A page and a half into the preface of this book, I found my heart pounding, as if syncing up with an all-consuming life force. It consumed me, made me tear up, and I had to stop reading to type the previous sentence.
Every writer has an energy. Some write from a shallow pool, and I really don't care about those books. Others, not that many, write from an ocean — a place much bigger than their everyday self — and it's called Love. Becoming has an almost palpable pulse as strong as the ocean tide.
There is something for everyone through this pulse:
If you are an inveterate skeptic, or an order devotee, or someone who has been torn apart by seemingly opposite obligations and doubts about being good enough, Michelle Obama speaks for you.
If you're black or brown, you'll probably nod a lot with recognition.
If you're white, same thing, even as you relate to unfairness you've never faced; Obama's openness, vulnerability, and warmth make her experience feel as if it is your own — no small trick.
If you have ever felt in over your head, with more responsibility than you can handle, yet simultaneously in awe of the situation, your experience will both resonate with and be dwarfed by this story.
What keeps us humans from seeing the obvious—our smallness and our place on this planet in the context of all that is—and responding rationally? And why do some people see it even though everybody around them does not? These are the questions at the heart of Richard Powers's powerful new novel The Overstory as he attempts to tell us "something [we] need to hear."
This is a book for right now—a time when we face the possibility of the extinction of democracy and the extinction of human life as the planet screams and we ignore it, placing our addiction to consumerism above the right to life of trees and subsequently all living things (including us) who are connected to the lives of trees.
In The Overstory, Powers gives trees, our closest plant relative with whom we share most of our DNA, a voice, a voice that is praying for us to change our ways and let Life live.
Maybe we'll listen; maybe we won't. But for me there is one small consolation: if we don't listen, if we kill ourselves and our environment, life will not end. In the wonderful PBS documentary, Radioactive Wolves of Chernobyl, we get a glimpse into such a future, where twenty-five years after the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, scientists have found life flourishing—"a sort of post-atomic Eden, populated by beaver and bison, horses and birds, fish and falcons, and ruled by wolves." (more…)
James Comey is a very good writer, storyteller, and teacher, so on a literary level (except for one odd plot order choice—the highly dramatic John Ashcroft hospital showdown between Comey and Bush representatives—which I suspect has to do with the need to insert a ton of detailed background information), this book works.
Comey is a man who is in love with the law and justice and has a loathing of bullies. He is a student and practitioner of ethical leadership—which is really the topic of this book. He is a deeply reflective person. Yes, he tries to make himself look good by talking about his noble motives, but, unless he practiced introspection, he could not relay his introspective self-interrogations about his motives and whether something is ego-driven or directed for the higher good. If he were not compelled to know what's honest, he would not have told the story of the time he was the very thing he loathes—a horrible bully. I relate to this introspective inquiry because I do it myself—constantly, relentlessly—and I'm amazed so many other people don't. But I shouldn't be surprised. As Comey writes, "It is painful to stare openly at ourselves, but it is the only way to change the future. (137)" One can only know this pain by experiencing it, so I believe he is committed to this. Also like me, Comey has had a lifelong struggle with his tendency to think he's right—overconfidence—and he has had to learn to check his opinions with others, let in belief-disputing information, and monitor his tendency to be impulsive and arrogant. He freely admits all this, and he sees and admires Obama's enlightened ability to believe in himself yet remain humble enough to learn from others "which doesn't often exist alongside overconfidence. (155)"
I like this guy. I really, really like him. We are made from a lot of the same stuff. (more…)
Whitewashing, denial, gaslighting, saying black is white, Mad Hatter's Tea Party, 1984 doublespeak—all descriptors of our present condition with a President of the United States who seems to decide what's true with the casualness of a four-year-old playing an "invent-as-you-go" game. But although current events seem extreme, they are not without precedents. After all, we have long denied the facts of America's founding (see What Doris Kearns Goodwin Omitted blog), and we comfort ourselves with all sorts of blatantly untrue Bad Stories (per author Steve Almond).
In her new novel White Houses, Amy Bloom has lovingly exploded the lies of historians about Eleanor Roosevelt and renowned journalist Lorena Hickok, and oh, how exciting it was last night to sit in an audience at The Roosevelt House (where Roosevelt and Hickok first met) and listen to a discussion between Bloom and Blanche Wiesen Cook, historian and author of the Eleanor Roosevelt biography that inspired Bloom's novel. (more…)
This book is staggeringly good. I was familiar with Steve Almond from his short stories, but this is straight journalism at its best (which he teaches at Harvard). (It is clear from Almond's thought processes and messages to students, presented in this volume, that he is a great teacher and seasoned journalist.)
In reviewing, there is a tendency to break down books about politics into bullet-point messages, and I hesitate to do that because it would misrepresent Bad Stories as something much smaller than it is.
So what is it?
Because of Almond's conversational writing style, it is easily readable and offers up documented mind-blowing insights like hors d'oeuvres. Hence, Bad Stories is a huge, readable 237-page revelation of profound insights gleaned from connecting dots that we-the-people largely prefer not to see. (more…)
Timing is important. There is a time for rage and a time for laughter, and right now rage reigns—as it should. After centuries of suppression, critical mass has been reached, the #MeToo movement has exploded, and male bodies are flying. Time magazine has put it on its cover. It's about time!
Like any other human woman, I have a litany of stories of men abusing their power. I admire the women who have spoken up. I quickly learned that would not work for me: Although I'm a clown, I couldn't laugh. As a child, I wasn't believed; as an adult, there was nobody to speak up to because the abuser was the boss. My M.O. was to cut and run, resulting in what might be politely referred to as an "attachment disorder" and "an eclectic" work résumé.
But I do believe there is another way, and eventually the clowns will have their microphones.
I recently read a "holy cow"-popping, rib-crackingly funny book that gave me a clue about how that might be.
In Paul Beatty's Man Booker-prize-winning, esoteric-reference-riddled novel The Sellout, an outsider black man "leans in" (thank you, Cheryl S.) to prejudices, actually reestablishing segregated schools and slave trade in his small California town of Dickens. (more…)
It's not complicated: "No" means no. "No, I don't want to do that." "No, stop that." "No, I don't think that is funny."
Persistent advances—kissing, groping, or worse—after somebody has made their "No" clear is bullying or assault. End of story.
Good guys can do this. They can get their photos snapped doing it. And rather than defend them as good guys and attack the victims for being "coached" by your opposition, realize they were doing something a woman had clearly rejected.
Talented guys can do this: brilliant actors and directors who have long-dirty reputations in closed industry circles, yet they've gotten away with it and their predation escalates.
Presidents can do this, and they appear to be Teflon-covered. (more…)
What really happened? What always happens: Politics, like life, is not fair. Nobody tells the whole truth. Everybody thinks they're right and excoriates everybody who doesn't agree with them. And the best we can do with this mess is try to listen to everybody with an open mind, make the best choices we can—knowing that none of them are perfect, and when we are in peril, choose whatever compromise most assures life.
I voted for Bernie Sanders in the presidential primaries, and his book, Our Revolution, was the first I read about the election.
What Happened by Hillary Clinton feels like the third in a medicinal trilogy. It is healing to read a funny (the specifics of the phone and email stuff are laugh-out-loud funny!), articulate, sane person admit her flaws, take responsibility for most of them, introspectively process what happened, learn, and consider new policies and future actions in a more open way because of it. (more…)
I've been waiting for this book—the words of highly trained mental health professionals who are brave enough to risk backlash from their own associations by putting the safety of all people ahead of their rules to say nothing about individuals they have not treated. In a meticulously written foreword, one of the authors makes the case that "duty to warn" people whose well-being is in danger trumps the "Goldwater Rule" about silence. (There is an entire section of chapters on the ethics of speaking out—far too much to reduce into a review byte.) We are all in danger from this individual we have installed in the highest office in the land, and I consider the 27 authors of this step-by-step analysis of Trump's severe psychological impairments to be whistle blowers.
But what are the political affiliations of the contributors and are they biased? This is immediately addressed: it doesn't matter. The content is pedagogy not politics: the nature of psychological disorders. They are described in all their variations; they are all recognizable as played out by this president—the proofs are provided; and their dire results are delineated, well researched, and broad. And the final chapter regarding recommended immediate action to assess presidential fitness now and in the future—grounded in Section Four of the Twenty-fifth Amendment issues of "a written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office"—are required to be nonpartisan in nature.
Extreme Present Hedonism—impulsiveness of thought and therefore action with no awareness of consequences; propensity to dehumanize others in order to feel superior.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder—superiority, exaggeration of talents, emotional, dramatic, lacking compassion and empathy (inability to recognize other people's feelings), low self-esteem.
When the chaos gets to be too much, I find it helpful to pull way out to bird's eye view and look at the big movements. Here is what I've observed:
(1) an external force saw chaos and opportunity and skillfully manipulated it for maximum upset.
(2) a leader with the ability to help the external force divide and therefore conquer was installed.
(3) at every opportunity, division is cultivated by exploiting the cultural war that was always bubbling, but far beneath the surface.
(4) the goal is obliteration of the union.
Wildfires are the result of many little movements—fires that burn out of control, eventually immolating the landscape. We are in the midst of those little fires. Arsonists in the form of Putin-directed armies of trolls have set them. How? Through social media with many little divisive memes and messages designed to enrage people—both sides. Right and wrong, true or false are NOT THE ISSUE. The information can be true but stated in a way to blame and therefore divide readers into sides. Or the information can be false, again resulting in a divide. DIVISION IS THE GOAL. Divided we fall. (more…)
This is a wonderful nuanced book that resonates mightily with and informs what is going on today. Read it if you want to understand any kind of historical basis for what is now happening in the U.S. Read it if you love the minutia of history—every conversation ever recorded during the Lincoln period, every permutation and convolution of the Civil War, the complex emotional motivations behind the factions (a lot of people fought more for preservation of the union than out of any conviction about slavery)—or if you feel as if you need to learn U.S. history. This book has garnered enormous public attention as well as an award-winning movie based on it, so I am not going to write more commentary on what is in it. Instead, here are some opinions about the very important content that is missing.
At more than 900 pages, the book was so heavy, I broke down and bought a wretched Kindle version so that I could read without straining my tendons. But still, it was too short. Why? (more…)
The first thing I ever wrote and published was a review of Tell Me Another Morning by Zdena Berger. I found this autobiographical Holocaust novel while browsing in my local public library when I was 13 or 16; the time is hazy. I would hang out in the quiet of this small-town oasis, explore, and for a little while feel like who I really was. There was a newsletter booklet on the librarian's desk and it said they'd publish reviews, so I wrote one. Although I read Tell Me Another Morning 53 or 50 years ago, I still remember it. It was a story about surviving by listening to stories.
I was catapulted into this memory by yesterday's The Hill report:
As National Library Week begins April 9, the Trump administration and Republican Party have launched an unprecedented attack on the institution by submitting a zero budget request for the Institute for Library and Museum Services.
Libraries are important and I am appalled that the government of the country that people run to, the "land of the free," would defund them. Libraries are part of our national infrastructure. They allow people who have nothing to have access to everything. (Just take a look at this list of a few famous people, including Lincoln, who educated themselves with merely a library card.) Libraries allow those who are interested to learn the horrors of not resisting when humans act inhumanly (Yes, Sean Spicer, Hitler really did use chemical weapons on his people). (more…)
This morning’s contemplation: Sometimes you have a sudden awakening—a feeling of lightening; a knowing that, although each of us is ultimately alone, we are something much huger than any one person, something so powerful we would explode if we felt it all the time. If you have felt this just once, it is there for you. It’s like connection to a great mother’s placenta. For me, there was such an awakening during the 1/21 women’s march. And I believe there was such a worldwide concentration of this experience that it formed a global placenta for all of us babies who are aware of it. So if you get tired, sad, defeated, whatever, just REMEMBER those feelings. (more…)
I am not going to be able to "get over it" and "move on" when every day something happens that sickens and scares me. But I also am not a progressive fundamentalist. I sicken and scare according to each event on its own merits.
