Funny Duchess

Blog of artist and poet, Michelle Seaman

Still, Listening

I am trying to learn from other species,
the flora and fauna around me

now.

I do not speak their languages,

at least not as shared letters
arranged into sounds, my language, English.

There is no way of knowing

if my lessons are true,
tested, over and over, with enough time,

however, I am not finished.

I am still observing,

present, continuous.

There is the hillside.

In April, when no one was mowing, there was clover
and bees- digger bees, ground-nesting, solitary bees,
and bumbles- Eastern, Brown-belted, Northern
pollinating from purple bud to bud.

I squatted close
enough to hear them hum, hum.
I closed my eyes,
comforted by the sound.

In May, the landlord had the grass cut
every week. The clover grew back,
again and again. The rabbits came, daybreak, twilight.
I watched them chewing the clover tops.

Chipmunks scurried through the grass, along the rock wall,
pipping, squeaking, diving into their tunnels.
Squirrels darted and rolled on the hill,
scampered into the trees
claws clicking and scratching the bark.

Maples budded into green leaves,
leaves waving, like hands.
I waved back.

Sparrows and robins and jays and cardinals and woodpeckers
and birds I did not know, yellow birds with black masks
tiny gray birds with heads shaped like cardinals
I learned their name, warbler and titmouse,
all of them sang loud
enough to wake us up
every morning in April and May.

In June, July and August, summer mornings at daybreak,
my love and I sipped coffee outside
as close to the little woods as possible.

We looked up to see bats, wobbling
swooping to eat insects

a great blue heron, flying in a straight line

hummingbirds flitting
from the cherry tree into the cedar,
and once, as we were talking about courage,
hovering close, right in front of us

hawks circling, circling against the blue sky
keening from the highest branch of the maple,
the sound of the hawk, comforting.

We sat still and a tom cat, a dark grey tabby,
crouched across the hill side, wary of us.

We sat still, holding our breath
for the fox who emerged from the woods,
sniffed the neighbors’ wood pile,
flicked her tail, and returned to the woods
her paws making no sound at all.

There is some quiet in this village,
if you wake up before most of the humans,
if you are still
listening.

Viva La Village

Dear Village,

Hello. I am new to you. I moved here in February 2020.

I was just getting to know you, your hills and sidewalks, houses with yards promising flowers and decorated with fairy gardens, your cute shops and restaurants, your groovy movie theater, cafes, book store. I was hoping to grow my small friendship circle, have tea and go for walks with nearby friends, make my home a welcoming place for people to gather for board games and salons.

Then Covid struck, and I went inside.

Since March, I have been learning, or re-learning, stillness, and I am not good at it. In the early years of my life, I was still because my body demanded it. I was in a body cast, healing from hip dysplasia. After that cast came off, I could not stop walking, running, dancing, playing volleyball, climbing, jumping, skating, riding my bike. I was active for years. When I learned to drive and discovered train travel, I saw most of this country, 48 of our states. By the time I braved air planes, I had severe arthritis, my body once again demanding stillness to get through sharp periods of pain, but I prevailed, moving with a crutch and then a cane.

I wanted to experience cities in Europe, my ancestry, a kind of home. I wanted to see my family, attend my niece’s wedding, bike along the ocean in Delaware, hike among the trees of Vermont. I wanted to go. I didn’t think about gasoline, how my travel might affect other species, this planet. The urge to go was stronger.

I made the decision to have hip replacement surgery in 2018, and shortly after this, my body remembered easy movement, painlessness. I fell back in love with trails, back in love with distance. I took those first steps, and I vowed never to take movement and painlessness for granted, to savor every wandering step, bike pedal, flexible stretch and dance move.

So, while I know stillness, I prefer movement. I come from a family that likes to move. I am a newly able-bodied, middle-aged woman, former teacher, restless poet. I write from these voices, from this body.

Because I have been inside, I have been working quietly to confront and question who I am- my personal past mistakes, the collective horrors of my species. I am learning, listening.


As I do this, I hold a heaviness within me, but I also experience intense moments of joy. Most of the time, this happens in my kitchen, when I am cooking and listening to music. Waves of gratitude wash over me for the life I have had, for the privileges of food, water, shelter, love and art. So much art.

