Category Archives: weekly words






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.

1 Comment

Filed under weekly words





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.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.


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.





Leave a comment

Filed under weekly words


Ellie's first bibliomanced word: escutcheon!

Ellie’s first bibliomanced word: escutcheon!


"So, what if I can't read yet? I'm into this dictionary thing."

“So, what if I can’t read yet? I’m into this dictionary thing.”



escutcheon* \is-ˈkə-chən\  n. 

1: a shield or emblem bearing a coat of arms.

2: a flat piece of metal for protection and often ornamentation, around a keyhole, door handle, or light switch.

3 : the part of a ship’s stern on which the name is displayed

*My sweet little niece Ellie picked this word in her first ever bibliomancy. She just turned a year old. I got the chance to visit with her, my cousins, and my aunt and uncle in July in Atlanta.



Growing up as an only child, I spent a lot of time thinking about my proximity to others and about being alone. When I was surrounded by other people, I often wanted solitude. But when I was by myself, I worried about being alone. Sometimes, I was lonely.

It wasn’t until my twenties that I could actually enjoy time spent by myself without the fear of missing out or being left out. I learned when I wanted to spend time with others and when I wanted to be on my own.

In July and August, I had the opportunity to spend time with family. I come from a large extended family on both sides, and I know at times I have taken this family, and the warmth and connection of this family, for granted. There have definitely been moments when I have focused more on our differences than what we share. And in these times, I have felt isolated or judged, as if I didn’t belong. What I have not always realized is that often I was the one who was stepping back and creating rifts, even if this was out of a sense of protection.

Of all of my relatives, I am one of the few to move away, out of Louisiana, living outside the state for the past decade. Most of my cousins live within a mile or two of their parents and in close proximity to one another. There is a beauty to this kind of cohesion, this intimate distance. In my mid-twenties, some part of me knew that only by leaving would I be able to come into my own and discover who I wanted to be. I knew that I must separate from my family in order figure out who I was and how I wanted to build my life. Yet, I also believe that knowing that my parents and my family are there and that I can return at any time is one of things that has allowed me to have the confidence needed in moving away, in experimenting with risks, in encountering old wounds and healing them.

Traditionally, coat of arms were used as a way to identify individuals and clans and to proclaim military prestige. In heraldry, one part of the coat of arms is the escutcheon, where symbolic images are identified that often have to do with the individual wearing the shield. Another portion is the crest, which looks like a scroll, where a family surname is identified. Although typically described as “family crests,” coat of arms are not just representation of a clan or family; one portion of the coat of arms identifies the family and another part identifies the individual family member. At my grandparents’ house, there was a plaque that hung on the wall with the O’Neill coat of arms. In the escutcheon are two lions, representing the tribes of Judah and the lions are upright holding a red hand. The legend of the hand’s meaning was told to me many times growing up. When boats of ancestors were headed for Ireland, there was a promise that the first man to touch the land would rule so one of my ancestors chopped off his left hand and threw it ahead onto the land before the boat came ashore.



O’Neill Coat of Arms


When I was visiting my aunt, uncle, and cousins in Atlanta this July, my Uncle Danny O’Neill pulled out old family photo albums: ones my grandmother made of she and my grandfather’s courtship, older ones of my grandfather as a young boy, and his mother, my-great-grandmother. My uncle had scanned the pages and pulled them up on the TV. As we scrolled through, looking at these people we came from, I felt a sense of closeness that I don’t know if I’ve recognized before. All of us—with our individual noses, our particular way of seeing the world, our penchant for kinds of food—all of us are made up not only of the same matter as all humans but of particular matter made from shared people. Somehow remembering this grew in me a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude. We may not agree on everything, we may live in different places in different kind of houses, we may have different beliefs or priorities, but we also have in common character traits, upbringings, a shared history. It seems not to matter that this shared history has patches missing. We share both the known and the unknown and somehow the legacy of those people that came before us lives in our blood.

When my grandfather was about my age and already had a pack of mouths to feed, he began taking night classes in journalism. I have his journalism notebook and the attention he took with his notes reveals to me that this was something he deeply cared about. Writing was something he loved and wanted to be better at. My most vivid image of my grandpa is him laying on a couch with a stack of fifteen books on the coffee table in front of him. He was insatiably curious. About everything: psychology, sociology, literature, history, politics. He liked to ask what other people thought and have rousing conversations. I bet he would have made an amazing journalist. As it happened, his father had died young and he had to begin work when he was a young teenager to support his mother and his brother, seven years his junior. He worked as a porter for the Pullman Railroad, packing laundry and shining shoes, and eventually worked his way up to superintendent in New Orleans. When he had made enough money to support a family, he married my grandmother and they had five children.

Somehow, I find some sense of assurance. Because the story didn’t end with him. His second son inherited his curiosity and his love of reading and conversation. And this son’s daughter inherited this from him. I like to think that the passions and creativity of my grandfather did not die with him but rather live on in me. As I write, he is here too, in the blood coursing through my veins and the skin on my fingertips. In this way, family is about more than our individual selves or even the dynamics, both helpful and harmful, that we play out over and over again. Family is an intricate web we are a part of, a web that spans out. And when we die, our dreams and struggles and faith and beliefs are still there in the presence of those we share this link with. This web gives a sort of reassurance in a country that prizes the self above all else. We can rely on one another, and we can, if we are lucky, see the intricately woven ways in which we are connected.

I have at times felt disconnected from my Cajun family, who live in rural Louisiana, three hours and yet a world away from New Orleans. I have felt somehow different for growing up in a big city, for moving away, for loving my family and yet needing to be on my own. I was never greeted with anything but enthusiasm. I was certainly never made to feel unwelcome. This anxiety about belonging came as I aged and saw differences I didn’t know how to reconcile. Over the years, I have felt connected and disconnected in varying degrees. When, I visited family this time, my focus was not on this question of belonging. I was instead just grateful to spend time with everyone. Much of my mom’s family had gathered with very little notice to have lunch together. I saw my cousins’ kids who I remember holding when they were born. I congratulated one of them, Jada, on her recent marriage. I heard about school and sports and new jobs and new pets and recent successes and struggles. I was able to deeply hear and engage because I wasn’t stuck inside my own stories. I wasn’t concerned about whether I belonged or not, because I somehow understood that I did. I see now that we share more than we don’t and this is a gift, this deeper wisdom.


Louisiana Acadian Flag

Louisiana Acadian Flag


When we create our own families, not only by joining in marriage or procreating but by forming relationships with friends and being part of communities, we look to find people who share similar values. And these chosen families are tremendously supportive and beautiful. I have people in my lives who show up consistently and with care to celebrate and to grieve. But I also know, that if I were to call on my blood family, they would show up, too.

