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Category Archives: Poems

38 Minute Sestina

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Every semester, I have my creative writing students experiment with a sestina. I love this form, because it is about playing with language: essentially, you pick six words and weave a poem around them.

Because it’s a challenging assignment requiring a lot of precise rule-following, I challenged myself to write one in a relatively short amount of time.

Here is the product of 38 minutes of wordplay sitting at my kitchen island:

38 Minute Sestina

land (a)
stone (b)
crack (c)
marry/merry/Mary (d)
foreign (e)
walls (f)

Last summer, Padraic and I visited his family’s land (a)
in Connemara, Ireland. Specifically his father’s one-room stone (b)
house, now a stable for a horse, cracked (c)
all over, like dry dirt soil in a Midwestern backyard. Mary, (d)
Cole, Padraic, and I drunk in the foreign (e)
beauty of low rock walls (f)

separating lamb-dotted green turf. Walls (f)
are much discussed today, in my homeland (a)
of the “free,” of the “brave.” Foreigners (c)
being stacked outside our borders like stones. (b)
Love Trumps Hate, some say, to marry (d)
their idea of America with the hate that is seeping through the cracks (c).

On the one hand, it cracks (c)
us up, Alec Baldwin and and Kate McKinnon on SNL, comic walls (f)
to shield us from our fear. Mary, (d)
Cole, Padraic and I also visited Iceland, (a)
a stone’s (b)
throw away from the “emerald isle.” Foreign (e)

is how it felt, to touch ice dusted in volcanic ash, Foreign (e)
is how it now feels, to have a President riddled with cracks (c)
like my father-in-law’s old, stone (b)
house. A byzantine labyrinth of nonsensical walls (f)
is the brain of the surrogate father of my native land. (a)
When Padraic and I got married, (d)

Obama was the president. And the woman he was married (d)
to, was foreign (e)
to some Americans, as they watched the land (a)
of the free granting privilege to one whose descendants were not free. (Cracks (c)
in our country’s constitution, walls (f)
still erected by everyday Americans, offspring of our nation’s shameful cornerstone) (b)

When they go low, we go high, she preaches, stone- (b)
deaf to the marriage (d)
of America with whiteness. I wish Trump could see the walls (f)
in Connemara, how low and cobbled they are, foreign (e)
to sleek city towers and skyscrapers, full of cracks. (c)
Walls meant for walking, and grazing, and relishing the green land (a).

Padraic’s cousin Mattie lived for his land. (a)
For the wet turf, the ripe berries, the limestone (b).
He cracked (c)
up, at me, Cole, Padraic and Mary (d)
trying to cut turf with a sloane. America — its flatness, its size — is foreign (e),
to Mattie. How I long, in this America, to walk among those low, cobbled walls (f).

A Poem for Salman Rushdie’s New Novel

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I just finished Salman Rushdie’s latest, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. Here’s a brief summary of the book’s premise, borrowed from The New York Times book review:

The central character of Rushdie’s new novel… is…a man who gets cursed and gets blamed for it. Geronimo Manezes, a Mumbai-born gardener now living in New York, has begun to levitate. This isn’t the wish fulfillment of a flying dream; it threatens his livelihood and brings the increasing hostility of strangers. “Why do you imagine I consider my condition an improvement? He wanted to cry out. Why, when it has ruined my life and I fear it may bring about my early death?”

But Geronimo’s predicament is not an isolated case. It foreshadows an era of “strangenesses,” where the “laws which had long been accepted as the governing principles of reality had collapsed.” The strangenesses — some meteorological, some natural disasters, some simply miraculous — are the prelude to a full-blown invasion of the human world by malevolent spirits from another dimension.

