More trumpery, and questions of “meaning”

found poem mind map

I didn’t intend to do another “found” poem from a Trump speech, but the following passage, sent by my friend Sallie Reynolds, was irresistible. It’s one single sentence.

You choose: read it first, or read the two poems below it first: by me and Winkie Ma, a high-school senior whom I mentor in a writing program. Found poetry was one of our assignments. I brought the passage to a mentoring session and each of us tackled it.

Here goes, hold on to your rational mind:  Read more

“Found” Trump poem

atlas_slave_by_michelangelo_-_jbu_02

“Atlas Slave.” Photo Jörg Bittner Unna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http:// creativecommons. org/licenses/by-sa 3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This month’s assignment for my Girls Write Now mentoring program  was “found poetry.”

There are several ways to “find” a poem, but our assignment was an “erasure poem,” where you take an existing text and black out lines and words. The poem is what’s left, rather like Michaelangelo and the block of marble.

I was in a stream-of-consciousness sort of mood, so I  downloaded a transcript of a Trump campaign speech, and to my surprise—since I’m in no way a poet—produced something that I rather like. (WordPress doesn’t let me reproduce the line breaks nicely, so I turned it into a photo, below.) Read more

The Trojan Purse and the subversive woman

trojan-purseThis ten-foot high wooden purse on wheels was part of a week-long art festival in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Happily for me the artist, Ethan Crenson, was on hand the day I came upon it, conducting dialogues with curious passersby.

Why a “Trojan” purse? Was it filled with some kind of subversive material? No, Crenson told me. It was empty. The idea was that everyone could project their own feelings or ideas into it—anger at capitalism, the political system, whatever. I didn’t ask him why he’d chosen to make it a purse—probably because my own imagination immediately supplied a rationale.

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My Girls Write Now mentee in Newsweek!

anthology coverEvery June, Girls Write Now, where I volunteer as a writing mentor for a teenager, publishes an anthology of specially polished pieces by that year’s group of girls. This year Newsweek ran a big story on the GWN program, featuring six selections from the anthology. And one was by my own mentee, Winkie Ma! I am beyond thrilled.

Her piece came out of one of GWN’s monthly genre workshops: Dystopian Flash Fiction. I had vaguely heard of flash fiction but had never met it, so to speak. I haven’t written fiction since my 20s, so a fiction workshop is a challenge for me. Adding a 500-word limit and making the piece dystopian didn’t make it easier. I was happy to find myself producing a bare-bones concept of a piece with a strong theme and a twist at the end that could actually be done in 500 words (currently on my list of things-to-work-on).

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Self-sacrificing women: free tipsheet for you

An issue that hasn’t gone away

Breaking women's culture of self-sacrificeHow many men would eat food they don’t like because their wife likes it? Or wear clothes they don’t like because she wants them to look a certain way? Women do these things all the time. I did them with my former husband.

In my book Slaying the Mermaid: Women and the Culture of Sacrifice, which uses Andersen’s Little Mermaid as an image of the ultimate self-sacrificing woman, I investigated why so many women feel obliged to put other people’s needs first—even when they don’t want to. I discovered that the self-sacrificing impulse comes from women’s history, not their nature.

Recently a therapist contacted me to say that excessive self-sacrifice was a big problem for her clients, and I decided to revisit this subject. I did more research and reporting, and the result is a brief new ebook, Mermaid No More: Breaking Women’s Culture of Sacrifice,  available for preorder at 99¢ at all ebook retailers (see sidebar) and in all formats.

Mermaid No more offers pragmatic, specific strategies for figuring out whether you too are a “modern mermaid” and for overcoming your own personal pull toward unhealthy self-sacrifice.

In the meantime, you can preview it by downloading my free tipsheet (see sidebar). Most women are prone to unconscious, involuntary, self-defeating self-sacrifice, due to our training in what I call the “culture of sacrifice.” See if you recognize yourself in any of the indicators.

And you can leave your own thoughts about self-sacrifice on the Mermaid No More web page.

