Straw Flowers

Straw Flowers
"Straw Flowers" by L. Folk

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Eve, Reimagined: A Review of Megan Merchant’s In the Rooms of a Tiny House


Megan Merchant’s new chapbook In the Rooms of a Tiny House by ELJ Publications has language so rich and vibrant, it will leave you awestruck. Merchant expertly reimagines the Adam and Eve myth in this collection; in lieu of Eden, we have a tiny house, a dollhouse perhaps, a metaphorical fish bowl where we can observe Eve loom large as loving partner, shameless adulteress, and eager mother-to-be.

In the first and eponymous poem, we peer in and see objects: an oblong afghan, a holy book of poems, an uneaten apple, and “a drawing of the eight-armed sea/chewing fingernails off the dead.” Eve is a woman in love, an intuitive woman who is certain love will be fruitful: “she feels good news licking/the soft linen in her veins.” In “Every Day Is Spring,” and “Burning Barrels,” Eve is learning to be and do, a newlywed in every sense of the word, trying to find her place in the house, explore who she is as woman—an unfettered sorceress who “boils a tin of apple-white and ambrosia, soaks the seeds,/ paints constellations on the bedroom wall in alphabetical order.” And yet, she is childlike, a new being with a curiosity for the world around her, “dreaming of fireflies trapped…the wavelength of pale light/ glowing from their soft bodies.”

In “Pitted” and “Making Room,” she is morphing, expanding; “Her ribs are cracking wide against/ the walls of the tiny house.” The pregnant Eve no longer fits the tiny house, so she leaves, “takes a man with hairy legs and oaky/ breath home from the bar” in the poem “Open All Night.” Eve isn’t aware of what not to do; she is naïve and fallible, as her legend dictates, but unlike the dire repercussions in the original myth, this doesn’t matter, because “Adam forgives her.”

 The serpent appears in “Nesting” as the rope in a tire swing, but Eve pays it no mind and “snaps her fingers/ to a song/ she learned/ from the men/ who camp across/ the river.” Her motherly instincts take effect in “Passing Down Knowledge” as she surmises what she will teach her child (“[h]ow to hold the moon in a bucket of water/ [h]ow to speak to strangers in questions only/”); she plans what to do after the birth, how she will make the child clean and “wash as much sin from its skin—the curdled filth/ that smells like her.” At this point, we see that Eve is not so naïve; she has learned somewhere along the way that she is bad. Merchant expertly portrays here the primordial and fallible Eve that lives in every woman’s psyche.

Hope and promise is greatest when the child is born in “The Promise of a New Day”; Eve knows that this day will “be the only perfect one.” It is the demise of her ripened body (“Purple-streaked skin droops over her belly,/ a plum wilting) that sets the tone of disillusionment; life will be tainted from here on out for her, her child, and Adam. But she faces it like a seasoned woman, the intuitive sorceress who knows what she must do, what she will do to reclaim herself: paint “her body with clay” and “stand under the ripe moon.”

By reinventing myth, we can better understand it, make it our own. I believe Megan Merchant wholly succeeds in doing this with her new chapbook.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Circe’s Cabin (from Totem Beasts)


Circe’s Cabin
The duke and I stumbled upon her cottage in the woods with the front door open. We went in, delighted by the cozy living quarters decorated with colorful textiles and marble statues, Buddha stones, shrines of goddesses, stained glass, and damask curtains. We settled on a duvet on the floor and the duke, with his multi-colored eyes and ebony hair, read from Sappho's lost book of poems. The poems were printed on papyrus and turned to dust in his hands, but with every new page we marveled at the secret words until the sun set and the lights began to flicker across the bay.

Afterward, we went out to the deck; half of it was falling into the water, its wood curved like a cascading wave. There were others now, figured on neighboring decks, gossiping, raising their glasses, seemingly content as the water lapped at the banks. Inside, more people had arrived and sat on the couch with drinks in their hands. Dogs were chasing each other around the fireplace. Lovers were eating muffins in the breakfast nook dropping crumbs on the floor. Then she arrived. She was not ageless. She was not beautiful. She was surprised to see us all there, taking advantage of her lair. I told her I would make it right. I frantically went about collecting the dust, hair, and shards of glass in my hands. What was she to do now? The place was a sty and the lord and his mistress were renting it for a getaway. I looked after the duke but he had disappeared. I told the others to get out. A man fell from the roof and broke his neck. Another was eating an orchid on the front porch.

When I last saw the duke, he was arm in arm with the crone as she lead him into her bedroom and then locked the door. Not an hour later, she released him to the paddock where he rummaged for scraps, squealing and snorting his way through the sounder of swine.

They arrived and I had the place spotless and vacant, save the crone who hummed softly as she braided her hair in her chamber. The man with the broken neck had been airlifted to the nearest hospital. The lights across the bay had gone out. The pigs had stuffed themselves silly. I opened the door and they were young and dark: the lord wore an oversized baseball cap and a medallion, the mistress, sweatpants with LOVE printed across her ass. They talked to each other as if I didn’t matter, commenting on the place, delighted to be there, and alone.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Totem Beasts



Happy to say my book Totem Beasts will be published by Big Table in 2017. Here's the eponymous poem, appropriate for this time of year (collage at right is the book cover).
      
           There are no ghosts in this house.
                        No hem of a muslin dress
            draped over a riser.
                        No Emily Dickinson archetype
            figured prominently at the banister.
                        No face in the naked glass.

            The boreal firs, always a regiment,
                        are noble, melancholic as the
            tide bathes the sedge. 
           
