Tag Archives: lisa o’neill




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


Photo by the amazing Jade Beall. Taken July 5, 2013.

Photo by the amazing Jade Beall. Taken July 5, 2013.


Śiva (ˈshi-və, ˈshē-)  n.  one of the principal Hindu deities, worshiped as the destroyer and restorer of worlds and in numerous other forms. Shiva is often conceived as a member of the triad also including Brahma and Vishnu.


Shiva is a god of contradiction. He is the destroyer, who incinerates the world as it is, and the creator, who transforms the world out of the ashes. He is the ultimate ascetic, abstaining from all worldly pleasures, and he is the dedicated lover and husband to Shakti/Parvati, the intensity of their love quaking the earth. He is the practiced yogi sitting calmly in meditation with no distraction and the dancer trembling his limbs furiously, his movements destroying and remaking the world.


He is, in many ways, all of us. He models the ways in which we defy categorization and solidity, each of us shifting and changing over time, letting go—with acquiescence or with fighting—of that which no longer serves us and making room for that which does.


For as long as I can remember, I have internalized the words “I am not a dancer.” This, despite that the fact that I love dancing. This, despite the fact that the sound of music and particularly the rhythmic beat of drumming is what makes me feel most myself and most alive. After quitting ballet at six and auditioning for and not making the cut for several dance teams during my time in adolescence, I decided that this was not an identity I could own. I could dance peripherally, at weddings and, if I was not too demonstrative, at clubs. I allowed myself hip sways and arms held in the air when I danced to brass bands back home in New Orleans. Over the years, I increasingly gave myself more permission to dance. But I did not allow myself the moniker dancer.


Rumi said, “Whosoever knoweth the power of the dance, dwelleth in God.”



Dancing Shiva

Dancing Shiva



Another manifestation of Shiva is as Nataraja or The Lord of Dancers. Shiva holds the world in balance and this is seen too in his dancing. In Tandav, the cosmic dance of death, he dances to destroy the universe. Peter Marchand and Christine Gruenwald write, “Shiva Nataraja’s dance represents both the destruction and the creation of the universe and reveals the cycles of death, birth, and rebirth….Under his feet, Shiva crushes the demon of ignorance called Apasmara Purusha, caused by forgetfulness. One hand is stretched across his chest and points towards the uplifted foot, indicating the release from earthly bondage of the devotee. The fire represents the final destruction of creation, but the dance of the Nataraja is also an act of creation, which arouses dormant energies and scatters the ashes of the universe in a pattern that will be the design of the ensuing creation.” On the night of Shiva workship, devotees honor him by imitating him: singing songs in his praise and dancing all night rhythm of the drums.


Last fall, I started going to African dance classes in Tucson. As a white woman born and raised in New Orleans, a still deeply segregated city, I had strong hesitations to attend out of worries of appropriation of a dance that was not from my ancestry. I went with these hesitations and concerns, which still remain as part of the process, but I stayed because of the drums, because there was something about these drums and this dance that propelled me, not only across the floor but into a more complete and authentic version of myself.


Still, in those first few classes, I held myself back. I told stories about how I didn’t belong there, about how the other dancers were so much better than me, about how I was making a fool out of myself, about the lack everyone could clearly see in my body and in my movements. But around my third class, the stories quieted down. I could see the stories for what they were: irrelevant and untrue. The deepest truth was that I love being there. That I love dancing. And this love and this love alone made me into the thing I could not call myself before. Only when I destroyed the story that I was not a dancer was I able to really dance.


I used to think it was important to preserve containment at all costs. I believed that to avoid any kind of spillage or cracks or breakage was to make myself safe. But in the past several years, I have realized the vitality that comes from things breaking apart. I see that it is only this breaking that allows for new forms to take shape, for new breath to be invited in. From the ashes can rise new ways of being that would have never appeared while the old ways were immaculately intact.


July 5 was my birthday. For a few years, I’ve had a tradition of bibliomancing, randomly and blindly selecting, words from a dictionary on my birthday. To me, this feels like a way to honor my birthday and to invite in any messages or words that may be helpful in this new journey around the sun.


