Shape of a Heron


Betty and I are walking to the river. I wear two pairs of sweat pants, a turtleneck, a sweater, and my long polka-dot robe under my coat. I wear a ridiculous hat in high school colors, with a pom pom on top. My boots are good, grey and warm. Betty does the three legged hop, then tries a two legged hop, before sitting down to warm her paws with her tongue.

There is a bird on the iced over river, the river where, only yesterday, ducks were swimming between the ice floes. One day has changed the story completely. The bird has the shape of a heron, but a heron in winter makes no sense. And I can’t tell what it is because I don’t perceive depth. I have to rely on shadow and angle and movement and the bird isn’t moving and dawn has yet to open its bright eyes to the frigid air.

Now the bird walks the frozen river. We walk parallel to it along the short beach. It has one wing that is hanging wrong. Maybe its long curving neck is a pose for survival. Will a wing mend itself? Swiftly, I mean. I know I cannot reach the bird. The weight of my humanity would break the fragile ice and already I’m drowning in my own feeling of helplessness. 

And I write this, not because I think it will have any impact. It won’t save the bird with the broken wing. It won’t save the mothers and fathers and their children in Aleppo. It will not save the bees. It will not stop a hurricane. It will do nothing to stop the bleed of greed and corruption. About all it will do is mark me as one who wanted to roll over and go back to sleep, but didn’t.

How to Plagiarize a Campaign Speech

Thank you. Thank you all! I’m very excited to remain unseen behind the black and white of typed script.

I am a US citizen. I am not a patriot because most of the time I feel like I’m tethered to the world with the thinnest thread and I could float away at any moment. For me, patriotism is highly impractical.

I was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, a state of regular size in the United States. My sister, who is an incredible woman and friend was also born here. We were raised by our parents, as were our brothers. My elegant and clever mother introduced me to fashion and beauty but I never took to it. My father had a passion for business and travel, which he did a lot.

From a young age, my parents impressed upon me the value of hard work. I’m very lucky to have a sturdy body. It has helped me to labor tirelessly for other people. We all want our children to achieve, to have hopes and dreams. We want them to do their homework, go to college for free. We want them to laugh often. We want them to fall in love. We want them to find the thing in their lives that interests them and we want that to be their job. We want them to live in an alternate reality.  

I have no aspirations to be first anything, although I’m usually the first one awake in my house. This is a necessity.  I never place first in video games. I rarely seat myself  in the first chair at the front of a room. I prefer sitting at the back by the door, in case I feel the need to flee. I’d love to have the financial backing to buy a residency in the country of my choosing.

Thankfully, my word is not my bond. I once said to my teenager, “I’m going to put that laptop in the oven, turn it on, and we’ll all die from the toxic fumes!” It was not a promise. It was an experiment in parent-child communication. The bond I adhere to centers around one belief– if  she/he/it breathes, she/he/it must be accorded care, kindness, compassion, and justice.

I’m very fortunate for my white, privileged heritage. I’ve never had to experience the fear and injustice because of being black, of being a refugee fleeing a war-torn country, of being LGBT, or of being despised for a million other possible non reasons. I do have the experience of being a woman which, in itself, is hugely complex even without the reality of misogyny.

I would like to take a moment to recognize an amazing poet, the great Walt Whitman, who wrote, “…dismiss whatever insults your own soul…” He also wrote, “…stand up for the stupid and crazy…” though I don’t think he was talking about politicians.  And let us thank all of the writers across this country and around the world. We are truly blessed to be here, since most of us will never have any kind of recognition and will live in poverty. That will never change.

I can tell you that I have been concerned about this country for a long time. I think small. I see things. Sometimes I have trouble focusing, literally and figuratively. I am not tough but I am kind and fair and caring. This kindness is not always noted and this confuses me because it is there for all to see. What I tell you about myself may or may not be true.

I’ve graduated from college twice. The first time I saw This is Spinal Tap, I experienced culture shock and I’m very good at hydrating vegetables. I’d welcome change and I’d welcome prosperity, as I’m sure would all people, not just some of the people. That includes Christians and Jews and Muslims. It includes Hispanics and African Americans and Asians, and the poor and the middle- class. Did I forget anyone?

Like no one else, I have seen the talent, the energy, the tenacity, the resourceful mind, and the simple goodness of the heart of God. Everything depends on it. Let’s all come together.

Thank you.

Beginning Latin


I was just looking for a job. Instead, I found a Latin teacher. He is 91 and has memory loss so we move along at just the right pace. My teacher and I share something. He, who is in hospice and me, who is still trying to shake off a divorce, have the same kind of mind. The recognition is immediate. 

We have a matching excitement when we talk about words. In our speech, we’re each so careful to choose words with an exactness of meaning that will pull behind them the whole of the story that has come before. What’s the point of talking if there is no surprise, if the words and the rhythms and the ideas are predictable?   

On the evenings I visit, while I stack all his books and papers in all their varied sizes into tidy piles, he wheels himself to his spot at the kitchen table. He takes off his red beret and the gloves he wears to protect the skin on his hands from unexpected contact with doorways. Sometimes he’ll drink coffee. Sometimes orange juice. Sometimes he’ll eat a piece of chocolate. Then I pull up my chair. We find blank paper and pens and begin our lessons. When we talk about declensions, which we must, I wonder how to call back all the rules of grammar that flew from my head years ago.

