Poetry & Fiction

Sound Impressions from a Hammock

As I lie here resting, gently swaying, I reflect on the day’s noises…
There are the birds who say “Oh Yeah” in a melodic chorus of positivity.
Then there are the birds who welcome me in Swahili: “Karibu! Karibu!”
The birds swoop and swivel and swish and swerve—a limitless parade the likes of which I do not have the expertise to catalog, let alone describe. They wake me in the morning and sing me to sleep at mid-day.
The goats scream with human indignance and bleat with an infant’s piteous yowl.
They caper and cavort, cradle sunlight in the sleek hollows of their sides. They stand on hind legs to grasp out-of-reach shrubbery. They block the roads with impunity.
The children shout, “Muzungu! How are you?” with the the same lilt as the birds who say “Karibu.”
They are sudden apparitions at the side of the road, emerging like smoke through fences and paths. Some smile and wave; others stare with scrutinizing solemnity.
The motorcyclists ask, “where are you going?” and have nothing more to say to my reply: “I’m just walking.”
The donkey wheezes through a comical fit of seeming laughter—or sneezes. Sometimes at noon; sometimes at midnight.
The dogs howl like wolves to the moon.
The crickets chirp a thunder and an avalanche in the otherwise quiet of dark.

My ears are working hard to keep up…
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Poetry & Fiction

Where Do You Go When Nowhere Is Safe?

Naturally, after our disappointment at the Moroccan embassy and finally, finally finding a place we could both visit without visas (Kenya), new obstacles have arisen. Al Shabab has been targeting non-Muslim Kenyans in the North, Mombassa and Nairobi in retaliation for Kenya’s recent military action in Somalia. Is nowhere safe? I find myself wondering.
To turn on the news of late is to open the floodgates to a barrage of ill-tidings. Terrorist attacks, Ebola, protests, and political turmoil. That is not to write off the gravity of these situations, for they are undeniably serious. But still, I can’t help wondering where is left to visit. Where do you go when nowhere is safe?
My musings inspired the creation of this folk tale:
Once upon a time, there was a girl. She loved to explore and go on adventures. The spray of light on the horizon played a lilting melody on the back of her eyelids.
One day, the girl announced that she wished to go into the woods at the edge of town.
“Don’t go into the woods!” Cried the townspeople. “Don’t go; don’t go,” they pleaded. “The woods are not safe,” they admonished. “There are wolves and witches and monsters and men. Nowhere is safe. Nowhere is safe,” they said.
And so she stayed, safe in the town, and gazed at the woods, imagination aglow. “Oh how I wish to go into the woods,” thought the girl. “Oh how I wish to go!”
Months passed, and the girl’s gaze shifted. “I will go to sea,” she announced one day, “to see what lies beyond it.” The townspeople shuddered and shivered and quivered with fear:
“Don’t go out to sea,” they cried. “Don’t go; don’t go! The sea is not safe,” they admonished. “There are sharks and storms and sirens and surges. Nowhere is safe, my girl. Nowhere is safe; stay here,” they said.
So the girl sighed and laid aside her plans, and she did not go. But she sat upon the shore and watched the waves, and her thoughts crashed against her skull in time: “Oh how I wish to go out to sea. Oh, how I wish to go!”
In only a few weeks, she had yet another design: “Surely the mountains are safe enough… that is where I will go,” said the girl, jaw set.
“Oh!” Cried the townspeople. “Don’t go to the mountains!” They pleaded with her. “Don’t go; don’t go! The mountains are not safe,” they admonished. “There are winds and ghosts and bandits and banshees. Nowhere is safe, you see. Nowhere is safe; stay here,” they said.
The girl craned her neck to look up at the rocky crags that broke up the sunsets and cast long evening shadows across the town. And she did not go. She sat and she glowered  and her mind raced on. “Oh how I wish to go to the mountains,” thought she. “Oh how I wish to go!”
Again and again she presented new ideas, and again and again the townspeople shuddered and shivered and shook their fingers sternly:
“Nowhere is safe, my girl. Nowhere is safe,” they said. “Don’t go there; no you mustn’t go there. There is war and sickness and there are demons and dragons; you see, the world is not safe, my girl. Best to stay here—oh yes, best to stay here,” they repeated. “Don’t go! Don’t go!”
Months passed in this way, or perhaps they were years, and the girl began to sit longer, to stare farther, to think deeper. Finally, this is what she thought: “If the woods and the sea and the mountains are not safe, then surely neither is this town,” she said to herself. “And indeed if nowhere is safe, then it is “nowhere” where I must go!”
And with that, she packed her bag with books and bread and blankets and bottles and she set out along the road. The townspeople, when they caught sight of the girl, ran after her, calling frantically, “Where are you going? Where are you going?”
“Nowhere!” The girl shouted over her shoulder. “I am going nowhere. You needn’t worry—it is safe there!” And she laughed and walked on.
And she crossed the woods and the sea and the mountains, “nowhere” always just ahead. She encountered dragons and dangers, monsters and men, but fairies and angels and vagabonds, too, and these last guided her way.
“Nowhere is safe. Nowhere is safe. Oh how I wish to go,” her thoughts chanted through her head in time with her feet, and never did they tire. On the girl walked. Up and out and onward she looked.
“Go,” whispered the sun. “Go! Go!”
Much to my regret, we don’t live in the world of fairy tales and fables. The troubles reported nightly are very real—though occasionally exaggerated by those on the outside. We can’t totally ignore them like the girl in my story. And so, though we still plan to fly to Kenya next week, we will do so cautiously, avoiding population centers like Nairobi and Mombassa and staying in the Lake Victoria region, which appears to remain out of danger.
Where do you go when nowhere is safe? That is the question facing the 21stcentury nomad, isn’t it.

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Culture, Poetry & Fiction, U.S.

An Ode to Small Towns

In the spirit of Buzzfeed and the general ethos of blogging at present, I would like to begin this post with a list.

You know you live in a small town when…

1. Your customers for lunch show up at your other restaurant for dinner.

2. You run into your “regulars” all over town. They always seem surprised to see you.
3. Going grocery shopping consists of 2 parts socializing and 1 part buying food.

4. “Downtown” is Main Street.

5. Your yoga students show up for dinner, and your dinner customers show up for yoga.

6. When you walk into the local coffee shop, it takes 30 minutes to get to work, because you have to stop and greet everyone already there.

7. When you throw a party and invite people from various parts of your life, there is no need to make introductions.

8. Going to the “City” (Burlington) is an excursion you indulge in about once a month.

9. You expect greetings from strangers, and find it odd when people don’t say hello.

10. At least a couple times a week, someone you know drives past you as you’re walking to work and offers you a ride.

11. Everyone talks about their garden like most people talk about the weather.

12. No one calls you a hipster when they see you a. fermenting things, b. knitting or crocheting, c. baking, d. biking, or e. wearing flannel.

Soon-to-be homemade sauerkraut.
Above all, it is a small, small world when you live in a small town. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. On the one hand, I live for those coincidences and connections. On the other, I hate gossip, nosy neighbors and unattainable anonymity. For better, for worse, or for bizarre, I currently reside in Middlebury, Vermont, and that deserves a poetic tribute…

An Ode to Small Towns

Oh, small towns,
I can’t decide if I love or hate you.
You are full of people who compulsively read Front Porch Forum,
Scanning for nuggets of gossip to purloin,
or petty arguments to join.
Still, your characters rival those of the Big City—
Where else will my neighbor ride his tractor down the road,
Wearing a cowboy hat and white Santa beard as he goes?
Oh, small towns,
I can’t spend a day on your streets without running across a friend, or twenty-two.
If I have news in the morning,
They’ve all heard it by noon.
If I see Main Street I’ve seen all there is to see,
That is, everything but the dump, the gym, and the local brewery.
A night out with friends often ends with drinking tea.
Oh, small towns,
By your community I feel supported-
Strangers offer rides into town
When the rain is pouring.
Yet at the end of the day
When I look around,
I see all the same faces,
Hear all the same sounds.
What you lack in variety you make up for in warmth,
But even so, small towns,
I think my time with you must be short.
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Poetry & Fiction

Love Like a Thunderstorm

I am really happy with the piece I published at elephant journal today, “How to Love Like You’re Caught in a Thunderstorm.” I wanted to share the first part of it here…

Today, I huddled under the bus stop shelter as torrents of rain poured down outside. 
Vermont summer storms. 
A particularly long, sharp bolt of lightning flashed on the horizon. 
Water splashed on my toes. 
A little girl stood close to her mother beside me, sobbing. She was scared of the storm. Each crack of thunder louder than the last; I can’t remember the last time I heard thunder like that, reverberating in my chest, echoing in the pit of my stomach.
My dog is afraid of thunderstorms. She cowers in a tiny nook under a bathroom cabinet whenever she hears rumbling (she is a big dog, so this is quite impressive). The little girl next to me, too, appeared terrified of the wet and the noise and the turmoil. 
I love these storms. I prefer not to be stuck in them with my yoga mat and my laptop, like today, but that is another story.
A clap of thunder is like a jolt to my system; it energizes me. My body responds to lightning. I am hardwired, like most of us, to doggedly avoid a downpour, but when I accept the inevitability of being soaked, I relish the rivulets of rain on my skin.

I rarely write about love. The occasional poem or journal entry aside, I stick to more earthly things: travel, food, wellness. Wary of cliché and cautious of imitation, I leave love to the poets.  But the thunderstorm today inspired me; it was the perfect metaphor, I thought…
Read the rest here: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2014/07/how-to-love-like-youre-caught-in-a-thunderstorm-toby-israel/.
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Snapshots of Living

Snapshots in words and pictures of the last three weeks of life in Middlebury– plant, animal, and human.

(Disclaimer: All photos were taken yesterday, when I couldn’t resist the sunshine and the realization that things were changing every day out in the garden, and I had better hurry up if I wanted to capture some of the journey. And so, as I am wont to do, I went on a photo-shooting spree after a month without touching my lovely Nikon. Really, it would be more accurate to call these “Snapshots of a Day at 56 High Street, and an Unconnected Assortment of Words.”)

Green tomato today… what will tomorrow bring?

New bean stalks rear dinosaur heads out of the cracked earth.

Love spills out of my ears.

Green tomato. Yellow flower.

Rabbits and foxes and hedgehogs, oh my! They eat everything except the chives…

One lost, baby-size sneaker sits on a windowsill outside a Main Street shop.

An abundance of thyme. No pun here. 

My neighbor, Mr. Cardinal, sits on his perch in royal ruby splendor, presiding over my morning commute along High Street.

Snow pea spirals to get lost in.

A vine explodes along the back deck. Green exuberance.

Dreaming already of fiori di zucca!

I notice two red glitter hearts stick to the pavement as I walk to work. They leave a smile in my thoughts that lasts the day.

A teenage boy on a bicycle shouts at me as he zips by. His words are unexpected: “Have a good day!”

So much green. An abundance of green. A superabundance of green! Green green green.

Watermelon in Vermont? You bet! Gifted to me today at the Middlebury co-op, and planted by my neighbor’s granddaughter in a sunny patch of ground.

Welcome summer.






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Culture, Europe, Poetry & Fiction

Story Time!

The fairy chimneys, as it turns out, were the name that the genius, or over-romantic imagination, of someone in Cappadocia’s tourism department assigned to the giant, fanciful (and often very phallic) rock formations that cover the landscape.
Rather than go through the last two weeks I spent in Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia and Bosnia, I would like to tell you a story for a change in pace. Or rather, I would like to retell a traditional Bulgarian folktale that I read while visiting my friend’s family in Plovdiv. In recent months I have been rediscovering my love of stories, and having some fun with the art of storytelling whenever it occurs to me. I hope you enjoy this one; it is called “Glavcho.”
Once upon a time,a third son was born to a peasant family.  He had an ugly, misshapen body and a large, ugly head, so everyone called him Glavcho (big head, in Bulgarian).  His older brothers teased him mercilessly, and the other village children always picked on him, but rather than fight back, as Glavcho grew bigger and stronger he stuck more and more to himself. He gave to his animals all the tenderness and care that was not shown to him.  Sitting in the pasture, watching the smoke cult into the sky above the slate roofs of his village, Glavcho would sing to his horses and speak to them of his hopes and dreams.
Now, some animal had been breaking into Glavcho’s family’s fields at night and eating their crops, so his father instructed his sons to keep watch and find out who was causing the trouble.  The first night, the eldest son set himself up at the edge of the field with a lantern and a length of rope, certain he would catch the animal and win his father’s approval.  Dawn, however, found him fast asleep; when his family awoke, he said, “I kept watch all night long, but I saw nothing!”
The second night, the middle son kept watch.  He too awoke to the rising sun and insisted he had seen nothing.  And so the third night Glavcho had his turn.  He took the lantern and the rope and sat watch.  Though his eyelids drooped and his head grew heavy, he did not fall asleep.  Around midnight, a beautiful white stallion appeared at the edge of the field, glowing in the moonlight, and began to munch on the carrots.  Silently, Glavcho tied his rope into a loop, crept up behind the horse, and slipped the noose over its head!
“Please,” said the horse, “let me go and I promise I will never eat your family’s crops again!”
Glavcho looked at him dubiously. “I’m supposed to catch you and bring you to my father…”
“Glavcho, you are all the horses’ favorite. They all say how kind and gentle you are. You must help me and let me go!”
“Really? I didn’t know they talked about me.” Glavcho glowed at the rare compliment, and after a moment’s thought, released the white horse.
“Because you have done me this favor, I will always help you in times of need,” said the horse, lowering his head in thanks.  “All you must do is go into the forest, clap three times and call, ‘horse, come to my aid!’ and I will be there.”  And with that, he disappeared into the night.
In the morning, Glavcho told his father and brothers about the extraordinary thing that had happened to him, but they laughted at him and scolded him for falling asleep and dreaming instead of keeping watch.  Elated by his discovery, Glavcho did not care, and he went off to take a nap.
Later that day, a royal herald arrived in the village to announce a competition.  There would be three days of horse races, and the victor would win the princess’ hand in marriage.  The King invited every able man in the kingdom to compete.  Glavcho’s brothers heard the proclamation and they were talking about the upcoming festivities excitedly when Glavcho awoke.
“Brothers, may I come too?” He asked bashfully.
“You?” The said, incredulous. “Why, you would only scare the young princess and embarrass us.  Why don’t you stay with your horses.”
Desperately wanting to see the races (to compete was beyond the scope of his imagination), Glavcho wandered into the forest after supper.  The tall trees cast a murky gloom around him in the gathering night.  He clapped his hands three times and called, “horse, come to my aid!” and like that the beautiful white horse came trotting into the clearing, glowing as always.
The horse knew already what was Glavcho’s problem.  He said, “Return to this spot tomorrow after your father and brother have left for the races. Bring your sack for collecting mushrooms. I will meet you.”
And so, the next morning Glavcho took his sack and returned to the clearing.  The white horse was waiting. “Look in the sack,” he said.  Glavcho reached into the sack and brought out the most beautiful set of clothing he had ever seen.  The fabric was softer than silk, and trimmed with gold.  When he put it on, Glavcho became a tall, handsome young man, broad shouldered and strong.  He leapt upon the white horse and they galloped to the castle.
All heads turned to watch as they entered the field.  Both horse and rider shone brilliantly, and no one could look away.  “Come now,” said Glavcho, “let any man who wishes to compete against me come and race!” No other riders stepped forward.  The white horse galloped around the track with unparalleled speed, and did not stop running until he had reached the clearing in the forest.
Glavcho took off his beautiful clothes, filled the sack with mushrooms, and returned home.  His father and brothers followed shortly.  Throughout dinner, they talked of nothing but the mysterious rider at the races.
The next morning, Glavcho again set out for the forest with his sack to meet the horse.  Again everyone turned to watch them with wonder when they arrived at the castle.  Again they raced around the track, unrivaled.  Again, Glavcho’s father and brothers spoke of nothing else at dinner, their voices thick with awe.
The third day of the races, when Glavcho called out “let any man who wishes to compete against me come and race!” several of the strongest young men in the kingdom stepped forward.  The white horse sped forward, leaving the other riders far, far behind.  Glavcho stood went before the princess and bowed deeply.  Taking the ring that she offered to him, the winner, he said, “tomorrow I shall return for the wedding!” And with that he leapt back onto the white horse and they ran home.
When Glavcho’s father and brothers returned, talking of the upcoming wedding, Glavcho asked humbly, “do you think we will be invited?”
His brothers laughed. “Why would the King invite the likes of us?”
Glavcho took from his pocket the ring that the Princess had given him.  Recognizing it at once, his family exclaimed joyfully and the entire village rejoiced at his good fortune.  And Glavcho, we assume, lived happily ever after.
A traditional Bulgarian village.
Fables are nice, with their ready morals at the end (don’t steal, don’t lie, etc., etc.), but I really love these folk stories, with their more oblique messages and meanings.  What are we meant to take from this story? That less attractive men should dress nicely to get the girl? That our families will love us more if we make money? That we should be nice to horses?  The lesson here is actually a bit questionable when we consider that Glavcho only succeeds in life by changing his appearance.  
For me, though, it doesn’t matter.  However we might interpret them, folktales are stories first and foremost, meant to entertain, and it is for this underlying simplicity of purpose that I love them.
Location update: After flying through Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro, I am off to Croatia tomorrow—the Balkan adventure continues!
Roman ruins in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
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Asia, Poetry & Fiction

A Poem About Traveling

Hello from Sikkim! I present you with a brief poem I wrote about our journey here from Kathmandu…

A Poem About Traveling
Ready, set, sit wait stand stand bus sit airport stand
sit wait wait board sit sit land wait wait taxi sit
border wait wait wait jeep drive border wait wait drive
lunch! drive sit sit sit sit sleep bounce
sit bump sit bump sit bump border wait
tea! wait sit sit drive sit bounce sit breakdown
stop. drive stop drive stop drive sit sit
bump sit bump bump bump bump bump.
We made it.
What have I done for the last thirteen hours?

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