It turns out that all four evil jinn, Zabardast, Zumurrud, Ra’im Blood-Drinker and Shining Ruby, have broken through the wormholes separating the world from Fairyland and are bent on causing havoc in the 21st century. The only power that can stop them is a nice female jinnia called Dunia and her human descendants: Geronimo Manezes, the British composer Hugo Casterbridge, the young Indian-American graphic novelist Jimmy Kapoor and a femme fatale called Teresa Saca. If Dunia can gather them up in time and awaken them to the power of their jinni nature, humanity might have a chance against the forces of darkness. “The seals between the Two Worlds are broken and dark jinn ride,” she tells Geronimo. “Your world is in danger and because my children are everywhere I am protecting it. I’m bringing them together, and together we will fight back.”

It certainly wasn’t my favorite Rushdie novel. The NY Times review is pretty critical, and I agree with its perspective. Reviewer Marcel Theroux notes that Rushdie’s “capcaiousness” and “breadth” as a writer/enchanter is a distinctive feature of his style and something to be celebrated… when “there’s been some compelling principle at work.” As Theroux puts it,

“Complaining that Rushdie’s not a naturalistic writer is like criticizing kimchi for its cabbagey funk.”

And I love Rushdie’s funk. It’s why I gravitate toward everything he writes. As for this novel, though, I’ll quote Theroux again:

“Behind its glittery encrustations, the plot resembles a bare outline for a movie about superheroes. There’s a war between worlds, lightning comes out of people’s fingertips and it all culminates in a blockbuster showdown between the forces of good and evil.”

Still, I am drawn to the “nice” jinnia, Dunia, who is enamored with the human world. I am fascinated with the contrast between capricious beings made of smoke and fire versus plodding, helpless humans. In the book, Dunia produces a line of half-jinn, half-human descendants, and the line they walk between their human natures and their jinn natures is fodder for us all. It inspired me to think about the “smoke and fire” lurking in myself, and my human company. I jot this poem down this morning. When I refer to “smoke and fire,” I think I’m referring to the ways in which our human limitations give way, the ways in which we surprise ourselves, transcending our human natures and tapping into something more powerful.

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Smoke and Fire

Smoke and fire:
You address me, “Beauty,”
You nick-named my stomach years ago
At a wedding, my arms are wrapped around you
“Python arms” you dub the photo
Then you say, “Hey Beauty, come here”
Insults, terms of endearment,
From You,
They both land lightly,
Almost to lift me up.

Smoke and fire:
I chased you out of the building
Clear sky, hot pavement
You were running for your life
Now we meet again in August
Your trusting smile,
signing your letter “yours truly”
“I’m ready to step up my game this year”

Smoke and fire:
Skin so thin that a hang nail
Threatens hospital beds and IVs
Skin so thick all the same
You weather your version of chronic pain
Far more graciously than me
And so I confide in you, and worry with you
Even when you’re the one hurting

Smoke and fire:
How many times have I rubbed
salt in your wounds
And you’ve called me back
Invited me over
Given me something from your closet,
Your fridge
“I’m so happy to see you,” you always say.

Smoke and fire:
You used to bribe me to type your papers
Your eyes were bloodshot as you
teased me about my first boyfriend
I bought you beer when I visited you at school
even though I was the younger one
Now you grip your newborn
like a football, easy
You’re well-versed in car seats
and choking hazards
And sleep schedules

Smoke and fire:
This life is muddy for you
Thick, brown, halting
Leaves traces of dirt on your shoes
Wherever you go
And yet you keep going,
So kind
Along your way

If only I could rub the magic lamp
Get a fat, blue little jinn
To fight your demons for you
Smoke and fire-like

Instead, I hold onto the traces
Of smoke
Of fire
inside these
soft,
beating
human hearts.

 

Making Plans

I’ve been making a lot of plans lately. Lesson plans, life plans. Today I’m taking a step back, using poetry to muse about control, spirituality, and the inspiration of the natural world, with a few shots of my Iceland vacation thrown in.

Making Plans

Remember in July,
when we stood still in our hiking boots,
waiting for the geyser to gush?

