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.

08 November 2009

Things I Didn't Know I Loved

PROMPT: The title, of course! This is my list poem. Yours could expand on one subject, listing many aspects, as I did. Or, you could list things that were unrelated.

How in a high-rise hotel in Chicago
you dressed in yesterday's clothes
and trotted down to the lobby to get me
shampoo the housekeeper forgot and
coffee from the Starbucks.

How when you returned you
pulled a banana from each pants pocket,
smirked and said in your best W. C. Fields,
"It really IS because I'm glad to see you."

How I watched you undress for your shower.
You folded the wrinkled blue pinstripe
neatly on top of the gray slacks, then put
socks, boxers and T-shirt on top
and placed all in a drawer beneath the TV
separate from the clean things.

How even dirty you are button-downed!

How as you did all this
it looked as if your body watched me back--
belly soft from bloody-marys and beer after work
but hips as tight as ever like two fists
and then the sandy plum that winked from between your legs
as you bent over for the lower drawer.

How vacation with you is
good food, hot jazz, a funny stage show.

How we ditch the museums after lunch for love and sleep
and live instead in the night.

How all this I didn't know I loved
runs through my mind as I hear the water
wend over you in the shower.

How when you are dressed again--
a clean fresh pinstripe (this time burgundy)
and gold trousers shot with black--
you fanned the fingers of both hands,
flipped one palm up and out
and the other palm down and out with flare,
as if to say Ta-da! and said instead,
"Do I look okay?"

How you do.

How you are so much more than

How this part here is
the one part I never want to miss.

03 November 2009

Don't Kid Yourself

Onions are never obedient.
They will kiss and make you cry
almost every time,

But the cut-and-carmelize ride through
is the only road I know
that deadends
at a feast of
translucent and sweet.

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

02 November 2009

Nothing, Nope, Nada:
Emptiness is the Next Big Thing for Me

Literature in Western culture emerged out of the Greek festival of Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy. Plays came into existence because of the need for entertainment at these festivals, amphitheaters were built to stage the plays, and Dionysus came to be associated with creative inspiration as well as wine, which is, after all, a spirit of a sort.

When Dionysus is sculpted, his face typically looks mask-like. This is also the origin of the Druidic "green man" we see depicted in garden ornaments. This representation means something: that behind the eyes of Dionysus is emptiness, or at least, a seeming void which, if you know your science, is never truly empty in spite of how it appears.

The Mysteries of Dionysus, a religion active at the time of Christ, taught that it's only when you're empty, or "emptied out" and, therefore, open to something new, that you receive direction. So the way to creative inspiration is through giving into instinct and feeling (at least part of the time) and the apparent emptiness that often follows so that something new has a chance to come in.

It's a little like burning the prairie to destroy the invasive weeds so the wildflower seeds have a chance to get some sunlight, germinate and grow. It's also similar to what people strive to reach in various forms of Eastern meditation. The idea in Mahayana ("Great Vehicle") Buddhism is that nothing has a self, a soul or an essence. You can read this two ways: either as if no thing has a self, soul or essence, or, as if nothing-ness has a dimension or identity of its own, just like "something-ness."

The last couple weeks emptied me out pretty thoroughly as two relationships that had been meaningful to me for many years died. One hit some bumps a few months back, and I let it ride, but decided to call the person over the weekend and get her take on it. I'm glad I did. I agree with some of what she said but not all, and after thinking about it I realize we haven't had much in common for quite a while. It's hard to let go of what's familiar, but it's time to move on.

I'm not as sure what happened with the other friendship, though I could list a lot of passive-aggressive hiccups felt on this end, ebbing and flowing well over 10 years. That's not to say I'm perfect--I'm actually quite sure I've not been what she thought I should be for some time, and it was mutual. This last go-round I asked for something I thought we'd already agreed on. The answer I got back befuddled me--like she'd read a different email than the one I sent--so I asked for clarification and whether something was wrong. But I heard no more. Whether she gets over it or not is irrelevant now; I'm done. I'm ready for something new.

I had a dream several years back that gave advice relevant here. An inner voice said "Coppa di guare, god of nothing." Coppa di guare, I discovered through a little research, is Italian (which I've never studied) for "cup of healing, cure or recovery." So healing means residing in the place of nothing.

A poet I studied with once told me that it was a poet's job to do that very thing as a regular practice, and not everyone who tried to go there could make it. "Once you reach it," he added, "then you have to learn to be comfortable living there, lost and empty."

I actually find it quite easy to get lost but hard to be comfortable there. The world sidetracks me all the time. I worry about the perceptions of people I don't even know. Sometimes I don't feel all that useful because I'm not writing that much. I spent so much of my life defining myself by what I did and how much I earned that now I'm self-conscious about working at something our culture disregards because it pays little and requires much.

And I think it's oddly interesting that right now is the time this one relationship chose to break down, given that I'm producing more new work than I have in years.

The Romantic poet John Keats called this quality of emptiness negative capability and described it as "capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."

Well, okay, I'm not quite there; I have uncertainty, mystery and doubt down pat, but I still reach after fact and reason, and I'm pretty irritable about it--ask my husband.

