Experiment In Savoring

It’s a sunny day in a quaint Ohio town. I’ve taken up a position on the sidewalk under a blue tent. Most people going by avert their eyes.

I’m here because, nearly two years ago, I agreed to do a book signing at an independent bookshop so adorable it could easily serve as the setting for a novel. The pandemic postponed this signing so long that I’m sitting here with the title that came out before my most recent book.

Although I’ve had four books published, I’ve never done an individual bookstore event before. Readings, yes. Workshops, yes. Group signings like the annual fabulous Author Alley at Loganberry Books, yes. This is a fresh experience for me. Other writers have told me bookstore signings can be excruciating. Often the only people who stop by are those asking if there’s a public bathroom or where the horror section is located. Today I’ll discover what it’s like for myself. Except I’m not inside, I’m out on the sidewalk. The open-sided tent blocks the pavement, meaning passersby must walk under it. This forces them to decide whether to look or not look at the strange woman sitting a few hopeful feet away.

I brought a basket of wrapped chocolates, a pen, bookmarks, and a little poster noting that a portion of each book sale goes to support the work of Medina Raptor Center. I brought what I hope is enough curiosity about this experience to tamp down my ongoing urge to hide in the stacks of the bookstore behind me. I tell myself I will savor the face of every person going by. I will spend by two whole hours being fully present.

People savoring isn’t difficult, especially since it has been over a year and a half without teaching in-person classes. I miss faces! But that fully present thing is as hard as it has ever been. My restless mind wanders every which way. My eyes linger on trees outlined by blue skies but thoughts continue scrolling. Wedding gowns displayed in a store window across the street can’t help but contrast with memories of my own frugal wedding where our church basement reception offered no music, no meal, no table seating. (We’ve stayed married, disproving all the naysayers.) The number of people going by with coffee reminds me of pre-pandemic days when I’d regularly meet friends in a coffeeshop to catch up on our lives. The clock in the town square chimes – 15 whole minutes have passed.

A trapped beetle buzzes angrily in my pocket, except it’s not an insect, it’s my phone. I know I shouldn’t look at it, but I do. Then I do some more, at least when no one is walking by.

I smile at families heading to the ice cream shop or sandwich shop, then smile as they pass by afterwards. A little girl wearing unicorn pants says, “I like your hair” before I can compliment her many perfect braids. I notice how many people walk by with faces aimed at their phones. I listen to conversation snippets, like “They’re finally moving to Portland” and “Naw, no way!” and  “He won’t go to therapy.”   

A huge streetside pot draped with withering coleus is so dry that I give it half the water from my travel mug, hoping no one hears me say, here you go friend.   

I try again to settle my mind by focusing on a lamppost’s reflection in a store window across the street. It’s perfectly meditative for almost a minute. The town square clock chimes – a half hour has passed.  

I listen to music blaring from passing vehicles, most often classic rock played by expensive-looking motorcycles ridden, in nearly every case, by gray-haired sunglass-wearing men. This makes the few cars blasting hip hop a nice contrast.

I notice significantly more white vehicles than any other color. At one point there are five white cars parked in the angled lines in front of me. I count colors in passing traffic for a while to get a ratio. Looks like one out of six is white, at least for the few minutes that counting holds my attention. I briefly ponder whether white is a dog-whistle, coded language for what I’d rather not imagine, then chastise my thoughts for heading that direction.

Plots for short stories come to mind. I imagine the guy who has been walking back and forth, coffee in hand, for the last 15 minutes is actually a spy. I think of a story based on the weird dream I had the night before. I was in a dystopian future where desperate people pushed contaminants under their skin hoping they might sell the resulting antibodies to Big Pharma. I consider a story about a writer who quietly dies at her book signing table, but nobody notices. These are all stories I’ll never write.

A man with young children has gone by three times. He shares a friendly aside at each pass, even claims he’s heard of my book. I feel extra tenderness for him, not only because he is jovial with his kids, but also because he looks like a dead friend looked 20 years ago.

A handholding couple stops to talk about a mystery they both read. One lovely elder notes the title of my book, then breaks into Bye Bye Blackbird, a song I used to play on the piano for nursing home residents in my first job out of college. I join her for the chorus and she pretends I have a lovely voice. I insist it’s easy to follow her more melodic voice. The clock chimes – an hour has passed.

