Random thoughts from an animal-loving French prof / mom of three on things she finds beautiful, funny, sad, or strange.

Friday, April 29, 2016

"How to be a poet"

I know it's been a while since I've written much on here myself. It's in the works and will be posted in the next few days. For now, enjoy my last poetry month post. I wanted to celebrate both the craft of poetry and the incredible talent of Kentucky poets, and who better to do that than the great Wendell Berry. May these words speak to you as they do to me.

How to Be a Poet
(to remind myself)


Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill–more of each
than you have–inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.


Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.


Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

"Purple Rain"

Normally I would let the black cat share her thoughts before doing another poetry post, but sometimes life has other plans. Or, in this case, the loss of a life changed my plans. I hesitated a long time before deciding which Prince lyrics to post, but in the end chose these. In them, I find all the reasons I love poetry:

  • the hypnotic power of that mystical image, purple rain

  • the way the song fits into the soundtrack of my life

  • the raw beauty of words brought to life 


"Purple Rain"

I never meant to cause you any sorrow
I never meant to cause you any pain
I only wanted to one time see you laughing
I only wanted to see you 
Laughing in the purple rain

Purple rain, purple rain
Purple rain, purple rain
Purple rain, purple rain
I only wanted to see you 
Bathing in the purple rain

I never wanted to be your weekend lover
I only wanted to be some kind of friend
Baby, I could never steal you from another
It's such a shame our friendship had to end

Purple rain, purple rain
Purple rain, purple rain
Purple rain, purple rain
I only wanted to see you
Underneath the purple rain

Honey, I know, I know
I know times are changing
It's time we all reach out
For something new, that means you too

You say you want a leader
But you can't seem to make up your mind
I think you better close it
And let me guide you to the purple rain

Purple rain, purple rain
Purple rain, purple rain
If you know what I'm singing about up here
C'mon, raise your hand

Purple rain, purple rain
I only want to see you 
Only want to see you
In the purple rain

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

"Questions Before Dark"

This poem is by Jeanne Lohmann. I keep it close to me, on the bulletin board at work, at my writing desk, and even in the journal that occupies my night stand. When you read it, I think you will see why. I don't want to ruin it by explaining it any more than that.

Questions Before Dark

                                      Day ends, and before sleep
                                      when the sky dies down, consider
                                      your altered state: has this day
                                      changed you? Are the corners
                                      sharper or rounded off? Did you
                                      live with death? Make decisions
                                      that quieted? Find one clear word
                                      that fit? At the sun's midpoint
                                      did you notice a pitch of absence,
                                      bewilderment that invites
                                      the possible? What did you learn
                                      from things you dropped and picked up
                                      and dropped again? Did you set a straw
                                      parallel to the river, let the flow
                                      carry you down stream?

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Facebook: friend or foe?

Like many, I suspect, I see social media as a double-edged sword. Is it great fun? On its good days, yes. A way to stay in touch, reach out, be informed? Absolutely. But it's also a platform for a lot of posing, not to mention a colossal waste of time. At its worst, it's a disturbingly effective way to spread lies, hate, and fear.

I've written before about this love-hate relationship with social media. A while back, the balance slammed down heavily on the side of "hate" when someone started intentionally using a platform-not-to-be-named to alienate me. Some of you, especially those who know me in the physical world, are probably thinking, "Oh man! As if that would work! I bet you showed them!"

Sorry, but no. Not at all. I wasn't angry, you see. If I'm mad, then heck yeah, I'll come out swinging. Nor was there an actual fight, and even if there had been, I only engage in fights if a) they're worth having and b) I'm pretty sure I can win. I was just hurt. So I did as wounded creatures do: I all but disappeared, from the virtual world, anyway.

Before long, I began to love my Facebook-free world. Aside from this blog, social media disappeared from my search histories, and you still can't find apps for anything but Blogger on my shiny new iPhone. I read more books, drank more coffee, got more sleep. I not only protected my heart, I also ceased being agitated by political and religious drivel from all sides of the aisle. Time not spent online was spent with my kids, my pets, my piano, my pen. Life was good.

Then another shift, another injury, this one terribly physical, terribly real. A little girl from our church suffered a horrific car accident. I started logging in again, anxious for updates, for signs of healing in a life in peril. As the story unfolded and the girl began to get well, I learned that without Facebook, it might have taken far longer for her to be identified and her parents to be found. Social media had, unequivocally, saved the day.

Thus began my quest for balance, for a way to be online with something like mindfulness, or at least a clear sense of intentionality. I limit my time, and I choose my interactions wisely (at least I try!). I only log in if I'm in the mood, and that's not always all that often. If I get hurt, annoyed, or worse, I walk away, but now only until perspective returns. Why bear a grudge for something that exists only on a blue-bordered screen? Social media, like any other experience, is ultimately about how each of us acts, and even more how we react. You can and will find good in the virtual world. Just last night, I was drawn into a Twitter conversation with people who share my passion for changing our treatment of the mentally ill, and came away encouraged. It is surely no accident that this happened on the same day I read Omid Safi's wonderful blog post, "Shine a Light on the Good and the Beautiful." Maybe this post, in some small way, can serve as a response to his call to "stand next to one another, shoulder to shoulder, mirroring the good and the beautiful."

Social media can be anything we want it to be. That is both its curse and its strength. Having a share in building that strength is why I'm back, at least for now.

Monday, April 11, 2016


Today's poem is by Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate, loved by pretty much all who have taken the time to read him. I was fortunate enough to hear him at our university back when we were still a college, and I was instantly charmed. He is often praised for being "accessible," but I think this is just shorthand for the fact that his poetry is grounded in the everyday. It might seem ordinary, yet it's anything but. 

Case in point: the following poem, which happens to be the first thing I hear when I plug my phone into my car. I pretty much have it memorized, as I often wait for it to end before switching to my musical selection du jour. I love the humor of the unexpected combinations and the way piece puts new words to that emotional experience called love. Click here to hear it read by the author ("Adage" starts at minute 10, but the whole video is worth every minute). 


When it's late at night and branches
are banging against the windows,
you might think that love is just a matter

of leaping out of the frying pan of yourself
into the fire of someone else,
but it's a little more complicated than that.

It's more like trading the two birds
who might be hiding in that bush
for the one you are not holding in your hand.

A wise man once said that love 
was like forcing a horse to drink
but then everyone stopped thinking of him as wise.

Let us be clear about something.
Love is not as simple as getting up
on the wrong side of the bed wearing the emperor's clothes.

No, it's more like the way the pen
feels after it has defeated the sword.
Its a little like the penny saved or the nine dropped stitches.

You look at me through the halo of the last candle
and tell me love is an ill wind
that has no turning, a road that blows no good,

but I am here to remind you,
as our shadows tremble on the walls,
that love is the early bird who is better late than never.

-from Aimless Love, Random House, 2013

Wednesday, April 6, 2016


As I've written before, as a child, teen, and even into grad school, I didn't think I liked poetry. Turns out I was wrong. I actually read poems for fun and am lucky enough to count several talented poets among my friends.  Therefore, in addition to the black cat's other musings, I have decided to make at least one post per week in honor of National Poetry Month.

What better way to start than with a poem about this month where finally, we start to thaw (well, except back home in NY, but that's a post for another day...). The poet, Mary Oliver, has been on the blog before. I love the way she brings the seemingly small details of life into crystal clarity. As I've also said before, this is an artist who truly sees, and who is teaching me to do the same.


                                        I wanted to speak at length about
                                        the happiness of my body and the
                                        delight of my mind for it was
                                        April, night, a
                                        full moon and ––

                                        but something in myself or maybe
                                        from somewhere other said: not too
                                        many words, please, in the
                                        muddy shallows the

                                        frogs are singing.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

So you have a fear monster... Now what?

It's 3:00 a.m. and you have just woken up drenched in sweat. You feel it more than you see it, sitting there on your pillow, watching you sleep.

"Oh good, you're awake. Let's get to work," it seems to say. 

Of course it might not be on your pillow. It might be on your chest, or at the foot of the bed. Or it might not even be nighttime. I once had a fear monster that pounced in the middle of class, usually as I wrote conjugations on the whiteboard. I'd like to think I was able to smack it down before any students noticed, but you never know. Fear monsters are not just scary, they're also stubborn and sneaky.

Whenever and however your fear monsters show up, there seem to be two basic options:

A) Resignation. Let them have their merry way with you. If your fear monsters are anything like mine, they are terrifyingly creative, and there are probably plenty of scenarios they haven't explored yet.

B) Fight back. I know, I know. Easier said than done. Believe me, as one whose closet contains a small army of fear monsters, I know. Even so, I am finding ways to tame them. Here are three:

1. Sing to them. Or at them. (Not over them, though. If you try to drown them out, they will come back with reinforcements.) If you find something you can sing over and over like a mantra, they will eventually shut up and listen. Lately, mine retreat to the sound of Sanskrit meditation chants, but that's just me. Yours might need Bach. Or Bon Jovi. Or bluegrass. Whatever. I have a hunch it works best if you sing your own song, so choose the one that works for you.

2. Call them out. Heck, give them a name. While they glower on your pillow, go ahead and blog about them, text a friend, write a note. They thrive in dark, secret places, on making you think you're all alone. Once you start showing them for what they truly are, they might just shrivel up like the Wicked Witch.

3. Thank them. Yes, you read that right: thank them. I've read variations of this idea in a number of places, the latest being Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Strange as it sounds, it works. Think back to my last post. Fear in and of itself is healthy. It keeps you safe. The problems start when it runs wild. So next time it breaks into a gallop, don't ignore it. And don't beat yourself up because it seems once again to be winning. Simply say something like, "There you are. I'm not surprised you're here. This IS scary and I'm glad you're here to keep an eye on things. I've got it, though. You go on and rest."

Are any of these foolproof? Nope. Do they work every time and for everybody? Double nope. Do they last forever? I wish. Yet they do help. With time and practice, my fear monsters have come to look more like hissing house cats than man-eating tigers. Best of all, my pillow...and 3 a.m....are once again mine, at least for now.