Bees in the City

Two days ago, I was doing a phone consultation with a writer who, among other things, was writing about bees. When I looked up from my notes, what did I see in our yard? A huge swarm of hundreds of…bees. I’ve never seen such a thing. It was strangely beautiful.

As I continued my consultation, the swarm lessened and eventually seemed to be down to a few dozen bees circling like electrons around an overgrown rhododendron. When I got off the phone, I went out to look closer and saw what is in the picture here: an upside down bee cone. It was two feet tall and just as wide at its widest part.

Fortunately, our neighbor used to have beehives and had the right equipment, as well as the desire to have one again. So last night he came and dropped the cone into a garbage bin and took the squirming mass off to put in one of his old bee boxes.

He missed a few, but over the past two days they’ve disappeared, so maybe they’re all together now.

Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in whose works the kind of coincidence in my first paragraph here happens all the time. Maybe more is at work in our world than we know.

Here a picture of the bees’ new home:


“Love in the Time of Cholera,” in the Time of Coronavirus

© Michael N. McGregor

I started reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera yesterday, as every writer should at some point during a pandemic. It is so beautifully rich in language and poignant and, what I didn’t expect, funny. Here are two lines from early in the book I thought especially evocative:

“In summer an invisible dust as harsh as red-hot chalk was blown into even the best-protected corners of the imagination by mad winds that took the roofs off the houses and carried away children through the air.”


“At nightfall, at the oppressive moment of transition, a storm of carnivorous mosquitoes rose out of the swamps, and a tender breath of human shit, warm and sad, stirred the certainty of death in the depths of one’s soul.”


To Take What Is, In Both Hands

Sculpture by Gustav Vigeland (1869–1943)
photograph: © Michael N. McGregor

I keep a copy of this poem/reflection by my writing desk. It seems more important now than ever (an English translation follows the German):

Zu Lebzeiten

by Jochen Mariss

Laß uns wieder lernen,
den Augenblick zu genießen,
zu nehmen, was ist,
mit beiden Händen,
hier und jetzt zu leben,
bevor wir das Leben verbracht haben
mit sorgenvollen Blicken in die Zukunft
und den Erinnerungen an die gute alte Zeit.

In Life

by Jochen Mariss

Let us learn again
to enjoy the moment,
to take what is
in both hands,
to live here and now,
before we have spent our life
in anxious glances toward the future
and memories of the good old times.

p.s. The photograph here is from Vigeland Sculpture Park in Oslo, Norway, and dedicated to those who are self-isolating with children. 🙃

Preparing To Be Free

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Washington, DC
photo © Michael N. McGregor

STUDY that which you would like to see in this world—peace, truth, faithfulness, community, economic fairness, good government—and it will have a better chance of coming to be.

On this day of hope, let us all prepare our minds and hearts to work for a better world when we are free again.

Happy Easter to all!

FDR on a President’s Priorities in a Democracy

FDR Presidential Library & Museum photograph by Margaret Suckley [CC BY (]

I haven’t added a new post to this site in a long time, and I’m not going to promise to be consistent about adding posts now. But I’ve started working on a new project, centered in the first decades of the 20th century, and some of what I’m reading for it is worth posting about because it relates to what we’re living through in the US today.

I’ll try to say more about what I mean by that in future entries, but for now, just to get started, I’m going to simply post a quote about FDR from a book published in 1937, when his policies were showing some signs of working but the Depression was far from over. The book deals primarily with his policy toward electricity and public utilities in general.

Here’s the quote:

“The President’s thinking goes first to government–democratic government–and after that to economics…In the prodigies of effort he put forth to lead the country out of the bogs of depression he therefore sought, and seeks still, more than what he has termed ‘a purposeless whirring of machinery.’ It is important that every man have a job, that every factory have orders to fill and that business as a whole earn profits. ‘But,’ as he said in his annual message to Congress in January, 1937, ‘government in a democratic nation does not exist solely, or even primarily, for that purpose.’ The factory wheels ‘must carry us in the direction of a greater satisfaction in life for the average man. The deeper purpose of democratic government is to assist as many of its citizens as possible–especially those who need it most–to improve their conditions of life, to retain all personal liberty which does not adversely affect their neighbors, and to pursue the happiness which comes with security and an opportunity for recreation and culture.'”

pp. 292-293, Pyramids of Power, M. L. Ramsay

Here’s to You, Mr. Robinson

I keep thinking about Frank Robinson, the Hall of Fame baseball player who died at 83 three days ago. He was the first African American to manage a MLB team and the only man to be named MVP in both leagues. I’ll list some of his other achievements below, but first a personal story:

The 1970 Baltimore Orioles (with the two Robinsons, Frank and Brooks) were one of my favorite teams of all time. That October, when they beat Frank’s old team, the Cincinnati Reds, in the World Series in five games, I had just “purchased” a tiny, tiny transistor radio, probably with Bazooka Joe bubblegum wrappers. In those days, Series games were played during the daytime during the week. I took that radio to my grade school and listened to the Series in class, with the left side of my head turned away from the teacher so he couldn’t see the thin line of the wire attached to the earbud in my left ear. I never got caught.

