Ohio Poet of the Year 2019


I got a suspicious email back in August. It alleged I’d won a statewide contest. I am not so easily fooled. I wrote back:

“In case you are a wealthy foreign prince, I have nothing to extort. I’m a friendly hermit who drives a  rusty 2004 Honda and wears worn out shoes.”

The emailer responded with contact info for the Ohio Poetry Day Association (OPD), which has awarded Ohio Poet of the Year since 1938.  He said he wasn’t affiliated with the organization, but was helping out since they had trouble getting in touch with me. He asked me to call Amy Jo Zook, contest chairperson for Ohio Poetry Day and coordinator for Poet of the Year. He explained the organization is run by such a venerable board that they only operate by phone and mail.

Suspicious indeed. But I investigated.

I googled Amy Jo Zook and discovered she has a doctorate in English, won the Ohio Poet of the Year award herself back in 1988, and has volunteered for literary causes for decades. I reverse-searched the number I was given and it matched up with her name.

Hmm. Could this be a real thing? My publisher had sent my book off for several awards…

A Nigerian prince  seemed a more likely possibility than my winning anything. Rather than think about it, I went back to editing manuscripts. When that distraction didn’t work, I took a bucket of kitchen scraps out to the chickens, picked some green beans, and watered our mulberry saplings. I still couldn’t muster up the courage to make the phone call. Maybe it was the memory of my mother listing among a woman’s sins the attitude, “she certainly thinks highly of herself.”

That evening, bolstered by two substantial glasses of Merlot, I finally called Dr. Zook. She explained that books are nominated by publishers, literary groups, libraries, and other independent sources — self-nominations are not accepted. No list of nominees is released. The choices are narrowed down to eight or fewer books, which the OPD judges then compare individually before voting.

She told me about the history of the award.

Back in 1938, the State of Ohio set the third Friday of every October as Ohio Poetry Day. This was the first poetry day established by a state government in the United States, thanks to Tessa Sweazy Webb who spent thirteen months lobbying the Ohio General Assembly. She argued, ‘For each living reader a living poet, for each living poet a living reader.’

And Dr. Zook told me about her years handling the details of Ohio Poetry Day and its publications, all proudly done without email or internet. She said the annual OPD event takes place the weekend of October 18-19th at the Troy Hayner Cultural Center in Troy, Ohio with workshops, readings, and all OPD awards.  (She mentioned Mary Oliver was Ohio Poet of the Year in 1980!)

All this to say, I was indeed voted Ohio Poet of the Year on the strength of my newest collection, Blackbird

My impostor syndrome is now in full flare. Vast appreciation for Tessa Sweazy Webb, Ohio Poetry Day board and judges, and my wonderful publisher at Grayson Books, Ginny Connors. Also, vast shock at finding myself in any category that includes luminaries such as these recent Ohio Poet of the Year winners: Susan Glassmeyer, Kathy Fagan, and Maggie Smith. Sometimes good news IS real.

Pinch me when you see me.

“Poetry is more a threshold than a path.” Seamus Heaney



Rare Exports: Holiday Horror Movie

I usually write about peace, love, and understanding. This post is not one of those. It’s devoid of deeper meaning unless an ancient angry Santa sounds refreshing right about now. 

Tired of Christmas movies drenched with syrupy cliches? Need something with a sharper edge to watch with teens or friends or the house guests who stay up till all hours? The film I recommend contains no overly sweet sentiment, although there are characters wearing sweaters without a trace of irony. It’s an unexpectedly entertaining horror movie made in Finland.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is supposedly based on old Norse legends. We know our familiar fairy tales are cleaned-up versions of older, far more gruesome stories. Today’s Santa story is heavily sanitized as well.

This 2010 subtitled movie takes place in a rural, hardscrabble area of northern Finland where ten-year-old Pietari lives with his widowed father. Pietari and a friend spy on a secretive mining operation near the Russian border, trying to figure out why the workers are blasting apart a hill. It’s rumored the place is where the original Santa Claus is buried. When the child is told that Santa doesn’t exist, Pietari looks into the legends. He finds that the old stories portray Santa as an angry being who wreaks vengeance, even tossing naughty children in a boiling cauldron.

