Monday, December 8, 2014

A Christmas reflection

The other day I spoke on the phone with my good Los Angeles friend, Bruce Gunnell, celebrating the refreshing rains the region was getting.  As a horticulturalist he was, of course, grateful for the precipitation, but as a boy raised on rain showers in the Midwest, any day of rain in sunny southern California is a reason to celebrate.  

As the conversation drifted to other things, Bruce mentioned that though he is again wary of seasonal commercial hype and the hassle of gift giving, he treasures the first Christmas album he plays every year just after Thanksgiving.  It has become ritual:  John Denver’s ‘Rocky Mountain Christmas.’  

Bruce and I are both big John Denver fans, an affection we can trace back to the earliest days of our friendship.  We played in a cover band back in the 1970s, filling many Friday and Saturday evenings in December with harmonies (first set) and rock ’n roll (second & third sets) at holiday parties set anywhere from Dayton to Xenia to Springfield.  Such a time it was, and if the truth be told, I deeply miss the music making and the band camaraderie.  

So it is special for me to know how important ‘Rocky Mountain Christmas’ still is to Bruce.  With so much of the past diminished in memory by time, it is warm and grounded to know John Denver’s music, especially this Christmas album, is still a touchstone that brings pleasant memories back to mind for him.  

After I got off the phone, I began to remember more of my own ‘Rocky Mountain Christmas’ story.  Back in the mid-1970s when the album was released, I was a young teacher and a reasonably new daddy starting a family with a partner who was still going to college.  We were lucky enough to have purchased our first house by then, and as you might imagine, Christmas was a time of glitter and music and baby wishes.   

Christmases were not without their disappointments then, however.  A year or so before daughter Kelly was born, an old friend in the apartment complex where we used to live gifted us with tickets to ‘Nutcracker’ one Sunday afternoon.  As lovely as the gesture was, as we drove up the driveway we saw that our front door was ajar.  Sure enough, somebody had broken in the front door and liberated our house of some pretty significant stuff, including the television and the living room sound system.   On the turntable when the outfit was stolen?  ‘Rocky Mountain Christmas.’  I’m pretty sure I could still put my hands on the empty album cover.  

I imagine I bought another copy of ‘Rocky Mountain Christmas,’ though I can’t recall.  Since the morphing of music from vinyl to CD to computer digital, I have made a project of upgrading songs and albums to the current format where all the music I own is collected and organized.

Oddly enough, though, through the years I never updated ‘Rocky Mountain Christmas’ to digital.  Hearing Bruce rave about its bearing in his life still, got me to thinking I had some music to buy.  He promised to burn me a copy and send it along, but the more I thought about it the more I couldn’t wait.  As I hope he knows, I will think about this newest version of ‘Rocky Mountain Christmas’ as a gift from him. 

When we talked about the loss of John Denver and the magic of this album, we both agreed the song ‘Aspenglow’ was a shared favorite.  As I listen to it now, I can just about visualize walking down a snowy street in a little mountain town with holiday shop windows glittering like tinsel.  I am certain, too, that my love for the Rockies and Colorado can be pegged to my affection for John Denver and his music. 

But another song on the album, ‘A baby just like you,’ brings me to tears every time I listen.  I needed to learn more.  After some time at Wikipedia, I learned that ‘Rocky Mountain Christmas’ was the #1 holiday album in the US in 1975, which reminds us of John Denver’s pop music icon status at that time.  Another best-selling Christmas album he recorded was with the Muppets.  

1975.  Let’s see:  daughter Jennifer was almost 3 years-old that Christmas.  Just a couple summers later, she and her mother and I would trek to Colorado to camp and embark on our first mountain backpacking event.  John Denver was big in our lives that summer, no doubt.  (I was, in fact, in my 27th year.) Three days later when we came back down through the mountain forest, repacked gear, and loaded into our car, the first song on the car cassette player was ‘Rocky Mountain High.’  I’m sure Jennifer didn’t care, but Chris and I had tears in our eyes.
Which brings me back to ‘A baby just like you.’  On the way home from that 1977 mountain adventure, we spent a night at a motel in South Dakota to watch the MLB All-Star game.  Nine months later our little Kelly was born.  So by Christmas that year, the album ‘Rocky Mountain Christmas’ and the song ‘A baby just like you’ would have resounded through our family’s Christmas experience.  I hope I took the time to sing it as a lullaby to Kelly inside her mommy’s belly, though I don’t recall.  

