During the past few years, I’ve kept
a detailed record of my reading and shared it annually as a quiet
celebration of the printed word. This year, though, the list fell by
the wayside. Making it simply didn’t seem interesting or feel
necessary. You know I read, I know I read. You know I collect old
books, and I know it. As for remembering what I read, that has never
been a big concern of mine. I read it, and, like the very life I
live, I love it, I savor it, and it goes.
Still, there were a few highlights this
year, beginning with the Sir Thomas North translation of Plutarch’s
Lives, which I enjoyed immensely in a beautiful limited edition
published in 1928 by the Houghton Mifflin Company and printed in
eight volumes, in its original spelling, by the Shakespeare Head
Press at Stratford-Upon-Avon.
I also read all of Thackeray’s major
Since July, my book-reading has been
almost entirely in Spanish. This change in gears caught me completely
by surprise. One day, I simply decided out of the blue that I was
going to switch languages. I have no real goal, other than fluid
reading, proper pronunciation, and reasonable comprehension. It’s
going quite well. I’ve read books for children, books for young
adults, a translation of Machiavelli, several volumes of literary
criticism focusing on the novel, from the late nineteenth century to
the mid-twentieth, and a few other things. This quiet, solitary
process gives me great pleasure and satisfaction. It has revealed to
me a lot about learning, and about how I learn in particular. Don
Quixote is waiting in the wings. No doubt Cervantes will have the
last laugh, but what could be more fitting?
Anyway. There you have my bookish year,
in all its vague and unremarkable glory.
I do love the short days, the early
closing in of the dark, the long nights beginning in the afternoon,
the afternoons even earlier on the rooftops through the firs. There
is so much light in everything everywhere I turn, in objects, faces,
and books, the darkness in its abundance and wealth seems to me like
rich chocolate, like kissing, sightless and soundless, and wholly and
holy through touch.
Ten. Maybe twelve. I don’t know.
Somewhere around there. And so the shaving mug is a good fifty years
old. I say shaving mug, but my father never used it as such, because
it was too small. It was so narrow inside, his round Colgate soap
couldn’t even rest on the bottom. What he needed, and what he
already had, and had been using for years, was a heavy coffee mug, as
wide almost as it was tall, with ample room for vigorous brush-action
— ah, that sound, I remember it well. Anyway. That’s what I gave
him that year. He liked it well enough for its form, though, and who
wouldn’t, really? A mug with an old Ellis Island sort of face, part
Greek, part Norwegian, a little French — he could be one of the
family. And is. Do you understand me? No worry. No matter. He’s
here among my books, atop two old smelly German volumes published in
the 1830s, looking at me, through me, and beyond, out the window,
down the street. Waiting? Content? Both. That’s it, Pa. Nice. And
easy. Oh, how I love your dear mug.
Snow. And then a hummingbird at our
kitchen window. A flower inside, on the windowsill. Begonia. Pink.
Tiny yellow center. Poised. About to fall. The bird, right up to the
glass. Pondering the impossibility. The implausibility. Next, a
sudden shift to where I was standing. Eye to eye. Face to face.
Graceful space. Present tense. Presence past. Winter fast. And to
this place we come at last.
I love the little chores, and think not
a one beneath me. Dishes, dusting, washing, sweeping, wiping,
cleaning. Indoors. Outdoors. Rooftop. Windows. Garden. Gutters. Worn
out rugs. Scratched floors. Blinds. Corners. Each says, “You are
here. You are lucky. You have food. You have shelter. You have shade.
You have warmth.” I commune with keepsakes. I admire the wear and
tear on our old family silverware, the chips in everyday cups my
parents used and that we still do. To me, housework is a time to
marvel at the beautiful, mysterious lives of what are thought of by
many as “ordinary objects.” It is not a job to do, but one more
opportunity to be grateful. I never say, Now I’m writing, Now I’m
drawing, Now I’m dreaming, Now I’m cleaning, Now I’m shopping
for groceries. I say, Rejoice. Each breath is a poem.
