Poet Seeks Words

Unraveling Y, acrostic poet, Amy Heath,

Amy Heath. Sojourner, tinker, acrostic poet.

Amy Heath is a writer, poet, and artist. The past few years she’s lived a somewhat nomadic life, exploring ways to sustain herself while being true to her spirit.

I met Amy when she was a children’s librarian and children’s book author, back when I spent a lot of time in the picture book section with my four kids.  I was drawn to her friendly blue eyes and gentle manner. I cherished our brief, always lively conversations. I’d walk away thinking how much I’d like us to be friends but I was too shy to ask if we could get together because she was older, vastly cooler, and far more fascinating than I’d ever be. Fast forward to the last few years, when Amy befriended me. I’m giddy about it in a can’t-believe-my-luck sort of way.

One of the many things Amy is up to lately is a poetic challenge. About a year ago she decided she’d write an acrostic poem a day. Being Amy, she amped up the challenge by making a rule for herself that the acrostics must be composed around words chosen at random from a book or words others chose for her.

a·cros·tic   (ə-krô′stĭk, ə-krŏs′tĭk) n.
1. A poem or series of lines in which certain letters, usually the first in each line, form a name, motto, or message when read in sequence.

“The main point of this project was to play with words every day until I reach 60,” she says. “Until that idea struck me, I had been writing acrostics in a more serious vein, on words like mindfulness, anxiety, patience, empathy. I have seen many people approach the Big 6-0 with trepidation. Well, I would play my way there!”

And no matter what, she vowed to post each piece on her blog, Unraveling Y. She says, “After reading the book Show Your Work by Austin Kleon, I decided that if I blogged these short daily creations I would feel somehow more accountable to my intention. My wordplays would be out there. And being fairly sure that very few people would read them, I felt liberated to do my best without worrying about what anyone thought of them. That’s good practice anyway. Worrying about what other people think is trespassing in their heads. Not cool.”

Amy’s poems find an inner presence in words, making each one into something so alive we can feel it breathe, as she does with equanimity.

Amy Heath, acrostic poem, pixabay.com/en/space-sky-hand-fingers-paint-636894/

Even in the space of a few syllables.

acrostic poem, Amy Heath, pixabay.com/en/background-branch-dusk-evening-20862/

She turns a word into a tale that leaves us wondering.

acrostic poem, Amy Heath, morguefile.com/archive/display/890638

She helps us understand why the Latin word for hearth has come to mean “center of activity.”

Amy Heath, Unraveling Y, acrostic poem, pixabay.com/en/fire-heiss-fireplace-cozy-heat-266093/

Amy Heath, Unraveling Y, acrostic poem, pixabay.com/en/fire-heiss-fireplace-cozy-heat-266093/

She shares little known history, explaining in her blog entry: “The lighthouse built by Ptolemy I Soter and completed by his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus was a prototype for subsequent structures. Pharos, a small island, ultimately the tip of a peninsula near Alexandria, became the root word in many languages for lighthouse.”

Andreas Achenbach, Pharos, Amy Heath, pixabay.com/en/andreas-achenbach-sea-ocean-water-85762

She’s undaunted when faced with a word like culm.

acrostic poem, Amy Heath, morguefile.com/archive/display/951061

Among my favorites is a poem she composed around the word orenda, which is defined as “a supernatural force believed by the Iroquois to be present, in varying degrees, in all things and all beings, and to be the spiritual force underlying human accomplishment.”

Amy Heath, acrostic poem, birthday poem, orenda, pixabay.com/en/background-gold-golden-texture-630417/

Amy is brimming with acrostic-related ideas. She may write a book on a single theme or compose a children’s story using words for various literary devices. She may illustrate her poems using paint or yarn or glass. The future is open for my playfully creative friend.

What is she seeking right now?


She’s continuing her daily acrostic challenge and invites you to send her a word which she’ll gladly transform into a poem. Her email is unravelingy@gmail.com

While you’re at it, I suggest you:

visit her blog Unraveling Y 

read her memoir I Pity The Man Who Marries You

share her poems on social media

contact her to let her know how much you enjoy her work

consider embarking on a challenge of your own!

Keeping Creativity Alive



“The world is but a canvas to the imagination.”—Henry David Thoreau

Imagination springs from nowhere and brings something new to the world—games, art, inventions, stories, solutions. Childhood is particularly identified with this state, perhaps because creativity in adults is considered to be a trait possessed only by the artistic few.



Nurturing creativity in all its forms recognizes that humans are by nature generative beings. We need to create. The best approach may be to get out of one another’s way and welcome creativity as a life force.



If we are familiar with the process that takes us from vision to expression, we have the tools to use creativity throughout our lives. When we welcome the exuberance young children demonstrate as they dance around the room, talk to invisible friends, sing in the bathtub, and play made-up games we validate the importance of imagination.



When we encourage teens to leave room in their schedules for music or game design or skateboarding or whatever calls to them, we honor their need for self-expression. Young people who are comfortable with creativity can apply the same innovative mindset to their adult lives.



Creativity is necessary when dealing with an architectural dilemma, new recipe, marketing campaign, environmental solution, or personal relationship. In fact, it’s essential.



Imagination and inspiration have fueled human progress throughout time. Creative powers have brought us marvels and continue to expand the boundaries. The energy underlying the creative act is life-sustaining and honors the work of others.



But there’s a caveat. Creativity isn’t always positive, visionaries aren’t always compassionate, and progress isn’t always beneficial. After all, a clever mind is required to craft a conspiracy as well as to negotiate a peace accord.



Creativity is a life force when it arises as a healing impulse, as a truth-telling impulse, as an impulse to approach mystery.



Tomorrow’s possibilities call out to our inventive, imaginative selves. Let’s answer.



