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A shaded lamp and a waving blind,

And the beat of a clock from a distant floor:

On this scene enter – winged, horned, and spined –

A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore;

While ’mid my page there idly stands

A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands…

 

Thus meet we five, in this still place,

At this point of time, at this point in space.

– My guests parade my new-penned ink,

Or bang at the lamp glass, whirl, and sink.

“God’s humblest, they!” I muse. Yet why?

They know Earth-secrets that know not I.

 

                                         ~ Thomas Hardy

 

Leopold Löffler, 1858

Leopold Löffler, 1858

The Layers

I have walked through many lives,

some of them my own,

and I am not who I was,

though some principle of being

abides, from which I struggle

not to stray.

When I look behind,

as I am compelled to look

before I can gather strength

to proceed on my journey,

I see the milestones dwindling

toward the horizon

and the slow fires trailing

from the abandoned camp-sites,

over which scavenger angels

wheel on heavy wings.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe

out of my true affections,

and my tribe is scattered!

How shall the heart be reconciled

to its feast of losses?

In a rising wind

the manic dust of my friends,

those who fell along the way,

bitterly stings my face.

Yet I turn, I turn,

exulting somewhat,

with my will intact to go

wherever I need to go,

and every stone on the road

precious to me.

In my darkest night,

when the moon was covered

and I roamed through wreckage,

a nimbus-clouded voice

directed me:

“Live in the layers,

not on the litter.”

Though I lack the art

to decipher it,

no doubt the next chapter

in my book of transformations

is already written.

I am not done with my changes.

 

                    ~ Stanley Kunitz, born on this day in 1905

 

"The Looking Glass" by Alexander Ignatius Roche (1861-1921)

“The Looking Glass” by Alexander Ignatius Roche (1861-1921)

A great many authors have lately become impatient with the inadequacy of punctuation.  Many think that new signs should be invented; signs to imitate the variation in human speech; signs for emphasis; signs for word-groupings.  Miss Stein, however, feels that such indications harm rather than help the practice of reading.  They impair the collaborative participation of the reader.  “A comma by helping you along holding your coat for you and putting on your shoes keeps you from living your life as actively as you should live it. […] A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make yourself know yourself knowing it.”

 

~ Thornton Wilder, “Introduction to The Geographical History of America” from Ida: A Novel by Gertrude Stein (quote from Stein’s lecture “Poetry and Grammar” in Lectures in America)

 

Ninth draft of the beginning of War and Peace

Ninth draft of the beginning of War and Peace

I wish I could remember that first day,

   First hour, first moment of your meeting me,

   If bright or dim the season, it might be

Summer or Winter for aught I can say;

So unrecorded did it slip away,

   So blind was I to see and to foresee,

   So dull to mark the budding of my tree

That would not blossom yet for many a May.

If only I could recollect it, such

   A day of days! I let it come and go

   As traceless as a thaw of bygone snow;

It seemed to mean so little, meant so much;

If only now I could recall that touch,

   First touch of hand in hand – Did one but know!

 

                                    ~ Christina Rossetti

 

"Wandering Thoughts" by Frederick Alfred Slocombe (1847-1920)

“Wandering Thoughts” by Frederick Alfred Slocombe (1847-1920)

In a recent post, I extolled the virtues of a memorable and perfectly timed conclusion.  I examined the detriments associated with the protracted or seemingly unending ending and empathized with lingering finishers.  It’s tricky business, all that summing up and loop closing and requisite symmetrical resonance.  Most of us prefer the gleaming, unencumbered whiteboard of beginnings with all their hopeful possibilities and mystery to the pressure and bittersweet finality of endings.

That is, unless you have commitment issues.

Potential and promise notwithstanding, taking the first step of any new endeavor requires as much mettle and dedication as crossing the finish line, if not more.  After all, a vast expanse of conceivable failure lies between that first mile and victory lane.  Whether the venture is a new relationship, business, exercise regimen, or degree program, its commencement requires long-range vision, ongoing planning, the subduing of distractions, and sheer audacity.

