Poem of the Week, by Danusha Laméris

Once, a friend and I sat on a long and deserted stretch of sand. This was on the Forgotten Coast of Florida, and it was late, and the sky twinkled overhead. My friend gasped and pointed at a shooting star.

Oh my God, she whispered. I’ve never seen one before.

I, who had seen many, stayed silent in the face of her enchantment. Another star melted down the sky, and another. My friend was speechless now, and so was I. Her wonder made shooting stars new for me again.

Pigeons, by Danusha Laméris

Because they crowd the corner
of every city street,
because they are the color
of sullied steel,
because they scavenge,
eating every last crust,
we do not favor them.

They raise their young
huddled under awnings
above the liquor store

circle our feet, pecking at crumbs
pace the sidewalk
with that familiar strut.

None will ever attain greatness.
Though every once in a while
in a tourist’s blurry snapshot
of a grand cathedral

they rise into the pale gray sky
all at once.

Click here for more information about the wondrous Danusha Laméris.

alisonmcghee.com
My podcast: Words by Winter

Books I Read Last Month

Outline, by Rachel Cusk. This was my first Rachel Cusk novel, and once I finished it I immediately tromped out to Magers & Quinn in -5 temps and bought Transit, the next in this trilogy. What a fascinating read, narrated by a woman, a writer herself, who’s on a week-long teaching residency in Greece. We learn virtually nothing about the narrator –I felt at arm’s distance from her all the way through the book, as she eats and drinks, goes for boat rides, teaches, and meets with friends—and yet I was drawn in to this book the same way I was drawn to the Ferrante novels, by the narrator’s sharp, level, unsparingly honest observations.

Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus. My mother gave me this novel for Christmas and I was delighted, because I’d heard trustworthy friends say how much they’d enjoyed it. Enjoy it I did, and I sent it on to my own daughter, so the female line of McGhee-Garmus fans might continue. Funny. Acerbic. Enraging in an exhausted, eye-rolling, my God can we just once and for all dismantle the patriarchy because everyone’s lives would be so much better way. Snappy. Skewering. Elizabeth Zott, the chemist at the heart of the book, is irresistible, at one point following up her use of the word water with “or H2O, as it’s more commonly known.” Completely enjoyable.

This Must Be the Place and The Hand That First Held Mine, both by Maggie O’Farrell.

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet stunned me, and the day I finished it I walked to Magers & Quinn, once again in sub-zero weather, and picked up This Must Be the Place and The Hand That First Held Mine. I can’t get enough of this writer. Her brilliantly wrought characters, especially the women, oh the women. Thank you for your women, Maggie O’Farrell. Thank you for the way you write about the wild pull of motherhood, and the simultaneous and equal wild pull to make art. Thank you for way you skip back and forth in time and place, the way you weave a magic invisible web that somehow includes small me within it.

The Phantom TollBooth, by Norton Juster, ill. Jules Feiffer. I’ve been interspersing contemporary books with long-ago children’s classics I somehow never read before, The Phantom Tollbooth being one of them. This wordy, odd little book would be worth it for Jules Feiffer’s illustrations alone, but once I decided to go along for the ride of the wordplay and allegorical references throughout, I had fun. At one point I dog-eared a page so I could go back and copy out a quote from it, and I actually did go back and copy out that quote, which, trust me, doesn’t always happen.

The Roof Over Our Heads, by Nicole Kronzer. One of the many interesting aspects of this novel, about a theater family and their many actor friends and recruits who create an immersive, Victorian-themed escape-room mystery in their falling-apart Victorian mansion in a desperate attempt to raise enough money to pay for necessary repairs, is that it reads almost like a play in book form. There’s lots of rapid-fire dialogue and action narrated by an introspective, charming teen struggling to help his family and himself. At heart, The Roof Over Our Heads is a novel about the complications, depth and devotion of family love.

Poem of the Week, by Wendell Berry

When my children were tiny they went to a neighborhood preschool, a gentle place taught by lovely teachers who never got upset. There was a dress-up corner, a story-time corner, a Lego corner. In nice weather the kids went outside to play and work in the school’s flower garden.

