Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Music of Silence

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Perhaps it’s an aftermath of stress over Irene. Perhaps that’s why my head aches today, why I’m weary and too ready to growl. There are too many irons heating in the fire, too many things that need doing, , and I don’t want to do any of them.  It’s one of those low-energy, low-motivation days when I want to burrow my head under the covers and hide.

So I plan an escape. Announcing that I am going upstairs to work, I carry a cup of tea up to my work room. But instead of writing or quilting, I stretch out on the sofa that faces the window and watch the trees.

From this vantage point I can see only the middle parts of the tall Carolina pines and the sweet gums that grow in our back yard. I can‘t hear the wind, either, but a brisk breeze is causing the giants to dip and sway. How beautiful, I think. The trees are dancing to silence.

Stately pines move slow,

Shake their branches and bow down

To warm wind, passing.

Dip and sway, bow and lift— watching this green minuet is really quite soothing. With no need to do anything or even to think, I open myself to the music of silence. It pours into the room like cool water, trickles down into my mind and eddies into each vein and muscle and sinew until my body is brim full of silence.

It makes me wonder: how often in any life does real silence exist? No background hum of conversation or traffic or music, no weather station bleep or radio announcement, no buzz of insect or cricket or barking dog… just silence?

Not too often. And to take that thought one step further— when is there silence in the mind? Even while I sip tea and watch the pines, thoughts gather, coalesce and form others. The brain is on active duty until sleep comes, and though the conscious mind goes still while sleeping, busy dreams work out loose ends in story plots or revolve around anxieties that have not been sorted during waking hours.

Moments of true silence are rare during a busy workday, perhaps that is why I prize them so much. Of Monet’s many beautiful paintings, the ones that resonate most with me are those in which he has captured a moment of stillness: a snow scene, a tranquil drift of water lilies. The tender first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata evokes motionless tranquility. Frost’s famous poem about two paths diverging in snowy woods conjures up the silent fall of snow.

Wind blows from the north

Stirring lacy whorls of snow…

Still winter morning.

Now here I lie on the couch and feel my headache ebb as I watch the soundless dance of the  trees. Their movements are like moonlight and dappled shade, like the hush just before dawn, like everything beautiful and also like nothing at all—the nashi  of Zen. Though it’s true that I need action and interaction in my life, there is also a need to soothe the senses and let the mind rest. Only then can I pay real  attention to the ‘small, still voice’ that nourishes creative or constructive thought.

I’m feeling incredibly peaceful, now, but already sounds are beginning to intrude. The phone is ringing. A car door bangs shut; a neighbor’s dog barks.  Quiet gives way to wry realization that I have to re-enter the noisy world.

So, upward and onward! But before leaving the room I look over my shoulder. Outside the window trees are still dancing to the music of silence.

"Dawn"

 

 

 

Two-Faced Time

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I used to think that the old saw, ‘This too shall pass,’ was comforting. Actually, it wears two faces. There are times, happy ones, when I wish Time could be stored forever and other times—as now, when a very nasty hurricane threatens the eastern coast— when my fervent hope is that Time will speed up and clear out. Neither is practical, of course, for Time has but one mission in life: to move forward at its own pace.

I am especially thinking of Time today because our grandson has just started high school. While delighted that he has taken that stride in the pursuit of learning, I also remember when, as a laughing baby, he took his first faltering steps Could that have been 13 years ago? Surely not, and yet my gray hairs (and the fact that he towers above me) testify to the march of Time. The years ahead will bring wonderful events, I am sure, but at the moment I wallow in nostalgia for Time past.

Grandson to high school…

Just a few summers ago

He took his first steps!

Time rules our lives, doesn’t it? Our speech is littered with words and expressions like ‘timely,’ ‘time out,’ and lost time.’  We set ourselves or are given deadlines and schedules, obligations and contracts. We race from one task to another, hardly finishing one before seeing the next on the horizon. The story is finally written? That article comes next. The project is completed—ah, but I need to start on the baby quilt for a friend’s grand daughter. The poor child needs to get it before she turns twenty one! One meeting is over, but there are two more scheduled this week. Tasks and projects become jumbled so that what should be deliberate and pleasurable becomes pressure instead.

