Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | December 1, 2014

Finding Poems in the Everyday

Coffee and NewspaperThe Sunday after Thanksgiving was one of utter self-indulgence. Papers graded, lesson planning done for the week, home responsibilities fulfilled, I spent the morning with coffee and the New York Times, the afternoon at the cinema with a long-time idol, and the evening with poetry – first reading, then writing.

kooser bookTed Kooser, the “farm poet,” has released his first book of poems in several years, and Sunday was the perfect day to dig into it. Kooser was one of our more unlikely Poets Laureate of the United States when he was selected for the post in 2004. A retired life-insurance salesman, he has accumulated several books full of short, quiet poems about people in the small towns of the Midwest. Many of his poems consist of one long sentence and focus on one brief image or moment, seeming wispy as a haiku. They are full of compassion and a profound appreciation of the spirit – of all living things.

Here is the title poem Kooser’s new book, Splitting an Order:

I like to watch an old man cutting a sandwich in half,

maybe an ordinary cold roast beef on whole wheat bread,

no pickles or onion, keeping his shaky hands steady

sandwich-cut-in-halfby placing his forearms firm on the edge of the table

and using both hands, the left to hold the sandwich in place,

and the right to cut it surely, corner to corner,

observing his progress through glasses that moments before

he wiped with his napkin, and then to see him lift half

onto the extra plate that he asked the server to bring,

and then to wait, offering the plate to his wife

while she slowly unrolls her napkin and places her spoon,

her knife, and her fork in their proper places,

then smooths the starched white napkin over her knees

and meet his eyes and holds out both old hands to him.

I let Mr. Kooser inspire me as I crafted this poem about my experience at the local movie theater.

Seeing Birdman at Thanksgiving

I was not annoyed by the old couple

who arrived late and chose seats

directly in front of me, even as they

popcornspent several minutes getting situated –

he setting down the bag of popcorn,

then taking her cane and escorting her

to her seat, removing her coat and then

his own, placing the coats in a seat

adjoining theirs, and finally taking up

the popcorn again and sitting down

as the final preview began. No one

shushed them as she asked him, loudly,

if this was the film they’d come to see,

nor his reply – no, it was not, but it

keatonwould be coming on soon. The film

unfolded then – and it was about

how far we will go to make meaning

in our lives, what it takes to make

our mark, the value of fame, of art,

of hard work, of love. What love is.

In the theater, fifty pairs of eyes

old couplewatched from mainly gray heads,

the old couple before me sharing

their popcorn and a Coke. When

the credits began and he rose to

gather their coats, and when she said,

loudly, she wasn’t sure whether she

should laugh or cry, and he did not

respond but helped her to stand

and then to struggle into her coat –

it was then that I felt I knew them

tea kettleintimately, knew of their years together,

could see them as he drove their car

into the small garage, then stepped

into the white-tiled kitchen where she

would heat up the kettle for tea.

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | November 23, 2014

Holiday Music Blues

grinch03It’s finally happened. I’ve reached the point where I don’t want to hear Christmas music at all, not any of it, not even at holiday time. My poor son, who loves listening to it beginning in mid-November when his favorite radio station goes all-Christmas-all-the-time, has strict orders each year to not let a note of it reach my ears until December 1st. This year, I fear I will have to limit it even then.

I hate being a grinch about it, but it’s just the way I’m wired.  Most people can tune out what they don’t enjoy listening to, or they have some level of tolerance for it. Not me. I’ve even experienced nausea when forced to listen to bad music at weddings – like the Chicken Dance – and it’s not caused by the champagne. Having a bad song in my head can drive me nuts. I’ll work for several minutes to expel an ear worm.

vince guaraldiEven the most beautiful song loses its luster when we are subjected to hearing it 6 times a day for 6 weeks out of the year. The few holiday songs I can still endure are some of the oldest – like “Ave Maria,” “Silent Night” or O Holy Night” – sung by well-trained choirs and produced with professional orchestras. No one’s writing new songs like that, it seems. Dan Fogelberg and Kenny Loggins wrote a few soulful tunes back in the 80s, and Vince Guaraldi’s piano music is still tolerable, but most of the new holiday songs do nothing for my holiday spirit.

