The Lexicon

Lexicon: “the vocabulary of a person, language, or branch of knowledge”

A lexicon can be vast, but it can also be narrow and exact. Horse people have a lexicon. Dock-workers have a lexicon. Waitresses have a lexicon.

My first assignment in the poetry class I’m teaching is to list 25 words relating to a subject. I have heard this assignment called “a word bucket.” It is meant to be both non-threatening (an easy threshold to trip over, into the class), but also inspiring. I shared examples of lexicons I’ve written:

  • for parts of a horse bridle
  • for the names of every part of a piano
  • for the skilled-nursing home where my mother spent her last years
  • for northwest flora and fauna
  • for my farm childhood

We all have lists of this sort in our heads, but deliberately listing the words, I’ve found, results in more exactness, and — very often — surprising directions one might follow.

Recently I wrote a poem about the word “bless.” I had high hopes for the poem, and started by looking up the definition and etymology of bless:

bless (v)

Middle English blessen, from Old English bletsian, bledsian, Northumbrian bloedsian “to consecrate by a religious rite, make holy, give thanks,” from Proto-Germanic *blodison “hallow with blood, mark with blood,” from *blotham “blood” (see blood (n.)). Originally a blood sprinkling on pagan altars.

This word was chosen in Old English bibles to translate Latin benedicere and Greek eulogein, both of which have a ground sense of “to speak well of, to praise,” but were used in Scripture to translate Hebrew brk “to bend (the knee), worship, praise, invoke blessings.” L.R. Palmer (“The Latin Language”) writes, “There is nothing surprising in the semantic development of a word denoting originally a special ritual act into the more generalized meanings to ‘sacrifice,’ ‘worship,’ ‘bless,’ ” and he compares Latin immolare (see immolate).

The meaning shifted in late Old English toward “pronounce or make happy, prosperous, or fortunate” by resemblance to unrelated bliss. The meaning “invoke or pronounce God’s blessing upon” is from early 14c. No cognates in other languages. Related: Blessed; blessing.

( lifted straight from )

I also looked up how many times “bless” appears in the King James Bible (lots, in various forms of the word, but I’ll let you check for yourself.)

Google makes it almost too easy to do this assignment. I picked out only certain words from etymonline, but as I wrote them into my notebook, I kept coming up with more. I scribbled it all down: religion, blessing, ritual, sacrifice, blood, holy, bend, knee, praise, thanks, bliss, hallow, bledsian, bloedsian (which made me think of druids, so), druids, pagan, church, bees (not sure where that came from, but I began to know at that point where the poem would be located, or the two places it would be located), pear tree, limbs, pears, blossoms, path, foyer (of my childhood church), yellow, “blood of the lamb,” washed in…, grandmother, stones, honey, bodies.

My list was longer, but many of these found their way into a rough draft of a poem about a pear tree. (I hadn’t expected the bees, or the pear tree.)

You can see that the assignment could be narrowly focused, but doesn’t have to be — you can free associate. What 25 words (or 100 words) do you associate with your mother, with the house you now live in, with your kitchen, with your cubicle at work?

It can be interesting, by the way, to do this assignment with someone else’s poem, particularly one that wows you. Start by listing every noun, maybe add the verbs. Are the words related? (Probably, but — again — perhaps in ways you didn’t imagine until you looked at them scrambled together on the page.)

Easy peasy.


A Little Something to Get You Writing

One of my daughters is moving home temporarily, and cleaning out the bottom story of our house — which includes a mother-in-law kitchen we’ve never really used — has necessitated another attempt to reduce the amount of paper I’ve stored in bins and boxes. I threw away a bunch of old literature assignments, and I found a notebook I kept when Writing Lab was first launched.

Our writing group has a couple of new or newish members, so I thought I’d replicate the first meeting, at which several of us (including me) did not yet have our textbook, Susan Tiberghien‘s One Year to a Writing Life: Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft (Marlowe & Company, 2007).

Our first exercise that day was from Heather Sellers’Page after Page:

  2. IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS (that’s Sellers’s dictum; it’s okay with me if you switch to cursive at this point), WRITE FOR 10 MINUTES (set a timer!) ABOUT ONE ITEM ON YOUR LIST.
  3. We then talked about what it felt like to write in all caps, and agreed that writing in caps slowed us down, and felt a little like drawing the letters. We had to think more, and some people felt frustrated by that. (Note, years later, I did this exercise with a class that included a couple of engineers — they said they always wrote in all caps, and didn’t get the point of it at all.)
  4. Obviously, you can keep at this, tackling each item on the list by turn, or letting one insight or detail from the first free write lead you to a new exploration.

The next exercise was from Tristine Rainer’s Your Life as Story:

  1. On the left hand side of a blank page, write the numbers 1-30 (all the way down the side).
  2. Beside number 1, write I AM BORN.
  3. Now fill in the title chapters for the rest of your life story.
  4. After doing this…though we ran out of time and talked about it instead…the next step is to choose one chapter and break it into 30 more chapters — or, failing that —  people-places-things that the chapter could, conceivably, include.

(I wish I could recover all the nuances of our conversation about this exercise — it was rich!)

