Monday, November 30, 2009

November 30: Buffleheads

Temperatures in the mid-40s on the last day of November as we step through the doorway into December. Rain here on the coast, while a friend in Vermont reports snowflakes. The mailman says tomorrow is supposed to be colder, which would be more appropriate for December. It's kind of hard to muster up the holiday spirit when green plants still flourish in my herb garden, and another day of drizzle clouds the horizon.

Five months from now, I'm probably going to be complaining that it's April and snowing. What do I expect? I live in Maine, in a weird little coastal area that seems to have its own weather patterns, in a time of global climate change.

Out on the river the buffleheads bob. These small black and white ducks breed in Canada, into the Arctic, and spend their winters in the relatively mild climate of Maine's coastal waters. Days like this must seem nearly tropical to them. When they first appear on the river each fall, it's one of those big reminders that we're headed into darker, colder times. But despite this association, I find the ducks themselves fun to watch. Agile divers, they slip underwater in a blink. It's a challenge to tally how many you're seeing in a little group, because several at a time dive down and then pop up in unexpected places. This mild spell means the river will remain unfrozen a little longer, so the ducks will hang out here later into the season than usual. When the river freezes, most of them head for the harbors and inland waters of the bay.

Downcast by rainfall,
yet buoyed by bobbing ducks.
November's last day.

Photo from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Sunday, November 29, 2009

November 29: Jet Trails

Sun and blue sky after days of rain brought us out today. Paul and I hiked up Beech Hill with our friend Brian, marveling at the rare views of the bay visible through bare branches, recalling where we usually see songbirds in spring and summer. Damp leaves padded the muddy trail. Stone walls wind in all directions through the woods, marking long-gone pastures. And of course, the sod-roofed stone hut at the top of the hill takes one back to a different era, as well. 

Not much bird life to be seen. We heard some chickadees--those ubiquitous birds--and watched a single crow soar over the fields. Most activity was of the human sort, as others were equally happy to be outside in the unusually mild late November sunshine. As I was walking, I wondered what would inspire my poem today: the clear view revealing Mount Desert Island, Monhegan, and the three new wind turbines twirling on Vinalhaven? feeling the sun on my face? old maple trees locking down their sap for the winter? a dead birch pockmarked with square-edged woodpecker excavations?

Or what about the ephemeral but oh-so-sweet pleasure of devouring an entire pecan sticky bun at the Home Kitchen Cafe? Or buying a Christmas wreath, beginning our holiday decorating? Haiku capture fleeting moments or moods in just a few words. Any of those would do.

But as we drove home, I noticed out the car window an intersection of five jet trails at some point above Camden Harbor. The trails radiated outward through the sky like the arms of a giant vaporous starfish. I couldn't resist.

Vapor trails converge:
starfish in a sea blue sky
waves above the waves.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

November 28: Rain

In our little house the sound of water is a constant. The river outside pours past, swollen now with the rain that has fallen heavily the past few days. Last night as I tried to sink into sleep, the rain drummed so loudly on the roof that I couldn't help but wonder if some large, agile animal were doing a dance in our attic. Knowing such a dance was impossible in our attic space full of blown insulation was small comfort for my insomniac anxiety. I could hear the rush of river, roar of wind, rain pattering on the propane tanks outside the bedroom window, and instead of feeling cozy and warm in my bed, I felt threatened within our home's thin walls.

I wondered if we would hear the emergency whistle above the noise of the storm if the Seabright Dam just upriver were to break. We live on a bluff above the still-visible flood plain of the river's former flow. But my childhood nightmares of giant waves washing away the house resurrected when we moved down river of two dams. As I lie in the dark listening to rain, my mind often wanders upriver to the body of Lake Megunticook--all that water just waiting there in the basin between Bald Mountain and Mount Megunticook--a barely restrained animal that, if it really exerted its full power, could go anywhere it wanted, fill every crevice of this town.

But those are night thoughts. This morning the white of the sky echoes the color of the wet shed and the foam churned up by the river as it rolls over rocks that are usually exposed. Chickadees and titmice slip from branch to bare branch like falling leaves. The lawn is an intricate brown tapestry of leaves. Moss on the north side of the shed roof is vivid green, flourishing in this moisture and unseasonable warmth. Slim bodies of trees sway in the wind. The rain seems to have stopped for now. I contemplate venturing outside for one last November run, but lean toward the lights and warmth of the gym.

Upriver the lake
lies silent, power contained.
But here--churn and foam.

