[edit: Writing a daily public diary has its drawback. Typos, of course. But also other editorial problems. When I titled this post I thought I would mention listening to Krista Tippet’s interview with Katherine May for the On Being Podcast. As it turned out, my train of thought took another direction. “Winter’s Crucible” is Katherine May’s phrase.]

The first run in nearly three weeks. I haven’t taken this much time off the trail since I was forced to by a blood clot a few years ago. I know that exercise is supposed to help us deal with stress, but there comes a point – close to burn-out – where the body can’t handle the extra spike in cortisol. It doesn’t know the difference when that spike is caused by anxiety or by physical effort. Either way, it can be enough to push a body over the edge.

So I’ve been intentionally going soft. Walking carefully through these weeks of winter, wearing cleats and mittens. Thinking the mask is pretty comfortable when the temperature is below freezing. And I think I’ve made the right choice. Last week was too much and I needed the softness. One big cushion of slow, heavy surrender.

Today the trail was full of song. Birds, yes. Even people with their Sunday talk. But also the deep, resounding notes that the ice plays with the lake. I haven’t heard it these past few years of mild winters. It brings to mind mythical water creatures. Moaning monsters, and nøkken. Last time I heard it was on a dark morning years ago. This afternoon the sun is shining. And it seems odd that it dares to be heard in this light. And then again, it doesn’t.

Take bedtime stories
into your dreams and wrestle
the demons and win
or lose – but know everything
is exactly everything

My coffee machine died this morning. I suppose nearly ten years – five years beyond warranty – is a pretty good deal. So here I sit with freeze dried coffee, wet hair and the wind hitting the windowpane.

A dried leaf falls from the cut roses on my desk, like a deliberate grab for attention. They really need to be put in the compost.

And I stare at this screen.

“Nice Cinderella, Good Cinderella,” is an ear-worm that I can’t shake this morning. Since we’ve been watching Into the Woods this week in class, it isn’t surprising, but it it still feels random. Shouldn’t ear-worms have some kind of significance? Some kind of hidden message? “Nevermind Cinderella, Kind Cinderella.”


The Raggedy-Ann doll
on the book shelf was a gift –
it replaced a lost doll
I mentioned to a friend
– a comforting keepsake

– a token of care
arrived in the mailbox: this
thing at the center
between her hands and mine
amidst a history of loss

“All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

The tomatoes rotted on the vine before they’d ripened last spring. The strawberries never bore fruit. (Marie suggested using a feather to brush the pollen from one plant to another.) Did I tell you the spinach bolted before I recognized it’s maturity?

I knew going in that I new nothing. I shrugged, and figured I could trust the wild things to grow. And they did: the beets beautifully-veined leaves filled the greenhouse, the cilantro flowered with unfamiliar white buds.

Three ceramic pots
left on the veranda broke
when the hard freeze came
and not unexpectedly
mind you, a natural climax

Photo: Ren Powell

A difficult night last night. Three a.m. text messages are never good news. Even when the news is edged with hope: a turn for the better, an “it could be much worse”.

It’s not the knowing that all things are impermanent that is comfort, it’s the acceptance of this. And I am forced to redefine the concept of “comfort” in my mind.

Again I read in a news article that it is foolish to say we live in uncertain times when the future is always, and has always been, uncertain. It’s a matter of how aware we are of that fact.

An alarm pulling us from sleep, even to offer hope, exposes our most vulnerable nerves. These truths that fade in sleep. Or in dreams, are popped into relief as a kind of rehearsal for the inevitable. Waking is a reprieve sometimes. Awake, asleep – both are ambivalent states of being. There is nowhere to escape from ourselves.

Is there comfort?

Soothing is not healing. But doesn’t try to be. What if the largest part of our job is a kind of palliative care? What if all that there is, is the soothing of ruffled feathers? A warm hand on a cheek? An intention to reassure one another: you are not alone.

Breathe, and be here with me. Even over a telephone connection. Like a dream. Listen to the wind against the window. Be here with the wind.

Reaction is not action.

In the theater, an actor’s every, individual action is supposed to be an assertion of the character’s will. Actors strive to inhabit the character’s lack of self-awareness. Acting is the inverse process of living Socrates’s examined life. Don’t act: react.

Art is, by most definitions, artifice. It has the intention of recreating life. But for what purpose? Many diverse cultures have had a tradition of hiring mourners for funerals. Actors, reacting in an act of compassion. We cannot bring back the dead, but we can care for the living. The theatrical is no less real for being theatrical.

And leading an examined life, acting instead of reacting, is no less real for its directorial perspective.


It’s one thing to accept the futility of one’s own will in regard to illness and accidents – the events of the greater world. It is another entirely to accept that there is no one to whom we can appeal for guarantees. No one’s will can stop the world in its tracks. It keeps turning under us, and we are forced to put one foot in front of the other. Because that is what we are here to do.

“You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

― Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable

Even the most devout of us will caution that not all prayers are answered with yes… And they go on with that knowledge.

In a news report two years ago the journalists described the video that had been online: in her final moments, a young woman who was beheaded by terrorists cried out for her mother. Her mother, who was so far away. And unaware of that moment at that moment.

Somehow the mother, knowing this, goes on. She breathes still, now, beyond the unimaginable. The surreal. What can any of us offer her?

And each other, knowing that this is somehow all of us. All of it.

Of all the scenes in all the films I’ve ever seen, burned into my mind is that moment in Private Ryan where the soldier asks for a time-out. When I react in fear, that scene comes to the forefront of my memory.

If I had Socrates to dinner, I’d tell him that the unexamined life is most definitely worth living. Necessary even. We live for each other. Sometimes we act, sometimes we react. We give attention. We care. This is the nature of us.


This morning I light the candles, and the incense, and I unroll the mat. Through the window, I watch the tree across the street moving in the storm. Inhale through the nose. Exhale through the mouth. Let my shoulder girdle settle. Spine in the center of my body.

I reach upward. Inhale again.

I am tired. I’m confused. Raw. And aware of my fortunate state of being. In this moment.

Who can stay on the middle path when the storm is blowing and the road is covered with ice?

We try.

The snow is melting off the roof. I can hear it dripping outside the window. I didn’t run this morning. Instead, I took two paracetamol and emptied the dishwasher. I still feel out-of-sorts. And again this question of “normal” arises.

The more I feel things slip out of control, the more I keep rearranging the spice cupboard.

I suppose it is forcing a sense of order on the world. Filling the salt grinder with coarse seas salt. Consolidating three bottles of cumin seeds. It’s grounding.

No pun intended. Or maybe, intended. The textures, the smells are simple and comforting. After nearly a year of ad hoc meals, I’m cooking again. It feels like a good “beginning again”.

Now coffee, and a blank page.


Her voice is pebbled
I press the phone to my ear
an hour of ache
an ocean away she tugs
a thread that unravels us

I can hear you, just-
a knife slices through onion –
keep talking. Neck stretched
to my shoulder stuck mid-shrug
to bear the weight of the call