"Lotus Opening" by L. Folk

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Importance of Literature

I ask myself, why do I teach literature? Why teach writing? Aside from the fact that it fits nicely into my schedule, it isn't all that practical, financially speaking--I make a small fraction of what I used to make as an engineer. The truth is I teach literature because it has meaning for me. I have sacrificed meaningless money for a meaningful avocation. 

Studying literature is a lesson in humanity; it teaches us what we intrinsically know but tend to forget because we are too busy striving for that A, or that dream job, or making sure our children are fed. By putting this very intimate knowledge on the page, we bring it to a higher level of awareness, and in this higher level of acknowledgement, we span space and time; we see ourselves in others. This commonality that literature enforces--empathy--is one of the virtues of being a human being. It paves the way for compassion, for making peoples' lives better. We seem to be deviating from the tenets of empathy politically these days; amidst all the insanity of whose button is bigger and who can destroy whom faster, but in literature class, we go back to the basics and the spectrum of experiences and emotions that compose us, translated through exceptionally astute minds. 

Literature Quilt Panel 1

We live in a time when the media's saturation of terms results in insensitivity or apathy, but stories can still reach us. Once an issue is personalized, something in us can't help but be engaged. By studying literature, we realize that people who may look differently than us, who may live in different places, from palaces to shitholes, all are capable of the same range of emotion. It’s harder to kill someone when you can see yourself in the eyes of “the other.”

Conversely, in writing, we contribute our own emotions and experiences to the human canon, whether it be journal entries, letters, blog posts, short stories, poems, novels: we contribute our ideas and this should not be taken for granted. This should be championed. There is a significant reward for seeing the self to show up on the page. It makes us wiser.

Literature Quilt Panel 2
In my classes, student engagement is imperative. I am not always successful in accomplishing this; at eight o'clock in the morning I tend to be the one answering my own questions. My main intention, however, never changes: it is to spark curiosity, because curiosity is the greatest learning impetus. Most of my students are relatively new to this planet; their minds are fresh and vulnerable, in the grand scope of things. They are at the brim of the universe, peering in, deciding where they belong, who they are. Literature can help with this.

Literature Quilt Panel 3
If literature is the fabric of humanity--a large quilt sewn in time and space, and one that is continuously being sewn, it is up to us to recognize the patterns of experience, emotions, human truths. Oh the vibrant colors of human truths! Remember, I tell my students, to carry a swathe in your pockets, or knit it across your heart. Let me tell you something, I tell them, at times you will feel that you are an exceptional thread, an anomalous thread, that you don’t fit just right into the fabric, or that you are not the right color or texture. Literature is all forgiving; literature is enlightening; it can present you with other “anomalous threads,” threads like Holden Caulfield or Huck Finn, or Esther Greenwood, and you will say, “Oh.” And you will recognize yourself in these anomalous threads, and you will know that you are woven as well. 

Literature Quilt Panel 4

Or perhaps you will see where in the tapestry it is soiled or worm-eaten, you will feel a sudden rise of inspiration and purpose to make reparations, or you will observe that there are places in the tapestry that are so incredibly vibrant and exotic, you seek to go there. Just knowing that these places exist gives you joy or a sense of adventure or a willingness to indulge yourself. This too is a gift of literature.
Literature Quilt Panel 5

I have taught physics, mathematics, and engineering. I am happy that there is a focus on STEM, because it comes with its own benefits and thinking skills (and some of these are not unlike what you learn in literature and writing classes). But let’s not forget how important literature and writing is, especially now, when old social ills are creeping back in.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Five Collages

Here are five of my latest collages.

Bouquet for Life

This time of year, when I see pictures of gardens, I literally start to itch for green and lush and bloom. I look forward to planting my garden and starting seeds, which will happen the end of next month. It's a lesson in patience, waiting out winter for spring, but also a time to plan and set intentions. The red petals of the bouquet remind me of a heart.

Winter's House

This collage is my way of not taking winter too seriously. It was actually created in the midst of summer; this brings to mind what Neil Diamond famously said about writing songs: you write breakup songs when you are happily in love and love songs when you are breaking up. The yin is always curious about the yang.

The centerpiece in this collage is actually a tulip that I disassembled and then reassembled to look more like a flame, which I intend to mean essence. For me, that essence, that thing I need to keep burning, is my creativity.


Natural Urges

This collage portrays summer and sensuality. I was primarily looking for patterns and colors of the natural world when life is warm and easy.

Lotus Opening
I titled this collage "Lotus Opening" without knowing that the opening of a lotus represents spiritual awakening. I Googled "lotus opening" and found this out. There is something always working behind the scenes of art, and it's when you become aware and curious that you see what it is. 

