The Gift of a Question

May 20, 2016 9:20 am

No hurry …

ganeshaAfter months of neglect of the page and the pen, an unusually long hiatus, a writer-friend said to me, “You must find the time to write. You must write!”

I ponder her words: Writing is so much a part of the writer’s soul that when we don’t write we shallow out, we disconnect from what’s real, we lose the thread. We neglect the balance point between our two natures, a betrayal. The worst of our many selves takes over, and we begin to believe that’s who we are.

Danté placed the betrayer at the lowest circle of hell. Ganesha sacrificed a tusk — the pen! — so that the writer could write.

Some essays pop out of the frontal lobe–opinion easily expressed. That’s product. Others come slowly–a new search prompted by fresh insight, initiated by a question that nags. The early draft takes on levels and sub-text; it gathers both detritus and essential matter; it changes direction; theme appears and disappears; maps are drawn, destroyed, redrawn, followed, abandoned. This is new territory. (And why would one want to revisit the same familiar places anyway?)

Essential to breaking new ground on paper is the pondering. Doubt may hijack a week, a month, but what drives us forward is the question and the creative impulse that cares for it. All this takes time. No hurry.

Good news

October 2, 2015 4:54 pm


“Clear! Seven Theories of Space,” an essay printed in the December 2014 issue of Passages North, has been nominated for Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net Anthology.

This essay, in the writing for three years, justifies my faith in slow writing. Not that I could write any other way …

Here’s the link:  http://passagesnorth.com/2014/12/clear-seven-theories/

Thank you to the editors and staff of Passages North!

Watch Your Bow Wake

May 21, 2015 11:45 am

boat wakeSign at the marina in Wickford, Rhode Island

An average-sized lobster boat pulling ten knots in an average-sized cove will kick out a bow wake of thirty-one waves. Here on the dock at Quahog Cove, writing but distracted, I count them. Laws of physics are at work here.

The wave spreads out from the lobsterman’s single diesel source, him standing in the white deck house looking forward. He trails a widening V that spreads across the morning surface, evenly spaced as if he intended silent order. He has passed me far to the left, his inboard whispering, when waves reach my dock, which creaks with receptive slaps, rising, falling. A cormorant and three ducks bob nearby, the buoys pull and release the ropes of a nearby float with a fussy eeeekkkk. The waves reach shore and wear themselves out on the rocky remains of an ancient Appalachian range. Calm again.

But not for long. The sun is higher now. New boats, new wakes: the crossways wake of a fishing dingy, high-pitched and sputteringa tight wake; a 28-foot Hinkley in half sail, proud and entitled—the lordly, rolling wake; a youngster gunning a 45-horse Johnsonthe wake of heedless peak and impatient splash. Wake overtakes wake and the day is a patchwork, and opportunities for space are lost in chop, and confusion reigns on the surface and beneath it. 

All my life I have watched bow wakes. Witness the wakes of people! The sputtering, the entitled, the impatient, the pussyfooting. And what is mine? Do I see it? Do I discipline the eye inward? There is something of terrible importance here.

It is now late in the day. This writing space on the dock has yielded up a page or two. My breathing is deeper, what comes from a good day of writing. I sense the broader rhythmic rise and fall of the Great Ocean to the east just out of my sight. It moves into the cove, a breath taken down into the peninsulas of Maine, the awaiting alveoli of its coastal body. Deeper movement enlivens the inhabited body into the fresh, the new, the direct impression. A No Wake Zone of the enlivened heart.

The flute reed remembers ...

February 11, 2015 1:52 pm

Carolina wrenWhere’s home for you?

Me, here: a dynamic attention brought to the moment, composing the writing-to-be as close to the impression as possible, allowing no thought—that officious intermeddler—to fill the space into which innocent material will be given, new, as if this moment has never happened before:

A rectangle of window is a light box against the dark wall, and then the icicles—milky, vertical waves of frozen motion, as long and sharp and wind-bent as scimitars. And further out, the snowfields, waves of white and shadow-of-blue-white, like crescent dunes under the wind. The suet feeder, snow covered and frozen, hangs just outside the window.

Perhaps blown into this northern latitude by the three-day storm, a Carolina wren—tiny and brown, and bunchy against the cold—pecks for breakfast. His spikelike claws grasp the wire cage. Talons as sure purchase against the wind. His body, feather-light and vulnerable. I consider his tiny heart.

He’s a spring and summer chirper, so no need to warm up the cold pipes today. There’s no call. If he’s still here this spring, expect his five sharp notes: high-low, high-low, high. He’ll end on a positive note. He’s making do with where he finds himself—a transplanted Southerner in New England; familiar to me—and I respect that about him.

Is he relocated by forces he cannot control? Is he lost? I recall Rumi: “The flute reed remembers the marsh of its birth.”

“Where’s home for you?” we ask people we meet, returning to ourselves, connected to our own creative longing.

Writing the collage one shard at a time: messages along the road

January 15, 2015 12:03 pm
“Collage is pieces of other things. Their edges don’t meet.”
“… the many becoming one, with the one never fully resolved because of the many that continue to impinge upon it.”
“Story seems to say that everything happens for a reason, and I want to say,
No, it doesn’t.” 
“A mosaic, made out of broken dishes, makes no attempt to hide the fact that it’s made out of broken dishes, in fact flaunts it.”
 “The question is not What do you look at? but What do you see?”

David Shields, Reality Hunger

See what happens when shards — found objects — aPottery shardsre slowly added:


Here:   I read this somewhere recently–“Times Square must be an extraordinary place to visit if you can’t read.”



Connecticut: The bookstore on Post Road in Fairfield CT, where I drink a Starbucks latte and write, sits across the street from the children’s toy store, magic beans.  Thick lower case letters in green against a white-white building, and, alongside, a green bean lying on its back as logo. I imagine the bean planted, its roots pushing deep, and me climbing the bean stalk to the unexpected and to risk.

Stay as close as you can to the impression, I am told, and let the mind imagine anew. Let the impression come to you. The muse hovers. Let her come to you too.

Indonesian gongs.0&hei=100&cell=1000,1000&cvt=jpeg***

Between Valliguières and Avignon: Two road signs, one mounted above the other. The top one points east—Autre Directions. The other points west—Toutes Directions.


Connecticut: He’s a year old, our grandson, and he sits on the floor eying the box we saved for him. The new dishwasher came in it. We thought he’d crawl right in and make himself at home. His own private den. He maneuvers a flap—to him, a new variety of hinged door—and peeks into the brown cardboard construction of floor, ceiling, walls. The expression on his face says it’s a strange, dark place, and new. On the outside, he fingers the writing. Do Not Drop. He’s never seen this font, as thick as a tree trunk. And This End Up — the arrow’s as tall as he. He considers the threat of the writing and looks into the brown cave as if he just arrived from the other side of the moon. He shows himself to be a toddler-scientist: he tosses in his stuffed Hobbes, and listens, watches. He backs off, pulling Hobbes with him, carefully, and walks away.

I see this as early refusal to get trapped in somebody else’s box.


Columbia, S.C.: Seen on a poster in the window at Whole Foods—”Be a thorn in the time’s side.”


Qing Huang Dao to Bejing: The middle seat of the train is empty. I scoot in, climbing over the small man on the aisle. The woman by the window slaps her fat purse into the seat and smirks. “Is this seat taken?” I say in English. She says sBeijing Bus Signomething in Chinese. In universal gesture, I ask, “May I sit here?” She says something clipped in Chinese, harsh, atonal. Everyone in the bus looks up, they wait. She turns her head, stares out the window, and watches Qing Huang Dao disappear into countryside. I sit on the lap of the Chinese man on the aisle. Everyone is entertained. Laiwai, they all whisper and nod. Foreign devil. Purse-woman has gained much face. I feel homeless.


Yarmouth, Massachusetts: This morning we passed a road sign: “This week is National Poison Control Week.”


The Outer Banks:  I’ve gathered shells on this beach for sixty years—a dog following scent. I collect sycamore bark too—once they’ve hit the ground they stay put—but shells wash in from who-knows-where and move house in the night. You don’t know where they might set up shop tomorrow, so reactions like grasp and grab fit here. I pick up the ones that attract. Some I keep—they join my windowsill stash—and some I toss out the window along I-95 on the return to New England.

Do archeologists make allowance for the ancient gatherer who picked up an amulet in, say, Damascus and tossed it from a hay cart in County Meath? I dropped a ticket stub for the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Nixon on a beach in St. Malo. What will some future archeologist think? That Brittany was settled by Republicans?


Illuminated manuscriptBoston:  I have read A Canticle for Leibowitz seven times in four regions of the country, once recently, here.  

What might some future dig reveal about us? Perhaps create an illuminated to-do list. Today, mine reads: TGV rsv—Paris to Avig; Avig to St.M.; Sat—copy new pulled pork recipe, make slaw; Sun—read ch. 3 in C. Bourgeault.

 Fiat Lux, Br. Francis.


Attleboro, Massachusetts:  All 32,000 square feet of the old Borders have been rented to a liquor store.  Chris Gasbarro’s Wine and Spirits. At a windowed corner table where the muse and I, sitting in sunlight, gaining inspiration from Hilary Mantel, wrote cumulative and additive sentences, pleased with their length and clarity, where we barely tolerated the man on his cell phone selling faux furs to Romania, where the rest of us, writers all, looked at each other and rolled our eyes, where the manager had to ask him to leave, where in the end we took the news of the closing of our office space badly — there in the windowed corner, the new owners have created a Lifestyle Corner.  During the holidays, Christmas tinsel hung from the Laphroaig display, contriving light.

Nearby, a sign reads “A meal without wine is called breakfast.”


Kelp ForestMerced River, The Sierra Nevada:  The conscious mind, moving body-rhythm slow, sifts material like river teeth.  You don’t want to have too much control at this point. Wait. Wait until the current ebbs. See what’s caught.


Diving in the kelp forest off the Coronado Islands, Baja, Mexico: What’s the biological motor behind all this green—waving and alight?


Tulsa, Oklahoma:  The warning light on the dashboard blinks on, red, an hour east of Tulsa. It’s a strip of I-44, flat and straight, airless and wavering in the heat. Our daughter’s with my husband; I have our dog.  On the CB radios—these before cellphones—we puzzle: What kind of machines are U-Hauls?  Forgiving, he says. Unrelenting, I say. We need to find out now, our daughter says.

“Says here in Jack Kornfield that Buddhist psychology recognizes three personality types:  the deluded, the averse, and the grasping.”  Ten miles down the road we are still laughing at who we believe we are.


Route 6A from Barnstable to Sandwich: On the side of the road, the bottom edge of the 15’x20′ sign sits flush on the ground: “Today’s subliminal message is.”


Ensenada, Baja, Mexico:  We spent the quiet weekend on the beach about 30 km south of Ensenada.  Him, me, his surfboard, a tent, sleeping bags, and a cooler.  On Saturday, he surfed the pipeline, I read Vonnegut. All weekend James Taylor sang, “You’ve got a friend.”

On Sunday we headed back to La Jolla.  “Anything to declare?” the border guard asked at the Tijuana crossing. “Nothing,” my doctor friend said out his window.  “Welcome back to the U.S. of A.”  At a stoplight in Chula Vista, he said, “I didn’t want you to worry.” “About what?” “The stuff in the glove box.”  “Pull over and let me out. Now.”


 San Diego to San Francisco on I-5:  Painted on the back of a truck:  DO NOT FOLLOW.


Chinese wine cartQing Huang Dao to Bejing: When the bus broke down, we were told to get out and stand on the side of the road. Passing us onthe left were berry-brown men in loin cloth on bicycles—vegetables, hay, sticks, purses, tires, bricks, every imaginable product stacked behind them and tied down, higher than their heads, swollen and roped down. A huffing-puffing taxi passed us: “Beijing Taxi: We Take You.


Here: Potting instructions. To free the root ball from its form, you may slice vertically, and deeply, but be careful not to disturb the root hairs.

Tree Roots Van GoghRoot hairs—The tiny fingers near the growth end of a root that absorb water and minerals. Secreting an acid that catalyzes minerals into useful ions, they do their silent, optimistic work supporting the elongating root end, which can exert 120 pounds per square inch of pressure into sands, soils, clays, and into the cracks of ancient boulders, splintering them, scattering them, and creating new and unexpected forms.


Paris to Avignon aboard the TGV: Mounted on the sleek wall mid-car, a small plaque, a stylized cell phone with it “eyes” closed. Shhhhhh ….


At a roundabout on the A429 near Northleach, The Cotswolds: “You’ll have to go a round again.”

"Clear!" has found a home at PASSAGES NORTH

December 29, 2014 9:56 pm

“Hefty literary magazine will keep you entertained through the winter.”
The Review Review

pelican“Clear! Seven Theories of Space” now appears in Bonus Content of PASSAGES NORTH, Northern Michigan University’s literary magazine.  Here’s the link: http://passagesnorth.com/2014/12/clear-seven-theories/

“Clear!” is essay — an experimental piece that looks for the connection between lyric, meditative, and personal essay. The seven sections, each a prose poem, touch at their edges, but only just.

It’s about Cessnas and spaceships, pelicans and thrushes and hawks, whelks and waves, pots and pens, and chatty storytellers. It’s a journey inward.

And check out this link for an excellent review of PASSAGES NORTH:


The Goldilocks Zone

December 6, 2014 3:53 pm

Search for a place that’s ‘just right’ … says the fairy tale.

Looking for a plgoldilocksace to write is like the astrophysicist’s search for a planet in the Goldilocks Zone. A trial-and-error pursuit that requires some legwork. The perfect place: not too hot, not too cold, not too wet, not too dry, light aplenty but not blinding, habitable but not overrun, a quiet background buzz but not a cacophony, an environment to like, not much to dislike, few distractions but services available, a cellphone to switch off, letting in only the few, a plug and a wi-fi connection. A place that was there yesterday and will be there tomorrow, undisturbed, never mind bankruptcies, corporate takeovers, or global oil prices. A place I can count on. Forever.

If it’s a room high in the house, then one with an active tree to watch, deer and turkeys and birds to follow on seasonal parade around and through the rhododendrons. Well chosen and carefully placed art to appreciate at the end of a difficult paragraph. Shells and photos with memories attached. Is it too quiet in here?

Or if a café—only my special corner table will do, thank you—with a computer plug nearby.  A wide window and a full menu of Starbucks coffees. Is that guy over there on his cell phone hawking faux furs to Romania?

Place:  consistent and permanent and mine forever. (An aside: Would we make plans for our futures, have children, save our money, or take on projects that require time if we really believed in impermanence? Is our naiveté hardwired? Doesn’t our denial ensure the survival of the species? Well, no matter …)

Looking for the Goldilocks Zone is like life. Find the sweet spot, maintain that orbit, as fixed and eternal as Johannes Kepler’s precise calculations predicted, and hold onto it. When a small voice whispers, “That too would be impermanent. That would not last,” work all the harder to push into more solid ground.

