Friday, May 31, 2013

Who Doesn't Love a Daisy?

Daisy Time
by Marjorie Pickthall

See, the grass is full of stars,
Fallen in their brightness;
Hearts they have of shining gold,
Rays of shining whiteness.

Buttercups have honeyed hearts,
Bees they love the clover,
But I love the daisies' dance
All the meadow over.

Blow, O blow, you happy winds,
Singing summer's praises,
Up the field and down the field
A-dancing with the daisies.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Family Supper

Sometimes I treat myself like company or like family and make supper. Not a sandwich, not yogurt and a granola bar, not a little salad, but a for-real homemade meal.

And it's delicious.

Until I think about eating it alone.

And then I remember childhood suppers and miss all the people I love who are dead or who live elsewhere. 

(A sandwich might have been a better idea.)

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Morning Song

flicking odonate wings
backhoe bass rumble
bluebird warble
lapping water
tiny frog squeak
big frog burp
jumping fish slap
children's laughter
one runner's patter
rustle of shore weeds:
like a hymn
only better

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Some Consideration

Before I started walking with my camera, all I knew about Lake Dimmick was the slogan "Save Lake Dimmick." About eight years ago, a local controversy erupted regarding possible development of luxury homes along the shore of the lake. Folks grew heated, slapped stickers on their cars, protested at a Regents meeting, and argued vociferously against the plan for an "active-lifestyle-type residential development." The plans were halted, and folks celebrated. Today, the College lauds the decision to terminate development.

But another protest quietly continues unabated at the lake. As I start across the dam, I stop each time to read the sign about the gift of Day Lake by the gentleman who built it and donated the land. It was subsequently named in honor of an Episcopal priest. Someone has scratched into the bronze, "save DAY Lake" and "shame on U of S."

I've heard locals (i.e., not University folks) call it Day Lake, and the road in is still called Day Lake Drive. Ask Google maps to find Lake Dimmick, and here's what you'll see: "Your search did not match any locations." Now try Day Lake.

View Larger MapBefore I became interested in walking with my camera, all I knew about Lake Dimmick was the slogan "Save Lake Dimmick."

Day Lake or Lake Dimmick: a fine place for a walk and thoughtful consideration of town, gown, development, and nature's plan.

Monday, May 27, 2013


Christy Wampole's fascinating essay in today's New York Times takes on the essay and demonstrates that it isn't what most people think it is (and what most teachers lead students to think it is).

It is not this: a "short prose form in which the author's subjectivity is purposely erased or disguised." It is not one of those "untentative" texts that "know what they want to argue before they begin, stealthily making their case, anticipating any objections, aiming for air-tightness. These texts are not attempts; they are obstinacies. They are fortresses. Leaving the reader uninvited to this textual engagement, the writer makes it clear he or she would rather drink alone (paras. 8 & 9).

It is, instead, this: "short prose with a meditative subject at its center and a tendency away from certitude" (para. 8). Wampole adds, "the force of the essay . . . impels you to the undecidable. It asks you to get comfortable with ambivalence" (para. 7).

She connects the closed, false form and the "dogmatism of today's political and social landscape" (para. 22). In its place, she claims an "intutive attraction . . . toward this genre and its spirit as a provisional solution. . . . [A] more meditative and measured version a la Montaigne would nudge us toward a calm taking into account of life without the knee-jerk reflex to be unshakeably right. The essayification of everything means turning life itself into a protracted attempt."

Some years ago, I designed and taught a course in creative nonfiction, moving from reading and writing memoir to exposition to argument and culminating with Walden and a final exam essay defining creative nonfiction. Every year I truly enjoyed the final exam experience: small groups of students shared abstracts of their essays, each group chose one for me to read aloud, and after the reading everyone worked together to define creative nonfiction. I loved teaching that course. I miss teaching that course. And I miss hearing those beautiful explorations in which thinkers engaged "in thinking about [themselves] thinking about things" (para.13).

Some colleagues complained that I didn't teach "the essay," by which they meant the false form Wampole condemns by associating it with dogmatism. But I persevered because true essay writing "is an invitation to maintain . . . elasticity and to get comfortable with the world's inherent ambivalence. And, most importantly, it is an imaginative rehearsal of what isn't but could be" (para. 22).

