Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Transformative Blogging

Just a note to say I still have room for participants in my Transformative Blogging class, open to those hesitant bloggers-to-be wishing for a roadmap to help them proceed, or for those already blogging, this course promises to help set intentions and recalibrate blogging focus.
The course is offered through Story Circle Network. Outline and full details can be read here: Transformative Blogging.

Come out, come out and play...we have a beautiful group assembling already.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

AROHO Speaks, Writer to Writer: Interview with Maura MacNeil

Maura McNeil
 I'm proud to cross-post this interview with Summer 2011 AROHO Retreat writer Maura MacNeil (conducted by Barbara Ann Yoder). I decided to jump in and give you a quick glance mid-interview. I continue to be moved by the tremendous strength and resilience of the women gathered for the retreat; it seems many of us crossed intense barriers (emotional, spiritual, physical) in order to perservere and attend the conference.

Is there one specific moment or event at the retreat that sparked an insight or shift in how you perceive either your work or yourself as a writer?

During the retreat I recognized that the fear I carried with me as a woman writer in the context of tackling difficult subject matter, or fearing judgment from others—all that baggage that we tend to carry around as writers that keeps us from writing what we are meant to write—is part of what Marilynne Robinson spoke of as a categorical way we are taught to think. While I listened to her words I suddenly understood that I had the power to break that spell. The “deeper experience hidden from the categorical ways we are taught to think” that Marilynne spoke to was a space I suddenly felt the courage to enter because I was surrounded by women who understood those words just as I did.

I arrived at the retreat having just lost my husband who died quite suddenly in June, so I was raw with grief. But at the same time I was in an emotional space where I was completely open to the authentic creative energy of AROHO women and to the possibility that I might be able to frame a new perspective on my writing life in this foreign land of widowhood where all that was “familiar” was suddenly erased.

Over the past decade or so, even though I was writing and publishing and editing, I felt as though my life had become increasingly compartmentalized into my “life as writer” and my “other life” that was filled with obligations that constantly tugged me away from being present in my creative life. I was increasingly distracted. When Marilynne told us that we should make ourselves into someone we might enjoy being with, that we should give ourselves a creative life that as writers we want to live, her words were like an alarm going off, and I knew that something very important was happening to my sense of myself as a woman writer.
More here.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Towards Mapping Female Geographies

Photo by Robyn Beattie
 I am pleased to announce a short-short up on-line at In Her Place, titled, "Reverie for The Girl at Gabe’s Bar, downtown Iowa City , where the accordian player belts out, in Anglo-Spanish, his love song,"

This fictive rumination of mine sought to answer the following question posed by In Her Place editor-in-chief Marci Daniels and co-conspirator Jessica Erica Hahn in their call for submissions:

In what ways does being female affect one’s sense of place, placement, and/or (dis)location?

A rich, viable question, worth I think, a life-time's scrutiny.

Robyn's images can be viewed on her site:

Monday, December 5, 2011

Deciphering the Siren: Premature Gifts, Luminaries, and Transformative Blogging

Detail from Mermaid, Howard Pyle
Jung’s wife, Emma, wrote that as a symbol, the mermaid wants to "entangle" us in "real relationships." She drags the man underwater not always to drown him, but sometimes to bathe him in the waters of life. Mermaids: Nymphs of the Sea, Aurum Press,  Text by Theodore Gachot, Photography by Leah Demchick

I crept away early on Sunday, needing time away.

Startling, the pain of leaving my youngest child behind, his sweet, sweat-tufted hair, as he lay in his comforter. Last night as we fell asleep, he said he wanted to make me an early birthday present (months away), could I guess what letter it started with…You don’t have to tell me, I said, but stopped, overcome by his absolute need to cinch the giving in case something were to eclipse it…He blurts, it starts with f…no…I mean r…Roses!

I kiss his cheek as I’d promised, whisper, I’m going, but not loud enough to wake him, I know better. I climb the ladder to my daughter’s loft bed, her kitten batting at my ankles in a plea for wet food since I’m the feeder of all creatures under our roof. This kiss elicits a sleepy, bye mom. Last, the big bed, where husband, middle child, and the Husky snore, paws and shins churned in the electric blanket. I linger with a fraction of regret, listening to the familiar sheen of breathing I so love, a shield for my childhood’s fear of the dark.

I’m only driving an hour away to meet a friend to talk poetry over coffee—yet I hesitate again...wish to burrow down, drift back to sleep, rise late in the morning and walk the dog, leashed, so she doesn’t trigger the ferals up the trunks of the redwoods as will be their fate when my husband leaves the door ajar for the dog to come and go. To stay, grind the coffee beans, compose slow emails between scrambling eggs…But if I don’t get away, the other half of me suffers.

Under the supernaturally gorgeous 7 am skies full of gunmetal clouds, the black pavement of the road sparkles, slick, split by the yellow divider line mimicking the tangerine gold of the leaves as the muted grey of a mottled pair of white horses in the mist and the dark tributaries of the oaks fringed with velvet moss hurtle past. A slight rain descends; I’m near tears, confused by an ancient fear of losing children mingled with the urge to stop, get out, and ride one of the horses into the hills.

Likely the grief’s more triggered by this brilliance of nature and the fact that I’m a two-step away from summer’s cornucopia of nested stress. Events in my thirteen year-old marriage took most of my attention, though, the degree to which I’ve been devastated by implied actions on my husband’s part--the responsibility for my reaction--rests solely with me. A state of truce graces me for now, thanks to the net of helpers mirroring back to me ways I might better appreciate what I have, strive to place things in context, become a better person.

The need for privacy, though, extinguished any desire to write here with my usual candor. In the meantime, I’ve taken a fiendish delight in deciphering the siren: reading about mermaids, mermen, Emma Jung, in my attempts to explore the volatile/vulnerable conditions the bound circle marriage attempts to make of our desires and attractions. How we transform when we run out of air and storm the sea’s surface, claim our stake in the living, forced by circumstance to choose to be here. Through such trials comes the gift of incarnating more deeply, or at least that’s what I decided.

But let me also acknowledge the luminaries…like the dear couple, both Taiko drummers, inviting my family to a gathering the very day after my husband and I had it out (unbeknownst to them, of course). We left our house, the air heavy with the prior nights’ accusations and revelations, to drive out into the country to a home high on a hill overlooking Mt. Tamalpais. Legs planted in the vibrant green grass, our friends, married as long as my husband and I, took their position on either side of an oblong drum.

She with her long black red tinged hair, arms windmilling in gentle but powerful circles, knees turning in tandem as she poised to strike the drum. Her husband, with legs in warrior stance, connecting in slow, fierce strikes on the opposite side, the deep amber of his voice matching her softer but equally firm arc of song. In the background, our sons circled the lawn, hunting geckos in the stones rimming the hill, my daughter sprawled between my husband and I on the damp grass.

Though unable to set aside its sense of broken trust, the other half of my heart blossomed with possibility. Here, I translated, pure, from our friends, is what a couple in love is capable of creating. In the wake of their secure and fearless drumming, I took refuge from my worst fears about our marriage.

As we drove home, my thoughts ranged over the events of the last couple of years, coming to rest on the time, when, like my younger son, I couldn’t wait to give a gift. Late November, still concerned about my husband’s ability to recover from heart surgery, I’d painted him a mug: purple trident on one side, a crown and a heart in its middle, the first initial of his name along the handle, waves curling the cup’s rim, a second, secret heart at the bottom of the cup on the inside. Three weeks before Christmas, I gave it to him, here, I said, I just wanted you to have this now…and he took it…I didn’t say in case you die before Christmas….but I thought it, in fear.

In the rearview mirror, I see my youngest son drifting to sleep, his head resting on my daughter's shoulder. I wonder aloud to my husband, how many a wife, entering marriage, hasn’t felt a bit like the little mermaid, trading her voice for legs? He’s adjusting his sunglasses, the other hand resting on my thigh. I say it more to myself than him, and don’t expect him to answer.

