22 December 2009

Celebrate the Coming of the Light

Today is the first full day of winter. Yesterday at 12:47 p.m. EST was the Winter Solstice. If you had a chance to see the sun rising or setting, it would have appeared to hug the horizon closer than ever because the earth’s tilt was at its maximum declination.

I use that word, declination, for fun--it was the word of the day yesterday at Visual Thesaurus Magazine, an online service I subscribe to.

It used to seem odd to me that it feels like winter several weeks before winter officially arrives and that Christmas, which we consider a winter holiday, barely makes it into the official winter season. Part of the reason, I think, that it seems like winter long before it really is, is because daylight wanes up until the Winter Solstice, when it begins to wax again.

I don’t know if it happens like this every year, but the new moon very nearly coincided with the Winter Solstice this year. Through Dec. 15, the portion of the moon we see was growing smaller (if, indeed, cloud cover allowed us to see any of it) and thus giving off less light. Then, Dec. 16, 17 and 18, the three days of the “Dark Moon” phase, it disappeared entirely until it reappeared Saturday, Dec. 19, as the merest eyelash. Yesterday and today it’s in its peak crescent form, and it will continue to “grow” until the full moon on New Year’s Eve.

Many gardeners, in springtime, continue to plant with a new moon as almanacs advise, so that the increase in light at night will help to pull the new life forth from the ground.

Cycles Within Cycles Within Cycles

I see the waning and waxing of the moon as a smaller cycle within the larger cycle of the earth’s movement around the sun and the changes in sunlight we experience as a result. That cycle is in me as well, and in every living being. I go through times of decrease and increase, and each of those is natural and will pass into the other eventually. This happens to us all. It is what makes us alive, and we should celebrate it in ourselves and in each other.

It’s when I began to garden that I gained a new appreciation of cycles and of winter’s place in the cycle of life. As much as I love watching things grow, caring for a garden takes a great deal of time and effort. Suddenly, winter revealed itself anew to me as a time of rest, and along about July I began to look forward to its coolness and its chance for repose.

The plants rest in winter, too, after pushing past their peak around the time of the summer solstice and retreating gradually back inside themselves so they can regenerate for another year of spilling forth. Let me give you an example: my asparagus. Unusual in that it’s a perennial vegetable, the asparagus crop is done around the first of June, depending on the weather and my diligence at harvesting.

Instead of cutting the stalks for eating while they’re still under a foot and tender, at that time I begin to let them grow as tall as they like. In a few weeks they’re as tall or taller than I am and they “bloom” into gracious ferns that shade their corner of the yard like a primeval forest. Or at least it must seem so for the birds, rabbits and other wildlife who congregate in their coolness as summer temperatures soar.

As the garden moves toward fall, these same ferns bear tiny red berries, which the birds and rabbits feed on. We don’t cut down the stalks until falling temperatures and waning light turn them from citrusy green to brown. Why? Because as long as the topside is green, the underside, which I personally buried under a foot of earth, is drawing off energy to produce next year’s crop. The ferns are like giant straws, reaching toward the sun to suck energy down into the plant crowns.

I’d like to see what happens underground the day after the Winter Solstice when daylight begins to increase again! The plants certainly must feel it, as I do now that I'm aware of it. This knowledge gives me a new appreciation of the winter world. The colors of my yard, though subdued, are alive with a sort of restful beauty. Shapes are more apparent, particularly when snow accentuates the remaining deciduous plant structures and evergreen shrub forms.

Winter turns my yard into a sort of sculpture garden, and I realize I don’t need to see evidence of growth at all to know it’s going on. Something is always happening, always growing. And often, more is going on below the surface, beneath the ground, in the dark, and even in the winter. It’s true for people, too; you’ve heard the adage, “Still waters run deep,” right?

Bird by Bird by Bird

I like to feed the birds, and I usually keep feeders filled in both the front and back yards year-round. But 2009 was a stressful year for my family and me. I forgot to fill the feeders most of the time, or if I remembered, I just didn’t do it. I was too depleted. But things are finally turning around.

I know birds depend more on feeders in winter when there’s less food available naturally than in summer when things are growing everywhere, and that snow makes it even more difficult for them to scavenge for food. So before the last snow hit, I brought in ALL my feeders (Six? Seven?) and cleaned and filled them. The snow came and went over the weekend, and no birds showed. The seed and suet just sat there. The birds had forgotten me, I surmised, just as I’d forgotten them.

Then yesterday, on the Winter Solstice, the first cardinal couple visited my front-yard feeders. This morning, the tree outside the window where I sit to write is full of at least six pairs of cardinals, busily exchanging places at the four feeders. The males spar in the air from time to time, as do the females. All flit from feeder to feeder to ground, where they retrieve what’s fallen. The brown and white palette of my snowy, hibernating yard and the gray, clouded light that is midwinter make these always colorful birds more striking than ever. Even the tawny females seem lit with an inner glow I wouldn’t notice in the glare of a sunny July day.

Now there are two gray-blue nuthatches with white chests and faces and black caps, prancing down the trunk of the ash tree. One squirrel just chased another away until he (or she?) is done filling his cheeks with my corn. It waits across the street until the first squirrel leaves, then moves in and out in a flash, followed by a third. Where there was no activity, now there is an abundance of life.

Most of winter is about the light increasing, whereas after the Summer Solstice in June, the garden is on the wane; it’s dying, in spite of the beautiful weather yet to come. Like an iceberg that’s more than three-fourths underwater, winter is mostly the “new” waiting underground. Life, of which I’m a part, always finds a way to sustain itself, though some days the feeder is empty, and other days no one comes there to eat in spite of an abundance of food. But if it hangs there long enough, eventually there will be diners.

As I organize my writing projects for the New Year and prepare to celebrate the Christmas holiday with my family, I look forward to a period of flow after so long an ebbing. And I’m thankful for cycles, something I can depend upon. Regardless of our individual differences and various beliefs, it’s important to realize that the one thing that unites us, world over, is the cycle of life and, at the Winter Solstice, the coming of the light.

True blessings of the season to you and yours.

10 December 2009

Dreams: The Stuff Shirts are Made of

PROMPT: Dreams are always a good prompt because of their stark imagery and unusual associations. It could be one of your own that gets you writing or someone else's (with their permission, of course!). Here's one of my husband's I expanded on thanks to an news item, which also often make good prompts.

About a year ago, my husband Chris and I got a chuckle out of a dream he had in which he acquired a new skill: how to "program" shirts (yes, as in long- and short-sleeve, button-down, buttoned-up and stuffed). Chris has a degree in computer technology and has done his share of pounding out code in the 30-plus years he's worked at an electric utility. Even now, his job involves scouting emerging technologies to augment customer service. So it's a fitting dream, no matter how "out there" it seemed at the time.

Imagine, then, our surprise when this week he discovered "programming shirts" isn't as far-fetched as we thought, that one company has developed a flexible screen onto which they can feed video-rich information. Making that screen part of a garment is a logical next step:

Chris and I often tell each other our dreams and puzzle over the symbolic content. I keep a running log of mine and try to analyze many of them. We know we're the only ones who can really figure it out for ourselves and that what seems "right" to us today will likely yield to another layer of meaning tomorrow, next month and next year. A dream has that kind of life. It begins inside us like any other creative product and is just as real as a book or a poem or a program we write--even as real as a tasty holiday meal we plan and serve to family!

