The Symmetry of Sunflowers



It’s just after midnight and warm and rainy out here on the bay. A soft breeze is keeping it from being unbearable, but then the humidity is rising again after a beautiful day yesterday. I can hear some frogs out toward the marsh, awakened by the rain perhaps; and a few birds calling deep in the woods; one is a whippoorwill. I was going to stretch out in my hammock in the clearing on the other side of the property through the woods but for the rain. So, instead, the porch. I keep the lights off to keep the bugs away and also so I can see better. It’s so much easier to see when the light comes from somewhere else. Here, now, I can see just fine well up the front path and through the woods to the first turn in the driveway.

Is there anything as peaceful as late night, early morning? It’s as if everyone everywhere is asleep, or quietly reading a book, nodding off. I don’t remember knowing when I was young that somewhere else on this planet it was daytime, and people were out and about doing business and having lunch and tending to their daily chores. No, when I was young and it was night people everywhere were asleep, or supposed to be asleep, but some of them like me instead sat up awake in their rooms looking out toward the star-covered sky.

When my son and I were in Portomarin, Spain, unable to find a place to stay, we slept all night on chairs in the town square. But being in a strange place with some tween doing bike tricks on the front steps of a nearby cathedral, I couldn’t sleep at all, so I walked up and down the road to keep warm. Eventually, we left around 4:30 when there were still more stars than not, and the eastern sky had not yet contemplated the dawn. We put on our flashlights when we got to the edge of town and onto the trail heading west, but we quickly discovered we could only see as far as the light’s beam, so we turned them off and saw the Milky Way, and the distant glow of what must have been Sarria, Spain, and a creek running not far from us. It is amazing how far you can see if you don’t over focus on one spot in front of you. Honestly, we wanted to stay somewhere, get a shower and a good night’s sleep, but it wasn’t in the cards that night and it turned out to be one of the more memorable evenings on the Camino.

Throughout my life I can point to many times I thought I was going one way and  because of circumstance or unexpected events, ended up on a different trajectory, and more than one time through the years I discovered I had a better perspective if I didn’t over-focus on one direction. There are quotes about this. Memes. Scripture passages. Song lyrics. Romance poems. Dirges. Limericks.

Here’s one: “When someone closes a door, God opens a window.” GOD, I hate that one. Come on. First of all, as another meme aptly points out, it’s a door, open it back up again; it’s what it does. And for a lot of people they turn from the closed door and there is no window, no, there’s just darkness and no way out, literally no way out. So, ixnay on the window metaphor. Stop letting people slam doors in your face seems to be the best solution. And if they do, open your own damn window. God helps those who help themselves.

Here’s another: “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going.” Oh fuck you. If the going gets tough, it’s time to evaluate just how much whatever it is you were after is worth the effort to begin with, because honestly, for those with passion and drive and that rare internal motivation, it is never tough going, ever. It simply is part of the way there. Ask a long distance runner if the marathon was “tough.” Yeah, it was tough if you look at the difficulty level, but that’s not in the vocabulary of a marathoner; it can’t be. On the steepest trails on the Camino, toward the start in the Pyrenees, I never thought of it as “tough” in the sense I couldn’t do it; it was just going to take longer, and I’d breathe heavier, and maybe even feel like throwing up from time to time, and once even my legs simply stopped moving, honestly would not move. But it was never “tough”; no, my exhilaration at being on the Camino with my son negated any thoughts of tough. Is that rationalization? Probably, but not at the time. At the time it was simply a new way of thinking. Or, as JT points out in one of his dirges, “All I really needed was the proper point of view.”

I might be wrong about all that. But I still believe things are only tough because of where we shine the light. I prefer to see the big picture instead of zeroing in on the difficult parts. 

Anyway, things keep changing, and out here on the porch at the very witching hour of night, it isn’t as scary as it seems, some of these unexpected changes. Sometimes I think we are too logical, use too much reason. The most miraculous moments can’t be rationalized or figured out. It’s the moments that occur when, as Bruce Springsteen points out, one plus one equals three, “that’s when the magic kicks in.” Some artists have it; a few writers, a handful of musicians. In the world of going and coming back we are raised to follow straight lines and make right turns. Even nature is symmetrical and balanced; the hexagonal symmetry of a honeycomb, the seed sequence of a sunflower (each pedal, leaf, and seed is in a sequence understood by adding together the two previous numbers of pedals, leaves, and seeds. It’s called Fibonacci Sequence); and even animals, including humans, have bilateral symmetry. Cut us down the middle and we are nearly mirror images of our then-dead selves.

(So what do you think about at one in the morning on the porch?)

Listen, we can explain nearly everything that happens in life, and when we can’t we fabricate answers to make us feel better. The open window, the other path, the something better will come, the heightened hearing of a blind person, the “he’s in a better place” response to add balance to understandable depression. But what about when the explanations are mere shadows, and rationalizations are simply ill-disguised hopes? For me, I immerse myself in the incomprehensible magic of night, the blanket of stars whose light left home a billion years ago but arrives for me tonight, now, lighting my way on whatever path I want to follow next, as if the heavens conspired before humans walked this earth to illuminate my way this very evening.

Well, not tonight. It’s raining.

But you get the point. Whatever might have been true yesterday is, for good or bad, no longer valid. Tonight it’s just me and tomorrow and whatever I decide to do with it. Out here on the porch looking out toward the bay listening to the frogs in the marsh and some whippoorwill in the woods I am the best of my ideas, with just a touch of magic left enough to see Vega pushing through some clouds. Yes, I can see so much better when the light comes from somewhere else.


