The gifts of solitude

“Make your ego porous. Will is of little importance, complaining is nothing, fame is nothing. Openness, patience, receptivity, solitude is everything.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke


“The WPA was a national program that operated its own projects in cooperation with state and local governments, which provided 10%-30% of the costs. … [It] was the largest and most ambitious New Deal agency, employing millions of unemployed carry out public works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads. In much smaller but more famous projects the WPA employed musicians, artists, writers, actors and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects.” (more here)



The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.

— from “Sandpiper“, by Elizabeth Bishop


Words to live by


“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing”
— Benjamin Franklin


Another e-worthy note. So simple, so difficult. But then again, “We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us;” (Rilke).

Friday poetry

a little ditty from Rilke

Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower

Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.


poetic interlude, another

A Walk

My eyes already touch the sunny hill,
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has its inner light, even from a distance—-

and changes us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it, we already are;
a gesture waves us on, answering our own wave…
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.

-Ranier Maria Rilke

fetes and mingles

What makes something — a place, a language, food — feel like home? And, perhaps conversely, in what ways do our assumed homes — that is, those sites or locations that bear a resemblance to our external appearances, our practices, or otherwise involuntary markers of (un)witting affiliation — continue to make us feel like outsiders? (And is home simply a utopic notion with no real expression in the world, as we are always necessarily searching and seeking homes?)

These were the questions on my mind as I awoke this morning, questions I’ve wondered about for quite some time, questions, I suspect, I have carried with me from mon enfance and into and through the strange landscapes of adolescence and adulthood. These questions also presuppose a certain privilege — that one has experienced glimpses, and in some instances long stretches, of home-ness despite brushes with the counter, that is a rootlessness, diconnection, a distinct lack of belonging. What amazes and amuses me about notions of home and belonging is that insofar as each word can open up a vast abyss of questions and seemingly endless inquiry, so, too, can one’s sense of home shift in the blink of an eye. Or, as in the case of last night’s Fete de Noel, with an easy grin.

The scene: the annual Christmas party (I’m assuming annual, although this was my first time attending) at the local Alliance Francaise where I am currently enrolled as une etudiante. I was on the fence about attending. While I can carry on conversation with relative strangers and find true delight in learning about the lives of others, I found myself momentarily hesitant as I approached the building. I could still go home, enjoy the brisk walk back and pick up some seemingly ubiquitous holiday popcorn on the way. But fate, in the form of my former teacher ML, intervened and once she said “Bonsoir!” to me, there was no turning back. So into the building we walked together and we rode the elevator to the 7th floor where the sounds of chatter (that my friend E might call “frenchified”) spilled out of the Alliance suite into the hallway as the elevators door opened. ML made her way to the restroom and left me to make my way into the crowded set of rooms, people numbering easily into the 30s and 40s. The lovely C instructed me as to where I could leave my jacket and bag — this would kill a couple of minutes. The open spot next to the water cooler seemed fine, and there was only one other bag in the near vicinity; most others had placed their items on the sofa. Better here, I thought, for easy retrieval and slipping away.

Ok, next: Locating the bar. I said hello to the woman who had conducted my placement test. Talk to me now, I wanted to exclaim! I remember the difference between the passe compose and passe simple! And I can almost remember all of my subjunctive conjugations! But instead I followed my Bonsoir with the most banal of small talk: “Ah, voici le vin!” And poured myself a half plastic cup worth of pinot noir. From there I made my way into one of the smaller classrooms, that I had used on a few occasions after class to Skype with my research team, where there sat one of three cheese platters, assorted breads, a pasta salad, haricot verts, and a large bowl of raw tomatoes — as a decoration, I suspected, when I saw similar formation of clementines in an adjacent classroom.

For several minutes I stood against a door jamb adjoining two rooms, content in my having made this outing, exchanged a few french pleasantries, and enjoyed the late autumn evening air. Having committed to taking an early departure after a quick rotation around the other rooms, I started across the main room whereupon I ran into my current teacher J who greeted me with a jubilant “Bonjour!” and, after introducing me to two other students to her right — Michel et Robert — she immediately instructed us to gather close for a photo and before any of us could protest, she had us raising our glasses with a toast of “Sante!” as the moment was captured in the form of digitized bits of pixelated information.

