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I Started Walking at the Green Edge of Spring

It may be the last normal thing we did, in the final few days before the world changed.   We drove out along  the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska, to witness the migration of the Sand Hill cranes from south to north – something they have been doing for about 8 million years.    It was still normal  to drive somewhere in a car; to be face to face with friends;  to pack a picnic meal, to stay in a hotel, to have breakfast in a restaurant, to stake out a bench in a state park at sunset, and again at sunrise, to see and hear these magnificent birds.   We were already hearing that bars and restaurants might be closing for a while; that schools and businesses would start to shut down; that we would shelter in place for a few weeks while the curve of infections flattened out.  It was on our drive home that we heard that the mayor was going to shut down the bars ON ST. PATRICK’S DAY. Serious. 

Platte River Sunrise, near Gibbon, NE

Shut down, stay home, shelter in place. Schools closed, nonessential businesses closed, elective medical appointments were cancelled.   I negotiated my calendar.  I had work events and trainings later in April, and I thought that by then, surely, all will be well.  A month elapsed, then two.  Those events on the calendar were renegotiated, again, pushed forward to fall, or  revised to occur on line.  The course I teach at UNO was grounded, and we finished the semester through remote learning — and stayed that way into summer and fall.  We learned to order groceries on line; to make cautious trips  for takeout once in a while;  risked going into the garden center to get plants and seeds for spring;  grew a wardrobe of masks.    We kept thinking that surely we’d be able to keep our plans to visit New York at the end of March, and Maryland at the end of April.  How stubbornly we held on, till clearly we had to let go.  

Since I retired, I’d been going to the Engage Wellness Center almost every weekday for cardio and strength training, but it closed at the end of March,  and I had to figure out how to transition my exercise regimen to something outdoors.   In the late days of March,  I began walking at Elmwood Park in Central Omaha, a beautiful old city park.   

Elmwood Park, South Entrance

In the late Nineteenth Century, a well-known landscape architect, Horace HWS Cleveland, was hired by Omaha’s newly formed Board of Park Commissioners to design a public green space system for the new city.  Before it grew, there would be a plan for a  connected system of parks and boulevards, shared open space, twined  into the young bones of the city.  Elmwood is one of those parks,  and a few miles to the north,  the street we live on – Fontenelle Boulevard – is part of the same system.  My route to the park every day follows Cleveland’s master plan. 

A History of Omaha Parks published by the Omaha Department of Parks and Recreation, 1992

I mapped out a walk that started in the old grotto, where a natural spring arises, and in the original park design, became a place where people came to collect water for home.   A trail curves along the creek bed, then bends to the west on a bike and walking trail shaded by huge old maples, oaks, and cottonwoods.   It passes near the playground, winds around and bisects a golf course, where the creek gathers into a small pond.  Here I turn east for a brisk uphill walk, sharing this part of the path with golfers and carts.  Just a few in April; by May,  there are more and more plaid pants up there.

In those first few weeks, it was mostly gray and muddy.  Each day I would see the park change just a little.  A film of green light through the earliest leaves;  the creek swelling up as spring rains came through.  Gradually,  a canopy of green shaded most of the walk.  As the weather warmed, the children’s playground – sand, swings, climbing structures, slides – began to fill with  young parents and children.  There’s a huge pile of shared sand toys – trucks and buckets and riding toys and balls.  I’ve seen mothers sweeping sand off the walks, and a friend told me that they shared the duty of cleaning the toys. In full summer heat,  the shade became denser, and it was still tolerable to walk.

Creek in Spring

Later in the month the City closed the park for a while because people were having too much reckless fun, like my friend Tom Burton, who was busted for eating a pulled pork sandwich at a picnic table — his modern day Alice’s Restaurant moment. Not wanting to have even a minor crime on my permanent record, I altered my walk northward toward the UNO Campus and through the outdoor sculpture installation called “Sounding Stones”, by the artist Leslie Iwai.  They were moved from another park some years ago and there was some controversy about the new location.  From a distance, they look like they might be sewer pipes –  huge hulks of cement with an open center.  Closer though,  they are rounded and smoother.  They invite touch, a palm laid against cool concrete. Each is marked with a single word to think about: humility, brokenness, submission, simplicity, community.   Each sparks a meditation as I walk.    Each hollow center frames a small vista of the park.   I see students curled into them, intent on phones, and kids getting their pictures taken 

The life of the park emerged. I shared the wide  path with other walkers, bikers, and runners.  After a few weeks some began  to look familiar.  Most would return a look or a slight wave of the hand.   For several weeks I noticed a converted school bus that looked like a family might be living in it,  spilled out in lawn chairs under the trees.  A young woman regularly hung  a hammock in the deep shade between two trees.   I would see circles of lawn chairs – six feet apart – where friends gathered, as we did occasionally with  small groups of friends.  When my niece Crystal, on a cross country drive, stopped  in  Omaha,  this is the park where we met her lovely young family.    

Of course there are the artists – dark and light.   Graffiti was seldom left more than a day or two before the park squad cleaned it up,  so I learned never to let a moment pass without a photo.  People come here to have their portraits taken.  More than once, I paused while a shot was being taken in my path, and congratulated a young couple on their engagement. I saw a  graduate toss his mortarboard into the air.   May his hat fly as high as his dreams.  I’ve seen  families posing  their small children, colorfully dressed for the occasion, my favorite being a tiny crabby girl in a ladybug outfit who wasn’t having it.  For a few weeks,  there were two children’s stories,  displayed on a  series of signs, page by  page, along the path; and one’s walk just had to slow down for the pleasure

The grotto is popular for weddings. As I approached it one day,  I saw a dapper looking groom popping out of a portable toilet,  ready for the ceremony.  A vase, once full of wedding flowers, was left under a shrub; and weeks later, had drifted full of leaves.  I do pick up litter occasionally, but this seemed more like art than litter.   Just a few weeks ago, on a fall walk, I saw a huge bouquet of pink and blue balloons and a circle of celebrants.  A Gender Reveal Party – I don’t know who revealed what though. And  recently I watched as a  party bus  waited, emitting a faint cloud of exhaust, for whatever party  it had let out,  to return and reboard. 

My Fitbit device creates a record for me of every walk — active minutes, heart rate, how many steps, how many flights, how many miles — this is the science of walking, but even better is the art of it. I wear headphones and listen to podcasts and audiobooks and poetry and music.  On difficult days I consciously walk with someone or something in mind  – a friend lost at a time we can’t mourn as usual;  a knot of feelings that gets stuck, worked out like a muscle; deep sadness for this strange world, the tensions of political unrest,  the need to reflect on privilege in hard times.  But for the most part these walks seem like a distant reflection on that world. The beauty in the current moment balances the burden.