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Even that was a plan you made
and clothes I carefully laid
and bills we carefully paid
so we could dig our heels in the brown ground,
say “Wow”
When the earth flaunted its do-as-it-likes

Carefully stepping around wet stones and
“hugging the mountain” when the altitude felt too high

Screen Shot 2016-08-07 at 4.08.49 PMand reaching for a stray horse’s snout on a muted, windy slope,
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We breathed in Earth’s overflow
witnessed Her grace

But over a Gull, or lobster soup,
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we mused over plans for home,
or lunch,
stealthily strategizing.

Meanwhile, glowing chunks of blue-white ice floated idly toward the Atlantic
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Aggressive waterfalls thundered down cliffs
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the gray Atlantic met with pebbled beaches
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And we took pictures, eager to clap
For this jazz.

Then

Surrender came in a flash
when I stripped off my coat and scarf and laid in the moss-grass of a mountain
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suddenly remembering that memorial service photo of Carrie’s mom,
basking in the sky on Colorado grass
Before ALS hit.

Today I wonder if I’m a fool
to think that the plans I’m making
bear a contrast, rather than a pale resemblance to
the sprinkling of volcanic ash on a glacier
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Perhaps I’ve been duped
by the strangeness of ash on ice
the drama of cascading water
the glow of blue lagoons

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Yes, I think I’ve been duped.
I’m “a theatre person”; I should understand
the planning that goes into the artifice.

“Whipped cream on a brick,”
a dance teacher once said,
of a ballerina’s lithe posturing
to look like she does as she likes.

Still, it’s a nice thought,
And one that I think I’ll hold onto,
That when the geyser errupts,
She’s just letting it go,
on a whim.

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Hello Again, Here’s a Poem

Screen Shot 2013-05-07 at 8.56.58 AMMuch appreciated readers of Swirl to Coat, I’ve missed sharing my thoughts with you. I have been deep in the world of my English classroom, and otherwise adjusting to a new home and a new city. I’ve been writing a lot of curriculum, and an article on dance history. As for the blogging scene, my sincere apologies for being MIA.

So I’m creating a new category called Life in Lists. Aside from the fact that it’s an easier, perhaps lazier way to blog my thoughts, teaching creative writing has reinforced to me how powerful lists can be for wrapping your head around your own complex consciousness and arriving at meaningful observations about your life. Our textbook, The Practice of Creative Writing by Heather Sellers (which I highly recommend to anyone interested in pursuing creative writing for their own purposes, it’s brilliant, recommended to me by one who knows her stuff) is structured according to broad principles of writing, applicable to any genre: images, energy, tension, pattern, insight… And one of the things she includes in the insight chapter is that one “way to be wise” is to make lists: “Lists force a writer to stay focused on a single subject for longer and build the wisdom muscle.

Today I won’t be sharing a list, but a poem from The Practice of Creative Writing. For me, this poem has an implicit connection to food….and in my wrapped up world of female white privilege, it also makes me think of dieting — “cursing what hurt me, and praising what gives me joy,” and leaving a popcorn trail…  You know, “how everyone eats popcorn,” according to Amy Schumer…

Personal
by Tony Hoagland

Don’t take it personal, they said;
but I did, I took it all quite personal –

the breeze and the river and the color of the fields;
the piece of grapefruit and stamps,

the wet hair of women in the rain –
And I cursed what hurt me

and I praised what gave me joy,
the most simple-minded of possible responses.

The government reminded me of my father,
With its deafness and its laws,

and the weather reminded me of my mom,
with her tropical squalls.

Enjoy it while you can, they said of Happiness
Think first, they said of Talk

Get over it, they said
at the School of Broken Hearts

but I couldn’t and I didn’t and I don’t
believe in the clean break;

I believe in the compound fracture
served with a sauce of dirty regret,

I believe in saying it all
and taking it all back

and saying it again for good measure
while the air fills up with I’m-Sorries

like wheeling birds
and the trees look seasick in the wind.

Oh life! Can you blame me
for making a scene?