“Nominative”, he says, “He ran.”

He corrects me when I say dah-tive instead of day-tive, and says, “I give you an orange.”

“Ablative”, he says, “The color blue is given to winter.”

“The color blue is given to winter,” I say, and I am stopped by the beauty of this image.

We pause to talk about this, how words can hold an image, can so easily shift meaning, can turn ablative into dative. Blue was a gift given to Winter at a time when Winter was colorless. And who was the bearer of blue? This is how our lessons progress.

On one of my pieces of paper, where I’ve written the words locare and remaneo, I’ve also written invenio. From there, I’ve drawn a line linking it to the phrase, It comes therefore it is found. For days this excites me. I think about an essay I will write about finding, about losing. Of course I will mention David Wagoner’s poem Lost. Chill out. “The forest knows where you are.” And maybe I’ll tie in I once was lost but now I’m found and how it must be grace, that which is completely outside of our control, that comes to rest upon us. We’re still in the forest. It hasn’t changed. But we’ve come to recognize something, a truth or a rightfulness of place, like I know I’m supposed to be at the table with my folded sheet of paper and my pen working on declensions. I recognize, too, that I need this because I’ve been brought low with the stories I pull behind me. My teacher does nothing but build me up, even for the smallest things.

One night I will say, “It’s 7:10. Find something to read, short though, if you want me to help you get ready for bed before I go.”

“I see what you did just now” he says. I freeze. I wait to be corrected for my lack of social decorum, reminded of my bluntness that is like mud for so many people.

Instead, he says, “Tremendous. What you did with time. That was tremendous.”

Only once do I remember he seemed irritated with me. He was telling the story of one winter when he and his dad were returning from getting supplies in Michigan, North Dakota. A blizzard, fat with white darkness and black wind, blew in. The team of horses was straining. “We were so close to home,” he said, “when the pole broke.”  I just looked at him. I couldn’t conjure an image. I couldn’t grasp the gravity of the situation. I don’t know if the horses bolted. I don’t know if the wagon they pulled was left behind. I don’t know what happened between the pole breaking and the time they reached the farmhouse that his mother had kept warm and lighted. I wish I did.

It will happen that his memory loss will move along quicker than my learning. He will begin by forgetting my name. He’ll call me Vanessa or Pricilla, but mostly he’ll call me My Bud.  And our conversations will be conducted through image. They will become puzzles. When he tells me about the wheelbarrows at the factory, he’s talking about the hospital and the wheelchairs. When he mentions the man who is a marble, I know he’s talking about the man I’ve seen sometimes when I walk into the building, the one who is round and solid, bald and smooth. I never tire of this image talk.

There were times, it seemed, he knew his mind was dividing. When he said to me, “You have a great appreciation for accepting things that aren’t there”, he might have been thinking about the worms he believed were infesting his body. He wanted a specimen and he’d gently pick at his skin to coax one to the surface. He wanted to watch its behavior. This intrigued me, the matter-of-fact way he treated this hallucinatory infestation.

Now, our lessons involve a lot of nodding off. Reading has become stuttering.

I ask him, “Is this memory loss like having a blank sheet of paper pulled behind your eyes?”

“Thank you for asking,” he says, and forgets to answer.

I tell him I’m going to write something about him. He smiles. I know I won’t have many more chances to sneak past that blank sheet of paper behind his eyes. So I tell him I want to write around the Latin word for found, that without that word being translatable to It comes, the whole essay will be hollow. I want him to confirm. He looks at me squarely, alertly, and says, “You don’t need a translatable word. You need a translatable idea.” And I realize the idea I had was all wrong. This isn’t about finding and losing, losing and finding. It’s about the times when someone comes into your life like a sweet mother. Alma Mater.




There were two swans on the river this morning. I said to them, “You are my swans,” and they swam closer, as close as they could until they met up with the jagged barrier of ice. One trumpeted softly as if practicing.

“It’s still too early,” it said. At least that’s what I figured it was saying.

And Betty pulled on her leash, half way across the melting ice, while I held onto a branch on the shore. We, Betty and I, stared at each other.

“I’m determined to go out further,” she said to me. At least I think that’s what she said.

“No way, Honey,” I said, “then this walk will end in mishap.”

By now the swans had broken their side by side formation with a slow, smooth spin. Quietly. Certainly. They are so unfunny, unlike ducks with their stunted wings, rapid flapping and whistling with take off. They splash their landings and complain about everything. They make me laugh.

What am I to learn from this? Maybe not a single thing.

Ian at 14


Ian, there’s no question that you are beautiful, that you’ve always been beautiful. You’re taller now, that’s certain. I can wear your shoes. You can wear mine, if that’s something you wanted to do. The thing is, though we’re matched right now in shoe size, shirt size, pants size, we’re moving in opposite directions. Tomorrow, you’ll be taller. Tomorrow, I won’t be taller. You’re stretching outward. I’m stretching inward, each of us reaching for the same universe.
You always surprise me with your astounding kindness, that pensive and quiet part of you, that escapes from you when you forget about being a teenager, when you forget about who you think you should be, when you just are. And you’re funny. And you think I’m funny. And I hope it will always be that way. And I love you so, so much. Happy 14th my little man!