Silence Usurped

A chorus of crickets, katydids, and cicadas sweep along an unceasing, summer breeze. The internal resonance is ever-constant as ear-rending vibrations posit never-ending noise.

Mountain waves

Tinnitus drones me to sleep each night and accosts my consciousness each morning. And I yearn to hear a simple flash of a moment’s true silence.



The Last Hummingbird

Taking Aim Taking Aim

Hummingbirds guest at my home each spring and summer. Extraordinary beings. They announce themselves with a “bzzzz” produced by their flapping wings. They’re always hungry and I am a serious host: I lay them a fine table with some of their favorite foods. Hanging baskets of red, white and orange impatiens grace my front porch. Pots of purple and lavender flowering mallows stand in front of my house , and my back deck offers begonia, coleus, basil, and peppermint flowers for their pleasure.

Getting Closer Getting Closer

The birds visit several times a day, every day. They feed from the flowers and pollenate the plants and they don’t mind sharing an outdoor presence with me and my family and friends. Indeed, we and the hummers enjoy life together. The birds offer us wonder, serenity, and pleasure and we offer the hummers safety, calm, and quiet as they feed. It’s a remarkable relationship, one I haven’t experienced with any other wildlife. The birds show no anxiety around people, though they’re anti-social among their own species and tend toward territoriality. Thus it’s a fair guess that I see the same birds here each day. And that makes the experience personal and intimate.

Feeding at the Flowers Feeding at the Flowers

They arrive at my home, usually one at at time. They flutter around the plants and hover in midair as they devour the nectar inside each of the flowers. The birds don’t dally. As soon as they finish, they fly off in search of nourishment elsewhere, and in the case of the females, to feed their young.

Feasting on Nectar Feasting on Nectar

The bird feeding on the coleus flowers in these pictures is a female, ruby-throated hummingbird. Her neck and underbelly are white and her back is greenish. Her male counterpart is a more colorful, showier individual with an actual ruby-colored throat.  This lady is my last visitor for this season, I think. I haven’t seen her or any other hummers for days. So I’m honored that she allowed me to get within five feet of her to take these pictures.

Leaving the Scene Leaving the Scene

It’s migration time and as autumn closes in, plants that were nutritious and lush with leaves and flowers all summer are now spindly and withering.  The birds head to Mexico and Central America where they’ll feast at tropical  smorgasbords. They”ll be gone by the end of this month and I’ll start preparing for my own northeastern winter. As spring approaches, however, I’ll plan another floral table for the hummers return complete with all their favorites and perhaps, a few surprises.

Crossword Contemplation

Scrabble, word searches, acrostics. I’ve played them all. Magnetism exists in letter boards and spaces, clues and calibrated game points. They beckon and I’m compelled to fill in blanks, circle words, rearrange letters, or discover phrases.

Word puzzles stimulate my brain. They cause me to seek existential abstracts and their corresponding resolutions, or they flummox me by taking me to places where nothing makes sense. The games lead me to the edge of leisure’s uppermost atmosphere where all combinations of letters, phrasings, and associations coalesce.

But it’s the crossword puzzle that propels me past all that and into the Valhalla of locution.

So what is about crossword puzzles? What happens when my eye meets the empty grid of black and white squares and the clue list beside it?

Working a crossword puzzle is a solitary endeavor. I work them in the quiet of my home. Or I carve out an inner sanctuary in places filled with other people– airports, waiting rooms, lobbies. This tendency to remove myself from social influence may be construed as anti-social. Perhaps so. It’s difficult to explain why I can sit for hours caught up in filling out little boxes with letters.

Solving crossword puzzles is a mystical experience, an interactive mind-body-paper-pencil meditation that reduces stress in my life. As I begin, I sense the endorphins in my brain releasing their calm. My body relaxes. My mood changes. My breathing slows as I peer across the page. I scan the clues. I concentrate. I start the puzzle.


1. Fred Astaire’s first dancing partner

8. Riga’s country


2. He wrote the Maltese Falcon


I continue. Seventy clues across, sixty-four down. I don’t know all the answers but I’ll take my time and link letters together until it’s done. Or until I finish as much of it as I can with the knowledge I have.

In essence, there are times I need diversion and ways to cope with the pressures that bog me down and impede the fulfillment of my goals and responsibilities.

Simple concept:

Let go of what stresses me for a bit.

Switch focus.

