Poem by Tracy K. Smith

The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

The first track still almost swings. High hat and snare, even
A few bars of sax the stratosphere will singe-out soon enough.

Synthesized strings. Then something like cellophane
Breaking in as if snagged to a shoe. Crinkle and drag. White noise,

Black noise. What must be voices bob up, then drop, like metal shavings
In molasses. So much for us. So much for the flags we bored

Into planets dry as chalk, for the tin cans we filled with fire
And rode like cowboys into all we tried to tame. Listen:

The dark we’ve only ever imagined now audible, thrumming,
Marbled with static like gristly meat. A chorus of engines churns.

Silence taunts: a dare. Everything that disappears
Disappears as if returning somewhere.

Source: Life on Mars (Graywolf Press, 2011)


I started this blog in January as a means to tell stories, share poems, and to recommend all manner of good things for your consideration. Long-term, I hope that it can be a vehicle for thinking about the many and varied things we love and care about, while making room for the fact that we may not all agree on what is worthy of our time and attention. You can see more of my original idea here in the post on why I named the blog What Work Is.

I started the blog before Covid-19 had worked its way around the world. The virus takes advantage of our interconnectedness, our love for being together. I started the blog before the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, before we were thrust again into a confrontation with the fact that in spite of our interconnectedness and love for being together, we do not yet know how to live together without hurting one another.

I say we because, while many of us have learned the art of neighbor-love, “We the People” are not only individuals but also a part of the whole nation (the world really, but the United States and its problems is already too big a thing for my mind to grasp). I started the blog before these enormous and weighty events, but centuries after the conditions were established by which these specific events would be made possible. In February of 2020, my family was in Grand Rapids, MI attending a performance of Hamilton. It was a packed house. The historical, political, cultural and artistic implications of the performance speak both to the limits we imposed on the idea that “All men are created equal,” and also to the burgeoning global connections which would rapidly expand over the subsequent 240 or so years. Within a few short weeks of that performance we have been forced to reckon with what we set in motion. Incidentally, I can’t imagine sitting in a packed room at this point.   

I struggle with the fact that there is so much that I do not know. The more I study, the more I realize that my ideas came from somewhere outside myself. This is disconcerting because the origins of these ideas and principles are often at odds with my own notion of them. I find that I both agree and disagree with elements of my own ideology and am forced to reconsider and clarify what I think and why I think it. There is a deep complexity to these issues that is not made clearer by slogans or memes or tweets. However, if you do not participate in social media, you are more than likely to think/say something that is good but has been coopted by some group or another with which you disagree or even despise.

As an example, let’s look at two “slogans” which are now much in use: Black lives matter & All lives matter. As sentences, I agree wholeheartedly with both and would feel perfectly justified saying either to anyone I come in contact with. The complexity of these sentences is that they are not simply sentences.

“Black lives matter” is a sentence, a movement, and an organization. Black lives matter is a sentence, a movement, and an organization because the sentence “all lives matter” has not been fully embraced, to the specific detriment of Black lives in the United States. The knowledge that people reject the sentence and its meaning is repugnant to me as is the fact that so many of us are willing to overlook the horrific and chronic stories of our Black neighbors/citizens. However, things get murkier when an organization with the same name enters the picture. Can I be for the sentence and the movement without wholeheartedly supporting the organization? Does the organization stand for the same things as the movement? Mostly? Movements aren’t monolithic. It’s complicated.

“All lives matter” on the other hand is a sentence that has been coopted by a more nebulous and shadowy group who seemingly wish to diminish the notion that Black lives matter. My parents, who do not use any form of social media and have a very limited notion of coopted slogans, would for sure say that all lives matter and do so thinking of Black Americans who need support of their fellow citizens. I had to let them know not to say this sentence, or at least to say it with the knowledge that they may need to clarify what they mean. There is no specific “All Lives Matter” organization (that I know of and I’m not going to Google it today) to point to (with a website and and about page) which makes it more difficult to understand what I’m objecting to. White nationalism is certainly a part of this counter-movement and I can object to that, but there is another more complex group which will take some time to consider. What do they mean? I believe some of them mean, “I have no job” or “My son overdosed on heroin” or “There is no hope for us.” These people aren’t monolithic either.

I haven’t posted in a while due to the fact that I wasn’t sure how to say what I mean to say. I deleted Facebook in 2019 and started this blog for a number of reasons, but primarily because I don’t think such “platforms” are right for my mind. The pace of information is far greater than I can absorb and the tenor of the interactions is generally not like the tenor of interactions that I have with the same people in person. I want to think before I say something, even if others expect an immediate response. Certain things I’ve settled long ago and could say them on a moment’s notice (i.e. racism is evil), but other things are complex and/or new (see the two slogans above or what the science is telling us about the best responses to Covid-19) and require careful consideration.

