More Thoughts on Listening from the Heart

“To see takes time, like to have a friend takes time,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote as she contemplated the art of seeing. To listen takes time, too — to learn to hear and befriend the world within and the world without, to attend to the quiet voice of life and heart alike. “If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing,” Pablo Neruda wrote in his gorgeous ode to quietude, “perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves.”

This inspiriting, sanctifying power of listening is what writer Holly M. McGhee and illustrator Pascal Lemaître explore in the simply titled, sweetly unfolding Listen — a serenade to the heart-expanding, life-enriching, world-ennobling art of attentiveness as a wellspring of self-understanding, of empathy for others, of reverence for the loveliness of life, evocative of philosopher Simone Weil’s memorable assertion that “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.”

“Forthcoming memoir” is Coming Forth!

Evelio’s Garden: Memoir of a Naturalist in Costa Rica is coming in September (as soon as I have a few reviews to put on the back cover). Published by Atmosphere Press, a small collaborative publishing house, it looks almost too good to be true.

I had let it slide for a while (ten years???) after contacting a zillion agents who were not thrilled — although some said it was beautifully written — because in the hurly-burly world of major publishing, a small, even beautiful, book needs a lot of extra work to become its own little profit center.

Even after all the work editor Allyson Latta had put into it, I still lacked confidence after so many rejections, but something stirred me when I saw a call for submissions by Atmosphere Press in a publishing newsletter. After I had jumped through so many hoops with the agents (send first and third chapters; send first five pages and a marketing summary; send synopsis of no more than 300 words, etc.) all this press wanted to see was the manuscript!

Well, that was just too easy, so I sent it — what the hell? — and a few days later I had a note from the publisher, Nick Courtright, a well-known poet in his own right, saying they would like to take it. I was flabbergasted: this was really too easy. So I hemmed and hawed for a few days (was that weeks, Nick?) until agreeing to go forward.

Nick put me in touch with one of their editors, with whom I had an excellent few weeks of working together — he liked it! — and I was beginning to feel a little jazzed. So, here it comes:

More later!


Great Thoughts for Creative People


“A writer — and, I believe, generally all persons — must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.”

Jorge Luis Borges


“I find my position as a poet today a curious one… For a long time I have maintained that the poet’s affair was the individual human soul, the story of it in one man, in my case the transforming of personal emotions into written events. Now it has become impossible to guard one’s soul — death to do it — we are forced to read the papers, and yet I still believe that our job is somehow or other to be above the mêlée, or so deeply in it that one comes through to something else, something universal and timeless.”


May Sarton

Similes and Metaphors

Every Sunday Creative Nonfiction releases a “Sunday Short Read.”  These are always worth reading, and I found this one especially good in its use of similes and metaphors.  One can identify with virtually all of them in this piece, and they add a richness that makes the simple ending ever more powerful.

Sin

by Max Garland

It hovered in the glowing tips of my unmarried uncles’ cigarettes. And in the red, rounded tops of lipstick tubes. It smelled, not sweet like lilies of the valley or hyacinths, but more like the insides of purple irises or, stranger, like azaleas or hawthorn blossoms—not bad, but definitely not all that good. It sounded like the sliding of nylon hose when high school girls crossed their legs in church and swung their high-heeled shoes not quite professionally, but in a sort of practiced way. How did it feel? It didn’t feel like the florid waving of Pentecostal preachers on Sunday, nor like the chemical jolt when a copperhead slid under a pile of warped boards near the smoke shed where hams hung. Nor did it resemble the cackling of hens, nor the barn roof peaked like a witch’s hat on Halloween. It wasn’t the way bats swerved over the catalpa branches in the evening, though once when I found one clinging to a rafter in the barn loft, I felt something human, a kind of leathery kinship born of shame and exile. But it was more than that.

It was more like the feeling of barometric pressure on the rise—how the air got crowded when a storm was coming. How it felt when you tried not to think about what you shouldn’t. It was the vast but tightly compressed distance between who you appeared to be and who you suspected you were.

Once, for instance, I lit a field on fire. It started with a haystack, and I don’t remember from where I stole the matches. I do remember the smell of striking several and watching the straw catch and then putting it out, and then again and again, and although I thought I’d doused the thing, somehow the whole stack went up, and my grandfather was jerking the garden hose toward the field, and I was watching the flames from some shadow somewhere, and simultaneously constructing an alibi, and still watching it burn, beautiful as the lie I was crafting. It was like that. For no reason at all, I’d started a series of small fires and failed to put one out, and then briefly loved the look of calamity and the force of the hay turned to fire and the race of flames through the field. Nothing terrible happened, just an acre of burned fescue and one less haystack in the world. And it wasn’t so much the lie, but sticking to the lie, as if I owed my denial some allegiance, and then discovering I could even muster indignation at my grandfather for not believing a fire could start of its own free will. It was knowing my own will was anything but free.

It was knowing who started the fire in me that struck the match. Smelling the devil’s sulfur breath, that was how it felt—like not ratting on yourself. A pure, bright, alien allegiance you’d go down for if you had to.

It was the strangeness of thinking—after years of reading the Bible, sitting in pews from which my feet couldn’t reach the floor, learning the wages and consequences—that I would never really die, not ever. Whatever dead folk I had actually encountered, fluffed up and peachy in their caskets, I promoted directly on up to heaven. Heaven was the joker in the deck. If only a second were left in an evil life, you could say you were sorry and up you would fly. So claimed Jesus on the cross to the thief.

It was knowing I was that thief. I stole some matches, and burned down most of a field, and lowered my head and lied for the sake of some strange honor that was logically bound to lead toward other varieties of burning. It was the distance between the logic and the lie, the distance between knowing and coming clean. And finally, it was the terrible forgiveness of my grandfather, who said, Well, I guess the field needed burning anyway, and then plowed the stubs and ashes under. Then came fall, and winter was sodden and brown with a few bouts of snow that raced at the windows. Then it was spring, and I remember the green of that field.

No one ever mentioned the fire. It was the green that got to me.

Max Garland is a former rural letter carrier from Kentucky and the author of The Postal Confessions and Hunger Wide as Heaven. His poetry and prose have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Best American Short Stories. He lives and teaches in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and is the former poet laureate of that state.

* This essay originally appeared in Creative Nonfiction #48 (2013

Knowing

Published in the November 18, 2018 issue of the online journal, Leaves of Ink.

 

Fine strong planes
of face,
lines knowing,
beard tickle
eye twinkle
pain between brows.
I touch the pain –
here.
Soft ears listen
mouthcurve speak to me –
kiss
oh, kiss.

Curve of back
finely taut at hip
knee leg toes
sharp angles here
and soft here.
Fingers dry and strong
like rushes touch me
in the wind.
touch –
here, oh!

© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2018

Photo of Maltese tunnel, provenance unknown

“I Turned My Ear to Trees . . .”

“For the Homeric Greeks, kleos, fame, was made of song. Vibrations in air contained the measure and memory of a person’s life.

“To listen was therefore to learn what endures.

“I turned my ear to trees, seeking ecological kleos. I found no heroes, no individuals around whom history pivots. Instead, living memories of trees, manifest in their songs, tell of life’s community, a net of relations. We humans belong within this conversation, as blood kin and incarnate members. To listen is therefore to hear our voices and those of our family.

“To listen is therefore to touch a stethoscope to the skin of a landscape, to hear what stirs below.

“We’re all — trees, humans, insects, birds, bacteria — pluralities. Life is embodied network. These living networks are not places of omnibenevolent Oneness. Instead, they are where ecological and evolutionary tensions between cooperation and conflict are negotiated and resolved. These struggles often result not in the evolution of stronger, more disconnected selves but in the dissolution of the self into relationship.

“Because life is network, there is no “nature” or “environment,” separate and apart from humans. We are part of the community of life, composed of relationships with “others,” so the human/nature duality that lives near the heart of many philosophies is, from a biological perspective, illusory. We are not, in the words of the folk hymn, wayfaring strangers traveling through this world. Nor are we the estranged creatures of Wordsworth’s lyrical ballads, fallen out of Nature into a “stagnant pool” of artifice where we misshape “the beauteous forms of things.” Our bodies and minds, our “Science and Art,” are as natural and wild as they ever were.

“We cannot step outside life’s songs. This music made us; it is our nature.

“Our ethic must therefore be one of belonging, an imperative made all the more urgent by the many ways that human actions are fraying, rewiring, and severing biological networks worldwide. To listen to trees, nature’s great connectors, is therefore to learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance, and beauty.” – The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, David George Haskell

Podcast: Writing Letters from the Pacific

It’s rare to run into a writer and coach living just down the road who gets excited about my travel memoir, Letters from the Pacific.  (I mean, we’re in remote Costa Rica here!)  Happily,  Amy Brooks was delighted to interview me for her podcast , Voice Pen Purpose online, instead of at  her kitchen table (she has three lively boys).  Thus, it is easily available to the anyone in the world who cares to listen, without distractions.  Which I invite you to do.  It’s a fun interview.  Enjoy!

Photo by SSH