GIVE THE DAUGHTER HER DUE

My latest round of revising my fiction has felt somehow different from my previous encounters.

Well, I would include the round with What’s Left last fall, so maybe I can blame Cassia for my new experience. That novel, however, was always envisioned as a much less experimental work than my previous efforts.

The latest efforts have included deep cuts, including major sections I was quite fond of, and changing the tone. But these also meant creating page after page of new material, especially details to develop side characters more fully. Not just what they’re thinking, either, but rather what they’re feeling.

Much of my personal writing has functioned as an exercise to counter the dumbing-down editing required in the newspaper work that provided my income. You know, tone it down to what used to be seen as sixth-grade reading level.

Not just newspapers, either. I see too much pedestrian prose posing as literature and know language can have much more vitality and depth than that, thank you. Harry Potter, at least, has proven that many sixth-graders can read at much more advanced levels than they’re given credit for.

One thing, though. Five years after leaving the newsroom, I no longer feel that dumbing-down struggle as I write and revise, nor do I have to work my own writing into small blocks of time between everything else.

What I am surprised to see, though, is how much of the journalism influence was at work in the just-the-facts approach to my stories. I’ve seen much of my work – both poetry and fiction – as a kind of on-the-run graffiti, jazzlike, with an improvisatory tone and jagged edge. Daily journalism, for that matter, is typically done under deadline. Essentially, I saw the flow of clashing events as the core of the tale.

The biggest change in the recent revision has been the focus on the characters – and especially their feelings. Remember, in journalism, the only feelings would be through direct quotes. Anything else would be editorializing, not that you’d know in what passes for broadcast journalism on most American television stations these days.

Again, I’m going to credit my character Cassia for much of my shift. She’s having me examine that earlier work through her eyes as well as her voice.

In recasting her father’s backstory, for example, I’ve been continuing the present-tense emphasis as much as possible, with a more conversational tone than the conventional literary past-tense would carry. How would she feel about this or that development?

Oh, yes, one more thing. With her, it shouldn’t sound literary. She’s talking, remember?

The emotional element, though, has engulfed me. Engaging the characters on this level has consumed much of my time and thought, including my nights abed or my time on the treadmill or stationary bike during cardio therapy. It’s made for much slower going on my part as far as the revisions progressed. But it’s also led to a much more complete comprehension of the evolving story.

In the end, I’m hoping these move readers in ways the earlier ones didn’t.

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HOW ABOUT A SUTRA?

As I revisit my copy of The Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Hui Neng, the binding falls apart. How appropriate! The price, $2.95, says everything: this is a volume that has been carried from one end of the continent to the other and back, with a world of spiritual practice and discovery in between.

A sutra typically is a Hindu or Buddhist teacher’s discourse for aspirants.

The scarab, a symbol of ancient Egypt, originates as a beetle, By extension, it also becomes a symbol of transportation in the hippie era, leaping from there to the Hindu and Buddhist texts and back.

Break away from routine – job, home, neighborhood and friends, the commerce of community – just long enough to let the mind clear. Don’t fill the silences with radio, conversation, any music or dialogue but your own. From somewhere deep in the nervous system, atypical even random bits of memory and observation rise in unanticipated sequence. What ought to have been obvious all along suddenly asserts itself, perhaps with bold surrealism or jarring candor.

In a flash, the mind dances, as it will, with whatever engages it. Field notes, the words themselves, appear unadorned, without apology. Here something other than straight thinking presents its original mental hopscotch.

To a generation of Americans, the Volkswagen Bug represents cheap, easily repaired, carefree transport – often accompanied by adventurous first-time experiences and personal growth. In ways, the plain VW depicts a break between the routines of schooling and establishing families and careers to follow. A time, too, of spiritual exploration, with a flowering of Yoga and Zen, especially.

Here, then, the machine serves as a vessel into the Void, where the mind glimpses and tastes “all this fleeting world: a star at dawn; a flash of lightning in a summer cloud; a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream,” in the words the Diamond Sutra (Vajrachchedika).

Listen to this teaching. As Hui Neng insists, “Mirror-like Wisdom is pure by nature.” And persevere!

~*~

Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag
Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag

Well, these are all at play in my newest poetry collection, Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag. Take a look at Thistle/Flinch editions.

WHEN A STORM GETS PERSONAL

The movement of Hurricane Matthew is more than a typical news story on my end. You know, the kind you read abstractly, thinking, “Oh, those poor people living in its path,” while being grateful you’re far from harm’s way. And, yes, living in New England, I am far from the storm’s current devastation, even though some forecasts suggest it will affect our weather within the coming week.

The mention of eastern Cuba is what first caught my attention, especially the possibility of landfall. Elizabeth O’Connor of the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., once wrote of the spiritual nourishment that can arise for Americans in relationships with Third World peoples, and I’ve seen that in the contacts in my Quaker circles. One in particular, the Puente de Amigos, has for 25 years encouraged relationships and visitation between the Quaker churches in Cuba and their New England colleagues. And that’s where the storm gets personal, since our sister congregation is in Holguin, the fourth largest city in Cuba – and somewhere in the path of Matthew. These are people I’ve met, spoken with, shared meals with, and respect and treasure.

