March 30, 2012



The trees in my woods are still bare, just brown branches and dead leaves, but brilliant green mosses seem suddenly to be everywhere, covering every stump and log with the luxurious fabric you might see in a fairy tale. I couldn't resist lying down on the ground to look at this bit of moss up close, touching the sporophytes with my fingers. I could just imagine how much fun it would be if I could shrink myself down until I was about an inch tall and then spend the afternoon climbing around in a patch of moss.

March 28, 2012


Northern pine snake

Because the art show was held at a local nature center, the three artists chose nature-themed art to display. We saw ceramic vases etched with trees and watercolor paintings of spring flowers. As I looked at Quilt Artist’s fabric pieces, I was drawn to cattails in a marsh, a rural landscape, and the wing of a blackbird.

The room was soon crowded with people, some dressed in skirts or silk blouses, the way you might for an art show, and others in hiking boots and cargo pants, ready to hit the trails outside the nature center. We converged around the table in the center to eat chips with hummus, colorful spring rolls, and pieces of homemade ginger cake.

“We should check out the rest of the building,” Beautiful Hair said to me. We’d already looked at all the artwork, hugged our friend Quilt Artist, chatted with her girlfriend, and eaten our fill of the goodies on the table. We breezed through the gift shop and the room where school kids come to do arts & crafts. Nothing too exciting there.

But then in the farthest room, we found something moving, something alive. A northern pine snake. Wide awake and fully grown, she slithered about in a display case that held sand, rubbing herself against an old tree stump as she moved. She butted her head into the sand and then pulled up to shake the sand off. Again and again, she slithered about the case, stopping each time at the corner, where we stood, mesmerized.

March 26, 2012

Early green

First green

The cold, rainy weather returned this weekend, leaving me in a miserable mood. Well, perhaps it wasn’t the weather so much as the fact that spring break is over, and I’ve got to face the piles of stuff in my office — yellow tablets scribbled with to-do lists, stacks of papers to grade, and mail that’s been opened but not taken care of.

I spent Saturday morning serving as a poetry judge at a competition for high school kids, an event that provided me with a free breakfast, a chance to gossip with other local poets, and an excuse not to do any of my own work. Saturday afternoon, though, I resolved to clean my home office. Unfortunately, that resolution seemed mostly to serve as guilt to prevent me from doing anything fun rather than motivation to actually tackle the piles.

Whenever friends or family are in a miserable mood, I say, “Go outside for two hours! Two hours of unstructured time in nature is as effective as an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety drug.” I’m quite serious about this. I’ve seen the studies.

 So yesterday afternoon, I took my own advice. Even though the day was misty and overcast, I drove to a nature center a close friend, Beautiful Hair, and we spend several hours wandering the trails. A light rain touched my hair as we trampled along muddy paths. We talked and talked, our conversation interrupted only when we paused to listen to the stream at the bottom of the valley. Dead brown leaves are still predominate in the woods, but we admired the brilliant green mosses, the ferns that still lay flat on the ground, and the tiny spring flowers that are just now beginning to appear.

Springing forth

March 25, 2012

I won't tell you who wins

“No spoilers!” said my son Boy in Black as he handed me a ticket, “There are people in the theater who haven’t read the books.”

We were in line to see The Hunger Games, standing in a clump that included three of my kids, four of my nieces, and a big bucket of popcorn. When we go to the movies, we usually take up an entire row of seats.

We’d all read the book, of course, but I’d been forbidden to talk about it for weeks. That’s how it usually works. I read fast, so I’m often the first one to read a book, and then everyone in the family screams “No spoilers! Don’t say anything!” every time I even mention the book. It drives me crazy because I’m someone who likes to talk about books. I figured that now the movie was out, I could finally talk about The Hunger Games books, but my kids thought otherwise.

“I haven’t had time to read the second and third book,” said my daughter. “So don’t say ANYTHING. Remember how you ruined Harry Potter for me?” She switched her voice to a lower register, “I can’t believe that they killed off Dumbledore.”

“You ruined Harry Potter for me too,” Blonde Niece said. “I still remember that. You made a joke about being dead serious.

“Oh, come on,” I said in defense. “You can’t expect me to not to talk about books! It’s what I do for a living.”

“How is that an excuse?” asked Boy in Black. “You don’t see me going around accidentally giving out physics formulas.” He gave me a crooked grin. “I don’t go spoiling physics for people.”

