Tag Archives: lisa o’neill


Kara Walker silhouette from " Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power"

Kara Walker silhouette from “Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power”


prism (ˈprizəm/) n. piece of glass or other transparent material cut with precise angles and plane faces. Prisms are useful for analyzing and refracting light (see refraction). A triangular prism can separate white light into its constituent colors by refracting each different wavelength of light by a different amount. The longer wavelengths (those at the red end of the spectrum) are bent the least, the shorter ones (those at the violet end) the most. The result is the spectrum of visible light, or the rainbow. Prisms are used in certain kinds of spectroscopy and in various optical systems.



Netflix is proposing I watch White Christmas. White Christmas is one of the many classics I watched with my grandma growing up. We would often screen films on American Movie Classics in the living room, after she popped popcorn on the stove. I got to know Rita Hayworth and Audrey Hepburn and Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire while curled up on that old brocade couch. I found the stylized nature of these films comforting, conjuring nostalgia for a time I never experienced first hand. The fancy dresses with foundation garments underneath, the finger-waved hair, the three-piece suits and wingtips and fedoras, the inexplicable breaking into song or dance at any moment. These glimpses gave me access to my young grandmother. The one with bright red hair and sweet collared dresses, who was a secretary after attending Washington University in her hometown of St. Louis.


White Christmas, released in 1954, features Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Ellen and is mostly a remake, in Technicolor, of a film made less than a decade earlier: Holiday Inn. Filmed in black and white, Holiday Inn was the movie that first introduced the world to the now-standard holiday song “White Christmas.” In the middle of the film, a cardigan-sweatered Crosby croons “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas” and pauses in playing the piano to reach over and ring the bells that are hung on the Christmas tree with a silver spoon.


The 1942 film revolves around two old buddies, Jim and Ted, played by Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire respectively, who used to have a musical act in New York City, who are intensely competitive, and who fall in love with the same woman, an aspiring performer Linda Mason, played by Marjorie Reynolds. Jim starts an inn in Connecticut—the Holiday Inn—that features monthly performances based on each month’s signature holiday. He hires his love interest Linda to perform alongside him. There is singing. There is dancing. There is a friendship strained by the friends’ mutual love of and competition for one woman. There is misogyny and stereotypical gender roles. And then there is the issue of blackness and whiteness.


I vaguely remembered the premise but mostly the feeling of sitting with my grandma in her living room when, a few years ago, I rented the DVD from a local video store. I remembered the costumes and the dancing, the coy smiles of this old school romance. I recalled the stunning solo number by Fred Astaire, who tap danced across the floor while throwing down firecrackers for the Holiday Inn’s celebration of the Fourth of July.


What I didn’t remember was the performance from Lincoln’s Birthday, which is astonishingly picked as the holiday for February instead of Valentine’s Day. Necessitated by the plot that requires Jim to disguise his beloved so as to ward off advances from his friend and competition, he makes a quick change and the number for Lincoln’s Birthday suddenly becomes a minstrel show. Bing as Jim emerges in blackface with a top hat, beard, and cane. Linda’s face is painted black as well and her hair spikes out into a myriad of ribboned blonde braids.


My jaw dropped. I had no memory of this scene at all. And I wondered: Was it because I was too young and had no context for what was happening? Did my grandma see the issues of the scene and choose not to tell me? Did she not see the scene as problematic enough? Did she avoid talking about it with me because of its problematic nature?


The song “Abraham” unfolds with Bing Crosby singing against a full orchestra also in blackface. The blackfaced banjo player sits in the far back on the ground. The waiters and waitresses are in blackface as well, the women adorned with kerchiefs and petticoated polka-dotted skirts.


The film also features a black housekeeper character named Mamie and her two young children, a girl and a boy, who also participate in the song. After Bing’s first verse, the camera cuts to Mamie. Holding her children on her lap, Mamie sings the question: “When black folks lived in slavery, who was it set the darkie free?” Her daughter sings a reply: “Abraham.”


Holiday Inn Bing Holiday Inn Marjorie Holiday Inn Bing and Marjorie


Research reveals that some broadcasts began to show an edited version of the film in the 1980s. (How that worked I’m not exactly sure since this section of the movie also reveals crucial plot points. For example, that touching moment when Jim proposes marriage to Linda while painting her face black for the minstrel show.) Turner Movie Classics didn’t edit the film because they believe in broadcasting films as originally cut. And until more recently, American Movie Classics also ran the film in its original form.


This all makes me think I saw the original uncut version.


As offensive as this scene is, as horrible as it is to think that someone deemed it acceptable to create this musical performance and then use it as a lynchpin in the film, someone made that choice. Many someones. And to revise a cultural artifact that reveals its time, who was in power and what they thought, is dangerous. Revising texts in this way is to pretend that popular culture was not feeding into racist attitudes and actions.


But even more dangerous, I think, is the outrage so many white Americans often experience about the past that can nullify or desensitize us to the reality of the present. And our present involves a system that privileges and protects white people over and over again solely because of the color of our skin. Our present praises and makes permissible a system that results in the demoralization, degradation, dejection, and death of black and brown people.


Like so many Americans, I have felt devastated and angry this last week about the lack of an indictment of Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown. When I returned home the night of the verdict, my desire to hit something was so strong that I ended up punching my mattress for a while. I felt a sickening feeling in my stomach, a combination of fury and grief, a few days later when watching the video that shows a Cleveland cop shooting and killing 12-year-old black child Tamir Rice a mere second after the officer got out of his car. There is no sound in the video so all you see is a small body standing upright and then crumpling to the ground. Devastating. Not to mention the local news story that led by attacking the character of the victim’s father instead of the confounding fact of an officer killing a child holding a toy gun. These deaths are tragedy accumulated because Michael Brown and Tamir Rice (and Trayvon Martin and and and) are not exceptions but part of a long line of African-American people killed in this country because of the color of their skin and because our country refuses to look at the reality and pervasiveness of the racism that we are founded in and on.


We would like to think we are so much farther along than Holiday Inn. But that’s just not true.


Only two weeks ago, Jacqueline Woodson was presented with the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for her book Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir about growing up in South Carolina in the 60s and 70s, dealing with Jim Crow and the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement. And at this pinnacle moment of her career and artistic work, Dan Handler, the author of the popular Lemony Snicket series, made the joke that he “only just found out she was allergic to watermelon.” I can’t imagine what it would feel like, on one of the most important nights of your life, to have your accomplishments smeared with insults and reminders of the very injustices your work strives to illuminate.