Portions of this post were excerpted from Free Range Learning.

“It is good to love many things” ~Vincent Van Gogh

Sunflowers, by Vincent van Gogh

“It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love, is well done.”

L’Arlésienne, L’Arlésienne, by Vincent van Gogh

L’Arlésienne, L’Arlésienne, by Vincent van Gogh

“Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it.”

child 2

Memory of the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Arles), by Vincent van Gogh

“Even as a boy I would often look up with infinite sympathy, indeed with respect, at a woman’s face past its prime, inscribed as it were with the words: here life and reality have left their mark.”

Self-portrait in front of easel, by Vincent van Gogh

“If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”

The Sower, by Vincent van Gogh

The Sower, by Vincent van Gogh

“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”

child 2

“Normality is a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.”

The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise, View from the Chevet by Vincent van Gogh

“That God of the clergymen, He is for me as dead as a doornail. But am I an atheist for all that? The clergymen consider me as such — be it so; but I love, and how could I feel love if I did not live, and if others did not live, and then, if we live, there is something mysterious in that. Now call that God, or human nature, or whatever you like, but there is something which I cannot define systematically though it is very much alive and very real, and see, that is God, or as good as God. To believe in God for me is to feel that there is a God, not a dead one, or a stuffed one, but a living one, who with irresistible force urges us toward aimer encore; that is my opinion.”

“I cannot help thinking that the best way of knowing God is to love many things. Love this friend, this person, this thing, whatever you like, and you will be on the right road to understanding Him better, that is what I keep telling myself. But you must love with a sublime, genuine, profound sympathy, with devotion, with intelligence, and you must try all the time to understand Him more, better and yet more.”

Bedroom in Arles, by Vincent van Gogh

“I dream my painting, and then I paint my dream.”

“I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it.”

Portrait of Père Tanguy, by Vincent van Gogh

“It is with the reading of books the same as with looking at pictures; one must, without doubt, without hesitations, with assurance, admire what is beautiful.”

“If only we try to live sincerely, it will go well with us, even though we are certain to experience real sorrow, and great disappointments, and also will probably commit great faults and do wrong things, but it certainly is true, that it is better to be high-spirited, even though one makes more mistakes, than to be narrow-minded and all too prudent.”

Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate), by Vincent van Gogh

“Well, right now it seems that things are going very badly for me, have been doing so for some considerable time, and may continue to do so well into the future. But it is possible that everything will get better after it has all seemed to go wrong. I am not counting on it, it may never happen, but if there should be a change for the better I should regard that as a gain, I should rejoice, I should say, at last! So there was something after all! “

Prisoners’ Round, by Vincent van Gogh

“People are often unable to do anything, imprisoned as they are in I don’t know what kind of terrible, terrible, oh such terrible cage.I do know that there is a release, the belated release. A justly or unjustly ruined reputation, poverty, disastrous circumstances, misfortune, they all turn you into a prisoner. You cannot always tell what keeps you confined, what immures you, what seems to bury you, and yet you can feel those elusive bars, railings, walls.

Is all this illusion, imagination? I don’t think so. And then one asks: My God! will it be for long, will it be for ever, will it be for eternity? 

Do you know what makes the prison disappear? Every deep, genuine affection. Being friends, being brothers, loving, that is what opens the prison, with supreme power, by some magic force. Without these one stays dead. But whenever affection is revived, there life revives.” 

A Pair of Shoes, by Vincent van Gogh

A Pair of Shoes, by Vincent van Gogh

“What preys on my mind is simply this one question: what am I good for, could I not be of service or use in some way, how can I become more knowledgeable and study some subject or other in depth?

The Potato Eaters, by Vincent van Gogh

The Potato Eaters, by Vincent van Gogh

“One must not be afraid of going wrong, one must not be afraid of making mistakes now and then. Many people think that they will become good just by doing no harm — but that’s a lie, and you yourself used to call it that. That way lies stagnation, mediocrity.”

Starry night over the Rhone, by Vincent van Gogh

“Be clearly aware of the stars and infinity on high. Then life seems almost enchanted after all.”

Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh

Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh

“When I have a terrible need of — shall I say the word — religion. Then I go out and paint the stars.”

First Steps, by Vincent van Gogh

First Steps, by Vincent van Gogh

“Love is eternal — the aspect may change, but not the essence. There is the same difference in a person before and after he is in love as there is in an unlighted lamp and one that is burning. The lamp was there and was a good lamp, but now it is shedding light too, and that is its real function.”

The Man is at Sea (after Demont-Breton), by Vincent van Gogh

“The more I think it over, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”

Self-portrait with straw hat, by Vincent van Gogh

Self-portrait with straw hat, by Vincent van Gogh

ANNA-RF: Beautiful Proofs of Mankind’s Similarity


Mid-Eastern new music, Israeli musicians play globally,


I first heard of ANNA-RF when a friend shared “Jump,” a playful video with lyrics that resound in our fractured world.

For all of us love is the flame
The fire that burns the hate
Helps us dream and create.
I can’t see the different between
And I know that the answer’s within.
Humanity is one big tribe
So why can’t we live side by side?


The very next video of theirs I clicked on was a stirringly beautiful rendition of a folk song from Azerbaijan.

Intrigued, I found out all I could about the group.

Musicians Roy Smila and Ofir J.Rock met in the small desert village of Shaharut, Israel back in 2011. They quickly forged a musical connection that evolved into the band ANNA-RF, which they named after an Arabic-Hebrew expression that means both “I know” and “I don’t know.” They play what they call electro-ethnic-reggae, although that term doesn’t stretch as far as their music which is highly versatile, in part thanks to collaboration with musicians from all over the world. Their compositions are original and often spontaneous, mixing new sounds with ancient traditions. Instruments they use include the kamancha, lafta, sazbush, flute, guitar, and didgeridoo.

