Funny Duchess

Blog of artist and poet, Michelle Seaman

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Matthew’s Ride

Last summer, my brother Matthew experienced the distance of the United States in the BEST way, and I must brag about him for a moment. He rode his bicycle from Florida to Wisconsin.

Yes, his bicycle.

Because I honor and deeply respect his choice to travel using two wheels, muscle, and sweat, I am sharing this. Because I want to meet him at Aldo Leopold’s Shack (aldoleopold.org) someday, maybe witness the sandhill crane migration together, bike the roads of our childhood again, I am writing dreaming, and wishing this.

I interviewed him about his trip and his responses are here. At the end of this post, I wrote him a poem, inspired by him and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Please enjoy.

1: How did you choose your route? Can you share some of the resources you used?

The first thing I did in choosing my route was to pencil a straight line on an atlas from Madison to Tallahassee, which turned out to be a rough guide at best, because it passed through too many cities. Also, along with avoiding congested areas, I wanted to stay west of the Appalacian mountains. So this basically meant western Alabama, coming out of Florida north of Tallahassee and angling north and west out of Dothan.

First, though, from Tampa to North Florida, I was lucky to have two paved bike trails heading in my direction. I picked up the Withlacoochee Trail north of Dade City, and it turned out to be very encouraging because of how flat and smooth it was. I stayed in my second motel in Inverness, which was right on the trail, and was allowed to check in before noon. Earlier that day I sat out a rain storm under a kiosk for a state park, which I didn’t mind at all. Otherwise, I used Gazetters for Florida, Alabama and Illinios and Google maps when I had access to wifi.

2: Can you describe some of the natural beauty, places you could best see on a bike and maybe miss with a car?

Bike trails. Otherwise I shared the road with drivers who could see what I saw if they slowed down. What they did miss though, are the smells and sounds of where they are traveling through.

3: Can you describe some of the places you stayed along the way?

Campgrounds/cabins/hotels/towns? Funky hotels, mostly. Cheapest ones that offered wifi. I only camped in North Florida, Southern Illinois and Wisconsin. Three Rivers State Park in northern Florida is on Lake Seminole and from the shoreline, you can see Georgia. I camped two nights there and stayed one night in a waterfront cabin that was close to a perfect lodging. At first, I had a tent site with electricity and slept with a puny desk fan just inches from my face, but my Thermal Rest was too narrow and I woke up every time I rolled over. Otherwise I had 90 degree days the entire trip, so I stuck to motels with a/c.

4: What surprised you along the way-impressions of people and places, feelings you had?

I used my laptop at McDonald’s damn near every day. What surprised me were how many older couples I’d meet there who just loved to hear my story. I would have ridden right past the famous music studio Muscle Shoals if an older guy didn’t strike up a conversation at a McDonald’s two doors down. In Luverne, Alabama I stopped in the shade of a parking lot and got to say hi to a couple of dogs being walked by very friendly home health care worker. We talked for awhile, and she left but came back on her way to work with a plate of eggs, toast and snacks for the rest of the day. Another place in Alabama I was offered Gatorade and cash while still on my bike. I took the drink but passed on the money.

5: What were some of the biggest challenges?

Traffic, wind and hills. A crazy head wind going up an interstate overpass with a green light and someone wanting to go right at their red light, that was the worst. I had one lady pull up next to me in Kentucky and say “You’re going to cause an accident” after struggling with a narrow shoulder and long ass lines of cars. In Alabama, the caution bumps carved into the pavement were smack dab in the middle of the shoulder, which gave me only about six inches of space to ride on. Once I had a truck coming behind and one coming at me and all three of us would have met on a bridge-where the already narrow shoulder tapered to next to nothing- had I not turned into the ditch at the last minute. Semis were the other big challenge. Then monster pot holes in the roads, starting about the middle of Illinois.

6: Which states or regions seemed the friendliest toward bicyclists?

I saw more people on bikes in Wisconsin the first few hours I was here than I saw in all the other states combined, and this was over four weeks. The people in Alabama were friendly but the roads were not.

7: What was your favorite aspect of the trip overall?

Sunday morning on a quiet country road. Sitting out rain showers in abandoned stores that had an awning, which were fairly abundant in Alabama. From the middle of Tennessee to northern Illinois I got lucky with tail winds. My best day was 80 miles in southern Illinois where the farm roads were laid out like a grid, and I kept a 15-17 mph average, which felt like hauling ass.

8: What will you do differently on your next ride?

Be out of the south before June. Plan for more camping and not shy away from the mountains so much. Next trip I start in the north and go north.

9: Where are you planning to go?

Canada if I can renew my passport. Otherwise the Boundry Waters in Minnesota. Heading west isn’t off the table, just very unlikely.

10: What specific equipment/gear/supplies would you recommend to other bicyclists?

Surly bikes and Ortileb panniers. Gazetteer’s were big and clumsy but sometimes showed camping areas that Google maps did not. A side view mirror is essential. I used insulated aluminum water bottles, so I always had cold water. Stopping for ice became routine.

11: Lastly, as a rough estimate, it’s 1,330 miles from where you started in Valrico, Florida to Madison, Wisconsin. How many total miles of trails vs. miles of road did you travel? And do you think the U.S. will see more bike trails in the future, like the Rails to Trails movement?

I’d say I rode about 100 total miles on trails and the rest were roads. I think I could have ridden more trails if I had made the time. They were there, but I really wanted to get to Wisconsin. As far as the future of bike trails in the U.S., well, I don’t like to make predictions like that.

I think my brother’s answer to that last question is honest and practical. I sincerely hope that the U.S. does become more of a bike-friendly nation, because as Matthew says, I want to experience “the smells and sounds of where [I am] traveling through.”

Poem for Matthew

My brother followed cut-leaf Silphium,
compass plant,
home
to a root
vertical and deep,
clear through to bedrock

in July
seeking
a seed that tastes like sunflower,
but with its own man-high stalk,
saucer-sized yellow blooms.

He wanted to celebrate
a prairie birthday,
a flowering age,
before rail lines or highway.

He rode his bike,
following the scent of this flora,
this weed like a book,
to the rivers he knew with his fish pole
to Wisconsin,
and I am following him
home.

Vermont

“Can a landscape love you back?”

Poet Katy Gurin posed this question to me last summer during a workshop at the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference in Vermont. She wrote it as feedback for one of my poems, and she may have written it as a reflection for her work too. Katy writes gorgeous, haunting poems about her relationship with the California landscape. She also sets some of her poems to death metal music. Katy is very cool.