When I stand, I marvel at the
almost-feeling where my appendix used to be. It’s as if its ancient
forgotten function is still in silent operation, or willing to be.
The faint dimple of a scar left behind after its removal some
thirty-odd years ago is like a baker’s thumbprint in oven-ready
dough. It reminds me of our family doctor and surgeon, who liked to study his patients over his half-lens reading glasses, waiting to
see if they understood the humor that permeated his being and which
rose to the surface in the subtlest ways. Quite simply, you had to be
alert. You had to be ready. You had to realize that the gurgling
sounds in your innards meant that the entire universe is predicated
on humor, even as its foundation is musical, and its fleeting nature
is represented by wings. And when he passed by our house in the
country in a hearse on his way to the little Adventist cemetery at
the corner of Road 64 and Avenue 408, where dust prevails and coyotes
howl, we removed our hats and said he was the best doctor the town
ever had. Dead at sixty-six after a clean life, a man who knew us
inside and out, and who said my father’s gall bladder was beyond
his surgical ability, meaning my father himself. Well, you see now
why I marvel, and how. Ripe and ready to go, I could just as well
have been dead at the age of twenty-six. As I’ve said often since
then, I’m living on borrowed time. Half-joking, of course, but
completely serious too, because each and every one of us can go out
like a light this very instant. And I must say, that is one of the
things I love best about this life, this grand poetic recycling
experiment, this almost, not quite, surely it can’t be, but must,
because it is and it isn’t, all at once. And in the cemetery there
is a thumbprint, if you know what I mean, and we’re all in the
oven. When I sit? that’s another story.
Yesterday morning in the kitchen we
were talking about our old cat, Joe, and how at peace with the world
he was in his declining years, which he spent in our backyard staring
off into space, simply listening and taking it all in — the bird
song, the sounds of the neighborhood, the opening and closing of
doors — and what good fortune it was for him, and for us, that he
was so calm and secure in his present absence and absent presence. He
died and was buried on a cold night in November. I rake over him
every so often, lightly, through the fir needles and birch leaves
between the ivy and the big rhododendron, near the massive fir root
that keeps his grave from floating off into space, and when I do I
always think of him, his life, and his funny ways, and know that he
too was, and remains, one of the countless angels in our lives. And
anyone who thinks human life has more value than a fellow creature’s
of this earth, is sadly missing the value of his own. But that
misunderstanding can change in an instant, and will, and the
revelation will be grand — like a poet’s cup of tea when the last
and best of him is up in steam.
If you are feeling helpless, angry,
powerful, righteous, superior, inferior, empty, bitter, or fearful
about the future, look to your daily life. Everything you need to
know is there, in the form of the same tired thoughts and the huge
amount of energy they consume, in your useless and unnecessary
acquisitions, in your table barren of simple wholesome nourishment
and absent of guests, in your drab or gaudy walls, in the averted
glance of your neighbor, in the competitive nature of your
conversation and business dealings, and finally in your looking to
others as the cause of your unhappiness and lack of joy in your life.
Each is a source of conflict, nervousness, exhaustion, and
discontent, and, if not understood, illness in its deceptive, myriad
It is not a question of rich or poor.
If you are breathing, and can read this (on the internet, no less!),
then you are your own revolution. Revolution is not millions of
people rising up and exchanging one leader for another, one system
for another, only to start the same disappointing, bloody process
over again. Revolution is what you do, now, this moment, whether you
are alone in your room or waiting in line at the grocery store.
The choice is obvious and clear. You
are not only what you eat, but what you think, speak, and do. A
simple, sane, calm, helpful act has infinite range in this world. By
setting it in motion, you become the proverbial pebble in this
miraculous pond, this magical life that we are only beginning to
understand. The same can be said of your negative actions, those
intended to hurt others, those meant to show how right and
intelligent you think you are, even when you are missing the point
entirely and society and family is collapsing around you. They too
have an infinite range, and, as sure you as live, will come back to
haunt you. The truth is, you are living with them now.
