Scenes From A Writing Class

Two cormorants and a disputed fish (photo by D.Kannemeyer)

Scenes From A Writing Class (Actually, All The Participants May Be Me)


            And suddenly I’m thrashing, doomed and desperate, in its mouth.

            Too many trees!


            A tale shifts with its telling. It becomes the teller.

            In this photograph, a cormorant, fleeing, has caught a fish, which a second cormorant, looming, threatens to seize. It’s not a tale yet, but it’s the cusp of one. “Look, characters! Look, they’re having a dramatic moment!” So we look. We reach in, we begin imagining. But to write what we imagine, to craft a tale, we must push beyond the threshold, and advance into the dark of it. With intent, and with a methodology.

            With our first steps, we shape a stance. Where do we place ourselves? Whose skin do we wear? Whose voice suits the telling?

            The strongest choices tend to be the simplest ones. “Look, characters!” Who are they? 

            (1) The fisher cormorant…

            (2) The thief cormorant… And thirdly?

            (3) The fish.

            Yes. There’s a certain reluctance to empathize with the fish, which is what a point of view character demands of us. We would rather not be this fish.

            Good. Any other possibilities?

            (4) The lake? Well, if you must. A bit contrived, perhaps? Too gimmicky a narrator for most tastes, as with any inanimate tale-teller. But give it a try, if you must. Animate it!

            (5) The artist? Which artist? The photographer? Yes, very good: someone has chosen to observe, and capture, and display this image. Who, and why?

            (6) The teacher, who has chosen to share it? Yes. What fun! Why not me? Go for it!

            (7) The viewer. Of the photograph? Yes, we’ve spoken about this: all art, even casual or private art, aspires to affect an audience. Beginning with its own creator! And after that, whoever else sees it. We can write from that audience’s perspective.

            (8) The writer him or herself! Splendid! Or yourself—or I!A photograph suggests, but what it shows is static. It says, “Peek in my window!” Whereas a tale is progressive—it travels—it says, “Ride with me!” It acquires a landscape—with glimpsed distances—even as it insists, “No, look over here!” Our tale reveals what we order and disorder it to reveal.

            What can be scary is that it reveals us too—and not just to our readers! An honest writer will reflect from its every shard. It can be a useful trick to acknowledge this fact—that we stand, furtively stripping, in a hall of mirrors—and to speak from that pose.

            (9) The reader. Yes. There are Venn overlaps here, of course, but yes.

            (10) God? God as imagined by the characters? Or by who? Or some kind of authentic, above us all God? Yes, I accept that a range of options is possible, but which did you intend? Ah. Again, please, for the whiteboard? “The God who created a world in which cormorants have to kill to survive…and fish have to die…and thieves prosper while others go hungry.” Well, your third contention is debatable, and there are other conceivable and inconceivable Gods who might have some part to play in this drama—but for our #10, let there be God! And we’ll call it a list.

            Now. Pick one of these ten. Open your soul to them; find their voice; be them. Write!


The beak unclenches—flips—clasps harder.

Gut-speared—then clamped, and flapped—I flounder

and lunge—a low, slapped froth of water

flails me—I flail—am plunged back under.

Keelhauled up out, hoist at the sky,

I twist one rivuletting eye

to where the lake churns below, and die—

leaving, on its quicksilvering skin,

my shape, in glints of scale and fin,

to spall through trawled mirrors of trees.


            Do fish feel pain? Science suggests that they do. This is an inconvenient finding, so it tends to be labeled (see Wikipedia) as “contentious”. We can’t really know what another human feels, let alone some other species! And anyway, fish surely can’t feel emotional pain, as we do.

            I write my fish as articulate, self-aware, and even desperate, and yet I distance myself. My language is pretty and my tone measured. There’s death here, sure, but it’s a little jaunty.

            Be them? Well, there are degrees of empathy. One can aspire.

            Ultimately, there is just one honest teller of a tale, and that’s the writer. Our characters, 1-7 and 9-10—but most especially 1-4, who are wholly Other, and 10, who is Inconceivable—are an illusion; their voices are inflections of our own.

            Imagine that for some reason I am broken. The long pandemic. The hard winter, with its ice storms and its power outages. The political climate. Personal troubles. The usual brokenness: Thoreau’s quiet desperation; Baudelaire’s ennui. Its particulars I’ll exclude, of course, from my story, but can I, and should I, exclude my brokenness? The fisher cormorant, if I place it at the tale’s center, will battle its own brokenness. Or the thief cormorant will master, but not quite, its brokenness, which, say, drives it to greater ruthlessness. Or the fish, dying (but what do fish have of memory, and know of loss?) will struggle to rescue some bright, less broken fragment from the tear of beak and gullet. Or rage in a squirm of silver against death.

            And so on. The lake may rail at or revel in its jungle laws; the observer, whether the photographer, the teacher, or God herself, will bare her poor lost soul.

            Imagine, too, that for months now, I’ve been unable to write. I’m grumpy because my pharynx is bad. In January, to confront the malady, I start a prose essay about self-talk: the exclamations—jubilant, or startled, or broken—which escape the confines of one’s inner colloquy, and erupt into the air. I tell of my college roommate’s favorite snarls, which were “Puke!” “Spew!” and “Fester!” To which I would mockingly retort, “Chair leg!”—as if my own mutterings—”Look, you can work till you’re grey!” “Dead soldiers in the rain!”—were any less weird. I rouse my rumpled thoughts into language. They sag back into toss and mumble. I roll over and let the thing lie.

            More recently, I’ve begun to exclaim, “Too many trees!” I conversed, once, with a Japanese visitor to Richmond, who didn’t have much English, but who kept this phrase at the ready. When one of us asked him what he thought of our city, he cried out, with a kind of indignant, astonished, excoriating glee, “Too many trees!” Richmond, and we hadn’t known it, was infested with trees? Was such a thing even possible? How different must a perspective be from my own to arrive at such a judgment! Yet now I come out with this phrase at the oddest moments! Rarely in incomprehension at the world; sometimes in incomprehension at myself; occasionally to fix myself with its mantra; but mostly for the strange tickle of its noise. It is, I believe, a sort of mildly terrible sneeze. A sneeze (God bless, God break me) of absurdist, self-ridiculing woe.

            Today, I confess, exasperated with my tale of two cormorants and a fish, I’ve been inviting each narrator in turn to chorus the phrase with me. A dumb whim, but a stubborn one. As I flee with my catch, or pursue with my wings outspread, or look down, as the God who God knows why has made the world this way, I blurt, Too many trees! Too many trees!

            Until over me the dapple of a sunlit surface dims—as a great swift shadow hardens in the water weeds—and violently I am yanked into a beak—and up—out into sky, and a wheel of trees—gasping and thrashing in its maw.


