Monday, September 28, 2015

The Roseate Tern Skull

1st attempt at woodblock carving
The Roseate Tern Skull
i.                Discovery (Dana speaks to Garrett)
As I sketched the strange right-angle position of a tern’s head just before it dove, as I scanned from one diving bird to the next to try to capture it perfectly, the pencil slipped from my hand and disappeared into a gap between two rocks at the bottom of the larger crevice where I sat.  As I twisted myself into a pretzel to retrieve the rock-shadow-colored pencil, a thin flash of white and red in a narrow neighboring crack caught my attention.  I squeezed my fingers into the crack and gently, gently scooped my fingers under the delicate network of bones.  A tern skull, my first.
I was so excited I nearly leapt from my crevice and did a little dance, but I didn’t want to scare the birds I was studying.
The skull was dirty and had a few tiny feathers clinging to a bit of rotted flesh near the back.  I poured water over it from one of my water bottle and scraped the crud off with my nail.  I wiped it gently with a bit of paper towel.  It was a roseate tern skull, Sterna dougallii. I identified it by the pattern of red and black on the beak, still amazingly brilliant and saturated, perhaps because it had lain in the shade of the deep crack instead of in the bleaching sun. 
I examined it, marveling at how light it was, like holding nothing at all.  I barely felt the contact points on my palm.  I rejoiced over the black-tipped red beak, the huge eye sockets, the smooth, round brain cavity, bone so thin it was almost like paper.  I admired the delicate hinge between the skull and the lower beak and wondered if man’s first hinges were influenced by those on skulls and bones.
Such treasure! It will be useful for my paper, a souvenir from my trip to Maine, and an addition to my growing skull collection.  I intended to protect it.  I wrapped it in a paper towel from my lunch and put it into one of my spare water bottles, after emptying the water, first into my mouth, and then down into the crevice below me.  The water bottle is a glass sauerkraut jar wrapped with duct tape to help protect it from breaking, glass because I’m ridiculously sensitive to the chemicals that outgas from plastic.  I wrapped the jar in my spare T-shirt and shoved it into my backpack, hoping to keep it safe all the way home to Baldwinsville, New York. 
As I sat there, jotting notes on the terns, making sketches and taking hundreds of images through my long lens, I pictured the skull inside the paper towel, inside the jar inside the shirt inside the backpack, glowing as if it were incandescent, and I imagined it forming in one of the eggs I’d been watching.  I remembered the chicken eggs that had been opened at the New York State Fair in Syracuse, so that fairgoers could see the still living (but doomed) embryo forming its various stages, the pulsing heart, the bright and dark red blood vessels, the egg yolk shrinking into the fetal bird’s belly. The terns, though rarer and more exotic than chickens, must have a similar development, and I watched a mental video of the developing tern embryo that became my living roseate tern, and then the skull.  How had it died?  In a storm?  Of old age?  Predation? Most predators would have taken the bird with them, would have broken open the skull to eat the brains.
It occurred to me to wonder if the tern skull could love me, the way I loved it.  Silly, I know.  Terns are not fond of people.  But the skull . . . perhaps it could sense my pleasure and love for it.  I do love my skulls, all of them.  I know it seems ironic for a person who so loves life to also love what’s left in death.

