Friday, November 19, 2010

Theme-Looking up


The lazy ‘s’ scallop, the meadow stream meander of the wing shape make it unmistakable. The white body and mottled brown wings of an osprey sails across the sky my 2-year old and I walk under. I point up and say “osprey. Look there an osprey.” The sun is bright and my son has not fully acquired a sky watchers skill of curving his spine and leaning back his head to look up so I’m not sure he sees it.

We’ve lived a year and a half now in central New Jersey—an urban space 30 miles or so from Manhattan. Our near daily walks show us nothing wilder, usually, than resident Canada Geese whose droppings cover every park lawn and bike path. I make a game of pointing out goose poop and stepping over it in exaggerated strides in hopes my son can keep his shoes clean-ish He likes the game and takes big steps too—though sometimes too big and into the next squishy pile.

The osprey is a gift. We see them but not everyday. Although I’m not sure my son sees the way the bird’s striking white-black pattern cuts across the fall sky’s intense blue, he hears the name. “Us pray,” he repeats, “us pray.”

Never before have I noticed that the 2nd syllable in this bird’s name is “pray.” Even though the osprey has been an important symbol in my life since I learned to identify it 15 years ago while living in rural northeastern Utah where it was nearly a daily sighting (in spring and summer) along with river otter, deer, elk and even moose (though not daily). And so often now thoughts of my semi-wild upbringing make me ache as my son and I walk along the Raritan river covered sometimes in a suspicious sludge and as I have to remind him again and again that—unlike the rivers and lakes at grandma’s—this river we don’t put our feet into.

But the Osprey reminds me that the Raritan still lives. “Us pray,” my son says and so we do. I, that I can find enough to love in this urban place wild with the human cultures of the world, but sick (sometimes dead) in non-human diversity. I pray the Raritan’s soul keeps fighting and mine too. My son prays in his way for endless cool sunny days when our outing to the park stretches out indefinitely and it seems that maybe we will never have to go back inside.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Theme: Music

Music Class

Each week I take my toddler to a kids’ music class where 11 other parents and I take directions from a smiling energetic sometimes almost manic woman. We sing, clap, dance, throw scarves, twirl, play tiny instruments, and even chant a little all the while hoping our children will following along or at least stay nearby to remind us why we subject ourselves to 45 minutes of mild humiliation. I’m pretty sure all the parents feel the same way that I do. I judge this assumption on facial expressions. At some point of course each parents smiles—during a favorite song maybe or when a child unexpectedly sings along or dances or bangs the drum. There is no doubt there are moments of sheer delight from all parents. But sooner or later each parent’s face wears an expression of mild suffering. One mother looks doubtful while we sway our hands during a song about falling leaves. Another grimaces when we have to get up and walk around in a circle acting like squirrels. When we have to chant “hey-y—ho-o-o” and alternatively clap our hands or bang our chests one father’s eyes completely glaze over in humiliated defeat as he waves his hands in at least the general pattern as the rest of us.
The kids all under the age of 3 seem to love it. A few sit happily near their parents and follow along by both singing and copying the extensive hand motions. Some excitedly spin circles in the middle of the group or scream wildly when scarves or instruments appear. And some appear not to participate at all but sit solidly on a parent’s lap looking both terrified and amazed—though this reaction is almost always short lived and sooner or later each kid shakes a tambourine, taps a foot, or at least turns a quick circle before running back to mom’s lap. The class length is perhaps too long to keep even the most avid music lover’s attention completely and usually a posse of kids ends up playing in the curtains or running circles around the blue tae-kwon-do kicking posts pushed to one side for the classroom’s other clients.
So the question is why are we here? Why do we pay $190 for 10 sessions of weekly eye rolling interspersed with moments of delight? What pushed any of us to strap our kids in the car or push our strollers though blustery November weather to trudge up two flights of stairs and make fools of ourselves in a hodgepodge multi-purpose room full of mirrors where we can’t even hide our silliness from ourselves?

I think what we hope for are kids unafraid to dance, to sing aloud, to whirl about at the slightest whim. I think that some of us know that the most ridiculous thing in the room is our own unease. There are moments when one parent loses her discomfort sings louder, or twirls fast while holding tight to a toddler’s hands. Moments where she lets her chanting voice drown out the little toy drums or wildly throws the colored scarves higher in the air. And we don’t look at this parent and roll our eyes or think that maybe she needs to get out of the house more. Quite the opposite. I look at my own son and hope he’s watching.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


Almost Halloween

The strange faces of carved pumpkins greet me at doorsteps. Wide toothy grins, or grimaces, o’s of surprise or intimidation. Faces carved into these front porch orange moon fruits. Lights flickering inside to welcome in good spirits or scare away bad ones. The ones carved last week have already begun to wilt—their mouths sunken and toothless, their eyes melting at strange angles like parts of a Salvador Dali painting.

All my life I’ve loved pumpkins—for their color, their heft, and for their association with the holiday of disguises, mystery, and free candy. I love the way that heavy orb so easily gives to hollowing. The seeds easy to scoop out, the cavern inside growing with each pass of a scoop. And all this work to make way for a face and a flickering candle. A few strokes of the knife are all we need to form a connection with this beautiful squash—to feel somehow that we now understand the jack-o-lantern in a way we did not when it was simply the blank orange pumpkin. We remove the vegetable string and seeds of the thing and then carve it into our own image—finally putting a light in the head in hopes perhaps of imparting a good idea along with that new and strangely grinning face. Or like Dr. Frankenstein perhaps we hope to impart a little life to our new creation.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


The Birds

Yesterday I saw a large flock of seagulls swirling in the dark sky. It was both beautiful and eerie—like a scene from The Birds. The gull is a surprisingly big bird and recently while viewing them up close on the beach I imagined what would happen if all the ones just there on the beach—around 20—decided to attack. I knew they could definitely do some damage to me, and if they worked together, they could probably have carried off my two year old son. I guess thoughts of this nature are what inspired Daphne du Maurier’s short story which inspired the screenplay for Hitchcock’s famous film. But as I watched that large flock yesterday cartwheeling together though a darkening sky, I of course imagined the scenes from the movie where the birds swirl in and attach school children or the outrageously forward Melanie. And I thought of being surrounded by that gaggle of seagulls, before the first peck of the beak or rip of the talons there would be a moment where all you could hear would be wingbeats and all you could see would be wingbeats and the moment before you were torn apart would be a wild tornado of beauty.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Pain and Being.

My migraine headaches begin with surreal peripheral vision. The corners of my visual perception begin to dance and go snowy as though my TV antennae suddenly tipped over or my cable company is slowly pulling the plug. Often there is no pain for a long while, just this snowstorm that thickens but never blots out my vision entirely.

The waiting is dreadful. I’ve had enough migraines to know that pain and nausea are coming—enough to send me to bed and perhaps enough to dissolve me to tears for hours. So I sit with my dancing vision and the dread begins to fill up the spaces in my body.

Last night’s migraine was subtler than most and I’d like to think my reaction had something to do with that. Migraines happen with I’ve been doing 100 things and still feel that I have more to do. Yesterday I stuffed every centimeter of my day with doing. It wasn’t a bad day—just busy. I woke up and got my son breakfast and dressed, rushed off to the grocery story, stopped by the Mac store to pick up my computer, watched my son play with the trains at Barnes and Noble, drove home, got him milk, worked on the computer while my partner put my son to sleep, drove out to pick up some fresh bread, arrived home and ate, picked up clutter, swept, got my son out of bed, played outside in the dirt, came inside, gave my son and I a bath, cooked dinner, burned dinner, cooked dinner again, chased my son around the house begging him to eat, ate, sat down to read my son a book. And this is when the snow started.

It was a pleasant day—fun but busy. But nowhere in that day did I slowly sip a cup of tea, or stare blankly out the window, or listen to a favorite song. Nowhere did I rest. These are the days that produce migraines.

Yesterday, instead of continuing to work until the pain became unbearable like I have a time or two in the past, I lay down in a dark room before the pain even started. I breathed deeply and kept myself as still as possible. Years ago I read a Joan Didian essay where she writes about her own migraines and about how she believes they are her body’s need to be still. When she becomes still the pain lessens. So I too became still.

Then there in the dark breathing deeply, keeping still I had a perfect moment. My body settled right into the present moment. I noticed each breath because I found that if I slightly closed the back of my throat so that I could hear my breathing, my body reverberated slightly and the pain now building in my head did not increase. It did not exactly disappear either, but as I settled more into myself the pain seemed to stay in the same place making it feel further away from me. And because each breath kept that state possible, each breath became the only thought I could have and the moments stretched out to the length of an inhale and then an exhale. And the length of the headache then (or the time before I fell asleep) became an exercise in breathing and stillness. And though I was aware of the pain I mostly just felt like moon light dissipating softly across a dark pool.

Physical pain is such an integral part of human existence. And yet now it is quite common to be prescribed an entire bottle of Percocet for a bump on the head. I understand that there are some kinds of prolonged pain that people just need a relief from. Yet there is an experience that comes from pain—and managing (or even experiencing) that pain that brings about an understanding (and even a blossoming) of our own potential.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

WEEK 10-- surprises

Folding up the Fall

Autumn has dumped out its basket of bright scarves. Sheets of red and yellow have descended onto all the leafed trees in the park and on the ridges and on the roadsides. And we all hope just one of those scarves misses its mark and falls onto the ground where we can fold it up into our pockets and selfishly have all that brightness to ourselves in the warmth of our own homes. If I find one I’ll wrap it up in a package and leave it on the porch of my neighbors who just lost their son. Won’t they be surprised after all their days indoors to open that box and watch the brightest colors of the world spill out over all their sadness.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Week 9: Time

Deliberate Time

Annie Dillard writes “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” While I think she makes an amazing point and pushes me to think about the weight and sacredness of each day, the thought can also be overwhelming in the midst of daily tasks. There is not a day that goes by when I don’t do the dishes, or scrub a toilet, or spend too much time deciding if I should buy the organic can of beans for 25 cents extra. Is this a life I want to claim? To spend a day cleaning house and shopping is necessary, but to spend a life this way?

And yet Tich Nhat Han invites us to dissolve the boundaries between the “sacred and the profane” and approach each activity—even washing the dishes—as though it were the thing we would like to be doing most. He writes “To my mind, the idea that doing the dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you are not doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in warm water, it really is not so bad. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands…Washing the dishes is at the same time a means and an end that is, not only do we do the dishes in order to have clean dishes, we also do the dishes just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them.”

I would like to think it is possible then to live a life of meaning even on the days when nothing gets done except the dishes. Because yes it is true that a life spent doing dishes is not necessarily one to look back on with satisfaction—but either is a life of teaching, or building, or even helping those in crisis or need if you do these things with your mind elsewhere. “Helping” someone while your intellect and heart are not fully engaged on the task can do more damage than help. So a life spent in careless service is not a life spent in service at all—it is just a life spent carelessly. But a life spent doing the dishes slowly and with care is a life that acknowledges that life and time are precious—that your life and your time are important. And if you can find meaning in the act of shining a fork then no task will be beneath or above you.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Week 9: Time


Yesterday out on the river’s surface the small body of a grebe surfaced and submerged, surfaced and submerged like a good idea still working to develop itself. His small head and curved neck slid up out of the water when he surfaced, but he flipped over and his head went down first when he submerged. It was early so the ducks were out, a few geese, one egret so impossibly white against all of the morning gray. And the Rutgers crew team slid along the smooth water’s surface in two boats like the feet of a giant water strider bug.

Its not just the movements of the grebe that suggest a good idea—the whole world wakes in the morning, moves from dark to dawn to light in the way any idea slowly moves from the darkness of non-existence and slowly develops. And perhaps it is this reflection of idea-making that makes the morning the proverbial time of good ideas.

Thoreau writes: “The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night.”

