Memoir Poetry

Breath Counting

When sleeping with a bear
it is critical to pay attention to the breath —
his and yours.

His will tell you when it is safe
to muck about in dreams
and when it is time
to curl up and play dead.

     in this case: to feign sleep
is a practiced thing

slow     deep     breath     in

slow     deep     breath     out

slow     deep     breath     in

slow     deep     breath     out

Most nights, he’ll forget his hunger
and roll over — you pray
hands clasped around your knees
making yourself small
a burr in the blanket and of far less importance
than himself and his sleep.

©2022, Jen Payne

Memoir Poetry

Upon Meeting My Dad at the Library

I want to be the one
who sharpens the tiny pencils
tucked neatly in the cubby
next to the Library’s
digital card catalog.

They are all that’s left
of the long wooden drawers,
their well-worn finger pulls,
the alphabet instructions:
how to get from here to there.

The tap-tap-tap machines
have replaced the tactile cards,
the rhythm of sorting,
the meditations of
this simple space where

The clocks tick
and pages turn
motes settle
on memories

and there at my fingertips
as close as those pencils
he appears, my age now
this young or this old
I do not recall…

except for the moment
he said I want to be the one
who punches the clock,
works from here to there
and nothing more

nothing more
after giving so much more
for so long

but it was too late
for anything else
or anything more
than that beautiful secret
said out loud

this young or this old
I do not recall…
his whisper of a wish
the change of heart
frozen in time as

The clocks tick
and pages turn
motes settle
on memories

and now I want to be the one
who punches the clock
or sharpens the tiny pencils
or something quiet and simple
so very simple
for whatever time I have left.


Poem ©2018, Jen Payne. Reprinted in memory of my dad who left this planet 27 years ago today. 
Books Memoir

Everyone Needs a Guide

Dale and me at the launch of my first book, Look Up!, in 2014.

The first time I met Dale Carlson was in 1996 over coffee at the Hidden Kitchen in Guilford, Connecticut. She was the first person to call Words by Jen from the first yellow page ad I ever purchased.

And while we would both tell you that we were not really sure we really liked each other that day — and many days after that as well — we would go on to make almost 30 books together under the name of Bick Publishing House.

Ask me today what inspired me to write books and how I came to start my own publishing company, and I will tell you about the 25+ years that Dale and I worked together: the long hours of editing around her kitchen table, selecting art and cover designs, developing a house style, and promoting her books. All of the things I do for my clients’ books and my own books now, I learned from Dale.

But she wasn’t just a client. Dale was my long-time mentor and spiritual guide who helped me understand my family dysfunction and my mother’s mental illness, who taught me about meditation and the many faces of god. She showed by example that you can create a life on your own eccentric terms, and how it is to move around in the world in the body of writer.

Often, our approaches to life were vastly different — how we saw the world and how we coped as different as our backgrounds and ages. But in so many ways, we were kindred spirits who could complete each others sentences and easily nod in agreement more often than we expected.

We talked just recently about our work together and our long, enduring affection for one another. “It is so lovely,” she said, “to know how entwined we are! Love you, dear one.”

I love you, too, Dale.

Dale passed away on January 23, 2022. You can read more about her life here, or from her many books that are still available online.

Creativity Memoir Storytelling

Christmas Wonder

A 100-Word Story

Much to the alarm of a grandmother, I picked up the baby and ran, leaving the Christmas celebrations in our wake.

Gathering festive crinolines around her tiny feet for warmth, we dashed out to the front yard, and I pointed up to the sharp winter sky. “Look, Little Miss, it’s the Christmas star!” And she laughed and giggled and leaned into me — a shared  delight.

“Remember,” I said, “That’s the star the wise men followed.”

Who’s to say, of course, if it was just a plane as I was admonished. The spirit whispered love and hope and sweet small wonders.

Photo ©NASA/Bill Dunford

Creativity Memoir Travel

We’ll have memories for company, long after the songs are gone

Grammy-winning folk artist Nanci Griffith dies at 68 — The Guardian

I first heard Nanci Griffith while driving on the Boston Expressway one night. It was three in the morning, actually, the Expressway before the Big Dig, 30 degrees with the window down, and a beautiful, unnamed voice on the radio. She seemed a kindred spirit, someone who somehow understood the loneliness of that newly heartbroken and somewhat lost twenty-something.

