Ice out and ducks in on Cheshire Lake (poetry day 4)

I left this morning with frost on my windshield — but spring is catching up.


By the time I got to Manchester (Vermont, nearly an hour and a half north), the day had become mild enough that Andrew and I walked from the Journal office of the cafe at Northshire Books, where we sat over coffee talking about the next month’s stories — wildflower walks, farmers markets, Memorial Day?

By the time I got to Bennington, to meet Jack McManus walking up the sidewalk to the Banner, I had taken off my coat. And an hour later, in Williamstown, I was driving with the windows down.

In fact, the afternoon felt warm — in the full sun almost too warm. I walked down Southworth Street, looking for the house the college has lent to the volunteers sorting books for the Williamstown library’s annual book sale, thinking I’d stepped into the wrong season.

It’s easy to feel that way right now. We’re collecting events for our summer calendar. The season is heating up around me, my inbox is full of plans involving Chinese bronze sculptures and Hong Kong dance companies, and we’re planning stories into late May. The temperature tonight may fall back to freezing, but I’m halfway into apple blossom time.

Good, I can hear some people saying — but I would say hold on. I love the anticipation this time of year. I love the announcements of John steinbeck plays running around the region and concerts and films and new plays. But I also love spring. The first green leaves above the mud in the park, the pussy willow buds, the way the trees seem to glow in the late afternoons, the crocuses … I love the early spring as much as I love the late spring. And I don’t want to miss it.

So this evening, when I’d checked out our spacious North adams office and made a phone call to a generous local composer (staying at an artists’ colony in Virginia right now and looking out the window at cows as he considers saxophones), I went for a walk on the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail along Cheshire Lake.


The ice is about half out of the lake. A thin sheet still floats over the deep water, and two mallard ducks walked over the surface. Canada geese called across the water. About halfway along the walk, standing by a blowing white pine tree, I could look out along the line where the wind over the water whipped the edge of the ice into fragments.

I missed photographing the duck landing on the water, kicking up spray, and the two unicyclers who passed me just as I reached the end of the walk, as the sun was sinking toward the ridge.

But against the bank, the wind kicking waves across the water had driven a drift of ice. A small and scrabbling and determined person with a camera who didn’t much care about the state of her trousers could scramble down far enough to see the late evening sun through the ice sheets.


I also thought about the 4th poetry prompt

Anticipating spring holidays: Poetry day 3

Last week, I began Friday morning by walking to Temple Anshe Amunim to talk with Rabbi Josh Breindel about Passover, Pesach. I am not Jewish, but I know this holiday in some part from the inside. My old friend Rachel, the Velveteen Rabbi and the Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel, has invited me to her Seder, and I have loved it.

Pesach celebrates the story of the Exodus. It celebrates the day Moses led his people out of Israel, when they left their homes and their kneading troughs and walked out into the desert. Everything changes. Everything is new, and you can’t see ahead. I remember the feeling Rachel’s Seder gave me, of choice, of having the confidence to set out, standing on the shore and listening to the reed sea and thinking — what next?


Talking with Rabbi Breindel, I remembered that feeling. He sang for me, the driving and joyful dayenu and a quiet, resonant psalm he said his father used to sing when he was a boy. And he made the excitement of the holiday tangible.

We talked about preparing for holidays, throwing open the windows, cleaning house, making matzah by hand, planning for his son, for his students, for the holiday at home and the holiday with his congregation.

And as he talked I thought about my own holidays, baking sweet rolls with homemade orange peel before Easter, the treasure hunts my parents used to make for our birthdays, the soaring high glee that came with knowing that somehow today would be different.

My spring holidays have meant family, too, and newborn lambs or kid goats at my grandparents’ farm, and a morning service at the small stone church where my grandparents are buried. They’ve meant old friends and an Easter egg hunt that began as a child’s game.


And they’ve meant stories of renewal, of grief, of a time when you lost everything — and then gained more than you lost — and suddenly everything was new, everything had changed, and you believed you could make things happen. When I think about it, Easter and Passover have a lot in common, and not only because the last supper was a Passover Seder.

Pesach, the Hebrew for Passover, and Paschal, the adjective meaning ‘of Easter,’ share a root. The French for Easter is Paques, from the Latin Paschalia. The two holidays seem to share a name. I asked Rachel, and she agreed. I hope it’s a moeable and shareable joy.

Poetry, day three

You never know where it will take you — poetry, day 2

Yesterday ended and today began with poetry. When I spend several hours reading the Veil Suite book accompaying Izhar Patkin and Agha Shahid Ali’s collaboraion in art and poetry, Amitav Ghosh’s remarkable essay in tribute to Shahid, poetry from “Call Me Ishmael Tonight” and “The Country Without a Post Office,” I am trying to find questions, to find a way to understand this brilliant man I have never met and now can never meet, and to ask about him without intruding on the grief of his friends.

Still, I did not expect this morning. Izhar Patkin is generous, and having spent afternoons walking quietly through the rooms he has invented at Mass MoCA, and reading Shahid’s poems and translations in the light of Patkin’s receding railway tracks, Venetian sunset alive with birds, fishing boats in Tel Aviv — I almost could not believe that the man who made them was sitting at the other end of the phone.

