One way to thank a veteran

Why is it that the smallest gestures become so rich when repeated as tradition?

I ponder this as I prepare for my annual fall pumpkin bread baking custom.  The recipe is splattered with egg stains, penned upon by an enthusiastic child baker, and smudged with speckles of pumpkin from years of sitting too close to the mixing bowl.

It was a first grade teacher, Mrs. Franklin, who began the tradition when one of the original Backyard Boys was in first grade.  Mrs. Franklin guided the class through a baking lesson.  We parents thought she was teaching counting, and adding whole numbers, introducing fractions, building reading vocabulary, and instilling patience.  But of course her instruction was far deeper than that.  Did she realize the impact of her pumpkin bread lesson?


That day in first grade, each child took home a small loaf as a gift to their families. The bread was so much better than any pumpkin bread we’d ever tried, and the joy on the boy’s face when he realized he could bake a gift was so gleeful, we began an annual fall tradition of baking and giving Mrs. Franklin’s Pumpkin Bread.

We started close to home, that year, baking for sisters and cousins and grandparents.  The next year we branched out, sharing pumpkin bread with neighbors and friends.  The man next door who fought in the Korean War was touched. “I’ve never been remembered on Veteran’s Day before,” he said when we knocked on his front door and proffered the still-warm loaf.

Whenever we shared the bread, we always heard two things a few days later.

“That pumpkin bread was so good, we ate it all in one day!”
“Can I have the recipe?”

The Pumpkin Bread recipe began to take on a magical aura in our house as the never-fail-to-please item to take to new neighbors and friends, to potlucks and as hostess gifts to parties.  We loved to make it.


Knowing that Mrs. Franklin wouldn’t mind, we added on to the tradition by photocopying the recipe and including it with the bread.  The recipe wasn’t beautiful anymore but it bore its badge of frequent use with good humor.  Like love and wise lessons from first grade teachers, Mrs. Franklin’s Pumpkin Bread was soon travelling far from its original source.

Lynn began a pumpkin bread-giving circle in Kansas City.
Mustafa took it to his family in St. Louis where it’s now a fall tradition in his home.
Bharti made it and sent it to her family in Mumbai.

As the cousins grew up and moved away to college they knew they could count on a Backyard Sister Fall Care Package that always included pumpkin bread nestled in tissue paper.  It arrived safely and fragrant from California to  Washington, D.C., and Boston, to Chicago, and Iowa City and Tucson, Arizona.

Mrs. Franklin’s Pumpkin Bread was even snuck into Pauley Pavilion in the interior pocket of a giant khaki raincoat as a fall treat for the UCLA Men’s Basketball team.  When the Backyard Boy left home to play basketball in Malaga, Spain, he received a care package in time to celebrate his first Thanksgiving in Europe with the taste of home.

Even though we’ve never actually met you, our loyal readers, I see no reason why we can’t share the recipe.  I’m absolutely positive that Mrs. Franklin would like that.  So, with love from her, and from the Backyard Sisters, here it is.

Bake it soon, with a child. And when you get a chance, walk with it, still warm, to someone who served our country. Say thank you. You can’t imagine what kind of goodness you might be sowing there among the brave acting as if all you are doing  is sharing bread.

With pumpkin and spice,


The way to a friend’s heart

Today’s post comes courtesy of Theresa, the eldest Backyard Sister. Her story of a dinner party gone awry might be partially my fault.  I’m the one who compiled the family cookbook. Did I get the recipe wrong? ~ Catherine

Miracles HappenBy Theresa Lower
January brings the hope of new beginnings. M and I resolve to perfect the art of entertaining this year. We vow to plan ahead, no more last minute preparations or improvisational meals. We’re going to be relaxed and ready when our guests arrive. And so, we decide to have a dinner party to practice, not our usual impromptu get-together, but a real grown-up evening of food and conversation, music and appetizers. Nothing too fancy, but a meal with a plan and recipes, real recipes followed to the letter, an evening to remember.

The milestones and holidays in our family have a signature dish that identifies the event as special, and many of these beloved recipes have been transcribed and compiled into a family cookbook by Catherine. We turn to this cookbook for the perfect winter meal. What better Winter-in-Des Moines offering to our friends than the Christmas Eve Chili I’ve eaten at my parent’s house for years? I’ve never made it, but how hard can it be?

