Reading Scary Stuff

I’ve been thinking about scary stories and my reluctance to read them. My fear relates to seeing years ago the movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. I was on a first date and just when the movie got intense, the guy I was with disappeared into the men’s room and left me alone in the dark theater with danger on the screen. First and last date, and I still don’t go to many movies. The last one was, I think, The Hundred Foot Journey in 2014. I’ve tried twice now to read Ken Follett’s World Without End, but the opening chapter involves a little girl in danger and I squirm and slam the tome shut. Sorry, Mr. Follett.

Yet, when I look at the book covers posted on various sites, I know I’m out of touch with what’s hot in fiction–murder, mayhem, betrayal and Armageddon. Not my idea of a good read. And yet–yet–I read scary non-fiction that other people won’t touch. Recently I posted a short list of climate-related books on my author FB page and people ran screaming into the night, I guess. Only one of my readers admitted noticing. We can keep the danger in fiction at a safe remove, but science–which is not fake–hits too hard. Scrapes us raw and we retreat into fairy tales. I do that too, but we have to break this habit. Climate fiction helps, some. But sooner, rather than too late, we have to consider the results of our ignorance and our guilt over what we’ve done to the earth and what it will, in return, do to us.

Reader’s Guilt

More than ever now that I am staying home, reading is my refuge, but I admit to not finishing every book I start. I feel guilty about that. Maybe it’s superstition–if I quit a book before the end, somehow the author will know and be angry or disheartened. Or, I might miss an extremely powerful passage lurking in the last few pages, a bit of wisdom that could change my life.

This guilt is leftover from grad school where professors beat into me the need to read every word or lose my good grade; a flighty, lazy,  overwhelmed candidate I would fail the course. To graduate I was to hike to the top of a mountain of words in order to see the whole landscape. Then I was determined to comply, so much so that I read Moby Dick twice, once for a Survey of the American Novel and again for a Survey of American Lit.

Now I am my own wacky professor assigning books. In the past two weeks I have read all or some of Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale, Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, and The Laurel Edition of Longfellow. This last made the list because of a Dana Gioia essay in Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture. Wait, there’s more, Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns:The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Like a goat, I nibble whatever tastes good at the moment.

I gorge on the work of great writers. But what would happen if all these authors could crowd into my living room? I see myself like Martha in the Bible scurrying to get them snacks and drinks, and dodging the ugly truth that I did not finish every book. Imagine those brilliant people with wounded egos. Just as well that some of them are dead and not likely to knock on my door. As it is I have just enough room for the books, let alone the authors and the guilt which takes up far too much space in my head.

Nine-Eleven Comes Again





None of us could imagine

the length of this grief.

Years later I still stand

outside La Guardia, no safe place

to call from, to say

I’m okay. I was

on a different plane. No,

really. Let the others know.

Yes, this might be war.


Wanting even then to love all

the maimed, the weak, the low

in spirit who leaned on me, who

spilled my drink, stole my seat,

my book, my silver spoon, but

now I’m tired. I do not love

those hooded men who hate me.


I wish they were a different species.

At midnight my dog wants out.

I wait by the open door, hear

distant coyotes howl—bloodlust.

I hurry back inside.

What I’m Reading Now

I’m always reading something, finding forgotten treasures on my bookshelves, some that disappoint–into the donation box with them. Why have I kept them? Greed, thinking I need some of everything—poetry, fiction, history, philosophy, science, memoir. Yes, yes, I know that list is not all inclusive, but it says what I value. And sometimes I go to the shelf only half aware of what I want to read again, given the ease of ordering books that appear in my mail box or on the front steps.

This week I plucked from the shelf an anthology edited by Czeslaw Milosz, A Book of Luminous Things, and reread it straight through, nodding at my own marginalia, adding an underline here and there. Good stuff. I even recommended it to a friend. I read much of a second collection of essays by Robert Hass, but could not get to the end of this or the previous one, too deep or too rich, I’m not sure which. And now on my desk as I write is Seamus Heaney’s The Redress of Poetry. I admire most of what Heaney has written, this volume included, although I had to refresh my understanding of the word “redress.” Sort of means to sort it out.

Heaney has reminded me how vast the category “poetry” is, going far back in time and spreading like–what? Moss, bacteria, plague or a fuzzy blanket of words meant to warm us in a cold world? And as I try to sort out what meager understanding I have of poetry is this: one end of the spectrum is the sentimental, the greeting card stuff that brings lots of love, little of it memorable; on the other end of the spectrum lie the random, loose jointed bits that pry me out of my safe zone, send me into outer space where nothing is familiar and make me just want to go home. Home—my comfort zone in poetry, with its risk of too familiar images and too little challenge.

