Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | October 7, 2015

Map Making available for pre-order!

coverThe book won’t be available until Nov. 15, but THEAQ Press has the web page up and running for pre-orders!

Eventually, it will also be available at Amazon…. though I’d prefer you skip that middleman and go to THEAQ directly.  They are a new, small press, and their editors have been a delight to work with.

If you’d prefer, you can wait and get a copy directly from me instead.  I plan to purchase a bunch and have them on hand to sell (signed) to friends and family directly.  Hopefully I’ll have some readings and events where people can gather and purchase copies, too.

Drop me a note if you’d like a signed copy in November, and I’ll add you to my list!  I’ll then contact you privately for address information and payment.  My shipping fee will be $3.00 for one book, plus $1.00 for each additional copy.

If you do purchase a copy directly from me, I will donate the majority of any author profits to the Northwest Special Recreation Association and the Friends of the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Both groups have missions that infuse the spirit of my poems.

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | September 22, 2015

New poetry book coming soon!

coverIt’s gone to press!  My new book — Map Making: Poems of Land and Identity should be available at Amazon by early November, just in time to help you kick off your holiday shopping.  I owe many thanks to the publishers at THEAQ Press in Rosemount, MN, for taking a chance on my work.  The poems use a conversational, free-verse style and cover subjects that will interest audiences of any age and background.

The collection includes a few poems from my 2 previous chapbooks; a few that have been published in literary magazines or on websites; and a whole bunch of new, unpublished pieces.  Subjects include the more light-hearted — like family (past and present), parenting, fictional character sketches, and ruminations on aging — as well as the more serious, touching on nature and animals, the planet’s shaky future, and thought-provoking stories I’ve read about in the news.

010Here’s the official book summary from the publisher’s website:

Our souls contain landscapes, and not just the metaphoric kind. What we see daily as we look out upon the world leaves an indelible imprint on us and shapes our relationships – to each other and to the planet. We’re forever fused with the regions where we come of age, sometimes becoming hybrids of multiple landscapes as we shift and move to new places.

In the 50 poems and prose-poems of Map Making: Poems of Land and Identity, poet Kate Hutchinson explores the daily rituals and negotiations many of us make as we move through Midwestern landscapes. Her life as a suburbanite, raised in outskirts of O’Hare Airport, has prompted Kate to ask some key questions about the suburban identity. What is it that pulls some of us into the city and others toward open space? How is it that many of us feel the tug toward both places over the years? What happens to our sense of community and of self as we pass time inside our walls and fences, perhaps commuting alone to places far away? And what of the creatures whose habitats are razed to make way for our concrete roads and foundations – the birds and fowl, the squirrels and mice, the coyotes and deer?

015Ultimately, Kate urges us to pay attention to those ever-shrinking, less-touched places around us. In poems that conjure landscapes of farms and cities, suburban back yards, woodlands and prairies, and even the distant surface of the moon, she reminds us to remember that we are each but one being in a huge and complex universe. It is essential for those of us who have the means to take care of ourselves to also assist those who cannot – human and otherwise. Map Making invites readers to wonder about their own internal and external landscapes, and to consider how each informs the other.

Photo credits:  THEAQ Press (cover); author

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | September 17, 2015

Wait — I’m how old?

women-bodyWe reach a certain age, and all we can do is wonder how we got so old. My friends and I talk often about how we still feel like our 35-year-old selves inside, no matter how many years have passed since. What causes this disconnect in our sense of self?

I’ve read that as children, we often feel older than we are – no doubt because we’d like to be. But at around age 30, we reverse our thinking and begin to feel younger than we are. I’m not sure that’s because we want to re-live our 20’s, however. For me, it was more a disbelief that I could actually be a full-fledged adult.

debra_wilkinson_320I still remember that moment when I realized there was no going back. I was 33 or 34, and I’d recently moved with my husband and toddler into our first single-family home. (Oh, the automatic garage door opener! The basement! The walk-in closet!) We’d both earned tenure at our schools, and he’d moved into administration. We’d even gotten a dog. All the trappings of middle class.

