A Small Creature, But A Great Grief

To say the end was unexpected hardly would be true. For months there had been signs of age taking its toll; in past weeks there had been increasing restlessness; discontented murmurings; howls in the night.

Still, that it would come so suddenly took me by surprise. After our usual morning routine — I always drank my first cup of coffee while brushing her into a state of purring contentment — I arrived home in early afternoon to find Dixie Rose staggering and in pain, suffering from  partial paralysis.

Within half an hour we were in her veterinarian’s examining room. Still unable to walk, totally non-responsive to the probings of the vet, and showing no signs of her usual combativeness, she seemed exhausted. Possible causes were outlined, but certainty would require testing, or more invasive procedures. In the meantime, she would continue to suffer.

The decision, of course, was mine; it was more than a little comfort that the veterinarian agreed with the wisdom of the decision. After eighteen years of healthy and happy companionship, it was time to let her go.

How the loss of such a small creature can leave such a large hole in a home — a heart — is a mystery, but as so often happens, Mary Oliver offers words to help fill that gap, from her time “In Blackwater Woods.”


Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars
of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,
the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Comments always are welcome.

Living Outside The Lines

Color Us Content ~ c. 1950
Apricot. Bittersweet. Burnt Sienna. Cornflower. Maize. Mahogany. Melon.

Those of us who grew up between 1949 and 1957 may remember those colors with special affection. Clear and vibrant as the bits of nature whose names they bear, they are classic Crayola colors: part of the box of forty-eight crayons that became one of my childhood’s greatest treasures.

Before 1958, the year the box containing sixty-four Crayolas was introduced, the forty-eight piece box was the big box: the box you received as a Christmas gift, or for a birthday, or because you’d contracted something like measles that would keep you in bed for a while.

I received my first big box of crayons for Christmas, with some coloring books thrown in for good measure. A photograph from that year shows me in pajamas and robe, my coloring book canvas spread before me and my father at my side. Our routine — I colored, he watched — continued for several years. He rarely offered advice, preferring instead to comment about my choice of colors, or the stories I made up as I worked.

My mother’s concerns were somewhat different. Each time I settled in to color, I’d hear her gentle, cautionary advice: “Be sure to stay inside the lines.”

Her advice was well-meant, and especially appropriate in my case. Coloring-book novices often stray, smudge, and straggle their way across the pages, but I seemed particularly unable to keep things tidy. My mother worked with me, as did my grandmother. Even a neighbor or two tried a little artistic coaching. Wanting to please, I did my best to keep my apricot, corn flower, and maize inside those little black lines. But every now and then, when no one was looking, I’d sneak a piece of typing paper and just draw.  

Eventually, coloring books were set aside for bigger and better art projects: a squirrel carved from ivory soap; a ghastly papier-mâché puppet with bright yellow hair and a calico dress; a Japanese lady wearing a kimono sketched onto a piece of wood.  I learned to cut paper snowflakes, sent coiled clay vases and ashtrays to the kiln, and once created a presentable corn field with tempera paints. 

But always there was a mold, a form, a pattern to guide my artistic efforts, and standards by which to judge. A “good” squirrel was properly proportioned, snowflakes were symmetrical, and corn fields were meant to look like corn, not fence posts. If I was going to produce art, it seemed I needed to learn the rules.

There were rules to spare. In 8th grade, I was taught that real poetry always rhymes.  Not long after, I learned that real music has no dissonance, and good art always is representational. Even though my coloring books had been set aside, the importance of remaining within the lines remained unquestioned.

Later in life, the consequences of not being able to  control my metaphorical crayons became more serious. My first full-time job, as a customer service representative for Southwestern Bell in Kansas City, involved taking calls from people wanting to connect, disconnect, or change their telephone service. In those days before computers, the information we obtained — names, addresses, employers — was transcribed by hand onto forms resembling graph paper. Each letter or numeral was to be placed precisely within its own 1/4″ square, with no smudges or stray lines straggling across the paper. 

At the end of a six week probationary period, several of us were advised to seek employment “where our talents might find a better fit.” The nicely-phrased suggestion avoided stating the obvious: idiots who couldn’t stay within the lines had no place in the world of Ma Bell.

