Bird

500 blackbirds drop dead from the sky days after 100,000 fish and ...

As when we awaken startled from a damp sleep

and realize that what we thought was love

was not love was not even the hollow kindness we show

a neighbor we hardly know when we say “sorry for your loss”

was not even a “there, there” we offer a friend

of a friend whose husband took up with a younger woman

was not even the feigned pity we show a coworker

whose stepfather fell down a flight of stairs, broke his

neck, and left behind an ample wife

was never even like the small gasp

that leaves our lips when through a car window

we see the blur of black bird with an injured wing

lying still in the road.

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“Anyone Who Has Left Love” (by Sharon Olds)

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Anyone who has left love,
who has stepped out of the boat, onto
the water, learns what they had not known
or wanted to. Anyone
who turns their back on love, as if
it might not take too long for them to go
all the way around and come up behind it—
anyone who lets love go,
opens their hand while walking through
a crowd, as if getting, piece by piece,
rid of evidence, will lose,
along with evidence of the thing,
the thing itself. Anyone
who sets love down, and takes their eyes
away, anyone who travels far
when love is home, anyone
who homes alone when love is far,
will lose what cannot be found. Maybe they
thought love was the earth under
the road, or the road under the sole
of the shoe or the foot under the body but by now it is
back there. It was a bush like a fire,
and now—no more fragrance or light
will be inhaled, or seen, as when
you die you will not see the world again.
Even if you thought you had not
believed you were loved, something in you
knew that you were—and you stepped right off love’s roof.

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“…there is, instead, madness.”

“King George III isn’t exactly a hero of history,” writes NPR’s Colin Dwyer. “In most U.S. textbooks, he is portrayed as the British tyrant who lost the Colonies in the American Revolution. He’s scarcely more popular in his native U.K., where his bouts with mental illness late in life earned him the impolite epithet ‘Mad King.'”

This week in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan writes brilliantly about our own mad king Donald, whose mental well-being he describes thus:

…there is the obvious question of the president’s mental and psychological health. I know we’re not supposed to bring this up — but it is staring us brutally in the face. I keep asking myself this simple question: If you came across someone in your everyday life who repeatedly said fantastically and demonstrably untrue things, what would you think of him? If you showed up at a neighbor’s, say, and your host showed you his newly painted living room, which was a deep blue, and then insisted repeatedly — manically — that it was a lovely shade of scarlet, what would your reaction be? If he then dragged out a member of his family and insisted she repeat this obvious untruth in front of you, how would you respond? If the next time you dropped by, he was still raving about his gorgeous new red walls, what would you think? Here’s what I’d think: This man is off his rocker. He’s deranged; he’s bizarrely living in an alternative universe; he’s delusional. If he kept this up, at some point you’d excuse yourself and edge slowly out of the room and the house and never return. You’d warn your other neighbors. You’d keep your distance. If you saw him, you’d be polite but keep your distance.

Sullivan goes on to say that “this is a fundamental reason why so many of us have been so unsettled, anxious, and near panic these past few months…. There is no anchor any more. At the core of the administration of the most powerful country on earth, there is, instead, madness.”

Until I read this piece, I hadn’t put it together for myself why I have felt so undone since the day the man was elected. It is not so much his odious agenda. As a left of left Democrat, the antipathy I feel towards a Republican worldview is at the level of marrow and sinew, yet I still have been able to go about my life when one of that persuasion has landed in the White House.

But with a pathological liar

…barging into your consciousness every hour of every day, you begin to get a glimpse of what it must be like to live in an autocracy of some kind. Every day in countries unfortunate enough to be ruled by a lone dictator, people are constantly subjected to the Supreme Leader’s presence, in their homes, in their workplaces, as they walk down the street. Big Brother never leaves you alone. His face bears down on you on every flickering screen. He begins to permeate your psyche and soul; he dominates every news cycle and issues pronouncements — each one shocking and destabilizing — round the clock. He delights in constantly provoking and surprising you, so that his monstrous ego can be perennially fed. And because he is also mentally unstable, forever lashing out in manic spasms of pain and anger, you live each day with some measure of trepidation. What will he come out with next? Somehow, he is never in control of himself and yet he is always in control of you.

It is this sense of being controlled by a force over which I feel little control that has turned me into someone I don’t quite recognize. On the one hand, I am aware that at times I have been made quite unwell. On the other, I am unslumbered and find myself in search of an opportunity to best help those whose lives have been — and will continue to be — violently upended by this madman and his handlers. Yesterday, in fact, I was reading about a call for Virginia residents who might like to serve in the state legislature. Hmm, I thought.

