if it wasn’t for love

black-and-white-and-cokeI look in the mirror, when I have one.
When the light is harsh, I see that my face is lined; the lines are now so deep, so permanent, that I can feel them when I run my hand across my cheek.
The lines are from laughing and smiling, done so much that laughter has cut grooves across my face.

The rest of my body,
especially where the kidneys were or are or where dialysis chopped my veins or bones were crushed and broken,
is crossed with scars.
Each is a wound that would have killed me, or a crack that would have split me apart,
if it wasn’t for love.

The scars are all places where the love or the kindness or the willingness to act
that so many have shown me
have held me together,
have healed me.

Time has marked my body with laughter and with love.

It could be worse.


When was the last time you heard a voice singing–in person, not a reproduction or something amplified, but a human voice? When was the last time you sang?

A few weeks ago, two heroes of mine passed away, Jean Ritchie and Ronnie Gilbert.

Ronnie Gilbert was one of the founding members of The Weavers, a folk group that was influential and then black-listed in the early 50s. Along with Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Fred Hellerman, and with the help of Alan Lomax and input from Woodie Guthrie, they sang both American and international folk music, as well as Union and labour songs. They were some of the people who influenced the Folk Revival of the 60s, which influenced me.

Jean Ritchie was an authentic Kentucky-born folk singer. She brought American folk music back to Appalachian roots music with her traditional performances of many of the old ballads that had travelled across from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and the rest of Britain.

There is a great deal I love about folk music, but today I would like to focus on what is perhaps the most important quality it has: It is the everyday person’s music. It can belong to any of us. I dearly love Yo Yo Ma playing Bach, or Jessye Norman singing Wagner, but these are the tasks of demi-gods few of us can hope to follow. The melody of a folk tune is one which almost anybody can sing, and then can learn a little more challenging harmonies. They are words which anybody can learn, even if the complex lyrics like Finnegan’s Wake can be a little harder.

One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me was a love for music. They are each amazingly talented, but most of all they loved music. Since dad was a preacher, we all learned to sing in church in 4-part harmony. We also sang grace at every meal. But they also sang around the house or around the piano. Most of all, when we would be driving home from a long trip at night–and my dad loved to drive–they would sing together in harmony, and that’s how we kids learned to sing as well. I was the smallest, and usually in the back, or even in the hatch, and some of my fondest and safest memories were listening to them sing in the front of the car.

We learned a lot of folk songs from them. Where have all the Flowers Gone?, Puff the Magic Dragon, Turn, Turn, Turn, as well as show tunes and standards. I continue to hum or whistle of even sing out loud whenever I can. I had a job a while back which involved an early stocking shift before the store opened, and my friend Rachel and I would sing Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash and what-ever else suited our fancy. One of my great prides in parenting is how many songs I taught my daughter, who says that I have a voice that makes anybody feel like they can sing.

And anyone can!!!!!

Sing to say what you cannot say! Singing for joy or to express our sadness, or just to pass the time away is a rare gift. The blues, the agony, the ecstasy, the longing, the loneliness, the peace—all of these are bubbling down deep within you and waiting to be expressed.

Sing to remember who you are and what you love! Singing opens up something inside of us that makes us more like who we really are than anything else. No other human being, no nightingale or lark, no violin or glockenspiel has your unique voice. It might not be the prettiest, but it is yours, and it can be your fun.

Sing because it’s beautiful! The world is full of beauty, but singing–even if you do it really poorly–allows you to touch and to be part of that beauty, that joy, that infinite and immediate wonder which is music. It is so rooted in the earth, so material, such a matter of vibrations and modulations, but it is also so sublime. Music immerses us in our senses and sensations, but moves us out of subjective feeling. It is the world and it is transcendence.

So when was the last time you sang?

You’re alone now, wasting time reading a blog, just you and your electronic device….why don’t you sing now?






MackawsRachel, a friend of mine and one of the mostbok wonderful people I know, took me to a zoo–Brights Zoo in Limestone Tennessee, in fact. We walked around and saw all sorts of animals–mostly animals from Savannahs, since the climates are similar  in summer, as is the grazing. It is still a bit chilly in the mornings here, so it wasn’t until the second time around the park, when the sun came out, that many of the animals came outside.

Going around the corner, I couldn’t speak; there, standing in a paddock, were 3 giraffes!

Everybody has that special thing–a blanket or stuffed animal–that wasStuffed Giraffe (4) their special little security thing when they are little. Mine was Giraffe. He was a medium sized stuffed giraffe (that’s how he got the name). When I was 7, we moved 3979 miles, across the Atlantic. I had my pillow and Giraffe. He was a good listener and a reassuring friend, and he could be flipped over and used as a machine gun when flying over France trying to shoot down Eddie Rickenbacker. I don’t think I have ever lived anywhere without him.

Giraffe 2I have seen giraffes at zoos before, but generally from a distance. I was able to stand up on a platform eye to eye. They are graceful and very tall. They are a little mischievous, and have a purple tongue that is almost 2 feet long. They are quiet, mostly because breathing all that way can be rough, but can make moaning orGiraffe tounge bleating noises. I have a friend who once followed a herd (a tower? who comes up with these things?!?) on a motorcycle to see what noise they made, but apparently they have non-verbal ways of saying “what’s with the creeper on the motorcycle?” because they stayed quiet. And they have huge beautiful eyes with long eyelashes.Giraffe me - Copy

I think I just stood there with my mouth open for 5 minutes, unable to speak (really unusual for me). Honestly, I felt like dancing around and squealing, but at my age that is difficult to pull off. Rachel bought a carrot for me to feed to him. All the rest of the day I was saying “I saw a giraffe!!!” to flamingoanyone who would listen.

Life has had its ups and downs lately, but for just one moment, I couldn’t ask for more. The sun was shining, and I was hanging out with a good friend and with giraffes. What more could you want?

912signature marvel



Sustained by bouncing
between one sensation sight smell taste sound song and another,

I ride on the spirit of the end of a world cup soccer match.

The mountains are frozen in their dance, dipping down into the cottony mist just to rise again dark and blue and green as my car floats around them.

I give a dollar to the harmonica player hunched like a question mark upon the mosaic of the front of a closed store. I strike a match for Gypsy when she asks and squat to meet her dog Shakey; Gypsy is wrapped in a dress as motley as Tibetan prayer flags, and she lights the second half of her roll-your-own.
I hold that spent match in the corner of my mouth like a blessing, like a kiss, as I walk on.

Like a skipping stone, I skim along between sensations and ideas,
sustained by each image or laugh, every word and rhythm, each sight and color, every sound and song, each taste and smell, and every person—

every person as grimy as a tin can, brilliant as a star.

foolish heart

This is a belated Valentine’s Day Entrée.
As sometimes happens, the audio is available here.

Some things simply cannot be known.

You cannot look at the sky and track the eagle,
You cannot look at the sea and track the ship,
you cannot  look at the rocks and track the snake,
and you cannot explain the human heart.

I am a man of reason.
Not only do I believe in the power of reason, I have lived relying on reason. It is part of my credo, and a big, big part of my life. It is deeply engrained in who I am. Although I generally argue against splitting the person into different parts, as if mind, body, heart, and soul were all different things to be examined and discussed separately, I have found that the heart keeps its own council, and does not always seem to be inclined to share its plans, or even its reasons. As Blaise Pascal wrote: “The heart has its reasons of which reason cannot know.”
I have spoken to men who have had heart surgery and am amazed at how many of them report being more emotional, more open to tears, more sentimental afterwards. A broken heart: is that not just a metaphor? Breaking the organ does not really affect one emotionally, does it? Yet this metaphor has a power beyond our casual use of it. The heart is its own creature, doing as it will, being broken or healed.

