“Formula is evil. She’s so perfect, why would you mess with that?” Said the well-meaning naturopath. If only she knew how that sentence would haunt me in the coming months. As my daughter Annie approached four months old, she was drooling and reaching for pizza, cookies, chili, anything in reach of her little chubby fingers. Now, we know that this is a sign that your baby is ready to eat age-appropriate foods, but according to the naturopath we were to wait until six months of age to introduce anything but breast milk, and avoid formula at all costs. Annie became dissatisfied with just breast milk- she was fussy, all the time, and waking up more to eat at night, instead of less as we were assured would happen any time now. 

By about five months, out of desperation we started supplementing with formula, just one bottle a day, when my husband got home from work. Kid was HUNGRY, and I just wasn’t cutting it. The guilt of giving her formula literally kept me up at night. Looking back, considering that Annie was still waking up twice (or more!) a night to feed, we really didn’t need any other reason to be losing sleep. 

At six months, we offered her a spoonful of food and she grabbed Dan’s hand and pulled the whole thing into her mouth. All she wanted was food- demanding two, three, four servings of baby food at a time. Needless to say, her output also increased to epic proportions. Once, Dan was walking out of a BBQ holding her and she was hanging over his shoulder trying to eat a cookie he was carrying, making everyone laugh. The problem was- she no longer wanted milk. Or formula. All she would eat was baby food. It was funny, but I knew something wasn’t right, so I called the nurse hotline at COPA. They said yes, she was too young to wean (for a few days I was basically convinced that was it) and that she needed the fat from breast milk or formula until she was a year old. She was officially on what they call a “nursing strike.”

We began researching how to entice her back to the “breastfeeding relationship.” The bottle of formula was now served cold. We recreated her favorite “nursing scenarios”- snuggling in the rocking chair, singing her a soft little song. She gradually began nursing again, and
we introduced a proper amount of food, mixed with formula or breast milk, to provide the fat her growing body needed. I regret not following my baby’s cues, she is an individual after all, and should be treated as such. Formula isn’t evil for every baby, especially one like Annie who shows no adverse effects from it. And most importantly, she is sleeping through the night, most nights, something my husband and I desperately needed after a year of interrupted sleep. 

Now, approaching one year old, Annie truly is weaning, and that’s okay. She is learning to drink milk from a cup. My body seems to be done swinging on the pendulum of production- again, I can tell she really isn’t getting enough milk from me, anymore. I do more research and there are cookies, teas, biscuits, and other rituals I can try to boost my milk output, some of which worked for me before. There are entire forums dedicated to how to keep breastfeeding as long as possible and stay away from the evil formula at all costs. And that’s wonderful, I’m glad that women have support to feed their babies as long as possible. But where’s the support for people like me, who ended up compromising and still have a healthy little girl?

Finally, I start to let it go. I wear bras that don’t have clips and dresses that zip up the back. I breastfeed her when she wakes up every morning, and she takes bottles of formula and food the rest of the day. She sleeps for 12 hours at a time now, most nights. Sometimes I miss her when she sleeps so long. 

If I had to give myself one piece of advice in the beginning of the first year of Annie’s life it would be to let go of perfectionism. There are going to be times when you reach for a disposable diaper instead of a cloth one, and not because you are traveling but because you are tired, dammit. There are going to be times when you realize your kid had poop in their hair for the better part of the afternoon. (Fear not, expecting parents- the thing about all those poop horror stories everyone tells you is that they only happen once or twice. They just get retold over and over, because everyone loves a good poop story, deep down. Just ask Freud.) 

The other piece of advice I would give myself is to be less afraid, and to ask more questions. Annie had her ten month old check up- weeks ago now- and once again we were gently schooled by the pediatrician, who somewhat rescued us from the clutches of my once-beloved naturopath and her ideas about “evil” formula. If we had offered Annie food when she showed us she was ready for it at 4 months, we could have avoided all that heartache, and actually breastfed longer. Every kid is different, and while I will still visit my naturopath when I need her, I’ve discovered that I just can’t have anyone else who is trying to hold me to some kind of gold standard, because I already do it enough to myself. Just give her the whole Cheerio, the pediatrician urged us, she’s ready for it. 

Now, Annie is eating off our plates, confidently gumming up pieces of pulled pork, hamburger, broccoli, zucchini, pancakes, scrambled eggs….all the things we were too scared to offer her. If we had food allergies in our family, the pediatrician said, perhaps we’d be more cautious. But for now, Annie can have almost anything she wants to try. It’s been fun sharing food with Annie. And it’s perfect. 


*Disclaimer- I have always been a believer in alternative medicine and this is in no way a stance against Naturopathic practitioners. There have been many times in my life when the very same Naturopathic doctor I am writing about solved problems for me that stumped the regular doctor. 
I remain a client and will visit them when it is appropriate for myself and my family. This is just my experience with breastfeeding Annie, and I share it to encourage other parents to, above all, listen to their baby’s cues and to their own intuition. And above all, treat your little one like the individual that they are.*




My friend Kate said she wished she could get herself to meditate- she's had times in the past when she had a regular practice, and she knows it helps, but for some reason she isn't motivated to do it. My ears perked up, because it was just a couple months ago I was talking to my doctor who said the same thing. He said, I know. It's always the first thing to go.

I went to a workshop with a poet I greatly admire. She was fielding questions at the end and one by one, people raised their hands and asked questions about finding time to write. After three of these questions, she became frustrated. Look, she said, I don't garden, I don't knit, hell, I barely cook. Whatever you are doing instead of writing is what you are doing. 

I have another friend who confided in me that he gives motivational speeches when he is alone in his car. "About what?" I asked.

"I don't really know," he replied. "I just wish people could see how beautiful they are." Something you do alone in your car like this, there is real power there.

I was taught that in order to really, truly learn how to sing, you have to learn to scream with total abandon. Not to the point of injury, and this does not in any way mean that screaming and singing are the same thing, but just to feel the release of it, the freedom from self-consciousness. I tried it, several times. Then I stopped because someone else told me he got pulled over for screaming in his car. He didn't get in trouble, but a concerned onlooker had called him in.

What do you do when you are alone in your car? As communal as humans are, there are some things we have to do by ourselves. More importantly, the things we do by ourselves, when no one is watching, are probably the things we should do more of. Maybe my friend isn't meant to be a motivational speaker, exactly (or maybe he is!), but he definitely has something to share with the world, through music, words, or maybe just being the utterly kind person he is to everyone he meets. Maybe he's really giving himself a speech, reminding himself how beautiful he is. 

What are the first things to go when you get busy?

What are the things you do when you are alone? 