I am still feeling this question. It stayed with me throughout the summer into autumn, traveling with me like this…

After Bread Loaf, Benjamin and I drove from Middlebury up to Burlington to bike the Island Line Trail. Thanks to a gift from our Colorado Moms, The Official Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Guidebook for New England, we had read about this trail and viewed pictures of bicyclists who seemed to be riding on water. This holy mystery tempted us. We had to experience it for ourselves.

So we started at Leddy Park, or mile 5, in Burlington’s New North End district. Leddy had a sandy beach that reminded me of Silver Lake in Portage, Wisconsin, a place I knew as a kid, a place with the distinct scent combination of freshwater lake, fried food and sugar, a place that said summertime. I felt 12 years old. It was a beautiful way to begin the ride.

We biked a few miles north, pedaling over a boardwalk and crossing the Winooski River Bridge. I love biking on boardwalks for the way they lift me, how I feel fearless, not exactly flying, but swinging on my bike among tree branches. I love the smell of railroad bridges, hot metal and damp wood, how there are always intricate spider webs gracing the posts, and how again, I am not afraid. I can park my bike on those bridges, stand over wide rivers with frothy currents and feel courageous.

After the bridge, we continued through neighborhoods, beside ditches of croaking frogs, past Airport Park with kids on the playground laughing, and finally reaching the Colchester Causeway, the Island Line, the trail that floats on water.

Actually, to quote our guidebook, this part of the trail was
“built in 1900 atop huge marble boulders…a 2.5 mile raised railed [that] slices across Lake Champlain for unparalleled views.” The book goes on to say that “as you sail across the crushed stone surface, you’ll have a sense of skimming the water’s surface.” I can attest, this was absolutely true. I felt a little wobbly at first, spinning my tires over marble with deep, cold water on both sides of me, but once we were in the middle of that grand lake, I exhaled. We had to stop, park our bikes, sit on those chunks of marble and take in the view.

There is a verse from the Indigo Girls’ song “World Falls” that properly expresses what I felt in that moment. It goes like this:

“I’m coming home with a stone, strapped onto my back.
I’m coming home with a burning hope, turning all my blues to black.
I’m looking for a sacred hand to carve into this stone,
A ghost of comfort, Angel’s Breath – to keep this life inside my chest.
This world falls on me with hopes of immortality.
Everywhere I turn, all the beauty just keeps shaking me.”

Thank you for the lyrics, Amy Ray.

Surrounded by limestone cliffs, I felt the beauty shaking me. I felt comforted, hopeful, and most of all, at home. Vermont was like Wisconsin. The glacial rocks were similar to the sandstone cliffs of Wisconsin Dells, a place I once knew as my playground. Benjamin loved the views of the Adriondacks in the distance. He loved Vermont’s Green Mountains too, or as he affectionately called them, ‘hills.’ No mountains in the United States will ever match the height and expanse of the Rockies he knew as his childhood playground, but seeing landscape layered like this comforted him.

We fell in love with The Island Line Trail, and we fell in love with Vermont, so we returned a few months later to celebrate our anniversary.

October is prime leaf peeper season, and we were not ashamed to join the other tourist-peepers for the peak of those colors, nor were we hesitant to eat and drink everything made with apples, cheese, and of course, Vermont’s infamous maple syrup. We drank flights of hard cider from Citizen Cider, gobbled Vermont Farmhouse Cheese sandwiches at Penny Cluse Cafe and savored oven roasted and maple glazed salmon at Two Brothers Tavern. We shopped at the pubs and co-ops, stocking the car, knowing we needed to bring a little Vermont home with us.

Enjoying the cuisine was definitely memorable, but the highlight of this trip was once again thanks to Vermont’s landscape and a hike at Niquette Bay State Park.

Entering Niquette, we were greeted by the usual kiosk that posted the trail rules and provided maps, but this lovely park also offered a little box full of books under which a sign read:

Nature’s Library-for use while visiting the park, return for others’ use and enjoyment.

We were instantly charmed.

And the weather could not have been more autumnal. It was 60 degrees, sunny with a light breeze and skies so blue all the red, orange and yellow leaves popped. It was the kind of day that felt fresh and good, a day filled with energy, when at the end of it, your clothes and hair smell like earth and wind.

That day we hiked The Burns Trail to Calm Cove around Cedar Point Loop to the Beach Bypass and finally back via the Allen Trail for a total of around 1.5 to 2 miles. To some people this would be nothing, but to someone like me, a woman sporting a new titanium hip, this was a perfect distance. The terrain was mostly flat, but there were some contours, and I walked them with ease. More importantly, I walked under old growth oaks, pines, maples and shagbark hickories, and at Calm Cove that feeling of home once again settled into my body.

Calm Cove was a huge outcrop of glacial limestone, perfect for basking in the sun, taking in the view, or taking your pup for a swim. Because it was a week day, the park was mostly empty, so Benjamin and I had the Cove to ourselves for a good while. As I sat there on that familiar, warm rock, I couldn’t help crying.

I don’t know if a landscape can love you back or not, but I think certain places can claim you. That day I was happy to be with Benjamin, happy to be hiking in autumn, feeling Wisconsin and allowing Vermont to take my heart.

New Year 2020

December is a time for reflecting.

It’s the end of the calendar year, and this is what you’re supposed to do- reflect, make resolutions, set goals for the new year- but I have to admit, this feels a little forced.

Maybe it’s my past career, my 25 years in the classroom still directing my sense of time, when the new year actually began in early September and ended in May with the promise of summer vacation. That many years have a way of staying in the body.

My routine then was to wake up early to write. I wanted to be quiet and alone before I had to be social and teach for 7.5 hours. I still wake up early now, but I have the privilege of staying quiet much longer into the morning. I can choose to be social when I’m good and ready. So here I am in the morning, writing, trying to reflect on this year, partly yes, because of social tradition but also because I’ve had an abundant twelve months. I want to summarize it, get it out of my head, exhale, make space for new thoughts.

Here goes…

January 2019 marked one year with my new hip, one year pain free. I celebrated this by packing my poems and heading to Florida.

I spent February 2019 under the warmth of the sun with my family and the land and water that belong to this fragile, unique place. I had packed poems that I wanted to flesh out, poems about my hip, my limited mobility and the movements of other species. I woke up early, writing on my parent’s back porch or in my brother’s studio. I also wrote from my bike on the Pinellas Trail as I watched pelicans fly over the water of Honeymoon Island and Caledesi State Park.