Friday, November 27, 2009

November 27: Driving

Driving alone in the dark can play tricks with the mind. For some reason, listening to my favorite music turned up really loud in such an atmosphere always makes it more poignant to me. This poem isn't meant to capture a moment of angst, but a moment of intensity. That kind of moment we've all had when the lyrics speak directly to us, and it seems like the whole dreary, dark, wet world outside the car is a vast loneliness waiting to engulf us as we drive onward into anywhere. (Or perhaps I'm just speaking for myself. Really, not angst, but a strange and joyful level of emotional connection for me.)

Tires on dark wet streets,
car stereo turned up loud--
music of longing.

Tonight's playlist, for those who want to try this at home:

"I Wish I Was the Moon"--Neko Case
"Sometime Around Midnight"--The Airborne Toxic Event
"Free Man in Paris"--Joni Mitchell
"Read My Mind"--The Killers
"Fake Empire"--The National
"Before It Breaks"--Brandi Carlile
"Use Somebody"--Kings of Leon
"Search Your Heart"--Pete Yorn and Scarlett Johansson

Thursday, November 26, 2009

November 26: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving! And so the holiday season officially begins. My husband and I spent a good day in southern Maine enjoying a bountiful meal with his family, grateful for sharing time and food with those we love. We returned home in rain, dark, and fog, and I was worried the heavy mist would obscure my favorite part of this special day--seeing the star on the Mount Battie tower lit up for the first night of the season. I didn't think we'd see it through the clouds, but my husband bet me a quarter we would. Sure enough, when we crested the hill past Simonton Corner, there it was: a blur of light seemingly floating in the night sky. We might not even have been aware of what we were seeing if we didn't know there was a small mountain ahead of us bearing a star of lights on its summit.

Rainy Thanksgiving.
First glimpse of Mount Battie star--
smear of misty light.

And then there are other local holiday traditions that make me smile. As we turned into our neighborhood, we could see how our neighbors the Wards had spent their Thanksgiving. When we hit the road this morning, a deflated turkey lay slumped on their lawn. Tonight, thousands of Christmas lights, reindeer, candy canes, inflatable Santas and snowmen bedeck their home and yard. During the holidays, this is the most-visited house in town. Even when I was a kid we would make a special side trip so we could marvel at their light show. Only a Scrooge would complain about the energy drained. Not to sound like a credit card ad, but traditions like these that invoke the joy and wonder of the holidays--a joy and wonder that have persisted since childhood--are priceless. The nights grow longer these last few weeks until the Solstice. But our spirit is strengthened by these lights, this star, in the darkness.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

November 25: Chickadees

The Maine state bird, the pert black-capped chickadee, is so common around here that we tend to take it for granted. It's a tiny bird with a simple song, and sports the same black and white plumage year-round. Of the birds that come to my feeder, the male cardinal, rose-breasted grosbeak, and goldfinch are much flashier, capturing more attention with their color and comparative scarcity.

But I think chickadees are my favorite visitor, because I can count on them. They're regulars. Every morning when I sit down at my desk, there's a flurry of chickadee activity at my little window feeder, and every afternoon when dusk starts to fall (these days, around 4:00) there's another flurry before they all head off to roost for the night. When I hear the soft, repeated taps of chickadees landing one after another on the feeder in late afternoon, I automatically look at the clock, knowing my work day is almost done. I like knowing that my feeder must be one of their last stops before nightfall. If the feeder is very low or empty, one will sometimes sit on the edge and yell, "Chick-a-dee-dee-dee," looking right at me--I swear it's telling me to get up and fill the feeder already.

Photo by Brian Willson

Each bird flits in quickly and pauses for a moment on the feeder's edge, bright eyes alert to any movements, including mine. It carefully picks through the seeds till it finds the perfect one (sometimes tossing aside the imperfect ones with seeming disdain), then flies off with it. The next chickadee, which has been queued up in a nearby bush, quickly follows suit. One chickadee--at least, I think it's one bird--likes to open its sunflower seed by banging it on the side of the feeder. You can hear it throughout the office, and I can't help but laugh each time at its clever talent.

The chickadee's tiny bird brain actually does something amazing this time of year--it grows extra brain cells so as to expand its memory to include all the places the bird is caching food for the winter. It's kind of like adding extra RAM to a computer. Even the smallest creatures are marvels of nature when studied closely.

Bright-eyed chickadee
looks in at me, grabs one seed--
the day is ending.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

November 24: Vegetables

I had lunch today at Chase's Daily, an excellent vegetarian restaurant in Belfast that also doubles as a sort of farmer's market, with the back half of their space being filled with produce fresh off the farm. You wouldn't think there would be much to offer in late November. But I was surprised at what filled the bins and baskets back there: several types of squashes, beets, kale, architectural-looking Romanesco broccoli (see below--this stuff is cool!), cauliflower, parsnips, carrots, onions, rosy fingerling potatoes, celeriac, even paper white bulbs for forcing some winter blooms. A bounty of late season food, and certainly something for which to be thankful.

