On the Day I Was Late


I stopped in a cafe anyway, and the people there were young and beautiful, and I stayed anyway, and a small dog went by across the street as I was putting honey in my peppermint tea, which doesn't matter. The dog's small shadow bounced along a brick wall, and what mattered was how the sun had gone sideways. It had no business making such a shadow at 9 AM on a city morning. It was reflecting off some window, which doesn't matter. Other important things were happening. A long layer of clouds was settling over the coast mountains fifty miles west. I would see them when I got to where I was going. Back home a nuthatch had hung upside down on the suet feeder outside the kitchen window. The unwashed teacups in the sink stayed unwashed. Other important things must be allowed for. The cafe door opening, the smell of December coming on. A red convertible going by with the top down. The basket of eggs on the cafe counter. Several were marble. One was silver metal. I picked them up, one at a time, because that is what one does with eggs, even if one is late. The important thing is the egg in one's palm. I put each egg back in the basket as carefully as if it were a real egg. The world is spinning faster than the beautiful young people will know, until they are no longer young and beautiful, until one day they see the sun slipping sideways. And forever after that they will say, Remember the day we were late, and the sun slipped sideways?

What matters -- an impossibly tiny hummingbird egg under a forsythia bush. What matters -- the blue Easter egg my father set on the top edge of a picture frame in the blue living room, hidden in plain sight.






On our anniversary


My intuition is a flighty thing, a bird half-drawn in thin ink, a single claw, a round eye, in the 1-2-3-4 steps of flying. There are numbers everywhere, numbers being magical: I am 61 with 1 fine lovely sister who lives 2500 miles away, her phone number in my fingertips. I could call across 3 time zones to say I have not found Aunt Mimi's silver vase since I moved 2 years ago, and she might say, What vase? and I might say, The bud vase with the monogram, but I would by then be remembering how a tiny silver giraffe earring slipped away on a hot day in a ponderosa grove off Highway 297 south of Susanville. I was with the man who would become my husband, its loss a keepsake of that moment beneath the pines.

28 years later, that candy smell still makes me ache to make love to him, to sneak off a road and lie in the pines risking sap in my hair, long back then, risking snakes and ticks, while thinly drawn birds hold quiet in the heat and vultures drag their shadows along the ground, my intuition saying Go ahead, risk it all.


I used to practice poetry every morning, early, dark, before dogs or husband woke up. Before day woke up.

I chose a book, a collection of a single poet's work, and I started at the beginning. I read each poem out loud, softly. Often twice. Often three times. After a few poems I'd stop on one, and copy it on a piece of paper, with a sharp pencil.

I looked at the lines. I observed the meter. Considered nouns, or adjectives.

Then I would choose a prompt for myself -- the opening phrase, the form, or the meter. Sometimes an image. And I would free-write, in a paragraph, scrawling down the blank paper, wandering through my own phrases and images.

Sometimes I ran out of words and then I started over, with my paragraph, tinkering with line breaks or sounds.

The dogs would come downstairs, or I would hear the husband wake up, his footsteps on the old floors overhead. I'd fold the piece of paper into the book. Usually the next morning I'd come back to the next poem in the collection.

I went through whole collections that way. Some were big. The collected poems of Jack Gilbert. Most were smaller. James Tate's Memoir of the Hawk. A book called Chicken Farmer I Still Love You, by Lana Hechtman Ayers. Many of my poetry books are delicate paperbacks with beautiful covers, and sometimes I chose a book just for its cover art.

I didn't always finish a collection. I started Sylvia Plath but became anxious and unhappy and I put it away. Sometimes I didn't like the poems, as with Galway Kinnell's When One Has Lived A Very Long Time Alone. That was unsettling to me, to discover I didn't like that book. I started Wallace Stevens and ended up not writing that day, just reading and reading. Yeats was like that. I stopped writing poems and prose completely for a while when I read Yeats.

Some poets make me want to write poems. Some poets make me want to read poems. I don't know if it's the poet, or the extent of my education, or the moment of my life.