Pietari’s father, who makes a living hunting and butchering reindeer, discovers that a large herd has already been massacred. Other frightening things begin happening in the area as well. Pietari begs adults to consider that an evil Santa is responsible, but no one takes him seriously. — not even when the town’s children start to disappear. It’s only when a dangerous old man appears that they swing into action. It may be too late.

For viewers old enough to enjoy lots of Santa-related mayhem, this movie is the perfect antidote to crassly commercial holiday fare. It’s stark, unusual, and quietly menacing. Pay close attention and you’ll notice homage is given to all sorts of American films. But I’m pretty sure the herd of naked old guys is a cinematic first.

Rare Exports, a Christmas horror movie


First published in Wired.com

Libraries Save More Than Books

libraries save kids,

CC0 Public Domain

Derrell* is a college senior majoring in chemistry. He told me he owed his upcoming college degree, maybe even his existence, to libraries and librarians.

To understand this you need to go back to Derrell’s early childhood. His mother was in the Army serving in Afghanistan. His father was serving a 28 year sentence for what Derrell was told were false charges. Derrell and his younger brother Devon lived with their grandmother. She suffered from heart problems and diabetes. “I never knew her healthy,” Derrell says. “Her legs were always swollen up and it was hard for her to breathe.”

His grandmother had worked at a lunch counter for nearly 40 years, but by the time her two grandsons came to live with her she wasn’t able to work any longer. Derrell remembers his Gran as smart, always ready with an adage or Bible quote. He also remembers how little they had. A can of soup divided between the three of them, with stacks of plain white bread to fill the stomach, was a typical supper. No money for fruit. Definitely no money to go out anywhere, even to share an order of fries.

In the summer Derell’s grandmother walked the boys to the park. They stayed much of the day, eating a packed lunch, then walked back at supper time. In the winter Derrell’s grandmother walked them to the library where they also stayed most of the day. It was warmer there than in their apartment.

His Gran would flip through magazines or doze in a chair. Derrell and his brother would play in the stacks of the adult section until they were chased out by a librarian, then they’d shuffle off to the children’s section. There they sat on low benches, looking at stacks of picture books and watching people go by through the tall windows.

The best part, Derrell says, was a little drink nook where the library offered coffee, tea, and hot chocolate free for patrons. His Gran showed him how to make the best of a cup of hot chocolate. Dump out the packet, add hot water, but don’t stir. Drink it warm, leaving the dark sludge at the bottom. When it’s gone, take the cup to the drinking fountain and fill it partway with cold water. Mix with your finger. That way you get a hot and cold drink out of one packet. Derrell particularly liked the library’s styrofoam cups. They held the heat or the cold, and he liked to bite the rim until the cup looked as if it had been quilted with interwoven designs.

Librarians in the children’s section arranged all sorts of programs. He was ushered into the first one without knowing what the word “program” meant. There a librarian read aloud a book about a dragon, using puppets for the dialogue. One puppet was a dark green dragon with long teeth. There was also a princess in a shiny blue dress and a knight in foil-bright armor. Derrell was so caught up in the story that he didn’t leave when the other kids walked out of the room. He worked up his courage, holding his little brother’s hand, to ask “what happened next?” The librarian looked up from the case where she was packing the puppets. “Their adventure goes on,” she told him. “It’s just too big a story to tell the whole thing now.” Derrell went to bed that night making up all sorts of endings for the story.

Thanks to library programs, Derrell and his brother painted pictures, made dioramas, went to story hour, listened to musicians play, took part in painting a mural, watched a fencing demonstration, and attended nature programs where they were encouraged to touch baby crocodiles and tiny chinchillas. His grandmother’s cold apartment seemed like a way station between time at the library.

But summer came again and his Gran again took them to the park during the day. Derrell missed the library, but Gran said that was for winter. When cold weather returned Gran was too sick to go there with the boys. She trusted Derrell to take his brother on his own. But there were new policies in place. If kids weren’t signed up in advance they couldn’t attend programs. The door to the room where hot chocolate poured into styrofoam cups was locked. Although he tried to sit down and show his brother books, the little boy ran and yelled through the library until they both were asked to leave.