Woodson responded in a New York Times editorial entitled “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke.” She traces her repulsion for the fruit as blossoming out of understanding its history. The fruit went from being tied to summer traditions, the lightness of family and childhood, to the rotting mess of racism. She writes, “…by the time I was 11 years old, even the smell of watermelon was enough to send me running to the bathroom with my most recent meal returning to my throat. It seemed I had grown violently allergic to the fruit. I was a brown girl growing up in the United States. By that point in my life, I had seen the racist representations associated with African-Americans and watermelons, heard the terrifying stories of black men being lynched with watermelons hanging around them…In a book I found at the library, a camp song about a watermelon vine was illustrated with caricatures of sleepy-looking black people sitting by trees, grinning and eating watermelon. Slowly, the hideousness of the stereotype began to sink in. In the eyes of those who told and repeated the jokes, we were shuffling, googly-eyed and lesser than. Perhaps my allergy was actually a deep physical revulsion that came from the psychological impression and weight of the association. Whatever it was, I could no longer eat watermelon.”


Woodson writes in the piece about how she realized her childhood dream of becoming a writer and about how she and Handler have been friends for years. She mentions that when he served watermelon soup at his Cape Cod home last summer, she told him she was allergic. Of his comments at her award ceremony, she writes: “In a few short words, the audience and I were asked to take a step back from everything I’ve ever written, a step back from the power and meaning of the National Book Award, lest we forget, lest I forget, where I came from. By making light of that deep and troubled history, he showed that he believed we were at a point where we could laugh about it all. His historical context, unlike my own, came from a place of ignorance.”


Ignorance of history and also denial of the significance of the small things in defining the large ones. A watermelon joke is not just a joke in the face of the history of that stereotype.


I am reminded of Sam Hamill’s essay “The Necessity to Speak” in which he talks about witnessing violence in the form of war, domestic violence, the criminal justice system, and abuse. When discussing domestic violence, he references popular culture’s complicity in and condoning of it. He writes, “When James Cagney shoves half a grapefruit in a woman’s face, we all laugh and applaud. Nobody likes an uppity woman. And a man who is a man, when all else fails, asserts his ‘masculinity.’” All forms of oppression are different but all oppressed groups are ultimately linked. And they are linked by the times in which someone said or did something oppressive and demeaning that an onlooker decided was no big deal. Oppressions are linked by slurs and taunts and side-glances and critics that say: “aren’t you taking this a little too seriously?” and “can’t you take a joke?”


Back in August immediately following Mike Brown’s shooting, Jon Stewart closed a segment of The Daily Show called “Race/Off” by saying: “Race is there and it is a constant. If you’re tired of hearing about it, imagine how exhausting it is living it.”


The media reporting of protests surrounding the lack of indictment in Ferguson have focused largely on the “mobs” of people, on the intensity of people’s anger, and not on the reason for their fury. There have been some wonderful articles comparing the difference between why white people riot (winning or losing sporting events) and why black people riot (verdicts like “not guilty” for Zimmerman or “no indictment” for “Wilson,” i.e. no justice for innocent black people being killed). I am reminded too of the two almost identical photos published just after Katrina: one of two black people and the other of two white people wading through water with food from a flooded grocery store. The captions revealed that the black people were “looting” and white people were “finding food.”


Last weekend, before the grand jury released its ruling, I read Claudia Rankine’s new book Citizen: An American Lyric. Through lyrical prose about her personal experiences, politics, and pop culture, Rankine explores the perpetual presence of racism in the lives of African-Americans and the extent of the damage it does. On the front cover is a white backdrop with a black hoodie torn from its torso.


Except for the last page, written in first person, the book is in second person: firmly placing the reader in the slot of “you.” She writes in one section about Hennessy Youngman, aka Jayson Musson, who, in youtube videos, “advises black artists to cultivate ‘an angry nigger exterior’ by watching, among other things, the Rodney King video while working.”


She continues: “Youngman’s suggestions are meant to expose expectations for blackness as well as to underscore the difficulty inherent in any attempt by black artists to metabolize real rage. The commodified anger his video advocates rests lightly on the surface for spectacle’s sake. It can be engaged or played like the race card and is tied solely to the performance of blackness and not to the emotional state of particular individuals in particular situations.”


“On the bridge between this sellable anger and ‘the artist’ resides, at times, an actual anger. Youngman in his video doesn’t address this kind of anger: the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color. This other kind of anger in time can prevent, rather than sponsor, the production of anything except loneliness.”


“You begin to think, maybe erroneously, that this other kind of anger is really a type of knowledge, the type that both clarifies and disappoints. It responds to insult and attempted erasure simply by asserting presence and the energy required to present, to react, to assert is accompanied by visceral disappointment: a disappointment in the sense that no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived.”


I want to repeat her words again: “anger is really a type of knowledge, the type that both clarifies and disappoints….a disappointment in the sense that no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived.”


I read an article recounting an event in St. Louis following Mike Brown’s shooting where ten black mothers sat and talked to an audience full of mothers—of different ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds—about the experiences they had in talking to their children about race and racism. Director of Racial Justice at the YWCA in St. Louis Amy Hunter told a story about a time when her son was 12 and noticed a police officer following him as he walked. He was only five blocks from home. When he arrived and told her what happened, he asked, “I just want to know, how long will this last?” She cried as she relayed to the audience what she told him, what she had to tell him: “For the rest of your life.”


Can we just think about that for a second? That for his whole life, this child, this mother’s son, this boy then young adult then man, this human being will have to walk the “right” way, say the “right” thing in order to attempt to preserve his life. And even if he does everything “right,” he is still at risk of being harmed or killed solely because of the color of his skin. How many more lives lost? How much more will it take for us to change a system that is harming and killing so many citizens of our country?


I understand that, as a white person, my perspective is limited and that I cannot fully understand the grief and anger of black individuals and black communities in seeing this same injustice and violence perpetuated over and over again. I felt myself paralyzed this past week with what to say in relationship to this, wondering when and if I should write anything at all.


I grew up in New Orleans, a city segregated by color lines. And without anyone ever needing to really explain the idea of separate and unequal, I saw it everywhere. And what I mostly saw was good-hearted white people pretending that nothing was happening. This is happening. People of color are being killed and oppressed solely because of the color of their skin. This is happening. The criminal justice system is rigged against minorities and people of lower socio-economic status. This is happening. Black kids are being killed while white kids are being given the benefit of the doubt. This is happening. People of color are not “playing the race card,” people of color are being played, by a system rigged to oppress them.


I believe that many Americans will look back at this time and be as appalled as we are now by lynchings, by blackface, by Interstates built through African-American communities. That’s not good enough, to hope that one day we will look back and be appalled. Let’s be appalled now. Let’s do something to change this.


