Category Archives: Happenings

Forgetting

St. Kevin and the Blackbird 

by Seamus Heaney

And then there was St. Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

*

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labor and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

***

How achingly lovely is this poem? It’s based on an Irish legend nearly 1000 years old, that Heaney retells to perfection. The vivid imagery of the first section holds you hostage. You are captive in the cramped cell of this verse with its kneeling saint, its window and that single upturned palm. Then the arrival of the bird! Hard to read these lines and keep your hands from tingling. Such a precise description, that for a moment, it is the reader’s hand that holds the nesting bird. And it is the reader who has, with the arrival of this winged legend, been linked into “the network of eternal life” [what a magnificent phrase].  And then the birth of that breathtakingly generous commitment so quietly announced. “Until the young are hatched, and fledged and flown.” A softly stunning line that requires a moment to recover from. How thoughtful Heaney’s placement then, of that starry asterisk. A beat, in which to find the ground again.

And how masterfully the storyteller shifts the tone directly after. Lifting the curtain to tease out the truth that lurks beneath the mythical. Introducing the paradox of seeking out the real in the realm of the imagination. We must try to put ourselves in the skin of the saint. And doing this, are shown a fork in the road — does our inhabitation of the holy introduce our rickety mortality to the saint, or does it elevate us into his transcendent experience? Heaney gives us both possibilities to live. And how. He gives us the sore forearms and the suffering knees. He gives us too the numb lostness –the creep of the underearth. And we, in all our unsaintliness, know exactly what this feels like. Because while we may have never incubated blackbird’s eggs in the hollows of our palms, we can extrapolate. We know what it is to have pins-and-needles. “Is there distance in his head?” And again the poem makes a beautifully abrupt turn. From the physical to the metaphysical.

A question that places distance like an object as a possibility in someone’s head. And the beauty of it is that we know instinctively what that means. To feel an inner expanse that is not an attenuation [Remember St Augustine’s claim: time is the distension of the mind.] The spaciousness that does not stretch, that is one with timelessness and that can sometimes be stumbled into. “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space…” said Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and being no saint he concluded the sentiment with “…were it not that I have bad dreams.” But Kevin’s dreams are unclouded. His heart mirrored undistorted in the river. His prayer untainted and transparent, “To labor and not to seek reward.” An aspiration that mirrors the pith of the Gita:”You are entitled to your labor, not to the fruit of your labor.” An aspiration that issues forth not from mind or lips but from the entirety of his being– and then those lovely, lovely last lines:

“For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.”

And we, standing again in the skin of our own lives, full of mistakes and memories and self, we know, as the poet relies on us to know, what St. Kevin does not. That the river’s name, of course, is Love.

***

Heaney reading St. Kevin at the offices of his publishers, on the occasion of his 70th birthday.

“[This poem is] based on a sense of doing the right thing for the reward of doing the right thing. And I think that a literary publishing house which continues to hold those values is in that domain of a self belief and faith and chosen values opted for and stood by. Publishing is to some extent still, and to a great extent here I think, a labor of love, and a matter of work for the right reason, and–even if you aren’t going to get any great monetary reward–to keep going.”

***


The Two-Year-Old’s Tantrum

There are signs. There are always signs. But it all happens so swiftly there is never time enough to avert the catastrophe or run for cover. First a small thundercloud descends on her brow. The horizon darkens with her eyes as a lower lip thrusts forward and the moment turns ominous. A wooden silence deepens briefly before being split by the axe of an unholy shriek. A torrent of unhinged rage and grief floods the moment.

And one has to admit, even if grudgingly, that the versatility and sheer energy of the performance is impressive. How one small being can produce such a convincing simulation of five banshees in an altercation is a mystery.

In the middle of your living room a tiny lightning rod for all the inarticulate sorrows and unnameable injustices of the world. A ritual enactment, that would be easier to appreciate if the sensorial experience were less discomfiting, less like listening to a smoke alarm with arms and legs that flail.