The rest goes on in my head. Mermaid turned land girl or not, as women we continue to plumb the watery, emotional, psychic depth of human possibility. I think backing away from that gift and not voicing its truths would be a great loss in any marriage. Maybe it takes nearly half a century to find one’s voice (my plight anyway, but better late than never). And though the little Mermaid evaporates in the morning to join her sisters in the air, I don’t think the prince has it any easier. Every man, like every woman, has his dark hours to survive.

Detail of Book Cover, Author Theodore Gachot
Image: C.E. Boutibonne, Sirenes, EDIMEDIA
  Which leads me to close on this final meditation, also from the book my husband got for me in our first year of marriage, Mermaids, Nymphs of the Sea: “In tales of human-mermaid romance, the need to return to the water became an emblem of the distance between the sexes that could be bridged only through the cultivation of empathy—the relationship of two disparate parts working as a whole (Theodore Gachot)." May we mutually, male and female, “bathe one another in the waters of life” and fulfill our truer nature as luminaries, all.

One last note:

I’ll be teaching a 4 week course for Story Circle Network in January. I'm indebted to both Barbara Yoder and Marlene Samuels, members of the AROHO Speaks Interview Team, for inspiring me to apply to give on-line teaching a try, and Marlene again, for recommending Story Circle Network. (Here's a slice of their mission statement: "The Story Circle Network is dedicated to helping women share the stories of their lives and to raising public awareness of the importance of women's personal histories").

This marks a much anticipated next step in my plan to create for myself the teaching life I so desire. I would love it if you joined me, or passed this link on to friends, those cautious but curious about blogging as well as those veteran bloggers who want to pause, take stock, recalibrate. Read a detailed course description for Transformative Blogging.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Autumnal Update and AROHO Speaks, Writer to Writer: An Interview with Marcia Meier

This hibernal season I feel a bit like a spider with multiple webs underway at once. I love my work as poetry editor at The Fertile Source, I love my work as part of AROHO's 2011 Summer Retreat Interview Team, I love cross-posting and chatting over at She Writes, and I also love blogging here as Feral Mom, Feral Writer. I have some new projects in the wings for the New Year, including preparing to provide content and moderate discussion at The Collaboration Hub as well as teaching a few on-line writing courses.

I'm busy at work on a Word Press website where I hope to centralize the various content from other sites where I spend a good deal of my writing life. And that will also allow me to slip Feral Mom back to its original seed intent: to bare the landscape of the beautiful challenge and gift of raising children while writing (in the company of other mother writers and artists). I'm also pleased to announce that a prose piece, "Reverie for the Girl at Gabe's, downtown Iowa City" was accepted for on-line publication by In Her place and should be posted before Christmas.

In the meantime, please enjoy this interview I conducted with Marcia Meier. I plan to write my next AROHO reading diary on Marcia's book, Navigating the Rough Waters of Today's Publishing World: Critical Advice for Writers from Industry Insiders (Quill Driver Books, 2010) and will post a link here for you shortly.

Marcia—you are in inspiration—visiting your home site, one sees that you are not only a Member of The Redroom , but you are also currently in a low-residency master of fine arts in creative writing program through Antioch University in Los Angeles. You also have time to give writing workshops while keeping a very active blog at your Willow Rock Writers website. How do you balance it all and what advice would you have for writers trying to build web presence?

Well, when everything is listed like that, I do wonder how I get it all done! I was a print journalist for 17 years before I turned to teaching and books, and I learned how to be very disciplined and organized during those years, so that helps a lot. I try to give myself time to write every day, and I also try to set aside certain days for specific tasks. I usually meet with clients on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. That leaves Mondays and Fridays (and Saturdays and Sundays) for writing, reading and master’s work. Read more....

Friday, October 28, 2011

"Poet Teacher Seeks World" Blog Launch and An Interview with Feral Mom, Feral Writer

While still celebrating last summer’s A Room of Her Own Foundations retreat, I realize I failed to provide a link here to the interview my poet friend Lisa Rizzo graciously conducted with me—I hope you’ll check out the interview as a way to support her brand new blog, Poet Teacher Seeks World. Not only did I enjoy seeking out her out at breakfast, and sharing a flashlight up the darkened trail back to our rooms on the mesa, but I also managed to solicit a poem of hers for The Fertile Source that we soon realized I'd first heard her read some years ago at a Women on Writing Conference (and promptly solicited from her back then). And Lisa, the offer stands....

We (the four of us on the interview team: yours truly, Lisa Rizzo, Marlene Samuels, and Barbara Yoder) have since also cross-posted our interviews on the AROHO Speaks, Writer to Writer website, where over the course of the next year we plan to present interviews with as many of this summer’s 2011 retreatants as possible (in the spirit of harvesting insights and passing on a little practical wisdom and inspiration).

And I've missed the practice of the regular flow of postings at Feral Mom--I've been shocked quiet for the moment, but more on that continues to catapault me past the comfort of my furthest growth ring (ready or not). I'm sure I won't be able to resist writing about it for long. Under which circumstances have you been shocked quiet? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

AROHO, Synchronicity, and an Interview with Marlene B. Samuels

Photo by Lisa Rizzo
When I applied to attend a Room of Her Own Foundation’s Summer 2011 Retreat for women writers, I did so because of the conference’s promise of bringing together a group of writers for an uncommon experience: every writer would present as a teacher, every writer would participate as a student. Drawn to this non-hierarchical setting, in which beginning as well as more established writers would mix without pretension, I took a deep breath, and applied.

I set myself the goal of reading work by as many of the attending writers as possible. On my initial working list of 49 authors, I located seven titles at our library. The first one I randomly grabbed to read was The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival, by Sara Tuvel Bernstein with an afterward by her daughter, Marlene B. Samuels.

My relationship to the Holocaust started as a child when I felt empathically drawn, like many young girls, to Anne Frank, The Diary required reading for the“Girl’s Club” I joined with 3 other 10 year olds in Illinois. But the connection felt eerily deep and immediate.

At that time, I began to write poems fixated on the image of butterflies drawn by survivor children on camp walls (the images continued to haunt poems years later in graduate school and beyond). I have had vivid recurring dreams about the Holocaust over the course of my lifetime. Wether those dreams were simply a byproduct of dipping into the field of collective memory or wether they were past life experiences, I have had a connection I can’t explain (and I’m not sure that connection needs a frame).

My night time dream experiences merged with waking life the night I finished The Seamstress. I found the memoir simply and beautifully written, explicit and revelatory (I posted a mini-review here at She Writes). While drifting off to sleep that night, I had the physical sensation of opening in layers like a cocoon; the places on my shoulder blades where wings would be tingled, like wingbuds. A weight lifted out of my body at that moment, and I accepted the cellular metaphor as a gift.

I was not surprised, then, when I arrived at the airport to take a shuttle to Ghost Ranch for the AROHO retreat, and just before the doors closed, in stepped a vibrant, lively, black-haired woman, smartly dressed, who asked if she could sit next to me, did I mind, she was actually booked for the later shuttle, but she thought, what the heck, she’d made it in time and might as well get on this shuttle since there was room.

“I’m Tania,” I said, and “you are?”

“Marlene Samuels,” she replied with a familiar accent...back East? Chicago?, charming, settling in beside me. I was in awe—and our journey as friends began, ignited by a rich conversation about her mother’s book, The Seamstress, her role editing and reshaping it, the twenty plus years bringing it to the publishing table. That set the bar for the remainder of the retreat, and the synchronicities and connections burgeoned over the next ten days of the retreat. I am very honored to repost Marlene’s interview here. Marlene’s interview was conducted by Lisa Rizzo and originally appeared on both Lisa’s blog, Poet Teacher Seeks World and will appear shortly on the AROHO Speaks, Writer to Writer website.

AROHO Speaks, Writer to Writer: Interview with Marlene B. Samuels

Marlene B. Samuels
Thinking back to the 2011 AROHO retreat, can you tell us about an idea, exercise or conversation that had either an identifiable impact upon your writing habits or became a finished piece of writing or one in process?

There were so many incredible moments and conversations it’s really tough for me to isolate a single one but what did make a huge impact on me is the passion with which each woman approached her writing. I was moved by the observation that even the most accomplished participants still expressed some self-doubt. To me that was very refreshing!