Even determining where and how to begin can be paralyzing, as the fictional artist Lily Briscoe, one of Virginia Woolf’s most venerated characters, knows all too well: “She took her hand and raised her brush.  For a moment it stayed trembling in a painful but exciting ecstasy in the air.  Where to begin? – that was the question at what point to make the first mark?  One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions. […] Still the risk must be run; the mark made” (To the Lighthouse).

Ah, those pesky, irrevocable decisions.

The very idea of an unalterable first mark is enough to dissuade us all from leaving the house in the morning, let alone starting anything remotely adventurous.  That’s why I’m an advocate of first (and second and third) drafts and pencils and the ever-useful and self-serving Plan B.  They allow for false starts and initial missteps without forfeiting the goal.

Beginnings rarely, if ever, define the ending.  Some would even avow that the end is where the journey or narrative begins, that our story lives in the retelling.  According to novelist Walter Mosley, the completed first draft of a novel represents the margin between potential and work of art: “Now that you have come to the end […], you are ready to write it.”  Perhaps that’s what I love most about writing – inherent in the act is the opportunity, the necessity, to revise again and again, sometimes ad infinitum, for as long as the story, poem, or essay continues to enthrall and engage with its prospects.

In life, too, we learn from our mistakes and evolve beyond first attempts.  Through subsequent drafts, we learn to critique and analyze and correct.  We master interactions and dialogue once executed clumsily and eliminate the extraneous.  We recognize the banality in experiences and ideas once thought profound and supplant them with truly meaningful moments and insights.  And we find our soul and our viaticum and the courage to begin, revise, and begin again.

 

This column first appeared in the Orange County Register.

 

"Admiratrice dans l'atelier" ("Admirer in the Workshop") by Étienne Leroy, 1885

“Admiratrice dans l’atelier” (“Admirer in the Workshop”) by Étienne Leroy, 1885

RUMINATE Magazine is accepting entries up to 5,500 words for the 2015 William Van Dyke Short Story Prize through the deadline of midnight on August 5.  A prize of $1,500 will be awarded to the winner, and a prize of $200 will be awarded to the runner-up.  Both the winning and first runner-up stories will be published in the Winter 2015/2016 issue in December.  The entry fee is $20 and includes a copy of the winter issue.  There is no limit on the number of entries per person.  All entrants will be notified about their submission status in October.

RUMINATE is a quarterly Christian literary and arts journal of short stories, poetry, creative nonfiction, and visual art that “speaks to the existence of our daily lives while nudging us toward a greater hope.”  For more information or to submit, visit the website at http://www.ruminatemagazine.com/submit/contests/fiction/.

 

Ruminate-Image-Subscribe1

 

 

I’m thankful that my life doth not deceive

Itself with a low loftiness, half height,

And think it soars when still it dip its way

Beneath the clouds on noiseless pinion

Like the crow or owl, but it doth know

The full extent of all its trivialness,

Compared with the splendid heights above.

   See how it waits to watch the mail come in

While ’hind its back the sun goes out perchance.

And yet their lumbering cart brings me no word,

Not one scrawled leaf such as my neighbors get

To cheer them with the slight events forsooth,

Faint ups and downs of their far distant friends –

And now ’tis passed.  What next?  See the long train

Of teams wreathed in dust, their atmosphere;

Shall I attend until the last is passed?

Else why these ears that hear the leader’s bells

Or eyes that link me in procession?

But hark!  the drowsy day has done its task,

Far in yon hazy field where stands a barn,

Unanxious hens improve the sultry hour

And with contented voice now brag their deed –

A new laid egg – Now let the day decline –

They’ll lay another by tomorrow’s sun.

 

~ Henry David Thoreau, born on this day in 1817

 

Hendrik Pieter Koekkoek, circa 1890

Hendrik Pieter Koekkoek, circa 1890

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