Holding a place

Surprise visitor

Today as the dog and I were walking on a early-February-dressed-as-late-March day, I thought to myself, Of course! It’s all geography! And then set my feet on the homeward path knowing I’d know what I was talking about when I got back home.

But I didn’t. All I remember is the feeling of ah ha! and those now meaningless words.

This is like solving a complex problem in your dream—or writing the perfect paragraph, or understanding a foreign-to-you language, or suddenly realizing the answer to everything—and then, upon waking, knowing nothing more than the distance between your feet and the floor.

So I did the dishes, then wrote an email, then let the dog out, then back in (we’d already done the walk, but he needed to check up on his best friend, the squirrel; the admiration is not mutual, alas…), and then painted the inside of the canelé molds with “white oil” in preparation for baking later today.

And I still didn’t know what I’d been thinking, but I had a prickly inkling. You know that feeling that there’s something beautiful just out of reach, and you can almost sense it in your peripheral vision, but you can’t see it; or you catch a scent of something so delicate that you’re not sure such a thing exists, so you keep sniffing and swinging your head in hopes of catching it again; or there’s that elusive owl in the dark who hoots every time you’re alone with the trees but refuses to converse when you bring a friend.

There are things everywhere like that, real and imagined, so close you think you might just be able to call it gently and coax it to your side, hesitant and unsure, but it keeps its shy distance from you.

The other day I was looking out the bathroom window through a snow squall and I saw what looked like an exploded milkweed pod up high in the sumac. All fluttery white and brown. How odd, I thought. How did that get there? Until my eyes looked beyond my first understanding and the ruffed grouse resolved itself the way a Magic Eye painting suddenly becomes three-dimensional; when you learn how look in just the right way.

I ran to the living room window and it was still there, a puffed ball of feathers and a tiny crested head, impossibly still on a tender branch.

I grabbed the camera, opened the back door, and slid between the snowflakes, trying to walk silently as I imagined a true tracker would to the edge of the deck, but instead making an awful racket on the crusty snow. Still he (she? the difference is subtle, apparently, observable in the coloration of the tips of the tail feathers) remained. The puff was gone, but there he sat, toes curled around the branch, while I clicked the shutter over and over so that I could prove to myself that this one elusive moment was real.

Cold, I went back inside. I looked out the window.


But he was here (I have proof of some sort). And I am here. And at that moment, both together with the snow flying down, anchored miraculously on this whirling planet.

When the snow first started to fall, huge drowsy flakes, meandering past the window, I looked slightly away and saw the movement on the edges of my vision and had that sensation of being in a train car in the station and the train next to you pulls away and you feel for an instant that your train is the moving one.

Am I moving? Or is everything else moving? Or are we moving together? The grouse exited by way of the air. I’m hopelessly terrestrial. Geographically connected, making shapes in the wind.

Reading Challenge month 12 ~ A funny book

LB Collection

Writing a funny book has to be one of the most difficult tasks a person can undertake. Maybe it’s just me, but when was the last time that a book made you laugh out loud? (I’m talking about a book that intended to make you laugh; I laughed while reading a few books lately that weren’t at all meant to be funny.)

There are a few writers out there that make me smile when I read them (David Sedaris comes to mind), but so few that I’m going to stop here with a list of one.

There are shelves of humor books, comedians publishing “hilarious” memoirs every month. I’ve thumbed through a few; they make me grimace.

What’s wrong with me? Am I humorless?

This time of year, I’m so desperate to be amused, I laugh at squirrel antics on the bird feeder. I want to laugh. I want to laugh until my sides hurt and my eyes are leaking and I can’t breathe. Is there no printed balm for this longing?

For my 50th, I was given a funny book about tuning 50. You can tell it was meant to be funny because it had a photo of a giant pair of pink “granny panties” on the front cover.

Get it?

Hah hah hah.

Nope. Not funny.

What was funny was I took it along with me on our winter visit to see family, where we got sick and found ourselves upchucking all night long into the hotel waste baskets. Hilarious!

So after 12 hours of that, I’m lying in bed and exhausted and looking for any small thing that might brighten the day. I reach for that pink-pantsed book. The author was really trying to make me laugh, and the more she did her verbal backflips and nudge-nudge wink-winks, the more I despised her. (Yes, Monty Python makes me laugh, as does Blackadder.)

I ended up watching Grease on TV, which wasn’t particularly funny, but it did take my mind off things.

