Funny Duchess

Blog of artist and poet, Michelle Seaman

Archives (page 4 of 15)

Poets and Wolves

Sometimes, all I have to do is pay attention and ideas for poems present themselves to me.

It was Thursday, and I wanted Chopin. I wanted my favorite Polish potato vodka, and I expressed this to my friend, Mercedes. She reminded me that there was a liquor store in Tarrytown, where conveniently, I would be having lunch with another friend. Proximity bonus!

I strolled in and began to scan the shelves. A tall, handsome man asked if I needed help. I recognized his accent immediately, and I did what I always do whenever I hear English enhanced by a lovely accent… I relaxed. He spoke German. I just knew it.

“Yes, please,“ I said smiling, “I’m looking for Chopin vodka.”

“Ah, yes, the potato vodka,” he answered, “Let me see.”

At first, neither of us recognized the bottle. We were used to seeing it with the composer’s portrait on it, but this one simply had the label, and it was bright pink.

“I think this is for breast cancer awareness,” he said.

“Perfect! I’ll take it,” I said, and then I had to ask, “Where are you from? Your accent is beautiful.”

“Austria,” he said, and it was his turn to smile.

I knew it! From there, we talked about the challenges of speaking German, the beauty of Europe, the necessity for affordable health care, and how increased immigration is posing challenges for the continent. He wasn’t afraid to talk politics. Talk. Not argue. I really miss this about Europeans. When we were in Germany, talking politics was a natural part of the cultural fabric. Here in the States, it still seems like we either dance around anything controversial or we yell at each other. No happy medium. No civil discourse. Personally, I am curious about other people’s views, and I wish to discuss topics respectfully. My friend Wolfgang understood this.

In Austria, he was in the military as a border guard, and he interacted a little with Polish soldiers. He told me this was in the days of the wall, so things were “different then because of communism,” but he “learned a little Polish and it was a decent salary.” He also told me that he had his degree in Psychology, which he thought was essential to service in the military. “People think it’s about carrying a big gun and impressing people,” he said, “but it’s not. It’s about understanding human behavior.” Lastly, he expressed that he didn’t like what he was hearing from Trump’s mouth. “I’ve heard talk like this before,” he said, “and it’s no good.”

Wolf and I have had different life experiences, but there we were in the liquor store, talking about things that concerned us, learning from and listening to each other. This is my point. It can be done.

But back to my story of finding magic poetry.

I went from the liquor store to meet Loretta for lunch.

I’ve written about my friend in earlier posts. She is a fellow poet, a therapist, and co-owner of one of my favorite coffee shops in this area, Muddy Water Cafe. She and I have met several times to share our poems and give each other feedback. She has offered Muddy’s as a venue for Born in Snow gigs and Calyx and Parlance workshops. In January, she and I worked together with our friend, Heather Reid, to host a political salon. Loretta is a bright light, a sparkle face. Everyone who meets her sees her generous spirit, and I am grateful for her friendship.

For lunch that day, we talked like poets do, considering topics for poems that serve us better as we get older, and discussing punctuation as both function and visual design within a poem.

“I think I’m done writing about personal relationships. I want to write about bigger things,” she said. I agreed and added that nature kept coming up as the most compelling topic for me. I wanted to write about what nature means to me without sounding flowery or preachy. She also wanted to focus on the environment and human rights. We talked about how tricky it can be to fuse poetry and socio-political topics, how some poets can get pin-holed, and their work can get stuck in a moment in time, losing the sense of the universal.

Then, we transitioned to the practical, business side of writing. Loretta mentioned that she has a friend who is a well-connected literary agent, and that once I had completed my book, she’d introduce us. My stomach did cartwheels as she spoke. Again, I felt grateful for my friend’s giving nature, but I also felt the weight of making this thing I’ve been doing for the past few years, this writing a novel, real. Deep breath, in and out, in and out…

It was motivating to talk with my friend like this. It was a perfect lunch.

As a third sign post in my quest for new poetry, my story skips ahead to that Saturday, when Benjamin and I drove up to the New York Wolf Conservation Center. We have wanted to visit the wolves for some time, and there was finally a break in the weather. I was so excited!

The center has four ambassador wolves that the public is allowed to see- Alawa, Zephyr, Nikai, and Atka. The first three are litter mates (Alawa is the only female), and they are a mix of gray wolf species. Atka is an Arctic gray wolf and the eldest in the group. There are also twenty grey and red wolves that are part of the Species Survival Plan program. While the ambassadors will remain in captivity, the other wolves will hopefully be released and reintroduced into their natural habitats. Hopefully.

The educational program began with instructor Alex giving an overview of the center and teaching the humans about how important it is not to demonize wolves. He asked the children if they really thought the wolf in Red Riding Hood would dress in grandmother’s clothes and try to eat her. They responded with a resounding “No!”

