“Cities, she believed, should be untidy, complex and full of surprises. Good cities encourage social interaction at the street level. They are pedestrian friendly. They favor walking, biking and public transit over cars. They get people talking to each other. Residential buildings should be low-rise and should have stoops and porches. Sidewalks and parks should have benches. Streets should be short and wind around neighborhoods. Livable neighborhoods require mixed-use buildings – especially first-floor retail and housing above. She saw how “eyes on the street” could make neighborhoods safe as well as supportive, prefiguring an idea that later got the name “social capital.” She favored corner stores over big chains. She liked newsstands and pocket parks where people can meet casually. Cities, she believed, should foster a mosaic of architectural styles and heights. And they should allow people from different income, ethnic, and racial groups to live in close proximity.”
Probably because I am considering where I want to live and why, and have been making occasional forays into neighborhoods that are surprising me, I have been thinking about the remarkable Jane Jacobs and her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Until recently I lived in a building in San Francisco that was attractive inside and out but had no relationship to the street. It was beautiful-fortress living and, while I appreciated its gorgeous view, it was not my kind of place. Now I’m staying with a friend in a suburban neighborhood lush with trees, walking paths, birds, fountains, but there are no stoops or front porches, and no corner stores. It’s a car city with malls. And again, as with my city home, the suburban front yards are decorative and empty, the houses’ activities are protected, the garage doors slide open electronically, the cars glide in, the people disappear inside; the activities occur in the interior rooms and in the backyards. People do know each other; there are favors done, conversations conducted, dogs petted, but it’s restrained, orderly, formal.
Wherever I land next, I’d like public transport, front porches, corner stores, and people connecting in Third Places. I want “untidy, complex, full of surprises.” I want “people from different income, ethnic, and racial groups to live in close proximity.” This is not easy to find in our increasingly rich or poor country, but I retain hope that we will work for it because we find we need it.
Usually, I am a daily participant in National Poetry Month. But this year since March I have had my first case of pneumonia, which is hanging on despite my efforts to be well. I have been inside. But, looking out my window I can see it is beautiful in Northern California. Yesterday, I sat in the backyard of the house where I am staying, listening to the fountain, soaking up the sun, tilting my head back to see the rooftops and the trees—each tree busily leafing out in its independent way—cut out against the cloudless, surprisingly deep blue sky. I am trying to calm my racing mind. I have so much to do which is being postponed.
When I thought about what poems to carry in my pocket today, I thought of the intense inner and outer journey I have been on for a number of years, and which, once I am well, I will bring to a place where I am in control of my own journey after a long period of having someone—someone neither powerful nor ethical—having too much power over my life. My journey reminds me of the film Now Voyager, which reminds me of the Walt Whitman poem, “The Untold Want,” from which the title of the film is taken. This year, I am working to overcome old fears. My attempt to overcome old fears is an irony in my life since I am seen as a strong person. And, of course, in the contradictory and complex way of life, I am both fearful and strong. As Walt Whitman says in his poem “Song of Myself,” “Do you say I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” In Now Voyager Bette Davis’ character at one point says to herself, in wonder, after years of living a fearful, enclosed life, “I am not afraid.” Because of that, Whitman’s short poem represents for me a voyage away from, and beyond, fear.
The Untold Want
The untold want, by life and land ne’er granted,
Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.
To accompany Whitman’s poem is a James Wright poem. Wright’s breathtaking poem, “Two Hangovers,” is one of my favorite poems. It has great meaning for me about hope and trust, and contains the beautiful words, “I laugh, as I see him abandon himself / To entire delight, for he knows as well as I do / That the branch will not break.” But, while I am not quite ready for entire delight, I am ready to realize new things about acceptance and letting go of fear.
