Archive for Readings

Poem: “Written at Four A.M.”

I don’t usually post my poems on this blog, but wrote this one last night, as the title suggests, and felt I might as well put it out there. I am quite sure that not everyone understands, or even considers, the terrible stress and anxiety that our healthcare workers are under. There are heroes among us, and they don’t wear capes.

 

 

Written at Four A.M.

– for Lisa, 3/29/20

 

My wife cannot sleep these nights.

She lies blanketed in worry,

rueing her sleeplessness and tasks

undone, so much still to be done,

and afraid of what’s to come:

hospital beds in cluttered corridors,

patients sharing ventilators, alone

and clawing for air and surcease;

the fear in everyone’s eyes; the nurse’s

front desk, so often a font of crude

jokes and late-night laughter, now

red-rimmed and fraught. Awakened,

I rouse and speak: it only annoys her,

so I rub Lisa’s back in night’s full dark,

resort to an old trick, and pick up

a bedside book of poems, Philip Larkin’s

The Less Deceived, to read aloud.

It never fails. My good wife listens and

only half-hears, the words washing over

her in waves, undulant images, a mind

open like a drawer of knives, a hometown

recalled, a horse troubled by flies. Finally

I reach the last poem, read it twice

as I often do. Lay down the book,

the reading glasses, fumble with

the light. It rains outside our window,

a soft pattering urgency, dawn’s chorus

still two hours from us, if it comes

at all. But listen: at last she sleeps. I yawn,

thinking of poems and hospital beds,

and cough.

 

 

My wife, Lisa, is a midwife at Albany Obstetrics & Gynecology. Her work often finds her in the maternity ward of St. Peter’s Hospital. She’s also recently created a Facebook page, Reproductive Health at Home, which you can follow in these days when access to healthcare is challenging. These are hard times, and very scary for many. I write children’s books, a far less perilous venture. In support of teachers and parents as they scramble to provide online learning for young readers, I’ve created a variety of free videos for ages 3-14. You may access them at my Youtube channel. Just stomp on this link and it’ll bring you there.

Be smart, stay home, protect the vulnerable.

BEES IN BOOKS: “Anna Karenina” & Jen the Beekeeper

 

Illustration by Stephen Gilpin from BEE THE CHANGE, which is the third book in  “The Big Idea Gang” series.

We all have them, those books we feel that we “should” read . . . someday. For me, one such book was Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

I am pleased to formally announce to my Nation of Readers that I finally got around to it. And I enjoyed the book, too. Tolstoy gives each character a full interior life, and allows them the room to inhabit contradictions and complexity. Good writer, he might make it!

The book’s hero is Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, an educated landowner in touch with the rhythms of the natural world. I was charmed when at the end of the book, sometime after page 800, we learn about Levin’s “new interest in bees.” It came out of the blue. Levin even takes his guests to visit the apiary. This is a clear sign — from Tolstoy — directly to me — that Levin is truly a good guy. He gets bees.

I admire bees, too. They’ve crept into my books of late. A bee plays a pivotal role in Better Off Undead, and (bizarrely) delivers the key line of the book, “It all connects.” In addition, a small group of students and a wonderful science teacher keep a hive on the grounds of the middle school. Bees are a theme that buzz through the book.

Here’s Jen now, smoking the hive to settle things down.

I borrowed the hive idea from a local science teacher and beekeeper, Jennifer Ford, who teaches at nearby Farnsworth Middle School in Guilderland. Jennifer met with me, answered my questions, and even took me to commune with the hive at the middle school garden. Jen’s beekeeping activities extend beyond the school where she teaches; Jen and her partner Keith have run the Bees of the Woods Apiary in Altamont, NY, since 2008. They currently have about 20 chemical-free hives and produce beeswax candles, honey, and mead (honey wine).

For the third book of “The Big Idea Gang” series, Bee the Change, the narrative centered around honeybees. Lizzy and Kym visit with a beekeeper, learn some things about pesticides and colony collapse disorder, and become inspired to make a difference in their local community. These are characters who ask, “What can we do to help the honeybees?” Essentially the story revolves around the specific things they do to make positive change, concluding with the creation of a bee-friendly garden at their elementary school.

