Looking Through Others’ Eyes; a Question and a Wish

Early morning moon

The moon was still trying to fuzz its way into the morning through the pervasive cloud cover. Its faint light hung over the neighbor’s house like a stray fluff of lint on a gray wool blanket. It’s the morning after we gained an hour, but it still seems like 5 am rather than 6.

My house guest is still asleep and I’m trying not to let the cats’ curiosity get the better of them so she could rest peacefully as long as possible. She has a long journey ahead today – back to England.

Yesterday was filled with art and rich conversation – and food. My friend was here for a conference, traveling from her home in Bath.  She’d been to Cleveland many times and I always loved to hear her praise the riches of the arts here in her plummy British accent. She was one to know, being a prominent consultant in the arts internationally.

We’d spent the afternoon in the Art Museum, wandering the permanent collection. It was fun to see what caught her eye and how she saw things from her professional objectivity and broad experience. I was reminded how easy it is to take the exceptional quality of our cultural community for granted.

It’s a good reminder, and a lesson, in these times, to remember that many others see many things differently than I do. The election looms and I am dismayed at the raw and uncompromising divisions among us. I am also afraid that, with the potential shift in the political environment – however large or small it might be, that these divisions might be deepened and widened, rather than bridged.

How do we, as a nation, make the effort to look through others’ eyes, walk for a moment in others’ shoes? Can we – can I – thin the cloud cover of my own preconceptions and biases to let the light of another’s point of view illuminate the day? Can I hope that others might wish to do the same?

Not Exactly Staying in the Moment

It’s Sunday morning and I’m walking downstairs, my special prescription computer glasses still on.  I’ve just printed out the Times crossword to work on over breakfast. The stairs are a little out of focus as I step down, but I manage. The crossword’s in one hand and in the other I’ve got two pair of dime-store cheaters, my go-to reading glasses, that I grabbed from the nightstand.  As I negotiate the stairs I smile myself a little ‘high-five’ for belaying a trip back up later, when I’ll need a pair to do the crossword.  Thinking ahead, I say to myself quite smugly.

I’ve forgotten, however, that I already have a pair of cheaters on my head; parked there when I found them in the bathroom, earlier that morning. So, at 6 AM I’m already adorned with four pair of glasses.

As I pass through the dining room I notice my prescription driving glasses and my prescription sunglasses on the table where I’d emptied my purse last evening, looking for – reading glasses.

I put the cheaters from the nightstand on the dining room table where they join my prescription specs and the pair of ancient, lens-scratched glasses with broken frames that I keep repairing because … you never know.

In the kitchen, I take off my computer glasses, put them on the butcher block – then pick them up and walk back through the house and put them on the table by the stairs where I’ll see them the next time I go up to use the computer. Thinking ahead.

Fortunately, I remember still have a pair of cheaters on my head, so when I get back to the kitchen, having passed the now five pair of glasses on the dining room table, I put them on so can see well enough to safely chop the peppers, mushrooms and basil for my omelet without incident. I smile myself another high five – especially because I saved myself the embarrassment of wandering the house looking for glasses all the while wearing a pair on my head; a pretty regular occurrence.

You can probably guess that, later, when I go back up to use the computer, I walk right by the glasses on the table by the stairs.  Lost in thought about something I can’t remember now, there’s much internal finger wagging as I do a U-ie on the upstairs landing.

I wag my finger at myself a lot these days, wondering why I can’t remember things.  Or why I can’t seem to develop a routine that, at the very least where my glasses are concerned, makes me take off any pair I’m wearing and leave them in the room I am exiting. The original plan, for all these dime-store cheaters, was to leave one pair in every room in the house.  But somehow, at some point each day, most of them end up collected in one place – and not always the same place, so I never know where my (computer, driving, reading, sun) glasses are.

Maybe not enough glasses?

It’s a small thing, I know.  I haven’t really lost my glasses – or my memory, really.  But among all the adjustments we need to make as we get older, this one, for me, is a daily reminder of how hard it is to stay focused – grounded, in the moment. I find this especially true when trying to fully complete one task before getting distracted by another.