At the end of September,  I realized that I’d started to  pick up small twigs with acorns, falling from the oak trees along the path.   I suppose I had the idea of making a wreath; they were so compelling.  Then it struck me:  I’m acting like a squirrel.  It’s fall.  Winter is coming.  The wind blew  down branches, some of which were portable enough to come home with me as fuel for the firepit.   The creek, full of  leaves, became dark as tea.  On a slope of the golf course one morning,  I noticed hundreds of small glittering things.  My first thought:  litter.  What shiny things could have blown away here?  But as I got closer I saw that they were cottonwood leaves, almost metallic in color, reflecting the early sun.   

Creek in Fall

It’s December now.  I have walked from the green edge of spring to the icy beginning of winter.   How long can I continue as the cold  blows  in?  I’ve walked in rain, and once on ice, and on days where the temperature hovered in the 30’s.    I’ve made this walk 4 or 5 times a week since late March, certainly over an hundred times. Sometimes I tell myself I’ve made the same walk every day,   but in truth,  it’s been a different walk every day.   It fits the simple routine of days we have now, the same things, day after day, the essential things.    And the next edge of spring is just a few months away.  

From the green edge to the white edge


The Winter of Listening

winter of listening

Buddha Snow Gauge guided me through the coldest and snowiest winter in years

“So let this winter

of listening

be enough

for the new life

I must call my own.”

(David Whyte. Find the entire poem here)

My last day of full time work was December 31, 2018;  and my first day of retirement was January 1, 2019.  In retrospect,  this was brilliant timing.  The whole world was with me that night, cheering and toasting about one thing or another.  And when it was over, I was ready for it to be over.  Done celebrating.   But I didn’t yet know what would come next.


A gift from Katie Gallegos! Taken on New Year’s Eve

I wasn’t all thrilled about retirement.   I love my work and didn’t quite know how to stop.  I had tried once before, after 32 years at Heartland Family Service — but moved directly into another full time position at Project Harmony.  Our agreement was for 3 to 4 years, time enough to help start a new Children’s Mental Health Program called “Connections”.  I was term limited from the start, in this incremental process that seems to be  my way of retirement.    But even that did not make the next step easier.   In six months of planning my departure,  what I felt most acutely were the impending losses.  I thought of the threads of connection that would be lost;  the projects that would not fully materialize with me as part of them; the relationships formed.  Some will continue, and some will not.  One of the surprises for me was that retirement is not just about leaving.  It’s about being left.  It’s seeing that world without me in it — while I am still in it, a ghost.   I knew that I needed an interlude in which to reflect and discern what the next stage would be like.   What would fill the empty space of losses?

A few days into the New Year,  I met a young colleague for coffee.  I had a half formed idea about a practice of consultation and training, but her questions went tothe kind of detail I didn’t have yet.   What am I interested in doing?  What continues to fuel the passion I have had for children and families for most of my life?  What evokes my curiosity?  What can I just not stand to put down? We concluded our onversation, but I stayed on in the coffee house for another hour,  starting to outline what would become Fontenelle House,  the name for my new stage of work.

During those months of preparation, I read Parker Palmer’s book On the Brink of Everything:  Gravity, Grace, and Getting Old.  He reframes aging as “a passage of discovery and engagement”. And in his unique style,  he names and explores the questions implicit in this stage of life, giving me the opportunity to explore my own questions.   It paved the way for me to move into the positive space of retirement, and introduced me to his work with Carrie Newcomer, poet and musician, with whom he founded “The Growing Edge”.

“Life forever invites us to grow into new challenges, new adventures, new opportunities to learn and to serve.   What’s your growing edge? Maybe it’s a quest for meaning or purpose. Or for a vocation where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need. Or for ways to join others in working for the common good”.  Carrie Newcomer and Parker Palmer

Retirement is more than a cocktail hour but some winter days called for an Irish Coffee Emergency

It took about three months to perfect that document.  I sensed its completion  — almost to the day on which the first tiny little purple crocus appeared in the garden.  It turns out it was a perfect winter for hibernation — the longest and coldest  in memory.  More snow, more cold, then more snow, a glimpse of warmer weather; then winds and blizzards and ice. In these three months,  I set everything down.   As the opportunity presented itself to pick something up again,  these questions formed a barometer.  Yes or no?  And heading into spring,  I am pleasantly busy with a variety of projects.  Some are familiar and expected — others come from literally out of the blue and land with a satisfying impact:  “This will be interesting!”  I don’t yet have a website for Fontenelle House but if you are interested, please let me know  and I’ll send you the description.

I learned some things being home.  First of all — how much I love being in this house.  Over the last nine years we’ve renovated almost every room, and now I feel the cumulative effect.   It is a warm and safe place against the cold and sometimes hostile world out there.    I learned that the thermostat had not been informed of my life changes.  It thought I left at 8, and turned itself down to about 60 degrees.  So I’d start the day by cranking it up a bit.   I was accustomed to leaving early in the morning, and arriving home early evening, so I know how the light comes in from the south side both early and late.  Now I have seen it move through the day,  marked by the snoring beagle who periodically repositions herself for maximum warmth.   We suspected that Zoey snoozed all the time we were gone, and it’s true.  After her epic walkabout last summer, when she was missing for two days, we got her a “Whistle” tracker.  If she escapes, we can hunt her down — kind of like you “find friends” on your IPhone.  (which is how I find Tim).  It  is kind of like a fitbit for dogs.  So I now know for sure (because I wear a fitbit too) that Zoey sleeps about 3 times as much as I do, and gets about 3 times more activity a day.

The new days have their own rhythm.   I still set an alarm but not so frightfully early.   I have time for a latte and I read the morning news in silence.  I read (at least) one poem a day.  That’s a long standing habit going back to  “The Writer’s Almanac”, which disappeared in the crash of Garrison Keillor.  But now I have found “Echos of Panhala” — which offers a daily poem, most in a mystic tradition.  I save the ones that provoke a particular thought, often the beginning of a writing idea, as was David Whyte’s poem at the beginning of this post.

Spurred by a mild sense of competition with Zoey,   I too have fitness goals, and most days begin with a workout at Engage Center for Wellness  (No other way to say it:  Geriatric Gym).  While working out on cardio and weight machines,  I listen to podcasts and audiobooks.  After the 2016 election, when I went on a news fast,  I  began listening to true crime podcasts — BECAUSE THEY WERE UPBEAT compared with the news.  Gradually I branched out to include other podcasts,  like “The Moth”, “This American Life”, and “On Being”; and audiobooks — Good and Mad, by Rebecca Traister, and Becoming by Michelle Obama.   I sometimes have to stop the treadmill (real one, not metaphorical) to jot down a note or a thought.

End Stage Retirement Balloons

By the time I get back home, I am energized, mind and body.  I am ready for the work of the afternoon.  I have a long list of writing ideas and projects.  One of those  is in response to a Karen Hogan challenge:  Write letters by hand, on paper, with a pen,  and send them to friends.   We also have a box of postcards, collected over the years on vacations but never mailed, and these now go out with a message of “greetings from somewhere we aren’t at right now”.   With time dedicated  on a regular basis,  my intention is that I’ll move more of my projects to completion and eventual publication. Starting now, as the Winter of Listening shifts into spring.