After the slide presentation, we stepped outside and howled to “let the wolves know we were coming.” They did not howl back. Nevertheless, we hiked up the little hill to the ambassador’s enclosure, and when I saw them, I wanted to stay with them all day. I wanted to be with them under the stars. I wanted to hear them howl on their own. Beautiful as an adjective does not even come close to describing the wolves. They were rhythmic, graceful, and dignified.

What struck me most was how they moved along the fence line. Alawa took the lead, pacing, keeping her eyes fixed on the humans who were admiring her. She glided back and forth along that chain link, and Zephyr followed. He was so in sync with her that he anticipated when she was about to turn, and he turned, just a slight second before her. This went on and on, this back and forth, this music. Meanwhile, Nikai leapt three feet into the air, from a stand still position!

I had never seen canine behavior quite like this. I knew they were hungry, waiting for the treats that came as part of the presentation for the humans, but it looked like they were dancing. Something about this movement made me teary. I wanted to open the gate and let them out. I wanted them safe inside. I know how wolves have been treated. I know about ignorant, idiot humans hunting them for sport, but standing there, I chose to be grateful for places like the NYWCC, grateful for humans who give a damn about predators.

Still there was that fence…and something about the slow amble of Atka, the eldest wolf, outside of his Arctic element, pawing at the last of the snow in his enclosure…

So I thought about borders and a Wislawa Zymborska poem called ‘Psalm’ came to me. It begins:

Oh, the leaky boundaries of man-made states!
How many clouds float past them with impunity;
how much desert sand shifts from one land to another; how many mountain pebbles tumble onto foreign soil in provocative leaps!

I thought about Wolfgang and his gate with Polish soldiers…

And a poem of my own, or maybe a song, started in my brain…

A poem to honor those wolves and wolves everywhere, perhaps noting a connection with a man also named Wolf and dedicated to a poet named Loretta.

Yes, somewhere in there was a poem or a song, and I will write it into my journal until it jumps like a canine at a fence trying to get out. Alleluia.

My Holy Book

I keep a copy of the Norton Book of Nature Writing on my bedside table. I read selections from this book every night for comfort and inspiration.

The collection includes some of my favorite writers like: Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olson, E.B. White, John Steinbeck, Rachel Carson, Richard Wright, Farley Mowat, Maxine Cumin, Edward Abbey, Edward O. Wilson, Sue Hubbell, Maxine Hong Kingston, Alice Walker, Annie Dillard, Linda Hogan, Diane Ackerman, Leslie Marmon Silko, Jamaica Kinkaid, Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver, and Michael Pollan.

Along with reading familiar writers, or as I consider it, visiting with old friends, I have been introduced to new voices within my Norton, voices like: Janisse Ray, Sharman Apt Russell, Evelyn White, Alison Hawthorne Deming, and Celia Thaxter.

Thanks to my brother, I have this book, my holy book, and I feel like I have enrolled myself in a private Literature of Nature Class. Here are quotes from some of the writers in Norton. Read them all or scan and choose a favorite. May these words inspire, challenge, comfort, or slow you down…

“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks,-who had a genius so to speak, for sauntering…the word comes from sans terre, without land or home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally home everywhere…” -Henry David Thoreau

“The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. In the presence of nature a wild delight runs through man, in spite of real sorrows.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

“…for the last two days it has been the great wild bee, the humblebee, or “bumble” as the children call him. They play a leading part in my morning, mid-day, or sunset rambles, and often dominate the landscape…Large and vivacious and swift, with wonderful momentum and a loud swelling perpetual hum, varied now and then by something almost like a shriek, they dart to and fro conveying to me a new and pronounced sense of strength, beauty, vitality, and movement.” -Walt Whitman

“Talk of hanging gardens of Babylon, all Italy, apart from the plains, is a hanging garden. Thousands of square miles of Italy have been lifted by human hands, piled and laid back in tiny little flats, held up by the drystone walls, whose stones came from the lifted earth. It is a work of many, many centuries. It is the gentle sensitive sculpture of all the landscape. Which shows that it can be done. Man can live on the earth, and by the earth without disfiguring the earth.” —D.H. Lawrence

“A dawn stirs on the great marsh. With almost imperceptible slowness it rolls a bank of fog across the wide morass. Like the white ghost of a glacier the mists advance, riding over the phalanxes of tamarack, sliding across bog-meadows heavy with dew. A single silence hangs from horizon to horizon.”-Aldo Leopold

“…shifting colors seemed drained from the horizons to form one gigantic rosette of flame and yellow and greenish purple. Suddenly I grew conscious of the reflections from the ice itself and that I was skating through a sea of changing color caught between the streamers above and below. At that moment I was part of the aurora, part of its light and of the great curtain that trembled above me.”-Sigurd Olson

