The Way of All Words

The sky lowers, and the horizon disappears. A turning wind blankets the moon with sea-born fog, shrouding the contours of its face. Impassive, harshly brilliant above the fog, it rises ever higher behind fast-scudding clouds, lighting the transition between old and new: between one year and the next.

As midnight approaches, a lingering few stand silent, shrouded in a fog of thought, tangled in life’s web, caught between the land of No-Longer and the land of Yet-to-Be. Perhaps a moonlit shard of truth reveals itself to revelers in the street: this is the way of life.  What has been passes away into forgetfulness, while that which is yet-to-be stirs toward vitality.

Armies rise. Nations fall. Children squall into existence, even as their grandparents sigh away toward death. Beyond the farthest reaches of the galaxies, unnamed stars explode with pulsating light while on our own shy, spinning globe, rotting leaves and the stench of mud evoke a season’s final turn.

Amid these cycles and rhythms of life, against this backdrop of continual change, a torrent of words flows on: a steady sluicing of syllables seemingly without end. For those who read, and especially for those who write, this flow of language brings solace. Like the river it resembles, language connects and cleaves, cleanses and comforts. nourishing the creativity taking root along its course.

Still, for the poets, novelists, and essayists among us — for every wordsmith stepping into and hesitating around this outpouring of words — another truth clamors for recognition.

Words, too, partake of life, rising and falling as surely as any civilization. Syllables rearrange themselves; paragraphs take on life; sentences fade into obscurity. True to their own rhythms and seasons, turned this way by time and that way by circumstance, words slip away and are lost: out of sight, out of mind, out of imagination.

Standing between last year’s language and next year’s words, T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” whispers of an experience every writer knows:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow…
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow…

Within the context of “The Hollow Men,” these words carry particular meaning. But within the context of Eliot’s life and work as a whole, they perfectly communicate an imperfectly understood and uncomfortable truth. Words are not ours to manipulate. We do not own words. We are not their masters. However faded and frayed they may be, no matter how lost to consciousness, no matter how firmly consigned to out-of-the-way corners in the poor cupboards of our mind or twisted beyond recognition, words maintain their integrity, and words will have their way.

The shadow of wordlessness that comes upon us from time to time, our sense that language itself has grown as old and tired as the vision of our spent imaginations, is rooted in our misunderstanding of words. Confronted by blank pages we fuss and fiddle, attempting to revivify narratives which refuse to be reclaimed. When the turning of the year has come, no formula, no key, no magic phrase, no sturdy discipline or aligning stars can guarantee the continued liveliness of our words. Last year’s words belong to last year’s language, the poet says, and there the matter seems to end.

But of course it does not end, for next year’s words await another voice. There are emerging words, nascent paragraphs, sentences and phrases filled with light waiting in the shadows of the coming year. Not yet written, still unclaimed, resonant as the tolling of the midnight bell and brilliant as a half-glimpsed moon they are, in fact, our New Year’s words.

Whether and how we will give them voice remains uncertain. Perhaps we will. Perhaps not. But among those who have dared to ford the swiftly-flowing river of words, some have sent back bulletins from their newly-discovered territory, granting us guidance for our path.

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years —
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition.
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”

Revised and rewritten, from 2012. Comments are welcome, always.

82 thoughts on “The Way of All Words

  1. I like this piece very much. Both an elegy and a birth announcement, its evocative tone summons nostalgia and some regret while also shepherding the reader to new pastures of language.

    I’m so glad this compositional world will end with a bang and not a whimper.

    Happy New Year Linda!

    1. I do love the turning of the year, Cheri, and the fresh start it offers. I know better than to imagine any sort of blank slate is possible, but recommitment? Of course.

      Tomorrow, I’ll go through my draft files, toss any that have turned into dead-ends, and add the new ideas from my notebooks. Then, it’s time to get back to work — no whimpering allowed.

      A happy and healthy New Year to you!

      1. This sounds very much like what I should be doing with my photo files! “Confronted by blank pages we fuss and fiddle, attempting to revivify narratives which refuse to be reclaimed.” And this is a perfect description of life with my parents during the past ten days. Words are vanishing for them. Memories too. Where do they go, I wonder?

        1. So nice to see you, Gallivanta. I trust your Christmas was a good one. It’s wonderful that you still have your parents. I found myself thinking about mine a good bit over the holidays, partly because I was with an aunt who remembered many of the same things I do, and it was fun for us to say to one another, “Remember when…?”

          I don’t know what the scientists say, but I’m convinced that words and memories that seem to have disappeared still are around. It’s being able to access them that’s the problem. Sometimes, the search can be amusing, especially when two or three people are beating the same mental bushes to find a missing word.

          I need to join you in sorting the photo files. Now that I’m taking more photos, it’s getting harder to find them. The whole time you were writing about your household de-cluttering, I was thinking what a wonderful thing it would be to do the same with the photos. It’s a New Year’s project!

          1. Linda, I had a small photo cull today. Nothing too drastic; just the duplicates and the ones that were seriously out of focus. We had an odd assortment of family photos to look at over Christmas which prompted much ‘do you remember when…’. Why those particular photos survived the years is anyone’s guess, but when I look at my photos now, I try to ask, ‘What will this photo say to future generations if I keep it?”

