Sunday, December 28, 2008

What is poverty mind, after all?


“We’re deluding ourselves if we assume that we can recover from the crisis of 2008 so quickly and easily simply by watching the Dow creep upward. The wounds go deeper than that. To heal them, we must repair the broken moral balance that let this chaos loose.”

-Margaret Atwood.

This article rung true on a global/personal endemic view of just how poverty mind creeps into life in more than just economic situations...

Thursday, December 25, 2008

New Media

I have been doing a lot of cartooning lately, as it seems to help when I am having a hard time with a particular issue - this season, grief. Mostly they've been by hand, and I've been putting off scanning them in to post, though some are quite good. Dylan handed me his totally unused Wacom tablet the other week and I finally got it going. Here's my first digital drawing board result!

The process is VERY spontaneous - put down a first stroke or line without thinking and move into the picture, trying not to erase. Then add text. Very fun and freeing for me.

Monday, December 22, 2008

And I thought it was silent when it snowed in Wisconsin

I am in Portland, Oregon. I arrived here a few days ago to visit a good friend, and the first day I got here, she and I (both Wisconsin natives) laughed at the chains on the buses and cars. CHAINS? I mean, maybe I'd seen them in rural Wisconsin, but certainly never in the city. Never. And it was just slushy. Really, barely any weather - a bit of snow and some melting.

Day two, same thing. So light, so easy, a bit messy but for my tastes, better than the average rain of a Portland winter. I was updating my status on Facebook: Life is so easy, I can see the sky, as my partner and friends got pummeled on the east coast and in the Great Lakes area with feet of snow.

Then, as they say, those who laugh...
Day three, WE got pummeled. 1-2 feet of snow. And here's the catch - now I know why they use chains: because Portland owns all of two plows AND it's ILLEGAL to use salt! Some say it's because of ecological reasons, others because of economical reasons, but regardless, everything turns to ice quickly when there is no one to take it away and no salt to break it up. We did venture out - true Wisconsinites - and others were about - the weekend before Christmas, after all, so there was a fair amount of last minute shopping going on. Granted, this was pretty severe even for Wisconsin, but still handleable. Well, we were walking and well-dressed, which helps.

The fourth day I woke up and called an old high school friend to see if we could get together. She owns a spa and told me she's spent the last few days calling off all appointments as well as having to call her employees everyday just to say "not today - let's try tomorrow". Then she said something about an ice storm. Ice storm? Becky joked "maybe Portlanders don't know the difference between snow and ice?" But the woman I was talking to grew up in Wisconsin...

We turned on the forecast and then we really took a close look outside. Oh. Wow. That's not more snow, that's freezing rain.

The snow, covered in a thick crust of ice. The cars, already buried with their windshield wipers stuck in the air to prevent from freezing, like surrender. The roads, surprisingly not more thick, but branches encased in ice, powerlines down, the whole gig. All this, just days before Christmas. We stopped laughing. Work canceled for most of our friends, we snuggled in and made lots of food, and those who had to work strapped on whatever yak tracks and multi-layers they had and walked there. The buses are stranded all over the city. Flights canceled. And this morning, more snow.

So...I was to go home tomorrow. Mind you, this is a good place to be stranded, in a sweet upper apartment with more heat than it needs and vegan bakeries within blocks of us. Not to mention, with one of my best friends, with whom I have such an easy rapport it's like we've lived together in an efficiency without problems for years. And yet, what about my cats? And Dylan? We had no plans for the holiday but to be together...and now I am not so sure.

All of this having been said, one thing finally hit me this morning. One of the parts of snow I like the best (and I do really like snow) is that it hushes everything - car tires, voices, the whole nine. But here, to boot, there are no sounds of plows, barely any shoveling. And no one is out. It's a bit sci-fi really, but totally silent. Like I am on retreat.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

For Keeps

(One of my classes - writing - has only four folks in it this session, so I write with them. Here's what I wrote in class in response to my own prompt "For Keeps" in which I encourage them to picture a box in front of them, a 'gift" from the last few weeks of their lives...)

This was written with both hands - parts in my left hand (non-dominant) are in italics.

Why is a box defined as a square? We can have a round box, but you have to qualify it with the word "round".

My grandmother had hat boxes, but never wore hats. She claimed they hurt her head. It hurts my heart to think of her but instead of dread there's just sadness.

Before she was even dead I claimed the bits and baubles of her closet coffers belt by belt, scarves slithered into sleeves so no one could see but I could sense the silk. Honestly, I only ever stole from my family. This there a symbol in this? Storing her away, close to me, polyester shred and old rhinestoned lipcases somehow keeping her alive to me.

I wonder where her comforter went. Rayon with roses, rimmed in lace.

It was no secret she hated my mother. She did not hide this. But she also had her pride. So they played nicey nice even after her son, my father, died. When the going got tough, I stole away to her closet.

I still have pictures of me from then. Awkward-looking but I didn't feel that way. I was liberated, my hair tied up 20 directions til Tuesday, grinning next to grandma, who had come to hate life.

It wasn't always that way. When I was little she would show me off to her friends at Friday fish fry or at line in the supermarket. Grandchild pride - stationed in the passenger seat of her Pontiac. And she didn't mind being single, retired. She was social.

But if you live to 84 a lot of those you love die first. Her friends. Her son. Even her ex-husband. And then she just didn't want to go on.

High heels with wide toes. Granny clothes I would never wear now. Me spreading hot green cat's cradles in her lap, seeing a laugh.

I know how she felt. She was hiding in her head, far from her heart. That tiny room I knew well - I lived in it at home. I was shocked to see her truly, finally, really alone. No clip on earrings with dangling plastic purple jewels, no matching sky blue polyester pants suits, no drawers full of respectable negligees were going to bring her back from the ice burnt ice cream, cat food instead of clam chowder, accidental world of no longer wanting that she lived in.

Until recently I hoarded these memories, afraid if they saw light, they'd die.

But that box was so small and tight. I would hand it to life and hope it would open on accident, like a present dropped but not broken. It never worked.

Now I am learning to let go.
Goodbye Grandma - enjoy the snow.
Goodbye Dad - I hope there are crossword puzzles for lads like you in heaven.

And what is in my box? Batches of nothing. Joyous emptiness. All potential and no past. The best present - being present. Remove the clutter, pull off the polyester and under it all, underneath, 11 year old me is still eager, un-self conscious, breastless and breathless. That's what can be - not me then, but now, all possibility.

  • purses
  • pencils
  • poison
  • pantry
  • parcel
  • parts
  • pale
  • palor
  • pint
  • purple
  • placemats
  • punky
  • puke
  • purloined
  • placard
  • pointless
  • placating
  • plain
  • pumice
  • pricey
  • plastic
  • pumas
  • pennies
  • pan
  • pushover
  • prize-winning
  • pizzazztastic
  • precious
  • parted

Friday, December 05, 2008

Femininism: A Double Book Review of Sorts

Discussed in this "review":
My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor
Eating in the Light of the Moon by Anita Johnson

I know. All the alternative women's magazines, especially Bitch, fight it. "Feminist" doesn't necessarily mean hairy hippie lesbians, but it CERTAINLY doesn't mean make-up or high heels." This, they imply, is "feminine" as opposed to "feminist." But I wonder, where has the deeper meaning of "feminine" gone?

From Chogyam Trungpa, sent out this week on "Ocean of Dharma":
"Feminine inspiration projects a world which it can regard as workable and friendly since it is its own creation.....An aspect of feminine inspiration is regarding what you have created as sacred. You have created Buddhism, Christianity, Sufism -- it is your production. Since it is fully yours, respect it, work with it. These teachings did not come from somewhere else; your own openness gave birth to them. Moreover, you gave birth to pleasure and pain. You built Paris, London, New York City. You produced the president of the United States. These things are the product of feminine inspiration."
From "Femininity," in THE COLLECTED WORKS OF CHOGYAM TRUNGPA, Volume Six, page 564.

Recently I have read two books which really opened me to the other. One was the super popular current book My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor (TED talk here in case you haven't seen it) and the other was a student recommendation, an older book, called Eating in the Light of the Moon by Anita Johnson. On the surface, these books aren't that similar. Taylor is a neuroscientist, who had the mis/fortune to have a massive stroke, and be aware enough to notice it as it was happening, then learn an awful lot about the brain and humanity throughout her recovery. Johnson writes about helping folks (especially women) who have problems with "disordered eating" (all the standards: bulimia, anorexia and overeating, but also anything related to a dissociated relationship with eating, which means, well, most of us). Her main approach is to use myths and stories so we can enter into healing through non-linearily connecting with our actual feelings, instead of stuffing or starving them.

What both women do, through this language or not, is accentuate and elaborate on the "feminine" in the deeper sense - non-linear, creative, round and not straight, circular, spiral-y nature of those traits associated with the feminine. Both point out, REGARDLESS OF GENDER that all of us, men and women, often suffer at the hands of linear judgment, both inside our own minds and also in society. Bolte spends a lot of time emphasizing that we need our orderly mind (her left brain, the home of the critic and also the necessary part of you that knows you put socks on before shoes, is what she lost in the stroke) as much as we need our creative mind, but the right brain (organic, cyclical and associative) goes vastly underutilized and offers a chance to access our own sense of grace, appreciation and creativity every moment, if we just tap into it.

In using stories and myths for healing, Johnson emphasizes just this point. As Chogyam Trungpa says in the excerpt above: "Feminine inspiration projects a world which it can regard as workable and friendly since it is its own creation." Knowing that nothing has true order, in the left brain sense, that though putting one's socks on before one's shoes is most beneficial, one need not, say, write a book or even run one's entire life in that kind of order, is of more than therapeutic value. Both authors point to "dysfunction" or "disruption" as a learning place, where the system breaks down (because of medical or social reasons) we can rebuild, and in doing so, appreciate that our lives are far more sustainable if they are organic, feminine and follow the order of creation (small c).