But even more I did not expect Agha Iqbal Ali’s kindness in talking to me for more than an hour about his brother’s poetry and courage and honesty — and the ideas he loved. Cotton looms stopped in Bangaladesh, miners in Bisby, textures, places and languages and stories — like the story of Ishmael, Abraham’s adult son who, in the Muslim tradition, was to be sacrificed, like Isaac — but unlike Isaac, who was a small boy, Ishmael was a teenager, and he knew what was coming.

Mornings like this are one unstoppable reason why I love what I do. And tomorrow I will begin the day with conversations about Passover seders and new theater.

But tonight I have gone looking for stories to blend into poems. Let me offer you a new discovery, a newspaper from the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Reservation, reminding me of stories of life in these hills I want to know — and of the taste of maple sap.

And here is my own day two poem

Daily poems — a spring endeavor

Tonight, I am reading Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry and interviews with artist Izhar Patkin about his work, now at Mass MoCA — I’m preparing to write about an evening of Shahid’s poetry at the museum. Shahid wrote through grief, through illness, with vital energy, and I am humbled to talk with people who know him tomorrow. Tonight his work moves me. A page feels larger than this whole house and all the mountains around it.

I’m in good company. National Poetry Month has rolled in again. In the Berkshires, WordXWord has opened its annual 30/30 challenge: They will offer a prompt a day for 30 days and gather the poems people write. On a broader georaphic scale, NaPoWriMo is doing the same — which means if you live here you can get two ideas to play with at the same time.

30/30 began with “the things they carry,” and NaPoWriMo with the idea of a poem inspird by a work of art and with a link to the bibliomancy oracle — which warned me not to be fooled. So here I’ll begin with all three. I’m reading Charles Mann’s “1491″ right now and vividly remembering the Berkshire Museum’s “Rethink” exhibit, Bently Spang’s contemporary Comanche shirts made with family photographs, Jeremy Frey’s fine baskets, a graphic novel … and wanting to see clearly the real past and the real present of the place I live in. So here is a beginning.

Restaurant in a more accurate universe

News in an age of mobility

While I was talking with my old friend Ethan a few days ago, the conversation turned to new media tools. We were talking about how people read news, where they find it, what might make them more likely to seek out news, and what mght lead them to act on it. I’m using “news” here loosely, to include the arts and features coverage in my world.

Ethan runs the Center for Civic Media at MIT and knows the technical and in some ways the social sides of designing this kind of thing more familiarly than I do — I can’t tell you how to build the kinds of tools I dream about. But like anyone in a newsroom today, I think about the possibilities. We batted around ideas.

On Mobile, content can be fluid, transient and easy to move through, to rearrange and to analyze. And on mobile, users get to talk back (as Douglas Adams pointed out or predicted 20 years ago.)


So — how do you get your news?

How would you like to get your news, if you could?

Berkshire Festival of Women Writers carries me away

On Friday night in a freezing wind, I walked from the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts to Baba Louie’s wondering how I’d gotten to be this lucky.

Edie Meidav had just invited me to share a pizza with five novelists, the counter-culural owner of a bookstore and two graduate students. I was carrying two new books, and one, Roger King’s “A Girl from Zanzibar,” had been a spontaneous gift.

This kind of thing, I was thinking, doesn’t happen to me. But man, it’s good to be wrong about that tonight. People are generous.

It began at a panel, part of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. I went to listen to Helen Benedict and Roxana Robinson and Edie and Sabina Murray talk about writing about experiences outside their own.

And their words hit home

News in action?

This weekend, I wound up talking with an old friend about how people find news, and what they do with it. I’ve known Ethan and Rachel for a dozen years now — they’re fellow Williams alums and Berkshire people, and they’re both involved in media, more extensively in many ways than I am. Ethan directs the Center for Civic Media at MIT.

In this conversation, he wanted to find ways to encourage people to action. If a story, told well, can get people out of their chairs and pacing the room, then what’s the next step, to direct that energy?

The energy that pushes someone to get out the door is valulable, I agree.

And the best way I know of tapping it — short of first-hand experience or knocking on doors — is to tell a good story.

In our magazine, the stories often link to an action, in a simple way: Here’s a play, a talk, a carved bowl, a flute player — take a look. And sometimes (people tell me) it works. They read a story and feel moved to listen to the music or get up and dance.

maple sugaring

Often the job’s as simple as reminding you of the taste of maple syrup so viscerally, so immediately, that you’ll start craving the kind of pancakes with fresh sweet corn your room-mate made that summer after college.

Sometimes it’s leading you into the sugar bush with the farm family, on the first above-freezing day in months, as they talk about what it means that the season is so late in coming.

And sometimes it’s talking to a host of farmers about the migration of sugar maples … and what it will mean if they all move to Canada.

If we do the job right, each of these may encourage a reader to action, in different ways. You may stop by the food co-op looking for local maple cream. You may tour a saphouse. You may decide get milk from the Cricket Creek farm shop occasionally or contribute to their kickstarter campaign, or look around for a farmers’ market or support an organization like Berkshire Grown or sign up for a CSA farm share.

