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Teachings of My Summer Toad

On a warm early morning this past summer, I opened the front door and stepped onto the porch, where I was surprised to find a toad sitting quietly. Assuming him to be as surprised as I, as well as vulnerable, and not wanting to frighten him, I passed carefully by, heading towards the yard and making it clear that I had no intention towards him. “Hullo, Toad,” I offered in a soft tone, as casually as I could, in the hope of dispelling any awkwardness. Toad remained still, unblinking. His demeanor was hard to assess. Was he watching me? Thinking about me? Was he calm or just unrevealing of his emotional state?

Though unexpected, his appearance wasn’t unprecedented. I had spotted the occasional toad in the yard, always in the summer, and always sitting quietly in whatever inward state toads may experience, simply not moving. I have never understood what they were doing here: there is no water, and I have only ever seen one at a time. Are they loners? The yard contains some mysterious small holes, but do toads squeeze themselves into them? I avoid the holes, hoping that the inhabitants, if any, won’t emerge while I’m near. There had even been a summer toad on the porch before. He appeared during the same season as a plant was passed along to me by a neighbor. The plant, a maranta, or prayer plant, was the one among all the pots which looked the most like Toad. How did he know that? He took up residence in the pot and could often be found there in the shade. If I didn’t see him and began watering, he sat patiently, perhaps even enjoying the soft shower. He stayed all summer and was called Rupert. Maybe this summer’s toad was Rupert, a resident of the neighborhood, showing himself again: perhaps he knows me, while I can’t tell one toad from another.

Recently, I heard someone use the phrase “trust the stillness.” I was delighted, especially at hearing it spoken by that particular friend. What an expression! Does he really think like that? Are those his words? I googled the words and found them used in various forms by many sources. So lots of people are trusting stillness, or at least talking about it, and I didn’t know – a popular idea existing all around me, of which I had been unaware. And I found myself thinking of Toad.

Toad arrived this summer and took up his post as my teacher. His arrival and departure, like everything about him, were unannounced. He gave me no syllabus, no reading to do, no assignment. In fact, he never spoke or acknowledged me in any way. I am not big, but I am huge compared to him; and yet, he appeared unimpressed. I don’t know what may go on in the consciousness of a toad, so I can only make human assumptions and imagine him to be like me. I liked him being here; and in my mind, he trusted me. I gave him as much space as I could and made myself quieter and slower – smaller – around him. Stillness reminds me of him, because it was stillness that we shared. I studied Toad and tried to give him the atmosphere he seemed to want. He gave me his presence.

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The Insistence of Music, and Geese

There is no reason, no logical reason, why I should think of viewing the world like Gertrude Stein. But it is Stein who has been in my thoughts, since the morning I read this quote from her: “There is no such thing as repetition. Only insistence.”

I hadn’t begun that day with Stein. I had begun by reading an exchange among some post comments which mentioned a comparison having been made between Dmitri Shostakovich and Philip Glass. (The participants, if they read this, will recognize the reference.) The music of both composers is only at the beginning of familiarity to me, that of Shostakovich mostly due to the fascinating series over at Prufrock’s Dilemma. But certainly, I was surprised to see their names paired, as I view them as composing in very different musical worlds. The point seemed to be that the compositions of both may appear limited and repetitive, to their critics, or at least to a listener unfamiliar with them. Perhaps that could be said of any unfamiliar artist or genre; still, seeing the names together made me wonder whether there could be a commonality. I felt bewildered yet intrigued; so, search I must, and did.

Strange bedfellows may often be discovered in search results, simply by linking two names or terms with a capitalized “AND”. Not expecting a real link, nevertheless I sought one between the two and was surprised to find that others before me had considered them together. Glass himself has even talked about his early years of listening to Shostakovich. I read whatever among the search results I could determine truly pertained to my query. But in the end, my lack of music theory left me focusing on Stein’s words, which were quoted in one of the articles: ““There is no such thing as repetition. Only insistence.” And, realizing that the experience was bound to lead me, not to greater understanding of music, but to some sort of life lesson, I released the musical associations and held only to the quote, placed in the back of my mind, and waiting for the personal connection to reveal itself.

The revelation has been slow in coming. On occasion, I have thought of Stein’s words, trying to ponder repetition and insistence; but real insight cannot be forced, and this was slow. Then, one day this week, I walked past a garden patch of gooseneck loosestrife and saw that they are starting their flower heads: clusters of many tiny blossoms, which form a shape like the head of a goose. The slightest breeze makes the stalks sway and the heads bob. At a few feet tall, they grow in flocks of geese, ever-increasing, so that they appear to be on the march, and in fact do march into neighboring yards. As I noticed the newly forming goose heads, I remembered their mature, repetitive habit, and felt that the lesson about repetition and insistence was surfacing. The same day, in perfect synchronicity, blogging friend David left a comment on my last post, in which I had talked about my love of the kind of music which builds and crescendos – with the exception of Ravel’s Bolero.