The heart is a mystifying aspect of being human.
The heart suddenly decides something else. One sees a pair of eyes, one hears a voice, one is stabbed by a smile and a laugh, and suddenly the world is flooded with colour.
There is suddenly an ache, a euphoria, an inescapable weight heavier than stone, and a sudden flight lighter than air. In the harshest winter, there is suddenly full spring, or in the softest summer, there is suddenly frost.
Where there were plans, suddenly one wastes time, and the plans keep changing to turn into new plans—sometimes grudgingly approved by reason, sometimes in spite of reason’s strong disapproval. The mind shakes its head, but the body—it cannot help but follow the heart. It must go where the heart sends it (enjoying every bit of the journey). One bays at the moon or hangs poems on trees. Why? Who can say? One can give a hundred reasons, but none of them are the reason.
The heart has changed, and with it… everything.
I love you; I cannot do otherwise.

Or suddenly there is a change of heart.
That sounds simple enough, but with the change of a heart, certainties vanish, worlds crumble and lives are torn apart. Where there was warmth, there is now coldness and bitterness. What could once be forgiven is now clung to in pettiness.
The heart keeps it own council. The heart has its own reasons, but the mind is left to deal with the wake of destruction—one even worse than falling into love. The heart has gone where it has gone, but suddenly the body aches with tension, with headaches, it cannot sleep, it cannot eat. Life continues, but if one’s heart is not in it, it is drudgery, routine, a cold March slough.Why has the heart changed? Why has the love slowly ebbed away to pearly grey and barrenness?  Again, one can give a hundred reasons, or list a hundred faults, but none of them are the reason, none of them are at fault.
The heart has changed, and with it… everything.
I don’t love you any more; I cannot pretend otherwise.

…and none of that even begins to express the confusion and messiness of the other poor human beings whose lives are changed by that mercurial creature, the human heart.
Humans may believe that the mind is minding their business, but they are ruled by their mischievous hearts.

I know a lot. I even wrote a dissertation on human behaviour and understanding, but the wiser I get, the less I understand this simple, common, human thing: the heart.

Not even my own. 214signature

Color in a Dreary World

As any one who knows me has noticed, I am fond of color.Dr Bear in Colour

Outside of the Bistro this week, the temperatures have been in the single digits. Under cloudy skies, it is a gray, dull, and dismal world. My response to this is to wear bright colors–a robin’s egg blue shirt, some days even purple and gold, tomorrow, my bright red tie with gold dragons. Color is how we strike back at the grayness.

A long time ago, I went through a period when I had a huge amount of black in my wardrobe. Like so many sophomoric college students, I wore black, because it reflected my cool nihilism. My favorite article of clothing was a huge Navy Lt. Commander’s great-coat we had acquired for a play that had an SS officer in it. It was huge, double-breasted, navy wool serge, hand tailored, and intimidating (occasionally, it also served as a blanket or a tent).
I named in Bazarov after Turgenev’s nihilist character in Fathers & Sons, one of my favorite Russian novels.

Then, I went through a series of experiences that showed 21-as-far-as-I-know-the-only-painting-of-me....jpgme more darkness, pain, and meaninglessness than my nihilistic poser mind could have ever imagined.

On the other side, I wore color–bright, loud primary colors.
I decorated Bazarov with Mardi-Gras beads and a pocket watch on the shoulder epaulets and wore a royal blue wide brimmed fedora.

The world is a gray, dark, cold, and dreary place, both symbolically and literally; it needs all the color it can get.
Why not wear purple? Why not red? Why not yellow pants and a green t-shirt? Why not a bright red bow tie and a blue fedora?
Why not splash your yard and garden with bright lilies or red primroses or purple violets? Why not plant maples that will be an explosive orange or a burning red?
Why not add bright carrots and purple cabbage, or rich, royal beets and sweet potatoes or even splashes of saffron or sriracha?

It will color your world, and brighten your day.
I know that it will brighten mine just thinking of you.


As a child, I lived in a great big gray apartment building.
Ulmenweg 4It wasn’t one of those terribly drab Warsaw-Pact Blocks, or one of the horrifying projects in North America, but it was a 1972 apartment building–16 floors, 6 apartment a floor, and the outside mostly slate concrete and river pebble accents.
Inside, the walls were a chalky white paint with a matte finish.
The floors were mostly industrial gray linoleum tile, except for the parquet floor in the living room and the white tile in the bathroom.

My mother found it oppressive.
The unbroken gray floors and brilliant white walls glared at us all cold and sterile. Die erde dreht sichWall after wall, down the hall, the same chalky white.
My mother complained about it–not a lot, but we were in no doubt how she felt about it.
In the living room and bedrooms, she covered the floors with throw-rugs, and hung pictures and posters, but down the hall, the chalky cold white walls resisted any warm color and stubbornly refused to make the place a home.

With some mothers, there would have just been a lot of complaining; my mother bought 4 cans of paint: brown, green, red, and a little black.
As I watched on in disbelief, she walked up to the front hallway, and painted the brown trunk, green leaves, and red apples of an apple tree–outlining and shading a bit with the black.
I stared.
Mom's Apple TreeShe would have hung hooks in the branches for our coats, but the concrete under the white paint proved too hard to drill.

This whole thing

blew       my        mind.

It had never occurred to me that a grown-up would solve a problem by just going out and doing something crazy like this. Splashing paint on the wall! It amazed me–facing a problem down and responding by drawing a mural!
Kids my age were pretty whiney, and unimaginative, and pretty much accepted the world as it was, but here was an adult, facing something that drove her nuts head on, and attacking it with craziness and creativity.

This sort of thing is actually pretty typical of my mom.
She faces a problem, complains about it a little (sometimes a lot), then she tries to come up with a solution that is creative and constructive. Although she is occasionally let down, my mom believes that most problems can be solved with prayer, kindness, hard work, and creativity.

That may be naïve, but I still find it amazing.
1010signature rules


Christmas was one of those times it was wonderful to be growing up in Germany.
Everywhere, there was Christmas. I would walk home in the snow, and pausing to look up and see a sky full of stars as the church bells all rang the hour. We would sled down the half mile of the Osterberg. I would walk downtown to the Christmas market at the town square, with all the merchants with brightly colored umbrellas over their stalls and tables, picking my way through the apples and oranges and nuts, through the tables of hand-carved wooden toys, though the beautiful ornaments, and all the while, the air was filled with the smell of gingerbread, and of crepes, but most of all, the smell of candied almonds being made in a big barrel.

One year, our youth sponsors took us on a hike the week before Christmas. It was a long hike, thorough the woods. As the afternoon wore on, it got darker and darker, and we walked closer and closer to each other. We were in a thick pine forest, and beyond our flashlights, there was almost no light—that is why they call it the Black Forest.
It began to snow, coming down quickly in huge white flakes, and coating the ground ahead of us. The line tightened even more, and the littler children walked in the footprints of the larger kids. The snow began coming down even harder, so that one could barely see the dark shadows of the trees before and behind us, and covering our footprints behind us. It was now pitch black, covered over with a flurry cloud of white.

Suddenly, we stumbled into a clearing.

In the middle of the clearing was a pine tree covered from top to bottom with burning candles. The dazzling light turned the dark world we were in into a blinding white sphere. As each heavy snowflake would drift into view, it would suddenly shine. It remains one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, and one of the most extravagant. There was also a candle-lit table with hot cocoa and Christmas cookies, and we warmed up and ate and sang songs, all the while staring at the beautiful tree covered with dozens and dozens of burning candles. In the middle of the chaos and darkness of the forest, a wonderful, dazzling bit of light had been planted. It served no purpose, but it defied the cold dreariness of winter, and, by its exuberance, turned it dazzling white.