©Elisa Salasin, 2010

This talk was written for a summer writing institute for teachers. The other institute leaders, referred to in the talk, are Peter Stillman, poet, essayist, and editor; and Bill Brown, poet and teacher. The first few lines are addressed to Bill Brown.

Seamus Heaney told you how, as a poet, he couldn’t use the word hearth anymore. Yet hearth is what it was and still is, in Ireland. His universe has shrunk. It’s the same with stone, you said. Poets can’t use it anymore. I believe you. You’re a poet. But I will be daring. I will use stone. It’s the only word I have for what I want to say.

“Go inside a stone,” Charles Simic says. I don’t ask, “What stone?” or “Why a stone?” or even “What does he mean, ‘Go inside a stone’?” I know. Go inside a stone and find a moment. Find a myth. Find the source of your history.

Here is one of my sources:  Lapis Lazuli, the stone of heaven. Lapis, a stone. Lazuli, of heaven. (Heaven is another word I’m sure Heaney would say poets cannot use today. Again, I will chance it, use this timeworn word.)
How might it begin, this poem about heaven and stones?
Lapis Lazuli: the stones of heaven.
A necklace of stones, blue as the sky

with flecks of gold.
A necklace of moment–
Myth and history–
A life told by stones.
We find our stones like stories, pieces of our lives that settle in, become familiar as breath, like grandmothers who come for the winter and share our beds.

Some years ago, my partner and I bought a piece of land that hung out over the Pacific. It had what was left of a shed on it, twenty by thirty feet, no floor, not much of a roof, but walls of heavy ship timbers. During the summer that we turned this skeleton into a warm, tight  place to live, I walked the beach below us every day. It was there that I became a stone-gatherer.

I learned that stones ask to be gathered. Some days only the fools’ gold, brilliant gold-flecked iron stones, found their way into my army surplus bag. Some days it was the agates, transparent with smoky castles hovering inside. Some days, all I could see were small green stones, shimmering in the tidal wash. The most special ones, however, were the smooth gray stones that had been washed into small Henry Moore sculptures, holes creating shapes that spoke of primitive goddesses, grinding stones, and prayer wheels.
These stones became the artifacts of that period of my life. They filled windowsills, jars, saucers. Carried home at the end of summer in burlap bags that were to become the backbreakers of moving men for six houses, they eventually lined flowerbeds, walkways, dog runs. Just yesterday, I found a plastic bag filled with Bodega Bay stones in the barn where they had landed when we moved into this house fourteen years ago. What amazed me was that as I picked them up, one by one, I recognized them! (These stones turn up everywhere, waiting to be told.)
At one of our homes, away from the ocean, we created stone-patterns of color and shape and size inside the circular fence we built creating a space dubbed “the sun circle” by the Nobel scientist down the road. Dr. McMillan, one of the early architects of atomic research, kept a close watch on these stones.
“How did your atomic discoveries come to you?” I asked him one day when he was observing the patterns taking shape inside the fence. “Did they come as thoughts? as words? as images?” “Pictures!” he roared. “Ideas come in pictures! You put them together later, the way you’re doing  with those stones.”
The stones of Bodega became my lapis lazuli, the stories of my heaven at the water’s edge, that always-shifting boundary between tangible reality and the almost-attainable “still point” that Eliot describes in the garden scene in Four Quartets. Carrying the stones into my everyday world, I carried, too, the timelessness that exists for me when I enter into the moment he describes when he says, “Quick now,  here, now, always.”
Why am I telling you all this? What is this talk about?

I’m telling you all this because I am here, at this writing institute for teachers, for a week—to write as a writer with you—to be a teacher with you who are willing to suspend the everydayness of your lives for this week as a way of entering into it more fully, more consciously, more artfully. And by entering into our everyday reality with a heightened awareness, we can all begin to craft our lives as we craft our stories and poems–to search for the tide-washed or mountain-rain-washed thumbstones that go into the jacket pocket and stay there, becoming part of our myth, part of our history, part of what we transmit to our students.
There are paradoxes here. Alfred North Whitehead said, “any philosophy that does not have paradox at its core is not worth considering.” I certainly see paradox at the core of this whole time question: in order to enter into the timeless, we must participate fully in the moment.
But what does it mean, as a writer, to live in the moment, when writers thrive on memory?  I’ve been fooling around with this conundrum for the last few weeks (months, years) and think that the answer does lie in paradox; when we pick up the stone and write the poem or the story, we enter that timeless moment in which all of our past, as memory, is available to us.
Time present and time past
are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
Eliot, again. Tapping the paradox.

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou said, “Thomas Wolfe had it all wrong. Not only can you go home again; you can’t ever leave home.” She went on to talk about time and how, for a writer, linear time becomes irrelevant; the past is so much a part of the present. Eliot and Angelou–an unlikely pairing. The physicists are just beginning to be able to articulate the scientific explanation for the reality of what poets have always known—from Heraclitus on–this ability we have to penetrate the dimension of time by entering into the present, this stone of heaven, with an acute sensitivity to the particularity of the moment. String these moments together and they become the stories of our lives, our own necklaces made of whatever stones lie under our feet, at the water’s edge, or on mountain trails. We are writing our history, blue as lapis.

©Fran Claggett, 2010

Fran Clagget was one of the BAWP group summer of 1974 and has been a consultant for all these many years thereafter. For several summers, she was one of the Open Program teacher/leaders. She still, even at her advanced age (ahem) does an occasional workshop for BAWP although the requests are few, now that she lives in Sonoma County. Since leaving the classroom (she doesn’t use that R word), she has written a lot of books for teachers and students and has been a consultant in many places. She knows Florida well, from having spend 20 years as part of the incredible team of consultants at the Dade County Zelda Glazer Writing Institute. She now teaches sporadically at the Sonoma State Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, teaching memoir writing (and poetry, always poetry) to people of her own age (or, in many cases, younger—and a few even older!). Her course next fall is entitled “Memoir and Other Myths.” And she has even begun writing her own.

One Response to “The Stones of Heaven by Fran Claggett”

  1. Darrell Schramm Says:

    I haven’t even finished reading this piece, and I’m bowled over by its intimate beauty. (Had to let you know now, before I forgot or became to busy to respond.) And I’m going to start from the beginning again. My gratitude to you, Fran!

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