For those of us lucky enough to have families who enjoy each other’s company and who love one another regardless of whether we approve of every choice made, we have a refuge not to be taken for granted. I think of the image of two hands, palms up and open to form a vessel. We have a place to be held.

When I was a kid, I used to both love and hate to play freeze tag. I remember the exhilaration in running around and making it back to home base, safely. I remember the terror when I was about to be caught and the visceral sense of relief when my fingers tapped the wall, or the tree bark, or the metal of the jungle gym. Although that fear was real, the stakes are not very high in freeze tag. Okay, so someone freezes you in place. Then a team member comes and unfreezes you. Maybe you are frozen again. But eventually, the recess bell rings and you go back into the classroom, you go on about your day. But in life, running around without a sense of when we might be caught—by fear, by grief, by illness, by loneliness, by scarcity—the stakes are much higher. So, it feels all the more important that we have people we feel connected to. Family can be a sort of home base. A place to rest even when resting does not mean relief. A place where we are deeply known and accepted. A place where we can gain strength to launch back out into the uncertainty of life.

1 Comment

Filed under weekly words




pur·sui·vant, n[ME. pursevante; OFr. poursuivant, ppr. Of poursuivre  poursuir; see PURSUE]  1.  in the British College of Heralds, an officer ranking below a herald.  2.  a follower, attendant.


Reprise: Kate Says Kiss Off



“My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,/Or else my heart concealing it will break,/And rather than it shall, I will be free/ Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words.” –Katharina, The Taming of the Shrew



I just saw a production of Kiss Me, Kate, the musical based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. With music and lyrics by Cole Porter, the musical takes us through a play-within-a-play plot. We witness the backstage drama of a director and his ex-wife actress reuniting to play the lead roles of Petruchio and Katherine in Shakespeare’s play.

Seeing the show was my recommendation. My parents wanted to celebrate my birthday belatedly and given my strong affinities for musicals as a teenager and the residue of this obsession, going to the play sounded like a good way to spend an afternoon.

As the musical unfurled, there were clear messages about who we were supposed to be on the side of: Petruchio, the man trying to tame the willful woman, and who was supposed to be the butt of the joke: Kate. At its best, the play was oblivious to its messaging: oh, isn’t so darling how she is fighting back so strongly—silly woman. At its worst, a scene feels dangerously close to rape: Petruchio, throws Kate, who has just sung about how she will never kiss him, over his shoulder and victoriously walks away with her to their bridal suite to end Act I.




In another scene, the director is displeased with his actress ex-wife acting out her real anger at him through her character and so, in front of the audience, he throws her on a table and begins spanking her. Her sore bottom becomes a running joke for the rest of the play.







Some might say that I’m overreacting, that I’m reading into a play written over sixty years ago with a present day consciousness. And that’s true. But the fact is that the play is being produced and performed now, in our time, and as such it has strong ramifications. The art and music and theater that we engage with influences us and influences what we deem as acceptable behavior.

In an essay by Sam Hamill entitled “The Necessity to Speak,” Hamill attempts to link categories of oppression together and talks about the need to acknowledge these oppressions for what they are. He talks about the different forms violence takes, demonstrated in sexism, racism, classism, and war. One of the central focuses of his essay is the stories of women he has worked with who have been victims of domestic violence. He links the abuse of these women to the way we are taught to think of women in our culture. He writes about how James Cagney would smash a grapefruit into a woman’s face and everyone would laugh because “Nobody likes an uppity woman.” Nobody likes a woman who doesn’t know her place.

A play like this one—where the strong-willed woman needs to be tamed; where her refusal to be married is completely ignored; where her voice and her actions, no matter how loud or demonstrative, do not matter; where she is powerless because her desires are given no respect by those around her—is deeply problematic. Ultimately, this is a play in which a woman’s fiery spirit is the punchline, and her lack of volition, the happy ending

I spent the first act seething in my seat. At intermission, when I checked the playbill for what was to come, I saw that the penultimate song in the musical is entitled “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple.” I pointed this out to my parents. My dad assumed the best, that the song would be tongue in cheek, a sort of meta-commentary on the sexism displayed in the play. No such luck.

In “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple,” Kate decries her former choices and thus the former iteration of herself. It turns out that she was trying to make herself and her life complicated when really she, like all women, is simple. She sings, “I am ashamed that women are so simple/To offer war where they should kneel for peace,/Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway/When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.” At the end of the song, Kate kneels before her soon-to-be husband and bows her head in a position of complete submission.

And then, with a reprise of the song “Kiss Me, Kate” (SPOILER ALERT: She kisses him), the curtain falls, with all the gender roles safely intact.

Does it sound like I’m angry? Well, that’s because I also take the play personally. I am a Kate.

By this I mean, I am a strong-willed, intelligent woman. I have opinions about things. And I speak my opinions about things. Out loud. Sometimes, I disagree with other people! Sometimes the people I disagree with are women and sometimes they are men. And it is exactly we Kates that the world is trying to shame into submission.

I spent my adolescence trying to navigate my sense of self in relation to others, particularly boys, because I grew up in the South, where there are still very clearly defined gender roles. When I read Mary Pipher’s book Reviving Ophelia in my early twenties, I began to understand the dichotomy of who I was supposed to be. In the book, Pipher examines the struggles of teenage girls who are having identity crises. They were told as young girls to work hard, to dream big, to share their ideas with others. As they grew, they were also taught to small themselves, to not make waves, to make themselves attractive to boys by being less intelligent and more conciliatory.

Towards the beginning of the play, in one of the first moments when Kate speaks for herself, she sings a song entitled “I Hate Men.” It’s so interesting to me, the whole idea of this song. Because it seems the only way writers felt they could explain why a woman like Kate wouldn’t want to marry or why she wants some volition in her life must be because she hates men. Could it be that—at Shakespeare’s time, at Cole Porter’s time, even now—she doesn’t have access to the same opportunity or the same respect as men? Or that in many place,  by the act of marrying, she becomes less than a whole person, a servant, a kind of property? I guess that’s not catchy or concise as a song title.

Men aren’t getting any favors from their depiction in the play either. Petruchio, the man who has agreed to tame Kate, comes off as a pompous player. After he has locked Kate in her bridal chamber, he sings “Where is the Life That Late I Led?”, a song detailing all the romantic dalliances he had before, the ones he gave up to be with this shrew of a woman. He names each woman and what she meant to him. There was a Lisa, actually. She “gave a new meaning to the Leaning Tower of Pisa.” How charming.