Most of the cheap, secular tunes written since the 50s are downright awful — those tied to TV shows or with grating accordians, nasal voices, 3-note melodies, bad guitars, or chipmunks. “Jingle Bell Rock,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolph,” “Feliz Navidad,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and the worst of all, “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” seriously make me want to hurt someone. Or myself. This is not the way I want to feel during the holidays.

firestone5651Part of the problem with Christmas music, I think, is that it is perennial and unchanging. The songs play year after year and can’t be tied to a particular time in our lives. They are like a thin film spread across all of time, one that falls over us and smothers us again and again. Looking back on my entire childhood, I find very few carols that I can associate with a particular year or experience or that would evoke a special memory.  My family was very fond of one Julie Andrews Christmas album, so hearing any of those songs takes me back to our little living room in Elk Grove. Even her version of “Jingle Bells” can still make me smile.  But none of the other carols does that for me. On the other hand, much of the non-Christmas music I feel most strongly about is tied to a certain moment or time.

tapestryLike many music lovers, I can mark certain periods of my life by the albums I was obsessing over: Carole King, the Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, early Elton John, Roxy Music, Bonnie Raitt, Melissa Etheridge, U2. I firmly believe that certain albums have shaped my soul. I lived and breathed each of them for a few weeks or months. They’ve stayed important in my memory, and I can re-play them almost in their entirety in my head, should I choose to. I don’t let myself listen to them very often so as to keep them special.

justkidspsmith_1In Patti Smith’s memoir, “Just Kids,” which I’m currently reading, she mentions that in the late 60s, when she and Robert Mapplethorpe were dirt poor and sharing a 2-room apartment, they’d forgo a meal in order to buy the latest Bob Dylan or Stones or Janis Joplin album. They’d prop the cover up on the mantel and listen to it over and over again for hours, soaking in the tunes and lyrics as they sat on the floor and created their art. I can see that scene so clearly – hear the wails of “Jigsaw Puzzle” from “Beggar’s Banquet,” watch Robert cut out ghostly figures from books, see Patti with her eyes closed, writing poetry in her head. Good music is art; good music inspires art. For Patti Smith, those albums are forever linked with that apartment and with the work she created in it.

Beck-Morning-PhaseA powerful song or album can move me to tears; a gorgeous chord progression can make me swoon. If I stumble upon a CD that catches my fancy, I’ll listen to it over and over for 4 or 5 weeks, wallowing in its beautiful melodies and harmonies. Right now I’m awed by Beck’s “Morning Phase” – the hauntingly lush and soulful “oooohs” are just knocking me out. Last winter, Arcade Fire’s double set “Reflektor” helped keep me going through all those weeks of below-zero temps. Before that, it was Allison Krause’s “Paper Airplane” that I was hooked on for a couple of months. These albums will always be tied to these times in my life.

The-Smiths-How-Soon-Is-Now-436901I’m always a little sad when I reach that inevitable moment when the magic of a CD begins to wane, and I know I have to stop listening right then and there to avoid becoming sick of it. I even have to prevent myself from keeping songs in my head, where their incessant looping can ruin them forever. The Smiths’ “How Soon is Now” from 1985 is one song I consider sacred – so much so that until last year I didn’t even own it. I wanted to keep it special. Now I only let myself listen to it every few months. I know I can never let myself get sick of it, or something inside of me will die.

Rudolph_SamPowerful music inspires the artist in us, connects us to each other, deepens our sense of being alive. It can put us into a buoyant and joyful mood or intensify our sadness or longing. Unfortunately, bad music can irritate or infuriate some of us, especially when we hear it again and again. When I’m exhausted from a long day at school and have to stop at Jewel to grab a few groceries for dinner, having to listen to Burl Ives singing “Holly Jolly Christmas” is, frankly, a form of torture. I know I am not alone in feeling this way.

mel torme christmasHowever, I know the majority of people still enjoy constant holiday music, or retailers wouldn’t start playing it on Halloween. I can understand how children, especially, who have only heard the songs for a few years, would find it exciting to start hearing the songs again every fall. I know I once did. Mel Torme’s velvety “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” used to make me inexplicably weepy. And I loved singing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” in choir in high school, that cheery old waltz tune that seemed perfect for ice skating. If I only heard it once or twice each year, maybe I’d still enjoy it.

