Snapping Turtle

She heaves her terrible body out of the black mud,
Like the monster in a Grade B movie.
You know the movie I mean
Where the townsfolk run off, screaming from the hill,
even though–
the monster has yet to make a single aggressive gesture.
Hasn’t made so much as an off-color remark even.
I understand the running.
It’s the screaming that puts me off.
This one has come to lay her eggs in our garden.
To wreak havoc on our sugar snaps.
I lie down in the grass, watch her side-on.
She fills my vision. Big as a footstool.
She’s like T-Rex, only less irate.
Even so, her jaws can snap a shovel. Or so they say.
Tank of a body, a shield of solid armor.
She was there, you know, just after the Big Bang.
Out of the wreckage, she came together, like a boulder.
She’s older than dirt. Or so they say.
She stops mid-stride, one foot raised, freeze-framed.
My breath stays. Now, here’s where I should remind you–
I’m not wearing any armor. I’m a little afraid.
Of our differences.
She rolls one dreadful eye towards me.
I drop down and down and down.
It’s not your fault, I tell her. Maybe if you blinked–
Every once in a while.
Oh, if you’d let me–I know better than to ask!
I’d lay my hand on your knobby forehead,
And then you could rest your tired, old eyes.
Well, at any rate, here we are–
Let us just pause a moment

And consider, just how far we’ve come.

O Tannenbaum

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This year our neighbors, Bob and Bette, swiped our Christmas tree.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, they walked through our meadow and stumbled upon a little spruce tree growing on the path that connects our properties. Spruce trees are rare here in the northwest hills of Connecticut. Most of our fir trees are white pines with needles as fine as baby hair; unsuitable for holding ornaments. A spruce is a find. A real gem. One in a gazillion.

“We found a little Charlie Brown Christmas tree at the edge of your meadow,” Bette texted. “We don’t know if it’s growing on your property or ours, but we want to take it for our last Christmas in Connecticut! Do you mind?” They’re moving to California next year and we’re a little bummed out about it. Things just won’t be the same around here.

I asked her to tag the tree so I could have a look at it before I gave the go ahead. Not because I had any right to say no, property lines are fuzzy in the woods, but a sudden possessive ‘Mine!’ rose up in me; that perverse feeling you get when you think you’re losing something, even if, until now, you hadn’t known of it’s existence.

The next day, Bette did more than tag the tree; she tied a big red bow on its uppermost branch. I couldn’t miss it as I crested the hill with my dog. It was that big red bow. Truth is, I couldn’t remember ever noticing that perfect little tree until the big red bow.

I’ve always thought of trees as spiritual beings. They’re perhaps the most generous beings on earth, offering shade when things get too hot, wood to build our shelters with, the warmth of a fire, ashes that regenerate life, and even oxygen. Trees give us life. They give us breath. They’re a quiet and gentle reminder to live our lives as they do, with compassion and generosity.

This little tree with its big red bow looked to be in high spirits.

And why not? Right in the middle of nowhere, growing quite by accident, it had been noticed. I realized the little tree must have been on that path for a few years now. I’ve tripped over it, gotten my dog’s leash tangled in it, pushed the branches out of my way a million times, but there’s one thing I hadn’t done; I hadn’t actually noticed it. Bob and Bette did.

Game over.

I didn’t really have a say in it; everything was now just a formality, but I texted Bette. “Go ahead and cut the tree. It looks so cute!” And it did, look cute and…somehow jovial. The way you feel when you doll yourself up and the right people pay attention.


I half-heartedly looked around the meadow for a second spruce, but the chances were slim and I knew it, so Saturday afternoon, Dave and I began the annual hunt for our own Christmas tree.

“We’ll go back to the place we went last year,” I suggested, “with the fun Edison lights and the Christmas shop. We’ll buy a new ornament for the tree.” When we pulled in, there were a few people wandering around the Christmas shop, but not many people seemed to be buying trees. I found a beautiful Douglas fir and flipped over the tag.

$120. I bent down to look at the stump. Maybe this was one of those potted trees we could plant in the spring. But, no. One hundred and twenty dollars for a cut tree that would only last through the holidays.

“$120!!!” This from Dave. “That’s highway robbery!”