Dreams and Premonitions: What's the Connection?

More often than we probably realize, a dream possesses foreknowledge--either in what will come for us or for the larger culture. Sometimes in reaching ahead it gives us warnings. For instance, many people didn't arrive at work at the World Trade Center at their regular time on Sept. 11, 2001. Still others did not board planes involved in the tragedies that day. A number of these people spoke of premonitions and dreams that made them uneasy and either kept them away or slowed them down. Who knows how many of those who perished had similar misgivings that day?

I had two dreams of a car accident before I actually had one a couple years ago. All this is not to say that the purpose of the dreams was to warn me about the old lady who backed into me in the grocery store lot--in my dream the vehicle and the circumstances were different. But it could have been to warn me I was driving myself  too much in my personal life. Or, it could have been trying to tell me my thyroid medication was too low and my attention span and reaction times were off, because it was and they were.

About this time five years ago, I dreamed of a tsunami. The day after Christmas that year, a tsunami devastated the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. The focus of my dream was the personal me and how I felt overwhelmed by some personal issues. In my dream, I surfed the tidal wave and watched from the ocean shallows it left behind as it went onto shore and swamped the buildings. But instead of destroying them, it washed them dazzlingly clean. The cities and peoples of Sumatra weren't so lucky.

Certainly the dream wasn't meant to warn me away from traveling or to get me to call the earthquake warning center, because I had no travel plans and the dream contained no information about where or when. But when the waking-life tsunami hit, my spine tingled. The dream became an extra source of encouragement to me that I could survive these tough times, that they had a purpose. An artist friend who also pays attention to her dreams told me she, too, had a tsunami dream--hers just a day or two before the actual one.

I believe these seemingly odd occurrences happen because everything living--us, the plants and the animals, our thoughts and our dreams--are all connected in the organism that is Earth. Just like a whale or a bird can create a new pattern of vocalization and transmit it to all other members of its species everywhere within a few months without direct contact, so can we. We haven't even begun to tap what it is that happens in our inner lives.

Searching for Evidence of Inner Life

Last June I had some physical therapy. I don't remember what was on TV as the therapist gave me my treatment, but we started to discuss it. You've probably all had conversations along this same line: What on earth is the world coming to? I said I thought a big problem nowadays was that many people have no inner life. The therapist asked me what I meant by that.

My reply was dreams and the stream of thoughts that go on inside us all, nonstop. It's not really that people lack this current of thought, but that they don't pay attention to it. They don't remember their dreams, and they don't try to. They don't quiet the outer life enough to hear the inner one, and it's the inner one that's full of all the new stuff waiting to emerge.

Did you know Abraham Lincoln dreamed about his assassination on several occasions? His wife did as well and didn't want him to go to Ford's Theater that night. Julius Caesar's wife, Calpurnia, dreamed of her husband's assassination, too. German chemist Friedrich Kekule correctly postulated the structure of the benzene ring after seeing an image of a snake swallowing its tail in a daydream, and Mary Shelley attributed her fictional character Frankenstein to a similar source.

The list is endless. Launch a Google search of your own sometime.

I just finished re-reading a favorite book and posting a review about it: The Wild Braid by Stanley Kunitz . In it, he talks about the inner life and dreams:
One function of dreams is to inform us that the boundaries of experience are infinitely open and that the limits we perceive in our daily life are in themselves an illusion, that actually to be alive is to occupy territories beyond those we recognize as our physical universe. Each person's dream-life is in itself a universe, a product of a single tangle of membranes and nerve centers and the rest of it. In the dream you move beyond that dominion into one where the rules have not yet been discovered and never will be.
Later, Kunitz tells of recurring dreams of being lost. He admits he doesn't know how to interpret this feeling and concedes he couldn't possibly tell what the dreams "mean" once and for all. But he believes his purpose as an artist is to try to describe the feelings they evoke. "There is, above all," he says, "a need to articulate your own source of being so you will recognize that source and know who you are. How could you be an artist if you didn't explore your own inner life?"

I'll take it one step further: How could you be fully human--or fully alive--if you didn't explore your own inner life? I believe a blade of grass has an inner conscious sense of itself. My two cats are ALL inner life; they could care less about anything that goes on outside them beyond food and sunlight!

Kunitz writes of how he had a vision of his garden as it was to become prior to creating it, as if predicting the outcome. I've changed my own waking-life garden after staring at it quietly, long and hard, so that it has become, through the years, more of what both the land and I wanted. But I also dreamed once that a more ideal version of this garden existed alongside it--with trim brick paths, neat root cellars with cold-frame windows and just the right storage conditions for seeds and bulbs, and (best of all!) no weeds.

It's a garden no one will ever walk through in the ungainly western side yard of my house, but it lives in my mind to help me grow the things I say and do and write.

Are You Really an "Early Adaptor"?

Someday soon, my inner garden may also be available in a "shirt version." Do you think long ago the person who coined the phrase "wearing your heart on your sleeve" actually dreamed the same dream as my husband?

Before you go to sleep tonight, put a pen and a pad of paper on the table next to your bed and, if you have it, a flashlight. Tell yourself: I will remember my dreams. If you wake up from a dream in the middle of the night, write it down. When you wake up in the morning, lie still for a few minutes to see if you remember anything else, and write that down. Start a log on your computer with dates, all the weird images and any ideas you have about what it might mean. Begin your writing day with the transcription of the night.

You really don't want to miss the drama of your inner life, do you? Once it realizes you're paying attention, even more will begin to come through, night and day. When the "shirt version" of what makes you grow becomes available, don't you want to be ready?

The Wild Braid:
A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden

by Stanley Kunitz, with Genine Lentine
photographs by Marnie Crawford Samuelson

Billed as a "visual memoir," this book is an intriguing introduction to the poetry of Stanley Kunitz, the two-time U.S. poet laureate who died in 2003 at the age of 100. Published in 2005, it follows Kunitz from summer 2002 through fall 2004. It details a near-fatal health crisis in 2003, from which he says he "emerged in a transformed state" and also his loss in spring 2004 of his wife of 47 years, the poet and painter Elise Asher.

Throughout, Kunitz discusses how fashioning a garden is like fashioning a poem and how growing a body of work involves growing a life. The reader is treated not only to glorious color photos of Kunitz at work in his gardens, but also to a sampling of some of his best-loved poems. The conversations with co-author Lentine and the excerpts from Kunitz's journals give the reader a rare peek into the lived life that went into creating each of the selected poems.

My copy is hardcover first-edition and was a Christmas gift--a keepsake--from my husband. The book came out in paperback in 2007; the price difference between the two on Amazon is a mere $5. I advise you to get the hardcover, though, because this is a book you'll thumb through again and again.

Why is this book so valuable for writers? Because of the process it depicts. Your process isn't like mine, which isn't like Kunitz's, which isn't like someone else's. But by examining how writers talk about their process we start to develop a respect for our own, as it emerges. It's like the "wild braid" in the title of the book, which is a phrase from a well-known Kunitz poem, "The Snakes of September" (included in this book, of course).