Things didn’t get better for Derrell. His grandmother got sicker and eventually died. His mother reclaimed them but was so ill with PTSD that she wasn’t able to handle them for long. They stayed with different relatives until eventually they were put into foster homes. Those were painful years. Derrell is still coming to terms with them. But he never forgot that sanctuary called the library.

“Gran probably took us to the library because it had free coffee for her and cocoa for us, ” he says. “But it changed my life. Even after I was a foster kid, I went to the library after school and on Saturdays to get away. The library was always the best kind of hideout.”

“My advice is to talk to librarians every time you go. They’re there because they’re into books too,” Derrell says, “and especially if you go a lot and they get to know you, they’ll save books they’re excited for you to read. If I hadn’t hung out at the library I wouldn’t have read books like 47, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, or Somewhere in the Darkness. And I sure wouldn’t have had my mind snapped open by men I wanted to emulate like Uncle Tungsten, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, and The Pact.

Derrell  is now 23 years old, finishing up his last year of college classes and also working the late shift at a convenience store. He  says he can’t even smell hot chocolate without the sensation of biting a design into the malleable shape of cup offered for free.

*name changed


Libraries are one of the cornerstones of civilization and libraries continue to help cultures evolve.  

More and more libraries now offer book-like loans on things such as telescopes, tools, musical instruments, and cookware.

Find a toy library near you with USA Toy Library Association listings and find out more via the International Toy Library Association.

Find a MakerSpace library.

Discover 10 Reasons to Be a Library Addict (magic water is involved).

Celebrate Hug Your Librarian Day. Librarians should be celebrated every day, in my book.

Links & Updates 7-31-14


There’s so much birdsong that a moment of silence sounds odd. I remind myself to simply listen. Right now I’m sitting on the front porch with coffee, part of my casual daily awe ritual. Two girls are walking down the street with goats on leashes, a neighbor’s donkey is braying, and our garage is lit up like magic as my son welds something he’s designed. A perfect summer afternoon.

It’s peaceful, even productive around here. The man I love has built the most awesome kiwi arbor of all time AND a garden bell sculpture that’s now for sale in a the gallery of our artist friends Steve and Debra Bures. On our back porch are nearly two dozen hypertufa pots, drying after a recent backyard hypertufa-making party. And I’ve got two baskets of freshly picked green beans so we’ll be canning dilly beans soon.

Lately I’ve been amazingly blessed to receive a wealth of poetry-related gifts. I was a featured poet on Houseboat and a poem of mine appeared on Every Day Poems. My book Tending got a good review thanks to Fox Chase Review. Biggest gift was the wonderful review by Ivy Rutledge on Mom Egg Review that left me hand on heart stunned with gratitude.

Before I move on to links I have to share this. My daughter took a picture that perfectly reveals our cow Isabelle’s personality.


Isabelle. Photo by Claire Weldon.

This photo is a meme waiting to happen. Have some caption ideas?


On to some links.


Find a few thousand ancestors by connecting with others who are building a family tree of the entire human race. All seven billion members. You start small with a family sampling, entering the details you know. If a name on your tree matches a person on somebody else’s tree, then you are given the option to combine trees. With a click, your tree can double. Repeat this a few times and you will eventually be linked to a worldwide family tree. (Geni’s Big Tree is 77 million, and WikiTree’s is 7 million). There’s also a Global Family Reunion in the works!

Check out my strange theory (I’m sure others thought of it long before me) of why we care so much about celebrities.  

“The Shamanic View of Mental Illness” is a fascinating article by Malidoma Patrice Somé, who wrote one of my favorite autobiographies, Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman. He says,

Those who develop so-called mental disorders are those who are sensitive, which is viewed in Western culture as oversensitivity.  Indigenous cultures don’t see it that way and, as a result, sensitive people don’t experience themselves as overly sensitive.  In the West, “it is the overload of the culture they’re in that is just wrecking them,” observes Dr. Somé.  The frenetic pace, the bombardment of the senses, and the violent energy that characterize Western culture can overwhelm sensitive people.