Yes, Village, within this stillness, I have been making art. I think this is how my body has responded to quarantine. Maybe this is my way of fighting back. Maybe I am creating to counter a destructive energy that could smother me if I let it. I don’t really know, but this is what I’ve been doing…

I’ve begun sending my novella, the entire manuscript, to small publishing houses for contests and during their open submissions periods. As many editors and agents advise, I need to find my kindred spirits, places that accept hybrid literature, presses that embrace poetry as well as prose. I know this will be a long process, perhaps years, but I am ok with this. Quarantine has been teaching me patience.

I’ve finished a collection of poems that has an audio element. Yay! It’s another hybrid! Within this collection, I’ve written in free verse, and I’ve played with poetic forms-pantoums, villanelles, sonnets, as well as a form I created, a form I call the altered minute. I’ve blended these poetic forms with Benjamin’s ambient and modern classical music. I love working with Benjamin. I love our duet, The Dwindlers. Quarantine has made me love deeper.

Quarantine has made me grateful for technology, for my access to the internet, because I can collaborate, share thoughts about poetry, music and art…

I’ve been meeting with my editor, fellow poet and dear friend, Athene. We’ve shared our poetry collections, and we are helping each other get our work out into the world. Athene is one of the strongest and smartest women I’ve ever met. She is a deeply intuitive reader of poetry, dedicated to the craft on a level that I cherish and need. Her collection is gorgeous! Within it, she honors her mother and grandmother, she questions time and memory, mourns loss and connects with nature. I can not wait for her work to be published!

I’ve been meeting with my friend, fellow writer and educator, Christine. She’s invited me to create interdisciplinary curricula, something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Also, thanks to her, and as part of this curricula, I’m drawing and collaging, reconnecting with my visual work. Christine has helped me take a part of myself back. Her generosity and sensitivity are just a couple of her strengths. She writes with clarity and a witch-wicked sense of humor. I love what Christine and I are making, and I’m excited to share it!

I’m meeting again with my writers’ group from when I lived in Berlin, The Raumerstrasse Writers. Twice a month, we take turns coming up with prompts, and then during our video chats, we read our work to each other. When I see their lovely faces on the screens- Ralph in Berlin, Jen now in Bristol, and Christine in Amsterdam, I wish I could be in a pub or a coffee shop with them, laughing face to face. When I hear Jen’s voice, I fall into a poetic, rhythmic space that begins with the smallest details and grows into a wide landscape. When I hear Ralph’s voice, I am transported to parties, social gatherings where I laugh easily, where I feel delighted and a little naughty, like I’m eavesdropping on conversations between fascinating characters. And like I mentioned above, when I hear Christine’s voice, I experience a clarity, a keen, honest, vulnerable insight combined with a sharp wit. Thanks to all three of my friends, and our creative prompts, I’ve started my second book! My first book really took flight when I was with them in Berlin, so it’s fitting that this would happen. Christine, Jen and Ralph are my foundations, and I am deeply thankful they are in my life.

I am profoundly thankful for another recent rekindling. I’m back making art with my dear friend, Kelly, an amazing film maker and musician. She and I were in a band and in grad school together in Chicago. Now we are back together writing songs, dreaming of performing and making installations again someday. Thanks to this sacred reunion, I’ve started singing, really singing. Thanks to conversations with her, I’ve been walking into my pantry (my witchy closet) opening my mouth and singing to the trees in the backyard. I feel so much joy when I do this, I cry. Kelly is supportive and empathetic. She reassures me about my voice, my ability to hear melodies. She’s been teaching me about harmonizing, teaching me to listen. Singing is a relatively new thing for me to explore at this level, and it’s a bit scary, makes me feel vulnerable, but with Kelly, I reach for fearlessness. And she is so funny! We belly laugh every time we talk. I am looking forward to the day when I can hug her and her lovely husband, Mark (or as we affectionately call him, Campbell). Kelly and I have ignited a fire that we have both needed and wanted for a long time. I am beyond grateful that she’s back in my life.

