In the Trees

It’s 2 a.m. and the wind is raising a ruckus, and the moon and stars are flickering behind fast-scudding clouds like a 1920s silent film. The clouds are flying east, over the ridge. Note to self: Hiroshima is not good bedtime reading for a solid night of sleep. Its calm, unadorned style, its attention to quotidian detail, its matter-of-fact tone remove the distance between me and the four men and two women around whom the story revolves to connect us deeply to the enormity and horror of the event. The men, professionals, two doctors and two “men of the cloth, are a bit removed, but the women are so like “us,” a young office clerk, a widowed mother of three youngsters eking out a living with piece work. I hear their voices in my head.

The downy woodpecker atop the pine

Bobbed and bowed in obsequious courtesy

To the slow-rising sun

Sifting color lightly onto the forest

Bluing the sky behind orange taffeta clouds.

Crenulated branches bounce and dance

As the air stirs the languid brightening of day.

The sun had come out beneath a few remaining fluffs of clouds by the time I rose late after middle-of-the-night reading and writing. The feeders are aswarm with tiny warblers, chickadees, nuthatches and wrens. Their flitting color and chipping replace the thundering darkness of rain on the roof for the past week. The downy woodpecker sits silhouetted beside a large pine cone as he ducks and bobs atop the long-needled pine at the edge of the clearing. After nearly fifteen minutes he lifts without stirring the branch and I realize that the cone is another smaller bird. Without binoculars, I cannot make out its type, but I wonder at the miracle of their silent companionship in the vast open forest.

Photo by Patrice Bouchard on Unsplash

Jan. 22, 2011


Last night I sat beneath a cloudy sky wrapped in a snug blanket until my nose got too cold. I’ve been working on material about my dad’s family, compiling quite a lot of detail to verify when I get to New York. I want to go back to a website I found to do some more digging and verifying especially about immigration. It’s so difficult to pin down which of the dozens of Dentes sailing back and forth out of Naples are my ancestors, but it’s exciting to be pulled into the facts and to sense that I may be able to form a true backbone of our family story. When I weave it in with my memories, and the stories from my cousins Charlie, and the details gleaned from photographs and visits to Mt. Kisco, I can almost see it taking shape. I should look for a residency in New York to make it happen!

The sky is hurtling fistfuls of rain at the cabin. It clatters against the windows like gravel. The trees jerk and twitch as if trying to yank themselves out by the roots and run away. The clouds are descending, turning the day purple, and the forecasts call for an inch or more of snow and heavy winds. The wind already is strong enough to clang even the largest of the Indian copper bells I hung yesterday, and the chimney smoke escapes to cling to the ground, a blanket beneath the whipping air. The juncos are quite bossy at the feeders, so the nuthatches sneak in mostly when they’re away, but the purple finches and some of the sparrows have begun to appear in response to the new seed, undeterred by the juncos.

It’s thrilling to have a place to live that allows me to find the core from which my good writing will flow. Thank heaven for nature! Amid the constancy of wind and rain, I am immersing myself in writing about the late 1800s immigrant experience in the United States as I begin to draft something about Silvestro and Angelo’s arrival. I increasingly feel that time in NY, and especially in Mt. Kisco, is vital to this project. I hope to find images of these relatives or at least sufficient information to allow me to see and hear them and tell their stories. I know that Silvestro was literate, and they chose to settle outside The City, with whatever implications that holds.

Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash

April 17, 2011

Stripes and Shadows

It’s mid-July, and the cherries are finally coming ripe, but the sweet ones taste like pie cherries right now. The peas are lavish, prolific, and the strawberries promise a huge harvest in a few weeks, as do the pear, apples and plum. But the deer devoured my petunias, my rhubarb, and many of my vegetables. They clearly don’t like lavender or most of my herbs as they left them unscathed, but they gobble up greens and squash and green tomatoes, plants and all.

I am coming to the realization that this is the lake cabin in Maine made better. The temperature tonight is supposed to dip down into the forties, with a high tomorrow in the mid seventies. It will stay much the same for several days, so like Maine at this time of year. Canoeing and swimming are the only water sports we lack that are much enjoyed by me and the boys, but with the pond below, maybe we can figure that out, too. Here I have a good kitchen, gardens, hiking, wildflowers, abundant wildlife and so much more to compensate for any loss.

