“Introduction To Poetry”

On Saturday afternoon I head out for a walk under the guise of needing to pick up a prescription from the pharmacy. I do, in fact, need to pick up a prescription from the pharmacy, but Thomas and I both know that when I say I’m “going to walk to the pharmacy” that’s code for “I’m going out for a walk and there’s no knowing when I’ll be back.”

Needless to say, I take a slight detour at Pegasus Books on Shattuck. In my defense, it’s the first time since the beginning of the pandemic that Pegasus has been open for in-person browsing, and obviously I have to support my local bookstore (f*** Amazon!!!!!!!!!).

I spend thirty minutes browsing and in every section – philosophy, spirituality, literature, gardening, poetry, critical theory – I see a book I want to take home and spend the rest of the afternoon reading. I wish for not the first time that I had room in my apartment for more books, instead of the already-overflowing few shelves I hacked together in our bedroom. There’s a chance it collapses at some point soon; I keep stacking more and more books horizontally on the top shelf.

My book-browsing is interrupted by the realization that the pharmacy closes soon and if I don’t leave now I’ll fail to accomplish the actual task I set out to do. I hurriedly grab and pay for two of the used books I’ve had my eye on: Natalie Goldberg’s The Great Spring and Poetry 180, an anthology of contemporary poems.

The mini-haul.

On Tuesday morning I remember that, because Thomas is a student, we have a free subscription to The New York Times. I browse their website and come across this Letter of Recommendation that suggests you read the same poem every day for a month. While not a novel idea, I loved the author’s intention and practice behind it: “I always read my selected poem aloud, to hear the rhythm, and I like to read it first thing in the morning. Reading the poem at dawn, with my coffee, is a kind of meditation. And rereading the same poem forces me to slow down, to hone my observations.”

Over the past few months I’ve strayed further from starting my mornings in a meditative way. I used wake up and read or write; now, I immediately open my laptop to start work, or spend too long on Twitter catching up on the latest apocalyptic news. This letter feels timely – especially since I’d just bought a poetry anthology a few days prior. I resolve to start my next few mornings by reading a poem.


On Wednesday morning I wake up and open the anthology to the first poem, Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry.”

“Introduction to Poetry”

I’ve read it before – shout-out to my favorite high-school English teacher who introduced me to some amazing poems – but poetry will always be better when chosen rather than assigned. In the words of Billy Collins himself: “High school is the place where poetry goes to die.” (I might be one of the few who gained a greater appreciation for poetry in an academic context. To all the high school teachers: don’t give up hope!)

I will spare everyone my commentary on the poem (which would also be ironic given its content) but here are two of my favorite Billy Collins verses I want to share in the hopes others enjoy them as much as I do:

“But tomorrow, dawn will come the way I picture her,
barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window
in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor.
She will look in at me with her thin arms extended,
offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.”

“And I should mention the light
which falls through the big windows this time of day
italicizing everything it touches…”

Plum Tree Ponderings

When I was younger I thought of gifts only as things that were exchanged on holidays and birthdays: toys, money, anything that could be bought or sold but that I received “for free.”

Now, when I think of gifts, what comes to mind are the less tangible things: time, thought, effort. The things that can’t be purchased in a store, or that can’t be quantified, or that people might not even know they’re giving to you. I have also come to think of gifts not as things that you receive on Christmas – or other times when people might expect to give and receive gifts – but as the things that arrive when you least expect it.

But I also believe there is truth in the common wisdom that you have to be open to receiving gifts; that you have to adopt a certain mindset that allows you to be receptive to, and aware of, the gifts you may be being given. This article in particular, I thought, summed up well my experience with gift-giving and gift-receiving:

No one ever taught me how to receive. Not a compliment; I am a master at countering any comment with insight about all my faults. Not a gift; I immediately feel the need to give something in return, preferably bigger. Not a kindness; I wave people away from helping me in a grocery line, no matter that I am dropping bread as I speak.

How could I have gone through so much life and have no experience with such a fundamental act as the ability to receive?

As I begin to examine this, I realize for me receiving involves vulnerability. When I give, I feel in charge. When I receive, I feel less.

Give feels like an action word; receive feels like something passive. Yet I can see how mistaken I am. Giving and receiving are yin and yang, the equivalent of the infinity symbol—looping back and forth, neither side larger than the other, both integral to the larger whole.