This year, I used a Pictorial Webster’s Pocket Dictionary just given to me for my birthday from my friend Amelia. The picture I turned to depicts Lord Shiva, Hindu god of destruction and transformation. That I turned to his image—when I could have easily turned to “Sequoia,” the page before, or “Skeleton of Dinosaurs,” the page after—feels significant and fitting. For years, I have listened to my yoga teacher talk about the ways different gods and goddesses are allies in the path. And I see these gods and goddesses as helpers, as models, as examples of the ideas and concepts they represent. Shiva, like Kali, can be given a bad rap because he brings powerful destructive forces. But as I understand it, these forces are sent to destroy the attachments our ego clings to, the ones we no longer need. In getting rid of attachments that limit us, we make room and create spaciousness for the most fluid and most authentic version of ourselves to emerge. Shiva encourages us to destroy, to dissolve, to deconstruct in order to make way for more genuine creation.


Shiva may be capable of destruction but he also wants to give offerings, to save lives. Shiva is almost always depicted with blue skin from the myth in which he saves humanity by holding in his throat poison that was churned in waters and threatened womankind and mankind. Shiva is painted carrying a trident, the three tips representing creation, protection, and destruction of the universe. Shiva is seen as a source of both evil and good, of destruction and rebirth. In his embodiment, he shows us the light and dark contained in this world and within each of us. He shows us the capacity to hold it all.



Shiva statue in Bangalore, Karnataka, India

Shiva statue in Bangalore, Karnataka, India


I have a Rumi of the Day book that I read from each morning before I sit in meditation. And each year on my birthday, I am struck by the poem for July 5. However, the time and distance of a year gives me time to forget and then to appreciate it anew. In “The Tree of Awe,” Rumi acknowledges the inherent contradiction of life’s joy and suffering and the necessity of both light and darkness. He writes, “No matter how fast you run, your shadow more than keeps up. Sometimes it’s in front. Only full, overhead sun diminishes your shadow. But that shadow has been serving you. What hurts you blesses you.” And “Darkness is your candle. Your boundaries are your quest.” And “You must have shadow and light source both.”


We may think we want only full brightness, but I can tell you from recent experience of 109 degree heat and high humidity in Tucson, that sometimes shade is most welcome. Sometimes we need the shadow to appreciate the beauty and warmth of the light.


When I dance now, I do so because the dance is in me and wants out. Instead of self-consciousness, I come to dance with a deep appreciation for those around me and for this life and for this body that carries me through it. Some days I dance to burn off old stories and some days I dance in appreciation and honor of the beauty in my life.


I am grateful to Shiva for appearing on my birthday to remind me of the power of destroying and razing and of renewing and recreating. These are the makings of a life, and I am grateful to experience both the light and dark offered in mine.





Filed under other words


diana cropped


Last night, we held our third the dictionary project presents! reading at Casa Libre en la Solana. And we finally revealed the word that our writers and readers had been working with for two weeks: Diana!

We were all grateful for having to engage with Diana: Roman goddess of the hunt, of the moon and childbirth, of all things wild.

One of the most exciting things about our reading series is assigning the same word to a group of writers and seeing the different ways these brilliant minds and hearts experience and interpret that word.  I am grateful to Ian Ellasante, Hannah Ensor, Kindall Gray, Tc Tolbert, and Teré Fowler-Chapman for their writing and for reading last night. And I am grateful to everyone that came.

We will post photos and videos soon from the event, but in the meantime, I would like to share with you the piece I wrote as an introduction. Wishing you a beautiful day.



As many of you know, whenever I bibliomance a word for tdp, I close my eyes and run my finger through the dictionary and then over a page. This time, I landed on the image of Diana.



In yoga asana practice, there are several poses named warrior. In my favorite warrior pose—I say favorite because I’m not holding the position for several minutes now—the right leg lunges forward, knee bent, while the back leg is straight and sturdy, giving the illusion of stillness even as the muscles are working and the tendons wrapping strong around bone. Arms are outstretched in a T-shape with palms facing down, hips positioned to the side. Shoulders are released. And the chest, the chest is open.


The first hundred times I did this shape, or any warrior shape for that matter, I focused on where I felt weak. My arms ached. My legs shook. Holding the position for any length of time felt impossible.


Years later, I have a different relationship to the pose. Instead of noticing my weakness, even though the pose is challenging, I can instead embrace my strength. I can feel my feet and legs holding me up. I can radiate out from the extension in my arms. I can be aware of my chest as it continues to press into the air, opening.


