Saturday, December 28, 2013

Who Rescued Whom

In her book Ancestral Intelligence Vera Schwarcz shares her renditions of some of the "jottings" of Chinese historian and poet Chen Yinke (1890-1969). She describes Yinke as, "a man who never tired or rescuing words." The idea of poet as rescuer appealed to me. Ironically I see it the other way around too. Sometimes I am rescued by a word.

Yesterday I was working on a collection of poems I started two years ago, although some of the poems are older than that. I made a New Year's resolution in 2012 to complete the collection. Then last year, since I hadn't finished it, I re-resolved to do it in 2013. It's not totally finished yet, but at least I have selected the poems that will be the collection.

For me, revision is an unending process. As Paul Valery said, "a poem is never finished, only abandoned." So as I was going over these poems, there was one with a title I didn't like. I like my titles to enhance the poem without giving too much away. This title was flat out exposition. I turned to my old friend Roget and looked up the word "thanks." I was offered twelve choices beginning with "gratitude" and ending with "gramercy." Gramercy? Wasn't that a park in New York? Well, indeed, it is, but it seems there is also an archaic meaning of expressing thanks from the French: grand merci. (Evidently the etymology of the NYC park goes back to a Dutch word meaning "little crooked swamp," but that didn't make any sense for my poem).

So now I have  poem titled "Gramercy." I was excited about finding this word and putting it back in circulation, and, at the same time, grateful to Roget for rescuing me from a dull title. Gramercy to Monsieur Roget.

I haven't decided what my New Year's resolution for 2014 will be, but I still have a few days left.

Friday, December 20, 2013

My Churches

On Christmas Eve after the presents are opened, the dishes loaded into the dishwasher, and the guests have left for home, I will sit for just a minute and look at the tree. Then I will bundle myself up and travel down the road to the candlelight service at church. This is always a highlight of my holiday. The beautiful music, the warm candlelight, and the familiar story of wanderers finding crude shelter where their baby will be born amid the animals all remind me once again of what this season is about.

When I speak here of church, I am speaking of the church I attend nearly every Sunday—Trinity United Methodist Church in Springfield, MA. The stone cathedral structure next to Forest Park is quite recognizable to anyone in the Springfield area. It is a beautiful building, but when I refer to the church, I am really talking about the people there. Everyone from the toddler playing peek-a-boo from two pews up to the man from AA who comes in silently, then leaves. Trinity is a warm and welcoming place.

This is why it pains me so when I hear about the other church—that larger church we are a part of—The United Methodist Church. That church has been in the news lately and not for being warm and welcoming—quite the opposite. That church has tried and convicted one of its clergy for violating church law—a law that forbids clergy from marrying couples of the same sex. In effect, that church has punished one of its members for showing love and compassion.

I struggle with being a member of these two churches, and I know I’m not alone. Can I go along worshiping and working in the church that ministers to everyone while, at the same time, being a part of that other church that excludes, judges, and condemns? I don’t know.

A couple of Christmases ago as I entered Trinity for the candlelight service, I saw one very bright star alone in the sky right over the church. I thought, of course, of the Magi who were guided by the star. This Christmas I will pray for that light to fall on both of my churches.

My Church

This is my church - doors open to the noise of the city
This is not my church - doors safely closed

This is my church - hands stretched across barriers
This is not my church - hands rigidly folded

This is my church - a harmony of diverse voices
This is not my church - a monotone of narrow doctrine

This is my church - hearts warmed by love
This is not my church - love limited by decree

My church -
not the closed inn doors
but the welcoming stable.

Monday, November 11, 2013


I am taking a Spanish class. It is not my first. I took two years of Spanish in college, but didn't get a lot out of it. This short class is designed to help those of us going on a mission trip to Nicaragua become somewhat conversant. I was pleasantly surprised at what was still residing deep down in the gray matter, and discovered again how my French (3 years of high school French) keeps intruding on my Spanish.

I wish I had continued my French in college, but I didn't feel prepared. The teachers I had for my first two years of French were excellent. First there was Miss Accorsi at Forest Park Junior High.  Remember Miss Grundy from the Archie comics? Replace the frown with a patient smile, color the dress gray, and that's Miss Accorsi. She may have looked like something out of a comic book, but she was the real thing. For the first six weeks of class we had no books, but learned to converse extensively about les crayons et les cahiers before we opened nos livres and began to learn about the difference between passe’ compose' and l'imparfait.

At Technical High School  Miss Roy made French fun as we heard
about her trips to Paris, sang songs, and learned about Edith Piaf. I even, and I find this hard to believe myself, wrote a sonnet in French in her class. Sadly all I remember about French 3 was that Miss Murray had short bleached blond hair, on top of which she had a huge bow, making her look like an overgrown kewpie doll—the extreme opposite of Miss Accorsi. So when I had to pick a language in college, I picked Spanish.
I wish I had continued with my French so that I came to know it really well, or else had started out with Spanish in the first place. As a result of knowing a little French and even less Spanish, I am envious of those who speak more than one language well. And what really annoys me are people who see their monolingualism as a badge of honor, insisting the rest of the world speak English. At the school where I taught, we had students from many different countries who spoke numerous languages. Many of them spoke several languages, yet others were critical because their English wasn't perfect.