This moment — of introduction, of orchestrated camaraderie, of (likely somewhat) booze-induced socialization — transformed an otherwise tolerable evening into truly enjoyable one. For the next two and half hours conversation flowed easily and often in varying degrees of comfort with the French language. I heard a Southerner parler-ing from across the suite with great animated conviction; spoke with a Wharton MBA student who had spent a few years living in Switzerland as an adolescent and who was brushing up on her French in preparation for a move to Senegal because her husband, also a student at AF and who works for the State Department, is being transferred there; and the very lovely, positively magnetic Benjamin qui est un professeur de Francais, who somehow managed to convince even the reluctant amongst us to join in the caroling — another first: choral singing of Silent Night en francais.

The rest of the evening, conducted almost 90% in French, was as enjoyable as it was instructive; and in a strange way served as a book end to another mixed group gathering that I attended today, this time of old family friends (about which I’ll write more extensively later, but for now, suffice it to say that subtle differences even in how someone asks how you are doing — interestedly versus accusatorily — can invoke or supplant a sense of home!).

While peppered with instances of organized socializing, this sabbatical has been a model of the bliss of solitude. Parties, those strange artifacts in which people willingly (sometimes) participate, challenge this oath of solitude — challenge the fairly amiable individual to engage not merely in idle chatter for purposes of mindless, mutual adherence to social convention but to help construct an experience that does not make one yearn for a return to one’s solitude.

Happily, both occasions fell largely into the latter category, filled with laughter that binds new acquaintances and the kind that evokes shared past memories; and conversation motivated by genuine interest in another person. (I credit much of my fete de noel meaning-full talk to the very lovely Benjamin who posed questions with ease and seemed to instinctively understand these musings of home-ness and belonging; in contrast, la fete avec des familles was, at times, hampered by stifling interlocutors, despite the charming toddlers who proved to be quite able conversationalists.) To be fair, both fetes had moments of the former as well. In these moments of momentary displacement, I wished to be sitting alone, with a latte or pot of tea, a book near me and with implements of writing at the ready.

To wit, in both form and content and for its reflective as well as projective tone, I appreciate Rilke’s musings on the subject — as found in one of his letters to the young poet Kappus where he writes:
“We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.”

I might add to Herr Rilke’s observations that while it is also good to be social, this too, is a difficult endeavor; and to be done well, one requires apt partners, a healthy curiosity, and perhaps a general expectation that there may be something marvelous yet to be discovered, a home to be found(ed) — where the sweets are sweeter, language is a site of openings, food more comforting, and an easy smile between friends and strangers opens up glimpses of home.

a little self-help

…on patience

Patience is also a form of action.
— Auguste Rodin

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
— Rilke

Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

i especially like this one:

Have patience with all things, but chiefly have patience with yourself.
— St. Francis de Sales

…and a helpful note on impatience

There art two cardinal sins from which all others spring: Impatience and Laziness.
— Franz Kafka

writers un-block – the magic of rilke

with rilke nearby, it is hard to remain for very long in a state of writers block. that is, that which you need to write may not get written but that which you are compelled to put down in words may emerge from you. or perhaps that is the type of fanciful, giving over of oneself to the word that comes from repeated readings of this poet’s musings. in particular, i enjoy returning every so often to his collection of letters* written in response to a younger poet — rilke only in his late 20s when he begins this correspondence, yet wise beyond his years — that i carry with me always in my everyday bag. it’s there, in the back zipper pocket, greeting me occasionally and remind me that it’s there. waiting. patiently.

i am moved to think of letter 1 today because my blog meanderings led me to this blog in which the author makes a note in her about page that she writes because she must. need and must. what do we need? what must we do? are these the same? what’s the difference?

the following is from letter 1, and i’ve highlighted in bold the phrases and words that stood out to me in this latest reading — always new, never the same, just as fresh as the first time, but different.

“Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes a great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty Describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sound – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attention to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. And if out of , this turning within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.”

*the letters have been translated from german to english, so there are slight variations in the english text depending on the source.