Mail Art

What is it?

So much of the time, we feel helpless in the face of what is so big…like a declaration of war or climate change or personal events in our lives. We can feel dwarfed and ineffectual.

Lately, I am asking myself a few questions:

  1. What’s going on? i.e. What’s the problem? or What’s bothering me?
  2. Is there anything that I can do about it?

An elderly friend was given notice to vacate the rental that he has occupied for over twenty-five years. He started putting the word out to his friends, acquaintances and clients. In this small community, there aren’t that many housing options for seniors. The two senior housing apartments have two-year waiting lists. He had a friend post for him on Craigslist. He also called me to be on the lookout for a room or apartment for him. As spring approaches, housing becomes even more limited with the arrival of tourists.

So to answer the first question, I could easily see the situation. My friend needed to find housing. I asked myself if there was anything that I could do. There were a few things. He is computer-illiterate. I told him that I would post his rental need on a local hub online. I also inquired at the local Community Center to see if they had any ideas or leads. I reported back to my friend what I found. Whether or not those things bear fruit is irrelevant. I could be satisfied that I did something to help a friend in need.

On a larger scale, we are faced with being witnesses to war (probably throughout human history). For me, this brings up a lot of feelings–everything from sadness, to anger, to frustration, to feeling inadequate in the face of it all. Then, I try to sit quietly with it, allowing the feelings to be fully felt. And I do what is called Focusing as drafted by Eugene Gendlin, Ph.D. in the 1950’s. I try to find a word or a few words that distill what I’m really feeling. I try to deeply describe it and go beneath the layers of my initial reactions. When I feel somewhat satisfied with what the word or words are, then I sit with them quietly.

Checking in with myself in this way, I ask if there is anything that I can do to lift myself up and feel like I have something to contribute.

That’s when I remembered Mail Art, also called Correspondence Art. Mail Art is flooding the post office with handmade or painted art in the shape and size of a postcard. The origins of mail art can be traced “back to the Dadaists and Italian Futurists in the early twentieth century. However, the New York artist, Ray Johnson, is considered to be the founder of contemporary mail art. In the 1950s, he began sending out small-scale collages he called “moticos,” some of which included simple instructions for the recipient.” (Wikipedia)

My most recent mail art below was intended to bear witness to the war in the Ukraine. As this little postcard travels to its destination through the system, others who handle it see it along the way.

photo of woman and sunflower

There was one other time when I did this. It was following “911.” When that feeling of helplessness swamped me, I bought several postcards, wrote little poems on them and sent them anonymously to family and friends. This act/action helped me and I hoped that the the recipients felt comforted like receiving the benefits of a prayer.

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I’m curious to hear how you respond to challenging things in our world. Do you have a go-to resource to guide your process in instances where you feel helpless?

Pablo Neruda–Is He Ageless?

Discovering Pablo Neruda in every new generation is an adventure in interpretation and application. Sometimes wise words seem specific to a time and place, dated. Then, other times, they seem to be so present that we think they were written for us just yesterday–addressing our current circumstances. We might think that the specific quote or poem must belong to us–our generation, our culture, our humanity as we are today–it is so right on.

I’ve noticed that the most read-across-the-globe of all of my many blogs, the ones featuring anything that mentions Pablo Neruda get the most hits. Why is that I wonder? Is it because he was a man in exile from his native country and others can relate to him? Is it that they too know what it is to love one’s country and to be banished from it? Is it that his words strike a chord of truth and depth that humans share in common. (Poetry can do that.) Is it the emotional impact that is innate to poetry that twangs that emotion within us?

This little poem written by Pablo in his Book of Questions…what feeling does it raise in you? For me, when I pause to sit with a poem, reread it several times, that’s when it reveals a deeper meaning to me.

If the butterfly transmogrifies
does it turn into a flying fish?

Then it wasn’t true
that God lived on the moon?

What color is the scent
of the blue weeping of violets?

How many weeks are in a day
and how many years in a month?

from Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions

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We can only wonder what prompted Pablo Neruda to write this poem. We can take any one of Pablo’s questions and receive them like a Buddhist koan (a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment…Wikipedia).