Stick Figures at Best

Mikel Wintermantel

I am mesmerized by fine art—paintings in particular, but also sculpture. I have degrees in its appreciation, and I have been to museums throughout the world and seen some of the finest works. The Van Goghs in Amsterdam, the Hidden Treasures of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and the Museum of Medieval Art in Prague are among my favorites. I used to hang out in the studio of Cole Young, American Landscape artist and close friend, and I was there for part of the time when he painted a masterpiece, “Homage to Cole,” a huge work honoring one of his idols, Thomas Cole; a piece that went on to hang and eventually be destroyed in the World Trade Center. I have an artist’s photograph of the work and even in that I am blown away at the talent in transforming a flat canvas into a valley of trees.

Here in my own home I have one of his paintings and more than half dozen of my friend, Mikel Wintermantel, a Copley Master of luminescent art which, in all of my travels, stands as some of the finest I have ever seen. I am honored that one of his works graces the cover of one of my books. And the work of my own son hangs on these walls as well as private collections throughout the United States offering a view of water–an instant of the view–that no one notices until the art shows them, which forces them to never see water the same again. That’s art.

And it is crystal clear to me why I’ve always loved fine art: I can’t do it. I can’t even begin to do it. I’m strictly a stick figure guy.

Cole once said to me with his Harrison Ford smile and “lean in” attitude, “Sure you can Kunzinger! You want to paint, paint! But not yet. Draw the same thing every day for fifteen minutes for a year, get used to it, master it, and then you’ll understand and can start painting.” Okay, so I went to an art supply store and bought a good drawing pad and pencils and every day I drew for fifteen minutes. I drew my hand. After two weeks I thought it was looking pretty good. I was proud of the nuances in the hairs on the back of my hand, and the cross lines on my index finger, and the folds in the skin where the thumb does its opposing thing. I showed it to my son, who was seven at the time, and said, “pretty good, huh?” and he enthusiastically said, “Oh Daddy, yeah! That’s a great rooster!”

When I stood once in a museum and lost myself in the “Starry Night,” I let my mind explore the incomprehensible—that Vincent stood at a window in the asylum of Saint Remy and painted this scene, his hands held this canvas just about 100 years earlier at the time, and he was pleased with this one. And I’ve seen Rembrandt’s “Descent from the Cross” several dozen times at the Hermitage Museum, a few trips of which I went for the sole purpose of admiring Rembrandt’s work—that one, and the one of the face and hands of the old man, others. Knowing much about art but not having any ability to paint allows me to lose myself in its genius without analyzing the process, without exploring how “I would do it.”

The contrast for me is writing. Some of my favorite authors are creative non-fiction/memoir/essayists. But when I read the fine works of people like Dave Sedaris, Richard Preston, Jon Krakauer, or Richard Wright, I simultaneously enjoy and critique the pieces. Not in a “good” or “bad” way but in a “wow I really like how he did that…hmmmm” kind of thieving way. It can either make me feel like a complete fraud the next time I sit at the computer and attempt to translate what’s in my head onto a page of words to put the image in the reader’s head, or it can encourage me to be more bold, take chances, have more confidence if I happen to read something that I’m pretty sure I could have handled better, or at least as well in my own way. This is common for all artists when experiencing work in their own genre.

But when an artist steps outside those parameters all comparative bets are off. The mosaics of the Church of the Resurrection (Spilled Blood) in Russia are beautiful, and the sculpture room upstairs at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk is one of the finest examples of what two hands can do when attached to the vision of an artist.

This brings me to my garden. Sigh.

My plants die a lot. Or, better said, a lot of my plants die, though a few of them die a lot. I bring them back to life with the right care but then a week will go by with scorching temperatures, I mean bone-frying heat, and they shrivel up like worms on pavement, so I tend to them and give them hope, but a week later—gone. I have marginal luck with perennials whose labels say, “Good in drought conditions.” I’m proud of the landscaping here; but it is from decades of trial and error in not me getting better at gardening but rather finding the plants that even absolute neglect can not kill. My neighbor Kevin has a beautiful vegetable garden, a friend of mine out west created a butterfly and bee garden which should be featured on some HGTV channel, and down in Williamsburg they have a public garden whose vegetables and herbs actually have been featured on HGTV. These can often frustrate me because I have tried! I swear when I walk toward the garden section of the local hardware store, plants actually feign death.

So, rather for me, nature. Nature and gardens are not the same.

When I’m walking the trails of some mountain range or along the beach running near the bay, no human is responsible for their beauty and incomparable presence. In fact, humanity is more responsible for their demise, but still they rise, overcoming eruptions, timbering, forest fires, and even scorch and burn agriculture. Nature wins, hands down. It just needs time.

A walk along the river or the marsh confirms a more divine hand at work than has ever been humanly present. Science allows the mixture of carbons and nitrates, oxygen and light, and nothing, nothing we can possibly do can come close. Anyone who might wish to replicate a forest can only be left with feelings of inadequacy.

It’s why Cole headed to the White Mountains or his own Allegheny’s; it is what draws Mikel to the shores of the river running behind town or the Finger Lakes. It brought Vincent to Provence and Thomas Cole to the Hudson Valley. All of them, all artists, painters and writers alike, can witness the perfection of nature and be in absolute awe, and then turn and say, with the humility only nature can nurture, “Let me show you what I just saw.”



The Walking Stick Piece

The walking stick used by St Francis of Assisi

When someone told me to buy my hiking shoes one size larger than normal, I did and I’m glad; walking hundreds of miles every few weeks really does make the feet bigger. And when I was told to drink a lot of water I made sure to stop at every well on the way. But when my son and I decided to climb the Pyrenees on our pilgrimage to Santiago, Spain —a five-hundred-mile trek from France to the Spanish coast—I passed on carrying walking sticks. This wasn’t a matter of wanting to look strong; I simply didn’t want something else to carry.

