Diary Of A Garden

 

IMG_7268.JPGHow many of us truly pay attention to what is around us and are not oblivious to the small, minute yet miraculous changes that occur all around us? How many of us see what William Carlos Williams called “the local.”

Stephen de Vere is a well-known wildlife photographer who has worked on such BBC productions as Life and Frozen Planet. Sir David Attenborough has described him as “an extraordinary cameraman.” He’s captured some of the most amazing wildlife images around the world. Then he decided to spend a year focusing on the changing seasons in his own countryside. He watched the animals and birds that occupied the fields and hedgerows and woods around his own home.  The final film, Through The Garden Gate: A Diary of the English Countryside, was a stunningly quiet, peaceful and beautiful film: a meticulous and lovingly recorded journal of a what he saw: everything from foxes to barn owls to a badger to sparrowhawks to a muntjac.  It’s highly personal despite the fact that we never see Stephen; though his voice narrates the film. What drew me in was how he offered the viewer a portrait of the land around him that he clearly and deeply loves.

In her classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard wrote of what she saw during explorations near her own home in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains through each of the seasons. It’s a glorious meditation on nature, solitude, and observation. As she writes in the first chapter:

“I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle or a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about.”

How might we change if we, ourselves, were to pay attention, closely, to the land around us during the seasons of a single year? Would we be surprised by the unexpected encounters we might have? How might we feel more connected to nature? Would we start seeing the ordinary in a new light if we looked at it with astonished eyes?

Most would dismiss even beginning this with the excuse, “That’s all well and good for a nature photographer or a writer to do, but I’m too busy to just sit around and look at my own yard.” But the poet Mary Oliver would disagree. She ended her poem “Yes! No!” with this line: To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.

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Though we live not that far from the center of our town (it’s within walking distance), I am always constantly amazed by the natural world that I discover within my own backyard. We have had Barred Owls with their owlets, red-tailed hawks, a raccoon, goldfinches, numerous Robins and Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees, squirrels, black snakes, chipmunks, and even wild turkeys.

Over the last couple of weeks, we have had less sun and more heavy rainstorms which have, unfortunately, kept us inside a great deal more than we’d have liked. During the respite from the rain, I would venture out so that I might breathe in more deeply and see the changes this weather has wrought on the garden.

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Robins were busily working the soft earth to remove long, juicy worms. Those worms then dangled from their beaks as they flew up to the limbs of nearby trees. Adult Robins do not eat these worms but feed them to their young.

Just outside our kitchen window, in a myrtle with its waxy green leaves, is a nest that has been there for the last few years. I don’t allow my sons to touch it or remove the nest because every year the Robins return and we get to enjoy the hatching and growth of their young. It’s fascinating to us to see them go from small ugly, featherless creatures whose eyes cannot even open to large, round young who are reminiscent of the three men in the tub from the Mother Goose Nursery rhyme.

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This year, we even got to see them as they began to leave the nest. Testing their untested wings, they hopped about our backyard until they were finally able to take to the sky themselves. Their feathers were still tufting up about their heads and bodies.

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By one of our old oaks, a dead vole lay in the soft bowl of grass its body created in our yard. Using a small spade, I gathered him up and buried him in one of our flower beds. Nature always reminds us of our own mortality.

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As I covered the body of that small vole with dark, wet and rich earth, I thought of the day that I heard the fierce screech of the hawks long before I spotted them. To my utter amazement, they landed in our backyard. In the sharp talons of one was the body of a smaller bird, though I could not make out what kind. Both the male and female red-tailed hawk took turns pulling at the sinews and flesh of this bird with their short, dark rostrum. It was a picture that the natural world is both tremendous and terrifying. That there is always death and destruction. When the hawks had departed, all they had left behind in the grass were some small bones and bits of feathers: leaving that small bird indistinguishable and unidentifiable.

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All about the yard, amidst the tall unmowed grass, were mushrooms of various shapes, colors, and sizes. There are over 1.5 million different species of fungi in the world. As children, we most often enjoyed kicking them to watch their pieces fly scattered over the yard. Now, however, like so many other forms of nature, I am fascinated by them. Woodland soil can contain, in a small gram of space, over a million microscopic fungi. Like animals, fungi are eukaryotic organisms (meaning their cells have a true nucleus). How long had these been dormant beneath the ground until we had gotten enough rain to wake them from their slumber? Some can remain dormant for decades. While researching fungi, I found that the honey mushroom is the largest and oldest living organism on earth: having lived 2400 years and covers over 2000 acres. Thankfully, not in my backyard but in Malheur National Forest in Oregon. The fungi in our yard also provided me with the opportunity to teach my younger son, whom I homeschool, all about the importance of them and allowing us to be amateur mycologists for the day.

iris bloom

I have loved watching the bold, vivid colors of the flowers in bloom, like the irises and the day lilies. They are magnificent in their array of hues, iridescence and brightnesses that rivaled those used by Matisse or Gaugin or even O’Keefe. All they ask is that I notice for when I do, I am filled with a sense of gratitude that such beauty offers itself up to me every Spring. In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “In some Native languages the term for plants translates to ‘those who take care of us’.” I cannot help but see the truth of those words. How much these plants have taken care of me when I have needed their beauty and their reminder that there are wonders all around us, that life is precious and a gift.