“[Walden] still seems to me the best youth’s companion yet written by an American, for it carries a solemn warning against the loss of one’s valuables, it advances a good argument for traveling light and trying new adventures, it rings with the power of positive adoration, it contains religious feeling without religious images, and it steadfastly refuses to record bad news.” -E.B. White

“The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place. Not only do the tides advance and retreat in their eternal rhythms, but the level of the sea itself is never at rest. It rises or falls as the glaciers melt or grow, as the floor of the deep ocean basins shifts under its increasing load of sediments, or as the earth’s crust along the continental margins warps up and down in adjustment to strain and tension. Today a little more land may belong to the sea, tomorrow a little less. Always the edge of the sea remains an elusive and indefinable boundary.” -Rachel Carson

“There was the echoes of nostalgia I heard in the crying strings of wild geese winging south against a bleak, autumn sky. There was the tantalizing melancholy in the tingling scent of burning hickory wood. There was the love I had of the mute regality of tall, moss-clad oaks. There was the relish of eating my first fried fish sandwich, nibbling at it slowly and hoping that I would never eat it up.” -Richard Wright

“It seems to me possible, even probable, that many of the nonhuman, undomesticated animals experience emotions unknown to us. What do the coyotes mean when they yodel at the moon? What are the dolphins trying so patiently to tell us? Precisely what did those two enraptured gopher snakes have in mind when they came gliding toward my eyes over naked sandstone? And is the evolutionary line from protozoan to Spinoza any less certain? We are obliged, therefore to spread the news, painful and bitter though it may be for some to hear, that all living things on earth are kindred.” -Edward Abbey

“One spring afternoon, I was walking back down my lane after getting the mail. I had two fine new flowers to look up when I got back to the cabin. Warblers were migrating, and I had been watching them with binoculars; I had identified one I had never before seen. The sun was slanting through new leaves, and the air was fragrant with cherry blossoms, which my bees were working eagerly. I stopped to watch them, standing in the sunbeam. The world appeared to have been running along quite nicely without my even noticing it.” -Sue Hubbell

“Giant philodendrons tear apart the cars abandoned in the jungle. Tendrils crawl out of the hoods; they climb the shafts of steam shovels that had dug the highway. Roofs and trunks break open, turn red, orange, brown, and sag into dirt.”-Maxine Hong Kingston

“I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I’d half awaken. He’d stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses.” -Annie Dillard

“The first time I was fortunate to catch a glimpse of mating bats was in the darkest corner of a zoo. I was held spellbound, seeing the fluid movement of the bats as they climbed each other softly and closed their wings together. They were an ink black world hanging from a rafter. The graceful angles of their dark wings opened and jutted out like an elbow or knee poking through
a thin, dark sheet. A moment later it was black, a silky shawl pulled tight around them. Their turning was beautiful, a soundless motion of wind blowing great dark dunes into new configurations.” -Linda Hogan

“There was always in the margins of the cornfield just beyond our yard, in the brushy scraps of abandoned pasture, right-of-ways along the railroad tracks, along the river itself, and in the corners and unseeded lots of the town, a lowly assertion of grass. It was big grass. Original prairie grass-bluestem and Indian grass, side oats grama. The green fringe gave me the comforting assurance that all else planted and tended and set down by humans was somehow temporary. Only grass is eternal. Grass is always waiting in the wings.” -Louise Erdrich

“The 1964 National Wilderness Act includes ‘outstanding opportunities for solitude’ as part of a definition of what wilderness is. Socially, we believe that the point of wilderness is to get away from people. Spiritually, we want to meet Nature stripped of our accoutrements and modern “superficial” selves. We want to be that vulnerable.” -Sharman Apt Russell

“I believe the fear I experience in the outdoors is shared by many African American women and that it limits the way we move through the world and colors the decisions we make about our lives. My genetic memory of ancestors hunted down and preyed upon in rural settings counter[ed] my fervent hopes of finding peace in the wilderness. Determined to reconnect myself to the comfort my African ancestors felt in the rift valleys of Kenya and on the shores of Sierra Leone, I eventually decided to go on a rafting trip. Charging over the river, orange life vest firmly secured, my breathing relaxed and I allowed myself to drink in the stately rocks, soaring birds, towering trees, and affirming anglers who waved their rods as we rushed by in our raft. About an hour into the trip, in a magnificently still moment, I looked up into the heavens and heard the voice of black poet Langston Hughes: ‘I’ve known rivers of the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. My soul has grown deep like rivers.’ …comforted by our tribal ancestors-herders, gatherers, and fishers all-I am less fearful, ready to come home.” -Evelyn White