Many have scolded me on Facebook for being a curmudgeon about the issue, telling me I’m over sensitive and lacking in esprit de corps. Apparently, lots of people still find joy in hearing “Santa Baby” 50 times every year, and some are interested in learning which 15 pop stars will release a new version of “Silver Bells.” Not me. I maxed out at about age 35 and would be content to go through the entire month of December without Bing Crosby and Shania Twain.

bananaramaTonight, I’ve got a great old Bananarama song in my head that I hadn’t thought about in a few years – the one about it being a cruel summer. It takes me back to my first solo apartment, the top floor of an old, rickety house in Elgin overlooking the Fox River. I danced in the living room, so happy to be starting my life as an adult.

So let it snow this week, but I guarantee I won’t be singing along.

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | October 27, 2014

Imitation: Not Just Flattery

As Charles Caleb Colton, 19th century English writer, so famously said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”  For many of us, it’s much more than that — it can be a kick-start out of a deep, dark slump.

spark4For many artists (like me) who squeeze in their creative work around another full-time job, the “getting started” part is what usually derails us.  This is especially true for poets, I think.  Novelists or painters can pick up where they left off and add a few lines or touches, even when they only have twenty minutes after dinner.  For poets, the process of finding the creative spark each time can take much longer.

Every so often, poets take Colton’s advice to heart and find a poem we really like, or that is iconic or unusual  . . . and we model a new poem after it.  This can get the writing mind freed up very quickly.  And it can also be lots of fun!  A “copy-cat” poem can just echo the model in subtle ways, or it can re-use its style or syntax.  Sometimes, an imitation can be an outright parody.

For example, one of the most oft-parodied poems is this one by William Carlos Williams.  The possible riffs using the opening line are endless!


This is Just to Say


I have eaten

the plums that

were in the icebox



and which you

were probably

saving for breakfast


Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet and so cold



My parody, which appears in The Gray Limbo of Perhaps, came to me on the day I finally relegated some old towels to the rag pile and felt just a tiny twinge of nostalgia, as the marriage was long over by then.



This is Just to Say


The towels which we

received as a wedding gift –pink towels

the mauve ones with

tiny claret flowers

that we used in our

small bathroom,

hanging them lovingly

side by side on the shower bar –

have been torn into little

squares and draped over

a bucket in my garage.


Forgive me, but my

car windows needed drying

and the towels were just perfect:

so pink and so old.



Another famous poem has provided the template for many “stuck” poets, no doubt — Wallace Stevens’ “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”  It inspired me to write “13 Ways of Grading High School Essays.”  (See post of March, 2014.)  If you look closely at Stevens’ 13 stanzas, you can use each one as its own model.   Wedged into the middle of my 13 stanzas, I also inserted a parody of another Williams poem, the uber-famous “Red Wheelbarrow” poem, which I believe is still taught in schools on occasion:



so much depends



a red wheel



streaked with rain



beside the white




In my essay-grading poem, stanza VIII takes the red and white images in a different direction — which I couldn’t resist:


—–Three glasses

Everything depends upon

three glasses of red Merlot

lined up within reach

beyond the stack of white papers

on the desk.




scientificamerican0114-30-I2At a wonderful poetry workshop I attended on Sunday, sponsored by RHINO magazine in Evanston, poet Greg Grummer used the “imitation” technique in an exercise where we were to tap into our “not conscious” mind when creating a poem.   He encouraged us to let the words and images spill out unfiltered as we channeled the rhythms and structure of the model poem.

The poem we used was by Sharon Olds, an American poet whose best-known work is about the abuse she suffered from her father. It begins with this line:



Olds bookI wanted to be there when my father died

because I wanted to see him die –

and not just know him, down to

the ground, the dirt of his unmasking, and not

just to give him a last chance

to give me something, or take his loathing



This is the first part of what spilled out from my head, echoing what Olds had written but with an entirely different vision.  I let the filters go and just went with what came to me:


daisiesI wanted to be there when the wars ended

because I wanted to feel the earth cool –

and not just oceans and rivers

but stars and even you –

the hunger to lie in an open field,

to take back perfection, the beauty

of the honey bee on the eye

of a daisy.