And then, looking at Florida, I think of another Cuban Quaker who visited this summer’s annual sessions here in New England – a very delightful introduction who now ministers in Miami. Actually, I first met him here in Dover a few days earlier. Again, the concern gets personal.

We can add to that those folks we know living in the Carolinas and Virginia who may also soon be impacted. As for New England, we remember all too well the wreckage Irene inflicted on landlocked Vermont – and we just spent some time on Cape Cod, which is most likely to be hit.

At least we have warnings, unlike earlier times when these storms simply appeared out of nowhere. Just think about that and the accompanying tragedies. The news of the death and damage would arrive much later.

STRENGTHENING WITH AGE

The output of some artists sometimes falls into an arc of Early, Middle, and Late – and nobody exemplifies this more than Beethoven. For others, it’s often just Early and Mature periods, which can be quite satisfying in its own way – think of the continuity in the evolving symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner, in contrast.

As I, too, have grown older, my appreciation for Beethoven’s late works – the string quartets and piano sonatas, especially – has grown, eclipsing the charming classical period influences of the early work or the relentless drive and passion of the stretch that followed and continues his fame. In contrast, the late works are thorny, cerebral, introverted, brooding, even surprisingly contemporary in their affinity. He sometimes seems preoccupied with the intellectual puzzle – immersed in theory – turning his back on the audience. And, for years, these were considered pieces musicians tackled in private. Fortunately, that part has changed, especially for connoisseurs.

It’s not just Beethoven, of course. You can look at your own preferences in reading or music or painting or theater – take the list where you will. How has your focus shifted or your tastes changed?

Think, too, of your life aspirations, especially if the children have left the home or you’ve entered retirement.

I once desired to learn to fly and to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, but never seem to have the time or money. Now that I have the time, those aren’t among my priorities or maybe even my skill sets. And the writing efforts have taken center stage, in addition to gardening and similar projects here at home.

Think, too, of possessions – for me, collections of books and recordings, especially, I’m now thinning, along with the clothing, since I no longer have to dress for the office.

In some ways, it’s all part of the flesh turning bony. A unique approach of simplifying. You can hear that, too, in Beethoven’s late works – an emerging new strength given voice, even as the muscles weaken.

ADDRESSING THE QUERIES

As Ohio Yearly Meeting’s Book of Discipline stated, the Queries and Advices “provide a means for maintaining a general oversight of the membership pertaining to our Christian life and conduct. … It remains this Yearly Meeting’s heartfelt desire that good order and unity may be maintained among us … the attention of each member of the Society should be drawn at regular intervals to individual self-examination … To aid the members in this exercise, a series of both Queries and Advices is provided to impress upon the minds of us all various principles and testimonies which should guide our daily lives.”

The tradition was for Quakers (the Society of Friends) to ponder a set of these Queries at each monthly meeting for business and have someone draft a summary to be reviewed the next month. (This is in contrast to the weekly times of worship on Sunday, or “First-Day,” morning and, if possible, sometime during the week.) The monthly meeting’s summaries would then be reviewed at the next quarterly meeting – a gathering Friends from nearby meetings – and another summary would be drafted, to be shared in a similar manner at the larger yearly meeting.

When I was living in Baltimore, one Friend suggested that those of us living at a distance from our home meetings sit down and partake in this exercise and then mail our written answers to our home meeting. Although intending to take up this practice, I procrastinated and Winona received nothing until a personal invitation arrived, gently urging me to join in the exercise.

Many of my short essays and poems originate in those responses, now turned from addressing the community of faith to the Source itself and outward again.

REFLECTING A MAGICAL AND SEDUCTIVE NAME

The Susquehanna is a remarkable river. Its mouth opens into Chesapeake Bay – in many ways, the saltwater bay is simply its continuation.

The Susquehanna originates in the Allegheny and Catskill mountains of Pennsylvania and Upstate New York, depending which of the two forks you follow.

Where I lived, the river traversed the Southern Tier of New York and the Northern Tier of Pennsylvania, highlands of mountainous forests and valley farmlands. It was broad, meandering, and strewn with small wooded islands – not all that different from what I would later encounter where it flowed between Lancaster and York counties in Pennsylvania and on down to Havre de Grace, the town that gave name to my Harbor of Grace collection of prose-poems.

Through the years, its energy has also been harnessed by a series of dams – first for the mills and later for hydroelectric power generation.

I’ve long loved repeating its very name as it rolls from the tongue. There’s something magical and seductive in those four syllables.

No wonder it inspired my newest volume of poetry in the Thistle/Flinch lineup. For your own copy, just click here.

Susquehanna 1