Billy Collins writes of morning:
Why do we bother with the rest of the day/the swale of the afternoon,
the sudden dip into evening,…/ This is the best—/throwing off the light covers,
feet on the cold floor,/and buzzing around the house on espresso—
maybe a splash of water on the face,/a palmful of vitamins—/but mostly buzzing around the house on espresso,/dictionary and atlas open on the rug/the typewriter waiting for the key of the head,

(read Collin’s entire poem here

While Thoreau wrote that the only drink for a wise man is water, he and Collins both express here that there is something extra that happens in the morning that produces stronger and better thought. For Thoreau “some part of us awakes” that we can’t access the rest of the day. For Collins the typewriter waits “for the key of the head.” The assumption here is that the typewriter (or recorder of thoughts) is not so receptive after the morning hours.

And it does seem true on mornings when I go down to the river and the water is a mixture of stillness and activity—like a quiet mind developing productive and purposeful ideas.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

WEEK 8-Everything Matters

Flying Geese

Tonight the mild autumn evening coaxed many families to stay longer at the local park’s playground. It was the same scene—the older kids climbed on the roofs of the equipment acting astonished at their own bravery, but the parents who’d seen the stunt 100 times since their own first terrified gasp could not be bothered to even look up. The parents of younger kids also looked down out of necessity as their toddlers struggled to climb the slide’s stairs or their infants in strollers reached their hands out toward the purpling sky. But then an approaching honking gained the collective attention of the park goers and everyone paused and looked up as a formation of geese flew low over the park the slight swish of their wingbeats audible. Parents pointed up, kids thrust their chins skyward and one young boy commented on the formation “look they are making that check mark.”

During the day these geese are an entertaining part of the park experience though they border on menace. Poop covers the bike and walking paths and nearly every stretch of grass, and the geese will resort to hissing if one strides or pedals too close—especially in spring when goslings are present. And the thick body and long neck of a goose on foot is just simply comical. Their commonplace presence strips them of the respect and attention given to other wildlife. Children chase them, even throw rocks at them, but for the most part they are ignored. They’ve become part of the background.

But in this moment at the end of a sunny September day on one of the last truly warm evenings of the year, they’ve caught the attention of the whole playground. And we all raise our heads in wonder as the geese check our expectations and remind us that even here if we stay out long enough the evening sky fills up with wild things.

Friday, September 24, 2010

WEEK 8-Everything Matters

Botany over Baseball

In his book The Botany of Desire Michael Pollan writes of 17th century Holland, “Botany became a national pastime, followed as closely and avidly as we follow sports today.” It was this avid interest in botany that eventually led to the Dutch tulip craze.

What would it look like if Botany was America’s current pastime? There would be a plants section each day in The New York Times. Occasionally the paper’s actual headline might read “Rare Peony cross found in Connecticut: The neighborhood goes wild.” We might grow up knowing the names of famous gardeners. They would get paid millions to endorse products. I only use planthouse spades would be the voice over as we watched the gardener of the year Michael Gorden in slow motion plant a tulip bulb. Kids would be banned from wearing gardener aprons to school because their appearance would start gang fights.

On some autumn Sunday afternoon we’d gather to watch the Rose Bowl—a cut throat competition where the nation’s elite rose growers pitted their top specimens against each other.

And each day after school thousands of high school kids would gather in their schools’ garden arenas to hone intricate skills like orchid crossing or bonsai that they might use to defeat a neighboring team in the next week’s game.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

WEEK 8-Everything Matters


There are moments that seem to stretch out like morning sun inching closer and closer to your campsite at the edge of the meadow after a cold night. The time lengthens and each second becomes heavy with significance until the single moment weighs more in importance than all the rest of your life.

I can think of two such moments—though I’ve had many.

1. I was standing on a roadside in the desert, red rock canyon walls rising up into a sky so blue it coaxed my soul out of my body and I would have let it float there and be lost but two ravens angled into my view and my soul settled back down and that is when time slowed. Those shiny black bodies looped around and clung to each other. Plummeted then recovered. Rose and fell in a dangerous dance. I mistook them first for enemies before it became apparent they were lovers.

2. I was lying next to my two year old. He was sleeping and the world rose and fell each time he breathed. His absurdly long eye lashes fluttering just a bit with each breath like dragonfly wings stretched out in the sun.

What else is beauty for if not to knock you over, and as you crawl your way back to your life to make you see each perfect second?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

WEEK 8-Everything Matters

All that Light

Today out in the meadow the sun lit up the blonding autumn stalks of grass and the whole view looked like a Van Gough presented under fluorescents. The few flowers still in bloom glowed out from the bright field like fireflies behind a line drying sheet. Any birds I saw flitted in the tree shade just out of the painting’s frame worried, perhaps, that they too might wash out under all the light in the meadow.

I would like to be a mystic, a prophet, some kind of pagan priestess who spends her life seeing God in all that light. This morning it seemed that the dark corners of the world should be visible, but I actually saw less, not more, in all that brightness.

I walked the meadow’s edge a quarter mile to a small pond to look for turtles but the water was all dried up. And still a Harrier’s Hawk and a Great Blue Heron stood like sentinels looking down into the small bowl of earth that now stood empty as though any moment a fish might make an appearance.

Monday, September 20, 2010

WEEK 8-Everything Matters

Week 8- Everything Matters.

What a Storm can do

A few days ago the sky went black with storm: five o’clock looked like eight o’clock and when the rain came it fell out of the sky in a cascade like waterfalls falling over a cliff. Cars had to pull over, trees shook. I was soaked though in the dash from my car to my door a distance of about 20 feet. I had to strip down and wring out my clothes. A muddy river took over the street and for the fifteen minutes it lasted, it felt like we were somewhere else. We were no longer living our urban existence with a Barnes and Noble down the road. We were in a world where water crashed down on our heads and rivers blocked our passage. It was beautiful and dangerous and I couldn’t leave the window and I felt a strange responsibility toward that storm—like I should leave my house and stop hiding behind the glass.