I’d Like to Have a Word….

… with Donald Trump’s mother.  I have said this out loud a few times, and invariably someone will say “but what about his father?”   I know. It takes two parents, and  maybe a village, to raise a child.  But it’s Mother Trump I’m interested in.   I have a lot of questions.

I am a child and family therapist, an early childhood specialist, a university instructor;  a daughter, and  a mother.  In all of these roles, I have spent my life searching for the roots of social and emotional competency,   all found in the earliest years of life, all emanating from the earliest experience of family.    I can’t help but hold this lens to Mr. Trump and his mother, and to pose my questions. I am not one to feel sorry for failed adults — drug addicts, criminals, wife beaters — or to make excuses for the ravages of early experience.   Adults need to be held accountable. But then we have to ask “What happened to you? How did you get this way?  Mrs. Trump,  what the hell have you done?”

In those early years, our children learn critical skills — truly the foundation for all of  life.   It is when a  child  develops empathy —  the capacity of feeling for others;  it is the seed of the golden rule — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.   In some form,   this is a tenet in every major religion, and I  have come to believe that it is the tie that binds us; the heart of our social contract with one another.   It is when a child develops an inner life and the capacity to imagine the inner life of another person. This rich gift  emerges from  care of an adult who holds the child with empathy; who sees the inner state; who calms and regulates with the child.   Recent research shows that it is in this enveloping relationship that a child’s brain becomes organized.   The term “executive function” is the result — the child who can think and feel; who can tolerate frustration; sustain attention; regulate feelings and impulses.

Five year olds are small works in progress, but they have learned a lot, possibly most of what they need to know, about other people in the world. In a Washington Post article about the childhood of Donald Trump, a neighbor recalls finding the five year old throwing rocks into the crib of her infant son.   And Trump would agree that he hasn’t changed much.

“When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same,” the 70-year-old presumptive Republican nominee once told a biographer. “The temperament is not that different.” 

By age seven, he recalls he gave his teacher a black eye.  His classmates recall him as a bully and a liar.  At age 12, he was an out of control child, sent to military school so that more force could be brought against him than he could inflict on others.  In a state of rage against a classmate, he once had to be stopped from throwing the boy out a second story window.    How does a child so  young already show such careless disregard for other human beings?  How could he not have developed any degree of empathy for another person’s experience of fear or pain?  How is it that he lacked the capacity to regulate his emotions and behaviors? Would we know how to create that result, if we wanted to conduct such a bizarre experience?  We would.  We’d make sure that no one in that child’s life responded empathically; that no one modeled moderation in feelings; we’d make sure that he saw nothing in the eyes and faces of his caregivers except extremes of emotion — too much or not enough.

We are shaped by early family experience — and by prevailing cultural values — to become a particular model of success.  There is a certain world that our parents and grandparents have in mind when they slap our hands — or don’t — when they throw us in the pool — or don’t — when they pick us up to comfort — or don’t — when they send us back to pick up the fight — or don’t.   When they send us to military school  as punishment — or don’t.

What did success in life mean to Trump’s parents?  What world were they preparing him for?  In an article in the New York Times (July 29, 2017),  Maureen Dowd mentions a statement attributed to Fred Trump: “You’re either a killer and a king or a loser”.  You succeed at the expense of others; you succeed by exploiting the weakness of others.  How is that for a parenting proverb?  Trump’s father has been described as   …” a tight-fisted and dour disciplinarian who was determined to toughen up his sons so they could follow him into a life as a ruthless, cost-cutting businessman.”   The  classic divide of gender socialization  in American families often places the father on the side of disciplinarian; the mother as nurturer.  Children need both, they need them at every stage of development, and they need them from both parents.  But  too often, and as young in a boy’s life as seven or eight,  the mother is fired from her role of nurturing her son, and the father takes up the task of toughening the boy and turning him into a man, saving him from the curse of being a “sissy” who can’t stand up in the world.   As if mother had nothing else to say about that.  Were you fired, Mrs. Trump?   Did you put up a fight in defense of your son?   Or did you chime in,  harmonizing with the oppressor?  “The Child is father of the man”, says William Wordsworth.

In the 50’s many theories of psychological development espoused the poisonous effects of a cold mother. A cold mother could turn a girl into a lesbian, or a boy, more likely, autistic.  Mothers aren’t normally cold.  It goes against their better nature.  But it can be done.  Harry Harlow managed to engineer it perfectly, and horrifyingly, with primates.    Which brings me to my questions for Trump’s mother.  What kind of human being did you set loose on the world?  How did you do it?  How does an emotionally cold person become that way?  There is a prescription that works:  be dismissive of a child’s needs; withhold your attention; ignore crying; feed on schedule without regard to hunger; begin early to inflict pain to get compliance; outsource your childrearing to maids and nannies. It’s a pattern that  at the extreme, can be experienced by the child as neglectful and intrusive by turn, in a state of  “alarming misattunement”.

So I’d like to have a word with Mrs. Trump.   Yes, I  know she’s dead, so it’s a hypothetical conversation. Little is revealed about her in any public sources I can find.  She was a Scottish immigrant, a domestic.   Like Trump’s father, she started life poor and striving.  She left a poor and struggling country — think how Trump would refer to it now — in search of better opportunities.  That’s about it.  Everything else is speculation, but informed speculation.   I’ve read a number of news and magazine stories of a biographical nature, drawing the line, though, at cracking one of his self aggrandizing books.   She was said to be a woman who loved to thrust herself into the center of things; who perhaps admired the  Queen of England a bit over the top.   Trump has that he’s always had to compare the women in his life to his mother; and often to find them wanting.

I heard Donald Trump comment on the news recently — in the summer of 2017 —  that he doesn’t see how a relationship needs “work”.  “You just do what you do”, he said.  “My father never “worked” at a relationship”  His father — killer and king — was the provider who went to work and came home.  His mother prepared his meals and they watched TV and went to bed.  The next day, the same thing.  What is  there to work at  in a relationship? There was no mention here of paternal pussy-grabbing but one assumes that is all part of   “not working at a relationship”   As  Trump utters these incredibly clueless words,  we see beside him a silent and obviously awkward Melania, his third acquisition as wife.   His track record of affairs with strippers and porn stars, within the span of this marriage, hangs in the background.

The cumulative evidence of  this early failure is apparent in his life today.  Ranting, self centered, impulsive; just as he was at five years of age.  During the campaign, and in the aftermath of the election,  it was sobering to see young children so readily able to categorize the behavior they saw, and the words they heard from him, so clearly — a playground bully, no more mature than a grade school child.   There were editorial cartoons depicting a high chair at the table at the G20 summit;  his need for naps or being picked up in  a  stroller — oops,  a golf cart — when everyone else walked.    But instead of a rattle, that’s a nuclear weapon in his hands.   A  White House insider describes the internal climate as  an Adult Day Care Center, where Trump  continuously resists any means of internal self control, and resists any control set from the outside by his so called Handlers.