ii.              Garrett Reacts
“Love you?  You want to be loved by something dead?  How can the dead love?”
“My grandmother is dead, and she still loves me.”
“Ridiculous!” he says, rolling his eyes.  “The skull of a bird you never met in life?”
I smile, because it is ridiculous.  Crazy.  And that’s okay with me.
I reach the jar out toward Garrett.  He opens the jar and removes the skull.  He handles it gently and turns it in his hand.  But his expression is more one of disgust and perhaps fear than of the wonder and pleasure I hoped for, expected.  And he holds it as if it were hot or covered with germs, which, in fact, it very well might be.
“How can you collect skulls?” he asks, his eyebrows drawing together, his lips turning down.  “Skulls make me think of death.  They’re scary, gross and icky.  I can’t believe you have a whole collection of them, doesn’t it freak you out?  Like at night, especially?”
“No, not at all,” I say.  “I mean, they’re dead.  It’s not like they can hurt me, it’s not like they have zombie spirits that will come out and attack me at night.  They are harmless.” I do notice the absurdity and hypocrisy of our conflicting statements about dead things, but just smile inwardly.
“I don’t think you should have this,” he says, “or anything else that will further your research here.  You should go back home.”  He reaches toward me, holding the jar out.  I stretch to take it.  It slips from his hand, or he drops it, I can’t tell which.  I’m not usually a screamer, but I shriek as the sauerkraut jar plummets into the crevice, lands on one of the few untaped parts and shatters.  I bend double to try to extricate the skull from the glass fragments and cut myself.  Blood spews out and I yank my hand up, spattering Garrett with my blood.  He yells and scrambles out of the crevice, setting the birds to pandemonium.
I wrap a paper towel around the cut and, using a stick this time, carefully lift the broken but taped jar up by the tape.  I am gratified to find the skull intact.  I dump out a second sauerkraut jar water bottle and replace the skull in its multiple wrappings and into my backpack again. Garrett has his shirt off and seems to be scrubbing it.  “Out, out, damned spot,” I say, but too quietly for him to hear.  And then I cover my mouth and slide down into the crevice, because I am laughing, and don’t want to offend him.
iii.             A Knowing
Garrett returns, his shirt bearing faint blood stains and twist marks in the fabric.  He apologizes, saying it was an accident.  But then he asks me to give him the skull. 
“You shouldn’t have it,” he says.  “You don’t deserve it.  You’re an intruder here. You should go home.”
I take the skull back out of my backpack, out of its jar and toss it into the air between us.  We both stand and reach for it as it falls toward us, teetering on our precarious ledges in the crevice.  I leap slightly, and scoop it out of the air.  My hand is the mouth of a bird dog, soft as cotton.  It follows the downward arc of the skull to break its impact.  Then open my fingers.  The skull rests, intact on my open palm.
“Once, when I was camping in Colorado,” I say, “I found a fabulous elk skull with spreading antlers.  I was thrilled and imagined taking it home.  But the skull spoke to me.  It wanted to stay, so I carried it away from the campsite where I found it and put it where the elk told me to leave it, in a hidden and protected spot.  I know, I know, it’s a crazy thing for a scientist to do.  (Not that I’m a real scientist, or anything.)  But I had to; the skull spoke, inside my head.  I am still sad about it.  Luckily, my roseate skull says no such thing.”
“Baloney!” Garrett says.  “Bull poop!”
“And I know this,” I add, rewrapping the skull, “the tern skull wants to come with me, wants my love, and will come with me, no matter what.  And I am glad.”
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I am taking the free Iowa Writer's Program mooc which is just starting and these are my first three assignments.  click here if interested in joining.

the image has nothing to do with the story.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Novel Slop Buckets and something akin to happiness

The Cheshire Rabbit
(by me)

