Traditions

My dad liked to fly a kite on Good Friday.

I’m not certain how the tradition got started, but I remember as far back as first grade–maybe earlier–his taking us out to a park on Good Friday and sending a kite into the early spring winds. Maybe it was a sort of metaphor for hope, as was the Resurrection, according to his beliefs. Maybe just something to do with the kids when we had the day off from school.

Some years we had more success than others getting the kite aloft. There may be a metaphor in that, as well. What happens when what’s perching on the soul just huddles, dodging the weather and predators? Guano on the ground of the spirit? As a person who gardens, I could really overstretch the symbolism here: fertilization and renewal, so on.

But I haven’t been in the garden for a couple of days–we are having our blackberry frost and it has been chilly. Instead I am thinking about my absent dad and the significance of the holiday in my growing-up years. In church, the purple vestments were switched for white with gold trim on Easter; and my father, in his clerical robe and stole, looked important and shiny behind the pulpit. White flowers, especially lilies, showed up; everyone wore their best spring outfits. I feel nostalgia around these rituals, but they did not settle into my heart and create a believer of me. To my dad’s sorrow. I know my decision to leave the Church grieved him, but he accepted me and loved me all the same. He believed he’d see us in heaven, though he’d admit he had no idea what the afterlife would hold.

Rejoicing in the world’s beauty, the sharing of fellow humans’ suffering, and the way words can express the things that matter–the Biblical poetry–those things have settled into my heart. My consciousness. Hence metaphor and symbol and rhythm, songs of grief and praise.

They rise.

Like the hyacinths and daffodils rising from the half-rotted leaves of previous autumns. Like the flicker rising from the grass after scoring a grub. Like the early morning fog rising as high as the nearby hilltop, then merging into clouds. Like the sprouting kale seeds, the new pea leaves.

Like the thing with feathers. Or a kite.

~

I listened, this afternoon, to Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion and remembered Good Fridays with my father. That’s all the poetry I have to share today.

The last time my dad flew a kite was 2016, I think. And it was October, oceanside.

Dad (using the walker, far right) keeps a kite in the air above the Atlantic.

Moderately good intentions

We had some mild, sunny days around the equinox, days that lured me to the yard and garden. The neighbors’ pussywillow pushed its fuzzy catkins out in the warmth, and the sight of daffodil and hyacinth leaves making their way upward was cheering. A rather sluggish field vole ran out from under some mulch, much to my annoyance–the voles have really torn up the ornamental beds and the lawn under the cover of the snow. There’s a large meadow behind my house; why don’t the voles stay out there? At any rate, I wanted this one away from the garden. I figured I could catch it and let it go in the hedgerow where the grasses are dry and thick.

Field Vole (Microtus agrestis) from Warren Photographic

I was wearing garden gloves and the vole was a bit startled by sunlight but too fast for me. Because I had a hose in my right hand, I aimed it at the vole. I figured the wetting would confuse it enough that I could sweep down fast and scoop it up with some thatch, then release it. Or really, I wasn’t thinking much. But it did work: the vole, suddenly damp, froze for a moment. I snatched it and cradled it in my gloved hands (they bite!) and let it go along the edge of the meadow.

My compassionate spouse admonished me, though. He said it was cruel to spritz the vole. I realized he was correct. In the moment, I was considering my good intentions to remove the creature to a “better” place to forage; but that in itself was not a very kind thing–it was my wish, certainly not the vole’s! And I am positive I frightened it terribly.

The episode made me reflect on how often we privilege our own desires as being motivated by good intentions. We reason our way out of thoughtless behavior by saying “But I didn’t mean…” I have done so far too often. I think this is what props up microagressions and passive acceptance of egregious social behaviors like racism. Today I stumbled across an article by Shayla Love that suggests our much-vaunted concept of our true moral selves is illusion. She cites an article by psychologists that concludes that “[t]he true self is posited rather than observed. It is a hopeful phantasm.” Strominger, Knobe, & Newman’s article on the true self is here.

“Though we all believe in a morally good true self, our definition of what’s moral varies—and we define the ‘morally good’ part of our true selves based on our own values.” (from: https://www.vice.com/en/article/v7mwa3/why-your-true-self-is-an-illusion) ~Shayla Love.