The solution? There is none. And that
is the beauty of being alive. There is no road to take, no direction,
no answer. Time does not exist. It can not help you or hinder you.
There is no great rule to live by. There is only opportunity. You can
make the leap. You can make something beautiful. You can be
irresistible, and irresistibly in love with this life. You can extend
an open hand. You can smile, you can forgive, you can let go, you can
breathe deeply, you can understand the tragedy that others are living
without sinking into despair, you can be the dear child, the wise
parent, the tender grandparent, the faithful friend, the steady
companion, and the unselfish helpmate all in one. But not by waiting.
Not by pressing buttons and shouting and denouncing those whom you
have consciously or unconsciously placed in charge. They cannot hear
you. They are you. You must hear yourself. If you cannot take the
simplest step in alleviating the pain of someone who is near, or
share in their joy, then you must see the absurdity in condemning and
blaming others. There are no others. That very concept is a mirage.
The closer you come, the farther away it is, and in the end, you die
with a mouthful of sand.
And that is the end of this letter. Or
is it the beginning, dear friend?
You are a basket of flowers, and I am a
table across the room. In this life you will have a thousand lovers
before I bloom. And I will wear a thousand puddles from a thousand
glasses, to emphasize my gloom. Now comes the sunlight. The house
will be up soon. And here is the awakened princess, with her dark tea
and her spoon. Such a deep sigh! as if honey were not sweet enough,
as if birdsong did not greet her at every window. Ah! Another clink.
Another sip. A fingertip, and that sensation of my dust being
disturbed. Or do I imagine it? Impulsively, she picks you up. “They
will look better here,” she says, and places you in my lap. And I
hold you there forever, and the story ends, like that.
Just before I awoke this morning at
four, I dreamed I was with both of my parents and we were walking on
our old family farm. The harvest was in, but here and there some of
the vines and trees still offered ripe gems. By and by, my father
faded away. And then my mother and I came to a place where there was
a long, steep grade. And though the climb seemed well beyond the
ability of her age, she willingly started up, and I supported her
with my arm around her waist. Part of the way, we began to slip. And
then she summoned her strength and pushed us both to the top. It was
a place on the farm I had never seen. At least not that way. It was
day, with an added twist: I am a child, writing this.
The gentle know, violence is that part
of us that died in a bygone age, and that what keeps the stars in
space is not power, but grace. We may be imprisoned and slain, but
our presence is not erased. It is magnified. See us in your mirror.
Are you at peace, or are you terrified?
During the past four days, we’ve had
another four inches of rain. Very mild out. Still no frost. The jade
plants on the front step are thriving. The earth worms have pushed up
countless little air holes in the yard, among the fir needles
blanketing the ground. Moss mounds everywhere. Where does the water
go? Into gutters and dreams, rivers and streams, and vast mental
crevices. Into me, and into the sea. That’s all I know. Until you
join me. Then I’ll know everything, love that you are.
Cells in the body. Cells in the earth.
In the sky. In the galaxy. In the universe. In the grand mirror known
as the eye. In the unknowable and in the unknown. Coming, going,
being born, glowing, fading, passing on, giving their lives to other
cells, all of it poetry, all of it song, each depending on the other,
informing the other, working, corresponding, checking, reminding,
teaching, vibrating, dancing, rejoicing in an infinite number of
moons, loving gravity, flight, and weightlessness wherever they are
found, casting mind-shadows, being crushed and ground like seeds,
creating light, keeping stars together until their time has come —
and in the flowering dark I sing, “I too, am a cell.”
Thank you. You know, I was thinking: if
we were to meet somewhere, say in a celestial city with beautiful
glass elevators built into cloud-knowing trees, and you were going up
and I was going down, or vice-versa, we could stop the car at the
Jupiter Mezzanine and get out then and there and go for a nice long
walk through the mist-loving leaves. Or have I just described where
we are? That would explain my halo, and the rainbow in your hair. Oh,
love, you’re so easy to please!