Curiously, we were the only two pilgrims without walking sticks in all of St Jean Pied du Port, France, where we began our trek. They only cost about five euros for a good solid piece of oak about five feet tall, varnished, “Camino de Santiago” burned into it and a metal casing at the tip to hit the ground, with a tough cord through the handle. Some people carried fold away steel ski poles and others wood ones. Some pilgrims bought two and walked like cross country skiers; most found one would suffice, leaving the other hand free to point at the Pyrenees or hold a water bottle. I simply figured I’d been walking upright without assistance for a long time, uphill included.

It turns out the Pyrenees are profoundly uphill. Those first three unassisted days crossing the mountains made for some interesting balancing acts. With both arms free it was too easy to move too fast and tire out or lean too far and stretch out a muscle. Instead, we took a lot of breaks and watched where we were going so not to step on endless small rocks and countless eight-inch black slugs, bountiful in Basque country. Another reason I went without was my concern that on the Camino I’m come to carry the cane like a crutch and expect it to help me more than it should, especially once we moved past the Pyrenees. We were a rarity on this journey: a father and son together in peace for five weeks, talking, laughing, and sharing peaceful moments in chapels and cafés.

We didn’t need the sticks; we would lean on each other. Absolutely.


As soon as we arrived in Pamplona we bought two walking sticks.

We gave in when we realized we tired more quickly than our fellow pilgrims, and it felt awkward to let our arms dangle all day. Michael found one about five feet tall stained dark and rugged looking. Mine was a bit taller and tan. Both had thick cords through the handle for our wrists. It took some getting used to but somewhere on the way to Logrono, Spain, we found the rhythm and our walking sticks became an extension of our anatomy. I learned just the right timing to pick it up and how far in front of me to place it back down. I figured out when to not let the tip hit the ground, when to carry it on my shoulders, and when to lean heavy on it to relieve pressure on the knees or toes. I learned I needed it more down hill than up, on dry riverbeds more than the pavement, and not at all in larger towns and cities.

And after another week or two that damn cane worked its way into my character, as did everyone’s. We would leave them on our bunks in the late afternoon after we checked into a place to stay and then went out to eat or drink. It marked our space, and a quick glance indicated whose bunk was whose faster than looking at the backpacks. Two mahogany walking canes told us the two men from Frankfort, Germany, were also staying; the silver ski poles with a Belgium flag sticker belonged to Sylvie. And others knew ours leaning against a wall, in a corner, or as they lay on the ground against the wall at night. At some point my walking stick was simply part of the pilgrimage as much as my water bottles, my backpack and my journals.

A few weeks later with a few hundred more miles behind us, it occurred to me I’d be using that stick the rest of my life. Since he was old enough to walk, Michael and I have explored woods and walkways together. At home he always grabs a hand-crafted walking stick from the pile of fallen branches, and off we go. And someday when I am in my eighties no one will need to convince me I’d be safer with a cane; by then this piece of wood with “Camino de Santiago” burned into the side will simply be understood. For my family it will be part of who I had become, the one who walks, who at one time when he was so much younger crossed Spain with his son, and the only items they brought back were their walking sticks.

That was agreed on in Pamplona. With about five hundred miles before us, we knew we couldn’t carry much. In fact, shortly after arriving and evaluating my belongings, I ditched some clothes and equipment to lighten the load. In our other travels, we had been accustomed to acquiring souvenirs to remind us where we had been. When I was young my father always brought back glass mugs with the name of the city or state printed on the side. When I traveled during Michael’s youth I likewise found evidence to give him and make him feel part of my journeys. But this was different; this was a pilgrimage walked by saints and queens. This wasn’t a vacation; it was to be new way of life. So as we walked Michael took pictures and I wrote in my journal and we decided those would be our mementos. We both knew no token could possibly represent the experience of sharing these five weeks, twenty-four hours a day, together.

As it turned out, these walking sticks allowed us, quite ironically, the double pleasure of having an easier time of it on the pilgrimage as well as a very practical souvenir of our time together that summer. We would bring them home. Enough said.

It was difficult not to think of my father when we first bought them. At almost ninety, he sometimes needs to struggle out of his chair, but once he is up he can keep going without assistance from a “third leg” as Sophocles suggested in the Sphinx’s oracle. He sees no reason for a cane. Now here were his son and grandson deciding to rely upon a few canes for five weeks. That kind of time together, talking, walking, mostly remaining quiet and pointing out the beauty around us is simply not often shared between a parent and child. In fact, on our entire Camino we only met a few other similar relationships, a father and son from Holland and a mother and daughter from Sweden. The innkeepers and café owners would comment on how lucky we were to travel together. We knew this, though, and as time went on we both wanted the trip to continue. Together we met people from around the world, drank in cafés as varied as Hemingway’s favorite pub and a garage some woman turned into a bar. We prayed together in churches built before the time of Charlemange and chapels where St Francis of Assisi sought refuge. We shared every moment of every day surrounded by the finest scenery in Europe, and five weeks later we walked together into the sacred city of Santiago de Compostella aided by our walking sticks, which literally guided us across the country.

In Santiago one afternoon we toured a museum which had on display relics of those who walked the Camino. One cane in particular was featured—that of St. Francis of Assisi, who walked the same pilgrimage exactly eight hundred years earlier. Encased under two glass boxes was a short, peasant’s staff used by Francis when he journeyed from Assisi to Santiago and back. He was thirty-three and traveled well over a thousand miles with this walking stick of his still in tact and on display nearly a millenium later. I was in awe. The significance of our canes became clearer. They would do more than simply link us to the Camino long after we were home; they linked us to every pilgrim who ever followed The Way.

At the end of the journey one night in Fisterra, the ancient “end of the world,” I stared at our sticks as we sipped a local red wine and watched the small fishing boats in the harbor. We had done it; we completed the Camino, together, and we sat together, father and son, and gazed at the Atlantic.

It gave me complete peace of mind to know that someday, hopefully a long time from now, it will be Michael’s. I wondered if long after his grandfather and I are both gone, when he is an old man himself, will he sit in a chair and stare with aging eyes at our two walking sticks leaning against a wall, probably long worn away at the tips. Will he someday pick one up in his fragile, elderly hands and remember his youth, coming of age on the Camino, walking more than twenty-miles a day with his father? I wondered if he would tell stories to his grandchildren about the great pilgrimage and recall the time we wandered into Pamplona together and picked out those very walking sticks. I hoped he would remember the details while his grandchildren ask if they can hold them as he tells them the same stories again about how much we laughed so long ago in Spain. Yes, these were the perfect items to bring home, if there could be one.

They will collect dust, I thought, much like memories collect dust and cover up some of the details, making them hard to recall. But they will stand as proof. Perhaps there will be small indents near the handle where over time my fingers rubbed away at the varnish. There was a time though, he might say to someone, when my father held this stick, and I held that one, and together we climbed mountains.

Then perhaps some unthinkable time from now he will leave them to his son or grandson. Those descendents won’t have memories from these two simple wooden staffs, but they might have stories of a father and grandfather who more than half a century earlier followed in the footsteps of saints.

At the end of our trip we boarded a train for Pamplona and spent a few days celebrating. We went to the airport to fly home—we would visit my father and tell him about our journey: three generations sitting together sharing stories and memories. Then we got to security. Then we handed the security guard our backpacks and belongings, including the canes.

“You can’t bring the walking sticks with you,” the guard told us quite matter-of-factly.


“Because they are considered dangerous.”

“Yes, I understand, that is why I’m shipping them in cargo.”

“They can’t go through cargo.”

“Why?” My chest hurt.

“They are too large and considered dangerous and also they are not in boxes.”

“No one sells boxes to hold them and they’re not so big. Skiers ship skis and poles longer than these walking sticks!”         

“Skiers have them in specially made carriers and besides you are not skiers, and these are not poles.”

“Yes, they are! In fact they are a sort of religious object very similar to the holy relic cane of St. Francis of Assisi!” My anxiety showed as my voice got louder.

 “But still they are not wrapped correctly to be shipped through our mechanical equipment without a box and they will damage something.”

 “Would you say the same thing to an old man with a cane? Would you tell him he couldn’t bring his cane on the plane because it isn’t wrapped correctly?” Time had passed, and the security guard was losing patience and a line had formed behind us with people carrying backpacks and boxes but no walking sticks.

 “No, the old man with the cane would be allowed to bring the walking stick on board with him. You’re not an old man and this isn’t a cane!”

My heart sank. Michael’s heart sank. The argument continued but I had lost. I asked Michael to carry the canes to a corner and lean them against the wall for someone else to take; perhaps some father and son pilgrims would find them. Michael said if we had known this would happen we could have left them at a place for others; now they’ll probably just be thrown in the trash.

We were quiet a long time. It was as if they cut off my arm. I said, “Well, we promised each other last month up in France that we weren’t going to have any souvenirs, so this just holds us to our original commitment.” Michael sighed and agreed but we were feeding each other’s disappointment by going on about it. So he brought them over to the wall and left them and I am sure he felt as guilty as if he had abandoned two family pets. He got back in line but before we made it through security I looked at the sticks and got out of line.

I went over and took the thick cords from the handles and gave Michel his. Once through security we tied our journals with the cords and I felt somehow as if it was supposed to be like this. We left it all in Spain. There might come a time when I will forget the particulars, and even later when Michael will not recall the details. But for now when I go for walks I don’t use a walking stick at all. I doubt I ever will. I’m a lot like my father that way. Instead, I walk alone along the river and remember when we sat in St Jean Pied du Port, France, restless and anxious and ready to begin.


The Sounds of the Day


I don’t listen to music when I walk; I just walk and listen to whatever is out there. At home it is the small birds, osprey calls, and the river sounds; sometimes the diesel engine of an early morning oyster boat not far from shore, and always the gulls. At the oceanfront it is the waves, of course, but also the plows moving sand around, the sweepers cleaning the boardwalk, radios, tourist chatter, children’s laughter. At the oceanfront the occasional fighter jet passes just a few hundred feet above heading to the Oceana Naval Air Station, and at home it is a Cessna 172, a Piper cub, or sometimes flight instructor Mike’s World War Two replica P-19 headed out over the Bay with a passenger who paid for a thirty minute tour.

When I walk, I don’t usually like to walk with anyone. It is different when I travel and we are taking in the sights and sounds and people, but even when my son and I walked all day every day across Spain, we were mostly quiet, taking in the Pyrenees, the vague distances. My son is a quiet person anyway, but still, when I’m home I prefer to walk alone; I like to hear myself think. It is the only way I recognize my own voice.

I find my thoughts, my opinions, my rationalizations and motivations when I walk. When I walk, I move from exhausted and mentally drained to calm and in perspective, to hopeful with new ideas, or different thoughts about old ideas, or sometimes I figure out what to leave out there on the road and what to keep close at hand for further contemplation. I solve problems; I talk myself out of making new problems. I remember and plan and organize and dismiss. It is a thorough cleansing of the mind. I never feel healthier than when I let my thoughts run free without bumping into earbuds on the way out or needing to compete with someone’s complaints or questions. I understand myself better and am able to make decisions without influence, or, more likely, make no decisions at all and just stand by and let it all be.

I have learned the sound of gulls when they circle looking for food compared to their call when confronted by something strange. I can close my eyes and know the direction of the tide and the pull of the current. I do not know most smaller bird calls—Michael has to tell me (over and over) when we are home in the yard and the thrush are in the bushes or the Carolina wrens are behind the patio—but I well know the call of a hawk or osprey, especially when they teach their young to fly. It is a sight to behold, and more, it is a sound I will never forget.

There is nothing “silent” about nature. There is nothing quiet about sunset. On the river at night when the stars blanket the sky above the Chesapeake and up the Rappahannock, the most muffled of sounds carries across the water. It could be a car crossing the bridge, a late-night fisherman dropping traps, rigging against a mast, the gentle, familiar, eternal lap of water on the sand. It always, absolutely always, seems calmer at night. When it’s late and I’m on the beach and I stand still, it is easy to believe I’m the only one listening.

Summer is almost over. Classes, in one form or another, start soon. There has never been a more important time for people to know, really understand, how to listen. 

Last year, I asked my students about their listening habits. They mostly get up and put on music, drive to school with music, at school have their ear buds in with music going except (not always “except”) when in class, and then the same the rest of the day. I asked how often they leave the music off, take the buds out, and just sit and listen to life around them. They all said, “Oh yeah, every day,” and one young woman in class called “bullshit” on them and an argument ensued. She won. By the end they admitted that “quiet time” simply does not exist anymore in their lives, if it ever did at all.

None of them, not even the quiet ones, had ever stood still and listened to the wind and the distant sound of thunder ahead of a storm coming down from the Piedmont.

It seems so many students are so accustomed to hearing other sounds—music, television, friends, games, teachers, parents, and on and on and on without a break–that they even fall asleep wearing earbuds.

I asked them, “Did you ever go to the water at night down at the beach and turn around and just listen? There is life out there carrying on. Or head to the entrance to the inlet at First Street on a foggy morning and listen to the call of the fog horns on the fishing boats as they come across the reach. It is a sound you’ll never forget,” I tell them, remembering the boats on the Great South Bay when I was young, before earbuds were invented.

I wish my students would listen. I don’t mean listen to me. That will come. First, they need to learn something no one ever taught them, to simply listen to life unfold around them. If they would pay closer attention to the quiet sounds around them, the natural pace of life, they would better understand their own thoughts and recognize their own voice. Then, perhaps, they would not simply hear what I say, but would listen to what they hear.

Still, at the end of the day there is nothing I can do but what I do at the end of the day: be still and listen to the intricate and miraculous passing of time.


Above Us Only Sky


nine - Copy


I stood near the mouth of the river this morning and watched the clouds across the bay to the east, and back to the west I noticed new ones forming, accumulating and darkening. Most of them will run north of here, but some will drift down the Rappahannock. I’ve been watching them; I’ve noted their movement and habits.

In fact, I’ve been taking pictures of clouds for better than twenty years. I like their brevity, their inability to replicate, their absolute uniqueness and the blending of colors, their playful nature and imposing threat. All of it. I’ve taken pictures of clouds that looked like cauldrons, like billowing snowbanks, like an old woman’s hair. I’ll avoid obvious cultural references like Joni Mitchell and instead refer to artists like Thomas Cole, or the painting “Difficult Cloud” by my friend, the late artist James Cole Young. The sunset (and rise) paintings of another friend, artist Mikel Wintermantel, are so realistic he does what art is supposed to do: he makes me think of his paintings when I’m looking at the clouds.


My son has joined me all these years, and we’ve learned together how to tell when the sky will be “blank” at sunset and when the smallest of nuances in the wind means it’s worth the wait at the water to watch the colors emerge out of nowhere, streaks of purple and gold and a dark orange that doesn’t register on most color schemes. At first we captured these fleeting examples of absolute present—since from second to second the shape and color and shading will never be the same, ever—with a wide lens, taking in the river and the farm to the south, the Norris Bridge to the west and out across the reach, but as time drifted by, we focused more on the horizon alone, or a detail of one cloud which let a sunbeam get through. But then my son and I went in opposite directions: I let go of the land, moving the lens into the sky, focusing only on the cloud, and the inner rings of a storm, or the ruffled shoulders of a passing wisp caught in the jetstream. Michael also let go of the land, but he went into the water. I watched him focus on the water and the clouds reflected there, and then I saw him stare at just pieces of the clouds, and then I noticed he noticed just the color on the surface of the water, and that’s when I watched him become an artist. 

On most nights he’ll wander up toward the duck pond or along the sand to the west, and I’ll just stare, looking off into the depths of some formation I can’t make even slightly realistic by finding figures in their shapes. It isn’t even impressionistic to me anymore as I look deeper into the abstract. I get lost in there, looking back as far as I can sometimes. When I still saw shapes, a common formation occurred when the wind pushed a cloud from the west into an elongated fork like puff, and I used to see a lobster in the sky, but once I saw Long Island reaching out to both Orient and Montauk separated by sky, and I remembered so many childhood afternoons in Hecksher State Park where my friend Eddie and I would wander for hours, days on end, for months, and sometimes I’d stay behind and lie in the grass and stare at the clouds. Once I saw a face. I don’t mean a shape like a face; I mean once I saw a face.

032Now though even the recognizable shapes are abstract; and I suppose that has more to do with me than the atmosphere. Still I stare, trying to make sense of what’s out there, and I think about jobs I’ve had and places I’ve been. I stare off into space and think of people I’ve known and wish I still did, and sometimes there on the sand they all seem so connected that I think they must be thinking of me at the same time, they have to be, but it’s just my eyes and mind tricking me into something pretty.