I walked today and thought about Wampole's words and that course and those writers who trusted themselves to engage in essayism. How brave those students were, how good those essays were, how much I miss them all.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Unearthly Light

Empty streets and buildings, school out, folks on holiday, or drinking under strung lights, or tucked in bed asleep. What they're missing
is the only show worth seeing tonight: free-for-all fat moon.

And, oh, what a moon.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Getting My Photo-mojo Back

Thanks to the gift of a former student, I am getting my photo-mojo back. Two hours at the lake this afternoon resulted in sightings of Orange Bluets, Double-striped Bluets, Turquoise Bluets, Violet Dancers, Citrine Forktails, Fragile Forktails, Blue Corporals, Calico Pennants, Blue Dashers, Eastern Pondhawks, Spangled Skimmers, Lancet Clubtails, Common Whitetails, Carolina Saddlebags, Black Saddlebags, Common Green Darner, recent college gradates, bees, and even bleeding hearts.

And the best of all is that I feel like I can take pictures again. Witness these:

Friday, May 24, 2013

Liminal Space

My place of transition waves with weeds and flowers through which day glows like dichroic glass, sewn together with air.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Note of Gratitude

Dear Arlyn,

Thanks so much for lending me your superzoom camera. I must admit that I am still trying to figure out basic things -- like adjusting the white balance and understanding focus.

Walking with it today was pure pleasure. I missed a number of good shots (a newly emerged damselfly eating a big wormy thing!) because I couldn't figure out what option to use under what circumstances.

That said, I can illustrate to my friend Winnie how I know the sex of a dragonfly. Many perching Calico Pennants provided the opportunity for some show and tell. Both male and female are yellow when they emerge, but as they age, the male turns orange and then red. If color is confusing, the end of the abdomen gives away the sex. The male has two claspers, which are used to hold the female behind the the head during mating. The claspers, sort of like white teeth, are visible in the three males here. (They almost look like cocktail forks, I just realized.)
teneral (immature) male Calico Pennant
maturing male Calico Pennant
mature male Calico Pennant (note the bit of orange at the end of the abdomen)
female Calico Pennant
By the way, Arlyn, I also tried photographing a flyer -- a Common Baskettail. That is one aggressive dragonfly. He picks out a little territory and stakes his claim by chasing away any other threat (i.e., any other dragonfly). Here's one, a bit out of focus, but still . . . trying to take the shot was great fun.
As promised, I am delivering!


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Sensory Experience

Walking with a camera, even a not very good one, heightens my sensory awareness.

Today, a sweet odor and a sawing of bees pulled me off track to a tree, with leaves suspiciously like a holly, sporting waxy white and yellow blossoms and berries. All at once, I wanted only one thing: to bring that smell home and keep it with me all year.
At another spot, the wax-paper crinkle of dragonfly wings (Blue Corporal) made me look down, and there on a bridge plank, a spectacular beetle -- colored like a fellow costumed in a zoot suit for a Broadway musical -- relaxed, alert but calm. An Eastern Eyed Click Beetle, I discovered when I came home, but I heard no click. However, he sure did race when he opened his wings, flew to a tree, and ran up, out of sight.
At the beach, I watched Calico Pennants mating, three or four pairs. On the plash of breached water, I saw a fish -- a big one -- gulp down two of those dragonflies. Horror mixed with wonder before I wandered on to lose myself in the deepening red of a teneral male Calico's eyes.
Every day, so many sounds, sights, colors, shapes assault me, but when I wander away from work and home, by myself, everything sharpens and I lose a bit of myself. If even for an hour.
But oh, what an hour.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Another Reason to Love Facebook

Last night, I messaged friends for advice about my broken camera and about other possible cameras. I went to bed sad and sick, my brain exploding. 

Mind you, this broken camera (now enclosed in a bag of rice to cure moisture, if that's the problem) is the camera that my deceased friend Betsy left me and that I used to photograph a card a day for my best college friend when he was dying of cancer. This is the camera that has given me pleasure every day for many reasons.

When I woke this morning, I tried the camera and discovered it was definitely still broken. I posted this status update: "I hoped it was a dream, but no, the camera is still dead dead dead."

