“For we live with those retrievals from childhood that coalesce and echo throughout our lives, the way shattered pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope reappear in new forms and are song-like in their refrains and rhymes, making up a single monologue. We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell.” ~ Michael Ondaatje, from Divisadero

“We live in time—it holds us and molds us—but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly . . . And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing—until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.” ~ Julian Barnes, from The Sense of an Ending

Sunday afternoon. Partly cloudy and absolutely beautiful, impending autumn, 71 degrees.

Tuesday night I watched a retrospective on Robin Williams on PBS. It was lovely, and the interviews really got into the man as much as the comedian/actor. I appreciated that they spent a good portion on the visits to the troops that Williams had made over the years as I had no idea that no other celebrity had performed before the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan more than Williams. The interviews were cut with selections from his last full-length interviews for “Pioneers of Television.”

But when the show was over, after I dried my tears, I realized something important:

What I had said the other day about the coda to Dead Poets’ Society being about Mr. Keating realizing a light had gone out wasn’t exactly accurate. While Keating is deeply affected by Neil’s suicide, the honor the boys bestow upon him at the end by disobeying the rigid headmaster and standing on their desks leaves Keating with hope; he has not failed these boys. Instead, he has enlarged their perspectives on the world, and if that is the only thing they take away from his class (and it isn’t), then he has made it possible for more lights to shine in the world.

Sad yes, but hopeful, so very full of hope.

To paraphrase what Pam Dawber said at the end of the show, if only Williams could have seen how his death affected the world. I continue to be amazed by the number of people around the world who are truly mourning for this once bright star in the firmament.

 


Blue Like a Desert

Happy are the solitary ones
Those who sow the sky in the avid sand
Those who seek the living under the skirts of the wind
Those who run panting after an evaporated dream
For they are the salt of the earth
Happy are the lookouts over the ocean of the desert
Those who pursue the fennec beyond the mirage
The winged sun loses its feathers on the horizon
The eternal summer laughs at the wet grave
And if a loud cry resounds in the bedridden rocks
No one hears it no one
The desert always hollers under an impassive sky
The fixed eye hovers alone
Like the eagle at daybreak
Death swallows the dew
The snake smothers the rat
The nomad under his tent listens to the time screeching
On the gravel of insomnia
Everything is there waiting for a word already stated
Elsewhere

~ Joyce Mansour

                    

Music by Gregory Alan Isakov, “If I go, I’m goin'”

“I’ve never done anything but dream. This, and this alone, has been the meaning of my life. My only real concern has been my inner life.” ~ Fernando Pessoa, from The Book of Disquiet

William Ascroft Sunset in June after Eruption of Krakatoa c1880 pastel
“Sunset in June after Eruption of Krakatoa” (c. 1880s, pastel)
by William Ascroft

                   

“When you feel perpetually unmotivated, you start questioning your existence in an unhealthy way; everything becomes a pseudo intellectual question you have no interest in responding whatsoever. This whole process becomes your very skin and it does not merely affect you; it actually defines you. So, you see yourself as a shadowy figure unworthy of developing interest, unworthy of wondering about the world—profoundly unworthy in every sense and deeply absent in your very presence.” ~ Ingmar Bergman

Sunday, early evening. Partly cloudy and cold, 35 degrees.

No snow. Not a drop. No galumphing for Tillie, and no snow photos for me. Oh well . . .

So I’ve been thinking about clouds, not in a scientific way but in a philosophical way. Let me explain:

William Ascroft Amber Afterglow with Crepuscular Rays 1885 pastel
“Amber Afterglow with Crepuscular Rays” (1885, pastel)
by William Ascroft

When we look up at clouds in the sky, they seem to be buffeted along by the wind, without having any momentum of their own. They bump into other clouds along the way, sometimes just touching the sides, sometimes merging, sometimes completely obscuring. Clouds can be massive puffs (cumulus), multilayered (stratus), or wisps (cirrus), and all of the variations in between.

Now I know that in truth, clouds are propelled and formed by many factors: wind, gravity, moisture content, solar heating, etcetera. Yes, I know all about low level and upper level winds, jet streams, and all of that, but I’m keeping it basic as an extended metaphor for my life.