I won’t be able to say all that I want to say in this post or even on my own. I’ll need this blog and my family and classroom and faculty meetings and friendships and community involvement and voting and engaging with people who disagree with me and so on and so forth. We’ll keep at it. Sometimes people require harsh rebuke (and a willingness to be rebuked). Sometimes situations require confrontation. We need careful thought to understand such times. I do know this, the world is big enough for the stories and suffering of all of the people and peoples in it. Your story and suffering do not negate mine and mine does not negate yours. When you speak, I would like to be quiet enough to hear and openhearted enough to realize that our hurts could unite us if we humbled ourselves enough to let them.

Sunday Poem

I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus but should have a couple of posts up this week. In the meantime, here is a poem for your Sunday (or any day). Paul Hoover reimagines the first two chapters of Genesis.

Have You Eaten of the Tree?

And the fourth river is the Euphrates

The first day was a long day
and the first night nearly eternal.
No thing existed, and only One was present
to perceive what wasn’t there.
No meaning as we know it;
difference was bound in the All.
On the first day, water,
on the second day, land,
on the third day, two kinds of light,
one of them night.
On the fourth day, laughter,
and darkness saw it was good.  
But when God laughed,
a crack ran through creation.
On the fourth night, sorrow,
staring away from heaven,
torn in its ownness.
No evidence then of nothing,
but worlds upon worlds,
underwritten, overflowing:
the worlds of fear and of longing,
lacking in belief,
and the pitiful world of love,
forever granting its own wishes.
Out of dust, like golems,
God created man and woman,
and cast them into chance.
And man was subdued in those days.
All that could leap, leapt;
all that could weep, wept.
First of all places, Eden;
last of all places, Cleveland;
and a river flowed out of Eden,
inspiring in the dry land
a panic of growth and harvest season.
The newly formed creation
took from flesh its beast
and from each word its sentence.
And early loves and hatreds blew
from thistle to thorn.
Each thing that God created,
he placed before man
so that he may name it:
cloudbank, hawk’s eye, lambkin,
and for each thing that man made,
God provided the name:
andiron, Nietzsche, corporation.
All speak of pain
subtle in its clamor,
as when the child, dying,
sinks into its skin
as under public snow.
Heartrending, each termination;
God-shaken, each beginning.
At the dawn of smoke,
pungent as creation,
the long chaos rises over these trees.
For we opened our eyes in Eden,
with the taste of fruit on our lips.


Poetry Magazine 2010

Roebling Point Books & Coffee – Covington, Ky

Photo Credit: Richard F. Ebert

Over the years, I’ve walked across this bridge many times on my way to watch the Cincinnati Reds. The blue John Roebling bridge is an iconic landmark in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area. My family often stayed or parked across the river and walked to games in the old concrete monstrosity of Riverfront Stadium (which I dearly loved in spite of its design flaws).

A perfect day for me in Cincinnati now (or would be if there baseball weren’t on a hiatus) is to start the day with a coffee and some time spent wandering around Roebling Point Books & Coffee and then head over the bridge to catch a game at Great American Ballpark.

The bookstore has a great all around selection of literature, but always has a special section devoted Kentucky and Cincinnati area writers. The store isn’t large but they’ve done an excellent job curating their selection of books. There are several small rooms with soft seating available.

If you aren’t into baseball (I can like you even if I don’t understand you), Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky is still a wonderful place to visit. Lots of great restaurants, outdoor activities including trails along the river, the Newport Aquarium, and a number of other independent bookstores (Joseph-Beth, Iris Bookcafe, Duttenhofer’s, etc.).

