Thursday, February 28, 2013

When Words Fail Me

Today, a friend complimented some of my photographs, calling them poems. I was happy to hear her words.

I once wrote poems, or I once tried to write poems. 

Often I could not move beyond an image or the sounds of words conversing with one another on the tongue and teeth and lip.

"But what does it mean?" workshop readers would ask.

Often, I didn't know. 

Often, I don't know what words mean.

For example, what fell overnight? 

Not sleet, I think, since it was not wet ice, not slickened and frozen, shmeared on the windshield. Not hail, I think, only because it was tiny, like nuggets of shaved ice in a snowball, but firmer. Ice pellets, perhaps, but I've never heard a weatherman or woman announce, "Warning: pellets falling!" More confusing, the Internet tells me that the term "ice pellets" is synonymous with "sleet," but my experience of the two reveals significant difference. There is no one right word.

There is often no one right word for much of my experience. 

Words, some writer once wrote, are like clear glass: you see through them to meaning. But for me, words ripple like winded water blown this way, then that, their shape distorting and changing, winding in new directions, leading toward new channels.

And sometimes the channel just stops.

Like this.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

My Twelve-step Program

My name is Robley. I am an outdoor photography addict.

1.  I admit that I am powerless over natural beauty and my camera.

2.  I have come to believe that I do not wish to surrender to a Power greater than I, unless that Power is the compulsion to pay daily witness to the beautiful things of this world.

3.  I have made a decision to turn my will and time over to the muse of daily outdoor photography.

4.  I have made a fearless and searching creative impulsivity inventory of myself.

5.  I have admitted to my muse, myself, and others the limits of my abilities.

6.  I am entirely ready to have experience and experimentation remove these imperfections of my skill.

7.  I humbly ask my viewers to forgive my shortcomings.

8.  I hereby testify that I have harmed no animal or plant in my photographic pursuits.

9.  I have, on the other hand, rescued a number of Odonates from certain death by spider.

10.  I have continued to take personal inventory of my photographs and their strengths and weaknesses.

11.  I have sought through wandering, photographing, and contemplating the myriad wonders of ongoing creation.

12.  Having a spiritual awakening as a result of these practices, I testify to others that such daily miracles lie everywhere and deserve attention.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Another Crocus Post


Because taxes strain patience, 
and work demands time, 
and high wind blew overnight,
and rain fell, 
and the temperature dropped, 
and slate sky lowered,
but crocus cups 
glowed across concrete, 
studded with diamond water beads.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Weather on the Way

A friend described our weather in this notwinter/notspring time as "fickle." 


A beautiful, clear, sunny morning I spent at my desk on the computer turned into disappointment: a canceled Shakerag walk and a dip in temperature and graying of sky.

Another friend tells me that I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder because I pine and whine when a day (or a week or a month) passes without bright sun. Of the symptoms listed by the NIH, I admit to these: "increased appetite with weight gain" (like a bear before hibernation, I eat) and "unhappiness." 

A better term for the disorder I suffer is Seasonal Photography Disorder: the bugs are hard to find and without sun I cannot lose myself in the sensory pleasures of color and form.

So today, lost to the only direct sun some in Sewanee enjoyed, I tinkered with an afternoon snapshot of the campus, silvery light slipping between horizontal clouds. I couldn't just live with the Gorey-esque tableau, though.

I sweetend it with the amber light I so miss.

Soon, I say to myself, soon, and then spoon another healthy heap of carb-drenched food on my plate.

Sunday, February 24, 2013


Once I argued with a brother about the best place to live. Near the water with a boat, he said. On a mountain with woods, I said, and creeks.

On this glorious day, I'll let Abbo's Alley speak for me (no boat required).

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Harbingers of Spring

A tiny grasshopper and an unknown bug anchored to a stem just beyond.

A tiny fly that scooted along the surface of the lake.

A dance fly and a smaller spider that leapt off the branch just after I snapped.

Surely, these are signs of spring coming, and I'm just starting to get warmed up.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Beautiful Things


My niece, a floral designer, makes beautiful things beautiful anew through selection, arrangement, and display. A skill, an art, a calling, of a kind, to make herself and others happy. I admire her dedication to making an environment beautiful, no matter how prosaic and small or grand and large. She brings the natural to attention, making others attend to what she loves.


Hanging on my study wall, over and behind my left shoulder, a Jim Sudduth painting glows. Although many would call it crude or untutored, -- the product of an untrained painter or dabbler -- mud and housepaint, brush and finger marks and pencil create an addictive vibration of life and liveliness, wedding earth, hand and eye. Whoever dismisses the painting as "naive" does not appreciate artful creation.


At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity" brings together paintings and objects of fashionable daily life -- men's hats, women's corsets and bustles, designer dresses. In her New York Times review, Roberta Smith writes, "A result is an intense, almost hallucinatory swirl in which art and artifact continually change places, and a basic wisdom is demonstrated: any well-selected thing can illuminate any other."


I love the basic wisdom of well-selected things and the people wise enough to love them.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Pure Unadulterated Joy

A is six, and life is good. 

Her parents love her, her brother loves her, her grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles of several generations all love her. 

And she loves her new art book, but not as much as I love her -- and her joy.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Back-to-Back Mysteries

Years ago, my friend Betsy introduced me to the pleasure of reading mysteries. When I moved here some years back, she visited for a week each summer, paperbacks in hand. When she left, she also left the books for me. 

This past week, I finished two mysteries, back-to-back. One of them, Girls' Night Out was written by one of Betsy's favorites -- Anne Carroll George. Betsy chuckled alound when she read George's books, and now I see why. The Birmingham writer created two sisters whose banter and behavior are delightful. The mystery itself -- one sister buys a run-down country bar and the previous owner is murdered the next day -- isn't nearly as much fun as the characters and the references to Birmingham places and sites with which I, a native, am familiar.

Far more satisfying, both as a mystery and as a work of literature, is The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro. A painter, talented but ignored by galleries, agrees to copy a work by Degas, provided to her by a dealer. She immediately recognizes the "original" Degas as a fake, and thus begins a fascinating tale revolving around a famous heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. My favorite parts of the book, however, dealt with the artist's painting technique -- ranging from stripping an old painting down to the sizing to the multipe layers of paint and glazing to the large oven in which she bakes her copy. I've taken many art history courses, and I've read widely about art, but for the first time, the process of making a painting came to life for me.

When I finished the book, I wanted nothing more than to recommend it to Betsy. But I can't, as she -- like Anne George -- died some years ago. Instead, I'll recommend it to the friends who read my blog. 

Maybe I can pass along an inherited taste for mystery.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


What's outside becomes art in my mind's eye.

Stone with Crustose Lichens at Lake Cheston

                                                                                  Gustav Klimt

Wild Iris on Virginia Avenue

              Vincent Van Gogh

Monday, February 18, 2013

What if money were no object?

"What would you do?" asks Alan Watts.

I would give my most prized and sentimental possessions to my family and most of the rest of my possessions to those who could use or want them.

I would buy a little plot of land near my family, in woods, near mountains and water. On it, I would build a tiny house with an adjoining tiny studio just like this one.

I would use a fast computer with all the right photography and publishing programs. I would use more flexible equipment, including different cameras for different purposes. I would share my tiny house with a cat or cats to keep me company. I would use my library card at a good library with Kindle books. I would live near a college campus where I could attend lectures and plays, concerts and classes. I would travel to places I already love and love the new ones I would visit. I would wear comfortable clothes all the time, and every night at home I would float in a big bathtub under stars.

I would read, and walk, and write, and complete my poetry MFA and take photography classes and workshops, and make pictures, and compose and construct handmade books.

I would spend time with people I love and with people who create things because they must.

I would drink tea and make scones.

I would wake without fear and fall asleep without anxiety.