So the James Wright poem “The Secret of Light” is the other poem in my pocket, and in my heart, today. In this poem, I am a number of things all at once, but most specifically I am three things. One, the river Adige after the rain: “The river has recovered from this morning’s rainfall. It is now restoring to its shapely body its own secret light, a color of faintly cloudy green and pearl.” Two, the end of fear: “I am startled to discover that I am not afraid.” Three, the acceptance of being in the present in my life, with the past already past, and my future not yet here: “It is all right with me to know that my life is only one life. I feel like the light of the river Adige. / By this time, we are both an open secret.”
The Secret Of Light
I am sitting contented and alone in a little park near the Palazzo Scaligere in Verona, glimpsing the mists of early autumn as they shift and fade among the pines and city battlements on the hills above the river Adige.
The river has recovered from this morning’s rainfall. It is now restoring to its shapely body its own secret light, a color of faintly cloudy green and pearl.
Directly in front of my bench, perhaps thirty yards away from me, there is a startling woman. Her hair is black as the inmost secret of light in a perfectly cut diamond, a perilous black, a secret light that must have been studied for many years before the anxious and disciplined craftsman could achieve the necessary balance between courage and skill to stroke the strange stone and take the one chance he would ever have to bring that secret to light.
While I was trying to compose the preceding sentence, the woman rose from her park bench and walked away. I am afraid her secret might never come to light in my lifetime. But my lifetime is not the only one. I will never see her again. I hope she brings some other man’s secret face to light, as somebody brought mine. I am startled to discover that I am not afraid. I am free to give a blessing out of my silence into that woman’s black hair. I trust her to go on living. I believe in her black hair, her diamond that is still asleep. I would close my eyes to daydream about her. But those silent companions who watch over me from the insides of my eyelids are too brilliant for me to meet face to face.
The very emptiness of the park bench in front of mine is what makes me happy. Somewhere else in Verona at just this moment, a woman is sitting or walking or standing still upright. Surely two careful and accurate hands, total strangers to me, measure the invisible idea of the secret vein in her hair. They are waiting patiently until they know what they alone can ever know: that time when her life will pause in mid-flight for a split second. The hands will touch her black hair very gently. A wind off the river Adige will flutter past her. She will turn around, smile a welcome, and place a flawless and fully formed Italian daybreak into the hands.
I don’t have any idea what his face will look like. The light still hidden inside his body is no business of mine. I am happy enough to sit in this park alone now. I turn my own face toward the river Adige. A little wind flutters off the water and brushes past me and returns.
It is all right with me to know that my life is only one life. I feel like the light of the river Adige.
By this time, we are both an open secret.
A glowing message of support, from New York to Boston.
NY <3 B
I was surprised (and not) by how subdued and quiet my commute home was last night. The subways were crowded. There were a noticeable uptick in police presence throughout the New York City subway system and on street corners in high traffic neighborhoods. The sadness and reflection could be felt in the air.
“I was never sure that monogamy would overtake me. But it did when I met Paula.” —W. S. Merwin in conversation with Bill Moyers. 26 June 2009.
Coming into the high room again after years
after oceans and shadows of hills and the sounds
after losses and feet on stairs
after looking and mistakes and forgetting
turning there thinking to find
no one except those I knew
finally I saw you
sitting in white
you of whom I had heard
with my own ears since the beginning
for whom more than once
I have opened the door
believing you were not far
—W. S. Merwin. The Rain in the Trees. (Knopf, 1988.)
TO PAULA IN LATE SPRING
Let me imagine that we will come again
when we want to and it will be spring
we will be no older than we ever were
the worn griefs will have eased like the early cloud
through which the morning slowly comes to itself
and the ancient defenses against the dead
will be done with and left to the dead at last
the light will be as it is now in the garden
that we have made here these years together
of our long evenings and astonishment
—W. S. Merwin. The Shadow of Sirius. (Copper Canyon Press, 2009.)
“So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.” —Roger Ebert. (The final lines of his 2 April 2013 “leave of presence” statement.)
Rest in peace, Roger Ebert. You passionately continued to plan and live each day of your life until you died. The example of your life reminds me to live my own with purpose, strength, meaning.
Go on then
in your own time
this is as far
as I will take you
I am leaving your words with you
as though they had been yours
all the time
of course you are not finished
how can you be finished
when the morning begins again
or the moon rises
even the words are not finished
though they may claim to be
I will not be
listening when they say
how you should be
different in some way
you will be able to tell them
that the fault was all mine
whoever I was
when I made you up
—W. S. Merwin. Present Company. (Copper Canyon Press, 2005.)
The moon comes up.
The moon goes down.
This is to inform you
that I didn’t die young.
Age swept past me
but I caught up.
Spring has begun here and each day
brings new birds up from Mexico.
Yesterday I got a call from the outside
world but I said no in thunder.
I was a dog on a short chain
and now there’s no chain.
—Jim Harrison. Poetry. September 2008.
On Easter morning all over America
the peasants are frying potatoes in bacon grease.
We’re not supposed to have “peasants”
but there are tens of millions of them
frying potatoes on Easter morning,
cheap and delicious with catsup.
If Jesus were here this morning he might
be eating fried potatoes with my friend
who has a ‘51 Dodge and a ‘72 Pontiac.
When his kids ask why they don’t have
a new car he says, “these cars were new once
and now they are experienced.”
He can fix anything and when rich folks
call to get a toilet repaired he pauses
extra hours so that they can further
learn what we’re made of.
I told him that in Mexico the poor say
that when there’s lightning the rich
think that God is taking their picture.
Like peasants everywhere in the history
of the world ours can’t figure out why
they’re getting poorer. Their sons join
the army to get work being shot at.
Your ideals are invisible clouds
so try not to suffocate the poor,
the peasants, with your sympathies.
They know that you’re staring at them.
—Jim Harrison. Saving Daylight. (Copper Canyon Press, 2007.)
“In many shamanic societies, if you came to a shaman or medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions. When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence? Where we have stopped dancing, singing, being enchanted by stories, or finding comfort in silence is where we have experienced the loss of soul. Dancing, singing, storytelling, and silence are the four universal healing salves.”
—Gabrielle Roth. Maps to Ecstasy: The Healing Power of Movement. (Nataraj Publishing, 1998.)
“While we talk, the world, with all of its terrible troubles, rolls on. There will never be enough money. There will never be enough time. There will always be more work to do. But every now and then we find a small extra thing, a necessary sweetness, that keeps us from believing we know everything and all the news is bad. The wild card that leads to one of those hairpin turns in a life story when the grim facts shake themselves loose and we find ourselves in a new and unexpected place. The utterly unlikely thing. The beautiful surprise.”
—Alyssa Harad. Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride. (Viking, 2012.)
Alyssa Harad’s Coming to My Senses is about perfume, but it is also about reawakening to sensuality and experience, being more specifically alive, allowing pleasures into our lives that we have for one reason or another decided we shouldn’t indulge. I loved this book, which made me take deep breaths of the air around me as I read, and remember the fragrances that have defined my life. As each fragrance came back to me, it was accompanied by a tumble of people, places, moments, each vivid as a photograph. Coming to My Senses is an elegantly written, transporting book, which guides you gently into an examination of the old and new gardens of a sensual life.
There’s a book called
“A Dictionary of Angels.”
No one has opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered
The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.
Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.
She’s very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.
—Charles Simic. Sixty Poems. (Harcourt Trade Publishers, 2008.)
may favor obscure brainy aptitudes in you
and a love of the past so blind you would
venture, always securing permission,
into the back library stacks, without food
or water because you have a mission:
to find yourself, in the regulated light,
holding a volume in your hands as you
yourself might like to be held. Mostly your life
will be voices and images. Information. You
may go a long way alone, and travel much
to open a book to renew your touch.
—Molly Peacock. The Second Blush. (W. W. Norton, 2008.)