At the End of Poetry Month

Some days it really is more important to read a poem than to crack out the laptop for yet more email, and this second-to-last-commute in National Poetry Month has just provided such a moment. I didn’t really have intentions to read almost nothing but poetry in April; it just sort of happened that between reading the Poem-a-Day that comes to my inbox (thanks, friend, you know who you are) and my library’s robust borrowing system, I’ve had a slim volume tucked into the short backpack pocket all month. Some inbox poems are deleted quickly, some are saved, and some have enough verve to move me to find a book of that poet’s work.

Today I’m in a second book[i] written by a new favorite. I bought a copy of the book I read last week, and here, now, in the middle of a second, chai latte in hand and in a full train car, I’ve had to stop reading and put the book down…a sure sign of something wonderful. What is a wonderful, remarkable poem, you ask? And how do you know when you’ve just read one?

It’s easy to say ”you just know” and, to some extent, that’s true. But there is more. What is also true is that a wonderful poem pulls you from the page of a book to a page in your heart. It stirs from your memory something that lasts longer than the moment you are actually remembering. The poem I just read, “The Piano Speaks after Erik Satie,” caught my breath in my throat and transported my gaze immediately out the window, across the horizon to look back at a concert at the kids’ school in which a wonderful, classically trained pianist prepared and gave a performance to last a lifetime. I could see her in my mind’s eye: her memorization, the hours of practice, the devotion, the stamina, the desire. I recalled the silence when she finished, the burst of applause and, even more than the long, standing ovation, the awareness each audience member had of the fact that we had just witnessed something much greater than the sum of all our parts. For those few minutes, we had seen the work of a master.

How deserving and right, then, to take a moment before this day begins to not only re-appreciate the performer and performance we witnessed then but also today’s humble poet who, through her hands, wrote down what she heard, never knowing who, or where, or what difference her words would make on a chilly April morning, on a train ride into Boston, during (our 20th!) National Poetry Month. Thank you, dear pianists, for all you’ve given the world. And thank you, poet Sandra Beasley, for helping us hear melody in all the madness.

[i] Beasley, Sandra. I Was the Jukebox. New York: Norton, 2010.

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A Head-High Sheen of Green

This was the scene that greeted us on the Saturday marsh/woods dog walk this past weekend. Pleasant, it was, especially with the impending doom of temperatures near 19 degrees and snow in the next day or two: typical New England. But rather than dwell on that (after all, no one I know has put away scarves or hats or leg warmers), I’d like to think again about how those budding bushes looked as we walked along the path. At the time, it reminded me of searching for constellations. Often when you try to gaze directly at the stars, or even search outside for a black dog on a pitch black night, you can’t see as well as when you look off to one side and let your peripheral vision be queen. That’s how it was with this sheen of green: tiny buds that isolated were very small, but taken together in a wide view, displayed the vision of spring right before our eyes.

Today’s blog title was suggested by my husband as we strolled up the path and through the wood. To him one of the miracles is that this small beginning will take off full throttle, resulting in what will be a full display of exuberant growth in a few weeks. For me, the miracle is that this tiny beginning dares to present itself again and again as each winter ends. It’s like the tide that comes in and goes out, set by and following an ancient rhythm so much older and deeper than ourselves. These are daily, slow and dependable processes in a world where our present days and doings can seem ever the more unpredictable, unknowable, less secure.

Now I steam into Boston on the Monday morning train and look out over snow dappled pastures, horses in blankets and a grey sky that does promise snow. But no worries. Everyone is dressed for success against what the weather will throw at us and soon this view, too, will be a panorama of warm color as nature awakes fully and puts her spring garments on. It’s a joy to see that sheen of green takes its place, filling the in-between spaces left by the evergreens and bringing flower to woody stems and winter weary souls. It’s also a joy to pull my coat back on right here in the train seat, and get ready for what lies down the rails ahead. It’s also a joy that the book in my backpack today is called….Frozen Spring[1] !

[1] Stever, Margo. 2002. Frozen spring: poems. Minneapolis: Mid-List Press.


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Bread Near the Water, Then Quite Far

It was good to see the sun this afternoon after a few days of cold, and, perhaps, our final dose of snow. Today’s walk over the Longfellow Bridge in the brisk air went at a quick pace, all things considered. Lost in thought as I often am, it was a lovely surprise to hear the tune being played by the saxophone busker who usually stations himself near busy crosswalks by the hotel. His slow, low notes immediately transported me back to a time long, long ago. Do you remember “If” by Bread?!  Carumba!