But just in case the small voice is right, I’ve learned to write anywhere. The Muse and I continue our search for the perfect place. “Where is it?” I ask. But you know what they say about cross-examining The Muse …

Search for a place that’s “just right” … says the fairy tale.

Jam them together, theme arises

March 3, 2014 1:33 pm

I want powerful, I want lyrical, I want the unexpected,
I want under-the-surface, dive-beneath subtext.

The new essay baffles and delights.whelk

It’s not like fiction:  cause and effect, narrative arc, character development. Or like journalism: who, what, how, where, when. Both want answers.

Essay circles, questions, sometimes doesn’t know and–how refreshing!–admits it. And then the braided essay can run along two tracks at once, each unrelated. Or so it seems.

What’s cutting edge today? The essay! (David Shields says so. See Reality Hunger, an eye-popping read.)

The giants of new essay have attempted to define it: Lee Gutkin, Phillip Lopate, Dinty Moore, John D’Agata. And before you attempt to write it, you read the masters: Brenda Miller, Robert Vivian, Jo Ann Beard, Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, Eula Biss. The lyrical, the ethereal, the frank, the spiritual, the whiny, the take-no-prisoners, respectively. And you pick their essays apart, attempt to demystify each sentence, and ask, How did she do that?

Once relegated to the grave and to dusty stacks–along with Montaigne–the essay is back, breathing fire in all its forms, and with it, the central question: What’s this about? To find out, you write and write and write and write. Then you take out more than you leave in.

What I wrote is this:

Ignited by those kitchen matches, the fuel catches fire and lifts me, pulling hard against gravity, into blue-black space. Wonder Woman flies co-pilot. Kepler provides the trajectory. Escape velocity reached—a persuasive 25,000 miles per hour—and me strapped down to a wooden box by a red cincher belt, me heading toward my storied place, me breaking free. Magical thinking zips my ship across the space between my backyard and the bright and friendly planet rising above the piney woods beyond tobacco fields. Upon landing, those things that have been missing—what they are, exactly, I can’t say —will show up, provided by whom, exactly, I don’t know.

So far, so good … at least for a third draft. I want powerful, I want lyrical, I want the unexpected, I want under-the-surface, dive-beneath subtext. But as a Southern writer friend said to me, “Wantin’ ain’t gettin’.”

In case that paragraph was too much about me–I agree: personal essay can get too “me-me-me”, and readers’ eyes begin to roll back–here’s another from this frustrating work in progress:

From our speck of Earth, the Kepler Telescope peers three thousand light years into space, a narrow cone of questions. If I extend my arm into black night, its target is a fist-wide ten degrees of arc. NASA’s photometer probes the Orion Spur of the Milky Way, but a bit off center so as to avoid the sweaty crowd. Its gaze pierces The Lyre, tossed into the river by Orpheus’s enemies, and a gauzy wing of Cygnus, The Swan, who in the ancients’ myths is forever the flyaway avian transformation of one god or another. This mission: find habitable exo-planets, find other life. And get ready to be astonished. To sacrifice what you think you know.

And then when this further paragraph is added, the question arises What is this about? Where’s the thread?

See how this whelk has been pushed and pulled by the sea, pitted by the hunger of those creatures that attached to it. How it collided with a stronger force that opened its frightful scar. How the spiral turns outward, how the bruised heart might open to include others. It’s not just that. How, too, the spiral turns inward, how its mother-of-pearl path plunges beneath the surface and gathers around a silent center of mass where a small, developing being anchored its short life.

My point is this: Jam two or three disparate writings together–really force it–and see what happens. Given time, relaxed pondering, and some uncoupling at the glue-points of too much thinking, connections arise, new diggings tunnel underneath the obvious. Your pickaxe drives a wedge into a new vein. And what appears on the page will be surprising and entirely unique. Resist the urge to serve it under-baked or over-cooked.

So, what’s this essay about? The thread appears in the later drafts. Theme arises. The metaphors reveal themselves if the editor-in-the-head gets out of the way.

After the season

November 12, 2013 10:42 am

They whisper and laugh among themselves: they’ve had a good season.

burning-bushThe ladies of the woods have dropped their green maple, ash, and elm gowns. They stand together in silence behind the pool fence, naked to the forest floor, arms limbed out as if still in their sassy scarves. Swaying like Mandarins, they recall summer’s social season when they ringed us on three sides and we stood in awe of their dancing.

We rake up their party clothes, now yellow like old silk, brown and rustling like old taffeta.

Not so off-topic as you’d think: the winged burning bushes splash the woodland floor, backdrop the perennial beds, soften the outbuildings, and accompany the driveway down to the distant road.

Their fires begin in October when they burst into flame. Fierce statements against autumn’s yellow-brown hues. Through the season, they stock inventory.

These days, a nurseryman hereabouts won’t sell you a winged burning bush: ornamental, they say, but invasive. Native to Asia, but, here, the bush takes over; we should pull them out by the roots, we’re told. I hesitate. And suddenly, they’re everywhere, as if you’ve bought too many of what you believe to be beautiful and they’ve failed the useful test.

The November wind smells of snow, and we hurry to clear what’s left of summer’s extravagance. In the pool, the court ladies’ slim bodies mirror the tall, the bare, the regal, and the spent. They whisper and laugh among themselves: they’ve had a good season. Their scarlet slippers, light remnants of the burning bushes, are beaded with berries and strewn about on the forest floor. We leave them there.

Reviving August

August 18, 2013 10:55 am

One can actually get self-forgivingly bored—then allow oneself to be pushed by some creative impulse into something new and deeply satisfying.


Did you read the column in The Wall Street Journal this week? Ruined, the columnist said, August has been ruined–traditional summer activities curtailed by school openings in mid-August rather than in September as in days of old. August isn’t the month it used to be, he wrote.

It is for me. Finally.

So wait.  Wait until the children have been launched; wait until you can leave the paid job for the unpaid, longed-for one. Wait, and the Augusts of memory return full and complete, and for one month of the year, time is as uninterrupted and sweet as it was.  Golden.

In New England, where summers are shorter, the problem of compacting is severe. Gorgeous as it is, there’s not much summer here, but we have the same number of items to pack in as everybody else. Makes for exhaustion. You might read a bit of whining here: I’m a Southern transplant, and as you may have heard, we don’t forget.

Here’s how it is.  May: schedules, plane tickets, summer’s long To Do lists—ordered and checked off when completed.  June begins to rev it all up: the garden, the yard—hours of hard outside warfare with the weeds. (Good for you, but try it.) Then there’s packing and unpacking for June weddings—you know that dresses and four pairs of shoes do not fit into a carry-on, right? And since “everybody’s available” in June, why not slot the family reunion in there somewhere?

July doesn’t let up: the de rigueur celebration of July 4th—the parade, the fire engines, the musket shots, the paper cups, the hauling of chairs in the back of the Highlander. And did I remember to buy mustard? And even if we’re already running on fumes and I’m organizing my To Do lists on Excel spreadsheets, there’s the two weeks on the Outer Banks.  Required, let me tell you. Compulsory. And just when you thought you could take a breath, there’s the church (or synagogue, or New Age gathering, or whatever) retreat—a week at a campy place of blow-up mattresses, topics to ponder, carbs, and precious few toilets. For “renewal”. You crawl into late July.

It’s helpful here to remember the Augusts with children in the house: the To Do list of back-to-school notebooks and No. 2 pencils, school clothes, hemline debates, and activity schedules—all popping up on the iPhone, MacBook, or paper calendar (what have you), and you hit the ground running at 7:30 a.m. Mid-August, and summer was over, and all these preparations in the high heat of the day? The sweaters? the socks? Well, whew! As we used to say in the South, “I was fixin’ to get the vapors.”

Not any more. Now, August is a delicious and welcomed gift from the storied past. It’s a reminder that the gracefulness of remembered summers can be recaptured: those long, hot days on the Outer Banks, endless in the minds of us children, hours that can translate nowadays into excused and welcomed laziness. I can even postpone work on that story that, in May, was on the summer To Do list. “Must Complete!” was the frantic note next to that item.  Without regret or guilt, I push that into September.

One can actually get self-forgivingly bored—then I allow myself to be pushed by some creative impulse into something new and deeply satisfying. Some new dream, or an old one recovered, considered gently, sitting on a lawn chair, just breathing, letting my weight down, going within.

Even the birds get it: building, nesting, having frantic sex, cutting out and protecting territories, seeing to new babies, and all that thrash are done. Time to sing for the fun of it, time to view the world from the roofline, time to sit on a limb with less obligatory early-morning chatter. Quiet outside, still still … and full of warm possibility.

Just so. Life slows to a snail’s pace, the sun shines, the hawk soars, returning children cook and do their own laundry. Time expands in the silence, and I find and reclaim a personal space between some of this and a bit of that. It’s empty, and I don’t fill it.

 Ah, August. There’s nothing else quite like it.

How to pick a peony

June 1, 2013 6:41 am

The expansion-of-time part is important.
Never mind that this is about new impressions
—it is, you know—
but don’t analyze for once; just enjoy.

On Tuesday, ants crawpeonyl the tight globes. Dozens of ants, dozens of buds.  It is said that ants are essential for the opening of these tightly bound promises, that they sip the nectar, somehow loosening the grip of the green glove-like coverings. I don’t know, but I assume Nature knows, and I don’t interfere.

On Wednesday, I check on the peony bed from my upstairs writing room.  I think of paint blobs dropped from a higher place, pooling in small cups in a lower place.

On Thursday, the sun licks at them, smothers them all day.  They like that. They heat up from the outside in. It’s almost as if they are ready to yawn. They’ll open quickly now. I stay at home, check them often.

Peonies bloom in silence and in dignity, and to catch their annual four-day show, you have to pay attention.  You have to be there. If your attention is taken elsewhere, the blooms have come and gone.  You wait a year.  The rare gift of hot pink, snow white, and deep magenta blooms calls for deference, and you feel the need perhaps for an early summer garden ritual that expands time and deepens presence.

The expansion-of-time part is important. Never mind that this is about new impressions—it is, you know—but don’t analyze for once. That’s the impulse.  Don’t do it; just enjoy.

Today. The walk across the grass to the peony bed: I take in everything, and slowly.  The still damp grass, the flute-like call of the brown thrush from the deep woods, the warm pavers around the quiet pool, the lush peony bushes, fanned out, deeply green, open, and supportive.  I perhaps bought too many; they line the long fence. The buds poke out in all sizes—I think of bubblegum, of drops of blood, of raspberry and vanilla sherbet on sticks—some small, with grazing ants, some pushing open with stage-manager ants singing TaDum, and–ah!–few fully opened pedals with stigma and stamen waiting for the bee business.

The kneeling is part reach, part reverence.  The cutting, a slow request for permission, then their accepting sacrifice. The thanksgiving, a prayer and a promise that they’ll have another place to show off.  The bouquet, a gift taken back to the house. An expectation briefly acknowledged, more tomorrow.

Some flowers are as beautiful in a vase as they are in a garden.  Some, more so—like hybrid teas, and peonies. My peonies like the tall Waterford vase, simple and elegant, that lets them speak for themselves. They’re agreeably adaptable for all their being so short-lived.

They open in hours. Multiple pedaled magnificence. The looking-forward-to has been deep expectancy of the joyful kind; the remembering will be the unattached, peaceful kind. No grasping. Just a moment’s rich experience.

Tomorrow, when they are at their most vertical and gloriously realized–heavy with sun and earth–they, too, will bow their heads.  Soon, the June rains will come in torrents and will beat the remaining heads into the ground.  I cannot save them all.  A deep, unsentimental sadness. Nature is profligate: give it all, take it all.

The risk of the rue

March 10, 2013 8:44 pm

I sneak up on risk now, take a long look, consider, expect clarity, bring some wisdom to bear. Not like the old days …

GumboWith the thermometer at 40 degrees–an improvement over last week–and the sun moving around and coming up where I can see it, I’m feeling like a Paul Prudhomme gumbo.

The rue’s the risk.  It was Wynton Marsalas who said, Without a good rue “you might have yourself a killin’ soup, but you ain’t got no gumbo.”

The rue scares me to death. I fret the whole time it’s cooking.  I stir and sweat and count the minutes.  I feel the tension in my shoulders, my face, my stomach.  You know: the places in the body where emotions live.  One second too long and the fire alarm trips, the firemen arrive in the big red truck and say the usual: Oh, you burned dinner. They don’t get the risk of the rue.

Every time I invite Chef Prudhomme into my kitchen, I risk the rue for another minute more.  Now, at 10 minutes, the cooking yields a caramel-colored thickness and smells of a hot New Orleans night in the Quarter.

Rue’s coming along nicely.  I’m relaxed enough to think about what’s missing. The okra. Ever tried to buy okra in New England? The grocer: “We don’t stock okra. It doesn’t sell.” Or worse, “What’s okra?” My grandmother used to fry okra in bacon drippins’. I’d see the pods before they hit the flour mixture with their snail-slime hanging on. I’d gag, wouldn’t touch the stuff back then.  But you must have okra in gumbo. The slime cooks off. You get that subtle, earthy-green taste of Southern dirt  in late summer.

The rue’s still cooking, and I’m still stirring, pondering risk. Like the risk of taking an unfamiliar road, of submitting that heretical story to a literary journal and then hiding out, of looking into the silent gap between this and that, when a thing’s unconfortably unknown. Risk. I sneak up on risk now, take a long look, consider, expect some clarity, bring some wisdom to bear. Not like the old days when I’d do just about anything. Fifteen minutes in, and this rue looks just fine to me.  I’m  backing off.

The fire department or the 20-minute rue.  What’s so bad about a “killin’ soup” anyway?

"LuLu" has found a home at Prick of the Spindle

March 6, 2013 7:16 pm

Gathering Storm“Your story is so well written, I really felt it deserves this honor.” Cynthia Reeser, editor, Prick of the Spindle

A favorite online literary journal — Prick of the Spindle — has accepted a story I completed this winter.  It’s about my paternal grandmother, who was a piece of work.

“LuLu’s Southern Beach House School for Wily Deceivers” has been chosen to appear, exclusively, in the journal’s Kindle quarterly issue.

It’s been said that grandmother stories don’t make it into print.  It’s been said that creative writing instructors’ and literary journal editors’ eyes roll back in their heads when presented with one of these sentimental relics to read. But this story is fun … and perhaps a little disturbing.  LuLu’s a memorable character. We should all be tutored by a grand dame with an agenda. You can’t make this stuff up.

Check out the story if you have the time. An excerpt is included on About My Stories — Published. And if you have comments, I’d enjoy hearing them.

Such a big deal ...

January 7, 2013 8:24 am

… her father’s middle name is MightyOne.

