Can’t Resist a List

Few things will get my attention faster than a list. 

Lists with bullets, numbers, drawings — I fall for them all. I used to make my lists on scraps of paper and find them washed and dried in my pants pockets. I’m now more organized.  I’m a dedicated bullet journal follower, listing my life’s important events and must-do’s by month, then by day. In this journal, I keep track of the birds I’ve seen in 2020, movies I must see, poets I must read, and quotes I want to remember from books I’ve read. They are all in list form in my bullet journal.

No list, though, sets my heart aflutter like a list of advice. I read one this morning, riding in unannounced, as a list often will, through some portal and onto my computer. I clicked the list link and read all 68 items from writer/inventor/entrepreneur Kevin Kelly, who blogs at and co-writes a weekly newsletter called Recommendo. 

Kelly is a maker and a doer, and helped found Wired magazine, and his list reflects someone navigating his years with generosity, but with a certain get-it-done attitude. I read the list once, then decided I’d try and find my favorite 10.

I went through four rounds before I found my top 10, which means I had to eliminate sound pieces of advice, like No. 29 “To make mistakes is human. To own your mistake is divine. If you mess up, fess up. It’s astounding how powerful this ownership is.” (That should have been my mantra when I taught fifth grade: If you mess up, fess up.)

Or No. 30, “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.” (If you’re a fan of the movie Princess Bride, you’ll recognize that line from the film, proving once again that the best advice is borrowed advice.)

Here are my top 10:

No. 2 Being enthusiastic is worth 25 IQ points. (This one reminds me about the power of curiosity and my friend Carol, who could, with her revved up enthusiasm, make eating leftover fish soup on the third straight night seem like a terrific idea.)

No. 6 A worthy goal for a year is to learn enough about a subject so that you can’t believe how ignorant you were a year earlier. (Another vote for curiosity. Yes.)

No. 8 Treating a person to a meal never fails, and is so easy to do. It’s powerful with old friends and a great way to make new ones. (This one makes me think of two important women — my wife and her mother, Dorothy, who used her kitchen to heal people and befriend many others.)

No. 13 Extraordinary claims should require extraordinary evidence to be believed. (With the amount of bullshit we’re buried under daily, this manner of thinking seems essential to me. Did you hear about the people peddling the idea that Dr. Anthony Fauci is trying to take over the country with false Covid-19 claims? WTF. People believe this shit?)

No. 25 To make something good, just do it. To make something great, just re-do it, re-do it, re-do it. The secret to making fine things is in remaking them. (I’m thinking here of the novel I’m resisting revising for the third time. Shut up and re-do it.)

No. 42 There is no limit on better. Talent is distributed unfairly, but there is no limit on how much we can improve what we start with. (This is a perfect distillation of Carol Dweck’s growth mindset idea. I wrote a 50-page master’s thesis on the idea and Kelly boiled it down to 25 words.)

No. 47 Anything real begins with the fiction of what could be. Imagination is therefore the most potent force in the universe, and a skill you can get better at. It’s the one skill in life that benefits from ignoring what everyone else knows. (This reminds me of Yuval Noah Harari, who wrote in his book Sapiens that it was being able to fictionalize ideas that set homo sapiens apart from other species. We could make plans, which are, you see, nothing but a fiction.)

No. 58 When someone is nasty, rude, hateful, or mean with you, pretend they have a disease. That makes it easier to have empathy toward them which can soften the conflict. (I’d rather try empathy as a way to solve the problem than wallow in a nasty, hateful stew. The worst part about encountering rudeness is that we then take on being rude in return. No thanks.)

No. 63 Buying tools: Start by buying the absolute cheapest tools you can find. Upgrade the ones you use a lot. If you wind up using some tool for a job, buy the very best you can afford. (Nice formula for thinking about what’s important when we buy things.)

No. 68 The universe is conspiring behind your back to make you a success. This will be easier to do if you embrace this pronoia. (I’m a sucker for made-up words (neo-logisms) like pronoia, the opposite of paranoia. More important, if we’re going to have unbidden, wrong-headed thoughts swirling in our heads anyway — I can’t be the only one who suffers from this modern malady — why not inoculate ourselves with helpful thoughts, why prejudice the negative, why not choose the hopeful, if a little whacko, ones? If both paranoia and pronoia are thought choices, sign me up for pronoia.)