You were that yellow caboose, the moon
disappearing over a ridge of cloud.

I was the dog, chained in some fool’s backyard;
barking and barking:

trying to convince everything else
to take it personal too.

The iconic food-lovers — think Julia Child — are always hearty, voracious people, feeling people, with a rich and abundant emotional life, and a corresponding appetite. If you’re reading this, I leave you with the injunction I’m giving myself — which is to take life personally in the sense that there’s power and abundance to be found in vulnerability, in pouring yourself into your work and relationships, so as far as that goes, go ahead and make a scene.

“And The Mountains Echoed”

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 7.12.45 AMWhen I saw this book labeled by more than one independent bookstore as the “best yet” of Khaled Hosseini’s fiction, I was tempted by the thirty-five dollar hardback. I came to my senses and recently finished the e-book. Let me tell you about this over-hyped, but fast and engrossing read. The story is told in clipped, broad strokes, covering multiple generations of multiple families in an expansive, light-handed style that places more emphasis on universalities about familial love than it does on any particular narrative. This “wide-angle” style is different from The Kite Runner. From one sentence to the next, a character’s story might jump forward several decades, or a relationship between two seemingly unconnected characters is established. These hare turns are engrossing, both in a superficial way — tracking the pieces of a puzzle — but also in a more symbolic way, mimicking the reality that life moves with a dramatic momentum that we rarely recognize in the moment. I found myself pondering the idea that we are each born into someone else’s story, inheriting the latest strand of a narrative that we presume to direct.

You Get The Gist

Book-ending the story are the characters, Pari and Abdullah. They are brother and sister living in a remote Afghani village in the 1950s. Their father, Saboor, is so burdened by poverty that he gives his daughter Pari to a wealthy, childless couple in Kabul, where his brother-in-law works as a chauffeur. This sets in motion a sort of chronic separation anxiety — this time it is a literal separation of brother and sister, but as additional characters are folded into the narrative, the term “separation anxiety” requires a broader, more liberal definition, more like a pervasive sense of loss — from the secrets of a Westernized, strong-willed mother, to the bittersweet desire of a young Greek doctor to leave his village, or the confusing fate of being the favored son of a corrupt Afghani official. Quick transitions from character to character, or from one character’s life stage to the next, dramatically reveal how these losses take shape, sometimes insidiously, obvious to the reader but unbeknownst to the characters, and sometimes with sudden onset.

A Book By Its Cover

The title, “And The Mountains Echoed” lends an appropriately cinematic tone to a panoramic novel, full of heartbreak. In his acknowledgements, Housseini attributes the title to a poem by William Blake, called “Nurse’s Song.” He uses the word “lovely” to describe it. The poem has an innocent and and sweeping feel that can be felt throughout the novel, despite the reoccurring theme of loss:

“WHEN the voices of children are heard on the green,
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast,
And everything else is still.

‘Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Come, come, leave off play, and let us away
Till the morning appears in the skies.’

‘No, no, let us play, for it is yet day,
And we cannot go to sleep;
Besides, in the sky the little birds fly,
And the birds are all cover’d with sheep.’

‘Well, well, go and play till the light fades away,
And then go home to bed.’
The little ones leapèd and shoutèd and laugh’d,
And all the hills echoed.”

Echoing That Sentiment

It’s an image of hopeful innocence, emphasizing the transience of human-generated conflict versus the permanence of land and history. Speaking of things that echo, this quote by John Muir from Herbert Smith’s biography sends a similar message about the world’s interconnectedness, continuity with the past, and inscrutability — except nature, not humankind, is his focus:

“When a page is written but once it may be easily read; but if it be written over and over with characters of every size and style, it soon becomes unreadable, although not a single confused meaningless mark or thought may occur among all the written characters to mar its perfection. Our limited powers are similarly perplexed and overtaxed in reading the inexhaustible pages of nature, for they are written over uncountable times, written in characters of every size and color, sentences composed of sentences, every part of a character a sentence. There is not a fragment in all nature, for every relative fragment of one thing is a full harmonious unit in itself. All together form the one grand palimpsest of the world” (42).

