Saturday, December 30, 2017

After December

On this penultimate day of 2017, I seem to have no patience for the "best of" lists that appear at the end of every year. I'm less interested in looking back in this particular year. It seems more important than ever to notice the day I'm living in, appreciate what is here and now. That is what the chaos of the last year has led me to, I guess.

Which is not to say that it is always awful to look back, or, indeed ahead. This long blast of arctic air we've received in the upper Midwest can't help but cause us to look at least a little forward -- maybe to temperatures in the 20s. The rainy mid-40s of Seattle look pretty good right now.

I have written often of my poetry group that has been meeting now for almost 15 years. I get so much support and inspiration from Andrea Potos, Katrin Talbot and Eve Robillard, persisting against time and the obstacles that arise in every life to find the art and beauty in past, present and future. Here is a little end-of-year poem from Miss Eve from her chapbook Everything Happens Twice.


A little boy asks his mother
What comes after December?
All he can think of is darkness.

A dark field, or a wall.
Stairs going down and down.
A sky without stars.

Still, the boy reasons, his mother
has lived through many Decembers;
even he has encountered December before,

he's almost positive. January,
says his Mom. After December
there's January. And then she

takes his hand and walks with him
down the street and into the rest
of his immense, unknowable life.

--Eve Robillard

Thursday, December 21, 2017

On This Solstice

Dark Heralding
woodcut by Nick Wroblewski
This is the season when I can let the silence take hold of me, a sort of deep, internal pause I associate with preparing to turn again towards the light. This is the season when I can forgive myself for knocking off well before the sun sets to walk in the woods at Picnic Point and catch the last of the tundra swans feeding and singing on Lake Mendota before they head further south to winter.

I am so grateful this year to have writing projects I'm excited to be working on, and yet right now I'm not tuned into those, but rather the hush of these dark mornings, the sound of wind between the houses, the smell of snow in the air.

We live on the edge of the university, and the students have now mostly gone. There is less traffic on our streets, and with the Christmas shopping all done, it seems fine to spend huge parts of the day rereading favorite novels, indulging in the warmth and familiarity of these stories and characters that feel pretty much like family. Especially this year, with all of our tumultous politics and world events, it feels good to take a few weeks to touch base with that inner sense of home and family -- alongside those evenings of celebration with our living family and treasured friends.

On this solstice, may you be safe and protected. May you be peaceful and joyful. May you have all you need in the coming year.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Home Again, Home Again

 It has been more than five years since we began making a sort of second home in Seattle. By now, so many things about the city are familiar and reasonably comfortable. I drive the city like a pro, even occasionally offering advice to our Lyft drivers about alternate routes I know that they don't.

Beauty is such a casual thing in the Northwest. The sparkle of the Sound when the sun makes its brief afternoon appearance, turning the corner from Jackson to Rainier Avenue to find Mount Rainier in its full glory, striped over by power lines and traffice poles, the Cascades or the Olympic ranges appearing out on the horizon after days of cloud. I never tire of watching the ferries come and go across Elliott Bay, or spotting the Space Needle, or the glow of Bellevue's skyline across Lake Washington.

And yet, after a month in Seattle, as we fly over the considerably flatter land of the midwest into Dane County Regional Airport -- as we are about to do once again in a few days --  I feel home in a way that has far more to do with roots, I think, than familiarity.

There is a particularity to the shape of the clouds in the midwest, burned into my memory from so many summer days lying on my back in the grass as a child. There is a way that we internalize the landscape we grow up in -- or so it seems to me. So the trees in the UW Arboretum that I have walked in every season seem like friends. The watercress that grows around streams no less a marvel than snow-capped peaks.

I don't imagine these thoughts are particularly original, but it is where my mind wanders when I try to figure out the enigma of what makes home. How my eyes do love both these places so much, though it does not feel equivalent.

I've neglected to talk about the human relationships that make a place home, but that's a whole other series of thoughts. I love my family and friends who are at this point scattered all over the country, and a few places outside the States. Most of all these days, my eyes seek comfort in the landscape. I don't know if it is a function of age, the times in which we are living, or simple humanness. But there it is.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A Few Thoughts After Thanksgiving

It felt like more work than usual this year to find things to be grateful for. They are as plentiful as in every year before this. It's only that we are living in a time of flux, I suppose, that makes us feel like we're hanging on for our lives and that things are not easy. There is so much we are not happy about in the world at large, and it seems to be coming to our attention in daily jolts. I choose not to get specific about all that -- it is everywhere.

I was lucky to be with my family this year, and with many of their friends. We had plenty to eat, great conversation, and the chance to watch the children playing and acting up as they do on a holiday and when the parents are less watchful. It was great.

And then we got to spend some time in nature, while nature was doing its inevitable late November things. The Northwest Coast beaches are stunning (if dark and wet) at this time of year, way more exciting than in times of blue sky and gentle breezes. Here is the poem I wrote about that.

                                    Beach 4, Olympic National Park

What is it with this family, always
hitting the beach when the skies hang
heavy and dark, the sea churning up foam
as the tide works its way in. A week of rains
have washed slurries of mud onto the bridge
so we climb over stacks of wet rock to reach
sand where the air smells of salt, cinnamon
and exhilaration. We chase the waves and they chase
us back, squealing, screaming, holding on to each other
as if that will prevent a good dousing, this wildness
so much more an expression of gratitude
than anything from the table.


Tuesday, November 7, 2017


Part of the pleasure of reading a novel is that we as readers become, in a very real sense, co-creators with the author. The author describes certain details of the character and the setting -- a home or office, the landscape, the weather -- and we complete the picture in our minds. A forest in the book becomes a forest I walked in Peninsula State Park; a lake cabin takes on the light and dimensions of the one my family rented one year in my childhood. From the details of physical description the author gives me, I create in my mind a picture of who that character is. It varies some from book to book, author to author, how much detail is provided from the text itself and what we supply with our imaginations.