Do you have to be a gardener to enjoy this book? Hmmm...that's a tough one. You need to have a curiosity about the natural world, that's for sure. Nature has its own rhythm, and that external creative rhythm has a way of thrumming its way into your soul and feeding your creativity. So no, you don't have to be a gardener to enjoy it. But if you've already discovered your garden as a place that slows you down and feeds your inner life, then you'll likely enjoy this book all the more.

A few of the gems aglow herein:

  • Gardening is a living poem, a collaboration between the spirit of a place and the intervening human, who must respect the spirit of the place. This carries a message for the teaching of writing, Kunitz says. Just like a gardener in a garden, "it's a terrible mistake to impose your pattern on a student...What one needs to cultivate in a young poet is the assertion of that particular spirit, that particular set of memories, that personhood."
  • Knowing what to keep and what to cut (in both gardening and writing) is an art in itself. Kunitz bemoans a perfectly healthy Alberta spruce he had removed because it blocked a great view and prevented other plants from getting adequate light. "When the time comes for cutting, gathering, moving, removing, one has to be pretty ruthless," he advises. "It took may be 15 minutes for them to cut it down. It came down all in one piece. The root system took longer to hack out...one can easily sense the metaphorical resonance in that."
  • Knowing how to shape--our writing and our gardens--without destroying is also an art. He discusses a juniper he trained to spread and shelter rather than grow upright and adds the writing parallel: "The danger is that you cut away the heart of a poem, and are left only with the most ordered and contained element. A certain degree of sprawl is necessary; it should feel as though there's room to maneuver, that you're not trapped in a cell. You must be very careful not to deprive the poem of its wild origin." (emphasis mine)
  • Mystery is as important in our writing as in the structure of flowers. "The height of the beauty of a bloom is its folded state, rather than when it's fully opened," Kunitz says. "That's why I've always believed that so much of the energy of the poem comes from the secrets it folds into what we would call, in a flower, its crown...In a poem, the secrets of the poem give it its tension and gift of emerging sense and form, so that it's not always the flowering in the poem and the specific images that make it memorable, but the tensions and physicality, the rhythms, the underlying song....So much of the power of a poem is in what it doesn't say as much as in what it does say."
  • Fostering an inner life is at the heart of all creative work, and what works for one person may not work for another. But: "The more you enter into the unconscious life, the more you believe in its existence and know it walks with you, the more available it becomes and the doors open faster and longer. It learns you are a friendly host...The unconscious is very much akin to what, in other framework, I call wilderness...It resists the forms, the limits, the restraints, that civilization itself imposes." Later he calls this "the wild permissiveness of the inner life" and says it was as a child "I learned I could go anywhere in my inner life."
  • Time is a luxury both gardener and writer must allow for. As a gardener, I know you plant small, with the mature size of the plant in mind. It has to have this room to survive, even if it doesn't look so great for a few years. "The mystery of the creative process is that the poem is there but not there within you, accumulating experience, accumulating images," Kunitz says.
  • Good writing means taking chances and exploring what you fear, what's unknown to you. With gardening, particularly in the beginning, that will be just about everything, and you'll make a lot of mistakes. A good gardener is one who's accumulated many mistakes and puts them to work. It's the same in writing. "...you are hesitant to explore unfamiliar areas," Kunitz says, but "if the terrain were familiar, the poem would be dead on birth...the path of the poem is through the unknown and even the unknowable, toward something for which you can find a language."
  • The art you make is your unique gift to the world and therefore is sufficient unto itself. "That work is not an expression of the desire for praise or recognition, or prizes," Kunitz adds, "but the deepest manifestation of your gratitude for the gift of life."

I can't pick a favorite poem in this collection because that changes for me with every reading. Certainly "The Snakes of September" is right up there, along with "The Round," "Touch Me," "Raccoon Journal" and, lately, "The Layers." But I do have a favorite Kunitz journal entry, excerpted in this book that pulls it all together: "My garden, my life, my poems--a planned disorder."

Enough said. I love this book. I hope you will, too.

08 December 2009


What roads do the leaves go down
when summer's through with them 
and autumn blows their worry from its bosom 
like a shot sun's gush?

I have listened to leaves trade secrets with
the stone from the lake's bed and 
the moss from the rock's ancient frown. 
Skim or swim, says one. 
Don't let go, says the other.
But leaf song never misses its take:
Laugh and spend, it advices
Laugh and spend.

PROMPT: Magnetic word tiles selected on the basis of what appealed to me that day. (I have LOTS!)

07 December 2009

First Snow

By first light 
winter whispered itself white
onto the green grass like 
a woman whose beauty 
withers so soon and
as  you watch.

Something died in me today--
drowned in a sky of silent soup.
Do not search for it,
only sleep--

sleep and dream of 
sour springs and blood summers 
and shadows of cold words still-
born eggs like wishes broken 
in the growl of this fall storm.

PROMPT: Magnetic word tiles selected on the basis of what appealed to me that day. (I have LOTS!) 

04 December 2009


What secret of winter-to-come
makes them wander through my windows
in time for frost's curfew?

This house's hot smile fools me too sometimes.
Here, sun is a fiction that
warms our frantic sleep and
withers the easy play of fall.

Water is hard to come by then
and I find them waxed
still and stiff in the shadow of drink
like some climber who
judged his seasons wrong.

PROMPT: Magnetic word tiles selected on the basis of what appealed to me that day. (I have LOTS!) 

02 December 2009

The 38th Signal: An Open Invite to Jason Fried

I'm more artist than entrepreneur, so my business manager (i.e., my husband) scans periodicals like the Wall Street Journal and Inc. in search of crumbs of information and insight I might want to link up with an idea from a book, poem, movie or experience and develop into a blog post.

Meanwhile, I try to slog through One Hundred Years of Solitude in time for a discussion group and gaze longingly at the unwieldy stack of other books I'd rather read (see photo at right) piling up on my work table. Chances are each one will become part of a mishap involving one of my cats (that's Katie marking them with a rub) at least twice before I get to them--IF I get to them. Some are fiction, some are nonfiction, some are poetry, and some are prose; I love them all!

I also love--okay, more accurately, really like--a lot of what entrepreneur Jason Fried says in Inc. magazine's November 2009 "The Way I Work" feature, which hubby flagged for me most recently. Fried is the 30-something co-founder of 37Signals, a Chicago-based tech firm launched in 1999. Here are some of his very cool statements:
"I don't believe in the 40-hour workweek, so we cut all that BS about being somewhere for a certain number of hours. I have no idea how many hours my employees work--I just know they get the work done."
"We rarely have meetings. I hate them. They're a huge waste of time, and they're costly...they chop your day into small bits, so you have only 20 minutes of free time here or 45 minutes there. Creative people need unstructured time to get in the zone. You can't do that in 20 minutes."
"After lunch, I get a little lazy between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. I don't feel that productive, so I'm usually screwing around, which I think is really important."
 "I like to read in the middle of the day, to give myself a break."
So far, so good. I especially like that last statement, because reading is a passion with me. But alas, my enchantment ends with the very next set of quoted words out of Fried's mouth: "I don't read fiction. I find it a waste of time. There are so many amazing things that are real; I don't need to spend any time on a made-up story."

Huh. So much for "screwing around."

