Practice Gym

Dear Teenage Sarah,

Your Dad will not always be there.

You feel his presence as big and annoying and he doesn’t understand you, as a young woman, and neither do you, as a young woman.

You both focus on another place, with hoops and keys, made of blocks and bruises, hardwood floors and ten foot nets.

In that practice gym you talk to each other in spurts and slaps and barks:

block, go, stop, pivot, hard, jump, pass, drive, push, rebound, shoot, huddle, ashamed, no, yes, and you and he write your story in wins and losses without looking each other in the eyes for too long.

It will be okay. It was good enough.

After games you will celebrate or sit to be yelled at on the cold January car ride home, plied with questions you can’t answer, you try, and get back home to eat dinner and go to your room on the first floor and to college for five years, and he will go upstairs to his room, the creak in the second step.

He will not always be able to walk up those steps.

He will never ask you about your boyfriends.

He will never want you to see him naked when he can no longer turn over in bed.

He will take his last breath in your room after playing an unexpected game impossible to win, but he stayed in the game, never wanting to sit on the sideline, to stop and ask what else there is to love as the game clock winds down, while you try in vain to reach him, you will hug him and hold his hand and give his restless hand a rubik’s cube and tell him that you love him, but he will not answer you, your 1,000 point trophy ball sitting on top of the bookshelf.

He will leave having loved you the best he could with a language he knew and believed in. With faith.

Your room backfills with leftovers from life, the wave tip of a watercolor ocean, great grandparent portraits, old glass bottles, records, file drawers, wedding photos, everyday flotsam eddying,

and you will sleep there again, your future husband, your two daughters, your Dad, dying from pancreatic cancer.

Tell him that you love him.



poem based on Langston Hughes’ “I Dream a World”

I dream a world beyond

the walls that keep us in,

the locks, the gates, the bars

all fall away and then

we gaze upon each other,

each life a glorysound,

like birds aloft, aflutter,

our songs, once lost, are found.

A world beyond the grip

of violence, fear, and greed,

where all can breathe the air,

breaths deep and whole and free.

I dream a world alive

with creatures great and small

who have good food to eat,

clean water, beauty, all.

This world we dream to being,

dream light into the dark!

Then gather up the words,

ignite them with love’s spark!


Thank you God for coffee

That gets me through the day

That keeps me nice and regular

(Maybe that I shouldn’t say)

‘Cause if it weren’t for coffee

I don’t know what I’d do

I’d probly chew tobacco

‘Course there’s marijuana too.

Nah, I wouldn’t chew tobacco,

But coffee stains my teeth

I think I’d use the hash

Cause I’d have better breathe.

Who am I to say

What’s right or good or bad?

When pushing comes to shoving

It’s whatever people have

Around them when they need it,

A mental shift in mood.

Mine’s black and strong with cream

It’s psychoactive too.

In other places it’s totally fine

To drag on this or that.

Culture is such a blinder

I’d rather just forget

About stigma (gasp), taboo

Who needs them anyway?

Thank you God for coffee

That gets me through the day.


I go outside

and look.


The yellow yellow locust,

the red red maple,

the brown green oak.

Color sinks into my chest cavity

 and reverberates

sound effection.


After so much time inside

my body calcifies.

It no longer hums

looking at blue screen

instead of blue sky.

The wind moves leaves and trees, reverberates

and reverberates against my skin, my nose and eyes and ears and drums


and in-blows against my chest in thrumming waves, to loosen my over tightened heart strings.

Without reverb, the world is dry sound, strange.

Without sound reflection, life is dampened,

subtle shifts in colors and the murmurs of sparrows muted.

Winter pierces the ear, crystalline.

Spring rises with cacophony

Summer washes languid waves of heat that drown all, but fall,

fall beckons my body to belly breathe in

wet leaves and damp bark exhaling before the winter sleep.

I stop to see Blue Jay flash from pine to pine

Goldfinch alight on fuzzy seeds of grass stalks bent low

a musty moth resting on zinnia petals the color of sunset.