I stayed indoors of course—we all usually do. The protection of the glass actually allows all that chaos to be beautiful. If filters out the wet and the cold and the mud and the struggle, and leaves just the strangeness of tossed branches and a street river. Yet it also filters out tangible, tactile experience. In the dash from the car, a stream of water pushed dirt into my shoes and water ran down my neck and I held my groceries and my two-year old like all our lives depended on it. At the window, I just couldn’t take the storm that seriously.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Week 7--Everyday Things


Henry David Thoreau did not like everyday things, at least not ones that might cause clutter. He had three pieces of stone on his desk but was “terrified” that he might need to dust them so he threw them out the window. He feared that dusting objects would keep him from the more important job of “dusting the furniture of [his] mind.”

Thoreau and I have that in common—a dislike of dusting. And I can agree with this theory that many of us could be improving our lives in some way with the time we spend dusting the objects that clutter our spaces. Or perhaps an ordered house is a sign of an ordered mind and dusting (and scrubbing and sweeping) makes manifest the ways we are cleaning up the mind. I know for me if my house is out of order it is because I fee disinclined to engage with my everyday surroundings. I’m usually low on energy or motivation—feeling bad personally or physically. Yet, when I begin to feel better I have to order my house before I can do anything else. It’s the first sign that I’m ready to set things right—and yet what great things could I accomplish if I had less of a house to clean? Less books to dust? Less clothes to wash?

And yet here are a few of my favorite things. A vase of sticks I collected with my son. A bottle of stones from the Oregon coast. An urn of red desert sand. They are a bit dusty, but each time I look at them something blossoms in my mind and a sweet wind dusts the furniture there—an Adirondack chair, I think, sitting empty under a pink pink cherry tree. I think if the dust on these things gets me to open the window, its done its job well. There is no need to actually to toss the items out.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Week 7--Everyday Things


It was a warm afternoon and four chickens stalked around the backyard looking so ridiculous as chickens do and yet so ancient and full of self importance—the intelligent but silly aunt of the Pterodactyl. The ancient Romans used chickens as an Oracle so perhaps there is a kind of wisdom in their quick, odd pecking and their two-footed gallop. Or perhaps the Romans simply appreciated their wise-woman appearance and had a little faith that the speed of their eating or the direction of their “flight” path held meaning. Don’t we all look for signs?

On this afternoon, our host (and owner of the chickens) knew the sign of an egg-laying chicken and ushered everyone over to the coop for the big event. I missed it, but later ate an egg sunny-side up with a yolk as rich as butter and the color of sunflower petals.

Nothing is as domestic as a chicken. These birds so easily fall prey to hawks, raccoons, and even weasels (an animal I’m sure that weighs 1/3 of a chicken). And yet the domestic chicken descends from the Red Junglefowl a type of pheasant that still stalks around the jungle today presumable able to take care of itself. The two animals are genetically related enough to still be categorized as the same species.

I think domestic chickens are wilder than I’ve ever given them credit for. A friend of mine relates that her chickens will go crazy over a big caterpillar and she’s seen her small flock of four kill a mouse. I’ve read on line that given the chance a chicken will take down a small lizard, and I’ve heard many people relate their terror when as children they were chased down by a rooster. I think this is what I want to see in the chicken. That something can be comfortable and taken care of and even have the appearance of some addled Victorian spinster, and still have strength and a bit of useful unpredictability that reveals true character.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Week 7--Everyday Things

On the Apple:

The trees hang heavy with the harvest moon fruit, the immigrant from Kazakhstan, the obsession of a man with a pot-hat. The fall air carries their smell but adds a bit of cold to cut the sweetness. They are sunset-red, baby-cheek pink, and there is that one outlier the color of spring’s first shoots. They make sauce perfect for babies and cider perfect for cold nights or broken hearts. Applejack is 66 proof. Every elementary-aged kid has had one packed with a peanut butter sandwich in a paper bag. You can cover them with caramel or candy or you can toss them in water, put your hands behind your back and “bob” for them as I did at every one of my birthday parties until I turned 12. They are easy to steal from trees, from carts, from bowls and from grocery story bins. Even my two-year old can steal an apple. Whether you’ve obtained them honestly or not, you can crisp, pie, cider, or sauce them. You can roast them over a campfire or in the oven. You can press them, cider them, and juice them. And they taste good any time of day.

The apple is common—like babies, like love, like full-mooned nights. Like blue birds and wild geese and irises. They belong on the list of best things—the things that make us get up in the morning.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Week 7: Everyday Things


Imagine Baking Bread. You mix the ground up seeds of a grass plant with a pinch of fungus then add water. After rolling this mixture around in your hands for a while then adding heat, you've made the favorite food of much of the world.

I read once that in some ancient cultures, baking and the icon of the mother/goddess were closely linked. Pregnant looking goddess statues were often found near or on ancient oven sites. A baker, a mother, and the divine were all aligned as creators.

Many creation myths begin with God creating humankind out of dirt (or dust or clay). And what is bread making really but creating--perhaps not life but a life-giving substance out of material that very much resembles dust. Whole wheat flour looks and feels just like fine gritty sand. If you make what we now call "artisan" bread, or sourdough bread sometimes you don 't even add the yeast. The substance that gives the bread "life" simply falls into the flour--like God breathing life into the dust.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Week 6-My Neighborhood

Feral Ground

Across from my apartment complex an old dump site is in the slow process of re-wilding. While concrete slabs still jut though the soil complete with rusting bones of rebar, thick undergrowth and a forest of young trees cover most of the site. The area is thick with bird life and also shelters a small herd of deer. This spring my 2-year old and I found a fawn hiding there in the grass.
Each day some of my neighbors trek into this little patch of urban wildness. I think some forage for usable plants I’m not familiar with—though of course some just walk. I went their recently to gather branches that had grown into spirals as they pushed their way around the straight growth of other branches or trees. I brought them home and arranged them in little sculptures for my house. Judging by the empty beer cans, the site seems also a favorite for the local teenagers. The one homeless man I seem regularly spends his days on a bench just on the border of these woods.

