{#npm’17: from books, with love}

Paisley Abbey 22

One of my favorite stories of an infectious book – pardon the really bad pun – happened in a Sunday School Room turned dressing room of Paisley Abbey a few years ago. Our chorus was doing an afternoon performance in this gorgeous venue which was also a bit short on private space, so our soloist for the Stabat Mater, a lovely Irish mezzo called Una McMahon, was crammed in with us regular singers, up a very, very narrow and treacherous spiral slate staircase in a long narrow attic room. She was sitting alone, as the other singers were giving her space, but I thought she was just a ringer from another choir, so I settled in at the otherwise empty table with her, my book in hand… whereupon she leaned across the table and grabbed my arm. “Have you read this book?” she asked, holding up THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS by Rebecca Skloot. “Um, no,” I began, intending to tell her my mother’s book club was reading it – but I never got in another word. She was off, so grateful that someone had breached her isolation so she could tell them… It was THE BEST book she had ever READ and I had to go to Waterstones at the tea break and get it IMMEDIATELY and what they did to this POOR WOMAN’S REMAINS was absolutely CRIMINAL, but she had SAVED so many PEOPLE and there was this total ethical stew about it, and people ought to really THINK before they do this type of thing, and… and…

I wanted to hug her delight. I wanted to go trekking across the city (and it was pouring down buckets, so let me tell you about how committed I was feeling) to find a bookstore and get it, right away. When was the last time you felt like grabbing a virtual stranger and pressing a book into their hands? I loved her enthusiasm so very much, and it’s stuck with me these years later.

And as Oprah Winfrey has finally finished her seven-year project to bring this story to film, Mrs. Henrietta Lacks is on my mind again. They stole the cells from her body before it was returned to the family. The lab people nonchalantly went on, working from “material” they had to produce life-saving cells to test Jonas Salk’s virus on. It wasn’t illegal, necessarily. But to keep her family from knowing her contribution to science – because she was the “unimportant” bit – was a bit unfeeling, to say the least.

Long live the immortal cells, and the work that scientists do – and long live the human contribution. May we tenaciously cling to our humane-ity.

epigraph on an immortal life

a theft before her body cooled, fair game in laboratory hands
those bold, immortal cells a boon each scientists could understand

with no permission sought, unknown this treasured life bloomed, undeterred,
her DNA a cornerstone and life to others has conferred.

{#npm’17: still life with linens}

Not having been raised in a family that really “did” Easter (the fourth Thursday in November being the only demonstrably non-pagan holiday prompted our family’s all-out celebration of it, though believing gratitude to be a directive from on high helped, as well firmly believing gratitude has nothing whatsoever to do with America, its fabled friendships with the disenfranchised people it later murdered wholesale, nor with those whose extreme piety created odd sartorial choices that excluded jewelry, but included ginormous buckles), my Sunday was spent listening to Berlioz’s Te Deum and ironing table linens. A very hot iron, flattening wrinkles, a hiss of the spray bottle, the drum of rain against the skylight – and briefly, a sense of order, of peace. All very fleeting and imaginary, yes. But, for a moment, all was right in the world.

& the crooked made straight

control from chaos
order, in a puff of steam
imposed perfection

{#npm’17: eliot among the rocks}

Glasgow Botanic Gardens T 11

Today is as good a day as any to re-post a sub from 2011. It was just at the beginning of March, and I was reading T.S. Eliot. His body of work is vast and deep, and I hadn’t read this one in a long while. So. Let’s time travel back to pre-Easter 2011:

Lent, whatever your religious stripe, really is a good reminder to us that we shall not surely die without our Cherished Things. It’s an exercise in self-discovery to realize how much we suffer when we deviate from the little streambed of our usual haunts and activities. How like ants we are, only traveling along our same little lines, doing the same things the same way, whether they’re good for us or not. Lent gives people the excuse to jump out of their ruts.

Glasgow Botanic Gardens D 05

So, too, the Lenten season.

Every year around this time, I ATTEMPT to read and fully understand T.S. Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday, and every year, I realize I have to settle on a single section of it, and go with that. The entire poem is rife with subtle references, both Biblical and otherwise, and there’s a lot there to miss.

Sometimes, I feel like I have to read Eliot with annotations and a dictionary on hand, but because I love his sonorous voice (I have heard recordings, people, I am not THAT old. Listen to it for yourself, or read it in its entirety here.) and can just imagine him speaking these circuitous, profound and allegorical lines, I keep knocking my head against this one. Today I read this portion aloud:

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
Glasgow Botanic Gardens T 01
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgment not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still.

