Friday, December 30, 2011

Monkey Brains, V: Lazy

It's hard to get dressed on winter days. My new fleece pajamas and thick, yellowed old hotel-terry bathrobe swaddle me like bear fat.

My daughter is on vacation this week. She and a friend are sleeping in the living room after a Harry Potter film marathon last night (Blue Ray!) Structure has crumbled.  I fit in freelance work around what my kids are doing.  Dust and crumbs and hair gather in corners.

Cabin-fevered, I took a long walk last night in the dark, and I felt my heart open, gradually, thinking of longer days now unfolding.
This morning, a moment stretches to an hour. New emails come in. Old ones lie blinking at me like necessary mammals. (I should have answered that one last week.)

Will I ever finish my novel?  Why does the washing machine smell bad, and what should I do about it?

For me, this is the way forward:  It's both a discipline and a splurge of relaxation.  Sit with what's happening right now. Pay attention. Meditate.  Hello, body.  Hello, mind, breath, feelings. Hello day.

Then I'll get dressed and see what's what.

If I looked this good, I WOULD stay in jammies all day.

Friday, December 16, 2011


See below to purchase in multiple formats!
I'm very excited to announce an interview with Catherine Stine, the author of Fireseed One.  Her new YA sci-fi novel made me think...Didn't I always know that teenagers have it in them to save the world?  

Here Catherine talks about the genesis of the book, the spiritual aspects of her writing process, and the joy of creating her own art work.   Pop over to her blog for more goodies: Interviews, giveaways, and excerpts (plus a special discount for Nook users).

Catherine, welcome! Tell me a bit about Fireseed One:
Thanks! Here is a two-line synopsis, the hardest thing in the world to write. I’m giving you this because others in the launch party are doing a great job of focusing on Fireseed’s plot, and your blog concentrates on more esoteric matters. Here goes! In 2089, Varik travels to a lethal desert with his enemy, Marisa who’s destroyed the world’s crops, for a mythical hybrid that may not exist. How’s that for brevity?

How did you come up with the idea of floating farms, a USA transformed to having Vegas on the coast, a devious female terrorist, and hybrid plants with magical breeding ability?
I’ve had versions of this on my mind since the late 80s. I created an 80-page text, with complex illustrations of floating ocean farms, an army of dolphins and a psychic scientist. At that time, you could walk into a publisher and show your goods. I took it to Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The AD gaped at it and said, “You ought to take this to California.” Translation: This book is wacky, and probably ahead of its time, like those weirdoes out on the west coast. I put the thing in a drawer and sat on it through my subsequent publications. But I never, ever forgot about it. It was always percolating, transforming, like the strange hybrids in Fireseed One.

You say that you have an unorthodox way of figuring out scenes.
I do creative visualizations. Not so unorthodox, but a sort of quasi-spiritual exercise. I’m also an artist, I’m highly visual, so this comes naturally. I call on my creative force—you could call it a higher power, instinct, whatever you like—and I concentrate on my fictional characters moving through scenes. It runs like a magical film. It almost feels as if the book has already been written, and I’m given pieces of it, on a need-to-know basis. It’s amazing what complex worlds are stored in one’s brain.

So, would you consider yourself a spiritual person?
Not religious, but spiritual. That means the coming together of all parts; taking brave actions. That means writing, even though it’s a continual challenge. I like the quote from Steven Wright, who wrote a novel about his time in Vietnam, Meditations on Green: “Be primal. Write from beyond what you know.” That quote speaks to how ideas flow out, flow in, flow out. Having finally illustrated Fireseed One, I feel that fusion strongly—that my art and writing are one—thus creating a more fully imagined world. 
JUKO, art by Catherine Stine

Where can people purchase Fireseed, and where can they find you on the web?

Many places!  It's available for Ipad and Iphone, etc. here:


 “Like” Catherine's Fireseed book page!
Goodreads author page:

Thursday, December 15, 2011


For a long time, I've been wanting my writing to be a spiritual practice, but I didn't have much idea what that would look like.  I think I had this idea it should be a more exalted experience than the plain old hard work that writing is.  It wasn't becoming meditative or prayerful or anything otherwise new.

In the years since grad school, I have had serious doubts about my work.  It's incredibly hard to get published.  Why is it taking me so long to finish the novel?  What's wrong with me? Are my stories irrelevant?  Am I irrelevant?  What's the freakin' point, anyway?  I play the comparison game: "So-and-so won a big literary prize, but can't get published.  I didn't even make the freakin' finalists in the same contest.  What does that say about MY chances?" There are times when I turn the writer's life into a losing game of Snakes and Ladders. 

The thing is, considering what I have accomplished wasn't really helping me.  This doesn't negate its intrinsic value, but it keeps me in Snakes and Ladders mode.  I'm on Rung Two!  It's better than being on Rung One!  Yes, but I'm not on Rung Twelve!  And I just went down that really long slide! The fact is, as Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals put it in the wonderful album Lifeline: "There's always someone younger, someone with more hunger/ don't let 'em take the fight outta you." As long as I'm thinking Younger, Published, Not-Published, Well-Published, Crap Published, whatever, I'm stuck in competitive mode.  And this does not energize me. It takes the fight outta me. 

Envy mode.

I needed a whole nother approach--a spiritual approach, in fact. So a couple of weeks ago, I went unsuspecting to my writing group (we work on our own stuff rather than critiquing); had a miserable couple of hours fighting to get some writing accomplished while sliding around on the Snakes and Ladders board in my head, and afterwards during our tea and discussion, I let it all spill.
Confusing, isn't it?

Being wise souls, my friends didn't encourage me to consider my accomplishments.  They suggested a practice to undo my feeling of isolation and competitive envy.  In Buddhism, Mudita (Pali) is rendered in English as vicarious or sympathetic joy. Sharon Salzberg puts it: Sympathetic Joy is the realization that others’ happiness is inseparable from our own. We rejoice in the joy of others and are not threatened by another’s success. I've already found one of her talks on the subject very helpful.  