And did I mention they also have an amazing array of baked goods? Chocolate pear tarts, cherry coconut muffins, ginger cookies, breads... And cheeses. Mmmm. Is it obvious I'm writing this right before suppertime? Even now, the rest of the carrots I brought home are beckoning me from the kitchen...

Big, glowing carrot--
I eat it right from the bag.
Mouthful of autumn.

Monday, November 23, 2009

November 23: Midges

Tonight when we came home from a movie, our porch light was swarmed by midges. Such an odd thing to see in late November, this cluster of insects. The unseasonably warm weather must have brought on a late hatch. Now that the light is turned off, will they just freeze and die? 

Drawn to the porch light,
one last hatch of little flies
lasts one more cold night.

A short aside on my prosody here: Traditional Japanese poetry from which the haiku is derived made use of significant word play; words that carried more than one meaning added extra layers and depth to a poem. Such cunning punning created the pivots on which the poem turned, as with "last" in this haiku. Interesting to stop and think about how it ironically means both "final" and "enduring." The end rhyme was unintentional, and I thought about changing the last word from "night" to "hour," but then I decided that I don't really mind the rhyme this time around.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

November 22: Driving Home

Spent my day driving home from Vermont. A long trip, punctuated by seeing nine roadside hawks and some blue sky. I was tired and wanted to get home in time for the Patriots game, hence I will confess that I was indeed speeding a wee bit at times. At one point, though, I shocked even myself at how fast I was going--definitely not my usual driving mode. (I feel compelled to add that I quickly slowed down and it didn't happen again.) Guess that's the lure of the open highway with home at the other end, good music, and little else in way of distraction...

Road, cars, tree a blur.
Must be anxious to get home--
going 95?!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

November 21: Mountains

The classic Japanese woodblock artist Hiroshige created a series of prints called "One Hundred Views of Edo," in which Mount Fuji is a near-constant presence--sometimes prominent, sometimes in the distant background. There aren't many direct comparisons to be made between Burlington and Tokyo, I realize. But in fact, the mountains that surround this small city in Vermont are just as much a constant presence as Fuji is for Tokyo. Of course, Fuji is a bit more dramatic, being a very high conic volcano apparently rising from the plains. (I've never seen it in person.) But I still thrill to recognize the various mountains visible here--less singular than Fuji, but no less distinct in their effect on those who live near them and who see them on a regular basis.

From the crest of the hill in the middle of the University of Vermont campus, you look west across glowering Lake Champlain to be confronted by the jagged wall of the Adirondacks. To the north rises Vermont's highest peak, Mount Mansfield. To the south, the distinctively shaped bare peak of Camel's Hump juts up from among surrounding hills. When I was in college, I climbed both these mountains several times, and once snowshoed up Mount Marcy, the highest of the Adirondacks. Mountain tops are such meaningful places, places of power that summon their strength from the surrounding landscape below and constant contact with the clouds. They literally touch the heavens. To live in a city with the visual touchstone of a distinctive mountain (or two or more) allows you, in a sense, to tap into that power for yourself, as well as the beauty. I think of the excitement I've heard in the voices of friends in rainy Seattle when the weather's clear and "the mountain is out"--Mount Rainier is visible!

Mist rising from peaks,
mountains protect this city,
commune with the gods.

Friday, November 20, 2009

November 20: Crows

Yesterday I drove to Vermont, a state where I lived for five years (including four in college) and visit at least once a year to see my best friend and her husband in Montpelier. Vermont is a beautiful place, and if it only had an ocean, I might still be living there. (Lake Champlain, while once an inland sea, doesn't quite match up to Penobscot Bay.) So whenever I drive to Vermont and start seeing the familiar exits off I-89 and the profile of the Green Mountains rising to the west, I feel like I'm entering my second home.

Just at dusk as I was about to cross the bridge over the Connecticut River, which divides New Hampshire from Vermont, a massive flock of crows flew over, heading for their roost somewhere north of Lebanon. We don't often see such large numbers of crows--usually just one or two in the yard, or a small group mobbing a red-tailed hawk (which I also saw yesterday at Maine Audubon's Gilsland Farm). But even the family group I watch every day in my neighborhood belongs to some larger society of its kind. Also, unexpectedly large numbers of anything elicit awe (unless it's something like, say, fire ants or maggots, in which case that awe might be tinged with horror or disgust).

Dusk settles, crows flock,
a loose swarm headed for roost.
I too drive homeward.

