Reading and Reflecting

Mise en abyme is a term used in art when a copy of an image is placed inside an image, and sometimes in literature to mean a story within a story. It implies self-reflection: me looking at something and recognizing myself in it. The literal meaning is “into the abyss” which, in a positive way, is sometimes how I feel when reading a good book.

I recently finished Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi. She tells of people living through some quite intense experiences while studying literature, and the impact recognizing themselves in great fiction had on their lives.

This book made me think that reading is an infinite line of mise en abyme. I gained an understanding about people in this book, who learned about themselves as they read Nabokov, who was influenced by reading Flaubert, who learned from Byron, who was inspired by Dante, who wrote about Homer, but couldn’t read Greek so may have learned about Homer from Virgil …

I see through the eyes of another, who is seeing through the eyes of someone else, who saw through the eyes of another, and on and on.

Reading promotes empathy, and like a flower with infinite petals, that empathy unfolds layer by layer as we immerse ourselves in others’ worlds and the understanding spreads.

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The Thrill of Hope

001 (2)The new year brings hope
A day like any other
Becomes an opportunity

I watch the animals
 don’t know the calendar
And live in hope all of the days

The cat sits motionless in the morning dew
Staring at the gopher hole
Less patient, the dog quivers and wags at the doorway

On our walk, a fresh day
The sun loosening its rays
Over a still-slumbering scene

Back home I turn to a new page
To Do at the top, neat numbers following
1 to 83 by the time I’ve finished

Too small jeans hang ready in my closet
Two feet of library books teeter on my desk
And I write the first sentence

It surrounds me
As the new year dawns

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Old Friends

016 (2)         I’m with Longfellow, who said,  Ah! How good it feels the hand of an old friend.

I can’t help it. I love old friends and I love traditions and I love remembering. I don’t know why I’m so nostalgic, but I have noticed that others who are the youngest in their family sometimes share this trait.

Maybe it’s because we watched our older siblings go through changes before we were ready for them. We were left standing at the screen door looking out as they walked away to their first day of school, left home to go to college, went off to change the world. They wanted to shake things up, while we were left wishing they could stay the same just a little longer.

Even though it is so much fun to explore and discover new things, I find such comfort in the past, and in traditions that tie the years together. I will always share messages with my dearest old friend on the longest day of the year. The dogs will wear special party hats at every birthday. I’ll use the Styrofoam Christmas ornaments and strands of silver tinsel from my childhood until they disintegrate. And I’ll never part with the letters from my grandmother in her old-fashioned script that I keep tied together with red ribbon.

Whether it’s an old friendship, an old tradition or an old keepsake, I cherish it. And Longfellow was right: it feels good.

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Ring in the Season

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Ring, ring. Ring, ring. The melodic drone of the distant Salvation Army bell resonates with my sleeping memories of brisk nights, glittering friends, and arms full of happy anticipation. Ring, ring. Like the leaves piled on the sidewalk, I was just settling into autumn, but as I round the corner, red reminders—the ringer’s apron, shield sign, and fading plastic bucket–propel me into this ever-widening holiday season. Ring, ring. When my change hits the bucket bottom with an unfestive thunk, I force a smile, and follow it with a wish for all in need:  may coins clink in abundance and may there be a papering of bills to soften the blows.

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Autumn Begins

009 tree 1 cropped

The sun still shimmers warm

Breaking through branches bereft

Their leaves lost to the lawn

A coverlet for the coming chill


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The Powell-Mason Line

Empty Cable Car

You’re on Market Street in front of the conspicuous Westfield Mall in San Francisco and the hill that leads to Fisherman’s Wharf looms before you. You could walk, but notice people gathered in the intersection around the cable car turntable, which looks like a big wooden record player. You’re drawn in by the crowd: the confident voice of a guitarist singing to the people in line, the staccato chant of the zealot on a literal soapbox, the boom box street dancers. You cross Market to join the line, and watch one cable car after another come in and unload. Before another group can board, the Gripmen push the cars around the turnabout, laughing with each other while tourists take videos.

Once settled onboard, you climb Powell Street, where you can reach out and touch the city as you pass by. A homeless man sells Street Sheet papers in Union Square outside of a high-end jewelry shop. The Beefeater doorman bows to you from the gold and glass opulence of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.

At California Street it levels a bit before the descent down the other side of Nob Hill. Ring, ring! Ring, ring! Hearing the cable car bell, you are a kid again, set free on a new bicycle, ringing your bell, streamers flying. The wheels clank in the tracks and the brakes squeal. You admire the strength of the gripman who takes a stance to keep the huge brake lever steady as he glides the car down the hill.

With the turn down Mason it’s suddenly warmer and bluer from the widening sky and the bay coming into view. The street widens too, lined by pastel apartment buildings with sculpted moldings and a variety of garage doors: wooden carriage types, metal gates, and modern sliding ones. This is what you love about San Francisco–this hodge podge of character.

At Columbus you veer left and see black-aproned waiters clear plates of pasta and espresso cups from the sidewalk tables of North Beach, but continue drifting down toward the brick-colored buildings at your route’s end. The odor of Fisherman’s Wharf hits as you step off, but tempered by a hint of Ghirardelli chocolate.

