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March 09, 2009

Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv

A book about the healing and restorative effects of nature


The thesis of this book is directed toward children.  It combines research and speculation to argue that exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and that many children now suffer from something Louv calls “nature-deficit disorder.”

He makes a good argument.  Including an argument that nature is not only important for children.

One argument he makes is that many tasks we engage in have a tendency to deplete our resources for directed attention.  That we, in turn, get something he calls “directed-attention fatigue”.  He then goes on to argue that being out in nature restores this fatigue by offering us involuntary attention or fascination.  Non-task-oriented experience.

To cite just one piece of evidence, he reports on a study done in Sweden.

Hartig asked participants to complete a forty-minute sequence of tasks designed to exhaust their directed-attention capacity.  After the attention-fatiguing tasks, Hartig then randomly assigned participants to spend forty minutes ‘walking in a local nature preserve, walking in an urban area, or sitting quietly while reading magazines and listening to music,’ the journal reported.  ‘After this period, those who had walked in the nature preserve performed better than the other participants on a standard proof-reading task.  They also reported more positive emotions and less anger.

Forty minutes in nature as an antidote to “directed-attention fatigue.”  This sounds like good medicine to me.  And now, with the beginning of spring—at least in my hemisphere—it would seem like the perfect time to try it out.

March 02, 2009

from Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

A novel about loss and home

Last week I wrote about the movie, Finding Forrester, and the notion of using someone else’s words to ease one’s way into writing.  Borrowing another writer’s rhythms as a way of beginning.  So this week I found myself looking for passages that are particularly evocative.  This is such a personal thing—finding passages that resonate.  Maybe each person has to search for themselves to find the right piece of writing from which to continue writing—or from which to leap.

But here, in any case, are two passages that I found.  They’re from Marilynne Robinson’s lyrical novel, Housekeeping.  She is probably better known now for her more recent novels, Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, and a kind of sequel to that novel, Home.  In 1980 she published this brief novel, Housekeeping, about which Doris Lessing says on the cover, “I found myself reading slowly—this is not a novel to be hurried through, for every sentence is a delight.”

It’s the kind of novel that makes me want to pay attention to paragraphs and sentences, to reread them, to linger over them.  Copy them.  Learn from them as I type them in. 

First, the place, from page 9:

It is true that one is always aware of the lake in Fingerbone, or the deeps of the lake, the lightless, airless waters below.  When the ground is plowed in the spring, cut and laid open, what exhales from the furrows but that same sharp, watery smell.  The wind is watery, and all the pumps and creeks and ditches smell of water unalloyed by any other element.  At the foundation is the old lake, which is smothered and nameless and altogether black.  Then there is Fingerbone, the lake of charts and photographs, which is permeated by sunlight and sustains green life and innumerable fish, and in which one can look down in the shadow of a dock and see stony, earthy bottom, more or less as one sees dry ground.  And above that, the lake that rises in the spring and turns the grass dark and coarse as reeds.  And above that the water suspended in sunlight, sharp as the breath of an animal, which brims inside this circle of mountains.

I love the sense of layers here.  The layers of the lake, which fit well with a sense in this novel of layers beneath layers.  The novel doesn’t so much move forward—though it does that too—but rather it lays down one layer upon another upon another.

Here is a passage about the narrator’s grandmother, from the same page.  A portrait:

It seems that my grandmother did not consider leaving.  She had lived her whole life in Fingerbone.  And though she never spoke of it, and no doubt seldom thought of it, she was a religious woman.  That is to say that she conceived of life as a road down which one traveled, an easy enough road through a broad country, and that one’s destination was there from the very beginning, a measured distance away, standing in the ordinary light like some plain house where one went in and was greeted by respectable people and was shown to a room where everything one had ever lost or put aside was gathered together, waiting.  She accepted the idea that at some time she and my grandfather would meet and take up their lives again, without the worry of money, in a milder climate.

It’s not just the lake that has layers—but the characters.  And that extended metaphor for the grandmother’s view of the world—that image for her imagined destination—that plain house in ordinary light—I can see that house.  And I can’t help but think that the house needs to have a place in my healing library

February 23, 2009

Finding Forrester

A movie about writing and transformation

I don’t usually write about movies here but I stumbled across this movie last weekend and I find myself thinking about it this afternoon more than any particular piece of writing.  The movie is about a young African-American man, Jamal Wallace (played by Rob Brown) who meets a reclusive writer, William Forrester (played by Sean Connery).  It’s a feel-good movie, directed by Gus Van Sant, who also directed Good Will Hunting.  (Personally, I like Finding Forrester better). 

The essence of the movie is this: Jamal meets William, they develop a mentor-student relationship, and both lives are changed.  I won’t elaborate on the plot here, or give away the ending.  I do think the movie is worth a look.  Perhaps what’s most relevant here is a writing exercise that Forrester gives to Jamal.  He sits the young man down at a typewriter and tells him to begin writing.  Then Forrester waits.  Nothing happens.  No keys are clicking.  Silence.  Eventually, what Forrester does is to go get an old essay of his own and he tells the boy this (paraphrased from memory):  Start with my words—type those—and then when you’re ready start typing your own. 

I like that a lot.  That connection between reading and writing.  Not just reading in order to begin writing—but actually beginning to take someone’s words on—at the level of the fingers—keying them in—and using that as a bridge into one’s writing.  Choosing a passage that has the right rhythms—the rhythms one wants perhaps in one’s own writing—and beginning with those words.  Hearing them in one’s head as one keys them in—and then at some point taking off on one’s own, like a swimmer going off into the water without being held up by someone else’s hands.  It seems like such a simple idea, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually tried it.  I think I will—soon.

February 16, 2009

The Way It Is by William Stafford

A short poem about a thread that doesn’t change
[full text available]

I’ve liked the poet William Stafford, ever since I first came across a poem by him in some kind of anthology.  I think it was in junior high.  I used to read a lot of poetry then.  The poem in the anthology was, as best as I can remember it, his poem, Fifteen.  Recently I came across this poem, The Way It Is.  I love how it’s short.  And the clear central image of a thread.  Simple but not.