But I am becoming more open to receiving gifts: a few weeks ago I wrote about the gift of free lemons I found on the sidewalk, and just yesterday I experienced a similar moment on my walk around the neighborhood. I came across a plum tree that I only noticed because the over-ripen fruit that had fallen from its branches made splashes of bright reds and purples on the road. I looked up and saw, camouflaged in the tree’s purpley-red leaves, a few small, cherry-sized plum fruits that remained clinging to its branches. I reached up and picked two of the fruits and was shocked to discover their sweetness upon putting them in my mouth.

As I sucked the juices from the plum, rolling the pit around in my mouth once its flesh was gone, I noticed how I savored its flavor: first full and sweet as I bit into the skin, then a bit of sour as I reached a piece of its unripened flesh.

I noticed how my experience of eating this fruit – that I had received as an unexpected gift – was so different from how I might have eaten a plum that I purchased at the grocery store. Something about the way I had come across the plum – as a gift from nature, rather than a store-bought object – fundamentally changed how I interacted with it.

I think of a book I read recently (thanks, Dana, for the recommendation!) called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. In it, its author, Robin Wall Kimmerer, discusses nature through the lens of both modern science and indigenous wisdom. When I get home from my encounter with the plum tree I go to my bookshelf and find the passages from her book that I’d highlighted:

Perhaps it was because I’d read this book that I had this momentary awareness of my relationship to the plum, and I’m grateful for it. And I think about how, if we truly receive and appreciate nature’s gifts, we also cultivate a relationship with nature that is inherent with respect, gratitude, and reciprocity – in essence, the one native people have always had. It’s the same notion that’s described in the blog article: when we receive a gift, we are allowing ourselves to partake in a cycle that relies on both giving and receiving, and that both parts of the process are made more full as a result.

My “chill out maddy” Spotify playlist didn’t work as well as I’d hoped.

I spent the weekend trying to relax.

I didn’t go for any long bike rides or runs; instead, I went for short walks and took naps. I read an entire book. No, wait – two books. I made a playlist called “chill out maddy” and listened to it for a few hours. I meditated. I painted:

Manifesting my dream home in the Cotswolds, inspired by a photo Leslie took a few months ago.

Suffice it to say I was disappointed when I woke up at 4:13am this Monday morning with painful stomach cramps (diagnosed thus far as anxiety-related).

I’m not here to complain, though. I did have a relaxing weekend. I basked in the hot sun (but not in the red flag warnings reminding us that another fire season is on our heels). I made a picnic for me and Thomas which we enjoyed with a fancy bottle of rosé we purchased a few weeks ago in Mendocino as the sun set on Saturday night. I called my mom and spoke with some friends. My life is good; I am blessed in many ways.

I spent a lot of time thinking about how much I love California. I spend a lot of time thinking about that, actually. I browsed thrift store clothing racks in Oakland and imagined myself as a fashionable woman who put thought and intention into each of her outfits. I rolled my eyes at the obscenely long lines outside of “trendy” East Bay bakeries. I watched the first five minutes of four different Netflix shows.

I would also like to share the possibly hot take (given its Goodreads rating of 4.31) that I did not enjoy The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. The premise of the book – a girl named Addie makes a pact with the devil that means she will live forever, but she will be forgotten by everyone – was too obvious of a metaphor for me. Passages and quotes that clearly resonated with many readers (e.g., “Do you think a life has any value if one doesn’t leave some mark upon the world?”) felt…basic and silly. Maybe I’m too cynical but I found myself rolling my eyes frequently as I kept being hit over the head with thinly-veiled metaphors about the meaning of life.

(I did, however, enjoy The Incendiaries, probably because I have a fascination for cults and enjoy mysterious characters.)

As I’ve now successfully wasted these pre-sunrise hours sharing my ramblings, I want to wish each and every one of you a joyous Monday. Since I am now a self-proclaimed “breakfast person,” I am going to make myself some breakfast. And by “make breakfast,” I mean I am going to microwave one of the frozen breakfast sandwiches that I bought in bulk from Safeway. Please comment below with your favorite breakfast and/or a book that I can read so I don’t have to rely on (disappointingly incorrect) Goodreads reviews.

