I hunger for the miraculous
I hunger for deep woods at night
and storm clouds tinged with pink.
I hunger for the miraculous
I hunger for deep woods at night
and storm clouds tinged with pink.
The winds were wild the day you died
Pear blossoms scattered like snow.
First green tipped the thin tree branches
And your redbud flowered in purple.
Cold wind and sunshine embraced us
As we crossed from house to house.
And the grass and hedge surrounding your yard
Shone in an emerald green.
I knew you had a hand in it –
Delighting in the April glory.
A day of beauty and laughter
When Heaven touched Earth in joy.
There’s a poem I’ve come across over the years that is simple, beautiful, and lyrical. It seems to find expression in different times, in slightly different wording. All the versions are evocative, stirring up rich images and emotions.
The autumn leaves are falling like rain,
Although my neighbors are all barbarians,
And you, you are a thousand miles away,
There are always two cups at my table. – Tang Dynasty poem
In this version, most likely translated from the original, I imagine a rugged landscape,
perhaps the Great Wall of China,
and a cup of tea.
A quick search reveals a few remarkable facts about the period the poem was written in: “China’s Tang Dynasty, 618-907, is often considered the Golden Age of Chinese poetry. During this period, poetry was an important part of social life at all levels of society. Scholars were required to master poetry for the civil service exams, but the art was theoretically available to everyone. Tang poetry has had an ongoing influence on world literature.” (Wikipedia)
However, there are other, similar versions of the poem. Perhaps the poem has been been translated in various ways throughout the years, or perhaps different poets were moved by the universality of the poem and reworked it for their time and place.
For example, this later version about an earlier period, is said to describe the far reaches of Britannia under Roman rule:
Here at the frontier
There are fallen gods
And my neighbours
Are all barbarians
Are thousands of miles away
There will always be on my table
Different imagery comes to mind: the wall morphs to Hadrian’s Wall, the landscape shifts to bleak highlands. I imagine damp cloaks, stomping horses, tents pitched next to a sputtering campfire.
And more recently, these lines, close to the original, appear in John Fowles’ The Magus:
“Here at the frontier there are falling leaves; although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, You are a thousand miles away. There are always two cups at my table.”
All the versions suggest forced separation – perhaps by war, conquest, travel of some sort – contrasted with the memory of friendship, the comforts of home, civility. They speak of longing, memory, and the hope for future togetherness. And most of all, they express that it’s the simple things in life that have the greatest pull on us.
There’s an old green-covered book I open this time of year. The spine is split in some parts, the lettering on the cover is faded. It’s a book of poems by Robert Frost that my mother gave to me in high school. It was already worn back then. I don’t know if she bought it used somewhere around town or if someone made a gift of it to her years before. It wasn’t a formal presentation or given to mark a special occasion. It was like the other things she gave to us – a sort of “here’s something you might enjoy,” or “take a look at this.” Items that would simply appear on our dressers without any note at all – Classic Comics for my brothers, a porcelain bluebird for my sister’s collection, a red maple leaf, an exotic stamp off a letter from her brother who traveled widely. Things that would delight, pique our curiosity, entertain, or answer to inner longings.
The book of poems resonated deeply with me, especially the ones in the beginning of the book from the section “A Boy’s Will.” The autumn poems in particular became the ones that most spoke to me. “October” might have been the first poem I ever memorized, outside of school assignments. I memorized it because I wanted the words inside me, I wanted to walk through an autumn day and have the words at the ready: “O hushed October morning mild, Thy leaves have ripened to the fall, Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild, Should waste them all.”
These many years later, the words are still there. As I walk through the neighborhood or cut through Central Park, a solitary leaf might float down from a tree on a mild autumn day, and I hear the words: “Release one leaf at break of day, At noon release another leaf.” The birds in the autumn sky might caw and without any prompting my heart recites: “The crows above the forest call; Tomorrow they may form and go.”
The simple book of poems remains the touchstone of autumn for me – it embodies the solitary, the nostalgia and memories of other Octobers, and the deep connection of inner yearning with outer seasonal beauty.
(Thank goodness Robert Frost didn’t stop at October. His poem “My November Guest” soon became my favorite.)
Autumn and poetry go hand in hand. There is something inherently nostalgic and meditative about this time of year that points the mind to introspection. End-of-year wistfulness mixes with the excitement of going back to school, crisper weather, and the coming holidays.