Here’s the list in full from Kevin Kelly’s blog. If you want to choose your top few, put them in the comments section. I’d love to know what people see as important.

It’s my birthday. I’m 68. I feel like pulling up a rocking chair and dispensing advice to the young ‘uns. Here are 68 pithy bits of unsolicited advice which I offer as my birthday present to all of you.

1. Learn how to learn from those you disagree with, or even offend you. See if you can find the truth in what they believe.

2. Being enthusiastic is worth 25 IQ points.

3. Always demand a deadline. A deadline weeds out the extraneous and the ordinary. It prevents you from trying to make it perfect, so you have to make it different. Different is better.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask a question that may sound stupid because 99% of the time everyone else is thinking of the same question and is too embarrassed to ask it.

5. Being able to listen well is a superpower. While listening to someone you love keep asking them “Is there more?”, until there is no more.

6. A worthy goal for a year is to learn enough about a subject so that you can’t believe how ignorant you were a year earlier.

7. Gratitude will unlock all other virtues and is something you can get better at.

8. Treating a person to a meal never fails, and is so easy to do. It’s powerful with old friends and a great way to make new friends.

9. Don’t trust all-purpose glue.

10. Reading to your children regularly will bond you together and kickstart their imaginations.

11. Never use a credit card for credit. The only kind of credit, or debt, that is acceptable is debt to acquire something whose exchange value is extremely likely to increase, like in a home. The exchange value of most things diminishes or vanishes the moment you purchase them. Don’t be in debt to losers.

12. Pros are just amateurs who know how to gracefully recover from their mistakes.

13. Extraordinary claims should require extraordinary evidence to be believed.

14. Don’t be the smartest person in the room. Hangout with, and learn from, people smarter than yourself. Even better, find smart people who will disagree with you.

15. Rule of 3 in conversation. To get to the real reason, ask a person to go deeper than what they just said. Then again, and once more. The third time’s answer is close to the truth.

16. Don’t be the best. Be the only.

17. Everyone is shy. Other people are waiting for you to introduce yourself to them, they are waiting for you to send them an email, they are waiting for you to ask them on a date. Go ahead.

18. Don’t take it personally when someone turns you down. Assume they are like you: busy, occupied, distracted. Try again later. It’s amazing how often a second try works.

19. The purpose of a habit is to remove that action from self-negotiation. You no longer expend energy deciding whether to do it. You just do it. Good habits can range from telling the truth, to flossing.

20. Promptness is a sign of respect.

21. When you are young spend at least 6 months to one year living as poor as you can, owning as little as you possibly can, eating beans and rice in a tiny room or tent, to experience what your “worst” lifestyle might be. That way any time you have to risk something in the future you won’t be afraid of the worst case scenario.

22. Trust me: There is no “them”.

23. The more you are interested in others, the more interesting they find you. To be interesting, be interested.

24. Optimize your generosity. No one on their deathbed has ever regretted giving too much away.

25. To make something good, just do it. To make something great, just re-do it, re-do it, re-do it. The secret to making fine things is in remaking them.

26. The Golden Rule will never fail you. It is the foundation of all other virtues.27. If you are looking for something in your house, and you finally find it, when you’re done with it, don’t put it back where you found it. Put it back where you first looked for it.

28. Saving money and investing money are both good habits. Small amounts of money invested regularly for many decades without deliberation is one path to wealth.

29. To make mistakes is human. To own your mistakes is divine. Nothing elevates a person higher than quickly admitting and taking personal responsibility for the mistakes you make and then fixing them fairly. If you mess up, fess up. It’s astounding how powerful this ownership is.

30. Never get involved in a land war in Asia.

31. You can obsess about serving your customers/audience/clients, or you can obsess about beating the competition. Both work, but of the two, obsessing about your customers will take you further.

32. Show up. Keep showing up. Somebody successful said: 99% of success is just showing up.

33. Separate the processes of creation from improving. You can’t write and edit, or sculpt and polish, or make and analyze at the same time. If you do, the editor stops the creator. While you invent, don’t select. While you sketch, don’t inspect. While you write the first draft, don’t reflect. At the start, the creator mind must be unleashed from judgement.