            I’ve always preferred to write when I feel whole rather than when I feel broken. It’s not that I flinch from betraying some secret shame, it’s that, in a funk, I write worse. What shame can there be in one’s ordinary nakedness? What beauty might I find, rather, in vulnerability, in our need for touch? And yet I struggle to. I think that I find such states, in me, at least, a bit pitiful, a bit excessive. I’ve known too much good fortune, and am certainly not, not yet, this fish! My world is sweet, even if lately it has seemed more dangerous, and far too savagely divided. (Can we know any other perspective than our own? Can we wish to, at least, try? Even if only for the duration of a writing exercise?) The life of anything that feels—that relishes and takes for granted, that suffers and that dies—may be both terrible beyond all understanding, and wild and lovely beyond all understanding. It may hurt to feel we are preyed on, or to be so small in the world’s immensity—to be just another fish. Yet when we have, or make, the time to look, and to wonder, what an astonishment it remains: this great untamable forest that we swim in, with its terrible birds, its too many trees.

A guest blog by Derek Kannemeyer

winter 2020/21

With characteristic self-deprecation, Derek even said that I shouldn’t include this piece–as if I could exclude it after flying, stealing, suffering, and dying with it! Anyway, I admire a fish’s perspective enough even to speak up for fishhood on occasion. See:

Release Day for PUSHBACK

PUSHBACK: Selected Poems of Resistance by Richard L. Rose (Atmosphere, 2021)

From the Sponsor:

My new poetry collection, PUSHBACK was released yesterday. As a single-minded promoter, I have shortcomings and misgivings—somewhat reflected in the pseudonymous guest-blogs for this issue–and remain up in the air although I now have an author landing site

(:, where you can find more information about my work

If you have a moment and  the inclination, please consider posting about PushBack on social media today. Each post has a cumulative effect and can really make an impact. (And thank you if you’ve already been doing this!) You can also help spread the word by giving the book a star rating on Goodreads or a starred review on Amazon. If you’d like to buy a copy, it’s available everywhere books are sold. You can order directly from your local bookstore or reach your local bookstore through Indiebound. In Richmond, BookPeople ( has signed copies

More purchase links: Amazon , Barnes & Noble , Indiebound .      And then there’s this:
From the Review by Book Life: “Rose’s eloquent collection, subtitled ‘Selected Poems of Resistance,’ touches on a wide sweep of topics with a singular sense of rhythm and musicality that enriches even some of the book’s most inaccessible pieces . . . “


Having a Goal

            A recent post on the Minimalist website* called attention to Instagram’s friendly message to users that they are “all caught up” with scrolling. Obviously, given millions of images to scroll, this is impossible, but the insertion of the message gives the user a goal for scrolling. Giving customers a reason to return habitually to a product is fundamental to advertising. Customers come to believe that they are achieving personal goals by using a promoted product or idea. They have identified with the product. The Franklin Mint encourages them to make their collections complete. The NYT Best Seller list encourages them not to miss what Everyone Else is now reading. Hundreds of other promoters warn their potential customers that Everyone Else is also making the best investment, buying the perfect sofa, sleeping on the best bed, eating at the best restaurant, and going on the most fabulous cruise. Buckets fill with lists of goals to achieve because customers OWE IT TO THEMSELVES to match Everyone Else. Houses fill with commemorative dishes, figurines, gold medallions, pedigreed pooches, and gun racks. Heads fill with cute pooch videos and countless posts by strangers that must be passed on to other strangers so that Everyone Else will know about three-in-one tools for washing, whisking, and wiping, or where to buy enough cartridges and salt pork to outlast the Dark Times that are coming according to Everyone Else. Certainly, this is the time to buy gear, extra firearms, and cartons of ready-to-eat meals. Only add water. But it may be hard to catch up to Everyone Else as they burst through the Capitol doors wielding bats.         —Andante



            There is a kind of parasitic worm, the Acanthocephala, or spiny-headed worms, which live in the intestines of vertebrates. These worms do not really have spiny heads; they possess a muscular anterior proboscis supplied with hooks for fastening into the intestinal wall of their host. The length of spiny-headed worms ranges from a sixteenth of an inch to a foot. They have no digestive systems, relying entirely on the host. The nervous system comprises an anterior cluster of nerve cells and patches of light sensitive retinacula—brain and eyes. Most other body systems are absent or rudimentary, except for the reproductive system. Like the proboscis, the reproductive organs are well developed. Accessory structures, the cement glands and copulatory bursa, ensure attachment during mating. Central to the acanthocephalan way of life, these structures have evolved with maximum quality assurance. Reproducing in large numbers guarantees the survival of a few. As with many other species, this strategy of high biotic potential has proved tremendously successful for the spiny-heads.

            Suited as they are for intestinal living, spiny-heads are presented with a wide array of benefits in their tubular habitat, including a ready source of predigested food, excellent climate-control, a short commute and excellent public transportation system. Passing through the gut, the young acanthors ultimately exit the host on their vision quests to new territories, often assisted by the wings of insect vectors in whose body cavities they develop into new forms, the transitional acanthella and the invasive cystacanth. Occasionally, however, the host may provide such an inviting setting that hundreds of acanthors remain close to home in large subdivisions that cause the intestine to come apart. Such unintended consequences are obviously dangerous externalities, but with their small patches of neural tissue, spiny-heads are not given to forethought.

            I once worked for a man who studied acanthocephalans. He was particularly suited to the work—inquisitive, knowledgeable, admired, and aided with a large federal grant to continue his investigations and pay my salary for many years. His interest was so keen that any time not devoted to spiny-heads—attending faculty meetings, giving lectures on general biology, picking up his mail, travel out of town, eating, talking to his wife—he regarded with good-natured disinterest, provided he could soon return to the laboratory, where he inoculated doves, goldfish, and turtles with thousands of cystacanths and wrote a hundred pounds of monographs.

            Similar in some ways to the spiny-heads he studied, Professor Austin was peculiarly suited for his peculiar interest. Just as the worm could exist within the intestine without being digested or expelled—its flexible proboscis retracting or fastening as needed—so Austin, within a narrow range, avoided absorption or expulsion by probing or withdrawing as the situation demanded.

            Presumably there was a time when most acanthocephalans did not have hooks on their proboscis but did have a digestive system. A minority, with a poor digestive system but stubby hooks, let us say, existed at that time as poor relations on the scraps of detritus siphoned by some unobservant clams. Perhaps a seabird carried one of these clams inland to drop it on a rock and feast. Suddenly released into the bird’s gut, the poor relations with their stubby spines could hold on as their betters perished. Many generations later, their gutless descendants had glorious grappling hooks, in much the same way that other gutless beings often find ways to hang on and hang around.