And seeing my disappointment, he added, “but, if you really want one of these trees…” He pulled his wallet out. Acts of love come in all sorts of packages. You just have to keep your heart open so you don’t miss them. Except I couldn’t let him do it. He’d been at work from sunup to sundown for the last six days.

I turned on my heel. “Let’s go,” I said. “At those prices they can keep them!” Dave agreed. We left in a huff. We became a team, a force against Christmas corruption!

But where to go? We sat in the car for a moment thinking of other places that were selling trees.

“Price gouging,” I heard Dave grumble.

“If we buy an artificial one at Walmart,” I said, “we’ll never have to do this again.” He turned to look at me.

Never have to do this again? 

Wasn’t this supposed to be fun? Wasn’t this supposed to be a ritual that exemplified our Christmas spirit! This was a lack of Christmas cheer!

Then… a dastardly thought…Bob and Bette’s tree. The little spruce all lit up in their living room. On Christmas morning, they’d leave to visit their daughter in California. If they left early enough, we could steal our tree back, lift it from their living room, ornaments and all, Grinch-style, and put it up in our living room. Who would know?

I started the car, ditched the idea. “There’s the cider mill,” I said, “They were selling trees.”

The cider mill, just up the road a mile or two, was a bustle of activity. Four old men ran the show. The temperature hovered around 22 degrees and the air felt raw. A meagre fire in a rusty old barrel threw out half-hearted sparks, but no warmth. Dave asked one of the old guys how much they were asking for the trees.

“They range in price from $55 to $110, sir. All different kinds.” The old man’s nose was purple-veined and swollen from the cold.

“So,” Dave said pulling his wallet out, “which ones are the…”

The old man spit. “Sir! point to a tree! Just point and I’ll give you a price!” Dave and I shot each other a look.

There are moments-we’ve all experienced them-when the world, for contrary reasons of its own, is determined to knock the weak spark of Christmas tree joy right the heck out of you.

This was one of them.

Dave scowled and disappeared into the trees as the old man went off in the other direction.

I found Dave working out three $20 bills from his wallet with his own set of frozen, working-man’s hands. His coat had come undone, exposing his chest to the cold. He looked done in.

“Um,” I said, “I heard that man say he must be tired.”

“Yeah…well,” Dave sighed, “I guess we’re all tired.”

We went back to the old man and the two of us obediently pointed to a tree. I watched the old man’s raw and calloused fingers as he snugged it to the roof rack. “Well, anyway,” he said, “Merry Christmas!” And he even waved.

As Dave backed the car out, I saw the old man standing by the fire, waiting for his next customer.

They say that Christmas is not about the presents or the food. I think they’re right. It’s a time to slow down, pay attention. If your leash gets tangled, take a moment to see just what the heck.

If you think about it, Christmas trees prove that transforming yourself from something ordinary into something magnificent isn’t as hard as you imagine.

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Poetry for People who Don’t Like Poetry. No, really. This stuff will knock you flat.

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To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

___ William Blake

I have a confession to make. I love poetry. Yes, I’m one of those people, but I have a theory for those of you who don’t like poetry.

You’re probably reading the wrong stuff.

Consider this; poetry is as personal as music. If you find a style that fits, poetry is just as accessible as music. Are you into classic rock? Me, too. Hip-hop and rapper music doesn’t appeal, but I still love music.

So, if you do sometimes see heaven in a wildflower or your dog’s limpid brown eyes, then you like poetry. Plain and simple.

Here are three great collections of poetry for people who thought they didn’t like poetry.

img_8376 From the book jacket: ” Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs is a celebration of the special bond between human and dog, as understood through the poet’s relationships to the canines that have accompanied her daily walks, warmed her home, and inspired her work. Oliver’s poems begin in the small everyday moments familiar to all dog lovers, but through her extraordinary vision, these observations become higher meditations on the world and our place in it.”

img_8377 From the jacket: “Berry’s poetry is alternately a testimony to the harrowing of his (and our) world and an ardent invocation of that once and still-glimpsed world. The peace of wild things was in him in the writing and it is in us in the reading.”

img_8378 Daring, funny, and highly accessible. Most people know Cisneros for her novel, The House on Mango Street, but she’s also a talented poet. I highly recommend this book.

