Thoughts on Mary Oliver

Now seems like a good time to repost this. RIP Mary Oliver.

Nomadic Noesis

“And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe…” – Mary Oliver, Upstream


I’m a big fan of Mary Oliver’s writing. She makes connections, or rather shows connections, that are not obvious on the surface. Her descriptions of nature do more than make you want to re-read the passage. They make you want to go see the world for yourself and then re-read the passage. Her poems are bereft of sentimentality, but full of mindful observation. And I can guarantee there’s some sweat behind those words.

Here’s the thing about writing poetry — it takes work…

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Politically Correct: Musings and a Poem

Several years ago I wrote a poem about a phrase I kept hearing: politically correct. Or political correctness. Or PC. It was used to shut people up, like duct tape over the mouth. Espouse a position that makes someone else feel guilty or uncomfortable? You were likely to hear that you were “just being PC.”

For a while, the term faded away, at least in discourse to which I was privy. Now it’s come roaring back. All over the place, I hear people proudly proclaim “I’m not politically correct.” The implication being, I suppose, that anyone who has a different opinion on the issue at hand can’t really be sincere. The implication being: “Deep down, you know I’m right. It’s simply inconvenient for you to admit it.”

To me, answering someone’s challenge or question or opinion with a dismissive charge of political correctness is the laziest kind of ad hominem attack. Instead of considering the issue, you call them a name and are done with it. Uttering the phrase “politically correct” absolves you of the need to listen or reason or self-examine. It’s right up there with the antiquated practice of calling women hysterical every time they challenged the status quo.

Since the term is back in vogue, my poem seems timely once again. I had fun playing around with it. I hope you have fun reading it.

Parity Considerations

Politically correct?
Is the accusation a
pertinent criticism
or just a
peevish complaint?
Does it matter whether my actions
are a result of
passive compromise
or of a truly
principled cause?
Could it be that
persistent charges
of PC are no more than
panicked counterattacks
against anyone refusing to fit a
particular conformity?
Should I lay aside my
personal convictions
out of fear that some
piously corrupt
person might
possibly call
me names?
If someone else can
purchase compliance
from me with
pretentiously contrived
allegations of PC
does that make me
politically correct
politically incorrect?
Pardon my confusion,
but if you are
preoccupied constantly
with whether I’m “just being PC,”
whom does this say more about,
you or me?
Please clarify.


Let’s Be Purists

Here’s a phrase I’d like to see used only in its original context: “lowest common denominator.” I suggest we stick to purist principles and use these words only in relation to actual math problems. I’m feeling pretty done with hearing the expression applied to human beings, especially children. To be honest, I’ve used it myself in the past. But I’ve declared a personal moratorium on it.

Think about it. That kid who is struggling with his reading – he’s a real person. He’s someone’s child. The girl who takes a few minutes longer than your kid to figure out the least common denominator in math class – she’s a human, and she’s good at something that some of the other kids aren’t. Every child, and every adult for that matter, struggles with something, and nobody wants to be ridiculed for it.

If I want my humanity recognized, I need to recognize it in others, and not use dismissive terms. Lowest Common Denominator, I hereby by banish you from the realm of humanity-describing adjectives.

Adventures in Communication

My day job (and often evening job and weekend job) takes place in a public library. For a middle-sized Midwestern city, my town is home to a fair number of non-native English speakers, probably because we also have a fair number of colleges and universities. Many of these folks find their way to the library.

I have a lot of respect for someone who is willing to move to a new land, learn a new language and actually go out in public to communicate with strangers. I’m not sure I’d have the courage, myself. It’s a good exercise for me to speak with someone who is still learning English. I have to practice true listening and I relearn the lesson that sometimes communication takes effort.  But if I keep trying and the patron keeps trying, we almost always end up arriving at an understanding.

I’ve had enough experience with this by now, some things are easy. Somebody looking for ESL materials? I get that one right the first try almost every time. Somebody looking for something more particular? Well….

This morning, it was a gray-haired gentleman asking for books by, um – Chaser? Much known English writer. Okay, I understood that part of the explanation. From age ago. Alright – not contemporary, then. My mind was working – much known, wrote in English, ages ago – Chaser? Chaucer! Chaucer! Did he want books by Chaucer? No, not Chaucer – Chaser.  Okay, let’s keep working.  Does the gentlemen know any titles by this writer? Yes – Juries Seize Her. We’re not quite to charades yet, but almost. Author sounds like Chaser. Title sounds like Juries Seize Her. Aha!  Julius Caesar by Shakespeare!  He wanted to read Shakespeare!

See: patience, listening, persistence, successful communication! We did it!

Dear Maeve Binchy

Dear Maeve Binchy,

Upon reading the first couple of chapters of Minding Frankie, I feel compelled to stage a a dialogue intervention.

Americans do not “take posts.” We “get jobs.”

Also we do not “fancy” anyone. We might “like” someone, or “like like” someone, or one of us might be “in love with” someone, or be “hot for” someone. But we don’t send emails talking about “fancying” another person.

You’re great at the relationship between characters stuff, but  perhaps you should get some help for your American dialect problem.

That’s all for now.

That one passage in a novel


    I felt the starched walls
of a pink cotton penitentiary
closing in on me.


Novels are long and have plots and story arcs and subplots and things. But sometimes one single sentence or passage from a novel will stick with me for years.

Sometimes it’s because the language is poetic. In To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout Finch’s aunt comes to stay, she tries to turn Scout into a little lady. Scout explains her situation thus: “I felt the starched walls of a pink cotton penitentiary closing in on me.” As a lifelong tomboy, this sentence speaks to me loud and clear.

Other times I’ll remember a passage that made me think about the universe in a new way. At one point in my life, my favorite book was Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I’ll never forget the nanny, Old Golly, proclaiming “There are as many ways to live as there are people in the world.”

A few years later I discovered Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, a book that remains on my favorites list to this day. It not only shook up my thinking on gender, but also on political boundaries, when one of the characters asks a not-so-simple question:
“How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply?”

Finally, I have to admit I’m a sucker for scenes where a character quotes Shakespeare and pulls it off. I like this especially when it comes from an Average Joe type character, such Barnaby Gaitlin in Patchwork Planet by Ann Tyler. Barnaby goes through a bit of character development during the course of the story. Without giving spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read the book, there’s a scene where he recalls one poem he learned in school that he understood, a Shakespearean sonnet. He turns to another character, saying “Haply I think on thee.” You’d never predict the words coming from his mouth early in the book, but it so works by the time he says it.

Yeah, novels are long and there are big things in them: plots, story arcs and so on. But attention to detail is still important. Paying attention to getting the right words in the right order at the right place. It matters.


I used to pride myself on having a large vocabulary. I know words such as noesis, after all. I even know and use some words you only find in the most unabridged of dictionaries. Stoit, for example, means to move in a staggering fashion, like Captain Jack Sparrow in those pirate movies. When I was a kid, I always aced vocabulary tests in school.

Then one day, I was walking with a friend and pointed out the lovely violets in someone’s yard. She corrected me, letting me know the plant was creeping myrtle. Since I have a brown thumb, I’m not great on plant names. The more I thought about it, the more I realized there are whole subject areas of vocabulary in which I’m deficient: plants, cooking, knitting.  What does al dente mean anyway? What are you doing when you braise something? Is a purl a little bead you fasten into your scarf?

One of the most generally known rules of good writing is “be specific.” Don’t say “tree.” Say “juniper” or “thorny locust.”  How can I be a good writer if I don’t know the difference between violets and creeping myrtle?

It turns out other writers have the same problem, this lack of an omniscient vocabulary. Nobody knows everything about every subject. That’s where research comes in. If I want to have one of my characters knitting and speaking knowledgably of the process, I don’t have to have the knowledge already stored in my brain. I can read knitting magazines, books and blogs, and talk to one of the 1,000 people I know who do knit in order to lay some nifty terminology into my story.

Writer’s Digest has a whole series of books dealing with need-to-know information in different areas. Need to poison one of your characters, but don’t know much about poisons? Serita Stevens will help you out with the Book of Poisons: A Guide for Writers.  Want to get your legal vocabulary straight for a courtroom scene? Try Order in the Court: A Writer’s Guide to the Legal System by David S. Mullally. Not clear on the difference between an abrasion and a contusion? You may want to browse Body Trauma: A Writer’s Guide to Wounds and Injuries by David W. Page.


Creeping Myrtle:

Fish Trees

It’s spring and the fish trees are in bloom. Other people call them Bradford pear trees, I now know, after asking a friend who is versed in horticultural matters. You can’t help noticing them, of course. Beautiful white flowers, planted everywhere, and a distinctive fishy smell to the blooms. Without knowing the formal name, I had to call them something, so I’ve always referred to them as fish trees. My kids picked up on that, and fish trees they will always be in our family discussions.

We also use sprinkle cheese in our house.  My daughter coined this term for the grated parmesan stuff in a can. Another family I know calls the same food feet cheese, because the mother thinks it smells bad.

I’ve always been fascinated by those apocryphal stories of twins who invent their own secret languages. I know there’s been debate about whether this has ever really happened, and if so, to what extent.  My personal experience tells me that wherever two or more people are gathered together for any length of extended contact, at least a few privately used words and phrases will spring into being. As my son once pithily observed, “Every word is a made-up word.”

Amazing and flexible thing, language. It can be so personalized and so universalized at the same time. I started thinking about this because I noticed the first fish tree blooms the same day I read that the final volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English will be published this year. This dictionary, according to the publishers, “seeks to document the varieties of English that are not found everywhere in the United States–those words, pronunciations, and phrases that vary from one region to another, that we learn at home rather than at school, or that are part of our oral rather than our written culture.”  

Big news for language geeks. I can’t wait to lose a few hours over it at the library.