 Right. Because that’s exactly the same thing.

March 23, 2012


I came back from my retreat to find the snow melted and the spring peepers singing. This week on campus, students were dressed in shorts and sandals. After an incredibly mild winter, we’ve been catapulted into mid-summer. Leaves are opening on my lilac bushes, and flowers are blooming in garden beds in the city. Everything is two to three weeks early.

One of my students summed up the mood on campus: “I’d enjoy this lovely warm weather so much more if it didn’t remind me that we’re disrupting the climate and on the brink of environmental disaster.”

I ran into a scientist friend as I came up the brick steps towards the chemistry building. He greeted me cheerily. “Happy Spring! Happy Summer! Happy Whatever-the-Fuck-this-is!”

When I walked in my woods this afternoon, I found something even more ominious. The mosquitos are hatching. Already.

March 21, 2012

A bit of summer


Usually I go to Southern State in March for some spring weather. But this year, it felt more like summer. Temperatures soared into the high 70s, and I wore shorts when I went out to take a walk. Drifts of yellow pollen covered the benches in the courtyard, and bright flowers blossomed along the paths.

March 20, 2012

To the river

To the river

The retreat center where I stayed last week has a lovely library filled with comfortable chairs, a small chapel with cushions on the floor for anyone who wants to meditate, and a courtyard dominated by a flowering tree that dropped petals into my hair as I sat on a bench with my notebook.

But the best thing about the retreat center is the river. The morning I arrived, I followed the trail down the hill and through ivy-covered trees until I came to the water.  As I approached, a long snake slid off the bank into the water, disappearing beneath the muddy surface. 

March 13, 2012


It's spring break, and I've flown south to visit a friend for a few days and then spend time at a retreat place where silence will give me the space to work on a writing project. Trees are flowering, the air is warm and humid, and it feels like summer.

I won't be online for the rest of the week. I'm looking forward to writing with no distractions before I have to return to my busy life and the second half of my crowded semester.

March 11, 2012

And it's spring


As everyone had predicted, the snow melted, the temperature rose, and we suddenly got a summer day in March. Boy in Black sent text messages to everyone he knew, including friends home for spring break, and he gathered a gang for a game of Ultimate Frisbee, which we played outdoors on a wet field that was soon churned into big patches of mud.

“It’s like playing in slow motion,” Skater Boy complained after a couple hours of skidding and sliding in the mud. The slower game was fun for me, since usually the young people move so fast that I can’t even grasp what’s happening.

“It’s like everyone’s moving at your speed, Mom,” Boy in Black said jokingly. He’s quick to tease me, but he’s also patient about flicking the disc to me even when he knows I’ll probably drop it.

The sun felt wonderful, shining onto our bare, albeit muddy, limbs. My parents stopped by on their way home from a walk and sat in the sun for a few minutes to watch the game. When they took the time to stroll through the cemetery adjacent to the field, Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter said to me, “They’re picking out their plots. Not depressing at all.”

Because I was playing, I didn’t get any action shots of the game, but I did take a photo of Blonde Niece’s hair. She’d just dyed the ends bright pink. A sure sign of spring.

Edged with pink

Crazy weather

Front yard

We've had only 50 inches of snow so far this season. We've barely used the snow shovels. On Friday, spring break began, like it usually does, with a snowstorm, but this might be the last bit of winter weather we see. Temperatures are supposed to go into the 60s today, which means the snow will be gone by tonight.

"I'm declaring it spring," Boy in Black said last night. "Be sure to find your cleats." For him the warm weather means one thing: it's time to play Ultimate Frisbee outside again.

Side yard

March 10, 2012

When the zombies attack

Our classroom discussion about Henry David Thoreau somehow led to the topic of what we’d do in a zombie apocalypse.

The young man who brought up the topic has dark, shaggy hair that falls into his eyes. He’s a smart kid who reminds me very much of my own sons, and he listens intently to our discussions. Sometime he’ll just look around the room, as if he’s studying all of us, and I wonder what he’s thinking.

Now I know. He’s planning an escape route. And deciding which of us will get sacrificed to the zombies.

“Seriously,” he said. “Every time I sit down in a classroom, I plan what I’m gonna do if the zombie apocalypse happens. I figure out who in the room is probably going to get eaten, I figure out how I’m gonna escape.”

“The amount of emotional energy we spend worrying about an imaginary event like a zombie apocalypse — well, it’s ridiculous,” said the student with the streaks of purple in her hair.

