September 2009

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Paradisio

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Diamond light
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“[He] sang beyond the genius of the sea”
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Foam painting waves
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Rough water on Monday/Yom Kippur, following a storm at sea
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There’s no better balm than a long stretch of beach, the angled light of late September, a weekend in a house overlooking the sea, shared meals and music making with my gaggle of wild and warm-hearted friends. Oh, Maine coast! You are as close to paradise for me as it gets.
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Camilla’s place
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Best party house ever, with masthead residents year round
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Food for 30
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Dan Doyle and the Dom Perignon
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Dave blissing out with Skye and Ginny
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The timeless in Maine

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Taking a Break

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Fix me, Small Point, fix me

Thirty of us are venturing up to our favorite remote corner of Maine for four days to celebrate the landmark birthdays for two of our group. This is a same tribe of friends who spent a wonderful holiday together at this very spot the weekend before 9/11. It became the signature experience for all of us, the most emblematic memory of the end of a very particular phase of our lives. Not wanting to let the memory of the halcyon days of yore steal our ability to make merry regardless of age or circumstances, we are returning to reclaim the hope and the sense of abandon. To sing, dance, and clambake our way back into the celebration of breath, flesh and beautiful beaches.

I’ll be back on Tuesday.

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helm

I have recently (re)fallen under the spell of Levon Helm’s music. His latest releases—Dirt Farmer (2007) and Electric Dirt (2009)—have some cuts that will be part of the soundtrack for this phase of my life. “The Mountain,” by Steve Earle, (on Dirt Farmer) is a heartbreak every time I listen. And “When I Go Away” on Electric Dirt is the best “Lord, I’m ready to die” song I know right now.

Coming back from throat cancer and suffering a number of other calamities (like the burning down of his barn studio), Helm now comes across as an indestructible force. Both these releases are a full return to his southern roots. And with his daughter Amy singing harmony, the whole project feels like home.

I’ve loved Helm since his days in The Band. Even though his post-cancer voice has more of a rasp, this is still the guy who sang lead on those great Band recordings like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “Rag Mama Rag.”

And then, in the New Yorker, I find this wonderful poem. Pure delight.

Alternate Take: Levon Helm

I’ve been beating my head all day long on the same six lines,
Snapped off and whittled to nothing like the nub of a pencil
Chewed up and smoothed over, yellow paint flecking my teeth.

And this whole time a hot wind’s been swatting down my door,
Spat from his mouth and landing smack against my ear.
All day pounding the devil out of six lines and coming up dry

While he drives donuts through my mind’s back woods with that
Dirt-road voice of his, kicking up gravel like a runaway Buick.
He asks Should I come in with that back beat, and whatever those

Six lines were bothered by skitters off like water in hot grease.
Come in with your lips stretched tight and that pig-eyed grin,
Bass mallet socking it to the drum. Lay it down like you know

You know how, shoulders hiked nice and high, chin tipped back,
So the song has to climb its way out like a man from a mine.

–Tracy K. Smith

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Tracy K. Smith has received awards and fellowships from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Whiting Foundation. She teaches creative writing at Princeton University.

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Letting Go

flow

The point here is to take life in all its rich variety just as it is, with its ten thousand opposites, and to go along with whatever circumstances require, embracing things after their own inclination or according to chance, letting things be rather than getting in their way, and thus allowing each and every thing, each and every appearance, to pursue a meaning and purpose distinct from my own.

– Kato Totsudo

Another great find from Whiskey River.

This passage reminds me of the Harrison Owen Four Laws of Detachment. This is sage advice for group facilitators as well as anyone living in a conscious manner:

1. Whoever shows up is exactly the right group.
2. When it is time to start, you better begin.
3. What you talk about is exactly the right thing.
4. When it’s over, it’s over.

Blessed be when anyone can find a path to the ineffable surrender to flow, higher purpose and trust.

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McHughing

Heather-McHugh

Two poems from newly-anointed MacArthur genius Heather McHugh:

Ghazal of the Better-Unbegun

A book is a suicide postponed.
—Cioran

Too volatile, am I? too voluble? too much a word-person?
I blame the soup: I’m a primordially
stirred person.

Two pronouns and a vehicle was Icarus with wings.
The apparatus of his selves made an ab-
surd person.

The sound I make is sympathy’s: sad dogs are tied afar.
But howling I become an ever more un-
heard person.

I need a hundred more of you to make a likelihood.
The mirror’s not convincing– that at-best in-
ferred person.

As time’s revealing gets revolting, I start looking out.
Look in and what you see is one unholy
blurred person.

The only cure for birth one doesn’t love to contemplate.
Better to be an unsung song, an unoc-
curred person.

McHugh, you’ll be the death of me — each self and second studied!
Addressing you like this, I’m halfway to the
third person.

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Etymological Dirge

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.

Calm comes from burning.
Tall comes from fast.
Comely doesn’t come from come.
Person comes from mask.