A little rummaging around YouTube makes it obvious that visual art is an integral part of what they do. They create videos for each song, filming in mountains, deserts, and busy markets. They can be found dancing in desert rain

and playing Celtic reggae with musicians in Switzerland.

Last year the band added a new member, Or Rave. I reached out to them for an interview and they kindly made time to email me back from a concert date in London.


Despite our complicated political times, your lyrics are mostly celebratory. What message does your music convey?  

We find no truth in borders or other fictive ideas of separation. We enjoy the beauty of everyone and we find inspiration in every culture and every place. Our music is based on this point of view, therefore it is positive and open.


What’s your songwriting process like?

Our home and studio is in a tiny village in the desert. The emptiness of the desert is what inspires us to fill it with creation.

A song can start from anything. A line on the kamancha (the Persian violin), a riff on the guitar, a sentence someone throws to the air.

We also tour a lot and in our journeys we meet amazing people and artists who we collaborate with. In many cases that connection is an inspiration for a new song.


How does travel influence your music?

When you are traveling your life is highly dynamic and flexible. From that we get a variety of new points of view and inspiration. By traveling we meet a lot of amazing people and artists that influence us and broaden our horizons.


Tell us a little about collaborating with other musicians and who you’ve played with so far.

For us one of the most beautiful proofs of the similarity of mankind can be found in music. When you play with other musicians from around the globe you understand that all over this planet people get the same feeling from music and you can find similarity right in the musical scales.

We’ve played with:

  • Imamyar Hasanov, the great kamancha master from Azerbaijan
  • Yair Dalal, the well-known Oud master
  • The Turbans, the great Gypsy band from England
  • Farafi, beautiful African music from France and California
  • Daniel Waples, famous hang player from England
  • Davide Swarup, the hang and SPB pioneer from Italy
  • Tom Bertschy and Thom Freiburghaus, the medieval musicians from Switzerland

And many, many more amazing artists from all over this planet.


These videos are mostly filmed in evocative natural settings. What are some complications of filming in the sand, on a mountainside, or roadside?

In most of those beautiful locations there is no water or electricity there so we have to prepare in advance. We have to have food and water supply and to be very precise. We have to carry on our backs all the props and all the equipment.


Any interesting stories about mishaps in filming?

In the “Weeping Eyes” video we had to hike for nine hours to the location in the Himalayas. The energy that we spent there was way too much and we could not stay, so we had to climb down all the way back to our guesthouse. All of us were so worn out.



Can you tell us the story of how one song evolved?

Our last song is a collaboration with a great composer and musician called Eran Zamir. He came for a weekend of creation. A tradition we like to do on the first day—we played together and he played some of his own compositions and after a while we chose a line that all of us especially liked. With this line, Or the beat master added his own rhythm and we wrote the lyrics and created the structure of the song. Roy added a kamancha solo (that we connected to a guitar amp for the special sound of the over-drive) and Ofir recorded the vocals. On the next day we wrote the script and shot the video in the desert. The video is a result of our creative connection.



What are you listening to these days?

We listen to a lot of Azeric, Turkish, and Persian music as well reggae, pop and new electro and dubstep acts. We are inspired by many different styles and find beauty in all of them.


Your videos tend to include repeat props like a stuffed monkey and a variety of hats, and repeat themes like hitchhiking. What’s up with that?

The symbols are there for any person to see them as they will.


Fans can buy ANNA-RF music here



This interview originally appeared in First Day Press.

Dreaming of Halos

what's a halo mean, auras,

Louis Welden Hawkins – The Haloes, 1894

Dreams are a stairway to what’s beyond our ordinary awareness. That’s true of daytime dreams—aspirations that become more achievable as we help each other make our wishes come alive.  But here I mean dream dreams, you know, ones the dictionary defines as a “series of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations occurring involuntarily in the mind during certain stages of sleep.”

Some of us more easily recall dreams than others. Apparently this has to do with reactivity in certain regions of the brain, although experts insist we can train ourselves to more effectively remember dreams.

No matter the facts, I like to talk about dreams. I’m fascinated by cultures where dreams are discussed and used as a way of tapping into a stream of wisdom that’s forgotten in so-called advanced societies.

And I love to get together with friends for dreamwork sessions where we share and investigate our dreams, something we do far too infrequently but always find illuminating.

If I had better follow-through for this passion I’d be one of those people who keep illustrated dream journals where the guidance found in dreams is recognized. Alas, I’m not. I only write down dreams when they linger in my head long after I’ve woken, in a not-remotely-arty Word doc.  Though I started this particular doc back in 2000, I’ve recorded only a few dreams each year. Most of the time they ramble along in weirdly disjointed anti-logic, as dreams tend to do. But several feel like teachings. Here’s one from August 2007 that stays with me.


A dark-haired child in medieval dress, somewhere between five and eight years old and with a wise aspect, was my guide in this brief dream.

She showed me a number of different paintings. They rose up before me from nowhere with complete darkness around them. Most were icons or close-ups of religious paintings, all with halos around people’s heads.

I thought to myself that the halos seemed like auras, trying to notice which were painted with solid lines and which were more diffuse. The moment I tried to apply logic the pictures stopped.

The child explained. She used words that were simple, beautiful, and had the resonance of the ages behind them. I cannot recall most of what she said, as it was well beyond my understanding, but I’ve retained the following meaning.

The accepted beliefs and worldview of an era form a sort of perimeter around each person. This is the way of people. Those who have been called mystics and saints are people who perceive what’s beyond these boundaries. This perception, this apprehension of something greater, causes the perimeter itself to glow. The breaching of what’s closed is powerful energy.

