Clean as you go

Grateful for

Fresh food. Drinking water. Safe spaces. Work. Loving hearts. Time.

Last week, my mother handed over her copy of Tassajara Cooking. I smiled as I reread it.

A party-loving Episcopalian, a gourmet who appreciates a sommelier, my mom looks puzzled sometimes by her Zen-practicing, quiet-seeking, veg-centered, yoga teaching daughter who considers club soda a cocktail.

Mom's cookbook. My zafu.

Mom’s cookbook. My zafu.

Zentatsu Baker-roshi (Green Gulch Farm, 1973) writes in the book’s introduction,

Food is our common property, the body of the world, our eating of the world, our treasure of change and transformation, sustenance and continuation.

I grew up in a home where food was celebration. We walked to Eastern Market to choose it and to learn from the people who grew it. Thanksgiving and Christmas my parents hosted visitors from around the world and neighbors next door. Sometimes we nestled two long tables together under one large cloth so more could find a seat.

Days in advance, my mother and I started prepping, organizing the cooking, polishing silver, ironing napkins. We had a tiny wall oven latched by a piece of kitchen twine, a lopsided stovetop and no dishwasher.

The maxim was “Clean as you go.”

In a cookbook poem, Edward Espe Brown writes,

Cooking is not a mystery.
The more heart we put out
the more heart we put in.
To bring cooking alive
we give our life. Giving
our life willingly we don’t
get put out.

The proof is in the pudding. Here’s one of my favorite delish-es I throw together with cranberries and apples.

cran-apple crisp1

Skillet cran-apple crisp.

  • Combine five or six peeled and chopped apples and two handfuls of raw cranberries in an iron skillet. Drizzle with maple syrup. Sprinkle with cinnamon and ginger.
  • In a bowl, combine a cup or so of whole wheat pastry flour, a half cup or so of brown sugar, more cinnamon, a splash of vanilla extract, a pinch of sea salt, chopped walnuts (optional) and a dollop of fat to bind it all together. I use the soy-free version of the Earth Balance stuff. You can use unsalted butter. Or coconut oil. Stir it all together. If I need more liquid, I add walnut oil until the topping is moist.
  • Place the topping over the fruit. (You can see it doesn’t need to completely cover.)
  • Bake at 400 degrees until irresistible smells waft from the oven. Peek occasionally to make sure nothing’s getting too crispy.
  • You can be fancy and serve with ice cream or dairy-free whatever equivalent. I like the crisp as is. Simple.
  • Store leftovers in the refrigerator. They make a snappy breakfast.


I’ve heard it said say if you want to remember your true self, think back to who you were in first grade. Along with DC Comics, Moomins, The Cricket in Times Square, and fairy tales, I grew up reading Tassajara and other cookbooks such as Diet for a Small Planet (1971) and Laurel’s Kitchen (1976), which is famously dedicated to a glossy black calf.

At seven, when I announced I wasn’t eating animals anymore, my mom, a registered dietician, taught me about nutrition. When he cooked, my dad set aside a meat-free version of his chili. My brother and I were encouraged to experiment in the kitchen. He assembled tasty tacos. Desserts were my specialty.

And, in constant use, the lemon-fresh Joy.

I can smell it now!


And, like soap suds filling the sink then dissolving, everything changes.

The house was sold. The kitchen remodeled (I sneaked a look through the window!). The tablecloth folded away. Eastern Market burned down and was rebuilt.

We’re all using different dish soaps in my family now — Dawn, Meyer’s, Method — various versions of water, detergent and scented foaming surfactants employed toward the same end: living.

Everything is connected.

At Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Sacramento a few years ago, I participated in a one-day meditation retreat with Ed Brown. He was funnier than he comes across in his cookbooks and as patient. He sat with us. During the break, he showed us a few simple stretches to do while waiting for morning coffee to brew. He seemed amused that we were amused by him.

Walking through the Green Gulch farm garden one winter, I scrambled into a shed for a scrap of newspaper and a pencil stub to record this poem.

Winter Garden

Rows of lime green,
beet and rusty reds:
lettuce leaflets in loam.

What more do I want, but
leaves to feed on, someone
to pass the salt cellar?

The back cover of Tassajara Cooking reads,

The recipes are not for you to follow, they are for you to create, invent, test….There are plenty of things left for you to discover, learn, stumble upon.


You’re on your own.

Together with everything.