Who knows where it came from or what will come of it?  And who cares?  But over the next few days, I can work with it like putty and stretch it and mold it to see if it will become something worth keeping.

Yes, we flatter the original poets by imitating their master works.  But we can also use the process to unlock our minds when they get stuck.  From imitation, we more easily move on to originality and, if we’re really in tune with our own muses, a master work of our own.



(Painting of plums in a bowl by Brett Humphries)




Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | September 21, 2014

The Circus in Your Hand

Quill-Pen-425x282-300x199I’m not a Luddite. I have this blog, don’t I? And a facebook page! I text a little (albeit slowly) on my flip phone. I read books on a Nook now and then. My school Wikispace is 8 years old and going strong, and many of the young teachers I work with have even used it. This summer, I taught on online course for a local university and had a pretty good time doing it.

So why am I so opposed to getting a smart phone? And why does my school-issued ipad sit at the bottom of my desk drawer, unused and ignored? There’s no GPS on my dashboard, no ipod in a dock in my office or bedroom. I’ve never seen a Twitter post or learned how hash tags work.

Portable-AM-FM-Radio-Mp3-CD-Player_20090808412I wish I knew why I’ve stalled this way. I’ve yet to read any statistics or studies about people like me, a surely ever-shrinking group of hold-outs who make do with a “dumb phone” and a desktop computer – those of us who have ventured out only partway into the eddying waters of hypertech while keeping one foot firmly on the island of disconnectedness. We listen to radios rather than streaming, watch movies on DVDs, and still prefer a paper map.  It’s like I’m stuck in 2002.

It’s all accelerated so fast in the last 10 years, I can’t keep up. I stopped trying when it became clear that I was a slow adapter, and that innovation was not going to put on the brakes just for me. By the time I’ve mastered a new system or gadget, the thing has already become obsolete. Everyone else has moved 3 steps beyond me.

jetIt’s not just because I’m a “certain age.” Many of my high school students share my sentiments, while many people older than I am have run gleefully to the Apple Store each time a new igadget comes out. If you’re like my Aunt Janette, you pick up 3 of them at once.

Perhaps I harbor a deep-seated mistrust of wirelessness. The whole world could be at my fingertips, but I find that overwhelming and a little bit scary. It makes me mentally exhausted to think about the endless places I could go on that tiny screen. And I feel spiritually violated when I consider the myriad ways people and advertisers could send me messages and track my every move, should I decide to succumb to hypertech. Just scrolling through my Facebook feed makes me feel bombarded with stimulus. I can only take so much.

CIA-spy02It’s not a fear of the technology itself but of the people who use it — a mistrust of faceless corporations who might try to take advantage of me.  At present, my only retail membership card is for Barnes & Noble, since I naively think that a purveyor of books will not try anything nasty with my information. In my way of thinking, the dollar or two I don’t save with each purchase at Pet Smart or Hallmark is the price I am willing to pay for my privacy. Each time a clerk asks for my phone number and I say “I’d rather not tell you,” I’m taking a stand for personal freedom. Lately, I’ve begun to feel like a bit of an anarchist.

hut on islandWill the world allow people like me to continue living in this slowed, semi-connected, alternative universe? In a few years, will it be impossible to access money or prove my identity without my fingerprints and smart phone trail on the grid? Can I survive my final four years of teaching without being forced to move all my lessons to the ipad?  Will my non-Tweeting habits put me in peril, as I miss out on the Emergency Twitter Alert System?

I guess I’ll find out.  The Wikispace I mentioned above is considered ancient by today’s educational standards. We’ve gone through 3 classroom platforms since Wiki’s first came out, yet I’ve pushed back against the need to change mine solely for the sake of changing it. The Wiki does the job. Why put in hundreds of hours to create a Google or Schoology site when I don’t have to? I lack that drive to innovate for the sake of innovation.

circusThe phrase “Stop the world – I want to get off!” was coined nearly 50 years ago as the title of a musical set against the backdrop of a circus. How quaint to think that in 1966, someone felt things were moving way too fast. Now, most people have a miniature circus right in the palms of their hands.

