Category Archives: Small truths


to a moonlit September beach

crab traps, fishing poles and the little compartments of a tackle box

to wildflower-strewn hillsides in W. Virginia

toasting marshmallows on a stick and waiting for the whippoorwills to call

to the smooth path of a wake behind the boat

night walks with Luka, the warm lights of other people’s lives as we pass outside

to the first breath of salty air coming home over the bridge

the enchanted fairy-tale scent of beach plum in the dunes

to the places and people that don’t change

the rumbling happy tone of your voice

to lingering can’t-say-goodbye sunsets

the echoes of footsteps, no words between us

to winnowing snipe, pasture horses and more ticks than I’ve had on me in my life in N. Dakota

the stars and darkness gathered all around us, mixed with the sound of the ocean

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Where does your mind wander to?

Of owls and seeing

Pete Dunne tells the story (and I like to repeat it) that one must be pure of heart to see most owls. He was speaking specifically of a particular barn owl that was purported to roost in a hacking box at Brigantine Wildlife Refuge years ago. At the time, I suspected his tactic was common among field trip leaders; an excuse for failing to produce an owl for a group of disappointed birders after having stood around in the freezing cold for hours, waiting.

In the intervening years, since having waited many times in the freezing cold for my own fair share of owls, I’ve come to understand the truth in Pete’s story. Owls are the stuff of imagination. Seeing these keepers of shadow requires exploring the edges of light… if one fails at it, the fault lies not in the seeing, but instead with one’s way of looking.

I’ve been sort of surprised in the last couple years to discover that I’m having trouble spotting birds… my distance vision is deserting me to the point that before long I’ll have to wear glasses when birding; glasses that I’ve stubbornly (and vainly) refused to wear anytime other than when I drive. I’ve become a dedicated listener instead: birdsongs I don’t recognize or can’t identify will drive me to distraction, but songs or calls help with only the easiest of owls.

Just as the omnipresence of noise makes it difficult to distinguish any one singer in the dawn chorus, the profane in a grove of pines can fill every nook and cranny of our time and space; the fertile silence that makes looking (and really seeing) is easily lost. When spotting owls, the looking is an art. Without true attention to it, an integral part of the reverence is destroyed… only the pure in heart are granted sight.

(Or you have a friend along who’s better at it.)

I was distracted with the trees and the pellets and the scattered bits of bone and feathers, the place this little forest made around me; no two trees the same, every branch saying HERE. I couldn’t stand still and let the trees (or the owls) find me.

It is the moon
not the finger
pointing at the moon
that calls us
back to ourselves

*Long-eared owl, regarding its own darkness in a well-known secret communal roost in Pa.



Left behind, survivors from another era, they inspire awe in me


and provide a foothold for my imagination


sweet sentiment dressed in snips and blazes and stars


a whimsical peek into the hubris of the past, red wattles swinging in a sultry breeze


admittance to some rich man’s Valhalla, its roofless ruins pointing jagged brick fingers to the sky…


No longer one family’s private garden, Cumberland Island is the type of place a child might dream of: a whispering forest where flowers grow giant-size and birds speak in tongues and vines are so fat they could carry you from a tree to a pony’s wild silky back.

A place where clouds seem to have fallen to the sugar-white beach in foamy bits and scrub oaks lie blown back like shrieking women.

If ever you’d dreamed of such a place, you’d not have the heart to see it ruined again.

Silenced now are the grand parties, the silk and champagne laughter. Instead there’s wild turkeys that waddle through the palmettos like a pack of tiny horses and ferns that sprout like fountains from the wet bark of primeval oaks, sudden pristine fields where cows might wander and the occasional lone palm that rises up like a warrior out of the whiteness. Suddenly, the crashing sea comes into view and the child in me is happy for dreams come true.

Your empty office

Dear Kathy,

I snuck away during your retirement tea this afternoon for one last look at your office. Already it was mostly empty of any trace of you, but for the umbrella on the desk.

I wonder if you did that; looked back on your way out the door. Or did you just walk, with a smile and your balloons and that silly plaque the county gave you, to do whatever it is you’ll do now that you’re not doing this anymore?

How does it feel to look back on thirty-five years, I wonder?

It goes that the best things said come last. I hope those words reached you today and that you leave knowing the respect and love we all have for you. That your example and your influence, by means of the mentoring you’ve provided for many of us professionally or personally, extended well beyond the confines of your sunny corner office.

In the span of years I’ve known you and worked for you, my perception of that office and of you has reshaped itself a number of times. I’m glad now to be far from those first nervous days when I was a trainee in your unit, seated in rows just outside your door like a schoolkid, under your watchful eye. To have come from that, to where I was invited in these last couple years with the door closed behind me, like a trusted friend, is possibly the greatest compliment you could ever pay me.

