The Voice of the Choir

In mind of Mother’s Day, here’s an old poem about the incredible depth of emotion in which a family swims. How long can you tred water? I think the poem has some good, sincere intensity. But it needs to be rewritten. Maybe I’ll take another crack at the imagery, one of these days.

This is from my book Finding Oakland. It’s out of print but you can have it in PDF by clicking the Creative menu, above.

END OF DAYS

In the few cold minutes
since my death
I have seen my people
going by. Now I understand
returning home
and remaining away.
We fished orange salmon
from a bridge arched in pain
and rose at three to watch
the moon in the shadow
of the earth.

My mother and father
sleep in their armchairs
and rise up singing hymns.
The sharp November air
has taken the house
the grass is gray
and the birds are gone.
No hope of rain and no
forgetting.

My only brother
his face to the window
is singing
to the miles and the time
behind and forgotten
the words we must say
so we don’t give up.
His words rise like clouds
with thunder and trembling
becoming San Francisco rain.

The birds which are gone
had wings of wet lapis
and the voice of the choir
of heaven. But even I, who was
dead, know the true cost:
the quiet lost, the fear
of telephones, or light
beneath a door. All we can do
is love, hold fast, let go.

Creative Commons Licensed
Published 1992.
Changed just a little, 2015

A Way With Words

“It’s good. I like it. You sure have a way with words.”
“Thanks.”
“What does it mean?”

That always makes me smile, and a couple of answers pop to mind: “How the hell would I know? I only wrote it.” Or perhaps, “Well what does it mean to you?” Not good. People want an answer; they want clarity and feel entitled to it. But maybe I’m not the right person to answer the question. Maybe they’re not the right person to ask it.

If a cook is exploring a new recipe and asks you to try the dish, you might say Thank You, and report that you enjoyed it or not. But you don’t lay your napkin neatly on the table and say, “Gee that was yummy. What was it supposed to taste like?”

You probably know what Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing, that writing can be a kind of telepathy, a psychic connection of Meaning between two minds, across time and space. Or something to that effect. I have cited that postulate before in this blog, but I’m skeptical.

Let’s imagine I sit down with my copy of The Complete Poems of Robert Frost, a cup of coffee, and with my vague memories of my college studies in English. And I turn to my favorite poem – which is everybody’s favorite poem:

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.


What does it mean? It’s one of those poems that often gets called “deceptively simple,” and it’s true. Most people who read it are very much deceived. Robert Frost died when I was 2, so we can never know. …Well that’s not true. We don’t need to ask the artist, we can explore the art for ourselves. Let’s take a couple of jabs at it.

  1. Winter is peaceful. Horses are cool. It’s nice to live in the country and use words like “village.” Back in the 1920s, queer meant strange, perplexing. And we have to keep moving and get our chores done before we can go to bed.
  1. The woods are a metaphor of the psyche, which stands apart from tangible life – the home in the village. The falling snow is the passage of time. As we grow older (the nights grow longer and darker), the dark woods of death – the event horizon of consciousness – seem more real, impending. We pause to consider mortality. The woods are lovely: we have a yearning for the peace of our inevitable passage into the woods. Then there are the harness bells; for whom do the bells toll?

If I’m being honest, it’s always been simply a poem about quietude and peace for me. It reminds me of Christmas, with the bells and the snow and the darkness evening being Winter Solstice. But if I were pressed for deeper meaning, I’d say it’s a rich and elaborate poem about death and the awareness of death; the darkness beyond the lights of the town for all of us.

Around the same time, e e cummings wrote a poem about a girl,

whose least amazing smile is the most great
common divisor of unequal souls.

Nah, that’s Death, e e. Death is the greatest common divisor of everything. It’s what we all have in common. Beyond that fact, I don’t think any two of us look at life and death and Meaning in exactly the same way. And the right answer to all of it may very well be 42.

So I’ve come to suspect that Meaning isn’t rightfully my job; not my department. Please hold while I transfer your call. Honesty is my job, and diligence, and the best craft I can bring to bear. But Meaning is a task for someone else. And here’s a thought that might seem twisted: maybe meaning doesn’t belong to that certain reader who’s asking me to explain. If they’re not finding the Meaning, then the piece has reached the wrong audience. The Meaning belongs to someone I haven’t met and never will. Maybe that’s what Stephen King was getting at.

So despairing of a psychic connection with readers yet unraised, untutored, I have little cause for hope, but that someone years hence finds a scrap of my writing, and it will mean something to her that I can’t even imagine.

