Writing in Vermont in April

I spent two weeks in April at the Vermont Studio Center. For any writer or artist looking for a residency, I highly recommend VSC. It’s a paired-down existence — a spare studio (for writers) overlooking the Gihon River, a simple bedroom, a dining hall in the old mill. Perfect for writing. I also enjoyed the communal time — especially with the artists. The combination of talent and energy was impressive. I also appreciated VSC including visiting artists and writers. In the first half of April, the group included poet Laurie Sheck (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1996) and visual artists Sharon Butler and Jorge Macchi.

Northern Vermont in April isn’t the prettiest. The river had just opened up and ran muddy and crowded with ice flows. There were piles of “snirt” (dirty snow) everywhere. The trails were a mix of ice and slush and mud. I don’t think there were any flowers out. The weather included rain and snow and lots of road-salt-swirling wind. But still, it was joy to be there and watch the world take a few tentative steps toward spring while all of the residents headed off to their studios each day.

Below is a photo of the Maverick Studios, where all the writers work…


March Is for... Reading

I try to read steadily all year long. But for some reason, March seems to be the month I double down on books. Perhaps this is a personal kind of March Madness. Among the books I read (or am reading):

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, by David Treuer

There, There, by Tommy Orange

The River Swimmer, by Jim Harrison

Why Read Moby Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassins, by Terrance Hayes

The City and the City, by China Mielville

Antwerp, by Roberto Bolaño

Upstream, by Mary Oliver

I’m not an organized reader. I don’t have a favorite genre. I just like good writing — what I see as good, engaging writing. I read JIm Harrison, for instance, because people have been telling me for years that I should. I saw a copy of The River Swimmer at a favorite used bookstore and decided it’s time to meet Mr. Harrison. The River Swimming is actually a collection of novellas, one of which is “The River Swimming” — a piece of magical realism set in the Chicago area and north. It struck me as a story written by a combination of John Cheever and Cormac McCarthy, a world in which toughness and tenderness entangle. I suspect I’ll be reading more of Harrison in the future. His writing is wonderfully lyrical and the stories just pull you in.

I picked up The City and the City (for the second time) because I had it in my mind that it serves as a great metaphor for our current divided nation: the haves and the have-nots living side by side but experiencing life differently. In Mieville’s world, the two cities are intertwined. It’s illegal to cross from one to the other except through a single port of entry. Of course, in the book, a murder takes place in one city and the body is discovered in the other, which forces a fascinating entanglement of the two cities. In all, it’s a remarkable feat to bring this semi-dystopian world to life — and it does, in a slant way, speak of those who have and have not in our nation, and of the secretive forces of power that are, as always, supremely selfish.

Reading There, There and The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee together has been my most conscious reading decision. Both books were gifts from my thoughtful, culturally attuned wife. But I also heard so many good things about There, There that I would probably have found it on my own. And it did not disappoint. It’s a beautifully crafted novel about Native Americans living in and around Oakland, CA. There’s a feeling of claustrophobia in the story. Though they try, no character can find peace, can escape the effects of generations of repression. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee was the logical follow-up — given that it covers the the experiences of Native Americans from 1890 to the present. Treuer’s book feels like essential reading for all — or at least for anyone who wants a clearer picture of the Native American story in the 20th century. More than anything, Treuer wants us to understand that the story is still unfolding, evolving, continuing. Native Americans have been on this continent for thousands of years. There are here still — finding a way to survive against the onslaught of so much hatred, deceit, bigotry and indifference.

Of course, I picked up Mary Oliver’s Upstream because of her recent death. Oliver, arguably, has had a greater impact on this world than any other contemporary poet. I know there are critics who dismiss her poetry as too obvious or romantic or simply too nature focused. But she has had an impact on me as a writer who would rather take to the woods for inspiration than to the city streets. Mostly, I admire her dedication to her craft and to the life of a poet. In “Power and Time,” she explains her stance. And offers this warning to writers who vacillate:

“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it neither power nor time.”

I was about to write something about the answer to the title, Why Read Moby Dick? But I think it’s better to let people discover that for themselves. Suffice to say that Nathaniel Philbrick is a huge Melville fan, especially of this iconic American novel. I am, too. You can see the seeds and foundations of just about all of contemporary American life in Moby Dick. I enjoyed reading the perspective of an uber-fan.