It’s funny how it works with books and reading and life in general. Once our antennae is up, we receive all kinds of signals that we’d have otherwise missed. If I read Anna Karenina even five years ago, I would have missed Levin’s bee infatuation. I’m glad I caught it.

UPSTANDER: Six Books That Helped Me Write a Prequel/Sequel to BYSTANDER

Writing a novel usually begins for me with reading. Here are six books that I’ve read, in addition to other research, to help me write my current work-in-progress.

     

               

Again, it’s like falling down a well. I could keep reading endlessly, blow deadlines year after year; the more I learn, the more there is to know. For this topic, it is truly a deep, dark well. A heartbreaking place I found hard to climb out of.

Then as a writers, at a certain point, we need to push that aside — take what we need for the story, for the characters, and start writing.

When I wrote Bystander, I came away with the feeling that I could tell a hundred different bully-themed stories. Each one different, with countless variations and permutations. You can’t say everything there is to be said; you have to make choices. Decide that this is the story I’m going to tell, and every word in it must serve that particular story. But I am always haunted by the fear of getting something wrong, or missing a critical insight, a layer of perception. I want to do a good job. 

For this book, I have a seventh-grade character whose older brother is dealing with substance use problems. He’s not the main character, but his struggles have a profound impact on the middle school-age girl, Mary, who is the featured character of the book. 

Mary O’Malley first appeared in my book Bystander. This is a prequel/sequel to that story in that it takes place along a similar time-frame — before, during, and after the events first explored in Bystander. There’s some overlap, a few of the same scenes are revisited from a new perspective, but on the whole this story stands on its own.

Working title: Upstander.

You heard it here first.

Everyone has a story. 

Any luck, look for it in 2021.

INSPIRATION: When Trees and Haiku Meet — Robert Bly, A Pine Tree, and Basho

 

I try to spend some time each day thinking in haiku. Often I find that space while walking the dog in the woods or by the river or an open field. It’s a quiet, interior time without earbuds or podcasts. My haiku is almost always written in the traditional three-line, 5-7-5 form, with a focus on nature. I usually try to include a kigo word (a reference to the season of the year) and a division, breath, or caesura (often in the form of a colon or a dash that both separates and connects). There are endless variations, and that’s the beauty of haiku. Sometimes a lighthearted one might come, more senryu than serious haiku, and that’s what gets written. It’s something I started doing with more intention a few years ago. I’m not saying that I’m great at this. My focus is on process, not product. Basho’s great line, “The journey itself is home.” I accept that most of the ones that come to me aren’t going to be exemplary.

Thinking in haiku has given me an outlet for calm reflection, a brief time for thinking outside myself and the endless, grim news feed of our troubled world. This morning I wrote this one:

 

This pine has a life             

Of its own: there is nothing

It requires of me.

 

However, I’m not posting today to show one haiku. Mostly I was eager to share one of the sources of my inspiration, taken from the introduction to Robert Bly’s book of prose poems, The Morning Glory

I love this passage so much, as if it were written precisely for me, bringing together in one page my growing enthusiasms for trees and haiku and poetry and, importantly, this essential idea of getting “the self” out of the way. I hope you like it. Maybe Bly’s passage here, along with Basho’s haiku, will inspire thoughts and feelings in you, too. Embrace the process. Forget thoughts of “good” or “bad.” And see what happens. 

 

While we’re gathered here, I might as well tack on a few others . . . I’ve got hundreds of them.

I have failed to learn

The name of the bird that calls

From the high poplar.

Three twisted sisters

Beneath the great canopy,

Roots and arms entwined.

The soft grasp of dusk

Upon the winter shore: black-

Hooded plover waits.

Steel-gray buckets tapped

Into maples; the crows watch

From snow-covered limbs.

January rain –-

The old cat stretches, circles,

Eyes slant shut again.

The beech holds its leaves

Shimmering like winter moons

Papery and light.

