for Leonard Cohen

Like a pen, like a violinist’s bow, like a voice, like the expression of fingertips, like lighting in a photograph or dynamics in a symphony, like fingerprints, like footsteps, like feathers, like every single sunset and every single sunrise, like first light on cold boulders, like hot asphalt at noon, like a sweeping gesture, like a wink, like a twitch, like flames reaching toward darkness, like raindrops tracing windowpanes, like speech, like silence, like song, like rest. It is an instrument of nuance, a delineation of difference. It is a way to be free.

What is Present, not precious?

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Wooden, glass, ceramic, stone. So many colours – reds, teals, purples. Round, flat, cylindrical, ridged, irregular, oval. Coral, turquoise lapis lazuli, shaped and hammered silver and brass.They slip through my fingers, larger than grains of sand but similarly fleeting. I am searching through a bowl of beads, looking for the next one to add to my string.

On the radio this morning I hear Borodin’s Overture to Prince Igor, and I think of Kismet. Then I remember ‘Baubles, bangles, bright shiny beads’, my favourite tune from that show, also lifted from Borodin – the string quartet no. 2 in D. I decide that when I type this up, I will listen to the quartet and the song. When it comes to choosing the version that suits my mood, I can’t choose between the quartet and Sinatra. I’ll keep them both.

I like the feel of beads in my hands, their coolness, hard, smooth, unyielding to my grip.  I like the sound of one landing on another as it travels down the fine fishing line of my bracelet-in-the-making or along the rough red yarn or old shoelaces that held the clunky, bright wooden beads  selected and strung together by my children when toddlers.

Perhaps what I like best about beads is that they are materials for making, for stringing together things unlike and unlikely, side by side.


What is Present, not precious?

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rocking chair


Sometimes, when no one is there, it starts. The creak of wood on wood could be mistaken for a draft or the wind through the panes, but the windows are on the other side of the room and besides, it’s not windy out. The leaves are sagging with the doldrums of summer and bees are exhausted by their own unsteady swerving through heavy-headed blossom.

Anyway, the movement is more regular than breezes. A rhythm: chirrup forward, scrape back, chirrup forward, scrape back.  The amplitude of the motion grows as does the sound. Now tipping forward, now leaning back, the frequency the same but the swings growing wilder, creaks become rattles that echoes themselves.  Back and forth, more and more, teetering on the front legs, almost overshooting the balance point on the return. A continual case of last minute recovery, speeding through the middle ground, a change in direction at the extremes. Inevitably, the displacement from equilibrium is too great. On a backwards swing, it goes too far, the centre of gravity slips past stability and it crashes, clatters, falls to the floor.

What is Present, not precious?

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rag rug


In Willy’s ranch house in Tarpley, Texas, there were rag rugs on the floor. I should refer to him as Bill, he didn’t like being called Willy. I visited Tarpley over Labor Day weekend twice during my university years. Once at the beginning of our second year, and once at the beginning of the fourth year. The first year, I didn’t know Bill well enough, the third year, I was in Scotland, and by the fifth year, most of my friends had graduated and Willy  wasn’t really speaking to me anyway.

But those interim years – the even ones in our friendship – Labor Day weekend was spent at the ranch. Each time, as we drove west, we’d look for the sign a few towns before Tarpley that greeted us with ‘Welcome to Hondo. This is God’s Country, Don’t Drive Through It Like Hell.’  Each time, we went to a local barbecue, the best one in Texas, we were assured. Each time, we had BBQ Brisket, baked beans, white bread (to soak up the BBQ bits and beans), pickles, potato salad, and something sweet to drink. I’m tempted to say sweet tea, but it was probably coke. Bottles of Shiner Bock for those who drank.

The first time I visited Tarpley was with my mom, on our way home after my freshman year. How did we ever end up with an invitation to spend a few days in the West Texas Hill Country? I can’t recall. We spent the night in a room with twin beds and rag rugs on the floor. That’s when I noticed the rugs, tightly woven strips of cloth, wound into circles, having been given a second or even third chance at usefulness. I went for a walk with Bill one evening near dusk. He counted all the different birds and insects he could hear. I think he got up to about fourteen and rattled off their names. Aside from the crickets, I couldn’t name even one. But I do remember creek rush, night winds, distant lights of a lone car in the hills.

The second time I visited was one of those Labor Day weekends. There were a lot of us – how did we get there? – me, Suzanne, Bill, Bob, Lewis, Jon, Matt, Nate.  I remember sleeping outside in hammocks next to Nate – never mind the mosquitoes or any recent heartbreaks. I remember walking along a creek bed and collecting fossils and finding dinosaur footprints.

The last time I went to Tarpley, I don’t think Bill liked me very much. I had trampled on too many hearts, too carelessly. Still, though, I was a part of the gang and we all headed to Hill Country on Labor Day weekend. I recall a game of truth or dare in which the truths I offered – love conquers age difference and no, I would not like to have eight children when I grew up – revealed me to be unsuitable for further company.

For years, I always thought that game signalled the ending of an alliance. Wrong words at the wrong time. But now I see that the gang itself was already beginning to fray then, like those rag rugs, those concentric circles of cloth, only held together by string and circumstance.

What is Present, not precious?

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Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo is a sentence where the same word functions in four different roles. Adjective-subject-verb-adjective-direct object. It is probably possible to distinguish the roles played by the two adjectives, but that would take the skills of a greater grammarian than I.

‘Go Buffs!’ – Ralphie and Chip were the CU mascots when I was a graduate student in Boulder. I lived there for almost 3 years in the late 1990s. I haven’t been back since 2000 when I went for my best friend’s wedding. It’s been such a long time since I lived there, but those years burn so bright in memory. There was a beautiful intensity about that time.

People tell me Boulder has changed. They say I wouldn’t recognise it anymore, that it would break my heart to see how Highway 36, the corridor between Boulder and Denver, has become a continuous sprawl of suburbia. Don’t go back, they say, it’s better to remember it as it was, as you were, with the light just so on Mapleton Avenue in early autumn mornings and the snow blanketing the boulders on the Boulder Creek bike path in January and those late nights puzzling over quantum mechanics in coffeeshops attached to bookshops and those long weekend days hiking the Front Range to a bone weariness that comes from carrying your body above tree line and breathing angels’ air. Leave it all, they say. Some things are better left undisturbed.

I’m not sure I agree.

What is Present, not precious?

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photo booth


Those funny little stalls stashed in odd corners of a shopping mall or just outside a movie theater, sounding their siren calls for the spare 5 minutes and handful of change.

You step inside with your brother or beloved or best friend, draw the curtain closed, squeeze  both your bottoms on a seat designed for one, the sense of mischief overcoming the claustrophobia of a small space. The air in here blows you wayward. You have a chance to make a record that is not one for Sunday School or the family holiday card, you can leave your mark like a paw print in a block of butter. You feed the machine your coins. Clatter of metal on metal as loose nickels and dimes rattle down its throat and land with a clink, joining other coins from other pockets now empty.

Then 4 opportunities: one after another. What faces will you pull and how quickly can you change the tone for maximum dynamic range? Surprised, serious, silly, serene. A kiss, a poke, a blurry one, a cross-eyed duo. Bare your teeth, bug-out your eyes, waggle your tongues, touch your noses. Two heads fill the space of the frame, no background but each other and the speed of an impulse. 4 clicks and you’re done.

Pull the curtains open and you blink back into context, waiting while the machine in the booth hems and haws over your portraiture. You hop from foot to foot, one eye on the clock or the door – the movie will start soon, your ride will drive up at any minute now. Finally, the string of photos emerges from the slot on the side of the machine and into your hands. When it comes out, you crowd over it, eager to see this fresh minted comic strip of incidental intimacy. Unplanned. Impulsive. Enduring.

What is Present, not precious?

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‘Hmm…have you seen an incredibly tall, stovepipe hat?’ he asks, peering at me, his face coming much closer to mine than it has in years.

‘No, no, no!’ I giggle, delighted that we are playing this game.

‘Hmm…perhaps I left it in your ear. Let me have a look.’

I dive under the covers, grinning in the dark recess among the pillows.

‘Ah, this might be it!’ He grabs my big toe through the blankets. ‘How did it ever get stuck in a place like that?’

I kick my foot free only to tangle my legs in the sheets.

‘No hat! No hat, here!’ I shout through the the layers of sheets, comforter, and afghan.

‘Very well then, thank you very much.  If you happen to stumble upon, as I say, an incredibly tall, stovepipe hat, please return it to me, Abraham Z Lincoln.’

And he walks out of the room, dragging all the bedding behind him, looking more like a king in his robes than the 16th President of the United States.

What is Present, not precious?

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