I recommended typing up the exercises to prod them into becoming something more (always works for me). Before adjourning, we agreed to meet weekly, and I asked everyone to read Tiberghien’s first chapter, “Journal Writing,” for the following week.

“In the degree that we remember and retell our stories and create new ones we become the authors, the authorities of our own lives.” –Sam Keen

The Pear Tree

Christmas Eve–cards are sent, gifts are wrapped (mostly), and the holiday dinner shopping is underway.

After my visit to Chartres in June, I’ve been challenging myself to write down three things each day for which I’m thankful. This practice found its way into my mystery novel when the protagonist shared her gratitude practice and then started thinking of Instagram photos as a visual gratitude journal. (Something I now do, too. Funny how writing about it brought the whole idea to consciousness.)

Recently someone suggested that I write down 20 things to be thankful for. It took the practice to a whole new level.

The advice contained three additional suggestions:

  • be grateful for what delights you
  • be grateful for what seems not-so-delightful (or downright horrible)
  • be grateful for what’s coming

Writing down the not-so stuff makes me see it in a new light, and reminds me that even the crappy stuff in our lives often comes bearing gifts. In fact, it always does, if we are paying attention: the hardest lessons, if we stick with them, teach us the most.

This ties in with a little assignment I gave to writing lab members way back in September, to write a poem of praise. I wrote the poem in November while at a writing retreat, and I had every intention of finishing it and mailing a copy with my holiday cards. But it takes as long as it takes.

At a reading I mistakenly attributed the form or inspiration for my poem as “Skunk Hour” by Elizabeth Bishop, but of course “Skunk Hour” is Robert Lowell’s poem, which is famous. But what many people don’t know is that he was inspired to write it after reading Bishop’s “The Armadillo,” which is the poem I meant to refer to.

The Pear Tree

            for Francine Walls

It’s late fall now, and we gather at Glen Cove
to write. This morning we watched
four grebes float across rain-pocked water,

watched as one dropped from sight,
then another, then all, and all popping up again
in comic succession, lifting small white wings

and throwing back their heads as if to crow.
What draws us beneath the surface of our lives,
if not minnow or eelgrass, insight

braided, strong enough to pull us deeper?
Once in a cathedral I stood in front of a statue
of the Madonna and child, said to be carved

from a single pear tree. The sculptor
had tilted Mary’s face downward, so that she gazed
at Jesus, a toddler crowing on her lap.

Outside the window, this morning,
the rain has stopped, though when I look,
the grebes are still there, each resting

on its own reflection. Before that pear tree
was chosen, it must have grown a long time
in someone’s garden. Someone walked there,

breathing the scent of blossoms, talking of love.
Someone picked and ate a pear,
the ripe flesh spreading like honey

across her tongue. O taste and see,
as we read in the Psalms, what is holy waits,
eager to delight our every moment.


And I’m grateful for you. In 2020, I hope you write!


I have been walking through my Writing The Circle series with a small group of followers, and sharing a bit about a personal crisis that I’m dealing with at present–my husband is ill, diagnosed thus far with depression and anxiety–which has taken me and my family completely by surprise. It’s taken over a lot of the space I thought was going to be devoted in 2019 to my writing, and I have my moments of bitter resentment. I also have moments of great patience, kindness, and fortitude–and I hope that it is these moments that will prevail.

One of my readers from the small group challenged me to share on the blog at least some of what I’ve been dealing with. Her thinking (I think) was that the newsletters get lost in email-land pretty quickly, but the blogposts create a more permanent and retrievable record.

And…I sit with my fingers on the keyboard for a long while, considering whether or not I should…

Somehow–I’m just not ready. Not today.

I imagine the health crisis at my house has affected me at least a little like the great snowstorm of 2019 has affected all of us–this snowstorm that Cliff Mass says we’ll be telling our grandchildren about. We believe that we have control of our lives, and then life itself catches us by surprise, knocks us down, and dares us to get up again.

But I remember how I began this series, in Prompt #1–life does happen, terrible things happen. The only actual control we ever have is of our own response.

One response I’ve made, thus far, is to dig out my copy of Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. As much as anything else, this is a book about Palmer’s debilitating depression and how he came back from it. I found it on a shelf with books about teaching; I had forgotten it was about depression–well, entirely apt!

Here’s just one of the passages that, in previous readings, I’ve underlined and highlighted and annotated:

I pay a steep price when I live a divided life–feeling fraudulent, anxious about being found out, and depressed by the fact that I am denying my own selfhood. The people around me pay a price as well, for now they walk on ground made unstable by my dividedness. How can I affirm another’s identity when I deny my own? How can I trust another’s integrity when I defy my own? A fault line runs down the middle of my life, and whenever it cracks open–divorcing my words and actions from the truth I hold within–things around me get shaky and start to fall apart. (5)

And here’s a passage I copied into my journal this morning:

“This is the first, wildest, and wisest thing I know,” says Mary Oliver, “that the soul exists, and that it is built entirely out of attentiveness.” But we live in a culture that discourages us from paying attention to the soul or the true self–and when we fail to pay attention, we end up living soulless lives.” (34-35)

I once heard the poet Chana Bloch say, in regards to her brush with cancer, “I am going to survive this, and I am going to write about it.”

That’s what I’m going to do, too.