I left that book at a rest area somewhere on the New York thruway, near the vending machines. (Picturing that almost makes me laugh.) Good luck, book. I hope you make someone else cry tears of laughter.

And so I figured my days of laughing at books were over, until M set down a stack of old Lynda Barry comic books on the table next to me. Old friends. I opened the cover of one tentatively, worrying that I’d grown immune to their charms.

No way, no how.

A few pages in and I was laughing. The out loud kind of laughing. The kind of laughing where you stop just long enough to read the line out loud to someone else so they can laugh, too.

For instance, in the very first comic of The Fun House, we meet Miss Bevens, the substitute teacher who has “fake teeth that flipped around.” Okay, that’s kinda funny, but then…”Everyone got at least minus 8 on that math test.”

Yes! That’s funny. I’m laughing even as I type it. Even after rereading it about 12 times. It’s not even the picture that makes me laugh. It’s the phrasing. The image. How could you not be distracted from your math test with that spectacle going on?

Minus 8

Or how about poor Marcie, just a “regular girl with a regular amount of friends.” Again, it’s that perfect phrasing.

A regular amount of friends

And you know those times when you have “hobo feelings”?


Lynda Barry just has that ear. She channels childhood so well I’m always surprised when I remember she’s a grownup. She blows the dust off of memories that I thought were long gone (late nights running the neighborhood, suffering bad substitute teachers, enduring film strips, feeling full of pride over a bicycle with a banana seat and streamers). Her memories aren’t identical to mine, but they’re so close in feeling that they pluck strings that make me laugh in recognition.

She’s not just funny. She’s got a great handle on childhood terror, worry, and wistful nostalgia. Some awful things happen to kids. And some very mundane things. She captures it all with pointed detail. The “ganged up” desks, the comfort of a classroom in the middle of the storm when you’re working on a project, the record player playing hat one “art period song”…  Oh, art period! 50 minutes when you were forced to play with clay.

This Vase, part 1

This Vase, part 2

And that’s what makes the funny all that more funny. It can’t be laughs all the time. But every now and then it can be perfect. So perfect you can’t even blink.


Our books for this month:

So… did you read something laugh-out-loud funny? Something you can recommend to this ol’ grinch? Please do tell!

The category for the coming month is:

A mystery or thriller

We’ll reveal the next category somewhere around February 13.

This post is part of our multi-year reading challenge. We’d love to have you join us for the whole challenge or any portion. Take a look at the checklist to see the current category (in green). We’ll announce the next category in the middle of next month.

January letter


7 January 2015 2016

Dear Mom,

I really wanted to talk to you today—about nothing in particular—and this seems the best way. Or the only way. If I don’t want to make the dog nervous by talking out loud, that is.

(Mom, everything makes this poor dog nervous! He’s a bundle of shivers if you take the packing tape gun out the drawer. If he senses you’re even thinking about using a tool of any sort—this includes the tape measure—he books it for the stairs. Sometimes he’ll just be standing near me, teeth chattering, all wound up, even though nothing at all is happening and my hand is on his shoulder trying to reassure him. Right now he’s not nervous. Right now he’s flat asleep in a puddle of sunshine on the brown sofa, half on/half off his blanket, one jowl dropping open in a way that’s a bit disgusting and a bit interesting and I’m sure will result in a wet spot on the sofa. I don’t dare wake him.)

And I’m tired of talking in my head.

Anyway. I drove H to school this morning because M and I made a (advantageous to me) bargain: I’d do the school drop off and he’d do the goat chores (he got the 5º F and the ice-crusted walk between the house and barn, and I got the heated seats in the car and the company of our daughter; sounded fair to me). It was a quiet drive, still mostly dark and at least one of us still mostly asleep.

(About then I was thinking about my own middle and high school bus adventures—getting off at the wrong stop my very first day, waiting at the stop in the cold, hoping the mean girls wouldn’t skip the bus—and about those rare, glorious mornings when you didn’t have to be at work early and you’d offer me a ride to school. Did we talk about anything, or did I give you the teenaged cold shoulder? I remember my feeling of relief at catching a ride with you, but now I think I probably never told you how big a deal it was to me. I’m sure I didn’t.)

Usually, H has us plugged into some music from her iPod on the drive, but I took the aux cord out of the car in case we needed it for the drive to Michigan and haven’t put it back, so we had the lousy radio on instead (you know I love the radio, but this town has, maybe, four decent stations) and tuned to the oldies station and we caught the last couple of minutes of Holly Holy and boy did that make me smile. It felt like something magic I’d done myself, conjuring up that song just for you today. And then I realized, well, maybe you conjured it for me? Neat trick.