The poem begins:

There’s a thread you follow.  It goes among
things that change.  But it doesn’t change.

And then there’s the line further down:

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

An appealing idea I think.

This thread—it’s an image that could become a writing idea—or a thinking idea—or a sewing idea?—a painting idea?—a collage?—to begin with a thread—

What is the thread that doesn’t change?
How does one recognize it?
How does one hold it?

February 09, 2009

February: Thinking of Flowers by Jane Kenyon

A poem for a winter day

Now wind torments the field,
turning the white surface back
on itself, back and back on itself,
like an animal licking a wound.

Nothing but white—the air, the light;
only one brown milkweed pod
bobbing in the gully, smallest
brown boat on the immense tide

A single green sprouting thing
would restore me . . .

Then think of the tall delphinium,
swaying, or the bee when it comes
to the tongue of the burgundy lily.


I like how this poem progresses—a conversation with herself, but not stuck—moving.

First, a description, as if she’s looking out a window--
Nothing but white—the air, the light

Then the longing—
A single green sprouting thing would restore me.

The pause . . .

And then the response—to her own self, to us—
Then think of the tall delphinium

One of the things I like best about writing is the way it can keep an internal conversation moving.  Thoughts have this tendency—well, mine—to sometimes get stuck in one place.  Say, that wind-tormented field, which can, in turn lead, at times, to a kind of loop of wind and torment.  But writing—something happens—a green thing can sprout.  A blue delphinium.  A burgundy lily.

Read more about Jane Kenyon at the Poetry Foundation

February 02, 2009

Walking to Find a Poem

Inspiration in Motion?

Something about the new year, I find myself thinking more about writing ideas again—and how reading can spark writing.  And, well, how exercise and movement of all sorts might spark writing.

This particular idea is one I went looking for in Susan Wooldridge’s Poemcrazy after I’d been doing all this reading on how exercise can foster neurogenesis and how these new brain cells we make need somewhere to go.  The notion is that the new cells need a brain circuit to join—or sometimes they just might fade away.

So, a poem then as the new circuit?

The walking creates new brain cells—we begin to see anew—and a poem emerges?

Here is an excerpt from Ms. Wooldridge’s first chapter, “Outlaw on a Poem Walk.”

For me, poetry is related to walking.  Words and images fill me when I wander somewhere alone.  Writer Bruce Chatwin lived with nomads and believed inspiration, as well as true rest, could best be found in motion.  Sometimes I wish I could walk forever, jotting down notes and words.  And the bridge at One Mile is a perfect spot to begin.

Poems don’t normally have much to do with intention for me.  They’re more likely to come unexpectedly in a place like this.  Since it’s past Labor Day the dam is slanted low and the park’s huge swimming pool is shallow.  Upstream a small girl wades with her mother.  The mom’s red shirt is reflected like a scarlet lily pad floating in front of her.  The two waddle in deeper, wetting their clothes.  Now the mother swirls her girl through the water as if she were a minnow on a fishing line.

Motion.  The poet walking.  The mother and her child waddling.  The mother swirling her girl through the water.  All that motion.  The beginnings of a poem?  A way to begin writing again when the writing has stalled?  New cells, new circuits, new poems---------

January 26, 2009

Six-Word Memoirs

Because sometimes less is better?

Six-word memoirs can be found in a book, Not Quite What I Was Planning.  They can also be found on the website of Smith Magazine where you are invited to submit your own six words.  But I think the best place to first encounter this concept may be at the NPR site where you can watch a slide show of twenty-eight memoirs, all excerpted from the book and paired with photographs and drawings.

Consider these—(three of my own favorites)---

Never really finished anything, except cake.  by Carletta Perkins

Nothing profound, I just sat around.  by Daniel Rosenburg

Naively expected logical world.  Acted foolishly.  by Emily Thieler

So many possibilities.
Doesn’t this make you want to play around with writing your own six-word memoir?

January 19, 2009

I Am a Pencil by Sam Swope

A Love Song to the Teaching of Writing
amazon link

This memoir carries the subtitle, A Teacher, His Kids, and Their World of Stories.  A decent and serviceable subtitle.  But it fails to mention the love.  And this book, perhaps more than anything else, is a love story.  Love between a teacher and children.  Love between a teacher and stories.  A kind of hymn to what is possible with reading and writing and children.

First, meet Mr. Swope.  Here, in the first chapter, he introduces himself.

I was a writer, children’s books mostly, funny stories in which anything could happen.  Every morning I got up at six, fed Mike, my cat, and got to work.  I spent a lot of time inside my head with giants and ogres, fairies and talking animals, and when I went out into the city, I was a danger, sometimes so lost in thought I’d cross a street against the light, only snapping to at the blare of a horn.  To free my life for writing, I’d pared it down to the essentials: a small Manhattan rental, no kids, no car, not even a TV.

I’m not a famous writer now and wasn’t then, nor had I published much—nothing in some time.  Still, I kept going through the motions, throwing words at the computer, screen after screen of promising beginnings, bits of characters, half thoughts, every day more words; but they never added up to anything, not book had taken shape in much too long, and I had grown discouraged.

Then----something happens.  He gets asked by Teachers and Writers Collaborative to give a workshop to a classroom of third-graders in Queens.  He is slated to work with them for ten days.  He ends up staying with them for three years, seeing them off, in the bittersweet final chapters, to middle schools scattered throughout New York.

Sam Swope is the kind of magical teacher one might wish for one’s own children—or for one’s own child self.  He’s passionate about stories—but not puffed up in any way.  There’s something humble and honest and refreshing about him.  He reads with the children.  Writes with them.  Walks with them—dozens of times?—to Central Park to sit beneath the trees and write.