A couple of hours later, a former student messaged me to say she was going to list her G12 today on eBay because she prefers her Nikon. Would I like to have it instead? In exchange for some photos?

In less than twenty-four hours, I have gone from bereft to grateful for the generosity of friends, one of whom wrote in response to my "What luck!!!!": "Dat ain't luck, baby -- dat dere is karma that you're building all the time."

Yes, and love.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Cruelty, Thy Name Is Canon

Camera failure, writ large.





Saturday, May 18, 2013

In the Weeds

A bug's-eye view.

Friday, May 17, 2013

With Apologies to Mark Twain

Today, the difference between the spiderwort and the spider is minimal: both are spectacular.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

This Flower's a Floozy

My mother set high standards for lady-hood. A lady did not
  • smoke on the street
  • paint her nails
  • use bright red lipstick
  • wear too much makeup
  • chew gum in public
I wonder what she would think, were she still alive, of the peony. Surely, it sets a standard for floral vulgarity. It's almost embarrassingly . . . well . . . pulchritudinous!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


Like many children, I heard the nursery rhyme "Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home!" often, maybe even every time my mother and I saw a ladybug. I confess that I never understood it, and I still don't.

Poking around on the Internet for the source of the rhyme has been enlightening and frustrating. For sure, I discovered that the rhyme dates from the 18th-century (Wikipedia says 1744; index number 16215 in the Roud Folk Song Index). I learned about superstitions and luck, and I even read about a reference to the Virgin Mary in the word "ladybird" and the Gunpowder Plot (neither of which appears in what I would consider a necessarily reliable resource).

None of this applies to what I see in this photograph: a fragrant bed-like, pillowed blossom on which a ladybug and even tinier light green insect (like a small jellybean to the left and toward the viewer) rest.

This ladybug need not fly away. Indeed, if I were he or she, I would be happy right where I am.

As I am myself. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

An Overdue Thank-you Note

Dear Lucy,

This is a long overdue note to thank you for some things you may not remember.

1. Even though you were the smallest kitten in the little display at the New Orleans Cat Fanciers' Show, you were the only one who jumped at my hand and purred when I picked you up. That's why I took you home. I remember looking in the rear-view mirror and seeing Sara, my friend Betsy's granddaughter, holding you. Even then, when you might have been scared, you were sweet, letting Sara coo and pet you all the way home.

2. You managed to fit into the house without forever upsetting your older step-sister Grady. She asserted herself on the bed each night, of course, pushing you off several times, but once she settled, you joined us, lay across my neck, and fell fast asleep. You were such good company to both of us from the beginning.

3. When Grady fell ill and died suddenly before we moved to Sewanee, you mourned. For days, you looked for her, and cried, and seemed lost. Over time, you adjusted and became the lap kitty I had always wanted as a little girl.

4. In Sewanee, you have had exciting adventures. You have watched an owl snatch a Cardinal baby and fly to the deck rail directly above you, pivot, and soar off into the forest. You didn't even spring up into Everready cat position. You stayed still, and the owl never saw you. For several years now, you have watched Mr. and Mrs. Bluebird on the deck, gathering nest materials and hunting from the posts. You have consented to my company, even allowing one particular cat sitter to welcome you onto the sofa as she re-read Harry Potter. I think you actually liked her. You put up with the neighbor's little cat, who decided to live outside for a year and spent much of it on our deck. You never spat at her through the kitchen door, which I still find incredible. You knew she needed a temporary family.

5.  You always have something to say. If I am sick, you hop right up on me and talk and talk and then purr. If I watch a movie, you hop right up on me and talk and talk and then purr. If I read, you hop right up on me and talk and talk and then purr. If I work, you jump up to nestle yourself between me and the desk edge, but you don't talk while I do my paper reviewing.

Coming home, I am happy to find you, on a warm day, in your chair at the window, content as only a cat can be. Thank you for coming to live with me.

Your human,

Monday, May 13, 2013

Hearts for Mimi

When I taught her, Mimi didn't think of herself as a student. At least, I don't think she did. She didn't quite focus. But she was imaginative: she had "a green thumb of mind," about which she wrote, and I remember that she made art with delight.