  2. Does it bother you that the world of precise words, the world of the articulate wordsmith and the poet is fast becoming as unintelligible to most of the new generation as the Cuneiform script has become to the rest of us?

    1. Yes, it does, Terry. And your mention of Cuneiform made me smile, albeit ruefully. More young people than I’ve realized are unable to read cursive handwriting. There are interesting discussions on home-schooling sites that include postings from people who’ve suddenly realized they can’t read their grandmother’s handwritten thank-you notes, handwritten recipes, or the original Declaration of Independence. I noticed this year that one of the “in” Christmas gifts was a kit for teaching cursive at home.

      On the other hand, there are creative, inquisitive young people who are getting good educations, and who understand the importance of being able to communicate. Some get a good bit of their education outside formal structures, but that doesn’t matter. With a good teacher, a one-room school could open up the world. Maybe we should start thinking about the internet as a one-room school, instead of a way to keep up with the Kardashians or fight with perfect strangers!

    2. Another reader sent along this article, and I thought you’d find it interesting. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh, cry, or start hyperventilating again. What is certain is that I’ve never come across “baes.” I would have thought it a misspelling of “base.” I’m so out of it.

      1. I confess to being out of the loop on this one, never having heard of bae. I wonder if “before anyone else” is just the latest example of folk (i.e. false) etymology in the style of posh supposedly standing for “port outward, starboard home.” I’m leaning toward the hypothesis that bae arose as a reduced pronunciation of baby or even of babe. I found some websites that concur, including:

        http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost/wp/2014/12/29/words-of-2014-against-bae/

        1. I just spent an instructive fifteen minutes on Twitter, scrolling through the results of my search for “bae.” Clearly, it’s used there both as shorthand for “before anyone else,” and as a term of endearment. Who knows? Given current sensitivities, it could have arisen as a neat way around terms certain feminists consider politically incorrect, like “babe” and “baby.”

          I did enjoy the linked article. I was especially tickled by the example of what I mentioned to nikkipolani: that “we’re losing the ability to make understandable cultural references.” I certainly laughed when I got to this: “I realize that standing athwart history yelling “Stop using this word!” is pointless.” Somewhere, Bill Buckley is smiling.

          1. The cultural references fall off at both ends. Few people under 40 could tell you who Cole Porter was, or Rodgers and Hammerstein, or Lerner and Loewe. Even with much more (previously) enduring parts of the culture, like great works of literature of important historical events, most young people don’t know them—and that’s after having gone through school.

            At the same time, I wouldn’t know much or perhaps anything about most of the entertainers who have been popular during the last couple of decades, even if their sales have been in the millions.

  3. “Words are not ours to manipulate. We do not own words.”- I like this. Really nice Eliot selection, too.

    Each new year looks just like your photo. For me- a foggy battlefield and an invisible path.

    Sigh.

    1. For whatever reason, Eliot’s become a favorite for the turning of the year, along with Robert Frost and Pattiann Rogers. I’m glad you like the Eliot.

      I think fog’s a good metaphor for all of us, as we move into a new year.. It’s hard to say what January 2nd will hold, let alone July 4th, or September.

      As for that path: my aunt and I found ourselves unsure of the path back to our hotel on Christmas day. (“Do we cross this bridge, or go on?) She laughed and said, “We should have dropped breadcrumbs on the way to the restaurant.” Maybe that’s a good motto for a new year: “Remember to drop breadcrumbs.”

      Happy New Year, Martha, whatever path you take.

  4. “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

    Wonderful post again… Thank you dear Linda, Happy New Year and Best Wishes to you with your family. Love, nia

    1. Thank you, nia. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, as I’ve enjoyed your photos and travel posts this year. Best wishes for a safe and prosperous 2015, for you and your family, and for those marvelous cats you live among! ~ Linda

  5. When you are in that zen state of sanding, varnishing, – (or even washing dishes) -do you find that words sometimes drift through your head and then you wonder if you’ll remember them later? Last week when I was painting the fence (not challenging at all but quite zen-like work) lines of a poem started forming. Inside was a painting in progress of a blue -footed booby, and a companion poem started bubbling into my mind…

    Later in the day, more lines formed…

    I thought of you and figured that the same thing happens to you – and to many creative people… sometimes we jot those lines down, and other times they percolate and bubble into the atmosphere and say, ‘oh well, we tried to get her attention!’

    1. Absolutely, I have that experience. Phrases or ideas will come unbidden to mind, apparently out of the ether. I don’t wonder if I’ll remember them, though. I’ve learned by sad experience that I don’t. They often seem to be just passing through, and if I don’t reach out and grab them, they’re gone. That’s why I always have a little notebook and pen somewhere around — or at least a piece of sandpaper.

      And sometimes, when I’m working on a poem or another sort of piece, I can struggle and struggle for the right word, the right title, or a better way to organize things. Then, I go to sleep, and wake, in the middle of the night or in the morning, with the words “right there.” I like to think that it’s my mind, working the night shift.

      Here’s to another year of thoughts flitting here and there — may we both capture a few. Happy 2015, Z!