I’ve been workin’ in corners all alone at night
Pullin’ down whiskey
Keepin’ my eyes away from the lights
I’ll never be a fool but I will gamble foolishly
I’ve never let go of love
Till I lost it in my dreams

The moment was out of place and time, and remains in my memory to this day more than 30 years later.

I held onto those lyrics in my mind for years before I found out who sang them. Hoping to hear them again, recognize her distinct voice that still haunted me.

When I met my friend DeLinda in 1991, she knew the song. Knew the musician, too —  the two of them born and raised in the state I would come to know and love over the years.

Nanci Griffith, born July 6 (my birthday) a world away in Texas, was a singer, guitarist, and songwriter, who grew up in Austin. She was an up-and-coming folk/country folk singer when I first heard her that night in Boston. A popular guest on the PBS show Austin City Limits in the late 80s, she won a Grammy in 1994 for her album Other Voices, Other Rooms, and went on to produce more than 20 albums, including the first one I ever bought: One Fair Summer Evening.

I remember the day I found it — that first album — at a shopping mall record store mall, in the G bin. A cassette tape that played in my car for years and years, every song and note connecting to my heart in old soul ways I can’t explain.

One Fair Summer Evening sang me through that early unrequited love. Lone Star State of Mind connected me to my soul mate and my heart space. Flyer helped me grieve my father.

I saw Nanci in concert once, at Edgerton Park in New Haven. It was October 2001, a month after 9/11. To this day, I am not sure if I was more shocked by the sight of planes in the sky again or by the pure and crystal sound of her voice in the starry night air.

The New York Times wrote that Nanci Griffith “may just be one of America’s best poets.” She was, I think, many of my great loves in one voice…

I found your letter in my mailbox today
You were just checkin’ if I was okay
And if I miss you, well, you know what they say…

Just once… in a very blue moon

– – – – –

And when we die we say, we’ll
Catch some blackbirds wing
Then we will fly away to Heaven come
Some sweet blue bonnet spring

– – – – –

These days my life is an open book
Missing pages I cannot seem to find
These days your face
In my memory
Is in a folded hand of grace against these times

– – – – –

There’s a pale sky in the east, all the stars are in the west
Oh, here’s to all the dreamers, may our open hearts find rest
The wing and the wheel are gonna carry us along
And we’ll have memories for company, long after the songs are gone.

Workin’ in Corners, Poet in My Window; Once in a Very Blue Moon, One Fair Summer Evening; Gulf Coast Highway, Little Love Affairs; These Days in an Open Book, Flyer; The Wing & The Wheel, The Last of the True Believers. Photo from the album cover of Intersection, Griffith’s last album.

Family Memoir Writing

Life Lessons from Dad

Study hard, be smart.

Weigh the pros and cons of your decisions.

Stand on your own two feet.

Hard work is a key to success.

Dream big.

Love what you love with passion.

When you fall off a horse, get right back on.

Laugh a lot and often…

and you’ll come out on the other side just fine.

That’s my dad and me, college graduation 1988. Today would have been his 78th birthday. Life is fleeting — perhaps that is the biggest lesson of all.
Books Creativity Memoir Poetry

8 – Night Music

Night Music

The D key
on my neighbor’s piano
sounds like an owl


maybe a mourning dove



the bell buoy
off Mermaid Rocks?

doong doong doong
doong doong doong
Wrong direction, though
an alarm? my phone?

too low for tinitus
its angel songs

too late for a piano
I thought, but

doong doong doong
doong doong doong

That D key had center stage
drowned out the others
in pitch-perfect tones
enough to wake birds
and me, my angels in check

while the Sound rocked on…

Photo and poem ©2021, Jen Payne. #NaPoWriMo. National Poetry Month. If you like this poem, you can read similar in my books, available from Three Chairs Publishing on my ETSY SHOP. They come autographed, with gratitude and a small gift.

Books Creativity Memoir Poetry

7 – Mindfulness










Photo and poem ©2021, Jen Payne. #NaPoWriMo. National Poetry Month. If you like this poem, you can read similar in my books, available from Three Chairs Publishing on my ETSY SHOP. They come autographed, with gratitude and a small gift.

