Sparked by Words

Archive for the ‘writer’s life’ Category

Struggles on the Ground

No matter the struggles on the ground

The fire or earthquake or flood or revolution

You still awake to the baby’s cries and rush

To quiet her, diaper her, lift her to your breast


Rain descends, rivers run to oceans, wind rises

Dust settles on the white linens, grit mars the table

Boys and girls beg for a story and pencils

Babies turn in the womb, mouths reach for a kiss


No matter how weary your back bent to task

Your spirit slashed by fever, worry, conflict

The electric bill must be paid, bread bought

The children need breakfast before school


Surgeons raise their knives over ill flesh and cut

Farmers plough fields and force seeds into earth

Fishermen drop nets so deep in the sea they vanish

Some get well, some harvest, some eat, some drown


No matter the guns in the street, rockets overhead

The body bows to its insistent daily needs

Before you stand, work, march, weep, shout, fall

You must park outhouses along the battlefield


An old woman reads documents and diaries

An old man sorts certificates and photographs

They write their letters to their grandchildren

Wishing them fewer struggles on the ground


Just a thought 71


Homeward, painted 1881, Georges Inness, courtesy Wikimedia Commons






I Am Not a Poet

This is a thank you note to all of you who’ve praised my poetry. I’m humbled by your flattery, but I’m not a poet.

Next to music, poetry is perhaps closest to our souls, arriving on the hem of intuition, in thrall of sensation. Even infants are lulled by poems whispered in their ears, thrummed against their chests. The poems I heard in my own babyhood were often in Yiddish, the comforting sounds of my grandparents, the only language my great-grands knew.

My father recited to my sons and I’m certain to me, Untah da  babuh’s vigola, a lilting verse about an onion under the baby’s pram. Don’t ask why an onion, but probably placed there to ward off the Evil Eye, a nasty creature always lurking around babies deeply loved.

Then there was this one: Fishy, fishy, in a brook/ Daddy caught him with a hook/ Mommy fried him in a pan/ Baby ate him like a man. I can’t remember feeding fish to my very young sons but the sing-song rhythm is a pleasant adjunct to rocking a baby.

I read poems to enchant my sons when they were awake, then until they fell asleep. They were my selections, of course, the poetry I loved to read aloud because that’s the only way a poem can enter your bloodstream – infusion through your ears, via your lips and tongue. We roll the words in our mouths, smacking them against our palates, forcing them through our cheeks, our laughter, our tears.

I never had a poetry class in all of high school. Though my senior English teacher presented a complete course on British literature, she admitted she didn’t like teaching poetry. I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief like the rest of the kids. I wanted to understand its construction, its magnetism, its secret codes.

My only college poetry course was taught by a woman about ten years past her expected retirement. Now that I’m the age she was then, I respect her desire to continue, whether for passion or economic need. But she taught very old poetry – sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth century – much of it founded on Christian imagery and metaphor, reflecting the creed of the Christian Bible, and lauded by the faithful.

Problem was – I’m not Christian. I hadn’t yet read The New Testament, and probably wouldn’t have gotten all the allusions even if I had. The language may have been gorgeous to ears steeped in Christian mysticism, but to me it was tangled in archaic vocabulary I’d never heard and couldn’t relate to contemporary events.

Our last assignment in her class was to interpret a poem by Gerald Manly Hopkins, with specific and insistent instructions not to consult Cliff Notes, the literary assistant booklets available at the time.

Chump that I was, I followed the rules, struggled with a lousy interpretation, and earned a well-deserved C-. Then was infuriated to see the glowing A’s on most of the other papers, especially as nearly everyone else consulted Cliff, who told all Hopkins’ secrets for less than $2.00. How did the prof not recognize the same interpretations, one paper to the next?

Now I hated poetry, at least any attempt to figure out what the dead poets meant, steeped as it was in the bowels of a mythology I didn’t own. I wrote essays and short stories, but poetry eluded me. Let’s see, what word rhymes with stupid? Unpopular? Incompetent? How do you fit an entire history about how you’ve failed Human Relations 101 into a pensive, six-line, iambic pentameter stanza, then write a second lyrical stanza brimming with philosophical certitude?