There is a little mystery a little unpredictability that surrounds this patch of trees that makes it the antithesis of the strip malls that lie just on the other side of the river. Here people gather what they need (they don’t buy) or simply spend their days living outside (or at the edge) of the economic system. Here dogs run off-leash, kids break the law, and undomesticated animals make a home between neighborhood streets and a major thoroughfare.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

WEEK 6-- My Neighborhood

Cockroach Watching

My apartment is home to three humans and an uncountable number of cockroaches. I know the number is over 100 at any given time. In my apartment I’ve spotted at least 2 different species of roach—the German cockroach and the Brown-banded. I think the American cockroach lives here too, though because the cockroaches look different in the nymph stage than they do in the adult stage (and I don’t get to look at them very long), they are hard to identify.

The problem with cockroaches is that they are interesting and a little pretty. The German Cockroach is long, thin, and nearly a translucent brown, a cappuccino-colored cousin to the preying mantis. The Brown-banded cockroach’s distinctively striped oval body makes it seem to carry a Victorian miniature painting on its back—maybe a desertscape or a close up of a zebra. And then there is just the magic of their hiding. During a day I might see 2 or 3 cockroaches. But if I step into the kitchen at night and switch on the light 20 or so might be visible at once. I look for them during the day—inside drawers, under cupboards, in the cracks between the oven and the fridge. Sometimes I spook up one or two, but even that is rare.
Perhaps they have invisibility powers during daylight hours.

Dirt according to Mary Douglass is “matter-out-of place.” She must mean that dirt in a garden or a forest is soil, on a hillside its clay, in a bin its compost. Only when you track it across your kitchen tiles or find it under your fingernails do you call it dirt. Pests of course are simply beings out of place. A mouse in a meadow or a bug in the back yard is not a pest. Of the thousands of cockroach species world wide there are only around 10 or so that are considered pests—these are the ones that enjoy human company. Or at least the company of our discarded ,dropped, or unsealed food (food out of place it seems is cockroach dinner).

I can only indulge in the natural history of the cockroach momentarily until the shoe, the newspaper, or even my bare hand squashes one more out of existence. In my apartment the population density requires extermination to win out over fascination.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

WEEK 6-- My Neighborhood

Languages I heard Today.

1. Hindi—the hair salon I use plays Bollywood videos.
2. Gujarati—One woman in the salon today was from Gujarat.
3. Russian—my neighbors on both sides and kiddy corner are all Russian. The most common
language spoken in my parking lot is Russian.
4. Yiddish—I stopped at my local Jewish bakery for the first time
5. Spanish—I passed two landscaping crews today speaking Spanish.
6. Marathi—my partner is from Maharashtra so he speaks Marathi to our son.
7. English

Other days I often hear German and Hungarian as I have two friends who speak these languages with their children.

The town I live in—while surrounded my development—is technically a small town (15-20,000 people). And yet each day I hear this array of languages. I can chose to eat Jewish, Greek, Middle Eastern, Peruvian, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, cuisine. All in a town that covers only two square miles.

I don’t always love New Jersey. I can’t let my son wade in our local river (18th most polluted in the country). The highways, strip malls, parking lots, oil refineries, and industrial parks, cover so much area that used to be forest, grassland, wetland. Even the garden state’s farmland is usually bordered by busy highways and strip malls. And yet what this place lacks in biodiversity it makes up for in its diversity of human culture.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

WEEK 6-- My Neighborhood

High Five

My neighborhood is a gritty, messy mix of apartment dwellers. The upstairs neighbors are Russian immigrants probably in their mid-50's who crowd into a 2-bedroom apartment with 2 or 3 of their adult children. The neighbors across the parking lot have nearly the same story. They used to live in a large house but they lost their business then lost their house. So the couple now live in a 3-bedroom apartment with one adult son in a wheelchair and 2 other sons. Every morning the fathers/husbands of these households greet me with enthusiasm. They high five my 2-year old and call him "boss." I have numerous reasons to think the lives of both of these men are difficult and perhaps disappointing. And yet each morning they teach my son that the world greets you with a smile, a joke, and an open hand.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Week 5: Place


I currently reside in a state that professes to be a garden, and yet its state soil is called “Downer Soil.” As in “what a downer we keep polluting all of our amazingly productive soil.” My friend and I built raised garden beds this summer in her backyard because her soil sample report came back from the lab stating “do not grow edibles in this soil.” It was contaminated with lead.
The profile of “Downer” doesn’t speak to its assumed agriculture productivity. Sand is mentioned 5 times in four lines. Brown loamy sand. Grayish brown sandy loam. Gravelly sandy loam. Yellowish brown sand and course sand. Yet with irrigation this soil is known to yield “high-value vegetable and fruit crops.”

I am in love with the idea that each state has a designated state soil. Here are the state soils of states I’ve lived in. Hazeleton, Jory, Mivida. I love how they each sound like the name of a knight that used to tromp around with King Arthur. I dub thee sir Hazeleton, sir Jory, and Sir Mivida. May you go forth and do battle with poorly drained landscapes. Poor Downer doesn’t quite fit with the pack though. He must have been the knight that never knew the cool music to listen to and always smelled slightly of old ketchup. And smiled sadly but politely when the other knights said things like “I’d love to hang out with you on Friday Downer, but seriously I’m infested with pin worm. My tomatoes are dying like nobody’s business.”

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Week 5: Place

Apartments like Canyons

It’s fall. And while the 90 degree day in central New Jersey doesn’t seem to know that its time for crisp mornings and cold evenings, the light knows what time of year it is. It spread out like golden bird wings all across the brick walls of the apartment buildings that border my parking lot and lit them up like red rock canyons. Even my 2-year old pointed and said “light!”

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Week 5: Place

Bird Introductions

Today along Route one a flock of two-toned birds
flitted in a roadside patch of grass;
Their gray and black bodies rising

and falling as cars passed by.
Their thick beaks searching out
seeds it seemed in the grass.

Everywhere I go it is like this
A bird I’ve never before seen
defines a place, or an experience.

In southern Oregon it was the Towhee
In Pennsylvania the bright feathered Cardinal.
In my home place of northeastern Utah

the Sandhill Crane and the Osprey
frame the landscapes of memory
In New Jersey, the new bird was the Mocking Bird.

Some birds just appear enough in one place
to seem forever connected. All golf courses
remind me of Meadow Larks and rivers belong

to the Merganser. Route One I guess now belongs
to this two-toned bird whose picture I can’t
quite find in my National Geographic bird book.

