Department of Unmagical Thinking

Image: '1688 miracle,' by nebojsamladjenovic on Flickr.com

[Image: “1688 miracle,” by nebojsa mladjenovic on Flickr. (Used here under a Creative Commons license; thank you!) For more information, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

A certain man… once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish—but there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about coincidence.

(Vladimir Nabokov [source])

and:

Making a Fist

We forget that we are all dead men conversing with dead men.
—Jorge Luis Borges

For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,
I felt the life sliding out of me,
a drum in the desert, harder and harder to hear.
I was seven, I lay in the car
watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past the glass.
My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.

“How do you know if you are going to die?”
I begged my mother.
We had been traveling for days.
With strange confidence she answered,
“When you can no longer make a fist.”

Years later I smile to think of that journey,
the borders we must cross separately,
stamped with our unanswerable woes.
I who did not die, who am still living,
still lying in the backseat behind all my questions,
clenching and opening one small hand.

(Naomi Shihab Nye [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share

Doing What You Can’t Not Do

Image: '12$,' by Catherine Roy on Flickr

[Image: “12$,” by Catherine Roy. (Found it on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license — thank you!) The photographer seems to like taking photos which show objects (and people) of little or no consequence; although she hasn’t organized them into an official “album” as such, she has tagged (as of now) fifty-four photos with the phrase, “feeding my compulsion.” Many of these photos (although not this one, obviously) simply show toilets.]

From whiskey river:

2. Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.

Cold or warm.

Tired or well-rested.

Despised or honored.

Dying… or busy with other assignments. Because dying, too, is one of our assignments in life. There as well: “To do what needs doing.”

3. Look inward. Don’t let the true nature or value of anything elude you.

7. …Only there, delight and stillness

11. When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstances, revert at once to yourself, and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better grasp of the harmony if you keep going back to it.

(Marcus Aurelius [source (various pages)]

and:

What Gorgeous Thing

I do not know what gorgeous thing
the bluebird keeps saying,
his voice easing out of his throat,
beak, body into the pink air
of the early morning. I like it
whatever it is. Sometimes
it seems the only thing in the world
that is without dark thoughts.
Sometimes it seems the only thing
in the world that is without
questions that can’t and probably
never will be answered, the
only thing that is entirely content
with the pink, then clear white
morning and, gratefully, says so.

(Mary Oliver [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share

Give the Kaleidoscope Its Due

'Quiet Nature | Game of light,' by Vasile Hurghis on Flickr

[Image: “Quiet Nature | Game of light,” by Vasile Hurghis. (Found on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license — thank you!) The scene is a Romanian landscape. I don’t know about you, but my own eyes resist seeing the tower on the right as what it is… especially when looking at anything else in the photo. I keep seeing it as a doorway to a world of colors which don’t exist in the foreground world. And honestly, I guess there’s no reason it can’t be that, is there — no reason it can’t be both that, and a simple rustic silo?]

From whiskey river (including the first paragraph, found elsewhere):

At 19, I read a sentence that re-terraformed my head: “The level of matter in the universe has been constant since the Big Bang.”

In all the aeons we have lost nothing, we have gained nothing — not a speck, not a grain, not a breath. The universe is simply a sealed, twisting kaleidoscope that has reordered itself a trillion trillion trillion times over.

Each baby, then, is a unique collision — a cocktail, a remix — of all that has come before: made from molecules of Napoleon and stardust and comets and whale tooth; colloidal mercury and Cleopatra’s breath: and with the same darkness that is between the stars between, and inside, our own atoms.

When you know this, you suddenly see the crowded top deck of the bus, in the rain, as a miracle: this collection of people is by way of a starburst constellation. Families are bright, irregular-shaped nebulae. Finding a person you love is like galaxies colliding. We are all peculiar, unrepeatable, perambulating micro-universes — we have never been before and we will never be again. Oh God, the sheer exuberant, unlikely face of our existences. The honour of being alive. They will never be able to make you again. Don’t you dare waste a second of it thinking something better will happen when it ends. Don’t you dare.

(Caitlin Moran [source: well, the quote is everywhere, dating back to at least 2014, but I don’t know the original])

and:

A Child is Something Else Again

A child is something else again. Wakes up
in the afternoon and in an instant he’s full of words,
in an instant he’s humming, in an instant warm,
instant light, instant darkness.

A child is Job. They’ve already placed their bets on him
but he doesn’t know it. He scratches his body
for pleasure. Nothing hurts yet.
They’re training him to be a polite Job,
to say “Thank you” when the Lord has given,
to say “You’re welcome” when the Lord has taken away.

A child is vengeance.
A child is a missile into the coming generations.
I launched him: I’m still trembling.