My electric mixer flew apart yesterday, mid-preparation for a big event, so Husband and I went to Bed, Bath, and Beyond to buy a new one.  Shopping together for an appliance, large or small, reminds me so much of his mother and mine.  His mother read Consumer Reports, wrote down all the salient detail in a memo pad, visited several stores, read every word on each box, and bought the best, with a 20% coupon, while my mother ran to the local Sears and parted with her money, reluctantly, for the cheapest model she could find.  She was back home in less than an hour.

So, we’re at B, B, and B yesterday. I’ve chosen the 18-dollar model in as many seconds.  He’d read Consumer Reports before leaving the house; now he’s not only reading every word on the model he’s chosen, a doozy at 70 bucks—I mean this is a mixer, and I use it maybe twice a year—he’s also punching up on his iPhone comparisons on mixers within a thirty-mile radius.

“This one’s quieter and will last,” he says, “and it has a dough hook.”

A dough hook.  Swell.

“This one’s 18 bucks,” I say, “and why do we care if it’s quiet. I won’t use it often.”

What do dough hooks do exactly?

He gives me a mildly amused look and puts the 70-buck model in the cart.  Later, Daughter, who knows what a dough hook does, uses the mixer. It practically purrs. Its three technologically advanced attachments are packed in their own little glove, which has assigned pockets. It has a digital display. She’s further convinced that her father’s middle name is MightyOne.


I sit down with a cup of tea and a cookie, and read the directions on the box.

Dough hook …


December 31, 2012 3:10 pm

 …there is a silence, not filled too quickly, lest the response be shallow, ordinary, known. Go there with a new question … go there.

The spotlight’s on in the backyard; the light in the bedroom’s off.  I watch the wind, made visible by snowflakes. Expect 8 to 10 inches tonight, we’re told.

The word driven comes to mind–snowflakes driven down like rain, perpendicular.  Or pulled down like gravity on meteorites–white, dragging  their neon ribbons.  Then a change in the mind of the wind: snowflakes waft like May flies in a swarm, short-lived.  Then that testy wind laughs.  A cyclone in white explodes in silence.

I think of other silent spaces.

There’s the silence in some books.  In Marilynn Robinson–I’m thinking of Home or Giliad–and I imagine her writing new lines early in the morning, before she uses language for anything else. No talking, no listening to others talk, no listening to herself talk.  You know, that associative chatter in the head.  Just stillness.  Essential to craft. She places pockets of potential silence at the end of sentences, of paragraphs.  Can you see them?

But, in case you haven’t noticed, not all books have silence written into them.

Not in the Paula Fox novel I borrowed from the library to read over the holidays.  I had not thought:  you have to be looking for an intense experience–crowded, loud on the page, no space. Look for energy and terrifying dysfunction in Fox’s characters. The reader is in awe, but wrung out. Nor is there silence in Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories. Being haunted by troubled characters long after midnight isn’t what I call silence.  It’s art, but silence it is not.

For silence when I need it–which is often–I pull out a dog-earred Mary Oliver or a highlighted Stanley Kunitz or a serene Rumi.  Is there a more silent poem that Oliver’s “Whelks” … the found shell that has been “traveling under the sky-blue waves for a long time.” Or Kunitz’s belief that the “Mind’s acres are forever green.” But Rumi is the master: “The flute reed remembers the marsh of its birth.”

And in my own writing, I reread those moments of stillness lest they be discarded in the returning noise.

“… outside my writing room window, the pealing limbs of the sycamore bring to mind a molting, a sloughing off, an uncovering of heartwood.  Bark, thin as parchment on which history has been written in ancient languages. A hawk’s shadow races across the lawn on the north side, dimming the light in my room for a terrible moment.  I am brought to attention–a call to wonder and to the vastness of deep silence.”

Of course there’s silence of the good mind, working hard at writing.  My John Truby scaffolding–created large here on my dining room table to unscramble a troublesome manuscript, to show me the way–looks like an Excel spreadsheet. Because it is. It’s how I wrestle the too-big, too-far-flung to the maybe-manageable. It begins in noise. Then I see this:  at the end of every Truby question, there is a silence, not filled too quickly, lest the response be shallow, ordinary, known.

Be still!  These silences are new each time. Be there for them, I say to myself, and listen. And go there with your new question.  Go there.


"Claws" now at Milk Sugar Journal

December 11, 2012 4:49 pm

bearAfter five years of writing, I decided I’d might as well submit something, so I submitted “Claws,” a true story of tall trees, of bears, both real and imagined, and of memory that bursts forth upon the scent of wet and matted leaves.   Accepted by Milk Sugar, an online literary journal, it’s currently there for you to read.

The website is not easy to find.  Try http://www.milksugarliterature.com.

Frankly, as soon as I read it online — my first read in three months — I began to revise it. Isn’t that how we are?  Isn’t that what we do?  Isn’t that at the center of how we live with the editor-voice in our heads who never shuts up?

Still, the first one is sweet. And real bears are scary.

Two Days of Thanksgiving

November 25, 2012 5:37 pm

It’s an escape-from-the-kitchen, four-person, no-pressure, six-hour marketplace stroll through 21st century Northeastern culture—and without expectations.

Thanksgiving — my favorite holiday.

No ToDo list to labor over.  No gifts to buy, wrap, and mail.  No red, green, and silver decorations to haul out and pack away.  No debate about whether to use tinsel this year.  Or not. Just set the table with Mama’s porcelain, silver and crystal. Then cook tried-and-true recipes while listening to the year’s first playing of The Messiah (loud; everyone cooking gets to sing in parts; you don’t cook, you don’t sing), light the candles everywhere, and gather family around the big table (“…and feed our souls on thy heavenly grace…”).

Eat favorite foods: My favorite dressing with 45 ingredients. Southern spoon bread (Christiana Campbell’s, Williamsburg).  Cranberry sauce with Port (more than a generous pouring).  Pecan pie (more than a ladylike sufficiency).  More.  More.  More.

Get someone else to do dishes, take a brisk walk, nap and/or read Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville throughout the Patriots game (ignore the roar) and, later, with a glass of chilled pinot grigio, settle under a throw, watch a Masterpiece rerun, skip dinner, go to bed early, promising not to eat again … ever.

The day after Thanksgiving—my second favorite holiday:  go to the mall (do not laugh!) with nary a ToDo list in sight. It’s an escape-from-the-kitchen, four-person, no-pressure, six-hour marketplace stroll through 21st century Northeastern culture—and without expectations.

Look at people. There are fewer white people, more overweight people, more black tights and long sweaters, less make-up, more hair, more tatoos, more short skirts. Thus, more ass, which brings on interesting escalator-ride comments in our foursome.

Notice stuff: There are more sales (Ann Taylor, 50% off). Fewer parcels and packages. No lines at check-out. Fewer sales assistants. Young shoppers who patronize Abercrombie & Fitch may begin to suffer inner ear damage at the door.

Sashay through favorite stores:  Walk through Nordstrom’s. Stroll through Restoration Hardware (Are you as weary of taupe as I am? What could they have been thinking?). Stop into a sweet smelling Teavana (he buys decaf chai tea; we test others in tiny cups).  We two females march into a tarted-up Victoria’s Secret (I buy one; get 50% off on the second); the two guys say, “Meet us at the Apple Store.”

Stay loose and flexible:  Wait patiently for them at the claustrophobic Apple Store (a question about a recently purchased iPhone), and, leaning against the rail, watch and comment about the traffic. Jeans are tight; black is ubiquitous; cleavage is in (in spite of the temperature); faces are unreadable masks.  Everyone’s in a hurry.  Why is that?

Feel sorry for the stores nobody visits: AT&T (why do they bother?), the soft-furniture store (basically, bean bags), the jewelry stores that market love, not stones. Sales assistants stand inside these places and stare wistfully out into the mall traffic where people still keep to the right, as they do on I-95.

End the day with a rousing thriller:  Go see the new James Bond movie at the multi-plex (stadium seating) and discuss it on the way home: Javier Bardem is a hit. Daniel Craig is older but still a hunk.  But OMG, Judi Dench dies?  What? Ralph Fiennes is the future M? These are important matters.  Now, what was the plot anyway?

Depend on someone else to remember where the car is parked. Drive home in the dark, quiet, happy, and sated.  For the guys: reruns of the Patriots game; for us “girls,” Masterpiece.  Dinner: “You know where the refrigerator is.”


August 29, 2012 9:11 pm

She is mooring of a far-flung kind.

starAt 2:46 in the morning she breaks clear from behind black cutouts of maple and elm. The room is black; the sky, a slate gray wash of preparation. Suddenly she is there, wearing that crown, spikey and star-white, and the eastern sky is hers. A stunning appearance. I realize I have been waiting. I shift my head on the pillow, bringing her to the right angle of the lowermost windowpane. I want to see where she goes, again, and at what angle, again, and how quickly she moves, again. I do not tire of this.

She trails Jupiter by only two hours along the planetary elliptical that, here, climbs at forty-five degrees. I use the black rectangle of window as reference, like high school geometry. She takes off, sliding up to the right, shot out of the sun’s memory and reflecting that light. Here and there, she disappears behind a grille, trailing that gauzy hem of light. She blinks out. A powerful tease.

I wait for her to emerge as the child awaits the moon’s emergence from total eclipse. I’m always slightly off, having lost my bearings. I wonder about this. I reach out my arm to its full reach, lift a thumb—an estimated two degrees of arc—and estimate her trajectory, her ETA at the top corner. One hour, 12 thumbs, 24 degrees of arc. It’s a game we play. How swift she is, and sure. Every morning the same. I look away and she has moved. She fills my room with light; my mind, with hundreds of remembered books and sky charts; my heart, with wonder still.

I have had countless sleepless nights in the last several years. Restlessness, impatience, or mere biology. Thoughts tumble and lodge, plans form up and play out, stories write and edit themselves. Time is precious, but I need sleep. I am likely to move—to another room, another house, another country—along a bumpy earthbound topography. Her trajectory was predicted from her birth. A follower of natural laws.  Do the math. She is faithful. She is mooring of a far-flung kind. I should sleep, but I cannot take my eyes away.

By 4:00, she has sailed up, following the twins, Castor and Pollux, and Aldeberan, the red eye of the bull. They will watch the sun rise from their high place far above the window sash. She is out of my dark sight, but I know where she is. Summer and winter I know where she is.

Wine with Everything

August 28, 2012 11:04 am

“Much happens when we’re not there.” — Window-Blind — Denise Levertov

My what-to-pack list is not long. This will be a weekend of retreat.  Simple needs: dental floss, pajamas, jeans, a skirt, t-shirts, a towel. No hairdryer. One pair of shoes.  At weak moments, I’m already missing my hairdryer.

I worry about my toenail polish.  It’s my favorite.  Revlon #711, “Wine with Everything.“ It’s not bubble-gummy or that awful purple stuff. Rather, it reminds me of my favorite Cabernet Sauvignon.  My feet take on that glow of sophistication and dark mystery.  Too much information?  Well, anyway …

I worry.  People with agendas will be at the retreat; there will be those leave-your-shoes-at-the-door sitting meditations and group gatherings. “Wine with Everything” will draw everyone’s attention down to my feet.  There’ll be social activists; they’ll assume I’m a Republican.  Environmentalists; they’ll assume I endanger the planet with chemicals required for toe upkeep. Then the PETA people; they’ll look at my feet and think about rabbits and mice and monkeys dying in dark cages.  And international spiritual folks — the French, the Brits, the Israelies, the Spanish — and they’ll see me as a fraud, too married to the world of appearances.  All that harping about American ego.

I’m packing my pajamas, and I decide they’re wrong—I’m an Independent, I recycle, I have a spiritual practice.  I’m tossing in my alarm clock, and I decide they’re right—I don’t trust Obama, I don’t always check the triangles on the bottom of hand lotion bottles, and I can be a serious backslider.  I’m squeezing shampoo into something smaller, and thinking these folks need to get a grip.  I’m thinking I need to get a grip.

“Environmentalists and social activists and PETA people and international spiritual folk will be there … all harping about American ego.”

I can’t stop thinking.

Twenty minutes before I must leave for the eight-hour flight, I remove “Wine with Everything.”  My toes look striped of interest, of energy, of summer.  I think of slugs.  But I’m safe from risk, from judgment, from worry.

At seven o’clock the next evening, a hundred people sit on cushions.  The leader of the meditation sitting enters.  At the door she whispers “Bon jour” to someone she knows. She settles herself on her cushions, faces us, and smiles.  She is wearing “Wine with Everything” or something very close.

I seem to have dealt with the wrong question.

Photo credit: Scott Cunningham

In full aerial dogfight mode

June 12, 2012 8:51 pm

In memory, there’s nothing so thrilling as the sudden pulling up into an arc — those Gs! — and flying upside down, hanging from straps with the earth 3,000 feet below and the blue Pacific stretching forever.

Something tiny darts through my peripheral vision.  I put my book down and go to the back door.  A ruby-throated hummingbird is in full aerial dogfight mode.

The enemy: a nuthatch minding his own business on the trunk of the sycamore and a skittish chickadee hunting seed on the patio slates.

The hummer is having none of either.  I assume she’s protecting her young in a nearby nest.  Out!  Out of my territory!  I watch with fascination her zips, hovers, banks, and dives. The sound is that of a tiny motor — no, more like a tiny fan on HI.  Her attacks, beak first, are aimed at the heads of the interlopers.  She doesn’t miss.  She’s a missile.

In my younger years when there was nothing I wouldn’t try at least once, I did some aerobatic flying with a friend who was equally as experimental.  An R&D engineer who knew his physics, he’d draw the maneuvers on paper.  Inside loops, outside loops, lazy 8s.  I’d see on his face the thrill of it, and he probably read expectation on mine.  “Let’s do it!” I’d say.

We’d strap ourselves in – him in the front seat, me in the back – and take off in his single-wing from a small airfield north of San Diego.  The smell of motor oil, cockpit leather, and runway dust, then clean air and cloud; the sound of a revving engine and our shouts to be heard over it. There’s nothing so thrilling as the sudden pulling up into an arc — those Gs! — and flying upside down, hanging from straps with the earth 3,000 feet below and the blue Pacific stretching forever. Among other tricks, he showed me the Immelmann, that elegant maneuver of WWII’s drop-the-bomb-on-the-Allies-and-run.

Now, the hummingbird’s dogfight brings all this sweet history back to me.  I love her feroscity.  The nuthatch and chickadee are embattled.  Not willing to give up so quickly – there are tasty seeds in the patio – the chickadee hangs on until the hummer’s sharp beak convinces him otherwise.  As for the nuthatch, braver, hanging in there longer, he finally realizes he’s no match for a mother hummer and retreats to the far side of the sycamore trunk where I last see him perched, as still as a mouse, hiding.

My father was an avocational pilot, and in his younger years he, too, did some aerobatic flying.  He learned his barrel rolls, loop-de-lous, and wingovers from the barnstormers whose flying circus he joined, preferring ticket-taking to algebra, then wing-walking to high school.  He understood the physics of the airfoil and explained this phenomenon to me using a model airplane.  My mother, protecting her young, objected: “No, you may not take the children up when you do that dangerous stuff.”  He promised, and he was as good as his word.  But I remembered and was hungry for it.

