My Word

with Lisa Tracy

Travails of decluttering and simplifying…

My very talented former colleague Susan Caba has now sold her house and moved, but you’ll want to read her thoughts on a process that mystifies and thwarts us all: The travails of decluttering …

Resale Evangelista

Packing churns up paper piles

Resale Evangelista

I wish I could say the photos above and below are the “befores” of a make-over. Unfortunately, they are the “afters” of my efforts to de-clutter.

Well, to be fair, they are photos of the “in-the-midst-of” stage of the process of de-cluttering, getting rid of stuff, simplifying and preparing the house for sale. You just wouldn’t believe what comes out from the closets, the cupboards and under the bed!

I keep thinking of that old adage, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” I also keep thinking of the Collyer brothers, Homer and Langley. They are legends in the pantheon of reclusive hoarders, due to their grisly deaths by debris.

Homer–blind and paralyzed, with matted grey hair to his shoulders, and dependent on his brother for everything–died in late March of 1947 while waiting for Langley to bring dinner. Langley perished crawling through  one of the booby-trapped…

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Pete Seeger: Giants in the Earth

Pete Seeger, as Arlo Guthrie says, may be gone, but he’s not dead.


TruthDig, on the morning he died, posted this: “You outlived the bastards.” He did outlive a great many of them, but not all. Now it’s up to us to carry on.

News comes from Chattanooga that a union vote failed at a Volkswagen plant.  We can parse this a lot of different ways. In  states where “right to work” is the order of the day, people aren’t used to unions and don’t completely trust them — even though those of us who’ve been well served by the union model may see “right to work” as a cynical bit of false and misleading advertising — a label that would do Orwell’s Ministry of Truth proud.

We can say that the workers in Chattanooga were afraid they’d be ratted out. Or we can surmise that Volkswagen did a great job of friendly persuasion — promising to establish a “work council” where theoretically workers will have a voice.

Right after the Chattanooga vote, the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce posted this:  “Our state’s right-to-work status is a key driver of a competitive business climate. In order to be as competitive as possible in the site selection process and to enhance the economic prospects of all North Carolinians, we must protect our right-to-work statute.”

I’m just back from a trip with a friend through the Carolinas and Georgia.  I couldn’t count the number of barely ambulatory little towns we passed through in the space of a week. I know there are good ones out there too. For every Denmark, there’s a Salisbury. For every Orangeburg, there’s a Durham. But oh, my friends, and oh, my foes, the poverty in this country and the scars it leaves on the face of rural America are practically incomprehensible.

In the little towns that once were centers of commerce  for the surrounding farmlands, old storefronts with beautiful Victorian or early 20th century facades stand empty. At best, there’s a For Rent sign. At worst, they are broken and boarded up. The rivers that once brought them commerce ceded to the railroads, which yielded to the highways, which in turn were overtaken by the interstates.

In one county seat, the old courthouse is now a thrift store. In many, the local high school is abandoned. We stop at a filling station in yet another little ghost town and ask a guy who’s gassing up if there’s a diner anywhere nearby. He looks perplexed. “You mean some place to eat?” he asks, almost incredulously.

If Seeger showed up today with his banjo in Chattanooga or in North Carolina, would it make a difference? Would he be heard, or would the men we saw in the middle of the day buying lottery tickets at the Valero gas station just turn their backs and keep on putting their money where their last best hope seems to be — in a legal numbers game sold through local convenience stores?

Perhaps there is hope in the VW initiative.  Perhaps that is the new way, perhaps a corporation that once positioned itself simply as “the people’s car” can take the lessons of the past — where Seeger’s voice spoke powerfully for working men and women — and create a (as they say) meaningful dialogue.  Is that too much to hope for? Time will tell.

It is up to us to keep watching. It is up to us to carry it on.

Pete Seeger ~ Ramble On!

Pete Seeger ~ Ramble On!