It’s noteworthy that we all struggle with the importance of being perceived as serious writers. We each struggle to find that space and consistency for our writing but there’s no precise formula. Kate Gale’s comment – that we schedule the various responsibilities in our lives and meet our commitments yet fail to follow suit with our writing - that was especially poignant. All too often, women put others’ needs ahead of their own writing schedules as though somehow writing isn’t a legitimate use of their time.

Bhanu Kapil’s direct questioning of total strangers really influenced my own work. Her method of querying them as the means by which she could pursue her writing project encouraged me to begin a project I’d been stuck on for about two years. Until hearing Bhanu, I’d been unable to muster the nerve to approach strangers. She was a true inspiration as well!

Is there one specific moment or event at the retreat that sparked an insight or shift in how you perceive either your work or yourself as a writer?

Yes, the evening readings altered my self-perception. Reading my work helped me perceive myself more seriously and hence, as a professional writer instead of someone who’s reluctant to say, “I’m a writer,” in response to the question, “What do you do?” Before the retreat I felt like an imposter if I claimed to be a writer. Somehow, it seems that as women, we have a misperception that unless our writing appears on the New York Times bestseller list or in The New Yorker or is reviewed by Oprah, we can’t claim to be writers. It seems most of us struggle with that but - my gut feeling: it’s a much bigger issue for women.

Is there a specific woman writer who inspires/d you? If so, can you tell us something about why?

Tania Pryputniewicz was amazingly inspirational – the mere fact that she committed to attend in the face of her own doubts, that she demonstrated such a unique approach to her poetry, and that she gave such a unique and creative presentation to the entire group inspired me. She discussed the collaborative process, an approach to writing I’ve never really considered. It’s given me a new view into the creative process, almost like a child being given encouragement to draw outside of the lines.

Bridget Birdsall’s one-on-one spiritual consultation with me – something I was really suspicious of but also curious about – was great fun, not to mention that her insights were exceedingly encouraging. Her strength of character and her intuition are also reflected so honestly in her own writing. There are so many others but I’m guessing the space of this interview wouldn’t accommodate my rave reviews.

How would you describe your typical writing day?

I spend a lot of time in approach-avoidance activities, that time wasting stuff, as I try to get organized. When I was in graduate school we used to refer to that as “pencil sharpening”! I have a terrible time actually getting started on the writing process each day because I tend to take care of all my other responsibilities - phone calls, bills, whatever else distracts me. But if I don’t do that first thing then it’s very tough for me to stay focused.

Afternoon seems the best time for me, when I can spend two to four hours writing. I’ve noticed that just in the few weeks since I got home from the retreat, I’m much more committed to my writing time. It feels really good and that in itself is very reinforcing of my writing commitment. I’m certain it’s the result of embracing the concept that I really am a writer and it’s my legitimate real career.

Can you describe for us what you’re currently working on?

I’m actually working on three things, each in a different genre. I’m completing a short story collection that I’ve been working on for years entitled, The Mental Health Poster Child. It began as my memoir but has evolved as a sequel to my mother’s memoir, The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival. After her death I rewrote and edited when Penguin Berkley agreed to publish it. In addition, I’m co-host of a culinary website and its blog, . Both are progressing toward an “ethnographic” sort of cookbook. My third project is a sociology book based upon interviews with baby-boom generation women. That project really draws upon my training as a serious research sociologist but incorporates my more recently honed passion for writing creative nonfiction.

Is there a specific question you’d have liked us to ask and if so, could you answer it?

Actually, yes! The question I’m surprised no one asked – one I personally asked many of women during the retreat, “What influenced you to attend the retreat?”

I’ve never been to a writers’ retreat before, only to writing workshops and conferences -courses at University of Iowa Summer Festival or University of Chicago Writers’ Studio, that sort of thing. I’d followed AROHO for many years; read about the retreats, and vacillated between wanting to apply yet worrying I’d be out of my league. After reading the bios of women who attended – a huge diversity, it was obvious that I needed to attend. I decided that, unlike workshops, what I needed most was emotional and spiritual support for my goals. That’s an often neglected component to being a productive and confident writer. At some point, writers need that kind of support and connectedness with other writers more than they need instruction in the writing process.

Marlene B. Samuels: I’m an independent research sociologist, writer, and instructor and teach research methodology and sociology. I earned a Ph.D. and M.A. from University of Chicago. My research focuses upon changing American demographics, adoption issues, and currently, decision-making during life transitions. My writing encompasses three genres: sociology, nonfiction, and food.

I co-authored The Seamstress, my mother’s Holocaust memoir, wrote an academic book about career success plus short stories, essays, and food articles. My writing has been published in Lilith Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, University of Iowa Summer Anthology, Story Circle Journal, Long Story Short and others.


Friday, September 30, 2011

Mother Teresa Meets Lady Diana

Photo by Robyn Beattie
I’ve had Mother Teresa on my mind ever since I discovered writer Liz Brennan four years ago. Liz keeps a jewel of a blog, each post a wisp of haiku length reflection, titled Perhaps, Maybe.

Liz is the primary reason I’ve been able to keep writing the last four years; we meet weekly to lend one another books and discuss drafts of our poems. Every once in awhile, I have the pleasure of reading Liz’s Mother Teresa prose poetry. A construct of Liz’s imagination, this alternate Mother Teresa struggles as a single mother, attempting to be saint of the mundane whether she’s surviving an exchange with a bad clerk at the post office, eating noodles from her take-out container while driving, or sprinting to intercept the meter maid.

In turn, I’ve subjected Liz to my drafts of She Dressed in a Hurry, for Lady Di (along with a number of other personae poems) until mercifully the poem was published at Salome Magazine and parked at The Mom Egg in its micro-movie version, leaving Liz free to move on to dissecting drafts of Nefertiti.

This summer, while attending A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Summer 2011 retreat for women writers, I had the opportunity to get closer than ever to Mother Teresa through Mary Johnson’s spiritual quest memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life. Johnson, after serving 20 years as a Missionary of Charity, found reasons to leave the sisterhood. In Unquenchable Thirst, she lets us in behind the scenes with the real Mother Teresa.

Which brings me back to Liz Brennan’s Mother Teresa poems (one of which recently appeared in ZYZZYVA, hardcopy only, sorry--I'd love to give you a link to her poem). At one point in Unquenchable Thirst, Johnson describes a meeting between Lady Diana and Mother Teresa. Liz and I, with that hopeless kind of hyper-synaptic, associative observation that tends to dog writers, were tickled the subjects of our individual poems, Lady Diana, and Mother Teresa, met between the covers of Mary’s book, in real time, once upon a time, not so long ago.

On a more serious note, my review of Unquenchable Thirst appears here on the AROHO Speaks website, as well as on Mary Johnson's site where she hosts a salon and invites us all to join a thriving discussion focused on the book (with changing topics, most recently, on faith and sexuality).

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

AROHO Speaks, Writer to Writer: Interview with Barbara Ann Yoder

Barbara Yoder, photo by Michelle Wing
A Room of Her Own Foundation's Summer 2011 Retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico proved to be a powerful and inspiring gathering of 90 women. I am excited to be part of an interview team with the primary goal of sharing, as best we can-- via interview--highlights from the retreat, writer to writer. I rubbed shoulders with Barbara Yoder at the retreat when we volunteered to sell books before one of the evening readings. I am so pleased to introduce you to her here.

Can you describe for us what you’re currently working on?

I’m writing a creative guide to overcoming self-censorship. The book interweaves memoir, myths, tales, and dreams with writing prompts and exercises designed to help women explore their inner lives and develop a gentle, supportive approach to writing.

How did you find your way to the subject of self-censorship and, in particular, the issue of self-censorship in women’s writing?

In the process of writing my first book another lifetime ago, I came face to face with my insecurities, compulsions, fears, perfectionism, impatience, self-tyranny, and many other bugaboos that made it difficult for me to write. After a whirlwind publicity tour for The Recovery Resource Book—replete with TV, radio, and print interviews—I went into therapy. I felt estranged from my creative center. I yearned for connection.