Poem by Karen An-Hwei Lee

Ode to the Tiniest Dessert Spoon in All Creation

In a new translator’s version of Genesis, there’s no Adam.
No serpent. In paradise, I don’t bleed. Fig leaf-free girl,
dear God, I say as we converse fluently without tongues,
joined as two spice-drenched beloveds in a song of songs,
could we please ask the gardener to plant a pomegranate grove
by a stand of non-fruiting olive cultivars, which don’t bloom
and aren’t so messy?
 Honey, I am the gardener, says God,
whose anthropomorphic footfalls caress the afternoon cool.
Wolves in our botanical garden ask nothing of any human,
eyes the hue of clementines plucked green off a young tree,
one of five in my orchard, per telltale ringless left finger:
fig, clementine, kumquat, oroblanco, and lemon. If I reside
in paradise, then I get to eat all the fruit I want, all day long.
No problem, says God, who calls me a little pouch of myrrh.
An eagle locks eyes with mine. A dove by the pool adores
the wolves as she coos, gold-amber, one stone’s throw away.
Each one carries a scent: snowy owls of shuttered skies, elk,
bobcats, melanin-rich skin of a feckless human. In paradise,
wolves and doves coexist. Once, a clementine sat forgotten
in my purse until it acquired the spots of a leopard. A world
in a lion’s eye is kohl-lined gold. Aloes and sage carve a path
through a brushy stand of Joshua trees, one which God made
after lightning struck the agave and scrub oak. Joshua trees
are chuppah arches double-wreathed with burrs, scales, fur.
Joshuas aren’t guys, so yucca moths activate their ovaries.
Wolves do not question why a male is missing in paradise.
Yes, yucca moths take care of it. Coyotes do not question
the human. Why I’m not married, why childless, howling,
and whether we’ve reached the century when God invents
a gossamer mousse garnished with absinthe-laced cherries
served in hand-fired ceramic espresso cups, a dessert to taste
together for the first time after we invent a miniature spoon
no larger than a bee hummingbird, tiniest in all creation.

Poetry Magazine  (December 2018)

Guest Post: Lindner Family Adoption Story

In this guest post, my long-time friend Jon Lindner gives some insight into his family’s adoption story. Jon teaches advanced mathematics and is the head track coach at Vinton County High School in southern Ohio.

As I stood in the parking lot of the hotel where my entry-year principal’s conference was held, I realized something.  In 8 short years, my wife and I would be done as parents.  Empty-nesters.  At age 39.  Oh, sure, parenting had its challenges.  One strong-willed child will take care of the challenging part. But I thought of all the memories with our two older children.  Trips to the beach, hunting and fishing together, time spent training lambs and goats for the county fair, and a huge family favorite, Christmas.  An old Kenny Rogers Christmas song floated through my head:

Kids, kids, Christmas is for kids…

I wasn’t ready to be done.  Not yet.  Two months later, we were at a Christmas concert with our favorite artist, Steven Curtis Chapman. He and his wife had adopted several kids from China, and at the concert, they did a beautiful presentation about their experience and the great need in China for adoptive parents. And so it began…..

My wonderful wife and soulmate, Tamala, had been ready to adopt for a while.  We had known for a number of years there would be no more biological children, and we had discussed international adoption as a possibility, especially after a couple at church had adopted three children from Lithuania. I just hadn’t made the plunge in my heart yet, because I knew it would be a long journey.  But after some time considering the other option (empty house at 39), I decided I was ready.  

Fast forward 10 months, and we were staring at the picture of a sweet little 2-year old boy from China.  His Chinese name was Dang Xian Zhou.  He went to a preschool operated by a special group of people that were from the United States.  At the preschool, his English name was “Judah”. After a little research in the Bible, we discovered that Caleb was from the tribe of Judah.  And so we had a name for our next son, Caleb Judah.  

Caleb was born with an incomplete right ear, a condition called microtia.  He still had normal hearing in his left ear, but fit the definition of a “special needs adoption”, which sped the process up tremendously.  Instead of a 3-4 year wait, we could be united in one year.  Caleb spent his first year in an orphanage before being placed with foster parents and attending the American preschool.

Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork, all with a fancy name – our dossier.  The dossier was the required assortment of forms required by the Chinese government before the adoption would be approved.  The stack of forms was literally about three inches tall.  We had to prove in a hundred different ways we really were Jon and Tamala Lindner.  And every document had to be notarized, county certified, and state-certified (which required a trip to the LeVeque Tower in Columbus, Ohio).  Finally, in late spring, we received our approval, and the trip to China was scheduled for a departure of late July.  But we had a couple of other things going on…..

Our oldest daughter, Megan, graduated from high school that spring.  The adoption required over $30,000, most of which was raised through donations, but we still needed $12,000 at the last minute. Thankfully, a local bank extended us a short-term loan until our federal adoption credit was applied the following spring. Our oldest son, Curtis, was about to enter middle school and was playing on the 7th-grade football team, of which I was the coach.  And both of our children were knee-deep in 4-H projects, Megan with a lamb, and Curtis with a market goat.  Our scheduled departure date for China?  Friday of fair week.  Megan’s lamb show was Tuesday, Curtis’ goat show was Thursday, and we left for China at 4 am on Friday.   Oh, and I forgot to mention we moved Megan into her room for college just a week or two before the trip.