That act of co-creation is among several reasons why adapting beloved novels is such a tricky business. Once actors are chosen, a setting filmed, we are faced with realities on screen that may not match with what we have been holding in our minds. Add to that the compromises that the adapting screenwriters must make for the sake of time, money, or simply differing sensibilities between the showrunners and the novel's author about what makes good drama, and you can see why we so often hear the lament that the movie or TV show was simply not as good as reading the book.

It has been fascinating this past few weeks to watch the Twitter debates within the Outlander fandom over the most recent, long-awaited episodes of the season. Let me say first that there is so much goodwill towards this production, largely due to the generosity of Ronald D. Moore, his cast and writing crew in letting the fans in on their process and thinking. And also because production values have been extremely high, with more than a nod of respect to Diana Gabaldon, from whose prolific mind these stories originated.

We are, at this writing, just over the middle section of the third season of Outlander, based on the 880-page third novel in the series, Voyager. It is a novel that spans more than 20 years in the lives of the characters, includes many deeply emotional scenes, and an action-packed plot in settings that include the Scottish Highlands, Boston, Edinburgh, the English Lake District, a sea voyage, Jamaica, a cave on Hispanola, and finally, the shores of colonial Georgia. It involves a long-awaited reunion of Jamie and Claire, our heroes, and the many revelations that come from living 20 years apart in two wildly different time zones, by which I mean they were separated not only by place but by 200 years. Just the fact that the writers were forced to put this much plot and emotional nuance into 13 episodes seemed to me an incredible handicap in recreating this novel for screen.

For fans of the book, the reunion scenes and the revelations that follow were highly anticipated moments for the TV show. And for many of the faithful book readers, they fell short. How not? I wonder now. In order to fit the book into this season, almost every scene and every conversation was truncated to fit into the allowed time slot. The pacing often felt off as the characters revealed who they have become and held back what they were not ready to talk about. In some places, rather dramatic plot or dialog changes were made because the writers and/or the actors themselves couldn't feel their way into the scenes the way Gabaldon wrote them. I would argue that when you trim scenes this severely, a lot of the logic for a character's behavior gets lost.

I should add here that there were episodes early in this season -- those in which Jamie and Claire were following their separate journeys -- that were incredibly well done and thoroughly satisfying. But yeah, in this middle section, I'm disappointed. Not so much that I won't continue to watch. It is still thrilling to see characters that I've loved come to life in a production that strives so hard (and often succeeds) to be excellent. With her novels, Gabaldon broke through a number of barriers in what is often called genre fiction -- that is, she continually defies the notions and rules of genre. The show under Ronald D. Moore's stewardship has been equally groundbreaking television, particularly for women.

I ponder these thoughts and feelings as I begin to learn the nuts and bolts of screenwriting for some new ventures of my own. From that angle, I can find nothing but admiration for the Outlander writing team. It is a difficult, arguably thankless task to adapt any novel, much less one the size and scope of Voyager. I realize I am watching a master writing team -- and I'm finding those choices I consider to be "mistakes" both thought-provoking and instructive.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

To Knit

We've enjoyed an especially warm fall here in the upper Midwest, though that appears to be at an end. It is bittersweet, the slow end of summer's warmth, the sort of thing that invites poetic thoughts. When I look over my poems I realize I've written many more about autumn than any other season.

With the arrival of colder weather comes also my urge to begin a knitting project -- or pick up the one I dropped in the previous spring. I don't knit as much as I used to these days but there was a time I never went anywhere without a project. Learning to knit saved my life when I could not seem to pull myself out of a long bout of anxiety and depression. The handwork, the necessity to follow intricate patterns was a good part of that, and also the sheer pleasure of producing beautiful and useful items to keep or to give away. Every part of it contributed to my healing.

I often pondered as I worked, the wonder of creating elaborate patterns from a single thread -- the geography of networked stitches and ladders of cable becoming a fabric. Naturally I've tried to write about this. Here is a small attempt.


That time when you stood
every day on the precipice
of grief, unable to step back, to run
or to leap, and the yarn shop woman
your mother's age but so different
taught you to knit, urging you past
the dropped stitches, the big holes
and ragged edges, unwilling
on your behalf to let you accept
defeat; those days of endless clicking,
rough strands sliding over the pads
of your fingers, each knot
and twist tying you back
into the fabric of your self.


Thursday, October 26, 2017

More on Dogs and Autumn

Madison, Wisconsin, is a beautiful place in October with its blue skies, mild temps and blazes of autumn color. Part of its preciousness, maybe, has to do with intimations of winter to come.

Winnie the beagle has made a small comeback for the season in which she has always revelled. She still loves to dive through a leaf pile on a cool morning and often comes up with something tasty dropped weeks ago by a careless college student.

We are savoring the season this year -- sunsets at Memorial Union, walks in the UW Arboretum, a trip to the apple orchards in Gays Mills. It makes a person want to write a poem.


The old dog is dying a little
each day, skies sapphire, light
aslant with golden meaning 
as we walk our favorite haunts. I want
this mellowing, days moving at a pace 
for reflection -- not the cruelty
of spring, its knife-blade winds. Apples
ripen, leaves hang by their withering
stems, unready yet to drop, the last pink rose
blown wide and fragrant.

On days like today, she still prances
like a pup, catches scents on the wind, finds
a tossed-off old Frito on the curb. We bide
and we bide, sitting by the lake earlier
each night to watch the sun set, greedy
for every last breath of summer, every shade
and hue of twilight, the sprinkled
promise of stars.