Experts Series: How to Travel Alone…Even if You’re a Girl

accidental okie alex travel 6

It’s the next installment of my summer Experts Series featuring cooler, more interesting people than me.

This week, I’m excited for you to meet Alex. Alex and I are pretty close. You’d be pretty good friends with her too because she’s just that great. Among Alex’s many talents is her persistence in keeping in touch with me. Sometimes I fall into a cave of solitude and she comes and finds me and reminds me to interact with the rest of the world. In the rare moments I call her and don’t get a response for days, I inevitably hear these words when we do finally talk, “Sorry. I was out of the country.” To which I always reply, “Of course you were.”

Alex is a fearless world traveler with more stamps in her passport than most will get in a lifetime. All the pictures below are Alex’s. She loves to travel and is savvy about the whole operation, particularly about going at it alone.

I hope you enjoy Alex’s tips on how to travel, even if you’re a girl.

Ask people the one thing they really want to do, and most would agree it’s to travel.  There’s something about getting outside your everyday and exploring God’s amazing creation. I love my life, but I live for the next adventure.

This isn’t easy when you are a girl and don’t always have someone to join in your grand adventures. Over the years and after many trips and even a four month internship in Spain, I’ve learned that if you want to travel, you can’t always wait for the right timing or even the right partner in crime.

In my travels, I’ve been to: New Zealand, Austria, Virgin Islands, Switzerland, France, Greece, Italy, Ireland, Belize, Guatemala, St. Lucia, Germany, Grand Cayman, Jamaica, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, England, Canada, Kenya and a few others. This includes going to Chile, Portugal, Wales, and Spain all alone.

I can’t say it’s ideal to travel alone as a girl, but that should never stop anyone from living a dream or making a few memories.  All it takes to get started is picking a place and making a plan. It’s never going to be perfect or easy, but that’s what traveling is about…expecting the unexpected! 

As a girl who loves to travel, I want to share just a few of the tips that have helped me the most, especially when having to do it alone. 

accidental okie alex travel 4

Decide where to go

Is it national or international?  Don’t let the thought of having to get a passport or maybe even a visa stop you from crossing the border.  Maybe you worry about getting lost, not knowing the culture or more importantly not being able to communicate.  None of these things should ever stop you because no matter where you go, you are always going to encounter the unfamiliar.  You have to put yourself in the mindset that you are there to experience a country and not be an outside observer.  As long as you are prepared to engage and come with a plan, you will be fine. It’s all about the attitude.
accidental okie alex travel 5

Always be prepared

As a girl traveling alone, you can never be too prepared.  Do your research, ask questions, make a plan. One of my favorite resources is because you get some great reviews from actual travelers and don’t have to rely on other sites that just want to sell you something.

Some other things to consider when traveling alone and to get together before you take off are:

  • What do you want to see?
  • Do you want adventure or relaxation?
  • Transportation Plan/Backup Plan
  • Get a guide book or get familiar with the safe areas of the place you are going
  • Leave your agenda with someone at home…let them know your schedule along the way.
  • Always carry some cash…not every place has an ATM.  Most of the time you should be able to pull out cash or use your credit card but they will probably have a fee.
  • Be aware that you may not have a ton of access to internet, but know that most foreign countries have great internet cafes…perfect to connect or even get some local recommendations.
  • Make a copy of all your documents front and back and email them to yourself and family member…passport, credit cards, driver’s license, debit card.
  • Don’t wear fancy jewelry…or anything that will draw extra attention to you.

One thing that I would definitely say has been a highlight of my solo trips has been joining up with some kind of tour group.  Even if you don’t like travel groups, most countries have free walking tours to join for a few hours to explore the city and get you familiar.  Plus, they are usually pretty inexpensive because they are supported by tips and not a set price.  Look up the tour before you go and reserve a spot.  I have joined several and have been impressed every time by the guides and also the fun people that you can meet.  

accidental okie alex travel 2

You are never alone

One of the most daunting things about traveling alone are the times where you don’t have anyone to talk to, to laugh with or maybe even freak out with.  I know the thought of exploring alone sounds scary, but it can actually be a bit of a blessing sometimes.  Not only do you get to do what you want to do, but it opens you up to meeting new people.  You’d be surprised how open people are to you when they see you traveling alone.  Take advantage of the opportunity to start a few conversations and maybe even make a new friend. 