So it is with a brimming heart that I thank Bruce for re-gifting me with ‘Rocky Mountain Christmas.’  Truly this year a treasured gift of the season was offered by heart

Today’s elder idea:   ‘A baby just like you’ / John Denver

The season is upon us now, a time for gifts and giving
And as the year draws to its close, I think about my living

Christmas time when I was young, the magic and the wonder
But colors dull and candles dim and dark my standing under

Oh, little angel, shining light, you've set my soul to dreaming
You've given back my joy in life, and filled me with new meaning

A savior King was born that day, a baby just like you
And as the Magi came with gifts, I come with my gift too

That peace on earth fills up your time and brotherhood surrounds you
That you may know the warmth of love and wrap it all around you

It's just a wish, a dream I'm told from days when I was young
Merry Christmas, little Zachary, Merry Christmas everyone

Merry Christmas, little Kelly, Merry Christmas everyone!

images:  top:  album cover; mid:  Kelly c. 1979; below:  in an earlier time her sister Jennifer advises Dad about campfires 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


First off, let me say that this year’s Waffle Shop was another great success.  Thanks to everybody who came down, and even to those who thought about coming but couldn’t quite handle the record-setting cold and windy conditions.  By the time the doors closed on Friday, we were just four folks short of 1,800.  That’s a good number for a week of decent late-November weather, let alone one that started with a day of snow and school closings.  

A different kind of tally shows that Waffle Shop grossed over $20,000, which should give us something like $13k to award in grants after all the bills are paid.  My goal every year is to award a minimum of $10k in Outreach Grants.  We always haven’t been so fortunate.  A few years ago all we could muster was just under $5k, so by any manner of assessment, the 85th Waffle Shop was a lovely success. 

One of my more pleasant responsibilities as general chair of Waffle Shop is to gather as many staff as possible in the dining room for announcements and a prayer just before opening every day.  By 10:45 the parish hall-cum-dining room is smelling of the first batch of waffles and the soups of the day as three or four dozen volunteers circle up.  By day two, everybody wants to hear about ‘numbers’ for opening Tuesday.  Front door, dining room, and carry-out totals are announced and gross by department, if available.  Everybody was pleased to hear how we were doing.  

But one thing I tried to stress this year, as is mentioned every year, is not the numbers so much as the feel of offering Waffle Shop hospitality.  This downtown church event began way back in 1929 when Third and Main was the epicenter of commercial and social activity in the region.  A few decades ago Waffle Shop even served evenings for Christmas shoppers when Rike’s, Elders, and The Metropolitan were open until 9.  

Waffle Shop became a seasonal event that lots of people attended, including my own mother who was a legal secretary based downtown in her working days.  At 93 years-old she came this year, too, thanks to transport provided by daughter Kelly and sister Patty.  Mother can’t hear well, but she so enjoys the event — and the pair of poinsettias I’ve made the point to gift her with every Thanksgiving.  She tells me how proud she is of me.  I always respond with some version of how she and Dad taught all their children to serve others.  Such service is a legacy thing for me and, I suspect, many Waffle Shop workers.  

This year marks my thirteenth as general chair, and I must admit I have wondered for a few years now if it is time to step away from the head honcho position and let somebody else take the reins.  Yes, I am a bit weary of year-long tasks, but I also wondered if someone else might have new ideas to bring forward that would make Waffle Shop even better.  

As I sat with rector John Paddock mid-Waffle Shop just before opening, he thanked me sincerely, again, for all the work I do to get Waffle Shop ready to open.  But then he looked a bit more thoughtful and said that out of all the changes wrought to Waffle Shop during my term as chair, the one he feels most significant is the expanding community of volunteers that makes Waffle Shop work.  

First it was the folks at St. Andrew Episcopal out on Salem, then the Living Beatitudes Community which has meeting space in our church undercroft.  Most recently we have welcomed members of First Baptist Church, our physical neighbor a block away on Monument Avenue, to join us.  After prayer early in the week, a new wheelchair-bound volunteer from First Baptist rolled up to me and thanked us for letting them take part in Waffle Shop.  At first I was speechless.  She was thanking me for becoming part of a coming together of souls that hums with positive energy.  

And I guess that’s the thing that warms me most about the ministry that is Waffle Shop.  Sure, it may have begun and matured during times when the community of downtowners numbered in the tens of thousands, whether workers or shoppers.  But, trust me, though smaller, that community still exists.  And about 1,800 of us gathered at Waffle Shop last week to celebrate life in our town.   

Downtown today is as relevant as the cadre of people who live, work, worship, dine, attend shows, and visit there.  Waffle Shop is a special local event that makes all of us community, whether we reside in Dayton, Greenville, Waynesville, Yellow Springs, Kettering, or Harrison Township.

We are not alone.  We are community.  It is an honor to be a part of a legendary downtown event that still today illustrates who we are and what working, eating, and being together is all about.  

Today’s elder idea:  Thanks to for this one:  

image: top: The dining room on Waffle Shop Tuesday. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The problem with poets

Two egrets…
Alert for silvery glints and flashes 
Under the surface
As their graceful, unhurried movements
Express the ineffable stillness 
At the heart of all being. 

Buff Whitman-Bradley 
from The Next Small Thing

I trust there is ample research and corresponding literature out there to make the case for the benefits of quiet, still places on the human psyche.  Perhaps it is different for extroverts, but as an introvert I have found that quiet time spent in a still place, be it brief or extended, tends personal needs that are tied in multiple ways to how I feel about myself and the practice of trying to lead a more considered, meaningful life. 

Yet even with the benefits of accessing personal still points established, I seem to spend more time than I’d like when I get there grappling with just how I am supposed to act in such treasured space.  Should I let my thoughts cascade as they’d like or should I push them away as practiced in mindfulness meditation?  I have learned that there is benefit inherent in sitting still, emptying thoughts from my mind, and then letting whatever natural process that follows take its course.  

I like the concept, but more often than not my mindful meditation sessions leave me with the feeling that I’m not doing something right.  Instead of effectively nudging my thought tangents into space, I have a natural desire to want to listen to them, following thought vectors to see where they lead me, to see what connections they expose in my awareness.  

I have tried to begin a regimen of mindful meditation from time to time and have realized the value in focus points and quiet sitting, but within a week I am overwhelmed with daily living and then fail to make the time necessary to see the process through to whatever gift I am supposed to realize.  I know that mediation mentors encourage practitioners to accept thought-pushing failure as product of our busy brains and that we can always non-judgmentally come back to our breath and begin again.  These days, however, I have come to find myself in a place where that nagging sense of meditation failure has morphed into a sense of blending desired stillness with how my brain wants to work in the first place. 

For me, the awe of being present in a still place is in part the empty canvas it wants to provide.  Whether sitting at the picture window watching a Northern cardinal square up to blowing snow, or perched in a porch chair observing fall hummingbirds bulk-up with sweetwater, it doesn’t take much for an idea to bud into something that could be a new poem.  Zen meditation would have me push the thought away.  I would rather consider its Possibility.  Let the process take me where it wants, leaving me wondering if Nature is gifting me with a light I would never have seen if I didn’t make myself still.   Is it better to stay still in the here and now or fetch my notebook and engage the muse?  My zen awareness has recently come to recognize this dilemma as ‘the problem with poets.’  

I have had the great good fortune over the years to travel with my poetry notebook into some beautiful, life affirming, still places.  Nada Hermitage (Crestone CO) and Holy Hill Hermitage (Sligo, Ireland), of course, come to mind.  This past summer I was able to spend four weeks at a once-abandoned family camp on wilderness Hog Island, home also to the Audubon Camp in Maine.  Days were busy with book writing, but as I sat on the west-facing veranda at sunset gathering and sorting thoughts, I became very aware of the focused stillness in that place that was bristling with energy and somehow feeding me from the inside out.  Beautiful, still places do that to me.  

Yet I find it is not exclusive to travel far and wee to secure retreat weeks in such still places.  I find meaningful still time close to home, though in more compressed doses.  Quiet local walks abound in reserves and parks as well as in my suburban neighborhood.  More tangible to me, though, is taking time to have a sit on the back porch.  Sitting under canopy on a warm summer afternoon is full of sound and sight vectors that fill me with their Natural stillness.  Here’s the thing I’ve come to realize:  still does not necessarily mean quiet.  Taking time to slow down the pace of life at home is often accompanied with ambient music and/or bird song.  And I really like it that way.  

Another revitalizing process I’ve found at home is going to bed by myself in a completely darkened room with music playing softly.  I used to play ambient music exclusively, but recently have found more energetic music works, too.  Quiet, comfortable space permeated with gentle sounds relaxes me and helps me recenter.  If I’m lucky enough to find ‘recline time’ on a rainy or windy day, I substitute the music with an open window.    Making that nap time with the lovely Cindy Lou is special for us both.   

The genesis of this blog entry on ‘still point’ was a prompt offered by Desert Call, the quarterly journal of the Spiritual Life Institute.  I had hoped to grow my take on the idea into an essay for the upcoming Advent issue, but deadlines were missed as I struggled to put all my thoughts in some logical sequence.  

‘Still points’ are, indeed, needed in my life.  As a poet I seek them, often finding in such stillness the opportunity to listen to Nature’s life forces at work which allows me to apply, somehow, my own life observations.  I suspect poet Buff Whitman-Bradley does something similar.  How else could he conclude that the very actions of two egrets tiptoeing through shallows fishing ‘Express the ineffable stillness / At the heart of all being.’