The few people who ask, “What’s your book about” recoil almost visibly when I say it’s a poetry collection. Most people don’t ask.

Not long before my sojourn is over, a poet friend pops by to say hello. I’m wildly happy to see a familiar face. We talk about deep time, about the impulse to write, and about book publishing. I’ve enjoyed his presence so thoroughly I don’t notice the clock chiming until I’m a full 20 minutes past my time to pack up and leave.

I carry the books back in the bookstore, apologize that not copy one sold, and head out for the hour’s ride home. From the security of my elderly car I savor a cloudless sky so blue it’s nearly iridescent.   

Definitions and Beyond

“Some words are more than letters on a page, don’t you think? They have shape and texture. They are like bullets, full of energy, and when you give one breath you can feel its sharp edge against your lip.” ~Pip Williams

The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams, is an engaging novel written in a gentle style that evokes an era of teapots, shawls, and regular correspondence. (Okay, still my era….) I appreciate it for its love of words and books as well as for topics including class division, suffrage, and the British home front during WWI.

The main character’s galvanizing focus is on why some words were deemed worthy of becoming dictionary entries while others were not. Her lifelong work became saving words overlooked because they were too common, not in print, or insufficiently upper-class male to deserve dictionary space.

I grew up in a word-loving family and my own kids have taken that much farther than I might have imagined. When very young they developed an unnamed game of verbal jousting I call, in this post, Game of Slurs, although the post doesn’t go into just how amusingly over-the-top they could get with inventive word pairings. They also played, with only minor nudges from me, all sorts of dictionary-based games including my favorite, Blackbird. And all of us have unconsciously incorporated words into our everyday conversations that, apparently, seem strange to those around us. When they were younger, some of my kids consciously modified what words they used when, but these days they not only use whatever obscure words they like, they also, well, “experiment” on others to see if they can get them to start using such words too.

I’m grateful it’s now commonplace for everyday vernacular to show up in print and online dictionaries, although dictionaries will never be fast enough keep up with linguistic improvisations in music, film, literature, and everyday conversation. (There are several sites where you can look up words first found in print in your birth year. Merriam-Webster’s version of this includes sixty words for 1992 including buzzkill, civil union, exoplanet, hacktivism, meh, skeezy, smack talk, and woo-woo.)

In many ways, the language(s) we speak shape the way we think. We will never know what ways of thinking about, seeing, and interacting with the world are lost to us when we speak only one language. This is even more troubling in relation to entire languages going extinct. The Linguistic Society of America reports there are more than 6,500 languages used worldwide. Eighty percent, by some estimates, may vanish within the next century.

My problem, as a writer, takes place in a much smaller arena — my head. Much as I love words, it often seems impossible to fit meaning more than partway into language. I might manage to get a pinch of the inexpressible in, but that’s it, and only if I’m lucky. It’s like trying to stuff a galaxy into a suitcase and still zip it closed.

I hope we all do what we can, in these troubling times, to use language clearly, kindly, and well. Even more, that we make every effort to listen.

Writing, Creativity, Suffering

Somehow I hadn’t read Kaye Gibbons’ 2005 novel, Charms for the Easy Life, until recently. It’s a delight to open a book and, within a few pages, realize it’s going to be a good read. The novel follows the life of a girlchild raised within a circle of intensely vibrant women. Each character is so memorable that the plot almost seems secondary.

I often turn to the inside of a book’s back cover to look at the author’s photo. That’s what I did several times recently while reading Tiffany McDaniel’s gorgeously written Summer That Melted Everything and again while reading Brian Broome’s powerfully unique memoir Punch Me Up To The Gods. Somehow it helps to see the author is an actual person inhabiting a mortal body. For me it increases the magic of words they simmer into meaning.

My library copy didn’t show Kaye Gibbon’s photo, so I casually clicked over to the interwebs. There I saw an array of images that moved from a charmingly innocent author photo to a devastating booking photo. I was gutted to learn that Ms. Gibbon suffered a traumatic childhood as well as mental health difficulties, with concomitant substance issues. The chapters I read afterwards were imbued with more meaning in light of her struggles.

It brought to mind the challenges many of my writer, artist, and musician friends have endured. And some of my challenges as well.

What is it about creative pursuits and suffering?

