The Melancholy Tree

October 30, 2013

Photo courtesy Emil Bacik
Robert Morgan, who lives in Ithaca, New York, has long been one of my favorite American poets. He’s also a fine novelist and, recently, the biographer of Daniel Boone. His poems are often about customs and folklore, and this one is a good example. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

Living Tree

It’s said they planted trees by graves
to soak up spirits of the dead
through roots into the growing wood.
The favorite in the burial yards
I knew was common juniper.
One could do worse than pass into
such a species. I like to think
that when I’m gone the chemicals
and yes the spirit that was me
might be searched out by subtle roots
and raised with sap through capillaries
into an upright, fragrant trunk,
and aromatic twigs and bark,
through needles bright as hoarfrost to
the sunlight for a century
or more, in wood repelling rot
and standing tall with monuments
and statues there on the far hill,
erect as truth, a testimony,
in ground that’s dignified by loss,
around a melancholy tree
that’s pointing toward infinity.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by Robert Morgan, whose most recent book of poems is Terroir, Penguin Poets, 2011. Poem reprinted from The Georgia Review, Spring 2012, by permission of Robert Morgan and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.

25th Anniversary

On the Road

October 25, 2013

By the time you read this, my husband and I will be on the road in New England, taking our very-belated 25th anniversary trip. We’re hoping to see some fall foliage, enjoy crisp autumn air, and explore an area of the country we’ve never visited before. You can bet that I’m hoping to see some places of literary interest, like Concord, MA where Louisa May Alcott lived, and perhaps also Mark Twain’s home in Connecticut. We’ll be on the lookout for used book stores, places to sketch and take photos, quaint restaurants and shops…pretty much whatever strikes our fancy. I promise a full report when we return!

Have a great weekend!


To Find the Beautiful

October 23, 2013

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Everyday adventures

Today I'm Grateful For...

October 18, 2013

Gratitude has much to do with happiness, and I sometimes forget to stop and think about what I’m grateful for. As a part of paying more attention to my life, I’m making it a regular practice to jot down what I’m grateful for at least once a week. Here are just five things I came up with this morning:

Libraries. I’ve learned so much from library books (how to grow herbs in Florida, where to stay and eat in Boston, what is a happiness project?). I’ve been entertained by fiction and magazines, DVDs and CDs. I can download free music (through Freegal) and borrow materials from libraries all across the country. And those are just the services I use. My library offers much, much more. I don’t know what I’d do without the library system and I’m so grateful to be able to access it.

“Ordinary.” I love my daily routines and “ordinary” life (which I know is a very nice one). I don’t need anything big and extravagant to happen—I’m 99 percent content with the stuff of everyday life. That is a huge blessing.

My office. When I walked in here this morning and flipped on the light, I felt a rush of peace, contentment and happiness. I’m grateful to have my own space to inspire and recharge me.

My mother-in-law. She’s one of my best friends, and I know I’m lucky to feel that way.

Freedom to set my own schedule. I have plenty to do—as do we all—but I answer only to myself. I can decide when to write, when to cook or clean, when to run errands or when to chuck it all and play. I’m in charge, and sometimes I forget that. When I contemplate working in an office for someone else, I’m grateful that, for now, I don’t have to.

What are you grateful for?


Being Happy

October 16, 2013

“Being happy doesn’t mean that everything is perfect.
It means you’ve decided to look beyond the imperfections.”

Everyday adventures

Fall Rerun: A Little Off the Top and Sides...and Belly

October 11, 2013

Note: This week I did my annual clipping job on Tank, so I'm rerunning the post I wrote about our equine spa services on Oct. 1, 2010. It wasn't nearly so much fun this year because I had to do all the treatments by myself--sure do miss my absent barn friends on days like this! Anyway, I'm still recovering from the process, so today's post will be a slightly-edited rerun.

My horse, who was born about five miles from where he lives now, apparently thinks he lives in Siberia. Every year in September he begins to grow a wooly winter coat suitable for life on the tundra. This is unfortunate, because we do not live in a tundra-like environment. We live in a tropical-rainforest-like environment: hot and sticky for much of the year. Once he’s grown his winter coat, he can be covered in sweat just from standing placidly in his paddock. If you add in a ride, he’s one soggy and overheated mess.