What is your interpretation of these, Pablo’s questions, within this poem? What was his intent as the poet? Is he pondering the inadequacy of logical reasoning in this human existence? Is he tongue-in-cheek, teasing the reader to think outside the box of logic? Is he tickling the mind to go beyond what we perceive as the truth of anything?

And then, why not? Why doesn’t a butterfly become a flying fish? Anything is possible in the realm of imagination. Where can you go if you expand your thinking and become more inclusive of that which seems preposterous? Then, where can you go if you expand your mind to be inclusive of another culture, race or creed, another perspective, a greater universe?

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I’ve had days, like yesterday, that felt like a year in a day. My daughter and her husband have been fighting covid. A family member had a stroke and ended up in ICU. My Aunt Marie, my mother’s youngest and last living sister, died. And I found out about it on Facebook!

How can we translate the nonsensicalness and inconveniences of life into something that makes it less personal and more palatable…or at least not suffer so much over what is inevitable?

Pablo, for every question you ask, I have at least fifty more to toss at your feet…wherever you have landed. Have you, Pablo, turned into a mushroom or are you a planet that we haven’t discovered yet out there in the vast and unknown universe?

Paying Attention

How come we elect leaders who don’t know how to effectively lead? How come we don’t elect leaders who embody the higher values of humanity? Why do these men (as they are mostly men making these big decisions for the whole planet) have the idea that to over-power is real power? Where did the notion that conquest equals power originate? What has lead them to believe that war, a show of physical bravado and military invasion, somehow lends them an air of superiority? As they force the submission of others with less defenses, they assume that they gain respect.

Why we vote for leaders who don’t value human life, planetary health and who disrespect the rights of all is beyond my way of thinking.

I wrote this poem on September 7, 2020 when the world was facing into the unknown of the Covid virus. So much has happened since then. Sometimes, poetry is a way to manage the confusion and emotions that we experience.

Paying Attention
by Christine O’Brien

One daughter thinks that the world
might be coming to an end
The other daughter focuses on
getting her daughter to her 8th grade Zoom classes
I paint a painting of a clouded leopard
indigenous to Southeast Asia
He was believed to be extinct
not yet, not quite, but they’re rapidly
taking away his hardwood forests
Before that, I painted the Spirit Bear
who lives in sector five of the
coastal rainforests on the islands of
British Columbia
His forests were designated to be decimated
by lumber companies
It was proven that this bear is a unique species
neither albino nor mutation
For now the forests are saved
What havoc humans have wrought
who can forgive this?
How are we communicating with one another,
as human beings?
When one says one thing
and the other hears something else
what hope is there?
And then, there’s the debate about wearing a mask
Meeting friends, one wears a mask that slips
below her nose frequently
the other doesn’t wear a mask at all
I wear a mask, pulling it away from my face
occasionally
so my words aren’t muffled
What are we doing?
In 1918, there was no vaccine research
People either died of the virus then or
they developed an immunity
The man who came to sand and stain the deck
has a crush on who he thinks I am
He says that he doesn’t want another woman friend
he wants a girlfriend and his blue eyes pierce my own
Slow down, way down
The lizard I photographed
the one that posed on the boulder beside the lake
I read that their pushups are meant to show
prowess
or to claim territory
the little studs
Native Americans perspective is that life goes
in circles
not linear
I like to think as my sister-in-law suggested
that we are in the continuum
Forget numbering your years
Be in it, this life, this continuum, this unknown
risky place

A Day of Flow

A day of flow
© by Christine O’Brien

Her face
finely chiseled ivory
a porcelain rose stashed
above her right ear
hair woven into braids and curls
piled high
tattoos traced her arms
and any bare skin
her clothes were a draped rainbow
soft and flowing
her expression
lost in another time and place
her fingers pressed the keys of the accordion
while she pumped the bellows
gracefully
the soft
insistent melancholic music
forcing its way into the heart’s land
I placed a dollar in the accordion case
and she barely nodded
as I said
“Beautiful” and
“Thank you” 