I go outside to reverberate and feel the world around me again and again, past the pain and guilt, to the point where I know what way to walk that day. Quietly. I have nothing to say beyond an apology for myself, for what I have taken without asking, what I have harmed without knowing, what I have stolen from other mothers and daughters in deaf consumption.


I go outside

and am soothed

by sound reflections so quick and close as to be indecipherable as individual delays.

We are not individual delays.

Earth’s reverberations thrum

from deep mantle and thin crust,


from high and low tide,

morning and evening,

acorn and oak,

caterpillar and moth,

child and parent,

seed and sequoia,

string and symphony,

you and me


Wasp Spa

Tiny, cobweb width limbs reach quickly forward to rub her mandibles. They move on to stroke the delicate line of her left antennae. She starts quickly near the base where it connects with her ovally head, then slows as she reaches the antennae’s end. A tiny curl at the end of her leg (a foot?) reaches it last, bending it oh so slightly at the end.

She is so precise! Every time it is the same, the same motion, the same meticulous timing.

What is she made of, those tiny parts, able to move and bend so quickly without breaking or turning to dust, then springing back to where they came from? As if there were an invisible frame around her tiny body that is made just for her.

She moves on to cleaning her stomach and braces her lower abdomen with her four other legs. The base of the abdomen comes to a menacing point.

That makes me cringe a bit, that point, but if I just look at the top of her I can watch as she fluffs her antennae without concern. Sometimes she reaches up and rubs it with the crook of her little limb (an elbow?).

She moves on to rub her back as if there is an itch or some tiny particle I can’t see.

It’s been 10 minutes now of meticulous preening in the window of this coffee shop. Maybe, because she can’t get out, she is taking the time to stop and care for her own little body while she watches other insects fly by.

Her wings lift, her abdomen now at a ninety degree angle to the sill, stinger pointing up, so much more menacing than before. She turns one wing with her arm, cleans underneath it, rotates it on an invisible axle.

I am paralyzed as I watch this miniature solo spa. That stinger and those bold black and yellow lines keep me on a cautious watch. What should I do with her? Get a cup and let her out? Leave her here?

Maybe she doesn’t want to return to the outside, those millions of children, the buzzing nest. She saw the wooden doors open and slipped in, following the window’s light to this lacquered sill. It’s quiet here, no birds hovering, no other wasps buzzing, nothing to build, no one to listen to, no expectations. Just this. Time to polish her antennae, shine her sub-wings, rub clean invisible particles.

The World Tilts

there is more than one way to mark darkest of night,
Newgrange in Ireland flooded with light,
stone shed in sand lit by starlight and strangers
holding oxen and mule and a child-filled manger.
in Ohio the serpent mound coils away,
Mayans on Tikal still keeping the days,
in Montana a stick thrust deep in the snow,
the Koliada bonfire will grow and will grow.
the birth of the sun and the Son are the same,
crossing from darkness to light in one name
before all the things that imprison our eyes,
all the paper and plastic and things money buys,
was silence and stillness, a coldness and bleak
the slow march of winter on frost bitten feet
Before the slow grip of new electronics,
were birds tweeting carols, celestial phonics.
owls in the twilight, frogs in brumation
soft fur of hare, the bear’s hibernation.
let’s not forget what this slow time is for,
a Light in the darkness, a knock at the door.
welcome! welcome! invite invitation
to come in, to rush in!
A Holy perturbation


Do you remember the film the series “Planet Earth?” New technology allowed them to zoom in from tremendous distances with crystal clear clarity.  Such groundbreaking camera work is not only visually stunning, but scientifically important in studying the behavior of animals while unaware of a human presence.  The series included, “Deserts,” “Ice Worlds,” “Great Plains,” “Caves,” and “Mountains,” but missed one of the largest, most fascinating, and crucial parts of our interconnected planet—the soil.  So, for the next few paragraphs, let’s take a close look at what we walk on every day.

