A Sufficiency in the Moment

'King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid,' by Edward Burne-Jones

[Image: “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid,” by Edward Burne-Jones (1884, oil on panel). For more information about the painting, including a video, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river’s commonplace book:

Praise Song

Praise the light of late November,
the thin sunlight that goes deep in the bones.
Praise the crows chattering in the oak trees;
though they are clothed in night, they do not
despair. Praise what little there’s left:
the small boats of milkweed pods, husks, hulls,
shells, the architecture of trees. Praise the meadow
of dried weeds: yarrow, goldenrod, chicory,
the remains of summer. Praise the blue sky
that hasn’t cracked yet. Praise the sun slipping down
behind the beechnuts, praise the quilt of leaves
that covers the grass: Scarlet Oak, Sweet Gum,
Sugar Maple. Though darkness gathers, praise our crazy
fallen world; it’s all we have, and it’s never enough.

(Barbara Crooker [source])

…and (from whiskey river itself):

The Book of Hours

There was that one hour sometime
in the middle of the last century.
It was autumn, and I was in my father’s
woods building a house out of branches
and the leaves that were falling like
thousands of letters from the sky.

And there was that hour in Central Park
in the middle of the seventies.
We were sitting on a blanket, listening
to Pete Seeger singing “This land is
your land, this land is my land,” and
the Vietnam War was finally over.

I would definitely include an hour
spent in one of the galleries of the
Tate Britain, looking up at the
painting of King Cophetua and
the Beggar Maid, and, afterwards
the walk along the Thames, and

I would also include one of those
hours when I woke in the night and
couldn’t get back to sleep thinking
about how nothing I thought was going
to happen happened the way I expected,
and things I never expected to happen did—

just like that hour today, when we saw
the dog running along the busy road,
and we stopped and held on to her
until her owner came along and brought
her home—that was an hour well
spent. Yes, that was a keeper.

(Joyce Sutphen [source])

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Recognizing — Just Noticing — Reasons to Go On

[Music video by Dr. How and the Reasons to Live, a band based in Harrisonburg, Virginia. All I really know about this is what the caption at Vimeo says: “featuring Maarten Vanhaverbeke’s cross-Canada cycling trip.” The band’s Bandcamp page is here. It describes the band — genre Americana — as “a joy ride that is unique to feel, great to see and awesome to hear. Imagine Yogi Bear finding his picnic basket. Yeah, that’s happiness.”]

From whiskey river:


Most coincidents are not
miraculous, but way more
common than we think—
it’s the shiver
of noticing being
central in a sequence
of events
that makes so much
seem wild and rare—
because what if it wasn’t?
Astonishment’s nothing
without your consent.

(Lia Purpura [source])


We are stories still going.

If you’re reading this, if there’s air in your lungs on this November day, then there is still hope for you. Your story is still going. And maybe some things are true for all of us. Perhaps we all relate to pain. Perhaps we all relate to fear and loss and questions. And perhaps we all deserve to be honest, all deserve whatever help we need. Our stories are all so many things: Heavy and light. Beautiful and difficult. Hopeful and uncertain. But our stories are not finished yet. There is still time, for things to heal and change and grow. There is still time to be surprised. We are still going, you and I. We are stories still going.

(Jamie Tworkowski [source])


It all matters. That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the windblown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, folds the abandoned laundry, plays the game fairly, tells the story honestly, acknowledges help, gives credit, says good night, resists temptation, wipes the counter, waits at the yellow, makes the bed, tips the maid, remembers the illness, congratulates the victor, accepts the consequences, takes a stand, steps up, offers a hand, goes first, goes last, chooses the small portion, teaches the child, tends to the dying, comforts the grieving, removes the splinter, wipes the tear, directs the lost, touches the lonely, is the whole thing.

What is most beautiful is least acknowledged.

What is worth dying for is barely noticed.

