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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Quiet on the Set

Image: 'Cuando las calles á solas (When the streets are alone,' by Oiluj Samall Zeid

[Image: “Cuando las calles á solas (When the streets are alone),” by Oiluj Samall Zeid. (Found it on Flickr, and used here under a Creative Commons license — thank you!)]

From whiskey river:

Nobody speaks to me. People fall in love with me, and annoy me and distress me and flatter me and excite me and — and all that sort of thing. But no one speaks to me. I sometimes think that no one can.

(Edna St. Vincent Millay [source])

and:

Mum Is The Word

The League of Quiet Persons meets
monthly. Its quarters are a cavernous
warehouse away from traffic. Its
business is not to discuss business.
Minutes are read silently and tacitly approved.
Members listen to rain argue with corrugated
iron, a furnace with itself. Glances
are learnéd. It is not so much refuge
from noise the members seek in such company
as implicit permission not to speak,
not to answer or to answer for,
not to pose, chat, persuade, or expound.

Podium and gavel have been banned,
indeed are viewed as weaponry.
A microphone? The horror.
Several Quiet Persons interviewed
had no comment. A recorded voice
at the main office murmured only, “You
have reached the League of Quiet
Persons. After the tone, listen.”

(Hans Ostrom [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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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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I Remember, Therefore I Am

Image: 'Self-Portrait,' by Alyssa L. Miller on Flickr

[Image: “Self-Portrait,” by Alyssa L. Miller; found it on Flickr, and use it here under a Creative Commons license. (Thank you!) The glib “if someone looks to their right, they’re probably lying” trick, it turns out, is not as true as was once thought. Finer-tuned studies, especially mapping what the brain is doing when one’s eyes move in a given direction; looking up and to the left, as the photographer apparently was for this photo, is commonly associated with remembering visual images. Now, this photo was taken in 2009: if I contacted the photographer and asked her about the circumstances, odds are she wouldn’t remember if, back then, she was remembering any image in particular — but in the present, while thinking about which photo I was referring to, then, then she might look up and to the left.]

From whiskey river:

Memory, and time, both immaterial, are rivers with no banks, and constantly merging. Both escape our will, though we depend on them. Measured, but measured by whom or by what? The one is inside, the other, outside, or so it seems, but is that true? Time seems also buried deep in us, but where? Memory is right here, in the head, but it can exit, abandon the head, leave it behind, disappear. Memory, a sanctuary of infinite patience.

Is memory produced by us, or is it us? Our identity is very likely whatever our memory decides to retain. But let’s not presume that memory is a storage room. It’s not a tool for being able to think, it’s thinking, before thinking. It also makes an (apparently) simple thing like crossing the room, possible. It’s impossible to separate it from what it remembers…

We can admit that memory resurrects the dead, but these remain within their world, not ours. The universe covers the whole, a warm blanket.

But this memory is the glue that keeps the universe as one: although immaterial, it makes being possible, it is being. If an idea didn’t remember to think, it wouldn’t be. If a chair wasn’t there, it wouldn’t be tomorrow. If I didn’t remember that I am, I won’t be. We can also say that the universe is itself the glue that keeps it going, therefore it is memory in action and in essence, in becoming and in being. Because it remembers itself, it exists. Because it exists, it remembers.

(Etel Adnan[no canonical source online, but quoted in the reliable brain pickings])

and (italicized stanza):

Passing Along

People who walk by carry something so light
that no one can tell what it is. I know that burden,
lift it carefully from them and take it away
as they go on walking toward the sky.

Waiting here still I cherish whatever they find—
miles of lupine ghosting the hills,
an accurate bird whetting its call
beyond the hedgerows where they disappear.

“All I ask,” my mother said, “no matter the years
and the life we have, is that when you leave
you turn and wave.” That was long ago.
I like to remember—I turn, I wave.