The only book here I can’t recommend is Antwerp. Roberto Bolaño is an amazing writer. I loved the writing in The Savage Detective, a later novel. But Antwerp is nearly impenetrable as a story. It’s not that it’s not interesting. There are some passages that astound. But this novel novel so stylized that it holds the reader at the greatest possible distance. It’s as if he’s defying us to criticize him for refusing to worry about character and plot. There’s a weird dreamlike quality to it all. A dream that is sad and lonely and fragmented— which I suppose explains why it’s kind of a cult classic.

From Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassins:

My friends were all the wounded people

The black girls who held their hands

Even the white boys who grew into assassins

Education, Schools, and the Future World

I’ve written a number of pieces for the Carney, Sandoe & Associates blog recently. For those who don’t follow the blog, I thought I’d include a few links here:

Pearl Rock Kane and the Future of Education.

This is profile of one of my favorite educators — and collaborators. What an amazing career she had. And her influence on schools will run on forever.

Becoming a Witness

A reflection on the life and work of Elie Wiesel — and the wonderful book by Ariel Burger, Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom.

Keeping the Personal in Personalized Learning

After taking part in an Education Week seminar on the state of personalized learning in American schools, I felt a mix of optimism for the future of schools and deep concern about who is making the decisions about classroom practices. The good news is that schools are trying to make education as personal and relevant as possible — knowing that all learning must have an emotional link. The disturbing news is that for-profit, ed-tech companies are working hard to bend education their way.

This World

This is just a quick note of thanks to writer Scott Russell Sanders — and an encouragement for others to read his work. I’ve been reading Sanders’s essays for years now and deeply admire his insights into all matters related to the environment. In his recent essay for Orion magazine, “At the Gates of Deep Darkness” (Autumn, 2018) , he reminds us again of the dangers we face if we don’t take our collective and personal impact on the environment seriously — meaning right now, today.

I imagine there are many readers who, like Sanders, have had to find a way to turn childhood religious beliefs into something more in line with the realities of life on Earth. I know that my journey mirrors his. The challenge for me has been to find a way to create a new sense of moral connection to all of life independent of any organized religion.

I think Sanders sums up the core of this work beautifully when he writes: “Think of how you love whatever you passionately love: music, flowers, painting, poetry, baseball, language, dance, the first frog calls of spring, the return of sandhill cranes, the sound of rain on a metal roof, the full moon in a clear night sky, the splash of the Milky Way, every atom and whisper of the one with whom you share your bed. That is how we must love the world.”

Coriolanus Is Us (Sort of)

By Michael Brosnan


Not being an expert on Shakespeare, I find myself feeling both free to make casual observations on his plays and yet worried that I might say something that is either stupidly obvious or, worse, wrong.

But I’m going to say it anyway….

I read Coriolanus recently because I heard the play has much to say on the politics of our times. In fact, the play is a reflection on the politics of any era — and carries along with a steady sense of urgency about how we will live collectively. But with Donald J. Trump playing out his own kind of Shakespearian tragedy (minus the literary art), I was hoping to find some Shakespearian insight into what has led the nation and the world into our current troubling drama — the one that seems to promise nothing but some kind of sad, tragic ending for all. Why, given all the possible people with the interest and ability to lead our nation with skill and a moral sense, have we ended up with a self-absorbed, self-proclaimed nationalist who, to make matters obviously worse, is also a world-class liar? What does this say about citizenry and politics and the suddenness of cultural shifts.

It did take long to realize that Coriolanus, the man, and Donald Trump are not cut from the same cloth — or that the tragedy of Coriolanus might also be Trump’s at some point in the near future. For one, Coriolanus is an honorable man with a clear code of conduct. He is remarkably brave in combat and for the most part honest and direct. He is, in this play at least, a fierce warrior dedicated to Rome. His downfall is not just the tragedy of a single man acting overly proud. It’s a tragedy of culture shortcomings. A lot of characters in the play have a hand in rise and fall of Coriolanus.

