Books Archives

In which parents ask the wrong question

Embarrassing parents - swan duckling

Embarrassing parents – swan duckling

There is no such thing as a dumb question, but there is such a thing as a wrong question. One of the most common wrong questions parents ask is “Do our kids understand how much we do and sacrifice for them?” I thought of then when I heard these words while listening to my favorite poet David Whyte’s audiobook, Midlife and the Great Unknown: Finding Courage and Clarity Through Poetry. Children understand all too well, in a way that is uncomfortable to contemplate:

One of the tragedies of a child’s life quite often is when they realize that their parents are completely and utterly burdened by their responsibilities and they have no sense of timeless entrance into their own tiny world. And there is a sense of existential disappointment that children feel when they find that their parents are, unbeknownst to them, welcoming them into a world that lacks imagination.

[…]Quite often we carry weights which should be not weight at all, and children are carried as a burden when in fact when they want some other frontier between you and them. There is nothing more tragic than the child suddenly realizing that even though the parent is spending time with them, they are just another thing the parent has to do before they move on to the next thing that they do.

Wednesday noon “glimmer of light” break


“Noon is always a little difficult: We suddenly feel a gnawing in the stomach, a slight irritability if the gnawing is not addressed. We look to the door or the view outside the window, ready to move away from the small view of our desk. At noon the light flattens, giving little shadow. In hot climates, the birds go silent and everything looks for shelter; but even in the busy northern latitudes, bereft of the siesta, we can feel a form of ennui at the center of the day, assessing already if anything really new has come from our morning. We need that glimmer of light to help us through the afternoon. Noon is the test of our fortitude and our dedication to the overall path we have made for ourselves. When we stop doing at lunch, we have to make some sense of all the doing.”

Quote: David Whyte from Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity

Photo: Jonathan Quarre

Monday Morning Inspiration: Don’t follow your passion


“Don’t follow your passion, rather let it follow you in your quest to become ‘so good they can’t ignore you.’


Working right trumps finding the right work – it’s a simple idea, but its also incredibly subversive, as it overturns decades of folk career advice all focused on the mystical value of passion. It wrenches us away from our daydreams of an overnight transformation into instant job bliss and provides instead a more sober way toward fulfillment.”

– Cal Newport, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love

“Blue – Southern France” painting by Painted Works by KB

Saturday morning Sartonic



5:52 a.m.

Saturday morning.

That figures, waking up too early on a Saturday when I could sleep in. Sigh.

My mind races through today’s To Do list.

Pick up daughter from awakeover.
Make sure that daughter packs for strings camp.
Mow the yard.
Write email copy for a client.
Maybe, just maybe, make a small dent in the stack of books, beginning with Primates of Park Avenue


I need to calm down even though I haven’t gotten out of bed.

So I grab a May Sarton journal
,  which usually does the trick (a Sartonic if you will).

A rich life is bought at a high price in energy.


I am far better able to cope at seventy than I was at fifty. I think that is partly because I have learned to glide instead of to force myself at moments of tension.

Nice. Glide. I like that.

Instead, for about fifteen minutes I looked on a magic congregation of birds – red, blue, purple, rosy – topped, of course, by the half-moon crimson in the grosbeak’s white breast. What a stunning bird he is!

I can always count on May for bird descriptions such as these. Her journals are peppered with them.

If you are a writer or an artist, it is work that fulfills and makes you come into wholeness, and that goes on through a lifetime. Whatever the wounds that have to heal, the moment of creation assures that all is well, that one is still in tune with the universe, that the inner chaos can be probed and distilled into order and beauty.

Lovely. And applicable to all types of creative acts.

Perhaps the answer is not detachment as I used to believe but rather to be deeply involved in something, to be attached. I am attached in a thousand ways – and one of them compels me now to leave this airy room up in the house to go down and get ready for my guests.

And I’m off. Gliding. Attached.