~~

Meanwhile, this week marks one year since my latest chapbook launched into print–right at the start of US pandemic lockdowns. Find it here: https://prolificpress.com/bookstore/chapbook-series-c-14/barefoot-girls-by-ann-e-michael-p-317.html

So I am celebrating in a very small way, hooray for the little things! For the fact that my 88 year old mother has had her vaccine, and so have I, and now we can visit in person and appreciate little joys like cranberry, raisin, almond, and dark chocolate trail mix, floral bouquets, slow walks through the garden starting to green up and–soon–bloom. Maybe I will even be able to take her out for a beer (at an outdoor restaurant) in a month or two. I can read her some of the poems I’ve written about my dad. We can just sit and watch the birds.

For the fact that my students are slogging away, enduringly hopeful that by the time they graduate the USA will somehow be better. Maybe it will. With their help.

For the fact that my siblings and I have friendly relationships with one another–and honest ones.

Hooray for my spouse, mowing the meadow with his 1947 John Deere Model M tractor! For a new manuscript of old poems that I’m finally spending some genuine, careful, critical time revising.

For this poem: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/58762/catalog-of-unabashed-gratitude

and thank you, friends, when last spring
the hyacinth bells rang
and the crocuses flaunted
their upturned skirts, and a quiet roved
the beehive

And for this one (RIP, Mr. Zagajewski) https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57095/try-to-praise-the-mutilated-world-56d23a3f28187

Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

Emergent

emergent (adj.) late 14c., “rising from what surrounds it, coming into view,” from Latin emergentem (nominative emergens), present participle of emergere “to rise out or up” (see emerge).

etymologyonline: etymonline.com

~

Spring equinox.

Very soon–perhaps days from now–the vernal ephemerals will appear. The vernal ephemerals are early spring flowers that thrive low to earth before the trees leaf out: spring beauties, dogtooth violet, squirrel corn, bloodroot, hepatica, and others that look delicate but are, in fact, tough little survivors who have found their ecological niche in the cool days and weak sunlight just post-equinox. We could consider their resilience an inspiration.

Vernal ephemerals sounds to me like a term for sprites, will o’ the wisps, or angels, but it’s a scientific term. I learned it from Tom Wessels (here’s one of his videos on coevolution https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCAvBmY7ZgA),* but I have been fascinated by these plants for decades. I have always been the sort of person who walked around with my head either facing the clouds or scanning the earth beneath my feet. Hence, a reason so much of my poetry uses images from nature even when I am not writing about the garden, the meadow, the woods, the sea. My clumsiness a byproduct of my peculiar need to observe the natural environment.

Anyway, hepatica is about as close to a sprite as any blossom I know of.

They aren’t common where I now live. Here, the vernal ephemerals I see most often are trout lily, bloodroot, spring beauty, violets, coltsfoot, trillium. Probably a few others that I’m forgetting because the ephemerals haven’t popped up yet. Still far too cold and a bit dry after a month of snow cover. The emergent greens in my gardens consist mainly of winter weeds, and I’m happy even to see those. Because: green.

“Just a little green like the color when the spring is born” says a line in Joni Mitchell’s song. The green things rise up or out of what surrounds them, coming into view.

I have been keeping under the standing snow, leaf litter, and dross for three months, processing (as the jargon terms it) my father’s death and a new manuscript and a backlog of poem drafts and covid-19 with its attendant disruptions, limitations, and opportunities. But the snow has subsided from all but a few gullies on the north sides of hills; iris reticulata and snowdrops are in bloom, along with the winter-blooming witch hazel. There’s work to do in the garden. Poems to revise. National Poetry Month ahead (April!). It’s the 25th year for this literary celebration.

Time for me, like the skunks and the skunk cabbage and the little ephemerals, to rise out of my surroundings. And take up this blog again? It’s a start. A little green shoot emerging in the chilly sunlight. Hello.

* Thanks to Dave Bonta for the video recommendation

Until…

We are at the end of an arbitrary, chronological year but still in the midst of a pandemic that will not be going away miraculously when the new calendar begins.

To what must we devote ourselves? I think, for now, just getting by and living through; we can learn much from solving the everyday puzzles life pitches at us. A friend counsels that having a project to do can help–something a bit thorny that offers a challenge but that is not a priority. For now, I am cutting vines–the ones that threaten to strangle the remaining trees in the windbreaks on either side of our narrow property.