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Be Smart

As I mentioned before, you can definitely expect the unexpected.  It’s not always a bad thing, and truth be told, you are likely to get a pretty good laugh when looking back. 

Again, when you are alone do your best to blend in.  Stick around the areas with a lot of people, don’t wear anything flashy and be ready to be approached.  You would never imagine, but people are more likely to come up and talk to you while traveling.  I look back and think about the time in Greece where someone asked me to marry him in the middle of the metro station, the time in Spain where I was approached for the time and ended up in a conversation about the history of America, and even when I made a friend from Australia who I stayed in touch with for over a year. 

It’s a mixed bag of experiences…but don’t freak out…just take it all in.

I sure hope that someone reads this and sees what kind of possibilities are out there and maybe takes the next step in planning a fun get away…whether it be half way across the world or even just a short drive away.  Once you get started…you will never want to stop.  Next stop for me is Brazil and Argentina!

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Thanks for reading! Don’t forget, if you work up the courage to go on a trip based on reading this article, and everything in the world goes wrong and you think you might be part of a Chevy Chase vacation movie, it’s not my fault. That stuff just happens sometimes. Be prepared, use common sense and listen to your intuition.

Experts Series: Paula’s Healthy Spaghetti Bolognese

PaulaPaula is one of my favorite people in the whole world. She was my host mum when I lived in New Zealand. And since that first day when I stumbled into her house, travel worn and exhausted and she cooked a big baked chicken, we’ve been buddies. Now she’s more like my big sister or cool aunt. Her family has become part of mine.

Every evening in New Zealand after the children went to bed, we would watch an episode of Gilmore Girls. We watched almost the entire series. And nothing bonds two people like witty banter from Lorelai and Rory.

We also share a love of cooking and I’m thrilled that Paula is going to share her expertise with all of us!

Paula is a nutritionist and before that, she was a food scientist. She’s adept at stretching her grocery budget while still using fresh ingredients. Her spaghetti Bolognese is especially amazing because she includes tons of vegetables into her mince (ground beef), to make it flavorful, healthy and dollar stretching.

Her son, Daniel, is a budding photographer. I hope you enjoy this wonderful recipe and beautiful pictures all the way from New Zealand!


Paula’s Healthy Spaghetti Bolognese

Paula's Healthy Mince 21 - Accidental Okie

Paula's Healthy Mince 2 - Accidental OkieStart by assembling your ingredients.

Paula's Healthy Mince 3 - Accidental OkieNext, finely chop two onions.

Paula's Healthy Mince 5 - Accidental OkieYou want a uniform, small chop.

Paula's Healthy Mince 8 - Accidental Okie

Now wash and peel the carrots and grate them. You can use either zucchini (courgettes) or spinach. If you’re going with zucchini, grate it now too.

Paula's Healthy Mince 6 - Accidental OkiePut the onions in a large dutch oven with some oil to start sautéing for about five minutes. Keep stirring so they don’t burn.

Paula's Healthy Mince 7 - Accidental OkieNow your house should smell of sautéed onions, which is one of the best smells God ever made. Add garlic that’s been mashed through a garlic press. Let the garlic cook for just a minute.

Paula's Healthy Mince 9 - Accidental OkieMove the onions to one side and add the mince (ground beef). Separate it with a wooden spoon so it breaks into big chunks.

Also, I have to say that I wish in America, we called it mince, not ground beef. It’s much less repulsive sounding. Let’s all start calling it mince.

Paula's Healthy Mince 10 - Accidental OkieAfter browning for a few minutes, it should look like this.

Paula's Healthy Mince 12 - Accidental OkieNow it’s time to add a can of diced tomatoes.

Paula's Healthy Mince 13 - Accidental OkieAdd tomato paste, ketchup and sugar.