I was working toward the goal of submitting 8 pages for the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference. It was good to listen closely to my free verse voice again. I’d been working a lot with forms (pantoums, villanelles, minute poems) and to play with a more personal sense of rhythm, to listen for line breaks specific to my voice felt like an exercise in trust or a visit from an old friend.

I spent March, April, and May doing this kind of intense writing and revising. During those spring months, I also corresponded with Helen Doremus, Editor of Two Hawks Quarterly. This lovely magazine published my poem, There is a Passing. I was grateful for Helen’s attention to fine edits and respect for my title. Thank you again, Helen.

I maintained a steady cadence on Instagram because I wanted to visually document my work and connect with more readers. Instagram seemed like the best choice. I could collaborate with Benjamin, using his lovely photos to compliment my writing. Despite my hesitation with social media, my fear that it would exhaust me, I did enjoy this process and plan to stay with it for 2020.

I entered poetry contests and was rejected. I also tried to reach out to 20 agents, pitching my novel, and I was rejected again. It’s never easy to trust the void like this, to know your work is out there, being read and reviewed by a stranger. I always hope the reader is someone with kind, honest eyes. I try to see rejection as a lesson to clarify my work, make it stronger. It’s not easy but it’s part of the process, the life of a writer, learning tenacity, continuously searching for the right home for your work.

AND

I did homework. Prior to the Bread Loaf Conference, my mentor, Jennifer Chang, asked everyone in our group to read each other’s poems responding to the following questions:

How does the poet perceive the world and how does this manifest in their poetry?

What habits of language and form do these poems reveal?

Does the writer seem to have any preoccupations?

How would I describe the poet’s vision?

What do I admire and learn from the poems?

What questions do the poems generate?

How do these poems teach me to read and pay attention to the the world?

I loved this! I appreciated that Jen was asking us to examine poetry on both a challenging and positive level. When we met for face-to-face critique, she kept the discussions moving, pushing us to consider the many aspects of nature poetry- the historical, cultural, socio-political implications, our perspectives and voices, what we were leaving out and what we were contributing.

Jen provided quiet when we needed to think and she made us laugh when we needed the release. She also took the time to meet with us one-on-one over lunch. In our conversation, I learned more ways to get my work out there that I hadn’t considered, and when she said I was ‘creating a unique world’ within my work, I felt more motivated than ever.

If I could take another class with Jen Chang, I would not hesitate. I would also remember to have her sign my copy of her gorgeous book, Some Say The Lark. I stupidly did not do this while I was with her for a whole week, and I regret it. I go to her poems regularly, reading and rereading, feeling settled and unsettled, holding my breath and exhaling. Every poem within this collection is brilliant. I strongly encourage buying Some Say The Lark and reading it cover to cover.

For that first week of June, I floated in Vermont. I detailed more of this experience in a previous post, so in the interest of brevity here, I’ll simply repeat that it was an honor to attend Bread Loaf, and my colleagues’ work continues to resonate with me.

July was our crazy travel month. Benjamin and I took a train from New York to Chicago, then out to Colorado and back. I will be writing an extended post about this soon. For now, I can say that our trip was lovely in terms of people, educational and challenging in terms of train travel, weather and topography.

After returning to New York (and resting for a few weeks), my body’s true sense of time kicked in, and my new year began. Late August and all of September had me spinning. The poems that I had worked on in Florida and workshopped at Bread Loaf spun into a flurry, one after the other in a most fruitful autumn.

As part of this lovely twirl, I was fortunate to have monthly Skypes with my poet friend and editor, Athene Dilke. Athene had a goal to finish a collection dedicated to her mother, and I was determined to finish those poems about my hip and the movements of other animals, so she and I sent poems back and forth, writing comments, editing, revising, reading again. Of course, from working with Athene on my novel, I trusted that she was a careful, honest reader. I knew she could commit to staying with large projects, because we had worked together for a year on my book. I also knew, simply by conversing with her, that she had a thousand poems inside her body. She spoke like a poet, fixating on imagery, her voice dreamy, quiet, and beautifully lost, as if she were looking out a window trying to see what she wanted to write. She was raised by strong women, her mother and grandmother, both of whom encouraged her to love stories, memorize poetry and roam in wilderness. Athene’s collection, Hide, reflects this power. She completed 10 pages and sent her work to a contest, and she helped me to do the same.

I also attended a Friday night reading in late September at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center. Poets Nickole Brown and Jessica Jacobs shared work from their collections, To Those Who Were Our First Gods and Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going. These women floored me. Not only did they share powerful work, they engaged with the audience, connecting with us through both poignant and humorous anecdotes. I’ve been to readings where poets telegraph the entire content of the poem before reading it, and this ruins the experience. Jessica and Nickole knew how to hold the audience with charm and grace. I loved their poems so much I bought their books and registered for two of their workshops that same weekend.

That Saturday, Jessica and Nickole co-taught Promoting Your Book of Poems. This workshop was incredibly helpful! What I really appreciated about both of these groovy women was how detailed and organized they were. They provided specific information about how to network, build an audience, find and select a publisher and give a great reading. Like Jen, they were focused, and they shared their lovely senses of humor- a perfect balance.

On Sunday, I participated in Nickole’s workshop called Writing in the Age of Loneliness: Eco Literature and the Writer’s Task.
I arrived early, and Nickole was the only person in the room. I did not want to disturb her as she prepared for class, but I was also dying to speak with her one-on-one. Graciously, she invited me to sit beside her and ask questions.

Within our conversation, I shared that I had written a hybrid/mixed genre, and Nickole immediately listed publications that might be interested in this kind of work. When I asked her how she balances the business side of writing with simply wanting to write, she said that she has “a conversation with her muse,” telling her to be patient when business needs attending. Also, she and Jessica keep a color-coded calendar of the entire year, marking deadlines, conferences etc. They give each other “retreat days” where they don’t talk much to each other, so they can be alone inside their heads and work. Finally, when I asked her why she thought poets never had agents, she laughed and said, “Because we don’t make any damn money.” I suspected that this might be the answer, and I don’t know why hearing another poet laugh about it was comforting, but it was.

Earlier this summer, (and I realize I’m jumping around in time a bit but this is how writing works sometimes) I’d corresponded with another poet-friend, and he had a great response to the poet-agent question. After I had scribbled this long email to him, whining about not being able to find an agent, Lew brilliantly answered with this:

“Why do you write?