Trees that have been weakened by too little and then too much rain, by warmer temperatures and crown die-back that encourage lichen, by insects and the viruses they carry, and by a lack of native undergrowth. The ash trees that ringed the meadow are all dead now, victims of fungus and stress-related illnesses caused by infestations of emerald ash borers.

It’s an ongoing effort for which there won’t be much reward, but it feels a bit like tending something in the dead of winter.

I will cease tending this blog for awhile. My deeper concerns lie elsewhere at the moment. If my next collection is indeed published this year as originally intended (covid protocols have affected almost every endeavor, even publishing, and certainly book launches), then I will likely resume a more noticeable social media presence! Maybe I will have resupplied my energy reserves that have been depleted during the past few months.

Until we meet again, and hoping that we can meet in person down the road…

photo by David Sloan

Complicated distress

My recent reading list borders on the bizarrely unrelated: Helen Macdonald’s essays in Vesper Flights, Malcolm Lowry’s descriptive pastiche of a novel Under the Volcano, and Daniel Defoe’s wandering and curiously relevant A Journal of the Plague Year.

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin
..."is to learn something."
                               --T. H. White

Lowry’s book offers a strange escape for those of us preparing for yet another few months of pandemic quarantining. The escape is Mexico, its mountains and villages, its expatriates, world-travelers, drunkards, outsiders. But the characters cannot escape. The Consul cannot be saved from himself, from his tragic upbringing and his betrayals and his alcoholism. The novel’s so sensual and the descriptions so loving that I feel a sense of personal exile everywhere in the text. And I’m learning about Mexican-British politics in the pre-WWII years. It is a sad novel, but a different variety of sadness than the one I carry with me currently.

~

Most birds possess the power of flight, something humans have longed for and envied forever, inventing angels and airplanes to mimic birds. Macdonald’s essay on swifts’ vesper flights describes how the birds rise in flocks up to the top of the convective boundary layer, where the wind flow’s determined not by the landscape but by “the movements of large-scale weather systems.” The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (one of my favorite informational sites!) suggests the swifts–not intellectually, but somehow as a group–orient themselves using the many-wrongs principle:

That is, they’re averaging all their individual assessments in order to reach the best navigational decision. If you ‘re in a flock, decisions about what to do next are improved if you exchange information with those around you…Swifts have no voices, but…they can pay attention to what other swifts are doing.”

Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights

We have voices; and yet we are not, in general, so good as the swifts at paying attention. Perhaps because there are too many voices shouting so loudly that the information gets confused. The sheep-following fashion of thinking goes with whoever’s most noisy, we follow; that way lies error. Paying attention and using a many-wrongs principle means we have to be willing to change course when new information arrives. It requires a certain humility that, let’s face it, most of us lack.

~

While reading Defoe, I am struck by parallels with today’s pandemic. But of course–times change, people don’t. His narrator feels torn–do I leave for the country, or stay in London? Is it wrong to shut people up in plague-touched houses, or safer for the greater number of the population? Is the Mayor making the best choices for the city? When new information about contamination arises, how are the people–as a community–to respond? And what do we do about those people who show total disregard for others? When there are so many responses, for good and ill, to a pandemic of such scope–what choice is best?

What can be said to represent the Misery of these Times, more lively to the Reader, or to give him a more perfect Idea of a complicated Distress?

Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year

Complicated Distress: a phrase, composed in 1722, relevant today.

First frost

autumn
when so much dies
or moves on

toads burrow deeper
after dark covers 
sedge and clover

fallen hickory leaves
ice-rimmed gold
at sunrise

I wake too chilly
at my usual hour
forsake my habit of rising

listen to the nuthatch
and house sparrow
mourning dove croon

give me another minute
beside you in bed
shivering yet shimmering

Crickets

Colloquial speech fascinates me, particularly as its particularity evolves and morphs over time and through culture. Phrases, allusions, slang, cultural references…no wonder that one of my favorite screwball comedies of all time is the Barbara Stanwyck/Gary Cooper film Ball of Fire. (Check it out!)