Perhaps the best way to meet Mr. Swope and his pencil book is to meet him as he teaches, this beginning in the first several paragraphs of his preface which I am typing out here because, well, I love this beginning.  I love the way he invokes the mystery of Wallace Stevens’ poem with these children. 

So, from the preface, entitled, The Blackbird is Flying

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

First we went over some hard words—pantomime, indecipherable, Haddam, lucid, euphony, and equipage.  Then, as I handed out copies of ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,’ I told the fifth graders, ‘This is a famous poem written by an American businessman named Wallace Stevens.  I’m telling you so that you know you can be a writer and still have another career.’ I said, ‘Before we discuss it, I want you to read silently.’

My students put their elbows on their desks and leaned over the poem.  I’d been teaching writing to this class for three years, since they were in third grade.  I knew them well.  They were a smart group, immigrants or the children of immigrants to Queens, New York.  They came from twenty-one countries and spoke eleven languages.  A majority were from Latin America, and most of those were from Ecuador, but Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, and Uruguay were also represented.  Two had Puerto Rican fathers.  Ten were listed on the roster as Asian, but that covered a lot of ground, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Korea, Pakistan, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam.  One student was Turkish.  The class also had an Egyptian boy and a half-Croatian, half-Bosnia-herzegovinian girl, but they’d since moved.

The kids knew English, more or less, but some still thought in their native tongues, and I could see them translate what I said inside their heads.  Most were poor, their sights set on doctoring as the clearest way up the American ladder, and although they enjoyed reading and writing, they thought math and science were the only subjects that really mattered.

Their fifth-grade classroom was crowded, not much space for anything but students, tables, and chairs.  But it was a bright, tall room, at the top of a fat old brick schoolhouse.  Its ceilings were high; the windows started eight feet up the wall, so that even when standing you had to look up to look out.  All you ever saw was sky.  It was like being in a deep box with the lid ajar.

Stevens writes of twenty snowy mountains.  It was late January, nearly seventy degrees and sunny.  We were hot.  ‘El Nino!’ cried my students.  “Global warming!’  What could they know of mountains and blackbirds?  The school had no recess, and when the kids were not in class, most were stuck in tiny apartments, forbidden to play in the city streets.

The room was silent as the children read.

Well, how wonderful is that.  A deep box with the lid ajar.  And, inside this box, the deep silence of Wallace Stevens' poetry--and children reading.


See also:
Sam Swope’s website

January 12, 2009

Creating an Enriched Environment

A Reading and Writing and Healing Idea

Okay, for mice an enriched environment is an environment much less barren than a cage, one that simulates the complex surroundings of the wild.  It might include an exercise wheel, lots of toys, lots of tunnels for crawling.  It turns out mice really seem to like to crawl through short lengths of curved pipe when these are placed in their cages.  And they also seem to benefit when other mice are with them there inside the cage.  So. . . novelty, objects to engage with, other creatures to engage with, problems to be solved, lots of voluntary running.  This leads, in mice, to good things in the brain.  The movement and exercise stimulates neurogenesis.  And the novelty and problem-solving foster the integration of these new brain cells into existing circuits.

All of this reminds me of my kids’ kindergarten and first grade classes.  Recess where they actually ran around.  And, inside, lots of stations for interaction—with the kids having choices as to which stations to choose.  The water station.  The sand station.  Blocks.  Art.  Picture books.  

Not to be too simplistic here, but I wonder what an enriched environment might look like for an adult.  Well, for you.  And me.

What stations would it have?
What elements?

One way to think about an enriched environment is to think about the five senses and how to engage them.

And it doesn’t have to be expensive.  Many enriching things aren’t. 

New music?  A musical instrument?  A new book or two or three?  A new stack of books from the library?  A stack of CDs?  A stack of films?  A Zen sand garden?  A seed tray for beginning an indoor garden?  A new notebook for writing?  A package of colored pens?  An airplane ticket?  (okay, that one might be a bit expensive.)  A day trip to a new place?  An afternoon taking photographs?  A new cookbook?  An indoor herb garden?  New spices?  New candles?  Dark chocolate?  Espresso beans?  Tea?  

What would an enriched environment look like for you?  And how could you begin to create it in the new year?

You could write about it.

January 05, 2009

An Enriched Environment

Yet Another Healing Image
from Sharon Begley’s Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain

I tend to think of two times of the year as good times for new beginnings.  September when school starts.  And January, the beginning of a new year.  I tend to think not so much of resolutions, but of new beginnings.  And it strikes me that this image of an enriched environment might be a useful one with which to fashion a new beginning.

First, where the term comes from.  Back in the 1940’s, a scientist by the name of Donald Hebb began taking some of his lab rats home with him in the evening to keep as temporary pets.  The other rats remained in the lab in their bare cages.  And Hebb began to notice something.  The rats he took home with him began to act differently than their mates.  They were less fearful, more curious and they showed “more exploratory behavior.”

Later, in the sixties, at Berkeley, a team of scientists formalized this notion by raising some rats in bare cages and other rats in what they called “enriched environments”.  These enriched rats had access to toys and mazes and frequent handling.  And it turned out that their brains grew in response to this enrichment—about 5% more cortex, by weight, than their mates without enrichment.  Interestingly, these studies were instrumental in the development of Head Start, the program for pre-school children.  And a number of follow-up studies have been done since.

In one, it was shown that mice provided with an exercise wheel will tend to run about four to five hours a day—and in turn will produce about twice as many new cells in their brains as sedentary mice.  A key finding here is that the exercise needs to be voluntary to be beneficial.  If the exercise is forced in some way—for instance by using a negative stimulus—then the new cell growth doesn’t occur so lavishly, presumably because the stress of punishment outweighs the benefit of the exercise.  It’s fascinating—this notion that not just exercise but voluntary exercise grows new brain cells.  (So---it’s good to find a way to exercise but even better if we don’t stress out about it or beat ourselves up over the whole deal.)