 So every year at this time, knowing we have at least three more months of not-so-wintry weather, I pull out my trusty clippers and give him a whole body clip. (He immediately begins to regrow that winter coat, but by the time it comes in completely, he’ll need it for the few cold winter days we have.)

This year before clipping, we added a new service to salon day at the barn: hair color. Since our horses live outside, not in stalls, their manes and tails bleach in the sun. So before his bath and clip, Tank had his mane and tail dyed. (You can imagine how much we all enjoyed this.)

At work on Tank's tail--a two-person job
Pitiful forelock
 After the dye job, it was time to clip. Clipping a horse is one of the less-fun jobs a horse owner has, because to get a good clip without ruining your clippers, you must bathe the horse, let him dry, then clip him. The whole process takes hours. So here, for the uninitiated, is what happens when you bathe and clip horse.

Take horse to wash rack. Spray all over with hose (the horse, not yourself, though you might just as well spray yourself and be done with it). Shampoo horse, taking special care with legs, as the hair there is often particularly thick and hard to clip. If you’re a girly horse owner, shampoo and condition mane and tail. While rinsing off shampoo, try not to let water from hose run down your arm and into your shoes as you spray the taller parts of the horse. Fail.

Are you sure we have to do this?
Squeegee horse with sweat scraper and dry with towel as much as you can to shorten air drying time. Go change your socks and, possibly, your shirt and shorts. (I frequently wear a bathing suit top and quick drying shorts when I bathe my horse.) Take horse for a walk, looking for edible things until you’re too tired and thirsty to do that anymore. (You can’t just turn him loose because he’s sure to roll and dirty up his clean coat.) While he’s drying, spray the hair with a silicone spray, such as Show Sheen, to help the clippers glide through easier. This adds a little to the drying time, but is worth it in the long run.

Tie up horse, and even though he’s still a little damp, you optimistically think there are some areas dry enough to start on. Begin clipping. Keep even pressure on the clippers so you have no gouged spots. Some people clip the legs first because they’re more technical (and ticklish) and it’s good to do them when you and the horse are fresh and your clipper blades are sharp. Some people start on the face. I personally like to see immediate progress, so I start somewhere I can see inroads, like the neck, chest or hindquarters. I also skip around when I get tired of working on one area, so my horse looks like nothing on earth until he’s completely done.

Making inroads
If you’re lucky and you have a cooperative horse, you may finish your horse clipping in one session. If you tire out, your clippers die or your horse decides he’s had enough, come back another time to finish the job. Better to have a funky-looking horse for a day or two than risk either of you melting down in the process.

Horse hair sticks to everything, so when you are done, you will be covered from head to foot with little pieces of hair. In fact, YOU will look like you need clipping. Turn your horse out or put him in his stall and offer him treats for being such a good boy. Go home, take a shower, pour yourself your adult beverage of choice and inform the family that dinner will come from the nearest pizza place that delivers.

The finished tail


Too Many Beaks to Fill

October 09, 2013

One of the first things an aspiring writer must learn is to pay attention, to look intently at what is going on. Here’s a good example of a poem by Gabriel Spera, a Californian, that wouldn’t have been possible without close observation. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]


The jay’s up early, and attacks the lawn
with something of that fervor and despair
of one whose keys are not where they always are,
checking the same spots over and again
till something new or overlooked appears—
an armored pillbug, or a husk of grain.
He flits with it home, where his mate beds down,
her stern tail feathers jutting from the nest
like a spoon handle from a breakfast bowl.
The quickest lover’s peck, and he’s paroled
again to stalk the sodgrass, cockheaded, obsessed.
He must get something from his selfless work—
joy, or reprieve, or a satisfying sense
of obligation dutifully dispensed.
Unless, of course, he’s just a bird, with beaks—
too many beaks—to fill, in no way possessed
of traits or demons humans might devise,
his dark not filled with could-have-beens and whys.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by Gabriel Spera from his most recent book of poems, The Rigid Body, Ashland Poetry Press, 2012. Poem reprinted by permission of Gabriel Spera and the publisher.  Introduction copyright 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.