Excerpted from ASH WEDNESDAY, by Thomas Stearns Eliot, 1930

This is a poem is about doubt, about coming two steps forward in belief, and perhaps moving three steps back. It is a poem about difficulty, and faith. It is hard — very, very, very hard. In more ways than one.

Glasgow Botanic Gardens D 53

I think I actually enjoy the difficulty of this poem, in a weird way. Every once in awhile, it’s okay to be challenged. It’s okay to give things up. It’s okay to try, and try, and see the edges of where we fail and fall apart.

And pick up again next year. And try again. Even among these rocks…

Do you ever read back over your old blog posts? For some reason, I was searching for the title to a book someone had told me about years ago, and ended up just reading through some of the bleakest months of late winter-spring, and finding how much I was clinging to hope in dark places sometimes — and finding food, again, in those things which fed me back then. A good practice, sometimes, this looking back, to see where we’ve been led in the past…

{#npm’17: unintelligible noise}


Trying to understand the words
        Uttered on all sides by birds,
I recognize in what I hear
        Noises that betoken fear.

Though some of them, I’m certain, must
        Stand for rage, bravado, lust,
All other notes that birds employ
        Sounds like synonyms for joy.

— W. H. Auden

Scone Palace 34

I’m here. My brain is …a smear of light like you see Dopplering past when a car moves, but I’m present and mostly accounted for. My brain is giving me static and bursts of indecipherable noise today, because I had an editor pass on a piece which I felt was eminently saleable, comparing it to another book (which: confession, I haven’t read) they had edited, as if implying my latest project had been tailored to catch their attention (it wasn’t). And for a moment, I was on autopilot, sitting down to begin revising anew, because somehow I hadn’t been open enough, hadn’t been honest enough, hadn’t been real enough, telling my true…

…and then, after a long-ranging discussion with writers and supporters around me, I wondered why I always think that the error is in me. Couldn’t it just be that the piece is fine, but the editor was wrong, the house wasn’t the right fit? That’s what I tell other people, when their work isn’t accepted…

But, we as writers rarely think that first off. At least, I don’t, that confidence seems like rankest hubris, and unbearable sort of swaggering, peacocking pride. Obviously, I’m at fault, and my work, which is the same as me (no, it’s not) is also faulty.

This, I’m told, is what Imposter Syndrome looks like in realtime.

So, for this afternoon, I’m conducting an experiment. I’m stopping myself from my usual routine of probe-poke-fiddle-fix, and giving myself the benefit of the doubt. I wrote a good novel. Now it just needs to find a home.

{#npm’17: the land that never has been yet}

Vacaville 194

Yesterday, I got to thinking about the idea of “average” and “mainstream” and the massive mythos that has been built up about the American. The definition of the American Dream as written by James Truslow Adams in 1931 posited that “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. That sounds reasonable enough, right? And yet, the dream has morphed continuously. Have you ever read the whole of Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again?” Not just the first few lines or stanzas. Read it all, aloud. I’ll wait.

As you see, depending on who is dreaming for us, what we want is to be The Best. We are supposed to be Made Great. O, Pioneers, we are meant to go forth and conquer. We are supposed to want to be captains of industry, while many of us want to just have a decent house and a garden and maybe a couple of kids or a weasel (same thing, really, as my friend Liz might tell me ☺). And yet, the cross-section of most people you know and I know, the true average mainstream want simpler truths, that change, that level place to stand and be, for them and theirs. As Langston Hughes said,
O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

musings of the mainstream

o, beauteous, this spacious sky
belongs to all who live hereby
to all who strive on this earth’s curve
to freely live, and love to serve.

And let us take up Langston’s vow
& though we know not when – or how –
let’s live in hope the dream is true
and no mere “greatness” thus pursue…
for who the dreamer? whose, the dream?
& which America a gleam of graft and rot in rheumy eye
& which the land where you (& I)
the masses yearning to breathe free
can safely plant a family tree?

a genuine and human heart is unconcerned with being great
but looks instead to love and serve, and has no need to compensate.

With apologies to Langston Hughes, and Emma Lazarus, and everyone who winces at poetic doggerel.

{#npm’17: bubblehead}

Long before the most recent election, we became aware of another turn of phrase, that of people “living in a bubble.” The bubble then was described as social or cultural, and described a “new” upper class that was worlds away from the average White American. And yes: pretty specific. It was more of monetary phrase than anything else, and related to one man’s research about one subset of Americans. Then, the election – all three hundred and seven years of it – wound up, and the conversation became political. We didn’t understand each other. EVERYONE existed, we were told, leagues away from the “average mainstream American.” We were all, it was accused, living in an “elitist bubble.”

Too easy, my common sense argued. Number one, I’m not the average white American – (hello? Remember the original guy’s research?), and number two, what the heck is “average?” I don’t like words like “mainstream,” either. My belief? There’s no such thing.

There were the requisite quizzes to self-identify as a bubbler, but though pundits tried to apply words like “elitist” and “mainstream” and “average” to everyone, it just didn’t stick to me… except in the general way that many people with anxiety or depression feel culpable, bad, or guilty about anything they hear on the news, and wonder, “is it I?” about darn near everything. And so, with my usual inability to differentiate whether or not I am at fault – at least on an emotional level – I, like so many other people who are trying constantly to be better than we’ve been accused to be, try to vary what I read, the media I consume, and the groups with which I discuss it. I still don’t believe in the myth of the average American, as I tend toward a more sociological point of view, which emphasizes diversity, but I am trying to mix it up. Within reason. Here’s to better understanding, I guess.


our bubble’s popped; let’s go
disperse, break up & scatter
let’s make new friends (&foes
the former more the latter)

to avoid Stepford ways
echoes of lockstep feedback
diversify your days —
make variance your fallback

{#npm’17: even now, when i have come so far}

I was nine the summer I met a new girl whose mother had died of a drug overdose. Everyone, of course, felt terrible for her, and I was matched by the adults in our lives as someone “suitable” to anchor a going-on-fifth-grade girl adrift with a father she’d never lived with, his new family, and a box of Barry Manilow cassette tapes, all she had left of her mother. We didn’t have much to say to each other, at first, this girl and I, but then she showed me her treasures- a small gold necklace with a maybe real diamond chip, a compact of silly blue eyeshadow, and a shoebox full of cassete tapes. We listened to them – she, remembering her mother, and me, finding a whole different world from the hymns and religious songs I knew at home. We listened to those cassettes until we worried they would wear out. So, “Lyn” made me my own set, and made herself another set. And when the golden voice spiked out, we weren’t just two awkward fifth graders, but something better. Something bigger.

Sonoma County 90

Coming to Barry Manilow’s swoopy vocals and sentimental piano ballads before I had the cynical armor of adolescence means I listened and wept real tears to heart-tuggers like “Even Now” and “All the Time” and imagined myriad lives not my own, where people were hurting and enduring, putting away youthful loves and going on – in some cases bitterly, in others, joyously. It was… like reading novels, seriously. I imagined life stories for Lola the Showgirl and Mandy. (Why, yes. Yes. I was a weird kid. I know. I also wrote narrative bubbles in the Sears catalogue. Dialogue practice or weirdness? You Make the Call.)

In time – by junior high, really – there were boy bands and cooler music to be aware of, like Prince. I …quietly pretended to know who George Michael and Boy George was. (And thought Boy G was a girl. FOR YEARS you guys. I was completely clueless: he wore makeup, right? Ergo, girl, right? Oyyyy.) I forsook my first love, and moved on. After all, Choir Nerds like Huey Lewis and the News, right? Vocals. Four-part-harmony, and all that jazz. Every once in a while, we’d arrange a Manilow song for a talent show – what other song lent itself to a soft-shoe routine AND a whistle but “Can’t Smile Without You?” In my dramatic, emo moments, nothing would do but for me to rewind “Could This Be the Magic” over and over and over and over. And of course, every high school choral group worth its salt had to butcher “I Write the Songs.” (!)

In college, my menopausal boss had all of the Manilow on Broadway CDs and the fact that I could sing some of his songs endeared me to her — more than unfairly, I’ll admit, but she was in a cranky, awful place in her life, apt to shriek at her student workers and weep a lot — so I took all the sweetening of her temperament that I could get. Even once I was married, I kept my old cassette tape, though I had nothing to play it on… I knew all the words to all the songs, and at odd times, the lyrics would come back to me — when I was sad and regretful, mostly, but better times, too. I remember belting out One Voice with strangers and friends in Glasgow and tearing up because we were in an auditorium full of people who also sang — Glaswegians are crazy good at knowing all the words to sentimental songs. We sang so loudly we lost our voices – and it was glorious.

When Mr. Manilow came out earlier this month, I felt an upwelling of love for an old friend. In my heart, I hugged him, and promised him that the nine-year-old superfan I was could never be disappointed in someone who taught the world to sing in the darkness. I wrote him a haiku, because… well, because. Because I still know all the words to all the songs, and before I had armor, he broke and re-mended my childish heart.

& every1 will sing

notes under the door
shine a light in through the cracks —
believe in your song

{#npm’17: p7, talking back to Rilke}

It’s the first Friday of National Poetry Month, which means a doubly special poetry challenge, participated in by Kelly, Sara, Liz calling in from the road; Laura, and Tricia (Andi is sitting this one out) as part of the Poetry Seven’s Year in Poetry challenge. This month, Sara chose a poem by Rilke for us to respond to directly –

You, darkness, of whom I am born—

I love you more than the flame
that limits the world
to the circle it illumines
and excludes all the rest.

But the dark embraces everything
shapes and shadows, creatures and me,
people, nations—just as they are.

It lets me imagine
a great presence stirring beside me

I believe in the night.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

Stirling Holy Rood Church T 13

We all read this poem a few times, and then a few more, and then decided what to do with it. I tried to write a line-to-line response first, which didn’t work at all. Then I tried to write a kind of …Big Picture Thought about how the poem made me feel. Also didn’t work. As I was trying to work through my daily poem challenges for National Poetry Month, I begin to get a little worried… Rilke, with his usual straightforwardness, was not striking any sparks with me.

And then, I started thinking about sparks… little spangles of light, illumination. And the opposite of said. Sparks don’t actually let us do anything but see that there’s contrast. They don’t help us see anything but the light itself, and what is it, really?

This is a dude who likes the dark. I respect that about him. Few people actually do. Oh, we think we love the dark, the stars. We quote “When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer,” and gaze up wistfully. But, where most of us live is so much light pollution we don’t actually have dark. I have become acquainted with the night, because I briefly lived way out in the country, in Glasgow. Our neighbors were sheep. It was flippin’ dark out on those country lanes. It was …kind of amazing. And, I knew I was walking right next to spiders. I had to decide how much I was going to let that bother me.

In the end, I decided that I agreed with ‘ol Rainer, because I like the dark, but I also want to like the dark. Being who I am, the literal girlchild who has thought a great deal about the word “black” as reflected in theology and hymnody, darkness is going to mean a little something different to me — and I could see that reflected in the seven’s poetry, as we wrote on our shared Google document. I may be the only one who likes the dark, but I won’t hold that against anyone. I have walked a different (spider-adjacent) road, and I tend to have to reject the experience that “most” people have with darkness – because I am not most people.

Took me long enough to figure that out.

“the absence of color”

from darkness thou art formed & dust thou art
first secreted within thy mother’s womb
deep shadows, holding fast creation’s start
to secret hopes in dreamer’s sleep entombed

(blackness is sin, a moody study’s brown
and white holds light, a purity renown
a Presence stirs, beneath the surface bright
foul fiend, forfend, or wisdom’s erudite?)

before the light can drown thy timid sheen
enlightening with fact that still deceives
hold to thine task: believe what is not seen
and be ye blesséd by the unperceived.

Poetry Friday is hosted today by Irene Lantham at her blog, LIVE YOUR POEM. Check it out, for more!

{#npm’17: for sarah}

Mexico City 162

…who tweeted the other day that the most insidious thought she has whilst writing is, “you’re not very good at this.”

writing exercise

no one does it ‘better’
no one does it right
success begins with failure
triumphing over blight.

insidious, the whisper
that tells you otherwise.
deft treachery, these lying brains
sow doubts, and criticize…

but there is no one “better”
there’s no such thing as “right”
there’s only bum firmly in chair,
and you, art’s acolyte.



{#npm’17: the truth}

I’ve rewritten this something like six times, and I see I’m getting in my own way. Again. But, trying to focus a poem on the truth specifically is harder than I thought… There’s an old saying, “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.” C. H. Spurgeon, Gems from Spurgeon (1859). And it’s kind of …worrying, while at the same time, dead on. Just look at social media for five minutes. How many times do people say celebrities are dead… and people think so for months afterward, while the people are still alive? Let’s not even mention politics. Lies happens, over and over again, in the infectious game of telephone that is rumor, and reverberate far out beyond where they began.

And yet: the truth is still there, where it needs to be, when anyone checks.

the Truth is rising
stomping into combat boots
door slams as Lie sprints
shirttails flying, shoes untied —
Unhurried, Truth’s standing, still.