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The large, flute-like bloom of the big-leaf Magnolia tree resembles a soft, pale vase one might find in a museum until it opens and reveals its interior of white and daubs of purple with a yellow stamen in the center. This tree is a reminder of a dear friend and neighbor of ours who gave this as a gift to our older son. Every year that it blooms, we cannot help but think of his generosity in giving my son a gift that may outlive us and beneath whose branches at the base, we have buried our beloved dog Chloe. Though my son, who was young at the time, did not grasp the importance of this gift, now that he is older he cherishes this tree and it often inspires us to tell stories of our friend’s life.

Like Stephen de Vere and Annie Dillard, I document, in my own way, the transformations and encounters of my own place as the seasons change, as I and my sons grow older, as life happens and nature reminds me that beneath it all is birth and life and death and rebirth. The physicist Richard Feynman wrote, “Nature has a great simplicity and therefore a great beauty.” How true this statement is when I am present to it. When I take the time to delight in the fact that I am now seeing the soft yellow flickering of fireflies in our backyard at night.

I am, indeed, grateful for the simple movement of the trees in the wind. Of walking the dog at night and being able to look up at the stars and moon and seeing its silver, shimmering reflection in my fish pond. To hear choirs of birdsong in their limbs at dawn and dusk. I am grateful to grasp that all of this is a glorious, gift. I cannot help but gaze in wonderment that so much of this will go on long after I am gone. That the atoms of which I am made will become a part of this natural world just as those of my ancestors are.

Perhaps, if we all stopped and took the time to notice, to really watch the changes of the seasons in our own locals, we would all, like Henry David Thoreau, declare, “I love my fate to the very core and rind.” Whenever I do stop and see, I find that, like Thoreau, I do love my life and the life all about me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Brief Respite From Rainstorms

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Rain.

It’s been a week of heavy rain in our area. Being stuck indoors has made me stir crazy and ready to escape the indoors, even for just a few moments. Whenever there are small breaks in the downpours, I dash outside and breathe in the fragrance of damp earth and to notice the poetry of raindrops on rose petals or that of the daylilies that are as bright and bold as any O’Keefe painting.

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Walking by my fish pond, I notice water striders slowly gliding their way across it. There are over 5,000 species of them worldwide. I sit on the bench by the pond just to spend a few moments observing them skate across the surface of the water. It’s amazing to watch them move so effortlessly across the water. Their legs, reminding me of a granddaddy long legs, are covered in these microscopic hairs are covered with tiny groves. The magazine National Geographic said, “These groves trap air, increasing water resistance of the water’s striders legs and overall buoyancy of the insect.” It’s amazing to think that their legs are more buoyant than even duck feathers. There’s a great cluster of striders in one spot of the pond. I am not sure the reason; perhaps it is group mating? I have read that their mating habits are more like a battlefield than a romance that has been most often referred to by Ecologists as an “antagonistic coevolution.”

I move on to give them their privacy.

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Then I notice a large Robin Redbreast. I watched as he flew from the damp grass to the limb of an old oak. From there he seemed to contentedly watch the world from his high perch. And I could but stand below and envy him.

I love that the trees are filled with the sound of birdsong. Clearly they, like myself, are delighting in the break from the heavy rain. We are, all of us, invigorated in the freedom of being able to venture forth again. Their song is broken only by that of a Downy Woodpecker, busily tapping out insects from a nearby tree with his chisel-like beak.  His long talons cling to the bark of the tree. His small black and white speckled head is in constant movement as his body remains still against the side of the walnut tree. I love the boldness of his black and white stripes.

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Beneath him, amidst the ivy that climbs over my rock wall, is a Brown Thrasher. Though gangly in body, this amazing bird can sing over 1,100 different songs. It’s a regular iPod of ornithology. I remain still so I can watch without scaring it off in the hopes that I can hear its song, which is far more richer, fuller, and melodious than the more famous Mockingbird’s. But, alas, no performance for me today.

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It is said that Catherine Blake, wife of the poet William, once lamented, “I miss my husband’s company – he is so often in paradise.” As I wander about my own backyard, I can imagine her stating the same thing of myself. I tend to lose myself in the natural world, as Blake did in his heavenly visions of angels in trees and of the prophet Ezekiel seated beneath one. I don’t need such otherworldly perceptions when I have the glorious earthly ones that I have around me. These birds, these insects, and plants are, in these moments, heaven enough for now.

But I am pulled from my meditations and observations by the feeling of rain pelting against my skin as the sky begins to release once more to the earth below. Even so, I am still reluctant to leave as if angels were forcing me to abandon Eden.

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Looking & Childhood

Ellliott in sprinkler

“We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory,” wrote the poet Louise Glück. How often I sift and return to those memories: some beloved and some not. Childhood is frequently romanticized without consideration for those moments we find painful or difficult. Childhood is a place that is filled with treasures, wonders and shadows.

In my memories, there is only one place that I consider home: it was the home I lived in until the time I was twelve. It is, in my mind, seen through the sepia-toned lenses of fondness and of summers and neighborhood friends. I can vividly recall every room in that house. One of my younger sister and my favorite things to do in that house was to use the intercom system that it had to play radio station. We took turns being the DJ and playing our parents’ old 45’s on a portable record player. It was always a mix of songs from the 50’s and 60’s. Do-Wop groups, girl groups, Motown and we loved listening to all of it. On the stereo that was in the den, we liked playing albums from their record collection: music that went all the way from the 40’s to the 70’s. There were jazz records and country albums and the soundtracks to musicals. We ended up loving the music of John Denver, The Carpenters, James Taylor, Carol King, Jim Croce, The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkle (as well as the solo records of Paul Simon).  Our friends would come into our den, we would play records and dance and sing and sometimes put on pretend shows for each other.

