{a modest shrine to meaning}


by Leonard Nathan

So you aren’t Tolstoy or St. Francis
or even a well-known singer
of popular songs and will never read Greek
or speak French fluently,
will never see something no one else
has seen before through a lens
or with the naked eye.

You’ve been given just the one life
in this world that matters
and upon which every other life
somehow depends as long as you live,
and also given the costly gifts of hunger,
choice, and pain with which to raise
a modest shrine to meaning.

Iona 84

{clean plate club}

Wee’uns are often too distracted to eat, and so canny adults through time have incentivized finishing one’s serving – for a prize of applause (Our full family chorus of “Yaaay! Good for YOU!” for my sister Jessica) (which, let’s be real, we STILL say to her sometimes, just to annoy her), dessert, or an imaginary club first started in 1917 by a United States Congress deeply concerned with food waste during wartime.

The problem for many of us is that, while we are in a state of War Without End as Americans, the issues of food waste aren’t the same anymore. A 2014 study by Cornell Food & Brand Lab revealed that the average adult eats around 92 percent of the food that is served to them on a plate, meaning most people are members of the Clean Plate Club. If it’s on the plate, most adults will eat it. Kids, meanwhile, will only finish about 59% of what’s on their plates… until and unless they’re chivvied by adults.

(And no, smaller plates don’t actually help. And, incidentally, the “children in Africa” aren’t all starving, and 99.9999% of them [there’s always one, right?] do not want your manky leftovers. [Preventing food waste CAN save lives, though – but that’s another story in a country that would be happy SENDING food to developing nations. That’s not this country during this administration, however.])

Been thinking about this whole clean plate thing, because Predator has begun occasionally making it difficult to eat. I’ve struggled on, er, woman-fully, through stomach cramping, nausea and disinterest without taking much time to ask myself… why? In the face of all of that, why even worry about finishing my food?

“Ladies” used to be taught to leave a little on a plate, as a sign of gentility, whereas people with more robust appetites were judged to be lower class and coarse. Then, as eating out became more common, finishing every last scrap and taking home a few packets of jam became the norm — after all, you paid for it, and isn’t finishing only getting your money’s worth? The Cornell study examined the words people used about finishing the “last” of anything on a serving platter – “Who’s going to take the last meatball? Can’t leave the one alone…” weirdly, guilting each other into eating… by anthropomorphizing food! We have such baggage with our consumption, such difficulties with our perceived selves. Unexamined traditions have convinced us to ignore our body’s signals and overlay external constructs on what should be an wholly organic internal process.

Ignoring our bodies not only causes us to overeat, it causes most of us some fairly dark moods. We struggle to eat that last bite – and feel guilty when we feel so crappy afterwards. The opposite of mindful eating is mindless eating – and doing anything mindlessly isn’t fulfilling or helpful or living one’s best life, really.

Learning to listen to one’s body is work – but it’s work worth doing. Your brain and your body have a lot to tell you, more than you could know.

{autumnal eau de vie}


when the light leaves early, sun slipping down
behind the beech trees as easily as a spoon
of cherry cough syrup, four deer step delicately
up our path, just at the moment when the colors
shift, to eat fallen apples in the tall grass.
Great grey ghosts. If we steal outside in the dark,
we can hear them chew. A sudden movement,
they’re gone, the whiteness of their tails
a burning afterimage. A hollow pumpkin moon rises,
turns the dried corn to chiaroscuro, shape and shadow;
the breath of the wind draws the leaves and stalks
like melancholy cellos. These days are songs, noon air
that flows like warm honey, the maple trees’ glissando
of fat buttery leaves. The sun goes straight to the gut
like a slug of brandy, an eau-de-vie. Ochre October:
the sky, a blue dazzle, the grand finale of trees,
this spontaneous applause; when darkness falls
like a curtain, the last act, the passage of time,
that blue current; October, and the light leaves early,
our radiant hungers, all these golden losses.

~ copyright © 2005 Barbara Crooker (from Radiance, published by Word Press). All rights reserved.

{radio stella —> stella speaks}

My agent, bless him, didn’t want to get my hopes up.

A novel which he’d loved, and which we both thought would get good traction in the market was floundering – as had the two YA novels before it. This latest novel, written quickly over the summer, was rejected by first one, then another editor, and the numbers were piling up.

Normally, within the first five rejections, I would have figured out a pattern of what was wrong with the piece – that many disconnected editors are usually not a monolith, but normally there’s a kind of consensus which arises from the editorial letters… the main character is X, the setting is Y, something specifically isn’t working and five out of six editors agree. Not this time. The replies were mostly, “it’s written beautifully, just not what we’re looking for.” “Stella is a hoot, but we already have x, y, or z, this season.” So, my agent persisted, and I moved on to something else, as one does. It’s part of the job of the writer – to write, and not worry about what is going on with the selling – that’s the sole reason for an agent, so the writer can set aside THAT particular anxiety in favor of the other hundred thousand.

Honestly, I’d already started revising Stella, in my head. I had done SOMETHING wrong, I couldn’t know for sure what, but I was positive it was me. That’s what we all believe – it’s US. It’s always US. It’s not the market nor the editors, nor is it the time of year, it’s US, and we are foolish and ignorant and WRONG.

