My Daddy was a farmer, as was his daddy. I am a gardener. My son, now a father, is a gardener. My four-year old granddaughter digs in the dirt—this is stewardship—it is how we will endure.
I recently spent two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, teaching English and art in Cambodia (2015-17) where I learned how to adapt. Previously, taught writing and literature for over a decade at Brooks Photography Institute in California. Worked as poet wrangler for California Poets in the Schools, and poetry coach for Poetry Out Loud. Taught art in Boulder Colorado at Thorne Natural Science School summers in the ‘80s. Always with words and pictures.
Welcome to my website! tree•word•pictures is a portfolio of work
in progress, poetry, forgeries, and exhibitions—with occasional collaborations with other artists. Mostly chance encounters with things that Seemed Important at the Time.
Contact TREE BERNSTEIN @ 720-899-6604 email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Practical Poetic Advice for Everyday Use —
love, manners, vitality, gardening & all that
AskMsMetaphor copyright © 2010-2021
In need of poetic intervention?
At your wit's end for a poetic response?
Ms. Metaphor will consult
with the poets for answers
to your questions
December 31, 2020
As the New Year rolls around, Ms. Metaphor suggests creating your own metaphor for
the year by selecting A Word for 2021. You might consider your word as a seed thought
or intention. You could choose a word that challenges your way of seeing or being in
the world. Or, your word could be a simple reminder to reset. (Eschew the gussied-up fifty-cent word for an honest dime’s worth.) That is to say, choose something meaningful to you at this very moment. Whatever word you choose, take just one—
the Word is not a sentence, mantra, or slogan—merely a word.
The world does not need words. It articulates itself
in sunlight, leaves, and shadows. The stones on the path
are no less real for lying uncatalogued and uncounted.
The fluent leaves speak only the dialect of pure being.
The kiss is still fully itself though no words were spoken.
And one word transforms it into something less or other
—illicit, chaste, perfunctory, conjugal, covert.
Even calling it a kiss betrays the fluster of hands
glancing the skin or gripping a shoulder, the slow
arching of neck or knee, the silent touching of tongues . . .
—from “Word” by Dana Gioia
While Ms. Metaphor takes a long nap, readers can access the Archives
by scrolling down the page.
Archived Letters to Ms. Metaphor
November 13, 2020
Dear Ms. Metaphor,
I just baked my fifth or sixth apple cake this month—why? It’s something I can easily do, it has a pleasant outcome, and I enjoy emptying extraneous thoughts from my mind as I do this simple task. Also, it’s good with a nice cuppa.
Lately I’ve been hearing from people whom I’ve not heard from forever. And they are showing up everywhere: in my email, Facebook, and even phone calls. They just want to say hello or tell me some news. At the market strangers confide crazy stuff to me. It’s weird, yet wonderful too. I find myself doing the same thing with friends and strangers. Maybe it’s my age or feeling vulnerable with Covid, but I want other people to know how I feel, that I always liked, admired, or cared for them.
Also, I’ve noticed that my potted plants did not fare well this year. Finally, my geranium is blooming after I moved it inside. It’s happy as a houseplant. Did it not get enough attention this season? My tomatoes were stragglers this year as well. What gives? Is the stars, simply being in quarantine, or 2020? Are these even connected? Appreciate your thoughts, a poem, or something that makes sense!
—Always an Admirer, D.
It is a pleasure to hear from a familiar correspondent. Receiving a letter (even as an email) allows the exchange a little breathing room,
don’t you think? We get to consider our words, to co-respond, to become respondents. Thank you for this opportunity to continue our conversation with this next installment of Let's Get On With It.
The first two paragraphs of your letter rolled out as a scene from a movie in my mind: Your back is to the camera as we watch you put on oven mitts and bring a hot apple cake from the oven and place it on the kitchen counter next to a steaming cuppa tea. The scene fades to strangers standing in line at Trader Joe’s—six feet betwixt them (we only see their feet). We overhear one woman say to another, “Really? It’s that easy to poison someone?” The camera shifts to the potted geranium, which gently sheds a single red petal as the scene fades to black. You are feeling your feels, dear D. There may be a bit of melancholy in there, a touch of ennui, perhaps, but it’s all part of the package deal in a pandemic.
Collectively we are in amazement that we still exist in the midst of such chaos and beauty. In this wounded and torn world we marvel that we can still love each other beyond reason, simply because we are bent that way. Yes, the apple cake hot out of the oven, your cell phone ringing with a call from an old friend, secrets from strangers told with eyes behind a mask, and the potted geranium are all connected.
Why is it awkward to acknowledge
each other’s presence here?
Who says we can’t meet in public,
can’t stop and sit together on a bench
and watch the dogs go by?
As a child, I looked for you
in books and sometimes sensed
you (reading what I was reading).
Even as a child I knew you would
someday come to this place to meet me.