I take the binoculars to the patio and follow the hummer to her nest.  It’s about twenty feet up, glued to a branch that’s amazingly out in the open, but almost invisible.  Tiny, the size of a walnut, like a black and white basket, and tightly woven.  She zips into the woods and returns for a moment, checking.  She zips into the garden and returns for a second, checking again.  Then, certain that the enemy has been banished, at least nor now, she leaves her two tiny babies in their sunny cradle of woven spider’s silk, and she’s off again to feed that hunger, taking a left wingover as she reaches the honeysuckle in the pine grove.

Photo credit: Matt Bowen


May 31, 2012 10:30 am

“… their insides are open to view, simple, clear, and direct …”

They seem to come with the houses these days.  Who would buy one otherwise?  And for what?  But once received as a gift, or once inherited, one finds many uses for them.  One might finally ask, What did we do without this machine?

I suspect there’s a part of the brain that longs for black dirt, and digging in it, smelling it.  If lucky enough to have been born with gardens and real crops and big machines, one inherits a love of digging.  And of dirt.  Southern dirt is best, but what we have is New England dirt.

We inherited the tractor with the house we took over from my in-laws ten years ago.  It came with the three-stall garage which half-serves as a barn to those with a history of farming.  We have old family photos of my father-in-law farming the lower two acres with the FarmAll.  In my memory of him, he is sitting high up on that black seat with that wide-brimmed straw hat on his nearly-bald head, with that patient pace of his, with that look that said he had all day to plow the corn field, in those baggy Levis, in those L.L.Bean rubber shoes.  Then that mild reporting at day’s end of the earth he had moved, the dirt he’d played in.  Before putting the FarmAll with its specialized plough attachments to bed at night, he’d tend to it, check its oil with the dipstick, kick its giant tires, then wedge it into its tight space, wiping his greasy hands on a rag and stamping his feet at the back door.  Word is that photos exist of his dad on the same tractor – he’d bought it, after all, to do some real farming – but we don’t seem to have them.  It’s enough to know that our FarmAll has served three generations faithfully.

I look at this old FarmAll with a personality of its own and think of skeletons – machines without muscle or skin, just the inner workings of red pistons and gears and springs, honest and open to view and far from clean — the business end in plain view, nothing extraneous.  A black seat high up needs restuffing with horsehair; the hood is remarkably rust-free considering the fact that it’s an early 1900s model as best we can tell.  A little smokestack sticks up.  It’s all tires and rods, stripped to essentials without today’s packaging that would render it “pretty.”

It’s pretty enough:  the first garage sale we organized required its heft to move everything down to the main road.  Women clustered around the fifty-cent baskets and vases and the one dollar children’s toys; men gravitated to the FarmAll, touching it, rubbing rough hands along its spine, like they would a prize steer at a state fair.

“Is the tractor for sale?”  No.

Spring comes reluctantly, but never mind.  On March weekends when frost is still on the ground and my husband needs a fleece jacket, he pops open the third stall where the FarmAll lives.  Before I’ve finished my hard-boiled egg and toast with honey, and my second cup of Hazelnut decaf, I hear the FarmAll’s motor cough the winter out of its pipes, turn over after long minutes of doubtful coaxing, ready itself for the season’s work.  And they’re off.  I don’t see my husband much during summer weekend days.  He and FarmAll, his putt-putting red friend, are off to till, to haul, to move.  I’ve often told him that he was born a century too late.  His straw hat and L.L.Bean rubbers look more natural on him than his three-piece suits and Nordstrom dress shirts.  When he’s up on that seat, he – like his father, his grandfather – is happy down deep where he lives.

“Let me show you my tractor,” he says to our son-in-law who was suburbs bred, and I hear them outside, working the gears, adjusting the clutch, and hitching up the old wooden trailer with the backflap.  Their voices rise and fall; questions are asked; stories are told, and not always about the tractor.  I see my father-in-law in the same role:  that quiet leading toward, that sharing of wisdom through work out on the land.  And then they’re off to the mulch pile with shovels or to the woods with saws.   With the windows open during the day, I can hear the motor running and limbs cracking like a small animal enjoying its lunch.

Our son-in-law walks alongside the tractor, perhaps thinking he’s ready to learn to drive the thing.  I hope he dreams of inheriting it himself, shaking off the tensions of his week, hooking up the trailer, loading mulch, carting off brush, moving dirt as if he already understands that tractors are part of the grounded life of country living, that their insides are open to view, simple, clear, and direct, and that they are as faithful as a beloved machine can be, as dependable as the love of dirt itself.  I often wonder if the gift is the tractor.  I think not.

Photo credit:  Ladyheart

Navel gazing

April 28, 2012 7:22 pm

I want what everyone wants. A good story. A good story.

There’s the rant.  Then there’s the whine.

I gave up part-time whining a decade or two ago when I realized nobody was interested.  I reassessed.  Now when I need to whine, I say this:  “I need to whine for three minutes. Is this OK with you?”  Hearing “three minutes”, which seems reasonable – I mean, a person can put up with anything short of physical torture for three minutes – and whoever’s on the receiving end says, “Fine.”  So I let loose.  I’m respectful of the time.

I need to whine for three minutes.

I’m emboldened by an article in the Wall Street Journal.  So, some background:  I’m at the breakfast table this morning, I open the Review section, which I read first, just before the book review, the theatre review, and anything by Peggy Noonan, who is brilliant and reasoned, and I see a column by Sam Sacks. He’s reviewing Nell Freudenberger’s latest.  Ho hum, I say to myself.  I’ve already read a review of that book, and I’m no closer to buying (or reading) it now than I was then.  There was something too smooth, too urbane, too circling, too meaninglessly psychological …. too too about her first book.  I stopped reading halfway through.  I was happy not to have paid good money for it.  I couldn’t understand the hype around it.

Then!  Sacks writes: “The absence of action is hardly unique to Ms. Freudenberger’s novel – indeed, it has become a virtual trademark of American literary fiction.  Instead of contriving a forward-moving plot, novelists content themselves with embroidering on a premise; instead of dramatizing significant events, they layer psychological and atmospheric detail on mundane backdrops; instead of inhabiting scenes, they offer summary.  Too often, the mandate on authors to make readers care about what happens next seems to speak only the genre fiction.”

I’m slapping my palm on the table, upsetting my husband, who’s focused on the editorials, and I’m saying, “Yes! YES!”  I’m also saying to myself, “I knew that.  Now, why didn’t I say it?”

So, here’s the whine:  When is somebody who writes science fiction or fantasy or murder mysteries or spy thrillahs going to write a piece of “literary fiction”?  I can read Don de Lillo and John le Carre and Elizabeth George and P. D. James only so many times before the pages fall out and the rubber bands dry to dust.

I want writers of American literary fiction to come down out of their heads and inhabit their bodies, that place where action and feeling arise.  And that’s not the same thing as contemplating one’s own navel. I want to know more about the character than I know about the writer. I want a real narrative arc. Movement! And scenes I can enter.

I want what everyone wants.  A good story.  A good story.

See?  Three minutes.

Photo credit: clarita

A Rascally Fellow

April 17, 2012 2:47 pm

Every morning at 7:30, the red fox stops by our granite bird bath to take a sip.

This oasis, lying low in Siberian iris, we now keep scrubbed of bird droppings and filled for our discriminating friend.  He sips carefully, his pointy nose finding the sweet spot, his tongue lapping, thin and quick.  I move silently to the kitchen window to watch. I want to run my hand down his gray-red back, down to his white-tipped muff of a tail.  His legs are thin.  He walks with delicacy on small paws.

Before political correctness doomed Uncle Remus’s rich wisdom, I enjoyed his stories as a child –– right alongside Aesop’s Fables, Grimm’s fairy tales, and Greek myth.  Brer Fox was my favorite character in Joel Chandler Harris’s Songs of the South.  I suppose I identified with him – a loner, pondering, watching, a sometimes rascally fellow into occasional thoughts of schadenfreude.  Even now, when I get stuck in my own “tar baby” messes, I remember my furry teacher, Brer Fox.

I imagine our fox feeling safe at our place.  His route is predictable:  up the hill from his den down in the field, a stop at the watering hole, a slow and graceful trot across the back yard, a clear preference for the steps through the perennial garden, up to a rocky outcropping where he pauses, listening, at a thicket of cactus.  I imagine that he remembers the chipmunk he discovered there, pouncing and capturing it in an arching leap through air.  I have learned that foxes hear low-frequency sound and that, perhaps, he heard the hapless little mammal with the racing stripes, burrowing, coming up for morning air.  The fox’s wait was quiet, patient.  No struggle about it.

Just a graceful in-the-moment watching, poised in a relaxed attention, natural to him, that holds him together.

Just a graceful in-the-moment watching, poised in a relaxed attention, natural to him, that holds him together, inside and outside. I remember thinking the lunge was cat-like.

“I said ‘Good mornin’,” Brer Rabbit said to the tar baby.  Dressed in a hat, the tar baby looked to Brer Rabbit like a real person. Impatient and not one to be ignored, Brer Rabbit punched the tar baby with a left hook, then with a right, then with both feet.  His struggles had landed him, stuck, in his own issues.  Brer Fox, laughing like crazy, enjoyed the show from behind a bush.

Several weeks ago, we watched with fascination as our fox cornered a mouse and played with his catch for minutes, enjoying a game of volleyball, of sneak and toss, of cavort and hide, until his joyful game became his lunch. And we know that good feelings and a few light moments at table aid the digestion.

This morning, our fox rests on the garden steps in full sun, grooms himself patiently and works those pointy ears like rotating antennae.  I stand at the sunroom windows, not moving, ten feet away from his small gray-red body, and look at him in wonder.  He looks at me straight on.  His ears come around when I move closer. He wraps his tail, white-tipped and muff-like, and rests there, confident.

Moments later, having had enough of me, he trots up the hill toward the vineyard, looking for something else to stick his nose into. His gait, so appropriate to his purpose, is unhurried.  Inhabiting his small body, he knows what to do, and when, while my human day stretches out, over-planned and held together by a list. When I remember the fox, I can slow my pace, remember my purpose, and inhabit my body too.


Goddesses of the Everyday Rant

April 4, 2012 12:04 pm

Kali of the fierce nature

I’m not feeling lyric today. See my new category: Righteous Rants. Once in a while, I can be forgiven for having some fun with daily annoyances.

Once upon a time, I loved music around me. All kinds. Work with Verdi, create a new spreadsheet with the Stones, fold laundry with Rachmaninoff, plant a peony with Queen, prepare for a dinner party with Wagner, hang out with Whitney. That was then — Before the Assault of Piped-In Music. This is now.

I’m lying on the chiropractor’s couch, needles of energy pummel my lower back, ice packs hold me down, prone, and music blares from a speaker behind me. “I (something-something) sky / You (something-something) earth / Can’t get enough of your (something-something) … .” I picture the sound booth – girls screaming into a mic resembling a giant insect’s eye. I see the mixing room guys at the controls – “Hey, add some bells? and how ‘bout some Caribbean drums? and make that 2:4 time. More twang on the guitars. Fill the room, man.” I’m strapped down, imprisoned by somebody else’s assumption at 60+ db.

I’ve barely pushed my cart into the fresh produce section of Dave’s Marketplace when I notice that the music is louder than usual. Another screaming rocker. “Shake that thang / shake it for me, baby / come on and shake that thang / one more time / yeeaaahh.” Imprisoned again. I assume marketing studies show that we linger in grocery stores longer, buying more, if crooners and screamers accompany testing of cantaloupe, waiting at the deli for Boar’s Head. Do businesses actually buy this piped-in music rubbish?

I don’t know about you, but my appointments are as brief as I can manage. How many avocados can you squeeze? Do you really tarry at your ObGyn?

Go places with me. To that six-month checkup at the dentist. To that lunch at the new place on the East Side. To that annual trip to the mall for a new swimsuit. To that weekly visit to the bookstore, that daily workout at the gym. Anywhere.

Enough is enough.

What comes to mind in that fed-up moment is Sekhmet, the lion-headed Egyptian goddess with an attitude. And fierce Kali, the many-armed Hindu goddess with the scary face, the destroyer. Her tongue’s stuck out: patooie, she’s saying. Temper these outrageous ladies with a half-cup of good sense, timing, and compassion, and you’ve got yourself a good dose of right action.

Temper these outrageous ladies with a half-cup of good sense, timing, and compassion, and you’ve got yourself a good dose of right action.

I hear the door open. The chiropractor’s assistant enters the room to check on me, pinned down to the couch. “Could you turn the music off, please?” She laughs and complies. Somebody shuts up. Ah, silence …

I place a half pound of mesclun in the cart and walk over to Dave’s customer service desk – I know this woman; she’s a good sort – and ask if the music might be turned down. She cocks her head, listens, nods, smiles, and complies. The Mamas and the Papas take it down a notch. Ah, better…

“Excuse me,” I say to the dental assistant, “do you have a room with no music?” She smiles and turns a knob on the wall. Shania lowers to a reasonable nasal warble at nine in the morning.

“Excuse me,” I say to the waitress at the East Side bistro, “could you move us to a table that’s not right under the speaker?” She smiles and moves us, and five minutes later, I notice I can hear my thoughts and my friend’s story.

“Excuse me,” I say to the sales assistant who’s fetching yet another swimsuit.  “This process is painful enough without the hardbody lyrics.” She laughs in agreement. She can’t do anything about the volume — I assume it’s brought to us by satellite — but we share the opinion that, in the words of Maggie Smith’s delicious crone in Gosford Park, “It’s a little more than background music.”

The franchise bookstore? The gym? Well, words fail me here. Take earplugs to Barnes & Noble, and run your three miles a day on a quiet neighborhood street. Leave your harnessed Sekhmet and Kali at home where they can await the next justified outrage. (TVs in waiting rooms? “Do not touch these controls!” warns a hand-written sign in one local doctor’s office. Sekhmet and Kali are getting their backs up already. But, hey, that’s for another day.)

Then I think of those other women. “Excuse me,” I’ve said to them. They’ve smiled or laughed in agreement. Strapped down too, denied the privilege of filtering for themselves. Inured.

Two clocks tick – a small antique clock in the dining room, a big ole grandfather clock in the library. The chickadees peep-peep-peep on the feeder. The turkey clucks by the stonewall. A male cardinal lets out a chirp that amounts to shouting in the bird world. And what I just heard was an uppity breeze in the pine grove.

Silence is hard won.


March 26, 2012 5:25 pm

The 9:08 freight train clatters past the Kwik Way.  I’m old enough to expect smoke when I see this much train.  I park out front between two Ford pick-ups — one with a dog box, the other running tractor tires. Outside, the Chill & Grill propane tank sits on concrete, and in the newsbox, The State announces, above the masthead, that the Gamecock girls’ team lost to Stanford.