Before Isaac Newton, people believed that pure light was colorless and that light was “altered into color” from interaction with matter. Experimenting with prisms using refraction, Newton revealed the opposite, that light included within it the whole spectrum of color. That a prism didn’t create color but rather separated it, showing what was already present.


In ophthalmology, prisms are used to diagnose and treat deficiencies and diseases of the eye. Ophthalmologists use light reflected and refracted by prisms to examine the eye for vision problems so they can be treated. It is only in altering angles, in finding mirrors, in looking in different ways that problems can be identified, that vision can become clear.




Here are some pieces I found insightful/helpful/encouraging/profound in reference to Ferguson:

On Ferguson Protests, the Destruction of Things, and What Violence Really Is (And Isn’t) by Mia McKenzie

Telling My Son About Ferguson by Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow

It’s Incredibly Rare For A Grand Jury to Do What Ferguson’s Just Did by Ben Casselman

Twelve Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson by Janee Woods

This Is What Darren Wilson Told the Grand Jury About Shooting Michael Brown by Jaeah Lee and AJ Vicens

“Not An Elegy For Mike Brown”: Two Poems for Ferguson by Danez Smith

Ferguson isn’t about black rage against cops. It’s white rage against progress. by Carol Anderson

Interview with Mike Brown’s parents


Claudia Rankine’s amazing book Citizen.







Filed under other words





noun \kap-tən also kap-əm\

: a person who is in charge of a ship or an airplane

: an officer of high rank in some branches of the military

: an officer of high rank in a police or fire department

1 a (1) :  a military leader :  the commander of a unit or a body of troops (2) :  a subordinate officer commanding under a sovereign or general (3) :  a commissioned officer in the army, air force, or marine corps ranking above a first lieutenant and below a major

(1) :  a naval officer who is master or commander of a ship (2) :  a commissioned officer in the navy ranking above a commander and below a commodore and in the coast guard ranking above a commander and below a rear admiral

c :  a senior pilot who commands the crew of an airplane

d :  an officer in a police department or fire department in charge of a unit (as a precinct or company) and usually ranking above a lieutenant and below a chief

2 :  one who leads or supervises

3 :  a person of importance or influence in a field <captains of industry>





“I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

—Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself in Leaves of Grass





Robin Williams died today.

I don’t know quite how to explain how I feel about this. Sadness doesn’t quite cover it.

I miss him and I didn’t know him. I wish he were here.

Williams was a master of comedy. However, it was his serious roles that moved me most. But if you look closely at even his comedic roles, there is always something serious there, too. 

I hadn’t realized how young I was when Dead Poets’ Society came out. I was ten. And I’m pretty sure I saw it not too long after that. Maybe I was a few years older. But what I know was that I wanted him to be my teacher. The way he was on fire for words. The way he encouraged his young students. The way he told them that the things that mattered to me mattered. He made them sound their barbaric yawps and I was a scared little kid who desperately wanted to yawp, too. I wanted someone to give me permission to yawp. And when the lead character, the student he encourages to follow his dreams and be himself, commits suicide because of the competing pressures of what he wants and what his parents want, I felt that sadness deeply. I felt the tragedy as if it were happening to someone I loved, in a community I cared about. When Williams’ character is told to leave at the end and his students one by one stand on their desks, defying their old teacher and old ways of thinking and being, I felt as if the sea changes that had happened inside them had also happened inside me.

When I saw Williams as a young doctor bring to life patients who had previously been catatonic, enslaved in their frozen bodies, his joy was mine. And when the meds stopped working suddenly, when he couldn’t figure out what went wrong, when suddenly he saw the patients he had grown close to become closed off and isolated again, I wept. And not tiny tears, not a single drop rolling down a check, but full body quaking kind of weeping.

We could say, yes, Robin Williams was a good actor. And we would be right. But it was more than that. He was tapped into something greater, in who he was and what he did. I always felt like there was some aspect of every character that was him. And not in the “he always plays himself” way. He played everyone and still was himself. He drew the essence out of each character. He showed us what human looked like and in doing so, he showed us ourselves.

He didn’t show us the selves that we carefully curate and dress for the world. He showed us our whole selves: broken and flawed and terrified, risking and failing, fucking things up for the millionth time. He showed us our whole selves: fragile and vulnerable and joyful and filled with love. He made us laugh because he knew what it meant to weep. He made us weep because we understood that to be human is to be everything at once, that there is tear in every roll of laughter, that what makes us beautiful also makes us breakable.

So in this, he was my teacher. And he was one of the best ones I’ve ever had. I am sad he had to leave us so soon. I’m grateful he was here.






O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

But O heart! heart! heart!

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.


O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,

For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

Here Captain! dear father!

The arm beneath your head!

It is some dream that on the deck,

You’ve fallen cold and dead.


My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,

From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;

Exult O shores, and ring O bells!

But I with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.



–Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass




Filed under other words





Here we are on this bittersweet day: the last day of National Poetry Month and the last day of napomo at the  dictionary project. Thank you for joining us as we have celebrated poetry and bibliomancy and the play and beauty that can come from constraint-based writing.


I always find it fascinating when the word that comes is scientific or mathematical in origin, as with our word today, which is explored through physics and geometry. Although not universally the case, so many of us word types were drawn to words not only out of a love of language and story but a clear sense of doom evoked from math and science. So I think it is an extra challenge to engage through words with concepts that may be outside of our normal day-t0-day processes and frameworks. But then again, when we are searching for understanding is when the most interesting metaphors and twists in language can arrive.


Please enjoy these poetic interpretations by Meg and Ari of this:






and this:




and this:





el·lip·tic·i·ty noun (i-ˌlip-ˈti-sə-tē)  1.  deviation from perfect circular or spherical form toward elliptic or ellipsoidal form.  2.  the degree of this deviation.