Here’s Fred Gage talking to the Dalai Lama:

We think voluntary exercise increases the number of neural stem cells that divide and give rise to new neurons in the hippocampus. . .  But we think it is environmental enrichment that supports the survival of these cells.  Usually, 50 per cent of the new cells reaching the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus die.  But if the animal lives in an enriched environment, many fewer of the new cells die.  Environmental enrichment doesn’t seem to affect cell proliferation and the generation of new neurons, but it can affect the rate and the number of cells that survive and integrate into the circuitry.

The voluntary exercise stimulates the new cells.

And then the enriched environments leads the brain to find a place for those new cells in the circuitry.

So. . . an exercise wheel in the center of the living room?  And an enriched environment radiating out from it?  Hmmm.  A new beginning for January?

See other pieces on this book:

An Overview

The Enchanted Loom

A New Brain for a New Season?

December 22, 2008



I went looking for the word JOY in an anthology I have on my shelf--Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times.  And found this:

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Ah--the possibility of blossoms in December.
Wishing you some of those kinds of days.

The full poem, From Blossoms, is by  Li-Young Lee and can be found here.

The graphic for JOY, as well as one for lots and lots of words, can be found at Visuwords, a free online graphical dictionary.

December 15, 2008

A New Brain for a New Season?

More from Sharon Begley’s Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain

One of my favorite passages from Sharon Begley’s book has to do with birds.  Bird brains.  She’s writing about a scientist, Fernando Nottebohm, now at Rockefeller University, who has made the study of bird brains his passion.  She writes:

Many species have the biological equivalent of a broken record: they sing the same song their whole life, warbling a single melody to attract mates and warn off rivals and claim territories until they die.  The songbirds to which Nottebohm was drawn have quite different habits.  Canaries and black-capped chickadees and zebra finches adopt and shed new tunes with the fickleness of a teenager turning over her iPod inventory, erasing the previous summer’s repertoire and literally singing a whole new tune with the arrival of each new spring.  How do they manage it?

Well, it turns out they undergo neurogenesis—they make new neurons.  By using radioactive labeling to mark new cells, Nottebohm discovered that canaries generate a reservoir of neuron precursors and these precursors then divide and move to song-control regions of the brain, becoming fully developed neurons as they migrate. 

New neurons can be created.  In adult birds.  Not only in baby birds and child birds.  Nottebohm went on to publish a paper on this discovery, “A Brain for All Seasons," in which he highlighted two observations.  Male canaries learn entirely new songs each spring.  And the part of their brains devoted to creating these melodies is up to 99% larger in the spring than it is in the fall.

The point here—aside from the sheer wonder of it—is the potential implications of this process occurring in humans.

Much of the remainder of Begley’s third chapter, “New Neurons for Old Brains,” looks at some of these implications.  One that I find especially fascinating has to do with work of Fred Gage, one of the scientists presenting his work at the Mind and Life summit.

Begley writes:

Emerging evidence suggests that people who are suffering from depression are unable to recognize novelty.  ‘You hear this a lot with depressed people,’ Gage said to the Dalai Lama.  ‘ “Things just look the same to me.  There’s nothing exciting in life.” ’  It turns out these individuals have a shrunken hippocampus.  It may be that depression is the inability to recognize novelty.  And this inability to see things as new, as fresh, as different, this is what elicits the feeling of depression.  That may be why you want this reservoir, this cache of young cells in the hippocampus.  It’s able to recognize novelty, to recognize new experiences.  Without that, you will have these fixed connections unable to recognize and acquire new information.’  There is also evidence, he said, that ‘if you can get someone with depression to exercise, his depression lifts.’  Neurogenesis may be the ultimate antidepressant.  When it is impaired for any reason, the joy of seeing life with new eyes and finding surprises and novelty in the world vanishes.  But when it is restored you see anew.

Neurogenesis may be the ultimate antidepressant. 

When it is impaired for any reason, the joy of seeing life with new eyes and finding surprises and novelty in the world vanishes.  But when it is restored you see anew.

The how of neurogenesis is complex—how to get it to happen in any given individual—with exercise an important catalyst, though not by any means the only catalyst.  An “enriched environment” is also believed to be a key to neurogenesis.

So the how of neurogenesis is a bit complex.  (What might an enriched environment look like?  What kinds of exercise make a difference?  How does a person sustain motivation for exercise?  Lots of questions when it comes to how.)  But the what—just to imagine that neurogenesis can happen—that the brain can change when it seems stuck in depression or whatever else.  That new cells can arise in a shrunken hippocampus.  That a new song can emerge with a new season.  This strikes me as significant news.  A bit of light emerging?

See also:
Two other pieces from this site on Begley’s book:

An Overview

The Enchanted Loom

December 08, 2008

Jamesland by Michelle Huneven

A divine comedy?

This is one of those books I came across by chance in the library.  I read the back cover.  Saw that the central character, Alice, was a descendant of William James.  Saw that the San Francisco Chronicle called the book “joyous” and “good for what ails you.”  The Atlantic Monthly said, “This divine comedy offers a glimpse of transcendence that’s refreshingly believable.”  And thought, hey, why not?  This was a few years ago.  I liked the book quite a bit.  Then last month I read it again and was delighted to find that it still holds up.  The reviewers got it right.

This is such a good novel.  Such wonderfully quirky and likeable characters.  Alice and Pete and Helen.  If I could, I’d invite them all over for dinner, together.  I’d ask Pete if maybe he’d consider cooking.

Pete’s an excellent cook—a professional chef.  (Think dishes like lamb tagine with dried figs.  Or plum tart with lemon sorbet.)  But he’s also a chef very much down on his luck.  He’s lost his restaurant, his wife, and visitation rights with his young son.  He’s had some anger issues.  A suicide attempt.  Now he’s forty-six years old and living with his widowed mother, a nun, who has been given a leave of absence from her convent in order to help him get back on his feet.

Here is the passage in which Ms. Huneven deftly introduces us to Pete at the beginning of Chapter three.
Pete Ross overslept.  When he came into the living room, his mother was already on her knees at the neatly made sofa bed.  Knuckles pressed to her forehead, she was conversing with her second husband, Jesus Christ, from whom she was temporarily and amicably separated.