  6. Thank you for sharing with us the words you arrange so beautifully. I look forward to continuing to enjoy them, for as long as it pleases you to share them. A very happy New Year to you!

    1. “Inch by inch, row by row…” Here’s to good growing conditions and an increased harvest in 2015, Bill — for both of us. A happy, prosperous New Year to you and Cherie, and to all for whom you care.

  7. This time of year. You said it so well, “caught between the land of No-Longer and the land of Yet-to-Be.”
    Love the paragraph with “a steady sluicing of syllables seemingly without end.” Can just hear the sloshing of letter tides.
    You’ve captured that feeling of ideas, thoughts, words not yet in the main channel but just floating.

    We can’t really own words any more than we can own land? That’s worth a thought or two.

    Hope the weather is better there – chill and fog all day yesterday – again. Lighter earlier, but now greying up again, and cold expected as far as Corpus? One of those winters.

    RC requested a paw wave be sent to you in her honor. Well, we all send some cheerful end of year waves your way!

    1. Phil, I’ve been thinking a good bit about something Wittgenstein said: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” Those who tell us, “you can’t say that, or this,” are seeking control, seeking to limit our worlds.

      When I began hearing “transparency” used on a regular basis, it seemed to me it was being used in order to dilute the meaning of “truth” or “honesty.” There are other examples. It’s important to use language properly, but we also need to pay attention to the ways in which other people are using it. Remember Humpty-Dumpty?

      “When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
      “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
      “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”

      Well, here’s to a year of thinking clearly and speaking freely. Pete Seeger had a song about that. Maybe his song belongs to the land of What-Is-and-What-Has-to-be-Confronted.

      Paw waves right back, and a set of water wings, too, if the forecast verifies. Happy New Year!

      1. For many years, there has been a conscious effort to warp the meaning of words to manipulate. Use a word in a certain fashion often and loudly enough – with plenty of repetitions – and the old meaning is lost. especially to the uninformed, casual listeners. (Warning, Will Robinson. Warning)

        And great use of drive-by media. Just get out there and say it. First cut is the deepest. May have to later admit that it wasn’t quite the truth or facts, but people only remember the first sound byte.

        Saying a word with a snort is also popular to ridicule that word’s meaning/those who use that word. Diminish them both.
        If there was ever a time to educate/warn how words manipulate and are used to control people –but schools are so busy teaching diversity and specialness( instead of we are all in the same boat and need to work together, and the importance to judge people by their behavior and efforts, not their skin color) and teamworking skills for careers. Yeah, that leads to the creativity that got us to the moon, built the space station, and inventions of all sorts and in all fields that improved the lives of people all around the world.
        Tippie toe salutes to a new year celebrating honor and truth – and all those things that are now endangered dreams.

        1. My pop culture education continues apace. I didn’t have a clue who Will Robinson was, or why he needed to be warned. It made me feel just a tiny bit better to see that the phrase was used in only one episode of the series. What can you expect from someone who didn’t know the Monkees had a tv show?

          Casual thoughts: I wonder if “Farenheit 451,” “Animal Farm,” and “1984” are part of the Common Core curriculum? If they are, how are they being taught? Do they come with trigger warnings? “The Great Gatsby” and Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” apparently require trigger warnings, so who knows?

          Well, as I said to someone a few weeks ago, life doesn’t come with trigger warnings. Eventually, we all figure that out — sooner rather than later, if we’re lucky. If we learn how to distinguish news from propaganda, we’re doubly blessed.

  8. Linda, I so admire your writing! You have a way with words, evoking mental imagery and encouraging deep, active thoughts. Every time I visit here, I appreciate your beautiful prose more!

    Yes, I agree, there’s something mystical about the turning over of a new year. Most of us have felt the need to begin anew, casting aside the failures of the past 365 days and looking forward with the anticipation of a child to the fresh start ahead!

    Perhaps it’s true that “Last year’s words belong to last year’s language.” That makes it even more imperative that we get down this year’s words while we can, doesn’t it?!

    Happy 2015, my friend!

    1. You’re too kind, Debbie. You know as well as I do that sometimes it “works” better than at other times. When it happens, there’s usually more than grim, teeth-gritting effort involved. That’s not to say work isn’t required. It is. But there’s also an element of getting out of our own way, letting the words find a little freedom of their own. Or so it seems to me.

      As for casting aside failure: of course. But sometimes we need to cast away our successes, too. What was fresh and interesting the first (or tenth) time around can be pretty darned “blah” when it makes a twentieth appearance. As funny as it sounds, that’s what so many sermons and romance novels (aka “bodice-rippers”) have in common: they’re formulaic — and boring beyond belief.

      Well, we have a fresh new year ahead of us. Sharpen up that pencil and get going!

  9. Your words always have a poetic flare, Linda. This time they sent me scurrying back to T.S. Eliot, naturally. I read several of his poems and stopped off at “Rhapsody on A Windy Night,” caught by these lines:

    Midnight shakes the memory
    As a madman shakes a dead geranium.

    I woke up in the middle of the night worrying about words I had written, or hadn’t. So this sentence seemed to fit.

