Sunday, August 26, 2012

Bishop’s Sandpiper: Taking the biggest gifts for granted

Last week I found myself quite unexpectedly in a moment of complete peace and silence, reading without interruption the poem “Sandpiper” by Elizabeth Bishop, and enjoying it immensely. The images, sounds, feelings she evokes are ones only to be captured through first hand observation and experience of the Atlantic Ocean, by one who has seen many times the “controlled panic” of the sandpiper running south along the shoreline.

I thought, “Oh, she gets it. She must have lived near here.” Turns out, sure enough, she did. She was New England born and bred (with a short time in Nova Scotia), and died in Massachusetts in 1979, three years after my first view of the Atlantic Ocean, a view that would change my life.

You see, I live near the Atlantic now, but it hasn’t always been this way. I live close enough to smell the watermelon-seaweed saltiness as a storm comes up the coast; close enough to feel the fog in my bones; close enough to watch the tide rush back through my toes, to see the world as minute and vast in one moment as only the mighty Atlantic allows.

My childhood was spent in upstate New York, four hours from the ocean. My first experience of the roaring surf was in 1976. I was ten years old, and my family drove to Cape Cod for the rare vacation beyond the borders of New York state. And there was one trip not long after that to visit cousins in New York City, which included an afternoon trip to Long Island. That is where I first experienced “a beach hissing like fat” where the “tide was higher or lower” but we couldn’t tell which. After that point, I would not be completely satisfied living anywhere outside of a five-minute drive to those “interrupting waters.” It would be another seven years before I would get back to the coast – for college – and stay for the better part of my life (so far).

In preparation for this post, I read a number of critical pieces and reviews of “Sandpiper” and I came up short. You see, most analysts were looking for the “meaning” behind the words, as if the words themselves were not clear enough. Maybe Bishop was telling about her own life, as some suggest, that she is that sandpiper, all finical and awkward. Maybe there is some more subtle reading to the Blake reference. But to me, the meaning is all there, crystal clear. That is, it is clear if you have walked the pebbled beaches of New England, paying attention to sandpipers and the way the world is bound to shake as the wave pounds earth.

This poem captured me as much as it captures the sandpiper for that very reason: I have been there, and I do take it for granted. The roaring alongside as much as the millions of grains of multi-colored sand are there every single day, waiting for me to take notice. And most days I do not notice. But let’s be honest, the ocean is not really waiting for me, either. I like to think we have a healthy respect for each other that allows for this taking for granted. The beach is there with its pounding and roaring and misting, and I am here with my finite controlled efforts to capture that experience in words. Unlike the sort of taking for granted that discards and destroys, we take these gifts for granted from a sense of place, and balance, and gratitude.

When I do make it down to the beach, the experience of it is the same as the sandpipers, except without the panic or the searching obsession. There is a sense of the infinite and the finite that comes together, the vast and the minute. I walk slowly, not running to the south, but walking first east (toward the water), then slowly north and turning around to come back slowly to the south. Toes tingling with the sixty-five degree tide, I bend slowly to pick up then pocket a mottled stone, reddish-gray with lines of white running through, and a piece of broken shell.

I am both focused and preoccupied, caring too much for a broken piece of a seagull’s lunch, and not caring much at all as my thoughts bounce along the beach, following the sandpipers.

In my life, there has been nothing but walking along a New England beach to make me feel this way.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Standing and Waiting: John Milton’s “On His Blindness”

Note: By day, through most of the year, All Nine contributor Andrew Lazo works as a high school English teacher, regularly cajoling, threatening, wooing, enticing, bribing, and even tricking teenagers into reading thoroughly and, if and when at all possible, enjoying their reading, especially poetry. As such, he covets such kind thoughts and prayers as you might send his way; here he offers some thoughts as a kind of war correspondent on the front lines of the battle to make poems matter.

Standing and Waiting: John Milton's "On His Blindness"

Andrew Lazo

I find myself a little swoony about the latest addition to my poetry library: a few slim volumes from the Everyman’s Pocket Poets, including the lovely little Milton volume pictured here. My favorite of Milton’s Sonnets, “On His Blindness,” makes its debut on page one, and since it occupies the pride of place, I thought I’d have a look at some of its stanzas and phrases and see if I can’t make sense of it for the week ahead.