Also back in my life is the drummer from our Chicago band. Mark, or Hughes, as we lovingly call him, personifies love and loyalty. He is the reason Kelly and I are back together, because he started the conversation that sparked the reunion. We have video-gathered twice now and both times were epic! We get caught up on our lives, jobs and families, and then we talk about music and laugh for hours and hours. Kelly has made the analogy that we are like puppies, and all we want to do is roll around on each other. She said, “Or it’s like we are children in a bouncy castle, and we just want to jump around and laugh.” Yes. We are puppy children. Our conversations carry me for days. Just knowing my friend Hughes is out there, as a musician, loving husband and father, and principal of a middle school makes me feel reassured, hopeful about the world and deeply, deeply grateful.

I’ve been conversing with my lovely friend, Dara. Like me, Dara writes and sings and loves Patti Smith. I love Dara because she is such a balanced person- playful and driven, energetic and calm, funny and smart. She possesses a deep passion for the environment, dedicating her life to sustainability and minimalism. She’s my heroine and inspiration in navigating the often exhausting world of self- promotion. I can trust that whenever I talk with Dara, I won’t dread the business aspects of writing quite as much, in fact, I know I will feel renewed energy, and I will laugh with her too. I exhale, thankful Dara is in my life. And in the spirit of shameless plugs, I invite you to learn more about Dara and her awesome business, Less Equals More.

Benjamin and I are staying in touch with Rose, the singer from our trio, Born in Snow. Together we have written enough songs for an album we have loosely titled, Tree House Tapes. For this project, I write lyrics and add spoken verse. I am excited to hear from Rose because she has the magical ability to make her voice sound like flowers one minute and a Southwest desert the next. I’m looking forward to receiving more tracks from her. I’m looking forward to hearing Rose sing for our trio and for herself.

We have also kept in touch with Stephen, another most interdisciplinary artist friend of ours from Chicago. Stephen inspires me because he’s written several books, plays guitar like a bad ass, and he draws and paints. Watching his videos on Monsterology relaxes me, especially when he does plein air water color and ink. I love that he works from city parks, and I especially admire that he works in cemeteries. I look forward to every scotch and conversation with him. Benjamin and I agree that talking with Stephen feels like home.

Another friend who feels like home is Eric, or EB, as we call him. I wrote in my last post that both EB and Stephen understand the art of conversation, the give and take. They know how to listen and they balance humility with self-assuredness. I want to add to the list of praises for EB that he is a bass player. Yes, I surround myself with bass players and witches, and yes, I sing their praises. There is something natural, or nature-connected about both bass players and witches. It’s in the way they know rhythm, the cyclical aspects, how they can root down and stay in the essence of things. And bass players are just genuinely cool. It’s in the way they move and in their speech patterns. When EB greets me, he says, “Hey, girl.” This might not sound remarkable to anyone else, but to me, this is a comforting, Midwest kind of greeting. Also like witches, bass players are intuitive. When we were in Chicago last year, hugging EB goodbye after a day of hanging out, he looked directly at me and said, “See you when you move back.” Thank you, EB, that was in the pocket, and you know it.

Village, since March, I’ve only taken 3 or 4 walks, and while each one made my legs and hips feel good, I am not home. I don’t really know you, so the walks have felt strange, and people are still not granting the consistent space I need to feel safe. I miss the people and the land where I have a history. All nature inspires and informs my writing, and I’ve found some peace looking out my window, seeing bees and clover, songbirds, hawks, bunnies, squirrels and chipmunks, flowers, cedars, maples… but I am not home. I can’t lie, while you are very charming, I am dreaming of being in different places with people who really know me…

I’m dreaming of Florida- shopping and drinking coffee with my Mom, playing Scrabble and practicing Spanish with my Dad, eating fresh fish sandwiches with my brother, chatting and laughing with my sister-in-law, having an art day with my niece, chatting with her husband over a beer, biking at Flat Woods Park with my nephew and his fiancé.

I’m dreaming of Wisconsin- biking and singing with my youngest brother, getting to know all of my extended family better, having my body back on the land where I was born.

I’m dreaming of Colorado-talking, laughing and sipping with my mothers-in-law, chatting and hiking and playing board games with my sister and brother-in-law, my nephew and nieces.

I’m dreaming of Chicago-strolling arm-in-arm on those wide sidewalks, talking and laughing and sitting down to sip wine or vodka and talk more and more with my friend, Irina.