Books Creativity Memoir Poetry

6 – Apple of Discord

Apple of Discord

I had, for years,
chosen words carefully,
like one might apples
in the January bin —
hold, look, turn,
feel for the bruises

And I set them out
on this paper
we call a screen
so there was time
to savor my meaning —
hold, look, turn,
let down your guard,

But that proved
as elusive as the worms
that burrow in —
making scar tissue
of sweet, soft flesh,
unseen beneath the skin
where bruises bloom
and hearts stay broke.

Poem ©2021, Jen Payne. #NaPoWriMo. National Poetry Month. Image: Ceci n’est pas une pomme/This is Not an Apple by Rene Magritte. If you like this poem, you can read similar in my books, available from Three Chairs Publishing on my ETSY SHOP. They come autographed, with gratitude and a small gift.

Books Creativity Memoir Poetry

5 – Can You Hear Me Now?

Can you hear me now?

If a tree falls in the woods

is it inclined to consider

the possibility that no one hears it?

and does that make its falling

any less monumental?

What about the bear —

does its obvious defecation

negate the very action?

I mean

what is the value of

scat for scat’s sake

for Christ’s sake?

No matter.

It’s probably just

predictable poop.

Poem ©2021, Jen Payne. #NaPoWriMo. National Poetry Month. Image courtesy of the Yosemite Bear Team. If you like this poem, you can read similar in my books, available from Three Chairs Publishing on my ETSY SHOP. They come autographed, with gratitude and a small gift.

Books Creativity Memoir Poetry

4 – Coyote Vision

Coyote Vision

The shot was sharp and specific

so precise and premeditated

the anticipated yelp or howl

silent, never came

but he did, in a vision

said, this way this way quick

and we ran through trees

hidden from the path

to a den deep in the woods

a portal to another moment

he in phantom form now and

I, nothing but a thought

on a wave of breath.

Poem ©2021, Jen Payne. #NaPoWriMo. National Poetry Month. Image: Wikipedia. If you like this poem, you can read similar in my books, available from Three Chairs Publishing on my ETSY SHOP. They come autographed, with gratitude and a small gift.

Books Creativity Memoir Poetry

3 – The Wrong Impression

The Wrong Impression

He ran, he told me,
through the corridors of Heathrow
the framed Monet under a free arm,
it, his grand gesture
to the unrequiting, me

Monet’s water lilies
The Water Lily Pond
(to be precise)
its soft curved bridge
symbolic, perhaps,
of his efforts to cross over
from friends
to something more colorful,
shall we say?

For the untrained eye
it gave the impression of love,
but look closely to see
a thousand random dots,
their missed connections
a terminal romance.

Poem ©2021, Jen Payne. #NaPoWriMo. National Poetry Month. Image: The Water Lily Pond, Claude Monet. If you like this poem, you can read similar in my books, available from Three Chairs Publishing on my ETSY SHOP. They come autographed, with gratitude and a small gift.

Books Creativity Memoir Poetry

2 – I prayed he left more than a spoon

I prayed he left more than a spoon

As the sun rose, he whispered,
I’ll come back if I’ve left anything
then packed and went
as quickly as he did that first time
some ten years before.
It was a fishing trip then —
a last chance visit with family
before graduation and grad school —
this time a funeral, his uncle.
No lingering, not like other years,
when we dozed dream-wrapped
late into the morning……..loved.
But with New Jersey such a long ride
from our reverie,
he left before we had a chance to…
……..a chance to say anything more than

Same time next year?
Should I bake a cake?
I’ll come back if I’ve left anything.

I prayed he left more than a spoon,
held my breath in pregnant pause for weeks
until it was clear there was nothing
to come back to……..not even the spoon
which still makes its way into coffee,
stirs up the memory of that morning
and what might have been……..afterall
had he left anything more.

For Cliff. Poem ©2021, Jen Payne. #NaPoWriMo. National Poetry Month, with a sweet nod to Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn. Image: Lorette with Cup of Coffee, Henri Matisse. If you like this poem, you can read similar in my books, available from Three Chairs Publishing on my ETSY SHOP. They come autographed, with gratitude and a small gift.