34. If you are not falling down occasionally, you are just coasting.

35. Perhaps the most counter-intuitive truth of the universe is that the more you give to others, the more you’ll get. Understanding this is the beginning of wisdom.

36. Friends are better than money. Almost anything money can do, friends can do better. In so many ways a friend with a boat is better than owning a boat.

37. This is true: It’s hard to cheat an honest man.

38. When an object is lost, 95% of the time it is hiding within arm’s reach of where it was last seen. Search in all possible locations in that radius and you’ll find it.

39. You are what you do. Not what you say, not what you believe, not how you vote, but what you spend your time on.

40. If you lose or forget to bring a cable, adapter or charger, check with your hotel. Most hotels now have a drawer full of cables, adapters and chargers others have left behind, and probably have the one you are missing. You can often claim it after borrowing it.

41. Hatred is a curse that does not affect the hated. It only poisons the hater. Release a grudge as if it was a poison.

42. There is no limit on better. Talent is distributed unfairly, but there is no limit on how much we can improve what we start with.

43. Be prepared: When you are 90% done any large project (a house, a film, an event, an app) the rest of the myriad details will take a second 90% to complete.

44. When you die you take absolutely nothing with you except your reputation.

45. Before you are old, attend as many funerals as you can bear, and listen. Nobody talks about the departed’s achievements. The only thing people will remember is what kind of person you were while you were achieving.

46. For every dollar you spend purchasing something substantial, expect to pay a dollar in repairs, maintenance, or disposal by the end of its life.

47. Anything real begins with the fiction of what could be. Imagination is therefore the most potent force in the universe, and a skill you can get better at. It’s the one skill in life that benefits from ignoring what everyone else knows.

48. When crisis and disaster strike, don’t waste them. No problems, no progress.

49. On vacation go to the most remote place on your itinerary first, bypassing the cities. You’ll maximize the shock of otherness in the remote, and then later you’ll welcome the familiar comforts of a city on the way back.

50. When you get an invitation to do something in the future, ask yourself: would you accept this if it was scheduled for tomorrow? Not too many promises will pass that immediacy filter.

51. Don’t say anything about someone in email you would not be comfortable saying to them directly, because eventually they will read it.

52. If you desperately need a job, you are just another problem for a boss; if you can solve many of the problems the boss has right now, you are hired. To be hired, think like your boss.

53. Art is in what you leave out.

54. Acquiring things will rarely bring you deep satisfaction. But acquiring experiences will.

55. Rule of 7 in research. You can find out anything if you are willing to go seven levels. If the first source you ask doesn’t know, ask them who you should ask next, and so on down the line. If you are willing to go to the 7th source, you’ll almost always get your answer.

56. How to apologize: Quickly, specifically, sincerely.

57. Don’t ever respond to a solicitation or a proposal on the phone. The urgency is a disguise.

58. When someone is nasty, rude, hateful, or mean with you, pretend they have a disease. That makes it easier to have empathy toward them which can soften the conflict.

59. Eliminating clutter makes room for your true treasures.

60. You really don’t want to be famous. Read the biography of any famous person.

61. Experience is overrated. When hiring, hire for aptitude, train for skills. Most really amazing or great things are done by people doing them for the first time.

62. A vacation + a disaster = an adventure.

63. Buying tools: Start by buying the absolute cheapest tools you can find. Upgrade the ones you use a lot. If you wind up using some tool for a job, buy the very best you can afford.

64. Learn how to take a 20-minute power nap without embarrassment.

65. Following your bliss is a recipe for paralysis if you don’t know what you are passionate about. A better motto for most youth is “master something, anything”. Through mastery of one thing, you can drift towards extensions of that mastery that bring you more joy, and eventually discover where your bliss is.

66. I’m positive that in 100 years much of what I take to be true today will be proved to be wrong, maybe even embarrassingly wrong, and I try really hard to identify what it is that I am wrong about today.

67. Over the long term, the future is decided by optimists. To be an optimist you don’t have to ignore all the many problems we create; you just have to imagine improving our capacity to solve problems.