The universe, I’m told, is under pressure, too. Our galaxy and the other myriad galaxies of our known universe apparently march to their own beat of Time. Eventually our sun will become a red giant, then a white dwarf, and finally nova. Not that we need to worry about this since this solar time continuum stretches for billions of years, but the truth is that the whole shebang is on the clock.

Fine, I tell myself. I will go on vacation, not worry about anything, and simply soak up relaxation. But that holiday, so carefully and lovingly planned, passes in a blink of… well, you know the culprit.

So what’s to be done? The obvious solution would be to live in the moment, to enjoy every minute of life no matter what joys or sorrows crowd that minute. Perhaps other people can accomplish this, but in spite of every good intention, I can only manage it for short bursts of Time. Those short bursts are precious though, like the misty morning walk along the beach when the world is hushed and the waves rustle like silk across the sand. Like the time when the sun pierces the darkness and all the birds in the world burst into song. Like the unexpected hug from a grandchild which causes Time to lose its power.

And then I think… Time doesn’t always call the shots. Beethoven and Da Vinci and Michaelangelo live on in music and art though they themselves do not walk the earth. Great writers come to life every time a book is loved or a poem quoted. They’ve learned the only way to beat Time … and perhaps that is why we write, or paint, or sew or sculpt or photograph our thoughts and dreams… not for hope of immortality or fame but simply because we want to slow Time just enough to leave a small marker that is uniquely ours.

Shimmer of moonlight…

If I capture this moment

Will you remember?

 

Moonrise On a Dark Planet 30x30

 

The (often dangerous) World Outside the Box

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I’ve really done it this time. In my haste to cut the fabric, I’ve made a wrong angle and ruin is the result. Even worse, there is a jagged tear where my scissors slipped!

This is the result of being too much in a hurry. This comes of letting inspiration get ahead of preparation. I should have followed instructions—better still, I should have read the instructions! When will I learn that it isn’t always wise to venture outside the box?

Not that I haven’t been warned. “Please color inside the lines!” my exasperated teacher used to say. “How many times do I have to tell you that?”

Too many times, I could have told her. It wasn’t that I enjoyed flouting the rules—it was just that the white expanse of paper outside the lines was so tempting. Why confine color to a portion of the paper? I tried to explain this to her, but she had already moved on.

My father, when I told him my problem, gave his considered opinion. While in school, he said, it was best to follow guidelines. “On your own time, though,” he added, “you can do what you like.” Then, with a mischievous gleam—“Go get some paper and crayons and let’s see what we can do!”

Then, there was my English teacher who despaired of my early attempts at writing. “You can’t start a sentence with ‘but,’” he lectured. “And when you write a story, you must not use sentence fragments.” Polite acknowledgements notwithstanding, I preferred to listen to my Uncle Harry who agreed that grammar was essential as a foundation. “You need to learn it thoroughly,” he advised, “but once you have got the hang of it, use your ears. People don’t always use sentences when they speak, and they aren’t always grammatical.”

And finally there was my Aunt Juliette. Though a traditionalist in the art she created with needle and thread, she never trusted traditional colors. “Nature,” she would say, “has the best color combinations, Look…” And here she always proceeded to drag me outside to observe the changing colors of the sky, the startling hues of a butterfly’s wing, the light and shadow thrown by her cucumber vines. “Trust what you see with your eyes,” she warned, then added, “trust what you feel.”

Is it any wonder that I have gone astray? Early on I realized that outside  tried and true parameters there existed a world of ideas which made it almost impossible to stay within the lines. Not that lines and rules are not important—as Harry pointed out, these are the base on which creativity is built—- but once learned and absorbed, rules become fluid.

Watching a dewdrop

And imagining a world…

Warm afternoon’s dream.

This is all very well and good. Thinking outside the box has produced so many marvels as regard the e.e. cummings (more properly referred to as E.E. Cummings) of this world, and the Impressionist painters. But venturing out where no woman has gone before has its perils and pratfalls, too. More failures than I can count have resulted from unrestrained forays into imagination, and many projects have produced spectacular disasters, the contemplation of which makes me grind my teeth. Botched fabric, unfinished manuscripts, hours of frustration—and yet…

That yet is what makes the journey interesting. Out of botched fabric appears a new picture. From the unfinished manuscript, it’s likely that several idea kernels can be reaped. A monumental disaster might take new form and, phoenix-like, rise out of the ashes. As long as I don’t falter, as long as I can keep imagining solutions, problems have the chance of becoming possibilities.

