Category Archives: Writing

Science teacher attends poetry conference two years in a row.

Last year about this time I went at a friend’s invitation to my first ever literary weekend, a poetry retreat called LiTFUSE in Tieton, Washington. I have never mentioned it here, though I enjoyed it very much and learned a lot. The other poets were very welcoming, and I met some rather well-known ones, though I’d never heard of any of them, being from a different line of study and work, and not yet retired enough to go to poetry events or spend much time getting caught up with that scene.

I wrote a few fragments I liked, but they didn’t come to much I would want to share. It will take me years, I suppose, to learn about the craft and get enough practice and feedback to refine and publish, except occasionally here. Officially I have a lot of blog followers, although all but a handful (a very small handful) seem to have signed up hoping I’d help increase the traffic to their own blogs, because they never visited mine more than once.

I just got back from my second LiTFUSE. Next year I hope to have something to share at the open mic, and my friend and I plan to join a poetry circle to help us stay writing., as well as attend some events though the year.

The poem I just wrote and posted plods along awkwardly, but it made me laugh when it was done. It is also heart-felt. The line, “Shit! grow more trees!” came to me at a very solemn and profound moment during a reading at the conference where the poet mentioned a certain tree, and I thought, what if no one had bothered to plant that tree? That’s the background. I like getting some background to poems, if possible. I changed that line, as you can see.

The other thing is, I had to write something that did not promise to be any good, keeping the bar low so I would post it. My other poems are much more precious, so I hope to get them to the same I don’t care phase, as that always helped me get more drawing done in the past. Practice over production, at least for now. .

Tieton is a beautiful small town west of Yakima, consisting of small houses inhabited by mostly field workers, with a few more wealthy folk in fancy condos with watered gardens and rentable conference rooms. Two of the residents were put out due to dog turds in the garden, one implying the other’s dog might be the source.

One side of the town is edged with fruit warehouses and equipment shops, all quiet now. The landowners and fruit warehousers live up in the hills for the view. The light is soft and clear, the hills dry and undulating, topped by purple stone ridges in some places. Someone has put money into a square, grassy park, but the trees in it were planted long ago.

As my friend went for a walk between sessions, two small dogs started wildly yapping at us from a little front yard surrounded by a three foot high chain link fence. We responded with a few encouraging words, and out from some other corner came a black kitten not yet weaned. We melted and cooed at it as one must, then tore ourselves away out of concern for the little dogs’ vocal cords. When we were few yards down the sidewalk, the kitten squeezed right through the chain links and tottered after us. This was was really too much. Being between cats myself, it would have taken nothing for me to inquire if it was up for adoption (there was a half-grown tabby now walking interestedly toward us too, and the black cat’s mother was somewhere further down the street). But our Siberian husky would just as soon practice small mammal predation on it as make friends, so that was out of the question.

I picked the kitten up, explaining all the while in infantile tones how inadvisable it was to act in that manner, resisted my maternal impulses, and poked it back through the mesh.

Next we came upon two young Latina girls carrying brown paper envelopes, doing some sort of solicitation. The older one asked if the kittens were ours, and we explained that, no, they were just curious about us and belonged, we thought, with the dogs’ family. The girls kept walking, and I overheard them debating whether they should ask us (to sponsor them). I initiated a conversation about their fundraising drive, and soon they were sweetly thanking me for helping out. It was a warm, clear day, and I was happy.


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Passing something on to you, thinking you might not have heard this.

Fresh out of writing class, or the mentored group that has morphed out of that class, my mind going this way and that, forming complete sentences, and good ones, it seems, about really cool, deep, voiceful stuff.

I bagged up the cookies cooled on the counter, gave my daughter a back rub and saw her off to bed, took the dog out for his pee, checked for familiar constellations, came in and turned off lights and the gas fire. I had to get to bed in case of an early sub job. Looking forward to my writing time, thinking it would be easy. I plugged my laptop in by the bed in anticipation of the flow that was soon to occur. No hurry, though–first the evening ritual: pull on p.j.’s, brush teeth, unclip earrings, do a few sets of free weights and lunges.