First, “Soils” takes you to view the largest and heaviest living organism in the world.  Not the Pacific Ocean’s Blue Whale or newly discovered Giant Squid, but Eastern Oregon’s honey mushroom.  The fungus Armillaria has been growing in the Blue Mountains for over 2,400 years.  The mushrooms above ground are only the fruiting bodies of this giant.  Below ground, its white filaments, or mycelia, spread over 2,000 acres, penetrating the roots of trees and siphoning off water and carbohydrates.

In this same forest, a rare, slow motion shot captures the dramatic flight of a springtail. The almost transparent arthropod uses its well-developed mandible to graze on fungus at the base of a tree.  Suddenly, its arch-enemy approaches—a small ant with a strange, spongy structure between its thorax and abdomen that emits an irresistible odor.  Stinger ready, the ant moves closer, but the springtail comes to its senses just in time.  It releases a catapulting organ tucked under its abdomen and springs twenty times its own length to safety.

The camera follows the baffled ant as it scurries down into the leaf litter.  It is a quiet, moonlit night, and the soil surface comes alive. A night crawler waves a third of its body above the ground in an eery, graceful dance.  It finds a leaf and pulls it down into a vertical burrow lined with its own mucous.

Not too far away is a colony of several million ants.  These particular ants practice aphid husbandry.  They faithfully transport aphid eggs to their nests each autumn, tend them in safety, then take the newly hatched aphids to fresh, spring roots.  As a reward, adult aphids leave their sugary droppings, called honeydew, as food for the ants.

Finally, “Soils” films the strange and captivating Tardigrade, or “Water Bear.”*  Just as the Polar Bear elicits “oohs” and “aahs” with its antics on the ice, so the tiny Water Bear, only 1/50 of an inch long, is the charmer of soil critters. They come in red, green, orange, yellow, and pink, and their eight legs each end in four tiny claws.  Their eggs, spheres decorated with geometrically patterned spines, knobs, and ridges, are fascinating and beautiful.  If the humidity level in their microscopic habitat drops, they shrink like a dry sponge into an unrecognizable form. In this state, they can survive temperatures up to the boiling point and down to -200 degrees F.  Then, even after 120 years, the dehydrated Tardigrade can be brought back to life.  Some scientists are studying this amazing feat of cryptobiosis (hidden life) to see if humans could do the same.

Here’s one of the coolest videos I’ve ever seen on tardigrades!

And this is just the beginning.  There are thousands of animals and insects that live in symbiosis and competition under the soil—from Ant Lions to Glowworms, from Camel Crickets to Kangaroo Rats.  Without them, life above the soil would come to a messy halt.   Soil creatures take the minerals and nutrients that drop to the ground from above and incorporate them into the earth’s skin where they resurface as new plant and animal life.

In order to better understand the soil and critters that inhabit the soil, all you have to do is build a compost pile and observe it closely.  Ants, springtails, worms, beetles, and maybe even a Tardigrade will appear to transform your detritus. If you would like to see pictures of all of these creatures, check out the book “The World Beneath Our Feet: A Guide to Life in the Soil” by James B. Nardi, and watch the movie, “Microcosms,” a documentary set to classical music depicting the wonder filled life of insects.

*The drawing of the water bear for this post is from the DataBase Center for Life Science (DBCLS) –, CC BY 4.0,

Jacques and Sylvia

I’m sure they had their bad days
Mornings the coffee was no good, the ship off course.
Days people didn’t even care that they dove
down, down, into places hardly any other human has seen.
Quietly flying through the sea.

Mysterious and utterly enchanting.

Only to surface to gravity pressing on them, waves slapping at them.
Heaving equipment onto the deck, peeling wet suits off their bodies and trying
to describe heartbreaking beauty to land lubbers.
Falling in love so deeply they couldn’t stop.

Wailing love letters from the ocean like sirens.

And like sailors who can’t be bothered to stop,
we close our ears and refuse to listen.
Sylvia! Name like a silver fish!
And Jacques! An ocean of secrets!

Human, like you and me, in love with the sea.