I believe so strongly in the power of discourse. A struggle I encounter when I start to talk about issues of inequality or misogyny is that oftentimes people aren’t interested in a discussion. But aren’t these the kind of discussions worth having? Aren’t they the ones that could change futures and save lives? I would have appreciated the opportunity for a dialogue after the play. Maybe I could see the play in a new way or maybe I would have had the opportunity to witness my own concerns voiced in a different way.

I have been thinking about the power of language lately. And how, at certain points in my life, certain words and stories and songs have literally saved me. When I feel compelled to write, oftentimes it is because I have butted up against some idea or concept or perspective that I am wrestling with. Writing is a way for me to work through it and to offer a different way of seeing something.

In the closing scene, Kate sings: “So, wife, hold your temper and meekly put/ Your hand ‘neath the sole of your husband’s foot/ In token of which duty, if he please/ My hand is ready/ Ready/ May it do him ease.”

And here, the dutiful woman is again restored to her position of servitude, a pursuivant to her husband’s needs. The fact that this play can be performed now without a hint of hesitation, without women in the play or women in the audience voicing discomfort, outrage, or dissonance reveals much about the society we live in. It is a society in which many religions still require the word “obey” for women as part of marriage vows. And where a woman can be sentenced twenty years for firing a warning shot when her ex-husband threatened to kill her and her child. It is a society where young men rape a young woman and brag about it on social media. Where, when given sentences for their crime, these young men are spoken of as young men of promise, put away before their time. It is a society in which to even write this and acknowledge these things, to express my perspective, is to risk me being called oversensitive, man-hating, or a bitch. But you know what? These things need attention brought to them. Because this play and pieces of art way more demonstrably misogynistic are constantly being produced without a sense of awareness about the aspects of them that are detrimental to all people, all genders.

As I was watching the play, feeling myself immersed in reactivity, I knew that when I left the theater, I could write about it. Each of us needs to complete the picture that these kind of experiences and shows leave out. We need to vocalize why we have a knot in the pit of our stomach or fire in our veins so that others can understand. Maybe then, we have an opportunity to learn from our mistakes and treat everyone with dignity and respect, honoring every single person as a whole human being.


Filed under weekly words



com·man·deer  v.  1: a : to compel to perform military service b : to seize for military purposes  2: to take arbitrary or forcible possession of



I remember vividly a toy I had at a young age. It was a sort of rectangular wooden box and at the top were holes in different shapes with a different colored border for each one. These shapes corresponded with blocks: a red circle, a blue square, a yellow triangle. I remember the utter futility and frustration of trying to make a triangle block fit into the square or the circle into the triangle opening. And I also remember the feeling of complete success, of momentous satisfaction when I slid the block into the right shape and heard the clunk of the block hitting the inside of the box.


Such a simple toy. Such a simple action. Such a complicated process of learning and development to get there.


I spent yesterday with two beings who are just over a year old. They were a sheer delight to be around. They ate their food when they were hungry and drank water when they were thirsty. They handed books to adults when they wanted to be read to. They reached out to be held. They played on musical toys. When they were amused or happy, they smiled or filled the room with laughter. When they fell or banged a limb or got tired, they cried. They squawked when they were annoyed or didn’t want to share. Because they are so new to the world, because they are so early in their development, there is no voice telling them who they are supposed to be. They simply are. And this, their being and their becoming, is a beautiful thing witness. 


As adults, it is harder to accept that we just are. We find it much more challenging to appreciate our own being and becoming.


I made myself a schedule for this month, full of hourly to-dos and work plans. Sometimes when I have looked at it, I have felt empowered or disciplined. There have been occasions when I have followed it to a t. Most times when I have looked at it though, I have felt a sense of impending doom. Because after teaching steadily through the year and then two intensive summer sessions in June, I am exhausted. So my aspirations, even those that feel exciting to me, begin to cull. They accumulate as demands until I feel as if I am commandeering my own life rather than committing to myself and my passions. The line between commandeering and committing feels very thin sometimes.


I think one of the most dangerous myths of our culture is the ultimate primacy given to productivity. We are taught to believe that if we aren’t constantly doing, if we aren’t always moving or busy, we are not earning our keep on the planet. We learn to count hours and output. We are trained in crunching numbers. We are encouraged to calculate the meaning of our lives based on the quantities in them: how many things we check off our to-do list per day, how much money is in our banking account, how many phone calls we made, how many many emails we sent, how many likes our status update got, how many tasks we completed at once, how many dishes done. We read up on “time saving applications” not remembering that time can never be saved, only spent. In our efforts to provide measurements of our own worth, to ourselves and others, we commandeer the time we are given. And in doing so, we miss all the subtleties.


We miss the small shifts in our own ways of thinking. We miss tiny moments. We forget to glance up at the sky when we get out of our cars. We pass by strangers walking their dogs at the park without stopping to say hello. We forget to breathe in and remember how much we enjoy the smell of creosote just before it rains. We have no time to sit still. We have no time to look at the moon.


I’m sure we all have moments when we are fully present, but I’m also sure we all have moments when we try to control every aspect of our experience. There is a difference between using the focused attention required to fit a circular object into a circular space and trying to jam a triangle shape into a square opening because we have decided we will make it fit.


Hungarian psychology professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi developed and researched the theory of “flow.” Flow is a mental state wherein a person doing an activity is fully absorbed in the activity to the extent that they experience a feeling of complete focus, engagement, and pleasure. They are completely immersed in what they are doing. Think of a writer writing, a cellist playing cello, a painter painting, a child engaging in the act of playing with her toys.


Flow is not something that can be forced. We have to show up but we have to show up without demands and expectations beyond the offering of ourselves and this space and this time. The writer sits at her desk, the cellist picks up his instrument, the painter holds his brush, the child sits on the floor with her toys. Flow requires attention but it also requires a kind of letting go.


On the opposite side of the spectrum, commandeering comes out of a belief that we can control our lives in a way that will provide satisfaction, prove our own merits, and protect us from harm and suffering. Commandeering, at least in this context, seems to be motivated primarily by fear.


“When people restrain themselves out of fear, their lives are by necessity diminished,” Csikszentmihalyi said. “Only through freely chosen discipline can life be enjoyed and still kept within the bounds of reason.”


Freely chosen discipline corrects the sometimes-antagonistic aspect of the word “discipline” by adding the concepts of “choice” and “freedom.” Freely chosen discipline seems to hold space for both accountability and flexibility. We plan a schedule for ourselves and when life happens, we adapt and change while still committing to our goals. This allows time for us to move towards what we want to accomplish while not defining ourselves by what we do or make. We can choose when we work, when we play, when we do, and when we simply are.










