Paired Poetry Gift Ideas

You may have never given a poetry book as a gift. Most people have never bought a poetry book for themselves either. Yet a wealth of excellent poetry awaits, with more books coming out every day, each one capable of creating new poetry lovers. When I give a poetry book, whether to a poetry lover or a doesn’t-really-read-poetry friend, I like to pair the book with a related present. Here are a few suggestions based on books I’ve read recently. (Many are anthologies, a great way to entice readers.) Let these ideas inspire your own ideas. And please share in the comments what gift you’ve paired with a book, or what you’d like to receive in tandem with a book.

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The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink edited by Kevin Young (indie link) is a nourishingly hearty 336 page anthology with works by Elizabeth Alexander, Tracy K. Smith, Martín Espada, and others. It’s also perfect to pair with food-related gifts. Consider gifting it with something flavorful, like locally roasted coffee or spiced nuts. Or really step it up with a legacy gift like these salt boxes made from trees milled and shaped by the crafter. If you have the time, you might instead gift it with something you’ve cooked or baked yourself.

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Maggie Smith’s Goldenrod (indie link) explores parenthood, nature, and memory with a uniquely sharp tenderness. Somehow I think a picture frame goes well with this gift, a way of honoring what’s dearest to your recipient.  

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Ohio’s current Poet of the Year, Quartez Harris, is driven by his work as a second-grade teacher as well as by his students’ experiences with gun violence, poverty, and racism. I’d pair We Made It To School Alive with a gift certificate, maybe one that allows the recipient to give toys, games, or books purchased from black-owned businesses like Kido, Little Likes Kids, Paper Play and Wonder, or Puzzle Huddle to a loved child or to donate them to an area daycare, school, or afterschool program

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How To Love The World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope (indie link) edited by James Crews is a deep refreshing sigh in book form. These poems are antidotes to hurry, worry, and divisiveness. There are many gifts that could accompany this anthology but it occurs to me that Darn Tough, the guaranteed-to-last U.S.-made socks, are perfect for cozying up at home as well as exploring the world. The way poetry is, too, although without the socks’ airtight guarantee.

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Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things: Poems (indie link) intimately connects the reader to place and memory with what I can only describe as courage flung wide open. I like to imagine an unexpected gift idea sparked by the title, like a 3D printed skull planter made from eco-friendly bioplastic by a woman-owned business. Maybe tuck a hardy succulent in with your gift…

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U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo gathers the work of more than 160 poets in this historically comprehensive anthology of Native poetry, titled When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through (indie link). The works represent nearly 100 indigenous nations including current poets such as Natalie Diaz, Tommy Pico, and Layli Long Soldier. You might pair this gift with hawthorne jam or wild rice mix from Red Lake Nation Foods, candy clusters from Bedré Fine Chocolate, or use the Native Products Directory to purchase goods from other Native and First Nations entrepreneurs.

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Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems (indie link) edited by Phyllis Cole-Dai and Ruby R. Wilson, is 252 pages of peace. Anything that speaks to you of mindfulness is a perfect pairing. Each time I dip into this collection I feel cleansed and more whole. Maybe a handmade bar of soap from a local shop or one of the literary goats milk soap bars from The MacBath shop.

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In The Shape Of A Human Body I Am Visiting On Earth: Poems From Far and Wide (indie link) edited by Ilya Kaminsky, Dominic Luxford, and Jesse Nathan opens on every page to stirringly memorable poetry, both old and new, from around the world. World poetry is wide open to gift possibilities. I’m a staunch supporter of Kiva.org which also has a storefront with products handmade by Kiva microlending clients with plenty of fine offerings.

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Black Girl, Call Home (indie link) by Jasmine Mans is a tribute to her mother and an evocation of home wherever it is found. Mans speaks to feminism, trauma, and growing up as a young, queer Black woman. It reads like music to me, so I’d pair it with tickets to a show at a local venue, with headphones, or with a Spotify gift card.

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Woman with a Fan: On Maria Blanchard (indie link) offers Diane Kendig’s vividly intelligent poems and essays in response to Spanish painter Maria Blanchard, whose art has long been overlooked due to sexism and ableism. It would be fun to pair this gift with a Spanish wine, spices, or olive oil bought from a local shop or online from La Tienda.  

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The poems in Wendell Berry’s This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems (indie link) rise from the poet’s deep connection to the land and its influence on his faith, politics, and relationships. As he says, “I believe in what I stand on.” I’d pair this with a sturdy gardening implement like a good trowel or maybe the wondrous delight of a mushroom-growing kit.   

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Sandra Lim’s The Wilderness (indie link) maps the inner and outer selves with an evocative and philosophical, well, wildnessFor some reason it occurs to me that it pairs well with a magnifying glass or another reminder to really look, up close, at what’s around us.

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Rikki Santer’s new collection, Stopover (indie link) is inspired by Rod Serling’s classic and unforgettable Twilight Zone series. You might pair it with an Imagine If You Will t-shirt or a Twilight Zone pint glass.

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Another World: Poetry and Art by Young People from The Poetry Studio, (indie link) edited by Ann and Tony Gengarelly, is an inspiring anthology for readers of any age. “These students’ poems and art … ring of truth in a time of lies,” says Young People’s Poet Laureate, Naomi Shihab Nye, “We need them.” I’d pair this gift with an eco-friendly, endlessly reusable Rocketbook notebook which “writes” like paper on wipe-clean pages yet can send your notes directly to cloud services. Or maybe with jewelry made out of plastic drawn from ocean waste.