Today’s elder idea:   Feel your emotions / Live true your passions / Keep still your mind. 
Geoffrey M. Gluckman

image:  Pond fairy at Wild Grace.

Friday, September 19, 2014


I remember when I started The Back Porch blog in 2009, my goal was to write an entry every week.  Such worked out nicely for a time, but then it began to feel more like work and less like an intellectual investigation and the effort started to lag.  

I must say, too, that not knowing who is actually paying any attention to what I have written here impacts the effort, as well.  Please don’t hear this as complaint, but merely as an observation in this morning’s rationalization about why the writing spark plug doesn’t fire here more often than it might.  

With that said, let us celebrate blog entry #200 here at The Back Porch.  As I’ve probably mentioned here before, Emily Dickinson wrote almost 1800 poems, which I have come to realize is one whale of a writing accomplishment.  So I guess my paltry 200 blogs leaves me with a long way to go!  ;-) 
A couple disjointed concepts today: 

First, be advised that I am publishing a limited run, locally printed book of new poetry and photography generated while on Hog Island this summer.  Entitled A forest of ferns, the little book that is the ‘product’ of my artist-in-residency, will have over a dozen original poems along with a couple Mabel Loomis Todd excerpts from her unpublished series of essays, The Epic of Hog.  Photography, as always, will try to capture some of the unique wonder of the wilderness Muscongus Bay island that so many of us have come to love.  Most copies of A forest of ferns will go to Friends of Hog Island for use with donor development, but if you would like a copy, let me know and I’ll get you one.  I’m rather fond of it.  

re: Mrs. Todd’s Epic of Hog selections:  I so much want  everyone to have the opportunity to read the entirety of this little collection of essays.  The originals reside in the Yale University archive and unless you take a trip and do some digging, you’ll never see ‘em.  Which is why my goal is to reprint them all in whatever fractured form they were left as an appendix in my upcoming book, Nature’s People: The Hog Island story from Mabel Loomis Todd to Audubon.  I’ll check with the Yale folks to see what that will take.  

BTW, I’m back at Lake Cumberland in October to work on two more chapters.  Book writing goal:  Working draft by spring 2015. 

The other day I stumbled upon a web article that raised the question over the reality or mythology of the very-important-to-Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth.  Seems that over the last two hundred years, some historians have floated the concept from time to time that more recording of this teacher’s life as thorn-in-the-side to both Jews and Romans should have been made but wasn’t.  Why?  Since so little secular evidence exists, and even within the accepted New Testament record there is much contradiction of significant details, is the guy really some construct made up by some power that figured the world would be a better place with a mythological God/man as character guide?  Could be, I guess.

In any case, I asked myself the question What if Jesus never existed?  What would that bombshell detail do to my life and sanity? 

I admitted pretty quickly:  Not much. 

Fact is, in my humble opinion, Christian teachings of doing good unto others etc. is reflected in other religions around the world.  All have their own distinct flavors, but the concept of fairness, good personal living, and taking care of the poor wash over into all that I know about.  

Truth is, I’ve always sensed my home religion, Christianity/Roman Catholicism, was pretty arrogant in the first place.  I was raised with the concept that only Catholics were going to heaven, since we were the only ones who had the direct lineage to The Man himself.  Yes, that stand has changed into something more ecumenical, thank goodness, but that’s where Catholic believers had to stand less than a lifetime ago.  And when it comes to taking ‘holy communion’ even today, unless you have been baptized and taken classes, don’t even think about it.  Roman Catholic believers only are welcome at that table.   

And, I must state, Catholics aren’t the only version of Christians who feel that if you’re not with us, you are the Other.  Folks who don’t follow the accepted One True Faith (whichever one that is), are in need of being saved from a life of sin and lack of Truth. 

So I have to say, if Jesus never existed, I’m okay with that.  Such would undermine the authority of The Church, but I think the Institution could use some fresh air, that’s for sure.  

I used to think of myself primarily as a Christian agnostic who holds that, like the true Doubting Thomas I am, I’ll believe afterlife and other church mysteries when I see them.  Though I am still an active participant in the church that is my community of choice, I think of myself more these days as a unabashed humanist.  I’ve come to conclude that we ought to treat each other with respect and fairness not because some special person who lived millennia ago tells us so, but because our presence on this spectacular planet Earth grants us all some semblance of equality.  Everybody ought to have enough, and if they don’t, it is all our responsibility to see they get the basics.  Whatever we have been given or earned needs to be shared.  Such consideration extends to snakes and trees and birds and pit bulls and mosquitoes, as well.  

I’ll let Emily have the last word today.  This is an excerpt from one of the few poems published during her lifetime.  Still, she didn’t publish it.  Her sister-in-law submitted it to The Springfield Republican newspaper without Emily’s permission.  Figures.  And yes, such is the source for the title of my book.