Outer edges, inner peace

The story begins,

Once again nobody bothered to pick up the newspaper from our driveway or open our living room drapes all day, the same way many of my students didn’t bother to turn in their homework, or put their names on it if they did turn something in. It was as though the world didn’t care anymore–it had given up–and I was coming to that point, too.

G. Elizabeth Kretchmer wrote the story, “Girls Against Perfection,” included in her new collection Women on the Brink.

For the collection, Kretchmer asked poets to write original poems inspired by the stories. I’m pleased she asked me.

When I read “Girls Against Perfection” I was reminded me of Eudora Welty. “Outer Edges,” the poem I wrote for Kretchmer’s story, started as four lines jotted down years earlier after reading The Optimist’s Daughter. In a 1972 New York Times reviewHoward Moss calls the novella,

The best book Eudora Welty has ever written…a long goodbye in a very short space not only to the dead but to delusion and to sentiment as well.

Beloved Eudora, May your heavenly typewriter always have a fresh ribbon.


This poem’s for everyone who writes–fiction, poetry, non-fiction, nonsense. Thank you for reaffirming with every syllable that paying attention, documenting connections and taking care matter.

Outer Edges

Against a storm door, snow piles
heavily on boards. This is the monotony

of winter, the bitter slog of January.
Sealed against the greyed sky a woman

is in utter darkness until solitude’s tenacity
primes her pupils, widens creased eyes.

A green-tipped wooden kitchen match
scratched on a table’s stainless edge

at first only deepens each shadow.
Five fingers tangle in sticky cobwebs

and withdraw,
unlearning the haste of reaching.

Still. Be
still. Wait.

Light will leak in like love among imperfections.
Not enough to see clearly, but enough to see ahead.

Upstairs, hot coffee, wool socks on chilly planks,
crystal drifts outside the windows glistening possibility.

With the help of some surprising teenaged girls and her own daughter, Kretchmer’s character finds in the course of the story a balance of effort and ease. Her circumstances don’t change much, but she does.

I backed out of my parking spot, and I slowly made my way on the slippery streets to what I used to think of as my imperfect little life, where snow would be piling in the driveway. And dirty dishes would be cluttering the sink. And a stack of overdue bills would still be waiting for me on the counter even when my husband and daughter would likely not be waiting for me at all.

Acceptance: A way of coming home to ourselves.



Posted by in Ties


keep catch of the ballad

Grace can lie in a smooth, well-coordinated motion, or in a humble and tolerant attitude. More often than not, the two go hand in hand….Grace has nothing to do with looks or sophistication, and everything to do with compassion and courage.

More from pages dog-eared while reading The Art of Grace:

Grace is an act of transformation, making an ordinary moment extraordinary.

Sarah Kaufman’s statements reminded me of Pablo Neruda, how his poems touch upon aspects of grace. As for many, he was one of the first poets with whom I fell in love.

The fifth stanza of “Sabor,” translated by Ben Belitt and found in Five Decades: Poems 1925-1970, makes you wonder how much is contained in a moment, a thing, a word.

The inner guitar that is I, keeps the catch of a ballad,

spare and sonorous, abiding, immobile,

like a punctual nutriment, like smoke in the air:

force in response, the volatile power in the oil:

an incorruptible bird keeps watch on my head:

an unvarying angel inhabits my sword.

One more from Kaufman,

Think of grace as the artisitic, empathetic side of an embodied language that humans have been speaking through time.

The Art of Grace lists tips for moving well through life. I’ve adapted them for Yoga Stanza:

1. Slow down (as bell hooks advises).
2. Listen to and respect yourself and others (as Bruce Springsteen does).
3. Scoot over. Make room for others (everywhere).
4. Bring ease to others. See them. Help them.
5. Bring ease to yourself. Accept compliments. Love fearlessly.
6. Let go, emotionally and materially. Simplify.
7. Take care of the body with movement.
8. Pay attention (like Joy Williams).
9. Be generous (as Leza Lowitz guides).
10. Enjoy (poems and everything else…in moderation!)


move, still

Autumn can be a time of letting go, especially when a breeze of change comes through. Shedding what we no longer need–stuff, ideas, fears, attachments–prepares us to start fresh, in time, as trees do.

Taking inspiration from the busy squirrels, it’s a time of assessing what we need and storing no more than that.

We need both movement and stillness in body and in mind.

Aila Meriluoto reading.

In the poem “Still” Finnish poet Aila Meriluoto (transl. Jaakko A. Ahokas) writes,

In the fall, I believe again in poetry

if nothing else it is

a movement of the mind.

Words and ideas move the mind. Through the body we move in the world, taking part.

The second of Mary Oliver’s two-line poem “Humility” reads,

Poets are only the transportation.

The body is a poem, its shape carrying ideas and information we fill it with, organized harmoniously within our organism.

Each body is a home place in the neighborhood of an ecological community, human and otherwise.

Everything is connected.

One affects another. Every thought, every breath, every choice and gesture matters.

Every action stirs the air. We see this in autumn’s moving leaves.

How do we prepare our house and neighborhood for winter?

What activity can carry the impulses we’ve identified in the movement of a reflective mind?

One friend crafts a shelter for a stray cat from a styrofoam cooler. Another stacks wood for the boiler. Another makes and freezes soup to have ready when someone falls ill. Another collects blankets for those in need. Another knits scarves for the rest of us. Another moves a desk beneath a window and opens a journal. Another lingers in conversation with a neighbor.

Inside. Outside. Beside. Upside. Downside.


Seng-ts’an (died 606) wrote in the poem “Trust in Mind,”

Stop moving to become still,

And the stillness will move.

(from Zen Sourcebook)

poses, poise & peace

The goal of yoga, Victoria Moran says in The Good Karma Diet, is poise and peace.

At first I was thrown by the singular verb is. I don’t know if the conjugation choice is deliberate or an editor’s oversight.

But I’m a blogger familiar with typos in her own work (you’ve seen ’em), and a poet with a special endorsement on my language license to play fast and loose; so I thought about it: linking poise and peace into a unit to describe yoga makes sense.

“Poise” derives from words meaning weight with connotations of equal weight and balance.

In yoga we balance on one foot, two feet, hands, arms and, sometimes, heads.

Peace is freedom from disturbance, tranquility.

With a focus on acceptance and appreciation, yoga seems to bring most of us who practice it at least a modicum of peace.

Describing a woman she sees doing side bends, plies and releves in the returns line of a big box store, Moran realizes,

That was when it hit me like a ton of pointe shoes: when the body is flexible, the mind is more likely to be flexible. Wherever you are, in whatever situation, you can tense up and resist, or loosen up and flow. Everybody in that queue eventually made it to the counter, but the ballet lady, unlike the rest of us, did so with poise and peace. That’s why yoga is big on stretching: the goal of yoga is poise and peace; a brain that lives in a relaxed and limber body is likely to have those as its default.

Until I started practicing yoga in 1995, I felt easeful only when underway: walking in the desert, running anywhere, spiking a volleyball, swinging in a playground, swimming, cycling, paddling a canoe, rowing.

My a-little-over-six-foot-tall body felt squished for space most of the time–squeezed behind a reclined seat on cross-country flights, leaning over a student’s desk to review her work, wrenching my neck back into the stylist’s low shampoo bowl. I’d been to chiropractors, massage therapists and regular MDs for neck and knee aches. At age 25, I was squatting at the sink to do dishes to relieve the pain in my low back.

I didn’t know how to move and breathe and be in a way that supported everyday living, my life.

The first yoga pose I ever entered in the first class I ever took at the Ann Arbor YMCA was viparita karanilegs up the wall.

Inverted, back flat against the floor, legs lifted, I looked up at the tops of the feet I usually looked down on and recognized: Everything is connected. 

Just like the song “Dem Bones,”

The leg bone’s connected to the knee bone,
The knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone,
The thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone,
Now shake dem skeleton bones!

In The Art of Grace, Sarah L. Kaufman points out,

So many of us view our bodies as incedental, inconvenient, disappointing, embarrassing, better to be ignored. We may see the body as an object for adornment or judicious pruning to fit a cultural ideal, rather than as an organism of myriad capabilities whose value lies in its uniqueness, and is deserving of care.

Sharing her experience of back pain after having been a dancer and carrying three pregnancies, Kaufman offers one of the best descriptions I’ve read of how and why yoga “works.”

In the ensuing years, swimming helped strengthen my back, but what fully banished discomfort and stiffness was yoga, which, like dance, works a lot on posture. I heartily recommend it. What I like about yoga is that it also addresses the inner state of being, with attention to deep breathing and to calming the mind, both of which are essential to grace and poise. The poses are meant to open up different angles of the body to loosen tightness but also to build awareness of how the body works, and how its workings affect your mood and outlook. The breathing exercises expand your inner tissues and organs, which can be both relaxing and energizing.

