A line of sixteen dots of light across the room from a half-raised window blind
Four crispy fish sticks with a dollop of mayonnaise, ketchup and sauerkraut
A row of fat binders on a high shelf, containing years of study notes
The soft roll of a patio door opening, and rain on thickening turf
A black dog expectantly angled below salmon in the pan.
A faraway train carrying a heavy, important load
A pool of yellow light on a quilted table runner
A spider descending along a green curtain
Three interruptions by a wondering child
Soft dark, as I move through, familiar
Unaccountable silence in my ears
A faded cotton pillowcase
Journal on the stand
Tag Archives: beauty
She told him about the pileated woodpecker whose call made her stop and look up and see its giant body clinging to the top of a dead standing tree, red crest blazing. She told him about suddenly coming upon a guinea pig grazing on the side of the trail, that when she spoke to it and tried to reach for it, scurried into a tunnel of matted grass into the blackberry thicket. She told him about the way the colors changed as the fog lifted and settled back down: lime yellow to gold, gray to bluegreen. She told him about stopping midway down a stretch of trail arched over with the branches of clumping trees, watching the surface of the water that overed the mossy roots beside the trail. How she waited, saw drops from branches create expanding wrinkles, but then there was hidden life, sluggish in the cold water, but unmistakable: sudden underwater lurches and lunges that could also be read in bulges and changes in reflected light. How as her glasses fogged up from the heat of the vapor off her cheeks, impeding her vision, she became aware of the sounds: melodious drips, gurgles, and small rushings of water through the bog.
But she said nothing her experience at the stream. How when she stopped at the bridge as usual, on the way out, and the newly swollen stream drew out of her a longing, a flood of memory from someone else’s past. She watched a bulging wave over a rock and the fast currents on either side, and how some of the water curled back around in its lee, felt an attraction and horror that threatened to nauseate her, and she turned away. On her return she stopped further down the stream, looked for comfort in the shallow, gravelly bed that reminded her of the streams she waded as a child. But there was only cold and warning. And then she tore herself away to continue on the trail to the house. She told him of the beauties of the trail, but about the stream, she only told him, “I want to live by a river. It could even be a small one, but some kind of river. It’s in my blood.”
“If you’re hacking your way through the jungle looking for the lost temple of the bat god, and you meet someone by a campfire, he’s probably going to be a really interesting person.”
Spoken in a rapid, midwestern Canadian accent by Mike Spenser Bown in an interview I heard this morning on CBC’s The Current. And many wonderful turns of phrase describing his experiences backpacking around the world for the past twenty-three years. Some of my favorites:
Speaking with Papua New Guinea in mind as an example: “There’s a certain number of people, that’s perhaps ten percent, who are the rascals who create all the trouble. But the other people are really, really friendly, and if you can tell the difference between one and the other, and stay reasonably cautious, you can travel almost anywhere in the world.”
About riding out a typhoon in a Chinese junk, seeing phosphorescence: “There were all these beautiful swirly lines in the giant waves that were coming to crush you.” Can this be a heartening metaphor for life, the possible joys within stress?
“I can lift everything I own on my little finger.”
I look forward to the book he’s planning to write, especially now that I can hear his manner of speaking in my mind.
Here’s the interview with Mike Spenser Bown. http://www.cbc.ca/player/AudioMobile/The%2BCurrent/ID/2419763247/
Perhaps you will permit me to particularize my provisional poetic preparation, which possessed a paucity of pedagogy
My eyeballs swim a little as I recline against my blue pillow in the lamplight, my mug of wassailed wine almost finished and warm in my interior regions. Behind the bathroom door water fills the tub where my son has decided to bathe before bed. I never was a mother that required frequent baths–such a waste of water, except where there is a layer of mud, paint, or sweat. Yet a bath is such a comfort when one has spent time shivering in wet weather, tension, or sadness, or wishes to play with bubbles or boats. This is a fine use of the precious resource of water. Especially if the bather is relatively clean and may offer the full tub to the next in line, improved by a few minutes’ blast on hot.
My tabby cat appeals to me to open the window, eyes perpetually alarmed, seeking her safe exit away from the indefatigable new puppy. I meet her gaze and speak to her, and she answers with affectionate and musical rumblings, is soothed, jumps on the bed and commences her toilette. White breast fur, base of tail, then holding hind legs extended, she lathers her thighs with feline saliva and applies her brush tongue.