That 1970 Orioles team had seven All-Stars on it, and except for Frank, who was paid $125K, none of them made more than $65K. The Series that year, by the way, featured the first African American ever to umpire a Series: Emmett Ashford.

Okay, here are some more of Frank Robinson’s achievements:

1956 Rookie of the Year
1958 Gold Glove
1961 National League MVP (Cincinnati)
1966 Triple Crown (tops in HRs, RBIs & batting average)
1966 World Series MVP (Baltimore won it that year too)
1966 American League MVP (Baltimore)
12-time All-Star
1975 1st black MLB manager (Cleveland Indians)
1989 American League Manager of the Year (Baltimore)
2005 Presidential Medal of Freedom

Career stats:

1,829 runs
2,943 hits
528 doubles
586 HRs
1,812 RBI
204 stolen bases
.294 batting average

RIP, Mr. Robinson. Thank you for giving so much pleasure and inspiration to a little white boy with a tiny radio.

On TV: A Shot of John Belushi and Me in Our Only Movie Together

I went to the Stanford-Oregon game on Saturday night, which was broadcast nationally, and jokingly told a friend to look for me on TV, not knowing a picture of me had already appeared on that morning’s ESPN College GameDay. They showed a short video about “Animal House” that included this still. That’s me (in the center) and my college buddy Brad McCuaig behind John Belushi.

The movie was shot on the University of Oregon campus in the fall of 1977 when I was just beginning my sophomore year there.  All you had to do to be in it was get a haircut, they said, so I lined up with the others and had my head shorn.  Then I worked as an extra for a week, meeting Belushi and the movie’s other future stars and playing fussball with Karen Allen once.  After a week, though, the standing around was too boring and I didn’t want to miss any more classes, so my time as a film actor ended.

No one had any idea, of course–not even the director, John Landis–that the movie would go on to be one of the most iconic comedies of all time.  I remember a quote from Landis saying that the movie might do only modestly well but it would make stars of its young actors.  He was wrong on the first point but prescient on the second.  The young and mostly unknown actors in the movie who went on to big careers included Belushi, Allen, Kevin Bacon, Tom Hulce, and Peter Riegert.  In the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, my Bacon Number is 1.

More About my Writing Residency in China This Fall

I announced a couple of months ago that I’ve been asked to be a resident writer at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, this fall.

I have a few more details about it:

The residency is sponsored by the English Creative Writing Center at Sun Yat-Sen University, the only program in China focused on creative writing in English.  The programs founder and director is a writer herself, Dai Fan.

The residency begins on October 22 and lasts through Nov. 18.   For the first two weeks, we’ll be in Yangshou in the Guangxi Autonomous Region with no duties other than writing.  (The featured image here, of Yangshou, is from the China and Asia Cultural Travel website.)  Next, we’ll spend a week at Sun Yat-sen’s main campus in Guangzhou, giving talks and readings and meeting with faculty and students.  Then, the last week, we’ll be back to writing, this time in Meizhou in Guangdong Province.

I’ll be there with seven writers from six other countries–for information on them and their work, click on their names below:

Charlson Ong, the Philippines

Elisa Biagini, Italy

James Scudamore, Great Britain

Monica Aasprong, Norway

Sally Ito, Canada

Vladimir Poleganov, Bulgaria

Zdravka Evtimova, Bulgaria

I’ll post some of their work in the days ahead.

I haven’t been blogging on this site lately but I will during my time in China.  For now, if you’re interested in learning more about the program and what I’ll be experiencing, check out this edition of Ninth Letter with links to creative works by participants in the program two years ago.

A Writing Residency in China This Fall

In March, after my talk on the ethics of biography at the Associated Writers and Writing Programs conference in Tampa, Florida, a Chinese writer named Dai Fan, who directs the creative writing program at Sun-Yat Sen University in Guangzhou, China, came up to me and invited to be part of a writing residency there this fall.  It’s taken a while for the paperwork to be done but I can announce now that I will be joining writers from seven other countries for four weeks of writing, lectures and readings this October and November.

We’ll have two weeks free for writing in the beautiful autonomous region of Guilin (pictured here), a week of talks and readings in Guangzhou, and a final week of writing in the cultural capital of Meizhou.

I’ll give more details, including the names of the other writers and the countries they’re from, in a future post.

The creative writing program at Sun Yat-sen University is the only one of its kind in English in China.  Students from the program will be our interpreters while we’re there.  I anticipate many interesting conversations with them, as well as the other writers and the program faculty.

Kilian McDonnell Fellowship Supports Work On A New Writing Book

In addition to my two weeks as a writing coach at the Collegeville Institute this summer, I’ll be there for another six weeks in the fall as a short-term resident scholar, recipient of a Kilian McDonnell Fellowship.  The fellowship will support my work on a book about writing for a broader audience, intended primarily for those who write from a spiritual perspective but with plenty for anyone who wants to write well for the general public.

The genesis for this book is my summer writing coach work, particularly my presentations to those attending my Writing Beyond the Academy week the past two years.  Of course, my 22 years of teaching creative writing to both graduate and undergraduate writing students have given me plenty of material too.

If you’re interested in attending either of my summer weeks this year, go to the Collegeville Institute Summer Writing Workshops home page.  There’s still time to apply for these all-expenses-paid weeks but the deadlines are in February!