Thursday, December 5, 2013


If the truth be told, I’m itching for a good snowfall.  


My most recent thought is that the above line should really be the content of a Facebook comment, not the major plot line of a blog entry.  I mean, what can a writer say about a snowfall?   ;-)

Thinking about snow positively seems against the Midwesterner’s way of thinking.  Snow = wet, slick road = slow traffic at the least, major damage to your vehicle and possible loss of life at its worst.  True. 

So drive slowly.  Or don’t drive at all.  

For me, such is part of the true joy of big Ohio winter weather events:  Everybody slows down.  Have to.  Wouldn’t be prudent to drive out in 6 inches on the ground and snow still coming.  Toss another log on the fire. 

As much as I loved teaching, I was always excited for a snow day.  Like few other professions, I got a day off when it was deemed too chancy to send out a fleet of school buses to transport children for miles for a day of education.  

Other kinds of education would be on tap for a snow day, whether going out playing in the snow with my girls or giving them a day to read, watch Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street, or work on crafts.  We sat by a fire in the fireplace with mugs of hot chocolate most snow day mornings, too.  At least I think we did.  Sure is a rich memory.  Sometimes I wonder what is true memory and what has been enhanced by dreams.  

Winter snow days have that kind of power of me, I’m afraid.  I have a handful of great weather memories connected to snowfall.  One of my favorites is the first night I walked out into a heavy snowfall — and heard nothing.  I mean nothing.  Dead silence.  Maybe a hint of a car moving across the intersection beyond, but so muffled.  So quiet.  The snow sucked up every sound wave as it moved in, covering the neighborhood.  Magical, indeed. 

I want to revisit that wonderland whenever I can.  It’s not a province you can visit.  It’s not something you can even come to expect.  Maybe this winter will be mild and every day just brown grass, bare trees, and grey skies as far as the eye can see.

But then there might be a weather advisory a couple days prior.  Yes, conditions look promising for a heavy snowfall if this front moves this far by then.  But maybe not.  So the snow-expectant have learned to make snide comments about weather men and women who ‘always get it wrong’ and go about their regular business, but watching more carefully for weather updates.  Hope winters eternal. 

And then, sometimes, there is a blessed event.  A beautiful snowfall that starts just about dawn and continues throughout the day.  You tune in to the Weather Channel to confirm what you see out your window.  Yup.  Lookin’ good.  Still snowing strong out past Indianapolis.  And the world changes. 

The bottom crawl line on the television teems with schools, churches, and some companies who have reconsidered the wisdom of having colleagues come out in weather to gather for whatever purpose.

Instead, the family unit is united in a special event that all will participate in; that all can see.  If all goes well, this could me a memory of a lifetime.  Maybe it will be the foot of snow predicted.  Maybe the trees will glimmer with ice before some fall from the freight.  In any case, it will be special. 

So, yes, I’m ready for a Calgary Clipper or a Nor’wester or whatever named storm blows up somewhere headed for the Miami Valley bringing a winter smorgasbord of precipitation.  I wish everybody the best.  I want everybody to have a warm place to stay, like me.  I hope everybody is safe on the roads.  I hope everybody has wood and a wood-burning fireplace.  

I hope everybody has a chance to get out into a good winter snowfall and feel one of the Earth’s softest and most beautiful events.  And then just stand there in a zen-moment, sensing snow accumulating on you, too.  On your nose.  On your glasses.  You stick out your tongue and wait for a few flakes to find you, melting coldly, immediately returning sky-born moisture to your being. 

Pretty damn cool, if you ask me.  

Today’s elder idea:  The snow doesn’t give a soft white damn whom it touches. 

e. e. cummings

image:  Noah doing his snow removal piece at Grandma & Grandpa’s.   (December 2004)

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Late November

When the time for blogging comes around, I begin to feel topics in my gut.  I start weighing what topic is working on me and then I try to figure what a reader might get into.  At this juncture on this cycle, it would seem, the gentle reader gets a potpourri of grandpa thought.

When the most recent internal alarm clock for this blog entry tripped a couple weeks ago, it was at least a week before the 22nd.  I decided then I had to write about the JFK assassination. 

I asked an old friend who was a classmate of mine on that Friday afternoon fifty years ago — us in the 8th grade  — what she remembered.  It was nice to have the accuracy of my memory confirmed.  

It was around 2:00 EST, after lunch for our classroom at Immaculate Conception School.  The academic week was pretty much over.  We were finishing up business by having a classroom civics club meeting with yours truly facilitating. 