I write because I need to…because no can document my inspirations the way I can. I write as prayer. Reverenced by my pen my voice is heard, even if it’s by my ears alone. I write to communicate…to the past, present, and future. I write because I don’t know what I think until I’ve expelled thoughts from my mind and am able to wield them with my hands. I write to work on myself…to confront myself…to expand and free myself.

And, it’s for these very reasons, I believe we publish. Target audiences and consumer profiles aside, published works (as I see them) are meant to benefit society as whole in the above mentioned way and so many more.

I thank the stars that Martin’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Langston’s “To Artina,” Giovanni’s “Lorraine Hansberry: An Emotional View,” Baldwin’s “Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” and Whitman’s “To You” were published. Because they changed me. From 1855 Whitman spoke all the way to me.

For aims greater than money these writers wrote. And, greater still were they published. I pray you keep these aims in your heart for a while as you document your time in mind and share with the world.

Why do write?”

Yeah. Lew is a rock star.

He was right, dead on right, and he still is. His words to my heart. A lovely school to keep inside… like Nickole’s course where we read excerpts from Rebecca Solnit and David George Haskell and poems by Matthew Olzmann, Caitlin Gildrien, Bob Hickok and Catherine Pierce. AND where she took us through a guided writing exercise, softly asking us to choose a species we would save, to experience this love slowly, writing through our senses. I chose wolves, and by the time the exercise was over I was in tears. I’d started with the wolves I met at the New York Wolf Sanctuary, but I’d ended with memories of my first canine love, my yellow lab Duke.

Yeah. Nickole is a rock star too.

Thanks to Jen, Athene, Lew, Jessica, Nickole, and all the other lovely writers of this year, I wrote in October and completed 28 pages of poetry by the end of November. I’ve written a chapbook, a collection of poems with connective threads and a cohesive theme. I’ve written something I can send to publications in 2020, but more importantly, I’ve written something out of my body, something I needed to communicate.

It’s December 31, 2019. I’ve reflected and set goals. It doesn’t feel as forced as I thought it would. In fact, it feels cathartic. Thank you, readers, for indulging me. May your 2020 be healthy and fruitful. Happy New Year!

Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference 2019

Attending the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference was an incredible honor. For one week this summer, I was in the Green Mountains of Vermont with poets. It was quiet and motivating. I could hear myself and others. I slowed down. I ate the freshest food, and my clothes smelled like campfire smoke. I remembered my Wisconsin roots.

Soon after the conference, I sped up, traveling the country, visiting family and friends. Until now, I haven’t carved out the time to write what Bread Loaf meant to me. I’ve tried here and there, scribbling a few thoughts, but I’ve felt overwhelmed or blocked.

I want to convey the sense of gratitude I felt, concisely describe significant moments, thank each person who made that week fulfilling. Blogging is the wrong form, not personal enough, so I’m writing a letter…

Dearest Bread Loafers,

I hope this finds you healthy and hearing your poems.

I’m writing to thank you, all of you, beginning with my mentor-teacher, Jennifer Chang.

Jen, thank you for your teaching style, thoughtful questions, being present as you asked and listened, giving us the quiet to think and write, supporting, helping us grow our poems. Thank you for encouraging us to read: “On Gardens,” “Another Antipastoral,” “Snowdrops,” “Alphabet,” and specifically for me, Stranger, Baby and Milk and Filth. Thank for the questions you had us consider before we arrived. Thinking about how each poet perceives the world, our habits of language, our preoccupations and visions, the things we question and learn from reading and writing poetry-all of these considerations were food for my hungry brain!

Thank you for your book, Some Say the Lark. Before the conference, I walked around with your poems in my head, and I couldn’t wait to meet you. You exceeded my expectations-rock star poet, excellent instructor and down-to-earth woman. Thank you for the coffee breaks, your sense of humor and seeing the mischief in me.

I took your advice. I journaled a meta poem about pronouns, and I’ve written my way into understanding the ‘she’ and ‘you’  within “The Pelican and the Girl.” In the course of journaling, and applying feedback from my lovely classmates, this poem feels more complete.

Thank you for the one-on-one lunches. I’ve checked out Taffeti Punk-so cool! Suggesting that I try to connect with a theater group was a revelation, an avenue I hadn’t considered for my work. You helped me remember my strengths as an interdisciplinary artist. You helped me remember who I am.

Thank you to my other mentor-teachers and speakers: Helen MacDonald, Drew Lanham and Sean Hill for teaching from questions like: How do we write about nature, considering history, culture, race, class, region and gender? What are the lenses through which we write? Are we leaving anything or anyone out? Are we being too metaphoric or romantic? Are we showing the love we feel for nature? Are we connecting?

Helen, thank you for your sense of humor and for answering questions from the audience with grace, honesty and humility. Throughout the conference, you were in my orbit, always at a nearby picnic table, but I was too shy to approach you. The poetics within your book, H is for Hawk stunned me. Your voice lingers, and I’m excited to read Falcon next!

Drew, thank you for your tenderness and for sharing the painful history of pheasant hunting. We needed to cry, and you opened this space for us. Thank you for loving nature, loving birds. As a child of two regions, Midwest and Southeast, I’ve spent hours in marshes and swamps, watching red-wing blackbirds tilt on cat tails, holding my breath as herons stepped lightly through water. I’m ordering your book, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, and I can’t wait to read it!

Sean, thank you for teaching with such an emphasis on inclusivity, and thank you for my parrot postcard. I’m sorry I didn’t have the courage to share all of my lenses aloud. I should have spoken. Please know I am aware of them, and my writing has more balance now. Here’s the list I wrote:

woman
white (German, Polish, European)
privileged
able-bodied now, challenged-body before
artist, poet, teacher, feminist
Wisconsinite, Floridian
daughter, granddaughter, niece, sister, cousin, aunt, collaborative partner, lover-wife, friend
bicyclist, wanderer
listener, introvert

With my parrot card, I was tempted to write from my Floridian lens, because she was bright and colorful, but voice came louder than image, and I heard how my parrot might be stereotypically trained to talk: “Pretty bird, Pretty bird.” Words of my body spilled onto the page. I am still writing for my collection of nature and body movement, so I suppose it was natural that this would come forward. Thank you for coaxing poetry out of us during that whirl-of-a-week. I’m looking forward to diving into your books, Dangerous Goods and Blood Ties and Brown Liquor.

Thank you to my classmates and the people I met during meals and random encounters…

Thank you, Mary. Thank you for what you do- the farm work, the nutrition and educational workshops, and writing about all of this. Thank you for sharing your ideas with me. I won’t forget them, and to prove it, I’ll paraphrase two of them here:

“We need to make room for the grief we feel.”

