Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6–Oh, NOW I Get It! Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

“The Eemis Stane” reconsidered, 1/26/18, via Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Without a complete translation, there can be no complete interpretation. This I realized after re-reading yesterday my post on Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem “The Eemis Stane,” featured January 9 on my blog.

Although I knew the picture was incomplete, I attempted to analyze it anyway. And although I understood much of the poem’s message without full decoding, it is only after making a firm choice of translation between two possibilities originally left in competition, and, thus, better understanding the concepts behind the words, that I see how much difference a complete, more accurate translation makes, especially in poetry.

Accuracy of interpretation suffers when the meaning of individual words remains in doubt, even one or two words. In such a short poem, so economically constructed, indeed every word counts.

By reading again, and by further considering through logic and deduction the context of a certain passage’s uncertain meaning to me, I was able to insert the last major puzzle piece. As I believe I have now come closer to understanding the nature and significance of the poem’s message as a whole, I’d like to share these new revelations with you.

For reference, here’s the original poem and my first translation:

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

And this is the essence of what I said about meaning:

Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. . . .

Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.

There are several reasons why definitively selecting “moss of fame” makes the most sense, and why both “fog/smoky atmosphere” and “foam” do not.

1. Poetically, the translation would have to be very close to “moss of fame” to establish parallelism with the concept and metaphor of “lichen of history.” Each provides a concrete living thing paired with an abstract societal concept. Each image produced is similar to the other in that this concrete living thing obscures in a similar manner to the other, growing on rocks, spreading itself over their surfaces.

Use of connectors: The fact that both moss and lichen are “of” their paired abstract ideas means that those things, fame and history, inherently bring with them these ironically polluting elements. The poet’s choice to join these metaphors so closely in proximity using the word “and” signifies that the distorting natures, or by-products, of fame and history necessarily go hand in hand. In fact, when one considers it further, they are interdependent.

2. The second reason why “fame” is the correct choice is that the words “cut oot i’ the stane” refer to remembrance, part of the point of memorializing being to preserve a legacy, to obtain or solidify some form of fame in the eyes of observers.

3. Crucially, the key reason that unlocked the meaning for me is that the alternative translation creates a conflict in imagery between an active blizzard and lingering fog or smokiness. Physically, such a thing as fog, mist, haze, or smoke would have to be blasted away by the blizzard. They cannot exist in nature in the same space at the same time. They are mutually exclusive. So process of elimination comes in handy here.

4. Finally, combining these pieces of evidence results in a more robust interpretation of message. Look more closely at the behavior of fame and history as depicted in this poem’s parallel metaphors. They not only obscure the truth but also grow continuously like powerful adhesive upon the “unsteady stone,” further destabilizing it, as moss and lichen both grow on a literal headstone or memorial monument.

A distinct tone of cynicism emerges as these negative sides of fame and history appear. The suggestion is that their “growths” continue uninhibited and uninterrupted, with no one and nothing successfully clearing them away to improve the reputation of fame or history and, by extension, of man. They are natural processes but stubborn nuisances as well, insidious and marring or tainting in how they creep in and take over gradually, almost imperceptibly.

At poem’s end, aided by the described effects of fame and history, the final impression the reader receives is quite clear. The speaker condemns the hubris and vanity of a human race that worships and perpetuates both this “moss” and this “lichen,” implying the absence of the opposite qualities because of mankind’s failure to prevent these incursions. Humanity’s alternate course would be to seek and uphold simple, honest, humble truths—the bedrock, as it were, of goodness, integrity, and justice.

Therefore, the poem is an undoubted lament of those particularly incorrigible, wretched human habits that make the world such a precarious, dangerous place for the individual, and its future such a dismal one for all.

What is left to further interpretation is whether the speaker primarily lays blame and scolds the cause or simply reels from and mourns the effects. In other words, is the final question “Can’t you see what you have done?” or “What have you done to me?”?

The former cries out for change while the latter shows a man incapable of finding the words, the power to move beyond suffering–a man whose “eerie memories,” perhaps even of learned language, scatter into fragments on the wind. He forgets how to read at all. The feeling behind the first question is a sense of urgency and some small hope, whereas the second descends into a confused, frightened, and irrevocable despair.

