Rilke’s Roses

Rainer Maria Rilke

“Who, though I cry aloud, would hear me in the angel orders?
And should my plea ascend, were I gathered to the glory
of some incandescent heart, my own faint flame of being
would fail for the glare.

Beauty is as close to terror as we can well endure.
Angels would not condescend to damn our meager souls.
And so I constrain myself and swallow the deep, dark  music
of my own impassioned plea.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, First Duino Elegy

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was fond of roses and so they were a recurring theme in many of his poems. He indulged himself in tending the roses he planted in the gardens of Muzot where he spent the last years of his life.   E. M. Butler writes in Rilke’s biography that “he kept roses in his room until they were really dead, then embalmed their petals in books and used them for pot-pourri” and that he “once sent a friend some fading flowers to die in her company because he was going away”.  Legend has it that the leukemia which caused his death was diagnosed when he pricked his hand on a thorn while gathering his beloved roses and the wound failed to heal. Rilke’s love of this beautiful flower ran so deep that he penned his own epitaph with reference to the rose –  “Rose, O Pure Contradiction, Desire To Be No One’s Sleep Beneath So Many Lids” – and  roses grow upon his grave.

In 1912, during a stay at the Castle Duino, Rilke began composing The Duino Elegies.  An elegy is a “song of lamentation” and so they are filled with sadness, but at the same time they are something utterly beautiful and comforting despite their theme of death that comes too soon and unfulfilled longings. A. S. Kline writes that the elegies “represent a reconciliation with life, and seek to bear witness to its underlying fountain of joy, the source and spring from which the stream of acceptance and creativity flows that allows us to endure our transient and often painful existence.” The Elegies came to Rilke in the form of a sudden inspiration as he stood on the cliffs of Duino when he found the words “Who, though I cry aloud, would hear me in the angel orders?”  Years later he finished them when his creativity returned in “a savage creative storm” when the poetic spirit took hold of him. 

Poems also come to me in a rush and a fury, but although I have thorns and beauty in my life, too,  I struggle to produce roses in my poetry. And so when I just can’t find the right words and seem to be producing weeds instead of roses, I can turn to the Elegies and find Rilke’s words which express so much of what I want to say. And because the themes are universal I don’t feel so alone in the sorrows of the world. I’m grateful that Rilke’s rose petals are still to be found tucked inside the pages of his books.

The Edge of Creativity

Lead me to the edge
and talk to me as I tremble there
precariously swaying against
winds of beauty and cruelty.

To fall away
or be drawn away
by changes in life’s weather
be it sunshine or storms, 
or whatever clouds blow my way.

Lone Cypress at Monterey

Yet I stand here so long and so often
that I’ve begun to put down roots.
Like the cypress on western cliffs 
I  grow strong enough to withstand
the heat of the sun,
the chill of the rain,
and I celebrate the beauty –
and the cruelty –
that we all cherish and endure.


The Duino Elegies translated by Robert Hunter
Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation by William H. Glass Alfred A. Knoff  New York 1999
By The Cliffs of Duino- Existence and Ecstasy
The Fountain of Joy: A Line-by Line Commentary on Rilke’s Duino Elegies by A.S. Kline 2009
A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke  Donald Prater Clarendon Press Oxford 1986

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“For many centuries roots have been pictured as living in absolute darkness, hidden from sight, and therefore wonderfully mysterious.  There is a least some mystic justification for this concept.  There is also the growth of scientific correction.  By human standards, roots usually dwell in darkness – at the very least, in comparative darkness.  But we are learning that they are profoundly influenced by light and that soil, or even subsoil, however rife with mysteries, is not a phenomenon of total darkness.” ~ Charles Morrow Wilson Roots: Miracles Below 1968

I believe that, like roots searching for water, our unconscious mind searches for ways to show us the basic truths of who we are and reveals these things to us through various channels.  I often find new ways of understanding this in unsuspected places, like in a book about plant roots. As I read the opening paragraph of chapter 9 in the book quoted above, metaphorically the soil became the dark and hidden depths of the unconscious and the roots whatever means we have of tapping into that.