Poetry sits in our sternum, thumping along with our heartbeats, pulsing next to our lungs. But to get to it you have to be honest with yourself, willing to be vulnerable. Open to your fears, hopes, expectations, confusion, wonder. And young love. That’s the stuff of poetry.

Confession: the other part of my childhood was a traumatic, violent history with parents that left me feeling stupid, incapable, worthless, frightened out of my wits. Some people wrest their way out of such misery through artistic endeavor. Me, I hid, convinced I was awful.

In my one and only university poetry writing class (I majored in literature with an emphasis in creative writing and had to take the class,) I was stifled by my inexperience. I might have been in love a few times but it was never returned. I limped through life but saw nothing I understood. I suffered a crippled hand and a locked tongue.

So while my classmates poured out pages of insightful lines that generated admiration, and really, some of it was quite good, I came up with ditties meriting a bonfire. A rag stuffed down my throat. A shove to the hallway where I might find the secretarial classes. Or just start pushing a broom.

About ten years ago I began a serious and difficult journey to understanding and forgiving my parents. To learning to forgive myself, all my failures and foolishness. And found I could write poetry. I would never be such a blockhead to think I’m good at it, but my poetry digs into my recesses and pulls out the required self-examination that infuses poetry. I’ve written about a hundred poems, some ridiculous, many too private to expose, a few that make me proud of my pen. If you’ve read any of my attempts here on my blog, I am deeply grateful for your attention.

Because the other quality one must have to write poetry is courage. And I’m just finding my cache.


Photograph of woman writing courtesy of Pixabay




I recall my cape of hip-length tresses

Wavy locks swirling to guitar and drum

Brazen curls snaking around my jaw

Skirting across a lawn of auburn leaves

Igniting the tinder of other girls’ envy

Catching the sideways desire of boys


Bound with braids of stolen daisies

Wriggling out of tortoise shell clips

Thick locks fatiguing rubber bands

Youthful rebellion straddling my head

Besting the nascent rioter of my heart

Too young for grown up restrictions


I dream the tiara of teardrop pearls

Illumined by a pose of silver arabesques

Clutching jasmine white ballerina tulle

Cloud-like on my pate, glancing shoulders

Secreting vows we’d already pledged

As I waltz the aisle to my betrothed


I did not wear that jeweled tiara

But a twist of roses and baby’s breath

Garlanding my hair like whispered vows

Cascade of satin ribbons sighing after me

Nor on a glade of strewn petals and vines

But over a trampled path to my beloved


I remember the bent clasp of mindless jobs

Friday coins dropped in my blistered palm

Hungry for more than burned rice and coffee

Fighting for time to study, for rights of others

Struggling to hone my wits, find a moral core

Years of adulthood forced upon my head


Brutal decades of wifedom and motherhood

Of employee and citizen, friend and neighbor

Learning to share with ill and hungry strangers

The ones who plead for virtue within me

Begging my twin gifts of sorrow and charity

Now I seek only the crown of a good name



Just a thought 70


Photograph courtesy of Pixabay




From Ack to Zap and Back Again

At first I was nothing more than ack. Holy mother of all things holy, it’s a baby, and he’s a – wait – oh boy – it’s a girl! ACK.

First mistake.

Because this is a story about how I came to write stories.

I wasn’t always a writer. This is an important distinction between me and others who write. Many authors claim they’ve always been a writer. Not me. First I was a nothing, a sea sponge sucking up salt and brine, sputtering to breathe. Rose to the top of the swells, opened my lungs for oxygen, and wailed. Like a starfish, I grew arms. Ears, actually, eyes, a tummy, a mouth, tongue, hands and feet. I learned to listen, to see, to hurt when hungry, to taste, to cry, to grasp and kick.