            We listen for what the hayfield says.
                                                We wait
            for totem beasts, but no coyote parts these
                        fallow fields.  No moose.  No
            osprey in wake of wind.
                        Quotidian, these crows, those gulls.

            I am filled with pale green air.
                        My sister's child thumps in Utero.
            Clouds snuff the sun, the sacrament, the
                        fiery heart.
           
            Night comes.

            I sit quietly inside myself.
                        My father bows his head here,
            the lines echoing around his eyes.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Promise, A Poem for Loretta (1997)




I bought three bunches of fresh asparagus
the other day
stored them away in the drawer of the fridge
when they spoiled a day later
I told myself it had nothing to do
with God hating my guts.

I've got a long line of misfortune, asparagus
is only the beginning
loveless, penniless, obsessive, wandering wanderer
I can't help but wonder;
sometimes you view everyone around you
and then scold yourself for not being them.

I remember her bad perms, her rosary beads
and her bumper sticker
Virginia is for Lovers
her Yugo and her Jane Fonda aerobics tapes
her futile attempts at love.
Who can explain her lessons unlearned? 
Her pity and pain
like a torch they burned, burned.

Years later
after she married and had a son
I watched her bones
I watched her shrink away
among kerchiefs and black wigs

when I finally want to live, she said, I die.

On the anniversary of her death
I wanted to go to church and say a prayer
for her and I wanted to tell God that I hoped
she was a little luckier in Heaven,
but when I got to the chapel, the doors were locked.

I got in the car, I drove
I saw storm clouds
asphyxiating the sun
your life, my thoughts, just a little further
and I'll find rain

but your rays pierced through
with the wavering sign of promise.
He told me you live in my heart this way

don't fade.


Friday, September 23, 2016

Mr. Baseball


 My father predicted David Ortiz’s success long before he was the homer-hitting Big Papi known to Red Sox Nation today. “I like this kid,” he’d say every time Ortiz was up at bat. “He’s got some swing.”

Now with Ortiz’s retirement, I can’t help but feel an extra pang of sorrow: Ortiz was the last of the great players my father followed before he died in 2003, just short of the memorable Red Sox World Series win, and it’s just another indication that the game is moving on without him, just like my life has moved on without him.

My father was Mr. Baseball if ever there was one. He read Ted Williams’ book The Science of Hitting like it was the Bible. I remember how he’d take his swings down in the basement at night after dinner, muttering his mantra to himself, “Think wrists” (this was also written on the concrete wall in chalk). Rumor has it that back in his heyday, the Cubs minor league team was interested in Dad. But his career as a baseball player would never pan out; he eventually retired his field of dreams and opted for a more practical career in engineering and a family. Later, he downgraded to softball, still needing his fix, and his marriage to my mother suffered for it.

Once he came home in his uniform after telling my mother he had to work late, and she locked him out of the house. After a long day with two toddlers, she had had enough. “Sleep with that,” she yelled and threw a baseball bat onto the front lawn. Years later when my mother went into labor with my sister, he was late and in uniform again. One of my earliest memories is of my parents zooming away to the hospital in my father’s Buick, my mother holding her big belly, my father in his pinstriped uniform.

Needless to say, Dad enrolled the three of us kids in baseball and softball and coached us all in the science of hitting until we were bored to the point of tears. There was that look in his eye, that focus; it was almost creepy. My brother had it the worst; as fathers are known to do, Dad began to live vicariously through his son and started grooming him for the majors when he was in grade school. He moved my brother all over the country in search of the right college team that could properly appreciate his son’s talents. To my father’s credit, however, when my brother finally told him he wanted to play professional beach volleyball instead, Dad eventually got used to the idea. His son came first. And although it nearly killed him, he started attending my brother’s volleyball matches and cheered him on despite having to let go of the dream once again.

My father’s passion for baseball wasn’t always a point of contention. I remember being comforted by the fact that while I was in bed, he was up watching baseball; the muted sounds of the crowd cheering, the crack of the bat, were soothing to me. He was a sentinel in the night, so to speak, and I felt safe.

When he stopped playing softball, he started to live vicariously again, this time through the players who had potential, like Ortiz. Now, I see that my father’s obsession for baseball added a flare to his life, a something that always kept him curious and engaged, and there’s something to be said for that when all the delusions of grandeur wane away.

What did my father’s passion for baseball teach me? Follow your bliss, but be practical. Live and play. Play and work. Hone your skills. Be a team player. Work harder. Play harder. I’ll remember this as Ortiz takes his final tour around the country and have to mourn my father all over again.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Time Machine (Upon Waking)


The genesis of the time machine was vague. I only know this: it was a mechanism of the mind. I wanted to use it to travel back to the day my young grandmother, who wore pants and had fine auburn hair, got up on the stage to join the Dewey-Truman debate. It was famous for being the first televised debate; people could see the expressions on the candidates' faces, their body language, who was asking the questions. My grandmother had something pressing on her mind so she raised her hand. She said smart and respectable things and stumped the candidates. A woman! They invited her on stage and the audience cheered. By that intricate contraption I saw it all, and then someone changed the channel.

I told myself I wanted to meet the musical genius Prince. I wanted to see a concert of his, because I didn't when he was alive. But it wasn’t a concert this thing took me to; it was Prince himself. We had a conversation about aching bones, aging, and high-heeled shoes. He was small, like a child, and had tender things to say; he knew what worked for his body and what didn’t. At one point we were in Macy’s fingering finely made textiles, stitched with sequins. He held up a dress to my body, and then vanished.