We tend to think of the unconscious as a frightening, primitive place in ourselves that often brings us confusing and undecipherable dreams, complexes and other unwelcome things.  This is where our shadow lies – those aspects of ourselves that we don’t want to acknowledge. The inner workings of our psyche seem hidden in the dark.

It’s somewhat true that there is no light in the depths of the unconscious and the messages we receive from it are not spoken in our language – we’ll never totally understand it or have access to it.  But if we pay attention to what the roots bring us – in our sleeping or waking dreams, the things we express creatively , the things we are drawn to without thought, actions that we take instinctively –  we might have a deeper understanding of who we are and what we need to grow and be able to shed some light on those shadows.

People take cues from the light just as plants do.  I often find that my life grows sluggish during the winter – that I feel tired and sad. In my outer experiences and productivity, I seem not to be growing, but taking a lesson from nature I can see that despite my outer appearance I’m also working deep inside and my own growth is taking place. Outside the trees are quiet now, but deep underground the roots are busy at work. As spring grows nearer I feel my own blood quickening like tree sap and hope to see new leaves soon.

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Quantum Physics

I live in a quantum world,
an invisible world,
where spooky action at a distance
is a regular occurrance;
where Planck’s constant
makes determinations for me
and the quantum spin
the only kind I know-
is only ever “spin-up” or “spin-down”.

It would take physicists
the likes of Born, Bohm and Bell
to figure me out,
but all the while I’m a Schrödinger cat
and my existence is undetermined.

I live by Bell’s Theorem.
Unable to avoid quantum entanglements
I engage in systems that are not
divisible by thoughts.
And yet thought experiments
are the only kind I know –
the only way I live.

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The Faith of Trees

English: Bare Trees. Portland, Oregon.

The trees wearing only bare branches
Are nonetheless clothed in their winter best.
And we in our finery hide away
From the beating of winter’s cold.

Behind warm cotton and fleece,
Mittens, hats and scarves
We brace for battle.
But the trees bare themselves –
Exposed and accepting
Of winter’s blows.

Even protected by our armor
We fold into ourselves
Hunch our shoulders and
cower down shivering.

But the trees stand tall.

And we watch for their cue.
When sap begins rising and buds awaken,
We shed our winter fur
And welcome the spring
As if all along
We were confident
Of its return.

December 2010

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Accepting The Apple

“And walk among long dappled grass
And pluck til time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.”
~ W. B. Yeats  ‘The Story of Wandering Aengus’

A faint blush, delicate streaks of highlights cascading down, beautiful curves in perfect proportion… am I describing a beautiful goddess? No, just an apple engineered to look like all the others – engineered until all of the potential flaws are  weeded out.  The result is the perfect apple we find in the grocery store. 

Greek mythology tells of a beauty contest which resulted in something more than a prize-winning beauty. Some say it began the Trojan war. Our story takes place at the wedding celebration of Peleus and Thetis. In order to assure a blissful gathering, Eris, the goddess of discord, was not invited. Full of anger, she went to the celebration anyway and in her hand was a golden apple on which was inscribed “Kallistei” or “For the fairest one.” Attending this wedding were three goddesses – Hera, Athena and Aphrodite – each of whom claimed the apple for herself.  To resolve the dispute, the three beauties were brought before Paris – a man from the city of Troy – to be judged. They used all of their charm to persuade him and when they saw that Paris was still undecided they resorted to bribery. In the end, Aphrodite won the day with her promise of the love of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta. Wasting no time, Paris then whisked Helen away from her home and husband and brought her to Troy thus dooming the city to its destruction.  (To those unfamiliar with the rest of the story I recommend reading Homer’s The Iliad.)