Over ten years ago, African leaders pledged to invest more in agriculture. Too many nations have not kept that promise. So nineteen of the biggest musical stars on the continent have recorded a song asking them to keep the promise of supporting smallholder farmers. Each artist wrote his or her own verse, and the song features languages including Swahili, Pidgin, Shona, and Xhosa.


Earth Notes

An extraordinary large-scale international climate change project is underway in Africa. Eleven nations are collaborating to plant a 4,000 mile “wall of trees” across the east-west axis of the continent as a defense against the Sahara’s expanding desertification. Called the Great Green Wall, it will be nine miles wide and stretch along 4,300 miles, across the entire width of the African continent.

Many of us who care deeply about the earth plant gardens, not only to bring flowers and food into our lives but also to help pollinators. It’s startling news, but when we buy plants from nurseries and big box stores, we’re unwittingly bringing home the very same pesticide that’s been killing honeybees. That pesticide isn’t only a residue on the plant, it’s also exuded from the blossoms—-poisoning honeybees. Here are the details.


Jadav Payeng is known as the Forest Man. He lives in a hut in Assam, India with his wife and children. Since his teenage years he’s been planting and tending trees to combat deforestation, poaching, and large scale encroachment. So far he’s restored nearly 3,000 acres that are now inhabited by elephants, tigers, apes, rhinos, and other animals.



If you haven’t already, check out the extraordinary Scale of the Universe.


Mindful Living

I’ve spent a lot of years as an anti-nuke activist, working against nuclear weapons as well as nuclear power. What I learned about my connection to the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in WW II left me with questions about what drives us to do what we do. My article about this is called “The Bomb and Me.”

I also write in “Laundry Zen” about finding meaning in a task we normally consider mundane.


Here’s a wonderful bit of the Sagan Series featuring Feyman’s talk, “Think Like a Martian.”



Advanced Math is Child’s Play.” I got a chance to interview natural math pioneer Maria Droujkova. She explains that, for young children, math is an enticing adventure that’s too often simplified into rote busy work.

It is as tragic as if parents were to read nothing but the alphabet to children, until they are ‘ready’ for something more complex. Or if kids had to learn ‘The Itsy-Bitsy Spider’ by heart before being allowed to listen to any more involved music.

Trashing Teens.” Great article about the artificial immaturity forced on teens.  “American teens are subjected to more than 10 times as many restrictions as mainstream adults, twice as many restrictions as active-duty U.S. Marines, and even twice as many as incarcerated felons.” and “In this country, teens learn virtually everything they know from other teens, who are in turn highly influenced by certain aggressive industries. This makes no sense.” That’s what I’ve been saying!

Another study shows that too many structured activities can impair a child’s executive function.  You remember executive function, processes we develop in childhood to help us make decisions and work toward goals, the one that helps us be healthier and more successful in adulthood. processes that help us work toward achieving goals—like planning, decision making, manipulating information, switching between task.

Speaking of brains, here’s a study that shows spanking reduces the gray matter in a child’s brain. That gray matter is the key to learning self-control. The more gray matter you have in the decision-making, thought-processing part of your brain the better your ability to evaluate rewards and consequences. So the more you physically punish your kids for their lack of self-control, the less they have.

Science Shows How Drummer’s Brains Are Different.”  Science tells us there’s a link between intelligence, good timing, and the part of the brain used for problem-solving. Researchers showed that just being around a steady rhythm actually improves cognitive function. “It’s hypothesized that drumming was integral to community-building and that sharing rhythms could be the sort of behavior necessary for the evolution of human society.”  Hence, drum circles.


Auditory Yes

2Cellos perform “Il Libro Dell’ Amore” with Zucchero.

Sam Baker performs “Angel.”

Anna-RF performs “Weeping Eyes.” (Next links post, I”ll be sharing an interview I am thrilled to do with this group.)

Links & News 5-20-13

Lots going on here, from peas and strawberries ripening in the garden to bigger excitements. I hope to start including weekend links and news along with my usual blog offerings. Let’s see if I can keep up.