The sky is mostly clear with high smudges of white, but directly south of the cabin, three small gray clouds hang like dirty fingerprints on glass. They turn to purple chevrons as a fourth materializes slightly west of the others that is dark and streaked, which suggest that there is a very, very small, isolated rain shower somewhere south and west of here. And then they break ranks, scatter and disappear as another forms even farther south, and another one or even two farther west.

Far beneath them, the Palouse lies in stripes and shadows that my brain paints in the vivid greens of the season. Low westerly light highlights the contours, exaggerating their curves. For one flash the light captures and creates a terrain of color and texture, and then all goes to gray. The fields of lentils that extend beyond eyesight alongside the road here have at last flowered, seasoning the green with dancing white. The farmer with the big field nearest was out with his equipment, preparing to plow and seed, but the pheasants and ducks that have occupied the waterlogged roadside trench and low places in the fields have moved on. An oriole sang to me as I hiked the drive, and a hummingbird worried the feeder for long minutes. I’m glad they are back.

“Palouse Sunset Shower” by Bill Devlin is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

July 14, 2011


Someone has dug a big burrow beneath one of the large trees down the drive from the small pond. It’s sizable, maybe a foot or so across at the mouth and eight inches high, and tidily built, with the earth packed tight into the slight rise at the lower lip, with walls packed smooth, and the floor free of litter. A large root sweeps gently along the curve of the uphill side, and the cedar towers above, creating a snug and safe shelter. I poked my camera into the opening in hopes that the flash would illuminate a bit more deeply, and a tiny, pointed face of black with white stripes flashed out of the darkness, peering straight at me. I jumped back and looked again. The triangular face had disappeared, but it was unmistakably a badger, which are said to have their largest population in the world here in Idaho. Still, it’s the first badger I’ve encountered. I count myself lucky because that it made such a speedy retreat; they are reputed to be very aggressive, and I had disturbed her in her own home!

The night before, I drove home around 10 p.m., and had just crossed the culvert onto the rise in the drive and there, above me meandering up the drive, was a huge, very lovely porcupine. She waddled–perhaps as fast as her very large body would allow–trying to get away from me, but didn’t move off the drive or manage any speed whatsoever. She really was almost round, dark gray or black with whitish quills and tiny feet tucked well beneath the outside perimeter of her ample girth. When she finally reached the level area beside the pond, she quickened her pace and booked it on into the woods. I bet she slept well after that chase up the hill.

“badger” by megankhines is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Oct. 9, 2011

Marginal Truth

I can feel it, though it is only marginally true, that the days grow longer. It is 6:45 and already the sky is brightening even through screens of clotted clouds stumbling eastward in a stiff wind like sodden branches tugged by a sluggish stream. The trees sway and jerk in uncoordinated individual response to its pull, a modern dance of individual idiosyncrasy that unites not through mimicry and repetition but through harmonized particularities driven by a shared purpose, an irresistible impetus. The songbirds scatter predictably yet randomly in apparent response to a sound or a shift in light or air or sense of security.

As usual, I have been beside this window watching for more than an hour, awakened by some tiny noise or, like a tiny bird, startled by a minor change in light. I must burst from bed the moment awake to avoid a sick headache and the lassitude that clings throughout any dat hat I lie abed and rise slowly. As I gaze into the growing light and sip my coffee, I consider the film I watched last night about Freud and Jung and their shared female student/patient. It was, in many ways, a work of exceptional craftsmanship. Yet it failed to be more than a collection of scenes assembled to provide the illusion of a meaningful whole while offering no true subject, or message, or meaning. Empty beauty offering momentary pleasure but little insight or truth.

I rarely see so clearly through the veneer of people or art. Perhaps all the fumbling work I am doing writing and revising, discarding and starting again to write and revise my book has actually developed my sense of what makes a truly good piece of writing. Perhaps the continuing hard work of reading and real study and practice o writing may lead to something more than a collection of random black marks on a page.

