Friday, August 13, 2010

(In which I demonstrate that I am totally infatuated with Annie Dillard and with the beach)

I don't mean to be an ascetic, but it's in my blood and bone somehow. I don't mean to be disillusioned or disaffected, I don't mean to expect nothing, but the fear of disappointment seeps into me, from the feet up, like water climbing something dry (paper, fabric). Soon I'm soaking wet, when only my toes were ever touching the sea.

I need to snap out, snap open like a sweet peapod bursting and showing its seeds into the light. I need to wake from the dreams of distance. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek speaks for me:
"Our God shall come," it says in a psalm for Advent, "and shall not keep silence; there shall go before him a consuming fire, and a mighty tempest shall be stirred up about him." It is the shock I remember. Not only does something come if you wait, but it pours over you like a waterfall, like a tidal wave. You wait in all naturalness without expectation or hope, emptied, translucent, and that which comes rocks and topples you; it will shear, loose, launch, winnow, grind.

I have glutted on richness and welcome hyssop. This distant silver November sky, these sere branches of trees, shed and bearing their pure and secret colors--this is the real world, not the world gilded and pearled. I stand under wiped skies directly, naked, without intercessors. Frost winds have lofted my body's bones with all their restless sprints to an airborne raven's glide.
Winter is the season for feeling that clean and cold, but the frigid Pacific and the chilling fog give me winter in the midst of summer. This purity is the prize, for surrender to the sea. This wakefulness is the reward, this out-of-body experience. The cold crashes over me, splashes in my eyes, tangles in my hair: every thought is washed out of my mind. I come running out of the waves, so awake that my body itself is a dream, dissolving in the bed of the world, when I am awake in the morning of joy.

Presence [Pilgrim at Tinker Creek]

Another quote from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
And what if those grasshoppers had been locusts descending, I thought, and what if I stood awake in a swarm? I cannot ask for more than to be so wholly acted upon, flown at, and lighted on in throngs, probed, knocked, even bitten. A little blood from the wrists and throat is the price I would willingly pay for that pressure of clacking weights on my shoulders, for the scent of deserts, groundfire in my ears--for being so in the clustering hick of things, rapt and enwrapped in the rising and falling real world.
In the copy I'm reading, my mother has marked exclamation points in the margin of this paragraph, as though the image is entirely alien, or the desire expressed is incomprehensible. But Dillard's words resonate in my ribcage. They curl around my wrists like bracelets: someone else has felt this way! I will gladly pay a penny of pain to participate in the world with my whole being--to know I belong on this planet--to step into the ceremony instead of watching from the pews, even if it means I must be the sacrifice on the altar.

And Dillard has a quote for that, too, at the end of the next chapter, after she has told us about the myriad parasites that are eating the world:
I am a sacrifice bound with cords to the horns of the world's rock altar, waiting for worms. I take a deep breath, I open my eyes. Looking, I see there are worms in the horns of the altar like live maggots in amber, there are shells of worms in the rock and moths flapping at my eyes. A wind from noplace rises. A sense of the real exults me; the cords loose; I walk on my way.
The wind is the body of mystery, and its breath is a benediction. I receive it with open hands and closed eyes, and like Dillard, the prophetess, I walk on my way.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Summer in my backyard is all about tomatoes. The leaves smell sharp and green and delicious (I would never have guessed that they are poisonous). The fruit slowly changes from pale green pearls to bulging red globes, and its scent warms and intensifies. Nectarines and apricots make me want to gorge myself and soak in the sun, but tomatoes make me want to run and shout--which is closer to what summer is about, what life is about.

This year's tomatoes have stubbornly remained green. The pendulous roma tomatoes wait, and wait, as though immune to the sun's rays. They begin to blush, but refuse to deepen in color. I sit staring at them, as though I might embarrass them enough that the blood will suddenly rush to the surface and transform them to that rich tomato red, to that fiery color that glints golden in the summer sun, as though the flesh were gold under the translucent, sanguine skin. But regardless of my staring, the roma tomatoes resisted the red. It's the sun's eye they need, not mine.

