Monotone

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I’m trying to memorize some of my own poems, which is an interesting and embarassing exercise. Like: not only do I think my words are so important that I have to write them down, but I also think you should read them and now–holy self-importance–I’m repeating them to myself over and over again all day long. I only started to do this with poems that I’m pretty satisfied with and intend to share at readings and such. But as I’ve been spending time with these poems, I’ve been finding little and big changes to make–as big as the ordering of stanzas, as little as changing individual words here and there. I was talking to a group of friends who are performers just before I started this process, and everyone shared a slightly different system for their own memorizing. I came home and tried bits of them all (because I have really smart friends). One suggestion was to attempt to memorize in monotone. While I’m sure there are a lot of reasons why that’s a good idea, I think in terms of editing poetry it might be particularly useful. If we are trying to create pieces of writing that will translate from the page and into the minds of the reader, we must imagine the most apathetic reader and start from there, right (I suppose an alternative is to find a teenager who is chronically bored and have him/her read it aloud).

Below is my mother’s favorite poem, the very first poem I remember memorizing. It is impossible to read this in monotone. The word choice requires you to slow and speed as Frost wants you to. We’ve done an exercise with this poem in writing workshops in the past, passing the poem around the room and having each person read it in turn. It is an exercise inspired by Denise Levertov’s “The Poet in the World.” Participants definitely looked at me like I was nuts, but when we got to about the fourth person, the skepticism began to fade away, and the readings were more and more sincere and simultaneously playful. But the poem withstood the test of accents, gender, reading speed–you name it. Try reading the below in monotone and see what I mean. Or tell me you disagree and that I’m an idiot. I can handle it.

This week I want you to listen to your own poems again and again–one that you’re really happy with, or one that you’ve been struggling with–either way. Repeat, repeat, repeat–read the poem aloud ten times, waiting at least a minute between readings so you’re sure to actually listen through. Get the sounds right, make edits.

Two final points:

1. Glamping (glamorous camping) is made even more glamorous when you get to go hang out with your awesome friends in the woods and then come home and sleep in your own bed. Above picture is from said “glamping” trip, near the power lines. Because these are city woods, people.

2. Why is Trombone Shorty so good? Do any of you care to make an introduction? I bet we’d get along so well, and I know he’s in town…

Now get serious, you slackers.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
BY ROBERT FROST
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

I can’t do this

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I’ve been having some really serious “I can’t do this” moments lately.  The voice in my head has been saying, with some frequency, in the past few weeks, Why does anyone care, why do you care, why can’t you just be happy with life the way it is and stop trying to do more stuff and why do you need to write books too?  Why don’t you just garden?  Dig up weeds and feel proud that the weeds are dug up.  Shower the dirt off your skin, remove it from underneath your fingernails and go to bed feeling like you did a day of good work.  That sounds nice, that sounds simple.  That sounds like an ordinary Saturday.  Do you know that some people have ordinary Saturdays, Seema?  I don’t think watering your plants would make you cry.  And you and your kids could eat the plants, if you planted the right ones.  Wouldn’t that be a good hobby?  Good luck eating f-ing poems, Seema, you idiot.  You picked an awesome, useful passion.  

And so on.  The reason is this: I have some difficult writing to do.  And I don’t want to do it.  I’m embarrassed by the mistakes I’ve made, I’m regretful of things.

I read the poem below, by Mohja Kahf this morning.  The thing about being embarrassed by someone you love is that for an instant–you are putting what you believe to be true about the opinions of strangers over what you know to be true about someone you love.  It happens all the time as a parent, as a child, as the friend of someone who speaks their mind about their bodily functions in the grocery store and you’d rather they didn’t.  I’m trying to outgrow it.  I haven’t.  But this poem reminded me so much of all of that, and all the ways in which revisiting things with the wisdom of experience and then sharing them with the world can be an extraordinary gift to anyone who stumbles upon that honesty on a poetry app (a real, worthwhile thing you ought to get) or in a book.  How then the same person can go into her day and feel a responsibility to handle it a little more honestly and be a little better because some poet wrote down some spectacular shit and gave it to the world.  So I’m gonna do this.  And it’s going to suck.  But you’ll be there, won’t you?  Doing the same thing with the little corners of your life?  Writing down the embarrassing thing your Moms did and sending it to me in image-laden staggered lines?  That’s your prompt.