Engage in an enjoyable or challenging activity for a while.

Emerge refreshed.

Return to original task–job, kids, travel, peace negotiations, national security, etc.

The process is contemplative. I find I can broaden or change my perspectives in ways that are simple, enjoyable, and knowledgeable anytime, anywhere. Puzzle answers are not always obvious. Sometimes I’m forced to think outside the little squares. Is a BMT a Subway sandwich or an old New York City subway line?

Find the correct context and the answer becomes obvious.

Context within a crossword puzzle is the overlapping of letters in two or more words. Thus, in reference to the clues above the answers appear:









And so it goes.

My love of crossword puzzles is a commitment. I go nowhere without a puzzle handy. I’ve been known to peruse the puzzle sections of bookstores for the perfect ones. There’s need over preference here. Too easy puzzles bore. Too hard, they erode confidence or cause me to chea– (ahem) learn.

I need puzzles that challenge my cognitive skills, memory, and knowledge all at the same time. And I have an allegiance to specific publications, (e.g., The New York Times) and puzzle masters (e.g., Will Shortz.) This allows me a level of comfort and expectation. Puzzles are not equal in size, scope, situation, or setting.

Puzzles tend to reflect specific locales. I once attempted to solve one in a London newspaper. Disaster. I was unfamiliar with the nuances of the Queen’s English. Perhaps in time I’ll develop a cozier relationship with British vernacular and culture. Good objective for future crossword ventures. International crossword puzzle solver. Sounds pretty cool.

As a crossword puzzler, I admit to sometimes viewing myself as an information reservoir. My intellect is a cistern that catches bits and pieces of details and stores them like rainwater. And when I need it, the information flows –items, issues, descriptions, customs, literary and movie trivia, culture, traditions, colors, shapes.

Free-floating concepts transform into interconnected words, one letter at a time, one space at a time.

Most challenging “cerebrations.”

Cars, Concrete, and Jacaranda Trees


I grew up in New York City where gridlock reigns and where whirring car ignitions, blaring horns and radios, and revving engines sang me to sleep at night and jolted me awake each morning.

As a child I romped through concrete playgrounds and ran through torrents raging from open fire hydrants. I loved a good game of punch ball in the streets where parked cars served as bases. I played stoop ball against the concrete steps of apartment buildings and jumped rope on the sidewalks.

Trees were few and I remember, at an early age, actually believing that real flowers came from florist shops and only on adult special occasions. Dusty, artificial flowers that decorated our apartments seemed as abundant as the cars on the streets and just as natural as the concrete cityscape.

School and socialization changed all that. Biology fascinated me and interacting with people who grew live plants led to my love of flowers and my current lifestyle.

As I grew up, my appreciation for cars and concrete shifted to the utilitarian. Cars became transportation. And the concrete sidewalks, teeming with apartment houses, stores, and skyscrapers necessary to living and working, provided safety from the traffic beyond their curbs.

I live in upstate New York now. Cars abound, their necessity absolute. Not much in the way of concrete, though. A few sidewalks in the one-traffic-light town near my home. A few single-family houses, stores, a library, and a bank grace their presence but there’s no shortage of trees and flowers.

The child I was would have felt strange and unsettled in this environment.

Though there were cars all over the place in New York City, my family didn’t own one. Few poor families did. Our nature trips, when we left our neighborhood at all, consisted of visits to Central Park by subway and bus.

Quite different from my current lifestyle.

Once a year I visit family in Los Angeles. Though I’m now a seasoned traveller, each time I arrive I find myself as unsettled as my city-child would have been in the mountains.

Indeed, my points of reference have changed.

I’m no longer used to concrete cityscapes and unceasing traffic sounds. I live in a town that has fewer than 3,000 permanent residents and my house rests inside six million acres of protected forest. I awaken to silence in the winters and to birdsong during the other three seasons.

And though I manage to visit my hometown without difficulty–it is home, after all– I admit to anxiety each time my plane lands at LAX.

Of course, the cars and concrete in LA link me to a life I left long ago. Yet there are substantial differences. Where New York City is a compact island connected to outer boroughs by bridges and tunnels, Los Angeles sprawls and doesn’t seem to want to end. And though I’ve been here many times, I’ve yet to master the layout of the city.

I get lost a lot.

Yet each June when I arrive, I find myself so willing to set those stresses aside.

Jacaranda trees are in full bloom. Big purple clusters of cone-shaped flowers rest upon soft fern-like branches. They’re all over the place and they fill the air with fragrance and the streets with spectacular beauty.

A heart-warming delight to this flower-lover.

Though second only to my son who always meets me at the airport, the Jacaranda trees are a wonderful, welcoming sight.


Top photo: Under A Jacaranda
Bottom photo: Jacaranda Tree in full bloom
Photos taken with an IPhone 5 by Joann Pensabene June, 2013

Adirondack Elephant

On Rt 9

The above picture was scanned from a print.
The original photo was taken by Joann Pensabene in April, 2008.

I drove past this spot on Route 9 hundreds of times and never saw anything other than green shrubs and gray rock formations. Of course, I never actually looked for anything more than that. Especially while driving. The 40 mph road is narrow. It winds and climbs and parallels Lake George in northern New York. And except for a scenic overview here and there along the way there’s no safe place to stop and examine specific geographical configurations.

Yet someone did just that and shared this unique perception.

How and when the outline was made is a mystery as is who did the work. The whitewash was not permanent. The sketch disappeared when the rain washed the paint away. The elephant reappeared one more time that I’m aware of, years after I took the above picture.

So, how can one interpret this modern, human-geological interaction?




You decide.

The Sky at Dawn


photo by Joann Pensabene

Dawn through the trees. Red and orange streaks across Wednesday’s sky.

My reaction, strong, the verse, reflexive:

“Red sky in the morning/sailor take warning. Red sky at night/ sailor’s delight.”

A memory fragment. Children’s voices from my past reaching across time, reciting the rhyme by rote during a grammar school lesson on proverbs. The simple saying, steeped in Western culture, secured me to humanity’s past. Definite assurance here. Sky and verse, together, offered me incontrovertible proof that rain was in my day.


photo by Joann Pensabene

Ancient people studied the natural world and predicted weather patterns based on repeated observations. Their predictions guided their decisions in farming, animal grazing, and sailing.

The “red sky verse,” often thought of as a cute, children’s poem today, was actually a cultural tool, a piece of oral history set into an adage. Repeated across generations it lives in our collective memory. Our ancestors used verse to memorize their interpretations of meteorological events as they organized their world and enhanced their chances of survival.

We humans are a creative lot and our observations across millennia connect us. We’re also an expressive lot. We devise incredible varieties of forms to present our gathered data. The “red sky verse” is only one of many. And, just for the record, the British and Australian version of the poem presents a shepherd as its subject rather than a sailor. I sometimes wonder whether early American pioneers might have thought, “Red sky in the morning/settler take warning…?”

photo by Joann Pensabene

photo by Joann Pensabene

An early written account of the red sky phenomenon can be found in the Bible. Jesus says to the Pharisees:

“…when it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky but you cannot interpret the signs of the times ” (Matthew 6:2-3, New Revised Standard Version.)

A sign of our own times, of course, is the evolution of sophisticated scientific techniques we now use to present our observations of natural occurrences. We’ve replaced our reliance on adages with experts who interpret events in ways our ancestors could never have envisioned. All an ordinary, technologically connected person need do is watch reports on The Weather Channel, listen to predictions on local radio stations, or tap on iPhone Apps to find out conditions in any given part of the world at any given moment. And we can track and view the impact of weather on the physical, psychological, social, and environmental consequences endured by our fellow humans in real time and respond with appropriate support.

photo by Joann Pensabene

photo by Joann Pensabene

Such is a result of living in a global-networked culture. It’s wonderful to have electronic data at our fingertips and to feel confident in the high probability of their veracity. Understanding that red sky phenomena are caused by debris and moisture caught in cloud formations as weather patterns move in specific directions did satisfy my intellectual craving about what I saw out my window the other day.

Yet the red and orange streaks across the sky through the woods behind my house was a heart-stopping moment that culminated in pleasure and wonder. Natural art. A brilliant picture that glowed and faded as the sun rose higher in the sky, beauty I could only partially capture with the camera.

And what about the veracity of the ancient verse?* Though actual studies of it’s accuracy have been done, the science jurists are split. Perhaps someday someone may come up with a statistically stable result.

Finally, what did the weather do on Wednesday? I leave you with my own observations compiled by looking out my window and without benefit of reports from the professionals. The day yielded alternating sun and clouds and late in the afternoon, we had a good, soaking rain.


*The links below offer contrasting info re: red sky validity.