Sailor’s Lament: A Sea Chantey

Sometimes you just want to ditch all the heavy stuff and play with words. And if you can’t think of the right words, set your mind free from everything your English teacher told you and make stuff up. Dust off your fiddle and sing with me!


‘Twixt the brothe and the brithey on the Binneylarken Sea

Lived a bonnybuckom lassie, a most tithywickam she.

When the moon waned thin

And the stars grew dim

She would call to the sailors from the dinneys and the dunes

Cast a spell on the sailors with her canticles and tunes

And they’d leave their ships

With her name on their lips

And betoddle in the barken on the Binneylarken shore

‘Til they dinna want to sail to their home no more

And the maids they’d kissed

Turned to clouds in the mist

While they dallied by the lassie with the skitheyweeden locks

And the waves sprayed high on the wildercliffen rocks.

Then she (in a trance)

Would flee (in a dance)

And she’d leave behind a flurrium of disenchanted men

Who’d be beggin’ her to set ‘em on their ships again

Which had drifted overnight

Over rift and out of sight

And a man without a ship he canna sail no more

And a sailor not a sailor when he sleep on a shore.

Beware of the lass

In the blitheydune grass–

Tie your body to the mast when you pass by she

‘Twixt the brothe and the brithey on the Binneylarken Sea.


Talking to Your Monosyllabic Middle School Kid


How was your day?


What happened in school?


Do you have any homework?


Sound familiar? Ten to one you are the proud parent of a middle school kid. But before you start venting about how unresponsive they are, consider how YOU would answer those questions after a long (and maybe awful) day! Isn’t “fine” the socially acceptable response for just about every bland question people throw out when they’re really not interested?

If you want a thoughtful reply, consider rephrasing the question so “fine” or “nothing” can’t possibly be a response! And needless to say, if you don’t want a one syllable answer, avoid questions that can be answered with a yes or no.

Here’s the same kid, sitting in the car next to mom, driving home from school. The car is a great place to talk, by the way, because you’re both staring straight ahead. The kid doesn’t feel like it’s an interrogation.

So, what was the best part of your day?

There wasn’t any.

Mmm. I hear you. My day was pretty frustrating, too. What was the worst part, then?

I hate my teacher. She’s so unfair.


Now you have a choice. This opens up a veritable freeway of information, and it could go two ways. Look at the possibilities:


First scenario    

Yeah? What did she do?

She gave me detention for doing nothing.

You must have done something!

Okay, I was talking, but so was everyone else.

So if everyone does it, does that make it right?

(I won’t continue this conversation; you can see where it’s going.)


Second scenario

Yeah? What did she do?

She gave me detention for doing nothing.

That must’ve been hard to take. How did you handle it?

I told her I didn’t do anything. Then she kicked me out because allegedly I’m disruptive.

Do you think you’re disruptive?

No more than anyone else. She can’t control the class.

This opens up a whole new conversation. The kid doesn’t feel judged, he’s identified a problem that he may or may not be responsible for, and he’s trusted you with information. Now the ball’s in your court. What do you do with this?

The kid may be right. Or the kid may fully believe he’s right, but he’s a kid, still learning to sift information. Or the kid may be lying through his teeth.

Avoid snap judgments, and keep the conversation going. Give the kid the right to his opinions, but suggest the possibility that frustration can cloud our perceptions. The best thing you can do here is teach your kid coping skills. Give him the strategies he needs to deal with the allegedly unfair teacher tomorrow.

And tomorrow, in the car again, ask him what happened when he tried those strategies. That’s a whole new conversation. Now maybe your suggestions worked and maybe they didn’t, but the point is that you’re talking to each other in a way that feels safe for him.

Should you speak to the teacher about your kid’s awful day? Ah, that’s a whole new topic. Next time!

Why Good Stories Irritate Me

What’s the story that really gets you? Strip away the subplots and heady symbolism. Chuck the adverbs, too. What’s the story that spreads the balm over your fresh wound, or your old scars? And what’s the story that punches you where it hurts most?

Sometimes it’s the one you used to ask for over and over. Sometimes it’s family lore, embedded in the warmth of comforting arms. Or the smell of fresh-baked ginger-snaps. Or the sound of your mother’s skirt rustling as she left your room.

And sometimes, it’s the one that gave you nightmares.

Teachers understand the power of story. Nobody likes to sit through a lecture. But tell a story, and you draw kids to your corner like metal to magnet. Former students still remind me of the stories I told them. Stories “stick” when the lecture notes are faded. Or shredded.

Parents get it, too. In my family, washing hair was a battle until I came up with a story about a girl named Alice who never let her mother wash her hair. It became a bath-time litany. She got bugs. She got birds. The whole Bronx zoo migrated onto her scalp. Alice became a legend, and the kids’ hair remained clean until they were old enough to care about it on their own.

Grandparents are natural story-tellers. You can’t put a muzzle on us, so just go with it. When no one can get my grandson to eat, I sit down next to him. “Once upon a time,” I say, and his eyes glaze over as he opens his mouth. His food is done before the story is. It even works on Skype.

The story that gets you is the one that really, deep in its core, is about you, whether you realize it or not. Jesus taught with stories. His content reflected familiar cultural images, but with a twist. A good Samaritan (an oxymoron to Jesus’ listeners, who didn’t like them) helps an injured man, while the priests pass him by. A shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep unattended to rescue the lost one.

Jesus’ stories had simple conflicts with clear resolutions, but the audience response was dramatic. Sometimes the Teacher drew them to his corner. A rich young ruler responded, “What must I do to be saved?”  The story was really about him, and he knew it. Another time, listeners tried to arrest Jesus for telling a story, for the same reason. Either way, Jesus’ stories got to them, just like the stories that get to you today.

Stories arouse emotion. Joy. Fear. Hope. Anger. They make our hearts beat faster. They make us question our morals, our motives, our leaders, our convictions. A well-told story lodges deep in our core. Sometimes it irritates, like the grain of sand in an oyster. But you know how that one ends.

Jesus was unafraid of controversy. He knew the story that endures is the one that becomes a pearl. And he knew how pearls are formed.

Tell your story. Rock your listeners to the core, and change their hearts. As story-tellers, that’s our mandate. As readers, our mandate is to pass it on. Through the ages, across the oceans, to everyone who will hear.

In that light, I’ll end this post as it began: What’s the story that really gets you?







Three Generations on the Road (Again)

For a city person, I’ve spent a lot of time on farms. My Vermont grandparents were farmers. Although “the farm” was not operating any more by the time I came along, they still had the barn where they boarded other people’s horses and a tractor to mow the lawn. The minute we got there after a four-hour drive, I would head for the barn and climb up to the hayloft, where I’d watch the swallows darting in from impossibly small holes, never slowing down and never missing their mark. I dreamed of being a country woman someday, but as I got older, the rhythms of the city with its culture and diversity attracted the writer’s soul in me.

Mike and I raised our kids in NYC and reveled in the arts, the festivals, the spectacles and the food. Who needs to go to the World Showcase at Epcot Center? Just take a ride on the 7 train!

But in the midst of soaking up all this diversity, we also made many trips to Lancaster County in Pennsylvania to milk the cows on a working farm and ride the tractor with the farmer. Our children took such delight in feeding the baby calves with a bottle and “helping” with the harvesting by picking beans in the field.

There’s something about being close to the land that rejuvenates you. A farm is teeming with life, from the lowing and crowing in the wee hours to the peepers croaking in the pond at twilight. There’s a robust smell that permeates your room, your clothes, your senses. Yeah, I know it’s manure, but to me it smells of life, pure and unmasked.



Our youngest daughter and her husband suggested a three generation family trip to a farm last week, to give their little ones the experience of life in the country.  So the family tradition went on, with the children awed by the hugeness of a herd of gentle giants ambling into the barn for milking. “Now I know where the milk comes from! They get it from the cow’s…umm… gutters!” We didn’t correct our three-year-old grandson. It was so funny, we’ll probably let him keep saying it that way ‘til he’s twenty. Maybe his wife will set him straight, when they take their own kids to the farm one day.

It’s a tradition that I hope will continue through the generations, but farmers are a dying breed. Many are giving up the farms for more lucrative callings; the son of the couple we used to visit twenty-five years ago has left farming to drive a bus. It’s hard to make it on a farmer’s income. In addition, stringent regulations add more expense as farmers upgrade to comply with government standards.

I came back from our trip with a cell phone full of digital memories, but also a new appreciation and respect for the hands that feed us as a nation. If you’ve never done a farm stay, take your kids this summer. Chances are you’ll want to keep going back.  

Here’s where we stayed last week. Check it out!

Why I’ll Never Go Back to Albuquerque

Traveling is an adventure.  Traveling with kids redefines the term and borders on disaster.  I was traveling to California with a toddler and an infant.  Our connecting flight was in Albuquerque, and in those days the airlines didn’t transfer luggage.  I had to collect our suitcases and transport them a half mile down the terminal to another airline, with two children.  We were carrying clothes for six weeks, in addition to the usual truckload of baby paraphernalia.