This one-act play always ends like it begins. Without logic or explanation. Peace and serenity show up at the doorstep unannounced. Like wandering minstrels. With bright songs on their lips, and nothing to forgive, or be forgiven for.


Commuter Dreams

A drunken stagger is perfectly acceptable when walking down the aisle of a moving train. I think this thought to myself while lurching gently towards the door, my station fast approaching, and just before my gaze snags, catches sharply (as stray wool of sweater on nail) on the scene of a middle-aged man whose snores grumble like waves, steadily over the shores of an open book.

I stop and stare, yes forgetting for a moment to maintain the courteous indifference train travelers exhibit to one another, observers of an unwritten code –“We shall not presume to be interested– no not even faintly—in one another.”

For I have been startled now into undeniable interest. By a man whose busy head is flopped forward in the rag doll abandon and recklessness of unintended sleep. I would give a great deal to know the hidden title of the book that prompted its reader into this public morning slumber.

He is attired in importance, in the pinstriped pajamas of the corporate world. A briefcase leans against his arm like a very tired teddy bear. In a moment the train will rattle to a stop and the scuffle of commuters coming and going will fill the air, will snatch the thin covers off this dreaming form and he will wake to the brief bewilderment of being who he is and where and when.

And glancing down at his book I wonder how much he will remember. Will the details of the plot be clear or blurred, an out-of-focus photo of a familiar place? Will he recognize all the characters and perceive the truth of their tangled motivations or will he use up a measure of suspicion and formality on them all over again?

The train stops, I do not wait to see his head lift, his eyes open, my feet carry me forward. I step off the train light as a falling leaf knowing suddenly, that we too drift, in and out of life with each passing moment, sleep and wake at nameless stations to find an open book cradled in our laps – the long-winded story without title that we started when the stars were children.

A  story whose brilliant and tender plot is concealed only by our human and endearing forgetfulness.


The Day the Deer Ate Our Rose Bush

Our friends brought us a rose bush –our first and only. They said they chose it because it spoke sweetly. And it did. (Not all roses do). We planted it in our fledgling garden. Dug a deep hole in a suitably sunlit corner, gently persuaded this beauty out of its pot, fragrant soil still clinging to its roots, placed it carefully in the ground. Then we proceeded to water it, with tender admiration and irrational optimism. Picture a rose bush, the size of a toddler, lush with emerald leaves, and studded with sunset blooms. Roses with rouged orange petals, brilliantly colored and just big enough to lose yourself in. Also fat buds swollen with gossip, teetering on the brink of gorgeous indiscretion. Some rose bushes are stand-offish, regal but removed. Ours was charming, unpretentious, easy to love.

It is relevant at this juncture, to remind you that we have deer in these hills. Herds that you will chance upon, poised prettily in driveways and front yards, sometimes even on sidewalks, like uncannily realistic garden statuary. They frequent our home with some regularity and are welcome here. I will look out the window and see them stepping delicately up the little path that leads to the tumbledown slope of our backyard. They arrive with a polite and expectant air, like customers walking into a restaurant where they’ve made a reservation.  “Party of five,” I will sometimes murmur to my husband. Almost I am tempted to greet them with a tray of water glasses, pass out menus for their perusal. But they do not need menus. Our backyard, with its towering cypress, it’s unkempt bottlebrush shrubs, it’s berry bushes, ivy covered fence and crumbling, uneven stone terraces, is their buffet. Sometimes they come when we are fast asleep in bed. A loud clattering will temporarily rouse us from our slumbers and then, “It’s just the deer,” one of us will say, and we will tumble back into dreamland, while our four-legged friends stroll across our wooden deck, towards the immovable feast of our aspiring garden.