Creativity Love Memoir Poetry Wellness Writing

The S.S. (Space Ship) Pussiewillow II

The S.S. Pussiewillow II is a whimsical machine by inventor-sculptor Rowland Emett, who was known worldwide for his intricate machines that whirr, spin, flash, sway, and quiver, going nowhere, doing nothing, poking fun at technology. It appeared on display circa 1980 in the Flight in the Arts gallery at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, complemented by music composed and performed on antique harpsichords by Trevor Pinnock. This indescribable kinetic work became a favorite of adults and children alike. The object was taken off display in 1990, but visitors with long memories still ask about it.

From the postcard:

The S.S. Pussiewillow II, a Personal Air and Space Vehicle of unique Stern-wheel configuration, with Flying Carpet attributes, by Rowland Emett, O.B.E. An adapted Kashmir carpet is enmeshed within a light Jupiter-ring, which undulates and spins to provide False Gravity. Twelve variable-speed Zodiacs spin up to ensure activation of suitable Sign, to nullify adverse contingencies. In combined Control Module and Hospitality Room, the Pilot, accompanied by his Astrocat, pedals lightly (aided by helium-filled knee-caps) to energize Stern Paddle-wheel. There is an elevated Power-boost G.E.O.R.G.E. (Geometric Environmental OARiented Row-Gently Energizer), and a Solar Transfuser for trapping random sun-rays. Module is shown in open attitude, revealing possible Extraneous Being being won-over by Afternoon Tea, and toasted tea-cakes.

“A memory I wasn’t entirely sure was real, of finding something that seemed completely but wonderfully out of place in the National Air and Space Museum,” says the person who took the video below, and I completely agree. Like them, I too, remember wandering around the Air and Space Museum and finding myself in this magical room with its dancing machine and fantastical music. I’ve kept the postcard (above) tucked away ever since — what fun to revisit the memory all these years later!

Postcard and text from the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, 1981

If you like this magical creation, you’ll LOVE the It’s About Time issue of MANIFEST (zine). On sale now!

Memoir Poetry Writing


In the pieces of memory
and scraps of conversations
transcribed in situ
I will tell you about
the headless groom
and the dead dog,
about the failure of Saint Raphael
and the irony of the phrase
“you could get hit by a bus.”
I’ll tell you the 15,000 words that broke me
and the ones that almost put me back together
until I realized my heart was better
cracked wide-open like that anyhow.
Now all I need to do is type

Happy Ending.

on the last page
and hope it will suffice.

Poem ©2017, Jen Payne. Image: Woman writing, Edouard Manet.

If you like this poem, you’ll LOVE the Divine Intervention issue of MANFEST (zine)

Memoir Poetry Writing

Identity Theft

I look
in the mirror
and see nothing.
Pieces of familiar fall away.
Sticks poke at what’s left.

Start from scratch
or use a box mix?
Put square peg
in square hole…
that’s never been my style.

I take a walk
to get answers.
Insert A into B, get C.
But all I see is ocean.
Vast and unresolved.

IT doesn’t seem
to need answers.
In. Out. Back. Forth.
Up. Down. [Repeat.]
I take my cue and leave.

It’s OK. Really.
I was bored with me anyway.
If you please,
may I see something
in a polygon?

Poem ©2008, Jen Payne. Image: Girl in front of mirror, Pablo Picasso

If you like this poem, you’ll LOVE the Divine Intervention issue of MANFEST (zine)

Family Memoir Writing

The View From Here: August 31

The View From Here: August 31

The view from here today is this: a shelf in my office. A still life snapshot: longtime friend Winne the Pooh, introduced to me by my Dad when I was a baby; my UMass diploma; the when-in-Paris photo with my friend DeLinda; a Wonder Woman mug; and the very last photo I have of my Dad.

He died less than two weeks later, August 31…twenty-five years ago today.

I always think: I’m glad I asked him to take off his sunglasses that day, because you can see his eyes in this photo. How they connect up with his smile, mirror his laugh.

I always think — if I look hard enough — I’ll see an angel hovering above our heads, hidden in the shadows, waiting.

I remember that day: a cousin’s wedding, the whole family together for the first time in 20 years, his laugh while he played on the floor with his great-nephew, the feeling of not wanting to leave, of wanting just a few more minutes with him.

Now it’s a photo that says more than I can ever tell you. And it sits on a shelf, next to the love he introduced, next to the education he encouraged and the travel he inspired. On a shelf, and on shoulders strong enough to carry all of that forward.

And more: me, Wondering through this life without and yet so very much WITH him. Every day.

©2020, Jen Payne
Memoir Poetry Writing


In the pieces of memory
and scraps of conversations
transcribed in situ
I will tell you about
the headless groom
and the dead dog,
about the failure of Saint Raphael
and the irony of the phrase
“you could get hit by a bus.”
I’ll tell you the 15,000 words that broke me
and the ones that almost put me back together
until I realized my heart was better
cracked wide-open like that anyhow.
Now all I need to do is type

Happy Ending.

on the last page
and hope it will suffice.

Poem ©2017, Jen Payne. Image: Woman writing, Edouard Manet.
Memoir Poetry Writing

Reading Mary Oliver in a Pandemic

I’m reading Mary Oliver again
and for the first time, too, it seems,
meeting once more my kindred
in these quieter, solitary days —
only she likes dogs and I’m allergic, so
I think of the love I’ve shared with cats
and superimpose that over
what she so easily offers on the page,
allowing me to sink my feet
deep into the sand of beaches we love,
find borrowed respite and fresh salt air
as she walks and they walk and we walk.

This is not unlike my general effort of late,
translating dogs into cats,
crumbs into cake, lemons into aid,
finding devotion somewhere
in the twists and turns of what is,
of here and now, of no I don’t love dogs but I do love you,
and damn it someone should write that down
to remember before it’s too late.

Like Mary did:
gathered up all of her words
her favorite words, her treasured words
her words so precious and important
they required devotion
in this heavy record
of everything she wanted to say
and everything she held in silence



is all we can offer each other.

Poem ©2020, Jen Payne upon reading Devotions by Mary Oliver. Photo from Pexels.

Memoir Poetry Writing

The Afghan

For Dorothy Reitbauer

“This,” my friend says, “is lovely.”
Lovely is never a word
I use to describe the ugly afghan
crocheted by my grandmother
and dragged out of storage
when guests sleep on the sofa.

It is avocado green and orange,
milk chocolate brown,
and amber gold,
like the gold my parents
painted the kitchen
of our new house back then.

“She picked each color herself,”
my friend explains,
as she carefully runs her fingers
up and over the zigzag pattern
with awe and affection,
though she never
met my grandmother.

It is the color palette
of my seventies family,
when Mom and Dad
were almost-happy still,
my sister played with Barbie
by the sliding glass window,
and my bangs were
appropriately feathered
away from my face.

“She thought about
you and your family
with each stitch.”

I could see her then,
sitting in her green recliner,
counting stitches like
the beads on her Rosary.
Love Boat on the Sylvania,
drinking instant iced tea
while a cigarette smokes
from the ashtray.

It was after her husband died,
and she traveled with her dog Coco,
bringing Shoo Fly Pie and
Moravian Sugar Cake from
Pennsylvania to our house
in Connecticut.

That Christmas,
she crocheted ponchos for us, too,
and took me to Hawaii
to see my Grandfather’s name
carved in marble at the
Pearl Harbor Memorial,
watch as she traced his name
with her fingers, slowly.

The same deft hands
that crafted this blanket
raised a son and daughter
independently in the fifties;
folded in prayer
for neighbors and friends;
prepared feasts
with love
for grandchildren.

“So much thought went into this,”
my friend continues,
as we carefully fold the afghan
and place it on top
of the antique hope chest
in the corner.

“Each stitch, each row,
holds love and memories.”


©2009, Jen Payne. Written for my grandmother, Dorothy Reitbauer. Seen here in 1943/44.

Creative Nonfiction Living Memoir Quotes Spirituality

Flexible Flyer

This week, I learned that Nicholas Koutroumanis, an old friend of my family, died recently. I thought I would share this piece I wrote about him 8 years ago.



Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you.…All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding, find out what you already know, and you’ll see the way to fly.

– – – – –

We call him Pappous, or Nicholas.