    As writers, we live in a world of words. Sometimes they flow. Other times we have to yank them out from where they reside, painfully, one by one. At least I do.

    This is the time of the year when I go back and read my journals. I write every morning, for myself, before I write for anyone else. So I have a record of where my year as gone. Reviewing them is an excellent preview for thinking about the New Year and what it might bring.

    Even in my journals, however, I find myself word-smithing and correcting errors. It is impossible to shut off the self-editor. Thus is the life of writers. (grin)

    Curt

    1. Curt, I feel certain the poem you quoted at least influenced the lyrics of “Memory,” from the musical “Cats.”

      The first line in the poem is, “Twelve o’clock.” The first line of the song is, “Midnight.” The poem includes the lines:

      “The street lamp sputtered,
      The street lamp muttered…”

      while the song’s lyrics include:

      “Burnt out ends of smoky days
      The stale, cold smell of morning
      The streetlamp dies in the cold air..”

      And so on. The tone is there, even without direct quotation. It happens, sometimes without the writer even being aware of the allusion.

      It happened to me in this piece. That line, “… a moonlit shard of truth reveals itself to revelers in the street”? Probably no one but a real Chekov fan would recognize the famous quotation underlying that: “‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” I didn’t see it myself until a couple of days ago, but I’ve had that quotation on my About page since the beginning of this blog. In fact, I’ve told a person or two, with a twinkle in my eye, “If you can’t afford the time or money for an MFA, just live with Chekov’s line for a couple of years.”

      I’m not sure I’ve known anyone who keeps busy editing their journal — or, at least, someone who admits to it. But I understand the impulse. It’s the writer as hoop-shooter, spending hour after hour on the driveway, just practicing, seeking the perfect form.

      Linda

      1. They are minor edits, but edits none the less, Linda. :) I read my old journals. Do you know people who’d do that? I’ve been journaling for 15 years, and I find it interesting to go back and look at what I was doing or thinking on say, December 31, 2001. At this time of the year I like to go back and skim through my entries for the previous year. It provides perspective. Indeed it helps answer, “Where did the year go?” It helps slow down time. It provides inspiration for thinking about the new year. Its the light on the broken glass, reflecting the past and shining a light on the future.

        On another note, I love “Cats.”

        –Curt

          1. Thanks Linda. I enjoyed reading the various perspectives on journal keeping. I got my start by reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down to the Bone, a book I highly recommend. –Curt

  10. Ah, my “draft files”. Scraps of paper, of memory still alive in bits and pieces, only to be relegated to the shredder to make room for other sudden urges coming in the new year. The one thing I am good at though is the cleaning of drawers, desks, and kitchen drawers, which I shall tackle on Friday, after a couple more days of slothfulness.

    I love this post Linda, as I always do, and you always give me the incentive to add my drabble.

    1. Whether it was a Swedish tradition or an idiosyncracy, I don’t know. But I grew up with a grandmother who insisted that, by New Year’s day, everything in the house should have been gone through, cleaned, and reorganized. What was no longer needed would be passed on to others, repurposed, or just occasionally thrown into the trash pile. No matter how firmly I resolve to keep the Christmas decorations up until Epiphany, my internal grandma always takes over and demands that I get with it, and get ready for the new year!

      As for those draft files, I apply the same rule that I do to the rocks, sticks, shells, and such that I drag home. If I remember where a rock came from, it stays. If it has no memory attached, and isn’t extraordinarily beautiful, out it goes. It’s the same thing with the draft files. If I don’t have a clue what I was thinking when the title or link or phrases were included — begone! It’s really rather refreshing.

      Here’s to our nice, tidy, new 2015. I suspect by about three days in, we’ll both be collecting scraps again. Happy New Year, Kayti!

    1. Thanks, Dana. Sometimes, I re-read one or two of my own posts for inspiration — it’s like telling myself, “See? You did it here. You can do it again.” I’ve never really thought of it in just this way, but why shouldn’t we turn to ourselves for inspiration? After all, the world already has a Dickinson, Oliver and Eliot. Maybe what it needs is a danarhyne!

      Here’s to an even more creative 2015!

  11. Linda ,your word usage is something to behold. So much flair with words that roll without effort if spoken or read. You do have a gift. And i’m so pleased to be one of your followers/readers. It is pure entertainment.

    And, I really like ELIOT- one of the all time best. I love when you post some of his writings.

    1. On an animal-related note, Yvonne, take a look at my comment to Curt, above. There’s a real relationship between another of Eliot’s poems and the lyrics to “Memory” in the musical, “Cats.” Sometimes I think I’ll never stop finding new delights in Eliot, and sometimes I’m sure of it.

      I’m so glad to have met you online, and to have learned so much from you. And of course I’m pleased to know you enjoy my work. Having you call it entertaining is one of the best things I could hear.

      Again, best wishes for a truly happy and healthy 2015. Who knows what fun will come our way in the next months?

  12. Very apropos as a follow-on to an article I just read about the language (and jargon, I suspect) in churches fast becoming unintelligible to today’s generation. But there is so much richness for those with some patience — in any sphere of writing, really. And I do appreciate your craft, Linda, that makes it a joy to “ford the river” as you’ve so vividly phrased. Happy new year, indeed.