I’m pleased to have an article in the creative education issue of Lilipoh magazine (print only) which will soon be available in Spanish and Chinese editions. And the biggie this week for me, I signed a contract with a small publisher to have a collection of my poetry published. I’m really thrilled about the news, but also feel suddenly shy. Poetry is so personal. Well, not so personal once it’s out in March 2014…

I share a lot of links via my Free Range Learning page on Facebook, but I recognize that plenty of people have better self-control than I do and stay off social media. So here are a few links for you to enjoy.  Continue reading

These Are Interstellar Times

interstellar travel, voyager 1 beyond heliosphere, first in space exploration, conscious shift, NASA rocks, amazing news,

Voyager 1 and 2 are traveling through the outermost layer of the heliosphere.
Image: NASA.gov

The most epic science fiction fantasy is coming true. For the first time ever a human-built vehicle is leaving the entire solar system behind. This is huge. The daily news cycle has barely mentioned it in passing. Most people on this lovely blue-green planet have no idea what our species has accomplished.

Six months ago experts predicted say it could happen any time. Now it has. Voyager 1 has flown beyond the heliosphere, the bubble-like region dominated by the Sun and its solar wind. We’re going where we’ve never been before. I’m talking interstellar. That’s defined as “the space between stars.” The whole futuristic thing? It’s here.

Thirty-five years ago NASA launched probes designed to explore our solar system. Perhaps to confuse historians, Voyager 2 blasted off first on August 20, 1977. Voyager 1 followed on September 7.

We’re making science history with 1977 technology too. That year our species toddled toward greater innovations. For the first time optical fiber was used to carry telephone traffic. New technology debuted, such as Commodore PET, Tandy TRS-80, and Apple II series computers. The Atari 2600 was released. And (coincidence?) Star Wars opened.

space exploration, big news in space,

Voyager spacecraft sent back 52,000 images of Jupiter. (Image: nasa.gov)

Voyager spacecraft are powered by computers with 80 kilobytes of memory, using software without data storage capability. (They rely on relics known as tape recorders.) Despite weak signal power, information is sent from both Voyagers daily. So far that totals five trillion bits of scientific data.

Over time some of the instruments have been turned off to save energy but not before both Voyagers sent back remarkable, never-before-seen images of our solar system. Thanks to Voyager drive-bys we more fully understand the far-off worlds of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Science is still mulling over the data.

Then in 1990, as Voyager 1 moved ever farther from us, Ground Control directed the craft to turn around so its cameras could photograph the planets. From that vast distance, Earth appeared only as a point of light in the darkness. The image was titled “pale blue dot.” It inspired Carl Sagan to give a lecture and later to write a book titled Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. In it he wrote,

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

The Voyager crafts weren’t actually intended to do more than a planet hop for five years. But as we’ve seen, those unsung NASA types take their jobs seriously. They designed the probes to do a lot with a little. The program weathered funding cuts, even a Bush-era threat to end the entire program, and as money trickled in NASA reprogrammed the spacecraft to keep going.

The total cost of the Voyager missions from planning in 1972 to today (including launch vehicles, power source, and tracking support) comes to $865 million. This equals about eight cents per U.S. citizen per year. To put it another way, we’re cracking interstellar space for a fraction of the $6 billion the 2012 U.S. political campaigns were estimated to cost.

Now exploring interstellar space. (Image: nasa.gov)

Now exploring interstellar space. (Image: nasa.gov)

The Voyager probes carry more than 70′s era equipment. Before the spacecraft were launched, Carl Sagan chaired a committee to determine what message we humans should send to beings who might eventually come across the Voyagers. That’s why each Voyager carries sounds and images from earth on gold-plated copper disks, electroplated with uranium-238. They’re called Golden Records. They include diagrams of DNA, maps of the Earth, greetings in 55 languages, sounds like a chimpanzee’s call, images of people engaged in daily activities, and music such as blues by Blind Willie Johnson and a concerto by Bach. One of the messages is by President Jimmy Carter, which says in part,

“This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our good will in a vast and awesome universe.”

Here’s to Voyager 1. Eleven billion miles from the Sun and now beyond our heliosphere carrying determination and goodwill.

Here’s to humankind, achieving wonders even if we too rarely pause to notice. Let’s have another beautiful shift in consciousness, as we did when the luminous image of Earth seen from space was photographed in 1972 awakened us to a worldwide ecological movement. It’s time to shift again. We are co-participants in a much larger and more amazing story.


