Something Wonderful

This evocative poem is from Anthem: A Tribute to Leonard Cohen (see “Beguiling Music):

The Stranger at the Door

Richard Paul & Ron Bremner

Hello, you who are the stranger
who knows exactly who you are
I see you coming from afar
I know you are my splendid danger.

When you knock upon my door
I rush to find a jug of wine
Something that will fill the time
And drown our dreams a quest for more

In this fairy tale world of make believe
I strive to find a way out of the box
where grief and despair are unbreakable locks
in a world which only I could conceive.

Soon it will end, but it won’t smell of bliss
The scent will be more of a conscious new creed
I will give up my life for this risky new breed
of salient rascals who wistfully hiss

Lenny, you’ve come this way before
Don’t lead me to the exit door
Just teach me truths I can ignore
Or exchange them at the software store.

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“Beguiling Music”

“Leonard Cohen has been a companion throughout my life. His words and songs arriving as I needed, each time explaining to my heart the things my mind found difficult.”   Debbie Jones, from Anthem: A Tribute to Leonard Cohen

Sometimes a writer emerges as a timeless troubadour — a balladeer of the heart whose words touch countless lives, like the sun or the rain falling. Leonard Cohen is one of those beloved wordsmiths. A Renaissance man, he was a singer, songwriter, musician, poet, and novelist. No realm of life was off limits and he gave anyone who cared to see glimpses of his soul in all its light and dark meanderings. What a gift!

It seems totally fitting then, that other writers should celebrate the life-changing, life-affirming ways in which Leonard’s words touched them. That’s why I was excited when my friend Ron Bremner, a poet and poetry lover, told me about Anthem: A Tribute to Leonard Cohen, a collection of reflections to Leonard in poetry and prose.

I love it when writers share their stories about other writers who influenced them. It reminds me that no matter what the world knows of us, we are all part of a community: a tribe of scribes who can learn from each other and grow together. Knowing how a gifted, soulful writer has struggled with loss and love just as we do and turned their experience into art is so inspiring!

A few lines from “Last Year’s Man — and This One’s” — my friend Ron Bremner’s Anthem poem:

How many times I stood before the mirror,

desperate, like the Santa Claus in Dress Rehearsal

Rag, putting on dark glasses, with a razor in my mitt?

And how many times did the Sisters of Mercy lead

me back from the bathroom to that beguiling music?

What more moving celebration of a writer’s life is there than a gathering of the words he’s inspired in other writers? If you or someone you know loves Leonard, then you may want to get a copy of Anthem: A Tribute to Leonard Cohen. A perfect gift. Write on!

 

 

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Details Deliver

In many ways, as writers, we’re also artists in a visual sense: We paint worlds with our words. Cultivating an eye for telling details can give our writing texture and a sense of place. In Georgia Heard’s lovely guide, Writing Toward Home,” she talks about a little ritual she’s created for herself to develop her eye for detail: Every day, as she takes a walk, she gives herself the chance to look at the world around her with fresh eyes by finding three things she loves. I’ve begun doing this on my morning walks and it’s a lovely way to begin a day.

Visual artists, painters and photographers, ave highly developed eyes: Tiny flowers we see in a painting or the way a photographer uses foreground and background to intensify an image — all this shows an eye for detail. As writers, cultivating this kind of eye is enormously fruitful. Here’s what the classic, Elements of Style, says about the use of detail:

“If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers — Homer, Dante, Shakespeare — are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures.”

William Strunk and E.B. White then cite a passage from My Antonia by Willa Cather (one of my favorite authors!) as an example of sharply seen details:

“While the train flashed through never-ending miles of ripe wheat, by country towns and bright-flowered pastures and oak groves wilting in the sun, we sat in the observation car, where the woodwork was hot to the touch and red dust lay deep over everything. The dust and heat, the burning wind, reminded us of many things. We were talking about what it is like to spend one’s childhood in little towns like these, buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating extremes of climate: burning summers when the world lies green and billowy beneath a brilliant sky, when one is fairly stifled in vegetation; in the color and smell of strong weeds and heavy harvests; blustery winters with little snow, when the whole country is stripped bare and grey as sheet-iron.”

What an eye for detail Willa had! What simple yet lush language! Let’s bring this same painterly skill to our work as we all write on.

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Only Begin

“The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.”   Walter Bagehot, journalist and economist

“When we line up all the facts we think are against us, the facts can stop us before we start. Whatever we need to discourage us — I’m too young, I’m too old, too short, too tall, unprepared, inexperienced, or not quite ready, we can uncover. If we miss a few details, we can always find someone to help us ‘face the facts.’ The facts after all speak for themselves — except they’re not true. Courage is doing it anyway, whatever it is. We all doubt ourselves…we all wonder whether we really have the goods.”    Marlo Thomas, Building a Business the Buddhist Way

Unprepared. Inexperienced. Not quite ready.  There’s whole boatload of “facts” we can marshal to keep ourselves from starting some venture or stopping it once we hit a rough patch. And at one time or another, we’ve each probably heard them all. Our nagging naysayers can batter us from the outside or, more dangerous still, they can peck at us from inside our head. And it doesn’t matter how successful we become — they’re always hovering in the wings.