Shortly thereafter, as it grew darker, I watched the young moon rise, and Jupiter hung clear and bright over the backbone of the Green Mountains.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

November 19: Cranes

My friend Pat Palmer in Naples, Florida, has friends in Fort Meyers who regularly see sandhill cranes near their home. When she was there for a recent visit, however, she was disappointed to only see some birds flying over, nothing up close. Shortly thereafter her friends sent her this photo:

Pat replied that she didn't want to see another photo of the cranes till they were standing on the lanai.

Solemn grey, red capped,
waiting to be asked inside--
two crane visitors.

(Thank you, Pat, for today's inspiration!)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

November 18: Cat

This morning when I pulled up the bedroom window blind, I was surprised to look out and see a small grey cat curled up in the middle of the lawn, seemingly quite at ease despite being settled atop a pile of frosted leaves. Its back was to me so it didn't notice me at the window. I wondered if maybe it was watching squirrels. It seemed alert, looking around without alarm, not huddled or fearful. When the furnace kicked on and warm vapors began to drift out from the furnace outlet vent just below the bedroom window, I wondered if maybe the cat was drawing on some small warmth by positioning itself there. Or maybe that was just coincidence. The incessant squirrel show that plays out in the backyard trees has been made all the easier to observe now thanks to the lack of leaf cover.

I was reminded of one of my favorite Hiroshige woodblock prints from the mid-19th century, Cat in Window, which depicts a bobtail white cat perched on a window sill, calmly looking out over the town at dusk, Mount Fuji and a flight of birds in the distant background. (It's part of the master artist's "One Hundred View of Edo" series.) The cat is the essence of watchful stillness. As a reminder to cultivate this quality in myself, a reproduction of this image once hung by my desk, when my own window looked out over bustling Rockland.

You look soft to touch
grey cat curled on frosted lawn,
calmly watching ... what?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

November 17: Stars

Standing in the bone-chilling dark along the waterfront of Camden, Orion overhead, harbor below, the universe a pierced and sprawling void...

Orion's wide belt:
cosmic punctuation marks.
We're seeing the past!

Two for the price of one tonight:

Castor and Pollux,
twins, paired stars. Make up your mind
is what they're saying.

If I'd managed to glimpse a Leonid meteor, I might even have written three. I love seeing the classic stories of Greek mythology sprawled across the sky. Inspired by the constellations, you could retell a hundred tales and make up your own besides. The time of year when Orion rises is when I most enjoy sky-watching. His presence is for some reason such a comfort to me, as if he were a nocturnal giant watching over us while we sleep or some sort of star-made god.

Monday, November 16, 2009

November 16: Groceries

There's something kind of surreal about wandering the brightly lit aisles of a grocery store--past all those gaudy packages, entire rows of canned fruits, wine bottles with crazy labels, exotic fruits piled with apples and oranges, four kinds of Frosted Mini Wheats--while really tired. We had to do it, we needed food. But it wasn't easy. Still, poetry is everywhere, even when clouded by exhaustion.

Perfectly stacked cans,
bright boxes hold our dinner--
this is food for thought.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

November 15: Fox

The inspiration for today's poem is my friend Brian Willson's Facebook status update this morning: "Up the foggy hill, about a dozen crows are hollering down at a fox that's exactly the color of fallen leaves." This evocative image got my creative wheels spinning in so many directions that I had to make use of it. Thank you, Brian.

What first sprang to mind when I read this was Winslow Homer's incredible painting "The Fox Hunt," which has haunted me ever since I first saw it at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts over a dozen years ago. Crows hound a fox bounding through deep snow, their black wings hovering above the struggling animal in a foreboding manner, sea brooding in the background. And as is typical with crows, more  are flying in to join the harangue. The beauty of this painting, aside from its aesthetic values of color, form, and movement, is its abbreviated narrative. We are given a snapshot of a poignant moment but never know if the fox successfully eludes these birds of doom.

Fortunately, Brian's fox--which he describes as "big, healthy, and fluffy-tailed"--is in less danger as it slips through the woods behind his house. Those crows are just marking its path, hoping to usher it out of their neighborhood. Though I have a feeling it will leave when it wants to leave.

We don't think of foxes as predators because they aren't big and ferocious like lions, tigers, and bears. Only when they're rabid do they scare us. A sort of combination of cat and dog, the fox lives near our houses without fear, inviting our familiarity while remaining wild, true to itself. (Though Russian scientists recently domesticated the silver fox in about 50 years of selective breeding.) In Western tradition, the fox's craftiness has long been celebrated in stories--from the wily fox of Aesop's fables to the sly trickster fox of British and American folklore. Fox-hunting has persisted as a tradition for so long in part because of the challenge presented by the quarry, which often outfoxes all those horses and hounds. In Japanese folklore, the fox is a trickster of more sinister aspect, a shape-shifting creature similar to a werewolf.