Roses, we had been informed are a much sought-after delicacy in the Kingdom of Deer. To make your rose bush unassailable involves encasing it in fencing or netting. But there is something about these sensible approaches that is too cage-like for my liking. My taste in gardens runs towards the tangled and wild. I admire, but do not aspire to manicured lawns and neatly ordered grounds. I prefer gardens that are loosely choreographed, spontaneous. Gardens that lean towards the green edge of chaos. Looking for alternatives I turn to the wisdom of the internet. A quick search reveals that in this battle of wits between gardeners and deer, humans do not often emerge as victors. The preventative measures we have evolved, while wonderfully creative and occasionally even successful, are far from being reliably effective. But some have the saving grace of being entertaining. For instance, there is the Irish Spring technique which involves suspending bars of this cheerfully named soap from tree branches, and tying them onto stakes. There is also the Stinky Spray method which involves boiling a mixture of garlic cloves, cayenne pepper, dish soap, apple cider vinegar and spraying the resultant concoction over your garden plants (while being sure to stand up wind). Is it just me, or is it a trifle absurd, and also a little bit adorable, that as a species we have put a man on the moon, we have figured out how to break the sound barrier and are on the verge of popularizing self-driving cars, but when it comes to protecting flowers from deer raids, our most advanced response is stringing up bath soap, and mixing inconceivably horrid-smelling potions over the kitchen stove?

Not being drawn to the aesthetic of soap bars a-dangling in the backyard, I went the olfactory assault route. I boiled up an unthinkably awful smelling concoction, out of a series of individually benign ingredients. In combination they resulted in a far from aromatic brew that managed to waft its way into every nook and cranny of our small home, prompting us to hastily open all the windows and depart for a very long walk — but only after I had filled a spray bottle and liberally sprayed our ethereal rose bush with this anything-but-ethereal potpourri of Awfulness. As we propelled ourselves speedily away from the garden we wondered whether our strategy was going to prove over-effective, keeping not just deer at bay, but any and all creatures possessed of a nose. Ourselves included.

A day went by, then two, and three, and our ornamental garden shrub stretched new leaves into the sun, opened the tight flushed fists of its buds into ridiculously generous blooms. The deer were nowhere to be seen and I rejoiced at the sage wisdom of the internet that had so sagely been applied. Feeling self-congratulatory and complacent I neglected to respray the bush at the end of a week, figuring the deer would have no way of knowing if I were to delay by a day. I underestimated their vigilance. The next morning I gazed out our window and wondered why the rose bush looked so much smaller than it had the last evening. And why there were so many stubby little branches sticking out in all directions, devoid of any leaves, and why were there only two roses left when yesterday there had been almost a dozen. It took a full minute for me to comprehend the obvious. The deer had visited. But why I wondered had they left the two roses? Perhaps as a gesture of goodwill, an attempt at compromise. “We take the bush, you take these two perfect flowers.” All is fair in love and war and gardening. I sprayed the bush with less conviction than I had the previous week. My faith in its powers, like the rose bush itself, sadly diminished. That night a rustling sound from the garden roused me from slumber. I flicked on the garden light and peered through the slats of our blinds, straight into the delicate face of a young deer with her mouth full of roses.

As a child I would sometimes save up the last bite of chocolate, the last sweet in the jar. For later. I would say to myself. And through the course of the day I carried knowledge of the stored-treat, like a shiny pebble in my pocket. To be fingered surreptitiously at various intervals, releasing the thrill of anticipation. Every event in childhood is experienced more than once. There is the event itself and then the innumerable times it is lived prospectively. And so perhaps it is with other creatures as well. I imagine the young deer in our garden the previous night. I do not think it is unlikely that this train of thought played itself out in her sleek head:  ‘Today I will eat all but two of these delicious rose custards. Tomorrow I will come back when the moon is full and the birds fast asleep, and I will eat these last two delicacies with unhurried grace, and strong-jawed determination.