(William Stafford [again, no canonical source online; quoted in Artful Dodge])

and:

Morning in a New Land

In trees still dripping night some nameless birds
Woke, shook out their arrowy wings, and sang,
Slowly, like finches sifting through a dream.
The pink sun fell, like glass, into the fields.
Two chestnuts, and a dapple gray,
Their shoulders wet with light, their dark hair streaming,
Climbed the hill. The last mist fell away,

And under the trees, beyond time’s brittle drift,
I stood like Adam in his lonely garden
On that first morning, shaken out of sleep,
Rubbing his eyes, listening, parting the leaves,
Like tissue on some vast, incredible gift.

(Mary Oliver [source])

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No Alternative (Unless Imaginary)

Image: 'I came to the festival for love,' by Flickr user 'id-iom'

[Image: “I came to the festival for love,” by user id-iom on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license (thank you!). This is a photo of a work of street art, one of a so-called “mixtape project”: the artist (who is the photographer) has created various images on rectangles of slate — to the back of each of which s/he has mounted a CD of a mixtape of one sort or another. When finished, the artworks are (were?) simply placed out in public settings, where they may be freely collected by any passerby who wants them. See the complete album here. For a little more information, see the project’s Facebook page, which (I think!) is publicly accessible.]

From whiskey river (italicized portion):

Rapids

Fall’s leaves are redder than
spring’s flowers, have no pollen,
and also sometimes fly, as the wind
schools them out or down in shoals
or droves: though I
have not been here long, I can
look up at the sky at night and tell
how things are likely to go for
the next hundred million years:
the universe will probably not find
a way to vanish nor I
in all that time reappear.

(A. R. Ammons [source])

and:

…unfortunately, it’s true: time does heal. It will do so whether you like it or not, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. If you’re not careful, time will take away everything that ever hurt you, everything you have ever lost, and replace it with knowledge. Time is a machine: it will convert your pain into experience. Raw data will be compiled, will be translated into a more comprehensible language. The individual events of your life will be transmuted into another substance called memory and in the mechanism something will be lost and you will never be able to reverse it, you will never again have the original moment back in its uncategorized, preprocessed state. It will force you to move on and you will not have a choice in the matter.

(Charles Yu [source])

and:

On the Outskirts of Work

In the middle of work
we start longing fiercely for wild greenery,
for the Wilderness itself, penetrated only
by the thin civilization of the telephone wires.

*

The moon of leisure circles the planet Work
with its mass and weight.—That’s how they want it.
When we are on the way home the ground pricks up its ears.
The underground listens to us via the grassblades.

*

Even in this working day there is a private calm.
As in a smoky inland area where a canal flows:
THE BOAT appears unexpectedly in the traffic
or glides out behind the factory, a white vagabond.

*

One Sunday I walk past an unpainted new building
that stands in front of a grey wet surface.
It is half finished. The wood has the same light color
as the skin on someone bathing.

*

Outside the lamps the September night is totally dark.
When the eyes adjust, there is faint light
over the ground where large snails glide out
and the mushrooms are as numerous as the stars.

(Tomas Tranströmer [source])

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The Weight Deadens on Your Shoulders

Image: The Pooch, 12/26/2006-09/04/2017

[Image: The Pooch (12/26/2006-09/04/2017). Photo taken 8/21/2017. She was an unwilling photographic subject: if you held up a smartphone or camera in her direction — which you always wanted to do, you couldn’t help it — she’d turn her head aside, as here, while keeping a gimlet eye trained on you. She was a cute dog, often involved in cute activities, but the only way to document them was to shoot a bazillion shots and just pray that one would be suitable.]

No whiskey river Friday this week; I just cannot work up the enthusiasm.

The Pooch (that is to say, Sophie) died this past Monday morning, towards the tail end of a long weekend for all three of us. She was all right, and then she wasn’t.