I realize now that the challenge of the pose also reveals my capacity to hold it, but first I have to choose to see it that way.


All week I have been thinking about the different meanings of the word warrior.


I have been tuned in to the presence of violence and the threat of violence, in our country and in the world. First, with the horrible bombings at the Boston Marathon that resulted in the death of three and injury of almost one hundred and fifty. Second, with the news of car bombs in Iraq that killed at least thirty-three people. I listened to politicians and advisors talk about the difference between the word “terrorism” and “murder” on The Diane Rehm Show. I heard a filmmaker talk to Terry Gross about how he survived an IED when he recorded footage on the frontlines in Iraq and about the documentary he just finished about his partner filmmaker who was killed from a shrapnel wound while filming the uprising in Libya. Then, I read and heard about the Senate’s decision not to pass revised gun control legislation that would require background checks before purchasing these weapons, and the responses of both our president and victims of gun violence saying “shame on you.” And finally, yesterday and today, I have watched the unfurling of armed robbery and gunfights and gun deaths and the ongoing manhunt as Boston police search for the surviving suspect of the Boston Marathon bombing. Perhaps by the time I read this, in front of all of you, he will have been found and thus we will have someone to hold accountable. Perhaps we will have some resolution to one particular tragic event that harmed so many and incited fear and anxiety in even more.


And without lessening the burden placed on those that committed all these individual atrocities, the truth is that every one of us is accountable. We are accountable for living in a culture where power and privilege aren’t always used mindfully but instead used with arrogance and thoughtlessness. Accountable for when we choose aggression over talking things through. Accountable for valuing purchasing more and more objects over spending time with our neighbors. Accountable for electing people whose job is to protect us and who have made decisions that do exactly the opposite. Accountable for every word said in anger, every aggressive face or hand gesture made while driving. Accountable when we harm ourselves or others, when we do not live up to our best potential.


At one point or another, we are all guilty of being the wrong kind of warrior.


I grew up in the South, in a city built on the backs of slaves, and in a time when I could count the African-American women who attended my private Catholic school with me on two hands. There were firm divisions by race in this town, ones I was never asked to question but merely recognize and keep. In every unspoken gesture, I read clearly who I was supposed to be friends with and how I was supposed to be. It took going to a poor bordertown in Mexico when I was ten to show me the devastating impact of poverty, as I witnessed children my age begging on the streets, because I never went to neighborhoods where I would have seen it in my hometown.


Life was constricted not only by issues of race and class but by issues of gender—by pantyhose, by scripture passages, by too few female role models giving permission by their presence for me to be creative and curious and strong. For a long time, I struggled to reconcile my femininity with my strength, so entrenched in me were the values of my culture which said that these things could not exist in one person, in one body, in a woman.


My freshman year of high school, I was assigned Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. The front cover of the paperback was black with bold white letters and an image of a man riding on the back of a winged horse. I had been an avid reader since early childhood so I was familiar with stories, but these struck a new note. These were mythological figures that I was allowed to think of as icons (as was not permitted with biblical ones). Here were stories I needed. They were the stories of men and women, trying and failing and trying and failing again. They were the stories of gods and goddesses, all of whom had tremendous power and inevitability colossal flaws. One of the goddesses that bewildered me most was the Greek Artemis, or in Roman culture: Diana. She bewildered me because I grew up in a town where pearls hung around the necks of the women who hosted garden parties and gathered children round their legs. I didn’t see any women walking around with bows and arrows, not even metaphorical ones. Even my mother, who I now see as one of the fiercest and most warrior-like women I know, didn’t appear that way when I was growing up. I read her through the lenses that were provided to me and as a result she seemed more careful and cautious than bold and brazen.


Diana, Giampietrino

Diana, Giampietrino


So when I first read about Diana, I judged her for what I perceived as her “overly masculine” behavior and I wondered how I could fit her into my perception of female heroines, who I had learned thus far were to be smart but not too smart, conversational but not in a way that took up too much space, and above all, beautiful.


Diana is the goddess of the hunt. She is also the goddess of the moon. And she is the goddess of the process of birth. In her, the power for livelihood, for the ebbing and flowing of tides, and for the creation of new beings come together. In her, masculine and feminine energies combine, and it is this balance that gives her so much power.