What to do, what to do? The answer, as Marlo says so well, is simple: Do it anyway. The more we do what we need to do, the farther we get down the road to going where we want to go. And the farther we travel down the path we’re creating for ourselves, the weaker the naysayers around us and in our heads become. Inaction fuels them, action defeats them.

So let’s not worry about what everyone else is telling us — or even what we’re telling ourselves. Let’s not even worry about finding the courage to do what we want to do. Because when we just do it, and the courage will come. I think it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “I do the thing that is hard for me to do and the power comes.” Doing creates the power to do. Write on!

 

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Reading Lessons

A few days ago, I received a lovely gift when my friend Lisa passed on to me an adorable postcard. It’s an old photo of six little girls sitting in a row on the steps of an old house, each with an open book in her lap. The photo, aptly titled “Reading Lesson,” was taken in Oregon in 1939 by the wonderful photographer Dorothea Lange. It’s so inspiring to me as I work on my children’s novel! And here’s good news we can all take heart from: Almost 80 years later, kids still care about books. Two sweet stories:

Sweet Story #1:  A devoted mother with two young daughters was struggling to raise them. Times were hard and she couldn’t always afford to heat their home, so it was often cold when her girls came home from school. To keep them warm, she would take them to the local library. Surrounded by books, one of her daughters fell in love with them and became an avid reader. Recently, the mother was beyond excited because she was flying to England to see her daughter graduate from the London School of Economics. Reading has given them both a bright future.

Sweet Story #2:  When a group of third graders at a Florida elementary school learned that a  local Barnes & Noble was going to close, they wrote a letter to its CEO pleading with him not to close the store. As reported on local AP news, the letter was written “in colorful penmanship” on poster-sized paper and read in part: “We recently learned that Barnes & Noble had lost its lease on your Daytona Beach store. We are very sorry to hear that and very upset that we won’t be able to visit and shop and browse and learn new things. Some of us love your sale items (using math). Some like to study there and also eat there…. Please don’t leave us without our favorite book store!… P.S. If you come, we will take you to the beach with us and teach you how to surf!”

The letter struck a chord and B&N decided to renew the store’s lease for another year. Shaina Belsky’s, the teacher whose third grade class had sent the letter, said she hoped to show her students they can make a difference by converting ideas to action: “They just have to try. They can make positive change for themselves and their community, and they just have to try.”

Kids and books: perfect together! Thanks, Lisa. Bravo, Ms. Belsky. Let’s remember the magic that books brought to our lives as kids, especially in this holiday season, as we all write on!

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“Wild Dance”

Max Born was not only a scientist, but a philosopher with an artistic bent. A German physicist and mathematician of Jewish descent, and a Nobel Prize winner, he became a British citizen at the outbreak of World War II and played a key role in developing quantum mechanics. Today, December 11, is his birthday. Inspired by a Google Doodle, I came across some quotes that demonstrate a creative flair and openness we can all fruitfully apply in our own work:

“I am now convinced that theoretical physics is actually philosophy.”

“To present a scientific subject in an attractive and stimulating manner is an artistic task, similar to that of a novelist or even a dramatic writer.”

“I believe there is no philosophical high-road in science, with epistemological signposts. No, we are in a jungle and find out way by trial and error, building our road behind us as we proceed. We do not find signposts or crossroads, but our own scouts erect them, to help the rest.”

“My advice to those who wish to learn the art of scientific prophesy is not to rely on abstract reason, but to decipher the secret language of Nature from Nature’s documents: the facts of experience.”

“Intellect distinguishes between the possible and the impossible; reason distinguishes between the sensible and the senseless. Even the possible can be senseless.”

“We have sought for firm ground and found none. The deeper we penetrate, the more restless becomes the universe; all is rushing about and vibrating in a wild dance.”

“For all the communities available to us, there is not one I would want to devote myself to, except for the society of the true searchers, which has very few living members at any time.”

“I believe that ideas such as absolute certitude, absolute exactness, final truth, etc. are figments of the imagination which should not be admissible in any field of science… This loosening of thinking seems to me to be the greatest blessing which modern science has given to us.”

“It is true that many scientists are not philosophically minded and have hitherto shown much skill and ingenuity, but little wisdom.”

“The belief that there is only one truth, and that oneself is in possession of it, seems to me the deepest root of all evil that is in the world.”

“The scientist’s urge to investigate, like the faith of the devout or the inspiration of the artist, is an expression of mankind’s longing for something fixed, something at rest in the universal whirl: God, Beauty, Truth.”

Creative souls as “scouts” who lead the way for others, the universe as a “wild dance,” and a longing to find the “society of the true searchers” — beautiful! Bravo, Max. Write on!

 

 

 

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Something Wonderful

Viewing the Waterfall at Mount Lu

Sunlight streaming on Incense Stone kindles violet smoke;

far off I watch the waterfall plunge to the long river,

flying waters descending straight three thousand feet,

til I think the Milky Way has tumbled from the

ninth height of Heaven.

Li Po

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