            Of course, millions of worms died initially for lack of a spiny proboscis and, as time went on, millions more died because their probosces were inadequate. Although their evolved way of life was less independent and their way of getting about was clumsy and uncertain, the benefits outweighed the losses. The fact that they were committed to their way of life, totally dependent on their hosts, and lacking the capability to escape it, would not occur to spiny-heads because they were not given to reflection.

            What about Professor Desmond Austin, who was in a situation with a comparable degree of dependency? His laboratory was designed around the acanthocephalan life-cycle. In the Cuticle Division, where I worked, cubicles were devoted to Extracuticular Substances, Protein or NonProtein, Excreted or Secreted, Functional or Nonfunctional. Each cubicle was inhabited by a graduate student or technician. Working under Protein, a team specialized in Quantification and Identification, Crystallography, Electron Microscopy, Artificial Synthesis, Deprivation Studies, Extra-vital Uses, and Cost-Analysis and Feasibility of Processing. The Cuticle Division was one of thirty units devoted to the body systems of spiny-heads. The mental territory of Professor Austin had become the host for an enterprise employing almost a thousand researchers. The thirty-first unit, called the NonEssential Division, was managed by Mr. Greth, who was also the only employee in the unit.

            The NonEssential Division provided for the nourishment, security, relaxation, medical and mental services of the laboratory’s staff and their families, all of whom lived on site. Mr. Greth was a stooped, balding man who looked like someone assigned to manage nonessential matters. No documents, books, or files were in his office, which was furnished only with a few chairs, a small table, and a recliner, where he was lying on the first day I reported for work—and where he was every time I had to see him over the decade remaining to Professor Austin before his health, marriage, and federal grant simultaneously collapsed. Without getting up, Mr. Greth handed me the keys to my apartment and cubicle and warned me to avoid the construction area for the new division on the Circulatory Disorders of Alternative Hosts, the one extra block in Austin’s teetering project that finally brought it down. As I left, Greth said, as he always did, Flow through but hang on.

            Now that it’s all over, specialization is worth thinking about. I mean, there’s obviously adaptive value to a hooked proboscis if you’re an intestinal worm without much else going for you. And any specialist in a cubicle is dependent upon the kind of information that seems relevant to the investigation. So if you’re studying a worm, you’re dependent upon what he wants to tell you. The worm is like your teacher:

            I am to teach. You are to learn. I am to cover the course. You are to take it—take it all. I am to grade. You are to pass. I submit your grades. You receive the credit. I permit. You commit. I admonish. You can vanish—if you’re not careful. I teach. You learn. I decide. You concede. I assign. You read. Careful now! I ask and answer. You answer. I must teach. You must learn. I’m not a tutor. I must teach everyone in the class. All of you must be led out, induced, inducted, seduced. Don’t ask me to personalize instruction.

             Group work is best. That’s the way we do it in the gut. Don’t ask me how this prepares you for later life. Get with the program. It’s all about hanging on or going with the flow. One of you asked about getting a general education. Well, we don’t live generally, do we? It’s personal and specialized down there in the gut—no generalists need apply. I’m not here to broaden your experience. I’m the proprietor: I’ve got the goods. You’re the customer. But I don’t customize anything. You get what I have to give you. But even though I do the same for everyone, what is received is not the same for all. Every one of you will come out of this course differently educated.

            I don’t have to customize anything because you will customize it on the uptake. Some of you will come out sharp and critical, others limp as an empty egg sac. Some of you will come away with a sense of direction—even a specialty—but most of you will drift back in the dark lumen and let the current decide. I only answer for what I have to deliver. My probings have led to certain preoccupations. You will hear all about them. I get to make the syllabus, after all.

             It’s your route out of here. It will be logical and thorough. Oh, I may sometimes distort logic for special effect or clarity. Or I may be thorough to the point of giving an impenetrable answer instead of clarifying a question. I may indeed be logical in broad designs, but sparing in the explanations of disarticulated details. (One of my academic achievements, in fact, is to have speculatively constructed the nature of an articulated existence. Quite an achievement for a boneless scholar, they say.)

            And yes, I am aware of the abuses arising from the kind of unwonted consistency-of-thought characteristic of preoccupied scholars. Many dismal periods of our history are not so much examples of failed understanding as of chance variations in the strengths of various habitual preconditions, preconceptions, and preoccupations. As consistency-of-thought usually wins out, however, perhaps it has adaptive value. I leave that to your hooks. Oh, you have none. Distortions of all kinds occur in the degenerated forms of humans, owing to the poor quality of their ability to allow life to pass through them and to know when to engage and when to release. But not all of us can be spiny-heads.      —Con Moto

Three Stories for a Snowy Day

Cafe table in the snow. Richmond, VA

The blog for the snowy end of an incredible month is three very short stories by authors who want to remain anonymous for the time being. To honor their wishes, I have arranged the stories like a musical offering.

Ground Conditions

            Guilt and shame are not the same at all. Bright blue light comes through the windows from an early morning snow and you look out at it. You’re in the dark house looking out at it, watching it cover everything. That’s guilt. Somebody switches on all the lights in the house and a crowd in the street sees you staring out the window. That’s shame.

            You do something, you want to leave the lights off. The favorable court of your mind will find a hundred ways to let you off. I call it à la carte rationality. You let the lights come on; you can forget about explaining how what you did was justified. Saying under the circumstances won’t matter outside the court of your mind where you can take turns pleading, prosecuting, judging, and voting for acquittal under the circumstances, given it was a snowy day when it happened, for instance.

            Saying it happened rather than you made it happen is acceptable in à la carte reasoning. Nothing has a fixed price. You get to choose.

            Weather is different. The ground conditions set the rules. Light snow in the morning with a thin warm layer a hundred feet above the ground, then the snow turns to sleet pellets ricocheting off the roof of the lean-to in the woods. With a thick warm layer, the snow melts but the rain freezes on the ground. It glazes the roof, the pipe lying inches from the body; it even glazes the fingers, and fissures of the face.

            Someone coming upon the scene by the woodpile may think it’s obvious what happened, but that’s because the ground conditions have glazed over everything. Under the circumstances, anyone would understand—anyone who had to listen to the old man ranting so much about your whole generation dragging his patriot dreams to hell that he hit his head on the pipe you were holding.


Shh. Don’t tell

            The sun leapt out at me today. It warmed my skin as I lay on a railing, legs dangling like a child. Seagulls teeming the joint. Down by the river where you can still share a rare but secret smile with a maskless stranger. Shh. Don’t tell.