If it was too cold, they zipped around on tricycles and scooters in a big empty room. Every child longed to ride what they called The Double Bike, an elongated trike with two seats. It was a great day when you got to The Double Bike first and didn’t have to wait your turn. 

One freezing day I arrived at recess and watched as my youngest –who didn’t know I was there– bent into a sprinter’s crouch, a giant grin on her face. “Are you ready?” she said to her buddies. “Get ready!” The door to the trike room opened and she and her friends zoomed toward The Double Bike. When I think of joy, I picture my daughter’s face that day, how her black hair flew behind her, the echo of her wild laughter. 

Before Dark, by Wendell Berry

From the porch at dusk I watched
a kingfisher wild in flight
he could only have made for joy.

He came down the river, splashing
against the water’s dimming face
like a skipped rock, passing

on down out of sight. And still
I could hear the splashes
farther and farther away

as it grew darker. He came back
the same way, dusky as his shadow,
sudden beyond the willows.

The splashes went on out of hearing.
It was dark then. Somewhere
the night had accommodated him

—at the place he was headed for
or where, led by his delight,
he came.


Click here
 for more information on Wendell Berry.

alisonmcghee.com
My podcast: Words by Winter

Note: a version of this post first appeared here in 2017.

Poem of the Week, by Karla Kuskin

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When my children were little one of our favorite books was The Philharmonic Gets Dressed. Such a simple story. In apartments all over New York City, orchestra musicians are dressing for the evening performance. Everyone wears black. They muscle their instruments, large and small, into cabs and the subway, and they head to work. My children and I read this book over and over, usually at bedtime, where it soothed their way into sleep.

Books like this tantalize me, because the author took something familiar –an orchestra–and focused on the unfamiliar. Musicians not in their orchestra pit at a grand hall, but at home, getting dressed. The backstory. The unthought-about. It’s dangerous to think you know everything about something or someone. It leads to complacency, to boredom, and sometimes to destruction.

When I read this poem below, The Philharmonic Gets Dressed floated back into my mind. And lo and behold, look who was the quiet genius behind both.  

Write About a Radish, by Karla Kuskin

Write about a radish
Too many people write about the moon.

The night is black
The stars are small and high
The clock unwinds its ever-ticking tune
Hills gleam dimly
Distant nighthawks cry.
A radish rises in the waiting sky.

For more information about Karla Kuskin, please click here.


alisonmcghee.com

My podcast: Words by Winter

Note: this post first appeared here in September, 2018.

Poem of the Week, by Lydia Davis

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A few years ago my friend J sent me this poem, with the subject line Have you seen this? No, I wrote back, I have never in my life read this poem and how did I not know that Lydia Davis (who’s a genius of the short story) also wrote poetry? Later that night, J and I talked about the poem on the phone. We weren’t really talking about the poem, though, because what is there to say about it beyond This is life and this is life and this is life.

J and I have been friends for nearly our entire adult lives at this point, and we have seen each other through, with through standing in for those times when you don’t know how you will make it through. Once, many years ago now, during a time when I could barely make it off the couch, J and her husband showed up unbidden at my front door. Pack a bag, they said, you’re coming to stay with us for a while. And I packed a bag and went to stay with them for a while, and they fed me and watched over me and waited until I could function again. Sometimes my phone blinks with J’s name and a feeling comes over me: answer it. And in the silence between my hello and her first words is weight and pain.

We know how to help each other through, is what I’m trying to say. We all need someone to help us through. It doesn’t matter how long you live, heart is still and always will be so new. 

Head, Heart, by Lydia Davis

Heart weeps.
Head tries to help heart.
Head tells heart how it is, again:
You will lose the ones you love.  They will all go.  But
even the earth will go, someday.
Heart feels better, then.
But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of
heart.
Heart is so new to this.
I want them back, says heart.
Head is all heart has.
Help, head.  Help heart.

For more information on Lydia Davis, please click here.

