TangleFlow: A Writer Wednesday Post

September 24th, 2014 | Posted by Irene in Essays - (9 Comments)


TangleflowTangleFlow, photo and all text ©Irene O’Garden, 2014

To listen to this post, please click here: TangleFlow

Such a silent place: the green and ghostly remains of Nuttalburg, West Virginia.

John and I were recently its sole explorers, whence this image. The visual poetry of the outworn often speaks to me.

This tangle was part of a tipple, which conveyed coal to boxcars to market. Eager to control all aspects of his production, Henry Ford owned this mine awhile, and made this system. He found minds creative enough to imagine these objects, bodies strong enough to build and place them. And always, bellies hungry for work.

Hear the phantom pandemonium: coal thundering into the cars, trains clattering over the tracks, ear-splitting squeals of wheels and pulleys and whistles. Nearby, dinnerbells and shouting schoolchildren. A vibrant place it was, propelled and prolonged by sheer might.

It’s fitting to remember in a week of international climate discussions, this was a system that seemed unbreakable, untwistable, invincible.

When at last dismantled, it must have roared to the ground like a Beethoven coda.

As these frayed muscles of industry show, even in tangle there is flow; in decay, abraded splendor. Though Beethoven shows no sign of wear.



I’ll be channeling Mother Nature this Saturday, September 27,  at the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festivaland being my own self with delightful young poets on  Sunday 4-6 at the opening of this year’s second Poetry Trail at the Hudson Highlands Nature Museum. You would be a welcome sight at either place. 



gentle magenta1Bush Clover, photo & all text ©Irene O’Garden, 2014

To listen to this post, please click here:Startle Display

After a week away, I could hardly wait to get fresh flowers in the house again.

Michaelmas daisies are at it this time of year—starry blooms in fruity purples, chalky periwinkles— and this glorious shrub above (Lespedeza thunbergii Gibraltar, or Bush Clover) is at the height of her beauty. Her long stems are crowded with opulent, pea-like blossoms and if magenta can be gentle, she’s it.

I happily loaded my gathering basket, but ouch! Felt something sharp as I clipped her stems. Almost like thorns, I thought. How uncharacteristic of the pea family.

Indoors, I began arranging the stems in a vase. “Ow!” That really hurt! The heel of my hand went red and throbbing. I picked up a leaf.

Talk about startled.

Stung Startle Display, photo © Irene O’Garden, 2014


Looks like an intergalactic visitor. I promptly googled it. I had been stung by a Saddleback Caterpillar. Who knew there even were stinging caterpillars?

If defense were the ultimate expression of power, Saddlebacks would rule–they are the most well-defended creature I’ve ever laid eyes on. Those multiple spiraling spines are not only sharp, but venomous, and can break off and lodge in the sting-ee. The spots that look like a big face are meant to scare aggressors. Boo! It’s called the startle display.

When you calm down, though, and look again, you see this fellow is essentially an armored slug, just trying to get his naked, vulnerable self from here to there. He grows up to be a spikeless, venom-free, furry brown moth.  

It was worth the sting and startle to behold this creature who reminds us fierce defense is but a passing stage in growth. 


Publication News:  

John thinks I saved his life last fall. I am pleased to say that “An Argument With Water,” wherein I describe the experience, has just been published in deComp magazine. You can read it here

If you are Chappaqua, NY on Saturday Sept 27, please stop by my table at the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival. It’s a grand event, and I will be gussied up as Mother Nature once again– 


Intimate Privilege: A Writer Wednesday Post

September 3rd, 2014 | Posted by Irene in Essays - (16 Comments)


To The Upper Room Toward the Upper Room, photo & all text © Irene O’Garden, 2014

To listen to this post, please click here: Intimate Privilege

Ever since I first learned to wash dishes and endure long car rides with siblings, I have dearly loved singing harmony. But I can’t join a conventional singing group. John and I travel so much that I would miss many rehearsals.

Last fall, however, I saw a request for singers. A “Threshold Choir” was forming locally, requiring only one rehearsal a month.  What sent intuition’s shiver up my spine, however, was the choir’s destination and purpose: when invited, to offer the simple gift of song at the bedsides of those who are dying. Those on The Threshold.

The songs are simple, non-denominational, just what you might want on your way out: “You’ve been loved, deeply loved,” goes one. Images of light, spirit and comfort.

I know that one reason I was prompted to this service was my spontaneous discovery years ago that when Alzheimer’s had carried off all my mother’s words, we were still able to sing together. How her face beamed. Mine, too, I’m sure.

After several months of practice, our small group has now begun singing at bedsides. Suffice it to say, it is an intimate privilege, indeed.

I did not intend to post about it, but changed my mind when I received a link this week to an NPR story about Threshold Choirs.  Over a hundred have formed across North America since Kate Munger created the first one in 2000. It occurred to me you may have a loved one who might benefit from this service. Or you might feel the same shiver I did when learning about them, and be drawn, as was I, to a bit of midwifery toward the next world, singing lullabies to lives.


They Say, I Say: A Writer Wednesday Post

August 27th, 2014 | Posted by Irene in Essays - (9 Comments)

They Say, I SayThey Say/ I Say, photo & all text © Irene O’Garden, 2014

To listen to this post, please click here: They Say:I Say

Flipping through notebook pages recently, I came across a little game I played with myself earlier this summer, and thought you might enjoy playing it as well—

A great resource for any writer, Stanley Fish’s excellent book, “How To Write A Sentence” references “They Say/I Say,” a book on rhetoric and academic writing whose authors suggest using “they say/I say” to practice building arguments.

Build an argument if you like–I think it’s fun to just to see what your brain does with the proposal. Take a piece of conventional wisdom and contradict or modify it.

Here are a few I came up with:

They say practice makes perfect, but I say practice outlasts perfection.

They say living well is the best revenge, but I say revenge is deadly.

They say hope is for suckers, but I say it’s for creators.

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, but I say a loving word is worth a thousand pictures.

They say you can do whatever you put your mind to, but I say not without your heart.


What do you say?


Jim&DomJim & Dom, photo and all text © Irene O’Garden, 2014

To listen to this post, please click here: Swordfight with a Horse

While all my posts won’t be about my recent wilderness trip,  I do want to share the following—

In the campfire photo above, my younger brother Jim encourages the remarkable young Domenic Lewis to read us a story from “They Shoot Canoes, Don’t They?” a collection of funny essays by sportsman Patrick McManus.

Nephew of my nephew Don, fourteen-year old Domenic is quite a sport himself, as you’ll see at Hour Ten of our eleven-hour horseback ride into the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

The ride was the part of the trip I’d most grimly anticipated. Warnings had been issued: we’d likely ride all day with no break, we were bound to be saddle sore. Steep mountainside drop-offs can be scary– we might need to dismount and walk our horses. Saddlebags had to be light. I worried that my one measly bottle of water would not suffice for a whole day in the sun and you don’t want to be around a dehydrated, overheated Irene. Just mention noon on a sand dune to John.

As it happened, though, our guide gave us three breaks. Thanks to Don’s water filter, we drank our fill of cold, sparkling stream water. My preparatory stretches, padded bike shorts and chamois cream kept me pretty comfortable and we rode through immensely varied and beautiful terrain: dense moist forest, lyrical passages of wildflowers, a stunning field of creamy-plumed  beargrass. Shimmering lakes, a hefty wedge of glacier, vivid young pines reclaiming burnt land–it was a pleasure riding Sugar, my agreeable horse, over such scenic, well-maintained trails.  

But one spot during Hour Ten called for tough equestrian choreography. The horses had to make a short steep rocky ascent,  immediately and arrhythmically step over a large fallen tree and then instantly pivot into a sharp rocky descent. Most made it smoothly, but Domenic’s horse spooked, left the trail, and headed for a standing dead pine. One branch caught under the chin strap of Domenic’s river hat, tearing it off, but he kept his head, stayed in the saddle, grabbed his hat and managed to guide the horse back onto the trail. We proceeded.

Not long afterwards, he said, “I think I’m bleeding.” I was riding just ahead of him, and Don called, “See if he’s okay, will you, Irene?”

I turned in my saddle and froze. There, jutting three inches out of his left temple–“Domenic! You have a stick sticking out of your head!” Whereupon he screamed.

We halted. Don leapt down, helped Domenic dismount and carefully pulled out the sharp dart of white wood.  We were all shaken, no one more than Domenic, but when it appeared all would be well,  Jim patted him on the back. “Now you have a story.” A beautiful way, I thought, to mark such a moment in a young life.