So, here we are. I eyeball my ruined fabric, walk around it and observe it from a different angle. Hmm. Supposing I rotate it, add a new piece here, cut off this point there? Perhaps… yes, certainly, I can see what the result might be. This is exciting! And as to the tear, I have a solution. A butterfly appliquéd over it might just do the trick.

Butterfly (or bird?)

Flying near a waterfall…

Aha—a jungle!

 

 

Of Moons and Cucumbers

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I have always had a soft spot for Pluto. Not the tail-wagging pooch in  the Disney cartoons but the small and far away celestial mass circling our sun. Saddened when Pluto was demoted from planet status, I cheered when it popped back into the news as the proud owner of a new, hitherto undiscovered moon.

No wonder then that today in the vegetable garden Pluto’s newfound satellite came to mind. Lest you think that the heat has finally melted my brains, let me explain that our vegetable garden is as impenetrable as outer space. Fenced in against ever hopeful rabbits, this small patch is home to tomato plants that have gone on a rampage. Staked, double staked and still climbing, these monsters have invaded almost every inch of garden space. Sometimes we swear that they came from the same packet as Jack’s beanstalk.

Amongst the tomatoes lies a small and humble mound which, in early summer, I planted with cucumber seeds. Out of many, three sprouted and grew. But any hope I had for cucumber salad or cucumber soup was soon dashed as the overbearing tomatoes muscled in, overpowering and overshadowing everything within reach, Alas, poor cukes. Even the few flowers they sent out looked discouraged.

Shadowed cucumbers

With little chance for sunlight

Choked in inner space.

Muttering curses against all pushy vegetables, I gave up. But of course this is not the end of the story. This morning I saw something long and green dangling from the tallest tomato plants. Could it be? Unbelievable— but yes! Not only one but six unblemished cucumbers had managed to find the sun after all!

And more were coming. Flushed with discovery, I took inventory and thought that I tend to give up too soon. Many of us do. We lose heart and put away a project, a dream, a dear hope.  The story comes back with a form letter. The art quilt that had so much promise doesn’t make it into a juried show. The project, worked on for so long, is not accepted. So back go these efforts to sulk in closet or file cabinet, and we try to forget and move on.

Far easier to do this than to rewrite or find another exhibition— but the easy path seldom goes very far. Novels beloved and hailed around the world have been rejected over and over—as witness Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, which had twenty three rejections! Van Gogh’s paintings were ridiculed during his lifetime. And, looking back several decades, I wince as I remember how my own first novel, My Brother Is Special, was sent back eleven times and that I rewrote the beastly thing each time—on my manual typewriter.

Picking the cucumbers, I resolved to remember: not the giddy moment of success but those teeth-gritting times when failure snarls. Writer, artist, engineer, carpenter, teacher—we all have these moments, and it then comes to choice. We can turn away in defeat or we can push forward and, like Pluto, gift the world with an undiscovered moon.

Against space’s darkness

Undiscovered light so faint…

But light, nonetheless.

 

That Old Word Magic

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I recently discovered that there are 250,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary. Apparently, there’s a disconnect: out of that quarter of a million, the average person might use four thousand—maybe less, perhaps more.

Can you imagine how frustrated the unused words must feel? Here they are, twiddling their letters and hoping to be noticed. But are they? Do they get put into cogent sentences or love letters or even political advertisements? Alas, they do not.

Quit joking around, you might well say at this point, but the sad truth is that we overuse certain words and ignore others that can be more exciting, more dramatic, or simply different. And, I have to admit that some words are more user friendly than others.

For sure I favor certain words simply because they are lovely. Tranquility is one such. It evokes peace and gentle quiet and offers a balm to the spirit. Translucent is another such, although this is more about image than about mood. In that same spirit, there are words like mellifluous and mellow, both using the soothing ‘l’ sounds that ripples so easily along the psyche.

In the tranquil dawn

Turtle dove coos mournfully…

Love, or loneliness?

Everybody, I suspect, has favorite words. Sometimes, they are fabrications, made-up words like Jabberwocky or frabjous  or words that slide smoothly together as in moonglow. Others can raise eyebrows by the way they sound, as consider the lowly pismire. Eyebrows need to be raised, actually. Plots want action, they need conflict, they have to build up suspense. For these eventualities there are words like slithering which, though not exactly onomatopoeia, brings snaky things (and characters) to mind.