Not wanting to disturb his mother, Pete decides not to make coffee before setting out on one of his long walks through Los Feliz, along the river, asking the question he asks over and over throughout the novel: How do people live in this world?

Pete has issues.  But he’s working on them.  This is Pete trying to sit still.

After his mother left for work, Pete set the timer on the stove for ten minutes to meditate.  A blocky sofa cushion took some weight off his legs, but within thirty seconds his knees were burning, his heart was pounding like a tribal tom-tom and spontaneous combustion seemed imminent.  What did he expect?  He’d only recently begun his exercise routines, and his blood pressure was still sky high, his heart flabby as cheese.  Sitting in silence, he was indeed face-to-face with what is—or, rather, with what he is: a system near its breaking point.  His meditation teacher Helen Harland, had told him to breathe through such anxiety, but he wasn’t confident this anxiety was passable.  More likely, his body had been waiting for precisely this attention, as if all it wanted was a spectator for its final, lavish explosion.  A full half hour of meditation and he’d doubtless be nothing but an oily sheen on the walls, a few flakes of greasy ash.

Meditation with a light and realistic and terribly human touch.  Now that I like.

Thankfully, Pete’s meditation teacher, Helen Harland, a Unitarian Universalist minister, is not one to take herself too seriously either.  We’re introduced to her two chapters later as she sits at her church on a folding chair next to the podium, watching and listening to a small Ecuadorian band.  Here’s a window into Helen’s mind as she sits on her folding chair:

She hadn’t wanted Ecuadorian or any other musicians, but how could one balk when a congregant in good standing actually volunteered to do something?  She could’ve said no, that she did not care for Ecuadorian bands, having heard them all over France last summer, whistling and chuffing to the wee hours in the plaza of every small town until even the briefest scrap of their music only evoked nights of lost sleep.  She could also have said that she’d made a solemn promise upon becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister that she would avoid at all costs any service that could double as a skit on Saturday Night Live.  If Helen had learned anything in her sixteen months at Morton, however, it was to pick her battles.

Over and over in this novel, Ms. Huneven plays off the title by William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience.  Religion as a kind of variety show—but presented with a light and compassionate touch.

And the third character in this variety show?  Alice.  The descendant of William James with whom we first enter the novel.  Alice wakes, in the prologue, to the sound of skidding furniture.  She gets out of bed, goes into the dining room and sees, on the other side of the table, “a furry shoulder, a long neck and large, pricked ears.”  A deer.  In the dining room.  Real?  Not real?  Spiritual visitor?

Here’s Alice on the telephone the next morning trying to tell her mother about the visitor:

“Any damage?” [her mother asks.]

“No, I got it out right away.  But it shook me up.”

“I would think so,” Mary said.  “Though I’m not really surprised, not with the way you leave         doors wide open for all and sundry to wander in.”

 “The doors weren’t open, Mom.”  Last year, when her mother came to visit, Alice had left the front door ajar for her; the doorbell was broken, and a knock wouldn’t carry to the back of the house where Alice was mopping in anticipation of her arrival.  This misguided act of hospitality had already come up several times as proof of general irresponsibility.  “It was the middle of the night.  The house was locked.”

“Deer don’t climb in windows, Alice,” Mary said.  “Well, maybe you’ll be more careful after this.  I do worry about you in that big old house . . .  Oh look, your father just came in!  Hi, darling, want to talk to your long-lost daughter?  Alice, here’s Dad.”

A pause, with almost inaudible whispering, as the phone passed hands.  “Allie-Oop!  Is this your nickel or mine?”

In less than a minute, he’d said good-bye.

It’s humor that makes this book so delightful.  I’d say that Ms. Huneven has a wonderful sense of humor, but maybe it would be fairer to say that she has a sense of humor close enough to mine that I can appreciate it.  I do appreciate it.  This is a novel about spiritual quest—three characters on different and intertwining spiritual quests—but all of this done in such a large way and with such a light hand.  And with this delightful sense of laughter bubbling up underneath.

If, like me, you like to have a good novel on reserve, like money in the bank, consider getting this one-----and then pull it out one day like a treat----like healing food------

December 01, 2008

The Origami of Re-Membering by Lorraine Hedtke

A brief essay.
A new way of looking at the after-life?

What speaks to me in this piece is the title—the juxtaposition—origami and remembering.

What speaks to me are certain passages.  Like this one.

The ancient Japanese art of folding paper has fascinated me since childhood. . . Now as a I speak with people after their loved one has died, I recall the beauty of the folding metaphor.  I like to think of each person’s life as having the posthumous potential to become an elaborate folded work of art.  With each retelling of the stories of someone’s life, especially when these are being told to a new person—someone who never met the deceased—it is as if the deceased person’s stories are being folded into seams and creases that give contour and texture to the lives of the living.

I like to think of each person’s life as having the posthumous potential to become an elaborate folded work of art.

A pink lily?


A crane?


A white swan?


There are so many ways, it would seem, of talking about the after-life.  What happens after.  For me, this one—the after-life as a new shape here—in the process of becoming folded and re-folded through stories—this feels to me like a new way of looking.

A way potentially rich with possibilities.

A pink lily.
A crane.
A white swan.

And who knows?  One shape could be folded and refolded into yet another.

Anything could happen.

Of interest:
The pink lily and blue crane and how to fold them can be found here.

The white swan can be found here.

November 24, 2008

If by Joni Mitchell and Rudyard Kipling

Lyrics from the final song on Joni Mitchell’s CD, Shine
[full text available on-line]


If you can fill the journey
Of a minute
With sixty seconds worth of wonder and delight
The Earth is yours
And Everything that's in it
But more than that
I know
You'll be alright
You'll be alright.

Just one minute.  Sixty seconds.  That’s all.