Paula's Healthy Mince 17 - Accidental OkieAdd the beautiful carrots and spinach (or zucchini). At this stage, you can also add two sticks of chopped celery and a cup of chopped mushrooms. As you can see, this is a great recipe for vegetarians who can modify by eliminating the beef and upping the veggie content.

If you’re using dried herbs, add them now.

Paula's Healthy Mince 18 - Accidental OkieRed lentils are added after they’ve been rinsed and picked through to find lentil impostors, usually little stones.

Now add a touch of water and close the lid so there’s just a little gap for steam to escape. Let it cook for 30 minutes to an hour. Use this break to chop your fresh herbs, if you are using fresh herbs. Otherwise, go be productive. Or not.

Paula's Healthy Mince 19 - Accidental OkieAfter 30 minutes, this is what it looks like.  Add salt, pepper and herbs. Stir and cook for another five minutes. Taste once more and adjust as needed.

Paula's Healthy Mince 20 - Accidental OkieServe on pasta with a touch of parmesan cheese. 

It’s your choice – you can tell your guests (or kiddos) just how healthy this pasta sauce is, or it can be our little secret!

  1. Paula's Healthy Spaghetti Bolognese
    Serves 6
    Prep Time
    15 min
    Cook Time
    1 hr
    Prep Time
    15 min
    Cook Time
    1 hr
    1. 2 white onions
    2. 1 Tbs oil
    3. 3 cloves garlic
    4. 1 pound lean mince
    5. 1 14-ounce can chopped tomatoes
    6. 2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
    7. 3 Tbs tomato paste
    8. 2 Tbs tomato sauce
    9. 1 tsp sugar
    10. 2 large carrots
    11. 2 courgettes (zucchini) or ½ bunch spinach
    12. ¼ cup red lentils
    13. ¼ cup water
    14. 1 ½ tsp salt
    15. 2 shakes of finely ground black pepper
    16. A bunch of fresh Thyme & Oregano
    17. A bunch of fresh Parsley if you have it
    18. ¾ packet of vermicelli pasta
    1. 1. Chop onions & fry in oil until soft (about 5 min).
    2. 2. Wash carrots & grate them. Peel the courgettes & grate them too. If you are using spinach, wash it well & then chop. Keep stirring the onions so they don’t burn.
    3. 3. Peel garlic & crush it in the garlic crusher. Add to onions & fry for about 1 minute – until you can smell that lovely garlic smell : )
    4. 4. Scoop the onions to the side of the pot, turn up the heat.
    5. 5. Add the mince & crush it with a wooden spoon to break up the lumps & brown it.
    6. 6. Add the can of tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, tomato paste, tomato sauce/ketchup, sugar, carrots & courgettes or spinach.
    7. 7. Wash the red lentils in a sieve & add to mince.
    8. 8. Add water & stir well. Put the lid on, but leave a little gap for steam to escape.
    9. 9. Wash fresh herbs well (soak in a bowl of water for a while), then chop, set aside for later. If you are using dried herbs, just throw them in now.
    10. 10. Cook mince for at least 30 minutes (can be up to 1 hour if you have the time), stirring often to make sure it does not burn on the bottom.
    11. 11. Add salt & black pepper to the mince.
    12. 12. Add chopped herbs to the mince. Stir mixture well & cook for another 5 minutes or so. Taste to check the seasoning is right and you’re all done!
    1. I sometimes add 2 sticks of chopped celery & or a cup of chopped mushrooms if I have them. I used frozen spinach in this recipe, but if I’m using fresh, I don’t pre-cook it, just wash it well, chop it up & toss it in with the other veggies.
    The Accidental Okie

Experts Series: Infertility

TeressaThank you for tuning in to the next installment of the Accidental Okie Expert Series

Teressa’s expertise is in something not wished for by anyone: infertility.  

I asked Teressa to write a post on how to talk to someone going through infertility – what to say, what to not say. What she sent me was infinitely better. Because she sent me her heart. Her emotions. Her experiences.

