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.

Saturday, January 4, 2014


If we are to live in the present moment, a worthy goal for most of us, it is helpful to always remain mindful of the impermanence of things.  As Samuel Johnson famously said, "when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

Here are two fine poems that deal with life's impermanence and what it means for those who want to avoid sleepwalking through life.  Enjoy!

                                     The question before me, now that I
                                     am old, is not how to be dead,
                                     which I know from enough practice,
                                     but how to be alive, as these worn
                                     hills still tell, and some paintings 
                                     of Paul Cezanne, and this mere
                                     singing wren, who thinks he's alive
                                     forever, this instant, and may be.

                                                     Wendell Berry
                                               Sabbath Poems 2001, VIII

                       Be ahead of all parting, as if it had already happened,
                       like winter, which even now is passing.
                       For beneath the winter is a winter so endless
                       that to survive it at all is a triumph of the heart.

                       Be forever dead in Eurydice, and climb back singing.
                       Climb praising as you return to connection.
                       Here among the disappearing, in the realm of the transient,
                       be a ringing glass that shatters as it rings.

                       Be.  And, at the same time, know what it is not to be.
                       That emptiness inside you allows you to vibrate
                       in resonance with your world.  Use it for once.

                       To all that has run its course, and to the vast unsayable
                       numbers of beings abounding in Nature,
                       add yourself gladly, and cancel the cost.

Sonnets to Orpheus, Part Two, VIII
(translation by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy)

To always "climb back singing," to continue ringing the glass even as it shatters.  Is there any better resolution we can make for the new year?

Friday, January 3, 2014


Rain on Old Window 1
We have often heard that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  This is usually taken to mean that the sense of beauty is utterly subjective; there is no accounting for taste because each person's taste is different.  The statement has another, more subtle meaning: if our style of looking becomes beautiful, then beauty will become visible and shine forth for us. We will be surprised to discover beauty in unexpected places where the ungraceful eye would never linger.  The graced eye can glimpse beauty anywhere, for beauty does not reserve itself for special elite moments or instances; it does not wait for perfection but is present already secretly in everything.  When we beautify our gaze, the grace of hidden beauty becomes our joy and our sanctuary.

John O'Donohue
Beauty: Rediscovering The
True Sources of Compassion, Serenity, and Hope 

Rain on Old Window 2

Thursday, January 2, 2014


From yesterday's post on the creation of a sacred place in one's home to something closely related and equally important — the need for a modicum of silence in one's life.

Soon silence will have passed into legend.  Man has turned his back on silence.  Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation . . . tooting, howling, screeching, booming, crashing, whistling, grinding, and trilling bolster his ego.  His anxiety subsides.  His inhuman void spreads monstrously like gray vegetation.
Jean Arp 

Our task is to listen to the news that is always arriving out of silence.

The quieter you become, the more your can hear.

Ram Dass 

In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness.  Our life is a long and arduous quest after Truth.

Now all my teachers are dead except silence.

W.S. Merwin 
(from "A Scale in May")

Wednesday, January 1, 2014


The Astronomer
Johannes Vermeer

I have been re-reading The Power of Myth, which is essentially a transcript of conversations that the acclaimed journalist Bill Moyers had with Joseph Campbell in 1985 and 1986.  Every page of the transcript is rich in thought-provoking wisdom. As I leave a rather chaotic year, however, I find myself thinking more and more about a particular colloquy concerning the importance of not only creating, but defending, a sacred place in one's home. 
Bill Moyers: You write in The Mythic Image about the center of transformation, the idea of a sacred place where the temporal walls may dissolve to reveal a wonder.  What does it mean to have a sacred place?
Joseph Campbell: This is an absolute necessity for anybody today.  You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don't know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don't know who your friends are, you don't know what you owe anybody, you don't know what anybody owes to you.  This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be.  This is the place of creative incubation.  At first you may find that nothing happens there.  But if you have a sacred place and use it, something will happen.

Happy New Year  to Everyone!