For Brainpower & Focus, Try Clapping

Mom was right.

The older I get the more I recognize the wisdom my mother applied in parenting. For example, she believed that traditional games held their value. We played croquet in the back yard—-a lawn game that went out of fashion soon after the Victorian era. We played Battleship using only graph paper and pencils. And we played all kinds of clapping games, from Pat a Cake to silly counting rhymes.

Turns out I owe my mother thanks for more than my straight hair and tendency to burn immediately upon exposure to the sun. I owe her thanks for those games, particularly the hand-clapping ones.

New research finds hand-clapping rhymes and songs are directly linked to cognitive skills.

Dr. Idit Sulkin, of the Ben-Gurion University Music Science Lab, found that young children who naturally play hand-clapping games are better spellers, have neater handwriting and better overall writing skills.

Intrigued, she conducted further research. For ten weeks she engaged groups of children, ages 6 to 10, in a program of either music appreciation or hand-clapping. Very quickly the children’s cognitive abilities improved, but only those taking part in hand-clapping songs.

She also interviewed teachers and joined in when children sang in their classrooms. She was trying to understand why they tend to enjoy hand-clapping songs until a certain age, when other activities such as sports become dominant. Dr. Sulkin observed, these activities serve as a developmental platform to enhance children’s needs — emotional, sociological, physiological and cognitive. It’s a transition stage that leads them to the next phases of growing up.”

Interestingly, Dr. Sulkin also found that hand-clapping songs also benefit adults. When adults engage in these games from childhood they report feeling less tense and their mood improves. They also become more focused and alert.

Clapping and singing, clapping and chanting—-this is found across all cultures in religious ceremonies, solemn rituals, joyous celebrations and to accompany storytellers.  The experience of calling and clapping may speak to something deeper in us.  Maybe we all should play a round of Miss Suzy or Cee Cee My Playmate at the start of every political debate, business meeting or extended family get-together.





Clapping Hands sketch courtesy of  sycen

Lament of an UnNerd


Gray-haired guys in line ahead of me at the coffee shop text with casual ease, order fabulously complicated drinks and manage to pay in one smooth motion.

I’m too cheap to have texting as an option on my phone and too clumsy to text anyway. I’m not confessing anything about dropping change I meant to put in the tip jar or knocking over biscotti on display (although really, that display was clogging up counter space).

The upside of no texting? I read and write unimpeded at that same coffee shop while all around me tiny rectangles brrrr and thumbs tat in a display remarkably similar to old sci fi versions of humans controlled by robotic forces. The downside of no texting? I’m forced to leave voice mails on my cell phone. According to the hilarious (frightening) site How Not To Act Old leaving voice mail decidedly marks a person as well beyond their 20’s. Not a problem, the casual observer could tell that about me from my boring hair and tendency to knock over biscotti.


My son’s 80-something bagpipe instructor pirates and shares music.

I still buy CD’s and don’t own an iPod. I’m glad that wind through the trees is the soundtrack to my daily walk, but really, if I got around to gathering music in handy digital form I’d spend forever assembling it. I’d cheerfully search out lost tracks from vastly unappreciated musicians like Frazier & Debolt. I’d linger over the task while choosing a ridiculous array of opera, Scandinavian folk and Mongolian throat singing. Then with my short attention span I’d probably weary of each piece after one listen.

Wind in the trees is free.


And one last lament. Thank Gawd I live with tech support. I happen to love these people but their presence here is also vital to my work life. If I don’t get immediate help when trying to deal with simple problems like unzipping old files sent by certain maniacal interview subjects I tend to shriek at the blameless screen.

That scares the dogs sprawled at my feet, which activates my ever-ready guilt, forcing me right out of the house and off for a walk with wind as my soundtrack or, if the tech problem is really serious, off to a coffee shop where an innocent display is just waiting to tip over. Perhaps it’s a message that I should develop a taste for biscotti.