Which is why last month’s phone call was such a shocker. My agent emailed me the day before my uncle’s memorial service with CALL ME in all caps in his subject line. (Amusingly, somehow in my last move he’d lost my cell number – or else I never gave it to him. This tells you how much we speak to each other across an open line. Introverts use EMAIL and we LIKE IT.) When I phoned him, he said, “Well, I didn’t mention this before, because sometimes, these things fall apart…” He’d had a conversation with an editor in passing, heard she was heading back to middle grade, after losing two of her big YA names to adult fiction. He asked what she was seeking, sent her my work midweek, and received a response… by the week following. She’d read my book over the weekend, taken it to an acquisitions meeting the following week, and messaged him with her interest a day later.

So, I’ve sold a pair of novels, one of which is definitely middle grade! I’m still blinking. Normally, NOTHING moves that fast in publishing. That Katherine Tegen (henceforth KT) offered the opportunity to work with her for TWO books was even more surprising – I’d never gotten that sort of offer, even after four books with EditorE. Suddenly, it feels like anything can happen – and I’m not completely sure what will. It’s a good – if unusual – feeling.

One of my earlier rejections for RADIO STELLA which is now being renamed STELLA SPEAKS is that the novel was “too commercial” for their house. This …was a surprise to me, as the idea is normally that if you win an ALA nod, you’re considered by most people to be a literary success, if not not necessarily a commercial success, as one normally has to do with reader popularity and the other with literary merit as judged by teachers and librarians… I’m reading Katherine Tegen publications like mad just now, catching up with what they’re about – their tagline is “high-quality commercial fiction,” so apparently now I’m commercial? Okay, I’ll take it.

Writers write. So, I’ll just get back to that and leave the perplexing question of what kind of book Stella will be to others more qualified to decide.

{into the peace of wild things}

The Peace of Wild Things || Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Copyright © 1998.

Source: Collected Poems 1957-1982 (Counterpoint Press, 1985)

{p7 on pf: six line animal poem}

October already… and I’m still holding out on turning on the heat. It’s the West Coast Winter Contest, and there are rules – you can use an electric blanket, but not every day. You can close all the windows, but messing with the thermostat before October 31st means you’ve somehow …lost. You can wear cardigans and wool socks on a breezy day, but a coat… no, that’s just a bridge too far. Somehow, you can gain or lose some sort of psychic points in a West Coast Winter, if you acknowledge that it’s nippy before it gets here. (I hereby acknowledge that this is ridiculous, but we played this game in Glasgow, too. Many Scots are faintly scornful of the whole coat thing, and it can be SNOWING and they’ll wear… a t-shirt. They win, for all time.)

We were introduced to a few rules for our competition this month with the Poetry Seven – Laura set us a challenge that we had a subject – animals; a length limit – six lines, no more; and word specifications – we had to use the words spike, roof, and shadow.

I like rules in poetry. I like structure and limits and boundaries – they can make the writer feel safe, and the creativity feel manageable. Until it doesn’t. I was fine with the rules – I was delighted with everything but the word specifications. I was stymied, thinking of an animal and these words in the same context. What animal with a spike could also be on the roof? Everything has a shadow, but with only six lines to explain and describe, who could come up with anything decent? Also, I was determined not to do anything… normal. I mean, why not, right? But that also meant that the line limit came back to bite me in the bum again.

Stirling Castle D 63

I was truly challenged – but also happy to run to the internet for some clues. I started with the line limit. There are quite a few amazing six-line poems, and poem forms. To give myself a place to begin, I decided on a plain hexastich – six lines, unrhymed – and then to play with an Italian sestet, which is iambic tetrameter or pentameter, and rhymed abcabc. My first poem is a Scotland poem.

Stirling Tapestry

pearlescent spike crowns
a force of dream and shadow
Unicorn, captive
quiescent seeming, sitting
quivers poised to raise the roof
fairy tale turned fact

The symbol of Scotland is the unicorn, and with all the chaos of Brexit, more than ever, the unicorn, having sat prettily for a long while, is now poised to do… something about jumping over that fence, perhaps?

This one is because I can never just leave Miss Emily alone, and so, hat tip to her A Narrow Fellow in the Grass (1096).


The heartbeat spikes to see shed skin
On kennel roof, or ‘neath the porch
This friendly fellow cleaves the grass
In shadow, Snake is silent silk.
Herpetophobia your case?
Cold-blooded calm you must embrace!

I admit that I’m most proud of this last one, because Laura likes it. ☺ I thought that six lines was just enough to make a shape poem, and because a narwhal is just all …pointy up top, I was going to begin this with the word “I.” And then I saw this video…:

…and then I wondered how the narwhal… negotiated through the world with so much ahead of it, as it were. How does it never poke any of its friends inadvertently? Those were my thoughts – silly, yes, which lent themselves to a somewhat silly poem:

A Narwhal Never Flosses

splendid spike
this tooth, the roof
of narwhal whale in inky seas
its apex point a shadow spear
which keeps the way ahead all clear

Oh, there’s more poetry. Laura’s first through the gate with her adorable guinea pig. (Oops, she chose to post the owl. I still like the guinea pig.) Sara joins with an autumnally atmospheric piece. Liz hits her stride and Kelly returns sans pangolin. (But her kitty’s still pretty cute.) And Tricia’s here, too, huzzah. Andi and Jax will gambol along shortly – I’m excited that the gang’s all here today.

Tab’s hosting Poetry Friday today @ The Opposite of Indifference (and congrats to her Germany-bound son!). Enjoy your day – may it be filled with mysteriously awesome animals!

{time stamp}

Culzean 014

A change of season brings the urge to move the furniture, change the pictures, hang something new on the front door. We are delving into the massive project of finding photographic art to frame possibly to hang in our home, possibly to give as gifts.

This project is a doozy. There are I don’t know how many thousands of pictures on our Flickr account. Many were transferred onto the site, and were from film, before people commonly took pictures of everything and their food. Mostly, the earliest pictures are of art – painted coffee mugs and gourd birdhouses. The first sprouts in the garden. Later pictures show our little townhouse, and the long and painful process of gutting it from its 1970’s carpet and fittings, and putting it back together. Still later pictures captured our first trip to Europe, the five years we lived in Scotland, and every architectural wonder in the city of Glasgow, twice. Inevitably, the photographs turn to food. Shoes. Travels through Italy, Estonia, England, Puerto Rico, The Netherlands, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and San Francisco. There are thousands of pictures of castles, birds, signs, fish. Flowers. Random strangers who shouted, “Take our picture!” Our daily lives for years, chronicled in HDR.

People often ask, with no small amount of judgment, “Do you ever actually look at all those pictures, after you’ve taken them? As a matter of fact, yes, all the time. My screen savers and laptop background are nothing but pictures, pictures, pictures, which shift every five minutes to a new scene. Most of the castles we visited in our first two years of living in Scotland we never visited again. No matter our reach, despite best intentions, the world spins out of our grasp… and only new adventures remain. I find I am greedy for the past, to hold onto where I’ve been, even as I try to stand firmly in the here-and-now.

It’s important, this here-and-now. It is all too easy to imagine a rosy past, captured solely in perfect poses and carefully cropped and color-corrected.

Sometimes, it is troubling to look back – at beautiful holiday ornaments and a perfectly arranged house, and wonder, “Why wasn’t I happy then?” If only beautiful settings were a guarantee of a beautiful life.

We have only ever printed about twelve of the hundreds of thousands of photographs we have taken. It’s too hard to choose a single image. I love the slant of light on autumn leaves and snow in one picture, but in the other, taken only a moment earlier, there’s King Arthur’s Seat, and me standing in the middle, swathed in scarves. In another, there’s a slightly blurry silhouette of a face, but if we crop it, it’s a gray castle rising up from a slate-colored loch. Each of them represents one beautiful moment – perhaps a weekend, or a string of days. And, every time, I go through the pictures, I find myself thinking, “I want that day again. I want that beach, with that weather, with that group of people.” Never mind that we’re all seven years older and have lost track of various members of the group. Never mind the new additions, the new players we haven’t yet met. It just seems possible, when you look at a photograph, to reach inside, and capture it all.

We always think we can go back.

It’s a simple enough thing, to return. We imagine we can recapture the day, go back and experience it again when we’re thinner, or when the weather is better. When we have more energy for the place, or the people. It was a good day, we think. So beautiful. Let’s try again when this or that happens, when he or she is with us. Let’s try and have that day again.

Alas, even Now is sifting down through our clenched fists like the finest grains of sand, and going back to where we began works only on game boards. Gifts are best savored in the moment they are received… and sometimes, they’re not for tomorrow, but today.

{urgent as a knife}

The 4th Sign of the Zodiac

I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

so why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.

Excerpted from BLUE HORSES, by Mary Oliver, The Penguin Press, New York, © 2014

{a prayer/ a spell}

A Prayer/A Spell

I am feeling better, so I say good morning and mean it. That’s a big deal.

Yes, today is a good morning to exhale, to feel joy with the release of a breath I no longer need to be holding.

I am NOT alone because I feel alone.

I am NOT alone because I feel alone.

I am NOT alone because I feel alone with company.

When I look in the mirror, I will find a reflection of the gifts I am withholding from myself.

Light hits everything at a different angle. I will make a habit of tilting my head.

When the sadness water falls, I will let the salt cleanse the wounds I cannot see. I will let dance parties be the hospitals I heal in.

If I need more help, I will let the people offering help me.

If I need more help, I will let the medication help me.

I forgive my body for being a machine after all.

I forgive my memory for being the cupboard door that will continue to pop ajar no matter how many times I push it shut.

I forgive myself even if I am the last person I want to forgive.

Wherever I have come from, wherever I am going, I will remember the present as the only place to start.

Today is a good day to wake up and be great and have gratitude for the restless pump of a heart, for the way it does not know how to hold back.

I will exhale and I will begin to do the same.

– by Sabrina Benaim, from Depression & Other Magic Tricks