Multi-tasking is a vice invented, I’m convinced, by ‘productivity-at-all-costs’ US capitalism. It’s nurtured by our own (maybe women’s in particular) ‘have-and-do-it-all’ expectations that everything is as important as everything else and so we feel we must act immediately on each thing that grabs our attention; no matter the task at hand.

No matter that you are heading for the closet to get the vacuum cleaner out, there’s the mail you haven’t opened yet, or the cats’ food dishes are dirty and it will just take a moment to wash them.  There’s the phone by the sink, which should probably be charged, so might as well check to see if anyone answered your Next Door post. And since you’re on the phone, maybe check the news to see what new craziness in happening in the world, and oh, look, a Facebook post from a distant cousin …

Then tomorrow, while deciding right now is the time clean out the garage, or maybe hem that dress that’s been draped on the sewing machine for the past month, you notice all the dust bunnies in the corners, the cat hair piling up on the rug, and the vacuum cleaner – cord still wound up – sitting by the closet.

Grateful for the Trashmen: My Garbage Footprint

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

6:15 Tuesday morning and the big green trash truck rumbles down my street.  The sanitation workers hanging from its sides leap down,  grab and toss the trash in a rhythmic dance of efficiency.  In almost a blink, the flotsam of the past week that washed up on the curb overnight disappears from the tree lawn.  In the giant compactor’s short trip up my long street, the vista of a reasonably neat suburban neighborhood is restored.

What would we do without them – these knights of refuse, restorers of order, these clean-slate clean-up craftsmen of our civilized society?

I’ve ruminated in this space before on the often shameful volume of trash I alone produce on a weekly basis. Although I’ve made efforts to reduce my garbage footprint through composting, not buying Styrofoam packaged food or hard plastic-shelled un-necessaries, I am still amazed and a little embarrassed by how much jetsam I jettison to lighten my personal load of consumerism each week.  I don’t like to think about how much I personally add to the unimaginable mound of detritus piling up – somewhere.

How lucky we are that the rejected refuse of our daily lives can be removed for us so efficiently each week.  I wonder what would happen if the garbage men came only once a month? Or if there were dozens of open, neighborhood trash heaps that some of us had to live next to – drive by each day? Of course, there are many places where exactly that is the reality. Lucky stars shine on us.

There is an ongoing debate in my community about switching from garbage and recycling bags to big, rolling plastic trash bins for each household.  I’m against them.  It’s not just the expense – residents would be either assessed a rental fee or there would be some sort of tax assessment. It’s more a matter of further gentrifying and sanitizing the messy and essential business of dealing with everyone’s trash. Plus, if you are not retired like me, you might not be home in the morning to roll your plastic bins back to the garage after the trash truck leaves, and so they sit there all day – just another eyesore in the neighborhood.

Somehow, it seems to me, the idea of hiding our waste in neat, clean, uniform containers removes the need to openly demonstrate and acknowledge how much of a burden each of us places on the planet from living our privileged lives.

Out of sight, out of mind.

There is value in owning our waste, I think.  While I remain grateful for the garbage men that take it away, I still think it is a good idea for each of us to assemble and package our individual waste product. Maybe this confronts us, at least once a week, with the size and permanence of our personal garbage footprint.



How Can I Not Laugh?

Chipmunks, like gazelles,
racing stripes a-blur, trampolining
through the uncut grass.

Irreverent tails flip
the bird as they dive
into the ankle-twisting
mine shafts underneath my lawn.


Regarding Deer


They reclined, unmoving, in the lush ivy at the back of the yard, like life-size lawn ornaments.  Six of them, with the lowering sun’s rays glowing warm through the oval cups of their ears; dark noses, turned toward the house.

I’ve just come home, parked the car in the drive and am halfway to the back door before I notice them.  All female. It’s early in the year still, but young males will have already sprouted at least the nubs of their mossy crowns-to-come. And the racks of more mature bucks would be evident – even against the backdrop of the still-bare scrim of trees along the fence.