Filed under weekly words


Gasper Felix Tournachon Nadar, who took aerial photos via hot air balloon.

Gasper Felix Tournachon Nadar, who took aerial photos via hot air balloon.


Felix Nadar Aerial Photograph

Felix Nadar Aerial Photograph


Julius Neubronner, who invented a camera to take aerial photographs using pigeons (he was an apothecary and also used pigeons to deliver medicine). All Neubronner photos courtesy of

Julius Neubronner, who invented a camera to take aerial photographs using pigeons (he was an apothecary and also used pigeons to deliver medicine). All Neubronner photos courtesy of


Camera-ed pigeons: In 1903 Dr. Julius Neubronner patented a miniature pigeon camera activated by a timing mechanism. The invention brought him international notability after he presented it at international expositions in Dresden, Frankfurt and Paris in 1909–1911. Spectators in Dresden could watch the arrival of the camera-equipped carrier pigeons, and the photos were immediately developed and turned into postcards which could be purchased.” - Public Domain Review

Camera-ed pigeons: In 1903 Dr. Julius Neubronner patented a miniature pigeon camera activated by a timing mechanism. The invention brought him international notability after he presented it at international expositions in Dresden, Frankfurt and Paris in 1909–1911. Spectators in Dresden could watch the arrival of the camera-equipped carrier pigeons, and the photos were immediately developed and turned into postcards which could be purchased.”
– Public Domain Review

Photos from Dr. Julius Neubronner's pigeon cameras.

Photos from Dr. Julius Neubronner’s pigeon cameras.



inv.,  1.  invenit,  [L.], he (or she) designed it.  2.  invented.  3.  inventor  4.  invoice


The other day on All Things Considered, a reporter was talking to the man who “invented” the 401K. I don’t remember what he did before that, but he wasn’t in finance. He said he thought if an employer matched an employee’s retirement fund there might provide more of an incentive for the employee to participate. The inventor didn’t intend for this to replace the pension, although it essentially has, but rather he liked the idea of providing a way to supplement someone’s retirement.

What the discussion brought to mind for me was the idea of invention and creation. And ownership. This man was given credit for establishing the 401 K plan, but surely, he wasn’t the first one to think of it or to maybe to even try it out. We often act as if inventing happens in a vacuum and inventors are some sort of isolated geniuses instead of a product of the thinking and ideas of an entire culture.

We human beings are part of a collective, whether we choose to recognize it or not. Why else would similar deities and mythologies and folk tales and rituals and systems have arisen on separate continents even at times where there was little or no contact between these peoples?

In the United States, one of our most valued ideologies is that of independence. We can make it as individuals, on our own. What arises with this value is the encouragement of and the desire for perpetual uniqueness. We must be different to be special. While this ideology may drive ambition and creative work in ways, it can also lead to suffering. These ideas take away from the very reality of interdependence. We suffer if we feel like we are not different enough to distinguish ourselves from the crowd. And we suffer if our desire to be unique leads us to isolate from others rather than draw our inspiration and support from community. In other places, where people strongly identify with their clan or community, I imagine there is less selfishness and less worry about own’s place and that this frees up space to just be.

In Reality Hunger, David Shields culls together his book entirely from quotes y taken from other people’s writings in order to make a statement about reality and about the idea that it is impossible for to claim anything as one’s own because of the ever-present influence of others.

The “Reader’s Guide” to the book reads, “‘Who owns the words?’ asks a disembodied but very persistent voice throughout much of William Burroughs’s work. Who does own them now?  Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do. All of us. Though not all of us know it, yet. Reality cannot be copyrighted.”

Our obsession with copyright in this country feels less about the intellectual property rights of inventors than it does about ownership and profit. I just heard on the news last Wednesday that the Supreme Court voted that companies could not patent human genes. Well, thank God. That’s insane. But the fact that this is even a question, that a case involving this issue is coming before our highest court shows how askew we currently are in our ownership and entitlement culture.

Copyright can be a useful way to protect the ideas and livelihood of inventors and creators. As a writer, I get that. But this becomes a problem when the letter of the law ends up being more dominant than the spirit of the law. The laws that are in place to protect the little guy end up benefiting the larger organizations who have money for lawyers and lawsuits. Look at Monsanto, who sues small farmers when they “steal their property” when seeds fly off their loosely-tarped trucks and are mixed in with the small farmers’ crops. Many of these farmers have lost their farms and others have committed suicide when faced by financial ruin from these lawsuits, lawsuits that are meant to protect the “rights” of billion dollar corporations (see the illuminating documentary The Future of Food for more on this).

In the end, the questions I have lead to more questions:

Where is the line between invention and that which was always going to emerge? Did someone “invent” singing—or even a particular style of singing—when it is an act our bodies were made to do? How do we trace every influence of a particular style of dance that came out of a given country? How does it shift when it is brought to another group of dancers? Can we still call this dance by the same name?

What is the connection between independence and invention? We don’t talk about one individual inventing a language, do we? We recognize ways of communicating as emerging from a community. But when we shape those words together in certain ways, is that when invention comes in? Or just because someone got something right and their invention works, does that mean that all the work of those who weren’t able to get it right before her/him doesn’t count? That their process of trial and error isn’t worth anything in the end?

A decade ago, I wrote an essay on Rosa Parks on the anniversary of the day she sat down in the white section of a segregated bus, the event that began the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I lauded her role but, as many others have also pointed out, dismissed the idea that she was a solitary hero. Parks had studied at the Highlander School in social justice leadership and had served as the secretary of the Montgomery Chapter of the NAACP. She was chosen by her community of activists to be the next person to take this action because of a potential to establish credibility because of who she was: “a married woman with a stable job… everyone’s next-door neighbor, their best friend, their aunt, their fellow parishioner at church.”

There is a temptation, even with something as ephemeral as community movements, to locate the person or persons responsible (just as, on the flip side, when something horrible occurs, the first response of media and officials is to try to find someone to blame, instead of looking at all the complexities at play, including the culture’s role). Some may argue this is to give credit where credit is due or to praise those involved. But there is something dangerous that can underlie this action. If we praise inventors, of products or of social movements, as remarkable individual human beings, this can have one of two effects.  We can become inspired to be remarkable (but maybe in a way more encouraged by ego and need for attention than altruism). Or we can become disempowered as we fear we are not “remarkable” enough to accomlish what these inventors have achieved. A healthier medium is to realize that each of us has an important contribution to make and in making this contribution, we can help fill in the missing links in a chain of which we are all a part. We don’t have decide between one or the other. We can choose to collaborate. We can invent together.

