How the Light Has Changed

How the Light Has Changed

French flag

You are pulled to the window by some force that wants you not to miss how the early morning’s blush climbs up the sky behind the houses across the road. The screen of trees – pines and maples, naked but for three evenly spaced squirrels’ nests – is starkly black against the startling magenta. You look down at your notebook to write this, and when you look up again, it has all faded into a clouded gray. Gone in less time than it took to write one sentence.

You notice that a light snow has fallen, sugaring the lawns and the mountain range of spent leaves piled at the curb, and you feel the year turn toward the growing darkness.

This oddly benevolent November has been a special gift, gentling the transition. Time has spilled gold and fire into the bowl of this perfect autumn, and held it there for you a while.

What can you do but be grateful.  Things change so quickly.  A week ago Paris was still the ‘City of Light’.

Accomplishing Retirement: a Dilemma

Accomplishing Retirement: a Dilemma

The adjustment to retirement is very interesting (51 days in so far). While there is much to recommend it, I am confronted with feelings of guilt for not being productive in service to goals and obligations outside myself.

I spent the last week making and hanging new curtains for my front bay window.DSC00478

I went to lectures on the Milky Way and the La Brea Tar Pits at the Natural History Museum, attended an astounding concert by Benjamin Bagby singing/reciting Beowulf in Old English, put on by Apollo’s Fire, and saw a movie in the middle of the day (Bridge of Spies – worth seeing). I finished a novel by Sarah Braunstein (The Sweet Relief of Missing Children) and started another by Irish writer Dermot Healy (A Goat’s Song).  I mulched and trimmed the garden for winter, made giant pots of soup and stew for the coming cold weeks, bought and assembled a new, cushy office chair and a desk to replace the decrepit one I’ve been carting around for 15 years. DSC00483 I went to the gym twice and tried and failed to write a poem to fulfill an assignment from my writing group. Among other things.

And it feels like I haven’t accomplished anything. I’ve done stuff, but what have I accomplished?  What, beyond things that made me happy, that satisfied my personal needs, have I accomplished

I was having lunch with a friend, also retired, and musing on this matter, and we thought that those of us who have spent their working years in service to a cause they were passionate about, may be similarly plagued with this odd kind of selfish guilt upon retirement. We wondered if folks who had made their living from work that had no deep personal meaning felt differently when they retired—could go play golf all day, travel, etc., and feel they deserved to have all their time for themselves.

That’s probably a simplistic and maybe rather arrogant musing. People volunteer all the time for things they care about.  They get involved in their church, do all kinds of things that go beyond self-indulgence.  Truth be told, I will too, I am sure.  But what?  Maybe that’s what’s bothering me. I don’t have a plan; not working toward a goal.

Our society and our economy are rooted in the Puritan concept of the productivity of the individual.  We work harder and longer than people in any other culture. At the same time, we are a consumer society, one that constantly flirts with hedonism as a defining value.  It’s sort of a vicious cycle: produce stuff so you can be happy consuming stuff.  Service is not a valued part of the economic equation.  Yet service satisfies at a deeper level than consumption, doesn’t it?  But its rewards are not necessarily monetary and so are less valued in our capitalistic culture.  Perhaps that’s why the on-profit sector too often finds it so hard to make its case for what it contributes/produces.

I get Social Security payments now, each month.  On the one hand, I know the payments I made into that system over the 57 years that worked (I had a paper route as a youngster) have earned that money.  But it still feels a little like pay for no work.

Well, as I said, I’m only a month and a half into my retirement.  Perhaps I’ll take it a little easy on myself. I have always been able to find and follow my passions.  The problem is, I have a lot of passions.  The dilemma is choosong what to throw myself into now.

I promised myself—and have told anyone who asked me “what’s next”—that I did not intend to think about that question until after the first of the year.  Perhaps that’s the best goal I might try to accomplish right now.

There’s Lots More Steps

Cycles, Spirals and Stairs: Mixing Metaphors Toward a New World View


I used to think the events of the world played out like the movement of a pendulum: extreme swings from one fanatical or reactionary or prejudicial pole to another with brief moments of rest, when sanity and progress prevail. I used to think these in-between moments were the opportunities for humanity to take the next steps in advancing to the summit of human achievement, to move higher toward the apex of enlightenment.

But the pendulum never seems to rest. Something always keeps it swinging, and lately its inevitable sweeps, each a reactionary swing away from a centered state, brings to mind the slicing arcs of Edgar Allen Poe’s terrifying machine. It’s quite a cynical philosophy, I’ve decided, so lately I’m trying out a different world view; one with more positive potential.

It’s not pendulum swings, it’s cycles. Cycles and spirals. The events in our lives and in the course of history (wars, disappointments, petty slights – name your favorite ills) come around again and again in a repeating orbit of ‘same old, same old’-ness, digging the orbital groove of habitual, repeated response deeper with each turning.  What if, in the centrifugal power generated by the cycle, the path could shift a bit and initiate a spiral outward, toward a different destination – a different destiny?  Rather than a ring that binds, think of

the chambered nautilus, stock-photo-51978066-nautilus-shell-patternFibonacci’s golden sequence, th (2)the un-furling frond of the (3)

In a karmic sense, “What goes around comes around” may be true and may even serve some sort of just purpose. But these karmic ‘turnings’ may also offer the chance to grow, choose differently, break the cycle. When the cycle repeats, the next orbit launches, when the button gets pushed, can we hear a different bell? Open a different door? Stop for a moment and imagine a different response?  Can we urge the circle/cycle/orbit into a spiral that reaches up and out,  toward a more humane response, a more evolved reaction, a more enlightened way of being?