One morning as I stood at the vanity mirror, eyeing my increasing gray hairs and daubing on make-up, the smells of toast and coffee wafted upstairs, and I could hear the sounds of “Sesame Street” from the TV in the living room where I knew my child was curled on the couch with his blanket. All of a sudden, I felt kicked in the gut with the realization that I had become my mother. An adult. I’d finally made it. Somehow, up until that moment, I’d felt like I’d been just play-acting, practicing for the real thing. Then BAM. Here it was.

woman-looking-in-mirror-vintage-e1343019650424The mid-30’s is where I’ve been ever since, though 20 years have passed. Sometimes I even step backward from there, regressing to helplessness: “No, I can’t do this! I’m still a stupid kid!” At those moments, the reality of my 55 years seems an utter absurdity, an impossible time-warp, as if someone had opened a portal and forced me to look at my future self. Then I imagine myself at my little blue desk from grade school, maybe in 1972 or so, on the cusp of teenagerhood, granted the gift of sight and seeing my own hand writing “2015” on the date line of a check made out to a mortgage company. I reel in disbelief. Wow, I’ll have a mortgage in 2015? Wow, there will BE a 2015??

(Funny how now it seems the oddest thing about that scenario is that I actually still do write paper checks – ha ha. Can you blame me for not wanting to give Chase access to my bank account? I recognize that this paranoia makes me seem even older than I am.)

But it’s these time-warping moments that make me think we aren’t as tied to time as our calendars tell us we are. Maybe, inside, we’re just us – age 5, 15, 35, 55 and 75 all at once. Our bodies fool and then betray us, trapping our timeless spirits in shells that eventually crumble away.

paper-pilesNow I’m on the countdown to retirement, and I hate to admit it, but I’m ready. I’m tired of the grind. My eyesight’s going, my knees are bad, and I’m sick of dying my hair in an attempt to remain relevant to the kids in my classes. I’ve been at this teaching gig for 30+ years, and I have other things I’d like to do with my life. By my rough estimate, I’ve worked with nearly 8,000 students and graded about 250,000 – a quarter million – pages of teens’ writing, only some of which has been remarkable. Plus I’ve read The Odyssey well over 100 times — though somehow it never gets old.

And yet. Retirement? Me? Really? Wasn’t I just a newbie at my school, being mentored by those who paved the road? The years are one big blur now. The thought that scares most of us is that time will continue to speed by faster and faster until that inevitable moment when it stops altogether.

old ladies in rainNone of us should complain to have been given the gift of aging, especially those of us who can afford to retire. Still . . . Damn! How did I get so old already? And how is it that most of my friends are old people, too?

We’re growing mouthy and eccentric, my friends and I, like Violet, the old dowager countess on Downton Abbey who mutters non sequiturs and says out loud what everyone else is thinking. Maybe that’s the best part about aging — we finally stop caring about what other people think of us. So we might as well have a little fun as we skip off into the future, knees creaking and saggy arms flapping.

Illustration credits:  menstrupedia; burbed; flashback summer; levkonoe.livejournal

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | June 9, 2015

A Post-Binary World?

yin-yang-iphone-5-wallpaper-8What a thrilling time to be alive and human! Could we really be witnessing an end to our age-old binaries, heading to a future where no one must proclaim him or herself as black or white, male or female, straight or gay, liberal or conservative, theist or atheist, abled or disabled, meat-eating or vegan, coffee or tea, Cubs or Sox, Mac or PC?

The mind reels.


Linked_Arm-in-armToday’s youth are poised to embrace each others’ individuality and all the weirdness it might entail – in the best of ways. In throwing off the need to categorize, they are simply seeing each other as Each Other. They are less and less likely to judge based upon existence alone. This hasn’t stopped them from judging – (they’re teens, after all). They’re still as snarky as teens have always been….but their snark is more rooted in people’s actions than in their simply being who they are or looking the way they look.


gender neutralBruce/Caitlyn Jenner may be pushing buttons, but how fabulous that he/she/they is not just pushing one button with one group of people. How rich the conversations have been regarding just what it is that makes a man a man or a woman a woman, and if there are other categories entirely, or shifting between categories, or no categories at all, and how one might change oneself in a way that is acceptable or authentic. Or – my favorite point of the whole argument – why anyone should even care.

The more shades of gray among us, the less we must focus on only what is black and white. The wider we throw open the doors to our own collective future as a race, the more promise we provide each other with finding paths toward unique concepts of identity, purpose, meaning, and joy. Imagine how that has begun to play out in our homes, our communities, our schools, our places of worship, our workplaces. It’s already changing – and fast.