I have not found everything sickening and scary.
For instance, after hearing a lot of different opinions, I decided that General James Mattis was not a bad pick for secretary of defense. He opposed Trump in his hearings. He seems to understand more about Putin and Russia than his boss.
Likewise, from reading Bernie Sanders' Our Revolution and learning more than I've ever known about trade, I see renegotiating agreements as a positive thing.
Infrastructure projects, if done in a way that they benefit real people rather than the top 1%, will be a good thing. But I'm skeptical about the "how."
After hearing this riveting On the Media interview with Tim Weiner, Times reporter and expert on the CIA and FBI, I believe that James Comey might end up being a national hero.
My fiction has been known to tick off the political correctness police, and I abhor any constriction of First Amendment rights—including the rights of people who say things that sicken and scare me.
Earlier in the day, at the White House, Mr. Trump shrugged off the sense of anxiety and disarray, suggesting that there had been an orderly rollout. "It's not a Muslim ban, but we were totally prepared," he said. "It's working out very nicely. You see it at the airports, you see it all over."
You have risked your life to work for the USA, gone through years of scrutiny, obtained a legal visa, a green card.
Bombs exploding around you, you have run for your life, crossed treacherous waters crammed in a precarious boat. You have endured the death of your children, your spouse. You have lived in mud, waiting. For 2 and 3 years, you have answered questions. You have obtained a legal visa.
The Point of the Women's March? This seems to be a question, so I'd like to answer it personally:
I marched in the first women's NYC movement in 1970 and vividly remember red-faced men on the sidelines screaming, "Get back in the kitchen where you belong." It was scary. I was 19 and was there because two "older" women at the company where I was an intern ordered me to come with them. Many of us were angry, but only in correlation to how scared we were.
When I marched on 1/21/17, it was an epiphany, an ecstatic event. I learned that everything had indeed changed for the better. I was not scared; I was elated. Police wore pink hats, smiled, and were helpful. The crowds were humongous and peaceful. The world joined this march. It was not merely a march to protest Trump's misogyny. It was not merely to fight for women's equal pay, right to determine what our bodies will and will not do, or any other single issue. (more…)
Thousands of us gathered at today's massive #WritersResist #LouderTogether demonstration at the 42nd Street NY Public Library. The purpose: to send a message as only a mob of angry writers can to Donald Trump that we will not stand for any incursion or threats to our First Amendment right to free expression and a free press. The afternoon was stunning with stories. Highlights:
(1) When founder of the movement Erin Belieu recounted the night she was making dinner for her excited teenage son who wants to be a historian and Trump came on the TV imitating the disabled reporter—whose disability is similar to her son's . . . and his reaction to seeing this.
(2) PEN America president Andrew Solomon's story of hearing from another writer whose country had become fascist. "You're shocked now," the man said, "but you'll be surprised at how little you react six months from now." And Solomon's vow to "Remain shocked!"
And (3) Rosanne Cash's reading of Leonard Cohen's lyrics to "Democracy" (1992): (more…)
I've been posting and processing my reactions to this election through a fictional character, Zelda McFigg, the protagonist of my novel The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg, on Facebook—writing letters to Zelda and her answers. Writing through a surrogate frees me, but yesterday's post felt more like a conversation between my true self and me:
I'm so sad. I watched President Obama's last press conference and he seemed resigned to what's about to happen. I wanted fury. I wanted something to change our direction and save us from the abyss of unbridled lies and hate.
Dear Sad Child,
Ah, the desire for Superman—somebody to magically swoop in and make everything all right. Don't you realize, it is this same desire that invited what and who is entering? There is no Superman. There is no magic. But if you really listened to what Obama said, you may have heard the source of real change, real power, real safety: It is up to each of us to individually hold to what's dear to us. Having made all these mistakes and having suffered the rather severe consequences, I have learned there is only one dear thing: a fierce, maybe even furious, Love.
What is Fierce Love?
I've been contemplating this, and the descriptors come like river water:
Fierce Love is grounded in the knowing that kindness, compassion, and basic goodness are more important than I am. But the energy of Fierce Love is like a raging fire—unstoppable.
Fierce Love has respect for others—people, animals, plants, our planet—recognizing that all have worth. So the intent of Fierce Love fire is not vengeful; it is not hate-based or in any way disrespectful. But it is aligned with values that are more important than even the person through whom it is flowing.
Therefore Fierce-Loving people have already surrendered their lives to this energy. (more…)
It's been decades since I've faced racial and ethnic hatred up close, but when these things happen, they scar you. Hence, my fear at the proliferation of swastikas following our 2016 presidential election. I don't like feeling this kind of fear, and education helps lower my heart rate as I stay engaged. I read Bernie Sanders's Our Revolution because I needed educating, and if that is your goal, this is the book—whether you are a Bernie true believer, a Clinton supporter, or a Trump voter whose motivation was to take a sledge hammer to a system that is not working and is ignoring millions of people.
The first section of this book is a methodical educational walk through recent politics—absolutely excellent, clear-eyed, and optimistic (particularly the Burlington story which comes near the beginning of the book), no matter who you voted for! If you can ignore your particular biases, you will receive an education in oligarchy, which has been the direction of U.S. politics for a long, long time—whoever has money gets their way.
The political power of the oligarchs goes well beyond their campaign contributions and ability to influence elections. As a result of their ownership of media, think tanks, university chairs, and political front groups, they influence American public opinion and domestic and foreign policy in ways that few realize. (190)
The second section of this book is a manifesto about what exists now and how to create something else for all of us who want fairness, the ability to make a living, safety, and acknowledgement. There is a lot of detail, heavy facts—so much knowledge that I wondered how Sanders can contain it without having his head explode as mine kept threatening to do. But education is not easy. And it can be pretty scary to learn the why and how of oligarchy. At times, I felt panicked and overwhelmed. But I would rather feel those things than not know. There are reasons behind Sanders's campaign talking points about the top 2% owning all the wealth being a bad idea, about why raising the minimum wage is a good thing and how it can be done, and the section on reforming Wall Street is an alarming "Paul Revere"-type equal-opportunity indictment of Democrats and Republicans that left me gasping. (more…)
I am calling on my Ashkenazi ancestors for support. Literally—please hug me! I need your resilience. You, who migrated from East Africa to Central and Eastern Europe. You who originate from the early indigenous tribes of this region.
According to an analysis of my DNA, I know that you were solo thinkers who, while others were procreating like rabbits, set about figuring out how to domesticate seeds and feed everyone. You must have been strong. Very strong and focused and confident to ignore the rabble and stay with your task—although, obviously, some of you procreated or I wouldn't be here.
When I was young, all I saw was a lineage of craziness that I disowned.
At age 65, living in turbulent times, I feel your music. There are many musicians and artistic people who came before me. There are Russian Jews who survived the pogroms and settled in an unknown land. There are intellectuals who, although they may not have been so good at people skills, revered knowledge and wisdom that is no doubt a legacy I enjoy.
I've stayed away from Stephen King's books because I do not like being scared and I was under the impression that he wrote horror. He does. But in this book of four novellas, the horror is rooted in the normal human being's shadow (to use Jung's nomenclature). And the fact that it is exposed and played out through such exquisite writing makes it all the more horrifying. And the beauty of the writing makes the ugliness more ugly and also tolerable.
Sometimes a writer who is writing for a deep personal reason (and not all writers do) will expose his motivation. For me, King's M.O. came in this quote from the novella called Apt Pupil about an all-American sociopathic boy who gets involved with a Nazi, living incognito, in his small town:
The things that happened in those camps still have power enough to make the stomach flutter with nausea. . . . maybe there is something about what the Germans did that exercises a deadly fascination over us—something that opens the catacombs of the imagination. Maybe part of our dread and horror comes from a secret knowledge that under the right—or wrong—set of circumstances, we ourselves would be willing to build such places and staff them. Black serendipity. Maybe we know that under the right set of circumstances the things that live in the catacombs would be glad to crawl out. (250)
In an NPR interview, the internationally best-selling Dutch author Herman Koch was asked about reader reaction to his first English-translated novel, The Dinner, a disturbing story about people doing despicable things and enabling their children to get away with horrifying crimes. In reply, Koch said, "It goes from people saying, 'Well, this seemed a nice man in the beginning, but in the end he is not,' to put it mildly. And there is another part of the readers who say, 'Finally, a character in a book who actually does what we are all thinking.' This is the other extreme. Sometimes I noticed that in southern countries, they see it more like a social criticism. And in Holland and in northern countries, they see it more as the storyline, or the actual question of: How far would you go to protect the ones you love?" I live in the USA, which I guess qualifies as a southern country, and I certainly fall into the latter category.
Herman Koch has remarkable writer's gifts: X-ray vision for the hidden thoughts and inner workings of everyone from an old man to a teenage girl, perfect pitch for dialogue, and such command of structure and plot that my persnickety editor's mind disappears and I read with a fan's full abandon, confident that I can give myself totally to the unfolding story. Here are three briefs about his novels:
Dear Mr. M
The plot of Koch's newest book (Hogarth, Sept. 6, 2016) is complex with so many subtle turns and such heart-pounding tension in the last hundred pages that I literally could not put it down. Suffice it to say there are a group of school kids in Holland. There is a teacher. There is a writer. And they all weave together in a kind of murder mystery—but ignore what I just said because this is not a typical mystery. It's not a typical anything. It is an exposition of the inner workings of humans at their worst and a bleak philosophical treatise about good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, the nobility of action vs. inaction, the vicissitudes of power to create balance, loss of innocence and the nature of existence that is so well done that, even though my own philosophy about the final nature-of-life topic is quite different, having just finished reading, all I can do is bounce from couch to computer, yelling "Yay! Bravo!" The book is riveting, entertaining, and magnificently rendered.
In Dear Mr. M, an anonymous letter writer says to the author (M) he is stalking that M has a kind of obscene expression: "You're not looking at the reader, no, you're challenging him to look at you—to keep looking at you. It's like one of those contests to see who'll avert their eyes first; a contest the reader always loses." I suspect Herman Koch, too, does this. Not once during his virtual gaze that permeates the story does he blink. But neither did I. I was too enthralled, drawn by an ineffable magnetic force into his meticulously honest creation exposing how we really are. (more…)
More than thirty years ago I experienced my "15 minutes" when I played a naked lesbian in John Sayles's movie Lianna. Until that event, I thought of fame as a means to finding more work, but if I'm honest, I also thought I would enjoy the attention. The movie opened just a few blocks from my home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, so I was constantly jarred out of my anonymous New Yorker's walking fugue by people noticing me—either as they exited the movie theater, which sighting caused them to shake their heads with disbelief, certain that they were hallucinating, or when they passed me on the sidewalk or stood on line behind me, whereupon they'd loudly ask whoever was near, "What is she doing here?" as if I were an inanimate, or at least deaf, object. It was not fun, and it escalated to really not fun because, like most unemployed actors, I was doing temp jobs to make money; suddenly this "me as an object" phenomenon was interfering with my comfort at work. My private-nobody-else's business became the focus of subtle or not-so-subtle probing: was I or wasn't I (a lesbian)? And, for reasons I've never understood, my answer (no) seemed to cause a lot of people confusion or distress.