Because it's a practice, I don't have to beat myself up for still feeling envy.  But I enjoy writing again, and even better, I am not separated from the community of writers.  I never really was.  I belong, but  not because I have to prove anything.

The lesson is still there to learn, of course.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Postponed Due to Ice Formations

This weekend, I was planning to post my interview with Jess Row, a Zen practitioner who is included in this years Best American Short Stories.  Then someone in my family got illustration of the Buddha's First Noble Truth.
Enlightenment available in the gift shop?
Traditionally, Buddha is supposed to have given his first "sermon" at a place called Deer Park in what is now Varanasi, India, a several-thousand-years-old city.  He laid out the Four Noble Truths, the basic principles of Buddhism, which are deceptively simple.

The first Noble Truth is that life involves "dukka"--a Pali word that is  often translated as "suffering," but there's more to it.  It involves acceptance that impermanence (change, illness, birth) is in the nature of all things.

Recently my husband told me he was sad about something that impacts both of us in a similar way (this was before the illness hit). I'm the tough guy in the family--I told him that what makes him sad is for me a matter of thrusting my head forward, moving on, getting the job a solider in combat. Sometimes I like my icy heart; it makes me feel strong.  After we had this conversation, I went upstairs and meditated for half an hour. Right nowI'm using a guided meditation download from Dharmaseed where you pay gentle attention to emotions and simultaneous feelings in the body.  As I sat, I noticed a pain in my chest.  It opened, got a little heavy, shifted a bit, but it didn't go away. When you look for an emotion in the body, it's  hard to locate. Maybe some of that freezing is actually breaking me open.

Sometimes when plants freeze, frozen sap splits the stem open. Capillary action forces more sap out, which freezes on contact with air, causing flower-like formations. If I were made completely of ice, I wouldn't be able to move.

Today, I visited the person who is sick. It's hard to see someone so weak and suffering. We have had a rocky history, although recent years have brought a peaceful, uneventful relationship with no great closeness.  Something odd happened today; as I was leaving, the sick person said she loved me, and then, thinking I didn't hear, she repeated it with great tenderness.  When I got home, my daughter asked me if she had ever said that before. I thought for a while, then I said, "Maybe not."  I cried, then my daughter cried. 

In some ways, it would be easier to write the sick person off as insensitive, uncaring.  If she's lonely, isn't it because she's chosen to isolate herself from other people?  But what affect would that attitude have--on me, on my family, on the situation my husband and I are worried about?

It's pretty obvious that life is impermanent.  A no-brainer. But what is our relationship to that truth?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Monkey Brains, III: From Pema Chodron, Help With Becoming Generous

I struggle with needing things to go a certain way.  Here's what a wise teacher has to say:
The basic idea of generosity is to train in thinking bigger, to do ourselves the world's biggest favor and stop cultivating our own scheme...The journey of generosity is one of connecting with the (fundamental richness inherent in each moment), the wealth that is the nature of everything. It is not "ours" or "theirs" but is always available to everyone. In raindrops, in blood drops, in heartache and delight...
by Pema Chodron

The journey of generosity is one of connecting with this wealth, cherishing it so profoundly that we are willing to begin to give away whatever blocks it. 
From When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

I want to give a gift to someone I love, because I see--painfully--that I have taken something from her.  Being in a position of authority, I continually exert pressure based on my view of how things should go for her.  What I can do is give her a break. I can practice trust.  Practice isn't perfection. It's...practice!

This commitment cuts to the heart of my biggest weakness.  For me the issue goes pretty deep, of course, but an illustration will suffice: When I am caught off guard, say when I come home from a trip and notice a mess in the house that accumulated while I was away--funny how I notice the small mess, not the large effort others have made to clean up--when the physical environment seems on the verge of decay because things aren't where I think they should be, I feel groundless.  Fearful. I flail around inwardly, and I cope by using my dominance in the family, my verbal acuity, get people to get things to shape up.  It's THEIR responsibility, right? After all, I wasn't there to make the mess.

Insecurity? --Control!

This has hurt the people I live with.

How does generosity apply here?  Offering a credit card, a trip to the mall would be easy, but it wouldn't be a healing generosity.

...the real transformation takes place when we let go of our attachments and give away what we think we can't.  What we do on the outer level has the power to loosen up deep-rooted patterns of holding onto ourselves.  

The strongest urge in myself will be to "yell," to use my considerable skill with language to control and dominate.  I can even get away with this in front of therapists--I've observed it happen!  The gift I can give the person in question is to accept the discomfort of feeling groundless. To sit in quiet meditation with the feelings that disaster will result in her life if I don't intervene.  Just hang out, me and the feelings.  To take the bullet myself, so to speak.  And, life being the messy animal that it is, when I get up again I will have to make the uncomfortable choice to intervene--sometimes.

Sitting with that fear, honoring it for its creative energy (boy, do I get a lot done based on my delusion that I hold the universe together!!), but not trying to control the outcome: all of these are gifts I can give the person I love.

She'll feel the difference. And nothing will need to be said. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Monkey Brains, II: And Introducing Jess Row

Nothing goes away until it has taught us what we need to know~
Pema Chodron

It's supposed to snow tonight (in Philly?!) so we're prepared! Wait! It's 10 a.m. and snowing right now!
In meditation these days, I am continuing to focus on my breathing, but that intention is attached to a thousand vines.  My mind and body keep their little flirtation going.  Thoughts--planning how I'll get to the grocery store, what to do about that dead rabbit on the deck, snatches of conversation, rehashing of long-dead unsolved problems--each of these is a little seizure during which I no longer seem to have a body at all.  Then I come back; my body is there, sitting still, with tension now banding the crown of my head or around my eyes.  The result of each thought-wander feels a little different.  Planning, I say.  Or: reminiscing. I label the thoughts to learn how each one feels and to learn to recognize what's going on.  

Tonight at the meditation class, I was aware of a deeper mind below all the monkey-chatter. It was like skimming below choppy waves, with Sargasso weed and all that crazy stuff floating around.  Nice.  

Silence is necessary.  The thoughts don't go away, so I'm trying to learn from them.  