Eventually I learned I was not the whole world. Mother, father, bird mobile, shiny things, puppies, other people, cold or warm air, blankets, linoleum floor, grass. Thunderous noises (scared the hell out of me,) barely perceptible warning sirens (hurt my infant ears,) music, speech. Sensed anger and mystery. Understood neither though both gave me colic. Light that blinded, darkness that prevented sight. Rocking motion let me sleep.

Bitter, sweet, salty, sour – hardly anything prevented me from trying to eat stuff even if the sensation was distasteful. Rain dripping on my face, snow burning my fingers, ocean waves tumbling me into sand, rocks tripping my wobbly steps, grass cushioning my falls.

Not even aware of that momentous first step though I must have championed the skill. Not on camera. They actually had cameras back when I was born but not cell phones capturing every single moment and lots you wish they hadn’t. So, no photo of my very first land-on-my-punim step. I still walk, sometimes dance, hike, run, trip, fall, get up and walk again.

Listened for a year until I began to speak. Language, a world unto itself. Not even sure why I first spoke English. Could have chosen Chinese or Spanish, nearly useless on the East Coast of the US in the 1950s, but so convenient in today’s world. I would have been presciently prepared. Stupid baby girl.

Drew squiggles and shapes, then letters. Then words, sentences, paragraphs. Story.

First stories were not stories at all. Write what you know. This is me. This is mommy. This is daddy. Here is our house. Between identification of the landmarks of my world was a story about all those already intricate relationships, but I had no ability to organize them into a plot.

Around second grade my first real stories began to take shape. Fantastical, loosely organized, lacking internal logic, peopled with bizarre characters. All the primal experiences of me sensing me, and then the separation of me from the world led to stories.

The magic began. From nebulous impressions of how the world should be – nice, neat, sweet, kind – to how it really was – dirty, nasty, unfair, unpredictable – I wrote. My wand was a yellow number 2 Dixon Ticonderoga, zipping along the lines of a blank sheet of paper. In the margins I drew illustrations – early graphic novels.

Once in a while a teacher read my stories aloud. If the rest of the class wasn’t awed by my skills, I was still thrilled at my minute in the limelight. My efforts earned A grades and I’m relieved that none have survived. Around fourth grade I started hearing the word writer and – ZAP! – I knew that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up.

School got tough, my social life tougher, distractions and obligations led me along the typical adolescent/young adult trajectory. I schooled for a long time, in classrooms, over hill and dale, sequestered in my room. College diploma finally in hand (actually in a drawer somewhere), married with children, working a Chinese menu of jobs, the stories dwindled to ideas I had no time to write.

Until one day I began again and wrote for the next six months, producing what I was certain was a masterful children’s book. I sent it off to an agent and got back my first rejection notice. Should have known, I’d been warned, that the book wasn’t polished enough to clean the table, much less make it to print. The brief note convinced me I’d wasted everyone’s time and brought me to a full stop. What was I thinking? I could write a shopping list. I could not write a book.

So I put away the yellow pencil and set on a course as an art teacher. Nearly three decades of teaching kids, a career I’m proud of. Until the writing bug nudged me again. Now I had a really fancy pencil: a computer. In the past fifteen years, I’ve written four novels. Women’s commercial literature, if you have to know. I dislike the genre name but detest the more common title: chick lit. That’s a prickly discussion for another time.

I do love every aspect of writing except for one. I really hate the murky territory of trying to find an agent. So, I’m back at ACK now, Leave her alone, she’s writing a book, and trying to find my way to ZAP, Well, would you look at that – she really did write a book, and here it is.

No, not there yet, but still trying. This time, I won’t give up until the words The End are printed at the bottom of my published novel. Take that, Harry Potter – ZAP!


