Braving the Wilds

Field Notes from the Suburban Jungle

Stand Off

I figured it wouldn’t last,
The persistence of one stubborn
Oak leaf clung to the grill
Of my windshield by its stem,
The petiole, as Carolyn Dwinnells
Called it in my eighth grade
Science class, containing tiny tubes
That once gave it remarkable strength,
Allowing its broad pinnated leaf
To hold fast to its towering foundation,
Even in gale force winds.

Not yet brittle to the touch,
Reminiscent of an ultimate
Authority two promotions ago
Via dress blues, starched broad
Shouldered epaulettes,
One anthropomorphic leaf
Spreads its arms and
Knocks on the glass
With its tiny pointed fists,
Stirring my inner critic awake
As if it were a passenger
Bumped to attention under
His safety belt. It
vibrates over Sotirios Johnson
And floods the cabin
Of my sensible car with
A cacophony of reminders.

Windshield wipers are useless
To silence him, as are powerful streams
Of windshield wiper fluid,
Rather brisk lane changes
Or cursing commands hurled
Through the glass.
The volume knob of frequency
Modulation turned clockwise
Intensifies the duet and
Amplifies an uninvited

Traffic slows to a stop as
Four lanes crumpled into
Two, the manic percussion
Stopped to a ringing of
My accustomed ears. The
Driver behind me yelled
As I plucked the leaf
From the grill, insurance
For my O’Henry Johnsy,
Letting it fall on the passenger seat
In my clown car of one.

Snapped cleanly at
The accession zone, it
Stiffly absorbed the last
Of the day’s sun that
It once reflected. I
absentmindedly traced my
Finger along its midrib, inadvertently
Broke it, sensing now that
It belonged to me: via
Mrs. Dwinnells’s fundamental
States of matter, or
Something entirely more
Fashioned, Genetic, one
Half of an
Imperfect whole.


Transportation Safety

The suitcase itself was identical
To the dozens or more being
Wheeled in line by a school
Of spawning salmon people
Struggling upstream to
A checkpoint, an obstacle
To the fast way home.

Hers was made unique
And discernible by
A red, frayed grosgrain ribbon
Missing the talisman
It once displayed around her neck,
But securing the broken
Zipper, locking away
The contents, the luggage
Too cumbersome for
Two outstretched
Cradling arms, or
Too personal to tote
Without cover.

A bear of a badged man,
Par chance, unzips her hidden world
With latex gloves and
Gunpowder detecting swabs.
Flushed with the abrupt intrusion,
The traveler looks underneath
The opened lid, the uninvited
glimpses at all that she has
Packed away:
The white blouse with yellowed
Orbs under the arms
That once made her feel
The polish of a more worthy woman,
But now worn only under
A cardigan cover,
Boxes of shortbread dipped
In dark chocolate that really
Weren’t destined for her elderly mother,
Silk underpinnings which were
Seen by no one, save her
And this uniformed stranger:
Intricate lace that once made her feel wanted,
And now only foolish.

Raising his eyebrows, he
Glances over bifocals,
Dirtied with dandruff and sweat,
At the vulnerable fish woman
Clutching a paperback best kept
Under brown paper covers,
A bottle, a needle, a thread.
Rumpled cottons chosen
For comfort when Pandora’s
Boxes were unceremoniously opened,
Are returned to their original piles
Now disturbed, disorderly, rumpled.

With trembling fingers, she pulls
The tab of the zipper, her
Gill-like lungs struggling for
Calm, safely containing
All that she carefully tucks away
To a neat place,
Hidden, dark, manageable
When unperturbed.
With a groan in the throat,
A strain of the shoulders, she raises
Her pain and wonders
If she’ll have to pay an
Additional fee required
For overweight parcels.



A starter’s gun sees fit
To startle runners
To swift mobility:
Igniting the twitches
Of quadriceps, locked
In the blocks, to
More productive

Metal spikes in
Soles of athletic
Shoes, connecting
With a gravel track,
Reverberate in the jaw,
The teeth, grinding
Like an un-oiled
Gear, propelling
The body forward.

