Category Archives: Essays

November WriMo, Day 18

It’s (inter)National Novel Writing Month (iNaNoWriMo), though we all know I’m not working on a novel. But neither am I willing to pass up a chance to ride the wonderful wave of creative energy rolling across the globe and through my own amazing community. (Shout-out to all the beautiful Bluegrass writers!) So I’ve given myself four very different writing activities to work on this month and have been able to make time for at least one of them each day.

Today’s activity is blogging, inspired by this article on poetry by A.E. Stallings. I may have to print it and carry it with me for those awkward moments when I’m called upon to talk about what I do. (For the record, I often cop out by talking about editing, which is only slightly less deadly to conversation than poetry.) Stallings hits all the salient points, and I love him for it.

  • Poetry is not useful, yet it is everywhere.
  • It transcends us and will outlast us all in some recorded form, though who will care?
  • Poetry is commercially non-viable and materially irrelevant, which makes it rather suspect.

Poetry arises from paradox, from the multiple meanings a word or image can hold. It’s a linguistic version of certain mathematical equations which seem to describe separate realities happening all at once.

Anyone who doubts the subversive, contradictory, and disreputable power of poetry needs only consider this year’s Nobel prize award for literature. It doesn’t explain much, but it makes a fantastic illustration. (Kinda like poetry.)

A.E. Stallings, “Why Bother with Poetry?” Times Literary Supplement Online, 7 Nov 2016,


Smitten with knittin’

Mid-life has brought with it the usual changes in my physical and mental state, but the most surprising has been in the way my brain works. Last summer, I decided to make my daughter an iconic garment worn by a certain British science fiction hero from my own youth. Authenticity required the garment to be knit, so I found a copy of Knitting for Dummies and taught myself. Sounds simple enough, but it verges on the miraculous. scarf3

Behold the miracle!

I’ve been crocheting since the age of eight, when my grandmother showed me how to both crochet and knit. I readily took to the former but completely failed to grasp the latter. In the intervening decades, four other people have tried to teach me to knit — two of them more than once — without success. Something about my brain simply did not get knitting.

But this time I have had no trouble figuring out on my own — from diagrams, no less! — something that years of wonderful personal tutoring couldn’t get my brain to comprehend. The process wasn’t without setbacks; I unraveled and redid portions of the first foot several times, but the remaining thirteen (it’s a very long scarf) went along rather nicely.

With several hundred rows under my belt, I feel so confident that I’ve since undertaken two additional knitting projects and figured out how to purl. And I still get a ridiculous thrill every time I think about the fact that I’m knitting. So what if my middle-aged brain can’t recall where I left the car keys or the name of my first-born child? It finally gets how to knit!


This post is something new for me, a photo essay of sorts. I am a rank (as in stinky) amateur when it comes to photography, so don’t go in with high expectations. I do welcome feedback and suggestions, though.

October being my birth month and me being such an arachnophile, I often get spider-themed stuff for my birthday.

birthday This adorable spider balloon, with her fabulous dreds and winsome smile, is floating in my kitchen as I write this, making me giggle every time I see her. The flowers are still going strong, too. The box of cupcakes, barely visible behind the vase, is gone, however.


(Don’t worry; I didn’t eat them all myself. I shared them with the rest of the family. Really, people!)



I also received TWO sets of spider-themed outdoor lights: a light-up spider web and a string of brightly colored spiders (very much like the spiders in a dream I posted about a while back).

The colored spiders are glittery, so they glow even during the day when they aren’t lit.

Not shown is the giant paper spider protectively hovering over her brood of a dozen smaller paper spiders in the foyer. Her 12-foot crepe paper legs span the entire space. (I tried photographing her from several angles without good result.) When my sister asked if I had had a happy birthday, I replied with glee that I had spent the afternoon arachnifying the house.

But all this is merely a cheap and tacky prelude to the true artistry of Mother Nature, as revealed in this morning’s fog:



My home has been well and truly arachnified.

Some thoughts on fear

Lately I’ve been thinking about fear, particularly fear that divides us even as it holds us in its grip. We are all afraid of homicidal sociopaths with guns. Fear begets fear, and our reactions to that common fear differ widely: some of us are afraid that we won’t be allowed to arm ourselves adequately to defend against homicidal sociopaths with guns; some of us are afraid that anyone we allow to have a gun might turn out to be a homicidal sociopath.

By evolutionary design, fear is not a rational state: it demands a split-second decision to fight or flee. Some years ago, when we as a nation faced great crisis, a leader reminded us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. He called it nameless, unreasoning, and unjustified, and accurately noted that it hampers our ability to move forward.

Arguing with someone who is frightened does not make him less afraid. When a child comes into your room in the middle of the night because he has had a nightmare, you cannot reason with him that it wasn’t real. He has experienced that nightmare, and its effects on him are very real: elevated heart rate, adrenaline release, feelings of helplessness, sleep disruption. You can tell him that the nightmare is over and that he is okay, and you can offer something that will comfort and reassure him. Dismissing or belittling his fear will not diminish it in any way, but recognizing it and reconnecting him with normalcy will make it possible to move beyond it.

The tricky thing about fear is that it is based in reality, no matter how tenuously. The things we are afraid of really are out there, which is why reason doesn’t work against fear. But naming those things that frighten us gives us an opportunity to develop strategies for dealing with them. The next time your child wakes with a nightmare, he may remember what you said and did the last time and be able to go back to sleep on his own. If you find out that his nightmare may have been triggered by a TV show he watched in the evening, you can change your family viewing habits.