Thank you for that and for your confidence in me. Thank you for being there with Deb and Linda and Cathy M. to hold me up when my dad was dying and I didn’t know how to manage it all. Thank you for quietly letting others help me when I needed help and couldn’t get out of my own way. Thank you for encouraging my move to a promotion in social work without making me feel too guilty for leaving my *home* in Unit 425. Thank you for welcoming me into your office as a friend, even though you were my boss. Thank you for cheering me on, in this, now.

Your office is empty. I’m lingering at the door with a rush of words, too late.

A doorway into thanks

For terns and their fast wings
and the silvery fish that vanish beneath them.

For the little that I have
and less now, even, that you left me with.

For the oddly striped and sunblocked
and our ritual weekend-wash in the sea.

For my books
and your eye that didn’t discern their value.

For this memoried vessel
and its wealth of beauty in bloom.

It draws my eye from what’s been broken and dusted over;
a greasy black powder to name my fear.

For the comfort of neighbors
and the part of me, despite this, that wants to feel ok here.

For the perfect pink end to this day
and its voices that animate the darkest corners of my heart.

For your lack of any real malice
and the small brown bunny left in peace to be a witness.

For all the familiar things that mock me, unseen
and the Kingbird’s solemn regard.

For having no one, really, to run to
and surviving, anyway, this first of disasters.

*This post was created on a Mac!… the only happy result of my laptop and most all of my camera gear being stolen early this week. I’m working my way through being angry… and trying to find that thankful place in my heart again.

Under a prairie sky

It seems to me nothing man has done or built on this land is an improvement over what was here before.

An example of one such place, land that hasn’t ever been tilled for agriculture or improved in some way for development, lies halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee. A genuine tallgrass prairie, the Chiwaukee offers a delightful mix of native grasses, uncommon sedges and drop-dead gorgeous orchids among the many wildflowers that bloom within its swells and swales.

It’s an excellent place to test your plant identification skills. I was fortunate to have a botanist and walking-encyclopedia along with me to identify plants. I’d point and Jim would spit out a Latin name. Kinda Pavlovian and fun.


I was tickled to spot this beauty first, after he walked right past it.

The Prairie White Fringed Orchid is a federally threatened species and like most orchids, rather mysterious in its growing habits… some years there’s lots, others not so many. We found just two, I think, on the small portion of the Chiwaukee’s 225 acres that we walked through.

Swaying back and forth among the grasses… delicate and exquisite… and tall at about three feet, it was easy for me to see why there are volunteers sufficiently enthralled with this particular orchid to stand in for their hawkmoth benefactors and pollinate them by hand, with toothpicks, at various sites within their range. So beautiful were they that I hardly saw any of the other wildflowers that surrounded them.

Pristine as it may be, the Chiwaukee and all its wonders are surrounded by houses and sprawl and represents just a small fragment of the native prairie that once existed in that part of the country.

It’s hard for me to imagine anyone plowing these under to grow corn or soybeans or heaven-forbid-Walmarts, but that’s not my reality. Far removed, I see only the interplay between an ancient prairie threatened by people, even as it’s watched over and appreciated by others.

Without a map

Along the northern shore of Lake Michigan… a pic taken at a stop along the way to somewhere else… a chance to stretch our legs and see what there was to see.

I was struck by the familiar… the feel of the wind in my hair and dunes dotted with tansies. I filled the pockets of my jeans with tiny purple mussels cast ashore and wondered at a sea without salt and waves without a tide.

Explorers believed the world had an edge and they could fall off if they went wrong.

I think they were right.

This world is full of edges and falls. That horizon might be a new world or it could be a cliff.

Still, this is true.

I look around me and find the horizon is only a line drawn in the sky… a kind of dare.

For navigating… there’s the fear map that directs me back to shore where it’s safe and dry and comfortable. But following that map means going backwards. And backwards causes my heart to sink, really.

Always, there’s the straight line, the *I know exactly where I mean to be* map. I keep thinking I can somehow convince myself of this, so long as I keep both hands on the wheel and don’t let my hair become undone.

Mostly I’ve given up on that, lately. My record at trying to control the world ain’t so great, plus it makes my shoulders hurt.


Instead I find myself wandering willy-nilly, easily distracted and with too much play in the steering wheel as I look at the sky… my heart and my head in their own happy argument… an argument that’s sweetly wrong, but which pushes me into trouble at awkward times and which laughs me through disaster.

Who can deny it?

“Breathe,” I keep telling myself. Feel. See. It seems simple, but is so very, very hard.

I keep forgetting.

The sea reminds me. This sea. The waves pound it at me, each a different ride, each a different possibility of diving or floating, of swimming or drifting.

The world insists itself like a lover. “Take me. Take this moment… this, now.”

The flower salesman

I know the faces of most of the homeless in the town where I do my field work; many have sat across the desk from me at one time or another and others I just recognize from seeing them around town.