Yes, we need to cry. Thank you for crying next to me during Drew’s lecture. In answer to your question, ‘what will happen after we do this,’ I truly think we can change and act upon our changes. This isn’t faith alone. I know what it means to face pain, walk through it and get to something better on the other side. I think pain and tears have to come first, and then we move.

“There should be more young adult stories normalizing menstrual cycles. If I started a collection, would you contribute your story?”

Yes, I’ll contribute mine. It’s actually a bit funny. It involves practical jokes, a wish gone wrong and cheerleading. Heh heh…

Mary, I’ll read your blog and keep in touch. Thank you for being a touchstone and friend.

Beth, thank you for sharing insights about working in theater with college students. Thank you for the tenderness, concern and honesty in your voice as you shared how your students were navigating identity, sexuality, the body and critical thinking. And thank you for not laughing at me, but rather with me, regarding my groupie feelings for Helen.

Tonnia, thank you for our lunch conversation. I’m still smiling about our connection over Julie Dash’s film, “Daughters of the Dust.” It’s wild to me that there we were, in Vermont, you sharing the challenges of teaching in Oklahoma, me sharing that I taught in Florida, and we were in Vermont talking about a film set in Georgia! We were two women from different parts of the country, connecting over one of the most beautiful and necessary films ever made. This is the power of story, of excellent, image-driven literature. Thank you for mentoring Robert and for being one of the most courageous teachers I’ve ever had the honor to meet.

Joumana, thank you for our moment sitting together, reading your poem in two voices. I loved doing this! All of your water and radio imagery resonate in me still, like waves. I hope your poems continue to migrate and you record in voices and layers. Thank you for teaching me through your voice to extend my heart and pen to all the places in critical need of clean water and peace. And thank you for hanging out with me when I was teary about leaving Bread Loaf. I hope your road trip back was beautiful.

Robert, thank you for sharing your poems and short story with me. Your voice is direct, poetic, perfectly narrative, heart- racing and haunting. I felt honored that you wanted me to read and give you feedback. Thank you for the walk we took, for discussing politics, for teaching me about tornados. This summer, while our train slid through Iowa and Nebraska at night, I watched the lightning in the distance and hoped the sky did not turn green. Thankfully, it did not. Get your work out there, Robert. The world needs your voice.

Jane, thank you for sharing the sound and visual aspects within your work, the images of hems and paintings, the way the endings of your poems hung in space. Thank you for recognizing the coming-of-age theme in my work and for introducing me to movingpoems.com. I watched a video on that site where a modern dancer moved in an abandoned building, littered with paper and envelopes, and she was moving to a conversation between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. I couldn’t help crying.

Katy, thank you for your passion and empathy, for loving the earth, asking if a landscape can love us back, and for lines like: “an agenda to hold our anger” and “the book we die in.” Thank you for your death metal poems and sharing your voice with me one-on-one. I truly hope that you find musicians to play with, however you can, wherever you are, because you’ve got something going on, you really do. Thank you for offering a way to release anger in a productive way.

Gwen, thank you for taking my eyes on a journey with your poems. Throughout your work, I saw the microscopic and the infinitesimal, and you did this with splashes of humor-brilliant, just brilliant. Thank you for your love of gardening and monarch butterflies, your Instagram photos are amazing! Thank you for telling me about corn ice cream and listening as I shared my corn anecdotes. As promised, here’s a link to a cachapas recipe: http://globaltableadventure.com/recipe/fresh-corncakes-with-cheese-cachapas/

Michael, thank you for such detailed feedback on my work, especially for recognizing my syntactical bounds and how they emphasize an interconnectedness. Thank you for your “Ode to Insects” poem. It is so gentle. I liked reading it quietly, and I loved watching you perform it with such passion on the Button Poetry series. Thank you for using phrases like “hummingbird masculinity” and “I pray this woman a poem.” And lastly, thank you for noticing that everyone in our group was from a different place. I was happy about this too and so comforted by it.

Whitney, thank you for the sensual and shadowed imagery in your poems, for making me see patterns through all kinds of screens and lattices. Thank you for your compassion for snakes and how your human subjects had their bodies pressed to earth too. Thank you for the overall falling in and falling through your poems. Lastly, thank you for suggesting that my band look for gigs in Asheville! You made me feel hopeful about the combination of music and poetry.

Diana, thank you for all of the science language in your work. I loved that it sounded like prayers. Thank you for writing about cold places and teaching me through your poems to see the beauty of these places. Thank you for reminding all of us of the importance of sitting still. Lastly, as a fellow ESL teacher, thank you for sharing our powerful language creatively. It’s so good to know that a poet is teaching English.

Kit, thank you for suggesting that I try to get my work out there in chapbook form. Before Bread Loaf, I was feeling discouraged about this form, disheartened by my own disorganization in gathering enough poems, but you, fierce, amazing you, reminded me to stay with it, to keep writing. Thank you for being such a one woman force of nature. Most of all, thank you for being part of a movement to keep our air clean.

It’s months after Bread Loaf, but I’m still feeling it. In the pockets of our vast country, there are poets fighting for and loving nature, and I am grateful. Thank you all from my whole body and please stay in touch.

Love and Green Mountains,
Michelle

Sonic Space

In February I was in Florida, on Lake Valrico’s pier with my brother, when he spotted the snout and head of an alligator floating in the distance. Her body rose as she began to swim toward shore, and Matthew guessed she was about eight feet long.

I love alligators. They are modern dinosaurs with gorgeous, thick scales and wide grins of eighty teeth. I love how they turn easy in water, teeter on land like awkward trucks and stay mostly quiet, except in mating season, when their croaks are soothing, deep and low.

The shores of Swan Lake in Rockefeller State Park croak deep with bullfrogs in springtime. When I’m there, it takes me a moment not to look for alligators. I am always standing in two regions-north and south, cold and warm, marsh and swamp.

Strangely, this winter, Swan Lake made a croaking sound. For a second Benjamin and I were confused. It couldn’t be frogs, unless we had developed a magic ability to hear them under water, and it certainly wasn’t alligators. The croaks were followed by a higher pitched ping-ping, a sound out of place, like a vintage video game.

It was then we realized, we were listening to ice.

We were listening to a body of water breaking apart, sealing and breaking again.

Slowly.

Like how you read a poem.