“Something happens to you in an old growth forest. At first you are curious to see the tremendous girth and height of the trees and you sally forth, eager. You start to saunter, then amble, slower and slower, first like a fox and then an armadillo and then a tortoise, until you are trudging at the pace of an earthworm, and then even slower, the pace of a sassafras leaf’s turning. The blood begins to languish in your veins, until you think it has turned to sap. You hanker to touch the trees and embrace them and lean your face against their bark, and you do. You smell them. There’s this strange current of energy running skyward, like a thousand tiny bells tied to your capillaries, ringing with your heartbeat. You sit and lean against one trunk…The trunk is your spine, the nerve centers reaching into other worlds, below ground and above. You stand and press your body into the ancestral and enduring, arms wide, and your fingers do not touch. You wonder how big the unseen gap. I drink old-growth forest like water. Here I walk shoulder to shoulder with history, my history. I am in the presence of something ancient and venerable, perhaps of time itself, its unhurried passing marked by immensity and stolidity, each year purged by fire, cinched by a ring. Here mortality’s roving hands grapple with air. I can see my place as human in a natural order more grand, whole, and functional that I’ve ever witnessed, and I am humbled, not frightened by it. Comforted. It is as if a round table springs up in the cathedral of pines and God graciously pulls out a chair for me, and I no longer have to worry about what happens to souls.” -Janisse Ray

Miko and The Snowflake Love Letter Poem

Miko and I have entered a competition!

For the past couple of months, my sweet friend and I have been collaborating on a sculpture.

It all began with Miko asking me if I wanted to participate in a contest that had to do with snowflakes. I was intrigued. She explained that every year, there is a contest in Japan inspired by the nuclear physicist, Ukichiro Nakaya. Nakaya’s work centers on snow crystal formation, and he has been famously quoted as saying that each snow crystal is like “a letter from the sky.”

I loved this and Miko knew I would. She encouraged me to write a poem with this quote as inspiration, and I began.

Because she and I have also been working on flower poems for Calyx & Parlance, I asked her first about flowers shaped like snowflakes. She immediately thought of stephanotis or white jasmine. I thought about these flowers, the changing seasons, the romance of the night sky, the beauty of snow at night, how a snowflake is a raindrop in the spring, and how flowers bloom from rain. After a few drafts, I came up with this:

I am sending you a letter from the sky
a thousand quiet shining stars
my voice turning to snow
the sound of powder kisses
falling only for you

catch them on your tongue
taste rain, each droplet, blooming jasmine
delicate flowers for your lips
petals from rain, snow, and stars
falling for you
in a love letter from the sky

My line breaks weren’t perfect, but it didn’t matter. In working with a skilled visual artist like Miko, I am reminded of how text can become abstracted, how poems can read as stream of consciousness or even as run-on sentences, and it’s ok. For someone who obsesses over her line breaks, and as a former grammar and syntax teacher, this was challenging at first. I kept fighting with these ideas. This is why I am grateful to have Miko in my life. She sees the work differently. Her encouraging, honest feedback helped me to have the breakthrough I needed, to get the poem into a block form, and turn it from poetry into visual art.

I hand wrote the poem onto card stock, Benjamin made a vector out of it, and we cut it out with our Cricut (see photo above). The next task was to figure out how to make it more sculptural. Our love letter poem was delicate, like paper lace, and since the judges would be picking it up, it needed to be more secure. We also needed to decide if it was meant to be hung or propped up, and we wanted to make it look like an older letter, since letter writing is a traditional art.

We brainstormed and brainstormed! Miko stained our piece to make it look more antiquated, and I played around with light blue embroidery floss to mimic or suggest lines of notebook paper.
Then in a flourish of inspiration, Miko saw the final touch. “Glass!” she exclaimed, “We need to press it between pieces of glass! This would be like chunks of ice!”

It was perfect! She also had the insight to suggest tying the pieces of glass together with twine, like an antiquated package, and viola! We had our sculpture combining poetry, paper cutting, embroidery floss, twine, and glass. We had our snowflake love letter from the sky.

As a test, I showed Benjamin a photo of the layered glass with the poem and embroidery floss. He said, “Oh, nice! It’s like the thread is cracks in the ice.”

One of the best things about making art is witnessing how others interpret it. Miko and I didn’t think of the embroidery floss as cracks in ice, so we were pleasantly surprised by Benjamin’s observation. Fingers crossed the judges will see our work and like it too!

Trilogy Consignment

There’s a song called “Happiness” by Clark Gesner.

The first lines are:

Happiness is finding a pencil,
sleeping in moon light,
telling the time.

The song goes on to describe simple things that can make a kid happy. Thanks to Trilogy Consignment in Tarrytown, this kid has found happiness, and I have my own version of Gesner’s song:

Happiness is finding a pencil skirt,
while shopping consignment
in my home town.