I attached a Gahan Wilson cartoon from The New Yorker at the top of this post.  It was pinned up in my office at work for many years and now lies under the glass on my desk top near my computer as a constant reminder that there are many more steps ahead and I need to keep climbing.  In my own lengthening string of cycles, I am in the hard process of accepting that my personal orbit around the wheel will eventually decay. In truth, this probably has already begun. The question I ask myself now is, can I see and understand my own repeating cycles? And when the unproductive ones come around again, can I respond differently at the turning?


Being Amazed

Being Amazed

Under the glass on my desk, right next to my computer, is a greeting card with a picture of Mary Oliver as a child; long blond hair, princess dress. She looks right at me, one arm reaching up and out. Below the photo is a quote of hers; “Pay attention. Be amazed. Tell about it.”

Mary Oliver

These early mornings, as the sky crisps and clears, I have been amazed by the view out my front bay window. Venus, intensely bright, rises in the east before the sun can lighten the sky. She has been followed in recent weeks by Jupiter, who climbs closer to her each day. Fainter, but still visible is Mars. In a few days – October 26 – one hour before sunrise, they reach their closest proximity of the year. It will be something to see, weather permitting.


I rise early and sit in my living room, first cup of coffee in hand, cat on my lap, looking out at the sky through the upper panels of my tall bay windows.


I get to see the sky brighten – naked or cloud-shrouded. I watch the trees gradually disrobe in the fall and dress themselves in the spring. But these past weeks, with the planetary display, I have been amazed to feel something of my place in this corner of the universe by imagining the silent, smoothly moving orbits of the planets in our solar system, oiled and balanced like the jeweled movements of a fine watch, We all move ’round and ’round our own courses, but from time to time, get a glimpse of where we are in relation to others.

I imagine myself, sitting on the surface of earth, facing out to the edges of our system – a ring-side seat, right now, to the performance of three sibling planets dancing together for my amazement each morning, I will be interested to see what happens October 27. Will Venus, Jupiter and Mars begin to move away from each other again? In what directions? Will there be some dramatic shift in the choreography that will surprise – change the rhythm of their moves?

Where I am in relation to others has been a subject of much musing lately. My own orbit has changed so dramatically since retiring from my rewarding but all-consuming job – less than a month ago, now. I am working to find the equilibrium that will govern the shape and balanced eccentricity of a new orbit, and its relationship to the orbits of others. I expect there will be new entrants in my planetary system, and some old and familiar worlds continuing to circle with me. I wonder, a year from now – five years from now – what my universe will look like. Who will I dance with in a regular cycle of relationship, who will I meet serendipitously or through some unseen machination of time or karma? And how will my orbit shift or settle in response? I can’t know, of course, but I can pay attention, and watch with amazement. And maybe tell about it.

Stonecoast in Ireland

Stonecoast in Ireland

Ted, Kathleen, Jeannie and Annie at Dingle Bookshop (1)

Ted, Kathleen, Jeannie and Annie at Dingle Bookshop

Reading in the Dingle BookshopThis July (2015)I had the great privilege of participating in the Dingle, Ireland summer residency for the Stonecoast Creative Writing Program of the University of Southern Maine, as an alumna of that program. There are two residencies offered in Ireland for up-to ten students each term; July and January. I was further privileged to co-host one of the workshops during that residency, with Jeanne Marie Beaumont, my former mentor at Stonecoast. The Ireland residencies are under the fine leadership of Ted Deppe and Annie Deppe.

In addition to the hard work of worshops for the students to advance their own work, the residencies feature daily lectures and evening readings by the faculty and by amazing guest Irish Writers. This residency we reveled in the wisdom and art of guest writers Harry Clifton, Kevin Barry, Angela Patten and Daniel Lusk, all of whom were most generous in their teaching and social interactions with us.

Dingle Bookshop readingI was also honored to give the first of the evening readings which take place in the Dingle Bookshop on Green Street. The readings are open to the public. And they came. Each evening the book store was filled with locals as well as the students in the residency program.

Being in Ireland was an amazing experience. I was able to go early and stay late, and over the next weeks I will be posting several short blogs about my experiences while getting to know a bit about this remarkable peninsula on the far western edge of the European continent. I will also post some more photos.

Sharing and Acceptance

This has been a very interesting week, one in which I seem to have been called to consider how I want to be in the world going forward.  This ‘call’ has come through several separate channels, all bumping up against each other through just my daily routine.

First was a dinner with a friend and mentor from many years ago, whose work in the world is to help accomplished people accomplish more through personal renewal.  I had taken a year-long leadership renewal course with her at the Shannon Institute in Minneapolis more than ten years ago, and the experience, which helped me think, for the first time about what my core values were, has continued to resonate in my life ever since.