Of course we’ve seen how children,
even those brought into the world in anger, confusion, ignorance, and
despair, begin their lives with hearts free of prejudice and hate,
looking on the world and the faces around them with wonder and love.
We’ve seen, likewise, how they must be taught the things that
divide us, taught about skin color, taught about flags, taught about
guns, taught about borders, and how every superficial difference must
be emphasized in order to make them proper patriotic individuals able
to justify violent physical and psychological behavior directed at
those they now perceive as “others,” to the point that they are
willing to kill them, starve them, mock them, shame them, embarrass
them, isolate them, and shove them aside. We’ve seen this, and have
perhaps even participated in it to some degree, even as some deep
part of us laments and decries such behavior, that deep original love
that we were born with and that has been silenced through the very
same means. We’ve seen this, and we’ve seen the results, the
wars, the riots, the starvation, the posturing, the lying, the
name-calling, and yet we are willing to think it has always, and must
always, be this way. We yell, we vote, we point fingers, we wring our
hands, we predict the worst and say I told you so when the worst
comes true, without realizing that the very prediction, made millions
of times over, helped to strengthen the possibility, without
realizing that every time we uttered the unspeakable, every time we
emphasized our superficial differences, we helped strengthen them,
helped polish their armor, helped sharpen their battle axes, helped
dig their trenches, and joined in bristling along their flimsy,
fleeting, imaginary borders. Instead of saying and living and
believing in love, we buy political, religious, and philosophical
insurance policies, only to be surprised when the companies we
invested in are spiritually and morally bankrupt. We, once innocent
children full of love for all, with little children still springing
up hopefully all around us, beseeching, teaching us with their eyes,
we, safe on our couches, throwing our little poisonous darts on
social media, perhaps even with children of our own under the very
same roof, in the very same room — lord almighty, folks. And we’re
still surprised? If we’ve forgotten how to love, if we no longer
know what love is, the children are still here to teach us, without
judgment, without coercion, without the desire for any result. And
they are inside us, too. Here, in the hands we hold out.
We think it’s our skin the rain is
falling on, and since we do it probably is, at least in some
dimension. After all, it does seem fairly obvious — until, of
course, we recognize this widespread flesh conspiracy, meant to cover
up the simple glorious truth, which is that the rain is not falling
on our skin, but our spirits are rising to meet the rain, and when
they touch, the skin, looking on, rejoices. And now, dear ones, let
us go back to bed and see what the next dream is.
This mild November continues with
moonlight and rain, rainlight and moon, fir needles, maple leaves,
broomswishes, kisses, and hope. Bugs in the bushes, spidernight
wishes, hugs in the kitchen, cats on the roof. And the joy we
proclaim, through health and through pain, we help bring about. And
peace is our name. Some call us children. See us, naked and bare. See
us. Where is our doubt? Dispersed by the wind. The moonlight and
rain. The rainlight and moon. See us. Come out!
Yesterday my revolution was a smile for
everyone in the grocery store, and here and there a friendly word.
You should have heard the quiet roar, as willing hearts took up the
cause. And then forth into the parking lot, where no one was a
stranger. Yes, you should have heard the quiet roar!
A warm afternoon pulling weeds, new
shepherd’s purse, mostly, around the strawberries, which also lose
their colorful leaves. The world, so beautiful, from my knees.
Fingertips stained, moist earth under my nails. I’m really quite
flexible on most days. And I breathe. At a natural pace. You wouldn’t
think I’m sixty. A hundred, maybe, or three hundred and three. That
old tree in the forest you happen to meet, when you’re tired and
think all trees are the same — and then, there I am, reveling in
decay, right to the very heart of things. And I don’t have a name.
And I don’t mean a thing. Except for the ones you’ve given me.
And if I say love? Will you linger a while, or part from me? Will you
stay, and be free?