I stopped acting long ago and have been a professional writer and editor for the last couple of decades. In today's cultural and literary climate, writers are encouraged to become popular in order to sell books. Even if we aren't selfie junkies, we are supposed to post on social media, "engage" with our audience if we are lucky enough to have one, or develop an audience by interacting. We should do so while being mindful that nobody likes to be "sold to," so experts advise to post 90 percent social content and only 10 percent about our books. The message is: Become famous by being nice, publicly interested in other people (the private stuff doesn't matter), supportive, and above all else, authentic—so that people (who hopefully love what we write) feel that they know the real us and will want to reciprocate by buying, talking about, and being eager to read our next books.
If this process is not natural to us (and I would wager few writers find this natural), we can combat it with fantasies: if I just write something popular, if maybe a famous person loves it and talks it up, then I won't have to do any of this, and fame will come, and I can sell more books and live happily ever after.
Earthy, fierce, sensual, and elegant—that is the nature of this person, the gorgeous writing, and also, it seems, the nature of the American South, as expressed by photographer Sally Mann in her stunning autobiography. Just like the cover which shows a child “holding still” mid-jump, surrounded by sky, the writing manages to simultaneously move and hold you.
Sally Mann and I are the same age, we occupied the same territory for a time (same class at Bennington), but I don’t recall knowing her. If I did meet her, I’m sure I took one look at the ferocious expression in her eyes—illustrated in some of the many photographs in this book and acknowledged by her—and I would have given her a wide berth. She describes herself as a “feral child.” Funny, because I’ve used the same words to describe myself at that time. But where she was fearless, I was afraid of anything and everything. Where she moved forward with jet propulsion, I free fell. But I think now we would be friends.
She is honest, self-aware, and naked about her personality proclivities:
“. . . I have always been susceptible to some form of opportunistic sorrow—of the deepest, most soul-wrenching, step-off-the-cliff variety.” (203)
In a world filled with people (and media) who move seamlessly from true grief to exaggerated, self-feeding “opportunistic sorrow,” I think this is the first time I’ve ever read it admitted and so well named, and it made me cheer. (more…)
Ever since I ran my fingers through my mother's cremation remains, just before sending them sailing into the ocean, I've wanted to know what happened to her body in the gap between the moment I kissed her still-warm face goodbye in the ICU and her transformation into emulsified bone matter. Although I'm not in any rush for it and I really loathe losing anyone I love, I am not turned off by death. It's inevitable and I'm very curious. I realize this is an idiosyncratic thing, but I've found that when someone I love dies, I instantly distinguish the dead body as an object quite different from the being who moments ago inhabited it and lose interest in the container; to my senses, it's suddenly like a well-worn shirt. I also rather enjoy the Buddhist exercise of imagining my own disintegration. So I dove into Caitlin Doughty's book, appreciating it for the treasure that it is: answers! (more…)
I just read a wonderful essay by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner about his many years of failure prior to success. And one of the quotes that especially got to me was this one:
. . . the most stinging responses I heard were along the lines of, "This is one of the most beautiful, well-executed, exciting things I’ve ever read, but I’m afraid that we just don’t do this kind of show." Those comments made me feel as if I were alone in the universe.
I honestly don't think I've ever read that particular loneliness articulated: when somebody actually sees and appreciates you and then they reject you.
In the documentary A Sense of the Sacred, a portrait of Jungian Helen Luke, the revered analyst and author talks about the difficulty of individuating via a path that has never been taken: “If you go a way that is not a conventional way, you have no right to think that on that account you are absolved from the duty of sharing your truth that you have experienced, no matter if it is totally rejected. There may be one person here or there that may be affected—that’s what we base our lives on.”
Both of these statements catapulted me back in my own history:
In 1986, after performing a workshop of the one-woman play that I’d written called Darleen Dances—about a girl who is trying to rock ’n’ roll dance her way into the Guinness Book of Records in order to feel as if she’s mattered by the time she gets “old and decrepit and eventually dead”—I was delighted when the phone started ringing with queries about producing the play. (more…)
Eugene Henderson, an overblown, twice-married, millionaire pig farmer and violin player is having an existential crisis.
I want, I want, I want, I want, I want!
This is the geshrei that drives fifty-five-year-old Henderson into and through a spiritual quest in Africa. He doesn’t know what he wants, just that “everybody is working, making, digging, bulldozing, trucking, loading, and so on . . .” until it is a form of madness. (I think he would be right at home in our time when value is quantified by how many “likes” we’ve accrued.)
Henderson the Rain King is a quest as complicated as any Haruki Murakami tale, but the protagonist is a bloated, bungling American—a man with “the Midas touch in reverse.” In Africa, his first stop is a village of people whose beloved cattle are dying of thirst because the water reserve is occupied by frogs. On one hand, Henderson wants to rescue everybody; on the other, he longs to be rescued:
This was a beautiful, strange, special place, and I was moved by it. I believed the queen could straighten me out if she wanted to; as if, any minute now, she might open her hand and show me the thing, the source, the germ—the cipher. The mystery, you know. I was absolutely convinced she must have it. The earth is a huge ball which nothing holds up in space except its own motion and magnetism, and we conscious things who occupy it believe we have to move too, in our own space. We can’t allow ourselves to lie down and not do our share and imitate the greater entity. You see, this is our attitude. But now look at Willatale, the Bittah [highly evolved] woman; she had given up such notions, there was no anxious care in her, and she was sustained. Why, nothing bad happened! On the contrary, it all seemed good! Look how happy she was, grinning with her flat nose and gap teeth, the mother-of-pearl eye and the good eye, and look at her white head! It comforted me just to see her, and I felt that I might learn to be sustained too if I followed her example. (74)
1. In honor of National Novel Writing Month, I'm addressing the craft of writing in a blog at Black Lawrence Press. Writing a novel is a healing process for the writer, but the subsequent existence of a novel is potentially healing for readers who are willing to experience the discomfort of having their flaws poked--which The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg, the subject of the blog, has been known to do. If this subject interests you, I hope you'll click the link.
2. Also on the subject of craft: I just received my 50th anniversary hardcover edition of Stoner, which I mention in my list of recommended books in the aforementioned Black Lawrence Press blog. (It is currently 30% off at NYRB)
The hardcover doesn't have a dust jacket, but it does have a paper sleeve with praise from stellar people, and at the top, under the title and author's name, it says "The International Best Seller."
I mention this because this edition includes letters from John Williams to his agent in which he seems to foretell the luminous future of this book, despite massive discouragement. These letters are so wonderful because they give you a feeling for John Williams, the man. How clear, savvy, and aware he was of exactly what he had created—with almost no validation:
From his agent, Marie Rodell
Now, from a business point of view: I may be totally wrong, but I don't see this as a novel with a high potential sale. Its technique of almost unrelieved narrative is out of fashion, and its theme to the average reader could well be depressing. . . . (more…)
I'm interested in the grotesque—so interested I devoted a whole book, The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg, to a grotesque character. I was impelled to do this because I believe what Zelda embodies—fear, craving to be known, envy, desires that overwhelm her—is what we all, every one of us ego-driven humans, most try to hide. My feeling is that if we can acknowledge these things inside us, even laugh at them—engendering compassion for our human condition—we can grow into the best of us. My epigraphs for the book (and there is a whole page of them) focus on "exile." Why? Because I believe either not knowing these grotesque parts of ourselves or knowing but hating them puts us in a state of exile from who we really are.
An earlier blog on Flannery O'Connor's work gives O'Connor's take on the power of writing the grotesque: ". . . you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures."
The following review of Haruki Murakami's wonderful book offers a different definition of grotesque—one that makes even more sense to me. (more…)
I've had this Signet paperback (pub. 1964) on my bookshelf for decades. I'd read parts of it many years ago, and, in a minute, I'll get to why I recently decided to read the whole book.
The anthology is in three parts: a novel (Wise Blood), a collection of short stories and a novella ("A Good Man Is Hard to Find"), and another novel (The Violent Bear It Away). Since I couldn't remember what I'd previously read, I went from back to front in the hope of sampling the new material first.
Part 3. I was brought up with no religion and in some ways I think that has sensitized me to fundamentalism in many forms—not only religious, but political (including progressive fundamentalism). Fundamentalism is characterized by somebody's absolute certainty that their belief is the only true one and anybody who does not agree is wrong, misguided, an idiot. In The Violent Bear It Away, O'Connor painfully evokes the feeling of being torn to bits by warring sides, of being a confused and helpless angry child without the wherewithal to deal with this level of extremes. O'Connor was Christian and deals with Christian fundamentalism, but the pain transcends the particular story. Reading through all the Scriptural references was a slog for me, since this is not my natural territory, but ultimately I found myself riveted by the basic human drama: a child torn apart by warring adults, and everybody is nuts. I can relate … Unless I completely missed the point and the great-uncle prophet who creates a murdering boy prophet is supposed to be sane. This was the most difficult (unenjoyable) section of the anthology—not easy reading. (more…)
It was February 2013. I’d been freelance book editing since losing my magazine job—on a day christened “Bloody Wednesday” in New York publishing—just before Christmas in 2008. Freelancing is a feast-or-famine deal, and I’d had close to a month of famine when a little voice in my head whispered, “It’s time. Pull Mom’s manuscript out of the closet.”
In 1957, when I was six, my mother, Edna Robinson, had written a short story called “The Trouble with the Truth.” After it was published in the 1959 edition of the New World Writing book series, selected as one of the “most exciting and original” stories of its time by editors who had previously introduced the work of Samuel Beckett and Jack Kerouac, Edna’s intensity became impenetrable. I remember watching her burrowed in her study typing. Why was she so mad, I wondered.
She wasn’t mad. As a writer, I now understand the intensity. She was working her story into a novel of the same title. And when that novel was optioned by Harper & Row—and then dropped simply because it was about a single father with two peculiar children in the 1920s and ’30s, and To Kill a Mockingbird had occupied that territory, I believe something in my mother died. (more…)
I became vividly aware of the musical sounds of language, specific to past decades, when I was editing my late mother's novel, The Trouble with the Truth. My mother, Edna Robinson, was born in 1921, and the novel takes place largely in the 1930s and early '40s. However it is written from a perspective in the late 1950s. This could pose a problem musically. We all know the sound of the 1930s and '40s from black-and-white Hollywood movies. Staccato and matter-of-fact-sounding. The 1950s, on the other hand, is softer—think Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. Like the 1930s and '40s, the '50s have a patriarchal beat, for lack of a better way to express it. Father did know best and that was not questioned. Edna solved the problem of differing decades' music logically—the narrative was good literary writing of any era, and dialogue was perfect pitch for the 1930s–40s.
As an editor, you live in the head of a writer, and I became so involved in the life and sounds of those three decades that I wanted to read other work of the time. For several months, I've been reading the master of the short story, John Cheever—his Pulitzer-prize-winning anthology The Stories of John Cheever. Talk about perfect pitch!
For a while I wondered if the music of those decades, 1930s–1950s, had an influence on what people accepted as normal. Both Edna Robinson and Cheever accepted as inevitable the pain and confusion and heartbreak of human life. Not like today where we seek help, actively try to transform, meditate, or complain on social media. (more…)
Renowned existential therapist and one of the most distinguished and popular authors writing about psychotherapy, Irvin D. Yalom took the title of his new book, Creatures of a Day: And Other Tales of Psychotherapy (Basic Books, February 24, 2015) from Meditations, the private scribblings of second-century Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius on how best to live:
All of us are creatures of a day; the rememberer and the remembered alike. All is ephemeral—both memory and the object of memory. The time is at hand when you will have forgotten everything; and the time is at hand when all will have forgotten you. Always reflect that soon you will be no one, and nowhere.
