Poem: Crisis and Sifting

If you’d like to listen to me reading the following poem, click here.

On Learning That the Words “Crisis” and “Sift” are Related

I picture my mother’s hands and the silver, mesh sieve.

She was not a meticulous cook, but occasionally
she took the time to sift flour.
Big lumps remained, could not pass through.
That’s the point, she told me.
Only that which is willing to be broken down
gets through.

Heartbreak, infection, isolation: they sift us.

What matters
falls
in.

On a walk, I see a neighbor
Hungry to hear each other speak, we discuss books
at a six-foot distance.
In the afternoons, I drive out to see birch trees,
fields in thaw, and ice breaking up in the harbor.
The gulls have returned.
Our children call.
While my husband reads the recipe to me, I mix scones.
We laugh when the blueberries spill.
I memorize Psalms. He plays guitar. I read.

What does not matter does not make it through.

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Birds and Words

IMG_3955 It’s been a generous bird week. That’s good, because it’s still cold here, ( 43 and rainy right now) and it does not feel like spring.  But these gorgeous birds have brought grace to us as we watch them feast at our feeders, reminding us that they don’t arrive here unless the weather is changing. 

IMG_3946 I’ve just completed two lovely weeks of writing classes; and although each week’s participants and instructor were different than the other, both followed a simple formula:  write, listen to each other read, give and take some feedback,  read a few examples, then write some more.  No one expects perfection, only words on a page.  Occasionally,  ( certainly not always) something lands that is worth paying attention to.

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Here is one of several poems that I began this past week.  The prompt for this was ” I begin my day with…”

Roost

Before, in another kind of life
we daily left each other, flying out
to peck for food
build nests
ride thermals

Now, I begin my day
with coffee. You put in cream for me
but leave the spoon so I
can add the right amount of sugar

The news on the radio is not good.
Like old chickens we cluck
dithering about the future

There are two chairs here, and side by side we
watch nuthatch, grosbeak, indigo bunting.

In winter, when
the sunrise comes so late
we linger.

It is soft luxury to wait.

 

Giving and giving

I have enjoyed a “day of rest” today after a very busy two-day conference. Our little non-profit organization which exists to foster and encourage writing hosted fifteen speakers and eighty-plus people for two days of workshops and lectures regarding “Paths to Publication.”

Many of us spent several hours this week with set-up and logistics, then two twelve-plus-hour days to make sure things ran smoothly. (Things did.) But here’s what made me really happy about the way the conference unfolded: not only did attendees walk away with some helpful knowledge, they also left feeling encouraged and supported, affirmed and energized. This was largely due to the fact that the speakers were genuinely there to give away their knowledge, to freely pass on information, to be helpful. Discussions were honest, and no one held back “trade secrets.” Speakers and attendees alike told their stories, shared their tips, commiserated, admitted mistakes. So fledging writers felt empowered and encouraged. Perhaps, because of such kindnesses, words that need to be written will now find their way into print and people who read those words will be changed; good will come from such magnanimity. As organizers of a conference, that felt pretty great.

The collaboration and the lack of greed was inspiring and refreshing in a culture that increasingly condones and admires the acquisition and hoarding of wealth and power. Unlike some voices today that say otherwise, I still believe in sharing. Generosity is still valuable. Kindness is still preferable to self-protection. Whether it’s a fledging author wanting to know how to sell a book or a mom asking for health care or a desperate immigrant needing a home, no one should be kept out or kept down. We do better as a whole when we help one another as opposed to looking out only for ourselves. I’m still mystified as to why people think otherwise.

It is Palm Sunday today, a day when, 2000 years ago, hopes were high in Jerusalem. The oppressed in that place yearned for liberation. They wanted to follow someone powerful. As that Easter week unfolded, however, it became clear that they did not have a power-hungry king; instead they had a servant king. Here was a savior who chose sacrifice, who knew that giving himself for others rather than asserting himself was a far better course. Ostensibly, in his death it looked like He lost. We know, however, that He (and we) won. Our savior was not a man that grabbed power but instead gave away all He had. But His dying meant our life, our gain.

May we all be generous and humble, sacrificial and kind, especially this Holy Week as we ponder the death and life of Jesus. 