I hope reading it will help you, should you be on a similar journey, or help you gain insights into the great trials Teressa and Ryan and others like them are muddling through. Stepping into her shoes for a minute, maybe you can be better equipped on what to say to a friend in this same situation.

Teressa and Ryan live in Seattle. Ryan is a teacher and Teressa is the owner of Cashmere Floral Designs.

– – – – –

They said it would be easy. 

We made a plan.  Slated five days to fly to Seattle from our home in Sitka, Alaska.  Checked into a really fancy hotel.  Told our family and friends that we were trying, that we had finally accepted the fact that we were using a sperm donor and that we finally chose one.  We had a bastion of prayer warriors.  Ryan bought me a pedicure at a spa. 

The doctors were going to inject sperm, and this would be the beginning to our lives as parents.  So long married life of two… hello parenthood. Statistics show that it takes usually three tries to achieve one pregnancy.  We wanted three kids.  At $500 each vial, we purchased nine.

We thought it would be easy.

Two exciting and forever-lasting weeks pass, and it’s time to pee on the stick that is supposed to herald the news:  Congrats!  Your life is about the change.  Your someday has arrived! 

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3:30 a.m. – I couldn’t take the suspense.  I pee on the stick, planning to surprise Ryan. 

Pee.  Wait. Wait. Wait. 

As the one bar darkens and there’s no sign of a second, I let out a low moan in denial.  Then wake Ryan and tell him that this test must be defective.  The dear man rises from a dead sleep, dons his shoes, and heads out the door to the grocery store to buy another test.

It wasn’t broken.  I wasn’t pregnant.  This was August of 2010, and that was vial one.

Since we were committed to work in Sitka until October, and since my work as a florist allowed only a small window of due dates that avoided wedding season, we held off trying until we moved back to Seattle. 

Dec. 24th.  My ovulation predictor kit shows it’s time again.  Two more exciting and hopeful weeks pass.  Pee again.  Another silent piece of plastic tells us the news.  Happy 29th birthday to me.  Vial two is gone.

Family and friends are constantly asking for updates.  We’re happy to share because we cannot wait to be celebrating good news together.  Early February, try again.  Another miss. 

The first three vial, all portioned for baby number one, are gone.

At this point, we become a little more private.  The doctor is suggesting an HSG test to determine if I have a blockage of my tubes, or cysts or fibroids that could be causing a problem.  That sounded great, until we learned what it meant:  $800 out of pocket and one of the most painful diagnostic tests available.  The second opinion of another doctor is against the test. We decline. 

We’ll try for one more time.  It’s bound to happen.  God is the author of life right?  And God can do anything.  Plus, there’s nothing wrong with me.  And this next try is sure to take.

Another two weeks.  We’re house-sitting and dog-sitting because we can’t afford a place to live because God still hasn’t provided a living for Ryan.  I’ve felt all the things one’s supposed to feel in pregnancy.  I’ve obsessed online over all the symptoms.  This is definitely the time.  The stick comes out of its sacred foil package.  One line. 

Neither of us had ever felt that hopelessness.  No job.  No baby.  No silver lining. 

The dogs I hate come over to lick my tears off the floor as I sit in the middle of a stranger’s kitchen, sobbing.  We didn’t turn any lights on that night.  Ryan lay on the peach sofa and stared in the sunset sky.  I spoke no works and lay on top of him.  Staring.  Crying. 

He takes a deep breath and hollowly, despairingly mutters, “The only difference between the days for us is that the sun comes up and goes back down.” 

I have never seen him that hopeless or distraught.  The man who battled cancer, with its consequences and recurrences, who looked forward to each day as progress and hope, had just committed to the dark side.  Normally one of us is up when the other is down.  But this day, we were both defeated.  

That was vial four.  Only five chances left.

Fast forward one year.

A blessing of a doctor came into our lives. He learned that my hormones were out of whack.  I guess moving from Alaska, having no job or no home, starting a new business, recovering strained relationships after living in Alaska two years, living with in-laws, moving nine times, and having nothing to show for all of the hard work, can place certain stress on a person.  Compounded was a five-year-old nephew with a brain tumor, a dad struggling with dementia, and both parents in an airplane crash.  As it turns out, this all can upset the reproductive system.