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If you’re still reading, let me mention two of my own books. I was named 2019 Ohio Poet of the Year on the strength of my book Blackbird. (indie link) Each book sold is also a donation to the Medina Raptor Center. Although the poems range far from the topic of birds and on to subjects as unusual as cow pastures, dictionaries, to-do lists, and astrophysics –you might pair it with a gift of birdseed or a homemade birdfeeder like these birdseed outdoor ornaments. My most recent book is Portals (indie link) with poems seeking connection between our inner and outer worlds. To me this book pairs well with the quiet light cast by beeswax candles. I can recommend candlemaker Maribeth Moser whose etsy shop offers simple as well as whimsical candles. One of my favorites is her fern patterned pillar candle.  

Contemplative Errands

I make my way east on Smith Road from our rural Ohio township, heading toward the nearest small town for this week’s errands — library, local market, fabric store. These last few tumultuous years I crave peace, so I don’t click on a podcast or audiobook. I drive in the quiet of my own thoughts. (They are not all that quiet.)  

It’s a gorgeous autumn day. Leaves are at their peak and stand out against vivid blue skies. Temperatures are an unseasonable 67 degrees. Even my light sweater is too warm.

On my left I pass a place that still yanks at my feels. For years an old house with a rotting roof stood there, surrounded by weeds and junk cars. Despite its decay, this was a home. It lifted my spirits to see laundry on the line and light in the window. That house surely survives in the memories of those who lived there. It also hangs on in a poem I titled, unimaginatively, “House On Smith Road.” Here are a few of its lines:

There are people who keep going
past all predictions,
chewed up by cancer
or rattling with emphysema.
They hold things together
for the daughter struggling
with heroin, the spouse
wandering through dementia.
I think of them as this house
slides ever closer to the ground,
plastic flowers still blooming 
on that brave tilting porch.

The old house was knocked down a few years ago and another home stands there now. I wonder if the new residents sense the energy fingerprint left by everyone who ever lived there – the old farmhouse most recently but also all who came before, back to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and back before them to the earliest peoples.  

Hills I drive over were carved by glaciers thousands of feet thick. The ice sheet was so heavy that earth’s surface is still rebounding from that long-ago weight. Between these gentle slopes lie fields of dry soybeans and baled hay brilliant in the sunlight.

I wave “go ahead” to a woman turning left on Columbia Road. I let my eyes rest on a house that captured my attention each election year. The yard was always festooned with signs for both Republican and Democratic candidates. Many times I’d see one sign blocking another, then the next time I’d see a bigger sign replace the blocked sign, like a checkers game played with opinions. It always gave me hope to see people with such different politics sharing one home.

I find myself behind a school bus and wait as it drops children off every few driveways. Little children in the back make silly faces in response to my finger-waggling ears.

Finally I arrive at the store. A man sits in the pickup truck next to me, windows up, engine running. I get out, pull on my mask, walk past another vehicle parked and running, this one with a young woman on speaker phone who talks in loud angry tones.

I go in to collect bounty sown, harvested, and held by many hands before mine: bananas, dates, walnuts, coffee, lentils, soap, wine, oatmeal.

I get in line behind a frail elder who hangs on hard to the cart handle, his middle-aged daughter solicitous as she unloads. A man with the name Eduardo on his tag never stops ringing up groceries as he lifts a hand in salute to this elder he calls “sir.” They talk easily and I notice the older man straighten into his height.

When it’s my turn I tell Eduardo the respect he showed a stranger made my day. He tells me as a teen he worked at a nursing home. “Only in housekeeping,” he says, “but the people living there treated me like family.” I tell him worked at such a place too, starting at age 13. In the few minutes it takes to pack my rumpled cloth bags, Eduardo explains he is far from his grandmother in Puerto Rico but hopes she finds respect everywhere. “We have much to learn from our oldest people,” he says.

Back in the parking lot the woman still swears into her phone, the man still waits, both cars running, and I hope they too are finding beauty here in the hours we have.

Steadily Drained

Beady unblinking eyes, some red and some white, stare out from my phone charger, coffee maker, speakers, PC, printer, and elsewhere. The average U.S. home has about 40 electronic devices draining power, accounting for around 10 percent of one’s energy bill. Some call this leaking electricity or vampire energy.

Things I used to get done on a regular basis now seem to take forever. I never used to squeak right up against deadlines, beg out of regular obligations, fail to answer necessary texts, forget things like sympathy cards. Never, ever. But I have the last few years, excoriating myself all the while.

Adding up U.S. households, all this leaking energy totals the output of 26 power plants. This in a time when people in the U.S. use more electricity, per capita, than nearly anywhere else in the world. 

Sometimes I cancel a walk with a friend, a walk I’ve been looking forward to, because I just can’t muster up whatever it takes to get myself out of the house. Then I wonder what the heck is wrong with me when surely both my friend and I need the restorative pleasure of time in nature.

Energy consumption, especially in industrialized countries, is one of the main factors behind increasing and permanently destructive climate change. Disastrous floods and fires, extreme storms, record-breaking temperatures, drought, crop failure, and much more. The health impact on living creatures, including us, is already severe.

