Dust II

We walked across this desert once,
red dirt rising to meet us,
the impressions made by our bared soles
no more lasting than the thin light of dawn
unzipping earth from sky. I remember
standing with you on this spot, do you
remember this spot, where we met the ones
we might have been and the ones we never could be,
and the shadows grew long behind us
and rose tall to meet us
and we looked beneath this small red rock
and saw our dust there, gathering.

Dust Filter

I don’t know what to call this filter through which I’m seeing the world right now. Maybe it’s dust.

Maybe it’s fear.

Maybe I am in The Waste Land. (Come in under the shadow of this red rock.)

I’ve taken a job I’m not particularly suited for (to put it mildly) that places me in a dirt-and-pebble-filled children’s playground for nearly half of my eight-hour workday, five days a week. It has not rained in any measurable amount in these parts for over a month, and copious amounts of dust are kicked into the air by flying feet and tumbling bodies. By the end of the week my lungs feel like those of a pugilist with a pack-a-day cigarette habit. Battered and bruised.

Last week I got truly sick from it. And now I fear it.

On the drive into town each morning I pass fields of corn and soybeans gone brown, the giant tillers turning under the remains of this year’s harvest, raising rooster-tails of bone-dry earth in their wake.

Where is the rain?

In honor of yet another presidential campaign season, I have turned off the news. Whatever fresh hell is headed our way can be dealt with when it gets here. Meanwhile, I have decided to sell everything I own and make my way elsewhere. I will not sit out the apocalypse, or the 2016 election, or my impending crone years, in this place.

Ambitious plan, and I am only me, so it will take some time. Meanwhile, I try to write, and the dust (fear) clouds my vision, and the words come out all wrong.

Plus I’m still sick. And so it goes.


“The lure of the distant and the difficult is deceptive. The great opportunity is where you are. Don’t despise your own place and hour. Every place is the center of the world.”

John Burroughs

Driving along I-75, skirting Daniel Boone National Forest and the foothills of Appalachia, I shared the road with more fellow travelers than I’d anticipated. It was a Sunday, and I thought it would be just me out there. But no: lots of tractor-trailers and minivans and pickup trucks, all of us going wherever we were going in a great big hurry.

I had a pile of cds on the seat beside me. Yes, yes. Anachronism. Me and my media. One day cds may be charming, in the retrograde sort of way vinyl is today, but right now they brand me as a laggard on the great upgrade continuum. O well. It’s not like I’m the only one. Last month I went to a barn concert with my friend Claire, whose car — a Volvo station wagon, circa 1990 — features a cassette player. Cassettes are teetering on the edge of charming again, at least for a certain cohort, but like the mix-tape relationships they represent, they are fickle. When Claire inserted a tape and nothing happened, she pressed the eject button and discovered that her garage-sale Modest Mouse cassette had unspooled all over the insides of her player.

Anyway, driving. Listening to Tom Waits, to Nancy Griffith, to an old Putumayo sampler, having my emotions tugged this way and that by the sounds coming out of my speakers as the hills transformed from the deep blue of the early morning to lush dense green as the day wore on.

Driving is not meditative in any real sense. Too much is demanded of the body, of the senses; it is typically tiring, not revivifying. But it does allow a sort of suspension of the quotidian, holding you in that interstitial space between here and there for a nice bit of time. I often feel, when I’m driving a long distance, that some part of my brain will have things all figured out when I get to where I’m going.

It hasn’t happened yet, but perhaps I just need to drive a little farther. Just a little farther, still.


What do you do when the thing you’ve been doing doesn’t work for you anymore? If it ever worked at all. This is what I’m wondering.

I like the word “scratch.” It’s a noun: what the cat will give you when you annoy her. It’s a verb: what you do to get relief from an itch. It’s a slang term for money. It connotes beginnings and basics, as in starting from scratch, and baking from scratch.

I was making up a little recipe book the other day, a gift for a friend. A couple of the recipes I included require a food processor, and it occurred to me to wonder, does she have one of those? Another one calls for an immersion blender. Hello?

Even in recipes there is privilege, there are assumptions.

I have a food processor, an immersion blender. So I’m not starting from scratch, per sé. But I am leaving a work situation that has pulled me for the past two years down a path of depletion. The predictable end is less a bang than a whimper. My finances are exhausted, my energy is spent.

That’s another word that resonates: spent.

There is, in economics, a concept known as the fallacy of sunk costs.  Also called throwing good money after bad, and, in gambling circles, chasing your losses. It refers to the often-inexplicable human tendency to keep on keeping on, even when every indicator says you really need to not do this anymore.

(cf. climate change; also, bad romance.)

So I’m not going to do it anymore, that job that doesn’t work, that never really worked except in my Palace of Magical Thinking.

Now I’m in the other part of the castle, the less lovely part, where it’s a bit damp and full of shadow and uncomfortably close to starting from scratch, and I’m not liking it so much.

Still, I have two books that are approaching completion. One is a new poetry collection, tentatively titled The Breakup Poems and Other Attempts to Address This Ridiculously Dysfunctional Life (jk, sort of). The other is a book about my coffeehouse, the one I started when I first moved to the Midwest. I’m calling that one Mud River, which is the name of my publishing company, which was itself named after the little newsletter I used to print (on paper! c’est vrai!) when I ran that coffeehouse.