So, we do natural hormone treatment and weekly b-shots.  A year goes by, and Dr. Matt says with a smile, “I think you’re ready to try again!  Everything looks great!”  The hope swelling inside of me couldn’t be contained.  I burst into happy tears and he prayed over me.  I go home and tell Ryan.  This was a good couple of weeks. 

In the meantime, my nephew Jack spends his fifth birthday in the hospital for brain surgery.  My prayer is for God to save my sister’s baby and knit together a baby for us.

Jack got his miracle.  I got my period.

Vial number five. Gone.

With each try and fail, the devastation only deepens.  Our eyes and hearts are bloodshot.  Our bank accounts and arms are empty.  Our home is still quiet, and we’re still hovering over our two-year-old “kitten” because she’s all we have to nurture with our own last name.  Our hearts are sick. Our hope, continually deferred.  And as we struggle, we are surrounded by 31 pregnant or nursing mothers.

We are in such need of discernment, and feel very alone and very much too tired to know where science and God’s hand meet.

While I detest this period of meaningless infertility, I do pray for and treasure the gifts that are sure to rise up from it. 

I will be able to tell a better story. 

Whatever the outcome of all of this, I will be able to tell a story about God.  He is giving me what I need.  Lies of hopelessness are lodged in my direction and God, with his truth and with the strength that comes from his goodness, gives me what I need to dispel them. 

Alas, I’m tired.

Three viles left.

That was about a year ago when Teressa penned those words onto a tear-stained journal. During the interim, a doctor discovered one last problem, which was resolved. Here’s an update.

teressa 3

Two vials left.


Experts Series: Fist-Pounding Poetry

james mcnamaraWelcome to the Accidental Okie Expert’s Series. Throughout this summer series, you will meet some of my friends who are vastly more interesting and knowledgeable than me. They’ll be sharing their areas of expertise, be it serious or lighthearted or just plain useful.

First up is my friend James McNamara. James, or Jamie as we call him, married my friend Rebecca. They met while both getting their doctorates at Oxford. They talked about smart people things amid the spires and gardens of Oxford and fell in love, as you do. Excuse me. As one does.

Jamie’s area of study is in vivisection imagery (dissecting something still alive) in the writings of John Donne, Jonathan Swift and George Eliot. As you will read below, Jamie does study the sissy side of poetry.

As someone who understands approximately three poems, I’ve asked Jamie to help us learn to appreciate poetry in all its glory.

Fist-Pounding Poetry

I blame the Romantics—those big-shirted, river-floating bastards with their sobbing over daffodils and getting drunk on skies. As a young man in Australia—beer-swilling, boat-rowing—a love of poetry wasn’t something to advertise. Except to girls. But even the girls thought you a bit soft. And it was all because of the Romantics. I have to confess to sometimes hefting the book across the room when I read Wordsworth on daffodils or Shelley on anything. It’s all so saccharine and twee. And it gives poetry its reputation as something for wispy dilettantes who look searchingly at the horizon, look back to make sure their companion is watching them, then keep brooding, hoping for the tear to squeeze out. Ultimately, they dab the eye with a tab of hot-sauce or Vicks, and then everyone has to go to the emergency room. See what I mean?

I appreciate poetry of a different sort, the poetry of fist pounders and shouters of songs, grabbers of life. It’s a poetry with a similar focus on the natural world to the Romantics—reveling in pollen-dusted rivers, eyes underneath the hedgerows, furry backs that fix you with a black-eyed stare before loping off—but it’s gutsier. I’m going to write today about three poets—Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, and Robin Robertson, respectively Irish, English, and Scottish—who exemplify what I most enjoy: first, a sense of immediacy, of being there, now, in the poem, smelling the soil and blood and blossom; second, a celebration of nature in all its beauty and cruelty; third, the use of Anglo-Saxon poetic techniques—such as compound words and a rhythm born of alliteration and assonance, not pretty-ended rhymes.

