#InternationalGuideDogDay: A Reblog

Happy International Guide Dog Day.

Image by C. L. Tangenberg – Our first family pet Elyse, an American Brittany (spaniel). Although not a certified guide dog, she taught us a lot and guided our hearts.

On the Blink

April 26 is International Guide Dog Day, a chance to celebrate the countless beautiful handler-guide dog teams around the world. It is a day to honor not only the hard work we do with our companions but the circle of loving support that makes this work possible. From the families that encourage us to go in for training to the trainers, volunteers, and administrators who get our pups ready to work with us, we are surrounded by a web of kindness and commitment.

No handler can reach for her guide dog’s harness without realizing the power of collaboration. None of us could do this alone.

So, to celebrate guide dogs, I’m sharing a few of my favorite posts about York. Some of these have only lived on the blog while others have gone far afield into literary journals. Each piece immortalizes the intense gratitude and love I have for my brown-eyed boy, and for everyone who helped bring him into my life.

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The Dream of Turning 40

My birthday’s gift to you? Getting personal–one day early.


Each time I’ve thought of this coming birthday, I have heard Meg Ryan’s immortal lines:

“And I'm gonna be forty!”
“When?” asks Harry.
“Some day,” Sally adds weakly.
“In eight years!” Harry reasons.
“Yes, but it's just sitting there like this big dead end. . . .”

As with many of my favorite movies, and even ones I don’t like much, I occasionally hear these movie lines from When Harry Met Sally running through my head as I go about my day. These days, this particular record is broken.

Sally wants a family and has just learned that her several months’ ex-boyfriend Joe is engaged. Harry has gone to her place to comfort her. She’s crying rather hysterically, having shown no signs of grief post-breakup. Finally, the bubble has burst, and Harry and Sally’s friendship takes an irrevocable turn.

What’s my point? Lord knows. But isn’t that a great scene? More entertaining than I find everyday life, which is probably why I live in the cinematic fantasy world a significant portion of the time. (Don’t need the video; it’s all memorized.) Besides, the trauma is happening to someone else. I’m comforted, safe, but it also often means the joy and rapture are more likely found elsewhere. What reward without risk?

My eight years have passed, and 32 more besides. That reminds me, I’ve decided to state my age as “ten and thirty,” as in the days of yore. That sounds much more forgiving. Go for it, 60-year-olds! Say, “I am twenty and forty” or “I am twice thirty.” Sounds younger. I got this idea from my husband, who is nearly 14 months younger than I. Very thoughtful, Dear.

No, my husband is a hoot and adorable, and my parents, bless them, still vital and being parents. But I currently have no pets or children to look after (besides the backyard birds), which is the most accepted form of daily joy. No little ones to amuse me each day, which is, of course, the primary function of kids. Right, parents? Well, maybe not “primary,” but it’s mixed in there with all the exhaustion, stress, bewilderment, and worry.

The truth is I’m on the fence about having kids and have been for a while, but the inevitable alarm bells for presumably fertile women go up in volume a few decibels with the introduction of that dreaded digit “4.” No more thirties, not that I’ll miss the years themselves. No more legitimately falling into the young category. I’m entering that middle zone some refer to as “too young to be old and too old to be young.” Sounds like license for a mid-life crisis, for sure. 

But it’s certainly not a mid-reproductive years crisis. No, if it is a crisis or anything like, it’s that we’re coming down to the wire. As Sally Albright says after “this big dead end,” “and it’s not the same for men. Charlie Chaplin had babies when he was 73.” Harry replies: “Yeah, but he was too old to pick ’em up.” Sally starts to laugh but it returns to sobs.

Generally, women who want children and haven’t found a mate by their mid- to late-30s have more cause for mid-life crisis than men do, but science and evolution give us hope for higher numbers of fertile years and higher survival rates amidst high-risk pregnancies and complications of childbirth. Risk is always there, and danger still increases with age, but the 21st century is patient with late bloomers, whereas even as recently as 150 years ago, unmarried women past their twenties were already doomed to spinsterhood.

Risks and rewards come in many forms, and mean different things for different people. We as a society seem to believe we have no right to seek, let alone expect, healthy challenge or happiness in work or marriage itself or travel or the arts, especially not instead of in reproducing. Shouldn’t we take growth and joy everywhere we can get them?

You might think it depends on whether you’re passive or active in the “getting.” Actively seeking seems more honorable somehow, more adult, more enlightened than waiting for manna from heaven, as if we’re helpless, inert, ineffectual, and faithfully convinced of it. I.e., sheep.

Two movies intercede here. The Sound of Music and She’s Having a Baby, another 80s gem. “The Reverend Mother says you have to look for your life,” Maria tells Captain Von Trapp. And: “What I was looking for was not to be found but to be made,” says Jefferson Edward (“Jake”) Briggs of his wife and newborn son. Love that John Hughes.