I suppose if I am living my life correctly, I am always in the throes of a spiritual awakening.

The Fallen Land of Ozymandias

The Fallen Land of Ozymandias
(from the flash fiction collection Upon Waking)

She was angry with her mother for buying a beaten down cape in New Jersey, half a mile from an overpass, three quarters of a mile from a beach littered with abandoned cars, old tires, and discarded clothing. It was ugly and she hated ugly. She lamented her mother leaving the well-preserved beauty of the New England landscape, but her mother could no longer afford it. She told her daughter if she had to move, she'd go south, to the mid-Atlantic states where she could be closer to extended family. So she did, and her daughter begrudgingly went to visit her and walk the coarse sand of the polluted beach where someone had dumped cabinets and suitcases. Her mother said it might have been the mob. The daughter regarded the tall smoke stacks as they belched fumes into the gray sky and felt ill.

After lunch, she took a ride east. It was sunny and she drove with the windows down, the songs from the radio hampered by the din of the wind. The land, with its enclaves of reaching blue water, was buzzing with summer activity; people were out jogging, riding bicycles. She passed a carnival with a Ferris wheel and games of chance. Tickets littered the streets; people waited in lines for rides and concession stands where food associated with fun—cotton candy, ice cream, fried dough—was sold. She passed this place and came to a bridge, a contemporary slender and elegant structure in decks, towers, and fanning cables that spanned the inlets of blue, connecting the polluted modern world with the eroded ancient ruins of the old world. It was a fine summer day now. Indeed, the water is blue, she thought. On the other side of the bridge was the abandoned land of Ozymandias, its once enchanting sandstone structures still in place. Here people wandered through the ruins and pocketed ancient gold coins embossed with the King of Kings.

She parked the car, got out and squeezed through an opening in the giant gate. There were people carrying stacks of books in the ancient streets, looters with scraps of fool's gold in their hands. Vendors were selling trinkets of the once-great kingdom; you could buy a t-shirt with Ozymandias's eroded face on it. She remembered the pope they dug out of the Catacombs, his well-preserved body on display at the Vatican, the face looking calcified.

The earth shuddered and she thought Did I imagine that? The great gate creaked and leaned forward, spreading its arms out to the forgotten world. The people carrying books dropped them and started running. Chaos and mayhem ensued as each of the ancient sandstone structures started to crumble. Why now? she wondered. After thousands of years of being upright, why now? Then she saw a high school friend on her cell phone just outside the gate. She was still thin, with long black hair, a cigarette in her hand, imperturbable as the world rushed by her. She must’ve been talking to her high school sweetheart. She would take him back, despite what he did, despite what she did—a forgiveness poised at the end of the world.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

New Year's Day

We walked in the snow down to the river. The air was deeply cold, biting when the wind blew. But the sun shown bright in this crystalized world, and there was evidence of life, tracks in the snow, raccoon, coyote, dog, human, bird. At the banks of the river, the ice has broken; the moon pulled the tide in and now there is this emerald-green pool swollen at the bend. It looks inviting, and if I had fur, I would contemplate diving in. My dog moves toward the pool with an eagerness that scares me. She has the fur--is the river calling to her as well? I beckon her to me, tempt her with a treat and we walk on in this transposed arctic land.

Thoughts of the Jack London story "To Build a Fire" shift in my head. The man in the cold. The man with the matches in his hands. The man unable to light the match. Fumbling. The snow falling on the fire. His thoughts of sticking his hands in the dog to keep them warm. The dog getting away. The dog more suited to the environment. The dog as survivor.

This is something I have been trying to wrap my head around lately, how the animals survive in this environment. Their adaptations to such severity seem nothing short of miraculous. As a human, I am exempt from this miracle. I am handicapped in this world.

We make our way to the second bend in the river and the wind is so mean across my face, I decide to turn around. Josie bounds ahead. The story says fifty degrees below zero. Do you feel more pain in fifty degrees below zero than you do five? I dangle here, knowing how vulnerable I am. But this is nothing new. I spend my life acutely aware of how vulnerable I am. More attention needs to be given to the strengths, the talents, the skills. The adaptations.

Sunday, December 31, 2017


Just start writing. This is what I tell myself as I sit here poised at the end of a somewhat trying year (but seriously, haven't most of them been "trying"?). I am attempting to honor my personal pact, the deal I've made with myself to write at least one post per month, and it is December 31, and I have written nothing for this month. Truth is, I am not that inspired to write anything. I feel blank. I feel like the page you get when your Google search goes awry--about:blank is what the url says. It's a disappointment of sorts, a sudden departure from the instant gratification we've become accustomed to. We almost take it personally. It's as if the computer is telling you, "Look, I really don't care what you are looking for. I am uninspired to show you anything."