I could go on and on. Clearly, a rich tapestry of stories and traditions resonates around the fox, and even now most of us thrill to see a healthy one, its bushy tail waving and red fur glowing as it watches us with bright eyes and then disappears into the woods. With all its cultural baggage, a fox is more than just a fox--it's the embodiment of craftiness, survival, adaptation, and natural beauty. And a fox in the fog, camouflaged by leaves--is it just a fox or some kind of visiting spirit?

Marked by yelling crows,
fox the color of dead leaves
slips through autumn mist.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

November 14: November Rain

At the end of the Juice conference tonight, the buzz of people leaving the opera house spilled out onto the wet sidewalk shining under streetlights. I left feeling inspired, intellectually stimulated, and energized by all the people I had listened to or spoken with during the day-long event. But as I walked the few blocks to my car, away from the hum of excitement and the warmth of the lights of Main Street, the chilly, rainy evening soon draped a cloak of moodiness over my shoulders. Alone, I hurried in the dark to where my car sat by itself in the corner of a near-empty lot. I suddenly felt drained and exhausted; all I wanted to do was get home, knowing that when I got there I would see lights on behind the window blinds for the first time in a week.

The last line of this poem is pulled directly from a Guns N' Roses' song called "November Rain," which is also covered beautifully by Gheto Blaster Ltd. The song perfectly evokes the mood of this bleak season, as well as the usual themes of love and loss that seem to fit so perfectly with this time of year when we are losing the living green world as we know it for one of long nights, cold rain, and bare branches.

Leaves slick underfoot
as I walk from light to dark--
cold November rain.

Friday, November 13, 2009

November 13: No Voice

I spent the whole day today at the Juice conference in Camden, the focus of which is Maine's creative economy. A lot of networking, meeting people, energetic breakout sessions, and running into friends, followed by dinner out, Pecha Kucha, and an evening "block party" of sorts at the six Bayview Landing restaurants. (I only made it to one before I had to call it a night.) After such a day, and still hampered by allergies, I am hoarse and exhausted. But in a good way. In fact, the day was inspiring in so many ways that it would seem hypocritical for me to use it as an excuse to forego my daily blog entry.

Throat sore, no voice left,
Yet how I talked earlier
surrounded by friends.

I do blame my exhaustion for not doing better than that, but sometimes the most important thing to me is that I keep writing something.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

November 12: Rest

I've been home sick today, nothing serious but just very tired. Spent my entire day sitting on the couch glutting myself with one episode after another of a series I've been recording on the DVR ("Bones") while reading through my backlog of New Yorkers. Very relaxing in its way. And the cat has been thrilled to be able to lie next to me on the furry blanket all day long. 

But I haven't summoned a lot of creative energy. (Or any other kind of energy; dinner consisted of ramen flavored with half of that sodium-laden powder included in the noodle package. Made me long for the authentic ramen I used to order at this great Asian restaurant when I was in grad school, real ramen with slices of pork, egg, green onions, some ginger... Funny the comfort foods we become nostalgic for when ill.) 

I'd hoped to use the time home today to work on a piece of writing due soon and maybe come up with some brilliant entry for today. Instead, trying to craft 17 interesting syllables has summoned back my headache.

On the couch all day
I imitate my old cat.
It's all about rest.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

November 11: Necklace

My husband is away again this week, and while I like the time alone, I miss coming home from work and having someone there other than the cat with whom to share my day. And of course I miss his physical presence, that comforting power of touch.

A brief digression: A couple of summers ago I spent a week at an artist/writer retreat on Great Spruce Head Island, an island in eastern Penobscot Bay that has been owned for several generations by the Porter family (as in, photographer Eliot and painter Fairfield). We stayed in Fairfield Porter's house, ate gourmet, organic food, and did whatever we wanted with our time. I napped, read, and roamed the island, watching birds and writing notes and some mediocre poems about the incredible landscape: fog, sea birds, stony beaches, dense spruce forests carpeted with moss and lichen, the sound of the waves, sunny meadows where deer graze. But in the end what I felt really inspired to write were haiku. And interestingly, some of my most successful ones were sensual "love notes" to my husband, whom I was missing. For our last night's "show," while all the artists (there were nine artists and two writers) arranged and hung their paintings, pastels and drawings for display, I paired some of the haiku I had written with appropriate natural objects and created a tactile poetry/object to create an interactive exhibit of sorts. This is one of the haiku I wrote for my husband, written on a piece of paper roughly torn into the shape of a heart and stuck to a heart-shaped stone I found on one of the island beaches:

If I were going to similarly display the following haiku with an object, it would be the necklace I was wearing of big, chunky green and yellow stones interspersed with carved wooden beads. When I got undressed last night, I was surprised to feel how hot the beads were from being in contact all day with my skin. The sensuality of that realization made me miss my husband.