I walked into the park
the loud tones of a man’s voice
rose over all other sounds
as he swore
and beat on another man
curled fetally on the ground
his arms and hands
sheltering his head
as a circle of young men
gathered
and held back all at once
I hurried two curious young girls
along the path
catching them up
to their mother
who finally said
“They didn’t need to see that”

I found the park bench
in the shade by the duck pond
on this over-heated day
I marked the rentals
out of habit and hope
and then watched
the mother duck
herding her nine ducklings
“Here, no here, no there,
keep up!”
the fluffy-headed
wide-eyed ducklings
“Yes, mother, oh yes mother, oh!”
they do respond to every barked order
survival is a serious business
and this duck pond
for better or for worse
is their home

The old woman–
I heard someone say
“She’s part Cherokee”
she weaves baskets out of pine needles
her old fingers
such fine work
and she’s proud
her daughter says
“She only learned two years ago
She outdid her teacher
it’s in her cells
this knowing how to weave baskets
“Teach a class?”  I ask
she nods “$50.00 a person”
I want to learn
it’s obvious she knows how to live
a fulfilled life
teach me that
please
she touches my arm
like a touch
can impart such knowledge
her eyes show neither humble senility
nor prideful superiority
a quiet wisdom emanates
“Yes, teach me soon.”
while her daughter, Leona
files her own fingernails
as we wait
in the hair salon

The pianist
in the ice cream parlor
trying to sell me
his latest cd
and I tell him
“I really just came in
for an ice cream.”
I buy a cd
finally
for two thirds of the price,”
he emphasizes
a good salesman

This day
which held all a day could hold
all that life could hold
beauty
violence
connection
creativity–
beauty prevailed

Ecofeminism

Ecofeminism is viewed as a philosophical and political movement. It is the wedding of environmentalism and feminism. It is considered a branch of feminism that recognizes the intimate relationship between women and the earth as foundational to its analysis and practice. “Ecofeminist thinkers draw on the concept of gender to analyze the relationships between humans and the natural world.” Wikipedia

I am infatuated. I have been for most of my life but I didn’t realize it had a name. I have been intrigued by the relationship between women and nature. I have lived into it. I have written poetry and essays about it. I have desired and designed it. And, sadly, I have seen how this relationship, its components and unity, continues to be disregarded and maligned.

My mind cannot comprehend the separation of the human race from their environment. Friends explain it to me as “greed.” Ah, that’s what it is. And the lack of foresight in regards to if we continue to do, as we are doing, there is an end in sight. We are creating an uninhabitable planet for many species, including humans, of this place in the universe that we call our home.

We witness the extinction of companion species. “More recently, scientists at the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity concluded that: “Every day, up to 150 species are lost.” That could be as much as 10 percent a decade.”

What? Really? Wow! That seems ridiculous. I guess that someone is out there cataloguing this. And it’s upsetting…why do humans think that they are untouchable. That they are an exception, or somehow exempt? Are we too protected and coddled by our society, living our lives vicariously through media entertainment? I don’t want me, my family or friends (or anyone really) to live in anxiety…but…don’t we need to face into the truth and make some changes, yesterday?

Ecofeminism, reweaving the human race into the world, on this planet, with all of the other life forms has become an imperative. As John Muir said “Nature includes us.” There is wisdom in realizing this.

She was made to give
© by Christine O’Brien

The earth she says
I was made to give
take from my abundant larder.

and they took and returned to her
in intimate ways
and each was happy.

The earth she says
I was made to give
take from my abundant larder.

and they plowed and sowed her
to feed the many
who had set up villages
and put down roots
and they took and returned to her
in amenable ways
and each was content.

The earth she says
I was made to give
take from my abundant larder.

and they came with their heavy equipment
and modern ways
scavenged in her very bowels
polluted her waters
bound her up in asphalt and concrete
rumbled heavy machinery over her bare breast
constructed factories and buildings
increased their numbers
to populate these structures.

They said “We will make her subject to us.”
They worked the many to support the few
–a masked feudal system.
And they took
and they took
and they took from her
and it was never enough.
It was her nature to give
and though she felt dishonored
she complied.

