The charm of riding eastward through Wyoming
Is not so much the grandeur and the view
As that it is an exercise in homing
And that my fellow passenger is you.
In fourteen years of this our strange excursion
The scenic points of love have not grown stale
For that my mind in yours has found the diversion
And in your heart my heart could never fail.
It’s fourteen years today today since we began it–
This sonnet crowds a year in every line–
Love were an idle drudge if time outran it
And time were stopped indeed were you not mine.
The rails go on together toward the sky
Even (the saying goes) as you and I.
by E. B. White
The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unwinds a thread of her devising:
A thin, premeditated rig
To use in rising.
And all the journey down through space,
In cool descent, and loyal-hearted,
She builds a ladder to the place
From which she started.
Thus I, gone forth, as spiders do,
In spider’s web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken strand to you
For my returning
Youth and Age
by E. B. White
This is what youth must figure out:
Girls, love, and living.
The having, the not having,
The spending and giving,
And the melancholy time of not knowing.
This is what age must learn about:
The ABC of dying.
The going, yet not going,
The loving and leaving,
And the unbearable knowing and knowing.
Into my empty head there come
a cotton beach, a dock wherefrom
I set out, oily and nude
through mist, in chilly solitude.
There was no line, no roof or floor
to tell the water from the air.
Night fog thick as terry cloth
closed me in its fuzzy growth.
I hung my bathrobe on two pegs.
I took the lake between my legs.
Invaded and invader, I
went overhand on that flat sky.
Fish twitched beneath me, quick and tame.
In their green zone they sang my name
and in the rhythm of the swim
I hummed a two-four-time slow hymn.
I hummed “Abide With Me.” The beat
rose in the fine thrash of my feet,
rose in the bubbles I put out
slantwise, trailing through my mouth.
My bones drank water; water fell
through all my doors. I was the well
that fed the lake that met my sea
in which I sang “Abide With Me.”
One of the simple pleasures of summers in Minnesota is swimming in the neighborhood lake. There is a quality to swimming in a clean lake that is unmatched, compared to the ocean or a pool. The water is soft and inviting, the unexpected interactions with the little fish that nibble on your skin and the pleasant sounds of families and children playing in the sand and water. When my children were small we went swimming during July and August as often as possible, probably 3 to 5 times a week. There was a local pond that was stream fed, that had once been a gravel pit that sprang a leak and it had a sandy beach, clean water and no lifeguard, so we could do all the fun things we wanted to do, like leap off the rope swing tied in the tree and have the kids jump off my shoulders. It was exactly the kind of fun I had as a child and it was delightful to re-experience it again with my children.
Today I am swimming at a neighborhood lake and beach that my grandfather used to swim at regularly as an adult when he lived in the same neighborhood I live today 60 years ago. I am blessed to have a partner who loves to swim and we love to head over after dinner and swim for about an hour as the sun goes down. It is a short window for swimming in Minnesota but we are in its prime and we need to savor every opportunity we can to get in the water.
Do you have favorite memories of swimming as a child? Wast it at a pool, at a lake, in a river or the ocean? Where do you swim today? If its been awhile, throw modesty to the wind, find a swim suit that mostly fits and get out there in the water and enjoy.
Why I Am Happy
by William Stafford
Now has come, an easy time. I let it
roll. There is a lake somewhere
so blue and far nobody owns it.
A wind comes by and a willow listens
I hear all this, every summer. I laugh
and cry for every turn of the world,
its terribly cold, innocent spin.
The lake stays blue and free; it goes
on and on.