I have often had a bit of a hard spot for "feminine-ity." Though I wear skirts and occasionally even put on make-up (see social definition), my gut reaction isn't against the exterior manifestation, rather my internal self-judgment that letting things go, allowing the flow to take me along is both weak and passive. Both are bad, by the way, in case you weren't sure, according to my left brain. defines "feminine" in six ways, most of which refer to dress and gender appearances. But these two point to where the trouble truly has been for me, and I think, for many others:
2. having qualities traditionally ascribed to women, as sensitivity or gentleness.
3. effeminate; womanish: a man with a feminine walk.
What's wrong with sensitivity and gentleness? Heck, I try to cultivate those constantly nowadays, sitting on the cushion, wishing love and smoothness for everyone and when I feel disassociated and removed or depressed trying to be sensitive to my own feelings. Why do I have to do all this work if it's inherent to being a woman?
Because it isn't. Because it's socialized out of everyone as being weak. Because the second definition begins to point to a division in gender, and the deep automatic values: what is male is good, what is woman isn't. What is male is strong, what is feminine isn't. What is orderly and masculine is good, what is creative and feminine isn't. Unfortunately that last bit really isn't that much of a leap.

I described this to the student who loaned me Eating in the Light of the Moon as the following example, the way "gender" makes this kind of problem scratch under our radar without notice, followed by another example I thought of since:

It took me years of dating to realize that line from the Police song: "Every (woman) I go out with becomes my mother in the end" is true for me - but not just for the women I date - also for the MEN I have dated. How could that be? In fact, I'd have to say most of my old girlfriends were less like my mother than my boyfriends. Huh? I only figured this out in the last couple of years looking at one particular male ex, through therapy, who was - still is - highly narcissistic. My therapist pointed out that my mother was this way as well, and all of a sudden my surface level associations - carefully constructed out of left brain logic - fell apart in the muddy river of organic right brain world and I realized he was right. Gender doesn't matter, not when it comes to this level of energy.

On a slightly more surface level, how is it that I can feel like I am in DRAG when I dress up? Not in a skirt - I do that often enough, but say, putting on a bridesmaid gown or fancy dress. Heels. Make-up. Hairdo. The whole nine. I am a woman, why is this a "problem," because that is sure what it feels like. As if someone is going to see the real me AND IT IS NOT GOING TO BE PRETTY. My inner masculine energy rails against all that femininity - in the alternative feminist sense - it's not ok to wear these things because they are associated with the "bad" parts of women.

Tell you what. There are no bad parts. To any of us. Even that logical order has its function, but neither brain side nor feminine/masculine energy works for everything. Like anything else, skillful application is necessary. And full recognition of our entire toolbox enables that skillful application. So go read yourself some guidebooks for how to work with our entire mind and spirits - Taylor and Johnson lead the way.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Area 25

I've been wanting to write about this for awhile, and now it's a quiet Saturday afternoon, after a day-long retreat, in which I broke "silence" not to talk but to post my new website. Still, I got a lot of meditation and dharma reading in, along with yoga, much needed, as I had cramps yesterday and today, too, though lesser than they would be because of the yoga.

So what is AREA 25?
Some of you already know, and those who know I've been reading a lot on neuroscience lately know that it's likely not a scifi or government conspiracy reference.

From Wikipedia (full name is Brodmann Area25, by the way):
"One study has noted that BA25 is metabolically overactive in treatment-resistant depression and has found that chronic deep brain stimulation in the white matter adjacent to the area is a successful treatment for some patients"

In fact, recent research has gone beyond that "one study" and numerous doctors and scientists are finding that BA25 is not just significant for those with "treatment-resistant" depression (and that deep brain stimulation they are citing is electro-shock therapy, by the way), but also that it plays a role in humdrum, ordinarily medicine-aided depression.

Here's the woman who made that link, named Helen Mayberg, on why the deep brain stuff works, and why the meds might work, too:
"There are a number of converging lines of experimental evidence. Both Cg25 [cingulate area 25] and the prefrontal cortex have emerged as critical regions mediating depression remission. A series of PET experiments have demonstrated both decreased subgenual cingulate activity and increased prefrontal activity with successful antidepressant treatment. [THIS MEANS THEY THINK THE TWO OF THESE ARE LINKED. SO AREA 25 AND THE LEFT FRONTAL CORTEX, HOME AND NEST TO WHAT CAN OTHERWISE BE CALLED "THE CRITIC"]

Of interest, although frontal changes appeared to be a correction of baseline underactivity, the subgenual cingulate changes are decreases below normative levels. The subgenual cingulate changes are seen not only with antidepressant medication, but also with response to ECT and even to placebo medication, suggesting an important role in clinical recovery. In fact, patients in our study who failed to respond to treatment showed no subgenual cingulate changes. In addition, subgenual cingulate activity has shown marked increases in activity during states of profound negative mood (ie, sadness) in nondepressed volunteers, suggesting a further critical role in regulating acute and chronic negative mood states in both healthy patients and those with disease. IN OTHER WORDS, EVEN YOUR REGULAR RUN OF THE MILL SADNESS SEEMS TO TRIGGER THE SAME SPOTS

We postulated a reciprocal set of changes in cortex and subgenual cingulate with DBS, namely, suppression of area 25 and disinhibition of frontal cortex, consistent with past findings of effective response to other antidepressants."

My therapist told me about this - actually, my prescriber, who caught on quickly that I love the science aspect of all of this, though of course my therapists often have to get me down from that tree to talk about my emotions. She pointed me to the pictures and articles, and drew her own diagrams for me. Here's a translation, totally layperson, of the above excerpt:

Area 25 is part of the limbic, or emotional, system. It's job is to sort of react and send out hormones when we are sad. No biggie. It's true for everyone, not just chronically depressed folks or folks who need meds. They've known about it for awhile. But what they didn't know is that it seems to have a really tight relationship with the left frontal cortex. This is the part of the brain which ostensibly distinguishes us from other animals. "We can think, we can reason, we can read", as the theme song for LAPR's "Bookworm" says. As most of us know, that reasoning can actually be a problem sometimes. However, as authors like Jill Bolte Taylor have made more and more popularly evident, it's not as simple as demonizing the logical mind. We *need* that order - it helps to tell us to put socks on before shoes, to cite her example, or, to "hey. no need to keep being sad. it's over now," in the case of this research. So what do they think "goes wrong" with depression?

Basically, Area 25 is on high drive. Because of childhood circumstances (which do affect how one's brain works, as we are not born without changing afterwards, and in fact, this area 25 is believed to not be fully formed until the mid-twenties, which explains how none of us over 30 would ever go back to that time period!), genetics, and all the other things that shape our brains and emotional reactions, some folks' Area 25 isn't "self-regulating". It doesn't turn off, connects ordinarily just slightly sad or frustrating circumstances into out and out depressions. But it's not just Area 25 at work.

What happens, they think, is that that pre-frontal cortex serves as a regulatory agent. If Area 25 (or other parts of the limbic system) get out of whack like I describe above, the pre-frontal should be there like a guard to shut it off. In "bad" scenarios it could shut it off with judgment "You are so depressed, you'll never get better, etc" and in the best of situations it is cleaner than that "Huh. There's no reason to feel this way. Ok. I'll let it go." But in folks who have temporary sadness to a high degree (including mourning) or those with ongoing depression, not only is Area 25 overactive, but the pre-frontal is disfunctional, not reacting, or reacting in a way which only contributes to the depression. It's a loop, a great feminine image, and the loop is off its sine wave and out in outer space.

She told me about all this and my mind was sparking all over. Then she continued:
"What they find also helps are two other things: exercise (ok, yep, I can see that) and any service activity or part of your life that can turn you "outwards". In other words, like anyone who suffers from depression will tell you, the sense is of constantly turning INWARDS - eating one's own tail, not being able to relate to the world, feeling totally f-ing alone. And this is part of the CHEMICAL experience."

"So volunteering, talking to a friend, reaching out to the world, taking a walk - these might not cure depression, but they help - CHEMICALLY?"
"Yes. That's what they think." she responded.

So wait. Buddhists have something like this, too. "If you want to be happy, help others," is a common saying. At first I hated this saying, seeing only self-sacrifice in it, but over time I've gotten a deeper - though still shallow - understanding that this could point to our inter-dependence, how there is no YOU and ME so of course if I am really helping "You" I can't help but help "Me". Ok, fine. But chemically changing the situation?

"Have you ever heard of Tonglen?" I asked her.
"No, I don't believe so."
"Here's how it works, or how it has worked for me. I am suffering, feeling a lot of pain, or someone I know is suffering, and I sit down and try to make real contact with that pain - visualizing black, dark, claustrophobia; feeling it in my heart. Then I try to send out spaciousness, whiteness, clarity. At first the practice felt like I was "faking it til I made it" but now when I do it I feel SO much better. For instance, if I am feeling depressed, I can realize I am not the only one, that others feel it, too, and that we could all stand to have a lot more space and openness. You begin the practice with you, then a close friend then a "neutral" (as Pema Chodron jokes, "space aliens" of your everyday life) then move onto someone you feel icky about, then someone you "hate". In other words, you reach out, out, out. Continuously. This certainly hasn't cured my depression, but it compliments meds and therapy, for sure, and really helps a lot "on the spot" to reset my buttons and help me to see the bigger picture."
"Sounds like loving-kindness, Metta," she said.
"Similar, only focused around direct pain, not just wishing everyone well."
We stared at each other for almost a full minute, then she laughed.
"You know about brain plasticity, right?"
"Of course," I answered, "Richie Davidson, on this campus, with other scientists, showing how meditation can actually CHANGE OUR BRAINS - amongst other activities."
"Wow. I had never heard of that practice. You realize what this means, right? That that - "
We both stared at each other some more.