–Artwork by Painted Works By KB




Monday Morning Inspiration: have some clouds with your coffee


“Years ago I used to drive a cab for a living. There was a blind woman I used pick up at one of the local universities. She was taciturn, proper, almost British in her sense of propriety and reserve. And though she seldom talked, we gradually became friends. One day I asked her what one thing she would wish to see if, for only one minute, she could have the gift of sight. She smiled and thought a moment. Then, she said, “Clouds.” The answer surprised me. Of all the choices in the wide breadth of the world, she had chosen one that would never have crossed my mind. “Why clouds?” I asked. “Because I can’t imagine them,” she said. “People have tried to explain them to me. They tell me they are like cotton. The tell me they look like fog feels. They spray whipped cream in my hand. They move my fingers over paintings of skies and let me feel the shapes of clouds painted on canvas. But I am still no closer to an understanding. Yes, it would be clouds.” […]

As I drove along I pondered her words. I, who saw clearly, spent each day wishing for some distant object — a place, a person, some prize of life I hoped to win. But one who valued sight the most — one to whom it was denied — knew that the greatest gift her eyesight could bestow was before me, unnoticed and unhallowed, at that very moment.

“Clouds,” I thought. Of course. What else in this great universe so eludes description, so fills the spirit with wonder? What else floats gossamer and ethereal above our lives, never touching down but always present with us, a reminder of the majesty of an unseen God? As a child we are alive to their magic. We lie on our backs on summer hillsides, make up stories, find giants and dragons in their forms. They are God’s sketchbook, the measure of our capacity to dream. But as we grow, they fall victim to numbing familiarity. Their poetry and majesty, though still alive in our hearts, is easily overlooked, easily ignored.

“Now, let me ask you,” she was saying, “What is a cloud like?” I returned from my reverie. The traffic was churning angrily on the rush-hour streets. Far above, the clouds were moving slowly, like horses, like carriages, like elephants holding each other’s tails. “They’re like God’s dreams,” I said. “Thank you,” she responded. She did not speak again. But her still, small smile filled the cab with the eloquence of peace.

-Kent Nerburn, from Small Graces: The Quiet Gifts of Everyday Life:

Thursday Things

2696063138_d1c6725b3e_mBing told me today about the bristlecone pine.
The oldest one is 5000 years old.
More longevity than any other kind of tree.
It brings to mind my one and only line,
From my only stage performance.
Back when I was 8 years old:
“Green for the fragrant tree with hanging brown seed cones
that swirl in the wintry wind
with many whistling tones.”

Trees also received a mention in today’s Harvard Daily Stat:
“Research participants who were awestruck after gazing up at a grove of 200-foot-tall eucalyptus trees showed enhanced helping behavior toward a researcher who “accidentally” dropped a box of pens:
They picked up 10% more of the pens than did participants who had gazed up at a non-awe-inspiring tall building.”
Although I have to say,
If those pens were 60th anniversary Parker Jotters.
Or 1.0 mm tip Jetstream BLX Uniballs.
I’d pick ’em up too.
Tree or no tree.
And would hope I could keep more than 10% for me.

Came across an article that says close friends have 1% genes (specificaly, variants) in common.
This means our BFFs are the equivalent of 4th cousins.
Might this explain uncanny similarities?
“Friends shared enough genes to allow researchers to develop a “friendship score,”
which predicted who would be friends with the same level of confidence
as genetic tests for predicting obesity or schizophrenia. ”

The Greek church tells us today to just say no to yoga.
It’s “incompatible with Orthodox Christianity.”
Today’s Herald-Independent reminded me of the free
“Yoga Class on the Grass” at the Monona Farmer’s market.
Gotta go to at least one of those this summer.
Yoga is my kind of exercise.
You get a workout by barely having to move.

After reading the paper a flyer from Edgerton Performing Arts Center
Falls onto the floor.
There’s an arts center there? Who knew.
Youngest daughter spots the blurb about
Fireworks Ensemble.
The concert is January 30, 2016.
Can we go?
There is a cellist and flutist in the group.
So of course we will go!

Finished the novel Our Souls at Night
It’s by Kent Haruf, who, poignantly, finished writing it
Shortly before he died of lung cancer.
Two septuagenarians – a widow and widower – come together
To simply lie down together companionably at night.
Conversation and sleep.
A beautiful platonic friendship.
“After dark one night they walked over to the grade school playground and Louis pushed Addie on the big chain swing and she rode up and back in the cool fresh night air of late summer with the hem of her skirt fluttering over her knees. Afterward they went back to bed in her upstairs front room and lay beside each other
naked in the summer air coming in from the open windows.”