But dang it if it isn’t difficult again. Time for the rubber to hit the road, as my friend J.B. used to say. I feel my relaxed muscles, the warm sheets, the satisfied, contentment of a day of getting things long on my list finally done. The final coat of finish on the dismantled chairs, the car tabs replaced, the grout ordered, phone calls placed, son’s college paperwork attended to.An uneventful sub job the day before in high school biology.

Time to exert will power, and start putting words on the page, one by one. Starting in the next paragraph.

I just finished listening to Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle on audio. I enjoyed the precision of language in which he described each organism and geological feature, and found it interesting to hear about his assessment of the levels of civilization and moral development of the various peoples he encountered, from Christianized natives living in prosperous, pleasant villages to naked, hardscrabble tribes fishing from primitive dugouts and on the southern coast of South America, exhibiting no signs of artistic or civilized life. There was a measure of scientific objectivity about these descriptions, and also flashes of cultural bigotry. For example, he recounted the story of an old escaped slave woman who threw herself off a cliff in the face of recapture, and declared that. If she had been a Greek noblewoman, she would have been a tragic heroine, but in a black slave he saw it as stubborn willfulness. I’m not using quite the words he did, but that was the idea. But really, most of his observations about people were insightful, granted that he valued strength, honesty, self control, faithful monogamy, modesty (in women), hospitality, industry and temperance. He often compared the naturalized Europeans to the natives they had subjugated and/or converted, and found the natives superior.

But toward the end my mind drifted off the scientific and anthropological content and simply marveled at Darwin’s diction. I was thinking I could buy a copy of the book, highlight all the language not specifically about the topic and reuse it with new topic, to try the effect. Deft linking of clauses, no subtitles or dumbing down, so un-Neil Young.

My other reading is from a complete other dimension–poems collected by Robert Bly in a volume called The Winged Energy of Delight, and as I am an inarticulate ignoramus when it comes to literary commentary, I can only say, inner jaw-dropping amazing. So accessible and evocative. Check this out:

Tomas Tranströmer – from “April and Silence”

I am carried inside
my own shadow like a violin
in its black case.

The only thing I want to say
hovers just out of reach
like the family silver
at the pawnbroker’s.

Kabir- from “Think While You are Alive”

The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
just because the body is rotten–
that is all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
If you find nothing now,
you will simply end up with an apartment in the city of Death.

And to think, what I said, you know, at the beginning of this, that I thought I had something coolto say.




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Posted by on March 13, 2015 in Arts, Poetry and Music, Writing


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Frank and Ernest and their friends up North

I subbed for the first time at an Options high school this week. Where students who weren’t getting a proper education in the regular system go, you know, and get more support in smaller classes. And where they get more direction to go into into manual arts and blue collar jobs, I gathered from the textbooks on the shelves there. I’m starting to think it would be better to encourage them to consider becoming teachers. Why not, since even my son, who was interested in teaching, and would be good at it, has decided to go for a better paying job in technology.

The Options zone was an arrangement of four portable classrooms called North, with mellow, understanding teachers, a few I.A.A.’s, and an acting principal. There was no lesson plan on the desk, so I got the scoop from the teacher next door, who told me that today was basically a study hall day, with students doing whatever assignments they had to work on.

Five students filtered in, and when I had told them my name and jotted theirs down, they got settled down to work, and I realized i wouldn’t have much to do and wished I’d brought my copy of The Boys in the Boat. Now and then I’d check in with one or the other, but no one really needed anything. So I sat at the desk did some writing and planning.

After a while I got to talking to the two girls in the front. One asked me how I got into subbing, and then what I expected Options students to be like. Had I been scared? I said, I’m always a little scared, no matter where I go to sub, because I never really know whether I can do a good job, and what might come up. But I like that, I added—keeps me on my toes, and things usually go pretty well anyway. She offered that some subs came with an attitude, as if they know the students already, as if they were troublemakers because of being in the Options program. I said, yes, I believe it, I’d seen that kind of prejudice and disrespect, and it’s sad.

