Your First Miracle

Image: 'Israel-05625 - Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend,' by Dennis Jarvis on Flickr

[Image: “Israel-05625 – Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” by Dennis Jarvis; found it on Flickr, of course, and use it here under a Creative Commons license (thank you!)]

From whiskey river:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here…

This is another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than a hundred million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, “the present century.” Interestingly, some physicists don’t like the idea of a “moving present,” regarding it as a subjective phenomenon for which they find no house room in their equations. But it is a subjective argument I am making. How it feels to me, and I guess to you as well, is that the present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. In other words, it is overwhelmingly probable that you are dead.

In spite of these odds, you will notice that you are, as a matter of fact, alive. People whom the spotlight has already passed over, and people whom the spotlight has not reached, are in no position to read a book… What I see as I write is that I am lucky to be alive and so are you.

(Richard Dawkins [source])

and:

Horses Explain Things to Me

Today is a crash course on moving gently.
How to take a gift from someone so gingerly
they believe they still have it. If you move
soft enough through the wind or woods,
they say the sun will make a space for you.
Some of your regrets might soften. I move
terribly. I crush twigs and spiders but the horses
say nothing of it; they let me pet their long manes.
I hop on and we walk out to the end of wanting.
What is God? I ask them. They tell me, Yes.

(Brett Elizabeth Jenkins [source])

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Sated, Still Hungry

Image: 'Insatiable,' by Thomas Hawk on Flickr

[Image: “Insatiable,” by Thomas Hawk; found on Flickr, and used here under a Creative Commons license. (Thank you!)]

From whiskey river:

My God, It’s Full of Stars
(excerpt)

3.

Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone,
That the others have come and gone—a momentary blip—
When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,
Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel
Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding,
Setting solid feet down on planets everywhere,
Bowing to the great stars that command, pitching stones
At whatever are their moons. They live wondering
If they are the only ones, knowing only the wish to know,
And the great black distance they—we—flicker in.

Maybe the dead know, their eyes widening at last,
Seeing the high beams of a million galaxies flick on
At twilight. Hearing the engines flare, the horns
Not letting up, the frenzy of being. I want to be
One notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial.
Wide open, so everything floods in at once.
And sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
So that I might be sitting now beside my father
As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
For the first time in the winter of 1959.

(Tracy K. Smith [source])

and:

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

(C. S. Lewis [source])

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At the Fulcrum of All the Days

Image: 'Oncoming Rush,' by Christopher Octa on Flickr

[Image: “Oncoming Rush,” by Christopher Octa (user phrequency) on Flickr.com. (Used here under a Creative Commons license; thank you!)]

From whiskey river:

Foreseeing

Middle age refers more
to landscape than to time:
it’s as if you’d reached
the top of a hill
and could see all the way
to the end of your life,
so you know without a doubt
that it has an end—
not that it will have,
but that it does have,
if only in outline—
so for the first time
you can see your life whole,
beginning and end not far
from where you stand,
the horizon in the distance—
the view makes you weep,
but it also has the beauty
of symmetry, like the earth
seen from space: you can’t help
but admire it from afar,
especially now, while it’s simple
to re-enter whenever you choose,
lying down in your life,
waking up to it
just as you always have—
except that the details resonate
by virtue of being contained,
as your own words
coming back to you
define the landscape,
remind you that it won’t go on
like this forever.

(Sharon Bryan [source])

and:

Picture time less like a river than a book. Or a record. Something finished. Or a movie, with a beginning, middle, and end, but already done and complete.

Then picture time travel as nothing more than dropping your half-read book to the floor and losing your place. You pick up the book and open the pages to a scene too early or late, but never exactly where you’d been reading.

(Chuck Palahniuk [source])

…and:

Buffalo Yoga
(excerpt)

The world is a magic book, and we its sentences.
We read it and read ourselves.
We close it and turn the page down
And never come back,
Returned to what we once were before we became what we are.
This is the tale the world tells, this is the way it ends.

