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Monthly Archives: December 2011

December 31…

number 31A year feels like nothing to wrap and send on its way. Wisps. Yet it is marked on my face, on my belly and hips, on my skin. It is marked in this slow dune of words. In the crawl of the sun across morning skies. Poems written. And unwritten. People lost. It is marked by the unpunctuated litany of torment and greed and hunger and hope. By the onward roll of eclipses and solstices. By the urgent shouldering of salmon into streams. It is marked in a love maturing. Friendships deepening. In the garden’s young dwarf balsams and hellebore sports, the cycle of weeds, the drift of leaves gathered behind the hydrangea. It is marked by the raucous wheelings of Caspian terns, the eagles come to the river, the swans bent-necked in cropped fields. Colored lights. Kids on new bikes. It is marked by the shuffling of calendars, the best-ofs, predictions, resolutions, prognostications. It is marked, at last, on this final morning of the year, by a warming shawl of gratitude — for tenderness, for sharing and laughter and curiosity and delight, and for the continuing capacity to discover, in the world and in myself, something new.
number 31

A Bowl of Words…fragment

“What would you do?” Laura asked Paul.
“Do? You mean if I wanted to kill myself?”
“I don’t know, Dr. Kevorkian, is this a multiple-choice question?”
“Yes, of course it is. But seriously, haven’t you ever thought about it? I mean not actually thinking that you would do it, but, you know, just thinking about it?”
“Yeah, I guess. But mostly when it’s in the news — Vince Foster or Kurt Cobain.” Paul was quiet for a moment, then said, “When I was a teenager I was pretty pissed off for a while and used to think that I would kill myself and really show my parents what small-minded tyrants they had been. It was always a gun — just a neat hole in the temple — and my father would barge into my room screaming at me for some petty infraction of the rules and there I’d be, on the bed, cold and dead. And he’d collapse and never be the same, and my mother would come in and cradle my lifeless body in her arms and finally have to be pried away. You know, teenage angst. It didn’t come to me in so many words, but even then I could see the difference between wanting to be dead and wanting revenge. I didn’t want to be dead; what I wanted was to put on this drama and watch it unfold and really bask in it and then jump up and say, ‘Just kidding!’ I wanted to hurt them.”
“What changed?” Laura asked.
“When I went to help my uncle rebuild after the tornado. Spent a couple of months swinging a hammer and after that I was different, and my parents seemed different too, though it’s hard to say who really changed. Took my mind off revenge, anyway…”

more fragments from A Bowl of Words

A Bowl of Words…fragment

…Slowly, as Laura dressed and went downstairs, other names slipped into her awareness — Marilyn, Sylvia Plath — and then other deaths — needles and airplanes and car crashes that had preserved a famous face in perpetual youth — Janis, Jimmy Hendrix, Buddy Holly. That list was too long, she thought, and death was too big a word for one day.

“You look far away,” Paul said, finding her at the kitchen table with nothing but a cup of coffee in front of her. “What’s the word, mockingbird?”
Suicide,” she said.
“Ouch. Larry’s mom, in the bathtub, with a gun. Sounds like we’re playing Clue.”
“A gun?” she asked. “Guns aren’t typically the weapons of choice for women.”
“Yeah. I don’t know. It was a mess. Larry found her.”
“Oh,” Laura groaned. “Was she sick?”
“Yeah. No. I’m not sure. She had something. But after Larry’s brother died, she was never the same. She tried to put together some semblance of a normal life, but he was her baby and she never did come back all the way. Obviously.”
“Who else?” she asked.
“Isn’t this a fun breakfast conversation,” he said, used to the serious turn their days might take. “Would you like to ruminate on some granola?”
“Sure. Banana, no raisins.”
“No thanks.”
“What would you do?” Laura asked Paul…

more fragments from A Bowl of Words


PandaThe Christmas tree was in front of the big window in the living room. It was our first Christmas in the new house, so I was 3. Panda was seated under the tree. For me. He was silky, glossy black and brilliant white, and big enough to really hug.

He’s a serious bear. He became my companion, my sibling. I talked with him, discussed the questions I might have addressed with a sister or brother, whispered my woes into his soft black ear. He lost some parts and was sewn back together with dental floss. In spite of my mother’s furious vacuuming, his white fur turned tan.