Sometimes it means a small step.

Pleasant Valley in rubber boot weather

It was Sunday, and the sun was shining. The frozen snow had softened enough to show dampness along the driveway, and the edge of warmth made me restless. I wanted to get out into the air.

And I’d never seen Pleasant Valley in the snow before.


The dirt road had thawed enough to give under the wheels as I drove, though not enough for them to sink in. And it took me less than a quarter of a mile to remember that March is still winter, even when it’s mild enough to walk in a fleece jacket.

The beginning of the path had melted almost clear. But get into the woods and the snow still lay a foot deep, trampled into a solid mass along the footway. Off the path, the crust would support my weight for a few steps and then drop me almost knee deep. (If that sounds exaggerated, remember my knees aren’t very high off the ground.)

Slithering downhill (stamping in at every step), I came to a stream — a narrow waterway, easy to step across on bare ground. But the snow covered most of it, and I inched my way over, not sure whether the snow would hold and suddenly aware that my boots were more warm than waterproof. Next time I’ll remember the real duck boots.


The beaver pond stretched out on the right, slate grey with ice. Cat-tails stood in the shallows catching the light. The icy ledge I was feeling my way along had red berries at my feet. (Thom Smith and my mom would know whether they were checkerberry or partridgeberry … if one of them were here I’d be brave enough to taste one. Checkerberries taste like wintergreen. Someone in my old hometown still makes checkerberry syrup and sells it at the general store on the green.)


By the footbridge a foot-thick tree looked beaver-gnawed, and in the low bushes, robins sat talking. I’d never really listened to robin voices before. They sound low and gruff, almost like jays, but softer, I stood on the bridge listening to a mourning dove off on the hill and watching a robin light down a few feet away. I know robins overwinter here, and spring is still at least two days off. But it was good to hear life stirring.

Stepping into the past at North Star

Sitting at a table with a photograph of W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson above me, I wonder what they said to each other the day that photograph was taken, when they could escape from the press photographers and talk together.

What did they say to each other on mild Berkshire afternoons before Martin Luther King marched?


I have come to North Star Rare Books and the W.E.B. DuBois Center in Great Barrington on a crisp and windy day to talk with Randy Weinstein, bookseller and historian. He has a decades-long love and respect for DuBois and black history and art and expression.

He founded the center, he explained, in honor of the woman who had raised him, comforted him as a child and taught him to throw a football as a boy. Her grandmother had lived as a slave in South Carolina. He has named his daughter, Rebecca, after her.

Weinstein told me one story after another, showing me a book DuBois inscribed to Robeson with Robeson’s notes in the margins, another by James Wildon Johnson.

They knew each other here. DuBois was born here and left to become a writer and advocate and national figure. Johnson, the poet who wrote the anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” worked on his collection “God’s Trombones” at the Mason Library. He lived here, Weinstein said, and when he died in a railway accident in 1938, the Eagle ran a front-page story mourning him.


He and DuBois were fast friends, Weinstein said. And Paul Robeson, polymath, activist, galvanizing singer and internationally acclaimed actor, may have had a summer house on one of the Pittsfield lakes.

In the days when the NAACP leaders met here informally, did these three men sit quietly together on mild nights, sharing a cold drink and talking over politics and music and their children and whch train to take to New York?

I looked at signatures in books and wanted the men who wrote them here, warm and alive, so I could ask them.

Berkshire Fringe is coming to town

I’ve been waiting for the official announcement, and it’s finally here — the Berkshire Fringe Festival is moving to Pittsfield! Count me excited.

Last summer I spent a warm afternoon talking with Fringe co-founders Sara Katzoff, Timothy Ryan Olsen and Peter Wise about the festival, how it began and where they saw it going. We sat outdoors at the Berkshire co-op eating blueberries and talking about the energy of actors.

The festival has its own enduring energy. At the fringe, most actors create their own work. They are young, determined and emerging. Katzoff describes actors performing at farmers markets to make people curious, live bands playing before the shows, audiences caught by the unexpected.

And the stories these actors tell often seem to bridge the world. I spent another afternoon sitting on a park bench in Lenox, talking by phone with Melissa Moschitto about her theater company, the anthropologists, and their new play, Mahalla, a blending of contemporary Egypt and the Passover story.

Rafael V. DeLeon performs in 'Mahalla'. (Aahee Kang Asano and Melissa Moschitto / Berkshire Fringe Festival

Rafael V. DeLeon performs in ‘Mahalla’. (Aahee Kang Asano and Melissa Moschitto / Berkshire Fringe Festival

Over coffee at Bizalion’s, earlier in the summer, playwright Matthew Earnest told me how he came to write the unwritten life of Bartleby the Scrivener and probe the history of the dead letter office. He argued passionately for the importance of writing letters — taking the time to tell someone you love what you think in clear, sound words.

And now, this summer’s actors will perform almost in my backyard — and if they hold impromptu rehearsals on the sidewalks and in the farmers market, they’ll be at the farmers market I can see from the roof of this building. To all the Fringe crew, and to Megan Whilden who helped to make this happen, welcome to town.