Black Friday; everything you always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask.

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I’m not much of a shopper, unless I’m in a saddle shop surrounded by the scent of new leather and a life-sized horse mannikin.

I’ve never gone wonky over a sale on big screen televisions and I don’t get the vapors over shoe sales. Sad to say, all the media hype around Black Friday does nothing to quicken my heartbeat like it seems to for other folks. I feel left out. I’m missing something, I know, to be so ho-hum about saving a boatload of money on stuff I don’t need.

What is wrong with me?

Black Friday is a major shopping event, a shop-a-holic’s dream come true, a shopping phenomenon, if you will.

And that does quicken my heartbeat, so, in the interest of scientific research, I unearthed a few fun facts-and some not so fun facts- about Black Friday.

  1.  The day after Thanksgiving is traditionally the kick-off to the holiday shopping season, but it never had a name, until recently.
  2. The term, Black Friday, is thought to have originated in Philadelphia, when pedestrians and vehicle traffic clogged main shopping roads and generally made ordinary life difficult. It’s also the day when retailers’ accounting books switch from being ‘in the red’ to being ‘in the black.’
  3.  People get crazy for a deal. To date, there have been 16 reported deaths due to Black Friday shopping mania.
  4. In 2018, American shoppers spent a whopping 717.5 billion dollars on Black Friday alone.
  5. 50% of the 717.5 billion dollars was spent on electronics and technology.
  6. Environmentalists criticize Black Friday as yet another consumeristic bomb as shoppers purchase items they don’t need simply because they’re on sale.
  7. On Black Friday,  in a line outside a California Walmart, a woman used pepper spray on fellow shoppers to prevent them from cutting the line. She was waiting for an Xbox 360.

The psychology behind Black Friday is even more interesting.

  • Black Friday hype awakens a psychological urgency. First, retailers encourage you to believe you want IT, whatever IT is; then they drop the bomb. “You have just one day to get IT.”
  •  When we shop or engage in exciting or impulsive behavior, we feel a little thrill. That’s the brain’s physiological response to impulse behavior. Your brain sends a shot of dopamine to your neurotransmitters, which- lo and behold-reinforces that impulse behavior.
  • Advertising sells happiness, not products. Your life will be amazing if only you buy this sweater, television, computer, I-pad. No, really…your life will be amazing!
  •  Consumer Psychology is an entire field of research. No lie. It’s research devoted to finding out what motivates shoppers to make purchases. Some of the motivators include boosting self-esteem, an ‘I deserve this’ mentality, a happiness reach, cultural conditioning, and the desire for immediate gratification. Finding out why you buy, is a full time job for someone.

But hey, don’t let any of the above stop you. I don’t want to be a killjoy.

Happy Black Friday shopping everyone!

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The Booklist; great books to read over the holidays.

Many of you will be getting together with your quirky relatives over the holidays. Why not bring along a book with interesting characters? You know, for the downtime when Aunt Martha is sleeping off her third glass of port.

Alias Grace is a favorite of mine. After reading the book, indulge in the miniseries. It was fantastic. Set in 19th century Canada, the story unravels the truth (or does it?) of a woman imprisoned for a brutal murder.

The End of the Affair is set in London just after World War II. The story is more than a fascinating love triangle. This book was also adapted for television and is excellent.

Another Graham Greene novel; The Ministry Of Fear is short, but oh so good. A man’s ordinary day spins out of control as he gets caught up in a Nazi murder plot in war torn London.

After the Fall

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I’m so honored that the Elizabeth Ayers Center for Creative Writing chose my essay as the winner of their October photo prompt contest. You can visit the Center at www.creativewritingcenter.com for online classes, retreats, and compassionate writerly advice. I highly recommend their newsletter and blog. 

After the Fall by Karen Elizabeth Baril

This year, it’s less about raking leaves than it is about love.

Dad, post heart attack, stands on the porch looking lost in a pair of baggy sweats, which are too big for his shrunken frame. He’d been lucky, the doctor told us. Really lucky.
Mom passes me a rake. “Do you want to borrow my gloves?”