Coriolanus is warrior, first and foremost. But the patricians of Rome can’t just let him be. They want to honor his success in defending the city — and, while they are at it, perhaps use his fame for their own ends. What’s so interesting about this play is that Coriolanus is not interested in a political position. He knows his strengths and many of his weaknesses. In some ways, he’s a simple man with a strong code but with no sense of how to serve Rome well off the battlefield. His tragedy starts here with resisting the will of the patricians to pronounce him as Martius Caius Coriolanus and have him serve in the senate. If he were clearer minded about it all, he’d simply tell them to buzz off. But Coriolanus likes and trusts the patricians he knows best and can’t resist their persuasive argument that he deserves the title and can serve Roman well because the people will admire him. Coriolanus hates praise, but he gives in the patricians — and thus sets the tragedy in motion.

For their part, the patricians — especially Cominius — are well-polished politicians who always sound good and wise and yet are constantly manipulating those around them for their own protection and gain. The tragedy, then, is based in part in the inability of politicians, then and now, to commit to honesty and to the good of the state. They don’t mind lying (or omitting information) when it serves them. And they love to publicly praise men like Coriolanus because it makes them look good. I’ve known numerous people in my life who fit well in this patrician role — people I’ve known in professional settings who I once thought of as honorable colleagues only to learn later (too late sometimes) that I was being played. I imagine most of us have had such patricians in our lives. Certainly more than a few of our elected politicians fit this bill.

But the tragedy of Coriolanus also lies with the citizens. In the play, they are a bit wimpy and fickle. They are genuinely hungry and have reason to complain about the senate’s seeming lack of concern for their plight. But they are also unwilling to fight for Roman and seem ready to say anything that will make them appear in a better light. So they praise Coriolanus, but are easily convinced later (by the conniving tribunes) to reject him. For his part, Coriolanus can barely disguise his disdain for such fickle citizens. In the context of the play, he’s got a point: they don’t fight along side him. But his views are also hard to stomach. This is a typical human tragedy, the quickness to harshly judge others, without the ability to understand or acknowledge one’s own shortcomings or what such harsh judgment is really all about. Coriolanus engages in the simplistic game of blaming others for their plight in life. He can’t put himself in their shoes.

Every analysis of Coriolanus I’ve read seems to lay a good deal of blame for the tragedy at the feet of Coriolanus’s mother, Volumnia, who certainly plays a pivotal role is shaping Coriolanus’s mindset — not once, but twice in the play. Some say Coriolanus respected and loved her too much. I don’t know about that. We all listen to those we love — sometimes they sway us, sometimes they don’t. In this case, it’s fascinating how Coriolanus’s downfall is linked to his love for his family and for Rome. As he transforms himself into a far better human being in the final act, he also transforms himself into a highly vulnerable person. His enemies are aware of this — especially Aufidius — and are able to use this moment to enact revenge on Coriolanus. He dies after pleading for peace.  

To me, the tragedy is that Coriolanus is promoted to a position that doesn’t suit him. Someone should have warned him. But he has no real friends. The patricians, his mother, the citizens, the tribunes, and his enemies all have their motives in the play. Love and respect and honor go just so far. Politics and finding advantage drive much of the action in the world around Coriolanus. Maybe the tragedy is that he can’t see it clearly. Maybe he is also blinded by his own sense of invincibility.

In her remarkable book on Shakespeare’s plays, Shakespeare After All, Marjorie Garber argues that “…all these tragic figures with their titanic strengths and their titanic weakness — pride, stubbornness, vanity, and ambition on the one side, and on the other side radical insecurity, self-doubt, lack of self-knowledge, a fear of being merely human…,” is what drives the tragedy.

I would agree. Except I also see the way the other characters play a pivotal role in teasing out the worst in our tragic figures. In many ways, the feeling of devastation I feel at the end of many Shakespeare tragedies is for our collective failure to care more deeply for one another. If Coriolanus, the play, does speak to our times, I think it’s less about the shortcomings of one man in the world spotlight and more about the complexities of modern politics and a shared lack of moral force — an insistence on doing right, not for ourselves but for the greater collective good. I know that’s much easier to say than to do.

So maybe the more useful thing to say is that, when I read Shakespeare’s tragedies, I find myself wanting to be a more open, direct, and respectful, compassionate person — and hope the world will respond in kind.

Environmental Education Now

The fall season always seems to be the busiest for me as a writer and editor. I have no complaints. But it does distract me from keeping up with this blog.

For now, I just want to note three education-related pieces I wrote for the Carney, Sandoe & Associates blog:

I’ve been thinking a great deal about quality education in a era in which our schools feel like cultural battlefields.