His adult cruelty harks back to his days as a child bully. During the campaign he  mocked a reporter with disabilities, and insulted the brave service of John McCain,  the “loser” who got captured in the war that Trump evaded.   It’s one in a long spew of juvenile name calling —   insults; vindictiveness; reflexive cruelty. A series of  slurs about women based on their appearance and (to him) attractiveness.  We heard an open admission, during his campaign,  of the privilege he has to view and grope any women he chooses.  Not only did he deride the resignation of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe in January;  but also took a parting jab at his wife — “Ask her what it’s like to be a loser”.  There’s that Father Trump curse again.  The worst thing to be is a loser.

Here is a man who demands loyalty, but gives loyalty to no one.   Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist  has said that “Trump betrays everyone: wives, business associates, contractors, bankers and now, the leaders of the House and Senate in his own party. They can’t explain this away as [a] 15-dimensional Trump chess game. It’s a dishonest person behaving according to his long-established pattern.”

It is clear that he lacks those fundamental human accomplishments of  early childhood.  There is  no sense of inner life, his own or others’; no reflective capacity;  such limited ability to sense what others feel – or care what others feel.  In the so called listening session at the White House in the aftermath of the Parkland High School Shootings, he carried a note card reminding him to say “I hear you”

The early years in life are our opportunity to shape a human being;  to prepare them for the future; to socialize them; to do unto others as they would want others to do to them.   When I imagine the early years  of Donald Trump,  I hear the roaring of Father Trump in the background:  “You are either a killer and a king, or a loser”.  And in the background,  I hear the silence of Mother Trump.  This is the son you have sent into the world.



Cityscape — Brooklyn

It’s been a few months since I saw the film Paterson.   But I am still in its spell.  Most of my coworkers had seen Fifty Shades Darker that weekend, and I’d seen Paterson.  The plot doesn’t sound like much – I realized that when I said it out loud.   A bus driver named Paterson,  in Paterson, New Jersey,  drifts through the dirty city every day, watching and listening, writing poetry in a small notebook, and goes home to a sweet  but odd young wife.  The dramatic denouement of the film involves a dog and misbehavior and I won’t spoil it here.

The film’s director, Jim Jarmusch, says  “I just wanted to make an intentionally slight, quiet little world of people that were centred in themselves and weren’t necessarily ambitious and had nice qualities and were creative and balanced and centred.”     And here may be where the connection lies.  I wouldn’t mind if he were describing me as an inhabitant of  that world.  I am a prose writer; never poetry.  But like Paterson, I listen and watch.   And I love the work of gifted poets.

I can’t remember when poetry hasn’t  been there in my  everyday life.   Its origin must certainly have been in childhood;  those rhymes and verses, heard over and over, subtle, like a heartbeat.   I recently wrote about my high school English teacher, Ed Brush, and the imprint he left in his students’ lives for poetry to fill.  Last fall, in preparation for a reading in his honor,   I read through six volumes of his poems,  looking  for three or four to read out loud. Pure joy.

In my post-religious years (which now number more than 50),   I find that I turn to poems when I am in need of spiritual reflection and guidance (“How To Regain Your Soul” by William Stafford);  a moment of meditation (“Commuter Buddhist” by Jeffery Harrison );  a blessing  on one thing or another (“Beannacht” by John O’Donohue);   a crash course in  patience and humility (“The Resemblance Between Your Life and a Dog” by Robert Bly); seasonal change (“Stealing Lilacs” by Alice Persons); when I need a reminder that there is much to be grateful for (“Thank You is its Own Kind of Light” by Esther Cohen ); navigating writers block  — such as the one that impeded this essay from being posted during National Poetry Month, which is April, in case you didn’t  know (“How to be a Poet” by Wendell Berry).  Upon entering the fourth decade of a marriage (The Country of Marriage” by Wendell Berry); for the long night that is the last night of a loved one’s life — I felt connected to centuries of others who have done this before us (“The Fat Old Couple Whirling Around” by Robert Bly); and for the next morning, the words of  Mary Esselman (“It was more like the tipping of an object toward the light”)

I begin every day by reading the poem offered up in The Writer’s Almanac, delivered to my email.  I save the memorable ones and recently figured out an origami  card in which to give poems as gifts.  The Turkish map fold opens dramatically, as the contents deserve.    I love it when I am surprised by a poem in an unexpected place, like the subway placards in New York or DC transit cars, or the occasional  found poem on a public Marquee

Found Poem at Sokol Hall

Some secret poetry wag in our office building posts “Random Acts of Poetry” in the odd corner.  One of my favorites:  A poem called  “Bottled Water “ taped to the beverage vending machine.   When our writer friend Troy stayed in our “Writers Garret” a few years ago, while he worked on a book, we’d often find a magnetic poem composed on the refrigerator.  For years, when one of my professional duties was to serve on the HIPAA Compliance Committee,  we somehow fell into the practice of opening each meeting with a Haiku – that weightless and disciplined form was such a brilliant counterpoint to the mangled language and run on sentences of federal health care regulations.  A small example:

No one hears HIPAA

Questions shouted in the forest  

Use  Email Instead


These are the quintessential poems for ordinary days and mundane moments.

And then there are the special occasions

I vividly remember hearing   Elizabeth Alexander read  her poem, Praise Song for the Day, written for Obama’s first inauguration in 2009.  That’s when I learned that an occasional poem was not in fact one written once in a while; but rather composed for a special occasion.

We have been the recipients of a series of beautiful occasional poems in our family.  Our dear friend Fred Zydek, a prolific poet until his death last year, composed and read  poems for our wedding; for  the births of our children;  for the sad occasions of parents’ deaths; for the giving away of their accumulated possessions; for our children reaching adulthood; for making it to middle age and beyond.

And there are the occasional poems we need like an anchor in times of  disaster, personal or epic,  that soften  the sharp edges of  fear. Today, I am hoping I do not need a poem with which to huddle  after the “fire and fury like the world has never known”.  That’s our reckless  death-wish  President in the headlines this week,  provoking reckless death-wish North Korea.   Mother God would not be amused.

Till then, I will be thinking like Paterson, gliding through the world, quiet  and observant.   In the words of Parker Palmer, “Rest for a Moment in a Poem’s Peace”.