So it can turn Area 25 back on. Help us to realize we are not alone, and realizing we are not alone is the key. The big key. The key to the city, to our hearts. Turn out and you will help what's going on inside. Wow, indeed.

AND THIS JUST IN - right after I published this post I went to "Shambhala Sun Space" which is a cool extension of the Shambhala Sun magazine, brand new, online, and they had THIS as a title article, on benefits of meditation:

My website is finally up!!!


Me, Dylan and our Macs finally made it happen!

A lovely way to keep abreast of schedules, recent reads and samples to show your friends. Please let me know how you do or do not like it! And there are subscription options on many pages, so you can know when I update them.

This will remain my personal blog - there's more of a teaching blog there, with schedules, exercises and occasional book reviews!

Thank you for all your support!


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Using My Religion

"Use it or lose it" said the five individual nearly empty paint tubes hanging from her ceiling. Each one had one word, one color, and combined they made the rainbow of her religion. "I let those tubes dry out once," my former roommate and fellow artist Erika told me, when I finally asked her for an explanation, "and my rule is to not let that happen again."

For many years I was raised and surrounded in a mix of atheism and agnosticism. A highly intellectual pseudo-socialist family, my father favored pissing on McCarthy's grave to going to church. My parents were raised in godless families, so it didn't seem odd to them at all. And in Chicago, or the Chicago suburbs (in my dad's case) being without religion wasn't really an issue. But they were raising us in Appleton, a place where one of the first questions would be "what church do you go to?" even as an 8 year old.

So when my dad died and I needed to rebel in an angry way, I fell for the pastor's son, the pastor of a highly charismatic local pseudo-Neo-christian born-again church. I faithfully sang along, and wasn't too put off by the content because there wasn't much content to be had. Years later my partner would ask me "didn't you learn anything about the bible in church?" and I would have to say, "No. Actually. I didn't." I learned how to sing, how to believe in community (something my family was lacking for more reasons than religion) and how to fall in love, with a young man, of course, who would never requite it. I guess that's a bit like God.

I left after a few years - a whole other story - much to my mother's relief, who had declared when I told her I was taking "Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and savior" that I was ruining my life.

I had a friend in high school and just after named Mark (who recently has re-found me through Facebook, hi Mark!) and he was really interested in Buddhism. Someone I would call a "natural buddhist" who already was mostly there, and inclined to sitting silently in nature and considering the interdependency of all beings, anyway. I was resistent - I approached it with my mind and not my heart, and although I made a sign for my door which declared "Please do not enter - meditating" I didn't really use it for meditation, rather as a reason to keep my mother out. This would strike me as very funny years later, sitting on top of a mountain in Colorado during a month-long meditation retreat, as I struggled to finally grieve the death of my mother, that I had tried to keep her out with my non-meditation then, and couldn't, when the real practice came in, for the life of me not deal with her now. I, in fact, a little delirious with the ongoing practice and constant silence, laughed out loud, causing my fellow sitters to glare at me as I interrupted their own struggles with momentary relief from mine.

So, then, how do I use it and not lose it now? The funny thing is that if you truly believe in something, truly connect to it, it feels nearly effortless to do it. Wait - is that true? I think it might not be. It sounded nice to say it at the time, but I have struggled plenty - to remember to actually meditate, to remember the instructions, to sit down and write instead of washing the dishes or playing with the cats, to use all I have experienced in the last few years of practice, instead of letting it dry up in a tube, unused. But what I suspect is that now, I can never really lose it again. I think that's more what I meant to say. Once I have gone so far in, taken vows, sat so much, am teaching the principles day in and day out, stopping Buddhism would mean something like stopping my life, entirely. All of it. Every single second.

In class this week, in response to the question "If you were to make up a religion, what would it be?" one woman, a fellow Buddhist, answered "Green Buddhism" then proceeded to not mention the word buddhism again for pretty much the entire piece, until the very end. And yet the piece was very dharmic, very true to life and daily practice. When she self-consciously said she got off topic, I noted this and we both smiled. It's as if she - I - can't help but use it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Body

"It's better if you see the corpse," she argued with earnest. "When my mother died it was hard to see her face remade by the coroner, but at least I knew she was dead." They both grimaced and he held her, sorry again for the millionth time for all she had lost. She continued, more gingerly, less to explain than to express.
"With my father it was different. He had been sick for so long and he was dead in his bed. That's where I saw him. He looked pretty much the same as he had the last few weeks, the cancer addling his brain. Face slightly yellow, his teeth coated in disuse. But he still smelled like him, you know? Death doesn't begin to smell until at least a day in."
He wondered how she could talk about this with so much ease. He supposed this is how stories go - the shock at first makes it easy, then there's the pain, and after awhile it's like telling a gory story of losing a limb or even cutting your finger - once it's healed, or basically healed, it becomes just a story again.

"The only person I lost was a friend's brother in high school." She perked up - she thought he hadn't lost anyone to death, actually. "Jonas, he was the brother of John. Older by a couple of years and really messed up. Did a fair amount of drugs, was pretty depressed. Slunk through the hallways of high school like he was already a ghost. A returning senior - almost on his way out, if he would pass, that is." His voice got soft, eyes focused on the far wall of their bedroom. She shifted her body closer to his, listening with her legs to his warmth.
"Jonas, he came to school one day and said goodbye to his brother John, my friend, and his sister. Then he walked a few blocks away, went out into the middle of an intersection, and put a .22 in his mouth."
They both paused, took a few deep breaths. Sensational news come alive in this history of his life. Amazing.
"His brother and sister went to the principal immediately after he walked out of the building, so the cops were following him. They tried to talk him out of it - even his parents were there. Begging him not to jump off the building ledge of life. But their attention only aggravated him more. I guess he wasn't just crying for help, huh?"
Tears sprung up in the corner of his eyes and she kissed them away.
"He shot himself in the middle of an intersection, cars paused with reverence, not a one honking and no one screaming, his parents and teachers watching on. The funeral was closed casket, obviously."

The second of their two cats leapt onto the bed just then, surprising them out of the mystery of the story. Her calico sleek reset the tone as she snuggled in between what space was left behind his back and in front of her belly. She let out a satisfied sigh of comfort and the two of them smiled, weak with wonder.

What she didn't tell him is that the body of the house she grew up in still haunts her memory. Skeleton, walless, wild in the wind, burnt umber bones returning to the ground.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


Today's the day. At 9pm last night, we got a message from my friend Tobi, who's in the Swingle Singers and lives in London. He was beat-boxing Barack Obama's name, already wanting to know the results. A German living in London and *he's* impatient. Try living here.

The last two elections I voted with my heart, which tends to be green or independent, over logic. Fact is this time I feel I can vote with both. I really *like* Obama. I sincerely do. I'm not old enough to have experienced Kennedy, but that's the feeling I get. Fresh new-ness with good potential. Maybe it's because I'm young but I'll take someone coming in with less experience and more integrity than someone on the way out with both. Of course McCain wasn't ever an option for me.

But others were. In the past I voted for Nader - just once. Then I realized he does better for the world by helping safety standards and would likely not make nor like being much of a president. Kucinich - who really addresses the needs of the poor and marginalized in a way that no "black" candidate in this race has. These have been the candidates for me. But I can safely say Obama is it this time.

Had an interesting conversation with a friend about "prejudice" as regards to racism in the North and in the South the other day. We were both defining prejudice as "pre-judging" but I have always thought of it as sort of post- and pre-judging, and talked about it that way in our conversation. "It's ignorance otherwise" if you pre-judge, but from a place of not knowing. says otherwise, all is included in prejudice: unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason.
2.any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable.
3.unreasonable feelings, opinions, or attitudes, esp. of a hostile nature, regarding a racial, religious, or national group.
4.such attitudes considered collectively: The war against prejudice is never-ending.
5.damage or injury; detriment: a law that operated to the prejudice of the majority.

Huh. I was all prepared to do a blog entry about how prejudice is both post and pre-judging, then it turns out the dictionary already accounts for that.

So instead let me get a bit more personal.
I used to work for a radical lefty bookstore, the kind of place that would have made my commie parents proud, if they were still around. There the issue was never which of the two majors you would vote for, but how to choose amongst the independents and get counted at all. They would likely say I have fallen from the fold, especially because I readily read the NYT for my news now, but the fact is in the beginning, from the beginning, with pre-judging, I was ready to vote for Obama - I THOUGHT - because of his race. That's right. Because of it. I didn't much care for Hilary, never have, and she totally lost me when she got screedy. Fact is I am picky, as I often am about women, I wanted a GREAT first woman president, not just anyone.

And the fact is that I DO think race is making a difference and will make a difference. Get him in there. Besides the fact that he's charismatic and strong, and real in the world, just having a face and voice that's not the same standard old white guy was enough to get me to vote for him from day one.

Now, of course, I am paying attention and choosing him over the others, and my others are not McCain, but the independents. I am choosing him not just because of his race or background, but because I just like the guy. I have since day one. First came prejudice, then personal preference. Sometimes prejudice is more beneficial than harmful.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Woken - flash fiction

I'm at Edenfred again today. Lovely cool rainy day to be inside writing.

A flash fiction piece I wrote this last week. When I spoke to my friend Owen about it, I told him about how before writing this I was feeling very resistant, very sort of "why should I write, I have nothing to write about, I'm not going to write right now," etc. And then the first line came into my head, as is often the case with flash fiction, and out this came, basically as is.

Still needs revision, but here it is for your perusal!