I’m here to buy my small (17-oz) cup of decaf with a squirt of sweet hazelnut creamer.  For sale inside, also, are Bik lighters in yellow and red plastic, packets of single-dip snuff, Lays potato chips, and any kind of Barefoot wine you want.  Vinyl-topped booths and tables are laid with fresh paper napkins, silverware, and glasses turned upside down. Ready for drop-ins.  The place smells of fried sausage, fried eggs, and fried hash browns.  I think about a smoky sausage biscuit with hot mustard, and only in this place.  Here, old wants crash into newer habits — loose-coupled — and there’s a bumping around in my head, like the buffers of freight cars.

Old wants crash into new habits here — loose-coupled — and there’s a bumping around in my head, like the buffers of freight cars.

“Good morning,” everyone in the place says to me.  I don’t know these people, but this doesn’t matter to them.  This is White Rock, South Carolina, and if you don’t know everybody, you should.  I’ve been here only a week and the red-aproned woman behind the Henny Penny fryer knows to ring me up for $2.30.  Even numbers — for customer convenience, she tells me.  You do the math.  That’s 13.5 cents an ounce.  Down here, Starbucks is viewed as a rip-off.  And I’m feeling more conservative myself just being here.

I’m dressed.  When I say dressed, I mean nice slacks (that means no jeans), a nice blouse, a nice sweater, nice shoes, and nice jewelry, not too matchy-matchy, but stuff I never wear in New England.  The azalea, Bradford pear, and dogwood bring out the nice in everyone.  I wonder if I should be making arrangements to live here full time myself. The air itself smells flowery, leafy.  Nice.

I pay for my coffee, agree to “have a good one,” and head back to my car, a 1999 Honda Accord on loan from my nephew’s wife who’s said she won’t hear of me renting a car for ten days.  Three big, friendly men stand on the sidewalk in short-sleeved shirts, smoking. They’re talking about how good the fishing on Lake Murray might have been at dawn — stripers, they’re guessing — after that cats-and-dogs thunda-busta we had yesterday.  The air is clear of pollen, washed off cars and running yellow into gutters, and warm with just a touch of morning chill.

“Good morning,” they all say, and pull their cigarettes out of my way, as if in apology. Cigarette smoke reminds me of home, and I don’t mind it here.  In New England, I’d have a few snippy words for people who smoke on the street, huddled against their gray office buildings in their black coats and boots.  Memory is tricky. There’s wispy emotion in it, curling up and around, like what’s left when a flame’s gone out and the hot, red wick remains for a second or two, and we can’t look away.

Today’s Sunday, and just across the street, the parking lot of Bethel Lutheran Church is half full.  Early services on the Fourth Sunday after Lent.  Purple cloth drapes from a cross near the street. This is church country, and the big-congregation Baptists and Methodists know that Easter’s coming.  Choirs are assembling, and candles smoke on altars up and down Old Lexington Highway.  The vegetable stand kitty-cornered to the church — Jonah Stukes Fresh Vegetables, a sign says — seems abandoned.  On Wednesday, he had early tomatoes and peanuts boiling on a smoker.  Later in the summer, he’ll have native corn and pole beans and peaches (the sign will say PEACH’S), and he’ll hold his daughter, diapered, barefooted and snarly haired, by her feet and lower her, upside down, into the nearby Goodwill bin, and she’ll come up with something to wear, and then she’ll play so close to the red signal light at the intersection that my back will ache. Another sign says We Buy Old Cars.

The train has rattled on up the single track.   In daylight the Southern Coastal Railroad races through these parts, stopping traffic in all directions, rushing from Columbia, moving on up the line to Chapin, to Greenville, northwest of here, sometimes with three engines pulling sixty cars. There’s nothing old about these cars, red and yellow and green, and somebody’s protected them from grafitti.  There is none.  I counted the cars last summer as we drove alongside on the way to Fat Buddy’s for fried chicken, cole slaw, and fried mushrooms. Jeans are OK at Fat Buddy’s, and a blue T-shirt I bought last year says I’ve been there and that I like the place well enough to advertise.  ”What’s Fat Buddy’s?” folks in New England ask, and I remember waiting for chicken, fried to order while we drank a pitcher of Corona. Thirty minutes.  Nobody’s in a hurry.

The trains that split White Rock in half three times a day are all about business and what counts for bustle in these parts.  Shock absorbing buffers cushion the cars, holding each undamaged by another along a rough track. The whistle is heard as a warning; the flashing red light and the black-and-white poles put a hold on the present moment, a temporary wait on moving too fast into tomorrow. At night when I’m awake in the dark, I hear the mournful whistle of the 3:15 to Simpsonville and Greenville.  There’s regret in it, and a call, and imagined smoke, trailing.


photo credit: PhillWatson

Ijawi breath

March 13, 2012 4:58 pm

Outside the window, the first songbird of spring after the winter that wasn’t. A cardinal by its sharp call — the first one on the feeder, the birdbath, the fir, even before the robins, who are late.  The word is out: hustle.

There will be straw collecting, mate selecting, nest building, bark tapping, worm and grub hunting, gatherings at the bird feeders, territory protecting, and quick sex. The windows are open for the first time since October. The pine grove awakens and shushes in the breeze, like an inland breath.

… surf taking and retreating along the packed beach … that’s the planet’s true ijawi breath …

There’s been no winter. The deer didn’t eat the rhododendrons and, hey, I wore my new (fake) fur coat only four times — both of these situations are of equal importance to me — and this spring’s not so much a relief as an expected occurence.  But it’s sweet enough.  My last year’s summer clothes still hang in my closet.  I’m not sure what to make of this.

I begin to think about the Outer Banks.  I may turn my head to hear the wind in the pine grove — that shushing, whispering, and awakening — but surf taking and retreating along the packed beach of a barrier island, grounded in the broad Atlantic basic?  Well, that’s the planet’s true ijawi breath.

The brown pelicans know this in their light bodies.  Watch them.



March 12, 2012 9:53 am

The game closet, yesterday.  I was rummaging through it, looking for something, when I found a small piece of a jigsaw puzzle in a corner.  Stem green with a purple edge, one side a ninety-degree angle, the rest of it like fingers flung out. A cornered amoeba.

I do not like jigsaw puzzles.  They crop up everywhere in my life, as if the universe continues to send me not what I want, but what it thinks I need to see … until I see it.  I suppose, then, the universe will be sending me jigsaw puzzles forever.  Because I won’t do them.

Take, for example, the jigsaw puzzles for the beach house.   Prior to our family trek to the Outer Banks each summer, all puzzles are dragged out of the game closet, unpacked, spread out, picked over, dismissed or chosen, repacked carefully, talked about in the car for 500 miles, removed from the car first, set up on a card table, and fussed over.  The year we forgot the card table, we used the dining room table for the puzzles and ate on our laps. Ketchup was difficult.

“Coming down to the beach?” I say to four family members.  It’s 10:00 – beach time – and I’m at the door, greased up, hat on head, beach bag packed with the day’s supply of books, pens, and notebooks.  Four heads bend over a puzzle.

“Looking for this piece,” one of them says to another, pointing to a hole.

“Try this one.”  Murmurs.

“No, I need a ninety-degree angle.  Green.  With a little purple showing.”

“Y’all coming?” I say.

“Found a different one!” my husband shouts, and applause breaks out. He looks at me as if to say I’m not a team player. I know this.

I go down to the beach alone, schlepping my chair, umbrella, bag of books, and frustration.

Now, take the jigsaw puzzles at The Heritage, my mother’s retirement community.  Rummaging through closets in the club room, the Puzzle Queen of South Carolina discovered 179 boxes of puzzles, dragged them out, shouted “Come on, y’all” to everyone in her building, and thus founded The Heritage Jigsaw Puzzle Club, going strong for three years now.  Puzzles are fussed over and discussed as if they are intractable children. She has told me three times that The Puzzle Club has completed 53 puzzles.  This is not from short-term memory loss.

“Let’s walk down to the club room and see what’s happening with the puzzle,” my mother says to me.  I’m visiting her for two weeks, and we’ve just finished three loads of laundry and a chocolate treat.

“I’m not into puzzles,” I say.  “You go.”

“But I want us to do stuff together while you’re here.”

I’d rather read Pam  Houston’s latest book.  “OK, OK,” I say.

I sit down at the card table in the club room.  Three other elders are there, intent on the puzzle of the week.  Hot air balloons.  The workers murmur, eye one another, poke through puzzle pieces, try one, then another, ease pieces into right places, and snap them into place to a chorus of exclamation.  I look down at the tiny pieces, all similar in shape, size, and my interest in them.

“Why don’t you like jigsaw puzzles?” my mother says.

“No idea.”

“Puzzles keep you young.  They work your brain.”  She’s ninety-six.

“My brain’s just fine.”

“Epiphany happens outside language,” we are told.

“They help you understand how the small things fit so you can figure out the big picture,” she says.  “You know.  Puzzles are like life.”

“Mama, you know I don’t believe that.”

Opinions on the subject rip across the faces of my mother’s friends, but no one offers support for either side.

“You should think about it.”  Heads nod.  She finds a piece that fits, lets out a whoop, and applause breaks out around the table.

My brother sits with Mama and me in her living room.  I’m go back to reading reading Pam Houston.  She spreads dissimilar fragments of her life around with her pen, sees some odd relationship among the pieces, some quirky theme; the pieces don’t fit together and she doesn’t force them and she doesn’t tell us every little thing. But I know somebody is present.  We are left to infer. “Epiphany happens outside language,” we are told.  My yellow highlighter and ballpoint are poised over the page – How does she do this?

My brother and I are sitting with Mama in her apartment.  I am reading.  They are working a crossword puzzle, another family activity I’m not good at.  Or don’t have the patience for.

“Can’t get this last word,” my brother says. “Eight letters — begins with M — means ‘Vacancy on the top floor’?”  His pencil is tapping, his leg is pumping, he’s leaning toward Mama whose brow is furrowed over the coverless Webster’s she uses for her crossword puzzles. It’s almost as old as she is.

“Mindless,” I say without looking up.

They jump as if they’ve been shot from off-planet.  My mother says it fits, my brother says it’s perfect, and the Sunday crossword is completed.

Words I can do.  Words are not a game. I remember what Mark Twain said about words.  “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and a lightning strike.”

It’s 11:00 by the time my husband arrives on the beach with his chair and his own books.  I hold his red beach cup of tea with lemon, no sugar while he sets up for the day.

“I don’t feel deprived because I don’t like jigsaw puzzles,” I say.  “And I’d rather write.”

“The puzzle’s missing one piece,” he tells me, frustrated.

I backed out of the game closet, pulled the dust bunnies off the green and purple puzzle piece, and took it downstairs.  I put it where he’d see it.  When he came home, he said something like, “Finally we’ll see the big picture!”

We're not getting one

February 21, 2012 10:49 am

Every six months or so I want a dog.  I think of this returning wish as a chronic disease, like malaria.  I punch up “Rescue Shih Tzus” on my MacBook and page down through what’s available.  I get to choose what area, how old, what color, how much, and when available.  Like shopping online for the right lamp.

I found an adorable Shih Tzu nearby.  Male.  Seven years old.  Alfalfa colored.  Black eyes, looking at the camera as eight-month-old babies look at the world — as if they just arrived from the other side of the moon.

“Here,” I say, “look at this one.  Isn’t he adorable?”

I don’t expect an answer.  He doesn’t want a dog.  We’ve had this conversation many times, and we’ve debated all the reasons.  Vacations, the rugs, early morning and late night potty walks, and our frequent commutes to Boston, our long days there.  All valid reasons why not.  I allow MacBook to sleep, and the chronic disease begins to subside.

After the evening news, Nature brings us a preview of an upcoming documentary, “Ocean Giants.”  There in deep water in a photographer’s lense is a mother whale and her tiny baby, just born.

“Look at that,” I say. “Isn’t it adorable?”

“We’re not getting one,” he says.





Making do along the natural path

January 19, 2012 11:23 am

A natural wildlife corridor crosses our land, a sometimes-grassy space, open and sunny, a sometimes-woodsy space, protected and dark.  It begins we-do-not-know-where, over that hill past the vineyard, perhaps near the deer thicket, the fox den, the coyote camp, the possum hole.  It comes at us along a steep grade, within sight of the sunroom, and disappears down the hill, ending we-do-not-know-where.  I imagine it circling a corn source, a meat market, the reservoir.

When I look out the sunroom window, I see a path from a vague beginning to a vague ending.  Like a life. We’re all distributed along it.

The deer pick a careful path along the corridor – the four does, the eight-point buck that covers them, and their spotted fauns.  The fox plays along the corridor as if it is his, cat-like, sweet-faced.  The coyote sniffs his way in stealth, and he is thin and leggy.  The possum scampers from rock shelter to an overhang under the rhododendrom.

Only the lame doe stays close.

I saw her last year along the corridor, keeping up with the small herd, limping along, always last in the watchful line.  When alerted, the herd would leap logs and rustle through the bushes along the path, leaving the lame doe to make her own way.  I’d watch her from the sunroom, viewing her as almost human, and wish her courage and tolerance of pain, as I would wish myself.

I see her as resilient and brave, taking to her life alone, compensating, without complaint.

This year, I see her more often.  She is alone, favoring the woodsy space, protected and dark, within sight of the sunroom.  And the patch of grassy backyard where the rhododendrons grow tall and wide and lush.

It’s her front left leg.  Caught in an unseen hole?  Shot by a careless hunter?  Wounded by a hungry coyote?  It doesn’t matter:  she limps.  If she could travel with the herd, she would.  If she could cry out, she might.  But she seems to be making do – her coat is smooth, her bones do not stick out, her eyes are alert, those ears work, and that white tail.  I see her as resilient and brave, taking to her life alone, compensating, without complaint.

It’s winter again, and we are older.  The berries are gone, and the leaves from the deciduous trees.  My husband looks out into the yard.  “It’s time to hang Irish Spring on the rhododendrons again,” he says.   Let’s back up a moment:  that strong-smelling soap protects our rhodys from deer that would otherwise strip them of leaves as far up as they can reach, leaving bare limbs with leafy crowns.

Last week, late at night, we pulled up into the driveway, the headlights shining across the backyard.  There she was at the rhodys, alone, her head up and still, her eyes reflecting her silent attention, but unafraid.  Up off the ground she held her left front leg.  She limped away slowly, favoring the woodsy space, protected and dark.

Over time, nature may favor the fit, but I’m a sucker for the isolated and brave.  I postpone the soap project.



photo credit: mary k. baird

Fauxs, a sacrificial gesture

January 4, 2012 9:57 am

My twenty-year old coat is not warm.  I’ve said so for three years.

“‘Warmth’ technology has improved,” I said.

“How ’bout one of those down coats from L. L. Bean?” he said.

“You mean the ones that make me look like the Michelin Tire Boy?”