Put aside the fact that being able to converse in more than one language is an advantage over frowning and waiting for an English translation. English is not an easy language to learn, and I say that as an English teacher and someone who loves the language. First there is the spelling. Why in the world should cough be spelled c-o-u-g-h when off is spelled o-f-f? Then there are those crazy words that are their own antonyms like left. It can mean that someone is gone, or what remains. And when the cops on TV dust for fingerprints, how is that not the same as what they're doing on the Pledge commercial? Adding dust or taking it away?

Being a lover of the language, I enjoy reading dictionaries, seeing the roots of words. Knowing the word's story, knowing, for instance, that the word sinister comes the Latin meaning left--oh, yes, there's yet another left--this one meaning the opposite or right-- which has several other meanings. Oh, it's all a wonderful mess of a language. From the little I know of other languages, I suspect they are not as complicated, which is why I admire those who really can speak more than one. Now back to los libros.

Buenas di’as, mis amigos!

Monday, October 21, 2013

October Thoughts

"A lifetime isn't long enough for the beauty of this world
and the responsibilities of your life."
Mary Oliver

Once again Mary says it perfectly. Recently I am feeling blown away by the wonderful things around me: sharing time with old friends, the glory of autumn, the warm weather, the gathering of families at a church event, the gathering of poets at a reading, and, of course, having the opportunity to see the Red Sox win the American League Pennant from Section 30 of Fenway Park. In between all this, there are the things one must do that sometimes include saying goodbye to those things that are most precious.
Last week I had the opportunity to have lunch with one of my oldest friends (not in age; she's actually a bit younger than I, but in the length of time we've known each other). We met in college. We've been together at some of life and history's most important moments. I was there when she married her husband who is also a friend, when her children were born, and when, from a small black and white television in their first home, we watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

We always look forward to being together. We share memories and laughs, and not a few tears. Sometimes they go together. At exactly the same moment that I am filled with the exquisite beauty of the maple's gold, I know it means winter is coming. Last week my friend told me that her husband's cancer has returned. Complicated by other medical issues, surgery is not an option. An appointment next week will determine treatment.
I wonder how to hold the beauty of our friendship, the richness of our history together with the weight of her sadness. Life isn't long enough to understand this. Yet, somehow, I suspect they are coupled. To be able to be there for my friend now as she cries, admits that she fears being alone--this is a thing of beauty undergirded by the many happy memories we share.
Much of the poetry I have written has been about spring, rebirth, and especially the persistence of the crocus cutting through the last of winter to bloom. It is a message I will return to, but  at this moment in my life--maybe because I just attended my 50th high school reunion--I am appreciating the beauty of that single gold leaf that started as a tiny bump at the end of the branch, that grew to a full green palm, that day after day gathered a piece of sun to do the tree's work, that danced in the breeze, that weathered the hurricane, and that now as it relinquishes its hold on the branch where it began, descends in a magnificent golden pirouette.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Just Another Walk in the Park

One of the many great things about having a dog is that it forces you to get out and walk. One of the great things about living in Springfield is getting to walk in Forest Park, hence Riley and I spend a lot of time walking in the park. Riley loves to walk, and the minute I turn my car off Sumner Avenue, wave at the familiar face in the ticket booth, and head down the road, he's sitting up and sniffing, knowing there’s adventure is afoot.  

We walk here in all seasons. If we come on a nice weekend day in the summer, we are weaving our way through picnickers, little leaguers, bridal parties, and runners. In the winter we are apt to be almost alone. No matter the season, it is always a rewarding visit. We have several routes--the path through the rose garden, the walk around the lily ponds, and, in the winter, the track around the playing fields because it is plowed. Yesterday we took my favorite route--around the lily ponds, up to the mausoleum, by the Carriage House, Prouty's Grove, and back down to the duck ponds.  It was a grey day, but the fall colors were glorious.

Even as the structures for"Bright Nights" were being erected, nature shone through. The reds and yellows of the maples, the floating leaves in the stream, the amazing lotus seed pods—all worthy of a poem. The Bright Nights’ version of deer jumping over Magawiska Road was already up, but it reminded me
 of just a couple of months ago when I saw three real deer
crossing the same road right in the same spot.  

Going on this walk always brings back memories since I've been coming here since I was very small. I remember family picnics near the waterfall, visiting the museum that was housed in the Barney Estate before it was torn down to make way for I91, running up the steps of the mausoleum, watching my grandfather trying to get the peacocks to spread their feathers, and skating on Porter Lake. I also remember Mr. and Mrs. Prouty who used to play bridge with my grandparents.  

To be honest, yesterday I thought about taking a shorter route just around the ponds and going on my way, but Riley started heading up the hill, so I followed his lead. The colors, the sounds of the birds, the fresh fall air--all made me feel so refreshed and grateful. Over and over I am grateful to O. H. Greenleaf and Everett Barney for donating this land to the city in 1874, and for all the successive generations who have kept it up. It's good to remember in these days of gated neighborhoods, that public space and public parks are a good thing for everyone.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Golden Door?

In a couple of weeks I will be attending my 50th high school reunion. Yikes! Besides causing me to notice the accumulating wrinkles appearing in my mirror, it has caused me to reflect on my many years in public education--17 years as a student from kindergarten through college and 35 as a teacher. I believe in the principles of public education, but what Horace Mann called, "the great equalizer of the conditions of men" [sic] is becoming less and less equal.