Some of us, I guess, have always felt the continual need to shut down the circus, unwind, and escape to the woods where we can sit quietly and look at the trees.

So don’t bother sending me a text while I’m out there. I’m not bringing my phone.

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | August 16, 2014

August — light, trees, memory

summer treesWhen nature stirs, we notice. Changes of season make me feel alive – as if the world around me is packing up to move and perhaps I should, too.

August starts the slow move toward summer’s end, accentuated by the start of school. The sunlight changes, becoming almost syrupy, and everything green begins to fade and harden. A few leaves flutter down. Grasshoppers and cicadas are full-chorus all afternoon and evening, giving way to the gentle rhythms of crickets at night. The breeze from the windows turns cool as we sleep.

cottonwoodsI’ve decided that my favorite sound is that of the wind through the trees, and I go seek it out this time of year in a stand of cottonwoods at the edge of a clearing nearby. Poets can no longer write odes to trees – it having become cliche – but an ode to this elegant giant would be warranted. While its fluffy shedding is annoying early in the summer, it towers above most other trees in the Midwest, with its huge, post-like trunk of deeply-ridged, vertical bark that draws your eye upward to a narrow, dappled canopy. Its fan-shaped leaves with serrated edges are dense, hardened almost to plastic by August, and in a breeze they sound like great flocks of birds gently lifting into the air.

COTTONWOOD2_leavesI can only hope no scourge comes to the cottonwoods in the way other diseases have killed our elms and ashes over the years. The beautiful white birch that shades my patio is infected with the insatiable ash borer; it will be cut down next spring, I’m told. I’ve already begun to mourn its passing.

Recently, an old photograph prompted this poem – about light, trees, summer’s end, memory, family, identity.


Light in August


In August in Mississippi there’s a few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall, it’s cool, there’s a lambence, a soft, a luminous quality to the light, as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times.      

          – William Faulkner, on titling his 1932 novel, Light in August


On the patio in the sighing afternoon light,

I page through an old photo album.

Cicadas begin their chorus; black and white

gives way to kodachrome as I grow up.


There, at the top of a page, is a photoLynwood-Gold-Forsythia

I’d forgotten, when my new Instamatic

was still finding delight in the ordinary –

August, 1974 – forty years today, perhaps:


Mom and Dad kneeling by the forsythia

in the back yard, pruning it together under

the branches of the Russian olive tree. I am

on the patio, just fourteen, eyeing my world,


watching as Mom reaches to show Dad

a branch that needs a trim — their black hair,

their sturdy young backs, Dad’s murmured

reply, his hands as they grip the shears.White-Birch-Tree-321549


Now the warm August sun radiates

through the ash tree, throwing shadows

onto the picture where the same sun had played

through tree branches over the three of us,


when I held the camera with raw autonomy –

my third eye – opening to life, opening

to love, opening like an early aster to the

enduring sunlight of August afternoons.




Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | August 5, 2014

Finding Inspiration in the News

weird_news_photos_01Writers need look no further than the headlines to find enough fodder for a lifetime of stories and poems. Best-selling author T. C. Boyle claims he’s gotten all his ideas this way – as seen in his stories about kidnappings, liver transplants, cloned dogs, brush fires, racist neighbors, and whether evolution should be taught in schools.

This year, writer and editor Robbi Nestor of Lummox Press in California published an entire book of poetry called The Liberal Media Made Me Do It! The collection contains 85 poems inspired by pieces heard on NPR and PBS.

Nestor told me he he was inundated by responses.

LiberalMediaCoverFinalOver the years I’ve assigned my students to write poems based on news stories, so I’d already written several, but Nestor was asking for pieces that could be traced to particular public TV and radio stories, so I began paying closer attention to NPR each morning. In just a few days I knew I’d found my inspiration.

The story, airing on the morning of December 31 last year, asked the question: Would you want to know the exact date of your own death? And if so, would you live more fully and joyfully? Maybe we’d like to think we would. However, the research shows very mixed results.



Here is the poem I composed about the Tikker watch, a device designed by a Swedish inventor that can be set to count down to your death date (based upon an algorithm comprised of data about you and your personal habits). Many of the details in the poem were taken directly from the story.