During my therapy years, I broke through my rigidity and fears, learned to build myself up rather than tear myself down, wrote journals and essays and stories, got an MFA in creative writing, and taught creative writing to adults in my community. I worked particularly closely with beginning women writers, and in them I saw some of the same self-censoring beliefs with which I had grappled. These issues appeared in my male students as well, but they were especially pronounced in the women. I wanted to know why.

Over the years I have come to believe that it is the cultural pressures women face, the stereotypes we see every day in the media and the misogynistic attitudes that have been passed down to us through the generations, that make us doubt ourselves and guard our voices carefully.

What myths and tales are you are working with and how did you choose them?

The book explores four major stories: “The Marriage of Psyche and Eros,” “Bluebeard,” the creation myth of the Garden of Eden, and the myth of Demeter and Persephone. In addition to retelling the stories, I interpret them in terms of personal, creative, and psychological growth, and I invite readers to write about the stories in those terms.

I didn’t choose the stories as much as they chose me. In my quest to break through self-censorship I embarked on a serpentine journey into my mythic depths. In addition to being in therapy, I read myths, tales, and scholarly and popular work about women’s psychology and spirituality. While I was in graduate school, I began retelling tales, and years after I finished school and therapy, I resumed telling and interpreting tales and making fiction out of them.

When I put the four stories together, I found that they formed a mythic foundation women could use to cultivate their inner Eros, transform the tyrant within, and embrace an affirming, sacred, empowered femininity. Together they offered deep and creative ways to overcome self-censorship.

Can you give us some examples of how you link the exercises to the tales?

Exercises—including meditations, visualizations, and writing prompts—relate closely to story characters and themes. The major and minor characters—Psyche, Eros, Aphrodite, Pan, Bluebeard, Mrs. Bluebeard, Eve, Persephone, Demeter, Hades, Rhea—are fun to work with. As we consider their behavior and explore the movement of the stories from creative, literary, feminist, and psychological perspectives, we come to know ourselves better and to discover our own stories.

Each tale also raises intriguing questions and offers many levels of meaning that will bring up memories, fantasies, images, dreams, and other material readers can explore in their journals and in their creative writing. With Psyche and Eros, there are exercises examining passion, jealousy, and the journey to the underworld. With Bluebeard we deconstruct the ways in which the archetypal abuser operates in our inner lives and our writing. With Eve we explore blame and guilt. With Demeter and Persephone, we look at our connection to the mother. My goal is to help women go deeply and gently into their material, write past their fears, and tell their tales with authenticity and passion.

How has the 2011 AROHO retreat changed you?

Before I came to the retreat, I felt isolated, unsure of my direction, ambivalent about my book, and worried about being such a late bloomer.

During the retreat, I made connections with women I admire and respect—women I’ve come to love—friendships that will last a lifetime. All week the women asked me what I was working on. They really cared, and that made all the difference.

As I talked with them, listened to their stories and presentations, shared challenges and insights, soaked up their wisdom, I felt that I had arrived. I was at home. I had a community—the kind of community I’d long been craving. I got clear on my direction. I knew that it was not too late for me; in fact, I was exactly on time, ready, willing, and energized to move into the next phase of my life as a writer.

Tell us about a woman writer who inspired you.

All of the women at the retreat inspired me!

Marilynne Robinson said, “All you need to do to be original is to consult deeply in yourself,” and I did.

Marsha Pincus helped me to break through my resistance and gather the courage to send my manuscript to readers.

Pat Fowler showed me the challenge of climbing Chimney Rock and led me to the top.

Sandra Hunter held my hand and made me laugh; I can see her chimneying up the canyon walls, a powerful image of accomplishment.

Bhanu Kapil showed me how to make a clay goddess, and the red earth pulsed in my hand.

Ruth Thompson led one of the best yoga classes I’ve ever attended, with a visualization that helped me sink my roots into the earth.

Kumkum Malik gave a meditation that was so powerful it has stayed with me. Today I can hear her calming voice inside me and it’s my voice, too: “I can do it.”

Barbara Ann Yoder is a freelance writer, editor, writing teacher, and coach who has a room of her own at home. Her fiction has appeared in Natural Bridge, and The Worcester Review, and she is the author of The Recovery Resource Book. She formerly served as executive director of the New Hampshire Writers’ Project and was a senior editor at National Writing Project.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Why Every Wife Could Use Her Own Hmong Tribe (and a Thundershirt)

I have watched women all over the world weave over examined myths and cautionary tales about their marriages, in all sorts of mixed company, and at the slightest provocation. But the Hmong ladies did not seem remotely interested in doing that. Nor did I see these Hmong women crafting the character of “the husband” into either the hero or the villain in some vast, complex, and epic Story of the Emotional Self (p. 37)—Elizabeth Gilbert, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage

I’m sitting between two strangers, tears streaming down my cheeks, on a Southwest airlines flight. Fifteen rows back, my husband’s likely mildly irritated he lost his A seat status, maybe rummaging around for his free drink coupon. I’m surreptitiously wiping the tears away, aware that my sunglasses offer ridiculously thin cover for the way I’m melting down in public.

I’ll be deplaning in Albuquerque alone, my husband will fly home to California to kiss our three children and proceed with his two-city, two-job frenzy while caring for the kids, which accounts for why he forgot to book me home from the wedding we flew to the night before. Which means I’ll head to the high desert with wedding attire sans materials for teaching and presentations I’ll need for the eight day AROHO women's writing retreat I’m scheduled to attend at Ghost Ranch. My first week away from the kids in 10 years—my first passionate attempt at re-entering the writing world with others of like mind: A Big Deal.

As I work to stuff the upset threatening to burgeon into full body sobbing, an image keeps appearing in my head of the Thundershirt I saw an ad for on our flight the day prior—dogs wear them, and autistic children. Without an ounce of disrespect or humor, I’m considering ordering one (for the comfort of straight jacket minus confines of institution) to help me withstand the maelstrom that’s become the norm in our household.

I figure if I’m worried that this Thundershirt idea is a sign I’m losing it, I’m still ok enough to not lose it. Barely--a familiar vertigo coursing through my adrenals…the usual over-exertion, over-giving, over-analyzing. I’m in my 40s, I’m not a victim, and I don’t care to put a label on my husband or myself...but I do desperately want to move forward together, simple and productive like yoked oxen.

For now, the oxen are rear to rear and kicking, no yoke in sight. I feel like Ferdinand the Bull on the page where he sits on a bee (a family favorite, Ferdinand, with its droll illustrations that convey so much with such simple strokes, and for the subtle humor: corks hanging from the cork tree, the mother cow’s tender worry levitating still towards her massive bull-child).

By the time the stewardess brings my ginger ale, I’m thinking, so what, the husband forgot to book me on his flight, so what we can’t use the companion pass, our itinerary for the weekend risky from the get-go: a wedding in Chicago Saturday night, a return trip to California to repack, a return flight for me to Albuquerque at 3 am between Sunday and Monday.

And to make matters worse, two minutes before heading into the wedding venue, my husband received a text informing him that one of his San Diego roommates went down in a helicopter that crashed (taking with it 22 lives). Our delayed anniversary date fell apart as we tried, unsuccessfully, to deal with the sorrow of those lives lost while toasting the marriage of my beautiful cousin and her groom.

In Albuquerque, my husband buys me a tiny Yin-Yang necklace to help assuage my feelings of invisibility, 3ds our need to balance our male and female ways of meeting our days. In my room at Ghost Ranch, I find comfort in the image seconding itself already in the form of the tiny round mirror over my dresser. By crouching down low, I’m able to capture the half black, half white image.

In the small blogging group I signed up to facilitate, when we sit and write to the images we photographed for the day, I write, “Half black, half white, still arriving, a pale echo of the yin yang, surreal, my husband gave me to help me cross out of anger about being forgotten. There remains more light than dark, two fan blades extending into the dark. The border’s dimples, pearl deep perforations, decorate but do not fully cut open or apart the holder, frame, of mirror. I am not in the picture yet, nor desire to be. I am still arriving.”

