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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

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

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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.

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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.

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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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Thoughtless Walking, Playful Dancing

I am wandering trails again, long distances around lakes, beside marshes, under oaks and pines.

I am meandering streets in New York City, discovering coffee shops and used book stores.

There are no sharp jolts of pain or dull pulsing aches.

I do not need a cane.

I am free.

To return to movement is a gift- from my surgeon and his team, all the Physical Therapists who have guided me, my loved ones, and most of all, my own body. Every day, I have to get quiet enough to stretch and strengthen key muscles, and while this is an exercise in discipline, it’s a conversation worth having, because it leads to thoughtless walking and playful dancing.

My Mom was my first dance teacher. I was 5 years old, recently out of my first hip surgeries, when we danced in the living room to album after album of 1950s hits like The Diamonds “The Stroll” and Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking.” I can still see her in her gingham bandana, taking a break from housework to dance with me, my small self beside her, trying to mimic her moves.

I danced the polka with all my relatives at church parties to songs like Frankie Yankovich’s “Roll Out the Barrel” and “Just Because You Think You’re So Pretty.” Every Christmas Eve, my Dad and I danced to Slim Whitman’s “Christmas Polka.” Now, when the snow falls in New York, and I can’t get to Florida, I sip creme de menthe and call him to listen to that song together.

My Grandpa taught me the box step as we watched Patti Page perform “The Tennessee Waltz” on The Lawrence Welk Show. I remember standing on his feet, marveling at his height, feeling lady-like and fancy. My Grandma played Strauss’s “The Blue Danube,” on her organ. I watched her fascinated, thinking she was going to float right off the seat with that beautiful music. Thanks to Gene and Sylvia, I fell in love with Cajun waltzes, like The Magnolia Sisters’ “Valse amitie,” and my feet know what to do.

By middle school, I was taking disco lessons and practicing Mexican folk dancing.

Line dances like The Bus Stop and The Car Wash easily translated from days strolling with my Mom. I proudly wore my glittery outfits, even though others tried to convince me that “disco sucked.” I knew it didn’t, and I still love it, especially the Queen of Disco, Donna Summer, and her song “Hot Stuff” as well as Kool and the Gang’s “Celebrate.”

My friends, Glenda and Mariela, taught me how to stomp my feet and swivel my hips for “The Mexican Hat Dance” and Ritchie Valen’s “La Bamba.” To this day, I can’t sit still when I listen to Latin music, and I am currently in love with the Columbian band, Monsieur Perine, especially their song “Mi Libertad.”

In the 80’s, I admittedly hid from the music that was popular at the time. Instead, I attached to 1960’s folk and 70’s rock. I have fond memories of dancing with my brother Matthew to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Down on the Corner,” and jamming to Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” with my brother Michael.

The early 1990s were synonymous with two kinds of dance-swing, and what I will loosely call, alternative, or maybe Goth mixed with New Wave and 80’s pop.

I was working as a high school teacher when the resurgence of swing hit Tampa. My students begged me to be the faculty sponsor of our school’s Swing Dance Club, and we had such a good time, dressing up vintage and dancing to songs like Louis Prima’s “Jump Jive and Wail” and Jacob and Secunda’s “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon” as well as the more contemporary bands like The Stray Cats and The Big Bad Voodoo Daddies.

While I was swinging at Tampa’s Sugar Palm Ballroom, I was also frequenting a club called The Castle, where I owe any graceful vampire moves I learned to my friend and fellow witchy poet-artist, Melissa Fair. Together she and I danced our asses off to Simple Minds, David Bowie, Joy Division, The Smiths, The Cure, Thrill Kill Cult, KMFDM, Social Distortion, and Sisters of Mercy to name just a few.

Melissa was a beautiful dancer who taught me to find my hips and root myself more into the bass and drums. Her charms must have worked some powerful magic, because here I am now, married to a bassist. Thanks to my beloved, I appreciate all things deep groove like James Brown, Bootsie Collins, and my favorite, The Meters.

I am still happily discovering more music. The silence and stillness that I lived for the last ten years has broken, filled once again with sound and movement.

I hear poems as I step.

I am turning and returning.

I am free.

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Lilac Thank You Notes

It’s been 5 months since I had my hip replaced, and the gratitude I have felt calls for a long, thank you list…

Thank you most, Benjamin, for never leaving my side. From the beginning, back in November, when I made the decision to have surgery, through the scary moments when I looked ‘too small’ as nurses wrapped me in warm blankets and wheeled me away, the even scarier moments when I was shaking uncontrollably from a severe reaction to pain medication, to all my firsts—first walk into your arms without a cane, first stair climb, first painless hike at Rockefeller and stroll through the city, you were there. Thank you. I love you, and I am grateful for every moment with you, all the time.