(Charles Wright [source])

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The Noticing

Image: #everydaybandw (unpublished), by JES

[Image: one of my #everydaybandw series — as the tag suggests, photos of this-and-that encountered in the course of everyday life, rendered in black-and-white; most of these are on Instagram, but I thought this one required cropping (which I’ve tried to avoid doing there).]

From whiskey river:

Week after week, year after year, after art class I walked the vast museum, and lost myself in the arts, or the sciences. Scientists, it seemed to me as I read the labels on display cases (bivalves, univalves; ungulates, lagomorphs), were collectors and sorters, as I had been. They noticed the things that engaged the curious mind: the way the world develops and divides, colony and polyp, population and tissue, ridge and crystal. Artists, for their part, noticed the things that engaged the mind’s private and idiosyncratic interior, that area where the life of senses mingles with the life of the spirit: the shattering of light into color, and the way it shades off round a bend. The humble attention painters gave to the shadow of a stalk or the reflected sheen under a chin, or the lapping layers of strong stokes, included and extended the scientists’ vision of each least thing as unendingly interesting. But artists laid down the vision in the form of beauty bare — Man Walking — radiant and fierce, inexplicable without the math.

It all got noticed: the horse’s shoulders pumping; the sunlight warping the air over a hot field; the way the leaves turn color, brightly, cell by cell; and even the splitting, half-resigned feeling you have when you notice you are walking on the earth for a while now — set down for a spell — in this particular time for no particular reason, here.

(Annie Dillard [source])

and (italicized portion):

It means for us simply that we must be careful with our lives, for Christ’s sake, because it would seem that they are the only lives we are going to have in this puzzling and perilous world, and so they are very precious and what we do with them matters enormously. Everybody knows that. We need no one to tell it to us. Yet in another way perhaps we do always need to be told, because there is always the temptation to believe that we have all the time in the world, whereas the truth is we do not. We have only one life, and the choice of how we are going to live it must be our own choice, not one that we let the world make for us.

(Frederick Buechner [source])

and:

Isn’t it wonderful to be alive?

You know, you can forget all about it.

Then suddenly you remember, and think of all the things you can do. Here I am. I can walk around. I can talk. I can see things and remember things.

I am alive.

How wonderful.

(Sophia Loren [source: various, none canonical])

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Right Haunted

Image: photo of Ron Mueck's sculpture, 'Boy' (photo by Tamaki Sono on Flickr.com)

[Image: photograph of Ron Mueck’s sculpture, “Boy”; photo by Tamaki Sono, found on Flickr (and used here under a Creative Commons license — thanks!). Mueck specializes in sculpting people in ultra-realistic detail, but scaled up (as here) or down for a slightly jarring effect. See more examples here, and elsewhere around the Web.]

From whiskey river (all but the last sentence):

Masquerades disclose the reality of souls. As long as no one sees who we are, we can tell the most intimate details of our life. I sometimes muse over this sketch of a story—about a man afflicted by one of those personal tragedies born of extreme shyness… who one day, while wearing a mask I don’t know where, told another mask all the most personal, most secret, most unthinkable things that could be told about his tragic and serene life. And since no outward detail would give him away, he having disguised even his voice, and since he didn’t take careful note of whoever had listened to him, he could enjoy the ample sensation of knowing that somewhere in the world there was someone who knew him as not even his closest and finest friend did. When he walked down the street he would ask himself if this person, or that one, or that person over there might not be the one to whom he’d once, wearing a mask, told his most private life. Thus would be born in him a new interest in each person, since each person might be his only, unknown confidant. And his crowning glory would be if the whole of that sorrowful life he’d told were, from start to finish, absolutely false.