I agree, there are many amazing things that are "real"; I just happen to think fiction is also one them. More than that, fiction is good for you. That said, Fried's attitude isn't unique. As a writer and writing teacher, I've heard many down-to-earth, upstanding folk say they think fiction is something untrue and they should neither read nor write it. But these views could use some reframing.

Here's how my teachers explained it to me when I studied fiction and creative writing in college: Fiction is something more true than mere fact, true in a "Yes, that feels right in my bones" way. It may or may not have been made up in whole or in part. Often it begins in something that really did happen. But then, as it becomes crafted or fashioned, it differs from an historical event. It is the story of something, rather than its history, but no less true because we touch it with our minds and our feelings instead of our fingers and our wristwatches.

"Fiction is about possible selves in possible worlds," says Keith Oatley, Ph.D., who with colleagues at the University of Toronto looks at how fiction affects people differently than nonfiction. What they found in a 2006 study was that reading fiction is associated with increased social ability and greater empathy. "Through stories," Oatley says, "selfhood can expand."

When we observe how scenarios work out for characters, we learn how we may or may not want to react if something similar happens to us. Moreover, we experience the ups and downs of what it is to be another person--even if it is a made-up character. If we can empathize with made-up characters who are different from us, maybe we'll do better with the flesh-and-blood ones we encounter.

One of the tests Oatley's team of researchers devised involved Anton Chekhov's story "The Lady with the Little Dog":
It is about Dmitri Gomov, and a lady, Anna Sergueyevna, whom he sees walking with her little dog. They are both alone, on vacation at a seaside resort. They are both married to other people, but they begin an affair. At the end of their vacation they part. But their feelings for each other grow, and both are shocked to discover how much more important these feelings are than anything else in their lives. They encounter many difficulties, and overcome some of them. The story ends with this: "...their hardest and most difficult period was only just beginning."
Researchers wrote a nonfiction version of the story as a courtroom report of divorce proceedings. It had the same characters and events, some of Chekhov's words, and was the same length and reading difficulty. Study participants reading each version scored them equally interesting, though Chekhov's version scored higher artistically.

But results showed that those who read the fiction piece had measurable changes in belief, colored by the emotions they felt while reading. "My colleagues and I believe that readers of Chekhov's story were taken out of their usual ways of being so that they could connect with something larger than themselves, beyond themselves," Oatley says. "This is an effect that goes beyond fiction. All art aspires to help us transcend ourselves."

I can't be too critical of Jason Fried. It's great in this age of multimedia distraction that he reads books at all. And what a person reads is so personal; everyone's tastes are just so incredibly different! It makes me glad for the public library system, where just about anyone can find something they'll enjoy at no cost as long as they return it on time so someone else can do the same.

The stack of books on my worktable waiting for my attention includes titles I got interested in because I found them referred to in something else I read, and I followed a trail--like breadcrumbs in a dark wood. The real thought I hope to pass along to Fried and others is not to rule out any type of literature: Try everything, then let this spill over into other aspects of life. Stepping outside our usual ways of doing and seeing is what keeps us vibrant--and creative!

Remember 100 Years of Solitude, that book of fiction by Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez? It's the one that at the start of this post I felt tortured by?  Well, along the way of writing this, I finished it and shared in a discussion about it with my book group. It was a tough read for me, and individuals' reactions ran a full gamut, which made talking about it all the more fun. Even though it will never make my list of favorites, the book disturbed me, and so I'm still thinking about issues it raised. One of its major themes involved the destruction caused by always and only seeing through a single lens.

I have no idea why Fried's business is called "37Signals," though it's an engaging name. I find myself thinking that maybe a reconsideration of the value of fiction could be his "Signal No. 38." Maybe, like Chekhov's Anna and Dmitri, the intensity of feeling about this "new thing" will surprise him. Because, after all, our future, like theirs, is apt to be hard and difficult at times. Best to face it all with a good story.

29 November 2009

The Seven Wonders of the World

PROMPT: The title, of course! What are the seven wonders of YOUR world? Here are mine...

The night sky:
The moon in all its phases,
even dark and seeming absent,
but watched by me
and a full complement of stars
shivering together
against a cold, clear night.

The smells of what my garden holds:
rosemary or lavender needles
crushed between moving hands,
dirt when it opens it mouth to taste a new plant
and mulch fresh from the nursery's steaming pile
on a foggy summer morning
in our old red pickup.

Birds: Percher or predator
because we need both.
I love their beauty, their
self-containment, their
song and chatter,
their grace and their determination
to live another day.

Hands in all their friendships:
A husband's chapped ones as they cup a wife's wrinkling ones.
Knuckles as rings travel over them
like a loft in a country road.
Cat paws that tap, tap, tap,
each time more insistently to say,
"Look at me! Pet me!I'm important!"

Eyes: Either ones that change color like my husband's--
gray to green to blue and back--
or ones that overfill with tears too often
like mine

The thrum beneath cat purrs
as breasts heave and sigh devotion.
My own, which I feel in my palm
as it rests between pillow and ear.
Either one will carry me of a night
toward my dreams.

Those dreams: Fierce and absurd,
confusing and demanding,
fanciful and transporting like
the night sky and
the moon in all its phases,
even dark and seeming absent.

We are a full complement of stars
shivering together
against a cold, clear night.

24 November 2009

Me, You, Bullfighters & the Biscuit:
Living 'All the Way Up'

PROMPT: A memorable quote from a book, movie or interview. See where it took me...

This Thanksgiving week marks the end of my dealings with doctors and hospitals for the year (I hope). The end of January, it starts over. This is the pattern of my life for the rest of my life. I can't change it, but I'm going to try in these few months off to learn to think about it differently. Maybe I'll get lucky and my feelings will follow my thoughts, because I want to live "all the way up."

In Ernest Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises, one character says to another, "Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bullfighters." I want to be a bullfighter (minus the animal cruelty).

The gist is that bullfighters face death every day, and that makes them live differently. It's often been cited to explain why Hemingway's characters and Hemingway himself may have been so adventuresome and often reckless. If you can stare death in the face or even laugh at it, then you get a rush of some sort, and sometimes you get hooked on that rush.

I heard this Hemingway quote last night in a segment of American Experience on PBS about the legendary racehorse Seabiscuit and his hard-luck jockey Red Pollard. Both horse and man, linked, overcame incredible odds--and ridicule--to achieve grace and greatness. Pollard's daughter recounted how her father was someone who kept coming back, who lived his life "all the way up," like Hemingway said. I want to be a Seabiscuit or a Red Pollard.

It all reminded me of a passage in Anne Lamott's book on writing, Bird by Bird. When Lamott's friend Pammie was dying, Pammie's doctor told Lamott, "Watch her carefully right now, because she's teaching you how to live." To me, what Lamott goes on to describe is the true meaning of all the way up: "To live as if we are dying gives us a chance to experience some real presence. Time is so full for people who are dying in a conscious way, full in the way that life is for children. They spend big round hours."

I had a bout with thyroid cancer four years ago this month. I was never anywhere close to death. I had two surgeries and my surgeon hid the incision so well in the existing wrinkles at the base of my neck that no one, me included, could find it six months later. Most thyroid cancers grow slow and are easy to treat. They remove the gland, lace some iodine with radioactive material, and the patient drinks up. Thyroid cells suck up iodine like kids do candy on Halloween, so the radioactive part of the cocktail kills any cells the surgery missed--theoretically anyway. You don't lose your hair, the pain is mild and short-lived, you're only toxic to people and small animals for about a week (!), and most people never have a recurrence.