It seems like everywhere I go, the more I see, the less I know.  But I know one thing.  I love you. (Been listening to the hell out of that song–trying to make it the family anthem, the kids aren’t into it, and hate how I sing it at the top of my lungs. Jerks)

 

MY GRANDMOTHER WASHES HER FEET IN THE SINK OF THE BATHROOM AT SEARS
By Mohja Kahf

My grandmother puts her feet in the sink
of the bathroom at Sears
to wash them in the ritual washing for prayer,
wudu ,
because she has to pray in the store or miss
the mandatory prayer time for Muslims
She does it with great poise, balancing
herself with one plump matronly arm
against the automated hot-air hand dryer,
after having removed her support knee-highs
and laid them aside, folded in thirds,
and given me her purse and her packages to hold
so she can accomplish this august ritual
and get back to the ritual of shopping for housewares

Respectable Sears matrons shake their heads and frown
as they notice what my grandmother is doing,
an affront to American porcelain,
a contamination of American Standards
by something foreign and unhygienic
requiring civic action and possible use of disinfectant spray
They fluster about and flutter their hands and I can see
a clash of civilizations brewing in the Sears bathroom

My grandmother, though she speaks no English,
catches their meaning and her look in the mirror says,
I have washed my feet over Iznik tile in Istanbul
with water from the world’s ancient irrigation systems
I have washed my feet in the bathhouses of Damascus
over painted bowls imported from China
among the best families of Aleppo
And if you Americans knew anything
about civilization and cleanliness,
you’d make wider washbins, anyway
My grandmother knows one culture—the right one,

as do these matrons of the Middle West. For them,
my grandmother might as well have been squatting
in the mud over a rusty tin in vaguely tropical squalor,
Mexican or Middle Eastern, it doesn’t matter which,
when she lifts her well-groomed foot and puts it over the edge.
“You can’t do that,” one of the women protests,
turning to me, “Tell her she can’t do that.”
“We wash our feet five times a day,”
my grandmother declares hotly in Arabic.
“My feet are cleaner than their sink.
Worried about their sink, are they? I
should worry about my feet!”
My grandmother nudges me, “Go on, tell them.”

Standing between the door and the mirror, I can see
at multiple angles, my grandmother and the other shoppers,
all of them decent and goodhearted women, diligent
in cleanliness, grooming, and decorum
Even now my grandmother, not to be rushed,
is delicately drying her pumps with tissues from her purse
For my grandmother always wears well-turned pumps
that match her purse, I think in case someone
from one of the best families of Aleppo
should run into her—here, in front of the Kenmore display

I smile at the midwestern women
as if my grandmother has just said something lovely about them
and shrug at my grandmother as if they
had just apologized through me
No one is fooled, but I

hold the door open for everyone
and we all emerge on the sales floor
and lose ourselves in the great common ground
of housewares on markdown.

The Thing Is

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I put the kibosh on video games for the weekend and the kids were pissed. They were so pissed that they were hell-bent on being miserable. They were so hell-bent on being miserable, they almost succeeded. But they didn’t, because life is awesome and full of wonder. Even when you’re fourteen and no one understands you. Even when you’re eight and it seems like your mom is hardly ever around and when she is she’s obsessed with vegetable eating. The lesson that I keep having to teach them (and myself) is that the decision to be miserable and the effort it takes to uphold that decision will almost always cost you more than it costs anyone else. And there’s enough in the world designed to make you miserable, you don’t have to actively engineer misery (I say this, but believe me, I do plenty of searching out misery myself). The difficult, necessary thing is to reach–for miracles, for love, for laughter and forgiveness. I work hard to remind myself to look through kaleidoscopes, to marvel at ordinary magic, to believe in possibilities, to dream and trust my dreams and be amazed by my own mind. To want what’s good and believe I can have it.