—from “You, Reader, as I Imagine You”
by Chase Twichell
By the way, even though your garden plants have roots, they do benefit from an occasional uprooting. Your geranium was no doubt suffering from a summer malaise (as were the tomatoes). No worries. Geraniums can regenerate from cuttings rooted in sand, if it comes to that. Plants regenerate, reseed, or die. It’s only natural. We humans aren’t the only ones feeling our feels.
Dear Ms. Metaphor,
The question I always wanted to know is: “What’s a meta for?”
I know you are being silly, but let’s see where this takes us. Most children learn by fifth grade that a simile is a figure of speech that directly compares one thing to another using ‘like’ or ‘as’. For example: “I am as happy as a clam.” Whereas metaphors claim that something is something else, such as: “He is a clam.” That is a Standard Metaphor.
An Implied Metaphor lets the reader make the connection. “Yes sir,” he squeaked, implies the speaker is timid as a mouse. Visual Metaphors are often employed in advertising—an image of a dinosaur indicates that the competition is out of date. A panther races alongside a sports car, a metaphor for speed. You get the idea.
To Ms. Metaphor’s mind, the Root Metaphor is master of them all. A root metaphor shapes that individual’s perception of the world. Religious symbols, such as the Christian fish, are root metaphors that represent the beliefs held by the group. A root metaphor, like the Tree of Life, represents history and continuity—our passage through time.
“Poetry is the journal of the sea animal living
on land, wanting to fly in the air. Poetry is a search for syllables to shoot at the barriers of
the unknown and the unknowable. Poetry is a phantom script telling how rainbows are made and why they go away.”
—from “On Poetry” by Carl Sandburg
To you, my dear Pondering Jack, who has always wondered, “What’s a meta for?” The simplest answer is: to shiver your timbers, to raise your hackles, to blow your mind.
October 11, 2020
Dear Ms. Metaphor,
My lover, who lives out of state, would like to visit and, of course, we want to have sex, but we also don’t want to infect each other with Coivd-19. We are both seniors with the usual health concerns that come with age. How does Ms. Metaphor recommend we proceed?
Dear Ms. No-Time,
Love is all you need—and sex is simple. Covid-19 is complex. Ms. Metaphor consulted with the US Center for Disease Control, but the official report skirts the question: Is it okay to have sex during a pandemic? (Maybe they figure the six-feet-distance-rule covers that.) However,
The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada have produced a guide titled, Sex & U.
The Society’s guide says sex with yourself is the safest. (“Take advantage of the chance to get (re)acquainted with your body and have some fun.”) Next best is sex with someone you live with. Sex with lovers from out of state is not recommended (unless your paramour is in another room). The Society goes on to say that if you intend to ignore all good sense, at least limit the number of your partners—and test for Covid-19 before and after your visit. Until a vaccine is proven to be effective, the only way to remain safe for the duration of the pandemic is to quarantine. And wait.
Wait, for now.
Distrust everything if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become interesting.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again;
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. The desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old . . .
—from “Wait” by Galway Kinnell
Scientific evidence suggests, Ms. No-Time-to-Waste, that personal hygiene and social distancing will up your chance to enjoy your senior years post-pandemic. Why not save the hanky-panky for another visit—instead opt for wanky-spanky by phone or yank-yr-cranky in the privacy of your own home. Alone.
Dear Ms. Metaphor,
I feel so lonely and isolated. My primary connection to others is through the Internet, although dating sites leave me feeling even more alone. Where can I meet my potential sweet someone without getting too close? It all seems so hopeless. —Mr. Sad At Home
Dear Mr. Sad,
You are right, these are the times that try men’s souls (and other parts). The pressure to perform on public dating platforms is enormous, and even the most practiced grow weary of banal mating rituals vis-à-vis on Zoom. The good news is it’s up to you to determine the
Get out of the house and into a park, a pond, or a path, even if it’s just merrily, merrily down a stream. Kayaking is good because you can howdy your fellow sportsman or sportswoman with a paddle’s distance between you. Likewise, hiking or biking is good because you cover ground, which gives one a sense of accomplishment, even if going it alone.
Ms. Metaphor recommends you try a new sport or outdoor activity that will bring you in the proximity with others who have like-minded interests. You may also enjoy an online chat room to discuss your new sport or activity with others, thereby getting to know one another as you head off into the a new tomorrow together—although not necessarily at the same time.
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out
that going to the mountains is going home;
that wildness is a necessity . . .
Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt . . .
—from “Our National Parks” by John Muir
September 21, 2020
Dear Ms. Metaphor,
Recently, my best friend died. I took care of him during his final months on Earth, which was all consuming, but I was very glad to do it. He did not want any memorial and wished for his remains to be donated to scientific research. His wishes were respected.
My question to you, Ms. Metaphor, concerns the words we commonly use to acknowledge the death of a loved one, namely R.I.P., along with the usual, 'Sorry for your loss' and remarks about Passing, or that he is with the angels. To say that someone has passed is particularly weird. It’s like they just went into the another room.
