Virtual Forest Bathing at Walden Pond

Henry David Thoreau in a daguerreotype taken in 1856 by Benjamin D. Maxham. Credit Benjamin D. Maxham/Thoreau Society and the Walden Woods Project

I am taking a short break from writing about my Spain adventures to share a wonderful exhibit being shown at my local art museum, The Hecksher Museum in Huntington, LI. The exhibit features “24 Tree Studies for Henry David Thoreau.” The 24 photograms are Thaddeus Holownia’s tribute to the bicentennial commemoration of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts where Henry David Thoreau lived for more than two years and whose notes on his experience became the basis of his seminal work, Walden Pond. I love the exhibit so much I visited twice and will probably return once more.

A recent article in the New York Times Book Review (7/23/2017) about a newly published memoir of Thoreau, Henry David Thoreau/A Life by Laura Dassow Walls, provided me with enough information to understand how he became an icon of conservation and the model for all nature writers who followed him.

“Asked once why he was so eternally curious about things, Thoreau responded, ‘What else is there in life?'” (NY Times Book Review)

A nature enthusiast all my life, I ask how can one not fall in love with a man so in love with nature? On the brink of his 28th birthday, this Harvard educated wunderkind moved into a one-room structure he had built for himself on Walden Pond and spent two years, two months and two days living there, observing and recording his observations about nature. Walden Pond sold only 2000 copies in his lifetime but has become the work by which all those which follow him are compared.

After reading about Thoreau I felt compelled to see the photo exhibit mounted as a tribute to him. When I entered the room at the Hecksher Museum where the large-format photos of 24 trees are exhibited, I felt as though I were entering a temple of nature, not unlike how I felt when I first stepped into Anton Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain for the first time two months ago. The tree photograms are mounted in groups of six, four and three on the walls of the exhibit room. Each tree is unique and still alive at Walden Pond. The photos are so vividly detailed, in black and white, that I began to feel as though I was in the actual presence of the trees. Looking carefully at the features of each tree made them come alive: the bark patterns, the hollows and shadows, the wounds (in some cases), and the play of light on the trees within the forest became almost lifelike.

At that point I decided to sit down on a bench and just let myself bask in the glow of the images before me.

I have now learned that I was actually “forest bathing” without realizing it. An article in the New York Times (7/24/2017) features a new form of therapy, borrowed from the Japanese shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing,” which is about taking a walk in a forest and using all one’s senses to experience the forest and benefit from its calming effects. Granted, at the museum I was sitting in a “virtual forest,” but I have spent enough time in forests to know that my experience was very similar to what I have felt sitting in a grove of ancient redwoods.

There is an overall silvery tone to the exhibit which emmanates a very calming and peaceful effect. I could have spent an hour just sitting on the bench amongst the trees surrounding me. I do believe that forests, and any form of immersion in nature, does have calming effects which is why we humans are drawn to them.

With all the chaos going on in our government, people across the nation are experiencing unprecedented anxiety about their lives, their health and our collective future. Children are not immune to these anxieties. I recommend that teachers take their students on a nature walk, if possible, or to sit outside, weather permitting, on a regular basis. Your students may not have opportunities to do this at home or at school, but immersion in a film about nature, or studying a poem with nature as its subject, or even looking at soothing nature photos can be very calming for many students, much like my experience of virtual “tree bathing” at my local museum. If you are lucky enough to live near a wooded area or park, make it part of your own routine to treat yourself to a regular dose of nature; it’s the best spa treatment available and it’s free!

According to the author of Henry David Thoreau’s recent memoir, he died a peaceful death at age 44. His final words are purported to be, “This is such a beautiful world, but soon I shall see one that is fairer. I have so loved nature.” (New York Times Book Review)


Seville: A Visit to a Bullring Followed By a Flamenco Show

Recently I have been writing about a first trip to Spain my husband and I took in late May. I have already written posts about Madrid and am now writing about our second stop: Seville. After a first day of wandering the city on our own and finding it very user-friendly, we were given a tour of the city on our second morning. This included a stop at one of Spain’s most famous bullrings. Never a fan of bullfighting, I wasn’t sure I was very interested in actually visiting a bullring, but once there, I found it fascinating.

The Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla is a 12,000-capacity bullring in Seville, Spain. During the annual Seville Fair in Seville, it is the site of one of the most well-known bullfighting festivals in the world. Wikipedia

As our guide explained, the Plaza de Toros in Seville is especially known and beloved for the unique Moorish architectural style of its building. Painted in bold ochre and deep red colors on a background of white stucco, the building is very picturesque. Once inside the actual bullring, I was surprised by its dimensions. Although it is said to hold 12000 spectators, it felt much more intimate. I was shocked to see how close the front section of seats are to the actual bullring, separated only by a narrow circular passageway through which the bull and matadors pass on their way into and out of the ring. It felt as though you could almost reach out and touch the bulls passing through. I thought how intense the experience must be for those witnessing a bullfight at such a close distance. The outer corridor of the building through which the bulls pass on their way into the ring held an intense animal smell. When asked about it, the guide reported that a bulllfight had, indeed, been held only a few days earlier, but the odor of the bulls still permeated the building. The experience was becoming more and more visceral to me, and I knew then for sure that I would never be able to witness an actual bullfight; it was much too up close and personal an experience for me.

Although my curiosity about bullfighting had gotten me inside the building, and although I found the actual arena a compelling sight, I knew it was not an experience I ever wanted to have. At the end of the tour I did enjoy the small museum featuring photos of the history of bullfighting and many of the famous matodors, as well as samples of their costumes which were impressive.

But as for actually attending a bullfight, I already knew from watching it part of one on tv in Madrid that I could not bear to see the bull being tortured, much less witness its death.

We had a much more pleasant experience when, later that day, we attended a flamenco performance in a small, well-regarded tablao in the Arenal, the same neighborhood that housed the bullring.

Tablao El Arenal
Situated in an ideal location between the cathedral and Guadalquivir River, Tablao El Arenal is a historic 17th-century Andalusian building and is one of the only venues in Seville to be run by a former flamenco dancer, the great Curro Vélez.

The club itself was very unassuming in its appearance as we approached it from the street.

Inside it was narrow and dark, but just as we entered a very tall, slim guy with very long legs, dressed completely in black, descended a nearby staircase. He clearly looked like a performer and had smiles for everyone on line. Already excited, I became even more so.

The room in which the performance was held was quite intimate so we were very close to the stage.

The performers entered the stage. The lead singer, the guitarist and two other men sat in chairs very close to each other. The singer began in that haunting way that flamenco singers do, accompanied by the guitarist. The two other men soon joined in, clapping and stamping their feet in unison with the guitarist and singer. After one or two songs, a female dancer suddenly appeared and commanded the stage.

The pace immediately picked up as did the intensity of the guitar playing, singing and clapping. There is such an amazing symbiosis and intensity between flamenco dancers and their musicians; as the performance continues they merge into one very powerful entity. It is obvious that they love what they do and are very supportive of each other as artists. Their power and chemistry is irresistible. After about five or six amazing solo dancers, including two men, the performance ended with all the performers on the very small stage swirling, stomping, clapping, singing, dancing and strumming, uplifting the audience with the power of their passion.

That such beauty and intensity can emerge from such a simplistic setup is a testimony to the art form and their talent.

We returned to our hotel, fully satisfied by the day’s events and eagerly looking forward to our final day in Seville and our last stop: the Alcazar Gardens. Stay tuned.

Second Stop on Our Three-City Tour of Spain: Seville!

Today’s post is a rerun. Because of the holiday last week there was very little traffic on TWT so I thought those of you who are following my trip to Spain would welcome a reprise about the lovely city of Seville, our second stop in Spain.

After two and a half days of taking in the sights of Madrid, we headed south on the high-speed railroad to Madrid. I had chosen this particular vacation package because it included three cities in Spain; each in a very different region. Madrid is located in the central flatter part of the country; Seville is south on the Mediterranean coast, and Barcelona is in the hilly northeastern part of Spain, Catalonia, also on the coast. I was excited about heading south to what I imagined to be a romantic part of Spain. The high-speed train was neat as a whistle, efficient and quite peaceful. We were lucky to have seats in the “silent” car. (The Europeans do trains so well. The USA… Not!)

For about two and a half hours we rolled through the countryside, flanked on both sides of the train by rolling green hills, olive and orange trees, occasional windmills and a castle jutting out here and there on a rocky promontory. They were a reminder of the days when battles were fought centuries ago across these lands.