At some point — maybe I was 7 or 8 and showing the first glimmers of social consciousness — I thought I would give him away to a child who didn’t have something as wonderful as a panda bear. I delivered him to the giveaway pile in the basement. But a day or two later, I felt a rush of horror and regret, and reclaimed him. He’s still here.

He has moved with me from place to place, riding shotgun, belted in on a pile of jackets and books to give him a view over the dashboard. He has worn silly hats and maintains his dignity even with stitches showing in his crotch and his tongue hanging on by a thread. He embodies patience. And memory.

He doesn’t get much attention these days, but when I look at him, what I see is that little girl, hugging him desperately, and, before that, the magic of his appearance there on the floor beneath the decorated tree.

Merry Christmas.

the note…

noteShe stared at the two penciled words stretching across the piece of paper, the handwriting not refined but each letter fully formed, solidly connected to the next. “You’re beautiful,” it said, a wide-eyed smiley face the only punctuation. The two words floated, independent, the first centered and straight, the second angled broadly across the middle of the paper as if to underline its meaning, though there was no line.

They were written on the flap of a banking deposit envelope, torn off at the perforations. She recognized the handwriting, though it was writing she seldom saw. She knew who had written it; she only could not remember when or where he had left it for her. She tried to picture it: lying on his pillow, propped in front of the phone, stuck in the refrigerator along side the half-and-half — all of those find-it-in-the-morning places. But none of the images looked familiar and she couldn’t be certain. She only knew it was from another era of her life, perhaps a quarter-century ago. No, she corrected, just 25 years — that was long enough; one need not mention centuries.

She had found it tucked into the pages of a journal, the writing on the pages revealing nothing. Just this note, this reminder, which cheered her a bit, to think, to remember, to imagine that someone had found her beautiful, one time, and she pinned it to her bulletin board, smiling back at the silly little round-eyed face.


small stonesThe stones on the sill tell stories of beaches, mountainsides, river beds… an archive of vistas and visitations, a compendium of history, each one an ancient message, compacted and relayed through time. Then, in an instant of seeing, we bend, lift, weigh, turn, consider, hold, give…

What is it about rocks? They have magnetism, magic, memory. They stand for place in a mobile world. They ask nothing, but warm in the palm’s attention, soothe the furious heart. They are the dots that we connect to draw the picture of our being.


Anchored on the river’s shoulder in the perfect, frosted, long and star-splashed dark, towering black crags made themselves visible by erasing stars.

morning light…

Sapphire sky, scoop of moon, bright star beauty mark. But it’s not a star, it’s a plane, slipping across the moon’s chin and away toward China.

Happy Chanukkah!


patchwork quiltIn the throes of the physical and emotional awkwardness of age 11, my most direct route to transformation seemed to be sewing. I could spend hours poring over the pages of the McCall’s pattern books — not picturing myself in the flowing dresses, but imagining that by wrapping myself in these clothes I would become one of the shapely, straight-haired girls in the illustration. Then there were the fabrics and buttons and trim, a sensory bonanza, even under the watchful eye of the owner of F & S Fabrics.

My parents gave me a sewing machine and through junior high and high school I made many of my blouses and skirts. I was good at following patterns, a good cutter. I sewed neat seams and always pressed them open as I went along.

When I was 13 or 14, I picked a fabric that looked like raw silk for a sleeveless sheath for some very special occasion. I stitched carefully, put in an “invisible zipper” and watched the dress take shape. It seemed very sophisticated, grown up, and I was excited, thinking that finally I’d look like the willowy model on the pattern. But when I finally tried it on, it didn’t fit. Not even close. Not even so that I could let out a seam. I had grown. I was no longer the girl-size I had been, had left forever the hope of willowy, and had become round of hip and breast, and taller — a different body all together.

My dress sat abandoned in a heap for a long time, as if I might grow back into it. Finally it ended up in the give-away pile, half-finished. All that was left was a small square of the fabric stitched into my patchwork quilt, a scrap of memory.

village lane…

gelatoThe village perched atop a hill, at the end of a long, narrow cypress-lined drive that twisted upward. They parked the Vespa outside the gate and turned to look back at all of Tuscany, fields in blocks of green and sienna, hilltops fortressed with villas.