Public schools are the Lady Liberty of education. We are the golden door (frequently peeling) open to the homeless (literally) and tempest-tossed. We accept (by law, we must) everyone.  We accept the boy just off the plane from Iraq, the girl in her third foster home in six months, the twins separated by divorce, the boy who works 12 hours a day and gets paid under the table so he can feed his family, the 14 year old who reads on a second grade level, the gang member wired with an anklet, the girl who hasn't spoken in five years (We suspect abuse, but really don't know why). Sprinkled among them are the kids from well functioning families who get three balanced meals a day, dance lessons, tutors, vacations to Disney World, and emotional support. At least this is the way it used to be before the myth of "School Choice" gave birth to charter schools, magnet schools, and other variations of the same, and the sprinkles became fewer and fewer.

I say "School Choice" is a myth because not everyone has a choice. We know that students whose parents are involved in their education are generally more successful. Parents who visit schools, check homework, communicate with teachers and staff, attend PTA meetings, and are otherwise aware of what's going on in the school are able to guide their children through any rough spots they may encounter. These are the types of  parents who "choose" where their child goes. These are the types of parents whose children will fill the charter and magnet schools, not the children whose parents are not so involved.

Why aren't they involved? Certainly there is some dysfunction there, but  there are also the parents who can't speak English, those who are working three or four jobs just to put food on the table, those whose own poor educational background inhibits their understanding of what the "choices" are. The children in these families didn't choose their parents or the conditions in which they live. These children do not get to choose; these children remain in the public schools, despite what some would see as better "choices" for them.
Charter and magnet schools are the ones that choose. They choose whom they admit, what they teach, what activities they provide, and whom they exclude. It is understandable that parents who want the best for their kids may be impressed by "improved test scores." I'll save my rant about high-stakes testing for another day, but just a comment here--if a school can choose who takes the test, it thereby skews the scores in its favor. The test results of the public schools, where everyone takes the test, are also skewed but not positively.

Mann describes public education as an ark, outside of which, "all is deluge." What he didn't anticipate were all the pleasure crafts sailing away.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Lessons from Left Field

Apparently some fans are upset about the facial hair that the 2013 Red Sox have been growing, and growing, and growing. I don't particularly like the longer versions a la Mike Napoli, but the more trimmed ones like that on the chin of David Ortiz are fine with me. But, really, can anyone who is a true Sox fan have anything to complain about this season? Really? After the debacle of last season, really? Beards? Come on.

I have been following the Sox since the crack of Ted Williams' bat came out of the little red radio in my parents' kitchen. As part of the Fenway Faithful, I have learned a lot, and not just about baseball, but about life. Until that glorious day in 2004 when they broke the curse and won it all, cheering the Red Sox was an experience of continuously dashed hopes. Over and over and over we would hear the scouting reports from Florida and begin to believe that this would be the year. The season would have its ups and downs. If we made it into the playoffs, we' d begin to really hope that this year would be different. Then catastrophe! Mention the names Bucky F. Dent or Bill Buckner in front of a Sox fan, and you'll understand that you don't have to fight a war to have PTSD.

I've always thought it was significant that baseball season starts around the same time as Easter. Seeing all those guys with their new uniforms running out on the green green grass, it is like a rebirth, especially in 1979 and 1987. Hope is alive again. We believe again. Everything is possible in April. Being a Sox fan means believing again, despite the memory of crushing defeats. Off-season is a time to forgive and almost forget.

This tendency to forgive a lot has led me to make a few bad decisions, but enough about my love life. It has even (I can't believe I'm going to say this) made me feel a little bad for Yankee fans this year. They expect to win, to be in the playoffs. They don't have the scars that we do. They don't really understand, "Wait 'til next year."

I don't know whether the Sox will go all the way this year, though I certainly hope so, but I do see something similar about this team and the "Idiots" of 2004. They are a TEAM. They are not a group of stars. They pull for each other, and, yes, they pull on each other's beards. The beards are a sign of their kinship, so whether they are long or short or bushy or straggly, I say go for it.  Enjoy the game, enjoy each other, and go out and win one for the team...and those of us in Red Sox Nation.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Remembering Jeannine

When I heard yesterday of Jeannine Belisle’s death, my mind was filled with so many memories. We worked together for 21 years. For most of that time she was a vice principal, then later principal. For all of that time I was an English teacher. I never wanted to be an administrator, especially not a vice principal. I wasn’t cut out for a job where one dealt almost exclusively with problems and the students and staff causing them.

Few people are cut out for the job. Jeannine was the rare exception. Janeula Burt summed it up well. She was “fair and impartial, stern yet compassionate,intimidating and funny,” and, I would add, sometimes all at once, like the day I had captured a white mouse someone had let loose in the suspension room. I dropped the rodent into the envelope used for attendance and brought it to Jeannine’s office. (Where else?) After a good laugh, she returned Micky to the science lab, and hunted down the abductor who turned up the next day in suspension, but this time sans mouse. It’s easy to see why so many former students were remembering her so fondly on Facebook today.