The earth she says
I was made to give.
take from my…
however her larder was less abundant
and she felt a certain exhaustion.
To continue giving
to those who showed no appreciation
nor reciprocity
seemed a betrayal.

How much longer could she sustain them,
sustain herself?
Where she had once given
from her abundance,
now she was giving
from her personal storehouse.

“Ah, I am tired,” she said.
“I’ll shake these ungratefuls
from my empty breast.
I’ve nothing left to give.”

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I hope and pray that this is not the story of humankind.
What are you and I going to do? What does your activism look like?

A Woman’s Voice–

This is one of her super powers! That is, when she knows how and dares to use it. Most of my life, I haven’t used my voice effectively.

We are known by our words and actions.
When we don’t speak our truth in the moment,
it can be assumed that we agree or acquiesce.
We are witnesses to our own responses in any given situation.
We betray ourselves (often unknowingly) by not speaking up on our own behalf.
It can be scary to state an opinion or belief that is contrary to someone else.
Especially if we’ve imbued that someone else with some type of authority.

christine o’brien

Yet, you are the best authority of yourself.

I have experienced the vibrato of my voice through poetry.
The hollow of my words
when I would push the feelings aside
minimized or unacknowledged.

I have felt, in my chest,
the familiar caving in
when I was called upon
to stand in and up
for myself
and didn’t.

I have known the retreats
too well
and the inner subversion
because to speak felt dangerous,
was dangerous.

I have felt the outrage–
at odd times,
seemingly out of context–
when something old
surfaced
from a time
when I did not
or could not
act (or speak) on my own behalf.
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Poetry has been an avenue for the voice that was mute.
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Yesterday, sitting on the back deck sharing Earl Grey Iced Tea and Pineapple Meringue Pie, a woman friend and I discussed, among other things, how we notice that too often, men don’t listen to us when we are conducting our business transactions in the world. Now, we are women of a certain age where men no longer perceive us as objects of desire. We won’t be easily teased or flirted with.

We both gave recent examples of how we’ve noted this. She is doing some remodeling in her house. She is the sole owner, the one spending the money and has designed the remodel plans. There are things she doesn’t have expertise in so she bows to the experience of the contractor or tile man or floor man. One carpenter, too old to do the labor himself hired a man off-the-street who was obviously slacking and making a mess of things. She brought this to the head carpenter’s attention (he wasn’t on the job to supervise) and he minimized it. Yet, she was paying for the work to be done in an expert way and without damage to what was already in place.

Where we live, there is a dearth of good and reliable workers. That is, people who know what they are doing and actually show up to do the job for which they’ve been hired. Three years ago, I remodeled an enclosed back porch. I ordered a six-foot wide sliding glass door for the little space. I placed the order and left a hefty deposit. I was told three weeks for this custom-made door. In three weeks, I had the floor man come to replace the old flooring and simultaneously, a sheetrock guy to frame in the door, etc. I find out that the order for the door was never placed! The shop owner then says that the order has to come from my contractor, a man! I was my own contractor on this small job. So I got a contractor, a man, to order the door. I specified a six-foot wide sliding glass door to both the shop owner and the contractor. Three weeks later, all of the necessary people lined up again to complete the project, and I received a five-foot wide, not six-foot, sliding glass door! At that point (this dance had been going on for three months), I accepted the five-foot wide door just to be complete with the project.

In my daily experience, there are other men with whom I feel unseen and unheard. The market of single women over fifty has grown here. It would be lucrative for men who offer building, landscaping, car maintenance and other services to learn how to listen and talk to women. Doctors too!

As a woman, I practice using my voice, my super power more and more.

What about you?


Put the Kettle On

This snowy morning, I rise and one of the first things that I do is to put the kettle on. I had the fleeting thought that people throughout time and in present time likely do the same thing. Whether it’s placed on an electric or gas burner, on a campfire, on a woodstove or whichever, I’m sharing a tradition that people have done ever since the discovery of fire!

“Honey, put the kettle on.” Sometimes that translates to a coffee maker or an electric teapot. However, it signifies a ritual that we share and understand cross-culturally and around the globe. It’s a unifying ritual.