As we were driven from the train station to our hotel in Seville, we entered an area filled with purple flowering trees on both sides of a beautiful river flowing through the center of the city. It was like driving through a bank of purple clouds. I later learned the trees are called jacaranda, and some areas of Spain aere famous for them in Spring. Adjacent to the jacaranda trees were rows of palm trees standing majestically along the Guadalquivir River. The water was sparkling, the palm trees were gently waving back and forth and the sun was shining brightly. I felt like we had arrived in Paradise.

Hotel Becquer is located about three blocks from the river, on the busy main street. But this was a scaled-down thoroughfare, with plenty of parking and lots of shade trees.

The hotel at first did not appear as fancy as our hotel in Madrid, but once inside I changed my mind. It was very elegant; lots of wood tones, lovely paintings on the walls and a quiet, warm, sophisticated feel to it. A lovely portrait of the hotel’s namesake, the poet Becquer, adorned one of the lobby walls, as did portraits of other Spanish artists and writers.

Gustavo Adolfo Claudio Domínguez Bastida, better known as Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (February 17, 1836, Seville – December 22, 1870) was a Spanish post-romanticist poet and writer (mostly short stories), also a playwright, literary columnist, and talented in drawing. wikipedia

Either we were just lucky to land in the “artsy” part of town of both Madrid and Seville, or the Spanish are just more enthusiastic about honoring their painters and poets than we are. I suspect the latter!

Upon arrival we walked around a bit, discovering the lovely area along the riverbanks. We also walked past the famous bullring, la Real Maestranza, which we toured the following day, and got a glimpse of a famous landmark, the Torre de Oro, so named because of the yellow tiles which once covered its exterior and glistened in the sun.

The Torre del Oro is a dodecagonal military watchtower in Seville, southern Spain. It was erected by the Almohad Caliphate in order to control access to Seville via the Guadalquivir river. Wikipedia

Our bus tour of the city was comprehensive and included neighborhoods on both sides of the river. Once the tour guide mentioned La Triana, the neighborhood directly across the river from us, as the area where the working people of Seville reside, and its historic importance as the birthplace of ceramics in Seville and the place where Christopher Columbus and his crew spent time before their world voyage, I knew I wanted to go there.

After crossing over the picturesque bridge designed by none other than Eiffel (of the Eiffel Tower), known locally as the Triana Bridge, commissioned by the Queen Isabella II of Spain who loved all things Parisian, I immediately felt the difference in the neighborhoods. This was the real heart and soul of the city.

The little square we first encountered was bustling with small shops, people doing their daily shopping, bicyclists, and, of course, some tourists. But there were no grand buildings and overdressed shoppers on this side of town.

A short walk away we came upon the ceramic center where a small museum devoted to the history of the ceramic industry is housed, with a display of its ancient kilns which fascinated me.

I am a passionate collector of handpainted ceramics, so suffice it to say I thoroughly combed several shops displaying their wares.

Along with some decorative bowls, an olive tray, and a house sign bearing the numbers 41, for our home on LI, we purchased a set of counter tiles which involved some considerable back and forth between the lovely owner and ourselves. She did not speak English, and I spoke very limited Spanish, but we were able to get the job done!

There’s more to say about Triana and Seville , but I’m out of steam. Next week: a tour inside a bullring, a cozy venue for tapas, and a flamenco show.

A world-class museum and dinner on our final day in Madrid!

After wandering around Madrid for almost two days, we were finally ready to visit the Big Kahuna: El Museo del Prado. For decades I have read about this museum and its important collections. I guess, for me, it is the equivalent of someone visiting The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC for the first time. I was eager to check this off my life list of things I want to do.

My husband and I were able to walk to the Prado, only ten minutes from our hotel. As we approached, I was surprised by its appearance: very stately, but not, to my mind at least, as impressive as the Met. When we found the entrance, I was even less impressed as it has been renovated to include a modern facade that hides the actual building from view.

Its new entrance is a less interesting entrance than the modified entrance to the Louvre, for example, which at least has the novel I.M. Pei pyramid entrance…not to everyone’s liking, but certainly memorable.

