What is Essential

Last night I was reading All The Little Live Things by Wallace Stegner. It’s an amazing novel, literate and deep.

So I was clicking my Kindle along contentedly, having a cup of tea, when I came upon this passage:

“I was beginning to comprehend it then, and I have not repudiated it now: that love, not sin, costs us Eden. Love is the carrier of death — the only thing, in fact, that makes death significant. Otherwise it is … a simple interchange of protein.”

Oh dear, I thought, a hit. A palpable hit. It’s going to cause a poem. What I wrote is not really on point, more tangential. But I wonder, if love gives death its meaning, then what gives love meaning? Isn’t it the soul alive, aware of itself with respect to life? And isn’t the soul on a restless journey? And where is it trying to go? 

To My Soul

I say to my soul child hush,
you have caused enough pain.
Be still and watch the birds.
See how they disappear
at sundown, looking for home.
Or maybe they carry it with them
in ways that we cannot even,
being human, comprehend.

Be still and know that God Is
so we are not, and if trees
can stand for a thousand years,
you can sit for a moment,
drinking water in the shade.

My soul will only misbelieve
and long for the rhythm of oceans,
how the storm comes bringing
the destruction of change.
Still, quietly, I sit here
and wait for forgiveness.

Kyle Kimberlin
October 2013

Tonight I found this quote on a friend’s poetry blog. I read it years ago and had forgotten it, but remembered somehow. I would have guessed the idea of “I say to my soul …” was from Rumi, or maybe Antonio Machado. Maybe so, but here it is in Eliot. The subconscious learns.

“I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”

— T.S. Eliot

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On Our Way to Somewhere

…a poem with notes.

 

In her book on writing and life Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott devotes a chapter to the topic of index cards. She quotes Henry James, “A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost,” and explains that she keeps cards and pens around the house, and a folded card in her back pocket when she goes out. If she has an idea, or sees or overhears something memorable, she writes it down on her card.

Lamott wrote her book in 1994, before we all started using computers and carrying cell phones. And today I take a lot of notes with my iPhone. But I valued this lesson from Anne’s book, and it served me so well for so long, that I usually still carry cards with me. I prefer 3×5 inch cards, blank on both sides, but that’s not important.

What matters is that the people around us frequently say things so profound, without even meaning to, that their words ring like bells for a long time afterward.

One day, my Dad said to me, “The mums are blooming,” and it just stuck. I wrote it down. And when I looked at it again, I thought of that scene in the movie Phenomenon, where John Travolta says to the little boy, “Everything is on its way to somewhere. Everything.”

 

Stories About Us

 

Dad says the mums are blooming
as the tulips fade into summer.
Tomato vines work their random course,
they twine and clutch.

We open the door and go in.
There is a breeze from the open windows
but the day is warm.
What do we become after this?

It’s almost time to stand and go,
drive east against the clock,
keeping low to the land
and finally the sun will rise.

Maybe we should weep a while
first, for everything.
A ritual purge, a chrismation
to purify our souls for high deserts.

After this, we are butterflies
silent among the particles of dust,
there where sunlight falls
into the house in slanted shafts.

Lying on the rug, a child reads stories
to herself, and the stories are all
about us. Outside, an engine strains
to rise and lift away.

 

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Stories About Us by Kyle Kimberlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

 

Here’s the movie scene I mentioned:
http://youtu.be/WYzHuNlSomI

Risk Factors

James Gandolfini is dead, says the Internet. He was in Rome with his 13 year old son. That is too young to lose your Dad. My heart goes out to that boy, and to the man’s family and friends. 51 is too young to die.

Gandolfini was born in 1961, as was I. We have more than that in common. Risk factors; I’m sure you understand. So I turned away and looked to my blogs, and found Neil Gaiman writing about the death of his friend Iain Banks, who died of gallbladder cancer recently.

Regular readers of Metaphor may recall my post last month, about my own struggles with the gallbladder. Damnable, bilious little thing. I can’t wait to have it out and gone! But I’m perforce working to lose weight first, to reduce the risks of anesthesia.

By Heaven, it will set a man to pondering.

Remember me as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I,
As I am now, so you will be,
Prepare for death and follow me.

But you know what? Death is really hard to look at, straight on. You have to come at it holding a mirror at an angle, or a shard of broken glass, and pretend not to be looking at all. The greatest common denominator, and the real traffic of all writing and most of human creativity, is elusive in daylight.

Here’s a video, a song for those going on ahead. And may the judgment not be too heavy upon us.

 

OK, here’s another song. This one is for me, maybe for you.

 

Because the sea is good for doing what it does, for cleaning up and washing all away. But the graveyard accepts and is patient, keeping watch, letting the years pass slowly in silence and in light.

— From my flash fiction piece, A Shadow Or A Dream

Remembering Jonathan Winters

I don’t know what year it was, but my Sheltie Tasha was young, so I’d have to guess mid 1990s. We were walking on Coast Village Road in Montecito one day, and Jonathan Winters came up to us. I mean I saw him nearby, recognized him, but intended to leave him alone. That’s what I usually do when I see a celebrity: I leave them in peace. I could claim that it’s because they have a right to a personal life when they’re not working. But famous people make me nervous. Still, Jonathan Winters changed his course and walked up and started talking to me about my dog.  

Tasha was exceedingly cute. But that’s not why we talked for awhile, about dogs and what a nice day it was, etc. We did because Jonathan Winters was simply an uncommonly nice guy.

My parents have a good story about meeting Winters one evening years ago, in the Carrows restaurant in Carpinteria. They struck up a conversation, he sat down at their table, with his wife, and they talked for a long time. He was so friendly and likable; not a molecule of the self-importance or conceit that it’s so easy to associate with celebrities.

Tasha and I saw Jonathan again in Montecito on another day, and we chatted again. I think I said something like, “Thank you for making us laugh.” I hope I did. Because it’s not as easy as it looks, to get that reaction. I imagine it’s something you have to be good at, without the effort that would make it false. And it’s even harder – just by being yourself –  to be remembered for being openly, spontaneously gentle and friendly.

jonathan-winters-photo-from-mgn

Final Kindness

In those increasingly scarce and scattered moments when I can find the time and also muster the clarity to do what I love, and write, I’ve been committing homicide. I mean I’ve been writing the death scene of a principal characters of my novel. You see, the grandfather, whom the protagonist loves deeply, dies in his bed in a nursing home.

It has been extremely difficult to write, and not for the reason you might suppose: that it makes me want to cry, remembering my own grandparents. The hardest part of writing a scene like this isn’t seeing the screen through tear-blurred eyes, it’s simply telling the truth. It’s hard enough to tread such painfully common ground while making the story up, but being emotionally honest about fictitious death is a bitch. Your own experiences must inform, but not overwhelm, the work. You don’t want to be maudlin, because real death rarely is. But letting your prose fall flat, infected by indifference, is even worse.

Here are two little snippets of the current draft.

* * *

Some of the crows lift away, others fly in. They alight and are instantly still. Papa reaches out between the railings of the bed and grabs the sleeve of my jacket. It startles me. He hasn’t touched anyone in quite a while. It’s never been like him to touch, but his eyes are locked on my face, their blue lost in the flat gray light from the window.

“You better call the dogs. I can’t whistle for ‘em anymore.”

“They’re coming, Papa. I can hear them coming back.”

“Martin, you ain’t amounted to the man I hoped you would.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” The bracelet on his tiny wrist is blue plastic with a white tag I can’t read. It might say something important too.

* * *

I felt cheated and deprived. I have always thought the world should change dramatically when someone dies. The sun should rise draped in black bunting, casting the sky in deep purple for a day or two. Or angels lead a band of pipes and drums slowly through the orchard at a mournful march, while the bald canals run backwards, sending dark water back to its high and snowy source.

