Monday, May 26, 2014


                                               MOZART, for EXAMPLE
                                                        by Mary Oliver

                                      All the quick notes
                                      Mozart didn't have time to use
                                      before he entered the cloud-boat

                                      are falling now from the beaks
                                      of the finches
                                      that have gathered from the joyous summer

                                      into the hard winter
                                      and, like Mozart, they speak of nothing
                                      but light and delight,

                                      though it is true, the heavy blades of the world
                                      are still pounding underneath.
                                      And this is what you can do too, maybe,

                                      if you live simply and with a lyrical heart
                                      in the cumbered neighborhoods or even,
                                      as Mozart sometimes managed to, in a palace,

                                      offering tune after tune after tune,
                                      making some hard-hearted prince
                                      prudent and kind, just by being happy.

The cardinal family that reigns over our small rose garden gives credence to Oliver's observation that our song birds "speak of nothing but light and delight."  Listening to the song birds and Mozart, I hope that I will someday master the art of living simply and with a lyrical heart.

Master of the Rose Garden

Mistress of the Rose Garden

. . . And Their New Spring Chick

I would rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach 10,000 stars how not to dance.
e.e. cummings

Mary Oliver's poem, "Mozart, for Example," is found in Thirst: Poems by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press: Boston, 2006).

Thursday, April 24, 2014


For more than thirty-five years, Wendell Berry has been writing a series of poems inspired by the solitary, reflective walks he takes around his Kentucky farm on most Sundays.  According to Berry, the Sabbath poems "are about moments when heart and mind are open and aware."  

Many of the Sabbath poems appear in This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems (2013), which I have been reading in recent days.  One poem that keeps returning to my mind is No. VI of the 1998 collection.  It's a poem that reminds us of the fluid nature of life, the impermanence of all things, and the mounting losses that every person must encounter as the price for existence.  I find it both insightful and inspirational, and hope you will as well.

                                           SABBATH VI, 1998

                                        By expenditure of hope,
                                        Intelligence, and work,
                                        You think you have it fixed.
                                        It is unfixed by rule.
                                        Within the darkness, all 
                                        Is being changed, and you
                                        Also will be changed.

                                        Now I recall to mind 
                                        A costly year:  Jane Kenyon,
                                        Bill Lippert, Philip Sherrard,
                                        All in the same spring dead,
                                        So much companionship
                                        Gone as the river goes.

                                        And my good workhorse Nick
                                        Dead, who called out to me
                                        In his conclusive pain
                                        To ask my help.  I had
                                        No help to give.  And flood
                                        Covered the cropland twice.
                                        By summer's end there are
                                        No more perfect leaves.

                                        But won't you be ashamed
                                        To count the passing year
                                        At its mere cost, your debt 
                                        Inevitably paid?
                                        For every year is costly,
                                        As you know well.  Nothing
                                        Is given that is not
                                        Taken, and nothing taken
                                        That was not first a gift.

                                        The gift is balanced by
                                         Its total loss, and yet,
                                         And yet the light breaks in,
                                         Heaven seizing its moments
                                         That are at once its own
                                         And yours.  The day ends
                                         And is unending where
                                         The summer tanager,
                                         Warbler, and vireo
                                         Sing as they move among
                                         Illuminated leaves.

Monday, February 24, 2014


As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged by a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.
                                Stephen Graham, The Gentle Art of Tramping 

After several bruising weeks of winter weather, the temperature has risen in recent days, the ice in higher elevations has melted, and the trails of the Blue Ridge mountains are once again beckoning the winter walker.  For those of us who have suffered from a bit of "cabin fever" lately, the prospect of spending more time outdoors is a welcome relief.

Early yesterday morning, I drove up to the piedmont area of the mountains and set out on the Raven Rock Trail, an interesting circuit hike that offers moderately challenging ascents and descents, as well as magnificent views of Lake Keowee. From the moment I entered the trailhead, I became a different person — no judgments, no analysis, no anxiety, no resentment — just pure, unadulterated peace and joy.  How liberating it is to be in the woods, far from the material world and the maddening crowds!

A few photos of my walk are set forth below, along with some observations about the importance of our connections with the natural world.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Keep close to Nature's heart . . . and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods.  Wash your spirit clean.
John Muir

Reading about nature is fine, but if a person walks in the woods and listens carefully, he can learn more than what is in books, for they speak with the voice of God.
George Washington Carver 

Until we understand what the land is, we are at odds with everything we touch.  And to come to that understanding it is necessary, even now, to leave the regions of our conquest — the cleared fields, the towns and cities, the highways — and re-enter the woods.  For only there can a man encounter the silence and the darkness of his own absence.  Only in this silence and darkness can he recover the sense of the world's longevity, of its ability to thrive without him, of his inferiority to it and his dependence on it.  Perhaps then, having heard that silence and seen that darkness, he will grow humble before the place and begin to take it in — to learn from it what it is.
Wendell Berry 

In some mysterious way woods have never seemed to me to be static things.  In physical terms, I move through them; yet in metaphysical ones, they seem to move through me.
John Fowles

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.  Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.  The winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.
John Muir 

The poetry of the earth is never dead.