These phrases are meaningless to both my dear friend and myself. But now I must respond to people who, with good intentions, wish to pay their respects. What should I say?—One Who Seeks Truth in Words
When confronted with platitudes, do not linger. Nod politely and move on.
In any other circumstance, Ms. Metaphor would recommend schooling those who know not what they say, but since this concerns a death in your essential family, and now is not the time. Ms. Metaphor agrees the word 'passing' is not a satisfactory substitution for the word 'death', yet that is what people often say.
While R.I.P. is confusing for those who do not see the end as rest, peaceful or not, rather see it as The End. Although 'sorry for your loss' does not come close to covering all the feelings that accompany The End, those limited sentiments are currently in wide release. Which is why, dear One, the simplest, most gracious thing to do, is to acknowledge that we simply do not know what to say to each other, and forgive those trespassers for their platitudes. Say, “Thank you” and leave it at that.
. . . Death has a very black reputation but, actually, to die is a perfectly normal thing to do.
And it's so wholesome: being a very important part of nature's big picture. Trees die, don't they? And flowers?
I think it's always nice to know that you are not alone. Even in death.
Let's think about ants for a minute. Millions of ants die every day, and do we care? No. And I'm sure that ants feel the same way about us.
But suppose—just suppose—that we didn't have to die. That wouldn't be so great either. If a 90-year-old man can hardly stand up, can you imagine what it would be like to be 500 years old?
Another comforting thought about death is that 80 years or so after you die nobody who knew you will still be alive to miss you.
And after you're dead, you won't even know it.
—from “Death” by Joe Brainard
* * *
Dear Ms. Metaphor,
I don’t understand why when I say, “Thank you,” often the other person will say, “No problem.” Why do people do this, and, more importantly, how can we make them stop?—You’re Welcome
Your sentiments are certainly inline with Ms. Metaphor’s most fervent wish that we speak directly and simply to one another.
To reply, ‘No problem’ to thanks is a non-sequitur. No problem was implied in your expressing thanks. Such non-essential phrases crop up like thistles in a rose garden. ‘How’s your day going so far?’ is another bankrupt cliché that wounds. To answer such a question truthfully would take up more time than is courteous while cashing out at the grocers. ‘You outta here?’ or ‘How you holding up?’ are remarks made in passing that require nothing more than Yup or Okay.
. . .Words may drop passing color yet seeing you here now are born again, and again.
Closing a word in the mouth feels the sound until the tongue can't stay still.
To unmask is to go silent.
Language makes no promise to communicate. . .
—from, “words under pressure bleed
original sense," by George Quasha
To those of us who are passionately interested in the effect of words, trite phrases can trigger rage—followed by ennui. However, to pounce on those who casually bash language in attempt to appear approachable is unkind. Awakening comes slowly. The most courteous thing to do with an unsuspecting offender is to reply as simply as possible. Save your treatise on bankable v.s. bankrupt language for those who actually care to engage.
September 15, 2020
Dear Ms. Metaphor,
A dear friend gave me a tomato plant this spring, not knowing that me & tomatoes don’t really jive. I like them. They don’t like me. Burp City.
The little yellow pear tomatoes grew like crazy. I now have enough for a farm stand. I can’t eat them fast enough. Breakfast, lunch & dinner, two out of the three, they are my main course. Do you have any advice for the tomato laden in these stressful times? —Hair Loom
Dear Hair Loom,
Oh the burden of garden bounty! Summer’s last hurrah of tomatoes and zucchini arrive with a sense of déjà vu all over again. Since you are making good use of your produce at least twice a day, consider cooking outside the proscribed breakfast-lunch-and-dinner routine.
For instance, charred tomatoes on garlic-buttered toast with an egg is good anytime, and it’s quick and easy. Here’s how:
Cut tomatoes in half (big or little). Heat up a skillet (preferably cast iron) with a slick of olive oil and cook tomatoes cut-side down at a medium heat unmolested until seared and fragrant. Arrange the charred tomatoes on your buttered toast (focaccia would be good) and mash a bit so it settles into the bread. Top with a poached or fried egg. Sprinkle a pinch of garden chives or chopped basil, if you have it handy.
Admire the beauty of your tomatoes as you recall the great odes of the poet Neruda:
. . . and, on
the table, at the midpoint
star of earth,
its remarkable amplitude
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
or fiery color
and cool completeness.
—from “Ode to Tomatoes” by Pablo Neruda
* * *
Dear Ms Metaphor,
When shopping for groceries, I’ve noticed that many people have a tendency to either not wear their mask properly on their face (even though they’re required to by law) or they get too close to me for comfort. I am extremely susceptible to catching Covid-19, yet I still need to go out occasionally to shop. Usually, I just walk away or turn around so that my back is facing them.