It seems obvious, for instance, that we need to focus more on the social-emotional health of students, but too many schools remain focused on test-prep and ranking and sorting students, as if that adds up to a quality education.

It seems obvious that we need to address global warming and related environmental issues in our science and humanities courses, but these courses still remain on the margins in most schools.

It seems obvious that we need to focus on instilling and supporting essential skills — especially creativity, resiliency, collaboration, and communication — yet too few schools are thinking systemically about how to instill these skills across the curriculum.

I know change comes slowly to schools — and I appreciate the hard work teachers do every day. But I also feel a deeper sense of urgency for improving education so it constantly serves as an avenue toward a better culture and world. Mostly, I want to thank those who are doing pioneering work in these important areas, and encourage others to join in.

On Poetry and Health

I admit that there are plenty of days when I wonder why I and others spend so much time writing poetry — especially when much of the world — even the reading world — seems fairly indifferent.

And then I read an article titled “How Doctors Use Poetry” which includes the following:

“Researchers have demonstrated with functional magnetic resonance imaging that reciting poetry engages the primary reward circuitry in the brain, called the mesolimbic pathway. So does music — but, the researchers found, poetry elicited a unique response. While the mechanism is unclear, it’s been suggested that poetic, musical, and other nonpharmacologic adjuvant therapies can reduce pain and the use and dosage of opioids.”

Of course, it’s fine to just let poetry be poetry, too. I’ve been reading Mary Ruefle’s Tristimania, enjoying just about every poem, even when I can’t tell you what I think they all mean. Sometimes, just the beautiful reaching of her poetry is enough.

From her “Autumn Poem”:

The clouds tell everybody

It’s time to cave in

Cave in

Get all the barley you can

It will be a long time

Before anything speaks again…

From “Analysis of a Rose as Sentimental as Despair”:

What are the lives of roses but dreams

if they take no one into their folds?

On Heaney and his 100 Poems

 By Michael Brosnan

The Poetry Foundation’s brief biography of poet Seamus Heaney includes a reference to a review of Heaney’s collected essays, “Finders Keepers,” that appeared in the London Sunday Times. The review author, John Carey, says that Heaney’s book “is not just another book of literary criticism…. It is a record of Seamus Heaney’s thirty-year struggle with the demon of doubt. The questions that afflict him are basic. What is the good of poetry? How can it contribute to society? Is it worth the dedication it demands?” 

I mention this in part because these are central questions that I ask myself — of my own writing and that other poets. As pressing as the questions may have been for Heaney, they seem even weightier for poets like me — that is, poets who have been writing for years without attract the kind of attention that our “star” poets garner. We are in the game. We have a book or two or three. We have published numerous poems in literary journal. But we don’t connect much with readers and we don’t see the ways in which our poetry resonates (or not) with the world.

I’m not writing this to say woe is me or that I deserve more attention. I’m simply saying it’s a tangle of comfort and shock that one of our Nobel Prize-winning poets would feel this way late in his career.

I mention Heaney mostly because I just finished reading a posthumously published collection of his poems, 100 Poems, selected by his family. I don’t usually care for collected editions. But what’s so appealing about this collection is that it traces the growth of Heaney’s sensibilities and professional skills as a writer, starting with the iconic poem, “Digging,” written with the bravado of a young writer taking his stand at the start of a literary career, and ending with “In Time,” a beautiful tribute to his granddaughter written shortly before his death in 2013.

Heaney is famous for the lyrical beauty of his poems. When I read his work, I feel inspired, moved, and a bit dumb, needing to turn to a dictionary every few minutes — for words like tenebrous, deliquesce, and chthonic, and all the Irish place names or moments in Irish history. If nothing else, you know you are in the hands of dedicated, hard-working, knowledgeable, caring, place-anchored poet.

But of course, Heaney is far more than all this. Given my own Irish heritage, his work helps me understand what it meant to be Irish and Northern Irish during the turbulent years of the 1960s-1970s. He helped me understand what it means to be part of the history of long-repressed people surviving for centuries while working close to the land and developing their own culture and sense of community — surviving as best they can, that with little more than their wits. Such understanding rises through the careful arrangement of details and language, of meter and rhyme. The beauty of the landscape, the challenge of survival, the heartache of life close to the bone, the tension between religious repression and religious comfort, the gorgeous endangered language, the complexity woven into the “simple” way of life, the war of neighbor on neighbor, pikes vs. guns and canons, the rain, the rain, the bogs, the rain, the long-drawn out history of being stuck and yet finding a way through — it’s all here, and more.