But first, for just a moment, a note on a poem I didn’t choose.  It’s November, not long before Thanksgiving, and I was trying to think of a poem that speaks to gratitude.  The first poem that came to mind was the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins about dappled things.  I was thinking how naming might have something to do with gratitude.  Naming being the first step.

I found the poem.  It’s called Pied Beauty.  And it’s a nice poem with truly lovely images:

Skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow
Rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim

But the poem as a whole struck me as not quite as inclusive as what I was looking for—

And then I was listening to music the other day and came upon this rendering of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If, which begins as he does but with a few slight changes.

Rudyard Kipling’s first stanza:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,

Joni Mitchell's first verse:

If you can keep your head
While all about you
People are losing theirs and blaming you
If you can trust yourself
When everybody doubts you
And make allowance for their doubting too.

So the men in the first stanza of Kipling’s poem become everybody.  And the line breaks change, and some punctuation.

I went looking for something that might speak to Ms. Mitchell’s thoughts in adapting Kipling's poem and found a nice piece at the library on her website.

About this particular song, If, she writes:

My friend called me up and read this Rudyard Kipling poem to me over the phone. As soon as I heard it, it resonated with me, and I wanted to set it to music. I love the opening line: 'If you can keep your head/While all about you/People are losing theirs and blaming you.' So, I wrote down the words, went to my house in Vancouver and made a song out of it. It's the only song that I wrote up there on the guitar.

The poem is written from a soldier's perspective, so I rewrote some of the poetry. Kipling wrote, 'If we can fill the journey/Of a minute/With 60 seconds worth of distance run/Then you'll be a man, my son." I disagree with him, philosophically speaking, that endurance gives you the inheritance of the earth. My experience tells me that the earth is innocence, with wonder and delight, which is renewable. The blue heron on my property flies overhead, and I'm a 3 year old. I'm filled with wonder and delight. So I rewrote that part of the poem as 'If you can fill the journey/Of a minute/With 60 seconds worth of wonder and delight.' Kipling's version is macho; I wanted to get the feminine principle into the poetry.

This morning I’m grateful for many things and one of them is poetry, this poem in particular.  I'm grateful that Joni Mitchell took this quite wonderful old poem and made it new.


Of interest:

Joni Mitchell's website

Joni Mitchell on Youtube talking about Shine and her creative process.  Includes clips from a ballet which features her music and is most definitely worth a look.

Also of interest----here is Joni Mitchell, describing, in her liner notes, the first track on Shine, an instrumental piece called One Week Last Summer:

I stepped outside of my little house and stood barefoot on a rock. The Pacific Ocean rolled towards me. Across the bay, a family of seals sprawled on the kelp uncovered by the low tide. A blue heron honked overhead. All around the house the wild roses were blooming. The air smelled sweet and salty and loud with crows and bees. My house was clean. I had food in the fridge for a week. I sat outside 'til the sun went down. That night the piano beckoned for the first time in 10 years. My fingers found these patterns that expressed what words could not. This song poured out while a brown bear rummaged through my garbage cans.  This was originally titled 'Gratitude,' and it was the first piece I wrote for this album.

November 17, 2008

When I Am Asked by Lisel Mueller

A poem on poetry as a place for grief

The poem begins:

When I am asked
How I began writing poems,
I talk about the indifference of nature.

Ms. Mueller’s poem is set in June.  This indifference of nature is felt, we learn, because her mother has died, and because it’s this brilliant summer day.  Everything’s blooming.  The outside world looking so drastically different from the way the inside world feels.

Nothing was black or broken
and not a leaf fell

Is it easier to grieve when there’s a streak of black in the landscape?
When something in the outside world is broken?
Is it easier to grieve what needs to be grieved when the air is gray?
Or maybe when the world’s not celebrating a holiday?

I went looking for this poem, When I Am Asked, after I wrote about Frost’s poem, My November Guest.  And at first I thought, oh, maybe better to save this one until June.  But then I started thinking about how brilliant holiday decorations can be—or golden maples—the brilliance of colored lights—and how all of that, for a certain person at a certain time (and all of us have likely been there at one point or another—or we will be)—how all of that could have the potential to feel indifferent.

Where can grief find a place during an American Thanksgiving? 
Where can it find resonance?
Or where in the world can grief find a place when the world all seems to be celebrating Christmas? 
(They’re not actually.  A lot of the world isn’t Christian.  And of those that are, many—more than we think—find Christmas a difficult time.  But it can seem as if everyone is celebrating Christmas.  Everyone else whooping it up.)

And all of this complicated by the sensory qualities of the holidays—all the very particular smells and music and the sound of that Salvation Army bell—and the way any one of these might trigger memory and emotion, unbidden.

I’m interested in where the speaker of this poem finds her own resonance for grief amid outer brilliance.

I sat on a gray stone bench. . .
and placed my grief
in the mouth of language,
the only thing that would grieve with me.

Language as good company.

I’ve had this notion for a while—certainly not mine alone—that if one person or creature gets it—really gets it—if grief finds its true company and recognition—then it can begin to be carried—and perhaps released.  I think any one of us can bear grief—or bear it better—say, with less suffering—if just one creature in the world really gets it well.

For Chekhov it was his horse.
For Lisle it's language itself—poetry.

See also:

A piece from One Year of Writing and Healing on Chekhov’s story, Grief

An interview with Ms. Mueller from 1997, the year that she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

The poem Funeral Blues by W.H. Auden, so memorably and beautifully recited aloud in the movie, Four Weddings and a Funeral.  A poem that also speaks to resonance.

And here is the actor, John Hannah, on YouTube reciting the Auden poem.  Good company, I think.

November 10, 2008

My November Guest by Robert Frost

A poem in which Sorrow appears as guest and companion
 MY Sorrow, when she’s here with me,   
  Thinks these dark days of autumn rain   
Are beautiful as days can be;   
She loves the bare, the withered tree;   
  She walks the sodden pasture lane.           
Her pleasure will not let me stay.   
  She talks and I am fain to list:   
She’s glad the birds are gone away,   
She’s glad her simple worsted gray   
  Is silver now with clinging mist.           
The desolate, deserted trees,   
  The faded earth, the heavy sky,   
The beauties she so truly sees,   
She thinks I have no eye for these,   
  And vexes me for reason why.           
Not yesterday I learned to know   
  The love of bare November days   
Before the coming of the snow,   
But it were vain to tell her so,   
  And they are better for her praise.