            My feet held a rhythm and had a step in it. I used to dance on the street where I was from.  Riding my bike with no hands. The night air leaving me breathless with hope. That little flame in your belly. The Aurora Borealis trailing me like a persistent nerd in the schoolyard.  Holding my babies with locked eyes and love eternal, milk spilling from my breasts. Hot chocolate and wagons, little bodies draped over mine, snow in their boots and shrieks of laughter. Intense conversations for hours. Fires and music.

            What happened to us? To our hands interlocking, the whispers of sweet consolation. The warmth, the love, the pain, the giddy apprehension? Bangles jangling in the green grass and brown skin beading with dew. Hot days in lakes so cold, your pelvis burned and then the warmth of sun kissed wood? Children running, matted hair,  tattooed and sunburnt. Hope and love growing distant. Longing to be held. Longing for your touch. For a cold day in a warm bed, naked and free. I am mute. My words and body hold no power. They are used against me.

             A man paused briefly enough to take a photo of the sunset. Roaring engines and sirens punctuate the air and murderous tension lies bloated, thick in it. A young woman cackles garishly. A stark contrast to her youth and beauty.

             My little girl, all blue eyes and heart, cupping my face with her grubby little hands  “You need to listen Mummy.” The flowers poured out this summer, knocking heads in the breeze. The church bells clanged all day long but suddenly stopped. Did you notice?


It needs something

            Drifting across the sky at sunset over the domestic temple of the Daily Tongue were three clouds like three scratches made by some girl trying to hang onto the day before she dropped below the horizon.

            Mimi packed her bag, locked the door, and walked down the stairwell to the parking lot. So much for the day’s dilemmas in the outrage industry. What she did had always been needed. Some paleolithic stringer had been tasked to rub the stones daily. After years of wear, the tiny abrasions inevitably made a polish. Maybe she had admired her reflection before the rock was launched at a hyena, or its human equivalent. Maybe her peers had praised her life’s work.

            Impatience didn’t help, whether you were rubbing a rock, waiting for a microwaved dinner, trying to fire up opinion by rubbing sticks—or to make a story stick by setting a fire. Maybe slackers, like the skateboarders in the parking lot, had the right idea, but  Mimi had never tried to pretend that nothing mattered.           

            Then the daydream again: Something on the roof looked into the office rooms. Perched like a grotesque wearing high-heels, she throws hot water through the windows, scratches “Ha!” on the perfect penthouse panes of the media empire. Maybe too much pepper brought it on. But who could eat this so-called empanada as it is?  Who was watching? She added more pepper.                            

                                                                                                            —Con móto 




Walk it out: An unimpeachable suggestion, and works by Karine Marshall and J. Thomas Brown


Walk it out: An unimpeachable suggestion

            I’m a pushover for psychobabble, searches for meaning, and fiction about psychological pilgrimages, like Scott D. Carpenter’s Theory of Remainders, about a psychiatrist who returns to the scene of his daughter’s murder in Normandy fifteen years earlier in order to find her body and find personal peace. Working as a detective with the tools of psychiatry, he discovers much more. In Collette Shedd’s Facing Lillia, recently published by BairInk ( ), the pilgrimage is shown through the struggling language of a combative psychiatric patient, an indigenous woman who attempts suicide and sometimes spends days at a time watching herself walk in a dream beset by demons and compulsive, suicidal thoughts.

            In a period of mass hysteria, it seems glib to say, “walk it out.” Surely, I should at least offer an explication of groupthink or sociopathy. Instead, I take a walk and invite you to come along. No phone or earplugs, please. Listen to the noise, the screeches of machines, the squawk of Amazon vans turning around, the chatter of squirrels. Look at the sky. The moon has not yet disappeared. Look at other walkers—all ages, all colors, all taking their own steps. Swing your arms. Feel your heart beating. Sniff the camellias, the diesel exhaust, the black compost being raked by a Guatemalan couple into the flower beds of the shopping mall. Breathe it all in. Hold the breath. Process it. Squeeze the energy from the oxygen to release clarity of mind, sustained attention, focus on the moment. Slowly release the breath. Make it into something—a thought, a purpose, a meaning, a poem, or a better story.             —Richard Rose

A Poem for Now

By Karine Marshall,

Blood sacrifices on the Capitol, bow down to the God of fear and hate.

Oh Prince of peace, my heart cries out to thee.

Rise we up in our own righteousness!

But none is righteous only thee.

Blood sacrifices in the cities, shattered glass in the streets,

Active flames of pain for words not heard, actions speak louder.

But he said no more sacrifices were needed, not even the smallest ant need lose his little life?

When comes the dawn of the new day, when the lion lays down with the lamb?

No, No, No, we must fight fight, fight!

Hate war, Hate war, march on, march on.

Rage war, Rage war, lift those knees higher, march on, march on.

Peace Peace Peace, Ohm shanti, shanti, shanti-heeeeeeee

Where are you now my Prince of peace? When will our hearts turn once and for all?

The little girl is skipping alongside her mother, as she ponders….

“Remember when human beings used kill other human beings?” Curls bouncing as she goes.

“Oh little bear, don’t think on such things.”

“Ok mamma, it’s just so weird, people must have been very strange back then.”

Corpus Sancti

by J. Thomas Brown,

            Henry, the oldest, had failed to launch. He lived with his family in a house built in 1738 that stood in the middle of twenty acres of corn field in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. George Washington used it as an infirmary for his troops during the Revolutionary War and their blood stains remain in the wide plank floors today. Sometimes, as he fell asleep at night, the worn floorboards, loose on their hobnails, rattled. He would turn the night table lamp on, get up and set the lock on the door latch, then return to bed to wait for sleep with the light on.

The hand-fitted Pennsylvania blue-gray fieldstone walls were two feet thick, but not thick enough to keep out the world’s contumely. The airwaves carried in news of the assassination of Dr. King, American war crimes in Vietnam, and the violent 1968 Democratic National Convention protests. Yet life was still pleasant in the old stone house and Henry did nothing to change the world but grow his hair long and sew paisley patches into the legs of his jeans to widen them into bell bottoms. 

He dubbed 1968 as The Year of St. Elmo, the patron saint of sailors and those with stomach ailments, whose intestines were wound on a windlass to torture the saint into praying to pagan gods. One sultry evening in early fall he bought a nickel bag of grass from a classmate at a poetry reading by Allen Ginsberg. He returned home afterward and smoked a joint of it in his bedroom. It was so potent the plumed birds on the antique wallpaper came to life and flew around the room. He opened the window to let the smoke out. It was a clammy night with heat lightning flashing. The smell of rain was in the air.