The adoption required us to travel to China to be united with Caleb.  The trip would last 16 days, with less than two days for Tamala and I to recover from jet-lag before we were united with Caleb.  This was not a vacation – it was a mission.  We had to carry $9,000 in American cash for fees in China.  Passports, legal documents, clothes for Caleb, a stroller, and a thousand details all had to be in place. So we had some things on our mind, but we didn’t want to short-change our two oldest kids in the process.

Fair week arrived.  Megan’s lamb show went well, and after Curtis’ goat show finished, we had family over to the house for a little time together before we left for China the next morning at 4 am.  My dad served a number of years as a pastor and wanted to pray with us before they left. As my dad prayed, he asked God to “help us smell the roses” on our trip.  If dad only knew how important that phrase would become in the years to come…

The China trip was difficult, at best.  Homesickness took on new meaning, and we gained a greater appreciation for our troops who serve overseas. We were united with Caleb on our second day in the city of Zhengzhou, a city of about 10 million people. He had spent 12 hours on a train, had a dirty diaper, and was scared to death.  Although we had spoken with him by phone in the months we were completing paperwork, we knew he did not know who we were.  The whole first evening, he refused to eat, cried, and kept repeating “yeye, yeye” (Chinese for grandpa, but in this case, this was what Caleb called his foster dad).  We truly believed we might have to go to the hospital because he would not eat or drink.  Thankfully, Caleb slept well that night, and woke up hungry the next morning.  Things began to improve from that day on.

The rest of the trip was spent completing legal work, passport photos, immunizations, and acquiring Caleb’s visa to enter the United States and become a citizen.  Our relationship with Caleb continued to grow each day, and we had a lot of fun.   Our second week was spent in Guangzhou, specifically on Shamian Island.  Thankfully, there was one of God’s greatest gifts in a foreign land with foreign food and instant coffee, a real Starbucks. One day while there, we bought some coffee and a piece of cheesecake for Tamala and I to split. We let Caleb try a bite, and it was history.  It was Caleb’s piece of cheesecake from that point on.

The trip home was brutal.  A trip that was scheduled to be 26 hours turned into 34 hours due to delays and cancellations.  We all were exhausted, and Caleb’s body was on China’s time zone, which meant sleeping during the day, and wanting to play at 1 am.  But we managed, we adjusted, and life became somewhat normal again.

Watching planes at the airport

Three years later, we made another trip, endured the same struggles, and received the same blessings. Carter joined us in 2010, full of life, smiles, and energy. We would not have an empty nest until we were in our fifties, and once again, we would make our run through the speedy trip to high school graduation. 

Oh, believe me, there were days we said “Are we crazy?!”  But whether you make a trip to the hospital or make a trip to China, you will ask yourself those questions.  The greater question is, “Can you stop and smell the roses?” as your kids move from pull-ups to the Pythagorean Theorem.  I have always struggled with overwhelming to-do lists, accomplishment, and “getting it all done.” On a day between our two trips to China, I learned what my dad was talking about when he prayed for us to “smell the roses.”

We had just returned from the beach.  Caleb was five, and Curtis, was 15.  I was in “divide and conquer” mode.  The grass needed cut, the vehicle needed to be unloaded, and it needed done NOW.  It was steamy hot here in Ohio, and mowing our grass took a couple hours.  Curtis, who by that time was my associate in getting the job done, and a great young man, decided that night to lounge in the A/C and not help.  I went through the roof.  He got a nice loud lecture from dear old dad, and he stomped outside and helped me finish.  Later that night, I felt terrible.  I went downstairs and apologized, and Curtis said, “Dad, sometimes you just try to do too much.”  Yep.  You hit the nail on the head, son.  The next day on the calendar?  Father’s Day.   I didn’t feel like much of a father that night.  But on Father’ Day, I got up and decided we would skip church and go to the lake, rent a canoe, and fish, just me and my two sons, the youngest of which traveled halfway around the globe to join us.  And we created one of my best lifetime memories that day. 

Jesus said, “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”  He got it right.  It consists in the abundance of his relationships.  And thanks to a couple of really difficult trips to China, we multiplied our relationships.  I have believed for a long time that relationships are strengthened by shared experiences.  Well, the trips to China allowed us to add rooms to our warehouse of shared experiences, and we learned that even struggling roses smell beautiful when you just take the time to stop and enjoy them.  Looking back, I would do it all over again.  Our home still would have had roses, but Caleb and Carter added two more roses to our already beautiful bouquet, and helped their dad learn to stop and enjoy the aroma of life abundant.