I’m dreaming of Virginia- cooking delicious meals, sipping excellent cocktails, laughing and listening to music and talking endlessly with our friends, Nick and Allen.

I’m dreaming of North Carolina- laughing and talking with my friends Mercedes, Jen, and Sophie, reconnecting with our friend Cat and her family, reconnecting with my poet friend, David and his lovely wife, Doris, and my dancer friend, Kate and her love, Dale…

Village, I can’t lie. I’m dreaming of wandering far away from you, but I want you to, as everyone is saying now, stay safe and healthy. Keep your charms and thrive again.

Until then, may you find peace within the stillness.

Love,
Michelle

Learning Space

“If you walk long enough, your crowded head clears
like how all the cattle run off loudly as you approach.
The fence is a good fence, but I doubt my own haywire
will hold up to all this blank sky, so open and explicit.
I’m like a fence, or a cow, or that word yonder.”

-Ada Limon from “During the Impossible Age of Everyone”
within the collection Bright Dead Things

It is spring, and if it were a usual spring, after the longer, gray months of winter, I would be going to visit my family in Florida or Wisconsin or Colorado.

But it is not a usual spring. Not here in New York. Not anywhere. Not at all.

We are not planning any trips. We are healthy, so we staying inside, trying to stay hopeful, trying to not overwhelm ourselves with negative information nor allow fear to get the best of us.

As each day within this quarantine passes, I look to things to lift me- my poetry and the poems of others, Benjamin’s laugh, messages and conversations with family and friends, magical connections between people physically far away but communicating and near at the same time, people trying their best in my quiet neighborhood, and most of all, nature outside my window and in my imagination.

Admittedly, I am carrying a sadness, or as my wise writer-friend Mary advises, I am “making space for the grief.” Daily, I am acknowledging that suffering is around me. I am writing poems, listening for anything in nature to call to me. I am calling back with all my might, allowing my memories to comfort, my poetic lines to teach, to mourn, to accept.

One memory is of last summer, when Benjamin and I boarded Amtrak for a long train ride from New York to Chicago, then out to Colorado, and back.

The trains generally follow water, so from Croton we cruised up the Hudson River, viewing the chalky Palisades and smoky Appalachians in the distance. Along the tracks, I saw some of my favorite wildflowers, Queen Anne’s Lace and tiger lilies. We passed marshes with red-winged black birds balancing on cattails and herons stepping gracefully through the water. These aspects in nature felt comforting, nostalgic, like when I was a kid sitting next to a marsh in Wisconsin.

We arrived in Albany around twilight, and like many towns in upstate New York, this one had rocky, vertical hills and plenty of architectural charm. It was lovely, but in my head I heard a repeating phrase, “Not mine, not mine.”

My first home was Wisconsin, a land of long, rolling hills, farms, coniferous and deciduous forests, and glacial rock formations stacked up around the rivers and lakes. I was raised out in the country, spending my childhood listening for whippoorwills, building forts out of rocks and prairie grass, gathering hickory nuts, napping in trees. I slept on the ground there too, camping in places like: Rocky Arbor State Park, Castle Rock State Park, Shawno Lake County Park and Flanagan’s Pearl Lake Family Campground. In those places, I met my first pen pal, went on nature scavenger hunts and swam in cold freshwater lakes. I also lived in Minnesota, hiking alone in at Afton State Park and with friends at Taylor’s Falls and Gooseberry Falls. One autumn, on a trail with a friend in upper Minnesota, we met a black bear. We had spooked her, so at first, she ran, but then she stopped and turned to look at us. I will never forget how my heart felt at that moment-afraid, yes, but only for a second, because the sheer beauty of her big face, her black fur against all those autumn colors mesmerized me.