He and my mother became fast friends five years ago while neighbors at the their senior-living apartment complex. They went for walks, grocery shopped, and sat in doctors’ waiting rooms together. They listened to each other’s stories — her two daughters, growing up in Pennsylvania, the divorce; his life in Greece, the war injuries, his son.

He is old enough to be her father, really, but they seem to find comfort in such differences. Her patience with him seems endless, and his with her. He speaks broken English and Greek, she nods her head; she talks forever, and he nods his. He picks a piece of lint off her sweater and she waves him away; she kisses his cheek and he waves back.

The first Easter he spent with my family, he sang hymns in Greek — his voice so pure and beautiful you would cry at the sound.

Nicholas has been a frequent companion with my mother for holidays and birthdays and family celebrations over the years. He always brings pears, or grocery store pies, and tells stories about wild turkeys, God…and spirits. On my nephew’s first birthday this summer, he sat on a folding chair in the shade wearing a Hawaiian lei watching his little “Cowboy” enjoy the festivities.

– – – – –

And then you will be ready to begin the most difficult, the most powerful, the most fun of all. You will be ready to begin to fly up and know the meaning of kindness and of love.

– – – – –

My friend MaryAnne and I saw Nicholas today. He has a nice room at Yale, overlooking the hospital’s parking garage. Outside of a little high-blood pressure, he seems no worse for the wear of his 88-years, except…

“You’ll have to forgive me” he says for the fifth time in 20 minutes, “This is my first time getting old.”

For six weeks, Nicholas has been in this holding pattern — somewhere between his old life and his next one at a yet-to-be-determined nursing home. But he makes do. There are photos of his families taped to the window — his son and granddaughter, my sister and her son. A Greek newspaper is half-read and folded across the arm of a chair next to his favorite hat and familiar tan jacket. He makes easy, flirty conversation with the nurse who arrives to take his blood pressure. He tells old jokes and hugs us each with full and firm resolve.

A dry-erase board in front of the bed reminds him that TODAY is Friday, NOVEMBER 23. It includes the names of his doctor, the nurse. The blue magic marker notes that he is INDEPENDENT, but he is as much aware of the confines of this new life as we are.

“What are you going to do?” he shrugs his shoulders. “This is the day you have.”

In one moment, he is tangled in loops of conversation — “So, how are you?” he asks four, five, six times. And the next, he is as lucid as the day he fixed me up on a blind date, and sat as chaperone over tea and pear slices.

As we drink coffee from paper cups in the hospital cafeteria, he moves effortlessly from 40 years passed to last week to 10 years ago. My mother is his wife is his daughter is my sister is me. The details are off, the timeline is skewed, but the meaning of what he wants to share is clear.

“I woke up at 4 a.m.,” he says, “because there was a bright light. When I opened my eyes, I saw Stella. My wife. She was so bright. I told her how much I miss her.”

Stella passed away three years ago.
He is trying not to cry.

“I told her ‘I miss you Stella, come here’ but she would not come. I asked if she is in heaven and she said no. No.”

It is not heaven, he tells us, just a different side of the atmosphere.

“Here,” he says, holding his heart, “is heavy because we are here,” he points downward. “But there, on the other side of the atmosphere, everything is light.”

– – – – –

Your whole body, from wingtip to wingtip, is nothing more than your thought itself.

– – – – –

In and out of the conversation, I am reminded of the pages in Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which I read for the first time earlier in the day.

Nicholas, my elder and my Pappous, teaching me as wise Chiang taught Jonathan.

The trick… was for Jonathan to stop seeing himself as trapped inside a limited body.…The trick was to know that his true nature lived, as perfect as an unwritten number, everywhere at once across space and time.

Nicholas seems to move that way now — effortlessly across space and time. If he is bothered by his current situation he doesn’t let it show too much, and then forgets soon after. Besides, what are you going to do? This is the day you have.


©2012, Jen Payne. Quotes from Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
Books Creativity Memoir

The Big Picture

Recently, my friend DeLinda gave me a paint-by-numbers set. But this is not your stiff, childhood red barn or Venice gondola paint-by-numbers, no no no. This is a brilliantly colored, wild-stroked, Bohemian cow painting.

Of course, there are a lot of steps to get from the detailed, numbered canvas to the realized final effect. To get from here to the big picture, if you will. The challenge of that is not lost on me — nor on DeLinda, who is always good at throwing down a subtle but effective test of my self-perceived limitations.

And who, right now, doesn’t have self-perceived limitations? This gauntlet of a challenge — colloquially known as COVID-19, scientifically considered a Pandemic, and psychologically in tune with the end of the world as we know it — is testing all of our skills: emotional, psychological, organizational, financial. Are we able to deal with this? And how?

Even more difficult is the fact that none of us has a clear picture of what this looks like when it’s over. Which brings me back to the paint-by-numbers.

This awesome paint-by-numbers kit would be a challenge for a trained artist, never mind someone like me who doesn’t have much experience at all. With that in mind, I thought I’d share my experience of this project with you so far — a broad-brush glimpse of how we come wired with the ability to adjust and adapt, even if we don’t think we do.

The first paint is a pale shimmery blue that does. not. cover. over. the. numbers. This gives me a lot of anxiety. And, it makes me really angry. Shouldn’t it cover over the numbers? Why wouldn’t it? Maybe I’m not doing it right. Or maybe I am the worst human on the planet…at best, a little over-emotional right now. So I close up the paint, clean the brushes, turn off the light for the day.

We move from pale blue to pale gray, and I realize quickly that following the implied rules of this — applying pale gray only to the number 2 spaces — is next to impossible. It’s messy already, and I am coloring all over the lines. Outside of the lines! And I’m just not doing this right. So I close up the paint, clean the brushes, turn off the light for the day.

Pale gray to medium gray brings an understanding that each paint layers onto the next. Everything happens for a reason. Solutions don’t always show up right away. With that acceptance, there evolves a somewhat nicer pace to the process. Paint a little. Wait for it to dry. Paint a little. Wait for it to dry. Work a little. Rest a little. Work a little. Rest a little.

Slate gray is a strong color, and brings with it a certain confidence. It takes care of some of those early mistakes and disregards the messy strokes. Slate gray has a can-do spirit, and I find that I’m much braver with my brush strokes now.

My first brush stroke with paint #5, a bluish gray, lands smack in the middle of a #6 space, but I roll with it. No one is going to know, or care for that matter, if a 6 space is painted color 5. It’s time to get over myself. And it’s time to get over some of these expectations that make things harder than they need to be. Breathe. Relax. Paint. Then clean the brushes, turn off the light for the day.

Paint #6 is white paint. White. And I immediately have PTSD flashbacks of paint #1, that pale, translucent blue and the show-through numbers. But by now, I’ve adapted. I’ve learned some new brushstrokes and paint tricks that cover over the numbers. Now I’m just painting liberally over lines, blending into other spaces, layering paint impasto on top of numbers. Come what way!

Last night, I painted all of the #7 spaces with a happy yellow paint. I made small, flower-petal strokes, and big, flamboyant messy ones. I blended here and stippled there. I’m in the groove now, even if the canvas is just a mass of messy paint splotches. Does it look like a cow yet? No. Is it even pretty yet? No. Will it ever be? Doubtful. But man, that yellow sure is happy.


I find my reaction to the paint-by-numbers project mirrors, somewhat, my experience of the pandemic, a roller coaster ride of responses similar to those outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross to describe the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. And make no mistake, we are grieving. If not the loss of a family member or loved one, then a loss of work, income, companionship, routine, our sense safety and what’s normal.

Understanding those stages of grief, understanding our reactions to what is happening around us, is critical to our mental health — even if we can’t see or know what the big picture looks like yet.

In an article on the Psychiatry and Behavioral Health Learning Network website, psychiatric nurse practitioner Andrew Penn writes: “The five stages of grief…are a useful map as we transit through the uncharted emotional aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.” His 3-part series “Navigating the Emotions of a Pandemic” is a must-read if you or someone you know is struggling to cope with this current state of the world. Check it out in the LINKS below.

Penn ends his first article with a beautifully appropriate poem by Pablo Neruda, “Keeping Quiet.” I’ll leave you with this, then, and my heartfelt hope that you are safe, healthy, and able to find your own creative path through this wild journey.

With Love,

Pablo Neruda

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.


Navigating the Emotions of a Pandemic
The 5 Stages of Grief as a Framework for the Journey
Making Room for Grief During COVID-19<
The Search for Acceptance and Meaning in COVID-19

Other Interesting Links

Branford Land Trust – for nature activities, outdoor things to do, and places to visit
Good News Network – an alternate source for headline news
Guilford Art Center – watch for a new online learning section coming soon
Guilford Poets Guild – celebrating April’s National Poetry Month and more
Hope for Paws – where I go when I need a happy ending
Pediatrics Plus – for ways to manage the COVID-19 shutdown with your family

“Understand there’s no right or wrong
way to grieve, including anticipatory grief.
It’s like the ocean. It ebbs and it flows.”

― Dana Arcuri, Sacred Wandering: Growing Your Faith In The Dark

Books Creativity Memoir Poetry

You are braver than you believe & stronger than you seem…

I’ve been walking around barefoot a lot. Outside, in the yard, to the mailbox — no matter the temperature or weather. It reminds me of that opening scene in Die Hard when John McClain’s seatmate tells him “After you get where you’re going, take off your shoes and your socks…walk around on the rug barefoot and make fists with your toes. It’s better than a shower and a hot cup of coffee.”

It turns out, that’s pretty good advice.

In the article “This Die Hard Relaxation Hack Is Actually Brilliant,” podiatrist Ernest Isaacson explains, “Being barefoot is a great way to feel one’s way around new surroundings, and by removing the protective covering of our shoes it also establishes a level of trust to the new digs, which is comforting, relaxing, and just feels good….Walking barefoot takes us back to our primordial roots, and allows the many nerve endings on the bottom of the feet to make contact with the ground, thereby establishing a real tactile connection to our new surroundings.”

New surroundings like these weird, scary, sad, difficult pandemic surroundings? I don’t know about you, but I’ve got anxiety on a constant feedback loop. Adjusting means processing a lot more information, being OK with a change in routine and expectations, and settling down into not know what happens next.

Walking barefoot, wiggling my toes in the wet grass or on the cold pavement, reminds me to be in the moment.

“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.” — Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, The Teaching of Buddha

Living wisely and earnestly for me right now translates into surrounding myself with the things that immediately bring me comfort: phone calls with good friends, my cat Lola, homemade meatloaf, living room yoga, walks in the woods, writing, and books.

I realize I’m lucky in that. I’m not on the front lines, working in a hospital, striving to keep our communities safe, managing a houseful of little ones. For each and everyone one of us, these are hard and difficult times, in vastly different ways.

So, how are you spending your pandemic days? Are you safe and healthy? Are you balancing worry with wonder? Getting enough rest, movement, breath, prayer, food? Reaching out and digging deep? Have you found what brings you comfort?

Here is a gentle reminder from one of my go-to comforts, Winnie the Pooh:

“You are braver than you believe, you are stronger than you seem, and you are smarter than you think.”

We will be Okay…and YOU will be Okay.

Take off your shoes. Wiggle your toes. Breathe.

Love, Jen

News from My Living Room


Friends of the Blackstone Memorial Library board member Alpha Coiro recently featured me and my books in the library’s spring newsletter Marble Columns. You can read an advance copy of her article by clicking here.


Hankering some comfort food, I looked up recipes by cooking goddess Ina Garten and found her recipe for Meatloaf (click here). I had to ad lib a little: I didn’t have tomato paste, so I used sundried tomatoes in oil; and a crumbled Bisquick biscuit stepped in for bread crumbs. I served it with canned peas and macaroni and cheese and was immediately transported to my grandmother’s kitchen circa 1972. Ahh, comfort.


If you’re looking for something else to read, visit my Etsy Shop where you’ll discover both print and NEW! ebooks for sale.

“Salvation is certainly among the reasons I read. Reading and writing have always pulled me out of the darkest experiences in my life. Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds.” – Roxane Gay

Essay ©2020, Jen Payne. Illustration by Ernest Howard Shepard, “Pooh and Piglet walked home thoughtfully together in the golden evening, and for a long time they were silent,” illustration for A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh (London: Methuen; New York: E. P. Dutton, 1926. Quotes from This ‘Die Hard’ Relaxation Hack Is Actually Brilliant , by Dan Myers, The Active Times. Winnie the Pooh Quote by Karl Geurs and Carter Crocker, Pooh’s Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin.