Posts Tagged ‘time’

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

December 21, 2010

Dark of the Year/Dark of the Moon

Tonight, Winter Solstice, a day when the energy seems sapped from the waking hours by the cold and the infringing dark.  Today, I glanced out a window at three in the afternoon and, from inside the lighted building,  it looked and felt like midnight.  Usually, I manage to be home around this day of the year–usually perched on a hard chair, coffee in hand, a stack of papers in front of me.  My eyes get blurry after a long session of this–a day or two, depending on the class load–and morning and night begin to merge.  But today, I was up and about, putting in a few hours on campus, advising students.   I was inside for the brief hours of sunlight.

Then, tonight, a shadow dented the moon, then spread over it till it was fully rusty.  We turned off all the lights in the house and went on the deck to watch the last bit of bright moon slip into shadow.   Across the hill, people turned off their lights–even the string of blue Christmas lights we can usually see high on the ridge across the road went dark.  From time to time, somewhere on the dark hillside, a camera flash lit up.

I stood in the twenty below air, in my Muck Boots, down vest, and wool sweater, very still, hands thrust in pockets for warmth.  As the moon darkened, the stars brightened, and gradually the sky seemed dusted with them, crisp against the black curve of space.  For a few moments, I could feel the depth of the galaxy, the universe, as if the strange darkening of the moon cast it all into perspective and I could sense clearly the way we’re falling through that infinite liquid emptiness.  Strangely, it’s a comforting feeling–as if I were reminded of a long journey we’re all on or brought back to focus on the long-way-to-go destination of it rather than the minutiae of getting there, such as waiting, ungraded papers.

Standing there in the unlit night, bareheaded in the cold, my hands deep in the pockets of my down vest, it seemed like a good time to reflect, re-evaluate, refocus on things that truly matter.   Meanwhile, Sam, in the corral, pushed his food dish around like a dog, wanting to get at the last crumbs.  He’s never lost sight of  what matters, as far as he’s concerned.

By the time New Year’s Eve rolls around, we’ll be easing back into the light, making our resolutions, thinking of the first seed catalogs to come.  Tonight is the turning point, and the psyche curls into  a hibernating ball, then stirs to stretch out into another year.


Poetry Challenge 49

June 8, 2010

Today a distant friend e-mailed me that she was reading a poem, “Bird News,”  from my new book, Beneath a Portrait of a Horse, and that it had her tongue-tied.  It’s always amazing to discover that someone sees what you intended in a poem–or sees more than you ever thought was there.  This was a poem I started years ago, tinkered with, abandoned, tinkered again, and finally included in the book, hoping that in made sense in somethingof the way I had hoped it would when I wrote the first draft.  Putting a book together allowed me to see old poems in new ways.  Sometimes just placing one poem next to another brought out some association I hadn’t noticed in the older poem and made it seem fresh once again.

So, go back and find an old poem you’ve stashed away somewhere.  Read it as if you were a distant reader, as if you had no idea where the poem originated or where it’s going.  Let yourself be surprised by the phrases that actually do turn out well–and do some housekeeping on the ones that fall flat.   Pare away.  Strengthen nouns and verbs.   Make short lines long, long lines short.  Or discover that the poem is actually a complete whole  that arose from the deepest awake places in your unconscious.

Post it here in the comments section–your oldies and actually goodies.  When I have a few posted here, I’ll post the poem my friend was reading, too!

Poetry Challenge 45

April 23, 2010

Spring is silly season here in the Interior.   The snow is melting, but the ground is still frozen near enough to the surface that the grass is still brown and the leaves have not yet begun to bud.  Same news as last week, in fact.   We’re waiting for the ice to go out in Nenana, when those of us who’ve chosen the exact minute that the tripod moves and trips the clock in the watch house will be a little bit richer.   On campus, today was a holiday from classes.  Years ago, it was a clean up day, but now, it’s an occasion to drop watermelons from the eighth floor, to play mud volleyball, and generally indulge in foolishness.  We all need a break.

So how does spring–or it’s maddeningly slow approach–make you silly?  Or how does waiting for anything that takes time send you off in wild imaginary directions?   And, considering the tender feelings of those of us who haven’t yet seen green, no poems about flowers, please!

Poetry Challenge 42

March 16, 2010

Daylight savings time has warped the day–suddenly it seems lighter all around because here in the interior the mornings and afternoons are getting lighter fast as we add 7 minutes of light a day–an extra hour of daylight each ten days or so.   How has the returning light affected you?  What disjointedness do you notice in your day?

Write a poem in which light behaves in ways it shouldn’t or surprises you in some way.


Here’s a response from KD at KD’s Bookblog:

“Always an early riser, I still have hours of darkness as I do my first work, despite the change in the clocks. This came this morning.”

Circle of Light

The green glow of a patio lantern,
still lit but weak just before dawn,
draws no useful circle of light,
is so little that it could be
a green freckle on the skin of night,
a chink in dark armor; it could be
the wrecking light on a rocky shore
luring Thursday into the backyard,

the beacon feeding its solar self but
seeming, come full daylight, a seed,
a green sprig that will bloom again in the dark,
a gem of sunshine to last me
until Friday sails over the horizon.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

March 10, 2010

Spring Break

A week’s respite from the intensity of spring semester; I am getting time for real life.

This morning, as I write, the sun is warm on my back through the glass door to the deck.  Recently, it’s been high enough in the sky to clear the ridgeline behind us, so the corral is in sun till late afternoon, and it’s light enough to work outside till nearly seven and later each day.  This time of year sneaks up on us—but all seasons do in the north; they’re so extreme and transition so quickly.  Now, during this fallow week, I planned to get out every day to work with Mattie and Sam, but it’s Wednesday already, and I’ve only been out with them twice, and I can already feel the week slipping away.

On the shelf by the south-facing window are this year’s seeds, sorted by planting date, and stored in those clear plastic shells that cinnamon rolls from Lulu’s come home in.  Yesterday, I washed the old flats from the greenhouse, and today I will plant the first seeds of the year: Chianti Rose, Pompeii Roma, Sungold, and Camp Joy tomatoes.  Later in the week, I’ll plant the Little Prince eggplant—trying over on an unsuccessful experiment from last year.  Although the ground will be covered with snow till well into April or, if we get a few good March snowstorms, May, my mind is full of the joy of green things to come.

I imagine lettuce—I plant a cutting mix and a red and green romaine mix—the speckled leaves, the russet leaves, the frilled and smooth leaves, glowing as the sun slants through them in the evening. I imagine pulling carrots—I’m trying King Midas this year, a long variety, with the horses in mind.  I miss the taste of them, sweet, with just a hint of garden grit with the crunch of the root.

Mattie and Sam still stand in the sun each morning to warm their coats—it was fifteen below this morning.  In the afternoon, it will warm above zero and I’ll head out to groom them and do some longeing and groundwork.  I imagine I’m working them towards fitness for summer, but know that the weather, the cold, the packed snow melting in April to a dangerous slickness, the work ahead to finish the semester will all compete with my intentions toward them.  We have an ambitious lesson and clinic schedule set up for summer, including a three day Centered Riding clinic.  Between now and May, they need to be fit enough to take hour long lessons and the trail rides I hope to go on.  And so do I.

So, now, I’m on the couch, Jeter the poodle curled on his end, writing this instead of grooming, longeing, planting, dancing.  The sun has moved farther along the window now.  On NPR, there’s a discussion on the role of poetry in our lives in the 21st century.  There’s more coffee to drink.  Spring is still a dream, but a lovely dream.  We gather our energy now for the work ahead.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

March 7, 2009

“Snow falling night falling fast oh fast…”

This line from Robert Frost’s “Desert Places” runs through my mind each fall as the first snow falls and the days get darker. There’s something I love about the breathless quality of the line and the distantly observed beauty of fast falling snow on empty fields, the quick darkening of night. It’s something we know well here, the muting of light in snowfall, in winter.

But saying this in March is a different matter. Just when we are expecting more light, when the supermarket is filled with tulips and daffodils shipped up from Mexico and California, just when we’ve ordered our seeds and are setting up our seed starting tables and grow lights, the sky flattens with dark clouds and, for three days now, a snow fine as pastry flour sifts down on roads, roofs, the backs of horses. After the past three days, the garden is a foot farther under snow. The wood stove ash we spread there a few weeks ago is deep below white. Our spirits, about to lift with the small signs of spring in Interior Alaska–dog races, ice sculptures, the return of days longer than nights—deflate. We shoveled the driveway last weekend, giddy with the thought that it might be our last major plowing. We need to do it again and more.

Yesterday, we got six to eight inches in a day. Mattie and Sam’s corral is deep with it. The fence seems ridiculously short, as if Mattie or Sam could step over the top rail–except they’d sink in the snow on either side of the fence. They are too smart to try. Besides, what’s on either side looks the same, and they only get fed on the inside. So they stay put. They have to lift their feet a bit higher to walk through the deep snow. I hope this works as a kind of de facto fitness plan, because it’s too deep to walk safely after them on one end of the longe line, and neither they nor I can see where frozen manure piles are buried–a hazard for them and for me, and I want none of us injured.

Every spring I have grand training plans for them, starting right after Christmas. Every year, my plans discount the most important factor: winter. So far since January, I’ve been defeated by short days, 40 below weather, snow, chilblains from clicker training with my gloves off, winter inertia and counterbalancing activities–and now too-deep snow. The other night, a friend said, “Well, you don’t ride much; you just hang out with your horses like they’re pets.” I don’t think she meant ill by it, but, compared to someone in California, she’s right. I ride nearly every day in summer, barring smoke or rain, but getting two horses ready for riding after the long winter months takes lots of ground work. I feel behind. So does everyone I know, except for those with access to indoor riding arenas.

Mattie is staying dry in the back of the run-in shed. She blends into the shadows there and only comes out if she thinks I have food. Sam, on the other hand, doesn’t like to be confined. He likes to see what’s coming: airplanes flying over head, snowmachines on the road, a stray dog running by, a car coming up the driveway. His whinny is the most reliable sign that we have visitors.

Yesterday, I looked out in the thick snow and saw him napping by the fence. At that point the flakes were about the size of dimes and falling fast. Sam lay curled up in the deepening snow, his chin resting on the surface of it. I opened the door and called to him. He raised his head, looked at me, and lowered it again. I dressed as fast as I could and folded up my medium weight, waterproof blanket and carried it out to him. He wasn’t shivering when I reached him, but his thick coat was full of snow and wet where the heat of his body had melted it. I haltered him and he stretched out his front feet, stood up, and shook the loose snow from his back. He was probably OK; just napping and watching the snow fall, but I put the blanket on him anyway and he seemed more relaxed. He’s still standing out in the snow, the white stuff filling the places where the blanket makes soft folds along his back. Underneath he’s dry and warm, ready to guard the place.

Frost said–I can’t guarantee I have it perfectly–he could “scare myself with my own desert places.” I’ve always taken this to mean the places within where we know the territory–it’s ours and in our imagination, after all–but we find a familiar terror there, anyway. This may be the unresolvable questions that we all carry with us, or the vast unknown that is our future. This is the time of year when these “desert places” open their vistas to us unexpectedly, just when we’re expecting to slip on into spring unscathed.

The snow is beautiful as it falls. There’s an uncharacteristic wind, sculpting it into drifts. The tracks from our cars in the unplowed driveway will be filled in by morning and the curves of drifts may spread across them. A good day for a morning of coffee with chocolate and ginger scones. I’ll sleep on that thought.

Poetry Challenge 8

March 5, 2009

Out of  Order

OK, so I can’t count!

