Monday, April 4, 2011

April is National Poetry Month!

When it comes to writing, poetry has always been my first love. In honor of National Poetry Month, I thought I'd share some of my favorite poets and poems with you, including a few of my own.

Several years ago, I read an article about "Taking Flight" in which the phrase "rare bird" was mentioned. It reminded me of an English professor I had in college. No matter how badly we stumbled when reading aloud, or how poorly we answered his questions, he always found a way to encourage us and make us feel we had potential. "Jonesy" flew the bonds of earth many years ago, but through this poem, I can see him once again flitting about our classroom, trying to teach a young nest full of English majors how to fly. I wrote this poem in March, 2005, based on an incident from a class in the late 1960s. The name "Miss White" is fictitious.

Geoffrey Chaucer was a 14th century poet and author, and is referred to as the Father of English Literature. He is perhaps best known for The Canterbury Tales, a collection of short stories told by travelers to entertain one another while on their journey.

              "A Rare Bird"

File:Geoffrey Chaucer (17th century).jpg
Anon. 17th c.  portrait G. Chaucer
(Wikipedia public domain)
A rare bird, lanky, toothless, gaunt,
he perched before his callow clutch,
and from one scrawny, gray-tipped
dangled Chaucer, like a juicy worm,
before our unfledged eyes and ears.

"How old is Absalom...Miss White?"
I've never been much good at this
so to his, "Come on, take a guess,"
"From thirty-five to sixty-eight?"
I lamely peep, embarrassed, now.

Canadian Geese
photo by Donna B. Russell
He cocks his head, all smiles, and coos,
"Can you narrow that a little? No?"
He bobs across the room and nods.
Another nestling quickly chirps
a more precise, correct response.

Then turning, he commends us both,
and I am left perplexed, that he
would remove the sting of my distress.
But wisdom knows that confidence
is the lift on which young wings will soar.

                   * * *

How about you? Did you have a special teacher or professor who made an impact on your life? Please share your comments.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Signs of Spring?

As I sit and look out the window at mountains of snow piled in every available spot in our apartment complex, it's hard to imagine that spring begins this month--at least on the calendar.

March 8: Residents help dig out the last car.
(Photo by Donna B. Russell)

And, yet, there are signs. Yesterday, on the way to the doctor's office for my annual physical, we noticed that the ice on the bay is beginning to wear thin, and there were actually rather large, green patches of grass in several yards as we passed by. We even saw a big fat Robin Redbreast perched on a mound of snow! (Alas, I didn't have my camera with me.)

Mardi Gras memories: Sarah, Davy, Jen
(Photo by David A. Russsell)

Mardi Gras has come and gone, and the countdown to Easter has begun as evidenced by the ads on TV featuring the Cadbury bunny, and the pastel M&Ms and jelly beans in the stores. We're also counting down the final five weeks until the birth of our first grandchild, which means Gramma had better get busy finishing that sweater! As you can see, one side of the front is finished (and I have started on the other side).

Making progress
(Photo by Donna B. Russell)

I've also received a couple of seed catalogs in the mail--always a sign of spring. I used to enjoy growing my own tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, radishes, swiss chard, etc. When the kids were little, we called it "growing a salad." I still love the smell and feel of digging in the dirt, although I can no longer keep up a garden. Instead, I'm thinking of growing a few things in containers this year. For the rest, I'll frequent our local vegetable stands and farmers' markets for fresh, organic produce.

Image: Suat Eman /

And, while I'm thinking about spring, and dirt, I just joined Sharon Lovejoy's "Grimy Hands Girls Club." If you'd like to know more about the club, or about Sharon, who is also the author of Toad Cottages & Shooting Stars: A Grandma's Bag of Tricks, among others, please visit her website at or her blog at

What are you doing to get ready for Spring?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Remembering My Father--"The Longest Night"

[As I prepare to become a grandmother for the first time, I am thinking today of my father, who died on this date in 1962. I think of all the things he never got to see me do--learn to drive, sing in the choir, play in the high school band. He never got to read my articles in the high school newspaper, or guide me through the teen years, witness my first prom and graduation from high school, then college. He didn't get to meet the man I married, walk me down the aisle and give me away, nor see my children and watch them grow up. And, yet, in a way, I feel like he has been watching over me all these years. The following is an article I wrote last year (unchanged except for updating the number of years), which includes a poem I wrote about the night he died. When you lose a loved one, you learn how to cope, how to adjust, because life goes on, and because you must; but you never forget because they are a part of you.]

Today is the anniversary of my father's death forty-nine years ago. He died the day before my oldest brother's birthday, and just two and a half weeks before mine. My father had rarely been sick, and had never missed work due to illness. He always said that the day he couldn't go to work was the day he would die.

That morning, I remember my mother calling to me, worry and urgency in her voice. When I emerged from my bedroom, my father was sitting on the bathroom floor, my mother steadying him so he wouldn't fall over. She told me to take her place while she ran to the phone to call for an ambulance. He had vomited blood, then collapsed from weakness. Two weeks earlier, he had been diagnosed with what the doctor thought was the flu and told to stay home from work and go to bed. Today, it was clear that something much more than the flu was wrong with him, and what he'd said about not being able to go to work went through my mind.

For years, my father had been plagued by heartburn. Today, he most likely would have been given medication to treat his symptoms and protect his esophagus, but back then he was told to take an antacid, such as Tums, and cut out spicy foods. He was rushed to the hospital, tests were done, and we received the diagnosis--cancer of the esophagus. Surgery was the only thing that might save his life, and the odds were 80/20 against him. But when the doctors opened him up, the odds dropped to zero--every organ in his body, except his heart, had been invaded by cancer. The doctors said they were amazed he had kept going as long as he did, and that there was nothing they could do. They closed him up, returned him to his room, and the family took up vigil at the foot of his bed, waiting for him to wake up. He never did.