Sunday, August 29, 2010



When my two-year old begins to throw a tantrum, I often sit him down in a chair and ask him to take a deep breath. He usually continues squirming, hitting, screaming, or some other physical display of his disappointment and anger. Toddlers throw tantrums because they do not yet posses the same emotional valve that adults do that would help them gain perspective. The disappointment of “you will never eat cake again” would be similar to “you can’t eat a cupcake until after dinner” to a two-year old. And although I know this, my own temper rises when my son takes disappointment poorly. And while I am an adult and (according the parenting books I’ve read) I posses this emotional valve that my son lacks, these tantrums have the tendency to make me want to yell and stomp my feet if they happen too often or too long.

When my son does not take a deep breath when I ask him, I take one myself saying “like this.” I suck in my breath hold it for just an instant then blow it out slowly. I then do it again and then once more. I read once in a mediation exercise that “god exists between breaths.” Somewhere between my third inhalation and my third exhalation, love replaces my anger. Sometimes my son will take his own deep breath. But even if he doesn’t, I can now see that he is just disappointed and sad and I remember that I also get disappointed and sad and that anger would never help me get over my disappointment and sadness. This is just one door parenting invites me through.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


A Patch of Dirt

I live in an apartment complex surrounded by apartment complexes. The space around here stretches out from expansive lawn to lawn with patches of hedge and other typical landscaping plants filling in the borders near the buildings. In many ways all the public space is convenient. My two year old has a much larger yard for running in that he would if we had a fenced in yard. And yet the private space—where one might grow a garden—is technically non-existent. But lately I’ve noticed this technicality has not hampered many of my neighbors. Two apartment buildings down from me in a patch of bare dirt—where most buildings have a yew hedge—my neighbor has only bare dirt where she grows beans. She’s built a kind of tee-pee trellis and the beans rise up over five feet. I’m almost certain she did not ask permission to plant directly in the ground, but there are her beans just the same. She also has a dirt patch on the opposite side of her porch where tomato plants climb a similar trellis-structure.

All around this neighborhood people have claimed a few feet of dirt for themselves in this fashion. Some have built garden boxes full of soil that sprout flowers, and some vegetables, but many have planted right in the ground. On a walk today I saw a large squash runner intertwined with a landscaped hedge, the big leaves and yellow flowers flaunting their usefulness overtop the merely decorative hedge.

In a world of urbanization, overcrowding, corporate landscape, and political division it can easily feel that there is no space to breath—and certainly no small spaces to make personal and beautiful and productive. And yet everywhere I look, I find incidents that prove this idea wrong. I’d like to learn better to do this myself. To embrace the small spaces that do exist—a crack in the landscaping, a hidden corner of sun. A space where a little care and a bit of rule bending from me might produce something beautiful and life-giving. I have two potted tomato plants on my shared porch this summer. It’s a very small start.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Low Tide

Humidity makes you feel like you live in an ocean.
You walk out the door and you are wet.
The heavy air makes swimming easier than walking.
But now it is almost September and the waves have begun to recede.
You can smell the fresh air, you can hear the seagulls.
And soon you will be able to pour the sand out of your shoes.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010



A serotinous pinecone holds itself tightly closed for years—over 20 years in some cases. The seeds waiting in that cone can’t get out until a fire burns hot enough to melt the cone’s resin causing the cone to fall open.

What kind of fire might allow me to fall open? Not the fire of anger, pain, or frustration--this curls me back in on myself. But there is some kind of heat that allows me to blossom outwards. There is fire in noticing the small details of the world—the way some flies have orange eyes. The specific gold of a striped-maple leaf in August. The maraca rattle of some small member of the world’s evening chorus. They work like kindling or the scraps of paper one might use to begin the fire. They are the ignition source that invites me to see the bright light of the world and to let that heat crack me open.

Monday, August 23, 2010


Buckets of Rain

Yesterday my two-year old son and I
made ourselves into buckets
cupping the day’s rain
in the folds of our clothes
our hair gathered gallons of water
and even our eyelashes
held a few cups
still we stayed under the sky’s open faucet
until our skin overflowed
and we had nothing left empty.

Today we stayed indoors
wringing ourselves out
of all that rain water
watching each other pool onto the floor
with each successive twist
and now the house smells
of apples and drenched pines
and we use the couch as a sort of boat.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Week 3: Birds

The Wise Old Owl?

The owl has a small brain for its body size. Which according to one researcher means that it scores low on the bird intelligence scale. So instead of saying the wise old owl we should say the wise old parrot or the Wise old crow since both these birds score higher on the bird intelligence scale. In Hindi ‘Ulloo’ means Owl and often Indians refer to the idiots in their community as ‘Ulloos’.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Week 3: BIRDS

Blue Jay

This morning I woke to the call of the Jay, its voice piercing and insistent not coaxing or melodic like other birds. The Jay’s call is the same command over and over—“pay attention.” Though somehow it manages to say it in one syllable. When I’m walking outside the Jay’s call works like a meditation mantra. I’ll be thinking about anything, except where I am. My work, my breakfast, an old friend that I miss, and the Jay will yell out “pay attention.” And in looking for its flashing blue body, I’ll see the light filtering though the full summer foliage. I’ll see the way some small branches coil around others forming woody corkscrews. And the way the earth under the trees smells damp and old, productive and alive even here in central Jersey. Most of all I’ll notice how good it feels for my body and my mind to be in the same place.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Week 3: BIRDS

Traveling Music

The Gray catbird is both a mimic and migratory. According to David Allen Sibley the song of the Central American Brown-crested Flycatcher was once heard in central New Jersey.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Week 3: BIRDS

Numbered Days

“Ravens have been even taught to count” says a website of “amazing raven facts.” What, I wonder, would a raven need to count for? Would he finally know how many feathers adorn each glossy wing? And that like other birds he has just two feet? Could he remember back to count the years that, for some, can reach 40? Would he finally realize that he eats five meals a day? Would he worry that he should cut it back to three? Perhaps he could finally count his calories. Would he know it had been 73 days since he’d tasted fresh rabbit? Would he be able to better keep track of his daughters now that he knew there were three? How did he know one was missing before he could count? Could the bright days of soaring higher than his brother the crow, or living up to his accolade as the “most intelligent bird” be somehow brighter if they were numbered?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Week 3: BIRDS

A Million Wingbeats

Who wouldn’t like to see the sky dark with a passing flock of birds? And not just a momentary flicker as wingbeats come between you and the sun, but minutes that stretch on and on as throngs of flying bodies block your view of the sun. This is how numerous passenger pigeons were once. How the sound must have thundered.