Yet, even when we look for and make a life, nothing that results is absolutely great or horrible. Just as important as the issue of seeking actively or passively is to weigh the potential risks and rewards together.

For me, added risks come with carrying and birthing a child. Greatest of these besides age is that, due to inflammatory arthritis, any pregnancy would be considered by clinicians to be “high risk” from the start. I can imagine, have imagined the possible rewards as I watched my friends expand their families and now watch their eldest become teenagers. I’ve made my mental pros and cons lists and thought about all the right and wrong reasons and good and bad ways to have children. I’ve assessed our suitableness for parenthood and the question of passing on hereditary health conditions. Most important, after all that careful consideration and consultation, though, is to feel the desire rise above fear and doubt.

But whatever ends up touching us, however strangely or improbably it happens, however deliberately, desperately, or passionately we reach for it, there it is. It can either be good or bad for us, or both. We receive the good with the bad whether or not we want either of them.

The universe presents good, bad, worse, and better to us sometimes as options from an à la carte menu. The tongs grab the casual sex instead of the terrifying emotional chemistry that means risking great loss. Single woman will take slavery to meddling, co-dependent mother with side of slaw, instead of daunting freedom of looking for life, with unsweetened iced tea. But we always get a full plate. Another memorized movie brings the idea to a head:

“I have this theory of convergence that good things always happen with bad things, and I mean, I know you have to deal with them at the same time, but I don’t know why . . . . I just wish I could work out some sort of schedule. Am I babbling? Do you know what I mean?”

An enamored Lloyd Dobler replies, “No.”

But I got it perfectly! “Diane Court, whoa.” Genius of 1988, valedictorian of the class in Say Anything . . . Weren’t the 80s golden for rom-coms? She finds love just when her father’s life is falling apart. She can’t pick and choose. They both descend unbidden, and neither is going away any time soon. So she does the logical thing and pushes away the good out of loyalty to her lying, thieving father.

We do that sometimes—make self-sabotaging choices, afraid of happiness, scared of the sin of it, especially as others suffer, whether we play any role in their suffering or not. It feels wrong to be happy when loved ones are not. Fortunately . . . perhaps, Diane rights herself, rejecting Dad for Lloyd. The ending is open ended.

Love does not guarantee happiness; the opposite is more likely. But that doesn’t mean we should shun love. Pain is a powerful teacher. Once in a while, we learn something valuable to apply to the future.

Oh so much wisdom can be found in film. Our movie and TV heroes show us how we stumble and how to recover. They demonstrate how it’s done. The best stories at least hint at the fact that it’s an ongoing process, until it’s not.

If we’re lucky, we get to choose to embrace life or embrace death. “Get busy living, or get busy dying,” says Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption. Even more fortunate is the blessing of joy in this life. We may make our own happiness. We can certainly try.

Failing that, we can preserve our sense of wonder, mystery, beauty, or hope, even when rapture is out of reach. Even when disability, disease, injury, mistakes, conflict, or loss seems to mock our reaching.

In truth, fortune is fickle, and navigating it takes effort and patience, of initiative and waiting and recovery, and, for some, of praying. It really does seem to be all about the balance.

Whether equilibrium or tipped scales, the balance holds all. A 40-year-old can wobble like a toddler in heart or mind or body. A six-year-old can dispense ancient wisdom effortlessly. A 90-year-old can cut through the bullshit with razor sharpness. Nothing is completely as we might assume. Expect to have your expectations defied.

When you do, the likelihood of it may just increase. Sometimes a taste of the possibilities outside convention opens up the horizon like a star exploding. It’s messy, destructive even, but creative, too. We are all more resilient than we suppose, more capable of renewal and starting fresh after a fall or fallout or the numbing effects of time. I must remember this.

I think about death a lot, particularly my own, and not just because it’s my birthday. I expect to be struck down at any moment, much of the time. Especially any time I get in a car. I don’t really fixate; I just let the thoughts meander through. There’s little to stop them. Sometimes, I think I focus on death as a way to force myself to embrace life more vehemently. Losing grandparents, aunts, uncles, former classmates, and friends hasn’t done the trick. The terror does not yield to carpe diem, and some darkness lingers.

Losing the dog last February, however, brought new emptiness, which I greedily filled with guilty pleasures and renewed ambitions. Seen another way, I dusted myself off and kept going. However, along with vigorous effort and focus comes not just hope, but expectation.

We have no right to expect positive outcomes just because we are open to them or want them or reach for them or demand them. But while we’re here, we might as well try to build and enjoy something that is ours. Few will remember us for long after we’re gone, and eons from now, no one will.

Nowadays, almost as much as I think about death, I wonder about having kids, and my husband and I discuss it periodically (no, not monthly). The questions arise, along with the concerns. Answers are few and indefinite. In short, neither desire nor aversion has yet won.