I was on a mission to see the most notable Spanish painters: Velaquez, Goya and El Greco. I did not include Dali or Picasso, since I have seen many of their paintings in other museums and I am limited in my ability to stand for long periods of time. Time was of the essence! So I dragged my husband to those parts of the Prado featuring the above-mentioned artists. I will share a line or two about each of the three painters, lifted from my guidebook (Lonely Planet).

Diego Rodriquez de Silva y Velazquez (1599-1660) painted large portrait and full body canvases of royal personages, “and every one of them seems to glower down from the walls, at once compelling and vivid and always filled with personality and life.” Somehow, we managed to overlook his most famous painting, Las Meninas, completed in 1656. “It is more properly knowns as La Familia de Felipe IV (The Family of Felipe IV) and the painter’s mastery of light and colour is extraordinary.” A testimony to the results of too much inbreeding, it is certainly one of the oddest paintings I have never seen in person!

Although I found Velazquez’s portraits imposing, I cannot say I loved them. For me they lack the warmth of, say, a Rembrandt portrait. But as a court painter he was highly regarded.

Our second painter, Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes 91746-1828) “is the other towering figure of the Prado, with painting that chart the easily scandalised, tortured Spanish soul of the early 19th century. His work is represented by two dramatically different subjects: two of them, La Maja Vestida

and La Maja Desnuda

“tell of Goya’s rumoured (and scandalous) love affair with the Duquesa de Alaba; while two others, El Dos de Mayo and El Tres de Mayo, “bring to life the 1808 anti-French revolt and subsequent execution of insurgents in Madrid.” While I hardly found La Maja Desnuda scandalous, jaded as I am by having seen so many paintings of nudes, I favored those two, probably because there is an element of the actual personality of the subject in each of them, compared with the more generic war tableaux.

Doménikos Theotokópoulos (Greek: Δομήνικος Θεοτοκόπουλος [ðoˈminikos θeotoˈkopulos]; 1541 – 7 April 1614), most widely known as El Greco, was a painter, sculptor and architect of the Spanish Renaissance (Wikipedia). El Greco is perhaps my favorite of the three, though the least represented in the museum. I love his distortions of both figures and landscapes. They remind me somewhat of Chagall’s painting. El Greco is probably best known for his painting Vista de Toledo.

We actually considered a day-trip to Toledo which was close by, but we didn’t have enough time. At this point in my life, my motto is “less is more.” I can no longer do everything, nor rush around to do so. So I try to slow down my pace and savor what I actually get to do and see. (Not that I wouldn’t have enjoyed that trip to Toledo, mind you!)

After several hours of wandering through the Prado, my husband and I were both experiencing museum fatigue, so we concluded our visit. I realized that Spanish painters are not my first love; I prefer the Impressionists and their softer versions of humanity. But I did learn that these artists often depended on support from the royals for their livelihood, which resulted in many of the rather rigid portraiture on the walls of the Prado.

We were ready for a break and found a sweet, little outdoor cafe adjacent to the Prado. We sat there for a while, my husband enjoying his cafe con leche, while I sipped my cooling herbal iced tea. We watched the parade of visitors, enjoyed the shade and participated in our favorite pasttime in Spain: cafe life.

As we we left the Prado, we found a bluff above the museum from which I could take some better pictures. At one point, I had to back up a few steps to get a more inclusive viewpoint of the museum but suddenly found myself losing my footing and abruptly falling. I leaned to the left to try to break the fall, and ended up jamming my left shoulder, hurting my elbow and jamming my left knee. I sat there stunned while several passersby stopped to ask if I was ok. Surprisingly, I was, although in a bit of a stupor from falling. I took a few minutes to recover, then we walked back to our hotel to apply ice and so I could rest a bit. (It took a few weeks, but the pain is finally gone. I am so lucky I didn’t break anything.)

Our final day in Madrid concluded with a visit to a third restaurant, Vino Techa Bistrot on, you guessed it, Calle Moratin. When I first saw it the day before, I knew it was special, but I had no idea it was one of Madrid’s most popular restaurants.

This was a more typical fashionable restaurant than the previous two I described in earlier posts which were a neighborhood hangout for bullfighting enthusiasts and a trendy place with a sunny decor. This restaurant offered straight on, well prepared Spanish fare with a sizzling wine list.

