Something Way Down Deep

We all know that something is eternal. 
And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, 
and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars 
. . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, 
and that something has to do with human beings. 
All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that 
for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised 
how people are always losing hold of it. 
There’s something way down deep 
that’s eternal about every human being.
~Thornton Wilder, from “Our Town”

Write as if you were dying.
At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients.
That is, after all, the case.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

I began to write regularly after September 11, 2001 because more than on any previous day, it became obvious to me I was dying, though more slowly than the thousands who vanished that day in fire and ash, their voices obliterated with their bodies into eternity.  

Nearly each day since, while I still have voice and a new dawn to greet, I speak through my fingers to others dying with and around me.

We are, after all, terminal patients — some of us more prepared than others to move on — as if our readiness had anything to do with the timing.

Each day I get a little closer to the eternal, but I write in order to feel a little more ready.  Each day I want to detach just a little bit, leaving a trace of my voice behind.  Eventually, through unmerited grace, so much of me will be left on the page there won’t be anything or anyone left to do the typing.

There is no time or word to waste.

Everyday Life

If your everyday life seems poor to you,
do not accuse it;
accuse yourself,
tell yourself you are not poet enough to summon up its riches;
since for the creator
there is no poverty and no poor or unimportant place.
― Rainer Maria Rilke

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
~Mary Oliver

As a child, I would sometimes spend long rainy afternoons languishing on the couch, complaining to my mother how boring life was. 

Her typical response was to remind me my boredom said more about me than about life– I became the accused, rather than the accuser,  failing to summon up life’s riches. 

Thus convicted, my sentence followed:  she would promptly give me chores to do.   I learned not to voice my complaints about how boring life seemed, because it always meant work.

Some things haven’t changed, even fifty-some years later.  Whenever I am tempted to feel frustrated or pitiful or bored, accusing my life of being poor or unfair, I need to remember what that says about me.  If I’m not poet enough to recognize the Creator’s brilliance in every slant of light or every molecule, then it is my poverty I’m accusing, not His.

So – back to the work of paying attention and being astonished.  There is a life to be lived and almost always something to say about it.

Our Plodding Resistance



If that’s what he means,’ says the student to the poetry teacher, ‘why doesn’t he just say it?’ 

‘If God is real,’ says the parishioner to the preacher, ‘why doesn’t he simply storm into our lives and convince us?’ 

The questions are vastly different in scale and relative importance, 
but their answers are similar. 

A poem, if it’s a real one, in some fundamental sense 
means no more and no less than the moment of its singular music and lightning insight; it is its own code to its own absolute and irreducible clarity. 

A god, if it’s a living one, is not outside of reality but in it, of it, 
though in ways it takes patience and imagination to perceive. 

Thus the uses and necessities of metaphor, which can flash us past our plodding resistance and habits into strange new truths. 

Thus the very practical effects of music, myth, and image, which tease us not out of reality, but deeper and more completely into it.
~Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer

We are an impatient and unimaginative people; we want proof of God and we want it now. Yet we plod through our days blind and deaf to His presence in our lives, with little awareness of Him walking beside us.

So each day I try to take the blinders off and look for Him, listen for Him and wait on Him to make His presence known.

I will call Him by Name.

The Windowed Light

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In its web I see the mountains
swell with slow rhythmic oscillations
in a sea of sky and waves of breaking clouds.

I listen to the leaves—
those that fall, those that persist
on their dichotomy of stems—

Dissection never reveals the whole.
The fragile rings hide their slender strength,
as the trees abide the sultry air,

brandishing their rattling bassinets
in Spring and in the throes of Autumn
drop their dappled dress exposed.

This is the fineness that holds me
here, fibers that vibrate from my searching
for the words to describe them,

words, like houses made of trees,
that let the winds play at their doors,
and let the windowed light know where I am.
~Richard Maxson, from “A Green and Yellow Basket” in Molly and the Thieves

 

 

 

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There are no words for this light, for this color, for this richness
so I simply dwell within it, failing to describe it.

I can’t stop looking, can’t stop breathing it in.

How is it dying is so glorious that it makes me gasp at being alive?

 

 

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When August Burns Low

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Further in Summer than the Birds
Pathetic from the Grass
A minor Nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive Mass.