As kids, we used to pretend to be characters from movies we saw or books that we read. We would imagine our backyards as the settings from our favorite stories and reenact them in our own way. Most often, I would make myself the best and main character; choosing others to be the side-kick. When I look back now, I’m often amazed anyone played with me.

Childhood is our initiation into the mystery of things. A time of deepest impressions where all the world appears bigger and grander and more wondrous. The world is one that is full of mystery and magic to be discovered. The woods behind our houses were not only to be explored and delighted in, but they served to play out magical realms where we, like the Pevensie children, were rulers. There was even an old abandoned VW Bug in the center of these woods that no one knew how it even got there but because of not knowing, that old car was as magical as the street lamp in Narnia.

I loved to go to the woods to read. When I was lonely, which was often, I had favorite places to go and read: certain trees in specific spots or there was one large rock that I loved because it reminded me of the one in A Wrinkle in Time.  So much of my time spent reading and imagining sprang from a loneliness and this constant niggling in myself that I never ever really seemed to fit in anywhere.

My imagination stemmed from a yearning. A yearning to create my own worlds where I did. A yearning for magic and miracles. An opening of the heart to the mystery of being.

Boyhood

In school, teachers often complained to my mother at parent-teacher conferences that I tended to daydream and stare out the window. There’s a scene in the lovely film Boyhood by Richard Linkletter in which the mother (played by Patricia Arquette) is talking to her young son Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane), who is sitting in the backseat of their station wagon and she tells him, “Well, your teacher says you have been staring out the window all day long.” I loved the boy’s response, “Well, not all day.” I instantly connected with him in that moment. I saw myself in him.

Like so much of the art that I love most, this film is a poem to the ordinary, daily moments of our lives. The ones we so often fail to notice at the time but hold such significance for us later.

Childhood is a mixture of joy and happiness and laughter, but also loneliness, sadness and struggling with trying to make sense of this great big world and the people in it and where we belong or don’t belong in it.  It’s a time of navigating ourselves, our feelings and our relationships with others.

Childhood is filled with connections, with those friends who we played with those long, slow summer days and into the nights that were filled with fireflies and bats winging overhead and stars and wishes and secrets and peals of delight at playing freeze tag or kick the can or hide n’ go seek. It is Popsicles and playing in sprinklers and riding bicycles and thinking that life will always go on like this. It is feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin and the cool of the grass when you lie down on it under the bows of a weeping willow that you pretend is a waterfall where you can hide and dream and share your thoughts to your best friends. It was a time of drinking warm, metallic tasting water from the hose or eating wild blackberries and drinking the nectar from honeysuckle. It was splashing in a creek and catching frogs. The woods were wild and untamed as a Maurice Sendak book and we loved it for that.

Yards seem bigger. I always remembered our front and backyard as having these huge hills that we loved to roll down and then returning as an adult to show my sons and being shocked by how much smaller everything really was.

But it can also be a time of hearing our parents arguing and fighting and being afraid of what it all meant, of uncertainty and fear of instability. It can be one where friendships shift in ways that cause us to wonder what changed in others that did not change in ourselves. I recall one birthday where most of the kids who were invited didn’t show up and the ones who did, played with each other and kind of left me out. It was a wound I carried well into adulthood. This sense of being the outsider, even at one’s own birthday party.

The short season of childhood passes in all but how it has shaped our feelings, our memories, our identity and how we see the world. The minutes that made up those days seemed to go by so slow but the years went by so fast.

Childhood is contained in those many firsts. The first joy, the first sorrow, the first success, the first failure, the first kiss, the first death, the first adventures, the first friendships, the first loves . . . Often these memories feel more like dreams than reality. It’s often because we have reshaped and reformed them in the remembering. All of the feelings are larger and felt even more so, more deeply.

Childhood does not leave us even long after we have left it. We carry it in our very demeanor and attitudes. You hold onto those times, those people and places.

In his novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman writes, “I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy.”

This is something I understand and it beautifully encapsulates how many of us feel about that time in our lives we call childhood. And, still, we find ourselves returning again and again and again to those moments as if we are looking through a photo album. And we are still, sometimes, surprised at what we find there.

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A Love Of Letters & Epistolary Novels

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Dear Reader,

Recently, I read the historical novel The Guernsey Literary and  Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer (and completed by her niece Annie Barrows). Let me start by saying that I am a sucker for epistolary novels, especially those with a bent for literature (particularly English literature).  I was both charmed and learned from this novel, as I didn’t know anything about the German occupancy of Guernsey, an island in the English Channel. As I read, I didn’t want the novel to end and for me to have to leave this place and the people I had grown to love. It also made me long to write someone a letter.

Though I no longer have the opportunity to do so now, I used to adore writing letters. There was something magical about sitting down at a desk, picking up a pen to convey your thoughts and feelings into words. It was a marvelous feeling and, unfortunately in this age of e-mails and texts, a lost art. And it was certainly a delightful gift to get letters written back to you from somewhere else, so that you can find out the thoughts and feelings of another, to get some small glimpse of what was going on in their life at that time. These treasures are meant to be kept and reread over the years (unlike e-mails and texts which seem transitory.  As the poet Emily Dickinson once said, “A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.”