Party day arrives. M and I move through most of the items on our to-do list when we begin to cook about 4:00; the guests will arrive at 7:00.  We tell ourselves we’ll easily be ready on time, probably spend the last hour relaxing with our feet up. After all we just have to mix everything together and stir occasionally. M, who bought the groceries the day before, asks if the ingredients will fit into the pot. “Sure,” I say and pull four pounds of stew meat and three pounds of pork tenderloin out of the refrigerator.

Undaunted, I review the recipe. Seven pounds of meat, yes! Onions and garlic sizzle on the stove. hovers over the pot. “Are you sure this is all going to fit?”  I feel a small twinge of doubt, break my resolve to follow the recipe, and decide to use only three quarters of the stew meat and half the pork. The pot is full. I eye the clock and the seven cans of beans and chopped tomato on the counter and begin to feel desperate.

We get out the crockpot and a frying pan, put half the meat in the frying pan and the beans and tomato mixture into the crockpot. valiantly stirs both kettles of meat. After the last can of beans is emptied into the crockpot, I review the ingredients again. Now, I worry in earnest. The beans and tomato form a congealed mass, even with the liquid from the chopped tomatoes. I can’t imagine how I’ll be able to mix in the meat. I search the recipe for liquid – water, broth, tomato sauce? No liquid, but I’m confident, I’m following a recipe with years of tradition behind it.

We add the meat to the beans in the crockpot and stir, hoping it will be transformed into the blend of succulent meat and savory beans I remember. Instead it begins to scorch. We dump all the ingredients back into the original pot. They barely fit, but at least we can control the heat.  “We’ll have to stir frequently,” I say.

I wish I could tell you that we defied the recipe and added liquid. No, we stubbornly clung to the belief that the recipe was right, even when faced with mounting evidence that it was not. The mixture continued to cook only on the bottom, and because of its density, as the heat rose, so did the chili, heaving itself up and forming small blow holes that hissed when we tried to stir it with a feeble wooden spoon. I began to think of it as the Monster on the Stove. And sadly, that it remained.

Instead of developing a rich broth as it simmered, the chili got thicker and thicker as the beans broke down. When it was finally served, we presented a heavy lump of meat with an occasional bean.


Our friends were gracious. They bravely chewed and enthusiastically declared the meal delicious. We laughed and shared stories and mostly finished our servings of Christmas Eve Chili. All politely refused a second portion, claiming it was so hearty they couldn’t possibly eat more.

I’m humbled, both by the generosity of friendship and my own foolishness in refusing to trust my instincts.  As for putting our feet up and relaxing before the guests arrived, at 6:15pm I was trying to re-hang a kitchen cabinet door that had somehow fallen off and was vacuuming. Next time we practice the art of entertaining, we’ll use a recipe we know and make it the day before.

I still have to ask Mom and Dad to tell me the secret to the family chili. Then maybe Catherine can edit the family cookbook.

Want to come over for dinner soon?

You get what you need

Of course you can’t always get what you want. But one Wednesday night in the middle of a perfectly ordinary week you might get this:

The Rolling Stones: Forceful

Photo credit: Genara Molina, Los Angeles Times

If Mick and his pals aren’t too old to keep rocking, then I’m not too old for my first Rolling Stones concert. It’s not like I didn’t like live music the first time I wore a suede headband with feathers and beads. I sat so close to Elton John at the Inglewood Forum in 1974 that he took my hand and mouthed thank you for the hand scrawled “Elton Babe I love you!” poster I passed over the rail to him. I stayed on my feet all night long for The Who, Jethro Tull, Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie, Neil Diamond, Joe Walsh, and the Beach Boys enough times to be considered a groupie.  I’ve even seen Kanye West in concert. But The Rolling Stones? Not so much.

Why now? Falling for those skinny boys from Bloody Old took a long slow burn. Maybe it started at a frat party or a wedding when the fastest way to get everyone onto the dance floor was to blast “I (Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Boys shouted the words feeling misunderstood and restless as under-loved mongrels while we girls echoed the lyrics a hey, hey, hey, tipping our shoulders just enough to promise that maybe this would be the night that the “girl reaction” would be satisfying indeed.

When things ended badly “Get Off of My Cloud” gave us the perfect chorus to hitch up our thumbs and sing out at the top of our lungs of a serious need to be alone. If the Stones wanted a little space, “’cause two’s a crowd,” we did too.

