How to Play Hearts

“It’s easy,” said her mother. “I’ll sit with you for a hand if you like.”

“No, that’s ok. You be the 4th. Just tell me the rules,” she said. They hadn’t been on a family vacation together in years. Now that there were grandkids, the family seemed to coalesce around the idea of spending more time together, and going to further flung places, since they no longer had the cottage. And so Gina found herself at an old oak card table in Maine, surrounded by the glow of a half-dozen Tiffany lamps with her father, mother and 10-year old nephew, Caleb.

“So basically hearts are points,” Caleb explained, “and you don’t want ‘em. And the Queen of Spades is mega points, 13, so you have to avoid her.”

“Ok. How do you avoid getting hearts?”

“We all lay down a card in turn to play a trick,” her mother explained methodically. “The first card leads, and you have to play a card in that suit if you have one or you can throw them your worst if you’re void in that suit. Whoever has played the highest card in the suit that was lead has to take the trick. So the object is to take no tricks with points.”

Rule 1: Play low cards – take no tricks.

“But first we get to pass some junk to our neighbour,” her dad gloated.

“I’ve got some good stuff for you, gramp.”

“I know I can always count on you, Cale.”

“She just gave me the Jack of Diamonds,” complained her mother.

“Not the Jack of Diamonds. That’s worth minus 10. You want to try to keep that.”

“You didn’t tell me that.”

“But sometimes you’re better able to get it if someone else has it, so this could be ok,” her mother reconsidered. “Now you know I have it. Actually, I always lose it if I’m dealt it.”

Rule 2: Read between the lines. Keep the Jack of Diamonds if you happen to have it.

“I dealt, so I start the first round, which is a safe round,” instructed her dad.

“What do you mean a safe round?” she asked.

“It means you can put down our highest cards because no one can play anything worth any points.”

“Ok.”

“Good. So now we really begin. You took that with your ace, so you lead the second trick.”

“We usually lead with low clubs to start. Clubs are usually a safe suit,” her mother chimed in.

Rule 3: Lead with low clubs.

Right after she played the Five of Clubs, her nephew tossed a card on top chanting, “The Queen comes out! The Queen comes out!”

“Am I ever glad I have the Two,” her dad chuckled.

“Oh brother!” her mother exclaimed. “I can’t believe I’m taking this with a measly Six of Clubs! I’m a bad example.”

“I thought you said clubs were a fairly safe suit.”

“I forgot these two try to void clubs. Usually you can’t do that so early in the hand!”

“Caleb gave me a few fairly low clubs, so I guessed he was close,” her dad said. “You can tell a lot by what people pass you.”

Rule 4: You can tell a lot about people by what they pass you.

“This is going to be relaxing – now we don’t have to worry about the Queen,” Cale settled back into his chair with bravado.

“Very good. You did pretty well that hand. This time we pass left.”

“If I get dealt the Queen of Spades, should I pass her or keep her?” she asked.

“Good question.” Her dad loved strategy. “If you have a lot of spades and can protect her, you should keep her and void in another suit so you can slough her off on someone else. If, on the other hand, you don’t have many spades, you should pass her.”

“What do you mean protect her?” she asked.

“Well if you have only one spade, someone like gramps here, will lead spades over and over to try to make someone eat her!” her nephew explained with a wry grin. “That’s happened to me many times.”

“Oh – so if you have no other spades you have to play her on yourself.”

“Yeeeesz,” Cale nodded, his teeth barred. “Vera nasty!”

Rule 5: Pass the Queen if you can’t protect her.

“Now we know you might be passing her, but that’s ok. Training round,” he quipped.

“You took the safe trick again. Now you have to lead,” her mother sighed.

“I thought I was supposed to get rid of my highest stuff on the first trick,” Gina protested.

“Yes, but you also don’t want to lead if possible.”

Rule 6: Don’t play your Ace first thing.

“Why would you lead a low Diamond?” her mother asked exasperated.

