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Archive for the ‘Elf business’ Category

Learning the definition of a word sometimes makes a big difference. Take friluftsliv. I heard about the-now trendy Norwegian word early on this year and I’m not exaggerating when I say it greatly improved my attitude towards pared-down pandemic life. Friluftsliv translates to “open-air living” and means embracing the outdoors, no matter the weather. Just knowing the word motivated me to make friends with my former enemies, the wind and the cold.

 

I mention this because I’ve been spending a few days with other words, some also unfamiliar, and find that my connection to nature has deepened because of it. Holly Wren Spaulding’s latest collection of poems, Familiars, takes as it starting point words that The Oxford Junior Dictionary removed in recent years in the name of keeping pace with changing times. Fifty nature words were discarded in favor of more—unfortunately—familiar words to children. Chatroom for chestnut, cut and paste for catkin, bullet-point for bluebell—it’s a disheartening list. Spaulding writes in an author’s note that the removal shows “language seeming to symbolize and further the growing separation of humanity from the rest of nature.”

 

 

Spaulding scoops up the discarded words, dusts them off, and breathes life into them. The words and the poems they inspire become connective tissue between humans (“travelers” in the lingo of the book) and nature (“inhabitants”). The thirty-six poems in the book are titled with words not found in the children’s dictionary—bullock, adder, gorse, conker, to name a few—and though the poems are brief, some as short as a mere two lines, they’re as dense as walnuts, with much to discover inside.

 

Take “Heather,” here in its entirety:

 

Not a low fog above all.

 

The birth of mauve.

 

 

A paragraph of prose wouldn’t cover the story told here. And I’ll never experience a field of heather in the same way again.

 

The title itself, Familiars, works on two levels—both that each poem makes the unfamiliar familiar, and that each word represents an organism already familiar, that is, part of our earthly family.

 

As with any family, humor is always a reliable connector, like here in “Ox”—

 

Don’t think

 

I never wonder

 

what else I

 

might have been.

 

Poems are told from different points of view, human, vegetable and animal, divided into sections in the book. The third and final section, “Foretellings,” brings together all the voices in response to a future ecological disaster. But Spaulding is no dystopian poet. The collection closes out on a hopeful note of repair and healing with “Pansy”—

 

Ten thousand emissaries

 

blue, white, yellow, maroon—

 

an end to hostilities.

 

  

It’s no small thing to say the cover, like the book, is lush and gorgeous. The painting is called “Undergrowth” by Eliot Hodgkin. It’s so lovely you’ll want to leave the book laying about. That way you may find yourself picking it up often, finding the beauty within, re-connecting with family, creating the home you’ve always longed for.

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I asked my daughter to poem-elf two poems from the collection in northern Michigan where she lives and where Spaulding is originally from. I’ll feature those in my next post.

 

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Here’s a bio of Spaulding from a previous post

 

Holly Wren Spaulding’s connection to nature seems destined from the start. Her parents named her after a character called “Wren of the Woods” in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer. She grew up in the woods in northern Michigan, off the grid in a “pretty 19th century style of life,” as she details in this podcast about her own creative development. The family homesteaded in an experimental collective living community where she and her siblings chopped wood and carried water.

 

She founded Poetry Forge, another sort of collective space, this one for poets. You can read more about her vision for the project and her personal history here. In the summer she teaches creative writing at Interlochen in northern Michigan, including a class she teaches with her mother, artist Carol Spaulding. She lives in Kittery Point, Maine with her family.

 

She’s been widely published in literary journals and nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. She regularly collaborates with other artists, including this lovely project, a poetry-in-public-space installation called Urban Renga.

 

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Annus horribilis. Dumpster fire. Shit show. Fuster cluck. If nothing else 2020’s been a good year for swear words and rage.

