Monday, December 31, 2007

On the Cusp of a New Year

In 1831, a storm uncovered a store of hidden figures on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. They seemed at first to be "little people" buried in the sand. But, they were chessmen carved from walrus ivory and whale teeth, some stained red. It's thought they were carved in 12th century Norway and traveled to Lewis by ship. Most of the collection is in the British Museum in London. Some are in the Royal Museum in Edinburgh.

During the summer of 1995, there was an exhibition of Lewis Chessmen in Stornoway. The chessmen had, in fact, come home for a short time. I saw them there in a small museum where signs and Mac computers offered explanations in Scots Gaelic. I was captivated by the gloomy Chessmen -- the queen with her "O, my god" expression and the rooks, biting their shields like Viking "berserkers". I brought home a stone-carved King and Queen and they have been on my desk ever since.

Today, I have a full set of Lewis Chessmen, a gift of the season. They are now my companions and Muse for the year to come as I write a story with them, about them, inspired by them. They will captivate Maddy Tucker, a restless teenager who tags along with her biologist father on his latest research project in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. I hope you will be captivated, too.

On this New Year's Eve, these gloomy medieval faces fit our troubled world. But, as ever, I am the determined optimist -- writing a novel, writing for change, challenging those who would keep us silent and at war. Tonight we burn away the old year.

What shall we bring to the New?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Here's one of Barry's photos to mark the season. For the past few years, we have set our Christmas tree on the deck where it serves as shelter to red squirrels, birds and an occasional mouse. One year, the tree became a nesting site for two mourning doves and we watched that miracle of small eggs later hatch into a new brood.

I am thinking about Winslow Homer who said: "In the end, what matters most is the Sea."

I'm asking myself, "In the end, what matters most is _________" and I don't know, yet. Ask yourself this question and send me your comments.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Aggie's Footsteps

It was a hot, dusty day -- just one more in that long line of hot, dusty days. There had been no rain for at least a year, maybe more, it was hard to say. Harder still, Kina thought, to remember the feel of a soft, gentle rain when she turned her face to the sky.

Kina perched at the edge of the village, surveying the length of rough road that led out of the park to the long track through open land that eventually reached Isolo. She knew once there in the city, she could find her friend, Aggie. Aggie had left this very spot last spring, before she could be married or bartered off. Kina had stayed to watch the bright figure in blue disappear into the bush.

Aggie had said many times she wouldn’t be able to stand not choosing her own husband. She refused to wait for the old chiefs -- old goats she called them -- to make that choice for her.

The other girls were shocked to hear Aggie speak that way about the elders, but not Kina. Kina knew exactly what Aggie meant. Kina lived the no-choice every moment, but especially at night when she entered the small dung and hide-covered hut she shared with her husband.

“Tourists!” The call echoed through the village. The young men had waved in two white minivans full of tourists -- plump, white tourists -- of different ages.

Kina sighed and hurried to her hut. She wrapped a colorful striped cloth around her body and slipped on her grandmother’s heavy bead necklace. The rows of red and
white clay beads rubbed her neck. She quickly brushed back her hair and joined the line of women ready to perform the Welcome Dance.

The young men brought the guides to Kina. She was one of the few Samburu women who spoke English. She had been to school longer than the others in her age group. She would have stayed but for her marriage, her lack of choice.

“Americans. Canadians. Swedish,” said the guide.

Kina knew him, Peter. He often brought groups to their village. She knew the thing to say. “Ten dollars each one. Okay photos and a tour.”

Peter nodded. “I’ll be sure they buy things from the store. These people are okay.”

She watched Peter return to the vans. The white people pulled out bills and cameras. They approached the line of colorfully dressed village women, almost shyly. Then she heard the cameras and the foreigners talked excitedly among themselves.

Kina took a deep breath. This is the last group I dance for, she promised herself. Tonight, when my husband sleeps, I’ll be gone. Gone to find my friend Aggie.

She clapped her hands and turned her face to the sky. Her clear voice rang across the dusty scrubland. Weaverbirds in the acacias startled and rose above the parched landscape like a dark cloud. Kina called again, and the village women answered her with the welcome chant. They moved forward, stirring the dust with their feet.

Kina’s words soared over the line of women. Like a great fish eagle on the wing, her song of freedom flew north, following the rough track through the bush and beyond.

Author’s Note: Kenya, again. This time I took a photo from our visit to the Samburu National Reserve and turned it into a writing prompt. This is my favorite way of writing and finding out what I’m really thinking.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

November Light

The woods stretch for miles, unbroken and unspoiled. I stop at the old stonewall, a last outpost of industry, covered now with lichen and leaves. Once the boundary for a farmer’s field, this rock wall still marks the edge of the wilderness at the place where someone long forgotten drew the line between civilized and wild, familiar and unexplored.