Heh heh. Actually, at Trilogy, I found a grey wool dress with an empire waist, a dressy black blouse with a design of white and red dandelions, a soft brown and beige flannel shirt, and a groovy winter white half cardigan. Lovely!

Heather Reid, the shop’s owner, is a groovy woman herself. Not only does she provide Tarrytown with quality clothes at affordable prices, she also hosts Solidarity Salon, a weekly gathering of people who discuss social issues and concerns. I have attended five salons, and each time I have felt like I learned something, and I met new, nice people.

In keeping with my promise to live as John Stilgoe advises in his book Outside Lies Magic, I am always continuously inspired to discover new things, right outside my door, and I am grateful for Heather, Trilogy, and Solidarity Salon!

To sum up, here’s more Gesner:

Happiness is playing the drum
in your own school band,
and happiness is walking hand in hand.

And here’s me:

Happiness is playing dress up
in your own neighborhood
and finding an outfit that makes you feel good!

Wendy and Her Spring Rolls

I just learned how to make Chinese spring rolls!

My neighbor, Wendy, invited me to her home for this lesson. She wanted to practice her English conversation skills, and I wanted to learn a new recipe, so it was a perfect exchange!

I climbed the steps to Wendy’s apartment, and the first thing I saw was a wall filled with her 8 year old daughter’s drawings, a wall of pure joy! Kid art amazes me. Of course I love how they draw with abandon, no inhibitions, not allowing self-criticism to sneak in, but I also pay attention to their choices of color, scale, and composition. Because I draw, and I started to draw when I was a kid, I remember making these decisions and having inner dialogues as I drew. I look for stories in children’s art, and Wendy’s daughter had a lot of things to say! Greeted with a wall of joyful art, I felt immediately comfortable in Wendy’s home.

She and I sat at her kitchen table where she had already prepared the shredded filling for the rolls—Chinese cabbage, carrots, and mushrooms. She showed me how much filling to spread across the beautiful, paper thin, rice wraps and how to roll and fold them into pretty ‘envelopes.’ Wendy cautioned me not to roll them too tight, because they could explode in the hot grease. I noted the warning. Then, she poured sunflower oil into a deep frying pan and let it get really hot. When it was ready, she used a large pair of chop sticks to place them into the oil and she turned them slowly, so each side got nice and crispy.

As each spring roll fried, Wendy and I shared details about our lives. She asked about my poetry, and I told her that I was working on a poem for my uncle and our relationship.

Wendy then showed me a brush, made from a ram’s horn, used specifically for writing Chinese characters. On another wall in her living room, she had a beautiful scroll with poetic verses on it. She also told me that she was an athlete when she was younger. She used to practice competitive parachuting or base jumping. Yes, my new friend Wendy jumped off buildings as part of a sports team. Amazing!

I wrote down vocabulary words or phrases when she asked for clarification, and I ate three or four of those rolls while we were talking. The kitchen smelled delicious, and I felt grateful.

It may be a small and perhaps common thing for women to sit in kitchens, cook together and talk, but it meant the world to me. Wendy and I made a connection as neighbors and new friends. We proved that regardless of cultural and language differences, we had things in common. It was a lovely way to spend an afternoon.

Hallows Salon

In late October, my mothers-in-law, Amy and Shatar, came for a visit. Benjamin and I decided to throw a little party for them, and the party turned into a salon! Yay! One of my Halloween wishes came true!

Formally, a salon is defined as “an assembly of guests in a (drawing room or parlor), especially common during the 17th and 18th centuries, consisting of the leaders in society, art, politics, etc.”

While our small gathering was not comprised of leaders per se, we did form an impressive group. Together we were avid readers, experts in nutrition, physical therapy, and mixology, florists, gardeners, ballroom dancers, sculptors, poets, and musicians.

We served an excellent assortment of charcuterie, which Amy arranged beautifully, and the beverages flowed, thanks to Shatar’s generous pour. The highlighted drink of the night was vodka and grapefruit juice with sprinkles of pink salt. I think we decided to call it the Salt Shaker, because we are movers and shakers, tee hee, but this cocktail is also traditionally called a Salty Dog, or a Salty Sam, in honor of Amy and Shatar’s favorite golden dog residing in Colorado. Whatever the name, it was delicious!

So we sipped and ate and gathered around our coffee table to talk. Conversation topics included salon favorites like travel, politics, and music.

Born in Snow, our new trio project, shared some songs for the group. First, Benjamin and V performed “Amber Song,” and then we played three more songs that we’d recorded this summer—“Homemade Rocket,” “Make It Poetry,” and “Stone Cold.” We shared our processes for each song with our friends and family, and they graciously offered feedback. Yes, we knew that because our loved ones love us that they were bias, but still, it was a beginning, a little test balloon to see if people of varying age groups and experiences could relate to our work. And they could! Yay!