 

Since at least June we’ve been hearing, I can’t wait for this year to be over. As if with the flip of the calendar page life will suddenly improve. We know that’s just a dream. Death is not going anywhere. Hate has settled in at the table. A nasty gang of heavy drinkers—fire, floods, heat waves, tornadoes et al— have ordered another round. Lingering in the front hall are murder hornets and locust swarms, and there’s probably a school shooter lurking in the basement. Not to mention the beast of overwriting who has taken over the study.

 

But even if 2021 isn’t going to be the end of disasters, it may well be the beginning of the end for some of them. We have hope. We always do. That’s why we count down the days for the new year, that’s why we can’t help but feel excited when the ball drops.

 

In the spirit of such hope, tomorrow I’m launching my own countdown:  a series of poems to mark the end of 2020. I have at least sixteen poems to post by the end of December. There’ll be poems for the pandemic and quarantine (more accurately, poems of isolation, anxiety, death and survival); poems that take on racial injustice and political division; poems of expectation and joy (because we’ve had that too); and poems by some of the great poets who died this year.

 

A big dumpster fire at least gives off some light, so see you tomorrow, Day 24 of the Poem Elf 2020 Countdown.

 

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My alter ego, unmasked

Every dog has his day and so with every elf.

 

Welcome. You have landed in the department of self-promotion. You may leave at any time.

 

I’m thrilled to have a piece published in Lithub chronicling my ten years as Poem Elf. Thanks to any of you who read it. More importantly, thanks to all for your readership of this blog! Your support is one of the things that keeps me going.

 

(Dubious side benefit to reading the essay:  if you scroll down far enough, you’ll find out what I look like. Actually I can save you the trouble. What I look like is ten years older than when I started this project.)

 

How I Found Small Joys in My Life as a Poem Elf

 

Next week I get back to business with a death series. Never have been a fan of autumn.

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Today, a treat. Tom McGrath, longtime Chicago editor, writer, and spiritual director, donned the Poem Elf hat and set to work on a Rumi poem, “Has Anyone Seen the Boy?” The poem, his reflections on the poem, the poem placement, his reasons for the placement—it’s all great and worth the few minutes it will take you to read it because it will stay with you all week. What’s especially wonderful for readers of Poem Elf is the male perspective. That’s something I just can’t offer. Many thanks to Tom for sharing his musings and wisdom.

 

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HAS ANYONE SEEN THE BOY?

 

Has anyone seen the boy who used to come here?

Round-faced troublemaker, quick to find a joke,

slow to be serious, red shirt

perfect coordination, sly, strong muscled,

with things always in his pockets, reed flute,

worn pick, polished and ready for his talent,

you know that one.

Have you heard stories about him?

Pharoah and the whole Egyptian world

collapsed for such a Joseph.

I would gladly spend years getting word

of him, even third or fourth hand.

 —RUMI 

                                                (version by Coleman Barks and John Moyne)

 

 

Missing? by Tom McGrath, Assistant to the Poem Elf

 

Rumi is a trickster who packs a playful punch in every poem, always to a serious end. I usually discover something of value in his work, yet I am also aware there are vast horizons of meaning I only see as if “through a glass darkly.” I can’t say “Has Anyone Seen The Boy?” is my favorite Rumi poem, but it’s the one that comes to mind most often, especially when I see bitter, beaten-down men with only the light of anger in their eyes. I believe Rumi was urging men, especially, to seek the youthful lad they were, in all his pure potential, because his value to them is far beyond gold.

 

I first discovered this poem around the time my father was between bouts with cancer. A long-lost friend of his from high school called him one day from out of the blue. “I’ve been thinking of you, Pat,” said Don. And that began a weekly long conversation in which the two would reminisce about what they called their “glory days,” when Dad was a basketball hero and Don was the team manager and a budding entrepreneur who went on to a number of big jobs with professional basketball teams. I’d hear Dad laughing and was so grateful for how these conversations brought him back to life again—full of energy, radiance, and joy. I was reminded of the words of my friend Sr. Kathy Bertrand, SSND, who would advise fellow nuns who felt they’d lost their vocation to “remember the dreams of your younger years.” Kathy knew that drinking deeply from the wellspring of memory could re-ignite their passion for life—their own precious and wonderful life—and lead them not backward, but onward to a better future to which their heart was calling them.