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Turning Five

Number Five Print 5 x 7 Inches by keesandme on Etsy, $10.00:

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Each year since I started Ruminationville, I have made an inner commitment to reflect on the 12 months leading up to its birthday on January 14, when this year on that day the earth will have completed 5 or so orbits around the sun.

At times, especially over the past few weeks, I have found myself wondering what would happen if the site simply disappeared, signed off, said sayonara. Maybe fewer than a handful of you would miss my blog for a very little while, but before long it would be as though it, and I, never existed. This is not an unbearable thought, though, since, try as most of us might to deny how little we matter in the scheme of things, the naked truth is that we matter little in the scheme of things.

Yet I deeply believe there is a purpose to every life on this fragile planet — both on an individual and at a collective level — and I somehow feel that, were I to go dark, I would not have finished fulfilling a piece of my part. Still, I find myself becoming restless here and wanting to try something new, learn something new, be someone new.

On this last point, I do not mean to suggest that I would wish to suddenly wake up a blue-eyed, blonde-haired 20-year-old with white, straight teeth. I mean that I wish for continued spiritual growth — evolution, if you will — and out of that maturing a change that, through me, shines itself brightly in this darkening world.

This year, I find myself wanting to light the menorah of my ancestors — my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, and all those who came before them. Always I have felt compelled to participate in Christmas festivities because not doing so meant feeling even more of an outsider in a world that, by and large, does not welcome its Jews into the fold. Tonight, as I light the first candle of Chanukah, I will think of my forebears with reverence. And I will honor, too, the sacred Christ that resides within me, within us all.

“I decline to accept the end of man.” (William Faulkner)

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Ladies and gentlemen,

I feel that this award [the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1949] was not made to me as a man, but to my work — a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed — love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

From Nobel Lectures1969

location, location, location

Last night I brought my new license plates to bed with me, and I admit I felt pretty pleased with life. It has taken me more than two years to finish replanting myself and to grow some shoots after a long period of defoliation, so there was cause for delight. During the time of my walkabout, I had no permanent address — not that any address is permanent in the grand design — because I had sold my condo, which would have floated down river had it been any more under water, and had set out to find my future.

To begin the adventure I slept for several months on a friend’s scratchy couch; by my choosing, we are no longer friends. I stayed with my daughter under a few roofs, and we soldiered on, but barely. I lived for a good stretch in a sad hotel with a kitchen, and I almost got used to the brown carpet and the plastic plates. Finally, I ended up in a boarding house for the unhinged, where even the cats had lost their minds, and I knew then that my wandering days were coming to a merciful close.

I wouldn’t recommend dislocation to most people since human animals typically tend toward amassment and above all seek comfort and safety, but I can say to those who have an interest that my experience taught me to loosen my grip on all things earthly, except for Keurig’s Dark Magic coffee, and to seek a higher, more ethereal location. Still, as I looked at those license plates resting where another might find her lover, I understood that they were an emblem of my transfiguration, and I was more than a little pleased to share a bed with them.

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Fast track to heaven

two-one-dollar-bills

Recently, the US Department of Transportation sent me two dollars as a way of thanking me for filling out, or for even considering filling out, a survey about my transportation needs. Actually, though, the survey wasn’t addressed to me; it was addressed to any resident of my city who lives (or stays) where I live or who collects mail from my box and reads it.

While two dollars is not twenty dollars or two hundred dollars or two thousand dollars, two dollars is not nothing. Sure, I have received other incentives to take an action I might not otherwise take: free stamps, free Christmas stickers, free return address labels, and free quarters taped to the mailers they accompanied. But pocketing two unearned bucks places me more squarely on the road to Shame City than does nabbing address labels, say. If I took the two dollars without responding to the survey, I would have a difficult time seeing this as anything other than a theft, if only on a karmic level. If, however, I took the labels without doing what had been asked of me, I am pretty certain I would escape God’s wrath because God knows I could never find in myself any interest in using such things.

Were I a member of the other political party, I might take the money, crumple up the survey, and rant about big government wasting my hard-earned cash. I might not even recycle the paper it was printed on because I could see myself thinking that God has put a never-ending supply of trees on this green earth for my benefit alone, and I might also think that if I recycle I am just supporting another one of those government scams designed to bilk me out of even more of my dough.

But me, I feel gratitude for the money not only because two bucks is not nothing but also because I can well imagine the drama surrounding any decision made to stuff fistfuls of dollars into envelopes addressed to no one in particular and to send these out into the world with the knowledge that much of the cash could end up in the trash bin with the rest of the unopened junk mail. To be sure it was a gamble, but, at a time when data dictates who gets funding, it was a good one. I might not complete the survey today or tomorrow, but each day I lollygag the good angel sitting on my shoulder will be whispering into my ear that I need to get it done if I want to make it through those Pearly Gates.

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Moonrise

tiredSince selling my home nearly two years ago, I have been wandering. Of course I have had places to stay during these years, but I have been without my own den, which we burrowing animals very much need.

I felt, though, that I had to draw out this period of uprootedness until I found my bearings because, wherever it turned out that I was headed, I knew I would be staying there for a good while. Now, having at last found a new home for myself, I am just days away from escaping my current, and most difficult, living situation. Still, despite my eagerness to make tracks, I have some anxiety about what lies ahead.

When I am anxious in this way, sleep seems the best palliative, so yesterday afternoon I went to bed at around 4:30 and immediately fell into a deep, blank slumber — “blank” because I simply disappeared. Next I knew it was 8:30, and there was a faint morning light coming in through the blinds. I sat up with a start and realized I had only a half hour to get to my 9:00 am meeting.

In the windowless shower, I reflected on how strange it was that I had slept for 16 hours without once waking up. In fact, I could not remember ever having slept so deeply for so long. “I must be really anxious,” I thought. Minutes later, as I was getting dressed in my room, I noticed that it had gotten darker outside.

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360⁰ poetry

Virtual Storytelling

Even if they’re hawking something worthy, ads generally annoy me, but all last week I couldn’t get enough of the promo for the most recent episode of “The Big Listen,” a “broadcast about podcasts” that can be heard on WAMU, the DC metro area’s public radio station.

In it, we hear host Lauren Ober ask Starlee Kine of the popular podcast “Mystery Show about her favorite TV programs, and she mentions several — though only one, Law and Order, fetches an irrepressible “I love it” from Ober’s guest.

Unfortunately, the “I love it” part was cut from Kine’s segment (35:39), which is sad because just reading those three words here will not give you any understanding about why it was such a wonderful, and wonderfully nuanced, moment for listeners. Or at least for this listener.

Somehow, you see, that three-word sound bite managed to convey Kine’s passion for great storytelling, and it captivated me because I share that passion to my very bones. I also share her love of Law and Order, but you are the first to know this.

I wasn’t sure how I would write about my almost childlike reaction to this sound morsel until I heard “Virtual Reality: The Wearable Movie?” on The New Yorker Radio Hour. In this most recent episode, staff writer Andrew Marantz focuses on how artists and technologists are working together to create an interactive, “immersive” narrative.

One innovative narrative project Marantz features is Blackout, which uses a “computer-rendered environment” and also uses real actors to tell a story about a New York subway that breaks down and leaves its passengers in darkness. Especially compelling is the fact that DepthKit, a new software and film-making technique used in this project, enables participants to walk around inside the story, to see actors from different angles, and to hear the thoughts of people on the train simply by turning their heads and looking at them.

In an interview with Marantz, Justin Cone, creator of Motionographer, says, “People are searching for some kind of Holy Grail that unites the best of passive storytelling with the best of interactivity,” and it appears the team involved in developing Blackout may well be on the right path.

Still, I find myself wondering whether passive storytelling would always pair well with immersive, interactive technology. It is clear that sound, for example, can add a layer of richness to a story, as was the case with my being able to hear Kine say “I love it” in her very particular way. In fact, I might not have remembered anything about her interview, a portion of which is now indelibly etched into my memory, had I only read a transcript of it.

Yet, while it is true that great storytelling engages all of the senses, it is also true that great storytelling must maintain a certain air of mystery if it is to be successful. I remember, for instance, how downhearted I felt when, after having become completely mesmerized by the performance of a lead actor in a production of South Pacific, I saw him change his costume in the wings. I saw, too, that he was out of breath. And therefore human.

Granted, I was only ten. But the memory of that shock has stayed with me all these years, and I can’t help but think that dropping someone inside, say, a narrative poem could be equally shocking and could destroy the fragile world a poet seeks to create. While the very best of this kind of poetry invites us to participate in the storytelling by, for example, parsing an image, contemplating the meaning of a line, or studying the form itself, it loses something ineffably essential when we are told (or shown) how, exactly, we are meant to understand it. Even here, when I post a poem I have written, I pause over whether or not to include a visual image with it for fear I will be giving you too much direction about how to interpret its meaning.

Perhaps I am old-fashioned about wanting to maintain the ethereal in my own work and about fearing that immersive technologies could threaten the delicate mystery poets work to weave. Or perhaps the fear is simply a failure of my limited imagination. Or perhaps it is both.

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