I’ve been thinking about Diana this week, not just because her name is the word for tonight’s event, but because I feel that her particular kind of warrior spirit is needed in our world right now. Hers is the warrior spirit that stands up against the would-be warriors who say that background checks aren’t necessary, that the solution to weapons is more weapons, that the solution to violence is to meet it with more violence. I’ve been thinking about her because her warriorship is not about using her power to benefit herself; it is not about killing innocents; it is not about encouraging war or bloodshed. Her warriorship is about living from the marrow of the bone, the tender tissue of the heart. Her warriorship is about expressing the fiery aspect of her being without entirely letting go of the reins. Her warriorship about being assertive but also compassionate. Her warriorship requires us not to back down from that which is right but also not to meet those who oppose us with unchecked anger. We will meet them with our minds, with the strength of our spirit rather than swords and shields, rifles and semi-automatics.


In 2011, the United States’ military budget totaled 644 billion dollars. We praise our servicemen  and women, but when we see images of them, we don’t so much see their human bodies as we do the items that cover them: guns, magazines, helmets. As a culture, we praise their power and bravery but when they suffer, we refuse to see their humanness, we refuse to recognize that violence does damage to everyone involved. We only honor the fierceness of these warriors without acknowledging their tenderness.


“I came to the Greeks early,” Edith Hamilton told an interviewer when she was 91, “and I found answers in them. Greece’s great men let all their acts turn on the immortality of the soul. We don’t really act as if we believed in the soul’s immortality and that’s why we are where we are today.”


Diana of Versailles, Leochares

Diana of Versailles, Leochares


In it’s most simple definition, a warrior is a brave or experienced soldier or fighter. It is up to us what we fight for. Because being a warrior at its core is not about death and is not about killing. Being a warrior is about responsible use of one’s power and energy. To be a warrior is to act with bravery and courage and to make wise choices in situations of extreme pressure.


It’s not that we don’t need warriors. We desperately need warriors. But we need the kind who soldier for love, compassion, and understanding.


When I was fourteen, I might have thought that a goddess could not be charged with the duties of hunting and also of midwifery. I might have seen these powers emerging in Diana as completely contradictory. But I don’t think that anymore. Both hunting and childbirth require intense physical and emotional strength. Both require fierceness working alongside wisdom and compassion. In both rituals, there must be encouragement, there must be patience, there must be integrity, there must be a time to hold still and a time to push forward.


–Lisa O’Neill, written for The Dictionary Project Presents!, April 19, 2013



Diana, goddess of the hunt and the moon, Hans Makart

Diana, goddess of the hunt and the moon, Hans Makart


Diana bathing with her nymphs, Rembrandt

Diana bathing with her nymphs, Rembrandt






Diana and Cupid

Diana and Cupid




Diana, David Swift Photography

Diana, David Swift Photography




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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

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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.





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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?

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Photo by Kristin Korpos


fm : frequency modulation, fathom from


I have been incessantly watching Bridget Jone’s Diary. Okay, not incessantly, but I have watched it three and a half times in about as many days. Maybe it’s because the holidays are approaching. Maybe it’s because I want Colin Firth to make lots of babies with me. Maybe it’s because it’s the end of the semester and I need films that are funny and easy to watch. Now is not the time for Requiem for a Dream.

But I think the real reason I’m watching is because I find Renee Zellweger’s Bridget Jones to be such a likable protagonist. She’s funny and well-read, but she fumbles. She doesn’t say the right thing all the time. In fact, she often says the exact opposite of the right thing. She loves her friends and she struggles with insecurities about her weight and appearance, her job, her single status.

I can easily watch the opening sequence over and over again because I see my shadow self so clearly in it. Who has not had that moment? That moment of sitting on your couch in your pajamas, hair disheveled, teeth unbrushed, watching lousy television, listening to the radio and singing along to some song in the lines of “All by Myself,” having a pity party, cursing the gods, feeling like a complete fuck-up, finding it hard to believe that this year will be any different than the last? Tell me you’ve never had a moment like this, and I’ll tell you that you are a liar.