When I was practicing poetry like this, I'd go about my day, and my thinking seemed scattered, but brightly focused, in small surprising ways. I could see pieces of life in their particularity. I felt bemused. I came to understand this: I don't think in sentences. I think in poem. Flash of image, whole thoughts falling on my head and settling in pieces around my feet. It takes sustained effort to gather the pieces, and that is a different kind of cognition.

Maybe everybody does this, or all poets, or some other people anyway.

It's pleasant even when I am thinking about death. (A lot of death, even without Sylvia Plath.)

Spending time with poetry makes me happy.

I might go back to those pieces I wrote, later in the day, or even days later. Some became poems in their own right. Some I didn't get back to, leaving a morning's writing folded in the pages, where I stopped. I might move on in that collection, or on to another book.

This practice wasn't only about my own writing. I learned how to read a poet, how to observe a collection, how to hear a voice.

I did this for many months, until the summer light came too early, and I started going out running instead of sitting at my kitchen table.

Now I am long out of the practice of poetry, and I am not as happy as I was then. I feel like I am missing parts of my life. I don't see the small shining bits that make up the whole. I don't think that way as often, or as intensely, or as regularly. I want to get back to it. It is late September, and the days are noticeably shorter, the dark mornings longer, and yesterday it was raining when I woke up. I prowled around my downstairs restlessly, and finally went to my poetry bookshelves and chose Mary Oliver. I didn't write though. I read. Maybe that's just Mary Oliver. (Like Wallace Stevens and Yeats.) Or maybe it is my own awkward step toward getting back into the practice of poetry.

When I look at the books on my poetry shelves I see the folded pieces of white paper sticking out. Tomorrow I might choose one of those books with a folded paper in it, and begin again there. Or I'll choose someone else, and begin again that way. Poetry is always beginning again.

Remembering Colleen

Remembering Colleen

8/25/52 -- 3/22/97


She was already a woman in ninth grade, with a loud laugh, a noisy Chevy, and an older sister who taught her to dance with her hips. She was too Italian for my Protestant father, who would tell me, Be home by eleven, and then he would say, Make it ten.

She went to New York. I went to Colorado. She went back to Flint. I went on to Oregon.

I saw her when I was home for my father’s funeral. She still wore her tight jeans, black eyeliner, the dangling gold gypsy earrings, although now there was the secret tumor, growing slowly under all that wild dark hair.

The night of the day she died never got dark. I never went to bed, stayed up all night drinking Chianti with friends who never knew her. There was a slow sunset with low red clouds, and then the huge, misshapen moon, the first full moon of spring, hanging flat and pink in a pewter sky, she and my father, out there somewhere together.

There's Always the Kestrel

with thanks to Rick Bartow

with thanks to Rick Bartow

I come home from the gallery in a mood to see.  It was an exhibit of Rick Bartow,  and it was mostly birds. I love Rick Bartow's birds. So now I am in a mood to see my own birds,  the ones around the yard.

Juncos at junco feeder, goldfinches at thistlefeeder- beginning with juncos being sparrows, I go bird book to dictionary: a mass of small birds whose name goes back to Teutonic tongues, lost there in Old Prussian. I flip dictionary pages, sparrow to junco. Nothing.

Back to the bird book: the pink-sided junco lives on the east coast, yellow-eyed junco in Mexico, dark-eyed junco in big square Rocky states. The white-winged junco is an Iowa-Nebraska kind of bird. Leaving the dark-eyed junco. The juncos at my feeder are dark-hooded, with pale tawny breasts, flirty white tails. I go to another bird book, find the dark-eyed junco, also called Oregon junco.

This book, however, claims the junco is a finch.

I move on to goldfinch, and not the bright thistlefinch of my youth, flitting among purple flowers, lavender and yellow of my favorite Easter dress, my German grandmother said Distilfink. No. This is lesser goldfinch or the nomadic pine siskin.

Dictionary to bird book and bird book and bird book, while the American kestrel waits in the walnut tree across the street.