More laughing please.

My favorite piece was always that black Christmas tree-like one.

A recent NY Times article regarding Monopoly rules had me reminiscing today of a time when laughter came much more easily, even while learning difficult life lessons about fairness, respecting others, and being kind.

Take a quick read of the article first so you can see where I’m coming from: Monopoly Fans Invited to Rethink Rulebook  BY MARY PILON

My favorite rule:

Perhaps most overlooked by lay players is the rule that if the owner of a property fails to ask for rent before the next throw of the dice, no rent is collected. It’s the cardboard version of “you snooze, you lose.”

Perhaps my siblings (I’m second of six) may remember my “rolling doubles” strategy:  if I rolled doubles, and the number on the dice meant that I would land on some else’s property  — which I became adept at spotting in a split second, without even moving my token, knowing the layout of the board like the airplane patterns on my pajamas — I would immediately pick up the dice after the doubles roll with my right hand, pick up my token with my left hand and jump-move it to the player’s owned property in one quick motion, and as soon as I touched it on the property, I would throw the dice again (allowed from having first rolled doubles), such that I could move away from the property before the owner could even open his/her mouth to say, “Mine!”  My pouty siblings would argue, but I would push through to win (“He always has to win,” they would complain) claiming complete innocence and righteousness under the law of the game, as outlined above, even though some might argue my strategy was not in the true spirit of gaming.

They eventually caught on though, and if I ever rolled doubles, they began to count just as quickly as I did where the doubles would take my token, and would immediately shout “Mine!”  My counter to their counter then became that after rolling doubles I would immediately pick up the dice and throw them again — without even moving my token, or even seeing where it would actually land when I did.  So then they began to refine the counter-counter-strategy to yell “Mine” every time I rolled the dice, whether it was a doubles roll or not, just to be extra safe against my treachery.  In fact all the other players would start yelling “Mine” at the same time, and then even as I merely picked up the dice for my first throw!  Our games got very noisy.  Ah, youth.  Those were the good old days.

I remember playing with the family once, on a rained-out vacation day at Canadohta Lake, when even Mom and Dad had the time to try to play a relaxing game with their house-bound restless chicks.  There were so many players, and I got impatient with the speed of play, my younger siblings having trouble just keeping two dice in one little hand, and I once moved the person’s piece who’s turn it was, because I couldn’t wait for the person (probably one of “The Little Guys” as we older ones called them) to slowly count his/her way down the board to the landing spot.  Dad frowned and rightly scolded me, and I sat back down and stewed.  Of course he was right, but jeez-o-man, this game would take forever, I was thinking.  So, when my turn came and I saw by the doubles number I had luckily rolled (“He’s so lucky,” someone would complain) that I needed to execute my doubles strategy, I did the quick jump-move and re-roll of the dice.

Dad immediately recognized the move — had he done this in his own youth? — and was not happy.  He glared and I think he wanted to perform his patented firm back-of-the-head whack, and I had expected it for my continuing super-charged and unkind play, but perhaps a quick glance or soft arm-touch from Mom made him instead feint it, or somehow hold it back, and he instead strongly banished me from the game.  I remember leaving the cramped cottage we were all in, and storming out into the grey day.  I think Mom tried to stop me, but Dad said, no, let him go.

I gradually got over feeling sorry for myself, and knew that I was wrong.  I vowed that I would try to be nicer, and not employ the strategy again, except in jest now and then to get a rise out of my siblings (although they can attest at our next family reunion to whether or not I was able to always adhere to my vow).  I think the deal I struck with myself was to not deploy the quick-doubles-throw strategy on my family, but that in exchange I would continue to utilize it with my friends, and did — at least until they got upset, and then of course the strategy lost its fun, (and I was in danger of losing friends!), and so the strategy would from thence become only a jest, and not serious, or legal, in those circles as well.   And if someone so attempted, we would argue and point and wrestle and laugh so hard until someone spewed out their partially chewed corn curls, or farted, resulting in a laughter encore, and someone (usually the person losing) would “accidentally” boot the board into a Wizard of Oz tornado of colored money confetti, deeds and chance cards, green houses and red hotels.

The wawdwol takeaway is to allow yourself the time to harken back to those days of easy and frequent laughter, especially when you stress yourself trying to get your own way, and to strive to laugh like that again – easily, and heartily.  Just don’t kick the board over, okay?

One final note: Despite coming to our own terms with the rule as stated above, I would argue that the rule begs an emotional, intellectual, and even ethical subjectivity in how long a person who rolls doubles must wait in order for a property owner to say, “Mine.”  So beware, siblings, nieces, and nephews, this “must-win” “so lucky”strategist may once again strike, when you least suspect…  Mooo-ahahahaha.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 8 Comments

September Calls and I Pick Up

End of SummerThere I was, wondering how it got to be August, and then it was Labor Day, the last day of the pool, rained out.

My friend Sue Poulakis captured the transition moment perfectly in this photograph.

Summer’s gone, but now I’m okay with that (not that it would matter if I weren’t) — the cool nights and clear, sunny days are hopeful, energizing. It’s time to crack open a notebook, sharpen your pencils, and shake off the summer daze. That’s the great thing about seasons, each one can give you the feeling of a new beginning. A fresh start four times a year? I’ll take it.

Summer, you are so last month.

Autumn: fall into it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 5 Comments

How Did it Get to be August?

Cat in the catmintI wrote in May about taking time for spring, and now I’m wondering if I took time for summer, because I’ve looked at the calendar, and summer’s almost gone.

There is a time, around the Fourth of July, when the summer stretches out in front of you, lolling in the sun like my cat in this picture. It seems the sun will shine forever, that you might even grow weary of all that glare. And then — here in the Poconos, anyway — the first of August rolls around, a cool breeze drifts in the window one night, you see a yellowing leaf on a tree the next morning, and it hits you: another summer is on its way out and you never sat all morning on the porch swing reading a novel, let alone your entire summer reading list, you never had that cookout with friends down the street, you didn’t progress from swimming half a mile to swimming even one more lap (we won’t even talk about the mile you had planned. You meaning me, meaning abject failure).  In fact, despite all your optimistic June plans, you weren’t able to transform your life in eight weeks.

That can be depressing. But if you look at what you did do, perhaps you had a summer after all.  Maybe you watched fireworks explode overhead, ate fresh tomatoes with basil and mozzarella and corn on the cob, cut fat blue hydrangeas that you grew yourself, ate on the porch as often as possible, looked at the stars, swam in the sea, danced outside, listened to kids laugh and shriek on the lawn into the evening, watched your cat’s pupils narrow to slits as she basked on a rock, saw fireflies in the garden outside your screen door.

See? There was a summer there.  You were just too busy summering to remember.

While thinking about this, a poem showed up in my inbox — a poem about not wasting time — not just in summer, but always.

Next Time
by Joyce Sutphen

I’ll know the names of all of the birds
and flowers, and not only that, I’ll
tell you the name of the piano player
I’m hearing right now on the kitchen
radio, but I won’t be in the kitchen,

I’ll be walking a street in
New York or London, about
to enter a coffee shop where people
are reading or working on their
laptops. They’ll look up and smile.

Next time I won’t waste my heart
on anger; I won’t care about
being right. I’ll be willing to be
wrong about everything and to
concentrate on giving myself away.

Next time, I’ll rush up to people I love,
look into their eyes, and kiss them, quick.
I’ll give everyone a poem I didn’t write,
one specially chosen for that person.
They’ll hold it up and see a new
world. We’ll sing the morning in,

and I will keep in touch with friends,
writing long letters when I wake from
a dream where they appear on the
Orient Express. “Meet me in Istanbul,”
I’ll say, and they will.

“Next Time” by Joyce Sutphen, from After Words. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2013.

Once again, fabulous poems come my way via The Writer’s Almanac. You can subscribe to it, and link to the poets’ books, and buy them, through the site.

Posted in Poetry, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 21 Comments

Taking Time for Spring

City Hall apple tree

A week of beautiful days in New York: spring sun, clear skies, vibrant tulips, blossoming trees, green bursting out everywhere.  I walked out of Whole Foods last night at the hour between the sun going down and the night coming on, turned east, and was overwhelmed by a sky of the most wonderful hue – a deep, saturated blue.

The blue was like a warm bath to eyes that spend too much time looking at white light from computer screens, words on glossy paper or newsprint, everything up close and filling my brain with news of things I can’t control and barely affect. Outside, above and around me, all this goes on: the natural world doing what it does, creating beauty whether we notice or not.

The blue is held in front of me between the red brick and cement-colored buildings, rising up in a column that spills over the top of the buildings, behind them, above them, the same intense color everywhere, solid yet translucent. There’s a bright star to the left of the condo building on Chambers and Broadway — no, too low, has to be a plane, hanging, waiting to land.  As I walk east, the blue starts to decay, gradually, like a dream you can’t quite hold onto as you wake up, the warmth of it, the tone of it that you want to hold onto forever and it slips away until you can’t remember what it was, who was in it, what they said, what you said, why it mattered.

This sky escapes me that way, changing by the second, dissolving into less blue, a graying to grayish blue, then blue-ish gray, then just gray, fading the way a tulip fades, the bright colors washing out with each day of sunshine, bleaching, fading, becoming translucent, softening, the crisp edges losing their starch.

City Hall tulipsThe tulips this week have reminded me of a day years ago, when I was heading out the door to the street, and a neighbor was walking out with her two black Scotties and her daughter, who must have been around fourteen and had suddenly become achingly beautiful — like those tulips in City Hall Park a week ago: full color, soft, exquisite, lush, breathtaking.

At fifty-five, I look back on that fullness, that soft-yet-taut ripeness, smoothness, shine, and color and realize how fleeting it is. And how beautiful because it is fleeting. I’ve become one of the ones who understand it in a way you can’t when you’re at that fleeting age – an admiration tinged with an ache.  Young writers in the past, poets, perhaps understood it younger, because people didn’t live as long, the ripeness didn’t last as long, youth didn’t last as long.

But despite all our exercising, vitamins, organic food, it still doesn’t last, not the real thing. Not that beauty of girls and boys on the cusp of things, of tulips in that week of glory, of the tree on the path behind City Hall with its deep pink buds, small and as solidly pigmented as a paint chip, opening up into blossoms with a pinpoint of deep rose at the center, a wash of soft pink at the base of the white petals, the petals covering the entire tree like a fluffy prom dress — open for spring, open to our eyes, for free, for nothing, because that’s what this tree does, is.  At the beginning of spring, after a long winter, a long cold spring, it opens just the same as it always has, for its brilliant, fleeting run.

When the breezes blow down the streets this week, you are caressed by petals — the pink petals of the cherry trees, the white petals of the Callery pears.  The edge of the street, next to the curbs, is lined with petals, ribbons of soft pink, like an art installation, like art thrown at your feet.  If you’re lucky, you have the time to look, to take it in, to say yes, I see you, and be thrilled about the world going on in spite of us all.

And that’s what I need to do: stop reading the New York Times, the Huffington Post, stop watching Brian Williams and Anderson Cooper, and see, instead, the tulips when they’re perfect, feel the petals touch my cheeks as I cross the street,  put the grocery bag down on the sidewalk, let everyone brush by me, and look up at the deep blue sky.

Posted in Uncategorized | 24 Comments

The Power of the Handwritten Written Word


My college roommate wrote me that when her son was home for Christmas, he pulled a Herman Hesse book off their bookshelves and found a letter from me to her, written one summer more than three decades ago.

Her son had been telling her how much he loved college because he was having wonderful intellectual discussions with his buddies and roommate. And here was this letter, talking about just that: about me missing the discussions and conversations his mother and I had had during the year. As she put it: I think he was kinda shocked that his mother and her friends had the same vibrant lives when they were 19.

I can’t remember what those discussions were about (what I’d give for a recording). But I do remember us lying in our twin beds with the lights out, needing to sleep, but staying awake, talking and talking, and how much I loved that, loved having her to talk to, loved feeling that we were discussing big things, deep things – literature and philosophy and life itself.

I’m eager to know the content of the letter, but I also started thinking about that magical moment: opening a book, finding a letter. I love finding notes and letters in my own books. If I wrote them, they remind me of what I was doing at that point in my life, what I was thinking, who I was when I was reading that book. And letters or postcards from others are even better. You recognize the handwriting and are instantly transported.

I opened my mailbox this week to a card from a high school friend, and the handwriting on the envelope was as familiar to me as the sender’s face. It brought back images of notes on gray tablet paper passed in hallways, birthday cards left on car seats, loopy sentences inked across yearbook photographs.

Email, texts, tweets – they keep us in touch more often, perhaps. They can make us feel we’re part of a faraway friend’s daily life, small moments as well as large. My roommate’s note was emailed, in response to my own belated birthday email to her; if she’d waited to sit down and write it out, the moment might have been forgotten, left unshared.  But the digital communications lack something tangible, emotional.  We all know how nuance is lost in the digital realm; we’ve all suffered the consequences.

Handwriting brings emotional impact, the knowledge that someone thought about you, wrote it down, didn’t just hit “send,” but found a stamp or bought a stamp, found a mailbox or went to the post office.  Exactly what I didn’t do, in time, for my roommate’s birthday – hence the email note, a comparatively weak gesture, but the most much of us can manage on some days.

Letters have palpable life woven in: a coffee stain, an ink smudge, an extra note on the back, a thought added after the letter was sealed.  There can be doodles, drawings – original, handmade, artisanal emoticons. There’s the cancellation with the date, where it was sent from. There’s the stamp itself: in 1978 stamps were only 15 cents — is it possible I lived at a time when stamps were only 15 cents? All of this texture, this additional information, makes the letter an artifact in a way email can’t match.

I do save some emails. I copy and paste them into a digital journal, or leave them hanging around in my inbox forever, causing clutter and stress. And I have bundles of letters tied up with ribbons in my attic (also causing clutter and stress). I can’t let go of them, yet I don’t read them. Now I’m thinking that what I need to do is scatter them through my books, so that I can come across them serendipitously — or someone else can. I wish I had put them all in books, as I received them.

You can’t tuck a letter, or a ticket stub, or a postcard, into a Kindle.

I’m glad I wrote that letter. I’m glad my roommate tucked it in Hesse. I’m glad her son found it.

Does that mean  I will write more letters now? I’d like to think so, but probably not. And that’s actually a digital gain for my friends: my handwriting is terrible.


Nota Bene: The drawing at the top of the post came from a website called The Pencil Revolution, which I found when searching for The Lead Pencil Club — an organization I remembered from back in the 90’s that was a pushback to electronic communication (and this was long before tweets, Instagram, and texting). It seems the club is long defunct — the website postings I found referencing it were all years old — but I loved the binary pencil.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 17 Comments

No Digression

Barcelona Tapies Museum

I had the opportunity to spend some time with a good friend yesterday, brainstorming ideas and possible business opportunities.  Brainstorming feels very freeing, and I think to be truly effective should not be burdened with too many expectations, but instead relished for the act in itself, for the opportunity to free-think and to create.   This is not to say that it won’t yield results, or that one shouldn’t follow-up on discussions to sift through and see if there might not indeed be any nuggets of value.  But the process itself, and the intellectual noodling, inspiration, laughter and excitement that can occur — and did for me yesterday — is a gift in itself.

In trying to find answers — whether wawdwol-ing or brainstorming business ideas — we must not forget to appreciate time spent in the search, and the simple human capacity to search and to question.  Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, further suggests to “love the questions themselves.”

And finally, whether there turn out to be any golden nuggets or not, one might consider the fulfillment found in people like those referenced in the opening line of a poem by a favorite poet, Carl Dennis: “…nothing they ever do is a digression, each chapter contributing its own rare gift…”

Not the Idle
by Carl Dennis (from his book Practical Gods)

It’s not the idle who move us but the few
Often confused with the idle, those who define
Their project in life in terms so ample
That nothing they ever do is a digression,
Each chapter contributing its own rare gift
As a chapter in Moby Dick on squid or hard tack
Is just as important to Ishmael as a fight with a whale.
The happy few who refuse to live for the plot’s sake.
Major or minor, but for texture and tone and hue.
For them weeding a garden all afternoon
Can’t be construed as a detour from the road of life.
The road narrows to a garden path that turns
And circles to show that traveling goes only so far
As a metaphor. The day rests on the grass.
And at night the books of these few,
Lined up on their desks, don’t look like drinks
Lined up on a bar to help them evade their troubles.
They look like an escort of mountain guides
Come to conduct the climber to a lofty outlook
Rising serene above the fog. For them the view
Is no digression though it won’t last long
And they won’t remember even the vivid details.
The supper with friends back in the village
In a dining room brightened with flowers and paintings
No digression for them, though the talk leads
To no breakthrough. The topic they happen to hit on
Isn’t a ferry to carry them over the interval
Between soup and salad. It’s a raft drifting downstream
Where the banks widen to embrace a lake
And birds rise from the reeds in many colors.
Everyone tries to name them and fails
For an hour no one considers idle.

Posted in Poetry | Tagged | Leave a comment

I Think to Myself

Bird of ParadiseSome good friends recently sent me a link to a great BBC One video wherein the words of the song “What a Wonderful World” are narrated by David Attenborough to some beautiful clips of Nature. While I’ve heard the song a million times — and it’s hard not to hear Satchmo’s voice in the narration — I was struck by the repetition of the words “I think to myself.”  It made me think to myself that it is helpful and satisfying to not just think of it (the beauty and wonder of the world) to yourself, but to always try to share that thought with others, as my friends did with me by sending me this video link.

A simple “Nature ping” like this can help you come out of yourself and get some perspective on life — when you can take even just a moment to see such magnificence around us.  So do a friend a favor by sharing with him/her something as simply beautiful as this video.   Oh…yeah…

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Talking About Death

It’s always there, death, but we don’t often speak about it, and when it shows up close to home — affecting family or friends, making us catch our breath as we read the newspaper or watch the evening news — we often don’t have the words we need, for ourselves, for others.

When my grandmother died, a friend of my mom’s gave her a wonderful book, In Lieu of Flowers: Conversations for the Living, by Nancy Cobb.  Ms. Cobb is an eloquent writer, and her book is wise, funny, insightful, and comforting, full of poems and quotations from many different authors and thinkers, stories from people she’s interviewed, and her own stories, her own careful and deep thinking about death and dying. I feel lucky to have this book in my life.

I’ve found this book so helpful that I now order five or six copies at a time so that I have them on hand.  As either a sign of the age I am, or just the confluence of events in the year that’s passed, I am now preparing the card to go out with my last copy. Life being what it is, and dying twinned with it, I will be ordering more.

A quote from Thomas Moore opens one of her chapters:

I think we would be able to live in this world more peaceably if our spirituality were to come from looking not just into infinity but very closely at the world around us –and appreciating its depth and divinity.

Cobb looks very closely at the world around her, and finds the divinity in it, here and now.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Through all that happens

D&J Shadow“As you unfold as an artist, just keep on, quietly and earnestly, growing through all that happens to you.  You cannot disrupt this process more violently than by looking outside yourself for answers that may only be found by attending to your innermost feeling.”

        — Rilke,
            Paris, February 17, 1903
            Letters to a Young Poet
Posted in Poetry | Tagged | Leave a comment

The impeded stream is the one that sings

Impeded streamThe Real Work

by Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Posted in Poetry | Leave a comment