Now for the introduction to next week's interview:

Jess Row is a fiction writer and a practitioner of Zen Buddhism.  He's a Zen Chaplain at The College of New Jersey, and he teaches at Vermont College, where I did my MFA, but I graduated before he came.  Next week, I'll feature an interview I did with Jess, where he discusses his meditation practice and his writing life.

His story "The Call of Blood" is included Best American Short Stories, 2011.  It comes from his collection titled Nobody Ever Gets Lost, which I cannot recommend highly enough.

Here's the opening of "The Call of Blood":

Mornings he finds Mrs. Kang upright in bed, peeling invisible ginger with an invisible knife.  She watches her hands with rapt attention, picking up the stalks from a pile at  her right and dropping the peeled pieces into a bowl on her lap.  A cloud of white hair rises from her scalp, pale as spun sugar.  The first time he tries to raise her, putting his hands gently beneath her armpits, she bats them away; the second time she forgets to resist.  She weighs eighty-five pounds on a good day.  In the wheelchair she sits up ramrod-straight, and waves a finger at him.  Kaesul hun'bok chasaeoh!  Her voice like wind in a crevasse. You are a bad boy!
Hyunjee, her daughter says,  No offense, Kevin. But if she knew it was a black man taking care of her, it would finish her off.
She has a funny way of smiling, like squinting into the sun.  He can tell she finds this thought faintly entertaining.  
I'm not black, he says.  My father was from Jamaica and my mother was from Queens. Irish Queens. 
Oh, I know, she says. It's complicated...
If you look for religion, Buddhist or otherwise, in this wonderful collection where each story is related directly or indirectly to 9/11, you will find humanity--subtly observed and and lovingly understood--in its  sometimes terrifying quest for justice, security and meaning.

Someone once told me that the root meaning of "religion" is "that which ties ends together."  Row's characters are trying to put a square knot on life's raw ends. Whether due to the shock of violence or the attrition of years, they are desperate for meanings that lie just beyond comprehension.  As each of us is, they are  driven by their own histories, prejudices, and predilections as much as by their desire for resolution.  His examination of race and class, as well as his ability to render the unique, subjective dynamics between people in relationship, is the among most skilled and nuanced that I have encountered.

I was fascinated by a fiction writer who also has an active meditation life.  Next week I'll run my interview with Jess Row.  What he had to say surprised me.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Monkey Brains, I: Outing Myself.

This being my birthday weekend, (56!! I'll look really old in 30 years) it seemed time to begin a new segment for the blog.

This will be a true web journal--a record of my experience as a person who regularly does mindfulness meditation.  (Visceral reaction here:  That sentence rings a bit PC--as if I'd dropped into conversation the phrase a "person of color" instead of "Asian" or "Black"; or, as someone I once knew who was involved in Social Concerns with the Episcopal Church used to insist ad nauseum, those infected with HIV should be called "persons with AIDS."  Despite the intention to cloak the people in question with verbal dignity, these attempts have a sterile whiff.  "Persons" has a vaguely bio-lab feel.)  But I digress.  The truth is, I'm trying hard not to identify myself as a Buddhist.  This despite the fact that I now have what my daughter describes as "a pagan shrine" in my meditation room, aka my son's former bedroom.  (Yes, he still has a room all to himself when he's home. The attic garret. Get over it.)  (Do I sound defensive?  In this family, obtaining the privilege of a room all to MYSELF WAS NOT EASY. But that's another story.)

It made the Cape Cod nights less stark
So this month, I bought a Buddha statue.  (Buddha? Zat you?) I was in Cape Cod recently on family business, and I saw it in a shop and it was beautiful and it wasn't ridiculously expensive.

But I don't know if I'm a Buddhist or not. (Helen: Is that honest?)  I go to regular meditation sessions at Springboard Studio in Mt. Airy (the Granola capital of Philadelphia), and I meet regularly for, like, these talks with their main teacher of Buddhism, Brian Arnell, who has a heart the size of the ancient continent Pangaea.  Springboard is a "secular" Buddhist organization, which as far as I can tell, means that it's okay to go just for the mutual support and to learn to meditate, and Brian makes a distinction between "religious" Buddhists and otherwise Buddhists, which is them, but I can't remember now what it is. Brian is very smart.

The truth is that I was an evangelical Christian for so long--about 30 years, give or take-- (Yes, I was a Quaker child, but then some horrible stuff happened and the church rescued me)  that partly because of  what evangelical Christians describe as "the fear of man" (i.e. wanting other people to like you a lot, even if you haven't actually seen them in like ten years) I am afraid to publicly identify myself (on the WWW! (But does anyone actually read this blog?)) as anything other than an evangelical Christian. Which is sort of ridiculous, considering the "pagan shrine" I have going upstairs.

There's another reason I don't identify myself as a Buddhist.  I'm not sure what being one actually is.

But here's the thing. One incredibly relieving aspect of the whole Buddhist thing is permission to look at what's true in any given moment and to make room for its existence, however putrid or self-indulgent or pathetic.   You don't judge it.  You don't resolve to overcome it, or vow to establish righteousness in its place, (so help me God).  You don't beat yourself up.  Well, duh, you do. But you notice that, too.  And you make room for: Okay, well, I've spent the last twenty minutes beating myself up, and now my chest hurts and I might be having a coronary. That's kind of interesting. And you give yourself a break for noticing how hard it is to give yourself a break.

So the truth is, I am frankly weirded out to think of what all the Christians I was interknit with for so long would think of what I've turned in to.  CONFESSION: The truth is, I used to pray that what has happened to me would not happen to me. I have broken out of the corral: that is, the Jesus thing is no longer my sole reference point.  Anyone who has never been an evangelical will be like, Okay, so what's the big deal here?  And anyone who has/is/ever will be an evangelical, world without end, will get it in an instant and start praying for my return to the fold.  Or leave me up the Will of God, depending.

Okay, so now that's out of the way. Stay tuned as I claw my way to Enlightenment.  Oh, and, also I'm going to talk about spiritual aspects of writing and interview people who are both meditators and writers.  First up: Jess Row, who is currently featured Best American Short Stories, 2011. More about him next week.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Under the Influence: A Parable of Courage

In September, Fiction Writers Review did a series on the teaching of writing.  In this guest post, I share the best story I've ever heard about dealing with writerly discouragement. (Not to mention life!)

