Happy Birthday, Gary Snyder….

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 11.23.37 AMI first encountered Gary Snyder’s writing in the summer of 2001.  I was living on the slopes of Mt. Rainier, waitressing and hiking and wondering about love, writing in my journal and scrambling across meadows and drinking beers around campfires.  I’d just graduated from the Evergreen State College and I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go next. I had a milk crate full of used books I’d picked up at Orca Books on my way out of Olympia, and in one of them (Ann Charters’ Portable Beat Reader) I encountered Snyder.

I was enamored of the Beats, of their spontaneous prose and their resistance to convention and their love of travel, jazz, and Buddhism, but I was bothered by the currents of privilege and chauvinism that ran through so much of the Beat canon.  Snyder was a revelation to me. From what I could tell he came from a West Coast working class family with Wobbly roots, he knew the rural, he gloried in folklore, he embraced discipline, he seemed to have a  far more respectful attitude toward women in his life then so many of his contemporaries. And, most thrilling of all, he wrote about the places I loved.  He was a poet of the North Cascades, of Old Highway 99, of the Upper Skagit, of the Pacific Rim.

On a trip off-mountain I picked up his Collected Works in a bookshop in Eugene and spent the rest of the summer pouring over his essays, translations, poems and letters.  Looking back over those pages today, 14 years later, I can see in my emphatic underlinings and euphoric margin-notes something of a map, a map of a philosophy and a poetic style and a way of living that made sense to me, a map I would carry with me into all of my subsequent wanderings.

Mid August at Sourdough Lookout

Down Valley a smoke haze

Three days heat, after five days rain

Pitch glows on the fir-cones

Across rocks and meadows

Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read

A few friends, but they are in cities,

Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup

Looking down for miles

Through high still air.

His poems delighted me with their crispness, their vivid detail, their reverence for the ordinary, the wild, the human. His essays informed my emerging philosophy about environmental politics and the significance of human stories of place.

I followed the map I’d etched out across his Collected Works to the North Cascades Institute, where I volunteered for the adult education program, helping with administrative tasks for weekend programs on nature poetry, ecology, watercoloring, raptor identification, and a host of other themes. I followed the map further still, to Utah, where I set out to twine together folklore, history, and environmental studies into a body of research and writing that ten years later, became my first book.

In 2004, at the outset of my graduate studies in Utah, I wrote Snyder letter of thanks, and had a friend deliver it to him at a reading in Bellingham. She made me a recording of his reading, and I played it in my apartment, cooking dinner in the Utah evening, nose full of the smell of sauteed onions.  Several months later, I discovered a message from him in my inbox.


Dear Sarah

Looking around my piled up papers in the library/barn I came again on your note from the Cache Valley, Utah State—I used to know it well—when Tom Lyon taught there and edited Western American Literature.  I love the story of what you’ve been doing.  Bless you, and be well and be wild in your work.


Today he is 85. I think I’ll mail him a copy of my book for a birthday present.


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monday items

Home from dropping the kid off at preschool
(where he triumphantly announced he had learned to ride a pedal bike
and everyone cheered)

I start the laundry
request vaccination records from the doctor for kindergarten registration
let the dogs in, out, and in again
wiping muddy footprints from the battered kitchen linoleum every time but the last
at which point I decide to stop caring
for a while

I am out of coffee filters so I rip a paper towel from the roll
and fold it into the warped yellow plastic cone
that my parents used to use on camping trips
grind beans
tap the fragments into the cone
and listen to the quiet hiss of the boiling water
soaking through

Email three professor friends to ask for news
on book tour dates

Email three contacts I made last Saturday,
after speaking at a Forum on Unintended Consequences of Energy Production
Follow up, Follow up.

Email two old friends.

Hang laundry
pet the dog
clear the breakfast dishes
dry out the laundry room floor,
flooded by the rain
which has been compensating lately,
for weeks of climate change induced sunshine

"I don't like the rain, but the plants do." Callum, aged 4.