Dancing, and more, at Lughnasa

Summer is over. I know you may want to dispute that. Not over! It’s only the start of August, that august month named – we’re told – for Rome’s first full-fledged emperor.
A month of high sun, to be sure, fit to set an emperor’s crown of golden leaves a-blazing. And, you may note, more than a month’s time left until the September equinox.
Ah, yes. But Aug. 1 also marks the start of the feast of Lughnasa and the exact midpoint between the longest day — the summer solstice and the sun’s true apogee, in our temperate skies at least – and that equinox, day of equal light and dark, whence we may linger or hasten, but are inevitably drawn onward to winter.
Lughnasa, then, is that midpoint between summer’s start and autumn’s onset, and as such it marks a point of no return.
And so I say, summer’s over. That perception, though, preceded my discovery of Lughnasa. It grew over decades of hurrying out to the river, to that place where the summer sun bakes the rocks and we plunge giddily into the frothing rapids – hurrying out to Goshen Pass, on those languid August afternoons, only to discover: Something has changed. Summer’s heat is no longer so intense. The rocks aren’t as hot, our leap into the water not so impetuous. Sometimes, arriving at the water’s side, we find a dankness in the stones, overshadowed by a long summer’s growth.

We slide into the water and frolic a bit, of course. Sometimes we even claim an underwater rock to lie on, adjust our hats for better protection, and idle away a still-warm afternoon.
But it’s not the same. The sun’s rays lie longer, its heat less intense. Its light fades faster, till by four o’clock it feels almost as if we should be ambling on to tea and sandwiches in garden dresses somewhere near a bed of lavender.
Not the same at all. If you’ve frequented the rapids of which I speak, you know just what I mean.
The ancients in their wisdom followed the sun’s passage closely. Besides the solstices and equinoxes, they had midpoint or “cross-quarter” markers. And they remain, but Halloween (the Celtic Samhain) is the only one we really still observe. We may be aware of Beltane (or Beltain, Beltaine) as May Day – and for some, the synchronicity of Walpurgisnacht around that date remains – but we’ve pretty much lost sight of Imbolc (around Feb. 1 – Groundhog’s Day, anyone?) and Lughnasa, which falls during the month of August.
When in August depends on which calendar you’re using, so like Christmas and Twelfth Night, you can celebrate with some “dancing at Lughnasa” on Aug. 1 or Aug. 12 – or anytime or all times in between! Now there’s a way to chase the August doldrums.
What the Celtic holiday observed was the “first fruits” of harvest – the “loaf mass” in later parlance – and for the Celts, I discovered with some Googling, it actually DID betoken the end of summer.
Of course, the canny early Christians put All Saints’ and All Souls’ days atop Halloween, and St. Brigid’s Day or Candlemas on Feb. 1. Beltane or May Day (a phallic celebration of spring if ever there was one) became a feast of the Virgin Mary, and Lughnasa became Lammas, sometimes converted into a Lady’s Mass for St. Mary. For good measure, a more obscure feast honoring St. Peter was also attached to Aug. 1.
For more on Lugh, a many-faceted god, and a lot more on the Celtic spirit in general, see
And so, sometime between now and Aug. 12, Lughnasa. Perhaps we’ll celebrate by downloading “Dancing at Lughnasa,” with its poignant salute to the remnants of an old, old culture.
Meanwhile, summer may be over. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still play hooky on one dog day in September, because you know those days are coming too, sure as you can say “equinox.”
Meet you at the rapids.

American Zombies

Trailers. Single-wides, double-wides. Boarded-up houses and stove-in cabins.

The ghosts of the American dream line the rural roads of the Carolinas. They keep company with vast fields of soybeans, cotton and tobacco that are labeled on the map as wetlands but in reality have been drained by corporate agribusiness of the life they once knew. Fields so big that they can only be plowed by mammoth tractors dragging tillers the width of a three-lane highway are still edged sparsely in places by the remains of once-flourishing cypress swamps that were home to turkeys and foxes, owls and water moccasins, turtles and salamanders.

Foxes. On a daylong journey down the backroads here we pass the gate to the Foxtale Hunting Preserve with its tell-tale electric fence running along the woods that edge the road. In case you wondered, an advertisement on the Web mentions prizes for top dogs  and that the dogs are released at 3 or 4 a.m. It says you can rent the place and that there are about 100 foxes on “this nearly 100 acre parcel of land that has been set aside for conservation purposes.”