“I thought clubs were no good because these two void in clubs!”

“Yes, but you never lead a low Diamond.”

“Why?”

“Because then if someone has the Jack, like the last person to lay down a card in the trick, then they can take it. You want to try to make them give you the Jack, if not with an Ace, King or Queen, by their having to play it at the end, on another suit. Whoever’s leading at the end of the game can sometimes get the Jack by default.”

Rule 7: Never lead low Diamonds! Even if you’re losing you could luck out at the end of the game.

“So that leaves only low Spades, now.”

“That depends. If you’ve got the Two or Three of Clubs, play it.”

“But she’s already played the Diamond, so let’s just continue with that.”

“You see – I didn’t play my Ace, because there’s no guarantee of getting the Jack this early on, so we’ve played right into your father’s hand,” her mother chuckled, shaking her head.

“Thank you very much!”

Rule 8: Playing last in the trick has its advantages.

“Looks like trouble in River City!” Cale called out as he plunked down the Queen of Spades on his grandmothers Four of Clubs.

“The Dirty Lady!”

“What! Don’t tell me – that’s the second time I’ve taken her!”

“The second trick seems a little dangerous.”

“That was the third,” Cale corrected.

“You did the right thing, you see,” her dad offered. “You played your Three and didn’t have to take the Queen. Sometimes early on people try to get rid of middle cards like 8, 9 and 10 to get rid of them while it’s safe.”

“Yeah, but the 10 always takes it!” her nephew warned.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s just an expression,” her dad chuckled. “Cale likes these expressions.”

Rule 9: The 10 always takes it.

Vision

This poem, also published in ASH (Number 3, Volume 1), is written in French. Writing in a second language is an interesting way of trying to get at images that consolidate a feeling or an experience. The writing may be sparser and more immediate.

Here the cigarette butt that continues to glow after having been tossed in damp grass becomes a faithful pilot light. But this human artifact simply reflects the greater backdrop of the rays of setting sun reddening fallen pine needles that catch its light between the trees.

Vision

Au crépuscule, les raies dorées dans la forêt
Le vent dans les pins, cheveux noirs contre les bouleaux
Mon mégot jeté sur l’herbe humide brûle encore
Une veilleuse fidèle dans le bois déjà en flammes

Describing Ourselves into Being

I wrote my first poem at 10, I believe, and interestingly,that poem is very much in keeping with the subjects of my writing today. Around that age, I began asking my parents spiritual questions. My parents were committed to the idea that each person find their own questions and steer their own way toward possible answers. This allowed me a wonderful freedom of exploration, but with only the background materials of literature, nature and the impulse toward finding the sacred in mundane life experience. My family’s quiet retreats in nature were ripe with opportunity for this type of inquiry, and I savoured my connection with the natural world through writing.

Flying was my first published poet, and appeared in ASH: Arts, Sciences and Humanities, Number 2, Volume 1, in 1994. I wrote it while living in Dijon, France, in the fall of 1992. I remember sitting down to write it out at one of the front tables at Café Granjib on the market square in the cobbled city centre . It is a distillation of the experience of viewing the flight path of birds just before a storm from my room in a mansard roof, an old ‘chambre de bonne’, or nanny’s quarters, that offered incredible views out over the rooftops toward the horizon.

Flying

Leaning out the window,
swallows just above my head circle around and around.
I look up and am lost in a spiral of sensations,
transported to the height of my ideas,
spiritual heights just beneath the clouds.
Flapping lower down,
they glide in a swift orbit between the parallel
limestone blocks, here and back and around again,
flapping and chirping,
entranced in a kind of rhythmic ecstasy.
In pairs, and fours,
the swallows play at the height of my rooftop room.
Another electric storm will soon lash out across the sky
cutting the gracefully insistent lasso in mid-flight.
Then, they will rise again.
My eyes mark an imaginary cone.
I am holding the invisible string.
Around and around by the force of the wind,
held in orbit by a central spirit, they are grounded,
yet free to fly.