People like to say, “It’s never too late,” but frankly, for everything, one day it will be. The line cavalierly sanctions procrastination of major life decisions. It’s little different from “There’s always tomorrow,” but that may truly never come, and one day, it just won’t. Do now, be now. All we know for sure is now. Do what, you ask? What is most true to yourself. This notion has become a trend and may now be somewhat out of fashion.

I’ve read my share of self-help books, most before the age of 30, and some have pearls of wisdom I’ve tucked away. You may know one that says, “Your mission in life is where your deep joy and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (I won’t say which one; I’m promoting movies, not books, today.) In reading these, and favoring this quote, I’ve trained myself to be alert to my inner truth and its expression, and it seems to be working as I work. I don’t seek out those kinds of books anymore; too many better options await my attention.

If we all cop out or settle to some degree and at some point, or even if only most of us do, it’s no great tragedy. On the other hand, if we ignore our soul’s longing completely, it may not be a mortal sin, but it could become a terminal regret. My fear of regret keeps me asking important questions such as, How can I make the most of my life? What am I meant to do?

Like today, even tomorrow may be nothing but a dream. In that case, I choose to embrace the dream, and the dreams within it. I’ve made it this far. I survived. I fulfilled the dream of turning 40. It’s a milestone, a benchmark, a signpost, a weigh station (I try not to stop at those). As if life is an aging contest or some sort of race to the finish, as if the finish line were not death itself.

Age is a sort of accomplishment in our culture. For people with, say, a terminal illness or violent household, this may well be true. Obviously, war-torn countries are so described because of death and maiming, where celebrating survival may become almost necessity. Still, in places and times of relative peace, we celebrate birthdays from year one forward, and in weeks and months before that. When birthdays are used to celebrate life and becoming, it makes sense to add some hoopla.

Otherwise, encountering another year really isn’t much of an achievement. This time, a song borrows the old adage: “Wisdom doesn’t follow just because you’ve aged.” Experience doesn’t guarantee learning. “Been there, done that” doesn’t mean you’re really any better off than someone who hasn’t. So don’t gloat so much, old fogie.

I’m certainly not done yet, not done trying to “fulfill” my “potential.” At some point, you’ve got to deliver, Dodo-head, or find yourself going the way of the dodo. And who would mourn the loss? The inability to evolve, to persevere, maintain a foothold on earth, on behalf of your species? To represent! I always feel that pressure to achieve, to make a difference, to leave a legacy, but with long-term pressure, I risk overcooking.

One side of you is saying, “And so you should.” And perhaps: “How selfish of you, how typical, to lament the inevitable passage of time, to make excuses for not using yours wisely. More selfish still, just spending (wasting) the time thinking about it because you ‘have the time’ to do so.” That’s my projected criticism from all those busy family people my age who don’t have such a “luxury,” the disapproval from the other voices in my head.

Why do I choose to look at it this way? Is that motivating? Even with these last quote marks, my defiance comes through. “I am what I am and that’s all that I am,” says Popeye. It’s a defiance to convention, conformity, being ordinary. It’s an insistence on forgiving myself for not being perfectly healthy, at my ideal weight, in shape, and bursting with energy while also juggling two jobs, a home, and children. Besides, I do juggle many parts of a busy life.

I defy contempt for privilege, I defy the progressive insistence that moral rightness means impoverishing oneself in the name of equality, and I defy the stigma and misconceptions about writers’ and artists’ lives. I could do office work, and I have done lots of it. I could do manual labor if I really, really had to, but I don’t. Now I work to be an artist, I teach for some income, and, thanks to my husband, I’m not starving. There, I said it.

Of course I would consider writing about, which requires dwelling upon, turning 40. I am a writer. And what’s more, a writer in a culture accustomed to celebrating and obsessing about birthdays. I’ve often thought that I am better suited to life as a free-wheeling scholar from the Age of Enlightenment or something than to traditional, modern-era work. Rather than snub the blessing, I embrace the chance to be just that kind of scholar and writer, while still working toward greater individual contributions to our income.

I usually try to keep my defiance in check in my writing, never wanting to seem too selfish, self-righteous, self-absorbed, too forthright, feminist, emotional, emotionalist, or otherwise stereotypically female, except in jest. But also because I claim a cherished penchant for reason and logic. True, the suppression is a bit neurotic, but, hey, awareness is the first step.

I really like that first step. I walk it all the time. It’s an infinite loop, as though I have one leg much shorter than the other and am walking in circles. Selfish –> anxious about it –> neurotic about anxiety –> selfishly neurotic. It’s oh so productive.

Suppressing defiance or anger, though, just comes across as being cold, rigid, emotionally distant, or, perhaps worse, dishonest. Unlikely I’m fooling anyone but me.

Defiance leaks out, anyway, eventually, in other contexts, the rest that I have—tutoring, friends, family. I’m human and American. Overall, I like to think my students and loved ones are pleased with me despite my egocentric leanings. (I would say that, wouldn’t I?)