Strap a Tikker Onto Your Wrist, Stretch Your Arm To Heaven


Nothing focuses the mind like the ultimate deadline.


Set the “happiness watch” for twenty years – long enough

to have a new career, write a book, run for mayor. Ten years –

travel the world, keep a photo blog, grow herbs, learn to cook.

Five years – two – ditch the diet, skydive into Malibu. Leave a

giant footprint, donate blood. Go see everyone you’ve ever loved.


Reach for what matters, the watch reminds you again and again.


Or instead, you may become paralyzed with fear. Begin to hate

your neighbors, be annoyed by every lame-brained driver and

rainy day, find doctors worthless, books a total waste of time.

That dark underbelly – anxiety – casts a shadow on any

glory you felt when the chains of time first fell away.


Hurl the thing at the wall – convince yourself you’re still immortal.


And why not? No inventor has the goods on you! Better to stay

numb, race toward the weekend, watch TV. Believe in exercise,

wine, the need for more vitamin D. Read more Deepak and Peale,

then cradle your inner child. You’d rather be the poor schmuck

who gets hit next week by a bus and goes down smiling, oblivious.


Would you want to wear a Tikker? If you had one, do you think you’d respond like the people in stanza 1 or stanza 2? I’m sure I’d be much more likely to freak out, or worse, develop total ennui. No Tikker for me, thank you. I’ll take my chances with the bus. (Which may remind you of another work that deals with this topic, the brilliant film “Stranger Than Fiction,” starring Will Ferrell in his most serious role to date.)


The link to the original NPR story on the Tikker (by Lulu Miller) is included in Nestor’s book:




Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | July 25, 2014

Nailing the Narrative Voice

storyteller_by_andrianart-d49dxywDo you prefer your story narrators to be truthful and frank, like a best friend? Or do you prefer them snarky and sarcastic? Maybe a whimsical and flighty tone is your preference. Or perhaps poetic, or melodramatic, or simple and matter-of-fact.

Nailing the narrative voice – that’s the issue.

At the moment, it’s the issue that’s keeping me awake at night.

I don’t have this problem when I write poetry. Each poem is its own little package, and each one comes to me with a pretty clear point of view and narrative tone, tending toward the serious.

But writing memoir stories – this is a whole different animal.


bill-cosby-himselfMy prose voice tends to be more down-to-earth and literal, with plenty of humor sprinkled in. Storytelling, for me, is always easier when I can find the humor of the situation. My natural voice when writing prose tends toward lightness. This is most likely because storytelling is most often an oral exercise, a social past time, and more entertaining when it evokes laughter.


8 Renoir-woman-readingMy poetic voice tends to be much more introspective, lyrical, metaphoric, and serious. Maybe that’s because I know my poems – if they are read at all – are likely to be read quietly and individually than spoken aloud in a group. People who read poetry tend to enjoy thoughtfulness and don’t mind looking at the world seriously for the short time it takes them to read a poem.


But memoir writers really need to find a way to relay the serious and the humorous in the same situation – often. So how does one balance the tone in such a voice?

It’s not enough to simply alternate between serious and humorous from memory to memory. That would come off to the reader as jarring, sounding like two different books.

No, what I’m seeking is a way to fully blend the two styles into one true, authentic voice that can handle both the heavy, philosophical ruminations AND the more light-hearted or outright funny stuff – all in the same story. Sometimes in the same paragraph. Or sentence.


article-1371582-0B6C7D3A00000578-942_634x420Even a tragic story or one with high drama needs some levity here and there. When you read Dickens, you find yourself laughing on one page and crying on the next. Even Hamlet jokes around a lot in between his thoughts of suicide and murder. All the best storytellers have figured this out.


And that’s why they’re our best storytellers. It takes incredible skill – that magic touch, if you will – to pull it off.


I’m working on it. I will write and write and write and write . . . and if I’m lucky, I’ll figure it out before my brain turns to mush or my hands are too shriveled to hold the pen.



Photo credits:


Bill Cosby: public domain

Painting, “Woman Reading”:  Renoir, public domain

Nicholas Cage in “Nicholas Nickleby”: The Daily Mail




Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | July 6, 2014

Deer Watching

young deer

Our neighborhood has a resident lone deer this summer, most likely one of little guys I watched with his mother two years ago many mornings as they made their way toward the retention pond over by the ball fields.

