The Night, The Porch
To stare at nothing is to learn by heart
What all of us will be swept into, and baring oneself
To the wind is feeling the ungraspable somewhere close by.
Trees can sway or be still. Day or night can be what they wish.
What we desire, more than a season or weather, is the comfort
Of being strangers, at least to ourselves. This is the crux
Of the matter, which is why even now we seem to be waiting
For something whose appearance would be its vanishing -
The sound, say, of a few leaves falling, or just one leaf,
Or less. There is no end to what we can learn. The book out there
Tells us as much, and was never written with us in mind.
- Mark Strand
All morning with dry instruments
The field repeats the sound
And in the wall
The dead increase their invisible honey
It is August
The flocks are beginning to form
I will take with me the emptiness of my hands
What you do not have you find everywhere
- W. S. Merwin
"Stop worrying about your identity and concern yourself with the people you care about, ideas that matter to you, beliefs you can stand by, tickets you can run on. Intelligent humans make those choices with their brain and hearts and they make them alone. The world does not deliver meaning to you. You have to make it meaningful, and decide what you want and need and must do. It's a tough, unimaginably lonely and complicated way to be in the world. But that's the deal: you have to live; you can't live by slogans, dead ideas, clichés, or national flags. Finding an identity is easy. It's the easy way out."
- Zadie Smith
"It is remarkable that mind enters into our awareness of nature on two separate levels. At the highest level, the level of human consciousness, our minds are somehow directly aware of the complicated flow of electrical and chemical patterns in our brains. At the lowest level, the level of single atoms and electrons, the mind of an observer is again involved in the description of events. Between lies the level of molecular biology, where mechanical models are adequate and mind appears to be irrelevant. But I, as a physicist, cannot help suspecting that there is a logical connection between the two ways in which mind appears in my universe. I cannot help thinking that our awareness of our own brains has something to do with the process which we call "observation" in atomic physics. That is to say, I think our consciousness is not just a passive epiphenomenon carried along by the chemical events in our brains, but is an active agent forcing the molecular complexes to make choices between one quantum state and another. In other words, mind is already inherent in every electron, and the processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call "chance" when they are made by electrons."
- Freeman Dyson
"A common misconception is the belief that thinking is the creation of thought. Rather, it is the reception of thought from a source which has no name and from a place that cannot be found. Since one can't decide to think nor can one decide thoughts' contents, why does one claim their ownership? Is every sound Wu Hsin's because he can hear them?"
- Wu Hsin
Lines Lost Among Trees
These are not the lines that came to me
while walking in the woods
with no pen
and nothing to write on anyway.
They are gone forever,
a handful of coins
dropped through the grate of memory,
along with the ingenious mnemonic
I devised to hold them in place -
all gone and forgotten
before I had returned to the clearing of lawn
in back of our quiet house
with its jars jammed with pens,
its notebooks and reams of blank paper,
its desk and soft lamp,
its table and the light from its windows.
So this is my elegy for them,
those six or eight exhalations,
the braided rope of syntax,
the jazz of the timing,
and the little insight at the end
wagging like the short tail
of a perfectly obedient spaniel
sitting by the door.
This is my envoy to nothing
where I say Go, little poem -
not out into the world of strangers' eyes,
but off to some airy limbo,
home to lost epics,
and fugitive dreams
such as the one I had last night,
which, like a fantastic city in pencil,
in the bright morning air
just as I was waking up.
- Billy Collins
"Most of us find it difficult to know what we are feeling about anything. In any situation it is almost impossible to know what is really happening to us. This is one of the penalties of being human and having a brain so swarming with interesting suggestions and ideas and self-distrust."
- Ted Hughes
"Well, the terrible fact is that though we are all more or less thinking of something or other all the time, some of us are thinking more and some less.
Some brains are battling and working and remembering and puzzling things over all the time and other brains are just lying down, snoring and occasionally turning over."