My second home was Florida, a place noted for sunrises over the Atlantic and sunsets over the Gulf. I have biked and rollerbladed on many Florida trails: The Withlacoocohee State Trail, Flatwoods County Park Trail, The Pinellas State Trail and parts of the Suncoast Trail. I slept in the sand at Hillsborough State Park where I was awakened by an opossum trying to poke underneath my tent. I walked on the beach to the sound of the Atlantic waves at Anastasia State Park. At St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, I camped on the beach, watching the dolphins at sunset and later the bioluminescent jelly fish under the moon. I lived in soft, humid air, and I found the wet heat soothing, relaxing. I lived where there were subtle changes to the light. In Florida, I could generally guess clock time by the color of the sky. My resting state of mind is a Florida sky, open and wide. Unfortunately, too many humans have chosen to fill in the spaces of Florida with strip malls and drive throughs, and the traffic is incessant. As a young person, I liked cars. I embraced the restless romanticism of the open road, but now, I do not like being in a car much at all. I love my legs and my bike. For me, Florida deserves more trails and bicycles, less cars, but she is my home. When I’m there, I hear it, “Mine, mine.”

Because I come from these two regions, there is something in my body that needs outward space, so as much as I admire and appreciate New York’s vertical landscape, I know it is not within me.

The train turned west, and I nodded off to sleep. I don’t remember Buffalo or any smaller towns, but I woke up to a giant ship directly out the window, and I knew I was in Erie.

It was then that I felt the shift.

It wasn’t the enormous scale of the ship or some connection to northern Pennsylvania. It was that Great Lake. It was knowing that I had left the Eastern seaboard, and I was in the Midwest, heading home.

There is a faded softness, a pale blue, paper-gray to Midwest skies. It is a place where, even though it is grey through many months of the year, you can always see and feel the sky. Summer smells like hay, sharp pine sap, pungent manure. Winter smells like snow. The hills and fields go on and on and on, the horizon is vast. My head empties. I can think.

I can breathe.

It is the space.

And maybe part of my humanity as well.

I am a descendant of Polish and German people- farmers, hunters, fishermen and women. I am from quiet people attached to land and water, humans comfortable alone, content in nature.

Feeling the Midwest outside my train window relaxed me, and I heard it, “Mine. Home. Mine.”

The cities in the Midwest are a part of my personal history too. When the Chicago skyline appeared, I smiled. Benjamin and I met, fell in love and began our lives as artists in Chicago. As we disembarked from the train, we both felt the difference between Chicago and New York City. No one crowded us. People made space and were patient, even after the long ride. Maybe because Carl Sandburg’s “city of broad shoulders” is wide, people can naturally give each other room as they walk on the sidewalks. This is design. There is simply more space to give.

We exhaled.

Our dear friend, Irina, greeted us with big hugs and kisses on our cheeks. It is easy to be with Irina. She’s intelligent, curious, clever and funny as hell. She lives in the moment, making the most of time with friends, diving deep into conversations that would make all the salons in history jealous. Irina and I have known each other as long as Benjamin and I have been together, 18 years, and each visit with her is lovelier than the last. This time we discussed everything from politicians to traveling to Yo Yo Ma (who was playing a free concert in Millennium Park that weekend) to our latest favorite books and television shows. We had a perfectly wine buzzy lunch at our favorite Mexican Restaurant, Frontera Grill, and the afternoon could not have been better.

Later, we met up with more friends, Eric and Stephen. Both of them were so engaging and open. As I listened, I realized I missed a particular quality that both of them had. They knew the art of conversation, how to be totally present, ask sincere questions, keep a balance of vulnerability and self-confidence. They were neither cocky nor whiney. They were not anxious nor distracted. They did not interrupt, talk incessantly about themselves or try to fill the quiet space when the conversation subsided and thoughts required rest. I think Midwesterners may understand something East Coasters are now trying to learn, and again, I think it has to do with the land.

We give each other room.

It is about space.

As a Midwesterner, I love my friends deep as a sandstone quarry, so leaving Chicago was hard. I wanted more time, but we were Colorado bound to see beloved family, to experience their lives and land, so we boarded the train.

Riding across Kansas toward Denver made me remember something a former train companion of mine once said. Dan was visiting from England. He looked out the window as we were leaving Albuquerque, passing the Rockies far, far in the distance. He said, “Your country is vast.” Yes Dan, it goes on forever, and it takes a while to get across it.

There were thunderstorms that night across the plains. They were scary and beautiful.

Because I spent my young adulthood in Florida, a lightning capital, a hurricane place, I am somewhat conditioned to storms. Still, I keep a solemn respect for fire across the sky and wind that can take your house. This respect runs deep in my bloodline, my history.

