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Caroline Leavitt interviews Harriet Levin Millan...



Harriet Levin Millan talks about her profound novel-based-on-a-true-story, How Fast Can You Run, about a South Sudan refuge searching for the mother he was separated from when he was five.

“The best war novel told from a young boy’s perspective since Jerzy Kozinski’s The Painted Bird.”

—Nyoul Lueth Tong, author of There is a Country: New Writing from the New Country of South Sudan

Prepare to be amazed. When One Book, One Philadelphia asked author and Drexel University professor Harriet Levin Millan to choose ten of her undergraduate creative writing students to interview ten South Sudanese refugees for a special One Book writing project, she met Michael Majok Kuch, who became the subject of her novel. . Kuch survived the torching of his village in South Sudan, and was separated from his mother when he was only five. His quest to be reunited with her, and the plight of the refuge is both profound and moving. Thank you so much Harriet, for being here.

I always say every book starts with a yearning. What was yours?

My yearning was for Michael Majok Kuch, the S. Sudanese national, I based my novel on, to see his mother. They had been separated since Michael was five-years-old and their village was attacked in the middle of the night and they got separated. So by the time I met him, when he was a senior in college, he hadn’t seen her for nearly 22 years. [more…]

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  • The Vale of Cashmere

  • by Sean Elder

    green forest

    This story first appeared in Voice from the Planet, FREE from March 30 – April 3, 2017 at Amazon Kindle US, and Kindle UK among others.


    Truth was, she used to be able to organize her thoughts, until Floyd retired. Now he was always hanging around talking to her, asking what she was doing. Every time he went out, which wasn’t often enough for her taste, he would ask her if she needed anything and then look angry if she did. Sometimes he’d look angry if she didn’t. Now she looked for errands for him, just to get a moment’s peace. When she sent him off for milk this morning she could have lived without it. But she couldn’t have stood listening to him complain about the bus ride to Atlantic City before it happened, not non-stop for the next two hours.

    “You’re creating your future,” she told him. “Whatever you’re thinking and feeling, that becomes your reality.”

    “Don’t give me that shit,” he’d said, putting on his coat and hat. He had been wearing that same damned hat with the stingy brim so long it had come back in style.

    “It’s the law of attraction,” she’d continued. “You can deny it all you want but that don’t mean it’s not true. “Everything coming into your life you are attracting into your life. You’re like a magnet.”

    “Well, this magnet’s going to attract some milk,” he’d said before going out the door.

    He had made fun of her ever since she first heard Oprah talking about The Secret but deep down she thought that maybe he believed her. Or would, if he would just give it a try. He would come home so angry about something that happened out there – the security guy asleep in the chair, or someone who wouldn’t give his seat up on the subway – and she would tell him, “Every bad thing that comes into your life, you make happen.”

    Sometimes that really made Floyd angry. “Is that right? Every bad thing? I made happen every bad thing that came into my life, Marcy?” He would tower over her, breathing heavily, staring at the top of her lacquered hair until she was silent.

    She looked closely at the big digits on the clock by the bed. It was almost 8:30 and she still had not done her makeup. From the drawer in the nightstand on her side of the bed she looked for her own pill organizer and then realized she had already taken it out. She put it under the light, right beside that picture of her two boys, smiling in the lap of a black Santa, and looked at Wednesday. There were still pills in the morning box but the evening box was empty. Maybe she took the evening pills by mistake. Not that it mattered ‘cause they were basically the same. Or maybe she hadn’t filled the PM part.

    Looking at the rainbow colored compartments (Wednesday was green, Thursday red) she thought of Wilson, who had the hardest time with his R’s when he was little – “Weeding Wainbow,” he would say about his favorite show, and his brother would laugh at him. She felt overcome for a moment and then heard her husband’s keys in the door.

    She took the morning pills, four altogether, as Floyd shouted at her from the kitchen.

    “Do you know how much they wanted for a half-gallon of milk?” She imagined his face as he said the price and the way he would look at her afterwards. He might be looking that way right now, even though she wasn’t there.

    “Cost of everything is going up,” she yelled back. Then she stood and headed for the bathroom. “I got to get a move on.”

    “Ain’t you even going to drink your milk?” She heard him swear as she closed the bathroom door.

    The bus driver turned out to be some white guy who’d been sleeping in the back while people waited outside. The whole bus was talking about it, even after they got out of the Holland Tunnel and were getting on the turnpike, people tisking and hmm-hmming until Floyd wanted to yell, “Who told you to stand out there in the first place? It’s not even cold.” But he kept quiet and sat by a window, alone thank you very much, though Tommy insisted on sitting right in front of him, while Marcy huddled on the other side with a bunch of ladies. They outnumbered the men five to one anyway; he let Tommy represent, going back and forth across the aisle like some congressman making a deal. Each time he went over to the ladies he would say something so low that Floyd couldn’t hear and they would all laugh and holler.

    “I think it’s about time for some music,” Tommy said after one of his sorties. He had a gym bag with him that also said Mets on it, and from it he pulled a boom box that he tried to balance on the seatback in front of him. He pushed play and Johnnie Taylor started in on “Who’s Making Love” and the ladies all laughed, even though the sound was kind of wobbly. From the front of the bus the driver said something, they could see him looking at them in the rear view mirror, but no one tried to hear him. In fact Tommy stood up, with the boom box on his shoulder, and started to shake it in the aisle, which made the driver get on the mike.

    “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to sit down.” He had some kind of accent, Russian or something, but no one really paid him any mind.

    The hits kept coming; it must have been some kind of collection since Floyd never heard a deejay. Tommy jammed the boom box between the headrest and the window so it wouldn’t fall down and turned around to look at Floyd, but not before looking at the driver, who had his eyes on the road again.

    “How ‘bout a little taste?” Tommy said, taking a half-pint in a brown bag from the pocket of his jacket.

    “Too early for me,” Floyd said, looking out the window. To him it always looked like New Jersey was halfway through being torn down.

    Across the aisle Marcy was in the middle of a conversation with the other ladies but she didn’t feel quite right. It started as soon as she left the building; she had picked out a brooch to go with her blue blouse, a little gold tree with red apples on it, but she had left it sitting in front of the mirror. Now she felt naked, all that blue stretching out below her chin like an empty ocean almost and she felt like she was being pulled back from drowning each time one of them stopped talking. That meant somebody was supposed to say something, you were supposed to jump in like it was a game of double-Dutch.

    “What I value most is the privacy,” Marcy said, but no one answered. She had a feeling she had said that before. The topic was assisted living and how to know when you needed it.

    “Until you wake up privately dead,” said the lady in the Kente cloth. Marcy didn’t remember meeting her before, a friend of Helen’s was how she was introduced, but she didn’t like her now. She had these gray and white streaks in her hair, extensions by the look of it, but it reminded Marcy of mud. Besides she was probably the youngest woman of the bunch, what was she talking about dying for?

    “My boy checks in on us every night,” said Marcy and immediately wondered why she had. It wasn’t true. Most times she had to call Eric and he never sounded too happy to hear from her. He did come to visit though, once a month at least. They saw less of him after his divorce, though you’d think it would be the other way around.

    “Where are we?” she said suddenly, looking out the window. Everything looked the same.

    “You keep asking that,” the lady in the Kente cloth said, or maybe she said. Marcy wasn’t looking at her and the music Tommy was playing made her feel lost.

    “Sending this one out for all you ladies,” said Tommy, like he was some deejay, and they all laughed but Marcy didn’t think it was funny. It was that song about sitting on a park bench that always made her sad. “I see her face everywhere I go/on the street and even at the picture show/have you seen her?”

    There was a hospital up there high on a hill and for a second she felt that the bus was going to take off and fly straight up to its doors. She closed her eyes and felt herself rise.

    They parked in the lot of the Showboat casino. Though they could have gone anywhere they wanted, the thirty odd passengers that disembarked made for the Showboat as if summoned, shuffling and limping toward the entrance in a broken conga line.

    “No one says we got to go to this casino,” Floyd said to the crowd of ladies leading the way.

    “The Showboat has a Mardi Gras theme,” said the lady in the Kente cloth. She turned around to give Floyd the fisheye, pulling down her glasses as she did. “Besides, we got coupons for the Showboat.”

    He fell in line sullenly beside Tommy who offered him another drink. Floyd took a swallow this time without pulling down the brown paper to see what it was. It tasted like mouthwash.

    “Jesus, what the hell you drinking?”

    “Little peppermint schnapps.” Tommy tried to slap Floyd on the back but the big man danced away, handing the bottle back as he moved.

    “What she mean by a ‘Mardi Gras theme,’ anyway?” Floyd said.

    Tommy shrugged. “As long as they got free drinks and blackjack I don’t much care.”

    Seagulls screamed overhead. Floyd saw his reflection scowling in the window of a parked Humvee. He went to New Orleans during Mardi Gras when he was in the Navy, how many years ago? He got lost and someone stole his wallet. A man dressed as a woman tried to put beads around his neck, he remembered. You could have your Mardi Gras.

    Marcy was among the first of the women to enter the casino and the air conditioning hit her like a cold wave. “Good thing I remembered my shawl!” she said but no one answered. The music and the sound of the slot machines, dinging and ringing with sirens going off every five minutes as if some crime was being committed, swallowed her voice.

    Marcy had thought to bring rolls of quarters and silver dollars. While the other ladies were getting change she was already pouring her silver into a red plastic cup provided to her by a girl in the shortest skirt she had ever seen.