I manage to work, make meals, and sometimes floss my teeth, that’s about it. Books have always been one of my favorite ways to retreat. Thanks to insomnia I’ve gotten a lot of reading in over the years, but I’m reading more now. A lot more. (I try to track titles on Goodreads, because I find myself mistakenly checking out library books I’ve already read.)

Even half-measures political leaders try to put into place are failing, almost entirely thanks to greed. We don’t need to look much farther than Joe Manchin III, of West Virginia, who almost singlehandedly got the proposed U.S. climate agenda pulled from the current budget bill. This jobs-intensive program to replace much of the nation’s dependence on fossil fuel with renewable energy is gutted. I don’t understand why it isn’t against the law for elected officials to take legislative action that blatantly promotes their own or their family’s financial self-interest. Manchin is the top recipient of campaign contributions from coal, gas and oil, utilities, and other dinosaur industries while his family-owned coal brokerage firm Enersystems paid over one million to Manchin and his wife last year alone. Meanwhile people in his state rank dead last or darn close in areas such as economy, infrastructure, health care, education, and overall well-being, Heck, West Virginia comes in last in a “happiest states in America” ranking. It’s almost as if we haven’t noticed the damage done by rapacious partnerships between officials and fossil fuel companies over the last century. This sort of thing has gone on throughout history everywhere people have held power over others, but there’s no longer even an attempt to hide the appalling moral failings of those in charge, failings that will haunt this planet long after they are gone.

I’m a cool weather weirdo. While most people I know exult in summer’s bright heat, it depletes me. Give me a brisk autumn day with a breeze combing bright leaves into the air and I’m in bliss. Give me a sunny winter day with millions of ice crystals gleaming from the snow, bliss again. But summer’s heat and humidity persisted here in Northeastern Ohio through September and well into October. Temperature-sensitive crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and summer squash are still abundant in my gardens when normally we would have long since pulled out those plants. This feels inexpressibly wrong somewhere deep in my cells. I know anomalous weather wreaks havoc on the exquisitely timed needs of birds, pollinators, and other creatures. Only this week, three-quarters of the way through October, are we finally experiencing seasonal weather.  Well, except for the two tornadoes in our county this week.  

We’ve long been told that we as individual consumers are the world’s energy vampires. If we all stopped using straws and carried groceries home in fabric totes, the threat of climate change would melt into a concern no more worrisome than a few extra sunny days. Fingers of shame have been pointed at those who travel by air or eat meat. Individual action is important, but it also deflects from the world’s worst contributors to climate change. The U.S. is again ramping up the military budget when the U.S. military is already the world’s single largest consumer of oil, a worse polluter than as many as 140 countries. And for half a century, giant corporations have known and concealed the dangerous global effects of extracting, transporting, and burning fossil fuels. In a carefully orchestrated distraction, these companies have engaged in what a new report calls well-funded “cutting-edge propaganda” which cast doubt on climate science and steered media attention toward consumer responsibility. Twenty of these companies are responsible for more than a 35 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, as noted in a Guardian article, where climatologist Dr. Michael Mann is quoted as saying, “The great tragedy of the climate crisis is that seven and a half billion people must pay the price — in the form of a degraded planet– so that a couple of dozen polluting interests can continue to make record profits.” Climate change, of course, hurts the poorest people the most both in the U.S. and around the world.

Something vital is drained from us when human decency is set afire by those in power. It saps hope and exhausts our strength to make positive change happen. For most of us, deadly racism, viciousness aimed at asylum seekers, the constant and cumulative trauma of far right extremism overlaid by an ongoing pandemic constantly drains our inner resources, depleting our mental and physical energy, making it hard to even get through our daily obligations. This happens even if much of it is below our minute-by-minute awareness. I still want to believe there is a core of true humanity within every person. I still want to do my part for the next seven times seven generations. Thank God our local library system doesn’t impose late fines any more…

I highly recommend what my wise and visionary friend Dr. John C. Robinson has to say about all this in his books and articles. In Climate Change: From Darkness To Hope , he asks us to “notice how your deep self responds to the climate threat” in order to find where we feel called to respond. As he writes, “we must learn to live again on this planet as if everything were new, unfamiliar, and sacred, and reorganize our communities to meet the dramatic needs of a new reality. No one can do this alone but all of us just might be able to do it together. Though still in my own personal alchemical transformation, I feel it happening, I trust it: I am moving from haunted to focused; I am preparing for a greater role in Creation’s evolutionary unfolding, as we all are.”

Experiment In Savoring

It’s a sunny day in a quaint Ohio town. I’ve taken up a position on the sidewalk under a blue tent. Most people going by avert their eyes.

I’m here because, nearly two years ago, I agreed to do a book signing at an independent bookshop so adorable it could easily serve as the setting for a novel. The pandemic postponed this signing so long that I’m sitting here with the title that came out before my most recent book.

Although I’ve had four books published, I’ve never done an individual bookstore event before. Readings, yes. Workshops, yes. Group signings like the annual fabulous Author Alley at Loganberry Books, yes. This is a fresh experience for me. Other writers have told me bookstore signings can be excruciating. Often the only people who stop by are those asking if there’s a public bathroom or where the horror section is located. Today I’ll discover what it’s like for myself. Except I’m not inside, I’m out on the sidewalk. The open-sided tent blocks the pavement, meaning passersby must walk under it. This forces them to decide whether to look or not look at the strange woman sitting a few hopeful feet away.

