A new poem

There Has Been a Poem
by Ellen Carey

There has been a poem
sitting, blurry, on my nightstand
when I reach for my glasses
Hiding in the medicine cabinet
behind the toothpaste
In the back of the drawer, under
the unused corkscrew
the lemon zester
the mushroom brush

It waits on the cold tile floor as I shower
hands me the grey sweater from the closet
places the long-unworn scarf at the top of the pile

It climbs into the back seat
of the car as I leave for work
squeezes in behind me
when I unlock the office door

It’s been with me a while, this poem
Buckled into the empty seat
beside me on the flight
to Pittsburgh last week
Tucked into my luggage
on the crowded flight home
Flapping in the wind
on the end of my scarf
as I scoured that city for some souvenir
inhaling the dogwood blossoms
the moist air, the city sounds

Back home, it pulls the covers back
when the alarm goes off
I pull them up again

On the day it wins this battle
I go to swim in the ocean at dawn

My poem points out the bright flowers
of red crabs, the size of toddlers’ feet
squirming in the seaweed
washed up on the sand waiting
for the gift of a higher tide

It shows me how the pale light releases each rising wave
from the dark mass of the sea, carves it into
a translucent sculpture the color of green milk glass
before tossing it into rubble and shards

It coaxes me toward that chaos
through the familiar push and pull
the brisk shock, then smooth enveloping
as I dive into the element
that was everybody’s first home

Gliding between worlds, I inhabit both
limbs slicing the tense surface
alternately weightless and heavy
pulling me forward armful by armful

My head turning and turning back
mouth open, first gulping the air
then blowing pockets of it into the sea,
I ride the rise and the fall of the swells

In this rhythm of breathe and kick and reach and roll
the poem disappears, having delivered me
to this place

Where the large shapes underwater
materialize into woodlands of kelp
Curious sea lions greet me
Tiny fish skitter away

And I, stroke after stroke, become one
of the water’s creatures again
while the gulls, high in the air
above the new bloom of the sun
keep diving toward shore.


In December, I went on a retreat to Spirit Rock Meditation Center. It was the first time in over seven years that I’d been on a residential retreat, and it reminded me that, as wonderful as they are, weekend non-residential retreats are just not the same. It takes a few days for the “sediment” in the mind (as one of the teachers, John Travis, described it) to settle, and for the “water” to become clear enough to see into. The settling process requires stillness and time, and there is simply no way to rush it. I spent the first couple days trying too hard to see through that dirty water, and fretting when I couldn’t, which of course stirred up the sediment even more. On Day 3 I let go, and everything changed. That shift eventually expressed itself in this poem:

All these years
you have been turning over rocks
trying to find something.
Call off the search parties.

There is no struggle
in seeing the hawk glide
through the clear air,
in hearing the wild turkeys
strut through the dry leaves.

The round brown hills
are no more true
than the trees clustered on their slopes,
or the paths snaking upward
through the grasses.

Happiness and sadness belong to you
only as much as the wind
belongs to the rustling branches.
But what you are seeking
has been yours all along.

Feel the roughness of the rock
beneath your flesh.
Be curious and still.
It will come to you.

Like the deer stepping
from the edge of the forest
into a pool of light.

Like the ocean
introducing itself
to each droplet of water.

by Ellen Carey
December 2013

I’m so excited that my little cottage was accepted as a contestant in Apartment Therapy‘s Small Cool Contest. You can see all the pics, and vote for me, here.

living room


Thank you moon, for making the tides
which give me, twice each day,
this expanse of sand and treasures.

Thank you sea, for sharing, and for hiding, your many mysteries
for your broad surface, for your scent of life and decay
for the circular sound of your waves.

Thank you earth, for following your wheeled path through the heavens.
And thank you gravity, for holding me
to this wet ball of dirt and breath.

Thank you fog, for your mournful secrets, for your hush
and your wailing.  And thank you sun, for making your way
here, to touch your soft November hand to my face.

Thank you people, for coming to this place
with your dogs and your relatives
your empty bellies anticipating abundance and communion

your greetings all joy and gratitude
your wonder reaching through the lenses of your cameras
to hold the cormorants high on the bleached trunks.

And thank you old trees, fallen from the cliffs, singing
the story of the impermanence
singing the harmony of stone and stick and sea

singing the gratitude of life and what follows it
over and over like the waves
life and death, life and death, life and death, in every note.

by Ellen Carey

It made my day to discover that my favorite design website, Design*Sponge, just published a City Guide for my beloved former hometown, Northampton MA. It’s worth checking out if you will be in New England anytime soon. And be sure to read the comments, which offer additional tips.