After the firing, my relief knew no bounds. I’d hated the work, and every day had been a misery.  Despite understanding company guidelines and wanting to do things properly, I seemed incapable of doing so. When friends asked, “Why not do it their way?” I had no good answer, although it did occur to me that the wisdom of my mother’s advice during my coloring-book days had been confirmed. Stay within the lines, and you’ll be fine. Get distracted, lose focus, grow restless or bored, and your days are numbered. 

For the next few years, I did my best to keep within the lines. But by 1975, I was in London on holiday, and ready to hear what the Heptones had to say on the matter.

A reggae band from Jamaica, the Heptones recorded their hit single, “Book of Rules,” in 1973. Part of a musical wave overtaking London at the time, the song appealed as much to Bob Weir — guitarist, lyricist and founding member of the Grateful Dead — as it did to me. Weir told David Gans in 1981 how he came to record the song:

It had been one of my favorite reggae cuts for the last few years.   I finally found the record and copped the tune and recorded it.  Then a few weeks ago, after the record had been pressed up and everything was happening, a friend of Barlow’s found a compilation of verse, a collection of poems from the turn of the century to about 1930.

The poem within the collection that caught Weir’s attention was “A Bag of Tools,” written by R.L. Sharpe (1870-1950).  It was included by Hazel Felleman in her 1936 volume, Best Loved Poems of the American People.

A Bag of Tools

Isn’t it strange how princes and kings,
and clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
and common people like you and me
are builders for eternity?

Each is given a list of rules;
a shapeless mass; a bag of tools.
And each must fashion, ere life is flown,
A stumbling block, or a stepping-stone.

By the time the Heptones’ Barry Llewellyn and Harry Johnson finished setting Sharpe’s words to music, the lyrics had changed a bit, but the reggae flavor of the newly titled “Book of Rules” was memorable.

The Heptones’ “Book Of Rules”

Isn’t it strange how princesses and kings
In clown-ragged capers in a sawdust ring,
Just like common people like you and me
Will be builders for eternity.
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules.

And each must make in life his flowing in
Stumbling block ** or a stepping stone,
Just like common people like you and me
We’ll be builders for eternity
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules.

I say it’s common people like you and me
We’ll be builders for eternity
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules.

Look when the rain is falling from the sky
I know the sun will be only missing for a while
I say it’s common people like you and me
We’ll be builders for eternity
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules. 

In the Heptones’ lyrics, as in Sharpe’s poem, the shapeless mass, the indeterminate tools, and the mysteriously veiled rules appear both ambiguous and compelling. The only certainty seems to be that our final creation — steppingstone, stumbling block, or surprising alternative — will depend upon which tools we choose, and which rules we choose to follow.

Letting go of predetermined forms and patterns isn’t easy.  Without obvious lines to guide us, the need for decision, discipline, and structure increases exponentially.  The blank canvas, the silent practice room, or the empty page can induce paralysis as easily as a decision to move outside commonly accepted life-limits induces vertigo.

But that strange combination of joy and terror lies at the very heart of the creative process. As we confront the shapeless mass of our personal vision, in life or in art, we’d do well to look into our bag, and open our book. It may be that the tools and the rules with which we’ve been supplied differ considerably from those received by others.

After all, Sharpe never said there was only a hammer in the bag, and the Heptones never suggested that one rule fits all.

Comments always are welcome.
**In “Book of Rules,” the phrase “stumbling block” sounds like “tumbling black” in Jamaican patois.


The Poets’ Birds: Vultures

Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

There’s nothing unusual about seeing vultures in Texas, but a pair of turkey vultures taking the sun on a gently disintegrating windmill seemed worth the stop.

By the time I’d stepped out of the car, one of the birds already was giving me the side-eye. The reason for his attention was obvious; if I were going to expire on the side of the road, he didn’t want to miss an easy meal.

His cautious but coolly calculating expression amused me immensely. There on the spot, I composed a bit of verse for him:

The vulture high atop his tree
will look and look  – what does he see?
Of course he’d like to eat for free;
I hope he doesn’t relish me!

Occasionally a website or tabloid will try to pull in readers with an attack-vulture story, but vultures aren’t designed to attack human beings. Several species, including the turkey vulture, will eat small, live prey from time to time, but they’ve evolved to feed primarily on carrion, and help to keep the environment clean by ridding it of dead animals. 