Bring it on, I say. It’s about damn time.


through my eyes

your eyes look back

and see yourself



Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | March 23, 2015

Autism is not a “gift”

I’m taking time out from my usual writing about writing to post a letter I sent today to the editors of the Chicago Tribune.  I’ve written and re-written it multiple times over the last few days and finally just decided it was time to send it.  Whether or not they print the letter is yet to be seen.  It’s long, so they may want to chop it to bits.  Whatever.  But I figure it may get some strong reactions if it gets published in any form.

I do hope no one finds it offensive.  My goal is to wake people up and cut through some of the haze about disability culture that persists in the media — primarily that children with disabilities are somehow “magical,” that they never grow up, and that they exist to teach lessons to the rest of us.  UGH.  Enough already.  Let’s get to work making the world a better place for them — now and in the future — shall we?

Dear Tribune Editors:

In response to the featured essay from a week ago, “Finding the Gifts of Autism,” I humbly assert that it’s time we stop perpetuating the myth of the “magical disabled child.” I understand the sentiment behind it, as I am a mother of a now-adult child with autism, and I too wrote such essays and poems in the early 1990s when my son was small. In the face of such difficulty and challenges, the rare moments where either humor or clarity shine through the chaos are certainly memorable, and we take great solace and joy in them. However, let’s remember that for the remainder of the week or the year, caring for a child with a disability can be frustrating, exhausting, overwhelming, guilt-inducing, and lonely. All parenting is incredibly difficult, and disability adds another several layers of care to the daily routine, some of which require much time, added costs, and resources that are often unavailable to a family or parent. When we objectify disabled children as tools that can bring us new kinds of enlightenment, we are not doing them any favors. In fact, romanticizing our experiences with them as “gifts” presents some misconceptions that endanger the health and future of all people with disabilities.

We are now 25 years into an autism epidemic. The children have begun to grow up. And guess what? As adults, people with disabilities are no longer seen as the cute, “magical” children they once were. In reality, an adult with a disability is often feared and shunned, unable to find work, transportation, a meaningful social group, or an adequate place to live. My son may look 23, but he still functions as a seven-year-old. He may need a twice-weekly shave, but he cannot cross the street safely or make a meal for himself. And while his high level of distractibility was manageable in the Special Ed classroom, it has made him entirely unemployable as an adult. His impulsive need to walk up to strangers and begin conversations is no longer comical but downright alarming – both for the unsuspecting recipient of his friendliness and for his mother, who envisions a future full of police interventions. The boy whose mother wrote the essay published last week, who fixates on buses and imagines his own front drive is a bus stop, may eventually have a difficult time navigating the distinction between fantasy and reality – a problem shared by many adults with autism that prevents them from being independent.

Additionally, governing bodies in suburbs like mine continue to find reasons to deny permits for housing projects that would offer assistance for the developmentally disabled, claiming such a development would not be a “good fit” for the neighborhood, and caving to concerns of uneducated homeowners who perpetuate the myth that such people are “dangerous.” They worry that their own home values would decrease if such a building or development were to move in next door. In fact, there is no evidence to show that adults with developmental disabilities would pose any more danger to their neighbors than the average citizen; they often pose less. Only when more of these facilities are built and occupied successfully will that myth subside.

So let’s be honest about the facts: in twenty years, our communities will see huge increases of adults with developmental disabilities, many whose families are gone or who cannot provide care for them. Who will provide this care? And who will pay for it?

Rather than offering “gifts,” autism primarily offers some harsh realities. Its growing existence in our world poses complex problems that will soon test our capacity for compassion in new ways. If communities can discover the means and the will to embrace their disabled members and work together to fully integrate them into their neighborhoods and workplaces, then and only then will we be able to say that autism’s presence in the world has been a “gift.”

Respectfully submitted,

Kate Hutchinson

Ramon & me

Ramon & me

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | February 15, 2015

Words, words, words

Hamlet_zeffirelliAct II of Hamlet is where the protagonist begins to exhibit the “antic disposition” he alludes to early in the play, during a private conversation with his best pal, Horatio.  He means he will soon be “playing crazy,” allowing him to test and try his uncle and others at court for information about his father’s death.  He then becomes the focus of everyone’s concern, particularly when he is seen meandering about and reading a book.  “What is it you read, my lord?” Polonius asks, prompting Hamlet’s well-known reply: “Words, words, words.”

How is the actor to say such a line?  Flippantly, as if the words mean nothing?  Down-heartedly, as if mere words cannot describe much?  Or in frustration, implying that words alone — without deeds — are hollow?  If I were directing the scene, I’d have Hamlet use all three interpretations, one after the other.  For he does mean all three.

paint paletteWords, words, words.  They are all we have sometimes, and they are often entirely limiting.  Certainly artists of all kinds feel this way about the tools of their arts:  colors, textures, musical notes, bodily movements.  Is this really all there is??  Can’t we create more??  In reality, artists do this all the time, stretching their palettes in ever more unusual ways.  Shakespeare himself coined dozens of new words, hundreds if you include his creative insults.  Anything is fair game for the subject of artistic expression.  Painters move to abstraction, musicians into atonality, poets to fragmentation.

But — ironically — there’s the rub.  How does an artist, once he or she has had a spark of an idea, know how to begin to express it?  Sometimes we can be overwhelmed with choices and struggle to get started.

thesaurusFor wordsmiths, a thesaurus is an essential tool.  Finding just the right word in just the right spot can make or break a line in a poem or story.  The sound and feel and tone of the word, including its many possible connotations, must be weighed. Do we feel frightened, scared, or horrified?  Is the sky endless, vast, or expansive?  When I write a poem, this is often the hardest part — committing to a word or phrase when none seems exactly right.  If I work with a piece long enough, over time, I’ll often have that glorious “eureka!” moment when the final piece falls into place.

Such was the case with the poem below, which I finished recently.  The thing was a much longer and sprawling mess in its first draft.  Little by little, I condensed it into its 3 square stanzas, which (I hope) work to enhance the poem’s content and meaning.  The metaphor in the last stanza came to me like a gift after some free-floating visualization.  I love when that happens.

crossword puzzle NYTThis poem is about another helpful tool for a wordsmith:  crossword puzzles (particularly those in the New York Times, which are hands-down incomparable).  I confess, I’m a crossword junkie and have been most of my life.  Some might think that partaking in such a regimented, analytical pursuit would be the antithesis to writing a poem, and in some ways I suppose this is true.  But it also feeds my love of words.  And on some days when my creativity and energy are at a low, it’s comforting to settle in with an empty grid and fill in the little squares, one at a time.  If I’m too overwhelmed or preoccupied to read a book, or if I’m in a depressive state, a crossword offers a pleasant distraction.  With a New York Times puzzle, you also get the delight of puns, pop culture references, and cleverness in the cluing.  (Thank you, genius editor Will Shortz.)

I have no doubt that had crosswords been around in Shakespeare’s time, he would have loved them and possibly written them.  (The first one appeared in print in 1924.)  After all, those pesky things called sonnets are square-shaped, too!

Again, the limits of this Word Press site prevent me from single-spacing this poem.  Each stanza should look like a little SQUARE…. though he middle stanza dwindles a bit (purposefully).


to focus on one word


each letter in its

CNJ Racing Crossword Puzzle 1perfect open box

eyelash strokes

black on white

4-cornered complete

so unlike murky life

where drawn shades

keep us clueless

in maudlin mists

and aimlessness

mere gravity our

only certainty

674laddergive me clean lines

and right angles

lead me to the light

like Jacob’s ladder

these tiny windows

precise and absolute

my daily revelation

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | January 31, 2015

Awaiting the Snow

funny-snowmanPoet Wallace Stevens suggests in “The Snow Man” that we must have a “mind of winter” to “not think of any misery” as the January winds blow around us. Taken literally, this point is never more true than when the forecast is calling for a snowstorm and all we can do is let it come – as is the case tonight in Chicagoland. It seems very few adults maintain that childlike glee in the face of a snowstorm that even my high school students showed yesterday when I mentioned the weekend’s forecast (though most of them lamented the fact that it will not likely give us a Snow Day on Monday).

campfire2How sad it is that the daily grind and our reliance on cars and cleared driveways and roads so quickly destroys our appreciation for the beautiful snows of winter. I’ve hung onto some of my love of snow and cold, but it is indeed dampened by the anxiety of immobility and injury. Every so often I find myself feeling a bit of envy for communities long ago that took advantage of wintertime to slow down, be together, and tell stories or do craftwork. I imagine children then loved snow as much as they do today – the glorious whiteness of it, the way it can be sticky as glue or as feathers in your mittened hands, and the way it sparkles in the sunlight.

IceSkatesHC1301-01My students have been working on poems that capture a moment of their childhoods with sensory images, alliteration, and metaphor. This morning as I contemplated the coming snow, a vivid memory came to me, so I tried to capture it in a poem. My siblings, I’m sure, will remember our tiny blue bathroom on Oakton Street after a long day of playing outdoors. We were fortunate to have a man-made ice rink in the school yard down the block, as well as nature-made spots to skate on when our dad was up to taking us on a trek across the street and into Busse Woods.

My knees and ankles no longer allow me to skate, but oh, how I loved it when I was a girl.

After Ice Skating

stocking capMuffled – the perfect word

for how sounds disappear

into bathroom air when our damp

outerwear hangs all about –

snowpants draped on the shower rod,

scarves, mittens, extra socks

and my long tasseled stocking cap

crowding brackets of the towel rack

like a patchwork tapestry

knitted by some crazy aunt.

snowsuitThat smell of melted snow,

damp and earthy, mud and mist,

our childhoods laid out to dry

while we sit on the little rug

pink-cheeked and matted-haired

rubbing life back into our toes –

the white winter joy between us.

(final photo from The Olive Project blog)

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | December 28, 2014

Found Poems

collage-popart1When the well of ideas dries up, I sometimes turn to “found poetry” to kick-start my creativity. A found poem, like its name suggests, is a poem “discovered” in other texts – lines re-fashioned, re-ordered, and re-imagined in a whole new package. The website compares them to the collage form in visual art, a “pastiche” that can use everything from graffiti to medical reports to recipes.

I like to have my students play with found poetry for two reasons. First, it’s easier and less intimidating than starting from a blank slate, though the final product still requires some skill. Second, if we’ve finished reading a text, I can check to see that students have a grasp on a key themes by having them assemble key lines from the text that relate to that theme.

Found poetry reviewThe Found Poetry Review – whose very existence indicates that this is a legitimate art form – notes on its website that there are 4 basic types of found poems: free-form, cento, erasure, and cut-up. Only the first one incorporates lines and phrases from a multiplicity of sources; the remaining 3 each use 1 text or 1 author only.

Free-form found poetry, which uses excerpting and mixing from a variety of sources, is the most fun, I think, and most collage-like. Your options are limitless. One poem I wrote recently was assembled after I went through the 15 books on a shelf in my dining room, opening each one at random and copying down whatever sentence my eyes fell upon.  Serendipitously, several of them seemed to suggest references to the class system, identity, and memory. One statement even mentioned “forgiving the police for their mistake.” Talk about timely!

???????????????????????????????The internet has given found poetry infinite possibilities. Writer Annie Dillard has said that “happy poets” who use this form “go pawing through popular culture like sculptors on trash heaps.” Poet Nina Katchadourian, featured in this month’s Poets & Writers magazine, uses book titles to create short, haiku-like poems, laying the books spines-front in a stack. (See my attempt at right.) She created 26 of these pieces recently from books left by the estate of author William S. Burroughs.

Virgil bookThe 3 other types of found poetry are a bit more limited in scope, using either one source or one author. The cento dates back as far as the 3rd century in Greece, where poets used lines from Virgil to create new versions of his prose texts. A cento can use lines taken from several poems in a book, or starting lines of chapters, or from a collection of poems by the same author.

erasure poemThe final two types of found poetry, erasure and cut-ups, involve taking one text or even one page from a text, and either omitting all words but a few, or cherry-picking key words or phrases. A few years ago, my seniors had finished reading Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five when my boss decided that some of the school’s copies were in such bad shape that they needed to be tossed. I took a few of them and let the students tear out a page in order to create an erasure poem. We used markers to blot out all but a few words and phrases on each page, creating poems. They seemed to enjoy it.

cut up poemThe cut-up format, if created literally, would resemble the old ransom notes in 50s detective shows. This format was used in the “magnetic poetry” series that Barnes and Noble used to sell, where you’d get a little box full of individual words on magnets to stick on your refrigerator and assemble into poems.

andy-warhol-with-soup-can-paintingFound poetry may seem like plagiarism, but unless long lines of text are used in context, the found poet is creating something entirely new and is therefore not plagiarizing. No citing of sources is needed if the poet only takes a line or two from any one source.

Just as the Dadaists and Andy Warhol argued that anything can be art, found poets are illustrating that any words can be poems. Even the estimable Howard Nemerov once created a poem from a newspaper article, which he called “Found Poem.” (You can easily find it online.) Two other well-known found poets working today are David Antin and Charles Reznikoff.

(Erasure poem above by Mike Smith; Cut-up poem by Gypsealegs)

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.

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