Recently I was stunned to hear public radio's Radiolab show The Bitter End about the dramatic difference in doctors' and lay peoples' wishes for medical interventions in order to be kept alive no matter how badly injured they are. After my mother died on a respirator—having neglected to (or chosen not to) transfer her living will from one doctor to another—I did my own living will. However, until hearing the Radiolab piece, I was not fully aware of the torture (something akin to waterboarding and being raped) of being put on a respirator, and now I feel even more strongly about my living will. I have no death wish, but, since death is inevitable, I'm curious: I want to know from people who are dying whatever they want to share: how they feel, what they want—any wisdom they might offer. Yalom's book is a font of that wisdom. (more…)
“I’m sorry, but I don’t feel strongly enough about your mother’s book to do a blurb for it,” writes my author friend.
You’d think I’d feel disappointed. I’d given my friend two new books: a copy of my just-released novel (The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg) at my book launch party and an advance reading copy of my mother, Edna Robinson’s, novel (The Trouble with the Truth), written in 1957, edited and doctored by me in 2013, and due out in February 2015 as the debut novel from Infinite Words, a new imprint of Simon & Schuster founded by best-selling author/publisher Zane! My mother is dead and I own the rights to her novel, so it’s my book. I’d suggested that my author friend might actually prefer my mother’s book to Zelda McFigg because the writing style is more similar to hers, but I was wrong; she raved about Zelda McFigg and offered an unsolicited blurb, but she turned down The Trouble with the Truth.
My first uncensored reaction to this rejection: I win! My friend likes my book better than Mom’s. Yippee! (more…)
I am sitting in the Good Stuff Diner on West 14th Street across from Nicky Vreeland, a maroon-robed Buddhist monk with deep smile lines. A gifted photographer with an exquisite W Magazine-sponsored exhibit at ABC Carpet & Home to benefit the Tibet Center, Vreeland has mentioned that he finds harmony in his pictures. “Did that train you for life as a monk?” I ask.
“I think that recognizing that [finding harmony is] what I’m doing is something that has happened recently,” he says thoughtfully. “I used to feel that there was some essential quality that I was searching for in composing my photographs, and I’ve come to realize that it’s not a question of there being something there that I have to find. It’s a question of a relationship between the subject, the object, the elements within the frame of the subject, and that I, as the photographer, in my placement and my feeling about the situation, am an integral part of the creation of this harmonious whole. Where you place that lens—the height, the angle, the settings—is an integral part of what you capture. Where I place myself determines my shot. All of these things change everything!” (more…)
I interviewed the magnificent artist/animator Signe Baumane for RewireMe.com. Here’s the beginning of the article:
Is it possible to have a tolerable relationship with chronic depression? How does a Latvian artist and animator, working in New York with no funding, realize a unique, noncommercial stop-motion, hand-drawn “funny movie about madness and depression” (in both English and Latvian) and have that movie receive enough worldwide enthusiasm to end up as Latvia’s entry in the best foreign-language category for the Oscars? And how does this artist/animator, who was once diagnosed with schizophrenia—modified to bipolar disorder after her parents paid Latvian psychiatrists a bribe—function and create at such a high level without medication? (more…)
I was holed up in my living room watching whatever came on the TV when I saw the man in the space suit attack a woman half his size. She slaughtered him…and a neutron bomb exploded in my brooding, overactive brain.
My conscious reason for wanting to take the self-defense course I’d seen on TV was to exorcise anger. I was angry at everything, and angry at myself for being so angry. Maybe being in a place where it was not only appropriate but essential to express this rage—to make the sounds I was so afraid of making—would finally exorcise the demon inside me. Little did I know what lay ahead. (more…)
“My children will know me through my music.” These are the dying words scribbled on a piece of paper by one of the most successful, yet unknown, songwriters of our time, Bert Berns, in the wonderful new musical Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story. Over the course of seven years in the 1960s, Berns wrote fifty-one songs, including “Twist and Shout,” “I Want Candy,” “Hang on Sloopy,” and the title song, “Piece of My Heart.” But when he died at age thirty-eight, he died with a craving—to be known, not only by his children but by the public.
According to the play, he never achieved his deserved notoriety because a wronged partner somehow managed to blackball him. But through Piece of My Heart, Berns's children, Brett and Cassandra Berns, producers of this rousing, beautifully performed production, are rectifying that error in rock 'n' roll history. In fact, both offspring have dedicated their lives to this cause. From Brett's Playbill bio:
Brett has devoted himself to championing his late father. In tandem with his sister Cassandra [performer, songwriter, and music executive], he has led efforts to document his father's canon and remarkable life story. Through these revelations, he has succeeded in establishing the enormity of his dad's legacy. Brett is also producing and directing a documentary film about Bert Berns.
Lucky Us is the story of a patchworked family: two sisters (by different mothers), their “blithe, inscrutable, crooked father,” and their various acquaintances who become new patchworked families — all manipulating and scheming their way through the 1940s US of A.
This is voluptuous American writing. Like the family, the story is patchworked — the pieces, not necessarily linear, but when put together, they tell a more perfect story than tales that are forced into a tight chronological narrative. Events are revealed through a simultaneous tide-in and undertow-out flow of action and letters from the future; the writing voice changes from third person to various different first persons and yet it is never confusing. Why? Because Amy Bloom writes at the pleasure of a muse that is uniquely her own — a truly authentic and organic voice and structure. Bloom’s voice and structure are so naturally honest that they seem easy. But I’ve read writers who I’ve suspected have tried to copy her, and, in their copycat hands, you realize this level of honesty is anything but easy. Amy Bloom copies no one. She writes at the pleasure of her Original Voice. And so few writers find, let alone express themselves in or from their original voices that it seems rare. Maybe that’s just the way it is. An Original Voice is treasure. This book is treasure. (more…)
This book is magnificent. Susan Jane Gilman is a master story weaver with perfect pitch—for dialogue, narrative, curlicued paradoxical human responses, and everything that contributes to a literary symphony.
The time structure of this book is inspired—weaving from both the past, forward and the future, back to finally sync up in a central present.
The story of the evolution of Russian Jewish immigrant child Malka Treynovsky into a Jewish Italian American Marie Antoinette/Leona Helmsley/Martha Stewart/Joan Rivers ice cream diva named Lillian Dunkle is both an only-in-the-USA story and a transcendently human tour-de-force of hurt, humiliation, (more…)
Recently a friend posted a Facebook link to an article about the dangers of meditation. In response, I commented that the problem is not with meditation; it's with doing deep meditation and other practices with a lousy teacher or no teacher. I wrote an article a number of years ago that addresses the issue of whether there is such a thing as a safe place in the world of self-help/spiritual workshops ... or for that matter, anywhere. I hope it helps: This Is a Safe Place
I turned 63 this year. How can this be? In my mind, I’m perpetually 30. When I was 30, my innocent look and ageless skin meant I’d still get carded. I was living like a free spirit—taking weird jobs…standing buck naked in the middle of a room full of clothed people. Really.
My joke to myself was that every morning I got up, had breakfast, then got undressed to go to work. I was a young actor and, burned out from a part-time job that had turned into a mountain of hours with humongous responsibility, I decided I wanted to do as little work as possible in my next job. Although I was deeply modest—I didn’t even walk around naked in my apartment—modeling for the Art Students League fit my job specs.
As an actor, I was used to taking risks. Yes, I had stage fright, but I also had a secret “screw-it” switch in my brain.” I’d flip that screw-it switch as I stepped on stage in a play and spoke my first lines, or when I walked into an audition filled with frowning, scary people, or in “trust exercises” when I fell backward from the top of bleachers into the arms of my theater student classmates. What’s the worst thing that could happen? I’d ask myself. Die? Okay, screw it and plunge! It was exhilarating—like a near-death experience but without the risk.
The other day, I had the pleasure of being invited to talk about my writing on a site called The Ordinary Guru Project. The topic was “awareness of awareness.” Or maybe it was "awareness of AWARENESS" ... or the opposite.
My personal feeling about AWARENESS is that it probably directs things a whole lot better than my puny little thinking mind—a part of me that does best when it's aware of its puniness and defers to greater wisdom rather than the notion that my puny chaotic thoughts create reality and control who and what comes into my life (aka other people, who are also thinking) and everything that happens to me. I think that's a little like believing the sun and the whole universe revolve around the earth. When awareness is directed by AWARENESS, I think the thoughts and actions make one a better batter and catcher. In other words, a whole lot of stuff is flying around all the time and some of it could pass by you if you didn't notice it and either reach out and grab it or decide to let it pass; some of it rolls into your lap; some trips you up or makes a bull's eye to your heart, and if you're a well-practiced AWARENESS-directed catcher and batter, you're really good at catching the good stuff or smacking something and running home, or making an out, or ... I really am not a baseball person, so let's drop this. Here’s the chat:
How do you get the most out of being severely color blind, tone deaf, dyslexic, paralyzed, in chronic excruciating pain from polio, and periodically near-death? If you are Milton H. Erickson, M.D. (1901–1980), founder of modern hypnotherapy and healer to people the medical profession has given up on, you develop your powers of observation. You become “the Mozart of Communication.” You reframe your and other’s so-called problems and disabilities into gifts and then milk them for all their worth—a practice known in psycho-lingo as "utilization"—in order to change and enjoy your brief time on this planet.
In the new documentary Wizard of the Desert, Austrian director (and grandson of Viktor Frankl) Alexander Vesely weaves remembrances from Erickson's legion of admirers—students, colleagues, family, and even patients—together with footage of Erickson teaching. Vesely also gives voice to some critics, which effectively humanizes Erickson and foils our wish to idealize him out of the possibility of being a real role model for change that we, too, might experience. (more…)
I’m about to turn 63 this week, 13 years older than you when decided to end it all by blowing your brains out. It was 1968 when you made this choice, and the world is very different now. Now alcohol and drug rehab programs are rampant; people talk about “dysfunctional families”—for which there was no word, let alone help, when I was growing up; there are “family services” and “support groups” and it’s understood that bad things happen to good people.
I understand that you were in so much pain that you felt that you couldn’t stand another minute of it. I understand that the pain and depression or desperation or whatever was driving you nuts overwhelmed you. I understand that you were probably diagnosably mentally ill as well as addicted to drugs and alcohol, although you never sought such a diagnosis or any kind of help. I understand that mental illness is an illness and your brain was not working right. (more…)
I used to get really depressed around the holidays. My family is dead or estranged, and as the cultural scream that “family is everything” reaches its annual deafening pitch, I have often found myself feeling defective. I spent years in therapy trying to evaporate that self-image, and I have made enormous progress. So now, at the age of 62, I can honestly say I have what I’ve always wanted—a mostly peaceful contemplative life as a single woman. But still, around the holidays, that gets challenged by media and social media's lauding of the idealized family. So I wondered, what is true statistically? Do most Americans have great families where they love and support each other? Is “happy” the American family norm and am I some kind of an outlier? (more…)
“We dance round in a ring and suppose / But the Secret sits in the middle and knows,” wrote Robert Frost in his poem “The Secret Sits.”
“Let me tell that one again,” spoke actor Gordon Clapp in his mesmerizing performance of A. M. Dolan’s play Robert Frost: This Verse Business, and he told it again. I’m glad, because I needed an instant replay to really hear it. And I needed to see Gordon as Frost a second time; I’d seen the play once before as a workshop. And honestly, I wouldn’t mind seeing and hearing it several more times, because like a great teacher or a great story or a great voice, the “stuff” of this play and performance is simply too rich to absorb in one sitting.
Two years ago I wrote my little book Conversations with Mom: An Aging Baby Boomer, in Need of an Elder, Writes to Her Dead Mother. When you’re young, you imagine that when you get older—or old—you will no longer need elders, mentors, and teachers. Our culture tells you that old people are supposed to be those characters and, as such, nurture the young’uns. Unfortunately, this is not my experience; in my experience, as youthful hubris diminishes, you need elders more than ever. And even though I wrote my little book and gave myself an imagined elder, I still need wise, old rascally men and patient, compassionate, funny women to nurture me as I sometimes float like a lost blob through this thing called life. (more…)
I could not wait to get my hands on a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, and I’ve not been disappointed.
David and Goliath is a book of both hope and experiential instruction for everybody who has ever felt like an outsider. Like Gladwell’s other work, it attempts to shatter assumptions and therefore expectations about who will succeed and why. However, taken in a context that includes some of the revelations of Outliers, this new book expands rather than shatters our notions. Because my primary interest is people rather than assumptions about class sizes and more amounts of anything being better than less (there’s plenty of that in this book), I’d like to focus on the outsider people aspect of the book:
Through copious footnotes Gladwell takes pains to clarify that his misfit and underdog success stories are not always the rule: lots of illiterate people with dead parents and lousy childhoods end up in jail rather than lawyering or doctoring.
Outliers illuminated the fact that when highly intelligent children who have been given guidance and nurturing are compared in adulthood to those who were not guided and nurtured, the non-nurtured adults are akin to a different “species.” Where the nurtured children become thriving successful adults, the equally intelligent non-nurtured ones can barely navigate life and live on the edges of society. (And I use “non-nurtured” to include people who were not only neglected but who were hurt and invalidated.) (more…)
What Eat Pray Love did for educated women with unhappy love lives who plunge into spiritual abysses, journalist Katie Hafner’s memoir Mother Daughter Me does for rootless educated women with abysmal, possibly alcoholic, mothers. As adults, these women—these daughters of abysmal mothers—can be sandwiched between being mothers themselves and repairing the damage wrought by formerly nightmarish mothers whom they now want to care for.
In a riveting therapy session in a chapter called “Dam Break,” after Katie’s mother tells the therapist a simplistic version of how she lost custody of her children, Katie finally bursts:
When we were first taken away from her . . . it was a full two years before she officially lost custody . . . How could she have allowed precious years with her children to slip straight through her memory bank? . . . Resting my gaze on my lap, I start to tell the entire story . . . The entire time I’m talking, I am thinking that I don’t want my words to hurt her, that I want to protect my mother, to let her know it wasn’t her fault. At the same time, there’s no stopping me, because another part of me wants her to hear every word of this. To make her understand.
When Katie finishes her corrected version of the story, she looks at her mother.
Her face is a terrible crumple, her mouth forming the small breathless “O” people sometimes wear when hit with bad news.
“Katie,” she says. “I am so sorry.”
And with that she is telling me something else: She doesn’t remember.
If a musician composes music that he never sells, because he prefers “not to sell his baskets,” but instead he becomes an insurance salesman, resulting in nobody in his lifetime ever hearing his brilliance, can he still feel fulfilled and successful?
If actors perform a brilliant play about the essence of life, if they give their all, if the production is incontestably a work of great art, but only ten people come to see it, is it still worth doing?
If lungs breathe, if bodies throb, if a heart breaks, and there are only ten witnesses, does it even matter?
These are some of the questions playing ping pong in my cranium this morning after yesterday’s remarkable experience watching playwright Jessica Dickey’s remarkable 75-minute masterpiece Charles Ives Take Me Home. Oh, how I want to insert a comma after Ives, but I’ll respect her work. How could I not? This tour de force about a father and daughter, about music and basketball, about life and death and everything in between demands respect. (more…)
I recently asked members of the cyber world about dealing with regrets—specifically rectifying mistakes in the past. I sent out my query on all the social media I participate in. Here was the question: (more…)
I just know there are connections here. If I write about this week’s activity—or Quiet—perhaps they’ll come.
You see, I can’t stop being quiet. Maybe it’s the fact that I am contemplating Susan Cain’s magnificent exploration of my private experience in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. After a thorough analysis of the introvert’s talents and essential nature, which includes the ability to act like an extrovert sometimes, she explains the necessity for “restorative niches” following events of vibrant social behavior. I think I’m in such a niche now. Usually I consider my niches of doing nothing while lying on the couch in complete silence a private matter. But Cain says it’s not only normal, it’s healthy! It’s a physiological need of people who happen to process stimulation via big-time amygdala (brain) activity, which apparently is different from the way extroverts process the same stimulation. So don’t call me! I’m in a restorative niche. In fact I might stay in this niche indefinitely because I’ve been talking so extrovertly about Quiet. (more…)
A Merry Xmas,
Good tidings and cheering,
But in end-year time of
Assessment and clearing—
In case you are one
Stuck on goals and achievement,
I wish you no fretting,
No tallies, but easement—
Of accomplishment worries,
Or legacy concerns.
I wish you this moment,
Where only life burns,
I wish you this moment,
To let go your grip,
And to feel the joy of
Of our shared time blip.
This morning, boomercafe.com published an excerpt on the subject of worrying about legacy from my book, Conversations with Mom: An Aging Baby Boomer, in Need of an Elder, Writes to her Dead Mother. It’s what I still need to learn, and I share it with you, in case you too worry about achieving and accomplishment. Enjoy the excerpt
There are no accidents. I first met Pamela Wible, M.D., more than four years ago at a publicity conference. I was there as managing editor of a magazine and she was on a long line of people speed-pitching stories to the tick-tock of a stopwatch. The main things I remember were that we greeted each other like old friends, her face felt like full sun on a perfect summer’s day, and I begged the woman with the stopwatch to give her more time because I knew what I was hearing was important. I wanted to know more about how she’d started a compassionate, patient-centered medical practice in Eugene, Oregon, and how other doctors could do the same thing, and how patients could feel cared for at a fair price. Although I can't remember exactly what Pamela told me, I do remember being absolutely certain that she was a revolutionary and I wanted to support her revolution in any way I could.
Jump cut to the present. I am no longer employed. I work as a freelance book editor. I have lousy catastrophic insurance, and I have just completed an odyssey that began with a month-long nightmare at a radiology center that treated me like a member of a herd and, with no information or face-to-face contact or returned phone call from a doctor, tried to steer me down a chute where some person—I know not who—would stick a needle into my left breast for unexplained reasons. I've never been a herd person, so I refused, dug in my heels, and in my best former legal secretary voice, wrote a letter protesting, among other things, their refusal to send me my medical report . . . resulting in the instant return of my records right before Hurricane Sandy hit. (more…)
After years of paying insurance premiums for a high deductible ($2,000) plan that covered nothing but minimum preventive care appointments (meaning almost no lab tests) at a cost of around $500+ per month, I opted out of “Oxford’s good insurance” and bought a catastrophic plan from EmblemHealth that is available to self-employed people in New York City: $231 a month. And although I’m gambling that I will remain healthy and never have to shell out the $10,000 deductible, I figured Emblem is as good as my “good insurance” because it, too, pays for minimal preventive visits (even fewer lab tests).
Unfortunately, five months into my plan I did require a “sick visit.” It was May 3, 2012. There is a walk-in medical clinic nearby whose website says that a basic office visit is $150—even if you have no insurance. If you need X-rays or blood work or anything on top of just being seen by a doc, that will cost more, but unequivocally the basic charge is $150. Not only that, but they said they took insurance so at least my pay-out would go towards my $10,000 deductible. Yippee!(more…)
Some writers grapple with being blocked; they spend hours paralyzed, gnashing their teeth, and downing large quantities of coffee, hoping to catalyze words with caffeine. Other writers can’t focus, can’t find the topic that maintains their interest, and they do everything possible to procrastinate putting fingers to keyboard. I don’t have either of those problems. I’ve made my living as a writer and editor for more than a decade. I love to write! And although I have periods of paralysis, I prefer to call them “pauses.” I trust that something is germinating and I believe it is my job to wait for it. My problem is much more pragmatic: selling my writing. Selling often involves talking, and talking about my work scares the bejesus out of me. (more…)
Even though I’ve researched and sampled almost every trauma therapy there is, even though I’ve published stories about some of the amazing new healing modalities, even though I’ve experienced occasional instant releases from fear through EMDR and EFT (see more on these on my Art of Collapsing blog from 2009 and the attached article, Radical Change Through Radical Disruption), I was skeptical that the Thundershirt™ would calm my dog Maya’s terror at thunder, vacuum cleaner, and rain-on-the-roof noises.
“Pressure has been used to successfully reduce anxiety for many years for both animals and humans,” says the package copy. But $43 for a little grey cotton (55 percent), polyester (35 percent), and spandex (10 percent) garment with velcro-attached straps? Despite the fact that I was near-comatose from an all-nighter of futilely trying to wrap myself around Maya as she shook uncontrollably from the noise of rain hitting solid surfaces, I was reluctant to spend so much money. “You can bring it back within 30 days,” said the store clerk. “It works for almost everybody. Just make sure it’s snug.” (more…)
Animal Teachings: Enhancing Our Lives Through the Wisdom of Animals by Dawn Brunke with illustrations by the amazing Ola Liola is one of the most versatile works of art I’ve ever laid my hands on, paged through, or smelled. Does that sound odd? If so, I’m glad. It emphasizes why this elegant 160-page paperback needs to exist as just that—a real book, not a digital something.
In marketing circles, it’s common knowledge that the most important thing about any book is its reader benefits. The benefits of Animal Teachings scream.
First and foremost it is a work of art—a reminder of what is possible when a writer, an artist, a designer, and a publisher decide it is important to do the very finest work they are capable of. (more…)
1. Did you know that your heart has arms and legs? It does. The heart that we see in medical shows when a surgeon is saving somebody’s life is only part of the organ. The entire heart has long tendrils like tree branches that go down each arm and each leg. Imagine how amazing it would be if you could walk down the street looking at everybody through special X-ray–vision glasses that singled out the heart!
2. Super models are freaks of nature because, according to poet/anatomist/teacher/author/ethicist/renaissance man Gil Hedley, “our bodies are not symmetrical. Not even close.” They’re full of surprises and anomalies—like the most perfectly formed little ovary that looked like a miniature brain … in an 83-year-old woman who had donated her body so that people like us could learn something and maybe wake up a little.
3. It’s a well-known fact that New York pigeons smoke—you see them poking around sidewalks filled with butts, so who else could have dropped them? And lest you judge them harshly for stinking up the environment, just take another look—really look: See that pigeon taking off for the sky, tail feathers down, beak up, effortlessly defying our human body limitations and looking like a grey angel. I know this to be true because Gil Hedley showed slides of pigeons, both pre-smoking and frozen in flight, in his recent New York City intensive (which seemed to be over in about five minutes—blink, it’s eight hours later—really) at the Cantor Film Center, where about 120 of us packed into a tiny theater and were riveted, laughing, and grateful for what was really an indescribable experience of learning who we are through a mosaic of lecture, stories, slides, little movies, art, poetry, and Gil, Gil, Gil—who, in the course of a day, managed to gently and reverentially shatter all inhibitions, shame, judgments, and biases we humans walked in with. (more…)
Not long ago, I blogged about anatomist/theologian Gil Hedley’s deeply moving new book of free verse, Coming Into Form. Well, there's more:
Reconceiving My Body: Take Two, from the Heart is Gil's earlier book, a 147-page paperback — part memoir and religious philosophy debate and a lot of the most out-of-the-box brilliant thinking you’ve ever read about who and what and how we are what we are. There are so many reasons to read this book that it’s hard to know where to begin. But my personal most important reason is fun. It is very fun! Funny, engaging, interesting.