Normally I start with a poem or a quote and if I am adding commentary it comes after the first poem. Today’s text deserves a little explanation. I am in the process of getting ready to move this fall and have begun sorting even more aggressively through the last boxes of my Mother’s possessions that have been stored at my condo. My mother was a letter writer and as it happens, if you are a talented correspondent, you receive lots of letters and cards in return. In going through her boxes and boxes and boxes of cards and letters, sorting and keeping only a few, I came across an unmarked purple envelope that wasn’t sealed Wednesday night. In opening it up, in my mother’s impeccable hand writing, was this quote with the dried rose staining the paper. I suspect it was a card she was sending in condolence to someone but for whatever reason had not mailed but it could have other explanations. Obviously it was a quote that moved her. Whether she had any idea that the card would become a time capsule waiting for me to open with its poignant message I can only imagine, but it seems like it was destined for me to find among a jumble of Christmas cards from over the years.
There are writers who write fiction or screen plays who give their characters the best lines of poetry as dialogue. Wiesel is definitely one of them. To hear directly from Elie Wiesel and learn more about his life and work, I highly recommend the interview by Krista Tippet on her show On Being, a link to it is below:
Suddenly he fell silent; winner or loser, Gregor didn’t know. He could still see his grandfather’s lips moving as they said, “Don’t be afraid, my child. Madmen are just wandering messengers, and without them the world couldn’t endure. Without them there would be no surprise; they surprise even the Creator because they escape from Him and regard Him with pity. Their mission on earth? To persuade us that we don’t know how to count, that numbers deceive or trap us. Are you listening?” And heavy-heartedly Gregor answered, “Yes, Grandfather, I’m listening. I think I’ve lived only for this encounter and for this night.” He could hardly hear him whispering, “That, my child, is true of all encounters, of every night.”
The Gates Of The Forest
By Elie Wiesel
Gregor’s Grandfather Speaking:
“Later on, when I am no longer of this world, I want you to remember me and the flame that makes me live. I am a farmer and so I know the usefulness of a gentle rain that causes wheat and other fruits of the earth to grow. But the the human soul isn’t like the earth; the soul needs storm and fire and dizziness. The body has time; it moves slowly and prudently, step by step in obedience to laws of gravity. But the soul brushes time and laws aside; it wants to push forward, regardless of the cost in pain, or intoxication or even madness.”
The fog has risen from the sea and crowned
The dark, untrodden summits of the coast,
Where roams a voice, in canyons uttermost,
From midnight waters vibrant and profound.
High on each granite altar dies the sound,
Deep as the trampling of an armored host,
Lone as the lamentation of a ghost,
Sad as the diapason of the drowned.
The mountain seems no more a soulless thing,
But rather as a shape of ancient fear,
In darkness and the winds of Chaos born
Amid the lordless heavens’ thundering-
A Presence crouched, enormous and austere,
Before whose feet the mighty waters mourn.
Mount Blanc is the tallest mountain in Europe, its at peak 15,700 feet. It is also Europe and the world’s most deadly mountain. Relatively accessible from Italy and France, the steep slopes and beauty of Mount Blanc are a siren song to adventurers both summer and winter. Danger is part of adventure and on average 30 people a year lose their lives to miscalculations of weather, terrain or bad luck on its slopes.
The number of poems written about Mount Blanc is staggering. Poets as well as adventurers have been inspired by its beauty and the surrounding mountain villages for centuries. There are things in nature that are inherent to our imaginations, even beyond our imaginations. Mountains inspire awe. If you have ever hiked to the summit of a mountain, you know that distances can be misleading, what looks like it should be relatively close, can be miles and miles in the distance anda much farther to climb or hike than you imagined. Its why standing at the top of a summit where you can see a 360 degree view of the mountains tops is worth the effort.
The past few decades have seen an explosion in action sports, with inventions as wild and dangerous as men’s imaginations can come up with. Extreme sports is not exclusive to men, but men tend to push the boundaries in greater numbers in ever greater searches of adrenaline. Here’s a couple of video’s that will give you a perspective of the scale of Mount Blanc and its beauty along with what must be an incredible rush of gliding down its steep slopes.
by George Stirling
The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom—
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Of waters—with a sound but half its own,
Such as a feeble brook will oft assume,
In the wild woods, among the mountains lone,
Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.
Mont Blanc yet gleams on high:—the power is there,
The still and solemn power of many sights,
And many sounds, and much of life and death.