 

Reading “Harriet the Spy” — and One Pro Tip (!) About Writing Dialogue

I wasn’t a big reader as a kid. I don’t have memories of reading any “literature” or novels. It was mostly the sports pages in the newspaper — those were the first writers I loved — Dick Young, Phil Pepe — the guys who covered the Mets, Jets, Knicks. And I read random sports biographies here and there, but not often. 

When I became more of a reader, it was a direct jump into adult writers: Vonnegut, Bradbury, Brautigan. So as you might imagine, I
have these huge gaps in the field of children’s literature. From time to time, I play catch up, tossing a shovelful of dirt into a gaping crater. 

Which is to say that now, at age 58, I’m reading Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. 

I liked this exchange between Sport and Harriet early on in the book:

Sport tucked the football under his arm and walked over to her. “That’s nothing but an old tree root. Whaddya mean, a mountain?”

“That’s a mountain. From now on that’s a mountain. Got it?” Harriet looked up to his face.

Sport moved back a pace. “Looks like an old tree root,” he muttered.

Harriet pushed her hair back and looked at him seriously. “Sport, what are you going to be when you grow up?”

“You know what. You know I’m going to be a ball player.”

“Well, I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.” Satisfied, she turned back to her town.

There’s much to admire in this little bit of dialogue. The wit, the charm, the realistic cadences. You know what. But something I try to show young writers — a lesson that took me years to learn in my own work — is the simple effectiveness of all those brief descriptive tags that make the conversation come alive. 

The bulk of most books, of most writing, is made up of characters talking. Conversations floating in space. The trick is to ground those conversations in a concrete reality. They are playing putt-putt golf. Fishing on a boat. Hiking up a mountain. Sitting on a park bench. Running from zombies. Or, in the example above, squatting by a big tree, with Harriet bending over her notebook. Sport is tossing a football in the air. The scene is set.

Let’s read it again without those very simple descriptive sentences. That is, all dialogue:

“That’s nothing but an old tree root. Whaddya mean, a mountain?”

“That’s a mountain. From now on that’s a mountain. Got it?” 

“Looks like an old tree root.” 

“Sport, what are you going to be when you grow up?”

“You know what. You know I’m going to be a ball player.”

“Well, I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.” 

 

I find that when I’m inspired, I’ll often begin this way in my notebook. Hearing the voices, scribbling down the conversation. Writing only what is said. But how does a reader see what’s going on? It’s those simple little sentences that I’ve come to admire so much. He set the hat on the table. He flicked a pebble with his thumb. She leaned forward. Whatever.

One more time, highlighting what Fitzhugh does here to help us see the people in this conversation:

Sport tucked the football under his arm and walked over to her. “That’s nothing but an old tree root. Whaddya mean, a mountain?”

“That’s a mountain. From now on that’s a mountain. Got it?” Harriet looked up to his face.

Sport moved back a pace. “Looks like an old tree root,” he muttered.

Harriet pushed her hair back and looked at him seriously. “Sport, what are you going to be when you grow up?”

“You know what. You know I’m going to be a ball player.”

“Well, I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.” Satisfied, she turned back to her town.

 

There’s nothing fancy about those sentences. They don’t get in the way, don’t draw attention to themselves. Harriet looked up to his face. Anybody can write that. All you have to do is imagine it. The writer has to see it and, here’s the trick, recognize that the reader doesn’t. Or can’t. Or won’t — not without help. 

One other sidenote: Fitzhugh doesn’t use much standard attribution here. Only once, with “he muttered.” The way she indicates who is talking, and it’s never confusing, is through these simple descriptive sentences.

Mrs. Garcia shook her head. “I do the best I can.” [from Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Hat Burglar]

A writer doesn’t need to add, she said, because after you’ve included that descriptive sentence, it’s already obvious who is speaking.

Anyway, I didn’t intend to turn this into a writing lesson when I began this post. Just wanted to share a line from the book, one that resonated with me: I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.

No reader can argue with that.

And this, Dear Reader, is the end.