I reappeared behind my old Honda, its hatch wide open. My brother was debating me about how the art would be transported for our journey across country. He told me his photographs should be placed atop my paintings. He gave me a long, drawn out explanation why, but I was still pissed. Why was his art more important than mine? Is there a hierarchy to art at all? My paintings could be damaged. Crushed. I started to yell, pull out my hair. He was just so insufferable sometimes. Then his wife’s anachronistic voice boomed across the sky, reprimanding him. My mother beckoned from the back seat to get in and stop squabbling. We arranged the paintings and photographs vertically and shut the hatch. The last thing I remember is the pink pigment of rock of the Painted Desert, how it spun slowly in the dust.

The Compassionate Side of Feminism

Politics can bring out the best and worst in people; it can divide families and forge lifelong grudges. It can also flesh out underlying stigmas, ones you thought were long dead. Recently I have been called a feminist while in a political argument with someone near and dear to me, and this person meant it as an insult. (“You’re a…you’re a…feminist!”)

Huh?

“Of course I’m a feminist!” I said. “Why wouldn’t I be?” I assured this person that feminist does not mean man-hater. And then I paused for a moment. Why, in 2016, did I have to do this?

According to Dictionary.com, the word feminist means “[an advocate of] social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men.” I have no doubt that the person I was arguing with believes in gender equality—he may not be a Hillary supporter, but he’s not a male chauvinist. He just got the word wrong. Oversimplified. At least this is what I told myself.

My father was a feminist. He believed in me, empowered me to learn a primarily male vocation. He had full respect for my mother and empowered her too, to get an education. He believed my sister could hit a baseball just as far as any boy. My father—a man the family used to call “macho man” back in the day—coached and tutored his daughters as he did his son. He certainly didn’t fit the image of the bra-burning, picketing, fierce female that word seemingly invokes for some people.

Here’s the thing: the first feminists had to be fierce. They had to strike fear in the hearts of men (and women) to get the job done, to make gender equality a reality. Now, however, the glass ceiling is about to bust to pieces with Hillary Clinton poised to be the next president. So why does the word feminist still invoke the ferocity of the first feminists? Why does it imply man-hater to some people? Why are some people still intimidated? Is there still some deep-rooted sexism as part of their belief system?

People have their own experiences that fuel their belief systems; we, as humans, just tend to oversimplify things to our liking. That’s just the way we are. It’s important to combat this with education and open-mindedness, with the idea that life is a lot grander than we perceive it to be.  Yes, fierce goes with the word feminist, but let’s not leave it at that. Let’s remember that feminism is primarily a unifying force; let’s remember that it can be a compassionate force. Biologically speaking, compassion first began with females—mammalian mothers that gave birth to their babies (unlike reptilian mamas that laid their eggs and split).  It was at this point that nature called for nurture. It was the first form of compassion known in this vicious world of eat or be eaten.

Spiritually speaking, compassion is the most noble of our attributes, a divine gift from our Higher Power, whatever you believe it to be. The Golden Rule embodies compassion and is present in each of the major religions: do onto others as you would have done unto you. In seeing others as ourselves, compassion is the great equalizer.

Maybe you know this already. Maybe you also know that before the aggressive and violent patriarchal societies, there were kinder, gentler societies that lived fairly peaceful lives, societies that worshipped a goddess and honored the cycles of birth and death in the natural world. I’m talking about civilizations like the Minoans of ancient Crete who were excellent artisans and had gender equality as part of their legacy. Women were priests, artists, and rulers. The general population doesn’t know much about this, but feminists know.

Here’s another thing feminists know: it takes a village. It takes a village to raise a child, to give a homeless person a home, to help an addict recover, to help a sex-worker escape exploitation.

This is the philosophy behind our exhibit Women Artists and Writers: Compassion, Creativity, and Courage on display at Porter Mill Art Gallery in Beverly, MA for the month of August. This exhibit does two things: “counterpoint the looked-overness” of female artists (to quote Hilarie M. Sheets from the NYTimes) and also benefit the women of Amirah, a safe house for sex-trafficking survivors. We have included most of the art here in the summer edition. This art can be purchased online through our website by using our donate button (see home page); forty percent of all sales will go directly to Amirah.

This compassionate feminist philosophy also manifests itself in the poems, essays, and fiction included in the summer edition. Here you will read about shifts in consciousness from the skeptical to the compassionate, as noted in Kim-Marie Walker’s essay “On the Question of Compassion,” how Marathon bomber Jahar Tsarnaev is compared to a son in Heather Nelson’s poem “Prodigal,” the tenderness of mothering in Colleen Michaels’ poetry, the self soothing rituals of a female medic stationed in Afghanistan in “The Mirror” by Katelyn Gilbert, and a writing mentor’s courageous commitment to creating a safe space for Muslim feminists under the rule of the Taliban in “Creating Spaces of Nontraditional War Narratives” by Olivia Kate Cerrone.

I hope you find these works of art in our feminist summer edition of The Compassion Anthology as enlightening, inspirational, and a source of hope in this time of clear division and unrest.

Yours in creativity and compassion,
Laurette Folk, Editor of The Compassion Anthology

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Fallen Kingdom of Ozymandias (from Upon Waking)

Lena 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 Lena 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 Lena 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 may have been the mob. Lena regarded the tall smoke stacks as they belched fumes into the gray sky and felt ill.

Afterward, they took a ride east. It was sunny and they 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. They 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. They 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, was it not, her mother asked. Indeed, the water is blue, Lena 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.