A short note

I was drafting a new post this morning (related to mental health, actually) but I will save that for another time as I want to share this short note instead:

I heard earlier today of another death of someone I knew by suicide. I hope it goes without saying at this point, but if anyone ever wants to talk or needs help getting help I’m always around. I have been open about my struggles in the past in the hope that it makes others more comfortable in coming to me if they need someone safe and non-judgmental to talk to.

Things like this will never not hit me so incredibly hard. You are loved.


“To The Young Who Want To Die” by Gwendolyn Brooks:

little things, april 2021

I. blooming flowers and a friend, reminding me: you have to start somewhere. not all things are beautiful when they first begin.

II. a morning walk on a summer day
in northern california
which means I am wearing two jackets and a hat
but you can hear the rising sun saying to the world “watch out for me today.”

III. collage (n): an assemblage of different forms…thus creating a whole.
when I pick up these camellias (that have fallen onto the sidewalk – once beautiful on their bushes, now browning and alone) and press them underneath a heavy book, I like the idea that I am giving them a second life.

IV. I look at the clock and see an hour has passed
since I sat down on the couch to read my book.
I am thankful for artists who conjure up these other worlds
that can so readily relieve me from my own.

V. I see a whale! – no, it’s a wave
and then – a spout!
I am sitting near the edge of the cliff and my sister is on the phone and I start crying.

whale watching in mendocino

A Garbage Post [Happy Earth Day]

Each year I celebrate Earth Day by going on a plog. For those unfamiliar with the term, know that Thomas was as well until his edification three years ago:

This text conversation is probably more embarrassing for me than it is for him, as it speaks volumes to what he thinks I’m doing in my spare time.

In previous years I visited some combination of my favorite parks nearby our house in San Francisco: Buena Vista, Twin Peaks, Mount Davidson, Sutro, Glen Canyon, Billy Goat Hill, Kite Hill, Corona Heights, and/or Bernal Heights (there were so many amazing parks in walking distance! I love you, San Francisco!). Today, on my first Berkeley/East Bay plog, I jogged with my bag of accumulating trash through Strawberry Canyon and Claremont Canyon. It’s a common theme in the Bay Area that if you want to explore the local parks you have to be willing to climb a lot of hills, but luckily I’ve lived here long enough that the thought of a flat jog is intimidating.

By the end of my jog I’d filled and emptied four bags of trash, not to mention stopped for a few selfies and tree appreciation moments. (Imagine living in the beautiful, magical land that is Northern California and not wanting to save our planet!)

Here is a list of the most common trash items I found:

  1. Masks. This one sucks so much. Not only do we have a pandemic on our hands, but masks are creating additional litter! Wear your mask…but dispose of it properly, please!
  2. Bags of dog poop. As the sign (pictured above) courtesy of Untrash.it says: “This is trash too! Please pack out your dog waste.”
  3. Napkins. In particular: those rough, brown napkins they keep in large dispensers on tables at fast casual restaurants and college cafeterias. Either people are using them as toilet paper on the trails (use a leaf! or air dry!) or they’re eating a lot of trail snacks that require napkins, but either way it was sad how many of them were crumpled up on the side of the trails.
  4. A half-eaten burrito. Ok, fine – this was not a common item of trash. But the fact that I found a half-eaten, foiled-wrapped burrito in the middle of some wood chips in the park was mind-blowing! Not only did this person litter, they also wasted most of a perfectly good burrito! Food waste + litter = double whammy.

More importantly: thank you to organizations like Untrash East Bay who are working to keep our beautiful parks and earth clean. When group activities are back up and running I plan to join them on their weekly group trash pick-ups. I was also thinking that for my next birthday I should invite friends to one of my favorite parks for a trash cleanup partt…prizes for the person who picks up the most trash!

As for other personal Earth-related initiatives, I found this tweet I posted on Earth Day two years ago (from a pre-pandemic world in which and we still commuted to an office for work):

I am sharing this because I have always been passionate about improving access to bikes, buses, and trains as means of both work and personal transport. If you live in San Francisco, I suggest joining and/or supporting the San Francisco Bike Coalition who works to improve bike accessibility and safety in the city. Even more importantly, I recently read this incredible article written about the lack of representation low-income riders have when it comes to safe cycling and transportation planning. While I have become a more avid cyclist over the past few years, I am continually frustrated by perceptions of the cycling community, and the inclusivity of the community itself. The lower-income folks who rely on bikes as their primary mode of transportation are overlooked when planning and accessibility decisions are made, and the cycling community doesn’t always do the best job of advocating for them. The article provides a great overview of why it’s important to support lower-income cyclists and I am thinking of ways to be a better advocate in my own community.