1 Comment

Filed under weekly words


The Fantasy

The Fantasy

The Reality



re·cep·ti·bil·i·ty  n.  the quality or state of being receptible.


re·cep·ti·ble  adj.  [LL. recptibilis  <  L. receptus, pp. of recipere] able to receive or be received.


re·ceive  v.t.  1.  To take into one’s possession (something given, offered, sent, etc.); get; accept; acquire  2.  To encounter; experience: as, she received much acclaim.  3.  To undergo; submit to; suffer; have inflicted on one: as, h ereceived punishment.  4.  To bear; take the effect or force of: as, all four wheels receive the weight equally.  5.  To take from another by hearing or listening: as, his confession was received by the priest.  6.  To apprehend mentally; get knowledge of or information about; learn: as, they received the news.  7.  To accept mentally as authentic, valid, etc.  8.  a) to let enter; admit; hence, b) to have room for; hold; contain: as a cistern receives rain water. 9.  To give admittance to or greet (visitors, guests, etc).  v.i.  1.  To get, accept, take, or acquire something; be a recipient. 2. To receiveguests or visitors; be a host.  3.  In radio & television, to convert incoming electromagnetic waves into sound or light, thus reproducing the sounds or images being transmitted.  4.  In religious usage, to receive the Eucharist.  5.  in tennis, etc., to return or prepare to return, a served ball; be the striker.



On My Mess or Life Refuses Containment



I have a confession. Every now and then when I’m at the drugstore or the supermarket, I pick up the magazine Real Simple. Pretty much everything about that magazine appeals to me. Its clean simple font, its crisp lines, its excess white space. The title indicates what the magazine promises: how to make your life not just simple but real simple. The cover guarantees ingenious organization techniques you’ve never heard of before, how to do more with less, how to add color and light and beauty to your home. Really, it is the same exact magazine each month with slightly altered material.


I buy it and I read it, but the magazine never satiates me. On occasion, reading it when I am in a mental or physical space of disorder actually has the complete adverse reaction of what I want: I feel like even more of a mess when I finish reading than when I start. I look at the smiling ecstatic faces of the “after” homeowners (who own their home, unlike renting me) beaming after the clutter experts have come in to declutter their homes and with every fiber of my being I feel this thought: my mess is unredeemable. Read: my life is utter chaos.


Most often, however, I close the last page and feel absolutely nothing. Or perhaps nothing twinged with slight disappointment but not an unexpected disappointment. I have come to this magazine for answers on how to fix my life and the answers are not in this magazine. The only one who has the answers: me. And not all at once, not right now. Over time, the answers are delivered and sometimes the time frame feels achingly slow.


Author and social work researcher Brené Brown said in her TED talk on vulnerability that she comes from the social work community, a school of people who say, “Life’s messy: deal with it.” Whereas, her way of being for most of her life was more: “Life’s messy: clean it up, organize it, and put it into a bento box.” “But,” she says, “it doesn’t work.” Any attempt we make to impose structure on our lives fails before we begin because life is not predictable, life is not organizable, life is not neat. Life spills over and out of the containers we have so carefully made for it. Life refuses to contain itself in the parameters we have set.


Last week, in a moment of desperation, I called out to facebook friends for advice when I was in the midst of trying to clear space and get rid of stuff in my house. I was sitting on the floor of my living room surrounded by stacks of paper and files and books and all kinds of other ephemera and, overwhelmed by the barricade of stuff surrounding me, I found myself wanting to pour a glass of wine and watch Netflix for hours instead. The responses were ones of solidarity and suggestion. People offered their own struggles or ideas of what works for them. And I was very grateful for everyone’s input. But one particular piece of advice, offered by several people, was unexpected to me and jolted me back to my intentions. Several friends suggested I scan old notes and photos so I could keep them in digital form and let the physical copies go.


While I’m sure this works for many folks, this mere thought raised my degree of anxiety and panic. My goal is to become less attached to these things instead of changing my form of attachment. Even in digital form, these objects and items would continue to fill my psychic space. I don’t want them to change material form. I want to let them go.


I want them to go because I feel like there is only so much I can contain internally at one time, although I am constantly working on growing more space. There are more experiences to be had, more words waiting to enter, but if I hold too tightly to the ones that have led me here, there is no room for the new to rush in.


When I lived in San Francisco, I worked for a nonprofit agency serving low-income and homeless citizens. There was a woman who came to our dining room who was working with someone from our agency to clear her home. Deidre had fallen off a bunk bed when she was a young girl, which resulted in a traumatic brain injury and one of the repercussions of that injury was her impulse to hoard. She couldn’t bathe because her bathtub was full: of clothes, old recipes, newspaper clippings, canned goods, books, old correspondence. Magazines and newspapers were stacked up so that she had very narrow pathways through which to navigate her small apartment. This coworker Ben befriended her and gained her trust and slowly she began to allow him to take things out of her apartment. At some point though, the process stalled. She stopped returning his calls. Letting go was too threatening.


My Maw Maw was Cajun and lived through the depression. She and my Paw Paw ran a general store. He died first and when she died, our family found enough stuff inside their home to start up another store. There were stacks of tube socks in cabinets, dozens of canisters of shoe polish and boot leather stuffed in drawers. There were knick-knacks and glasses and cleaning products and pajamas. She had Alzheimer’s for the last ten years of her life, but it was clear that this process started much before. She needed these things, just in case.


While these are extreme examples in comparison to my own desire for order and inability to clear away, I think they reveal something about our humanness. Our compulsion to hold onto objects reveals our desire to concretize life. If only we have these things, we think, we will be protected, okay, safe from death. If we take all the right steps, maybe that will ensure our security. If we can control what we have, we can control who we are. If we can control who we are, we can control whether or not we get our heart broken, we can control whether or not our body is injured, we can control our own death.


In an episode of The Golden Girls, Sophia becomes addicted to shopping at bulk store Shopper’s Warehouse. She buys 10,000 toothbrushes. “Half blue, half pink,” she says to her daughter Dorothy. “So you and your brother won’t have to fight over your inheritance.” At one point, she says to Dorothy, “Say you have ten cases of sardines—” Dorothy interrupts saying, “This better be hypothetical.” Following the revelation of the situation’s reality, Dorothy becomes infuriated and asks her mother why she would do that. Sophia says, “It makes me feel immortal. You think: God wouldn’t make me waste good sardines. He’ll wait until I’m done with them to let me die.”