“Maybe it’s because the real problems on earth — climate change, pollution, peak oil, the big garbage patch of plastic swirling in the ocean— it's all so overwhelming that we need to take a break and worry about something imaginary,” said the student in the green shirt.

“Well, it’s a way to channel our frustration,” said the student with the fuzzy hat. “All these environmental problems and I feel about as helpless as I would feel if there were a bunch of zombies bursting into the room.”

At the end of the class, after summing up the substance of our discussion, I gestured to the window, “My car is parked right outside. I guess if there’s a zombie apocalypse, I’d make a run for it.”

Dark Shaggy Hair  looked at me, and I knew instantly what he was thinking. I was now part of his plan.

“You’re going to grab my keys, push me to the zombies, and take my car,” I said, accusingly.

The other students laughed, but he just shrugged. “Of course. You can’t give me that information and expect me not to take advantage of it.”

It wasn't until the other students had left and we were walking out to the quad that Dark Shaggy Hair said to me in a low voice, “I’d let you survive too. We could BOTH take your car.”

“And I’m slower, so the zombies will get me first,” I said. He smiled.

But still, it seemed like he’d be a good ally. He’s definitely seen more zombie movies than I have. I held up the lanyard that sticks out of my bag. “Here’s where I keep my keys. And my car is over there  -- the black one parked sideways.”

So now I have a plan. In case the zombie apocalypse happens during class.

March 08, 2012

Woman as Tree

Woman as tree

As much as I love Big Creative Writing Conference, I will be the first to admit that I don’t really fit in. I’d rather sleep in a tent than a big city hotel, I get headaches if I spend too much time in windowless conference rooms, and elevators make me feel claustrophobic. Hotel bars would go bankrupt if they had to rely on me as a customer, since all I ever order is ginger ale.

But luckily, my conference friends are grounded, normal people. They hug me. They make me take the time for leisurely meals. They drag me out of the hotel to walk in the fresh air. They tell me about their families and canoe trips and hiking plans. And they willingly take off their clothes when I need a photo for my blog.

“Sure, I’ll do it,” Lovely Maine Writer said without hesitation. We were rooming together. She’d just come in from running and was stripping her clothes off to take a shower.

“How about if I wear leather boots and nothing else?” she asked. That’s the kind of forward-thinking I look for in a roommate. She leaned back against the dresser, put her foot up on a chair. I snapped a few photos. The tough girl pose was great, really it was, but I felt like we needed something more.

“What if we move the table, turn the chair sideways – make kind of a platform?” I asked. “Then we could get your whole body up into the light of the window.”

She helped me flip the heavy chair onto its side. “Here I am, naked — moving furniture,” she said, laughing. “THIS is what rooming with you is like.”

“I wish we could take the photo outside,” I muttered. “I’m always stuck in these hotel rooms, with not enough light. And stupid windows that aren’t big enough.”

I played around with the settings on my camera, trying to account for the size of the window. Lovely Maine Writer was most cooperative. Balanced precariously atop the pile of furniture, she yanked at the top of the curtain to let in more light. I heard a ripping sound. “Hmmm,” she said. “This room. Is it under your name or mine?”

In the end, we settled on something simple. We moved out the furniture, and she did a yoga pose. “It’s called tree,” she said, standing on one leg, curving her arms like branches. The morning light fell across her limbs.

She stood there, without moving, rooted and strong.

Lovely Maine Writer can be as silly as a seventh grader when we’re hanging out at a party. I’ve seen her flirt with an elderly man because his scarf matched her skirt. But she also has the intensity to write brilliant pieces of prose, to edit a successful journal. She can read culinary eroticism one minute and talk about her dog the next. She’s a smart, complicated woman.

She’s beautiful, so any pose would have looked good, but we chose the photo that highlights the aspect of her that I admire the most. She is rooted in what she values. She will do anything for the people she loves, and she draws strength from her time outdoors, whether it’s running in the city or sailing in the middle of the ocean. She is always learning and growing. She is tree, stretching toward sky.

(Readers who want to know the history of the naked photo tradition can check it out here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and  here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here. )

March 06, 2012

Practically naked

So I was at this conference, watching Famous Slam Poet work his magic on the stage and remembering why I love poetry and people who play with words. Famous Slam Poet is charismatic and charming, and he’s got a ponytail. I’ve been showing students his performances on youtube for years. When the friend sitting next to me lent me her iPad, I sent out a single sentence on twitter, just to sum up my reaction: “So now I’m wondering if I can get Famous Slam Poet to pose naked for my blog.”