Given this “redress,” I’m rethinking my book shelves, especially the poetry. If I keep only what I love, will it dwindle down to a precious few? (I’m of that music generation.) Or will I be brave enough to keep even what challenges me? I need not decide this moment; the books won’t rot on the shelf. Or will they?

Getting or Giving

My graduating class from an MFA program was advised to apply for major grants until we got one. It’s a fact that academic success and public acclaim are thought to be the marks of a successful writer. I have, for years, looked longingly at well-known publications and wanted to see my work there. And it has happened. I’ve published poetry, fiction, and essays. I keep a list of potential submissions. But I’m not sure that publication as I’ve defined it matters.

An influential book in my reading history is The Gift by Lewis Hyde. And it has occurred to me that  my efforts to publish defy The Gift‘s ideal. I’ve had it backwards. The product of a consumerist economy, I too often measure success by prestige and sales. Money motivates. More interesting to me now is the need to scatter good words like grass seed.

Competing to publish in big venues satisfies my ego, but where else might a poem, story, novel, or essay distract, instruct, or comfort a reader in a difficult world? (And has it ever not been difficult?) I’m rethinking the issue of publication vs sharing. Who is best served if I parcel out poems to a select few? And what does it mean that I’ve taken so long to examine that advice I heard years ago? Would I turn down publication in a venue with thousands of readers? No, but I will try harder to make my work available to whoever wants or needs it. Fame be damned.


Overwhelmed? Me too

With so many issues capture my attention that I sometimes retreat into the safe and familiar, to projects that occupy my mind and hands. I write, work on genealogy, do chores. I read, a lot. My days fall into a pattern of virtual meetings with friends and writing groups, so something beckons on each page of my planner. But I cannot ignore the long list of issues that threaten to topple my sanity. I couldn’t escape this morning into my journal, too many huge problems plunged me into despair: climate degradation, homelessness, addiction, unemployment, famine, persecution, reproductive rights, inequality, health care, sex trafficking, child abuse, public education, fraud at high levels, immigration, international unrest, racism, shootings.

Every single issue is vital to our future. How to deal with it all? Well, good mental health often demands chunking a problem, not trying to do more than is individually possible. I stay informed, keep up with the news twice a day. Read in some depth about selected issues. And then I retreat into what I can manage, my own health and well being. I walk at a distance from neighbors, I wear a mask. I don’t eat out or go to the grocery store. Food and supplies come to me thanks to a caring family.

But when I look at that list of seemingly insolvable problems, I notice that climate degradation still heads my list. If we cannot breathe clean air, drink clean water, survive sea-level rise and increasingly violent storms, then we cannot begin to address any of the other problems. So, I’ll continue to do my best to live simply, pay attention to household trash, voice my concerns to people in power, and remind my readers here that we have only one planet. We won’t be resettling Mars. Please, be informed, be pro-active, be in love with the wonderful world we still have, and know that it’s at risk.

An Apology

In a long ago life and in two distant places, I taught college classes in composition. I tried to be helpful, but now that I’ve finally reached what passes for a belated adulthood, I want to apologize to my students. By now they too have reached full adulthood and perhaps forgotten that they ever had to take intro courses in composition. But here’s the problem. In teaching composition, I avoided or lost sight of what it means to write.

If I were to walk into a classroom now, I’d do a better job and departmental goals be damned. In the very first class I would ask each person to give a one word answer: What matters to you? I might make a list of the answers on the board. Then I would say, write for ten minutes about your answer. And I’d urge them to free write, non-stop, keep the pen moving. I’d hope they had pen and paper, but if they showed up with tablets, well, do the best you can.

And after the timer went off, I’d ask that they each underline what they like in what they have just written. Why that choice? Okay, now do it again, beginning with your favorite phrase, sentence, image.

“No five paragraph essay required. Take this work home with you and write what means something to you.” If someone asked about grades and things like punctuation and spelling and word count, I say that we’ll get around to those, maybe. But I’d also tell them that those rules are actually tools and when you have something to say, we’ll see if and where the tools help make your thoughts clear.

After decades of writing, I know how awful it must have felt to have to squeeze my words into a preordained form that has nothing to do with what I want my reader to see. I’m sorry, all you first year students. I didn’t mean to squish you into a corner and not let you out till after the end of the semester.