Is there a polite, yet firm way, to tell a stranger to stand back and put your mask on properly? I can think of lots of catty things to say, but wondered if you have any nicer ideas. Got any suggestions?—Holding My Tongue (Behind My Mask)
Seven months into the pandemic and folks are getting twitchy behind their masks. While it’s true everyone is sick of wearing the mask, yet everyone could be a whole lot sicker without it. Your strategy of turning away from un-masked offenders is pro-active. Sounds like you realize that shopping is no place to be lollygagging. Plan your mission. Get in, get what you need, and get out. The less time you spend amongst the half-masked, the better.
But sometimes people forget they are wearing their mask under their face instead of on it. In that case, you could say something like, “Looks like your mask slipped.” Say it kindly with concern for their well-being, followed by a remark about how you find wearing a mask all the time tiresome as well. Since you will be masked, you might crinkle your eyes in a sympathetic manner. The point is to engage, rather than enrage the un-masked, to let them know you are on their side, and that we are all in this together.
. . .You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
—from “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye
• • •
September 6, 2020
Dear Ms. Metaphor,
Where I live now everything seems to be on fire and the air is polluted with smoke. It’s a 100 degrees outside, and our AC is broke. I am sick of my own company and bored with the same old story. I’m tired and lonesome and feel like nothing will ever change. Got any miserable poems to relate? —Sad Sally
Dear Sad Sally,
Oh, little darlin', poetry was made for the very situation you describe! But before we lay it on the line, let’s talk about your malaise. Your symptoms sound Covid-related. Is this true depression or merely apathy?
For apathy, let us turn to T.S. Eliot, “Four Quartets 1: Burnt Norton”:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present . . .
There is a kind of gentleness in the rock-a-bye lyric of apathy, like the lap of waves upon a distant shore, while Cousin Ennui waits on the beach. Depression, however, is a different breed of dog. That one can move in to stay—and will sleep on the couch, even when you say get down.
For depression, here's a few lines of “Ariel” by Sylvia Plath:
. . .White
Godiva, I unpeel
Dead hands, dead stringencies.
And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child's cry
Melts the wall
Am the arrow,
The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.
Plath’s poem takes us on a fine spiral into slow mo’ depression—it feels voluptuously inevitable.
Whatever your mood, linger awhile in it and listen to the message. (Certainly, you don’t want to stay too long or be in the company
of sharp instruments. If it comes to that, do call for assistance.) Meanwhile, take notes. Feel your feels. Give it room. Let it cry.
In your letter, Sad Sally, you said you feel like nothing will ever change. Bosh and bother. Everything will change. Just you wait and see.
* * *
Dear Ms. Metaphor,
Why is it so hard for some folks to understand the mask needs to cover one’s nose, chin, and the sides of the face. Protect oneself and others. It ain’t rocket science. —Exasperated Activist
“Why” is a difficult question to answer (although not as hard as rocket science) and your exasperation is justifiable, although exhausting. About half the folks you’ll encounter will employ the latest CDC protocols against this pandemic with earnest good will. The other half will not comply, some because they are forgetful or willful, others because they don’t believe the risk applies to them.
That gives you a 50-50 chance that your random encounters will be with folks who will wear the mask. The rest you’ll have to dodge, skirt, or circumvent the best you can. Why some individuals are courteous, while others are down right cranky about wearing a mask is a mystery. Got to let that go—we’ll never know for sure.
Lately, I've become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelopes me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for a bus . . .
Things have come to that.
And now, each night I count the stars,
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave . . .
—from “Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note” by Amiri Baraka
What we can do is dial down our own constant outrage at the outliers. Be proactive. Step out of line, cancel the to-go order, or come back later if you feel at risk in a socially-dense situation. Along the way, try to drop assumptions that follow your exasperation. Maybe that half-masked stranger with a naked nose is just coming up for air. Step back, give them room. There are many among us who are stressed as a load of timber about to crack.
* * *
August 17, 2020
Dear Ms. Metaphor,
Last year I had to have a mostly dead Aspen tree cut down as its upper dead limbs were a threat to pedestrians. It was time. I did not remove the stump, thinking it was perfect for a potted plant.
Since spring hundreds of small shoots have appeared throughout my garden and lawn. I pull them out, but it's a losing battle and soon my home could be surrounded by an aspen grove. Yikes! Must I use a poison to remove the stump?
I just realized that something I've been saying all summer regarding this crazy pandemic, "People are getting lost in the weeds." How ironic that this is actually happening in my own yard. Any advice or poetry to help?—Aspen Alert
Ms. Metaphor has both advice and a poem to help.
I sent your question to the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension to their Ask An Expert service.
This is the response:
I wish I had better news, but a broadleaf herbicide
is your best bet. The alternative would be to put
a metal or plastic barrier vertically into the ground
24 inches deep when it is planted. Since it is too late for that, the only thing I can suggest other than an herbicide is to dig the shoots and root system out. They typically root 12 inches deep.