In a workshop I taught for managers at a corporate retreat, I was asked why I like to work with beginners and what I term “reluctant yogis.” It’s because of the discovery. The smallest gesture or rotation of the head becomes profound when practiced with alignment and attention.

Everything changes.

At a senior center, I taught a woman with Parkinson’s disease. The flowing synthesis of breath and movement temporarily brought her back home to her body.

Among students who’ve been practicing for awhile, we revisit subtleties-fingers and ankles, eyes and tongue.

There’s an awful lot to explore when we give ourselves permission to feel, to feel at home.

To take care.

Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around
Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk around
Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk around
Now shake dem skeleton bones!


Beauty, presence, home

Theatre director Tazewell Thompson calls emotional responses to spirituals a “bone memory. A recognition that you may not be going through the exact thing the song talks about, but we’ve all been through something.”

Spellbound is how I felt as soprano Anastasia Talley sang “Listen to the Lambs” during Saturday night’s Deep River: The Art of the Spiritual, at the University of the District of Columbia. The program wove together video, still photos, historic recordings and live voices, flute and piano.

Listen to the lambs, literal and metaphorical. No need to eat them! Just listen.

The songs tell of sorrow, longing and joy, and overarchingly call for a safe and loving home. In “Goin’ Home,” the speaker follows a morning star through an open door where family and friends are waiting. “Deep River” promises a campground where all is peace.

Tazewell explains in the Washington Post,

When we hear these spirituals today, they have a way–an almost Zen-like quality–to transport us. It comes to us with an idea. In case you didn’t get it, it repeats. You still don’t hear it, it repeats again. I think today with all the turmoil going on with race in this country, I think it’s time to return to spirituals.

“Deep River” is based on the song of the same name arranged by Harry Burleigh, who studied with and influenced Antonin Dvorak. Burleigh learned songs while accompanying his father on his lamp lighting route through Erie, Pennsylvania evenings.

Stanley Thurston, artistic director of Washington Performing Arts’ gospel choirs and one of the show’s conductors, says in the Post that spirituals preceded the gospel songs that arose in church worship.

“These are plantation songs, songs in the field. Something to help you feel better about what was going on.”

Moving and breathing. Moving and singing. Prayers in motion. Compassion extended. Temporal gestures of kindness.

“The body comes first,” writes Sarah L. Kaufman in The Art of Grace: On Moving Well through Life. “Grace is the transference of ease from one body to another.”

Like the swinging chariot coming for to carry one home, beauty sweeps us up in sound, movement, presence and sense.

In beauty’s presence, we are present to ourselves and others.

Amid fluid sound, inhabiting fluid movement, breathing within the space of community–be it inside with other people or outside with trees and other beings–we can be at home.

The elegance of beauty is simple: the plain auditorium stage, wood floors in a neighborhood zendo, a tattered wing chair set on a front porch with an overturned bucket holding a mug, a beach towel spread on the sand just above tideline, the two-foot width of an unrolled yoga mat.

Find a home. Be at home. Make space for others to find theirs.

In Georgetown yesterday, amid full streets of Sunday shoppers, pedestrians, photographers, bicyclists and joggers, people on corners with belongings bundled beside them requested money and food while volunteers soothed dogs in need of adoption at an event in front of the Safeway.

On a walk last week among branches of a tree that has already lost its leaves, a tidy nest.

Homes are all around and homes are needed all around.

The speaker in Anna Akhmatova’s poem “I Taught Myself to Live Simply,” (transl. Richard McKane) returns after “wander[ing] long before evening to tire [her] useless sadness,” and says,

I come back. The fluffy cat

licks my palm, purrs so sweetly,

and the fire flares bright

on the saw-mill turret by the lake.

We go away. We come back. We are welcomed. We welcome. What more is there?




Yoga’s relevance

When I worked as a poetry teacher in a maximum security prison, one of the inmates pointedly asked me, “What’s the responsibility of a poet?”

While mulling a response over the next few months, I admitted to myself that as compelled as one feels to write poems, no one is obligated to read them. In an increasingly time-pressed world, it is a bit of an imposition to expect them to.

Jane Hirshfield has said that poetry is not practical. This is true.

A man approached me one night after a poetry reading and said my poems were nice enough, but I should acquire a real skill, like being auto mechanic. I’d been a school teacher so I knew about practical jobs: teaching children to add and subtract and to read and write is very practical. So, though it stung, I saw his point.

