Sunday, December 20, 2015

the birds are in their trees

“To be, in a word, unborable.... It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish”

- David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

It was after I'd finished writing Rumi and the Red Handbag, after it had been accepted for publication. It was in that breathless interval between acceptance and actual publication. I came across the Goodreads page of quotations from DFW's The Pale King, his unfinished novel, that rather huge tome. I bought it immediately and began reading, then skimming, then skipping. It's expansive, epic, impossible to know how he would have shaped it had he finished it.

Our books share many of the same themes. The books are both about work, secrets, about ordinary existence. Perhaps, most importantly, the interest in the grail quest. In Rumi and the Red Handbag, the castle is replaced by the second-hand store, the grail, perhaps, by a handbag. The question that must be asked but isn't, "what are you going through."

My book comes in at 140 pages. A short book. The Pale King is 540 pages. DFW is a genius. Me, not so much. I was completely freaked out when I went through the book, or most of it. And then, I set it aside. It was that or go mad. And really, the books are vastly different from each other, so all fine. And honestly, it seems a little crazy to be comparing my work to his. However.

One other interesting thing about the two books, is that DFW's was assembled after his passing, by editors from a 'jumble of boxes, disks and printed or handwritten papers," and in my RRH, the narrator is piecing together the story of Ingrid-Simone from an assemblage of sticky notes, from memory, from random jottings.

“There are secrets within secrets, though - always.”

“That everything is on fire, slow fire, and we're all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion more total than we can even bring ourselves to even try to imagine.”

“The next suitable person you’re in light conversation with, you stop suddenly in the middle of the conversation and look at the person closely and say, “What’s wrong?” You say it in a concerned way. He’ll say, “What do you mean?” You say, “Something’s wrong. I can tell. What is it?” And he’ll look stunned and say, “How did you know?” He doesn’t realize something’s always wrong, with everybody. Often more than one thing. He doesn’t know everybody’s always going around all the time with something wrong and believing they’re exerting great willpower and control to keep other people, for whom they think nothing’s ever wrong, from seeing it.”

- all above quotations from The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

(you can read more here)

Poets are generally unborable creatures. Give them a window...


by Billy Collins

The birds are in their trees,
the toast is in the toaster,
and the poets are at their windows.

They are at their windows
in every section of the tangerine of earth -
the Chinese poets looking up at the moon,
the American poets gazing out
at the pink and blue ribbons of sunrise.

The clerks are at their desks,
the miners are down in their mines,
and the poets are looking out their windows
maybe with a cigarette, a cup of tea,
and maybe a flannel shirt or bathrobe is involved.

The proofreaders are playing the ping-pong
game of proofreading,
glancing back and forth from page to page,
the chefs are dicing celery and potatoes,
and the poets are at their windows
because it is their job for which
they are paid nothing every Friday afternoon.

Which window it hardly seems to matter
though many have a favorite,
for there is always something to see -
a bird grasping a thin branch,
the headlights of a taxi rounding a corner,
those two boys in wool caps angling across the street.

The fishermen bob in their boats,
the linemen climb their round poles,
the barbers wait by their mirrors and chairs,
and the poets continue to stare
at the cracked birdbath or a limb knocked down by the wind.

By now, it should go without saying
that what the oven is to the baker
and the berry-stained blouse to the dry cleaner,
so the window is to the poet.

Just think -
before the invention of the window,
the poets would have had to put on a jacket
and a winter hat to go outside
or remain indoors with only a wall to stare at.

And when I say a wall,
I do not mean a wall with striped wallpaper
and a sketch of a cow in a frame.

I mean a cold wall of fieldstones,
the wall of the medieval sonnet,
the original woman's heart of stone,
the stone caught in the throat of her poet-lover.

Well, it's a funny time of year. Mostly, I find it enjoyable, but there are the obligatory odd bits, I'll admit it. Everyone has them, I imagine. We're out of our usual schedule, and there's a hustle and bustle, whether we're part of it, or watching from the sidelines. There are those whom we know who have suffered losses, and this season brings them up. Our memories and our regrets, our disappointments and joys get together and have parties. It's hard, it's lovely, it's too much and too little all at once. Also, that worn but sorta useful phrase, it is what it is. How about this: 'now is the time to listen within.'

Now and Then 

by Hermann Hesse

Now and then everything feels wrong and desolate,
and sprawling in pain, weak and exhausted,
every effort reverts to grief,
every joy collapses with broken wings.
And our longing listens for distant summons,
aching to receive news filled with joy.

But we still miss bliss,
fortunate fates elude from afar.
Now is the time to listen within,
tend our inner garden mindfully
until new flowers, new blessings can blossom.

- from The Seasons of the Soul by Hermann Hesse translated by Ludwig Max Fischer

And sometimes, in spite of everything, in spite of our faithlessness, a prayer will utter itself. Listen:


by Carol Ann Duffy

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minim sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child's name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer -
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

It's soul time. Time to find our soul, listen for it, as you would a bird singing unseen in a nearby tree. Time to stay with that sound, even if returns to you with questions.

There are Times

by Hermann Hesse

There are times when a bird calls
or a breeze rustles the branches
or a dog barks from a distant home
and I must fall silent and listen.

My soul returns to forgotten places
where a thousand years ago
the birds and the wind blowing
were more like my bothers. 

My soul transforms into a tree,
into a creature, and a cloud passing by,
my soul returns to me with questions,
but I stay the same and find no answer.

I've shared this before from the intro to The Seasons of the Soul:

"To cut through the charades of the world, to despise it, may be the aim of great thinkers. My only goal in life is to be able to love this world, to see it and myself and all beings with the eyes of love and admiration and reverence..."