This poem offers a pretty decent example of a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet: it has an octave (eight lines) followed by a sestet (six lines), and the ideas often contrast or even oppose each other. Many, such as Petrarch’s poetry for Laura, focus on the unattainable (the two may have had little contact; she was married to another). The octave rhymes a b b a b b a; the sestet has a number of rhyming options, including the one here, c d e c d e.

Milton went blind as an adult, losing his vision over many years. He composed the whole of Paradise Lost after losing all of his sight; some suggest he dictated it to his daughters. So here’s the whole poem; afterwards I’ll take it in bits and wander my way through.

When I consider how my light is spent
            Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
            And that one talent which is death to hide,
            Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present
           My true account, lest he returning chide,
           “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
           I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need  
           Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best         
           Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best: his state  
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed,
         And post o’er land and ocean without rest;           
         They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Let me pull apart a few of the key moments that move me in the poem as I walk through these fourteen lines in search of some help from this blind poet who somehow saw so well.

When I consider how my light is spent
        Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,

Here we find Milton doing what most of us would: contemplating and even lamenting a loss, made all the more poignant because he lived out so much of his vocation as a poet in utter darkness. It certainly reminds me of the fact that Beethoven went deaf. And while my own little life in some ways cannot compare the lives of these giants of creativity, I too know a bit about “this dark world and wide.” I imagine we all do. Milton reminds that sometimes staring deeply enough into darkness helps me notice even the smallest scrap of light. And sometimes that’s the only good thing darkness does for me.

And that one talent which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present
          My true account, lest he returning chide,

Here Milton alludes to the parable of the talents—a talent is a measure of gold equaling about twenty years’ wages. Think of having a great pile of money plopped in your lap. A wealthy master goes away, leaving five talents with one servant, two with another, and one talent with a third. The first two play the ancient Israeli version of the stock market and double their money, but the third just buries the gold and does nothing—not even investing it in a sixty-day low-yield interest-bearing account. He literally hides it away, burying it in the ground. And then the master returns, and rewards the two profitable servants, but casts the last one into outer darkness. Now if a stock broker faced the death penalty for a bear market, you might get me watching CNBC—that’s the kind of reality show that has some teeth: unlimited wealth or certain death!

Milton certainly understood the implicit pun in English—his “talent” means his ability and gift with which to make much of his life; and he has seen it snuffed out, and would likely trade a world of wealth for it if he could. That’s what he means—he finds his gift of reading and writing useless, though his soul desires all the more to serve his Master. But as I thought deeply about this poem, all of a sudden the next line seemed to open itself up, offering me a key or maybe even a fulcrum to this whole sonnet.
Milton expresses an urgency to serve God to avoid the penalty of (according to the parable) eternal darkness. Perhaps he’d had enough darkness for this lifetime and could not contemplate an eternity of the stuff. Notice too his tone as he laments his condition and fears God’s criticism. His blindness seems to prevent Milton from being able to serve as best he could, to “present [his] true account, lest he [that is, God] returning chides.” Milton wishes he hadn’t gone blind because he fears that God will come to him at the end of his life and upbraid him for not doing enough.

Wait—what? Milton fears that God will give him grief over all he has not done? His talent lies buried, useless inside him. His hands are tied. A grief he can hardly express overwhelms him, drives him into darkness and despair and his big concern consists in not doing more? And Milton had so much more to do, although out of an ever-increasing deficit as the years of his terrible blindness wore on.

To me, this rings all too true. How often have I climbed the weary stairs at the end of a too-long day, having labored in the classroom, and labored at the grading desk, and trudged home only to grouse at myself for not having done the breakfast dishes? How often have I, when bearing great grief, chided myself for not doing more, or for getting tired of the burden I cannot help but bear. And all the more, how many of those times have I blamed that screechy, never-satisfied voice in my head on God?

But Jesus ended his work on the cross saying, “It is finished.” The cross carried all grief, all care, all of the heavy burdens. And it wiped out once and for all any cruel and idolatrous image of a God tapping his foot, looking at His watch, impatient with all of my never-enough. The cross allowed grace to become sufficient for me, and His power to be made perfect in my weakness. It turned the world upside down—which of course means right-side up. And though God will surely return, He will not chide those of us He has hidden in the shadow of the cross, however we cower and cling to it. Christ finished the job for us, and He Himself provides the return on our investment, even if, like a mustard seed, we trust Him with the littlest bits.