No matter how often I see them, these wild but somehow companionable creatures, my breath catches, and I must linger and look. And they look too. Those large, extravagantly fringed eyes – dark and deep, seem to do more than look – they regard me.  It is compelling to be regarded so silently and intensely as this small herd does now, turning its attention toward me; calm, still, and seemingly unafraid. A tribe of benevolent exotics, come to rest in my yard. I’m a little spellbound and feel somehow honored by their condescending regard.

It’s hard not to assign some human attributes to them; intelligence, curiosity, imperiousness. All these come to mind. But I can’t know their reality. Are their hearts beating faster at my sudden intrusion? Is the sheen in their wide, wide eyes a sign of fear or just heightened alertness, maybe interest? Have their muscles tensed under the furred satin dun of their coats? Or are they indifferent to me, knowing the distance between us, plus an innate confidence in their swiftness, means there’s really no danger, yet?

I go into the house to start dinner.  My kitchen windows look into my long back yard.  As I chop things and stir things, the deer get up and move toward the house and I can now see it is two full-grown does and four other deer; smaller, but no longer fawns.  I don’t know if there is a name for deer not fully grown.  I watch them, and it seems they watch me as they forage ever closer to the house.  Soon, only the fence around my small herb garden below the kitchen windows separates us; about 15 feet.

I’m enjoying the company until one of the does moves into the flower bed and threatens the hydrangea.  So I go out into the yard and the does and three younger deer scamper back.  One does not.  We face each other, our heads at the same height, though she clearly has the advantage in weight and speed. She is beautiful. She takes a step closer, and I am charmed. There is a spell of wonder and delight, tinged just at the edges with fear, which roots me to the spot.  I am caught—unable to move—transfixed by this unexpected overture from a wild thing.

But now the larger deer are watching, and I am mindful of their size, their powerful leaps over fences (even the one with a damaged hind leg who walks on three and who has brought her fawns to visit three years in a row, now), the sharp hooves that pock my soft lawn all year. I break the spell with a clap.

They all turn and lope slowly, deeper into the yard. I go back into the kitchen, but still watch them in the fading light as they continue their graze.

But now dinner needs more of my attention and some minutes pass. When I look out again, they are gone.

I actually felt a little hurt. Dismissed. Their company, their regard, had, for a little while, made me feel special.

It is tempting to think we can have a communing – a relationship, if you will – with the wild things of the world, and so we are charmed, foolishly assigning them our human attributes and longing for a connection. No matter that deer are as common as rabbits, they remain unknowable; members of that powerful, mysterious, and beautiful otherness just beyond our understanding.

I feel bereft all evening long.

Injured doe who has brought groups of offspring to my yard for three years in a row.

Here’s a wonderful poem by Marge Piercy. March comes in on cleft hooves

Raptor Rapture

Last weekend I had the incredible privilege of holding in my hand, an American Kestrel; one of the “Ambassador Animals” at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.  Stryker, as this beautiful bird has been named, lives at the Museum, having been saved from a near-fatal injury which left it with a partially amputated right wing.

I have begun training to work with the Museum’s injured and rescued animals as a volunteer in its public education programming. I shared one experience a few weeks ago – my first encounter with Webster, the gorgeous corn snake.   And I am looking forward to learning more about all the “Ambassadors” at the Museum and sharing what I learn.

There is so much I could tell you already about this tiny falcon, this amazing avian predator; how its vision sees beyond our chromatic spectrum to pick up the ultraviolet urine trails of field mice,  or how it can hover – hang suspended in the air like the military’s Harrier jet – waiting for its prey to reveal itself.   But for now, I’ll just share this:


Let me tell you how
the heart leaps breath holds,
as this small creature dances,
talons pricking delicately now,
but (imagine) at another time
with fatal fierceness.

Settling, it grips a finger
and surveys the room.
The bright hard onyx of its eye,
seeing more and differently,
it becomes the ancient alien,
the wondrous other
of our weightless dreams,
our relentless, harrying fears.