I marked it later in my own way.  When we got to camp, I dug out my little sewing kit, and sewed the chinstrap back onto his hat. Finding a bit of red thread, I embroidered a tiny red star inside the brim, just at the spot of his injury.

By day’s end a smiling Domenic had come up with his take: “I was in a swordfight with a horse, and I lost.” Which, of course, he didn’t.


Publication News: While not publication as such, I supplied some narration for “Reel Herstory: The Real Story of Reel Women” a documentary on the remarkable history of female filmmakers, hosted by Jodie Foster. It’s a pleasure to see writer/filmmaker Ally Acker get well-deserved recognition on  FilmDoo, an international blog dedicated to indie and international film discovery. Look for it this fall at a film festival near you!




story tarpThe Tarp, photo and all text © IreneO’Garden, 2014

To listen to this post, please click here:Caught and Released

I’ll explain this photo in a moment.

Before we set off on our rafting trip, my brother Jim gave me my first fly fishing lesson–in a parking lot, so as to narrow my focus.  A high point of the whole trip was the moment I physically understood the “ten and two” motion he described, whereupon I made two or three good casts. Both of us whooped with classic teacher-pupil joy: I caught it!

Jim said that we’d be fishing from the raft in places where the fish practically come up and shake your hand. But within the first ten minutes aboard, the Flathead River  practiced her own cast, hurling us toward a dead and deadly fallen pine. It hung low over the swirling water, its silver trunk spiked with broken branches. Given our velocity, there was nothing to do but duck as we mashed into it.

I got a honey of a scrape, but we made it through with eyes and limbs intact, only to notice when we finally dislodged ourselves that two of three fly rods had snapped in half.

As it happened, I never did get to fish —weather and other hazards intervened. I had to release the skill I’d caught for only a moment.

But such stories we netted on this trip! (More of them to come.) In the photo above, my sister Robin and nephew Don display a wonderful way to remember them. Don and his daughter Lauren invented The Story Tarp for their own camping trips. They wanted to make one for Jim, so they brought a blank tarp and a set of Sharpies and asked each of us to make a pictograph of an important incident every day. (In the upper left you can see Jim’s drawing of me learning to cast.)

Now I’m off again—this time to Canada for our beloved annual trip to the Shaw Festival where we feast on food, wine, friendship and great theatre–other people’s stories—a fascinating contrast to last week. But not as enduring, perhaps, as the stories etched in the iris of our own eyes, stories shot through fiber and marrow, bristled through fingertips, spreading over us like the massive quilt of stars. Stories swimming through us like fish–amazing to catch, a delight to release.



Safe and SoundSafe and Sound, photo © Robin O’Brien, all text © Irene O’Garden 2014

To listen to this post, please click here: Safe, Sound and Sobered

I’m back from Montana, safe and sound, but sobered both by the grandeur and the risk of the wilderness.

My younger brother Jim and his sons have trekked into the Montana backcountry for thirty years. My sister Robin and I decided to accompany them this year after the February death of our older brother John. The party was all family: three nephews, a grand nephew, grandniece and a nephew’s nephew by marriage. At 62, I was not only the eldest, but the least-experienced in the ways of the wilds.

Our trip was described as a day-long horseback ride into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, followed by a 5-day float on the South Fork of The Flathead River. I brought watercolors.

But Montanans speak a different language. The “float” was actually a rafting trip over Class 2 and 3 rapids, around spikey fallen trees, jutting logs, with portages over slippery rock “gardens.” The eleven-hour horseback ride was a piece of cake in comparison.

Many clichés sprung alive on this journey—“Between a rock and a hard place” is but one. Getting thrust off the raft was nothing compared to the panic of seeing loved ones topple into the swift chilly current. We all survived none the worse for wear, though my adrenals are exhausted.

I’ll eventually write more about this trip—either here or elsewhere. It was both the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and one of the most sublime. Experiencing the splendor of the most remote location in the Lower 48 was an exhilarating privilege, matched only by the beauty of human beings behaving at their best.

Had I known what lay ahead,  I never would have gone. But I’ll be forever grateful I did.




RootDanceRootDance, photo & all text © Irene O’Garden 2014

 To listen to this post, please click here:Root Truth

Look closely. You can actually see my guilt woven into this nest of roots. It’s been so long since I last repotted my houseplants that a botanical welfare agency was bound to track me down, charge me with neglect and cart them all away.  I did consider giving them to someone more attentive, yet see how this orange clivia offered a blossom of patience and forgiveness, even as she sat atop this perfect root replica of her pot.