Still, their habits elicit a certain revulsion, and occasionally an almost superstitious reaction. “Don’t stop walking,” an old Texas rancher once said to me. “You don’t want to tempt them.”


In a poem he titled “Vulture,” Robinson Jeffers (1887–1962) imagines what it would be like to stop walking, and tempt such a bird.

Jeffers promoted a philosophy he called “inhumanism” — a view of things in which nature “not only serves as a backdrop for verse,  but animals and natural objects frequently are compared to man, with man shown to be the inferior.” It’s a perspective that influenced other California poets, such as Gary Snyder, and although the “merging with nature” that Jeffers imagines here is less sentimental and far more graphic than that portrayed in many poems, it certainly is memorable. I suspect my vultures would like it.


I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside
Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling
high up in heaven,
And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit
I understood then
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer.
I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward, staring. I said, ‘My dear bird, we are wasting time
These old bones will still work; they are not for you.’ But how
he looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the
over the precipice. I tell you solemnly
That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that beak
become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes–
What a sublime end of one’s body, what an enskyment; what a life
after death.



Comments always are welcome.


On Taking Goethe’s Advice

Woman Reading by Candlelight ~ Peter Ilsted, 1908

Burned onto flimsy wooden signs in souvenir shops, quoted to death on Facebook, memed on Instagram, and included in semi-inspirational books of every sort, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s words continue to resonate nearly two hundred years after his death:

One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, and see a fine picture.

Oddly, Goethe himself never spoke or wrote those words as actual advice. The line belongs to one of Goethe’s characters: a theater manager named Serlo  who appears in the novelWilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.  It was Serlo who said:

Men are so inclined to content themselves with what is commonest; the spirit and the senses so easily grow dead to the impressions of the beautiful and perfect; that every one should study, by all methods, to nourish in his mind the faculty of feeling these things.
For no man can bear to be entirely deprived of such enjoyments: it is only because they are not accustomed to the taste of what is excellent that the generality of people take delight in silly and insipid things, provided they be new.
‘For this reason,’ he would add, ‘one ought every day at least to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.’ [Book V, Chapter 1]

Setting aside for a moment the possibility of speaking a few reasonable words — a phrase generally omitted from the quotation — the relevance of Serlo’s assertion is undeniable. In a world awash in silly and insipid things, it becomes ever easier for our spirits to become deadened to the beauty and creativity surrounding us: both that contained in past tradition and that which arises from our present lives.
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A Season Of Turning

Woodworker, carver, sailor, musician: Gordon Bok is an American treasure. Until several years ago, I’d not heard his name and might have missed his artistry forever, had it not been for the graciousness of a reader.

We’d been exchanging thoughts on music, and in an emailed post-script to our discussion he added, “I can’t think of a better song than Gordon Bok’s Turning Toward the Morning.”  Pointing me toward Albany, New York’s WAMC and their Saturday night broadcasts of the “Hudson River Sampler” he said, “I can almost guarantee you’ll hear something by Bok: if not this Saturday, then next Saturday for sure. And something by Stan Rogers as well. But you’ll also hear songs you’ve never heard before and will want to hear again.” Continue reading

The Poets Birds: Crested Caracara

Crested Caracaras (Caracara cheriway) taking the sun at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Despite neither appearing nor behaving precisely like a falcon, the crested caracara is considered a member of the falcon family. Resident in Florida, Texas, and Arizona, its range extends southward through Mexico into tropical areas of Central and South America. Its name, Caracara, may be an anglicization of the Guarani Indian traro-traro: an imitation of the unusual rattling sound the bird makes when agitated.

Often referred to as a Mexican eagle, the caracara is thought to be the bird originally depicted on the national emblem and flag of Mexico before being replaced by the golden eagle.
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The Poets’ Birds: Ducks

Black-bellied whistling duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis)


For years, every morning, I drank
from Blackwater Pond.
It was flavored with oak leaves and also, no doubt,
the feet of ducks.
And always it assuaged me
from the dry bowl of the very far past.
What I want to say is
that the past is the past,
and the present is what your life is,
and you are capable
of choosing what that will be,
darling citizen.
So come to the pond,
or the river of your imagination,
or the harbor of your longing,
and put your lips to the world.
And live
your life.
“Mornings at Blackwater” ~ Mary Oliver


Comments always are welcome. The photo comes from the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge.