“I think, the Pastoral…”

I recently watched the PBS Great Performances program, “Beethoven in Beijing.” I love seeing film from the early days of the US/China rapprochement, but this turned out to be something very special and, for me, very moving.

I was a Foreign Expert in English at South China Teachers University in Guangzhou from 1982-83. I would have stayed longer but I mistakenly thought my marriage was a higher priority and my then husband was very miserable, then sick, in China so when my contract expired we came back to the States. I remained homesick for China for many years afterwards.

My students had grown up in — and the older ones had likely participated in — the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution which was an enormous and deadly debacle. During this time schools were closed; education was drastically devalued and any western thing was considered evil. Many scholars, writers and artists “got the suicide” (the words of a friend in China). In 1972 when Nixon went to China to meet with Mao, the door opened a crack and then, slowly, more and more. Early in the opening,1973, the Philadephia Orchestra went to China.

I didn’t know about that. Why would I? I was 21 and dealing with university and various other things. That I would EVER go to China was beyond even my wildest imagination. I didn’t — at that time — know where I was going, but as far as I could see I had to graduate from university first.

In 1982, I was among the earliest group of American teachers in Guangzhou. When I was there, the city housed about 100 foreigners including diplomats. I was an attraction.

In this program there are several of the members of the Philadelphia Philharmonic who had gone to China in 1973. That was wonderful to see, but what touched me most deeply was my realization that…

My students had no chance to fulfill their dreams. Not for the most part, anyway. When the Gang of Four fell and things began to “normalize” they were still in school and woefully behind in everything. Teachers were hard to find. Many didn’t trust Deng Xiao Ping to actually DO what he was doing. They’d been lied to before and drastically, tragically.

The government at that time had a plan for what it needed to do to modernize China and it controlled much of the peoples’ lives. My students were told by the government where they would go to school and what they would study. They would be English teachers. Middle school English teachers. A few would teach high school. A very very very few who showed unusual promise would teach college. It didn’t matter where their gifts or interests lay. Most were accepting and resigned. Some were elated even to have the chance to attend university (that year my school was upgraded from a teachers college to a university). Some were frustrated and angry. A very few came to America.

Their lives were full of traps, though, because of what they’d been told to study. Still worried about Western influence on the minds of the young, the government did what it could to make sure these students never had a high opinion of themselves. Individualism was synonymous with selfishness anyway. The example of this that struck me as I watched this beautiful program was when my students put together a show for a music competition. They had to perform music in English and because they had two, new, American teachers they were told to perform American music. I wasn’t invited to the show, so I don’t know what they did, I only know that they lost the competition (of course) and one of my students tried killing herself by jumping out of a ground floor window which wasn’t (thank goodness) much of an attempt. She ended up with a sprained ankle.

Watching this program, which is filled with western music, I thought of my students who would now be, at the very least, in their late fifties. They would have taught English to thousands of Chinese children, some of whom would now be in their fifties and forties. Some of them might still be teaching. Some of my students would be grand-parents now. My students children and grandchildren would be the young people in this film. I even thought, briefly, “I helped,” and felt very good inside.

The film touches on some important points — important to me, anyway — specifically the deterioration of our educational system due in part to most school districts jettisoning art education because (in their tiny minds) it doesn’t lead to high test scores. One American elementary school in this film had applied for the Lang Lang grant. What is that? A grant from the Lang Lang Foundation begun by and named for the Chinese pianist who plays for the Philadelphia Philharmonic. Watching Lang Lang play in this program? Amazing. He LOVES it. He clearly loves the piano, loves performing, loves the music. Individuality sizzles from him, a character my students could barely even have dared to reveal to the world. His philosophy of music, its why and who, is beautiful, too. Lang Lang was born in 1982. My best friends in China’s son was born in early 1983.

One of the artists in this program makes the point. “Our parents grew up in the Cultural Revolution. They didn’t have a chance. They poured all their lost dreams into us.”

1982 with two of my students.

There’s a lot going on this program; at times, I thought, a little too much. It could have been twice as long and gone a little slower with more music. There are a LOT of stories in it that barely get the chance to breathe. My favorite is that of Tan Dun who won the Acadsemy Award for best motion picture score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His story is wonderful.