THE BLOG 05/24/2013 03:04 pm ET | Updated Jul 24, 2013
Two Wonderful Madrid Restaurants
By John J. Healey (Huff Post)

“I’m not quite sure why, but Marcos Gil (the owner and host) creates an ambiance you want to return to over and over again. For as long as you sit there you feel beau and chic. The restaurant for me is a kind of installation representing the sort of life one aspires to, which you want to try to lead every day. The wines, from Spain and France, have been chosen as carefully as the food, none of them break the bank and all of them are served with just the right amount of savoir-faire. It is also a place where one can talk and where you are left alone to do so. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is an absolute delight.”

Everything the critic said is true. The owner discussed the menu with us, giving us a detailed description of every dish that interested us. The roasted chicken dish, which my husband chose, came highly recommended by two Americans from Colorado who struck up a conversation with us. I chose, instead, the “fish of the day” which was boned mackerel on a bed of sweet red peppers…a local specialty which was quite good.

The appetizers were outstanding: the best potatoes I’ve ever tasted, roasted in olive oil and seasoned with a special paprika from the northern part of Spain. The artichoke hearts were marinated in olive oil and seasoned with salt and a very finely ground bacon. The third appetizer was porcini mushrooms, marinated, sitting on a bed of seasoned cream. These mushrooms were aged for several months in a vacuum container to mellow their taste. They were amazing! For dessert we had a liquid creme brulee and the best chocolate cake with a liquid cherry center. Muy delicioso!

We finished the evening with a nightcap served by a friendly, very young waiter we had met two nights earlier at a small bar/cafe we found in the cozy Plaza de Mutate (Barrio de las Letras)

As we relaxed and enjoyed the warm night air and the low-key vibe of the plaza, we felt, for a few moments, almost like true Madrilenos.

Next week: South to Sevilla!

Our Second Day in Madrid, Spain

After a leisurely first day in Spain, hanging out mostly in Barrio Atocha, we had a good night’s sleep and were ready for seeing more of Madrid. Our day began with a “panoramic sightseeing tour” of Madrid which turned out to be a five-hour comprehensive bus tour of all the neighborhoods of Madrid. We loved getting a glimpse of the entire city since there is no way we could have covered this much ground on our own in two and a half days.

A gift from Egypt to Spain for its help building the Aswan Dam.
Plaza de la Cybeles with The Palacio de la Comunicaciones in the background.
A warm welcome is extended from Madrilenos to refugees.

The bull ring in Madrid is still quite active.

A sculptural tribute to Madrid’s famous matadors.

One of Madrid’s many glorious fountains.

Our final stop was the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) shown above. By this time we were exhausted and wondered out loud to our tour guide whether we should even visit the palace. Since we were the only two passengers left on the tour, we decided to do it since it would be like having a private tour. We made the right decision because our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable about the history of the palace as well as every item in the palace, or so it seemed.

I thought I’d seen enough palaces in my lifetime, but this palace is a must see. It is twice as big as Versailles and might be in some ways twice as splendid. We visited twenty rooms in all, including many exquisitely decorated, and one decorated entirely in porcelain. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photos in any of the rooms.

The grand staircase at the entrance to the palace.

One of the two lions that greet visitors at the foot of the staircase. This is the French sculpture.

This is the more fearsome Spanish lion.

All this visible splendor drove home the fact that Spain was once a mighty, wealthy empire with the wealth and artifacts to prove it.

Upon leaving the palace, we lingered in the spacious courtyard for a while, then made a short visit to the armory right next to the palace where we saw many lavishly suited knights mounted on armored covered cabballos. The metal work on the armor was exquisitely detailed and most of it was made in Germany during the Hapsburg dynasty.

As you can well imagine we were quite exhausted and full of historical information and visions of splendor, so we decided to retreat to our room for…you guessed it…a siesta!

We agreed to stay in our neighborhood once again for dinner and had made a reservation for a trendy looking small restaurant, called La Veronica, on our favorite neighborhood street, Calle Moratin.

When we arrived at eight the place was still empty, but people slowly trickled in as the night wore on. We had a very trendy dinner with each course a small work of art. The best part: with wine our bill was only about 60 euros!

Another wonderful day in Madrid with beautiful weather, stimulating sightseeing and marvelous food at a reasonable price. I was falling in love with Madrid.