Home alone tonight.
Unclasped necklace in my hand,
wooden beads still warm.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

November 10: Wood Smoke

Going from my car to my house, I noted a strange perfume wafting through the air and was surprised when I realized I was smelling smoke from my neighbor's chimney.

November blessing:
wood smoke rising like incense
in the chilly dark.

Being warm and safe is the most basic of comforts. When our basic needs are met and have the added bonus of being pleasurable, so much greater is the blessing.

(Sorry for tonight's short entry; I'm off to what will probably be a long work-related dinner event. Satisfying some more of life's needs. Food, yes. And also, the society of others.)

Monday, November 9, 2009

November 9: Clementines

Mondays can sometimes be the hardest day of the week. There's catching up on e-mail accumulated over the weekend, staff meetings, and then the realization of all that needs to be accomplished in the five days ahead. Especially when the weather is as unseasonably warm as it was today, and all I wanted to do was get out on a trail somewhere to look for sparrows among the dead leaves and weeds.

But small pleasures can be found. The perfectionist workaholic in me appreciates the satisfaction of completing a day's tasks well and making a good start on the work week. And there are the day-long distractions of the titmice at my feeder, scolding each other with more aggressive vigor than one would expect in such tiny birds. Or the lingering citrus fragrance of fresh-peeled clementines that transports me from a dim office on a November afternoon to somewhere tropical and exotic...

Blue bowl, orange fruit.
Sweet clementines for my lunch--
perfumed taste of Spain.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

November 8: Football

Although the focus of traditional haiku was the natural world, contemporary haiku--especially contemporary American haiku, no less--has been more wide-ranging in topic. My personal lens is a natural one. Birds, weather, and the outdoor world generally inspire and inform my writing, one reason why I am drawn to haiku as a form of aesthetic expression. Which is why I surprised myself with today's poem.

On this uncharacteristically warm November morning, I went for what may well have been my last outside run for the season. We joined friends for a neighborhood brunch, at which we marveled at being able to sip our mimosas on the deck. I spent some time tromping around in the leaves in the back yard. It seemed like everyone was out for a walk. But this is Sunday: football day. So while we opened some windows to continue to enjoy the unseasonable warmth, we were on the couch when this afternoon's game came on.

I am an unabashed sports fan, avidly following the Red Sox and the Patriots. I also enjoy watching top-level golf and tennis tournaments, and have harbored a secret passion for horse-racing since childhood. (Having now made that confession, I can't resist a small aside here celebrating yesterday's victory of the undefeated, 5-year-old mare Zenyatta in the Breeder's Cup Classic. This race had never been won by a female, and Zenyatta had never been run against the boys, but she was the favorite--everyone was holding up "Girl Power" signs. I am not ashamed to admit that her dominating, come-from-behind win versus a strong field that included this year's Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winners made me cry.)

So, I take my sports seriously. And Sundays revolve around the Patriots in this house. There are few athletic feats more satisfying to watch than Tom Brady throwing a perfect pass to Randy Moss, who then cruises across more than half the field dodging Miami defenders to score a touchdown that puts us once more in the lead. And a reference to football is as appropriate a seasonal marker for autumn as falling leaves and the harvest moon, right?

Randy Moss touchdown,
Pats take the lead. Have to cheer!
So sorry, old cat.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

November 7: Prayer Flags

Every morning before beginning my day I sit at my desk and check my e-mail while looking out the window at my back yard. We live on the Megunticook River below Seabright Dam, so the water course is rather narrow here. But we can often hear the river's soothing rush. Birds move through trees that form a screen of sorts between our house and the water. Right now a flock of crows is noisily making its way through the neighborhood. Because most of the branches are bare, I can see where they land; their bodies bob up and down with each yell.

A hollowed stump holds a last lingering chrysanthemum, brave purple blossoms capped by a pile of fallen leaves. One tree retains most of its foliage, a young maple that was the last to turn. Its wide bright leaves, turned up to the morning sun like so many outstretched palms, scatter and twirl in all directions in a true shower of gold. A mosaic of russets and golds from maple, beech, ash and oak carpets our lawn. And our mossy-roofed shed sits in the middle, blocking the best water view, but also blocking our winter view of nearby houses that become very visible once the branches are bare. Our tiny space is contained in its way, bound by the river and a steep bluff, and a fence one one side. A neighbor's dog barks in the distance, and nearby someone chain-saws fallen branches, making firewood for the winter ahead.