There is something about humans that makes us want to take care of things. Some people love plants, a dog, a fish tank, a musical instrument, or even a car. These things are just a vessel into which we pour some part of ourselves, usually, the very best parts. Now that I have a child, I can officially say I don’t think you need to have children to experience love in this way. It has to do with a biological and spiritual need to love. It may seem unromantic to describe love in this way, but it really is true- we are wired, down to our DNA, to nurture. 

Recently, my beautiful, 2-year old dog, Potato, went into acute renal failure and died within three days. Testing revealed that she had a congenital kidney malformation that was so severe there was nothing they could do. She was basically born with one, really messed-up kidney that was barely even recognizable as a kidney. Who knows how much function she had? Sometimes dogs don’t know how to feel any different, the vet said.

Being alone in the mornings without Potato made me realize how much I channeled the part of me that wants to nurture into her, since the day we brought her home at 6 weeks old, too young to be separated from her real, doggie mom. She was rescued from a bad situation where several puppies in her litter were killed by another dog, and so we took her in early. We fed her by hand, and with the help of our other dog, Leah, taught her doggie manners. Looking back, Potato gave me signals the whole time that she was fragile. She preferred people with a gentle touch, and always stuck close by my side, indoors or outdoors. 

She was with me after I got my wisdom teeth pulled and suffered a massive dog bite on my hand. She was with me through the miscarriage, the flu, and the long months of an extremely difficult pregnancy. When Annie was born, Potato got up with me for every night feeding, and sat up into the early hours of dawn with my husband. One of Dan’s memories of our daughter’s first few weeks is being comforted by Potato, and how tired she looked the next morning, staggering into the nursery, refusing to miss a feeding. We joked how unfortunately there was no dog coffee for Potato to enjoy, and I broke out in a sleep-deprived rendition of the Ani Difranco song, “Dog Coffee.” We were all slap-happy and in love, and Potato, more than the other dogs, wanted to be right in the center of it. She surprised us by taking responsibility for the baby, always guarding the crib or the bassinet. 

Once, when I had a broken heart, someone wise said to me: Just think of it this way, the love that you had- or have- no one can take that away from you. You take it with you- it's yours and you carry it forward into the world." So, I take my love and drag it, ragged and hurting, to focus on keeping the floor clean, trying to fold laundry without resentment, the fabric of life, the shirts my husband wears, the baby’s clothes, the teddy bear and t-shirt we left in Potato’s kennel when she had to stay overnight at the animal hospital. 

Maybe love isn't something else mixed in with the elbow grease, maybe it is the elbow grease. Because what I most miss is filling her water bowl, whistling for her to come in, brushing her silver-white fur. I was vacuuming after she was gone, and when I was finished, I found one perfect tuft in the middle of the living room, cream colored with a touch of the lightest brown towards one end, like a toasted marshmallow. I put it in a clay bowl and kept it by the kitchen sink. In two weeks, I moved it upstairs to my office.

I planted seeds and sat in a chair while my daughter napped, adjusting the lamp and giving them water, then draining off the extra. I fussed over my lazy labeling system, which is already all mixed up. There is Clary Sage, wildflowers from Vermont and Oregon, Nettle, Marigold and Tulsi. I moved the light closer, then farther away, finding the sweet spot where they will grow strong, a little leggy but not too leggy, not having reached too far for the light. 

So where does love live? Is it in memories? In action? In our minds? Hearts? All I know is it doesn’t leave us along with what, or whom, we lose. My friend and fellow poet Krayna said this, when I told her I was sorry she too had lost a canine friend:

I'm not sure what I've lost. I mean, I know the body is no longer appearing to me and that's natural enough, phenomena being what it is....and certainly these "disappearances" take some getting used to. Though the most essential thing remains. These are just my contemplations through the day......

I also love what my friend Joleen said about dogs, when I told her about Potato, she said simply, they are so lovely, they are so lovely. I carry this loveliness with me, and after a month, plant my seedlings in the ground. I feel a fragile hope as I check on them each morning- will they make it? Was the frost too much? Either way, I feed them fish emulsion and set up a bird feeder nearby. There is too much lovely to bear, sometimes. Perhaps in another month we will scatter her ashes among it. 



For more information about Krayna's work as a poet, life coach and artist: 

Krayna Castelbaum

Want to know more about how we are wired to love? Here's a start:

Love and the brain




Public Domain,

Public Domain,

In ancient Greece, the labyrinth was first mentioned in a story about a prince who was vying for the throne of Crete against his brothers. Prince Minos prayed to Poseidon for a snow-white bull as a sign that he would win the crown. Poseidon sent him a magnificent snow-white bull, the Cretan Bull, but the Cretan Bull was not for keepsies; after he became king, Minos was expected to sacrifice it back to the gods. King Minos could not bring himself to slaughter such a beautiful creature, and Poseidon, seeking revenge, made the king's wife fall in love with the bull. She climbed inside a wooden cow, mated with the bull, and gave birth to the Minotaur. She tried to suckle her babe, but the Minotaur became vicious and went on a destructive rampage, destroying the fields and villages. King Minos hired a renowned builder to construct something to contain the beast- and thus, the labyrinth was born. 

Recently, I went to "An Evening With Noah Levine," a Buddhist teacher and the author of Dharma Punx: A Memoir (2004), which chronicles Levine's use of meditation in recovery. Levine led a meditation and dharma talk on loving kindness, and he spoke about showing kindness to ourselves while trying to meditate. At the end a young man raised his hand and said the most wonderful thing: "There was a word you used that I didn't understand, and that word was mercy." Noah said that mercy is having the power to do harm, and choosing not to. He said that we don't judge our lungs for breathing, or our heart for beating, so why do we judge our minds for thinking? He said mercy is the first step to acceptance. For example, when he is meditating and a negative thought arises, he first tries to simply not make it worse. That's mercy. 

Someone else said, "I have been meditating for 13 years, but when things get really bad, I still can't get myself to, even though I know it might help." This seemed to hit home for many people in the audience. Noah replied that sitting meditation isn't always the right thing, and that people forget that there are actually three parts to the teachings on meditation: sitting meditation, walking meditation, and mindfulness. He suggested that a person could try walking meditation, and he talked a bit about EMDR- a type of trauma therapy that uses bilateral stimulation, often in the form of holding alternating buzzers in each hand. But, he said, walking, tapping your legs, or even biking could provide the same effect, which is shown to help patients create new pathways in the brain around trauma. He also suggested trying mindfulness- which is concentrating fully on the task at hand. As the Buddhist saying goes, "Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water." When asked if he thought EMDR was still necessary for those who meditated regularly Noah said, "Do I wish I had EMDR 30 years ago? Hell yes." His point was that meditation, in the narrow way that we picture it- on a cushion, in full lotus position (legs crossed), is not the only answer to well-being. 