(Laura McBride [source])

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Those Happy-Go-Lucky Poor Folks: “A Couple of Swells”

Schell's Hobo Band

[Image: “Schell’s Hobo Band,” formed in 1948 as a side project of Schell’s Brewery in New Ulm, Minnesota. The band itself has been successful enough that it now has its own Facebook page.]

[Don’t know what this is? See the series introduction here.]

Pop culture has always offered plenty of examples of our “Happy-Go-Lucky Poor Folks” theme. Some of these examples cross over into racial stereotyping, for obvious reasons: race and social class (at least in the U.S.) are all bound up together. What better way to assuage our cultural guilt about slavery than to claim that its victims are somehow not doing that badly after all?

But then there’s the old image of the hobo — the tramp — as a figure of fun. And it had nothing to do with race, only with the character’s hilariously déclassé lot in life. He (it was almost always a he) just seemed so unsophisticated, so silly, y’know? This stereotype was reinforced by much older cultural symbols, particularly that of the circus or stage clown.

Think Emmett Kelly, both father and son: even though they appealed to the audience’s sympathy, their first objective was laughter (however soft and gentle). “Look at the hobo,” the subtext went, “trying to sweep the spotlight off the stage! Doesn’t he know you can’t do that?”

'Saturday Evening Post' cover by Norman Rockwell (August 18, 1928)A little weirdly to our eyes and ears, maybe, one thing which seems to have struck people as especially amusing “back in the day” was the very fact of the hobo’s poverty. That they didn’t have two coins to rub together — gosh, how could we possibly take them seriously?

Consider Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover at right (click to enlarge to full cover). This tramp probably (despite his belly size) hasn’t eaten pie for years. But look — he can steal a freshly baked one! And look — the baker’s dog will bite him on the bottom! What fun! (You could almost imagine this fellow sitting at fireside in a clearing in a forest, sharing the pie with his friends and regaling them with the comical story.)

(Yeah, I know: the geometry/physics here seem more than a little off: the dog shouldn’t be perfectly horizontal, even if he’s holding on tightly enough to be flying along behind the running tramp.)

Critically, though, this cover appeared in the Post in August, 1928 — just a little over a year before the onset of the Great Depression. Thereafter, with “real people” suddenly reduced to the social stature of hobos, coincidentally the jokes fell flat. These weren’t random outliers in the populace: they were friends and family…

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One Small Heart

[Video: “One Small Heart,” by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Lyrics here.]

From whiskey river:


You watch a dream pause
over a pool in a forest
under a breeze rippling its
surface reflections of inverted
branches & a patch of sky where
one bird flies by, upside-down.
Let it slow down.


Gone. Wing-flap. Birdsong, tree-song, floated, tilted,
moving away on its own scrap of independent energy
where everything lives, however briefly,
beating its one small heart…

(Maurice Scully [source])


There’s actually no such thing as an adult. That word is a placeholder. We never grow up. We’re not supposed to. We’re born and that’s it. We get bigger. We live through great storms. We get soaked to the bone. We realize we’re waterproof. We strive for calm. We discover what makes us feel good. We do those things over and over. We learn what doesn’t feel good. We avoid those things at all cost. Sometimes we come together: huge groups in agreement. Sometimes we clap and dance. Sometimes we look like a migration of birds. We need to remind ourselves — each other – that we’re mere breaths. But, and this is important, sometimes we can be magnificent, to one person, even for a short time, like the perfect touch — the first time you see the ocean from the middle. Like every time you see the low, full moon. We keep on eating: chewing, pretending we know what’s going on. The secret is that we don’t. We don’t, and don’t, and don’t. Each day we’re infants: plucking flower petals, full of wonder.

(Micah Ling, hobart pulp)


The Heart Remembers Everything It Loved

Everything remembers something. The rock, its fiery bed,
cooling and fissuring into cracked pieces, the rub
of watery fingers along its edge.

