Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Wolf We Feed

It’s 70 degrees out, and I’m barefoot with my toes in the sand. All around me, people are enjoying this little taste of spring, even though it is still February. When you live in a Southern climate, the seasons like to tease this way, coming and going, blending together, giving you a nice warm week and then blasting you with ice a few days later. Still, these random warm days are impossible to resist, even when you know they can’t be trusted. I’ve learned not to put away my sweaters or put my house plants on the patio until at least April.

But this was not my best winter, and I’m more eager than normal to see the coming of Spring this year. It doesn’t carry with it the same promise as last year, but it carries promise nonetheless, because spring is all about new life, rebirth, and hope. As I sit in the sun, I think of an old Cherokee adage a friend recently shared with me:

One evening a Cherokee elder told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, "My son, the battle is between the two 'wolves' that live inside us all. One is Unhappiness. It consists of anger, jealousy, fear, regret, greed, arrogance, sorrow, self-pity, resentment, inferiority, false pride, superiority, bitterness, weakness and ego.

The other is Happiness. It consists of joy, love, hope, serenity, benevolence, peace, empathy, kindness, generosity, truth, humility, faith, strength, forgiveness and compassion."

The grandson thought about it for a while and then asked his grandfather, "In this battle, which wolf will win?"

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed." - Cherokee Elder

Although I spent much of my young adult life on or near North Carolina's Cherokee reservation, participating in pow wows, learning stories and traditions, I’d never heard this particular tale put forth in this particular manner. But it makes perfect sense, really. Do we really need hours of therapy, dozens of books, and thousand-dollar seminars to tell us that happiness is a choice, not an automatic condition we're gonna find ourselves in? Just like Spring in the South, life is unpredictable. We find ourselves in all kinds of situations that we never imagined…these moments are the forks in the road, the stopping point where two paths diverge. They are not always what we expected, and often, not what we wanted. But it is here that we make the choices that carry us forward.

Last summer, I killed a Copperhead snake with a small hand shovel. I didn’t want to do it. I like snakes. I think they have been unfairly villanized throughout history, and for the most part, mean us no harm. But I don’t like highly venomous snakes on the patio where my young son is playing. I remember the moment I realized what I was seeing, when the serpent's golden eyes were looking back into my own. There was no panic, no running to get someone else to handle the situation for me. There was no one else to handle the situation. Being on one’s own teaches a form of independence that can’t even be imagined by those who’ve not had to live it. I’m so out of the habit of calling on someone else to handle my emergencies, it never even occurred to me to do so. My reaction to seeing the Copperhead was instinctive and immediate, coming from that place in a mother’s soul that knows protecting her offspring must come before anything else, even the risk that she herself will be struck. But also, there is an instinct born from forced independence, from knowing there is simply no one else to handle a situation but you. The snake was coiled and poised to strike. My son was less than two feet away. If there was another choice in that moment, I could not take time to consider it.

Although I know I did the right thing, I still regret taking the life of another creature. I regret that there was no other way to handle the situation. I even regret that there was no one else to handle it for me. But to ponder regrets is to risk unhappiness, and, as the Cherokee elder states, the victor between happiness and unhappiness will always be the one we feed.

Spring is coming now, it’s obvious in the budding trees all around me. Winter wasn’t my best season, no, but the warmth of the sun on my skin reminds me that, even though there may be a few random icy blasts over the next few weeks, the cold is almost at an end. Soon it will be time to start seedlings in old egg crates. The trees are sporting small green buds that will eventually flower. Birds are busily gathering materials for their nests. Hope lies in a seed, in a waiting bloom, in a pale blue Robin’s egg.

Apologizing to Serpents

A flash of reddish brown diamonds
Amongst the clover
And my heart stops

I can smell the venom
I am death, the serpent seems to say
Perhaps not to you
But to the child behind you
Who plays
At striking distance.

I don’t make a move
Or sound
My spade is in my hand
My son is five
Curious age
And he plays
At striking distance.

Copperheads are quick
But I am faster
My spade meets flesh and bone
In an instant
Eve slays the serpent
Before there is a chance
For the world to come undone.