I asked her how it made her feel to be treated that way, and she said she felt like being bad on purpose. Mm-hmm, I said, and then the teacher can feel justified, right? She totally got that, of course. So I invited her, and her friend also in the conversation, and I suppose a few of the guys who could hear from where they sat (one in particular, a tall, athletic black boy with a bit of his face peeking out of his hoodie as he glanced up now and then), to consider how worth it it could be for them (and me) to rise above and be a free agent, and act out of choice rather than auto-response. Told her what I’d learned long ago (not so as I remember to apply it much) from Eric Berne’s transaction analysis, how if we can have the self awareness to act from our true mature self, even if someone is expecting less, it can change the dynamic. I said but I’m preaching too much, and she said, I like it. She had to go, but if we’d had the chance to talk longer, I suppose we would have to come to the problem of the prejudiced teacher thinking that the good response was somehow due to her skills and showing who’s boss, rather than the maturity of the student in the face of disrespect.

I went back to writing in my notebook, and after a while the other girl asked what I was writing. I told her this and that–notes, thoughts, two-minute timed pieces for my class, ideas for books and articles, research on writing markets, and so on. She wanted to know more, so I found one piece that made a little sense, on how Annie Dillard’s writing affected me. She was so interested and appreciative. Told me I should write a whole book of things like that. Maybe I will, I said, once I figure out what’s people might like to read. I mentioned my blog, and she wanted to know how blogs worked, so I explained. We chatted on, about our families, and I could see her parents and step parents and step sibs were lucky to have her in the family, and told her so.

On the way out she said she’d recommend me to sub again. And I felt that flood of thankfulness, of privilege, of blessing that keeps me going, that would almost make whether I get paid for this job seem irrelevant. Not that I’m desperate to be liked, because I now have a confidence of my own that I at least can do a decent job. But it’s a blessing be invited into someone’s domain, out of good will.

Since the lunch room was across campus and there was a microwave in the building, I cooked up my rice and chicken there, found a copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest tucked behind a row of Math with Business Applications and enjoyed a quiet read.

One thing that struck me about Options, or at least the way it was organized there, was the freedom that these students enjoyed, to come or not come to class, to come late, to decide on what they’d accomplish and when. No hall passes or tardy slips. There was a sense of final preparations for their life outside school, an acknowledgement of their impending (or newly begun) adulthood. Even with a sub in the room, these five students were responsible and respectful, and did their work.

The afternoon class was completely different. I took over from a young male teacher in “North North” supervising two big guys whom he had allowed (or not interfered with their decision) to watch internet flicks. I asked one student his name, which he gave as Josh, and put his headphones back on, continuing to blurt out song lyrics now and then, complete with expletives. The other teacher said, funny, he introduced himself to the other sub as Josh, too. I asked his real name, in case I needed it.

I couldn’t help but be surprised at what I felt were the low expectations there. The teacher seemed too intimidated to expect much. Maybe it was just because of early release and schedule changes. I knew nothing about these two man-sized guys except that I would be alone for the next hour with them, and that, as the teacher had explained, usually subs were not expected to do much teaching. I said maybe next time, since they’ll be used to me. Otherwise it’s hard to stay awake, right?

I read a bit, looked around the space, logged on to school district websites and picked up a few sub jobs. I went over and congratulated “Josh” for successfully pulling the wool over my eyes. He was the first, I said, because he didn’t give himself away as most did by pausing before giving the false name, and then looking for a reaction. He made an acknowledgement sound. I asked why he hadn’t given his real name, and he said because most people automatically shortened it to nicknames he didn’t like. Said he’d just not answer them. I said I didn’t blame him–names are important, and I think people should try use the ones they are given by the owner.

The taller guy was roaming around bored, but the bell rang and the two went to get their drives home. As I locked up and walked across the parking lot to the library to put in my final hour of duty in which I had no defined purpose, I daydreamed about what I could bring to a place such as the one I’d visited this day. Would I be able to set up some cool science labs? Model writing for the love of it? Lead a reading of The Importance of Being Ernest? Inspire some kids who found they weren’t served by the system to become educators themselves?


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The problem is not that I don’t know everything. It has to be something else.

I’ll try to keep this between 500 and 800 words, and appropriate for a general audience. Let me start with a Newfoundland joke:

One Newfie says to t’other: “Hey b’y! Guess what I gots in the pawket o’me trousers.”

“Aw, b’y, I dunno.”

“C’mawn! Just guiss! I’se’ll giv ye a clue. It starts wit an ‘N’.

“Awl roight. Is it ‘napple?”

“Nah, guess agin!”

Is it ‘norange?”

“Nah, I’ll tell ye–It’s ‘negg!”

I’ve decided that except for one remarkable quality, I prefer the cat that’s lying at my feet to her near relation, the simpleminded, lovable male. This one, Starlight or Star, for short, is dainty and small, very quiet, making only the sound of quiet purring, and not all the time, which would annoy me. Although she enjoys an occasional stroke in the quiet of an evening or morning, she rejects excessive touching yet enjoys company of the parallel presence type. Her home is at the foot of my bed, even when I stretch my feet down below her under the covers. She keeps her thoughts to herself, except occasionally when she runs into the food area and looks up at me with plaintive hope.

Juno the male is bigger, more the tom around town, and simple minded, as I said. For example, when he runs to the food cabinet in the morning hoping I’ll feed him, he sticks his head in front of the cabinet so that I can’t open it without either pushing his face back or bonking him on the nose, Every time. I’ve tried both pushing him away and bonking his nose, but he never learns. He never sees the threat coming. As I explained to several classrooms of kids, he shows less of that kind of intelligence than did the garden spider who moved her web two feet up after I walked into it two mornings in a row.

Which brings me to his other quality, which I believe is one of the proper applications of simple mindedness. The other threat Juno never sees coming, and therefore does not react to, is our dog–our young, high prey-drive Siberian husky, Sadie. When Sadie sees quick movement of any kind she reacts–with playfulness toward dogs and humans, and with bloody murderous intentions toward small animals and well as large prey species. Once when she escaped through our decaying fence, we tracked her to where she had cornered a deer, and when we startled it and it tried to plunge away, she leaped and got a hold of its leg and would have taken it down (I might have let her in a less public location) if we had not jumped on top of her and got her to let go. Despite two years of leash training, she still lunges and leaps whenever we pass through a region smelling of squirrel, rabbit, or deer, and once she grabbed the carcass of a fawn that had been killed by a car and started dragging it away before we took control. All very natural behavior, and in case of alien invasion or foreign takeover I think she’d keep us in wild meat just fine if we had to retreat to the woods.

Sadie will tease Juno to try to get a reaction, even takes his head in her mouth as he naps on a chair, but he only bats her away, or if excessively irritated with these efforts to get a rise, gives her a quick rake of his claws. When Juno moves from one place to another he strolls, and though Sadie watches intently for that provoking quick movement that stimulates her to lunge, he rarely brings out that response. Starlight,on the other hand, is a nervous cat and deathly afraid of Sadie. When Star has to move to the door to be let out, we have to keep a sharp eye out to keep her in one piece, because Sadie invariably gets excited by some twitch of her tail or darting movement. Although Sadie does exhibit a veneer of family loyalty and we believe she is not really intending to kill.

There may be a metaphor here, probably something about expecting the best of people so they will respond in kind. But I’m over six hundred words and I still have so much not to say.

What I really need is a reality check. No, I take that back, I just want someone to tell me that I’ll not a terrible, awful, no good person. That this is just a stage, and that some personality conflicts are inevitable, especially–and you must be sensitive about how you say this–at my stage of life, and combined with the stages of life of the other people in the house. You can tell me that there are bound to be misunderstandings, and not to take anything personally. I am a good person, I am, and of course they will realize that in ten or twenty years. Of course there is a certain implied encouragement to be a good listener, in between the lines, at least, and try to use these difficult interactions as an opportunity to grow. Like the father down the road who, his wife said, before she left him, would shout, “Thank you for helping me to grow!” at such moments. And then go teach that principle the next day to his counseling clients.

The following is a brief personal insertion made after writing the rest of the piece: For ten or twenty minutes I was just curled up trying to survive. I could hear the people talking, as I always can in this small house, and some of their words were not healing. Then I got back to my keyboard and started sidling in…

Perhaps I am just feeling frustrated at how much I can understand, but how little I can remember, create, or express. I do so love to read Mark Twain and Annie Dillard, to read poetry and philosophy and research articles, and once I even enjoyed the very density of Heidegger on Man’s relationship with Nature. But I cannot think of anything to say or write that is not just sentences one after the other, mostly unrelated to what’s inside of me. It does not seem to reach to the place inside my soul that I am supposed to “tap into” in order to “get closer to the felt experiences of my life”. When I even suspect have glimpsed a rustic, overgrown launch into “the sea of no limits”, even when I am allowed to witness the beginnings of the forays of others, I recoil.

That’s why, when I came up with a plan to write a book before I was forty, I thought I’d start with something straightforward like How to Clean the House, for Young People, When You are Told To. I’d start from a position of objective inexperience, research heavily, interview experts, distill essentials, and put it together with lucid, economical prose, supplemented by drawings and helpful spreadsheets, lists and recipes. Because, that way, it wouldn’t be personal, or stimulate expectations of depth or profundity.

The other idea was a recipe book, entitled, thanks to a comment dropped by my younger sister (though she does not recall saying it), Recipes are for Wimps.

Except (and I hope you will forgive me for exceeding my word count), I am starting to hear “the voice of tenderness”. And I am interested in the hopeful balance between, “Be yourself, please! Please!” and sometimes writing to the voice that is not my own. That seems safer. The best I will be able to do, mostly, is to tell it slant.

[The last two words have been removed in the interests of propriety]




swollen stream

She told him about the pileated woodpecker whose call made her stop and look up and see its giant body clinging to the top of a dead standing tree, red crest blazing. She told him about suddenly coming upon a guinea pig grazing on the side of the trail, that when she spoke to it and tried to reach for it, scurried into a tunnel of matted grass into the blackberry thicket. She told him about the way the colors changed as the fog lifted and settled back down: lime yellow to gold, gray to bluegreen. She told him about stopping midway down a stretch of trail arched over with the branches of clumping trees, watching the surface of the water that overed the mossy roots beside the trail. How she waited, saw drops from branches create expanding wrinkles, but then there was hidden life, sluggish in the cold water, but unmistakable: sudden underwater lurches and lunges that could also be read in bulges and changes in reflected light. How as her glasses fogged up from the heat of the vapor off her cheeks, impeding her vision, she became aware of the sounds: melodious drips, gurgles, and small rushings of water through the bog.

But she said nothing her experience at the stream. How when she stopped at the bridge as usual, on the way out, and the newly swollen stream drew out of her a longing, a flood of memory from someone else’s past. She watched a bulging wave over a rock and the fast currents on either side, and how some of the water curled back around in its lee, felt an attraction and horror that threatened to nauseate her, and she turned away.  On her return she stopped further down the stream, looked for comfort in the shallow, gravelly bed that reminded her of the streams she waded as a child. But there was only cold and warning. And then she tore herself away to continue on the trail to the house. She told him of the beauties of the trail, but about the stream, she only told him, “I want to live by a river. It could even be a small one, but some kind of river. It’s in my blood.”


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I want something

June was cheerful and busy the last time I saw her, excited about her new volunteer work and welding class. This time as I walked past her window to the front door, I saw her standing, arms crossed, brow furrowed, staring out the window.

She caught my movement and came to the door, welcomed me in, started fixing us some of her excellent coffee. Her mostly eaten breakfast was on the counter–crispy sausages and hash browns, poached eggs, steamed spinach and cheese. Had I eaten? “I’m having all these animal parts–an egg, which is mean to bring new life, ground up pig muscle, and I was even going to add some cottage cheese, for the extra protein. As if I can’t settle for meat, have to have the reproductive cells and the secretions too. Seems parasitic. The spinach is okay, though it came from Costco, so must have come from a megafarm.”

“I’ll eat this, if you don’t want the rest,” I smiled. She smiled sheepishly, and sighed. “This is how I wrecked a romantic meal once, you know–too much analysis. It was so beautiful and delicious, but I started to feel it was a self-indulgent waste of cash that could have gone to better uses. Or was it? I don’t know. But I still feel that there something immoral about eating food I had nothing direct to do in obtaining, and didn’t really need.”

I picked up a damp dish cloth and wiped some spilled coffee grounds into my hand, tipped them into her compost pail, collected some stray pencils and poked them back into their mug. The kitchen window was open, and I heard the tiny whir of hummingbird wings, metallic chirping. She heard it too, and we moved silently closer to see and stood still, necks craned, to watch the visitation.