Novel Slop Buckets and something akin to happiness 

            I am working on a novel.  I am always working on a novel.  I completed the first rough draft of my first novel manuscript more than 30 years ago.  Since then, I have completed a few other first rough drafts and started more than 25 novels, most of which are unfinished for a variety of reasons.  None of them are published, though I have published poetry and short stories in literary journals.  No “real” books. 
            Since I am now sixty-nine years old, headed toward the big seven-OH, there's a good chance I will die without ever publishing any of my novels.  So, why do I keep writing?  Why don't I just "relax and enjoy life?" 
            Because, for one things, I enjoy writing.
            For another, if I am truthful, I always harbor the perennial hope of getting published, slim though it may be. 
            The novel I am currently working on is called Discovery at Little Hog Island.  Dana, a fifty-five year old Kindergarten teacher, takes a biology class that requires a summer project.  She arrives in Maine only to stumble onto a suspicious death that occurred 35 years ago.  Curiosity gets the better of her, and she becomes embroiled in a story that begins to threaten her life and stir up unpleasant memories from her own past. 
            I posted parts of this novel on one of my blogs, but discovered that it is difficult for people to follow a novel in blog installments. My readers kept dwindling. Or maybe it was just a terrible novel.  But I like it.
            In addition to Little Hog Island, my primary novel, I am also working on several others that I keep bubbling on the back burners.  The work stove I keep them on is large and has lots of back burners, some further back than others.  Each is a bucket, a slop bucket into which I keep throwing ideas, characters, scenes, conflicts.  Am I organized about it?  Not hardly.  I can’t even aim for the rights buckets, sometimes, or there may be several buckets for the same novel.
            For example, Rema and Romula.  They are twin girls who were raised by wolves.  They'll probably never found a city.  And the book may not be named after them.  I often work on Rema and Romula while I am walking.  It is difficult to work on a novel while walking, because it is large and unwieldy.  I can't see much of it at once, to review it and edit it, so unless I can give myself some small assignment, I have to work on something new.  Thus, Rema and Romula.  I am gathering ideas, accruing inspiration, creating characters, imagining scenarios. 
            I love writing.  I become quite pleased with myself when I write something I like, whether it's interesting (to me), funny (to me), smart (to me), or pleases me in some other way, it makes me happy.  (The first person I intend to please and entertain is myself!)
            I become despondent when I can't write, or when I decide something I've written is bad or hopelessly flawed.  Sometimes, writing can be a roller coaster.  The smallest thing can please me or knock me down. 
            One of the things I collect in my novel slop buckets are names and nicknames.  Finding the right name for a character is crucial (to me), so when I succeed, it can send me into fits of smiling.  And I know not everyone would agree with my choices.  Some of them would seem downright odd.
            For example, in Rema and Romula, two teachers play primary roles in the as of yet unwritten novel (I've written maybe four or five chapters, some or all of which may need to be rewritten or jettisoned.)  One of the two important teachers is Mr. Alan Mallain.  He is black, in his thirties, large, muscular, handsome, and wears long braids tied back in a pony.  He's married, heterosexual. 
            The kids, in the habit of nicknaming all their teachers with fairly negative nicknames, call him Malign.  They also call him Bo-bo because of his "repeating" name.  Then one of the girls starts calling him Malificent.  The others object.  He's not female, he's not little, and he’s not a fairy (at which the boys all laugh).  It’s too long; it’s cumbersome.  Someone even says, "He's not bad".  But Argiki says, "He bad" and when Argiki says "bad," he means really, really good.  Keisha points out that Mr. Mallain is magnificent.  And everyone agrees.  Malificent sticks.  It's somehow a perfect nickname for the kids to call him.
            And I feel something so akin to happiness, I could readily label it "joy."  Such fun. 

Thursday, August 06, 2015


I lifted weights while my boyfriend looked on from the comfort of an overstuffed chair. While I counted reps, and he said, “14, 52, 37, 25, 103!” to confuse my count. I started laughing and the weights crashed down, pinning one of my hands between them. I yelped in surprise and pain.

Something was wrong. My boyfriend took me to the hospital. The crashing iron weights had smashed a bone in my hand. They fixed me up and put my hand in a cast.

Going to the bathroom was difficult, especially refastening my pants. Cooking was difficult. Writing was difficult. Everything seemed difficult. I felt sorry for myself.

I walked from work to the nearby glassed-in mall to have lunch at the food court since I could not prepare my own lunch. While I stood in line grousing to myself about my misfortune, a woman came to stand directly behind me in line.  She was smiling.  She had no hand.

She was cheerful.

I felt terrible.

I knew immediately she was an angel, a messenger from the universe. My hand would heal. Hers never would. If she could be cheerful, surely I could.  I smiled and felt better.  My hand healed.  But my heart healed first.

(If I posted this before, I apologize.  I couldn't find it, so here it is.)

Saturday, August 01, 2015


A friend of a friend is collecting rabbit art on Facebook.  I have sent some art to her.  Here is a second one:

The Cheshire Rabbit
White Rabbit through Prism glasses
by me
digitally altered photograph
(Digital painting)

Hobbitses Eating all Dick's Grass

Hobbitses Eating All Dick's Grass
Digital art by me
for Rabbit Art  (drawing) Challenge
submission #1

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Hypnogogics: The Puppet man, blood on the cinch and other images of insomnia

Puppet man, Scary evil man with sharp teeth
hypnogogic image from last night
Blood on the cinch
Hypnogogic image from last night
Avocado, watch, toll money, jelly jar
oil pastels on textured paper in handmade sketchbook
Insomnia painting/sketch for me
by Heidi Chester
watercolor, oil pastels, colored pencils.
Click any image to view larger.
(Click the back button to return to story)
Heidi's bouquet
watercolor, by me
Last night, I suffered from insomnia.  This is, unfortunately, fairly common for me, though I've discovered that if I avoid certain foods, I sleep much better.  Last night, I did not sleep well at all, and as often happens, I had weird and scary hypnogogic images so bright as to be almost hallucinatory.  Those are the first two images.  The third I drew ("painted") with oil pastels at the motel when I was awake at night.  The fourth image my friend Heidi drew for me in my handmade sketchbook when I was visiting her, and the lsat I painted of her bouquet right before bed.  A delayed bedtime, due to doing art.