My shelves are filled with epistolary literature, including:

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone and The Woman in White, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë and Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa to name just a few. I devour them as if I were reading letters addressed to myself.

I have collections of literary and historical letters: from a three-volume set of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s to those between Gustav Flaubert and George Sand to those between Henry James and Edith Wharton and the letters of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Then there are my books containing letters written by everyone from Marcel Proust to T.S. Eliot to Martin Luther King, Jr to Henri Nouwen. Not to mention a collection of famous love letters. One of my favorites is by John Keats to Fanny Brawne in which he begins:

My dearest Girl,

I have been a walk this morning with a book in my hand, but as usual, I have been occupied with nothing but you . . .

That, in my mind, is true love: when your mind is on someone else who is not present instead of the book in-hand, which is meant to preoccupy the mind and keep one company.

One of my favorite collection of letters is Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road. Why? Because they are written between Hanff and Frank Doel, who was an English antiquarian bookseller at Marks & Co. These letters are wonderful and a real series of love letters to English literature. It was because of these that I, too, often purchased many of the books that are mentioned, including Hazlitt’s essays (and I cannot read this book without thinking of Helene Hanff’s writing, “I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came he opened to “I hate to read new books,” and I hollered “Comrade!” to whoever owned it before me.”) or Walter Savage Landor’s Imaginary Conversations or “dear old goofy John Henry Newman” to the sermons of John Donne. Like Helene Hanff, these works have filled me with a desire to visit the England of English literature. It was later adapted into a play and then a charming film starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins.

Indeed, there is something far more intimate about letters because a person is taking pen to paper to reveal something about themselves. They are creating a short narrative of thoughts, feelings, and happenings.

I love how the English author Evelyn Waugh, in his typical fashion, warned, “Beware of writing to me. I always answer.”

Letter writing is more than merely putting letters on a page. It is a committing to the page memories and communicating oneself at that point in time (for better or for worse). There is a deep connection to writing a letter to someone who cannot ever be replaced by texts or even e-mails. It is letting someone else know that you took the time to sit down and compose a letter, as well as mailing it to them. It is filled with intention and attention. It is purposeful and therefore greatly meaningful. And someone receives this and gets the joy of opening the letter and seeing it written in your handwriting. These are especially meaningful once that person has died. I cannot imagine not having letters from my mother that were written in her beautiful penmanship and were written on more than mere copy paper. She chose handmade stationary that was often interwoven with flowers. The paper itself was art.

Like Lord Byron, I believe that “Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company.”

One of my all-time favorite letters is from Samuel Johnson to Mrs. Thrale, written on October 27, 1777. He writes:

Some, when they write to their friends, are all affection, some are wise and sententious; some strain their powers for efforts of gayety, some write news, and some write secrets; but to make a letter without affection, without wisdom, without gayety, without news, and without a secret, is, doubtless, the great epistolic art. In a man’s letters, you know, Madam, his soul lies naked. His letters are only the mirror of his breast, — whatever passes within him is there shown undisguised in its natural progress; nothing is inverted, nothing distorted; you see systems in their elements, you discover actions in their motives. …This is the pleasure of corresponding with a friend, where doubt and distrust have no place, and everything is said as it is thought… I have indeed concealed nothing from you, nor do I ever expect to repent of having thus opened my heart.

So I hope this post encourages you to write someone a letter and, like Samuel Johnson, open our hearts or, at the very least, to read books of correspondences or epistolary novels. But I do so hope you do both.

Sincerely,

Elliott Blackwell

P.S. If you don’t have anyone to write a letter to, message me if you want and we can become pen pals.

 

 

A Surprise At Night

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Walking the dog late at night

I am greeted by the loud, insistent croaking

of a frog around my pond.

Yet what startles me is not the sound

by the passing of a large, pure white cloud:

unexpected and surprising at this hour

as if I suddenly caught a glimpse

of a bride in her bridal gown slowly

taking a turn around our garden.

There were no stars, no constellations.

Just this single, magnificent white cloud

there to catch me off guard,

to remind me that the world is always

full of the unexpected.

I imagined God, like a delighted child,

who has painted a dark, black sky

and laughs with joy at the notion

of gluing a large piece of cotton

right in the center of that night.

All as if to ask, “Isn’t it wonderful?”

And I can simply stand there, below it,

and reply, “Yes, yes it is.”

 

 

 

The Omnivoracious Reader

Egon Schiele

In one of the many letters that she wrote, Virginia Woolf penned these words, “I am reading six books at once, the only way of reading; since, as you will agree, one book is only a single unaccompanied note, and to get the full sound, one needs ten others at the same time.” As soon as I read her words, I saw myself. I cannot read one book at a time. Instead, I find myself moving deftly between, at a minimum, three at a time. Typically this involves a collection of short stories, poetry, a work of nonfiction and a novel. Into this mix can be added a work of philosophy or theology or a work of science.

I make sure that there are always books in my car. Once again, a selection of books: essays, poetry, and short stories are best as I often use these whenever I’m waiting on someone in my car or somewhere that I don’t have the time to invest myself in a novel or something of greater length. With these forms, I never read such collections straight through. Poems, essays, and poetry are meant to be read in bites, not all in one sitting. Just as one cannot dine on a meal of sweets. No, these are all things that need to be savored.

And I need variety because I never really and truly know which one I am going to be in the mood for.

Gilmore Girls

There’s an episode of the television show Gilmore Girls, in which Rory is having difficulty packing her bookbag for school. The dilemma is how to fit all of her books into it. Her mother, Lorelai, tries to advise her by telling her to ditch some of the books. Rory claims she needs all of her books. “Lose the Edna St. Vincent Millay,” Lorelai tells her.

“It’s my bus book,” Rory answers.

“What’s with Faulkner?”

“It’s my other bus book.”

“So just take one bus book.”

“The Millay is a biography and sometimes when I’m on the bus and pull out a biography and I think to myself ‘Well I don’t really feel like reading about a person’s life right now then I’ll switch to the novel. And sometimes, when I’m not into the novel, I will switch right back.”

“What’s the Vidal?” Lorelai then asks.

“That’s my lunch book.”

“Uh-huh. Then lose the Vidal. You don’t need two novels.”

“The Vidal’s essays,” Rory answers.

“Uh-huh, well, the Eudora Welty’s not essays or biography.”

“Right.”

“So, it’s another novel. Lose it!”

“Uh-uh, it’s short stories.”

“Oh,” Lorelai frowns, “this is a sickness.”

But a glorious sickness. It’s one that I have no desire to be cured from. There is nothing more delightful than to have a book at hand at all times. I like being able to, at any time, be able to pick up a book and lose myself within its pages. In my car, I can simply open the glove compartment of the dashboard and there are at least two smaller sized volumes that I can grab and enjoy. During such times I have kept company with poets who enriched my days (which are far too often spent in big-box retail stores because of my job) and I can be reminded that there is something beyond consumerism, that there is beauty in this world through the words everyone from Shakespeare’s Sonnets to Dickinson to Whitman to Rossetti to Rilke to Merwin and Levertov.

I remember one day, I picked up a volume of poetry by William Stafford and read these words:

Wisdom is having things right in your life
and knowing why.

And I thought: That is exactly why I have these books in my car.

Books are my guides, my touchstones, and my companions. Why then would I dare want to limit myself to one at a time?

One of my favorite essayists, Charles Lamb comprehended this need when he wrote “Detached Thoughts On Books And Reading.” In it, he says:

Much depends upon when and where you read a book. In the five or six impatient minutes, before the dinner is quite ready, who would think of taking up the Fairy Queen for a stop-gap, or a volume of Bishop Andrewes’ sermons?

Milton almost requires a solemn service of music to be played before you enter upon him. But he brings his music, to which, who listens, had need bring docile thoughts, and purged ears.

Winter evenings—the world shut out—with less of ceremony the gentle Shakspeare enters. At such a season, the Tempest, or his own Winter’s Tale—

These two poets you cannot avoid reading aloud—to yourself, or (as it chances) to some single person listening. More than one—and it degenerates into an audience.

Books of quick interest, that hurry on for incidents, are for the eye to glide over only. It will not do to read them out. I could never listen to even the better kind of modern novels without extreme irksomeness.

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At present, I am reading John O’Donohue’s Beauty: The Invisible Embrace. It is gorgeous in its use of language and ideas. It is a book that nourishes and encourages and enlarges one’s view of the world and of art and of the spirit. It is also not a book to be dashed through. I will read passages and find myself stopping to digest what I have just read. To let it marinate in my mind and to meditate on his thoughts more fully. This is one of those books that can be connected to the English essayist William Hazlitt’s statement, “Books let us into their souls and lay open to us the secrets of our own.”

So when I am not reading O’Donohue’s book, I rotate between Helen Macdonald’s memoir H is for Hawk. It is a wonderful and powerful mix of science and poetry and biography that is so deftly written and Macdonald expertly allows the reader to enter into the mental world of the bird of prey. It is a work of grief and loss, life and of soaring above them all.

This year has, in many ways, been a very dark one. It has been a difficult struggle with depression. In order to refocus, I make myself see the wonders and miracles around me (from flowers to birds to clouds to streams). It also means that I turn to those who spiritually become guides and balms of healing. Right now, it’s the poetry of Hafiz. In his poem “Forgive The Dream,” he writes, “I understand the wounds / That have not healed in you.” And that’s exactly what I needed to hear; after all, that is so often why we read, in order to know that there are others who understand.

Lastly, I am reading a collection of short stories entitled Florida by Lauren Groff. From the first story’s opening lines Groff had me hooked. She is a writer who I marvel at her dexterity of being able to write in so many different styles and yet do so in a way that is wholly herself and totally resonates with the reader. Each story in this collection is so different from the last and yet, together, they form a total cohesiveness that comes from each story building on the previous one as she deals with connections and loss of connections between people, love and loss, residence and resilience.  Groff’s writing is brilliant and highly original. There really are no other writers out there like her.

Each one of these books is so different from the other and, yet, each one resonates deeply within me. Each book speaks to where I am and to where I want to be. They have connected to something beyond and within myself. These books have eased my heart, my troubled thoughts and allowed me to be exhilarated by language and the authors’ ability to show me the world in whole new perspective. These are works that have sparked my imagination and my soul by opening up landscapes and thoughts to something bigger and at the same time wholly personal.

To someone on the outside, my reading may appear desultory and immethodical, but I read the books that speak to me at this moment in time exactly where I am and how I am. They help shape my notions and my feelings. That’s why I never criticize other people’s reading choices because I understand how personal reading is to each individual. Yes, there are books that I find myself unable to read: either from poor writing or the author’s sheer incuriosity and lack of original observation.

Yet when I do connect with a book and author, I find such joy in that realization of discovering a work that I find myself not wanting it to ever end.  This is magnified when that is in the plural: books that become my worlds for the times I inhabit their pages. So, yes, like Virginia Woolf, I want the full sound of that a symphony of books offers.

Sebald: Seeing & Memory

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To enter a book by the German author, W. G. Sebald, is to enter into his process, his thoughts, and connections to history, place, and memory. He teaches us that all of these things are far more fluid than we first imagined. He grasped the connections that are both in our external and internal worlds. Once we enter one world, we soon find ourselves entering a myriad of them. It is as if we have entered into his mind, his subconscious and his dreams.

Sebald was an observer. Both as a writer and photographer. From his walks and his travels, his writing is like a snapshot of both the place where he is physically, but also its history intermingled with his own thoughts and the chronicling and the chronology are not necessarily in a straightforward narrative but, as our own thoughts can be, finding a connection and following that thought until it leads to another one and then another connection to another place or time or reflection. “Physicists now say there is no such thing as time: everything co-exists,” Sebald once said, “Chronology is entirely artificial and essentially determined by emotion. Contiguity suggests layers of things, the past and present somehow coalescing or co-existing.”

His writing, like memory, is a layer of things: the place he is, the place he is thinking of, a piece of art he remembers, or some recalled fact. As he taught his creative writing class, “Look in older encyclopedias. They have a different eye. They attempt to be complete and structured but in fact are completely random collected things that are supposed to represent our world.” It is a mashup of biography, history, landscape, art, photography, story, travelogue and loss.

In his work Vertigo, Sebald writes, “. . . for in reality, as we know, everything is quite different.” Even the most familiar place becomes unfamiliar. He is trying to recover memory or the past, which is often lost to us because we have revised and rewritten even our own personal memories and recollections. Like memory, his works are a mixture of fact and fiction. He is not interested in capturing reality but the perception of reality and how the past (our own, that of where we are from or the place that we are in now) can haunt us.

As he writes in The Rings of Saturn:

“But the fact is that writing is the only way in which I am able to cope with the memories which overwhelm me so frequently and so unexpectedly. If they remained locked away, they would become heavier and heavier as time went on, so that in the end I would succumb under their mounting weight. Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life. How often this has caused me to feel that my memories, and the labours expended in writing them down are all part of the same humiliating and, at bottom, contemptible business! And yet, what would we be without memory? We would not be capable of ordering even the simplest thoughts, the most sensitive heart would lose the ability to show affection, our existence would be a mere neverending chain of meaningless moments, and there would not be the faintest trace of a past.”

His books are filled with reflections, revelations, and digressions. When I first began reading Sebald, I found myself being drawn in to his writing in the same way that I would a dream and, like a dream, I allowed myself to go along with his mental wandering. Like a sleep-walker, we move between reality and dream. Like a talented magician, Sebald is able to move our attention from one idea or insight, theme or subject or concern seamlessly.  He offers us impressions like flickering shadows on a wall. More than a sense of place, we get a sense of Sebald.

And yet his memories remain rooted in place.  Again, one place, however, finds itself folded into another. As he once said, “A sense of place distinguishes a piece of writing. It may be a distillation of different places.”

In The Rings of Saturn, Sebald presents a nameless narrator as he goes on a walking tour of Suffolk. Prompted by the places he encounters, he meditates on everything from memory to identity to the writing of Thomas Browne. It’s transcendent and reads like a prose poem (as all of his works do).

When being interviewed about his final book the melancholy Austerlitz. Sebald told The Guardian, “Places seem to me to have some kind of memory, in that they activate memory in those who look at them. It’s an old notion – this isn’t a good house because bad things have happened in it. Where I grew up, in a remote village at the back of a valley, the old still thought the dead needed attending to – a notion so universal it’s enscribed in all religions. If you didn’t, they might exact revenge upon the living. Such notions were not alien to me as a child.”

Sebald’s writing is appreciated and hailed by authors as diverse as Geoff Dyer, Nicole Krauss to Susan Sontag, who would introduce his books to Patti Smith. Smith told an interviewer for Das Zahngold that she immediately felt an artistic kinship with Sebald. “Sebald gives scenes from the past in his books. Show where we come from. I feel akin to that. Artistically related. I try to apply patterns in my books in the same way. I feel inspired by him. He tells stories. Returns blueprints. He is both a writer’s writer and a reader’s writer.” One can see his influence on her writing, particularly her work M Train. In M Train, Patti Smith writes:

As I unearth After Nature by W.G. Sebald it occurs to me that the image of the boy in white is on the cover of his Austerlitz. Uniquely haunting, it drew me to the book and thus introduced me to Sebald. Mystery solved, I abandon my search and eagerly open After Nature. At one time the three lengthy poems in this slim volume had such profound effect on me that I could hardly bear to read them. Scarcely would I enter their world before I’d be transported to a myriad of other worlds. Evidences of such transports are crammed onto the endpapers as well as a declaration I once had the hubris to scrawl in a margin – I may not know what is in your mind, but I know how your mind works.

To read Sebald is to allow for shifts in perspective; as if he were walking around and around something, while his eye notices something new with each new turn (including bringing in artifice, reality, memory and history). In his work, the line between fact and fiction is blurred. He can move from a discussion of film to the promotion of silk cultivation in Germany.

Environment and memory are there to portray the writer’s mood and the curiosity of his mind.  Sebald told his writing students, “Get off the main thoroughfares; you’ll see nothing there.” Certainly, he never stayed on main thoroughfares but chose to travel those roads we often overlook, choose not to see or do not grasp the precise nature of. He moves from the standard pattern of the novel and created a hybrid narrative that is mysterious, magical and a true marvel as the reader enters these meditations and, upon finishing his book, leaves changed.

Again, returning to The Rings of Saturn, Sebald could be encapsulating his own work when he writes about dreams:

“I suppose it is submerged realities that give to dreams their curious air of hyper-reality. But perhaps there is something else as well, something nebulous, gauze-like, through which everything one sees in a dream seems, paradoxically, much clearer. A pond becomes a lake, a breeze becomes a storm, a handful of dust is a desert, a grain of sulphur in the blood is a volcanic inferno. What manner of theater is it, in which we are at once playwright, actor, stage manager, scene painter and audience?”

If you have never read Sebald, I highly recommend him. His works are not easy, but they are well worth the effort.

Your Whole Life Is Here

Benjamin and Cava on the beach

The sky outside is dove-gray. This morning began in rain and now the earth offers up its fragrance: the damp earth, the sweet pleasant scent of wisteria, the rich aroma of roses and the loveliness of wild honeysuckle that grows by my fish pond.  I go outside with my cup of coffee and breathe in deeply. Fill my lungs with life. This moment is sacred, is holy, is true.

I close my eyes for a moment.

The sound of bees as they flit from the blooms of azalea bushes or the song of the house finches as they call to each other from the branches of our old oak trees. Oak trees that have been here far longer than our century-old gray house.

Standing here, I recall lyrics from an Alexi Murdoch song:

So don’t forget to breathe

Don’t forget to breathe

Your whole life is here

What resonates with me is that line, “Your whole life is here.” A reminder to be present because the only moment that matters right now is this one. Not the past. Not the future. But here and now. To be alive in it without wanting to rush on to the next.

Overhead swallows fly, cutting across the sky in the rapid, graceful beat of their wings.

A squirrel sits up, straight as a small soldier, as he nibbles on an acorn.

Nearby is a couple of Robins, removing worms from the rain-soaked earth.

Right now, the moment is slow, but I know this will pass and I will have to get on with the busyness that modern life seemingly requires: duties and deadlines and chores and requirements that make us feel like we have accomplished something.

But not right now.

For now, I do not attempt to possess my time but simply am grateful for being in the “hereness” of the moment. In his book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, John O’Donohue writes, “Peace is the tranquility that comes when order is realized. Struggle and desire are deftly subsumed in the experience of harmony.” I am in that tranquility, that harmony. But this does not just come. It is a choice, a decision to pause, be still and silent and open to the elegance and wonderment of the moment. To make that small adjustment to not just hurriedly move on. It requires me to look and see, truly see, and not just give everything what the poet Shelley calls the “inconstant glance.” That means I don’t go through my day and this world on auto-pilot because, if I do, I will miss those wondrous, glorious moments that make a life living. Rilke put it this way, “Being here is so much.”

At Christmastime, we went to visit my father and his wife on the coast of North Carolina. My Dad took my sons and I to the beach. Since it was December, the beach was fairly empty. While my Dad and I walked slowly together, sometimes in conversation, sometimes in silence, my two sons walked off with each other. They laughed and gathered shells and watched as great flocks of pelicans flew overhead.  My Papa’s heart delighted in their enjoying each other’s company. It was one of those moments in life where you wish you could just stop time. Like Jim Croce, we long to save time in a bottle so that we could always keep it with us. As he sings:

If I could make days last forever
If words could make wishes come true
I’d save every day like a treasure and then,
Again, I would spend them with you

Who hasn’t experienced that? Who hasn’t longed for that?

The days go by so slow, but the years pass so quickly.

It won’t be long before my older son graduates high school and soon goes off to college.  This is a time mixed with melancholy and joy (as all of the best moments tend to be). Melancholy because my son won’t be living in my house, I won’t wake him in the mornings and kiss his head goodnight every night. We won’t have our nightly walks about the neighborhood where I listen to him offer up whatever’s on his heart and mind. But there is also joy in seeing him become who he wants to be.

In one of my favorite films, Dan in Real Life, Steve Carell’s character is an advice columnist. In a voice-over he says: If we’re really honest with ourselves, most of the time our plans don’t work out as we’d hoped. So instead of asking our young people, ‘What are your plans? What do you plan to do with your life?’ maybe we should tell them this — ‘Plan to be surprised.

What a great line: Plan to be surprised.

So I tell him, “Be delighted in the surprise. Allow for surprises and wonderment. Embrace this time in your life. Explore. Question. Be curious and open. But, most importantly, be present.”

But as I stood there, on that winter beach, I watched my sons and deep within me thought:

Remember now the still and quiet places. Hold them deep within you. Let their silence and their solitude reside and dwell within you for those moments when you need to draw from them, when you need to remember that there is, indeed, beauty in this world.