I piled the suitcases on a cart and sat Suni in the baby seat facing me.  Eight-month-old Sasha was in a stroller, but I couldn’t push both at the same time.  My brilliant solution was for Suni to hang on to the stroller and drag it behind the cart while I pushed.  She was a reliable kid, for a two-year-old.  We took off at a fast clip, and I figured with a little luck we’d make it to our flight in time to check the bags.

About half way down the corridor Suni tugged on my sleeve.  “Mommy, look where our baby is!”  She’d let go of the stroller.  I wheeled the cart around and raced back to the baby, screaming that we were going to miss our flight and be stranded in Albuquerque forever.

Now I was really in a bind, because our flight was leaving shortly and I had a mountain of baggage and babies to move.  I flagged down a stewardess, who swept Suni out of the baby seat while I lifted Sasha in and folded the stroller on top of the luggage.  I sprinted after her as she yelled instructions into her walkie-talkie to hold the plane.

If you’re thinking that everything was now under control, you’ve never traveled with a two-year-old.  Suni took one look at the stranger running away with her with Mommy in hot pursuit behind and started screaming.  “Help, help!  This woman is not my mother!”  I’d taught her that if a stranger ever tried to take her away, she should yell that phrase as loud as she could.  Even back then her high notes could shatter glass.  People chased after us to save the child.  I kept assuring them that I was her mother, but the more I insisted, the louder Suni howled.

We finally reached the gate, and the airline let me take the luggage on board rather than hold up the flight any longer.  The woman seated next to Suni leaned over to help her with the seatbelt.  “Be careful with your babies,” she said to me.  “I heard there was an attempted kidnapping in the terminal.  Two women posing as a mother and a stewardess, can you imagine?”

What are your worst family travel stories? Send us a link! As writers, we all know that the worst nightmares make the BEST stories!





“So how did you get the idea for your book?” I was sitting next to an editor at a gathering of romance writers. Don’t even ask what I was doing there. Let’s say it was kind of a dare.

Now, I’ve never considered myself a romance writer. The term made me gag. Images of paperback bodice-rippers came to mind, and I avoided the genre like the plague. Give me a medieval unicorn hunt any day–now that’s a story!

So guess what my novel is about. Of course! It’s a love story, set against a backdrop of a family split down the middle during the civil rights era.

How did that happen? Here’s how it went down:

I was standing at the curb on a Saturday morning, waiting for the walk light at a busy intersection in Flushing. The black woman standing next to me was older than I, and she leaned on a cane. One of her legs was in a cast. She was the picture of old-school civility: carefully coiffed grey hair topped with a hat that matched her demure, conservative suit. I wore a scruffy down vest and frayed jeans. We must have been quite a picture, standing side by side at the curb.

The walk light came on. I offered her an arm, knowing it was a quick light and she probably wouldn’t make it across before it turned. We chatted as we inched our way across the street, stopping traffic on both sides three times before we made it to the other side.

In an effort to distract her from the impatient drivers who were leaning on their horns, I started a conversation. “What happened to your leg?” I asked.

She told me about her accident and the operation that followed. Rehab was not going well. She was out of groceries and had to pick up milk and eggs.

We were nearing the other side. “And I just lost my husband,” she finished. “Fifty years.” And despite all these challenges, she was smiling.

“Want me to walk you home?” I asked. She declined, saying she could manage just fine with the cane and it wasn’t far. We parted company then, me turning around frequently to make sure she was walking okay. She was. Before she rounded the corner at the end of the block, she turned to wave at me. I never saw her again.

As I meandered through the streets in my usual Saturday fashion, her story followed me home, growing in detail and depth as I pondered her smile after losing the love of her life on top of all her other challenges.

I never got her name, but that afternoon the memory of her beautiful face compelled me to my laptop, where her love story began to grow under my fingers. Like most stories, it became more intricate and intriguing with time, and now it is ready to be shared.

Your turn: Add to the story! What happened to you last week that inspired you?

I was reading Psalm 139 and came upon a puzzling word in verse 5. It said, “You hem me in behind and before.” Sounds so confining! The KJV was even more problematic: “You beset me!” What?! I felt like I was being attacked!

So I looked it up. The archaic meaning of beset is “to be covered, decorated or studded,” as in grass beset with dew or a necklace beset with precious stones. Now it makes sense, and I actually like the King James Version the best. I am studded with the presence of God, decorated by His hand.

Musing on this, I keep coming back to Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

                                           Earth’s crammed with heaven,                                                                                                                                And every common bush afire with God,                                                                                                         But only he who sees takes off his shoes;                                                      The rest sit ’round and pluck blackberries.

                                  So. What is it, the first blooms of spring or a burning bush?Related image

And how about you? Are you feeling hemmed in on every side or dripping in diamonds?Image result for dripping in diamonds

It’s All in the Perspective