The kin of charity is whore,
the root of charity is dear.
Incentive has its source in song
and winning in the sufferer.

Afford yourself what you can carry out.
A coward and a coda share a word.
We get our ugliness from fear.
We get our danger from the lord.

Crazy good stuff.

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McHugh’s MacArthur

MCHUGH-PROFILE
Heather McHugh

How nice when the arbiters of taste and genius align themselves with my way of seeing the world. The MacArthur Genius Grant recipients have just been announced, and a well deserved award goes to poet Heather McHugh.

Her fabulous poem, Coming, was posted here on Slow Muse in June of 2008.

Here’s what the New Yorker wrote about her winning:

What we poetry readers have known for a long time has been officially announced to the world: Heather McHugh is a genius. McHugh, whose latest poem in The New Yorker, “Hackers Can Sidejack Cookies,” is included in her forthcoming collection “Upgraded to Serious,” wrote to me about her reaction to the news, her vow of silence, and her new label:

How do I feel about the word “genius”? Bottled.

They called me about a week before and made me swear not to tell anyone anything until today.

I was so flabbergasted every last wit deserted my head. (And so far my wits haven’t managed to make much of a home in my heart. So god knows where they are.)

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The Eden of the Author of Sleep

And sleep to grief as air is to the rain,
upon waking, no explanation, just blue

spoons of the eucalyptus measuring
and pouring torrents. A kind of winter.

As if what is real had been buried
and all sure surfaces blurred. Is it me

or the world, risen from beneath?
Mind refining ruin, or an outside

unseen hand, working—as if with
a small brush, for clarity—the details?

To open my eyes is the shape of a city
rising slowly through sand. Cloudy

quartz, my throat, cut unadorned
from the quarry, stone of city cemetery

and roads, to breathe is a mausoleum
breached. To think of Eden is speech

to fill a grave, tree in which knowledge
augurs only its limits, the word snake

a thought crawling in the shadow
of its body. Was it, Adam, like this

always, intellect in the mind’s small sty
mining confinement for meaning, sleep

to grief as air is to the rain, upon waking,
the world’s own weapons turned against it—

–Brian Teare

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(Photo: Blackbird)

Some background on Teare from Reading Between A and B:

The recipient of Stegner, National Endowment for the Arts, and MacDowell Colony poetry fellowships, Brian Teare has published poetry in Ploughshares, Boston Review, Provincetown Arts, VOLT, Verse and The Gertrude Stein Awards in Innovative Poetry, among other publications. His first book, The Room Where I Was Born, was winner of the 2003 Brittingham Prize and the 2004 Triangle Award for Gay Poetry. Author of the recent chapbooks, Pilgrim and Transcendental Grammar Crown, he lives in Oakland, CA and is on the graduate writing faculties of the New College of California and California College of the Arts.

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Directionals

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Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge Massachusetts

Yesterday a group of us gathered at the Blue Spruce Knoll at Mt. Auburn cemetery, the burial site of Bonnie Horne. Bonnie died in January, and she carefully chose that spot as the place where she wanted her name engraved in stone. As was her deeply methodical and thorough nature, the decision was made with a decisive clarity. Even at the very end of her long struggle, she knew what she wanted.

A day spent in sober funereal thought was more appropriate than I could have known. Saturday was the last day of life for my best friend from my college years, Becky Abildskov Houck. Partnered by chance with Patrick Swayze, both were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the same time, and they died within weeks of each other. Like Patrick, she loved her work and didn’t want to stop. She was a professor of biology at the University of Portland, and year after year she was awarded for her inspirational teaching. She continued to teach while her body failed her, determined to keep doing what she loved most. On a Facebook page set up to keep everyone up to date on the news of her illness, hundreds of her students have written about how deeply she changed their lives. She loved biology, and she loved her students. In the spirit of my earlier posts about social contagion and the umbra of our influence on each other, Becky’s radiance was huge.

So this is a morning of mourning. A time to sit with the grief that comes from the loss of people who penetrated into my most interior realms—people I have eaten meals with, slept in the woods next to, shared suffering and celebration, people whose complexities and gifts put me in a state of cathedral awe. The best I have to offer to myself in this honoring is silence and quiet.

This morning my friend Andrew’s weekly email was full of the contemplative thoughts that come with a landmark birthday. I found his words well suited for the stream of feeling I am in.

What does it mean to turn 60? When my grandma Camilla couldn’t resolve a doubt or question, she would mentally shelve it, confident that with enough time it would sort out on its own. More by inattention than deliberate strategy, my own shelves groan now under decades of unresolved quandaries & qualms, a packed pantry of questions, virtual rows of mason jars preserving every conundrum, suspended in time like stewed tomatoes in sauce, home canned gristle, the indigestible peel or rind of scepticism, lazy half lies substituted for truth, cowardly retreats from light, all awaiting resolution. In one jar is the nature of time & matter & space. In another, how gods and matter came to be. In another, like a medical curio, my own brain suspended in a serum of impenetrable mystery.

