Talking history in the present tense

Servetus, from Wikipedia entry

I was at



Getting oriented.

Learning about the institution

(I used to scorn that word,


But not anymore.)

We were sitting on a



Joe’s arm around my shoulders.

He pushed his fingers into my hair

And swirled the hair follicles of my scalp

With the pads of his fingers as we listened to

The glossy tenor voice of the

Dreadlocked minister

Describe 500 years of

Unitarian history.

I had forgotten how academics talk history:

In the



“In the 16th century,

Michael Servetus

Studies the Bible …

Concludes …

Does not accept …

Is burned at the stake …”

And it was not just the theme of Servetus’

Nagging, then



That fascinated me.

It was the



The minister used to describe him,

With its implication that

History is

Alive, is


And that in thinking and

Talking about these people and events

We keep open the possibility of repeating these experiences,

For good,

Or bad,

Or neither.


People who speak more than one language

Two Saturday mornings per month,

My small boy goes to

Finnish class.

During the class,

We parents hang out in a room next door:

A brick-and-tile space with a

Circle of mismatched chair and couches and a

Scrap of coffee-colored carpet on the floor.

We sip hot morning beverages and chat or read magazines and books.

Last Saturday,

I was cutting out


For our wedding invitations,

And vaguely listening to three moms

Finnish women living in Minnesota—

Chatting in low tones.

At first they spoke Finnish,

And for practice I tried to follow along.

One of their parents had a sailboat,

And spent the summer

Sailing around the archipelago islands

Scattered off the southwest corner of Finland.

One of them said a phrase in English,

Slowing down and emphasizing the words slightly like

Verbal italics,

And then the conversation


Switched into English.

Two of the women had mild accents,

And the third spoke with no accent at all.

They carried on in English for awhile,

Talking about their next travel plans

To bring their children to Finland,

To their families’ summer cottages.

And then,

Again spontaneously,

One of the women switched back into Finnish,

And the conversation went on in that language.

I know,

From my bi-lingual friends,

That people who speak




Flow back and forth between languages

In the same conversation

Sometimes in the same sentence


Without even realizing they’re doing it.

If I had pointed out to these

Three women that they had switched back and forth

Between Finnish and English,

They might have been surprised to hear it.

I am always awed by the

Vast potential of the human mind

When I witness this.

And the coolest part:

My son can do it, too.

Touring the nursing home


We went to see a

Nursing home for my mother.


Heather flower,

In Norwegian.

It had all the

Sad trappings

I would expect of a

Nursing home:

Metal hand rails attached to seemingly everything;

Laminate fake-wood signs warning against

Accidentally letting a resident out of the building;

And of course,

The residents themselves.

Men and women,



With quaky, high voices,

And half a tennis ball stuck onto the bottom of each leg of their walkers.

But you know,

I can make a decision to

Shift my gaze.

I can look


At the aquarium,

With its bubbling, clean,

Cool-looking water,

Emerald seaweed swaying,

And impervious cyan- and canary-striped flounder

Turning calmly at the corners,

And eternally swimming

Back the

Other way.

There’s the aviary in the corner of the lounge

With warm, golden lights

Bathing the small,

Champagne sparrows with black speckles,

Their wings tiny, beating triangles, as they

Hop from perch to perch

And back


Or the bright eyes of

Some of

The residents as they

Turn their heads

And look at you


Sliding their walkers slowly down the sallow white tiled hallway.

Some of them will


In that way of


Who have learned that

Nothing’s truly more important than

A small smile

In a day.

On Valentine’s Day, a wedding ring arrives

It came yesterday,

Valentine’s Day,

In the mail:

Joe’s wedding ring.

Made of meteorite:

Chunks of streaked, slate-colored iron

Dropped to earth from space,

And shiny, copper-colored

Rose gold,

From inside the earth.

A particular design

For a particular man.

I had to order it over the Internet

Dizzying to send that much money over

Paypal for a piece of

Eternal jewelry.

It came via insured mail from

Flagstaff, Ariz.

(“Hippie town,” Joe says.

“Of course they make meteorite rings there.”)

And arrived on our doorstep on

Valentine’s Day afternoon.