I wish I could express it better. In the dream I could feel what pulsed at the juncture of small human reality and larger Truth as a kind of electricity or creative force. It emitted light. The energy was generative and alive with possibility. I was awed to glimpse it, even as dream material.

The dream is the small hidden door in the deepest and most intimate sanctum of the soul, which opens to that primeval cosmic night that was soul long before there was conscious ego and will be soul far beyond what a conscious ego could ever reach. Carl Jung


Resources for those of you fascinated by the dream wisdom accessible to us all.

Original Wisdom: Stories of an Ancient Way of Knowing by Robert Wolff

anything by Carl Jung, such as The Essential Jung

anything by pioneer of Active Dreaming, Robert Moss

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World by Wade Davis

The Mind at Night: The New Science of How and Why We Dream by Andrea Rock

The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant (sci-fi world where reality is shaped by dreams)

energy of halos,

Antonio Mancini- Self-Portrait, 1883

Feeding Creativity With Constraints

Learning to Love You More, creativity thrives on constraints, innovation fueled by challenges, be odd, try something new,

Maybe an unusual assignment will amp up your creativity. Perhaps:

~make a poster of shadows

~write the phone call you wish you could have

~compose the saddest song

~describe your ideal government

~plant a surprise garden

~make a documentary video of a small child

These assignments were devised by artists Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher. Their work called them to be original every day, but they realized that their most enlivening experiences came when they worked under constraints. An assignment, a challenge, even an annoyance spurred them to different, sometimes more profoundly joyous productivity.

Although we set creative people off in a special category, being creative is simply part of the human experience. You’re creative all the time. You might change your approach to a difficult neighbor, tackle a work problem from a new angle, adapt a recipe to suit ingredients on hand, make up a game to amuse a fretful child, figure out another way to do your errands when a road is closed. We have to come up with new ideas and different tactics constantly. Often they’re imposed on us by obstacles. Annoying as constraints might be, as something original comes forth in response we’re likely to feel that zing of aliveness that creativity sparks.

Constraints can actually promote creativity. A study in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, titled “Stepping back to see the big picture: when obstacles elicit global processing” explains that obstacles blow open the approach we ordinarily take. This even has a spill-over effect into the way we approach other challenges. As the researchers explain,

These studies show that encountering an obstacle in one task can elicit a more global, Gestalt-like processing style that automatically carries over to unrelated tasks, leading people to broaden their perception, open up mental categories, and improve at integrating seemingly unrelated concepts.

That’s why artists July and Fletcher developed a project, called Learning to Love You More, back in 2002. The idea was to encourage the general public to take on assignments, then post the results on the project’s site. The assignments are themselves a sort of constraint, forcing us to do something within new boundaries, thereby provoking a shift in perception of ourselves and the world around us. Creativity has a way of doing that.

A few years ago I wrote an article about Learning to Love You More for the Canadian magazine Geez. To prepare for the piece I did about ten of the projects; some with friends, some with my kids, some alone. Each one felt entirely odd and yet liberating. And because they were so unusual, they stand out in my memory, as we want the moments of our lives to do. Some assignments felt delightfully silly, like drawing constellations made of freckles (#9). Some felt radical, like making a public information plaque to hang at the door of City Hall (#62). Some felt fun, like creating a wind chime from a coat hanger and old kitchen utensils to hang on a parking lot tree (#15). Some felt wrenchingly poignant as I carried out the assignment, like this one.

All Holy

Assignment #63:  Make an encouraging banner. I cut a worn blanket into squares and shaped felt into letters to create a banner reading, “It’s All Holy.” The blanket was once my mother’s. The project not only re-purposed a ripped blanket but also satisfied my restlessness, as the day I spent creating the banner was the first anniversary of her death.

I hiked through the snow to hang the message outside between winter-bare trees. Beyond the banner lay our land where carefully tended free-range cows and chickens live.  On the other side, the banner’s words faced a conventional farm where animals are confined and raised on unnatural feed. I believe it’s all holy, but faith isn’t easily applied to real life. Standing there on a bright cold day with those words lifting in the breeze I could almost imagine what it would mean to live beyond concepts of good and bad, sorrow and joy, ordinary and sacred.

Somehow creativity thrives on the limitations found within the constraints of a particular challenge. One family, captivated by the Learning to Love You More project, did every assignment together. They ended up showing their work at a local gallery, giving talks titled “Art is Where You Find It and Everyone Can Do Art.”

The site is no longer listing new assignments, although previous submissions can be viewed. And the founders have put out a Learning to Love You More book. But we carry it on as long as we recognize just how enlivening challenges can be for ourselves, our kids, our creative lives.  Constraints, annoying as they may be, can push us to engage in new ways of seeing and being.

A Few Creativity Generators

16 Ways to Spark Creativity

Don’t Say It, Draw It

Throw Strangely Amusing Parties

38 Unexpected Ways to Revel in Snail Mail

7 Ways to Make Your Day More Magical

Have some ideas for quirky, fun, or heart-expanding Learning To Love You More type assignments? Share them in the comments.

38 Unexpected Ways To Revel In Snail Mail

literacy skills, mail art, mail exchanges, snail mail fun,

The Force is strong with snail mail. (Image: CC by 2.0 Wikimedia Kev pittsburgh,pa)

Most of us don’t get anything interesting in the mail. Opening a personal letter seems like a pleasure from another era, irrelevant as a starched collar. Lets reclaim that experience. (The letter, not the collar.)