Then the other day a dear friend, whom I love not because she seem to know something useful about everything (which she does), but because she is a warm and giving person, mentioned that when a certain Native American tribe prayed, it was never to ask for anything.  The only form of prayer they had was to express gratitude.  This meant finding thankfulness in every situation, no matter how sad, fearful, dire – or joyous.

And this morning, my daily meditation prompt, from 365 Tao, Daily Meditations, by Deng Ming-Dao, a small and beautiful book I consult each morning to give me something to think about all day, is about ‘acceptance.’

Drought burns basins to dust,

Light rain is a dew of mockery.

Receive without complaint,

Work with fate.

I also have a personal mantra which I speak each morning and night, parts of which I borrowed from Wallace D. Wattles’ two strange little books; The Science of Getting Rich and The Science of Being Great (I know!) when I was young and uncertain for my future.  Examining this mantra (which is not about getting rich), and which I have always thought of as sort of a prayer, I realized for the first time that it asks for nothing except to share with others, the core values I have declared for myself and incorporated into in this ‘mantra.’

All these together seem to be calling me to examine these values, see if they are still the ones I want to live my life by, and to consider gratitude, acceptance and sharing as touchstones for experiencing what comes as I move into the later chapters of the journey.

Kind April

The sun came out briefly one evening last week.  After four days of rain I needed to get out.  A short walk around the block then I sat, for the first time this year, on my porch.  I watched the shadows creep up the face of the houses across the street and crawl into the crown of the tall trees that dominate my neighborhood as the sun set to the west behind me. Too wet still to walk in the yard, I sat listening to the soft suck of the garden, swallowing the melt of the long winter.

Just last week, in the shopping center, piles of coal black, iron hard snow still framed the vast parking lot. But now, in the cracks between the cement squares of the sidewalk, fine hairs of grass, delicate green cilia, are pushing through the mud and moisture, testing the air.  How eager things are to get going. Already, regiments of lawn bags stand, overflowing on neighbors’ tree lawns; the winter swept up, stuffed in plain brown paper, waiting to be carted out of sight and mind.

The poet  (T.S. Eliot, in The Wasteland) says “April is the cruelest month” perhaps reflecting with sad anticipation on the temporality of things even at the moment that they are first coming into being.  I can understand that. This promise of renewal is only that and we know another season of cold and darkness will come.  But here and now, sitting on my porch on a mild evening, after a decidedly cruel winter and despite the rain and mud, I choose to see and hear and feel April as the kindest and most hopeful of months.

Branching Out

On a corner in the Royal Heights neighborhood where I live, there are two giant evergreens, white pines, I think, which stand in defiance of a cardinal rule  for conifers.  Each has divided its trunk in two, reaching one arm skyward, extending the other, thick and rather insouciantly, at nearly 90 degrees over the sidewalk, like a semaphore signalman’s letter “T” — sans flags, of course.   I was taught in school that it is deciduous trees which branch out—extend from their trunks multiple broad arms, and hands with sinuous fingers.  It is the conifers whose trunks stand tall and solitary, straight as the Papal Guard, fine feathered whiskers of their needles floating from the spidery sticks of the secondary branches.  These are the stoic trees, imperious and self-contained.

I see these two unusual trees each early morning that it is not too cold or wet for a walk.  And I walk, now, looking toward retirement and some liberty from many decades of 7:30 AM breakfast meetings, Monday morning staff time. It is interesting to suddenly consider being unencumbered from the entwining structure of external expectations, to stand alone and self-contained.

My doctor says that, barring something unforeseen, I should prepare to be here for another 20, 30 years.  Depending on the emotional vagaries of the day, this message resonates as either a sunlit open door—or the abyss.  I have been lucky in my work life.  So many times my own desires have found support in the needs and interests of others, and I have been able to pursue a creative path within the context of a paying job. And that context, despite the compromises required in any corporate setting, has given me the platform to make a contribution and provided considerable security.  Now I face, alone, the tangled web of Medicare and Social Security—and what to do with all the time ahead.

Perhaps these two iconic trees I see each day are not so odd.  I’m sure there are many reasons a conifer’s shape would alter from the expected; a lighting strike, an injury, a worm.  But that there are two of them, so very large and standing prominently at adjacent sides of a lot, they are striking to me as I round the corner on my daily walk.  It’s as if they were saying ‘hello,’ and ‘goodbye, now,’ each extending an arm to wave as I walk by. I take these quirky apparitions as a reminder to be flexible, adventurous, not tied to expected outcomes—mine or others’, and as a message that in the time ahead there still is room to branch out.

Farewell Poet Laureate Reading

Please join me and my wonderful Stonecoast mentor, Jeanne Marie Beaumont, for a reading at Heights Arts Gallery April 18, 2015  at 7:30 PM.  This is my final activity as the 2013-14 Cleveland Heights Poet Laureate. (Yes I know it’s 2015 – but the laureateship chages in Apirl, hence the overlap.)  Jeanne is a wonderful poet New York and taught me so much, and I am so happy to be able to read with her.

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