Lena pulled up to the gate and realized she was alone in the car; her mother had become only a memory. Or had she evaporated? She 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 thought of the pope they dug out of the Catacombs, his casket within a nether casket made of cypress wood within a marble crypt. And that top shelf embalming fluid? It was no miracle his body was preserved; that's what the Church said, so let's not be too hasty about divine intervention. Suddenly the earth shuddered. Did I imagine that? thought Lena. The great gate creaked and leaned forward, spreading its arms out to the forgotten world. She imagined the tower in front of her falling to her feet, and then it did. 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? Lena wondered. After thousand of years of being upright, why now? Then she saw an old friend on her cell phone just outside the gate. She was calling her high school sweetheart. Lena knew he would come for her, just as he did every other time she called him in distress. And with that, she drove away, alone, as the land turned to dust behind her.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Gardener's Poem

Lust begets a feverish mind
switching from this to that to this
configuring beauty with blossom
or the lack thereof.

Quick, knock out those lethal specks
on the zucchini flowers
buds collapsing on themselves,
like delicate yellow laundry
wrung by invisible hands.

Pull the lettuce forming a stalk
crack it open and it bleeds a bitter milk
a bitter lie to the tongue.

Quick, dig up the small rose aside
the blind peony
caress every unearthed root.
Switch her for the corner rose
that sends out a ray
when the solstice turns.

Defy the image in your mind--a banquet
Come to terms with how it is
Just like everything else--
a thing trying to get by.

Acknowledge the need for ripeness and bloom
grace from the god
who delegates 1000 angels to one body

who at any one moment can exalt himself
above the banal
but chooses not to
most of the time.



Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A Weekend Away (from Upon Waking)

There were important feminist texts to read, texts by ancient women in the time of a ruling mother. I had marked them for research and brought the books with me on my weekend away to an island where I was staying with some women at a friend's cottage. The cottage was a wise investment; my friend had good business sense and I was envious of her. It was decorated as one would see in a catalog with hardwood furniture painted white, colorful textiles, abstract art, acutely placed votives, and bouquets of flowers. We all commended her on her taste.

Upon entering the place, I had the distinct feeling I had been there sometime before with my mother. I asked my friend about the fence that abutted the road. Was it always there? It was. I opened the front door and the yard was marked with Puritan tombstones with small white flowers growing between them. In the backyard there was a queen size bed with a sapling canopy. Another fence separated the cottage from a larger house with a picture window. You could see the modern decor of the neighbors' kitchen and the state-of-the-art appliances. You could also glimpse the neighbors themselves who painted themselves metallic blue for something to do. I saw them moving around the kitchen, making a big batch of paella, their bald metallic blue heads gleaming.

I opted to sleep under the sapling canopy under the stars; I sought to be slightly distanced from the rest. While out there, I read my ancient feminist texts, the beam of a flashlight lighting up the words. I was worried I wouldn't fall asleep in a strange place, but I did. I awoke the next morning to a commotion down the street. The paramedics were trying to save a German shepherd from heart failure. The guy at the gas station where the dog worked as a watchdog said that they used the defibrillators on him. He was up and around now, but we were all worried about his heart. I didn't want to go near the dog: I was afraid of his suffering. But I persevered to touch him and patted him between the ears. A woman came then, to take him home. She wasn't his owner, but she knew her. She was compassionate, and I felt relieved that she had come to take care of him. I went back to the cottage to feed my own dog, but I knew I didn't bring enough food for her. That was just like me, not to pack enough of something; I was always ill-prepared because a part of me was afraid to go. Being away from home always brought anxiety and that was the big secret I didn't share with anyone.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Doppelganger (Upon Waking)

She was dressed like the young maid in Girl with a Pearl Earring wearing a plain brown muslin dress and a blue sash over a white veil. She sat on the other side of the door in the pantry as one of the guests played the piano, his fingers trickling like water between a crevice and then pouring down, drenching everyone in sound. When it was over, there was a smattering of clapping, then silence, then an abrupt knock at the backdoor. It was the butler. He said that her lover had come to see her. Here? Now? she asked him. The butler touched his fine black hat and stepped back out into the night. When she saw her lover he was standing in front of his master's automobile reading the paper under the gaslight. She ducked back inside. She was impelled to rush out, but she hesitated; her fear got the best of her. She returned to the table flushed; the other servants were still eating their dinner, suspecting nothing. Her own plate was there with its dash of potatoes and slice of beef. She had excused herself once to the confines of the pantry to take full advantage of the music on the other side of the wall, but now to leave entirely? She went back to the table unsure of what to do. Then, a second knock at the door. The way the face looked in the glass...it could have been her lover's wife. She took a step back. The visitor knocked harder and one of the servants, Lizzie, asked who was doing all that wretched knocking. She waved her away and opened the door. Her father was there with the woman who resembled her lover's wife. The woman, without any hesitation, told her that this really wasn't her father; he was just someone who looked exactly like him, right down to the gold crowns in his teeth. (At this point she had forgotten all about her lover). "It's not him," the woman repeated. "Then there must have been some manipulation!" she cried. There was a scuffle at the table in the other room, the scrape of chairs. Outside one of the hounds was loose and jumped all over the two visitors, knocking them down. "You died!" she cried out. "It's not him!" The woman yelled. When the dog was properly retrieved, the two visitors--the woman who looked like her lover's wife and the man who looked like her dead father--crossed the threshold. Just before the entire scene blew up in her face, she said the words under her breath. "Doppelganger. I'll call this one doppelganger."

