Wednesday, February 24, 2010

on working the soul in revision

One of my most splendid and brilliant writing teachers was a man named Jim Heynan. He taught me, by way of an exercise, that being creative and prolific often happens when you're busy living, rather than retreating from, your life.

I was thrilled to see a recent essay of his in Brevity on the soul work of revision. Read it--especially if you didn't catch the "Lincoln" piece in the January 2009 New Yorker. The difference in the two drafts of Lincoln's second inaugural address are profound.

As for Heynan, as usual, his insight is one I take with me for ever more, as he counsels: "Even in the honing and pruning stage, when you spot language that doesn’t measure up to the sentiment you intended, don’t desert the sentiment too quickly in pursuit of fashion or conformity; stay with the sentiment until you find the words that are both true to the sentiment and satisfying for you."

selling the dollhouse

Christmas of third grade, my grandfather made my sister and me an elaborate dollhouse. My grandmother sewed outfits for the dolls and tiny cushions for the homemade chairs and couches. The dollhouse had to stay at my grandparent's house (I think Oma thought us too reckless, my mother too aloof, to be awarded custody), and for the next several years, the dollhouse was the centerpiece of our visits.

Unlike our real house, which was typically in a state of squalor, the dollhouse was kept pristine and orderly. The fake dollhouse family: mom, dad, brother, sister, infant, and maid, never interacted. Each occupied its own room, staged like the furnishings. The maid ironed outfits on the homemade ironing board in the penthouse section; the dad sat at an expansive desk in his study, a tiny cocktail sitting on the miniature ink blotter in front of him; the brother sat on the wooden toilet my Opa had fashioned from balsa and felt (poop and boys went together, somehow); and the sister frolicked in the play room amongst even tinier dolls, with the legless infant in its cradle down the hall. I don't remember where we propped up the mother.

Now, as a grown-up, week two of my real home having a "for sale" sign in front of it has proven to be a trip back in time. We've stashed, burned or given away all the clutter, and what remains is the scaffolding--the bare bones--of our bungalow. Every morning, like the dollhouse maid, I tuck, smooth, fold and neaten all evidence of life. I re-inflate the leaky Aerobed in the guest room, slip the toothbrush jar behind the molding in the open bathroom closet, replace the white bath mat so it adequately covers the cold tile and ugly-colored grout. I turn on the classical station, dial up the heat, rearrange the bowl of fake apples, and strategically turn on lights. I stop short of ironing our pillowcases, but just barely.

The weird thing is--I'm enjoying this ritual. I've timed it so I can leave the house with everything in place within 20 minutes of my little boy catching the school bus. Each day I've been fielding phone calls from eager real estate agents who are bustling to show the dollhouse to smiling families. There are two couples who've been do-si-doing each other in their follow-up visits to my perfectly staged abode.

What I remember most about my time with Opa's dollhouse is the feeling of satisfaction after leaving everything "just so." Though getting my house to this point was daunting and twitch-invoking, now that it's tidy, I feel calm, centered, grateful and relaxed when I go home at night and pour my goblet of Scotch. Just like the fake father in the dollhouse, I enjoy the quiet moments, surveying the lack of disorder around me.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

ash wednesday

My dear friend, Laura, always sends out this poem on Ash Wednesday. And I always read it, Catholic that I am, with a new take-away.

Today it's patience.

Ash Wednesday
by T.S. Eliot


Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is
nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to sateity
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each
Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.


At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitul face of hope and of despair.

At the second turning of the second stair
I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jaggèd, like an old man's mouth drivelling, beyond
Or the toothed gullet of an agèd shark.

At the first turning of the third stair
Was a slotted window bellied like the figs's fruit
And beyond the hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene
The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green
Enchanted the maytime with an antique flute.
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,
Lilac and brown hair;
Distraction, music of the flute, stops and steps of the mind
over the third stair,
Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despair
Climbing the third stair.

Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy

but speak the word only.

Who walked between the violet and the violet
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary's colour,
Talking of trivial things
In ignorance and knowledge of eternal dolour
Who moved among the others as they walked,
Who then made strong the fountains and made fresh the springs

Made cool the dry rock and made firm the sand
In blue of larkspur, blue of Mary's colour,
Sovegna vos

Here are the years that walk between, bearing
Away the fiddles and the flutes, restoring
One who moves in the time between sleep and waking, wearing

White light folded, sheathing about her, folded.
The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.

The silent sister veiled in white and blue
Between the yews, behind the garden god,
Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but spoke
no word

But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down
Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken

Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew

And after this our exile

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny
the voice

Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season,
time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.

O my people.

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit
of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

Monday, February 01, 2010

tune in, step out, drop in

Writing has become challenging this past week. Or rather, finding time for meaningful writing has become challenging. However, my New Year's Commitment had to do with banishing excuses for not writing, and finding solutions when things get in my way, so here goes.

As a swerve to O'Leary's "turn on, tune in, drop out," my attempt at resolving the perennial no-time-to-write conundrum is "tune in, step out, drop in," and here's how it works:
1. Tune in: listen to what people are saying
2. Step out: of my comfort zone by questioning reflexive behavior
3. Drop in: Try doing things a new way, experiment in the name of efficiency or expansion.

Here's how I applied it today.
I listened to a conversation in the Post Office line and learned that in order to have your face on a stamp, you have to have been dead for 10 years. Unless you're a President, then you only have to wait one birthday after death. I'll use this eavesdrop in dialogue, I'm certain, (lest you think it'll find its final resting place here, in my blog). But I was so intrigued with the information, I didn't pay attention to what I was doing and I knocked my coffee off the counter that serves as a package rest in the waiting line.

Next, I stepped out of my comfort zone by not immediately and apoplectically freaking out and overcompensating for my clumsiness by trying to fix it. Instead, I called the clerk's attention to the mess I made, and, to the shock of the queue behind me, took my turn at the counter and let the only other clerk leave her post to clean my mess. Of course, I apologized. Both to the clerk and to the folks in line because mistakes were made.

Once at work, I engaged in tasks that I hate first, then taught myself how to use the screen extension function so I could utilize my monitor in the manner it was intended. This little bit of dropping in I'd resisted, because I knew it would take me at least a half-hour to figure it out, but long-term efficiency is the goal, said I, so I wrestled it to the mat.

Now that I'm supremely virtuous, I better get my fanny in gear with pages!