“A book, once it is printed and published, becomes individual. It is by its publication as decisively severed from its author as in parturition a child is cut off from its parent. The book “means” thereafter, perforce, — both grammatically and actually, — whatever meaning this or that reader gets out of it.”

– James Branch Cabell

now thoroughly small and dry

It is a dry time. Good Friday comes and The Garden is behind us. Cast out and hunkered down in the dust, thirsty, in denial.

This scrap went into my notebook tonight:

The well is dry.
We have sat by it all night
wondering about the secret
answers far below
afraid to ask questions.

~-~-~

And this is from my long-ago book, Finding Oakland.

ALL CREEKS DRY

I went to find a creek
today   a stream   a ditch
any water moving
They gave up the habit
with the end of spring
No reason to cut earth
batter rock   carry mud
another year

Most died of boredom
In the trickle of summer
its not worth the trouble
Some went in glorious
illusions
any reason to live
is a reason to die

A few by their own hands
The act prepared
in the quiet heart
alone   with the sound
of flies only
Draining mostly through
small holes punched
in the dust

~-~-~

Here in the long, dry riverbed of Time, we need rain. We need kindness. We need to turn from the unreality of self interest in these unreal, indehiscent days.

Creative Commons Licensed

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

– T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

As Ideas Go

I had what I thought was a pretty good idea for a blog post about decluttering the mind and life. It was based on a quote of David Allen, author of Getting Things Done:

“Don’t use your mind to accumulate stuff and avoid it. …Don’t use your mind to get stuff off your mind.”

My idea was sort of like The Power of Now meets an episode of Hoarders.

As ideas go, it’s a pretty good one, because I often encounter people who are unhappily trying to use their brains like warehouses, instead of like pianos. I think you get my point.

So I was googling around, trying to confirm the exact quote and its source, when I stepped in something disappointing:

The top few Google search results for this quote are … me.

Dang it, I already wrote the blog post I wanted to write, about a year and a half ago.

https://kimberlin.wordpress.com/2013/08/09/dont-use-your-mind/

Hey, I’ve posted on this blog over 3000 times. Who can keep track of all the effluvium?

The good news is, the post I wrote in 2013 was probably better than what I was going to write tonight.

Has that ever happened to you? Do you ever have an idea for something to write, only to discover that you’ve already written it?

” It’s more like trading the two birds
who might be hiding in that bush
for the one you are not holding in your hand.”

– Billy Collins

Becoming Real

The writer’s job is the job of a clown,
the clown who also talks about sorrow.”
– Kenzaburo Oe


All through the month of February, I had this idea stuck in my head: The Suffering of Things, or
The Sorrows of Things. Not the suffering or sorrow of people or of animals, or even of the insensate entities like trees, but of inanimate objects.

There is something here, I think, that’s an important symbol of shared consciousness. Exploring this idea seems a portal into a creative place, so I’m trying to track it down. If we’re going to write about the emotional landscape of humans, it’s important to understand what else – who else – occupies that ground.

When we were young children, we loved certain things so much that they became Real to us in a way that meant something different than merely existent. There were certain toys that became playmates and not just playthings, and which comforted us in a world we were growing to understand. And for many of us who are perhaps more sensitive or sentimental, or in need of such comforting, that tendency has persisted into adulthood.

My ordeal began about the 1st of February. While drinking my morning coffee, I stumbled over a passage from the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams.

Do you know the story? There’s a good summary on Wikipedia. And you can read the entire text online for free. Essentially, it’s the heartbreaking story of a little boy (unnamed, just called the Boy) who loves his stuffed rabbit, and the toy rabbit who just wants to be loved. It ends sadly, though I suppose that’s subjective.

In this passage, the rabbit asks an older and wiser toy what it takes to be Real, to be loved.

What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

the-velveteen-rabbit-what-is-realThe rabbit story reminds me of a favorite comic of mine, Calvin and Hobbes, about a boy and his stuffed tiger. When they are alone, the tiger is Real. When anyone else is present, Hobbes looks like a toy.

ch150103I thought about these relationships for a long time. And what the Boy and Calvin don’t know – but what the Rabbit and the tiger Hobbes almost certainly know – is that Calvin and the Boy are doomed to grow up anyway.

Dragons live forever but not so little boys
Painted wings and giant strings make way for other toys.