A Rainy Afternoon In May

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I watch from the window

as the rain sluices off the roof.

I do not mind since I am safe & dry inside

with a cup of tea and a book to keep me company,

though I find myself gazing out the window

more than at the words on the page.

There is something hypnotizing about the rain,

much as a mother singing a lullaby to her infant.

I love that when the downpour lets up,

I can wander outside and breathe deeply in

the scent of the wet earth.

The rain also draws out the fragrance

of the roses and the wild honeysuckle.

Perhaps, like a child, I will find myself

unable to resist splashing

wildly and joyfully

in puddles.

Or, perhaps, I will consider

jumping in, in full abandonment,

with the hopes that it’s a doorway

to another, more magical world.

But can there be?

Can there be

anything more magical

than the wild, wonderful

grace & glory of this one?

Especially after a rain such as this?

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Everything Is Moved By Love

Osip Mandelstam

The Russian poet and essayist, Osip Mandelstam, once wrote, “Everything is moved by love.”  Take that concept out of metaphysical terms and into more scientific, practical ones. For example, each person is composed of 7 billion, billion, billion atoms. When one stops to consider this and how all of these atoms came together to form us, it’s astounding. And all of these atoms and molecules are constantly in motion and that movement gives us mass.

Richard Feynman, the American theoretical physicist, wrote that “all things are made of atoms – little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world; if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.”

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What I was drawn to was the fact that atoms “move around in perpetual motion attracting each other when they are a little distance apart,” much like the lovers floating in a Chagall painting. Chagall painted himself and his wife Bella this way because he believed that the joy from their love was so powerful that it countermanded the law of gravity so much so that the fly above cities in ecstasy. As Chagall once said, “Only love interests me, and I am only in contact with things that revolve around love.” His paintings all sprang from a place of love. Love put in motion his imagination and he created from that space. His wife Bella even described their first encounter with these words, “When you did catch a glimpse of his eyes, they were as blue as if they’d fallen straight out of the sky. They were strange eyes … long, almond-shaped … and each seemed to sail along by itself, like a little boat.”

Floating.

Sailing.

Movement set in motion by love and attraction just as it is with atoms.

Tree of Life

At the beginning of the universe, approximately 14 billion years ago, when everything was set in motion by the Big Bang, causing everything to double in size at least 90 times. I believe that all of this was set in motion by love: that everything was created out of love and is held together by love. The French philosopher, paleontologist, and geologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “Love is the affinity which links and draws together the elements of the world… Love, in fact, is the agent of universal synthesis.”

To have this perspective is to understand that love interconnects all of humanity and nature and the universe together. It forms the understanding that we, along with everyone else, were created by love and exist in both a world and universe created by such love. If we see each other and the world in this light, then we cannot respond to others and the natural world in any other way but love.

Tree of Life mother and child

In the gorgeous film The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick, are these words, “And love is smiling through all things.”

I think of this line every time I see the sunlight coming through the trees. The Japanese have a word for this komorebi, (I wrote a post all about it Komorebi & The Love Of New Words) and refers to the light filtered through the green leaves of trees. The Germans call this Maeinschein or May Light, referring to the green-gold light one sees while walking through the woods. Yet every time I see this light, I think that “love is smiling through all things.”

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It’s overwhelming to stop and look and think that within everything around us holds the very that love of creation.

Is Eden not to dwell in the love of all things?

The Sufi poet Hafiz understood this. He grasped that love could be found in many different things: Each curve of a branch or the spring orchestra of scents or the current of lights or “the revolution of Existence’s skirt whose folds contain other worlds.” I think of this revolution as the joyous spins of the dance, much like the whirling dervishes moving in their devotional act. A dance of prayer.

It is often easier for me to see this love in nature but not so much on busy street where one is forced to bump elbows with strangers in the motion of getting to and from places or in the bustle of a crowded room or, worse yet, driving slowly in the throng of morning traffic. Yet to see “love smiling through all things” is to remove all illusions of separateness and difference. This very act happened to Thomas Merton as he stood on the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville. He looked at the crowds of peoples, the sidewalks bustling with tourists and shoppers. Merton suddenly felt as if a veil had been lifted and he realized that he loved every one of these people. ” . .. they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers . . .” I had that very kind of experience once as I sat watching people in a large shopping mall in Nashville.

In that mall, I began to see the reality of Acts 17:28 where the Apostle Paul writes about how it is in God that we “live and move and have our being.” All of this exists in love. Infinite love. And in seeing everyone living and moving and having their being from the very heart of love, all differences fell aside. I saw their dignity and their humanity. Though they were nameless to me, they weren’t unseen and unknown. Each one had worth and meaning. Each one was a part of a grand history of all the ancestors before them and all of those future generations to come. Each mattered. Each was unique. And all of them, including myself, were interdependent and interconnected with each other.  But beneath all that, we all “live and move and have our being” because of this unconditional love.

So I’ve begun to wonder: What if we saw everything as the movement of atoms? And if we continued to look and we saw even more deeply that all of the kinetic force that drives all of this motion was love itself. If we saw that at the very smallest, most miniscule of levels that everything was set in motion by love and moved in love and through love and by love, how transformative this would be?

To grasp as Maria Montessori, the physician and educator, did, that “Love holds the universe together because it is a real force, and not just an idea.”