(Fernando Pessoa [source])

and (italicized portion):

Surely we cannot take an open question like the supernatural and shut it with a bang, turning the key of the madhouse on all the mystics of history… You cannot take the region of the unknown and calmly say that, though you know nothing about it, you know all the gates are locked. You cannot say, “This island is not discovered yet; but I am sure that it has a wall of cliffs all round it and no harbour”… We do not know enough about the unknown to know that it is unknowable.

(G. K. Chesterton [source])

and:

…the life you lead is a midnight thing, always a hair’s breadth from the witching hour; it is volatile, it is threadbare; it is carefree in the true sense of that term; it is light, losable like a key or a hair clip. And it is lethargy: why not sit all morning, all day, all year, under the same cypress tree drawing the figure eight in the dust? More than that, it is disaster, it is chaos: why not overthrow a government on a whim, why not blind the man you hate, why not go mad, go gibbering through the town like a loon, waving your hands, tearing your hair? There’s nothing to stop you — or rather anything could stop you, any hour, any minute.

(Zadie Smith [source])

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Windsightings

Lantern slide: Japanese god of wind, Fujin

[Image: Lantern slide (undated) in the digital collection of Oregon State University. This hand-tinted photograph depicts the Japanese god of wind, Fujin; the photo’s subject is a statue of the god, found in the Iyemitsu Temple, Nikko, Japan. (Found on Flickr, and used here under a Creative Commons license — thank you!) That thing slung across his shoulders is not a giant sausage but a bag of wind. For another photograph, see this page of illustrations in a travel guide by one Joseph Ignatius Constantine Clarke (!), published in 1918.]

From whiskey river:

Utopia

Island where all becomes clear.

Solid ground beneath your feet.

The only roads are those that offer access.

Bushes bend beneath the weight of proofs.

The Tree of Valid Supposition grows here
with branches disentangled since time immemorial.

The Tree of Understanding, dazzlingly straight and simple,
sprouts by the spring called Now I Get It.

The thicker the woods, the vaster the vista:
the Valley of Obviously.

If any doubts arise, the wind dispels them instantly.

Echoes stir unsummoned
and eagerly explain all the secrets of the worlds.

On the right a cave where Meaning lies.

On the left the Lake of Deep Conviction.
Truth breaks from the bottom and bobs to the surface.

Unshakable Confidence towers over the valley.
Its peak offers an excellent view of the Essence of Things.

For all its charms, the island is uninhabited,
and the faint footprints scattered on its beaches
turn without exception to the sea.

As if all you can do here is leave
and plunge, never to return, into the depths.

Into unfathomable life.

(Wislawa Szymborska [source])

and:

Epithalamion

The elm weaves the field’s late light, this hill
hanging from the tree’s roots like the moon
From its shadow and the whole
world beneath suspended.

Roots knead the earth’s thick sorrow.
Still, leaves from this.
From this unshackling, birdsong.

I am a blade of corn where you kneel,
wind and quaking stalk.
The elm’s body a vase of poured sky.

The tree will die.
Someday, the tree will die.

For now, this axis—
what we choose to compass by.

(Hannah Fries [source])

and:

And I would be the wind, whispering through the tangled woods, running airy fingers over the island’s face, tingling in the chill of concealed places, sighing secrets in the dawn. And I would be the light, flinging over the island, covering it with flash and shadow, shining on rocks and pools, softening to a touch in the glow of dusk. If I were the rain and wind and light, I would encircle the island like the sky surrounding earth, flood through it like a heart driven pulse, shine from inside it like a star in flames, burn away to blackness in the closed eyes of its night.

(Richard Nelson [source (not canonical)])

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The Necessity of Tough Questions

Image: 'i drag my feet like anyone else,' by andrea joseph on Flickr

[Image: “i drag my feet like anyone else,” by andrea joseph. (Found of course on Flickr, and used here under a Creative Commons license — thank you!) The photographer asks, “why is a broken bench so moving?” (the operative word is “touching” in the image’s text); she asked the question on her blog, too, and got some good answers.]