But there are downsides: (1) You become identified to both health-care workers and others as someone who's had cancer and is therefore more likely to have it again, and (2) finding a hormone dosage both you and your doctor can live with will become the scourge of daily life.

Once you've had cancer, doctors go into attack mode. I'm not saying I don't want them to look out for me; I just wish they could understand how the way they do it ripples through the rest of my life. They scrutinize labs and follow up any blip with various imaging procedures. A small shadow of something on one sort of scan calls for other scans and appointments with specialists to interpret results and rule out worst possible scenarios.

Days to weeks go by while you wait to hear those results. Weeks to months pass while you wait for an appointment with a specialist. Going back and forth to the hospital for tests lulls you into living in the zone of "worst possible scenarios" when nothing could be further from the truth.

Through it all, you try not to worry that some microscopic something inside of you might be trying to do you in. You don't feel sick, so maybe you start to mistrust your feelings as well.

Most people don't know what to say to you, so some will say things that, though well-meaning, make you feel worse. Other people find reasons to isolate themselves from you, as if they could catch what you had. Some of those will cling to reasons other than their own fear of death to explain their withdrawal--that is, they blame you, if only in a veiled way.

You worry most about the people closest to you--a spouse or partner--because of what "being strong" for you is doing to them. And you'll be cranky, because somewhere in this mix you'll be angry about pretty much everything--and that's normal.

These are stages experienced by most people with a chronic illness or a serious injury. What’s unique to thyroid cancer and nobody gives much thought to is that the thyroid gland is your body's furnace, except now you don't have one. Sure, there are pills to make up for it, but it's not the same, and no one prepares you for how this will impact your daily life.You spend a considerable amount of time either hypothyroid or hyperthyroid--never feeling exactly normal again.

Hypothyroid is where the doctors want you for treatments and some scans. You'll be very tired and have trouble waking up from sleep. Normal body functions slow way down, you'll be cold a lot, and all this will make you irritable.

Most of the time, though, they'll want you hyperthyroid, which is standard for deterring the growth of cells the nuclear cocktail missed. It's where you'll live most of the rest of your life. It will make you very tired, too, but this time, because you can't get or stay asleep. Body functions speed up, you'll be intermittently hot and cold as your body frantically tries to compensate for the swings, and all of this will make you--guess what?--irritable. Maybe even aggressive. It's a lose-lose.

In the midst of my last round of tests, which started in August, I dreamed I was a hostage in "The Thyroid Zone." Sounds like a plot for a sci-fi thriller, I know. In the dream it showed up as a title on the cover of a book. I wrote about it today to remind myself it’s okay to laugh about it. That's probably why I dreamed it. I needed to vent.

I should be glad I'm alive, you say, and believe me, I am! In the midst of the madness, I experienced fleeting moments of great presence: Moments when I watched simple things--like my husband undress or a squirrel nibble a crust of bread, and my heart pounded with the sheer beauty of it! They were moments I might have missed if not for "The Thyroid Zone."

Now that I've lived there a little, I want more. I want to live all the way up more often than not.

The small shadows that keep appearing and disappearing inside my neck reflect the nature of neck lymph glands, which are chiefly for drainage. Doctors will pore over mine the rest of my life, looking for anomalies. So far, all that’s turned up is my gaping need for perspective. I need to let the uncertainty I can’t escape teach me how to live those big round hours Lamott talks about because, as she so succinctly puts it, "the truth is we are all terminal on this bus."

The truth is, we can all strive to live all the way up without illness or injury or bad luck. As I see it, we are all bullfighters already. We are all Seabiscuit. We are all down-on-our-luck jockeys looking for our next best ride. The truth is, as long as we're here (and then some, I think), we always have at least one more chance and we may as well keep trying to get it right.

22 November 2009

Wedding Day

Skies socked in clouds so bloated and gray they
looked like a week-old corpse.

Forty-mile-per-hour winds that made for
horizontal rain. It stung like a jealous friend.

And when the temperature kept falling,
snow peppered through

spooky flashes of sun.
All this in May, the month of flowers.

I wondered what it all meant for our life together.
An aunt told me luck

for we'd had a little bit of everything all day,
like my uncle and her.

I remember dogwoods through the window
clutching so tightly to their branches no petals were lost.

I remember cold outside but warm in:
Twenty years later: it's the same.

My aunt was right.

PROMPT: What's the most amazing weather you've ever experienced?

Witness to the Fire:
Creativity and the Veil of Addiction

by Linda Schierse Leonard
This was an intriguing read for me because it bridges psychology and creativity. The author, Linda Schierse Leonard, is a Jungian analyst, which means in part that she works with clients through dream material.

As someone who counsels others, you'd expect her to have a wealth of material from which to draw. But instead, she offers up herself as a flawed human being, who after being raised in an atmosphere of alcoholism and co-dependency eventually became an alcoholic, and then a recovering alcoholic. That sort of honesty and genuine connection must go a long way in a therapeutic relationship.

I've read a number of Leonard's books, and I like her "literary" approach to the discussion of psychological problems--probably because I'm a writer as well and a reader, and if you tell a good story, you'll get me hooked. But what drew me to this book after Wounded Woman and Meeting the Madwoman was its particular focus on the lives of several writers wrestling with various addictions, the works they wrote, and how the lives and works were linked.

There's a whole school of folks out there who think writers' lives are irrelevant to an evaluation of their works. And I agree, certainly, that the work must stand on its own. But, as a writer, I also know my life experiences, and how I feel about things feeds everything I write. So it intrigues me to "listen in on" what that might have been like for someone else.

In this case, we get a peek into the lives of Fyodor Dostoevsky, who had problems with gambling, money in general and love; Jean Rhys, who early on was addicted to love and later to alcohol; Eugene O'Neill and Jack London, both alcoholics, and more. If you haven't read these writers Leonard discusses, not to worry. She tells you everything you need to know to understand her assertions. But you'll find her discussions of their works so compelling you'll soon be searching out titles on Amazon or your library's online card catalog.

In my own life, psychology helped me discover a deeper understanding of how creativity works. For instance, that it ebbs and flows, like the tides, and feeling like I have nothing to write about (i.e., "writer's block") is often because I need to recharge or go within. But I also have a problem with my creative practice. The writer Deena Metzger said in a workshop I attended that what's most important for any writer to develop are "calluses on your ass." She said you need to go to your desk every day and be present to the possibilities of writing. Why has this been such a hard thing for me to do when logically I get it?

