Taking some time for myself this morning. A fire, a book, music streaming as a gentle rain falls beyond my window.
I often turn to the poetry of Mary Oliver when seeking solace, when trying to negotiate a path through the cares and sorrows of this world and its grace and beauty.
“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine,” she says, simply.
As if she and me and despair are old friends. As if despair, with all its sharp, broken edges is as common as grass, as remarkable as wild geese shrieking across the sky. Just another thing among the many that make up a life.
Not to be avoided. And not to let drown out the other voices that call to us, or whisper up from deep within.
Here’s one of my favorites.
Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things
One of the joys of grandparenting is revisiting stories I loves to read my own children and sharing them with theirs. What fun it was to read to my granddaughter some of her father’s favorite books, Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and Superfudge. Equally fun is discovering new favorites all her own, like the audibles we’re listening to of Junie B. Jones series narrated in that delightfully scratchy and droll voice of Lana Quintal as Junie B. rebels against riding the stupid smelly yellow school bus, and gets back at that meany boy Jim who invited everyone in room 9 to his birthday party but her.
A new recent favorite is the Pete the Cat series, and my personal favorite I Love My White Shoes. This groovy blue cat with the yellow eyes and long skinny legs has a new pair of white hightops that he loves, loves, loves! So much so that as he strolls along he sings this song: ” I love my white shoes! I love my white shoes! I love my white shoes.”
But then, “Oh no!” he steps into a huge pile of strawberries, turning his white shoes red. What does Pete do? Does he cry? “Goodness, no!” He just keeps strolling along singing his song, “I love my red shoes! I love my red shoes! I love my red shoes!”
And when through a series of accidents his shoes turn blue, then brown, then wet and white again, what does he do? He just keeps strolling along, singing his song, which changes according to the circumstances: “I love my blue shoes! . . . I love my brown shoes . . . . I love my wet shoes . . .!”
The illustrations are so vivid and cheerful, the cool cat’s insouciant optimism so infectious, with the repetitious sing-songy verses undercut by unexpected riffs from the past (Everything is Cool! Groovy! Rock N’ Roll!), we don’t even mind when, at the end, the story points to itself and sets out the “moral” in black and white on the page:
“The moral of Pete’s story is
No matter what you step in
Keep walking along and
Singing your song . . .
because it’s all good.”
So simple. So wise. And for all its triteness, so encouraging to this grandma and her little granddaughter, each of us in the throes of transition, our lives turned upside-down since she’s come to live with me, not knowing what will come next as I petition for permanent guardianship, the decision so completely out of our hands.
All we can do and must do is just keep strolling along, singing our songs, reading our books, enjoying our sweet time together in the here and now, come what may, regardless the shifting landscapes and incidences that continue to color our lives.
Knowing, like that great, wise, groovy Peter the Cat says: It’s all good.
[NOTE TO READER: While the Junie B series is new to me and my granddaughter, it’s been around for a long time, since 1995! Pete the Cat is not as young as he is cool either, having debuted in 2010. If you younger parents and grandparents know of newer book series you think my sweetie might like, please let me know. She’s an “old soul” first grader.]
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not from you.
I first read these words from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet when still in high school, a child myself, although I did not see myself that way. His words moved me then, even as they do now, so many years later, when I am raising a granddaughter.
Then I truly was “life” in its earliest stages “longing” for the life that was to be, that stretched out before me in what seemed an endless and exciting unknown potentiality.
I didn’t want to be hemmed in by the hopes and expectations of my parents, nor by their fears and warnings. I didn’t want to “learn from their mistakes,” as they cautioned me. I wanted to live my life as an adventure, learning from my own mistakes, not theirs. My life was my own and no one else’s. I wanted to risk all, moving at my own direction, and good or bad, I alone would take responsibility for the life I chose. Such were my longings then.
So I found Gibran’s parenting advice immensely inspiring, both for myself as I was moving beyond my parents into adulthood, and also for the kind of parent I wanted to be to my own children.
He goes on to say:
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
Now, as the mother of a grown son and the guardian of his child, The Prophet’s words still move me . . . and admonish me.
How I wish now my son had heeded my warnings, and that they had been louder and clearer. How I wish he had chosen paths more safe and sane, had lived up to all the potential I saw in him then and see still.
But those are my fears, my regrets, not his. I must loose him and let him go, and see the direction in which he flew as his own choice. It was never mine to make or change or regret. I had longed when young to make and learn from my own mistakes, and so must he. But that learning is his alone to make or forsake in his own good time.