A hollow baton,
Painted aluminum,
Whistles a beat,
A bitonal melody,
A rhythm
Matched by the
By movement.

Knuckles locked closed,
Gripping a weight,
Requiring a give,
A take,
For a body off balance.
With weakened back,
the foundation is sown
Like a farmer’s field,
Untilled and black
With richness
And possibility.

Second leg,
A political war
Of kinesthetics,
The warrior recognizes
Space, time
Opponents in
The arc of a goal.

Baton! He yells,
And raises
A blue-veined
A battle cry.

For a fraction of a second,
Contact is made,
Hand to stick to hand,
Brotherly and unified
Rising into striding sync:
A mathematician
Forward progression.

Precision in the final lap
A philosopher
Whirring wheels
Breaks a tape with
Developed powerful
Pectorals inflated with
Steady inhalations –
Unbated –
Unified in hope
Of the three cyclic
Lifetimes that ran
Before him, churning
The cinder of
An ignorant path
Beneath his
Spent feet.

“I could fill Volumes with Descriptions of Temples and Palaces, Paintings, Sculptures, Tapestry, Porcelaine, &c. &c. &c. — if I could have time. But I could not do this without neglecting my duty. The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Studies Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”
-Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, post 12 May 1780

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.” -Reinhold Niebuhr

Changing The Sidewalk

“So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and gives life to thee.”
From Sonnet XVIII
by, William Shakespeare

Unsteadily upright,
A white-pated man
Awaited to shuffle across
The intersection. One hand
On a button, shakily
pushed for a pedestrian
Crossing, the other rested casually
On his jutted, arthritic hip,
Exposing the underbelly
Of his hand, his palm,
Flawless and juxtaposed
Next to his exhausted body.

His bowled legs,
Barely able to support
His aged body, met the ground
In blindingly white tennis shoes
With velcro straps, draped
In an easy-fitting
Geriatric uniform:
Khaki pants, zippered
Wind breaker, suggesting
His hands now have
Proven themselves as
Cumbersome during
His daily dressing.

His profile, grey and golden,
Illuminated by autumnal
Afternoon sun, proved useless
To warm his
Cardiovascular conundrums.
The whole of his body
Trembled, weary
From a lifetime of
Crossing busy streets.

Yet the un-calloused hand,
Pristine and smooth, once
Undertook the gentler and
More sensual of tasks:
Childhood sculpting of
Hand-made clay,
Caressing the skin of
A young lover, Cupping the
Open-fontanelled skull of
A newborn infant; a touch,
A neuro-pathway,
A motor sensory memory
Of realized youthful pleasure,
Unchecked and unspoiled
By a lifetime of hard-earned

Raison d’Être

Our hound, a rescue of unknown genetic origins,
Delineated clearly his two existences:
That of domestic pet, comforter
Of angst-ridden adolescents,
Creature of decadence, sprawled
Over pillow-topped mattresses,
Receiver of morsels of food
That never quite made it to
The mouths of his human roommates.

Out-of-doors, he became attuned
To his aboriginal identity,
Pulled by olfactory impulses,
Low-toned howls replaced by
High-pitched yips, indicating
His discovery:
An agile rodent on the other end of
A faint scent, but a powerful reminder
Of his true reason for being,
His own brass ring.

At our doorstep, he usually returned
Empty-mouthed to a more mundane
Vie Quotidien. Panting, leaving
Paw prints of perspiration
On the hardwood kitchen floor,
Lapping water
From a polished, stainless steel bowl
With his dextrous tongue,
Eyes no longer dilated from the excitement
Of an elusive rabbit that escaped
His surprisingly lithe gait and
Presumed powerful jaws,
Now rendered vestigial again
At the gentle hand of a child
Offering the crusts of a
Peanut butter sandwich.

Yet today, as he approaches
His second decade of life,
He stands on the back porch,
An architectural symbol of his segue,
His threshold of two parallel identities.
A rabbit, matted fur soaked, trails
Blood from his no longer twitching,
Useless pink nose.

The hound’s foreleg trembles.
His eyes, solid discs of dark brown,
Hold our own amazed gawks.
His eyebrows,
Brown and clown-like, rise and fall
As he contemplates
The garden, the hearth of the kitchen,
His prize still warm
On his saliva-soaked tongue.
It’s as if, given the power
Of a shared spoken language,
He’d desperately ask: “Where,
On God’s green earth,
Do I possibly go
From here?”

A dog chases a plump rabbit in this detail from Initial E: A Priest Celebrating Mass, an illumination in a Spanish law code. Courtesy of The Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

A dog chases a plump rabbit in this detail from Initial E: A Priest Celebrating Mass, an illumination in a Spanish law code. Courtesy of The Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

Emotional Gentrification

The clapboards of the ancient boathouse
Separated at the corners, revealing rusted
And bent nails with rectangular shanks.
The foundation, cracked and in need of repair,
Held the aging structure precariously steadfast,
Offering welcome to the runabouts
Of the last century into its own hull.

The windows waved, burled and
Undulating, rippling the image of
What lay inside – streaks of
Muted color and indistinct forms.
A glass blower, now long since
Gone, forming nostalgic eyes
Which, when opened with love,
Would soften light that would stream in
From an outside world.

I am that outside world,
Curious about a structure that
Over decades, became a mere aspect
To the horizontal landscape.
I paddled my kayak through its
Open portal, expecting to find
A 1930s three-horsepower
Engine, gooey with stale oil,
A wooden-hulled runabout
With a leak and broken seat boards,
A moldy and torn star-spangled banner.

Instead, I find a young couple, folded
Into a sleeping bag like twin butterfly
Lovers in a cocoon
Startled awake, sitting up in fear,
Breaking their loving spoonful
Of an embrace. Hastily I offer
Apologies, paddling backward
To open and clear waterscape
That is decipherable and mine,
Having stumbled into a memory
That I’d swear was my own.

West Shore from Hopkins copy

The Time Between Dog and Wolf

The letters on the printed page
Become indecipherable,
A time the French call
“Le temps entre
Chien et Loup,”
Whereas at dusk,
It is impossible to
Distinguish a dog
From a wolf, a
Domestic friend, or
Potential natural enemy
Who haunted childhood
Fairy tales and dreams.

The late summer breezes
Slow. It is quiet,
The children having
Retreated to eat their
Evening meals, the sun
No longer offering a
Good perspective on their
Bike spokes, basketball nets
Or fishing lines.

The sky darkens and
The horizon seems
A painting, a tableau
The end of a cycle
That is one day.
The cooler air invites us
Out to our lawns
With a drink, making
Meditative exhalations,
Through curlicued smoke
As the last streaks of sunlight turn
Illuminated clouds
To a final grey blue.

The katydid, awakening,
Sounds his mating call,
The first one tentatively
Breaks the silence
Like an uninvited guest,
A killjoy,
Who reminds us all
Of an impending September.

Old wives of New England
Mark the first rushed chirp
Of the ephemeral tettigoniidae
As the last of summer,
The first frost only
Six weeks away;
With a mere year
To replicate itself,
To close the arc of
A short life,
The menacing sound
Reluctantly comes
Irregardless of
Human associations.

In the dark,
We retreat from a full day
When the world is awake and
Quivering with
Work and consciousness.
We curl into worn arm chairs
With books and weary limbs,
Around dining tables
With children, fresh vegetables
And decks of cards,
Into beds with cups of tea,
And music and with any luck, a partner.
We briefly crave
The welcome rest that
Autumn will provide, and
Bring us closer –
More quickly –
To another year,
Through the palest of dawn.

Second Cup of Saturday Morning Coffee

For many, Saturday Night is Date Night…

Survival Guide

Hyperbolic, first-world declarations
About coffee, air conditioning or
Wireless computer connections:
We couldn’t possibly live
Without them. Throw us into
The arctic surrounds of our ancestry
And forget the igloo, the seal hides
And blubber: we need to check
Our instagram accounts. Keep
The knife, the desalinization
Membranes and radio:
Drag us to the closest cell tower;
We need to read our e-mail.