What do you think MacDiarmid is saying?

Are the layers of obscurity, deception, and confusion just too thick after all?

Or, by revealing them, does the speaker become a catalyst for removing them and restoring what lies beneath?

Either way, my question remains, “What then?” Will we like what we find? Do we need it regardless of how we feel about it? Will it matter?

The speaker makes clear that he cannot say. He cannot make out the words, let alone discover their import. He not only cannot provide an answer; he cannot even see to look for it. His impotence blocks even the consideration of possibility.

For that reason, I see the message as one of despair. The speaker describes the fixed laws of the universe—gravity, inertia, the physics of vibration and spinning—as well as the forces of more intimate natures. The blackness, the cold, the blinding weather, the isolation from fellow humans, and the sticky coverings over our past efforts—together they inevitably overpower man, unsteadying the stone on which he lives and making it impossible to see rightly the things around him, one way and another.

So, yes, I think I get it now.

What do you think?

To view or review the original part 6 post, go here.

For all posts in this series, visit my page under the menu tab “Writing Pool,” then “Poetry,” or under “Wild”: Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry.

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Perhaps it is only when we are released from the stranglehold of the deep freeze that we can once again celebrate cold, snowy art. Today between Hogmanay (New Year’s) and Burns Night (Jan. 25), I bring you a Scottish, though autumnal, chill–the blizzard, the wind, the land, and their combined efforts to confound. Still, may your eyes and heart be open wide to the imagery, the sounds, and the impact that only poetry can deliver.

Recently, I rediscovered the work of a famous poet I was vaguely familiar with: Hugh MacDiarmid, celebrated Scottish poet of the 20th century (1892-1978). Again, I became so fascinated with the Scots language he used to effect his art that I started trying to translate the Scots of one of his poems into standard English. A bit more challenging than “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns, the poem is also more somber and contemplative. A novice in translation for personal interest alone, I am unsure of how well it came out and some of it I couldn’t parse, but I thought the poem interesting enough to share with you.

The poem’s title “The Eemis Stane” translates roughly as “The Unsteady Stone.” If you’ve been following my series on nature poetry, you may have realized by now that sometimes there is a fine line between nature poetry and poetry that uses nature imagery but operates through a different primary theme or mode. Although MacDiarmid’s poem also uses nature imagery, as with many poems, its true subject is more abstract and societal. I believe, though, that all nature poetry need not just celebrate nature; it can also lament it. In that sense, “The Eemis Stane” could legitimately bear the tag “nature poetry.” It would simply need other tags as well.

Following is a bit about Hugh MacDiarmid with a link to more information about the poet, and then the poem in full with my translation and analysis.

According to the Poetry Foundation,

“C. M. Grieve, best known under his pseudonym Hugh MacDiarmid, is credited with effecting a Scottish literary revolution which restored an indigenous Scots literature and has been acknowledged as the greatest poet that his country has produced since Robert Burns.”

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

Message of the poem

More about perhaps the nature of history and understanding than about nature itself, here is my interpretation: Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. Alternatively, though less likely, it could mean that only history’s obfuscation of events allows the observant man to see things clearly, as if transgression alone, however unintended, is what urges one’s keen attention to matters. Compounded by this confusion, or perhaps contributing to it, is the timing of the attempt: the darkest point of the night, a metaphor for the hardest moment in life, when you are shaken to your core and too discombobulated to make sense of it.

Means of the message

We can trust the reputable MacDiarmid to use the Scots language precisely, but ambiguity is the primary theme echoed by method across the poem. With compound images and multiple word meanings (fog/smoke/moss, fame/foam), unclear things masked in layers (darkness, fog, eerie memories, blizzard, lichen), and unexpected shifts in visual perspective (in total darkness, harvest night’s earth wobbling in the sky as seen from what vantage point?), the reader feels the speaker’s disorientation.

One example of a mysterious reference, the idea of the “words” cut out in the stone literally suggests either gravestone, monument, or ancient language, but figuratively calls to mind efforts to make one’s mark, the tantalizing nature of age-old mysteries, or a foundation marred or eroded by words and time. Then, stanza 2’s double negative (“couldna” plus “No’”) raises further questions of interpretation.

The speaker’s reaction to the confusion is a lament, with the consistent choice of words that collectively mourn: “how-dumb-deid” (darkest point), “cold,” “nicht” (night), “eemis” (unsteady, unstable, untethered, precarious, tenuous, unreliable), “wags” (wobbles, shakes, waggles, jars, dislocates, disorients), “eerie,” “fa'” (fall), “couldna” (could not), “cut oot” (cut out), “fug” (smoke, haze, fog, moss), and, most obviously, “yirdit” (buried). These account for our mood of sadness, solemnity, and empathetic bereavement.

Unlike the poem’s subject, with the help of such words, its overall impression proves firm, immutable by poem’s end. Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.

Read more Hugh MacDiarmid, aloud for the music or for the challenge of deciphering, but always for the artfulness of poetry:

For more from my collection of famous nature poetry, see:


Lichen grows on a rock at the base of a Nether Largie standing stone in Kilmartin Glen, at the heart of Argyll & Bute on Scotland’s west coast. Image © 2016 C. L. Tangenberg

Buddha, bird – an original poem

Buddha, bird – first penned 11/16/17, 1:45am
© C. L. Tangenberg

Buddha bird?
Is there one?
Is it Chinese?
Or Tibetan?
China says, Same question.
I have a question
for China.
Impertinent, no doubt,
but probative.

I wonder
if there are any
bamboo forests
left on mainland China,
where the panda
dies in slow
attrition, skirting
evolution. Natural
selection chose
for the Giant.

China’s cranes
fly more grace
than the crane-fly,
and who will die first
matters less than
to be blessed,
knowing a rise-over
in life, a lightness
of heart, a soaring soul.

Is the bird thus blest?

A soul in shadow—
umbrage thrown by
tongues of raging fire
—alights in the
brightness cast
with the heat
on the wall that’s
crumbling to cinder,
and lets go.

Long live Buddha.
Long live bird.

And it led to https://www.lionsroar.com/buddhas-birds/ Buddha’s symbolic bird could be a swan, goose, rooster, peacock, Garuda, or crow.

The Artist’s Corner – Talking Poetry With Poet Carrie Tangenberg, Part 2

Last week, talented storyteller and fellow blogger H L Gibson asked me to offer some thoughts about poetry, along with an original poem. Here’s Part 2 of 2. ICYMI, see also Part 1.

hl gibson, author

Welcome back to The Artist’s Corner for the second portion of my interview with poet Carrie Tangenberg.  Today, we’ll continue with Carrie’s amazing insight into poetry as well as enjoy one of her original poems.

Why is poetry important?

A literary question for the ages. I can only look through my biased poet’s lens, but I think it’s valuable not just because academia tells us it is.

For me:  Poetry gave me a way to express myself early in life that did not demand absolute clarity or lots of text. I could write what I felt or wanted to feel. I could focus on rhythm and the sounds of words. It didn’t have to make sense to anyone but me, and even then, it took me a long time to be so kind to myself. I used to be quite experimental, moving from puns to invented words and concepts, creating…

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Candlelight Vigil for Freedom of Expression at AWP 2017. Corrected commentary.

My commentary–updated with corrections 2/6/17–and a reblogged post (at bottom).

Many have been saying the following and then launching new campaigns of activism. As always, I launch only my considered opinions, research-based (the one statistic I did use and cite needed correcting afterwards–my apologies) views, and best advice, leaving each person to do as conscience dictates.

It has been my aim to avoid politics in large part on my blog, focusing on pre-chosen themes that put art and beauty and positivity first. However, those themes include freedom of expression and opposing censorship, I’m still putting positivity first, and I’ll offer content according to my conscience regardless of trends, mine or others.

We all have choices to make. Wouldn’t it be great if we all kept the freedom to make them?