I must have chaired a number of civics club meetings that year.  Can’t remember anything about any of ‘em — except for November 22.  Singed into memory: 

I was sitting up behind the teacher’s desk running the meeting.  Mike Yosik had the floor and was talking about the benefits of our installing an aquarium in the classroom.  I can still just about make out his complete face in my memory, though I can’t recall if was sitting or standing.   

In the middle of what Mike was saying, the principal, Sr. St. Augustine, clicked on the PA in the office, an audible click we students had learned meant stop talking and listen to the announcement.  Her voice was a bit subdued, unlike the raucous football punter we all knew and loved on the afternoon playground.

I don’t recall Sister’s exact words, but the phrase ‘the President has been shot’ seared like a hot iron making a memory indelible.  I was stunned.  I distinctly remember thinking that he can’t die.  He couldn't die.  He meant too much to the world.  He was an exciting family guy, just about my dad’s age, who from my point of view was succeeding in making the world a better place.  Besides, he was the first Roman Catholic President this country had ever elected.  He was one of us.  He couldn’t die.  

My friend remembers the meeting and the announcement, too, but she remembers a next thing that 1) she couldn’t believe, and 2) I don’t remember.  I suspect my head was still analyzing the odds of a ‘shot’ President surviving such a thing.  She remembers another of the guys in class picking up the aquarium discussion like nothing happened.   

Next thing I remember is Sr. Ann Mary climbing out of her seat at the back of the room, making her way up an aisle saying we would continue our discussion and meeting at a later time.  I returned to my seat.  

I don’t remember how long we waited until we were dismissed for the day.  I have a sense the classroom was pretty quiet.  We were standing in dismissal line when Sr. St. Augustine came back on the PA.  I imagine her voice cracked a bit.  The President is dead, she announced.  

I can remember my very place in line when I heard her unfathomable words.  Within as few minutes as possible I was running down Fauver Avenue eager to get in front of our old black and white television to watch the news.  I had sat for hours watching space shots over the last couple years and had really gotten a sense for history in the making.  I could not begin to imagine what the news looked like when a President of the United States was shot to death.  

Though I wanted to sit in front of the old Westinghouse all evening, I had work to do.  I was a morning newspaper carrier who had bought those papers from the Journal Herald and I had to collect from each and every customer so I could pay my weekly bill regardless of world history.  My guess is I set out sometime after 5 to collect my 45 cents from everybody who was home.

I think it was at Mrs. Sengle’s house where I stood in the living room for a few minutes watching with her as Jackie Kennedy disembarked Air Force One in her pink dress stained in her husband’s blood.  Only later did I hear she refused to change clothes when offered on the plane, saying she wanted the country to see what we had done to her husband.   

What else can I say about the brutal and bloody death of an eighth grader’s personal hero?  It wasn’t the day the music died, but something felt very different after Jack Kennedy passed.  Lyndon Johnson turned out to be okay in terms of Great Society legislation, but he was no charismatic Jack Kennedy.  It was a hard time.  

And in just a touch over four years from that November 1963 day, the deaths of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy would make the omega bookend for us kids in the high school class of 1968.   

Well, that was longer than I thought it would be.  But here’s what else I wanted to mention today: 

Waffle Shop was amazing this year.  Thanks to all who made the effort to come down.  I like to tell people that if we get 1600 in the door in four days, we had a good Waffle Shop.  We had 1800 this year.  We set a modern record for lunches served.  All good news, indeed.  

Be advised that Outreach Grants applications are due either to me via email or in hard copy to the Christ Church office by 16 February 2014.  We’re very proud in our $89+k in Outreach Grants over the last 10 years.  If you’ve got a good idea, let me know. 

I have been moved of late by the concept of living a life with enhanced gratitude.  

I try in a zen kind of way to lead a life of gratefulness.  Every day I have on this marvelous planet is a gift unto itself.  

Living a life of gratitude seems very grounded to me.  
On my office door hangs, among other things, the saying ‘Practice gratitude.  Honor the ordinary,’ a line I picked up from James A. Autry, author of the book Choosing Gratitude and guest of Bill Moyers a couple months ago.  I was so taken by explanations that I ordered Autry’s book before the show was over.  

Then the other night I’m catching up on some TED podcasts and I come across one from Edinburgh this past winter by Br. David Steindl-Rast.  His topic?  Living a life of gratitude. 

Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine brother, cited studies showing the commonality that happy people are most often grateful people.  Sure, he says, one would think happy people would be grateful for their happiness.  He contends it really goes the other way:  Folks who lead a life of gratefulness are most often pretty happy with the the gifts life has given them. 

He says that even when one is dealt a hard blow, like loss of a job, or death of a parent or child, one can be grateful for the opportunity to rise to the occasion.  Those of us who have buried loved ones know something about that. 