Now the more serious reason: This book may cause you to install a new inner teacher that starts out as Gil’s voice, but quickly becomes your own. I find myself hearing that voice in my head many times during the day —
• When I suddenly start stewing about political matters, I hear Gil/Me talking about the “perpetrator-victim” cycle: When you get into an anger riff, you are casting yourself as a superior victim. You are superior in your rightness, and somebody more powerful (otherwise why would you be angry?) is wrong. Just realizing what I’m doing seems to diffuse my completely counterproductive mind spasms.
• When I start berating my body for being what it is, or loathing some of the sensations of aging, or despairing about my genetic history, I hear Gil: “How you conceive of something has everything to do with how you behave with respect to that something.” If I’m conceiving of my body or my ancestral flaws as a burden, I’m probably not going to respect and be kind to my sometimes sticky joints or be grateful that modern medicine offers solutions that I cannot find by the natural means everybody assures me I should pursue.
• When I start feeling like I’m not enough, when I’m not doing “it” right, I think of Gil’s tumultuous experiences and mistakes, and if he is so clearly wonderful, then maybe I’m okay too. (more…)
In a fascinating new PBS series called The Fabric of the Cosmos, renowned physicist and author Brian Greene says we've all been deceived. "Our perceptions of time and space have led us astray. Much of what we thought we knew about our universe—that the past has already happened and the future is yet to be, that space is just an empty void, that our universe is the only universe that exists—just might be wrong."
According to the latest science, up 70 percent of the cosmos is made of "dark energy." We know what dark energy does—it drives the expansion of the universe—but that's about it. (I have some thoughts about that in the little video on the right.)
But, for me, there was an even more compelling piece of new information—revealed like a live nude in the middle of a room full of clothed people: the nature of black holes of dark energy has led scientists to propose that "like the hologram on your credit card, space may just be a projection of a deeper two-dimensional reality taking place on a distant surface that surrounds us." (more…)
I’ve been criticized for being too far afield in this blog. Writing about the conglomeration of things I love leads to a kind of eclecticism that does not sell books. And since I am a writer, and since I want to sell books, I should get my act together!
I’m also an editor, and I recently worked on a book about sustainability that seems to have awakened some latent Republican DNA running through my veins, because all of a sudden I long to be a small-business-person-cowgirl type who makes a living by her own rules … selling books!
But back to my over-broad eclecticism. (I hope this is not too eclectic for you.) This concern started when I read publishing consultant Alan Rinzler's very fine blog on The New Author Platform.
To sell books, Alan says, you need "personality, authenticity, expertise, and subtlety." In other words you have to be who you are on your blog (but entertaining, even if the real you is slightly dull), you have to know what you're talking about, and you should never ever ask people to buy your books. You just charm them so much with your non-dull authentic personality and expertise that they can't wait to click that PayPal button. Alan also suggests you comment a lot on other people's blogs, so I commented on his: (more…)
When filmmaker Molly Fowler was at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola working on her documentary about inmate hospice workers, one of the inmates wondered how she could see him as a “normal person.” How could she accept him without even knowing the details of the bad things he had done? Didn’t she want to hear his full story?
“No,” said Molly. “I’m only interested in one story—the story of how you go from where you are right now to becoming a hospice worker.”
The result of this this single focus is the remarkable documentary, brilliantly titled Serving Life—a double, or maybe even multiple, entendre that not only describes the life sentences being served by the film’s subjects (murders, rapists, robbers, and kidnappers) who minister, change diapers, and sit vigil as their fellow inmates pass away; but it describes their personality change as they feel the enormity of their responsibility, their love, and their loss; it describes what they offer their fellow human beings; and it becomes a two-word mantra for everyone lucky enough to witness this movie and then resume a life of freedom. (more…)
I first encountered Gil Hedley many years ago in what felt to me at the time like a murky soup of people. When he spoke, the murk gave way to clarity and the sun seemed to shine, even though we were indoors with no windows.
Gil Hedley is a poet anatomist. He teaches all kinds of people about the body through his Integral Anatomy human dissection workshops, his DVDs, and now through his gorgeous new book of free verse, Coming Into Form. From the cover art (“Self-Knitter,” sculpted by Lauren Rose Buchness) of a little person knitting her own skin, to the words that feel sometimes like Rumi–2011 and sometimes like ocean waves and sometimes like nothing you have ever heard quite this way before, the book is a gem.
This is the kind of book you never shelve because you want to have constant access. No matter what kind of mood you’re in, there is something in it that can catalyze growth, nudging you to inhabit your own form just a little more, just a little more joyfully. (more…)
I’m not really savvy about pop stars, but when Lady Gaga appeared on 60 Minutes recently, I noticed. I noticed not only because she uses my grandmother’s name, Gaga (christened when my older sister couldn’t pronounce “grandma”), but I swear they look alike. I’m not crazy, take a look.
I think I was inadvertently and divinely prepped before seeing the Off-Broadway play Blood from a Stone by Tommy Nohilly last night. For the last few weeks I’ve been editing some stunning books about life and death, anger and forgiveness, and compassion. I’ve also been speeding down a runway to a “big” birthday—eliciting my keen awareness of how fleeting our time is and how I don’t want to squander it feeling lousy. And I’ve been inexplicably waking at 3 a.m., getting up, and spontaneously meditating. I recommend all of these preparations before seeing Blood from a Stone. Or none.
Blood from a Stone is an admittedly autobiographical play about what must be one of the world’s most dysfunctional families. Travis (Ethan Hawke) comes home to Connecticut—a state name that literally chokes him when he demonstrates articulating it. He’s on his way to, once again, throw his life off a cliff and start all over again, and he’s dropping by to see his family, get some money, get some pills. His mother (Ann Dowd) rages at his father (Gordon Clapp). His father rages at his sons (Hawke and Thomas Guiry) and anybody who’s not white and the world. And the house rages at the whole family—pouring water on them through the kitchen ceiling, electrocuting them through the broken thermostat, and haranguing them through intrusive telephone ringing. The family attacks the house. The house attacks the family. The family attacks each other. And everybody wants to destroy the whole thing and start all over again. (more…)
I have an ambiguous relationship with the language police. On one hand, I appreciate that discouraging the use of belittling, offensive, or just plain inaccurate language can move our culture toward inclusiveness and respect. I lived through the days of being called a “my girl” when what my boss meant was that I typed for him, and even before anybody thought there was something wrong with that, it used to make my skin crawl. But I used the phrase myself when writing about that period in my novel, Plan Z by Leslie Kove, and I dug in my heels when an editor suggested changing my references to the “boys and girls” of the Vietnam draft and protests to the P.C. language du jour: “young men and young women.” We were kids, which was a lot of the problem. Nobody knew what they were doing! Especially the people who claimed to know.
As an editor, I’ve altered offensive language. “I thought he was only a clerk” worked just as well as “I thought he was a clerk,” and the writer never even noticed.
As I story lover, I’ve cringed every time I’ve listened to the audio recording of one of my favorite authors, Eudora Welty, reading one of my favorite stories, “Why I Live at the P.O.” (written in 1941), when I’ve heard the line: “Of course Mama had turned both the niggers loose.” I was surprised to discover many “N”-word lines rewritten in the 1980 edition of the collected stories. But this was done by or at least with Ms. Welty’s approval. (more…)
I came to the TV series Mad Men late. Although I'd heard about it from friends, it wasn't until a few months ago that I began borrowing the first three seasons from the library. I thought I'd be interested in it because of my background in advertising. My father was an account executive, my mother was one of the first female copywriters, and briefly toward the end of the seventies, I entered the family trade as a secretary and production assistant (material I put to good use in my novel Plan Z by Leslie Kove). But none of this prepared me for the kind of euphoric, sometimes shattering, shock I felt watching this show. (more…)
I’ve just finished reading The Holy Woman, the self-published third book of Susan Trott’s formerly commercially published “The Holy Man” trilogy. Like the first two books (The Holy Man and The Holy Man’s Journey), The Holy Woman is deceptively simple and charming. But what a complex story about our human drive to “get,” to achieve status or stuff, to win.
The book starts after the death of “the Holy Man,” a guy named Joe who everybody visited because they believed he was holy. Just before dying in a faraway country, Joe anointed Anna as his successor, but when she returns home, not everybody — including Anna — is so sure. After all, she is quite judgmental about Joe’s teacher, Chen, who runs a spiritual resort called Universe-city where he promises people immortality and seems to worship stuff.
Recently I’ve been experiencing a dilemma about how to react in many areas of my life, which tells me I should pay attention.
When someone takes what is not theirs — from a person, a people, or the planet; when someone denies a truth; when one person hurts another person, people, or the planet, what is the right response . . . or lack thereof? (more…)
For a person who’s not really into acquiring things, I’m amazed at how much stuff I have: a whole wall of books, three file cabinets of manuscripts, and then there’s the music — the tapes and CDs, not to mention my collection of 33 1/3 records that take up two feet of floor in my bedroom and simply cannot be discarded.
I plan to weed. In my bedroom closet there’s a trunk full of I-don’t-know-what — oh no, it’s photo albums and decades of personal journals that I’ll never read or look at, but I cannot throw away.
One nice thing about being unemployed is that I no longer buy anything to add to the clutter. I mean that. Aside from food and rent and essential services, I don’t spend money. And I don’t feel the least deprived. Why? (more…)
It seems ridiculous that somebody would go to the trouble of creating art and then create work that is designed to please or be current or imitate somebody else who’s popular, but it happens all the time. That’s why gallery hopping with my artist friend, Ardith, is like finding treasure at the end of the rainbow.
We begin at the end of Manhattan’s West Side — 547 West 27th Street, a pretty rough part of Chelsea that is in the process of gentrification. As usual, the art community is already there amidst the blasting, construction, and street mess. But up one flight in the Ceres Gallery, a cooperative supported by and supporting female artists, there is a whole other world. We’ve come after seeing this fractured face in a story about sculptor Cynthia Eardley (Art Knowledge).
I don’t speak “artspeak” (you can click on the links for that), so suffice it to say, I take one look at Eardley’s fractured but exquisitely beautiful sculptures and I feel something deep — what, I suspect a whole lot of people are feeling these days — broken, but hanging together as best we can.
I suspect everybody feels some aspect of what Eardley communicates in her hand-modeled, resin-cast portraits. She tenderly displays everything we try so hard to hide — with clothes, manners, and civilized behavior. But the word “suspect” is a lie; I “know.” I know we all feel these things because I have spent so much time in so many places where large groups of ordinary people come to find out who they really are. And, in my experience, when people tell the truth, it turns out we are all equally fractured. (more…)
Last Friday was the twentieth anniversary of my mother’s death. That means this prayer plant is twenty plus however-long-it-lived-with-my-mother years old. Not bad.
Until twenty years ago, my only plants were a stringy philodendron who had survived my tendency to forget to water, and many little jade plants rooted from the broken stems of a big one that an apartment sitter claimed “just fell apart one day.”
