Instant Relatives

My mom used to love to rummage through old photographs in antique stores. Sometimes she’d bring home vintage portraits, stick them in equally vintage frames and hang them on our walls. She called them our “instant relatives.” It was kind of a joke, but as a kid I remember wondering if this meant we didn’t have enough real relatives.

Now that I’m grown, I have to admit that I’ve also taken to rummaging through old photographs in antique stores. What is the attraction? Perhaps I harbor hope that I’ll find pictures of my actual relatives mixed in with all the strangers. Or maybe I feel a vague responsibility to cherish these apparently forgotten forebears — even if they aren’t mine. Then again, perhaps it’s an acknowledgement that we’re all part of the human family, so I’m related to every person I come across. But lately, I suspect my primary motive is a compulsion to guess the stories behind the faded images. (This must be a fiction writer’s curse!)

Take these photographs, for instance. I found them glued together in an antique store in Redmond, Oregon. It was the week before the holidays — a time when families often hope to be together — and yet, here was a family that had obviously been apart. It seemed a little sad. What was their story?

Was the father away working? Based on his glad rags, maybe he toured with a barbershop quartet? How long had it been since he saw these children? Were they even his?

The children aren’t smiling and look uncomfortable in their “Sunday Best” — her hair bows are humungous; his tie is tiny and crooked. They aren’t in their natural element. And why is the boy in crisp focus and the girl a blur? Did she stubbornly refuse to stand still?

And the woman, she seems to have arrived in the picture at the last moment, squeezing in between the two children at a slant, her hair a little wind-blown, her open smile slightly informal for the situation. Is she their mother? Perhaps she’s a house-keeper/nanny who’d like to become their step-mother? Could these conjoined photographs be implying family connections that don’t yet exist — or acknowledging biological connections that have never been formally conjoined?

As you can see, one found image can be rife with possibilities. And the curious thing is, these seeming strangers may well be relatives whose story my family has forgotten. That being the case, this holiday season, I wish them and their descendants, warm wishes and a blessed New Year.

I looked into their faces one last time, returned the picture to a basket of sepia-toned photographs and exited the antique shop, pushing the creaking door against the winter wind.

Poetry in Place 

Come with me to the River Bench along Fountain Creek near Green Mountain Falls, Colorado. I discovered it while riding my bicycle on the old Ute trail one hot summer morning. Nestled in the cool shade of willows, undulating like the creek, it invites you to linger.

The River Bench is not a bench in any conventional sense. It’s more like a floating concrete sculpture resting on boulders. The top is decorated with stones and colorful tiles. Some of the tiles are embossed with verses written by one of my favorite poets, Pattiann Rogers, who penned the poems especially for this spot along the creek.

On my first visit, I circled the bench, reading all the verses, then lay down on the cool cement. Suspended between earth and sky on Pattiann’s words, her poems came alive around me. The creek cascaded over a riffle, talking to itself. The grasses faintly swayed, anticipating the afternoon breeze. The air smelled green. Even now, years later, I can close my eyes and feel the delightful spirit of that place.

Thanks go to Steve Wood, who designed and constructed the River Bench, and the people of Green Mountain Falls, Colorado, who helped install the project. What a surprising and wonderful gift!


Twenty Thousand Invitations

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world

than the breathing respect that you carry

wherever you go right now? Are you waiting

for time to show you some better thoughts?

~ William Stafford

Music students at Sisters High School in Central Oregon were offered a chance to put a William Stafford poem to music. The assignment grew out of a statewide celebration of Stafford’s 100th birthday. The students, all members of the Sisters Folk Festival’s Americana Project, performed their compositions at the Sisters Library on January 26. I wasn’t prepared for what happened.

Several of these teenagers created songs with such brilliant phrasing, one felt Stafford must have meant these poems to be sung all along. The musicians entered the poems and danced around, exploring the acoustics. For two or three minutes, they became Stafford, there in the room. I remember leaving the concert thinking, “I want an assignment like that!”

But adult life has a way of descending into mediocrity. Our artistic souls get lost in the chores.

But wait. Isn’t that what Stafford refused to do? He woke up and wrote every morning before dawn, whether he felt like it or not, whether he had an “idea” or not. He crafted essential poems before most of us were awake. He was a conscientious objector to mediocrity.

But that’s not really it. One of the meanings of mediocrity is to be ordinary. Stafford relished the everyday, the blessed ordinariness of life. He was suspicious of the precious. So, what makes his work so compelling for me?

I’m intrigued that he gave himself the daily assignment of being a witness. He got out of bed in the dark and set about appreciating what he’d been given to work with. He ended up writing twenty thousand poems. Only a fraction of them became refined enough to publish, but he welcomed them all. And in many of his poems he invites us to give it a try. Wake up and welcome your thoughts — all of them. William Stafford has written us twenty thousand invitations.