Maybe I shouldn’t try so hard to defy expectation and to be different. The effort has become its own sort of tedious convention. Those who know me have come to expect it. Who, in the end, is truly 100 percent original? We are creatures of habit, pattern, and imitation. Relax a little when faced with things you really can’t change. Do everything in moderation, even moderation. Let loose on occasion. Balance.

And so, I revel in the riches of imagination, in all its forms, mediums, shapes, and colors. “God is in the rain,” says Evey Hammond in V for Vendetta. In nature, in reverie, in reflection. That’s where God lives for me. Where I can find something of grace, of beauty, of serenity, invigoration, balance. It is my universe. I can touch it, see it, hear it, taste it, examine it, love or hate it, reject or accept it.

We all need ways to shelter ourselves from the certainty of death, at least long enough to invest in our lives and to dream new dreams. The only soul I have to live with is this living, sensing one. I mean to do right by it. Invest in the balance, and then, “wait and hope,” as the Count of Monte Cristo says. And smile.

My new dream? Only one of many: the chance to see how I feel about all this at age 50. What of effort, deepest joy, money, ego, pain, employment, God, imagination, kids, limits, convention, neurosis, the world’s hunger, potential, balance, or wisdom then? I hope I’ll see–and hear those movie lines calling.


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graduate school graduation, age 31, or “ten and 21”

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Book Review: Let Me Off at the Top!

Let Me Off at the Top!
My Classy Life & Other Musings
by Ron Burgundy

let-me-off-ron-burgundy-coverI finished it! After 11 months of dipping in and out and putting it on my top 5 list of books to slog through this year (this makes 3 of those 5 but 15 total, my highest number since 2012), I’ve read every last precious word. Now I really MUST see the film sequel Anchorman 2, which I have been meaning to do for over a year.

I would like to give this book the top star, 1 out of 5, but I fear being misunderstood. So, “When in Rome!” The out-loud laughter factor, perfect egotistical nonsense, mish-mashed name dropping, swinish pearls of wisdom, nestled gems of hilarity, and echoes of Will Farrell’s rich, melodious Burgundy-velvet voice require my donning this comfortably weighted pile of pressed wood-pulp leaves with no fewer than 4 out of 5 stars. (I also gave Middlemarch 4 but for completely different reasons.)

As farcical faux-autobiography, this classy tome ejaculates thick layers of ingenious offensiveness with delicious impunity. It’s dumb and it’s supposed to be, because that’s Ron Burgundy, but there is also brilliance in this dullard of an all-American, pop-culture sandwich. Brilliance like the “Seven-cheese samurai,” one of Ron’s seven recipes for “effective, sensual breath.”

Vinegar-y vignettes season this extended persona whittling into blood-soaked splinters, and by using surprisingly few French words. The jackalopes tale is killer. Non-sequitur running heads in each chapter, tales of brutality and family loyalty in Haggleworth, Iowa, and at Our Lady Queen of Chewbacca High School, and all the variations on the theme of drunken sexual escapades with the famous and infamous of all genders bespeak a compression of coarse coal into even coarser foggy diamond.

Some dull moments lovingly caress pre-emptive punch lines and weave holey sweaters’ worth of delightful absurdities, punctuating a reading with outbursts of appreciative hysteria. “It’s science.” Guffaws galore indeed, Mr. B, guffaws, chuckles, snorting chortles, suffocated hisses, hyena cackles, and non-stop grinning the rest of the time.

The opening disclaimer and author’s note set a mighty tone of baseless hauteur. However, adding a misdirecting table of contents would have been a great way to further christen the chaos, and a journalistic absurdity of a bibliography in the end matter could have made for a well-popped cherry on top.

Ridiculous histories of Mexico, two sets of monotony-mitigating photo spreads, and anecdotes of age-old journalistic and celebrity rivalries, along with many more slivers of heavenly manna, dribble glintingly off the sexy, whiskered lips of our fearless (because unconscious) San Diegoan news anchor-legend. I can’t wait to listen to the condensed audio book!

Overall, you’re right, it’s “one hell of a book.” Kudos to you and your intrepid news team, your noble friend and dog Baxter, and your “lover, sexual partner, woman I do it with, wife, and female fellow anchorman” Veronica. Bravo, book maker, for your soft, shiny hair and towering height, brute strength and persistent belligerence. You have proven yourself a choice, tender morsel of late 20th-century American journalism and classless white manhood.

Of this equal target and slingshot shooter of satire on the reeking, Scotch-backwash aftermath of personal and American triumphs and failures, I say, Pour me another glass, maestro!

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The Labor of Learning to Set Limits

Oh, Outlander‘s finale was grand indeed, but it was so . . . final. I thought I would follow it with at least one thorough blog response, but it proved too overwhelming to face fully, and the sorrow of finality echoed forward. Besides these, another emotional factor had already begun to influence my viewing prior to the last episode of the season–increasing disappointment with the essence of how Starz has adapted the central story relationship of Jamie and Claire. All together, these zapped my motivation even to start sorting.