68. The universe is conspiring behind your back to make you a success. This will be much easier to do if you embrace this pronoia.

A friend, a prompt, a poem

I live close to grief.

Covid-19 has killed approximately 2,400 people in Massachusetts — the number is sure to pass 3,000 soon. Friends of mine have come down with the virus, then have returned to health, but only after weeks without energy, days filled with fever and aches that lodge so deeply in joints that the pain feels part of the anatomy. 

I’ve lost no one.

Yet, we’ve all been suffering loss, grieving in some way, mine small and shallow, yours maybe larger and deeper. My wife mourns the loss of the touch of friendship, grieves that she can’t hug friends, welcoming them, in body and soul, into her warm family — a community of story, sharing, and food.

I grieve the acts that I once viewed as small; now I see them as essential: the handshake with the stranger, the high-five with the kid who just said something hilarious, meeting a friend downtown who I hadn’t seen for months, then feeling the glow of knowing that he and I share a nugget that time has yet to erode. So small. And yet, we grieve; we mourn the loss of the tiny interaction, because part of us suspects that we can’t be assured the moments of touch will return.

My friend, Carol, texted me earlier this week that she had heard Kwame Alexander on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, talking about how poetry might help some people cope with big emotions. I hadn’t heard the spot, though I admire Alexander’s work, especially his promoting of literacy in cities across the country. Alexander offered this prompt on Monday: What I’m learning about grief.

I listened to Alexander read one poem by Nancy Cross Dunham, who used the prompt. Then it occurred to me that Carol could help me write a poem using that prompt. I texted her a couple of stanzas, asking her to add to them. I combined our efforts below. If anyone would like to add to the poem, please do so in the comments section. 

We’ve already had four other contributions. Thank you, Andria, Janet, Valle, and Lynn. Keep’em coming!


What I’m learning about grief

is that we don’t mistake

it for happiness

like a mud pie

could look like the chocolatey one.


What I know about grief

is you cannot outrun or hide from it

as a child does from scolding parents

or monsters under the bed.


It knocks at the door

it’s no good pretending we’re not home

it knows we’re sagging into the couch

open the damn door

hang up its coat

offer it tea.


It is undeniable, a given

something you can count on

so greet it gently

or yell and scream.

Greet it, however it demands.


I do not greet grief.

It finds me, follows me like a shadow at unexpected times.

After losing my husband then another partner,

I know filled chairs at holiday dinners

never erase the loss — always a loved one missing.

Nothing fills the loss. It remains,

I see the missing.


i’m learning that grief can be


the familiar childish stomping “NO!”

in my Heart
a sadness that reduces me to
counting cards
birds and turtles
a so-brief respite from

it lives in my marrow
flows with my blood
through narrow passages
touching the surface releasing tears,
seeping deep making my muscles numb,
sparking memories that force smiles, laughter too.


Likes to come through music

Especially on a warm day, in the car

With the windows down.

Maybe it’s Lucinda singing about the big red sun

Or Leonard singing just about anything

But mister grief wants us to know he is there, just on the edge of that song

Doodling for Mental Health

Drawing crows of all sizes, along with a chicken and an alligator, is cheaper than therapy.

Five weeks into quarantine and I realize I’m not as emotionally stable as I thought I was back in March, when I was painting every other room in my house. Now, I fight with my wife one day and feel as isolated as a lost bat in a cave the next. 

I never understood in my gut why solitary confinement worked evil wonders on a prisoner’s brain. I get it. Keep me out of solitary.

We all have our emotional immaturities, mine maybe more glaring than yours, but hey, that gives me more to work on; yet I’m less interested in the ways my days can get derailed. I’m here to report that Mo Willems, Dan Santat, and Ed Emberley have shown me what cheap therapy looks like. 

It’s playtime with a pencil.

Those three mentioned above are all expert doodlers, who took their need to draw and transformed it into careers. All three are children’s book authors — Willems and Santat are current and famous in the world of picture books. Emberley wrote his Drawing Book of Animals fifty years ago, inspiring kids to draw all over the country. (More on this later, but I know for a fact he inspired a Northampton star comicstrip artist.)

