Saturday, June 19, 2010

Grokking the Toad

Coming home from work on June 10th, I encountered a toad at the bottom of the stairs, as if waiting for me. I ran in to get my camera before the toad disappeared and came back to find it still peacefully sunning. I took several shots, very close, amazed that the toad didn't leap away. I sat on the stairs, enjoying the late light and watching the toad, checking out the wild designs on its back, its topaz eyes.

Surprisingly, the toad jumped toward me, positioning itself between my feet, then turning around to face west with me. We watched the sky and trees, thinking our thoughts. This companionable silence seemed to go on for quite a while. It was probably no more than five or ten minutes of stillness and complete ease, that shared, comfortable space illuminated by the gold evening sun of June. Time got nice and slow. I felt I "got" the toad, that I "grokked" the toad. Do you recognize that Martian word from Robert A. Heinlein's science fiction classic, Stranger in a Strange Land? Here is Heinlein's definition of grok:

"Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed -- to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience."

To my delight, the word was also listed in The American Heritage Dictionary:

Grok -- slang -- To understand profoundly through intuition or empathy.

And, here, from the Oxford English Dictionary:

"To understand intuitively or by empathy; to establish rapport with" and "to empathize or communicate sympathetically (with); also, to experience enjoyment."

From Heinlein again, grok is "associated with literal meanings such as 'water', 'to drink', 'life', or 'to live'."

Good word. Those Martians are deep. Here are more good words, from Marianne Moore (forgive the formatting):

.... One must make
a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
"literalists of
the imagination" -- above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them,"
shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

-- Marianne Moore, from the last two stanzas of "Poetry"

To enlarge the photo, click on the image.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Purple Umbrella

When I went for a walk with a friend earlier this afternoon, we discovered a young neighbor and her friend sitting on a rock eating Italian ices. Too cute. Since the drizzle had eased up, one of the girls had left her purple umbrella upside-down on the lawn. The crazy cat is the base of the handle. I just realized that if you squint, you can see me and my camera inside the cat's brain.

Click on image to enlarge.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

That Dark and Twisted Little Laugh

Communication by e-mail and instant messaging can be the casual flounce of words screen to screen, ideas tossed lightly, loosely, telegraphically. The mediums seem to encourage the immediate and impulsive. Of course the words can also go deep and convey hard thought; the exchange can have the feeling of a serious conversation. The other day I received a wise and beautiful e-mail from a high school friend, Tom. Here's a brief excerpt:

... my learned lesson that I attempt to abide by these days is this: There are really only two things that for me warrant any prolonged concern - love and health. Everything else takes a distant back seat and ultimately is of fleeting value. This of course is not to say that other things aren't good, fun, sad, debilitating or something else; but they don't really alter life very much or at least should not be afforded the opportunity.

Here is part of my response:

I like your philosophy. Love and health. How about creativity/art (in the broadest, most inclusive sense)? What also surfaces in my mind: truth (yeah, even if it hurts), and, strangely, humor. Somehow the dark and twisted little laugh is what saves me again and again. I see a strong link between comedy and poetry ... they can work the same way. Metaphors and jokes ... think about it. Disparate things magically/absurdly linked. The way they cinch together the far edges of the universe. The way they turn things inside-out. The beautiful surprise of both. (Back in time, during an author interview, the interviewer asked me if there was anything I had left out in our discussion of poetry. Yes, humor! I've been meaning to revisit this topic on my blog. Maybe you've just helped me write the post.) How about Soul and Spirit? (Soulful and spirited?) Compassion? Yes, and hope, that flickering flashlight. And back to that word, magic. The sudden bursts of sparks in life. But I agree, love is the top item, and possibly the overlord of them all.


Note: I decided not to edit this exchange, since in its direct and unpolished way, it conveys the ease of communication ... and tells the truth.

Tom's words were reprinted here with his permission. The photo of bark was taken up the hill from my house. Click on image to enlarge.