A child is something else again: on a rainy spring day
glimpsing the Garden of Eden through the fence,
kissing him in his sleep,
hearing footsteps in the wet pine needles.
A child delivers you from death.
Child, Garden, Rain, Fate.

(Yehuda Amichai, translated by Chana Bloch [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share

The Unbearable Lightness of Metaphor

'Light - Day Two,' by Lucy Maude Ellis on Flickr

[Image: “light – day two,” by Lucy Maude Ellis. (Found it on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license — thank you!) I came across this image while searching for images having to do with weightlessness and such; the photographer’s Flickr photostream seems to exhibit a particular fondness for “levitation pictures.” In such pictures, the human subject is posed in such a way that s/he appears to be floating in air — the photographer then edits the photo to remove all traces of whatever device(s) are used to support the model. This image, though, “felt” better to me as accompaniment to today’s theme.]

From whiskey river:

The Mountain

My students look at me expectantly.
I explain to them that the life of art is a life
of endless labor. Their expressions
hardly change; they need to know
a little more about endless labor.
So I tell them the story of Sisyphus,
how he was doomed to push
a rock up a mountain, knowing nothing
would come of this effort
but that he would repeat it
indefinitely. I tell them
there is joy in this, in the artist’s life,
that one eludes
judgment, and as I speak
I am secretly pushing a rock myself,
slyly pushing it up the steep
face of a mountain. Why do I lie
to these children? They aren’t listening,
they aren’t deceived, their fingers
tapping at the wooden desks—
So I retract
the myth; I tell them it occurs
in hell, and that the artist lies
because he is obsessed with attainment,
that he perceives the summit
as that place where he will live forever,
a place about to be
transformed by his burden: with every breath,
I am standing at the top of the mountain.
Both my hands are free. And the rock has added
height to the mountain.

(Louise Glück [source])

and:

What Light Does

Today, I did nothing.
Light went on as usual,

throwing leaves against the white wall,
as if no one were watching, as if

there’s no meaning in the trembling
of the leaves. Later, light moves

the leaves onto the tile floor,
and once I might have thought them

dancing, or that the shadow
of a thing is more beautiful

than the thing itself, but it’s not,
it’s just ordinary light, going about

its ordinary business. Now, evening is here,
and I’ve made it through another day

of shadows. This is not metaphor, or poetry,
it’s how the unbearable is

a blade that gleams and remains
visible, long after light has gone.

(Patty Paine, Blackbird [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share

Just Passing Through

Image: 'Closing Time, Office, Coat Rack, Timeless B&W,' by Lynn Friedman on Flickr

[Image: “Closing Time, Office, Coat Rack, Timeless B&W,” by Lynn Friedman on Flickr. (Used here under a Creative Commons license; thank you!) The only “information” provided by the photographer is the lyrics to the song “Closing Time,” by Semisonic. You can see the video for the song here on YouTube.]

From whiskey river:

We are all bound together in a tapestry that like the sea gives the impression of movement towards something but is actually just a maternal body of material…

The flowers buzz when the vibration of the bees stimulates their pistons and their molecules swell and their petals hum like cellos. Rocks are alive, the firstborn of the natural world, somber without will.

There is no freedom from this universe we were born into, because it is our vague source of sensation, our soul, the container of our guilt.

Skins liquefy in heat. And when a bald baby swallow dies on your palm, you feel warmth pouring over your skin, a kind of burning fountain that scalds you like pepper spray.

Do you think this is a sign of the spirit ripping its energy into you to carry to the other side? I do. There are no actual objects over there, no materials but unformed steaming clouds, colors that harmonize musically, no gravity exists but elasticity composed of invisible mesh images.

Who will meet me on the other side, I ask you, to prove the error of what I say? Will it be someone who never loved me?

(Fanny Howe [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share

“A Long and Sweet, Delicious Crack of Wood in My Teeth”

'064 - Day 5 Ayeyarwady River - A serene view of Ava Bridge,' by Neville Wootton on Flickr

[Image: “064 – Day 5 Ayeyarwady River – A serene view of Ava Bridge,” by Neville Wootton. Found on Flickr, and used here under a Creative Commons license. (Thank you!) The image’s beauty is proportionate to its scale (click it to enlarge), but at any scale it seems an image of a place remembered, but never actually visited.]

Not from whiskey river:

Theories of Time and Space

You can get there from here, though
there’s no going home.

Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been. Try this:

head south on Mississippi 49, one-
by-one mile markers ticking off

another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion — dead end

at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches

in a sky threatening rain. Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand

dumped on a mangrove swamp — buried
terrain of the past. Bring only

what you must carry — tome of memory
its random blank pages. On the dock

where you board the boat for Ship Island,
someone will take your picture:

the photograph — who you were —
will be waiting when you return

(Natasha Trethewey [source])

…and:

Fetch

Go, bring back the worthless stick.
Of memory,” I almostimage added.
But she wouldn’t understand, naturally.
There is the word and the thing

adhering. So far so good.
Metaphor, drawer of drafting tools —
spill it on the study floor, animal says,
that we might at least see

how an expensive ruler tastes.
Yesterday I pissed and barked and ate
because that’s what waking means.
Thus has God solved time

for me — here, here. What you call
memory is a long and sweet,
delicious crack of wood in my teeth
I bring back and bring back and bring back.

(Jeffrey Skinner [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share

Wordfeel

[Video: “Bluebird,” by Charles Bukowski. The poem is read by a pseudonymous “Tom O’Bedlam,” about whom you can read a few things here (and its links) and here. For information on the real “Tom o’Bedlam,” an anonymous 17th-century poem, see its Wikipedia page.]

Not from whiskey river:

There Is No Word

There isn’t a word for walking out of the grocery store
with a gallon jug of milk in a plastic sack
that should have been bagged in double layers

—so that before you are even out the door
you feel the weight of the jug dragging
the bag down, stretching the thin

plastic handles longer and longer
and you know it’s only a matter of time until
the strap breaks or the bottom suddenly splits
and spills its contents to the ground.

There is no single, unimpeachably precise word
for that vague sensation of something
moving away from you
as it exceeds its elastic capacity

which is too bad because that is the word
I would like to use to describe
standing on the street and chatting with a friend,

as the awareness gradually dawns on me that he
is no longer a friend,
but only an acquaintance

—until this moment as we say good-bye,
when I think we share a feeling of relief,
an unspoken recognition

that we have reached the end of a pretense
—though to tell the truth,
what I already am thinking

is that language deserves the credit—
how it will stretch just so much and no further;
how there are some holes it will not cover up;

how it will move, if not inside, then
around the circumference
of almost anything—

how, over the years, it has given me back
all the hours and days, all the
plodding love and faith, all the

misunderstandings and secrets and mistakes
I have willingly poured into it.

(Tony Hoagland [source])

…and:

Something about [Shakespeare’s] brain was gloriously different.

Familiar enough to illuminate the human condition in recognizable, entertaining, and profound ways, but different enough to do it in ways and words no one else could achieve. Something about the radar net of his senses. Something about his ability to combine seemingly unrelated things in a metaphor’s alchemy was different. His ability to juggle many swords of insight at the same time was different. In truth, the people of his era had a very small vocabulary; ours is exponentially larger. But his gift didn’t require more words, because words, being human made, can’t begin to capture the experience of being alive or the complex predicaments even simple people get into. Words are small shapes in the chaos of the world. They’re unwieldy, sloppy, even at their most precise. Nothing is simply blue. No one just walks. Words fail us when we need them most. They fall into the crevasses between feelings. If we make them overlap, then we can cover some of those spaces, and that’s traditionally what writers, especially poets, do. A metaphor is hypergolic, like nitroglycerin. It takes two otherwise harmless things, smacks them together, and creates something more explosive. Instead of needing a vocabulary word for every single thing and experience, we use the words we have in new ways. How clever of the brain to find such an enchanting solution.

(Diane Ackerman [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share

The Handwriting on Belshazzar’s Wall

'Golden Rectangle,' by 'Greg' (user 'sightrays') on Flickr

[Image: “Golden Rectangle,” by “Greg” (user “sightrays”) on Flickr. (Used here under a Creative Commons license; thank you!) The explanation at that page provides much more detail than I can here. The gist, though, is that a “golden spiral” appears to home in on a particular point — where the diagonals of the two rectangles making a golden rectangle intersect — but in fact, never really reaches that point: the spiral is infinite in length.]

Not from whiskey river:

Nature Knows Its Math

Divide
the year
into seasons,
four,
subtract
the snow then
add
some more
green,
a bud,
a breeze,
a whispering
behind
the trees,
and here
beneath the
rain-scrubbed
sky
orange poppies
multiply.

(Joan Graham [source])

…and:

[Let us consider] the common idea that mathematics is a dull subject, whereas the testimony of all those who have any dealing with it shows that it is one of the most thrilling and tantalising and enchanting subjects in the world. It is abstract, but so, to all appearance, is theology. Men have hurled themselves on the spears of their enemies rather than admit that the second person of the Trinity was not co-eternal with the first. Men have been burned by inches rather than allow that the charge to Peter was to be a charge to him as an individual rather than to him as a representative of the Apostles. Of such questions as these it is perfectly reasonable for anyone to say that, in his opinion, they are preposterous and fanatical questions. And what men have before now done for the abstractions of theology I have little doubt that they would, if necessary, do for the abstractions of mathematics. If human history and human variety teach us anything at all, it is supremely probable that there are men who would be stabbed in battle or burnt at the stake rather than admit that three angles of a triangle could be together greater than two right angles.