Pausing to turn around and retrace our path – we’re on a trip to gauge the navigability by sailboat of the Roanoke River – we inadvertently flush a wild turkey on a grassy lane leading back into the woods. She’s brown, with glistening copper hues in her feathery coat, and she maybe knows it’s spring hunting season. Rattled by our sudden appearance, she can’t decide whether to run or hide. She zigzags awkwardly as we turn away and head back across the river. Good luck, girl.

I am everywhere reminded of human incursion into the natural world – the two cheerful turkey hunters we pass, driving their ATV up the dirt road that was supposed to go through a wetlands, but ends up at a corporate “No Trespassing” sign and gated fields; the endless fields themselves; the gently acrid stench of the paper mill that fed the city of Roanoke Rapids for generations, a stench so much less offensive since mitigation forced the mill to route its effluence through giant ponds installed on the far side of the river.

But I am truthfully most haunted by the human losses: the once-handsome, now abandoned Victorian clapboard houses, the roofless cabins and vine-choked wrecks of silos, the broken towns with their blocks of empty storefronts and their broken hopes. Somewhere between Halifax and Hamilton, a stretch of two humble but once habitable houses, an abandoned shop and the remains of a country store-cum-gas station, swallowed in dense undergrowth on a little sandy elbow of a road that was once a vital part of the two-lane country highway we are traversing.

In scattered spots, hope still endures. The gritty weathered country store somewhere along Route 158 with its blessedly functional gas pumps, its aisles of fishing lures, hunting gear, hard candy, snacks and soda. The powerfully imagined Roanoke Canal Museum just up the street from the paper mill  —  a museum that tells the story of shad fishermen and rockfish, of the endurance of the African slaves who cut by hand the three-ton stones for the locks, and of a later age when fabric workers followed a woman at the Rosemary Mill out on strike, a woman who’d become known to us as Norma Rae. At Halifax, another plucky museum eagerly greets the stray visitor, narrating the city’s American Revolutionary history and then directing you to the pathway of another, clandestine revolution: The history of the area’s part in the Underground Railroad, where African Americans defied their slave masters, aided by Halifax sympathizers on one side of the river and a settlement of Quakers on the other – and by the ubiquitous cypress wetlands where a man, a woman, even a family might fade into the shadows, their path covered by the swamps’ dark waters.

In Roanoke Rapids too there’s David, whose restaurant survives and even thrives despite a bad economy, supported in part by the catering business that takes him as far afield as Richmond and even Virginia Beach. It’s mostly word of mouth, he says, stopping at our table to give us bits of history and directions to the local sights. But he also feeds musicians and their crews when the big names stop at the city’s 1,500-seat Royal Palace Theatre.

And he’s helped found a local merchants’ association that has sought Main Street designation for his city – arguing, First the businesses moved out to the highway … Then out by the interstate … “Where are you going to stop,” he asks rhetorically, “Rocky Mount?” – referring to the next  city down I-95.

It’s a good question. And it takes me back to mine: Where are we – and it – going to stop, with this gutting of America? In Roanoke Rapids, “Norma Rae” is not remembered all that fondly. The union she brought is seen as the dagger that eviscerated local industry and the life of these cities.

I think we know better. The ghost of the American Dream lingers. The corporate zombies that devoured the dream have moved on.

March 1, 2013: Sequestration, no Pope, et al.

March 1, 2013: Sequestration, no Pope, et al.

Sequestration is looming. And there is no Pope.

There … is … no … Pope. Heard those words on NPR as I was driving to my sister’s. Said to her, Whaddya reckon is going on up there in the stars?

Well, Jupiter – planet of fortune – is in fickle Gemini, and dark underworld non-planet Pluto opposes America’s natal Sun. There’s lots more to be found on website Stars Over Washington, but all this is really just a playful way into dark ruminations about where we are going.

It doesn’t take an astrologer to see that a Congress bent on cuts primarily to domestic programs is an elected body that inexplicably does not care about its constituency.

So I wonder now, what will it take to change our path? Where are the leaders who will storm the barricades? Is it ironic that in a nation where a film called “Les Miserables,” based on the eponymous novel, was just up for Academy Awards,  people are imprisoned in increasing numbers for increasingly less reason – Jean Valjean, anyone? – and where the doors through which the huddled masses once found their way into the middle class are now shut?

I’ve always been an optimist. And my life has been very easy by global standards. But I’ll tell you what I am thinking today:  Prisons are a big money maker, a business that can’t fail or be outsourced as long as there are human beings to be arrested, and maybe to find their way through the criminal justice system and maybe not, depending on their income and connections.

And:  Yes, there will be cuts in federal spending, maybe across the boards and maybe not.  Education – one door to the middle class – and government support for people in need will be two prime targets. The postal service and public transportation will be two more. The EPA, clean air funding, national parks, alternative energy research – on the block.

Just in case you thought the Pentagon was plush, well, it probably is, comparatively. But out in the field,  a young soldier with whom I am acquainted tells us there are no spare parts. Anything that can still move or shoot, and a lot of stuff that can’t, is being hauled off our bases in Afghanistan and sent back – at peril of life and limb for its escorts – down mined roads and through our hostile former ally Pakistan.  There is no time, money, equipment or other resource to train the Afghans who once believed in us and are still trying to make headway in their beautiful, corrupt, impoverished country. I feel sorry for them.

One industry, what’s left of it, that will probably get whatever Congressional protection is available is arms.  The U.S. is by far the world’s largest arms trader, accounting for more than 30 percent of the global weapons business.  So what’s our incentive to curb the “small wars”  riddling the planet?

Oh, and about the Pope: Word is that the cardinals will be seeking above all a man (one presumes) who is free of any documentable scandal. That should be an interesting process.

Whennn … the Moon is in the seventh house,  And Jupiter aligns with Mars …


Everything moves so fast
These days
Sometimes I wonder
How long I’ll be able to
Do it all

Step on the clutch
Shift into reverse and
That I still remember
How to back up
A skill I never really
It’s all a matter of faith
I see
We can shift gears
Back up
Play Old Joe Clark on fiddle and bass
Dial home
Drive at all, even
Because we think we can
We just assume:

I stop
At a crossroads
To let the small
Confident flurry
Of after-school moms
Pass by
They’re young yet
They don’t realize
At all
Given enough time
We all will
Lose our minds.

Van Morrison, time past

The first time I heard Van Morrison was in David’s apartment on West 12th Street.

He was the fashion editor for a well-known men’s magazine and George’s lover. George and I were in an off-Broadway play about then. We thought we were the epitome of cool. It was less than a year after the Stonewall riots. Kent State was still ahead of us. And Van Morrison’s Moondance album was playing in David’s elegant West Village living room when I first heard the words “And it stoned me to my soul/ Stoned me just like jelly roll …”

I heard them again just now, on a CD in the Virginia mountains, but with a different ear: “Half a mile from the county fair, and the rain keep pouring down…”

In the forty-some years since the West Village, I’d started listening to Van Morrison’s words. A tape that a pressman at the Philadelphia Inquirer gave me sometime in the ‘90s had a haunting song called “Coney Island,” with its refrain, “and the crack was good.”

It was a while before I learned that the Van man wasn’t bragging about an illegal habit. “Crack” or “craic” is Irish and British slang for conversation, the kind you’d have with a really good friend while rambling hillsides overlooking the sea.

And that was also when I started to hear the strains of home in Van Morrison’s lyrics. His home, Northern Ireland. He wasn’t just a self-created great jazz and soul singer on American radio, with “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Tupelo Honey.” He was a man who deeply remembered places in Belfast and all that the Troubles brought, and who sang of rambling the small coastal towns of County Down, wolfing down mussels and potted herring before going home to the streets of Belfast.

And so “And It Stoned Me”:

Half a mile from the county fair/ And the rain keep pouring down
Me and Billy standin there/ With a silver half a crown …
… Hope it don’t rain all day.

Yeah. Two kids on the way to the fair with a fortune (about 25 cents, actually, but that was then) in their hands, and it’s raining, like it always does. But the sun comes out, and they fish and swim, hitch a ride, drink some brew.

About that time I saw The Commitments, about a hapless Dublin garage band in the making, and I thought of Van Morrison, and wondered … so many parallels … but no, , turns out there was a bit of bad blood between him and the movie’s screen writers in the early stages, when they were looking for a musician to play the lead, or perhaps help with the score, or whatever.

I still think there’s a connection, even if it’s only in a parallel universe kind of way.

And I think of how little we really knew or understood back there in 1970, when Moondance was climbing our charts and we were dancing and smoking and roaming the woods of upstate New York barefoot and unscathed in the days before Lyme disease. We wound vines in our hair and waded through streams, and he stoned us to our souls. We thought we were part of the caravan he was singing about. We thought we were the gypsies. Little we knew.

All the while, in his soul, he was roaming Irish roads where “gypsy” is a compliment or a slur depending on your view, or the fastnesses of County Down, where streams run down from the Mountains of Mourne. His is not is not Brooklyn’s Coney Island with its iconic Cyclone, though Brooklyn’s island too was suffused in its time with Irish culture. His Coney Island – for the conies, the wild rabbits that run there – is just one of many off the Irish coast.

But in the end, his longing is ours too. George is dead, a friend just told me – we don’t know how or even when. He was still young, at least in my mind, younger than me for sure. I don’t know where David is. The island, the Coney Island of the mind, is where you find it, i’n’t it?

On and on, over the hill and the craic is good
Heading towards Coney Island …
I look at the side of your face as the sunlight comes
Streaming through the window in the autumn sunshine
And all the time going to Coney Island I’m thinking,
Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time.

“Big” Government

I’m really tired of hearing complaints about “big” government.

For the powerful vested interests that are using that label to do all they can to dominate social services in this country, it’s a “talking point,” a campaign war cry, in short a gimmick, nothing more OR less in an election year.

Here’s the thing about big government: it’s there when we need it. And it does for us the things we can’t all do for ourselves.

Big government is there when devastating floods or tornadoes strike. Big government builds and maintains roads, railways, and bridges. Big government established the postal service that powerful vested interests, working through their Congressional puppets, are currently trying to dismantle — under the false pretense that the USPS “needs” to provide billions of dollars right now — during a down economy when no one including the government OR the USPS has any extra money kicking around — to pay down a long-term retirement fund, which would continue to be just fine if the USPS paid into it at what would otherwise be its normal rate.

Big government also underwrites a free public education for every child in this country; a small guaranteed income –based on years of their own contribution — and medical care for the elderly; and medical coverage for the poor and disabled, as well as some guarantee of food and shelter. This is a BAD thing?

Of course it doesn’t matter to the ONE percent, OR the powers behind the “deep government” that is running much of our country at this point. They can send their kids to private schools and can buy the best doctors.

They don’t need the public mail system that is the underpinning of a democracy. In fact they loathe it, because their communication is done in secret. Their power depends on that secrecy, and the countervailing openness that a public mail system and an effective free press provide is anathema to them.

The rest of us? We are the 99%.  In this context, I am deliberately avoiding such labels as “far right” and “conservative.” Partisan political wrangling has destroyed the usefulness of  the terms “right” vs. “left” and “liberal” vs. “conservative,” which once served as a point of departure for legitimate compromise.

I speak instead of powerful vested interests cloaked in secrecy vs. the rest of us. In this context, the Tea Party and the Occupy movement are not opposites, though they may think they are. Both truly represent or seek to represent that entity we know as “We the People.”

The irony of the fervor that powerful vested interests have succeeded in whipping up in the electorate in this election year is that those vested interests proclaim the need for “smaller” government and have a large slice of the electorate BUYING their line — while at the same time, those large vested interests are using the very government they claim they want to downsize to advance their own interests in the financial sector and on other fronts.

At the same time as the electorate blindly rallies to the idea of dismantling government, the further irony is that sections of that electorate are clamoring for government to enact rules that would restrict or invade personal freedoms, from the bedroom to the wiretap — and powerful vested interests are encouraging that clamor because it serves to distract everyone, on both sides of the argument, from the REAL issues at stake, namely, the economy, a healthy workforce, and an education system that will provide for our children’s future.

BIG government, in its legitimate form, exists to do for the People what the People cannot do for themselves, and to honor the strong while protecting the weak — as any proper tribe or clan does for its cherished chieftains and children.

“Big” government is a fiction: a fiction created by powerful vested interests to deceive and manipulate the People.

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