- Ted Hughes
"The clock! That twelve-figured moon skull, that white spider belly! How serenely the hands move with their filigree pointers, and how steadily! Twelve hours, and twelve hours, and begin again! Eat, speak, sleep, cross a street, wash a dish! The clock is still ticking. All its vistas are just so broad - and regular. (Notice that word.) Every day, twelve little bins in which to order disorderly life, and even more disorderly thought. The town's clock cries out, and the face on every wrist hums or shines; the world keeps pace with itself. Another day is passing, a regular and ordinary day. (Notice that word also.)
Say you have bought a ticket on an airplane and you intend to fly from New York to San Francisco. What do you ask the pilot when you climb aboard and take your seat next to the little window, which you cannot open but through which you see the dizzying heights to which you are lifted from the secure and friendly earth?
Most assuredly you want the pilot to be his regular and ordinary self. You want him to approach and undertake his work with no more than a calm pleasure. You want nothing fancy, nothing new. You ask him to do, routinely, what he knows how to do - fly an airplane. You hope he will not daydream. You hope he will not drift into some interesting meander of thought. You want this flight to be ordinary, not extraordinary. So, too, with the surgeon, and the ambulance driver, and the captain of the ship. Let all of them work, as ordinarily they do, in confident familiarity with whatever the work requires, and no more. Their ordinariness is the surety of the world. Their ordinariness makes the world go around.
I, too, live in this ordinary world. I was born in it. Indeed, most of my education was intended to make me feel comfortable within it. Why that enterprise failed is another story. Such failures happen, and then, like all things, are turned to the world's benefit, for the world has a need of dreamers as well as shoe-makers. (Not that it is so simple, in fact - for what shoemaker does not occasionally thump his thumb when his thoughts have, as we would say, "wandered"? And when the old animal body clamors for attention, what daydreamer does not now and again have to step down from the daydream and hurry to market before it closes, or else go hungry?)
And this is also true in creative work - creative work of all kinds - those who are the world's working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. Its labor requires a different outlook - a different set of priorities. Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.
Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always - these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit. Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life. Like the knights of the middle ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come - for his adventures are all unknown. In truth, the work itself is an adventure. And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration. The extraordinary is what art is all about.
Neither is it possible to control, or regulate, the machinery of creativity. One must work with the creative powers - for not to work with is to work against; in art as in spiritual life there is no neutral place. Especially at the beginning, there is a need of discipline as well as solitude and concentration. A writing schedule is a good suggestion to make to young writers, for example. Also, it is enough to tell them. Would one tell them so soon the whole truth, that one must be ready at all hours, and always, that the ideas in their shimmering forms, in spite of all our conscious discipline, will come when they will, and on the swift upheaval of their wings - disorderly; reckless; as unmanageable, sometimes, as passion.
No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn't that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.
Of this there can be no question - creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this - who does not swallow this - is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.
There is a notion that creative people are absent-minded, reckless, heedless of social customs and obligations. It is, hopefully, true. For they are in another world altogether. It is a world where the third self is governor. Neither is the purity of art the innocence of childhood, if there is such a thing. One's life as a child, with all its emotional rages and ranges, is but grass for the winged horse - it must be chewed well in those savage teeth. There are irreconcilable differences between acknowledging and examining the fabulations of one's past and dressing them up as though they were adult figures, fit for art, which they never will be. The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work - who is thus responsible to the work.
On any morning or afternoon, serious interruptions to work, therefore, are never the inopportune, cheerful, even loving interruptions which come to us from another. Serious interruptions come from the watchful eye we cast upon ourselves. There is the blow that knocks the arrow from its mark! There is the drag we throw over our own intentions. There is the interruption to be feared!
It is six a.m., and I am working. I am absent-minded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, wherever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o'clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.
There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it neither power nor time."
- Mary Oliver
Of Power and Time
Upstream: Selected Essays
the hammock papers
Waiting for God
This morning I breathed in. It had rained
early and the sycamore leaves tapped
a few drops that remained, while waving
the air's memory back and forth
over the lawn and into our open
window. Then I breathed out.
This deliberate day eased
past the calendar and waited. Patiently
the sun instructed the shadows how to move;
it held them, guided their gradual defining.