Noah's talk inspired me to watch a film called "Fearless Mountain: The Monks of Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in California." I wasn't expecting the narrator to be a troubled young man from Kentucky, and in fact all of the monks interviewed were Americans who had left society to live on a mountain, with next to nothing, for the rest of their lives. The young monk explained how the young monks do most of the physical labor around the monastery, while the old monks meditate and meet with people who seek spiritual counsel. Laughing, he explained that the young monks complain that they wait on the older monks, while the old monks complain that the young monks are free from the spiritual concerns that they face. There is young monk suffering, and old monk suffering, he said. Although the other person may appear to have it easier than you, everyone suffers.

A Chinese fable tells this story: a farmer's horse escaped into the hills and when his neighbors sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, "Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?" A week later, the horse returned with a herd of horses from the hills and this time the neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, "Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?"

Then, when the farmer's son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off its back and broke his leg. Everyone thought this very bad luck. Not the farmer, whose only reaction was, "Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?"

Some weeks later, the army marched into the village and took every able-bodied youth they found there. When they saw the farmer's son with his broken leg, they let him off. Bad luck? Good luck?

The builder that King Minos hired to make the first labyrinth made it too well, and nearly trapped himself inside with the monster. This seems an apt metaphor for the mind itself- within it we create systems of stories and judgements, but often trap ourselves inside, along with the monster we were trying to contain. It is so easy to compare ourselves to others, but unfortunately,(fortunately? who knows?) we don't get to know what is in store for us. It is so easy to judge everything that happens to us, and label it good or bad, and really, we are designed to make judgements- it's what helped us to survive as a species. After all, we had to categorize things like bad-berries-that-kill-you vs. good berries. Again, Noah might say that we shouldn't judge our minds for doing what they are designed to do- instead, we should show ourselves some mercy, and maybe even some humor. 

I was inspired by all of this to immerse myself in a mindfulness experience, making a labyrinth in my back yard out of found objects on our property with the intent of also using it for walking meditation when it was done. Putting each pinecone, or stone, in place attuned me to the quiet of where I live, at the end of a dirt road, the light pouring over Bates Butte as I set the last of the stones. It took me three full days. One morning, I came out and the soil had eaten one of my rings that I had made of smaller stones- the whole ring sank several inches perfectly into the ground. I began again.  

I used this kid's method for laying out the labyrinth- you create the rings first, and then erase certain parts to make the pathways. It was definitely the best method I found:   5 Circuit Chartres style Medieval Labyrinth

I used this kid's method for laying out the labyrinth- you create the rings first, and then erase certain parts to make the pathways. It was definitely the best method I found: 5 Circuit Chartres style Medieval Labyrinth

Waking up is not a selfish pursuit of happiness, it is a revolutionary stance, from the inside out, for the benefit of all beings in existence.
— Noah Levine

For more information on Wren and Wild, the beautiful yoga studio and boutique that hosted Noah: Wren and Wild

For more information on Noah Levine: 

Noah Levine



I have nothing against mood-altering substances. In fact, I think most people would be lying to themselves if they said they didn't use something- whether it's booze, food, shopping, or even exercise as a way to escape. Some people even get high off their own stress and anxiety- in a broad sense, mood-altering can include the use of anything that takes you away from yourself. I don't think it's entirely unhealthy. The question is, are your vices still bringing you pleasure? Is that pleasure at a reasonable cost you are willing to pay? 

When I moved to Oregon in 2007, I fell in love with IPAS. Particularly small-batch, frothy, unfiltered beer with hops that grab the back of your tongue, and have a sweet bitterness, cold and satisfying. When I moved to Portland I worked at a brew-pub, serving up that fresh, unfiltered IPA that I love so well. The thing is, my body didn't love beer. In fact, my body didn't really love alcohol, at all, anymore. It inflamed my face and my digestive system, and disturbed my sleep and my peace of mind.

I started noticing how many people, me included, were willing to do cleanses, detox programs, workout challenges, and make all kinds of other sacrifices, while not even considering giving up their nightly glasse(s) of wine before bed, or their weekend over-indulgences with friends at the bar. There was a lot of reasons, for me personally, to examine my use of alcohol.

So I gave up alchohol in June of 2016. At first my goal was the abstain for 100 days. Now, almost 2 years later, I have no intention of bringing beer back into my life. Alcoholism runs in my family, as does mental illness. It's safer, and ultimately easier, for me to abstain. Again, this is just for me, personally. 

How do I relax now that I don't sip beers on a patio? I bake more, read more, and get up earlier on the weekends to enjoy farmers markets or hikes. I spend more time walking the dogs. I take baths. I watch bad T.V. and sometimes great movies on Netflix. I write letters to friends and family. Can you do all of these things while consuming alcohol? Definitely! But for me, alcohol consumption changed the tone and course of my day in a way that I didn't like anymore. Any occasionally, it caused problems, mostly with my own mental health. I have a history of PTSD, that I've learned to manage through a lot of therapy and also a ton of spiritual work- meditation, drum-making, healing work, and more. I was willing to do all of that, but I hadn't been willing to look at what I could remove from my life. I was willing to take action, but purposeful inaction was elusive and hard for me to grasp.

Maybe there is something for you too, that you just know isn't doing you any good, but you're hanging on to it anyway. It has become a vice, and not a pleasurable one, but a painful grip that makes you feel stuck, physically or mentally. I had a friend once who resolved to be a bit more messy, so that she wasn't fixating as much on her house being perfectly clean, which made her occasionally bitter towards her house-mates and visitors. She eventually even found some pleasure in leaving small messes, little acts of rebellion like a single spoon in the sink overnight. 

What adds unnecessary bitterness to your life that you could let go of? Simply not-doing, rather than doing, can be more difficult than we realize- what can you not-do? How can you settle into inaction? Comment below- yes, I finally turned the comments on. Can't wait to hear your thoughts. 



Annie Rae was born in the Clover Room tub at ALMA Midwifery Center in Portland, Oregon, on September 12, 2017, while it was still light in the sky. The day we brought her home, I read a writer friend's social media post about reading "What to Expect When You're Expecting," and they summed up the section on labor and delivery as "Birth: your worst nightmare." I thought the exact same thing when I read "What to Expect." But, having just experienced it, I immediately texted them, "Not your worst nightmare. Just really hard," along with a picture of Annie, one hour old in my arms, bright-eyed, with long, raven hair on her soft little cone head.

It was really hard, but for me labor was a transformative experience. The midwives have this wonderful, low-pitched, affirming "mmmmmm-hmmmmmm," that we learned in birth class they actually practice in midwifery school. It's the best response, in fact probably the only response, to anything a woman says during a contraction, but I've already started to use it in other situations. Someone complaining? Mmmmmm-hmmmmmm Don't know what to say in an awkward situation? Mmmmmm-hmmmmmm. Jokes aside, simply affirming what someone is going through, without categorizing or judging, without even involving language at all- which is by nature messy, is a wonderful way to meet someone where they are. 

I read "What to Expect," and I also read "Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth.” Gaskin writes about how women's bodies have been observed responding to spoken affirmations or fears during labor. At one point, the head midwife at my birth said, "Choose love." I don't even remember the context- time and space get very weird when you are in labor, but I do remember how she repeated softly, almost to herself, "Choose love," and then added, "That's what I try to do every day." It became the single most important point of my labor. The way she made it personal, adding that it is part of her daily practice, made it real for me. I leaned into this statement, and it took me away from the pain. It sounds crazy, but at some points I was even able to enjoy the intensity of contractions. I began to view them as a force for good. I started saying random things out loud that came into my head- I couldn’t stop saying, “I trust you Annie.” The farther I could get away from fear, and the more I could trust the process, and my baby, the better it went. Later on, my husband would reflect on our labor and say, "labor really is just about staying away from the dark side, isn’t it?" When it comes down to it, what in life isn't about staying away from the dark side?

When I was 9 months pregnant, I asked friends to tell me good stories. I was tired of hearing negative birth stories and about the sleep deprivation that follows. As a society, we really do like our campfire tales, don’t we? My friend Rene Perez, who is also a writer and an educator, (please find his fabulous books HERE) sent the following about his experience with his newborn, which he has given me permission to share: 

My older daughter was a light sleeper, very hard to put down. For the first 6 months, my wife and I split nights doing feeding/walking/rocking. She (my daughter) used rubber Soothie pacifiers, but only very rarely. Usually, I ended up with the handle end of it in my mouth. 
One night, she just wouldn't go to bed. She also wouldn't even let me sit to rock her. She just cried and cried and screamed if I sat. She wouldn't take the pacifier, so it was in my mouth, and I chewed an angry hole through it. 

I can't describe exactly why the thought came to mind, but the thought flashed in my head because of biting through the damn thing that everyone who is alive was a baby, and not all of them had someone to stay up calming and soothing and loving. The school I teach at serves a girls' home, and I thought of a couple students in particular who are wards of the state, and for some damn reason the idea that, of course everyone was a baby once and everyone always at some point no longer is really set me at ease. 

I honestly don't remember how much longer it took for her to fall asleep. I don't remember the actuality of any of those sleepless nights. But I remember the realization….

I love what Rene wrote so much. I’ve thought of it often when up with Annie at night, and it makes me aware of how privileged I feel to get to be the person that takes care of baby Annie. The thing is, birth is not your worst nightmare, although I know that there are labors and births that are traumatic. But for the most part, it’s not labor that’s actually terrifying, and it’s not the sleep deprivation or the diapers, it’s the realization that the work of faith is never done. As soon as I got through labor, the thing I’d been focusing on and mentally preparing for for 9 months, I realized that a whole new world had unfolded where I had to choose love or fear, every day, while caring for and worrying about my newborn. I shared my anxieties with another mom friend, who said wisely, “welcome to parenthood.” If you do not have children, please know that I think “welcome to life,” would have been just as appropriate. 

In Howard Zinn's essay, "The Optimism of Uncertainty,” he says "An optimist isn't necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something.”

Yes, we live in scary times. And yes, life in itself as a sentient being is scary- the fact is, we will say goodbye to almost everyone we love in this lifetime. And we don’t get to know when or how that will happen. And of course, any kind of darkness calls for campfire tales, because maybe if we speak aloud the worst of what can happen we can somehow thwart it. And then, once we’ve preemptively scared ourselves to prepare for the worst, we can choose the smallest acts of faith. Call it optimism, if the word faith scares you. It might be caring for an animal we love, knowing that we will be without them after awhile. It might be taking good care of ourselves, greeting our own faces in the mirror as warmly as we’d greet a friend. It might be a hum in your throat that you offer to a friend in pain, a genuine, resounding mmmmmm-hmmmmmm that slows down the world for a moment. Don’t you want to try it, just now, where ever you are?

Burn Site In Bloom

I'm so excited to share that my poetry chapbook, “Burn Site in Bloom,” was released by Musehick Publications! Pat Clark, founder of Atelier 6000 (now housed by Bend Art Center) provided a beautiful piece of art for the cover. The book is available online from Amazon. Be sure to check out other releases from Musehick, including Jim Churchill-Dicks debut collection, "Wine Dark Mother and the Trapper's Son." 

To purchase:    Amazon

To purchase: Amazon


My dear friend and fellow poet, John, makes the best pie. People always ask him what he does to get his crust so delicate and flaky. Once, when I asked him this, he told me about how he'd tried a lot of different techniques over the years; freezing the butter and grating it into tiny pieces, substituting vodka for ice water to create less moisture in the dough. But really the secret, he told me, is just being willing to deal with falling apart pie crust. 
I love to bake and used to do it professionally. I like to get on one recipe and try different variations of it until I find my favorite. Recently, we settled on the perfect snickerdoodle. Other binges have included the great muffin week of 2017 as well as the banana cake bonanza of 2016. Recently, I've been more into pies. Banana cream, walnut, strawberry, rhubarb….I’m dreaming of something lemon...and another strawberry, since it is June. However, as a baker, pies are my Achilles Heel. I've found what John said to be totally true. Despite any tips or tricks you can try, whether you are into shortening or real butter, food processor or forks, pie crust making comes down to being willing to deal with something that wants to fall apart. I tend to swear and not appreciate an audience while I make pie crust- and I'm normally very relaxed in the kitchen. I've found my pies go better if I remain optimistic. Otherwise, I get rough with the delicate stuff and it makes whatever small tear I'm stressing over even worse. Gentle fingers that accept the truth of what's in them are best for making pie crusts that melt in your mouth. 
I heard a story recently about a woman who goes to meditation regularly and has been pursuing her spirituality for several years through travel, study, and practice. She found herself in a real funk, and was complaining to a mentor about her suffering. He laughed and reminded her, "if you have expectations, you will suffer." She was humbled, because although she hadn't forgotten the first Noble Truth, "life is suffering," she had forgotten the greatest cause of suffering. Many translators say that, rather than suffering, what Buddha actually said in Sanskrit means something closer to impermanence and freedom from expectations, societal or otherwise. (For more explanation of the multi-faceted meanings of “dukkha,” check out this site: 
I have been thinking about this lately, as I am at one of those exciting times in life when I am not really sure what is coming next, and there's a lot I can't control right now. But I can control my need to control the small imperfections that make life beautiful, memorable, and unique. I can't ever get this time back right now, in which all things seem possible, and that is a precious place to be. It allows you to dream, of lemons pies or better versions of yourself, or whatever it may be for you. The trick is not to get attached to one specific version of your fantasies, even the one where you become somehow a more enlightened version of yourself. Because we are not all here to be Buddha. All we can do is practice non-attachment, while accepting that we are only human, with little human egos, fragile as pie crust. We can make pies with spring fruit and practice letting our fingers be soft. We can take the scissors out to the garden box in the light June rain and prune the cinnamon basil for clippings. We can coat them in sugar and sprinkle them on top of a strawberry pie to hide the small tear, that no one will notice, as juice runs down our chins. 