Madrid: First Stop On Our Vacation In Spain

First stop upon our early morning arrival in Madrid: Hotel Atocha, on Calle Atocha near the old train station.

The hotel is a beautifully restored “palace” (mini-version) that has all the amenities you could want, with beautiful architecture and white marble throughout the hotel. The staff is very pleasant and helpful. Plus, it turned out to be well situated near the Prado, one of the most renowned museums in the world; the city center, and a barrio (neighborhood) with plenty of places to eat and drink.

The day we arrived, quite fatigued from our overnight trip, we decided to stay in the Atocha barrio and just wander around. Although we were in a big city, this area of Madrid seemed more like a small city to us. The buildings were not very tall; many of the streets parallel to the main routes were very narrow and quaint, there were many small shops, cafes and bars to visit, and life seemed to be happening at a reasonable pace. This suited us just fine, as we were not yet ready for the hustle and bustle of a major urban experience.

We stopped in a local cafe for a bite to eat. The server was a young woman who spoke barely any English and did not seem interested in being helpful. We ended up with a small plate of fried dumpling-like somethings which were not very good. After some persistence, we were able to order the fried squid bocadillo (sandwich on a baguette) which was more satisfying, with a tasty local beer.

After a short while we found ourselves on what seemed to be a major pedestrian shopping street, filled with Spaniards and tourists. It was starting to get warm and we were low on energy so we found a place to have a bowl of gazpacho (cold spicy tomato soup) to help us cool off. We enjoyed people watching for about half an hour, then resumed our walk and encountered a very old church right smack in the middle of the shopping area. They are just part of daily life here.

We stumbled upon a tiny handcrafted-jewelry store and found a sweet handmade ceramic necklace to bring home to our daughter. I love finding gifts that will remind me or the person I am gifting of the places I visit. By the way, she loves the necklace!

Our promenade ended at the Botanical Gardens, right next to the Prado. We sought the shade and meandered through the garden. In my opinion, it was nice but does not compare to many of the same here in the New York area.

We ended up having dinner on Calle Moratin, a quaint street just around the corner from where we were staying at what looked like an authentically Spanish bar/restaurant called Taberna Meson, which advertised a very affordable “menu del dia” ( menu of the day) for a reasonable 2 euros, including 3 courses.

It turned out to be a real local hangout. Some local patrons sat in an adjacent room at the bar watching a bullfight (a favorite pasttime for many men in Madrid), while we dined in a cute dining room with red and white checkered tablecloths and pictures of Matadors on all the walls.

Our waiter spoke very rapid, local Spanish, but it was fun to engage with him using my very limited Spanish. He was clearly pleased at my attempts.

We chatted amiably with a woman sitting alone at a nearby table, who complimented me on my ridiculously limited Spanish. This would never happen in France! I was beginning to fall in love with Madrid. The gazpacho was delicious, the grilled fish perfectly done, the cava (bubbly wine )was tasty and the flan was perfect.

Before leaving the restaurant, we stopped at the bar to watch the bullfight for about ten minutes because we were curious.

When the final, handsome matador entered the ring to kill the bull we didn’t care to watch the inevitable ending so we left.

We felt very satisfied with our first day in Spain, and went to bed exhausted and earlier than usual to be ready for our city bus tour the next morning. One of the best features of the vacation package we bought turned out to be the tour of each of the three cities we visited.

More about Madrid next week.

A Poetry Immersion Weekend: The Joy of Connecting Through Words

(Jan Heller Levi, who sounds pretty important, said this about Marilyn Hacker (shown above) which is better than what I might say: “I think of her magnificent virtuosity in the face of all the strictures to be silent, to name her fears and her desires, and in the process, to name ours. Let’s face it, no one writes about lust and lunch like Marilyn Hacker. No one can jump around in two, sometimes even three, languages and come up with poems that speak for those of us who sometimes barely think we can even communicate in one.”)

I promised a post today about Madrid, the first stop on my recent three-city tour of Spain. However, since the photos are not yet accessible to me, I ask your patience and will instead write today about my poetry immersion weekend.