An Omega 3 Capsule and One Poem a Day

Both are good for the heart.  This is what I am prepared  to say in the event that anyone should ever ask me,  “How do you keep doing the work you do? “

I’ve always done the kind of work that elicits that question.  Children with developmental disabilities; parents who abuse or neglect their kids, most commonly because of drug addiction and life long trauma; children who witness terrible things or have terrible things happen to them.  When people would ask it, I’d sometimes think it was naïve, or pitying, or uninformed.  But when I learned to ask it of myself, it became one of the most central questions in my life.follow heart

Early in my professional training,  I remember being told not to become emotionally involved in my work.   I found out early how much of that was crazy talk; and ever since, I have been building a repertoire of self-preservation practices.  No one leaves their emotions at the door each morning. It’s baggage that’s with us for good.  And it’s likely that at least half, maybe a little more, maybe most,  of our talents have to do with emotional intelligence,  intuition, and empathic connection.  It’s always a good idea to have a brain in the mix as well, but the people in this work who have no emotional engagement with it are train wrecks.  My exploration of the literature of reflective practice  has helped immensely – learning by doing, learning from experience; learning from mistakes and successes – requiring only that we slow down enough to notice what is happening around and within.

I buy the capsules at Walgreen’s every month and The Writers Almanac delivers  a   poem to my email in box each morning.. That and a double cappuccino, and I am out the door for the day.  Put my feet to the floor,  keep them moving till I am home again tonight. Move through five days,   then two to recharge.   Make it, one day at a time through the winter, and you will eventually feel a warm breeze,  a thaw,  the sound of returning birds.  There are a certain number of winters remaining.

Increasingly I feel the challenge of working and  staying healthy, sustaining energy and attention, and most of all,  preserving hope; which I almost always have had in adequate supply. Now,  I am  increasingly aware of the daily expenditure of emotional energy.  But what else would I be saving it for?

Much is written in our field about  traumatic contagion;  vicarious trauma and vicarious pain, as if the main hazard were depletion of one’s well being.  Less is said about  vicarious grace, vicarious courage, or vicarious joy – all of which are equally contagious.  Is it possible that one’s well being stands to gain, not lose,  from such exposure?

Where is the heart in this work?  Neither too close to the surface; nor too deeply hidden. How does one make it last?

I think I collected these stories once,  in the span of a single week:

A foster mother holds a  nine  month old boy with facial indicators of fetal alcohol exposure.  “It breaks my heart to think of him going back to his mother”

Someone gives  a small compliment: You have put your heart into this case;   and a  case  manager bursts into tears,  because it is not enough and because sometimes it is too late to salvage a  small heart and soul.

A young mom with a methamphetamine addiction who waited pregnant and in jail  for a new residential program to open,  graduates four months later, with a healthy baby who has bonded to her,  both free of drugs.  Every other woman in treatment,  every staff member, sheds tears at her graduation.

A woman with early stage Alzheimers disease cannot recognize her husband’s face.  “But my heart knows him”, she says.

A supervisor closes the discussion of a difficult case; a family in crisis and closed off  from all offers of help; for whom it seems there is nothing we can do;  with these  words:  “Bless their hearts.” Such a sweet old saying, reminding me of my grandmother. Years later,  it is an image I can recall when I need to live with contradictions; imperfections; irritations and worse. My own, and others’.

Most of our work days begin with a check-in around the conference room table, before everyone takes off in a different direction for the day.  How are you feeling? What is your goal for today? Who can you ask for help?  Not just “how busy are you” but “how is your heart?”

I love this as a start to the day.  Recently,  the “One Poem A Day” was this one, and now I hope to bring that same  aura of  reflection to the end of the day.


At the End of the Day: A Mirror of Questions

by John O’ Donohue  in To Bless the Space Between Us

What dreams did I create last night?

Where did my eyes linger today?

Where was I blind?

Where was I hurt without anyone noticing?

What did I learn today?

What did I read?

What new thoughts visited me?

What differences did I notice in those closest to me?

Whom did I neglect?

Where did I neglect myself?

What did I begin today that might endure?

How were my conversations?

What did I do today for the poor and the excluded?

Did I remember the dead today?

Where could I have exposed myself to the risk of something different?

Where did I allow myself to receive love?

With whom today did I feel most myself?

What reached me today? How deeply did it imprint?

Who saw me today?

What visitations had I from the past and from the future?

What did I avoid today?

From the evidence – why was I given this day?


The Blue Book of Social Usage

On Saturday night before the election,  I was in line at a local grocery store where an underage clerk had to get an adult to come over to sell me my bottle of wine.   She moved to bag my items and the adult went away.  This began to seriously irritate a man in line behind me,  who had to wait several minutes for her to return to the register.  He demanded to know where had the person gone who just  did my checkout.   The young African American clerk tried to explain about the liquor sale, but clearly this man had just suffered a serious narcissistic wound.  He even told the young woman, and the equally young assistant manager who had come over as the man’s voice escalated and seethed with entitlement , to shut up and not answer his demanding and whiny questions because it would only make things worse.  Did they not realize that he had been a customer for many years? 

Maybe you know someone like him.  A white, middle aged, entitled, angry, obese guy.  A bully. Veins bulge in his head.   A heart attack–  with hemorrhoids —  waiting to happen.  Kind of like everybody’s crabbiest dad rolled up with everybody’s nightmare of an assistant principal.  I stood between him and the timid young clerk, hoping my presence was a deterrence to  something worse.    I  looked at her and felt a sense of dread on her behalf.  Is this what will be unleashed  in our world next week?  It’s bad enough now.   I fear for young people like this clerk and her manager, for whom it is a serious threat.

And now we know.

img_2327We spent Thanksgiving Week in Sylva, North Carolina with our aunt and uncle.  It’s a quiet Smokey Mountain town with a lovely restored downtown area.   In an antique bookstore,  I picked up a copy of Emily Post’s  Etiquette:  The Blue Book of Social Usage.  Right on the cover, I read this:    “I have completely rewritten this new edition of ETIQUETTE because the problems of modern life demand certain changes in the forms of living.”  She wrote this edition in 1945,  just at the end of the second world war and five years before I was born.  It was  at the end of an era of genocidal oppression; and not the beginning  of the depressing death spiral that we are facing now.

I have a small collection of vintage books like this.  Homemaking advice,  earnest information for newlyweds,  books that pave a new path  for women by teaching them useful skills like stenography or  knot tying or  latrine digging.   There is something to be said for civil forms of behavior that restrain the teeming soul of rage, only letting out the exact right, carefully articulated words, the ones that hit the target.  It’s come in handy in my career as a marriage and family therapist.  It’s about taking a stand and holding it, without giving in to the fight;  a focus on oneself and the restraint to not attack the other. It’s the thin veneer of civilization.

During all this long and heartbreaking election season I have been trying hard to be civil.  I was inspired by Parker Palmer, author of Healing the  Heart of Democracy, to seek ways to be clear about my  views and values without vilifying those who disagree.  Except for  the Short Fingered Vulgarian  himself  (I won’t say his name and I won’t even try to be civil).  His contempt for women; his mockery of the disabled;  his blatant lies; the fear he inflames and then denies;   his shameless ignorance about the lives of African Americans; his self serving and short sighted view of the world; his impulsivity and vengefulness that could plunge us into danger – it is too much to excuse in any way.