While I can't offer you a piece of John's amazing pie, I can direct you to his equally if not more so delicious poetry here

P.S. The secret to the best Snickerdoodles, as tested by Dan and I, is to not leave out the Cream of Tartar. It gives them an irreplaceable tang. 

Golden Walkman Magazine

Golden Walkman Magazine is a literary magazine in the form of a podcast aimed at giving the written word a voice. All work accepted and published is presented solely through audio. I love this idea, especially for poetry, but really for any genre. While I love what you can do with the page, I also believe that poetry should be read out loud. 

Golden Walkman's Dialogue Submissions asked for poetry that responded to an instrumental piece of music, and winning pieces were chosen by the musician and by the editor. What I love about this project is that it explored what could be done with the audio format that couldn't be done on the page, such as music and poetry interacting. I'm super excited they chose my poem, please enjoy the episode, which features one piece of music and three poems from three different poets, below. Also, head on over to Golden Walkman for more great audio literary content:


For one reason or another, I have met a few retired people who tell me that they don't really like being retired. They miss work, in a way they never thought they would. When they retired, they had a party, went on vacation for two weeks, and after that, realized they had a whole lot more time on their hands than usual. It took effort to figure out how best to spend this time. This used to baffle me. How could enjoying free time take work? 

I think they miss feeling valued, and they miss their friends at work. I've been thinking about retired people, because it seems that right now I'm on their schedule. I go to the grocery store during the day and it's just me and the retired population of Milwaukie, strolling the aisles. Same as when I walk the dogs; it's me, the stay-at-home-moms with their strollers, and the older population on the Trolley Trail, most with small dogs. And I don't have a stoller, yet, and I don't have a small dog. I have three large ones and sometimes, people cross the street when they see Moo and Leah. No one's scared of Potato and her curly tail. I've been on this schedule before, when I was working nights. But that was in Bend, where it's not so odd to be young, able-bodied and have nowhere to go. Compared to Bend, there is plenty of work here, but I was unable to work for two months (see previous blog if you want that story), and now, I'm finally booking some teaching gigs again for later this spring. Being at home so much reminds me that I draw a lot of my identity from my work, as do most people. We are taught from a young age to view ourselves in terms of profession; hence the question, "what do you want to be when you grow up?" It seems like such a broad question but in fact, the word "be" only refers to "be for a living," and by living, we mean working.  

What else do we dream of being besides at work? What did we picture ourselves doing? I am often inspired by my friends. One I am thinking of has a beautiful orchard, another has decided that she is going to become a horse, and another texts me from Ohio that she cannot stop sewing. Her quilts are remarkably precise and beautiful, even though she just learned how. She loves math, and I think this must all be part of whatever she loves about patterns. 

I've been baking a lot. The person who taught me how was an amazing chef, but also an amazing teacher. The way he taught has always stuck with me, as much as the content did. He would only give me one step at a time, and it was all by feel. I took a few notes on amounts, but everything else was visceral. Whenever you would get ahead of yourself, he would just repeat the first instruction until you had completed it. Sometimes, when he was cooking on the line and I was waitressing, he would make the staff a little snack, something like pork belly, the kind that melts in your mouth with no gristle, just a slip of heaven that gave way to a crispy skin. He'd say, this isn't for customers. This is pure love. That's the kind of pleasure we all chase, whatever our jam is. But I think, for almost everything save some solitary activities, most things are better with others. Sometimes, I get burned-out by how much the word community is used these days, so instead I'll just say most things are better with friends. 


I am a little over three months pregnant. Congratulations, you say? Thank you!! We are blessed. Yesterday, I went to my dentist, Dr. Speer, and when I told him I had Hypermesis Gravidarum (HG), he said, "in English please?" So, you are in good company if you are also wondering what I am talking about, because Dr. Speer is super smart and also my favorite dentist. 

HG is debilitating vomiting during pregnancy, unlike normal morning sickness in any way. It is relentless, and ginger, saltines, sea bands, or the million other things I tried didn't even touch it. In the U.S., most of the small percentage (1-5%) of women who get HG are put on Zofran, a powerful and expensive anti-nausea drug that is usually reserved for chemotherapy patients. Even with the drug, I was still sick and unable to eat, very common for HG. I ended up in the hospital about 36 hours after it started, severely dehydrated. I am thankful that I live in this day and age, because HG was the number one cause of maternal death in pregnancy in the U.S. before IV fluids came into use in the 50s. Yup, this is some serious shit.

When I was well enough to meet my midwife she said, "Babies are powerful." These words helped me- they made me feel like I was under some powerful, ancient grip of magic. It made me appreciate the impact of non-violent language. What she said was true, and it honored how I felt, without being negative in any way. Another specialist said that, at certain times in our lives, it is really most important that we feel understood. This was incredibly powerful for me to hear, because I was struggling to feel understood. When people are sick, we want to give advice and fix it. We want to help the sick person look on the bright side. I was offered advice, after clearly explaining how sick I was, that ranged from getting lots of exercise to eating lots of raw ginger. I was pulling a straight-up Linda Blair, needless to say I wouldn't be engaging in either of those activities. 

When you are expecting a child, you know that at some point your whole life will change. But you don't expect to be housebound a little over a month in. I have been in touch with another woman who has HG, and is about as far along as I am. Her doctor was not taking her seriously until she was admitted to the hospital. She said, "It's a lot of, 'you're pregnant, suck it up and deal.'" She expressed disappointment in how sexist it felt. I encountered this at times. There was a sense of, "You're pregnant, so it doesn't matter that you're sick. What did you expect?"  

I expected pain, discomfort and other obnoxious symptoms when I became pregnant. But, I also pictured myself working until at least mid-summer, doing yoga, going for daily walks, preparing meals to satisfy random cravings. Instead, I did what I could do. I lay on the floor and went deep within myself. I used self-hypnosis techniques and left my body, often envisioning a horse leading me through the desert towards an oasis (okay, fine, it was actually a Moose and I don't know why so don't ask. Fasting makes your thoughts strange.) When I was able to rest on the couch, the dogs surrounded me, and the tactile feeling of petting their fur, or the touch of Dan's hand grounded me. I enjoyed music, and colors, the red and yellow tulips Dan brought home every week.