Leonard not only speaks to this question by noting similarities between writers and addicts, but she examines productive writers who also struggled with addictions and, thus, links the two again. It's like the age-old stereotype that all artists are crazy or weird. While many may be, many also are not. She differentiates but explains why, perhaps, such a stereotype ever developed:
The relationship between addiction and creativity, as I see it, is not causal. Rather, there is a parallel process occurring in the psyche of the addict and the creative person. Both descend into chaos, into the unknown underworld of the unconscious. Both are fascinated by what they find there. Both encounter death, pain, suffering. But the addict is pulled down, often without choice, and is held hostage by addiction; the creative person chooses to go down into that unknown realm, even though the choice may feel destined. Artists who are addicted have a "double descent"--the one of their addiction and the other of their creativity; their situation is compounded and complex, and they respond in different ways. Some creative artists descend with the help of drugs or alcohol and continue to create. And others continue their addictions to the early loss of their creativity and/or their lives. But once in the realm of the underworld mysteries, they must eventually choose to find form and meaning from the chaos and to return to life and society....Many addicts fear they will lose their creativity if they give up the drinks or drugs, romance or power, that they feel takes them to the creative source. Of these, many who hold onto their addictions die an early death or find their creative spring has gone dry or soured. In contrast, many recovering addicts, after enough healing time has passed, find new energy and open spaces in themselves for a creative life. Both need to know there is a way down and back from the creative depths without recourse to addiction.
I also like Leonard's technique of creating archetypal characters to illustrate the psychological concepts at work in the lives of the creative people she discusses. I recognized some of them in myself and some in people I've known, just as you will. There's the gambler, the outlaw, the trickster, the madwoman, and the judge, to name just a few. Maybe, like me, you'll see that something of these characters in you gets hooked on something of these characters in someone else, and this is really what pulls you away from your writing.

"Every addict who recovers," Leonard writes, "chooses life and makes this existential choice daily." This hooks up nicely with the Metzger adage. It's that daily choice that's at the heart of getting somewhere with your writing. The results may or may not look like success as the world defines it, but the important thing is what you know.

18 November 2009

Cracking Open the Egg of Childhood

PROMPT: This essay grew from a session with my Glendale writers when that group was meeting, and it actually discusses the group's experience with the prompt, which was, What one object lost in childhood would you most like to find?

The girl spied it, not her two big brothers, or her dad, or their assistant pastor who led them on this hike along the shallow river he said drained from a glacial lake high in the Adirondacks. But it was the pastor who knew what it was she found--or sort of. He called it "dinosaur droppings."

"I didn't know dinosaurs carried things," the girl replied, curiously intent. "I wonder why he dropped it." She was 7 or 8 or 9.

"They don't, silly," one of her brothers may have said. He might have called her "stupid" if they hadn't been visiting at the pastor's campsite. "He means it's dinosaur poop," the older boy then whispered in her ear. She withdrew her hands from it, as a reflex, then extended them again slowly, as if she were touching the most delicate crystal.

Something this unusual and this lovely may have been poop once, but it sure wasn't anymore. Time had made it something else.

The rock was quite ordinary on the outside--gray and shaped like a side-wompered egg, but scaled as if it might, indeed, have come from a dinosaur. Only one broken open half remained relatively intact. Inside it, quartz crystals radiated out in white and gold, outlined in a rusty orange. Her dad carried it back to camp for her so she wouldn't lose her footing as she maneuvered along the uneven embankment.

When they got home, she found a place for the rock on a shelf in their garage because her mother didn't like outside things inside the house. Her teacher didn't mind, though, so the girl took it with her to school one Friday for show-and-tell, and the teacher said the correct name for it was a geode.

A year or two later they moved, and the girl lugged the rock along to a new shelf in a new garage. They moved a lot more after that--five houses and schools in as many years. But always the rock went along and assumed its place in the garage.

Its last stop came the summer the girl turned 13, and she found a spot for it on some built-ins next to where her dad kept the hose nozzles and partly used cans of paint. This was the house where they finally stayed, and sometimes she would go out to the garage and hold the rock, particularly when she was missing her friends in all the other places, and shift its heft from hand to hand.

As she grew older, she returned to it less and less. When she cleaned her things out of her parents' garage for the last time to move into her own place, she noticed it, still on that same shelf. She picked it up one last time, and it fell into smaller pieces in her hands, too many bits to reassemble.

If you haven't already guessed, the girl in this story was me. I started writing this yesterday in a workshop I led. I always write along with workshop participants so they know I'm taking the same risks they are, and the prompt I gave them that drew this story out of me was, "Which long lost childhood object would you most like to find?"

People shared wondrous stories--a collection of letters written while attending school abroad, a beloved doll which the writer retained only a photo of, a child-sized chair, a set of Nancy Drew books, a ring that was too big and fell off in a yard, a house now torn down to its foundation and front steps, a friend who opted out of someone's life with no explanation.

More than one person in the group expressed fascination with all the wondrous memories of childhood this prompt evoked. I have been in other writing groups where the same thing happened, and, invariably, someone new to writing--maybe someone who only came because a writer-friend coaxed her to tag along--will express the wonder. "I don't get it," one such acquaintance said once, "I haven't thought about these things in years. Where did they come from? Why are they charged with such magic?"

Childhood, I told my group yesterday, was who you really were before life beat you up. You were pure and beautiful and full of wonder at everything. The process of growing up and living as an adult takes a lot out of us all. If we were lucky as children, we got to feel at the center of the universe long enough to give us the self-confidence we needed to propel ourselves into adulthood. But for many, by the time mid-life arrives, we need to go back to childhood and recharge.

More than one person in yesterday's group also expressed frustration about how their item disappeared:

  • The woman who misplaced the doll when cleaning out her attic wished she'd revisited the dumpster yet a seventh time. 
  • The woman who lost the ring in the yard when she was five said she still drives by the place where it happened and wonders if it's there among the blades of grass. 
  • The woman who grew up in the house now gone visits the remains, and the voices from her childhood replay themselves in her head. 
  • The woman who lost the friend continues to wonder why, certain it could have been avoided, but wishes the person well and keeps her distance.

The writer Virginia Woolf referred to experiences like this--ones that intertwined objects with emotions--as "moments of being" and wondered if...
things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence? And if so, will it not be possible, in time, that some device will be invented by which we can tap them? I see it--the past--as an avenue lying behind; a long ribbon of scenes, emotions. There at the end of the avenue still, are the garden and the nursery. Instead of remembering here a scene and there a sound, I shall fit a plug into the wall; and listen in to the past. I shall turn up August 1890. I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start.
We need to harvest the energy of that unspoiled child we were to take us on into the second half of life, and writing can help us. Until someone invents something better, writing must be the plug Woolf meant.

For me, writing about my geode helped me realize it was a sort of talisman during all those years of moving around and making and losing friends in quick succession. It was a promise that something that once was waste could turn into something treasured, in time--something delicate and beautiful in the heart of something cold and hard.

It lay hatched open for me that day alongside the river before the moving began. It hatched a second time the last time I saw it, and in a way marked the next phase in my life--rediscovering the child I'd lost, letting go of the ideas I had about family for the real family I would start myself.

And it hatched again when I wrote about it yesterday and today, leaving behind these words on a page.

Writing is the plug. Childhood is the socket. Where will the energy you access take you?

17 November 2009

For a Misidentified Woman

Her eyes come through the flecks in the emulsion
like a child's grown wide in twilight
gazing through a haze of fireflies and fog.

Maybe there was something to
the plain dark way of dressing then
and the hair slicked-down and drawn
tightly back.

And the quiet stance against the chair--
one hand folded across the other wrist,
one hand dangling a fan.