—Boulder County Master Gardener
Your old dilapidated aspen is just doing what nature intended: propagating. Since you no longer wish to enjoy its company, you should remove the rest of the stump so that it won’t keep sending out shoots. There are stump pulverizing services for this kind of job. Also, investigate bacterial agents that can help break down the old wood.
Meanwhile, there remains the shoots and roots. Ms. Metaphor naturally abhors poisons in the arbor, but sometimes one must prepare for war. Be judicious in
your scorched-earth attack. Apply the herbicide strictly according to instructions. And be sure to nip any outliers in the bud when (not if, but when) they appear.
. . . The roots were branched and bearded,
some had spurs
and one of them was wholly reptilian.
They had been where we had not
and held a knit gravity
that was not in their will to let go.
We bent the trunk to the ground and sat on it,
twisted from all angles.
How like ropes it was,
the sickly thing asserting its will
only now at the end,
blind but beyond
the idea of leaving the earth.
—excerpted from “How To Uproot a Tree”
by Jennifer K. Sweeney
By the way, the Cooperative Extension Program is in every state in the union. They offer Master Gardener training and certification, as well as a library of information on every growing concern one might encounter. They can help identify pests, suggest mitigation, and offer help with garden-variety challenges. In moresocial times, you can find Master Gardeners at garden centers in the spring with pamphlets and counsel. Nowadays you can always email a question, as I did, and you will receive a free and prompt response.
* * *
Dear Ms. Metaphor,
I’ve always dreamed of having aspens and would like to grow an aspen or two my backyard, which faces a large community park. I have been told that aspens aren’t a good choice at our elevation of 5,430 feet here in Northern Colorado. Still, I have seen a few in the neighborhood. Why not plant aspens? If not, what does Ms. Metaphor suggest?
The aspen tree is ideally suited for elevations of 6,500 to 11,500 feet. Although they can be coaxed to grow at lower elevations, problems most likely will ensue.
Aspens have thin bark, which makes them prone to insect pests and disease. Many of these pests simply cannot abide higher altitudes, although other problems, such as browsing elk, may cause damage. Aspens prefer the permeable soil of meadows rather than the heavy clay of endemic to the somewhat lower elevations of the Front Range. A recent wave of aspen die-off, known as “sudden aspen decline” is also a concern. Scientists suspect that climate change, particularly warmer weather, is part of the problem.
Note that "aspens" are usually plural. They like the company of other aspens and regenerate though suckers near its trunk or sprouts from its aggressive root system. Aspen stands are often the first trees to reappear at burn sites or forest clearings. However, that same tendency makes it a bad neighbor in suburban areas since its persistent roots can undermine a driveway, house foundation, or fence—which may not be your own.
Take another look at your backyard. What do you long for the most? Privacy? Color? Scent? You might consider drought tolerant lilacs, which have a long life expectancy—they can live 200 years and provide all of the above. Or, if you are looking for a colorful specimen, consider a tri-color beech tree. In the spring its leaves open in purple, then mature into a swirls of silver, pink, and burgundy. This birch is all about color.
Find what works best in your neck of the woods by observing what grows well nearby. A wise gardener does not impose her will upon nature, rather she listens to what her garden needs and plants accordingly.
. . . Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven . . .
— excerpted from "Birches" by Robert Frost
August 8, 2020
Dear Ms. Metaphor,
I am in a relationship with a man I love very much. He’s my best friend and we make each other laugh a lot. We have many of interests in common, and he’s kind and thoughtful. Both of us have had other marriages and relationships in the past, and we both have our own places now. His lease will be up soon and he would like for us to live together at my place, which I rent.
Also, my boyfriend has another identity that he calls “Maryanne”. He has had this relationship since childhood. Maryanne even has her own wardrobe. He has been very careful to introduce me to Maryanne slowly. I went to his place to meet her and we had dinner with him dressed up and wearing makeup in his other persona. That was fine, but I am not attracted to Maryanne as a lover. He is disappointed that I am not that into her.
My boyfriend and I have been discussing the possibility of living together, but I don’t think I’m ready. I’ve lived alone for years now. I’m not sure I want to share my place. I’m also not sure I want to live with two other people. How do I approach this with my boyfriend? What is Ms. Metaphor’s advice?
—Living Alone, But Not Lonely
Dear Not Lonely,
Ms. Metaphor applauds your candor and kindness. Sounds like you are sensitive to your boyfriend’s proclivities, but unsure about how to express your own needs. Your letter lists two distinct issues: one is living together; the other is Maryanne.
You’ve already written, “I’m not sure I want to share my place.” Listen to yourself and go with that. If your boyfriend moves into your home, like it or not, he will be an interloper with you in the role of constant host and your boyfriend as the guest who never leaves. Later, should you feel ready to play house, find a new place together that you can grow into as a couple.