Sorrow as feminine?  A companion with a name?  And it would seem that she doesn’t just tolerate the gray dark days that November can bring.  She thinks they’re beautiful.  She seems to love the grays and silvers.  Not just endure.  She loves them.  She loves the bare days.  The bare trees.  Even the desolation.  She praises it.  Seems to even find in it a kind of balm.

Not long ago I read a piece in a blog I read regularly, Furious Seasons.  The blog is written by Philip Dawdy, a journalist in Seattle who writes critically, and quite well, about mental health issues.  In the piece of which I’m thinking, he writes about the onset of fall and winter in Seattle, the beginning of a long gray season.  He speaks to what has worked for him in his own ongoing, and periodic, acquaintance with depression.

He writes of how critical it is to remember to eat.  To remember to sleep.  To get outside when he can.  To make some time to socialize.  And then he writes about this other subtler part—not becoming depressed about getting depressed.  Which I think gets at the heart of something. 

He writes:

My experience is if I am not falling into despair over the possible onset of depression then I don't get depressed. Which I suppose proves something about all this mindfulness talk you read in depression recovery circles.

Reading this, I found myself thinking of Pema Chodron, the Buddhist teacher.  She has this wonderful image for negative emotions—or emotions that we’ve come to think of as negative or unpleasant.  She calls them Wisdoms in Disguise.

One place she talks about these wisdoms is in a conversation with the author Alice Walker, a conversation that was recorded and which is readily available (links below).  She says this, referring to the work of one of her teachers, Chogyam Trungpa:

So when I read Rinpoche what he basically said was, he said there’s nothing wrong with negativity, he said that there’s a lot you can learn from it, it’s a very strong creative energy.  The problem is negative negativity—you don’t just stay with negativity, you spin off into all the endless cycle of things you say to yourself about it. . . For instance, in Vajayana Buddhism, they talk about how each of the powerful negative energies such as anger, envy, lust, jealousy, how these are all wisdoms in disguise but you have to not spin off, you have to be able to relax with the energy.

And perhaps Sorrow too might be one of these wisdoms in disguise?

As if what sometimes gets us into trouble is feeling bad about feeling bad.  Of course this wouldn’t be the issue all of the time—but maybe sometimes?

As if, say, Robert Frost were to be furious at Sorrow.  Dreading her visit.  Berating her.  This making, I would think, for a pretty awful November morning. 

Instead, I picture Frost doing this other thing.  Walking with Sorrow.  Tilting his head toward her.  They’re outside, which is likely going to make everything better.  And Sorrow is going on, praising the grays and the silvers and the bare trees.  And Frost is listening.  Really listening.  Letting her have her say.  Maybe not agreeing with her all the time—but listening.  And keeping a kind of wise silence while she goes on about it.


See also
Philip Dawdy’s piece, That Tricky Time of Year

A partial transcript of Pema Chodron and Alice Walker in Conversation.
(the full conversation is available in audio form at Amazon)

A piece from this site on Denise Levertov’s poem, Talking to Grief

And, finally, a brief bio of Robert Frost.  Until quite recently I had no notion of the kind of grief that Frost had to deal with.  I’d always pictured him, for no reason in particular, as some kind of gentleman farmer with a comfortable life.  And then I came across a litany of his losses.  If you follow the link and scroll down to Personal Life you can begin to get some sense of how he might have come to know Sorrow.

November 03, 2008

Beautiful Boy by David Sheff

A journalist’s memoir of his son’s addiction

amazon link

My favorite thing about David Sheff’s book is his ability to hold two entirely different thoughts in the same paragraph—even in the same sentence.

There’s nothing to be done, we have to do everything we can do.  We have done everything we can do, we have more to do.  Vicki and I agonize over it.

Paradox is at the center of this book.  And agony.

The catalyst for this paradox?  Nic, the author’s son, a kind of golden boy—bright, privileged, a surfer, a gifted writer, who, as a young teenager begins trying drugs and who, by his late teens, is trapped in a horrific and destructive addiction to crystal meth.  This can be agonizing to watch, even as a reader.  Especially agonizing when the bursts of recovery don’t last—when Nic relapses.  Again.  And again.

(I have this memory, years ago, working with addicts, sitting at a meeting, after one of the best and brightest, a young man a full year sober—he’d just relapsed.  I remember his friend standing to speak, saying how easy it would be to be furious at him.  But then he remembered—his own relapses—how long it took—how long the process took.  And he recited one of those lines that people in recovery sometimes use: It takes what it takes.  That line has always stuck with me.  Recovery as a process.  Not just getting sober once.  But again—and again—and again.  It takes what it takes, even if part of what it takes is another relapse.)

Beautiful Boy is about recovery as a process.  Not just one treatment facility but several.  For this particular family, insurance and other resources allowed them to make repeated treatment a reality.  And it’s hard, while reading, not to think of all the families in similar situations who are without such resources for recovery.  But that, I think, is another book.  In this book, David Sheff, a skilled journalist and an eminently readable writer, is able to give us a feel of the process, his process, as it is happening.  In the middle of it.

How many times have I promised myself never to do this again, never again live in a state of panic, waiting for Nic to show up or not show up, to check himself in.  Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.  I will not do it again.

I am doing it again.

It’s this kind of immediacy that makes the book powerful.

And I see this book as good company for any parent who has ever agonized over how much to help when an older child is in trouble.  Or for any person who has ever been called an enabler, and who has said now, hey, wait a minute, what’s the difference between enabling and helping, how do you know?  And when do you know?  Isn’t it sometimes, well, kind of complicated?