I found a fake fur coat.  I would say “cheap”, but that would be a tacky description for a coat that’s anything but.  So, let’s say “inexpensive.”  It’s warm.  It has a hood.  It’s gorgeous.  It’s fake mink.  I feel a bit self-conscious in it.  When I wear it, I make up reasons for having it (I live in a cold place) and rationalizations for having it (I’ve never had one before, I deserve it, why not me?).  The time it takes to run through all this internal dialogue is excessive, time my old black coat never required.  Ever notice how long and involved our stories are when we’re justifying?

I wore it to the post office on Saturday – the thermometer said 18 degrees – and I got in line behind a woman with a small child.  She looked at the coat, then at me.  She sniffed and said, sotto voce, to her daughter, five years old, give or take, something like “animal murderer.”

I smiled and said to her, “Yes, a lot of fauxs died to make me this coat.”  She had the grace to smile, but only a little, like a reflex.

“What’s a faux?” the little girl asked.

“A fake animal,” the mother said, not looking at me.

“A fake animal?”

“Well, one made by a machine.”

“Machines can make animals now?”

“No, just the fur.”

“Can’t animals make their own fur?”

Bob the postal clerk interrupted with “Next,” and the woman flew to the counter with a big box I noticed was addressed to L. L. Bean.


For Christmas, a Marine and a Shih Tzu

December 25, 2011 5:39 pm

It’s Christmas week, and I’m browsing for Christmas decorations at the mall. I like the mall at Christmas.  It gets my blood up, and I need some fake encouragement when I think of two major holidays — Thanksgiving and Christmas — smashed together in less than 30 days.  It’s not fair, and I don’t have to like it just because it happens every year and I should have accustomed myself by this time. I haven’t.

So, I look for the odd and satirical.

I see two handmade ornaments hanging on an overly decorated tree that stop me in my tracks. A shih tzu and a Marine.  The former is not unusual.  In fact, we have ornaments honoring our dead pets.  A favorite is an Australian sheep dog.  Our Eli, now dead.  The Marine is a first for me.  And so weird a juxtaposition that I laugh out loud.  I buy the shih tzu and the Marine.  My husband will remember and laugh.

The Outer Banks.  Three summers ago.

As massive as New England Patriots tackles, Navy Seals, or heavyweight boxers, two young men walked up the beach in front of our umbrella and chairs, books and beach paraphernalia. The group caught my eye, so out of character they seemed. I poked my husband – Hey, look at that! – and he glanced up from his book. The young men followed in the wake of a small dog. A fluffy brown and white shih tzu, button-bright eyes, a pink bow on her little head, prancing, pulling a big guy forward on a taut lead, she convinced us: she was in charge and she knew it. I remarked the young men’s expressions: proud, unashamed, confident. When globe-and-anchor tats on muscular biceps came into view, I recognized the men as Marines. From nearby Camp Lejeune, I guessed.

I’m a sucker for shih tzus. If the breed tolerated being alone all day, like goats, I’d have one. I once located a local breeder, pestered him online for weeks, chose a tea-colored puppy, and considered names. Shih tzus are not named Rover or Butch.  I favored Laphroaig. Then at the brink, I recovered. At my age, I don’t need to babysit a two-year-old for fifteen years. I changed my mind, with regrets. But I’ll stop people on the street to get up close to a shih tzu.

I walked over to the Marines, knelt near the dog, and held out my hand – dogs like to sniff your hand before you get in their faces; they appreciate the respect – and said something predictable like, Ooooh soooo cuuuute. What you’d expect from a shih tzu fawner.

The two Marines were proud to tell us that the dog was theirs now, left to them by a buddy who’d shipped out to Iraq.  She’d recently attacked a bunkmate’s weimeraner, leaping two feet to its neck, holding onto its collar with its tiny teeth, bobbing and jerking around its neck as the larger dog took off down the street, yelping and trying to toss the shih tzu into traffic.  They had to catch the weimeraner before they could pry the little dog loose, still gnawing and growling.  The shih tzu was furious — some real or imagined affront, they assumed — and the weimeraner was a nervous wreck.

Well, we’re laughing and they’re laughing, and I’m stroking the dog’s sweet face and fixing her ribbon and she’s licking my hand, and I ask the usual question, “What’s her name.”

There was a quiet pause, shiftings from foot to foot, the stealing of glances right to left, clearing of throats.  I looked up.

“You’re not going to like it, ma’am,” said one Marine.  Such polite boys, such gentlemen.

“Ah, come on.  I can take it.”

“Bad Ass,” one said in an apologetic tone.  “Her name’s Bad Ass.”

I love Marines.

“Hello, Bad Ass,” I said to the tiny dog.

Everybody loves to hear their own name on the lips of others.  She rolled over on her back, and I scratched her tummy.  When she’d had enough, and she knew when that was, she jumped up, offered a quick bark, pulled on the lead, and led her Marines down the beach.  They hardly had time to say their cordial good-byes, which all Marines offer the ladies.

I take the new ornaments out of the box and hang them on the tree, close together.  A Marine and a shih tzu. The Marine is in camo; the shih tzu is wearing a pink bow. They hang among colored lights, gold stars, silver bells, Santa faces, gold and silver balls, various reindeer, a cat ornament that looks like the orange “Morris” cat we used to have, and Eli.  My husband walks up behind me. He sees the Marine and the shih tzu.

“Hello, Bad Ass,” he says to the small shih tzu.  Then, just in case, he plucks Eli off the nearby green limb and moves him to the far side of the tree.  Just in case.




A property manager's attention - or lack of it

October 14, 2011 1:31 pm

In the kitchen, I have it in my hand – the key to the down-the-hill house, the house we rent out – along with my veggie lunch in ShrinkWrap, my briefcase, my MacBookPro, a third draft, and, for fun, a Brenda Miller story. I hang the key off a finger; a neon yellow plastic tag hangs from it.

In the mudroom, I slip into clogs and see that my jeans have shrunk an inch in the dryer. What did these jeans cost per square inch?  I do the math, and I don’t like this. I set the house alarm I don’t like and remember the screaming horn that brought the Fire Department up the long, narrow driveway when I burned a rue. Fireman in suits — more neon yellow — carrying ready hatchets with red beaks.  Fleshy can-do faces.  I like firemen.  I slam the back door and notice our wild turkeys have dug dust holes.  I like turkeys.  I decide Brenda Miller’s convinced me to rewrite a troublesome scene. I like Brenda Miller.  I check my watch and count on my fingers how many writing hours I have left today.  I put a move on.  My briefcase is heavy.  Today, I’m toting my Rodale.  I like my Rodale.

On the porch, I see the maroon mums need water and decide I can write until 5:00 if I settle for an omelet for dinner and call it some fancy name. Gruyere has a nice ring. And maybe I’ll take a chocolate tart to Connecticut next weekend. It’ll be a hit. And I have homework over which I’m already building up a self-depricating, blank-page terror. Walking across the driveway, I make a note to call the eye clinic. I must do something about the two little awnings (read: eyelids) I live under. I play out a predictable argument with BX/BS — “It’s not cosmetic,” I say.  “I don’t do cosmetic.” I don’t like BX/BS.  I punch in the garage door code, numbers I sometimes can’t remember. Why can’t it be a birthday or the house number? I have an idea for my writing assignment.  I like how my right brain works.

My Highlander roars into action and I remember my old Camry, low on the road. Faithful. Only 200,000 miles.  But I like sitting higher now, and we need it for beach trips. Can I say that out loud? I compare the gas mileage … but I do recycle. I drive down the hill, take a left, take another left, and park behind Tom from Richland Glass who’s waiting with a new mirror the painters cracked – we should have had them pay for it. I say “Hello, Tom” and reach for the key to the down-the-hill house.

Attention is an unappreciated phenomenon. In my studied experience, it comes in several shades, like a painter’s palette, subtle, observable.  Or if you like, several types, like a worker’s tools.  There’s attracted attention for watching a BBC mystery, for reading the Weekend section of the WSJ, for reading a new John LeCarre spy thriller. Call that a chisel.  There’s focused attention for designing new spreadsheets, studying a new menu, ordering a chenille throw from Restoration Hardware.  Call all these concentration, the electric drill. We feel like we’re getting somewhere.  We like to think we’re good at this.

But, look.  Both are attention that’s taken. Outside.  As when, jerked around by my likes and dislikes, my interior drama, my head thrashes around in the past and future, making stuff up.  Stuff I like.  In milli-seconds, I’m saying.  Milli-seconds.  I’m a walking, talking, dreaming head, five feet and six inches off the ground.

Then there’s attention that is not beholden. When I relax and drop down into my body, it is there. Naturally.  It arises in silence.  It slows me, it clarifies impressions, it grounds me, it freshens impressions, it is free.  I know where I am.  I know what my hands are doing, my feet, my mouth.  I see.

But, please understand, I forget. Taken by jeans, mums, turkeys, eye-awnings, garage door codes, mirrors, writing hours, writing assignments, where am I?  Well, I’m not here.  So when I reach for the key with the neon yellow plastic tag, where is it?

I have no idea.

The locust does not survive

October 7, 2011 6:30 pm

At seven, the men from Timber Tree arrive.  They come in a truck with a cherry picker, and a crane with a fifty-foot reach.  Six hefty men, with rope, hoists, and chainsaws. speaking three languages,

The tree is a locust.  We have old photos:  my husband and his siblings just children, my father- and mother-in-law proud, the just-planted locust a sapling in the side yard.  The anomaly developed later. The teenaged tree branched into a perfect V, one thick leg pushing east, the other due west.  Fast growing, big trunked, and loose-leafed, the adult tree towered over the house in not-so-many years.  Later photos show just that. My husband grown and in his Easter suit, the locust’s mighty trunk in the background, the V far above his head and unseen.

A family favorite that tree, one of two big ones planted near the house.  The locust had a job to do:  shade the house, serve as perches for birds and squirrels.  Wait.  Have you ever seen a sixty-foot locust?  The shade is dappled, and the leaves are small and lacey, and they dust at the sky in a soft breeze, and the trunk seems to be much ado for the little it produces higher up, and dead limbs fall out of it all year round, and the roots push up volunteer saplings in the yard.  Birds don’t seem to nest in them:  not enough cover, too much movement.  But they are as lovely as a young girl in a green summer skirt, trailing ribbons.

Trees are friends.  My own childhood favorite was a hollowed-out cypress that a low tide could be reached in my bare feet.  At high tide, only by a green rowboat with rusty oarlocks.  But it was mine.  I gathered Spanish moss for cushioning for the deep hollow, so big I could fit into it, along with my books and my lunch of apple and peanut butter and Pepsi.  Once or twice when I forgot the boat and read through afternoon, I either swam home or waited for the tide to change.  Pintails, mallards, and black duck swam and dove.  Once I saw a cottonmouth, intent for the far shore, its back stamped like footprints.  Last time I was in that Pamlico River town, the cypress was still there, but smaller.

Today, I look out the kitchen window at the locust.  The eastern leg of the V has shaded the kitchen, the dining room, and the master bedroom upstairs; the western V, a lovely patch of Bermuda grass, and a border of rhododendron and azalea that bank the top of the long drive down to the road.  A suet cage for the red-bellied woodpeckers hangs from the trunk. A little perch gives them a place to stand; my mother-in-law wouldn’t have a bird inconvenienced. The swinging bench, rough of wood, without paint, faces northeast into Massachusetts – “a beautiful view,” she said often, urging people to sit there.  If you took her advice and find your partner’s rhythm, you ha a fine view over Rhode Island’s woods into Massachusetts.  A five-layered tree line, green to blue to gray to mist to sky.  But I never saw my in-laws sitting there.  They didn’t sit.  The bench belonged to the squirrels by adverse possession.  My father-in-law would look at their leavings and say, “They’ve been before us.”  Still, he loved that locust.

My daddy was a tree lover.  His favorites were long-leaf pines.  Back in the early 1950s, he dug a hundred of them out of the Croatan woods, stuck them down into Maxwell House coffee cans, and set them out in the yard of our new house.  “The cans will rust out,” he said.  And they did.  By the time I was struggling with Algebra I and looking for prom dates, those trees were way above the rooftop and waving their fragile arms straight out, looking for all the world like giant green scarecrows.  But they were lawn trees.  Landscaping.  Daddy’s real love was his apple and peach trees.  He pruned and sprayed and canned.  And he counted the fruit..

But it’s the locust that’s to be taken down today.

My father-in-law saw the problem with the V and called the tree expert.  Back in the 1980s, big-tree Vs were treated with steel rods, like those braces small children used to wear to keep their legs apart after hip surgery.  The locust didn’t seem to mind the rod and screws.  It wrapped its bark around them as if it knew it needed the support. The tree looked to be permanent – medical problem solved – and my mother-in-law, who never saw a square foot of earth without thinking of some growing thing perfect for the space, planted vinca at the base and let violets roam free.  In the greenery, she nestled a granite birdbath.  The area became the local hangout for birds perched on specialized feeders stocked with gourmet seed.  A small pair of binoculars and a copy of The Guide to North American Birds sat on the kitchen sill in case new bird flew in for supper.   The upside-down nuthatches took an instant liking to the bark.

The workmen unpack their surgical tools.

Until today, the steel rod’s been a perch for the local covey of doves that share our yard.  The brace can serve a dozen or so when, late in the afternoon, they gather on the rod high above the birdbath, chased there by the raucous jays, but contemplating a cool dip.  When sufficient in number, they drop to the vinca, hop up onto the stone birdbath, and begin the evening ritual of dousing and flapping, dousing and flapping.  They’re good about taking turns.

Me, I’m a worrywart. I checked the trajectory of the eastern leg of the V when we moved into the house up on the hill.  It’s not that my glass is half-full.  Rather, it’s that I like to consider all the possibilities as if checking the V and the rod after an ice storm or nor’easter might be helpful.

“If that rod goes in the night,” I said to my husband, “we’re dead in our bed.”

When Hurricane Irene approached, I asked him, “Should we sleep in the guest room?”  The other side of the house seemed safer to me.




I watched the Weather Channel for wind speed.  Then I paid the tree a visit.  But what do I know about tree crotches?

Daddy watched the hurricanes too.  Hurricane Hazel, who blew her bitchiness right over our house back in 1954, arrived at sunset, howled all night, took down several of Daddy’s long-leafed pines, and damaged others.  He was just sick about them.  Mama was less concerned – she liked more light in the house – and my brother, who had to mow around every tree, appreciated fewer interruptions on the lawn.  What I think is that Daddy wasn’t so worried about the pines as he was about the house, and he wasn’t so worried about the house as he was about the apple and peach trees.

Today, I know that it was Hurricane Irene who finally defeated the locust.  Fully leafed out and heavy with rain, the crotch gave way.  The next day, we found a deep crack running from the bottom of the V down into the heartwood beneath.  We called Timber Tree.