    “You must be freezing!” Marcy said but the girl didn’t seem to hear her. Maybe she just got tired of people trying to talk to her.

    The slots area had thousands of machines and at noon it was already half filled, mostly old timers like her and Floyd. He and Tommy had set off in the other direction like there was a sign saying ‘Men, That Way.’ The carpets were in a pattern of red and orange and gold that reminded her of a kaleidoscope and the ceiling was made up to look like stained glass, though she knew real stained glass when she saw it and this wasn’t it. She felt like if she didn’t sit down she might just fall into the colors. She sat down at a quarter machine and began feeding it. She didn’t know where the other ladies had gone and looking over her shoulder left her none the wiser.

    “Y’all gonna have to find me,” she said and as if summoned a different lady in a short skirt appeared.

    “How you doing today?” she said. She had a tray filled with drinks and a notepad tucked into her belt. “Can I get you something to drink?”

    “Well I suppose you can!” Marcy turned in her chair to show her appreciation. “My name’s Marcy by the way, I come here from Brooklyn with a bunch of folks from my church group.”

    “Now isn’t that nice? My name’s Kim Sue. What can I get you?”

    Marcy smiled and opened her mouth. But she could not think of the names of any drinks, not just the fancy ones but any drink. She felt a trickle of sweat run down her back underneath her blouse.

    “It’s funny,” she said, embarrassed. “My mind’s just a blank today.”

    “Sure, no problem!” Kim Sue smiled back at her like one of those Chinese dolls, her name right there on her badge. “We have beer and wine and soda and mixed drinks.” She kept smiling at Marcy and continued. “I could make you a nice white wine spritzer, if you like.”

    “Oh, that sounds nice,” said Marcy, and it did sound nice, like a sprinkler in the summer time, the kind the boys used to play in. Kim Sue left and Marcy returned to the machine. Cherries and plums rolled past, never stopping at the same time.

    Eric used to chase Wilson through the sprinklers in the park and sometimes when Marcy wasn’t looking he would hold his little brother down and try to pull off his shorts in front of all the other children. She would get so mad at him, always teasing like that, knowing it would make Wilson cry and come looking for her, but she had a job then, looking after a little white boy named Oskar whose parents lived in Park Slope and worked all the time. Oskar’a parents didn’t mind too much when she brought her boys with her when she took him to the park. “As long as you remember,” the father said, “that Oskar is your first priority.”

    Well of course he is, mister doctor man! Why would my own flesh and blood come before your little prince? Good gracious, the things that man would say. If the wife heard him she would weigh in and try to soften the blow. “What my husband means is that we don’t want you to get too distracted. Three children is a handful.”

    Now that was the kind of thing only a white person would say. Where she came from three children was just getting started, even if she was done after Wilson, something her own mother could never understand.

    “Oh, don’t worry, ma’am,” Marcy would say. “I won’t ever let Oskar out of my sight.”

    All these people thinking someone was going to steal their child then, like the whole country had gone crazy. Soon they’d be putting their pictures on milk cartons and billboards and on TV during the news – “Have you seen Brandon?” Usually white kids. If a black kid went missing generally people know who took him.

    “Here you go, ma’am.”

    Kim Sue was back with her drink. It was in a big plastic cup with a straw that went in curlicues, like a roller coaster, like this was for a child. She started fishing in her coin cup.

    “Drinks are complimentary, ma’am.”

    Like I didn’t know that. She pulled out a Susan B. Anthony and put it on her tray. “That’s for you,” she said.

    “Very nice of you, ma’am. And if you need anything else you just let me know.”

    She turned to leave and Marcy was afraid to see her go. “Kim Sue, it’s like your momma gave you two names.”

    “Kim is my family name. Family name comes first in Korean.”

    “Is that right?” said Marcy. “Well I think family should come first, don’t you?”

    “Yes, ma’am.”

    Marcy thought that was something else she should write in her book but realized that she hadn’t brought it with her, and then forgot what she had said. “But they probably don’t spell it like that in Korea, do they? The Sue, I mean.”

    “No, ma’am, we have a different alphabet.”

    “Now isn’t that something?”

    She was balancing a tray full of drinks while she talked to Marcy so she let her go, disappearing into the big Tiffany lamp around them. A band was playing Dixieland and Marcy strained her eyes to see them. The music seemed to be coming from everywhere at once, “When the Saints Come Marching In.”

    “Let me tell you another,” she said, sipping on her drink. The lady at the machine next to her looked at Marcy and then moved away, taking her quarters with her. She watched as the drink spun up the straw when she sucked. Here we go loop de loop.

    Sometimes Eric would help her push the stroller as they went around the park, and Wilson would run so far ahead she would shout after him. “Don’t go where I can’t see you!” she’d holler, and Oskar, too big to be pushed around in a stroller, would try and stand up and yell after her. “Go where I can’t see you!”

    Wilson would hide like that at home as well; hide so good she couldn’t find him sometimes. They were living in Prospect-Lefferts, more house than they needed but you could afford those big limestone buildings then even on a Con Ed salary and Wilson would go into different rooms and be so quiet that she would get hysterical, be practically beside herself by the time her husband got home. Then they would hear him laughing. “Got you!” he would say and emerge from the cupboard or from behind the sideboard and Floyd would get so mad. That one time he came out of her closet wearing her bra and Floyd just about went crazy; took off his belt and chased him.

    She put in a coin and pulled the lever: a watermelon; a bell; the number seven in gold.

    “What numbers are you playing today?”

    She turned her head but nobody was there. Who had spoken? Just turning her head made the colors around her move and when she looked at the floor she saw the pattern there was moving too. It was like a flying carpet, the Vale of Cashmere –

    The Vale of Cashmere! That was the name of that strange corner of the park where she took the boys now and then. They were getting older; other boys took the place of Oskar, and Eric got too big to want to be with them. But Wilson kept her company as she made the rounds, bought them ice cream and wiped their sticky hands. People used to call it The Swamp and there was a muddy pond okay and some hanging trees.

    “How come you don’t play with boys your own age?” one of the kids had asked him once.

    “I just like to help my momma,” he’d said.

    He was the one who found out the real name of The Swamp, checked an old book out of the library and showed her on the map. There was a poem that went with it and Wilson stood up by the pond and put one finger in the air as he read: “Who has not heard of the Vale of Cashmere/With its roses the brightest the earth ever gave?”

    Another babysitter saw them by the pond once and came over to warn them. “You shouldn’t be down in there,” she said, afraid to come too close with her stroller in front of her. “They say men get together down there.”

    And after that Marcy noticed them, lurking about, standing in the trees. Once when she came down with Wilson and a stroller two men ran out, going in different directions.

    She didn’t think about it again for years, until Wilson was grown and still living at home, and he came back one night that first time with his face all bloody, drunk or high on something and smiled at her, blood on his teeth.

    “Hey, Momma, I been to the Vale of Cashmere!”

    That’s when Floyd said no more.

    “What numbers are you playing today?”

    She turned and the colors whooshed like a scarf being wrapped around her head. She saw her this time, a little woman, no bigger than a dragonfly like the ones the boys chased in the park, Wilson would put them in a jar with holes punched in the top, while Eric tried to cover it up with his hand so they would smother.

    “I’m looking for three sevens,” Marcy said to the dragonfly woman. “Are there some other numbers to play?”

    “That is the question, isn’t it?” said the faerie. “Are there other numbers to play?”

    And then she flew away, just like a little hummingbird, and Marcy got up to follow her, passing into the pattern of colors and leaving her cup of coins behind.

    Floyd went through all his money the first hour. Not all his money but all the money he’d meant to spend, the money he put in his shirt pocket, seemed to fly off the table. Dealer beat him every time: if Floyd had 18, the dealer had 19; if Floyd sat on a 19, the dealer hit him with two bricks.

    “I guess this lady feels like she has to show us what a blackjack looks like,” said Tommy, when the dealer drew her third in ten minutes. She apologized to them both, even though they didn’t tip her, and Tommy’s luck was better than hers: He doubled down twice and made a hundred bucks in the blink of an eye. All Floyd could do, once he had spent the money he had earmarked for this outing, was sit there and simmer in his resentment while Tommy’s chip pile grew.

    That was when Helen, the lady in the purple pantsuit, came and asked if he knew where Marcy was.

    “I thought she was with you,” said Floyd. It came out like an accusation.

    “Well, we agreed to meet for lunch at three,” she said, “but then nobody could find Marcy. We figured maybe you two went off together.”

    And that’s how well you know us, Floyd thought. “Maybe she just went off to another casino by herself,” he said. Even though he was losing, and wasn’t even playing at the time, he didn’t want to have to leave his spot and go look for his wife. “There’s no law says we got to stay here.”

    “Blackjack,” said the dealer, flipping another ace.

    But after a minute he did get up to look, as he knew he would, leaving Tommy, who still had a hot hand and no doubt wondered what all the fuss was about.

    “Did you try the ladies room?” he asked Helen.

    “That was one of the first places we looked. They have sofas in there, you know.” She paused. “Do you think we should call security?”

    The suggestion made his blood pressure rise. “No, I don’t think we should call security. Christ sake, grown woman goes off for a few minutes and you want to call the cavalry?”

    “Does she have a cell phone?”

    “Our son gave her one but she couldn’t figure out how to use it.” This was literally half true: Eric had given them each one last Christmas, and neither of them could figure out how to use it. By the time Floyd got the hang of it he realized that the only person he would call was his wife, which was kind of stupid since he saw her all the time anyway.