In love with maternal whales, grumpy groupers, ruthless sharks,
eels, corals, currents and caves.
They dove into the dark and were enlightened.
Sylvia, Jacques, speak to us!
Cry out from the depths of our own sea souls
until we let the water carry us back to ourselves.


I thought I might take my ukulele outside
and sing to the compost pile after it was made.
Maybe crazy,
but so was Mozart
and Patch Adams
and the man who plays his guitar
on the median of
East Michigan Avenue and Howard Street.
I think I know
that playing Bach’s Cello Suite #1 to cattle
just before slaughter
feels a little crazy
but is the sanest thing to do under the circumstances.
When I was young,
crazy was awkward
and we may never get past
the way we think we look to others.
But at 40 I finally know that to sing to compost piles
wear a wig while composing music
or a clown nose while treating patients
and bring Bach to beef cattle
and play a guitar on the median
makes beautiful sense.


Why Make it Happen?

Let’s talk about compost—what it is and why we need to make it happen now more than ever. Every time we eat plants or animals who eat plants, the nutrients they and we need to grow are taken from the soil and put into our bodies for energy. We burn it as energy, but there are always leftovers. Up to 40% of the food in the United States is wasted according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (2011). If these leftovers are not returned to the soil to be reborn (dust to dust), then the cycles that sustain life are broken and things start to get messy. You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s worth repeating. A handful of compost contains more living organisms than there are people on earth. Our eyes cannot see it, but compost is dynamically alive! The nutrients, minerals, bacteria, fungus, and other microscopic life forms found in compost are vital for healthy soil.

In the United States, we use soil 10 times faster than the natural rate of replenishment, and we only have about 60 years of topsoil left in the world . Such an estimate has to give us pause, and a dose of healthy concern. We need compost in all its forms—backyard piles, turned under cover crops, worm bins, municipal compost operations, forest floors, manure left in the field or composted in the barn, compost toilets (yes, human compost)—and every other way we can think of. We need to balance our soil withdrawals with compost deposits.

This can happen in your own backyard, in a church kitchen, in a community garden, in a garage, and even in an apartment. I’ll discuss how to make compost piles unique to your life style a bit later, but for now I’ll sum up what makes composting work no matter what form it takes. There are 5 keys to creating a healthy compost pile—carbon, nitrogen, water, air, and mass.

1. Carbon and nitrogen are the main ingredients of compost. Vibrant compost piles need a ratio of 20-35 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. Carbon, the “brown” materials, are usually brown and dry. Bags of fallen leaves, newspaper, cardboard boxes, paper towels and napkins, wood chips, straw, brown grass clippings, and the morning croissant are all examples of carbon. These are what the compost microorganisms need for sustained energy. Smaller pieces of brown material will break down more quickly because there is more surface area for the microorganisms to work on. Chipping wood or mowing leaves helps to speed up the composting process.

2. Nitrogen, the “green” materials, are usually green and wet. Fresh grass clippings, kitchen scraps, manure of all kinds, coffee grounds, and nutrients like blood and bone meal are all good sources of nitrogen. These will be used by the microorganisms to build their microscopic bodies.

3. A compost pile should be as wet as a wrung out sponge. In order to move, breathe, and function, the microorganisms doing all the work need this water.

4. The microorganisms that break down organic matter also need oxygen. You can compost without oxygen, but it’s smellier. This is called anaerobic composting (more on that later). Making sure the pile has plenty of brown, carbon material to create pockets of air will ensure it has enough oxygen. The pile should be a bit fluffy, like a compost soufflé. As it breaks down, the cake will flatten and reduce in size. This is a good sign.

5. The last key is mass. If it’s not big enough, the compost pile will not be active. A 3’ by 3’ pile is the minimum size for decomposition to really start. But piles built outside need to be at least knee high and wide. You can put your pile inside chicken wire, straw bales, re-used pallets, or even a cheap garbage can buried a foot in the ground with holes drilled into the bottom. More about compost containers later.