The David Steindl-Rast TED link:

For those of you who are aware of my attempts to write a book on Hog Island, be advised that Shannon Wood, a long-time friend, has offered me use of her lake house at Lake Cumberland, Kentucky.  I’ll be on my own January and February next down there getting my focus tightened and making progress on chapters.  

It feels like the time is now to make good progress on The Dressy Adventuress.  I’ve tried different approaches to writing in the past with minimal success.  Getting away and getting lost in my work seems the best way to go.  Wish me luck. 

Today’s elder idea:  Say what you want to say and let the words fall out — honestly.  I want to see you be brave…

Sara Bareillis
Very cool song…
images:  Top:  Early November at Wild Grace.  JFK:  borrowed off internet.  Bottom:  Thanks, indeed!  ;-)

Monday, November 4, 2013


 You know, it really is a cool thing being in love.  

I hope everyone gets the human experience of loving another sometime in their lives.  I hope, too, that everyone gets a generous helping of second chances because relationships first time around don’t always have the best track records.  

I offer this blog/meditation today on having a partner to love because of the amazingly good time Cindy Lou and I had on our trip to England and Ireland.  After the laundry has been washed and put away, phone calls responded to, the yard raked and tended, with jet lag not completely shed, we still feel a glow between us that had not been unknown to us, but now is perceived in a deeper and more connected way.  We have, in fact, fallen more deeply in love with each other.  

Cindy Lou and I have gone on plenty of trips over our twenty+ years together, some longer than others.  Thirteen years ago it was three weeks in Alaska.  We’ve spent lots of time in New Orleans.  We do Hilton Head every spring of late.  We’ve driven to California and Montana, the Maine coast and south Florida.  We frankly look forward to spending time together in restricted travel space because at home we often find ourselves living different lives in different places.  She has her TV spot and I have mine.  I like sitting outside under that canopy in the summer.  Her, not so much.  It’s a bug thing.  Can’t blame her.  And now I’ve found sleeping in the guest room with music playing more to my liking.  Music just keeps her awake.

I spend lots of time reading and writing on my Mac, often many hours a day.  She has her computer time in front of the TV on the couch, too, and also spends a couple days a week with the wee friends she babysits.  Such means we sometime don’t spent time eating our evening meal together.  

These revelations might have the reader conclude we don’t spend enough time together, a conclusion with which I doubt we would disagree.  Cindy has talked for years of going to dinner and a movie one night a week.  Great idea, but we seldom do.  We both end up feeling comfortable in our home space and hate to leave it.

The balance of being together and being apart reminds us both of the dance Anne Morrow Lindberg explained to all at so many weddings we attended back in the day.  The reading I refer to is from her book Gift from the Sea, and explains the ‘country dance’ healthy partners perform:

A good relationship has a pattern like a dance and is built on some of the same rules.  The partners do not need to hold on tightly, because they move confidently in the same pattern, intricate but gay and swift and free, like a country dance of Mozart’s.  To touch heavily would be to arrest the pattern and freeze the movement, to check the endlessly changing beauty of its unfolding.  There is no place here for the possessive clutch, the clinging arm, the heavy hand; only the barest touch in passing.  Now arm in arm, now face to face, now back to back — it does not matter which.  Because they know they are partners moving to the same rhythm, creating a pattern together, and being invisibly nourished by it. 

I fancy the image of our both dancing to our couple melody while performing our own songs as we feel them.  Feels mighty healthy, actually. 

I’m not saying Cindy and I did not find moments to be cross with each other on this trip.  It happened a couple of times, both while we were dragging too heavy luggage down a London or Holy Head street with another heavy bag draped over a shoulder.  Cindy said last night one shoulder still hurts from bearing the weight of the bag that included a few magazines, a laptop computer, and her Kindle.  We have since concluded that whatever impatience we encountered with the other was really the product of stress.  Nobody was trying to piss anybody off.  It’s just that when one is tired, it just feels that way. 

In the truth of knowing that and how much each wanted the other to have a really good time on this trip, a newly recognized flower bloomed within us sometime on our travels. I’ve seen something similar happen to Cindy before when we go to the beach.  She is, in fact, a beach girl, and sheds accumulated winter by walking barefoot on the sand.  

This time we didn’t have much sand to walk on, but in a different way of doing things, we both played big hands in how this trip came off.  I usually do most of the travel planning, which is why this unfamiliar overseas trip didn’t come together for so many years.  