As you noted, Maryanne is part of your boyfriend’s personality, so if you are “not that into her” he may see that as being not that into him. However, you do have a vote on how much you wish to share with Maryanne. Continue to be open with what you both want in your relationship, knowing that Maryanne is already in the picture. Maybe your could get to know her better.
You are deep into the mystery of intimacy. Trust in your love.
When we are friendly,
When we appreciate,
When we trust,
—“When We Are Friendly” by Sri Chinmoy
* * *
Dear Ms. Metaphor,
My brother has been depressed and ill for a long time. He lives like a hermit and doesn’t want visitors. However, his aliments have caught up with him and now he is in the hospital, where I have been with him for the past three days. I am getting contradictory information from doctors, hospital discharge staff, and the social worker. One doctor is intent on saving my brother. The others have given up on him and want him to go home to die. How does one deal with someone who doesn't care anymore?
—Sad Since Tuesday
You have every reason to feel sad about this situation. As a good sister you have shown your brother concern and care. Luckily, you also have at least one advocate on your side—the good doctor who is intent of saving your brother’s life. This is the grace note in your brother’s symphony.
However, you don’t say why your brother has allowed his health to deteriorate or why he is depressed. Perhaps those he has loved are gone. Is alcohol part of the picture? Maybe his illness leaves him without a reason to continue. For some, life itself becomes a burden—it’s simply too much to bear. Sadness becomes a habit. And now, six months into pandemic quarantine, many may feel abandoned without hope. What’s the use of even trying?
Perhaps his stay at the hospital will spark a reckoning and he will find the will to continue. Your love and the skill of his doctor may prolong your brother’s life, but it is up to him if he wants to fight for it. Know that this is his decision alone.
Peace, my heart, let the time for the parting be sweet.
Let it not be a death but completeness.
Let love melt into memory and pain into songs.
Let the flight through the sky end in the folding of the wings over the nest.
Let the last touch of your hands be gentle like the flower of the night.
Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a moment, and say your last words in silence.
I bow to you and hold up my lamp to light
—“Peace My Heart” by Rabindranath Tagore
July 20, 2020
Dear Ms. Metaphor,
I’ve started swimming again at the YMCA, even though the pandemic numbers aren’t going down in my state. But the club is doing a good job keeping the pool area and equipment clean, and requiring masks. The number of people in the pool is limited and reservations are required for a lane, so contact with other people is at a minimum.
Twice though, I’ve seen people who showed up after the hour, wanting to share a lane that was already taken. When they were told to wait for an opening, they got all huffy about their “right” to swim because they supposedly had a reservation. What would Ms. Metaphor say in a situation like that?
—Swimming in Circles
Ms. Metaphor would say, “Come on in, the water’s fine—just give me 10 minutes and the lane is all yours!” Or something like that. Actually, what you say is less important that how you say it.
If someone wants to share a lane that is at capacity, you have an obligation to school the interloper on The Rules. But say it with a smile on your lips and compassion in your eyes, (without compromising anyone's health).
Also, let us consider the disappointed person who thought they had a swim lane reserved only to find it occupied. That little annoyance, on top of our collective fears about the pandemic, jobs, money, and lack of real connection, could make a person prone to violent outbursts. Give them a little slack—along with that six-feet of distance between you.
If only we could wear each other's skin like a bathing suit, to try each other on for size, and see how it feels to be the other. It would be helpful—and kind—to acknowledge how crazy this life feels right now to others.
Swimming in the swimming pool
is where I like to “B,”
wearing underwater goggles
so that I can “C.”
Yesterday, before I swam,
I drank a cup of “T.”
Now the pool’s a “swimming ool”
because I took a “P.”
—“Swimming Ool” by Ken Nesbitt
* * *
Dear Ms. Metaphor,
My neighbor’s dog goes out in his backyard at night and barks, which wakes me up. I’ve spoken to my neighbor about it, but he says he doesn’t know what to say. So, I thought I’d ask you, what should
I do?—Disturbed Sleeper
Let’s see if we can sketch out the crime scene: neighbor with barking dog is not aware his dog is barking. You mention the incident, but he doesn’t hear the dog, presumably because he is in another room, so how can he intervene?
It appears the problem is not the dog barking, but rather hearing the barking dog. Could your neighbor close the doggy-door to his backyard so the dog cannot go outside to bark at night? Could you close your windows so the barking doesn’t disturb you?
“. . .The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
I close all the windows in the house
and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast
but I can still hear him muffled under the music,
barking, barking, barking,
and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,
his head raised confidently as if Beethoven
had included a part for barking dog. . .”
—excerpted from “Another Reason I Don’t Keep a Gun in The House” by Billy Collins
Try to engage your neighbor in a friendly, masked-face-to-face-over-the-fence chat about your concerns. Deliver your complaint as a plea for help. Ask for assistance. And give peace a chance.