And I would be happy.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Get Ready!

Shakerag is on the verge of bursting.
Buds obelisk up from mottled trillium leaves,
tiny mushrooms glow like butterscotch,
moss sporophytes shout their hello,
and water runs over rocks and round winter ice.

Get ready! I'm comin', Spring sings!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Only Time

the sun shone burst in and out between snow showers, more like glitter bits floating, while I was lying on the ground, facing uphill, in Abbo's Alley, camera jammed into dirt, recording images I couldn't see, but at least the pink on the computer screen melded with the green and bit of blue and bright white of sun rays and made me forget that I had spent most of the day inside, reading other people's papers and offering comments, and counting things and noting them in a marble notebook, and wishing . . . wishing . . . wishing . . . I could walk outside where beautiful things always are.

(Sometimes, a little Photoshop does a person good.)

Friday, February 15, 2013

Like upturned circus tents

for The Borrowers, my five small sets of crocus quietly open and close beneath the bare azalea limbs.

There are so many things to love about crocus:
  • hardy blooming in sun and warm temperatures, freezing temperatures and snow
  • reliable return each year 
  • spread into their little patches like small gossip groups
  • cheerful deep purple and preppie stripes
  • orange tongues
  • pollen polyps like polka dots
  • sun-shadowed cups

Recently, I have seen (in several places) beautiful photographs of tulip fields in the Netherlands, and I dream of planting crocus everywhere in the yard, creating my own swath of Seurat to enjoy each winter/spring. This fall, perhaps, will see the beginning of something big.

Meantime, I'll enjoy the something small that makes me smile, going and coming.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

I'd Lie on a Gravel Path

every day,
if I could see snowdrops and moss and rust-red leaves
glow in the sun
every day
as I did today.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Today the Sun 
fell to forest floor
flamed & curdled
on a fallen branch: 
witches' butter
yellow brain
golden jelly fungus
yellow trembler.

(I don't know which,
& today I don't care.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Wormhole of Memory

A tiny spider, a bit of feather, and a few catkins on a tweedy day.

And my mind wanders down the memory wormhole to Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, the first book I remember thrilling me;
the Scots bagpipers whose performance I saw as a child with my mother at the Boutwell Auditorium;
the Complete Book of Tartan precursor she gave me for Christmas when I was in fifth grade;
my reading and re-reading of Lucy Fitch Perkins' The Scotch Twins;
Downton Abbey and the PBS film Secrets of Highclere, with its interview of the Gamekeeper (a descendent of a 19th-century gamekeeper at the estate) and his apprentice, discussing their tradition of wearing tweed;
my last best winter coat, tailor-made for me by mother (not long before her death) of certified Harris Tweed;

The National Gamekeepers Organisation;
and then to this, a blog post without a thesis, but with plenty of curiosity -- and heart.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Annual Love Letter

Hello, it's the Lenten Roses.

Speaking to you, as before, Robley.

In semi-darkness, after rain, under white sky, we have bloomed.

Where have you been?

We have been waiting.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

My Visit with the Goon Squad

I'll let the New York Times review say what I can't:

"How wide a circumference can she achieve in A Visit From the Goon Squad while still maintaining any sort of coherence and momentum? How loosely can she braid the skein of connections and still have something that hangs together?

"There is a madness to her method. She hands off the narrative from one protagonist to another in a wild relay race that will end with the same characters with which it begins while dispensing with them for years at a time."

Or the Pulizer Prize committee:

"For distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life, Ten thousand dollars ($10,000).

"Awarded to A Visit From the Goon Squad byJennifer Egan, an inventive investigation of growing up and growing old in the digital age, displaying a big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed."

Or The Guardian review:

"This is a difficult book to summarise, but a delight to read, gradually distilling a medley out of its polyphonic, sometimes deliberately cacophonous voices."

