Novelist. Essayist. Former entomologist. Now a full-time writer exploring travel, art, philosophy, psychology, and science.

Stories from a static year

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2020 was my first full year of writing on Medium

And although I told myself with almost every story I published that I was done with the platform, I kept coming back. Until the calendar flipped over and I realized I had a body of work on my hands.

Some of these stories are among the most popular I’ve written. Some were abject flops. But all have something in them that I’m proud of. A message I think is important. Helpful tips for others. Or just a single phrase that came out exactly the way I wanted it.

Anyway, although I cringe a little at the self-appreciation it takes to publish a post like this, here are some pieces I was happy with this…

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Photo by Peggy Anke on Unsplash

Among the sky-is-falling shrieking that makes up modern news coverage, I recently read the story of Kristen Gray.

Gray was living with her partner in Bali as an American ex-pat when the Covid 19 pandemic swept across the world. With impressively tone-deaf timing, she decided to release a book telling other Americans how to move to Bali and make a living. The end result was that she got herself deported.

Offices don’t make sense anymore. Hopefully soon, the vaccines will do their job. And while Covid 19 may never disappear completely, it won’t always be the issue it is now. The borders will reopen. …

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Photo by Francisco Ghisletti on Unsplash

Why don’t you write something that sells?

A friend asked me that recently. As though it’s just that simple. As though I have any idea what sells.

But it’s a rational question. To people who don’t have artistic delusions, it seems an obvious thing to ask. Why keep writing things no one wants to hear? Why not hammer out 7 Marcus Aurelius Quotes to Give You More Visible Abs or 5 Weird Ways To Address Your Cat’s White Privilege and move on? Cash the check and never look back. It’s the way I’ve treated every other job I’ve ever had.

Poets and novelists and artists aren’t copywriters. Some people can do it all. Some people can’t do any of it. And some of us can only do some of it some of the time, when the stars are aligned just right. …

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Photo by Krys Amon on Unsplash

My father has become a poet

He spent forty years managing construction sites. Building houses and bridges. Churning up the earth with great yellow machines bright as wasps. And when he retired at last, forced out of work by a deep recession, he turned to a different kind of construction.

He left school at sixteen. His formal education is even more insignificant than mine. Until his retirement, his reading consisted mostly of stereotypical Dad-lit. Tom Clancy and Bernard Cornwell, with their techno-thrillers and historical fiction. Now, he discusses Seamus Heaney with me over the phone and sends me books by poets I’ve never heard of.

He doesn’t show his own poems to me, and I don’t ask. He writes for the best of all reasons: the pure pleasure of the creative act. As his physical world grows smaller with age, his mental one expands. The people and places of his past swim around him now as he conjures up old memories and nails them down to the page. …

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Photo by S. Ruvalcaba on Unsplash

Poets feast on this

Nothing has birthed more songs than unrequited love. After all, romances end happily ever after when the lovers finally get together. That’s when the story gets boring. No one wants to hear about 40,000 breakfasts together or the slow music of an intertwined life.

We want the conflict. The drama. The all-or-nothing intensity that makes everything matter. Those delicious early stages of a growing love affair when the air is combustible, when a smile from her is pure rapture and to be alone is agony.

Love never matches up exactly. Sometimes — maybe most of the time, according to this study — it doesn’t match up at all. A questionnaire given to high school and college students found that 88 percent of them had experienced some type of unreturned love in the previous two years. We shouldn’t be surprised. Young adulthood is the stalking ground of these kinds of passions when new and confusing feelings are at their most intense. But even the happiest and most tranquil of relationships has an imbalance. Someone has to love more. And it’s an iron law of the universe that whoever has the greater love has to suffer.

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Photo by Leah Huyghe on Unsplash

Mountain lions don’t smile

They don’t cry either. It’s not hard to tell when they’re angry, their furred faces splitting apart to reveal yellow fangs designed to crush windpipes and puncture skulls. But they don’t have the range of evocative expressions dogs do. Which itself is nothing compared to the human arsenal.

But even though its face remained impassive, you could tell this lion was scared. Slender branches broke beneath it as it scrambled up the flaking trunk of the tree. The hounds bayed a strange arrhythmic music around the roots, the soundtrack to fear.

Under khaki fur, the big cat’s muscles bulged as it made a sudden leap from one tree to the next. Without pausing, it bounded on, running sideways along tree trunks like a mystical swordsman in one of those wire-fu martial arts movies.

This isn’t the story I meant to write

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Photo by Philipp Deus on Unsplash

It starts with a death, and goes downhill from there

The story I wanted to tell could begin there, outside the stone church where a small crowd had gathered. Inside, a wooden box held the cold bones of a woman I loved, a woman I still love, already shedding weight, already devoid of heat. The cosmos claiming it all back, one atom, one photon, after another. And outside, me, shaking dry hands with dry eyes under a dry undying sky.

I knew then, as I knew very well now, that nothing gets lost. The cards are shuffled, but never burned. Some piece of her might already be sinking into the trunk of a tree or catching like a stray shard of glass in the eye of a passing pigeon. Very lyrical, very lovely. …

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Photo by Peter Scholten on Unsplash

Who stops for trees?

I normally wouldn’t. I live surrounded by forest in a vast province where forestry remains the largest manufacturing sector of the economy. Every tree is different, the environment imposing its will on genetics to create 3,000,000,000,000 unique individuals. But it’s not like they jump out at us normally.

Our predator eyes are attuned to movement, always looking for something lame or weak or sick to chase off a cliff. Trees melt into the background unless something makes them stand out.

This one did.

A century ago, grizzled men came to these forests and cut down thousand-year-old trees with hand tools. You can still see the stumps they left behind today. Telltale notches cut into ancient bark so the loggers could insert platforms to stand on while they worked giant saws back and forth through the thick trunk. The productive wood was hauled away by mule team and steam train to build houses and railway ties and ships and rifles. …

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Photo by Erik Zünder on Unsplash

To whom a little is not enough, nothing is enough. — Greek Proverb

I was late with the rent

I usually am. Not because I don’t have the money, but because I resent parting with it.

I’m not the naïve socialist youth I once was. I’ve been a landlord myself. I don’t assume that those who own property and businesses are automatically rich. I certainly wasn’t.

It’s not rent in general I take issue with, but my own rent in particular. I don’t want to be here. The subsiding house I currently live in, its lawn undermined by industrious moles and its window frames furry with mold, is not where I planned to end up. …

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“If you want what visible reality

Can give, you’re an employee” — Rumi, On Gambling

I told you we would be alone

The crunching parking lot is bare of tracks. The snow scared everyone away. No one comes here on Christmas Eve. Except us.

It’s fully winter now. Rivers congeal on the white flanks of mountains. Stones crack with cold in hollows of the hills where nothing moves in the frozen air. Demons with ice for eyes take back the lake and snarl when our footsteps disturb their kingdom. But we’re not afraid of demons, are we? After all, we know their names.

I know where to go now. I’ve mapped some sun traps. Out of the wind, facing the sun. Solitary spots were even winter won’t find us. Sun traps block the wind and absorb every photon they can pull from the nearest star. Even now, at Christmas time, this one is warm enough. …

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