And so I recline with my library copy of The Masks of Drought by William Everson. Funny the convergences that bring one such as myself to an appreciation of poetry. Country kid, never taught poetry beyond limericks, cinquains and haiku in elementary school, hated language arts class in middle school–in fact I seem to have blanked out the entire experience and can’t even remember who the teacher was. Avoided honors English in high school because I couldn’t stand required reading lists and book reports, and even took an alternate route to the university writing requirement by attaching a periodic hour-long no-prep essay-writing assessment to a German class, along with mostly foreign students. I studied marine biology and associated subjects, and even when I got interested in history and other social sciences, I still avoided English classes. So obviously school had nothing to do with it.
What it was, in an age prior to the revival of homeschooling, was immersion in a literature loving household, access to walls and walls of books, and catching the delight my parents had in sharing reading and writing. I read stories, nonfiction stuff on science and outdoor skills, field guides even, no poetry as such. But there were poems in stories by C.S. Lewis, Tolkien and others, books of Shel Silverstein lying about, and I did love to play with words in my spare time. Also, my father would bring home stacks of library books from the children’s section that he thought were particularly lovely. He would read every one and leave them for us to share. Of course we had the opportunity to select our own books, but didn’t want us to be limited to our own small perspectives. When my children would get in the habit of making a beeline for the Tin Tin, Star Wars, or other current craze sections to the exclusion of all others, I would do the same–go through the picture books, meanwhile, and find one, find another, avoiding anything preachy, ad-like (some books are thinly veiled promotions for reading, school, or certain perspectives on issues, have you noticed?), dumbed-down (as if children have no depth or need monotonous language or simple patterns to understand), most series books, those whose authors have forgotten how to think as a child (some of these books are nevertheless award winners, as they appeal to the adult aesthetic of judge panels–similar dynamic in award-winning games). I’d stack them ready by the couch, and they’d invariably be a source of delight even to my older children.
The clincher of my love of poetry (I’ve mentioned it before, I know): the memory of that magical moment at my uncle’s fishing camp on the Gander River, when I was about fifteen: my uncle and my father got to reciting poetry they had learned in grade school, completing one another’s lines, and pausing, speechless with emotion.
Despite the availability of good language arts programs and teachers in schools, I still believe the most powerful influences on children’s tastes come from home life, and so I have happily shared my love of poetry (and other literature) with my children, confident that what they have read, memorized and written will become fodder for a richer experience and understanding of life. Part of my responsibility to “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Prov 22:6) I see the fruit of what my parents have passed on to me in my own children, and it is good.
I share this with you, parents, teachers, and others, not with a list of “ten ways” bullet points, but with my story, and the invitation to draw the young under your care into an appreciation of poetry, not limiting your sharing to what you think they can understand or enjoy but what delights you, what you find beautiful, worthy, enriching. If I have time I’ll share a list of our favorite poets and poetry books, but for now, just go to the library and see what you can find.
“Every wind that blew was His breath, and the type of His inner breathing upon the human soul.” – George MacDonald
After several days of waking up with a headache and going through the day with a strange feeling in my gut, wondering if it’s a new virus or something in my diet, I decided to sweat it out. Can’t do that by housework alone, so I left one son to watch over the other while I hit the road and trail. I took my old dog to trail along. He’s always eager when I jingle the leash, but when we get going, trail he does, out of an ingrained fear of sound and movement of any kind. This time it was a distant chainsaw at work, then a dog barking behind a fence, then the usual cars passing. He’s a shelter dog, somehow sonically traumatized as a pup, and he cannot enjoy life on the trail as, even so, I can see means to.
My feet started to hurt on the hard road section, and I tried to get my momentum more forward rather than down. At the bottom of the hill I entered a fog bank, which cloaked my movements and cooled my skin. I detoured into the park and onto the more foot-friendly trail.
Everywhere the colors came and met me. Then, as if someone had blown soap bubbles into my mind, descriptive words materialized and drifted along my mental convection currents, grouping themselves in beats. Yellow-brown, yellow-gold, hanging in the cold. Evergreen, sage green, grey sky between. Punching red, frothing red, not yet dead. Orange blushing, orange burning, world turning.