To have a rose bush in your garden is a sweetly scented gift. But it is also, and this fact may surprise you, a gift, to find in your garden, a deer, haloed by moonlight, gazing at you with soft, attentive eyes, as she thoughtfully partakes of the very last of the last of your roses. Velvet orange petals, lush green leaves, woody stems, crimson thorns all pulled into the fearless cavern of her mouth. An appetite for life that strikes you as remarkable, and unequivocally deserving of all your pretty roses. Yes every last one.

And perhaps we can all learn to be such unflinching connoisseurs. Perhaps we too will someday stand, in a sliver of moonlight, feasting on the jeweled and thorny gifts of our world.


Misunderstanding

The poetry of misunderstanding is related to all that intends, and fails, to meet its mark. The arrow that whistles past the target. The hammer that descends on the unfortunate thumb. It is tangled up in many of the misguided habits we have perfected. Of chasing wild geese, counting chickens prematurely, and locating carts before their horses. It is implicated in our undignified tendency to bark up incorrect trees, and in our fondness for laboring under delusions. Also in our reluctance to bite our tongues, bide our time or swallow our pride.

In a world of variable weather conditions, the poetry of misunderstanding rolls into our lives, sometimes like fine mist in the valley, sometimes like thick fog off the ocean, sometimes like rampaging tornado, full of sound and fury. It obscures the view, shrouds the sun, and introduces a vast capacity for confusion. It creates labyrinths of resentment, riptides of blame and guilt, and dark woods of inarticulate rage. It also, however, embeds in all things, an element of mystery. With it the potential for adventure. Were every path unconditionally clear, and all maps readable, life would amount to little more than a long walk in the park. Pleasant for awhile, but soon grown tedious, and eventually, unbearable. Uncertainty is the price of every quest. The risk of misunderstanding who you are, where you are meant to go, and what you are meant to do.  It has always been this way and will so always be. We are susceptible to blundering. And it is this liability that renders our best efforts noble.

On happy occasion, misunderstanding can be dispersed as gracefully as a cloud of butterflies, dissolved effortlessly as a sugar cube in your cafe au lait, by a gentle word or a well-timed gesture of sincerity. In less fortuitous instances it springs out of ill-nourished soil like an enchanted hedge, intractable and laced with thorns. Or an unscalable concrete wall, studded with watch towers and armed guards. The poetry of misunderstanding casts shadows and spells, whose effects often lie far beyond the conjuring of prediction. Imagine at large in the world, a persnickety dragon beleaguered by a chronic cough. When he flares up it is difficult to say with any degree of well-reasoned certainty whether the trigger was merely a tickle in his throat, or his temper. This ambiguity leads to many singed encounters and tragicomic quantities of heartbreak on all sides.  It does not require familiarity with dragons, persnickety or otherwise, to understand how this plays out.

Meaning is implicit. The facts require reading into. A slammed door might mean the wind, or someone’s desperation. Errors of interpretation are inevitable. One day you say ‘water’ and mean ‘I am thirsty’. Someone brings you a shining glass full to the brim. It is not far-fetched to assume that someday you will say ‘water’ but what you mean is ‘My house is on fire!’ And someone will toss over their shoulder, directions to the well, as they run to catch a train, a plane, a falling star. It is natural and also absurd, that in that moment you will feel fiercely betrayed. It has occurred to you that the message spoken was not the message heard. Yet somehow this consideration is insufficient to soothe the sting. In the middle and the muddle of it all, it does not help that sometimes you will say ‘water’ when what you actually mean is, ‘I do not agree’,  or ‘What are you thinking?’, or ‘There must be another way.’ It does not help that under other people’s pleasantries and your own, you sometimes sense the slosh of deep, unquiet waters. Language is gorgeous, convenient and faithless. Perhaps it is our extensive vocabulary that complicates things. It affords us inexhaustible ways to say what we do not mean, and to hear what was not meant. The quarrels of birds are of a simpler, less exhausting sort.

Because our gaze is untrained, and our spirits sometimes perverse, we often seek what we do not wish to find. And the strange truth is, that if we are looking for disappointment, we will never be disappointed. All things will oblige, will fall short if we wish them to. A fact that is exceedingly hard to remember when the world fails to measure up. We are creatures well-attuned to dissatisfaction and not unprimed for despair. Amidst our mixed messages, our cross-purposes, our contradictions and frictions and frays, is is easy to miss the miracle.

The miracle is this: That we are ever understood at all. By anyone or anything. Sometimes you catch another’s eye in a crowd and feel reinforced in sympathy. Sometimes a child cries and is cradled, fed. Sometimes a single line in a single letter wakes a slumbering giant in your heart. And a perfect conversation is held in the hammered gold silence of friends. Sometimes we complete each other’s sentences. Sometimes we are the answers to each other’s unspoken prayers. Sometimes the colors of twilight, or the whir of a hummingbird’s wings, a thieving squirrel, or a flower that opens in the rain is all it takes to set the record straight. To right a series of wrongs. And restore the tumbled crown. These affinities are available, this communion possible.

And when properly considered, the facts are astounding. That we, who have yet to perfectly understand the one person we have lived with all our lives, are granted this kinship. Again and ever yet again. A grace so great, that sometimes we are ready to be the one who forgives before being forgiven. The one who comforts before being comforted, and understands before being understood. The one who throws open the prison gates, releases into stormy skies a brave flock of snow white doves, draws woodland animals and woeful mortals alike into a circle of love. Where all is resolved, and all refreshed. Sometimes we are ready to do these things. And sometimes we are not. But it behooves us to believe that we each do our best.

And in the end, the poetry of misunderstanding is why poetry exists at all. In a world where no true thing is utterly sayable. No sayable thing ever utterly true. It has always been left to poetry, to perfect the delicate art, of miss and tell.


Conquest

An upstart bluejay seized the morning, just as a squadron of clouds annexed the sky. Meanwhile an imperious garbage truck took possession of the streets, and a spendthrift wind acquired the trees. Every last one. I who rose late and have commandeered nothing, watch from the window. Had I more ambition I would be perturbed.  But the spirit of conquest has always seemed troublesome and presumptuous to me. Time is not interested in my philosophy. This is is not the moment for self-effacement chides the clock on the wall. Go now. Before I beat you to it. Go. Lay claim to your life.


Flu Season

Tolerance is one of your strong suits. Barring that one week in the year when you have a cold in the head and all bets are off. In this bleary-eyed time of cough and sniffle small things trigger disproportionate consequences. The clanging of the garbage truck, the stain on the tablecloth, the stack of junk mail. These trifles and many like them, stir intemperate impulses. The leaking faucet and the sales call seem expressly calculated to destroy your happiness. The traffic jam, a sink full of dirty dishes and disagreeable weather are taken as personal insults. You have fallen out of the world’s favor. And the future that stretches ahead of you is unspeakably bleak. And yet, as it has happened ever before, it will happen ever again. The fog in your head will gradually disperse and the world will grow bearable by slow degrees. Your life and its importance will recede like the tide and you will remember to take a genuine interest in others. Gratitude like a migratory bird will return to your heart. Twig by twig build a nest in its branches. And at night, driving home you will catch sight of a crescent moon suspended in a dark sky . A ghostly punctuation mark that will catch your breath and tilt you from low grade wretchedness, headfirst into love.


Again

And so it is given to us. Again. As flawless and exciting as a freshly unwrapped bar of soap. Dazzling as a field of untrodden snow. This brand New Year.  A vision perfect as a tiered and frosted wedding cake. It cradles our past and all our possible futures. The way the night sky holds the light of vanished and unborn stars. We have roamed the days of the last twelve months with wild hearts. A restless and precocious herd. Easy prey to fear and greed, yet capable of forgiveness. And a fierce, indomitable love. We are children slowly learning how to steer our gifts in an intricate, uncertain world. While our small, blue planet, that solitary long-distance runner, undemanding and unsupervised, begins its next long lap around the sun.