Create Some Ripples--Spread Kindness

October 07, 2013

Photo courtesy SP Veres

“You can accomplish by kindness what you cannot by force.”
—Publilius Syrus

I don’t write about current events and the issues of the day because, frankly, they’re too complicated, give me anxiety attacks and make me feel helpless. I’d much rather concentrate on the smaller, day-to-day issues and experiences we all face, that we all can do something about. The current political and financial condition of the US, in particular, is scary beyond belief (and my Rays are down to the Red Sox 0-2!). I can do nothing to affect either of those situations. What can I do? I can be kind.

And before you laugh at what seems to be a completely inadequate response, hear me out. Like happiness, kindness can be contagious. Apparently, according to research by a California professor, one act of kindness can spawn others as people “pay it forward.” Just think what a different world we could live in if millions of people would simply do one kind thing every day. (For a preview of a documentary on the subject, click here.)

What is kindness? My definition includes consideration, gentleness and generosity. Being kind isn’t necessarily the same thing as being “nice.” Kindness has power. Choosing to be kind means we’ve thought through our actions and decided to act for the good of another. We can be kind with words, but more often kindness requires action. We don’t have to like someone to be kind. We don’t have to agree with them to be kind. We don’t even have to know them. We can, always, speak with respect, and treat others the way we would like to be treated. (I’m betting you don’t want to be shouted or honked at, or told you’re wrong or stupid, for exampleall too frequent occurrences in this unkind world.)

Instead of taking our frustrations and anger out on others, let’s be kind. Instead of ranting about the state of the world, let’s help a neighbor take her trash to the curb, donate to a food bank or take our old towels to the animal shelter. Maybe we can’t make our country’s budget woes go away (or help the Rays win a game), but we can reach out to a friend, acquaintance or stranger and lighten his or her load just for a moment.  

“Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.”
—Scott Adams

Being present

Attention, Please

October 04, 2013

Have you ever driven somewhere and found once you arrived you couldn’t remember how you got there? Lately, it seems like I feel that way at the end of the day, too. I’ve arrived at evening, but I couldn’t tell you how I got there. I know I’ve been busy all day, but I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was I’d done. This is no way to live a life of simple pleasures and everyday adventure.

Why am I so oblivious to my own life? Several reasons, actually. Despite repeated efforts to stop already, I still equate being busy with being productive so I rush around trying to pack more into every day. I also tend to live in my head, mulling things over, projecting and obsessing, even while rushing around. And there’s this: I resist being present because I find too much stimulation overwhelming and if I paid attention to every thought and feeling, I’d have a nervous breakdown.

So what am I doing instead of really being there? I’m:
  • Thinking of the next thing I have to do, rather than the thing I’m doing.
  •  Remembering a mistake or embarrassing moment. (My mind is helpful like that.)
  • Daydreaming about how I wish things were.
  • Worrying about the future.

Useful, right? I know I’m not the only one facing these challenges. The good thing is that improving my level of attention to my own life doesn’t require anything expensive or difficult. Just a few behavioral tweaks to bring myself back to mindfulness, starting with scheduling fewer to-dos (but making them of more importance to me), creating buffer zones of time around each activity, and pausing several times a day, just for a moment to take a deep breath and check in with my body and my mind. (Happify has an exercise called the Body Scan Meditation that I’ve been actively avoiding—maybe it’s time?) I’ve even started writing haiku several afternoons each week, focusing each one to reflect the moment I’m in. (They’re pretty terrible, but reading back through them I get  a clear image of where I was and what I was feeling when I wrote them.)  None of these strategies is new (except maybe writing haiku)—I just have to do them instead of just talk about them.

I don’t know if it’s possible to stay 100 percent “in the moment”—or even if I want to. (Daydreaming is fun and I enjoy it!) But I do know I want to spend more time paying attention, not missing my life.

How do you pay attention to your life?

A Field Guide to Now

As Time Unfolds

October 02, 2013

“The heart is not a machine. It does not have the capacity to love at any greater speed, or to feel anything more deeply, when the pace is doubled. While fast is better for machines, we’re fools to live by such a rule set every day. Rushing every second, we forget that we’re capable of a certain quality of joy that can be arrived at only slowly, as time unfolds.”
—Christina Rosalie, A Field Guide to Now