A string of Buddhist prayer flags hangs above our shed door: blue, white, red, green, and yellow (symbolizing sky, wind, fire, water, and earth) against the white of the shed. When the wind flutters the flags, it spreads the blessings inscribed on each piece of cloth throughout the surrounding space of my yard, the neighborhood, the river...  This morning I notice that a maple leaf has landed exactly at the end of the string, gold leaf right next to a yellow scrap of fabric, as if it wanted to be part of the "wind horse." It too is inscribed with a mantra written in the calligraphy of its veins. The crows, chickadees, and busy squirrels will benefit from this blessing when it eventually blows away.

Fallen maple leaf
joins the string of prayer flags--
all spread their blessings.

(Unfortunately this was taken before the leaf positioned itself at the end of the string.)

Friday, November 6, 2009

November 6: Gulls

Some days I'm just driving around minding my own business when poetry throws itself in front of me. Today while carrying out an ordinary errand in Rockland, I was startled into attentiveness by a pair of gulls flying above my car, the light catching their wings and bodies in a way that made them glow angelically. I actually slowed my car to watch them.

Caught me by surprise
over Route One, McDonald's--
flash of white feathers.

Of course, these gulls are among the noisy gang that vigorously scavenge food scraps in the McDonald's parking lot, so not the most likely source for an afternoon epiphany. But that juxtaposition of the sacred and profane of sorts made the moment all the more enlightening--to find beauty amid the ordinary ugliness of fast food restaurants at a busy intersection gave me a brief sense of renewed joy in the greater world. It woke me up, made me aware of where I was and what was around me. Reminded me of the poetry to be found in the mundane if we catch a glimpse from just the right angle.

Further along Route One, a swirling whirlwind of hundreds of leaves rose up over my car, dipping and scattering like small brown birds. Another lovely moment. My favorite song came on. For a few minutes, I was acutely conscious of being happy.

And then I got stuck at a light, a car cut me off, and my mind started to focus again on the next task at hand, shifting out of that brief phase of awareness into just driving back to work.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

November 5: First Snow

Driving south to Bath this morning, I was surprised when the slushy rain changed over to big snowflakes. The snow was even sticking, forming some wide roadside patches. Although last month we had light snowfall along the ridgeline of the Camden Hills, that doesn't really count as "first snow" for me because I didn't get to touch it. Now wet flakes coat my hair, if just for the brief moments I am outside my car.

The first snowfall has the power to transport me into the near future. I catch myself thinking about what I might give my family members for Christmas and how I hope to snowshoe on a river front property in Belfast that will become a new Land Trust preserve in late December, looking for winter finches in the old farm fields there. These thoughts anticipate the pristine blankets of snow that decorate picture postcard views of "winter in New England" that show up on mass-produced calendars you get from your insurance agent or fuel guy. They bring to mind the serene winter scenes depicted in 19th century woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) by such Japanese masters as Hiroshige and Hokkusai--snow-draped bare branches curving over a busy footbridge, the cone of snow-whitened Mount Fuji, snow decorously trimming the eaves of a tea house or temple...

Yet now even the snow that dusted a shorn corn field just an hour ago has melted away, and the snow has transitioned back to rain. And I'm brought back to the reality of weather on the Maine coast, where our snow often melts into rain, or worse, sleet or ice. Not that I'm really ready for winter yet anyway. But maybe the transitory beauty of those first fluffy flakes falling on the still-gold leaves has better prepared me for winter's imminent onset.

First falling snow flakes
brush the burnished autumn leaves,
melt in their gold fire.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

November 4: Crows at Dusk

I've had better days. I got to work late because allergies had me feeling low this morning. The disappointing election results defeating the gay marriage bill--and reading all the messages of pain and sadness from friends gay and straight around the country--certainly didn't help raise my spirits. I'm still adjusting to the fact that by the end of my work day it's full night outside, pitch black dark. I can't even see the way to my car without the aid of that little flashlight on my key chain. And my husband's away, so I came home to a chilly, empty house to microwave a lame frozen dinner for myself (my husband is the cook in the family).

I don't say all this to vent and whine about my life or about politics--I don't want this to be that kind of blog (though some may argue that everything I write is about my life in some way, and/or that everything is political). Instead, I include these details about my day as a way to explain the stark mood that settled on me at about 4:30 p.m., when dusk began to creep in behind the increasingly bare branches, and the passing cries of the local crows sounded almost desperate. Personal mood affects the way you perceive the world. And how you express it creatively. So here is my bleak November afternoon, distilled into 17 syllables:

Crows fly past, cawing
as the afternoon deepens--
dark feathers, branches.