Just now out the car window I saw a flock of small black birds—starlings maybe—spiraled out above a field. The birds flew in a long formation 50 or so birds thick that corkscrewed slightly like half of a double-helix. I drove east and they flew west and the line continued for nearly 30 seconds as I sped along its length at 80 miles an hour. And in that last 5 seconds when that line of birds just didn’t end, I felt a stirring of awe.

But these moments, when my heart jumps at the fecundity of the world, cannot compare to the overwhelming awe a person must have felt watching millions of birds pass overhead at once. The stirring would have time to magnify and turn into a kind of wonderful dread as the wingbeats continued like pouring rain and the sun did not even flicker behind the bird curtain.

I would like to learn to see the way the world is still this huge. A million miracles pass unseen before my eyes each day. I would like to learn to see the immensity of this beauty and to fall down in gratitude and even in fear

Sunday, August 15, 2010



Because I am staying in a second story room, I can look out
the window into the branches of a mulberry tree.
Yesterday, I watched a chickadee hopping busily
around the branches, his actions so quick yet deliberate;
his feather markings so much like a black cape and cap,
he seems perpetually ready.

Life does seem often like a process of continual preparation—
getting smarter or fitter or wiser, slower or faster.
Yet what exactly we prepare for is the mystery.
And yet this little bird seems to know with his cape and his cap
and his pale face shining out like expectation.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Week 2: Transformations

To the Cicada

Of course there will be times of darkness. You will dig your way through, stopping for the small things that bring you sustenance. It will be long but it will not be forever. You may find comfort in the closeness of the earth, in the smell of the dirt, in all that quiet darkness. But do not get too attached. Eventually you will stop burrowing through and you will burrow up and finally out.

Perhaps it will be night when you emerge, but those clear white stars will begin to prepare you for the brightness that teased the edges of your dreams. When the sun rises and makes its way to the tree you have so slowly spent the night climbing, you will feel a new kind of warmth. As the sky lightens and your body heats up, you will begin to resonate. And there is only one thing you can do with all your gratitude. Sing.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Week 2: Transformations

Belly Balloons

The pregnant bellies of women in the summer months bulge out unexpectedly like the head of a beluga whale or a pumpkin in a bean field. That round moon is simply more surprising on a form wearing shorts and a form fitting tank top. Winter babies are a secret, riding out their time under sweaters and coats. Even a noticed bulge, then, can be attributed to too much holiday eating. But summer pregnancies are bright balloons pushing up underneath pink , blue, purple and white summer tanks and tees. The orbs of expectant summer mothers’ bellies sing out their existence. They are a frog in the library or a banjo in the string section. Always unexpected but strangely compelling.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


5 thoughts on a dragonfly

Today, somewhere, after years of underwater living, a dragonfly in its larvae stage pulled itself out of the water, split its skin, and crawled out. The new body is so different from the old one. It has a type of lung (instead of gills), it has mandibles (instead of a thrusting lower jaw) and of course it has wings. Wings that will carry the new body up to 40 miles per hour.

Dragonflies have been called “darning needles.” English parents used to tell children if they were bad dragonfly would come and sew up their eyes and mouth.

A dragonfly once landed on my shoulder. Instead of brushing it off, I froze. I watched it chew up the head of a fly only six inches from my face.

I know a woman with dragonfly tattoos that cover much of her torso.

The dragonfly is a child much longer than it is an adult. It lives only a few months after it grows those wings.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010



You wake to a life unrecognizable to the one you inhabited yesterday. Yesterday you had time to read the paper, to stop for a latte, to watch the river water lap gently at the bank. Today you don’t have time to sleep. And just barely enough time to breathe. Milk, and diapers, and finding two thumb-sized socks, and all the life sustaining needs of another being inundate your time, sending your myriad small desires shooting out through the cracks of your life to swirl away down some drain. Yet each day those cracks are filled with a small animal body curving against your own, a chuckle impossibly big for his little body, or the adorable concoctions of new words like “moeycycle” or “helicopt.” All of the details of each day—even the exhausting ones—seal those cracks until your life possibly for the first time feels nearly whole. And the apathy and shiftlessness of yesterday along with long lonely days bead off and evaporate from this new you.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Gold Finches

One moment we were driving
though the suburbs of Chicago
the houses and lawns
passing in a blur of uniformity.
We were thinking only of arriving
the journey between places
was nothing
except a bother
a suck of the time
we felt was precious.

The next same moment for both of us
gold finches caught our attention
in the bright nets of their wings
drawing it out of the car
and into the heavy summer air
and the trees with the birds.
They must have planned it these two birds.
I almost exclaimed in hopes that the net was big enough for two
only to look back and find you already whisked out of the car
And into the precious details of this world.

Monday, August 09, 2010


Splitting out of and into.

It is difficult to look at the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly and not think of that process as a metaphor for human growth. The worm to a butterfly. A crawling creature to a flying creature. We almost cannot talk about human personal transformation without talking about “coming out of the cocoon” or “transforming into the butterfly.” But the life of the butterfly is transformative right from the beginning. As soon as that small worm is out of its egg, it begins to figuratively eat its way out of its skin. The amount of food it takes in soon makes its body too big for its skin. It splits out, leaving the crumpled skin sack behind and just keeps eating, soon splitting out again and again. Each time growing bigger. Each time leaving a bit of itself behind.