I had plenty of beautiful moments and experiences in the past year. I’ve had my share of hard ones, too. Yet when I think back to New Year’s Eve, I can’t feel much of a difference in my actual self from then to now. At a gathering at a friend’s house, we all partook in a ritual in which we beckoned in the new for the new year and burned messages that contained all we wanted to shed. Many of the things I beckoned for last year have not yet emerged. And I have done work at the shedding but some of the same habits, patterns, and insecurities are here. If I’m honest with myself, I can see the nuances of change, both in my life and in myself, but the changes are not always as demonstrative as I had hoped or expected. Beyond this, my life feels steeped in uncertainty at the moment and uncertainty is quite good at seducing anxiety and doubt. Everything is okay, but lately both the ups and downs, the moments of joy and the disappointments, feel heightened and intertwined.

So, I think I find such satisfaction in the movie because within a two hour block, Bridget Jones is embarrassed and depressed, resolves to change her life, fucks this resolution up royalty, lives vulnerably, opens up to possibility in life and love, says and does foolish things, finds more self acceptance, and, of course, love: from herself and from others.

I like it because it is packaged and condensed and easy. Not like life and yet enough like life that it allows me room for trusting.

After her lip-synching to Celine Dion, she narrates her desire to change. She says, “And so I made a major decision. I had to make sure that next year I wouldn’t end up shit-faced and listening to sad FM, easy-listening for the over-thirties. I decided to take control of my life…and start a diary: to tell the truth about Bridget Jones—the whole truth.”

Sad Fm.

I like the idea of Sad Fm because it feels like such a ripe metaphor. (It reminds me of KFKD, for those of you who have read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.)  Sure, there is the literal act of listening to sad songs about love left, love gone awry, lives fucked up, seemingly irrevocably. But it feels so apt for the times in which our minds circulate around the same fucking songs, the same damn static. The static that says, at full blast no matter how gingerly you turn the dial: Not enough, Not smart enough, Not loved enough, Not pretty enough, Not worthy enough. And the songs with refrains all about past mistakes and your undeniably abysmal future. Sad Fm is the mind’s way of separating us from the world around us, isolating us and making us feel as if we are not connected. And Sad Fm is only one station but when you are listening, it feels like the only station. As if there is a sumo wrestler sitting on your chest and preventing you from standing up and just simply switching the dial to the radio which is a football field’s length away. The force feels that real and strong.

But it’s not. I began this post earlier in the week, and today, I am listening to a different station. Know what helps? Little things like watching a movie with a protagonist that isn’t fully realized and developed, that struggles to honor her worth and accept her whole self and yet still manages to walk through life, living and being vulnerable and fucking up and standing back up and dusting herself off. That is a protagonist I want to root for. That is a protagonist I can offer love and compassion to. That is a protagonist that reminds me to offer that same love and compassion to myself.

Rob Breszny, author of Free Will Astrology, writes in his book Pronoia is the Antidote for Paranoia: “Have you ever been loved? I bet you have been loved so much and so deeply that you have become blasé about the enormity of the grace it confers. So let me remind you: To be loved is a privilege and prize equivalent to being born. If you’re smart, you pause regularly to bask in the astonishing knowledge that there are many people out there who care for you and want you to thrive and hold you in their thoughts with fondness. Animals, too: You have been the recipient of their boundless affection. The spirits of allies who’ve left this world continue to send their tender regards, as well…You are awash in torrents of love…Think about that. In your life, you have been deeply and completely loved. Probably many times. Many more than maybe you are even aware of, with a depth that you might not be able to fathom.”

Awash in torrents of love.

Embedded within the movie is the best romantic movie compliment of all time. That being when Mark Darcy tells Bridget he likes her just as she is. Her friends retort, “Just as you are? Not thinner? Not cleverer? Not with slightly bigger breasts and a slightly smaller nose?” No, just as she is. This is the hardest thing to do for ourselves and the thing we desire most from others. To be loved, with all our flaws and with all our beauty. To be loved not despite but because of all that we are. Such a remarkable gift, this blessing of hearing through the static and noise to the place of acceptance and of being seen.


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the dictionary project presents: re·ta·ble


On October 26, the dictionary project held our second the dictionary project presents reading featuring Tucson writers writing to the word: re·ta·ble. It was a truly magical, inspired and inspiring evening, hosted at Casa Libre. We constructed an altar in honor of the word, and the readers offerings were poignant, funny, smart, and beautiful. It seems appropriate in this time of harvest and of giving thanks to offer these readings to those of you who could not be with us in person on that evening. Please enjoy these offerings of words and ideas as you consider what people, talismans, gifts are on your own retable.


re·ta·ble  (ˈrē-ˌtā-bəl)  n.  [Fr., contr.  <  *reretable; rere (see REAR) + table (see TABLE)], a raised shelf of ledge above an altar for holding altar lights, flowers, etc.