I opened the package in the kitchen after

Shooing Joe upstairs.

My brother, a groomsman, was there,

And I made him squeeze the ring

It didn’t give.

Money well-spent.

The small boy, of course,

Needed to see, too.

I gave it to him warily,

And hovered as he tried it on his small thumb

Lest he somehow drop it down the venting system.

He gave it back, apparently approving

Good, ’cause he’ll be bearing it down the aisle on

May 7

And pulled his babysitting uncle to play.

Later, at the restaurant,

Gazing at each other over tea lights,

We ordered our first course off the prix fixe menu,

And Joe said,

“Get out that ring.”

I pulled the box out of my purse and opened it, and we both looked inside.

The ring is heavy and medieval-looking;

The meteorite inlay streaked as if with slate paint brush strokes.

The rose-gold lining shining from inside the ring like an underground lava flow.

Joe put it on his ring finger,

And I thought that it looked,

Against his skin,

Truly like iron.

It wasn’t until Joe went to the bathroom

And I studied the eternal randomness of the

Streaks and swipes,

And ran my finger along the smooth copper-glow lining,

And thought about how I’d

Earned the money

To buy this ring,

And was grateful to be able to do that

For Joe,

That the ring’s billion-year-old


Was clarified.

When Joe came back from the bathroom,

I made him put it on his finger one last time.

“Happy Valentine’s Day, babe,” I said.

Thaw Day



I decided that

My small boy and I should

Emerge from our dusty house.

It was a February thaw,

Not to be missed.

Standing in the back hallway,

Underneath all the

Swishy, clompy gear,

My small boy was dismayed at the prospect of

Going outside.

“It’s cold out,” he pleaded,

His dad-shaped gray eyes bright between the

Woolen ear flaps of his stocking cap.

“You’re going to be surprised at how

Warm it is,” I said,

Literally pushing him

Out the door.

And so we ventured out into a

Sunny, drippy, melty day.

We drove to a small city lake

Got the last spot in the parking lot

And set off on a

Thaw Day walk,

Our gloves in our pockets,

Our rubber-soled boots withstanding the

Deep, cold, brackish puddles.

The questions the started coming at a regular clip:

“What are dogs made of?”

“Skin, bones, muscles, blood, organs.”

“What are organs?”

“What are organs …

It’s like your heart, your stomach, your brain.

Parts of your body that have a specific job to do.”

“We have organs?”

“Yep, we have all the same organs as dogs,

I think.”

“Is that dog cute?”

“I think so. What do you think?”

“I think so, too.

Why is that man singing?”

“He’s just happy to be outside.

He likes to sing.”

“He looks like Marvin [his school bus driver].”

“Yeah, he does look like Marvin.”

“But he’s not Marvin?”

“No, he’s not.”

And so on.

The small warm hand was

Tucked into my palm,

And I gave it a small squeeze

With my fingers.

“Remember this moment,”

I said to myself as I

Drew the warming thaw breeze

Into my lungs-organ.

Eating like an animal

photo credit:

When I think about

How I eat

And what I eat

And what I’m supposed to eat,

I think of this children’s book I read to my son.

It’s a story about a grandmother,

Living in the


Who places baskets of


Outside her door for the

Forest creatures.

In the straw baskets,

Lined with checkered cloth,

Are rosy apples,

Orange carrots with green tops,

Corncobs with the husk peeled down to the knob.

Bursting heads of grass-green lettuce,

Rolling cobalt and burgundy berries.

And to the

Deer and moose

And squirrels and raccoons,

All these vegetables and fruits are a


No protein,

Carbs, or


In the form of bread, cheese, milk or meat.

Just fruit and vegetables for these animals.

After they eat,

The animals in the book are

Drowsy and sated.

Vegetables and fruit have been

More than enough.

It occurs to me

That I am

An animal.

That I have muscles and

Bones and

Blood and


Like those forest creatures.

I am more

The same

Than different.


Why can’t I subsist on what these

Animals eat?

It must sound ridiculous.

Getting my nutritional information from an

Illustrated children’s book.

But I’m thinking about


And requirement.

