My Wobbly Bicycle, 55

Posted by on Dec 25, 2013 | 19 comments

snow 2013Christmas day, snow falling feathery, heaped. Deeply comforting. No sharp corners. It’s stunningly beautiful and one of the reasons we live here. If I could put my skis on or even go snowshoeing, that would be nice, but there’s this hip pain . . . . I did shovel a little, shame on me. Jerry’s recuperating from his back surgery, so we’re not going anywhere for a while. I love stopping. I love that in general, having an excuse to hibernate. I love that about poems, the way they stop. I love the lyric impulse.  When there’s stopping, things burst their seams.

We have no family here. Jerry’s daughter Amy’s coming on Friday. Friends have stopped by, brought us wine, jams, cookies, little gifts, and whole meals. For us, 2013 has been a year of being recipients of great love and generosity. I’ve always been wary of sentimentality, which I think I’ve often translated as letting feelings show.  Maybe I’d say the right thing, but the feeling of it was tamped down. Plenty of reasons in my past why that might be so, but there seems to be a softening here, now, which even makes me aware of my writing in a different way.

Heart, and how that shows up in our work, prose or poetry: I don’t know. . . .  I’ve read some effusions that meant to be heart but made me back off. As with some relationships. I’m thinking the difference is, strangely, maybe, equanimity. There’s an opening, a generosity of the heart that shows up in the writing, the art, the music, that stands on its own, not leaning on anything. It doesn’t say, “Oh, look at how soulful I am,” or “Please love me,” or “Aren’t I generous?” It responds without a lot of fuss about it. It’s as if there’s a vacuum that needs to be filled, so it moves in to fill it. The impulse has an almost impersonal quality to it. In Buddhist terms, I’d say that this is an awareness of no-separation. In Christian terms (the only two traditions I know enough about to speak), there’s always Jesus between the impulse and the action.

Speaking of Jesus, whose birthday is celebrated today, Christmas sermons typically emphasize Jesus as representing hope, a new beginning, in a teleological way. A beginning (birth) and an end (death). There’s a beginning (sin) and an end (redemption) . The idea, generally,  is to be good, generous, kind, toward some end.  I prefer the sermons that talk about how we’re eternally at a pivot point, always beginning again whether we’re aware of it or not. And the closer we look, are we sure we know what’s good and what’s not? The book of Job says, more or less, “How can you possibly think you know the ways of God?”

What does openness of heart look like in art of all genres? Boy oh boy, I’m not sure how to say. Here’s what I’m pretty sure of: it shows up in a complete, continuous awareness that shuts nothing out. It doesn’t so much “sympathize” (feel for) as it expresses “compassion” (feeling with). That poor boy Pip in Great Expectations, how could Dickens have done any better at the beginning of that novel, expressing compassion? There’s Pip, alone in the graveyard. It’s cold, damp, foggy. He’s only seven, standing among the graves of his parents and his brothers. He names them, each one.

The long first paragraph ends, “The little bundle of shivers, growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry was Pip.”

Dickens can be insufferably sentimental, but not here. We are here with Pip, feeling alongside him.

And Yeats in “Easter, 1916”:

I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

To memorialize is one thing. To name the names of those killed in the Easter Rising in Ireland against British rule, to bring each one to consciousness and to end with that line, “A terrible beauty is born” is about as much heart as can be expressed on paper.

St. Olaf's choirIn music and visual art, again, the one quality I can point to is “lack of leaning.” If there is direct seeing, it isn’t leaning one way or the other. If it were, there’d be blurring or distortion. Each note knows only it can speak at that moment, in concert with another, that also only knows itself. A musician might be able to explain what I mean.

This is all very psychological, what I think I’m saying. It seems as if the ego can’t just be held “in check.” it has to be not-believed in. Its self-generated self-importance has to be seen for what it is, to be aware of what’s really there, to sing what there is to sing, to paint what there is to paint. 

Jerry and I were listening to St. Olaf’s College Choir coming from Norway. My God, what beautiful voices, what perfect sound. What struck me is how singers stand while singing, their body language. They’re in identical robes, hands at their sides, relaxed, their voices carrying the whole of their individual expression. They’re utterly “being with” each other and the music.  

wally on chairMerry Christmas to you from me, no matter what that may mean to either of us.  Merry Christmas from Wally, who is fond of the Christmas tree and its dangling things, each individual one, bright and battable.


  1. I think this will capture everyone’s attention:
    “I prefer the sermons that talk about how we’re eternally at a pivot point, always beginning again whether we’re aware of it or not. ”

    I think this can happen if we agree to shut nothing out. This takes all we can muster, but it can be done if there’s desire.