The cloud remembers being elephant, camel, giraffe,
remembers being a veil over the face of the sun,
gathering itself together for the fall.

The turtle remembers the sea, sliding over and under
its belly, remembers legs like wings, escaping down
the sand under the beaks of savage birds.

The tree remembers the story of each ring, the years
of drought, the floods, the way things came
walking slowly towards it long ago.

And the skin remembers its scars, and the bone aches
where it was broken. The feet remember the dance,
and the arms remember lifting up the child.

The heart remembers everything it loved and gave away,
everything it lost and found again, and everyone
it loved, the heart cannot forget.

(Joyce Sutphen)

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Real-Life Dialogue: Time Warp Edition

Real-Life Dialogue[The setting: a suburban home in North Florida, USA, late on a Sunday afternoon. He has just returned from grocery shopping. The dialogue occurs as they’re placing things he’s bought into the pantry and refrigerator.]

She: The time really got away from us today — we’ve still got so much to do for the company coming tomorrow. It’s already almost five-thirty.

[He looks down at his watch.]

He: What are you talking about? It’s barely past four o’clock.

She: [hope dawning in her eyes as she looks down at his watch, held up for her inspection] Really?!

He: Yeah, really. I mean I thought it was a little weird, maybe you—

She: [looking down at her cell phone, hope dying] No. It IS almost FIVE-thirty.

[She holds up her cell phone for his inspection.]

He: Wha— huh? [looking down at his own cellphone, checking his watch again] Damn it. Watch battery must have died. And I’m off work tomorrow, without a car—

She: Well, I could take your watch to work with me, and run it over to the mall at lunch for a new battery. But I won’t have time to—

He: [confused, but dismissive] Well, that wouldn’t work anyway. I mean, if you’ve got my watch all day then how am I gonna know what time it is?

She: [her brain whirs, audibly]

He: [his brain whirs, audibly]

[Both crack up laughing.]

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Paying Attention to the Story that Was

Space colony of O'Neill cylinders (NASA Ames Research Center, via Wikipedia)

[Image: a so-called “space colony” consisting of a pair of O’Neill cylinders, courtesy of the NASA Ames Research Center (via Wikipedia). This image has little to do with the story (or the spaceship(s)) discussed in the post, but it felt suitably “epic” (and at least vaguely relevant).]

For a good while now — maybe a year and a half — I’ve been working on a science-fiction novel (working title: 23kpc). The action takes place almost entirely aboard an interstellar space ship, the ISS Tascheter; the protagonists, Guy and Missy Landis, are something like a spacegoing Nick and Nora Charles (cf. Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man stories, especially the films — starring William Powell and Myrna Loy — made from them).

About six months before starting 23kpc, I’d actually written a short novella, or long short story, featuring Guy and Missy and the Tascheter. That story sprang from nowhere in particular; I just wanted to try my hand at SF (again), and was at the time too distracted — by real life and the marketing (still in progress) of Seems to Fit — to focus on anything major. In fact, when I began writing it, I didn’t even know it was SF: it took me several sentences to realize it.

In the course of writing “Open and Shut,” as the original story was called, I realized many other things. I realized how little consideration I’d ever given to the practicalities of space travel, particularly from one star system to another. What would the ship have to be like? If it weren’t capable of faster-than-light (FTL) speeds, how could individual humans ever hope to survive such a journey? (I sure as hell didn’t want Guy, Missy, et al. to die en route — requiring the invention of fresh characters over and over and over…) Perhaps humans were somehow different then — evolved with significantly longer lifespans. Or perhaps there were some ways of keeping them inert for long stretches of time, à la “suspended animation”… or… or… And what about where they were going — what could they even hope to know about their destination? Had at least one other generation of humans preceded them into space? How could a “crew” of, say, a few dozen individuals, even hundreds of them, possibly keep going during a trip which might take not just decades but centuries?

And so on.