June 30, 2020
Dear Ms. Metaphor,
These days, I have turned to lengthy conversations with my plants, asking them things like, ‘How did you get that green?’ & ‘What bugs you?’ & ‘You think I’m neglecting you, don’t you?’ I am still waiting for answers. And Squirrel refuses to talk to me about the cherry tree. Is all this normal during a pandemic? Should I consider psychiatric care? Or yoga? Perspiring minds want to know. —Arf Moderne
Dear Arf Moderne,
In 1973, a new age bestseller, The Secret Life of Plants, by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, claimed that plants had feelings. While the idea that sedum are sentient beings was squashed like a bug by botanists, the notion that plants do have preferences has been widely observed. Forget to water the chard and it will lay low like a deflated balloon. Overwater aloe vera and it will slump like a homesick sailor.
These are preferences, which are a key aspect to sensitive communication. When you stop to converse with your plants you give them attention—and you notice what’s going on in their world. That is both communion and communication. You must bend
to notice Tiny:
All these years I overlooked them in the
racket of the rest, this
symbiotic splash of plant and fungus feeding
on rock, on sun, a little moisture, air —
tiny acid-factories dissolving
salt from living rocks and
Here they are, blooming!
Trail rock, talus and scree, all dusted with it:
rust, ivory, brilliant yellow-green, and
cliffs like murals!
Huge panels streaked and patched, quietly
with shooting-stars and lupine at the base.
Closer, with the glass, a city of cups!
Clumps of mushrooms and where do the
plants begin? Why are they doing this?
In this big sky and all around me peaks &
the melting glaciers, why am I made to
kneel and peer at Tiny?
These are the stamps of the final envelope . . .
—from “Springtime in the Rockies, Lichen” by Lew Welch
* * *
Dear Ms. Metaphor,
I have a bad case of garden envy. My neighbor seems to have a system all worked out with big, blooming plants. He just naturally knows when and how much to water, what kind of fertilizer to use, how to prune the bushes. Meanwhile I can't even get radishes to grown. What's the secret?
—Mr. Brown Thumb
Dear Mr. Brown,
What sort of garden would enjoy? Annual vegetables and flowers? Drought tolerant perennials? Some of each? Start with a manageable area of your paradise on Earth and patiently begin. Consider everything you do as an experiment—which means: it's all good.
Since we are well into summer, most seasonal plants are already happily blooming their heads off, so choose starts, such as tomatoes or petunias that you can transplant in a suitable spot or pot in your garden. In the autumn, tuck in tulip bulbs and grape hyacinth for early spring color. Next season, direct seed sunflowers with pole beans for maximum upward mobility and color. The miracle is unending.
The secret to healthy plants in your own garden is your keen interest in their well-being. Educate yourself. Read Roses Love Garlic: Companion Planting and Other Secrets Of Flowers by Louis Riotte. Read up about fertilizers in all their manifestations. If you encounter a real garden conundrum, contact the Cooperative Extension Office in your area; (they are a national organization usually in cahoots with your state college). Cooperative Extension offers Master Gardener education programs, and can help to identify insect problems, and even teach you how
to analyze your particular soil.
To become a good gardener, go to the source: compost—it's a religion. Learn about worms and nematodes, and dig deep into the earth in your own backyard. There you will find your roots—and a great deal of satisfaction—along with the dirt
under your fingernails.
Dear dirt, I am sorry I slighted you, I thought that you were only the background for the leading characters—the plants and animals and human animals. It’s as if I had loved only the stars and not the sky which gave them space in which to shine. Subtle, various, sensitive, you are the skin of our terrain, you’re our democracy . . .
—from "Ode to Dirt" by Sharon Olds
June 20, 2020
Dear Ms. Metaphor,
I have a friend who gets very upset if I say something like, “My Black friend, Jack.” Why is that so terrible?
—Truly Not a Racist
Would you also say to your friend, “My white friend, Sue?”
It’s not that mentioning one’s race is taboo, but it is generally unnecessary in day-to-day conversation to differentiate race, nationality, or sexual preference. To do so sets up expectations, which turns into assumptions, which beget clichés, and that, dear Truly, is such a bore.
Simplify your life by categorically eschewing old descriptions. If you long to add adjectives to your introductions, then describe your friends by their qualities or interests, such as my musician friend Kabir, my kind aunt Dolly, or my funny valentine Cheri. No other explanations or warning labels are required.
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety . . .
—from “My Heart Leaps Up" by William Wordsworth
* * *
Dear Ms. Metaphor,
Long before Covid, I was already in quarantine. Basically, old surgeries have kept me in pain and homebound. The only other person I see, really, is my husband. I love him dearly, not a doubt about that, but we have our own ways of dealing with things. I rely on him more than I’d like to admit. Being in quarantine for three months has brought us to a new level of intimacy, although not always pleasurable. Sometimes I wish I lived alone.