- Hermann Hesse

It goes on, winter, does, and there are days and days where there is so little light. Nothing to do but embrace the grey. I shoot what I can, what is there, and while maybe no one photograph is totally amazing, maybe as evidence of a persistent process, they might offer something, tell a certain story.

Winter Trees

by William Carlos Williams

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.

A couple of excerpts from a Brainpickings post where she features Anna Quindlen's A Short Guide to a Happy Life:

"It is so easy to waste our lives: our days, our hours, our minutes. It is so easy to take for granted the pale new growth on an evergreen, the sheen of the limestone on Fifth Avenue, the color of our kids’ eyes, the way the melody in a symphony rises and falls and disappears and rises again. It is so easy to exist instead of live. Unless you know there is a clock ticking."

"There are thousands of people out there with the same degree you have; when you get a job, there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living. But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Your particular life. Your entire life. Not just your life at a desk, or your life on the bus, or in the car, or at the computer. Not just the life of your mind, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank account, but your soul. 
People don’t talk about the soul very much anymore. It’s so much easier to write a résumé than to craft a spirit. But a résumé is cold comfort on a winter night, or when you’re sad, or broke, or lonely, or when you’ve gotten back the chest X ray and it doesn’t look so good, or when the doctor writes “prognosis, poor.”"

For the last many months there has been work going on in the utility corridor. (You can catch a glimpse of some yellow tape in the photo above, where a hole had been dug). We've not been out in the field at all, though I've walked on the path on the other side of the fence when the noise from machinery hasn't been deafening. On the weekend though, they moved out. All the diggers gone, the huge mounds of dirt spread out now. Sadly, a lot of the weeds and grasses have all been mown over - and these have been steady subjects for my photography. Ah well, there's no doubt they'll grow again in the spring.

There were a couple of good frost days, and though part of me wanted to hop in the car and drive out into the countryside - this was pretty much all I had energy for. And it's not so bad, really. Again, as evidence for a certain type of process.

Once in a while I take a photo of the Shoppers Drug Mart, which is across the highway, beyond the utility corridor. If you've read my novel, you may have gleaned that I'm rather fond of the place. Glad to see that Heather Mallick also digs the place. She mentions it in her Toronto Star column where she raises a glass to 2015's best people

It's not a great photo, but maybe says something about this place in which I live: Edmonton (which I don't really mention that often in my posts, but there it is, in all the photos). 

Ohgoodgrief, not the roses again, you're thinking....but you know, I won't even know if you skip over them. And there was something about this one blue sky day, the light, the tufts of

Next to last, a few more of my buddy Ace.

The Rumi news mostly here. 

And it's also made Matilda Magtree's (Carin Makuz) anti-shopping list. Sweet! Lots of great recommendations there.

Have you browsed my collection of 'Words' on Pinterest?

Loving: Yoko Ono's "Mend Pieces."

A very good read: An article in the Globe and Mail by that treasure, Ian Brown, about his visit with Jean Vanier. A couple of short excerpts.

"I suddenly remembered that line of Philip Larkin’s: Being brave/Lets no one off the grave./Death is no different whined at than withstood. “To be human,” Mr. Vanier continued, “is to enter a greater vulnerability. So how to live that vulnerability joyfully? How to live anguish?”

“What we have to do is find the places of hope,” he continued. “I love the idea of waiting for the moment. You can’t see it now” – here he pointed out the window of his cottage – “but I have a place for birds there. And when I see birds walking or flying low, I notice I always smile. I don’t know why. I don’t necessarily smile at a tree. But birds! They tell me something about freedom, about movement, about the spirit. There are those moments – it could be looking at a picture, reading a book – it’s a moment of a meeting. With what? With truth? With love? When you see the birds, you can’t help but think of all that, the origin and beauty of our universe, the beauty of the animals, the flowers. It suddenly hits you: Something is there. But then there are other moments more connected to our legs that are tired. I don’t seem to have too much energy. So that is why I wait for the moment.”

Watched. Far from the Madding Crowd. Wonderful.

This last photo, irises that Rob's gallery in Edmonton sent for his birthday this past week. An unexpected and lovely pleasure. They arrived tightly closed and within the day opened and were so sweet.

I wish for you all calm things in the week ahead, unexpected flowerings, winter songs, and that you may find those places of hope.

- Shawna


  1. This touched me on so many levels, especially at this time of year. And your! I will be back a few more times to soak all this in.

  2. "Now is the time to listen within,
    tend our inner garden mindfully
    until new flowers, new blessings can blossom."
    This kind of says it all for me during this time of year. Thanks for reminding how great Hesse is...I've been away for awhile but am glad to be back. Thanks for posting...

  3. A wealth of wonder here today. Thank you Shawna. The quotes, the poems, the sublimely evocative photographs. The whole post shimmers silver; so much truth, so much light.
    Wishing you a lovely luminous season ahead :)

  4. Thank you Shawna. I always love seeing your photos and am particularly fond of those along the freeway -- makes me feel like I'm only a touch away from Edmonton.
    Since both our dogs died this year, I'm feeling rather melancholy lately -- it's the time of year I suspect, as you mention in this post. For the past 3 weeks we've been dog-sitting our friends black lab, Tim. He and Ace look so much alike, but then they would. Wishing you and yours a really magical yet peaceful Christmas. May the New Year continue to bring you such enriching thoughts, creativity, and more great Edmonton light.

  5. Thank you all for your comments! I'm so grateful for them.

    Wishing you all the best for the busy week ahead, and much gentleness, much calm xo S.

  6. I love the photos of the fences...first the white wooden fence with the electrical wires in the distance, but also the wire fence with small mounds of snow. I also love the big birch tree. The colors so subdued and subtle. Happy Holidays to you and yours!


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