Walking hand in hand through the high arch, they entered the cobblestoned lane lined with shops. Even in this tiny village, the shop windows and open doors were lush with their rows of jars and bottles, prosciutto, cheese, ceramics, jewelry and multi-hued mounds of gelato. Except at noon, when the high sun beat directly down, the small street was in shade, cool on the hottest days. The shutters on the upper floors were thrown open to catch the angled light, here and there a shirt, blinding white, hung to dry on the rail of a slender balcony. The cobblestones were scrubbed and glossy with centuries of wear.

An ancient woman dressed in black, her cane in one hand, her small string bag of groceries in the other, stopped at a closed door, shifted her parcel, opened the door and disappeared inside, the door shutting silently behind her, the air erasing the memory of where she had stood just a moment ago.

The sun pooled at the end of the street, where the buildings opened out into the piazza and they strolled toward the promise of its warmth.


ringI was in college, home for a visit, and had gone to the beach. Along the shore there, in Santa Monica, the beach is miles long and perhaps 100 yards wide. Vast. The sand is deep and pale and fine, and, in summer, very, very hot.

I glanced down and there, just a few inches in front of my foot, half buried in the sand, was a silver ring. I picked it up. It was delicate and small, with a faint pattern etched into its surface. Without much thought, I sat down on the hot, dry sand, the waves shushing and crashing, shushing and crashing, and slipped the ring onto the second toe of my right foot. There it stayed, eventually creating a small callous at the base of the toe.

That was a long time ago, before people wore rings on every part of their bodies. Finger rings, yes, and sometimes a lot of them, but mostly people left their belly buttons and eyebrows and lips and tongues alone, and a ring in your nose meant that you were a native of some exotic culture from the pages of National Geographic, or a bull.

I did have one friend who wore a ring in her nose — a little gold hoop in her left nostril. It was shocking then, and terribly exotic. The ring was strung with a small red glass bead. Truly, it was a beautiful color and would catch the light, but always, always, no matter how often I saw her or how much time we spent together, my eyes were drawn to the bead and in a flash of panic, I’d think: blood.

I wondered about the little silver ring. Who had it belonged to before I found it? How much sand had sifted through its circle? What had caused it to fall off its original owner? I pictured a very young bride, with tiny fingers, or a teenager, not that much younger than myself, whose fingers were encrusted with rings. Perhaps a young man had entrusted the ring to the pocket of his swimming shorts, planning to give it to his girlfriend — a proposal, a promise — only to lose it, and perhaps her too.

I wore the ring on my toe for ten years. But eventually it had to go. I was working in an office and wearing grown-up shoes and and the ring would rub a little snag in the foot of my pantyhose that would turn into a run, right up the front of my leg. After a few more years the callous went away too.

I still have the ring. Sometimes, holding it in my hand, I’m whisked back to that day at the beach, and there it is again: tiny, circular, a wink of silver in the endless expanse of silvery sand.


jik in mittsThere was a well-worn copy of Dr. Spock in our bookcase, but whether my mother subscribed to his advice on other issues I don’t know. On the subject of thumb sucking, she followed her own rules.

If Dorothy’s instincts for motherhood were lacking, she nonetheless had a strong sense of right and wrong where I was concerned. Wrong was sucking my thumb; before I was a year old, my fat little hands were sheathed in mitts to prevent it.

I don’t know how long I wore them, but they didn’t work. When the mitts were removed, I sucked my thumb. Perhaps — who knows? — because of the mitts, I continued to do so for too long, until I was 7, when the bitter-tasting stuff that was swabbed onto my thumb forced me out of the habit.

By then, crooked teeth were no longer a threat but a reality and another way in which I’d failed her. She would remind me of this periodically until the braces came off my teeth when I was 14.

I sometimes wonder if Dorothy was simply following the script written by her own mother. She was deeply wounded in many ways.

Still, I can’t look at this photo without a complicated mix of anger and sorrow and compassion and nausea and tears.

fragments…Lark, 2

Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten. Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten. Lark did not try to remember her mother. She did not reminisce. Her past was a phantom. There existed only the scrolling loop of the present — her pale hands, her broad feet in the brown scuffs, the green dress she put on each morning.