Isolation make me weird and irritable on Wednesdays, and both lethargic and manic on Fridays; some days I just don’t write well, and I can’t face the idea of scraping adhesive crud from my stairs. When the isolation scrambles my mood, I draw. Yes, I draw simple, odd, animals inspired by the three picture book authors above. When I’m done, I’m unexpectedly happy.

This doodling odd animals started for me with Ed Emberley, who wrote many books, but made his name with how-to-draw books, starting with his Drawing Book of Animals. I found it among some abandoned books at the RK Finn Ryan Road School. It belonged to a retired teacher, and now I have it. He’s taught me how to draw fish, owls, crows, frogs, cats, dogs, fox, and a dragon. 

A few years ago, I was chatting with Hilary Price, who creates the comic strip Rhymes with Orange, outside her home, when I mentioned how excited I was to have an Ed Emberley book. “Come here,” she said, waving me into her house. I was confused why she was so secretly happy, until she pointed at a framed print she had hanging on her wall from Ed Emberley, one of her childhood drawing heroes. I think it might even have been signed.

Emberley now serves as my therapist. Mo Willems and Dan Santat also have a seat in the room, helping me stay sane.

Back in mid-March, when our governor in Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, told many of us to stay home, Willems, who lives across town from me here in Northampton, started doing short doodle lunches on Youtube for kids. He aimed his doodle audience at the same demographic as his books — kids up to the age of about eight. He’d draw his most famous characters — Pigeon, Gerald the Elephant and Piggy — and invited his audience to do the same. I watched the first episode out of curiosity, not expecting much. I noticed, though, that after drawing silly animals for twenty minutes I was slightly happier. So, I began binging these lunchtime doodle shows, because I was having fun, and that was in short supply. (Two quarantine essentials I need stocked in the house: Enough beer in the fridge and fun; one I can buy, the other I have to make on my own.)

Drawing pictures that any kid could produce can turn a cruddy day around for me.

Willems invited his buddy, Dan Santat, to take over one of his lunchtime doodle sessions, and he taught me how to draw his famous character, Beekle. Plus, Santat was humble enough to suggest he had no special artistic talent, rather, he practiced regularly as a kid, copying from how-to-draw books until he memorized how to draw animals. I imagine he had an Ed Emberley book growing up. 

I’m serious and brooding by nature. In quarantine, those traits don’t always serve me right, so I’ve learned that if I bring up a Willems’ doodling video or open Emberley’s book, a playfulness takes over. Not only am I easier to live with after drawing crows and chickens for thirty minutes, I’m more likely to write something interesting, loose, and new.

When drawing, I’m less judgmental, because, hey, what’s to judge? When any of us enters that fabulous learning zone, where there’s little baggage about past successes or where the drawings might end up one day, there’s little reason to worry. Just draw.

I woke up one day and hoped

I planted pea, lettuce, carrot, and spinach seeds in this garden. I can only hope they grow.

I woke with a small plan today, enough of one to get me through the day, but, let’s be honest, one of limited scope, like most of my ideas over the past month.

The to-do square in my bullet journal for 4/11 Saturday says, “Plant spinach and lettuce.”

I added to the plan by going out to buy some jalapeño pepper and tomato seeds. Simple enough: plant the cool weather seeds outside and start our hot-weather, salsa garden seeds in our sun room.

Somewhere in the tumble of the day’s hours, planting seeds became more than getting my hands dirty. I stood up and I hoped. 

The seeds in those envelopes forced me to consider the future, hope for a harvest. For the last month, I’ve hungered for news about this one day — it’s new coronavirus case numbers, it’s death count, it’s new limits to where I could go. Each new day I have had to abandon another pursuit outside my house, leave go another future plan. 

Today, those impossibly small seeds — have you ever looked at how miniscule and flat a carrot seed is? — lifted my chin and set my gaze further into the future. I pinned hopes, however unfounded, on those lettuce seeds, those spinach seeds. I imagine a June salad picked from my garden.

I tried to follow the exact planting instructions on the back of the seed envelope: Space each seed 1/2 inch apart and cover with 1/4 inch of dirt. My trough wasn’t always 1/4 inch deep. Those seeds, packed too closely, seemed doomed to die in the dirt. And yet, I’m pinning my hopes on them — it’s my javelin toss into the future.