Throngs of people line city streets
Clutching their surrogate electronic
Rhesus monkey mothers,
Offering nurturing security,
Loving attention from man-made
Bestowers of contact and affection,
A life-line offering one level of
Maslow’s actualized human needs:
Love. The basics come in
Much less comforting packages:
Lunch wrapped in tinfoil, apartments
Sweltering in brick façades,
Swaths of cotton stained from
Sweat of the daily toil.

Grief is love
Encountering its archenemy;
The delivery system of
Our will to live is
A mere incarnation of
Our will to thrive. Survival
Without reason or meaning is
A cell without connection,
Despondent and weakened
And not much worth it
To begin with. That’s
No exaggeration.


Two Turtle Doves

About a month ago, I discovered that I left the storm window open in my second floor bathroom. In an attempt to bring order to an otherwise chaotic life, I decided to strive for a spotless sill, capitalizing on minutae of life that lay under my power. Removing cobwebs and dead leaves from the space between two pieces of glass seemed an obtainable goal and satisfying task at the time, yet subsequently leaving that window open would have eventually defeated the purpose.

IMG_3256I likely wouldn’t have noticed the oversight until the next OCD attack, if it weren’t for the female mourning dove who had decided to build her flimsy nest there. One evening while attending to my toilette I heard the distinctive, soulful coo coming from the window, coupled with an aviary silhouette: an evening sloped bird shadow in the lower left pane.

The next morning she remained, periodically exposing her two small ivory-colored eggs, much to the delight of my children and me. We scoured the Sibley’s Guide To Birds, devoured the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, took daily photographs and videos of our new feathered friends. We were careful not to disturb her mothering, her dutiful and steadfast wait for her squabs to emerge from their shells as she warmed them with her bulbous breast.

They hatched about two weeks later, wet little chicks with tightly wrenched eyelids, vulnerable to all that lay beyond that sill. My teenaged son crouched in the adjacent bathtub waiting for over an hour the morning we discovered they had hatched to capture their image on film. I marveled at his stamina, his persistence, the ability of this tiny winged creature to tear him away from all electronic distractions. It’s as if Lovey Dovey, a name coined by my five year-old, had reminded us all of a world that existed beyond ourselves, outside of our comprehension or natural abilities.

The squabs matured, violently devoured dove’s milk from Lovey’s esophagus, which is simply regurgitated seeds she had pre-digested for their convenience. The growing squabs bulged from underneath their parent, as we learned that both male and female take on child-minding responsibilities. We wondered when they made the shift change, musing to ourselves that the changing of the guard was done in much more private circumstances than those of Buckingham Palace.

Mostly, however, her presence was reassuring in that there was an order to the world that was natural and that perhaps we were part of it. We instinctively lowered the shade when her uneasiness was clear, when the reactionary ruffle of feathers in a stream of artificial light spilled through the pane of glass that separated us. We understood that there was a wall, albeit a clear one, that offered an impressive view, but kept us definitively apart.

About a month after we discovered we were playing host to one of nature’s wonders, we left for a weekend away, only to return to two adolescent doves struggling their way up our back steps, and clumsily flying to a near-by branch. The nest was left, empty and filthy with guano, as we regretfully acknowledged that we missed the flying lessons and the thrill of observing the first stretch of fully-functioning wings. Of course we are not part of that world, and understood that our connection to this little family was fleeting by necessity, distant by nature and yet unusually intimate.

Yet it is impossible as emotional beings not to connect the experience to interpersonal, human ones. We had suffered loss that all human beings do, albeit in greater concentration in the recent past: we lost a parent, a grandparent, a marriage, the dream of a cohesive, nuclear family, an adored family dog. We had begun to prepare for my oldest child to leave our own nest, as he begins to think about colleges. It made us wonder if all such connections are as fleeting as an accidental intimacy we shared with a doting dove.

So it is with joy that we discovered that Lovey has returned to her nest this evening, perhaps seeking shelter from a rainy summer night, maybe to delightfully re-use the nest for another clutch of eggs. Let her serve as a reminder that the simple yet wondrous experience that she has shared with us, by some stroke of serendipity, will always be ours, as will every human connection we were lucky enough to make.

Meantime, I will leave the sill littered with sticks and droppings, ignoring – for now – what can be controlled.


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