I have not been so much frustrated in my writing of late as I have been flailing for direction as I have watched myself craft arc-less artful jewels of prose that neither clearly show nor tell nor say anything of substance. Mere words. I have not yet found my subject, I see now. The story line is the immigrant experience, of course. But the subject, what that story is truly about, continues to elude me. It is close to the melancholy of success or the loss held deeply and inevitably inside every gain, the failure enclosed and hidden beneath the win. I am getting closer. I feel it.

As the coming day pushes aside the night, I feel more enthusiastic about my writing and teaching than I have been for some time. The energy of renewal, the promise of the as-yet-far-off spring rises with the light and I dream of a series of terraced gardens with flowers that spill down the stone walls toward a small orchard. The trick will be to plan it all so carefully that it appears organic and natural, a feint of gardening, and a faint shadow of truth.

Photo by Elwin de Witte on Unsplash

Jan. 5, 2012

Faint Whispers

Light snow is falling for the first time in almost and month. It likely won’t amount to more than an inch or so, still I welcome it and the fain hope it offers of a white Christmas. The female hairy woodpecker is already on the suet, and though I am clearly visible to her here on the sunporch, she allows me to move about without flying off. The Meyer lemon has a handful of blooms but the other plants look a bit worse for a week without care, water, or heat. But they hang on, and the pepper looks glorious covered in brilliant chilis even as its greenery withers.

The studio is barely 30 degrees after a week without a fire. I’ve built a good fire in the stove and hope it will get warm enough for me to be comfortable out there grading for the day. It seems a shame to be locked indoors with essays on such a lovely winter’s day, but they may surprise me. Some of the students have made great strides this term. Is it too much to hope for glimmers of brilliance?

The fire is making quite the symphony: the click-ticking of the metal stove pipe, the rush of air so like the sound of wind in a speeding boat, the pop and crackle of the wood with now and again a sudden hiss of steam or resin, and the ever anticipated yet always startling cracks that snap loudly like a branch breaking overhead to tumble through bare branches in the quiet of a snow-covered wood as snow sleeves collapse and shush in waves beneath. A log settles and flares with a burst of sparks upward and guttering.

I wonder whether it isn’t all these murmurings, these soft and varied pleadings that make a fire so very companionable, as soothing as the steady exhalations of a sleeping infant who now and again stirs with small peeps and whimpers, the faint whispers of a dream.

Photo by Gustavo Zambelli on Unsplash

Dec. 20, 2011

Dreams and Imaginings

I dreamt of my mother swimming. First it was in my youth at the grandparents’ pool. She was in her late thirties, I guess, and I saw her so clearly in her multicolored one-piece suit with the pleated skirt standing at the pool’s edge, stretching a heavy rtubber bathing cap with her two hands inside like a muff, her palms facing each other as if in divided prayer. The she wiggled her head into the space between her palms and tucked stray hairs into the cap, all the way around the cap, before she stretched the rubber strap attached near her left ear beneath her chin and snapped it tight over her right.

Next she waded slowly, unimaginably slowly, down the stairs with great groans and shrieks of dismay as the water reached first one tender bit of flesh and then the next and gradually up to her midriff before she lay cautiously on the water’s surface on her back in the dead man’s float her grandfather had taught her as a child. She waved her hands slowly, gently near the water’s surface with barely a ripple and all the langor and clumsy style of a lone Busby Berkeley synchronized swimmer in one of those dated films about a never-lived era of ease and glamor and lassitude.

To dream of her “swimming,” she who loathed the water and refused to put her face in it, is to pull myself back into times before me, times I do not know. Then the dream shifted. My mother was again poolside but now in Florida with me and my boys as young children. Her ritual is intact, except that now it is altered by the boys splashing in the shallow end she favors. Perhaps to escape them, she swims with her face held stiffly above the water, with careful strokes of her arms bent like a swallow’s wings. Her crimped and timid stroke makes clear the accuracy of its name: the crawl. She advances cautiously upon the water’s surface, her weakly flapping feet and slow-arcing arms making no sound and producing only the faintest ripple.

Even in my dream, I am aware that at this point she is in her 60s and still able to turn a head in her swimsuit and her white chin-strapped cap with the multi-colored, many petaled flowers. The image lingers, and I am glad for its company on this cold snowy day when I am far from my first born on his birthday.