Creativity all dried up? Try this

https://www.flickr.com/photos/samanthalevang/14474813623/

Gold Dust Day Gecko, by Samantha Levang, used under CC by 2.0, cropped from original

If ever your brain battery feels dead, this exercise will give you a recharge. I learned it in my Girls Write Now mentoring program and tried it out with Winkie Ma, my teenage mentee.

Start by generating a random list of 5 words. We used a smartphone set to Swype. Squiggle a finger across the keyboard and it’ll pop out a word. We took turns doing this til we had five words. (Half the fun is inventing new swyping patterns and seeing what words you get.) You can also use a website like this one to generate your words. Or there’s the pre-digital close-your-eyes-and-stab-a-finger-on-a-dictionary-page technique.

Now set a timer. You have 5 minutes to write something—anything—that includes all 5 words. To make it harder you can require that the words be used in the order they were generated in (we didn’t).

I’m not good under time pressure so was gratified by how quickly my brain woke up and produced a coherent piece of text for each set of words. And it was probably the most fun of everything we did this year.

Here’s our best set.

 earth chap gecko omits kings

(I was impressed that Swype knew the word “gecko.”)

Me:

As climate change warms the earth, my skin begins to chap under the hot dry sun. Before long, I’ll be as leathery and warty as a gecko. And I won’t be alone. The sun shines on everyone—kings, queens, and commoners. It omits none from its intense, baking attention.

“That’s dark!” Winkie exclaimed when I read it to her. Her own invention was sunnier:

“Oh, Lizzy,” the king sighed, slumping into his diamond-encrusted throne. “You won’t believe the day I’ve had so far.”

The king’s gecko glanced back at him, its tongue flickering. The king took this as an invitation to continue.

 “It’s been so hectic. Nearly the whole declaration had to be omitted because of how vile my writers are. Then, I lost my speech, and the media was not impressed. And just now, my subjects burned my robe!” he exclaimed, showing off the burnt edges of the silk. “It’s just been so long.”

Lizzy looked back and cocked its head.

The king smiled. “Lizzy, you’re such a down-to-earth chap. You’re my only true friend here. You know that?”

The gecko snaked its way to the king’s shoulder, and both of them took a nap in peace.

I particularly enjoy the way the same group of words evokes such disparate visions. It reminds me, when I feel stuck in well-worn phrases, that writing is infinite.

And so, it seems, are the varieties of geckos.

Satanic Leaf Tailed Gecko (Uroplatus phantasticus), Andasibe, Madagascar, by Frank Vassen,  used under CC by 2.0, cropped from original

Satanic Leaf Tailed Gecko (Uroplatus phantasticus), Andasibe, Madagascar, by Frank Vassen, used under CC by 2.0, cropped from original

Writing—and paying attention

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The plaza on a different day. Imagine us on the bench at the right, looking over at a bench on the left.

This fall I became a volunteer mentor for Girls Write Now, an organization that pairs New York City public high school girls who have a passion for writing with professional women writers who pass on their craft. I find myself going back to basics, trying different writing styles and genres; it’s a little like being a baby writer again.

My mentee and I began with exercises in the building blocks of writing: interviewing, note-taking, description. Last week, we did character description. We sat on a bench in a plaza outside a mall and picked out a man sitting a couple of benches away. For 15 minutes, we both wrote as minutely detailed a description of him as we could, then compared our texts. We chose a woman and repeated the exercise, this time trying to write in the other’s voice.

As it turned out, the comparison wasn’t that interesting, for we had noted pretty much the same items—clothes, details of face, hair, what the woman was carrying, what we thought the person was feeling—and made rather similar observations. What really struck me was how interested and involved I became in these two quite unremarkable people.

I had felt rather resistant to this exercise, perhaps because I associated it with fiction, which I haven’t tried to write in a long time, although I’ve done essentially the same type of description in my nonfiction. But it turned out to be intensely engaging. By the time we finished I was dying to know these people. The man appeared to be Latino, maybe 60, with a poker face; the woman was black, about 40, very well groomed and dressed, and looked tired. Each obligingly stayed put on a bench for just the 15 minutes we needed.