Since the morning after Election Day,  I have been carrying around this question:  “How am I going to live?”  It struck me in the gut like a physical ailment.  I knew in that moment that one of the things I had to do is keep myself well and healthy;  to eat well, to remain fit; to keep writing; to maintain energy and focus; to outlive this siege —  to  simultaneously live with and resist this avalanche of disaster.  Maybe this book will help me change my form of living.

Small Places Close to Home

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home  — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, “In Our Hands”

1958 speech delivered on the tenth anniversary of 
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights


I have always loved this passage from Eleanor Roosevelt.    In the years of social, economic,  moral and material reconstruction following the devastation of World War II, the United Nations established a Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and these words come from her speech commemorating the declaration ten years later.   Framed with a work of children’s art, this passage has hung in my office for many years; for it speaks to the heart of community as well as family therapy; the realignment of power so that no one abuses it; the creation of bonds within which we learn for the first time to negotiate differences; the need to sometimes put one’s own interests aside for the sake of others “smaller and sweeter” than we are.

I voted this morning in a small place close to home, walking down the block to the Holy Name Cafeteria.  It was unusually crowded this morning as the doors opened, more than I have seen here at least since Obama’s election in 2008.    I noticed a boy about eight years old, standing behind his mom as she put her head in the little cubicle to fill out her ballot.  He was busy with a video game, but I hope he was paying attention, because these impressions can remain with a child for a long time.

The Democratic Party in Nebraska held a caucus this spring. Hundreds turned out at our neighborhood middle school. I have mixed feelings about caucuses.  You have to show up to show your preference, so it means that the choice of candidate turns out to depend on who can get there on that day; and too many miss their chance to take part.   But the power of the caucus, for me, is actually seeing people – neighbors — in public – being visibly Democrat.  I learned that this is the way Americans voted until 1884, when the secret ballot was instituted in most states.  Of course I see people I know – we have lived in this same place for more than 35 years – but I haven’t always known who among us is a Democrat.  We are one of the few in the neighborhood who put out campaign signs at all – perhaps the sway of the big Catholic church at the other end of the block.  But what impresses me most on this spring morning at Monroe Middle School is how many children are present.  I have a brief conversation with the mother of a six year old child who has accompanied her, and it led me to ask among friends and family, “What is your earliest political memory?”  The answers were poignant… and mostly about mothers.

I know that we had conversations early on with our children.  We carried our daughter Allison to an Equal Rights Amendment Rally at UNO when she was barely a year old,


Equal Rights Amendment Event at UNO. Barbara Jessing, Allison Jessing, and Sam Walker. 1981

wearing a tiny t shirt that still hangs in the stairwell.  She went with her dad to meet Jesse Jackson at the airport during the 1988 race.  Kaitlin remembers how Dad explained that Ronald Reagan was somehow responsible for the disappearance of her tricycle.  Income redistribution,  I suppose; I can’t remember the exact logic though I remember the certainty with which it was stated.  Allison and her friend Lindsey formed early, independent, and active opinions – with sound effects — on the matter of a certain Omaha Mayoral Race. Political socialization starts early and takes hold deep.
Memories embedded, step by step.  It’s interesting how motor movements can open the floodgates of the past.  I thought of it this morning, shuffling through leaves on my walk to the neighborhood polling place.   One of my friends remembered, as I do, the strange image of Adlai Stevenson’s


Adlai Stevenson Campaign Button, 1952 and 1956

shoe with a hole in the sole, because he wore so many pairs out, walking door to door.  Another remembers taking flyers through the neighborhood – those small places close to home — for a local legislative race.  Kate Mahern remembers walking four blocks in Indianapolis one evening in the spring of 1960 to see JFK sitting on the back of a big white convertible.

I heard so much about schools as a place of memory.   My cousin remembers that her mother worked the voting table in the back of the school cafeteria.  “It really made an impression on me that voting was a big deal.  My parents ALWAYS voted, even though they cancelled each other out.”  Other cousins remember when polling places were in homes and garages, and their mothers stepped out back for Democracy.   A cousin remembers standing in line, in his own school, while his mother voted.   Several friends remember, as I do, the mock elections conducted in Social Studies classes.  When it was Nixon up against Kennedy in 1960,   the election in our  Catholic school went 49 for Kennedy to 1 for Nixon.  It took me 50 years but I finally figured out who “The One” was.   Student, I mean.  I never did figure out Nixon though I did have a button reading “Nixon’s the One”.  The Crook.

Another cousin recalls “My mom volunteered at every election I can remember growing up. She taught me the importance of showing up to vote, that it’s a privilege and a right and a responsibility. Thanks Mom!”

My friend Susan Harris remembers that in the 1950’s her mother Louise was active in the League of Women Voters. “Campaigning for candidates – local and national- was a family affair all the years growing up. That tradition continues as my adult children are also


Louise Michael, active in the League of Women Voters, in an April 1961 story in “Look” Magazine

politically aware and active”.  Another friend remembers growing up in a small Nebraska town where her mother held public office, and discussion of city politics was part of everyday life.

Those of us from the boomer generation remember, of course, the Kennedy administration.  And not just because of the assassination but because of the huge wave of hope we had for the future.  As a child being raised Catholic and attending a Catholic school, the election of a Catholic president was a huge and historic event, and for the first time I understood enmity against Catholics (I really get it now).  How “Protestants” – the “other” in our world then — feared the power of a Catholic president; how they predicted that Kennedy  would force everyone to conform to Catholic beliefs.  I guess that is what people worried about before they worried about having their guns taken away.  Many friends remembered the grainy black-and-white first televised debate of Nixon and Kennedy.  Even if you did not get what the issues were, a child had to have taken in the emotional charge around the sweaty looking Nixon with his message of fear and threat, and the charismatic young Kennedy.   How hopeful we were!   A friend remembers watching debates with his grandmother as she folded laundry, stopping on occasion as if the candidate were speaking directly to her.


Baby Tee Shirts, 1980 – 1990

Those born later are likely to remember the drama of Watergate, the televised coverage of the Iraq war, the growing fear that one’s own small place close to home might become a target in war

Most memories seemed to emerge from the age of six  or older;  although my wonderful and wild radical sister in law insists it was from birth that she knew her mother to be vocal about injustice and prejudice.  The Butz children did not follow the same political course in life but ALL are passionate about issues of public life.

In this tumultuous year, I have had to take a hard internal look at what the word “politics” mean.  It’s too easy to be bitter and accusatory; cynical; I notice the way people tend to spit out the word “politician”.  It is tempting to check out, to hide, to disengage.  I imagined sitting in the basement till November.  Maybe longer.

