Lingering Effects of Poetry

“Tell me not in mournful numbers
Life is but an empty dream;
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.”

Some words trigger memories and some words trigger memorized poetry. Today’s Ragtag daily prompt — the word “slumber” — triggered memories of “A Psalm of Life” a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow when he was only nineteen. My mom tossed lines from that poem at me even when I was very small, but the lines she usually tossed were “Life is real! Life is earnest!” The poem has been a constant echo throughout all these years.

I got to teach that poem several times and I always enjoyed it, but the best experience was in the People’s Republic of China. Somehow my teaching and Longfellow’s poem hit my students just right.

I introduced the poem by saying that, to Longfellow, our lives were something to create, like a piece of marble that we would carve into something beautiful. I remember reading a lot of very beautiful essays written into the little copy books they used that they were going to “carve their stone.”

It’s funny how the poem still resonates for me. It was sometime during the late spring 2020, with COVID scaring the crap out of everyone with half a brain, that I realized I’d better start oil painting and RIGHT NOW because, “Art is long and time is fleeting…” and I had/have a ton of unused supplies.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting, 
   And our hearts, though stout and brave, 
Still, like muffled drums, are beating 
   Funeral marches to the grave. 

“Crap! I have more paint than I might be able to use in the entire rest of my life and if COVID??? HOLY crap! Martha, you don’t have TIME to be afraid of that big canvas!! Get your ass in there!!”

I really did think that, and I got my ass in there.

Essentially, I guess, the poem is a paean to stoicism and “making the best of it,” which is, you know, pretty much all any of us can do .

A Psalm of Life
What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.

Tell me not, in mournful numbers, 
   Life is but an empty dream! 
For the soul is dead that slumbers, 
   And things are not what they seem. 

Life is real! Life is earnest! 
   And the grave is not its goal; 
Dust thou art, to dust returnest, 
   Was not spoken of the soul. 

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow, 
   Is our destined end or way; 
But to act, that each to-morrow 
   Find us farther than to-day. 

Art is long, and Time is fleeting, 
   And our hearts, though stout and brave, 
Still, like muffled drums, are beating 
   Funeral marches to the grave. 

In the world’s broad field of battle, 
   In the bivouac of Life, 
Be not like dumb, driven cattle! 
   Be a hero in the strife! 

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant! 
   Let the dead Past bury its dead! 
Act,— act in the living Present! 
   Heart within, and God o’erhead! 

Lives of great men all remind us 
   We can make our lives sublime, 
And, departing, leave behind us 
   Footprints on the sands of time; 

Footprints, that perhaps another, 
   Sailing o’er life’s solemn main, 
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother, 
   Seeing, shall take heart again. 

Let us, then, be up and doing, 
   With a heart for any fate; 
Still achieving, still pursuing, 
   Learn to labor and to wait.

P.S. I appreciate the encouragement on the ink drawings. It’s not my “thing,” but it’s an interesting challenge. One good thing about it is that, unlike painting, I’m not constantly cleaning brushes so the winter cracks on my thumb from cold, dry air and brush washing might finally heal.

Talking to Teddy about his Roots

“What Teddy? You are a herding dog. A herd? A herd is a big group of animals. The animal herd you’d know in another reality would probably be sheep. Sheep? Ah, a lot has been said, written, painted and poesied on the subject of sheep, but I don’t have any direct experience with them. Just a lot of hearsay. That’s a good point. ‘Herd’ is both a noun and a verb. When the animals are all in a group, that’s when they’re called a herd. Some smart person and his/her dog has to get them organized like that. No, I don’t think you’ll ever have a herd of your own, but you are doing a great job keeping Bear in line. No, she’s not a herd. Yeah, she’s big enough. What would Bear do with the sheep? That’s a good question, Teddy. You and Bear would be a team. At night when you’re sleeping, she’d guard your sheep so nothing could hurt them. From what? Everything. Coyotes, wolves, bears, eagles whatever’s out there. Sure you could help her. She’s taught you a lot about guarding, I know that, but I imagine if you had your own herd, you might not be Bear’s pal and sidekick because you’d both have your own work to do, especially during lambing. Lambing? That’s when the mom sheep have their puppies. Well, Teddy, it would be a pretty hard life for all of us if we were herding sheep. A good life, I think, but not as easy as this life. Yes, I’d like it — maybe — I think I would, but you, me and Bear came from circumstances not totally in our control. We have this life and it’s a wonderful life. We can still go out there and ‘herd,’ but we don’t have to survive on it, facing down a hard winter, or sick and dying animals, or you and Bear being injured, or me. Like everything in life, there’s always something we wish we had done or could do. Wish? Oh, that’s when you want a cookie and do everything you can to manipulate me into giving you one.”

Teddy T. Dog

COVID Ponderings (and Akbash Dogs)

Since I got the first shot, I’ve been trying to understand the invisible effects of the pandemic on me. I know, solipsistic, but something’s happened. COVID-19 appeared in Colorado almost exactly a year ago, March 5, though now it’s believed it was here in January. I remember taking a long walk (big surprise) and thinking about what it would mean for me. I believed that my responsibility to the world and my community was simply not to get sick. Our hospitals are small and since I am not obliged to do anything like go to work, and I’m not caring for anyone, I could easily “isolate” and I did.

I’m sure everyone’s “Covid story” follows a pattern and it’s likely our patterns are somewhat similar.

In my small life the pattern is essentially the same as depicted in these memes, but with some differences. The second image (going left from the top) is everyone around me scurrying to make masks for our hospitals and discussing what we all could do. The image bottom left is everyone realizing that this isn’t going away any time soon and feeling haggard, tired and a little betrayed. This isn’t supposed to happen to us!!! The bottom right is resignation. I hit the Nutella in picture two, top, but decided that was a bad idea unless I wanted to buy a lot of new clothes. It’s amazing, though, how many psychological problems are healed by Nutella. I hit the bottom left picture (middle version) a few days ago when I woke up thinking, “I want that damned shot NOW!” I’m still there.

The shot left my arm very sore and me very tired for three days. It also shoved in front of me the reality that this life I’ve chosen, and to which I’ve adapted, is going to come to an end. Since I have come to understand through this year (thanks to the cranes) that what matters most in life is life itself, specifically my life, I’ve been wondering if many of the things we do are nothing more than time fillers and illusions. We need human connection, but, at the same time there is no human connection without human life. That was one of the first things that struck me on those early COVID walks. “If I’m not here any more, then I’m not hanging out with my friends.”

The sudden and necessary prioritization of self was shocking until I realized that we rely on others to take care of themselves. That’s what makes a person trustworthy, knowing that that person is NOT going to throw him/herself willy-nilly into oblivion. That is (I think) why sane people reacted so vehemently to DJT (jokingly?) telling people to inject bleach and Dr. Scarf not standing up for medical science (and herself). Deep inside each creature (I believe) is a small wise voice saying, “There’s a meteorite around every corner. Break the ice in the trough or die.” I see the cattle out there finding the ONE warm place, a pile of dung, on which to lie during the deep cold.

I’m not the same person I was in March 2020, and I’m not sure I want to “return” to that person. I can’t NOT know what I’ve learned in this interval. Are you the same person or has this experience launched you into self-discovery, too?

In other news, here’s a video that shows what Akbash dogs (like Bear) do when they have a job:

Less is More…

More words count less
Hold fast to the center. Lao Tse

Lao Tse’s words have echoed in my mind for years. As a writer I learned that wordiness hides the story. As a reader I learned that wordiness hides the story. That said, there are a lot of people who’ve reviewed my books there are many reviewers who say my prose is not “descriptive” enough. Others say it’s, “lyrical” and “fast moving.”

One man’s note is another man’s symphony. (Ralph, Muppets)

HOW a person writes a story depends on what the story is. Since I write historical fiction, there’s a fine line between what my readers need to know about the world they enter when they open my book and what the people in the story already know about their world. Memoir, too, though I have found that a little easier to navigate.

I’ve read a memoir for the contest that should have been very interesting, but in the second chapter, suddenly, the author seems to have forgotten that the story is the big deal and begins laborious introductions of family members and their life stories. I was disappointed because I wanted the book to do well. I was talking to the author, “No, please, don’t do this.” But the author HAD done that and would lose any reader there, I think. Even in a memoir, characters are interesting because of what they DO.

I’m not writing anything now and am even pondering what to do with my blog. I enjoyed the couple of days I decided to write short poems in response to the prompt though I was disappointed yesterday when readers didn’t realize I wasn’t writing about The Godfather per se, but about Donald Trump. Or they didn’t and didn’t want to talk about it. That’s OK. I remember spending HOURS in seminars trying to figure out what this or that poet actually meant. Still, perhaps I reached a high level of obscurity in my life’s second ever cinquain and I’m proud to have achieved so much with so little effort.

Crane Festival-like

Though Monte Vista will not have a real, live Crane Festival this year, and has gone “virtual” for the event, the crane themselves are nonplussed. They are here in large numbers now, dancing and purring and calling out and just generally craning as only they can. Lots of crane tourists. I met my first nasty entitled white blond lady (grrrr) and she got under my skin for a moment. She waved her skinny, tanned, gold-braceleted hand out the window of her Lexus SUV and said, “Dogs are not allowed back here.” In fact, they are, leashed, as a big sign at the entry informs everyone (who reads signs). I was all, “grrrr, grrr, grrr,” until the cranes reminded me you don’t hang around for millions of years getting upset with know-it-all, ignorant women who tell you, incorrectly, that “dogs are not allowed here.” At least I had the sense not to respond. And when she passed us again, going the wrong way on that one way road (it’s a oneway loop) I just kept my peace, hoping she didn’t find out the hard way.

The rest of the crane tourists were normal. There were a couple groups of dog owners who gave me the chance to give Bear a learning moment. The people were all very friendly and excited to see the cranes.

One group was really nice people from Pagosa Springs who’d brought champagne for the occasion and were nuts about Bear.

I love crane stories. One of the women told me of an experience she’d had a few years ago, saying, ”And then they ALL flew up at once, and flew over me! When does that happen?”

“Sunset or sunrise, or when a predator is over head, an eagle or something.”


“Yeah, eagles prey on cranes.”

What a lovely afternoon.

Aldo Leopold wrote in his exquisite A Sand County Almanac: “Our appreciation for the crane grows with the slow unraveling of earthly history. His tribe, we now know, stems out of the remote Eocene. The other members of the fauna in which he originated are long since entombed within the hills. When we hear his call, we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.”

Here’s a phone picture of what I saw today. The crane tourists were VERY lucky to have the birds so close to the road. I’m taking my camera next time.

Hundreds of Sandhill cranes doing what cranes do.

A couple of links:

This one will take you to the Virtual Monte Vista Crane Festival and tell you how to sign up.

This one will take you to a very interesting article about cranes AND blue herons.


Communication is challenging, and yesterday I had some experiences that reminded me how difficult it is, maybe especially in writing, but I’m not sure about that. I think voice and 3D are fraught with dangers, too. I have a friend with an old Golden retriever. The dog is having trouble going up and down the small flights of stairs in my friend’s house. The friend is anxious that he’s going to have to put the dog to sleep soon.

I said, “I was thinking that B doesn’t get a lot of exercise. Maybe if you just started taking him on short walks he’d regain some muscle. It would help with his arthritis, too.” (I know this because I have arthritis.) My goal — to give my friend something positive to do with his dog that might help (and his dog might like). I got?

“Why are you always telling me what to do? I don’t want to argue.” I wasn’t telling him what to do, and I wasn’t arguing. BUT to assert that would lead to an argument AND whether or not he walked his dog wasn’t my business. I remembered again that, in one way or another, we’re all fucked up.

A couple more experiences like that via my blog yesterday, and, this morning I realized (again), “It’s very very difficult to make sense to other people. Everyone (me too) is in their own head, and we don’t always (ever?) understand what another person says.” That’s why we often think, “I wish I’d said this instead of that.” It’s possibly exacerbated because in the last year we’ve all lived a lot more in our own little worlds added to the increasingly polemical and aggressive social and political culture everywhere. So much of my social life has been here on this blog.

This morning the band-aid fell off the site of the vaccine, and I was happy to see it is a yellow band-aid with Daffy Duck on it. The side effects are a sore arm and a little tiredness. The backbone seems fine.