I always thought when it was time for the caterpillar to begin its final transformation into a butterfly, the caterpillar spun itself a cocoon. But recently I watched a video of the swallowtail metamorphosis and this is not the case. The cocoon is one more stage in the transformation—not simply a woven sack. When the caterpillar reaches maximum size it ties itself to a tree, or leaf, or some other structure for support. Then it splits out of its caterpillar skin for the last time emerging as the “pupae.” This new shape, what we call the cocoon, is simply one more stage of the caterpillar. When the butterfly is ready to emerge, it splits out and into itself.

Sunday, August 08, 2010


Turning Yourself into Light.

“The sun,” says Brian Swimme “each second transforms 4 million tons of itself into light.”
How much do you weigh? Can it be so hard?

I want to acknowledge that I first came across this Swimme quote in a book by Therese Halscheid where she used it as an epigraph to her poem “The sun’s sacrifice.”

Saturday, August 07, 2010



Each year it happens and each year it is a surprise. One day the peonies are tight fists and the next they are open hands, palms overflowing with absurdly pink lace. When the green buds were still resolutely shut, all day the shiny black ant teased at the corners unfurling, knowing it could mine sweetness there despite the misleading fist.

And here I am falling open as the universe unfolds me once again.

Friday, August 06, 2010


Thinking of the Colorado

If I am 75% water than I am more closely related to the River than to my own sister. But what of that red gritty sand? It too feels like a sister.

Thursday, August 05, 2010


The River

In the mornings when I go down to the river, the bank lies exposed. The river slips down stream with the tide, spends half the day cooling off in the depths of the river bed and chasing the retreating sea until the game is reversed as the sea pushes back. By afternoon the bank has disappeared, covered up by the bounty of the river returned.

I never hear the river groan as it returns to the same old riverbank. It doesn’t sigh as it settles back onto the shallow shelf of mud that has dried in the sun. The river never pulls back crying “why does everything still feel the same here? Why so predictable?”

And as the river returns, barely lapping at the bank at first then consuming the bare space in its enormity, the bank never says “What took you so long?”

Wednesday, August 04, 2010



The Sufi poet Rumi says:

Listen to the reed
And the tale it tells.
How it sings of separation.
“Ever since they cut me from the reed bed,
my wail has caused men and women to weep.
Whoever has been separated from his source
Longs to return to that state of union.”

If you can identify your source at least you can know what all this longing is for.

Poem translation by Coleman Barks

Tuesday, August 03, 2010


The Bird and the Tree: Relates

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word “relate” can be (or has been) used as an adjective, verb, and noun. As a verb the word carries its most common uses—“to recount, narrate, give an account of.” “To refer to.” “To be important or of interest to or unto a person.” “To have some connection with..” “To understand or have empathy for; to identify or feel a connection with.”

But it can also be used as an adjective meaning related or connected, or the usage I find most interesting, as a noun used to refer to “relatum” meaning “Each of two or more terms, objects, or events, between which a relation exists.”

I like the idea of using the term “relate” to discuss the objects that might have a relationship. The bird is a relate of the tree. (Or perhaps the tree and bird are relates). This allows the sentence to communicate that the bird has a connection with the tree (it’s physically connected when it perches and connected by its use of the tree as protection and a nesting site) but the sentence also suggests that the bird might also understand or identify with the tree, and in the sentence in parenthesis the suggestion is that this understanding is mutual. It doesn’t have to mean that, but the possibility perches there in the sentence.

Reference: "relate" Oxford English Dictionary online. 2009. Oxford University Press. Accessed: 8/3/2010.

Monday, August 02, 2010


Flies Eyes

If you lean close to a fly you’ll see the strange sheen of iridescent eyes. It’s the same green you’ll find on a the head of a male mallard duck, a magpie’s wing in the sun, certain animal-eyes staring back at your headlights. Color connects these unrelated forms weaving them together by association. We abstract color. We don’t have to think about a red cardinal or a black head of hair to think about color. We have separated the color from the concrete form through language. This allows us to just think red or black. With this abstraction we can also notice the ways certain manifestations of a color show up in different places.

If you spend a day just looking for a particular color it’s surprising what your brain notices. The shiny line of green stitching on your shoe, the startling eye-color of your grocery store clerk have possibly been within your field of vision for years. But until you simply think green nothing in your brain registers the small iridescent details of your life.

Sunday, August 01, 2010


A Little Something Extra

When you see an ant chances are its female. Most ants are female. An ant colony generally consists of one queen and hundreds or thousands of “worker” ants. These worker ants are all sisters—daughters of the queen. Sterile daughters of the queen.
An ant queen experiences two life-changing activities on the same day—flight and sex. When an ant colony is of a certain health and age, the queen produces fertile ants—both male and female. These fertile ants have wings. Lacy, transparent flight tackle. At certain times of the year colonies (of the same ant species) send out their winged fertile males and females. These ants pair with other opposite sexed ants from neighboring colonies for a “nuptial flight.” Sex happens on the wing then both drop back to earth—the male to die, the female to lose her wings, burrow, and begin a new colony.

Ant reproduction is perhaps more mysterious than ant sex. The queen ant stores sperm—which is why she only needs to have sex one time. She uses that sperm to fertilize her eggs—the eggs that develop into her daughters. Her sons (the short-lived flying lovers of the winged females) come from non-fertilized eggs. This means that while male ants have grandfathers, they don’t have fathers.

Ants have a genetic system called haplodiploidy. A fascinating and somewhat complicated system that I don’t want to (and truthfully can’t) explain fully here. But in the haplodiploid system the fertilized sister ants share ¼ of their genetic material from their mother’s side. This works like human biology. We receive ½ our genes from our mother and ½ our genes from our father. Of the genes we receive from our parents about 1/2 (1/4 from each parent) end up the same for each sibling—meaning we share about 50% of our genetic makeup with our siblings. So like human siblings, ant sisters share ¼ of their genetic make up on their mother’s side. But a male ant passes on its genetic material differently and ½ of what ants get from their father’s side is shared genetic material. So while human siblings again share ¼ of their genetic make up that comes down on their father’s side—ant sisters share ½ of their genetic make up from their father’s side. They end up with ¼ more genetic overlap with each other than do human siblings. So sister-ants share ¾ of their genetic make up.