Later, as I cover my deed with dirt
I remember the serpent’s protest
As its life ended
And I wonder if there might have been another way
Everything desires to live
And what was its sin, really?

But in the absence of Adam
Eve must be swift.
Her shoulders sag at times
From a weight that should be shared.

Still, death does not stalk my house tonight
I sleep with my spade in my hand
And wake up
Feeling strong.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Spring Cleaning, Golden Threads, and Water

It’s that time of year again…spring looms on the horizon, and it’s inspiring me to clean out closets, drawers, and sort those random stacks of papers that seem to accumulate somehow during the droll months of winter.

I love ‘spring cleaning’. It’s so refreshing to purge through one’s things, to discard what is no longer needed. Not only do I love the Feng Shui feeling of open spaces in my closet and no stacks of paper on the floor, but I like the fact that I am clearing room for new things to come into my life. Let’s face it, we all like new stuff. But my home is small, and the rule is, if something comes in, something else must go out. It’s an easy rule to follow, once you get into the habit.

So I’m going through my closet with gusto, thinking of all the space I am clearing out for the new spring fashions, when I see the dress. Technically, it’s new, because I haven’t worn it yet. It’s a long black tank style dress with a gold lacey overlay. Tassels hang from the bottom hem, and the matching gold lace shawl is draped over the hanger. And there are strappy shiny new black high heels with gold buckles somewhere in this closet as well. Still in the box, tag still attached. The dress, you see, is a dancing dress. The shoes are made for dancing. I find them in their box, and sit down on the floor, removing the lid slowly. They are so shiny I can see my own reflection in their black patent leather sides.

Do I go out dancing? No, not really. Not in a very long time, at least. I bought this outfit for a very special occasion I thought would occur in April. A night out with someone I was so looking forward to seeing again. This outfit, with the dress, shoes and shawl, were not a cheap ensemble. But some things are worth the extra bit of elegance. However, that special occasion isn’t going to happen now. I’ve found that even the best laid plans can be like sandcastles on the seashore. No matter how grand your construction, the tide can come in an instant and wash it all away the minute your back is turned. There is one simple fact of life concerning any plan that involves more than one person to complete: people can change. The minute you turn your back, the sincerest of words can be washed away, like drawings on the seashore at high tide. A little water on your toes, a rush, a wave, and then…nothing.

The gold of the dress reminds me of sand, and the sea, and what lies beyond it. I stand for a moment, my ‘give away’ clothes bag at my feet, wondering what I should do with the dress and shoes. I’d forgotten they were here, and yet, on some deeper level, I remembered. A woman doesn’t forget buying a dancing dress. She doesn’t forget the way gold lace shimmers, or the way the shoes felt she tried them on. She doesn't forget the smile of the man she planned to go dancing with, or how his voice sounded to her ears. We don't forget these things, no...we just try to put it out of our minds. And then, we see the dress...

I could go out dancing anyway. I could easily get a group of friends to go. It might be fun. But truth is, I can hardly bear the thought of that. It’s nowhere near the original plan that I had when I bought the dress, and as fun as it might be, it would only be substitute. And I don’t believe in substituting one plan, one dream, or one life for another. So I carefully put the top back on the shoes and take the dress down from its hanger. I fold it slowly, and place the shawl on top. I’m a bag re-user, so it’s just a short trip to the hall closet to find the bag from the store the dress was purchased at. I’m also a receipt saver. Even though it’s been a couple of months, the store graciously accepts the return. I walk out of the shop, a hefty sum of cash in hand, a mixed feeling in my soul. I could do a lot with this money. The dress and shoes were, after all, top-of-the-line. But taking them back was acknowledging that the evening I’d so looked forward to is not going to happen. I’m not sure I was ready, really, to accept that loss of hope. Hope is the life-raft we cling to when feeling adrift in the sea of someone else’s choices. But that type of hope only keeps us afloat for so long. At some point, we have to come ashore…or drown.