Well, I took “Open and Shut” through to the story’s end. But all those practical concerns compelled me to tackle the general project correctly, in its own right. Hence, 23kpc. It no doubt comes with its own set of problems, as I’ll realize when I re-read the whole thing (when I’m done writing the whole thing). But it’s backed by much more (read: any) research, and I think I’ve gotten a lot more of it “right.”

Still, “Open and Shut” has its virtues, especially as a seat-of-the-pants exercise. It gave me Guy and Missy, and several of the other main characters who’d show up in the novel as well. It gave me the Tascheter — in vastly different form. It gave me some of the underlying themes I’d been thinking about (e.g., the evolution of culture and language). It’s told in the present tense, and the first person (from Guy’s point of view), which makes the action feel more “immediate” (to me, anyhow). Finally, it gave me a certain clipped, smart-alecky tone which seemed well-suited to the characters. And re-reading the first few pages reminded me of how much fun I’d had back then…

What follows: the first few hundred words of that story. Hope you enjoy it, too!

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Paying Attention to the Imperceptible

[Video: Loreena McKennitt performs “All Souls Night” live. (Lyrics below.)]

From whiskey river:

It is a mistake to believe that the crucial moments of a life when its habitual direction changes forever must be loud and shrill dramatics, washed away by fierce internal surges. This is a kitschy fairy tale started by boozing journalists, flashbulb-seeking filmmakers and authors whose minds look like tabloids. In truth, the dramatics of a life-determining experience are often unbelievably soft. It has so little akin to the bang, the flash, of the volcanic eruption that, at the moment it is made, the experience is often not even noticed. When it deploys its revolutionary effect and plunges a life into a brand-new light giving it a brand-new melody, it does that silently and in this wonderful silence resides its special nobility.

(Pascal Mercier [source])

and (italicized lines):

All Souls Night

Bonfires dot the rolling hills
Figures dance around and around
To drums that pulse out echoes of darkness
Moving to the pagan sound.

Somewhere in a hidden memory
Images float before my eyes
Of fragrant nights of straw and of bonfires
And dancing till the next sunrise.

I can see lights in the distance

Trembling in the dark cloak of night
Candles and lanterns are dancing, dancing
A waltz on All Souls Night.

Figures of cornstalks bend in the shadows
Held up tall as the flames leap high
The green knight holds the holly bush
To mark where the old year passes by.


Bonfires dot the rolling hillsides
Figures dance around and around
To drums that pulse out echoes of darkness
And moving to the pagan sound.

Standing on the bridge that crosses
The river that goes out to the sea
The wind is full of a thousand voices
They pass by the bridge and me

(Loreena McKennitt [source])


My eyes wandered from one end of the mountains to the other. “Do you think they go on forever?”

“The mountains?” Aritomo said, as though he had been asked that question before. “They fade away. Like all things.”

(Tan Twan Eng [source])

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In the Hour of Unease

Untitled, by David McConochie (cover illustration for The Guardian (Books), April 10, 2015)

[Image: untitled, by David McConochie (cover illustration for The Guardian (Books), April 10, 2015). I first encountered this in a thumbnail accompanying the Robert Macfarlane essay excerpted below.]

From whiskey river:

It is getting dark. In the low mists over the hills, an orange glow broods, as if the trees are on fire. Bats are flooding out from the hundreds of caves that perforate these mountainsides. I watch them plunge into the mists without any hesitation, trusting in the echoes and silences in which they fly.

Are all of us the same, I wonder, navigating our lives by interpreting the silences between words spoken, analyzing the returning echoes of our memory in order to chart the terrain, in order to make sense of the world around us?