 

For his birthday that year, I took my father on a day trip to visit his friend Don up in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. They let me sit in on their lively lunch conversation that went on for hours. On the way home, Dad told me, “That was the best day of my life!” I knew there were many best days in my father’s life, some far better even than that visit. But I knew what he meant. He’d not just paid a visit to Don, but also to the boy who had such dreams and who now could realize so many had come true. That night I mailed Dad and Don a copy of this poem. Neither man mentioned a thing to me about it and I’m sure they wondered “Who is this Rumi fella and why did Tom give me this?” But it was the best to express the joyful mystery I had witnessed that day.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

I chose to tape this to the brick wall of our parish gym where, decades ago, a group of young boys played “fast pitch” just about every day each summer. The game was ideal for urban kids. It could accommodate from three to a dozen or more players. Equipment needs were simple: a 9” rubber ball, a bat, and enough baseball mitts for half the players. Sometimes one of the dads would come join the fun and quell the endless arguments over fair or foul, ball or strike, but otherwise the boys were on their own.

When I was working in my back yard I could hear the sound of the ball smashing against the wall and knew a game had started. In time I could even tell when a batter had connected with the pitch and if it was a ground ball only good for a single, a screaming line-drive double, or a homerun wallop that travelled clear across the church parking lot to hit the side of the school building.

 

Then one summer they were gone. The outline of the strike zone remains all these years later, and, sentimental romantic that I am, I keep hope some summer I will hear the sound of the ball slapping against the brick wall again, only to find one of the original players has brought his kids to visit the field of memory their dad has told them so much about. Don’t lose sight of the boy!

 

 

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Ten years ago I taped my first poem (Mark Strand’s “The Coming of Light”) to a yellow post in a parking lot. My heart was racing as if I had done something transgressive. But I was also happy, pleased as punch, giddy. Who would find the poem? What would they think? Would the poem help them, heal them, lighten their load, brighten their day, irritate, unnerve or challenge them? Three hundred some poems later, those questions and that giddiness are still there every time I leave a poem for someone to find.

 

This month I’m delighted to share that experience with you, dear readers. Responses are coming in to my Ten Year Collaboration Project (yes, the official name keeps changing, gotta figure that one out).  I’ll post readers’ contributions every other day till I run out.

 

NOTE: send your pictures (one close-up, one context) and commentary (if you want) to thepoemelf@gmail.com. I’d love to get more than I can post in one month!

 

Here we go.

 

We begin with Sharon from Greeley, Colorado. I love her selections—Mary Oliver, Anne Porter, both spiritual wise women and great, great poets. Years ago I copied the Anne Porter poem/prayer on cardstock and sent to my kids. “A Short Testament” is absolutely the perfect poem for this time of quarantine.

 

I’m wasn’t familiar with Louis Simpson and I’m very glad to be introduced. (FYI, Simpson was b.1923, d. 2012.)

 

Sharon writes at the end of her post, “For me, poetry is kindness.” I love that. Thank you, Sharon, for your wonderful choices and commentary. (What follows is direct from Sharon)

 

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I took the photos in various areas around Glenmere Lake in Greeley, Colorado. (Staying within COVID19 mandatory parameters!!)

 

I chose the Mary Oliver poem to encourage whoever found it, to write. Across the street on the west side of the lake is someone’s personal garden which made for a natural venue.

 

 

“A Short Testament” I posted on a bench overlooking the lake. I thought it represented how many of us feel under mandatory quarantine—we have time to reflect on our lives and the poem offers language to heal.

 

A Short Testament

by Anne Porter

 

Whatever harm I may have done

In all my life in all your wide creation

If I cannot repair it

I beg you to repair it,

 

And then there are all the wounded

The poor the deaf the lonely and the old

Whom I have roughly dismissed

As if I were not one of them.

Where I have wronged them by it

And cannot make amends

I ask you

To comfort them to overflowing,

 

And where there are lives I may have withered around me,

Or lives of strangers far or near

That I’ve destroyed in blind complicity,

And if I cannot find them

Or have no way to serve them,

 

Remember them. I beg you to remember them

 

When winter is over

And all your unimaginable promises

Burst into song on death’s bare branches.

 

*

 

“As Birds are Fitted to the Bough” I posted on the trunk of just-beginning-to-blossom crabapple tree boughs. It was a windy spring day when I secured it behind loose bark. The poem spoke to me during quarantine as I worked, rewriting on some personal poems.

 

As Birds Are Fitted to the Boughs

by Louis Simpson

 

As birds are fitted to the boughs

That blossom on the tree

And whisper when the south wind blows—

So was my love to me.

 

And still she blossoms in my mind

And whispers softly, though

The clouds are fitted to the wind,

The wind is to the snow.

 

 

A friend who found out I was doing this for your site said “I wish I was lucky enough to be walking around the lake and find these.” People have shown such kindness around the lake during the quarantine—they’ve put out tables of dog biscuits for furry friends, water for walkers, masks for the letter carriers, they’ve made sidewalk chalk inspirations of visual and word art. Now poetry has been added to the mix! I figure since the quarantine is mandatory for us, it’s what we do with it that really matters. For me, poetry is kindness. I want the world to know and feel the healing effects of words/language.

 

The poem I didn’t yet find a venue for is called “Hoses” by George Bilgere. Again, reflective of life in simpler times. Will we ever again hear the peels of childish laughter ring out as kids run through sprinklers? When will that laughter return? And in the meantime, what’s going on in the lives of children and adults under stay at home orders?

 

 

Hoses

by George Bilgere

 

I love the hoses of summer

hanging in their green coils

from the sides of houses,

or slithering through lawns

on their way to the cool

meditations of sprinklers.

 

I think of my father, scotch

in one hand, the dripping hose

in the other, probing the dusk

with water, the world

around him falling apart,

marriage crumbling, booze

running the show.

Still, he liked to walk out

after dinner and water the lawn,

fiddling with the nozzle,

misting this, showering that.

 

Sometimes, in the hot twilight,

my sisters and I would run

in our swimsuits through the yard

while he followed us

with a cold beam of water.

 

And once, when my mother

came out to watch, he turned

the hose on her, the two of them

laughing in a way we’d never heard,

a laughter that must have brought them

back to the beginning.

 

Thanks for your “assignment.” It offered me an opportunity to be creative and to smile as I went about my task.

 

Sharon

 

 

 

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a mountain and a mountain, see, it’s simple

 

For those interested in helping me celebrate 10 years of blogging at Poem Elf (read about the collaborative project here), a few thoughts on process.

 

A reader asked for suggestions on choosing a venue for a poem. That’s something I haven’t thought much about because often there’s not a lot of thought involved—the connection between poem and place becomes apparent only after much musing and puttering. But just as often there is a plan, if we use the loosest definition of “plan.” Here’s the method in my madness (or maybe more accurately, here’s the madness in my method):

 

 

  1.  Start with the setting of the poem. This is not subtle but it is really fun.

Examples: “Sometimes the Field” by Holly Wren Spaulding left in a field

“In the Library” by Charles Simic (a poem about angels and librarians) tucked into a library book about angels

 

 

  1. Take an image from the poem (it doesn’t even have to be a central image) and put the poem where that image can be found.

Example: “Come and Be My Baby” by Maya Angelou begins, The highway is full of big cars/going nowhere fast so I put it above a highway. Again, subtlety is not the goal.

 

 

  1. Consider who the poem is written for or who you imagine reading it and put it in a place that caters to those people.

Example:  “Poem for Emily” by Miller Williams is written for a grandchild so I put it in a barbershop frequented by old men.

“Ask Much, the Voice Suggested” by Jane Hirschfield seemed like a good poem for a young woman beginning her adult life, so I attached it to my daughter’s backpack at the airport when she left home to live abroad.

 

 

  1. Connect the mood or subject of a poem to the mood of an event or place you are visiting.

Examples: love poems left at weddings or any event leading up to a wedding, or in these COVID days, on the doorstep of someone whose wedding is cancelled; poems about mothers left in a playground; poems about grief left in a cemetery.

 

 

  1. Take a walk with a poem and put it somewhere, anywhere. Spend the rest of the walk making a connection between the two.

Example: I left Ross Gay’s “Thank You” in a pile of brown leaves for no reason other than I stepped over it. By the end of the walk I realized that the poem brightens dead spots in the soul and landscape.

 

 

  1. Go where you’re pulled. If there’s a place that you love, that intrigues you, that calms you, that fills you with wonder or fills you with dread or just a place you know will make a great picture—that’s a good place for a poem you love or intrigues you, etc. There doesn’t have to be a direct connection at all.

 

 

Good luck! Can’t wait to see what you come up with.

 

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My tenth anniversary of blogging at Poem Elf arrives this May, and I need some help to mark the occasion. Not good wishes, thank you very much. I’m looking for elf assistants and elfettes—or if those terms are gag-inducing, how about—Poem Posters.

 

 

Here’s what I’m asking: put a copy of a poem in a public space (or as public a space as you have access to, given coronavirus restrictions), take a picture, and send to me. I’ll post as many as I get through the month of May.

 

 

 

Guidelines:

 

  1. Post a previously published poem. Not your own poem or your grandmother’s poem, or the poem of some up-and-comer in your poetry circle. Sorry for the limitation, but that’s how this blog has always worked.

 

 

  1. Choose a shorter poem if possible. Be sure to include the poet’s name.

 

 

  1. Take one close-up picture so the text is readable, and one context picture farther away so the surroundings are clear.

 

 

  1. Let me know where you placed the poem. Bonus if you tell me why, and/or what the poem means to you and why you chose it. If you want you can write a full-length post.

 

 

  1. Here’s the important part: do not send your picture and commentary to the comment section of this blog. Email to me at thepoemelf@gmail.com.

 

 

 

That’s it! Looking forward to seeing what everyone comes up with.

 

 

I’ll send periodic reminders of this project. Hope they don’t get irritating.

 

 

 

 

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Before the ever-abrupt end of our shortest month, here’s a follow-up to my annual Valentine’s Day Poem Blitz.

 

First, a face, a living Valentine.

 

 

 

Meet Pam Woolway, Short Order Poet. Her poetry is made-to-order and on-the-spot, each poem inspired by a single word supplied by the customer. She types them on a diner-style guest check, the green kind with the carbon copy so she can keep one for herself. She sets up her old-fashioned typewriter (is there any other kind?) at various locations on the island of Kauai. You can link to her blog here to learn more about her project.

 

I met her in a cool shop in Kapa’a called Kiko where she works and where she gave me a gift of one of her laminated poems. I kept it in my pocket for a couple of days (which is how it got bent), hoping to find a good spot for it. Eventually I came across a dog crate, and there I left “The Dog.”

 

poem is on top of crate, set against the yellow towel

 

The poem is a sweet reminder of the goodness of dogs and what they bring to our lives. It also gives me a question to meditate on. Who or what is “up” for me?

 

The crate was on the side of the road at a scenic overlook for Wailua Falls. No dog was inside—maybe he went to take a gander at his surroundings.

 

 

The second addendum to my Valentine’s Day poem blitz isn’t a poem at all. It’s a quote from Ali Smith’s beautiful novel Autumn.

 

I placed it at the base of the Kuilau Ridge Trail in Kapaa.

poem is in right forefront of photo

 

How do you feel about the last sentence? (In the end, not much else matters.) I myself don’t agree with it, but the desire to be seen truly is one that grows in me each year more than the last.

 

 

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There comes a time in a woman’s life where she has to let go of long-held goals and finally to admit she’s never going get into grooming or have a wardrobe that’s pulled together.

 

The same goes for an elf.