I am still waiting to hear back from to see if they are publishing some of mine.

As for the novel, which is the drive of most of today, I am completely revising the beginning, adding new, young characters, to show the story more for me. You'll be happy to know I START with dialog! That's how committed I am to change...

More later...



A Flash Fiction by Miriam Hall
She waits, the last customer at the neighborhood sushi joint, in the far corner chair, where she can see all walls both outside the window and those closing her in. Anyone walking by would say she could just as easily be an employee and someone finishing their food – her glance, unnoticing, set at a point far off from Ashland Avenue, goes unmet, and her focus undefined.
She is, in fact, a customer, or would have been more of one if he hadn’t stood her up.
“In the age of cell phones there’s no excuse for this kind of thing,” the waitress offers indirect and unasked-for commiseration to the waiting woman, who does not, mercifully, even hear her. She does not see the $1.52 check for her Sprite in a red plastic Coca-cola cup, nor does she notice that everyone else has left; only that he never arrived.
Once a week, the employees take turns sweeping up at the end of the night. This means they only have to stay late one night out of seven, and as they almost all have children, they can go home a bit early the other nights. The blond, 40-ish woman who’s been there all dinner hour and well into the end of the drinking crowd has gone virtually unnoticed by anyone but her waitress. Never has she gone to the bathroom or stray from her station, gripping her cell phone as if to strangle it in her right hand, her forehead half against the glass and left hand wrapped around her waist, as if cradling or holding herself.
So the last employee, a young man of South American descent, doesn’t even notice her until everyone else has left. He figures she must be asleep, and as they don’t use a vacuum cleaner or anything loud while wiping things down, he figures he’ll let her rest. She does not even flicker when he shuts off the neon sign declaring them “OPEN” (it had lost the N last week, leading locals to joke the their country yokel friends that “OPE” was Japanese for “OPEN”).
The young man takes his time, both so he can clock out on the full hour and to respect the sadness she’d feel on waking only to find her date never showed. For that must be her story. That she got stood up. He wonders about her story – had gotten a small snippet or two from her waitress as she clocked out. In fact, he becomes so attached to her, in a way, and the little stories he’s made up for her – that she’s a widow who will never find love again, or 40 and still single, that as he sweeps closer to her he dreads waking her, wonders if he could just leave her there. But then he realizes she will panic if she wakes truly alone in the restaurant, especially if he locks her in.
He studies her in what remains of the street lights – like that Hopper painting he saw at the Art Institute last year, of the two folks in the cafĂ©, sitting side by side, staring out the window, totally alone. Lonely, without even trying, by default.
He becomes a bit resentful. “Why do I have to be the one to wake the lady?” The clock ticks closer to the hour and he realizes he will have to wake her, he has to clock out on time or they will wonder what kind of shenanigans he was up to.
“She must be deaf,” he thinks, as he sprays her table with ammonia, “how can she not have heard me by now?” Then he really begins to worry, “what if she is DEAD?” Her eyes don’t even appear to do the kind of fluttering blinks closed and dreaming eyes do. He takes his rag with ammonia and sets it under her nose, thinking the fumes would be the test. A bit like smelling salts.
It works.
She opens her eyes slowly and he sees her blue irises squeeze and contract with new light, though the place is the dimmest its been all night.
She did not look confused.
“Finally, you came,” she smiles and reaches over to pull his head to hers.
“I waited for you all night,” she sighs, without a hint of complaint, as if she were saying it was sunny outside today. Which it had been.
She kissed him on the lips.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Must watch.

Wow. Watch this.
(sorry link didn't work before)

Amy Tan on creativity and "making something out of nothing."
Well worth the 20 minutes.
This is also a great "talks" site.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Making Friends with Death

(title of a Judith Lief book on death - which is very good - and also on my mind lately)

Today I went on a trek with carrielovespuppies from Flickr (who also works with my babe), to Columbus, WI. As soon as I said I wanted to go out of town with her to hang out, she picked a visit to a fiber store out there, and I was elated, figuring we could go check out the odd and slightly scary but still significant Christopher Columbus Museum (the day AFTER Columbus day, nonetheless - which is inside of WI's biggest antique mall) and poke around antique shops and take pix (ok, I would anyway) of ironic small town stuff.

A few days ago I also remembered that I had promised myself last fall I could take pictures of Halloween, since I suddenly just sort of NOTICED (see this and this) it last year for the first time in a long time. It was Minneapolis - a trip doing a dharma arts program, and I was wide awake to the world in all its splendor and irony. And boy did I ever notice how the decorations - though these two examples are mild - seemed incongruous. They clearly begin to point at death. Empty pumpkin heads. Gravestones on public yards, ghosts made of tin cans and sheets. But like Valentine's day, the death is sort of not the point anymore, like the love left behind in Hallmark commercialism. So when we did Level 3/Absolute Eye (see Manic Nirvana entry and special set on Flickr entitled "chicago with John McQuade" I realized it was all coming together. The way we skirt and play with death without talking about it, just like we deal with all cravings and fear, attraction, hatred and ignorance - through commercials, consumption and jokes.

Especially after watching a good friend's dog die in my care (see last entry) and burying her today, I knew I needed to "do" something about this - art therapy. So when we headed out to Columbus, I made a deal with Carrie: stop for me if we aren't on a highway so I can capture some of this on film, ok? Or on disc, anyway.

And boy. There weren't a lot of houses, not as many as we thought we'd see, but when we found them boy did they stand out. One house was unbelievable - a real-looking mummy, much more real-ish than anything else on their yard. That threw me for a major loop. Here I was, about to go bury a beloved dog (who, it turns out, was 17, by the way, not 15!) and there's a totally fake but real looking mummy on the yard.

And so on. Photos will be up soon. But it became clear - as we got lost on the way and had to be back so I could go to Milwaukee for the funeral - that I will be going back out again. And ever.

The fiber shop, Susan's Fiber Shop, was also great in a very life-affirming way. But I recommend calling for directions - the googlemap ones got us lost.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Gizmo the sweet Pomeranian

Today, after 12 hours or so of sickness and struggle, Angel Green and Jer Strandberg's lovely 15 year old Pomeranian, Gizmo, died. She was in our care. (NEW: SEE MOVIE BELOW)

Angel and Jer are currently on a one month trip to Turkey and Italy. They were about 1/2 way through. Angel and Jer had trusted us with Gizmo, a prized and miraculous pet, for the entirety of their trip. Though we talked top limits of money to spend to save her and other logistics, none of us hoped it would come to this, of course.

Gizmo got along well with our cats, both of whom were rescued from rough situations by Jer and Angel, who live up to Angel's name, especially as animals are concerned. We tried our best. A few days ago we took her to their normal vet, as she had "cold" symptoms. He gave her nose spray and we dutifully added it to her multi-pill regimen. Yesterday, when he said we should bring her back if she wasn't doing better, she seemed great. Little to no snot.

Until after the vet closed, that is, as often is the case. Then, she began to wane a bit. Coughed up mucus until she puked - which her owners had warned us she would do, even on a normal day. She seemed tired, but nothing too excessive. We went to sleep - or tried to - figuring we'd take her in in the morning if we needed to.

And did we ever. Woke at 10am and she was laboring her breath, standing, unable to move her arthritic legs. We took her right in, and the doctor gave us the worst choice a petsitter can hear: "she's ill, almost dying, in pain, struggling. Do we intervene or let her go?" They had asked us not to put her to sleep until we got ahold of them. The Xrays were horrible - large amounts of fluid or tissue covering her lungs, so the doc couldn't even see what was in them. A tumor, her guess, or a massive infection. Then later, tests showed kidney failure.

So we called every0ne. Called hotels, parents, cell phones, all of it. Their hostess at their hotel in Istanbul was great - got the message to them. Then the other calls: calling their regular vet, calling other parents, calling Travelocity to change their tickets so they could come home asap. Many many calls of "what should we do now?". Then, after I went up to rest and have some silence, THE CALL, or second to last one "we've decided. We will put her to sleep. Will you go be with her?" And so we left, going to meet Angel's mom along the way, driving in from Milwaukee.

On the way there, not 5 minutes from the ER, the call. "She's gone."

By this merit, may all obtain omniscience.
May it defeat the enemy wrongdoing.
From the stormy waves of old age, sickness and death,
From the ocean of samsara, may this free all beings.

We sat with dead her for a bit, petted her stiff body. No more snuffling. Dylan had had some great imiations of Gizmo - for even when she was healthy she had a collapsed trachea and made odd noises all the time except when sleeping. We stood silently and watched all the times she didn't breathe, all the times she didn't bark or sniffle or sneeze. Until it was enough to know. The doctor told us Angel's mom has turned around and we could go home.

It's quiet in the house. The cats know something is up, their odd guest gone. The weather, unseasonably hot and humid today, has finally cooled off. We stare at each other, stunned.
What next? A fall of death.

From the stormy waves of old age, sickness and death,
From the ocean of samsara, may this free all beings.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Manic Nirvana

Though normally I am a bit bitter about re-use of Buddhist concepts in popular culture, the fact is that this Robert Plant album title describes exactly how I have felt the last few weeks. Especially this last weekend.

Another glorious spread, feast of truth delight, decked out in front of me. A weekend of wedding and Ikebana (contemplative flower arranging) taught by my friend Lisa Stanley from Minneapolis. A weekend of writing retreat at my friend and student's house out in Arena Wi. So much love and nature and compassion and oh, yes, writing, packed into one single weekend. Then this last weekend, the desert on the feast, the feather in the cap, John McQuade's visit to Chicago to teach the first ever weekend of Level 3 and Absolute Eye. Six of my students from Madison, seven more Chicagoans, and another newer teacher from Kansas City. Glorious fun fest, filled with re-conceptualizing confusion and art in new eyes. Hundreds of photos, huge meals and beautiful faces. I could have cried numerous times.

Then this, in my email box today from John, who is back in Toronto now, as I am back in Madison and returning to some kind of "normalcy":
"I already miss you so much. But that is the way it is: one of those "Shambhala teachings"."

It's true. This is normalcy, actually. Loss and gain in one fell swoop. So many times I considered moving to Toronto to be close to him, and after Rauschenburg's death, we spoke a lot of how we need more time together, you never know what will happen. But we are making it happen. Teacher training in Chicago next May. Excuses for visits to Madison (like, say, our wedding!). Time to hang out, time to transmit, time to witness. Time for Manic Nirvana.

If you want to see the results, which I will be posting over the next few days, please do: As Julie (flickr id: marottachicago) said "a weekend of eye orgasms" - and that was something she said BEFORE the weekend began!

Monday, September 29, 2008

A Stitch in Time

(flash fiction piece I wrote at the retreat. Still in early stages):

A Stitch in Time

Flash fiction story by Miriam Hall

She began stealing watches at a fairly young age – six, maybe seven years old. An only child, with all the time in the world on her hands. She gathered their leather or gold or plastic bands in the basement, in the bottom drawer of a dresser her mother retired for something more fashionable a few years prior. Her father used the top drawer for tools, but as he used them rarely, the bottom two drawers were empty and therefore, safe.
By her 8th birthday she had amassed a collection – would haul them out and count them by the light of the single bulb in the center of the room. 15 gold banded watches. 6 silver. 7 plastic, including a cousin’s Barbie watch, left behind at their house, so not really “stolen,” just forgotten. 10 leather. She’d sort them this way, like suits in a deck of cards, or rearrange them according to size, from the tiny gold face of her grandmother’s watch (she never used it anymore, anyway) to the bold black band and plastic bling face of the watch which had belonged to the mean man who owned the corner store. She never felt it was bad or wrong. No one ever caught her so she was never punished. Because she didn’t think of it as stealing, she never heeded any moral lessons from after-school specials on the topic of theft.
She saw it as saving time, collecting it. She counted up all the hours she could have and hold with all these watches. She noticed them all ticking time at once, and she felt she had an eternity trapped in one drawer. She was aware of both the speed of the passage of time, but also the seemingly endless span of her hoard. She was not sure where she developed this panic or what for; no one else in her family had such habits. Then again, how would she know this?
So she dedicated the first couple of months of her 8th year of life to noticing how adults, in particular, were always stealing glances from their watches and clocks, grabbing extra seconds, always in an unawares way. She began to worry that perhaps she had taken something from them, something necessary and irreplaceable, something more than her limited arithmetic could imagine. What if there was only so much time and she had taken more than her share? She felt regret. Finally, she felt she’d done something wrong. Maybe time could be owned or contained, instead of endless.
She stopped gathering watches and let her collection grow still in the drawer, no more winding, no more inner wars with herself about whether or not what she did was right.
For her 9th birthday, her father gave her a watch.
“I noticed you’ve been asking what time it is a lot lately. It’s time you have your own watch,” and he beamed at what a good father he was, heeding her needs.
She smiled and thanked her father, strapped the watch to her wrist uneasily. Of all the watches she had acquired, she had not yet worn one of them. The purple plastic scratched her skin and wore heavily on her.
The next day she took all of the watches, including the one her father gave her, on top of the stack, out to woods behind their house and smashed each one on a rock. She opened them all the way with her hands, cutting her fingers with glass, repeating a tiny prayer as she did so, made up on the spot: “Be free and return to those who need you.”

"The stories of all those animals who went to sea

who went to sea in their beautiful pea green boats..."
-from "Beautiful Pea Green Boat" by Laurie Anderson

Taught my 5th retreat out at Linda's farm this last weekend. Exhausting and beautiful, all at once, each of the students in the boat of their lives, "danced by the light of the moon". I wrote a lot about death, really struggling with it again and again, going around the bend, looking for, I only realized on the way home, a way to understand it so the pain would end or to acquire the pain as my own so I could wall it off. But it isn't mine. The fact that we die is as universal a fact as it gets, and trying to hoard that pain as my own is as unhelpful as any isolation is - unhelpful not just because of the suffering but because it simply does not match reality - the reality of total interdependence. On the way home, CTR's voice in my head "no private space." I recall first hearing this concept at Dathun (month-long meditation retreat which is a part of the Shambhala "path"), from my meditation instructor. I was talking about taking the Boddhisattva vow, and doing Tonglen with her. My fear of helping others and foresaking myself ("idiot compassion" as CTR calls it). Her explanation that anything that TRULY, honestly, and with brutal honesty does benefit us, will benefit others. We aren't talking about a donut for breakfast, we are talking about not being an asshole to one's self. Foresaking the self doesn't benefit others. Neither does trying to own a pain which belongs to the whole human race.

Every time I come around to something this big, that phrase comes in again and I feel the need for more and more brutal honesty with myself. I finally found the voice that was anchoring me to this suffering all weekend long, and probably for years now, and likely still is, just hiding deeper away now, trying to preserve some corner, some dark space to itself. This part of me, trying hard to be separate but still the same me, wants the pain and identity of death and loss for herself. "I am a person who has lost people, someone who has experienced death. I deserve to cry, to be alone, to mourn this." The issue is that yes, I do deserve to mourn, but so does everyone else. We will all lose, all feel pain. Others' pain doesn't detract from my own, it benefits it.

At the retreat, a story of a monk doing a sand mandala with a family watching. He'd been working on it for months. Someone was asking him what he would do with it when he was done and he said he would wash it into the river. A little girl, maybe 6 or 8 years old, began to cry and cry, hysterical, saying "It's so beautiful! How could you do that!" and he shed a single tear. He could feel her pain. Not judge her. Just know how hard, how really hard, impermanence is. The hardest, even, for us to "get".

"A piece of glass, and your heart just grows around it."
-another song on Bright Red by Laurie Anderson

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Feeling Begins

I wander out into the yard and find as many loose pieces of nature left behind in the winds of the last few days, dropped from drooping in the heat. As the housecleaners clean the place where I am retreating, I find nature's inconsolable messes and wrap them up into some kind of orderly but organic form. This helps me to re-enter my novel, a place where feeling is already in action when I arrive, and I need to be able to just drop on in.

Last week's assignment: what would an older you say to you now, or what would you say to a younger you?

Let nature teach you. Others have always said that a hike in nature centers them, and as much as you have suspected the same might be true for you, you have never leaned on nature, never trusted its messes to show you order, through allowing you to let go. Look out over the fallen leaves of the locust tree and watch as the gradiation from green to gold winds its way out to the river. What more order do you need than this?

Relax more than you work and the work will go better. When there is work to do, do something pleasureable first. This isn't indulgence, it's intelligence. You tell your students this ALL THE TIME - now practice what you practically preach.

Don't forget to do Artist Dates and write down your dreams. All the violence that came to me in my sleep last night need not be interpreted, but should be witnessed for what it is. Slow down, dreams often say, before your mind is awake enough to listen. Don't work your life away.

Do whatever little art projects make you happy. Sew cards. Make cut paper stop animation films. Play with nature. All of these are not distractions but ways to feed your art. A novel will write itself if you let it. Too much time with the same things to say and you'll never get it done, getting in your own way all the time.

Let the cats and love of your life show you the way. Snuggle a lot, with them and yourself.

There's not much one can say to the self of yesterday. But there's a lot to be learned for the yesterday self of today. Here is the way. Open the window and begin.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Along Superhero Lines/Self Promotion

Yikes it is hard to promote. Eeeks.

Finishing Line Press has finally sent me my contract and so I feel like I can promote my chapbook. Wait. I mean, that I HAVE to. In order to get a certain press run, I have to make pre-sales. So belly up to the bar, my friends, because now is the time to show your willingness to pay 12$ for a published bit of Miriam! I promise to make it easier for you to buy than it is turning out for me to sell myself...

I am not sure why it is so hard, but a few nights ago Dylan and I had the conversation I now think anyone embarking on a career in the arts or any kind of public office should have: "Just how famous do I *want* to be?" It sounds like a) an egotistical thing and/or b) an unrealistic conversation, as of course fame comes in wily and unpredictable ways, but underneath I found I have some issues (big surprise) about becoming "famous" in any way. Why? That remains to be seen. A simple answer is that of course fame is mixed, right, not always such a pretty bag of baubles (just ask Eryka Badu). But underneath that we all have our reasons, reasons why I don't want to email everyone I have ever known, all the bookstores I love and support and former and present teachers for blurbs. Ugh. It just makes me sick. I just want to write, can't someone else do the selling?

But no one else can. I sell me, it's always been that way, and always will be. Someone else doing it means a reproduction. And so with hesitation and doubt I will do it as much as possible and hope it gets easier over time. Sucha dilemma. Silly me - I thought "Just sell the book and it will all work out." Or maybe *I* will work it out - by working harder and more differently than ever before.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


If I were a cartoon character/superhero, I would be Supertuna!

Just think - Popeye with more Omega 3! Eating fish as well as greens. And an ability to be sad as well as grumpy enough to save the world with his anger.

Or maybe I could never be a superhero. I worry about trying to do that everyday. Like today, when I woke ok, happy, pretty settled, but yawned my way through my 9am class, not out of boredom, but out of apparent exhaustion. The night before's 12 hours of catch up didn't catch me up all the way, I guess. Wandering home, enjoying the day, wondering why I don't spend more time outside, only to fall asleep on the couch, a cat on each curve of my hip.