The house and barn lie safely at my back, and late afternoon sun slants through the forest before me. The landscape turns gold and rust and brown. Only the firs are softened by green. The other trees stand plumb and square, stripped of their autumn finery.

It’s November and I can see far into the woods to where the ledges rise and where lightning split the big pine.

People around here tend to curse this time of year. “Depressing month,” they grumble. “Think of what follows,” they warn.

But I sit on the old stonewall with a secret: I love November. I wait for a day like today when the sunlight cuts clean to the bone and exposes things usually well hidden.

Behind me, the garden rests under its winter dressing of leaves and aged goat manure. It still yields kale, leeks and carrots, but the main harvest is done. My pantry overflows with jars of jam, relish, juice and shell beans. The woodshed hugs its four cords of red oak and maple, cut and split and dried and stacked, and the barn is crammed with hay and cornstalks.

Even the root cellar rivals King Solomon’s mines. Its shelves glitter with the colors of rare jewels. In place of golden chains, I hang braided onions and rather than rubies, I pack apples in straw and beets in damp sand.

From where I sit, summer no longer lingers and there is a pause, a silence, one quiet but full moment suspended between seasons.

My path to the woods touches the pond. No ripples today, just that hard black clarity, prelude to ice. In the distance, Cardigan Mountain looms big and barren. Some mornings, she dresses in startling white and on others she wears her usual grays and browns. The late autumn sun sharpens her features and reveals new majesty.

Here is why I come to the edge of the wilderness in November. It’s too easy to be lost in the mist of a September morning or lulled to sleep by July’s lush green.

The October sun plays on golden aspen leaves, and its light shimmers and dazzles, as if on water. Come January, snow alters the landscape and I’m awed by the blues and whites of deep winter.

No, it’s this rich, warm brown of dried pine needles that carries my vision farther and farther into woods where life has been pared.

Another shaft of light cuts through, and I see ancient stumps, logs and, everywhere, bare trees.

Illusions shatter in November light. Illusions about love and loyalty. Permanence and loss. Delusions of judgment. Control. Questions of right and wrong and who’s to blame. Like so many leaves they drift to the forest floor and turn, eventually into good, dark compost.

Sitting here, watching and waiting, I find this a deeper harvest to reckon. There can be no root cellars for dreams or storage boxes for promises. My garden will not yield up truth, and canning jars do not preserve hope. Instead, I’ll measure the distance between heart and deed and count my wealth by the peace that comes when what I say and what I do are one.

Warm sun falls on the rock wall and I look at the old stones and wonder. Why stop here? Someone years ago set these markers for their world, not mine. Yet I have believed in these walls, these borders, these safe limits and kept well within their lines.

The air is rich with the smell of wood smoke and rotting leaves. Afternoon moves slowly towards dusk, and the woods fade to gray. But for me there’s light enough -- and time.

From the stonewall I walk first to the ledges, then to the big pine struck by lightning, and then to the horizon beyond. The quiet moment suspended between seasons is over, and I’m moving on.

Author’s Note: “November Light” appeared in Convergence Magazine, Winter 1992 issue. I read it again and love it still. I am also very moved to know that these words and images touch others as well.

Today, the pond is gone, but the rest -- garden, barn, Cardigan Mountain, stonewalls, me -- thrive.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Aung San Suu Kyi: Noble Prize Winner. Rightful leader of Burma.

I feel so small and so humbled by the tens of thousands of Buddhist monks marching for peace and political change in Burma. Where have we all been since the last uprising in 1988 when the democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was arrested.

World leaders know how brutal and inept this military government is. We need more than economic sanctions. We need someone with the will to stand beside the monks and the Burmese people and say, Enough. The military junta is over.

But, I live in a country that is waging war in the Middle East. Our government has started a relentless campaign to war against new countries, like Iran. We have squandered moral will and basic principles. We have our own junta. We just don't acknowledge it yet.

In my heart I am marching and marching and marching.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

End of a Summer

It's time to reflect before moving into another school year. This image of the East Inlet in late August settles me. I'm feeling satisfied, ready, pleased to have had two months of challenges and community among writers and teachers. I'm already doing different things, like leading writing workshops. It's time to put new skills and new insights about myself into action. It's Praxis in the true meaning of the word -- reflection and action together to create effective change.

So, read Paulo Freire. Nel Noddings. Mary Pipher. Pema Chodron. Kids' writing. Canoe the East Inlet at dawn. Wander off the path and come back to this blog from time to time...