My disappointment helped me realize that the other thing I needed to do was take a break from “obsessenaching,” which, for the uninitiated means fanatically obsessing like, with, or about Sassenach*, aka Claire Fraser/Caitriona Balfe/Jamie Fraser/Sam Heughan and the whole Outlander lot. I could see my life was straying farther and farther from any semblance of balance. I was having a series of dreams invaded by actor Sam Heughan.

Now, the only reason I feel comfortable enough to admit this, despite finding it rather embarrassing, is that my obsession has made me privy to the obvious fact that many, many other fans’ obsessions with Sam (as must be the case with most handsome stars of the large and small screens) are far more serious and crippling to those people. I am happily married after all and do not hang my self-esteem on whether or not a celebrity re-tweets or responds to my comment. Undoubtedly, dignity and cool would fail me were I actually to meet said celebrity, but never mind.

Although, like many women of retirement age–of which I am not yet technically one for decades to come (hopefully)–I have more “free” time than most people, I have yet to earn the privilege of actual retirement. Based on where I have indulged my pleasures, I’ve come to see: It is this privilege that allows so many Outlander fans of 20+ or 2 years’ duration to indulge their fanaticism.

In my compromised youth, I still recognize the imperative of making life count for something. But without religion, robust health, paid profession, or penchant for routine, I figure some kind of inner drive needs to take the role of holding oblivion at bay for an independent-minded yet provided-for married woman approaching middle age without children. I believe one can really save only herself.

I did take a break of sorts. I put away my Outlander images collection. I stopped re-watching season 2 episodes. I stopped using Twitter altogether, let alone allowing notifications of Sam’s and Caitriona’s latest tweets. I was helped in this by the need to reduce the use of my phone while it showed signs of dying.

But with a new phone came renewed vigor and curiosity about technological capacities, i.e., gadget toys, and soon, I was right back in it. I justified this by the notion that I wouldn’t want to be out of the loop right before our big trip to Scotland. Still to happen, that trip in itself is a direct outgrowth of my Outlander obsession. I have no small hope of bumping into the cast and crew during season 3 filming this fall. I continue to “interact,” i.e., tweet, with the likes of the show’s consultants, producers and other reps. I receive regular notifications of tweets from slightly more than a few of them.

A married couple who are friends of mine just returned from their own Scotland trip, and I made sure to ask them all about it. I have scoured the travel guides, in print and online, compiled details on the sights selected for our itinerary, and delegated GPS setup to the hubby. We’ve bought street maps, new clothes, new shoes, RFID-blocking wallets, international driver’s licenses, travel insurance, theater tickets, steam train tickets, sightseeing passes, a detachable Bluetooth keyboard for my tablet, and a new rain coat for me. I downloaded 30 some apps for use before and during the trip, including the UK Highway Code, a bus tracker, weather apps, general news and sightseeing apps, one for each hotel and other vendor we’re using, and Scotland tourism apps. I’ve been planning our trip since May, and there are a slew of tasks still on our list, but it’s finally almost here.

I am excited, to be sure, but also worried that I won’t have the physical strength and energy to tackle even half of the itinerary I’ve tentatively planned for us. I tried to be realistic and arrange alternatives for things to do each day, but at least one day will be a real doozy with a full-day Outlander tour followed by an evening play, and we’re going largely DIY with all this, including renting a car for most of the trip. I also worry that my poor track record with packing sensibly will plague this voyage, too.

Still, I’ve never prepared so well, for so long, and so . . . obsessively for travel as I have for travel to and around Scotland. The excursion will be the single longest vacation my husband and I have ever taken. We’ll likely get through it somehow, but I do hope the experience proves to be worth all the time, money, and work invested in it. Who knows when the chance will come again?

The good news for balance is that I continue to think about it and make efforts at routine productivity. I still tutor weekly, and I’m still writing, in spite of my unplanned hiatus from this blog of late. I’ve been working on a novel since the July Camp NaNo (see my previous post about Packing for Camp), and now that fall approaches, I anticipate pursuing it through November, the official National Novel Writing Month I’ve participated in for the past five years.

[Note on the future of this blog: I’ve refrained from going into details about it here, or doing much posting at all, for fear of disrupting my momentum. But I must admit that it doesn’t take much to do that, and more often than not, blogging about my writing projects has injected new life into them rather than shut them down. So, I guess, besides tales from the trip, I can feel confident in having more to write about at Philosofishal going forward.]

There are other positive signs of balance to acknowledge as well. I have carried the bulk of responsibility for planning our Scotland trip over time, but I haven’t neglected all household management in the mix. I’m in the process of reassessing my autoimmune conditions treatment plan, I’ve begun a new financial investment project for us, and I’ve started walking regularly, mostly for the trip but also to combat high triglycerides, excessive computer sitting, and chronic pain. More goals are also brewing.

Perhaps I’ve been more balanced and productive than I give myself credit for. My limitations have not been as limiting as I believed. It’s just that some health challenges have a special, enduring talent for disappointing long-held expectations. So it has been for me, and so follows the need to keep adjusting those expectations, embrace joy where I can, and continue to set reasonable limits, especially on my propensity to obsess.

Setting limits for oneself is about awareness, love, and the will both to refrain and to reach for better. The good that comes from setting good limits can shatter perceived limitations. What once seemed impossible becomes not only possible but proven. Making wise limit setting a habit then means acknowledging that proof and using it to fuel future action.

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Easier said than done.

To make it doable, I think I’ll work to visualize myself going through something like a par course or speed dating session with my various tasks and projects. (Picturing actual juggling just intimidates me.) No one can go, go, go forever; we all need rest after running the course. For me, though, the emphasis is different because chronic health issues make restfulness from sleep a fantasy and daily rest rather void. For me, maintaining and strengthening balance largely means remembering to change the status quo: to get up, move from one foot to the other, keep moving, take a brief rest, and repeat the cycle.

Learning to prioritize and set limits on the consumption of time, while it imposes its own limits, is my greatest challenge and experiment.


  • For more about the term “sassenach,” see:

Outlander | Speak Outlander Lesson 1: Sassenach (video featuring Sam Heughan, lead actor, and Adhamh O Broin, Gaelic Consultant for the show) | STARZ (2013)

Dictionary.com definition of “sassenach”

“Scots Word of the Season: Sassenach” by Maggie Scott | The Bottle Imp (date not specified)

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Sea Otter Poem, 4th Draft: Reaching Revision Goals

Continuing the verse writing process on a wildlife subject first drafted here, developed here, and revised here, below are excerpts from the latest (4th) draft of my sea otter poem. Between development and revision, I pursued three main improvement goals:

  1. Let the poem stretch and breathe a little to see if idea clarity improves without wrecking structure or sound. Make the poem feel less stilted and claustrophobic while still preserving economy of word choice. Specifically, reduce the number of hyphenated phrases.
  2. With increased clarity and space, home in on a definite theme and/or message to dovetail with the sensory detail. Make sure the poem communicates what I intend it to.
  3. Decide how form may best serve content, and whether to make a series or set of parts out of the different treatments tested during the drafting phases.*

The first true revision (3rd draft) made good progress on these goals, but more work was needed to reach them. My husband reviewed a few versions in the 4th draft revision phase and helped me to make the poem more accessible.

For theme and purpose, I decided I wanted to convey the relationship between observer and observed, the longing to see something special in nature first hand, the wonder of possibility and knowledge of what could be seen if we’re lucky, the appreciation of unique species traits, and the elusiveness of the wild.

The poem was inspired in large part by my California trip to visit family this April, especially sharing the National Geographic young reader book about sea otters and the day we spent in Monterey. I saw one sea otter swimming briefly in the harbor near Monterey Bay Beach. Sunset occurred hours later with sightings of sea lions and shorebirds, which we also enjoyed, but no otters.

I am now confident that my verse writing goals have been met, and the poem is fully ready for feedback. Feel free to share yours, too!

Opening stanzas introduce the observer’s perspective —

Realized from shore, what do 
we dredge up through horizon?

A seascape we have not seen
peers to us watchers of wild,
whose eyes by turns troll 
and bail, and then decant. 

The new-to-us coast is cold,
far from our land home and  
the smaller ocean edging 
ancient world from this one.

2nd questioning stanza —

Does this speck of sea otter
then disappoint? Or does life
in motion mean so much 
more in person than on video?

Focusing in on the water —

Sudsy flickers of ocean
tongues lap the beach, where
remnant foam re-gathers 
in the formless current and 

jutted surf-wash, rinsed
by the sprawl of shadows,
promontories kissing back.
These never tire of the affair.

The gaze becomes mesmerized waiting for action, then sharpens into a new question —

The sea surface quilts into 
copper-coated tents interlocked 
over endless circus, reluctant 
aquarium—indifferent, holding 

fathoms unsolved. Wet coats 
plunge, flashing a black-coffee 
sheen, like fireflies in twilight,
porpoising between questions.

Do I mistake otter scuttle for 
the dark face of rising water?

Behaviors that do happen but we don’t witness live (closing 2 stanzas) —

Belly up, becoming a raft, 
mother suckles her one pup. 
We won't see. She hunts and 
scratches, stones fresh mollusks. 

Sharp teeth keep urchin counts 
checked, and kelp alive. Mom
folds the babe in their blades. 
We miss her relief as she dives.

copyright 2015 C. L. Tangenberg

May all your wildlife encounters be safe, enchanting, and joyful.

Wildlife Poem: Sea Otter in Progress

As promised, here continues my focus on nature and wildlife poetry that began with Call of the Wild Poetry. See my prewriting for this poem at Raw Poetic Material: Sources and Destinations. In response to my writing group moderator’s assignment to “write a poem about a sea otter” (which I had only partly attempted), I began with a more meandering subject matter focus and less formal stanza structure than you’ll see below, but with similarly short lines.

Step 2 zeroed in on the target subject, and I wrote a longer collection of 6-line stanzas with no end rhyme. The poem at bottom represents the latest (third) iteration, taking what I felt was the best (last stanza) of the intermediate material and building on it. This version employs 4-line stanzas using an ABXB (or ABCB) rhyme scheme. It is still a work in progress.

My revision goals include:

  • Let the poem stretch and breathe a little to see if idea clarity improves without wrecking structure or sound. Make the poem feel less stilted and claustrophobic while still preserving economy of word choice. Specifically, reduce the number of hyphenated phrases.
  • With increased clarity and space, home in on a definite theme and/or message to dovetail with the sensory detail. Make sure the poem communicates what I intend it to.
  • Decide how form may best serve content, and whether to make a series or set of parts out of the different treatments tested during the drafting phases.*

It may seem backwards not to start with the message you want to convey and then seek the words to express it. While I do begin with a concept in mind, my entry into verse writing is more predominantly through its music–the sounds of words, the rhythm of phrases, the frolicking through rhyme and alliteration. For students of poetry and speech, this collection of aspects is called is called prosody.

Sound, sense, and form all must work together for overall poem quality.

Sometimes I emphasize form excessively, spending more time experimenting with line and stanza breaks than is beneficial. Likewise, I tend to obsess over punctuation, probably using too much of it. (This habit comes both from my college poetry instructor’s admonition to “study [verse] punctuation” and from my own pique over comma errors committed by my writing students and others.)

For additional insight into the state of my verse writing process, see the 4-post series beginning with On Process: Verse Writing, Introduction and Part I: Motivation. In that series, I use the writing of an elegy for Leonard Nimoy to illustrate both poem creation and my development as a poet.

I hope you find these descriptions and samples instructive. Happy verse writing and reading!

Watery wiles gild sea
waves, yield thick-furred
off-white young, black-
eyed dark, five fingers.

Coats arc down through 
copper-coated ocean tents 
with slick black-coffee sheen 
toward gloaming, up again.

Porpoising, then a raft,
mother floats belly up, 
one light pup suckling;
now hunts, stones mollusks. 

Sharp teeth keep urchin 
counts checked, kelp alive, 
frond forest sound, safe,
for otter sleep, more life.
Sea otter with kelp Image sourced through Wikipedia

Sea otter with kelp
Image via Wikipedia

* Sometimes a writer must face the fact that the chosen form or style may not be what the content calls for, which can mean, e.g., changing a poem into an essay or end-rhymed verse into free verse.

On Process: Verse Writing, Part IV: Reflection

ICYMI:

My previous post, On Process: Verse Writing, Part III: Home Stretch and Final Draft, dealt with the last phases of my verse writing process toward a complete elegy for Leonard Nimoy. It also contains excerpts from the finished product. This time, for my final post of the series, I reflect upon both process and product, sharing my self-evaluation and how I’ve grown as a writer.

Update: I decided that reading the poem aloud was an important final step, which led to a few more revisions, and I feel more satisfied with the results than when I last thought the poem was finished. Next comes peer feedback at writing group.

You’re welcome to comment or tweet @Carrielt37.


The Verse Writing Process, Part IV: Reflection

Milestones reached

The goals I had when I started this process of discussing the verse writing process were:check-mark_red_pencil_red

  1. Remember, and say something in memory and support of, Leonard Nimoy.
  2. Create a fitting tribute by carefully attending to emotion, detail, and quality.
  3. Finish The Daily Post‘s Writing 201: Poetry, Day 5 task: elegy, fog, metaphor.
  4. Learn about the features and models of elegies, and apply lessons to the work.
  5. Chronicle the process I go through and assess how it affects the poetry and me.
  6. Share my poem and journey with poets, writers, poetry lovers, loved ones, all.

As of this post, I believe I have reached goals 1-5 and some of 6. The skill with which I did so is another matter. I know the poem is not perfect, the posts about it are not perfect, and I expect no acclaim for either. I only hope for reader enjoyment and some degree of acknowledgement, some day.

How did I do all this?: Lessons learned

Beats me! Well, no, that’s disingenuous. But seriously, I was pleasantly surprised by the results, but I guess it shouldn’t be so surprising. With all the structure, rules, procedures, and restrictions I applied, I doubted my ability to tap into my creative side effectively at the same time. However, I am an experienced verse writer, though not yet published; I do possess some skills that deliver. Being accountable to my blog followers doesn’t hurt either!