I like Chinese music and the places in this film where the two come together are beautiful.

My Lie Detector

I guess everybody lies. I’ve even lied to children, “We’ll go for a walk this weekend,” knowing perfectly that isn’t true. As an adult I understood my parents saying, “Later” was a way to prevaricate. I even remember one of the family ethics debates about little white lies vs. full out lying. They couldn’t answer my question about the color of really big lies.

As a naturally gullible person, I usually believe people. Now I have kind of a scheme for separating lies from truth. Every prediction about the future is a lie of sorts, and the vaguer the promise the more likely it is never to happen. Some promises are wishful thinking on the part or the promiser; some are a little more tangible, a simple “if” or “when” statement isn’t completed, for example, “When pigs have wings, I’ll ____________.” Those a person has to evaluate based on the likelihood of the conditions being fulfilled.

Really vague promises like, “I will make America great again,” or “Hope” are meaningless but very attractive. I shook my head whenever Obama’s poster, “Hope,” appeared and people cheered. I couldn’t help imagine (and create a cartoon in my mind) for the opposition, “Despair!” It was a lyttle cynical [ha ha] I thought, campaigning on “Hope.” We can’t live without hope, but what does it MEAN? And “Make America great”? You mean it’s NOT? And HOW? WTF?

Other kinds of lies are more complicated. The lie I hate most (and I have friends who do it) is the “not saying,” or “holding one’s peace,” lie when what’s going on is a cooperative activity. What can happen in this situation is one partner is silent while the other is active, then when things don’t go the way the silent person wants them to, they take control. They might have had a better idea in the first place, but for fear of something (I don’t know what; this is not my modus operandi) they don’t open their mouths and say, “Why don’t we do X instead? What do you think?” These people are probably good card players, poker faces, cards to their chest.

I’m not that person. If I absolutely MUST do something a certain way, I do it alone, but this is a kind of lie meant to save peoples’ feelings. I think we all tell lies to save peoples’ feelings. I did that recently. It’s a reality that we’re not always in the same place at the same time psychically as our friends are, but saying, “I don’t want to,” can be hurtful. Why hurt someone if you don’t have to?

My mom was a fanatic about lying but a liar herself. Her entire life was a lie, as I learned right before she died. But as a mom she seemed to hate lying. She was convinced I was a deceitful little bitch and would drag me out of bed at 2 am and point a light at me saying, “You can’t go back to bed until you tell me the truth.” Since I was by-and-large a truthful kid (yes, I’d lie about stealing chocolate chips out of the cupboard) I never knew what she was going on about. My brother, on the other hand, who grew up to be a hardcore alcoholic, started the lying and conning game at a young age. My mom adored my brother and never wanted to believe what she knew to be true. So I became a scapegoat for stealing silver dollars from my dad’s nightstand and various other “crimes” my brother committed. Yeah, that was sadistic, but turns out my mom was also an addict and a liar so…

Sadly, I’ve had romantic interests who were 100% pure liars (because I’m gullible). So, here’s Henry Rollins to explain liars. It’s exactly right. It’s how gullible people like me are conned by hope.

An Alphabet of Place

Our book is finally finished and published and for sale!! Lots of people decry social media, but without it Sharon (https://ladderranch.blog) and I wouldn’t have known about each other, and this project wouldn’t have happened. For me it was a chance to do something that was a little artistically risky and to learn something new about myself and abilities. I enjoyed it so much, and it was a wonderful thing to work on over the past few months.

The book is a collection of brief essays and anecdotes about life and history in this little-known part of Wyoming/Colorado. The stories are funny, beautiful and heartfelt.

A couple years ago my editor suggested I go into business as a book designer. I said, “Huh?”

She said, “Yeah. You’re good at it.”

“I am?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. I wasn’t so sure. When I began judging for the contest I saw some books that had been enormously expensive productions, including their designs. Some indie authors spend more money than (IMO) they are likely to earn on designing their book. I’ve read/evaluated some gorgeous productions that are, in and of themselves, unreadable. Some of the best books (content) are the simplest productions. The truism is actually true: you can’t judge a book by its cover but, at the same time, the winners are almost always well designed AND worth reading.