A woman who pauses to look,
who doesn't distract,
who though she can't see all
refuses to see what isn't there
and won't avert her gaze.

PROMPT: Photo postcards from a Library of Congress collection. Find various collections online at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/. Sometimes I have people choose 1, 3 or 5; sometimes I have them pass 1 or 2 to the left and 1 or 2 to the right so that they end up what something they didn't expect. They can then choose to write about just one or all.

15 November 2009

Ground Hog's Day

I’d marry you again and again and again and—well
you get the idea.

But I’d do it alone and away and without
all the fuss of a wedding.

Just us two on a trip to somewhere we shared—
like the last 20 years.

I’d marry you again and again and again and—well
you got the idea.

PROMPT: Which moment from your life would you choose to relive if you could?

Letters to a Young Poet
& The Possibility of Being

by Rainer Maria Rilke
Joan M. Burnham, translator
I first read these letters when I was in college and wanting oh-so-desperately to write but thinking I had nothing to say and no one interested in listening. I asked the same question every writer asks, particularly when they're just beginning--Am I any good?

Rilke's correspondent, Franz Xaver Kappus, was a student with artistic inclinations who felt out of place at the same military school that had ill-suited Rilke years earlier. The two were relatively close in age--Kappus 19 and Rilke 27 when the correspondence began in 1902.That may have been the connection that kept the author answering through 1908. I daresay that most aspiring writers today would need a much more intimate connection to get one reply, let alone a full-blown correspondence.

The question Kappus asked Rilke was the same as mine--Am I any good?--and the poet was kind enough to tell him he needed to redirect his outlook from without to within. In fact, he offered him precious little commentary on the quality of his work and told him to ignore traditional criticism and concentrate instead on continuing to live and write. More than a century later, it's still good advice.

Unfortunately, we do not have Kappus' letters or his poems to line up against Rilke's responses, but nonetheless, the half that is left to us is a treasure and an inspiration to anyone who has ever wanted to write. Rilke wisely advises anyone who seeks a career as a writer to first ask themselves "Must I write?" and if the answer is an emphatic yes, only then to build a life accordingly, making everything else a servant to that desire. I think many people embark on that course without counting the costs, and there are many. It has to be something you feel you are called to.

With the question answered and answered in the affirmative, Rilke then recommends aspiring writers draw close to nature and write on themes of everyday life, including one's sorrows, wishes, passing thoughts, belief in anything beautiful, the scenes of dreams, and the subjects of memory. "Pretend you are the very first man and then write what you see and experience, what you love and lose," he says.

Patience is a virtue Rilke bids Kappus--and anyone who wants to write--to develop. Every impression and germ of feeling involves a carrying to term, he explains, a waiting. In the interim, "Try to love the questions themselves," he advises, "like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day."

This seemed poetically beautiful to me as a college student, and altogether reasonable in some ethereal way, but it made me impatient, too. Thirty years later--well, it makes a lot of sense. A writer needs to never get ahead of herself but be present in each moment of the life she's living and make that moment real in her writing. I missed a lot of moments worrying about the past and the future, trying to write about things I knew nothing about, unaware I had a front-row seat on the present moment in my very own life.

Rilke also encourages Kappus to pay particular attention to his sadnesses rather than his joys. "The seemingly uneventful moment, when our future really enters in, is very much closer to reality than that other loud and fortuitous point in time, when it happens as if coming from the outside," he writes. "The quieter and more patient, the more open we are when we are sad, the more resolutely does that something new enter into us, the deeper it is absorbed in us, the more certain we are to secure it, and the certain it is to become our personal destiny."

Ultimately, Kappus did not follow the writer's path. But thankfully, within a few years of Rilke's death he collected these magnificent letters together and published them so that other writers could look to them for understanding and solace.

This particular edition of the letters is two books in one. You have the 10 letters in their entirety--through page 95--then a selection of Rilke's poems--an additional 120 pages. Selections include some of his most well-known poems, including Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. That seemed like a good deal, in theory, but the translations of the poems from the German seems stiff and lacks the grace of others I've read. That's why I've included a stand-alone version of the letters in the "to buy" links below. Look for translations of the poems by Galway Kinnell or Robert Bly instead.

13 November 2009


I let my angry angel find her voice yesterday
and the long days full of blood and lies and fever
poured out in a flood of fire and feeling.

How can someone so fearsome
be so fear-filled
and still so empty?

PROMPT: Magnetic word tiles selected on the basis of what appealed to me that day. (I have LOTS!)

12 November 2009


The genius of clam chowder
is not its color or steam
not the stock or how or in what
the vegetables saute
not the symphony of spice or
the magic of salt spray but
the blush of the man who cooks it
him who breathes
comfort into each bite
his velvet slipper of support is
my belly full of beauty
his hot plot of healing
seeps deep into the bread
that is my heart

PROMPT: Magnetic word tiles selected on the basis of what appealed to me that day. (I have LOTS!)

11 November 2009

Fall Now

PROMPT: Write about something you saw while looking out a window.

Two trees came down today.
The drama unfolded 
outside my window and 
across the street. 

Their only failing—
the trees, that is—
was the first homeowner
planted them too close to the house 
so the current homeowner
is forever cleaning leaves
from her driveway and gutters 

in the fall. 

It’s fall now.

I watch as first the workers
finish off the trees’ seasonal disrobing. 

Arms and what was left of hair--
the leaves--
fall to ground without a struggle. 
Truth to tell
they hadn’t a chance against the chainsaw. 
No part  seemed to resist
as the workers fed them into the truck
and they were reborn as a sort of
carbon-rich sausage. 

But then
who could have heard them 
if they’d screamed?

Trunks trimmed bare flank the sidewalk briefly
like twin ballerinas frozen en pointe. 
But this image too falls away 
as the saw sections the trunks 
down and farther down 
until eventually level with the ground. 

It’s fall now and the two trees 
are all the way down,
trucks and workers gone. 
My neighbor steps out to see the results. 
She clutches a sweater  across her chest against the wind 
which seems to blow stronger now 
and thinks of the leaves she’ll not rake again 
then goes back inside. 
Less than a minute has passed. 

The porch that has hung in shadows 
for as long as I’ve sat here and looked and saw 
squints back at me through morning's light
but is without a voice.

10 November 2009


Liquid light,
leave no laughing kisses
on my listening lips!

let me linger here
and savor the loud long language of moments in my mouth,
more lazy mornings, more kingly lust, more blood of brilliant
lemon love.

Please, more still milk
to lick from the secret lake!

PROMPT: Magnetic word tiles selected on the basis of what appealed to me that day. (I have LOTS!) In this case, I chose a lot of "L" words.

09 November 2009

Chicago Acrostic

Asking after
Ghosts of

PROMPT: A combination of an acrostic poem, in which you choose a word and begin each line with a letter from the word. I had just visited Chicago, and I chose the words using my magnetic word tiles. To get the poem you have to know the meaning of the Native American derivation of the city name.

Amble With Me Along the Annals of Abstract Art (or at least, to Chicago and back)

I'll warn you up-front: This is going to be a meandering post.

It starts with two trips and ends with any number of destinations, depending on you.

Confused yet? Don't worry, you will be.

It won't cost you a dime, but you'll have to pay with your whole life.