But first a rant. Here in the U.S. our postal service is often described as inefficient and unprofitable. I beg to differ. When I mail a letter in Ohio, it’s often delivered in Boston or Denver the next afternoon. I’ve mailed plenty of letters to distant countries. They show up in a week, tops. A few ounces of paper arrives in the one place in the world I want it to go, all for less than a buck. That’s pretty impressive. And the post office lets me mail unwrapped shovels too (more on that later).

Unprofitable? That’s not the real issue, unless you count the postal system having to pre-fund it’s retirement system 70-some years in advance. Name a company that can do that and stay in business.

I’m all about going postal. Sending and receiving mail helps us slow down, savoring time in a way that’s often missed in our terabyte-speed lives. Here are some ways you can make snail mail a pleasure.

Mail something unwrapped.

1. Try mailing a full-sized paintbrush, a basketball, a flip flop. All you need is a legible address and the correct postage. You might feel a little silly standing in line at the post office with an address-adorned plastic dinosaur, but it’ll be worth the look on your recipient’s face. I’ve mailed all sorts of silly things to a friend, mostly in response to oddities she mails to me. The strangest thing I’ve sent was a two foot metal shovel with a wooden handle. I used a permanent marker to write a note to her on the handle and the address on the metal part. It got there just fine.

2. For more ideas on what you can send through the mail, check out happy mail ideas at Giver’s Log or the Pinterest board 13 ounces or less. Check USPS regulations on what cannot be sent by mail.

Investigate the peculiar history of unwrapped mail.

3. In 1914, five-year-old Charlotte May Pierstorff was sent via U.S. mail as a package to visit her grandparents. It was the only way her parents could afford the trip. My kids and I learned about her journey from the picture book, Mailing May, by Michael O. Tunnell. She’s not the only person to be sent as cargo.

4. The most inspiring example is Henry Box Brown, who in 1849 was a slave in Virginia. Using his savings to pay for the clandestine delivery, he had himself mailed to an abolitionist in Philadelphia. The trip took 27 hours, much of it upside down despite “this side up” instructions on the box.

5. The quirkiest unwrapped mail history I’ve run across involves W. Reginald Bray. In 1898 this British accountant began to send all sorts of unwrapped objects via mail. That included, but wasn’t limited to, a rabbit skull, a bowler hat, a turnip, his Irish terrier, and a bicycle punk. He also mailed himself, twice. He liked to test the logic of postal employees by mailing cards with addresses written as puzzles or clues. You can find out more about Bray in, The Englishman who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects by John Tingey.

Get back in the habit of writing letters.

6. Send a letter to your great aunt or a former neighbor.

7. Write letters to deployed service members.

8. A mailed letter has a greater impact on your elected officials than calls or emails, so if an issue is troubling you take the time to write out your concerns. Only a tiny fraction of the country’s citizens have ever done this.

9. Write to an author (his or her publishing house will forward your letter).

10. Write to a business. My son once wrote to a pen company to settle a bet he had with me. He said my habit of leaving pens uncapped  would dry them out. He not only got a response confirming that he was correct, but the pen company’s PR person sent eight different pens for him to enjoy as well as an admonition to keep after his pen-wrecking mother. For other ways to inspire kids (or the kid in you) to write letters, check out any of Letters from a Nut books by Ted Nancy.

11. Groups of kids (classes, scouts, homeschool groups) can participate in letter exchanges with Peace Corps volunteers through the Coverdell World Wise correspondence program and with long distance truckers via Trucker Buddy.

12. Find a snail mail correspondent through The Letter Exchange.

13. Join the Letter Writers Alliance.

Make your own envelope out of something unexpected.

14. Use a leftover scrap of wrapping paper, a torn out magazine page, a file folder scribbled with equations, an old map, whatever you’d like.The simplest way is to pull apart an envelope to use as a template, sealing your new envelope with a glue stick once you’ve popped a letter inside. For more detailed instructions, head over to Instructables.

15. If you don’t want to seal your one-of-a-kind envelope with ordinary tape or glue, make your own flavored envelope glue.

Let your stamp make a statement.

16. There are amazing USPS stamps out there reflecting practically every interest, but they don’t stick around (stick, hah) very long. Every time I go to the post office I check to see what they’ve got available. No flag stamps for me. When they had Buckminster Fuller stamps, I stocked up. This year’s stamps include O. Henry (the author, not the candy bar) and Rosa Parks.

17. Or make your own customized postage. Our cows’ faces could be stamps, the smiling cactus your kid drew could be stamps. USPS authorized vendors include stamps.compictureitpostage.com, and zazzle.com.

Send postcards, get postcards.

18. Register with Postcrossing. When you send a postcard you’ll receive a postcard back from another participant anywhere in the world. So far, 16 million Postcrossing postcards have been exchanged. Check out their Flickr postcard photopool.

19. To set up a specific postcard exchange (or other snail mail swaps) put up a request on Swap-Bot.

20. When you’re out, even on a day trip, encourage young children to mail postcards to themselves or their siblings. Just a quick sentence helps establish the day as memorable (and reinforces literacy skills). It’s also fun when that postcard arrives at your home in a day or two.

Get involved with or instigate a mail exchange.

21. I love art exchanges. I’ve participated in them on and off over the years, writing and decorating a page in a journal before sending it along to the next person or contributing to themed art challenges. My favorite was a Barbie art challenge. I glued a Barbie’s long hair into stiff twisting strands, gave her some theatening-looking facial features, and mounted her disembodied head into a tiny cardboard replica of a TV set with a “Medusa” remote. Find mail art calls through the International Union of Mail-Artists as well as Mail Art Projects.

22. Propose a mail exchange on a forum, blog, or other group. Make it themed, for example followers of a food blog send each other local foodstuff. Fans of a particular musician send each other her lyrics re-imagined as comics or movie scenes.