© Kathleen Cerveny, 2018   


Resolutions at 1° on 1/1

From my kitchen window I watched the last day of the year close down. Streaks of coral fire, warmed the purpled underside of cloudbanks stretched across the luminous cerulean of an otherwise unclouded western sky. A spidered tangle of tree limbs was stenciled against this riotous backdrop.  It took but a moment for this glory to fade into the final dark of the year’s last night.

It’s early, now, on the first day.  The thermometer reads one degree. The first degree of what the temperature of this year will ultimately be. A near-full moon is muscling its way through that same spidered web of limbs, shining its torch across the deer-trailed, rabbit-tracked, squirrel-scrambled snow of my back yard.   If more snow had fallen in the night, the yard would be wiped clean again; a fresh, smooth blanket.  A clean slate. An empty canvas. A metaphor for the blank page on which the chronicle of this new year could begin.

But it didn’t. All the garbled calligraphy of what was, remains written, unchanged in the journal of what continues today.

It is our tradition, on this day, to resolve anew. To make change.  To start clean on a new and different path. But we can’t change what was, and we can’t help but carry it all forward.  I don’t mean to sound defeatist.  I am a pretty consistent optimist. I only mean to remember and reflect as the year, the day, the hour, moves us forward. It may be folly to think we can be or become other that who we have been. But it is not folly to believe that we can choose differently than we did in the past. And thereby maybe alter course a bit.

* * * * *

Many years ago a dear friend taught me a lesson I am only now beginning to absorb.  She wasn’t doing this consciously, just sharing a decision she had made for herself.  We were in a serious conversation and I asked a question.  She did not immediately respond.  In fact the silence between us began to be just a little uncomfortable.  I was about to ask if she had heard me – or if something was wrong, when she explained that she was trying to make the space to listen to her inner self more actively before speaking so her responses could be more thoughtful and maybe more true. “I’m counting to ten before speaking, these days,” she said.

What a small but profound choice, that could alter the way of being in the world, I am thinking today.  What if we all took the time to actually think, to consult our inner selves, before we spoke!  How would our conversations, our relationships be different? Might we be more honest, more nuanced in our responses?  More kind, perhaps?

This lesson was reinforced very recently by a wise woman who contacted me after a meeting we had both attended. She wondered if there was some way to manage future meetings so everyone was not talking over each other so we could really listen to what others were saying.  I was among the smothering talkers, I realized, and have been thinking about that ever since.

* * * * *

One of my favorite affirmations comes from my little, dog-eared “365 Days of Tao” paperback which I try to use as a daily meditation guide.  This one is from the middle of the year; July 1.

“If the boulders are moved, even a river will change its flow.”

Rather than wait for July to roll around again to act on all this, my resolution today is to try to move one boulder out of the garbled river.  Take one step; move one degree out of noise, into thoughtfulness. Make one small space of silence so that more of what is true and necessary can flow, un-garbled by the jumbled rush of ego.

Here’s a haiku I wrote some years ago that comes to mind now.

Who can understand
the bounder-garbled verses
of the river’s song?

© 2013 Kathleen Cerveny

* * * * *

Finally, here is Deng Ming-Dao’s meditation prompt for today:

“This is the moment of embarking.
All auspicious signs are in place.”

Starting the New Year as a Plucked Duck

This post is not about what you might imagine, given the title.

Thinking of starting the New Year with clean bedding, and being mindful of the single digit temperatures predicted for the first week of January, I made the mistake of removing the duvet cover from my big goose down comforter and sending it to the wash.  I bought the comforter some years ago and only used it during the ‘polar vortex’ of a few winters ago.  It’s been in storage ever since.  While probably not really dirty, I was on a roll to start the New Year fresh and clean.

So here I am, now, most of the day gone, covered in feathers and sweat, confounded by the impossibility of getting the cover back on.

I am 5 feet tall.  My arms, from armpit to fingertips, are not 2 feet long.  The duvet and cover are 109 by 60 inches.  The math doesn’t work.

So I consult the Google and there are videos of “How to Put on a Duvet Cover!”  I’m saved!