Ari Ellipticity 1

Ari Ellipticity2





Ari Belathar is a Mexican poet and playwright in exile. Between 1994 and 2001, she facilitated creative writing and popular theatre workshops for indigenous women and children throughout Mexico. She was also a founding member of the first Mexican community radio station during the student strike at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1999. After being kidnapped and tortured by the Mexican National Army in 2001 due to her work as an independent journalist and human rights defender, she escaped to Canada, where she became a political refugee. A winning-artist participant in Artscape’s Gibraltar Point International Artists Residency Program, she has published poetry in literary journals and anthologies around the world. Belathar served as Writer-in-Residence through PEN Canada’s Writers in Exile Network at the University of Windsor and at Brandon University in Manitoba, the latter of which resulted in her first chapbook of poetry in English, The Cities I Left Behind. In Summer 2010, Scirocco Drama published The TAXI Project—a collective play about exile, originally produced by PEN Canada, with Belathar as lead–writer. The TAXI Project was performed by Alchemy Theatre in Toronto and toured high schools and community centres in ten southern Ontario cities and municipalities. In 2012, Belathar was selected as Alameda Theatre Company’s Playwright in Residency as well as being invited to be part of Cahoots Theatre Playwrights’ HotHouse Writing Unit. She is currently developing her first full-length play, La Danza del Venado, a multidisciplinary piece inspired by her own experience of crossing the Mexico/U.S. border into the United States as a child to reunite with her father. In 2013, Belathar lives and writes in Tucson, AZ.





MegWade Ellipticity






Meg Wade was born and raised in the hills of East Tennessee.  She received her MFA from the University of Arizona, where she was the recipient of the Academy of American Poets Prize.  Meg is currently finishing her first full-length verse collection, Blame the Woods, and is the working Assistant Editor for an anthology of contemporary, rural American poetry titled, Hick Poetics, forthcoming from Lost Roads Press.  Her recent work has appeared in CutBank, The Feminist Wire, and Phantom Limb, as well as work forthcoming in two anthologies set to be released from Locked Horn Press in 2014.  Beginning this fall Meg will be the 2014-2015 Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  For now, she lives, writes, and teaches in Tucson, Arizona.




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packedHands Holding Soil


Today is the third post for napomo at the dictionary project. I’m pleased to introduce you to this pair of poets who I met at ::Throughlines:: an improvisational movement and writing intensive I participated in back in January of this year. They also have an amazing ongoing image/poem project, what they call a daily endeavor of poetic attention, which you can check out here: how we share the sky.

Speaking of attention, that is what I love so much about the dictionary project and annual series like napomo. Because it is all about attention: attention of one person at a particular moment in time to a particular word and meaning. Maybe it’s a word we’ve never heard of in our lives. Maybe it’s a word we’ve long forgotten. Maybe it’s a word that is part of our daily vernacular. In any case, we are asked to show up to that word in a new way, to see it with fresh eyes, to discover the ways in which our current mindset and circumstances and place in the world inform our understanding. What draws our attention in this word and meaning? How do make sense of it in this particular moment?

There is a majesty in this kind of micro-level attention. Because, in truth, all the micro choices we make add up to the macro of our daily existence and what we contribute to the collective. Our creativity is not only found in the novels we painstakingly craft but in that hard earned and alive sentence, in the way we set our table with consideration of color and light and texture, in the summer garden we co-create by digging our hands into the packed earth.

So thank you to Kathy (whose birthday is today!) and Katherine for their attention. Thank you to John and Jamison. Thank you to Johanna and Matthew. Thank you to the poets still to write this month and all the writers who have shared their work on the dictionary project. What a difference a word makes when you bring your attention to it.


pack  (pak),  v.t.  [< prec. pack, v.t.], to choose or arrange (a jury, committee, etc.) in such a way as to get desired decisions, results, etc.



k bio pic

Katherine Ferrier is a poet, dance artist, educator, maker and curator. She is a co-founder of The Architects, an improvisation ensemble with a performance history spanning over 20 years, and teaches and performs regularly throughout the US and abroad. Katherine curates /directs Cultivate, a festival created to nourish a growing community of contemporary dance-makers and dance supporters in Northern New Hampshire, and her writing about dance has been published in Contact Quarterly and Kinebago. Her spontaneous on-demand typewriter poetry service, THREAD, was recently featured in The Knot, and she offers ongoing writing workshops at The Gallery at WREN in Bethlehem, NH.





For 17 years, Kathy Couch has been designing and creating visual landscapes in performance and installation works. Through the use of light, language, readymade objects, photography and space, she attempts to craft experiences that allow people to linger and contemplate moments of being, that they might become more aware of the power they possess to influence and shape the way they move—alone and together. Kathy is currently engaged in the year-long collaborative photography/writing project How We Share the Sky with Katherine Ferrier. This past January, in collaboration with Katherine, Kathy created and taught ::Through-Lines::, a 4-day writing/movement workshop exploring the intersections of language, body, space and objects in Tucson, AZ. Kathy makes her home in Northampton, MA.


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Today, we have our second series of poems for the third annual napomo at the dictionary project in honor of National Poetry Month. All month we will be posting poems written from bibliomanced dictionary project words. In an added twist, this year, two poets are writing to each word. We are discovering what happens in these pairings when two different minds and aesthetics hold space for the same word.


Poets Johanna Skibsrud and Matthew Schmidt have written on screw. Please enjoy their poems and feel free to write your own poem inspired by screwin the comments if you so desire. The actual piece my finger landed on when selecting the word was the image of a lagscrew below.






screw  (skro͞o), n.  [ME.  screwe; OFr. escrone, hole in which the screw turns  <  L. scrobis, vulva],  1.  a mechanical device used for fastening things together, consisting of a naillike cylinder of metal grooved in an advancing spiral, and usually having a slotted head: it penetrates only by being turned: male (or external) screw.  2.  anything like such a device.  3.  a hollow cylinder equipped with a spiral groove on its inner sufrace into which the male screw fits: female (or internal) screw.  4.  the act of turning or twisting; turn of a screw.  5.  a screw propeller.  6.  [Chiefly British], a) a stingy person; miser. b) a crafty bargainer.  7.  [Chiefly British], a bit of tobacco, etc. (in a twisted paper).  8.  [Chiefly British] a worn-out horse.  9.  {Slang], a prison guard.  10.  [British Slang], salary.  v.t.  1. to twist; turn; tighten.  2.  to fasten, make secure, tighten, press, insert, etc. with or as with a screw or screws.  3.  to contort; squeeze; twist out of natural shape: as, screw one’s face up.  4.  to force to do something; compel, as if by using screws.  5.  to extort or practice extortion on: as he screwed me out of money.  v.i.  1. to come apart or go together by being turned or twisted in the manner of a screw: as, the lid screws on. 2. to be fitted for being put together or taken apart by a screw or screws.  3.  to twist; turn; wind; have a motion like that of a screw.  4.  to practice extortion.




Desire Must Be Taken Literally


What exists?




Even in darkness.


If not:


the idea of darkness.


Marked, therefore,

already, by


the idea of light.


What is there but that

to grow slowly


toward, or away?


What but that


to propel


that most

uncertain element,


the soul,


slowly toward

the idea of itself?