Monday, May 2, 2016

Est Deus in Nobis (Upon Waking)


What are you reaching for?

What are you yearning for?
You, craving this beauty or that truth
stirring like the vixen at three
in the morning her haunt wailing
under a hollowed out moon.
I cracked open the door
and cold early May stepped inside
while two stars sat like birds on
the horizon.

I went back to sleep.


In a dream, I walked to a shrine
in the woods where men
were learning to genuflect
and women ceremoniously disrobed
displaying each middle-aged body,
each forgotten hip and lacy breast.
In a vestibule, Asian scholars
translated texts that had recently been
unearthed; young people
with wide brows
reached out their hands to me.

I went out the side door

and worried I would not get back in.
Outside the shrine, beyond
the wing-backed stones,
beyond the fat, loose vines
and rusted gate were artists
peddling their wares.
I wanted to stop, I could have stopped

but this wayward beggar of thoughts--
yours, his, hers--this wayward beggar
of thoughts that I am,
I rambled on.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Up, Up (from Upon Waking)

They went up, up over the menagerie of hippos, lions, tigers. A giraffe licked her foot as the plane dipped and wavered and Lena thought of how delightfully treacherous it all was, the ferocious animals, the slender beasts with mile-long necks. If the plane went down in the middle of the savanna, both she and Derek would be eaten. She put her hand to her throat--this is where it begins, she thought-- the eating. They scaled another giraffe, up, up and she forgot about the neck and felt the glory of flight. Lena had thought she had seen a gate then, the same kind of wooden gate that existed in back of her yard that led to the woods. Could it be that the animals were that close when she walked the dog? Could it be that she would meet a lion or tiger on the trail? There were lions everywhere.

She and Derek were a bi-coastal couple. She lived on the East Coast and he on the West. They were returning from his place where she had recently threatened his ex-girlfriends with a bat. Lena laughed at the scenario now that she was safely on her way home. When they were taunting her from the lawn, she had asked him for a gun--it would be simpler with a gun--but he said no. He grabbed the wooden bat that he kept under the bed for intruders and shoved it at her. "Take it," he said. She took it. She went out and wielded the bat like a rapier. "Don't make me use this," she yelled, "because I will." The bunch of them in high hair and silver spandex and bangles flipped her the bird then drove off in a convertible. It may have been red. Afterward she went in, pleased with herself.

Derek watched the whole thing from the window and when she appeared in the bedroom, he went to her and kissed her neck with excruciating gentleness. He started to undress her. His hair was cut short now and she had the distinct memory of it when it was long and sensual, a river of curls. Lena, while being kissed here and there, tried to discern whether she still loved him now that he had short hair. She took his chin in her hands and looked directly at his face; he still had that pale skin of boy innocence. Then he said, "You know how I like it" and pulled her pelvis to him. "I want to slam you into the headboard hard." 

She looked at him now with his eyes closed as the plane climbed in altitude away from the West and toward the East. She was no longer laughing; she did not tell him how much it hurt. She wondered if  it was all worth it.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Naming the Snake: How to Recognize the Signs of a Creativity Perverse (Depression) and What Meditation and Compassion Can Do About It


I don't think anybody who hasn't been through depression knows what it's like to be frightened out of your mind every day from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep...terrified that something is happening to you and not knowing what to do.  You are in a dark wood; there isn't a path.  Nobody is saying 'Go that way.'"  Nobody is saying anything.

This is a quote from Lord Melvyn Bragg, a veteran broadcaster of the former South Bank television show (UK) who suffered several bouts of clinical depression, the first one occurring at 14 years old. I too have been in that dark wood as a child and an adult, and I have known that obstinate grip of fear. 

It was as if someone re-coded the software of my thoughts, infecting me with a cognitive virus that brought on a diatribe of angst. I literally tried joyous thoughts on for size; they perched a moment like a sparrow on a pine branch then flitted away. Ultimately, I became curled up in the corner of my mind—my thoughts on one side, me on the other—as a person would be if a snake slithered into the room. I knew it was depression when I couldn't wave the snake out of the house and into the garden.


With every new depressive episode, however, I began to understand the key components. Stress, rejection, ennui were prominent, as were hormonal and seasonal changes. I had eventually realized that the driving force behind my depressions was my refusal to recognize myself as an artist and my insistence on remaining in a meaningless career that did not engage my creative prowess the way I needed it to be engaged. Woolf writes in A Room of One's Own:

When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to.

The gift, in this case, is creativity. When a creative person is not following her bliss and is continuously put in a situation hostile to creativity, the creativity becomes perverse. So, instead of being a constructive force, creativity becomes destructive; this perverse creativity can translate into a form of mental illness like depression, anxiety, or addiction.


According to Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry at John Hopkins, artists are eight times more likely to suffer from depression than the general population. It’s in how we’re wired. Neuroscientist Nancy Andresan claims that depression is intertwined with "a cognitive style that makes people more likely to produce successful works of art." 

At the heart of this cognitive style are two things: persistence and the inner critic. Andresan conducted a study on 30 writers from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and discovered that "successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won't go down. They'll stick with it until it's right." The inner critic that constantly clamors that one’s work isn’t good enough is useful; as Jonah Lehrer says in his NY Time article "Depression's Upside." It's that belaboring inner critic that produces a more refined prose: "the sentences [are] polished by our angst." 