Creative Commons images

texting thumbs courtesy of TheKat11 http://thekat11.deviantart.com/art/Texting-100020644

pirate image courtesy of mrs.mcD’s photostream flickr.com/photos/cordandme/492100572/

biscotti image courtesy of La Mia Cucina’s photostream  flickr.com/photos/25901168@N00/313577580/

Singing From the Inside Out

I can’t sneeze in a roomful of my friends without hitting a number of talented singer-songwriters who’d love to make a living through music. (Yes, a metaphorical sneeze.) Yet nearly every gifted artist any of us know has to ignore his or her gifts in order to make a living.

What cultural transformation might we see if those drawn to poetry, sculpting, composing, painting or other mediums of expression had some hope of living by their art?

Well here’s some hope.

A homeschooled guy who chose to help out with a worthwhile project now appears with John Mayer, Sheryl Crow and the Dave Matthews Band. His songs are heard on House and Ugly Betty. And more importantly, he sings about what matters to him.

See if the questions posed by this deceptively beautiful piece, “Ain’t No Reason,” resound long after the music is over.

Brett Dennen grew up in rural California, homeschooled along with his brother and sister. In an interview with Frank Goodman for Puremusic.com Dennen describes his mother’s homeschooling approach as “experiential.”  He says, “…so she rarely had a lesson plan or anything like that. She would give us books, and we would read the books. And we did a lot of gardening, and we did a lot of science education through being outside. We took camping trips with other kids who were homeschooled. And when we were out camping, we learned about rivers and forests and mountains and geology. We’d take books out camping with us, and we’d read about it, and we’d look for what we’d read about. Experiential education basically means instead of being in a classroom and being taught or told something, to actually go out and see it, and see how it works and learn through experiencing it instead of learning through being taught or told it. And that was really valuable to me.”

Dennen took the same approach when learning music. As he says in the same interview, “Because of the way I was homeschooled, I got into the idea of trying to learn how to do things my own way. And so when I started playing guitar, I taught myself. I took lessons for a while, but I lost interest in them because I think I just didn’t like going to my lessons, I didn’t like my teacher, I didn’t like what I was learning. So then I quit. And after I quit, then I really started to learn.”

He went to college planning to become a teacher. While a student, Dennen met Lara Mendel at a wilderness-safety class and the two of them wrote a humorous song about backwoods diarrhea for a class assignment. Mendel happened to be developing a powerful hands-on program for children, one that tackles intolerance and violence head on. She named it The Mosaic Project. Dennen wrote songs to reinforce the activities. Now his music and her project teach hundreds of California children about acceptance, friendship and peace in each session of The Mosaic Project.

The creative and independent spirit of Dennen’s homeschooling background hasn’t left him. Goodman’s interview opens with these comments. “He’s like a new kind of human being to me, this Brett Dennen. After spending time with him this week, I feel that way even stronger than after the positively confounding impression that his new CD, There’s So Much More, left on me. If he’d said that he was an alien, I could have swallowed that; it would even have made sense to me. Because I’m simply not accustomed to meeting and spending time with people that appear to be so incorruptible, so odd and yet so self-assured; so, uh, enlightened and inner-directed, if I might venture all that.”

I don’t know if Dennen’s life up to this point says more about homeschooling or about doing the work of one’s heart. I do know there’s no separating the two.

Dear Cleveland




Dear Cleveland,


What’s with the lonely sidewalks? You’ve got so much to offer. No, I’m not saying that because I feel sorry for you. You have a great personality and a good heart, that’s what matters.

Wipe that look off your face right now. How many times have you been told to stop putting yourself down? I don’t care who called you America’s Most Miserable City. Someone didn’t raise those name callers right. That’s right, you laugh it off.

You don’t need to prove yourself with casinos or a med mart or port development just because everyone else is doing it. Stop comparing yourself to all those other cities.  It’s how you treat one another that counts.

You know you can sing and dance with the best, and that’s after you beat them all in science class. If no one asks you to play, don’t think about it another minute. You already know how to party hearty don’t you Cleveland?

When you feel small, know that’s because the bounteous arms of Sister Erie embrace you and the blessed skies look upon you. So clean that grime from your windows. Smile at the weather, greet your neighbors and tell your stories.  Remember, you are wise as your oldest people and lively as your newest baby.

You’ll always be my Cleveland. Don’t you forget that.







Photo courtesy of ifmuth’s Flickr photostream