I was fortunate to know her on another level. We were both single women who loved our siblings’ children. From time to time we would sit in her office and
just flat out brag—she about her nine nieces and nephews, and me about my four nephews. She had a huge heart whose love seemed boundless. She also had a wicked sense of humor. She wore sequined sneakers to caf duty. Her office was covered with Snoopy and Charlie Brown posters, and in private could tell some very funny stories. 
Jeannine was also extraordinarily generous. When one year I gave her a Winslow Homer calendar, she turned around and presented me with one of her original water colors—a copy of “On the Cliff” that I had admired. Every year when I reached out to friends and family to support me in the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life, Jeannine was always there with a check. Sadly, cancer was something else we had in common.

In the past several years I’ve been able to keep up with Jeannine on Facebook. Her entries were mostly about getting together with family and friends, traveling to Maine, enjoying lobster, and always her visits with Rosa. It was on Facebook she said that the cancer had returned. When I hadn’t seen a post in a while, I suspected the news was not good.
The last post I saw from her was, “I’m fighting.” I believe it. Jeannine was always fighting to get everything out of life that she could, and, in the process, she made life so much richer for those of us who were privileged to know her.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Basketball, Trees, Etc.

I have become a fan of the Science Channel’s Through the Wormhole. (Thank you, James, for introducing me to this). It is narrated by Morgan Freeman. I don’t always understand ALL of what they’re talking about, but usually enough to fascinate me.  

Today while I was watching an episode dealing with evolution, I was especially interested in the theories of Adrian Bejean, a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University. The theory he developed/discovered (?) is the constructal law, and it connects basketball, trees, nature, and even us humans. Fascinated yet? 

Consider the flow of the two teams on a basketball court. The ball flows from any point on the court to the basket in a “live flow system.” Players on the offense are trying to open up the channels, while the players on defense are trying to close down these channels. Over time the better players get the ball more often, making channels bigger and busier, while less active channels stay smaller. Eventually a pattern emerges resembling the shape of a branching tree. (Ah, trees! I see material for another poem here.) 

Look around; this pattern is everywhere in the universe--from the branches of the tree, to the veins on a leaf, to the lightning bolt, to the arteries and veins in our body. Bejean’s trying to understand what causes this phenomenon. He thinks it has to do with how things flow from one point to another.

Consider the tree. Water flows up from the ground, while mechanical forces like the wind are transmitted back to the ground. Or think about our bodies—the oxygen in our lungs, the blood in our veins, the electricity in our neurons—all have that same tree-like pattern. Bejean believes this pattern naturally creates stronger, fitter organisms because this pattern helps improve flow.

I am writing this within a couple of miles from where the very first basketball game was played and two days before twelve new members will be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. I wonder if James Naismith ever thought of basketball as a metaphor for life?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Labor Day

It's Labor Day, and I have just seen The Butler (twice actually), and I'm thinking about those people who work to serve us (us being everyone, as we are all served at one time or another). No one I know has a butler, but there are many others who serve--the traffic cop who steers us around the accident, the farmer who rises early to  tend to the fields, the babysitter who watches  our children, the man who mows the lawn, the clerk in the store, the nurse, the trash collector, the delivery truck driver, the teacher, the painter. The list could go beyond next Labor Day.

I think it's good to set aside a day to think about how we are served by others, how we serve others. As I muse over my oatmeal this morning, I stop to consider how many people worked to put this meal on my table, from the farmer who grew the oats to the potter who made the bowl it sits in, from the stocker who put the coffee on the shelf at the market to the designer who created the mug from which I drink, from the pharmacist who prepares my calcium pills to the clerk at COSTCO where I purchased them. If you stop to consider it, we are all intimately connected.  Yet, in our rush to be about the business of our lives, we don't often think of this. These other people, upon whom our lives depend, are, for the most part, anonymous.

The Whitehouse maĆ®tre d in The Butler told him,  "You hear nothing. You see nothing.
You only serve."  When I was teaching I rarely sat down for breakfast at home. Frequently I used Dunkin' Donuts Drive Thru on my way to work. The same woman
every morning would smile and hand me my medium hazelnut and a glazed donut. She would take my money and wish me a good day. All this was done with efficiency and pleasantness. Yet, I never knew her name. I never asked. I was too much in a hurry. I wonder if she had children at home she had to leave to be up at that early hour. I wonder if she had to hold another job to pay her rent.

In celebration of that anonymous woman at Dunkin' Donuts and all those who serve silently, I am going  to make it a point today to thank those I come in contact with who are serving me. I hope I keep it up tomorrow and beyond.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Road Basement

I think it was part of Mrs. Tabackman's  homeroom morning routine: the pledge of allegiance, a Bible passage, the Lord's Prayer, (Yes, I'm that old), and her looking at me and saying, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

Well, OK, maybe she didn't say it everyday, and maybe she wasn't looking at me, but it seemed that way, and it was appropriate then, and ever since. I've paved that road pretty well by now.