Once in a while a book is blindingly beautiful. There was more than one this go-around.

My editor — Beth Bruno — is an amazing woman. I don’t know how she manages to get along with all the authors who go to her with their work and then don’t want to hear what she had to say or who question every correction/suggestion she makes. She told me it’s common that she’ll (and she’s tactful and gentle) suggest an edit or correction and be challenged by the author. Authors can be defensive and when it comes to grammar? It’s amazing how territorial writers can be. I said to her, “Well, you make suggestions and corrections all the time. I figure I can take them or leave them. It’s not like you’re my boss.”

“Exactly,” she said.

“It’s not like you’re grading my work or something.”

I privately thought, “English teachers do a lot of damage,” but having BEEN one I thought I should keep that to myself. Grammar and punctuation are NOT writing.

So, part way into the illustration part of the job I had the realization (duh) that my work was going into a book and suddenly I wanted to be part of how the book came out. I didn’t know how much experience the writer had with book design and it turned out not much and godnose my price was right, so I undertook the task of designing the book. It was at least as much fun as doing the illustrations. I’d definitely take on a project like this again if the person I was working with were as awesome a partner as Sharon and their project something I believed in as much as I believed in this one.

The Revolution Chess Game

Yesterday I watched a composite video with analysis of the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan 6. It was disturbing, to say the least.

I’ve been trying to figure out my feelings of disaffection, looking for the source, and as I watched it (link below) I realized that they began when Trump won the election and reached full fruition on January 6. That day I expected drama in DC because it was the day the votes of the Electoral College would be accepted. Watching that on my phone as I did yard work, I was stunned when suddenly it turned from the obnoxious verbal posturing I expected to something very different.

I have a mind, personality, that automatically tries to see things from the other guys’ perspective. That “Walk a mile in his moccasins” thing hung in our kitchen and the Bible verse about not judging the mote when one has a beam was hammered into me. I’m grateful for that, but I’ve also learned that isn’t necessarily how the rest of the world operates. The reality is that we must live with people we don’t see eye-to-eye with. It’s just how it is and the mote, moccasin and beam has made that pretty easy for me over the course of my life. But now I realize that day, those events, pushed me over the edge.

I can’t do that any more. I live in a broken country.

I’ve been watching the Hemingway documentary on PBS. I hesitated because I like Hemingway and during the 80s — 00s he was pretty much discarded as a good writer because of his (alleged) misogyny and racism. Since I spent my career in academia, I knew about this and stopped standing up for the guy. I figured his work spoke for him and he didn’t need me. We are all people of our era, inescapably so. Since it was Hemingway’s “job” to sell books (and himself) he wasn’t going to be anything BUT a man of his moment even as he redefined fiction writing for the whole world. I believe that it’s the work of an artist that matters. Whatever life we have, we have. The moccasin thing applies to dead people as well as living, IMO. So, when the documentary came out, I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch it. I have been surprised in a good way.

In the second episode, the documentary takes Hemingway to Spain where he covered the civil war. The photos are harrowing and his words even more. As I watched and listened, I thought about my country. Those fucks who stormed the capitol were hoping to start a civil war. They believed they were the vanguard of a revolution. They were ready, willing and able to kill their fellow countrymen to keep Trump in office. They believed they were upholding the Constitution by violently violating it.

I don’t know much about the Spanish Civil War, but I know a little now than I did. One of the “players” in that nightmare was Joseph Stalin who sent operatives to Spain to “support” the resistance. The bad guy was Franco (I knew that) and the “philosophy” Franco represented was fascism. He was supported by Mussolini. So like a sinister chess game, these two bullies maneuvered the people of Spain into killing each other. It went very very far, so far that Stalin (who LOVED killing people) tortured and killed many of the Spanish resistance that he purported to support because their Communism wasn’t “pure” enough.

So yesterday Biden sanctioned Russia for cyber interference in our election.

I don’t have an answer to anything. But watching the video yesterday which was a composite of footage from the actual riots, recordings of law enforcement and forensic analysis of the events, I realized that the source of my disaffection isn’t Covid. Finally it registered. My heart is broken and I don’t want to live in the Untied States of America.