Winter Reading

IMG_3141The snow is deep and the cold continues. It’s hard to get outside much. Every single day for the past month I have walked our dog with snow shoes on because it’s too hard to walk across the snow without them. Even so, more than once I have sunk in deep, as much as three feet into drifts and snow banks. Louie, too, tires of sinking deep, and often just walks behind me in my tracks.

But our house is very snug- well insulated and without drafts. We have wished at times for an authentic wood fireplace, but our electric one suffices for ambiance and warmth, and we are just as happy to not be carrying in wood, sweeping up wood scraps, carrying out ash.

So I have sat inside by our fireplace and done quite a bit of reading. Here are a few I can recommend from the last few months.

Oh, and by the way: JOIN a BOOKCLUB. I would never have chosen some of these books on my own. I get stuck in my favorite genres or authors, but a book club obligates me to read something else, something other. And that’s a good thing.

Caramelo, by Sandra Cisneros.   I am impressed by the way she advances a plot by the mere use of brief snapshots. Her descriptions of place are wonderful- her words paint vivid pictures of whatever or whomever she’s describing.

The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore.   Based on the true story of the rivalry between Thomas Edison and John Westinghouse. Who among us stops to think about those days in America before electrification? Or of the people who were foresighted enough to know their inventions could change everything?

Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser.  If you grew up loving the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, I’m not sure I recommend this. It’s a look at the harsh and brutal conditions of the REAL Ingalls, moving from place to place because of poverty. In the Little House series, we knew the Ingalls lived simply, but there seemed to be optimism, laughter, song, love. In this well-researched biography, she portrays the true Ingalls’ lives as more hardscrabble with less cheer and light. I guess I am glad to read the truth, but it also makes me a little sad.

Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter  by Jean Pendziwol and Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund. I read these almost back to back, so truthfully they are a little muddled in my mind. But both are written beautifully and took me to a time in history and place other than here- and I love when books have that kind of power.

Happy Reading!

 

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A New Beginning/A Happy Ending

Sometimes there are happy endings in this world.

David and I have left Wisconsin for this week to attend a wedding. I’m not a particularly mushy person, but watching joy for most of the two-day event made me constantly teary.

After we became friends with Kathy several years ago when she was in law school, she had some horrific years: she was tragically and suddenly widowed after a short but happy first marriage. She survived and plodded along, but more than that, she emerged from those years with a remarkable lack of bitterness or anger. She has a wonderful laugh. She is cheerful. She is generous. Oh, that we could all watch and learn how to live in such grace.

A few years ago she met Kurt, a very smart mathematician who is mild mannered, not flashy, and very kind. Here are two people in their late forties who would have been relatively fine on their own, but instead they have found a companion with whom to live life. They now have each other to have and hold.

The light streamed into the sunlit church, Scriptures spoke of love. The adorable niece and nephews in the bridal party who were barely more than toddlers proved to us, as children often do, that starting over, starting again, is a good thing. The pastor reminded us that there is hope in the love of God. A magnificent organ played, a simple worship song moved us.

All weddings are happy, but this one just felt like grace poured out.

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Because I don’t want to shift the focus from the wedding to me, I am a bit reticent to add this next part, but a few people asked, so here is the poem that I wrote for the couple and then read at their wedding. I was so glad to be a part of this new beginning, happy ending for Kathy.

 
River Song

Your minds surge
but your hearts are quiet
 
Like stones by a river
            you have lain still on the banks     alone
 
Currents of sorrow
and eddies of waiting
            have worn your rough edges smooth
 
but now there is rain. Sweet summer rain.
The river rises and the river is warm and the river invites you in
 
Now your hearts are no longer heavy like stones
but light.
Now they are ripples
 
Now they are songs that you sing to each other
in the dancing green
in all the tomorrows that are yours

A Monarch Moon

I live a few miles from a poetry trail. ( First off, how cool is that?)

IMG_2069In Newport State Park, a ½ mile walk winds first through a gorgeous stand of deciduous forest and then meanders through a prairie.. Twelve stanchions invite walkers and hikers to pause for a few minutes along their way to read beautifully crafted words.

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Every few months the displays change, so there are periodic calls for poets to write.