As a former teaching artist, traveling to bring poetry to students of all ages, I can also gin up a convincing argument on the value of poetry. Through reading, writing and speaking poems, one learns about rhythm and rhetoric, language and longing, sound and self.

These days, though, I teach yoga and meditation. I’m lately asking a version of the inmate’s question,

What’s the point of yoga in 21st-century America?

In Original Yoga: Rediscovering Traditional Practices of Hatha Yoga, Richard Rosen clarifies the question without providing an answer.

Yoga was born, nurtured, and cultivated in India, but it’s been passed along to the West like a baton in a relay race. For all intents and purposes, over the last six decades, we’ve refined the original foundation practice–asana–far beyond the wildest imaginings of the old yogis. But although we are asana adults, the rest of our practice is still in its infancy. So now it’s time to turn our attention to other matters, using the traditional practice as our model but shaping the practice to suit Western needs.

After pondering all this for some time, I think I have an answer.

It’s yoga as a return to a process-oriented approach to life. A right view that acknowledges that the fact of change and the truth of interconnection mean that the only end game is the one we investigate at the conclusion of a yoga class — death — in corpse pose, savasana.

In a U.S.-centric version of this illustration, the asana leaf would be enormous.

Our yoga teachers come primarily from performance backgrounds — athletes, gymnasts and dancers — who gravitate to yoga as full-time employment or part-time hobby. The emphasis in their teaching subsequently falls on “peak poses” as well as long inversions, vigorous flows, arm balances and “deep” anything: forward bend, backbend, twists.

Nuance is lost.

So much energy goes into production of a giant asana leaf that the flower of American yoga can’t bloom.

I’ve seen yoga teachers take and post selfies while taking and teaching classes and during meditation. Performance and presentation in the form of picture or a post tips a person into the future, away from self-study, concentration, steadying of the mind.

Yoga’s physical component of asana is to prepare the body for sitting on the ground in sustained meditation, I have heard. In the Zen tradition that I practice, fidgeting is frowned upon. We sit. Still. Crisp posture and physical strength support this.

Karen Armstrong writes in Buddha:

Yoga can be described as the systematic dismantling of the egotism which distorts our view of the world and impedes our spiritual progress….Those who practice yoga in America and Europe do not always have that objective. They often use the disciplines of yoga to improve their health….Certainly, the yogic exercises can enhance our control and induce a serenity if properly practiced, but the original yogins did not embark on this path in order to feel better and to live a more normal life. They wanted to abolish normality and wipe out their mundane selves.

Scrap the power yoga, the peak poses, the pressure to do this or that.

Move gently and notice what you feel. Build strength through attention to alignment, detail, fluid movement and longer holds. Practice right effort, bringing enthusiasm, maybe joy.

Taking action without expectation of result: This is what yoga contributes to modern America.

Yoga offers a model for the trinity of mind, body and breath. Mind, body, breath — three sturdy legs for the seat of the stool of a contented life.

Says Patanjali’s 19th sutra as translated by T.K.V. Desikachar in The Heart of Yoga:

There will be some who are born into a state of Yoga. They need not practice or discipline themselves.

Does that sound like you? It’s not me either.

In our vernacular, “discipline” is loaded, no matter how much we remind ourselves the word derives from disciple, related to knowledge. Most of us modern Americans — especially those of us with the freedom (time, money, health) to practice yoga — benefit from discipline. This might be the discipline to refrain from eating a second slice of carrot cake or to bite the tongue against gossip.

This is yoga as a structured system, one way to think about being in the world.  That does not mean co-opting religious underpinnings from the earliest yogis millennia ago, but considering the notion of integration as an ongoing coming into wholeness.

A process is a progression. “Progress” derives from the Latin for walking forward.

Patanjali’s second sutra reads,

Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions.

Sustain. Direct. Focus.  Yoga helps us with that. And helps us prepare for other forms of concentration, mindfulness and meditation.

Says computer coder Jonathan Harris in the Washington Post’How the Internet’s most earnest evangelist became its fiercest critic:

We’re losing agency over our own minds while big companies make money….It’s not all bad, but there are different ways of seeing,

He concludes,

We have become slaves to devices that addict us. But everyone is the custodian of his own mind. We all have the potential to be the steward of our own consciousness.

Simply discovering one’s own sense of internal organization through aligned posture shifts one’s perspective on the world. Using the body as a personal 24/7 laboratory of inquiry, a yoga student embodies change and interconnection; his or her relationship to the body changes and the parts of the body change in relationship. Morphing.