No Ordinance be seen
So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

Remit as yet no Grace
No Furrow on the Glow
Yet a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature now 
~Emily Dickinson

 

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“…one of the great poems of American literature. The statement of the poem is profound; it remarks the absolute separation between man and nature at a precise moment in time.  The poet looks as far as she can into the natural world, but what she sees at last is her isolation from that world.  She perceives, that is, the limits of her own perception. But that, we reason, is enough. This poem of just more than sixty words comprehends the human condition in relation to the universe:

So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

But this is a divine loneliness, the loneliness of a species evolved far beyond all others. The poem bespeaks a state of grace. In its precision, perception and eloquence it establishes the place of words within that state.  Words are indivisible with the highest realization of human being.”
~N. Scott Momaday from The Man Made of Words

 

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On the first day I took his class on Native American Mythology and Lore in 1974 at Stanford, N.Scott Momaday strolled to the front, wrote the 60 words of this Dickinson poem on the blackboard.  He told us we would spend at least a week working out the meaning of what he considered the greatest poem written — this in a class devoted to Native American writing and oral tradition.  In his resonant bass, he read the poem to us many times, rolling the words around his mouth as if to extract their sweetness. This man of the plains, a member of the Kiowa tribe, loved this poem put together by a New England recluse poet — someone as culturally distant from him and his people as possible.

But grace works to unite us, no matter our differences, and Scott knew this as he led us, mostly white students, through this poem.  What on the surface appears a paean to late summer cricket song doomed to extinction by oncoming winter, is a statement of the transcendence of man beyond our understanding of nature and the world in which we, its creatures, find ourselves.

As summer begins its descent into the dark death of winter, we, unlike the crickets, become all too aware we too are descending, particularly when the skies are filled with smoke from uncontrolled wildfires in the north, the east and the south.  There is no one as lonely as an individual facing their mortality and no one as lonely as a poet facing the empty page, in search of words to describe the sacrament of sacrifice and perishing.

Yet the Word brings Grace unlike any other, even when the cricket song, pathetic and transient as it is, is gone.  The Word brings Grace, like no other, to pathetic and transient man who will emerge transformed.

There is no furrow on the glow.  There is no need to plow and seed our salvaged souls, already lovingly planted and nurtured by our Creator God, yielding a fruited plain.

 

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Heart Strung on Tethers

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A weaver, this spider, she plays her eight thin
black legs and their needle-nail toes across
the threads faster, more precisely, than a harpist
at concert can pluck the strings in pizzicato.

Although blind at night, she nevertheless
fastens a thread to a branch of chokecherry
on one side of the path, links it to a limb
of shining sumac opposite, latches the scaffold
to ground stone and brace of rooted grasses.
And the structure takes dimension.

Skittering upside down across and around,
she hooks the hooks, knots the widening
spirals, the tightened radii, orbs and hubs,
bridges and bridgeheads. We can never hear
the music she makes as she plucks her silk
strings with all the toes and spurs and tarsal
tufts of her eight legs at once. She performs
the reading of her soul.

She expands the sky, her completed grid
a gamble, a ploy played on the night. The silk
is still, translucent and aerial, hanging in a glint
of half-moon. The work is her heart strung
on its tethers, ravenous, abiding.
~Pattiann Rogers from  “Hail, Spirit”

 

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I too often feel stretched between several points as well.

I attach to important touch points and I weave between them, sometimes not sure where I’ll land or what I’ll connect with or what I’ll leave behind.

Sometimes what I create is beautifully delicate and functional.
Sometimes it is blurry and out of focus.
The center doesn’t always hold.  The tethers loosen.  The periphery frays.

But it was once something.  That’s all that matters.

 

 

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A Threshold Between Earth and Heaven

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I know for a while again,
the health of self-forgetfulness,
looking out at the sky through
a notch in the valley side,
the black woods wintry on
the hills, small clouds at sunset
passing across. And I know
that this is one of the thresholds
between Earth and Heaven,
from which I may even step
forth from myself and be free.
~ Wendell Berry, Sabbaths 2000

 

 

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I was told once by someone I respected that my writing reflected “sacramental” living —  touching and tasting the holiness of everyday moments, as if they are the cup and bread that sustains us daily.

I have allowed that feedback to sit warmly beside me, like a welcome companion during the many hours I struggle with what to share here.

It is now apparent to me it is all too tempting to emphasize sacrament over the sacrifice it represents.  As much as I love the world and the beauty in the moments I find here, my search should be for the entrance to the “thin places” between heaven and earth, by forgetting self and stepping forth through a holy threshold into something far greater.

There is a scary freedom in the sacrificial life, a wonderful terrifying illuminating freedom, still far beyond my grasp.

I may even step
forth from myself and be free.

 

 

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