The picture above is an evolved piece of artwork at Goddard College. One person whose name will not be mentioned, wrote Seema wouldn’t wanna be ya. Another kind soul added the “I heart.” I wrote that pictogram of how I’d spell my name if I were a little less literate (C+a drawing of a Ma). And the wise woman poet Shomriel Sherman (click on the link and sign up and read some of her wisdom) posed with it. The thing I love best about being a poet is that other poets send me poems (also that I get to write staggered sentences when I’m too full of emotion to focus on grammar). Shomriel sent me this poem, The Thing Is by Ellen Bass, which came just as I needed it, just as I was ready to succumb to the grief. Poets know.* I have shared this poem with lots of people since, and it keeps renewing me. So I share it with you, and I invite you to write one entitled “The Thing Is” about the thing you do to part the curtain of grief and let the light through, no matter how many times you’re kicked in the (literal or metaphorical) dick.

The Thing Is
by Ellen Bass

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

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he doesn’t look miserable at all, does he?
 

*My belief that poets know can get dangerous, because then I believe that I know something, but actually I don’t always. Sometimes what I want gets confused with what I know. Maybe I should say OTHER poets know to be more accurate.

Do I Seem Invincible?

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In case you haven’t noticed: I screw up. I lose my temper and I am insecure and I give up on things because I get scared and then I regret it and then I fight to get them back and then I think maybe I was right in the first place. I embarrass myself when I drink too much, feel hurt when none was intended, turn hysterical sometimes. None of that means that I don’t also work hard, love fiercely and earn deep love and respect from people I admire. It doesn’t mean I’m not talented and hilarious and great company. Allowing the places I am cracked to catch the light is terrifying and essential. And allowing the places where I give off light to shine freely without apologizing for that shine is essential too.

We are husbands, wives, mothers, sons, brothers, sisters, survivors, failures, successes. But the space between how we actually inhabit those roles and the lofty connotations of those labels leaves us feeling as though we are impostors, as though we’re not living up to some standard of manliness or motherliness or even kindness or friendship, because we’re not perfect. But nobody is, no matter how unshakable they may seem. Everyone hates the people they are supposed to love sometimes, everyone feels terrified that people are going to find out how little they actually know. But each of us simultaneously has an immense capacity for grace and love, we each know things no one else knows quite as well. We can inhabit strength and weakness simultaneously. In fact, we can’t NOT. Writing this poem is about claiming that gray space, giving it voice. What if we all did that? Wouldn’t it be easier to live in a world where no one expects perfection, but is instead grateful for honest vulnerability? That’s the world I want to live in. Shit, that’s the world I’m gonna live in. Starting right here, with you.

The poem below is from a Warrior Writers’ anthology (that handsome devil chillin’ with me is Kevin Basl, a kickass writer who edited the anthology and wrote its stunning foreword). Their fourth anthology is beautiful and full of art and writing that will change your world. Buy it here. Let me know what you think.

“American Soldier” by Michael Anthony

(Inspired by a Carol Wimmer poem)

When I say…I am an American Soldier
I’m not shouting I’m better than you,
I’m whispering, I was a boy and now find myself a man.

When I say…I am an American Soldier
I speak not only of this with pride
I’m also confessing that I stumble, make mistakes,
And need competent leadership to help guide me,
So I in turn, can be a competent leader.

When I say…I am an American Soldier
I’m not trying to be strong,
I am professing that I am weak
And need the strength of my peers and country,
To help carry me on.

When I say…I am an American Soldier
I am not bragging of past successes
I’m admitting that I have failed in the past
Admitted the mistakes, and tried to right the wrongs.

When I say…I am an American Soldier
I’m not claiming to be perfect,
My flaws are far too visible
But my country needs me, and I soldier on.

When I say…I am an American Soldier
I can still feel the sting of pain,
From seeing those I care about die,
While we fight for those we love.
I have my share of heartaches,
So I call upon the American people,
To help guide our soldiers, when home.

When I say…I am an American Soldier
I’m not saying anything,
I’m just a simple man,
Who was called upon by his country…
To fight.

So the prompt is to write extensively about a single role you play or the multiple roles you have, in stanzas shaped like this:

When I say I am…
I’m not saying…
I’m saying…
(expand on the above, with a metaphor for bonus points)

Super Moon

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I am in Plainfield, Vermont this week (via Brattleboro, where I got to have a brief dip into the beautiful world of my sweet friends Emma and Mike). Yesterday I drove with new and old friends up and up unfamiliar roads to find the best view of the ‘Super Moon’ cresting–our same old beautiful, constant moon, appearing larger and clearer on the horizon. The entire experience was a poem: listening to a radio station based on Ignition Remix by R. Kelly on Spotify, the repeated backing up and changing course as we sought out our spot, the silliness of serious people, the wildflowers growing on the mountainside. The pleasure of easy companionship found on a simple, sudden expedition. Here’s a little rough poem about it, inspired by that adventure and also by Twilight by Henri Cole (at the bottom). Every meaningful experience is a metaphor, an echo of the larger things you are experiencing and understanding but you don’t have to force it, which can get intimidating. Write with specificity about some experience in nature, and see what emerges. Then edit and strengthen.

Much peace, my dears. I’m away this week, so response time might be slower than usual, but you know I love poems in my inbox no matter where in the world I happen to be.

Super Moon
For Anna, who suggested the expedition

This rented minivan churns rocks
from unfamiliar mountain roads we travel
in search of a different view of the same moon
who followed us each down faraway streets
while our clumsy childhoods unfolded.

There are no directions to follow,
no single well-lit road sign leads us
to a marked vantage point,
announcing that we have arrived.

We borrow a field from people who never left this place,
have watched the seasons of these mountains
for all their years.

When we return to our temporary lodging
inches closer to ourselves, we drink cider
and marvel at the speed of objects moving across the sky
wondering if we’ll know whether we reached the highest point,
not sure we’d ever want anything to look the same every night.

Twilight BY HENRI COLE
There’s a black bear
in the apple tree
and he won’t come down.
I can hear him panting,
like an athlete.
I can smell the stink
of his body.

Come down, black bear.
Can you hear me?

The mind is the most interesting thing to me;
like the sudden death of the sun,
it seems implausible that darkness will swallow it
or that anything is lost forever there,
like a black bear in a fruit tree,
gulping up sour apples
with dry sucking sounds,

or like us at the pier, somber and tired,
making food from sunlight,
you saying a word, me saying a word, trying hard,
though things were disintegrating.
Still, I wanted you,
your lips on my neck,
your postmodern sexuality.
Forlorn and anonymous:
I didn’t want to be that. I could hear
the great barking monsters of the lower waters
calling me forward.

You see, my mind takes me far,
but my heart dreams of return.
Black bear,
with pale-pink tongue
at the center of his face,
is turning his head,
like the face of Christ from life.
Shaking the apple boughs,
he is stronger than I am
and seems so free of passion—
no fear, no pain, no tenderness. I want to be that.

Come down, black bear,
I want to learn the faith of the indifferent.

Henri Cole, “Twilight” from Blackbird and Wolf. Copyright © 2008 by Henri Cole.