The medicine began to help. I was still sick, but on good days, I had sharp, animal-like cravings for hot chocolate. I almost felt panicked, like I might need to hold someone hostage and force them to make me hot chocolate, piping hot, with whole milk, and no whipped cream.  I drank it slowly, like it was a crime I got away with, savoring it like manna. The doctor said it was my body asking for calcium and magnesium. The body communicates with us in all kinds of ways I think we are trained to ignore. I was in awe. Still am.

I'm better now, so please, no well-wishes. I want to be treated like I am better now. I started having good days, and then one day, it just lifted. I swear, I felt something physically lifting off of me. I still get a bit sick in the mornings, but it is nothing compared to the dark, twisted water slide with no end that was HG. 

I am grateful for the strange dream-like time I spent at the mercy of my body. I feel strong, having weathered not only having to fast, but fasting while pregnant. The pregnancy was literally feeding off my body- I felt at times like I was on a vision quest, or that someone had dosed me with Ayahuasca. Most importantly, I have a renewed appreciated for the power of understanding. I set an intention to listen more and give less advice in the future, unless it is specifically asked for. I am already learning that this is more difficult than it sounds, because people often ask for advice when they don't actually want it. They really just want to be understood.

A dear, old friend came and took care of me and the dogs for a week. She seemed to intuitively know what I needed: clean clothes, a companion watching my favorite show, an odor-free home, quiet. She has dealt with far more than her fair share of physical pain in her young life; perhaps this is why she has a knack for caregiving. I am left grappling with this question: do we only learn compassion from suffering? 

I am one of the lucky ones. They told me there was a 50% chance that my HG would lift at 12-15 weeks, and it has. I couldn't be more grateful. Cooking, baking, cleaning, and walking the dogs are all so much more precious to me now. And last week, we heard the heartbeat. As my favorite dentist, Dr. Speer said, "life is happening."



When Jay McLean was asked why he leaves thank you notes on customer's cars who choose not to drive drunk he said he likes "to teach about preventing drunk driving using kindness and good examples." That mission statement gave me great pause. It is elegant, and specific, as all good mission statements should be. It also sums up what I believe about successful teaching, and what I find to be one of the most difficult things to do consistently, 100% of the time. 

What makes it difficult is that it's less about what I am doing, and more about what I am not doing. How much can I remove myself from the conversation so that real learning is happening, not just listening? There is a difference between learning and listening, and when you are learning the brain is re-wiring itself; your brain's nerve cells change shape, firing differently. Many students, myself included, only really learn and remember concepts they may have been led to, but ultimately grasped on their own. Scientists used to think that our learning peaked in our teenage years, but there is evidence now that we learn our entire lives.

The key is to remove yourself from the conversation enough, while still giving students sufficient information. That's where those good examples come in, your scaffolding for the lesson. I think a really good lesson is one where you build the scaffolding and students can sort of climb all over while building onto it. They can go any direction they want, and piece together some truths for themselves. I'm still working on trying to get this effect in a 90-, or worse, 50-minute period. 

Leading others through kindness and good examples is one of those very simple things that can have a huge impact. It's harder than it looks, for most of us. There are those it seems to come totally naturally to, you know them, the good eggs. They rest of us have to learn the hard way- it's only human.

Speaking of good eggs, if you leave your car at Mr. McLean's restaurant, he will not only leave you a thank-you note, he will also include one free pound of chicken wings. This reminds me of a manager I worked under that was particularly beloved, who firmly and relentlessly believed in the power of snacks, and used them often and wisely in relationship-building. Now, she never brought us chicken wings, but like I said, most of us are only human. 

I'm going to let Mr. McLean inspire me this month. How can I lead others through kindness and good examples? How can I learn from the kindness and examples of others? What can I offer people in lieu of chicken wings? 






Please enjoy another amazing piece of voice over work from Micah Williams, Voice Over Artist. After Micah sent over his reading of Ted Kooser's "Abandoned Farmhouse," he asked if I had any original work he could play around with. I sent him a variety of very short fiction pieces to choose from, and he choose to narrate this one, titled "Spook." I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 

"Spook," by Jamie Houghton

Narrated by Micah Williams

For more information about Micah Williams, please contact:



Recently, I was hypnotized for a medical condition. While I found nothing too surprising about the experience, which by the way, is very relaxing, what I learned about how hypnosis works was fascinating. Picture your brain as a marble with three layers. The core is the subconscious, controlling and processing everything we are not aware of, such as our breathing, the blinking of our eyes, and our heartbeat. Our subconscious is constantly taking in information we are not aware of and filing it away. Even now, as you are reading my words, your subconscious is registering information about your surroundings. The outermost layer is your conscious. It controls your voluntary movements, focus, and decision making. In between the subconscious core and the conscious outer layer is the critical faculty, your brain's filter or sorting system, deciding what you are conscious of, and what gets filed away in the unconscious mind. 

The subconscious mind cannot process negative information. When you are walking across a log above a river, everyone knows that you don't look down, or you will surely fall. Instead, you focus on where you are going. And you especially don't tell yourself, "don't fall, don't fall, don't fall," because your subconscious will only hear, "Fall, fall, fall." Language is that powerful. 

After watching Sean Spicer's press conference today, I am reminded exactly why propaganda is so poisonous. It doesn't matter if fact-checkers work night and day to dismantle the lies Trump's administration is telling the American people, because with enough repetition some part of what they say will be filed away as true, even if we do not believe this consciously. The phrase "alternate facts," is the most dangerous phrase I've heard yet from this administration. 

This is why the Women's March matters and will continue to matter. Just the fact that it happened. The visual image, and even the very idea, of 2.5 million people peacefully marching around the globe, a sea of pink hats, many with children in tow, is also being filed away in our collective subconscious. We are the anti-propaganda machine. We are the critical faculty, and we have to flex that muscle, by using our voices, by being seen and heard, and by engaging with others. I'm afraid we really are living in a Post-truth America, one where we will never feel understood by each other because we will become pegs on a map with no starting point, no mutually agreed upon truths. Propaganda cheapens everything about language and communication. 

My challenge to myself this week: believe that words are gold. Only say what is precious and true. Listen to understand, not to respond. Let people show you who they are and believe them. 

Definition of propaganda
:  the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person
:  ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause; also :  a public action having such an effect



No matter how inconvenient, a snow day is stolen time, and stolen time is delicious. I woke up this morning to cancelled classes (again) due to the ice rain, slowly melting as I type.

A writer friend emailed me who read my last blog "Words to Burn," and wrote, "I urge you not to burn your old journals." I had been so sure, when I resolved to burn the old books, full of free-writes and green, unripened poems, that I was completely surprised when I burst into tears of relief. I didn't realize I had been placing a judgement on myself for keeping a couple of bins full of old journals. I became so into the idea of ridding clutter that I overrode my emotional intelligence. I think she is right, someday I will want to look through those books. I wrote back to her, "Thank you for keeping me from breaking my own heart."