All my life’s a circle. Harry Chapin said that.

If you’d like to help me get these books across the finish line, you can make a donation to the Fund to Keep the Poet Fed, for which I will be most grateful. You can also leave a comment on this post, which is nourishing in its own right.

Thank you.

That Does Not Make You Brilliant; It Makes You a Sociopath

In her essay, “A Thousand Rivers,award-winning film director Carol Black writes of Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist and neuroimaging researcher and author of the groundbreaking book, The Master and his Emissary

[The book] argues that the narrowly focused, mechanical, analytic part of the brain so dominant in modern societies actually evolved as a limited tool to be guided and restrained by the more broadly focused, holistic, relationship-based part of the brain.

Modern western civilization, McGilchrist maintains, is not more “advanced” than other human societies, but rather has become dangerously unbalanced in the direction of a kind of cold, abstracted, mechanical analysis at the expense of a more interconnected, compassionate, holistic understanding of the world. That kind of imbalance, as McGilchrist points out, does not make you more “brilliant” than other people; it makes you a sociopath.

From “A Thousand Rivers,” by Carol Black
via Schooling the World

No Hard Feelings


It’s the water that carries us, after all,
like mermaids astride the glistening shell
of the giant sea turtle, we are slippery wet,
slick as newborns.

We are filled with the oceans, we are alive.

All my friends are anemones, supple, pliable,
bendy beneath the waves,
the salt and the sea that softens the flesh
and even the hardest of feelings.

All my friends are fluid.


When John was twelve he came upon his father
golden in the early morning light, hanging
by a noose from a rafter in the barn.

When Tim was twelve he followed his mother
to the Belgium Bridge and watched as she threw
what remained of herself into the Seneca River.

When Mark was twelve he watched his father
give himself up to the tumors that stole the hard,
dry breath from his lungs.


We did not kiss or hold each other close
one last time, we did not wish each other well.


When the edges get ragged, you can turn
a new seam. Again and again, you turn,
until the garment that once covered you
is a collar buttoned at your throat, a bib to catch
what crumbs may fall.

But this is not the edge.
This is the center, this is the heart,
where the rend is new
and the soft fray has only just begun,
there is still time to lay a patch,
still time to stitch things
back together.
If only I had a needle.
If only I could find some thread.


All along the shores of Lake Ontario
I gather the pieces of beach glass,
frosted blue and green, bits of vessels once
whole and transparent, now fractured into
fragments, small and opaque as moonstone,
buffed and lustrous, the product of time
spent tumbling, of turbulence, of friction,
of abrasion, bruised like knees for years and years.
I fill my pockets to overflow with the beautiful
battered bits and carry them all back home.

If You’re Weary, Too

“Look me in the eye and tell me you don’t feel the same,
that you’re not weary, too, of waging war in heaven’s name.

I wish I could give you a link to that song, but it’s one of mine, and I haven’t recorded it yet, tho I surely will, one day. The last time I sang it in public was over a year ago. How the days go by.

So I have this new gig, and it’s exactly the sort of thing I love/hate: getting a project off the ground, developing goals, objectives, a strategy, not knowing what I’m doing half the time, fumbling in the dark (too long), dealing with other people, merging our disparate desires and visions and ambitions and, yes, agendas. The organization has been around for five or six years and it’s never had much structure or a sustaining revenue base. My task is to develop both. They call me Executive Director. I like the title, even if it comes with no salary and a fuzzy mission.

Yes, people say, it sounds lovely, but what is it you do?

I do this: I sway like a poplar in a spring storm, tipping from optimism to something not quite its opposite, something akin to futility. I lean into blog posts and newsletters to escape the weariness of moral outrage over all the awfulness in the world. I swear off Facebook, I stop reading Salon, I curse my porous soul.

Then I go outside and wander in the tiny woodland sanctuary that is my back yard, noticing the new growth, the robin’s nest built in the crook of the rain gutter, its young already fledged and off to live their feathery new bird lives.

I go back inside and try again.

Scratch a woman, find a rage. That’s what Marilyn French wrote, all those years ago, and I’m still raging, still wondering why the wars in heaven’s name get all the money and the messes are left for someone else to clean up.

At my new gig we work on local food issues. Access, infrastructure, supply, demand. We don’t have many organic farms in our area, so choosing local often means choosing conventionally raised products. (Poisoned butterflies, collapsed bee colonies.) It also means inefficient markets. (Higher costs, limited supplies.) And it means buying what’s in season. (No tomatoes in January, no asparagus in July.) That last one is a hard sell to people who are used to the year-round plethora available at every supermarket in town.

Sometimes I think the greatest force in the universe is not nuclear or electromagnetic or even gravitational, it’s habit. The force of habit. it takes a lot of energy to overcome it, a lot of fuel to propel change.

Outrage is certainly one sort of fuel. It burns hot, it stokes your engines. Outrage made public brings things to the attention of an otherwise indifferent world. And in the face of awfulness, it’s awesome. I remember a slogan from my youth, something to the effect that if you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention. So I guess I’m paying attention.

At least there’s that.

I just need to remember that not all things worthy of my attention have to be the stuff of outrage. My new gig, for one. That song in need of recording, for another. And for the sake of my stupid, porous soul, let’s include that empty nest where only weeks ago there were eggs, then baby birds, now just downy feathers and twigs and grass. At least there’s that, too.