The food mounded on the Melmac plate incited no yearning. The setting sun through the wired glass was not a metaphor.

Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten. There were sometimes names: her own, Ginger, Elton. These she sang in her perfect alto to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, the syllables fitting neat and senseless into the nursery rhyme melody.

There was also the singing bird, its song raising goose bumps on her arms as it warbled up through the bird’s yellow throat. Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten. It had not always been like this.
Western Meadowlark photo by Alan D. Wilson, Nature’s Pics Online


dictionaryThey lived together in companionable affection. It was never love, though certainly she wanted it to be. He went off to paint houses, she went to graduate school. He came home and drank beer, she came home and baked bread. They were often stoned.

When his buddies showed up at dinner time, she kept cooking until there was enough — for five, or eight, or ten. There was always fresh bread, and its perfume.

Her floor loom was the largest piece of furniture in the living room. The windows, facing onto the side yard, had no shades, but shelves of houseplants suspended in front of them curtained the glass with their cascade of green.

There were two dogs, then one, and the turtles, and the row of five-gallon aquariums in the midnight-blue bedroom with the enormous, sloshing waterbed.

He drove a hearse, a mini, a Divco truck, a Nash Metropolitan, a Vespa with a sidecar. She drove a VW bug. He smoked cigarettes. She read books.

When she pulled the dictionary off the shelf to look up a word one day, three hundred dollars fluttered from its pages onto the floor. He had finally found a use for a book.

He was willing to be content. She was looking for something. They broke up.


pangolin postcardMy mornings begin this way, wading through the dawn’s soft sand, waves of words swirling around my ankles…ormolu, reprehensible, blandishments, promontory, pangolin…

Behold the pangolin, my mind says, the artichoke of the animal world.
pangolin postcard

December 10


hotel hallwayThey have never met, will never meet, but the threads of their lives knit together row upon row. The accident of conferences, interviews, exhibitions, brings them from their distant homes to this place, or another, yet keeps them strangers to each other. This once, by chance, they occupy adjoining rooms in the hotel.

In his, daytime TV flashes its soundless images and his laptop sits open on the small desk. His clothes, just enough for the meeting, the dinner, the night and the trip home, are hung in the closet or placed neatly in the large drawer below the television. His small carry-on suitcase stands in the closet between a single pair of shoes and an ironing board. The curtains are closed. The bed is untouched, the little card with instructions about saving water still propped against the pillow. He sits in the single chair talking on his cell phone.

In hers, every light is on, the curtains are open, and her enormous suitcase yawns empty on the bed. Its contents — clothes, yarn, strips of leather, fabrics, thread, lace, tied packets of letters, rice paper, paste and innumerable cloth envelopes of buttons, shells, words clipped from magazines, doll-house-size furniture, antique bottle caps and garage sale jewelry — she has gathered in her arms and dropped in a heap on the floor. Struggling with the window, which opens only about two inches, she lights a cigarette, blows smoke through the gap and surveys the pile…
photo by Ian Bogost

December 8…

Papa and sibs, about 1915That’s my dad, on the right, scowling, age around 4. The brush, the comb, the clean white clothes, the socks and shoes, had all conspired with his mother to wrestle him into civility long enough for this one photo.

But he didn’t have to like it.

He’s holding something — a leaf? a feather? a miracle that it’s not a clot of mud, a handful of trouble to disrupt this one special moment.

Today would have been his 101st birthday.

Happy birthday, Papa.


ewerIn a moment of stillness, I saw the word vessel. Not as in ship, but as in pitcher, bowl, jug, ewer — a container. Inherent in the word is the invisible actor, the one who fills the vessel and the one who lifts it and pours.

If I am the vessel — of history, dreams, ideas, words — then I am acted upon. But if I am the actor, I can form and reform the vessel, fill it with substance or spirit, pour it or scoop from it or simply let it overflow.

In the cinematic screen of my mind’s eye, I can see it: shape-shifting, its color and size, material and density, its mysterious contents, continually in flux.

So the vessel is what? …imagination? creativity? alchemy? mind? the unknown?

I invite the stillness and listen for answers.