Thank you, my dear friend, Miko, for coming to the hospital and sitting with Benjamin as he waited for me to get out of surgery, staying with him as he received the phone call that my surgery was a success, and coming to see me all groggy and goofy in post op. You joyfully saw my full recovery even before I did. Thank you for all your chanting, your beautiful friendship, and deepest well of positive shine. I love you.

Thank you, my dear friend, Kate, for flying here to help get me through the first two weeks of recovery and for celebrating all its craziness through our Art Camp. The circular breathing, foot massages, music (especially the illustrated, magic song lists and the silly ‘drug alarm’ with the accompanying tip-your-hat motion), doing PT together, end of day movies, and spontaneous poems, all of these were, as you would say, THE BEST! Thank you for your tireless keeping up with notes, dishes, cooking, and cleaning, and most of all, for your healing intuition, deep connection to nature, and our unspoken bond. I love you.

Thank you, Amy. Your calm and knowledgeable voice on the phone kept me focused, saved me like a life raft through moments of extreme fear, and soothed me like a lullaby so I could sleep. Your senses of both pragmatism and humor have always helped me to maintain strength and hope, see the logic in holistic healing and the weirdness (and sometimes the benefits) of Western medicine. My book buddy, mom-in-law, brilliant physical therapist, nutritionist healer, and friend, thank you. I love you.

Thank you, my dear friend, Loretta, for bringing me a photo of Isadora Duncan dancing by the ocean and a lilac -scented candle. You didn’t know about my photo montage/dream board that Kate encouraged me to make, but you brought the last piece of it. You didn’t know that I named my scar ‘lilac,’ but you channeled the image anyway. You are among my tribe of magic, poet witches. Thank you. I love you.

Thank you, dear friends, Allen and Nick, for the care package of homemade almond cookies and vodka (These are a few of my favorite things!) the vintage, and in excellent condition, Dorothy Parker book of short stories, the telegram (my first one!), and especially for coming up here to surprise me for Easter (Mary Magdalen’s Day) and indulging me with some dancing! I love you both with a big, big love.

Thank you, dear friend, editor, and co-conspirator-collaborator extraordinaire,  Athene, for being on the other side of the pond and still so close. Knowing that we’d get back to our chats after I healed was my light. You were (and have been) my light, my newest friend, one of the toughest, loveliest women I have had the pleasure to get close to…big virtual hugs and hopes for a face-to-face soon. I love you.

Thank you, my sister-in-law, Charleen, for coaching me on what to expect and making me laugh by saying, “Now, right before they put you under, they’ll say they’re going to give you a nice cocktail, and it’s not the kind you’re thinking.” You were right, they did, and I think I actually laughed as I went under. Thank you for helping me face this and know I am here for you too. I love you.

Thank you, my brothers, Michael and Matthew, for listening patiently on the phone and for always, since we were kids, making me feel like I could be brave. You both live your lives with courage, you’ve taught yourselves everything, and you’ve always been so in touch and connected to nature. You’ve led me by example. You’ve always been my heroes in the woods or on the water and your voices keep me strong. I love you.

Thank you, Mom and Dad, for going through this with me all over again. You were 20 year old ‘kids’ the first time. Your baby girl had this major thing that needed fixing, so you fixed it. I can’t imagine what it must have taken to make that decision, but I am eternally grateful that you did. You and Dr. Rudy and his team gave me 40 years of walking and dancing, and now I am returning, remembering how good it felt to move. I wouldn’t be me without your selflessness, love, and sacrifice. To this day, you still act as caretakers for everyone, in whatever way you can. Thank you for being who you are. I love you.

Thank you, my sweet niece and nephew, Hannah and Blake. Hannah, your healing gift lives deeply in your voice. You are so powerful, smart, and clear that when I am most afraid, I see and hear you first. For this surgery, your confidence literally helped me walk into the hospital and know that I’d be fine.  And Blake, your promise that you’d take me to Flatwoods when it was all over was a rope I held onto. When I need hope, it’s you that I turn to. Thank you for giving me something to look forward to and for knowing that nature is truly our best medicine. Niece and Nephew, thank you. I love you both more than words.

Thank you, extended family for praying and lighting candles. Thank you, Uncle Tommy and Aunt Darlene for serenading me with songs and poems. Thank you, Aunt Barbie, for the cards and letters. I miss you and I love you.

Thank you, my surgeon, Dr. Cross. Sir, you are truly a sculptor, a miracle worker, my superhero. Your medium is titanium and you make bionic people, you made me Jamie Summers. You’ve given something back to me that I thought I’d never feel again. I am indebted for life. Thank you.

Thank you, entire team at HSS, especially the nurses with your senses of humor around less-than-delicate topics like catheters, passing gas, pee shyness, and power puking. All of you turned yourselves inside out for me. Thank you.