So with relief and pleasure, I set to it yesterday.

One gift of physical labor is the embodiment of metaphor. My thoughts from this pot were obvious—dwell on your roots too long, you run in circles and take up all your growing space.

But as I worked with various roots— hairy, lumpy, milky, airy—truth came up my hands.

We associate roots with the stagnant past, but they constantly seek the new—new water, new nourishment, new exchanges.  They are the probing present, which sustains the past. And the future as well.

Every July we think about our family and our nation’s roots. It’s good to remember they need repotting occasionally as well. After all, root is a verb.

Publication News:

Am very proud to say that some of my wedding signs are included in the Style Section of the NY Times this week!




Heavenly MarmaladeHeavenly Marmalade, photo and all text © Irene O’Garden 2014

To listen to this post, please click here: Fleet Perfection

At today’s end, I will have completed my calligraphic marathon.  Signpainting yielded to lettering on muslin for our annual Poetry Trail.  Visitors will arrive later to film a promo in my studio—more about this another time.

The following little experience happened during the intensity. I wrote it on the spot and mailed it to my sister Robin the next day. May you notice such a moment of perfection and drop a line to one who made it possible, thereby creating another moment of perfection.

11:08 pm. So,  I am finished with a stimulating, exhausting day in the studio, big deadline, good work accomplished, much learned, much to forgive and absolve in my work, and I can work no more. 

I grabbed a hummus wrap at 5 which fueled 5 hours of work, but now at 10:30 I’m hungry. John’s coming in on the midnight train, so it makes sense to eat. 

Hmm. Leftovers in the fridge don’t appeal. But I have that aged gouda, some crusty bread, some olives. A glass of red wine. A lovely, simple ancient meal. 

But wait! Yes, there’s some left. Enough for a handsome scoop in a little dish—and what perfection it is.

My sister’s wondrous rindy marmalade. Can you taste it with this flaking cheese? Bracing wide nuggets of bittersweet orange, superb with the olives. Food that revives. Oh, yes.

I had the privilege of talking with her on the phone as she made this batch. She said, “I have to go now,” after stirring as we talked. “The marmalade is singing.” 

It is singing still.




Thank youThank You for Coming, lettering, photo & all text © Irene O’Garden, 2014

To listen to this post, please click here:Gleefully Distressing

Enjoyed my immensely challenging project last week, designing and painting 18 signs for the stunning country wedding of our Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney and Randy Florke, his partner of 22 years.

After stylist Phillip Montanez showed me an old Presbyterian Church sign as inspiration, I was off and running: custom-designing letters, arranging layouts,  measuring, measuring, measuring–a process interesting and arduous as play rehearsal: learning the moves so you hit your mark when the time comes.

Getting to paint is like performing at last. How I loved making big letters!  Like cast sizes in the theatre, most lettering and art these days has to be so small.  Who has money and space for big canvases? Who can afford a big cast of actors? A narrow sorrow of our age is such miniaturization of artistic expression.

It was fun seeing words shape under my hands, watching how shading changed them. I never thought I’d be tickled painting a restroom sign, but creation holds constant surprises.  These were like letters from childhood, in more ways than one. 



Clean RestroomsRestrooms, lettering & photo © Irene O’Garden, 2014


Certainly there were frustrations—difficult surfaces, erratic spacing, my own infractions of perception, but flaws and all, I liked these humble, old-fashioned signs. They seemed alive and full of feeling. Yet one thing remained to carry out the vision. I would have to distress them.

It was scary and contrary to take sandpaper and rasp to the first of the sweet shiny letters. But the difference in feeling was remarkable.


Reserved for Family            Reserved for Family, lettering & photo © Irene O’Garden, 2014

Soon I was whacking away at them, knowing every crush and curl made them subtler, gentler voices that seemed to issue from our past. Reminders we need not fear a little distress after all.





Barn Lounge









Beer Truck








My happiest moment came Saturday afternoon, as I went to drop off the last of the signs. Following computer navigation, I was about to turn onto their lane, when I was stopped by an Exit Only sign. Nice, I thought. Fits right in.



Exit OnlyExit Only, lettering and photo © Irene O’Garden, 2014



Only then did it strike me that I had made it.

Here’s hoping you’ll take on a project you’re not sure you can do, and end up gleefully surprising yourself!


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