17 requests for backup in 78 minutes

From the Back of the Beyond

As anyone who reads my blog knows, “country comfort” is a major part of my life and survival stragedy especially during the pandemic. It’s comforting knowing there are not that many people around to start with, and it’s not that difficult to get out by one’s self. I haven’t found any downsides to this life. It’s just right as far as I’m concerned.

So what IS country comfort according to a woman living in this remote valley? I have it; not everyone who lives here does. In my case, it’s the result of a giant blast of good luck in the year 2000 when I got hired at San Diego State University. That led to my being given (a couple years later) a ration of benefits that I had, until then, only dreamed of — health, dental and vision insurance (which I paid for every month but am reaping the rewards now) and retirement (same story). Because of THAT which happened on the heels of what felt like bad luck (not getting a class at a local community college) I’m here in Heaven in a comfortable small house with my dogs and sunlight and I get to do whatever I want. I can’t imagine anything more comforting than that.

Truth be told, life out here isn’t for everyone. It’s harsh. It can be desperately windy and desperately cold. The growing season is short. Lots of people who move here stay only a year and then get out, but for me?

Featured photo: a traffic jam a few years back.

Not Especially Bugged

Among my spring flowers are dandelions. I don’t dig them out and haven’t for a long time, so they’re pretty entrenched. I discovered a bumble bee hive/nest just inside the door to my crawlspace. The dandelions bloom right outside their door along with the spring flowers, crocus, daffodil, grape hyacinth. The only place I dig out dandelions is in my actual flower and vegetable beds. Otherwise, they are free to flourish. Honey bees are attracted to them, too, so at the moment, my front yard is an early bee paradise. My town doesn’t eliminate dandelions, either. Everything that grows (and this is an agricultural valley) needs pollinators. We are all, “Bring them on!”

The bees also love the Scarlet Emperor Beans and I grow them with sunflowers so it’s pretty fun standing among plants that are taller than I am watching bees at my eye level.

I like all the insects but aphids and their smelly farmers, ants, black-widows and cockroaches. I see no redeeming value in any of those other than they providing interesting sociological experiments for kids in school. The thing about insects is it’s really all time and place. I can enjoy the frolicking of two white butterflies in love, but I don’t wan their babies on my geraniums.

The poster above was done by Amber Share. She is publishing a book with all her paintings of “subpar parks.” She took the captions from reviews of national parks done on Yelp. They are hilarious and I will be buying the book when it comes out in July. You can see more here.

Don’t Try This at Home

Art is mysterious to artists as well as those who appreciate it. Stone Age cave paintings are among the most amazing human artistic achievements. On the rough walls of a cave, those artists could portray the rushing movement of a whole herd of stampeding bison. The techniques and materials are as old as time and still used. Most of the paintings are done in charcoal and ochre; ochre is clay. Many of the cave paintings are on limestone which makes the cave paintings very ancient frescoes. I LOVE the idea that fresco painting is THAT old, that it’s just come down and down and down and down through humanity’s almost countless generations.

We have these paintings but we don’t know the people. Archeology loves that mystery, I think, and I enjoy reading their discoveries and conjectures. The newest is that these Stone Age artists did their artwork — which is often in the deepest darkest parts of these caves — while they (the artists) were high on oxygen deprivation. Not just that they were high, but that they painted in those dark inaccessible places on purpose.

I don’t know much about the minds of Stone Age people (who does?) but maybe the archeologists were right. I’ve had a little challenge sussing out the cause and effect from what I’ve read , but the gist is that the artists painted in the convoluted depths of the caves BECAUSE to paint there they had to take flaming torches which would deplete the air of oxygen, inducing visions and confusion in the brains of the artists. It seems to me that the paintings could have been (some archeologists have posited this) a kind of prayer. Maybe the archeologists are right, too, that the artists sought an “altered state” to bring them closer to whatever mystical power (muse) inspired the paintings. If the Stone Age artists didn’t know WHY they ended up in an altered mental state when they were back there, they could easily have believed that those spots in the cave had mystical powers of inspiration and clarity; showed them the future, allowed them to commune with the beasts they needed to eat and those who sought to eat them, the old kill-or-be-killed thing.