In the great quiet I carried my life on,
in again, out again.
- William Stafford
Last Day on Earth
If it's the title of a movie you expect
everything to become important - a kiss,
a shrug, a glass of wine, a walk with the dog.
But if the day is real, life is only
as significant as yesterday - the kiss
hurried, the shrug forgotten, and now,
on the path by the river, you don't notice
the sky darkening beyond the pines because
you're imagining what you'll say at dinner,
swirling the wine in your glass.
You don't notice the birds growing silent
or the cold towers of clouds moving in,
because you're explaining how lovely
and cool it was in the woods. And the dog
had stopped limping! - she seemed
her old self again, sniffing the air and alert,
the way dogs are to whatever we can't see.
And I was happy, you hear yourself saying,
because it felt as if I'd been allowed
to choose my last day on earth,
and this was the one I chose.
- Lawrence Raab
Mistaking Each Other For Ghosts
"All I know is that I've wasted all these years looking for something, a sort of trophy I'd get only if I really, really did enough to deserve it. But I don't want it anymore, I want something else now, something warm and sheltering, something I can turn to, regardless of what I do, regardless of who I become. Something that will just be there, always, like tomorrow's sky. That's what I want now, and I think it's what you should want too."
- Kazuo Ishiguro
"I choose to believe that there is nothing more sacred or profound than this day. I choose to believe that there may be a thousand big moments embedded in this day, waiting to be discovered like tiny shards of gold. The big moments are the daily, tiny moments of courage and forgiveness and hope that we grab onto and extend to one another. That's the drama of life, swirling all around us, and generally I don't see it, because I'm too busy waiting to become whatever it is I think I'm about to become. The big moments are in every hour, every conversation, every meal, every meeting."
- Shauna Niequist
"Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back - in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you."
- Frederick Buechner
"Anger, [Evagrius] wrote, is given to us by God to help us confront true evil. We err when we use it casually, against other people, to gratify our own desires for power or control."
- Kathleen Norris
The Cloister Walk
Plunging over Niagara you hold
this picture in your hand: a summer day
arranging itself serenely onward, a lawn,
daisies, roses, a single pine in the sky
with a crow flying and a flicker calling, then
all stopped in the camera, one tremendous
instant that the world will never achieve again.
Now you own that, just for the cost of reading
this page. Assemble yourself and go on.
Don't worry about it. No, I didn't
mean you really plunge over Niagara.
- William Stafford
"There is a noise when Justice is being dragged in the way where those who devour bribes and give sentence with crooked judgements, take her. And she, wrapped in mist, follows to the city and haunts of the people, weeping, and bringing mischief to men, even to such as have driven her forth in that they did not deal straightly with her."
"My friend Suzie told me while I was driving her home from that bar about the real meaning of the blindfolded figure of Justice holding the scales. Suzie was drawing her own tarot cards and rethinking each card as she went. Justice, a book on classical lore asserted, stood at the gates of Hades deciding who would go in, and to go in was to be chosen for refinement through suffering, adventure, transformation, a punishing route to the reward that is the transformed self. It made going to hell seem different. And it suggested that justice is a far more complicated and incalculable thing than we often imagine, that if everything is to come out even in the end, then the end is farther away than anticipated and far harder to estimate. It suggests too that to reside in comfort can be to have fallen by the wayside. Go to hell, but keep moving once you get there, come out the other side. Finally she drew a group around a campfire as her picture of justice, saying that justice is helping each other on the journey."
- Rebecca Solnit
Letter to a Friend
Who knows what age will bring besides your death?
You think you see your future plod before you,
eventless, a blunt-tooth cog of certainty,
churning for years of noon in summer heat,
but haven't there been times when suddenly you saw
something which had been there all along
and nothing had changed but you, a certain slant
of age, perhaps, or disposition of the eyes,
some newfound sensitivity, awakened when
adversity scraped the skin of your perception?
The starving leaves now blaze with colors
not seen until articulated by the frost.
These years of erosion may yet uncover forgotten
ruins - your own, standing there like a child,
holding out the key to your next room.