I also wrote recently about how Kooser has resurfaced in my life, first by winning a chapbook contest I submitted to, reminding me how much I love his work. I shared his poem, "Abandoned Farmhouse," with my classes and here, and in the words of one student, "that poem is dope." When they handed in their suggestions for the next class, several wrote "more poems like Abandoned Farmhouse." If you teach, you know how amazing it is that they even remembered the title and wrote it down. I consider that a win. For myself, and for Kooser. 

And of course, Kooser has stubbornly remained on the scene. A friend who read my blog sent over this absolute gem, a professional voice-over of "Abandoned Farmhouse." It's beautifully done, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 

Thanks Micah! For more information about Micah Williams, Voice Over Artist, please contact:



Words to Burn

How is 2017 going for you? I am here to eat some cold, leftover crow about Ted Kooser. I wrote on Facebook about how he won a chapbook prize I had submitted to, then I wrote about him in my blog and stated that he wrote at 5 a.m. before his mail-carrier shifts. Well, I've been a bit obsessed with Mr. Kooser this past week. I forgot how electrifying his writing is and wrote a lesson plan using one of his poems "Abandoned Farmhouse," as a prompt. But, in my research I realized TED KOOSER WAS NEVER A MAILMAN. Here is his correct bio:

Ted Kooser is a poet and essayist, a Presidential Professor of English at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He served as the U. S. Poet Laureate from 2004-2006, and his book Delights & Shadows won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. His writing is known for its clarity, precision and accessibility. He worked for many years in the life insurance business, retiring in 1999 as a vice president. He and his wife, Kathleen Rutledge, the retired editor of The Lincoln Journal Star, live on an acreage near the village of Garland, Nebraska. He has a son, Jeff, and a granddaughter, Margaret.

So, he sold insurance. But still, same thing, meaning that the man earned two of the highest honors a poet could ever hope for, and he accomplished it by writing at 5 a.m. each day before work. So, think of this post as a celebration of Ted Kooser, one of my favorites. If you are a writer, try the prompt (below)! You can write about yourself or from a character's point of view. If you are not a writer, think about what your things say about you anyway. 

I know I said that I wasn't going to make a lot of New Year's resolutions, but I am continuing to get rid of stuff. I've been getting rid of a lot of things the last couple of years, and I am pretty much down to one thing I am hanging onto that I find neither useful nor beautiful: my stash of journals (a lifetime's worth). A few months ago a wise and honest friend, incredulous that I had kept them all, asked me if I ever thought of burning some of them. The thing is, whenever I go back and read them, I remember that I am not such a great diarist, never have been. They are mostly free-writes, and they have all been culled over for poem-making.

I was reminded of Mr. Kooser yet again while re-reading them. I used to save cut lines from poems in a word doc, sometimes finding them homes in other poems, or using them to jumpstart a new piece. I took a workshop with Mr. Kooser at The Nature of Words literary festival (RIP) and he told me to stop that. He said he moves on, each day, to a new poem. Not that he finishes a new poem every day, but that he starts one. That he follows what is in the now and doesn't hang on to old bits of language, or old thoughts. He actually didn't say all that, he basically just said "No, no, never. I move on," in his gruff plains-of-Nebraska way and kind of looked at me like I was crazy. I was 25, so I probably was. But I did stop doing that.

But I have all these journals that no one would even be able to read, let alone understand if they outlived me. They literally make no sense. So. Why am I saving them? Mr. Kooser, may I call you Ted, would you like to come over for a bonfire? Because I got some words to burn. 

Ted Kooser, US Poet Laureate, 2004    “I write for other people with the hope that I can help them to see the wonderful things within their everyday experiences. In short, I want to show people how interesting the ordinary world can be if you pay attention.”        Abandoned Farmhouse     Ted Kooser       He was a big man, says the size of his shoes   on a pile of broken dishes by the house;    a tall man too, says the length of the bed   in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,   says the Bible with a broken back   on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;   but not a man for farming, say the fields   cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.    A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall   papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves   covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,   says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.   Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves   and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.   And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.   It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.    Something went wrong, says the empty house   in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields   say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars   in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.   And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard   like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,   a rusty tractor with a broken plow,   a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.      Prompt:  What would your things say about you?  Be as specific as possible.      

Ted Kooser, US Poet Laureate, 2004

“I write for other people with the hope that I can help them to see the wonderful things within their everyday experiences. In short, I want to show people how interesting the ordinary world can be if you pay attention.”


Abandoned Farmhouse

Ted Kooser


He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house; 
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

Prompt: What would your things say about you? Be as specific as possible.



The Other Right Side

On December 23rd I went to 6 a.m. yoga. I always wanted to go to 6 a.m. yoga and I fantasize all the time about what my perfect day would look like if I was my ideal self. I'd go to 6 a.m. yoga, and then I'd write for two hours while getting up hopped up on coffee like Ted Kooser would when he wrote all those poems at 5 a.m. before his mail-carrier shift. I won't bore you with the rest of my ideal-self day, but I'm sure you can imagine, because I'm sure you have one too. Maybe yours involves eating healthy or writing the great american novel each night while your children sleep. We all have these ideals- that's why ridiculous things like New Year's Resolutions or National Novel Writing Month exist. I have seen more than a few friends drive themselves a bit nutty trying to complete an entire novel in November. I'm sure it works for some, but it's always seemed like a helluva lotta pressure to me.

Anyway, when I went to 6 a.m. yoga it was nothing like I thought it would be. It was just me and another person, dark and quiet as the sun rose and the room lightened. I had imagined there would be a whole 6 a.m. yoga crowd, and that they'd be too-cheerful early risers who like getting up early a little too much, a little too loudly, for my slow-waking self. I thought I'd sneak in late and hide in the back, but the instructor gave us individual corrections, "Check to be sure you are on your right side, not your other right side," was one that made all three of us laugh, though it was just me that was on the wrong side, the other right side.

We traveled to Idaho for Christmas and I brought my laptop, thinking maybe I'd actually write a bit- I hate falling off my writing practice, even for a few days, though it happens all the time. It's more like a seesaw for me than a strict Ted Kooser-ish routine. Because, as usual when I bring my laptop on a vacation, it never left its case. I ice-skated with three generations of humans and dogs, and my husband did a pretty good figure skating routine to Taylor Swift with his 7-year old niece. We had snowball fights that got just the right amount of vicious, a bit of snow under the collar for all. It was a Shanahan Christmas done up right, with all the beautiful trimmings in Dan's mom's house. 