Along with the supportive praise, we learned that more of a male voice (or more of Benjamin on vocals) could provide a balance in our work. We were told that we sounded “experimental” and that if V sang in a minor key, this could be beautiful too. I listened to these comments and thought about how I have fallen into song writing, how I have learned so much about music from my husband and my friend, and how fortunate I am.

After we played, our friend, Loretta, shared her writing. She had just returned from a month in Greece where she had worked with women and children as a volunteer trauma counselor in a Syrian refugee camp. Needless to say, Loretta’s work was powerful. I was left with images of children hanging paper chains on chain link fences and phrases like “these children are children like my own.” Through her work, and currently in more recent conversations, my friend teaches empathy. How lucky we are to know her!

That evening, in our humble salon, we raised some spirits, drank some down, and it was a perfect Halloween!

Poetry in Tim’s for Twelve Bucks

Years ago, I went into Malaprops Bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina. I selected a copy of Ariel by Sylvia Plath and headed to the register. As I placed my book down on the counter, the saleswoman asked, “Are you a poet?”

“Yes,” I responded, “how did you know?”

“Oh,” she answered in a blasé tone, “because only poets buy books of poetry.”

Aw man, and here I thought my face may have given me away as a scribbler of verse. Foiled again!

Bookstores are my favorite stores. I especially like used bookstores, because you can time travel in them and delight in unique treasures.

In a roadside bookstore in Maine, I walked under a cat who was drooped over the top shelves as lazily as the Cheshire on his branch in Alice In Wonderland. This kitty was scrappy. She hissed at me, and the proprietor said, “Ah, don’t mind her. She hisses at everybody.” I gave Ms. Bitchy a wink. I like it when cats let you know to stay away, and I wish I could hiss at people sometimes.

In another bookstore, not too far from our home, Benjamin, our friends Allen and Nick, and I enjoyed some elaborate signage. Most people observe brevity with signs. Not the owner of this store. One sign read something like: If you’re the type of person who picks up a book, and then doesn’t put it back in the same place, please know you’re not necessarily welcome here.

Ok, I may have taken some liberty with the last part of that paraphrase, but you get the tone. I thought it was hilarious.

Maybe there is something about being a bookstore owner that makes you a bit uppity (think Women and Women First from Portlandia). Or maybe it’s just that when you own a bookstore, it’s your home, your turf, so guests best play by the rules.

In Provincetown, there was a simple sign as you entered Tim’s Used Books that asked shoppers to turn off their cell phones and spend some quality time with the books. It was ironic then to see the owner on his cell phone, but as Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…and to be great is to be misunderstood.” I suppose if you’re the king of the bookstore castle, you can be the only one tastefully on your cell phone.

Tim’s is a lovely store. I found a copy of Billy Collins’s Sailing Alone Around the Room and Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between Us for a total of $12. Score! Tim did not ask about my poetic status, and I was grateful he didn’t. I also have to credit him for persuading me to buy Billy’s work. I don’t know exactly what made me avoid Sir Collins for this long. Maybe because he was so popular, like a poetry pop music star, I didn’t give him a fair chance, but wow, do I love him now! Poems in this collection that I particularly love are:

Walking Across the Atlantic- This poem resonates with me on a personal level, because I have my own poem-song where I talk to the Atlantic and ask it to be my road.

Winter Syntax- I love the imagery in this poem…the “yellow pencil in a sparkling blue vase” and the “tiny sentences” as “devoted ants” following the writer in from the woods.

Advice to Writers- I love the line “bare branches in winter are a form of writing.”

Introduction to Poetry- I love how Billy tells his students to “drop a mouse” into their poems.

Schoolsville- Again, this one has a personal resonance because of the opening stanza…I too have had enough students to populate a small town.

Lines Among Lost Trees
-Both of these capture what it feels like to almost have a poem, to have it just within your reach, and then it disappears.

Passengers-Billy describes the surreal feeling of being on an airplane exactly how I feel.

Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes-This poem is sexy and respectful, and I want to read it a thousand times.

Japan-In this poem, Billy makes you feel a haiku, feel it linger throughout an entire day.


Nightclub- The last line of this poem is “we have become beautiful without even knowing it.” This poem is about jazz, staying late listening to music in a club, love, beauty, and a perfect moment.

Reading Carolyn’s work floored me, just like it did when I first read this collection, back in the early 90’s. She has a way of capturing a particular point in time while still making it timeless. Both Denise Levertov and Margaret Atwood describe this better. Denise says her work has “no seam between the personal and political” and Margaret says it is “ achingly sensual and political at the same time.”

Among the most powerful poems for me in The Country Between Us are:

The Island-The imagery in the beginning of this poem catches me right away… mist rising from an ocean and being torn like bread. Carolyn also uses the image of tiny mirrors stitched to a dress. And here I have a confession. Somehow this must have gotten into my subconscious, because I have actually glued tiny mirrors to a dress, and I’ve written a couple of poems with this image too. Carolyn, if you ever read this, wherever you are, I swear I will cite your poem as inspiration for my work from now on. How very haunting to know that a poem stays with you so deep you don’t remember until you read it again.

As Children Together-This poem has the tone of the Nancy Griffith song, “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods.” Both the song and Carolyn’s words speak to girlhood friendship and the dreams that we have when we are young of getting out of our small towns.

Selective Service
-Both of these are poems to men and soldiers. They are heartbreaking, and this is all I can really say about them.


For a Stranger-This poem accurately describes what it’s like to meet someone on a train, share an intense conversation, and know you may never see them again. Joe Degenhardt, Casey Smith, Ginny and Fran, and Dan Mason, wherever you are, may you be well, and may we meet again someday.

Finding poetry in a used bookstore…this is all right by me! Thank you, Tim!

Encore and Other Restaurants from Our Travels

New towns mean tasting new food.

Whenever Benjamin and I stay somewhere for more than a day or two, we usually find a favorite restaurant and eat there for frequent meals.

On our latest trip to Cape Cod, we found Encore in the little village of Dennis. This lovely restaurant was tucked near Dennis’s theater and art museum. Elizabeth, the nice woman who worked at our B&B, warned us it might be a little tricky to find, but she said it was totally worth it. We liked the idea of eating somewhere off the beaten path, so we ventured out. Encore was so good that we ate there for three lunches and our anniversary dinner. With each visit, we tried different delights. Here are our top five:

1. Lobster and Mango Tower…with avocado and a lemongrass vinaigrette..Yes, Ma’am!
2. Clam Chowder… little neck clams with Yukon gold potatoes…Yes, please!
3. Baked Cod with sweet corn puree, pan burst tomatoes, and herbed rice … as our lovely waitress Hannah said, “Oh my cod!”
4. Butter Baked Scallops with sautéed mushrooms, roasted cauliflower, grilled corn, rice, in a pomegranate glaze…so delicious we cried.
5. Bread Pudding with a Rum Glaze…sweet Hannah made this extra special by writing “Happy 14th” in chocolate on our plate.


Writing all of this made me hungry and nostalgic for some other favorite restaurants we visited on different trips.

In Prague, we went to breakfast every morning at Cukrkavalimonada. Here is a link to my original post on our experience there:
And here is their website:

In Lewes, Delaware, we fell in love with Striper Bites for seafood lunches and Half Full for pizza and wine dinners.



In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a local beachcomber recommended a roadside fish shack called Petey’s where we ate possibly one of the best fried fish sandwiches ever!

And I would be remiss not to mention another favorite place for fish, beer, and live music…Skipper’s Smokehouse in Tampa, Florida. I started going to Skippie’s in college for Wednesday night reggae and Red Stripes. I won a limbo contest there one New Year’s Eve, and throughout the years, I’ve seen some of the best shows—Jess Klein and Voices on the Verge, The Be Good Tanyas, and Nervous Turkey to name just a few. Skipper’s is also off the path, but it’s home in many ways to me. Check it out here:

Here’s to good food and good times with friends and family in this holiday season. Salute! Prost! Cheers!

Walking Wing’s Island

I like to wander.

My love for walking without a destination began when I was little. We lived on an acre of land, surrounded by hundreds of acres of our neighbors’ woods and farmland that my brothers and I were free to roam. As long as we had our dog with us, we could go as far as we wanted, and we did. It seems strange to think about this now. I’m not sure how many parents would have the same level of trust. I do have nieces and a nephew in Colorado, and I believe they know this meandering freedom. They are hikers. They go with their parents to climb mountains at amazing heights. I like to imagine that the kids take off on their own too. I’m not sure. I’ve never really asked them, but I hope this “tradition” of mine is a part of their lives.

To be willing to wander is to be open to new experiences. It instills a sense of self-confidence.

When I left my country home and started living in cities, I had to learn to walk in a different environment. At first, it was scary. Humans are not as shy as other species. We can be mean, rude, dismissive, exclusive, and all kinds of other scary things, but we can also be friendly and compassionate. I experienced mostly kindness on my city walks, and I fell in love with my new setting. I fell in love with architecture, store fronts, cafes, bars, and food markets. Most of all, I loved hearing a collection of languages around me and seeing people who looked different from me.

I was brought up to think that difference was beautiful, and I am still fascinated by variety.

As I struggle now with arthritis in my hip, I can not walk as far as I’d like. I have to take a lot of breaks, and I have to be alert. There is a lovely spaciness to able-bodied ambling. You rarely think about your body. You just go. I never used to worry about tripping or falling. Now I have to be aware of every sidewalk crack or patch of ice. I have to look at my feet all the time, so I miss things.