In the calm darkness of the moonless nights,
In the lone glare of day, the snows descend
Upon that Mountain; none beholds them there,
Nor when the flakes burn in the sinking sun,
Or the star-beams dart through them. Winds contend
Silently there, and heap the snow with breath
Rapid and strong, but silently! Its home
The voiceless lightning in these solitudes
Keeps innocently, and like vapour broods
Over the snow. The secret Strength of things
Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome
Of Heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!
And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind’s imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?
A power is on the earth and in the air
From which the vital spirit shrinks afraid,
And shelters him, in nooks of deepest shade,
From the hot steam and from the fiery glare.
Look forth upon the earth–her thousand plants
Are smitten; even the dark sun-loving maize
Faints in the field beneath the torrid blaze;
The herd beside the shaded fountain pants;
For life is driven from all the landscape brown;
The bird has sought his tree, the snake his den,
The trout floats dead in the hot stream, and men
Drop by the sun-stroke in the populous town;
As if the Day of Fire had dawned, and sent
Its deadly breath into the firmament.
William Cullen Bryant was a worthy tradesman in the business of letters as a journalist and writer, carving out a small place in American Literature. Not as celebrated or innovative as other poets of his generation like Wordsworth or Whitman, Bryant toiled at his craft. He worked as a journalist, then editor, then part owner of the New York Evening Post, a paper founded by Alexander Hamilton. Bryant was a long time advocate for organized labor and a consistent critic of Thomas Jefferson, he would go on to be a fierce supporter of Abraham Lincoln and a progressive voice for change.
Bryant’s poetry is largely focused on the beauty of nature and our appreciation of our place in the natural world. I appreciate his rhyming schemes and word play, use of rhythm and the workmanship in some of his shorter poems. Thanatoposis, his most famous poem, feels a bit outdated, but there are still some beautiful lines. Here’s a clever bit of animation to bring it to life.
I Broke The Spell That Held Me Long
by William Cullen Bryant
I broke the spell that held me long,
The dear, dear witchery of song.
I said, the poet’s idle lore
Shall waste my prime of years no more,
For Poetry, though heavenly born,
Consorts with poverty and scorn.
I broke the spell–nor deemed its power
Could fetter me another hour.
Ah, thoughtless! how could I forget
Its causes were around me yet?
For wheresoe’er I looked, the while,
Was Nature’s everlasting smile.
Still came and lingered on my sight
Of flowers and streams the bloom and light,
And glory of the stars and sun; –
And these and poetry are one.
They, ere the world had held me long,
Recalled me to the love of song.
There’s no reality except the one contained within us. That’s why so many people live an unreal life. They take images outside them for reality and never allow the world within them to assert itself.
A Swarm Of Gnats
by Hermann Hesse
Translated by James Wright
Many thousand glittering motes
Crowd forward greedily together
In trembling circles.
Extravagantly carousing away
For a whole hour rapidly vanishing,
They rave, delirious, a shrill whir,
Shivering with joy against death.
While kingdoms, sunk into ruin,
Whose thrones, heavy with gold, instantly scattered
Into night and legend, without leaving a trace,
Have never known so fierce a dancing.
Having recently been set upon by hungry gnats, I jokingly did a google search to see if any poetry existed on the subject and found this wonderful gem written by Hermann Hesse, translated by a proud Minnesotan who understands biting insects – James Wright. I remember reading a bit of Hesse back in college. I think I would appreciate his writing more today then I did then. His most popular books are focused on spirituality and an individuals search of self knowledge. Hesse espoused the idea that authenticity of our true selves in how we think and act is what leads to a fully realized life. Hesse felt anxiety arouse by not being in harmony with ourselves, fear comes out of not owning up to our true identity. Hesse believed our true selves was derived from the quality of our thinking.
Words do not express thoughts very well. They always become a little different immediately after they are expressed, a little distorted, a little foolish.