I brought a basket of wrapped chocolates, a pen, bookmarks, and a little poster noting that a portion of each book sale goes to support the work of Medina Raptor Center. I brought what I hope is enough curiosity about this experience to tamp down my ongoing urge to hide in the stacks of the bookstore behind me. I tell myself I will savor the face of every person going by. I will spend by two whole hours being fully present.

People savoring isn’t difficult, especially since it has been over a year and a half without teaching in-person classes. I miss faces! But that fully present thing is as hard as it has ever been. My restless mind wanders every which way. My eyes linger on trees outlined by blue skies but thoughts continue scrolling. Wedding gowns displayed in a store window across the street can’t help but contrast with memories of my own frugal wedding where our church basement reception offered no music, no meal, no table seating. (We’ve stayed married, disproving all the naysayers.) The number of people going by with coffee reminds me of pre-pandemic days when I’d regularly meet friends in a coffeeshop to catch up on our lives. The clock in the town square chimes – 15 whole minutes have passed.

A trapped beetle buzzes angrily in my pocket, except it’s not an insect, it’s my phone. I know I shouldn’t look at it, but I do. Then I do some more, at least when no one is walking by.

I smile at families heading to the ice cream shop or sandwich shop, then smile as they pass by afterwards. A little girl wearing unicorn pants says, “I like your hair” before I can compliment her many perfect braids. I notice how many people walk by with faces aimed at their phones. I listen to conversation snippets, like “They’re finally moving to Portland” and “Naw, no way!” and  “He won’t go to therapy.”   

A huge streetside pot draped with withering coleus is so dry that I give it half the water from my travel mug, hoping no one hears me say, here you go friend.   

I try again to settle my mind by focusing on a lamppost’s reflection in a store window across the street. It’s perfectly meditative for almost a minute. The town square clock chimes – a half hour has passed.  

I listen to music blaring from passing vehicles, most often classic rock played by expensive-looking motorcycles ridden, in nearly every case, by gray-haired sunglass-wearing men. This makes the few cars blasting hip hop a nice contrast.

I notice significantly more white vehicles than any other color. At one point there are five white cars parked in the angled lines in front of me. I count colors in passing traffic for a while to get a ratio. Looks like one out of six is white, at least for the few minutes that counting holds my attention. I briefly ponder whether white is a dog-whistle, coded language for what I’d rather not imagine, then chastise my thoughts for heading that direction.

Plots for short stories come to mind. I imagine the guy who has been walking back and forth, coffee in hand, for the last 15 minutes is actually a spy. I think of a story based on the weird dream I had the night before. I was in a dystopian future where desperate people pushed contaminants under their skin hoping they might sell the resulting antibodies to Big Pharma. I consider a story about a writer who quietly dies at her book signing table, but nobody notices. These are all stories I’ll never write.

A man with young children has gone by three times. He shares a friendly aside at each pass, even claims he’s heard of my book. I feel extra tenderness for him, not only because he is jovial with his kids, but also because he looks like a dead friend looked 20 years ago.

A handholding couple stops to talk about a mystery they both read. One lovely elder notes the title of my book, then breaks into Bye Bye Blackbird, a song I used to play on the piano for nursing home residents in my first job out of college. I join her for the chorus and she pretends I have a lovely voice. I insist it’s easy to follow her more melodic voice. The clock chimes – an hour has passed.

The few people who ask, “What’s your book about” recoil almost visibly when I say it’s a poetry collection. Most people don’t ask.

Not long before my sojourn is over, a poet friend pops by to say hello. I’m wildly happy to see a familiar face. We talk about deep time, about the impulse to write, and about book publishing. I’ve enjoyed his presence so thoroughly I don’t notice the clock chiming until I’m a full 20 minutes past my time to pack up and leave.

I carry the books back in the bookstore, apologize that not copy one sold, and head out for the hour’s ride home. From the security of my elderly car I savor a cloudless sky so blue it’s nearly iridescent.   

My Mother’s “Joy of Cooking”

This vintage Joy of Cooking was my mother’s main cookbook for all 18 years I lived at home. The author’s foreword speaks from another time, addressing the “kitchen-minded” woman of long ago.

Its recipes include things my mother often made: chicken and dumplings, ham baked with pineapple rings, macaroni and cheese, split pea soup, city chicken, spinach soufflé, scalloped corn, creamed chipped beef, banana bread, tapioca pudding, chocolate cake, and an always-perfect apple pie.

I’m grateful she avoided many other offerings on these pages. She cared about flavor and tried all sorts of recipes clipped from women’s magazines as well as hand copied from library issues of Gourmet magazine. The Joy of Cooking recipe for “Beef Chop Suey” called for ground meat to be cooked with celery, onions, and mushrooms in a quarter-cup of butter, then doused with a can of tomato soup and served with fried noodles. My mother instead drove to an Asian market in Cleveland to purchase ingredients not normally found in grocery stores back then — tofu, cellophane noodles, bok choy, snow peas. Even I, the fussy eater of the family, enjoyed her attempts at Chinese cooking. My mother also talked neighbors into getting regular deliveries of fresh eggs from an innovative farmer and visited rural farm stands to get fresh fruit in season — well ahead of the farm to table movement.