My parents lived through one of the worst tornados to hit Wisconsin, and when I was a child, a tornado jumped over our house, taking our neighbor’s barn roof with it. We huddled in our basement listening to it whine. I vaguely remember playing Noah’s Ark with my brothers, having gathered our dog and kittens into safety.

We must experience fear differently as children. My brothers and I felt afraid for our animals, protective, but we also saw an opportunity to break the rules, insisting that our loved ones had to be in the house with us. We made it a party.

Meanwhile, my dad talked about how when he was little, he and his brother played in the wind before that tornado hit, opening their jackets and pretending to fly like Superman. My mom was quiet, listening, stoically watching the sky through the small basement window. She had memories of cows flying through the air and hay shooting through tree trunks. She lost a classmate to that storm.

My parents are still in Florida, and they’ve become resigned to dealing with extreme weather. Once, while my dad and I were in Chicago, and a hurricane was threatening Tampa, we called to check on my Mom. “Oh, I’m fine,” she said, “I’m in the tub with some Merlot. It’ll pass.” She made it a party.

As much as I want to carry that kind of wild courage with me, I struggle to hold onto it, particularly now as I’ve aged and when I’m in certain situations. I was scared watching those storms, but it was sort of familiar, and nothing compared to what I was about to experience.

We arrived in Denver in the morning. Everyone stepped off the train to take a much needed break. I immediately felt the lightness of the air and an unfamiliar wooziness in my body. Thinking that I might be affected by the altitude, I had packed some ginger candy and popped one into my mouth. I looked at the Rockies, this time not so vast in the distance, this time ascending straight up, highest peaks I had ever seen.

The trains generally follow water.

Not this one. Not exactly.

I have ridden trains all over the various regions of our giant country-The Silver Meteor, from New York to Tampa, The Empire Builder, from Minneapolis to Seattle, The West Coast Starlight, from Seattle to Los Angeles- but I had not ridden the California Zephyr through the heart of the Rockies.

That train climbed to 10,000 feet.

I was a on a train in the sky.

I am afflicted with a lack of serotonin in my brain. This causes a kind of anxiety and a specific claustrophobia. In certain situations, I am unable to breathe properly. I feel it most when my body is enclosed in metal, traveling faster, or differently, than it could on its own. I feel this intensely on planes, a little less so on city buses or in cars (buses because of the short distances, cars if I can take breaks and travel back roads).

Up until this trip, I felt anxiety least on trains, but as we climbed, it kicked in- hard. I gripped the doorway of our cabin, and tried to breathe, tried not to cry. Poor Benjamin tired to calm me, be calm for me, but it was not working like it usually does. A couple passed by, giddy and drunk and marveling at the view. They were stumbling, happy, making it a party. I wanted to hold onto their joy, and I could hear Colorado trying to speak to me. She said, ” C’mon, look. I am stunning. Look at me. I am undeniably beautiful with all my varying colors and shapes and rocks and sheerness of my height. Look at me. I am breath taking.” Unfortunately, I could not look. Fear literally took my breath in the form of a 6-hour panic attack.

On that Zephyr, I felt trapped. Maybe if I had been on foot, trusting my own weight to hike those canyons, digging treads into the dirt with fresh air around me, maybe it would have felt better.

When we finally descended into Glenwood Springs, when we were less than a mile from departing and beginning our vacation with our family, the train hit a rock (really a boulder). It was the loudest boom I had ever heard. The train was stuck just above the rapids of the Colorado River. My nerves were shattered, and I thought I would truly lose my mind. All I wanted was to get the hell off that train, hug my mother-in-law and get myself a drink. Eventually the conductor said that situation was addressed, the train moved, and we finally united with our loved ones.

It was time to breathe, to be in Colorado.

I thought I could ground myself, maybe hike a bit, now that I wasn’t on a flying train, but alas, I still had more to learn about Colorado and my body.

We visited Ouray and Aspen, two places where hiking may have been possible for me, but the elevation continued to challenge. The sidewalks in both towns felt wavy, making me a bit dizzy. I was also dehydrated. I could not drink enough water to balance the dry air sucking all the moisture from my skin. I couldn’t enjoy my usual quota of wine or cocktails with my family, because even small sips of alcohol made me woozy.