The yoga student who practices meditation and identifies some sort of ethical guidelines, with the resources of Patanjali, Buddha or another teacher, transforms intellectually and emotionally, too. Compassion unfolds, for oneself and others. Interest in the world develops. Curiosity leads to more curiosity. And ultimately to contentment as one learns, as Rilke says, to love questions.

Thinking about garbage, Energy Department science and technology policy fellow Darshan Karwat reduced his waste stream to a trickle one year. In writing about the project in the Washington Post, he says,

The hardest part was figuring out the best way to talk about what I was doing. It is important to speak to people in a language they understand — a language that respects where they come from, their motivations, their upbringings…..Also, big issues such as trash and recycling are intimately tied to other big issues such as economic growth, globalization and climate change. So, as I wrote about the experiment on my blog, what began as a discussion of trash and consumption quickly became a discussion of governance, economy, peace and pillage of the Earth, poverty, the limits of human knowledge, complexity and simplicity.

Karwat says the overarching issue is how to live more gently on Earth. How can we practice ahimsa, non-injury, that little leaflet of self-restraint on the flower of wholehearted living?

Karwat suggests,

We need to talk more about how collective change is possible by experimentation in individual lives.

By broadening beyond performance, yoga can give us know-how in being with life. I tell my students that I do the work I do — teaching yoga — so they can do the work they do — lawyers, doctors, mechanics, teachers, lobbyists, drivers, CEOs, journalists, parent, painter, or what have you.

The Latin origin of the word “perfect” means completed.

There’s no perfect in yoga, no gold medal, no checklist of poses to tick.

After years and years of meditation practice, off and on, mostly on, I sat on the cushion in the zendo recently and discovered that for a moment I’d had no thoughts. I’d been walking in meditation, then sat down, and briefly felt amazed to be in my body as I simultaneously recognized I was an “I.” Sounds weird? It was a little, but I’d studied enough to know what was going on. And it was but a moment.

In meditation instructions in The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, scholar-yogi Sayadaw U Silananda writes:

Do not have any expectations at this time of practice, do not expect to experience anything strange or to see visions or whatever. Expectation is a mild form of greed or attachment that is a hindrance to concentration and has to be eliminated.

That samadhi, the bliss gracing the flower-top of the diagram? It’s unlikely for most of us living as ordinary householders.

But that ongoing unfolding of leaves and petals? Oh, yeah! That’s available.

In grade school, I learned squash, climbing beans, and corn were the three sisters of traditional intercropping agriculture. The mind, breath and body are the intercrops of yoga. They’re cultivated by, among other means, ongoing study, investigation, observation, being helped and helping.

Yoga in 21st-century America can offer a practical approach to healthy interdependence, to being in process with other people and the environment.

The language is cumbersome, the practice is not.

Try it. 








in honor of an hour

Please enjoy three autumn poems to mark a lost hour regained.

This poem arrived when I was hammock lounging on a slow fall day at my little, old house on Second Avenue in Sacramento’s Elmhurst neighborhood.


Swimming this morning among the branches
of the straight pecan, the sweeping plum
four bird species: sparrow, phoebe, nuthatch,
kinglet, the latter raising his ruby
crown to his crony. Like a shoal below
on my back I am relishing an hour
returned as we fall back to standard time,
this year´s leaves drifting softly to soil
to bury my body, returning down.
And one and one and one and one the wind
is teasing gold from deciduous trees.

previously published in The Pedestal Magazine

Across the street from that house a turkey hen roosted in the neighbor’s tree each night for weeks.

Time Change
This autumn, we tell time by the turkey hen
who roosts in the sycamore tree.

Dusk comes, love, time
to change from bluejeans to nothing.

Don’t count Octobers.
This idiom’s too new for us.

Math’s trim language confounds our ears.
I’m a copper feather; you its spiral drift.

My husband’s grandmother in Indiana showed me how to slice open a persimmon to predict the winter weather.

A friend’s grandmother in Nevada City, California shared her recipe for spice cookies and persimmons to make them.

Walking the D.C. area, the native persimmon is easy to spot along with cultivated varieties in front yards.

Diospyros virginiana

Inside a persimmon, an eight-pointed star

A knife slices and wise women foretell the severity of winter
from the curved white sprout within a slit black seed

Cold winds ahead

The sphere’s two halves flame oceans for a galleon to sail
tipping from edges of flat worlds into what

One dozen fist-sized fruits a friend collects
to present in a basket lined with leaves

Spoon the pulp onto lips in cuplets of silver
Cook the flesh with cinnamon into pudding and tart
Provider of vitamin A to apes dependent on sight
Curvy succulent ornaments of bare-limbed branches

Persimmons: Pomona’s gown
as she wields a blade over Rome’s cornucopia

Persimmons: the sadhu’s robes,
as he wanders India empty-handed with desire

Persimmons: orange
u.f.o.s dotting skies of transformation

Fall fruit of valley trees
Fall fruit of valley
Fall fruit

previously published in Turtle Island Quarterly and available in Winter Garden (purchase here!)

body, mind, cloud, moon

The body, lively, like a single cloud–

the mind, quiet: a mistless moon.

– from “Saying Goodbye to a Monk,” Magnolia & Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim (White Pine Press, 2012)

present images/past experiences

Two things I read last week served as prongs of a tuning fork to remind me of an essay from a couple of years ago.

  1. The Washington Post story on biologist Nalini Nadkarni’s Nature Imagery Project describes how Nadkarni “forge[s] an oasis in the dungeon” by bringing the outside in.
  2. Patti Smith’s M Train shows how writers accrue experiences as images and how those images become raw material for our work.  She explains,

Images have their way of dissolving and then abruptly returning, pulling along the joy and pain attached to them like tin cans rattling from the back of an old-fashioned wedding vehicle.

She recalls,

A black dog on a strip of beach, Fred standing in the shadows of mangy palms flanking the entrance to Saint-Laurent Prison, the blue-and-yellow Gitane matchbox wrapped in his handkerchief, and Jackson racing ahead, searching for his father in the pale sky.


After the abolishment of California’s Arts-in-Corrections funding in 2009, inmates facilitated their own arts groups, relying on volunteers to infuse fresh ideas. From 2010-2013, I volunteered as a poetry teacher at California State Prison-Sacramento (New Folsom Prison). The maximum-security facility housed about 3,000 men at the time I worked there.

Patti Smith holds a feather.

Offering up experiences within the framework of writing, the guys and I learned from each other about perspective, environment, language, rhythm, time, friendship, justice, illness, empathy and responsibility. 

In that stark setting, we drew from memory for images to turn into phrases. When asked to construct metaphors using animals or natural imagery, the students were often stuck. Their experience of animals beyond a neighborhood cat or dog was limited. Most had never visited a wildlife park or even a zoo.

Having grown up under street lights, they’d never seen a dark sky brightened with stars. 

I’d filed my essay away in the cloud; I’ll share it now. This is what I wrote after my final visit.

One afternoon, in a small group gathered at New Folsom Prison to discuss writing, a young man lifted the lid on his stockpot of stories.

At 20, he was three years “down.” In those last few teenage years, by listening and paying attention he’d  gathered a writer’s skills, developing in English and Spanish a storyteller’s sense for detail, dialogue and pacing. I suggested he could write in both languages, maybe for people who have no way to tell their own stories; he could bear witness to events.

“I never thought of it that way before,” he said.

Through the room’s window on the hallway, he watched his younger brother being led in chains by officers past a gate. That brother’s twin, he said, was in another state prison. “We’ve disappointed our mom.”

They grew up with their mother (their father lived close by, but not with them) in a small Central Valley town bound on four sides by orchards. The town’s children had a pond for swimming–when it wasn’t emptied by irrigation–and a community center where he hung out with the kids, even after he was inducted into a gang.

“One time,” he told us, “the center was having a drawing contest for the little kids, something about our town.” One boy drew the bird that symbolizes the United Farm Workers. The boy included the name of the town and proudly showed it to the teacher.

“Oh, man,” the storyteller said, “I thought, ‘He doesn’t know.’”

The boy didn’t know that the symbol he saw on t-shirts, banners, and posters, had been co-opted by a gang. The boy’s drawing could not be entered in the contest.

“That was when I realized that up until a point you can be a little kid and then you can’t.”

California’s Central Valley

He told us about working beside his father in the fields and how pickers would trade rows so everyone had enough. He laughed as he remembered out-of-town relatives arriving to glean nectarines from trees edging the streets. His favorite times were riding in the car to the Wal-Mart in a neighboring town before his town had its own store.

On those trips he could look out the window at the scenery passing. 

He told more. About the time a bird struck the windshield when his mother was driving. The time he pushed his teacher for grabbing his headphones, and the man fell, and he was charged with assault.