Okay, true: she wasn’t “all right” healthwise — but then again, she never had been. Small dogs often have breathing problems of one sort or another. In The Pooch’s case, she had an issue called “collapsing trachea”: the windpipe over time slackens, just at a point where it bends. Eventually, it slackens enough to close up completely, with the expected results. One of the chief early symptoms of a collapsing trachea is occasional coughing, often in the form of so-called “reverse coughing”: it sounds sorta like a cough, sorta like a sneeze, and often has hints of a goose’s honk. So we knew, early on, that eventually the problem would take her.

(It’s not “treatable,” by the way. Oh, you can administer cover-ups like cough suppressants. Surgically, a couple of things can be done, to strengthen the trachea artificially. They all come with potential side-effects and, in some cases, the side-effects can be much, much worse than the condition itself. Even so, surgical options were out of the question for The Pooch: she was so small, and the risks bloomed proportionately.)

But knowing that something awful will happen seldom seems to fully prepare you for its, well, happening. The Missus and I have spent the week in a fog of crying jags triggered by nothing in particular except the weight of a new, awful, sudden vacancy. (I think today was the first time I’ve ever broken down while taking a shower, surrounded by nothing at all to remind me of her except, yes, that very vacancy.) We’ve lost other pets. And yes, we’ll come out of this grief eventually — but boy, this one has hit us hard.

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What We’ll Never Leave Behind (Until We So Often Do)

[Video: “September When It Comes,” by Rosanne Cash; performance by Rosanne and Johnny Cash. (Lyrics)]

From whiskey river:

Lines Lost Among Trees

These are not the lines that came to me
while walking in the woods
with no pen
and nothing to write on anyway.

They are gone forever,
a handful of coins
dropped through the grate of memory,
along with the ingenious mnemonic

I devised to hold them in place—
all gone and forgotten
before I had returned to the clearing of lawn
in back of our quiet house

with its jars jammed with pens,
its notebooks and reams of blank paper,
its desk and soft lamp,
its table and the light from its windows.

So this is my elegy for them,
those six or eight exhalations,
the braided rope of syntax,
the jazz of the timing,

and the little insight at the end
wagging like the short tail
of a perfectly obedient spaniel
sitting by the door.

This is my envoy to nothing
where I say Go, little poem—
not out into the world of strangers’ eyes,
but off to some airy limbo,

home to lost epics,
unremembered names,
and fugitive dreams
such as the one I had last night,

which, like a fantastic city in pencil,
erased itself
in the bright morning air
just as I was waking up.

(Billy Collins [source])

and:

A common misconception is
The belief that thinking is
The creation of thought.
Rather, it is
The reception of thought from
A source which has no name and
From a place that cannot be found.
Since one can’t decide to think
Nor can one decide
Thoughts’ contents,
Why does one
Claim their ownership?
Is every sound Wu Hsin’s because
He can hear them?

(Wu Hsin [source])

and:

Well, the terrible fact is that though we are all more or less thinking of something or other all the time, some of us are thinking more and some less. Some brains are battling and working and remembering and puzzling things over all the time and other brains are just lying down, snoring and occasionally turning over. It is to the lazy minds that I am now speaking, and from my own experience I imagine this includes nineteen people out of every twenty. I am one of that clan myself and always have been.

(Ted Hughes [source])

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The Big Moments

Image: 'Disappearing Act,' by Lulu Lovering on Flickr

[Image: “Disappearing Act,” by Lulu Lovering on Flickr. (Used here under a Creative Commons license; thank you!) Apparently this is a self-portrait; the photographer says, “This morning instead of a thunderstorm, it was a very billowy fog that was brushing up against the windows. Even though it was just beginning to be light, I tumbled out of bed and ran around the house trying to find my snuggly parka and tripod and remote. Then I made a quick dash out the back and tried to play it casual for the passing cars as I ran along the road a little ways to the big field where the fog was sitting in clouds on the ground.”]

From whiskey river:

Last Day on Earth

If it’s the title of a movie you expect
everything to become important – a kiss,
a shrug, a glass of wine, a walk with the dog.