(Note: this post and poem originally appeared here in 2017.)
alisonmcghee.com

My podcast: Words by Winter

Poem of the Week, by Kevin Hart

It’s been wildly snowy here in Minneapolis in a way that brings me straight back to childhood in far upstate New York, where we lived so far out in the country that the only lights at night were the ones inside our house.

If you went outside and looked up on a clear night, the sky wasn’t dark. It was a field of diamonds, strewn so thick that sometimes stars blurred into each other. You could see the Milky Way and sometimes the northern lights. On winter nights, if it were snowing –and it was always snowing, there in the foothills of the Adirondacks–those stars spun their way down to earth in the form of snowflakes.

This past week in the city brought childhood back to me. Endless shoveling. Laughing with my neighbors about where can we possibly put all this snow. The mesmerizing beauty of tree limbs weighted with snow. The hush. The calm. The stillness.

Snow, by Kevin Hart

Some days
the snow has taken me in
to know the time of snow, to live
inside a world so quiet

its music
is all a shimmering. Some evenings
when quite alone
I turn off every light

and watch the snow
enjoy the dark, moving lushly
through spiky air,
finding more time

in time
than when I stretch myself
and am
my father’s father. Oh yes,

there is
a sparkling choir, there surely is,
and dark ice air
through which we fall.

Click here for more information about Kevin Hart.

alisonmcghee.com

My podcast: Words by Winter

Poem of the Week (excerpt), by Joy Harjo


Five openings left in the Zoom room, January 7-13, in our first-ever, informal, kick off the new year with joy and freedom Write Together session! Seven days of morning and evening prompts, join in for any or all. Each session recorded in case you miss one. Click here for all the details.

A long time ago, acting on instinct, I took a little piece of scrap paper and wrote “People You Can Call” at the top of it. Whichever name came to me, I jotted down, even if it were somehow surprising, like a friend I hardly ever talked to, someone I hadn’t seen in a long, long time. My dog’s name came to me and I added that to the list too.

For better and for worse I don’t belong to many groups. My sense of solidarity and community is often invisible, made of words like these words, small lights strung along a meandering, imaginary path. Looking at my list was comforting. These names had shimmered up easily, and somehow this meant they could help me call my spirit back from its wandering, as if it were a beloved child.

For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet (excerpt), by Joy Harjo

When you find your way to the circle, to the fire kept burning by the keepers of your soul, you will be welcomed.

You must clean yourself with cedar, sage, or other healing plant.

Cut the ties you have to failure and shame.

Let go the pain you are holding in your mind, your shoulders, your heart, all the way to your feet. Let go the pain of your ancestors to make way for those who are heading in our direction.

Ask for forgiveness.

Call upon the help of those who love you. These helpers take many forms: animal, element, bird, angel, saint, stone, or ancestor.

Call your spirit back. It may be caught in corners and creases of shame, judgment, and human abuse.

You must call in a way that your spirit will want to return.

Speak to it as you would to a beloved child.

Welcome your spirit back from its wandering. It may return in pieces, in tatters. Gather them together. They will be happy to be found after being lost for so long.

Your spirit will need to sleep awhile after it is bathed and given clean clothes.

Now you can have a party. Invite everyone you know who loves and supports you. Keep room for those who have no place else to go.

Make a giveaway, and remember, keep the speeches short.

Then, you must do this: help the next person find their way through the dark. ​

Click here for more information about U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo.

alisonmcghee.com
My podcast: Words by Winter

Poem of the Week, by Mary Oliver

Nine openings left in the Zoom room, January 7-13, in our first-ever, informal, kick off the new year with joy and freedom Write Together session! Seven days of morning and evening prompts, join in for any or all. Each session recorded in case you miss one. Click here for all the details

If you ask a group of people to name a favorite poet, the name Mary Oliver will pop up within seconds. And with good reason. A few of her poems mean so much to me that I long ago memorized them, the better to weave myself an invisible, always-there blanket of comfort.