I start with Seamus Heaney because he takes us directly to the Anglo-Saxons in his stunning translation of Beowulf. Beowulf is a narrative epic in Old English about the haunting of King Hrothgar and his Danes by Grendel, a ‘prowler through the dark’. In the extract below, Hrothgar discusses the monsters’ lair with the Geat hero Beowulf, who’s going to try and slaughter the ‘hell-dam’, Grendel’s mother. ‘A few miles from here,’ King Hrothgar says,

 a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch

above a mere; the overhanging bank

is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.

At night there, something uncanny happens:

the water burns. And the mere-bottom

has never been sounded by the sons of men.

On its bank, the heather-stepper halts:

the hart in flight from pursuing hounds

will turn to face them with firm-set horns

and die in the wood rather than dive

beneath its surface.

For me, I’m there. The mere (lake), still and freezing, the deer (heather-stepper / hart) stopping, terrified, when it realizes where it’s strayed, then plunging into the dogs instead of the water. You’ll have to read the poem to see whether Beowulf jumps in… But while we’re at this point, note that none of the line-ends rhyme. It flows, though, doesn’t it? That’s because of the alliteration (use of the same starting letters of words) and assonance (use of similar internal sounds of words): the ‘wood waits and keeps watch’; it hasn’t been ‘sounded by the sons of men’. And the compound words let us gulp the world in shot-glasses: the light-footed deer, ‘heather-stepper’ pausing, smoky-breathed; the ‘frost-stiffened woods’, waiting and watching the silence, the mist rising from the freezing lake.

Heaney’s good at waterways. In his later poem ‘Moyulla’, he writes of the Moyola river:

In those days she flowed

black-lick and quick

under the sallies,

the coldness of her


like the coldness off you –

your cheek and your clothes

and your moves – when you come in

from gardening.


She was in the swim

of herself, the gravel shallows

swarmed, pollen sowings

tarnished her pools.


Again, there are no traditional rhymes, but the compound word ‘black-lick’ and its assonantal pair, ‘quick’, contrast nicely with ‘flow’: she ‘flowed / black-lick and quick’ gives us a sense of the river’s physical movement—eddies at the banks, splashes over rocks, but deep and slow in the middle. When we add in ‘sallies’, there’s a nice restoration back to the longer, juicier sound of ‘flow’—‘flowed / black-lick and quick / under the sallies’. Heaney’s river is feminine—its temperature contrasted with the cold cheek of (perhaps) his lover coming in from the garden. She also revels in her beauty—‘She was in the swim / of herself’—a sensuousness that carries the luxurious fertility of water, the life-giving of a river to its human bank-dwellers.

Ted Hughes—to whose memory Heaney dedicated his Beowulf—is renowned for the way he portrays nature as both beautiful and wild, neither good nor evil. It’s difficult to take excerpts from Hughes because his poetry is so good that you get consumed and distracted and taken away into this poem and that. But I’ve been stern with myself and chosen some pieces largely from his 1976 collection Season Songs. Hughes, I think, is the master of immediacy, and that’s the aspect of his writing I focus on. His style is similar to Heaney’s in its use of Anglo-Saxon poetic techniques and in the way he draws beauty from the simplest things. Take, for example, the last stanza of ‘Sunday Evening’, where the speaker stands in a world on the cusp of spring:

I stand among puddles

Beneath these trees filling and brimming the air,

These staggering bouquets nobody knows how to accept.

There’s a sense here of man overwhelmed by the world around him, by a beauty at once simple and irreducibly complex, too wonderful to process; there’s a message, too, about the need for us to share in his humility.

In ‘March Morning Unlike Others’, spring is in full-swing and Hughes’s poetics owe something to the Impressionists: he dabs with words, and those suggestions, those brushstrokes, give more detail than a chapter in a book:

Blue haze. Bees hanging in air at the hive-mouth.

Crawling in prone stupor of sun

On the hive-lip. Snowdrops. Two buzzards,

Still-wings, each

Magnetised to the other,

Float orbits.

 I don’t know about you, but I’m there, on that March morning, looking out at the blue and those birds in the air.