I had always wanted to have plants like my mother did, but so many had died on my watch that I never considered myself a green-thumb. In 1990, when my mother died, tending her plants became my mission. To my relief, all but one thrived. The one was this prayer plant, the coffee table centerpiece, who seemed determined to expire. I talked to it, coaxed and caressed it, pled with it to live, but one by one, the leaves turned from green to sickly yellow to brown, and by the time of my mother’s memorial party in her living room, it was a mournful sight among the perky violets and vases of cut flowers. (more…)
Do you ever feel as if your body can’t move, but your blood is coursing double-time? Perhaps you experience this lying on your couch on a beautiful Sunday afternoon: you’re inert, but inside, liquid stuff whooshes or slides or drips through your organs, moving around in your gut.
Does this sound insane to you? If so, never mind. I’ll talk about my computer problems instead. (more…)
I spent the weekend eating great food, laughing, talking, and sitting in front of a crackling fire with my friends Peter and Kay Wild in their rustic home in Newtown, Connecticut. And it wasn’t until I got home that I realized I might have been briefly insane.
Despite the fact that, a long time ago, I spent a year publicly naked — in front of a roomful of artists and people pretending to be artists at the Art Students League; despite doing a brief topless scene in a movie — because it was a good movie with people I trusted; despite the fact that I’m really not a prude, I am deeply modest in my everyday life. I do not own one low-cut piece of clothing; I prefer long dresses and loose-fitting jeans; and since I’m not fond of men who talk to women’s chests, I do nothing to encourage that focus. So my sudden impulse to throw back my head, stick out my bosom, and insist on displaying my décolletage for a photograph was aberrant behavior. Was I insane … or the opposite? (more…)
I first heard Krishna Das, a kirtan (yoga chanting) leader, in early 2001 when he sang in a scene in the documentary Ram Dass: Fierce Grace. I reacted viscerally to the sound of his voice. I simply had to find out who this guy was and hear his sound again, so I bought his CD Live on Earth. Even though I’d experienced sudden heart-openings (aka meltdowns), I felt like a maniac listening to this music. Every time I started to chant, I’d erupt in spasmodic sobs. After a couple of weeks of this, I emailed the guy, and was thrilled when he wrote back: he was going to be singing at a downtown yoga studio and I should feel free to come. I have been hooked ever since. So when I heard he had a book coming out this month, I got a copy.
The worst thing about Chants of a Lifetime is that you can only read it for the first time once. (more…)
I’ve got a cold. The world’s worst cold, to be precise. I’m hacking, spitting, and I feel as if I’m ten feet under water. What better time to read a book about consciousness? My brain is already exploding. My thoughts and ideas bore me to tears, so dropping them and saying to myself, “What if this is true?” has been a relief.
The book I’ve been reading requires nothing less. Shapeshifting with Our Animal Companions by Dawn Baumann Brunke (Bear & Co., 2008) is categorized as New Age/Nature because it is about people’s spirits, animals’ spirits, plants’ spirits, and all spirits sharing information and, ultimately, being one consciousness. But the categories of New Age and Nature are limiting in a way that is false — the same way our notion of separate consciousnesses for dogs and trees and rocks and people is false, according to author Brunke. (more…)
This week I’ve been watching a lot of old movies on my very new, very high-tech computer. I suspect I’m seeing more pristine images with more clarity than directors Preston Sturges or William Wyler ever imagined possible. I’m admiring and enjoying the movies, despite periodically cringing at the racist images and appalling stereotypes and even animal abuse (lovely Audrey Hepburn terrorizing a poor cat in Breakfast at Tiffany’s). After all, such things were believed to be acceptable in the twentieth century.
Since a new decade is around the corner, it seems fitting to contemplate that which is considered acceptable today that may someday cause us to cringe or laugh in horror. What common practices will seem primitive? What will cause future generations to shake their heads in shame? Although I am not a professional psychic or a historian or particularly smart, I do live in the age when every thought can be publically published, ergo, here are mine (feel free to contribute your own in “comments”): (more…)
About 12 years ago, I discovered Light of Consciousness magazine and ever since I’ve been a fan. The magazine’s staff is volunteer and they work in a place called the Desert Ashram in Tucson. Founded 22 years ago by a guru named Swami Amar Jyoti, Light of Consciousness publishes quarterly and is sold at newsstands. And in case you’re assuming that a magazine made by volunteers in an ashram follows some kind of doctrine or is even cultish, I’d like to assure you that this is not the case. (more…)
I really enjoy being part of the cyber world — reconnecting with old friends on Facebook, blogging (obviously), the convenience of email, the incredible speed and efficiency of virtual work. . . . But I have reservations.
Now a new study called “Aero-tactile integration in speech perception” — say that three times fast — published in Nature has validated my reservations. What if cyber-only connections completely eclipse face-to-face friendships, work relationships, and even healing? (I’ve heard about virtual therapists and doctors who diagnose and prescribe over the Internet.)
Most people would agree that facial expression, gesture, and tone give meaning to words. (more…)
Last week when I sent out a humongous email blast, I thought I was just trying to drum up some freelance editing work. I thought I was being professional. I thought the effort would most likely be ignored but was worth doing anyhow. Boy, was I wrong.
One of my favorite things is learning how wrong I am. When that happens, my heart expands. I may get some work from the email effort, but the more important thing I got was a tidal wave of support, validation, and, yes, I’ll use the “L” word — Love. (more…)
I’m high! I’m drunk with beauty! I’m over the moon!
This morning I took a three-hour walk in the park. It is the Friday before the New York City Marathon, and people are everywhere, speaking every language on the planet, excited to be in one another’s company. (more…)
“So how do you know the difference between going with the flow and letting yourself drown?” writes author Eileen Flanagan in her new book, The Wisdom to Know the Difference (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, Sept. 2009). “One answer is to see if what is flowing within you matches the direction of the current around you. You have to pay attention to the cards you are being dealt.”
There are so many good things in this book that I almost don’t know where to begin. But perhaps the best thing is the topic.
Last year, after about 25 years of researching self-change modalities, as both a seeker and a journalist, I wrote an article about the necessity of interrupting the embedded neuronal patterns behind our self-sabotaging behaviors and beliefs. In the introduction to the article, I referred to the power of the Zen master’s thwack, and the editor of the magazine that published the piece decided to use “Thwack” as the title, along with an illustration of a therapist about to throttle an unsuspecting man with a rolling pin. Although it made a snappy and commercial cover line, this title inadvertently portrayed as acceptable what I believe is most dangerous about the new confrontational methods of change and many of the groups that practice them. The trouble with thwacking is that if it’s done by anyone who is not a Zen master or an experienced healer, and if it is delivered without a sense of nuance, devoid of love and compassion, and if the thwack is dealt to a person who is not ready to receive it, it is brutality. And it can even re-traumatize a person rather than help. (more…)
Since I finished writing a new novel, I’ve been down. It’s the contraction that inevitably follows the expansion of creative emission, I tell myself. Or maybe it’s the fact that my agent says that nobody’s buying fiction, no matter how good or well-written or funny it is. Or maybe it’s the purple vertical pinstripe that appeared this morning on my computer monitor, that I’m told is the beginning of a pinstripe cancer that will render my screen unreadable. Whatever it is, I am down and depressed and feel like wallowing. “Why?” I rail at the universe, sounding like a middle-aged Nancy Kerrigan. And that’s when the Moth Radio Hour comes on. (more…)
“Body movements affect emotional processes. For example, adopting the facial expressions of specific emotions (even via unobtrusive manipulations) affects emotional judgments and memories,” says a study in the August 25th volume of Psychological Science. So here is me, writing this blog:
(picture of a funny looking smiling girl, which keeps disappearing)
The study goes on to say that lying down makes you react less angrily (more…)
Theo Kamecke lives alone in and on five acres of breathtaking art in the Catskill Mountains. The man simply must create art — whether it’s a garden, a home furnished with handmade everything, a meal for guests, or a log bench overlooking a roaring, foaming brook so powerful that it could sweep you to your death in a nanosecond.
In his barn-size studio, Theo makes sculptures, wall pieces, and functional art objects from the collection of electronic circuit boards he began accumulating forty years ago for no reason other than he thought they were beautiful. With patterns that look like hieroglyphs and names like Nefertiti and Isis and Manifest Destiny, his child-size treasure chests and majestic pyramids, cabinets and jukeboxes, tables and wall plaques feel simultaneously ancient, familiar, and futuristic (see TheoKamecke.com). “I like to understand how things work,” he says, to explain what drives him. (more…)
May 1959. The Barbie doll had recently debuted; so had Sleeping Beauty; and Alaska had become our forty-ninth state. People left their doors unlocked; nobody’s parents had gotten divorced yet; and every evening Walter Cronkite delivered news that I and the other eight-year-olds in this photo didn’t understand, but we knew from the sound of his voice that all was well and nobody murdered Presidents because grown-ups were good and knew everything. (more…)
I’m upset (that’s a lie, but it’s a good opening line). I’m not really upset, but if I were upset, I’d be upset that it’s blog time and I have absolutely nothing to say. Ergo, here is an old column I wrote several years ago for UPI. It’s a piece that seemed to either help or annoy an awful lot of people. Read at your own risk. (more…)
There is a new trend in business. It’s a sometimes-desperate scramble to pinpoint the latest trends in order to be on the forefront, the cutting edge, the winning team … in order to make lots and lots of money. But there may be a problem with this. There may be a problem because what appears to be one of the newest and most widespread trends (harnessed with awe-inspiring efficiency by the Obama campaign) is for individuals and small groups of passionate people to do good deeds with no concern for financial returns.
“We set up tables with cookies and candy in the park and give out Smile cards,” explained Shephali Patel, a 30-year-old volunteer with the Smile Card project. She is one of 20,000 volunteers who have been playing a form of global altruistic tag: You do a selfless “Radical Act of Kindness,” then leave a card encouraging the recipient to do something nice for someone else and pass the card along.
And this was just one of the examples of easy-to-do selfless service actions discussed at last night’s second meeting of an organization called Stay Inspired (see March 30th blog) held at Gallery 138 in New York City, where about 40 people gathered to eat good food and share ideas about how to remain inspired during hard times. (more…)
It’s another soggy day in New York City, so it seems appropriate to talk about my posture. I have lousy posture. I slump with my chin out and up like a turtle and, since I’m very flexible, I have a tendency to sit with pretzel legs. I also have a big, ugly lump on the back of my neck which has alternately been explained as a sign that my spiritual center is connected or that I have an energy block. I believe it’s due to my lousy posture.
Because it is raining today and I’m having such a difficult time remembering to sit upright, it seems appropriate to also complain about my allergies. I recently discovered that I am allergic to my tomato plants. Not the tomatoes, but the Deadly Nightshade leaves that smell so good but make my eyelids swell like over-sized shrimp. My tomato plants live on my neighbor, Nurse Mia’s, terrace because my building superintendent kicked them off our roof. Nurse Mia is the one who diagnosed my tomato plant allergy, so the last time I pruned, I suited up with swimming goggles, a surgical mask, and latex gloves. (more…)
Last night I watched Sicko, Michael Moore’s documentary about our health-care system. A guy at the grassroots Health Care Organizing Kickoff meeting last weekend referenced it a few times, and since I missed it when it was in theaters, I got it at the New York Public Library. This required asking for it, receiving an email when it arrived at my local branch, strolling over, showing my library card, and walking out without paying any money. This is because the public library is a government-funded social program, allowing even unemployed people like me access to free information. It seems to work awfully well.