    They looked all the places that they had already looked and the lady in the Kente cloth joined them, acting more concerned that Floyd felt. “We need a system,” she said, as they circled the room for the second time. The place was more crowded than ever and Floyd could hardly hear what she was saying. “How about I go stake out the buffet and you stay here?” she suggested to Helen.

    “How ‘bout I go stake out the buffet?” Helen said. “I haven’t had lunch yet.”

    Floyd said they could both go feed themselves and take their time doing it; Marcy would turn up. He stood like a sentinel beneath the bells and sirens of the Mardi Gras slots, scowling most of the time. He hated slot machines; there was no sport in it, as he often told his wife. Blackjack at least you were playing the odds. Slots to him was just dumb luck, like a rabbit betting it wouldn’t get run over when it ran across the road. Twice he thought he saw his wife, and each time he took pleasure in anticipating just how much grief he was going to give her. But each time he was wrong.

    By four o’clock they were back together, Tommy too, and they began to set out in search parties. They were a small group: most of the travelers didn’t want to leave their stations, since the bus was scheduled to leave at six and this whole business had already cut into their time as it was. The lady in the Kente cloth, who finally introduced herself as Niobe, took charge. She contacted the hotel security, who seemed to have some experience with old folks wandering off, and as the witching hour neared, and the day-trippers started heading back toward the bus, she went out and argued with the bus driver, who was pretty adamant about leaving on time.

    “You can’t just go off and leave an old lady alone,” she scolded him. The engine was already running, gently shaking the bus, while the AC gusted out the door in heavy welcoming breaths.

    “I won’t be leaving her alone,” the driver said. “I will be leaving you to find her.”

    He agreed to wait as they made one last search. A handful of them fanned out, going to neighboring casinos and restaurants, off the boardwalk and into the side streets. Floyd couldn’t help but think that Marcy was messing with him the whole time, and when he saw the impatient faces of the other folks on the bus – they’d lost their money and had their fill, they just wanted to go home – he couldn’t help but side with them.

    Most of the people he saw as he wandered were wearing shorts and T-shirts. Used to be people would get dressed up to go someplace. And when did everybody get so fat? Walking down the boardwalk, bag of French fries in your hand, what did you expect? The new motto for the city was “Always Turned On,” which he found kind of creepy. There was nothing that he saw that turned him on.

    Doors were open, air conditioning blasting out, cooling nothing. Floyd took to popping into places and doing a quick look around, not even asking half the time if they’d seen anyone who looked like his wife. One, they couldn’t hear you with all that noise and two, half of them couldn’t speak English.

    “You seen an old black lady?” he shouted at one girl scooping ice cream. Her nails were so long he figured they might end up in somebody’s cone. “Blue shirt, about this high?” She stared at him like he was the one with the language problem.

    He kept walking. Going in and out of the summer sun was making him dizzy, to say nothing of thirsty. He wished for the first time that Tommy was with him. That man would always stop for a drink. He saw people in those rolling chairs, being pushed by young people, girls sometimes. And you wonder why you so fat?

    Down at one end of the boardwalk he found what looked like a real bar. The crowd had trickled off as the sun sank lower in the sky. Go on, get out of here. A lot of good you been. Floyd ducked inside and felt the rivers of sweat roll out from under his hat and chill on his face and neck. His glasses steamed as he took a seat at the bar and ordered a gin and tonic. He perched on the stool and looked up at the game on TV. The waitress brought him his drink and man did that taste good. No skimping on the gin, either. He forgot to ask her about Marcy. His wallet was bothering him, he felt like he was balancing on it. When she asked him if he wanted to start a tab he simply nodded.

    “You got a phone?” She pointed to an old-fashioned booth in the back, kind Superman used to change in. The place was filling up, young couples waiting for dinner. Went back to the hotel to put your dress shorts on? Once inside the paneled wood booth he forgot who he was going to call. Eric, right. He searched the scraps of paper in his wallet for the number he never had cause to memorize and let it ring, go to voicemail, and then dialed again.


    “This ain’t no telemarketer.”

    “Hey, Pop.” He did not sound happy to hear from him and Floyd had already put enough change in the machine so he cut straight to the point.

    “We in Atlantic City and your mother’s gone missing.” He backtracked from there, explaining the whole afternoon in greater detail than Eric needed, but never did his son sound any more excited than Floyd felt. He asked the obvious questions – had they called the police? Who else was looking?

    “Did she have her cell phone?” he asked, pointedly.

    “That’s why I was calling,” Floyd said. “I figured maybe she’d called you.”

    Eric was silent, and Floyd knew that he knew he was lying. He imagined him at home, still in his work clothes, the sound on the TV muted, his eyes on the game. From his perch in the booth Floyd could see the TV over the bar. Jeter was trying to steal.

    “I’m sure she’ll turn up, Pop. I mean, where’s she gonna go?”

    “I know that.”

    “You got your cell phone with you? So I can call you if she does?”

    Floyd muttered something and got off the phone. That boy would go to his grave asking about those damn phones. He should just wrap them up and give them back to him for Christmas. Turn ‘em into salt-and-pepper shakers.

    When he got back to his seat at the bar Jeter got picked off and he ordered another drink. Now they could send the search party out for him. The tumblers were tall and when he turned in his seat he found he had company. Big old white dude with long hair and a pointed beard. He was sipping a Budweiser longneck and looking at the screen. His arms were covered in tattoos; dragons, snakes and skulls disappeared into his shirtsleeves.

    “Fuckin’ Yankees,” he said and turned to look at Floyd. “Nice hat.”

    Floyd turned to face his own reflection in the mirror behind the bar. “You wouldn’t believe how long I had this hat,” he said.

    “There isn’t much I wouldn’t believe,” the man said.

    They got to talking. Turned out he worked in a tattoo parlor on the boardwalk, which explained all the ink. Half way through his second drink and Floyd was feeling generous in his opinions.

    “Back in the day,” he said, “man had a tattoo it meant he’d been someplace. In the service, in the joint, you know.”

    “I hear you,” the man said. “These days it just means you been to the mall.” He drained his beer and held up the empty. “Buy you a drink?”

    “Let me buy you a drink,” said Floyd, and pulled out the fat wallet that had been giving him such a pain and laid it on the counter. Soon he had the pictures out and was showing him snaps of Eric, bragging on his job even if he wasn’t exactly sure what he did. Then one of the whole family, when everyone was young.

    “Where’s your other boy?” the stranger asked.

    Floyd made a face like he was sucking on a lime. “Wilson got killed in a hold-up ten years ago,” he said.

    “Oh, man, I am sorry. They catch the guy who did it?”

    “No, it was in Prospect Park one night. Lot of crime in there.”

    “That’s why I could never live in the city,” the man said, which struck Tommy as funny. Most people would be scared of him, even in Brooklyn.

    “So what happens when folks get old?” said Floyd, changing the subject. “Maybe they don’t want all those tattoos any more.”

    “Shit, you don’t have to wait ‘til your old to regret something stupid you did.” The man laughed and Floyd got a glimmer of a gold tooth in his head. “People come in all the time wanting to have tattoos taken off, usually the name of some girl that don’t love them anymore.”

    “Can you do it?”

    “Sure,” the man said. “Hurts like hell and costs twice as much. But we can do it. Easier just to change it, though.”

    “How do you mean?”

    “Well, there was this one girl who loved a guy named Chris and had it tattooed on her ass. Until she found Jesus and then we just added a ‘T’.”

    He didn’t smile at first and it took Floyd a minute to figure it was a joke. He smiled first. “Hey, I got one,” he said. The stranger’s eyes gleamed in anticipation. “There was this guy who loved this old girl so much he had her name tattooed on his Johnson.”

    “Now that’s gotta hurt!”

    “Hell, yeah.” Floyd wiped his mouth. “Then they broke up, you know, and soon he started missing her real bad. So he went all over looking for her, from Wisconsin all the way down to Jamaica. Then he’s in the bathroom one day and he looks over and he sees this other guy’s dick.” He stopped for a minute. The stranger kept staring at him. “Now I can’t remember that girl’s name.”

    “Is it important?”

    “Yeah, it’s the whole punch line.”

    “Uh, oh. Better have another drink.”

    He felt flushed and excused himself to go to the bathroom. There he stared straight ahead at the wall and read all the graffiti as if looking for a message. And by the time he got back to the bar he was not surprised to see the stranger was gone and with him his wallet though all Floyd could feel was a keen sense of disappointment: He remembered the end of the joke now. He had remembered that old girl’s name.


    voice from the planet

    ‘Vale of Cashmere’ was first published by Harvard Square Editions in Voice from the Planet, FREE from March 30 – April 3, 2017 at Amazon Kindle US, and Kindle UK among others. Sean Elder’s writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, New York Magazine, Salon, Slate, Vogue, Elle, Men’s Journal, Men’s Health, O: The Oprah Magazine, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Details and many other publications. The essay he contributed to the collection of men’s writings The Bastard On the Couch (Morrow, 2004) was reprinted on three continents; his essay on ecstasy, included in the collection of drug writings entitled White Rabbit (Chronicle Books, 1995) was called “seminal” by Granta; and a piece he wrote about being a stay-at-home dad for Oprah was included in her best of O collection, Live Your Best Life (Oxmoor, 2005). He has co-authored several books, including Websites That Work with designer Roger Black (Adobe Press, 1997) and Mission Al Jazeera with former Marine captain Josh Rushing (Palgrave, 2007). He also works as a book doctor and helped edit the forthcoming Making Rounds with Oscar by Dr. David Dosa (Hyperion, 2010). He lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and daughter.