However, I am not writing this for pity. Being forced to slow down has had its advantages. While I may miss the bigger picture in front of me, I take notice of other details. A lot of insects have been spared my heels, and I’ve learned to identify trees by their bark. John Stilgoe, author of Outside Lies Magic, would be proud of me. The basic thesis of his book is that you should see your town fully, by bicycle or walking. Here’s the first paragraph of his awesome book:

“Get out now. Not just outside, but beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people at the end of our century. Go outside, move deliberately, then relax, slow, look around. Do not jog. Do not run. Forget about blood pressure and arthritis, cardiovascular rejuvenation and weight reduction. Instead pay attention to everything that abuts the rural road, the city street, the suburban boulevard. Walk. Stroll. Saunter. Ride a bike, and coast along a lot. Explore.”

While we were on vacation, we took a trail from behind the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History out to Cape Cod Bay. The trail was called Wing’s Island, after a man named John Wing, but I like to think of it as named after birds or insects or creatures like sting rays that seem to fly underwater.

The enthusiastic staff at the museum explained a little about Wing’s trail. They said that we timed it right, because it was low tide. At high tide, the island floods and strolling is impossible. So we set out, and not six hundred feet onto the trail, we encountered the foot bridge. Now, when I write the words ‘foot bridge,’ you’re probably thinking of a structure over water. This was not ‘over’ as much as ‘through’ the water. Basically, we stepped onto two boards that sunk and squished into the marsh. It was fantastic! I really felt like a kid again getting my shoes all muddy.

We continued to hike through the high salt marsh and onto the island where we found ourselves under eastern red cedars, pitch pines, and oak trees. Everything about this place smelled so good—wet earth, trees, and salt air. I took a lot of deep breaths. In the upland forest, we found a mermaid’s purse (evidence of baby sting rays), and we saw fox prints. We made our way over the dunes to see sand pipers and plovers, and then to the mud flats, home to crabs, herring, and other microscopic creatures. Of course, the big reward was reaching the Bay to once again gaze with love at a big ol’ blue horizon. Ahh…

My parents had an expression for how they raised us. This idiom was most likely the reason they let us roam the woods without adult supervision. They would say something like, “We’ve given you roots and wings. You have a home, and you can take off from it too.”

I take my roots with me wherever I go, happy to be part of my family. And whenever I have the strength to wander, I feel grateful.

First Encounters

The first time you see a species in the wild that you’ve never seen before, your heart races.

Years ago, I was hiking in northern Minnesota with a photographer friend of mine. We heard a noise like sticks crunching, and she readied her camera, thinking it was a deer. It was not. We saw our first black bear, and we froze. Lizzie wanted a photo badly, but I had food and a bottle of wine in my backpack, so I remember slowly touching her sleeve and saying, “I think we need to back away.” The moment felt like a scene in a fairy tale or a painting. Through all the autumn reds and yellows, her fur was ink black and gorgeous. She looked at us, must have determined we were not a threat, and finally turned and galloped away. Lizzie and I exhaled. Later, we drank that bottle and toasted our bear.

On this trip to Cape Cod, Benjamin and I had some really cool first encounters.

We were sitting on the beach just before sunset when a small herd of harbor seals surfaced to swim along the wave line. They were so cute! They’d swim forward, and then stop to look at the shore for a second, then continue swimming, and looking, over and over again. Later, on an informative beach kiosk, we read that this ‘swim, stop, and look’ was a habit of theirs. The sign also said that they resembled puppies, cocker spaniels to be specific. Yup. So cute!

Our second sighting was another gift…whales! Not just one…a pod of them, maybe 25 total! First, we saw their spouts, then they raised their heads and bodies out of the water, completely majestic, until finally their tails, those beautiful, curved V’s like wings splashed the waves! All the humans on the shore were mesmerized. Most likely, we were watching humpbacks migrating toward the warmer waters of the Caribbean. These are common whales for the Cape, but nothing felt ordinary about this experience for us.

Of course, at the risk of anthropomorphizing our sightings, I had to look up the symbolism of these first encounters of ours. To see a seal means to pay attention to your creativity and imagination and to follow through with your dreams. Nice! And no problem. Whales teach us to listen to our inner voices, understand the impact of our emotions on our daily lives, and follow our own truths. Again, nice! And absolutely. I know it’s maybe a bit New Age-y to do this, but when I’m feeling like I need a cosmic boost, I do look to nature, and she always calms me.

Benjamin and I had planned on going to the beach for lovely sunsets. To get to see the colors, along with seals and whales, was an extra shot of beauty, an extra reason to consider the Cape in October for many vacations to come.