‘March Morning’ gives a lyrical picture of spring, gentle and glowing. ‘Spring Nature Notes’ begins that way, with ‘the whole air struggling in soft excitements / Like a woman hurrying into her silks. Birds everywhere zipping and unzipping’, but later we see Hughes bring out the raw fecundity of nature:

Spring bulges the hills.

The bare trees creak and shift.

Some buds have burst in tatters –

Like firework stubs.

 The use of bursting, tatters, fireworks, gives us the bright, glorious, blooming of the season. The violence of a firework—explosive, hot and soaring—carries the power of the buds, busting through the soil and into bloom. And the firework simile encapsulates the fate of these bright flowers—soaring into the sky, a flash of brilliant colour, and then nothing but a trail of smoke against the night, or a stalk left blowing in the wind.

Hughes’s talent for metaphor is particularly well-demonstrated in ‘Deceptions’, another spring poem. Here, like ‘March Morning’, Hughes anthropomorphizes—or makes human—the season:

 With the cherry bloom for her fancy dress

Spring is giving a party –

And we have been invited.

We’ve just arrived, all excited,

When she rushes out past us weeping, tattered and dirty –

Wind and rain are wrecking the place

            And we can only go home.

Whereas in ‘Spring Nature Notes’ the season is like a lady, ‘hurrying into her silks’ before some distinguished gala, in ‘March Morning’ spring is a teenage girl in a new dress, excited for her party but then disappearing in a flood of tears. The woman of ‘Spring Nature Notes’ gives us the dusk before a wondrous night-time celebration; the teenager and her changing moods brings the capriciousness of English spring—blue-skies glowing and chilling with clouds on the sun. The metaphor carries, too, the sense of a season on the edge of summer via the teenager on the brink of adulthood.

Hughes handles summer with the same skill as spring, and has a facility for describing waterways that reminds me of Heaney’s:

The swallow of summer, cartwheeling through crimson,

Touches the honey-slow river and turning

Returns to the hand stretched from under the eaves –

A boomerang of rejoicing shadow.

You can nearly taste the Anglo-Saxon poetics in ‘Work and Play’—they fill the mouth: ‘swallow of summer, cartwheeling through crimson’, ‘Touches the honey-slow river and turning / Returns’.

Before I leave Hughes for my final poet, Robin Robertson, I want to quickly show you the next two seasons, autumn and winter, in excerpts from ‘Autumn Nature Notes’ and ‘Wind’. In the former, a bonfire shows the end of summer, the rising cool and preparation for the snows of winter:

 Under ripe apples, a snapshot album is smouldering.

 With a bare twig,

Glow-dazed, I coax its stubborn feathers.

A gold furred flame. A blue tremor of the air.

The apples are still ripe, but you can almost smell the fall smoke and cold. Again, human life reflects and augments the progress of the natural world: the poem’s speaker has reached a point in his life similar to the season—the end, perhaps of a love—and burns the album like the gardener burns fallen branches.

And then it is winter, brought to us via the metaphor of the house as a ship at sea in ‘Wind’:

 This house has been far out at sea all night,

The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,

Winds stampeding the fields under the window

Floundering black astride and blinding wet.


We’ll leave Ted there, storm-wet and probably having to fix a few tiles, to discuss the Scottish poet, Robin Robertson. I’m running out of space for Robin, but I don’t suppose he’d mind my giving most of the article to Heaney and Hughes, his literary progenitors. Robertson’s work has a similar Anglo-Saxon influence and quality of immediacy, and it shares Heaney’s and Hughes’s concerns with the darkness underlying natural beauty. I’m going to take three short bits of his poems to demonstrate this. In ‘The Flaying of Marsyas’, Robertson begins:

 A bright clearing. Sun among the leaves,

sifting down to dapple the soft ground, and rest

a gilded bar against the muted flanks of trees.

In the flittering green light the glade

listens in and breathes.


A wooden pail; some pegs, a coil of wire;

a bundle of steel flensing knives.