I read a book the other day that I would have passed to you if I could. It’s called Kitchens of the Great Midwest, and, though it was recommended by someone I trust as one of the best books of 2015, I really don’t think it was. Still, it had its moments and seemed like the sort of book you might enjoy and I was thinking if you read it, too, then we could talk about it and the parts that worked and the parts that didn’t. I think you would have liked the main character, Eva.

(Ooops. I think I just said that last part out loud because the dog woke up, gave me a sidelong, worried glance, and slunk off the sofa. Sofa? Or couch? I grew up saying “couch.” When did I adopt “sofa”? Chesterfield. I never really said that one, but that’s the one I love most. Oh! Did you know that H says “aunt” as “awnt,” like a true New Englander? I find myself changing my “ant” pronunciation when I’m around her.)

Recently, Dad and I were talking about real books (I mean, versus digital, e-books) and he said that the shelf in your bedroom where you and he lined up your to-be-read books was still there, with the same books you two put there all those years ago. One of those things that lingers, I guess. I asked for a photo of the books on that shelf, just to see what you had planned to read next, but it was all thrillers and mysteries, Mom, not a single Margaret Atwood. Sheesh. If I had sent you Kitchens, what would you have sent in return? Patricia Cornwell?

(You know I’m saying that with a smile, right?)

Did I ever tell you that I bought myself an orchid? This was two Octobers ago, when I felt the pressure of winter weighing on me and I spotted this plant at the co-op and I thought it looked cheery. I’d always heard that orchids were picky plants and I couldn’t imagine one thriving in a drafty, old, wood-heated farmhouse, but he (yes, he) has kind of astonished me. He won’t stop blooming. I keep meaning to ask you about this, seeing as how you were the one with the green thumb and had a special affinity for orchids. I keep meaning to ask you how something can keep blooming in spite of the dark and cold.

Love always,

p.s. I meant to say also that I read a poem today that I really loved, for both its content and its form, the fact that it’s engraved on a bench in that city we love, on the northeast corner of Dufferin and Bloor.

Walking here, I turned my face to you and said,
how on earth will we live, who will dance with us,
will there be music? And you said, sure,
the usual birds will sing, the usual hours will pass at night,
and I asked you, will there be fame?
And you said, sure, but only between us.
It will be spring, forsythia will follow us and
we will hear the lake breathe.
Waiting then, I felt the world coming toward me.

–Dionne Brand

Winter solstice


Today the sun was a moon, hazed by clouds into a full round I stared directly at as I drove into town.

The night in the day and the day ending at the sharp line of the night and the night lasting a day. Or so it seems.

Here we are at the crease of the year. As if in an origami fold, deep inside something that will become a delicate crane. In a valley where the only way out is up. In a well of dark with a lid of light.

Perversely, my favorite day of the year.

The only way forward is into the light, and I’ll greedily gather the coming seconds and minutes of daylight to stuff into my pockets.

I remember days and nights I never wanted to end, they were so filled with joy.

I remember days and nights I never wanted to end, they were so filled with sadness.

I remember nights that I wanted to drag over me like a thick, wool blanket.

I remember nights when I was a dark stair-sitting child, listening to the sparkling grownups a floor below, silently cloaked and wondering at the light they made.

I remember full moons that made the snowy field a morning.

I remember the faces of people I love with such detail, they are illuminated, even when they are long in the dark.

I forget all the things I forget. Voices. Teases. Misunderstandings. A last laugh, when laughing was still possible.

It’s a blessing to forget.

It’s a blessing to sit in this deep, long, dark night and know that everything behind is lit with love, everything ahead is lit with love, and everything I need is right here, right now, in the dark with me.


Reading Challenge month 11 – A play

I don’t know why this post is so late because I read my play weeks ago and so there’s no good excuse for the delay.

I can’t blame Hanukkah, which passed quietly and beautifully, with friends, with latkes, with brisket, with the growing glow every night, the plastic blue dreidel hidden in a new spot every night (and H having less and less trouble finding it year after year).

I can’t blame the weather, which has been crazily mild. No shoveling cars free, no breaking ice out of goat water buckets, no digging gates free, no stomping trails with snowshoes, no roof clearing. No me swearing and shivering and announcing plans to move to Italy.

I can’t blame work, or the internet, or a busy schedule, or my unfocused mind, or Republican candidate debates, or El Niño, or my sprained ankle, or the books I want to read and the movies I want to watch, or the window I catch myself staring out of, counting birds, wasting time.

No, my only excuse is that I don’t know how to talk about this play, Uncle Vanya, without sounding like a gibbering idiot. I’m afraid to write anything here because nothing I can say will do it justice.

Nothing I can write will properly convey the feelings it stirs up in me of envy (Chekov’s exact-yet-conversational, perfect writing), wonder (the breadth of subjects covered, the emotions, details and concrete gestures packed into so few words), despair (the sad desperation of Vanya, of Sonya, of Yelena), hope (in Sonya’s final speech; in Waffles’ acceptance; in Marina’s pragmatic outlook, make the tea, feed the chickens, offer a little vodka).

Wistfulness, in the filmed version, from the shake of jingle bells, conjuring the snow, departure, the beginning of a long row of days.

It’s not enough to say how much I love this play. How reading it (or watching the filmed version of it) it has become a yearly delight for me in the last 15 or so years.

I don’t know how to tell you how, every time I begin it again, I somehow lose touch with how, by the end, I will be in tears, the kind of tears made of deep sadness blended with deep hope.

Of the tenderness I feel toward the play and its people, and its author.

I don’t know how to tell you, except to tell you… read it. See it. Read it.


Our books for this month:

  • H ~ Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare
  • M ~ A Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare
  • R ~ Uncle Vanya, by Anton Chekhov (translated by Annie Baker)

And you? Did you read a play? Tell us what you thought of it.

The category for the coming month is:

See you back here in the new year… January 11, 2016!

This post is part of our multi-year reading challenge. We’d love to have you join us for the whole challenge or any portion. Take a look at the checklist to see the current category (in green). We’ll announce the next category in the middle of next month.

Domestic tranquility

Love shack

But get to the important stuff! I hear you shout.

What about the new little buck? How is he settling in? Do the girls like him?

What is his NAME?

He’s been here nearly three weeks and he feels like part of the family.  He’s sweet but shy. I don’t think he had a lot of direct human contact before, which is often normal for bucks; they hang out with other males and are only handled when their special skills are required. But he’s coming around.

Every time I visit him, I make sure to have a little treat (carrot ends, apple peels, an animal cracker) and now he comes right over to sniff my hand and gently take the treat. Yesterday, when I lowered my head to his and offered to sniff noses, not only did he not run away, he sniffed, then licked, then nibbled my nose.

Shy doesn’t enter the story when it comes to him and the girls. They’re separated by a fence and he’s mostly got his head through it, trying to get a good whiff of them. They’re  curious about him and come visiting—we put a hay feeder on the fence so they can share a meal together—and, when it’s their heat cycle, they show intense interest.

This interest takes the form of loitering near his pen all day, sniffing noses with him, and rapidly wagging (flagging) their tails. When we see a doe asking for a solo audience with his majesty, we let her in with him and then they start their dance. Much sniffing, circling.

He talks a lot, sticks out his tongue, makes a pathetic bleating that sounds remarkably like one of those old toys that looks like a can and you tip it over and out comes a noise that sounds nothing like a cow. Apparently it’s the sound of a lovesick goat. She keeps still for him, then circles around. Sometimes there’s running and chasing. Sometimes they just get down to business, which is a bit tricky because he’s quite small and they are mostly quite not.

Poor guy could use some stilts.

Still, where there’s a will there’s a way.

When we let Willow in with him, I tried to coax her out of the pen after about an hour and she said, “Why? I’ve got everything I need right here.” So I left her overnight. That’s the two of them at the top of the post the next morning, as content as any settled couple. He’s inside reading the newspaper. She’s gone out for a snack on the porch.

The same thing happened with Westwind. They spent the day together, then the night. She was lounging on the porch when I came to ask her if she wanted out. She said, “I’m just fine right here, thank you.”

Wellesley, Doris, and Darcy weren’t quite so placid, but they’ve each had some time with him. Doris has since gone to her new home in upstate, New York. Our hooves are crossed that she’ll have some kids for her new owner in the spring.

We won’t know for sure sure if any of the rest of the girls are pregnant until the spring, but it’ll be a good sign if none of them come into heat again next month. Maybe you could cross your hooves along with us, for caramel-colored kids in the spring?

And his name? Nope. We’ve thought of 50, and nothing’s stuck yet. So we call him “GG” (Golden Guernsey) and “Bucky” and “Little Guy” and he answers to anything because he’s a darling, and he’s fond of the attention, and as long as we keep delivering him food and pretty ladies, he’s a happy goat.

Porch sitting

On his porch

Get up, get up, get up


This is not the post I sat down to write.

I had in mind a late wrap-up of a very content Thanksgiving: heaps of good food, hours of board games, reels of old movies, bottles of prosecco, miles of dog walks, days of conversation and laughter (and an exhausting 30 minutes in the grocery story parking lot that included a fender bender, but that’s a story best left untold).

(24 hooves. 16 paws. 8 feet. 8 hands. How many bees wings?)

But then I started typing and, well, that all seems miles back in the rear view mirror. The turkey tacos are a smokey memory and I’ve scraped the very last of the oatmeal pie into the trash. I just can’t look at it anymore, delicious as it was a week ago.

Today, I’m firmly tethered to the current Thursday, but I’m floating somewhere down the road.

Today, I’ve got two feet planted on this worn out wooden floor, but my eyes are scanning the foggy horizon.

I’m as here and now as I’ve ever been—hay in my hair, bits of firewood stitched into my sweater, shivering slightly with the cold wet that is neither rain nor snow—and still I’m not here.

I have in mind a change. Career-wise, that is. This isn’t really anything new (remember that graduate program in Pittsburgh 20-odd years ago?), but I feel a new urgency to figure out how to piece the fragments of my interests into a more satisfying whole.

Years ago, someone my age might be looking toward retirement in the next 5-10 years. That’s not how the world works anymore. I can’t just bide my time and wait for the clock to wind down.

This feels like starting over, but starting from the end, knowing too much and not enough.

It feels confusing and hard and terrifying and a tiny bit exciting.

And necessary.

Good morning!

Morning surprise

Call it holiday sickness, Monday morning, I dunno what, but we woke up in a strange, silly mood this morning and I, for one, feel about as unfocused as a human can feel.

Do you feel the same?

Things to clean, books to read, poems to write, goats to kiss, pictures to take, basements to sort, recipes to choose, pies to bake, songs to warble, futures to divine, pasts to dissect, classic movies to wallow in, fires to feed.

Work? Oh yeah, that, too.

But first…

If there’s one thing you can count on…

Mt. Erebus, photo by Anthony Powell

… come November, if I’m writing here, I’m going to mention that chilly word: Antarctica.

So here we are, and the story this time is Ernest Shackleton’s. Surely you’ve heard of him and his polar exploits: his farthest south (along with our old friends Scott and Wilson) as a member of Scott’s 1901 Discovery expedition; and then again, a farthest south in 1907, this time in command of his own expedition, reaching just 180 km short of the South Pole. During that same journey, his party discovered the Beardmore Glacier, became the first to travel on the South Polar Plateau, and the first to ascend Mt. Erebus. (Amazingly, thanks to Thomas Edison’s breakthrough wax cylinder technology and the UC Santa Barbara library’s Cylinder Audio Archive, we can hear a short account of that expedition in Shackleton’s own voice.)

As we’d say at the Passover table, dayenu! “It would have been enough!”

But Shackleton didn’t stop there. The South Pole already attained by Amundsen (handily) and Scott (disastrously) in 1912, Shackleton devised a new 1914 expedition, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition, with the goal of being the first to cross the entire Antarctic continent.

He never got that far. On the way to the Antarctic continent, his ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea on January 19, 1915, she and her crew slowly drifting northward with the ice. After a month of helpless drifting, Shackleton ordered the crew to abandon ship and they camped on the ice beside her, slowly emptying the wounded ship of as many supplies as they could, watching day by day as their home was slowly crushed by the force of the ice.

100 years ago today, Endurance sank.

And there they were, alone at the bottom of the world, with three lifeboats, 29 men, and little else.

And that’s when the adventure really began, because now they had to find their way home safely, with no ship, and no hope of rescue.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it’s a breathtaking, nearly unbelievable adventure. Read it yourself if you haven’t already, and then come back here.

We’ll build a warm fire and pour some wine or whisky and talk all night of ice and adventure and bravery and intelligence and luck, of the golden age of polar exploration, and the way a story can grip you like ice around a ship, holding fast, pulling you under, and still somehow showing you the way home.