Photo of little girl at Camp Lejeune getting a magic wand from magician Jeff Jones, courtesy Pfc. Joshua Grant


A Gesture of Butterflies

They’ve invaded – the butterflies

Drunk on thistles, the bounty of rain

Small as half a broken egg shell

The ordained compass of Painted Ladies

Flitting o’er fields, creeks, chaparral

Darting along air flight highways,

From the Mexico-California border

Migrating to the Pacific Northwest

Be still, they approach in silence

Their mission to journey north

For the sake of their future tribe

Flounced wings, orange and charcoal

Black-eyed scales of outside pennants

Guarding the route of tiny gypsies

If only they could guard those below

The ones on knee, in chants, in prayer

What crusted his heart with toxic hate

Who gave him the bullets and the gun

How turn holy words to curse and lie,

Why assault the gates of church, temple,

Synagogue, mosque, sacred ground

The fluttering echo of God on Earth

Ravaged by a beast who never paused

To see the holy gesture of butterflies

My heart goes out to the family and friends of those who were murdered in Christchurch, New Zealand; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Charleston, South Carolina; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; and the many places of worship where innocent people have been attacked by terrorists who will not recognize the spark of God within all human life.

In honor of the innocents who were killed, I will not remember the names of the terrorists nor their hateful twist of words.


Just a thought 69


Painted Lady butterfly photos courtesy of Pixabay and Wikipedia



This is Where You’ll Find Me

I am not silent though you will not hear my words

My actions are as mundane as peeking through blinds

It is well into morning before I step out of the shower

But I was late to sleep last night and then could not rest

I lay down, my breath not deep enough for comfort

I paced again, exhausted but engorged with thoughts


My hours of darkness swaddled me as the sun lifted

Dirty plates pile on the countertop, waiting for soap

I should exercise but I eat, I should eat but I worry

The pages lie empty but the story beckons for attention

Its words thrum in my heart, hammering for speech

If I didn’t live in my books, I wouldn’t be breathing at all


Just a thought 68



Image of Eros sleeping, courtesy Wikipedia





Celebrate International Women’s Day


Everyday should be International Women’s Day, but if we need a day set aside to celebrate the achievements of women in order to let people everywhere know how wonderful we are, then I’m hopping on the bridge to help you cross from the side called Don’t Know Much to the other end marked This Is One Long List.

To acknowledge the many women all over the world who’ve contributed to the fields of:

animal (veterinary, daily care, groomers, companion and animal assistant training, aquarium, zoo, or rescue site employees)

architects (buildings, monuments, and bridges, city, suburban, commercial, landscape)

armed forces (all branches, every level, serving on U.S. soil or deployed abroad)

art (creating, exhibiting, curating in all fields of photography, painting, designing, drawing, sculpting, and ceramics)

banking (tellers, investment and accounting)

beauticians (hair cutting and styling, manicures, pedicures)

builders (carpenters, house builders, commercial builders, electricians, metal workers, repairmen, contractors, laborers, repairmen)

childcare (baby sitters, nannies, au pair)

cleaners and landscapers (housekeepers, gardeners, commercial maintenance workers)

culinary arts (chefs, cooks, waitresses, dish washers)

dance (choreography, those on their feet)

documentation and archival support (librarians, secretaries, clerks, researchers)

drivers (bus, taxi, limousine)

education (classroom teaching, administration, curriculum development, clerical support, assistants, substitute teachers, all fields and subjects, all levels from pre-school to university)

engineering (civil, industrial, mechanical, electrical, software)

entertainment (acting, directors, cameramen, off- or back stage support, stage, film, theater, video, commercials)

fire, police, sheriff, marshal, and security forces (first responders whose careers protect our lives)

industry (salesmen, retail and business of every kind on the ground, in the air, at sea, in space) environment (preserving and protecting animals, land, sea, and all natural resources)

historians (analysts, observers, researchers, diarists, writers, documentarians)

journalism (researchers, documenters, writers, editing, reporters in every media)

law (attorneys, judges, legal assistants, mediators, whether defense or prosecution, in courtrooms or not)

live performers (magicians, jugglers, comedians, stand-up comedians, revue, circus, chorus line)

mail service (delivery, post office)