23. All sorts of parenting lists host exchanges for kids who want a postcard from each state, a letter answering the same 10 questions from 100 participants, or favorite jokes. Suggest an exchange your kids would like.

Write to kids.

24. Chances are you know children who would adore getting mail addressed to them, either your own kids or kids in your extended family. Try for at least a once-a-year tradition like a note on the child’s birthday. Or more memorably, on a quirky day. How about a letter every year on Waffle Day (March 25) or Go Barefoot Day (June 1)?

25. Consider writing letters as if from an imaginary creature telling a series of tales, perhaps the adventures of a rollerblading squirrel and her sidekick, a jogging possum. No less than J.R.R. Tolkien wrote and illustrated a holiday letter for his children every year, arriving as if from the North Pole. See his drawings and text in Letters From Father Christmas

26. Write about your experiences when you were the child’s age.

27. Encourage return communication when you write to kids. At the very least, send them pre-addressed envelopes with stamps. You might write with a challenge. (Okay, a better one than the following example!) How about enclosing a length of string and the question: How many ways can you use this string?  Maybe offer a prize if they write back with more than a dozen ideas.  Or send response letters you’ve made with fill-in blanks to answer questions like:  This week I was surprised when ________. If I could go anywhere tomorrow I’d like to go _________. If I ran the country, the first thing I’d do is __________. Most people don’t know that ______.

28. Write to toddlers well before they can read. Print a simple sentence or two, replacing some nouns and verbs with rebus pictures. (If you’re not familiar with this, it means drawing a cat face instead of writing the word “cat.”) Add something to the envelope that the child might find interesting, like stickers.

Mail a simple thank you note.

29. Even a few lines of thanks come across differently when they’re written on paper and sent by mail. They seem more earnest and carry more meaning than the same few lines in a text or email. John Kralik discovered this when he was at the lowest point in his life and vowed to mail one thank you note every day for a year. Somehow, the effort of thanking others  brought unexpected returns to his life including business success, weight loss, and richer friendships. Read his story in A Simple Act of Gratitude: How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life.

30. Send a thank you to a favorite teacher, a former mentor, the local bookstore owner whose business you appreciate, someone who did you a kindness that you haven’t forgotten.

31. Consider writing a letter to someone you see everyday. Your child, your spouse, your co-worker. Tell them something you cherish about them or how they enrich your life.

When the situation calls for it, tell your truth with an un-thank you note.

32. Of course it’s best to handle negative situations immediately, but I’ve gotten some dire predictions from professionals that proved false over time. This surgery is absolutely necessary. You’ll have a maladjusted child if you homeschool. Ritalin is the only solution for that behavior.  It’s my contention that sending a respectful letter updating a doctor, teacher, or other expert is a kindness to the people they will advise in the future. There are ways to write a useful unthank you note. Chances are you won’t get a response but you’ll feel lighter.

33. If you want to tell the world the truth anonymously, mail a postcard to PostSecret. Keep up with these powerful, often artfully shared secrets via Facebook and check out the TED talk by founder Frank Warren.

  Use handwritten notes to advance professionally.

34. It seems counterintuitive when there are faster ways to communicate, but that’s the point. A letter to a business contact makes a lasting impression and does so at just the right speed.

35. The go-to guide for this is Business Notes: Writing Personal Notes That Build Professional Relationships by Florence Isaacs.


Inspire yourself to write letters by reading epistolary novels.

36. The Color Purple is told through letters and if you haven’t read it, this book isn’t to be missed. The Historian centers on a medieval book that opens clues to Dracula’s existence. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society reveals memorable characters living on the island of Guernsey during the Nazi occupation. Any of the Griffin & Sabine books have intriguing tiny envelopes inside, giving the reader the sense of peeking at private correspondence.

37. For teens: Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, about two cousins drawn up in a alternative universe complete with romance, wit, and magical chocolate. Or for more romance plus intrigue at Australian high schools, two very popular books by the same author, Feeling Sorry for Celia and The Year of Secret Assignments

38. For young children: Help Me, Mr. Mutt!: Expert Answers for Dogs with People Problems as well as any of the many books starring the ever-clever letter-writing dog Ike LaRue.

For more motivation, spend time with those who exult in snail mail.

365 Letters

Mail Me Art

Letter Matters

Letters of Note

Always First Class: The Pleasure of Personal Letters

Monday Hearts For Madalene

art from found objects, love made visible,

Page Hodel

A heart-shaped anything used to seem overly sentimental, even mawkish, to me until I encountered those created by Page Hodel. Her hearts are ephemeral and made from the unexpected. Things like chile peppers, paper clips, postage stamps, kumquats, metal bolts, cast-off sneakers, green onions, all sorts of colorful objects.

The story behind her art is equally unexpected and poignant. Page is a disc jockey whose presence unifies and enlivens a crowd. Billboard magazine named her one of the country’s best. She also works for the non-profit Rhythmic Concepts to foster jazz education. Before she started making hearts her hands-on creative efforts took place on a larger scale, including the renovation of large vehicles and homes. Her life seemed full. Then she met her neighbor, Madalene Louise Rodriguez, a librarian and glass artist. The moment they met, they both fell in love. As Page writes on her site,

There is something extraordinary about falling so deeply in love later in your life. The profound awareness of the miracle of finding the love you have looked for all your life, and the realization of how much you each have to share having lived so long and experienced so much.

Page began making hearts out of buttons, leaves, anything she could find to leave on Madalene’s doorstep late each Sunday night. That way when Madalene stepped out to go to work the next morning, she’d be greeting by a beautiful reminder of their love.

Page Hodel

Page Hodel

Only seven months after they met, Madalene was diagnosed with late stage ovarian cancer. Page promised to continue making hearts for her each week, no matter what. After a courageous battle, four months later Madalene died.