We have seen time and time again that what we possess has no bearing on what choices or challenges life will bring us. Appliances break down, cameras are stolen, computers crash, photographs burn, old letters are flooded underwater. Even our bodies, the vessels that carry us through life, betray us. Muscles tear from bone, vessels burst, bones break.


I think less important than the things of life themselves is our ability to receive them and let go of them with a degree of understanding that these things do not ultimately matter. One of the great lessons of my life in relation to this was when my childhood home flooded during Hurricane Katrina. Was it awful, seeing so many of my family’s memories underwater? Do I wish had my childhood journals to look back and see who I was at thirteen and what I thought was important during my study abroad days when I was twenty? Of course it was. Of course I do. But the fact that my parents were able to rebuild their lives and that we have lived without these things that made up our lives for so long  reveals to me that what is most important about life is retained inside of us. If we have connections with the people in our lives, we can rebuild the collection of our memories together. And these moments of connectivity allow for even more memories to be made.


What if we were to let go of our old definitions of order? What if we were to care less about attainment and containment? Would this make room for us to better receive the words of the loved one sitting across from us? Might we learn better how to be in touch with the sensations in our own skin?


In her Letter in the Mail for The Rumpus, Lidia Yuknavitch wrote about hands and death and dying. She wrote, “Well here’s the deal. We die all the time. I think maybe we are supposed to. I think when you let yourself fall all the way into art that moves you, for example, you experience a little death, and yes I know the other meaning of the phrase ‘little death’ so it just makes even more sense. Maybe if we stopped being scared to talk about dead things and hands we could get somewhere beyond the nonsense and violence of cultural poisons–capitalism and the cult of good citizenship and car ownership and house ownership and fame and money and image culture and rape culture and kill the planet culture and conquer culture and erase the indigenous and ‘insert your poison here.'”


I love that she says nonsense. I love that she says violence. Because these ways of being are both: violent and nonsensical. They take away from our own authority, and they drain us of what it really means to be fully and deeply alive, in all its messy and beautiful glory.


Is it possible in acknowledging our own mortality and our own vulnerability that we could truly see one another?


That we could allow ourselves to receive one another?


That we could allow ourselves—as we truly and fully are, without control or expectation—to be received?






Filed under weekly words



spoke*  (spōk),  past tense or archaic past participle of speak.




Today, I am on a plane from New Orleans, my hometown, to Dallas, and then I’ll get on another one to fly to Tucson, the desert town where I live.


Last Sunday, I was dancing—moving my feet and shaking my hips—to Rebirth Brass Band, a band from my hometown who was playing at a festival in Tucson. Trumpets and trombones. Snare drums. If there’s a sound the inside of my chest makes, I think it must sound like horns and drums. Blares and beats.


The Sunday before that, I was sitting talking with dear friends after four days of silence. Earlier that day, I prostrated myself on the floor in the direction of where my parents live, where my teachers are, where my community resides. Mala beads were placed over my head and I received a new name.




I am thinking about motion and staticity. I am thinking about what it means to move forward, what it means to hold still, to hold stillness.


I met my niece for the first time this weekend and as I held her in my arms, I was struck by her substance, her solidity. She is seven months old. She has not yet said her first word. She does not have an understanding of object permanence. She does not get peek-a-boo. She does not know her name. Yet she knows how to smile and make raspberries. She has obvious preferences: from when she wants to be held  and when she wants to stand up to when she does and does not want to eat. She has already formed into a self and she is still in formation. Different each day and also still her. What a gift to watch these changes in increments. What a pleasure to watch her as she awakens to the world.


Is this then about spoke, about speaking? There is nothing more fleeting than words spoken. I spend my life impossibly torn between the desire to record every instant for posterity, to write every word spoken down, and the desire to throw away my pen and just listen, knowing I will not remember.




We are flying over the river now, the Crescent City is crescent because of the way the water bends into the land. If I put my hand on the window, I could trace the river’s path, no larger than the tip of my finger. Yesterday, I stood on the bank and watched seagulls overhead. I sat with my parents. We had gone to the French Quarter on Easter Sunday as we had when I was ten. When I was sixteen. When I was twenty-four. We caught the end of the Easter Parade and shiny purple, pink, white, and green beads joined the simple brown ones hanging around my neck. There seemed something fitting and sacred about each strand. My parents said that when they were last in the Quarter, they saw the portrait artist who drew me when I was ten. That drawing lost in the floodwaters that came when the levee broke. Or as my parents said, “We lost that one in Katrina.” What made this man a good portrait artist is the way he could capture the uniqueness of each individual’s eyes. I looked at my eyes and saw it was me. A year or two later, my dad and I went alone to the French Quarter on Easter. My parents had separated. When we saw the same artist he drew me and then, on the same paper, my dad. The two of us without my mother. I don’t remember seeing that portrait after they got back together.


On my flight to New Orleans a few days ago, I was sitting next to a mother and her son. The woman looked to be in her forties. The son looked to be about twelve. He intertwined his arm with hers and later, she cradled him against her body and they slept. I thought about this intimacy, tender because of its transience. Soon, this boy will begin to pull away from his mother, from this body that birthed him. Soon, those small intimacies will be grieved by his mother. I imagine her: sitting alone at the kitchen table, hands wrapped around a mug of tea, remembering this flight or any other of the millions of tiny moments of closeness and hoping her son—now out with friends—is safe. But for now, they have each other and the closeness of their bodies, this proximity, feels like something sacred. I am both riveted by the tenderness and embarrassed to bear witness, sitting just inches away. This: the moment of a bubble before it breaks, a flower before the petals begin to fall, the last lingering note before the song is over.


Sometimes I feel awash in all the talking. Is there a time, I wonder, beyond and below what is spoken?


When I didn’t speak for four days, I noticed the energy spared. And I noticed how much could be communicated with a simple facial expression, a slow bow, the way one sits or stands. Intention isn’t always clear in language but it seems more clear in what the body says.




For our family get-together, my parents rented a bouncy castle. Strong nylon whose shape is held only by air. Air pumped in. Air moving around.


Sometimes, when I am speaking while walking, I stop mid-step. I have only realized recently that I do this. Or maybe I realized it and then forgot it and then realized it again. Someone could be five steps ahead of me before I realize, before they realize we are no longer walking together. One friend called this caesura an exclamation point. “An em dash?” I offered.


“For one day,” I told my students, “your mission is to communicate only in the form of questions. Be curious. See what happens when you have more space to listen.” It was hard, they told me. But many were shocked that their friends and classmates didn’t even notice their lack of declaration. In the absence of their statements, the others easily filled the space.