But I heard an echo from that land.

It was not clear, but I leaned in to hear it. I wanted to know the language. I wanted to be comfortable with this different horizon, this space that was up, not out.

My body learns things slowly, so I knew I might not learn it on that trip, in just a week’s time, but I’d keep trying, because while the Colorado mountains challenged me, I liked the valleys. I was having a blast with my mothers-in-law in the Roaring Fork Valley and my brother and sister-in law, nieces and nephew in the Uncompahgre Valley. We ate delicious food, played board games and laughed. We listened to the kids play gorgeous music on piano, violin, cello and harp, and we learned more about their visual art projects. We shopped, visited galleries, museums, and the John Denver Sanctuary. We talked and talked and enjoyed each other’s company. I got to know the kids better through individual chats, and this meant the world to me. I loved their senses of curiosity, adventure and humor. I loved how they listened. I loved them.

And Coloradans were lovely. Whenever we went into a restaurant or a shop or a grocery store, people were friendly, open, and aware of giving each other physical space. Again, I think this is regional. Perhaps when you have space in an aspen forest or on a mountain that reaches 14,000 feet, you understand. You feel it. With this understanding, you join your species in public places, and you extend that courtesy, offering space.

This I understand.

All this said, I must acknowledge my privilege for needing space. I know from teaching international students that much of the rest of the world does not have this luxury. And now that Benjamin and I live in the most congested region of the United States, now that the world is trying to quell a pandemic, we United Statesians are learning hard lessons of space giving. People in New York City in particular are trying to figure out how to grant space when there is less of it to give.

I’ve been living here, just a 40 minute train ride north of New York City for the past five years. Trips from my little river towns into the city used to involve steeling myself against the onslaught of sensory overload, but once I settled in a cafe or on a park bench, I could adjust for a while, and I loved the experience.

I loved how the city made my poetry feel. I loved drinking way too much coffee at Think Coffee and writing for hours. I loved hanging out in The Algonquin Hotel, drinking a cocktail with the spirit of Dorothy Parker, shopping at The Strand or Books of Wonder, meandering through museums and galleries, walking on the High Line. I loved watching the rhythmic fashion show that is New York City, but I could only do this every now and then.

I needed nature more.

I needed space.

The city is narrow and obviously crowded, so it’s harder to offer space, but here in the river towns, it is totally possible. Unfortunately, space granting has not been my experience.

When we first moved here, and while I still walking with a cane, I was physically bumped as I stood in line at two different library book sales, jostled while shopping at a church thrift sale, stepped on and shoved at two different grocery stores. People also consistently stood or spoke uncomfortably close to my body and face. I was not used to this. I felt protective of my hip, because I did not want to lose my balance, fall, and hurt it even more. I felt protective of my health. As much as I wanted to, I stopped going out as much, I lessened my social activity. This was fine for my writing but a bit weird for the part of me that likes my species.

I could go on with more examples of body space invasion, as well as countless examples of car crowding (being cut off or tailgated or yelled at is common driving behavior), but I do not want to do this.

Instead, I want to close this post with some love and a request, not just for New York, but for my whole, big, beautiful and messed up country.

New York, even though you are not mine, I respect you. I do not want to be scared of you. I did not want to be scared then, and I sure as hell do not want to be scared now. I see your beauty- you love art, you are intelligent and you are tough as nails. As I write this, the Covid map is showing that our Northeast region is staying put, slowing down. We are trying. Meanwhile, in the rest of our country, in the states where we all have loved ones, people are facing the danger of rising cases.

Government, on either side, can not make this change for us.

We have to do this.

Together in our communities. Tenderly. Patiently.

Individuality and freedom of choice are a part of who we are as residents of the United States, and people from different countries admire this, but with these advantages comes a responsibility. We must also co-exist within our small communities and in our cities.

So please, little villages, big cities, collection of states and regions…KEEP TRYING.

Apply this mandated social distancing- now AND when this is over.

I’d like to go out again with less fear.

I promise to grant you space, directive from a government or not.

Please give me space.

Let’s create a new way to be careful with one another.

Let’s be calm and patient, with less haywire anxiety and more open sky for all.

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!