I was enchanted by this winter listening, these quiet sounds, because lately I’ve been focused on sound more than usual. After a visit to an ENT, I was told I’ve lost some of my upper register sounds. I’m not sure, but I think hearing loss is a pretty normal part of aging (especially for someone who attended her share of loud concerts and who worked with loud young people for many years), but it was still hard to accept. The doctor assumed I did not currently work around loud noises, (because I’m a writer in a small village) but she was wrong.

From spring through summer and especially fall, I am surrounded by leaf blowers. Many people here in village-New England-suburbia are afflicted with lawn envy, a weird attraction to green grass. They don’t see the benefits of native plants bringing pollinators or how xeriscaping is not only easier and cheaper but much more visually interesting. They use leaf blowers excessively. I know some of my hearing loss is attributed to aging and past experiences, but I also know the leaf blowers hurt and are partially to blame. I have to wear noise cancellation head phones inside my home, and even with all windows shut, it’s so loud some days that Benjamin can’t hear his colleagues during video meetings. It makes us feel crazy, but I’m reassured by writers like Bernie Krause, who in his book, Voices of the Wild advocates for preserving our natural sound scapes.

Here’s a synopsis of his book from Yale University Press:

“[Voices of the Wild] explains that the secrets hidden in the natural world’s shrinking sonic environment must be preserved, not only for our scientific understanding, but for our cultural heritage and humanity’s physical and spiritual welfare.

Krause’s narrative—supplemented by exclusive access to field recordings from the wild—draws on a compelling range of personal anecdotes, histories, and examples to document his early exploration of this field and to lay the groundwork for future generations.”

Later that icy day, Benjamin and I heard another sound.

It started over our shoulders, a wispy, fluttery sound. We stopped as an active flock of birds circled, making their way to shrubs of bright red berries. They were light brown with yellow bands on the tips of their tails and black masks across their eyes. They were Cedar Waxwings, and we heard them fly.

ice moving

wings on the wind

sonic space

peace of mind

Thank you, Bernie Krause.

Thank you, winter, water, alligators, frogs and birds.

Hawk Colors of Winter

“Aunt Shella, I don’t like this weather. I can’t tell what time it is.”

My nephew Blake said this to me on a rare, gray day in Florida. I understood. I am ruled by light and colors.

A perfect day for me begins with a soft yellow morning, swirling pink, orange and blue coming up quietly. I am clearest for poetry at this time, so I write. As the day turns brighter blue and yellow, I like to get up from my desk and go outside to bike or meet a friend for coffee. When twilight brings more pastels, I write again, this time wandering a trail with my poems. At sundown, I like to read, watch something funny, or spend time with my love and music.

In winter, the sun can set as early as 4:30, and up here in north country, a week can be days upon days of nothing but gray. Despite how winter gray has challenged me, I return to it again and again-to Minneapolis, Chicago, Berlin, New York. I do this because gray cities are creative cities. Maybe, like me, other artists flock to these winter-gray places, because it feels like a perpetual dream state, a continuous black and white film. With the right amount of coffee, it is a fruitful setting for writing. But I have to be honest. By mid- January, I’ve had it. I want to spring. I want to wake up, so I design wildflower and vegetable gardens in my head, and I make a plan a way to escape.

Still, this winter has been a better one. I have a new hip and a jacket that is really a blanket, both of these has made it possible for me to hike trails, and as my brother once advised, “get out into the gray to understand it.” It’s worked.

Winter has been speaking to my senses.

The Sharp-Shinned (or Cooper’s) hawk perched in the maple tree right outside our living room window, and I saw the colors of winter. Her eyes were gold, her wings smoky blue, a new kind of luscious sky-scape. Her chest was soft white and light brown speckles, and her tail feathers were deeper brown stripes dipped at the end in white. She comforted me. Brown has always been a soothing color. It is garden dirt, tree bark, and the kind eyes of my students. Her white was the same color as snow. I usually find snow Romantic only for a second, then I want it to melt and get the hell out of my walking way, but hawk was teaching me to see it for its temporal beauty.

And ethereal she was. Benjamin took her photo, and she flew away, taking her bright yellow talons with her, showing me another kind of sun, making me forget to check the time.

Beautiful Unfamiliar

She hurt her neck hoisting a friend through the bathroom window
of a bar. His foot slipped her neck popped,
now pain is a chronic level of noise
that she can lower by stretching and not sitting
in the same position for very long.
Going has become her theme.
A stack of polyester-lined suitcases are her nightstand
for a battery-operated alarm clock.
Maps on the living room wall
outline the universe according to Zeus’s scholars
who wished to travel above the wind
to breath Icarus’s spirit from a cloud;
my friend is the pink hues in the sunrise
that kissed the boy as he fell from the sky
trying to reach her eternal rising.
She doesn’t need an airplane to fly,
prefers to travel by train or bus
thirsty for solid ground to support her feet
propelling her further from the past
she carries in a file folder of poems
she writes to capture
what it might mean
to stay.

My friend Cindy Childress wrote this poem for me as I was leaving Florida to move to Chicago for grad school. Since then, I have stayed true to the restlessness Cindy describes in “Motion Girl.” I lived in Chicago for two years where I fell in love with Benjamin. Since meeting him, over the last sixteen years, we’ve lived in North Carolina, Washington D.C., Berlin, and now New York.

There’s been a bit of a pattern. Except for our “semester abroad,” we’ve moved in some kind of perpetual school loop, like there’s a four to five year limit to our staying ability. We’ve been in New York for four years, and while our feet are itchy once again, we’ve used this time to complete our latest album, our love songs for Europe, “Beautiful Unfamiliar.”

It’s taken us a long time to produce this work for a few reasons. Yes, we moved a lot, and it’s hard to create when you’re not settled into a studio space, but the making of “Beautiful Unfamiliar” also marked some significant changes in how we create and how we let go.

Parts of the music for this baby were conceived months before we left for Berlin. Benjamin spent a solid week in our small studio in D.C., composing constantly, barely getting up from his desk, and at one point he said to me, “I don’t really know what I’m writing.” Then, we were caught up in the whirl of packing, saying goodbye to our familiar places and people, and the songs had to wait.

When we returned to the States, he played the music for me again, and I knew- each song was a city, an emotion we felt in Europe. So we wrote and wrote and wrote. Trying to get to the root of each place and each feeling took a lot out of us. We didn’t want to let go. Thankfully, we had lovely friends who were willing to listen to early drafts and help coax the songs to the surface.