This poem recounts the Greek myth (best known from book six of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and, later, Titian’s painting) about the punishment of the satyr Marsyas for challenging Apollo to a flute-playing contest. Not best pleased, Apollo has the upstart flayed alive. Robertson establishes this violence wonderfully via his portrayal of the wood. ‘A bright clearing. Sun among the leaves’ has the immediate ‘we’re here!’ effect of (very good) film-script big-print. So we’re standing in the ‘flittering green light’, but there’s a hint of something wrong in the air—‘the glade / listens in and breathes’. And then we see why—there’s a bucket of surgical tools ready to put ‘Blade along the bone, find the tendon, nick it and peel, nice and slow’. Having been placed directly in the scene, we watch ‘Marsyas écorché, / splayed, shucked of his skin / in a tug and rift of tissue.’ The immediacy used to set up the wood makes the torture more awful, both through the disjuncture between beauty and blood, but also in the way Robertson has beckoned us in to this ‘gilded’ glade and made us stumble on a murder, to watch as bystanders. The wood’s presence in that evil—the agency it has in ‘listen[ing] in and breath[ing]’—shows the darkness beneath that ‘bright clearing’.

This would be a grim place to end, so I’m going to give you two further pieces of Robertson’s poetry—sans mythological characters being butchered.

The first speaks to me of that moment when spring becomes summer—‘Affair of Kites’ is full of the heart’s gladness as the season turns:

I sit, astonished by the pink kite:

its scoop and plunge, the briefness of it;

an escaped blouse, a pocket of silk

thumping like a heart

tight above the shimmering hill.

The sheer snap and plummet

Sculpting the air’s curve, the sky’s chambers.

I don’t know about you, but I’m there, watching it swoop and dive.

The last poem, ‘Making the Green One Red’, is about autumn. It starts:

The Virginia creeper has built its church here

in the apple tree: vermilion

lacework, pennons, tendrils

of scarlet and amber,

hung through the host like veins.

Spangled and jaspered, shot with red,

the tree filled with sun is stained glass:

a cathedral of blood and gold.

At the end of the poem, we discover that ‘the apple tree is dead’, killed by the vine. Robertson’s religious imagery leaves us uncertain as to how we should feel about this triumph over the apple tree—the abnegation of temptation from the fruit? The corruption of the Church a distraction from Jesus’s teachings? The poem becomes more complex still when Robertson compares the roots of the creeper (and not the tree, as one might expect) with Christ. The poem’s ambiguity, together with the contrast of human (religious) themes to botanic ones, leads us to think about the nature of nature, the difficulty of assigning it goodness or evil, of untangling its glory from its cruelty. Is this the conquering of a boring apple tree by something more beautiful? Or the sullying of knotted wood and green fruit by the ‘blood and gold’ of a brightly-coloured parasite?

To finish properly, I’ll leave you with one of the Romantics who, in a sweeping generalization, I told you were rubbish at the start. Obviously, lots of foamy-mouthed critics would take umbrage with me, and I know you can’t really dismiss a literary period in a sentence or two. But this is an article about what I like, not what’s objectively good in the eyes of the literati. So, here’s Wordsworth wandering ‘lonely as a cloud’…

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way…


See what I mean?

 James McNamara received his doctorate in English Literature from Oxford, where he was a Clarendon Scholar. He has been published in or is currently writing for The Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The West Australian, and the Australian Book Review.


Fist-pounding poetry, © James McNamara 2013


Getting Expertized

Wouldn’t life be boring if you were the most interesting, knowledgeable person around?

Thankfully, I am not afflicted with such an existence.

Being around people who have different giftings, talents, personalities and interests is one of my most favorite things. I hope it’s one of your favorite things too. 

Tomorrow kicks off a new blog series that will run every Wednesday through the summer! During this series, aptly titled the Experts Series, we’ll be hearing from some friends of mine who are way cooler and infinitely more interesting than me. They’ll each be sharing something in which they have expertise.

Some posts will be serious. Some will be funny. Some might help you take a leap and do something you’ve always wanted to try.

So stay tuned every Wednesday this summer and get ready to be expertized.

Yes, expertized. Because my expertise is in making up words.