(Because I don't like to linger in darkness for too long, however, I hasten to add that I actually enjoy this particular frozen dinner (Ethnic Gourmet's palak paneer) and am looking forward to curling up on the couch with my cat to watch Pedro Martinez pitch in Game 6 of the World Series tonight.)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

November 3: Blue Jay

The haiku master Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) often wrote humorous observations of the animal life around him, like these gems, translated by Robert Hass:

The bedbugs
scatter as I clean,
parents and children.

The mountain cuckoo--
a fine voice,
and proud of it!

(From The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa, edited by Robert Hass)

In that same vein, I offer up today's haiku, with a short back story: I've stuck a small bird feeder filled with black sunflower seed on the window in front of my office desk. I'm often entertained and pleasantly distracted throughout the work day by the various birds who visit. Regular drop-ins include tufted titmice, chickadees, goldfinches, a white-breasted nuthatch or two, the occasional song sparrow, and, if I'm lucky, a cardinal or rose-breasted grosbeak. Lately, however, the blue jays have figured out how to balance on the tiny feeder to get their share of seed. The cheeky birds look in at me with beady black eyes that shine with sly intelligence. At first I shooed them off, but now I stop what I'm doing to admire them--their color, cleverness, and audacity. They're smart and they get what they want. And as I carry out my work, there are probably lessons I could be learning by following their example, if I could dare to be so brash.

Big greedy blue jay,
you can barely fit yourself
in my bird feeder.

Monday, November 2, 2009

November 2: All Soul's Day/Day of the Dead

Tonight as I was driving home from work, the full moon was just beginning to peek above the dark rim of Mount Battie, the hill that forms the backdrop to my neighborhood. At the base of Mount Battie is Mount View Cemetery, where my maternal grandfather, great-grandparents, and other family members lie buried. On this day of remembering our loved ones who have passed on, it seemed appropriate that the lunar light was shining down the mountainside onto these rows of headstones in the middle of our town.

November's full moon
emerges, cloud-shrouded, high
over Mount Battie.

When I was about six, we lived near this cemetery for a while, and I used to ramble around the grounds and surrounding woods with the neighborhood kids. There was one gravestone on the far side of the cemetery that was simply a giant, unshaped chunk of pink rose quartz with a memorial plaque affixed to it. We all thought this was the most beautiful stone imaginable, and made special pilgrimages to see it, as we would to the vernal pool nearby when the polliwogs hatched each spring. Even now as an adult, living once again within walking distance of the cemetery, I will sometimes make a detour on a walk into town just to see that stone, to reassure myself it's still there and that I know where it is, an odd touchstone to my childhood roamings. Interestingly, I don't remember the name on the stone, but I think it's a woman's. (A big pink stone probably wouldn't be considered very manly.) Thus in these small ways we remember our dead, and our past, and celebrate the full moon of the present.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

November 1: All Saint's Day

A few of my fellow writers are doing this November Novel Writing Month thing, for which they plan to write 50,000 words during the month of November. Not being a novelist, and not even being a very prolific poet at the moment, I thought that I might follow the concept in the most basic, simple form I can think of. So my plan: I'm going to try to write a haiku every day for as long as I can.

As many of us may remember from back in grade school, a haiku is a syllabic Japanese poetry form of three lines in which the lines are five, seven, and five syllables respectively. A proper haiku includes a kigo, or season word, indicating the season in which the poem is set. For serious haiku writers, there are large almanacs of kigo for inspiration. For example, references to the arrival of cranes, grave visits, and chysanthemums would all signal a (Japanese) poem set in autumn. As a natural history essayist and avid student of nature, this seasonal attentiveness of the form appeals to me--in addition to its brevity. I often resort to writing haiku as a form of writing something when I've got writer's block. I find that the constraints and minimalism of the form then may free me up or jump start me to write longer pieces.

Several years ago a dear friend gave me a copy of the Les Tres Riches Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry, complete with replicas of some of the beautiful illuminations painted by the Limbourg brothers. This "Book of Hours" was primarily a religious calendar, and its works of art not only depict seasonally appropriate scenes of everyday life in the French countryside, but also include religious scenes and private references to the life of the Duke himself. For some reason, this combination of the spiritual, the mundane, and the beautiful has always appealed to me and I've often wondered how to respond to the Book of Hours in a poetic way. This may be it, or not.

This is not a Book of Hours but a Book of Days, because most days one haiku is probably going to be about all I can handle. So, here's today's, inspired by the bright green parsley plant still flourishing amid frost-killed marigolds in my garden on one of the last warm mornings of fall:

Parsley sprigs still green
despite several nights of frost.
Slowly winter comes.