“I don’t like the rain, but the plants do.” Callum, aged 4.

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Filed under basic goodness, Ordinary

Limitless Compassion for All Beings

What did you expect?” he murmured.  “Time passes.” 

“That’s how it goes,” Ursula said, “but not so much.”

-Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I tucked a napkin into the dog-eared copy of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and stared at the ice crystals splayed across the tiny airplane window. The clouds swirled beneath like the surface of oceans, broken only by the islands of the Rockies and the fecund and unpredictable bodies of the Cascadian volcanoes, thrust upwards out of the Pacific sky like whales or mermaids.  We were on our way home to Seattle after three days in Philadelphia, where we had traveled to bury my grandfather.

My grandfather Morris with his great grandson, my son Callum.

My grandfather Morris with his great grandson, my son Callum.

At his funeral, it was recalled that he was the only child in his family born in America, that he spoke Yiddish growing up, that his father Zuffa died just before the Great Depression and Morris began to care for his elderly mother Ita-Molie, known as Betty, when he was still a young man.

Morris's father Zuffa, his mother Ita-Molie, known as Betty, and his siblings. Taken just before the family emigrated to the United States, where Morris was born.

Morris’s father Zuffa, his mother Ita-Molie, known as Betty, and his siblings. Taken just before the family emigrated to the United States, where Morris was born.

His older sister Esther died at the age of 20 and Morris lost one of his lungs to illness while he was a teenager. He and his mother moved from one flat to the next across the neighborhoods of 1930s Philadelphia, her continually convinced they were being cheated on heat and rent. He once showed up for a job at a soup factory once with a few hundred other men, only to be told that the promised wage had been lowered.  When the men grumbled, armed Pinkerton agents appeared on the rooftops.  He watched Jackie Robinson play baseball, an experience he later recounted to a rapt audience of second graders in my husband’s classroom.  He fell in love with a beautiful and kind woman named Frances and with her raised two children. He survived a heart attack in his forties and more heart problems later.Frances Saller Fox

Morris with his daughter, my aunt Ellen and his son, my father Howard in the yard of their home on Baldwin Street, Philadelphia.

Morris with his daughter, my aunt Ellen and his son, my father Howard in the yard of their home on Baldwin Street, Philadelphia.

He road tripped across the entire country with Fran and explored Alaska while visiting his son Howard. He picked his grandson up from soccer and read books to his grandchildren and built things out of blocks and played dressup with us with unabated joy. He contributed to our educations, inquired about our pursuits and adventures with love and without judgement, and gave money to Doctors without Borders and the the Nature Conservancy and the Southern Poverty Law Center. He was a proud progressive and he played on the floor with his four great grandchildren right up until the end of his life. He would have been 98 this July.

Morris's great grandchildren: Emily, Audrey, Callum and Charlotte.

Morris’s great grandchildren playing after his funeral.  Emily, Audrey, Callum and Charlotte.

He lived at home until a week ago Tuesday, when he broke some ribs and was taken to the hospital. I was watching the Stanton Moore trio play at Jazz Alley with my husband and son when my dad called to let me know Grandpop had fallen.

After I spoke to my father, I returned to the dark booth to sit with my husband and son. The band played “A Waltz for All Souls.”

In a few days they had begun to stabilize my grandfather’s pain, but they worried about pneumonia since he had only one lung. I heard that he had eaten some hummus and challah, and took this for a good sign, as they are some of his favorite foods. My son and I made art and chose photos to cheer him up in the hospital, and I went off to work a Friday night shift at the pub.  On my dinner break, I read an email that suggested he might be improving. A few hours later I dragged a sodden bag of compost out to the dumpster in the alley and called my father.  It was then that I learned that my grandfather was gone.  He had died on the 23rd of January, his wife’s birthday.