                                           What would the world be, once bereft
                                           Of wet and of wildness?  Let them be left,
                                           O let them be left, wildness and wet;
                                           Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

                                                         Gerard Manley Hopkins

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.
Walt Whitman

And this our life, exempt from the public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running books, sermons in stone, and good in everything.

The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening.  It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


                                 Be prepared.  A dog is adorable and noble. 
                                 A dog is a true and loving friend.  A dog 
                                 is also a hedonist.

Mary Oliver
from The Wicked Smile

Once again, Mary Oliver has nailed the truth to my front door, reminding me that Derry, my Zen master, is an unrepentant hedonist.  Could it be that hedonism, at least in judicious amounts, is part of being wise?  Whatever the case, the evidence is in, and it demonstrates beyond a scintilla of doubt that the Zen master has been an ardent and relentless pleasure seeker since becoming my partner and constant companion more than eight years ago.

It began as a portrait in innocence,
as it always does with young puppies.

Within twenty-four hours, however, 
some remnant of her reptilian brain
had created a passion for disemboweling
stuffed animals and other objects too numerous to mention.

After destroying most of the stuffed animals,
three pairs of prescription glasses, two remote controls for the electronics,
and various items of clothing, she suddenly became amorous,
displaying style and technique that, to be candid, was quite impressive.

Soon thereafter, she discovered that a look like this
could manipulate me into satisfying any of her hedonistic appetites.
Dog owners, including Mary Oliver, know exactly what I'm talking about . . .
so let me return to Ms. Oliver's sensitive observations for the remainder of this post
(all quotes from poems in her recent collection, Dog Songs).

                                         A puppy is a puppy is a puppy.
                                         He's probably in a basket with a bunch 
                                              of other puppies.
                                         Then he's a little older and he's nothing 
                                              but a bundle of longing.
                                         He doesn't even understand it.

from How It Begins

                            A dog comes to you and lives with you in your own house,
                                but you
                            do not therefore own her, as you do not own the rain, or the
                            trees, of the laws which pertain to them.

from Her Grave

                                       Running here running there, excited,
                                               hardly able to stop, he leaps, he spins
                                       until the white snow is written upon
                                               in large, exuberant letters,
                                       a long sentence, expressing
                                               the pleasures of the body in this world.

from The Storm (Bear)

                                    Emerson, I am trying to live,
                                    as you said we must, the examined life.
                                    But there are days I wish
                                    there was less in my head to examine, 
                                    not to speak of the busy heart.  How
                                    would it be to be Percy, I wonder, not
                                    thinking, not weighing anything, just jumping forward.

from Percy, Waiting for Ricky

                                A dog can never tell you what she knows from the 
                                smells of the world, but you know, watching her,
                                     that you know
                                almost nothing.

from Her Grave

                                      We're, as the saying goes, all over the place.
                                      Steadfastness, it seems,
                                      is more about dogs than about us.
                                      One of the reasons we love them so much.

from How It Is With Us, 
And How It Is With Them

Credit:  All quotations in this post are from Mary Oliver's new collection, Dog Songs (The Penguin Press, New York, 2013).

Friday, January 24, 2014


Cour de Rohan (1922)
Photo by Eugène Atget

Heraclitus famously asserted that we can never step in the same river twice, for the river is constantly changing and so are we.  In short, everything is transitory, and no experience, however beautiful or transformational, can ever be truly replicated.  All that remains is the memory, but that alone, as the poet Jack Gilbert reminds us, may be more than enough.

                                        THE LOST HOTELS OF PARIS
                                                       By Jack Gilbert

                                   The Lord gives everything and charges

                                   by taking it back.  What a bargain.
                                   Like being young for a while.  We are
                                   allowed to visit hearts of women,
                                   to go into their bodies so we feel
                                   no longer alone.  We are permitted
                                   romantic love with its bounty and half-life
                                   of two years.  It is right to mourn
                                   for the small hotels of Paris that used to be
                                   when we used to be.  My mansard looking
                                   down on Notre Dame every morning is gone,
                                   and me listening to the bell at night.
                                   Venice is no more.  The best Greek islands
                                   have drowned in acceleration.  But it's the having,
                                   not the keeping that is the treasure.
                                   Ginsburg came to my house one afternoon
                                   and said he was giving up poetry
                                   because it told lies, that language distorts.
                                   I agreed, but asked what we have
                                   that gets it right even that much.
                                   We look up at the stars and they are
                                   not there.  We see the memory
                                   of when they were, once upon a time.
                                   And that too is more than enough.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