But I was caught by surprise with his flower-laden hands; the roses stolen, I’m nearly certain, from a streetside bush. “I love your hair!” he shouted at me as he crossed the street while I got in my car. Polite to a fault, I smiled and thanked him and closed the car door in his face.

Then I realized he meant to give me some of those flowers. Or so I thought.


Inwardly cursing my good manners, I rolled down the window and smiled some more and listened to his story. Because there’s always at least one good long one. Something in my face brings out the storyteller in people.

Really, I think I must have *I’m a social worker. Tell me every last one of your troubles, please!” stamped across my forehead in ink that everyone but me can see.

Turns out he’s a Vet that lives in a tent in the woods beyond Deal Lake in Asbury. Has a small army of children that eat up the majority of his VA pension with child support. His mind is still mostly somewhere in Vietnam, as he referred over and over to what his Captain says, as if that weren’t forty-some years ago.

I’d guess it was about 10 minutes into our conversation, when he wanted money for the freely offered roses, that he regretted ever throwing a compliment my way.

Cast aside was the smiling white lady who might have money in exchange for a sad story. She was replaced by the social worker with suggestions for where he might find a place to stay for a while, a list of phone numbers and more unsolicited advice than he cared to listen to.

I left him finally with my business card, some change from the bucket I keep in the car for tolls and a bit of inside information that might just make some real difference in his life.

The application list for rental assistance opened in Asbury today. Only today. People wait for years on those lists, wait for decades for the list even to be open. Most people find out after the fact, when it’s too late. Many of the people who need rental assistance never read a newspaper where the announcement and application are published.

I told him to take the money I’d *paid* him for the flowers and buy himself today’s paper so he could submit the application right away and have it postmarked in time.

He thanked me and ambled away across the street, not realizing I was watching him from the intersection while I waited for the light to change. He crossed Main St. and went straight to the liquor store with my money in his pocket.

I’m hoping he bought today’s paper and not a bottle.

Answers come, I suspect, in the form of angels sent to us unaware. So often we’re upheld by giants of Kindness and Hope, by the kind of people who you pass on the street and feel sorry for because they are poor or uneducated or unable to speak much English. Together with the burden of all the sad stories I hear, I like to imagine the benefit of understanding and knowing deeply that true treasures wait here, that a certain kind of strength and confidence resides in the exact places and in the very people you’d least expect.

His rose, suspended in a small ceramic vase on the fridge, will remind me of that for the next couple days.

Dear snowdrops

Thank you for flagging me down to stop and appreciate you in the middle of my crazy whir of nervousness the other day.

Thank you for the invisible valentine of your downturned petals punctuated with a little green heart; I had to be on my knees in the muck to see that.

Thank you for the lady passing by who paused to tell me how beautiful you were – I was thinking about her amazing smile the rest of the day.

Thank you for sharing your private patch of sun-dappled shade with me.

Thank you for giving me the time beside you to remember that the universe will send me everything I need at just the right moment… a friend to hold my hand wordlessly as I wonder what’s happening to me… another to talk me off ledges… someone to gather my stories and worries and unedited truth like so many ingredients of an ancient family soup… another to collect my tears when I most need to cry.

Thank you for helping me hear the stars in my dreams calling me.

Oh, and thank you for an excuse to muddy my jeans.


A first step

I’d intended to share pics of iceboats this weekend at the river or maybe to celebrate the snow that’s been falling all day, but instead…

This story has been heavy on my mind and heart all day. The victim was nameless when the story first went to press this morning, but later in the day he was identified and I recognized a connection to one of my clients and before the workday ended I found myself meeting with a policeman to share next of kin information.


I’m bothered by the things I left unsaid last week in my rant about the homeless. I spoke mostly from a place of frustration, rather than from that place in me that works everyday with the poor and that sees the things they really lack.

A job, a home, a purpose to their day… society can provide for those things in some form or another, but…

There’s no way to counter the lack of a loving family to go home to or someone that smiles just to see you come in.

There’s no way to replicate the feel of a warm-mittened hand in yours on the walk home from school.

There’s no way to know what a kiss in the morning, coffee brewing and the newspaper waiting might do.

I’m not foolish enough to believe that love is the only answer. I know enough about the circumstances that lead people to find themselves in this situation. I understand about addiction and mental illness and the kinds of holes in a person’s spirit that a job or a handout can’t fill.

But we can try, can’t we? To take better care of the people we love? To look out for our neighbor? To hand over a dollar or two for the man begging outside the coffee shop, without worrying that he’ll use it, instead, to buy a bottle?

The need is overwhelming to those of us who stop to consider it, rather than just shutting down, or shutting it out entirely. It’s easy to forget, I think, that the answer needn’t be yes or no, all or nothing.

It’s painful to see the need of others; even more painful to be helpless to fix it. Admitting to that is the first step, I think.