To hover, as above,

or outside of itself.


A question.


Toward which

the mind also turns


in a deliberate spiral—.


The mind, the simple



according to which


we conjoin,


and therefore



between that most


uncertain element,


from which we came,

and the world, which is


most certain, some




What, then, the soul,

but the simple


opening, carved

by the mind—


as it constructs,


like a joist or a beam,


upon which the idea



a further idea?
As it insists, if only

by virtue of its


continuous effort

to do so,


the possibility that


the mind will

also hold?


That it will still

be possible,




if only

very briefly—


to suture to the

uncertain idea


a single real thing?




Skibsrud portrait, fall 2013, 1Johanna Skibsrud is the author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize winning novel, The Sentimentalists, a book of short fiction, This Will Be Difficult to Explain, and Other Stories, and two collections of poetry, Late Nights With Wild Cowboys and I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being. A second novel, Quartet for the End of Time will be released in fall, 2014. She lives in Tucson.







Shades drawn—darkness crept scantly
scantily through slats—a cover of destiny
destination to which each day pours itself
out. Outside lined slats, thump of bass
an apartment adjacent in rhythm, enjoys
Saturday evening victuals, imbibes in whether
Sunday will ever step from shadow to show
itself, a difficult concept to grasp in utter
dark, that even through stars appear away
through several named spheres exiting the planet
seem on the verge of consummation, of consumption
in blackness which harnesses a vast swath
of earth, here, now, as somewhere else
someone else is sunning themselves by a rill
twisting grass blades, a tune upon lips
accompaniment to slow burble sluicing
submerged rock on its way to a place
any party herewith has been except tangentially
or rather mentally, in eye of idea
where a picture once seen must be
like this place where the rill—after turning
into other names, empties itself, finally
in an ever ebbing body that removes
all notion of meaning in here, now
until again a cycle is run and rain
falls on windows, behind shades
draws a party at an apartment indoors
bass fading into a dull thrum
in a different time when someone is idle
rill tricks, trickle thought into a coalescence
of sunburst over horizon, another contemplation commences.

2013-04-23 23.54.53Matthew Schmidt is an MFA candidate at the University of Arizona. His work has appeared in Asinine Poetry, Down in the Dirt, Eye On Life and The Missing Slate.

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re·cord  (ri-ˈkȯrd;  for  n.  &  adj., ˈre-kərd also -ˌkȯrd ),  v.t.  [ME. recorden; OFr. recorder; L. recordari, to call to mind, remember  < re-, again + cor, cordis, heart, mind],  1.  to set down, as in writing; preserve an account of: as, record the day’s events.  2.  to register in some permanent form, as on a graph or chart, an indication of (a motion or event) as it occurs: as, a seismograph records earthquakes.  3.  to serve as evidence of; tell of: as, the marks on the house record the height of the flood waters.  4.  a) to transform (sound) by electrical or mechanical means and register it in some permanent form, as the grooved track of a phonograph record, the magnetization of fine wire, etc. so that it can be reproduced at will by a reverse process.  b)  to register thus the performance of (a singer, orchestra, piece of music, etc).  5.  to show; indicate.  6.  to set down or have set down in a register: as, record a vote.  v.i.  1.  to record something.  2.  to admit of being recorded.  n.  [ME.; OFr.  <  the v.i]1.  a recording or being recorded; preservation in or as in writing.  2.  anything that is written down and preserved as evidence; account of events; anything that serves as evidence of an event, etc.  3.  anything that the written evidence is put on or in, as a register, monument, etc.  4.  an official written report of public proceedings, as in a legislature or court of law; documents preserved as evidence of proceedings, as of court.  5.  the known or recorded facts about anything, as about conduct, performance, one’s career, etc.  6.  a flat disk, cylinder, paper roll, etc. on which sound has been recorded.  7.  the best performance as the highest speed, greatest amount, highest rate, etc., reached and publicly recorded  adj.  making a record; being the largest, fastest, etc. of its kind: as, a record audience, record crop. Abbreviated rec.





As the marks on a house record the height of the flood waters, as the grooved track of a phonograph record




Facebook is a continuous looping record. In one convenient space, the site culls together notes and images about our lives, or rather the pieces of our lives we choose to acknowledge and honor. If we could print it out like ticker tape, there our life would be: photos of parties with friends, new love, graduations, jobs, promotions, holidays, our smiling glittering sparkly faces. Our status updates could be read aloud, providing a sort of voiceover featuring our own voice. How easy it would be to parse through this record and collate it in a binder. The table of contents categorized according to biographical data, friendship, love, career. Only we would know how far it is from the truth.


Except for those folks who tip the balance strongly in the venting category: regularly acknowledging their sadness or anger, most of us hold back our hurts on facebook. I’m not talking about annoyances at the grocery store or anger at issues of social injustice: I’m talking about pain. We don’t want to burden others or we don’t want others to perceive us as having moments of weakness, sadness, and deep hurt (read: being human). So instead, we do the same thing to our image that we criticize advertisers for doing. We photoshop our lives. We crop. We blur. We dodge. We burn. We create a record of a life that we can be proud of.


There’s one problem with this. Our record is not real. As we shape ourselves, we deny parts of ourselves. And in not allowing people to see us in our full humanity, we don’t allow ourselves to be fully “like”d or loved. And we are all worthy of being loved not in spite of but because of our beautiful, flawed human selves.


There is danger in this limited perspective. As we spend more and more time socializing in these spheres presenting our constructed selves, we have less and less opportunity to connect with others and meet each another as we really are. We try to meet our needs for comfort and security in an artificial and inadequate space to meet these needs.

This blurring of the whole picture can happen in our real lives too. Even when I am in prolonged struggle, most people would not know this, sometimes not even dear friends. I don’t always show I’m having a hard time, but that doesn’t mean that I am not having a hard time.


I’m not suggesting codependency or suddenly flooding everyone we know with our deepest fears. I’m suggesting that we honestly let ourselves be seen, that we show up and allow others to show themselves to us in all their complexity. This kind of vulnerability can be challenging to bear on both ends. When we share, we face our deepest fears of rejection and defectiveness. When we listen, others’ vulnerability can remind us of our own in a way that may make us tempted to turn away.


Mindfulness has permeated all aspects of our culture these days. I recently read on The Huffington Post that 2014 is “The Year of Mindfulness.” Elementary schools have integrated it as a practice for kids to calm themselves. CEOs are meeting with mindfulness leaders for their own lives and to integrate it into business practices. The Seattle Seahawks announced after their recent Superbowl win that mindfulness meditation is part of their training regimen. I think the omnipresence of mindfulness talk now is in direct proportion to our need for it. In our high speed world, people need to learn how to sit and be with themselves. Mindfulness has so many benefits. Sitting and breathing and observing seems so simple so it can be misinterpreted as easy. However, it takes tremendous courage to show up and be present. It is brave to be with ourselves.