However, in creativity perverse mode, persistence fuels the circular patterns of woe, and the inner critic is amplified such that it looms larger than everything else. In my novel A Portal to Vibrancy, Jackie, my autobiographical protagonist, speaks of "the devil," a serpentine creature that embodies all of her negative impulses.  (If you're a Catholic, this isn't far-fetched). In the beginning of the novel, these impulses or thoughts consist mainly of temptation, like stealing a Reese's peanut butter cup from the drugstore, and sexual acts. Later in the novel, the devil matures along with Jackie and becomes so prominent "he" strikes her down at every turn and is like an oil slick moving into the rippling tides of her thoughts, destroying her clarity, forging guilt, and forcing her into alienation. 

In this way, Jackie's inner devil is a metaphor for clinical depression. At the point where the devil is most conspicuous, Jackie is not exercising her creativity, and the inner critic that would normally keep her focused on perfecting creative tasks has no immediate artistic vision, is out of control, and paving a path of destruction.
 
Like Jackie, depressed people closely adhere to the diatribes and fears of the inner critic-turn-reptile; they are in the dark wood. How can an artist reclaim her creativity? Well yes, first she could find a room of her own, and second, a room in her mind.

Meditation is a way of establishing that room. John D. Dunne, PhD, co-director of Emory University's Contemplative Practices and Studies program studies the effects of mindfulness and compassion on depressed patients. He exclaims that depressed people "hold onto (negative) thoughts very, very strongly" and "the goal of mindfulness meditation and compassion is to end this self-focus, this negative tone."

The first step to ending this self-focus/negative tone is to recognize it. It’s almost cliché to say that sitting with one’s feelings and identifying them helps; the reason it does is because one begins to realize the witness self. The witness self is the true self, the one who simply notices, making no judgments or analysis on negative thoughts. With enough meditation, space begins to develop around the witness self and it is in this space that compassion shows up. Compassion is the antithesis, the anecdote of the inner critic/reptile; it is a sort of balm that relaxes us and with this settling one might see the beginnings of a plan, an idea, the silhouette of the muse.

The physics of compassion-as-anti-depressant make sense, whether the compassion be received or given. Compassion requires empathy, the ability to see self in other; in this way it eradicates the isolation effect of depression and promotes a sense of connection. In A Portal to Vibrancy, Jackie begins to break the cycle of negative self-focus by first receiving compassion from an old friend, a fellow creative type who understands her despairs. This gives her enough space in her head to make a plan.

The plan is to move farther away from the inner reptile and commit a creative and compassionate act: Jackie proposes that she will heal her grandmother of her agoraphobia by planting a vibrant garden to lure her out of her house and into the world. Jackie's compassionate act is meaningful to her and not entirely unselfish: if she can help her grandmother with her mental illness, then she can help herself.  The fact that it is a meaningful act is key.

But Dunne's cohort Charles L. Raison, MD asserts that "many people with mood disorders find they can't do meditation when they're depressed. Their thoughts are too overwhelming. They are anxious, nervous, and can't sit –and likely they need antidepressants." 

While I have experienced this first hand, my conviction is that the use of an antidepressant is only the catalyst. Creative depressives need to not only right their brain chemistry through medication, they need to alter their belief systems with new practices and then reap the benefits of new artistic inspirations. In short, they need to redress their creativity from destructive to constructive and see that mindfulness/meditation/compassion/creativity is a valid way of life and positivity has a momentum as well.  Good begets good, eventually.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Jump (from Upon Waking)

We were stranded in New York City after missing the last bus out. Our parents had gone to bed, refusing to fetch us after we had missed our curfew, so we had to take a train. I was in the station ready to board an Amtrak train when I saw you in another terminal. We recognized one another and I said to my weary brother, "I know him." You were in mid-stride when I saw you and your own hand caught the wall to reverse your direction. You were older, a man, a gentleman who had taken a gentleman's path of boarding school and then Harvard. You were alone, free of baggage, and eager. You rushed up to me and embraced me. It had been such a long time indeed, yet you smelled the same--a cross between soap and musk. You told my brother and me that you could get us home, that you knew of an alternate path-- one that would take us through dark exotic places. Were we up for the adventure? Of course we were.

It was not exactly clear just how we lost my brother. He was there and then he was not. He was not there when you told me we needed to jump from the plane into the river. You told me we would do it holding hands and without a parachute. But the water was too shallow, I insisted; I could see the bottom pebbles shifting in the diaphanous curtains of water. We would break our necks. We jumped anyway and tried to cover ourselves with water. In the muddy banks of the river where the water had evaporated from the heat, bullets buzzed by us like flies. Or were they rocks? I was less worried than you about this (you took this all so seriously). You were terrified: you called our pursuers jihadists. I called them children.

We reached the dock and headed for a cruise ship. Your shirt blew open exposing the tangled blond hairs on your chest as we ran hand-in-hand. The ship sounded its long horn and the boat moved like a behemoth for deeper waters. Perhaps we had retreated to the lavatory to rid ourselves of the mud. Perhaps you had known the captain and that's how we got on board. The only thing I remember is this: once all land was out of sight, you went to the railing and told me we must jump again. The man (the captain?) in the background working the controls said "Jump now." I jumped but you were mesmerized by the waves and froze. I looked up at you from the water and coaxed you in. It was here that the captain dumped the secret cargo (it was an undercover operation). A fleet of flatbed trucks buoyed up like toy boats. We saw the dark heads of the refugees up front in the cab as we climbed aboard one of the beds. You were calm enough now, under the deep blue of the night sky and the deeper blue of the sea, to undress me. We stared at the naked sky as the fleet of trucks bobbed in the waves.