The flight is only an hour long. Soon we will land. Soon all the passengers will collect their purses and suitcases and plastic bags. They will move forward down the aisle. They will go home or on vacation. They will walk towards baggage claim and then on to funerals and hospitals, to weddings and baby showers. They will fall into the arms of lovers. They will get into the cars of family members. They will hug their roommates. They will stare at the gray heads of friends they haven’t seen in years. They will drive into cities teeming with people and countryside sparse with them. This flight will move from an immediate experience to an unremembered one. It will become part of a collective memory, one of many uneventful flights, defined only by its unremarkable nature: smooth air, easy takeoff, seamless landing, no delays. This time will collapse into empty space in their memory. Their slow movement through the sky will be marked only by fading numbers on cheap paper tucked into a paperback. Maybe a year from now, they will pick up the book they bought at the airport that they left unfinished. Maybe they will look at the date and the destinations and a specter of the person they sat next to will be conjured up in their memory. Or maybe they will, without looking, toss the slip of paper into the recycle pile, the last piece of evidence of this moment in the ether will be ground back into pulp from which new things will be made.



*composed 30,000 feet in the air

1 Comment

Filed under weekly words



Screenshot of Woody's Journal taken from "The Making of The Works," album with music by Jonatha Brooke and lyrics by Woody Guthrie (click for video)

Screenshot of Woody’s Journal taken from “The Making of The Works,” album with music by Jonatha Brooke and lyrics by Woody Guthrie (click for video)


ly·ric  (lir ik),  adj.  [ < Fr. Or L.; Fr. Lyrique; L. lyricus; Gr. lyrikos],  1.  of a lyre.  2.  suitable for singing, as to the accompaniment of a lyre; songlike; specifically, designating poetry or a poem expressing the poet’s personal emotion or sentiment rather than telling of external events: sonnets, elegies, odes, hymns, etc. are lyric poems.  3.  writing or having written lyric poetry.  4.  in music, a) characterized by a relatively high compass and a light, flexible quality: as, a voice of lyric quality.  b)  having such a voice: as, a lyric tenor. Opposed to dramatic.  n.  1.  a lyric poem.  2.  Usually pl. the words of a song, as distinguished from the music.



the words of a song/as distinguished from the music



“The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.”

 –Sherwood Anderson, letter to his teenage son, 1927



Lyrics have always been a kind of savior.  From times before written word when sounds were bellowed round a fire, when epic poems were sung as a way to pass down history and legend of how a people came to be. Even the sound of the word om, a mantra for invocation, deemed sacred in part because of the vibrations sent out and the resonance of the sound when sung, a-u-m.


Lyrics have saved me at various moments in my life. I think perhaps the greatest gift of these words set to music is their ability to do away with the notion that we are alone. When I am in pain, that is the moment I find it hardest to see beyond myself. There is a meditation practice Pema Chödrön writes about called tonglen. Tonglen is a practice where you get in touch with your own suffering and then breathe in the pain of others. This is in direct opposition to many new age practices that promise relief through visualization: go to your happy place, imagine a bridge covered with ivy and a brick cottage, breathe in the scent of your favorite flower. Tonglen instead asks that you connect with and breathe in the intensity of your own pain and breathe out relief. Then, tonglen asks that you think of all the people in the world who at this very same moment are experiencing the same pain as you—whether grief, loneliness, anger, jealousy, or fear—and to breathe in their pain and breathe out relief. Tonglen makes you aware that you are not the only one feeling what you are feeling. Tonglen gives you an opportunity to offer relief by seeing outside the parameters of your own pain. Lyrics do the same thing.


I have an uncanny memory for song lyrics; they are stacked, filed, catalogued in my brain—the ones I want to remember and the ones I wish I could forget. I also have a habit from when I was very young of spontaneously breaking into song, singing about what’s happening to me or things I see, or inserting song lyrics when someone says a word that reminds me of the song they come from.


I noticed past this fall that I listen to music less and that I sing along less in the car. I’m not sure exactly when this began, but I recognize some of it. Sometimes, even things I love can become things I resist or deny myself. I go through periods of not writing when I am overcome with doubt, when I become focused on product instead of process. When I’m not feeling good about my songwriting or my singing or when I feel I’m not doing enough, I deny myself the moments of even singing along in the car or playing guitar for fun in my home. I even start watching movies as I move about my home instead of listening to music, so permeating is the feeling that I should be doing more. I resist that which matters to me when I don’t allow myself space for it. This is a harsh reality for so many of us: When do we not provide space and time for that which we love out of fear? When does what’s made become more important than the making?


I think in truth that most of us have ideas and words and architecture running just under the surface of our skin. The power of all that we could create scares us into not making time, into making excuses, into making work that is so much more superficial than that which our deepest knowing dares us to make.


Too often, we are liars.


We tell ourselves that the world doesn’t need one more song, one more story, one more sketch.


We are wrong.


The best songs I have written have been the ones that have come out quickly and seamlessly, seemingly out of nowhere. I have sat down with a pen, a notebook, a guitar, and the song has spilled out. This is not evidence of the quickness of art but rather how quick art can come if we pay attention and allow space for it to emerge. Songwriting is a sort of channeling. I know there are people in Nashville who can turn a phrase, who make their living shaping songs for superstars. But like writing, even those who are prolific, would tell you of a certain spark, a certain word or turn of phrase, the key turning in the lock that opened the way to the rest of the song. A crack in the dam. A snap in the hinge. A pull in the thread that unravels the whole hem,  one seam untying to stitch another.


And the lyrics that are made and sent into the world become a place for others to rest within. For hours after a college boyfriend, the first guy I really fell hard for, left to return to the country he was from, I lay on my bed listening to the same song on repeat for hours. It was a Sundays song called “When I’m Thinking About You.” I remember my dorm room and where my bed was positioned by the window. I remember feeling that I had never loved like this before, fearing I would miss him so much my heart would surely break open inside my chest. There were many tears: so many verses and so many choruses worth. I found comfort in the repetition of the same lyrics over and over again. I listened and I cried and by the time I turned the cd player off hours later, I felt better, even if my heart was still broken.


Lyrics become a way of organizing our experiences in life, a place to store our suffering and our solace. The spectacle of karaoke feels less about nostalgia or the desire to be the center of attention than it feels like confession. Singing in unison, the resonating feeling of these words that everyone knows. I, too, have felt this way. Like communion, me too.



“I hate a song that makes you think you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim. Too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. I’m out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you.”