In closing, some words from our President today:
“At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact
that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.”


Photo credit: Mike Spinak

Monday Morning Inspiration: alcohol and secret constellations to get us through the week

521027252_cffd1603f7_mEveryone has his alcohol.
To exist is alcohol enough for me.
Drunk from feeling,
I wander as I walk straight ahead.
When it’s time,
I show up at the office like everyone else.
When it’s not time,
I go to the river
to gaze at the river,
like everyone else.
I’m no different.
And behind all this,
O sky my sky,
I secretly constellate and have my infinity.

— Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

I love that last line: “I secretly constellate and have my infinity.”

And this:

Don’t talk to me about the stars, about how cold and indifferent they are, about the unimaginable distances. There are millions of stars within us that are just as far, and people like me sometimes burn up a whole life trying to reach them.

— Ted Kooser, The Wheeling Year: A Poet’s Field Book

Rainy Day Reading

BookLover3Today’s rainy weather gave me an excuse to finish the Wisconsin author Nicolas Butler’s Beneath the Bonfire: Stories, a collection of 10 short stories.

From The Chainsaw Soiree story:

Then we drove off, away from the church and the site of all those chainsaw parties, and many years later I would learn that the volunteer fire department had burnt it down to the blackened earth. I had run into one of the volunteer firemen at a wedding, and he described the church in detail to me, saying, ‘After we lit the fire, it went up quickly, and then you wouldn’t believe it, from underneath the place hundreds of snakes came out and half the department ran off. I never seen anything like it.’

‘They used to have parties at that church,’ I said, ‘chainsaw parties. That’s how I met my wife.’

I also read some of The Wheeling Year: A Poet’s Field Book, by Ted Kooser:

As, in the dented spaceship of my seventies (shaking a little and leaking water), I travel the endless reaches of my ignorance, all of the books I haven’t read, and never will, come rolling at me out of the dark like a hail of asteroids. And now and then an entire library, with a glowing trail of checkout slips, just misses hitting me by inches.

I also enjoyed reading the New Yorker article Can Reading Make You Happier? and discovering that there is such a thing as a bibliotherapist. Maybe this is what I will be when I grow up:

We feel that though more books are being published than ever before, people are in fact selecting from a smaller and smaller pool. Look at the reading lists of most book clubs, and you’ll see all the same books, the ones that have been shouted about in the press. If you actually calculate how many books you read in a year—and how many that means you’re likely to read before you die—you’ll start to realize that you need to be highly selective in order to make the most of your reading time.” And the best way to do that? See a bibliotherapist, as soon as you can, and take them up on their invitation, to borrow some lines from Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus”: “Come, and take choice of all my library/And so beguile thy sorrow…”

And, yes, reading does make you happier (not that I needed convincing):

Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers. “Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines,” the author Jeanette Winterson has written. “What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.”

The tree’s way of being

treeEight or so years ago my late father planted this redbud tree in our front yard.

The tree went on to house several American Robin nests over the years, provided shelter to the birds that visited the feeders, and gave me shade as I sat under the tree and read or worked on the laptop. A pet parakeet, gerbil, and hamster are buried beneath it. It was a faithful tree friend.

Unfortunately the last couple of springs took a toll on the tree. Early warm weather followed by a cold spell resulted in fewer blossoms and leaves. This spring the tree had no buds at all. It died the same spring my dad died.

“I would like to believe when I die that I have given myself away like a tree that sows seeds every spring and never counts the loss, because it is not loss, it is adding to future life. It is the tree’s way of being. Strongly rooted, perhaps, but spilling out its treasure on the wind.”

-May Sarton, Recovering: A Journal


Saturday afternoon at the library: the May 30 haul

One of the biggest perks of living in Monona the past 16 years has been Saturday afternoon visits to the library. Such visits always lift the spirits, especially when there is a book (or three) on hold waiting for me.

Today’s haul:



An author in a recent New York Times Open Book column said this was the funniest book that he has read recently, so I figured I’d give it a try and end the spring on a light-hearted note.

And this:

I normally don’t read popular novels like these, but I want to try the book club at work and this is the one they are discussing next. I was going to take a pass on it, but then I noticed the author is a professor at UW-Whitewater and the book is set in southern in Wisconsin, so why not.



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