Recently, my sister complained that she sends out brief, concise emails to coworkers and people who report to her–emails that require acknowledgement or response; “and what do I get?” she shrugged in exasperation, “Crickets!” I know the feeling. Try sending emails to dozens of first-year college students…see how well the average 18-year-old answers them.

Online at YourDictionary.com, I found the most concise definition of crickets:

(US slang, humorous or derisive) Absolute silence; no communication. Derived from the cinematic metaphor of chirping crickets at night, signaling (otherwise) complete quiet. May be used alone or in metaphorically descriptive phrases.

I love that this definition suggests the term derives from movies! I love that it’s a metaphor! And, of course, I love that crickets make sounds–so in actuality the analogy stems not from absolute silence but from the absence of, I suppose, a human-language response.

This time of year at my meadow, the crickets still thrive and make noise even as the cooler nights begin to slow their calls. I hear the order Oecanthinae (tree crickets) from on high in the tree canopy and the order Gryllus (field crickets)–slightly lower in pitch–creak-cricking amid the goldenrod and sedge.

Then I stop and consider all the thrumming, crashing, screaming, irritating, beeping, blasting, babbling noise humans make in the world. Even when we feel joyful, words and enough noise to make the head spin. A great din?

I think I choose crickets, for now.

No better place

In a time of grief and gravity and gratitude for some wonderfully-lived lives, I happen to find myself reading Mark Doty’s book What Is the Grass? Walt Whitman in My Life.

And I find this paragraph; and for now, I need add nothing more.

The dead are not lost, but in circulation; they are involved in the present, in active participation. Bits of them are streaming through your hand and mine, just as language is circulating through us. Lexicon and materiality forever move onward and outward in the continuous wheeling expansion this world is. This is no mere philosophical proposition on Whitman’s part, not an intellectual understanding but a felt actuality. We are alive forever in the endless circulation of matter. Nothing luckier, stranger, or more beautiful could ever happen. There is no better place.

Hawk. Squirrel.

This morning, my usual Sunday sit-on-the-porch-with-tea erupted into a creaturely moment of predator and prey, split-second decisions of the animal kind.

Generally, the birds at the feeders and the chipmunks and occasional squirrel regard me as potential but not immediate threat. When I get up from my chair, they go into alert mode–the bolder ones stay, the more timid fly or scurry off but return rapidly. They seem to consider me more nuisance than threat; but they do not trust me, either. That suits all of us. I watch them, they half-watch me. I drink my tea, they eat the seeds we put out for them.

Our cats watch eagerly, in predatory stances, from behind a latched screen door. Thwarted, but fascinated. They were not the cause of today’s alarm.

The feeders have been swarmed for two weeks by legions of adolescent birds as well as adults preparing for migration or just plumping up before the frosts arrive. We’ve hosted flocks of starlings and dozens of finches of several kinds, nuthatches and sparrows and little brown songbirds, wrens, mourning doves, one remaining chipmunk from this summer’s litter, and the occasional bold squirrel–usually gray ones, though I have seen the little red ones once or twice.

At 8 am, I was enjoying a cool morning with my hot cuppa when the day burst into feathers, screams, and the scrabble of claws. A hawk swooped from the magnolia, aiming at a squirrel crouched on the patio under the birdfeeder. Something must have interrupted the hawk’s perception, however–it missed the squirrel, rotated fluidly in mid-air, and somersaulted onto the iron stand of the feeder, sending small birds into a flurry of down and shrieking in all directions.

A large buddleia bush obscured my view of the raptor, so I could not make out whether it was a young redtail (it was on the small side) or perhaps a Coopers or sharp-shinned. The squirrel’s response intrigued me. In a fraction of a second, it determined that running straight toward me was ever so much wiser than running the opposite direction (braving the open lawn to make for the treeline). I watched, amused, as the squirrel scurried along the porch to within a foot of my chair, where it suddenly scrabbled its legs, slewed sideways, and stared up at me in confused terror. Poor thing.

It climbed down the side of the porch and huddled in the bushes as the hawk shook itself and made for the oak tree and the small birds returned to their interrupted repast. The cats gazed out with renewed interest, having felt a bit flustered themselves, I could tell.

I don’t blame them. Everything lately seems so unprecedented and apocalyptic.

I feel simpatico with the squirrel.