That is when the St. Elmo’s Fire came. His sister, Julia, was in the kitchen with a friend. They both saw it and started yelling. An undulating blue light drifted through the screen door and floated into the dining room, gathered itself into a ball and rolled down the hall. At the sound of their shouting, Henry ran down the stairs and into the family room in time to see it pass through the side entrance door. He followed it outside and stood by his car parked at the side of the house. It climbed the copper lightning rod that ran up the stones from the ground up to the rooftop. The fire perched on the spire, hissing. Blue snakes writhed from its rim and a violet glow spread over the roof. The rain gushed at once and plastered his shirt to his skin. He stared until lightning flashed upward from the spire into a cloud overhead and it extinguished.

A week after the visitation of the Corpus Sancti, Henry moved into an apartment in New Hope with a friend. It is said that lightning never strikes twice in the same place, but he knew that was not true.

Corpus Sancti

by J. Thomas Brown

Outer canards penetrate walls not 

thick enough to hold them out,

-display on the TV screen

contumely late at night.

Inner truths held dear

leak away like electric charge 

from a capacitor. Drained, 

the mind boils away to a 

coacervate primordial soup.

Is there a champion to intercede?

A storm moils near; the air smells

of rain. Lightning flashes overhead. 

The clouds glow blue.

St. Elmo, who could neither be 

consumed by fire nor lightning, 

whose entrails were wound on a 

windless to make him pray to 

pagan gods – but would not,

has arrived. 

Spectral light floats through the 

open window, spreads itself on

the edges of the TV, hums and 

hisses, spitting snakes of violet fire.

A clap of thunder and the house goes 

dark, falls silent. The visitation of the

Corpus Sancti clears out diabolical 

effluvia. I am no traitor to my soul. 

I am set free by the light of St. Elmo.

Insurrection & Wound Treatment

Marian Anderson, painting by Beauford Delaney (1901-1979), at VA Museum of Fine Arts, w/ R.L.Rose

Linda Sechrist’s article, “A new story for the world” (Natural Awakenings, January/February 2021) was a prompt for the following essay, I have invited her to write a guest blog. The prompt for posting this essay at this time, however, is the insurrection that occurred yesterday. A house divided cannot stand, as Jesus explained long ago; as Lincoln reminded the nation during an earlier insurrection, and as Howard Thurman wrote in Jesus and the Disinherited (1949). He went on to say, “If a man calls a lie the truth, he tampers dangerously with his own value judgments.” The insurrection is the consequence of the president and his allies telling lies and boosting them for personal profit. But it is also a consequence of many leaders trying to function with divided minds and now discovering that self deception has harsh consequences. Hate cannot be compartmentalized. I post this portrait, one of my favorites in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, because it is a reminder of the power of singular individuals like Marian Anderson to embody wholeness and healing. In a time of division, one wishes that, like Dr. King, more of our leaders were reading Thurman’s book and carrying it in their pockets as they decide what to do next.

The Fellowship of the Attentive

            Imagining the future.  Human diversity is infinite. By this, I mean that it is immeasurably vast, varied, and surprising. This may inspire the “awe of its limitlessness” (Felicia Zamora, I always carry my bones) or of community—”all are part of the procession” (Walt Whitman)—or of terror, like that underlying the claims of QAnon. The literature of futurism, prospectivism (Margaret Heffernan, Uncharted), and speculative fiction—the respectable name for sci-fi—offers visions of community but fails to account for human diversity and the emotions it elicits.

             As Marie Louise Berneri demonstrated long ago in Journey through Utopia, all of the utopian plans offered as critiques of existing social structures devolved into systems of dominance, however communitarian their assumptions.  Perhaps William Morris’s News from Nowhere best describes the kind of community in which creative work, personal freedom, private ownership, community spirit, and minimal impositions coexist in a balanced relationship between human beings and habitat. Based on an idealized view of medieval society, Morris’s suggestions were only intended to sharpen criticism of industrialism and to contrast with the top-heavy ideal society described by Bellamy in Looking Backward. Of course, communes based on Morris’s ideas have been no more persistent than those based on other utopian and religious plans, most of which begin with a culling:

“Therefore come out from them and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean . . .” (2 Cor. 6:17).

            That is, those who disagree with the community’s assumptions are excluded. Presumably, this assures a pure stock for the unfolding of the Grand Plan, but human diversity is infinite. As agronomists learned while breeding corn to produce excess oil, tremendous diversity for the trait existed even within the pure strains of high-oil producers. In another example, even the tiny population of cheetahs seems to have sufficient genetic diversity to survive for many more generations. Purity has a way of breaking down quickly, not only within unmanaged monoclonal crops but within ideologically pure societies. It almost seems that the idea of purity may be exaggerated. Do you think?

            So, whether the Emerald City planner is Thomas More or Señor Campanella, the Admissions Policy is an inescapable problem. Other plans of eco-gurus are untrustworthy in the same way. Because the plans arise from social criticism, they are remedies to avoid making the errors of the past, somewhat as prescriptions are written to treat a patient’s symptoms, not cure the disease. This leaves the plans open to assault from anomalies, unfixable situations, and random walks. Most anomalies derive from socio-ethnic oversights—such as being blindsided by the planner’s assumptions. Discovery of such oversights, if acknowledged, usually links to another discovery: the situation is not fixable. Anthropologist Edmund Carpenter once put it this way:

“People of different cultures sometimes differ to the point where, although we could probably understand them, we might not want to make the effort. Then all we can do is show some humility and simply greet them.” ( )

 Even the idea of “fixing” is called into question. Finally, the plans of eco-gurus are open to assault by evolutionary random walks. In a population, the frequency of a rare gene, accidentally favored, may suddenly increase dramatically. In the infomercial world, a cat video promoting toilet paper may go viral, or a hateful unsocial media assault may be boosted by millions of click-happy fans thanks to the convoluted morality of Silly Valley.  In the realm of Great Plans, the eco-guru, so certain that she has identified the drivers of social change, is suddenly T-boned by such an unlikely factor as the aforementioned QAnon.

            Sources for good ideas. Nonetheless, we can learn a great deal from the work of thinkers and planners. Here’s a short list:  the Ehrlichs’ Population Bomb,  the Ecotopia of Callenbach ( , the Handmaid’s Tale of Atwood, Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, Eisenstein’s Climate: A New Story, Hawken’s Most Comprehensive Plan Ever,  Rodale’s agricultural books ( ), the Minimalists Milburn & Nicodemus ( ), McKibben’s Falter and ( ), Sahtouri’s “ecosophy,” Garrison’s Humanity Rising Global Solutions Summit ( ), Raworth’s Donut Economics ( ), Atkinson’s The Story of Our Time ( ), De Chardin’s Phenomenon of Man and Divine Milieu, Du Nouy’s Human Destiny, Pope Francis’s Laudato Si, Jaisinghani’s Homo Sapiens: An Appraisal of Modern Humans ( ), George Monbiot’s essays for The Guardian, or Pam B. Simms at MidAtlantic Transition (, Lewis Hyde’s The Gift and Common as Air,  Rob Hopkins’ Transition Companion, the site for the Citizens Climate Lobby ( ),  Paul Goodman’s Communitas, or the book Potential: The Life and Ideas of David Bohm, Shepherd’s New Self, New World ( ), Mitchell’s Living-Spirit Based Change  and the stories of another native writer, Joseph Bruhac, such as Keeper of the Earth, or Shomrei Adamah’s Keepers of the Earth Guide, entitled Judaism and Ecology, or the works of Karl Polanyi or Jonathan Haidt. There are so many thinkers from many disciplines and religious orientations who have tried to understand the path humanity has chosen through revolutions in science, industry, technology, and information that it is impossible to make a simple summary.

            The human project. But here is a simple summary: The desirable way to conduct our human project—dropping all the decorations ( )—is  to scale it down, reduce population growth, eliminate poverty, reduce wanting and consumption, promote education, imaginative creative engagement and collaboration, extend and protect wild habitats and biodiversity, put the energy-recruiting energy of religion to use in reinterpreting texts and traditions to widen the circle of compassion, bring about justice, and center attention on such matters as our interdependence with each other and other living beings. Easy peasy.

            Except it isn’t. Why?  Well, start with this list: sociocultural blindsiding, grievances, distrust, vested hierarchical and commercial interests, global corpocracies, information management and violence by bad actors, and legal proceedings that maintain injustice.

            Noam Chomsky recommends more anarchy, by which he means not careless terrorism but the destruction of illegitimate power structures. A good start, but risky. Like the Chinese gentleman in Charles Lamb’s Dissertation on Roast Pig, you may pay for your tasty meal by burning down your house. Jefferson and Madison, of course, had other ideas. A majority of Americans are still trying to make sense and justice out of them. Critical factors to manage include population, topography (currently jig-sawed in a thousand ways), water, waste, poisons, nutrition, energy—the usual suspects. Of course, big ideas lead to simple solutions.

            But most human problems are complex issues, not experimental designs subject to t-tests of statistical significance. They require individual treatment; they are case studies with their own smells, flavors, and their own—you guessed it—infinite variety, which, with an apology to Shakespeare, all humans possess. And what a problem for planners and eco-gurus it is! Perhaps that is why, as Berneri showed, most planners drift toward totalitarianism. Benevolent or full-strength, it really doesn’t matter. What to do? What to do?

            The Wound Treatment Center. Well, since each case requires special handling—as you would care for a wound—perhaps we do not so much need a grand plan as a tradition of care.  Although I’ve tried out the eco-guru role from time to time (see below), I have come to believe that the current approach to moving toward a more just and sustainable future must be decentralized, local, personal, immediate, and focused on four kinds of care: policy, polity, poetry, and policing. The Wound Treatment Center that I have in mind would be staffed by practitioners of peace, conflict resolution, guided learning, reasoning, and compassion. I call them the Fellowship of the Attentive, and first wrote about them in the book Frameshifts. First responders would render first-aid to the confused, mistaken, misguided, grieving, and aggrieved. Long term care would be provided to heal such wounds as injustice, violence, and inequity from the inside out.  Attention must be given not only to what we do—policy—and to our societal rules of engagement—polity—but also to language. Poets are caretakers of language. They must offset the perversions of communication made by advertising, social media, and government. Finally, human violence is undeniable. Caretakers who deal with this wound must understand its root structure within the public body. To care for such wounds is to care for the public good, to build and renew community.

            So, before moving on to the bright sustainable future, let’s train some first responders.

Some links to some of my eco-guru gigs—————————————————-

A book about seeking justice by organizing experience in the narrative form ( ).

A sermon to interpret faith in terms of interdependence (

Thoughts on the custom of growing lawns ( )

On collaboration ( )

On our limitations ( )

On enlightenment ( )

On modeling population growth:  a population study with R. Jaisinghani and Robert Rose  ( )

On three announcements by Mashkinonge, a magical fish-spirit guardian of the James River: (,  and )

On some books and music: The flipbook about the Fellowship of the Attentive, Tales Since the Shift, a sequel to Frameshifts.  and the author landing site:  and blog site:

Guest blogs in the new year: Home alone on the only planet that suits us.

With the clock going on a new year: A few thoughts (paraphrased) on what one does in isolation without expectation of reward:

This is my letter to the world that never wrote to me, / the simple news that Nature told with tender majesty. –Emily Dickinson

I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance. –e.e. cummings

Poetry is self discipline for the purpose of a formal integration of experience. –Hart Crane

. . .the lover in life will make obstructions serve and from all resistance gain strength. –Robert Bridges

Love is not a feeling. It is a policy. –Hugh Franklin

Look thy last on all things lovely every hour. –Walter de la Mare

I am, yet–what I am who knows or cares? –John Clare

the workspace

It should be noted that the thought of working creatively in isolation did not prevent any of these writers from going right ahead with what they were doing.

The first guest blog is a poem by Karine Marshall, leader of Capitol Opera Richmond. See her blog at: and the site for COR at

A poem on Saturday, January 2, 2021

A Moment of Winter

 Waves crashing on the sand

Whitecaps their winter wear.

Dogs running, barking, affirming existence.

Sun sparkles on the sand

The same as the twinkle in your eye.

Children squeal — vestiges of joy

Fading into the air.

Time passes unobserved

Days shorter, nights long.

Bears slumber dreaming of honeypots spring will bring.

The wheel turns, chance, fortune, and destiny

Shuffled mysteriously.

The wondrous potions of life’s elixir

Sustaining each moment, each breath

Until the last exhale

When the night sky beckons

To the abyss of the unknown.

by Karine Marshall




Richard L. Rose

The right thing

Continuing to do what is right—and other forms of persistence

            “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.”  —St. Paul, The Letter to the Galatians, 6:9

            Sustained attention on creative engagement with a personal or collaborative project is a satisfying and fulfilling experience. We aspire to move from one peak experience to another, even when the project has ended or our persistence has degenerated into mere obsessive energy or perseveration. Maybe we even turn our persistence into other paths—eating, smoking, alcoholism, taking uppers or downers, shopping, gambling, doom-scrolling, or gaming.  Psychologist William Glasser spoke to addicts about the untapped power of addiction. Certainly they knew the power of addiction—the power of impairment. But Glasser spoke of using this power in a positive way—of doing what was right for their lives—that is, finding behavior that did not disable them or diminish their options but instead led to growth and self-reinforcing achievements. Of course, describing personal care as “positive addiction” is like defining song as refined noise. Addiction, obsession, and perseveration are the unbalanced extremes of diligence and persistence. The mental noises of compulsions or flickering attention are distortions of the gentler sound of routines attending to the self. Filtering out distortions is no easy matter.

              Any set of regularly repeated behaviors deserves periodic review. We may ask, “Why am I still doing this?” Or, “Why do I persist in doing this even though I’d rather not?” Presumably, New Year’s is the time to change habits—and this New Year will change national routines of government, to widespread grief and relief. But personal changes in diet, décor, exercise, spending, and taste are usually postponed after the first rush of determined enthusiasm. Here’s a thought: pick one routine.

             Study it. Watch how it behaves. Describe it. Get to know it as an outside observer—or at least as what anthropologists call a “participant observer.” Notice when it happens. Describe the context of its appearance. Take your time to understand it. When you have elevated it to “a thing you notice,” rather than only a “thing you just do,” have a discussion with it.

            In order to have a good critical discussion, you need to know the criteria that you value. What are your aspirations? What is the kind of behavior that most suits you?  What is a productive behavior that you want to sustain because such persistence fulfills your aspiration? In Glasser’s terms, it is a behavior that makes a bigger you. It does not diminish or disable you but instead leads to growth. Compare the routine you have studied with your values. How may the routine be altered to strengthen your aspirations?

            Sometimes we run on automatic but believe that we are persisting in well-doing. As the New Year drags behind it the unsettled turmoil, hatreds, biases, controversies, and sickness of the Old Year, we could do worse than to study and alter a few routines. Dr. King’s comment is often quoted:   ”It is always the right time to do the right thing.”  Perhaps we can improve at discovering the right thing by studying what we already do routinely.


  The new year begins with the promotion of a new book, PushBack: Selected Poems of Resistance,  with three sections: I. Instruct the Grieving Heart,  II. Equalize Mental Static, and III. PushBack. A new author landing site describes this work and other new work, such as a series of FlipBooks. See

Guests have been invited to write blogs on this site. No better way to shift your frame of reference than to listen carefully to another human being.

More book reviews of upcoming poetry collections will appear on this site.  Two have already been posted. Changes to the website’s format and newsletter are underway. Newsletters will come more frequently. By the way, the allied site,, is currently down for repairs.

A few sermons, or sermonettes, as my army chaplain used to call them, will appear as blogs from time to time. I do not apologize for slipping occasionally into this form. Whether poems, stories, reviews, operas, essays, songs, or sermons, all are forms of resistance offered for your consideration and use. Resisting what? The answers are in the many forms.  Happy New Year!        

        —Richard L. Rose  

I always carry my bones

Image from PushBack, by Richard L. Rose

I always carry my bones by Felicia Zamora, University of Iowa Press, 2021. 

            Insistence is not confirmation. Whatever one insists that poetry is, a poet like Felicia Zamora readily disconfirms. Like Dr. Joanna Lee, another poet of the body (in Dissections, 2017), who says that “poetry/ is always barefoot, even / over broken glass,” Zamora breaks into definitions. She “breaches etiquette” meant to keep her out. Like Dr. Williams, laying out the great body of Paterson before dissecting it, she shows us her body, which is our body, which is our country: “heart of reeds, lung/ of dew, stomach of grasses, what dwells/ in land dwells in you,” a well-known country—Whitman territory, where “all are part of the procession.” But even language conspires to keep migrants out: “the oppressor’s language has been pre-configured to defeat you—a language which does not give you the right to speak—certainly not to make poems.” The Church Ladies do their good deeds with circumspection, looking for “something worthy to give/ a kid like me. Something almost broken / almost breathing.” With Blakean leaps from sharp images of weathered bones, or the chrysalis of a migrant Monarch butterfly who wears “a belt of earthly stars in ornament,” or the razors handed out “for one more go home wetback” to prophetic social criticism, Zamora insists on her own definitions. The exclusive constructs of language, the certainties of pseudoscience like craniometry, and the skeletal remains of careless research beneath the parking lots of Lee’s medical school are “wounds of bodies made inferior with labels,” whereas those very bodies proclaim how “our organs in skeletal structures connect us beyond your labels.” A personal story and a national story, told in a rushing, fragmented style with words like expose, stun, sever, and relinquish suddenly becoming nouns in the way that countless daily cuts and gestures continually bring the migrant or outsider up short, this collection is also a celebration of a different kind of body politic—and of how to grow into it. “We all grow out of something,” she says, thinking of doors slamming shut behind her; “thinking I had done something wrong to never warrant celebration,” but confident that human beings can “unlearn rules, draw a map that starts in fluid of your lungs,” and, instead of fearing all the other kinds of bodies, discover “awe in the limitlessness” of diversity. . #I always carry my bones #NetGalley

The RHS Book of Garden Verse


Uncomfortable with their intimate dependence upon plants, human beings have asserted dominion over their lowly green companions. For generations, from Gilgamesh’s whacking at the holy Cedar Forest, to the expulsion from Eden, to medieval botanists collecting herbs for their signatures to healing, to Charlotte de la Tour’s explication of flower dialects, to Luther Burbank’s seed catalog, and Monsanto’s genetic insertions into corn and soybeans, humans have considered plants as cultivars and instruments, like pebble-tools, fire, querns, or rototillers.  Uncomfortable with the thought that plants might be transcendent beings with long-term strategies of their own, most humans maintain a strictly I-It relationship—except for poets. Decorous in the best sense of a well-matched counterpoint of the verbal and visual, the Royal Horticultural Society Book of Garden Verse, published by Quarto in the Frances Lincoln collection of illustrated gardening books, is a splendid addition to the long tradition of miscellanies and anthologies of horticultural verse. Happily neither comprehensive nor predictable, but concise and surprising, it is like a country walk, welcoming inquiry at every turn. The expected favorites make an appearance—Kilmer’s Trees, Herrick’s Cherry-Ripe, Housman’s Loveliest of Trees.   But all is not cowslips and golden daffodils. Here also find Sharon Olds’ lowly slug with its gelatinous trail, Sylvia Plath’s mushrooms who “shoulder through holes”, and the weedy patch that will not yield, no matter how much Housman “hoed and trenched and weeded.” The prints are as dramatic as they are apposite to the text. With no sign of desiccated, flattened specimens or botanical preciosity, the roses and marigolds float from page to page like greetings from a country walk to Colley Hill or Banstead Heath.  Like Edwin Morgan’s “strawberries/ like the ones we had/ that sultry afternoon/ sitting on the step,” these prints and poems make a sweet gift for the gardener with muddy knees and for the wintry-minded bookish naturalist who takes her greens in water-colors, in this garden of diction, you will find palms with island dialects and low plants with American vowels, mingling with the verbal cataracts of English Romantics, and the word-intoxicated intensity of Elizabethans. References to other works, like the poem, “April,” from Vita Sackville-West’s The Garden, will lead, like the “couch-grass throwing shoots at every node” into the larger company of green beings with lives and minds of their own. #TheRHSBookofGardenVerse #NetGalley

–Richard L. Rose

Decorations, Displays, and Forms of Resistance

December, 2020

Decorations, Displays, and Forms of Resistance

            Christmas decorations are going up along the street. Unlike other animals, who mostly seek to practice unobserved lives, humans call attention to themselves. When other animals do show themselves, their displays are fantastic and extravagant, but usually brief.  The cost to benefit comparison must be kept low. A puffed prairie cock can attract not only a mate but a bobcat. The unit of measurement for this comparison is generally taken to be progeny. Failure to replace the adults with progeny is usually considered low marks in the survival game.

             Another measuring unit, however, is benefit to habitat, with pass-through benefit to your species. Unplanned as they are, animals’ interactions with their habitat contribute to overall stability, as Darwin described in the famous study of earthworms and soil. Many other interactions have been studied, such as the microtubular communication system of trees and fungi. Even unattractive species like Emerald borers, locusts, tapeworms, bot flies, mosquitoes, and black flies in both adult and larval forms are often control elements within food webs, acting as stabilizers in different ways. Population biologists speak of the “strategies” of plants, animals, and microbes. The prairie cock’s strategy in an epideictic display is to attract mates. The fungal strategy is to take up the nutrients from the tree’s roots, but the tree’s strategy is to use the absorptive and communicative potential of fungal mycelia. The oyster’s strategy of producing thousands of eggs is to bet that a few will survive, but the cat’s strategy is to produce a litter and take care of them so well that most of them will survive. Such strategies are the evolved solutions to the problems faced in the survival game. Unless you’re a microbe, hundreds to thousands of years are required for even minor strategies to evolve. Oyster-like strategies, based on having surplus progeny, depend on a high reproductive rate. They are called “r-strategies.”

            An oak tree, producing an abundance of acorns in one year and only a few in the next, is following a different strategy.  Many plants can afford to wait to reproduce. They can survive through vegetative reproduction. Bamboo may flower only every thirty years. They can afford to wait. Meanwhile, the squirrels who preyed on the oak and grew fat in the year of abundance die off in the years of shortfall. They cannot afford to wait. The oak quietly controls the interaction, following a long-haul strategy, called the “K-strategy.” This brings me back to the contrast between decorations and displays.

            Perhaps craftsmen and animals have this in common: they do not decorate. They do display—at their own peril—both in the service of their kind and, unknowingly, in service of their habitat. When a craftsman like Toni Morrison constructs an elaborate story like Solomon’s Leap, she does not decorate. She takes a perilous risk to display something central to human survival—and to the survival of human habitat: so also with Stephen King, writing The Green Mile. These writers do not waste material; as mortise and tenon do not show joints, their writing does not explain when it can show.Whether craft is employed in making stories, furniture, or cathedrals, the strategy is to make something useful, reliable, and durable for other humans playing the survival game—which is the only game in town. The works that best follow a K-strategy are those providing reflexive ways to improve human interactions with other humans and with the habitat.

             A good example is the exponential growth curve of the current pandemic. The exponential function embodied in this curve is governed by variables that humans can affect, particularly in the early stage. When we “flatten the curve,” we are using the mathematical tool reflexively, not passively observing it. Given an ideal period of two weeks to a month of total quarantine, the virus, having nowhere to go, would die out. While this ideal is impossible to achieve, it is quite possible to approach.  Unfortunately, having a well-crafted tool to use or work of art to learn from does not guarantee that it will be appreciated. Displays of Italian masterpieces inside the vaults of Saudi princes do not touch the heart. Humans have a long history of failing to study, understand, and use the works that sustain the survival of caring, the survival of habitat, and the survival of the human project.

            Things are always flying apart—buildings, languages, beliefs, cultures. Physical and social erosion, along with occasional catastrophes, do their entropic best to demolish our efforts. The current pandemic reveals the cracks in infrastructure, institutions, and ideas. Work is needed; new structures are needed. Most of this work will not turn out masterpieces but small, incremental actions of fashioning, caring, structuring, and display. And this is the human project—our unique contribution:  the cognitive path.

            Unlike the many natural migrations and shifts of other species, such as the wanderings of monarch butterflies and wooly-bear caterpillars, the cognitive paths of humans become a grand procession of learning, errors, and countless leaps of consciousness—or frame-shifts. These frame-shifting leaps transpose us to systems with different coordinates, as in math when one goes from rectangular to polar coordinates. Such shifts include inventions, insights, and acts of moral courage. They are mostly unobserved, but like the long-haul K-strategies of forest giants, they preserve habitat, both biotic and social. Such shifts of frame and regard do not call attention to themselves or decorate the scene: they build, save, preserve, protect, and care for community, communication, communion, and the other commons—the rest of the living world.

             The frame-shifts of the human project include resistance, confrontations, and sacrifices. Understanding comes after the fact as the consequences become clear. The procession of the human project continually shifts toward more humane behavior and institutions across cultures and continually resists challenges, such as the hatred of outsiders so characteristic of our primate back-up system.

            To keep the procession going, I pray.

             Prayer is not a twist inward but a turn outward. It is sustained attention and creative engagement, both personal and collaborative, leading to a cognitive procession from fate to will, ignorance to understanding, greed to acceptance, waste to salvage, fear to hope, opportunism to compassion, exclusion to inclusion, and partial work to whole-hearted soul-work in the vocations that suit you.  To pray is to remind yourself that fate is an illusion; that ignorance, greed, and waste have mortal costs; that fear is false evidence appearing real, and that no secretive or mercenary theft can gain as much for the community as widening the circle of compassion. To pray is to engage creatively and skillfully, sometimes collaboratively, in building community.

            In this aspirational system, I defy the satisfactions of ignorance and the comforts of denial and withdrawal. I defy the reduction of humanity or the living world to any kind of bottom-line calculation. I defy the insistence on beliefs, proofs of loyalty, and decorations of status.           There is much to resist, externally and within, in order to advance the human project. Resistance takes on many forms—confrontations, poems, laws, quiet actions.

            The few square inches of cortical ensembles which have set us on a different path than our closest animal cousins have given us aspirations. Our best aspirations are easily identified in all cultures, and also corrupted in all cultures. Aligning ourselves with these aspirations is our human project. Luckily, we can usually do it unobserved, in the same way that animals go about their lives with only an occasional need to risk a display like this.

My latest form of resistance is a book of poems, PushBack. Links to PreOrders for PushBack, to be published in 2021, are on AmazonBarnes + NobleIndiebound, and Book Depository.