Present, not precious – an epilogue

Version 3

December 1

Hoar frost and hot coffee. After three nights of crystalline cold, December makes her entry with all the majesty of a final act. Today from my window, the sky seems limitless and the blue hoards no secrets. Yes, there is much to come over the next few weeks, but this morning, we have a blank canvas.

One of my writing coaching clients recently said something to me when talking about stories that she has lived and lived with for years. We were discussing various ways to approach big topics, the ones that don’t seem to fit on any page, no matter how large. She remarked, ‘Ah, but I pretty much have a beginner’s mind about it anyway, so I’m not bothered about looking at it all differently.’  To me, this sounded like such grace, such openness. There is a relief in returning to our worn and polished stories with a beginner’s mind, a fresh eye. Perhaps renewal arises from the willingness to see the new in a landscape we’ve lived in so long that we’ve become blind to its startling beauty.

This past month of writing and posting every day – of being present, not precious –  has been valuable. When I started, I wanted to see if I could do it. Could I meet the challenge, achieve the goal, keep my small promises? But like any journey worth its footsteps, the real treasures lay along the path, only to be discovered in the walking.  Likewise, I suspect that I will continue to appreciate their richness and long after the turn of the calendar.

I think I found an unexpected space opening up in the repetition and ritual. Found new ways in. Realised that I could raise the stakes or push the edges of particular pieces knowing that I hadn’t poured my entire creative identity into 500 words or so. If it fell flat, it didn’t matter.  I’d have the promise of a new chance and a blank page the next day. Beginner’s mind.

I am grateful for the various ways people participated.  Some wrote along with me, taking my word prompts in directions of their own, some created their own single word prompts or drew from a collection of questions to consider each day.  Some wrote every day, some wrote a handful of days – when the moment and the words aligned.  Some shared their writing, some kept it private. I had readers who stopped by the forest every day, others came once a week, and others paused only once, leaving a small note or silent nod.  A wonderful crisscross of trails and footprints appeared during November in my forest of one tree. The grass has been tamped down where someone rested awhile in the shade and I can see where dry twigs snapped under footfall. Over here, a rock has been overturned by curious fingers and near the brambles, a few berries were picked and eaten by a bird on the wing before the frosts arrived.

Thank you all for visiting. These are all ways of being present, and in so doing, creating something precious.

What was Present, not precious?

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That which lasts. That which endures. There is a poem I read about a year ago where the poet makes the observation that evergreens, while always having green boughs, still have needles that turn brown, go dry, and drop to the forest floor.  I wish I remembered the poet’s name and the poem, but I do remember the idea. Poets and poems will come and go, I suppose, the idea is evergreen.

So, to me, evergreen doesn’t mean static or unchanging. Evergreen is not a frozen moment of fulsome bounty, on the verge but never falling like Keats’s suspended imminence. 

No. Evergreen is steadfast presence embracing all seasons simultaneously. At once leaving and unleaving, growing and dying. In the whole of the tree, all phases.  Not final but continuous, knowing that for every needle that dries and drops, somewhere on the tree, another awakes, tender and soft, smelling of newborn sap.


What is Present, not precious?

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There is a moment when drinking tea that the temperature is just right. Too soon after steeping and it scalds. Too late and the warmth, while pleasing, has lost the dimension that arises when heat is crossed with flavour to match your internal weather. It happens just before the steam returns to invisibility, when the colour is candescent chestnuts. Just after it tips past the point of being too hot to handle to where you hold the mug with both hands cupped around the sides. When sip progresses to swallow.

Once the mug is empty, if you are lucky, there is a window of time before you have to go, and you sit in the company of what fills as the cup drains. This is when you notice things like the way the light falls across the table, the way trees respond to the fingers of the wind, how the only hint of the river from this distance is a shimmer between the willow limbs. The way the outer heels of the of the waiter’s shoes have become slanted, ground at an angle as he walks through the days. Still water in a jug, still honey in a glass jar, a fan with motionless blades.

The window closes, the clock hands align and snap the edges off your reverie. You straighten your papers, close your book, cap your pen, and peer into the cold mug, offering thanks for what is present and what is absent.