Fear is not banished by argument, but it can be surmounted when recognized. We need to listen to each other, to acknowledge even those fears we don’t share. Then, with these concerns on the table, we need to craft responses that address them all – not just knee-jerk reactions to the loudest or most alarmed.

Acts of God

If I were the kind of person who reads divine judgment into random weather events, I could have had a field day with the news that Isaac was threatening the Republican National Convention. It saddens me to think that pulpits across the country would surely have been ringing yesterday had the Democratic National Convention been in the projected path of the storm.

As it is, media vultures have noted that Isaac’s landfall could be an embarrassing reminder of the institutional failures that magnified the disastrous effects of Katrina. To my mind, contrasting images of hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast communities and political partisans in extravagant celebration will be far more disturbing.

I’m not looking forward to either convention, as it means I won’t even be able to listen to my beloved NPR station for at least two weeks, possibly more depending on how much pre- and post- attention these non-events garner. For decades now, both conventions have been closely-scripted rubber-stamping parties and vulgar orgies of pseudo-patriotic excess. Watching them (or even hearing about them) is kind of like watching the dog hump the ottoman.

I’m actually disappointed that Isaac has veered off to the west. I had entertained fantasies of Isaac causing the RNC to be cancelled altogether, followed by a hurricane in the Atlantic that strikes the North Carolina coast in time to cancel the DNC as well. If God really were in the business of using weather to comment on human affairs, that would be the surest proof.

Inspired by Oz

Today, the kids and I watched The Wizard of Oz at the local historic movie palace. It’s amazing the details you can see on the big screen, things that go unnoticed when the film is viewed on television. It used to be broadcast on TV every year when I was growing up, and my family always watched it. Today it dawned on me that I was ten years old before I realized that the scenes in Oz are in color, because we didn’t have a color TV until I was ten.

As a child, the tornado that sends Dorothy to Oz was unspeakably terrifying because tornadoes regularly cut swaths of death and destruction through my community. I spent an obscene number of hours huddled under a table in the southwest corner of our basement, waiting for the storm to rip our house from its foundations. For most of my childhood and into early adulthood, tornadoes were powerful and recurring images in my dreams, and they always looked like that horrible, snaky cyclone in the Wizard of Oz. I have to admit that seeing it on the big screen today was a bit unnerving, even now.

I never actually read the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz until a few years ago, when I read it to my own children. (We have now read all but three of the 14 Oz novels L. Frank Baum penned.) When I was in fourth grade, my teacher went on maternity leave in the middle of the year and was replaced by a sub who read Tik-Tok of Oz aloud to us after lunch every day. The following year, I received Ozma of Oz as a Christmas present. It remains to this day my very favorite Oz book.

I never realized how progressive Baum’s vision was until I began reading the books to my children. He wrote empowered female characters who stand up for what is right, lead armies and expeditions, and rule nations. He imagined a world in which animals and non-biological entities are people, too. He created a place in which common sense and quick wit hold their own with magic, sometimes even trumping it. And he envisioned a land in which good and evil aren’t entirely rigid concepts – good people can make poor decisions or do things that harm others, and evil people can have a change of heart.

I believe it is this latter quality, this fundamental belief that things are not always what they appear to be and that change is always possible and nearly always happens, that has inspired others to retell the stories of Oz. From The Wiz to Wicked to Tin Man, Baum’s Oz has been reenvisioned in unexpected ways that remain surprisingly true to the original source material. Oz has become a kind of dreamscape, in which familiar images reveal new layers of meaning to successive generations of readers and writers. I think Mr. Baum would be pleased.

When life gives you nuts…

I really dislike bumper nuts—you know, those chrome or plastic imitation scrota designed to dangle beneath the rear end of a truck or SUV. If you have never seen these bizarre accessories, consider yourself lucky. (Someone who feels the need to drive an oversized vehicle and give it genitalia is clearly overcompensating for something.) You can look them up on the internet; if they seem appallingly tasteless on a web site, you should see them in traffic.

I do, however, owe a reluctant debt of parental gratitude to these insignia of insecurity, or at least to one in particular. While sitting at a red light, my children and I were admiring a souped-up sedan in the lane next to us. As the light turned and the car pulled away from us, my ten-year-old son spotted something large and shiny swinging below the rear bumper.

“What’s that hanging off the back?” he asked. I laughed to buy some time, took a deep breath, and answered, “Those are supposed to represent testicles.” Silence filled the car.

“You know what testicles are,” I prompted. A glance in the rear view mirror was not reassuring. Their faces wore expressions of mild puzzlement and deep suspicion. Oh, geez, I thought with dismay, I know we’ve talked about this stuff before! Trying not to appear flustered, I launched into what I hoped was a matter-of-fact description of testicles. After a few sentences, my seven-year-old daughter’s face brightened.
“Oh, you mean balls!” she exclaimed.

“Uh, yes,” I sputtered, caught off guard, then added weakly, “I didn’t realize you knew that term.” A chorus of “Duh!” from the back seat dissolved the tension, and I attempted to reclaim the intellectual high ground by emphasizing the correct medical terminology. That brought “weenie,” “boobs,” and “butt” into the conversation as further examples of slang terms for body parts.

Suddenly self-conscious about where his question had led, my ten-year-old slumped in his seat and buried his face in a large book. Never one to shy away from sensitive topics, his sister pressed on with all kinds of questions, and we had our most detailed sexual information talk to date. I swear I looked in the rear view mirror and saw my son’s ears appear around the edges of his book as he strained to hear every word. All my nervous preparation for a “teachable moment” just like this was finally paying off, and by the time we got home I felt like Supermom!

Call me ungrateful, but I still really dislike bumper nuts.