I realized that I am very much like a cloud: My life has moved along many paths, some of my choosing and others due to circumstance. Often I have felt as if I have had no say in the directions I seem to be traversing. Along the way, I meet people, some who seem to swallow me with their big personalities, and others who I tend to overshadow because consuming them is easy, and then there are the people who I meet in passing who may or may not leave me with any sort of lasting impression.

“After the cups of tea, coffee, public conversations . . . I want to sit down with someone and talk with utter directness, want to talk to all the lost history like that deserving lover.” ~ Michael Ondaatje, from Running in the Family

Now if all of that sounds like some kind of new age bullshit, well, what can I say? I’m certain that I’m not the first person to have used this metaphor for life, nor will I be the last. I can only say that it occurred to me this morning as my consciousness was coming into waking, and I decided to go with it.

William Ascroft Sustained Light after Sunset 1886 pastel
“Sustained Light after Sunset (1886, pastel)
by William Ascroft

As children, we put our heads on our arms as we recline in the grass, and we look up at the clouds and try to make out shapes—bunny rabbits, cats, dogs. As adults, sometimes we see other things in the shapes—an arrow, a mass like a mushroom cloud, Richard Nixon (okay, maybe that one is just me). When do the innocuous shapes we see as children morph into things more reminiscent of our waking nightmares?

I couldn’t tell you. I only know that at various point in my life I have been content to be bounced around by the winds, landing wherever and whenever. I suppose it’s part of the overall adventure. But at other times I have felt indignant at having so little power to control my path, which reminds me of a particularly crass simile that I have heard many times: It’s like pissing into the wind.

Fate. It’s tricky, and sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad, and sometimes it’s somewhere in the middle.

“I go, we go. On the way we keep a log-book, the book of the abyss and the shores. Everyone does. My books are thus like life and history, heterogenous chapters in a single vast book whose ending I will never know.” ~ Hélène Cixous

I know. Pretty flaky, and I couldn’t really tell you where any of this came from. Just thinking about life, my life in particular, life in general, and the fact that no one really has control, no matter how much they may think they do.

William Ascroft Sunset and Afterglow 1883 pastel
“Sunset and Afterglow” (1883, pastel)
by William Ascroft

Presbyterians believe in predestination, as in the idea that when someone is born, his or her life is already planned out, from start to finish, as willed by god. I always found that concept incredibly troubling. John Calvin contended that some people are born already condemned to eternal damnation, while others are slated for salvation. Think about this for just a moment: No matter what you do, you are damned if that is what god decided for you before you took your first breath.

Sucks.

I remember learning about this concept when I was about 10 or 11, and even then, it really bothered me. If one holds to predestination, then why try? I mean, if you have a run of bad luck at one point, is that god shaking the omnipotent finger at you, saying, “Tough luck. But this is your road, and you can’t do anything about it”? And if so, should you just give up because, well, what the hell? What’s the point?

“You know, maybe this is how your concerto ends. I mean, not a big end with trumpets and violin. Maybe this is the finish, just like that suddenly. Not sad, not happy, just a small room with a lamp, abed,a child sleeps, and tons of loneliness.” ~ Eran Kolirin, from The Band’s Visit

My awakening cloud metaphor stayed with me even as I read an article in Rolling Stone about Aaron Swartz (The Brilliant Life & Tragic Death of Aaron Swartz). You may not know the name, but Swartz was a brilliant Internet pioneer, helping to develop RSS and reddit, and he committed suicide in January of this year. Swartz was being charged with theft for downloading documents from the JSTOR system of MIT. JSTOR is an online repository of articles for which colleges and universities pay access.

William Ascroft Sky Study 1886 pastel
“Sky Study” (1886, pastel)
by William Ascroft

Swartz, who was a child prodigy, was also plagued by personal demons, including depression and a sense of isolation. What does this have to do with what I’ve been saying? A lot.

Swartz, even though he could create code like others brew coffee, wanted to be a writer. He often felt as if he had no control over the direction his life was taking him. That he committed suicide is sad for all of the obvious reasons, but also because society lost a bright star, one who contributed to much but felt as if he had contributed nothing. When he died, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, wrote that Swartz was “blazing across the dark sky of ordinary people, broken systems, a shining force for good, a maker of things.”

