“The Days of Great Usefulness”

Image: 'The Great Bear and the Live Oak,' by Justin Kern

[Image: “The Great Bear and the Live Oak,” by Justin Kern. (Found it on Flickr, and using it here via a Creative Commons license — thank you!) The photographer says that the image puts him in mind of Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble“:  “These are the days of miracle and wonder / This is the long distance call / The way the camera follows us in slo-mo / The way we look to us all…”]

From whiskey river:

In winter you wake up in this city, especially on Sundays, to the chiming of its innumerable bells, as though behind your gauze curtains a gigantic china tea set were vibrating on a silver tray in the pearl-gray sky. You fling the window open and the room is instantly flooded with this outer, pearl-laden haze, which is part damp oxygen, part coffee and prayers. No matter what sort of pills, and how many, you’ve got to swallow this morning, you feel it’s not over for you yet. No matter, by the same token, how autonomous you are, how much you’ve been betrayed, how thorough and dispiriting in your self-knowledge, you assume there is still hope for you, or at least a future. (Hope, said Francis Bacon, is a good breakfast but bad supper.) This optimism derives from the haze, from the prayer part of it, especially if it’s time for breakfast. On days like this, the city indeed acquires a porcelain aspect, what with all its zinc-covered cupolas resembling teapots or upturned cups, and the tilted profile of campaniles clinking like abandoned spoons and melting in the sky. Not to mention the seagulls and pigeons, now sharpening into focus, now melting into air. I should say that, good though this place is for honeymoons, I’ve often thought it should be tried for divorces also – both in progress and already accomplished. There is no better backdrop for rapture to fade into; whether right or wrong, no egoist can star for long in this porcelain setting by crystal water, for it steals the show. I am aware, of course, of the disastrous consequence the above suggestion may have for hotel rates here, even in winter. Still, people love their melodrama more than architecture, and I don’t feel threatened. It is surprising that beauty is valued less than psychology, but so long as such is the case, I’ll be able to afford this city – which means till the end of my days, and which ushers in the generous notion of the future.

(Joseph Brodsky [source])

and (italicized portion):

I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.

(Joan Didion [source])

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Vital Specifics

'Sally, Weld County, Colorado' (1984), by Robert Adams

[Image: “Sally, Weld County, Colorado” (1984), by Robert Adams. First found at the National Gallery of Art. (Above copy from the Fraenkel Gallery’s exhibit Perfect Times, Perfect Places.) Sally was Adams’s own dog. Says a New York Times review of an exhibit at Yale featuring the photo, “It pauses on a dirt road perhaps 10 yards away, looking back over its shoulder as if to invite us to follow and to wonder: ‘Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?'”]

From whiskey river:

Once, years ago, I emerged from the woods in the early morning at the end of a walk and—it was the most casual of moments—as I stepped from under the trees into the mild, pouring-down sunlight I experienced a sudden impact, a seizure of happiness. It was not the drowning sort of happiness, rather the floating sort. I made no struggle toward it; it was given. Time seemed to vanish. Urgency vanished. Any important difference between myself and all other things vanished. I knew that I belonged to the world, and felt comfortably my own containment in the totality. I did not feel that I understood any mystery, not at all; rather that I could be happy and feel blessed within the perplexity.

(Mary Oliver [source])

and:

From the Shore: Toronto

All afternoon I’ve watched the gulls
off the breakwater at Lake Ontario.
No one here seems to like them,
how they scavenge,
hover like icons,
against a metal sky.

But I am here from another country
not so foreign as the gulls’
and I like their garrulousness,
their joyful noise
and the way they hang in the air
flying and not flying.

(Henrietta Epstein [source])

and:

Are there scenes in life, right now, for which we might conceivably be thankful? Is there a basis for joy or serenity, even if felt only occasionally? Are there grounds now and then for an unironic smile?

(Robert Adams [source])

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Present But Unaccounted For

'Absence,' by Derrick Tyson on Flickr

[Image: “Absence,” by Derrick Tyson on Flickr. (Used here under a Creative Commons license.)]

From whiskey river:

Sometimes I get mail for people who lived in my home before I did, and sometimes my own body seems like a home through which successive people have passed like tenants, leaving behind memories, habits, scars, skills, and other souvenirs.