The other night, I watched an unexpected gem of a movie called Safety Not Guaranteed. The premise of the movie is largely unimportant to the undercurrents of the film but it is this: a journalist and two interns go to research a guy who has posted an advertisement asking for a partner to travel back in time with him. Experience with weapons is needed and safety is not guaranteed. You enter the film thinking it will show a humorous encounter in which these “normal” characters meet an “eccentric” character and the drama that ensues. But the film is really about intimacy: how each of these characters desperately wants to connect to someone and how they try and fail and sometimes succeed in this kind of connection. They gain faith and lose it and then gain it again. The opening that is required is risky. The staying, when all they want to do is go, is sometimes impossible. We observe them in the time between the desire to leap and the leaping itself.


I was in an improvisational dance workshop at the beginning of the new year and four rules were set up at the start as guidelines and gauges: Show Up; Pay Attention; Be Honest; Be Open to What Happens Next. I keep thinking about how simple these rules are about the process of being alive. And about how simple they are. Yet how everything in me resists these simple guidelines sometimes. Particularly the last one, being open to what happens next. Because that part, that what-happens-next part, is the part we have absolutely no control of. It’s why showing up and paying attention is threatening. We can have control over tuning out or remaining absent, even how honest we want to be with ourselves or others. But what happens next? The outcome? That is never ever in our control. The part that is in our control is the opening.


For the record, right now I am sitting at my desk (where I am trying to write now, I always end up on the couch) and as I type I am watching a cactus wren climb the dead branches outside. I know he is a cactus wren because of the white and black polka dot plumage on his back and the way he is poking his beak into the wood of the tree. Cactus wrens have never ceased to be exotic to me even though I have lived in the desert for six years.


I was talking with a friend last week about how I wish facebook had an “honesty button.” So you see someone’s status update about their promotion or the best night of their life and when you press the honesty button, a new window appears which says “I am also so afraid of getting older that I just spent the last forty-five minutes researching anti-aging creams” or “I’m worried I’ll never find meaningful work” or “My marriage is falling apart” or “I’m scared I’m a terrible mother” or “I’m worried I’ll never find love.” Next to the album of family holiday photos is an honesty button: “This perfect image was taken ten minutes after my eighteen-month-old threw up and my three-year-old threw himself on the floor in a tantrum when I was functioning on a few hours sleep.” I’m not asking for every vulnerability, just a little equilibrium. You know, for the record.


There are two of them now, the cactus wrens, and they are hopping up a long tree limb that hangs over the neighbors’ little wooden awning. One of them is hanging upside down as he pecks. I read on the Internet that cactus wrens form strong pair bonds, lifelong bonds, and defend their territory together.


I was on a walk with my dog this week when I heard the aggressive chirp of a hummingbird and looked up to see a gray bird with a green iridescent throat flying, suspended in air between the tree branches. Next, I saw the bird lean over, something in its beak. It took a second to register what was happening. Another tiny orange beak peaking out of a brown nest. A tiny bird being fed. I know these moments are happening all the time, but I was paying attention for this one.


My students are writing advice columns in which they use their own heartbreaks and moments of truth to advise others; I read them and think of how much wisdom they have already, at 18, 19. Last night, I went to a reading where one poet read poems about falling in love, accidentally, with their best friend several times. Another poet read about love and grief and loss and wild things. And on the patio, a woman pulled a bow across a violin making the strings scrape, a dissonant beautiful twinge. A man moved his hand towards and away from the radio and suddenly there was the piercing vertical rise and fall of a transmitter. We were all huddled in the courtyard listening.


Carl Sagan said, “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.” Vastness and uncertainty is the raw material we have to work with. I believe we can bear the uncertainty if we bear it together. We can let go of what we think of ourselves and allow ourselves to come into being. We can make a record that is closer to what’s true and invite others to do the same.

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sum·ma·tion (səˈmāSHən ) noun

1. the process of adding things together: the summation of numbers of small pieces of evidence; a sum total of things added together.

2. the process of summing something up: these will need summation in a single document ; a summary; in Law, an attorney’s closing speech at the conclusion of the giving of evidence.



The end of the year is a time when we tend to take stock, to think about what has happened over the past year, to make peace, to give thanks, to look forward.

As is always true for me, the holidays are a mixed bag. I am reminded of those favor bags from kids’ birthday parties. Sometimes you get something really cool like a paddleball and sometimes you get those wax lips. Anyway, most of the time, you get a mix. It’s near impossible for me to get through the holidays without feeling a pretty large amount of gratitude for all the blessings in my life: not the least of which are dear ones, family, friends. I have a job. I have a roof over my head. I don’t want for food or clothing. I am not consumed by worry about my basic needs being met. I have amazingly creative, smart, caring people in my life.

But the holidays often demand that we be perpetually cheery and grateful, that we shelve our uncertainty. This is not realistic or fair to ourselves. Our uncertainty is always there, and it is pretty friendly with fear and doubt. The holidays also bring with them the end of the year, and for many of us, the end of the year brings an appraisal. It’s as if our lives are our finances and we are working them out in an Excel spreadsheet. Was there enough personal growth? Can we tally a sizable number of accomplishments? How did we fare in love?  How many friends and family are we in touch with and how can we measure their love? It is always easier to remember the heartache and trials. Those arise readily. It seems like there can be a process of looking at the year, judging it and deciding if this year merited itself.

For some of us, this begins, albeit unconsciously, before we enter the holiday fray. We think about what it is we are going to talk about from our year. What aspect of our lives will make sense to our friends and family? How do we make our lives measurable? I find this process exhausting. Because the heart of the heart of my year doesn’t happen in these large moves, defeats or accomplishments but rather in moments of profundity and understanding and grief and joy.

A dear friend of mine told me last night that she is making a “Good Things Jar” for the new year. Next to a large mason jar, she will place scraps of different colored paper, ready and waiting to mark the good things that happen in her life. The small and the big ones. She will fill the jar with these things and next year, on New Year’s Eve, she will read them: remembering her year and all the good that was present in it. I love this idea. I love the ways we can remind ourselves of all that is good. Because we need reminding.

