This tree has lost its gravitas.
It leans over the road
crooked spine, stiffened joints, balding in autumn,
hornets in its hollowed belly.
It eyes the power line nervously.
This tree leans over the road.
Its roots are willing but its trunk is weak.
The ground beneath has its own problems.
Balancing the wooden canoe, all my gear inside, all I need for two days on the Kedgwick River in the company of other women.
Small rivers run from wrist to elbow as I lift and dip the oars.
An eagle glides overhead. A lynx considers us from the forest's edge.
From the other canoes, laughter, conversations in French and English.
Someone is hungry.
Someone has to pee.
Someone is overwhelmed by the wonder of it all.
The raccoon doesn’t shy away as I approach. Doesn’t flinch as I raise my rifle. Shows no fear as I take aim. Just regards me steadily, sitting on its haunches with its back against the tree, one hand in the trap like it is dipping into a bowl of potato chips. Read the story on Flash Fiction Magazine.
I wrote "These Birds" for a creative writing class taught by Peter Streckfus at George Mason University. The exercise was to take a poem by Sylvia Plath ("Stillborn") and write a poem of our own using her structure and the same parts of speech. I was encouraged by the feedback and decided to enter it into a contest sponsored by the Poetry Society of Virginia. To my surprise, it won first place in a category for lyrical poems. I'm proud of it and grateful for the validation, but I don't consider myself a poet. I am, however, an excellent magpie.
These birds will not fly: it's not a modern phenomenon.
They shed their down and feathers softly,
Their shunned bodies dull with longing.
If they start singing toward the sunlight
It will be because they live in darkness.
O you must not blaspheme what binds them!
They flock unquestioningly to fellowship and order.
They abide obediently in the airless buildings!
They wait and wait and wait for Him.
And never the feathers do fly nor the bodies do rise.
They sway as grasses, they murmur as flies,
Though they affect a contented and guileless mien --
It would be easy for them to leave, and that's what they crave.
Yet they bide, while their bones burn wild with desire
With eyes turned skyward, and will not fly for themselves.
After "Stillborn" by Sylvia Plath
Once in a while, to entertain friends,
I spin up a story to see where it ends.
While I might mess with facts, I can say with conviction
That sometimes the truth is much stranger than fiction.
Of last night, for instance, I give this depiction:
Some nights before Christmas, while home at Four Oaks,
The wind is a-howling, the fire pit smokes.
The Baileys is waiting for coffee to brew.
In a Dutch oven bubbles a savory stew.
I’m humming and poking at embers and ash,
When from deep in the forest I hear a great crash!
Into the darkness I peer warily.
Into the shadows that stretch scarily.
I wish for bright light but the fire burns low.
I stray timidly from its comforting glow.
I zip up my coat; I flip up my hood.
I must fetch a few logs from the edge of the wood.
It’s 20 long paces to get to the stacks.
I take a deep breath. I take up the axe.
If something is out there to give me a fright,
It will see what I’m made of! I’ll put up a fight!
Into the shadows I step quietly,
With my axe at my side, and what do I see?
But a monstrous Thing half obscured by a tree!
With one eye that glows red and looks straight at me!
What should I do? Should I strike? Should I run?
Should I offer it stew? Would it eat a bun?
As I ponder these questions imagine my shock
When the Thing heaves a sigh and commences to talk.
In a whisper it says, “You’re too tall for an elf.”
It takes me a bit to recover myself.
For it’s plain to see as the strange Thing draws near:
It’s no monster at all! It’s Rudolph the Reindeer!
I notice he’s staring rather intently
At the axe in my hand, so I set it down gently.
As a smile spreads over his sweet furry face,
I ask, “How in the world did you come to this place?”
He says, “I was out flying and chasing my nose,
When sleep overtook me and caused me to doze.
I awoke to discover I’d lost altitude!
I’m sorry to startle, didn’t mean to intrude.
If you’ll just point me North, I’ll be on my way,
And the children will have presents come Christmas Day.”
“I know where to direct you,” I say. “See that star?
Follow it North. It will take you far.
But before we bid each other adieu,
Tell me—are you hungry? Would you like some stew?”
His nose flames bright red; his agitation grows great
At the sight of the boiling pot on the grate.
And I realize then that the Thing I’d held grim
Had been more scared of me than I’d been of him.