Thank you, my HSS physical therapist, Kavit, for teaching me little songs like “up goes to heaven, down goes to hell,” so I could remember my footing for stair climbs, and for making sure that my PT progress was not hindered by lack of sleep and a challenging roommate. You were fierce and compassionate. Thank you.

Thank you, my visiting nurse, Gina. Along with taking out my groovy staples and monitoring my vitals, you saw the terrible allergic reaction to the pain medication and promptly weaned me off of it. I was terrified and you helped me stay calm, prescribing the correct antihistamines and lotions to get my skin and body back to normal. You saved me. Thank you.

Thank you, my visiting physical therapist, Dan, for using the poetic phrase “thoughtless walking” and convincing me that this was something I would accomplish. Thank you for the counter top exercises, for patiently walking beside me, keeping Sam-Tux kitty from curling too much around my legs, and for your overall calm instruction. You rule. Thank you.

Thank you, my current physical therapist, Laurie, for being such a bad ass and showing me the best physical therapy “homework” exercises. I can feel results in both my strength and flexibility thanks to you. You rock.

Thank you, Emily Dickinson, my poet spirit, for reminding me during the long winter weeks of recovery that poems were right outside my window.

And thank you, animals, for showing up at all the right moments, like you always do…starlings, vultures, crows, my grand hawk, Sam-Tux cat, all the neighborhood puppies, the fox across the rock wall, and the snake who came later, I love you and I hold you in my poems.

Gracias a todos y felicita al movimiento en los meses y anos venideros!

 

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Trenzas

I was biking on the trail that curves around Tarrytown Lakes when I saw a little girl in the distance.

She was on a pink bike with training wheels, tassels wispy in the breeze. Her mom stood next to her, steadying the bike, encouraging her to go. As I passed, the little girl looked up at me, nodded, and extended her arm with her palm open.

Let me rephrase that.

She nodded with confidence, a knowing code, an expression that said, “Hey, Bike Sister. I got this,” and her open palm was a clear invitation for me to tag her as I passed.

Yes, this really happened.

The little girl’s mom giggled, delighted and surprised that her daughter had engaged a stranger so playfully.

Years ago, when I lived in Tampa, I had a similar, joyful biking exchange with a little boy.

I was riding on the right, hugging the sea wall on Bayshore Boulevard, and he was about to pass me on the left, or I thought he wanted to pass. Instead, he biked parallel and threw me a mischievous grin. Simultaneously, we shouted, “One, two, three…GO!” And we raced along Bayshore, laughing the entire time, yelling things like, “Never say die!” and “Winner takes all!”

I don’t know exactly what makes little kids feel comfortable with me, what makes them know I’m goofy and willing to play, but my guess is it’s my braids.

In the 1970’s, when I was a little girl, I idolized Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls Wilder on “Little House on the Prairie.” If she wore her hair in this style, then so would I. Later, it was Farrah Faucet on “Charlie’s Angels,” and I spent hours with the blow dryer and curling iron aspiring to achieve her feathered look.  By the 1980’s, during my high school and early college years, my hair was down my back, I knew all the lyrics to every song from the musical “Hair,” and I dated guys who loved their hair too.

As I’ve aged with my long hair, more children have reacted…

One of the brightest muses of my life, my niece, Hannah, looked at me when she was about 3 or 4 and asked, “Are you old or new?”

I grinned and asked her back, “Which one do you think I am?”

She tilted her head, twisted her cute little lips, and said,“Well, you’re big, so you could be old, but you’re funny, so you could be new.”

I told her she was right, I was both.

Another time I was with my friend, Melissa. We were walking home from our favorite, neighborhood diner when I saw a boy kicking around a soccer ball. Playfully, I ran up to him and yelled, “Hey! Toss it here!”

He looked at me horrified, clutched his soccer ball to his chest, and ran back into his house. I felt deflated, but Melissa explained, “Michelle, you look like a giant girl who wants to take away his toy. What did you think he would do?”

Adults have reacted to my hair too. My ESL students have consistently loved my trenzas. Perhaps because long hair is part of many of cultures, and braids are a popular style, my plaits comfort them, giving them something they can relate to and talk about in English.

Hair is a personal thing, obviously. The love of my life had long hair, but he shaved his head in his early twenties for his own reasons. I’ve only had the urge to cut my hair two times in my life-once when I was 10, I wore it short and feathered, and once when I was 25, when I had a loose, layered bob. Both styles were fine, but neither really felt totally like me.

I still have moments when I think I need to look more tailored, that shorter hair might be more appropriate for my age, but lately, I’ve noticed a lot more older women flaunting their long, gray hair, and Emmylou Harris rocks it best. She’s my current hair idol, so maybe I’ll layer my locks like hers. Maybe. Or maybe I’ll just keep my braids, stay the gentle witch that I am, and hope for more fairy tale encounters on the trail.

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