Decades pass like dandelion dander and we find ourselves once again in the age of frequent weddings – this time our friends’ children. Any event with music and a dance floor  – cheesy New Year’s Eve parties, milestone birthday bashes, charity parties and backyard barbecues – is guaranteed to have a band covering epic Stones tunes or a DJ spinning them.  “Brown Sugar,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” and “Emotional Rescue” still pack the floor with lip-synching, lyric shouting dancers of our age, yes, but also children and grandchildren who know this music as well as their own. These songs are in our bones the way the ocean is.

I finally had to see The Rolling Stones with my own eyes, had to be in The Honda Center, Section 202, joining the roaring crowd of bleached blondes wearing ripped black and white striped pants and red sparkly circus shoes, of long white-haired ponytailed men in tye-dyed t-shirts, of a pink twirly skirted little girl holding her grandmother’s hand, and strangers on a first date, a dad taking his big brown-eyed daughter to her first concert – He’s the best dad ever! We all wanted to see the original before a man who’s “got the moves like Jagger” is all that’s left.

lights and mouth

Watching Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and the entire cast of characters that create The Rolling Stones “50 and Counting Tour” feels like standing on shore watching winter waves ceaselessly crash toward you. It’s an unstoppable force of nature that miraculously transcends time. I don’t feel so bad now that my rarely modernized dance moves pinpoint, like some sort of carbon dating science, that my teenage coming-of-age happened in the early 1970s. Mick still dances the same too.  Footage of Rolling Stones concerts is prevalent enough for the gyrating, wiry, clapping, finger waving, prancing, Jagger to be unsurprising. Yet when you are there miles further away than a TV camera close-up and you can still feel the power of the man then you wonder why you stayed away so long.

As the band tore into its signature concert-closing song, I peeked over at J as he pumped his right fist to the roof of the arena shouting along.  “I can’t get no-oh satisfaction.” Our eyes caught. I tipped my shoulder back just a bit and smiled before offering up a little hey, hey, hey to the rafters.

With fuzzy ears,

p.s. Genara Molino, photographer for Los Angeles Times captured far better photos than I could get from my seat in Section 202; view his slideshow here. But, from his fancy spot near the stage, he missed one thing.

A cool thing about arriving early was the chance to watch the spotlight team ascend from the back of the floor seats, right in front of sections 201 and 202. These guys spend the concert suspended by cable providing spots for the musicians.

light boys start

Object will move before show.

light boys up high

Indeed. On their way to the ceiling.

Dark. Then light.

I ran a marathon once…


Today’s post comes from Theresa, the eldest Backyard Sister.

I ran a marathon once.  I ran because my life was a train wreck right then and I was afraid if I didn’t get up and move I would never get up again. I ran to learn how to just breathe. I ran to be a part of something larger than me.

I spent months training, long hours alone with my thoughts and the sound of my ragged breaths. I learned to love the smell of early morning and the peace of downtown before shops opened and the sidewalks filled with people hurrying to begin their day.  I came to appreciate the soft breeze of twilight and the gentle shapes of nightfall when the world is infused with the last bit of sunlight. Trees, leaves green and then brilliant with fall, and birds with their busy chatter and endless fluttering kept me company. As did my faithful training companion, a middle-aged Jack Russell terrier whose exuberance for life and tireless motion inspired me to keep going many days when I didn’t think I could. I ran in rain and wind and cold and wondered if I was crazy. I discovered that I could struggle with self-doubt or pain or fatigue and emerge still moving, still breathing, still alive.

I ran that marathon, 26.2 miles, each mile an adventure. Through it all, people lined the path, there on a Sunday morning in January for no other reason than to show support for a group of strangers who had an idea they would challenge themselves to do something really hard and were there to accomplish their dream.  When I finally came around the last corner, there was a crowd of spectators and runners who had already finished, calling out encouragement and congratulations, helping us celebrate what we had done. I have kept these lessons I learned in my heart – one foot in front of the other, breathe, things get better in time; run after life,  even when you aren’t sure where you are going; and there are many more good people in the world than bad.