I laugh loud as Santa: “Ho ho! Ho ho ho!
I see there is something that you need to know.
You’ve clearly mistaken me for a barbarian.
That’s not venison stew. I’m a vegetarian.”
In the time of COVID, it's a luxury and a privilege to take a creative writing course, taught by a poet whose work I admire, who introduces his students to the most fearless contemporary poets. I'm about three times older than any other student in this class. I don't care, because some of the most astonishing poetry I've ever heard has come from people whose age can be measured in single digits. For example:
My son Sean, age six, when we lived on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, driving through town after a tornado: "You can always tell twister weather because the sky has a sour taste."
Three decades later, from his daughter Virginia, age five: "Mint tastes like a thousand fireflies." + "Hearts can't bloom if there is no love."
There is something achingly beautiful about the way very young people express themselves. When do we become so self-conscious, so fearful of judgment that our creativity runs off to hide? When a poet's age is measured in single digits, I attribute their gift to innocence. When the poet is old enough to know better and not care, I marvel at their courage.
Take Richard Siken. This poet is not for the faint of heart. If you're squeamish, gird your loins and read him anyway; you'll be better off for it. Start here, with his poem "Little Beast."
In this poem, Siken begins by painting an innocent small-town scene. "The radio aches a little tune that tells the story of what the night / is thinking" suggests longing and desire, and I could almost hear my mirror neurons strike up the opening strains of a Springsteen ballad. Like a spider that cocoons its prey in silk before it injects the toxin, the poet tells us the night is "thinking of love" and then turns savage without warning, using personification to describe a night that promises love inseparable from brutality. Now I'm hooked, understanding that violence is to come but unable to look away. When I learn that this night that is "thinking of love" is also "thinking of stabbing us to death / and leaving our bodies in a dumpster," a sense of recognition accompanies the horror. Who hasn't experienced love as a sort of human sacrifice, when you'd cut yourself on the knife's edge of danger just to feel so intensely alive?
Do you know this feeling? Are you brave enough to write about it? Please try. Maybe you'll surprise yourself. Maybe you'll give the world a gift.
Flash fiction is short fiction--complete stories rendered in fewer than 1,500 words.
There are outlets for stories of far fewer words, like Dime Show Review, which invites writers to submit ten-word stories. Ever try to tell a complete story in ten words? Yeah, me neither. I require a minimum of 53 words, and am working on a couple of those now.
Part of what I love about flash fiction is that it lends itself to experimentation. It's a playground for goofing around with different genres and voices and techniques. Just give me a prompt and a word count, and I'll give you a story, or maybe just a character sketch. Blank pages don't unnerve me if all I have to do is lay down 53 or 101 words. I can spend contented hours on end getting the words just so. I love the craft of writing every bit as much as the creativity.
Still, I don't consider myself a fiction writer (kids' books notwithstanding), so I was surprised when, after working up my courage to submit a story to Flash Fiction Magazine, it was accepted. I wrote "The Dancer" years ago in a writing workshop. The instruction was to read The Spanish Dancer, a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, and write a story on whatever comes to mind. Buoyed by that small success, I kept on writing my little stories.
But damn, the stuff bleeding from my imagination can be dark. One of my more macabre pieces, "The Lesson," was published on 101words.com. I imagined this story one night after looking up at the waning moon and thinking how sinister it looked. It made me wonder that people fixate on the full moon as the stuff of horror when a fat, happy, bright moon seems so benign in contrast to a sliver of a moon, so stingy with light.
Writers understand how an innocent prompt or a rogue thought can yield unexpected results. The rest of you: take my word for it, and try not to be alarmed.
What follows here is the text of a letter written to my youngest sister, Maureen Rose Morley, by the great writer Wendell Berry. Maureen had studied his writings in graduate school in Vancouver, where she met her husband, Steve Morley, and was strongly influenced by them. When she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, she wrote to tell Mr. Berry how much she appreciated and was comforted by his work. He replied promptly from his home in Port Royal, Kentucky, with a lovely handwritten letter. It was dated June 21, 2005--the date of her 38th birthday. In it, he tells a story of a time when his friend, the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, took him to visit Thomas Merton.
When Maureen died in December 2006, she left the letter to me along with her own writings. To a young woman who cared little for things, it was one of her treasures. It is too wise and wonderful to keep to myself. Maureen was wise and wonderful too, and I know she’d be happy for me to share it with you. I have reproduced it below, leaving intact every word and bit of punctuation and paragraph break. His last line expresses my New Year's wish for you.
Dear Mrs. Morley,
I am very moved to have your letter, and of course I am deeply grateful that my books could have been valuable to you in your circumstances.
Since I received your letter I have been thinking of what I should say to you. The prognosis you have received from your doctor must make your situation seem rather dramatic, perhaps to you, but certainly to us “lucky” ones who have received no such official tidings. But of course we lucky ones are lucky only insofar as we successfully forget that we too may be living the last years—or days or hours—of our own lives. And this is a failure of imagination that all the great teachers have told us to correct. And so I have thought of a story to tell you.
Thomas Merton and I had a mutual friend, the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, who took me with him twice to visit Merton. On the first of these visits we got into a conversation about the Shakers. Finally I said I didn’t understand the Shakers. If they really believed that the world could end at any minute, why didn’t they live in little huts? Why did they build great, enduring, beautiful buildings of birch or stone?
Merton agreed kindly enough that I was right: I certainly didn’t understand the Shakers. If you really know, he said, that the world could end at any minute, then you know there is no reason to be in a hurry. You take your time and do the very best work you are capable of doing.
Well, Merton was a great teacher, and he had been careful to understand the Shakers.
I wish I could say that I am a student worthy of such teaching. I am not, as I know from all the time I’ve spent fretting and hurrying. Even so, what Merton told me sank into my mind pretty deeply. I think of it fairly often, and every time I think of it, it helps.
Now, having written this little story, I can see I’m taking a considerable risk in hoping it might be of some use or comfort to you. Maybe it isn’t. At the very least I wish for you whatever in your best moods you wish for yourself.
DNA tells the story: A screen grab from Ancestry.com showing where my ancestors lived in the 1700s
On a consulting assignment in New Brunswick, Canada, in a conversation over dinner with my new clients, I made an offhand comment about a French-Canadian great-grandmother and how some of my ancestors migrated from Canada to Louisiana. “Your ancestors must have been driven out during the Acadian Expulsion,” they said. “That means you have Acadian blood!"
That conversation led to hours spent researching my ancestry and the discovery that my people were indeed among among the earliest settlers in Port Royal, in modern-day Nova Scotia, tracing back to a sea captain named Pierre Arsenault who is believed to have sailed from France in about 1671.
My father glorified our Irish heritage, claiming that we were descended from the Irish King O’Laoghaire (“O’Leary”). I do love Ireland and recall, during my first visit there, feeling gobsmacked by déjà vu when I came upon a vista of horses grazing in a green field against a wild sea. These days, however, after nearly four years of regular travel to New Brunswick, I think of myself as a Lost Acadian, who found her way to Maritime Canada by pure dumb luck.
Or was it?
We are bound to our ancestors by delicate strands of DNA. Might DNA also explain why I fell in love with the French language at the age of 12? Why, when I was planning my first trip to Europe, it had to be France? Or how I ended up in Fredericton, New Brunswick, working a project led by a woman with the last name Arsenault—my newly discovered distant cousin?
Is there something in our DNA that pulls us toward the stories and places of our ancestors?
Spring is finally here. It’s too warm and sunny to be indoors in the waning hours of this mid-April day, so I shut down the computer, tug on a pair of worn blue yard gloves and a Tilley hat. I bought the hat for my nomad year, but I wear it now as a homebody. Now that the neurosurgeon has taken me off the leash, I am finally free again to go where I want to go and do what I want to do. But it turns out that I don't want to wander; what I want is to root myself more deeply at home and live a bigger life here.
I head outside and position my rusted green wheelbarrow at the edge of my front garden and survey the neglect, then take up the rake and start scraping at the thick layer of dried oak leaves tucked around the azaleas. Easter has come and gone, and my garden is coming alive. The periwinkle is in full bloom, the bright green leaves with their small lavender faces rising above the rotting ground cover. I think I’ve never seen a more resilient little plant. I think if there is a living thing more optimistic than periwinkle, maybe it’s a woman with a rake in her hands, feeling cheered by the sharp metallic ache two inches above her right ear, taking it as a sign that the nerves are regenerating around the titanium plate in her head.