In the morning, this morning, I take my cup of tea and return to bed, placing the teacup on the nightstand beside the bed. I place my notepad on the pillow on my lap. I take a smooth writing gel pen and I write. I write to clear a space. I write freely anything that comes to mind, the pen to the page. Expressing something in this way moves stuck energy. It doesn’t involve a thought process. This and my morning cup of tea are helpful and healthy morning rituals.

Any feelings that rise, I give them recognition as Rumi suggests in one of his poems, The Guest House.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
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This morning, I feel a low-grade anger and wonder if anyone else wakes up with this feeling. I don’t want to analyze it, only recognize that it’s there. Gently. With my pen, I catch the thread of feelings, the inner unrest and pen them to this paper. The paper has become the container over the years for that which puzzles, troubles or tantalizes me. The paper–the scads of journals collected over the years, my personal texts–the sacred texts that chronicle this woman’s inner and outer pilgrimage. There is a certain irony…I want to write a book. These cumbersome and unwieldy journals tell my story. It has been harrowing, wending, winding, convoluted, gone forwards, backwards and sideways, inward, outward and upside down.

My confidantes, these journals when none others can be so present and non-judging. Gratitude for writing, for the journal and for today.
So, that is sometimes the way I begin my day. I do love beginnings.

I wished the mailman a Happy New Year yesterday.
He said “We’ll see.”
I said “I guess that we will.”
He answered: “Let’s see what unfolds.”
I agreed…”and then flow with it.”

So happy new year to my readers. May your new year unfold in a loving way. May you find the rituals that support your being. And may we discover more unifying rituals across the earth.

Those Difficult Topics

Poets, writers, thinkers, philosophers, you and I, if we keep a journal or a log, we sometimes document not only our personal journey, but significant events in human history. We note how we are affected by them. We note how the world is affected by them. We bring light to things that many people have trouble discussing. For when do you talk about such occurrences? At the dinner table when everyone is trying to enjoy a meal? In an evening conversation before bed? At the club where you work out? At lunchbreak? There are things that we continually sweep under the rug. There are difficult topics about which we might have an opinion, but don’t have a clue as to what to do.

This piece was written in 2011 following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

1) At my age,
I do not want to
keep house
for a man
to see to his care and feeding
I’ve completed the season of breeding
done with the years of childrearing
It seems that the men on match.com
have the same old requirements
of a woman…

and she is no longer me!

2) The violence of birth
an entry point
we are all players here
what capsule did I take
that made me forget
my origin?
Are these words a tunnel
I follow towards that illusive speck of light?
When I reach the end, I might…
dissolve in a fizz or spark.
Some say a star is flung into the night
“Find your place in the order of things”
says one of the true gods
or is chaos our real plight
and are we destined to try to carve
sense out of nonsense?
or not?
Can I then practice being myself
stop seeking truth long enough to see it
dazzling everywhere?
Can I be satisfied with this?

3) Cleaning the cat’s litter box,
I wonder if nuclear fallout
understands that it must hug
the shores of Japan?!?
I might think I live in a bubble
but then how do I explain this stray germ
that’s taken over my sinuses?
What’s so important today
that I must speak it?
Sometimes words are inadequate
constructed of mere letters
then grouped into sentences,
thoughts, extracted from…air?
The mind is always grasping
for something else
to grapple with.
What does this little woman
with the sinus cold
have to say
that hasn’t been said
a million times over?
As the jet streaks the sky
with a contrail tail
the memory of kids
screaming skyward
shouting with all their might
“don’t crash.”
Did they foresee then
this fragile ecosystem?
A man hiking in the mountains
above Chernobyl
commented on how
“pure” the air
looked from up there
after the explosion.
Mountain climbers breathe deeply
what invisible warfare was  he
unwittingly subjected to?
Are we subjected to?

Something Else–Where does your mind go?

Reviewing an earlier journal can provide the inspiration to
get you writing…

I’ll tell you this…

1)A body likes comfort
lingering in bed this morning
it’s time to put on the flannel sheets
These shores of comfort’s complacency
the call to action
the planet’s doom
Where is my friend
for the end of the world?