When I send out submissions, I’m easily spooked. After receiving my 4,575th “positive rejection”—i.e., “Not a good fit this time… send more”—I wonder if He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is mwa-ha-ha-ing behind the scenes: “Everyone Else is Going to Be Published. Die, Sucker.”
Fortunately, better writers than me have endured the soul-sucking chill of the Dementor’s Kiss. My go-to writing mantra is a story about a Really Successful Writer (hereafter known as Harry Potter) told to me by my favorite writing mentor, whom I’ll call… Hermione Granger. Perhaps the story means so much because she believed in my work. When I can’t maintain faith in myself, I share the story with my own writing students. I repeat it to the cat; I grab despairing novelists at the coffee shop and recite the tale, spittle flying.

The event took place years ago at the prestigious Hogwrites School. Hermione and Harry were sitting side by side at a large table in a novel writing workshop. Professor Albus Dumbledore presided over the discussion of the not-yet-published Harry’s novel… as the work was ripped apart. The students mauled it. Reviled it. Cruciatus-Cursed it. Harry sat impassively listening while his fellow students reduced his work to a writhing torment of former character and plot. But Hermione noticed that under the table, Harry’s knees were shaking.

Some while later, a troubled Hermione found Dumbledore strolling the grounds. “We were really hard on poor Harry,” she told the venerable teacher.

“He deserved it,” Dumbledore replied. “The work was awful.”

Hermione swallowed.

“But he’s going to be a terrific writer.” Seeing my mentor’s shocked face, Dumbledore went on to add that Harry had come to him after the workshop and thanked him for the disembowelment. Harry was going to completely junk the novel and start another from scratch. That kind of drive, Dumbledore indicated, would be the making of him.

“Harry” went on to become famous enough that real names are impossible. I’m in the market for blurbs, after all.

For me, those still-obscure, hopelessly shaking knees are the most encouraging part of the story. It doesn’t matter if other people think your writing is dreadful. It’s okay if you’re scared out of your wits. What matters, in the end, is rising out of the ashes.
Phoenix 2.0
Read the original post here.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"I lay curled up like a broken comma"

Last night, that sentence came to me as I lay awake, worrying about something. I thought it was pretty cool. I thought I might take it and run with it, turn it into an as-yet unwritten story.

The problem is that an image isn't a story idea.  I have nothing to place it in. No context, no problem set.  In the past I would have taken that line and kept on writing, hoping an elusive plot would rise from the mess.  This may work for some people--not for me. I would have ended up with a shapeless mass, trying to revise it into life.

So for now, it's archived.  I need a spine, not a vertebra.

Actually, real life has similar moments of discovery.  A quick sense of clarity about a family problem. The thought, "You know. I really should try this."  Or the converse, "I can't.  I'll never. They won't..."  But one difference between real life and fiction is that real life keeps happening, no matter what.  Until you die, narrative isn't optional.

But there's a similarity.  Moments of clarity can be nurtured, or they can be lost. They can be questioned or cultivated or put to use.  Otherwise, life can have a random quality, and we might feel we aren't the authors of our own scenarios.

As in writing, making use of our clarity fragments takes work.  But it's not always the kind of work we think of as Work.  A lot of this work has to do with kindness.  If you think it's cool to be kind to other people, why not be kind to yourself? The fragment of clarity might simply need you to let it hang out for a while. Give it air.  Don't rule it out, and see what happens.

Other kinds of clarity are negative: The bitter "I'll never..." kind of conviction that makes you feel like a broken comma. Here humor is your ally. These thoughts tend to repeat over time, the bad jokes of a feedback loop.  Oh! You again, negative thought. Thanks for sharing can be a pretty good strategy.  If you give these thoughts air, rather than tightening around them, they may loosen their grip.

All this from one punctuation mark. Not bad for one night's insomnia.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

How Do You Pronounce **?

Along with other Philadelphia Stories authors, I will be reading on WXPN Radio's Live at Kelly Writers House, to be aired on Monday, October 3 at 8 p.m.  88.5 in Philly, and on the Web for my fans in Monrovia and Antarctica.   

I'm going to read from two stories, one because it reflects my Quaker roots, and the other because it's published and available online.  The FCC description of what you can't say on the radio makes a fascinating tone poem in itself.   Preparation is arduous, study complex. Here's what Kelly Writers House sent from the FCC Rules  (I'm not sure I'd want to be related to the person who wrote this):

“Assh*le,  F*ck, F*cker, F*cking, Sh*t, C*nt, Clit, N*gger or other racial slurs, Bitch is inappropriate if it refers to a woman, Balls, Blow, Suck, Dick, Pussy, Swallow if referring to genitals, "The definition, language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activities or organs, vulgar and lewd references to the male genitals and to masturbation and sodomy broadcast in the context of 'explicit references' to masturbation, ejaculation, breast size, penis size, sexual intercourse, nudity, urination, oral-genital contact, erections, sodomy, bestiality,menstruation and testicles, sexual activity with a child."

Try reading that several times fast and see what happens.  

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"The Family That Slays Together, Stays Together"

And now, for something completely different.  Our son made a 2-minute SLASHER movie starring, well, us.  Comments on YouTube  most welcome!  Repost the video on the web and I'll buy you a drink. Well, if you live near us, that is.  (Not kidding, friends.  Send me the link and we'll talk where and when.)

By Paul Frank Mallon, II 

The real star is this innocent-looking house
 (Thanks for the blurb, Jane Wilson!)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Help, Considered

I bought the book, enjoyed it, saw the movie, enjoyed it, and still I missed the most obvious connection to myself.  I grew up in a family that embraced Christian moral values, but which was pervaded by what I call "atmospheric" racism.  We made contributions to organizations that benefited black people, while racist comments (and attitudes) wafted up to the ceiling, unregarded.
And of course, even unspoken attitudes affect the world around us.

This letter to the editor provoked my ah-ha moment.  I think the appropriate term is "white blindness."

New York Times

How 'The Help' Depicts Race Relations

To the Editor:
Prof. Patricia A. Turner makes an excellent point when she criticizes "The Help" for implying that good white people of the 1960s were by definition non-racist. But it does something even more insidious. It invites white audiences, as do most Hollywood movies about race, to identify with an enlightened white character - in this case, the stand-in for the author of the book, Kathryn Stockett.
In so doing, it validates our fantasy that we would have seen the truth and we would have risked our comfort for the sake of justice. It assures us that we would have been, and by extension we are now, on the side of right.
Funny how racism persists despite us white people being so darn virtuous!
New York, Aug. 29, 2011
The writer is a director and producer of documentary films.

Mary Brown's letter is in response to the essay by Patricia Turner.  

Saturday, September 3, 2011

What Would a Blog be Without Followers?

Many thanks to super creative YA fiction writer, Catherine Stine, for awarding me a Most Appreciated Follower!  Check out her thoughts on writing, family, treasures, & city & country life.

To pass on the friendship, I'd like to award Most Appreciated Follower to:

1. Ryoma Collia-Suzuki, the most enthusiastic friend whom I've never met!
2. Richard Sidney, one of my oldest friends.
3. Jane Reed Wilson, Sister-in-Law Extraordinaire and fabulous graphic designer.

Feel free to copy the award on your own blog/website.

On another note, my husband and I spent a wonderful hurricane weekend on Cape Cod, walking in the maelstrom, lighting kerosene lamps, and cozying up in the new bedroom. Since there was very little actual damage done by the hurricane, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in an unexpected way.  The old dark house is warm and intimate by candlelight.  What could be better?

I'm about to blow away!!
Anyone else have a hurricane story to share?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Can I Get to the Moon?

I want to shake something up. I want to start something.  Or maybe I'm trying to finish something big.

Am I

The only way to answer that question is to pursue the goal, wholeheartedly, in spite of the question.  

Sunday, August 21, 2011

What Happens When You Cut Up an Elephant?

Cut this elephant in four pieces? Ouch!
Today I woke early from a troubling dream.  The images came from seeing elephant imagery in Buddhist art, and the 'trouble' from a timeless summer conversation on the porch of a meditation studio with my Buddhist teacher, Brian Arnell, and a friend.

I said that there could be no higher motivation in life than to aspire to be a loving person. Brian answered that while on a daily-life basis this is true, pure Buddhism would say that to make "loving" the highest goal is limiting because it only has meaning in reference to its opposite its opposite--hatred, or "not-loving."  He added that there is something "beyond" those competing values.

So, as I struggle to understand it, "love" is conceptually tied to a dualism that is conditioned on some kind of conceptual, conditional battle (good vs. evil). In Buddhism, there's a higher goal than anything dualistic, something called Nibbana, something that my familiar world of love, pain, and stories does not comprehend.  I felt threatened when Brian talked about something that touched on emptiness--I felt I could be annihilated in a bland, cosmic cream soup.  Do I really WANT enlightenment?

At the same time, it was a lovely moment. I wanted our gauzy summer talk to go on all night.We dipped in and out of topics; the moon was overhead. I lost track of time. (Thanks to Anne Arian for the lovely "gauzy summer" description.)

In the dream I had afterwards, someone was telling me about elephants: "If you cut an elephant into four pieces, it won't walk again, but there is a high rate of survival."  I don't know what says about quality of life!  Imagine trying to wash yourself with a trunk sliced down the middle.  The dream filled me with horror.  Did the "high survival rate" mean that the quartered parts would exist in a helpless, monster state, like living specimens in some veterinary equivalent of the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia?
Used by permission of  the (very cool) publisher,

In other words, it means that I find the whole Buddhist thing a little scary.  If I follow this path, is it the end of "me"?  Well, that's okay. I found Christianity scary, too, but not for the fundamentalist qualities that (say) The Simpsons and other pop culture icons lampoon so accurately.  Small minded literalism is actually pretty easy to dispense with.  But any spiritual practice that truly touches on The Divine will tug at the seams of one's patched-together sense of reality. (In the Bible, people who encounter angels tend to wet their pants.  Only in the Hallmark store are angels pretty beings who hang out on coffee mugs.)

Have you had "elephant dreams" that touched on fears about your spiritual life?
Ooh, scary.  Souls sucked up in a divine vacuum cleaner in Dante's Inferno.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Modern Poetry: A Guidebook That's a Hoot

My Philadelphia Inquirer Review of Beautiful & pointless {A Guide to Modern Poetry}
By David Orr  (Appeared 8.07.2011) 

