What to create at world’s end?
Tuck in threads and rework the song,
Craft ends into hidden rebirth.

We are here to work, here to listen,
Tie off ends towards memory, towards forgetting –
Snip arteries, tie off the vein. 

In the needle, the weft – the warp and the hum
You may lose the art of beginning again. 

Let it go. Sometimes you must lose pain, 
But all artists donate themselves. Today I give you my heart. 

(Original version posted in Fragments, (c. 2020 PC)

What does it mean to complete your work? 

Or rather – what does it mean to undertake your work, when you are aware that it may remain incomplete?  

Memory and looking forward are both essential to living a human life. That is to say, humans – more than any other creature we have been able to determine – experience time as defined by that which falls either side of now. When tomorrow is no longer a certainty, we lose a handy mental compartment for all experiences labelled “not today – but someday.” We are forced to understand that some experiences are actually labeled “never.” 

This loss of infinite tomorrow is a defining moment for most humans. It shapes us, far more than the moments we’re supposed to remember – first bike, first day of school, first pet, first kiss. First understanding of mortality: now there’s one for the family album. It definitely has that Hallmark appeal. 

The reason this is such a defining moment is because of what follows. Almost immediately, the question becomes: what are you going to do about it? 

What are you going to make with this life that is not infinite? What are you going to craft out of precious minutes and uncertainty? Are you brave enough, humble enough, to begin what you may not see to completion? Are you willing to work with no guarantee of leaving a legacy?

Jorge Luis Borges’ story, “The Secret Miracle,” is one of the most concise and memorable explorations of these questions. (It is, incidentally, the piece I think of whenever I am feeling sorry for myself over a stubborn piece of writing – or my own excuses about said piece of writing. I digress.) This story stays in my mind for two reasons: first, its plot, and second, a burning question the plot raises for me. 

The piece begins with disaster and ends with a foregone conclusion. In between lies the story, the space where miracle is shaped. It has a certain amount of realism (magical or otherwise), and along with that realism goes a necessary fatalism.

The story’s protagonist, Jaromir Hladík, is a Jewish playwright in Nazi-occupied Prague; you see where the fatalism comes in. He has spent his life wrapped in his work, but has never achieved the artistic merit he is convinced he can produce. Yet his life seems to be ending. 

Seconds away from death, he is granted a divine intervention. He is granted one year to finish his last, greatest play. The year, however, occurs only inside his head. It is time secured by the suspension of everything else, including bullets poised in flight. Between the order to fire and the end of his life, Jaromir Hladík must decide what “complete” means for him and his work.

You see, Hladík is convinced that this is the play by which history will judge him. He is certain that this is his work of record, the achievement that will secure his name and memory among the great playwrights. That is the rationale given for his single-minded pursuit of the play’s completion, even in the face of a death sentence. He is determined his work will live on. 

But like many of Borges’ pieces, this story seems to fold inwards on itself. Hladík’s miracle directly contradicts his stated impetus. His chance to complete his play is contingent on circumstances that guarantee no outside validation. His masterpiece is completed in his head. In short – no one else will ever see it. It’s completion is literally between him and God. 

Why does Hladík continue to work under these circumstances? 

Why do any of us continue our work? We are all facing imminent death; not, perhaps, in such a dramatic or unsubtle fashion, but certain death. 

In Hladík’s case, the relationship between creator and created is repeatedly blurred and re-worked. He begins as a creator unsatisfied with his work – a creator stripped of satisfaction in his creation. His creative capacity is threatened by the Nazi forces of anti-creation (destruction, repression, conformity). 

The real struggle, however, is between Hladík and his wish for completion on his terms. It is the struggle of a Self trying to create an Other. 

It isn’t a comfortable process. Most Selfs don’t want to give life to Others – they only want to extend Self. But most Others are determined to exist – especially the ones trapped inside a Self. To paraphrase Barbara Kingsolver’s words on parenting (High Tide in Tucson, “Civil Disobedience At Breakfast”), the job of a Self is to make themselves redundant, by giving the Other the ability to survive without them. It is the job of a creator to make themselves irrelevant to their creation. 

Hladík’s struggle is resolved through the agency of a miracle which strips away the necessity of his Self. With no tomorrow, he can afford to release his ego. He can allow his expectations to become irrelevant to his purpose.

The final letter he envisions seals both his play and his demise: existence and eternity in a single point, erasure of the line between creator and created. 

It is not Hladík who completes the play, but the play who completes Hladík. 

While the world may judge his play and his body of work to be unfinished, Jaromir Hladík is complete.

Now – what are we to take from this?