My goal, though, if I can master it like Keats, is to take part in the life of the hawk shopping for a sparrow breakfast in the shrubs beneath the window over my desk.

Or the squirrel running back and forth between his home in the trees behind the houses across the street and my front lawn, where he buries and excavates meals day in, day out.

But it's impossible to do when people are playing mind games with you.

Sometimes I wonder if I pursue relationships that aren't good for me to give me an excuse for not working at my craft.

"A poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence," Keats said, "because he has no identity--he is continually in for--and filling some other body." Another poet, Mary Oliver, who writes about Keats and negative capability in A Poetry Handbook, says that this quality "is the vehicle that holds, then transfers from the page to the reader an absolutely essential quality of real feeling. Poetry cannot happen without it..."

I'm not presumptuous enough to put myself and my writing alongside either Keats or Oliver, but they are pretty good standard-bearers, and theirs is the path I try to stumble down daily. Wish me luck on my journey to nowhere, and hope that emptiness does, indeed, find me. Maybe we'll meet along the way.

Pearl Diver

Make a wish as the oyster opens:
No story will come of it.

The sea is broken and
the salt water is too deep.

No one really knows how to breathe
in the bed the ocean made.

You are on your own.

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

01 November 2009

Squirrel Haiku

PROMPT: A rough western equivalent of the Japanese Haiku is a poem of three lines with a syllable pattern of 5-7-5. I used that structure for multiple stanzas on three consecutive days, but I also chose my words from my magnetic tile stash!

Does   he see   me see
him  dig his secret dinner
from my grass and smile?


How to plant seeds so
they feast me   but do not grow?
Maybe the nut knows.

He dances the dirt
as at my window  I spy--
this watch, the day's gift.

Susan Acrostic


PROMPT: Have each person use their first, last or full name to do a name acrostic that helps them introduce themselves to the group. I chose my words using magnetic tiles, which I store sorted in cupcake tins by beginning letters.

If You Want to Write:
A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit

by Brenda Ueland

This book first appeared in 1938 when its author was 44 years old. She grew up in Minneapolis, Minn., but lived in Greenwich Village, New York City for a while and rubbed elbows with the likes of Eugene O'Neill. She eventually returned to Minnesota, where she earned a living as a writer, editor and teacher of writing. In her later years, she set an international swimming record for people over-80 and was knighted by the King of Norway. She lived to be 93.

That said, you've likely never heard of Brenda Ueland. I hadn't either until I found a reference to this book in somebody else's book on writing. I liked the excerpt quoted, and I ordered the book. I listed all those quirky tidbits about the author because the book is a bit of a quirk itself. But please understand, I mean that in the most lovely way.

This is a charming, breathless, exuberant book about living in a bigger way as the path to finding the writing life you feel you were always meant to have. The chapter titles alone inspire me: (1) Everybody is talented, original and has something to say; (7) Be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate, when you write; and finally, (10) Why Women who do too much housework should neglect it for their writing. What's in between the titles is even better!

I initially read this book when I was experiencing a long period of block in my life. Part of dismantling that block involved developing a better understanding of how creativity really works. It isn't "bidden" or "commanded forth" when we are ready to use it, like one knight's sword pulled and pointed at another. Coming from a business and journalism background, that was hard for me to understand. I'd always driven myself, written about things that interested me only mildly or not at all and managed to make them interesting for other people.

But it wore me out after 25 years. Ueland helped. She didn't think much of the ways of business either, and she made me feel much better about my pulling into myself:
So you see the imagination needs moodling--long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering. These people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have little, sharp, staccato ideas, such as: "I see where I can make an annual cut of $3.47 in my meat budget." But they have no slow, big ideas....If good ideas do not come at once, or for a long time, do not be troubled at all. Wait for them. Put down the little ideas however insignificant they are. But do not feel, any more, guilty about idleness and solitude. (pp. 32-33)
Mostly, Ueland says, we need to learn to trust ourselves and not judge ourselves, at least not too soon--both principles that fit well with the Amherst Writes & Artists philosophy I teach in my workshops. She suggests we "prime" our imagination each day like a pump, using a splash of solitude and idleness to keep the waters flowing. I couldn't agree more.

With that said, I'll leave off writing. I've got some moodling to attend to. When you get yours in, then and only then, read her book. Finish it only if you absolutely can't put it down. I'm guessing that's the way she'd want it.

Things I Didn't See Today

PROMPT: The title, course! This prompt is actually one you could use over and over with the same writers because each day we miss new things.

I didn't see the ash tree
outside the window where I write.
I didn't notice that its leaves fell weeks before
in a shower of gold that set
the rest of autumn sparking.

Zeus wore such a guise
to visit Danae in her cell, and so
Perseus was conceived.
I had forgotten.

I had forgotten how once
I dreamed a golden shower,
light dancing down into my sleep.
Loosed from the bonds of matter
it free-fell into a purple land.
So long ago it was
I had forgotten how I woke up
feeling warmed by love.

I didn't see the leaves
huddle at the curbs this year,
ready to be swept away and burned
as fuel for the winter to come.

I didn't see the buds
already taking shape on
the undressed branches
of the ash.