Sunday Poem

Brass Spittoons

by Langston Hughes

Clean the spittoons, boy.
      Atlantic City,
      Palm Beach.
Clean the spittoons.
The steam in hotel kitchens,
And the smoke in hotel lobbies,
And the slime in hotel spittoons:
Part of my life.
      Hey, boy!
      A nickel,
      A dime,
      A dollar,
Two dollars a day.
      Hey, boy!
      A nickel,
      A dime,
      A dollar,
      Two dollars
Buy shoes for the baby.
House rent to pay.
Gin on Saturday,
Church on Sunday.
      My God!
Babies and gin and church
And women and Sunday
All mixed with dimes and
Dollars and clean spittoons
And house rent to pay.
      Hey, boy!
A bright bowl of brass is beautiful to the Lord.
Bright polished brass like the cymbals
Of King David’s dancers,
Like the wine cups of Solomon.
      Hey, boy!
A clean spittoon on the altar of the Lord.
A clean bright spittoon all newly polished—
At least I can offer that.
      Com’mere, boy!

Langston Hughes, “Brass Spittoons” from The Collected Works of Langston Hughes


The view from the front porch of my parent’s place in Jackson, Ohio.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time looking at this view over the past 35+ years. Yesterday, my parents moved from this place to be closer to my family and my brother’s family. I am thankful that I like my parents (I know that isn’t the case for everyone) and that I’ll finally have the opportunity to see them regularly, but it is a complicated emotional experience given all the history: the memories, traditions, and comfortable family rituals.

Our first home on this property (a 100 year old farmhouse) burned to the ground. I lost all of my Star Wars figures and accessories in the fire, which at the time seemed the worst part of the tragedy to me. I did find Boba Fett in the yard; he had a jet pack.

This view and porch have been in place since 1980 or 1981. I have realized in the past few weeks that it is the outside of the home that I will miss most. There is a large garden at the back of the property. Picking half-runner beans and snapping them was not my favorite activity as a child, but I loved to eat them. The back deck was always a place to gather and talk and welcome family as they dropped by. The strip of woods on the hill provided a riot of birdsong and was 5-10 degrees cooler than the rest of the property in the summer. Later (when grandchildren came along), a pool for lounging. But more often than not, we’d end up sitting on the porch listening to the wind in the trees, watching the robins, bluejays, cardinals, yellow finches, and red-winged blackbirds. A few days ago, my brother told me that one of his first memories is of me reading a book with my head propped against one of the porch pillars.

Trees have come and gone: a huge pine once stood in the center of the yard (it took years for the grass to grow where the pine stood), the stump of a large maple on the right side of this picture is all that remains of a tree that was probably 100 years old, the shadows in the foreground above are being cast by relative newcomers (12-18 years old), maple and oak, which are just outside the frame to the right and left respectively. I could give the history of the trees which line the driveway and the ones which used to line the driveway (as a 15 year old I panicked while driving a stick shift for the first time, made a sharp left turn into the driveway going about 35 mph and ran directly into one very sturdy old tree which, in spite of my worst efforts, lasted another 15 years), but I’ll spare you most of those details.

I’ve come to understand how much weight of memory those trees have held up for me. I can still see my grandfather up in the branches of a massive, decaying old sycamore as he prepared to fell it. The trees were the backdrop as we put a new roof on the house and my uncle John made up songs and sang them as if they were old favorites. My parents have given ownership of some of the trees to their grandchildren – Zach’s tree, Brooklynn’s tree, and so on. Some of the trees have been transplanted from important locations to remind us of our histories – the loss, joy, suffering, goodness, all of it. So many nights I would walk out to the front porch, wait until the motion sensor lights extinguished, and sit listening to the movements of those trees.

The maple that is providing some of the shade in the above photo.

All of this is to say that it was a good place to live and grow up and bring my family. The new owners have five small children. As I sat on the front porch, likely for the final time, my mom walked the property with two of those children, teaching them the names of the plants and giving them a little of the history of the trees.

In Defense of the Earth’s Capacity for Production

I went out for a walk yesterday and was presented with a riot of green, red-pink, purple, blue and white. A few times, my wife and I walked though a thick fog of honeysuckle scent. I was reminded of a poem I wrote a number of years ago. It was originally published in Rock & Sling journal which is edited by my good friend Thom Caraway, the former Poet Laureate of Spokane, Washington.

In Defense of the Earth’s Capacity for Production

The scent of a bull-moose carcass might draw in a bear

from twenty miles, even upwind. 

Wolves and opossums and skunks will binge

while vultures and eagles wait their turn in the air

or in the trees, the angular beaks designed to slide under ribs. 

Beetles and flies arrive and if their tiny mouths were capable

of forming the words they might, half-drunk on moose blood,

sing the praises of a world capable of such making