It took four more days to fully arrive. Surrounded by a phenomenal web of women writers, my own emotional Hmong Tribe, how could I not come out of the marriage’s dilemmas? I shelved forgiving my husband for engaging in the present, integrating a new definition of “husband” Elizabeth Gilbert posits in her book Committed after observing the way the Hmong women of Northern Vietnam spend their days supporting one another, without the least expectation that their husband be everything to them. Their days, rooms, and routines are full of sisters, aunts, grandmothers.

Gilbert sums up one grandmother’s response to the question, “is your husband a good husband?” : Her husband was neither a good husband nor a bad husband. He was just a husband…As she spoke about him, it was as though the word “husband” connoted a job description, or even a species, far more than it represented any particularly cherished or frustrating individual. The role of husband was simple enough, involving as it did a set of tasks that he man had obviously fulfilled to a satisfactory degree throughout their life together,---as did most other women’s husbands, she suggested, unless you were unlucky and got yourself a real dud (p. 41).

(For the record, I wouldn't trade my husband. And what would my job description look like as wife, were he to write it? You have to read the rest of Committed to appreciate the humor and context here. But I loved that Gilbert goaded me to recalibrate, reconsider, how much unecessary pressure I might bring to bear on every nuance of my interactions with my husband. Certainly being a writer means everything gets scrutinized metaphorically, metaphysically, long into the wee hours of the night in the chambers of my little mind when I'd be better off dreaming my way to solutions.)

Gilbert rightly hints in the quote above that you can feel the vast psychological chasm between this kind of an answer (to the question, "is your husband a good husband?") and the one you’d get from an American wife at a cocktail party, or say, in my case, a writer’s retreat. But we weren’t talking about our husbands, we were busy writing our own answers to Bhanu Kapil’s list of questions that inspired her book of poems, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. Or listening, by moonlight, from the sunwarmed stone ampitheatre benches, to twenty-five women writers reading from their work, cactuses at our backs.

Or following Elizabeth Kenneday after breakfast down the trail on her Photo Stroll titled Illuminations, learning how to see. Rim lighting--morning sun wicking along the outlines of the tree’s leaves. Underlighting: otherwordly, unnatural, she said, for sunlight to radiate from the ground. Specular: blinding, off the mirror’s rim.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Blast Furnace: Poem for Jack Foco

I wanted to celebrate this last day of August by announcing forthcoming work. "Nine days before he died the crows came at dawn", a poem for the late painter Jack Foco (March 1950-November 1998), will be up this fall, prior to Thanksgiving, at Blast Furnace; I will post the link once active.

For seven years I lived in the heartland--staying on past graduate school, "growing up" week after week (in the flounder after formal schooling) with humor and love thanks to a circle of serious, down-home assemblage artists, writers and musicians (including Jack's wife, Jill Foco: writer, artist, teacher, intuitive). Jack's artist statement, "Grateful for the Day" moved all of us to return to our medium day by day; helpless to help him, we could at least pay him tribute by using our time here wisely, working patiently, as he would have were he still here.

Of  his move to Iowa City and its effect on his process, Jack wrote, "I began to struggle with the challenge of painting a landscape that offers more horizontals than verticals. Looking up, the sky presented me with a solution, and I began to render more and more of the sky and its shifting patterns as a part of each painting..."  The painting at the top of this post, with its bouquet of snow-blues and lavendar sky, hangs on the wall in my writing cabin; I adore the range of blues. Here's to you Jack, surely continuing your inquiry into color and form in the afterlife with masters we have yet to name.

I hope you'll consider submitting to the Pittsburg based  Blast Furnace. Here's an excerpt from the site's Mission and Values statement: Our mission is to publish refined poetry by "poets of place,” with themes deeply rooted in place. We value refined poetry that is architecturally functional and distinctive on the page. We value poetry that is stripped—burnt down—to its purest state, in both form and context. We value brave poetry that takes risks and, therefore, resonates with a discriminating audience. We value soulful poetry from the core—recited or read aloud—as it was originally intended.

Look forward to reading your work there should the opportunity present itself.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Announcing The Collaboration Hub

Check out my latest project, inspired by AROHO's summer 2011 retreat. I've posted the text of the Mind Stretch Presentation I gave at the retreat here at my She Writes blog, as well as taken up the challenge of hosting a new group called The Collaboration Hub (for AROHO retreat attendees, She Writes members and anyone brave enough to find us) where collaborataive pairs or those looking to pair and collaborate over the course of the coming year can expect to share support, conversation, questions, resources, and more. Wish us luck, or better yet, join us.

Friday, August 12, 2011

AROHO Retreat 2011: Home Away From Home at Ghost Ranch

I am reveling in the harvest of this year's work that has brought me to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico this week, my heart overflowing with the simple, transcendent power of the weave of synchronicities. Having just newly returned to teaching English at the Santa Rosa Junior College Fall semester 2010, I have been struggling with getting my public personnae up to speed, and I couldn't have had a more welcoming and inspiring experience than the one I've had so far with A Room of Her Own Foundation.

I specifically sought out AROHO's summer retreat because of the way it was framed and offered: as a give and take experience, every woman writer participating, sharing, presenting, receiving. I sensed that the venue resonated with exactly where I find myself on my "writer's trajectory": open, willing to learn, willing to challenge myself, and willing to give back what I have learned as well.

All of my expectations have been exceeded. I knew that in offering to present at one of the Mind-Stretch sessions, I'd have to pull myself together and do my least favorite thing one must do as a writer (for me anyway): speak into a microphone with composure, grace, and with luck, a sense of humor. I managed to get through my talk (Female Power in the Face of Adversity: Collaboration as Excavation) and presented the photo-poem montage Robyn Beattie and I made for Lady Diana.

But more importantly, my notebook is full of ideas from the other 16 Mind Stretch presentations; I have seed ideas for the next five years. What a gift. Can I just say thank you, thank you--to the web of family at home caring for my three children, the Siberian Husky, the new kitten. And thank you to AROHO for its existence, to every single member of the staff, to every single woman who came this summer (and to those participants who came before). I'm so very honored to part of this bloodline.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Marriage Alone: A Modern Odyssey

A two city dilemma continues to dominate our family life for now. My husband is a weekend father, and I’m adapting, after nearly two years of this lifestyle, to parenting our three children alone, and to solitary marriage, becoming a weekend wife. A visit this week from a Danish childhood friend, who was an exchange student my senior year in high school (so many years ago), prompts me to run a non-sentimental scan of our lives from his point of view. Gentleman that he is, my Danish friend failed to judge us (at least verbally), though when he asked, Now why aren’t you living under one roof? I was at a loss to explain.

Surely we join a large number of other American families, due to these times (economy-desperation-driven) when extended commutes, even between states, might be the new norm. This week, solace comes in the form of a graphic novel adaptation of The Odyssey by Gareth Hinds (Candle Wick Press, 2010). I know it sounds extreme—how could I be bolstered by the story of a couple separated for several decades? But, by comparison, it makes light of two years apart. One has to cultivate gratitudes. Else sink.

As a poet reader of graphic novels, I hone right in on the author/illustrator word choice, for he/she must trim the text back to near poetry since the pictures convey so much so rapidly. Picture becomes wordless poem. I love the parallel postures, for example, of the grieving Penelope, hunched over on the floor of her island bedroom just after she receives the news Telemachus has fled in search of her husband, and the muscle-riddled back of Odysseus as he sheds his daily tears on a narrow promontory of his island where’s he’s been tethered by Circe. The panels appear on facing pages (46-47), a three D metaphor for the couple’s simultaneous grieving. Penelope’s body is inset against the larger backdrop of the sea and her island, a further nested metaphor for her solitude and the many miles between Penelope and Odysseus.

I also got hooked by a second parallel dilemma Odysseus and Penelope face as lovers in their prime. Hinds puts these words in Penelope’s mouth when Odysseus finally reveals himself to her, suitors murdered, she doubting his identity: “Odysseus, forgive me! You know the reason for my caution. The gods gave us so much pain—they kept us apart through the summer of our lives (p. 234).” I would argue that although apart, unable to consummate their love, both Penelope and Odysseus maintain a vital sensuality, but in strikingly different ways according to their gender.

Since Circe, Goddess, seduces Odysseus and we are told Odysseus sheds tears daily over his desire to return to Penelope, we forgive him—he has no choice but to give over his body. Clearly he remains emotionally faithful to Penelope. Circe validates his masculinity by forcing him to be her lover. Say a God forced himself on Penelope: we would likely judge it rape, given the power dynamic (Leda and the Swan, etc.).

Penelope’s beauty and female sensual power find validation in the many suitors and the sheer number of years they spend pursuing her. Were she to give in to their adulation, take a lover, her honor would be destroyed. In Penelope’s equation, she holds the power and maintains it. Were I twenty years younger, I might be grumpy about this gender difference; I must be mellowing with age. I wasn’t even ticked when Hinds paints a doleful Circe taking Odysseus to bed in her three arched stone bower at sundown, one last time, even after she’s been ordered to let him go. At that point, why not, who could resist such seduction, and by then I felt sorry for Circe having her lover stripped from her so.

In magnificent red panels, Hinds portrays the loathsome Cyclops, a powerful contrast to the dreamy blues of the panels depicting Odysseus’s sea trials. Another masterful panel is the page of consequence, in which Hinds frames the text of his dialogue within two halves of the head of a cow of Helion: one half, furred, alive, contains the admonition to the crew not to eat the cattle, the other half, a weathered skull, dead, frames the deadly consequences should they in fact kill any of the cattle.

Of working with The Odyssey, Hinds writes, “This is probably the greatest story ever told, and the challenge of retelling it in graphic form irresistible. It was incredibly exciting to work with this material—gods, monsters, flawed heroes, battles and all the best and worst of human nature, set against an ancient Mediterranean backdrop. It’s really a dream project.”

Seems every marriage contains the material on that list as well—or at least, that’s the possible range of personalities we sign up to encounter in our vows: “gods [the ones we assume the other to be at first], monsters [the ones we occasionally become while parenting, etc.,], flawed heroes [who you become when you realize you truly can’t rescue your spouse], battles, and all the worst and best of human nature.” I count my husband and I pretty spoiled--inserting photos of the kids daily into text boxes and speaking on the phone makes a two city life pretty easy, as do the weekend trysts (sweetened by absence, almost like young love, except for hum of washer and dryer, dog pawing at bedroom door snuffling to be let in, lasagna burning in oven, children damaging one another in background).

Nope, no texting or continual popping off of photos to one another for Penelope and Odysseus. All they had was some kind of supernatural faith in themselves, one another, and fate, fed by the occasional astral meeting, via dream—a kind of faith I could likely stand to cultivate.

Friday, June 17, 2011

AROHO Reading Diary #3: Wrecker, by Summer Wood

Here it is, summer....and all three children home, the new pup still to train (give up a month of Saturdays?! I know, Jeannette, I'll give in and traipse us to town for an obedience class here shortly, or pay the price for life). So I admit, we've been out at the beach, eating fruit, boogie boarding, watching the pelicans draft off one another, ogling the real surfers.

I've dedicated summer to a submission blitz and to reading the work of the women writers I'll soon get to meet on retreat in August. This latest reading diary looks at Summer Wood's novel about the raising of an abandoned little boy, Wrecker. Check it out over at my She Writes blog:

And if you missed it, a mini reading review of Storm of Terror, A Hebron Mother's Diary by June Leavitt:

Friday, June 3, 2011

Guest Post by Alexis Bonari: Graphic Novels Matter, Too

Lured by the title of this blog (Feral Mom, Feral Writer), Alexis Bonari contacted me about writing a guest post. Enjoy her glance at the often underestimated role graphic novels can play in fostering a love for the written word.

My school library didn’t have graphic novels. To my knowledge, they still don’t, which is a shame.

I’ve never had difficulty getting into a written story with the exception of The Catcher in the Rye, which after finishing I threw across the room, screaming, “I wasted an afternoon for that?” After spending my grade school years in advanced learning courses, I had it in my bloated head that anyone who wasn’t a good reader or a writer just wasn’t a good student. Truth be told, as far upturned as my nose was back then I’m surprised I had friends.


Then, I met Robert. Robert is my significant other’s little brother. At the time of our meeting, he was 16 years old and diagnosed from an early age with a learning disability. He’s a talented artist (and Xbox aficionado) but he hated reading and his school grades repeatedly showed it.

The idea of reading being repulsive to someone was unfathomable for me. So, for the next several years I attempted to push him into a shape he wasn’t made for by presenting him with the latest publications in fast fiction (fail), speculative fiction (fail), fantasy (fail), and gritty nonfiction (super fail). He never got back to me about any of them and I found the books stuffed—spines unwrinkled and pages unturned—beneath his bed when I recently helped the family move to another house.


My first foray into illustrated literature was with DC Comic’s Vertigo Fables, Bill Willingham’s adaptation of fairy tale characters like Snow White and Pinocchio trying to survive in modern day New York. It wasn’t until I was several trades into the series that I threw one of them across the room (bad habit, I know), realizing I had the perfect birthday present for Robert and infuriated it had taken me so long to figure it out.

Lesson Learned

Several weeks later, Robert confessed to me that Volume 1 of The Sandman (by legendary Neil Gaiman) was the first of my gifts he had finished reading. In fact, he had already bought the next several volumes and was newly engrossed in other graphic novels. Some of his more recent favorites include Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America by Geoffrey Canada and The Odyssey by Gareth Hinds, which are actually on the American Library Association’s 2011 Great Graphic Novels for Teens list.

It would be a shame to let children and teens become victims of book snobs (yours truly) and miss out stories, no matter the medium. Reading overstuffed paragraphs and chapters by the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Dickens admittedly isn’t for everyone, but stories are.

Alexis Bonari is a freelance writer and researcher for College Scholarships, where recently she’s been researching softball scholarship programs as well as Mercedes Benz scholarships. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Seamstress: Reading Diary#1

As mentioned in an earlier post, I’m looking forward to attending A Room of Her Own Foundation’s August Women’s Writing Retreat (still accepting applications here). A Room of Her Own Foundation (AROHO) offers hands on networking support to women writers--from serious grant support (check out their Gift of Freedom Award)—to sponsoring a number of writing contests and retreat offerings throughout the year.

In addition to rubbing elbows with a diverse score of writers, I will be presenting some photo poem montage work (the most recent--Nefertiti on the Astral--currently up at Prairie Wolf Press) and facilitating a small writing group titled, “The Exquisite Now with Feral Mom, Feral Writer” during which we’ll generate writing based on daily photographs, keeping the blog schedule on track, no doubt posting on the oddity of the week’s extreme quiet (shifting from our three child, one puppy, four feral cat, chainsaw wielding husband household to a room and bed of my own).

I’ve challenged myself (August bearing down) to read as many books as possible by fellow retreat attendees and have posted the first of these bite-sized reading diaries over at my She Writes blog, starting with a look at a holocaust account by Sara Tuvel Bernstein titled, The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival (read in full here).

Friday, May 6, 2011

Hopeless Carnage: Sisu the Siberian Husky and The Song of Sedna

Nothing nostalgic about this week’s incoming chaos: the ten month old pure-bred Siberian Husky my husband showed up with last Saturday with near-to-no warning or crate or fenced in yard to contain our ice-eyed bundle of pull.

Four days later, I’m tailing one of those Model T cars like my husband’s grandmother used to drive (her first car—which she bought for $5 with her first paycheck as a nurse). In my state of dog-deranged anxiety—I glance at the license plate and read, “Hopeless Carnage.” I’m thinking, “Isn’t that right!!” But as we near the red light and slow, I realize it actually reads, “Horseless Carriage.” I laugh, but just a little, still struggling to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of keeping the new family member.

It all started with a casual phone conversation. “I’m going to look at this puppy…” my husband said from his San Diego apartment, which, as any wife worth her salt knows, means, “I’m coming home with this puppy…” Honestly, who ever goes to “look at a puppy” and passes on keeping it…

Three days later he’s driving the ten hours towards us with our new charge despite my 80/20 vote for waiting to bring a dog into our already stressed household. And the craziness begins, for when you cross a cat-loving poet (me) with a fitness Instructor/ Sonoma Sate University Sea Wolf Women’s Cross Country Coach husband (him), the layers of trouble start cycloning towards the marriage.

First of all, my husband informs me he’s already bought the dog a nametag. Since he named the first two of our three children and I had essentially voted against bringing this pup into our home, I wanted a shot at naming her. I’d landed on Sedna—I know, I know---it sounds like Edna—but listen to the reason behind it. I’m hopelessly image driven, so I immediately had thought of The Song of Sedna (Doubleday), a beautifully written and illustrated children’s book by the talented San Souci brothers.

Eskimo girl Sedna falls in love with a handsome stranger (Mattak) who takes Sedna (and her faithful wolf companion Setka) away from her father to start life anew on the Island of Birds. It isn’t long before Sedna discovers she’s married a non-human—a bird spirit. When Sedna’s father comes to rescue her, Mattak pursues their boat in bird form, finally transforming his boat into a fire-breathing serpent, terrorizing Sedna and her father until her father sacrifices her to the sea out of fear. With the help of seal spirit guides, she’s able to overcome obstacles and harness her power for good to earn her position as goddess of the sea. Sedna sits on her underwater throne flanked by Setka and her father (who she has forgiven).

The kids aren’t buying the name Sedna, so I try for Setka. No go.

Frankly, I’m kind of ok with their refusal—I’m not sure I want to carry the metaphor too far…I’ve never caught my husband in non-human form, though when we were first engaged to be married and I slept in the museum air of his grandparent’s living room, where the Greek urns, Polish dolls, sculpted busts of some of the family and the relics of 20 years of diplomatic travel reside, I woke from sleep to the image of Neptune, brandishing his Trident, the dark sunrays of his hair writhing like Medusa directly over my face. Though startled, I wasn’t afraid and even felt a certain calm, accepting the visit and its message: You may marry and have this man for your husband for now, but someday he will return to me, for he is of the sea.

Back to the dog’s nametag, which reads Sisu. As is so often the infuriating but charming case, my husband’s got a rock solid alibi for getting his way: the name Sisu honors his late great grandfather, a Finnish running diplomat. Sisu in Finnish means “fortitude, tenacity, stick-to-it-iveness.” Sensing a divided front, the kids gang up on me and take a perverse delight in calling the dog Sisu as many times as possible in front of me while I counter with, "Her name is Sedna!" though she answers to neither Sisu nor Sedna as her former name was Dakota.

And Alibi number two: Sisu, Siberian Husky, family dog by day, will moonlight as the Sonoma State Cross Country team mascot, bolstering the team’s morale.

We survive the first night crateless, though I’m not liking the sight of this dog sprawled across our bed. She rotates between beds, resurfaces from our downstairs with a toothbrush, a bouncy ball she’s pocked, a foam pad she nips apart. The kids think I’m cruel the next night when we put her in the crate, but after so many years of rotating beds with children in a sort of sloppy free-for-all, I’m not willing to carry that dysfunctional pattern any further, especially not on behalf of a dog.

When we first come home from Petco with a lovely cream and black canvas crate, our five year old son clambers in with the remains of his father’s childhood tiny plastic green soldiers and leggos in tow; I hear my husband cajoling him out of the crate: “That belongs to Sisu, not you.” I overhear our two older children remarking they know how it feels to be displaced….and shortly my husband’s out on the deck telling them he’s the king of displacement... “I lost all Momma’s love and attention to you three for years…”

And I flash on a drawing my father’s wife shared with me (drawn by her father, Paul Beattie, of her mother. There were five children in her family). When I look at the drawing, I slip straight out of “mother self” and into her father’s point of view: there sits his wife, her eyes averted, gaze perpetually trained a little past his face and over to the kids. See how just over her third eye, he’s penciled in a tiny sketch of her face and upper torso. To see her, he first has to see through the body of swaddled infant.

So maybe Sisu has a third function aside from 1) family dog and 2) SSU mascot: lover of my husband.

Sisu should more aptly be named Houdini after the test of the first Monday of the week when I was faced with a full day of errands. Overriding my husband’s suggestion of putting Sisu out on our back deck (where I envisioned her using the picnic tables as a springboard to chase the deer, random rabbit or feral cat sure to cross our hill at some point during the day), I lead her into one of those collapsible metal crates inside the house. Piece of cake, I say to myself, lock up the house, and take the kids to school.

Three hours later, when I return home, Sisu greets me at the door with a wagging tail, a circle of shredded cardboard at her feet, a ball of yarn twined around the stairs, a bag of Easter chocolate foils scattered in the upstairs bedroom, a little offering of dog poop on my daughter’s comforter and sweater. All sides of Sisu’s metal crate remain securely shut—I check it again and again. There’s a little tuft of Husky hair near the bottom where the plastic under-tray has about an inch of clearance to slide out. My only clue. That evening, she chews through one corner of her canvas crate as well, destroying the zipper and her chances of sleeping in my daughter’s room.

To the sound of her yips and howls protesting her return to the metal crate downstairs for bedtime, I try to focus on her potential strengths: guard dog extraordinaire for the days my husband’s out of town. But when I take her out at midnight under the stars to pee, the posse of critters snacking in our compost bin at the far end of the yard (just out of sight behind the fence) scatter. She hurls her body back towards the porch, tail tucked snugly between her legs.

Hands down, she loves us up. And she collapses on my feet in a furry swath, follows my every move with her pale-blue eyes. And she’s a sheer muscle and furred torpedo of joy at the ocean circling the kids and the waves…But…

…alas, Sisu is on probation with me.

Then again, maybe I’ll have to shoulder some of the responsibility for her sudden appearance in our lives, for as I’m drifting off to sleep, out of the corner of my eye, I see the “image map” (made in the spirit of play around the subject of furthering my goals as a writer at the beginning of the year). Up near the top of the map, right next to several gold rimmed butterflies and a Cicely Mary Barker Flower Fairy sit a pair of grinning wolf pups propped against one another, muzzles open to catch the falling snow.

Image Credits:

Image of Sedna is from The Song of Sedna, written by Robert D. San Souci and illustrated by Daniel San Souci.

Detail from larger drawing by Paul Beattie. For more information, contact Robyn Beattie at

Friday, April 15, 2011

Some Mother: Abalone vs. Coffee

Saturday morning…and I’ve believed my husband’s line that some other diver plans to meet him to brave the 19-plus swell he’s bent on surviving in order to nab three abalone. Despite a raging desire to meet a friend alone for coffee during this rare window when my husband’s home and thus can cover our brood for me, my mother’s intuition perks up when he says casually, “Of course I’m still diving and I’m sure some mother will watch the kids on shore.”

I really can’t remember the last time some mother offered to watch my three children on the shore of this remote cove at dawnbreak while my husband dove, let alone remember seeing another family with children on the shore of this cove…so, I cancel the coffee date and weather the half hour of hairpins past Fort Ross to our undisclosed location.

Food bag over my shoulder and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time on hand (one last chapter to reread before the afternoon’s mother daughter book club we’re hosting), I scramble down the 100 feet of steep cliff to the rind of sand we’ll park on for the dive’s duration, noting the healthily frothing feeder stream, wide with the recent rains, and the ocean’s jangle of white capped waves.

Weight belt cinched and mask in place over his eyes, my husband fin-walks backwards into the ocean while waving adios to me. I’m scampering to cross the log straddling the feeder stream because the three children, including the 5 year old, have since rock-hopped the 5 yards across the water and disappeared into the brush. Do I stay and watch my husband kick out so I can count seconds as he disappears into the choppy sea? Perch on the log and crack my book? Follow the children?

As the wind pushes at me and I struggle for balance, several seconds of raw pleasure wash over me at the visceral three-way-pull--this metaphor taking over my body as it poises--waiting for my brain to prioritize and decide which way to go since I can’t split into three, like the fractures Mrs. Which, Whatsit and Who make as a composite mentor/mother for Meg in Wrinkle.

I wave merrily to my man and settle on reading a paragraph, right there, standing on the log. Meg’s abandoning her plea to IT for Charles Wallace, finally hitting on the most effective of ploys: to flood Charles Wallace himself with all of the ferocity of her love. Even now, in middle age, I still identify squarely (as I did when I first read the book as a pre teen) with awkward, angry, doubting Meg. Wanting, like her, to open the vault inside where the power rests, the good kind.

A paragraph of time’s all I can take away from the kids, so I glance to where my husband last vanished…note the slick canary yellow of his board floating without body, wait until I see the hooded nub of his head appear and fling my voice to the shrubs where the kids fled…”Come back and play where I can see you…”

…which ends all the fun…and here they straggle back, the middle son with a new 3 incher of blood gushing down the shin, my daughter scowling at me with all the teenaged angst her 10 year old self can muster, the 5 year old taking so long to appear I fear the worst. Ah, he’s merely soaking wet, shoes dripping, his icy hands clamping my neck. I hold out the food bag; they drop in unison to the sand and eat in sulky silence--a week’s worth of lunchbox rejects: baggies of cut apples, dried cranberries, an orange, two freckling bananas.

Ten minutes later my husband emerges from the sea, three maroon-grey helmets of abalone suctioned to his board. But before I can reach him, he returns to the surf zone for a missing fin, ill-timed even for a veteran lifeguard, for he gets sucked under and tumbled for a healthy number of seconds. After eleven years of marriage, I don’t even waste the adrenaline on the trail-plus-flagging-down-rescue vehicle-math.

None the less, a tiny thread of worry wreathes its way towards my heart. Eventually I spot an arm, one leg, in the beery green curve of a descending wave, then the rest of him slides up on to the beach in a rush of foam, the missing fin clutched in one triumphant fist for our sons to witness. Then, on the road, our van dipping to the wind rush of traffic zipping past, he’s stripping off the wetsuit, flanked by former swimmers-turned-lifeguard friends, and one of the cops he knows, who all stop to chat while the kids holler, “Dad, Dad, we’re cold, let’s go!!!!”

Should I have given up the coffee date? Would some mother have miraculously appeared to care for my children? Should I just demand of my husband, like I demand of the kids, “come back and play where I can see you?” Flood him with love and hope he’ll walk away from danger and return home to me?

No, no, no, and to the last, yes, for a lifetime. That’s the verdict today. There’s nothing like abalone, sliced a ¼ inch thick and pummeled to draping consistency…fried with melting butter and crushed garlic in an open skillet on the outdoor wood-burning stove under the stars...

Further fun: A Wrinkle in Time, the movie, 2003; the version we rented also had a wonderful interview with Madeleine L'Engle in which she talked about the struggle she had publishing the manuscript, given that publishers at the time weren't so interested in strong girl hero types. She also let on that she wrote A Wrinkle in Time in five minute spurts "a few lines at a time" while her youngest was in diapers and she found herself happily balancing raising her children while writing.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Key to My Heart: Bank of America, Omens, and The Legacy

We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown. Here we go alone, and like it better so… Virginia Woolf, as quoted in Touched by Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison

So everything’s ajar. I know you know what I mean. It has been one of the toughest winters for our family. Wet madrone doesn’t burn. Neither does wet mildewed madrone. Or the rotted centers of tan oak trees. But it is what we have, my husband and I denying the light rain sheening our coats, his rusted chainsaw blade, the dank rounds splitting themselves for us on the 200 yard roll from the upper hill down into the yard. If you cram an arm load of kindling in and get the stove hot enough, something eventually burns. I spend the week weathering the keen fungus stench that greets my nose every time I rummage under the tarp. My son calls me back to the deck rail to show me both the slim half inch grey-black marbled snail he’s saved as well as the glittering spit arc of the tiny refugee’s trail.

To the sound of the hail descending on our skylights at 3 a.m., I fight the jade zone of my 40s: a new vague dread that the chestline’s going dromedary, the recipes more savory in the next kitchen over, the grey choking out the auburn in my hair, a growing anxiety that my poet’s fastidiousness for lighting on just the right way to say it might serve me better in the courts of the underworld or if I could afford a magnificent charger and a velvet cape to wrap around my shoulders. Except I live in the woods and I know better. What prowls around in the dark out here is best left unidentified and free to wander while I sleep.

Predators aside, worse than wet wood is the thought that the bank might not work with us (after a year and a half of losing our paperwork, they gave us a no verdict on the government home loan modification program), that even this spongy, wet heart of tree is something we are renting from an establishment that could take it all away. That my husband’s been working two jobs in two cities for naught…that the colossal effort to raise the kids alone in his absence will not pay off since we just may not be able to turn the house over to them in their futures.

But friends near and far have been reminding me to stop the noise in my head. Duane says Beauty is free (attributing the statement to Barbara). Bonnie says Read Byron Katie. Sandy says Stop by my studio to see Rapunzel (and other sculptures in process). Elizabeth funnels me CDs brimming with chanting. Lydia pours me never ending coffee in her kitchen, shows me the petite purple purse hearts in her yard to get me out of my head, sends me home with dry wood. Jerilynn sets before me colossal bowls of beef stew. Sydney ferries my daughter to and from, takes her an extra night or two to lighten the load of three children. Aunt Rose brews me cups of strong Irish tea. Dad and Robyn take the kids, Friday after Friday. Beauty is free, and the tiniest of omens have come to my rescue.

Like this one, that came shortly before we got news we’d not be getting help from the bank… I’m sitting across from my husband on our first date in months at Coffee Catz, crying, a miniscule envelope containing a high dose Ibupren between our steaming mugs that was doled out by my periodontist for a surgery I survived that morning. My husband glances down, asks quietly, What is that, the key to your heart? I can’t even muster a smile.

But sitting across from his blue eyes, I notice I’m still absolutely in love with him, and so, I stop my complaining and he has the kindness not to go off about how hard he's had it earning money in two cities with two full-time jobs to pay for a home he barely gets to visit. We part ways—he to call the bank and negotiate, I to pick up our daughter from her violin audition.

Later, when my girl and I stop by The Legacy, run by an all-volunteer staff, where you can walk in with a quarter and walk out with an elephant sized ball of yarn (and if you don’t have a quarter, you can walk by and find a yard or two of fabric from the free box), my daughter picks out an innocuous rubber stamp along with a bag of plastic greenery and flowers for a movie she’s planning to make with her friends and says, Mom, what does it say on it?

I hold up the tiny rectangular stamp. It takes some squinting, but I make out the light pink raised outline of a key, the old-fashioned skeleton kind, bordered by the words, Here's the Key to My Heart. I laugh. And buy it, along with a tiny cardboard heart box with lid (also going for 25 cents)for my husband.

At home, I sneak down to my cabin, cut out slips of paper and write on them all the things I love to do with my husband, starting with the simplest and of late, most impossible to have, Spend time with you.

Further reading: Loving What Is, Byron Katie Further Listening: Any of Snatum Kaur’s Chanting CDs

Friday, April 1, 2011

Spring Harvest: Botanicals, Photos, Poems and Prayers at Coffee Bazaar

Announcing an April, 2011 showing of work completed in 2010 by Robyn Beattie, Ashley Frazer, Sydney Griffin, Tania Pryputniewicz and Penina Ava Taesali. Our 365 group met virtually once a week to support and report back to one another towards the daily practice of facing our work (in the choice of our medium). Drop by Coffee Bazaar all during the month of April in Guerneville, California, 14045 Armstrong Woods Road to celebrate with us the fruits of our year’s labor: a rainbow of botanical drawings, poetry set to photographs celebrating the life of sculptor Ananda Beattie, quotes for spiritual musing, and more poetry celebrating the winged (from hummingbird to hawk to the cravings of the body, freed). Coffee Bazaar is open 6 a.m.-8 p.m. seven days a week. Drawing by Sydney Griffin.