But what I didn't know then (but do know now) is that she harbored a secret desire to cook, and to cook well. She does that now and has for some time with apparent skill and finesse.

After working as executive chef under a famous chef, she has opened her own catering service, started a Supper Club, and gone into business for herself full time. She is already garnering praise, clientele, and awards

Mimi's heart expands itself into her dishes. When I see her food, photographed so beautifully, I think of her new baby named Arrow shot straight from her and her partners' hearts. The love she finds in herself and others makes its way onto the plate and into the hearts of those she serves.

On her Facebook wall, she collects photographs of hearts found here and there: a cut radish or bit of moss, a leaf or shadow. This set of hearts strung down the abdomen of a new Calico Pennant is for Mimi, a stellar student of living.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Idylls of the Halls

Jere calls this spot a "vignette." Florence says when she was a child, she called primroses like these "buttercups." I call their garden idyllic.

Today, there was no place I'd rather be.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

What We Could Learn from Ants

Set a goal.

Work together.

Use tools.



Waste not.

Even if you didn't make the mess, clean it up.

Friday, May 10, 2013

A Commencement Lesson

In a Sewanee commencement weekend conversation this afternoon with Jon Meacham, New York Times columnist David Brooks spoke about hearing the VJ Day "Command Performance" program on NPR as he drove home one evening. (This part of the conversation begins at about 34:50.)

He described host Bing Crosby's opening comments in much the same way he did when he wrote an Op-Ed on September 15, 2009: "'All anybody can do is thank God it's over. Today our deep down feeling is one of humility.'" Then he mentioned actor Burgess Meredith, who quoted war correspondent Ernie Pyle: "We won this war because our men are brave and because of many things -- because of Russia, England and China and the passage of time and the gift of nature's material. We did not win it because destiny created us better than all other peoples. I hope that in victory we are more grateful than we are proud."

Upon arriving at home, Brooks watched football, and when a defensive player prevented the wide receiver from making much progress with the ball, the player "does what all professional athletes do at moments of supreme personal achievement: he does this dance in honor of himself."

It occurred to Brooks that he had "seen a bigger self-puffing dance after a two-yard gain than I'd heard after winning World War II." He went on to add, "It symbolized to me . . . the shift from a culture of self-effacement -- that I'm no better than anyone else but nobody's better than me to a culture of self-expression. And this is sort of measurable in data. Just two quick examples. In 1950 the Gallup organization asked high school seniors, "Are you a very important person?" And in 1950 12% said yes. They asked the same question in 2005, and it wasn't 12% who thought they were very important. It was 80%. And so the norms of how you think about yourself have changed."

If the graduating seniors in the auditorium heard nothing else, I hope they heard this. I further hope that some course or professor or extracurricular coach or director or priest or dorm head helped each of the gowned students learn this lesson: in the realm of things, we are not the center of the universe.

We are all here.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Flight Instructions

For some, there will be no flight.

For others, first lift-off and many more.

Every day, so much luck, or its lack.

How prodigious is life, and how prodigious its suffering.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


At the doctor's office today, I learned that my medical record mistakenly shows that I have diabetes.

"Wouldn't I know I have diabetes?" I asked, and the nurse laughed.

The doctor raised his hand and announced, "From this moment, you are healed!" and we both laughed.

A small error, perhaps, but one that could have caused some difficulties in an emergency or in the case of surgery. Neither could explain why the anomaly appeared (probably a coding error), and it was quickly corrected.

Just as quickly corrected is my day any day when I can get outside, even if only for a few minutes. 

A splash of rain, a male undergraduate opening his swim trunks slightly (back to a bevy of girls) to pee in the lake, the land stripped for the dog park running straight downhill into a small lake channel -- these become petty annoyances, immediately erased by the sight of a single Calico Pennant, the first I've seen emerge this season, and the restorative realization that I can choose to see what lasts.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


At 6, I saw The Wizard of Oz at the drive-in, and even though I was in our family car with my family among many other families like ours, I willingly suspended my disbelief. (Or unwillingly since I was too young to appreciate make-believe.) Ever since then, I have been afraid of tornadoes, weather's whirling dervishes of the demonic kind.