Bolero, repetitive Bolero! Was this to be part of my lesson? I don’t mind how many geese grow in my yard, they never seem repetitive, at least not in an unpleasant way. Insistent, yes, marching and trumpeting: joyous! Would they today lead me to a new way of viewing Bolero? Following David’s suggestion, I looked up a carefully selected version of the music I had previously dismissed. Hearing that it was written as a ballet, I see that it needs the ballet, the form of excellent dancers who can control the music with their dignity. Cheap and obvious, the words I had used before, fade away in the presence of art. David wrote in his comment that Bolero works best taken slowly, and how true! Wonderful dancers, accompanied by a great conductor and orchestra, make me see the importance of the timing.

Timing, being everything, brought about the unlikely pairing of goose-headed flowers and a piece of famous music I had not yet experienced in its true form. In the season when the geese emerge in their insistent formation, we have all come together.

Credits: Whatever little understanding of the original question I have begun to gain, I owe to writers David Luhrssen (http://expressmilwaukee.com/article-7067-philip-glass,-dmitri-shostakovich-get-modern.html), Be’eri Moalem(https://www.sfcv.org/reviews/days-and-nights-festival/play-it-again-philip-glass) and Jeffrey Brown (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment-july-dec12-philipglass_10-23/).


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Emerson’s Weeds

It’s upon us, this part of summer, when much of the show is over, many of the brightly colored flowers have bloomed and faded, and the heat, sinking through our flesh right down to bone, makes us feel faded, too. If we counted on foliage instead of flowers, we can still gaze with confidence at the leaves that persevere, patterned or simply straightforward in their chosen shades of green, even in this part of summer growing, heightening, spreading.

If the year has been dry, many lawns have browned by now, though the one outside my window, filled with native plants (that some call weeds) remains calmly verdant. “A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered,” Emerson wrote; and I enjoy the virtue of these plants that have taken over from grass, keeping the lawn soft underfoot.

But today it’s another plant whose virtue I am especially admiring: the blue mistflower. Mistflowers flourish in the Appalachias, as well as throughout the Appalachia-adjacent South and Mid-Atlantic. They enter one’s garden world like a weed and spread like a weed, but the only state that seems to consider blue mistflower a weed is Kentucky. The rest of us are at the ready, particularly now, with full appreciation. Their foliage appeared, tiny but numerous and sudden, much earlier in the season. And so, too, their music began for me – faintly at first, but persistent, and continuing throughout the summer; inside my head it sounds like Sonnerie de Ste-Geneviève du Mont-de-Paris by Marin Marais.

When mistflowers first announced themselves in my world, I tried them under various conditions, from sunny to deep shade, and with several partners or groups. They were unknown to me then; in fact no one around here knew them or even their name. I soon learned that their nature is to spread, even take over, so it might be said they don’t play well with others – they go their own way and make a brave show. That’s where their character shines: they don’t care where they are, they do just fine, thank you. Unpleasant soil that fussier plants reject, even the truly evil spot which I suspect has construction dust mixed into it, suits the mistflowers just fine. They grow lush, and tall, multi-layered, rich plants full of pointed leaves and clouds of lavender-blue. So glorious in their garden beds that a neighbor’s drive home includes a ritual detour through my neck of the woods to stop at just the perfect vantage point and spend a few moments gazing at the bed that’s visible from the street.

Not an artist, I am grateful that they design, paint and arrange themselves. Their self-arrangement is musical to me in its repetition and swelling, and I am doubly bathed in loveliness. Vigil is kept throughout the summer until their bloom time, and this is a part of the pleasure. Bringing it back around to Emerson, “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” The blue mistflowers, repeating and swelling, filling the garden and the eye, are cause enough for quiet celebration every year about this time. In my little corner of the world, it could be argued that it doesn’t get better than this.


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Poems (Layer) Garden (Layer) Woman

“Heaven’s Virginia when the year’s at its Spring,” Anne Spencer wrote in her poem on Browning. Reading the recent post, “Spring and All” (http://prufrocksdilemma.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/spring-and-all/) in Prufrock’s Dilemma, I thought about Spencer. Spring and gardens and flowers always bring her poems to mind, like the evocative phrase in “Lines to a Nasturtium”:

“Day-torch, Flame-flower, cool-hot Beauty . . .”

I thought about Spencer, reading Susan Scheid’s post, because Susan provides thoughts and images about spring. She also features photography of Valerie Belin: “piled-up negatives made people’s faces into gardens.” And that took me right into Anne Spencer, through, and out the other side.

We know that she was many things – woman, wife, mother, poet, gardener, teacher and librarian, more. She wrote in a cottage built for her by her husband, where she could work in quiet, surrounded by her garden. I always thought of her like that, surrounded by the garden she planted. But contemplating the images created by Belin, and Susan’s description of them, has added dimension to my understanding of Spencer. My imagining had kept her, with her poetry, next to the many facets of her life. Now I have learned a deeper way of seeing her – she was a stack of transparencies: poems(layer)garden(layer)woman. She was no more separate from her garden than Belin’s women are separate from the flowers overlaid on them. So I can drink in a much better reading of this famous poem:

[Earth, I thank you]
Earth, I thank you
for the pleasure of your language
You’ve had a hard time
bringing it to me
from the ground
to grunt thru the noun
To all the way
Feeling seeing smelling touching
—awareness
I am here!