And of course, the rest of the sonnet says the same thing. Patience speaks—and Patience here serves as the sound of the true voice of God, satisfied by the saving work of the death of His Son. Patience prevents my murmuring. Patience reminds me that I must bear as best I can the mild yoke, the easy burden—and in so doing Patience wisely whispers that, when I grow weary of carrying the heavy load, I have somehow been fooled into carrying the wrong one. God’s gift and His burden should ride lightly on my shoulders—and when it does not, I can know surely that I’ve swapped out my heavy load for His light one.

No, God neither needs my work, nor the gifts He has given me. Frederick Buechner says, “God’s love’s all gift, for He has need of naught.” And slipping this burden reminds me of my royal state—that, by adoption, the king of this universe has claimed me as His own, and that His power, wealth, and even His deep joy can come upon me.

So what remains? Milton reminds me that I also serve when I can do only two things. I must stand up. I stand for truth, I stand simply so that I do not let whatever burden I bear bow me down to the ground. I stand up, vertical against this horizontal earth in which I will someday sleep, and in doing so, I get my head just that much closer to Heaven.

And then I wait. I cry “how long?” with the Psalmist. I wait for the coming kingdom, I wait for the next few words to write. I wait for good gifts to fall into my hands so that I may do my best this day and the days to come. I read poems and I make poems, even as I await the ones who need to hear them most, like water in a weary land.

And so with Milton, I acknowledge my want, my lack, the darkness in and around me. And patiently I wait for the day of the Lord. And until then, I celebrate songs in the darkness, where I stand and wait, and so serve God, who chideth not His children.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Writing from the well

I am thrilled to be starting a new writing workshop next month in southern Maine. Writing From the Well is a unique workshop experience providing a safe and inspiring space for creative exploration. Are you ready to collaborate with your Muses to inspire, create, and illuminate? Please join me for two dedicated hours each month to draw on your internal well of creativity and courage, and break through the writing wall.

WHO: Courageous word wranglers
WHEN: 7:00 – 9:00 p.m., 2nd Thursday monthly, starting September 2012 (next month!)
WHERE: Natural Care Wellness Center, 6 Seely Lane, Eliot, ME

Class size is limited to 12. Call Natural Care Wellness Center at 207-439-9242 to reserve your seat.

$35 per session OR $290 for 9 sessions.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The ABCs of Poetry: Musing on Guite's Spell

All Nine contributer Rebekah Choat takes us back to school with Malcolm Guite’s “Spell.” Becka is a reader, a writer, a lover of the printed word, dedicated to bringing people books to nourish mind, soul, and spirit. Her website is

Summon the summoners, the twenty-six
enchanters.  Spelling silence into sound,
they bind and loose, they find and are not found.
Re-call the river-tongues from Alph to Styx,
summon the summoners, the shaping shapes
the grounds of sound, the generative gramma
signs of the Mystery, inscribed arcana
runes from the root-tree written in the deeps,
leaves from the tale-tree lifted, swift and free,
shining, re-combining in their dance
the genesis of every utterance,
pattering the pattern of the Tree.
Summon the summoners, and let them sing.
The summoners will summon Everything.

Image by Rebekah Choat

I’m preparing to start kindergarten again, for the fourth time. I’d thought our homeschooling season would end when Baby Girl the First finished high school last year, but you know what Mr. Burns said about the best laid plans of mice and men…Baby Girl the Second came along just in time for my fortieth birthday, giving me one more opportunity to begin at the very beginning.

When you read you begin with ABC, or summon the summoners, the twenty-six enchanters.  What a motley set of characters – only a couple of them able to stand alone, but let them start joining up, and there they go, spelling silence into sound.  How do they do that?  How do a bunch of little black marks on a white page bring forth purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain?  And that’s just the most obvious manifestation of their powers.