 Why this connection between the apple and beauty? Does the apple really represent beauty?  In The Judgement of Paris, the apple was the prize to strive for and winning it meant the confirmation of perfect beauty for the goddesses.  But the roots of this prize  – the so-called apple of discord – were steeped in vanity,  and once obtained led to envy and conflict as well.  Perhaps the apple serves as a mirror. It might show us what we think we could be – an image of perfection – or it might remind us of the human side of our being and a true vision of ourselves.

Of course we are not gods or goddesses and our imperfections are many both in our outward appearance and the intangible things inside of us yet we still strive for perfection. Why? Is it because we really believe we can attain that? We are, all of us, unfinished. There is always work to do. The question is whether the task is to accept ourselves and embrace our imperfections as expressions of who we are or continue to struggle for something which is unattainable.  Any thoughts?

The Apples of Our Eyes

Pick up that tempting red
Take a moment just to see.
Do you see yourself instead
And who you are trying to be?

Picture perfect – no one can deny
A fruit fit for the gods,
But is it meant for you and I
To conform despite the odds?

We are not the gods, you see
Imperfection is sublime
Flawed is how we’re meant to be
Through our differences we’ll shine

Accept the fruit of humanity
In a world of flaws we’ll reside
We’ll put an end to vanity
And our “beauty” we will not hide.

Posted in acceptance, imperfection, self growth and discovery | 6 Comments

A Butterfly in Training

Butterfly and Chinese Wisteria Flowers by Xu Xi c.970

“From cocoon forth a butterfly
As lady from her door emerged…”
~Emily Dickinson

For the past two years or so I’ve been on a journey – a journey of discovering myself.  It was difficult, but it needed to be done. All through it I had an image in my mind of a butterfly in a chrysalis waiting to break out and finally be who I was meant to be, showing my true colors to the world. Or at least to my immediate neighborhood, family, friends and acquaintances. 

Well, here I am. A butterfly. However, I had not considered as I was struggling free that the butterfly is a very fragile creature. They are prone to being slammed into by a car, eaten by a predator, or simply succumbing  to changes in the weather or getting lost on the way. Of course the journey is never over.  And so I wonder, what does a butterfly become when it changes and grows? Does it simply pass on … or does it pass on leaving behind a new generation of butterflies-to-be and more opportunities to grow than one can imagine?

As I’m waiting to find out, I’ll be testing my wings, getting to know my surroundings – the wind might blow me one way and then change course and send me off in another direction (and I suppose I’ll just go with that).  I’m not really strong enough to have any control over the winds that pass over me.  They will take me where they will.

One of the lessons I learned on this recent journey is that I can’t squeeze myself into a mold or confine myself within rigid walls. I need to be true to myself and be open to changes whether I like those changes or not. I was headed in a certain direction when I began this, but as I took a look around this community of writers, I found an unexpected openness and honesty that surprised me. I found a community of understanding and support. I wanted to write in order to reach out to others and give something of myself, but right from the beginning I began to get much more out of it than I seemed able to give.

I suppose my web log will transform itself as I transform. In a sense, this is me. I need to search for new colors to paint my metaphorical butterflies – the way an artist mixes paint to find the perfect hue. After all,  a metaphorical  butterfly should be a different color than the parent butterfly, don’t you think? There are too many beautiful colors in this world to stick to just one.  I’m open to the gifts I receive from others – new colors with which to mix my own – and hope to give some of that back in return.

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The Bees of Mythology


“Slight though the poet’s theme, not slight the praise. Of air-born honey, gift of heaven, I now take up the tale.”  ~ Virgil Georgics Book IV

Consider the mythic tale of Aristaeus.  Aristaeus, the son of Apollo, was a beekeeper among other things. He treasured his bees and taught the art of the management of the hive.  Upon finding one day that all of his bees had perished, he went to seek help from his mother.  She advised him to consult Proteus, an old prophet who lived in the sea.  After a struggle to gain his cooperation, Aristaeus asked Proteus to tell him the nature of the bees demise and what he could do to remedy it.  Proteus replied, “Make a sacrifice of four bulls and four cows, for you have angered the nymphs, companions of Eurydice, for whose death you are to blame.”  Aristaeus obeyed and when he returned nine days later, he discovered that a swarm of bees had made their hive in the carcass of one of the animals.  Aristaeus happily returned to his beekeeping.