In The Buddha’s Brain, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson writes about how the brain is like velcro for negative experiences and teflon for positive ones. We are hardwired that way, because for our ancient ancestors, survival depended upon it. If they didn’t remember what could kill them, they died. The way it plays out for us nowadays is that we ruminate and fixate and mull over negative experiences, not just the ones that are going to kill us but the ones that caused us pain. What once protected us from dying can now prevent us from being fully alive.

There is a term in Buddhism called “mudita.” It means joy. However, it goes beyond that. Mudita is about experiencing genuine joy for others. And while it seems like this comes from a selfless place, it doesn’t. Mudita comes from a place of recognizing our oneness with others. If we are having a hard time but are able to partake in another’s joy, if we can recognize how we are connected to this other person, we can be joyful as well. Still, joy is something we have to come into on our own.

I have known people who will ask how I am and, when I answer honestly about having a challenging day or a hard time, will say things like: “Well, you have so much be grateful for” or “Think about all your blessings” or “Look at how many people are worse off.” And that doesn’t feel honoring. It feels like they are made uncomfortable by my grief or fear and are trying to excise it. Perhaps because my grief or fear reminds them of their own. But we cannot be coaxed into joy. We must find it ourselves.

I think the way that we find it is by being more aware, by making the conscious choice to stay with our joy when we feel it. Good things jars and recalling happy memories with family and literally counting our blessings are all ways to build our own joy, which can become a kind of refuge when fear or uncertainty or envy arise. Mostly though, we need to pay attention when are feeling joyful. As Thich Nhat Hanh would say, we need to water the seeds of joy in ourselves and others. Hanson writes in Buddha’s Brain a few simple steps to take throughout our days to grow our joy:

  1. Help positive events become positive experience: Pay extra attention to the good things in the world and in yourself. For example, notice things that go well, or people who treat you kindly, or when you succeed at something. As we know, it is ignorance, fundamentally, that leads to suffering – and not seeing the good that is actually present is a kind of ignorance.  As a mindfulness practice, focus on the sensations and the feelings in your positive experiences since they are the pathway to emotional memory.  Deliberately create positive experiences for yourself. Examples include acts of generosity, evoking compassion, or recalling a time when you were happy.
  2. Savor the experience as a kind of concentration practice; keep your attention on it for many seconds while letting it fill your body and mind.
  3. Sense that the experience is soaking into you, registering deeply in emotional memory. You could imagine that it’s sinking into your chest and back and brainstem, or imagine a treasure chest in your heart.


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Often, we will make a list of new year’s resolutions, most of which point to areas in which we feel inadequate. They point to our own sense of lack. But maybe resolutions don’t need to be about dramatic change in behavior or in circumstance. Perhaps the simplest and best new year’s resolution is to resolve to pay attention. To notice all the opportunities for joy we already have. Then our intentions for the year aren’t built on a belief in our deficiency but on a recognition of our own abundance.

Life is not a score tally for a board game. I find that the greatest pain and suffering for others and myself comes when we try to keep score with our lives. There is no way to add and subtract and compare two different lives. To do so is to pretend that we know the intimacies of someone else’s path. To do so is to pretend we know what is going to happen in our future. We simply have to honor where we are and honor that means we don’t know quite a bit.

I read an old Charlie Brown cartoon today where Charlie tells Lucy: “Life isn’t like a textbook. The answers aren’t at the back of the book.” What if instead of this becoming a source of frustration it became an opportunity for wonder? Look at how much I don’t know! Look at how much I have the opportunity to learn!

I like watching lawyer shows where the attorneys deliver their summations in court. So often they are clear and wrapped up tightly, like the bow on a Christmas present. The decision seems so simple and easy. Life is not like that. We deliver our summation and then a few days or weeks or months later, we deliver it again. At the end of the year, we look and listen and sum our lives and then we do the same thing a year later. But the words are always changing, the verdict is malleable.

As we approach the new year, perhaps we could remember all that we have learned this past year that has prepared us for the new one. Perhaps we could remember that this new year brings not one but countless opportunities to begin again. We can choose to remember in the myriad of experiences we have that they all add up to being truly alive.





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the dictionary project presents: deep & Diana



Last Saturday, the dictionary project presents! featured the word deep with our writers parsing out, responding to, delving into, working with the word in the multitude of possibilities the word offers. There was sex and intimacy. There was grief and grieving. There was hiding and uncovering. There was literal and metaphorical digging. There were altars and beaches and coalmines.

We videotaped the readers, but until we are able to offer those pieces, we are posting the long overdue readings from our third the dictionary project presents! event in spring which featured the word Diana.

Lisa O’Neill:

Kindall Gray:

Ian Ellasante:

Tere Fowler-Chapman:

Tc Tolbert:

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crown by Cristina Cleveland


Day 30 of the 30 days, 30 words challenge.



Well, here it is! We have arrived at the 30th day of the 30 days, 30 words challenge at the dictionary project. This project has been a valuable teacher. I have learned that I can make time and space—more than I would have imagined—for writing each day. I have learned to make something and then let it go. I have learned a healthy dose of humility for when I had to send pieces out that felt far from ready from public consumption, and I have experienced tremendous gratitude for those of you who have read and supported me—by reading, by commenting, by writing your own pieces over this time. Most of all, I have continued to learn something this project has already taught me, which is to value happenstance and constraints, to trust the process, to engage in inquiry and to follow curiosities. I extend my deepest gratitude for being a part of this experience.




May·pole  (ˈmā-ˌpōl),  n.  (often l.c.) a high pole, decorated with flowers and ribbons, around which revelers dance or engage in sports during May Day celebrations. [MAY + POLE]




The last thing she wanted to do was dance around a ridiculous pole with a ridiculous piece of ribbon. Seriously, she could not think of one other thing she would like to do less. Okay, maybe she could: it was to wear some sort of German bustier and skirt contraption and a flower wreath on her head while she danced around a ridiculous pole with a ridiculous piece of ribbon. Maribel had not signed up for this. She wanted to go to a normal school, you know, one where kids made out in the boiler room and ignored their teachers. The kind where being anti-social was cool and being on student council was not. The kind where this kind of community-building-spring-ritual-dealie would be a joke. But this was not that kind of school. Her classmates seemed to have emerged from some other planet—a planet where wearing wreaths made of plastic flowers from Michael’s on your head was some sort of boon and where dancing around a giant phallus with a piece of ribbon was a damn good time.


“Maribel, get over here,” Ms. Dorber called from across the lawn. She was beaming and holding out a piece of marigold ribbon in Maribel’s direction. Maribel shifted her gaze and pretended she didn’t hear. That didn’t work. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ms. Dorber coming straight towards her. She was still smiling.


“Maribel, didn’t you hear me? It’s time for the Maypole dance.”