I woke craving tuna. Needing a tuna salad sandwich. Seems to be a cold-weather craving for me, like the fats in the tuna are just what I need. Mayo, capers, cumin, celery salt. The cats both lick the can in turns. Maybe I would be a kick the can hero! I was never good at this in my schooldays. I feared things flying at my face.

It's not that I wouldn't make a good hero, I would. But what do heroes have for personal lives? They have to lie all the time, the ultimate governmental secret position, unable to tell lovers or brothers what they actually do for a living. "Um, I travel a lot?". Would "contemplative arts teacher" be the perfect, unpredictable cover-up for a superhero? If so, maybe I am closer than I think. And I have enough trouble with boundaries as it is trying to save myself and those I love, much less the whole world.

I feel about superheroes the same way I do about Santa - how on earth do they get around the world so fast, take care of all that goes wrong, or all that deserves meritous gifts, in such short time? Surely it must be that they live on some alternate plane. They exist where others cannot live - in telephone booths or on the North Pole - in order that others may survive.

I am "supposed" to be writing fiction. This was the assignment I gave the classes this week. And usually I have no problems with that - I woke late last night suddenly knowing how to "fix" an issue I am having with Orphano, I tend toward a lot of flash fiction lately, more often than journaling, even. And yet today I am recalcitrant toward everything- even my own exercise. I don't want to do work, I don't want to read, I don't want to even go for a walk. Everything I want I don't want just because I want it. Maybe I should try and do something I *don't* want to do and see if that, too, has been tainted? I am not depressed, oddly, just tired. More than half of the last two weeks away and I still haven't recovered. This is what the life of a minor superhero could be like - more traveling salesman than superhero.

So I'll go brush my teeth, the cats will go back to sleeping and I'll dink around on flickr for a bit. Not exactly top tuna behavior, but not bad for a Wednesday afternoon without huge looming deadlines. Got to take my down moments when I can, yo. Maybe I'll even take my flippers out for a walk...

Monday, September 08, 2008

Sources of insight

Intuition (from perception of truth, fact, etc., independent of any reasoning process; immediate apprehension.
5.Philosophy. immediate cognition of an object not inferred or determined by a previous cognition of the same object.

Instinct (from inborn pattern of activity or tendency to action common to a given biological species.
2.a natural or innate impulse, inclination, or tendency.
3.a natural aptitude or gift: an instinct for making money.
4.natural intuitive power.

Here I am, at my first day as a day fellow at Edenfred, and I am thinking about the conversations I had over the weekend, teaching Miksang at the Chicago Shambhala Center, as well as with birdfarm and her partner. Ever since Acharya Jeremy Hayward came to visit and give his program entitled Experience, Consciousness and Death, I have been thinking about what it means, or could mean, that (according to the research of many cognitive psychologists and its implications) we only actually consciously deal with 4 out of 1 million parts of visual data which enter our minds at any given moment. That's a really small number, and that weekend we talked about how we must then construct a lot of story with so little to go on.

But one question that has been nagging me is: "What happens with the other parts? That's a lot of bits/bytes of information! Do we store those? Do they serve us? Is this what we mean by 90% of our brain "not getting used"?"

There are so many possible thoughts and discussions to come out of this, but the one we had at dinner on Saturday night rotated around the idea that information comes in "under the radar" so to speak and gets stored for when we need it, when we least expect it. birdfarm and partner had great examples to share - the best being a fireman who was out in a forest fire and "without thinking," or from instinct/intuition, did what was needed and "right" in the situation to save himself (the best he could do) and all the other 27 firemen died. In a matter of seconds, perceptual information he had previously taken in somehow served him back without being consciously aware he had either "learned" how to save himself or being aware it was going back out. Amazing. And we talk about this in Shambhala all the time - how you can actually "do the right thing" if you just relax, let your attention do its work, trust that it is happening without your ego or conscious mind in gear.

That was great - a sort of scientific/cognitive psychology "explanation" for something folks had only explained to me in a bit of a "woo woo" way before. But then I became curious - what had I thought before when folks said "intuition" or "instinct"? Where did I learn those come from, if this new idea was so surprising to me? Instinct has always connotated to me that something is unlearned, genetic, so deeply and animal-y ingrained that we are totally unaware of it, but also the implication, for me, is that it's not an exchange with the outside world, rather, a response. Intuition on the other had is more morphous - does it mean an exhange? Hadn't thought so, but it makes sense to think of it now that way. Not all from the self, but rather a meeting of the true self, not ego self, non-conscious self, and the "messages" or direct, clear, unconceptual perceptions of the world. The term "gut feeling" pulls attention from the mind (as we usually think of it) down into the body. Below. Deep inside. Under the radar.

I feel as if I am saying nothing new, but the difference here is that perceptual, sub-conscious exchange. That's what I hadn't really realized before could be - likely was/is happening. an exchange, whereby lesser used back portions of our brains are using information to help us to live, survive and also do what we tend to think of as "higher brain/eg frontal lobe" functions. Not just get out of a forest fire, but write a novel, too. The mystery comes from the world, in other words, as much as from ourselves. Wow.

Now off to tap into some of that, hopefully. A rainy day, perfect for writing, as my Day Fellow buddy Bridget calls it. We'll see!

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Queen of Hearts

(photo from recent trip to Chicago - many bustier forms on Michigan Avenue)

I have used queen beds since my sophomore year in college. In high school, I had my own room (true of all my school life up until then - as the only daughter with two brothers I always had my own room and a single bed), and just after it, in the year between when I was traveling part time, I think I might have had two single beds pushed together for some reason, but of course my dorm bed freshman year was tiny - smaller than a single, I am certain.

My sophomore year I was returning to college from 1/2 a year off, after my mother's death. I had no bed to speak of, no car either (had crashed that); had to borrow a friend's truck to move my stuff, newly inherited bits, but no beds. So I bought a futon - seemed the most practical thing in a small bedroom which, with roommates, would also be my private living room - and I had to choose what size. The friend said "why not get a queen size?". Why not? I didn't question his argument, it wasn't that much of a difference in price, and I found being able to splay out really pleasurable. But I had another agenda. I also believed that queen-sized bed would bring me a lover.

Really. Honestly. Total no holds barred here. I still recall the person on whom I had a crush, helping to move the futon into my new place with me. I wanted that person to take me by the wrists, pull me down onto that new and still smelly mattress and make sweet love to me. I wanted someone to want to move in with me, just to share that queen-sized bed with me.

I did have some lovers. Some old lovers came back, enjoyed more room with me, though clearly, in the end, not enough space. New lovers popped up - a random architect, recently divorced, with whom I spent most time in Chicago at their place, though once on my futon in Madison. The futon moved to storage for the year I was in France (where I only had a single bed and no sex) and then to my new place with more roommates the year after. There it did me no good. I slept mostly on the futon in couch form - a tiny, tiny bedroom, the ultimate Miriam compromise room - it was easiest that way, and less lonely.

It was my bed for the first two years living alone and there it got a lot of traffic but nothing permanent. Then, a former girlfriend moved and offered to sell me her queen-sized bed, and I gave up the futon for good. I thought "this is a good move, maybe a bed will reek of more permanency?" I had that bed for a few years, and it did, eventually, wind up being the bed on which I first slept with my now partner. Erika offered a piece of advice when we first moved in "Take your bed away from the wall, leave both sides open, so a lover can fall in onto it as easily as you can." Maybe it was her advice, maybe some good juju from the mattress finally coming to fruition, maybe I was finally no longer desperate, overwhelmed, searching for love and myself, like the mattress, now centered with its head below the window and both sides bared, open.

This spring we bought a new mattress. It was time.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Fit and Fat

So. I've been running, for real, lately. The last two months I've been training for a 5k - not any particular race, and I am not sure I even want to RUN in a race persay, but just to give me some direction. I was inspired by a student of mine who has been training for a 1/2 marathon, and also by the fact that I have run, on and off (mostly off) for years, to no success, no improvement, no noticeable effect. This is because I would run to burn off steam after the fact - after work, after a hard day, not in any particular order or schedule, and not with any kind of plan. Now, I figured, if I follow a schedule, I can see gain and goals and work toward something.

And it's working. I started this with Becky before she moved, and have kept on doing it. The plan is called "from couch potato to 5k" and over nine weeks they take you through a schedule comprised of first walking more than running, then running more than walking, and finally, just running. Or jogging. Whatever. Moving at a heart-rate raising pace. And I'm doing that. I've been running 3x week for weeks now, not even sure how many, but a lot - two months, maybe? and today I ran for 20 minutes straight without stopping - about 2 miles.

2 miles. When I was at my "fittest" I couldn't even run a mile. My heart would pump too hard, my lungs would ache and my legs would turn to jelly. Now, the only thing that stops me is either boredom (meditation training has helped to deal with that) or sore calves (they are slower to develop than my heart and lungs, which are handling all of this just fine). I am estatic, slow to share the news, embarassed somehow that that is "all" I can run, that I had to work up to "that". And then, as I've been sharing, folks have been surprised: "I can't run for shit," "I could never do that," this from my skinny next door neighbor who is cute as a button and does yoga, daily.

The only thing is that I haven't lost any weight. That certainly wasn't my only goal, but I of course wanted it to happen - getting back to a size 12 would be a nice side benefit of not running out of breath (literally) in 5 minutes of activity. Instead, I've gained weight. There are other factors - meds, for instance - but other friends who have trained to run more than they were previously used to have told me that this isn't that odd, actually. The metabolism shifts.

Last night Amy and I went out to a cute bar for dinner and I felt very self-conscious, my size 16 awkward on a stool, perched to eat. It's because I am in Milwaukee, where I am *less* dressed up than in Madison, where I am often the person in the room with her outfit more together. Sigh. One step forward, two psychological steps back. I will persevere and keep running - no stopping that now, I need it for mental as well as physical health - but one little part of me, who occasionally rares up and gets angry about it, wants to know why. Why, after all this, can't I shed 20 pounds?