What is politics?  It is so fuzzy in mind that I have to look it up, and doing so places me right back in my curious eight-year-old mind and body.  It was a conversation with my mom about college.  She’d had plans to go, but took a year to earn money first.  In the course of that year she met my father, and her college plans were sidelined for 25 years and six children.  “But what if you had?  What would you want to study?”  “Political Science”, she told me.    So what is that?   I can’t remember her exact words but by then I knew that who we were – we, as a family, were Democrats.  Just as we were Catholics; just as we were Irish and German; just as we were Californians.  This is who we are.   We acquire spiritual and moral and political beliefs through the skin, through the air, through the network of family and around it the tribe of like-minded others.     It is “the learning or or acquisition of a political point of view;   overtly told or observed.”

It was through this lens that I grew up into an era of Civil Rights, and came to know it as a political movement aligned with our family values.   “We are Democrats” and we believe in equity across racial lines.  My dad was an active Union member, and I remember my early efforts to understand what this meant:  that workers organized together; spoke up for themselves; had power and influence.  I learned to hold a principled position; to know that it may be unpopular to differ; that part of the obligation of faith is to stand up for one’s beliefs.  That came to matter in political beliefs as well.   I never heard my grandmother identify herself politically as either Democrat or Republican; but her principles were clear from the way she spoke about many things.   “We are not better than others.  We are not above others.”  My grandmother’s life was about fairness and equity – something she created out of the absence of these qualities in her early life.    Those issues came into our extended family.   Marriages crossed racial and ethnic lines.    Family members revealed sexual orientation.   No one lost place, no one lost love, not with our grandmother.  That’s what continued to shape my political identity.

That love and fascination grew from its origins in family into the larger world.  In high school I  encountered a wise and talented teacher of Civics and Government,  Jack Beery.   You can laugh at that cartoon about how a bill becomes a law, but I LOVED learning about the political process:   how this enormous country of millions has a means to convey preferences from the level of ward and precinct to  city to county to state to nation; how representatives to Congress bring forward the interests of their constituents; the balance of power among the three branches of government; how coalitions are build; how deals are negotiated.

I was challenged to define my beliefs, to examine them dispassionately, to grapple with complex issues; to engage in critical thinking; to develop a tolerance for ambiguity.  Spiritual, political, and moral reasoning came together.  I learned that living in a moral and ethical manner is not just a set of rules for what is always right or always wrong.  Rather, I found that I was grounded in those principles that continue to help me steer through the most treacherous times, and I have continued to grow into them.  And I need them now.

I love the work of Robert Coles, a child psychiatrist with an infinite depth of curiosity about the inner life of children.  Coles wrote about children and how they acquire a sense of identity around moral, spiritual and political beliefs.   He described his process as a “cross-cultural study of ‘political socialization’…a study of the political consciousness of young citizens of various countries.”

It is early – perhaps rooted in genetics – that we start to acquire an Identity:  where we belong, who is like us and who is defined as the other.  And is “the other” merely different, or are they threatening?  What does difference mean? Who we are as family; who is our tribe or community; how do tribes come to transcend differences to become a state or a nation?  A structure that holds so many people, so many differences, with some level of unifying values to unite them.  Leading to this day when millions of Americans need to converge on a single leader.

I found an article in the New York Times recently by David Brooks.  It is entitled “How to Repair Moral Capital” (October 20, 2016).  For me, this is why today matters so much, and this is my hope for what happens after today.

“Moral capital is the set of shared habits, norms, institutions and values that make common life possible. Left to our own, we human beings have an impressive capacity for selfishness. Unadorned, the struggle for power has a tendency to become barbaric. So people in decent societies agree on a million informal restraints — codes of politeness, humility and mutual respect that girdle selfishness and steer us toward reconciliation.”

David Brooks had this comment on Hillary Clinton’s response to a question about Trump’s recently revealed lewd comments about women. The debates were such an ordeal, but these words stood out for me.

“Clinton’s answers were given in a slow and understated manner, but they were marked by moral passion, clarity and quiet contempt. They were not spoken from the point of view of a politician. They were spoken from the point of view of a parent, which is the point of view Michelle Obama frequently uses. The politician asks: What can I offer to win votes? The parent asks: What world are my children going out into when they leave the house?”

This year is all about “small places, close to home”, for me.  Places where women have always had voice and influence.  It needs to be unleashed.

The World Famous Musette

December 2001

I hadn’t thought about the Musette in years.  But at Christmas time, in what turned out to be the last year of the Musette’s old life,  our friend  Angie called us with an invitation: “My sister Sue is in town.  Meet us at the Musette for Karaoke on Saturday night”.

Our friendship  dates  back to the early 1970’s.  We met when we worked together at a community agency serving children and adults with disabilities.    The Musette was called  the World Famous Frank’s Musette then.   Legend had it that Frank saw the world during World War II,  came back home to  this sleepy neighborhood, and opened a bar.

Frank's Musette sometime in the 1940's, before my time. Benson Historical Society Photo

Frank’s Musette sometime in the 1940’s, before my time. Benson Historical Society Photo

It  was  a meeting place across the street from the agency  where we worked  – our first real adult world jobs.  It was  one in a row  of old brick storefronts – the faucet shop, the dry cleaners,  the Ace Hardware store with its wide worn board plank floor, on what was once the main street of  the small town of Benson

In this first year that I was  legal,  it seemed quite dizzying  to enter the Musette, to walk past the hunched-over working class backs on the stools along the bar, with a nod to Frank,  to be thought of as adult.   In summer,  it was  a  dark smoky cave,  cool to come into from the incredible summer heat,  with beer in a cool gold stream from the tap.

“Meet me at the Musette after work”.  It was a message that would circulate a couple of times a week, sometimes because it was Friday, sometimes because it had been a rough day. We were developing a new model of community services which brought  children and adults  out of  large custodial institutions.  They’d live in group homes or apartments or back in their homes; they’d spend their days in vocational workshops or special education classrooms. We had things to prove:  convince legislators to keep funding the  services; convince parents that community life was right for their young adult children; struggle with those young adults to break through years of inertia and disconnection with the outside world.  We deconstructed our days, our lives, our culture and what it valued or devalued; tried to make sense of the dialectics of change and resistance, love and desire,  oppression and rebellion,  on the large stage of the world,  and this smaller stage of our own lives, here in Benson and here at the Musette.

I first met Karla at the Musette.  She was a former  hairdresser with a brand new theology degree, full of questions and curiosities, ready to test herself, ready for a useful life.  Karla was a Mercy Girl  who grew up in South Omaha, Polish and Catholic.   Once she showed me a sheet of lined notebook paper from her Mercy High School Religion class.  An indented  list neatly labeled:  “Selection of a Husband.  A.  For Life.  B. Qualities.  Faithful in Religion. Industrious.  Moral. Thrift. Drink. Masculinity. Neatness. Normality of Sex Attitudes. Condition of Parental Home. Is he handsome.  How many girlfriends did he have before.   This list,  with no interpretive answer key, and presumably compiled by good hearted but never-married nuns,    guided Karla into a short and disastrous first marriage;  which had just ended when I met her.