Eventually you chose your dark world over me. The last time I saw you I was in the back of a taxi and my brother was dictating directions to the cab driver; we were on our way home. You shot at us from a truck packed with migrant workers. I was insulted. Hurt. You disappointed me again. You would never be the hero I needed.


Saturday, February 27, 2016

Upon Waking: My Personal Mythology

We're studying Greek mythology in my World Lit I class and just this past week we watched an excerpt from "Power of Myth," Bill Moyers' classic interview with Joseph Campbell. Having reacquainted myself with Joseph Campbell's philosophy, I have more clarity on my own mythology and its symbols. This is made apparent in my dreams and what I'm trying to get at with the collection of shorts titled Upon Waking. According to Campbell, myth is the stuff of dreams; the two come from the same place--the subconscious, which is the driving force of our desires and fears despite what our intellects tell us. So this has been my project with Upon Waking, to decipher the mythology, the symbols of my subconscious and figure out the themes I grapple with, both subconsciously and consciously.

What are these themes? Rejection is one for sure. Despite my successes as a writer, rejection has damn well become commonplace, and although I pretend to shrug it off, I don't really. It manifests in my dreams as an experience with an ex-boyfriend, someone who, in the past, broke my sweet little heart. This person's ghost rises up from my inner depths and hurts me all over again in a situation that almost always borders on the absurd. "Dauphin" is an example of this, where an ex-boyfriend's ghost walks through my classroom on his way to a business meeting.

A second theme is my battle with the drudgery and the bludgeoning repetition of the days. This is accompanied by my desire to immerse myself in some natural and majestic place. "Roundabout to Wilderness" adequately portrays this theme, as does "The Ship." Both stories feature natural, almost mythical kingdoms, where I (through the guise of a persona, perhaps) experience a feeling of freedom.

It's a funny thing, writing about dreams. You think it's just a bunch of mishmash but when you sit down to record it, you realize there is an actual story there. The absurdity unveils itself into reason and it's curiously spot on with respect to your issues. Also, it's quick. It tumbles out onto the page effortlessly and in minutes. But this is what happens when your mind is trained in meditation; it's the focusing and the breathing that can get you back there. And it's funny how adaptable creativity is; as a mother with young children and a job, I don't think I would be able to write any other way at this point in my life.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Of Sand and Gold (from Upon Waking)

You had brought me to your gilded house in the sand where your sisters sat at a long table drinking wine amidst candles flickering and the white of cloth and the scurry of maids, gossiping, perhaps, to surmise if I were a decent prize with my fine brown hair and embroidered gown. I was allowed to wander; it was an island after all, down to the sea where the waves pushed up the rocks, foaming in laughter, mocking my fear, mocking me, as perhaps your sisters mocked me in their gilded dining hall with the flames elongating like fingers depicting a speaker here, a listener there.

I am humble, you see, a woman. A prize. You are the one with the desire, or are you, absent prince? I walked along the sand when the waves retreated and the island bore her legs. The long rays of the sun warmed my slender white arms; the beach was a pool of amber. They were searching for him, my bone, my blood, for he had been lost, perhaps taken, perhaps dead, according to Rumour. I would not be permitted to greet my sorrow in my own homeland, mourn him.

In the sand, the rocks were smooth, cobbled by the sea; I bent down to gather them, cradle them in my veil, tie them to my waist. On my way back to the pier laughter could be heard, the waves, far away but not too far.

It was there and then it was not, the jetty into the water, the dark wave, your voice, the wash of crepuscular sky.

Battlegrounds and the Need for a Cleared Space

Battlegrounds and the Need for a Cleared Space
The Compassion Anthology: Letter from the Editor

In my twenties I lived in a house with two male roommates: one was a good-natured, unemployed packrat who gleaned (to use Sandra Winter's term in her essay "The Gleaners") from our neighbors' trash, and the other was an ex-con yogi who painted mandalas and hung them on his bedroom wall. The packrat roommate was constantly home creating a mess wherever he went in the house. There were always dirty dishes in the sink, towels on the floor, overflowing trash, CDs, magazines, clothes everywhere, and of course, his gleanings. Nothing had a place. I took the room in the house because I couldn't find an apartment that would take my dog. Also, I was broke. The only way I could live in that chaotic household was to constantly clear a space for myself to exist.

I had my own room and spent most of my time there where it was clean and warm and cozy and where my dog and I watched the Romance Channel. In the kitchen, I cleared a space for a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee every morning. I cleared a small space in the sink to wash my dishes. In the den, I cleared a space on the floor for my yoga mat to center myself after a stressful day of teaching. I managed to exist in this chaos, and I still hold this philosophy, especially when things are in disarray, mentally and/or physically. I think clearing a space is an essential skill for survival, but not only this. When you clear a space and push the minutiae back, you choose a different consciousness,  a sort of simplification. You choose, in a word, peace.

This past winter break I spent every spare moment delving into ancient texts like the Iliad and the Odyssey to create curriculum for the World Literature I class I was assigned. I had forgotten that Homer spares us not the gory details of how larger-than-life soldiers slaughtered one another in the Iliad. The brutality is a bit exhausting to read (in the Iliad, it's the men who are slain; in the Odyssey there's an animal sacrifice on nearly every page) and yet in the midst of Homer's account of the Trojan War occurs a most tender and compassionate scene where King Priam of Troy visits the great hero Achilles to ask for the body of his son, Hector. Achilles not only slays Hector out of revenge for the blood of his comrade Patroclus, he ties Hector to his chariot and drags his body around the camp for days.

Now, Priam is an easy target for the revered warrior Achilles, a lamb gone to slaughter, if you will, but instead of killing Priam on the spot, Achilles does something utterly amazing: he weeps with him. When Achilles beholds Priam, he has "a deep desire to grieve for his own father" and the two "[give] way to grief." Achilles then commands the women slaves to have Hector's body bathed and anointed with olive oil; he himself wraps it in a battle-cape, loads it unto Priam's wagon, and promises Priam a cease fire until Hector's funeral rites are over.

I have been exceptionally aware as of late, how my own battles persist: the battle for good health despite my aging body and its minor yet annoying ailments; the battle with disorder, uncleanliness, and chaos inherent to raising two toddlers; the obstinate battle between creativity and livelihood; the prominent battle between creativity and motherhood. Being a soldier of 101 battles wears me out, and I know when I've reached the point when I need to clear a space for myself; I know when I need to construct a demilitarized zone.

The DMZ that exists between North and South Korea is a favored trope, referenced often by poets and writers. It is, quite literally, "an accidental paradise" to quote CNN, where rare and endangered species live relatively peaceful lives. It is an anomaly, a paradox, just like the space cleared for compassion in Achilles' lodgings.

This clearing of space, this DMZ inside Achilles' lodgings, would never have been possible if not for the god Hermes who put Achilles' soldiers to sleep before they could overtake Priam's wagon. The presence of the god is a metaphor for aligning with our higher natures to claim compassion paramount for ourselves and others. In our rushed and stressed world, to clear a space really seems like a monumental task--a task for a god. But it's possible. This focus on our higher nature is the subject behind Lily Prince's painting "The Better Angels of Our Nature" (pictured above right). This vibrant, ethereal, yet earthy piece has the goddess of liberty figuring prominently in the high ground, an indication that our alignment with such natures is the true meaning of freedom.

For our winter 2016 issue of the anthology, we are especially privileged to have poems from the manuscript Songs in the Storm by the late Admiral Mahic, a Bosnian poet who cleared a space for poetry in the midst of a war. I've been working closely with Mahic's translator and friend, the Canadian writer Brian Fawcett, who resurrected the manuscript from the archives at the University of Northern British Columbia. Mahic's poetry strikes me with a sense of awe for the human spirit and its dichotomies; it reminds me of the Joseph Campbell philosophy of the transcendent energy of God and how, when it hits the time space continuum, breaks into opposites: yin and yang, good and evil, male and female, war and compassion.

Please clear a space in your own lives to process the work here by our artists, poets, and writers and consider joining us for our annual exhibit in May at North Shore Community College titled Women Artists and Writers: Compassion, Creativity, and Courage to benefit Amirah (see Submission Guidelines).

Yours in creativity and compassion,

Laurette Folk, Editor of The Compassion Anthology

Priam and Achilles by Alessando Padovanino (above), The Better Angels of Our Nature by Lily Prince (below)
Picture

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Dauphin (from Upon Waking)

When she awoke, the children were gathered at tables in their apartment. Apparently the classroom was locked and the parents brought them here, to the apartment she shared with her husband who, not surprisingly, slept throughout the whole ordeal and then miraculously vanished. The children were getting restless, and she, still in her robe with a curious stain on the collar, was slightly intimidated by having some twenty pre-schoolers in her private home, becoming all the more rowdy by the minute. But she was a seasoned veteran of teaching, and she knew she could pull something from the stocked bag of tricks that comes with some fifteen years in the profession. She decided on the game of telephone, and she lined them up and handed the first child the message realizing then that of course the child couldn't read, so she whispered it into his ear, this ridiculously banal message (what should the message be, she panicked, just a minute before and thought of something at last) and the child turned to the next and so on and so forth. As the message passed from child to child, she went to close the door to the hallway, when suddenly her ex-boyfriend's ghost, X, passed through it. X had left for the day, relinquishing his childlike Japanese wife to their children and in one fell swoop, dismissed the children playing telephone, commenting something about her having her hands full (no adoration in his voice whatsoever), then passed through the exterior walls and onto his meeting with a guy, the guy, regarding the online dating business he was starting. She tried her best to dismiss him as he did her, but couldn't. Just the night before, X's ghost shared a bed with her and her husband, and she, eagerly, with heart brimming, opened her legs to him and he entered her to experience sensation only, as one does when one reaches for a piece of cake or a glass of sherry. It was her husband who watched from over her shoulder, almost as if he pitied her because he knew full well her rampant desire to be loved and the heartache she was to feel by this heartless engagement. The ghost of X did not consummate the act; he withdrew and put on his clothes, packed up his things, and went back to the home he shared with his childlike Japanese wife, unfulfilled. So here he was now, casually walking through her life again, a ghost, a resurrected being from the dark lake of her subconscious where all was myth and mystery--his relationship with his childlike Japanese wife, mystery, his daily routine, mystery, his haunting ghost--myth. But she was an old pro at carrying around that tarnished chalice, and she went about doing her job, keeping the children in line, thinking to herself, consequences, there should be consequences, and then peering up at the clock--3:20--class would be soon dismissed and she could go back to picking up the pieces, tidy up, (she was always, always tidying up) recollect herself. The message came down to the last child and she asked her to repeat it, and she said one word: dauphin. The sentence, the original banal message (whatever it was) was now condensed to this, and she asked the children what it meant and hands went up, and a child said an animal of the water. Parents started to arrive then and mayhem ensued. She was left with the word, a word for a king's son, a word for an animal of the water, a word for a historical mystery.