I take the money and go to a salon. I have my hair cut and colored. A radical change from the dark tresses I was born with to a soft, honey tone, a light golden brown, like the gold lace of the dress that is no longer mine; the gold buckle on a shoe I’ll never wear; the gold of sand along the seashore; the golden thread that still binds my heart to a dream I don't want to let go of. Like Penelope of ancient lore, I toil at the loom by day, weaving golden threads into a tapestry that will never be completed, waiting for someone who, for all practical purposes, is lost at sea. By night I dream of the three fates, of making them my allies, for they alone possess the secret tool to cut the golden thread that binds one world to another.

The beach is only a few hours drive from my home. The sun is a golden disc high in the sky, the sea still too cool, really, to lose one’s self within, but I have no self left to lose, so I stand with my toes in the sand, shoes in hand, looking out over the water. It seems endless, but it has an end, I know. I’ve been to the other side. I’ve stood on a foreign coast and looked back towards where I am now. I thought the coming of summer would take me back there again, just as I thought I’d wear the dress to go dancing on a warm night in April. But the tide washes away what is written in only in sand to begin with. Maybe Robert Frost was right when he said nothing gold can stay.

I set down my shoes and wade into the ocean slowly, my body instantly reacting to the water’s chill. But I’ve been in colder waters, so as soon as it reaches my knees, I dive forward, swimming out, letting it wash over me completely. If warm water is relaxing, then cold is purifying. I dive forward again, going deeper this time. I let the water wash over my hair. It falls into my face, strands of gold shining in the sun. I think of the dress, how it would have shimmered beneath the lights, how the shoes would have sounded on hardwood floors. I dive under again. For something new to come in, something old must go out. It is the only way.

There are many forms of spring cleaning.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Valentine's Message of Love by guest writer Justin Blackburn

A Valentine’s Day Message of Love for Everyone
by guest writer and poet, Justin Blackburn

I would like to thank you for being here with me, with everyone here on this strange, dramatic, and beautiful planet, during this charming Valentine’s Day dedicated solely to the expression of love. What a wonderful thing to do, to take a single day and celebrate love!

But what is love? And why are we only supposed to celebrate it once a year? And why does it come on February 14th?

Now I could tell you the story of the many St. Valentine’s and good ol Pope Gelasuis but basically we celebrate Valentine’s Day because someone said to and most of us do what we are told. So imagine if we were told to celebrate love everyday! Imagine if we were told not only to celebrate the love of our significant others, but the love we have for everything… mothers, brothers, sisters, friends, grandparents, strangers, trees, birds, dogs, sunsets, clouds, poetry, films, oxygen etc. Imagine how much love would fill our hearts and dazzle our minds on a daily basis! Imagine how satiated, how happy we would all be together!

So right now I am going to do you and myself a favor, I am going to call myself St. Justin and I am going to declare everyday for the rest of everyone’s lives, Love Day, and I am inviting everyone in the world to celebrate love every single day they are alive! Cause let’s be honest, what are we all searching for? What is the great mystery that we are all doing our best to find? What is the reason we are all still surviving? Simple, it is love. Love! Love! Love! Beautiful, heartfelt, feel it in the soul, hear it in the spirit, praise it in the mind, perfectly divine all the time, love! Love is what created us! Love is what is evolving us into a state of love!

It is easy too think we want money, fancy cars, popularity, accomplishments, notoriety, etc. but what if we all felt loved, what if we all knew in our hearts we were fully loved by everyone all the time, do you think we would still want what it is we think we want? Or do you think we would be satisfied simply by being ourselves and we would not feel forced to find outside images to define us in order to make ourselves feel better? No big deal, just think about, and as you think it about do your best to feel your love because what makes us happier than love? Nothing.

I would like to thank you for reading my Valentine’s Day message and I hope I follow my own advice and I celebrate my love and your love everyday for the rest of my life because I know in my heart of hearts where I was born and how badly I desire to go back there. Thank you. I love you.

Justin Blackburn Visit Justin Blackburn’s website at

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A Valentine's Message of Love

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Guest Writer, Fred Bassett

This week's blog features a column and poetry by guest writer, author and poet, Fred Bassett.

One of the most compelling topics for poets throughout the ages has been passionate, romantic love. Among the many different types of books of the Bible, for example, there is an extraordinary collection of lyrical poetry which the translators of the King James Version entitled The Song of Solomon. Although the original Hebrew text does not have a title, they gave it one based on the tradition that the lyrics were written by King Solomon. More appropriately, recent English translations entitle the book, The Song of Songs, based on the opening phrase of the text. In the Hebrew language such expressions as “the song of songs” and “the king of kings” are superlatives, meaning “the best song” and “the best king.”

And what is the best song according to this text? It is the song of love ─ that passionate pulling of two people toward a new whole. The love lyrics of this little book, however, proved problematic for both the early Jewish community and the early Christian community. Both communities tended to interpret the lyrics allegorically as expressions of spiritual love between God and the religious community. According to this interpretation, the male speaker is God and the female speaker is Israel or the Church. Other interpreters read them allegorically as expressions of the mystical love between God and the individual.

Modern scholars have rightly concluded, however, that these love lyrics were expressions of passionate love between woman and man. Originally, they were likely oral poems recited at wedding festivals.

What is most striking to me about these lyrics is the bold, aggressive love found in the female voice. Nothing demure or reticent here. Since February brings us Valentine’s Day, I’d like to share four of the seventeen poems that I arranged from the Hebrew text. In 2002, Paraclete Press published them in a little book, Love: the Song of Songs, with illustrations by Valenti Angelo. The poems alternate with the titles “SHE” and “HE” to indicate the speaker.

As an apple tree among
the trees of the forest,
so my beloved
is distinguished among men.
I sat in his shadow
with great delight,
and his fruit was sweet.
He brought me
to the banquet hall
and showered me with love.
Strengthen me with raisins,
refresh me with apples,
for I am faint with love.
Oh, that his left hand
were under my head,
and that his right hand
caressed me!
I warn you fair maidens,
do not stir up or awaken love
before its time.

Oh, that you would set me as a seal
upon your heart,
or as a seal upon your arm.
For love is strong as death,
passion as unyielding as the grave.
It flashes like fire,
like a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.

Awake, O north wind,
and come, O South wind!
Blow upon my garden
that its fragrance
may be carried abroad.
Let my beloved come
to his garden,
and eat its exquisite fruits.
Awake, O north wind,
and come, O south wind!
For I am my beloved’s,
and his desire is for me.

My love is an enclosed garden
with gushing fountain.
She is a luxuriant garden
with abundant fruit and spices.
I will go to my garden;
I will gather my myrrh
with my spice.
I will eat my honeycomb
with my honey;
I will drink my wine
with my milk.
Until the day breaks
and the shadows flee,
I will revel
on the mountain of myrrh.

I’ll conclude The Poet’s Corner with a poem about my first love, long before I met my true love, my wife for 55 years. Our first love teaches us something significant about ourselves. I decided, therefore, to contrast my experience with that of the British poet, George Wither, who takes a very cavalier attitude in his poem, “The Lover’s Resolution:”

Shall I, wasting in despair,
Die because a woman’s fair?
Or my cheeks make pale with care
‘Cause another’s rosy are?
Be she fairer than the day
Or the flowery meads of May─
If she be not for me
What care I how fair she be?
And so, the poet goes on for several more verses, all with the same refrain. My experience was totally different, so I address George Wither directly in the poem.
To George Wither on Love
How clever you were George Wither
never to anguish over love,
to control your heart like a logician
doing dry proofs in a cloistered study,
to care or not to care for any woman
with a rational switch in your mind.
I, not so prepared for Ann McMurphy,
embraced her love with total abandon,
assuming the clocks were set for life.
But she, with a consumer's taste,
left me bobbing like an apple core
in the wake of her thirteenth summer.
Unable to topple its golden idol,
my dumb heart waited for her mythic return
as the years slipped slowly toward manhood.
Oh, you were clever George Wither
to shield yourself from such a woman,
and yet I marvel that I do not envy you.

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