(Tan Twan Eng [source])


Sleep Spaces

In the night there are of course the seven wonders of the world
and greatness, tragedy and enchantment.
Forests collide with legendary creatures hiding in thickets.
There is you.
In the night there are the walker’s footsteps the murderer’s the town policeman’s light from the street lamp and the ragman’s lantern.
There is you.
In the night trains go past and boats
and the fantasy of countries where it’s daytime. The last breaths of twilight and the first shivers of dawn.
There is you.
A piano tune, a shout.
A door slams. A clock.
And not only beings and things and physical sounds.
But also me chasing myself or endlessly going beyond me.
There is you the sacrifice, you that I’m waiting for.
Sometimes at the moment of sleep strange figures are born and disappear.
When I shut my eyes phosphorescent blooms appear and fade
and come to life again like fireworks made of flesh.
I pass through strange lands with creatures for company.
No doubt you are there, my beautiful discreet spy.
And the palpable soul of the vast reaches.
And perfumes of the sky and the stars, the song of a rooster from 2000 years ago and piercing screams in a flaming park and kisses.
Sinister handshakes in a sickly light and axles grinding on paralyzing roads.
No doubt there is you who I do not know, who on the contrary I do know.
But who, here in my dreams, demands to be felt without ever appearing.
You who remain out of reach in reality and in dream.
You who belong to me through my will to possess your illusion
but who brings your face near mine only if my eyes are closed in dream as well as in reality.
You who in spite of an easy rhetoric where the waves die on the beach
where crows fly into ruined factories, where the wood rots
crackling under a lead sun.
You who are at the depths of my dreams stirring up a mind
full of metamorphoses
leaving me your glove when I kiss your hand.
In the night there are stars and the shadowy motion of the sea,
of rivers, forests, towns, grass and the lungs
of millions and millions of beings.
In the night there are the seven wonders of the world.
In the night there are no guardian angels, but there is sleep.
In the night there is you.
In the daylight too.

(Robert Desnos [source, in slightly different form])

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Far and Widely, Near and Narrowly

Image: 'Starmageddon,' by Bill Gracey on Flickr

[Image: “Starmageddon,” by Bill Gracey on Flickr. (Used under a Creative Commons license.) Read about the happy accidents which brought this photo together at Flickr itself.]

From whiskey river:


The passion
Is still flourishing in the branches
Yellow funny and daring red
The sun warms even in the days
Where the fog
Stubbornly in the morning
From a distance
A woodpecker knocks
Is the enemy of beauty

(Kristian Goldmund Auman [unsourced; possibly here])


The lucidity, the clarity of light that afternoon was sufficient to itself; perfect transparency must be impenetrable, these vertical bars of brass-colored distillation of light coming down from sulphur-yellow interstices in a sky hunkered with grey clouds that bulge with more rain. It struck the wood with nicotine-stained fingers, the leaves glittered. A cold day of late October, when the withered blackberries dangled like their own dour spooks on the discolored brambles. There were crisp husks of beechmast and cast acorn cups underfoot in the russet slime of the dead bracken where the rains of the equinox had so soaked the earth that the cold oozed up through the soles of the shoes, lancinating cold of the approaching winter that grips hold of your belly and squeezed it tight. Now the stark elders have an anorexic look; there is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile but it is not yet, not quite yet, the saddest time of the year. Only, there is a haunting sense of the imminent cessation of being; the year, in turning, turns in on itself. Introspective weather, a sickroom hush.

(Angela Carter [source])



The leaves fall from my fingers
Cornflowers scattered across the field like stars,
like smoke stars,
By the train tracks, the leaves in a drift

Under the slow clouds
and the nine steps to heaven,
The light falling in great sheets through the trees,
Sheets almost tangible.

The transfiguration will start like this, I think,
Quick blade through the trees,
Something with red colors falling away from my hands,

The air beginning to go cold…
And when it does
I’ll rise from this tired body, a blood-knot of light,
Ready to take the darkness in.

—Or for the wind to come
And carry me, bone by bone, through the sky,
Its wafer a burn on my tongue,
its wine deep forgetfulness.