I see now that my shift from faint hostility to fascination resulted purely from the quality of attention forced on me by the exercise. Because of the set, almost grim expression on the man’s face I assumed he was bad-tempered. I kept watching, because I had to, and saw him smile at the antics of a couple of children running around; his expression changed completely. Suddenly I saw him as quite kindly.

We had guessed that the woman might be waiting for someone (since she looked at her watch), but then I thought: maybe she was taking this rest on the bench as a brief respite—time for herself before she had to go home, cook dinner, and take care of other people. The more I watched, the more I felt for her, shouldering these obligations after working all day. Maybe I was right—no one came, and eventually she hoisted her bags and walked off. But I wished I could have talked to both of them and found out.

So what generated this involvement? Simply: paying attention. There’s a famous story about Louis Agassiz, a Swiss naturalist who taught for many years at Harvard. His new students were presented with a preserved fish on a tin platter. He would tell the student to look carefully at the fish, then leave the room, not to return for hours. One student,

click to go to original photo

Haemulon carbonarium, a member of the fish family that Samuel Scudder observed. By Williams, J. T.; Carpenter, K. E.; Van Tassell, J. L.; Hoetjes, P.; Toller, W.; Etnoyer, P.; Smith, M. [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Samuel Scudder, wrote an account of being left alone with the smelly, hideous fish. He thought he had seen everything there was to see in that fish after 10 minutes; but after several hours, desperate, he had the idea of drawing it, “and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature.” But when Agassiz returned, and he proudly recited his discoveries, the professor said, “‘You have not looked very carefully… Look again; look again!’” And he left me to my misery.” With nothing else to do, Scudder started to see still more in the fish. Each time he gave Agassiz a new list of observations, the professor said, “That is good, but that is not all; go on.” The misery continued for “three long days.” Only later did Scudder realize “the inestimable value” of this lesson in how to observe.

And here was I, feeling pressured by having to observe for 15 minutes. After 10, I too thought there wasn’t much left to notice. What would have happened if I had extended my observation for an hour?

The lesson I draw isn’t the same as Scudder’s. It’s about a different effect of close attention: the emergence of interest, curiosity, empathy, even loving kindness. In meditation you are supposed to observe with nonjudging “bare attention,” without agenda or assumptions. I wasn’t even doing that—I had the opposite of an open mind—yet look how this brief exercise changed my mental state.

How [high][deep][wide][fine] can awareness extend?

Click for original photo

“Reflexology” by PradaDearest, used under CC license 2.0, cropped from original.

Into your little toe, at least.

During twenty years of writing with master body therapist Yamuna Zake, I’ve learned to keep my feet healthy. Key is maintaining the space between the toes, normally squished together by shoes. I use both Yamuna’s techniques and my yoga practice.

For example, before doing some standing poses I always spread my toes with my hands. As I did this recently, an exercise from a book Yamuna and I wrote (The Ultimate Body Rolling Workout) popped into my mind.

  • Can you raise all your toes together, and then, starting with the little toe, place each toe on the floor separately, without letting the toes touch?

Back when we wrote the book, I couldn’t do it. But this time, to my amazement, I could.

foot with bkdg

Tricky separation: 3d from 4th. Photo: Loren Weybright

What thrilled me was not so much the muscular feat as the sense of differentiated awareness that came with it. Before, my five toes felt like one big toe. I could only raise and lower them as a unit—maybe with a fanning movement that brought the big toe down last.

But now I discovered a thread of awareness running from my mind into each separate toe, as though a set of nerves that were asleep had woken up and started transmitting signals. I could instruct each toe to act on its own, even the tricky, recalcitrant 4th and 5th.

I once interviewed Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, a movement artist and therapist with a seemingly unlimited ability to develop an exquisitely differentiated, conscious connection to every tissue of her body. In a workshop I attended she instructed us to “move from your lymph.” Completely bewildered, I asked her later how such a thing was possible. You can develop an awareness of any organ or tissue in the body, and move it, she explained. You can move your little finger because you have an inner sensory awareness of it. In the same way you can develop sensory feedback from your lymph fluid—or your blood, or cerebrospinal fluid—and move that.