Some poems set this emotionally rich time of year against the splendor of fall, as in John Keats’s “To Autumn” — “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…”
and Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” — “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…”
Other poems capture the elegiac melancholy of autumn, as in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall” to a young child:
MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
On these beautiful fall days, curl up with a good book on a mild September afternoon, or in the evenings that now descend earlier. Find a good poem and let the lines run through your head as you kick through the autumn leaves and take in this season of nostalgia, excitement, and beauty.
Sometimes the words of a phrase or sentence jars your center and subtly slips into your core, lodging there. It may be years later, or even decades, that you realize they have become a part of you. Many years ago, I came across a poem that had such an effect on me — “Beau Soir” by Paul Bourget, that Claude Debussy set to music.
Lorsque au soleil couchant les rivières sont roses,
Et qu’un tiède frisson court sur les champs de blé,
Un conseil d’être heureux semble sortir des choses
Et monter vers le coeur troublé.
Un conseil de goûter le charme d’être au monde
Cependant qu’on est jeune et que le soir est beau
Car nous nous en allons,
Comme s’en va cette onde:
Elle à la mer,
Nous au tombeau.
When streams turn pink in the setting sun,
And a slight shudder rushes through the fields of wheat,
A plea for happiness seems to rise from all things
And it climbs up towards the troubled heart.
A plea to relish the charm of life
While there is youth and the evening is fair,
For we pass away as the wave passes:
The wave to the sea, and we to the grave.
The tender intimacy of the poem, simple yet profound, stirred something deep inside and I sought out such end-of-day streams and fields, and later, ocean sunsets. The poem gave birth to a never-ending desire to seek out and become part of such moments of tranquil beauty.
It created a sort of urgency to embrace the loveliness of life — “while there is youth and the evening is fair.”
The line above from Longfellow’s poem, My Lost Youth, in large part, inspired the writing of The Dreams of Youth. It’s a collection of six very short pieces that together tell the story of Maggie. Spanning over eighty-five years, the stories follow her from her youth in Depression-era Illinois to the time when she ventures forth to 1940’s Hollywood and coastal California, and her return to the rural Midwest
I used lines from the poem to head the sections, amazed each time that the words so closely conveyed the main idea of the piece.
The first section is called “A Girl’s Will.” Though Longfellow’s poem is about a boy, the line worked beautifully to capture Maggie’s spirit.
“A [girl’s] will is the wind’s will.” – Longfellow
When her brothers and sisters staged a circus in the back yard for the entertainment of the neighborhood, it was eight-year-old Maggie who flew through the air on the handmade trapeze, her sense of adventure overriding any fear she might have had.
“One penny to see the Flying Wonder – Maggie!” they cried, drawing a sizable crowd.
Maggie loved the feeling of flying through the air and landing on the old mattress – the freedom, the thrill! It was the same feeling she had when she jumped from the hayloft onto the hay below, the same feeling she had when she rode her brother’s bike and coasted with her arms outstretched.
Maggie was four when her mother Eileen died after giving birth to twins, the last of ten children.
Summers at home were magical. The rest of the year was spent in the orphanage, along with the twins and her sisters. Maggie came to love the nuns. They taught her how to sew and read, and told wondrous stories about the lives of the saints.
All the same, she was happy when she finally reached high school and moved back home.
(Madonna of the orphanage)
Maggie has always loved the idea of airplanes and flying, and she decides to become an airline stewardess in order to finally see the ocean and far away places.
She took her savings and journeyed by bus to Kansas City for an interview with TWA. Her dreams were finally going to come true; she could feel them tingling at her fingertips.
From the bus window, she imagined the miles and miles of corn as the wideness of the ocean, curving into the horizon. The golden wheat became the golden sand where she would soon stand and let the waves lap over her bare feet. When she closed her eyes, she could almost feel the salt spray on her face!
As she waited in a long line with other hopefuls, eager for the interview, she heard the whispers.
“They don’t hire girls with glasses. You must have perfect vision.” Maggie took off her glasses and slipped them into her pocket.
Back home, Maggie found a job working in the veteran’s hospital.
Maggie had not given up on her dreams of seeing the world. While she was working at the VA hospital, she learned that her vision was good enough to enlist in the Air Force Nurse Corps. She would become a military flight nurse.
When Maggie’s best friend from nursing school offered her the chance to go to California, the land of dreams, Maggie knew that the door to her future had opened at last.