A Stylish Stud

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The title is one of the automatic wordpress generated titles, but I think it fits. My friend Karl and I have become the sort of people who need a google calendar event to block us off to meet for dinner (puke). On Thursday, the day we had agreed upon two weeks prior, I was incredibly, incredibly grumpy. I didn’t want to drive across the bridge and I didn’t want any damn fancy food and I didn’t want to wear any kind of non-sweatpants and whine whine whine. Karl doesn’t care. Karl has known me for long enough that he just heckled me via text while I grumped at him. And then I had a wonderful, hilarious, delicious time.
My week was full of that kind of thing, both professionally and personally and physically–I pushed myself or was pushed and ultimately felt better for it. I was surprised into doing crossfit. I had challenging groups and overcame some really nasty excel data collation stuff. I held a brain (ok, that I wanted to do). On Saturday I dragged myself out of the house to browse Politics and Prose, and happened upon a reading and Q&A with Edan Lepucki. The reason I went to the bookstore was to find some new poetry–specifically love poems. I have written, in my life, approximately one fully hopeful and positive love poem–about a single moment. A connection that ultimately was not particularly significant, but when I wrote the poem I was just moved by it, and literally wrote this poem on the back of a motion sickness bag with a pen I borrowed from a flight attendant. The poem even rhymed. I hate that poem.
I am participating in a reading in October which will have nothing to do with healing or war–just poetry and brunch (details soon–it will be amazing, I promise)–and as I was telling Karl about this awesome opportunity and my insecurities around keeping my creative work alive and changing, I decided to try to read all celebratory love poems. Which means I’ll have to write a shit ton of love poems. Which means I have to study a ton of love poems, which led me to Politics and Prose and to an incredible collection called what is this thing called love by Kim Addonizio, even though I had decided going in that I would buy an anthology of classic love poems. Even though I looked at the stupid picture on the cover and scoffed, I flipped to a random page, read a stanza and absolutely had to have this book. I laughed out loud at these poems, I stood up and walked around between poems to digest them, I took pictures of pages because I had to share. Below is one. The prompt is to make a list of your most beautiful first kisses. As many as you can remember–where did they happen? Just remember the set-up and location and anticipation, and write a list poem. Don’t number it (no one needs number shaming), don’t think about where they led (or didn’t lead). Send me your beautiful first kisses lists. I need the inspiration.

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Changing Colors

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This past weekend I went to Oregon and saw three of my favorite people in the world. One of them happened to be getting hitched (!!!!!!!!!), and witnessing her kickass community was another gift altogether. I know I’m prone to hyperbolize–but seriously, these women. We can be out of touch for months, not see one another for years and within minutes of reconnecting we’ll be laughing so hard my head hurts. We have been friends for nearly twenty years and live vastly different lives in far-flung corners of the world. We have partnered and un-partnered between meetings, had illnesses and have unraveled and respooled and had to tell the stories of our survivals and triumphs in the past tense. When we do happen to cross paths during crises, we cook meals for one another, watch one another’s children, open our homes. We reminisce a bit, but that’s not the bulk of what we do together. Each time we meet, we discover new reasons to be friends and take stock of who we’ve become. As with all great relationships, our friendship contains multitudes of friendships. If I met any of these women for the first time today, I would be delighted to become friends with them. But fortunately, that’s not the spot I’m in.

In airports and hotels and living rooms and in the mountains and on the bank of a little pond filling quickly during a hurricane. Each time we come together is its own story, but there are threads that weave through them, patterns that are present, even as we learn new things about one another. At fifteen and nineteen and twenty-five. When I was thirty we linked hands in a circle under the stars in Upstate New York and I swore to them I’d extract myself from a situation that was hurting me. All the people I have been in their company are part of who I’ve become now. Long sporadic relationships–even ones that aren’t all glowy–are great markers of growth. It’s the differences placed alongside the similarities plotted against the y axis of time.

Use that calculus in a poem. Maybe it’s an aunt or uncle or cousin that only visited occasionally, or a casual friend you run into when you visit your hometown. This doesn’t have to be a piece about favorite people–because really, at its core, it’s a piece about you (narssicism is no longer a disorder, fyi). Just write the scenes, see your changes through their eyes.

I hate to beg you to do things. Really, I do. But I must. You have to click on this link and read this poem. It’s a little long–but holy shit. It’s amazing. Tell me it’s not amazing–I dare you. It’s Mosaic, by Tim Seibles. Check out all those patterns.

And this, because maybe you weren’t invited to the wedding, but you should see this magic:

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Word:Sound:Power

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Another week of absolute magic culminates in a gathering tomorrow. I’m so grateful to be in the presence of so much grace and honesty and generosity. This community, a web we weave and reweave, feels like a salve in the midst of all the world’s suffering. There is hurt and courage and a willingness to hold one another’s aches as we move through the mud. Join us. We will laugh and we will cry.