They bind:  once you know a rose is a rose you can’t very well imagine it by any other name; and loose:  the rose isn’t just a rose, it’s velvet and fragrance and innocence and my luve is like a red, red rose.  They are the shaping shapes:  sometimes they actually do take on something of the shape of the object they signify – bed, for instance, or hollyhock .  How cool is that?

These twenty-six little bits of code are signs of the Mystery – like the Word that is from the beginning, they lend form to the intangible, showing us glimpses of things beyond our comprehending; runes from the root-tree, searching down to the bedrock of our knowledge; leaves from the tale-tree, spreading, reaching, leaping greenly.  And speaking of re-combining, do they mean the things they name, or do they name the things they mean?

In a strange, fascinating book I read a few years ago (Libyrinth, by Pearl North), I came across an alternate ending that I really like:  “Now I know my ABC’s, all the books are mine to read.”  Yes.  They are the genesis of every utterance, the keys that open the books that open the world.  So this September I’ll be starting down that path again, to teach Baby Girl the Second how to summon the summoners, and let them sing, and see the magic light up her eyes as she discovers how the summoners will summon Everything.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Road Not Taken

All Nine contributor-muse Dr. Holly Ordway shares her fascination with “The Road Not Taken.” Holly is a poet, teacher, and friend, as well as an apologist exploring the intersection of literature and faith, reason and imagination. Follow Dr. Ordway's reflections on the practice of living a holy life at her website at or on twitter @HollyOrdway.

Robert Frost’s great poem “The Road Not Taken” is fascinating to me in part because of the way that it is consistently mis-read.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.

These lines from the poem appear on many a t-shirt and poster. They seem to affirm a spirit of self-determination, and what’s more, the intrinsic rightness of going one’s own way. Wherever the mass of people are going – the well-traveled way – the truly independent spirit will go the other way, take the road less traveled by, and because of that contrary choice, will flourish.

Frost’s poem is great for many reasons, such as the understated description that perfectly evokes an autumn walk in New England woods, but one reason it is great is that it is not the poem most people take it to be. Frost has something to say about making choices in “The Road Not Taken,” but what he says cannot be summed up in those often-quoted lines.

When the narrator makes his choice, he takes the road that, in the last stanza, he describes as “the one less traveled by.” But was it? Here is how he describes it as he makes his choice:

[I] took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black...

The road he chooses is equally lovely, equally untrodden, and only perhaps has less wear than the other.

Sometimes our choices really are between good and bad, or better and worse. Sometimes we do need to take the road that no one else is taking; if all the world is rushing headlong into madness, “the road less traveled” is the best road. But in this poem the two choices are each “as just as fair” as the other.

What do we do when choosing between two good things? What do we do when the turnings ahead are such that we truly cannot tell where the path we choose will lead us?

I have an analytical mind; I like to weigh things out, to know that what I am doing is the best path, the best approach. But I’ve come to realize over the last few years that I never have all the information. Some things cannot be known until they are experienced: relationships, job choices, even choices about what to write or what to read.  And so I have to choose my road knowing that I can only see a short distance ahead before the path bends “in the undergrowth.” If I wait until I have all the information, I will never go anywhere.

The narrator here is, in fact, almost paralyzed by choice – “long I stood / And looked down one as far as I could” – but in the end, he chooses. He goes forward. He takes one of the roads.  We could say that the act of choice is what, in the end, makes all the difference.

Yet the poem is hardly a paean to decisiveness, for “The Road Not Taken” ends on a curiously hesitant note. “I shall be telling this with a sigh,” the narrator says. He still thinks of the other road as an option – “Oh, I kept the first for another day!” – even while admitting that “knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back.

I don’t want to be telling my own story with a regretful sigh, "ages and ages hence," having chosen my road hesitantly, dragging my feet, looking back, always wondering if the other road is better. Whether my choices take me on a road less traveled, or a good road well-traveled, I hope to be fully present to the path before me and to my fellow travelers.

I am reminded of the words that C.S. Lewis gives to the lion Christ-figure Aslan in Prince Caspian. The little girl Lucy is regretful that she had disregarded Aslan's call to her, and had made excuses for not following him. She asks Aslan to tell her how things would have unfolded if she had chosen otherwise.

“To know what would have happened, child?” said Aslan. “No. Nobody is ever told that... But anyone can find out what will happen.”