The workmen unloaded their surgical tools.  I watch from the kitchen.  The chainsaw begins to buzz.  It will buzz all day and into evening. First the lacey canopy, which the crane lifted up and out and over the woods and down.  Balanced on rope, still alive, still green, it offered dappled shade even as it traveled its high trajectory to the brush pile.  The cherry picker reached up; the crane reached even higher.  Workmen were everywhere with ropes, pulleys, saws. They were quiet men, sharing a small job vocabulary in English and Spanish and Hmong:

“Further out.”

“One more wrap.”

“Heads up.”

“Take that one next.”

Then much later, the legs of the Vs themselves, further down, closer to the heart.  Sawed off mid-thigh, lifted by crane, they resembled amputated limbs aloft.

That part I couldn’t watch.

Branches lay in the yard.  And logs.  Too many to count.  The tree men will come tomorrow to grind the stump.

There’s more light in the kitchen now, and the side yard has opened up.  We’re thinking of a river birch if anything at all.  Last week, a dove sat on the tuft of vinca, looking for the birdbath.

To Irene, much obliged ...

September 2, 2011 10:25 am

The copper beech, our upside-down octopus in brown and green, has roots-to-China sturdiness, and stood firm in the gale.

A good Chardonnay is good at any temperature.

I am careful with water, with food, with my MacBook Pro battery. I think ahead.  I consider consequences.  Four sheets of toilet paper will do.  (Did I actually write that down?)  The smaller red onion.  Fewer spinach leaves.   The laundry chute doesn’t need a foot of wet dishtowels tossed down into it, so hang them out to dry.   What is “conservation” anyway?

Ancient candlesticks in the sunroom, the kitchen, the dining room.  A lovely glow.

Two bathtubs full of water – our “wells.”  The indoor plants – we’ve taken them from the wilds – need water too, and we can’t forget them.  And the birdbath.

The refrigerator/freezer:  40 degrees is the cut off.  Under 40 – fine, eat it; over 40 – toss it.  So much food ….

People from far away call.  They care.

My laptop, my imagined freedom from being “shut down” creatively, is now at 47%.  Careful!  And pick up a pen, silly woman.

Raking debris works the upper body and raises blisters on the palms.  I don’t like to do this.  I’m lazy.  Can somebody else to this?  I’m interested in my own comfort.  I need to see this about myself.

I need to figure out a way to wash my hair, dry it, put that goop in it, style it.  My hair is on my mind more than I’d like to admit.

Ice is a (relatively) recent phenomenon.  But today, where to get it?  Who has it?  Should I get in the car and go out on a search?  Or conserve gasoline?

Shoulders that usually are coat-hanger tense relax when given a welcomed three-day reprieve from Fox News.

We have dinner by candlelight.  We talk.  Nice.

The Coleman stove – hissing, whispering yellow-blue under a pot of water – brings memories of camping at Mount Desert Island and a promise to return there next summer.

Two candles – one his, one mine – carried up the dark stairs, placed on bedside tables, and blown out simultaneously provides a Downton Abby moment.  How quaint and fun.

I glance, from habit, at the digital display on the range, the VCR, the clock.  But it’s the grandfather clock in the library that’s the faithful presence. “Well, the clock works,” he says.  Interestingly, it was built in the 1800s.   I like that.

When the lights pop on, part of me is delighted; part of me is sad.   I think about my hair … and Fox News.  A return to old habits.

But for new impressions, thank you, Irene.

Writing again, finding "the zone"

August 25, 2011 7:30 am

Returning to writing after a couple months away is like going back to the gym.  It’s hard.  “The zone” has disappeared, and I have to search for it, work for it, find it again. It’s not fun.  I don’t like it.

I pick a day.  Then warm-ups help.

Read somebody I like, preferably something I’ve read many times — this morning, Somerset Maugham; old, fusty to some, but restful, rhythmic; a short novel about place and characters who are not in the beginning introspective, and then are forced to be.

Read something I’ve written; read it aloud, and don’t change a word; just listen.

Write a twenty-minute free-write on something banal.  Say, ripping off pantyhose.  Or fishing a mouse out of the pool. How’s that? Lift the spirit, get down, work the muscles, let the words run from the right brain through the fingers and flow onto the page. Feel that? Wow! I have an occasional smile now.

Ah! Read John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story for inspiration, for wisdom, for craft, or just because he makes sense. How does anyone write without a good, recent dose of Truby?

Then the day’s real work-out:  read the scary story, the one I’m working on, the dark monster, the one where the middle’s a muddle. Read it from beginning to end, read it aloud, punch up Verdi in the background, keep some distance, put one little checkmark next to each jarring bump-in-the-road. Read on. Read on. And don’t frown.

Have veggies for lunch. Check the Weather Channel for Hurricane Irene.  (Are the Outer Banks safe?  Should I stack the lawn chairs, bring in the wind chime?) Look out a window. Follow the chipmunks and the hawks. Take a walk around the yard — left, right, left, right. Move.

Then, start with the next chapter and write. One word at a time. “The zone” returns slowly.  As does the joy.

Staying in “the zone” means no more month-long breaks. And it’s good to be back. But getting here’s a bitch.


Rising Sun

August 7, 2011 4:02 pm

Up at four to avoid any northbound traffic out of Northern Virginia, we’re relieved to be on I-95 without traffic.  A rare treat.  Saying this is a blunt reminder of the hell of driving south along the same route in summer daylight.  This morning the clouds are too low to be called clouds and too high to be called fog.  An odd elevation for the gray-white stuff.  An exit sign up the road from D.C. says Rising Sun.  A small town, I suppose.

Aptly named, for there it is.  That molten, orange ball of fire and heat rising over the cloud/fog.  The highway rises to meet it.  We can see forever. Mist settles in the green ravines, roadside.  We are silent, awed.  Rising Sun.  There must be a story behind the naming of that town, even if it’s only literal, a reminder of what is daily witnessed there:  the birthing of a new day.

I’m watching the rising sun burn off the cloud/fog — move over! — and I’m feeling a familiar itch.  We’re halfway to New England – the Outer Banks a sweet, languid memory – and I smile at the return of this craving for lists that prepare me for activity.  Don’t tell:  I began a Stickies list a couple of miles back.   And with it, my left brain began to churn out plans, dates, schedules.  I have things to do!  My shoulders take on that forward thrusting lift I’ve come to understand as the ready-fire-aim of my anxious style.

Vacation is over.  It lasted all the way to Rising Sun.  A new day and I’m scratching that familiar itch for action.


photo credit: alex france

Except in memory, nobody likes a land breeze

August 4, 2011 3:18 pm

The slat walk from the cottage to the beach is of rough 1x4s nailed down with a half inch between them to allow for torrential run-off.  (Don’t take your car keys or coins out there, and watch for splinters and raised nail heads. Ouch.)  Most walks are washed away by hurricanes every two years, so expense is spared.  Halfway out, two built-in benches push out to either side to create a kind of dune-top pavilion – though uncovered, it’s good for morning writing, coffee drinking, and day planning, and for twice-daily pelican watching and surf judging, and for cocktail drinking and early evening thunderstorm watching.  Thunderstorms:  that sudden drop in temperature, that new scent of fresh cloud-water, that sky darkening, that release.

But this morning, we walked to the benches with our coffee and, together, said, “Land breeze.”  To look at, the ocean’s at its loveliest in a land breeze:  with the wind in their faces, the waves pause at their cresting, revealing their deep translucent-green bellys.  They toss back their foaming heads of hair, and throw themselves gently forward.  Unlike in an ordinary wind, in a land breeze, they seem to have life and statue.  They seem to laugh, to enjoy the roll to shore.

Still, nobody likes a land breeze at the beach.  The light wind out of the north blows across Bogue Bank, bringing fleas, house flies, horse flies, and mosquitoes out of the salt marsh at our backs and onto the beach.  Swallows sense the wind direction early; they dart in and out of the water oak and yupon, sucking up a good breakfast.  In the dunes, the sea oats stand sword-stiff.  When the wind dies at noon, the ocean’s as flat as a millpond.

The beach is bleached-out white, scorching hot, and silent, except for the drone of crickets in the dune grass and the tiny wave break at the shore, where sanderlings demonstrate their disappointment by searching someplace else for lunch.  I’m lathered up with #30, my best nod to my dermatologist.  I’m sitting under the umbrella in my low, striped chair, my feet in the water, remembering the land breezes of my youth.

Gran’mama would patch the salt-corroded screens with squares of new screen cut to fit with kitchen scissors.  With white thread, if she couldn’t find black.  With red or yellow, if she couldn’t find either.  After several seasons, the screens looked like patchwork quilts of lapping mesh in varied vintage.  She’d replace the screens grudgingly:  she always was as tight with money as bark to a tree.   The screens kept out the mosquitoes and flies of all sizes, but sand fleas flew right through them.  There was no place to go to escape them, and there was no place to go to get cool. Sleep was impossible.   Three days of a land breeze and everyone was cranky and scratching bites.  We hated land breezes.  Late in the day, we’d search the southwest for thunderheads, waiting for release.

Nowadays, we sluice in the ocean, retreat to the house, shut the doors, and turn up the A/C.  But we still await the arrival of the thunderheads and remember the laughing surf of early morning.


photo credit: trotsie

The brown pelicans of Bogue Bank

July 31, 2011 7:08 pm

To my mind, the brown pelican is an intelligent bird, and well evolved.  I’m no expert, but I can surely observe their goings-west in the early morning to feed off Bear Island and their goings-east in the late afternoon to roost on Shackleford Banks.  I’m just an all-day-sitter-on-the-beach, but I wait for these twice-daily migrants.  I watch for these grand and graceful birds.

Here on Bogue Bank, the pelican flocks in small groups of five to three times that.  Fewer than in the past, but I’m not complaining about this summer’s sightings.  It flies with its beak pointing direction, its pouch hanging, and its dark, side-mounted eyes straight ahead.  Its delta wings stretch out forever; its finger-feathers are majestic and reach out to test, guide, and taste the air.   They’re a statement indeed.  The bird knows about vacuum pockets, spacing, and the airfoil.  And the responsibility of out-in-front leadership.

We can laugh.  But it’s true to the careful observer.  Lead Bird (LB) works hard against new, blue air; its “wing man” (or “woman” — please) flies two bird-lengths back and at LB’s four o’clock position.  Don’t Air Force jets do this?  I picture a wind tunnel where scientists watch birds do it, observe airflow over and behind the wings, then copy what birds know.  The pelicans know where the slots – I think that’s the word – appear behind the wing, and that’s where the next pelican flies.  In the slot.

It’s something to watch, this silent passage.  Everyone’s eyes come off their books, their friends, their children; they look up and follow.  Taking the air lift above the cresting wave in the morning and the air lift up the dune in the afternoon,  even the pelican’s wing-flap is without sound — and used only when needed.  Powerful, efficient, imperturbable.   In the morning, the birds’ shadows glide cleanly over ocean swells, and close to their bellies; at dusk, the shadows race across the geometry of rooftops, scale the sides of beach cottages, zip up chimneys.  And they are gone, specks in formation moving toward the horizon.  I watch until they disappear.  A gift.

Remembered rhythms

July 20, 2011 6:13 am
Ask me how many excuses I can conjure for not keeping to my (usually disciplined) writing schedule in the summer.  Count them:
It’s too hot, too humid, too buggy.
There’s too much yard work, and I’m tired.
I have to pack for the beach, and make lists.
The hawks are too loud.
The chipmunks are distracting.
I can’t get a wall plug at Borders.
My writing room’s too …. quiet? isolated?  stuffy?
I have three emails to answer.
The printer won’t work.
I have to research … hmmm … the surfacing and swarming habits of black ants.
We’re out of mesclun.
I have to watch the hawks teach their youngsters to hunt, or the racoon paw at the bird feeder, or the fox stalk a mouse like a cat.
I’m stuck in the late-middle of a scary manuscript that has me stumped, and I need a p&j sandwich and a Tazo chai tea.
The summer pop lit book I’ve started is too heady, not trashy enough for summer.
Cold, winter reading it is.
Rain’s coming across the field, and I have to be here for that.
After that release, I’ll probably need a nap.
But mostly — and here I reach the truth — my body remembers the rhythms of childhood when we stashed paper and pencil, multiplication tables flash cards, and Weekly Readers in drawers for the summer, threw on shorts and sleeveless shirts, retrieved sand buckets and little shovels from the shed, and took out fun books by the armfuls from the town library across the causeway.
Creativity went into making mud pies for sale on the tar-hot street, surviving days of  battle against brigands in the dunes, lolling in the tide pools with the minnows, making drip castles, digging to China, and daring aerial tricks on the front porch swing that worried the old folks and shook the cottage.
Even today, I bow to this remembered rhythm of the body.  My stack of library books is right here, packed:   among them the latest Kiran Desai and Sebastian Junger, older John Fowles and Salmon Rushdie favorites, an Ondaatje I must have missed, and an E. O. Wilson on … yes! … ants.  And Patchett.
That scary manuscript that has me stumped for now?  I’ll print it out and ponder it through August.  It’s the hawk-watching and the afternoon-napping and the reading of lyric Ondaatje and the beach combing that will work it free — the rhythmic way forward.

Going south ...

July 11, 2011 6:10 pm

Here’s what I know for sure:  those of us who’re driven by the desire for something we don’t have lean forward in our chairs, our cars, our projects, our families, our friends, our lives.   We lead a tough life.  Statistically, according to surveys conducted by those who don’t know what they’re doing, we’re a quarter of the population.   Be your own judge here.

I mention this because my family will go to the beach for two weeks later in the summer.  Two weeks!  Such anticipated luxury for the land-locked.  Particularly for the land-locked who grew up at a Southern beach house and miss it.  Terribly.  Longingly.  And whose enjoyment of what is today is thwarted by missing what’s not now available full time.  Oh, sorrow.  Some of us really have it bad.

So, what do I do?  I make lists.  I begin the lists on a clean, new legal pad, one page per topic.  What To Do The Month Before, What To Do The Week Of, Menus and Ingredients, What To Take (divided into categories, i.e., clothes, kitchen, linens, electronics, books, beach stuff, the wok, the Chinese Five Spice), What To Buy at the Beach (another umbrella), The First Trip to Food Lion (gin, tonic, limes, extra ice), The First Trip to Mrs. Willis’s (shrimp, king mackerel, flounder), and so forth for ten pages of expectation-on-the-page.

These lists are created with a joy for the anticipated.  Clearly, I’m missing the present:  the unmatched loveliness of a New England summer day, the green hillsides and cool deep woods, the groundhog in the clover, the fox in the pine grove, the Red-tailed Hawks teaching their offspring to hunt for scurrying chipmunks in and out of stone walls, the climbing roses that survived the spring’s inch worms and are taking over the fence alongside the pool, in salmon, pink, scarlet.

Why is this?  I want to go to the beach, that’s why.   I get out of bed in the morning, leaning into it.   I can hardly wait.  Some desires I’m willing to give up; some I’m not.  The beach is one of them.

And New England’s crisp country silence will always be here for me, or so I tell myself.  I believe my own stories.


Remembering Rumi ...

July 1, 2011 12:48 pm

Once upon a time, there was a flute reed.  The court musician had sent his trusted servant down the steep mountain and into the far lands in search of reeds for this special instrument.  Meet any challenge, pay any toll, ask any question of those along the way who know about these things, he had told his servant, but bring me the plant from which my master flute maker may fashion the perfect flute reed.

After many months on the slippery sides of steep mountains upon his unshod horse, paying is last coins for tolls, and seeking directions from leaders both pleasant and unpleasant, both wise and unwise, the musician’s servant reached the southern marshes, a new land none had seen before and the home of the tallest, straightest reeds, exquisitely segmented.

With his sharp knife, he hacked at the plants, pulled them out by the roots, wrapped them into tight bundles, strapped them onto the back of his unshod horse with strong hemp rope, and journeyed the many miles to the mountaintop home of the court musician who waited for his servant, impatiently, pacing his hall.  He welcomed his trusted servant and, immediately, sent for his master flute maker who, called from his sleep, made his selection.

A long month later, after cutting, slicing, whittling, boring, soaking, and shaping, he brought to the court musician the flute reed.  Holding it in his hands, the court musician found this flute reed to be the most perfectly made of all his flutes.  He bowed to his flute maker and raised the flute reed to his lips.

Taking its transformation to its heart, accepting the musician’s thrust of breath along its length, and remembering the marsh of its birth, the flute reed sang.


Luciano or Jennifer

June 10, 2011 4:34 pm

On a recent Saturday, my husband and I (in our 60s) and our daughter and son-in-law (in their 30s) enjoy an afternoon at the opera – The Met’s Die Walküre – shown in HD at Patriot Place in Foxboro (the home of the New England Patriots).  In a raked theater, we join a houseful of opera lovers (in their 60s and 70s) for four hours and thirty minutes of Wagner, Lavine, Terfel, and Voight.  In Act III, we go through four Kleenex each.

At the first intermission, I say to my daughter, “You realize, of course, that you and B—(her husband) are the youngest people here.”

“By thirty years, easy,” she quips.  She doesn’t care.

When she was five, six, and seven, commuting with me to Del Mar to her school and my job, she was listening to Verdi’s La Traviata on eight-track tapes and singing Violetta to her consumptive death.  She came to believe that everyone dies in the end – well? – and that the last line of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” is about enchiladas.  I did not discourage her in either conclusion.  I loved her sweet little voice singing along with Pavoratti about her favorite Mexican dish.  We’d drive through Rancho Santa Fe, singing that awesome aria with the windows rolled down.  My point is this:  she cut her teeth on Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti, and, yes, Wagner.   She knew who the Rhinemaidens were before she had a dog, and I swear she moved not one inch during a three-hour Butterfly at the Met in New York, her first live opera.

Then later, she had questions:  “What am I supposed to say when my friends ask me about those TV shows?” she asked.

“What shows?”

“Like ‘Friends’,” she said.  “I don’t know who Jennifer Anniston is.”

“Who?”  I fretted and wondered if she were being deprived.

I’m sitting in the raked seats waiting for Brunhilde to become mortal, and asking myself Where are the young people?  Ah, there’s a couple further up to the left!  I look at their faces.  Rapt.

On the way home afterward, my daughter reminds me to make reservations for the next Met season.  B— agrees.  Ah, another young convert.

Remember what Richard Gere’s ‘Edward’ says to Julia Robert’s ‘Vivian’ about opera in Pretty Woman?



Theta's Gift

May 23, 2011 12:59 pm

Last night, I had an idea for a story.  It felt smart and clever, and I came to it after a long day of reading Rushdie and Maugham, critiquing another writer’s new chapter, trotting my new MacBookPro to the ER (an inexplicable coma, at least inexplicable to me), and hunting for un-green poison to kill the inch worms that sucked the living daylights out of the new growth on my roses since last weekend.  I was up in my head for sure, cranking along like a machine.

(“I have a really good idea,” I say often to my daughter, my husband.  “Do you want to hear it?”  “No.”  “No.”)

But turning over into another cloudy May dawn, still swimming in semi-dreams, theta’s early morning gift of the subconscious — when then is now, when body and feeling and mind are one, where mysterious connections are made and we-don’t-know-how — I am in accord with Robert Olen Butler:  ideas are not the source of good stories.

Tell me something or give it to me to read, and it’s still your knowledge.  Let me experience it for myself, and it’s mine.

Thank you, Prof. Butler.   A new day, and I’m off to see if I can get some of these theta wave connections on paper before my head sucks the living daylight out of them.

PCPUs and BlueToothMan

May 4, 2011 1:50 pm

In my four years of writing at a Border’s Café, I’ve become not so much an expert on the perfect sentence (alas) as on the habits of the PCPU – the Public Cell Phone User.  And since I like being an expert on something, I am rather buoyed by this.   I should say right here that I am in no way judgmental:  my friends and I — I’ll call us the Border’s Buddies — are PCPUs also.

I observe that while PCPUs occupy space along the typical behaviorial spectrum, there are three main groups.  And then there’s BlueToothMan.  But more about him later.

First, there’s the TIO-PCPU.  This is the Take-it-Outside group.  Your cell blares out “Anchors Aweigh!”  You dig for it in pocket or purse, tap-tap-tap on the volume control (“Sorry!”), run for the door, and talk in the parking lot.  Through the wide windows of the café, my friends and I can see your mouth moving, your elevator eyebrows, and your hands waving about.  We cannot hear you, and we appreciate that this is your intention.  Your return to table, computer, book, and coffee is a polite reblending.  I imagine your parents saying to you at a young age, “Honey, don’t talk with your mouth full” and “Sweetheart, remember to write that thank you note before you wear your new sweater.”  I’d estimate TIOs to be, say, 5% of PCPUs.

Second, there’s the ITS-PCPU.  This group takes the phone Into-The-Stacks.  Your cell blares out “The William Tell Overture.”  You dig for it in pocket or purse, cover the mic with a palm, trot toward the stacks, and lean on the magazine rack against the far wall, between The New Yorker and a Conde Nast special edition on Mediterranean cruises.  We can hear you a bit, but, hey, sharing the world with others is life, right?  I imagine your parents saying to you at a young age, “Buffy and Kenny, take your game into the den.  We’re trying to read here.”  Estimate of the ITSs — 15%, give or take.

Third, there’s the RATT-PCPU.  This group does it Right-At-The-Table.   Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” tells you there’s in-coming.  You flip open the cell phone — it’s on the table, at the ready — and you talk.  Decibel levels may vary depending on gender, skull and cheekbone anatomy, vocal cord elasticity, diaphragm musculature, breath, and profession.  We Border’s Buddies hear each of your conversations: you’re a tekkie walking a client through downloads, a mother reviewing algebra homework, a patient talking to her therapist (yes, really!), a coach justifying a line-up to a dad, a salesman pushing a warranty, a lover reliving last night (aloud), a real estate agent revealing termites, a then-he-said-then-I-said teenager to an oh-no-he-didn’t friend, and a frustrated computer user talking to Del … ah, human discourse writ large and audible.  I imagine your parents saying to you at a young age, “Sweetkins, come tell everybody in the living room about your term paper on the Thirty Years War.”  My friends and I, scattered among you, drag out little pink foamy CVS earplugs and earphones, and punch in iTunes.  Now we’re all wired – offensive and the defensive play – and doing our business on a crowded planet.  Estimate, 79.09%.

BlueToothMan is a category unto himself.  He arrives at ten-thirty every third Wednesday.  We Border’s Buddies share eye rolls and soft sighs.  Ear gear of any known design has proven useless.  We abandon hope.  BlueToothMan seats himself in the middle of the café from which his affect will be a full three-sixty.  Within minutes, he’s fighting a weak connection with a Romanian rope factory, he’s dissatisfied with a plastic fastener supplier in some dusty hamlet in Mexico, he’s bearing down on his wife who has failed to reserve table 16 at Café Nuovo, and he’s fencing with his captive secretary who needs to rewrite the second paragraph of a letter that must go out to an irate customer, today.

We’re captive too.  We look up.  We try to catch his eye.  We cough.  We look at him as one might when social behavior fails to meet accepted norms.  Monkeys do it.  Apes do it.  Maybe even bees do it.  All attempts at nonverbal communication fail.  I’m thinking he should at least buy a cup of coffee, but then I have strong opinions on a variety of topics.  In case you haven’t noticed.

A month ago last Wednesday, in response to a few audible sighs, BlueToothMan said to us Border’s Buddies, “This is not a library.”  Responding simultaneously, we said, “And it’s not a phone booth either.” An unrehearsed Greek chorus if there ever was one.  But BlueToothMan remained gleefully unaffected, unoffended, and jubilant in his personal pursuits.  He smiled, and his smallish features crowded the center of his round face, prune-like and devilish.  I image his parents saying to him, “Paulie, you’ll always be the smartest person in the room.”  And here he is, fully grown, a happy .01% of PCPUs.

My cell phone rings.  I dig my cell out of my purse, cover the mic with my palm, trot toward the stacks, and lean on the magazine rack against the far wall, between The New Yorker and a Conde Nast special on Mediterranean cruises.  A bespectacled man in a tweed jacket, who looks like he teaches Early Indo-European Languages at Harvard, gives me that look – the one monkeys do, apes do, maybe even bees do – that tells me he doesn’t need to know how my mother’s new sciata meds are working for her.  I look up.  I catch the eye of BlueToothMan.  He is laughing, that devilish twinkle in his eye.


Bluejay, a poem

May 3, 2011 3:47 pm

The doves arrived early,
and in safe coveys, they coo ‘round the feeders.
And, in March, the robin returned
to her nest in the pinecone wreath by the back door.
Then the jay – a cheeky fellow in his new lapis suit –
sat on that snake-skinned sycamore just yesterday,
soliciting a mate, reclaiming his space, and telling me so.
Back again, as expected.

Out of winter’s slapdash damage, the pine grove survives
with amputated arms high up, its green losses on the ground.
The first warm day brings out the tools –
his tractor and chain saw, my wide-fanning rake and old muscle –
and by midday, the mounds of leaf and limb, like far-flung kingdoms, pock the lawns.
They track our efforts from the bluebells by the house,
past the peonies’ red curlings, up to the long daylily-road to the vineyard.
Spring cleaning, as expected.

We toss our sweaters on the ground,
lean on the stone wall, wipe cotton sleeves across our brows.
We do what we always do, content again;
for spring is here, and hope returns with a rush.
This is hard work, done with soft, winter bodies;
we complain a little, laughing, breathing our spring breath, deeper now.
We have survived another Long Night, dying only a little.
The harshest of winters is over, as expected.

And then, jay feathers: swipes of lapis in the pile of green raked up, unseemly.
His feathers have held together, flight ready, nest ready, mate ready –
black-stripes, black-dots, white tips, undersides as pearl as the dove –
and stuck in place by the white down that warmed him:
his own long underwear carried him through yesterday.  Today,
his need,  a bit of thatch on the ground.
Instead, with life returning, an end he didn’t expect.
I hold lapis in my palm, and the ground shudders along a slip-fault.

The breeze is soft, the sun has come ‘round,
but nothing is promised us.

Hard winter: shut in and seeing out

May 3, 2011 12:09 pm

The roof leaks under tons of snow and ice.  The bathroom, in the high frequency, pitty-pat gurgles of children playing.  The kitchen, in the flat plops of its plastic bucket.   I check the jar in the library window.  At this rate, it’ll fill up by noon.  Red water, like the cherry window frames.

Hanging outside the sunroom window is the icicle.  Icicle is too fragile a word.  At the gutter, it’s maybe thigh-wide.  And as we say in New England, a good eight feet long, with rings of ice-fat.  I think of a see-through Michelin tire boy.  By ten o’clock, it’s dripping like a 1940s fawcet.  That’s a crater it’s making beneath.  To see what it’ll do next, I put my pen down and find excuses to be in the sunroom.  We should leave it there, this glassy stalactite. This crystal curtains.  No harm.  It’s a museum piece.  Temporary art.

I’m still a Southerner at heart.  We saved a dogwood last summer from encroaching shadow-giants.  For light, it leans southeast, an F in italics.  Its arms bring to mind a font the Brothers Grimm might have designed for The Frog Prince, or Lillian Hellman for The Little Foxes.  Crazed fingers-with-fingers.  Sun seeking, frozen and black-foresty against the field of snow that climbs the hill to the vineyard.

Gran’mama’s wrought iron love seat, solid in its present black over many coats of hundred-year-old green, is buried.  Only a scrolled corner sticks out.  A perch for Noah’s dove in this winter’s Deluge.  A chickadee this time.

My partner in hip boots digs shovel-width paths to the bird feeders and the bird bath. There’s a loyal population to feed.  Squirrels can’t be seen down in the troughs.  But the skinned-back, red turkey heads bob by – ga-lump ga-lump ga-lump – along the new turkey road.

Last night, high in the bare trees on the north side, the turkeys looked like tumble weeds, but thirty degrees east of their usual longitude.  Buddies, the two of them snapped out fan tails for balance.  High wire walkers, they’re an awkward a species at these heights.  Not the place to pick at fleas (but they do), nor to dress feathers.  But just so.  Then they slept. Headless and still, they faced north, both of them, into the wind that was to come, according to Accuweather.  But they knew this.

But now the turkeys peck at sunflower seeds splashed on the ground by profligate squirrels who have unlocked the secret to yet another bird feeder.  Some squirrels are smarter than others, I’ve noticed.  They learn; they teach their friends.

If I had written a thousand words of non-fiction this morning, I would have missed all this amazing stuff of the present.  I report all this to my partner who calls mid-afternoon.  I’ll go to Borders to write now, I say.

“Remember to empty the buckets before you leave,” he says.

Recent Posts

The Gift of a Question

No hurry …

ganeshaAfter months of neglect of the page and the pen, an unusually long hiatus, a writer-friend said to me, “You must find the time to write. You must write!”

I ponder her words: Writing is so much a part of the writer’s soul that when we don’t write we shallow out, we disconnect from what’s real, we lose the thread. We neglect the balance point between our two natures, a betrayal. The worst of our many selves takes over, and we begin to believe that’s who we are.

Danté placed the betrayer at the lowest circle of hell. Ganesha sacrificed a tusk — the pen! — so that the writer could write.

Some essays pop out of the frontal lobe–opinion easily expressed. That’s product. Others come slowly–a new search prompted by fresh insight, initiated by a question that nags. The early draft takes on levels and sub-text; it gathers both detritus and essential matter; it changes direction; theme appears and disappears; maps are drawn, destroyed, redrawn, followed, abandoned. This is new territory. (And why would one want to revisit the same familiar places anyway?)

Essential to breaking new ground on paper is the pondering. Doubt may hijack a week, a month, but what drives us forward is the question and the creative impulse that cares for it. All this takes time. No hurry.

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