This book is, among other things, about such complications.

Can it be of use to the next person in some kind of similar situation?  Maybe.  A little.

In the introduction, Sheff writes:

Why does it help to read others’ stories?  It’s not only that misery loves company, because (I learned) misery is too self-absorbed to want much company.  Others’ experiences did help with my emotional struggle; reading I felt a little less crazy.  And, like the stories I heard at Al-Anon meetings, others’ writing served as guides in uncharted waters.

In turn Sheff has offered his own, very personal, guide.  Not as instruction manual—but as story.

Mercifully, his boy lives.

See also
The podcast of an interview on Fresh Air with David Sheff and his son, Nic
(This same NPR page also includes an excerpt—the entire introduction to Beautiful Boy)

October 27, 2008

The Enchanted Loom

More good news
from Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley

A little over ten years ago now, when I was teaching writing at a drug rehab facility, I remember one of the young men, Rusty, a creative and gifted writer, telling me about a visit he’d had just had with a psychiatrist.  The psychiatrist had begun him on a medication (I can’t now remember which one) and the psychiatrist went on to tell him that he was going to have to be on it for the rest of his life.  He told Rusty that he’d destroyed a part of his brain with the drugs he’d taken and that the destruction was permanent.

This is the first story that came to mind as I was thinking about why a book like Sharon Begley’s book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, might be important.

What happens when any one of us begins to think—for whatever reason—drugs, genetics, early traumatic experiences, early deprivation—what happens when we begin to think that our brains are permanently and irrevocably damaged?  What kinds of decisions might we make as a result of that model?

And what might happen—what different choices might we make—if we were to begin to imagine the brain as an enchanted loom?

The metaphor is one first used in 1917 by a British neuroscientist, Charles Sherrington.  He described the brain as an enchanted loom, ‘where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern, though never an abiding one.’

It’s such a fluid metaphor.  The brain as a kind of frame—wherein different patterns arise and fall back, constellate and dissolve.  Meaningful patterns but not abiding.  Not indelible.  Not etched in stone. 

To extend the metaphor some: it used to be thought, and it was taught, that once the frame got built—sometime, say, in early childhood—that was the frame you went through the rest of your life with.  And if it got dented along the way, which it inevitably would, then that dented structure is what you were stuck with.  The implication also being that a dented structure would be likely to weave a rather misshapen fabric—and even perhaps the same fabric, over and over. Not a particularly encouraging model.

Neuroplasticity offers something different.  A different model.
The loom can change.
The actual frame can change.
The loom is, well—enchanted.

Begley builds a story for neuroplasticity by tracing its early history in Chapter 2 of her book.  First, she cites the psychologist William James, who wrote as early as 1890 that ‘organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity.’  Then she outlines a series of studies, performed by a series of scientists, including the aforementioned Charles Sherrington, who early in the last century began to question whether our brain maps were fixed maps. 

(Brain maps, first laid out in the late 1800’s, are what they sound like they would be---maps of the brain cortex which lay out which parts of the brain are handling what—including both incoming signals—the sensory signals—and outgoing—or motor—signals.  Thus, for instance, a specific portion of your brain receives sensory signals from your fingers when they touch a keyboard.  Another portion of your brain is associated with moving those fingers.  Yet another section of the brain allows you to process what you see on this screen.  And so forth.)

First, the guys showed that brain maps varied from monkey to monkey.
Then, they showed that brain maps change within the same monkey over time.  Hmmm.

Then, they showed, through a very interesting experiment, that they could change a monkey’s brain map by teaching it a trick.  Monkeys who learned to pick up a banana pellet in a very specific and challenging way—a way that required an acute sense of touch in a couple of their fingers—and after they did this over and over and over—a bunch---the map of their brains changed.  The part of their brain that received signals from those particular fingers increased four-fold.

Another similar experiment was shown to change the map for the part of the brain responsible for getting those fingers moving.  This sector of the brain was shown, after training, to undergo what Begley refers to as “suburban sprawl.”  (She loves real estate metaphors.)  Here’s the thing.  In both these cases, a new activity changed the map of the brain.  The touch and movement of the fingers, over and over, changed the number of neurons in the brain committed to that task.  That’s a hint at the enchantment.

A new activity, practiced over and over and over, can change the map of the brain.

It could boggle the mind a bit if one let oneself think about it.  It boggles mine.

See also:
An overview of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain

October 20, 2008

October by Robert Frost

A poem to an October morning


O hushed October morning mild
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
To-morrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
To-morrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow,
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know;
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away;
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes’s sake along the wall.

With this poem, I’m struck most by the sound of it.  I feel like I can hear a voice speaking inside my head as I read.  The voice has a certain timbre, even a kind of music.  Begin the hours of this day slow

A poem to an October morning.  A plea to an October morning.  Slow, slow!

I’m struck by the repetition in this poem.  Whole lines.  Words.  And the repetition of sounds at the end of lines—mild and wild and beguiled.  Fall and all and call.

And then, gradually, new sounds introduced at the end of lines.
The O in go and slow.
The E in brief and leaf.
The A in day.

Recently, I was reading something about toning, the chanting of a series of sounds—especially vowel sounds—to create harmony within the body.  This is not a topic with which I’m terribly familiar but it’s a topic that interests me, and it interests me how it might intersect with poetry.  How reading certain poems—especially aloud—might create or recreate a sense of harmony within the body.

Slow, slow!

I wonder if there’s something about the O sound that slows us down—or that could slow us down.  That could make an October morning seem suspended, as if it were moving in slow motion.  One leaf falling at break of day.  Another at noon.

Slow, slow!


Of interest:

A recording of Frost reading this poem aloud.  On an excellent site that includes a number of recordings of Frost reading his poetry.

A brief article on vowel sounds and toning from a site called Sound Intentions

A short piece on Mitch Gaynor, an oncologist, who integrates sound healing into his medical practice

The Road Not Taken, a nice book-length selection of Frost's poetry which includes this poem