I walked into the edge of the construction site next door to the pub, knelt in the giant clods of upturned mud next to an excavator, and cried without restraint.  It was almost midnight, and there was a sliver of moon.

In the morning, we told our son his great grandfather had died, explaining that Gpop’s body stopped working because it was old, and that he would be buried next to his wife, my Nana, a woman he loved very much. Several days later, sitting in the funeral procession, Callum asked “where is Gpop?” I reminded him that Gpop had died, and his body was in the wooden box we had seen at the funeral home. “But where is the box?” he asked from his carseat. “Its in a special car up front,” I told him. “Grandpop gets to lead the way to the cemetery.” Callum was quiet for a minute, then asked thoughtfully: “But how will he drive the car if he is in the box?”



It was bitterly cold at the cemetery, and the headstones leaned against each other for support, some fallen off their bases, Hebrew characters etched in granite against the wind. We stood in the snow and the mud and the syllables of Kaddish were spoken into the winter air. After the service, my parents and siblings and my son and my husband and I wandered deeper into the cemetery, picking our way through the snow.  My chest felt bruised from the inside, and the air was sharp and painful against the skin of my face. We rested our hands on Nana Fran’s headstone, remembering her sweetness, and stood in front of Morris’s mother’s grave, and his sister’s, his brother’s and his father’s. We reflected that Morris mourned where we stood that day at five different points in his life, twice as a young child.

A flock of wild geese banked overhead and flew over the cemetery, and I turned to watch them beating their wings against the grey January sky, their cries eddying across the field of graves.  I recalled Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese.”


You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Later my brother and father would send pictures from my grandfather’s apartment: his baseball cap, hanging on his desk chair. His Sunday copy of the Milwaukee Sentinel, opened to “The Week Ahead.” His copy of my recently published book, sitting on his nightstand.  His robe, folded on a chair. Staring through my tears at these artifacts of his final days at home, I remembered the wild geese over the graveyard, and it seemed to me that there is nothing more precious than this unbroken chain of ordinary moments, family and solitude and breakfast and love all tangled up together in a narrative without beginning or end.

I miss my Grandpop because he was my friend, because he was kind and good and dear, because my world has always held him and now he is absent. I miss him in the way grandchildren miss their grandparents. When I allow myself to consider that my father has lost his father, and his mother, that my mother has lost two fathers and will someday loose her mother, that I must someday say goodbye to my own parents, my husband to his, that our son must someday say goodbye to me, and his father, it begins to feel like a I am falling into a canyon of grief, a canyon so deep the bottom will not reveal itself for some time.

And then I remember that a force cut that canyon. Like a river over a thousand years, or a perenially gusting wind, love and living have carved out the space in which we grieve. Gratitude and grief make each other possible.

On the airplane, I set aside One Hundred Years of Solitude and pulled up Sogyal Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying on my phone, a minor miracle of technology and spiritual transmission.

“when we finally know we are dying, and all other sentient beings are dying with us,” Rinpoche wrote, “we start to have a burning, almost heartbreaking sense of the fragility and preciousness of each moment and each being, and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings.”

Fox, Morris Born 1917. Passed away Friday, January 23, 2015 at the age of 97. Beloved husband of the late Frances (nee Saller) Fox. Loved father of Ellen Lang and Howard (Theresa Trebon) Fox. Beloved grandfather of Erika (Michael) Shanik, Mark (Melissa) Lang, Sarah (Ryan Reilly) Fox, Izaak (Danielle) Fox and Emma Fox. Cherished great-grandfather of Emily Shanik, Audrey Shanik, Callum Reilly and Charlotte Lang. Preceded in death by his siblings Nathan, Frank, Benny and Esther Fox. Funeral services will be held on Thursday, January 29 in Philadelphia, PA. Memorial donations made to Doctors Without Borders or Jewish Home and Care Center appreciated.