I grew up glad to come home to a house smelling like supper. The aroma was reassurance that we were loved and cared for, another kind of hug. My mother’s dishes were a way of serving her time and attention to all of us, even if we were incessantly reminded in our early years to get our elbows off the table, chew with our mouths closed, and eat everything on our plates. I’m sure my picky appetite didn’t make things easier for her. I abhorred the texture of creamed corn, detested having to drink the syrup that oozed around canned fruit (“That’s where all the vitamins are!”), couldn’t bear to eat anything containing sour cream or cream cheese, and was appalled when my peas touched my potatoes. I disliked meat, especially meat that wasn’t hidden in soup or casseroles, and never quite got over the idea of cutting up animal bodies as food. It took years before I stopped asking “what was it when it was alive.” I wanted to gulp my milk, eat a few bites, then get back to playing, riding my bike, or reading a library book.

My seat at the kitchen table was next to my father, who often took pity on me by serving me only tiny morsels of meat and even then, sometimes, pretending not to notice when I snuck it onto his plate anyway. I came up with all sorts of ways to get out of eating what I disliked. I’d crumple food in my napkin. I’d hide the nastiest bits under a potato skin. I’d say I needed to go to the bathroom, then stuff my mouth with something awful in order to spit it out in the toilet. Each gambit only worked once, although I kept trying. For a while my mother attempted get-tough methods. I spent several evenings sitting in front of a plate of food I was unable to finish, staying there until bedtime. This happened most often when she made hamburgers. These were rounded hunks of ground meat cooked in a frying pan; crusty outside, pinkish inside. They were served on a slice of white bread, as we didn’t fritter money away on anything so frivolous as buns. What she called “juices” soaked through the bread, making it a wet pulp, so the whole thing had to be cut and eaten with a fork. Condiments helped hide the brown mass but some bites I chewed with grumpy reluctance contained tiny bits of gristle and that’s all it took for me to feel nauseated. I was entirely willing to sit at the table while my siblings were excused to go play. I sat there thinking of myself as a greatly misunderstood character in one of my books, sometimes willing a dramatic tear to slide down my face. One time my mother, surely fueled by yet another Parents magazine article advising her to “show children you mean business,” got my plate out of the refrigerator and insisted I eat it for breakfast. I didn’t. I won that battle, as she was unwilling to let me go to school on an empty stomach. After that she gave up. Maybe she realized I read every copy of Parents magazine that came in the mail too.

Holding this book in my hands brings to mind a line from the poem “Food,” by Brenda Hillman — “imagine all this/translated by the cry of time moving through us.” These Joy of Cooking pages serve as distinct, sometimes full body travel through time. Just her handwriting on these splattered and bent pages brings me back.

She wrote revisions to some recipes.
Noted which weren’t worth repeating.
Kept lists of useful household information between the pages.

The cookbook also served as a repository for little pictures and notes from her three children. To safeguard the privacy of my older sister and younger brother, I’ll only include one (unsigned) image by each of them.

A cartoon drawn by my sister, from her preteen years.
A cheery non-complaint by my brother when he was in elementary school.

My mother saved a pile of drawings and notes by all of her kids, but I’ll share more of my own from different years as examples.

Note from an eight-year-old.

It’s strange to look back at these offerings, recognizing how much these little expressions of love must have meant to her. But that, of course, is exactly what her children intended when they drew or wrote them.

Note from a 14-year-old, home late from a babysitting gig.

She even, unbelievably, saved a test of mine from high school — graded with a huge zero. (Naturally, I corrected the teacher’s misuse of “your.”)

I’m glad to have this now-fragile copy of a book my mother held so often throughout the decades. She’s been gone for far too many years. I’m going to give these pages a closer look to pick out a few familiar recipes I’ll be making soon.

Sister Trees

“One thing I’ve learned in the woods is that there is no such thing as random. Everything is steeped in meaning, colored by relationships, one thing with another.”    ~Robin Wall Kimmerer

I have a thing for dead trees resting in the branches of living trees. I’m sure forestry management types consider this a potentially dangerous situation, but I find them beautiful. I cherish the music these tree partners make in the wind, almost like whale songs rising from the woods.

When I shared some pictures on social media, poet friend RC Wilson responded, ”Mark Twain indicated that a tree limb in the river that oscillated up and down in the current, like the arm of a man sawing wood, was called a sawyer. Seems like some of the music you describe is a rubbing sound caused by the wind moving the living tree so that the dead tree rubs against it like the bow of fiddle. So how about fiddlers? Yeah, ‘widow maker’ acknowledges the deadliness of that arrested potential energy, so watch out for widow makers when you set up your tent, but also listen for song of the fiddlers that trees have sung forever.”

Friend and former colleague Shay Seaborne wrote that she sees the living tree as a “tree death midwife.” I think she’s got something with that midwife observation. As Suzanne Simard, author of Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, said in a recent NPR interview,

Dying is a process, and it takes a long, long time. It can take decades for a tree to die. In the process of dying, there’s a lot of things that go on. And one of the things I studied was where does their energy — where does the carbon that is stored in their tissues — where does it go?  …   About 40% of the carbon was transmitted through networks into their neighboring trees. The rest of the carbon would have just dispersed through natural decomposition processes … but some of it is directed right into the neighbors. And in this way, these old trees are actually having a very direct effect on the regenerative capacity of the new forest going forward.

This is a completely different way of understanding how old trees contribute to the next generations — that they have agency in the next generations.