I’ll end with a post from one of my favorite Instagram accounts @intersectionalenvironmentalist:

Little Things / March 2021

1.

In a brief moment of culinary inspiration last weekend I decided I wanted to bake some scones. I’d just had my morning coffee – so the possibilities for my day were seemingly endless and I dreamt my biggest, most wild dreams – and seen an inspiring photo of local produce from Berkeley Bowl.

“What flavor scones should I make?” I asked myself as I sat on the couch, already envisioning the Samin Nosrat I was about to become. I had the essential ingredients in my pantry – flour, butter, heavy cream, sugar – and decided on lemon poppyseed: a classic, hard-to-mess-up flavor that would only require buying a lemon or two from the grocery store. And then – of course, as usual – the moment of inspiration passed before I even made it to the store.

I went for a walk through the neighborhood later that afternoon. I had spent most of the day attempting to read, but mostly ruminating, and sought fresh air to clear my mind. A few blocks from my house I came across a plastic dog bowl placed on the sidewalk with a paper sign taped to the rim that read “FREE” in black Sharpie. Inside the bowl were three large, bright yellow lemons that a neighbor had picked from the ripening tree in their yard. I smiled, picked one up, and put it in my fanny pack (yes, I was wearing a fanny pack).

Lemon x fanny pack

As I walked home with the lemon displayed proudly in the pocket of my fanny pack I felt so blessed. A lemon in a bowl on the sidewalk. It was such a small thing and yet it felt like a huge gift, to have this thing that I’d been “needing,” but hadn’t been able to give myself, brought to me with no strings attached. It was as if someone, somewhere had known that if I were presented with a lemon it might have the capacity to turn my day around.

At home that evening I stood at the counter zesting the lemon over a glass bowl. I grated the frozen butter, mixed in heavy cream and flour, and added just the right amount of poppy seeds. I’m not much of a baker but every time I bake or cook I notice how wonderful it feels to make something from scratch, to shape and create it with my own hands. When the scones came out of the oven looking and smelling just as I’d hoped, I thanked the world for the gift of a lemon that reminded and inspired me to create.

2.

The wildflowers are in bloom!

On Sunday afternoon I sat on a bench by a field of poppies and reread one of my favorite poems by Wendell Berry:

I dream of a quiet man
who explains nothing and defends
nothing, but only knows
where the rarest wildflowers
are blooming, and goes, 
and finds that he is smiling
not by his own will.

3.

Ben Howard released a new album that I (shockingly!!!!!) have not been able to take off repeat: https://open.spotify.com/album/09P40BHcaue9iF4QasXMTK?si=hVrCF0tbRQOcOkeRzxl6Og. Every time I listen to his music I think about what a gift musicians are to the world; how talented artists have the ability to make us feel and experience the world more deeply.

I read an interview he gave with Flood Magazine after the album release and one particular quote resonated with me:

“I think I’m always just looking for a little flash of inspiration rather than working on some great orchestral piece, and that kind of became what the record was—it was little fragments. I hate to use the word “vignette,” but these songs are little glimpses of life and of musical ideas. They didn’t even need to be completely finished—as long as the essence is there, it counts.”

Sometimes that’s how I feel about this blog (I am not, by the way, attempting to compare myself to a musical genius!): it’s a place where I can capture my flashes of inspiration – a poem, a wildflower, a lemon on the sidewalk – rather than trying to produce something cohesive or complete.

I’ll leave you with something else he said in the interview that I thought he articulated beautifully:

“I think that’s why I’m always reluctant to spell out every single element of a song, because feelings are supposed to change. It’s supposed to change with interpretation, and that’s one of the most interesting aspects of it all. Meaning can be quite an elusive thing. And actually, the most incredible moment is when you get presented with an image that you can’t get out of your brain, but you don’t know why.”

Happy spring, everyone! May it bring lots of wildflowers and hope.