As for his child, my little granddaughter, she too is an arrow who will fly beyond my bending, beyond my ability to see or guide her life’s flight. Will my warnings to her be louder and clearer? No doubt. Will she heed them, or long to learn from her own mistakes, as I had, as her father must? We shall see.
She, as her father, is in the Archer’s hand. And I must trust, trust, trust that each will reach that mark upon the path of the infinite toward which the Archer aims with gladness. They are, after all, Life’s sweet longing for itself.
As am I.
I have always been drawn to and moved by images of Michelangelo’s Pieta, his sculpture of the Mother Mary holding the body of her son in her lap after his crucifixion. Seeing it in person when I visited Italy last year did not disappoint. To me it symbolizes that perfect all-embracing, unconditional love that transcends time and space. Her son is dead, beyond her comfort. And yet she holds him with such tenderness and devotion that I don’t feel despair or grief. I feel the power of an undying love and that spills outward, encompassing her and her son and all who behold them.
The Pieta was commissioned to be “the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could best.” It is truly that, even today, and is considered by many to be Michelangelo’s greatest work of art, even besting his sculpture of David, and his painting of the Creation of Adam.
St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City is a magnificent setting for the Pieta. Many masters of the Renaissance contributed to its creation, including Michelangelo, Bramante, Raphael, Donato, and Giacomo della Porta.
After the narrow, crowded spaces of the Vatican museums, it was a pleasure to move within the spacious grandeur of the Basilica. I loved especially the lush details in the decorative grilles and arches, and all the beautiful and varied colors of marble found in the tiled floors and walls, as well as the stunning sculptures.
I’m finding it harder to blog these days, harder to paint, to play piano, to clean house, to do most anything but write, rewrite, and write again.
And yet, despite this, I’m trying to keep the blogging going at least. The painting is on holiday until I start an acrylic and oil class this summer. But the piano, the poor piano! I feel guilty each time I walk by. She so wants to play.
And the house. Well, let’s not talk about the house.
I’m explaining more than complaining. I set this rigorous writing schedule myself. A “scaffolding” Annie Dillard calls it. A “blurred and powerful pattern.” It is all that.
Here is her full quote:
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.
She also writes about the writer’s precarious relationship to a work in process which I’ve found to be quite true:
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.
Another quote relating writing and dying strikes at the heart of the writer’s task:
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.
I read the above quote daily as a reminder: Push, pull, probe, go deeper, page by page. Leave nothing unturned. Don’t do what’s easy. Do what’s hard.
And finally, another reminder when the writing seems so slow and never-ending:
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.
“Do not hurry and do not rest.” Yes. Got it.
“There is an end.” Thank God!
Photo credit: Mary Pickford, public domain.
While neither of these poems have anything in particular to do with remembering those who have given their lives to defend our freedoms, they are reminders that death is not an ending but another beginning. So my heartfelt prayer for them is that they fell into the arms of that great Mothering and are being nurtured and renewed there.
She wrote me a letter
after her death
and I remember
a kind of happy light
falling on the envelope
as I sat by the rose tree
on her old bench
at the back door,
so surprised by its arrival
wondering what she would say,
looking up before I could open it
and laughing to myself
in silent expectation.
Dear son, it is time
for me to leave you.
I am afraid that the words
you are used to hearing
are no longer mine to give,
they are gone and mingled
back in the world
where it is no longer
in my power
to be their first
not their last loving bearer.
You can hear
words of affection now
only from your own mouth
when you speak them
As for me I must forsake
and be bound gladly
to a new childhood.
You must understand
demands of me
an elemental innocence
I ever held in my hands.
I know your generous soul
is well able to let me go
you will in the end
be happy to know
my God was true
and I find myself
after loving you all so long,
in the wide,
of being mothered myself.
P.S. All your intuitions are true.
By David Whyte
Of course, it is strange to inhabit the earth no longer,
to give up customs one barely had time to learn,
not to see roses and other promising Things
in terms of a human future; no longer to be
what one was in infinitely anxious hands; to leave
even one’s own first name behind, forgetting it
as easily as a child abandons a broken toy.
Strange to no longer desire one’s desires. Strange
to see meanings that clung together once, floating away
in every direction. And being dead is hard work
and full of retrieval before one can gradually feel
a trace of eternity. – Though the living are wrong to believe
in the too-sharp distinctions which they themselves have created.
Angels (they say) don’t know whether it is the living
they are moving among, or the dead. The eternal torrent
whirls all ages along in it, through both realms
forever, and their voices are drowned out in its thunderous roar
By Rainer Maria Rilke
from Duino Elegies, The first Elegy
translation by Stephen Mitchell
I found both of these poems and the photo by Edward Steichen on Beauty We Love, a wonderful source of inspiration I turn to often.