And so this brings me to the events of the week, the bombing at the Boston Marathon, how to make sense of something so senseless, so purely evil. How to live with the images forever etched into my brain,  runners reaching the finish line, the joy of that moment, the cheers of the crowd juxtaposed with the sound of explosion, the smoke and screams, blood and shattered glass. I have struggled with this contrast all week, angry and deeply saddened that someone chose a marathon as a backdrop for murder and tremendously moved by the stories of courage and sacrifice that are emerging.  Stories of strangers comforting the injured and saving lives, strangers offering a bed and food to those stranded by the bombing, people who when faced with a situation they never dreamed  possible embraced the challenge and ran forward to help. What I have decided is that there will always be good and evil and shades in between, always the overlay, always the pattern, there is no making sense of it, it just is.

I have stopped looking at the pictures and videos because they live in my mind now, the contrast of the horror of the bombing with the celebration of the day. I play them over and over, trying to rewrite the ending like I do when I wake up after a bad dream. And I am starting to see other parts of the picture emerge, I see people bent over the wounded, I see those who rushed in and began the terrible work of saving lives and I am beginning to realize that in the same moment of great darkness is the light of goodness we all contain, in the moment we are most fragile, there is great strength. And I do believe that good always triumphs over evil, maybe not at first, but always in the end, I am holding on to that thought – to ponder more during my next run.



You can read more by Theresa. Her essay “Lessons From Winter” is here.

The next big thing

Poet Mary Biddinger has one of those voices that feels like a long lost friend. She’s the author of several poetry books, including Prairie Fever and editor of Barn Owl Review. According to her website, in her spare time she likes “to photograph garbage.” She also has great ideas like starting an author interview series called The Next Big Thing.  This is a chainlinking of writers who are asked to divulge details of “the next big thing” they’re working on.  Sandy Marchetti, poetry editor of Minerva Rising asked me to participate. If you want to learn more about Sandy’s Next Big Thing, you can read her post here.

So here’s the project that keeps Catherine Keefe up at night…

Japan 153

Helen of Troy was here

What’s the working title of your book?
refrain: lost notes from helen’s songbook

Where did the idea come from?
I’ve always imagined all of poetry as one long interconnected verse, printed in a colossal book floating in the ether, bound together loosely with something like strips of dried moose hide. In that lyric, Helen of Troy, is a recurring undersong. Why haven’t we let her go?

This colossal book image came from visiting my grandfather who kept a yellowed collection of sheet music open on his piano. Over the years, the book’s binding loosened. Inevitably when my grandfather played, a few pages fell and slid under the couch or blew out the open front door on a gust of wind.  As a girl I wondered who might find “Que Sera Sera” on their porch and what meaning they would derive from the discovery. Would it even be intact?

As a woman I wanted to poetically play with that lost note idea. Helen of Troy’s myth offers love, adultery and war, a far more interesting story than a girl and her grandfather singing “Give My Regards to Broadway.”

refrain’s poems are framed as if they blew out of the great lyric book by accident. They’re written in conversation with poets who have immortalized Helen, as formal poetry and also as fragment poetry collaged with art reviews, museum catalogs, grocery lists, quotes from other poets, philosophers, scientists, and titles taken from drawings by A-bomb survivors.

What genre does your book fall under?
refrain is poetry.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Someone unknown. Someone fierce.

What’s the one-sentence synopsis?
Helen of Troy abdicates role as poster girl for destruction in the name of beauty.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The typical path for first book poetry publication is to win a publication prize established by small presses or literary magazines. I’ve given myself a budget to submit refrain to poetry contests.

How long did it take to write the first draft?
The first draft tumbled out in middle-of-the- night writing frenzies during the nine weeks I spent alone in a writer’s cottage in Port Townsend, WA.  I was interning at Copper Canyon Press, reading some of the world’s best poetry by day and composing by night. Distant foghorns, buoy bells, and Helen’s voice drifted in through the open window.

That was in 2008 (I was the oldest intern.) Since then I’ve picked at refrain but mostly abandoned it to other projects. Helen started invading my dreams recently, so I’m spending time in a writer’s cottage in Laguna Beach to finish and begin to send it out on a regular schedule.  Helen insisted I return to the sea to finish her story. Who am I to argue?

What other books would you compare to this within your genre?
refrain strives for the aesthetic restraint of One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryōkan, transl. by John Stevens.  It’s in the loose narrative model of something like C.D. Wright‘s One With Others or Narrow Road to the Interior by Kimiko Hahn.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Helen’s story, ancient as it is, represents two persistent beliefs I want to test and explore. The first is that war is justified if there’s a perception of being wronged, and that once war is declared, all means to win are allowed.