    1. It’s not just a matter of language/words, nikkipolani. We’re losing the ability to make understandable cultural references, too.

      It used to be that speakers could quote poetry, literature, or even famous speeches, and have their references understood. Today, the response to phrases like, “a Jonathan Edwards-like awakening” or any of a hundred lines from Shakespeare often is a blank stare. For someone who loves parody as I do, this is a problem that goes beyond simple comprehension. If people don’t recognize the original, the parody loses power.

      But you’re right that patience can make a difference. Teachers are rightly concerned that much of our greatest literature is becoming incomprehensible because readers can’t cope with complex sentence structure. Of course, I’m one of those who’s great at diagnosing and pretty poor at prescribing. Maybe we need to take the Jewish mother approach. Instead of “Eat. Eat!” we could go around urging, “Read. READ!”

      A blessed New Year to you and Roomie, and the thundering herd. I hope it’s your best ever!

  13. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever be able to write more than these short essays that I do. I read books, and I think, how did that author ever have the discipline to sit and write for hours on end, day after day. Mine either flows out of me quickly, short and staccato, or it doesn’t come at all.

    I love that Eliot poem. The last line reminds me of the admonition that what other people think of us is none of our business. I want to instill that in my grandchildren. That our only business is to do what is right, and what is right for each of us, and not to worry about what others think of us. If they can remember just that one thing, I think they will be alright.

    1. Quantity’s not the issue, Susan. Quality is. If a shorter form allows you to communicate as you wish, use it. After all, there are people who are famous for their haiku, and those are a whole lot shorter than “War and Peace.”

      When I started blogging, everyone I knew swore that 300-500 words was the limit, or I’d never garner readers. My intuition told me that was wrong, and I decided to use precisely the number of words each essay required: no more, and no fewer. It’s working out all right, I think, although sometimes I don’t expand as I should, or run a little long.

      As for speaking our words without undue worry about others’ opinions of them — that’s a hard one, but critical for a writer.. Of course, we need to remember that we bear responsibility for our words, too. There are people abroad in the land using words to contemptible ends, and they’re doing great damage. But that’s a slightly different issue.

      I’ve always wondered if Emily Dickinson wasn’t pondering such issues when she came up with this one:

      “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,
      Success in Circuit lies.
      Too bright for our infirm Delight
      The Truth’s superb surprise.
      As Lightening to the Children eased
      With explanation kind
      The Truth must dazzle gradually
      Or every man be blind.”

      Here’s to a new year filled with insight and truth — and great stories about your new life!

      1. Oh, absolutely, we are responsible for every word we utter or write! I was more referring to judgements people make of us. If we are living our lives as we should, in an honest and forthright way, and being a good citizen, then we shouldn’t worry about what others might say of us, or their opinions of us. I’m primarily thinking of the teenager and the teenagers-to-be who are living in my house, and hoping that they won’t let cruel remarks from their peers undo all the good that they are and hope to be. I have a different perspective at this point in my life, I suppose.

        1. I did take your point, Susan, but you made it so well, I veered off in another direction. I suspect you remember as well as I do the discussions that took place in our own young years, when we’d protest, “But everyone is doing it.” Developing a moral compass, and then learning to use it no matter how those around us protest, is a complicated process.

          I found myself thinking of Rudyard Kipling’s poem after I read your comment again. He’s making your point, too.

  14. Linda, I read this post out to husband Ian ( another word lover) as we sat watching a wintry sunset leaching colour out of an already bleached landscape, waiting to go in to an old friend’s funeral. The friend had lived long and richly – he was 90 – and passed quickly, so our feelings of sadness and melancholy were settled and underlined by your beautiful words, and by Eliot’s wisdom:

    “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business…”

    Our old friend, a philosopher and wordsmith, would have loved this post too.

    Happy New Year and many thanks for your great writing!

    1. Anne, I’m touched by the thought of you and Ian sharing this in such a setting, and especially touched by your suggestion that your friend would have liked it.

      A long and rich life is a special blessing. None of us is guaranteed a long life, of course, but richness of life surely is available to us all, provided we’re willing to forego those definitions of “rich” that are based on dollars or pounds.

      I also love that line of Eliot’s. It resonates with the same wisdom as Dame Julian’s: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Little wonder, perhaps, that Eliot incorporated those words into the conclusion of “Little Gidding”:

      “Quick now, here, now, always—
      A condition of complete simplicity
      (Costing not less than everything)
      And all shall be well and
      All manner of thing shall be well
      When the tongues of flames are in-folded
      Into the crowned knot of fire
      And the fire and the rose are one.”

      Welcome to a new year of trying: of tending to that which is our business alone.

  15. The words I use, and their arrangements, need time to cure and age. They ripen in my mind first. Sometimes it takes months. You know how this goes. After committing them to paper or screen, they get rearranged , added to, deleted, etc. There never seems to be a ‘final perfect set’.

    Sometimes the words come out immediately. Certain thoughts and experiences cast them hard and they crystallize, not to be changed.