“Um, don’t you think I could just sit this one out? I’m not really feeling very springy today. I could just cheer everyone on.”


“Everyone participates,” Ms. Dorber said.


So Maribel followed her over to the Maypole to join her classmates. She picked the marigold ribbon up from the dewed grass.


The music began. It was some jaunty orchestral shit that she bet one of the teachers had transferred from cassette. Geezers. She had practiced for this, they all had. They had been weaving in and out and around the Maypole during gym class all this week, hardly physical education if you asked her. No one had.


Now it was time for the real deal. She tried to be as small as possible as she weaved in and around her classmates. She was not accustomed to being in the spotlight and she didn’t like it. Every time she looked up, this boy from her biology class James was looking at her. He gave her a smile that made her uncomfortable, as if the two of them shared a secret. They had never spoken. Well, once. He had asked her to borrow a pen one day.


There was no time to ask him to stop being such a creeper or to say anything at all because all the sophomores were weaving in and out and in and out with their ribbons. Every time she went around again, though, there he was, gangly frame and smirky smile. But the last time she passed him, he whispered something to her. The music had kicked up—violins and flutes and all that—and she didn’t quite catch it.


It felt like this song was going to go on forever. Spring would turn to fall and fall to winter and they would still be here, arms frozen solid, circling and circling around. The teachers looked on with the expressions of teachers who like to see young people applying themselves. Suddenly, Maribel felt her ribbon slacken and she looked up. The pole was descending quickly to the ground and suddenly it was a mess of arms and legs and torsos and heads and ribbons as people scattered, getting out of the way of the giant striped pole. And like that, it was over. The pole lay on the ground surrounded by severed flowers and tangled ribbons. Amidst the wreckage, students were strewn all over the lawn, collecting their breath. Teachers were frantic, running around to make sure everyone was okay. Maribel scanned the crowd and spotted James standing off to the corner. She caught him smiling as he looked down at the ground. It was just an instant, that slight upward turn before his face neutralized. But that instant gave her hope. Maybe she was not alone.




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Day 29 of the 30 days, 30 words challenge



spy  v.  spied, spying  1  watch closely and secretly see –n. pl. spies one who spies, esp. to get another country’s secrets.




I spy with my little eye…


We play this game as children. Something is spied—a red shoe, a green tree, a gray button—and then must be discovered. We get a hint. We guess. We get a hint. We’re getting warmer. We’re getting oooh, ice cold. We want to get it right. We want to know what our playmate was thinking. We want to see the same thing they saw. We learn the tremendous power of observation.


“I Spy” is excellent training ground for our creativity. We learn how keen our notice can be. We learn how to scrutinize and select. When we are the spier, we have to pick objects that will be harder and harder to guess. When we are the guesser, we must uncover the tiny details our playmates have decided upon.


We learn to discern between shades of the same color (is something lemon yellow or mustard yellow?). We learn how to read those around us (what objects would he pick?). We learn to be persistent, when we have guessed and guessed and still haven’t guessed right.


I used to love reading mysteries when I was younger: Nancy Drew and Sherlock Holmes and R.L. Stine. When I was a little older, I read Mary Higgins Clark insatiably. What I loved about mysteries was how they hinged on one small detail. This detail had been there the whole time, for the detectives and the reader to see, but we hadn’t seen it, not until that dramatic moment when we did. And that tiny detail is what made everything make sense. We now knew who did it. We knew the motivation. We knew what needed to be done. Justice = served.


However, the same attention to detail that can make writing come alive can be self destructive when applied to our lives. These mysteries can be so satisfying because they offer a resolution we don’t always get in life. As we grow up and become grown ups, we employ the same level of curiosity except with an intensity rooted in a desire for perfection rather than a need for play. We can look and look and look at the details of our lives: scrutinizing our choices, making pro and con lists, charting out graphs, asking friends for advice, weighing and measuring and weighing again. Sometimes, this can help. Sometimes, however, we are applying this attention to detail in an attempt to excavate ourselves from a hole of uncertainly. And it just doesn’t work. We flood ourselves with details. We guess and second guess. We don’t know which details are the most important. We have too many to measure.


I had a co-worker once who told me that on his Sunday, he had cleaned his house, including making sure all of the screws in the outlet covers were facing in the same direction, vertically. That detail stuck with me, I guess, because it gave me insights into him, into myself, into our differences. There are times when details are very important to me—for example, when planning what to wear for a special event, when selecting or making a gift for a friend—and there are times when I couldn’t care less, as with the direction of the screws on my outlet covers (or, as is true for me now, whether to replace a broken outlet cover). When I find myself spying all the details and becoming mired in them, I know I have lost the bigger picture.


The same attention to detail that serves us in making quality choices can also be our undoing if we can’t let them go. We can make sure our home is in perfect order, that our dishes are clean and stacked, that all our files are labeled and catalogued, that our clothes are put away neatly in our closets, but sometimes we do these things not for sheer tidiness but to produce an illusion of control. We will all experience discomfort. We will all suffer. We will all die someday. And our attention to detail will not save us from these things. On the contrary, they may give us a false illusion of safety that will backfire when we face obstacles.


I think one key is allowing ourselves to observe details in a way that makes us liberated instead of entrapped. Can we notice the details of what makes our lives rich and full at least as much if not more than we notice the details that complicate our lives or challenge us? Can we pay attention all the time instead of just when we are stressed out? Can we allow observation to be the pleasure it can be instead of a chore? Can we investigate and spy without the intensity of needing one definitive answer?





A few things I spied today:  my little black-and-white dog curled up in the comforter; the sun cascading white light through the curtains; a string of mala beads, brown joined with red thread; the red light blinking; a long row of beige tables lined up with a place-setting of papers at each seat; maple and sprinkled donuts on a platter; canary yellow pineapple and strawberries and blueberries in a bowl; a light blue dress with a white pattern; a tattoo of red roses; turquoise bangs; the round marbled body of a banjo; a blue pocket dictionary with white lettering; a blue and black hummingbird floating mid-air just beside me before skirting off to a new destination; an orange and black butterfly coasting just in front of me; two white-haired ladies, one wearing mustard jeans, chatting at a black table over two cups of coffee; a red, green, and gold box with this quote inside: “Happiness leads none of us by the same route”; blue pieces of paper folded inside the box; a white napkin holding a handful of purple grapes, a piece of dark chocolate, a tortilla chip with guacamole, and an oreo cookie; a blue sofa; the yellow and white reflection of the ceiling fan in the glass of the picture frame holding a red and orange and black painting of ships at sea.


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