The experts say this,

And the experts say that.

I want to stop listening.

Who tells animals what to eat?

I want to eat like an animal

Because I am an animal.

Garlic soup in Prague

Photo credit:

“What is something you miss about

Living in Europe?”


My first reminiscence is


In Prague for the blustery month of January

I discovered garlic soup:

Russet beef broth with tiny chunks of garlic mince swirling around,

Warm, gooey strings of melted white cheese,

Small coral-colored squares of ham.

One guy in the class I was taking

Ate so much garlic soup,

That he exuded a

Garlicky reek through the pores of his skin,

And I swear that,

Like a skunk,

When he got excited or animated,

His body released a puff of the odor.

We all avoided sitting next to him in class,

And someone eventually had to speak to him.

Perhaps one of the instructors who had lived there for awhile.

Riding the coach away from Prague to my next destination,

I had packed up some groceries for the journey and,

Not knowing Czech well,

I had accidentally bought two large bottles of


Rather than

Still water.

(I love that phrase,

“Still water.”

It calls up calm, deep, cobalt pools in

Pine-forest clearings.

And “sparkling” is a lovely word, too.)

I forced myself to drink it for hydration–

The merits of which I doubted.

It tasted to this American like

Diet Coke without the flavor.

Now, finally,

Nearly a decade later,

I understand sparkling water.

It’s the

The post-pop,



The Europeans get it, of course.

“Sparkling or still?” they ask in restaurants.

“Sparkling,” I would say now.

With a lime squeeze.

Do real people feed each other popcorn?

I was watching the

Superbowl last night,

And the camera panned a row of

Celebrity spectators

Rocking in black leather chairs.

A movie star and her pro baseball player boyfriend,

Their eyes ultramarine against their tawny skin,

Her hair an enviably expensive and perfect blond.

Just at the moment the camera panned to them,

She took a few kernels of popcorn in the tips of her long fingers

And fed them to the baseball player,

Who snapped at them like a puppy,

One kernel sticking to his bottom lip

And then falling into his lap.


Normally, I am sensible on the subject of


I only have to imagine them

Taking a plunky shit

To bring them back down to

Planet Earth.

But this


Was so decidedly


And so maddeningly


It made me wonder if perhaps these


In their nonchalant vitality,

Aren’t truly


Their concerns so far

Beyond what we

Regular folk deal with

That they would just

Do something

So spontaneously playful

In front of 111 million television viewers

Like feed each other


I mean,

Who does that?

How to appreciate snow

Photo credit:

In Finland,

I learned to be a

Connoisseur of winter.

There, near the arctic circle,

Over generations of plodding survival,

Folks have passed down small

Observations and


About winter, snow and cold

That they carry with them like

Small, warm nuggets in their pockets

To wrap cold fingers around.

One thing I learned:

Snow makes darkness bearable.

In a place where you might not see the sun for weeks or months,

A coating of white snow

Suffuses the murky black nights and

Tentative gray days with sudden

Brightness and


From the ground,

Like the earth is glowing.

Extroverted introvert

I was confused.

I thought, for a long time,

That to be an


You had to be


Scared of people.



I’ve always known my

Natural state is


But shy?

Not so much.

I am astonished

At the weird power of the

Social instinct.

Even if I can’t see you,

I feel you when you’re nearby

And I know you feel me, too.

And that’s madness, right?

How can we feel one another without even touching?


If we laugh together,

Or smile,

Or share a kind word or touch,

Joy nearly brings me to tears.

When I’m out and about,

Which I am

A lot,

I’ll talk to anyone.

Old, young,

Man, woman,


I can even,

Every once in awhile,

Command a room.

But it tires me.

I need to recover from

Time with people.

Alone, quiet,

That’s my recovery.

And if I didn’t have the wisdom to know I must,

For my own health,

Push myself toward you,

My natural state would drive me to

Climb the stairs slowly,

Pulling the door closed behind me,

Holding my book to my chest.

(Because sometimes,

I love books most of all.)

But you see,

I’m not shy.

So I’ll add yet another


To my characterization

Of myself


I do love a good paradox):

Extroverted introvert.