I can’t say which poems touched me the most, but I came close to crying reading, “Requiem for the Croppies” and “Casualty,” and felt that pang of connection in “The Peninsula” and “Postscript.” And in so many of the poems, you feel both Heaney’s love of his nations (Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland) and yet his disconnect from so many of the people. I’m thinking particularly of “Westerly” and “Alphabets.” Then, in case you feel a bit too removed from life in rural Ireland, in Station Island Heaney goes and writes numerous poems that embody the spirit of the people.

Does poetry matter? Is it worth the effort? Sometimes I despair over these questions, in part because the answer can feel like “no” some days. But then you enter poems like “Anahorish” and “The Given Note” and “The Gravel Walks” and you know the world would be worse off without them. While it’s probably always going to be true that most of humanity won’t read books of poetry, or read only the occasional poem, I have to believe that poetry — like the rest of the humanities — will always matter. I suppose I just wish it meant more to all of us today.

About the struggle of writing, Heaney wrote, “You are confirmed by the visitation of the last poem and threatened by the elusiveness of the next one.”

I am so glad he didn’t turn away from the work. Maybe for Heaney, there was no choice. In “The Badger,” he writes, “How perilous is it to choose/Not to love the life we’re shown.”

Education and the Common Good

It's hard to believe that we have to make the fundamental argument for the purpose and value of a well-funded public education system these days. But apparently we do. So I was glad to come across this perspective from Robert Reich in his new book, The Common Good:

“Education is a public good that builds the capacity of a nation to wisely govern itself, and promotes equal opportunity. Democracy depends on citizens who are able to recognize the truth, analyze and weigh alternatives, and civilly debate their future, just as it depends on citizens who have an equal voice and equal stake in it. Without an educated populace, a common good cannot even be discerned. This is fundamental. When education is viewed as a private investment yielding private returns, there is no reason why anyone other than the ‘investor’ should pay for it. But when understood as a public good underlying our democracy, all of us have a responsibility to ensure that it is of high quality, and available to all.”

Soon after finishing Reich's book, I came across an article by Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. In "A Matter of Democratic Survival," published in the January-March 2018 issue of Poverty and Race, Ifill writes:

"I fear that perhaps we have forgotten what the Supreme Court actually said about public education in Brown. Of course, we remember that the Court said that separate cannot be equal. But we forget that the Supreme Court also called public education the single 'most important function of state and local governments.' We forget that the Court in Brown called public education 'the very foundation of good citizenship.' The citizenship formulation of public education has been lost, and we have acquiesced to the idea that education is critical only to help you pass certain tests and get a job.... If we recognize that public education is developing us to serve as good and productive citizens in a pluralistic democracy, then it should matter to us whether our neighbor is also getting a good education." 

The future of America, and the world, depends on the quality our public education system. I know this is not the only major issue facing the nation. But I hope we can all keep this in mind as head into the mid-term elections.  

Our Global-Warming Problem

I'm writing mostly to encourage folks to read the New York Times Magazine article, "Losing Earth," by Nathaniel Rich with photographs by George Steinmetz (August 5, 2018), and think about how we best respond politically and personally.

Overall, it's an excellent (and sobering) piece of journalism. However, in his Prologue, Rich likes to rely on the collective pronoun "we" — as if it's a given that we all share the same mindset:

"...in the decade that ran from 1979 to 1989, we had an excellent opportunity to solve the climate crises.... The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge. Almost nothing stood in our way — nothing except ourselves."

"Why didn't we act?"

"We understood what failure would mean for global temperatures, coastlines, agricultural yield, immigration patterns, the world economy. But we have not allowed ourselves to comprehend what failure might mean for us." 

I get that we are all in this leaking American boat together, but I don't think there ever was or currently is a solid "we." From the early 1980s on, literally hundreds of writers have argued for reducing our carbon footprint — and have done their best to describe what failure to act would mean. Thousands have protested political indecision as well as political decisions favoring the fossil-fuel industry over the health and welfare of citizens and the planet. There are dozens of hard-working, pro-environment nonprofit groups lobbying hard for sensible policy every day. We've even had numerous Green Party candidates seeking office to make environmental protection one of our government's top priorities. These people are all part of Rich's "we." But they did not drop the ball. They have tried do make a difference — to say what needs to be said, to fight for sensible policies, to educate the public, and so on. The problem is that the majority "we" have been overpowered by a very small minority of highly manipulative corporations and their political pawns — with the goal of serving short-term interests over the will and need of the citizenry. 