So I’ll shake my head into now and take note of the time and check out the sun’s position above the horizon up river, and if there is time I’ll let my mind wander just a bit more, past the storm clouds, the thunderheads, and remember the time I sat on the edge of a lake in Pennsylvania looking at the clouds with a friend of mine and she and I talked about what the weather was going to do. I’m sure I’m the only one of the two of us who remember. I can look as far back sometimes as Mt. Wachusett in Massachusetts and those times I hiked to the summit and watched kettles of hawks above and clouds, such beautiful clouds out toward Boston and they stretched clear down to the Cape and up past Gloucester. Those stayed with me. 

I remember clouds, I really do. awesome clouds 026

I’m terrified of lightning, though. I don’t mean fearful; I mean terror, paralleling, deeply disturbing, scared out of my mind kind of terror. But I’ll tolerate it for a good long look into the sky on a stormy day when the yellows and reds give way to dark purple and navy blue, and then just black, black like a dark room kind of black. Then what I’m looking at isn’t a cloud anymore but a decree, a shot across the bow. Get inside it says.

It is raining now, which means the clouds have moved beyond being the kind worth watching. For that they need to be approaching or receding, not present altogether, certainly not above. Clouds are at their best when they are going or coming, not here already.

They are honest yet somehow deceiving. And when it is late in the day or early in the morning I get lost in their engulfing truths, swallowed. And there I can forget what ails me, both in the world and in my mind.

When I am lost in the clouds, I can see everything so much more clearly.

august 27th 009


20th Sunday in Covid

1 March 29th

The dogwoods hadn’t yet bloomed back then. Before.

I still wore sweaters during the day and sometimes my fleece jacket at night. The sun set around dinnertime, and I was usually up before the sky lightened in the east out over the bay. It was March, and the winds from up river could be cold, but more often balmy.

The geese had just started migrating back and the scouting hummingbirds began to come around, so I put up a hanging basket with red flowers until we could get the feeders ready.

It really shut down for us about the 18th. I remember because the last time I was in my mother’s apartment was Saint Patrick’s day, the 17th. I believed then that I’d not be back inside to visit with her for a few weeks at the least. That was five months ago. It was March and Saint Leo University, which is now closed for good in Virginia, had no intention of closing, Tim and I had planned to head to lunch in about a week, and just a month later I would have headed to Florida to conduct non-fiction workshops at the Sandhill Writers Retreat. Spring training had just started; the Mets were looking good. 

The river in March is cold, running down from up past Fredericksburg, and the crowds in the area for oyster season were still adhering to the rule that oysters are best during months with an R in it; they thought they had another thirty days anyway, but the local oyster place on the Rappahannock would shut down completely before April arrived.

It was Spring Break when the change found me. Old Dominion University extended the vacation for a week with the hopes of returning seven days late, figuring things would settle down. That was more than one hundred thousand deaths ago. 

So I sat on my porch that first Sunday and looked out at the deep blue sky, the kind of sky under which it isn’t possible for anyone to be sick, let alone unable to breath, suffering their last few hours on a respirator. I sat and looked out through the bare bones of the oaks and took a picture. In my mind the contrast was obvious. That was the First Sunday of Covid for me, twenty weeks ago. I never saw my students again as we went online, and the rest of the semester passed via zoom from one of the tables on my property, behind which they could see the leaves fill in, hear more birds, watch my clothing go from sweaters to polo shirts, watch my hair go from above the ear to longer than it had ever been. And each week at the start we’d talk briefly about how “this can’t possibly last very long.” And each week we’d fall further into the realization that nothing would be “normal” again.  

And I sat on the porch and remembered 1979. This reminds me of then.  

When I was a freshman we started a radio show at the college station. I produced and engineered it, and the hour long, Saturday morning program was hosted by my friend Dave Szymanski and Franciscan priest Fr. Dan Riley. We were so young and still had idealism and the deep-seeded belief everything we did had long-reaching ripple effects. We worked so hard on that show, called “Inscape.”  Each week we would have a guest–writers, administrators, people in the community who had been doing work in service to the area such as soup kitchens, shelters, and more. Also each week we would feature a musical artist such as James Taylor or Dan Fogelberg or someone else relevant to our hour long talk, as well as music reflective of what was in the news. The theme song for the show was Chuck Mangione’s “Hills where the Lord Hides,” and the first song for the first episode was Taylor’s “Secret of Life.” Then in November of that first year Dave pulled the news off the UPI machine and read about fifty-two American hostages at the embassy in Iran. Fr Dan spoke gently and powerfully of their fate and spoke of faith, of coming together, of the need to share in the burden of “hoping for a swift resolution.” 

The weeks passed and every show from November on started with the news of those men and women. We switched musical artists and guests like clockwork, but each week the news was the same, and always followed by the same comments of “this cannot last too much longer.” Winter break came, Easter, summer break came. We returned in the fall as sophomores and continued talking about the poor hostages. Carter debated Reagan, the Winter Olympics coming that February had been boycotted, we left for Thanksgiving, and then we left for Christmas break, and when we returned, second semester our second year, Inauguration Day, it ended. The following weekend on air Fr Dan commented on how since the show’s inception the hostages had been unable to leave their quarters, quarantined for 444 days. 

It is almost fall now, and colleges–no matter how they handle this–are returning to some form of education. This is the twentieth Sunday since March, and the woods in the front of the property from my vantage on the porch are thick and deep, and I can barely see the sky, let alone the road. I listen to the news only to be aggravated and severely depressed at the thought of the financial crisis both personal and nationally, more saddened by the news of those poor souls ill and dying and already gone, and how it seems like this will never end. 

So I come out on the porch to listen to the wildlife and the soft August breeze at the tops of the oaks, and I wonder what can I possibly do to get through this, and I turn on some music to help me cope. 

And somehow it all seems so much more manageable, just briefly, just for a few minutes.

The Secret of Life is enjoying the passage of time.

Any fool can do it. There ain’t nothing to it.

Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill

But since we’re on our way down, we might as well enjoy the ride

–James Taylor


How to Make and Omelet


Writers face a task unlike most of the arts. In music you can judge how well you’re doing by simple comparison to the original song you’re trying to cover. In visual arts it isn’t unusual to see young painters in museums copying the masters, measuring their progress by their ability to replicate Van Gogh or Rembrandt. But writers have no such opportunity. We can’t simply retype a volume of Hemingway and hold it up at the end and say, “Check it out! For Whom the Bell Tolls Baby! I’m getting better every day!” No. It is a crapshoot. If we appear too much like one of our idols, we are emulating too closely. If we have too much of our own voice too quickly we are terrified and, often, ridiculed for straying from the canon (in that way all the arts are the same–music in particular and writing remain siblings in this difficult balance).

That’s why I love small chores with immediate results. Washing the dishes is a good one. Laundry. Cleaning the porch or cleaning out the shed. Mowing might be my classic example. These are all activities I can simply do while thinking of mostly other things, then after not-too-long of a time I can stand back and see the results. I can quickly assess whether or not I did a good job and redo parts that are obviously in need of another go at it.

Not a lot of guesswork is necessary; very little, if any, subjective viewpoints. It is what it is.

I have so little of that in my life. As a writer I am naturally dealing with material which can constantly be changed based upon my mood, the time of day, my caffeine intake. Even when I decide I’ve butchered a piece into place the best I can, I rewrite it again, restructure it, dump the intro and move the conclusion. Shred it. Eventually the editor will send the usual note indicating “only small grammatical corrections from this point on,” and I’ll panic realizing that means the journal is probably going to send back the four replacement paragraphs I shot off to them at the last minute. Instead, if the piece comes out in some anthology or another journal under a different title, I’ll include the new addition then, still knowing it will never be close to finished. Some things will never be finished.

Still, when something does come out in print or online I like to do just one quick take on it to see if they did something strange like add words I’d never use such as “spurious” or take out words I do use, like my name. Then I’m done. To look at the material again is just a way of seeing how differently I’d write it—not necessarily better, just different.

Right after that I mow the lawn. I admire the straight lines of cut grass; grass that was long but is now short. I trim the long grass around the stones and, ouila, done. Nothing to question; it is finished until next time.

However, in the best of days my usually unorthodox approach to everything from work to parenthood to travel and writing has always raised more questions than answers. Part of it is I take a lot of chances; another part is an overwhelming need to experience the passing of time as if I’m taking a dip in the ocean. I want to be absorbed in it, saturated by it. Maybe that’s why I write to begin with; to conjure a counterpoint to the persistence that is time.

Cooking is another task which can be immediately graded. I cook seafood mostly, but I also can make an amazing omelet. I knew a sous chef named Willie at the Hotel Hershey when I worked there half a lifetime ago. Sometimes he would take a weekend off to go to see his family in Puerto Rico, or just stay home, and I’d get to spend that day making omelets to order for the guests. The trick is to let it cook awhile on one side before the flip. I got good and I still love making them. Immediate gratification. Like playing Freecell or Tumbling Towers. I know instantly whether or not I did a good job.

If the temperature is too hot the egg will burn but if it is not hot enough it will not solidify well. The butter first (not spray not margarine not bacon grease butter just butter and if that bothers you eat oatmeal), followed by any hard ingredients—peppers, shrimp, etc—and after they’ve been thoroughly sautéed, pour in the room temperature, already beaten eggs—three is perfect. Keep pushing the egg toward the middle or sides to let the uncooked egg slide under the cooked part, making for a fluffy, well distributed omelet. When the whole thing seems un-oozy, flip it with a snap of the wrist so it lands in the same spot only upside down. Cover with shredded cheese and then fold in half and let it slide in perfect placement with the half-moon side matching the curve of the plate like two ballet dancers in unison.

Then eat.

This doesn’t work in writing. The second paragraph of this piece, for instance, was originally the beginning. The one starting with, “I love small chores with immediate results.” I changed it a few seconds ago. Writing has no guideline, no recipe, no set ingredients. I wonder now why I didn’t write, “When I mow the lawn I always start near the driveway and work my way to the woods.” Or “I do the larger dishes first when I clean and the silverware last.” Both decent starts. I can also point out now that originally the omelet section was the first paragraph, but I buried it later to back off of the “process” style which can be overbearing and misleading. I also couldn’t decide whether or not to include Willie. I kept putting him in and then leaving him out thinking it irrelevant, but then I decided to leave him in because I thought it a small detail that personifies the example. And yet another part of the writer side of me is constantly saying, “Who gives a shit?” as I write. Writers must constantly strive toward uniqueness without the benefit of example which itself defines contradiction.

Thank God I love to cook. Balance is everything.

Still, I like not knowing if what I’m working on is on the right track; not being able to see too far into the work. I like discovering where I’m going only when I get there or maybe slightly before that, and then getting lost again, trying different directions until the landscape reveals itself.

I wonder if I live the way I do because I write, or if I write the way I do because of how I live?

I don’t always want to know what’s going to happen. Maybe what I’ve been working on for all these years will turn out to have a happy ending; or maybe some tragedy will strike and I’ll need to write myself out of a corner and make some alternative escape from the monotony of a three-decade-old narrative. Whatever. I just know that in the end, the old axiom, “Watch pot never boils,” is not true. Of course it will boil. Einstein’s theories aside, the pot on the heat is going to boil. It is one of the few predictable aspects of life we can count on. Time is selfish that way. Not one fat second will ever lose an once on my account.

And no matter how many ways I approach it in the years I have left, I am never going to be finished with this life I’ve been writing. There are just too many ways to rewrite it; and I’ve just started on a new draft.


These Things We are Capable Of


We’ve been at each other’s throats from the start. Maybe it was land, maybe shelter. Most definitely food. But someone’s blood pressure went through the cave roof and instead of compassion we bred confrontation; instead of agreement, anger; instead of compromise, deep-rooted rivalries that most definitely predate the old testament with Ruth and her indecisive demands about parenting.

I have spent several hours on several occasions at the Medieval Torture Museum in Prague and have seen what engineers devised to make the pain last as long as possible. One contraption which looks exactly like a birdcage would be stuffed with a very-much-alive and kicking naked person whose crime warranted such punishment, and the cage would hang from  Charles Bridge until birds pecked the flesh from the bones, and nothing was left but carcass. This is real, this is while Magellan was at sea and Sir Thomas More was pissing off Henry the Eighth. Some of humanity’s greatest inventions came from this age, some of its greatest art. This is the Renaissance, moving into the Baroque era, and Vivaldi and Pachelbel would soon be composing. Bach. Michelangelo had already finished the ceiling, and Da Vinci’s David chiseled its way into the top ten list of examples of human potential.

Right about then, a woman for the simplest reason might have been put into a suit of armor filled with small holes and stood in the square with or without a helmet, depending upon her position in town (certainly a woman of worth would be spared exposure since friends might be in attendance at the piercing), and swords would be pushed through one side and through the body and out a hole on the other side. This, over and over so that a dozen or more swords had been used from all angles.

The one which made my blood run cold and my knees weak, though, was a frame about ten by ten, from which someone would hang by the ankles spread eagle, the hands tied in opposite corners at the bottom, looking much like an inverted image of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, which, ironically, he drew at just about this time, and two men would take a huge tree saw, one on each side…

(Caution: What I’m about to write will make your knees weak. Skip this section if you must)

…and saw back and forth from the crotch down through the center of the torso until they reached the neck and the body fell to both sides, a mirror image of itself dangling from the frame. The person was so hung on the structure so the blood would remain in the heart and head keeping him/her alive for most of the ordeal.

These are our predecessors. The things they were capable of. We now have the technology to create the illusion we have improved since the middle ages. Spoiler alert: No, we are worse. If you base success on improvement, much as a student who doesn’t write any better on paper four than on paper one is not going to receive the same grade as given on paper one, than humanity, despite its leaps and bounds and small steps and giant leaps, is still making freshman errors. We put children in cages, we slaughter each other in deserts and mountains of the middle east, we all stand on the bridge to watch the violence unfold, we despise what’s different, we ridicule what threatens us, all the while praising ourselves for creating faster download speeds. 

Maybe it’s too much red meat. Too much caffeine. Not enough contemplative walks in nature.

We sapiens disagree over just about everything, and since humanity’s natural instinct is to survive and protect our own, fighting has been inevitable from the start in a world with more people than cultivated resources, more need than ability, more fear than communication.

It’s a shame how much potential we have squandered; how often through the millennia we might have refocused our attention on constructive endeavors. Across the Vltava River from the torture museum is the remnants of Charles the IV’s Hunger Wall, a stone fortress of a wall which at one time almost encircled the city in the 1400’s. It was built by men who were otherwise starving. Fearing insurrection and at the same time needing protection from outside invaders, he offered food for anyone who worked on the wall, plus enough for their families. A place rarely visited, nearly never walked. Everyone’s over in Old Town at the Torture museum. 

On the top floor is the rack. Yes, an actual, blood-stained rack–not a replica. They’re pretty big, and, yes, they can rip limbs apart. It was in the same room as the chair filled with nails facing up and out from every aspect of the seat and back, and the guilty party sat on it while a press was cranked into his/her chest, and while weights were set on his/her legs. Who designed this? Who swung through the 15th century version of IKEA and fumbled with the parts, directionless, and then tried it out–just a little, “say when,” and signed off on a successful dry run?

We did that. Us humans. The same ones who came up with penicillin and the printing press, the Last Supper, Monet’s Gardens, flight. We figured out how to transplant a heart, how to radiate cancer cells, how to calm a crying baby. Also, how to build gas chambers to eliminate an entire race, how to create one piece of munition with enough power to evaporate a hundred thousand people instantly, and how to find the rationalization to drop the damn thing. Us.

The brain is capable of extremes, of love so timeless that it seems created before two were born and saved just for them; and hatred so virulent that genocide becomes an anticipated act; murder a preconceived plan; road rage commonplace and almost laughable.

The view of humanity from an historic standpoint is disheartening. I understand the accomplishments, the “we can send a man to the moon” yardstick, the soundbite which entices us to really believe there isn’t anything that is bad in society that can’t be fixed by everything that is good in society. Yes, of course. But we’re behind the eight ball here, and apparently the great flaw of creation is that doing right is harder, suppressing anger more difficult, advancing more troublesome, than doing wrong or evil or even worse, nothing at all.

I wish we could just start over again. Give back that metaphorical apple and wipe out the sin. While most people still believe the myth that we use only ten percent of the brain (the truth is all of the brain is usually active and at work), our actions perpetuate that myth since they show we simply are not thinking.

The view of humanity is depressing and embarrassing, and I’m certainly no help. I’m of the category of those who are more likely to do nothing than to help, but right now that has to be a leap ahead of the countless lost souls doing harm, torturing our posterity. I at least hope I have a leg up on them.

So here’s a small contribution with a bow to the better angels: I can point to the east, early, and say, “Look. Look at that,” as the sun breaks the surface of the morning, pushing back the dark blue, unraveling hope, as it always has, and we can watch it together, share a glance of what Rita Dove says is “The whole sky is yours to write on, blown open to a blank page.”