    1. I do know how it goes, Jim — especially about the need for curing time.That’s one reason I have such an extensive draft file. Some “drafts” have been in there a good long time. Every year I toss out a few that seem to have rotted while my back was turned, but if they still seem to be aging nicely, they get to stay.

      On the other hand, I live by the rule, “Write, and let go.” I can tinker and fool with a post with the best of them, but once it’s public, I stop thinking about it and move on to the next thing. My reasons for the approach are simple, and clear, and I actually learned the “rule” in real life. Maybe some day I’ll write about that. (Look! it’s another addition to the draft file!)

      Best wishes to you and Melanie for the New Year. We finally got enough cold to satisfy me, and it feels like the perfect time to settle in with your series on ice!

      1. I’ve wondered why people write so much. What do they get from it. Something deep inside is satisfied by it.

        My career was as a science teacher. I regularly had to generate lessons or labs or sets of problems. You couldn’t spend too much time fussing over them. Life moves on. I learned how to get to the point. Students will let you know if you missed the mark.

        May 2015 be peaceful and inspiring for you. Wear suitable warm clothing when you do the ice series. It is chilling.

  16. Ah, Eliot. For us there is only the trying. Simply wonderful. Linda, I adore your love affair with words, your ability to master them in with a way that seems so easy — and yet, I know from experience that to master words in the way you do is anything but.

    You inspire me to go back to my writing roots — not just tons of pictures with little bits that explain them but deeper thoughts. And I don’t know if I will in public (although I do on my private blog). But without the continual practice, we begin to lose the gift.

    Your gift only seems to magnify. And how I love that! Happy New Year.

    1. Jeanie, your use of the word “magnify” brought to mind the “Magnificat,” and one of my favorite settings from John Rutter. I enjoyed hearing it again, so much so that I took a break to listen a second time while I took the tinsel off the tree. I was inclined to leave everything in place until Epiphany this year, but I’m suddenly seized by an irrepressible urge to get with it, and move on.

      I laughed at your suggestion that I’ve mastered words. It makes the writer sound like a lion tamer in the circus’s center ring with his cat. Of course, that lion may be sitting nicely on his pedestal, but turn your back or put down the whip, and it’s over. It’s the lion who’s in control, no matter what his “master” may imagine!

      You are right that practice is critical. I started out believing that the way to learn how to write is to write, and that’s surely been proven true. But there’s creative writing, and there’s what I privately call “plug and play” writing, where the form never varies, and only the content changes. I want to avoid that, and I have a hunch about what I need to do in the coming year in order to keep things fresh. I can’t quite put my hunch into words yet, but maybe one day I’ll be able to.

      So here’s to a new year, and new ventures. I’ll be happy to see you writing more, if you do, but it may well be that you’ve needed this break from words after your retirement. Whatever you’re pleased to post, I’ll be pleased to read, that’s for sure.

  17. “What has been passes away into forgetfulness, while that which is yet-to-be stirs toward vitality.” You might say that physicists are our era’s prime theologians, and some of them have come around to the belief held by some theologians of a more religious tradition that all things that ever were or will be exist simultaneously, and that only our human limitations cause us to perceive events in sequence rather than simultaneously. Other physicists aren’t willing to throw time away like that.

    1. I was introduced to Heisenberg, Eddington, et. al, by Annie DIllard. You’ve reminded me of this paragraph from her chapter on “Stalking” in “Pilgrim at Tinker CreeK”:

      “In 1927 Werner Heisenberg pulled out the rug, and our whole understanding of the universe toppled and collapsed. For some reason, it has not yet trickled down to the man on the street that some physicists now are a bunch of wild-eyed, raving mystics. They have perfected their instruments and methods just enough to whisk away the crucial veil, and what stands revealed is the Cheshire cat’s grin.”

      The whole chapter is a wonder: the movement and position of particles as metaphor for Dillard’s natural world.

      You’ve reminded me, too, of my great affection for the Greeks’ distinction between “kairos” and “chronos.” Too little attention to “chronos” and you’re likely to end up as I did, standing at the post office at 2 p.m. on December 31, wondering why the place isn’t open.

      1. I wasn’t familiar with kairos, but now that I’ve looked online I see that philosophers and theologians have been grappling with the concept for more than two millennia. The name of the Egyptian city Cairo seems not to be related, but in the process of looking that up I see that Cairo has become, at least for some people, a baby’s name. That in turn reminds me of the character Joel Cairo in “The Maltese Falcon.” I’d better stop free-associating now.

            1. I think the inventor may have missed the point. No matter — it’s still funny. It won’t be long until we get “Want an encounter with the Divine? ‘Burning Bush’ is the app for you!”

    1. Doesn’t it, though? On the other hand, maybe we sometimes mistake the shadow of wordlessness for true wordlessness. Two steps this way or that, and we’re back in the sunlight! I suppose being willing to take the steps is what counts.

      Happy New Year, Kayti!

  18. “We’re losing the ability to make understandable cultural references.” As soon as I read that in your comment above, I thought about it for a while, and then you commented about playing John Rutter, an immediate case in point, which made me smile. One of the things I love so much about visiting your site, is the cultural references you make. Some are new to me and others are reused in a fresh and unique way or in a manner that resonates with me. As Rick sings in the choir occasionally he makes painful reference to “having to sing” something by Rutter who according to him favors tenors and baritones and not the bass that he is.