—Woody Guthrie



Several friends have spoken with me about the songs that saved them. These songs held words they needed to hear during dark times. And somehow the fact that the song existed provided a shelter. These lyrics, a place for solidarity and witness. These lyrics, a kiva, where a voice reaches out of the speaker to our waiting bodies, mouths, hearts, skin as these parts of us echo back a simple reply, yes.


One of my favorite songs is Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times, Come Again No More.” The first time I heard it, I was in my early twenties and these three young men, handsome and brilliant musicians, were coming through town on a Woody Guthrie Tribute tour. They played this song in harmony on guitars and accordion and it broke something open in me.


Foster wrote the song about people living in deep poverty and deep despair, something I knew  nothing about at the time, something I know a little more about now but not in the way the people he is writing about knew it. And yet, I could hear myself in the chorus. Hard Times, Come Again No More. I feel a sort of yearning in this song and a feeling that the song itself beckons a wish, that in singing the song loud enough, often enough, we could somehow stave away suffering. A hope. An impossibility. When I play the song now, I experience it as a remembrance and a tribute, an acknowledgement of the pain and suffering that is an inevitable part of being human.


Researcher Brené Brown talks about how: “When you ask people about love, they tell you about heartbreak, when you ask them about belonging, they tell you their most excruciating experiences of being excluded. When you ask people about connection, the stories they tell you are about disconnection.” It makes sense then that for many of us the songs that resonate most are the ones that reveal that aching aspect of being human: having loved and lost, having reached out and been turned away, and the hope we hold for a future when things will turn out in a way that meets our needs and desires.


Lyrics feed us. Because we require constant attention and ever-present opening. Because we cannot do it alone. Because we have lived through heartache and heartbreak and have to learn what it means to stand again. Because we must uncover our hands once more from atop our hearts. Because if you needed me, I would come to you. Because there is no other way. Because this fuel, this fire, this field, this flood; this avalanche, this arc, this arch, this aspen; this meeting, this movement, this martyr, this made; this sacrifice, this sepulcher, this sergeant, this soot; this tandem, this tangent, this target, this tongue; this blanket, this buckle, this banter, this bare. Because in singing and seeking, we come to know each other better and we come to know ourselves.


I sing because I’m grateful for having been sung to. And I sing because it is when I am singing that I feel most alive. And I sing because no matter how hard my day has been, no matter how uncertain the road ahead is, no matter the current state of things, I need to be reminded of the beauty that can be found curled up inside a long held note and the calm of the silence in between one sound and another. Songs are of us and for us. They are of our making and they are how we are made.





Filed under weekly words



Washington, D.C., Lisa O’Neill


Phoenix, Lisa O'Neill

Phoenix, Lisa O’Neill


Detroit, Lisa O'Neill

Detroit, Lisa O’Neill


de·cap·i·tate (di-ˈka-pə-ˌtāt)  v. behead


The word architect comes from the Middle French architecte, from Latin architectus, from Greek arkhitekton “master builder, director of works,” from arkhi- “chief” + tekton “builder, carpenter.” An Old English word for it was heahcræftiga “high-crafter.”


To be an architect is to use your mind to conceive of bodies, buildings, frameworks. It is to see how objects could align, could fit together. To be an architect is to construct a dwelling made of many parts.


Structures are about foundations and support and design. They are also about absence. They are about what is contained and what is uncontainable.


Last night, I saw two improvisational dance groups perform: The Movement Salon and The Architects. A dozen years ago, I would have been dismissive of improvisational dance—much as I was of abstract painting or performance art. I would have sat there making myself miserable as I picked apart what was wrong with art created in the moment, without “preparation” or “process.” I would not have thought about all the process and preparation that went into being ready to construct something in and of the moment.


But much has happened over the last twelve years, so tonight I was in awe. I was deeply moved and lightened and full of gratitude. Here’s why: because improvisational dance is not only amazing to watch: the spontaneity, the interplay of the performers, the moments of synchronicity in movement, song, speech. The experience of improvisational dance provides amazing practice for life. Life requires risk and being vulnerable. Life requires presence in the moment and paying close attention to the actions, movements, needs, bodies, thoughts, feelings of all those around you. Life can have you laughing one minute and crumpled on the floor the next. Life is made in the living, no matter our designs or plans. Life contains multitudes.


After the performance, some friends and I, one of them a performer, were having a conversation about the show. I shared what came up for me while watching. That we—okay, I’m going to take out the safe plural pronoun—I can live my life so contained. I am often measuring myself. How small do I need to be in a given situation? How large a space am I allowed? It’s as if I’m on a rollercoaster and must keep my limbs inside, as per the instructions. Only instead of just my limbs, my emotions, thoughts, opinions, heart, and mind must be contained as well. How little can I be to make myself safe?


But how limiting is that? How constrictive?


These performers embodied expansiveness. They committed to their movements, to their words, to their interaction with one another. They stomped on the floor. They slid across. They took one another’s hands. They lept from one side of the stage to the other. They cracked jokes. They sang. They plucked strings and then led the bow across them.


Many people in my life have told me about the process of growing a bigger container, to hold the richness and fullness of life: the light and the dark, the weightlessness and the gravity.


“We have an expression we use all the time,” my performer friend said, “Even when you are out, you are in.”


Even when choosing to push yourself into the corner of the stage.


Even when you aren’t moving.


Even when your voice is a whisper.


You are in.


The only decision is whether we acknowledge that we are.


To live is to be vulnerable, regardless of what we tell ourselves. No matter how many barriers we construct, no matter how small we make ourselves, we will face pain, suffering, rejection. But we do get to decide whether or not we reject ourselves. We get to choose how small or big we are. It’s the difference between folding our arms tightly across our chests or stretching our arms wide.


When I was in my mid-twenties and going through a particularly shitty period of my life, my younger cousin sent me a card she had made with a painting of a girl outlined in black and colored in red. But instead of the red being contained within her figure, it spilled outside. Across the top, she had painted: “Some passions are uncontainable.” Inside the card, she told me the girl was me. That is maybe the best compliment anyone has ever given me.


I want to spill over, to spill out, under, through. I want to live my life in a way that when I’m done, I will have spent it. I will have left this earth with heart, mind, body used up. No more paint in the tube. No more tea in the cup. No more pennies in the jar.


We can live in our heads, constantly marking and processing how to be in any given situation. Or we can choose to fill up a space with our entire bodies, to be all in. We are the master builders, the high-crafters of our lives. We have the materials. We have the time. We have all the space we allow ourselves. The only question is: what will we build?

Leave a comment

Filed under weekly words