Although Hesse has fallen out of favor, I am inspired to find a used copy of Glass Bead Game and dig a little deeper. Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946 for Glass Bead Game. Hesse was a talented painter as well as writer, favoring water colors as his preferred media. Hesse was influential in his day and inspired other writers and artists. Richard Strauss set three of Hesse’s poems to music in his song cycle Four Last Songs; “Frühling” (“Spring”), “September”, and “Beim Schlafengehen” (“On Going to Sleep”). This music was not performed until after Strauss’ death. Here’s a link if you want to check it out.
In Secret We Thirst
by Hermann Hesse
with the gentleness of arabesques
our life is similar
to the existence of fairies
that spin in soft cadence
to which we sacrifice
the here and nowDreams of beauty, youthful joy
like a breath in pure harmony
with the depth of your young surface
where sparkles the longing for the night
for blood and barbarityIn the emptiness, spinning, without aims or needs
dance free our lives
always ready for the game
yet, secretly, we thirst for reality
for the conceiving, for the birth
we are thirst for sorrows and death
Because there is too much to say Because I have nothing to say Because I don’t know what to say Because everything has been said Because it hurts too much to say What can I say what can I say Something is stuck in my throat Something is stuck like an apple Something is stuck like a knife Something is stuffed like a foot Something is stuffed like a body
It’s cherry picking time! It is a short season in my Dad’s backyard coming on the heels of the 4th of the July every year. No one associates cherries with Minnesota winters as they are too cold for sweet cherries. But a pie cherry tree situated in the right spot where it gains a little protection from the side of a house can live around 20 years and produce an abundance of tart, wonderfully cherry, pie cherries, despite our harsh winters. Pie cherries are smaller, little jewels hanging on the tree. My sister and I love the tradition of coming over and picking with my father. My father’s zeal to try and harvest every one isn’t like it used to be, but its a lovely July tradition to climb a short ladder and pick and pick and pick in the same spot and hardly seem to make a dent in the bounty of fruit hanging before your eyes. It is particularly satisfying this year, picking cherries is a reminder of the importance of the simple traditions in our lives that give them context and enjoyment. My father is on the 3rd cherry tree in his current yard. A reminder that life is short. It is a reminder to honor beauty and the circle of life that sustains us. It is a reminder of how fortunate I am.
In the past six weeks I have thought a lot about my good fortune and the word privilege. I have written before about how I realize I won the genetic lottery ticket of all time by growing up white, middle class, in the 1960’s suburban America. I also agree with Derricotte’s poem above, I am not sure I am the right person nor do I have the words to add to the discussion. So what should be my participation in change? I can add to the discussion by listening, learning, absorbing, reflecting. I can let the discussion lead me to ways that I can be better. And maybe if I commit to change and others do too, we can do better as a society and as a community. Despite the omnipresent reminders in the burned buildings of our failure in my community, cherry picking is a reminder that there is hope. There is still an ancient beauty that is beyond me, that surrounds me, that came before me and will last after I am gone. I can appreciate it, I can savor it, I can honor it and taste its goodness with a grateful and regenerative tongue. Time to make cherry jam this evening!
by Toi Derricotte
I went down to
mingle my breath
with the breath
of the cherry blossoms.
There were photographers:
Mothers arranging their
gnarled old trees;
a couple, hugging,
asks a passerby
to snap them
so that their love
will always be caught
between two friendships:
ours & the friendship
of the cherry trees.
why can’t my poems
be as beautiful?
A young woman in a fur-trimmed
coat sets a card table
with linens, candles,
a picnic basket & wine.
A father tips
a boy’s wheelchair back
so he can gaze
up at a branched
heaven. . . All around us
Dear native Brook! wild Streamlet of the West!
How many various-fated years have past,
What happy and what mournful hours, since last
I skimm’d the smooth thin stone along thy breast,
Numbering its light leaps! yet so deep imprest
Sink the sweet scenes of childhood, that mine eyes
I never shut amid the sunny ray,
But straight with all their tints thy waters rise,
Thy crossing plank, thy marge with willows grey,
And bedded sand that vein’d with various dyes
Gleam’d through thy bright transparence! On my way,
Visions of Childhood! oft have ye beguil’d
Lone manhood’s cares, yet waking fondest sighs:
Ah! that once more I were a careless Child.