What touched me about this story was how this genius man-boy was so self-doubting, so insular, so afraid, yet others saw him as this fierce fighter for access to information.

We never see ourselves as others see us.

“The time of departure is not mine to choose; I must find my way alone in this darkness. With the shadow of the moon at my side, I search for traces of wildlife in the white snow.” ~ Wilhelm Müller, from “Good Night”

I have spent so much of my life drifting aimlessly, it seems, yet you tell me otherwise. I have spent so many years lost, but not really.

I have had the pleasure and pain of encountering kindred spirits and malevolent spirits, all of whom have helped to build me up and chip away at my soul. I have merged, dissolved, grown layers and lost parts along the way.

William Ascroft Sunset and Noctilucent Cloud 1885 pastel
“Sunset and Noctilucent Cloud” (1885, pastel)
by William Ascroft

I have been soldiered on by winds that were warm and comforting, and I have been tossed about without any ability to tether myself to something solid. If have felt spun, blown, thrown, carried, cajoled and heaved. I have lost my way and in being lost, have found other paths.

All of this is to say that in this third act of my life, I am older, wiser, and still thrashing about completely without a clue.

Just before waking, a woman in my dream said this to me: “Century, century, 25.” I had no idea what it meant, which is to say, business as usual. And all of this brings to mind that completely sardonic Yiddish proverb: “Men tracht und Gott lacht.” (Man plans and god laughs).

More later. Peace.

(All images are by British artist William Ascroft, who drew hundreds of pastel sketches following the eruption of the Krakatao volcano on a small island in Indonesia.)

Music by Mikky Ekko, “Feels Like the End”

                   

The Dumka

His parents would sit alone together
on the blue divan in the small living room
listening to Dvorak’s piano quintet.
They would sit there in their old age,
side by side, quite still, backs rigid, hands
in their laps, and look straight ahead
at the yellow light of the phonograph
that seemed as distant as a lamplit
window seen across the plains late at night.
They would sit quietly as something dense

and radiant swirled around them, something
like the dust storms of the thirties that began
by smearing the sky green with doom
but afterwards drenched the air with an amber
glow and then vanished, leaving profiles
of children on pillows and a pale gauze
over mantles and table tops. But it was
the memory of dust that encircled them now
and made them smile faintly and raise
or bow their heads as they spoke about

the farm in twilight with piano music
spiraling out across red roads and fields
of maize, bread lines in the city, women
and men lining main street like mannequins,
and then the war, the white frame rent house,
and the homecoming, the homecoming,
the homecoming, and afterwards, green lawns
and a new piano with its mahogany gleam
like pond ice at dawn, and now alone
in the house in the vanishing neighborhood,

the slow mornings of coffee and newspapers
and evenings of music and scattered bits
of talk like leaves suddenly fallen before
one notices the new season. And they would sit
there alone and soon he would reach across
and lift her hand as if it were the last unbroken
leaf and he would hold her hand in his hand
for a long time and they would look far off
into the music of their lives as they sat alone
together in the room in the house in Kansas.

~ B.H. Fairchild

“Some people have a way with words, and other people…oh, uh, not have way.” ~ Steve Martin

Play on Words
Tristan Bates Theatre, UK

                   

“I like good strong words that mean something…” ~ Louisa May Alcott, from Little Women

Thursday afternoon. Sunny, 80’s.

I found the following on my Tumblr dash (where else?) a few days ago, and decided that it would make a great prompt for a post. Hope you like it.

11 More Wonderful Words With No English Equivalent

Seigneur-terraces (French)
Coffee shop dwellers who sit at tables a long time but spend little money.

Words, words, words

I remember sitting in a Starbucks for hours one time just writing in my journal and kind of daydreaming. I only had enough money for a coffee, but I felt no guilt at squatting at prime real estate for as long as I needed, despite the evil looks from people who wanted my table. I also used to do this at the Starbucks inside the Barnes & Noble that I frequented. I would get a stack of possible books, find a table, and sit there as I went through the books to decide which ones I wanted to buy. One time I read William Styron’s Darkness Visible in its entirety, and another time I read A Boy Called It, which made me decide to buy the sequel. And yes, I purchased both books that I read.

Ya’arburnee (Arabic)
This word is the hopeful declaration that you will die before someone you love deeply, because you cannot stand to live without them. Literally, may you bury me.

In my romantic mind, I would never want to die before my beloved as I am uncertain if I have any grief left within me after losing those I most loved. This one is a tough one, but a beautiful word.

“I’m apt to get drunk on words . . . Ontology: the word about the essence of things; the word about being.” ~ Madeleine L’Engle, from A Circle of Quiet

Schlimazel (Yiddish)
Someone prone to bad luck. Yiddish distinguishes between the schlemiel and schlimazel, whose fates would probably be grouped under those of the klutz in other languages. The schlemiel is the traditional maladroit, who spills his coffee; the schlimazel is the one on whom it’s spilled.

Words
by Ben Schott (New York Times)

Is it possible to be both a schlemiel and a schlimazel? I am quite adept at spilling things, especially my food and drink, and especially if I am wearing the most inappropriate clothes for a spill, say white silk. And as for being a schlimazel, perhaps less so unless it concerns something coming out of a baby. For the first year of Eamonn’s life, he threw up on me regularly, so much so that it was not uncommon for me to have to change nightgowns mid-night. He had severe stomach problems and had an operation when he was just three weeks old. But of the two, definitely the spiller as opposed to the spillee.

One other interesting memory: When I worked in Northern Virginia, a pack of us went out on a Friday after work, and we went dancing. My boss was there, and since I was relatively new, he offered to dance with me. I was wearing scarlet lipstick, and I tripped and fell into his starched white shirt, leaving a huge lipstick stain on the sleeve. I asked him the next day what he said to his wife as the truth seemed so unbelievable. He said that he threw away the shirt because she would never believe how it really happened. I felt horrible.

Packesel (German)
The packesel is the person who’s stuck carrying everyone else’s bags on a trip. Literally, a burro.

My ex and I used to go hiking and camping in the Virginia foothills. One time we took along a couple with whom we had been friends for years. The female of the couple wore penny loafers (which has nothing to do with this word), but the male of the pair was so whiny that on the hike back, I took his pack just so I wouldn’t have to hear him. Yes, my back used to be quite strong . . .

“She had always wanted words, she loved them; grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape.” ~ Michael Ondaatje, from The English Patient

L’esprit de l’escalier (French)
Literally, stairwell wit—a too-late retort thought of only after departure.

Oh how I wish that I had known that there was an actual term for this years ago. I am famous for coming up with the biting retort—well after the other person has left the room. So much so that I sometimes wanted to run them down in the hall just so that I could fling my words at them, but of course, that would have been childish.

Awesomely Untranslatable Words from around the World

Hygge (Danish)
Denmark’s mantra, hygge is the pleasant, genial, and intimate feeling associated with sitting around a fire in the winter with close friends.

We have a fireplace in our house, a real, working fireplace. The last time we used it was a couple of winters ago when we didn’t have heat. However, years ago, when my ex lived here, we used to build fires frequently in the winter, back when we were unaware of the pollution links. I love the smell of a wood fire. There is something inherently comforting in that smell, something that makes me feel very relaxed. The same with a campfire—that smell. I remember in high school we used to have bonfires before big football games. I’m sure they don’t do that any more, at least not in cities. Too many possibilities for things to go wrong.

Sad, really. Will we have generations who never know the smell of woodsmoke?

One of our goals for the house is to install a gas fire in the fireplace, so that we can have the heat and appearance of a fire, but it’s just not the same.

Spesenritter (German)
Literally, an expense knight. You’ve probably dined with a spesenritter before, the type who shows off by paying the bill on the company’s expense account.

I’ve known a few of these, but I’ve never been one, never had an expense account, never had enough power to have one. One of my very dear friends at the government services firm where I worked used to take me to dinner on his expense account. And then because I was on the staff for the big guys, I was frequently taken to lunch on expense accounts, back in the 80’s when money flowed freely. I remember that the staff would always go out to celebrate after the completion of a big proposal effort or if a contract was won, both of which happened often.

As a publications manager, I was courted by all kinds of print houses, and I’ll never forget this one lunch at an Italian restaurant, the best pasta I’ve ever had. Going out on someone else’s account is wonderful as price never seems to matter, and dessert is always an option. Of course, those days are long gone.

“All I’m writing is just what I feel, that’s all. I just keep it almost naked. And probably the words are so bland.” ~ Jimi Hendrix

Cavoli Riscaldati (Italian)
The result of attempting to revive an unworkable relationship. Literally, reheated cabbage.

Hmm . . . my ex, ‘nuf said, except that reheated cabbage describes it perfectly: old, wilted, smelly, but still you try to make a meal of it until you realize that it’s totally inedible.

Words that Don’t Exist in the English Language

Bilita Mpash (Bantu)
An amazing, pleasant dream. Not just a “good” dream; the opposite of a nightmare.

As many of you already know, I don’t tend to dream on the good side, so when I have an amazingly good dream, it kind of stands out. That said, I’m having a really hard time remembering the details of any. I know that one featured Jimmy Smits, and I had that one about ten years ago (so sad, really).

I can say that most of the dreams that I really enjoy involve falling/flying, as in I leap off something and float through the air. It isn’t at all scary. On the contrary, it’s the most wonderful feeling. An alternative is when I’m flying some kind of airplane. It’s the act of moving through the air unimpeded, under my own steam. I think that this is probably the key reason as to why I still want to go up in a glider some day. I don’t care how old I get, I still want to do this.

Parachuting doesn’t appeal to me because it’s over too soon. In a glider, you move through the air for miles. There is no sound but the wind. It’s just you, in the air, as close to being winged as possible.

“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.” ~ Patrick Rothfuss, from The Name of the Wind

Litost (Czech)
Milan Kundera described the emotion as “a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.”

I have encountered this emotion far too many times that sometimes I feel as if I’ve gotten other people’s share as well as my own. It’s a brutal feeling, realizing that you are miserable. It’s the exact opposite of the feeling I would imagine comes from gliding through the air. Instead, it’s being completely weighted down, leaden, held down by such intense gravity that even standing seems impossible.

More Words that Don’t Exist in the English Language

Litost. It’s both a beautiful word and a sad word, and that it is Czech in origin seems perfect, somehow.

Murr-ma (Waigman, language of Australia)
To walk alongside the water while searching for something with your feet.

I’m glad that this word is last as I have the best story to go along with it.

About a year after Caitlin died, we were at the beach in Nags Head, North Carolina. I was walking through the shore on my own, and I was moving my feet through the sand. I suddenly stopped, and within my head I pleaded to whatever gods that be to give me a sign, any sign, that things could get better. In the next second, my toes encountered something hard. I reached down and picked up the most beautiful perfect seashell. It was small, but it was there, and my heart suddenly felt hope again.

I’ve enjoyed this. I hope that you have as well.

More later. Peace.

Music by Colin Smith, “Organ in Your Chest”

                   

The Words Under the Words

for Sitti Khadra, north of Jerusalem

My grandmother’s hands recognize grapes,
the damp shine of a goat’s new skin.
When I was sick they followed me,
I woke from the long fever to find them
covering my head like cool prayers.

My grandmother’s days are made of bread,
a round pat-pat and the slow baking.
She waits by the oven watching a strange car
circle the streets. Maybe it holds her son,
lost to America. More often, tourists,
who kneel and weep at mysterious shrines.
She knows how often mail arrives,
how rarely there is a letter.
When one comes, she announces it, a miracle,
listening to it read again and again
in the dim evening light.

My grandmother’s voice says nothing can surprise her.
Take her the shotgun wound and the crippled baby.
She knows the spaces we travel through,
the messages we cannot send—our voices are short
and would get lost on the journey.
Farewell to the husband’s coat,
the ones she has loved and nourished,
who fly from her like seeds into a deep sky.
They will plant themselves. We will all die.

My grandmother’s eyes say Allah is everywhere, even in death.
When she talks of the orchard and the new olive press,
when she tells the stories of Joha and his foolish wisdoms,
He is her first thought, what she really thinks of is His name.
“Answer, if you hear the words under the words—
otherwise it is just a world with a lot of rough edges,
difficult to get through, and our pockets full of stones.”

~ Naomi Shihab Nye