The plan was two-part: meet at the park to write poems as we’d watch the full moon rise out of Lake Michigan. Two weeks later we’d return to walk the trail and read our recently installed poems about the moon.

Things didn’t go quite as planned.  Skies were overcast as my eager car-full of poets drove to the park. It began to rain as we pulled up to the beach parking lot where we had planned to watch a full moon rising. So we went inside to the nature center and dug down deep to write about the moon we weren’t watching.

Newport State Park is designated as a Dark Sky Park, so the nature center has telescopes and star charts and astronomical things.   But it’s also a park full of monarch butterflies, and I was drawn to a display where nearly a hundred of them were readying themselves for flight, for migration. This poem is for them.

 

A Monarch Moon

The moon will rise
whether we see it or not
Carefully plotted charts
assert tonight’s rising will be at 8:01

but there is rain.
Clouds cover the beach.
We go inside to sit on tiled floor
where taxidermed animals ask us
to pretend      to imagine the white globe
lifting itself into beauty

I am struck instead
by the hundred hanging chrysalis
and the scent of metamorphosis.

They need only the moony milkweed
to rise up, to resurrect
to fly

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Spring- Finally

Spring took forever to arrive this year. ( As in 30 inches of snow in April, as in the buds are just now on the trees…)

But here’s a poem to celebrate spring:

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Kneeling in Thin Places

Just an hour after I called to say
I had seen the first trillium of spring
I saw her outside my window
in genuflection
sun streaming onto her hair
like a medieval-painted Mary kneeling
at holy beauty

In pews
stained-glass
light
covers
those who bend

I knelt today in my garden
planting seeds
It will be prayer
to eat
the first tomato

 

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A Poem for Palm Sunday

In this week of marches and protests, I’ve been thinking about activists. Why does it feel scary to join in? In contrast to so many other times in history and places around the world, we are free in this country to gather, to protest, to march.  The worst that could happen to us is an arrest; in other regimes we could be tortured or killed if we gathered to walk the streets with signs or if we shouted slogans and asked for change.

These words from Luke 19 about Palm Sunday seem particularly fitting today.

 “…they threw their coats on the colt and put Jesus on it. As He was going, they were spreading their coats on the road.  As soon as He was approaching, near the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the miracles which they had seen, shouting: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord; Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Him, “Teacher, rebuke Your disciples.”  But Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!” 

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I imagine a woman in that crowd, I try to put myself in her shoes. She was likely illiterate; her culture would not have valued her; it was a time of oppression and fear. Hailing allegiance to Jesus would have been a defiant, brave act.

Even Stones Cry Out

As I walked they thrust palms in my hand
so close I could touch Him
and the mangy ass.
For once I did
a brave thing, too
shouted Hosanna 
called out King
I had never heard the sound of my voice so lifted, loud.

I took off my coat, put it down.
Scared as shit, I
joined the throng
We moved through streets
crowds growing
all of us caught up in
laughter
in possibility

Caesar’s guards watched
blood hungry, spears ready

This is no place for risk
I live in confines
I breathe under the weight of ugly rules.
When I go back for my coat will they take me?

Strange how this Jesus
gives me what I cannot give myself
how He makes me more than I am

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Photos courtesy of Karen Heyse

Poem: Innkeepers

Living in a tourist area has given me a new appreciation for one little aspect of the Nativity account. I know innkeepers now, along with people who run gift shops and clean hotel rooms and serve in restaurants. Theirs are bi-polar lives: a manic pace in the summer, a dearth of activity in the winter.  My friends here are people who like people: they enjoy their visitors and customers;  they like the conversations and the interchanges with vacationers. But I can tell you that they get tired. Nearly two million people come here in the summer and fall, and it’s a grueling pace to keep.

For many years I’ve written a Christmas poem. Now that I know a few innkeepers, the words from Luke caught my eye this season as I read through the advent account.  Here’s imagining…

“..and everyone went to their own town to register…While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room available for them in the inn.”  Luke 2:3,7

 

Innkeepers

They grow weary of crowds, of laundry relentless
of chatter continual, the same questions again and again

When there are no rooms, there’s little to be done
The sty, with the stink of animals
at least was something
 
Who doesn’t know, he was surely thinking
that the town would be full, the hotels all arranged months ahead.
But here is a man, and here is a woman
so ready to burst, so weary.