When executive orders forbid, for instance, federal workers from discussing federal policy, conditions at work, or opinions at all related to their jobs, it is a form of corporate practice as lawful as the conditions of security clearance or signing a confidentiality agreement. It goes with the job. That’s why it’s called an executive branch rather than just “the president”; there’s the Cabinet with 15 departments including Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security, State, Justice, Agriculture, Interior, Environment, Education, Energy, etc., each with subsets of dozens of other organizations such as the FBI, the EPA, and the CIA.

The unreasonable suddenness, logistical difficulty, and accumulation of such orders amounting to a moving target that creates confusion and chaos is another matter for the company to work out within itself, lest its efforts to comply break a host of laws and fracture the Constitution. Even as they comply, federal workers must be cognizant of the consequences of their actions and weigh the risks and benefits of continuing to comply, keeping the conversation open amongst themselves if nothing else.

But there is more to consider in a climate in which the default impulse of the executive–whether he chooses to act on that impulse each time or not–is to rule by unexpected direct order, absolute silencing, intimidation, bullying, bribery, general dismissive belligerence or a combination of these. We must consider that non-federal employees with legitimate, rights-based objections to those or other orders have an even greater obligation than previously, and than their federal fellow citizens, to voice or also enact their objections.

Those included under such an obligation are state-level law enforcement leadership, whose duty it is to oppose, countermand, and, if necessary, arrest federal agents who have little choice but to carry out federal orders regardless of state-level legality or moral rightness. Where refusal to comply is truly untenable, blockage of compliance becomes essential.

The power of the executive branch of the federal government has expanded dangerously over the last several decades, for nearly a century in fact.

Now we see (because we finally choose to pay attention), in more vivid and alarming detail than under previous administrations who also wielded such power with various degrees and kinds of impunity, the threats that unchallenged executive mandates and manipulation pose to a panoply of basic freedoms–to pursue work or education, movement, trade, speech, religion, decisions about one’s own physical body and property, including land, and the ability to ask our State and military leader challenging (or any) questions. The legislative branch, the judicial branch, the states, and everyday citizens all have the obligation to check and nullify those threats.

Speak on, ask on, petition on, fund, litigate, assemble, enjoin, fight for what’s yours, relinquish what is not, pray or abstain, and don’t be intimidated. You’re not alone. No persecuted American left behind. Liberty and justice for all. Keep the conversation going. Debate, question, and prioritize your engagements.

No one has the right not to be offended, but you can choose not to take offense by ignoring non-threats to your freedom and focusing on those things that actually threaten it. In a society in which it has become far too easy to get distracted by inflammatory language and pursue useless tangents, the first order of business in making positive change in your country is to restrain yourself so that your energy is not spent before it can apply to what matters.

To that end, speak but don’t just speak. Think before you speak, choose your words wisely, and move from speech to action to protect your liberty and your neighbor’s. Don’t fight each other; fight the unlawful and abhorrent actions of your government. Show each other the respect, but not without adherence to Constitutional law, that your executive chooses not to show as he flouts the Constitution.

Be brave enough not to panic but to question, find facts, learn, engage, think, object, reconsider, seek alternative views, train your mind, open your heart, think critically, understand, decide, and, when necessary, dissent. That’s freedom. That’s patriotism.

What is not freeing or patriotic is terrorism, which comes in many forms. Since 9/11, we have scared ourselves into creating a less secure and far less free society. Now we are seeing the culmination of that extended, misguided, and misapplied paranoia.

From the Patriot Act forward, starting with Bush Jr., we have made incremental choices to excel at being our own most effective terrorists. We have looked the other way while our government implemented ineffectual laws and programs, and devastating military operations, and continued them under Obama:

the counterproductive bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security, the Patriot Act’s negation of habeas corpus and due process, Guantanamo Bay’s remaining open with the resulting unjust detentions, NSA snooping on American citizens, the TSA’s invasive blunders, Benghazi’s wrongful deaths, lack of transparency in leadership, Afghanistan, and drone strikes amounting to undeclared war in Syria and now troops in Yemen, for just the more obvious examples.

The effects–of both these government actions and the people’s acceptance of them–have been gradually eroding our basic freedoms and rights, and increasing our enemies’ hostility towards us, as well as abilities and determination to harm us.