This weekend two events took place in my poetry world, unexpectedly back to back. The first event was part of a weekend celebration of the 198th birthday of Walt Whitman, held at the Walt Whitman Birthplace Site in Huntington, Long Island. Since my retirement, I avail myself of the wonderful programs and events that are held there.

I had signed up to audit a Master Class on Saturday given by the newly designated poet-in-residence, Marilyn Hacker, a poet unknown to me. I have been a poetry groupie since grad school at SUNY Buffalo when I had the opportunity to attend the poetry readings of many of today’s widely recognized poets including Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, Allen Ginsburg, Richard Brautigan, Robert Bly, Bob Hass and many, many others. (I now notice the absence of women on the list!) To me, a great poet is the equivalent of a rock star. Walt Whitman is my current rock star because he hails from my hood and is the source of most of my recent poetic inspiration.

The Master Class offered me the chance to meet a critically acclaimed poet and to attend her reading. I chose to “audit” the class because it was less expensive than full participation, and because I still think of myself as a fledgling poet. I hoped that by auditing the class I would learn from more experienced writers than myself.

Big mistake! Most of the group was comprised of closet poets, like me, who were looking for feedback on improving their own writing. Ms. Hacker began the Master Class with a prompt: a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks entitled “the rites for Cousin Vit” which she asked the participants to respond to in writing.

Although it was interesting to hear everyone’s “take” on the poem, I felt disappointed that the class was run more on a shared-participation model than as an opportunity to learn from the poet’s comments on each individual’s writing. When the class ended, three hours later, I felt I still knew nothing about the poet or her writing or why she was chosen poet-in-residence for 2017.

In the two-hour interval between the class and the reading that followed, I found myself outside in the lovely garden with a poet, Pramila Venkateswaran, I’d heard read at a previous event at this same venue. We had a leisurely, collaborative conversation about learning multiple languages, native tongues, losing fluency in a second language for lack of another native speaker to converse with (in her case, German; in my case, French). Many of her poems are focused on the role of women in society, with emphasis on some of the more mundane and tedious roles they are reduced to playing. She offers gentle, and even loving depictions of these women trapped in their daily lives.

The late-afternoon reading had a light turn-out which I actually appreciate because for me this makes the event more private and personal, as though the poet is engaging in conversation with close friends. Ms. Hacker’s poems have a far-flung reach, referring often to friends dispersed throughout many countries, including France and the Middle East. In her newest poems she intersperses English with bits of Arabic or French which immediately gives her poetry a cache not present in most American poetry. Having lived in different cultures she is able to throw a broad net and come up with a catch that forms the basis of a poem, rich in cultural details and exotic language.

I sat up late in bed last night, reading poems from her newest collection: in some she is reminiscing about a long bygone relationship; she writes of friends who’ve suffered incredible personal loss through the hardship of wartimes; she reflects on her own physical scars and psychological wounds. But above all, hers is a voice that notices, analyzes and then bursts forth in poetry that is life-affirming. Needless to say, the reading more than made up for what I felt was missing in her earlier class.

Sunday, I was invited to read a poem I had recently written and submitted to a local poetry contest. The awards were kept a secret. I was finally called to the podium to read my poem which was awarded Honorable Mention. I felt honored to be in the company of so many devoted and talented Long Island poets, young and old. The poet who organized the event, Gayl Teller, ended the evening by saying that “we are all richer for having shared each other’s poems tonight.” Her point is well taken; I certainly did feel the connection to others with whom I’d shared a weekend of poetry.

I’ll close this post with the poem I read. The inspiration for it was a talk I heard given recently by Neil Degrasse Tyson, our beloved astrophysicist. In it, I refer to something that changed my life about two and a half years ago.

If Only…

If only the grownups
had told the truth
all those dreary Sundays
rising early to go to church
to learn about the mysteries
of water changed to wine
feeding the multitudes with
a basket of fish and loaves of bread
and as if that were not enough
how He walked on water
and rolled away the stone from the tomb
invoking lightning and thunder
then rose from the dead

When, in truth, it really
comes down to a few molecules
or a rogue cell that has decided
to take your life away from you
no miracles, no lightning or thunder
nothing to do with sinners or saints
just the Big Bang, on a smaller scale,
cells put in motion,
chaos, then order,
life, then death

We know that
one cell can create a life
but did you know
that one cell can take your life?

Barbara Suter
Spring 2017