One of my favorite current jobs is serving as editor of a publication called Braided Way: Faces & Voices of Spiritual Practice. A few years ago we published an unforgettable essay titled “Old Mother Tree” by Suprabha Seshan, who lives and works at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in Kerala, India. She wrote,

There are as many stories as there are beings in this forest. Worms, ants, spiders, trees, epiphyllous liverworts, laterite nodules interpenetrated with alga, maggots, eggs, seeds, filaments of fungi; waters bearing beings, beings bearing water; lung cells, and skin cells talking to the air, and air talking to the leaves; multiplicitous symbionts forming composite entities, the whole forest is alive. There is nothing that is not part of life, where do the elements end and organisms begin?

…Around me are crowds of beings but there is no waste. Everybody is food for somebody else. The innumerable myriad beings transform their world, the forest. They create it and eat it, make love in it and die in it. Their bodies are worlds for other beings. Individual presences are palpable, even though there are so many. They are all apparently independent, and carrying on with their individual lives. They are also interdependent. This creates a whole. And a constancy.

I see these gentle partner trees from the highway, on hikes, and in the quiet backlots of what our species calls “undeveloped” lots. They fill me with a quiet peace each time.

“Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.”   ~ Robin Wall Kimmerer

Definitions and Beyond

“Some words are more than letters on a page, don’t you think? They have shape and texture. They are like bullets, full of energy, and when you give one breath you can feel its sharp edge against your lip.” ~Pip Williams

The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams, is an engaging novel written in a gentle style that evokes an era of teapots, shawls, and regular correspondence. (Okay, still my era….) I appreciate it for its love of words and books as well as for topics including class division, suffrage, and the British home front during WWI.

The main character’s galvanizing focus is on why some words were deemed worthy of becoming dictionary entries while others were not. Her lifelong work became saving words overlooked because they were too common, not in print, or insufficiently upper-class male to deserve dictionary space.

I grew up in a word-loving family and my own kids have taken that much farther than I might have imagined. When very young they developed an unnamed game of verbal jousting I call, in this post, Game of Slurs, although the post doesn’t go into just how amusingly over-the-top they could get with inventive word pairings. They also played, with only minor nudges from me, all sorts of dictionary-based games including my favorite, Blackbird. And all of us have unconsciously incorporated words into our everyday conversations that, apparently, seem strange to those around us. When they were younger, some of my kids consciously modified what words they used when, but these days they not only use whatever obscure words they like, they also, well, “experiment” on others to see if they can get them to start using such words too.

I’m grateful it’s now commonplace for everyday vernacular to show up in print and online dictionaries, although dictionaries will never be fast enough keep up with linguistic improvisations in music, film, literature, and everyday conversation. (There are several sites where you can look up words first found in print in your birth year. Merriam-Webster’s version of this includes sixty words for 1992 including buzzkill, civil union, exoplanet, hacktivism, meh, skeezy, smack talk, and woo-woo.)

In many ways, the language(s) we speak shape the way we think. We will never know what ways of thinking about, seeing, and interacting with the world are lost to us when we speak only one language. This is even more troubling in relation to entire languages going extinct. The Linguistic Society of America reports there are more than 6,500 languages used worldwide. Eighty percent, by some estimates, may vanish within the next century.

My problem, as a writer, takes place in a much smaller arena — my head. Much as I love words, it often seems impossible to fit meaning more than partway into language. I might manage to get a pinch of the inexpressible in, but that’s it, and only if I’m lucky. It’s like trying to stuff a galaxy into a suitcase and still zip it closed.

I hope we all do what we can, in these troubling times, to use language clearly, kindly, and well. Even more, that we make every effort to listen.

Writing, Creativity, Suffering

Somehow I hadn’t read Kaye Gibbons’ 2005 novel, Charms for the Easy Life, until recently. It’s a delight to open a book and, within a few pages, realize it’s going to be a good read. The novel follows the life of a girlchild raised within a circle of intensely vibrant women. Each character is so memorable that the plot almost seems secondary.

I often turn to the inside of a book’s back cover to look at the author’s photo. That’s what I did several times recently while reading Tiffany McDaniel’s gorgeously written Summer That Melted Everything and again while reading Brian Broome’s powerfully unique memoir Punch Me Up To The Gods. Somehow it helps to see the author is an actual person inhabiting a mortal body. For me it increases the magic of words they simmer into meaning.

My library copy didn’t show Kaye Gibbon’s photo, so I casually clicked over to the interwebs. There I saw an array of images that moved from a charmingly innocent author photo to a devastating booking photo. I was gutted to learn that Ms. Gibbon suffered a traumatic childhood as well as mental health difficulties, with concomitant substance issues. The chapters I read afterwards were imbued with more meaning in light of her struggles.

It brought to mind the challenges many of my writer, artist, and musician friends have endured. And some of my challenges as well.

What is it about creative pursuits and suffering?

A few years ago I wrote an article about how creative gifts in young people are often labeled as defiance, dyslexia, and other “disorders.” I quoted Lynne Azpeitia and Mary Rocamora’s piece, “Misdiagnosis of the Gifted,” in which they explain gifted, talented, and creative people “… exhibit greater intensity and increased levels of emotional, imaginational, intellectual, sensual and psychomotor excitability and that this is a normal pattern of development.” These attributes, however, are often misunderstood by teachers, parents, and therapists as mental health disorders. Young people may be subjected to all sorts of interventions in hopes of normalizing what are essentially symptoms of an exceptional individual.

Is there a link between creative professions and conditions like anxiety, depression, and compulsions? Some research seems to indicate that’s the case.  