This time in planning, we both had more to say about how our time would be spent.  Cindy got her days in London and Norwich, special places she wanted me to experience.  I got a quiet week at Holy Hill in County Sligo, which is another link in the chain of experiences fostered by the disparate likes of Paul Winter, the Sangre de Cristo mountains in Colorado, and the Spiritual Life Institute.   Don’t get me wrong:  Cindy wanted Ireland, too, as I wanted to see London.  Still, we had different agendas when the planning began. 

I told Cindy throughout the trip that she did not take a bad picture.  Every time I turned the camera her way, she was beaming.  If you followed our escapades on Facebook, go back and look at the selfies we took.  Every single one of ‘em.  She’s flat out gorgeous in each.  Such a smile!  ;-)

I am grateful for the chance to accompany Cindy Lou on this magical trip she’s been waiting for.  It was supposed to happen eight years ago when she retired from teaching.  Now, as it turns out, we celebrated a 60th birthday and a 20th year of marriage, to boot.  

Truth is, we’ve grown together as we’ve grown older.  We love each other deeply.  And it feels damned good, I don’t mind telling you.  

Today’s elder idea:  ‘If it weren’t for second chances, we’d all be alone.’
Gregory Alan Isakov
‘Second chances’
freebie from iTunes a while ago

images:  Cindy Lou in London; a ‘selfie’ at Stonehenge.

Friday, October 18, 2013


As the the departure time for our UK/Ireland trip drew near, I began considering what poetry I would pack and haul along with me.  First and foremost was to be a collection of Seamus Heaney, the Nobel prize winning Irish poet who passed away just a few months ago.  

I don’t know anything about Heaney, so I placed a copy of a recent title of his in my basket -- and never quite got around to ordering it early enough to pack.  Fair enough, thought I.  Dublin will a fine place to pick up a copy of Haney. Sure enough, the Hughes & Hughes Bookseller store just off St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin had plenty of Heaney titles, and along with a birding guide of Europe, my stack of traveling books got two texts heavier. 

I eventually opened Heaney’s New Selected Poems 1966-1987 on day two here at Holy Hill Hermitage in Co. Sligo.  I must say, much of what he writes about has such an Irish flavor that I feel I need a primer on local history to follow his threads of thought. 

Still, the concept of father grabbed me with the first poem I read.  A few lines from ‘Digging’: 

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into the gravely ground:
My father, digging, I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging...

By God, the old man could handle a spade. 
Just like his old man...

And, of course, such a remembrance of Heaney’s made me consider my old man.  

I think about Dad often, but especially on this trip.  Having spent a few years of his young life in England in the US Army Air Corps during World War II, he told us a few stories of that dangerous time that have stuck with me.  Like when the ship on which he and hundreds of his comrades crossed the Atlantic sailed into the Firth of Clyde in Scotland after a week of radio silence to avoid enemy detection.  Story goes that Allied air support would survey the ocean for approaching ships.  One such recon sortie spotted a quantity of flotsam on the water and making a reasoned judgement, assumed the Aquitania, my father’s ship, had been sunk by a German U-boat.  All were surprised and delighted to find everyone intact.  

Dad’s place of duty was Bury St. Edmunds, England, where he worked in the kitchen cooking for crews of airmen who flew over Europe on bombing missions.  One of his most poignant stories was that guys flying out would leave their wallets behind, knowing that if they didn’t come back, whatever cash was in those wallets would buy a few rounds of drinks for the guys that did.  Even late in his life Dad couldn’t listen to taps without choking up with tears.  I witnessed that more than once.

Back when I was a kid, like my other brothers, I’d help him on occasional jobs when he installed floor covering on weekends and in the evenings to raise a little extra money for the family.  He did the same gig for Rike’s, a local department store, full time.  Later on in his career he went out on his own to ‘lay’ carpet and linoleum.  One summer I worked with him and honest to goodness, I’ve never seen a man sweat so much.  Imagine one guy -- with a little help from me -- jockeying a 400 pound roll of carpet, getting it into position, cutting it perfectly, then kicking the edges into the tack strip to make the installation secure.  Heavens.  He made it clear, by the way, that none of his sons would follow in his career footsteps.  We were all going to school.

I remember, too, plenty of Sunday mornings in my late teens when he would get me up early so we could make it to church on time to serve as acolytes for the 5:45 AM service at church.  It didn’t matter what time I had gotten in the night before.  We made it to church and performed our duties.  It was about then, too, when he would take me out driving after church when the streets were pretty empty.  Such was a special time for both of us.  

And then last week when Cindy Lou and I were in London walking along the Thames over by Westminster Abbey, I found myself in tears.   We had happened upon the Battle of Britain memorial.  Oh, my.  The airmen in the monument stood out in proud relief.  I could see my father among them.  I didn’t expect the tears, but there they were.  Pride in my father’s contributions in that war effort was rich and heartfelt.