I remember sitting in his darkened room with my mother, my three brothers, and my aunt. I remember the nurse speaking to my father, trying to wake him from the anesthesia. I remember the sound of his breathing, the sounds of monitors to which he was connected, and the sound of the clock on the wall. When he stopped breathing, all of the other sounds stopped, too...except for the ticking of that clock. In addition to losing my father, I felt I had lost my sense of security, as well as my childhood.

The Longest Night

When I was thirteen,
I sat beside my mother
at the foot of his bed,
listening to the steady

t-i-c-k, t-i-c-k, t-i-c-k

of the clock on the wall,
to the steady

drip - drip - drip of the IV,

the s t e a d y
R I S E and f a l l
as the lungs
F I L L, e m p t y, F I L L

as the nurse takes his pulse,
as the light outside grays to dusk,
blackens to night,
as the steady

t-i-c-k, t-i-c-k, t-i-c-k

of the clock on the wall
counts out my father's life
second by second,

as the drip - drip - drip - of the IV goes on,

the breathing becomes labored
the chest RISES . . . p a u s e s . . . fa l l s,

and the lungs begin shutting down
as the nurse takes his pulse again
and shakes her head,

and the steady t-i-c-k, t-i-c-k, t-i-c-k
of the clock goes on,

the chest R I S E S . . . f a l l s . . . stops,

as the nurse removes the IV,
and shakes her head,
the light of my childhood
grays to dusk,
blackens to night,
and he's gone.

--Donna B. Russell
© March 30, 2005

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Fast Away the [New] Year Passes...

"Fast away the old year passes..." So says the Christmas carol, "Deck the Halls," and I think we'd all agree. But it feels like the new year is rapidly passing away, too. Where did January go?

Bust of Janus - Vatican Museum/Public Domain

January, named for the Greek god Janus, who had two heads--one facing backward toward the past, the other facing forward to the future--is when most of us set "resolutions" or "goals" for the coming year. To do that, we reflect on the year that has just ended, see how much progress (or not) we've made on last year's goals, and what areas still need work. The idea here is not to beat ourselves up over our failures, but to take the lessons we've learned from them and build on those. There will be some things we will need to "let go" of, but it's not always easy deciding what to carry into the new year with us, and what to purge.

A few months ago, my son and daughter-in-law decided to leave Chicago and spend the winter in Mexico. To accomplish this goal, they had to make some hard decisions about what they could keep and what they had to leave behind or sell. Reducing their possessions to what would fit into two suitcases was both a challenge and a sacrifice. But after storing a few things, packing the essentials, and selling the rest, they headed south of the border to fulfill a dream. (You can read their story at and click on the "About" and "Blog" tabs.)

Davy and Tracy (photo by Davy Russell)

The older I get, the less "baggage" I want to carry around. I don't want to waste precious energy on things that hold me back, drag me down, or generate negativity. I want to travel light entering the new year. So, I have adjusted my goals for 2011 accordingly.

One of my biggest challenges is paper. I read 90-100+ books a year, plus magazines, newsletters, and online blogs, e-newsletters, e-mail, articles, etc. Paper multiplies in my household, and I have found that it is my biggest source of clutter. Last year, I began sorting through and throwing out; but there's still a long way to go. So, I decided that one of my goals for this year would be to only subscribe to those publications I have time to read--both online and in print. Those that accumulate unopened, will not be renewed, no matter how good a deal is offered. If I'm paying for something that is going into the recycle bin unread, it's NOT a bargain! Several January invitations to subscribe to publications have already found their way into my recycle box or shredder.

Similarly, I decided to only buy the print and paper editions of books that have some special value to me, such as those by my favorite authors that I wish to collect, or those that have some other lasting significance such as books on writing, or books needed for learning a new language or skill. As I sort through my books this year, I hope to donate or recycle the vast majority of them. For all other books and publications, I'll use the Kindle I received for Christmas. I have already donated the first batch of books, and the Kindle is earning its keep.

Another goal was to greatly reduce the use of credit cards. This means paying off credit card balances on a monthly basis (or, if unable to do this, to pay more than the minimum), and planning ahead and saving up for things instead of whipping out the plastic. Credit cards will be used for emergencies (and, hopefully, there won't be too many of those this year) or for purchases that can be paid in full when the statement arrives. Seeing those "zero" interest charges is a great morale boost!

Baby sweater--the "before" photo
 (photo by Donna B. Russell)

Third, I wanted to be more "crafty" this year by knitting some things for my grandson who is due in April, and maybe brushing up on crocheting, as well. I also wanted to take more time to practice sketching, and learning to paint on glass and ceramics. The yarn, needles, and pattern for a baby sweater were ordered at the end of January, and I'll be starting the actual knitting this weekend.

And last, I want to create a more workable daily schedule that includes time set aside for writing, being more consistent with blogging, and participating more fully in one or two online writing groups. One of my writing goals was to launch an online version of the print "PetWise" column I write. I'm happy to say that "PetWise Online" launched February 1, with my guest, Nadine M. Rosin, author of The Healing Art of Pet Parenthood. You can read it and give me your feedback at

What goals did you set for 2011? Did you make a good start in January, or have they already fallen by the wayside? Share your goals and your plan for achieving them in the comments section.