In the blood on the cinch painting, I was rubbing blood on a beautiful highly decorative cinch on my horse.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Elephant Envelope for Mike

elephant envelope front
Mary Stebbins Taitt
to Mike Kline
acrylic on padded envelope
addresses cloned out
elephant envelope back
Mary Stebbins Taitt
to Mike Kline
acrylic on padded envelope
I have painted an envelope to send my Mole back to Mike who has offered to finish his work directly in the Moleskine.  YAY

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Last Gasp in Mike's Moleskine

Everyone cheered to watch racers run
by me, Mary Stebbins Taitt
I am finally finished with Mike's Moleskine, and will mail it ASAP on hopefully Monday or Tuesday.
*The paper is getting progressively thicker!  Below is the prior version.  Since then I have repaired the head of the last wolf, opened Frankie's eyes, changed the color of the grass and added detail.  This was the hold-up. I kept fiddling with it, trying to get it right.

"Had Races and Won"
Acrylic on thin Moleskine paper*
4th coat
Because I had it so long, I did some additional pieces:

Biker Buddy
by Mary Taitt
At the end of a long day
By Mary Taitt
The Nature Conservancy wants to publish 20,000 elephant pictures, so I am trying to help them out.

Old Bull
collab for Mike

And a new pocket item--with elephants:

card by Mary Taitt for Mike's pocket

Friday, May 29, 2015

Working on Moleskine Exchange

I still have Mike's Mole.  I have painted an envelope for it and am including 2 of my first-ever woodblock prints as "pocket items."  Sorry these are kind of crappy cell phone pix--may later post scans.   Also, I will have to send my own Mole back to Mike to finish up.

Click images to view larger.  Also, note that my gmail account is all full and I cannot send or receive messages!  :(

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Trying not to try and Writing

Trees at Night, Edsel Ford, by Mary Taitt
click image to view larger.

            At the suggestion of my therapist, I am reading a book called Trying Not to Try, by Edward Slingerland.  I was just thinking about how it applies writing.  Early in the book, there is a story about a butcher who carves up an ox with a flash of knives. In a very short time, he reduced this huge living animal into a pile of choice cuts for the emperor.  (Sorry if you are a vegetarian!).  The he tells about being in the "zone" or what he calls wu-wei (ooo-way) and how he got there.  When he first apprenticed to be a butcher, an ox was a huge animal and cutting it up was difficult and challenging.  But the more he learned and the more he practiced, the easier it got, until he could almost do it in his sleep.
            It is like the sculptor who looks for the tree or piece of wood that already had the sculpture inside it, say of a bird or a maiden and all he has to do is remove all that is not the bird or maiden. 
            It happens like that.
            It happens like that for me, when I am writing, sometimes.  Sometimes I craft poem, word-by-word, sound by sound, image by image. Sometimes it flows out of me as if written by the hand of God, or the Goddess. 
            This poetry mooc (massive open online course) has reminded me of that, because my life has been so full and so busy, between my mother-in law's health issues and my own health issues, and the novel group and novel writing and the Japanese woodblock printing course I am taking etc.  ((terns making a raucous buzzing alarm call) that I have yet to have time to work in my preferred method, which is to start at least  week or more early, write a poem with care, revisit it daily, and craft and polish it.  Instead, I keep finding myself with an hour or two or even less to write and post my course poems which are Thursday nights at midnight (11:59 PM) and the assignments aren't given until Monday afternoon (but Tuesdays, I have another class etc.). 
            Anyway, the thing is, I am still able to write a poem, and often a poem that pleases me.  I feel like the butcher cutting up the ox or the sculptor finding the bird, maiden (or poem) already taking wing inside the wood (or the words).  

            Marvin Bell says, "A poem listens to itself as it goes."  That seems, somehow, related to being in "the zone," or wu-wei.  Because, by listening to itself, and responding to what it hears, it creates itself by having an internal dialogue, all without “effort” from the poet.  I can see where the idea of divine inspiration comes from. 

            Don't get me wrong.  I am not saying that any poem I write is a masterpiece, far from it.  What I am saying instead is that I am living the creative life, a life that offers joy, understanding and insights.  Peace and a measure of contentment and satisfaction.
            And it wu-wei applies to writing stories and novels, too.  Or making art, or cooking, or playing the clarinet.  Or making love.

Written at Pier Park.  

The class is available here: