We Are Each Other


Against the backdrop of terrorist attacks, rancorous politics, and over-opinionated internet hordes, I’m feeling weary and heavy-hearted today. Like all good bookworms, I find solace in reading, and right now I’m holding on to these words for hope and comfort:

“I want to know who you are. I want you to know who I am. I want us to make our own story in the world. I want our grandchildren to say about us that there was a time when many things looked dark, when people felt separated from each other and wars and pestilence and fear were rampant in both rich nations and poor nations. And people were distracted and busy, driven along in the deterioration of many things they held dearly. But then, in the nick of time, something that no one could see, and no one could stop, began to restore hope and instill them with wisdom and action: people began to remember the sweetness of story. People turned away from the behaviors that had ravaged neighbors and nature; people turned away from the machinery of war they had perfected; people turned back to each other, and sat down and talked and listened.

“I want to know who you are. I want you to know who I am. We may not even know why, until I hear your stories, until you hear mine. We may not even know why until something sparks between us that makes us smile or cry with recognition — not out of sentimentality, but out of commonality, waking our remembrance that we are each other.”

– Christina Baldwin, Storycatcher

[ Photo credit: Cyril Caton ]

Night Watch


At three in the morning, I’m drawn from peaceful slumbers to this cold chair. My heavy eyelids stare, unblinking, at the marble lamp, the white circle of light in this midnight corner of the house. A night owl writing morning pages before dawn… What is it that keeps me awake?

Songs and sonnets and maid-of-honor speeches. Friendships and failures and shopping lists. Errands. A mother’s love. A sixtieth anniversary scrapbook. A birthday. A new baby’s christening. A Sunday school rumor. A lost dog and backyard cherry trees. Rhubarb. Strawberry shortcake. Gardening plans. The stack of papers to sort on the corner of the sofa. The dishwasher to unload. The month-end report that’s overdue.

Forward and back, my mind flies through memories and dreams, mundane to-dos, leaps and bounds.

And I think of you, whoever you might be, awake and alone like me, drawn from your bed to a thousand other thoughts, all your own cares, worries, and loves. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” awake before sunrise. Together in shared silence, divided in time and space and distance.

I don’t know you, but are we so different? Me here on the cold tile floor and you in your slippers, each carrying a world inside us of lifelong griefs and joys, reveries, unspoken hopes, and plans for the days ahead.

I won’t recognize you tomorrow, if we happen to pass on the street, at the market, on the freeway. But just for this moment, let me pray a blessing on you. For peace… For joy… I pray you feel loved tomorrow, and I pray that somewhere, during the course of your day, you find someone to show unexpected kindness to.

The world needs more of that, doesn’t it? Strangers taking time to smile, to say thank you… I see you… I remember.

Deserts of the Soul


“Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth–rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us — when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”  — Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill

I’m in awe of the length and virtuosity of this sentence. The imagery — “what wastes and deserts of the soul…what ancient and obdurate oaks” — is stunning. And the dentist as deity analogy? So witty. Virginia Woolf is a masterly sentence crafter. It takes some serious writing chops to wield a 181-word sentence(!) with grace and lucidity.

This is why we read good books: for the pleasure of encountering, not just engaging stories and clever ideas, but skillful and beautiful writing.

“If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room,” Austin Kleon writes. If we want to become better thinkers, better writers, better human beings, we should surround ourselves with the best of what’s out there.

We must stretch ourselves upward in order to grow.

[ Photo credit: Keoni Cabral ]

An Offering to the Betrayed World

We wrestle with words, stringing beads of experience onto the thread of story. We look at tree branches casting dappled sunlight across a yard and craft beautiful sentences on the nature of wonder. We find eternal moments in bedtime stories and turn skinned knees into words of prayer. It is lovely, edifying work, we think, to notice and remember these things.

But…when we see the news, hear of tragedies, deaths, disease, famine, war, we are haunted by the inconsequence of our words, our simple lives. We wonder if what we’re doing–catching stories, finding beauty among the mundane–is too small and selfish to be worthwhile. We question our passion for words and sentences. What good is a poem or a story, a photograph or a blog, when there are people dying in the world?

Why do writers write?

Perhaps there is no better reason than this:

They take them out in the morning
to the stone courtyard
and put them against the wall

five men
two of them very young
the others middle-aged
nothing more
can be said about them

when the platoon
level their guns
everything suddenly appears
in the garish light
of obviousness

the yellow wall
the cold blue
the black wire on the wall
instead of a horizon

that is the moment
when the five senses rebel
they would gladly escape
like rats from a sinking ship

before the bullet reaches its destination
the eye will perceive the flight of the projectile
the ear record the steely rustle

the nostrils will be filled with biting smoke
a petal of blood will brush the palate
the touch will shrink and then slacken
now they lie on the ground
covered up to their eyes with shadow
the platoon walks away
their buttonstraps
and steel helmets
are more alive
than those lying beside the wall

I did not learn this today
I knew it before yesterday

so why have I been writing
unimportant poems on flowers
what did the five talk of
the night before the execution
of prophetic dreams
of an escapade in a brothel
of automobile parts
of a sea voyage
of how when he had spades
he ought not to have opened
of how vodka is best
after wine you get a headache
of girls
of fruits
of life
thus one can use in poetry
names of Greek shepherds
one can attempt to catch the colour of morning sky
write of love
and also
once again
in dead earnest
offer to the betrayed world
a rose

— “Five Men” by Zbigniew Herbert, translated by Czeslaw Milosz