About when he stopped smoking weed and how stupid his friends looked when they were high but how they passed the blunt, skipping him, without giving him grief.

He told us how he could look at a math problem and see the answer arise without touching a pencil. (“I don’t know how it happens,” he said.) He told us about a girlfriend who mentioned a test he could take for college entrance and how no one could believe it when he scored so high.

“People with scores like mine. They go to MIT,” he said. He shook his head. “I wish I had known. I wish I had known that I could go to college and all that.”

I wish I had known is a phrase I heard often from inmates.

One man, upon writing his first poem, told me, “I wish I had known earlier that I can do this. I wouldn’t be here. I didn’t know I had this in me.” 

On one visit, we used a simple Venn diagram to compare how we perceive in “artist mode” with how we perceive in daily life. An inmate observed, “This is weird. Thinking about my mind in two ways.” He stuck with it, then commented, “I can bring these together. I can be my ‘artist self’ more often.”

Another writer spent more than a year revising the same wonderful poem of numbers that held a pattern he perceived. He was dealing with schizophrenia and a brain injury. Beautiful and complex, his poem operated outside of any recognizable linear progression, any expectations of a “healthy mind.”

At first, the poem was no more than sounds. Over time, the sounds stacked up to make meaning. 

One day, he delivered the poem to the room, reading from a creased piece of lined paper. After a moment of stunned silence, everyone applauded. With persistence, he had made sense. He had untangled a portion of his thinking through effortful experience.

Walt Whitman: Now I will do nothing but listen,/To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it./I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames, clack of sticks cooking my meals./I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice,/I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following…

In the introduction to the 1921 Modern Library Edition of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg points out,

Throughout “Leaves of Grass” there recurs often a wild soft laughter carrying the hint that it is impossible for a poet to tell you anything worth knowing unless you already know it and no song can be sung to you that will seem a song deeply worth hearing unless you have already in some strange, far-off fashion heard that song. An instance of this wild soft laughter is in the closing lines of “Song of Myself,” where it is written:

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and of my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am unstranslatable.

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,

It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,

It coaxes me to the vapour and the dusk.

In every work of art and every conversation we respond to there’s that feeling of recollection. It’s the marvel of connection. It’s embodying metaphor, from Greek metaphora, to transfer; it’s the conveyance of meaning between one living creature and another over the broad valley of experiences and genes that make our dispositions and keep us from being all the same, too tamed.

Experience is related to experiment. All experiences begin as experiments, don’t they?

Greeting an inmate, I’d say, “It’s nice to see you.”

“It’s nice to be seen,” he’d respond.

Toward the end of M Train, Smith’s ellipsoidal gift of black and white photos, flavors of black coffee and brown toast, her shared beauties, fantasies and phantasms, she observes,

We seek to stay present, even as ghosts attempt to draw us away. Our father manning the loom of eternal return. Our mother wandering toward paradise, releasing the thread. In my way of thinking, anything is possible. Life is at the bottom of things and belief at the top, while the creative impulse, dwelling in the center, informs us all.

Face-to-face teaching keeps me present. And time measured at the pace of the body. Creativity. And attempts at kindness.

An act of kindness is a risk, an experiment. An act of kindness is a bit (binary + digit), a unit of information expressed as a 0 or 1 that added up any which way equals the experience of being human.

Sharing a story is a kindness. Receiving one is, too.

In her story, Smith describes the kindness of cafe workers and friends, the tender care she receives from the hotel maid who nurses her through illness in a strange city.

As an adolescent, I was a committed wanderer and a risk-taker. Lucky, I see now, to have received so many kindnesses, to be alive and free.

This poem dates back 20 years, written when I was leaving adolescence for adulthood and dedicating myself to wondering how everything is connected. I’m still at it.

Hold Still


Kindness is as kindness does,

a woman in the laundromat

tells me.


In my life I’ve had kindnesses.

Twice my windshield wipers broke,

once in a North Carolina blizzard

and once in a Kentucky thunderstorm.

Both times strangers fixed them for me

for free

so I could see to carry on.


A lady said Better get in, reaching

for the passenger door. It was raining

that night too and I was walking shocked,

barefoot, soaked and lost. She took me

to a dry place with orange couches.

I remember that.

She likely saved my life.


Has kindness been done to you?

I can’t believe in angels quite

but I see butterflies.

Kindnesses alight like butterflies

midday on bare arms

delicately sampling the invisible salt of our skins.


first published in We Have Trees (Swim, 2005)

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