(Rebecca Solnit [source])

and:

We are not idealized wild things.

We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.

(Joan Didion [source])

and:

Standing Alone

Empty skies. And beyond, one hawk.
Between river banks, two white gulls
Drift and flutter. Fit for an easy kill,
To and fro, they follow contentment.

Dew shrouds grasses. Spiderwebs are still
Not gathered in. The purpose driving
Heaven become human now, I stand where
Uncounted sorrows begin beginning alone.

(Tu Fu [source])

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Artful Bullies

'Imperial Art Appreciation: Blue,' by JD Hancock on Flickr

[Image: “Imperial Art Appreciation: Blue,” by JD Hancock on Flickr. (Used under a Creative Commons license.) For more information, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

We are not transparent to ourselves. We have intuitions, suspicions, hunches, vague musings, and strangely mixed emotions — all of which resist simple definition. We have moods, but we don’t really know them. Then, from time to time, we encounter works of art that seem to latch on to something we have felt but never recognized clearly before. Alexander Pope identified a central function of poetry as taking thoughts we experience half-formed and giving them clear expression: “what was often thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” In other words, a fugitive and elusive part of our own thinking, our own experience, is taken up, edited, and returned to us better than it was before, so that we feel, at last, that we know ourselves more clearly.

(Alain de Botton and John Armstrong [source])

and:

I’m Working on the World

I’m working on the world,
revised, improved edition,
featuring fun for fools,
blues for brooders,
combs for bald pates,
tricks for old dogs.

Here’s one chapter: The Speech
of Animals and Plants.
Each species comes, of course,
with its own dictionary.
Even a simple “Hi there,”
when traded with a fish,
make both the fish and you
feel quite extraordinary.

The long-suspected meanings
of rustlings, chirps, and growls!
Soliloquies of forests!
The epic hoot of owls!
Those crafty hedgehogs drafting
aphorisms after dark,
while we blindly believe
they are sleeping in the park!

Time (Chapter Two) retains
its sacred right to meddle
in each earthly affair.
Still, time’s unbounded power
that makes a mountain crumble,
moves seas, rotates a star,
won’t be enough to tear
lovers apart: they are
too naked, too embraced,
too much like timid sparrows.

Old age is, in my book,
the price that felons pay,
so don’t whine that it’s steep:
you’ll stay young if you’re good.
Suffering (Chapter Three)
doesn’t insult the body.
Death? It comes in your sleep,
exactly as it should.

When it comes, you’ll be dreaming
that you don’t need to breathe;
that breathless silence is
the music of the dark
and it’s part of the rhythm
to vanish like a spark.
Only a death like that. A rose
could prick you harder, I suppose;
you’d feel more terror at the sound
of petals falling to the ground.

Only a world like that. To die
just that much. And to live just so.
And all the rest is Bach’s fugue, played
for the time being
on a saw.

(Wislawa Szymborska [source])

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The Unmaking

Demolition of Youth Study Center, Philadelphia, by werdsnave on Flickr

[Image: interior walls of the former Youth Study Center juvenile-detention facility in Philadelphia during its demolition in 2009. (Click to enlarge.) I believe the blue floors — perhaps like the one behind the upper doors here? — were for boys, and pink for girls. Photo by Andrew Evans (user werdsnave) on Flickr. As of 2012, the site is now the new location of the Barnes Foundation art museum.]

From whiskey river:

The very mind that wants to control things is the mind that’s caught up to begin with. When you’re caught up, you have fewer possibilities. Your mind can manifest in more ways if you keep it from taking form. Do you understand what it means to not let your mind take form? When you allow the mind to harden itself into a shape, a feeling, an intensity, technique, or strategies rather than allowing that clear, mirror like perception to arise, that is allowing the mind to take form.

If you let your mind take form, it becomes localized. When you feel that happen, return to a formless state. The more that you can do that, the more you’ll be your own person. The less you can do that, the more circumstances will dictate to you who you are at every moment.

(Takuan Soho [source unknown, although it’s quoted many places online])

and:

Crossroads

The second half of my life will be black
to the white rind of the old and fading moon.
The second half of my life will be water
over the cracked floor of these desert years.
I will land on my feet this time,
knowing at least two languages and who
my friends are. I will dress for the
occasion, and my hair shall be
whatever color I please.
Everyone will go on celebrating the old
birthday, counting the years as usual,
but I will count myself new from this
inception, this imprint of my own desire.