From whiskey river:

Phone Survey

We’re doing a phone survey, asking
average people like yourself, attractive, cynical, smart, etc.,
people who cook with garlic, who, if married,
it’s not the first time. People who have had
two or more jobs in the last three years.
We want to know what your preferred response is
when you hear,
if in fact you do hear,
the voices. Shall I clarify?
Voices that converse
on the great unhappiness and failure
that is yours. How often
would you swear you’re not drunk, no,
but the trees are swaying. We’re calling to ask
if you ever get confused and mistake
the swaying of trees for the lapping of water,
until you can’t get your bearing. Is that when
the voices advise you, smooth
as a nail going in? Are there certain words that,
can I say, sneak in from behind, know all
the back entrances? Would you agree
the secret of their strength
is that they will not let you give in
to your hunger? How often
all you’ve said and all you’ve done, torn
like meat from a bone. Is that when you go out, walk
past lighted windows? Go to a movie? Have a coke?
Or do you hang around, drift off
till the voices wake you with a jolt or slap: “Payback time.”
Like a street person in front of a diner, begging for change,
who will not let you go in and get your lousy cup of coffee
though the sign on the diner flashes: OPEN ALL NIGHT.
Are the voices familiar with, say,
streets you walked as a kid,
torn signs, dead trees?
We’re asking if the voices, now or in the past,
have ever told you that you have to go back
to the path by the precipice. Because that is your path.
Would you mind answering? Or am I interrupting something?
Shall I call back later? What time would be best?

(Carole Glasser Langille [source])

 

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Swimming in Metaphor

Image: 'THE-ROOM-OF-EXTREMELY-USEFUL-THINGS,' by Sam Leighton on Flickr.com

[Image: “THE-ROOM-OF-EXTREMELY-USEFUL-THINGS,” by Sam Leighton on Flickr.com; used here under a Creative Commons license (thank you!). This scarcely requires comment — er, right?]

From whiskey river:

When we walk, holding stories in us, do they touch the ground through our footprints? What is this power of metaphor, by which we liken a thing we see to a thing we imagine or have seen before — the granite crag to an old crystalline heart — changing its form, allowing animation to suffuse the world via inference? Metaphor, perhaps, is the tame, the civilized, version of shamanic shapeshifting, word-magic, the recognition of stories as toothed messengers from the wilds. What if we turned the old nursery rhymes and fairytales we all know into feral creatures once again, set them loose in new lands to root through the acorn fall of oak trees? What else is there to do, if we want to keep any of the wildness of the world, and of ourselves?

(Sylvia Linsteadt [source])

and:

What the Wind Says
For David Swanger

The wind says, “I am the voice beside you,
a leaf against the curb, a name you whisper
for the way it haunts you. You can hear
whatever the mind wants. I am still
holding a breath, the ghost beneath a sheet,
some lost moment a hinge finds. Open

the gate and walk away: you wish to turn
the porch light off and never look back
to the row of identical houses, your years
mortgaged with the familiar acts
of habits. Try to forget each hour spent
lying awake trying to forget, for regret
remembers regret, which is why

I never sweep the same place twice.
Often this voice is mistaken
for someone else. I remind others
of who they are, or wish to be. I know desires
better than any wildfire knows me.
So what do you wait for? A whim, a promise,
some dream? Think how dust settles
upon the shelf, how a tornado always loses
its funnel, how tomorrow becomes another day.
Think how capricious I am, for what
I bring to you, for what I take away.”

(Greg Sellers [source])

and:

In a world where we are left to renegotiate our traumas again and again, we have to find empathetic, patient witnesses. My grandmother used to say: Some people in your life need to be mirrors and show you who you are from time to time. Some people in your life need to be blankets and embrace everything you are from time to time. Keep your mirrors clean and bright. Keep your blankets soft and close.