Archibald MacLeish
1892 - 1982

Yesterday, my friend Friko, author of the wonderful blog, Friko's World, published a rather poignant story about the challenges facing an elderly couple who live in her village.  As I read the piece, I was taken back to a special evening in the early seventies when I spent an evening in the Library of Congress listening to Archibald MacLeish read some of his poetry.  At the close of the evening, MacLeish read a deeply touching poem in which an elderly couple explore the meaning of their relationship as their individual lives face the ravages of time.  The last line of the poem, spoken by MacLeish with heartfelt and autobiographical certainty, has been etched in my memory for more than forty years.  Perhaps it will be meaningful for others as well.  

by Archibald MacLeish

They have only to look at each other to laugh —
no one knows why, not even they:
something back in the lives they've lived,
something they both remember but no words can say.

They go off at the evening's end to talk
but they don't, or to sleep but they lie awake —
hardly a word, just a touch, just near,
just listening but not to hear.

Everything they know they know together —
everything, that is, but one:
their lives they've learned like secrets from each other;
their deaths they think of in the nights alone.

She:  Love, says the poet, has no reasons.
He:  Not even after fifty years?
She:  Particularly after fifty years.
He:  What was it, then, that lured us, that still teases?
She:  You used to say my plaited hair!
He:  And then you'd laugh.
She:  Because it wasn't plaited.

Love had no reasons so you made one up to laugh at.  Look! The old gray couple!

He:  No, to prove the adage true:
Love has no reasons but old lovers do.
She:  And they can't tell.
He:  I can and so can you.
Fifty years ago we drew each other, magnetized needle toward the longing north.
It was your naked presence that so moved me.  It was your absolute presence that
was love.
She:  Ah, was!
He:  And now, years older, we begin to see absence not presence: what the world
would be without your footstep in the world — the garden empty of the radiance
where you are.
She:  And that's your reason? — that old lovers see their love because they know
now what its loss will be?
He:  Because, like Cleopatra in the play, they know there's nothing left once
love's away . . .
She:  Nothing remarkable beneath the visiting moon . . . 
He:  Ours is the late, last wisdom of the afternoon.  We know that love, like 
light, grows dearer toward the dark.

Sunday, January 5, 2014


Shortly before his early death in 2008, John O'Donohue wrote a lovely book of blessings for the various passages and experiences that define the lives of most people. Among my favorites is the poetic blessing he wrote for those of us who have an irrepressible passion for travel.  As you will see, O'Donohue understood that there are spiritual dimensions to every journey, that encounters with strangers and strange places always hold the possibility of transformation.  He also understood something deeply important that I have learned from my own travel experiences, specifically, that travel can "touch that part of the heart that lies low at home."                                                   

                                                   For the Traveler
                      To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings

                                       Every time you leave home,
                                       Another road takes you 
                                       Into a world you were never in.

                                       New strangers on other paths await.
                                       New places that have never seen you
                                       Will startle a little at your entry.
                                       Old places that know you well
                                       Will pretend nothing
                                       Changed since your last visit.

                                       When you travel, you find yourself 
                                       Alone in a different way,
                                       More attentive now
                                       To the self you bring along,
                                       Your more subtle eye watching
                                       You abroad; and how what meets you
                                       Touches that part of the heart
                                       That lies low at home:

                                       How you unexpectedly attune
                                       To the timbre in some voice,
                                       Opening a conversation
                                       You want to take in
                                       To where your longing
                                       Has pressed hard enough 
                                       Inward, on some unsaid dark,
                                       To create a crystal of insight
                                       You could not have known 
                                       You needed
                                       To illuminate
                                       Your way.

                                       When you travel,
                                       A new silence
                                       Goes with you,
                                       And if you listen,
                                       You will hear
                                       What your heart would
                                       Love to say.

                                       A journey can become a sacred thing:
                                       Make sure, before you go,
                                       To take the time
                                       To bless your going forth,
                                       To free your heart of ballast
                                       So that the compass of your soul
                                       Might direct you toward
                                       The territories of spirit
                                       Where you will discover
                                       More of your hidden life,
                                       And the urgencies 
                                       That deserve to claim you.

                                       May you travel in an awakened way,
                                       Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
                                       That you may not waste the invitations
                                       Which wait along the way to transform you.

                                       May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
                                       And live your time away to its fullest;
                                       Return home more enriched, and free
                                       To balance the gift of days which call you.