If I start to think hard, I automatically slow to a walk until I can untangle my mind. But this time I was free to go on, playing with words as I took in these visions. My steps felt clumsy as I tired, but I don’t remember the gravelly sound they must have made, only the papery rustle of bigleaf maple leaves I ran through. Once when I slowed to a walk save my knees on a down section, a dozen birch leaves suddenly released themselves, without wind, as if a latch had been pressed somewhere: latch release, piece by piece.
Oh, how I wanted a notebook and pencil. But I remembered my father saying, as he looked back on many years spent photographing, painting, and writing moments and memories, that one must not value the recording over the experience. It can be about savoring and prolonging the experience, plumbing its meaning, and sharing, however. What if I had not read Annie Dillard, who reminded me how to see, for example, or seen the Group of Seven paintings, so I would long to go canoeing in the Canadian Shield? At times one cannot help oneself, thank heaven, or help oneself thank heaven.
When I got home, my older son asked how my run had been–had I enjoyed all the beautiful colors of the leaves? Remarkable that he asked in that particular way, as I had as yet said nothing. So I told him, and he declared he would start out early to his bus rendezvous so he could enjoy them too.
Before heading to shower off, I took a sheet of paper and jotted down a few words and phrases, hoping to make a few lines. I think tomorrow instead of table lessons, I’ll walk the trail with my naturally enthusiastic and poetic youngest son, with notebook and watercolors, and we’ll see what further savoring together will bring forth.
After two years of studying biology at university, I suddenly applied and was accepted to go to work on a pig and cow farm in Quebec, followed by three months living in an African village in Togo, West Africa. It was a government funded rural development education program, and they especially wanted people like me. Brought up on Rural Route (pronounced “root”) Number One, and having traveled only once on a school trip to Holland, this globe-trotting plan was a surprise to my parents, who perhaps had not yet realized that I had a daring streak, except in clothing. They already knew me well enough to realize that their objections (if they had any) would not stop me once I decided on a path, and so they decided to be proud of me, and of course my mother worried a good deal without letting on. The Quebec part was fine, living with an African peer and the farm family, working hard every day and meeting with the other youth and leader once in a while to debrief and make presentations. But then, Africa!
Canada World Youth/Jeunesse Canada Monde is a wonderful program, and turns out vast numbers of globally-minded, culturally sensitive youth each year. Host family placements are made with a goal of helping young people experience the ways of rural folks making a living in Canada, and then a developing country. I don’t know if there’s anything quite like it.
One thing I saw my fellow participants emphasize in their post-CWY community presentations (one of the few requirements placed on participants) was how much they became aware of their many blessings, etc., when faced with the have-not environment in which they lived for those months. In our village, for example, that would have meant lack of electricity, safe drinking water, advanced medical care, gender equality, political freedom, peace (there was a coup while we were there) and so on. Perhaps for some it also meant grocery stores, sidewalks, libraries, and malls. The idea of gratitude for our bounty, in contrast for others’ poverty, is, apparently, a key lesson one ought to learn from being with or learning about poor people.
But then, as now, whenever I hear that mantra, I burn. For some reason I feel it’s a betrayal of the folks in that other reality, a blindness and disrespect for all that was missed, the more important subepidermal layers of their existence. What I saw, and what I wanted to convey to others, was what those people had, what they did, what they knew. They had amazing music, art, wonderful food, many languages with their own untranslatable layers of meaning, strong community ties, a huge variety of personalities, perspectives, ways of handling life. And skills! What those women could do with a palm nut tree, and the men with their tools in the fields, season in, season out!
If all you can think of after a cultural encounter is being thankful for your many blessings, then you may as well also moan about your own blindness to the blessings of others. Or better, get in there and experience them. You might be surprised to realize that some of their blessings are more substantial and enduring than your own.
Once I was substitute teaching in a 7th grade social studies class and we were reading about and discussing the experiences of folks in the Great Depression. “Sure,” I said, “there wasn’t much food, money, or work, and there was too much suffering, but do you think they had anything good too? Of course they did! Of course there was music in those tin shantytowns, and beauty, and games, and falling in love! Some of the best music and poetry comes from times like those!” They listened, surprised, for there was none of that mentioned in the chapter, even in the sidebars. “There will most always be those things, I said, and we’d best be remembering that too.”