A canoe has a bi-polar personality depending on how many people are in it, the cooperative nature of those paddling it and the amount of wind you are contending with and the direction from which it is blowing. It can be the most gentle cooperative vessel ever invented, or it can be the most unruly of crafts. In short a canoe is not for amateurs in rough, cold waters and rapids and yet it can be the best of all possible boats in the hands of competent paddlers and conditions.
Most canoes are not designed to be paddled by one person, except on those mornings and evenings in which there is not even a puff of wind and the lake or stream is a mirror. One person seated in the back of a canoe lifts the bow out of the water enough that the keel lacks some of its grip and it makes it easily influenced by even the slightest wind.
Enough about describing canoes, get out there and experience a canoe! And if you are fortunate to tip it over, while wearing your life jacket, be sure to enjoy the adventure of getting it back to shore, the water bailed out and a lesson learned about what you don’t want to do the next time. There is a certain zen like quality to paddling a canoe. Each person must keep their weight centered over the keel and relaxed. You have to keep your weight low, you need to slow down and be centered and present. As children at camp we were taught how to deal with a tipped canoe by tipping them on purpose in water close to shore under supervision and with life jackets on. I recommend if you have children or teenagers or adults who are first time in a canoe that you teach them those skills sometime in shallow warm summer waters, before attempting cold, fast moving water where you don’t want to tip, and if you do, everyone knows what to do. But its tippiness is what is part of the fun of a canoe, you have to treat it with respect, know its capability, acquire skill and agility with a pinch of bravery required.
I have been fortunate to canoe upon and alongside river otters several times in my life. A huge thrill and a connection with the wilderness that takes your breath away. Coleridge’s poem brings back pleasant memories. Since in the last blog entry I mentioned my fondness for the short film Paddle To The Sea, I thought I would share a link and make it easy to find if you remember it as well from 3rd grade.
The poem The Canoe Speaks by Stevenson below is one of those examples of rhyming poetry where the poet intentionally drops the rhyme for stunning emphasis and clarity at the end. Some of my best sonnets that I have written drop the rhyme in a spot because the exact word I want doesn’t fit the rhyming scheme and because it improved the flow and meaning of the poem. Remember rules are made to be broken with poetry. Dickinson is a master of going in and out of rhyme with devastating precision. Do you have a favorite poem that leaves a lasting impression because it is unpredictably changes course, like an eddy in a river in a canoe where the next stanza or couplet is unexpectedly different?
The Canoe Speaks
by Robert Louis Stevenson
On the great streams the ships may go
About men’s business to and fro.
But I, the egg-shell pinnace, sleep
On crystal waters ankle-deep:
I, whose diminutive design,
Of sweeter cedar, pithier pine,
Is fashioned on so frail a mould,
A hand may launch, a hand withhold:
I, rather, with the leaping trout
Wind, among lilies, in and out;
I, the unnamed, inviolate,
Green, rustic rivers, navigate;
My dripping paddle scarcely shakes
The berry in the bramble-brakes;
Still forth on my green way I wend
Beside the cottage garden-end;
And by the nested angler fare,
And take the lovers unaware.
By willow wood and water-wheel
Speedily fleets my touching keel;
By all retired and shady spots
Where prosper dim forget-me-nots;
By meadows where at afternoon
The growing maidens tropp in June
To loose their girldes on the grass.
Ah! speedier than before the glass
The backward toilet goes; and swift
As swallows quiver, robe and shift,
And the rough country stockings lie
Around each young divinity
When, following the recondite brook,
Sudden upon this scene I look.
And light with unfamiliar face
On chaste Diana’s bathing-place,
Loud ring the hills about and all
The shallows are abandoned.