I wasn’t serious. But I got replies to the tweet. Mostly, people said things like, “YES! Get him to pose! I will love you forever!” Clearly, I’m not the only woman in the country with a fangirl crush on Famous Slam Poet.

Then one woman wrote, “Uhm, you could ask his wife.” She added the twitter handle of his wife to the conversation, so that she’d see what I’d said. I read the tweet aloud to my friends and we all started talking at once. Famous Slam Poet is almost my age — a grown man. Why would he need to consult his wife before posing for me?

I responded on twitter: “Maybe SHE would pose. That would be even better.” The woman married to Famous Slam Poet replied over twitter: “What’s all this about posing?” I sent her a link to my blog, just so she could see the context. I wanted to make it clear I’m not some weird stalker, but rather a perfectly normal woman who happens to take naked photos at conferences.

I thought that would be the end of the story. With 10,000 people at the conference, the chances of me meeting Famous Slam Poet’s wife were pretty slim. I suppose they would be higher if I actually was a weird stalker, but as I keep pointing out, I’m not.

Then on Saturday night, we ended up at an exclusive party held in the VERY SAME ballroom where Barack Obama watched the election returns. I can’t tell you who threw the party because, to be honest, we weren’t invited. I’d crashed the party with my conference roommates. I’d started out with just one roommate, Lovely Maine Writer, but we offered to let a friend, Mormon Farm Boy Turned Novelist, sleep in the corner of our room, and so we were three.

So anyhow, goaded by a fourth friend, a writer generally regarded as the bad boy of nature writing, we’d crashed a private party, a suite filled poets who had clearly been taking advantage of the free drinks. That’s when I saw Famous Slam Poet. I pointed him out to Lovely Maine Writer. “Hey, that guy you just cut off on your way out of the bathroom? THAT is Famous Slam Poet.”

She’d heard me blathering earlier about how great he was. “The guy with ponytail?” she asked. Next thing you know, she was over talking to him and pointing me out as the woman who likes to take naked photos. That’s one of the things I love about my roommate: she takes initiative.

Next thing you know, I’m telling Famous Slam Poet about the naked blog project. I repeated the twitter conversation, and he laughed like crazy, and then brought me over to meet his wife, who it turns out, is super cool and smart. She’d been to my blog and looked at the photos.

“You should pose for me,” I said to her. I’d changed my goal as soon as I saw her. She was beautiful. 

Unfortunately, my own rules prevented me from taking any photos that night. Although I break other people’s rules quite freely — I wouldn’t have been at this invitation-only party if I didn’t — I tend to adhere to my own rules pretty strictly. The naked photos have to be taken in natural light. And all participants have to be completely sober.

“But it’s not about the photos,” said Famous Slam Poet later in the evening, some time after we’d listened to my friends sing a drunken rendition of “The Piano Man.” He grasped the point of the project right away. “So women tell you intimate stories about their bodies, but the stories don’t end up on your blog. The photo you put on the blog is actually the least revealing thing about the woman who poses for you.”

“Yep,” I said. It’s crazy, but that’s how this project works.

Famous Slam Poet and his wife had to leave the next morning so we couldn’t set up a photo shoot. But it didn’t matter. I got to meet Famous Slam Poet and hang out with him. We got into a long conversation with an 84-year-old Writer who is quite famous himself but who had never even heard of Slam Poetry. I got to see up close that Famous Slam Poet was really as gracious and charming in person as he is on stage. It’s wonderful to meet a celebrity and find out that he’s really as down-to-earth and nice as his poetry would lead you to believe. Whether or not you ever get to see him naked. 

March 01, 2012

Escaping into the pages

It’s a bit overwhelming, this creative writing conference. It fills two whole hotels — including gorgeous old ballrooms with gilt-edged door frames and chandeliers — and overflows into dimly lit bars, one of which held an arm-wrestling contest for novelists last night. Ten thousand writers (and yes, that’s the real number, not an exaggeration) have descended upon this city. Wherever you go, you will see groups of writers talking, laughing, and checking their cell phones to find out who is going to dinner with whom. But many writers (unlike me) are introverts by nature, and I keep catching glimpses of folks in hidden corners, quiet spots, and any place where they can just take a few minutes away from the chattering hordes. Pages