Fallen in Love
by David Whyte
That day I saw beneath dark clouds
the passing light over the water
and I heard the voice of the world speak out,
I knew then, as I had before
life is no passing memory of what has been
nor the remaining pages in a great book
waiting to be read.
It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years
of secret conversing
speaking out loud in the clear air.
It is Moses in the desert
fallen to his knees before the lit bush.
It is the man throwing away his shoes
as if to enter heaven
and finding himself astonished,
opened at last,
fallen in love with solid ground.
What makes a photograph great? What draws us to look again and again? What is it we see that fascinates us so?
These are the kinds of questions that haunt me, because they speak to the human condition, what makes us human, what inspires us and sets us on fire. Why we are drawn to some things, why do they whisper to us in a way that makes us feel that as if we could only ferret this out we will have drawn aside some mysterious veil that hides the secrets of our soul from us.
I want to get to the bottom of these things, to understand what excites me and why–in art, in music, in literature, in the simple objects that I find in my house that give me such pleasure when I look at them, take them in.
Where does this pleasure come from? Why am I drawn to look deep inside this mirror?
The photograph above by Vivian Maier fascinates me. Her story is fascinating as well. Maier is considered one of the finest photographers of our age, yet she was unknown in her lifetime. Her photographs of city life, thousands of them, were found after her death, as negatives, never developed, never printed. Yet it’s not her story that draws me to this photo. It stands by itself as an object of art, a moment forever stilled in time for our rapt attention.
I suppose what first captures the eye is the stunning beauty of the woman, like an Aphrodite of old captured in stone. We are drawn toward beautiful things, no matter what their nature: a woman, a man, a child, a sunset, a spectacular cathedral.
But there is so much more to this photo that captures and holds our gaze, that makes it exciting and evocative and a pleasure to look at, than the mere beauty of the woman’s face. There’s also the expression on her face, the sideways glance, the downward gaze, the dark arching eyebrows and melancholy mouth. Those eyes. There’s a mysterious Mona Lisa appeal that makes us look with wonder at her: who is she, what is she thinking, where is she going? We have some clues, and these too comprise in part what makes this photo so fascinating.
Behind her is an imposing edifice slightly out of focus, a courthouse I’m guessing, with steps leading down to the street, as if she has just vacated that space. The strong central column leads directly to her, the soft pale gray stone in direct contrast with her shining dark hair. While the sharper, horizontal lines of the near stairs behind her also point provocatively toward her. She is caught at the apex of their meeting.
Surrounding her (almost like a parenthesis to enhance her significance) are the elderly women moving past and leaning toward her with their bent backs and grey heads. They too are slightly out of focus. Passersby in motion contrasting with her stark startling stillness.
Below her is a streak of white, slantwise and mysterious, a ghostly blur. It appears she is standing in the middle of the street, or perhaps on the curb, and the photographer is viewing her from the open window of a passing vehicle. That blur, that streak of passing time across her breast, of swift motion, contrasts sharply with her stillness and the sharp, clean details that freeze her in time: The pearl necklace and earring; the wings of her wide collar framing her face; the sharp, delicate sculpture of her collar bones; the dark hollow of her throat and gentle curve of her jaw; the feathering of the dark eyelash silhouetted against the white stone behind her.
She is a study of stillness against the motion that surrounds her, and without that surrounding motion, without all those revealing contrasts and details, she would not appear so alluring, nor would this photograph be so fascinating. Without all the lines leading toward her, framing her, setting her apart from all else; without her face being set like a polished diamond within the gray softness surrounding her; without that stunning stillness caught within a blur of motion, like a second in time frozen for all eternity, this photograph would lose its fascination. For me at least.
There’s poetry in this photograph, rhythm, rhyme, music. It speaks profoundly on the eternal nature of beauty and its fragility within a timescape that erases the very thing it evolves. Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn, Shelley’s Hymn to Beauty speak no more eloquently to that theme than this single image does.
There’s tenderness here, love, compassion, heartbreak and pathos, as well as a beauty beyond knowing, beyond time. Something we feel deeply and speaks movingly to what it means to be human shrouded in so much mystery. And that’s what I find so fascinating. How a single image, flashed on the fly, can capture all that.
After so much rain this year on the central coast of California, the hillsides around our home are green and lush. The wildflowers are beginning to pop out in our neighborhood and the cherry trees are in full bloom. Here are just a few quick photos from a recent walk to our mailbox.