Day After Solstice


Day after Solstice

We take it on faith that the days are getting longer
though the nights seem as dark and the air seems as cold

We choose to believe that the light’s getting stronger
although all it sounds like a quaint fairytale of old.

We do not sigh or yearn for the simple old times
though it is always tempting to polish up the past

We instead choose to live, to embrace the darkling day
though our faith needs sharpening and our kindness won’t last

We know that this darkness brings some tests of courage
through the cold we prevail though our hearts are undone

We put our feet to the path, wave farewell to the summer
though this journey is ended, a new one has begun.

Chasing the Transcendent

Patti Smith on Singing at Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize Ceremony

Smith’s essay in the New Yorker spoke to a thing that I’ve known for a very long time. I’ve been a singer most of my life. I was the music director for a UU church. I sang in a very large semi-pro symphony orchestra.  I sang many, many solos for contests and won a lot of prizes. I sang in a Celtic folk band, in a 60s revival pop band. I helped facilitate many folk nights, caroling parties and etc. I’ve stood up before audiences so many times that I can’t even begin to count them. Many of those I did a capella– nothing but me and my voice before the world. Smith says:

and in the end I had to come to terms with the truer nature of my duty. Why do we commit our work? Why do we perform? It is above all for the entertainment and transformation of the people. It is all for them.

Occasionally as a musician (or as a live theater performer of any kind) one gets a perfect moment. They never come in the solitude of a practice room. Only with the participation of an audience can we suspend our disbelief and enter that transcendent performance where everything is beautiful. That moment exists beyond our understanding, and we create it with the audience. In those moments, we become vessels of the transcendent. It is a highly addictive drug.

Musicians, especially singers, often look like the most egotistical people one could imagine. Indeed, many times we are. I think that even in those cases when it appears that we sincerely think that we are “the shit”, as the kids say now, it’s all armor. And here, listening to Patti Smith, both in her essay and singing at the ceremony, perhaps one gets a glimpse of what that ego is, and why we need its armor. It is armor against the world, against the music, even. The music demands perfection, and yet it demands even more than that. It demands ours whole heart, even as it fills us to the breaking point. Sometimes we break, right there in front of you. Sometimes even a lifetime of practicing and performing doesn’t save us from the music, the pain, the beautiful horror of it all. All the contents of our heart and soul spill out. And that, my friends, is real music. No perfection required.

We Gather Together

Years ago, when I was younger and childless, I used to have what I called “refugee” Thanksgivings. People without family or far from their family or on the outs with their family would end up at my house, eating traditional Thanksgiving food off my mother’s china (service for 12, Stylehouse Miniver, straight out of the 1950s).  It was my way of honoring my family traditions, and also a recreation of the mythical “family” Thanksgiving as it should be, instead of how it actually was/is.



photo by Scott Umstattd, via Unsplash

We have our families of choice, like the ones of my long ago “refugee” Thanksgivings, and we also have our inescapable families of birth and marriage. Each kind comes with its own measures of grief, dissent, love, and laughter. Many people crave that ritualized, mythical family experience that we’re led to believe is conjured up from stuffing and cranberry sauce, while simultaneously fearing the shadow family dynamics that almost inevitably accompany any such attempt. It’s often unclear where your boundaries should be drawn.

My advice to you is this: Make the choices which best offer the comfort and joy of the season to you and your nearest and dearest. Do not participate in dysfunction that eats at your soul and makes you dread the season. Be as kind as you can while maintaining your own boundaries. And if you are able, gather your “refugees”. Make a tribe. Reclaim the sacred myth, and make it your own.

All Saints Day


Some of the saints in my life don’t look very saintly
examined under the lens of churchly piety

But I tell you that with their words and deeds
with their loving hearts and helping hands

They have shown me more of God than any prayer book
and given me more Grace than any hymn.


Algunos de los santos de mi vida no son muy piadoso
Mirado con la piedad ordinaria

Pero les digo que con sus palabras y hechos
Con sus corazones amorosos y ayudando a las manos

A mí se ha revelado a Dios más que cualquier en los libros de oraciones
Y para mí se ha dado más gracia que cualquier himno.

(Please forgive my beginner’s Spanish!/Lo siento por mi principiante español)

Somebody’s Wrong on the Internet!

Someone I am acquainted with opined on Facebook recently that because you can manipulate data to seemingly “prove” different and even often opposing results that there is no such thing as “truth”. One person’s reality is just another person’s re-imagined data set. I’m not certain if this misunderstanding is a direct result of the Age pf Big Data, or if it’s simply a byproduct of a young mind maturing and realizing that “objective truth” is a much more elusive concept that one might wish it to be.

Here’s the thing, dear readers. Let’s go at this gently as so not to frighten to death our secret lizard brains or monkey minds or inner caveman, whatever you call your primitive hind-brain that keeps you breathing and wants up to be up and down to be firmly down– no messing around with metaphysical anomalies allowed.

The way we experience reality is indeed entirely subjective, cultural, and rooted very deeply in the way we name things. Take for example, Pluto. Is Pluto a planet or a dwarf planet? A minor planet? A Kuiper belt object? A TNO? We can quibble endlessly about definitions, pop science’s influence on public opinion about Pluto, and even the need to call that hunk of rock out there anything at all. It doesn’t change the nature of the thing, only our perceptions, and maybe our understanding of the thing.


Color photo of Pluto from Applied Physics Laboratory

If someone became convinced that Pluto is really an alien spaceship that was going to come to earth soon and take the souls of the worthy away to a better place, however, we’ve turned down a path of subjectivity which is not only poorly supported by the available data set, but is dangerous to the believers and those around them. Think of those people who committed suicide because of similar beliefs surrounding the comet Hale-Bopp.

So all subjective opinions about reality are not created equal. We owe it to ourselves and others to evaluate the various subjective realities that are postulated to us carefully. Like followers of Asclepius, we must pledge first to do no harm, for we are the physicians of our own realities.  And secondly, we always need to keep in mind that an actual, true reality is out there even if we perceive it, to steal from Saint Paul, “through a glass darkly”.

Keep polishing that glass, dear ones. Keep polishing.

Is Your Dog Kind?

We humans tend to associate human emotions and motivations to everything from our pets to inanimate objects to corporate entities.  Yesterday I got into a very bizarre argument with someone on Facebook about a “Make America Kind Again” meme. My take on the meme was that it was an invitation to re-introduce more kindness into American culture. To work at making kindness a civic virtue. To be individually kind to each other as part of what it means to be an American. The other person’s take was a foreign policy one, and his stance was that America has been too kind already in its treatment of other countries.

I think this is crazy talk, though maybe not for what you might think of as the first line of reasoning. Sure, for every “kind” thing we think America might or might not have done, there’s probably an “unkind” example. But this line of thinking is entirely spurious. “America” (i.e. the United States of America) is a country, a “non physical juridical entity”, to quote Wikipedia.  As such, it does not have human emotions or motivations, even though it is led by the will of human beings. America the country’s actions are based mostly in utilitarianism. While the majority of us want our country to be a moral actor on the world stage, and follow just and rational laws, this is not synonymous with kindness.


Photo: detail from a photo by Krista Mangulsone, via Unsplash

Kindness is so relative. Can a country act with kindness? I return to contemplating my dog. Can my dog be kind, or am I simply anthropomorphizing the actions of a creature whose mental processes are opaque to me? I think that the answer is yes, my dog can be kind. There are many examples of dogs, cats, and non-domestic animals acting in generous, selfless ways towards humans and each other.

So what makes my dog capable of kindness, and a country not? I think the answer lies in sentience. My dog is a sentient being, and while his instincts and emotional states are not identical to a human’s, he’s part of the interconnected web of life in a way that an artificial entity like a country can never be. And yet that desire to act with collective kindness is very strong in a lot of us, as irrational as it is. We want our country to be kind, or at least be known for kindness.  Your country can’t be kind. It is outside its skillset. You can be kind however, in your country’s name. That individual action might be tiny, but millions of tiny individual actions can make a country of kindness.  I hope we’ll try my thesis out!

Sorting the Book Piles

A writer friend linked to an article: On the Heartbreaking Difficulty of Getting Rid of Books, sharing the outrage of the author about famous declutterer Marie Kondo’s notion of paring down books like any other household item. Most of us writer types are also avid reader types. Many of us are a little bit introverted. To a devoted introvert, books can almost seem more like friends than the actual flesh and blood ones. How do we sort friends, and give or even throw away these little pieces of our hearts?

books by Gaelle Marcel

photo by Gaelle Marcel, via Unsplash

To paraphrase another pair of de-cluttering masters, Warren and Betsy Talbot of An Uncluttered Life, the stories are in my heart now. I don’t need a thirty year old, yellowing paperback with brittle pages falling from the spine, to keep the joy of that story alive in my heart. Paperbacks are the great betrayers. The original “pulp” fiction, they’re mass-produced literary bonbons, meant to be read and discarded. We try to save them, but they self-destruct anyway. After a while, they’re not even re-readable.

I understand the pain of parting with old, dear, book friends. I had a book whose cover was gone, held together at the spine with packing tape. I don’t know how many times I had read it, or how many times I had told myself to recycle it. Parting with it felt like a funeral or a divorce, a moment to be mourned. And yet, ten pages of chapter seven had vanished. It was time.

Thank goodness for ebooks, which I can horde without fear of silverfish, dust mites, or brittle pages. So many books in the little library in my hands! No wondering which shelf the book I’m looking for is hiding on (if it is in fact on a shelf and not under the bed or sofa). If only I had an ereader that recharged with solar, my love affair with ereaders would be complete.

When I was young, I loved discovering old books in the library, especially the ones that hadn’t been opened in years. Those were hardbacks printed on heavy cream paper, sometimes with real leather covers imprinted with faded gold lettering. Most of my current to-be-sorted book pile is paperbacks and book club editions, flimsy things not meant to last until next year, never mind the decades or centuries. I’ll always love beautiful books. I can love them in the libraries, in the rare book collections, in lovely artistic photos. It’s not a betrayal of literature to toss that creaky old tiny print budget edition of Oliver Twist. At least it isn’t by my rules. Your book mileage may vary!


Being Anne de Bourgh

I’ve been reading The Dance of Intimacy by Harriet Goldhor Learner, which is about family systems theory. One observation that I’ve come to from reading is that many people I know, myself included, have had the dubious honor of being our family’s Anne de Bourgh. Anne de Bourgh is a very minor character in Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, so small that she hasn’t a single dialog line of her own. Her mother is the larger than life Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Lady Catherine is the sort of mother who knows best for everyone around her, whether they are her child or not.

Miss Anne is a retiring character who suffers from chronic ill health. Her mother insists, however, that Anne could have been a brilliant prodigy, if only she had been healthy.  That stifled potential seems to be a common toxic and addictive drug for both child and parent. Having or being “coulda been a contender” is in some ways better than having an active prodigy. Everyone can enjoy the fantasy of the prodigy without ever putting the talent to the test.


Raimundo Madrazo, Reclining Lady

I think most every parent has fantasies of things that they wish, hope or imagine their child to be.  Also, most parents with children with chronic illnesses develop some level of over protectiveness (see Francis Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden for another literary example). The head on collision of these two utterly natural parental instincts can produce grown ups who are terrified of their own potential and unaware of their own desires.

Perhaps we did have a great potential in childhood that went untapped because of our chronic illness.  Perhaps we didn’t and we totally would have failed at being a pianist (Anne de Bourgh’s supposed prodigy skill) or soccer star or whatever. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is how we manage our own desires and actual talents against the backdrop of past family expectations. I realize that everyone has some version of this struggle. The unique issue of being Anne de Bourgh is that your loved ones may expect you to remain forever delicate and forever unhatched. Learner speaks a great deal about how the emotional needs of a family system can trap individuals in under functioning roles. Miss Anne de Bourgh could have been a proficient, if her health had allowed, or had she worked out a way to be herself and not just a shadow role in her family.

May we all find our way off the fainting couch and into our own preferred patch of sun.