Page never intended the hearts she created to be anything more than a private way of expressing her feelings. Thanks to a request by Madalene’s brother, she gradually began sending online photos of each week’s heart to loved ones, inviting them to forward the images as a way of putting more love out in the world.

Page initially refused offers to collect the photos into a book. The feeling associated with them was too painful. But she kept hearing from strangers whose lives were affected by the hearts. She realized that her love for Madalene could touch others.

Now you can find 100 hearts collected in a beautiful volume titled Monday Hearts for Madalene as well as Hearts for Madalene Notecards. Page donates a portion of the proceeds from each sale to the Women’s Cancer Resource Center.  Anyone who would like to receive a weekly email with the newest Monday Hearts For Madalene, simply email  page.hodel@gmail.com with “subscribe” in the subject line.

Seeing these images, hearts can’t help but take on a larger meaning.

Page Hodel

Page Hodel

Throw Strangely Amusing Parties

throw an art party,

We used to throw strangely amusing parties on a more regular basis. Box parties where kids made forts and mazes and castles out of huge boxes. Tie dye and batik parties that were a messy extravaganza of color. Science-y gatherings where everyone worked on the same ridiculous experiment with vastly different results. Even an election commiseration event where everyone had to bring a few jokes about a certain president whose name rhymed with “tush.”

The longest lasting tradition? Our summer pig pen parties. These were grand messy BYOB affairs, as in bring your own bucket—of dirt. It was dumped in a backyard kiddie pool and mixed by all children in attendance into perfectly creamy mud, which they used to coat themselves until they were recognizable only by bathing suit outlines. We put a garden hose at the top of our slide and the kids careened down in glorious streaks of mud. We handed out cans of shaving cream for use as body décor (with firm instructions to avoid faces because it’s not fun in the eyes). We brought out ample water balloon supplies. And we insisted the kids eat without utensils or hands, just direct face to plate. Like pigs. Of course these parties got out of hand once the grown-ups refused to sit in lawn chairs watching their kids have all the fun. Some neighbors showed up in pig masks, others showed up with water balloons sneakily hidden in baby strollers and red wagons, others brought massive auxiliary supplies of shaving cream. Normally well-behaved men used hoses to fill garbage cans with water, which they dumped over the heads of the few civilized mommies who thought they’d keep their hair looking nice. One year the entire assemblage of pig pen partiers were incensed that a regular pig pen attendee decided to stay home to repair a fence. All of us walked down to the street in wet, muddy, shaving cream streaked glory to drag him to the party. His police chief father who was there helping him make the repairs looked seriously alarmed. We dragged him anyway.

I’ve been fantasizing about a backyard Jackson Pollack party where everyone brings leftover paint to fling at canvases, maybe even using the giant trebuchet our kids built for some super-charged paint tossing. I can just see us all in splattered clothes, posing for a group picture with candy cigarettes hanging out of our mouths. What’s stopping me? I live with practical people who wonder if paint will get tracked in the house because partygoers are human and will eventually need to use the bathroom.

My recent event was a quietly civilized affair: a collage party for some artful cutting and pasting. I have all sorts of glue-able stuff here. Old sheet music, sewing patterns, stockbooks, wallpaper, tiny do-dads, lace, game pieces. All I asked people to bring were their own scissors, marked with their names (because scissors are migratory beasts) and a potluck offering. They brought a lot more glue-able stuff to share. I thought we’d stick down some background, let it dry while we ate and drank, then finish and move on to a second or third one each. But my friends ate and drank and talked while collaging. They didn’t want to stop cutting and arranging. It’s as if we all have too little time for something as simply satisfying as placing a scrap of paper on a page exactly as it pleases us. The event was less lively than the average pig pen party, that’s for sure. But it was restorative. No phones. No screens. Nothing else to do but indulge in the kind of play we call creating. I guess that doesn’t happen unless we make time for it.

Here’s a sample of collage party creations. (Some are backgrounds awaiting finishing touches.)

And let me know your ideas for strangely amusing events. I plan to steal them.

turn junk into collage,

art party,

make a collage, throw a collage party,

science collage,

Batik Party: Color To Last A Lifetime

how to batik, backyard batik, ironing memories,

The grass is spread with dyed shirts drying in the sun. It seems fuchsia, cobalt blue, and orange are the favored colors of our backyard batik party.

We approach this ancient art using shortcuts that would make a purist shriek. First we peel faded paper from old crayons, revealing the richer hues underneath. The crayons are melted in tin cans bubbling in a big pot of water on our camp stove. Then grandmothers, mothers, and children together, we crowd around picnic tables and paint the gooey wax onto cotton shirts, pillowcases, and tote bags. Some of us splash abstract designs, others draw intricate pictures. Eager conversations quiet as artists concentrate on their work.

Next we dunk them into pails of dye—gumdrop yellow, indigo, rose, pale green or sky blue. Children set their projects out on the grass to dry in the sun, then run off to play. To complete the process the wax has to be melted out of the fabric, ironed over and over on newspaper until no more will seep out under the press of a hot iron. Nothing of the crayons will remain but color locked into the fibers, wax resisting dye.

I drag my wooden ironing board out of the dark closet and pull it into the bright yard. My sister gave it to me as a humorous wedding shower gift but my mother’s friends in attendance thought it refreshingly practical. I’ve only used for the odd art project. The rickety wooden legs have to be forced into warped slots which hold them in place. The children come from catching frogs in the creek, from roasting marshmallows over the fire, from all over our property just to watch their mamas stand over the ironing board.  “Can I try?” and “Wow” is the standard kid response. Cautioning them to hold their fingers only on the handle and to keep the iron moving we let them work the wax out of the batik designs. Recognizing the possibility of danger they are entranced, as if we’ve let them use power tools.

They wait impatiently for their turns while the seven of us women sit at the picnic table eating hummus, Greek salad, and chocolate cake. We talk of how far we’ve come from our own mothers’ ironing boards here in the slow-to-evolve Midwest. Christie describes her mother as a “laundry fascist” who did her wash on Monday and ironing on Tuesday, regarding stains with the same disgust as sins.  Holding to such an immutable schedule of laundering was what her mother believed “good women” did. The moral character of others could be determined in part by the cleanliness of their clothes, making the world a more easily understood place. Christie’s mother still gives advice on stain removal, valuable irony-tinged information for those of us trying to live simply.

Debra remembers looking for a summer job in back when classifieds in her hometown paper were displayed in separate columns: Men Wanted, Women Wanted.  As a high school sophomore she had difficulty deciphering descriptions like “Gal Friday” and “sturdy middle-aged woman.” She avoided waitress jobs, not only because of the potential pats on the rear but to spare herself the necessity of ironing a uniform each day.

I volunteer memories of downtown shopping trips each summer. My mother put me in a crisply ironed dress and tied matching ribbons at the bottom of my braids. My grandmother never left the house unless impeccably clad. She sewed her own lined suits, wore stockings and girdle every day, and carried dress gloves in her purse no matter the season. I recall waiting as they shopped at iconic Cleveland department stores Halles and Higbees, then they took me and my sister to the tea room. A trip to the ladies lounge followed.  I remember hopping up to the toilet, admiring my shiny shoes as my feet swung off the floor.  But I was afraid to unlatch the door because frightening noises often came from other stalls in that fancy pink restroom. Ladies who moments ago were delicately patting their lipsticked mouths with heavy cloth napkins were now making groaning noises.  I knew full well at the age of four that ladies did not make such noises, particularly in public.  Something bad had to be happening.  I pictured them transformed into monsters.  When I finally left the stall and made my way to the line of sinks I watched in the mirror as other doors opened.  Demure ladies stepped out as if they’d made no such sounds. Only years later did I realize that these women were struggling with heavy girdles which cut into their summer-weary flesh.

We laugh at domestic memories as our children finish the exotic task of ironing. When we look up from our reverie they have started a game of hide and seek. Their voices sound distant in the gathering darkness. Their small shirts are now bobbing from wire hangers along the porch. One by one we iron our own shirts as the sun goes down. The smell of crayons hangs in the evening, imprinting memories to last a lifetime.

I think our next art party will involve candy cigarettes and paint flinging, ala Jackson Pollack.

easy batik, iron in some memories,

How To Host A Batik Party

This process isn’t “real” batik. It’s an approximation that’s fun and basic. It’s also time consuming, messy, requires close attention when wax is near heat, and can stain anything from driveways to flesh. That’s why you should make it into a gathering of friends who will share the effort and joy. And why you should do it over grass as much as possible.


  • lots of newspaper
  • old crayons with paper removed, sorted by color
  • chunks of paraffin
  • empty cans (16 oz or larger food cans), paper wrappers and tops removed
  • large disposable roasting pan
  • thick and thin paintbrushes you’re willing to throw out afterwards
  • old camp stove or electric skillet you’ve willing to have wax spilled on
  • fire extinguisher
  • metal sheeting for safety (we found a piece in the garbage)
  • tarp
  • ironing board
  • picnic table and/or sturdy tables to work on
  • clothesline
  • clothes iron (it too may get waxy)
  • clothing dye (can use Rit Dye or order more professional dyes from Dharma Trading)
  • large buckets for dye (you can often get them free from store bakeries and delis, food is delivered in them)


Ask everyone to wear old clothes, hair tied up where applicable, and to bring food and drinks to share. They also must bring items to batik. That might be t-shirts, tote bags, curtains, pillowcases, skirts, ties, etc. The best are all-natural fabrics such as cotton, hemp, silk. If it’s a blend, a high natural content is preferable.

Preparation: Mix dyes in buckets. Most dyes need hot water to dissolve. Some need other ingredients so make sure you’ve checked in advance. You’ll want at three to five separate dye colors. If kids are involved, you may not want too many conflicting colors. Repeated dips will leave them with brown or grays. (Educational but possibly not what they intended.) Leave the buckets out in the yard as dye stations.

Spread the tarp over the picnic table and/or work area. Put the metal sheeting down where the camp stove/electric skillet will sit.

Step One: Put different colors of crayons in the empty cans. Add a few slivers of paraffin to each can. You also want a can with only paraffin for clear resist areas. Put the cans in the roasting pan. Fill the pan with several inches of water, about a third of the way up. Keep a pitcher of water nearby to keep filling as water evaporates. You do not want to spill water in the wax.  Heat gently to melt the crayons and paraffin. Once it’s liquified turn the heat off and it will remain liquid quite a while.

Caution. SUPERVISE CHILDREN, hot wax burns. NEVER leave wax over heat unattended. NEVER put out a wax fire with water, which spreads it. Instead it must be smothered (fire extinguisher or fireproof lid over it, we kept an old grill lid handy).

Step Two: It’s time to paint designs or pictures on fabric. Just dip brushes in melted wax. Make sure you return the right brushes to the right container. Use clear paraffin in areas where you want the fabric color to show within or around your design.

Step Three: Dip all or select portions of your fabric into dye of choice.

Step Four: Hang on clothesline. Do another fabric item or simply wait for your item to dry.

Step Five: Put several sheets of newspaper under and several over a single layer of your dry fabric. Iron to melt the wax out of the fabric. You’ll need to replace the newspaper sheets several times until wax no longer melts from the fabric.