Best to let her talk it out. I knew it was the best way to help her come around, or back up to the surface again, where she could live and breathe. Best not to say much, either. She wasn’t a very good listener, in a way. Not that I resented it–it was just that unless I was speaking from my heart–and who can do that all the time?–she didn’t really absorb the details. Though she would sometimes realize it and apologize later. She had no patience for small talk, even from a friend. Talk about scheduling, play dates, other events, errands, those she had to write down or they’d slip away. But she has always been there for me when I’ve been bursting with real feeling, whether delight or sorrow. She would completely enter in then, putting her own things entirely aside to ask questions, empathize, help me pour out my soul. If neither of us had much to say, it was out to the garden to weed or look for something ripe, or time to make something–a meal, a drawing, a plan.

“I really wanted this breakfast, was so longing for it. And then I realized it was a poor substitute. I want something. I don’t know what it is. Sometimes I feel it’s something I have no business wanting. Sometimes it feels like pain.” She put the last few dishes in the dishwasher and clicked it on. “(I love that sound–something humming while it works for me.) No, not a pain, an ache, like the soreness when you massage a sore muscle. A good pain. So, I actually want to want, don’t know what I’d do without desire, longing. Well, yes I do–I’d get depressed.”

Then we switched to talk about our kids, fussed about busy schedules, helped each other resolve to be brave and cheerful, and said farewell until next time.


Posted by on August 27, 2014 in Personal Growth, Writing



Why I write, with an introduction involving soil

A lightness came as I shook soil out of those sods, thumping them against my spading fork as night fell. Cool of the evening balanced by the heat of work, air still, I wiggled my glove into the pile, grasped a body of dry sod, knocked loose soil down, watched it rain down. Tossed the remaining fibrous roots on the new pile beside the sprawling berry canes, layered in with warm gray-green grass clippings. The mound of soil cone-shaped like an ant hill erupting between concrete slabs. Not an efficient industrial process, hands directly massaging the soil, repetitive small movements, mixing and planting as if in a slow cooker under coals on the beach. When the pile is complete, I’ll moisten it, cover with a tarp and let it cook down to a rich mixture that will heal the place where the earth moving equipment gouged the back of the garden last year, shattering the orderly structure of the soil and bringing concrete-like subsoil to the surface. Now rocky and almost  impenetrable, it will be transformed into something soft and earthwormy, ready for seeding.

Today my husband and I cleared away some of the chaos if the patio–the pile of old door frames split into kindling, chunks of this years’ cherry tree and last years’ birch and gum tree, toy swords of wood, PVC pipe, and duct tape, plant flats, tools, and ongoing wood finishing projects. My daughter swept the surface clean and helped put up the big rust red canopy bought on  sale last fall. Now we have a refuge from summer heat raining from the open sky and bouncing up from the concrete. The neighbors’ cedars, willows and grapevines are framed into view from what feels like a special room now inviting us to sit and visit, read, take a break. Turned a corner for me in my desire to make this place more of a home, a welcoming place not always under construction and in transition. Now to complete the sanding and finishing of the outdoor furniture, maybe add some mini lights to the canopy rafters, and what might come to pass here, sun or rain. Let your little light shine.

My husband and I reopened a dialogue the other day about my writing habit, in which I tried to explain why it was not a “hobby.” I might have time for it now, he said, but would I be able to fit it in when I went back to teach, when my duties would have to be more tightly scheduled and excesses culled? For once I stayed calm about it instead of turning inward, stayed realistic instead of taking offense, accepting the fact that we do have a hard time understanding one another, we humans, despite the things we share in common, how intimate we may be in some ways, we are always in a sense on the outside looking in, so no sense taking it personally. Since he’d asked a fair question, he deserved a fair answer. I answered over several days, will still be answering, since it’s not easy to explain, and I have to check my thinking for selfishness, defensiveness, snobbery, impracticality, elitism, and so on.

I said I write to understand and process–can’t do without it when I have important questions or am troubled. I said I write to create, it’s human nature, image of the Creator, and everyone has to discover their channels for that. I said I write to unwind, to relax, for enjoyment, and that’s important for everyone. I said I write to grow–have to keep challenging myself, accepting challenges from others, getting better if I can, asking questions, finding out what other people think and have experienced. I said I write to be useful–maybe I can help someone else, clarify, get at something others can’t see, connect in a meaningful way. By the way,thanks for reading this, for caring. I write because you are there.




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Posted by on July 6, 2014 in Places & Experiences, Writing