A few days ago, though, two of them had gone dark enough to pluck, finally. Today I ate one for lunch. I rubbed my nose on it, but this oblong fruit did not have the tomato perfume I craved... I even tried biting straight into it, but though it was certainly a tomato, the roma did not feel like a summer tomato. At last I sliced it up, along its latitudes. The circles were neat and pretty, like three-spoked wheels. I laid them on bread, with parmesan, and it wasn't the tomato I dream of in the wintry grocery stores. But it was summer enough.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Language Remade

From a lecture on modern poetry:
Life in the modern metropolis [...] denaturalized language. Where there are many languages in use, language comes to seem arbitrary rather than natural--as the product of convention. Not as something you're simply born into, but something that is learned. Something that is made, and that can be re-made.
And so modern poetry is a re-making of language? Hmm. I can certainly see that with, for instance, e.e. cummings. Or T.S. Eliot's language-blending is a kind of language re-creation, too.

Maybe all poetry is a remaking of language, because it restructures the sentences. A natural sentence can have many different skeletal shapes, as can a poetical sentence, but the sentences (when they are sentences) in poems take on different forms, as though their bones have been removed, or taken apart and put back together in new ways.

A poem asks you to look at the lines and see the words themselves, not just their sense--the way a painting of a nude asks you to look at the body and see the skin and shadows, instead of going straight to seeing the person. The painting remakes the body and thus remakes the person; the poem remakes the language, so as to remake the meaning.

Because really, a poem isn't about the words. It's a portrait of a piece of life, and language is just the paint.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Acceptance / Change

I found this book lying on my dining room table and started reading it: Carl R. Rogers, On Becoming a Person. (So typical of me to start yet another new book when there are at least 5 that I am part way through...) It's the writings of a man who worked in counseling / professional psychotherapy for 30+ years, but they are directed towards the average person, rather than the professional, and towards growing what is healthy, rather than towards curing what is sick.

Anyway, I am obviously not a professional psychotherapist, but I am really excited because what I have read so far resonates so well with ideas that have been slowing blossoming in myself. In the poetry anthology I'm reading, Helen Vendler says that the greatest joy that comes from a poem is finding your own thoughts and feelings expressed by someone else; I think the same can be true in other genres of writing. In particular, here is an insight (or "upsight," in the language of Anathem) that expresses something I have been fumbling towards for years but have never grasped well enough to name or express:
I find I am more effective when I can listen acceptantly to myself, and can be myself. I feel that over the years I have learned to become more adequate in listening to myself; so that I know, somewhat more adequately than I used to, what I am feeling at any given moment--to be able to realize I am angry, or that I do feel rejecting toward this person; or that I feel very full of warmth and affection for this individual; or that I am bored and uninterested in what is going on; or that I am eager to understand this individual or that I am anxious and fearful in my relationship to this person. All of these diverse attitudes are feelings which I think I can listen to in myself. One way of putting this is that I feel I have become more adequate in letting myself be what I am. It becomes easier for me to accept myself as a decidedly imperfect person, who by no means functions at all times in the way in which I would like to function.

This must seem to some like a very strange direction in which to move. It seems to me that have value because the curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I change. I believe that I have learned this from my clients as well as within my own experience--that we cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed. (p. 17)
I think this "acceptance" isn't about tolerance, that it isn't about accepting that this is how it is and therefore this is how it must be. I think it is simply about seeing: this is how it is, right now. I see this as being about integrity, in its original sense of wholeness, because if I don't see or accept or recognize something in myself, even though it is there, then I am cutting off that part of myself. I am dividing myself. Division is the opposite of unity or wholeness or integrity. Dishonesty, even to myself, leads to a fractured soul...

Another way to frame this: Life is a journey, right? and sometimes we get lost. Suppose I get lost, but I have a map so I can figure out where I should be. But suppose that I refuse to accept where I am on the map, because it is not where I want to be. Then when I plot my route from the place that I claim to be, to the place I actually want to go, that plotted route will be useless, because it has an inaccurate starting point. If I don't accept where I actually am, I can't even figure out how to go anywhere else, much less how to arrive at some particular other destination.

So I am really happy to see this articulated, especially by someone other than myself. Something I want to add, though, is that in my life such honesty and acceptance has been most fruitful and least painful when it takes the form of confession--just a brief prayer to God saying "This is how I am feeling, and I don't want to feel it. Help!" And then freedom comes, to replace guilt and fear.

In the words of Sara Groves: "Oh honesty / the truth be told / for the saving / of our souls."