One study followed participants in the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop. For ten years researchers tracked 30 participants from the program along with 30 people matched in age and IQ who didn’t work in creative fields. Close to 30 percent of the control group reported some form of mental illness. In contrast, 80 percent of the writers suffered from some form of mental illness. This is intriguing, but such a small study can’t be seen as definitive.

A large-scale Swedish study followed 1.2 million people and their relatives. The research was so extensive that it incorporated much of the Swedish population. It concluded that a higher prevalence of people with bipolar disorder were working in creative fields. Again, there were limitations to the study. In large part that had to do with how the data was collected. Researchers compared medical records to occupations, deciding, for example that people working as accountants and auditors worked in “uncreative” fields while a broad range of people were assumed to be creative if they worked as university instructors, visual artists, photographers, designers, performing artists, composers, musicians, or authors. Using expanded criteria, the study found one creative field most closely associated with mental health issues — authors. The study’s abstract notes, “being an author was specifically associated with increased likelihood of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and suicide.” 

Then there’s James C. Kaufman’s analysis, “The Sylvia Plath Effect: Mental Illness in Eminent Creative Writers” published in The Journal of Creative Behavior. He discussed a study of 1,629 writers which found female poets were significantly more likely to experience mental illness than female fiction writers or male writers of any genre. Another study he included looked at 520 eminent women. They were poets, fiction as well as nonfiction writers, visual artists, actresses, and politicians. (Politicians?) It was found that poets were most likely to experience mental illness.  

But Keith Sawyer’s book, Explaining Creativity, disputes many of these findings. Dr. Sawyer asserts that there is no link between creativity and mental illness. As he notes in a blog post,  

If you’re a creative person, the good news is that there is lots of research showing that creativity is connected to normal mental functioning and elevated mental health. Much of creativity involves working with existing conventions and languages; you can’t make up your own separate universe. Creative success requires networking and interacting with support networks, and this requires social skill and political savvy. And creativity is mostly conscious hard work, not a sudden moment of insight; getting the work done takes a highly effective person. Many psychologists have demonstrated that when people engage in creative work, they attain a state of peak experience, sometimes called “flow,” that represents the pinnacle of effective human performance. Creativity is related to higher-than-average mental health–just the opposite of our belief in a connection between creativity and mental illness.

I’m convinced we have to look at the myriad ways creativity is suppressed in our culture, starting in early childhood. Time spent in free play has declined precipitously, replaced by structured, supervised activities which supplant a child’s natural curiosity-driven, inventive, and ever-fluid play. Young people have less time and freedom to play with loose parts — the sticks, dirt, water, pinecones, leaves, logs, flowers, and rocks that have inspired children’s imaginations for eons. Even in toddlerhood, intrinsic motivation can be diminished by external motivators like rewards and praise. Despite the best efforts of caring educators, schools have been severely hampered by structural racism, by assignments that emphasize narrow thinking, and by test-laden curricula. Even the education of gifted children is seriously compromised. We seem to forget that differences and eccentricities are often how our species flourishes.

Creativity is typically seen as the nearly exclusive province of the artistic few, yet we demonstrate creativity all the time as we riff on recipes, interact playfully, solve problems, collaborate on projects, tell our stories, forge new relationships, and grow from past mistakes. Creativity is not a rare gift, but a characteristic human trait. It’s so characteristic that most young children are, according to some scientists, creative geniuses.

Back in the late sixties, NASA was looking for a way to select for the most creative scientists and engineers. George Land and Beth Jarman created a creativity test to identify those who were best able to come up with new and innovative ways to solve problems. It worked remarkably well. Land and Jarman, as they explain in Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today, used the same basic test on 1,600 three-to-five year old children enrolled in Head Start. They were shocked to discover a full 98 percent of children age five and under tested at genius level. They managed to get funding to test these children over time. Dishearteningly, only 30 percent of 10-year-olds scored at the creative genius level. That number dropped to 12 percent at 15 years of age. They expanded the scope of their research, giving the test to 280,000 adults with an average age of 31. Only two percent were, according to the results, creative geniuses.

George Land attributes the slide in creativity to schooling. When it comes to creativity, we use two forms of mental processes. Convergent thinking is necessary for judging and critiquing ideas, in order to refine and improve them. This is a fully conscious process. Divergent thinking is more freeform and imaginative, resulting in innovative ideas that may need refining. This process is more like daydreaming. Land suggests many school assignments require children to use both processes at once, which is nearly impossible, resulting in predominantly convergent thinking. We are taught, unintentionally, to turn off our creativity. Now that is painful. In my view, creativity is the essence of who we are. If anything, it isn’t connected to pain, but to healing.

I’m glad to turn to poets for their perspectives on writing, creativity, and pain.

“Poems have to make our lives clear. Poems have to make our lives real on the page. And nobody’s living an easy life. Nobody’s living a life that is anything other than complex. And there are things about our lives that TV’s not going to give us, that movies, even, are not going to give us. And poems are where I go for that. That’s where I go for the complexity, the thing in us that we don’t really understand.”  ~Jericho Brown (from On Being interview)      

“There’s a reason poets often say, ‘Poetry saved my life,’ for often the blank page is the only one listening to the soul’s suffering, the only one registering the story completely, the only one receiving all softly and without condemnation.” ~Clarissa Pinkola Estes    

“When I began to listen to poetry, it’s when I began to listen to the stones, and I began to listen to what the clouds had to say, and I began to listen to other. And I think, most importantly for all of us, then you begin to learn to listen to the soul, the soul of yourself in here, which is also the soul of everyone else.” ~Joy Harjo

July 20, 1969

I was a little kid the day Earthlings landed on the moon. I stood in a campground’s crowded rec room, stopover on one of our lengthy summer trips. Each summer our parents drove us place-to-place in a small car hauling a 15-foot Scotty travel trailer for the most frugal, yet educational, travel possible. That’s why we were here, looking up at a TV mounted near the ceiling. I could barely see due to all the people around me and still remember the press of strangers’ sweaty skin on mine.