(Scherezade Siobhan [source])

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For Deep Roots: International Americana

'Deep Roots Magazine' logo (2017)I mentioned some months ago that I’d be writing for Deep Roots Magazine, and so I have been. Particularly, as I also mentioned a little while later, I’d been focusing on something called “international Americana” — that is to say:

…music performed generally using acoustic instruments, something like country, something like folk, sometimes incorporating elements of blues and/or bluegrass, often for small, intimate audiences rather than large-scale ones… modest music, and it’s music which springs not from glitzy high-flown impulses, but from simple ones. But — maybe surprisingly — it’s not always in English.

The article in question went up at the Deep Roots site a few days ago. Below, a brief summary:

  • A discussion about what the term “Americana” in means, as a musical genre. (Maybe predictably, I sort of back into that discussion: I begin by considering a band called “Leningrad Cowboys,” an example not of musicians overseas employing Americana-musical tropes, but of importing musicians from overseas into American culture… in America.)
  • Asking — and perhaps answering — some questions about why musicians overseas might even be interested in a native version of Americana music in the first place. The approach here is to consider recording-industry statistics for Australasia as of a few years ago — just before the establishment of the Americana Music Association-Australia.
  • A look at a wonderful resource for anyone thinking of investigating this music themselves: The International Americana Music Show (TIAMS), a podcast/public-radio show produced by a native Scot now living in the US.
  • …and finally, a survey of opinions from international artists who’ve been dubbed (at one time or another, rightly or wrongly, by choice or otherwise) as “Americana” in style. These were the artists I “spoke” with, via email, and feature in the article (in the no-particular-order in which they’re first mentioned in the article):

You can find that article here, at the Deep Roots site. Lots of music over there!

In addition to what’s in the Deep Roots piece, I’ll also be posting here, from time to time, even more information about these talented performers. They were so generous with their time in answering my questions, and yet there were so many of them that I couldn’t give each the attention they deserved!

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Practical Magic

Image: 'A Hedgehog (Erinaceus roumanicus),' by Hans Hoffmann

[Image: “A Hedgehog (Erinaceus roumanicus),” by Hans Hoffmann (German, 16th century). Painting in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; for more about the painting, see the museum’s description of it. As for its relevance here, well, read on.]

From whiskey river:

Perhaps everything lies in knowing what words to speak, what actions to perform, and in what order and rhythm; or else someone’s gaze, answer, gesture is enough; it is enough for someone to do something for the sheer pleasure of doing it, and for his pleasure to become the pleasure of others: at that moment, all spaces change, all heights, distances; the city is transfigured, becomes crystalline, transparent as a dragonfly.

(Italo Calvino [source])

and:

Off A Side Road Near Staunton

Some nothing afternoon, no one anywhere,
an early autumn stillness in the air,
the kind of empty day you fill by taking in
the full size of the valley and its layers leading
slowly to the Blue Ridge, the quality of country,
if you stand here long enough, you could stay
for, step into, the way a landscape, even on a wall,
pulls you in, one field at a time, pasture and fall
meadow, high above the harvest, perfect
to the tree line, then spirit clouds and intermittent
sunlit smoky rain riding the tops of the mountains,
though you could walk until it’s dark and not reach those rains—
you could walk the rest of the day into the picture
and not know why, at any given moment, you’re there.

(Stanley Plumly [source])

and:

Fairy-Tale Logic

Fairy tales are full of impossible tasks:
Gather the chin hairs of a man-eating goat,
Or cross the sulphuric lake in a leaky boat,
Select the prince from a row of identical masks,
Tiptoe up to a dragon where it basks
And snatch its bone; count dust specks, mote by mote,
Or learn the phone directory by rote.
Always it’s impossible when someone asks—

You have to fight magic with magic. You have to believe
That you have something impossible up your sleeve—
The language of snakes, perhaps, an invisible cloak,
An army of ants at your beck, or a lethal joke,
The will to do whatever must be done:
Marry a monster. Hand over your firstborn son.

(A. E. Stallings [source])

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