The Comfort of Books
We all know people who insist that there is nothing like holding a good, old-fashioned book in their hands. They swear that nothing compares to the heft, the feel, the companionability, the smell of a real book. I tend to agree with them.
But I also see the advantages of digital books. My e-books have come to the rescue on numerous occasions: stalled subway trains, long delays at the dentist or doctor’s office, travelling by plane.
And yet – there is something special about a physical book, as there is about crowded bookshelves, and browsing through a bookstore. Books offer a kind of comfort in their sheer presence.
Like many people, I have a particular love of old books. I have a very small collection that my mother, over forty years ago, had the foresight to buy from an old drug store in town that was closing. She also bought several glass pharmaceutical bottles – Lycopodium, Acacia, Digitalis – and other treasures from a bygone era that used to fill the tall wooden cupboards and glass cabinets there. But the books – those were the real gems. The covers alone gave them value as objects of beauty, as with Longfellow’s Evangeline, Poe’s Murder in the Rue Morgue, and Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake.
I’ve googled some of those books and found that they’re not worth much, and several of them are literally falling apart. And yet they continue to give pleasure.
And whether I’m at the Strand bookstore in Manhattan, or at a garage sale in my home town, I’m always on the lookout for one of these books from another time.
And as I take out my wallet to make a purchase, I catch sight of my iphone and find comfort in the digital library that’s always at hand.
How are personal rituals formed, and what purpose do they serve? I have morning and evening rituals, ways of opening and closing the day. I have seasonal rituals, ways of marking time, of making it specific and memorable – as if putting a frame around a moment, a season, a month, so that it can be more closely looked at.
I think, for the most part, my rituals have been haphazardly formed. Some combination of actions clicked together agreeably at one time, and so I tried to recreate it again and again.
My spring rituals are largely determined by flowers. I search out the first blooms in Central Park – crocuses, daffodils, Forsythia. I plant my window boxes and choose the colorful annuals for the garden. Though I try to start the season in March, the cold of New York usually forces me to wait until April.
Though April is changeable, it can be counted on for a show of color – purple, yellow, pink, white. There’s a quince bush a few houses down that is among the first to flower in the neighborhood. I keep an eye on it, noting the first bits of green, then the dots of color as the buds begin to open. Then after a few sunny, mild days, the melon-colored flowers start to open, and there’s no suppressing the surge of pleasure they bring.
At about the same time, the pear trees along the street begin to bloom. My view at this time of year, as I write at the kitchen table, is that of white blossoms against the changing sky. In full bloom the trees are truly magnificent.
I can’t remember exactly how a particular April ritual got started, but several years ago I sought out the music of Thomas Morley’s “April is in My Mistress’ Face.” The time of year must have reminded me of the lyrics, and of the college music class where I first became enamored with the music of Palestrina, Bach, and Morley.
An online search brought up several renditions of Morley’s Renaissance madrigal, many of them with a montage of spring flowers in the background. But the one I liked best showed a young woman looking very demure, and yet sensual and lovely. Instead of the usual four-part polyphonic voices, the melody was carried by a simple lute. http://bit.ly/2oTC1Eq
April is in my Mistress’ face,
And in her eye July hath place;
Within her bosom is September,
But in her heart a cold December.
I tend to ignore the last line. I like to think of his mistress as sweet and lovely in face and heart.
One of my April rituals then, is to fix a cup of tea, gaze out at the blossoming pear trees, and write – or perhaps it’s more honest to say I stare out the window and remember and dream, casting back into the past and forward into the future – trying to link the beauty outside the window and in the music with a sweetness that once was, or that, perhaps, could still be.
Is April, and spring itself, a larger metaphor for life, for youth, for a beautiful past (real or imagined)? Very likely. And so I do my best to hold it, to love it, to be a part of it – even as the white blossoms are being blown from the trees.
A little death entered us when you went ahead.
So great was the love that tethered us to you,
we would have gladly followed;
Like little cygnets straining to keep up,
their eyes fixed on the beautiful white swan ahead.
The rippling wake, the path to you.
But you, nurturing mother,
Said no – the wake is the path you created for us;
The wondrous wake is life itself.
Your wish – for us to embrace it, as you did,
with love and laughter and joy.
You, beautiful swan,
turned your head to us, as if gently saying,
this was not our time, but yours;
For us, now, to delight in the beauty around us,
to splash in the waters of life!
Time enough for the later journey.
Your gift to us, your legacy:
To live first fully in the wake.