Our singer-songwriter friend, Rose Grace, provided the most magical, essential parts of the process, lending her voice and lyrics to two of the songs. We still can’t believe that the woman living right next door could come over, listen to the first track, “Water Be My Road Now,” and sing the line we needed. Even more incredibly, when we shared that we’d biked in Potsdam past castles, she grinned and said, “You’re not going to believe this, but I performed in those castles when I toured.” Of course she did! I had only written sparse lyrics for “Cast a Shadow, Cast a Spell.” Rose added a gorgeous melody and lyrics that captured the fairy tale essence we couldn’t find on our own. She helped us achieve the grace to let go.

Thank you Rosie, thank you Cindy, and thanks to all for reading and listening. Tschüss!

 

Trailing

A certain land is calling me. The shape of it rolls into the horizon, clear, nothing in the way. The wind blows tall grass and wild flowers.

There is so much space.

Past the open fields there are trees, clusters of oaks, maples, hickories, pines. It’s quiet, and it smells like fresh dirt.

My birth place, the Midwest, is calling me back to the trails I knew as a kid, the ones my brothers and I named- The Old Logger’s Trail that wound through the back woods, The Dike that buffered a drain ditch along Gus’s corn, the Tractor Trail that cut through an alfalfa field to Willard’s Pond, and the countless, unnamed deer trails where we romped as little animals on a wild playground.

Scaling trees, we trusted the weight of branches. We scampered hills, resting on glacial rocks for views of our dog on a chase-first the rabbit, then Duke with ears tucked back, a golden streak of fur. We gathered maple leaves, cat tails and fuzzy dandelions for mom’s autumnal arrangements. We ‘foraged’ for raspberries, choke cherries, sour apples, honeysuckle, garden green beans, sugar snap peas and kohlrabi. We built forts out of high grass and corn stalks, so we could “spy” on Canadian geese. When the moment was right, we’d run out, flapping our arms, sending those grand birds into the sky for the biggest sound we knew. Trudging uphill through heavy snow, we dragged our sleds to the top, over and over, for the sheer thrill of sliding down fast, and after ice skating for hours, until our feet were almost frozen, we walked miles back to the house, welcoming the return of circulation, chocolate chip cookies straight from the oven and the warmth of home.

Home was comforting, but we preferred to stay outside until the sky turned a swirling purple and pink.

Outside is calling me once more, because I was inside for ten, long years. Within the grip of arthritis, I was deep in my body, adapted to a high level of pain and resigned to the idea that I had limits, that there were things I couldn’t do anymore, or maybe ever again, like wander in the woods.

But last year around this time, during a visit to my orthopedic surgeon, I saw the stress fracture. Seeing a picture of my bones breaking, broke me, in the most positive way. I faced my fear of surgery, yielded control of my body to others, and then patiently (and impatiently) healed throughout last winter.

When spring arrived, I was given the ‘go’ sign from my surgeon and PT, and I took to the woods!

The expression on Benjamin’s face as I walk these New York hills has been the best reward. He and I have shared trails in all the places we’ve lived or traveled. Outside Chicago, at Moraine Hills State Park, we biked a trail where two whooping cranes performed a mating dance. In Raleigh, on the Greenway, we biked through a torrential rain, laughing the entire ride, and in Umstead State Park, we rode past lovely spring choruses of frogs, under blue skies dotted red with flocks of cardinals. Along the C&O Rail Trail, from DC into Maryland, we saw countless turtles and herons, one giant Eastern indigo snake curling up a snag, and a small herd of deer swimming in the canal. Outside Berlin, in Potsdam, we rode past castles, pretending we were in a fairy tale. Once a year, we bike Gordon’s Pond in Cape Henlopen State Park, and a few years ago we took a trip to Cape Cod for rides along the Kennedy National Seashore. Breathing in salty air, among sand dunes and scrub pines, the waves of the Atlantic calm us, a favorite kind of vacation.

Now in New York, with my new hip, we average 2-4 miles each time. We wander the Old Croton Aqueduct with its ancient sycamore trees, bending grand branches to the ground and Tarrytown Lakes with its marshy shores and secret trails. And we’ve covered several of the trails at Rockefeller State Park. We usually begin with The Brothers’ Path which circles Swan Lake. From Brother’s, we’ve walked the Farm Meadow Trail (which reminds me of Wisconsin) to the Ash Tree Loop, and finally to The Overlook which goes up, up, up, offering views of The Hudson and Palisades. We’ve also taken the Brothers’ to The Old Railroad Bed past a lovely babbling brook, around the Peaceful Path, and back to the lake. This journey is quiet, so quiet, perfect for settling our brains. When we park at the Sleepy Hollow entrance, we begin with the Pocantico River Path to Witch’s Spring, up Eagle Hill, and back down to the river again. Once on this jaunt, we saw a sign written on blue, laminated paper, nailed to an electrical pole. It read:

“Please Keep Rock Clean. Keep everything clean. Would you like somebody putting trash in your land?”

It was signed “Megan.”

I loved this! Megan hears the land calling, and she’s fierce to protect it. Thank you, clever witch, and may all your trails be clear.

Pheasant

Benjamin and I were taking the backroads from Delaware to New York when I saw a pheasant on the side of the road.

He was standing tall and his bright colors jolted me.

Prior to this glimpse of a lovely creature, I was in the throes of a panic attack.

I used to love driving, but I don’t feel the same Americana freedom and romanticism that I used to experience. Instead, I fixate on the insane physics of it- my soft tissue encased in crushable metal, traveling 75 miles per hour with other vehicles, thundering trucks surrounding, my body speeding.

I don’t see the horizon, the wide expanse of this nation. I feel driving as sterile as a video game that I don’t want to play, but I need the ocean and the woods, so I must sign on and join the game. The backroads are a little better. Trips take longer, often twice as long, but it’s mostly slower, quiet, and peppered with more interesting things to see like neighborhoods and state parks.

Still, even on a less traveled road, things happen, and on this particular trip, a big truck turned too close to us. I felt a tightening of breath, a folding of my torso, blurry vision, and an inability to think clearly. It’s embarrassing, because even while it’s happening, there’s a voice in my head scolding me, telling me that I should be able to control it, but it usually takes an hour or so for it to fully subside.

This time, because of that gorgeous bird, it ended faster.

My breath and heartbeat returned to normal because of his shockingly beautiful colors, the rarity of seeing him.

I know there were ecological factors contributing to his appearance. We were on a road that cut through his habitat of high grass. But I like symbolism. I look for it. I am fascinated by how various cultures interpret animal sightings, so when we were finally home, I looked up a few things.

I discovered that the pheasant teaches balance, when to express or blaze in beauty and when to refrain or hide in the shadows. Because he flies in bursts, he encourages reaching for goals and achieving heights, but he also reminds us to stay grounded and protect our passions.