One item continually on my list of good intentions is to clean my basement. Since I've been avoiding this for so long, maybe I can't even claim my intentions are good. The task just seems insurmountable. If I am to face this, I must clear off the dust and cobwebs and figure out what to do with the following, most of which contain their own good intentions:

  • Baskets of clothes that no longer fit, but that I hope will again some day
  • Rolls of insulation I intend someday to use to cover the steam pipes
  • Jelly jars for the next time I get around to making jam. (The last time was 6 years ago)
  • Screens for doors I no longer have
  • Old lps for a turntable that no longer works
  • A chest of needlework materials for the next time I get a yen to crochet or knit or embroider
  • Carousels of slides from vacations back to 1973, or maybe earlier, I'm not sure
  • Boxes and boxes of old pictures. Some are of ancestors I faintly recognize. Some are my own in need of sorting, labeling, etc.
  • Stacks of paint cans each containing just a bit of leftover paint from one room or another, most of them without a label. I'd throw them out, but the directions from the city on what to throw where and when are too confusing.
  • 10 cartons or more of income tax papers. How many are you supposed to keep?
  • A doll's crib my father made for me that I keep because he made it. Maybe one of my nephews will have a child that will want it.
  • A carton of leftover mugs from my 40th high school reunion. The 50th is in October.
  • Christmas cards--lots of Christmas cards
  • A Christmas tree stand I haven't used since my last real tree
  • 6 remaining screwdrivers from the set of 12 my father gave me
  • An ironing board gathering dust, next to the sewing machine in the same condition
  • A basket of clothes needing mending or ironing (hmmm)
  • A variety of cleaning products I no longer use
Well, you get the idea. It's easier to say I intend to get to this chore than to actually go down the stairs and face it. There's another factor too. When I go down the stairs, I have to face the perfectly round hole in the wall made by my head from the time I decided to paint the stairs and fell over backwards. It's just too scary down there.

Except, of course, now I have to go and do the laundry which is, you're right, in the basement. Check on me if you don't hear from me in a few days.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Home Again

I’m back from a wonderful vacation full of writing, meeting great people, walking among the redwoods, and being awed by the majesty of the Pacific. There was a moment, though, when I thought I might not make it back, and which, reflecting on it days later, causes me to consider my fate, and fate in general.

Here’s the situation: I’m driving alone in a middle lane of a crowded freeway, maintaining a speed consistent with the traffic. I’m following my GPS, trying to determine which lane I should be in and when so as to make the next exit. The lanes on either side are full, so I’ll have to determine exactly the right moment to go. Then I hear a roar to my right as if a jet bound for SFO is headed right at me. As I gasp and grip the steering wheel tighter, I see the blur of a motorcycle flying between me and the car to my right, then weaving in and out of the lanes ahead and disappearing.  After I regain my composure, I start to consider whether my encounter with this hurtling Harley could have been my fate.

Most of the time I can live very comfortably in denial, living by my motto of procrastination: never put off until tomorrow what you can put off until the day after tomorrow. Then a motorcycle flies by, or a doctor finds “something suspicious” on a mammogram, and I am forced to face the fact that tomorrow is not guaranteed. Is this fate, as in a predetermined future out there waiting for me?  I suspect it's more about the physical world we live in.   

And if I rouse myself from denial and think about this, will that change anything? If I drive down the freeway looking for the speeding motorcycle, will I be any safer, or only slow up traffic and miss the world I'm passing through.

OK, I've decided to redefine my position on this. I am not in denial, but I am living in the mystery. I cannot know what my fate is or when or how, so why slow down in anticipation. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Back from Oz and the Bing

Many mornings after I've leashed up Riley and start out, I say, "We're off to see the wizard." Of course, there is no yellow brick road, and we're usually just heading off to work, but the lines, images, and themes of that classic movie The Wizard of Oz  are a part of me, and, I suspect, most of us.

Last week I watched it again for the first time, for like all great stories it is new each time. Sometimes it's the lessons of brain/heart/courage that stand out for me. Sometimes it's the longing for "Over the Rainbow" (still my favorite song). Sometimes it's the contrast between black and white Kansas and the brilliant Technicolor of Oz. This time I was particularly aware of the fact that this film was released in 1939 during the Depression.

After Dorothy's first encounter with Miss Gulch, she runs to Auntie Em for help, but Auntie Em and Uncle Henry are busy counting chicks. As a child sitting in the Bing theater, I didn't have much sympathy for the adults. How could they not see that Dorothy needed them to listen? 

All these years later I see two adults (two adults who are not her parents) trying to eke out a living in the middle of the Dust Bowl.  Every chick was essential to survival. Miss Gulch was wealthy and powerful. Em and Henry didn't have to be carried off in a tornado to understand that life was precarious. 

Now that I've watched it again, I find there are lots of themes to delve into in this story. You may hear about this again.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Dealing With Weeds

It's interesting what happens when you try to read on a dark morning with old eyes. I am reading Christian Wiman's My Bright Abyss where he writes about "grace through words," but I read, "grace through weeds." Maybe I had weeds on my mind, having pulled a few yesterday, both literally and metaphorically.

The real ones are profuse, following a week of intense heat, preceded by lots of rain. My friend Ken showed me how the thick stem of one unnamed intruder was able to store water enabling it to thrive in the heat. How clever nature is!

When I moved into this house 31 years ago, my next door neighbor, Sunny, was an inveterate gardener. She had all sorts of flowers and plants growing all over her small yard. She told me how to identify a weed: "If it's growing where you don't want it, it's a weed." Fields of dandelions growing on the sides of the turnpike--wild flowers, one persistent dandelion growing in the middle of my lawn--weed.