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  • All at Once: Excerpt of the Novel

  • I step onto a wide stone platform surrounded by water and lie on my stomach to peer down over the edge. At my approach, tiny fish scatter like drops of colored light; crabs pause, wary, then scuttle along the sides of the basin, stuffing their mouths as fast as they can with alternate pincers. After a while, a kind of brown finger wriggles out from the shadows. Another one emerges, then two more, and finally the bulbous body of an octopus comes into view. It skims along until the water is too shallow then starts to walk, using its tentacles as legs. When the water gets deeper it pushes off against the sandy bottom to glide, once more, just beneath the surface. It circles round and round my platform.

    aao cover

    My back begins to prickle, and I realize I’ll be burnt to a crisp if I don’t find shelter pretty soonthe ocean breeze masks the sun’s virulence.

    Standing up makes me momentarily dizzy. The tide has gone out, uncovering rocks studded with barnacles or slick with thick green hair. I head back toward the flat sand and continue walking, looking for a place to rest. I’ve just about resigned myself to the idea of a plastic chair, when I spot a barraca that’s not open for business. The beach in front of it is empty, the small structure shuttered; its thatched roof casts a nice, wide stripe of shade onto the sand. Gratefully, I set up camp, taking out the water and crackers I brought, spreading out my towel to sit on, and leaning against the barraca wall with the empty backpack in between for cushioning. A sigh of relief.

    The ocean is now more white than blue. At the horizon, a wavering smudge might be a cruise ship or an oil rig. The great mass of water is barely disturbed by shifting waves, fretful and sluggish like a dog settling down to sleep. There’s an occasional bloom of white spray when a wave breaks against rock; wisps of cloud trail across the sky. I yawn, lie down on the towel, and close my eyes.

    Now the landscape is reduced to the rustle of wind in the palm thatch, the faint piping of a distant bird, and the dull roar of the ocean. I stretch my arms and let them flop back down. Rolling my head slowly from side to side to loosen the tension in my neck, I notice that this movement causes the pitch of the ocean to vary ever so slightly. Intrigued, I try it a few more times, just to make sure.

    There’s a lesson in that, I reflect: reality changes according to your viewpoint. I roll my head once more from side to side then lie still again, listening to the tiny, ceaseless fluctuations within the monotone.

    An insect lands on my footwithout opening my eyes I flex my toe to chase it away, and realize that the gesture produced an infinitesimal shift in the ocean sound. Bizarre! I can understand the position of my head influencing what I hear, but the position of my toe? (more…)

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Recent Articles:


for Anjana

by Rajani Kanth


Where’s redress

For a broken



Not one,

or two,

But Six ? –


‘Tis a




a spirit




There is





No physic

That can




serves –




Nor even



And pure


Of all of




by far

is it the

worst –


to forge

a mind that

ever fawns –


and  a heart

that must

yearn –

or burst


love’s perjuries

are too well



but this –

I swear –

I own


There is no


So condign –


As to  ache,

in  ardor,


[©R.Kanth, 2019]  


Professor Rajani Kanth, Author of Coda, and Expiations, is Trustee of the World Peace Congress

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for Malini

by Rajani Kanth


You have to  hand it to Trump.

He gets it right so very often.

Quite amazing.

I’m really  impressed.

If only people took the trouble to understand him!

Alas, so few do.


Here’s just one very  small, but telling,  example.

He’s  so very  right about those nasty,  ugly, repulsive, immigrants that he goes on about, every chance he gets.

Yep,  I mean those loathsome critters who sneak into the country uninvited.

They simply  pour  in,  in  unstoppable hordes.

And , over time, go on a wild spree of rape, pillage,  and  mass murder.

And try to take over everything, leaving the locals  broken and distraught.


Insane  hyperbole?



It’s all  so  very true.

And well documented.

I  actually read about them in history books.

So, Trump has  real , solid facts on his side.

He’s no ignoramus.

He sure knows his history.

Whence he deserves our respect.

Not calumny, or derision, as seems to abound in these times.

Indeed, when will the  nasty , corporate media let him be?


For he just performed  us a  real national service, all but unnoticed.

By reminding us (and which President has ever done that, I  ask you?) of an indisputable fact.

And  a timely one, too.

You know what I’m referring to.

Of course,  you do.

Of all the  heady , hardy,  heroic, exploits that are by now  writ  into legend  and  folklore.

Whose exploits, you ask?

Why, of the  Great Lineage descended from our Original Immigrants, the ‘Old Comers’

on the Mayflower (later to be hailed as ‘Pilgrimes’,  and ‘Saints’ ).

Lest we forget.


Bravo , Trump.

It  takes guts.

Real guts.

To own up.

In fact, I am holding my breath.

Maybe – if  re-elected –  he might even apologise?

To the Natives, I mean.

For the Omnicide.

For the resource-grab, the  open theft, the broken treaties.

Like the  Australian Prime Minister did, a while ago.

Why not?

If the Ozzies can do it….


But, It’s all very sad, really.

If only the natives, of yesteryear,  were as bright as Trump: they might have built a wall?

Of course , they would.

Who wouldn’t ?

The Chinese  did.

And certainly survived a  whole lot  better than Native Americans.

Don’t believe me?

Do a quick  enumeration.

How many Chinese are there today, in China?

And  how many Native Americans?

You get it.


So,  yes,  do support that wall idea of his.

But , just be sure whom you’re walling in –  and whom you’re walling out.

In other words, get  the history straight.

That’s very  important.

Mustn’t go wrong there: one needs be extra punctilious.

And then,  the facts will speak for themselves.

As they always do.

[©R.Kanth, 2019]



Professor Rajani Kanth, Author of Coda, and Expiations, is Trustee of the World Peace Congress

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International Women’s Day?

by Rajani Kanth

March 8 is , of course, International Women’s Day.

I find myself bemused:  should  we be impressed by its largesse, or is it ,  simply,  another, the by now standard,  UN-style,  hype and hypocrisyday?

For grim paradox and  rank hypocrisy are , more brazenly than ever, become  the ruling geist of our times.

After all, Saudi Arabia was elected Chair of the UN Human Rights Council Panel; and  President  Obama was awarded the Nobel PeacePrize.

Nice going:  affirming, neatly,   all the values of Western Civ.,  we are  so  very pleased  to admire.

But, no , even  the UN did not ‘invent’ the Day: it merely  adopted it.

It’s provenance was, in fact, more substantive: after women gained suffrage in Soviet Russia in 1917, March 8 became a national holiday, and remained a commemorative day in the  world socialist movement.

The UN  simply appropriated it,  in 1975.


At any rate, in point of fact, only 6 nations – yes, 6 –  legally speaking, guarantee, equal rights for women: Belgium, Denmark, France, Latvia, Luxembourg, and Sweden , in the 21st century, despite  decades of  UN declarations  and commitments.

And this data comes  from a World Bank Report –  Women, Business and the Law 2019: A Decade of Reform ,- International Bank for Reconstruction and Development , 2019 – by the way: not  from a Code Pink dossier.

The US score, in this Report,   is   83.75 – as against a perfect score of 100 , scored by all the European nations named above – placing it  behind Mexico, Colombia, and Zimbabwe.

Now we want to build  a wall against the first, named above,  one must note: is it, perhaps,  lest it  ‘contaminate’ us by its example?

In fact,  the US doesn’t even count among the first 60 countries on the list of 187 countries.

Maybe that should give us pause, before we flaunt the high banner of leading the ‘free’ world: certainly,  we don’t cut it anywhere close  to it –  in Women’s rights.

Au contraire , the US – the only Western nation to make the grade –  is amongst the Top Ten nations where women are at highest risk ( Survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation)  for violence, with India leading the pack.

The US also  ranked  #3 in  world Rape Crimes stats, with  1 in 3 women experiencing  assault in their lives, with  68% of cases  going unreported,  and 98% of rapists never spending even a day in jail, . South Africa leads this pack, with   Sweden – yes, Sweden –  a close second.

So,  claiming  the high ground  of  ‘democracy’ means little  as regards women’s rights ( and various other social rights).


Not that the rest of the world  is worthy of  any high(er) commendation.

No: far from it.

With an average score of 74.71, the typical country gives women only 3/4ths the rights given to men: on paper.

You’d think, on paper,  it could give it all away!

But, the World  Bank – with a woman CEO –  will  yet remind us of the catechism of ‘progress’ (lest we forget): the average score, ten years ago,  was 70.06.

So, as far as they are concerned, it’s ‘getting better all the time’: i.e., we’re on track.

Oh, well:  maybe it’s all part of an   incremental march to the promised land.

Yet is it a path marked with  pitfalls: as we should know,  by now,  there is no guaranteed uni-directional linearity to such matters.

Democracies revert to dictatorships, reformist societies to reactionary regimes, and so on.

We, in the US,  should know that: after all, we  ourselves were something akin to a ‘democracy’, but  a short while ago(before devolving into an oligarchy as we are, currently).

Ditto,  with  Women’s rights.


Fact is, the price of any  such ‘right’ still remains eternal vigilance, and an ever-readiness to struggle.

No one  ‘gives’ it away (women, of all  human groupings, know this fact intimately).

Unless we’re talking of  due ceremonials  like International Women’s Day, which are most liberally  dispensed, and with much fanfare.

It’s part of the  essential bromide of the system.

The UN panders  utopian  rhetoric, the World Bank purveys socio-economic amelioration, and the IMF provisions  financial relief.

All for  sheer goodness’ sake.

What a benign troika – the Three Marketeers –  of  global welfare !

Dr Pangloss would have approved.

Still, International Women’s  Day is  yet worthy – despite its dubious, multilateral,  sponsors – if only  as a day for due, even dire,  reflection.

On one of the most  gross iniquities of our time.

Against which women continue to struggle, as indeed they have – for millenia.

If the day be dedicated to honoring their struggle, then it’s worth the name.

With 253000 women (age 12 and above)  still suffering assaults, every year, right here in the US – that’s one every 107 seconds, 40% below 18yrs.  of age –  there is little to celebrate.

Sorry, World Bank: that touted  ‘Decade of Reform’  needs to read  a  whole lot better –  to be worthy of any real jubilation.

[©R.Kanth, 2019]  


Professor Rajani Kanth, Author of Coda, and Expiations, is Trustee of the World Peace Congress

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We, the  Exceptionals

by Rajani Kanth

American Exceptionalism?



I can swear to it, having spent  most of my life here.

We are the exceptionals  (even if we say so ourselves).


To examine,  further.

We are defined , in one respect (of  this uniqueness), by our werewolf lusting after the chimera of ‘freedom’.

Which is oft synonymous with obeisance to another similarly  consecrated  delusion called



We are free.

Nay,  free-er (than others).

In fact, we may be the free-est.

But,  in what way?

Let me  extol  some freedoms , amongst many,  that may otherwise  go unnoticed.


For starters, we’re ,  arguably, the least informed of all the major industrialised

nations, i.e., we are, ever so blissfully:  ‘fact-free’.

Barring the 1% of the educated ( I know:  but let’s exaggerate,  a little)  most of us know zip about the nature of the  outside world ,i.e.,  the many nations that our Intrepid governors own and operate (mostly, on their own behalf).

Mark Twain quipped that God invented war, so Americans could learn geography.

If so,  S/he (i.e.,  ‘god’)  was  much too hopeful.

We’ve been at war  93% of our history  – 222 out of 239 Years – Since 1776: with no solid gains, apparent as yet,  amongst the populace, even  as regards  simple geo-knowledge.

The idiotisation of the populace – a  normal desideratum of hegemony – is near complete.


Next, as the most Amoral of all human societies in the history of the planet, we are also, insouciantly:   ‘conscience-free’.

We must be:  since the government has conducted  wholesale slaughters of overseas civilians, in pursuit of state policy,  for decades now , with few  batting an eyelid, or missing a beat.

If Congress is any indication, as witnessed during the recent SOTU  address ,  the appetite for  even  more bloodshed is yet alive and well – and cheering.

As one views the political landscape, one can , daily, witness  gender combating gender, race fighting racereligion crossing religion, restroom pitted against restroom,   and so on-   as  diversionary, divisive, politics is ever  granted full reign – to  extra loud attention from the media: but few  there  to mourn the gruesome casualties  of runaway Militarism ( nor the innumerable victims of  the  Casino economy),   despite their horrifying  toll (of course, even fewer would be heard, if they did speak out ).

In fact, au contraire,  a TV news anchor , recently, nearly  soiled himself  praising the ‘beauty ‘ of our killing machines.

In some irony,  George  Washington University  had awarded him  an honorary  ‘Doctorate of Humane  Letters’ ( though  -I’d hope – not for that  choice quip).

More prosaically, we have, in wilful  misanthropy,  calmly murdered more than 20 million innocent civilians in 37 nations , since WW2.

And it’s far from over yet : for we are  still at war – declared , or not – with some 11 countries right now.

How many could  even name these countries?

And how many  know why:  or ,  even care?

No,   as yet , no inspiring  memorials to that holocaust:  few movies, few best selling novellas, few tv series.

No surprise, naturally.

We should know at least this , if we know anything of world history, these last  four hundred years: black and brown lives simply  don’t  matter.

But wait.

A red line may have been crossed, by now, in this regard.

We may have, finally,  gone beyond  bigotry?

Perhaps  it wouldn’t  matter any more,  in this brave new  Neo-Con World, even were  these foreigners to be  white (say, e.g., Russians) : we  would  still dispense murder (in the spirit  of  ‘equal opportunity’).

Of course, for the  sprawling defense-financial  complex, no scruples , of any denomination,  can exist: for there’s big  money in them thar missiles.


Then we  are, also, unmindingly, often unabashedly,   ‘truth-free’.

Indeed, the system ,  quite proudly,  flaunts its ‘post-truth’ nature.

That was, likely,  a gift from our Post-Modernist  English Departments ,  perhaps, steeped in quizzing all ‘narratives’ (yes:  injustice, iniquity, exploitation,   are but  so many  ‘discourses’)  as suspect?

The fact is plain.

Everything is  gamed, everything rigged.

The  sheer scale of  the rank corruption is breathtaking:  a case in point – a trifling $21 trillion went ‘missing’ in the DOD,  and the Department of Housing and Urban Development , between 1998-2015.

And, an  audit , called years later ,  is  said to  have, simply,  ‘failed’.

The ensuing silence, on the subject – from media or government –  is ear-splitting.

If that doesn’t  that make us Numero  Uno, and by a stretch! : for who else could  ‘lose’ $21 trillion,  and not give a hoot?

We may not know how it was lost, but we can  likely guess at who found it.

Chicanery, historically,  was ever an Anglo-Norman  ruling-elite penchant (vide., the hoary  ‘perfidious Albion’ characterisation), and was one of the Two  strengths that helped gain them world mastery (cannon was the Other); and the US and the UK  still  virtually lead the world in generating,  incessantly,   ever more blatant ,and bizarre,  weapons of  ingenious, grand ,  mass deception(s) : and, what’s more,   with  such efforts meeting with supernal success.

Indeed,  Media fabrications , in both countries set –  and  exceed –  the global gold  standard in the genre, as but daily fare: with only their governments  able to give them any real competition.

No wonder they’re   all so  riled up about Assange!

He ripped  off the veils, revealing the hideous ugliness beneath.


The post of Liar-in Chief has not (yet)  been created,  but would make for some  sprightly competition  from many high luminaries, I would imagine:  from  Church, State , and Media.

It should , in fairness, be  made a Trans-Atlantic  tourney.

Maybe,  we might even  choose one,  annually, by  open election?

Why not?: it’d  be the American Way.

One must keep an open mind, of course.

It might,  as a contest,  well end in a tie (since we lack  the  old, 5  Sigma,  Pinocchio test) ?


Finally,  we are, also, and in  a significant measure, ‘culture-free’.

In fact, Philistinism might well define our present ruling geist.

Barring the autistic indulgences of the rich, expressed in the genre of  the Lincoln Centre, Broadway, et. al.,  and the  scant few who still function under the vanishing rubric of ars gratia artis ,   most of us live in a squalor of spirit that virtually defines a Modernist existence, shuttling between the binary placements of work and  home :with crass, even sordid,  hedonism  taking up any  residual leisure time remaining.

A personal  anecdote suffices.

In Kosovo , the UN, as part of its pacification mission,  sent  young Volunteers from  all major  nations to help.

On the first holiday granted them, here is what transpired.

Every other  young national went  out , exploring their novel geographic  and cultural  environs, all day.

Except our exceptionals.

They went (conspicuously, for being  few)  straight to the bar lounges: and spent the day in drunken revels , till closing time.


So much for some of the  little noticed ‘freedoms’.

But, perhaps, I left out a few?

Let me hasten to make amends: no, I  wouldn’t  wish to damn the  enterprise  with  faint praise.

Here’s a few other liberties we possess.

We  (plebs) are  ever free to starve (food-free), not have a job (income-free), be homeless (shelter-free), be sans health coverage, be broke,  or simply drop dead  from insufficient heat in a polar vortex winter,  sure : but  still  free to walk into the Plaza Hotel , any day,  or night, and order dinner, like any city nabob,  despite  those minor disabilities.

And none dare stop us: no, sir.

And , to be sure, the system  is , also, equally fair to millionaires (yes, the 1%  may  also not be discriminated against): they , too, can sleep under bridges,  or lie on hostile-design benches, as per choice, mixing  with the shelter-free – with no one looking askance.

Now that’s more than mere freedom:  that’s  real equality, in my book.

In fact, I’ll tell you wherein we are most equal.

It’s  where rich and poor can both ride, helter skelter,  in the same, out-of control,   Streetcar named Dystopia.

Only in God’s Own Country.

The cup, surely, runneth over?

So many freedoms, so little time…


So, there it is.

We are, truly, even staggeringly,  exceptional.


Who  would dare contradict that?

Certainly, not moi.

But one  gets  the mild impression that  a little dialing back of our special dispensation(s)

might  not be  a bad idea?

Of course, I didn’t  mention some rarefied  ‘freedoms’  that  yet elide us: the freedom to care, nurture, give, succor.

Recently,  a Good Samaritan  trying  to feed the poor  got  swiftly arrested.

But, who knows?

With incremental ‘progress’,  some day, in the far future,  altruism will not be  deemed a crime, and we’ll simply  be let off with a strong caution?


Consider who we are, then,  in  this short, pithy,  catechism form


A-moral  –

A-merican ?


But I  also wonder: could be  it’s only  thanks to the grace of  a  benign Providence  that we remainexceptionals (can you imagine the state of being , if the entire world took after us?)?


[©R.Kanth, 2019]  


Professor Rajani Kanth, Author of Coda, and Expiations, is Trustee of the World Peace Congress

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No, the


will not,

in horror,



Though we



In thirst –


Nor  do


Fear to tread


When we



In dread




The sun  will


lumber On


the stars ,

shall doze

at dawn –


nor  a leaf,


lost or lorn


when you

and I

are gone




the rain will


patter, on


song birds


twitter on –


the moon will

smile ,in pale



the lark

will lisp

at morn –




it is a world

of no recall


all’s too




though we

lurch on,

in love

and rhyme


is unmindful

of our lot –




all’s aswoon

in deep trance

of night


fed  of

the waning



though Shiva


in high  dance

of light –


earth yet idles,

in her  bower




so come

let us

but amble on


it’s over ,

in a spin,

or two –



Nereids weep –

beneath the flood


and even the

Sirens –

whisper true


for it matters

to none

that we loved:

and lost –


under a sky

so blue


by fire did

we tie the



in fervor,

let’s  bid adieu


 [©R.Kanth, 2019]  


Professor Rajani Kanth, Author of Coda, and Expiations, is Trustee of the World Peace Congress

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‘Tis ever the Season

Who shall die

with the




That’s  the

name of the

Game –



or Rolls



So, what’s

in a branded




to live

to own :


loan –


to accrue :


alone –


to seek,







That’s the


grind –



It’s the bane:

why we’re all



every dogged



though every

dog will have

its bone


and every


its Way





‘Tis also  why

we stand

at the end


The End

of the Human

Chain –


though Truth,


sojourns plain

ever  so  plain

to see:


We’re here

Not to gorge

Or Gain


But to mull






there is

yet time


Still, some


left: –


For, to  


Is Vanity

Fare –


and (excess)

Property –

is Theft



 [©R.Kanth, 2018]  

Professor Rajani Kanth, Author of Coda, and Expiations
Trustee; World Peace Congress

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The Cats of Rhodes

by Carrie Tuhy




The cats of Rhodes are black—and white;
White with a black tail,
One cat of Rhodes.
Poised, paralyzed, possessed,
Eyes fixed on a lizard descending the center wall,
He waits, then pounces and pounces again.
And again.

The cats of Rhodes are tri-colored, and variegated:
Black and white and smoky gray,
Caramel, calico, tangerine.
They sit, they sprawl, spreading out
fc075511-b4db-460d-8248-d56b4771065cOn car tops and stone paths
Heated by the Mediterranean sun,
Even in October winds.

The cats of Rhodes are furry, furtive creatures,
Hiding in shadowy corners, under arches,
Perched on pebbled stoops of shuttered houses,
Asleep among the bustling caverns of merchant kiosks.
They are the tourists who never leave;
The ship-less hordes freed of hurry.
They rule this empire of mythic gods,
This island kingdom born of Aegean waves,
All verdant beauty now.

IMG_0879bThe cats of Rhodes are the Knights of St. John—
Without a crusade.
Lazy, grazing, scavenging.
Feed me, they purr
To food sellers hungry for more human customers.
I am the connoisseur of your kitchen.
Throw me your scraps, and I will feast,
Cries the white cat with the black tail.

The cats of Rhodes recline in sun-kissed splendor,
Tummies turned skyward, mouths agape—
All tiny teeth and curling tongues,
Tails swaying slowly, back and forth.
They rise and stretch–primp and preen for greedy photographers.
Then strut, a parade of kittens in their wake
Until one halts—frozen, eagle-eyed, on guard.
He waits, and waits,
And waits some more
For another elusive lizard.

45153588_1434142383401925_5613475672656707584_nCarrie Tuhy (top row, third cat from right) wrote and performed ‘The Cats of Rhodes’ to saxophone accompaniment during her stay at The Three Seas Writers’ Retreat in Rhodes, Greece, sponsored by Harvard Square Editions, the Three Seas organization and the Municipality of Rhodes.

Carrie TuhyCarrie is a long-time journalist who spent many years at Time Inc. as a magazine editor. Along with her positions at LIFE, Money and InStyle, she was also editor-in-chief of Real Simple where she published many accomplished fiction writers. She has also reviewed both fiction and non-fiction tiles for Publishers Weekly as well as having written author profiles including interviews with Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Gottlieb, the former editor of the New Yorker. She is currently working on a book with the working title Second Lives of Women.

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The Circle, by Brussels expats

THECIRCLE Front10.19

The editor of the new anthology by members of the Brussels Writers’ Circle talks about community, pride and providing an outlet to new writers

Are you the type who would sell your brother out to space aliens? Set out to complete someone else’s bucket list? Deal in priceless stolen goods? Then you’ll find comrades in The Circle, a new anthology of short stories.

Though you’ll find your comrades there in any case: All the stories and poetry that appear in The Circle were written by Brussels expats. Now in bookstores, it is being launched next week at a reading at Waterstones.

The title is a clever reference to Brussels Writers’ Circle (BWC), a community group made up of expats who write in English. It’s the group’s second anthology; the first, A Circle of Words, was published in 2016. Both are published by Harvard Square Editions, based in Hollywood.

“It’s a collection of short stories and poetry by people who at some moment have made Brussels their home. That’s the unifying element,” says Patrick ten Brink, who edited the book. “The second unifying element is that they all link to the Brussels Writers Circle.”

groupSome members of BWC are published authors or journalists, while other are simply enthusiasts, putting pen to paper (so to speak) for their own enjoyment. All of them had the chance to publish in the anthology, which includes 55 pieces by 34 authors.

New voices in fiction

The group is publishing anthologies to find an audience for the works, many of which aren’t published elsewhere. Though they might eventually be; some of the works are first chapters of novels yet to be completed.

“We have a range of writers, some of whom are quite experienced, who have published, who have won some prizes,” says ten Brink. “But others are very much new enthusiasts. So what we thought we’d do is have something to show to the world, to allow new voices to get a little bit of exposure.”


BWC counts about 350 members, and 10 or so usually show up to one of the two weekly meetings. Two or three authors read their work and get direct feedback from the rest – about plot, voice, tension, character development, story arcs and structure – all aspects of the writer’s craft.The anthologies, explains ten Brink (pictured below), “give a sense of completion to the process. We all talk about each other’s work, and then once in a while we get an email saying, ‘I’ve got this published here and published there’, and we thought it would be nice to have something in which we can all collectively be proud.”

He thinks The Circle can also inspire other writers in Brussels to join the group. “Because they can see that the work is actually leading to something.”

Patrick Ten BrinkPatrick

The numerous works are eclectic in both style and content. Some have been published elsewhere, such as Colin Walsh’s beautifully written “The Flare Carves Itself Through the Dark”, winner of Ireland’s Francis MacManus Annual Short Story Competition.

Other standouts in the anthology are Aisling Henrard’s “Lining Their Pockets”, in which an average evening in a new housing development turns into a celestial cock-up, and Martin Jones’ “Shimmer”, which brings the secrets hiding in the wooded outskirts of Moscow startlingly to life.

Many of the authors, however, do not have English as a first language, making the trip to getting published in the anthology a bit more rocky. “The ambition, of course, was to be as inclusive as we could, but we didn’t want to end up with a lack of quality,” explains ten Brink. “So we created guidelines; everyone who submitted a piece for the anthology had to fulfil certain criteria.”

Mauricio-2 That included reading at one of the BWC meetings and taking the comments on board. Then three members of the group read through the submissions and gave another round of comments. Two rounds of edits followed that.

That means a lot more effort than a normal collection of short stories would require, but that’s the point of the BWC after all – to make the writing better. “Some people wrote brilliantly straight off and only had to be tweaked,” says ten Brink, “while with others we had quite a few back-and-forth sessions. So the process was meant to get people included.” In the end, only a few people who submitted stories didn’t make the anthology.

‘Positive and necessary’

While some of the works in The Circle are based on reality – ten Brink’s own intriguing story, “The Half-Apple”, is about a recurring sight on a Brussels pavement down the street from where he used to live – just one is purely non-fiction. And while caving isn’t something I ever thought I’d be interested in, I have to admit that Nicholas Parrott’s description of the cave systems snaking through the Pyrenees had me pretty riveted.

Joost Hiltermann’s “Kawa’s Calvary”, meanwhile, is a riveting account of one Kurdish rebel fighter’s experiences in Northern Iraq. A programme director at the International Crisis Group, Hiltermann is working on fictionalised accounts of witness testimonies to reach a broader audience. Because, he says in his anthology bio, “if we are to be an international community, tragedy must be shared”.

Like most of the book’s contributors, neither Hiltermann nor ten Brink are authors for a living. ten Brink – born in Germany, but raised mostly in Australia and Japan – is the policy director at the European Environmental Bureau. Writing is a hobby, and BWC is, he says, his way of contributing to the local community.

“I think in these times, a group of people getting together across cultures and across languages to actually write in English, with a common purpose, is something that is empowering and positive and necessary,” he says.

When asked why someone might choose this anthology out of a rack of others if they are, say, at the airport and about to board a plane, his response is again compelling. “If you’re getting on the plane from Brussels, and you’re flying away to somewhere else, then you are very similar to many of the authors who have written pieces here. It’s a sense of the community of the international world that has made Brussels their home.”