medicine (medical care, surgeons, researchers, nurses, psychiatrists, dentists, opticians, ophthalmologists, clinical trial technicians, support and companion care, physical and occupational therapists)

music (playing, singing, directing, composing, writing in band, orchestra, symphony, or individual performer, whether touring or permanent location, professional or amateur

philosophy (thinkers, theorists, reflectors)

politics (policy crafters, elected officials at local, state, and federal levels)

religion (clergy, laymen, spiritual guides of all religions)

science (researchers, experimental and technical developmenters and innovators in all fields)

social activism (marchers, protestors, advocates, campaigners, speakers)

social work and mental health care (adoption, personal, marriage and family counseling, substance abuse, psychology, therapy)

sports (coaching, participation in professional, local, or individual teams, and personal health training and maintenance)

volunteering (every field  and task imaginable)

motherhood (everything – just everything)


If I left out the field closest to your heart, blame my lack of imagination and memory. I didn’t mean to forget or ignore you. And yes, plenty of men in these fields as well, and I thank you. But today we acknowledge women because not only do they do these jobs well, they had to fight like hungry sharks to get into many of these positions in the first place.


And now for the field closest to my heart:

Literature : poetry, memoir, and fiction of every genre and ilk.

A partial list of the authors –  geniuses, innovators, writers –  who have inspired me, along with one of their books that captivated me and made me want to write just like them.  If I left out your favorite author, please add in the comments section.

Enjoy celebrating women. No one would be here without us.


Alice Hoffman – The Marriage of Opposites

Alice Walker – The Color Purple

Amy Tan – The Joy Luck Club

Anita Diamant – The Red Tent

Ann Patchett – Bel Canto

Anne Frank – Diary of a Young Girl

Anne Lamott – Blue Shoe

Annie Proulx – The Shipping News

Audrey Niffenegger – The Time Traveler’s Wife

Barbara Kingsolver – The Poisonwood Bible

Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre

Chimamanda Ngochi Adechie – Americanah

Claire Messud – The Emperor’s Children

Daphne du Maurier – Rebecca

Dara Horn – The World to Come

Denise Levertov – Selected Poems

Diane Setterfield – The Thirteenth Tale

Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

Edwidge Danticat – Breath, Eyes, Memory

Elizabeth Strout – The Burgess Boys

Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights

Emily Dickenson – Complete Poems

Erica Jong – Fear of Flying

Geraldine Brooks – People of the Book

Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird

Isabel Allende – The House of the Spirits

J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice

Jane Hirschfield – Given Sugar, Given Salt

Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear

Joan Didion – The Year of Magical Thinking

Joanne Harris – Five Quarters of the Orange

Jodi Picoult – The Storyteller

Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) – Out of Africa

Kate Atkinson – A God in Ruins

Katherine Paterson – Bridge to Terabithia

Kathryn Stockett – The Help

Laura Esquivel – Like Water for Chocolate

Lilian Nattel – The River Midnight

Lisa See – Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Louisa May Alcott – Little Women

Louise Erdrich – Love Medicine

Madeleine L’Engle – A Wrinkle in Time

Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale

Marge Piercy – He, She, and It

Chimamanda Ngochi Adechi

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings – The Yearling

Mary Oliver – Devotions

Mary Renault – The Persian Boy

Mary Stewart – The Crystal Cave

Maxine Hong Kingston – The Woman Warrior

Maya Angelou – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Naomi Ragen – Sotah

Natalie Goldberg – Thunder and Lightning

Nicole Strauss – The History of Love

Paula McLain – Circling the Sun

Persia Woolley- Child of the Northern Spring

Rachel Kadish – The Weight of Ink

Rachel Kushner – The Flamethrowers

Sandra Cisneros – The House on Mango Street

Sarah Dunant – In the Company of the Courtesan

Sue Monk Kidd – The Invention of Wings

Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

Toni Morrison – Song of Solomon

Ursula Hegi – Stones from the River

Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse

Willa Cather – My Antonia

Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God


Painting: A Woman Writing a Letter by Johannes Vermeer