The most moving passages in And The Mountains Echoed show how characters are inevitably, intimately connected, with each other and with the past, but even so, they struggle to make sense of “one grand palimpsest of the world.”

City of Hunched Shoulders

Screen Shot 2013-03-23 at 10.02.16 AMThe first week of spring here in Chicago has been a mixture of radiant sunshine and sub freezing temperatures. I have been inwardly savoring the sunshine while clutching my pockets and burying my head in my coat.

On Tuesday, I made several trips along Lakeshore Drive — to the Harold Washington Public Library downtown, back to Evanston, back to the South side. I watched the flicker of sunlight across skyscrapers, its winking, springlike energy, meanwhile, clutching the wheel against a strong wind that persisted in nudging my car toward the concrete median…

One usually thinks of Chicago as a stark, wintry city, less green than silver and inclined to make clumsy leaps from winter to summer. The cold alone compromises a person’s ability to stand tall, take everything in, and smell the flowers. It seems that our shared tendency to hunch over, leaning into the wind with gloved, ear-plugged persistence, could easily be a snapshot of that stubborn, ambitious, individualistic American way. Our cultural tendency to forge ahead, in a manner both self-absorbed and disconnected, is not unlike the crowds of Chicagoans hurrying around in their sleeping bag sized coats.

On my short walk to the library to pick up some librettos, I managed to appreciate the combination of frigid air and bright sun. They are an invigorating pair — more Chicagoan in spirit than clichéd harbingers of spring, like budding flowers or soothing rain. I found myself in a sea of hurried, hunched over pedestrians, moving with the mute, tense persistence I would imagine of flower buds pushing through soil. The clutter of the city had a collective grace to it — a no-frills forward thrust containing the energy and buzz of spring. It reminds me of a poem by Galway Kinnell, “Saint Francis And The Sow,” in a free-association kind of way:

“The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower…”

because

“everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness…”

This poem describes St Francis stroking the wrinkly forehead of a pig, illustrating the idea that everything possesses its own inherent beauty and is worthy of self-love.  The pig takes in this unsolicited blessing by more fully embodying itself, “remembering all down her thick length” the “loveliness of a sow.”

I’d also like to imagine that our city of hunched over, hurried, shivering people is a city in bloom, flowering from within. Spring is present in the quick succession of heavy brass doors, elevator dings, and marble floors, followed by the drone of a computer monitor on the eighth floor of the library, humming over the heavy silence of wooden tables and hunched over readers. Outside, spring is the play of light on windshields, the cacophony of brakes sounding out randomly with car horns, whistles, and screeching subway wheels, all reminders of life stirring.

Here is the poem in its entirety.

[Photo: “When He Comes Ridin’ Into Your Town,” Chicago Man’s photostream]

Virtual Valentine

Screen Shot 2013-02-05 at 8.18.12 AMWhat baker doesn’t love Valentine’s Day? Let me count the ways I love thee, and make thee a smorgasbord of precious heart-shaped treats. It has everything to do with my loving heart and nothing to do with my chocolate addiction. I am aware that if I really gave in, I could go overboard. I love baking that much. What did I bake this year? Nada. Zilch. Nul. Nothing. I have a kind of reverse pride about it. I was working; who has time for hallmark holidays anyway? But a girl can still dream, can’t she? This is what I would have whipped up, you know, in my spare time. In the spirit of “Nothing Twice,” a poem by Wislawa Szymborska, I wish you a happy, belated Valentine’s Day:

“Nothing can ever happen twice
In consequence, the sorry fact is
that we arrive here improvised
and leave without the chance to practice.”
(Which leaves just enough time for…

Homemade Fudge Sauce

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5 squares unsweetened chocolate
1/2 cup butter
1 can (14 1/2 oz) evaporated milk
1 1/4 teaspoon vanilla
3 c. unsifted confectioner’s sugar
Melt chocolate and butter; remove from heat. Add sugar and evaporated milk. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Cook/stir about 8 minutes, until thick and creamy. Remove from heat. Add vanilla. Serve warm.)