Obviously this narrative – powerful though it is – is far more polished and refined than the real lives each of us grapple with. Hladík has the benefit of considered editing, an advantage denied most of us who live outside works of fiction. So what I say here is an intentional simplification of a complex thing.

Here’s an opinion. Self is not – itself – meaningful. 

Let me clarify – each life has value, but value is not quite the same thing as meaning. Lives acquire meaning through interaction with Other. Each interaction with Other forces a life to confront it’s Self. Each confrontation with Self – when resolved – yields a Self more prepared to assist the being of the Other. And the more a Self focuses on Other, the more prepared a Self is to work without assurance of completion. In short, a Self who makes peace with its need for posterity is much better equipped for the business of living a generous life. 

Yes, it’s almost a tongue-twister. Just wait till I put it in rhyme. 

I’m sorry it’s taken me this many words to say this simple thing: we work without assurance of completion because we are part of an existence that we cannot comprehend. We cannot comprehend what part we may play in that existence, what secret miracle we may be granted or grant others. The process of working in the face of no tomorrow is the process of returning our Self to Other, until – like Hladík – the line between creator and creation dissolves.

Six Ounces of Possibility

What do you see in a can of tomato paste? 

For only six ounces, it holds a world of possibility. It holds pizza, curry, or chocolate cake (true story – read Patricia Polacco’s Thunder Cake for the recipe). It is the warmth of tomato soup on a winter night. It is marinara; it is the miracle and the multitude. Loaves and fishes don’t have anything on a six ounce can of tomato paste. 

Canned tomato is never to be confused with fresh tomato. It is an entirely different species. Fresh tomatoes are the definition of fleeting. They exist for a brief season. The end-of-summer ripeness is beautiful, but it is over quickly. Once the flood of vines retreats to the hot house, it is time to surrender the fresh tomato. 

In its place arises the canned tomato. Once tomatoes are rendered into sauce and again rendered into paste, the water content is traded in, along with the bright gush and sugared tang. In return, tomatoes become immortal. Their taste gains umami muscle; their texture, a lipid silkiness. Simply put, it gains “zing.” It is a transformation that invites experimentation. 

Actions that would be a sin with a fresh tomato are a delight with tomato paste. 

Like all good companions, it is open minded. It has the head of an adventurer and the heart of an egalitarian; the luck of the draw plays to its strengths. 

Produce in varying stages of freshness? No matter. It embraces all vegetables, cooked down or roasted. Parmesan or parmigiano reggiano are equally welcomed.

It takes well to oils, tolerates fat-free, accepts vegan and vegetarian options, and displays affinity for all major culinary traditions; there’s probably something in your pantry that will go well with it. Garlic? Ramen spice packets? Ranch dressing? Fish sauce? All fair game.

Ginger, coconut cream, cardamom – cumin and cilantro; the “Scarborough Fair Combo” of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme; a fire drill of peppers, from black to bird’s eye. It loves cheese, bread, eggs, fish or fowl, and takes an ecumenical interest in beef and pork; each of these receive the best tomato paste has to offer. On occasion, it even provides modest cover for the mysteries of sausage or hash. 

In conclusion: there’s a lot to learn from tomato paste – a lot to enjoy. 

Now – if only I could find the can opener.

Between Jungle & Plains

I stand between jungle and plains,
The broad expansion of fast food chains
And cell phone towers’ exotic heights
Where parakeets swoop.

From package to bird to tree
Nutrients cycle raucously
Grackles guard their carnival spoils
Where pigeons roost.

Each new crumb holds triumph and route, 
Both squawked about.
Each new crumb is food
For feathered tomorrow’s ravening brood.

I catch my bus transfer at a spot which is a bit of a food court for the local avian population – including, to my delight, a flock of monk parakeets.

Destroying Evidence

I spent yesterday destroying evidence. 

Now, the obvious question arises – why go to the effort of destroying evidence if you are then going to talk about it? A more sensible approach would maintain silence regarding the whole business. 

I never claimed to be sensible. But more importantly, it wasn’t THAT kind of evidence. It was, simply, evidence of life in a confined space. Dishes, dust, trash, recyclables, scattered papers, laundry –

Ah, the laundry. That, I’m afraid, did not go so well. There was a Calamity. A bird built a nest in the pipe leading to the dryer vent and then, sadly, took the pipe as its final resting place. Truly a case of “fallen off the perch.” 

Since that pipe acts as the air intake for the dryer, it was not long before myself and the other apartment residents noticed a Presence among us. I would like to report mysterious drafts of feathers and a ghostly chirping, but that would be inaccurate. Instead, we were stricken with a Smell. 

The dryer smelled, the laundry room smelled, any clothes put in the dryer smelled – soon, the apartment was littered with piles of fishy-smelling clothing that no one wanted to put away in their closet. Poltergeist looked like copy for Apartment Therapy in comparison; a little classic haunting activity would have been a welcome break. 

As it was, once the bird’s earthly remains were removed, the Smell remained. Attempts at exorcism with Lysol and vinegar have so far been unsuccessful. I’m currently looking into the merits of goat blood.

Some evidence doesn’t go down without a fight. 

Yes, I was cleaning. But it feels much more rewarding when I think of it as “destroying evidence”. 

Strange Jewel, Quiet Creature

A strange jewel, a quiet creature: this company we keep could be either, so let’s say they’re the same thing.  

It holds a gemstone’s depths and facets, always a new twist of whatever light shines through. It is precious. It is best held close to the heart; it is a gift for you alone. 

It is also a small shadow, a creature that came in the window you didn’t open. Now, it is Here – politely, unavoidably, whether you want it or not; it is here to stay. It will not abandon you. 

It’s the jewel no one fights over, the companion no one wants. No one ever claims it. Disease, addiction, depression, obsession – any of these are preferable to talk about with others. Pick your poison, they say – but don’t pick Grief. 

That’s easy to say. No one ever picks grief, it picks you. It’s like the Emily Dickinson poem:

“Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me – ”.

Perhaps that isn’t quite true. It isn’t a process of picking and choosing, after all. Grief can enter through any experience. Grief is part of the process of mapping the scope of our love for someone or something. Grief is about love. 

That is, often we would not understand that we loved something if we didn’t discover it through grief. It must have been love, to spark grief. If the love was not suspected or expressed, this is the part where regret may come in – but it is possible to grieve without regret, just as it is possible to love without regret. 

It isn’t always a dramatic process. It may take a while to realize that what you experience is, in fact, grief. This is particularly true if what you grieve isn’t a typical focus of grief; grief is not just for that which is dead or unreachable. You can grief anything you love, at any point of the process of loving. You can grief a friendship, a way of life, the world, your own mortality. You can grieve for the past, the present, and the future. Any of these are valid.

It may take even longer to find a way of expressing that grief in a way that adequately fits the experience – and it is an important enough thing, both in itself and on behalf of whatever sparked it, that it must be truthfully expressed. 

So the question becomes: how do we say it? It seems it needs practice. It is not a frequent, or comfortable, topic of conversation. It is a difficult thing to share with others, and it is a difficult thing for others to hear. Thus the words themselves are rare – “I’m grieving.”  

It’s a simple thing, an acknowledgement of a state; it’s a boundary. The world is either grieving or not-grieving. To color in the lines of this boundary, more words are needed. 

“I live with grief;” “Grief came to stay with me.” Grief shares my days, I hold grief, grief colors my sight. The feeling of love has become mixed with pain. The feeling of love has become the same as pain. Give me time, because it feels as if I need forever. Give me tomorrow, because today is a hard thing to bear. 

You may be wondering: “How do I live with grief?” 

Grief doesn’t go away. Once it is there, it’s there, though it may lie buried deep. 

What do we do with that which we can’t escape? 

Accept it, fight it, argue with it. Live life despite it, or alongside it; seek understanding. Any of these are possible, all are reasonable, though some are futile. Grief is as varied and individual as love in its experience and expression. Don’t bother looking for a “correct” response.

But if you can – remember this: grief is not a selfish guest. It can coexist with almost any other emotion or experience. Let it stay; do not rush or deny it; treat it with respect. Allow it to do as it needs, and it will eventually lay itself down to rest, not gone but at peace.

Today, my friend, may you be at peace.

In The End –

In the end,
It was backwards all along. 
Start where paths have led;
Start where conclusion lives, 
The firm and foregone FIN. 

Work towards questions, seed of Unknown;
Work towards the point before the stage,
Before – that, too. 

Leave the firm. 

On the waters, the rocking waves,
Be a net, cast
In a lake’s outwards expanse 
Where silver fish
Swim freely

Art of Not-Looking

I like nothing so much
As that for which I’m not looking. 

The lurking, the stealth, the quiet and the rush,
The thing that says, look away please.
You saw nothing. 

Of course I saw nothing – I remembered everything. 
We’ll pretend this dance, 
We’ll relish this fiction:
I knew what we were doing the whole time. 

And when the scenery folds, 
And the truth it holds –
We’ll just go not-looking for tomorrow’s line.

Time of Small Things

They’re everywhere. No, it’s not a horror story – just an observation. I mean the Small Things; the cracks in the day, the glimpses of joy or grief out beyond the stories we tell ourselves. 

My childhood was spent in a house approaching the century mark. I promise you again, this isn’t a horror story. We’re only stepping into the closet; come on, back here. Behind all the clothes. Yes, you have to come into the closet to see it – what are you looking at me like that for? There’s almost certainly no skeletons – ah. Here it is. They painted this house quite a few times, but they could never quite cover it. 

It’s one of the Small Things. The layers of paint have cracked away just enough, giving up a revelation: a sliver of wallpaper, decades old and covered in flowers. I often forget it’s here. But it’s one of those invisible pushpins on my mental map of the worlds I move through. As long as it’s here, a piece of this world is still in place. If it should ever be covered again, or remodeled over – the memory will remain, a fragment snapped free from form, but still a sort of marker on a place in time. 

The Small Things ring our lives. They mark out the boundaries, the edges, the familiar and uncertain; they form a sort of exoskeleton. No one has the same Small Things, but their essence is perfectly exemplified in the children’s book Madeline: 

“…a crack on the ceiling had the habit
Of sometimes looking like a rabbit.”

Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans

The cracks on the ceiling, or a particular chip on a particular cup; the feeling and pattern of linoleum kitchen tiles, the creak of a door, the smell of a tea tin, a clock ticking. These things barely impinge on our conscious mind. They are almost invisible. And yet, they form a baseline. They give us a world we can trust; a very small world, but the larger world of shared experience isn’t big enough for more. Sometimes it’s just enough to have one thing on which you can depend. 

Most people like to think their lives are built on values. It’s a lovely idea. But large-scale concepts like Trust, Hope, Love, and Courage don’t have meaning unless you actually, well, value them. And things are easier to value when they have tangible form. 

Patience is easier to grasp when a well-known clock ticks off the seconds. A chipped teacup holds acceptance of imperfection; a tea tin holds the gift of sharing. The creak of a particular door is a nudge towards openness, the ability to reach out; a crack on the ceiling shapes an understanding of empathy, other minds, other perspectives. 

Like I said, Small Things mark the edges of our lives. Values may dwell out beyond the boundaries, in the magical realm of intangibility; most of our lives occur on the other side of the divide, where matter fronts for mind. The Small Things are sometimes a comforting routine, and sometimes the closest lifeline to sanity and the better parts of our nature. 

While you have time – if you have time right now – take a few moments to look and listen for them. No matter what state of disarray your life is in, I guarantee you will find your Small Things there somewhere, even if only in memory. Conjure them up, hold them as close as you can; imagine them in detail; imagine what they might teach you.  

As they say – it’s the Small Things in life.

Vanishing Point

Expanse like the generous horizon,
Spring of miles and space –
You used to be mountains;
You hid in clouds, thunder of June, 
Stretch of wintertime frost. 

In the flame of an evening alone, 
Bright and dark my companions. 
The shadows changed, edges unfinished – 
Stretched to morning; stretched towards sun,
Growth of a tree with no trunk.

You pick your form, you shape my sight,
Thief of my eyes in retreat. 
Creature of depth – 
As you give, give my eyes

When Life Gives You Melons

This may come as a surprise to you: I dislike surprises. 

The idea of surprise is interesting, useful, helpful – even essential – to explore. I will, cautiously and with enough advance notice, make exceptions for well-defined surprises on my birthday, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day. But actual surprises – the undomesticated variant, in their natural habitat – are not my cup of tea. I try to avoid them as much as possible.

This morning I got a surprise. I thought I was getting a melon. Due to the early hour, I confused the two. 

The (apparent) melon was a beautiful specimen. Mottled green and dust-colored skin, no bruises or soft spots – so far so good. When I sliced into it I stopped to admire the sight. The melon’s insides were a rich salmon-pink-orange, flickers of yellow and deep green around the edges of the cut. The smell was delicious. 

I grabbed a spoon to scoop out bite-sized chunks. The spoon bounced off the inside of the melon. 

I stared. The melon stared back. I tried again; same results. The melon was as hard as an apple. 

Apple-textured apples are wonderful. Apple-textured melons are a situation I am not prepared to face. 

There was a bit of a skirmish. Tupperware, forks, and multiple knives were involved. Currently things have stabilized into a standoff: half the melon is sulking in the fridge, half the melon is safely in a container, and I’ve retreated to the balcony to sulk in retaliation for the melon’s sulking. I retain my position: melons should not go “crunch.” 

Melons should melt, drip, overflow, and generally make as much of a sticky summertime splash zone as possible. 

In this time of paper towel shortage – at least this melon won’t make a mess. There may be a silver lining after all. 

What a surprise.