Authors of The Circle will read from their work at 19.00 on 22 November at Waterstones, Boulevard Adolphe Max 71, Brussels
Written by Lisa Bradshaw, Via The Bulletin

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Finding discipline and inspiration among writers

A colleague shares his experience of the Brussels Writers’ Circle

Interview by Ciprian Begu, CEND, via Commission en Direct



When he is not busy helping Europe’s citizens and businesses navigate Single Market rules in DG GROW’s SOLVIT team, David Ellard writes epic science fiction. A self-described ‘aspirant writer’, David has been an integral part of the Brussels Writers’ Circle, a club he has chaired for years, where both beginners and seasoned pros gather weekly to share their work. Commission en direct talked to David about his experience.

What drew you to writing?

I think it started off with an interest in reading. Then, at a certain point, I began to wonder, well how do they make those words I’m reading on the printed page in the first place? And then the more geeky side of my personality has always been interested in imagined worlds, and wondered, how do I go about interesting other people in the products of my own imagination? So, that drew me inevitably to science fiction and fantasy as genres for writing.

And then I start analysing the world in terms of, how can I transcribe this stuff into a novel? The people I meet, situations I encounter, articles on science and philosophy that I read and so on… I think there’s a sort of ‘aspirant writer’s eye’. Most of us will walk past a beautiful building and think, wow that’s nice! But an architect (or someone who aspires to the part) will look at it and note the symmetry of the columns or the construction of the portico…

What have you written already?

I’m most proud of a short novella I wrote which is dream fiction. It actually came out of a dream (or rather nightmare) that I had one night at about 3:00 in the morning. I woke up and was too scared to go back to sleep, so I noted mentally the main points and then started to write it up as a sort of post-facto rationalisation of what the nightmare was actually about.

I am also working on an epic science fiction novel. I started with the idea of the opening chapter, and the end, and worked my way to the middle from two directions. I set out with the concern that I would not have enough material for even a short novel. And I spawned a monster in the act of writing it! Needless to say, I’d probably write the next one differently.

What is the Brussels Writers’ Circle (BWC) and what role did you play in its development?

I started going to the Circle in about 2001, and took over running the group in 2010 until 2016. I’m very pleased by how things grew from there on. It was a once-a-week group that subsequently expanded to two, and even three sessions a week, for a while. During my time, the BWC blog was launched and the annual retreat became a fixture.

I should stress that there were many other people who were involved in all these new activities, but I like to feel that I acted as a sort of point of encouragement, even when I wasn’t directly involved! We also moved location from the Cercle des Voyageurs to the current venue of the Maison des Crêpes on rue du Midi. Very close to where I live. That may not be a total coincidence, I concede…

How has being part of the Circle helped you develop as a writer?

Partly it’s the discipline provided by, in my case, announcing I am going to read out on a given evening before I have written the damn piece. So my back is against the wall. That’s how I wrote my novel In Search of Y at least. It’s also inspiration. Sometimes seriously good writers come along to the group. That can make me jealous, frankly, but it’s also the best way to learn, by analysing what makes really great writing great.

And then of course it’s also the specific concrete feedback people give. Actually, it’s more than that. Some of the feedback is well intentioned but not very useful. This teaches you to filter advice and that is an amazing advantage if you can do it. Filter too little and you will be blown about by the wind. Filter too much and there’s no point in asking for feedback in the first place. The trick is to find the golden spot in between.

THECIRCLE Front10.19

Are there any upcoming events?

A very exciting event is the upcoming Waterstones soirée to launch the second BWC Writers’ Anthology, The Circle – a collection of writing from a broad range of our members including short stories, prose and poetry. This will be taking place at Waterstones bookshop in Brussels (boulevard Adolphe Max 71-75) from 19:00 on 22 November.

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Alpha & Omega

By Rajani Kanth


World’s a beach

by a cruel sea



breakers  crash

on, senselessly –


moon chafes


the cringing trees


clouds whirl



on  a  bobbling



to be

and not

to be


bumbling  on,

but vacuously


no shards

of meaning


no shades

of light






insight- free



A pagan heart,

the savage



live noble:




but ,

all aspiring


as is our



we flail,

in dudgeon –






a beach


by  a cruel



as nothing to

nothing –



you and me –




with but naught

to find



in heart


of mind



so very   –




It  will

roll on –


Endlessly –


the beach,

the breeze,

the cruel sea


and the moon

that blanches –



If All’s Impervious:

and Nothing’s

To be:


What, then,


you and me?


[©R.Kanth, 2018]

Professor Rajani Kanth, Author of Coda, and Expiations
Trustee; World Peace Congress

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Tweets From Bill McKibben

billmckibben 4 hours agoRT @suehalpernVT: Your opportunity to hear me yammer. https://t.co/CgWLNJlf6C

Erika Raskin

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    • Love’s Denouement

    • By Rajani Kanth


      The dullest


      doth True


      discern  –


      Though  Sirens

      Will   perjure

      And   Furies

      Still   Burn –


      And so

      the  sweet


      Of Heaven’s

      Soft  gaze –


      Does  all

      Ills   resolve:

      all  Miscues

      Erase –


      So, though


      may we yet

      go down –




      or   fey,

      foolish ,





      of   fresh

      daisies –


      past recall,

      or renown


      So, ask not

      Why those

      Gay flowers

      Bloom –



      The fair


      Of our deep



      [©R.Kanth, 2019]  


      Professor Rajani Kanth, Author of Coda, and Expiations, is Trustee of the World Peace Congress

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    • Traits

    • The head’s
      with Reasons
      Too multifarious
      To know

      The heart only
      Two Seasons:
      The high and the

      No neutral
      It takes

      But all that
      it feels:
      Cleaves –
      Or forsakes

      O the head
      is so
      The heart,

      But O what
      A difference
      That dissimilitude
      Makes !

      [© R.Kanth 2018] 
      Professor Rajani Kanth is the author of Coda, and Expiations
      and trustee of the World Peace Congress

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    • Song for Ahed

    • By Rajani Kanth


      Ahed Tamimi

      Stood , Fearless,

      up to Power –


      A mere


      become Heroine

      Of the Hour


      Yes, she was



      Her mettle,

      Sore tested –


      Sure, Defiance,

      Was bought at

      High Cost


      But that should

      Not faze us –


      Rather, amaze



      At   Sixteen,

      She ,  the

      One War –

      Zion Has Lost

      [©R.Kanth 2018] 

      Professor Rajani Kanth, Author of Coda, and Expiations
      Trustee; World Peace Congress

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    • Meet the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35

    • s-li

      Excerpted from the LA Times, September 29, 2016

      The National Book Foundation, which presents the National Book Awards, launched its 5 Under 35 program in 2006 to highlight the work of young literary talents; this year each writer gets a $1,000 cash prize and will be invited to participate in public readings.

      Many past 5 Under 35 honorees have gone on to further acclaim. Nam Le’s short story collection “The Boat” won the international Dylan Thomas Prize; Tea Obreht’s novel “The Tiger’s Wife” took the Orange Prize for fiction; and two honorees, Dinaw Mengestu and Karen Russell, were each later awarded MacArthur Fellowships….9781941861301-JacketGray.indd

      One of those writers this year is S. Li, who took up creative writing as a hobby when he was in medical school. The 31-year-old neurologist’s debut novel, “Transoceanic Lights,” was published by Harvard Square Editions, a small independent press.

      “I had sent the book to the National Book Foundation for consideration for the National Book Awards, fully knowing that my chances were zero,” Li said from his home in Burlington, Mass. When he received the email informing him he’d been chosen as an honoree, “I thought it was a scam. And then I realized it wasn’t. I had no idea this was even in the cards.”

      Li’s novel, about a Chinese immigrant family, is based on his own childhood. He was 5 years old when his family moved from Guangzhou, China, to Boston.

      img-41“I was sort of teaching myself the craft of writing,” Li said of his years writing fiction while also learning medicine. “And so it just made natural sense to go with material that comes easiest to you, and that’s your childhood.”

      Li is one of two immigrants honored in this year’s program. Yaa Gyasi, author of the critically acclaimed novel “Homegoing,” was born in Ghana and moved with her family to the United States when she was 2. [more]



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    • What are the best eco books for children and teens?

    • @EmilyDrabs, excerpted from The Guardian,


      Authors including David Almond, Frank Cottrell Boyce and Katherine Rundell plus teen site members share the books that made them think more deeply about climate change and environmental themes. Now share yours!

      This week we’re celebrating the positive power of stories, all kinds of stories, to bring home what we risk losing on our beautiful planet – and what we can do about it. Here authors and children’s books site members share the books that made them think. We’ll be feeding this blog with more recommendations all week, so please share yours – and keep checking back.

      Frank Cottrell Boyce (whose latest book is the remarkably green The Astounding Broccoli Boy)

      First book of Saints

      The book that made me realise that I was part of the environment was The Ladybird Book of Saints. On the cover was this brilliant image of St Francis releasing the caged birds he had he had bought in the market. For ages afterwards I would go into pet shops and zoos and itch to unlock the doors. In fact there are “freeing the animals” scenes in at least two of my books. There are so many environmental messages about how horrible humans are wrecking the planet – that’s obviously true in a way but this image made me feel that I belonged in the World too and that I could cherish and love it.

      David Almond, author of Skellig

      The Promise by Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin. It’s beautifully written, beautifully illustrated picture book. It shows a troubled darkened world being recreated by the human need for greenery, life and colour.

      Louise O’Neill, author of Only Ever Yours

      Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction novel that is very much concerned with the damage humans are inflicting upon the environment and the possible catastrophic results that could have. Written in 2003, many plot points now seem eerily prescient and it makes for a disturbing, powerful read. Highly recommended for older teenagers.

      Site member, Patrick

      Carl Hiaasen’s Hoot is true to its name in that it’s a supremely funny YA novel, and one that tends to be overlooked. There’s a real environmental streak running through all of Hiaasen’s works and Hoot is no exception, it deals with a Florida teen who bands together with a couple of new friends to stop the destruction of a burrowing owl colony. It’s a lot of fun with a solid conservationist message at its core and an abundance of charm to boot.”

      Candy Gourlay, author of Shine

      Long ago I wrote a short story called How to Build the Perfect Sandcastle for Under the Weather, the climate change anthology edited by Tony Bradman. About a white sand beach losing its sand because the sea is heating up … the same hot oceans that later whipped up the murderous monster that was Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

      Perhaps the all too real climate change disaster in the Philippines has made me partial to flood stories. My favorite is Not the End of the World, the lyrical resetting of Noah’s Ark as a Tsunami survival story by Geraldine McCaughrean.

      Lottie Longshanks, site member

      The wild series by Piers Torday. So far I have read The Last Wild and The Dark Wild. Kester has the unusual gift of communicating with animals and it is his mission to save the animals from red eye the disease that is slowly killing them. It is a really exciting story and you soon guess who the villains are Selwyn Stone and his lackeys who want to dictate the way that everyone lives. The amazing rubbish dump in the second book in the series really makes you think about the damage that we are doing to our planet. I can’t wait to read the third book in the series,The Wild Beyond.

      White Dolphin by Gill Lewis Set in the south West of England the exciting story tells of children who take on the might of a powerful fishing business to stop dredging in the harbour because of the damage it does to marine life. I also love Moon Bear by Gill Lewis. This incredibly moving story shows how deforestation leads to misery for the animals whose habitat was the forest. And finally here is a recommendation for small children I read it to my cousin who lives in Oman when he comes to visit us. Dear Greenpeace by Simon James. Emily writes to Greenpeace to find out how to care for the whale that she thinks she has seen in her pond. Emily’s letters and the lovely replies she receives from Greenpeace will give little children a lot of information about whales. (Also see Lottie Longshank’s poem Our Precious world)

      SF Said, author of Varjak Paw

      I recommend Exodus by Julie Bertagna: a brilliantly prescient YA novel about climate change, set in a drowned future world. It’s full of unforgettable visions and characters, and it will stay with you forever!

      ItWasLovelyReadingYou, site member

      My book would be Breathe by Sarah Crossan. It made me think about how we take so many things for granted, such as oxygen. You can’t see it, we use it every day, without it we would not survive; yet many people do not really sit down and feel a sense of gratitude for these types of things, becuase we assume we deserve them, we see them as something that will never go away, we just accept it without question. Breathe really made me feel a sense of ‘imagine if we didn’t have oxygen, or we had limited supplies of it-”, it made me question my unconscious detachment from what keeps us alive, and really feel privelidged to have all of these necessities.

      Katherine Rundell, author of Rooftoppers

      Cosmic, by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Cosmic is a book that makes the world look like something worth protecting. It’s hilariously funny, and also wise – it makes its readers want desperately to go into space, but also to take care of the world while we’re on it. The Earth is, as one of the astronauts says, “some kind of lovely.” The Last Wild series by Piers Torday – these three spectacular books are about a world decimated by humans, and the possibility of that loss feels very real and urgent and frightening – and they’re also fantastic adventure stories, about bravery and animals and human capacity to do huge good as well as harm. And there’s a bossy talking cockroach.

      Site Brahmachari, author of Kite Spirit and Artichoke Hearts

      For me it has to be The Ring of Bright Water Trilogy by Gavin Maxwell. I fell in love with these books as a child because they are set on the West coast of Scotland – a place I love – where wildlife and nature are the biggest characters. It;s a humbling landscape. If you have a love of the outdoors and really want to study the nature of beautiful, playful otters… and can stand to have your heart broken …. you should read these stories. Although they were written 50 years ago they are as timeless as the shingle beaches they are set on. The author lived and breathed the paradise he went to live in… and so will you when you read these books… and afterwards you can watch the film (tissues at the ready!)

      OrliTheBookWorm, site member

      Breathe by Sarah Crossan is probably the book that’s impacted me the most in terms of the environment – it’s a dystopian novel, with people living in domes due to a lack of oxygen – the raw descriptions and harsh realities were wonderfully done and uttery thought provoking, and made me take a step away from my laptop and have a look outside my window…. It’s a brilliant book, which I guarantee will change your perspective on the environment around us.

      Piers Torday, author of The Dark Wild trilogy

      The Animals of Farthing Wood by Colin Dann – the original classic tale of a group of British animals seeking refuge when their precious Farthing Wood is threatened by human development. They overcome incredible obstacles and danger to make it to a wildlife sanctuary. But reading it today there is an extra poignancy – some of the animals in the story, like the red-backed shrike, are now extinct, and others – like the adder, hare and voles – are all under threat.

      BritishBiblioholic, site member

      Watership Down by Richard Adams – When the rabbits in Watership Down are forced to leave their home, it is due to its impending destruction by humans. This potentially can be seen as an allegory for the ongoing destruction for the environment in general – and unlike the rabbits, if we don’t save our environment, we won’t be able to find somewhere else to live.


      Mary, curator, eco-fiction.com

      Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta: The novel takes place in the future after climate change has ravished economies and ecologies, and made fresh water scarce. The main character, Noria, is a young woman learning the traditional, sacred tea master art from her father. Yet, water is rationed and scarce in her future world. Her family has a secret spring of water, and, as tea masters, she and her father act as the water’s guards, even though what they are doing is a crime according to their future world’s government, a crime strongly disciplined by the military.


      NC front DR TinyNature’s Confession by JL Morin: The eco-novel is wonderful and reminds me of classic science fiction I watched or read as a kid. It was a genre that fascinated me then, and this book has joined that memory. The novel is epic in that it doesn’t just tell a story (which it does do too), but it puts our very survival into question while romping through the universe or discovering new quantum physics that are both scientific and spiritual in nature. In the meantime, universal symbols are unearthed, codes are investigated, fat corporations are dominating, a romance is blossoming, computers come alive, and native tribes and Nature on another planet bring our own treasured past into the future.


      Tito intiro Chavaropana by Jessica Groenendijk: Tito intiro Chavaropana means ‘Tito and the Giant Otter’ in Matsigenka. The author, a biologist who has studied giant otters, is now working on a sequel, in which Tito sets off into the forest to hunt a spider monkey and meets a harpy eagle on the way. They become friends but not without a misunderstanding or two!
      61cwBitpcAL._AA160_Spirit Bear by Jennifer Harrington: Spirit Bear celebrates a rare and iconic black bear that is born with a recessive gene that makes its coat creamy or white. Also called the Kermode bear, the spirit bear lives in the delicate, rich, and threatened ecosystem of the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, Canada. Jennifer’s story is about the journey of a spirit bear cub that gets lost from his mother and has to find his way back.

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    • Publisher Guidelines

    • Publisher Harvard Square Editions is looking for literary fiction of environmental or social significance.

      Its mission is to publish fiction that transcends national boundaries, especially manuscripts that are international, political, literary, sci-fi, fantasy, utopia and distopia. Send submissions of aesthetic value and constructive social or political content, especially manuscripts related to climate change, deforestation, and conservation.

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    • A Moral Atmosphere: Hypocrisy redefined for the age of warming

    • By Bill McKibben (HC ’82)

      This article first appeared in Orion Magazine.


      THE LIST OF REASONS for not acting on climate change is long and ever-shifting. First it was “there’s no problem”; then it was “the problem’s so large there’s no hope.” There’s “China burns stuff too,” and “it would hurt the economy,” and, of course, “it would hurt the economy.” The excuses are getting tired, though. Post Sandy (which hurt the economy to the tune of $100 billion) and the drought ($150 billion), 74 percent of Americans have decided they’re very concerned about climate change and want something to happen… (more)
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    • Cambridge divest from fossil fuel

    • We call on the City of Cambridge Retirement System to immediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuelcompanies, and to divest from direct ownership and any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds within 5 years (more)

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    Around Harvard

    Brain Pickings

    • Sylvia Plath and the Loneliness of Love
      "Life is loneliness... Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship — but the loneliness of the soul, in its appalling self-consciousness, is horrible and overpowering."

    by Ben Mattlin (HC ’84)

      Like all romantic entanglements, the reasons for their tensions—tensions, which eventually led the invisible rubber band between them to snap—weren't quite clear.  Or maybe they were entirely too clear.  Telling me about it, Shane struggled for the right words, but his meaning rang with the clarity of breaking glass. "For a while, she was planning on moving up here to be with me, to be able to help out with all my [...]

    by Teresa Hsiao (HC ’07)

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  • Sheila Connolly (GSA ’79) – Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen


    TylerJamesComicTyler James
    All of a sudden, though, you start stacking ComixTribe, Image, Boom, Action Lab, Valiant, etc... books against Big Two books...
    73 months ago
    we smell like coffee and old libraries filled with new books waiting to be read
    73 months ago
    aidanr1022Aidan Ryan
    When Dad has to hit the books in the middle of the day so he can support the fam @emrson11webster http://t.co/igjSlYR8cB
    73 months ago
    forgot my books ?
    73 months ago