“Even if there is no one dumber,
If you’re the planet’s biggest dunce,
you can’t repeat the class in summer:
this course is only offered once.”

(Unless you are Martha Stewart, in which case
your DIY projects are ALWAYS perfection)

Linzer Heart Cookies

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“No day copies yesterday,
no two nights will teach what bliss is
in precisely the same way,
with precisely the same kisses.”
(Precisely: see these lumpy, oozing, imperfectly heart-shaped

Salted Caramel Brownies

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“One day, perhaps some idle tongue
mentions your name by accident:
I feel as if a rose were flung
into the room, all hue and scent.

The next day, though you’re here with me,
I can’t help looking at the clock:
A rose? A rose? What could that be?
Is it a flower or a rock?”

(Or might that be the invigorating scent of peppermint mingled with the decadent warmth of chocolate, dare I say a HOMEMADE OREO? Actually,

Chocolate Wafer Sandwich Cookies

Screen Shot 2013-11-03 at 6.49.55 PMAdapted from Martha Stewart Baking Handbook, makes about 24

1 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 c. plus 2 Tablespoons Dutch-process cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 c.) unsalted butter, room temp
2/3 c. packed light-brown sugar
1/3 c. granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

  • Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside. In a large bowl, whisk flour, cocoa, baking powder/soda, and salt; set aside. In an electric mixer with paddle attachment, beat butter and both sugars on medium speed until light and fluffy. And egg and vanilla. With mixer on low, add flour mixture a little at a time, beat to combine, scraping down sides of bowl as needed.
  • Turn out dough onto plastic wrap. Divide in half. With floured hands shape each piece into flattened rectangle, wrap with plastic, and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes.
  • Place one rectangle of dough on lightly floured work surface. Roll out dough to 1/8-inch thickness, stopping to release dough by running an offset spatula underneath. You should end up with a rectangle about 14 by 11 inches. Transfer dough to a prepared baking sheet and freeze until very firm, about 30 minutes. Repeat with remaining dough.
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place one rectangle of dough on a clean work surface. Working quickly, cut out rounds using a heart shaped cookie cutter. (Return to freezer if dough softens too much.) Transfer hearts to parchment-lined baking sheets. Gather remaining scraps, reroll, and cut out more hearts. Freeze on baking sheet until firm; about 15 minutes. Repeat with remaining rectangle of dough.
  • Bake, rotating sheets halfway through, until centers of cookies feel firm when slightly pressed, 12 to 14 minutes. Transfer to wire rack to cool completely. (This is how long recommended for 2-inch round cookie cutter. May vary depending on size of hearts.)
  • Using an offset spatula, spread 1 tablespoon desired filling onto flat sides of cookies. Sandwich with remaining cookies. Unfilled cookies can be kept in airtight container at room temp for up to 1 week. Once filled, cookies are best eaten the day they are made but can be kept in an airtight container in fridge for up to 3 days.

With Peppermint Icing

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“Why do we treat the fleeting day
with so much needless fear and sorrow?
It’s in its nature to stay:
Today is always gone tomorrow.

With smiles and kisses, we prefer
to seek accord beneath our star,
although we’re different (we concur)
just as two drops of water are.”

(Indeed. The day is fleeting, and the recipes are now online. Why not sit down to a leisurely lunch primarily consisting of cheese, and watch the world by, one drop at a time.)

Croque Monsieur

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[Photos: “A Mother’s Love, Staten Island NY,” Grufnik’s photostream, sea turtle’s photo stream, geertr’s photo stream, smitten kitchen’s photo instructions http://smittenkitchen.com/about/faq/, godutchbaby’s photostream]

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