The thing that helped most was probably my determination to celebrate Leonard Nimoy. Passion for the subject and, thus, the project is a great motivator. In a way, I didn’t want to let him down. Losing the man was sad enough without also losing a cohesive, coherent, tangible expression of that loss. Choosing to write an elegy really commits you to it in a unique fashion.

I think it worked fairly well, too, because I intentionally toggled between roles throughout: from writer to my own beta reader, from creative to reductive, artist to analyst, right brain to left and back. It helped that I opened myself to a new process.

Image credit: Bernard Goldbach, Creative Commons.

Image credit: Bernard Goldbach, Creative Commons.

This time, to let the art live and breathe, I let the ideas and feelings flow on and on for a substantial period before I even started thinking about poetic form. I added the missing ingredient of idea development to my verse writing process. When it was time to craft poetry, the parameters no longer seemed so restrictive.

Remaining questions

Still, I wonder, now that I’ve judged the work to be done, whether or not the form and structures I imposed squeezed the life out of the art, making the poem feel choppy, seem forced, or come off as boring. Using the shorter tetrameter line (four units of one stressed and one unstressed syllable each within the same line) compared to the traditional hexameter-pentameter alternating lines of the elegy might have helped the squeezing along.

The formal, archaic language I tend to gravitate toward may also be a contemporary reader turn-off, but that’s kind of its own conundrum, a larger issue across much of my verse. I guess I’m just old fashioned.

The point is, I know I still have a lot to learn. This was my first elegy, and I am extremely proud of the results for never having attempted this kind of poem before. I felt comfortable using meter, rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, enjambment, punctuation, syntactical inversion, and the other specific devices I applied. But I realize there are other considerations besides the minute details. See Poetry Foundation’s Glossary Terms for more information about poetic devices.

creativity-is-a-habit

Image credit: Creative Commons via launchyourgenius.com

A vital turning point

This time, in a real, significant way, it was the bigger picture, the thematic and tonal journey within the poem, that I learned more about how to execute. That might have something to do with my experience participating in National Novel Writing Month for the past 4 years. I have become more comfortable with longer forms of creative writing.

Prior to that period, my poetry felt stuck or trapped, without clear purpose, clear meaning, or a sense of satisfying completeness. This effect may be why, though I have always loved reading and writing in verse, I only wrote a poem or two every six months for several years.

The elegy‘s big picture, for instance, is that it has three main “movements,” if you will: lament, praise of the departed, and acceptance. A condensed version of the psychological stages of grief you may be familiar with. Fortunately for me, by this time in history, the rules beyond that structure have very much loosened or fallen away.

They already had cut me some slack, so I cut myself that same slack when it was time to assess my results. As a self-proclaimed recovering perfectionist, I’m also proud of doing that. Ultimately, good enough was good enough.

We all have to do that for ourselves, just as much as we need to work with diligent care in our writing. It’s what makes public expression possible, that final letting-go.

Note that I have no immediate plans to publish my whole elegy, so, clearly, I have yet to embrace fully, to trust an audience with, such a release. Of course, that’s not just a personal issue; writing in general, and poetry writing in particular, can be a poor way to earn an income. The trick is to find some value in publishing it despite the deterrents.

Now that I can see, for the first time in years, that I am developing in my craft, I can also see that next stop approaching, the point of full sharing, of unfettered expression. And I am more ready for it now than ever.

Oh so meta: a new awareness

Thinking about the verse writing process in a holistic sense–thinking and writing about my writing process for a specific project with clear goals–gave me a new kind and level of structure within which to create. It helped me maintain a balanced approach and perspective on how things were going. I saw my work through my reader’s eyes in a more real way, and I recognized more clearly my limits and potential. Accountability met confidence and led to productivity. It’s very encouraging.

Best of all and towardA Leap of Faith 1_Goldfish_small_to_large_bowl that point, I am teaching myself how to live without fear, repeating the refrain of carpe diem even as I experience it.

As I say in the last stanza of the poem, in essence, for ourselves and on behalf of those who’ve gone, we the living, so privileged, must press on. We must act in gratitude for every remaining moment to choose freely our own way. Some day, that freedom will end, and so will we.

Carpe punctum. Seize the moment.

I have cherished these moments remembering Leonard Nimoy and his celebrated character Spock. In a way, I’d almost rather not finish working on the poem because it’s like a final good-bye, but at least now I have it to come back to, along with access to most records of his life and achievements. Thank you for spending some of your moments with me as well.


? What are your thoughts on this series or on verse writing?  I welcome your comments or tweets @Carrielt37.

If you’re just joining me and would like to read about how this project began, go to On Process: Verse Writing, Introduction and Part I: Motivation and follow the bread crumbs from there.

Thanks again for following me on this journey of writing–and thinking about the process of writing–in a new poetic form, the elegy. I wish you all the best in your own creative endeavors.