Walking Backwards into the Future

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I say goodbye a lot. It’s one of my least favorite things to do–always has been. I moved schools a lot when I was a kid and I would avoid the active work of saying goodbye as often as possible–making jokes to diffuse the situation or skipping the last day of school. Even now, I’ll do this “I’m sure I’ll see you again before you go” thing and then dip so I can avoid saying a final goodbye.
Saying goodbye is part of my job. Folks come to the DC Area to receive medical treatment and then leave when they’re better or when they are no longer Active Duty Military. My relationship with my mother too, is peppered with goodbyes. She lives in Bangladesh and comes to visit once or twice a year and I am so unbearably sad when she leaves.
I had planned to write a generalized, vague post about the nature of goodbyes. About how sad they are and how ultimately we can transcend the pain by realizing that we are all connected wherever we go or something. Blah, blah, blah.
And then I read this blogpost by my friend Bryan. It is at once hilarious and heartbreakingly honest and brave (much like Bryan himself). And I realized that what I wanted to write about was not these inevitable goodbyes that I struggle with–though I’m sure I will want to write about them soon–but a goodbye of a different sort that’s been really hard for me this week.
Ladies and gentlemen of the Internet, there’s been some heartbreak in Seema-land. Heartbreak of a brand new sort for me. A goodbye said not because it was inevitable, but because I had to make a choice. I chose what I knew I needed over what I wanted. I had to understand that “there was no more room in me for that kind of hurt,” and take leave. I had to choose myself, ladies and gentlemen. I had to be a grown up. And it sucked. It sucks. I am sad. But this life is, more than anything, about learning yourself. About leaving things you want so badly when you feel yourself slipping into self-doubt, into someone you do not want to be. My brilliant friends offered me lots of love–burgers and pep talks and their ears. And I wavered a lot–wondering if it was just me, if the considerable good was salvageable, if I could have done something differently. But ultimately I have to remind myself (again and again and again) that nothing anyone else does is about me. That just as everyone has reasons for acting as they do, I have to take responsibility for my own heart and protect myself. My dear friend Ashley gave me the title line of this post–the idea that we look closely at what we’ve experienced as we walk into our futures, learn from our pasts, keep an eye on where we’re coming from as we move forward.

What are the feelings you want to have inspired by the people you choose to hold close? What does your life history not allow you to accommodate any longer?
This is not about blame–not blame pointed towards you or anyone else. It’s about accepting how your experiences have shaped you and
identifying what YOU need, which may vary from the ‘norm’–because your life experience doesn’t fit a template. We have to choose to surround ourselves with what makes us the best, most secure version of ourselves. We have to feel valued.

Fortunately there are poems about everything. Every feeling is ancient.

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Shifting Perspective

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I woke this morning to two things:

1. An article in the NYT about 4 Palestinian boys killed at the beach. The oldest was 11 or 12 and had sent his 8 year old brother home, because it was “too dangerous.” In the interview with the reporter the 8 year old child said, “He was always worried for me.”

2. I got an email from the boys’ father, wanting to discuss why our boys punch each other so much (they really do, it’s kind of their hobby).

I can’t stop crying. At my unearned good luck. At the danger in the world. I talk about war every single day. But there’s a part of me that doesn’t fully believe it. Intellectually I believe it, of course–but there is a part of me that stays in soft focus, allows me to stay right here in the now among my beautiful things and air conditioning and cups and cups of coffee. But sometimes I read or see something that makes all of that fall away. Like my suit of armor has evaporated and I’m completely vulnerable and conscious of how awful things can be. And I can’t think of why I should do the things that seem so important–going to work or to the doctor or to dinner with friends. I will, of course. I will do all of those things. I will put on my armor, though today it will feel like an aluminum knock-off. I will be penetrable and hold my face in a certain way that I have learned keeps my tears at bay. I will smile and make light conversation on the inpatient wards, I will go to dinner and laugh a little less brightly, ask people who love me to carry me, hold me closer and tomorrow the focus will become soft again, and I will walk through my life a little more easily. Because I don’t know what else to do.

But I can’t leave you there. When my perspective becomes like this, so focused on the things going on in the world and the time we live in, I am particularly grateful for The Writer’s Almanac. For hundreds of years, people have been writing about the wonder and horrors of this earth. It keeps spinning, the universe keeps expanding.