(Charles Wright [source])

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Monday Senior Moment

[Video: selected scenes of beauty from an episode of Seinfeld]

I had an appointment for a routine visit to my doctor’s office in the morning. As with many doctors, I guess, every time you interact with the people at this office you’re expected to present proof of ID (driver’s license generally) and proof of medical coverage (Blue Cross/Shield, HMO card, whatever).

I figured I’d minimize the fumbling with my wallet while actually at the check-in counter, by getting the two cards out of my wallet in advance, and putting them in my shirt pocket. So before going inside, I pulled my wallet out of my hip pocket…

Like many men’s wallets, mine includes not just a cash compartment but multiple “slots” into which you can insert credit cards, various forms of ID, wallet photos (if anyone still carries them), and so on. And like many men — think George Costanza, as in the video above — I probably consider these little cubbies waaaay too convenient for our own good. (I think I finally threw out my Borders Rewards card last year. I’d held onto it because, well, the company may have gone under but You Never Know!)

Anyway, I do try to keep the wallet organized, roughly speaking. Of course, I’ve got the driver’s license in the only slot with a transparent plastic window (I don’t know why; everyone always asks me to remove the license from the wallet before they’ll inspect it). I’ve got a slot reserved for local-business discount cards. There’s one for my debit card and a couple of others which I use regularly, and of course one for credit cards. My Costco and Walgreen’s membership/discount cards are in a slot by themselves. And so on. The point being: I got the driver’s license out immediately, and then flipped to the slot where I keep my Blue Cross card.

Panic, confusion: my Blue Cross card was not in my wallet!

Mentally, I ran back through the last few days, picturing where I’d been, all the occasions on which I transferred the wallet from one pair of jeans to another, all those on which I’d handled the wallet at all. I went back weeks, and then months — just looking at moments when I might’ve handled my Blue Cross card. Had the pharmacist asked for it for some reason. (Answer: no.) The dentist? (Ditto.)

How the hell could I have lost my Blue Cross card?!?

And then I move on to consider the possibility that it had actually been removed by someone else, for some reason. Would there be some kind of… some kind of value to a health-insurance card? Maybe I was caught in some kind of not-very-sophisticated caper to steal expensive medical treatments — or prescriptions?!? — from a hospital or drugstore. Could I be arrested or otherwise held accountable for someone else’s use of the card? I couldn’t could I? And…

How the hell could I have lost my Blue Cross card?!?

All of that occurred mentally, as I said, within the space of about four to five seconds. In the meantime, I was rifling all the other compartments in my wallet: like, Jeezus, am I still carrying that goddam thing around? and like, Why do I have two discount cards from that department store?

I finally began to accept the inevitable. I was going to have to call The Missus to ask if for some arcane reason, she’d needed (and hence borrowed) my Blue Cross card — not a conversation I was looking forward to, because, well, (a) “Why would I have taken your Blue Cross card?” and (b) How the hell could I have lost my Blue Cross card?!?

And suppose — as was all but 100% certain — the Missus did not have my Blue Cross card. What then? Should I try to get the doctor’s staff to accept my status on a provisional basis? Maybe I could just breezily assert, “I don’t have my card with me but there’s no change since last visit” — head off the uncomfortable question (How the hell could you have lost your Blue Cross card?!?) before it even got asked.

Oh, I’ll tell you — I ran the gamut of four-letter words, sitting there in the car with the contents of my wallet scattered like autumn leaves around the front seats. No, really: How in the HELL

I looked down at my wallet. Actually, it wasn’t empty — I hadn’t bothered to look in that one slot because I wouldn’t possibly have put the Blue Cross card there, behind my debit card…

And then a moment later — patting my shirt pocket in satisfaction — I gathered up all my other cards and notes to myself and other wallet detritus, reloaded the ammo dump so to speak, and proceeded inside… having discovered my Blue Cross card right where really always keep it: in the slot behind my debit card.

I’d been outside in the car for fifteen minutes. But boy, am I smart: I didn’t have to fumble with my wallet at all!

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