A sleepless night due to some late night debate over family matters, after which I argued still longer with myself and filled several journal pages with grief and complaint. Slept in, woke up with a non-alcoholic hangover. Most of the family was kind and tried to be quiet, but it was bright and there were places to go, so I dragged myself up, and why not feel better–another quintessential late August day, quiet and promising. Downed a glass of water with lemon, decided to go for a run to unscramble my brain, force some endorphins into my bloodstream, and continue the slow pull back to regaining my wind after not much aerobic exercise the last month. Carried the hangover outside to see what to wear. Foggy but not cold, and as I headed down the hill with Caleb the dog, the fog turned a lighter, warmer color.
Caleb, also regaining his equilibrium after not running the roads for a month, was afraid of every passing car, and pulled behind. Then the usual need to hunker and take a crap, which I scooped, soft and warm, into a thin-as latex gloves plastic bag. Jogged, holding this awkward luggage away from my body, to the park trash can and relieved myself of it also. The fog was indeed lifting, and would it be too hot to run? Not on the cool trail, along the stream’s ravine under summer’s leaf growth still unfallen. Stopped at the stream to give the dog a drink, but he was afraid of the sound and movement of the water, as slight as it was. No crayfish sighting this time, as I had one morning, pausing by this bridge, brown, clawed crawler only visible for a moment as it scooted under a rock. And I never stop without thinking of that creature and its cousins hidden there still.
Can’t dwell on troubles when I’m in a rhythm, though I may skim over them as from a hang glider. If I alight on a real problem to work it, my body automatically slows to a walk. That was an interesting discovery I made a few years ago, and when I am troubled and stuck, adds to the attraction of the run or swim. Otherwise I have never been a lover of such, would prefer volleyball or weights, or even better, physical work (beyond puttering) that must be completed with muscle effort and has its own reward.
Showered, downed cereal with fresh berries, dried cranberries and nuts, then drove to pick up my daughters from riding and go shopping for shoes and a skirt. We had been out the evening before for hours hunting down the rest of these growing girls’ wardrobe, and these items remained elusive, the special event looming. The three of us had been lighthearted then, but it was too soon to enjoy the same the next day, and I was developing a headache and a longing for a quality of coffee that was not to be found in the mall. I slumped on every bench and rested my head on my hand, let the girls peruse on their own and bring questions and samples as they wished. They were thankful, gracious, flexible and not insistent, which made it easier for me to be the same. I had no desire to relive certain awful clothing shopping trips I had with my mother at a similar stage. Perhaps those failures are what led me to sew my own clothes more and more.
Still unsuccessful at finding an appropriate skirt, I wondered if an attempt to set up my sewing machine (between meals on the kitchen table) and whip out a simple skirt would be advisable. Another unresolved household question–where to sew in our little house, and whether I’ll have to become a grandmother first.
When we returned home, my daughter having decided to make do with what we had, I went to take a nap. Soon my husband invited me to go choose a carpet remnant for an improvised bedroom he was creating in the garage. I declined after stating a general color preference. No, he could not buy brown shag. I am only four years younger than him, but I seem to have been mildly traumatized by the overabundance of brown and orange in my house in the seventies, while he recalls this time longingly.
After drinking my concoction of excellent cold espresso, leftover chocolate frozen yoghurt, milk, and whipping cream, I felt more myself and went out to the garden to see what needed doing. Ah yes, the potatoes were dry and probably should be dug and stored before more rain came. I called my youngest son away from the computer in my most inviting manner, telling him he could work or play outside, but he was to come keep me company. Which he did, but made several attempts to escape (“just “to check something”), so I decided to engage him in the direct, wholesome labor of picking potatoes..
My son did not feel as fond of digging potatoes as I (who never fail to recall childhood memories then, the joy of discovery and so on), so I gave him time. Soon, as I expected, he underwent a kind of technology detoxification (slowing of impulses, of expectations for immediate feedback, a broadening of involvement of senses, mind, body, memory, feeling) and began to enjoy the work. We filled several buckets, and then he went on his way to read in the shade.
As I worked up the row, reserving very small or damaged potatoes for immediate use, weeding and loosening the soil for fall crops, suddenly the sun came out under the layer of tree canopy across the road that had hidden it for a time, and flowed along the ground, giving the leaves where I knelt a golden translucency. An orb-weaver’s web was lit, she shone majestic and expectant at the center of her creation.