Seamus Heaney writes of his father’s influence on him, even from the grave.  I feel some of that, too, I suppose.  For me, though, I’d have to say I felt it most authentically a while ago this evening when I went out into the dark for a slow amble down the little two-lane road in front of our hermitage. The moon was full, the air still, and the murmur of the Ardnaglass River carried through the trees.  Took me back to one of the nights Dad had us kids out for an all-night fishing adventure.  

Because of him, I’ve concluded, I love Nature as much as I do -- so much so that I’d travel across the sea for the chance to have a quiet week where I can listen for birds; photograph flowers; enjoy an amazing sunrise -- and warm, Irish rain; and drive up into the Ox Mountains just to get the best panorama of the countryside possible.  

He was one of the best Nature lovers I’ve ever known.  Thanks for showing me the way, Dad.

Today’s elder idea:  Might be a computer for me, but you get the idea:  the finishing lines from Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’: 
...I’ve no spade to follow men like that. 

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests. 
I’ll dig with that. 

images:  top:  Dad in his early 20s;  mid:  Battle of Britain Memorial detail, London;  bottom: moon out on the road by our place in Ireland. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Problems of history

 A number of year ago, I remember hearing that history was written by the ‘victors.’  My first reaction was to bristle at the concept that the actual story of what happened in a particular battle or historical era was constructed through the bias of the folks who had either won a political victory or vanquished a particular enemy.  The more I thought about it, though, and the more I critiqued the history I taught and so much personally loved, I began to realize that, though such a criticism might be taken with a grain of salt, much truth resided therein.

Yesterday while Cindy Lou and I were on our ‘London in one day’ tour, starting at the Tower of London, I began to think back on another history lesson I began to appreciate a few decades ago.  Back then I was in a Massachusetts cemetery spending some time at the grave of Emily Dickinson.  Where I come from on the eastern fringe of the Midwest, the oldest local graves I ever found were early 19th century.  Woodland Cemetery in Dayton dates back to a time when cities established lovely wooded reserves as final resting places for deceased residents on the outskirts of town.  Graves were even moved from downtown burial plots to the more centralized Woodland in order to open up areas for development, I presume.  

But in Amherst, Massachusetts where Ms. Dickinson is buried, I noticed headstones with dates more than a century older those I had found at home.  It struck me in a moment of realization that American history in New England was, in fact, much, much older than anything I had grown up to learn about my part of the country.  Such a realization strikes me now as a ‘well, duh’ moment, but at the time it really made an impression on me. 

I had a similar reaction at the Tower of London yesterday when I learned that the oldest part of the structure was begun by none other than William the Conquerer, a Norman monarch who changed the island nation’s history close to a millennium ago on the field at Hastings when the claimant to the throne of Edward the Confessor, Harold, was defeated when a particularly well placed arrow struck  him in the eye.  That was 1066, the year I learned in an English linguistics class that marked the end of the Old English period.  Not only would the government of England be changed, but their language as well.

I was eager to listen to our guide, a Yeoman Warder, more commonly known as a Beefeater, who, moving from one spot to another, told us little snippets of British Tower history.  When we got to the site where a round slab of marble with a glass pillow, centered, marked the spot where Anne Boleyn lost her head when she failed to give Henry VIII a male heir, she ticked off the charges made against many of Henry’s wives before they were executed.  Among most of them was ‘adultery.’  No mention of Henry’s indiscretions or discussion of trumped up charges against the women was ever attempted.  

A few minutes later when I was able to talk with the Beefeater as our group moved on, I asked about Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of my favorite characters in English history made famous by Katherine Hepburn in the movie A Lion in Winter.  Both the Yeoman Warder and our guide for the day, Nick, reached back into their recollections to agree that, indeed, Eleanor was imprisoned by her husband, Henry II, for some time in another place, and that she had been kept at the Tower of London for 19 years for her ‘protection.’  I questioned the irony of the use of the word ‘protection,’ and they seemed a little shocked and repeated that, yes, it was for her protection.  Since my knowledge of English history is sketchy at best, I dropped the questioning, but walked on wondering about it nonetheless.

And so today I write on the problem of history.

I know as Americans we have black times in our past when native people were brutally driven off their land, slaves from Africa controlled as vital parts of local economies, and Japanese Americans’ interred during World War II because the powers that be in Washington decided so.  Trust me, the Brits have a black list a whole longer just because they’ve been at governance a whole lot longer than the US.  

I’ve always felt embarrassed about America’s intolerance and social mistakes, but I didn’t get that sense from our guides at the Tower yesterday about their past.  I came to conclude, in part, that telling the story of your country’s actions that might be determined unsavory is just part of the burden of retelling the story of your ancestors.  Surely value judgements can be made about what went on, but having a long history means that both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ things are part of the victor’s tale.  

And besides, I suppose it’s really about where people are today.  What has a country learned?  Where has that led them?  How has their history brought them to the place in the present time where citizens, immigrants, and visitors are treated under the law?

I have to say that what I see in London is truly amazing.  It took us a couple days to find a person actually born and raised in this country.  So many different kinds of people are everywhere.  Our guide yesterday said something like three hundred languages are spoken here.  Regardless of the criticisms that can be made about the United Kingdom’s past, it surely is a place today where all are welcomed. 

Today’s elder idea:  On our first tour the other day, when telling of bloody and unfortunate times on the island, our guide reflected, ‘Such was a bad time to be here.’  And so it is with some times in history.

images:  top:  Henry VIII (from Wikipedia); below:  changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace the other day

Monday, October 7, 2013

Long awaited

Back in 2005 when Cindy Lou retired from the classroom, she talked about how she’d like to take me to England as her big celebration trip.  Sounded great to me. 

Now here it is 2013 -- and we’re finally taking flight tomorrow afternoon for London.  A first for me.  A third for Cindy Lou.  An adventure for us both! 

It’s not that we didn’t want to get off our chairs and jet off to the United Kingdom.  We started the reservation process a couple of times, but other things just seemed to get scheduled and, well, you know how that goes.  

A bunch of this trip was designed with the help of an American Automobile Club counselor, but the centerpiece of the excursion, as far as I’m concerned, is a week at Holy Hill Hermitage in County Sligo, Ireland.  If you and I chat very often, you are aware of my affection for the Nada Hermitage in Crestone, Colorado.  Been there a couple of times and even hauled a grandson to Crestone for a family week a year ago.  Nada is operated by the Spiritual Life Institute.  The SLI runs Holy Hill as well. 

If the truth be told, though, Cindy’s highlights will be in London and vicinity.  She’s eager to get me out in the neighborhoods where she says, “Everything you see is some part of history you’ve already read about.”  She even bought tickets for us to see Spamalot -- in London!  I cannot imagine a better place to experience the Monty Python mentality than in England’s capital city!  

Right now it’s mid-evening the day before we fly.  My suitcase and carry-on are assembled and waiting at the front door.  They’ll get a couple small things yet tomorrow morning, but they’re ready to fly.  I’ve assembled a few books of poetry for the trip and look forward to visiting a London bookstore for a leisurely peruse.  I have an updated poetry notebook prepared and another steno book ready for thoughts and ideas.  A few good pens and pencils are stowed, as well.  And, of course, there is the laptop that will provide the communication link to the outside world.  No phones this time, smart or otherwise.  I am looking forward to an experience without tons of technology.  Digital photography should be amazing. 

I will be blogging along the way and including some images of what we experience.  I hope you’ll stop by The Back Porch over the next three weeks to see how it’s going.  

Did I say yet how excited I am to get to Holy Hill?  ;-)

Today’s elder idea:  The tag line on the Holy Hill website:  

A retreat centre where people of all faiths can immerse themselves in silence, solitude, and beauty along the west coast of Ireland.  

For more on Holy Hill, see:

Monday, September 30, 2013


Back in the day when the clock rang at 6 am and both Cindy Lou and I groaned about getting up in the winter dark for showers, lunch making, and heading off to school at an ungodly hour, life had plenty of purpose.  We’d show up at our buildings with smiles on our faces to work with 100+ young people each every day, trying our best to lead them to writing, thinking, and academic success.

Following our retirement, though, purpose has been a bit more difficult to discern. 

For me, I must say, the transition was not too hard.  I’m a morning person who likes to get up when the sun does (well, not at 5 am in the summer!) to get my day going.  It usually begins with a glass of orange juice or chocolate milk and thirty minutes of personal time with the Dayton Daily News, sitting next to our lovely dining room windows, reading and watching the Natural world getting going for another day.  Pretty soon it’s off to my computer for another news update, catching up with email, and maybe getting going on a new blog entry or continued work on other writing.  Generally speaking, I don’t have trouble finding stuff to do.  

For Cindy Lou it’s been a bit more difficult.  She’s one of those folks who is a slow daily starter, but then by evening she might get a burst of energy and stick with a project until 3 am.  The other night she unpacked and photographed the entire collection of demitasse cups and saucers left to her by her mother.  Must be at least thirty sets, I’d say.  It’s easy to understand, then, why she likes to sleep late into the morning.  Besides, I am advised, her vivid dreaming is just kicking in about dawn and heavens, does she love getting involved in those and so many other fictional narratives. 

I’ve heard plenty of folks say that they don’t look forward to retirement because they are afraid they’ll be bored.  A month or so of sleeping late and they won’t know what to do with themselves.  I think some are concerned, too, that hanging out all day in the same space as their spouse will get on everybody’s nerves before too long.  And I’m sure that can happen. 
I offer these situations, including the lovely Cindy Lou’s, as case studies of those who somehow struggle with what to do with unassigned time.  Employment undoubtedly gives our day purpose.  No daily preassigned job equals a different personal equation. 

I don’t know that I have a definitive solution to this conundrum facing so many of us Baby Boomers these days.  Maybe what I have to say is specific to those morning types who love to engage with a new day, just because.  If one is not made up that way, I suspect it could be a perpetual challenge for later years. 

For me, though, it seems to resolve around the concept of zen.  Not zen meditation so much, though I’ve tried that unsuccessfully a handful of times.  For me it has more to do with finding some good thing to do today because it calls out for attention.  

Wikipedia says zen used as an adjective means ‘extremely relaxed and collected.‘  I suppose when one relaxes and considers the day, a zen purpose emerges.  Cindy Lou might use the term gestalt, since that is so big in her professional and personal background.  Wikipedia defines gestalt as ‘a whole, unified concept or pattern which is other than the sum of its parts.’  I like to think of it as being grounded in the moment.  

In any case, as a member of the working class, purpose might not be hard to define.  Answer the bell, do your work, and enjoy Reds games on summer evenings.  

But for those who struggle with unassigned days, I think taking time daily to stop and quietly listen for the voice or spirit or whatever the entity -- or non-entity -- can offer the insight needed to lead us into good work that the world needs, whether it’s holding babies at Children’s Medical Center or raising tomatoes in the front yard.  Some purpose surely has broader and deeper ramifications, but all daily purpose works toward the good of the one, which overall is beneficial for the whole community.  

As solitary as we might be, we’re all in this together.  Finding personal purpose and working on it makes the world in which we all live a better place and from what I can tell, is much better for one’s health.  

Today’s elder idea:  Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness.  It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose. 

Helen Keller

image:  Scavenged from Google search at

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


for Jerry Thaman 

I said good-bye to him on Friday night 
and learned on Sunday afternoon 
he had lost consciousness.  
Such was drug induced but the only 
alternative to intensifying pain. 

I gave him a lucid week or more 
when I grasped his hand that night, 
looked into his eyes, 
and told him I loved him

and that there was much love present
to help in whatever happened next -- 
that lots of people were sending energy
for whatever was needed. 

His grip and his eyes showed something 
that seemed like understanding.

I walked out into that warm Florida night
and just stood by the rental car in the dark, 
not wanting to get in --
not wanting this next part --
my going away from him for what would inevitably be 
the last time on this plane of existence -- to begin. 

Next time I see him, I thought, 
he’ll be in an urn.  I cringed, 
but knew that it was true.  

I turned around in the palpable darkness, 
facing the porch-lit house 
to consider what was inside: 

a dying fifty year old man
with all three natural brothers at his side, 
or at least in the room.  A sister.  A sister-in-law.  A niece.  
The hospice nurse that everybody likes so much. 
And a wife, exhausted, crashing while the others
hold vigil before her shift, motivated by love, 
begins again. 

I don’t know much about death. 

I understand hospice practitioners refer
to the process of dying as a transition
a gradual easing from the world of the living 
into a place of unconsciousness where the body 
can let go of the life spirit, freeing it from matter
to become part of whatever it is that happens next.  

I only hope that when he began moving in that direction 
it felt at least as good as home. 

Tom Schaefer
23 September 2013
prior & post Jerry’s leaving

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Island time

Yow.  I know my goal is to write here weekly but that it’s usually more like once every couple of weeks.  I’ve never missed a whole month.  Until now.  Sorry about that.  

But know that life has been rich.  I was able to spend two of the last five weeks on stunning Hog Island in Maine.  Most of that time was spent scrubbing pots in the kitchen, but it was done with good people for a good cause:  feeding moms ‘n dads ‘n grandfolk ‘n kids that made up Family Camp.  That means about 60 folks for each meal, including the big lobster feast their last night on island.  

Lots of silverware and plates went through the Hobart.  I took it upon myself to sweep the dining room after every meal, which meant lifting a raft of heavy chairs first, then sweeping, then lifting them all down.  I almost always got help from one or two folks moving chairs, which was much appreciated.  And, it should be noted, my sweeping technique proved to be quite effective, if I don’t say so myself.  ;-)

Aside from the busy days at the Hog Island Audubon Camp, I did take time off from my volunteer responsibilities for some personal island meditation -- and came away a bit different from when I came aboard.  Islands can do that to you, I’m told.  Still, this was a special stay on Hog Island for me.  