    Writing words, sequencing, organizing, finding and painting images are all imbued with an energy that cultural references inject. Thank you for another thoughtful post.

    1. One of the best examples of the power of cultural reference is one we’ve talked about before, Georgette. Remember Macondo? It’s not only the name of the town in Gabriel García Márquez’s novel, “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” but also the name of the site where the Deepwater Horizon explosion took place.

      I finally did some looking, and found the Macondo prospect (situated on Mississippi Canyon block 252), was in fact named after the fictional “Macondo.” The name was submitted as part of a BP employee contest. Looking back, there might have been a better choice.

      In any event, the cultural cross-references don’t stop there. A fellow I came to know during the struggle to cap the well made some great videos. Some are documentary, like the tripping of the failed blow-out preventer (failBOP) .

      But the most touching is his setting of the final capping of the well to music. You can see the reference to MC252 at the end of the video. I watched it in real-time, but the addition of the music increases the level of solemn poignancy exponentially. Rocky was recording rather than writing, but his “sequencing, organizing, and finding” were just as important.

      A happy new year to you and Rick. I hear the sun will shine in 2015 — eventually!

  19. I do love the way Eliot’s Four Quartets offer a magnificently endless supply of apt quotations–a sure sign that all of life resides somewhere in those lines. I’m also reminded by your words of some of my favorite lines from Ashbery:

    . . . Something
    Ought to be written about how this affects
    You when you write poetry:
    The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
    Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate
    Something between breaths, if only for the sake
    Of others and their desire to understand you and desert you
    For other centers of communication, so that understanding
    May begin, and in doing so be undone.

    The whole poem is here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177264

    There’s another very long poem of Ashbery’s I haven’t come to grips with, but it has these, to my mind priceless, lines about the act of writing:

    Rummaging through some old poems
    for ideas — surely I must have had some
    once? Some people have an idea a day,
    others millions, still others are condemned
    to spend their life inside an idea, like a
    bubble chamber. And these are probably
    the suspicious ones. Anyway, in poems
    are no ideas. No ideas in things, either —
    her name is Wichita.

    That poem is here: http://www.conjunctions.com/archives/c21-ja.htm, and the above is the first part of VII.

    Happy New Year!

    1. Thanks for those references, Susan. I enjoyed reading them in context, and will be going back. The second excerpt is particularly striking. Funny, that the first person I thought of wasn’t a poet in any sense of the word, but someone I know who has ended up living his entire life within an idea. And yes, most of those around him are a little suspicious of him! Obsession is one thing, of course, and artistic obsession another. Still, I thought of him, and laughed.

      I was taken by Ashbery’s assertion that “in poems are no ideas.” My draft files are filled with “ideas” for essays or short pieces (even a story or two) but there are no poems there. When a word of phrase comes to me, and I recognize it as belonging to a poem or etheree, I treat it differently. It’s very interesting, and needs more thought. (Ironic, no?)

      I’m so looking forward to the new year, and the great profit I know I’ll find both in your posts and in your rich comments. Happy New Year!

      1. Ironic, yes, and I love where you go with all this. (My suspicion about that particular phrase is that he’s taking a swipe at Wallace Stevens, then, with “no ideas in things” at William Carlos Williams, who apparently had quite a debate about this issue. Talk about an artistic obsession, eh?)

        I, too, enjoy your posts and our conversations very much and look forward to more in the New Year.

  20. The subject of the integrity of words and whether they are manipulated or not is an interesting one or if we can ever be their master. It is true though that words get lost in time and die out of general usage. Sometimes it takes the writer to remind us of the lesser used parts of our lexical history and if there is manipulation it is of the reader’s awareness of words and how the right one sings.

    1. What you say about the life cycle of words was brought home to me this week, when I began going through a box of old family postcards. Most of them were sent among family members: there were birth announcements, valentine greetings, simple chit-chat, and birthday cards. Five of the postcards meant for birthdays included the phrase “natal day,” rather than birthday, or used both expressions.

      I can’t remember the last time I heard “natal” used, apart from Christmas songs and poetry. But around 1910, it clearly was common linguistic currency, along with other phrases that I’ve heard only in the movies (e.g., “Oh, you kid!)

      So, yes. Words rise and fall, sometimes to our delight. If I never hear “interface” as a verb again, I’ll be happy. But language itself can be lively or not, and finding a way to make language “sing” is the point. It may sing with the simplicity of plainchant, or be as lush as a symphony, but that’s the trick, isn’t it? Finding the words that suit the purpose is what it’s all about.

      I know three little words that are appropriate here, Judy — Happy New Year!

    1. Tamara, that’s one of the loveliest compliments I’ve ever received. I do strive for honesty in my writing — emotional honesty as well as factual honesty — and it’s important to me for everyone to feel welcome here, whether reading or commenting. You’ve given me a hint I might be succeeding. Thank you.

      And happy New Year to you.