But if the day is real, life is only
as significant as yesterday — the kiss
hurried, the shrug forgotten, and now,

on the path by the river, you don’t notice
the sky darkening beyond the pines because
you’re imagining what you’ll say at dinner,

swirling the wine in your glass.
You don’t notice the birds growing silent
or the cold towers of clouds moving in,

because you’re explaining how lovely
and cool it was in the woods. And the dog
had stopped limping! — she seemed

her old self again, sniffing the air and alert,
the way dogs are to whatever we can’t see.
And I was happy, you hear yourself saying,

because it felt as if I’d been allowed
to choose my last day on earth,
and this was the one I chose.

(Lawrence Raab [source])

and:

I choose to believe that there is nothing more sacred or profound than this day. I choose to believe that there may be a thousand big moments embedded in this day, waiting to be discovered like tiny shards of gold. The big moments are the daily, tiny moments of courage and forgiveness and hope that we grab onto and extend to one another. That’s the drama of life, swirling all around us, and generally I don’t see it, because I’m too busy waiting to become whatever it is I think I’m about to become. The big moments are in every hour, every conversation, every meal, every meeting.

(Shauna Niequist [source])

and:

Waiting for God

This morning I breathed in. It had rained
early and the sycamore leaves tapped
a few drops that remained, while waving
the air’s memory back and forth
over the lawn and into our open
window. Then I breathed out.

This deliberate day eased
past the calendar and waited. Patiently
the sun instructed the shadows how to move;
it held them, guided their gradual defining.
In the great quiet I carried my life on,
in again, out again.

(William Stafford [source])

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Juddering Through, to the Quiet

Image: 'Planet-Forming Disk Around a Baby Star,' by NASA Blueshift on Flickr

[Image: “Planet-Forming Disk Around a Baby Star,” from NASA Blueshift on Flickr. (Used under a Creative Commons license; thank you!) This is an artist’s concept, depicting (says the Flickr description) “a young star surrounded by a dusty protoplanetary disk. This disk contains the raw material that can form planets as the star system matures.” For more information, see the note below.]

From whiskey river:

My friend Suzie told me while I was driving her home from that bar about the real meaning of the blindfolded figure of Justice holding the scales. Suzie was drawing her own tarot cards and rethinking each card as she went. Justice, a book on classical lore asserted, stood at the gates of Hades deciding who would go in, and to go in was to be chosen for refinement through suffering, adventure, transformation, a punishing route to the reward that is the transformed self. It made going to hell seem different. And it suggested that justice is a far more complicated  and incalculable thing than we often imagine, that if everything is to come out even in the end, then the end is farther away than anticipated and far harder to estimate. It suggests too that to reside in comfort can be to have fallen by the wayside. Go to hell, but keep moving once you get there, come out the other side. Finally she drew a group around a campfire as her picture of justice, saying that justice is helping each other on the journey.

(Rebecca Solnit [source])

and:

Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.

(Frederick Buechner [source])

…and:

Anger, [Evagrius] wrote, is given to us by God to help us confront true evil. We err when we use it casually, against other people, to gratify our own desires for power or control.

(Kathleen Norris [source])

…and:

August

Summer sings its long song, and all the notes are green.
But there’s a click, somewhere in the middle
of the month, as we reach the turning point, the apex,
a Ferris wheel, cars tipping and tilting over the top,
and we see September up ahead, school and schedules
returning. And there’s the first night you step outside
and hear the katydids arguing, six more weeks
to frost, and you know you can make it through to fall.
Dark now at eight, nights finally cooling off for sleep,
no more twisting in damp sheets, hearing mosquitoes’
thirsty whines. Lakes of chicory and Queen Anne’s lace
mirror the sky’s high cirrus. Evenings grow chilly,
time for old sweaters and sweatpants, lying in the hammock
squinting to read in the quick-coming dusk.
A few fireflies punctuate the night’s black text,
and the moonlight is so thick, you could swim in it
until you reach the other side.

(Barbara Crooker [source])

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