Art and mysticism have always been very close together. Both the Illiad and the Odyssey begin with an invocation to the Muses to be with the poet and inspire their words and their performance, all convey the message that poetry is not in the day-to-day realm of human endeavor. Though there is no Muse specific to painting, I know that in the times in my life when I’ve been truly inspired, I haven’t felt “normal.” Those have been really glorious moments and working in that state of mind (heart?) is very different from the normal day-to-day. I don’t use — and haven’t ever used — anything external to get into those states; they happen spontaneously, often the result of seeing something striking, like a single crane walking among the winter willow saplings. It doesn’t happen immediately. Inspiration seems to need some time to mature, to make the journey from my eyes to my mind and heart and eventually to my hands. Sometimes it is the result of the work itself, seeing through the process of writing or painting what something wants to be. I think others can see the difference between work done in inspiration and those done from other motivations, like the simple pleasure of painting. Anyway, I can say in total confidence that I’m not likely to try this carbon monoxide trick any time soon.

l You can learn more about this archeological theory here.


Last night I read a CNN article written by a therapist — John Duffy — that described people who weren’t all that anxious to return to “normal” life after the pandemic was over. “These people thrived in pandemic isolation — and aren’t ready to return to ‘normal’ socializing.”

The writer essentially labeled such people as “socially anxious” and described it as a kind of pathology. Personally, I don’t think being reluctant to wander around in a world in which a deadly pandemic is flying around is pathological but definitively sane. I know that social avoidance CAN be a problem for people, but not all people who are not super eager to return to “normal” life are struggling with a mental health issue. One thing the article never mentioned was people like me who do things — enjoy things — that you just don’t do with a bunch of friends or out in the world.

I remember very well the night I typed the last word on the finished rough draft of my first novel, Martin of Gfenn. I had little time to work on it — an hour or so in the evening which made the finished (ha ha) draft very repetitive because I had to catch up where I’d left off. Anyhoo I shut down my computer (an old Apple) stood up and wondered where everybody was. I’d spent so much time with all these interesting people, the characters in my book, and now my house was completely empty. It was one of those moment in life when you think there should be champagne and a big celebration but my house was empty (except for six dogs). That’s when I realized that to write I’d have to accept a kind of solitude most people might never even know.

At the same time, I’d had this incredible experience that was impossible to share with anyone. I’d written a novel. I’d brought my story, my vision, for Martin (the character) into real life. I’d done the work, the immense research, all of it, the library time (back then). Because of my book, I KNEW people who’d lived in the 13th century. The experience catapulted me into a different Martha, but I couldn’t share that, either. I remember sitting in my living room thinking, “If you’re going to do that, you’re going to have to accept solitude.”

My mom had social anxiety and she was always afraid her kids would, too. It was one of the reasons she didn’t want her two artistic kids to be artists. “You’ll always be alone.” But she didn’t know. Maybe the great designer puts each of us together exactly right for who we are.

I don’t dispute that there are people with social anxiety and that maybe it’s a problem for them (it was for my mom because she wasn’t happy). But not all people who are less than eager for a return to “normal” life fit into that slot. I came to understand this when I was teaching. There were meetings in which NOTHING happened. Problems weren’t solved. Some people talked and some people didn’t. I seldom did. Then someone would end the meeting and invariably say, “This was a good meeting. Thank you so much for sharing your concerns.” They would point to a list they’d written while the talkers were talking.

Two things went through my mind. First, only the concerns of the people who’d spoken up were on that list. Second, the REAL reason for the meeting had nothing to do with solving problems. These people just needed to get in a room together and yammer at each other. The act itself was meaningful to them. For me it was a complete waste of time. When I felt something needed to be changed I’d go find the person who could change it and talk to them or write them so they could share my thoughts clearly and compellingly laid out rather than in an emotion-laden rambling rant.

Social anxiety or not, we’re stuck in the world with each other and extroversion is “normal.” Many an introvert (like me) has no particular social anxiety, it’s just that “out there” is tiring and requires effort that being alone probably requires for the extroverted. I have friends who’ve had significant stress during the past year because they have been precluded from doing the things that they love to do. They’ve engaged socially much more than I would (or did). For them the risk of NOT engaging was worse than the risk of getting ill.

“A year ago, most of us could not imagine a world in which we not only didn’t have to go to work, school, restaurants, concerts and churches, much less that any such activity would be forbidden. And my socially anxious clients have now been basking in a wholly false sense of security for the better part of a year.”


In other words, the world in which the socially anxious are comfortable can’t last. They don’t own the world.

And then…in reality when I was 12, and had to give a prayer at church, in front of the congregation, I passed out, fell on the floor, humiliated myself and my mom. I was THAT afraid of public speaking. I knew even then that I could not live the life I wanted if I was that afraid to stand and say my say. I worked hard to overcome that. The moment I knew I HAD overcome that happened almost 40 years later, when, at the invitation of one of my students, I gave a lecture (one I’d given to this student’s class) on overcoming the fear of public speaking. There were 300 students in that room waiting to hear me. Some were there because it was required or extra credit for their communication class; some were there because they wanted some hope. They, too, knew they couldn’t go forward in their lives without overcoming that. I had a good slide show and a good speech. I also wore clothes in which my armpit sweat wouldn’t show because yes. I was terrified. But what’s the point of terror like that? There is none. It was a bit of an operation to set up and prepare, but…

I gave my speech. It was well accepted, applauded. Then, afterward, when nearly everyone had left and I was packing up my stuff, a young woman came to talk to me. She was so nervous her face was shaking, her hands were damp and shaky, too.

“Can I ask you something?” she ventured.


“Did you REALLY get over being afraid?”

“No.” I slipped off my jacket. My pit stains went to my waist.

“How do you do it? I never imagined you were nervous.”

“I had something important to say,” I told her. “More important than how I felt when I started to speak. That’s my secret. I think of what I have to say and who needs to hear it. And, I prepare. And I know that whatever happens, it’s not going to kill me.”

She wrote all this down, no longer shaking. Then, “Thank you, thank you so much. I think you helped me.”

ONE person in that room NEEDED that message. Was her personality a pathology? No.

But after that…I gave several papers at conferences and all the normal things that were part of my life and job, but I was (with the exception of my book reading in 2019) never nervous again. Social anxiety — which I believe everyone has — is not “abnormal.” It’s human.

More Ink Drawings!

Finishing the drawings for An Alphabet of Place: The Little Snake River Valley by my blogging pal, Sharon O’Toole of Ladder Ranch, I felt a little bereft. I’d done some ink drawings before I began Sharon’s project, but never 30+ of them over a concentrated period of time. They were — once I got over my initial nervousness — meditative, challenging and fun. In the back of my mind something else was percolating. When I got an email from Louise, who runs the Rio Grande County Museum, I knew what it was.

A similar little book about Rio Grande County Colorado — my county! No one knows more about it than Louise Colville, and she and I seem to work well together. I suggested it to her and sent her a PDF of Sharon’s book. She loved it. Yesterday I drove to Del Norte to collect my riches (I sold a sign and two packs of note cards) and we chatted about it for a while. It’s a go. She’s going to present the idea to the museum board on Tuesday so I’ve had to ask Li Bai and Tu Fu to share some space on my drawing table. They’re very cooperative beans and said it was fine as long as I kept taking them outside to catch the sun every morning. They also promised to be clean and keep their dirt in the pot.

The board meeting is this coming Tuesday and my job is to come up with a few drawings for which Louise will write the text. Hopefully, we’ll get a grant and some money.

It’s cool to have shouldered another drawing project. A writer inspired Sharon, who in turn inspired me and now Louise. It’s weird. I used to be a famous writer, but now I don’t want the job. Thinking about that, I remembered being in Chicago so long ago when there was an irrational marriage proposal on the table. I was walking through the garden of my erstwhile boyfriend’s parents with his dad, Frank. The relationship with his son was over and his dad knew it, the boyfriend knew it, I knew it but I was stuck there for another 30 some hours. Back at home, in Denver, I had been painting and drawing and pondering the possibility of showing my work. I talked about this with Frank. He said, “I thought you were a writer. Now you’re an artist? What’s the deal there? Why not a writer?”

I told him that visual art was more rewarding. I could SEE it and its effects even as I worked, and it didn’t take so much effort for others to see it. At the time I was writing what I thought was a novel (it was a journal) and sometimes poetry. But then, as now, I don’t think there’s any valid law that says a person can be and do only ONE thing.

Anyway, it’s nice to have more drawings to do. I think my biggest discovery during this pandemic is how much I love making art, just for itself. However, I must now carry Li Bai, Tu Fu, Li Ho, Bai Juyi and Szu-ma Chien out to the garden of the Thousand Aspiring Iris.

Featured photo: Adobe Potato Barn, first “letter” in the little book

Maturity vs. Poetry

Having opened Goethe again after 20 years and discovering a new and better reader (me) I decided to take a look at Walt Whitman, another poet who, at a different point in my life, had a big effect on me. I don’t have a collection of his poetry any more so I had to “google. The two poems I had in mind came from a section of Leaves of Grass that Whitman titled “Calamus.”

Back in the day, I never asked “what is calamus?” I don’t know why. I guess at that point (late 20s) I was more enchanted than curious. But after reading the two poems I loved most back in the day, I was curious, because the poems no longer have any resonance for me.

Pretty interesting plant with medicinal properties and oblique Bible references, especially in the Song of Solomon.

Whitman’s poems are not very subtle and as I read them over a couple of times I wondered what that young woman thought she saw in them. I remembered one particular moment involving a champagne laden oral reading in my kitchen the night Reagan was inaugurated. No, we weren’t celebrating that; there was a party at my house of people who’d worked to elect an independent candidate, John Anderson, and they were all in the living room watching Bedtime for Bonzo. My friends and I were in the kitchen being deep and complicated.

Now I wonder why I made my friends listen to this, but I did.

I’m not the one to criticize Whitman (but you are doing just that, Martha!) but the two poems that enchanted me so much? One is obviously about male homosexual yearning and the other is about vita brevis est; ars longas or however that is correctly spelled and how Whitman’s words (leaves of grass) would live long after he had died.

Interestingly, back in my 20s, I ignored the simple grammar in Whitman’s poem, “Scented Herbage of My Breast,” and decided that “you” referred to art/poetry when it clearly refers to death.

…Give me your tone therefore O death, that I may accord with it,
Give me yourself, for I see that you belong to me now above all,
and are folded inseparably together, you love and death are,
Nor will I allow you to balk me any more with what I was calling life,
For now it is convey’d to me that you are the purports essential,
That you hide in these shifting forms of life, for reasons, and that 
they are mainly for you,
That you beyond them come forth to remain, the real reality,
That behind the mask of materials you patiently wait, no matter 
how long,That you will one day perhaps take control of all,
That you will perhaps dissipate this entire show of appearance,
That may-be you are what it is all for, but it does not last so very 
But you will last very long.

Naturally a lot has happened in my life since my late 20s, among those “events” was a kind of awakening in my early 40s resulting from the question, “What’s real, anyway?” (Don’t ask that!!!) For a while I was content seeing what I wanted to see and then, a titanic turning point, and afterwards I wanted to see what was really there.

And so, Calamus.

Calamus is a plant. The root (rhizome) is used to make medicine.

Despite safety concerns, calamus is used for gastrointestinal (GI) problems including ulcers, inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis), intestinal gas(flatulence), upset stomach and loss of appetite (anorexia). Calamus is also used as a calming medicine (sedative), to induce sweating, and to treat rheumatoid arthritis and stroke.

Some people chew calamus to remove the smell of tobacco, as a stimulant, to increase their sense of well-being, and as a hallucinogen.

Some people apply calamus directly to the skin to treat certain skin diseases.

In foods, calamus is used as a spice.


I have NO idea if Whitman knew about the medicinal uses of this grass, but he certainly knew what it looked like. I had to laugh when I saw the photo.

Whitman left the world some “leaves” I will also always be grateful for and to which I turn in my mind. One of them is:

A Noiseless Patient Spider


A noiseless patient spider, 
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated, 
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding, 
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself, 
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them. 

And you O my soul where you stand, 
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space, 
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them, 
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold, 
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.