At age 60 I feel entitled at last to pop the seal on some jars and see what I can make of the old contents that perplex me. The honored great – from Bergson or Nietzsche to Buddha or my Mormon heritage — point in various directions, like the goofy scarecrow with a stick up his spine, asked which way to the Wizard by the girl in the braids whose own journey ends sadly in addiction and distress: one straw-stuffed white glove points South to beauty, the other to the North Star and truth; then the stuffed arms rewind like a windmill, this time one glove indicating order and reason, the other glove dionysian excess. But at some point, as one’s allotted time approaches its limits, directions must be chosen based on one’s own intuitions. Perhaps at 60 it is permitted to worry myself into knots over the perplexities of existence, to my soul’s very content. That would be my birthday wish.

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Hindu altar, Kanchipuram India, 2008

Blue Arabesque, by Patricia Hampl, is a book-long meditation and memoir that starts with her deep and sudden connection to a painting by Matisse hanging in the Chicago Art Institute. Writing not as an artist but as a thoughtful wisdom seeker, Hampl describes a conversation she has with a 60 year old nun who has lived in a monastery cell since she was 19. When asked if she could name the core of the contemplative life, the nun gives her a one word answer without hesitation: Leisure.

I suppose I expected her to say, “Prayer.” Or maybe “The search for God.” Or “Inner peace.” Inner peace would have been good. One of the big-ticket items of spirituality.

She saw I didn’t see.

“It takes time to do this,” she said finally.

Hampl’s description of the “this” in the nun’s answer is “the kind of work that requires abdication from time’s industrial purpose.”

Is there any other nation that has put time to industrial purpose with the fervor of this one? A word that is loaded with subtextual contempt, “leisure” is rarely offered up as the core requirement for anything valued in our bottom line, materialistic, time-managed, wired world. Contemplation, and the leisure to have it, are almost considered illicit, wasteful, indulgent.

Hampl later refers to our lifestyle as a “raid on ease,” a phrase that epitomizes the feeling of being under siege to do more of everything, and to do it faster and better. In her deep connection to the painting by Matisse, she is reminded that “the birthright of the uninterrupted gaze” has been lost.


Maybe that has been the point, even the project, of modernity: to abandon the gaze, to give over to the glimpse.

That’s not a trade off I’m wiling to make.

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Large Reclining Nude, by Henri Matisse. Baltimore Museum of Art, Cone Collection

When I first came to the east coast from California all those many years ago, there were two museums outside of New York City I was determined to see right away. The Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania was at the top of the list. The second was the Cone Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The experience of seeing the work at both of these venues was as monumental and memorable as I had hoped. For fin de siècle art lovers, these two collections are a feast of extraordinary proportions.

So it was with nostalgia that I again sat in the world’s largest collection of works by Matisse in this, the least likely of cities. Or so it seems to me, since I have now come to equate Baltimore, Maryland primarily and foremost as the setting for the greatest TV drama every produced, The Wire. But in spite of its struggle with rampant inner city poverty and problems, it is city that was once lucky enough to have been the home town of the infamous Cone sisters, Claribel and Etta. Their compulsive collecting, at times brilliant and at times just downright odd, resulted in the largest donation of art the Baltimore Museum had ever received, and ever will. Some of my all-time favorite Matisse paintings—like The Blue Nude and Large Reclining Nude—were purchased by these two passionately devoted, self-styled collectors.

I was particularly struck by a display documenting the creation of Large Reclining Nude. Matisse sent photographs to Etta Cone as this painting progressed, and the over 10 very different renderings are an insightful study in the way a painting works its way into its final form. Clearly Matisse had a marketer’s mind since Etta bought the painting when it was finally finished, deeply invested as she was in its creation. (This “buy in” approach of endearing one’s children to non-family members has a history of success as well.)

As effortlessly as Matisse’s paintings can look to the viewer’s eye, this graphic evolution demonstrates how much hard work is actually involved in getting to what appears effortless and easy. It is frequently necessary, says Matisse, to “put your work back on the anvil twenty times.”

And more specifically, in Matisse’s words:

Each picture as I finish it, seems like the best thing I have ever done…and yet after a while I am not so sure. It is like taking a train to Marseille. One knows where one wants to go. Each painting completed is like a station—just so much nearer the goal. The time comes when the painter is apt to feel he has at last arrived. Then, if he is honest, he realizes one of two things—either than he has not arrived after all or that Marseille…is not where he wanted to go anyway, and he must push farther on.

Destinations that, as soon as they are reached, are no longer The Destination. That might sound like a portrait of hell on earth to anyone who is goal oriented, measuring results through arrivals, completions and column checks. But for makers like me, that’s just the way it works. I think we like to be on a journey with the destination TBD.

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