Last week after a rain storm, he walked right out into the cul-de-sac and moseyed through my neighbors’ back yards toward the creek beyond.

A few days ago, he ended up very near to me as I took a walk down the path that runs across town on a greenbelt under the high-tension wires.  This poem emerged — a simple one from a mother’s perspective.  Who knows if mother deer feel the same way?

Young Buck


You burst out of the hedge

into the open greenway—

fur of nutmeg velveteen

and mossy stubs of antlers

hinting at their coming hulk.



Out of one dark eye

you see me—stopped

on the path to watch you—

and your head snaps up,

more curious than alarmed.


Tail twitching, you stare

at me momentarily,

then sensing no threat,

lean your long neck down

for a taste of dewy meadow.


From ten yards away

I watch you, sense in your

stance part bravado,

part wariness—not unlike

your human counterparts.



What young boy can resist

a high slide at first recess,

the apple picked by climbing?

And that first jaunt at the wheel—

the asphalt-stripe horizon?


All sinew and strength,

you skip ahead toward

the thicket, eyeing clover to

claim for yourself, I fading

in your background tableau.

Photo credits:  deer close-up by Camden Hackworth (Flickr); skateboarder by Daily Herald

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | June 22, 2014

Finding the Weave

earth spinningI often hear people remark that they don’t believe in coincidences. I don’t either, but I don’t attribute uncanny timing to fate or God. I think it’s a matter of mindfulness.  Amidst all the whirling of the universe, there are patterns of causality that we can notice (sometimes long afterward), and that we can influence (sometimes subconsciously). The older we get, the more attuned we can become to the weave of our lives – those threads and patterns that make up all we experience. When we are paying attention, it seems that more unusual and meaningful things occur.


zero pointMy week among memoir writers at the Writers-By-the-Lake retreat at U-W Madison helped me to gain clarity on this idea. Our instructor, Julie Tallard Johnson, a gifted therapist and writer, had us focus on “pivotal moments” in our lives. I quickly recognized that if we connect the dots of these moments, we see our life’s narrative arc – the rise and fall of big events that have made us who we are. To explore these events is to become, using Julie’s term, a “meaning maker.” We construct the meaning of our lives and of the world as we see it. No one can do this for us, since no one has experienced life exactly as we have. If you agree with the old saying that “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond to it,” then you’ll agree with this point about unique construction of meaning.


3 - John waiting (2)Our pivotal moments are often related to trauma and triumph, but they may also involve powerful things we witness around us. They may be any experiences that teach us about what it means to be human or how the world works. Significant illnesses and losses in our lives or big milestones and accomplishments are obvious examples, but pivotal moments might also include a time we witnessed one classmate bullying another, or saw lightning strike a tree, or heard a haunting ballad on the radio at just the right time, or watched the sun rise at the Grand Canyon, or read a story (or saw a film) about someone who was persecuted for simply being who he or she was. (That’s my nephew John to the right, at the Canyon’s north rim in 2008.)


Looking back on our lives, we all can recognize pivotal moments that we have internalized – moments that have clarified for us who we are, what is important to us, and where we stand in relation to the world around us. Collectively, this set of key moments makes us unique.


The-Tigre-river-in-the-Am-001Who we are determines which experiences become pivotal in our lives and how they do this. Nature and nurture are involved into this process. We may be wired to be more or less sensitive than the next person, or more optimistic, or more of a risk-taker. Our parents and role models, along with the media, play a huge role in guiding our outside interests and passions. But might there be a third factor at work? Might it have to do with our ability to recognize and reflect upon our lives in order to consciously make meaning from our experiences? And can this ability be learned? I suppose the entire field of psychology hinges upon it.


?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????What I’ve begun to explore is the possibility that our internal growth might cause a shift in what we consider to be pivotal moments. As I mature and become more “awake” to life, might I begin to re-interpret moments as being more or less pivotal than I once believed? Or might I begin to see certain events yet to come as pivotal that I might not have had I stayed asleep? If I develop a broader notion of beauty, might my recognition of kindness or joy change? If I develop a deeper sense of empathy and forgiveness, might my understanding of pain or trauma change? Might I notice small acts or moments that I never would have seen at all just a few years ago?  Understanding how these shifts within us color the way we see the world – this is what is most important in developing a true sense of our ever-emerging self.


