Don’t fence me in

Sometimes I don’t know myself. [Make that most times, but you know what I mean.]

For instance, ask me what type of music I love, and I’ll give you a tidy list that includes American and British folk and folk-rock; jangly-guitar alternative; Motown and the Philadelphia sound; traditional country (Patsy Cline, I’m talking about you); and the grand embarrassment that is 70s top 40. All of these make sense to me: they sketch the edges of who I think I am, who I imagine myself to be (blue jean wearing, animal loving, rural living child of the 60s).

But it’s not so easy to pin anyone down by the music they love (or the books they read or the foods they eat or the company they keep). And if I reach further I find out that I love, among other things, Italian cafe music, Afro-Cuban music, salsa, R&B, the blues, The Moody Blues, and, yes, even a smattering of blue-eyed soul  (I blame Simply Red).

Which brings me today’s song (thanks to H, who introduced it to me a month or two ago and so now it’s in my head most every day) by Pentatonix, a five-member a capella group (Penta, get it?).

I can’t stop listening to it. There, I said it. It’s playing on repeat as I write this. I’m doing that chair dance thing again. I’m impressed that it’s a capella, but that doesn’t enter into the fact that it sticks like honey to my brain.

That’s the thing about music love. There’s no explaining it. You love it or you don’t. It’s beyond words. It’s what’s on your lips when you wake up even in the dark, and it helps ignite the light of the day.

p.s. If you want more Pentatonix, you can’t go wrong with their covers of Hallelujah, Jolene (with Dolly Parton), and the wonderful Winter Hymnal.

A tune in my heart

Our excellent friend Kevin writes about all sorts of interesting things on his blog, Keeping Score. He’s a terrific writer, smart and with a generous heart. I enjoy reading whatever he writes, but I particularly love his end-of-year posts, where he shares his favorite music from the concluding year. He doesn’t just list and link the tunes, he gives us a little bit of insight into what he loves about each song, and that just makes each choice a bit sweeter.

Inspired by Kevin, and by the ongoing dreariness of the overcast weather and my generally overcast temperament this time of year, I’ve decided to post a song here each day from now until the new year.

They won’t all be new songs; in fact most of them will probably be old, but I’ll try not to bore you with too many repetitions, and I’ll do my best to follow Kevin’s lead and let you in on why I’ve shared each song.

Today’s song, for instance, “Call Off Your Dogs” by Lake Street Drive.

I heard it for the first time last night on my drive in to town to attend my monthly book group meeting (our next book is Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, if you want to read along).

I had the car radio on with no particular expectations because we have very poor radio choices around here, but two seconds into this song I was hooked. It was obvious why: it hearkens back to the music of my youth, with a frothy 70s groove. It reminds me, maybe, of E.L.O and long, carefree summers. It’s the kind of song that begs to be turned up loud and danced to.

I cranked it as I drove along the river in the drizzle. I couldn’t open the windows, but if you passed me you’d have seen my head bopping and my smile huge, all thoughts of rain and darkness banished for three minutes and 29 carefree seconds .


Thanksgiving truisms

There will be cheese. And sausage. And crackers. And olives. And candied jalapeños.

Start and end with cheese

The kitchen windows will be steamy and there will be two turkeys and stuffing and mashed potatoes and sweet potato souffle and creamed corn and collard greens and brussels sprouts and cranberry sauce and gravy. And leftovers for a week.

One of two

The pie to human ratio must be no less than 3 to 7. One must be apple.

Apple of course

The Michigan contingent will bring snow.

Thanksgiving snowfall

Everyone is welcome to the table. But not necessarily on the table.

Wallace at the table

Games are sometimes better when you make up your own rules.


Traditions are necessary.

330 : 366

Time will expand in strange ways so that 24 hours will bulge to contain a week’s worth of conversation, laughter, beer, games, food, football, hugs, YouTube videos, dog cuddles, goat cuddles, and cheese glorious cheese.

And time will shrink in strange ways so that 24 hours will fold into a tiny envelope that contains your guests’ arrival and departure in such a brief moment.

And time will shift in strange ways so that those who aren’t with us are still with us, and eight chairs become twenty, and the past is on our plates and in our mouths, and ten years backwards is ten years forwards. And the thing we’ve waited for all autumn suddenly appears, bright and red, in our own backyard.