For now I will resign myself - no, wrong word - be ok with the fact that I may be feeling fat, but I am fit, for sure, moreso than ever in my life. Ever.

Friday, August 29, 2008

What I know/What I don't know

All week I've been considering how to do the topic (the title of this entry) I gave to my students. I've been thinking about grief, clearly, from my last entry, as I went to my hometown and tried to "settle" some feeling of haunting I've been having about it. In my own home, two hours from my original home town, I often feel echoes of the home I grew up in and wished I was there, instead, for instance. So I drove by, I went past the houses of old friends, some drifted away, some still friends, most lost in the forests of adolescence, either through force or accident. And yet, I felt the opposite of peace. I felt agony, confusion, and the rending of childhood from my arms, which, quite fantastically, had in some realm still been holding on, and holding on hard, to my parents, to childhood, to the past.

I was surprised that I was able to then go on to my nephew's birthday party and have a good time. Meet my brother's new girlfriend, with whom he is about to co-habitate and who just so happens to be a Medical Examiner (the person who medically determines whether someone's corpse died naturally or with incident), chat with Tyler's quite extroverted family and play Nerf football (of sorts) with him. It wasn't ignoring my pain - it was more what phenomenologists call "bracketing" - setting aside a whole set of perceptions in order to function in the now. As I drove out of town, across the bridges built only as I was an adolescent and only as I had need to use them - to leave town- I felt it all come back. I listened to Radiohead. I cried, not knowing why, and then, I called people, when the pain got too bad.

"The losses continue," birdfarm noted. Yes, yes they do. She was so helpful, really grounded me, not separating the loss or dismissing it, but not indulging it either, just helping me to see what *is*. I felt much better giving some name, though as of yet, and likely never, an end, to the pain.

Last night, after teaching my first Miksang class of the semester at Marquette, I met my brother Alex and his lovely girlfriend, Patty, out for dinner at Miss Katie's Diner near campus. I'd been there before once with a long complicated person of my past, and hadn't been back in over a decade. It was a great time - our waitress had real personality and the mashed potatoes had real potatoes. After we'd ordered (meatloaf for Patty and me, breakfast-for-dinner for Alex), and got our "first course" (diner style - bread and butter for Alex, cole slaw for me and iceberg lettuce salad for Patty) Alex looked at me for a moment, then said "So, you like cole slaw, huh?". I had just picked cabbage from our own garden a couple of days ago with full intention to make more at home - if I make it mayo-free, Dylan will even eat it! - and I nodded yes, though said that this certainly wasn't the best I had had.

"Dad always ordered cole slaw, you know." I stopped, spoon mid-air. No. No, I didn't know that. Or, as I was telling my students in class just an hour before, their faces skeptical to the idea, some PART of me saw that, again and again, dad ordering cole slaw at Schreiner's restaurant in Fond Du Lac, where we'd stop en route to the cabin, at Mr G's in Door County ("though I'm not sure they *had* cole slaw, I'm sure dad would have ordered it if they did" Alex admitted), anywhere he could get it. Some part of me saw it, though because he died when I was 12, I had no context for Cole Slaw (other than "adult ick", likely) so I forgot that I knew it.

I asked him if mom made it fresh at home (she was quite the gardener) or if he just ordered it in restaurants. "Just in restaurants, I think." I felt, though I am not proud of it, a slight vindication (that I make something fresh that my mother never made), alongside the pain of realizing I had forgotten something, some clue, some tiny but regular part about my dad in an never-ending series of losses, and some pleasure that somehow part of me had remembered and too, always orders Slaw.

Patty looked surprised, or curious. "There are lots of different takes we all have on our parents," I explained and she confirmed the age differences between me and Alex (5) then Alex and David (4) making almost 10 years span. "No wonder," she said and I responded "Yeah, I was 12 and David was 21 or 2 (there are a few months in there when he is 10 years older than me) when dad died."

"What are some other examples?" she asked, her face soft and curious.
"For one," Alex said, a slight smile on his face, "We remember the day of his death differently."
(We KNOW it differently, I might add here)
"Yep. The timeline, even certain facts, are lost in the melee. We experienced it differently, and trauma changes time."
"Death slows time." Alex said, bluntly, and I nodded. It's true. And also speeds it up.

Dinner came and we moved on to other topics - things Patty knew for instance, cleanly unrelated to death - the corrupt and messy lineage of Detroit mayors ("She grew up close to 8 mile," as Alex likes to put it), and, more generally, how hard it is to be "clean" in a context where everything has been corrupt for decades, not just in Detroit, but in all politics and business.

I am still haunted by the fact that my father loved cole slaw, and so do I. Part of me wants to hold a conference, and real quick like before we forget anything more, before time steals away all that we have already lost, write down EVERYTHING WE ALL KNOW or think we know about these two people, now dead for so long. Bring your memories bad and good, bring what you think are facts and fill the holes. But the holes will be empty no matter how much I know, and I feel a strange peace with that. I smile now thinking of the cole slaw. What a treat to learn something I already knew, as if it is for the first time.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Vision

I crawl down the roots of a tree, following an intuition that something awaits me. Once under the roots, there is a river which leads from its underground branches, starting smaller and leading to the sea.  I straddle it, a giant, though the river itself is not so small, so I realize I am out of proportion, that it is real, not a trickle, after all. I put one foot on the right bank, then the other on the left, delicate, not tromping, yet clearly unable to lay my body down and bathe. It is only when I see the ferryman that I realize the river I am straddling is the classic Styx. I stumble through my pockets for change, but I have none, yet he never asks anything of me, him being smaller than my pinky toe, it's not like he could really demand anything of a giant like me, bigger than death and caught in-between.

As the Styx empties into the sea, I seem to shrink, and flow with all the corpses floating down her gullet and into the great belly of human experience.  Now I am not above death, I am a part of her flow and suddenly I feel the sorrow of myself and all other humans who have lost or are lost. It is a relief, not to feel I have cheated death somehow, but can feel it like the others do. 

We pass through a drain, the sea being sucked yet underground again, below the ground of the underground, and there we all become pellets which nurture the earth.  I see nothing of myself again or anyone else, all egos dissolve, all desires, and the last sense I have before I wake is of utter peace, as I fertilize the roots of an oak tree and move upwards inside its life, beginning again.

(This came to me lying on the acupuncture table - as birdfarm and her partner call "an expensive nap" - later I found out the sound I thought was drumming as I stumbled into a semi-conscious "journeying" state was actually their washer and dryer! I had just been back in my home town the day before, death on my mind, thinking about lost childhood and my parents, both dead and never coming back. It was a rough trip, and this was a healing journey which gave me back some sense of perspective, without any conscious mind at work. Yay!)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

"Everything is coming up Miriam"


A few days ago, I got emails confirming the following two good pieces of news:
1. Justin Nolan and I got a show at the Overture for fall of 09 entitled Known and Unknown
(Photography show with my dumpster abstracts and his Tilt Shift lens work)
2. Bridget Birdsall and I got accepted at Edenfred as day fellows - meaning we have free retreat space every Monday of September and October to write there. Amazing place.

I said to Dylan "sure, everything is coming up me, this is good news, but I just wish someone would publish my freaking poetry chapbook so I can move on already!"

The next day I get my third good piece of news:
3. Finishing Line Press will publish my poetry chapbook! Woo hoo! Finally!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Your voice is so loud I cannot hear what you are saying

In London, I read a review of Jeanette Winterson's new book, The Stone Gods. The hardcover just came out stateside in April of this year, but it was published last year in Britain, so I got the paperback, now as old as the hardback here, in Camden Town, at Waterstone's, I am a bit ashamed to admit. It had, in fact, just moved off the 2-for-1 shelf, but I was so happy to hold her in hand that I paid full price gladly.

For a long time I have hoarded Winterson's oeuvre. I often waited, even when I was a book buyer for a bookstore and knew full well when her next tome would arrive, even often receiving it free from the publisher in hardback, until the paperback came out, as a way to delay gratification (and you can take that as literally or metaphorically as you'd like).

But the truth is, I must finally admit, I feel her writing has worn out. I think she actually believes this, too, for years ago, she swore she would do the Greek Gods series (her contribution was on Atlas) and then end. That's it. Finito. Not another novel or short story. She did a kids book (Tanglewreck) and then that really appeared to be it. I even stopped looking for her books on the shelves at new stores. But here it is. Another novel. And I just kind of think it doesn't work.

Why? Winterson's writing consists mostly of voice: language use, sense of character(s) and emotional relationship. She's highly lyrical, which I have always and still do love. But this time around, like in Powerbook (the second to last before the Atlas book and of a similar plot bend to Stone Gods) she is trying too much to build a world, a story, with literal value as well as emotional. The Passion, Written on the Body and Lighthousekeeping, three of her best, are all based on more of an emotive landscape than a political or world-sized plot. She did a great job with the Atlas myth because it's a story we already know. In other words, Winterson is a fantastic show-er and a weak teller. So when she's got a story to *tell*, which she does here in Stone Gods, at least to set the stage to do the showing, it's a rough haul for her.

And for me. I turn to certain authors when I feel down, as I have since returning from Britain, in order to inspire and revive me. Ondaatje, Winterson, Atwood and Toni Morrison are the perennials, though also often Karen Tei Yamashita, Italo Calvino and Jamaica Kincaid (not to mention Edwidge Danticat - this middle range list could go on and on!) often do the trick. Those first four authors - I own everything they have ever written, I read their books again and again, and I read them when I desperately need inspiration for life and/or writing, which often go wonkers together, at the same time or in quick succession. So this is why I feel a bit, well, miffed, this time. What the heck? Of course I want her to try new things. Of course I think she shouldn't just sing the same song each time. And yet...