It was thirty-two years ago this July when I made my first visit to the Audubon Ecology Workshop in Maine on Hog Island.  With a non-scientific brain in a very scientific atmosphere, I made some good friends and discovered a piece of Emily Dickinson history that would impact the rest of my life.  

As you know, I am writing a second book of Hog Island history, once again focusing on the family of Mabel Loomis Todd.  Miss Todd, as all Dickinson scholars know, is the person most responsible in the world for our being exposed to Emily Dickinson’s poetry and letters. She brought important pieces of Emily’s poetry into a public place where we all can grapple with their complexity and beauty.    

And, oh, some of those letters are as rich as the poetry.  We have Mrs. Todd to thank for saving them. 

Eighteen years after the publication of that first volume of Poems by Emily Dickinson, Mabel Todd went in with a friend from Boston to purchase huge tracts of Hog Island, which was said to be one of the largest pieces of spruce island wilderness left on the Maine coast.  She would come to build a compound of summer buildings on the west side of the island that she would call her Camp Mavooshen, a term celebrating Native American influence in the region.  She spent many summers there.  

Mabel Todd and her husband, David, spent time most every summer from 1909 on in the Hog Island area.  First they stayed at the summer camp of the other Hog Island investor, Etta Glidden, who had a summer place of her own at Martin’s Point, located on Bremen Long Island near Friendship.  Day trips on the water took the Todds to Hog where they climbed, hiked, waded, had lunch, and marveled at the beauty of the place. 

By 1910, the Todds spent weeks at the Point Breeze Inn and Bungalows, also located on Hog Island, but on the developed small, northeast peninsula.  The Point Breeze opened as a summer resort in 1908 and was the proud home of a small group of New York and New Englanders wanting a place out of the heat where they could read, listen to music, commune with nature, and find some peace in America’s vacation land of Maine.  

By 1915, the Todds occupied buildings at their family compound and took on the tasks of improving the property and living a comfortable summer life there.  And they did.  

In any case, on the two days when different groups of campers trekked the island, I asked if I could meet them at Camp Mavooshen.  There I talked with everybody about the family and what went on there.  I ended up going on a bit too much about Emily, as it turned out, but it felt so good talking about the Todds in that place that meant so much to them.  At another time that week I read aloud Mrs. Todd’s unfinished essays about the island, The Epic of Hog.  I concluded it was most probably the first time in decades that writing was heard in that place.  Felt pretty damned good.  

Near the end of my time on Hog Island, I found myself on a Sunday afternoon composing my eleventh new poem of this road trip.  I very creatively called it ‘Hog Island 11.’  

I leave it with you today.  

Today’s elder idea:

Hog Island 11

The most vivid memory of my first 
coming to Hog Island long ago 
is sitting behind the Fish House
on huge expanses of exposed granite 
watching a yellow orange sun 
rise over Bremen Long Island while 
the bay was still morning still at mid-tide.  
The only sound was silence
and the occasional lobster rig’s diesel 
and cawing American crows
announcing the day and direction overhead. 

It was transformational.
I remember.

Here I am again on the east side 
just south of the Slade cottage, 
only now on a Maine-cool August
afternoon thirty-two years later, 
loving how the sun spotlights Crow Island, 
while this side of Hog experiences
the first sensation of dusk. 

Little water traffic this blue sky Sunday.
Not many birds, either.
A second cormorant takes off, 
slapping water with wingtips 
as speed and lift build in the cooling air currents.  
No gulls, no loons, no warblers, no osprey. 
No seals. 

The lap of rising tide on granite
headdressed with sea wrack the nearest sounds.  
Crickets have begun their evening discourse.
Now a red squirrel rattles.  Other of Nature’s people, 
unrecognized, add to the Natural conversation.

I try to be grounded here in paradise,
wanting to know what new life is born 
of this visit:  
          the hope to be more prepared 
to tell Mrs. Todd’s story fairly and with color -- 
animating dear David & Millicent & Mr. Lailer -- 
seeing the Mother move about her island life 
seeking to shed New England tensions and find peace 
astride this spruce covered eruption of rock and soil

bringing loved ones’ lives to ‘God’s own heaven,’
where circadian rhythm adjusts all quieter
and, after a morning of hard work, able to savor 
an hour prostrate on a forest of moss 
or lying prone in the hammock behind the main house
bordering a universe of ferns, watching 
treetops dance in the afternoon breeze. 

Tom Schaefer
on Hog Island 
25 August 2013