Death had no right to blithely change the structure of my life, as if a storm had torn the pilings out from beneath a flimsy dock. I was angry because this proved that what we know to be inevitable sometimes really does come true, and that my special family didn’t rate a break from it. We don’t have much, don’t ask for a lot from life or from God. So it just seems right to claim deferment now and then from death’s old harvesting machinery. And it angers me to think that Papa was cheated. He waited all those years for his better life to start and I don’t know if it ever did. Then he waited all that night, cold and alone, in (the) funeral home, to learn what acts of final kindness he had earned for all his work, and all his love for us. That is a kind of loneliness we never learn about in life.

* * *

So, what is the most difficult or daunting experience for you to right about? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

Goodbye, Andy Rooney

Maybe his timing was intentional, to slip away quickly just a month after leaving the career he said he loved. To leave it all on the field, as they say.

I hope so. I always liked Andy Rooney. I’d like to think he’s pleased that he’s left the audience just a little bit surprised.

Longer Darkness

I have been outside this evening after dark, getting acquainted with the night, rearranging the strings of Christmas lights on my balcony irons. One of the strings went dead, you see. Probably a fussy little fuse.

But, you know, that old Grinch was so smart and so slick
He thought up a lie, and he thought it up quick!
"Why, my sweet little tot," the fake Santy Claus lied,
"There’s a light on this tree condo that won’t light on one side.
"So I’m taking it home to my workshop, my dear.
"I’ll fix it up there. Then I’ll bring it back here."

The days, you may have noticed, are getting terribly short. The sun’s arc is shallow, almost begrudging, even this far south of the North Pole. We’re only 10 days now from the Solstice. So Christmas lights are important, and I was out there in all this longer darkness, stringing twinklers at the top of my outside stairs. I guess there’s a slight chance of a quick and messy death in that. Which naturally set me to wondering what was the last thing I said to anyone, since that might turn out to be the last thing I said to anyone.

I couldn’t remember. It might have been something like “have a good night,” to my neighbor. But nobody wrote it down.

Wouldn’t it be cool if somebody – besides Facebook – was discreetly recording our every utterance, just in case it might be our last? Well my last words, if I had tumbled down the concrete steps, might not have been fit for polite conversation. Let alone to be etched in marble or quoted as an epigraph in literature. But you never know. I might have been wise or funny in the end.

Goethe is said to have thundered, "More light!" But there is, I believe, some contention. Some have quoted him as saying, “Open the second shutter so that more light may come in." The former is better. Still others say his final utterance was really, "Come my little one, and give me your paw." And where does your imagination go with that?

Henry David Thoreau’s last words were, "Moose. Indian." Just shortly before that, we was asked if he had made his peace with God. He said, "I did not know we had quarreled."

Walt Whitman’s last yawp: "Hold me up; I want to shit."

Emily Dickinson finally said, "Let us go in; the fog is rising." For her, everything was poetry, nothing ordinary.

When a nurse told Henrik Ibsen that he seemed to be improving, he said, "On the contrary!" and died.

Ludwig van Beethoven: "Friends, applaud. The comedy is over."

Oscar Wilde’s famous last words were, "Either this wallpaper goes or I do."

Welcome Christmas bring your cheer
Fahoo fores dahoo dores
Welcome all Whos far and near
Welcome Christmas, fahoo ramus
Welcome Christmas, dahoo damus
Christmas day will always be
Just so long as we have we
Fahoo fores dahoo dores
Welcome Christmas bring your light

Everyman Knows

 

What shall we say, shall we call it by a name
As well to count the angels dancing on a pin.
– The Grateful Dead

There was a well known and successful writer interviewed on TV the other day. Her name escapes. Suffice to say, her ship is in. She was saying that the writer has to know something in order to write.

I don’t know about that. I tend to throw in with Joseph Campbell, who said

He who thinks he knows does not know. He who knows he does not know, knows.