It's New Year's Eve and the perpetual student in me would like to make a list of all that I've accomplished and learned. Dot my i-s and cross my t-s, so to speak. But I know these lessons live inside me; I know their names. To state them here seems an exercise in self validation. Perhaps I need this, but truth is, I am too lazy to make the account.

Is that what about:blank is? Laziness? Fatigue? I'm too tired to go and get your website for you. Get it yourself.

And yet, maybe this is the only true way to start out the New Year. No resolutions, no expectations. A blank slate. Leave it to the world to fill it up. It's a measure of patience, really. And faith. We're always pushing, yearning, comparing, checking, and checking some more. Maybe about:blank is about taking a breath. In fact, that's sort of what it looks like: a visual breath, a pasted cloud of breath. Maybe it's stillness. Do you have to be dazzled every second? Do you always have to know where you are headed?

About:blank; no you do not.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Divine Intoxication

Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses—past the headlands—
Into deep Eternity—

Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land?

This is the time of year the monotony of life especially gets to me, a time when the day-to-day routine is all too familiar. Add the stress of the holidays, and I start to want to withdraw, from responsibility, from expectation. I seek something else, something beyond the minutia, some divine intoxication, as Dickinson so aptly coins in the above poem. She likens this feeling to the first leg of a sailor's journey out to sea ("the first league out from land"). The sailor, born of the land ("Bred as we, among the mountains"), detaches from all that bounds him on land to embrace the majestic world of the sea, lolling, unending, unpredictable. It is a feeling of true escape, joyous freedom, divine intoxication. Dickinson, bound to her home, and after the age of thirty, her room, can only surmise if the sailor's divine intoxication exists. It is her wonder, however, I can appreciate.

I know this feeling "divine intoxication." I feel it when I take out my kayak into the Salem Sound. There is first the queerness and uncertainty of buoyancy upon sitting in the boat. As I row away from land and out toward the waves, I feel a release, a flicker of anxiety yes, but a kind release. My desire to know the ocean's secrets is greater than any fear that I have. Also, I have learned to entrust myself to the sea, to the rocking of the boat and the dip of the waves. I have learned to trust my own strength, my own will. There is a glory to open water, a vastness you can embrace. You can forget who you are as a land person, and you can discover new lands. Often, I row past the lighthouse at Hospital Point, north, to small beaches where I dock my boat and swim in the clear water, floating, dangling.

It's nearly winter now and there will be no kayaking. I need to find my divine intoxication somewhere else. I walk along the shore of the Bass River behind my house and spot those small black and white winter ducks that dive in the cold blue. Buffleheads they are called, and they hail from Canada and the arctic, wintering here in "warmer" waters. I wonder what northern seas they know, what they have seen on their journey here. At the edge of a field in J.C. Phillips Nature Preserve, a doe nibbles at something delicious. She is getting her winter coat now and as she bends, her muscles look strong. I am hopeful that she'll make it through the winter. This is what I think as she nibbles away, a mythical creature unfazed by my watching. Her presence, the presence of the ducks is a wildness I find intoxicating.


This past week I tried to capture the serenity and magic of a birch forest. If you've ever been in a birch forest, you know the shift in energy that comes from first stepping inside. It's a lighthearted peace, a hush, a sense of sacredness. I tried to paint this, manufacture my own divine intoxication. For the most part, it was a struggle and often, during the process, I felt like I failed. This brings me to a second Dickinson poem:

I never hear the word “Escape”
Without a quicker blood,
A sudden expectation –
A flying attitude!

I never hear of prisons broad
By soldiers battered down,
But I tug childish at my bars
Only to fail again!

This poem is about seeking that "divine intoxication" ("A sudden expectation,/A flying attitude"), but not finding it ("I tug childish at my bars,--/Only to fail again"). It could be that expectation is the killer or perhaps fear, and Dickinson makes it quite clear that she wrestles with it. Was she talking about writing the perfect poem or refusing some social event she secretly aspired to attend? Canceling a vacation to the sea? Dickinson was a recluse; she chose to withdraw from society, but that did not mean she did not have aspirations to overcome her own emotional imprisonment.

I think a major part of making art is wrestling with failure, falling short of expectation--that vague idea of greatness we have in our minds and set out to achieve. Many people give up at the first point of failure. It's those of us who push through, however, who find an altered goal, something we never intended, but something somewhat satisfying nonetheless--a reward for our perseverance. I learned this years ago with my writing, but am only now learning it with respect to visual art.

Sunday, October 29, 2017


There's something about that copse of pines in Sally Milligan park that soothes me. I went walking there amidst those tall, solemn pines and the land that slopes gently to and fro, along paths that bypass outcroppings of rock adorned with moss and ferns. I made a deal with myself to go there on the weekends as a means of doing away with the collected stress of the week. There, in those woods, I can transcend my stress.

I have been thinking a lot about transcendence, that concept of moving past something--a mood, a problem, an illness, a life. The Transcendentalists of Emerson's time embraced the natural world to purge themselves of the existential angst and minutiae of civil life, and I understand that now more than I ever did. What I have realized, however, is there's different types of transcendence.

One of the most profound types is the transcendence of sickness, be it mental or physical. With any illness, there is always an expectation of the healing, but amidst that, a profound doubt. I remember when I contracted poison ivy one spring; the itching and oozing was phenomenal. In the midst of my suffering there was that buried thought; what if this doesn't heal? It's illogical; of course a case, any case of poison ivy is treatable. And yet when suffering is intense, we can't help but entertain irrational thoughts. I've entertained these irrational thoughts when I had bad cases of the flu and periods of depression. What if it doesn't end? What if I don't heal?

What is most important during these times of suffering and illness is patience and compassion. When I was clinically depressed, it was the compassion of my meditation teacher that really impressed me. I felt supported, less alone. And when I started to heal in each of these instances, I marveled at the healing, the healing of skin, of mind, of body.

I can only imagine how cancer survivors feel. Do they feel empowered and infallible? Or are they tortured by the possibility of recurrence? Many people suffer the loss of body parts and have to make peace with the mirror, with the fact that their bodies have been permanently altered. I imagine with that, they feel anything but powerful. I think back to my father, who, in his day was built like a Roman god. He had a colostomy at fifty-two due to colon cancer and that bag attached to his body was a constant reminder of his mortality. I think he felt both tortured and blessed by it. Ultimately my father transcended cancer by transcending his life. He retired his earthly form for something else, something entirely our of my reach of understanding. Is he the sunlight, the owl in the wood, a comforting thought? I can only speculate.

Grappling with a problem and finding the solution through effort, intuition, and wisdom is another type of transcendence. I think of Frederick Douglass's journey to literacy and African Americans transcending slavery, all the wonderful works of art and literature as proof of their passage. Frederick Douglass, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Barrack Obama were beacons lighting the way for their collective transcendence.

I think of the Buddha's enlightenment as transcendence, of any type of learning as transcendence. We are in need of enlightenment now, in certain areas of the country, where ignorance is forming dangerous perspectives--perspectives, that if not checked, could do real damage and wrongly affect lives.

I wrote the poem below after learning about Christopher Roybal, one of the victims of the Las Vegas shooting. He was a veteran and the irony of his surviving war, dodging his fair share of bullets, only to be killed by one at home was not lost on me. His last Facebook post, written sometime in the summer, addressed the question, What does it feel like to be shot at? I too have wondered what it feels like to be shot at. The well-written post satisfied my curiosity. From what I gathered, it's a piece of hell that lives inside you. What I realized by writing this poem is yet another type of transcendence, the transcendence of the brave, those who live with the constant state of danger for the greater good. In succumbing to the bullet that haunted him, Roybal achieved a special kind of transcendence, one that is nearly Christlike.

Transcendence, in all its variations, is evidence there is a path for the soul. The end state need not be intelligible to us now; the mile markers along the course should be proof enough.

They’ve identified one of the victims
a man, a veteran who made it home
from Afghanistan only to be killed
from the  sniper perched on high
in a luxury hotel in Las Vegas.

I have never been to Las Vegas,
the casino city that mars the desert
doesn’t appeal to me, but I do know fear,
as if there’s a gunman perched in my head
and it’s only a matter of time
before he gets me.

But this isn’t real.

Thousands of miles in either direction,
they are sifting through the soldier’s words,
reading his name, telling the story of how
he was looking for a wild west in the east, a real
gun fight, an adrenaline rush.

Here, I drive to work
in a long line of traffic and
the marsh grasses are turning gold
above the low tide mud flats.

Here the question arises:

What’s it like to be shot at? We want to know,

we the civilians, the teachers, the waitresses, the lawyers,
the doctors, and all the other Christopher Roybals—

we with our dull lives of angst and failure
and what love we can rummage together.

We know nothing of the pinging of metal, the mass
confusion, the mania, the pop, pop, pop, and the rage—
the nightmare no amount of drugs,
no amount of therapy can cure.


It is morning
and the tide inconspicuously covers the banks
and the blue sky of October looks almost like forgiveness,
and there’s a feeling that the Earth is almost content,

still there is this question:

What does it mean to succumb to the bullet
that haunts you?
Is there a soul’s peace there?
A god?

I wonder, though, if they really looked
at the photo where your face is
illuminated and your eyes are bright
and there is the telling evidence of


of what only the brave know.