 

For a long time I’ve wanted to make this blog more polished. Someday when I have extra money, I’ve been telling myself, I’ll pay someone to re-design the website. I’ll categorize poems by occasion. Someday I’ll print out poems on vellum, tie them with ribbon, maybe laminate them. Alas, nearly six years after I launched Poem Elf, it looks no different than when I started. My blog roll is shaggy, my presentation is not user-friendly or fun. The poems I put up around town are often crumpled or crooked, reflective of my scissor skills. I still print poems on plain white paper, and tape is always visible,.

 

No surprise that this blog is lacking in visual appeal. I wasn’t the girl with the eye-catching poster at the science fair–I was the girl who got “Unsatisfactory” in Penmanship.

 

This failing was brought home recently when I became aware of two other Poem Elves. One has style, the other better graphics.

 

Annie, one of my Washington, D.C. nieces, sent me pictures of a Poem Elf she discovered on her way to work. How wonderful! I love the cherry blossom colors and graphics and the fact that these haikus will be read by hundreds of people. None of them will blow away.

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This was Annie’s favorite, and mine too

Here’s a few more she passed by:

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Image 1

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Turns out this is not one Poem Elf but many. These are entries to the Golden Triangle Golden Haiku Contest. Link here to see the winners and other entries. (The winner is actually one of the haikus Annie sent me.)

 

The other Poem Elf is a continent away. For Christmas this year my niece Sophia made me a calendar with pictures of her and her sister Georgie poem-elfing around Quito and her home town of Guayllabamba, Ecuador. Their mother, my sister Josie, tried to translate the Spanish poems, which is a little helpful, as I could not find any translations of these poems on line.

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Notice the fancy hat Sophia wears in every picture. It’s like a scrunched-up chef’s hat. I like her style, her sly appearance in every picture.

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See Sophia peeking out behind the wall

 

April is National Poetry Month, and I suspect we will see other Poem Elves coming out of the woodwork. Should you come across one, send me their droppings.

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If I had any sense I’d be in the kitchen right now, chopping and endlessly washing mixing bowls and spatulas. Instead I’m sitting at the computer. I’ll pay for it tomorrow with panic and exhaustion, but meantime, here’s a few poems for Thanksgiving.

 

At the grocery store I left Czeslaw Milosz’s”Encounter” in an empty aisle  where I would encounter no one, next to one of Paul Newman’s products.

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O my love, where are they, where are they going–  sounds like a lovelier version of what my husband and I say to each other after the too-quickly-grown-up kids leave home after the weekend.

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(The words that got cut off in the picture are “at dawn.” Sorry for that.)

 

Outside another grocery store (because one grocery store is never enough for Thanksgiving preparations), I left e.e. cummings’ poem in an abandoned grocery cart. Maybe it was mine. (Poem is to the right of the “Ayar” ad, on the seat of the grocery cart.)

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i thank You God for most this amazing/day could be the start of dinner time grace. Little kids might like the twisty-ness of the lines.

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Still at the grocery store, I put Emily Dickinson’s “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” by a credit card machine at the check-out.

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I’ve long had a few lines of this poem committed to memory

I’ll tell you how the sun rose,–

A Ribbon at a time–

 

and this, one of my favorite images from any poem, ever

The Hills untied their Bonnets–

 

The beauty of that, when I see it and when I read it here, fills me with gratitude for the world as it is and the world as only a poet can see it.

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Finally, I left Wislawa Szymborska’s “Vietnam” at Starbucks. Where I was sitting for over an hour, once again not cooking.

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What does the agony in “Vietnam” have to do with Thanksgiving? It’s a reminder. As we gather with family and friends to enjoy a bounty of food and the comfort of safe shelter, let’s remember those who have none of those things. Let’s give our thanks for what we have and leave space in our hearts for victims of war, for refugees losing hope–

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And in the last few minutes before I give myself over to cooking, let me thank all you dear readers and commentators. I am so grateful for your readership and support.

 

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

 

 

 

 

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