Those of us who want our lives to have richness and meaning come to the search in a variety of ways. And those of us who love words enjoy nothing more than sharing those most important stories.



Photo of the earth from “Sound of the Earth Whirling”

Photo of the Tigris River from the Guardian

Last photo from Weavolution

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | May 25, 2014

The Rocky Transition to Summer

????????????????????????????????????????The final weeks of each school year are an emotional roller coaster for all of us, full of projects, tests, grades, and sometimes shenanigans and meltdowns.  Summer, no doubt, is a respite from stress, a retreat to calm after the storm.  But for teachers it’s also a letting go of another year — and a sudden departure from groups of students we’ve nurtured for many months.  We will never see many of these students again; we can only hope we’ve contributed in some way to their growth, but we’ll never know for sure.  Few ever come back to visit or drop us a note, even if they’ve simply moved up to the next grade in the building.

paper-pileSo for some teachers, the door slam of transition can be unnerving.  Two of my closest colleagues, both near my age, shared with me last week that they also struggle with it.  Navigating the whirlwind of duties, obligations, and emotions is exhausting; we’ve each experienced some tears and sleepless nights in the last few weeks.  In fact, it was 15 years ago this month that I suffered a mild breakdown that required several months of healing and re-calibration.  That year, layered on top of everything else, I’d faced a divorce and a move, the death of my grandmother, and a scary bout of pneumonia in my son.  It was simply too much to bear.

For those of us who feel things more deeply or who struggle with insecurities, anxieties, or depression, all transitions — whether welcome or unwelcome — create instability that can keep us from feeling fully grounded.  And now here is where my son’s insistence upon routine has been a huge help:  Ramon’s Summer Schedule to the rescue!  All winter, he plans short trips for us to take throughout the summer, to new grocery stores (his lifelong obsession), parks, or malls . . . or to simply follow some road to its end.

mapThese little jaunts are just what we both need to give our otherwise untethered summer a little structure.  Not that teachers’ summers are wide-open expanses of free time — far from it.  We spend many days in workshops, working on curriculum on our own time, or teaching or taking classes.  But the pace is slower, and hopefully we have a couple of weeks to get away, physically or mentally.

???????????????????????????????Memorial Day weekend begins our “Summer Trips” calendar.  So, yesterday, with our favorite Vonda Shepherd CD playing and car windows open to the sunshine, we were off to our first destination — a new Mariano’s — and then a garden shop to buy flowers.  Because, as we all know, an equally great way to calm the nerves and welcome summer is to dig around in the dirt.  This year I opted for marigolds in order to thwart the ground squirrels.

Here is my poem about Ramon’s summer trips.  It placed 2nd in the Northwest Cultural Council’s annual contest this year, which made me very happy.


Map Making


He wants to know where every road ends,

needs to fill with a crayon’s candor

the white limbo all around him.


So in June when long light beckons,

we follow one blue line a day, his eyes

hungry beside me as he catalogs each


new world, its carpet of storefronts,

billboard clusters and train-car bungalows,Chicago Style Bungalow

coloring in the map lines in his mind.


What trick of a synapse can spark such desire?

A curiosity as eager as any, driven outward

in one dimension – the mastery of the earth


he walks upon – when it cannot turn inward

or beyond itself to wonder why or mall

Like a tiny figure trapped in a snow globe,


he stretches his arms wide to trace patterns

along the glass, those blue lines bound by

the atlas edge, each journey bound by a day.


One spring we’ll choose a road that carves

the continent in two, and he’ll see everything—228788-M

how mountains rise from wheat fields


and bridges leap great ravines, how

small towns and cities alike may teem

with easy kindness. We’ll lose count


of redi-marts, be dizzied by a million fleeting

milepost signs, let infinite sky and whirring

wheels fill and fill his maps like daffodilsdaffodils-scot


blooming across a glen. And when at last we

reach the sea and turn to come back home, may he

understand that this brimming road belongs to him.

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