My Need to Read

Because my library is still off limits, I’m destined to read whatever crosses my path. (Imagine books with feet marching around my living room, poking their noses into every corner, wondering why I don’t pay more attention to them.) Of course there are temptations online and I admit to falling into that trap occasionally. But what about my resident writers who have long deserved space on my shelves, some in the big living room book case, some on a separate shelf that I call my stars, and four shelves of how-to-write books in my office?

Why not read what’s here, ready and eager to migrate from the shelf to the book box beside my easy chair. Greed? Yes, I admit to that. Given the room and the budget, I might buy more books than groceries. However, compulsive spending is not likely to happen. So I strive for moderation. This week I confess to buying two books–John Irving’s Witches of Eastwick (because Margaret Atwood mentioned it in a recent interview) and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. The Kolbert book I devoured, the Irving book yet unread.

Instead, I browsed my top shelf and pulled out Jose Saramago’s The Notebook, a collection of his blog posts from 2008-2009. And wow! Many of the concerns he wrote about are timely now in 2020. I’m not sure if it comforts or disturbs me that our 2008 elected officials in the US enraged him. Imagine what he would say today!

Kolbert’s science is as disturbing as Saramago’s politics. And so far fictional witches seem superfluous. Wherever a book comes from, it has to win space in my life. This week, two out of three is a pretty good score.

Please visit #PoemsFor2020

What Happens in a Free Write


Corinne often stopped at the café but this morning she was headed to the mountains in a hurry. She did not yet know exactly why but it felt urgent and wise. She giggled as she turned out of the neighborhood, tuned the radio to jazz, and silenced her phone—freedom! She had only a vague destination, a decadent use of time and gas. She fidgeted with her hair, too long already but she need not fuss with it, just push it behind her ears now he was gone.

As she turned off the highway and navigated the confusing exit, she had an epiphany—this was freedom from both clock and calendar, a day dedicated to her need for altitude, vistas, space, a ramble as far as she could get from the swollen dregs of suburbia. The music was not what Phil would have approved. In her head he whispered that she knew nothing about jazz, so who did she think she was anyway, listening to KVJZ?

“Philip, shut up. You’re dead, remember?”

The road mesmerized her and she wondered how long it would take the neighbors to miss her, how long before they missed Phil? Well, he had diminished her for the last time. Now his voice shrank to a murmur. She meant to erase ever sour conversation, edit out his face, words, and of course, his touch and smell. Smell? Scent, an animal odor, earthy and soiled, like his dirty work clothes and boots. Oh, his boots, how long had he worn the same cowboy boots? Damned stupid, Phil, trying to be a tough hombre. Well, here she was a long way from him and when or if she turned back to the house, she would fling open the windows, scrub the tub, and empty the garbage. Garbage had been his job although at the end he had struggled to heft the bags up into the bin. Well, she would have to do it herself. Cheap enough cost for freedom.

Now the road was very steep and the car seemed reluctant to go higher. Maybe, she thought, this altitude was too much for her old Chevy. Well, she’d already ordered a new one. One more thing about which she need not take Phil’s advice.

The End


Lessons from a Virus

Each person has a unique response to life within the edges of home and neighborhood. Here in Colorado we are open, somewhat, so yesterday we had a driveway happy hour with our neighbors, well apart but close enough to talk, share a plate of ribs, and sip a favorite beverage. It was odd to maintain social distance and reconnect with those fine folks. Makes one measure what’s valued.

And individually, I suspect that many of us are reviewing our “normal” activities and adjusting accordingly. What does matter? What do we miss? What can we let go? I’ve done just that and, given the ghost of mortality flitting around us, asked myself how I want to spend whatever time is left to me. It’s been illuminating, an emotional temperature monitoring. And as a result I’ve advised friends and colleagues that some long-lived habits will change. I’ve trimmed my responsibilities (Were they really that?) in order to spend more time doing what matters most: fewer writing groups, more deep reading, getting back to my genealogy project and expanding it. I have enough material on hand without visiting the nearby NARA, and–ta da! I want to study archaeology. I’ve been watching a long series of programs that feature digs in the British Isles. Most of my ancestors come from that part of the world, so a balance exists  between the macro of deep history and the micro of my family tree.

Would I have arrived at this decision without the enforced time to consider my options? I’ll never know the answer to that question. But I do know that it feels right to back off and move forward. #genealogy #archaeology #SocialDistance #NationalArchivesRecordsAdministration