The second half of my life will be swift,
past leaning fenceposts, a gravel shoulder,
asphalt tickets, the beckon of open road.
The second half of my life will be wide-eyed,
fingers shifting through fine sands,
arms loose at my sides, wandering feet.
There will be new dreams every night,
and the drapes will never be closed.
I will toss my string of keys into a deep
well and old letters into the grate.

The second half of my life will be ice
breaking up on the river, rain
soaking the fields, a hand
held out, a fire,
and smoke going
upward, always up.

(Joyce Sutphen [source])

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Better Fictions, Lesser Truths

[Image: one of various digital collages in the “Fictions” series by Flemish photographer/artist Filip Dujardin. (Click to enlarge.) These buildings and landscapes do not actually exist (although he starts with images of buildings in and around Ghent, Belgium).]

From whiskey river:

While I was sitting one night with a poet friend watching a great opera performed in a tent under arc lights, the poet took my arm and pointed silently. Far up, blundering out of the night, a huge Cecropia moth swept past from light to light over the posturings of the actors.

“He doesn’t know,” my friend whispered excitedly. “He’s passing through an alien universe brightly lit but invisible to him. He’s in another play; he doesn’t see us. He doesn’t know. Maybe it’s happening right now to us.”

(Loren Eiseley [source])

and:

Here and There

Here and there nightfall
without fanfare
presses down, utterly
expected, not an omen in sight.
Here and there a husband
at the usual time
goes to bed with his wife
and doesn’t dream of other women.
Occasionally a terrible sigh
is heard, the kind that is
theatrical, to be ignored.
Or a car backfires
and reminds us of a car
backfiring, not of a gunshot.
Here and there a man says
what he means and people hear him
and are not confused.
Here and there a missing teenage girl
comes home unscarred.
Sometimes dawn just brings another
day, full of minor
pleasures and small complaints.
And when the newspaper arrives
with the world,
people make kindling of it
and sit together while it burns.

(Stephen Dunn [source])

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Best Not to Wait

[Image above, “Don’t Wait for Tomorrow” (original oil on board, 92cm x 122cm),
by Nadeem Chughtai]

From whiskey river:

I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.

(Joan Didion; quoted widely, allegedly from a 1975 commencement address)

…and:

The time allotted to you is so short that if you lose one second you have already lost your whole life, for it is no longer, it is always just as long as the time you lose. So if you have started out on a walk, continue it whatever happens; you can only gain, you run no risk, in the end you may fall over a precipice perhaps, but had you turned back after the first steps and run downstairs you would have fallen at once – and not perhaps, but for certain. So if you find nothing in the corridors open the doors, and if you find nothing behind these doors there are more floors, and if you find nothing up there, don’t worry, just leap up another flight of stairs. As long as you don’t stop climbing, the stairs won’t end, under your climbing feet they will go on growing upwards.

(Franz Kafka, quoted at Memory Green from a work called The Advocates)

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What’s Your Story? (Are You Sure?)

From whiskey river:

The Story, Around the Corner

is not turning the way you thought
it would turn, gently, in a little spiral loop,
the way a child draws the tail of a pig.
What came out of your mouth,
a riff of common talk.
As a sudden weather shift on a beach,
sky looming mountains of cloud
in a way you cannot predict
or guide, the story shuffles elements, darkens,
takes its own side. And it is strange.
Far more complicated than a few phrases
pieced together around a kitchen table
on a July morning in Dallas, say,
a city you don’t live in, where people
might shop forever or throw a thousand stories
away. You who carried or told a tiny bit of it
aren’t sure. Is this what we wanted?
Stories wandering out,
having their own free lives?
Maybe they are planning something bad.
A scrap or cell of talk you barely remember
is growing into a weird body with many demands.
One day soon it will stumble up the walk and knock,
knock hard, and you will have to answer the door.

(Naomi Shihab Nye [source])

and (italicized portion):

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be “interesting” to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience. Or at least we do for a while.

(Joan Didion, The White Album [source])

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