Decades have passed since I stood on my high school stage and sang that as a duet during my senior year. The soloists’ only instructions were to a choose contemporary number: I haven’t a clue now what moved me to put this at the top of my list. But there I was, and today it was just as clear: me in my long, homemade pale blue gingham dress, my song partner in his pressed, best dress suit, the piano leading us forward, the eyes of the audience locked onto the spotlights as we sang alternate verses and harmonized their final two lines.

I was still humming in the traincar as I pulled out the laptop to finish the climate change story I’d been reading in today’s Science Times. That quickly ended when I saw the headline of the day’s tragedy in Brussels. And now I’m home, hearing more of the details.

The starkness of this violence grips us.

I think of the many, many affected.

In only a moment we are pulled from pleasant reverie to grim reality.

It will take more than a moment to feel this new weight added, and to watch our next steps.

“If?” If only. The world will not “stop revolving, spinning slowly down to die, “at least (I pray) not yet. But there are stars going out, one by one. Do you agree we won’t, we can’t, simply fly away?

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The Lens of Lent

I need marsh walks to have thoughts, paper scraps in my purse to record them, and train rides to share them. Walking across the meadow today,  I gave voice to what I’ve been pondering for several days: What are the heavy and the light things we carry in this Lenten season upon us?

Recent days have been filled with discussions of life insurance and taxes. They sound so opposite: the former is optional and purportedly helpful. Taxes, on the other hand, are mandatory and not obviously of benefit (especially if we face writing a check to the US Treasury.) We consider and possibly deal with both while we live, but both also carry reminders of our mortality. “The only sure things are death and taxes,” we quip. And indeed, in the process of doing both, we are reminded how unfinished we think we are with living.

I’ve also been returning to one of those thoughts that come to me as if through a mental tickertape. You know the feeling: suddenly dictation comes directly into your brain.  On this particular occasion I could almost hear the keys flying with the incoming message, just like in newsrooms of old. The ribbon read, “We often make the small too big, and the big too small.”

So I ask: are the heavy things in my Lenten backpack big or small? Are they lasting, or temporal? If I name some, will it help me know what I’m carrying?

Heavy things: the photo of the General handing a folded flag to an infant, held on her mother’s lap, graveside, for the fallen husband and father killed in Afghanistan. Also, the anticipated and shared grief I feel for my friends, which reawakens my own, even if briefly. Now, I realize, that grief touches my resolve as well as my sadness. Here’s something else heavy: The long term future of our nation and our politics. I think of my husband who teaches the intersection of faith and politics. Do we need the former to find anything good in the latter?

The light things seem like vapors. I open my pack and out they float, not even staying long enough to give weight to my fingers on these keys, it seems. Things now fading: the wonderful mushroom bisque I made that no one would eat. Doesn’t anyone care I left in the cayenne pepper although I once wrote on the recipe to leave it out, and now I’m sure I should keep it in?  What a nice bite the cayenne brings! Here’s another lightness: not folding the laundry during the final episode of Downton Abbey, and thus being two baskets behind for the boys who shower and (kindly) call down, “Got any clean towels around here?” Here’s a last one:  how about the weariness of my arms after scraping four cars for four days in a row: so what? It’s due to be seventy degrees tomorrow.

Ah Lent. Season of substance and journey, heavy and light, big and small. I think wisdom says we will never be caught up with all the responsibilities and dreams and tasks in our daily lives. Nor will we arrive at a full expression of the love, heartache,  friendship, or gratitude we’ve known along the way. But surely, in spite of this seemingly great limitation, we will experience grace, now and at the end of our days. Grace to know we chose the Real Game, and the Truest Adventure.

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Some Things Beautiful, Some a Bit Odd

It’s been a very full day here and the morning walk through the marsh yielded a view of one of the most beautiful blue skies I have ever seen. The snow of yesterday provided enough of a dusting to winterize the meadow scene but not bog down the dog. Several folks were arriving just as we were leaving. Since no one was searching the sky, it must have been a group hiking excursion rather than a cool bird sighting.

But we took off and did not linger, the dog and I, to run a few errands before returning home to breakfast. That’s when a couple of the stranger events of the day took place. The first is the new construction of a storage unit a few miles up the road from the marsh walk turnoff: it’s going to sprout out of the ground! These structures aren’t uncommon these days, but they do seem to be popping up more often. I’d like to know what’s being stored in these beasts. Are they full of people’s things that won’t fit in an attic? (We have a lot of those in New England, and mine is pretty full!)

The other odd moment was something really small but it gave me great pause. Usually I switch on the radio to hear the weather in the car, but the other day an icon of headphones showed on the display for the station number. No matter what I tried: pushing buttons, reading 4 pages of the car manual, scanning, nothing brought the sound back. Today, however, I had the idea of just turning the knob volume up and guess what? Out came the sound!

Beautiful views, odd moments, full days, quiet nights. Catching up on work for the house, the job, the upcoming tax appointment, learning some tough health news about relatives of friends, these made up the rest of the day up to this moment, which itself is odd. I am sitting here in the living room with the clock screaming the hour is way later than it should be. I’m with one of (today’s) other two house residents, watching the TV wrap up on the day’s politics. I don’t know what is more odd, that I am doing this or the situation on the screen before me. What I do know is that life can be both good and hard and beautiful and odd, all in a mere 24 hours.

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I’m Thankful

We had a howling storm pass through around 3AM last night. Warm tropical air passed up and over us here on the coast after wreaking havoc in some of the southern states. At my house we heard simultaneously the tapping feet of a frightened, discontented dog and howling winds. We then saw two sets of flashings: white lightning  and blue toplights on two squad cars hauling something out of the middle of the street.

Now here, in this standing-room-only train, I’ll take a moment to be thankful. First,  I have a window seat; also, my slide show for the 10am meeting is complete.  A favorite barista at a favorite morning breakfast stop gave me a stunning chai latte; my basement was dry and the pump worked; no trees fell on anything. I’m also hopeful the animal I heard in my bathroom walls is just a flying squirrel, not a big gray. That’s a problem for another day.

In a way, this litany sounds superficial as I think about the entire infrastructure that supports me being able to make the above claims. Although I have a mortgage, debts and may owe (yet again) income tax, since we’re in the stage of losing dependents: I have a job, cars to get to a job, food and water obtained from working at the job, and a community of friends doing just about the same things. Given the state of our country and world, this is a huge set of conditions for which to be thankful. I’m also thankful I have a new book of Linda Pastan’s[i] poems in my backpack, and I’m getting to know the world of Jayber Crow through the words of Wendell Berry[ii].

I hope your day today gives you time for tea, a fresh start, and a moment (or two) to look up, and be grateful.

[i] Pastan, Linda. Insomnia. New York: Norton, 2015.

[ii] Berry, Wendell. Jayber Crow. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2000.

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In the Halls of Democracy

Nearly two weeks and two states ago now, the rain and mist were swirling outside the non-heated New Hampshire VFW in Raymond… but the assembled crowd did not seem to mind. Bit by bit the small hall filled; folks found seats down in front or back behind the small platform of cameras and tripods. Since I am not a resident of the Granite State, but an interloper from across the state line (from, actually, many states lines away, being the Indiana daughter of blue collar Chicagoland Democrats),  to my relief the journalists twice chose the occupants of the seat next to mine for interviews.

The anticipation grew very quietly as we waited for John Kasich, a man running for President of the United States, to emerge from behind patriotic panels of red and blue. I almost wrote “the excitement grew” but that doesn’t quite capture the mood in the room. These were serious folks who’d come out in poor weather, at high noon, on a weekday. Many hold as a point of pride the privacy of their vote and the option to decide once in the voting booth. They are on-the-issue people.

But suddenly there he was, a presidential candidate, poking his head out and coming to the crowd. The comfortable country music faded, the host bid us to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Governor from Ohio took over the small platform stage.  For the better part of the next hour he gave remarks and took thoughtful questions. What shall we do about extending care to those who suffer, he asked rhetorically, but then rephrased this: how do we care for those who experience disabilities? He answered this one with the care I think he dares to bring to his day job back home.

Others wondered about the moose whose numbers are falling, and health care, entitlements, jobs, college debt… all these issues came tumbling out with respect and seemingly little tolerance for pundits, backstabbing and the media circus which is being created or fed or both on way too many screens in our homes each and every evening.

Soon it was time to find our way out, having had the privilege of seeing freedom and democracy in action. No matter whether you agree, no matter your job(s) or lack thereof: you have a voice and the right to use it. I hope many people make, find, or create time to go to the polls this year. The gifts of time and our right to vote aren’t without cost nor come delivered to our door. I feel an Americanism on the rise in me, and it hope you feel yours doing the same in you.

Onward, ho!



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