If reading a guidebook to contemporary poetry appeals to you about as much as diving into a history of space heaters in this triple-digit summer, David Orr, poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review, knows how to turn on the A.C.  In Beautiful & pointless {A Guide to Modern Poetry}, Orr admits that books on poetry tend to read like math texts. Either that, he says, or they are rapturous “testimonials announcing poetry’s ability to derange the senses…(and make us) dance naked under the full moon, and  so forth.”
Orr is no highbrow who expects readers to know the difference between a villanelle and valpolicella before he’ll pop a beer with them.  If anything, he arouses reader sympathy for the poor poet, whose visions will never be optioned by Hollywood, and whose main audience will ever be other poets.  Even though Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in what amounted to an 1821 version of a self-help pamphlet that ‘“poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,”’ the political engagement of poets is in a “potentially awkward position relative to the larger political world, which is generally not paying much attention.” (At least not in this country.  Shelley might have been heartened to know that in Soviet Russia, China, and Burma, poets would be hounded like domestic terrorists.) 
This leaves the contemporary American poet laboring beneath the twin burdens of irrelevance and Greatness.  In fact, Orr dedicates an entire chapter to ambition because “it’s especially difficult to talk about the situation of poetry” (Is it healthy? Endangered? Post-mortem?) “when the people talking about it appear to agree on little, except possibly that a poem should begin with words.”
Instead, he approaches “what it means to write a poem” slantwise, “by talking about a related concept…Not about what poetry is, but about what we want it to be.” This touches on what Philadelphia poet Daisy Fried calls “capital-G Greatness,” and opens up a discussion of style.  A style approved as ambitious, Orr says, is “less likely to involve words like “’canary’ and ‘sniffle’ and ‘widget’ and more likely to involve words like ‘nation’ and ‘soul’ and ‘language.’”… “Our assumptions…work like a velvet rope: If a poet looks the way we think a great poet ought to, we let him or her into the club quickly—and sometimes later wish we hadn’t.”
Orr traces the implications of poetic assumptions.  He enters these via the arenas in which poetry has traditionally taken a stand, including “The Personal,” “The Political,” and “Form”…and in his touching concluding chapter, titled “Why Bother?” which, it seems, is a question poets ask themselves with depressing frequency.
Regarding the personal: “Poetry, we’re told, is…a means of answering Pete Townshend’s question ‘Can you see the real me?’” Orr questions how personal a personal poem really is.  Is the “’I’ of the poem in basic concordance with the facts relating to the poet-as-he-walks-around?”  This is “tricky business, because the personal depends on juxtapositions, not revelations.”   By way of explanation, Orr illuminates the contrasting effects of very different poems—‘The Tay Bridge Disaster,’ “possibly the worst poem ever written about a public calamity”; the embarrassing ‘Saved From Myself’ by pop singer Jewel; and the last by the “seemingly casual” poet Frank O’Hara.   Orr argues that the successful “personal” poem, like O’Hara’s ‘The Day Lady Died,’ “relies on our sense that some experiences—grief, for example…don’t sit very well alongside our day-to-day activities, so that when they’re brought up abruptly in a poem filled with ephemera, we’re forced to decide whether the sudden emergence (juxtaposition) of this other, more personal identity can be accommodated.  It’s a risky strategy,” he admits, because it courts humiliation.  Perhaps a poem is ‘personal’ simply because it takes lonely courage to write one.   
People keep writing the stuff.  Yet if poets themselves are to be believed, it was all over a long time ago.  Orr cites the “lamentations and counter lamentations” reflected over the years in essay titles by Dumbledore-caliber authorities: “Who Killed Poetry?” “Death to the Death of Poetry”; and “Poetry is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care?” 
Although Orr concludes, “poetry is a small, vulnerable human activity no better or more powerful than thousands of other…activities,” the truth is that humans have been creating poetry far longer than they’ve been creating timepieces or gecko habitats.  Perhaps Philadelphia’s lively scene means that poetry’s traditional yearning for immortality isn’t merely quixotic. “Yo, Philly!” Our poets sing. “There is life after death.” 

Helen W. Mallon once got a black eye at a poetry reading. You can read about it on her blog via

Saturday, August 6, 2011

How I Got a Black Eye at a Poetry Reading

When I was studying fiction writing at the low-residency Vermont College program,  we students sent out monthly packets of blood, sweat, and tears to our professors via the USPS.  The postal clerk, half asleep, would ask, "Does this contain anything liquid, fragile, perishable, or potentially hazardous?"

I always wanted to reply, "God, I hope so."

Writers want their words to hold compressed power; we want to change the way readers see the world.  We want IMPACT.

First, writing has to impact us.  Before I succumbed to the desire to write fiction (it was a struggle) I took a poetry writing workshop at my old school, Germantown Friends.  High school students and old people like me were mixed in together.  The last session of the class was to be a pot luck dinner and reading held at the home of a father/daughter duo who happened to be taking the class together.  I made a casserole, got my poems together, and parked behind several other cars along the U-shaped driveway.  Balancing glass dish, poems, purse, and myself, I got out of the car, took a couple of steps, and inadvertently hooked my foot on a fallen tree branch I hadn't seen in front of me.

 It was a beautiful pivot, ending in pain.  I knocked on the large front door holding my poems, and thought, "This is a dramatic entrance." Blood ran from my nose to my chin .

I missed the actual reading and the potluck.  My parents, who lived nearby, picked me up and took me to the ER with my face in a rag.  I found out later that someone had scooped the contents of the casserole back in my dish and set it out on the table with the other food.

I still have the X-ray of my skull from that evening. There was nothing broken, but I developed a  black eye worthy of a maudlin painted sunset.  I loved it when people asked me how it happened.  The incongruity!  A poetry reading!

Actually, creative writing is not for the faint of heart.  There's a huge amount of self-exposure involved with no promise of reward or fame. What we're trying to say may end up, on paper, neither liquid, fragile or potentially hazardous.  It may be as clumsy as a sprawl on the ground.

But there's no point in trying unless we shoot for something beyond our abilities.  Why stick with what  you already know how to say?    If it doesn't shake you first, how will it shake the reader?
Mine wasn't as pretty as this one.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Boomer's Guide to Alienating Your Fellow Man

Admit it. Life as a middle aged person can be kind of a drag.  Work, work, plod. Worry about the economy. Be nice. Clean the toilet. Yeah.

Forthwith, here are some jazzy comebacks to sprinkle throughout your day. Won't cost you any money, and the outcome of your impulsive remarks will make your glad that your impetuous youth has gone the way of all flesh.  Or these encounters might make you ready for senility, when you'll be able to get away with anything.

So. Say one of your coworker says "Howzit going?" and you can tell he doesn't give a rip and you think he really thinks he could do your job in half the time (but you might be wrong).  Try this out:  "Just what do you mean by ''IT'"?

For those times when the MacTeenager at the MacDrivethrough is MacRude and messes up your MacOrder, but you know that only the young and desperate would take a MacJob:  When she simpers "Have a good one," reply, "Which french fry are you referring to?"

When you're at the mailbox, and your neighbor, at her mailbox, calls out "How you doing?" Consider responding, "Oh, I'm all sorts of things."  It could be the start of a deep soul correspondence. Or not.

"Nice day," says the UPS man.  "Yes, it is," you say, "and I like the way this box smells."

"How are you?" asks your neighbor who never talks to you.  Look over your shoulder, then say, "Who?"

These were very cool but tipped over easily.
The clerk at the liquor store has gauges in his ears, a sleeve tattoo, and a pierced lower lip with a soul patch.  "How're you?" He asks.  Recall the magic of the sixties. Then look him in the eye (is it bloodshot?), and say, "I am  Far F**cking Out."

Those who really lived the sixties may not remember them, but the tribe has to stick together.   Is there something you've always wanted to reply to a cab driver, investment broker, convenience store clerk, telemarketer, department head, certified public accountant, therapist, or zookeeper, but never have?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Guest Post: Finding My Way Home

For my own encouragement and yours: From time to time, I'll be featuring guest posts on how people keep going in the face of difficulties.    The first of these, by poet Wendy Brown-Báez, speaks of how the communal aspects of poetry gave her shelter in a time of unimaginable loss.

It has been said that poetry can save us. I learned the truth of this only through tragedy.  In a place of extremity, I discovered that language can bring to light what is beyond words.  In the process, it returns us back to ourselves. When my partner and then later, my son, died from suicide, it was poetry that threw me a lifeline and pulled me in from the tumult. I thought I would drown in the emotional storms, but poetry floated me back to shore.

In 2002, I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico with my partner, Michael, who was bi-polar and increasingly unstable. He spoke of suicide daily; one night, he read me the suicide notes he had composed. I belonged to a women’s poetry group and as I poured my frustration and fears onto the page, these women became my best friends.

I urged Michael to attend Write Action, a writing support group for those coping with illness. One week, when he was out of town, I attended in his place. In this safe environment, I could express myself with complete honesty.  I kept coming back. As I wrote about my anguish, my rose colored glasses began to fall away. Gradually I saw that Michael didn’t want to be saved.

I lost my dynamic, affectionate companion and I also lost the grey pall of depression. A burst of creativity swept through me. In my determination to speak my truth, I produced a poetry CD. As I traveled and performed, audiences held me in their rapt attention. It was a powerful form of communion.

But I soon faced another crisis, the death of my youngest son. Shattered, I was unable to meditate or to pray or to write, the practices that had held me so firmly while grieving Michael’s death. And yet, since both writing groups were my friends, my support system, I returned to them. I thought I could at least distract myself from my unbearable despair.

Once the pen was in my hand, it was automatic to put it to paper. I wrote about my pain and shock, memories and regrets. The writing deepened, became raw, vulnerable and real. It amazes me how often writing makes me aware that gifts can be found in tragedy.

Time doesn’t heal but those
small actions of living--
the spoon of soup, the footsteps
through the park, the quick farewell
before more damage is done—these take
away the direct attention.

 ....This is a STUPID STUPID
STUPID death—no I won’t
stop screaming it—I blame
God as well and I don’t care if
there are millions lost
in the war or that children are
being gunned down as I
write. I am talking about
a death that did not have to be.

This death has teeth, they bite at my
insides, they have excavated a
hole in my womb.

--from Finding the Way Home
 I moved to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico in 2006 and created a bilingual poetry performance for Día de los Muertos. As my performance partner and I called out the various names of Lady Death (La Muerte) back and forth across the stage and the audience lit candles for their departed, I realized that Death comes for all of us. For me to accept death as another phase of life, one that touches us all, was healing. Later, as I wrote about my anger and my guilt, I understood that my story was a story: that I didn’t have to hold onto it and keep it, I could share it and release it. I felt I could be a voice for others. The recently published transparencies of light is a collection of women’s voices, some in challenging circumstances. For example, Ahmed’s Mother is a mother’s keening for a son who has been killed by a bomb. While she is fictional, her voice arose from my experiences of living amongst women like her.  I have earned the right to be her voice; I know her rage and her anguish.

Poetry has transformed my suffering into a work of art with beauty and meaning. Language is how we connect to each other.  By sharing language with open hearts, we step out from the abyss of our essential solitariness. From that perspective we see that we are held, all together, in a web of light.

 Wendy Brown-Báez is the creator of Writing Circles for Healing writing workshops. She received 2008 and 2009 McKnight grants to teach writing workshops for at risk youth. Wendy has performed her poetry from Chicago to Mexico, and her poetry and prose have been published in numerous literary journals such as Wising Up Press Anthologies, The Chrysalis Reader, Mizna, Minnetonka Review, Interfaithings and We’Moon Datebooks. She is the author of a full-length collection Ceremonies of the Spirit (Plain View Press, 2009), and a chapbook transparencies of light (Finishing Line Press, 2011). 

For more information or to purchase books:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Guest Post Coming This Weekend

One of my preoccupations has to do with the incredible survival ability of human beings--and, specifically, how artists keep going when jobs consume, health fails, crises hit.  This weekend I will be privileged to run a guest post by poet Wendy Brown-Baez, who writes about how poetry rescued her in a time of great personal tragedy.

Check in later to hear from Wendy!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Procrastination for Breakfast

Yesterday morning, I heard my neighbors chatting on their deck and smelled their good breakfast smells.  I felt a little envious of their laid-back approach to weekends, so instead of jumping into the work I had going, I decided to sit on the deck with a mug of tea and the local paper.  

But here's the thing:  Reading the local color, I discovered several...typos.  Before I knew it, I was lasering through articles, highlighting errors, and planning a trip to the newspaper editor's office to convince him that he ought to hire me as a proofreader.  Regular income, however small!  What a concept! 
I must be explaining something.

Before I knew it, I was...WORKING. Saturday morning, and the brain was grinding, the pencil circling .    My neighbors were still lazily chatting. Okay, they were chatting in Russian, and they're both scientists, so for all I know they were hashing out theories about DNA and inter-office brain chemistry, but they SOUNDED lazy.  

People with regular jobs have it so easy, I thought. Their weekends are weekends.  (my neighbors get in their cars to go to work.) Freelancers like me never stop working.  I can't sit on the deck with a freakin' newspaper without...

You get the picture.  Later I learned the truth: My neighbor's job is so stressful that when she wakes up on a weekend, her brain is madly whirring with all the household stuff she can't get to.  "I make myself sit out on the deck," she told me later, "Otherwise I'd never relax."  Actually, she admitted, "I'm procrastinating. It's hard to face all the household stuff."  

I say, let's hear it for procrastination. If we have to make ourselves sit in the dappled shade for half an hour on Saturday morning, it's gift to ourselves.  And to our work--T. S. Eliot spoke of the "necessary laziness" of the poet, a notion that could greatly benefit all of us.  It takes courage to put the pencil down without the distraction of electronic devices; to turn your back on the urgent and spend unshaped time alone with yourself or someone you love.  If all you do is what you have to do, you'll miss the universe.
"I am moved by fancies that are curled/Around these images, and cling:  The notion of some infinitely gentle/Infinitely suffering thing."  From Eliot's Four Quartets

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Care and Feeding of Procrastination

This is not a lecture about procrastination.  We all avoid in different ways, anyhow.  I am a non-traditional procrastinator.  Being a restless soul, when it comes to writing, I can fill pages easily. I OCD-edly revise; I once worked on fiction while one of my kids was throwing a tantrum not twenty feet away.  

In my life, avoidance looks like productivity.  I sometimes fill pages to avoid the harder task of examining where a story is going.  Sometimes the hardest thing is to Not-Write; to wait, to trust the brain's hidden wisdom. 

Whether you're like me or a more garden-variety procrastinator, the cure is the same: Focus on small progress and do what you can.  Doing a little bit is better than doing nothing. Today at my Cape Cod writing retreat, my  task is to find the single word/phrase that drives the main character through the plot of my novel.  (Much as in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy wants one thing: To go home.)  My goal of coming up with a single phrase is "enough" for a days' work. It's more than enough. My whole plot hangs on that, and I'll save myself a whole lotta rewriting once I nail this.  

Yeah, it would have made sense to focus on this before writing several drafts of the book. I feel kind of foolish, actually.  But if I let that feeling segue into avoidance, it can become a black hole.  

There are always valid reasons to procrastinate.  But whether the issue is sitting down to write at all or finishing a story, starting with a few steps can lead you home.  

Monday, July 4, 2011



And now, the results of the Bloggers Clearinghouse Contest!  (A little late, but I'm currently at Very Cool Writers retreat where email access is not included.)

Lucy Mueller, now of former college student status (good luck in Hollywood, Lucy) is our near winner and will soon be receiving a fabulous prize found in a kitchen drawer.  Lucy identified a punctuation glitch; it was not The Contest Error, however.

Rich and Torrey, valiant efforts.

THE ACTUAL TYPO was identified by Catherine Stine, noted YA author and Manhattanite: In the tag below the post of 6/27 I wrote "Jerry Garcian" instead of  "Jerry Garcia."  Catherine, your prize will be arriving soon by passenger pigeon.

I know. The setup was misleading. But if contests were easy to win, would the lottery system be a bazillion-dollar industry?
Jerry, do you care that I misspelled your name?

Next Post: The Care and Feeding of Procrastination

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Bloggers Clearinghouse Contest!!

To any readers who are able to find the TYPO in the recent Jerry Garcia/Seth Godin post: I will personally snail mail you a fabulous prize of no monetary value, culled from my family's generations-old habit of high-class hoarding. You think I'm kidding?  The catch: You have to be brave enough to send me your mailing address. (Note: I am too busy stalking  my kids to stalk other people, and everyone in my family gets lost going to the bathroom so I wouldn't be able to find your house, not to mention your city.)

Hint: Not easy to find typo. After all, I am a world-class editor.   I'll send my email adds after you comment. Privacy guaranteed!

Monday, June 27, 2011

HOW TO KEEP WRITING, PART 4: Advice From Jerry Garcia (& Seth Godin)

Today's post comes from Seth Godin, uber-sales guy.  What sets him apart from the slick and slimy is that he shows actual respect for human beings. (Among his zillion book titles, my personal favorite title is Meatball Sundae: Is Your Marketing Out of Sync?)

His message is for us, writer tribe. What is "success?"  Here's a confession: Once I received a gorgeous note from someone who'd read my chapbook Bone China.  A certain poem helped her through a tough family situation.  The next day I got a form rejection from a magazine I was dying to publish in--a magazine that  had led me to believe they liked my work.  Guess what I spent the next two weeks obsessing over?

In his post The Grateful Dead and the Top 40, Seth wonders whether "Jerry ever got jealous of acts that were able to put songs on the radio. (The Dead had exactly one hit record...) I hope not..." he continues.

If you think your writing career resembles the walking dead, Jerry Garcia will give you something to live for.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


My father was an intellectual and grammarian whose profession was advertising, which left him with a certain amount of inner conflict. He took fine umbrage at the cigarette ads, which, in the presophisticated 1960s, promised that "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should." "It should be AS a cigarette should!" he thundered.

Correct English was a given in our family. My grammar is almost impeccable; I only have trouble remembering definitions of grammatical terms like "pluperfect."

Actual writers spend very little time on words like "pluperfect." The word "perfect" is another story. We get very hard inside when it comes to evaluating our own work. Our brains become like a fist around them, trying to squeeze out the flaws and air bubbles. (Or should it be "as a fist"?)

I didn't start writing fiction until after my father died. But when I was 10, I snitched the manual typewriter from my parents' bedroom because I had an urge to write a story. For some reason, I wanted to write about life in a bubble gum factory. Because I knew nothing about how gum is made, I clacked out one sentence and then stopped. I hit the return a few times to make a space, then typed, "Just how in hell does one write a short story?" (Note the elegant diction.) I went off to do ten year old stuff and forgot about it.

Later, I saw that my father had come into my room and read my sentence. I knew this because he answered my question, writing in pencil on the typewritten page: "You just keep on going."

It was good advice, but it also shows up one thing that keeps writers going: relationship. What my dad really meant was: "Keep on. You can do it." He could have yelled at me for taking the typewriter. He could have gotten mad that I used the word "hell." Or not bothered to read my sentence.

I'll always remember how his casual advice made me feel. Thank you, Dad!

Do the people who evaluate your work encourage you to do better? Is there an emotional intelligence to the criticism, however tough the criticism may be?