    • Exactly. Shutting nothing out is easier said than done. A lot of sitting necessary, I think. Because we hardly see what we’re shutting out!

  2. Fleda, I always enjoy your posts, but this one, especially. Your description of the coziness at your place is so palpable that I can picture you both curled up together under an afghan or quilt enjoying the fire and the warmth of the wine your neighbors brought by.

    Of course, the scene may be entirely wrong. Jerry may be in traction, or something (hope not), but, in any case, I do hope you can enjoy this hibernation time. We spend so many hours in our lives striving toward some goal. It takes us a long time to learn how to just “be.”

    That great Italian philosophizer, Frank Sinatra, had it right (not in his life, but in his tagline) “Do, be, Do,be, do” (I realize it’s not spelled that way). We high achievers (some would say “over achievers”) are so good at the “doing” part, but the being part is hard, isn’t it?

    In any case, all best for the holidays, and I do hope that 2014 brings you both a respite from pain.

    • No, you got it right. Jerry’s doing great. Remember how bent over he was? Much straighter now, and little nerve pain. Best to you, too Marcia.

  3. I often thought that too:we are always beginning again. That is our task: to pick up our bed and walk. I’m enjoying your blogs. The snow sounds lovely — to look at! A half an hour of looking is enough for me. It is lovely here, sunny and cold. Hope Jerry is Ok soon. Take care both of you and all the best for Christmas and the coming year.

    • You’d be surprised. They shovel, and you can get out right away. And you can snowshoe and ski, so it’s all wonderful. Unless there’s ice, but that doesn’t happen so often. Love to you in the new year.

  4. Blessings of this Christmastide to you and Jerry! My two touchstones for this season – from W. H Auden’s poem written during WWII: “Remembering the stable where for once in our lives / Everything became a You and nothing was an It.” And Christina Rossetti’s text used for # 84 in Hymnal 1982: “Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine; / love was born at Christmas: stars and angels gave the sign.” Mysterious and glorious!

    • And also, Happy New Year, Liz. Love to you.

  5. So much I love in this post! But for me, “bright and battable” caught me. In the moment, in play, in brightness. Great for a new year. Ah, the wisdom of Wally!

    • I realize I was hearing the Anglican hymn, “all things bright and beautiful,” in my head. Wally probably knew that.

  6. I think what you’re getting at, Fleda, is what Stafford called deep listening. When I’m playing with a good drummer on a good night, I call it being in the pocket (though it ain’t my term). When I’m poeming well, I don’t know I’m poeming well; something/someone has taken over, or I’ve finally shown up and the imposter full of noise and narcissism called “Alex” has been evicted. Something like that. Merry Christmas and much love to you and Jerry.

    • This is perfect, that being in the groove, the pocket, the zone. If I would get away from email and stuff, I might actually have some times like that with the work. The writing’s gone to hell at the moment. Will you be at AWP?

  7. My experience of singing in a well rehearsed choir with a fine conductor was one of not only open heartedness, but of transcendence–ego was lost in the flow of the moment (with acknowledgment to Mihaly Czimentmihaly). Such a gift!
    So what is happening with your hip? and Jerry’s healing from back surgery?
    Marry Christmas to you both,

    • Yes. I wish I could sing well enough to be in a choir. But I love listening.

      • I don’t sing particularly well, but i love to sing and missed it and just started singing with the Rainbow Chorale of Delaware. and yes, it is wonderful to have that feeling of oneness when you all are singing!
        I also love the reminder that we are eternally at a pivot point, at every moment.

  8. We were all looking at exactly those lines from Yeats this afternoon–because Benjamin was asking us why our favorite lines of poetry were our favorite ones, so Yeats came into the conversation with exactly that point: that the names are what saves the poem from sentimentality and makes it live on. We also looked at Robert Hayden, Robert Frost, and William Stafford. And Benjamin is only eleven! Thanks for posting this.

    • That kid’s too precocious for his own good. If you’re not careful, he’ll end up writing review-essays.

  9. I have been happy to explore your posts. Your poems speak sharp truth, your prose delights and encourages reflection and appreciation. I grew up a musician; that is how I learned to lose my self and experience the abundance of this living, the universe pulsing within/without. Now I write and it is rescues and frees as art does. The Christian tradition is also mine and so I love the book of Job interpretation. Openness of heart looks like God to me. How wonderful you heard the choir, were that present with their music. A good new year to you and yours.

    • Thanks, Cynthia, for your comments. A good new year back to you.

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