And--oh yeah, I almost forgot: You won't know what most of it means.
Now, try to keep up.

My husband Chris and I just returned from a mini-vacation in Chicago. We took in a show, some live jazz, a windy tour of the windy city from the open top of a double-decker bus and a museum. To be specific, we visited the Museum of Contemporary Art, which was within walking distance of our hotel. Much of the museum's art is of the installation variety, in addition to a photography gallery and a Calder exhibit.

Calder excepted, I have to say, most of the art was, to me, unremarkable, though the museum store was cool. I'd accompanied Chris on another Chicago trip about a month prior, at which time I checked out the new modern art wing at the Art Institute of Chicago while he attended a conference. I love the Impressionists collection there--the enormous scale of Caillebotte's Paris Street; Rainy Day and Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Degas' ballerinas, Monet's haystacks and waterlilies, Renoir's rosy-cheeked women and children, and Gauguin's exotic Tahitian ones with the open faces.

But on this visit, after a brief sweep by my favorites, I concentrated on what came after Impressionism.

In a book group a few weeks before the first trip, where we were discussing The Great Man, a work of fiction with art as a subtext, we talked about how baffling abstract art can be. Jackson Pollock was mentioned in the book as a contemporary of the fictional artist who'd died, and so we discussed Pollock's spatter-and-drip method of painting. One woman said that seeing an actual Pollock painting was quite different from seeing a picture of one because of the texture created by the layering of paint. That made sense. The institute had several Pollock paintings. I wanted to see for myself.

I have to admit, I didn't come out of the museum--on either trip--understanding much more about modern art than when I went in. I wasn't moved by the particular Pollock drip painting I saw, though I did respond to one from his pre-drip period. What did the paintings mean or my responses to them? I have no idea. I just liked some images better than others and the colors and how the artist positioned them.

I also saw a de Kooning I liked. Then there was this incredible cast sculpture of a massive, fallen tree that impacted me probably for many of the same reasons I like the Caillebotte and Seurat: It was as large as life.

I saw some scary stuff, too. Most particularly, a disturbing film of a clown in a public bathroom stall, staring up into the camera, obviously straining to leave something behind. I'm not sure what the artist was getting at, and I can't say I even agree that one was art, but then, what do I know?

This weekend at a family dinner Chris and I were telling his mom and our adult daughter about our trip and the museum. Okay, I admit it--we were laughing at some of the art, some of the weird books and paraphernalia on sale in the museum store, and even at some of the patrons who stared ever so intently at a frame in which we saw nothing.

I then mentioned the clown film. My mother-in-law, with great disgust, said, "Art is different things to different people." (So far, minus the disgust, I was with her. But then she added,) "That's why I never go to museums." She was so emphatic and serious that the rest of us couldn't help but bust out laughing.

There's a scene in the movie Far From Heaven where Cathy and Raymond, characters played by Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert, chat in front of a Miro painting at a gallery opening. "So what's your opinion on modern art?" Raymond inquires.

"It's hard to put into words, really," Cathy replies. "I just know what I care for and what I don't." She points to the Miro. "Like this...I don't know why, but I just adore it. The feeling it gives. I know that sounds terribly vague."

"No. No actually, it confirms something I've always wondered about modern art--abstract art," Raymond answers. "That perhaps it's just picking up where religious art left off, somehow trying to show you divinity. The modern artist just pares it down to the basic elements of shape and color. But when you look at that Miro, you feel it just the same."

Of course, the painting is a pretext for an affair the two will have, complicated by the fact that Cathy is white and Raymond is black, and the film takes place in the 1950s, hence the title.

Without getting into a discussion about Miro or the movie or 50s morality--or even the interesting coincidence that a Miro sculpture happens to grace a plaza in Chicago (that's it, at right)--Raymond and Cathy have it right. A work of art--whether visual, performed or written--is meant to evoke a feeling response. The images in abstract art often emerge from the unconscious and so do pick up where religious art left off in the sense that the drive to create and to express our unique self possesses an element of the divine.

I can even cut the clown video some slack in this respect. Maybe the artist was trying to say something about our repulsion with our own bodily functions. Clowns try to get us to laugh at ourselves, so this fits.

But is it art?

Does it matter?

What is important is that Cathy and Raymond in the movie were drawn toward what they didn't fully comprehend--including their attraction to each other--instead of steering clear.

I've become more interested in modern art in the last few years from using posters of abstract paintings as prompts in my writing workshops, where they always elicit fantastic responses, as varied as the images and the people who view them. I like it that everyone is attracted to something different or sees something different in the same painting.

And most artists would be delighted at the enthusiasm of responses. As a writer, I always hope readers find something in my words that even I didn't know was there. I like to be surprised by what my unconscious has done when my back was turned. It's part of the reason I'm documenting my writing journey on this blog.

All these ramblings of mine are trying to say something about creating a place, a sacred place. I judged an elementary school writing contest a few years back and the assigned topic was to write about a special place. The essay I chose as the winner came from a fifth-grader who wrote about her inner life, rather than a park or soccer field or church. Her choice made her essay stand out.

But the really neat thing--at least I think so--is that the outer places are really meant to lead us to the inner ones. They are like the posters I use for writing prompts. Like the paintings in the museum. But first we have to sign on for the trip.

And this is why I go to museums or anywhere I haven't been before: Because I want to keep finding new places inside myself, and I'm always looking for the vehicles to take me there. This last time the literal vehicle was a switch too--we took the train instead of driving, something neither of us had ever done before. It saved us no time, but it gave us a whole new place from which to explore Chicago and ourselves.

I don't have to know what art "means." In fact, the mystery makes for part of the fun. In Indianapolis, where I write from, the Spirit & Place Festival every November is dedicated to that very concept. Events are chosen and scheduled with an eye toward bringing people and ideas together for dialog. This year the theme is, coincidentally, "inspiring places," and it's clear from reading the list of programs that inner places are among the inspiring destinations the planners had in mind. It's also clear they realize that the outer places inspire us because of something inside us reacting to them. It's like two lovers finding each other again after many years of separation--the heart beats faster.

Something like that did happen on my latest museum jaunt, though it wasn't in the galleries. At the entrance to the museum store were two racks of postcards, all black-and-white photographs of women from various times and places, all from a Library of Congress collection. I thought they would make great writing prompts, so I picked out a half-dozen and asked the cashier the price. "Oh, those are free," he replied.

"Free?!" My mouth gaped, and my heart thumped against my rib cage. "So I can have as many as I want?"

"Well, yes," he said. "Take what you like." My zeal scared him a little.

"One of each? Can I have one of each? I'm a writing teacher. I use them for prompts. I'll make good use of them, I promise."

By that point, I was sure he must be considering whether to buzz security. But he smiled indulgently instead and said, "Knock yourself out."

I left the museum with 113 fabulous, free, photographic writing prompts, worth well over $100, let alone the $12 admission. Like the images inside museums do for patrons, these postcards will take people who attend my workshops to new places inside themselves. It was like he'd given me a bag of seeds to scatter!

I'm glad I took this trip. I'm glad I visited this inspiring place. There's no telling where I will go inside myself as a result. You came this far with me; congratulations for hanging in there! Now, keep going on your own. The path is already there, even if you can't see it. Follow what you feel.