At least, that's how I see it.

After all the meetings and scientific reports, the efforts in the late 1980s to curb global warming basically came down to the question of whether President George H. W. Bush and his Chief of Staff John Sununu were going to do what was right for the world — do what the scientific community made clear had to happen to prevent environmental and human disaster to come. But these men chose to do nothing, because doing nothing was to their political and personal advantage — and they had enough power to ensure that nothing would happen. 

Here's the really horrifying part of the article:



I've heard people counter these concerns with talk about machines that can take carbon out of the atmosphere. While it's good that people are working on the tech front, such machines, I'm told, are only a small part of the solution at best. They're kind of like adding a few groves of trees, which we could use more of, too. The main step "we" need to take, however is to reduce the rate at which we put carbon into the atmosphere. And that requires change on many fronts — especially political and personal fronts.

What can "we" do from here on out? Get the facts. Talk with family and friends. Talk with neighbors. Engage people in our communities. Ask every politician we see about their environmental views and what they will do if elected. Write to our representatives in Congress over and over. Join an environmental organization. Take part in rallies and marches and events. Change our own carbon-fueled habits. Make it clear to everyone that we can't walk away from this problem. There is only one Earth.

New Essay for Schools and Racial Justice

Just posted my new blog piece for the Teaching While White website — on "MLK, the Kerner Commission Report, and Today's Schools."

It's painful to realize how little has changed since the Civil Rights movement of 1968. But I take solace in those educators, researchers, and writers committed to a better future — and deeply hope we make greater progress in racial equity and justice in our schools and society in the coming years. 

As always, thoughts are welcome.


The Evolving Pedagogy at St. Paul's School

Anyone paying attention to education in the news these days knows that St. Paul's School in Concord, NH, has been in the news because of past sexual misconduct and predation by some faculty and students and a culture that turned a blind eye to it all. The school’s leadership today doesn’t try to sidestep the seriousness of these allegations, and acknowledges that these painful revelations have led to deep institutional soul-searching, and to cultural changes. But many on the faculty will also tell you that the press attention has also had the effect of overshadowing much of the good work quietly taking place on campus.

I spoke with Lawrence Smith, St. Paul's director of teaching and learning, about this latter work. A write-up on this conversation has been posted on the Carney Sandoe & Associates blog:




Witness Tree, Part II

Just a short note to say that, if you are looking for a clear explanation of global warming, climate change, and the central story of us and our carbon-burning habits, chapter nine of The Witness Tree (by Lynda V. Mapes) is excellent. She encapsulates the science and history of climate change — and, of course, why we're literally playing with fire these days. She encourages the climate-change deniers, and those uncertain about the role of humans in the global warming process, to stop conflating weather and climate. On a warming planet, we can still have snowy days and blizzards. In fact, the later are often made more intense by global warming.

Mapes writes: "When global warming has happened before over the past two million years, it has taken the planet about five thousand years to warm five degrees. The predicted rate of warming for the next century though, because of increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, is at least twenty times faster. The rate of increase is especially marked since the Great Acceleration, beginning in about 1950, with growing population, prosperity, and, notably, increased burning of coal for industry and to fire electric power plants, stoking emissions. In a new twist, escalating carbon emissions today are tied most strongly not to population increases, but to rising energy consumption and North American-style consumerism driven by global prosperity."  

Most people already understand this, I know. But I think it helps sometimes to have clear reminders. We can keep stoking our train of carbon-powered consumerism and see what happens. Or we can start to rethink what we mean by progress. 

As I write this, NATO leaders are meeting in London. If I were there, I'd ask: Is there a more important issue?

Find Your Witness Tree

In the long light of a July day, I read Lynda V. Mapes's The Witness Tree outdoors in the shade of some tall neighborhood trees. It strikes me as another one of those important books that should find more readers but probably won't — given the extensive indifference to the natural world. I know I'm including a lot of people here in the "extensive indifference" who do care greatly. I know there are some excellent environmental groups and websites — from the Wilderness Society to the Sierra Club to the Natural Resources Defense Council to the World Wildlife Fund and many more — that are working hard to change hearts and minds.