A midwife had to be found
blood and muffled screams
the girl alone
laboring with strangers

and then shepherds with stories
searching for a baby
chiding the man for the stable
saying give them a better place
saying these people are better than they seem

 

 

 

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Filling up October

It’s been a month since I’ve last written here. Nothing particularly eventful happened in our lives here, so I was a little short on ideas to write about.  A few years ago, I wondered if retired life would feel boring and unsatisfying. But no, it never feels boring. Our month was plenty full, and we are content.

Here are a few of the “ordinary” happenings that filled up October.

I’ve said it before here, and I’m sure I am not finished repeating it: living in a pretty place is constant entertainment, a perpetual gift.   We take walks in the changing woods, exclaim at the colors.

 

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We drive out of our way when we run errands to see if the water is choppy or calm in the harbor, if it is still or wavy on the bay.

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It is pretty driving to the grocery store or library.

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The sunsets and sunrises make us get out; often when we see the clouds full of color, we stop what we are doing to go outside to watch. The beauty all around us makes us pause, makes us linger, and in so doing we remind ourselves of what’s good and lovely and true and wonderful in this world.

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IMG_9897Land to table    We live two miles from an apple orchard. We love their honeycrisps, and when they were selling a bushel of their Cortland “seconds” for only $9, it seemed right to buy them and make applesauce from scratch. But that was an all day project.

Books. I’m in two book clubs. Here are my top three favorite books from the past few months.

            The Sparrow. This book has haunted me. I’m not a particular fan of science fiction, but when a team of Jesuits befriends creatures on a new planet and are martyred as a result, well, it’s just sad. Within a few days of finishing the book, I watched “Silence,” a recent (and moving) film about Christians who are persecuted in 17th century Japan. As a person of faith myself, both of these made me think a lot about the ways we share our beliefs with others and  what sacrifices I would make to hold on to faith.

       A Gentleman in Moscow. Much lighter than the previous book, this fictional account follows the life of a Russian count who loses his freedom and his way of life in the Russian revolution. I knew very little about this time and place in history, and it was a good way to find out about it.

            Gilead. This was my third time reading this one. Ten times more would not be too many. Marilynne Robinson makes ordinary lives beautiful. She helps us see that loving the people we know well is about the best possible thing we can do in this life.

Closing up the cabin. There’s a lot to do to shut down a place for eight months. When lots of people have cooked and eaten, played, bathed, and slept in a place, there are signs of their fun. And though we are good about cleaning as we go, the cupboards and the oven had crumbs by the end of the summer that needed attention. Despite the continual vacuuming, there was still sand just about everywhere. The refrigerator door was full of condiments, kindly left for the “next” person, but it’s time to dispose of them. The winter curtains need to replace the summer ones. We’ve already carried up the kayaks and the beach umbrella and the deck chairs. Today we brought in the lawn mower and trash cans; we put away hoses.  I’ll be sad to close it down for the winter, but October was full of cabin chores.

Writing. I’ve finally joined a novel critique group. We meet every other week and send things for review the alternate weeks, so, guess what? I actually have a reason to make myself get over the obstacles and just get working on this novel of mine that’s been in process for about ten years. Yes, I’ve got to rewrite parts. Yes, I need to work out some plot inconsistencies. I’ve even had to change my main character. What I liked eight years ago I don’t like as much now. But meeting with four other authors who are also in process with their novels means I’ve committed to at least making progress. Although that’s a bit scary, it’s also a very important thing I did this October.

The Usual. There’s a lot more: church once a week, a Bible study once a week. Several meetings throughout the month with my favorite non-profit, Write On, Door County. Exercise. A friend needs some help learning to use her new laptop. A dinner out here or there. The demands of a dog who needs way more attention and exercise than we usually want to give. ( It’s a good thing he’s adorable.) Working a little bit in my little consulting/publishing company called Sand Beach Press.   The list of little daily events could go on.

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We are heading into our third winter in Wisconsin, and besides the people that we left in St. Louis, there’s very little that we miss about our old life.   Yes, our lives are slower-paced here, compared to when we worked at jobs and lived in a city. A little less busy, perhaps, but certainly not empty.

All in all, October was a pretty great month.

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