The word “refrain” is a single phonetic tick from “reframe,” an underlying motif of the book. refrain picks up the challenge Alice Notley issued in Homer’s Art

Another service would be to write a long poem, a story poem, with a female narrator/hero.  Perhaps this time she wouldn’t call herself something like Helen; perhaps instead there might be recovered some sense of what mind was like before Homer, before the world went haywire & women were denied the participation in the design & making of it.  Perhaps someone might discover that original mind inside herself now, in these times. Anyone might.

The other assumption is that love is a single thing between two people, not a universal light that shines upon us all. How do we reconcile the Zen philosophy that we are all interconnected if we are proprietary about the bodies we claim as ourselves and “the one” we love?

I write to inquire. Is there such a thing as enough?  This is one of the book’s fundamental questions; I play with all meanings of “refrain” including the imperative.  Lastly, refrain is the story of yearning to go home, to a place where heroics and tragedies can be laid to rest.  But what if the home door is bolted yet two people stand on either side of the door, hands on the lock wishing to dissolve the barrier, but not knowing how. How do you suspend blame? How do you ask for forgiveness?

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
You mean beyond adultery, love and war? Well, there’s spaghetti sauce, cherry blossoms, and a Helen whose voice ranges from Yeats, to Whitman, to Euripides and CS Lewis depending on whose rendering she’s mirroring.

There’s a funny story about Helen’s voice from when I read excerpts from refrain at an Iowa Summer Writing Festival author’s reading.

I stood up and said I really wasn’t going to read something I’d written, rather I was going to read something I’d found.

Scouts Honor, I’d found bits of a journal and this journal was written by Helen of Troy. Does anyone remember who Helen was?

Hands up. Nods yes.

I then read 3 short poems from refrain.  And maybe I was dressed in a long Grecian dress and maybe I added a bit of theatre technique with hand gestures – nothing too over the top, you know, just me talking with my body.

And then the reading was over and two people approached. Both of them both of them! said they very much enjoyed my reading but wondered why I hadn’t read from my own work.  But, that was my work, I said. Helen of Troy didn’t have a journal, and if she did, (and was she even real?) it hasn’t been found. And if it was, it most certainly wouldn’t be written in English.

Both of them both of them! looked at me so oddly, I fled.

Then, I chuckled in my room all night and thought, well, I guess I’ve captured a voice which isn’t my own. Thank you Helen for letting me share your refrain.


Please check in next week when Denise Cecila Banker shares her “Next Big Thing.”

You are a human treasure


Dear One,
Your compliment, so kind, compels me to remind you how much beauty also lives in you. You, of course, the person,  and you the word, so small in all the language.  “You” can mean the one, or “you” can mean the many. “You” can mean the Angel who I wrote about last May in “Stop this day and night with me.”

Angel returns one morning last week.  I open the oak front door to see him standing on the porch.  He shuffles his feet, looks at the stone, points to the empty dirt in my new yard and wonders if I need help planting.  His eyes are bloodshot, the scent of alcohol sweet in the morning air.  He smiles as he gestures toward the mud.

“Would you like me to put in roses? Fruit trees?”

“Let me check with J,” I say, acting like it hasn’t been months and months since he stopped gardening for me, acting like this newly emaciated body clothed in muddy khaki pants, cinched with a black belt flapping several extra inches at the end, might actually be able  to dig holes and tamp mud any better than my own.  He has a gift, this man who knows exactly how to coax a growing thing to triumph. Should I stand in the way of allowing him to work?

“Can you come next week?”

“Sure, sure.”

I give him J’s number to arrange a day, a time, a price.  Angel calls on Sunday.

“I can’t make it on Monday. I’m in the hospital. For tests. Maybe I can come on Tuesday.”

On Tuesday night Angel calls.

“I have stomach cancer. I have an operation tomorrow. I cannot come and plant your garden. Maybe next week.”

You are a human treasure.

Must I know exactly where I’m going when I compose a leading line?

chester on trail

What if I have no idea how the story ends, or how to compose a view for effect, or how to make any sense of muddy paths leading straight into the fog?