  21. I enjoyed this post very much, Linda. But the opening paragraph for me was so moving. It filled my head with thoughts that I am unable to put into words as you so skillfully do.
    I think that the quotes you take from Eliot can, in some ways, be applied to photography as each new image is a challenge previously not experienced no matter how familiar.
    At one moment, the change of years seems profound and promising…at another, no different than the challenge each new day brings to us each.

    1. And I think you’re exactly right about those words of Eliot, Steve. Whether it’s writing, photography, painting, parenting, starting a business — any human endeavor — they seem to apply. But especially in the arts, learning to focus on the “trying” while letting the rest be, can be one of the hardest things in the world — especially when “the rest” is a euphemism for the opinions of others.

      I’ve never thought about it in just this way, but your last sentence led me to think of our days as “little years.” In turn, that reminded me of a favorite line from Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

      I’m still trying to figure out how I produced those first paragraphs. If I can figure it out, I wouldn’t mind writing a few more like them. I’m glad they resonated for you.

  22. Oh, this post, my friend, is a real “outdoer.” It’s one of your very best. It brings to mind Shakespeare’s “Undiscovered country” — although he was using the phrase to refer to something quite different, still every writer, or artist of any kind, strikes out in search of the undiscovered countries of the mind and heart when they try to create something that will resonate with the human spirit. There are sketchy maps of the territory, but there are large blank areas, with little indication of what lies there except for such notations as “Here there be monsters,” Also, the phrase “working without a net” comes to mind. The creative life is frequently scary, one way and another, with hidden dangers in the most unlikeliest of places. Why would anyone want to go into such realms? Sooner or later, the artist comes to the realization that they must go, because they can’t not go.

    What first attracted me to your blog was the thought, “Here is a lady who will not hesitate to look up a word to make sure it means what she wants to say.” It’s what keeps me coming back. Craft, I think, is what it’s called . . .
    Here’s to an “onward and upward” new year!.

    By the by, if you can find a copy of the film “Pandaemonium” about Samuel Taylor Coleridge, you might find it interesting. Amazon only has a few copies in VHS. —

    1. WOL, I remember reading about “Pandemonium” sometime in the past. Was it on your blog? It might have been, since I can’t find it on any of the film review blogs I follow. I did find a DVD for sale for the low, low price of $124, but I don’t believe I’ll be doing that. I’ll check Netflix later, just to see if it might be there.

      As for this piece, I happen to concur with your evaluation.I’ve printed it out for an occasional read. For one thing, it will serve as a reminder of what I can do. Having such a souvenir of the creative process lying around is a good thing.

      Your comment about artists having to go, because they can’t not go, reminded me of one of my favorite poems. There’s more to Emily Bronte than a love of — or distaste for — winter.

      “The night is darkening round me,
      The wild winds coldly blow;
      But a tyrant spell has bound me
      And I cannot, cannot go.

      “The giant trees are bending
      Their bare boughs weighed with snow.
      And the storm is fast descending,
      And yet I cannot go.

      “Clouds beyond clouds above me,
      Wastes beyond wastes below;
      But nothing drear can move me;
      I will not, cannot go. “

  23. It is true that “words will have their way” and “paragraphs take on a life of their own.” I find this to be the case when reading something I have written years later, and discover in the reading what I do not recall intending in the writing. It really is such fun, such a humbling fun! With that humility comes a kind of freedom, too, albeit a freedom with purpose which really is the only kind of freedom worth having (or perhaps the only kind of freedom there is!). Thanks for this kick-start to a new year.

    1. It is fun to read our own stuff, isn’t it? I don’t know what the academics call it, but I’ve always thought there’s what I call “a surplus of meaning” in every poem sermon, essay, novel. What the writer intends is necessarily limited, and what the reader experiences or understands can be quite different from what the writer intended. It’s not a matter of right or wrong — it’s part of the mystery of communication.

      Beyond that, I think one of the real values of blogging is that it lays bare for all to see how varied responses can be to the same words. Having a good editor is one thing, but having the chance to ponder what readers are seeing is something else entirely. I’ve come to think that the best response to the question, “Who’s your audience?” is “I don’t yet know.”

      Welcome home again. I trust your jet-lag’s over and done with!

      1. Thanks for the welcome. Jet lag is now a thing of the past – and future! I agree that one of the special gifts of blogging is the responses to writing. My academic writing warrants an odd footnote here or there, but generally without comment. I’ve had the occasional review, but nothing comes close to people’s immediate reaction to what I blog. Academics, too, use the phrase surplus of meaning, which I love!

  24. Lovely words – about words. I particularly like the thought that we who write are not masters of the words. So true. Words have their own life and their own integrity – as you say. An interesting thought then: Does words exists without us?

    1. That is an interesting question, Otto. Philosophically, I’m not capable of offering a “proof,” but this did occur to me. If there were no cameras and photographers to capture and re-present the visible realities of the world, would those realities — mountains, trees, people, buildings — still exist? Of course, they would.

      So. Perhaps our alphabets, grammatical structures, and patterned sounds are simply ways of capturing words that exist quite apart from us. Philo of Alexandria istinguished between “logos prophorikos” (“the uttered word”) and the “logos endiathetos” (“the word remaining within”). I suspect he’d answer your question with a “yes”!

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