Here’s one from my composition classroom, suggested to me as a journal exercise by D.A. Bartlett–my long-time mentor.

Write about a process backward. Either start with the end result or write about undoing something. This could be a cake or an action you wish you could take back. Or play time backward. Or, like these poetry challenges, just write things out of order–add randomess.


Glow and I seem to be on similar wavelengths–missing things.  She challenged me to add a poem.  I think I was influenced by hers! 

My response:


Spring reverses itself.
seeds arrive in the mail,
snow slides from the roof,
a large hill of it
blocks the door. We carve
steps in its slope
to get over it. The dog
can’t stop barking
at the sounds snow
makes. Icicles form,

then the sky darkens
earlier than yesterday.
We go sliding
back to winter, snow
sifting all over hoods,
our shoulders, the cleared

In the morning you leave
sharp tracks in the snow.

By now, they are gone.


And Glow’s


Despair was later, now anxiety
spun me through the woods
as I searched for the white cat.
The house was half empty, half full.
My things only, hers gone.
Her new lover’s truck
needing a valve job, I noted,
chugged down the drive
nearly backing into the fence.
The goats bleated watching
the antique bureau nearly dropped.
Just go, I said.
It’s true, she said.
You lied, I said.
She means nothing, she said.
You cheated on me, I said.
A strawberry blotch,
spread across her neck.
A blush gone awry.

The white cat lay dead in the moonlight
A copperhead slithered silently
after, and, I assume, before.
Maybe a slight rustle of leaves
a twitch of grass
was all that warned me
and the cat
of disaster.


From Alaskapsych (not sure which challenge this is for):

Heraclitis et al

I stepped in the same river twice,
and twice again.
Time and tide waited for me,
I was awake

View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 1, 2009

Groundhog Day

More light now. The horses have time to doze in the sun without having to move as much to keep the light on their coats. We missed the deep cold we were scheduled for; we look at each other in the Post Office or at the grocery store or across the kitchen table and say how grateful we are that it’s only 20 below.

The town where I went to high school, Quarryville, Pennsylvania, had a social club, the Slumbering Groundhog Lodge whose members marched in local parades wearing choir robes and top hats, beating a bass drum, and proudly carrying a well-preserved stuffed groundhog. Every February 2, the Lodge went out in the corn fields to the official hole of Marmota Marmot (the official groundhog) and waited in the dark for the groundhog to appear. Every year, the local paper would report on the event-at 5:40 am, the groundhog would poke its nose out of the hole to see what all the fuss was about; a blinding flash of light would come from unexplained sources; the groundhog would duck back in the hole; and there would be six more weeks of winter. If the groundhog, for reasons known only to him, stayed above ground, it would only be six more weeks till spring. After the event, the Slumbering Groundhogs would trek back to their lodge to refill their flasks and warm up and report the news.

The Groundhogs had competitors, however, who believed that the only true sign of spring was the singing of the bull frog in the spring: The Singing Bull Frog Lodge. They wore green choir robes and would plan sneak attacks on the Slumbering Groundhogs in their lodge during the long winter months. Their reports of spring’s arrival were also reported in the paper. By then, of course, it was obvious to everyone-gardens and fields were tilled and seeded, the cows and horses were spread out, nibbling at the pastures, flowering trees-remember them?-were flowering.

Here in the Interior, the ground is somewhere below a couple feet of accumulated snow, fine and light on the top layer, packed densely as glacier ice close to the ground. We have no groundhogs. We have ground squirrels, regular squirrels, and voles. The ground squirrels hibernate; the tree squirrels live in the trees in nests made of scavenged material such as pink fiberglass insulation. The voles borrow in the hay barn, where they stash bits of dog food, bird seed, horse pellets. February 2 comes and goes, and if any of these critters pokes its head out, an owl may be the only one to know.

We putter on through winter, shoveling the driveway, chipping horse manure out of the snow and piling it, chopping wood for the stove, picking ice balls out from between the dog’s toes. But we hear the groundhog’s report-even if it’s the false groundhog from Punxatawney-and remember spring. I’ve bookmarked the garden seed sites; I’m saving yogurt containers for the greenhouse. Either way, I’ll be ready.

View from Mattie’s Pillow

January 23, 2009

Last night, a visit from my friend Joe Enzweiler (see the link to his website) to talk about poetry, life, and the writer’s discipline. Joe recently had a poem read on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac and we talked about how this might affect his work. Joe is a cabin-dwelling poet, not quite off the grid. He lives in a spruce log cabin he built himself 30 years ago, tucked away in a stand of birches. He has a rotary phone and a manual typewriter, though he was recently given a laptop and has become curious about the internet. But mostly he’s a pen-and-paper writer.

I’ve known Joe since I arrived in Fairbanks from the Pacific Northwest in the late seventies. I joined a writer’s workshop at the university, all young hotshots with big ideas and some gift with language. Joe and I have stayed friends since then, and he has dedicated himself to the writer’s life more profoundly than anyone I know who doesn’t have a university writing program job. Every morning, he rises with the sun (around 10 am, these days) makes tea, and sits by the window and writes. His Manx cat, Little Man hops on his lap to watch the redpolls and chickadees feed outside the window. He gets up from time to time to stoke the wood stove, his main source of heat. At some point, he leaves the house and takes his bow saw and clears small trees from the woods around his house. He cuts the wood into fireplace lengths and hauls it back to his house where he stacks it under his porch. All around the house there’s a mosaic of alder, spruce, birch, and willow stacked with the round ends out. Small wood, but good kindling and plenty to keep him warm and writing all winter.

In the summer, Joe builds things–decks, saunas, sheds, fences–as meticulously as he stacks wood or crafts poems. He loves to stack stone and has built stone walls for his brother in Kentucky and for many friends here.

In the winter we meet for Poetry Thursdays. They keep me focused on the task at hand and give him an audience for his current projects. He’s agreed to let me post a poem on the Poem of the Day page.

View from Mattie’s Pillow

January 7, 2009

Thinking of time today–how fluid and how relative it seems. We’re still deep in cold here. Everything takes more time. This morning, heading out to feed horses in the dark, I put on so many layers that the dog lay back down to rest and wait while I performed what must, to him, seem like a dallying obsessive task: putting on all the layers of down vest, wool sweater, hoodie, Carhartt’s jacket and lined workpants, my two layers of socks and Arctic Sport Muck Boots, lined gloves and liners, fleece hat and smoke ring. The dog sighs. He needs to go out, and I am fooling with all these pieces of cloth that he’s forbidden to chew.

And driving. First the car needs to be plugged in for an hour or more, then warmed up at idle in spite of air quality alerts, then the windshield scraped, then slowly driven off over bumpy tires that have developed flat spots from sitting in the cold.

But time has always seemed fluid to me, clocks arbitrary. On these days when I have the privilege of staying at home and writing, I tell time, if at all, by NPR–thus marking the day in hour or half hour moments–or by the quality of light in the day–so marking the day in ever lengthening blocks of hours. Right now, the sky is lightening with improbable pale pink at the horizon line, then a watery yellow, a bit of green–the yellow green of new spring leaves–then a pale blue that deepens as I look to the north, towards Barrow and Nuiqsut, where there has been no sun for a few months now, only pre-dawn and dusk light.

Time is a broad sweep here in the North–measured in the position of the sun. Winter, the sun is in the south–a short shallow arc over the horizon then back down. Summer, the sun circles from northeast to northwest, a wide long arc through the southern sky and north again. Time in summer is a long stretch of frenzied action–work, gardening, riding, evening baseball games, walks, canoeing, road trips–we cram as much in as we can, knowing that winter will come along to grind time down to its slowest essence again.

Here we are. Slow time. Things may or may not get done. We are tending our literal and inner fires, banking them up for the days ahead.

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