This poem goes out today to everyone living with loneliness through the holidays. Maybe your marriage ended this year, or you lost someone dear to you from death or estrangement. Maybe you don’t know how you’re going to pay your rent next month. Maybe you or someone you love got bad news from a doctor. Maybe you keep listening for the sound of your dog when you put your key in the front door. Maybe you’re surrounded with friends and family and still, somehow, you feel like crying.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, this poem–and every poem of the week–is my offering to you.

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Click here for more information about ​Mary Oliver.

alisonmcghee.com
My podcast: Words by Winter

Tap-tap-tapping in the coffee shop

Dear friends,

Happy early new year to you all. Today I’ll sit down and write my annual letter to myself, a rite of passage at this time of year, looking back at all that transpired (so, so much this year) and how I feel about it all. No one sees this letter but me. It helps me place pattern to life and its many transitions (and also helps me see I’m more resilient than I often feel).

January brings another rite of passage, which is a week of twice-daily writing prompts I give myself. This is a week I set aside for pure freedom, exhilaration, and who-knows-where-this-writing-may-go joy. Every year brings fourteen passages of sometimes strange, sometimes great, sometimes boring, sometimes terrible, always unexpected writing. 

What I love about this week is that there are no expectations beyond completing two passages of writing per day. No judgment. No feedback. No sharing with anyone else unless, of course, you feel like it. I think of the writings that result from this week as a storehouse of ideas. Playing around with words, without expectation, replenishes the spirit. 

This year, for the first time, I’m turning my own practice into a shared week of writing for up to 30 participants. We’ll gather in the Zoom room for an hour every morning and evening, January 7-13, for guided prompts –a different theme each day– preceded or followed by a tiny reading of a published piece that complements the prompt. 

It can be so comforting to write in the silent presence of others. This is why I’ve always loved tapping away at my laptop in a busy coffee shop surrounded by others (a pandemic-neglected habit that I need to get back to). If you too are comforted by the idea of writing in community, with prompts supplied by someone not yourself (i.e., me), with no expectation of feedback or sharing, come join us! Each session recorded in case you miss one. 

Fee: $200. Payable via Venmo, Paypal, Zelle, or personal check (click here for all the details).

Bonus: weekly prompts sent out for one month after the session. 

If you’re interested, let me know. I’d love to see you in the Zoom room! 

Cheers and thanks,

Alison

Poem of the Week, by John Okrent

I’d love to see you in the Zoom room, January 7-13, in our first-ever, informal, kick off the new year with joy and freedom Write Together session! Seven days of morning and evening prompts, join in for any or all. Each session recorded in case you miss one. Click here for all the details.

Yesterday I went to my neighborhood post office for the first time since it was rebuilt. It’s been a long three years and I was so happy to see Fred back at his station. Fred is the greatest postal clerk in the history of the world: so funny, so endearing, so full of smiles and quips and zippy repartee.

I was afraid he’d retired but nope, there he was, making everyone’s day better, in the same way that Elizabeth, my favorite grocery story cashier, makes my life better. “How are YOU?” she will say when I haven’t been shopping in a while. “I see you’re baking again today, aren’t you?”

Fred, Elizabeth, the elderly man who walks his elderly dog past my house every day: these people and so many others at the edges of my daily life, weaving in color and caring and kindness. It is beautiful to be glad to see a person every time you see them.

May 5, 2020, by John Okrent

It is beautiful to be glad to see a person
every time you see them, as I was to see Juan,
the maintenance man, with whom it was always the same
brotherly greeting—each of us thumping a fist
over his heart and grinning, as though we shared a joke,
or bread. I barely knew him. Evenings in clinic,
me finishing my work, him beginning his—
fluorescence softening in the early dark. He wasn’t even fifty,
had four grandchildren, fixed what was broken, cleaned
for us, caught the virus, and died on his couch
last weekend. And what right have I to write this poem,
who will not see him in his uniform of ashes,
only remember him, in his Seahawks cap, and far from sick,
locking up after me, turning up his music.

Click here for more information on poet John Okrent.

alisonmcghee.com
My podcast: Words by Winter