If he’s right, everyone knows, and nobody does. But see if you think this little piece gets any air among the clouds of unknowing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Passing Trees

“What time is it?”

Taking one hand from the wheel, he started to push back the sleeve of his jacket to see his watch, then stopped. He glanced over at her. She sat looking out her window through the rain, at the trees.

“There’s a clock on the dashboard in front of you.”

“Is it right?”

“Yeah.”

“So you won’t tell me?”

“What’s the use of having a clock in the car, if you always ask me anyway?” But now he did push back his sleeve and look. “The clock on the dash says the world is one minute older than the watch on my wrist. So I’m going with the clock. I’m feeling pretty old right now.”

She frowned and watched the trees, a dark wall and a dark road, a grim and rainy day. She did not look at him, or care about the time. It was only something to say, some excuse to conjure his voice out of the distance between them. It was a good voice, solid and deep, a comfort so often, and always in the dead of night. Sometimes she lay awake and whispered I love you, and he would answer in that voice, without waking. Love you too.

As they passed the end of the orchard, a field opened up. It was fallow, the earth broken and turned. Far back from the road was a brick house and a barn. The house was brightly lit, and smoke rose from the chimney. It was a stranger’s life sitting quietly surrounded by death, waiting to be swallowed by time and rain. She could not wait to get home, turn on lights and music, make tea, and pretend, like that house pretended, that the world was safe.

“I hate myself for leaving him there.”

He checked the mirror and said, “It’s a nice place.”

She turned at looked at him. “Nice? I hate us both.”

“Now, now. Yes, it’s a decent place, as …”

“And he hates us too.”

“… as such places go. Pleasant and homey.”

“Well.”

“He’ll come around. It’s very nice. He’ll get used to it, make friends, have activities. You saw they have a piano in the recreation room. And the courtyard will be warm on sunny days. We’ll visit and take him outside. He’ll be fine in no time.”

“He’s never yelled at us like that. Never at anyone, that I can remember. So angry. Like we’re Eskimos, shoving him out on an ice flow.”

“We’ve been over this. Can you really pretend we’ve been thoughtless?”

“Do they even do that, did they ever?”

“What?”

“The Eskimos.”

“I don’t know.”

“He said we’re going to hell.”

“Oh God. Everyone is on their way someplace, but not there. And we’re only doing our best.”

“No. We could do better. We should bring him back. Fix up the spare bedroom.”

“Honey.”

“Rent one of those hospital beds. I could take care of him, I know it. I could quit my job, we’d get by.”

“You couldn’t. You can’t even lift him. Neither can I.”

They passed the end of a narrow road that broke the blur of idle land and disappeared toward the hills. She saw that her hands were resting on her lap palms up, waiting to be filled by something only God could design.

“You know him better than me.”

“Yes,” he said.

“Since the hour of your birth.”

“Jesus.”

“So I hope you’re right. But he’s already haunting me.”

There was another line of trees close against the road. Almonds, dark and full of rain.

 

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life lessons

My email this morning includes one from a friend. It’s the story of a veterinarian called to the home of a wolfhound dying of cancer, to put the dog to sleep.

The dog’s owners wanted their 4-year-old son to be with them as their pet was sent ahead, in order that he learn from the experience.

Afterwards, the vet and the couple were discussing the heartrending difference in life spans of humans and pets. Why are their lives so much shorter than ours?

The little boy offered this:

People are born so that they can learn how to live a good life — like loving everybody all the time and being nice, right? Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don’t have to stay as long.

I don’t know, but I’ve known many wonderful dogs, cats, a few birds, some rats, a turtle, a I’ve met some horses. And I’ll say this about them: they all seemed smarter and wiser than humans. I sense older souls; a deeper, truer participation in the spirit of life, and a greater joy in living. They seem to know something I don’t know. Maybe it has something to do with Now.

Perhaps the little boy is wrong. It’s not that they know how to love everybody and be nice, but that it’s something unknowable. They don’t know it, they just do it.