Sometimes I need to go further and convey pure evil and horror.  At such times what would  I do without malevolent which conjures up wickedness that is both primeval and deadly? And desolation! I once used the word in a novel and fell in love with it. It fills me with loneliness, despair and the dark night of the soul—wonderful stuff for any writer to work with!

On my list of favorites there are also words that evoke a particular sense, such as luscious which, especially in the summer, makes me drool for ripe peaches. Sense of  hearing? There is raucous, followed closely by glissando and bombast. There are many words to evoke sight, of course, and one of my favorites is opalescent, invaluable when describing a dawn sky. For the sense of touch, rotund conveys weight nicely as well as ponderous and the nasty viscous.  Smell is harder. Dank, or fetidincense, grass or flowery describe my response to a particular scent, but somehow these do not do the job without further clarification. Grass has to be new mown or dry and gasping for rain; incense can be or cloying or rise in blue smoke; the flowery scent might be honeysuckle or frangipani;  a dank and fetid wood may have overtones of fungi and dead leaves or be that ‘ghoul haunted woodland of Weir’ of Poe’s nightmares.

Verbs—I can hear them clamoring for attention, but I am ignoring their cacophony. There are just too many of these to count. I try to use the most energetic ones, the descriptive action words that badger or trundle or fracture, or… but there is really an overabundance of verbs.

At my most fanciful, I try to imagine a huge tree decked out with words instead of leaves. Pluck one (or so I imagine) and two more grow back in its place so that this verbal hydra always flourishes. There is never a shortfall. Actually not a bad thought, don’t you think?

Long summers ago,

I learned these few, simple words…

Then came the magic.

 

 

 

 

WHAT DREAMS MAY COME…

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"Reach!"

"Reach!"

This morning I am going to sort out my file folders. This is a task I have carefully avoided for months going on years, but the hot weather keeps me housebound, and this is as good a time as any. Here the folders lie, stacked in piles on my desk with more in the file cabinet nearby, all doomed, as Macbeth would have it, to dusty death.

Such hopes I had for everything crammed into these folders. Such wonderful ideas, provocative articles, snippets of information that would have made excellent stories, articles, or even a book or two! Yes, I would think, poring over a magazine or newspaper, I can use this for the basis of that book idea…oh, yes, this is excellent! But somehow, the enthusiasm waned and the dream of a book was lost.

Perhaps there is a place where lost dreams go, a limbo of the imagination where once-great plans and unrealized dreams wander aimlessly about. Doubtless this imagined place has the look of my desk.

Is that a cobweb

twining about old papers

faded by the sun?

So many dreams go by the board, don’t they? Sometimes they drift away because of unavoidable circumstances—ill health may play a hand, or lack of funds. Common sense keeps us from blowing all our life savings to fund an expedition to the far corners of the earth, and simple decency forbids that we leave our families in the lurch while we decamp to ‘follow our star.’ So the dreams are put away while life goes on.

But they persist. They lie in the stillness of our hearts and wait to be remembered.  The old gardener who worked for my mother once told me that he had always wanted to pilot a plane and soar high up in the sky. The mother of a friend secretly wished she had become an opera singer. One of my former high school students wanted, beyond anything, to go to a famous culinary school—but his grades weren’t good enough.  And then there are the people I meet who tell me that they intend to write a book that would knock the socks off the literary world, only they just don’t have time. But someday…

‘Someday,’ sadly, is usually a myth. ‘Tomorrow, friend, tomorrow… and tomorrow never comes,’ my uncle used to quote when I dithered and procrastinated. He was right, of course, because there are so many among us who have followed and mastered their dreams, sometimes at incredible cost. The athletes who persevere even when they have lost the use of their limbs, the poets and writers and artists who doggedly persist in believing in themselves and their art, the blind mountain climber who scaled the highest peak in the world, those courageous people who daily battle pain and disease and somehow reach their goals—all of these and more have seized the day and realized their dream.

Well, here I am, duly chastened and ready to work. In fact, I am opening the first dusty file folder right now. Before me lies an article dated—can it really be dated 1995? It is a good article, though, and this is a provocative idea. Modernized, energized, it could even work. I should write a story around it, perhaps even a book…

I may have to start a new file folder.