I thought of Sunny yesterday as I was working on a poem about trying to get to the essence of trees, but being frustrated by all the chatter in my mind. Words, ironically, were getting in the way of my poem. I started out using the image of music and trying to hear the melody beneath the lyrics. Then (maybe I was getting angrier) I started to look at these words as weeds, and I wanted to yank them out. The result was a poem starting with one image and ending with another. I had to sacrifice one. I decided on pulling the weeds out of the poem. They weren't growing where I wanted them.

Grace through words, it seems, comes from being open to recognizing what is grace and what is weed.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Waiting for Enchantment

The man at Wild Birds Unlimited in South Yarmouth assured me that this was the best hummingbird feeder, and that if I filled it with a 1/4 sugar water mixture, the hummingbirds would come. I bought it, of course, then bought an appropriate hanger from Brown's in East Longmeadow. I hung the torenia on one side, the hummingbird feeder on the other, and placed it by the honeysuckle near the window where I could see it while eating my oatmeal.

It's only been one day. So far, no hummingbirds, but I'm patient. What I want to know, and the man at Wild Birds couldn't tell me,  is how the hummingbirds know it's there. I have, in the past, planted flowers reportedly more attractive to hummingbirds: bee balm, phlox, salvia, but to no avail.  What sort of communication system do they have to get the word out that there's something new and sweet in Jane's yard?

Though attracting hummingbirds to my home in Springfield has so far been unsuccessful, I did find them once in another part of the country. My friend Beverly and I were visiting Taos, New Mexico. It was a rainy night, and we went out to dinner at a lovely place whose name I don't remember. When we finished, the rain had stopped, so we decided to go for a ride, following the trail of   the Enchanted Circle, a route out of Taos, up to Angel Fire, Red River, Eagle Nest, Questa, and back to Taos. The trail, as the name suggests, is a circle, except, well, we missed the turn back to Taos and kept going almost all the way to Colorado.

During this unplanned excursion we saw a bear, a herd of elk, and sadly a deer who didn't run fast enough to miss our car. Fortunately for us, the car was still drivable. Fortunately, because there was NO ONE else on the road, aside from the wildlife, and even if we had brought a cell phone, it's doubtful there would have  been any reception.

Eventually we figured out the mistake we'd made and turned around and got safely back to our B&B in Taos. The next day I went to the State Police to report the deer, but when they sent someone out, it was gone. I like to think it survived the encounter, but I don't think so.

Anyway, earlier in this adventure when it was still light, and there was still some civilization around, I needed to find a bathroom. We came upon a gas station somewhere between Angel Fire and Eagle Nest. It wasn't open, but there were porta-potties, and any porta-potty is a storm.

When I got out of the car, I heard a low dull sound, like a muffled engine. When I looked around I found its source--clusters of hummingbirds--maybe 100 of them--feeding off the several feeders there. I just stood there. Seeing one hummingbird is a delight, but this was beyond anything I ever imagined. Because our road trip had been a spur of the moment kind of thing, I didn't have my camera, so the image lives on only in my memory.

However these hummers communicate, the word had certainly gotten out about this spot north of Taos. I never thought to check what kind of feeders they were, but  I don't think I could see them very well anyway for all the hummingbirds around them. May my new feeder be even a fraction as effective. 

OK, hummingbirds, I'm waiting.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Stray Heirs

Please excuse this little diversion into family history; the point of the story has less to do with family than with what--stupidity? incompetence?  I don't know. Read on and you decide.

My family has deep roots in Springfield. My great grandfather Emil Schneeloch (that's him with the beard) came here from Germany about the time of the Civil War. He worked for many years at the Springfield Armory. Then later he moved to "the country" (the land along Allen Street west of Bradley Road) and started a farm. The brook that ran through the farm is still known as Schneelock [sic] Brook Many years later Sumner Avenue would be extended passing through what had once been my grandfather's rhubarb patch.

When Emil died in 1928, he left no will, so the property was divided among his children, those who could be found. My grandfather George (the cutie with the white bow tie standing to the right in the back row) was the executor of his estate. When Grandpa died in 1953, there was still one little piece of land left--a very small pie-shaped piece not suitable for anything except maybe growing rhubarb--and because some of the heirs had disappeared, there was no way to get clear title to the estate and sell the property.

My father (also George) consulted a lawyer, his friend Stuart Waite. Stuart recommended just forgetting about that land. He said that the city would eventually take it for back taxes. My parents would have forgotten about it except that every year they would get a tax bill from the city addressed to the Heirs of Emil Schneeloch. They called, explained the situation, yet still the bill kept coming. Eventually they just ignored it.

When my mother died in 2008, I started getting the bill. I decided 80 years was long enough to deal with this nonsense. I called, talked to people, was referred to others. Eventually I was connected to the city's lawyer. After some back and forth, he assured me that it was all taken care of. When my tax bill arrived that year, it was alone. No more bills for Great-Grandpa.

Then the day before July 4th this year I got another letter--this time from a collection agency warning me to pay all Emil's  back taxes or else. Back to City Hall. The man in the Assessors Office couldn't help me, but he did print out a copy of a map of this little piece of land. He sent me up to the lawyer's office, but he wasn't in due to the long holiday weekend. I left copies of the letter, the map, and my card.