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Blessings on Mt. Batur

In Bali, the spiritual realm and the physical world intertwine. At times, it's hard to tell where one stops and the other begins. There are flowers, temples, offerings of sticky rice and spices, and everywhere, the reminder of what we owe to the unseen.

This small deity on the side of Mt. Batur has an impish look. I 'm grateful for its presence and memory in my life. I too honor the place where spirit and body meet - with flowers, small statues, stones, and sayings-reminders of what is known and unknown, half a world away.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

A Time for Peace

This is a crazy time in the school year. I will be writing reports, one a day, over the next fourteen days. As part of my save-my-sanity strategy, I decided to post my favorite photos, especially those that give me great peace.

June 2002. Machu Picchu. Peru.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

It's Looking a Lot like Vietnam

In my work this past week, I have met two boys whose older brothers are going to Iraq. One brother is in the Air Force, the other is a Marine. The younger boys are solemn and worried, although they don't say that aloud.

The high school now has a highly polished granite marker/ gravestone in the front of the building to honor graduate-soldiers who die in Iraq. There is one name carved on the stone face -- with plenty of space for more.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Watching Goats

We're in the midst of a major snowstorm here on the east coast. We can expect anywhere up to a foot of snow, heavy rain and dangerous winds. We have had three big snowstorms in the past three weeks. Not your typical April -- even for New Hampshire.

Despite this, the goldfinch turn bright yellow and the chickadees collect bits of thread and string for nests.

Half a world away in the Masai Mara, young boys watch over their families' goats and cows. It rained there longer than usual this year. Tourists had been stranded in their minivans in mud. Two weeks after that, we enjoyed sunny weather under brilliant blue skies. Not your typical March -- even for Kenya.

Despite this, humans argue among themselves and make pitiful bargains that will not change anything. Who do we think we are, anyway?

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Learning Curve

Fear makes us stupid,
shuts minds,
closes doors.

Stupid makes us fearful,
spawns the mob,
no dissent.

I think that's the way
some people
like it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

What Was Once and Now...

At the edge of the vast plains of the Masai Mara in Kenya, I felt as if I stood at the beginning of Time. In all directions there was the savannah and herds of different animals. It was a powerful but bittersweet image, this vision of time before humans, before the fall.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Before I Sleep in Africa

Before I sleep in Africa, I set aside Mau Mau.
Zulu. Saturday matinees where Tarzan meets
Jane and reasonable men in pith helmets,
crazed by heat and quicksand and the lion’s roar,
tame a dark continent. “Dr. Livingstone. I…”
but, you know the rest.

Before I feel African sun, I let go stories
from years gone by. Hemingway. Lessing.
Dinesen and Van der Post. Teddy Roosevelt,
our very own Great White Hunter. Adventures
on the page, on the screen, in the flesh,
but mostly, in black-and-white.

Before I walk African soil, I shed my leather
shoes. Trace the steps of Jane Goodall. Dian
Fossey. Albert Schweitzer. My generation went
into Operation Crossroads. The Peace Corps.
Here I am, dogged visionary from the ‘60’s,
still hopeful, still yearning.

Before I hear the voices of Africa, I think Nelson
Mandela. Biafra. Rwanda. Soweto.
Somalia. Darfur. Chad and De Beers.
Soldiers in black boots with automatic weapons.
Ordinary people in everyday life. Will I hear
children, laughing?

Before I go to Africa, I ask, what went wrong
in this place where humanity has lived longest?
Malaria. AIDS. Water. Refugees. I wonder
if – after Africa – will I come to know poverty
and colonial legacies and maybe, just maybe,
glimpse why we are here at all.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Thoughts for the Day


“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence [and that is] activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form of violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

No More Troops

The New Year inspires me to think carefully about my life -- past, present, future. It's always been a marker. We celebrated the end of 2006 with a bonfire in the garden. Burn away the old year. I like that image. It seems pagan and elemental. We stood under the dark sky and watched flames illuminate the pines at the edge of the field.

Ten days later, I feel ageless, wandering in that strange been-here-before fog. How can our country allow more troops to be sent to Iraq? Who is George Bush? WHERE is the outrage? Refuse him and remove him.

I read today on Common Dreams that Richard Nixon ran this course before in 1970 when Vietnam was already lost. He authorized the bombing of Cambodia. He escalated the war. Killing, despair, devastation continued for five more years.

There was a huge student response -- and out of that protest came Kent State where the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four students. Remember this.

Over the weekend we saw a brilliant movie: "Children of Men". It's not such a far-fetched view of the near future. Many people we tell about the movie say they won't see it --"too much violence. Too depressing." Don't be squeamish. Go see it and be outraged. That may be the only way we pull ourselves out of the mud.

Happy New Year.