Barb Morrell, Barb Jessing and Karla Kava in our shared house at 4965 Ohio Street about 1976

Barb Morrell, Barb Jessing and Karla Kava in our shared house at 4965 Ohio Street about 1976

She had a patient way with the severely handicapped young adults who spent their days in a vocational training center across from the Musette, assembling hair curlers and fishing bobbers; learning to communicate; to socialize.  She was tall and striking, with a Slavic face, high cheekbones, flashing dark eyes and a deep cascading laugh. We became best friends; canoed the Niobrara River together;  shared a house  for  a couple of years.  When it was time for her to leave this too-small town that she had grown up in, I introduced her to friends and  colleagues I’d known on the West Coast.  It was like we traded spaces –  here I was in Nebraska, and there she was in California, later moving to Washington state.   She flew back to Nebraska  for our wedding;  and a few years later  we brought our young children across Puget Sound on the ferry to see her remote home on Lopez Island.

Allison, Barb and Karla on Lopez Island, 1984

Allison, Barb and Karla on Lopez Island, 1984

Somehow 30 years have flown by.  Now it is a  new century, a wintry Karaoke night at the Musette. Old Frank is long gone.  It is still dark and smoky with its line of hunched over backs on the bar stools, but tonight it is a haven of warmth as we climb mounds of plowed and icy snow along the curb to get to it. A curl of winter wind comes through the door with us.

And there we find our old friends surrounding a long table back in the corner by the shuffleboard game.    Beer is still the preferred house beverage at the Musette.  For those wanting wine, there is a neon-hued  bottled beverage called  “Berry Sophisticated”.   Red carnival tickets earn us a chance for mildly pornographic door prizes in the drawing at each intermission.  Angie, Sue, and each of the friends around the table take a turn at the Karaoke microphone.  Enthusiasm trumps talent; spirits are high.  Stories circulate; news is exchanged, smoke wafts, beer flows from the same old taps.

And then Sue asks, “So how is Karla?”

There is a pause in which her world stays the same.   She can reach back for  a memory, thirty years into the past, and find it populated with those we knew, as if no time had gone by, as if nothing had changed.  But my world had already changed.

“You didn’t know?  You didn’t hear?  She died a year ago August”.   We had seen her in June,  and everything seemed fine.  She  brought  fresh Coho  salmon in her carry-on luggage  from Seattle, and we grilled it outside and drank wine on the front porch; laughed hard; lined up all the Mercy Girls on the porch swing; watched the fireflies materialize in the sweet, hot, heavy  air of June. But within weeks of her return to Seattle  she became ill, was diagnosed with cancer, and by August she was dead.   Lung to bone to everywhere in days.

The party momentarily stops spinning around us

I think of Karla, thirty years ago at this table,  young, energetic;  head thrown back to laugh, healthy  and invincible  —  though already breathing in the daily stream of smoke that would destroy her.  I smoked too, that year.    I can’t remember why except that it added to the air of drama in our young lives. No one expected to die of it, including everyone who did.

The party, paused for a moment, begins to move again, a new contestant at the microphone.

I look up from the memory, and I see a ghost.  She was introduced briefly, a friend of one of the sisters, so I know she is real and present, and she has a name which I can’t remember.  But the slim height, the straight dark hair, the Slavic cheekbones, the dark eyes:  She is an image  of Karla, thirty years ago, as if she never aged a bit or became ill, never traveled the world,  suffered a broken heart, or died in too much pain; as if she stayed here, preserved in smoke and beer and memory, untouched.  Because the young woman is silent, as Karla never would have been, the illusion is persistent; it is there till last call, here at the world famous Musette



A Place in Mind: Benson Named as Emerging Hipster Neighborhood

Recently,  Yahoo named the neighborhood of Benson – our little corner of Omaha – as one of the top ten emerging  hipster neighborhoods in the nation  I think they call this “clickbait” and yes,  I often fall for it.   I am always interested in the metrics of such lists.  Is the ranking based on some random count of hipsters per square mile, the ratio of coffee bars to vintage boutiques;  overheard words of witty banter;  or the amount of irony measured in air, soil or water?  And there’s  the tantalizing implication of “emerging hipsters” popping up like prairie dogs.  A collective noun for prairie dogs, by the way, is “Coterie”.   It kind of works for hipsters too.  A Coterie of Hipsters.  However, all Yahoo will cop to is that they “rounded up” these ten neighborhoods.  Draw your own conclusions.  I’m happy with the list.

When I moved to Nebraska  in the early 1970’s,   I fell in love with Benson.  It wasn’t hip then.  In fact it was pretty much the opposite of hip; more like a little time capsule of the 50’s —  a neighborhood full of shops, the kind that got wiped out by Walmarts and KMarts and Home Depots;  and the random bars and lodges and Lutheran churches.  Pancoast Department Store, Haney Shoes, Ace Hardware,  Benson Bakery,  Jewel Box, the mysterious Metropolitan Home Building Association,  the Faucet Shop, the International Order of Odd Fellows, Sprague’s Pharmacy.  With its tree lined streets, heaving sidewalks,  and homes dating back to the early 1900’s,  I loved the contrast to the raw new suburban  developments of California.  There was history here.  It hadn’t been invented just yesterday.

We’ve lived on the edge of Benson for more than 35 years now.  Roots are down.  Sometimes we feel like the oldest hipsters on the block.  In fact recently,   a  bartender who  regularly served us at Mick’s, several years back, saw us at a new venue and said “I don’t remember your name but you are “Jameson on the rocks” and he (Tim) is “Guinness Stout”.  And she was right.

So the hipster neighborhood story reminded me of something I wrote about a bar in Benson and the  friends we have come to love here.   It  unfolded on a  wintry night in the year 2001, at the World Famous Frank’ s Musette.

A New Year of Writing

I refer expansively  to  the New Year as extending from the first of January , or maybe even back-dated to  the Winter Solstice,   to well into February’s Lunar New Year, definitely past Groundhog Day, and perhaps as late as the Vernal Equinox.    I now start my drive to  work in daylight and drive home in a lightening sky.  I won’t call it a resolution, but it is my intent to publish posts to  Radio Free Omaha  regularly throughout the year.    I am a writer with only a small need for an audience  (I have often gone without one), and that would be you, O Reader of Radio Free Omaha.

Where to begin?  It’s the eternal question of writers.


Sometimes my post will be  a current work, and other times I will be  choosing from essays that have not previously seen the light of day.  When I do that, I’ll  preface it with an update, and  say at the beginning when it was written.

For me,  Radio Free Omaha is all about place and how it gets under our skin, into  our dreams, in and out of  our memories.  How places pull on us  from eons ago,  and  how they rise up  new and marvelous ahead of us .