The same exact route you just took, by the same way, has been taken since the 1880’s, and you’re glad they didn’t mess with what works. The open bay lies ahead, but this trip proved it is all about the journey.

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Comfort in Coarseness

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Brooding makes a furrowed bed
Unyielding to such a tired frame
Precarious, unsettling
Writhing only bruises

But burrow through the fretting
To a kernel of serenity
Requiescence is found within
Comfort now in coarseness

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Coming of Age with Saroyan

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Worship is a bit excessive but reverence not strong enough to describe my feeling for William Saroyan and his work. He provided my first access into the meaning of life—a simple, honest, basic view but deep with color and texture, grit and grandeur.

I was probably about 10, and on one of the weekly trips to the neighborhood library with my brother who was a few years older and infinitely smarter. He hung out in the adult book stacks while I looked for mysteries and dog stories in the children’s section. Sometimes I’d wander over to see what he was up to, and he’d pull down something he thought I might like, that I might “get.” Usually he had more confidence in me than I deserved.

I have a vivid memory of the day he handed me “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” It was a musty, fraying hardback then, but the title sounded like a kid’s book so I said I’d try it. I read a few stories, and while I didn’t get much, I did enjoy Saroyan’s descriptions of walking down the street in San Francisco.

By alternating our check-out, my brother and I managed to keep the book between us for a long time. Eventually I read “And Man,” Saroyan’s story about being 15, looking at his ugly face in the mirror, eating mush, skipping school, discovering what it meant to be alive, and facing the realization that no one else understood. I tell you, a 10 year old gets this stuff. I was hooked.

Through the years I kept going back to this book. “Seventy Thousand Assyrians,” about struggle and race and humanity and everyday life would become my favorite story and remains so today. Then when I discovered Saroyan’s Preface to the First Edition that wasn’t in that library book but is in the pictured softcover, I found a writing manifesto better than any other I’ve read.

Whatever your age, read Saroyan. Then go discover for yourself what it means to be alive. 


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I once worked with a very wise woman who said to me, eyes closed and hand over her heart, “Always protect your flame.” We both had demanding, multi-tasking jobs, and I was frequently frazzled. I thought what she said was powerful, that it could change my life and help me find that work/life balance I’d heard about. The problem was I never figured out how to do it.

Looking back, I think I was focusing too much on the flame. “Oops I got distracted and forgot about my flame,” or “Yikes! It’s going out!” or “Flame? What flame?” I think I might have done better if I focused on protecting instead. When I think “protect,” I feel strong and up to the very important task. I intuitively know how to protect: shield, put an arm around, offer the most comfortable chair out of the weather and make a cup of tea.

Learning to roller skate was also difficult for me, until another wise person told me to find my balance point. First I had to realize there was such a thing as a balance point, and then learn to feel where it was. I think these two bits of wisdom are related.

Writers talk about the importance of making time every day to write, and we all know how easy it is to do just about anything else. Sometimes we blame our circumstances, but the truth is it’s up to us to guard our dreams. The flame is internal and no one else can help us protect it. We have to take charge, find the balance point in our particular situation and protect what’s important.

There’s that flame. A little air. A little fuel. Feel it getting warmer?

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Viennese Inspiration

Mozart 2

I feel the music behind Mozart’s eyes in this portrait: long scale runs intensifying his gaze, trills creating a little arch to his brow. Mozart was born in Salzburg, but Vienna is where he flourished, where he composed the Sonata in C Major I so loved to play as a piano student. Known as the center of the classical music world and nurturing not only Mozart but also Haydn and Beethoven (a good third of the complement of little composer statues I earned taking those piano lessons), Vienna deserves our attention.

What made Vienna so inspiring? A few possibilities:

  • Culture. Thanks to the Danube, Vienna has been a cultural crossroads for thousands of years, providing all that diversity and creating a demand for entertainment.
  • Coffee. Apparently the Turks invaded Vienna and left behind a bunch of coffee beans in the 1600’s and ever since Viennese people have gathered in the kaffeehaus, listening to music and discussing ideas over creamy cups of kaffee.
  • Support. Vienna was the capital of the Hapsburg royal family who were music-lovers and players as well as patrons.
  • Magic. Foehn, or dry, warm winds blow down the mountainsides of the Alps and change the atmosphere, sometimes making people sick and even a little crazy. Ill winds—literally.

Also, I think you can’t underestimate the value of having all that talent in one place. Hanging out with folks who are good at what you aspire to do may seem like it would be discouraging, make you feel like you can never measure up. It provides motivation however, respect and ideas; it triggers sparks, illuminates, expands.

I picture Papa Haydn welcoming Mozart to Vienna and then a young Beethoven coming later with hopes of taking lessons from Mozart. I imagine how they learned from each other’s music. I can just see them there, working on their compositions, gazing out beyond the Viennese Woods up the Northern Limestone Alps, breathing in the magical foehn winds and going a little crazy.

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