A block up from my library is my local fire department. They are a government-funded social program that seems to work awfully well.
Last weekend, a guy on my block had a very loud party late at night. I dialed 311 and a courteous government-paid employee took my noise complaint and dispatched a member of our socialized law enforcement department to quell the din. It worked awfully well.
I’d thought Sicko was going to be a diatribe about our lousy heath-care-if-you-can-afford-it system, and I was quite surprised to see that the majority of the film showed compassionate doctors and satisfied patients in France and the UK and Canada. When asked how much money care cost, they either laughed or looked befuddled and then responded, with polite horror, that they wouldn’t want to work or live in a system that allowed people to die if they couldn’t afford to pay.
Although it seems like yesterday, many years ago my beloved hometown switched from subway tokens to Metrocards. Lots of New Yorkers said that the change was too big; it wouldn’t work. We survived it quite well. (more…)
I’m living on unemployment at the moment, so I’m consuming a lot less than I used to. And that means I think a whole lot about what I’m choosing to consume. Below, for my own gratitude and ventilation, are some Rants & Raves. Feel free to add your own in comments:
RAVE: Staples Stores
I got a whole ream of recycled paper today, free with the coupon I received for recyling ink cartridges. I was worried I’d only be able to buy more ink, but no — you can do the right thing and actually get something you need with the recycle benefit.
Not only that, I thought Staples only recycled ink cartridges and batteries. Did you know they also take electronics? I’ve got a busted computer adapter and cable that Hewlett-Packard was going to charge to me return for recycle. I can just drop it off at Staples. Not only that, but the Staples employees look you in the eye when they talk to you and treat you like a human being. (more…)
From the bowels of this recession, I read my most recent college alumni news, and I found myself wondering if I was the only one with a less than stellar career. Were all of these perpetually successful alumni telling the whole truth?
So here, from the Spring 2009 Alumni News of the imaginary prestigious Almost Ivy League University, is some imagined truth-telling. (Humor is healing. Feel free to add your own notices in the comments section.)
Beatrice Ellenville (’06), who graduated cum laude after plagiarizing her thesis, was laid off from her job at AIG just before the bailout. She will never publish a book, star on Broadway, or climb Mount Everest — per her yearbook “future goals.” She is a sorry excuse for a human being with no prospects whatsoever.
Joanna Praddle (’86), who had an early success with her first novel and then refused to share contacts with her struggling classmates, has never amounted to anything. She survived three abusive marriages to the same man and she is currently working as a night staff cleaning woman in the law offices of her ex-brother-in-law.
After a successful and lucrative career as president of the N.O. Scruples PR Firm, known for catapulting adulterers and embezzlers into movie superstardom, Norman Owen Scruples (’73) has retired to become a full-time grandfather and alcoholic. Friends and well-wishers can contact him at the renowned Smith & Welly’s Saloon where he is passed out on the floor.
Lowell Renard (’68), known for his prowess on the Almost Ivy League Olympic Lacrosse Team as well as his seduction of most of the Almost Ivy League co-eds and every woman he ever did business with, which led to his 25-year run as the face of the International Subprime Mortgage Insurance Agency, LLP, despite never coming in to the office, has gotten fat and bald.
I didn’t watch American Idol this season, so I didn’t understand my friend’s feelings when she first emailed and then phoned about her despair that a young singer named Adam Lambert hadn’t won the competition. She described the moment when the public declared another singer (Kris Allen) the winner as “being hit by a wrecking ball.” She understood neither her despair nor her compulsion to listen to an online recording of Lambert singing “Come to Me, Bend to Me” from Brigadoon (Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe).
My friend is a mature woman — a sixty-year-old psychologist, to be precise. She is not a person who normally cares about pop singing competitions or even watches them. But something had compelled her to turn on American Idol, and when she heard the voice of Adam Lambert, she was transformed. (more…)
I’ve been kind of blue this week. Actually, that’s inaccurate. I’ve been red — beet red with eyelids that look like obese shellfish — but blue is more descriptive of my mood. A red mood sounds angry. I haven’t felt angry. I just enjoy vision. Apparently swelling up like a prizefighter after a really bad night plus a nasty rash is my new reaction to tree pollen. Although I could barely open my eyes, I decided it was a good time for reading, and my friend Liz from the greenhouse had recommended Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.(more…)
In this time of risk-taking based on promises of exorbitant returns from precarious investments, what could be more timely than the tale of growing up in a community where everybody has surrendered all decision-making and self-responsibility for the promise of divine protection and maybe God realization?
In her riveting, sometimes heartbreaking, often hilarious memoir, Cartwheels in a Sari (Harmony Books, April 14, 2009), Jayanti Tamm recounts how her parents, like so many people who came of age in the sixties and seventies, met a guru after years of spiritual seeking. So moved were they by the experience that they didn’t question his direction to marry each other — despite the fact that they’d just met. They did, however, flaunt the directive to remain celibate. (more…)
“Here’s the thing,” I seem to be saying. “I really like flowers, but my eyes no longer open enough to fully enjoy their colorful fluorescence because of my gravity-challenged brows. And I think, doctor, I sincerely believe that I should be given an eye job for medicinal purposes — fully paid for by insurance, of course. Don’t you agree? (more…)
It may seem paradoxical that reading about panic attacks due to overwhelming professional success and an abundance of work is calming to a person who’s been unemployed for months and battered by the recession, but that was my experience reading Mary Pipher’s new book Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World. It may seem counterintuitive that reading about a big, warm circle of supportive family could make a person whose family is mostly dead feel hugged, but, again, that is the case with this simultaneously comforting and entertaining book about a bestselling writer’s meltdown and recovery. (more…)
Last Wednesday night, storyteller extraordinaire Laura Simms described the moment during an international phone call when she made the split second decision to adopt her son, Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone who would go on to become a bestselling writer and an advocate for children trapped in wars. “If I can get out of here, can I live with you?” he asked. “The phone may cut off and I need you to tell me the truth.” “Yes,” she screamed. “Yes!” and the phone went dead.
She described that moment as one of electrocution — the instant and complete realignment of every cell in her body. It was a moment when Spirit demanded something sudden and life-changing — what the oracle Viking Runes refer to as “an empty-handed leap into the void” — and she said, “Yes!”
She told the story at a “Friend Raising Party” at Tibet House in New York City given by a two-year old organization called Stay Inspired, the brainchild of a very unusual guy named Charlie Hess. (more…)
After 38 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list and much discussion at Oprah’s Book Club, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle hardly needs more talk. So the end. No more words. No more discussion about this remarkable epic.
However, there’s something else. Something even more remarkable to discuss. It has to do with how many people are choosing to read this 562-page novel. In this day of multi-tasking, twittering, and twaddling, millions of people are setting aside days on end to disappear into the holy quiet birthed by this story. (more…)
I eat a lot of lettuce. I just love the stuff. And even before the recession and getting laid off, I had a lust for homegrown salad. Since I live in an indoor jungle, it seems natural to extend it into my fifth-floor apartment window boxes, and to learn the art of lettuce growing from seeds, I recently joined my local community garden. An unexpected benefit was that the garden’s greenhouse is located behind the world famous Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. The Cathedral is not only a breathtaking work of architecture, but it has a long history of supporting progressive causes and a mission to be “a house of prayer for all people and a unifying center of intellectual light and leadership.” Technically what’s happening in the greenhouse is not one of the Cathedral’s many service programs, but, for me, it has become church in a greenhouse — a weekly dose of horticultural therapy. (more…)
It’s almost 2 a.m. and I can’t sleep. I’m not exactly having panic attacks, but a lot of obsessive thoughts — which is in the same family as panic in that my system is in overdrive … just like the characters on tonight’s Grey’s Anatomy.
Where is a squeeze machine when you need one? (more…)
As managing editor for a national magazine (a job that was downsized away just in time for Christmas), I looked at a lot of books for possible excerpting. Not long ago I received one that claimed that the nature of the Spirit is not fearful, confused, resentful, weak, or overwhelmed, but instead it is powerful, vital, fearless, content, and compassionate. That sounds awfully nice, but I found myself wondering how the author knew this. He started out by saying that, per Genesis, we are created in the image of God. Well, my image and the images of everyone I have ever met (including a whole slew of spiritual teachers) include fear, confusion, anger, etc. So why aren’t those qualities as much a part of our essential nature as all the blissful stuff?
I prefer a notion of spirit with a small “s.” This spirit lives inside all of us, and it is beautifully described in a book called It’s Only Temporary (Riverhead, 2008) by actor/author Evan Handler. A chapter titled “I Don’t Know” states our plight so nakedly:
“I am fascinated by our conundrum as humans living on planet Earth,” writes Handler. “I’ve said to friends, probably more times than they’ve wanted to hear, ‘We live in outer space. Do you know that? Can you believe it? We live in outer space.’ It’s a crucial thing to remind myself, because it justifies and enhances my choice to remain committed to philosophical non-commitment. We do not know where we live. We have no idea of our own address. . . . we have no idea what substance contains us, where it came from or where it’s headed, if it has a purpose or what it might be, how it started, or how long it will last.” (more…)
It's the self-proclaimed "head honcho" of a company called KnockKnock.biz that has created, among other things, "The Self-Hurt Series" of books (How to Traumatize Your Children, How to Get Fat, How to Have an Ill-Behaved Dog, etc.), The Savvy Convert's Guide to Choosing a Religion ("Get the Best Faith for Your Buck! 99 Religions to Choose From!"), and a self-diagnosis guide for hypochondriacs titled The Complete Manual of Things That Might Kill You. In the tradition of all great tricksters and contrarians, Jen Bilik has approached self-help and spiritual seeking by turning everything on its head — creating a body of work that is not only laugh-out-loud hilarious, but so thoroughly and seriously researched that if you simply do its opposite, you may end up healthy, happy, and very well-informed.
"I am a pricker of sacred cows," says Bilik, who actually loves self-help books and is committed to a path of self-awareness. "But so much in this arena is so earnest! And there's a lot of Kool-Aid drinking going on. I believe that the dark side of self-help is that it makes us feel like we're supposed to be perfect: If we read this book and we're told how not to obsess, how to love ourselves and our bodies, if we're told those things and they don't result in lasting change, we feel guilty. I feel like it's the corollary to women's beauty magazines which set a standard that none of us can attain. The self-help standard is perfect balance and happiness."
Along with a team of researchers and editors, Bilik decided to deal with the inevitability of mistakes by instructing us how to consciously make them: "If you want a child who can't do anything for him or herself and will have to depend on you into his or her fifties, how do you get there? We'll tell you!" she says with a grin.
Who buys this stuff?
Says Bilik, "I believe it's the same people who buy self-help books. People who are tired of feeling like they have to be perfect. People who have senses of humor about their core endeavors. It's also an acceptance of the truth." She reaches for a box. "My therapist loves these," she says, handing it to me: Therapy Flashcards: 60 cards for maximum psychobabble that promise to make you "sound evolved even if you're not."
Fierce Grace came to mind as I entered the New York Blood Center a couple of days ago. Fierce Grace is filmmaker Mickey Lemle’s deeply moving documentary about spiritual pioneer Ram Dass after his stroke. When it came out in 2002, I watched it about five times because I had a screener copy from the job I was at. I wish I had it now. Fierce Grace alludes to the transcendent goodness in the brutal events that eventually move us into wisdom.
When I heard that the blood banks in New York City were literally dry, I was overcome with fierce compassion. (more…)