Before our trip to Delaware, I told myself that I’d spend the remainder of summer learning the business of writing. I’d research publishing companies, explore agent profiles and figure out how make my peace with having a “social media presence.”

It’s autumn now, and I did spend the summer doing this.

The pheasant was one of the last birds we saw on our trip of many, many bird sightings. He was a gift for me, an image I will keep in my brain as I try to balance the creative act of writing with the business of getting my writing into the world. He will be a comfort, a reminder of my own strength and ability to get through challenges. Thank you, Mr. Pheasant.

Rare

“Benjamin, there’s something moving under that plastic bag!”

We were standing on the water’s edge of Tarrytown Lake. Wedged between the rocks was a crumpled, black plastic bag and something was poking its head against it, over and over.

Before Benjamin could take a look, I concluded that it was a turtle in need of rescue. Grabbing a nearby stick, I was just about to lift the bag to free the poor thing, when Benjamin said, “Love, that’s not a turtle.”

Suddenly, a beautiful, reddish-brown snake wiggled from the rocks, disappearing into the water as I giggled with delight.

I love snakes. Every time we’re on a bike ride or a walk, I make a silent wish to see one. I love everything about them- their intense eyes, long bodies, hundreds of vertebrae, soft scales, shine and color, how they shed their skin, and most of all, how they move, flying over dirt or through water, connected to the elements, moving with speed and flexibility.

Consulting our Peterson’s Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians, we learned that our lovely creature was a Northern Water Snake. Because of her cross bands, she can be misidentified as a Cotton Mouth or a Copperhead, but she is longer, more slender, with a flatter head the same width as her body. Gorgeous.

I also like to research the symbolism of different animal encounters. Seeing a snake can be interpreted as: a need to balance your energies between impulsivity and calm, a call to practice diplomacy in speech and writing and a reminder that you are dynamically intuitive.

Thank you, Lady Snake. I am constantly trying to stay in one place while dreaming of jumping on a train to anywhere. I always feel like I need to be careful, thoughtful with what I say and especially with what I write, and I often wish I could temporarily “turn of” my intuition, because it gets crowded inside. My friend Kate would tell me not to wish this for a second. She firmly defines intuition as a collection of the senses, something we should never lose, so Kate, I don’t really mean this. It’s just that sometimes a little mental space, without humans, helps me recharge. Thankfully, I always find quiet in the mornings.

I work on my posts at 5 am, looking out my studio window. For the past couple of mornings, I’ve seen a bat flitting above the grass, in and out of the light, close enough to my window to make out the shape of his little hand-wings before he goes swift into the woods.

I am lucky for this view. The list of creatures with whom I have shared this space grows and grows. It has included: song birds, crows, vultures, ospreys, hawks, swallowtails, monarchs, wild bees, a groundhog mama and baby, bucks, does, fawns, a turtle, a husky dog, cats, and recently, two rare sights, a red fox and a mink.

I first saw the pretty red fox emerge from the creek bed to the right or Northwest of my window. At first I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. It’s not every day you see a fox in your backyard. It’s not every day that you see them at all. In fact, I can count the total number of times I’ve had the privilege:

1. In Wisconsin, at my friend’s cabin, one sashayed across the yard with a snake in her mouth.

2. In Delaware, at Cape Henlopen State Park, a pup skirted along the trail, found a safe spot in the scrub pines, sat down and scratched his ear with his back leg.

3. Running along a ridge near Rockefeller State Park, I saw the silhouette of a fox. This sweetie was way too close to the highway, so I closed my eyes and willed her to be safe.

4. From my car window along a back road between Delaware and Maryland, I saw a pup jauntily walking a straight row of corn, looking so peppy, I wanted to jump out and play with him.

5. And in my backyard, foxy jumped from the creek bed onto the rock wall, using it like a tight rope, tip toeing deftly, making her way past my window and up the hill into the woods.

Symbolically, a fox sighting can ask you to: think creatively, seeking different approaches to a problem, be aware of your habits, utilize all of your resources for your goals, avoid making waves, adapt, be mindful of your surroundings and be still for the teachings.

Thank you, Lovely Fox. As I explore the business part of being a writer, I need to remember all of the above. I have written several query letters that will hopefully catch the attention of agents. I have been meta-writing, describing my work, drafting several ways to pitch it. I have researched publications that might be a good fit for my blended genre and conferences where I might have opportunities to speak face-to-face with people in the industry. And I’ve been checking myself, trying to be more patient, balanced and vigilant.

Perhaps when you practice learning from nature, more nature shows up. It could be luck, being in the right place at the right time, but I like symbols and signs, making connections, philosophizing. I have a humanoid brain after all, and spotting a mink did feel extra-ordinary.

I was standing at my kitchen window when I saw a black animal, low in the grass along the chain link fence that divides our backyard with the neighbor’s. At first I thought it was a cat (I always think ‘cat’), but he was almost slithering, shuffling too smooth and swift for a cat’s hunting crouch. Then I thought maybe he was a skunk, but he was thinner, with no white stripe, and his fur was more sleek than fuzzy. Finally, he lifted his head, and I swear for a second I thought he was a meerkat, because he turned his head side-to-side like a periscope. Adorable!

I looked him up, and sure enough, he was an American mink. They burrow near creek beds, so the little brook that runs along the edge of the woods must be his water source. It’s reassuring to think that that small amount of water can support so many species.

To see a mink can mean you are: drawn to deep study of complex concepts, capable of holding multiple, contrasting opinions, willing to go to painful places for knowledge, desirable for what you produce not necessarily for who you are, in constant need of seclusion to find nourishment, and aware of your need for a reserve of surplus, internal energy.

Yes! Thank you, Sir Mink. I do like to study ideas, and I can’t help but think critically, seeing things from many points of view. I have used physical pain as a teacher of my limits of movement. Solitude is an absolute craving, and I am constantly aware of preserving my energy, especially when social events are near.

The one that confuses me is being desirable for what you produce, not who you are. This could refer to the killing of minks for their coats and not recognizing their value to the ecosystem (many humans are slow in understanding this), but maybe for me this refers to my careers. I was a good teacher, but it wasn’t all of me, and while students needed me, I needed quiet more. When I finally put my books out into the world, I know there will be the promotional, social part, and I’ll do this, because it’s part of the process.

But I’ll be thinking about biking on a trail or being alone in my studio, writing my next book, waiting for the next fable of animals to teach me, just outside my window.

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