Through the night, down in the wetland,
the geese keep up an amazing commotion, thousands of voices among
newly sprouted blades of grass, proclaiming in the mist by whatever
light there is the pungent November warmth, the rise of the flood and
the rot of the mud — Lazarus, come forth! And he came fifth and
lost the job. Ah, Ulysses, rejoyce! Everything is here, nothing is
found, nothing is lost, save a mind not worth saving, by a man and
his raving, whatever the cost.
How do I really feel? Like a leaf. As
long as I’m needed, in vigor or decay, I’ll be here. And this is
my blessing, to want nothing, to need nothing, to love everything,
even my very own end; to express joy in uncertainty, vulnerability,
and pain; to be astonished by birth, again and again; to be color
when melody is near; to speak without shame and say without fear, I
don’t know. I’m falling. How sweet is the air!
Yesterday I almost wrote about my life
as a child — not in terms of years, of long ago, but of the
childhood I am living now. I thought about this for quite a while,
but instead got involved with moving books around — it rained an
inch yesterday, a warm, steady, windless rain — and eventually
rearranged most of a tall bookcase, a pleasure I will take up again
soon after I finish breakfast, which I am eating now. And so today,
in effect, I am not writing about what I almost wrote about
yesterday, except to say time is not a factor at all, for the simple
reason that it doesn’t exist, and therefore can’t be used, or
saved — unless, of course, you are, in the most common, tragic
sense of the word, an adult.
At the foot of the bed, the chin of our
garden space has a sunflower beard. The face of the space has tomato
sprout down. The eyes, looking up, wear manure on their frown. This
is the ground where our peppers have been. Go ahead — bury me here.
Winter this mirror, the spring of I am. Flatter me, scatter me,
shadow me, pillow me, turn the sheets down. Rain me, dream me, love
me to sleep. Snow me so deep I can’t hear a sound. Snow me. Snow
me. Snow me. Snow me.
The path through the park — and by
park, we mean sprawling acreage by the river, buried in leaves — is
flanked by brambles and cottonwood trees. In sunny places, dandelions
and rain-patient bees. In shade, maple leaves seem thousands of
hands — a father’s, a mother’s, an aunt’s, all blessing,
caressing, the land. Frog-song. Birds in the breeze. A rich-pastel
ocean-sky, as much and as blue as you need, as white and as gray, and
as each in-between, rich-rose, dawn knows, evening shows, budding at
noon, blooming at three. Muskrat-splash. Trees down. Water up.
Scum-pond. Lilies gone. Wake out to center. Shimmer of sun. A hush
and we’re gone.
The mushrooms emerge as white and
perfect little buttons, then quickly grow to clown-size and are
nibbled by squirrels. Then they suddenly flatten, turning themselves
into wide shelters for who knows how many elves and other forms of
life — triple, quadruple, dimplyduple — only to become concave
sky-mirrors holding perfect pools of rainwater, which sits in them
for days. I suppose you’ve seen them, perhaps even given one an
inadvertent nudge, only to find you’ve toppled a great city. But
fear not, for the great communication goes on — the whispers, the
chasms, the rope-bridges, the scented language of their song.
Kicking through the leaves, sweet smoke
unseen clings to me, as if I’m here — as if it means in part to
be that part you see you think is clear — as if it dreams we’re
gently naked trees, our limbs so near — as if it brings awakening,
without hastening, my love, my dear.
Speaking of birch leaves, they’ve
given us a yellow roof and rain gutters full of fluff. And during
downpours, pouring durdowns, sheets of yellow stuff. Hands in
downspouts, believing is deleaving, and that is no ladder day bluff.
Yesterday, through our bedroom window,
we noticed a birch leaf caught in a spider web above our blueberry
bush, the fine lace secured by main lines attached to fence and eave. Thread by thread, the spider untied the lace from the leaf until it fell
and landed in the bush, yellow on red, as if names could color such
things. Then she set about her repairs. This morning, she is hidden
away, sheltered from the wet, perhaps beneath the very same leaf. And
life — life, is our sanctuary.