I feel a great yearning, but for what, I don’t know. Although my body is weak, my mind is crazy with ideas, plans, things I want to do, creative projects, but then I don’t do them. It makes me feel worthless. What should I do, Ms. Metaphor?—Less Worth
I am not going to write the word “Less”. The mere fact that you are noticing all this is proof of something. In your letter you have listed the main ingredients for a poem: love & longing. (Or the other way around.) e.e. cummings expresses it most succinctly, (‘tho somewhat obliquely):
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn't he danced his did.
Women and men (both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn't they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain
—from “anyone lived in a pretty how town” by e.e. cummings
Start with a yellow legal pad and a #2 pencil. Continue your letter to Ms. Metaphor, letting the Muse speak. (And for heaven’s sake, please don’t try to coerce or tame your Muse. Just be patient and listen. Write it down.) There. Now you have a beginning. To paraphrase cummings, you danced your did.
Once you start to write, you have something tangible—you are in motion with your emotions—which naturally run to the river where all those plans and ideas and things you want to do like to swim. Who knows where it will go? It might be a dance or a song. It definitely will be a creative expression of your SELF, which is an apt metaphor for your own sun moon stars rain.
Invite your husband to accompany you on this journey. You may be delighted what you discover together.
June 16, 2020
Dear Ms. Metaphor,
Whenever I come across a particularly fine string of words or just a word or a phrase that says so much, I think of you and your love of word play. So, here’s one I just saw. I’m enchanted by it: “To carry your tongue in your heart,” which means to speak guardedly, or keep your thoughts opinions secret. What do you make of it?—Easily Dazzled
Old idioms are enchanting, aren’t they? Learning idioms in any language are a key to proficiency, as well as indicators of the culture. Turns out there are quite a few idioms in English that relate to the tongue, such as “cat got your tongue?” and “tongue in cheek” and “watch your tongue” (Which is actually quite difficult to do without a mirror.) Even Shakespeare’s Hamlet directs the actors in his play to Hamlet wants his actors to speak “trippingly” that is, to speak naturally, or lightly, not recite his words in a bombastic manner.
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc'd it to you,
trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of our
players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.
What is telling in these English idioms on the tongue is how often we are told not to use it. We are cautioned to “bite your tongue” or “hold your tongue” not allow “a slip of the tongue”, which is curious considering the tenor of the times. Off the top of my head, I’d recommend throwing caution to the wind, to set sail on uncertain seas in order to find common ground. Right about now would be a good time to carry your heart on your sleeve, rather than hide it in your heart. Speak your truth—even if it must be through a cloth mask. Say the names of those who died trying to speak out. Let the world know.
Dear Ms. Metaphor,
Do you think one should protest during a pandemic? —Want to Stay Alive
Protests give voice to what needs to be said. That voice does not come at a convenient time; it will not wait. If you feel called to action—go. But go with a plan. Protect yourself. Be aware of others. And say your piece—say your peace.
Let them not say: we did not see it.
Let them not say: we did not hear it.
Let them not say: they did not taste it.
We ate, we trembled.
Let them not say: it was not spoken, not written.
we witnessed with voices and hands . . .
—from “Let Them Not Say” by Jane Hirshfield
Dear Ms. Metaphor,
I have recently been forced out, through no fault of my own, and moved from my long-term abode, away from my peace and solitude of the past 33 years on 50 rural acres. In the process, I have come to reside in suburbia.
My question is this: How does one socialize in a good way? I don't want to appear pushy or too upfront. Should I wait until people come
to me? As an older, single man I don't want to appear "creepy" (as I've heard this reference about older people from the younger generation).
So, what does one do to become part of a new tribe? Or, do I need to? Thanks in advance.
—Lost & Not Quite Found
Dear Not Quite Found,
Ms. Metaphor appreciates your candor and concern in this most delicate matter. You are right to err on the side of caution, since by your own description you carry the markings of a potentially creepy, older single man.
First, dispense with any potential Tinder hookups—at least within 50 kilometers. (That will take care of creepy associations. And please eschew the geezers 5 o’clock all-you-can-eat-buffet.)
Next, get out into the neighborhood (while keeping in mind pandemic concerns, of course) and see what’s going on, because, yes, you do need to become part of a new tribe.
. . . Belonging: a verb and
a strip of hope I fed with orchids
on sale and recipes brought from
a country I now hover over in virtual maps.
I twist time as a child tightens
the cap of a bottle, the right direction
a consequence of loss, the left
the vocabulary of departure.
I am walking backwards hoping
to reverse, to unsee what I cannot forget.
To leave something else as trails
to find a way forward.
—from “Home, a transitive” by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa
You might consider volunteering for neighborhood projects that will bring you into a social milieu of people from varied backgrounds and ages. Community theatre could be fun. Or, perhaps tending a shared garden. Most importantly: do what makes you feel happy and connected The best way to meet those with like-minded pursuits is to pursue what you like—and there they'll be. Just like a beautiful day in the neighborhood.