- Fred Dings
Eulogy for a Private Man
Summer sings its long song, and all the notes are green.
But there's a click, somewhere in the middle
of the month, as we reach the turning point, the apex,
a Ferris wheel, cars tipping and tilting over the top,
and we see September up ahead, school and schedules
returning. And there's the first night you step outside
and hear the katydids arguing, six more weeks
to frost, and you know you can make it through to fall.
Dark now at eight, nights finally cooling off for sleep,
no more twisting in damp sheets, hearing mosquitoes'
thirsty whines. Lakes of chicory and Queen Anne's lace
mirror the sky's high cirrus. Evenings grow chilly,
time for old sweaters and sweatpants, lying in the hammock
squinting to read in the quick-coming dusk.
A few fireflies punctuate the night's black text,
and the moonlight is so thick, you could swim in it
until you reach the other side.
- Barbara Crooker
beyond the fields we know
- Henry Beston
"Humans are tuned for relationship. The eyes, the skin, the tongue, ears, and nostrils - all are gates where our body receives the nourishment of otherness. This landscape of shadowed voices, these feathered bodies and antlers and tumbling streams - these breathing shapes are our family, the beings with whom we are engaged, with whom we struggle and suffer and celebrate."
- David Abram
The Spell of the Sensuous
stand with your lover on the ending earth
stand with your lover on the ending earth -
and while a (huge which by which huger than
huge) whoing sea leaps to greenly hurl snow
suppose we could not love, dear; imagine
ourselves like living neither nor dead these
(or many thousand hearts which don't and dream
or many million minds which sleep and move)
blind sands, at pitiless the mercy of
time time time time time
- how fortunate are you and i, whose home
is timelessness: we who have wandered down
from fragrant mountains of eternal now
to frolic in such mysteries as birth
and death a day (or maybe even less)
- E. E. Cummings
"It is your birthright to have a life of meaning and purpose. Whether or not the people in your life have consistently celebrated your incarnation, you deserve to celebrate your existence."
- David Simon
It was that evening with fireflies
while we were waiting for the bus to Velletri
that we saw two old people kissing
under the plane tree. It was then
you said, half to the air
half to me:
Whoever loves for years
hasn't lived in vain.
And it was then I caught sight of the first
fireflies in the darkness, sparkling
with flashes of light around your head.
It was then.
- Rolf Jacobsen
"I want a life that sizzles and pops and makes me laugh out loud. And I don't want to get to the end, or to tomorrow, even, and realize that my life is a collection of meetings and pop cans and errands and receipts and dirty dishes. I want to eat cold tangerines and sing out loud in the car with the windows open and wear pink shoes and stay up all night laughing and paint my walls the exact color of the sky right now. I want to sleep hard on clean white sheets and throw parties and eat ripe tomatoes and read books so good they make me jump up and down, and I want my everyday to make God belly laugh, glad that he gave life to someone who loves the gift."
- Shauna Niequist
Cold Tangerines: Celebrating the Extraordinary Nature of Everyday Life
"The mind wants to live forever, or to learn a very good reason why not. The mind wants the world to return its love, or its awareness; the mind wants to know all the world, and all eternity, even God. The mind's sidekick, however, will settle for two eggs over easy. The dear, stupid body is as easily satisfied as a spaniel. And, incredibly, the simple spaniel can lure the brawling mind to its dish. It is everlastingly funny that the proud, metaphysically ambitious, clamoring mind will hush if you give it an egg.
Further: While the mind reels in deep space, while the mind grieves or fears or exults, the workaday senses - in ignorance or idiocy, like so many computer terminals printing our market prices while the world blows up - still transcribe their little data and transmit them to the warehouse in the skull. Later, under the tranquilizing influence of fried eggs, the mind can sort through all of these data."
- Annie Dillard
"What is important is to keep our mind high in the world of true understanding, and returning to the world of our daily experience to seek therein the truth of beauty. No matter what we may be doing at a given moment, we must not forget that it has a bearing upon our everlasting self which is poetry."
- Matsuo Bashō