This is our tray of hope. Janet planted tomato and jalapeño pepper seeds, and now we’ll wait — and hope.

Then I got my wife, Janet, involved. She planted the tomatoes and peppers inside in her neat and fastidious way. Somehow knowing people can do things so cleanly and so perfectly engenders hope. 

This idea of seeds and hope took another turn today, when I was listening to the academic, Keeanga-Yamahtta Young, talk on the radio about the end of the covid-19 pandemic, and whether she thought our country might act differently now that we’ve seen exposed some of the deep unfairnesses of our society. She had hope, and here I’m having to remember her words and they’re not exact, she said, “it wasn’t the rickety hope of religiosity.” She was positioning herself in the camp of serious analysis, even data, the hope of rational thinkers. That is the coin of academics.

After the analysis and the data, I swerved to Ross Gay, the poet and essayist who’s made his name writing about “unabashed gratitude” and daily joy essays.

It struck me that we shouldn’t judge any hope that any of us can muster. My hope today, the day before Easter — that Christian holiday I love for its sweeping feeling of hope though I understand its meaning to be more story than truth — is based on a handful of miniscule seeds. If someone else’s hope is based on a story of a man rising from the dead to become part of the God Trinity, then I’m sure not going to call it rickety. I’m going to applaud the idea that they can imagine some hope.

Hope it seems cannot be rational and, sometimes, it can’t be anticipated. 

What I know is that when the seeds of hope come, I best get to work and sow them.

The Politics of Apology

We had an election snafu in Northampton on Super Tuesday. No big deal, move on. The mistake did not alter the results of the property tax question our city was deciding. 

But I can’t get over the notion that the voters in Ward 7B deserve more than a verbal apology and a promise that it will not happen again. We owe the voters in Leeds, that part of our Massachusetts city where the problem of not enough ballots occurred, a new election. 

My concern, if we do not hold another vote, is two-fold: one of perception and, here I risk sappiness, one of sanctity. I want the election to be viewed as fair — and while mathematically it is — by perception it is not. The city stiffed one of the most conservative wards the correct number of ballots. And yet, the proposition passed so decisively that even if all the people turned away in Leeds voted against the measure, it would still win.

Northampton was deciding whether to raise our property taxes above the 2.5 percent allowed by state law. If those running our city want taxes to rise more than 2.5 percent, they have to ask the voters for permission. It’s called a property tax override, and the proposition, along with voting in the Democratic primary, compelled many of us to go to the polls. 

There were two ballots, one for the Democratic primary and state delegates and a separate ballot for the override question. When the Leeds School polling place was running low on ballots, the warden, Bob Riddle, called City Clerk Pam Powers to alert her about the need for more. The message did not get relayed quickly enough, so when some voters in Leeds went to their polling place shortly before dinner on Tuesday, March 3, they were told they’d have to wait for extra tax override ballots to arrive. Some left angry. Some yelled at Mr. Riddle. All were told they could return and vote. Not all did, according to news reports.

The next day, the city clerk was apologetic and contrite and transparent in an interview in the local newspaper. What a courageous act it was to be so honest about the mistake. She did not try to hide it, run from it, or blame anyone else. She said it was her fault and she’d do everything to make sure it did not happen again.

“It won’t happen again,’’ does not correct what I believe is the salient point: Everyone must believe in the election results or elections become moot. As it stands now, there is a tangible reason, for some, not to believe in the results. The mistake needs to be fixed — call it electoral reparations — and one of the ways we can do that is to have another election. 

Northampton does not need to hold new city-wide elections, but it could re-do the property tax override question for the Leeds voters. The apology that the city clerk gave is a good start, but it is not enough. There needs to be an apology with some action — and a chance to do it again, for no better reason than the perception of the election’s fairness needs to be beyond criticism.

The tax override had consequences. I own a house worth about what is the median value for a home in Northampton. My property taxes are now projected to increase approximately $200 per year. I voted for the increase, but I understand how those on fixed incomes, and those who don’t believe the city government is run well enough, do not want to pay the extra. For them to have to pay extra, while not believing in the results of the election, is a heavy ask. 

It occurs to me that elections are like a dollar bill. They both function on belief. If all of us decide that the dollar bill is not worth what we had previously agreed what it was worth, then our financial system runs the risk of crumbling. There’s no longer gold behind the dollar. There’s only us believing that it is worth what we say.

The same goes with elections. As soon as people do not believe in the results — whether rationally or not — then they have an excuse, if not reason, to ignore the results. Here’s the sappy part: Elections are sacred democratic events that need to be honored. When they are sullied, they run the risk of being less meaningful, which, I think, is just what despots and those in the majority would like. If enough people with minority opinions think that elections do not matter, then only those holding the accepted opinions will vote. 

The majority may rule, but the minority has to be respected — even honored.

Poems on Your Birthday

I try to steer away from being self serving, though on inspection I can’t help but veer toward it. I do like to notice when I’m fortunate, and hope to do it here without patting myself on the back with too much vigor.

I had a birthday last night; it’s dark and cold so we’re all looking for reasons to celebrate, which partially accounts for the 15 people or so who showed up for latkes, beef tenderloin, and Cesar salad.

But neither the food nor my birthday is the point. Poems are what I’m grateful for, poems written by young men who used to be fourth-grade students of mine more
than a decade ago. Dillon and Zeb came over, bringing poems they wrote as presents.

The front of the birthday card that Dillon Watson and Zeb Lollis-Taylor made. Dillon wrote this poem, after I gave him the words cedar, accept, blunt, and pierce to include.

Let’s throw it out there! For a former elementary school teacher turned poet receiving poems as presents from adults, who I taught when they were nine years old, is a tornado wind of affirming. 

I’m fortunate, sure, to have received the poems; more though, I’m incredibly lucky to share an orbit with these two men, who value the idea of slowing down enough to make a birthday card and write poems on them. I can’t take much credit for the values they’ve taken as their own. But we must believe, as teachers, that we’ve woven some tender thread in the web that is our students’ lives. The poems they wrote present me with some evidence to sustain that belief.

By writing their poems, Dillon and Zeb did not bend the arc of history. They did, though, display a certain heart. A poem exists in a slow time, is often born in solitude. It takes effort to make one; it takes courage to share it. A poem is a giving of our most deliberate and considered creating; it represents us at our most open, ready and thoughtful. If we are found wanting in our poems, we’re wounded. And yet, they still wrote me poems and allowed me to read them out loud. 

Part of Zeb’s poem about the desert and people growing up in it reads:

“racing creation slow motion in the train station,

hammock swingz on a mountain,

a falcon sings as we’re dancing and shouting,

shooting starz and broken down cars,

golden memoriez followed by faded scarz…”

There’s nothing about the writing of poetry that makes a person any better or worse than anyone else. There is, though, a glow, no denying it, one gets from receiving poems from beautiful young men who’ve got plenty of distractions and demands to weigh.

I’m fortunate, most grateful, and I owe them both a poem, so we can keep swapping on our continued shared journey. I can’t wait to read what more they have to say.

Poem: One Palm Sunday, A New England Primer

In my garden near the Norwottuck Branch Rail Trail that runs 25 yards away, where people ride, scoot, walk, run, and sometimes ski.  The parade of people is mostly a delight; sometimes it offers insights into New England behavior and my own.

Bob Hicok, a poet out of Michigan, wrote a poem called A Primer, where he was trying to teach the rest of us something about that midwestern state, while saying something about the need for stories — writing them and listening to them. A Primer landed in the New Yorker in 2008 and I read it many years after that.

It wasn’t too long after reading Hicok’s poem that I had an experience in early spring while sawing shelf lengths for my bathroom that I was renovating. I was doing the work on my deck. The Norwottuck Branch Rail Trail, connecting the towns east of the Connecticut River with my city sitting on the western banks of the river, is next to my house, and I see on a sunny day hundreds of people zipping by, some on bicycles, some on roller skis, others running.

One biker was trying to fix a tire on his bike. I helped him, and from that experience a poem was born. When I wrote it, I was thinking of Hicok and his poem. You can read my poem at It was published today.