God’s Magpie

Your eye and this page
I am standing …

Into me

~ Hafiz

I’ve heard it said that our eternal life intersects our mortal experience every moment. We’re seldom aware of it but every now and then we’re offered a glimpse of this expanded dimension. It’s possible to come around a bend and … surprise! Your eternal nature greets you — your forever friend. Something like this happened to me when I met Hafiz for the first time.

Hafiz lived in the garden city of Shiraz in ancient Persia. He left his earthly body in 1389 AD but his physical departure hasn’t stopped him from scattering his crazy, funny, spiritually sane ideas over the earth like a continuous meteorite shower for the past six hundred years. Why hadn’t I encountered this luminous outpouring before? I must have been ripening toward an appreciation of Hafiz’s shoot-the-lights-out approach to celebrating the Divine.

Just show you God’s menu?
Hell, we are all
Starving —

~ Hafiz

Hafiz and I met unexpectedly — of course. He wouldn’t have it any other way. On a summer road trip from Northern Nevada to Colorado Springs, I stopped at a Trappist monastery outside of Old Snowmass in the Colorado Rockies. Saint Benedict’s is both a working ranch and a retreat center. The monastery cultivates hay, contemplative prayer, and silence. They also have a small bookstore which is where my rational mind said it was going. (I’ve always been a fan of Thomas Merton — a Trappist monk — so I figured I’d buy one of his books.) My heart, however, suspected this rationale was  a bunch of hooey. My real reason for visiting was a fascination with the monk’s commitment to keep conversation to a minimum. Writers tend to cherish places where silence has the upper hand.

I followed the gravel road to a cluster of buildings sheltered in a grove of fluttering aspens and gregarious magpies. No one else was around. Walking up the path, I followed signs to the bookstore and opened a heavy door. Peering in, I saw light from a wall of tall windows washing over shelves and tables loaded with books — my heaven.

Thomas Merton made a good showing among the metaphysical titles, but so did Mother Theresa, the Dali Lama, and Rumi. The Catholic monks of St. Benedict’s had eclectic taste. It was a contemplative’s candy store. So many points of view! So many prospective guides! I told my mind to shut up — and my heart to speak up. I was honing in on something …

Next to Rumi lay a mustard yellow paperback with frilly Victorian-style graphics. This? It looked a little stuffy and academic. I was skeptical. 

I almost judged the book by its cover but something compelled me to look inside. After reading a smattering of poems, I fell under Hafiz’s spell. He made me laugh. He made me think. He showed me the hidden world in plain view. Here was my beloved in a future life; a brother from before we were born; a companion I’d always sensed but never known.

I put the money for the book in a small wooden box the monks had left for that purpose and hurried outside. I needed a place to land. A few wooden camp chairs waited beneath the aspens. A magpie alighted on the back of one and then took off. I nestled into that chair. It looked across the high mountain valley toward Mount Sopris. Taking a deep breath, I opened the book and dove in …

 I am
A hole in a flute
That the Christ’s breath moves through —
Listen to this

Why complain about life
If you are looking for good fish
And have followed some idiot
Into the middle of the copper market?


Great religions are the

 Poets the life

 Every sane person I know has jumped

 That is good for business
Isn’t it

See what I mean? No piety here, but an infectious honesty whose cackling irreverence reveals the sincere reverence of a true pilgrim. That summer afternoon, I wandered in these heady poems for hours as thunderheads billowed above me unnoticed — until it started pouring.

The rain reminded me that I needed to continue my journey but I left that remote valley far richer than when I arrived. I’d spent the better part of a day touring eternity with my new friend Hafiz, the Sufi magpie. What an eye-opener.

Listen: this world is the lunatic’s sphere,
Don’t always agree it’s real,

Even with my feet upon it
And the postman knowing my door

 My address is somewhere else.

 ~ Hafiz

(Some critics claim Daniel Ladinsky’s English translations are more Daniel than Hafiz. For me, it doesn’t matter. I admire the teamwork between the 14th century mystic and the 20th century craftsman. Together, they rock.)

Web Journals

I started keeping journals as a teenager. The first one had a flowery pink cover but eventually I settled on these basic black sketch books. They were tough enough to pack around and even had archival pages — in case I accidentally wrote something worthy of posterity.

Most of my journals are tucked away in storage, so I’m not sure how many there are — maybe twenty? Thinking about them makes me smile. I’m looking forward to reading them again when I’m really really old and have nothing else to do.

Feeling as fondly as I do about my “real” journals, I’m a bit ambivalent about writing journal entries on the web. They seem so ephemeral. Their only substance is their content. But I guess that makes them more like a conversation we’re having together on this global party line.

So, how’s your day been?