Nothing brings that fact into sharper relief than the election of this president, who now perfectly embodies our terror. The fear has merely been disguised as anger. We must eventually learn and might as well start now: The only response with any chance to reverse this freedom-hating trend is calm, reasoned, organized, and well-applied resistance–first and foremost, to our own worst impulses.

Resist. But: Know why you resist, be clear about what you’re resisting, prioritize what is most important to resist, and learn how to do it more effectively than the government does anything.

Stop looking to centralized government to fix everything. They have proven repeatedly, in both parties, from all angles, that they are unfit to do so. A new executive won’t resolve this; the system itself is unfit, and the wisdom of term limits supports this notion. Being “unfit” may seem unfortunate, but it is not the tragedy. The real misfortune is our continued gullibility in believing they can fix it all as we passively await our deliverance. The corrupt, powerful godheads have led by fear and kept us afraid. In this respect, the federal government is a modern god for those no longer beholden to the earthly bonds of organized religion, a secondary one for those still trapped by it.

The alternative?

Start being responsible for the state of your own citizenship; the least of the actions demonstrating this is voting for a leader or simply attending church regularly. Each of us is the first, best, and only leader of ourselves. Set yourself free, and become the best kind of advocate for fellow citizens without the power to do so. Grow your worth, moral and monetary, to apply to the community in discerning, uncompromised benefit. Transform your anger into loving, positive, freedom-expanding action.

Real liberty is scary, but it is worth everything. Jesus, who sacrificed himself for everyone, understood that. So did Stalin, who sacrificed everyone for himself. Neither way is right or practical for the citizen who must remain strong and vital to serve as a thread in the societal tapestry, lest it all unravel. Neither absolute equality, nor absolute deference, nor totalitarianism will serve. Only generous spirit for uncommonly meaningful and inclusive purpose combined with an educated, well-reasoned will can defeat the frightened sheep–in this externalized form of a stingy, insecure egomaniac–that lives in us all.

Liberty is that inclusive purpose. Liberation is that will enacted. Actual security is an illusion. Actual equality is an illusion. We can choose to put first either freedom or safety, either freedom or equality, but not both. Put safety first, and freedom dies. Put equality first, and freedom dies. In seeking freedom first, we welcome safety and equality; we open the door for both. We can and must choose whether we are our own worst enemies or our own best friends, whether we will stay fearful and overly self-sacrificing or calm and wise.

Protectionism is fearful and unwise–bad for the economy and global relations. Discriminatory application of basic rights by sex, religion or politics is fearful and wrongheaded. Targeting things and people to ban by a scary-sounding name or traditionally suspect nationality is cowardly and stupid. But if you’re going to be that way, at least be consistent. Targeting those things and people while at the same time allowing even more actually suspect ones to travel freely is asinine and completely counterproductive. We seem to have a Joseph McCarthy-like character in the highest office.

However, the illogic of this seemingly arbitrary discrimination is nothing new. Obama’s “higher deportation numbers than those of all 20th-century presidents combined” (questionable claim) at least partly targeted those illegals previously convicted of a crime, though non-criminal ejections (whether mostly returns or removals) have exceeded criminal ones consistently since 2001.¹ See updates to this footnote (in purple). Ousting peaceful but illegal Mexican farmers with non-violent criminal records, and peaceful but legal Shiite Muslim Iranian academics, when the real problem is legal Sunni Muslim Saudi immigrants learning to fly planes into iconic American buildings, is pure bald-faced, idiotic cruelty in the guise of tough do-something-ness.

Furthermore, behaving like an absolute monarch or dictator is fearful, malicious behavior. Supporting only like-minded advisers is infantile and short sighted. Gag orders are fascist–fearful and growth stunting. Acting without thinking, without warning, and without remorse is profoundly malignant, distrusting (fearful), and incredibly foolish. Whether cunning steamroller or bold imbecile, and at times he seems to be both, this president may well be insane. Signs of schizophrenia would not be more disorienting to the observer. (Well, maybe that’s insulting to schizophrenics.) What is certain is that the man is a frightened rabbit with a nest for hair. It would be funny if he were not so dangerous to freedom.