I'm mostly talking about the majority who either care and don't act to reduce their carbon footprint or who can't see past their short term needs to care about the natural environment or who just don't see the trees for anything beyond "scenery" or perhaps as board feet for construction. This group includes most of our politicians. 

Mapes notes that the rate of change in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere "has scientists particularly alarmed." A century ago, carbon dioxide measured about 280 parts per million a century ago. Today it has soared past 400 parts per million and is climbing "to the highest level in some eight thousand years."

Mapes writes, "No human had ever breathed this atmosphere. This seemingly harmless gas, made of one of the most common elements in the universe [is] having exactly the effect on the climate and growing seasons that some scientists had long ago predicted. But it [is] happening far more quickly than imagined."

This is a beautiful book about the life of one tree in one forest — and all it can tell us about the human and natural history. If you read it, I promise you'll see trees and forests, and maybe people, in a more generous light. But Mapes also makes it clear that our behavior is alarming in its impact on the natural world — and has consequences, most of which are not good for humanity or the planet's biodiversity.

We should all care more. We should all do more. I think what The Witness Tree is telling us is that we will care and do more if we slow down long enough to see what we have — the remarkable beauty and complexity and symbiotic connection between trees and every living thing. 

If each of us gets to know a tree well, maybe more of us will change our patterns of behavior that imperil humanity and the planet.



Two Meatheads of Verona

Because I had not read it previously — and because I've heard that it may be Shakespeare's least-admired (if not worst) play, and because I'll actually be in Verona this summer —  I decided to read Two Gentlemen of Verona. I'm no Shakespeare scholar, by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, this may be the first time I've written about Shakespeare outside of college. But I felt compelled to write some sort of response — given that the play struck me as more disconcerting than comedic.

I get that Shakespeare scholars would find the play interesting, while making it clear it's not one of Shakespeare's best efforts. Among other things, a number of compelling conceits are tested out here — and then delivered with greater effect in future plays. We get the cross-dressing woman, disguising herself from her clueless boyfriend. We get a wonderful fool — in this case the servant Launce with his incorrigible but well-loved dog, Crab. We get the star-crossed lovers temporarily denied a future by misguided power parents. And don't forget the all's-(sort-of)-well-that-ends-well final act. Friends and lovers reunite. What might have ended in tragedy (see Romeo and Juliet) ends with no bloodletting and plenty of glee. 

Also, the word play here is pure Shakespeare. Characters can't simply say hello when meeting; they have to engage in some sort of competitive banter, which, almost independent of the banter itself, is comedic. We also get Shakespeare's deep romantic expressions of love. The head-over-heels stuff. 

That said, I couldn't just sit back and enjoy the ride. 

The plot primarily involves two supposed gentlemen of Verona — Valentine and Proteus. These young men have been friends since childhood and seem to revere each other. They are both aristocrats, too — so their lives are, relatively speaking, easy. The big question before them at the start of the play is whether they go off to see some of the world (funded by their fathers) or do they stay in Verona. One, Valentine, is excited to leave. The other, Proteus, is more interested in staying put so he can woo the young Julia. But through a backfiring act of his own deception, Proteus is sent by his father to join Valentine in a not-so-far-flung corner of Italy.

Why did I keep frowning at my ten-pound edition of the complete works of Shakespeare as I read? Mostly, I found it hard to stomach Proteus. This supposed friend of Valentine, this supposed gentleman of Verona, sets out to deceive, manipulate, and hurt just about everyone in the play. There's a disturbing level of deep-seated entitlement in the fella. 

Basically, Proteus decides he is no longer in love with Julia — the bright and beautiful woman he adored a day ago — and sets to pursue the love of Sylvia, who happens to pine for Valentine and whom Valentine clearly desires. To "win" Sylvia, Proteus deceives his own father. He breaks Julia's heart.  He not only tricks Valentine, but actively plots to sell him out — get him banished from Milan. Proteus also deceives Sylvia's father, The Duke — convincing him to send Valentine away — while he pretends to help convince Sylvia to accept the hand of another suitor, the wealthy, honorable, and quite dull Thurio. Basically, Proteus is an untrustworthy creep. A man with no moral compass (thus, the protean name). He even admits to himself that he's a jerk, when he "slander[s] Valentine/ with falsehoods, cowardice, and poor descent."

In the end, Proteus almost succeeds in this bold love-grab, except for one problem: Sylvia would rather be eaten by a bear than to accept Proteus's love. She sees him for what he is: a liar, a deceiver, a conniving cheat. In the last act, Proteus, deeply frustrated by Sylvia's repeated rejection, basically decides it's time to force himself on her — as if that somehow translates into a compelling love bond. Some critics say Proteus is threatening rape in this scene. But given that there are other people around at the time, it strikes me that he'll be OK with unwanted groping. 

How is this remotely comedic? 

I suppose the answer is one of timing. Proteus pulls back from all his bad behavior in one quick moment — when Valentine arrives on the scene and sees his supposed friend attempting to brutalize the woman he loves. Valentine, as one might expect, is outraged and hurt. Says their friendship is toast. 

But... then things get weird. Proteus, caught in his ego-driven plot, decides to apologize semi-profusely. He says he doesn't know what came over him. He now sees that he is wrong. He claims his friendship with Valentine means more than anything.

Does Valentine buy this groveling? Hook, line, and sinker. He not only takes Proteus back as a friend — he may even have offered to give Sylvia to Proteus as a sign of friendship. This, of course, is a point of deep contention among critics. Did he just say Proteus can have Sylvia or did he awkwardly say that he still loves Proteus as a friend?

You can judge. Valentine's rhyming couplet read: "And, that my love may appear plain and free,/ All that was mine in Silvia I give thee."

I have to assume Valentine is not trying to offer up Sylvia as a prize for renewed friendship. That's not only creepy, it makes zero sense. Still, if I were Sylvia, and I heard the man I loved so quickly forgive the Lothario who just tried to ruin everyone's lives, then force himself on me, I'd be miffed at my boyfriend. In fact, I think I'd have second thoughts on the whole love thing. What do I really know about Valentine, I'd wonder. And would the jerkhead Proteus keeping coming around — you know, as a friend and maybe a drinking buddy to Valentine?

To me, the most telling part of the final act is not what the characters say to cheer us up for the trip home. It's that Sylvia, previously outspoken in all instances, says absolutely nothing. 

My guess is she is quietly seething, or perhaps stunned by the macho reunion. I also imagine that, after the action in the play, she'll take her father aside and say, "Let's start over. I think I can do better than any of these gentlemen."





Mark Doty, Poetry, Children, and Dogs

This past weekend, Newburyport, Massachusetts, held its annual literary festival — which included fiction and nonfiction writers as well as poets. There were a number of venues throughout town offering competing sessions, all free to the public. What a joy. 

A highlight for me was attending the session with poets Rachel Hadas and Mark Doty. They are both wonderful poets, but it is Doty's work that I want to note here. Each poem he read was excellent, but I was especially taken by two — one about the wonderful insanity of taking his Bedlam terrier for a walk in New York City and another, titled "Two Seconds," about Tamir Rice, an unarmed, nonthreatening 12-year-old African-American boy who was shot and killed by police in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2014. 

Searching for the poems online (I didn't find them), I came across Doty's website where he keeps an on-again, off-again blog. One entry that dates back to December 2015 focused on his visit to the Nightingale Bamford School in New York City. In it, he describes the younger students (all girls) charging up the staircase between classes. It's a beautiful description of the amazing light within each child. He writes:

"Every single one of their faces seemed lit up from within. You could see that they were thinking all kinds of things — a bit of nerves about the next class, an eagerness to join a game and move a restless body, a sadness here, a distracted look there — but those were the surface signs of engagement in a new-ish life, a small girl self, and through that shone a glow of exhilaration, this almost physical light."

Isn't this why we teach?

I spoke briefly with Doty after the reading, just to thank him for taking on a social justice issue in a poem. Poetry can walk where it wants to, of course, but I'm always glad to see contemporary poets jump into the conversation on social justice on occasion — especially when they do it well. On this topic, Doty recommended the Best American Poetry of 2017, edited by David Lehman and Natasha Trethewey.

Doty, you won't be surprised to hear,  is also the author of The Art of Description — an excellent book for writers and educators to read and absorb.

Also, see his poem on his golden retriever. The guy knows dogs.