What is Present, not precious?

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The stack of books on my bedside table is always precarious. Once in awhile, I clear it down to the bare minimum and stack the books neatly, but like rising bread dough, it grows back, alluring and top heavy. At the moment, there are two calendars as we straddle the turning of the year, a few poetry books, a novel I’ve been wanting to read since I heard an excerpt a few years ago, a copy of the Big Issue, various journals of my own I’ve been mining for ideas, cards for letters I’ve been meaning to write, a writing craft book or two. The stack is usually taller than my lamp. Sometimes, in moments of foolhardiness, I balance a mug of hot coffee on the top. I’ve been lucky, so far, and it hasn’t toppled.

Whatever the changing nature of the stack, though, a book that always remains is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays. It’s usually near the bottom, but like a magician pulling the tablecloth out from under the china and stemware, I can extract it without upsetting a single bookmark. Here is the quote that sprung to mind this morning when I drew the prompt calendar:

We do not know today whether we are busy or idle. In times when we thought ourselves indolent, we have afterwards discovered that much was accomplished and much was begun in us. All our days are so unprofitable while they pass, that ’tis wonderful where or when we ever got anything of this which we call wisdom, poetry, virtue. We never got it on any calendar day.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Experience

Not on any calendar day. There are so many days that slip through the netting thrown by the seven-columned grid. The day you dropped a memory in the grass and kept on walking, never aware of your loss.  The day your hair became grey – not stranded with silver or sprinkled with salt-and-pepper – when no middling description would do anymore. The day on which your big toe finally wore through your hiking boots. The day your kids played under the table with toy cars for the last time. The day you shifted from mostly talking to mostly listening. The day you take the baton from your parents, or hand it to your children. Crucial moments, not on any calendar day.

What is Present, not precious?

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Grass. What a funny word to write about at the end of November, so close to winter. If I had to summarize spring and summer in a single word, grass might be my choice. How does something so soft, so crushable, so yielding push up through packed dirt? This impossibility happens. Insistent fresh green armies, perennially claiming their share of the sun and rain. Grass grows thick and generous through the summer. Silk stockings feel rough and suffocating compared to the caress of summer grass on bare feet. The scent of grass clippings. The look of the lawn in tidy stripes after a mowing: a patch of earth dreaming of Fenway Park.

Cartwheels in the grass wearing no shoes – I grasp summer with my palms and soles. Lying in the soccer fields, watching for shooting stars, coolness rising up the grass and stealing into my bare legs. Not cold enough to leave this glittering theater, but enough chill to sit up, stretch my sweatshirt over my knees and hug my arms around them, rubbing away the goosebumps and the marks left by the imprint of the grass, and keep talking, keep talking, keep talking, all through the night.

What is Present, not precious?

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Serendipity is wiser than owls or oak trees. That’s a lot of wisdom. More cunning than coyotes? Possibly, but wisdom and chance take a different stance. They stand outside the rules of the game. A win is not that different from a loss. The results swap places when your back is turned. Swaddled in the crumpled flags of defeat are newborn urges, inklings, impulses, quickenings.

‘Every happiness,’ writes Rilke in his Sonnets to Orpheus, ‘is the child of a separation it did not think it could survive.’

Really?  Really, Rainer? Are you sure? Every happiness?

He nods a mute affirmative, a silent yes marked by the certainty earned from 90 years of being over-the-fence-neighbours friendly with death.

Okay. I take a big deep breath. The kind that shudders away the wobbles and spurs me to put on my hiking boots, do up the laces, and walk out into the morning.

What is Present, not precious?

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for Leonard Cohen

Like a pen, like a violinist’s bow, like a voice, like the expression of fingertips, like lighting in a photograph or dynamics in a symphony, like fingerprints, like footsteps, like feathers, like every single sunset and every single sunrise, like first light on cold boulders, like hot asphalt at noon, like a sweeping gesture, like a wink, like a twitch, like flames reaching toward darkness, like raindrops tracing windowpanes, like speech, like silence, like song, like rest. It is an instrument of nuance, a delineation of difference. It is a way to be free.

What is Present, not precious?

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