My family had entered the room with celebratory excitement about this history-making event. But the prevailing mood here was far different. People seemed to anticipate disaster with unsettling eagerness. I’d never heard grown-ups talk around kids as these people did. There was rampant speculation that astronauts would “blow up in their suits,” or be stranded on the moon to die, or return carrying undetectable germs likely to infect our whole planet. A loud man in front of me said, “You won’t know aliens snuck back with them till it’s too late!” My calm and reasonable parents were somewhere in the crowd, along with my two siblings, but I didn’t risk taking my eyes off the screen to look for them.

The static-filled TV images I managed to see were hard to decipher. It was even harder to understand what the astronauts were saying. But I could easily hear Houston’s Mission Control. The very idea that people on the ground were speaking to people on the moon, a moon small as a sugar cookie in the night sky, gave me a sense we were all connected. Perhaps improbably, it reminded me of a scene I loved from the 101 Dalmatians movie, where people gave up looking for stolen puppies, but intrepid dogs never gave up. At twilight they barked and barked, their voices moving from attic window to alley to hilltop across improbable distances in a mutual effort to save those puppies.

We’d recently learned about space in elementary school. I was troubled by the concept of endless galaxies because it made me think of the tiny place everyone I loved occupied in the vastness of space and time. But this mission to the moon felt like an antidote to smallness. These astronauts were also tiny in the context of space and time, yet they went ahead anyway. They packed up their smarts and their faith in science to head off for an improbable adventure that, we were told, would benefit all mankind.

There are always people who are afraid (I know plenty about fear) but the engine of hope can’t help but lift us.  I was wildly proud of Science, Humanity, and the USA back when those blurry figures bounced like tiny cartoon characters on the moon. I’m still hopeful. It’s amazing what we can do when we have resolve and act on it, together.

Inner & Outer Coherence

We are blessed to live at a time when we are largely free to embrace what we find meaningful, connecting our choices to what we truly value. That reconnection is profoundly restorative for us, but also resonates well beyond our own lives. Why? Because it’s a step toward healing much greater divides in ourselves and the world around us.

We’ve grown accustomed to division. Early on we learn to value our physical selves by little more than appearance and ability, turning to professionals to manage the symptoms our misunderstood bodies develop. We ignore inner promptings guiding us toward more authentic lives, then expect the resulting misery can be resolved by assigning blame, seeking distraction, or ingesting comfort. We cede our true authority to experts until we no longer recognize it in ourselves.

Our lifestyles tend to separate us from nature as well. Food is processed, garbage hauled away, the passages of birth and death largely hidden. We go about our daily activities without taking part in processes intrinsic to the natural world so we don’t think about how completely everything is connected.

We’re led to believe that personal values and beliefs are separate from the dictates of work, education, and commerce. This leads to one set of ethics at home, with another set of more expedient guidelines for the world at large. We may treat our children tenderly yet buy products made by other children in sweatshops. We may insist on eating organic food yet carry out polluting corporate policies at work. We may identify as a person of faith, but not apply the principles of compassion and forgiveness to our political views.

Separation between our beliefs and actions creates a schism that is profoundly unhealthy for the world around us, just as it is for our bodies and spirits. It takes significant inner work to act with integrity. But when we do, we begin to usher in a mighty personal peace.

Our world struggles with religious intolerance, a vast wealth gap, ecological devastation, and injustice. We’re torn further apart when political leaders foster fear, religious leaders preach condemnation, and CEO’s mandate greed as a business policy. Such separation does not solve our most challenging issues. It accelerates them.

Strangely, struggle often brings meaning and purpose, even transcendence at times. That’s because struggle can wake us up. Struggle can cause us to react with judgement, fear, even vengefulness. This reaction creates new problems, new lessons, until we gradually awaken to greater understanding. Oftentimes it takes significant difficulty before people break through limitations, identify with higher ethical standards, and act in alignment with these core values.

The headlong pursuit of what is newer and more profitable has led many of us to ignore the separations that brought us to this point. Especially what is separate within us. But denying the fullness of who we are doesn’t allow us to be complete. When we acknowledge that each of us has the capacity for good and evil, for greed as well as generosity, for lies as well as truth—we finally build bridges of understanding. We can see beyond divisions within us as well as divisions between us. There’s less need to fall back on blame or fear. We can begin to fully awaken the boundless energy found in the real choice to tell the truth, to act with compassion, to do what is best for all concerned. That provides an endless wellspring of hope.

Surely today’s challenges will be transformative. We’ve shown increasing willingness to reach out to one another, to share ideas, to find meaning and value in common pursuits. We’ve risen up in hundreds of thousands of movements to create positive change. That’s enormously powerful. As Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Our words, actions and even our thoughts are creating the world anew.

These are some of the final paragraphs from my 2010 book, Free Range Learning. They seem ever more relevant…