Throughout all mythologies bees can be found dripping with meaning and coated with symbolism.  Honey – the drink of the gods of Mt. Olympus – gave Pindar the gift of poetry and Pythagoras the gift of science.  The bees themselves gave Apollo the gift of prophecy.  Egyptian mythology tells of the origins of bees from the tears of the sun god, Ra.  The story goes that when his tears hit the earth, they were transformed into bees and began producing honey. Could the association of bees with the sun gods have something to do with the golden sun-like honey they produce?

The tiny bee is huge in its symbolism.  There are two that come to mind most readily.  One is industry, the other is communication.  Bees are always working – collecting pollen , taking care of the hive, protecting the queen – and labor tirelessly until their death.  They are extremely productive and so can indicate an increase of productivity in our own work and lives or the need to pay more attention to that part of us to work harder to get things done.  Many people have heard of the “dance of the bees”.  Bees “dance” to communicate whether it’s the most abundant and accessible source of pollen or the ideal location at which to build a new hive.  Bees can indicate a need for more communication with people in our lives or tell us the time is right to communicate our ideas to others.

To dream of the bee is to encounter a wealth of symbolism. Take your pick while interpreting this dream, but in most cases, I can assure you, the meaning will be nothing but positive.

Winter’s Gold

I had a wonderful dream one night
Of silvery bees and skep
Metal reflecting sky and light
And beauty while I slept.

bee skep

And while in stillness there I lay
My dreams spun honey-gold
Enough to keep my fears at bay
Through winter’s dark and cold.

Until I wake to morning-spring
And winter’s work revealed,
I’ll wait to see what day will bring
And pray what’s torn is healed.

I had a wonderful dream last night
Of silvery bees and skep
A place of fantasies and light
Where winter’s gold is kept.

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As we move beyond the winter solstice and the season of light what was once a time of renewal and rebirth becomes a time of arrival. We’ve been transformed by the happenings of the previous year and it’s time to show our new faces to the world.  And having just arrived, I find that it’s an excellent time to begin writing to you.  I envision each post I leave here as a kind of letter. I believe that is one of the better ways we have of communicating with each other and one that we don’t take part in enough.

My life has been full of journeys  – journeys of growth and self-discovery, of spiritual awakenings, and journeys during which I’ve connected with others in meaningful ways.  There has never been a  journey from which I haven’t returned with some sort of valuable insight – with some bringing more than others. I’ve always returned much wiser, but still full of questions – never satisfied. On my return – or my arrival home – I’m always filled with a longing to share what I’ve learned, what I’ve discovered, what I’ve seen and felt. This is what I’ll bring to you here.

Gaining this insight is never without risk – I’ve fallen down and been hurt many times.  Yet, nothing has ever knocked me down for good and I’ve never encountered a place which was too deep, too high or too far for me to travel while searching for the light.

Visions of Apollo

It is told young Icarus flew too high
And in a manic state he rose
passing every little winged thing by
the treacherous path of birds he chose.

In tune to the nature of the illness he bore
He fastened waxen feathers to his limber frame
And took off soaring from that craggy shore
So that men would always sing his name.

In glory he flew, furious and fast
Beckoned by the heat of the sun
Until he reached Apollo’s lair at last
Certain of the treasure he had won.

But things turned upside down that day
As the beautiful rays betrayed
For reaching too high has a price to pay
When the fates of men are weighed.

But Icarus kept his eyes to the sky
As he fell to his watery death
Visions of Apollo filled his eye
As he sighed his very last breath.



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