And then what? What magic remains from the childhood world, for those of us now grown up, pondering death and taxes?

  • Are there some things that we love so much that our love changes them?

  • Does our love for them change us?

  • Do these things suffer, hope, or somehow love us back?

  • If all of the above or none of the above is true, does it matter?

grown up calvinOf course it matters. I write fiction and poetry. I use metaphors – symbols. The world I inhabit, if not understand, is made as much of spirit and emotion as of earth and sky.

Come to the orchard in Spring
There is light and wine, and sweethearts
in the pomegranate flowers.

If you do not come, these do not matter.
If you do come, these do not matter.

Rumi

I’ve been told that a writer’s – at least a poet’s – job is to observe the suffering of others and take good notes. And we’ve all seen the survivors of great calamity sifting through the rubble and saying things like, “my aunt’s teapot is gone. A million pieces. She was kind and that was all I had of her.”

I think I see. For the child, it’s about imagination and play, and security. For the adult, it’s about memory and love. When I see the quilt my grandmother made for me, I still feel her love. When I wind the clock that my grandpa wound, I remember our bond.

That was the easy part. The next step is: do some of these things have feelings? Can they suffer? Are they Real?

Velveteen-Rabbit-ArtworkThe second part of my pondering ordeal arrived about a week into February. My bother called to say that his pickup truck, which used to belong to me, was dead. He was kind in telling me, knowing that I was sentimental about the truck we called Old Blue. I drove it for almost 18 years. And just a week before, my brother had sent a photo of the odometer as it passed a milestone.

2015-03-08 13.44.50 (Medium)Of course, it’s just a machine, a tool for transportation. But have you ever spent so much time with a thing, covered so many miles, seen so much sun and fog and cold rain and darkness, that the thing seems to take on a life of its own?

We say that some things that mean a lot to us take on a life of their own. I believe, rather, that they take on our life, simply because our life – our capacity to love – seems to overflow. They are with us so long, or have such a connection to meaning and memory, that they become invested with our emotions.

We don’t want to part with them, or throw them in the trash when they lose their shine. They have become Real; more real than a can opener or a DVD player. They have somehow acquired feelings. But not their own feelings, our feelings. Something of our fleeting time – our consciousness of life in the world – is sitting there.

So when I learned about the blown head gasket, etc., I didn’t think, “That’s unfortunate, it was a useful machine.” I thought, “Oh well, he had a good long life, got to see so many roads. So it goes.”

Old Blue 2013-11-09a (Medium)Old Blue will not be missed, not really very much, because it fulfilled its purpose, accomplished its task, and did not die young. But we can’t just let such things go unremembered, just walk away without appreciation and not look back, because they have feelings. Of course things have feelings because we have feelings.

The universe is consciousness. Everything is aware because everything has the feelings we give away. Everything I touch has feelings. The fact that the truck’s feelings are my own seems less important than the fact that the feelings are Real.

Maybe I cast my feelings into the things around me – sparks into the rain – because I’m an introvert and I spend a good deal of time alone with things. So I find consolation in the memories that I find there. Life is memory and memory is fragments. So it goes.

We loan our emotions to the world around us, whether the world likes it or not. We make friends with some of the objects in ours lives because we love the memories they represent, the feelings they conjure. And they have been faithful, which is a consolation in solitude.

Love is everything. Everything is love.

Besides, imagining a long treasured possession as friend is simply fun.

Finally, I’m looking at a little copper elephant that roams about my desk, keeping papers in place. He came from a zoo. I got it when I was – I don’t know – a little kid, and our family went to San Diego on vacation. I like my little elephant very much.

And there is something you love, isn’t there?  You have a teddy bear or a doll, propped up among pillows or resting in a dresser drawer. Or a family heirloom; something from the life of a parent or grandparent, an item which mattered to them.

There are people that we love and there are things that we cherish. Perhaps because they connect us to those people, or maybe they connect us with memory.

Sometimes the people we love and miss the most are ourselves; we miss our childhood, our innocence, and our peace. We are trying hard to hold on to a world that is rapidly moving on, becoming more tenuous as we grow older. The empathy of suffering things helps, don’t you think?

What remains is just the most important question I still have:

Is it possible, in the time that I have left, for me to become Real?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Here’s some music.

So Many Roads by The Grateful Dead. (And Jerry’s wearing shorts and a blue t-shirt!)

Let Her Go, by Passenger.

Maybe one day you’ll understand why
Everything you touch, surely dies.”