He either doesn’t know, doesn’t care, or both. But even if he were a better leader, it would still be up to the people to lead. To each person. Freedom is not free. For free speech, free religion, free choice, freedom over our bodily person, free assembly, free expression, free enterprise, free trade, and free pursuit of happiness, freedom to have a sense of humor or none whatsoever, we have the responsibility to control ourselves: to avoid fraud and falsehood, assemble peacefully and lawfully, invest wisely, refrain from censorship, interact only by mutual consent, permit individuals’ free use of their own minds and bodies, and defend the rights of everyone else to do the same. Live and let live.

Not just Uncle Sam but the people of your country want you. Need you. Facts are indisputable, and this is the plainest fact: Only you can make things better.

¹ Corrected, 2/6/17: See the Pew Research Center’s August 2016 article “U.S. immigrant deportations declined in 2014, but remain near record high,” The Economist‘s February 2014 article “America’s Deportation Machine: The Great Expulsion,” and ABC’s August 2016 article “Obama Has Deported More People Than Any Other President.”

Pew’s chart does not distinguish illegal immigrant returns from removals, both of which have increased fluctuated since the late 90s but together have steadily decreased, according to the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), since 2004; see the Center for Immigration Studies’ chart spanning 1982-2011.

The CIS reports directly cite the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s own “internal” records as opposed to “packaged press kits.” CIS’s claim is that the DHS numbers used by other sources (such as the 3 above) to report record highs in expulsions were manipulated in unprecedented ways under the Obama administration. Some of this has to do with which agency is doing the ousting (ICE vs. Border Patrol), the actual departed vs. ordered gone status of illegals (order vs. enforcement), and how returns and removals have traditionally been counted.

The Reuters blog reported a total of 414,481 deportations in fiscal year 2014, citing DHS, closer to the annual downward trend shared by CIS. According to their chart referenced above, it appears that President Clinton was the expulsion winner among two-term presidents in recent decades (including Reagan, Bush Jr. and Obama).

I encourage you to seek additional sources beyond those above, to take few things at face value, to challenge the media not to swallow whole everything authority figures tell them, even when quantified and packaged well, and to take this example of the unclear state of reported facts as a lesson in the value of general skepticism, if not that of deeper, nuanced investigation few of us have time to conduct personally. And, thus, to understand the futility and folly of rash, precipitous action based on sound bites taken out of context, half truths that ignore equally relevant truths, and distortions of fact that breed further distortion.

What politician does not spin the facts for his or her own purposes? And, ultimately, what is the government if not political?

Often, our reactions and overreactions prove that we can be puppets in their hands. Take great care and consider that sometimes on certain issues, just maybe, we really do not need to do anything, except wait for the fog to clear. Abstinence, restraint, and calm but alert, steady work make the best, most effective kinds of resistance to the seductive call to chaos.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

March.jpgThe annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference is in D.C. this year, and in fact, it is next week, and this year is starting to look a bit different. Yes there will be books, and yes there will be beer, and chances are good someone at some panel is going to sound pretentious, but in keeping with the times, we have this:

On Saturday, February 11, during the last evening of the AWP Conference & Bookfair, a Candlelight Vigil for Freedom of Expression will be held in Lafayette Square, Washington, DC, which faces the north side of the White House. The vigil is set to begin at 6:15 p.m.

The gathering will include several speakers: Kazim Ali, Gabrielle Bellot, Melissa Febos, Carolyn Forché, Ross Gay, Luis J. Rodriguez, and Eric Sasson.

The group organizing the event writes on their Facebook page: “This basic freedom is threatened in…

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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.


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



Dial up the sun

Dial up the sun

November 8, 2016

As the year draws to a close, 
with the loss of late-day light, 
when holiday sweetness goes, 
where bright trees slumber nude, 
so fades a fraught election. 

If one worse thing eludes,
invoke the sun and know: 
Change is certain. Some things 
do evolve, and all must 
end eventually. 

So after deeply breathing, 
or sighing deep relief, 
find a world-class museum, 
admission free, to nurture 
the best of humans, nature, 
and the world. Then become
a member, praise and breathe.


Sundials at the National Museum of Scotland, September 18, 2016


poem and photos copyright © C. L. Tangenberg