I’m pretty far from feeling my lymph, but I now have that inner sensory awareness of my toes.

And, what’s really intriguing: if I can do this with my toes, why not anything else? One of Bainbridge Cohen’s students told me he could feel into the cells of his heart. Another said she could feel into her brain.

And, beyond the body—how much farther can awareness expand? How fine-grained can we get? In the previous post I described a group session with the awakened teacher Jean Klein. Klein kept referring to the notion of the separate, individual self as an illusion, and one man began to argue about this. Finally Klein told him, “I don’t experience any distinction at all, even a physical one, between you and myself.” The man was sitting a good 50 feet from him. Klein was saying that having completely let go of the identification with being an individual self, he felt literally one with everything and everyone.

Physicists say that atoms consist mostly of empty space. A chair, say, contains more space than matter. But we experience it as solid. What I imagine is that Klein could perceive the basic energetic substrate from which we all arise, which temporarily assumes each of our various forms until we pass on, like waves in the ocean. From this view, the individual self, the “me” that we take as such an absolute, undeniable reality, does not seem solid.

It’s quite a way from talking to your toe to living in such a state of expanded awareness. But even the slightest evidence that it’s possible is so inspiring!

Where does writing come from? (part 3)

In the early 1990s I had the wonderful fortune of spending time with Jean Klein, a teacher in the Hindu Advaita tradition. Klein grew up in Czechoslovakia and Vienna between the wars, studied medicine and music in Berlin, then when the Nazis came to power fled to France and Algeria. He left Europe in the early 1950s for India, where he met a teacher and experienced a complete awakening. He returned to Europe and began to teach himself.

Tibetan_Dharmacakra

The gankyil, a Tibetan Buddhist symbol of nonduality. By Kava09 and authors of File:Korea-Buk-01.jpg, File:Sam Taeguk.svg (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

At the time I encountered him, I had little experience or intellectual knowledge of Advaita, Buddhism, or meditation, so my reaction was pretty naïve—not a bad thing, I guess. What I mostly remember was the extraordinary experience of being in his presence. It is amazing to be with someone who has no agenda, no needs, no defenses or barriers, no fears, no expectations, no anger, but only total openness, acceptance, and loving kindness. You can actually see the meaning of that puzzling Buddhist term emptiness. It’s as though the personality is transparent. (At one session, Klein remarked that “the personality is a tool you use when life asks. Then when the situation is over, you lay it down and it’s not there.”)

Advaita sees the entire universe as one undivided reality; its nondualist teaching resembles aspects of Buddhism. Meetings with a teacher take the form of dialogues.

One dialogue I attended took place just before my first book was published in 1992. About to leave for a mini-book tour in California, I alternated between states of expansive excitement and contracted fear. I got up the nerve to ask Klein about this.

He slewed around in his chair to look at me and said, “Ask the question more precisely.”

I explained that I was about to do public speaking and could feel my energy expand because I was happy that people appreciated my work. Then I’d get scared and contract. I didn’t mention that the “work” was a book.

“You want the appreciation,” he said. “You were seeing yourself as a doer.”

“Yes, I was,” I said.

He looked at me and said, “If a man writes a book, he’s not really writing that book.”

I knew instantly that was the heart of the issue. “Well,” I said, “I’ve written a book, and I know I didn’t write that book—but I forget.”

He looked at me a few moments longer—there was immense kindness in his gaze—but said no more, likely because he saw I had gotten it.

And I did, at least in my mind. I’d forgotten the awareness I had had, during the process of writing, that the book was actually coming through me. Instead I saw my self being “the author” and my fear was of that identity being undermined.

My fear didn’t all drop away after that. I remember vividly how petrified I was the first time I sat in a radio broadcast studio waiting for the host’s first question. Yet during that segment, as well as the later interviews and talks I gave, I found myself responding out of a space much like that mysterious source of writing (described in this post and this one). My answers were far more skillful than if they had been formulated purely by my intellect. To put it as Jean Klein had, I wasn’t really answering those questions. The question to ask then is: who was?

Find out more about Jean Klein here and here.