Or maybe I'll just say this: 

a rollicking good read with twists and turns, humor, pathos, and a crazy forward-backward-now collision of time I spent well on a windy, rainy Sunday, sitting on a couch with a cat and a quilt.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Gone to My Happy Place


My friend Julie challenged her friends to post to her Sangha Shrines Project and shared this video.


Tonight on CBS News, a segment featured Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio, a proponent of mindfulness and supporter of a SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) program in which school children quiet themselves during the school day. The video stated that reading scores had leaped as a result of the  meditation practice, but even more movingly, a young girl explained that practicing mindfulness has helped prevent fighting among her classmates. "We just go to our happy place," she said.


Today, as I do just about every day, I went to my happy place: Lake Cheston. I had to drive around a car parked in the middle of the entrance road (a baseball player or, more likely, a coach), and I had to tune out the diggers and haulers of heavy construction noise in the distance, but both were easy to do as soon as I saw the sky and the geese.


My shrine is bug, bird, fish, water, sky, leaf, bud, flower, bark, moss, lichen, wind, fog, . . . .

Friday, February 8, 2013

Guilty Pleasures

Sometimes, it really is the little things.

Like discovering that my refund for returned shoes has been sitting in my eBay account for two months and that I can treat myself to three of my favorite things (Dark Chocolate McVittie's Digestive Biscuits, Hobnobs, PG Tips) without guilt and still put half the refund into my bank account. 

When all three arrive along with my New Yorker, I know it's time to say: come on fog and rain and cold -- have you way with me!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A Disappointing Read from a Spectacular Person

Five years ago, soon after its release, Lynne Cox's Grayson found its way into my hands and then into my heart. A memoir on swimming in the ocean in the company of a baby whale makes for a spiritual meditation on mystery and kindness and mothering. I loved the book. I have re-read it. I have recommended it.

So when I saw her Swimming to Antarctica on the list of Kindle books offered by my library, I jumped for it. I started it with such eager anticipation that I fairly swam through the pages like fish in still water. But then something happened: although her swim maps changed, the language didn't. The text became predictable even as the locations changed. I began to feel that I was treading water or, worse still, becalmed, afloat.

It's a special disappointment that I suspect most readers have felt, who, picking up a book by the writer of a beloved book, discovers it doesn't move. I know that each effort can't be the best, but I can't help wishing I hadn't tried the second bite from the same apple. I think I may need to read Grayson again and remember that the writer is ultimately more important than writing.

As are we writers and readers all.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Pleasures of the Internet

After today's walk, I came home, uploaded and viewed my photos, and stared and pondered.  I was puzzled, but only a bit, by the delicate stop-and-go dance I witnessed between two Red-spotted Newts.

Mating? I wondered.

I have finally learned that what sometimes looks like violence isn't and the male is frequently smaller.

Here's what I found after Googling "Red-spotted Newts mating":

Now, honestly, how much better is that than my picture, which I shot into moving water while facing the sun?


Don't answer.

I know already.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013


One of my first cousins came for a day's visit, which we ended with dinner at Crossroads Cafe, a small restaurant that opened recently in Sewanee. I met the owner and chef, Irene, this summer through a friend who brought her to the gardener's market. She bought some of my scones, more than once, and even begged for my recipe (which I did not surrender).

Tonight, she served us at the counter, adding a little of this or that to our plates as we were the evening's last customers.  We talked about Singapore, Sewanee, scones, and cousins.  My cousin and I smiled when she told us that a professor is her son's second-cousin once-removed.

Sewanee is that kind of place: where strangers come together from China or Singapore or Virginia and make acquaintance. If they're lucky, they'll do so over dumplings and slow-cooked ginger, as I did this evening.

May Irene and all our cousins live long and prosper.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Snug as a . . .

caterpillar cocooned in a leaf?

I think so.  


I hope so.  

Like a surprise ball, only better. I don't have to unwrap this one to find icky little charms and candies. The moth (I think) will emerge when the time comes, and I will check to see if we can both be present at the same time.

Unlikely, I know.  

But one can hope.