Speaking of hospitality, at the church service, the priest talked about the word hospitality, and how it's used in the Bible. He said that it really bugged him that people tell the story of how there were "no rooms left at the inn," on Christmas Eve, because Joseph's hometown was just a small village with no such thing as an inn. What there would have been in way of lodging was Joseph's people, and they didn't welcome Joseph and Mary into their homes because they were sinners, Mary being preggers and all. So Mary had her baby in a barn and put him in a feeding trough- the Priest also said that manger sounds somehow romantic nowadays so its better to just say what it was- a feeding trough for livestock. He said Christmas was really about hospitality, which is about welcoming people, despite conflicting beliefs. 

As a poet, I liked this sermon about word choice immensely, and I liked this barebones message of hospitality for Christmas 2016 very much. It seems to be what we all need to hear right now. I'd like to further suggest that we offer a bit of hospitality to ourselves, as the New Year approaches, and if you are anything like me, that ideal version of yourself starts to emerge leading to strict resolutions. I hope to make the 6 a.m. yoga class again, but I'm not going to make any big resolution about it. What I am going to resolve is to stop bringing my laptop on vacation, because every time I see it in it's case I feel that little twinge of guilt that I should be writing. I'm going to resolve to work on hospitality, to myself and others. I'm going to resolve to believe that the way I write or do yoga is already exactly as it should be and perfectly enough, that nothing I am doing is wrong, it's just the other right side. 

Yoga studio link: Sellwood Yoga | Portland Yoga Studio

Like the Lace on Your Shoes

It’s one of those weeks where I’ve basically moved my office to the kitchen table. I want to be near the stove, in the center of the house with dogs all around me as I read student writing, and sometimes, do a little writing myself. I’ve been teaching the students about distillation, the extraction of essential meaning from their free writes. We write freely, and then seek the lines in our writing that want to become poems, the ones with a spark of light or some warmth that draws us in. Today, we wrote about photographs, recalling an important one in our minds, and writing with the first line “In this one you are….”

In another class we talk about metaphor, writing about a hunk of Selenite I bring in, we say it’s a rocket, a tower, and a fish. We talk about about how poetry is a way of seeing, and later I think I should have said it's like finding shapes in clouds.

One student wrote,“Coming from nothing and having nothing are 2 different things that somehow tie together like the lace on your shoes.” I staple my positive feedback to the piece of notebook paper they have torn out and thrust at me without meeting my eye. The words I offer back seem inadequate to such a powerful piece of writing, such an elegant metaphor.

It’s no secret that schools in Portland are not created equal, and I notice how in some schools the water fountains are taped up because of lead contamination, or the first sink I try in the student bathroom doesn’t work. It’s no secret that we are not given equal opportunity in this country, yet it’s hard to see because it’s easy to cover up realities like homelessness. But in every public school I’ve served there are kids who write about it, or who write about having more homes than most of us have in our adult lives.

Can I just say again that teachers are amazing and sometimes I wish it was my calling to be one, instead of my actual calling, which seems to be, 'that lady that comes around to your school with dog hair on her sweater, a hunk of Selenite in her pocket, and some poems?'

I notice the care and stewardship the teachers have for the students. At most schools, the staff are on high alert, making sure I have a badge on and am supposed to be there. Twice this year I’ve seen shouting fights break out and in both situations a teacher just de-escalated the situation like magic. Students stop by when they are hungry and bum Ramen noodles off a favorite teacher. They ask if they can do anything in return and she asks them to clean the whiteboard. "The holidays can be tough," I've heard more then one teacher say; they keep an extra stash of candy for students on bad days.

I don’t think that learning how to write poetry will save your life, save the world, fix the sinks, or even be as good as candy. In fact, sometimes I wonder if the sinks should be fixed instead of raising money to send me in. And then I read lines like  “Coming from nothing and having nothing are 2 different things that somehow tie together like the lace on your shoes” and I know in my bones that this student needs to be heard. And the words are so good, the metaphor so simple and true, like one of those arrows dipped in poison or love-powder, you know, one of those God-like arrows or just a really good peanut butter and jelly sandwich that tastes like strawberries and bakery bread, and I can’t really write that in a feedback note so I just hope they know, their words were so good I googled them. And then I felt like an jerk because I didn’t find anything.

And even if I did, if they had heard those words somewhere, and loved them enough to remember them, and wrote them back down, and handed them to me, they know about poetry and how to find it. And hopefully, when I hand them back my response it will soften their eyes to themselves, for we are the harshest fun-house mirrors, our own worst critics, and the voice is louder when we experience trauma when we are young. And poverty is trauma, and as I overheard a teacher say recently, “Fuck poverty.”




You are at the Doctor's office, again! You are battling the lines at Walgreens to pick up ear drops only to find out they are $400 for the tiniest little dollhouse bottle of Cipro you have ever seen. The pharmacist looks you in the eye and says, "I'll call your doctor and figure this out." You believe her, and make a mental note to remind yourself about the power of eye contact. Sure enough, 5 minutes before Walgreens closes she hands you eyedrops you can put in your ear, that are inexplicably, $8 instead of $400, and you are on your way to healing, inasmuch healed by the pharmacist's care and effort for your sake, a stranger. She didn't have to do that, you think, and tears prick at your eyes. You are perhaps overemotional. Perhaps its the rain. Perhaps its just one of those days.

Ashamed of my own self- perceived physical weaknesses I find myself blaming Portland's damp climate. No matter that when I am in Bend allergies kick up and leave me in sneezing fits, carrying a hankie around, and the desert air peels my skin no matter how much I hydrate. I'm guess I'm just sensitive, desert or rain, and I've always been this way. I liked how it sounded when my doctor said my cold was probably a flu since it was "accompanied by a fever." I picture a houseguest playing the white noise piano and stomping around in spike heels. 

I was in class this week and overheard a student saying "I hope they don't throw me out!" then say, "kidding, not kidding." There were signs around the school saying PEOPLE ARE NOT ILLEGAL. Families are packing. I feel powerless and shift my curriculum towards the abstract. We look at Charles Simic's "Autumn Sky" and talk about "tasty little zeros/ in the peanut dish tonight." We remember that we are small, and subjective. We get the flu, we get shoulder separations, as one teacher mentions in a soft, sad way, and I recognize the gentle smile of one who has to take extra care. She passes out candy to us at the last hour of class. The students are ravenous, but they still complain. "It's all melted and gooey!" they say, dissolving into giggles. They are just kids, they don't deserve to be so afraid, and no one can make them feel better when the President Elect has said things that are seared in their brains. I don't think I realized the full reality of this until I was back in classrooms. I find myself thinking, if only he would apologize...." but that also seems useless. I want to hear from the student's mouths what they need. But they don't want to talk about it, they are tired of the topic and I don't blame them. 

They seem to welcome a chance to escape into the surreal, and we talk about making sense in a non-ordinary way. We write to the prompt: "Since we moved to the moon, not much has changed," inspired by Brian Ellis' amazing poem of the same title. (Watch the poem below.) We make poems out of random words, we make order that makes no sense to anyone but ourselves.