Some of the feeling comes from disappointment - that I hoped a book would coddle me and it isn't doing the trick. Some of it comes from a realization awhile back that literature doesn't do the same escape hatch trick it used to - because *I* can't "get away" like I used to, now that I realize it won't, in the long run, do any good. But finally, part is outright fear. Stone Gods tells a story vaguely familiar to that of my novel, Orphano. And here I encounter a problem I didn't use to have, back when I loved novels but didn't write them - that I can see myself in her, see the struggle to write something plot-driven when you are a lyrical writer, and I fear I will fail. I love the language of my novel and I think it is very, very good. Really. But I am not so sure about conflict, not so sure about narrative drive or plot. And I know, I have right in front of me, a sample of when those feel contrived, written by one of my favorite authors. Sigh.

Guess it's better to hear it from her than anyone else, eh?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Waiting to Know

Did flash fiction/short shorts/micro fiction (under 500-1,000 words - this one is under 200) with the kids today. Some got that you really have to insert conflict EARLY in order for it to work, some will have to work on it. Here's what I wrote at the park with the kids - the first one I wrote sucked, totally expected, and off, but this one is actually quite good, if I do say so myself...

Waiting to Know

Short short by Miriam Hall

The sharp sound of screaming began at exactly 2:02pm. He knows this even now because his watch face froze in his mind at that moment, hands both perking to the right. The only other detail he recalls from that time is a debilitated rust and black beetle next to his left hand, wing ends crushed in some accident, or on purpose.

“It’s a soccer game and someone’s team is winning,” he convinced himself, though the calls were blood-curdling. He needed it to be a game. He had just found a handwritten note from his wife on her lavender stationary, with her black fountain pen. It included, amongst others, the following lines: “Not like it used to be,” “He just makes me happier,” and “I can’t live with your depression about dying.”

Later that day, he read in an evening rag that a school bus had gone off the single lane, ruby-colored, covered bridge near his waterside home. Forty schoolchildren, kindergarten aged, and two teachers, plus the driver, plunged into the raging river. Somehow, they all survived.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Santa is Satan with a Beard

Today we had "midterm" evaluations - the students filled out a sheet letting me know how they think they are doing in the class, and I filled out the same sheet. They told me and explained themselves, then we had a conversation. It was great - most of the kids are perfectionists, so they underrated themselves, and it was neat to see their eyes light up when I could tell them "Yes. I am giving you this rating because you rock, not because I am trying to make you feel good." I learned that the more acting out ones actually have problems at home or this is their first time away from home, one of the girls who gets distracted the most TOLD ME to set her apart from the other girls when we are on field trips so she will stay on focus. And finally, one of the strongest students told me she came to this camp because she wants to become a poet when she grows up. "I came here so I could improve my writing, so I can grow up to be a poet." How often do you hear kids say that? NOT OFTEN, LET ME TELL YOU. I almost started crying. "And have you learned a lot about writing?" I asked. "Yes, I have," she answered with a massive grin.

Meanwhile, my brave 21 year old assistant took charge of the remaining group and did a half activity/half class thing - first, she taught them the basics of fiction (we are switching over to fiction next week) and they made up six word stories, which they then went outside and wrote on the sidewalks of the college campus we are on. After that was done - and the results were admired and photographed (pix up soon on Flickr) - she brought them back up to the room and had them do improv story games. Games where you die if you drop the plot, games where people do a live exquisite corpse type story, etc. Super fun. Very high energy, but super fun.

One of my more reserved and clever students came up with the six word "story" that is the title for today's blog. She said "I am not sure if I should tell it to you, because the assistant said I shouldn't put it on the sidewalk, so I thought it might be wrong." I finally goaded her into telling me, and I told her that while it wasn't really a story, it was really, really funny, and not so much wrong as just potential offensive - on a Dominican college campus, no less. She smiled, relieved. Offensive she could take being - just not wrong.

Quite a few of the kids in the class think that editing is a waste of time, and this is my karma, again, this week, so easy - for it wasn't until a couple of years ago that I finally *got* editing - I am not as afraid of it anymore, and I realize, and forgive myself, for not getting things "right the first time," as if there were a right to be had. It's been therapeutic, in fact, to take these 12 year olds and those of similar age through Writing Down the Bones, allowing them freedoms no one gave me at that age, though certainly plenty encouraged me in my writing, for sure!

So Santa is Satan sometimes. You can't always trust your gifts. Sometimes - usually, as Becky and I recalled for the fiftieth time last night over dinner at Pasqual's, your strength and weakness are not even two sides of the same coin, or siblings. They are the same. Move one letter two spaces over and your ego plays a whole new role in your life.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

"I'm so tired...I haven't slept a wink..."

-The Beatles.

Teaching summer camp at the moment, or rather, a hybrid summer camp/summer school for Gifted and Talented Wisconsin kids, from all walks, really, and all skill levels within the actually quite wide range of G+T. The job is thrilling and fun, exhausting and draining, all at the same time.

I've a class of 15 junior high school kids - ages 12-15 - 5 boys, the rest, girls. They come to the class with really wide-ranging skill levels when it comes to writing - some are sensitive but don't express themselves clearly, some are insensitive to others' feelings but write a damned good story. Then there's the middle world - good with what they do, but are used to scraping by, bored in school. These are the ones it is hard to challenge - and I likened the experience of, along with my aide, assisting all 15 at once, to being like having 15 legs and two heads. Phew.

Two of the things that have come up, just today, that blow my mind in one way or another (and each day is full of stuff like this!):

One student my aide and I talked about at lunch with his RA. He's the highly sensitive and actually intellectually articulate type, but his emotional growth is clearly stunted. He keeps himself separate, actually talks to himself at times, and often, when he gets going, will go on and on (I told my aide that a "conversation" with him actually qualifies as a "monologue") regardless of whether or not (usually me or my aide) anyone is listening. His RA expressed similar observations, and we all agreed our only concern is that other kids will mock him or shut him out. I said "that hasn't happened yet," (this was at lunch) "but I know it will. We'll keep each other posted."

Then it did, slowly but surely throughout the very same afternoon. Bit by bit, they excluded him, talking about him while he was reading aloud, leaving him behind (today they are aloud to begin walking to and from class as a group) and snickering at his comments or walking style. Tomorrow I will give a general respect talk to back up my dirty looks, and begin speaking privately and directly to those who are doing it the most, before it catches on.

But here's the thing. What I said to his RA is this "I am mostly concerned for him - he seems to not be empathic, not connect with others. He speaks violently sometimes, and disjointedly, as if he doesn't realize others have feelings, though he is often aware of his own." Then it happened - doing Natalie Goldbergs "Be An Animal" chapter today in class, I asked this question "How many of you have imagined what it would be to be inside another human or animal's head?" Too vague, so I tried the opposite: "Has anyone NOT ever tried this?" Of course no one else raised their hand, but he raised his. "Never?" I asked, before I could stop myself, shocked. "No. I do not imagine myself to be other beings." he stated in his hyper-articulate manner.

What worries me isn't the kids mocking him, that we can stop. What worries me for him is him.

We went to the zoo today, to the primate house. Long hot walk both ways, but the kids barely complained. And the primates were rich material - lazy lemurs, cute colobos and frisky chimps. Everyone had a great time - even if the great time involved becoming angry at zoos, and expressing that on paper in a real way. I was aiming for them to practice personification and anthropomorphism - many of them, in fact, crawled right into the primates' heads and really discovered some amazing observations. Lovely, in fact. Often heart-breaking.

Half way through our time there, a crew of Head Start teachers and kids came in, utterly recognizable (from my days doing school shows at the Overture) in their safety vests, and by the fact that every single child (though not all adults) were African-American. They stopped at each station, observing, correcting each other, squealing. In a totally non-racist way, you could see my students comparing the kids to the apes (as there were so many kids, and they were all in the way; later a student told me, too, that yesterday the Psychology class was TOLD to compare primates to people in front of them). As so was I.

Then families began to pour in, and the air got stuffier, filled with claustrophobia (for me) and heat and breath. The Head Start kids got lost in the crowd - you could hear them calling out for each other, and then at one point, in the peak of the busy-ness, a very loud, very frightening banging began - what turned out to be a ton-heavy gorilla responding to a threatening gesture from a small boy in the crowd, who had crawled past the ropes and propped himself illegally close to the glass. Then the chimps, in the room I was in, kicked in, with gorillas, chimps and kids banging on safety glass or plastic, and my kids jumped up, rushing to see the action, as of course, everyone was. Into this melee, just off to the entrance, walked a new school group, this time all white, adults and teachers, wearing often over-sized red tee-shirts with the name of their school printed neatly on the chests: "Le Petite Academy." I don't know this school but I could read what it looked like from so much of the groups' characteristics, just on the surface. I felt both a sense of equinimity - everyone gets to go to the free zoo - and sadness, though I still don't know why.

When we got back one girl in my group, who happens to be African-American (in fact her family is part of the Nation of Islam in Milwaukee) had noted what had happened; the ruckus and rushing, crowding and piles of black kids, then, in the wake of the crowd leaving, dispersing, the silent wave of white kids. No one other than me noticed, as I asked to see if anyone had, after she was done reading.

No conclusions. Just observations - or only a few conclusions, anyway. Will try to keep talking about this here as it is important for me to "download" as a friend calls it, with all the intensity continually ramping up with the kids. Shout out to Birdfarm who just got done doing what I am doing only with a much harder class, larger, often with topics she wasn't ready to teach and at an age she didn't know well or want to work with. This is exhausting even when you are doing just what you love with just the right group. And they are - just the right group. Amazing.