I smile and shake my head. I want to feel the wooden rake handle, solid and cool, made of maple in my hand. Mom, a little unsteady on her feet, sweeps the leaves into mountains.

We labor for hours, a sweet smell of decay in the air, that reminds me of an old cider cellar. The neighbors have a wood fire going and I know I’ll go home smelling of damp smoke and leaves.

I visited a house in Connecticut one summer, a house with wainscoting painted by the impressionists. Golds, reds, yellows, blues, against the white paneling. This day takes on the light and quality of one of those impressionist paintings. On this day, every color has taken to the stage; not just the golds and yellows and reds, but the rich browns and the weatherworn grays of the trees.

Dad pitches a volley of corny jokes from the railing. Mom laughs or shouts, “Oh Don, really!” but neither one of us asks him to stop. This year, dad’s jokes fuel the labor. They’re as necessary as the rakes in our hands.

Dad tells us an old story of the tandem bicycle they’d had in England. He’d huff and puff up the hills, straining to make the bicycle move forward. When he glanced over his shoulder to see what the trouble might be, he caught mom with her feet on the handlebars. A good joke if ever there was one.

“Well,” he said, “I was young, then. I could do it.”

We rake throughout the afternoon. When we have five mounds of leaves, Mom turns to me satisfied. “We did it!” Then she drops her rake, spins around, arms towards the sky, and plummets backward onto her pile of leaves. A cloud of leaf and color rises up around her.

She lies flat on her back, moving her arms and legs in and out in wide arcs.
“Look!,” she says, “I’m making a snow angel!”

“You can’t make a snow angel in leaves,” I tell her, feeling stingy.

“Oh, I yes I can! I am!”

Dad stands up to watch. “Just look at her,” he said, “I wish I had a camera.”

I offer my hand to help mom up, but she’s not ready. She’s a child again, an impulsive girl, exuberant, making of herself an angel.

I catch a falling leaf in my hand. It’s more yellow than orange or red. I trace the veins of the leaf with the tip of my finger, out to its points and down to its stem, still soft and supple. There’s life here, I think. Life, even after the fall.

 

 

Yorkshire Pudding

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When I was a kid, Yorkshire Pudding was a staple side dish in my British-born household, especially at the the holidays. Mom would make the muffin-style Yorkshires and we’d fill them with a spoonful of meat drippings. Definitely not health food.

So when my boyfriend arrived for that first holiday dinner, I wasn’t sure what he’d think of our very English tradition- no rolls, just Yorkshires. I think he gobbled down three or four of them. Dad could see he had to look sharp if he wasn’t going to lose out on the last one. I married that boyfriend and at every holiday dinner he’d spar with dad for the last Yorkshire Pudding. That sparring became a new tradition.

Yorkshire pudding has a colorful history, dating back to the 12th century. It’s believed to have originated in the kitchens of King Henry II.  In the village pubs, meat (probably mutton) was dangled on a hook over a cooking fire. A pan underneath caught the meat drippings which were used to cook the Yorkshires, a mixture of flour, salt, eggs, and fresh milk.

The result is sort of like a moist and flavorful popover. Sort of. Trying to  describe a Yorkshire pudding to those who haven’t had the pleasure is like trying to describe the color of the sky to a blind man. It’s just not the same.

With the holidays just around the corner, I share our family recipe for Yorkshire Pudding.

Yorkshire Pudding      

4 Large fresh eggs
equal quantity of fresh milk to eggs
same with all purpose flour
pinch of salt
vegetable fat or pan drippings (best if you use Crisco…no, this is not health food.)

Mix the first four ingredients. Consistency should be somewhat like cake batter. Do not overmix. Leave to sit for 30 minutes.

Put a pat of Crisco (about 1 tbsp.) in each muffin hole of the muffin tin pan. You can make one big one in a big cake pan, but there is less fighting if everyone gets their own pudding. And they taste better this way.

Get the oven real hot-450 degrees. When the fat is just smoking, ladle mixture to fill muffin cups to 1/3 full. Bake for about 20 minutes. Keep a close eye on them, but don’t open the oven or they’ll fall.

Serve with just about anything; pot roasts and roast turkey are my family’s favorites.  Encourage guests to spoon a dollop of gravy into the cup.

Delicious.