Bright and early on Monday morning the lawyer called and assured me that the city was indeed in the process of foreclosing on the property, that I shouldn't worry about the letter, than no one was going to come to arrest me.

I might rest easy if I didn't know all the history of this property, so now I'm going to console myself with a piece of rhubarb pie.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Cuchulainn and Sand Sculpture

I have always been attracted to sand sculpture, beautiful creations built with the knowledge that they can last only as long as the tide stays out. Despite that reality, something in me wants to  hold onto them. Throughout the town of Yarmouth on Cape Cod this summer there are a variety of sand sculptures displayed as a part of Yarmouth Summer Celebration. As might be expected, there are lobsters,  dolphins and shells, but my favorite was this one in front of  the  Keltic Kitchen on Route 28.

The name on the sculpture is Cuchulainn. I remembered that he was an an Irish mythological hero, but I had to go to Wikipedia to be reminded that it was prophesied that he would  have everlasting fame but a short life. What an appropriate subject for a sand sculpture--something strong and attractive that must eventually give way to the tide.

Evidently the folks in Yarmouth feel like I do, as they have taken measures to keep these around for a bit longer. First they are erected safely away from the beach where a wave could easily sweep them back into the sea. Each sculpture is covered with a tent to protect it from the rain. (hence the shadow in my picture). Then every week they are sprayed with a mixture of water and Elmer's glue. Bill, our server at the Keltic Kitchen, told us last year's sculpture lasted until January. But even glue can't keep it around forever.

Robert Frost said, "Nothing gold can stay." These things we so value are not permanent, and yet that is what makes them all the move valuable, so go out and enjoy your sand castle while the tide is out.

Friday, July 5, 2013

At Work in the Mill

Although I'm still musing over my oatmeal, I also have a new writing space. This is the view from where I'm sitting now in the old Judd Paper Company building along the canal in Holyoke, MA. The building was opened in 1883, destroyed by fire, then rebuilt in 1922. I'm not sure what the building is across the canal, but likely another paper company. Holyoke used to be known as the Paper City. Vitek Kruta has done an amazing job recreating this space to become Gateway City Arts--"flexible, affordable co-working space for artists and creatives."

I am loving this space. First, it's a place away from most of the distractions that keep me from writing more consistently, but, even more so, because of the building itself. The history is everywhere from the beautiful hard maple floors to the bronze plaque commemorating the appreciation of the employees to the Judd family.

Today I'm appreciating the ivy-covered walls across the way. I've always loved the look of them, how the green softens the hard brick, how the leaves dance in the breeze, but I had thought they were bad news for brick buildings, but I just read in an Oxford University study, that the ivy actaully acts as a thermal shield and insulation, and also protects against pollution.  It seems the damage comes only when there is already some crumbling of the brick or stone work. This allows  the ivy tendrils to get into the wall, and that is how damage is done, but if the wall is solid, it's a benefit.

It's 92+ degrees today, and I'm thinking the mill workers back in the days before air conditioning likely appreciated the green insulation.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Left-handed Whelks

In Mary Oliver's Blue Pastures she talks about finding a left-handed whelk among the shards, lost fishing line, and plastic bottles at Herring Cove on Cape Cod. I was surprised, as I didn't know whelks had a dominant hand, or even a hand at all. After a bit of Wikipedia exploration, I found that these sea snails, also called lightening whelks, open to the left rather than the right. They can be as long as 15" and have been around for 60 million years. Whether for their lengthy history or their left-handedness, they have been named the state shell of Texas.

This set me to wondering why being different can be a cause for honor in one instance and exile in another, left handedness, itself, being one example. The original meaning of the word "sinister" was left-handed, yet today most Major League Baseball managers prize a good "Southpaw" pitcher.

Texas has honored this lowly snail because it is unique, yet it continues to exclude persons who love someone of the same gender from the institution of marriage. Now that sounds sinister to me.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

My Thoughts on the Deen Controversy

Like everyone else it seems, I've been listening to the stories about Paula Deen. Unlike most of the reactions I've read, this is not a condemnation. Truth be told, I am a fan. I enjoy her effervescent personality and many of her recipes, particularly her chocolate bread pudding--mmmmm. (Evidently the Food Network hasn't erased her from their website yet.

But her butter-drenched recipes are not the reason for her present problems. It's her use of the "N word"--a word so offensive we now have this shorthand substitute. When she was asked, under oath, if she had ever used that word, she replied, "Of course," and people gasped. What else did anyone expect? If any 60-something person raised in the South had answered, "No," that would have been laughable. Of course, she used it THEN. 

True confessions here--I have used the word. When I was growing up in the bluest of states, I learned eeny meeny using that word. I had no idea what it meant. Ironically it was my friend Kay who told me her Alabama-raised mother had taught her to use tiger instead. I didn't know why THEN, but I learned. I learned as I watched the frightening images on my black and white television of angry white people yelling at innocent children walking to school. I learned as I saw peaceful marchers being beaten. I learned the hate contained in that word. 

And I learned that hatred was not confined to the South. At a Methodist Youth Fellowship meeting back then, I was expounding on my horror at what was going on in Little Rock, when one of the mothers there, in her sweetest tones, warned me that if I kept talking like that, people would call me a n----lover. Wow, I remember thinking, bigotry exists even here. 

I do not know if, as Deen insists, this is not a word she uses now. I hope so. But I do know that most of us have learned a lot in the last 50 years, and I do know that racism then and now is not confined to one 6-letter word.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Strawberries on My Oatmeal on the Summer Solstice

Driving home from Westfield the back way, I passed a sign that I can rarely resist: Native Strawberries. These signs start popping up here in Western Massachusetts early to mid-June. They promise  access for a short time to these sweet red mouthfuls of deliciousness. The Big Y or Stop and Shop may offer something called strawberries every day of the year, but those are alien berries seeking asylum from someplace called Driscoll. No, the native berry is distinct, sweet and deep red through and through. 

Strawberry season is followed shortly by raspberries, then peaches. When the apples start coming in, it's time to put on sweaters and drag out the rakes. Today is the first official day of summer, so I have been thinking about seasons--fruit and otherwise. Clearly everyone on this planet is aware that there are four seasons, even those Aussies who are now heading into winter. Living in New England, though, seasons are more obvious. We avoid them at our peril.

Seasons mean change, whether moving from strawberries to raspberries on my oatmeal, or moving all the porch furniture back to the garage and moving the potted plants indoors. If you live in a climate where seasons are distinct, you accept this, or grumble and talk about moving to Florida. 

Thinking about this the other day, I came up with a question: Is there a connection between the fact that the northern part of the country tends to be more liberal and the South more conservative and the seasons? Does the fact that living in the South doesn't necessitate change in everyday living mean that those who live there are more resistant to it? Hmm, still contemplating this one. Now back to my oatmeal.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Lecture I Missed

Because I had about 45 minutes before the lecture started, I decided to take a break from the business of the conference and take a walk around Gull Pond. I had always tried to sit near the window at meals so I could enjoy looking at the pond, but I'd never ventured out, so here was my chance. 

I was walking at a relatively brisk pace, intent on enjoying the walk, but with an eye on my watch, when, halfway around, I realized the pond was larger than I thought, and I wasn't going to make it back in time. My frustration was momentary. This meant I could slow down, take my time, and really enjoy this walk in the woods.  

After all there were trees to enjoy--the trees I'd been writing about--one whose roots clung to a rock face like old arthritic fingers. There were frilly mushrooms. There was green velvet moss on stones.  

And then a lady slipper,
then two,
then a whole patch of them.  

When I was young it seemed all I had to do was step into the woods and they were there--hundreds of them--tiny pink valises, each on a single stem. I picked them, handfuls of them, even after I heard it was forbidden. I wanted to have them, hold them, own them. 

So here they were again--the same tiny orchids hiding in the shade of the pines--but I had changed. I no longer wanted to capture them, but only to stop and wonder and be reminded that there is still beauty in dark places that is best beheld and not held.


Saturday, June 8, 2013

If at first you don't succeed...

OK, so I am still learning this blog thing, and in the process deleted my entire first entry, so I'm going to try to recreate it here.

Why "Musing Over My Oatmeal"? Most mornings start out with my sitting with my bowl of oatmeal, looking out the window, and reading and writing, so I decided to locate the blog rather than give it a theme because I expect I will be writing about a wide variety of topics.

I'm interested in a lot of diverse things from the poetry of Wendell Berry to the Red Sox to the intricacies of my new iPad to why people choose to climb redwood trees. Being a writer and retired English teacher, I also love words, and am apt to expound on them.

Monetize is a word that I keep bumping into. Just this morning I read Joe Nocera's column "How to Monetize Plagiarism." Those who use the word talk about how to turn whatever is being discussed into something measurable, valuable, i.e. cash.

This morning I am looking out at the rhododendron which seems to be coming back to life after looking pretty sad earlier this spring. My gardener friend said to water it religiously. I began doing that, but then Mother Nature took over.
So, my question is, (I should have added that I have a LOT of questions) if it comes back, can I monetize that? What if I don't want to monetize it? Does that make me unAmerican? If I turn on the sprinkler every morning when it's not raining, does the fact that my water bill goes up affect the monetization?

Well, the sun's finally out, so I think I will take Riley for a walk.(more on him later)

Friday, June 7, 2013


Once a number of years ago when I told someone who created astrological charts that I was a Gemini, she said, "Oh, Gemini, spaghetti-brain." It's always stayed with me because, whether it's because of the stars or genes or being weaned too early or too late, my mind frequently dashes off on whatever tangent seems important or interesting at the time. Hence you see the confusion below.

The pile on the left includes numerous books about trees for the collection of poems I am in the process of putting together with trees as a theme. Then there are the books for book club, covenant group, and poetry that I like. There is also a journal in which I write when the iPad is upstairs.

The empty boxes once housed my iPad and its cute red keyboard. When I read Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs--which I thought was extraordinary as well as his bio of Einstein--I remember that Jobs was meticulous about everything he produced including the boxes, and they are very well constructed boxes, so much so that I  hate to throw them into the recycling bin, so here they sit.

In front of the keyboard is the empty oatmeal bowl and the morning paper still in its orange sheath. That paper lies on a few others I haven't gotten too yet, being understandably distracted by other things like writing a blog.

The basket is full of index cards which were intended to be used for tree references, but usually are grabbed when I need something to write on or a bookmark.

The yellow tulips are silk and distract me from the rain outside--not a bad distraction!