When I left graduate school in Denver, I drove across Kansas lickety-split, the hood of my car rattling all the way, despite the bungee cords stretched across the car's width. Convinced I would be uprooted by a twister and planted somewhere else, I got myself somewhere else as fast as possible.

The April 27, 2011 tornadoes that ripped their way up through Alabama into Tennessee sent me to my under-the-stairs closet, with a beer, my laptop, and a Netflix. I drank the beer, but kept the Netflix closed in its package. I stayed glued to the weather, watching the rotating monsters spinning closer and closer and closer, the sky turning blacker and the trees outside the kitchen door bending and creaking.

A spider web on a wet morning, whirling round an-off-center eye, looking like a cloud of spun sugar: a storm of horrors, imagined and real.


Monday, May 6, 2013

Thoreau Was Right

Today, standing under an umbrella in steady rain,
I found heaven under my feet.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Rewards of Standing Still Amid Feeding Barn Swallows

whish of wings
blaze of steel blue
russet flash on white
rotor-turn air spin
swoop & dive
overhead flash
brush behind
joyful whoops.

Saturday, May 4, 2013


Days of rain, the drenching, soaking, flooding kind, make for a kind of restlessness that fogs my mind and trembles down through my feet. I invent reasons to drive down to the bank or over to the grocery, just so I can escape the house. But I do not escape the cover of car.

Returning from one of those unnecessary trips this afternoon (disappointed because I couldn't walk the lake with my camera, secured in an inside pocket of my rain jacket), I found a small web and even tinier spider couched between door and window frame.

But it was the rusty tiger crane fly (Nephrotoma ferruginea) that made me smile. I have seen many of these, floating like loose-limbed fairies up from spring's  grasses, but this one was trapped -- momentarily -- in the web. Not wound yet, it stretched in the silk, unable to escape.

I snapped its picture and thought of my weather entrapment, and released it (reasoning that the spider had plenty of other trapped bugs), and watched the fly hunker by my concrete cat on the porch deck.

TraI enjoyed a photo-walk after all.

Friday, May 3, 2013

"Pixellated Blizzard"

by Joanie Mackowski

How it is fickle, leaving one alone to wander

the halls of the skull with the fluorescents
softly flickering. It rests on the head

like a bird nest, woven of twigs and tinsel
and awkward as soon as one stops to look.
That pile of fallen leaves drifting from

the brain to the fingertip burned on the stove,

to the grooves in that man’s voice
as he coos to his dog, blowing into the leaves

of books with moonlit opossums
and Chevrolets easing down the roads
of one’s bones. And now it plucks a single

tulip from the pixellated blizzard: yet

itself is a swarm, a pulse with no
indigenous form, the brain's lunar halo.

Our compacted galaxy, its constellations
trembling like flies caught in a spider web,
until we die, and then the flies

buzz away -- while another accidental

coherence counts to three to pass the time
or notes the berries on the bittersweet vine

strewn in the spruces, red pebbles dropped
in the brain's gray pool. How it folds itself
like a map to fit in a pocket, how it unfolds

a fraying map from the pocket of the day.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Lens Envy

Two days ago, I walked with a friend carrying a Nikon fitted with a 100mm macro lens.

Here's one photo he shot.
© Greg Petropoulos
Meanwhile, here's my best shot of an equally tiny bug.
Here's my response to his email:

Dear Greg,

That is the camera and lens I want and need.

I am now totally miserable.

I still like you, but . . . please tell me how I can afford that equipment.

Thank you,Robley

Then what? Emails to him and another friend about entry-level DSLRs, macro lenses, Canon and Nikon, and lots of plotting on my part to scratch up the money.

But first, I wonder. 

What image could I have gotten today of this female damselfly (newly out of the aquatic state) with Greg's equipment? Would I have had to take nearly a hundred shots as I did this morning to get something spectacular instead?
Up next: finagling another walk and a request to borrow the equipment for a shot or two. 

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Looking at One Thing, Finding Another

Once I moved to a small town for a job, neither of which suited me. But the neighbors did and still do. A visit with them today, brief and emotionally challenging, reminded me of how often I look at one thing, only to find another.

looking at a pansy, finding a teeny bug
looking at an emerging Lancet Clubtail, finding the exuvia too

I am glad I went to the place that didn't suit because I found a couple who did. I'm lucky like that.