Or so I thought.  I was seduced right away by the obvious and swift simplicity of the ‘California Roll’ method: lay the cover, inside out on the bed, lay the duvet on top, roll them up together. Stuff one end of the roll into the corner of the cover, followed by the rest of the roll. Button up the open sides of the cover and roll the whole thing out, all right-side out and flat. Easy peasy.


I don’t know if my hands are too small, the comforter too bulky, my conceptual acumen and mechanical smarts on the fritz or what, but in practice it neither made sense, nor could I make it work.  So, two full hours of stuffing and flapping, un-stuffing and re-stuffing, flapping some more and even crawling inside the cover to push and bash the fluff into the corners, I finally achieved some semblance of completion.

I have no doubt I will be warm and toasty, so there is at least that satisfaction.  But I’m feeling completely frustrated and incompetent, here at the end of a year in which there has been more frustration and incompetence to deal with than I can ever remember (you know what I mean).

Plus, I’m left with a sweater I probably can never again wear in polite company unless I’m going to a costume party as a half-plucked duck.

Happy New Year, All!

Christmas Mysteries

There’s a fire and a tree and candles, this Christmas morning – and I’m caught up in the mystery of some childhood memories.

What were your favorite gifts, as a child? And what do you think about them now?  Do you ever wonder why your parents chose that gift, at that moment, for you? And did you ever ask them? For me, two come to mind as I sit here in the quiet dark of this snowfall morning; both surprises at the time and, because I did not have the foresight to ask my parents while they were still with me, these particular gifts remain quite poignant mysteries.

I don’t remember asking for a puppy. I do remember, after church and breakfast and when all the savaged wrapping paper was tossed and ribbons and bows saved, my Dad saying, “One more present.  Get your coat.” as he handed me a bath towel. I don’t remember walking down the long street to Mr. Gilchrist’s house, or even remember my Dad, with his one war-shattered and other wooden leg, walking  with me. I do remember, and can still feel the warm wriggle of the blond, cocker spaniel runt of the litter in my arms as we walked back home.  I was eight, and ‘Drifty’, as I called him – because he was the same color as a satiny driftwood branch Mom had placed on the hearth as a decoration – became my confidant and best friend that year I began to feel the difference between me and all the other kids in school.

The other present called to mind this morning, as Apollo’s Fire’s Celtic Christmas spills into the room through my fancy Sonos wireless speaker, is the small RCA stereo console that appeared on my 14th Christmas. And the Joan Sutherland LP sent by my Godmother, who had taken me to see the colouratura diva in Lucia di Lammermoor when the Metropolitan Opera was in town earlier that year. For years afterward that console played Copland and Mahler, Puccini and Orff. It went with me to art school where I tortured the downstairs apartment dwellers with Nielsen and Bernstein.

We were not a classical music family. Growing up there was a small radio in the kitchen – just for news and weather and school closings. The closest we came was a set of 45 rpm records with all Richard Rogers’ Victory at Sea music. My Dad must have bought those in the ‘50s when that series was on TV.  He’d always wanted to join the Navy during the war, but was color blind so was rejected and went into the Army instead.

But when I was younger, the basement had an old Victrola and dozens of 78 rpm records; the original cast recordings of Oklahoma! and The Student Prince. And one mysterious, very large vinyl record; Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which I played until it was worn out.  I don’t remember what orchestra, but the record jacket was the exact shade of vibrant green of the winter coat I insisted my Mother buy me one year.

No one played these records but me. As a child, I would spend hours marching around the big, octopus-armed Rheem  furnace, conducting and twirling to these recordings. I still know the words to every song in Oklahoma! and I still would give anything to play Ado Annie and sing “I Cain’t Say No.” 

I didn’t know why or how we came to have these wonderful things, or why I got a puppy I didn’t even know I wanted – or needed.  I desperately wish, now, that I had asked.

* * * *

Here’s a poem about Twirling.


In the basement’s blue-heart furnace world
beneath the Atlas-arms of heat
the banner of myself unfurls.

Victrola’s ancient voices turn
the gyroscope within. I meet
myself in basement’s furnace world.

The hem of my skirt, my arms and curls
fly up and out. Centrifugal beat
releases me and I unfurl.

Thready tenors croon and stir
the places where my sex first feels
its blue heat in this twirling world.

Perpetual motion stirs the pearl
of knowing; unselfconscious I’m revealed,
and blue heat rises as I twirl.

I vibrate. I’m a whirling girl;
a dervish, centered and complete.
The basement’s blue-heart furnace world
releases me. And I unfurl.

Kathleen Cerveny © 2013




Corn snake

As a teenager, my first awareness of the power of contemporary poetry came from an encounter with D. H. Lawrence’s poem “Snake.”  So beautiful, evocative and seductive the language, but so dark the subject.  The darkness did not lie in the image or actions of the poem’s snake, but rather was revealed through the dark heart of a human, acting on irrational or culture-generated fear of what is not understood.  The poem, through the speaker, offered exposition and expiation. The poem, for this reader, opened a wonder-world of depth and meaning through words that has remained my fascination with poetry to this day.

Yesterday I held a snake; a beautiful sienna and gold corn snake – or red rat snake.  His name is Webster, and he is one of the many ‘animal ambassadors’ – creatures in the educational programming division of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where I am a volunteer.  This was my initiation into the opportunity to someday work with the Museum’s animals that I’ve spent more than a year observing and learning about as a Steward (docent) in the Museum’s Perkins Wildlife Center.

Webster was a revelation. As a child growing up in the then-wilds of the ex-urbs, I used to catch snakes; the yellow-striped gartersnake, the blue racer. So I was neither squeamish nor afraid when Wildlife Volunteer Peter brought out Webster and allowed me to hold him. But I had forgotten, or perhaps never paid close enough attention as a child, to how specifically alive these creatures are.  The cool, smooth silk of their skin covers a body that is not just sinuous in its movement, but pulsing in the most subtle but powerful way. It is a long, continuously flexing muscle of a being that eases itself peacefully through the world and transforms itself into a whiplash when threatened.

I’ve thought a lot about why so many humans fear snakes.  Setting aside the devil in the garden myth, I think in part it may be because their mode of transportation and engaging with the environment is so unlike anything else on land that we know – including ourselves.  Most of us – even insects – have legs and arms; appendages used to navigate, investigate and manipulate our shared world.  But a snake seems propelled by magic; an invisible force. And its means of defense, as well as how it uniquely knows the world, is through its mouth and tongue.  (Only venomous snakes have fangs.  Most snakes have teeth – like us.)

Holding Webster yesterday – or, rather, being held by him, since he pretty much took over the job of engaging with me – was a pure delight.  Gentle but insistent contractions and expansions moved his smooth, cool, jeweled body around mine; I found myself festooned with necklaces, bracelets and belts of red and ochre patterned satin.  Feeling and observing his movements I could think of nothing better than it was as if he were swimming; flowing gracefully and with ease through the air, across the surface of my body.  Quite delicious.

As sensuous as the experience may have been, I was also conscious of Webster’s vulnerability. At its thickest point, the snake’s body was thinner than my wrist. His head and neck, the width of a pencil.  I could have done him harm had I not been careful in unwrapping him from the looped tangle he’d arranged of himself through the straps of my backpack and the cord of my Museum credential.  Yesterday’s experience was my first in observing the experienced wildlife education volunteers, and the first step in doing what it will take to become one myself.

For the live animal show in the Museum’s Sears Hall yesterday, Peter also worked with Sweetie, the red-tailed hawk and Lancelot, the porcupine, in addition to Webster the corn snake.  The audience of children and their parents, young couples and older folk had the chance to learn a lot about these important, wild and fascinating creatures that share our world.  As Peter’s lecture and demonstration were coming to a close, everyone in the audience got to touch Webster’s cool, smooth, clean body – but not the hawk or the porcupine.

Perhaps the reality of who were the scarier, more dangerous animals in the room resonated with some in the assembled crowd.

* * * * *

Here’s two favorite poems on the subject, from D. H. Lawrence Snake, and Emily Dickinson A Narrow Fellow in the Grass

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