2)Errand completed
I drove to a favorite Thai restaurant
Only two other women are sharing lunch
so I get immediate service.
This sinus condition
spicy Thai food is often the cure.
I sip my medium hot red curry
as the restaurant suddenly bulges
with the late lunch crowd.
Two older men
looking somewhat beaten by life,
sit at the table in front of me.
Urgh.  It’s not the view I want
while eating lunch.
I avert my eyes
though they inadvertently rivet
to…
I rearrange the water carafe, teapot
and a bottle of soy sauce,
strategic guardians,
to occlude this less than desirable view
of pants that sit well-below a man’s hefty waist
exposing the infamous butt crack.
I’d change my seat however the
restaurant is suddenly full–
a migration of citizens
hungry for Thai food.
I frown and raise the book I  brought to read —
Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest, and try to read
about the ideology of isms…
how an ism creates a movement
with its own set of dogma
and gathers followers like a dog attracts fleas
and then, believing it is the ultimate truth,
how it proceeds to force
its belief system onto others.
And those who are prone to manipulation
who fear thinking for themselves
get on the tram
and point fingers at the others
who are left behind on the ground
isolated in their own set of beliefs.

3) is activism only
another ism
but if we don’t act
how does the planet
know I care?
and has it conjured up you
and me to be its advocates
called us forth
to “dance our clumsy dance”
fracturing the siren’s song
of looking the other way
when there are cries for help
everywhere?

Plan and be Flexible

In the past few years, many of us have hesitated to make plans. If we did, frequently something came up to alter our course. Flexibility is fast becoming a new practice. If we can’t gather as planned, then hmmm, what can we or I do instead? I’ve heard the phrase in the foreseeable future, and even that doesn’t come with a guarantee. These days, when someone asks me what a typical winter in the mountains is like, I say that it no longer has relevance as to what the weather is going to be like this winter. Things have changed, are changing, and I’m learning how to be flexible in the face of this.

When I’m asked what I’m going to do for the holiday, I hear myself answering “I don’t know.” I had a plan for Thanksgiving and then, it changed. Then I settled on another plan and at the last minute, I changed my mind about attending as I wasn’t feeling good.

We do plan things…but then, how are we when things don’t go according to plan? There are many possible responses. I was disappointed when my first Thanksgiving plan didn’t work out. I scrambled around searching for another gathering to attend. I found one, but then, I reneged at the last moment. The hostess was insistent that I take care of myself and didn’t make me feel bad for not participating. I did bring over a loaf of home-baked saffron bread and apple crumble as promised. The day after the gathering, she brought me a generous serving of the turkey dinner.

It is helpful to be able to adapt to change, to be flexible. We’ve all heard that change is the only thing that is constant…but the phrase doesn’t complete itself. It could be therefore it is wise to learn how to be flexible.

In the ancient philosophy, The Tao, there is a discussion of flexibility. This philosophy considers that everything is relative. There is the belief that any choice we make is dependent upon the circumstances in the moment and not on preconceived notions or plans. Digging in my heels and feeling upset about a change of plan makes me unhappy. Applying the principle of flexibility, calls on a creative solution in the face of a change of circumstances.

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Here’s a fun poem that I wrote about how to be with some of life’s choices when I wasn’t sure in which direction to go. I titled it The Obvious Next Thing.

Naked, I sit on a hot rock beside the calm lake,
drying my toes.
The brilliant chartreuse elephant leaves crowd around
like curious spectators.
I need additional reinforcements
a growing awareness of my own expertise.
The sincere blue of the sky
contrasts my cloudy thoughts.
In myself, what must I nourish?
A concerned moon is rising over the water.
“Go left, go right, go to Peru, find true love”–
if only it was that easy, if each day I could be
presented with specific directives–
“Eat a salmon-colored mango,
paint leaves the colors of gumdrops,
eat them, their crunchy Autumn texture.”
“Don’t be a little old lady
wearing a particularly strong perfume,
not yet!”

I find a pot of tea is a solution
to most problems.
I put on my socks,
wrap a towel around my nakedness
and stumble home to the beckoning pot
the obvious next thing.

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