A million thanks go to Casa Libre Assistant Director Tc Tolbert for recording and uploading these readings so that we can continue to enjoy them.








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Tree, Lisa O’Neill

sa·bot    (sab-oh)  n.  [Fr.; altered (after bot, a boot)  <  savate, old shoe; via Turk.  <  Ar. sabbat, sandal]  1.  a kind of shoe shaped and hollowed from a single piece of wood, worn by peasants in Europe.  2.  a heavy leather shoe with a wooden sole.  3.  a small sailing dinghy whose hull somewhat resembles a shoe.  4.  in military usage, a wooden disk or soft metalclip fastened to a projectile, formerly used in muzzle-loading canon.
“Where would I possibly find enough leather
With which to cover the surface of the earth?
But (just) leather on the soles of my shoes
Is equivalent to covering the earth with it”


The ground was rough. So the girl decided to carve herself some shoes. She was tired of stepping on thorns. She had enough of cuts from tiny pieces of glass. Her toenails were torn. Her arches were sore. Her feet were calloused from walking the stubborn earth.
She had tried looking carefully at where she was walking. She had tried looking ahead at where she was going and hoping for the best. She had tried praying for the ground to be other than it was. She had tried laying out a mat which she would pick up and throw in front of her every few steps. All of these were tiresome. None of these worked. So at long last, she decided, though she was no carver, to carve herself some shoes.
She went walking to the place where there were many trees and once she arrived there, she considered them keenly. She placed her hand against the bark. She felt the smoothness of their leaves between her fingers. She considered the maple, the mesquite, the magnolia. She sat on the roots of mighty oaks. She pressed her nose to the skin of the cedar. She did this for days, or was it weeks? She smelled the sassafras. She leaned her back against the bark of the elm. She touched the ashes. She tasted the sap of the pine.
She wondered which wood would give best, which would mar her feet. She considered what she knew about the rings inside those trees, the color of the wood. She considered the way the wood would sound when it met the earth, in walking or in dancing.
She walked to where the water met the trees, she waded, and finally, she settled on something. Cypress.
She pulled something sharp from within her coat and she began to saw. She thanked the tree and took her branch with her.
The girl found a place on the earth to sit and placed her large branch across her lap. She had never made a pair of shoes before. She had never carved anything besides letters into words, color into walls. She wondered where to begin. Begin with this wood, she heard. Begin with this tool. Begin with this time.
So she did. She found the process long, this slow hollowing. The only indicator of time spent was a small curve in the center of the block. And yet there was something satisfying about the sound of her knife cutting into the wood and the sight of curled shavings falling to her feet.
She scraped and she notched and she pulled. She worked and as she worked, she sang. These were the songs she had been taught over the years. Her mother had sung them. And her mother’s mother had sung them. They were songs about truth and what it means to sit in the presence of another human being. She became lost in the music and the slow rhythm of scraping and when she came out of her haze, she saw she had cut a hole clean through.
So she began again, slowly carving, this time not forgetting where she was. People passed her as she worked, some offered to help her carve, some gave her suggestions. She thanked them, she listened, and then she continued to work. The light turned to dark then to light then to dark again, and still she carved. She noticed the rings in the wood. She noticed the changes in color. She noticed the smell of its skin. She chipped, she chiseled, she cleaved and divided. She etched, she hacked, she hewed. She molded and modeled and patterned and sculpted and shaped. She, at long last, whittled the last bit of excess away.
And then she looked at her work. These wooden shoes were not entirely even. They were not exactly smooth. She held one in each hand and considered their weight. She thought about her efforts and why she had begun in the first place. These would not be the most comfortable shoes. They would not be the most attractive. They looked like they had been made by a beginner. And they had. These shoes would not spare her the miles walked in them. They would not spare her the wrong turns. They would not keep her from encountering hard rain or hot sand or a horizon obscured by too much foliage. These shoes would not do this. No shoes ever would. But still, the girl had made these.
She slipped on the shoes.
She began to walk.


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