Today’s elder idea:   When published, this poem was entitled ‘The Snake,’ though Emily’s original copy bears no such title.  The subject of said poem wanders into various and sundry ideas, as Emily often does, but this excerpt seems to speak a bit to the ‘we’re all in this together’ philosophy that guides my life. 

Several of Nature’s People 
I know and they know me
I feel for them a transport 
Of Cordiality 

Emily Dickinson  
Franklin #1096 / written 1865

image:  The cover photo for A forest of ferns.    

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Hog Island report #2

I had hoped to report to you from Hog Island a couple times, but work on the book was so engaging that I let the flow take me over and, well, I figured the blog entries could wait.  But I’m home now and figured an update was in order. 

I have to admit, I’ve never had four weeks quite like this last month.  When I’m just going about the business of living my life, all kinds of stuff pops up in the course of a day.  Grass cutting.  Junk email that looks kind of intriguing.  Grocery shopping.  Riding bikes with the grandson. 

But on Hog Island, all of that melted away and the book was before me all the time.  I guess I wasn’t sure just how that would work, but I have been in the process of working on the darned thing for so long, given the chance to focus on just Nature’s people worked for me.  When I was in Cumberland over the winter, I didn’t know if the book would come to me or not.  Over the first couple of days there, I just felt stressed about it.  Not so on Hog Island this time around.  

One thing I have learned about my book writing process, as I’m sure I already mentioned in the last blog, is that my ADD brain truly benefits by shutting out the outside world while I’m trying to assemble the book ‘puzzle.’  Full sequester kept me calm and after my library and notes were set up, I just ‘dropped in’ and progress happened any number of ways.  And for that I am very grateful.  Next sequester is the month of October back at Cumberland where I hope to do some damage to two more chapters.  Next January/February is currently lined up for the fourth sequester, which I hope gets the book into good final draft format.  

Aside from writing success, though, I wanted to write today about working in the very place that Mabel Loomis Todd built.  It was not intimidating, and no, I never felt the presence of ghosts, though Mrs. Todd had to have died in the very room where I worked.  Story is she collapses on the porch and died a couple hours later.  Surely Frank Lailer and Howard Hilder, her caregivers who were on the island at the time, brought her into her loved ‘living room’ where she was made as comfortable as possible over her last hours.  I find it touching, too, that Hilder inscribed her last diary entry as a way for closure in that precious daily document.

Though I didn’t feel her presence particularly, I did speak to her often.  I thanked her and the building she built for my ability to be present to do the work I was doing there.  I refrained from playing music to ‘fill the house’ until late in the day both for my own concentration and entertainment factors.  And when I did play some music, it was ‘New World Symphony’ and some Mozart.  And, yes, I did play a bunch of my patented annual collections.  I remember once explaining to her who Roy Orbison was.  I hope she would have enjoyed that music, as well.  I visualized her dancing to some of the livelier pieces.  

But I’m home now and hope to get some work done on the book before October.  Still, it’s hard to tell.  I must admit I am not quite overwhelmed with life since my return, but yesterday was pretty full catching up with stuff in front of a wifi-powered computer, putting stuff away, sorting out dirty clothes, and cutting grass in a big yard that was weeks overdue.  Life at home jumped right back into full impact.  In a way, such disappoints me, but on the other hand, it is what my life is:  house, family, gardens, etc.  It’s tough to dismiss life if that’s the way you live it, you know? 

Such an amazing month on Hog Island, that much I can tell you.  I mentioned somewhere that it felt like walking into a time machine every morning going to work in Mrs. Todd’s summer space.  Air flowed, birds called, red squirrels rattled, rain fell.  And I worked through it all, doing my best to put myself in that place when she would have been present.  I told her I hoped my story telling would do honor to the work she did in her life.  Such is my goal.  I hope she agrees when all is said and done. 

Today’s elder idea:   
We always knew that the island is like Paradise in many of its delightful characteristics, but this morning when I came to the little lobster house, I found the beach literally paved with shining crystal.  It was like a pavement of cobble stones, only instead of the unknowing stone “whose coat of elemental brown, A passing universe put on,” the individual stones were of the purest, most transparent clear glass.  As the rising sun shown more and more clearly on this fairy floor, iridescent colours shot here and there making the whole beautiful substance more exquisite than imagination could have pictured.

Mabel Loomis Todd
on jellyfish from her unpublished Epic of Hog

image:  Mavooshen’s front porch at sunny sunset. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Hog Island report #1

Well, for starters, let me say progress on the book has been good over the last couple of weeks here on Hog Island.  I hoped to get two chapters and the preface in better shape, and have had good success.  The chapter on Maine as ‘vacationland,’ placing Hog Island therein, reached a conclusion two days ago.  That one will need more work, of course, but at least it’s in good draft format.  The other chapter about life in this historic family camp is budding with rereading old published and unpublished documents from the archive at Yale. Today I’ll be looking at the master outline and rejiggering how all the puzzle pieces might fit together for chapter 5.  So all is good with the book.  

Before I got here, I had asked Camp management to be sure I would have recharge capability at this remote, primitive camp.  Sounds like an impossibility, but Audubon’s Puffin Project, who runs programming on this island, has used solar power for years on the bird islands in the Gulf of Maine to repower computers for record keeping.

Two days ago was nicely rainy up this way with some fog early and late.  I worked right through the day on my Mac with its lousy internal battery life.   Whenever I get low, I hook it up to the solar cell newly installed on the building and the magic just keeps on coming. 

I was a bit concerned yesterday because under full sun, it would appear the cell was not recharging the marine battery that holds the magic.  Hmmm.  Usually when I leave the cottage at night to ascend to my sleeping quarters, the red light on the device blinks a couple of times telling me stored power is down, as expected.  By the time I get back to my work in the morning, the light has turned green and all is well.  Yesterday morning, not so.  By today, though, all appears to be well.  Looks like the solar array needed a whole day to restore juice to the marine battery.  I do like crafting my poetry by hand, but putting the next chapter on paper (instead of my Mac if the power never came back) was a disturbing alternative.  

I sit here this morning at a large open window, looking west into spruce and balsam fir with the water and mainland beyond, writing at the very desk attributed to Millicent Todd Bingham.  I don’t know if her mother, Mabel Todd used it.  There is one picture of Mrs. Todd working out the porch, though I can’t tell what the typewriter is sitting on.  But Mrs. Bingham used this desk, so says a very weathered note tacked to its right front corner.  Writing my book about Mabel Todd and Millicent Bingham at the same desk Millicent used to, perhaps, work on her Emily Dickinson publications is something to appreciate.  

I learned so many things recently, rereading stuff I’ve collected over thirty years.  Yes, I’ve read much of this before, but now with what I know I am more aware.  Pieces are fitting together in ways they did not before.  Feels good to see the narrative unfold right in front of me.  

The writing process is working well for me here in this beautiful and historical place.  I am grateful and sense the grace around me.  As the power on my Mac fades, I will sign off for now and post this later at the Audubon Camp where I can plug in and get a wi-fi connection.  

Good work continues.  Thanks for stopping by to catch up.  

Today’s elder idea:   Millicent Bingham published four books on Emily Dickinson and other texts related to her PhD in geography.  But she had this to say about Audubon’s program on Hog Island:  

‘The work of this camp gives me more satisfaction 
than anything that has ever happened to me before.’ 

Millicent Todd Bingham / 1938 

images: top: Camp Mavooshen’s main building this summer.

later:  Restored and refurnished interior.  Darned comfortable, if I don’t say so myself.  [pics by yours truly]

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Return to Hog Island

Summer and grandparenting have kept me from writing much here of late, let alone making much progress on my book.  I recognize all of these as important parts of life to pay attention to, however.  Still, I surely thought I could find a better balance, but such has not been the case. 

I have concluded that one of the most important lessons I’ve learned this year about working on a project as big as Nature’s people, is that my brain does better when my body is sequestered.  I hate to admit it, but little (if any) text has been put on paper since my return home from Lake Cumberland at the end of February.  Trust me, I’m thinking about Mrs. Todd and her island crew every day, but putting my butt and brain in a seat in front of the laptop to put 500 words a day together just doesn’t happen. 

From a more positive perspective, though, I recognize that over the last few years I have understood something about ‘getting away’ to push daily business aside for the practice of gathering thoughts and writing.  I’ve done a handful of short get-aways in my little Coleman trailer to John Bryan or Old Man’s Cave State Parks, and written a few things in the process.  A couple winters ago, if you recall, I put in a week at a cabin at Lake Hope.  All of that seems to have lead me to recognizing that if I can get away, some writing might happen.  Don’t get me wrong:  Thinking and writing still happens at my house, but it feels a bit different of late.  The book has ascended to the top priority, so when nothing on the book is getting done, not much else seems to get written either. 

All of this navel gazing here today is meant as an attempt at personal catharsis.  Fact is, I write this entry on the road from home back to the place where it all began.  It was many moons ago in 1981 when I first set foot on Hog Island in Muscongus Bay, Maine after a short first visit to Emily Dickinson’s hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts. It was after only a couple hours on the island that I realized both places were tangentially connected — and my life was changed.  Indeed, such is the origins of the book I now am trying to write.  

So with that in mind, it’s back to Hog Island in just a couple days.  I’ve been back plenty of time since, but this return is extra special.  Seabird expert and Hog Island Audubon Camp director Steve Kress has agreed to let me serve as writer-in-residence for the next month, and what makes it extra special this visit is that I will be able to reside at the very place where Mabel Loomis Todd made her summer retreat/family camp.  Nobody has summered there for decades.  But now I get the chance to be there and work on a book about that very place.  Yow.  

My term as WiRes will last from 18 July through 19 August.  During that time I imagine I’ll chat with Audubon campers about Mrs. Todd, her camp, and her connections to Emily Dickinson, but my primary focus is drafting a couple chapters of Nature’s people.  

Gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.  

But today I have ‘miles to go before I sleep’ as I traverse New England on my way back to Hog Island.  I’ll be making some blog entries over the next month to keep you posted on book and life progress.  Feel free to pass along any messages as I do.  []

Wish me luck.  

Today’s elder idea:   This island is so beautiful it really makes my heart ache!  Why, it seems to me God's own heaven can hardly be more perfect. 

                        journal of Mabel Loomis Todd
                        August 9, 1924

image:  The ‘writer’s cottage’ at Mrs. Todd’s Camp Mavooshen was built as residence for her daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham.  Such will be my ‘digs’ over the next month.  How cool is that?  ;-)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Tending Wild Grace

Sorry for my absence here of late, but one of my excuses is that I’ve been both busy and enthralled with tending Wild Grace.  There is so much that can be said about that simple statement.  Let me attempt to peal away a couple of layers, and in the process sing the praises of this planet we call home. 

First, I like Ohio in winter.  I’m sure that isn’t a big surprise to many gentle readers of The Back Porch blog.  Part of my affection for this place in the cold can be traced to Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer/poet who celebrates the human/personal connections to all the places we call home regardless of the season.  

One of Berry’s biggest criticisms of contemporary society is that we have lost touch with the rich, rooted connections to the earth that, over time, shapes who we are and what we will become.  He is a proponent of taking gobs of time to learn that place where you live.  Canoe the rivers.  Walk the woods.  Take time to identify a flower.  Listen to bird song. 

One of my favorite Wendell Berry poems is ‘The Sycamore.’  The opening lines speak his truth more eloquently than I can: 

In the place that is my own place, whose earth 
I am shaped in and must bear, there is an old tree growing,
a great sycamore that is a wondrous healer of itself.

The poem goes on to speak of how this beautiful old specimen has absorbed the tests of time, from fences being nailed to it to a lightning strike that will eventually cause its death.  But not now.  Not yet.  For now the lovely sycamore stands in the only place it will ever know, drawing energy from the soil and serving as a model citizen of the planet.  

Wendell Berry encourages us all to know our Natural place — our home — like the sycamore has.  And for me at this time in my life, my place is Wild Grace. 

As I write this, last winter is a melted memory.  While it’s been plenty warm for a while, summer will make its official arrival in a couple days with the sun reaching its northern most pinnacle in the sky at midday.  

All of this and so much more come together in my study and awareness of Wild Grace.  A few weeks ago I transplanted a few iris bulbs into a flower bed along the back patio, knowing that these purple beauties like lots of sun.  Yesterday I noticed that at noon the transplants were in full shadow, shaded by a tall shrub.  Can’t be good, thought I.  But then I reasoned that the sun is about to start heading back south, and within a couple weeks those bulbs will be free of the shade and should get a good dose of summer sun.  I trust they’ll be okay, but I’ll keep an eye on ‘em. 

All of the above serves as testimony to the understanding that I love being the tender of Wild Grace.  I’m not nuts about the sweating and the volume of work that never seems to get fully completed, but being present to the work of the dirt and rain fills me in ways that I’ve never known quite like this before.  

I started this blog writing about winter primarily because it is that season that keeps me inside, looking at the world and Wild Grace from behind picture windows. But with the first warm puffs of late winter zephyrs, the quiet earth awakens and a new season of biological miracles begins.  On the fresh, new canvas of ‘spring’ comes crocus and hyacinth first, then daffodils and iris, dandelion and maple tree sprouts.  

By mid-May I stand flabbergasted on the back porch witnessing the growth spurts of hostas, bleeding hearts, and ferns.  Where just a couple weeks ago there was seemingly bare ground, now these pretty perennials stand lush and green in their place, just like Berry’s sycamore.  I could swear that if you sat long enough you could actually watch the bleeding hearts grow, they come so fast.  It is a miracle worth observing. 

Lots of stuff gets cut at Wild Grace.  I must have removed dozens of little maples in the back yard this year so far, leaving the individuals I figure are situated to do best.  My goal is to groom Wild Grace to be as Natural as it can be.  Honeysuckle and garlic mustard are two invasives that will take over if not removed.  They don’t last long here anymore.  Native maples do very well. 

I do, indeed, love to tend Wild Grace.  I’m out there every day doing something, whether plucking a green interloper from the brick walk, which is lovely in moss, or cleaning the water intake of the pond pump.  Many days I brush out of the bird bath from the residue of robins.  (They are truly the ‘dirty birds’ of the neighborhood.)

Most of the time, however, I just sit on the front porch or under the my back porch canopy with a bottle of water and binocs and bird book, intent on just being present with the Natural residents of this lovely plot we call Wild Grace.  It is my home.  It is my place.  It has so much to see.  And I have so much to learn.

Today’s elder idea:   The closing lines of ‘The Sycamore’ are powerful indeed.  

I recognize in it a principle, an indwelling 
the same as itself, and greater, that I would be ruled by. 
I see that it stands in its place, and feeds upon it, 
and is fed upon, and is native, and maker. 

from ‘The Sycamore’ by Wendell Berry.  
Collected Poems, 1957-1982.  North Point Press, 1984.

images:  From Wild Grace, spring 2014.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Enduring marriages

 Back in the early 1970s, those of us baby boomers who were coming of age began making life-long commitments to partners in wedding ceremonies.  Over time, some of us found our marriages broken and tried again.  Others divorced and stayed single, while some have lost their partners to death.  Some of us still survive and thrive in that first marriage made with promises in front of friends so many years ago. 

Back in the day when it seemed we had a wedding gift to buy every month and a ceremony and reception to attend, some of us offered various ‘gifts’ to the newlyweds that couldn’t be purchased at Rike’s or Elder-Beerman or Sears.    Old friends will remember a band I used to sing in, Collage, joined by John Lauer, Steve & Marty Doody, and Jeff White.  (We had a few different drummers over the years, including good buddy, Bruce Gunnell, and my brother, Ted, among a few others.)  

Fact is, Collage got organized as a musical gift to a friend who wanted some ‘different’ music at his wedding.  It’s impossible to calculate at this late date how many times our group sang ‘Wedding song,’ ‘First time ever I saw your face,’ and ‘For all we know’ at various and sundry weddings.   

Besides the music, another non-purchasable gift I gave to a few friends was a delightful verse from New Wedding, a 1974 book of fresh ideas from Khorem Arisian.  I remember being so taken by one prose poem included that I typed up my own copy and filed it for posterity.  My copy resurfaced a month or so ago as I went through old files, paring many into the recycle bin.  

But not the New Wedding excerpt. I still find this verse about house and home hopeful and full of beauty.  This time around I ‘re-typed’ it into my computer for further safe keeping. 

At this place in time when old friends are approaching 40+ years of marriage, I offer this fragment from New Wedding one more time to those in love.  I wonder how we feel about the verse now that we’ve had our chance to live out many of our wishes and hopes? 

from New Wedding 

We wish for you a home, not just a place of stone and wood, but an island of sanity and serenity in a frenzied world.
We hope that this home is not just a place of private joy and retreat, but rather serves as a temple wherein the values of your lives are generated and upheld.
We hope that your home stands as a symbol of humans living together in love and peace, seeking truth and demanding social justice. 
We hope that your home encompasses the beauty of Nature — 
that it has within it the elements of simplicity, exuberance, beauty, silence, color, and a concordance with the rhythms of life. 
We wish for you a home with books, and poetry, and music —
a home with all the things which represent the highest striving of women and men. 
Finally, we wish that at the end of your lives together you will be able to say these two things to each other: 
Because you have loved me you have given me faith in myself. 
Because I have seen the good in you, I have received from you a faith in humanity. 
My wish is the same for you all on this day.   ;-)

I wanted to mention here, too, that Cindy Lou and I were able to take my mother a week ago to Louisville to meet with one of her dearest and oldest friend.  

Both Mom and her friend were classmates at St. Anthony’s school here in Dayton until the fifth grade when, in the middle of the Great Depression, Betty’s father took a job in Cincinnati.  Many moves and many children later, both girls have worked hard over decades at staying in touch.  

And here they are at age 93 still caring for each other.  It is hard to imagine any friendship lasting so long.  They’re still cute, too!  

I like to call this image ’80 years on…’

Gertrude Zimmer Schaefer and Betty Perry Beckman  (1934/2014)

Today’s elder idea:  On this Earth Day, I offer a thought from one of America’s foremost Naturalists: 

Heaven is under our feet, as well as over our heads. 
Henry David Thoreau