Photo by Taylor Simpson on Unsplash

April 4, 2012

See You Soon

Last evening around 9 or so I heard a terrific crash outside the cabin. It sounded like something big banging on the aluminum porch roof. When I investigated, there on the front porch practically seated on the stoop right outside the door sat a black bear cub, maybe eight weeks old or so. S/he was not alone. Another cub and mama were climbing the round log posts supporting the porch roof. As I watched, mama swatted idly at first one then the other two bird feeders, batting them free to fly across the yard. She bit the thistle feeder neatly in half, and the cubs scampered up to grab pawfuls of seed to stuff into their mouths while she sauntered across the yard to the large wooden feeder screwed solidly onto a metal base. One swipe and it flew free, cracking to pieces that landed all the way down in the orchard.

In an effort to send them away, I flashed the porch light on and off and rushed back and forth inside the glass door banging pots and pans as loudly as I could. They seemed hardly to notice until the cinnamon-colored cub came closer to peer in door while my anxiety soared over that single pane of glass separating me from them. Mama was big, probably at least two hundred and fifty pounds, and she deftly removed the lids from the trash cans and sorted carefully through the debris, eating only what suited. There was nothing to be done except to hope they stayed outside and eventually went away.

Sometime during the night, the cubs climbed onto the tiny front porch and dismantled the feeders there while mama obliterated two enormous half-rotted tree stumps inside the orchard fence. So much for fencing! It stood undamaged and ineffectual. She was still busy smashing and grabbing fistfuls of slugs as the sun rose and the cubs slept, their paws spilling over the edge of the little front porch. When they woke, the cinnamon climbed swiftly down, but the little black cub clung forlornly to the railing apparently afraid to drop the twelve or so feet to the ground.

The family assembled beneath that little porch, and I went outside to stand above them banging pots and screaming at the top of my voice. Perhaps they were bored with my noise or maybe it was their bedtime, but they finally dashed off, sailing deftly beneath the orchard fence into the woods down toward the road. Five or ten minutes later though, the three came sauntering, yes, fairly swaggering, up the hill above the drive. No rush. No hurry. Not a care in the world as they strolled up into the deeper woods.

Unnerved by how little effect my noisy presence had on them, I almost imagined them turning to wave goodbye and say, “So long. See you soon.”

Photo by Delaney Van on Unsplash

June 14, 2012


What is this disquiet, this vague yet pervasive sense of unease of dissatisfaction, of amorphous desire?

Sometimes I think I was formed to be less than happy, less than tranquil, less than satisfied unless there is drama or extremity in my life. I am so inclined to boredom it seems and to a sense of tedium and ubiquitous triviality. So much seems tiresome, and yet at the same time, a well-made bed, a spotless house a beautifully prepared meal and even a single dish of fresh seasonal ingredients at their peak is enough to fill me with joy.

So then what is it that renders so many of my days meaningless and me so listless? What is it that saps my happiness? I would do well to know.

I’m thinking of my most recent rejections with the most encouraging feedback I’ve received. I wonder whether the ultrashort is my format. In reworking the foundation of a friend’s book, it is clear to me just how much I have learned in the past few years about structure and continuity, character and voice and pacing and so much more, and I can seer how far my own writing has come. But I cannot seem to hit the right publication and I wonder whether I have a book in me, though I know my material deserves one.

It is possible, even after a PhD, that I lack the tenacity and perseverance needed to produce a book. Certainly the feeling that I desperately need to let the book pour through and out of me is fleeting. I’m not frustrated or abandoned or unfulfilled when I fail to write. Not writing is so easy. And when I read as much as I do, the sense that I can’t write as well as those authors, never have, never will, swamps me. I wonder whether I truly have anything worthwhile to say. And yet.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Jan. 29, 2013

Like Peppermint

The Monday following Thanksgiving, I had meant only to walk just to the barn and back before heading off to work, but the morning was so brisk and bright, I went on to the meadow and then beyond to the pond before turning back. I planned to gather that lovely large paper wasp’s nest I had seen beside the path but someone got there first. The recompense: air like peppermint in my mouth and against my teeth, sun clearing the ridge warming the freeze hollowed earth crust and chasing the wind up the mountain, the applause of the trees growing more and more distant as I walked homeward beside my youngest son.

Photo by B M on Unsplash

Nov. 26, 2012

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