whole process than scent–the name had to be perfect too, evocative and mysterious, lyrical and alluring. The shape of the bottle had to be sensual or simple, daring or dreamy, as fitted the fragrance and the name. It all had to flow together.
I finally found it, amazingly. The perfect perfume for my perfect daughter. She loves it, and her lover loves her in it. So I’m happy. But still hungry.
Still wanting more. More of my own to daub on earlobe and wrist, to line along the window sill like colored glass or exotic orchids. Scents to soothe and stir, arouse and savor.
I want to collect scents the way I do books. To sit quietly, alluringly, on my shelf, its richness and beauty and promise in full display, just waiting, waiting, waiting, for the perfect moment when I take it in my hands and lift the stopper and let the initial scent rise, and all its sweet layering, lingering notes play over me again and again.
I want scent to light up every neuron in my body. To flow through me, light and airy, like champagne bubbles. I want to hear it taste it see it feel it popping all about me.
I want, I want to be, sated in scent.
This was first posted five years ago in a slightly altered version.