The truth surely is that it is perfectly permissible and perfectly natural to become bored with a subject just as it is perfectly permissible and perfectly natural to be thrown from a horse or to miss a train or to look up the answer to a puzzle at the end of a book. But it is not a triumph if it is anything at all, it is a defeat. We have certainly no right to assume offhand that the fault lies with the horse or with the subject.

(G.K. Chesterton [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share

Choosing the Self You Want to Know

'You Choose (autoretrato),' by Alberto Varela on Flickr.com

[Image: “You Choose (autoretrato),” by Alberto Varela. (Found on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license — thank you!) The photographer says only that this self-portrait (Spanish: auto retrato) was inspired by another photographer’s work. That photographer, one Lex Wilson, has a whole Flickr album of “creative self-portraits” which presumably supplied the specific inspiration.]

From whiskey river:

No matter how careful you are, there’s going to be the sense you missed something, the collapsed feeling under your skin that you didn’t experience it all. There’s that fallen heart feeling that you rushed right through the moments where you should’ve been paying attention.

Well, get used to that feeling. That’s how your whole life will feel some day.

This is all practice.

(Chuck Palahniuk [source])

and (italicized portion):

There’s one problem with all psychological knowledge—nobody can apply it to themselves. People can be incredibly astute about the shortcomings of their friends, spouses, children. But they have no insight into themselves at all. The same people who are coldly clear-eyed about the world around them have nothing but fantasies about themselves. Psychological knowledge doesn’t work if you look in a mirror. This bizarre fact is, as far as I know, unexplained.

Personally, I always thought there was a clue from computer programming, in a procedure called recursion. Recursion means making the program loop back on itself, to use its own information to do things over and over until it gets a result. You use recursion for certain data-sorting algorithms and things like that. But it’s got to be done carefully, or you risk having the machine fall into what is called an infinite regress. It’s the programming equivalent of those funhouse mirrors that reflect mirrors, and mirrors, ever smaller and smaller, stretching away to infinity. The program keeps going, repeating and repeating, but nothing happens. The machine hangs.

I always figured something similar must happen when people turn their psychological insight-apparatus on themselves. The brain hangs. The thought process goes and goes, but it doesn’t get anywhere.

(Michael Crichton [source])

and:

A poem is a place where the conditions of beyondness and withinness are made palpable, where to imagine is to feel what it is like to be. It allows us to have the life we are denied because we are too busy living. Even more paradoxically, a poem permits us to live in ourselves as if we were just out of reach of ourselves.

(Mark Strand [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share

“The Sparks of Their Soul Come Out and Cling to You”

Image: 'So Many Grains of Sand,' by Rick Schwartz on Flickr

[Image: “Like So Many Grains of Sand,” by Rick Schwartz; it apparently captures a moment on Ocean Beach in San Francisco, this past January. (Found it on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license — thank you!) In a blog post featuring this photo, the photographer muses, “Just trying to fathom the grains of sand on this one beach is futile to say nothing for the number of stars in the universe… So, for me, the only thing left to do is turn away from the beach and eat a bowl of soup. That’s the one thing I can handle.”]

From whiskey river (in slightly different words):

In the forty minutes I watched [the muskrat], he never saw me, smelled me, or heard me at all. When he was in full view of course I never moved except to breathe. My eyes would move, too, following his, but he never noticed… Only once, when he was feeding from the opposite bank about eight feet away from me, did he suddenly rise upright, all alert—and then he immediately resumed foraging. But he never knew I was there.

I never knew I was there, either. For that forty minutes last night I was as purely sensitive and mute as a photographic plate; I received impressions, but I did not print out captions. My own self-awareness had disappeared; it seems now almost as though, had I been wired to electrodes, my EEG would have been flat. I have done this sort of thing so often that I have lost self-consciousness about moving slowly and halting suddenly; it is second nature to me now. And I have often noticed that even a few minutes of this self-forgetfulness is tremendously invigorating. I wonder if we do not waste most of our energy just by spending every waking minute saying hello to ourselves. Martin Buber quotes an old Hasid master who said, “When you walk across the fields with your mind pure and holy, then from all the stones, and all growing things, and all animals, the sparks of their soul come out and cling to you, and then they are purified and become a holy fire in you.”

(Annie Dillard [source])

and:

The greatest gift of life on the mountain is time. Time to think or not think, read or not read, scribble or not scribble — to sleep and cook and walk in the woods, to sit and stare at the shapes of the hills. I produce nothing but words; I consume nothing but food, a little propane, a little firewood. By being utterly useless in the calculations of the culture at large I become useful, at last, to myself.

(Philip Connors [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share