Mr. Stevens hears the chickadees singing


In honor of the start of a holiday week, a holiday of thanksgiving and gratitude, I’m taking a mental detour from the dire news and the relentlessly grey sky. Let’s look at shiny things instead. Or, if not shiny, how about furry?

For example, this is Wallace (aka Mr. Stevens, aka Mr. Shawn, aka El Mystico and Janet, aka Zed, aka Clem, aka Trash Cat). I haven’t introduced you to each other yet because I’m a very bad host. (Which makes me think of the Wizard’s line in the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” when Dorothy accuses him of being a bad man and he answers, “Oh no, my dear. I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.” I don’t know if the line is in the book because I never read the book. Does that make me a bad woman? Or just a very bad wizard?) I’m so busy sweeping the floors and doing the dishes and putting the pie in the oven that I forget the niceties, like making introductions.

Here then, is Wallace. Just about six months old (as far as the folks at the shelter can reckon). He’s a perfectly ordinary “domestic short hair,” which means just your average ginger tabby. No registration papers, no royal bloodlines, just a darn nice cat.

He spent the first couple of weeks pretending to be shy of us, but now he pretty much owns the place. He’s even beginning to win favor with Gryfe, who was bullied mercilessly by beautiful, dog-hating Hudson.

In his spare time, he enjoys chattering at birds at the feeder, climbing windows, knocking items off of shelves, chasing Oyster, sleeping on his back with his paws splayed in all directions, and generally doing anything that makes us go, “awwwww…”

He’ll be here through the holidays.

Getting there

277 : 366

318 : 366

A fragile peace

Working off the Pringles


Thursday November To Do list with Seamus Heaney

Dear Mom

  • Wake up at 2.30 am. Again.
  • Flip the pillow to the cool side.
  • Fall asleep. Again.
  • Dream you’re in a long, dark room (a bar?) that’s crowded with people wearing grey overcoats.
  • Through the knot of grey,  see Seamus Heaney (not in grey).
  • Poke the shoulder of the person next to you and point out Seamus.
  • Get excited when your friend says she (? he?) knows Seamus and will bring him over to introduce you.
  • Dream there’s an explosion of some sort and the next thing everyone is in the street and Seamus is gone. No blood, no wreckage, no evidence of a bomb. Just no Seamus.
  • Wake up in the Thursday November darkness.
  • Blink in the bright bathroom light.
  • Brush teeth.
  • Feed the dog and cats and girl.
  • Wave goodbye to the man and the girl.
  • Think, “Now what? The bills?”
  • Spy the pan of brownies.
  • Shave a thin slice as if to even out the crooked cut line. This is a service. An act of straightening.  You should be thanked.
  • Strictly avoid the news.
  • Consider a nap.
  • Think about Seamus. Was he wearing a red coat like the little girl in “Shindler’s List”? Was he a sign? A warning?
  • Look at the brownie pan again.
  • Go outside to get logs.
  • Converse with the goats.
  • Start the fires.
  • Read reviews about smoke detectors.
  • Remember that no one can agree on internet reviews.
  • In an act of faith, order new versions of the same brand of smoke detectors you already have.
  • Check things off the list.
  • Add things you’ve already done to the list.
  • Check them off.
  • Consider a nap.
  • No really. Consider it. You didn’t sleep much last night.
  • Blame Seamus. Or the fact that you didn’t get to meet him.
  • Tell the dog to stop licking himself. Again.
  • Think about “The West Wing” as a political fairy tale.
  • Do bills.
  • Chuck more logs onto the fire.
  • Straighten the brownies out just a bit more.
  • Wonder where Seamus went when the explosion happened. Was he killed? Did he just leave through the back door? Did he set the explosion off?
  • Take a dreamless nap.
  • Avoid the radio.
  • See the note on the counter. The one the girl wrote before she could spell, that long ago.
  • Imagine time as a spiral, where you’re always in reach of the last loop, revisiting concentric circles of your moments, but each pass takes you just a little further from the last.
  • Admit you’re not fooling anyone about the brownies.
  • Apologize to the dog.
  • Wonder if time spirals intersect. When Seamus traveled his spiral, how close did his come to yours?
  • Make dinner.
  • Watch night come in.
  • Think about writing a poem.
  • Watch a movie.
  • Go to sleep.
  • Wake up at 2.30 am.

Many hands, many hearts


Entirely without planning for it, last weekend was one of community and that was exactly what I needed.

Community events for me are like exercise: I know how great I’ll feel after doing my part and pitching in, but I still feel reluctant to go. I want to help, I want to participate, but I also want to be home (this is pretty much our family’s unofficial theme song).

But the constellation of events this past weekend, following so closely on the heels of a really difficult week, made it seem obvious that we needed to go out into the world and be small cogs in a machine for good.

On Saturday, we attended a fundraising auction for H’s lovely little elementary school, and did our part by socializing, eating, and buying a couple things we never intended to but are happy to have. And even happier knowing those dollars went to a place that makes a difference for kids who really need it.

On Sunday, I helped a friend move to a perfect little cottage of her own. And as we returned to her old, unfriendly apartment to do the final vacuum and clean, I remembered vividly a day long ago when I moved from an unfriendly place in a single afternoon and evening, with the help of friends and family who were willing to drop everything and hustle to my rescue. These are things you don’t forget.

And also on Sunday we spent time with old friends who have suffered an unfathomable loss. When we all asked, “What in the world can we do for you?” they said, “Come over and help us stack firewood.” So that’s what did. We formed two long curving lines, stretching from the woodpile to the woodshed, and we handed logs to each other, bucket brigade style. We stood shoulder to shoulder and talked, or listened, or joked, or thought as the logs flowed from hand to hand and the woodpile melted while the woodshed filled.

It wasn’t hard work. It was hard being there, in the midst of such grief, certainly, but it felt so good to be able to do something tangible, practical, helpful. It’s not enough. It never is enough, but just because you can’t fix it all in one fell swoop doesn’t mean you can’t pick away at it bit by bit, log by log, hug by hug.

On our way out, I told our friend that we were always here for her, and she said she knew, and the one thing she asked is that we not forget the one she lost. And I promised that.

I’m saying his name now in my head, and will add his name to the song of names I soundlessly hum some days when I walk, reminding the universe that they existed, stood on this earth, helped friends, made ripples in the atmosphere.

There’s only so much we can do, but doing anything at all is the way to get through it. Sometimes you just have to wake up, put your feet on the cold floor, pick up the day’s work, and get on with it.

Thoughts in the cosmic dark

On our way back home

I’ve been taking my time to write this because I needed to think quietly and for a long time before I understood how I feel.

I needed to put aside my sadness, anger, and frustration. I needed to go out in the woods with a dog leading the way and watch him bounce across the field, nose to the ground.

On election day, my sister and I watched the results from Canada. All day I’d felt optimistic and maybe (if I’m honest with myself) a bit smug. So when the result became more and more obvious, I slid into a dark hole I’d dug for myself.

I felt a bottomless disappointment. Grief for dashed hope. Hate colored with fear.

I scared myself by how sharply my anger was pointed, how envenomed.

But the small voices of my conscience came to my rescue. Hate is hate. It doesn’t matter whose side you’re on or if you feel your cause is more righteous than someone else’s. Hate puts blinders on, handcuffs you to an immovable post of unreasonableness.

I can’t live that way. We can’t live that way. Living that way is what got us to this place, this vote. There’s a lot of hate out there. Intolerance. Anger. Mistrust. Name calling. Fear. There’s also a lot of hardship. Lost jobs. Dead children. Exhausted, hungry, cold people.

Abused people. Hurt people. Disenfranchised people. Scared people.

We did this. Every one of us, and there’s no use denying it.

But we can also undo this. Slowly and with purpose. We can start listening to each other more, particularly those we disagree with (I’m as guilty as anyone). We can start thinking better of others, start being better ourselves.

I’m not being naive; I’m being open. I’m not saying be tolerant of hate; I’m saying lighten the load for someone who needs help. I’m not saying be complacent; I’m saying watch for evil like a hawk, but watch for goodness just as carefully. Be on your guard, but be willing to reach out. Be good. Be creative. Be kind. Share what you have if you can. Accept help when you need it.

Vote. Protest. Petition. Speak out.

Make art. Make noise. Make right.

It’s a complicated dance and I don’t know all the steps yet. But I can’t stop wondering what I could have done, what small act of kindness or courage I could have offered, that might have made someone else suffer less.

I’m not telling you what to do. I know that humans have battled humans for as far back as our history is recorded. I’m just musing out loud, I suppose. But I really believe there has to be something good that can come from all of this anger and hate, the chanting and the posturing. There has to be a way that we can fix this.

We’re all in this together, riding this pale blue dot in space. Our fates are bound up together. We thrive or shrivel together. There’s no other way.

A room at Hotel Eternity


Autumn Sky

In my great grandmother’s time,
All one needed was a broom
To get to see places
And give the geese a chase in the sky.

The stars know everything,
So we try to read their minds.
As distant as they are,
We choose to whisper in their presence.

Oh Cynthia,
Take a clock that has lost its hands
For a ride.
Get me a room at Hotel Eternity
Where Time likes to stop now and then.

Come, lovers of dark corners,
The sky says,
And sit in one of my dark corners.
There are tasty little zeroes
In the peanut dish tonight.

–Charles Simic, Poetry Magazine, October 2002

The everything

Time stand still in travel

This has happened before, I remember.

We sang our way along the pre-dawn length of Massachusetts, over the fog-draped Hudson river, through the rain battered New York thruway, then followed the curve of Lake Ontario from Niagara to Hamilton to Toronto.

Along the way, we made necessity into rituals, stopping at our favorite service areas with names only a mother could love: Blandford and Clarence. We ate breakfast sandwiches and oatmeal, then gassed up the car and let more miles glide out behind us.

How many times have we made this trip before, and how many more times?

I’ve been in this hotel room before, too, or one just like it. And here, at the keyboard, I know I have something to tell you, but the breadth and depth of the day has wrecked me a bit. I’m weary. My eyes are closing, my fingers light on the keys, my thoughts winging back to long ago car trips, us kids in the back seat.

It’s night and I see the angled reflection of the dashboard and my mother’s profile in her window. I’m looking past the actual mother to the window mother and I can watch her for hours as the miles tick along. She doesn’t notice my gaze. It’s dark and the world is a rolling feeling and nothing bad is happening. I notice that the moon is following me. No matter where we go, which turns we take, the moon stays with me, my own puppy dog.

I’m forty years from that memory, and I can’t recall my mother’s face as clearly as I can recall her reflection and the moon’s silent affection. I’m losing her voice, but I have her profile in my heart. I’m in a hotel room in the country where she was born. I’m looking at her brother’s face, and I see hers. I’m close to remembering something, but my eyes are closing. I’m thinking of a song.

This has happened before. This is happening now. This will happen again.

Here’s a scene
You’re in the back seat laying down
The windows wrap around
To sound of the travel and the engine

All you hear is time stand still in travel
And feel such peace and absolute
The stillness still that doesn’t end
But slowly drifts into sleep
The stars are the greatest thing you’ve ever seen
And they’re there for you
For you alone you are the everything

On the bus


It isn’t easy going cold turkey.

For months on end I made a practice of not writing. It became a habit. Now, all of a sudden, I have to stop not writing? Every day? Not only that, I have to stop not thinking. Stop not observing. Stop not daydreaming and not making connections.

It’s a lot to ask for. Especially while I’m sitting on a bumpy bus rattling down a headlight-lit highway from New Hampshire to Boston. The movie “Eddie the Eagle” is being shown on the six overhead screens scattered around the bus and I can’t help getting absorbed by the story. I can’t resist a good going-from-zero-to-hero montage. Besides, it’s so much easier to watch Edie achieve his dream than for me to write a sentence.

So instead, on the bus, while I watch, I’m thinking about things I could tell you.

For instance, I’m thinking about the poet I saw walking down the street in Hanover; the one wearing a t-shirt that said “Neruda.” That guy, he knows who he is.

And I’m thinking about the college student who raced up the sidewalk on her bicycle so fast I thought she might smack into the building behind me, but instead she swooped like a swallow right up to the brick wall, and then, with the most elegant and practiced grace, she dismounted, looped her bike lock around the front tire, and slipped through the building’s door, all in one motion.

And I’m thinking about the Mini Cooper that drove past as I waited for the bus, a skeleton sitting in the front passenger seat, its skull angled so it could look out the open window, its eyeless eye holes watching me.

And I’m thinking that Lin-Manuel Miranda is a cruel genius and today, as usual, I have one of his “Hamilton” songs stuck in my head.

And I’m thinking that I learned today that the word “rowen” means the second crop of hay in a season. And that it also means aftermath.

And I’m thinking about the milkweed pod I saw in the hay field earlier this week. A slow motion explosion of fluff in the shape of a heart. The aftermath of an invisible process of light, temperature, and time. Something a writer could conjure for you in a slow burst of words, if only she could think of the right ones.