Is it an accident, or part of nature’s wondrous plan that the view when looking up

Light and lattice

offers much more hope and light than the gaze that meets the ground?Two muddy feet

Yet it’s on the ground where the growing things begin. Salt of the earth.  Grounded. It’s the earth we all return to.

When a writer thinks of leading lines, a writer thinks of books, that first taste of a voice which can make a difference in the way a reader sees the world.

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

from Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

There is nothing worse I think, than the feeling of not being seen.

Even among books, some seem small in stature, insignificant when compared to the legacy of others based on copies sold, appearances on syllabi, or inclusion in the conversation among critics.


Some books, some lives, are at risk of getting lost.  I’d like to highly recommend such a book that might have missed your radar.  Dominque Fabre’s The Waitress Was New, (translated from the French by Jordan Stump) is the perfect little 106 page gem to reacquaint yourself with what  Fabre describes as the, “genuine beauty, genuine dignity of  places or people that have been somehow overlooked.”


It’s the story of an entirely undistinguished bartender.  It offers a leading line straight to the very mystery of the beauty of the anonymous life most of us exalt in. It reminds us that we must take the time to tell each other, You are a human treasure. And then, we must live as if we believe it to be true.

With all due respect,

The Weekend Dish-Sea Salted Chocolate Chip Cookies

One of our favorite Backyard Sister family chefs, Michele of Creamy Tomato Soup fame, returns today with her recipe for Sea Salted Chocolate Chip Cookies.

Cookies During

A few weekends ago, I had the taste for something sweet and the time on my hands to try a new recipe. I recently subscribed to Bon Appetit, so I have had no shortage of inspiring food photos and recipes. I figured, why not give one a try? I decided to go with a recipe for Sea Salted Chocolate Chip Cookies. Whether it is in the form of sea salted caramels or chocolate covered pretzels, I have always been a fan of the sweet and salty combo.

cookie dough

Sea Salted Chocolate Chip Cookies

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3/4 cup (packed) light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 8 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate (do not exceed 72% cacao), coarsely chopped. Or you can use chocolate chips.
  • Maldon or other flaky sea salt

Place racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat to 375°. Whisk flour, baking powder, kosher salt, and baking soda in a medium bowl; set aside.

Using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat butter, brown sugar, sugar, and powdered sugar until light and fluffy, 3-4 minutes. Add egg yolks, egg, and vanilla. Beat, occasionally scraping down the sides of the bowl, until mixture is pale and fluffy, 4-5 minutes. Reduce mixer speed to low; slowly add dry ingredients, mixing just to blend. Using a spatula, fold in chocolate.

Spoon rounded tablespoonfuls of cookie dough onto 2 parchment paper-lined baking sheets, spacing 1-inch apart. Sprinkle cookies with sea salt. Bake cookies, rotating sheets halfway through, until just golden brown around the edges, 10-12 minutes (the cookies will firm up as they cool). Let cool slightly on baking sheets, then transfer to wire racks; let cool completely.

Cookies - Finished

Chef’s Note: I cooked the first batch a little too long, so I took the second batch out of the oven earlier. To the eye the cookies almost looked undone, but they do continue to cook and harden after being removed from the heat.

This recipe made about 24 cookies, which was way to many to have lying around the house tempting me, so I shared with others. They were a hit!

~With sweetness,

Desire, expectation, and surprise

Autumn Afternoon

A startled flock of coots.
At once a chorus!  Wing beats rise upon the reservoir, soft like a stadium full of children wearing mittens.

I close my eyes. Can you pretend it’s angels clapping? 

(October 29, 2011)

I find this in my journal and decide to return to the reservoir this morning to snap a quick photo to illustrate my words so I can get back to today’s real task of beginning that novel I will write in a month.

An overcast sky creates a muted light, fitting for this day-after-Halloween hush hanging palpable as the clouds. We pass a few smashed pumpkins and I pick up empty Three Musketeers, Peanut M&M and Snickers wrappers that I find littered along the way.  They crinkle now when I reach into my pocket to grab the camera before we crest the ridge to the reservoir overlook.

Chester pulls on his leash. He’s not used to being confined out here but I don’t want him to  dash into the water and scare the coots like last time before I can focus on:

Four unruffled ducks, utterly unconcerned about our arrival.  Aren’t I a lame one. I should have known better than to expect a repeat performance from something as serendipitous as an entire resting flock of coots which flapped away to my poetic enjoyment.

I give myself permission to skip writing a post today and decide to return quickly home when streak of white flashes on the far shore.

A heron! I’ll admit, I thought it was crane until I got home and learned that cranes fly with necks extended, while herons fly with necks held in a crook. Somehow I find great comfort in knowing that nature allows, in her wisdom for diversity, for both those who stretch as far as they are able in every single flight and those who keep their reach a little closer to their hearts each time they glide.

There in the distance are more herons, an egret, and yes, a few coots.

Chester sits on my foot. Is he telling me not to rush away? We pause and watch the herons swoop and drift and soar. There are no angels clapping but if I squint, it’s easy to imagine, on a day so fresh from memorializing death, that here at dawn we can witness angels flying.  Is this enough for one ordinary day?

We pull ourselves away.
There are words to write and “…miles to go before I sleep.” Chester is used to me quoting him lines of poetry when we walk.  For one brief moment he stops tugging on his leash. He looks over his shoulder and I swear he smiles.

With enchantment,

Five lines to challenge chaos

Is it possible to offset the apparent randomness of the universe?

California Morning Sky.       Photo Credit: James Keefe Photography

Some ladies put up tomatoes, or peaches, or apple jam against the coming winter. I decide to create a stock of writing projects as sustenance against the lengthening darkness.  By spring, I’ll have a larder of poems that adhere to formal patterns found in nature, the sunflower, for example, or the whorl of a seashell, the number of legs on a spider for instance, or the swoop of an orb found glistening in early morning.

The idea takes root as I introduce my students to poetic form and we discuss the state of poetry as a mostly formless country these days, flowing as it does so frequently in free verse.  What is found when form is lost? I prod.  What is gained when form is followed?

I ask this, of course because it’s a good beginning for an Introduction to Creative Writing unit on poetry. But the debatable merits of structured versus unstructured poetry are making headlines these days within the literary community and I want my students to understand the fray. Before you roll your eyes and wonder who cares outside of a classroom or a Paris garret, consider that poets have long considered themselves to be what the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley writes “In Defense of Poetry” as:

“… the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

(You can read Shelley’s essay in its entirety here.)

It’s this role of poets as “mirrors of society,” that most concerns William Childress, a noted poet and National Geographic photojournalist, in a recent letter to the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, a journal of Literature and Discussion.

“Is free verse killing poetry…A blind person can see that American society is in turmoil…shouldn’t poets be trying to change things instead of writing chaos-poetry or “woe is me” diaries? Who will read poetry when they can’t find a common bond in a poet’s writing? Who likes ruptured grammar, twisted syntax and what my grandpa called flapdoodle? There’s at least a partial consensus that free verse these days consists of a lot of badwriting. I forget who said, “Poets should learn to write before they try to write poetry.”  Many of today’s poets don’t seem to realize that all writing is connected.”

All writing must be connected because all life is braided together in one way or another isn’t it.

As go the poets…
As go the canaries…
So go the humans?

Does nature, I ask my students, follow predictable patterns?

“No,” says the student who arrived late for the semester because Hurricane Isaac interrupted her flight plans from Florida. “It’s random and unpredictable.”

“Of course,” answers the biology major who cites genus and species classifications as one example of nature’s way of behaving according rules.

“Does art that most mirrors nature create more of an impact than art which seems more artificial?” I prod, quoting the philosopher Pseudo-Longinus‘ line about finding sublimity.

For art is perfect when it seems to be nature, and nature hits the mark when she contains art hidden within her.”

My students and I decide we’ll compose one sample of as many structured poetic forms as possible before we write any more free verse. We’ll read deeply from poets who follow form and from poets who made their break with form for reasons buried within the poem itself. We begin small, with a tanka, “a thirty-one-syllable poem, traditionally written in a single unbroken line. A form of waka, Japanese song or verse, tanka translates as “short song,” and is better known in its five-line, 5/7/5/7/7 syllable count form.”

Here’s my tanka-in-progress:

What one spider knows
spinning glass in dawn-dark fall —
even leaves let go.
Brilliance against the barren
this alone.  Can I believe?

Wishing you enough chaos to unsettle and enough structure to soothe,

p.s. Care to join our writing challenge? Up next is the cinquain, a five-line poem with 22 syllables broken down, according to lines as:  2, 4, 6, 8,and 2.