Wonderful

In the afternoon I stand up from my desk and look out the window. Come and play! cried the hills, ‘Old Time is still a flyin!’. And who can harden their heart against an invitation like that? I nod farewell to my to-do-list and head out the door into a bright, crisp December. It feels so good to be outside. To be placing one foot in front of the other and moving my body down the street and up the hill. So many things to see. The strings of Christmas lights fringing people’s homes, patiently waiting for darkness to fall, so that they can come alive like fairy dust or visiting stars. The man walking a big dog, who is greeted by barks from other dogs who are housebound and envious (how wonderful to be a big dog on a walk!). The teenager who is entirely un-charmed by the day’s beauty and who stalks down the street in a cloud of his own sullenness (how wonderful to be a glowering teenager at odds with the world!) The blond, tousle-haired runner, sweat-stained and disinclined towards conversation, whose legs pump up the steep incline with muscular and machine-like ease. His ears stuffed with music, his face wearing the inward expression of a soldier or saint (how wonderful to be a runner, rejoicing in your strength and sufficient unto your own two legs!). The bushes with purple flowers shaped like trumpets. The glimpses of Christmas trees through uncurtained windows. The woman with white hair, standing in her garden waiting for her courtesy shuttle service (how wonderful to be a white-haired woman in a garden!). The fallen leaves of the maple trees reddening the ground. The smell of smoke, and the sight of it faintly issuing from a chimney. The potted poinsettia plants adorning front steps and porches, like scarlet ambassadors. The man taking a walk with his very young son, who stops to stare at very un-extraordinary things, like wooden fences. (How wonderful to be very young and entranced by the un-extraordinary!). The mini-van with antlers attached to its roof and a large red nerf ball affixed to its front fender. The tall, spry woman wearing a straw hat, walking in the opposite direction as me. She smiles when our eyes meet. (how wonderful to be happy and spry and wearing a straw hat!).  The mailman in his uniform and familiar white van, faithfully doing his rounds (how wonderful to be a mailman, bringing people their Christmas cards and packages!). The blue of the sky against the green of the hills. The laughter of unseen children. The splendidly gnarled limbs of the old oaks. Verandahs wreathed with evergreen boughs. Silver baubles hanging from bare branches. And then, eventually the welcoming sight of the red tiled roof and brown walls of our home. Tucked into the hills like a well-kept secret. Overrun by clover grass and memories. I pull out my key to open the door. (How very wonderful to be me, returning to this sweet home).

 


What To Call It?

What is it that you sometimes lose, and then find, that turns the day from bleakness to splendor in an instant? What to call it — that nameless flash, that infusion of un-summoned energy that flies you across a chasm believed uncrossable? On this side, a very capable gloom takes hold of your ankles and refuses to let go. Like a child throwing a tantrum on the floor. Its stubborn weight makes it difficult to walk with any semblance of grace. On this side everywhere you go, you drag an invisible, horizontal sadness with you. On that side, your feet have wings and whatever is so much as grazed by your glance, sparkles. Joy floods your being, gathers at your fingertips, stands ready to be released in the world like a spell. On that side, you live as royalty. Each moment unfolding like a red carpet in front of you. What transports you from this side to that, is a mystery. Nothing calculated or studied does the trick. It is triggered by things that are, but did not plan to be. Like the sight of a hummingbird hovering above a riot of purple flowers. Or a child’s hand stretched towards the moon. Yes. A thing so slight now electrifies you, draws you up, returns you to your proper home. Flouting the laws of gravity and time. And how to explain this feeling? Imagine a blighted apple falling in reverse. Raised up from muddy, trampled ground and reattached, round and whole to its green bough. Free to shine again. A small red sun. It feels…like that.