Filed under basic goodness, Change, death, Family, literature, memory, mourning, poetry

burned tortillas

I drop my son off at preschool three mornings a week at 9:00,
and after circle time I sprint for the car
get home by 9:20
and work feverishly till 11:50,
when i dash back to preschool for pickup.
at home I make his lunch while he plays or watches a show

not infrequently, i burn something while trying to multitask
sending off the last few professional emails in broken bursts
while sweeping up the mud from rubber boots and eight large dog paws
opening the mail
filing bills
talking about his day
and confirming childcare swaps via text message

the acrid smell of a too-hot skillet eddies in from the kitchen
snapping me back to the primary task at hand
and i rush in to tend to lunch two minutes too late

stand over the sink cracking crispy bubbles of burned tortilla
off his quesadilla with a wooden spoon
quietly cursing myself for doing too many things at once
while he breaks down into tears over the news
that I have to work at the restaurant tonight
(as i do every Wednesday)
and I watch myself trying to handle his separation anxiety
wondering if i’m making it worse
and if my networking emails were coherent
and if i moved the laundry into the dryer

i wonder if he associates the acrid smell of burned tortillas
with the heat of his anger
or the bitterness of his disappointment
over things not being easier
I certainly do


Filed under motherhood, Ordinary, work

november cold snap moon

driving home from work in the cold 2 am dark,
the goldwhite crescent moon, sharp edged in the freeze,
lays low and wide atop the hill
so close it seems I could pluck it off the road

The garden is frozen and bowed over,
and the book is making its way out into the world,
for better and for worse and for better…

Callum can write his name, and Moss’s,
at preschool they are studying yoga
and how to fix things
with tools.

tom yum soup with whistling train romanesco cauliflower
for dinner
and blankets in the doorways
to keep the living room warm


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gone to the printers

I think this might be like arriving at base camp at the foot of Everest

I know its an awful lot like being 37 weeks pregnant.

maybe you dreamed of it

surely you worked for it

but as the time nears

you realize, increasingly

that you have absolutely no idea

what you’ve gotten yourself into


and the dark clouds form and disperse

as you reckon the size of the leap

you have made

peering at the place you think you’re going to land

readying the things you think you’ll need

asking for mentors, safety nets

realizing that when you need financial security more than ever you are sloughing it off

to pit yourself against the challenge

of doing this thing

and doing it well

aprons and layers falling

revealing the dream vulnerable to the raw air:




terrified, quaking, tired and certain

there is no perfect draft, there is no truly ready time

the story is past due


and gone to the printers.

finally finished, and only just begun.

Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West.  November 2014



Filed under art, artists, Atomic Bomb, basic goodness, cancer, Change, Civil Disobedience, coexistence, Colonialism, community, culture.society.anthropology., Desert, Family, History, Homeland, howard zinn, love, meditation, memory, motherhood, Nevada Test Site, Nuclear weapons, oceans and mountains, on writing, poetry, Pregnancy, stories, violence, Waitress, winter, writing

bigger than a blog post, smaller than a breadbox

I haven’t been doing much creative writing lately,

because this:



is coming out in the fall and contrary to what I’d somehow fooled myself into thinking,

my work is only just begun.

More to come lovelies, I promise. all sorts of things are moving and shaking.. a website, a video, events, travel. opportunities for folks to support getting the stories in my book out into the world. For now… disjointed waitress poetry will make an attempt to return, because learning how to market a book gives me a headache, and I need to write creatively again.


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Filed under Americana, As it Turns Out There Were People In All Those Little Communities, Atomic Bomb, basic goodness, blue collar, cancer, Change, Civil Disobedience, coexistence, Colonialism, community, culture.society.anthropology., death, Deep Ecology, Desert, Family, fathoming, feminism, Food, Garden, gathering, gratitude, History, Homeland, Hope, howard zinn, journalism, Labor, love, meditation, memory, migration, motherhood, Nevada Test Site, Nuclear weapons, on writing, Peace, Peacewalk, poetry, stories, violence, watching it all go by, wendell berry