It’s a beautiful Saturday in Southern California: bright blue, cloudless sky; trees still full of green leaves; temperatures in the mid-seventies at the coast, in the eighties only a short drive inland. The few trees in my neighborhood that drop their leaves won’t finish doing so until January – mere weeks before the new leaves arrive in our early spring. By January I’ll be delighted to be strolling along the beach in the sunshine rather than shoveling snow in Massachusetts. But there is something about New England in the fall. I miss the gorgeous autumn colors, of course. But I also miss the sound of leaves crunching underfoot; the sight of the first frost glistening on the grass; the smell of wood smoke and earth and rotting leaves in the crisp, chilly air; the annual ritual of putting the garden to bed for the winter, and bringing the wool sweaters and mittens and heavy coats out of storage. Fall in New England is a poignant time, a time for letting go of the long, hot days of an all-too-fleeting summer, and preparing for the endless, dark, cold winter. It’s a time that lends itself to reflection on the cycle of birth, growth, decline, death, and rebirth.

In New England, it seems like no coincidence that the Day of the Dead comes in the fall. There is something about pondering death that just feels right when you see it and feel it and smell it all around you. That cycle is less visible here in Southern California, at least to my eyes. Last year, my commute took me past huge farms that grew something all year round. The crops matured, were harvested, and were replaced with something else at a startling pace. One month I’d smell cilantro; the next, onions, then strawberries, as I sped by on the freeway. I’m sure locals recognize seasonal cycles here. But for me, there is little about the subtle change in climate in the fall that stirs the associations I made as a New Englander between autumn and death. Yet this time of year, with Halloween and the Day of the Dead just around the corner, still makes me think of those I’ve lost, still makes me ponder change and mortality. So I’m delighted that there are so many Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos events at my college. When I left the Luria Library on Friday afternoon, the installation of the annual exhibit of traditional altars was underway. I can hardly wait until Monday to see it. I want a visible, tangible link to the season.

One of the Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos events is a poetry reading outside the library. The event prompted me to look back at (and edit) a couple poems I wrote a few years ago about death. I don’t know whether I’ll have the nerve to share them at the open mic, but I have just enough nerve to share them here:


This morning
breathing the crisp autumn air
and holding the new lump
in my mind like an ember

I stood in the perfect, golden light
waiting for my ride and listening
while the leaves clicked off the trees
like little suicides abandoning burning edifices

The sound reminded me
of the shrimp jumping in the mud
in the green Carolina spring
the year we kayaked and fought

and of how tired it made me
to listen so hard
for that small sound
behind the big ones

I want to hold this moment
with the leaves and the light and the perfect air
without knowing
the bleakness to come

But as I watch the red and white pickup
stir up then disappear behind
the swirling cloud of yellow leaves
like something out of a movie

dramatically I think
that I may not be here long either
in this world with the leaves and the shrimp and our tears
and the exquisiteness of their passing

by Ellen Carey

with thanks to Jane Hirshfield for her poem, “It Was Like This: You Were Happy”

Read the poem, the one
about persimmons and how it was
the sadness
and the happiness
and the turn
of days into years
of words into silence
The one that tells
of the inconsequence
of what was
and was not done
The one
that reminds you
your stories
do not belong to me

Play the song, the one
about loss
and redemption
The one that strips you
of everything
but your perfection

Dance. Embrace
your beautiful,
temporary weight
on the earth
Allow the center
of your being
to spin
into every borrowed cell

Sit. Be still
and silent
the witness knowing
there is no tether
but the roar
of your own thoughts

And remember this:
Your stories
will become air
even to you
in the end
Water and fire and stone
are all that is
and even these
moment by moment

Do not turn away
no matter how painful
from the letting go
that will lead you home

You too
will step into this water
You too
will let the bright robe fall
You too
will be surprised
by its weightlessness
after all these years

You will know
what you have always known
That each of us
is filled with light
That each of us
is just
as insubstantial

by Ellen Carey

A typo in the subject line of an email I received this week got me thinking about the physical and virtual spaces in which we engage with information (what we might have referred to in the past as “conducting research”), the language we use to describe those spaces, and what exactly we do there these days. OK, I admit that I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about these things anyway, but the typo prompted me to share some of my musings on the subject.

When I saw the word “labrary,” I chuckled at the clever term, and wished I’d thought of it myself. Even after I realized it was a typo, I was sure someone out there in libraryland had come up with this reinvention before. To my surprise, a quick Google search yielded mostly more typo labraries. One exception was LABrary: A Seed Resource.” Based in Nottingham, England, LAB describes itself as “a creative and open space for experimentation, collaboration, exchange and critical play between artists, creative producers, curators, hackers, designers and social agitators.” The LABrary is “an emerging resource” for these folks, an evolving online collection of “tutorials, blueprints, code, recipes etc.” As I read more about LAB’s vision for itself, familiar phrases started to jump out at me:

“A social space for knowledge/skills transfer”
“a space for communities/public to learn skills”
“where people can access and share equipment and resources”

This was sounding more and more like a LIBrary to me. Of course it also sounded like one of the zillions of social networks designed to welcome people with a common interest into a virtual gathering space to share information, resources, and some sense of community feeling. But the fact that LAB is (or was – it’s internet presence seems to have been very short-lived) both a virtual and a face-to-face space which embraces its collaborative and evolving nature, along with the fact that “labrary” is just a really cool and thought-provoking term, made me want to petition to change the name of the physical and organizational structure in which I work from “the library” to “the labrary.”

When I refer to “the library,” most non-librarians usually assume that I mean the building itself, along with its physical contents (mostly books) and staff (helpful librarians who have memorized all the world’s information, including the mysterious locations of each individual book in the library, and can produce it for you at the drop of a hat). When I introduce myself to new acquaintances as a librarian, they are far more likely to wax rhapsodic about how much they love the books, the quiet spaces of libraries, and their childhood librarian, than to mention their favorite database or engage me in conversation about emerging technologies or critical approaches to information.

Even in higher education where I work, and even among those who use the library regularly, I find that a surprising proportion of faculty are still attached to at least a few nostalgic ideas of what a library is and what librarians do. They might complain about how noisy the library is these days, or bristle at policy changes like allowing food or at innovations like the check-out of tools such as iPads or Kindles. They might be reluctant to see me as an educator, or to see information literacy instruction sessions as more than “tours” of the locations of particular items within the building. They might squirm uncomfortably when I suggest that a database would serve their students better than the Readers Guide and our print periodicals collection for research on current controversial issues, or when I don’t ban Wikipedia outright but offer it as useful as a jumping off point if not as a main source, or when I spend more time engaging students in learning about and evaluating the variety of information sources available than in teaching the mechanics of searching a single database. Even those who embrace online databases as modern conveniences might be reluctant to think differently than they did ten or twenty years ago about how they teach students to engage with the library and with information itself.

As an academic librarian, I’m especially interested in creating and promoting the library as a collaborative space (physical and virtual) in which librarians, faculty, and students grapple with notions of information literacy, media literacy, and technology literacy together. So I devote a considerable amount of professional energy to attempting to reshape people’s (mis)understandings of what an outstanding library is today. For the most part, I engage in this pursuit happily because I love outreach, I love what libraries can become when we allow ourselves to think outside the box of their historical structures, and I believe that it is through envisioning libraries’ ongoing evolution and welcoming innovation that we best honor their history as vibrant places of learning and discovery. But, like most librarians who consider themselves forward-thinking, I am sometimes frustrated by the amount of resistance I encounter from patrons – and even some librarians – when they come up against an experience or idea that challenges them to reconsider what a library is.

So it’s appealing to consider sidestepping the problem by saying, “Fine. You can go on believing that a library is quiet, serious place with a whole lot of books, minimal interaction between the individuals bent over them in grand hushed rooms or dark silent corners, and whispering gatekeeper librarians who will instruct you in the proper ways to find the right book if you entrust yourself to their direction and commit yourself to maintaining the solid, immovable notion of the library’s identity we all seem to have inherited. But this place you’ve just walked (or linked) into, THIS isn’t a library. This is a LABrary – a whole different animal – and you’re going to have to leave your ideas about libraries at the door.

Using the labrary goes way beyond learning where the information is and how to use a specific machine or process to find it. The labrary is a growing organism who inhabits both physical and virtual space, who is co-created by you and the labrarians who work here. In the labrary, you are invited to collaborate not only with the labrarians, but with each other, whether or not you meet face-to-face. You are offered resources and services – many of them not so different from those offered in the library – but you are asked to take responsibility for your own learning, whether you are a student or a faculty member. You are invited – and expected – to experiment in the labrary. You are asked to experiment with and think critically about every aspect of how you engage with information – what is is and how it is created, where it is, how it is collected and organized and by whom, how you find it and evaluate it and analyze it and use it and adapt it and create it yourself. You are asked to become a co-creator and co-critquer of information as well as of the machines, processes, and interactions through which you engage with it.

Sound overwhelming? I can see how it might be for someone who just wants to check out a book – and you can do that, just like you could in a library. But consider sharing your own online review of that book for other labrary visitors as well. And consider exploring and experimenting a little further. How cool would it be if someday, when a labrarian introduces herself at a party, her new acquaintance tells the story of going to the labrary for a book and coming away with a whole new approach to critically engaging with information? This kind of transformation is what a library can offer and librarians can facilitate. But we must expect it – of ourselves and of each other. If thinking of the library as a labrary can help move that process along, I’m all for it.