Category Archives: Poems

Fame

As I watch Michael Phelps tell Bob Costas that he was “on an express elevator to the bottom floor” after his initial rise to Olympic fame, and as I live in Malibu where celebrities live in secure fortresses, and as I see pretty much everything in this presidential election, and as I contemplate my own passion for distinction (to borrow Bruce Miroff’s great phrase), the following Hafiz poem comes to mind:

Two Bears

Once
After a hard day’s forage
Two bears sat together in silence
On a beautiful vista
Watching the sun go down
And feeling deeply grateful
For life.

Though, after a while
A thought-provoking conversation began
Which turned to the topic of
Fame.

The one bear said,
“Did you hear about Rustam?
He has become famous
And travels from city to city
In a golden cage;

He performs to hundreds of people
Who laugh and applaud
His carnival
Stunts.”

The other bear thought for
A few seconds.

Then started
Weeping.

Back from the Future

A couple of years ago I took StrengthsFinder 2.0 with our new law students as a part of their orientation.  StrengthsFinder is a test that reveals your greatest strengths, and the idea was to make sure that the new law students knew that they had strong points before law school did its thing and made them question whether they had any value at all.  I enjoyed the test and found it quite useful, but embarrassingly, messed up a bit at the first of the test, which kicked “brainiac” out of contention for one of my top five strengths.  Still, my top three—Discipline, Strategic, and Achiever—seemed spot on.

Recently, I retook the test alongside the entire law school staff and was careful to get it right from the start.  This time, my top three strengths from the first go-around came in as #1, #3, and #5—but #2 and #4 were new and spot on, too!  My second greatest strength, MIA the last time, is Futuristic according to StrengthsFinder.  “People who are especially talented in the Futuristic theme are inspired by the future and what could be.”  Oh yeah.  That’s me.

I have long believed that not only can our greatest strengths be our greatest weaknesses, but in fact they are our greatest weaknesses.  I don’t have to look hard at Futuristic to see how this is true with me—I can be so busy dreaming of the future that I miss out on the present.

A Wendell Berry poem in Given punches me in the gut on this particular point:

The Future

For God’s sake, be done
with this jabber of “a better world.”
What blasphemy! No “futuristic”
twit or child thereof ever
in embodied light will see
a better world than this, though they
foretell inevitably a worse.
Do something! Go cut the weeds
beside the oblivious road. Pick up
the cans and bottles, old tires,
and dead predictions. No future
can be stuffed into this presence
except by being dead. The day is
clear and bright, and overhead
the sun not yet half finished
with his daily praise.

I do think that looking ahead is important, and I value it as a strength, but looking ahead is important so that we see clearly how to act today.  If that element is missing, this supposed strength renders me nothing more than, to quote Berry, “a ‘futuristic’ twit.”

Don’t Keep Score

My friend, Andrew, gave me a gift titled, appropriately, The Gift, a book of poetry from Hafiz, the Great Sufi Master.  Reportedly, the poems may be more Daniel Ladinsky (the author/translator) than Hafiz, but either way the poetry is great fun.  I try to read a few each morning, and although I am not ready to call it yet, an early favorite has emerged.  Other than a meager attempt at a title for this blog entry, I leave this short poem to your individual interpretations.

THE SUN NEVER SAYS

Even
After
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,

“You owe
Me.”

Look
What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the
Whole
Sky.

Step Back In

I doubt many tune into my blog to read a cool poem and reflect on its deep meaning, but just in case anyone else in this station wagon has ever messed up, reflected on an irretrievable life, and decided that the opportunity to carry on is too precious to stay away, this Raymond Carver poem is worth it.

Locking Yourself Out,
Then Trying to Get Back In

By Raymond Carver

You simply go out and shut the door
without thinking. And when you look back
at what you’ve done
it’s too late. If this sounds
like the story of a life, okay.

It was raining. The neighbors who had
a key were away. I tried and tried
the lower windows. Stared
inside the sofa, plants, the table
and chairs, the stereo set-up.
My coffee cup and ashtrays waited for me
on the glass-topped table, and my heart
went out to them. I said, Hello, friends,
or something like that. After all,
this wasn’t so bad.
Worse things had happened. This
was even a little funny. I found the ladder.
Took that and leaned it against the house.
Then climbed in the rain to the deck,
swung myself over the railing
and tried the door. Which was locked,
of course. But I looked in just the same
at my desk, some papers, and my chair.
This was the window on the other side
of the desk where I’d raise my eyes
and stare out when I sat at that desk.
This is not like downstairs, I thought.
This is something else.

And it was something to look in like that, unseen,
from the deck. To be there, inside, and not be there.
I don’t even think I can talk about it.
I brought my face close to the glass
and imagined myself inside,
sitting at the desk. Looking up
from my work now and again.
Thinking about some other place
and some other time.
The people I had loved then.

I stood there for a minute in the rain.
Considering myself to be the luckiest of men.
Even though a wave of grief passed through me.
Even though I felt violently ashamed
of the injury I’d done back then.
I bashed that beautiful window.
And stepped back in.

“Locking Yourself Out, Then Trying to Get Back In,” by Raymond Carver, from Where Water Comes Together With Other Water (Vintage Books).

Hope SPRINGs Eternal

“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball.  I’ll tell you what I do.  I stare out the window and wait for spring.” — Rogers Hornsby

Well, spring has sprung, or so I hear: it is hard to tell living in a land of perpetual spring, but the calendar seems rather confident about it.

There is an idyllic conception of spring where the frigid death of winter awakens to butterflies and chirping birds, colorful explosions of flowers, cottony clouds floating across a bright blue sky, and Julie Andrews twirling in musical exultation.  This has not always been my experience, at least on the first day or two.

But spring is real.  Nature is rhythm, and the very planet is predictably reincarnated each year in a birth-death-birth cycle that generates hope in all things if you let it.  In an increasingly insulated and distracted world, however, it takes effort to notice.

Anne Lamott wrote, “I am going to try to pay attention to the spring. I am going to look around at all the flowers, and look up at the hectic trees. I am going to close my eyes and listen.”

I’m with her.  I want to sense hope in every way—to see it, and hear it, and smell it, and taste it, and touch it—and even engage an ineffable (sixth) supernatural sense.¹  I will work at it.  Hope is imperative.

The woods and pastures are joyous
in their abundance now
in a season of warmth and much rain.
We walk amidst foliage, amidst
song. The sheep and cattle graze
like souls in bliss (except for flies)
and lie down satisfied. Who now
can believe in winter? In winter
who could have hoped for this?

– Wendell Berry, Given 58 (2005).

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¹ Inexplicable hope is the substance that undergirds Easter.

 

You Can’t Control the Weather

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A Malibu winter is, well, two mismatched words, yet visitors throughout the year often find the weather cooler than expected in this famous little town. I mostly blame the Beach Boys for misrepresentation. Still, the weather is pretty great, and in January you have to get past the general sunshine and spectacular sunsets just to imagine cold and dreary.

But we saw a lot of snow on our cross-country flight last weekend, and when we hit the Rocky Mountains (metaphorically, thank God), the aerial view was breathtaking and demanded an iPhone picture attempt through a dirty window at however many thousand feet. Thankfully, iPhones apparently know everything and mine let me know that I took the picture (above) in Fort Garland, Colorado. This thriving metropolis has a population of four hundred (or eight hundred for about fifteen seconds when our plane passed overhead).

Winter can be spectacular, but I remember enough from past lives to know that winter can also be a pain, and the bitter and numbing kind. Life is like that, too: spectacular at moments, and bitter at others.

Emily Dickinson presumably looked out her window once and wrote:

The sky is low, the clouds are mean,
A travelling flake of snow
Across a barn or through a rut
Debates if it will go.

A narrow wind complains all day
How some one treated him;
Nature, like us, is sometimes caught
Without her diadem.

That Emily Dickinson sure had a way with words. Nature has its glorious days, but it has its bad days, too, complete with mean clouds and complaining winds. As do we.

Today may be one of your glorious days, but then again, odds are that it could just as well be a day when you misplaced your diadem (editorial note: not a dirty reference if diadem is new to you, but it sort of sounds like it, doesn’t it?).

Good days come and go, just like the weather, and much of that is out of our control.

How we choose to respond is not.

Remembering that It Happened Once

By Wendell Berry

Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning’s light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.

Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 94 (1998).

The Question: To Be (Present), or Not to Be (Present)

[Note: As a speaker, writer, etcetera, it is rare that I simply allow something to speak for itself. I will today.]

The Vacation – by Wendell Berry

Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was having it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.

One More Day to Discover

Today, I share my favorite poem of all time, “At Least” by Raymond Carver. It is a poem filled with life, thankfulness, and anticipation.

At Least – by Raymond Carver
I want to get up early one more morning,
before sunrise. Before the birds, even.
I want to throw cold water on my face
and be at my work table
when the sky lightens and smoke
begins to rise from the chimneys
of the other houses.
I want to see the waves break
on this rocky beach, not just hear them
break as I did all night in my sleep.
I want to see again the ships
that pass through the Straits from every
seafaring country in the world –
old, dirty freighters just barely moving along,
and the swift new cargo vessels
painted every color under the sun
that cut the water as they pass.
I want to keep an eye out for them.
And for the little boat that plies
the water between the ships
and the pilot station near the lighthouse.
I want to see them take a man off the ship
and put another up on board.
I want to spend the day watching this happen
and reach my own conclusions.
I hate to seem greedy – I have so much
to be thankful for already.
But I want to get up early one more morning, at least.
And go to my place with some coffee and wait.
Just wait, to see what’s going to happen.