A few years ago I wrote an article about how creative gifts in young people are often labeled as defiance, dyslexia, and other “disorders.” I quoted Lynne Azpeitia and Mary Rocamora’s piece, “Misdiagnosis of the Gifted,” in which they explain gifted, talented, and creative people “… exhibit greater intensity and increased levels of emotional, imaginational, intellectual, sensual and psychomotor excitability and that this is a normal pattern of development.” These attributes, however, are often misunderstood by teachers, parents, and therapists as mental health disorders. Young people may be subjected to all sorts of interventions in hopes of normalizing what are essentially symptoms of an exceptional individual.

Is there a link between creative professions and conditions like anxiety, depression, and compulsions? Some research seems to indicate that’s the case.  

One study followed participants in the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop. For ten years researchers tracked 30 participants from the program along with 30 people matched in age and IQ who didn’t work in creative fields. Close to 30 percent of the control group reported some form of mental illness. In contrast, 80 percent of the writers suffered from some form of mental illness. This is intriguing, but such a small study can’t be seen as definitive.

A large-scale Swedish study followed 1.2 million people and their relatives. The research was so extensive that it incorporated much of the Swedish population. It concluded that a higher prevalence of people with bipolar disorder were working in creative fields. Again, there were limitations to the study. In large part that had to do with how the data was collected. Researchers compared medical records to occupations, deciding, for example that people working as accountants and auditors worked in “uncreative” fields while a broad range of people were assumed to be creative if they worked as university instructors, visual artists, photographers, designers, performing artists, composers, musicians, or authors. Using expanded criteria, the study found one creative field most closely associated with mental health issues — authors. The study’s abstract notes, “being an author was specifically associated with increased likelihood of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and suicide.” 

Then there’s James C. Kaufman’s analysis, “The Sylvia Plath Effect: Mental Illness in Eminent Creative Writers” published in The Journal of Creative Behavior. He discussed a study of 1,629 writers which found female poets were significantly more likely to experience mental illness than female fiction writers or male writers of any genre. Another study he included looked at 520 eminent women. They were poets, fiction as well as nonfiction writers, visual artists, actresses, and politicians. (Politicians?) It was found that poets were most likely to experience mental illness.  

But Keith Sawyer’s book, Explaining Creativity, disputes many of these findings. Dr. Sawyer asserts that there is no link between creativity and mental illness. As he notes in a blog post,  

If you’re a creative person, the good news is that there is lots of research showing that creativity is connected to normal mental functioning and elevated mental health. Much of creativity involves working with existing conventions and languages; you can’t make up your own separate universe. Creative success requires networking and interacting with support networks, and this requires social skill and political savvy. And creativity is mostly conscious hard work, not a sudden moment of insight; getting the work done takes a highly effective person. Many psychologists have demonstrated that when people engage in creative work, they attain a state of peak experience, sometimes called “flow,” that represents the pinnacle of effective human performance. Creativity is related to higher-than-average mental health–just the opposite of our belief in a connection between creativity and mental illness.

I’m convinced we have to look at the myriad ways creativity is suppressed in our culture, starting in early childhood. Time spent in free play has declined precipitously, replaced by structured, supervised activities which supplant a child’s natural curiosity-driven, inventive, and ever-fluid play. Young people have less time and freedom to play with loose parts — the sticks, dirt, water, pinecones, leaves, logs, flowers, and rocks that have inspired children’s imaginations for eons. Even in toddlerhood, intrinsic motivation can be diminished by external motivators like rewards and praise. Despite the best efforts of caring educators, schools have been severely hampered by structural racism, by assignments that emphasize narrow thinking, and by test-laden curricula. Even the education of gifted children is seriously compromised. We seem to forget that differences and eccentricities are often how our species flourishes.

Creativity is typically seen as the nearly exclusive province of the artistic few, yet we demonstrate creativity all the time as we riff on recipes, interact playfully, solve problems, collaborate on projects, tell our stories, forge new relationships, and grow from past mistakes. Creativity is not a rare gift, but a characteristic human trait. It’s so characteristic that most young children are, according to some scientists, creative geniuses.

Back in the late sixties, NASA was looking for a way to select for the most creative scientists and engineers. George Land and Beth Jarman created a creativity test to identify those who were best able to come up with new and innovative ways to solve problems. It worked remarkably well. Land and Jarman, as they explain in Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today, used the same basic test on 1,600 three-to-five year old children enrolled in Head Start. They were shocked to discover a full 98 percent of children age five and under tested at genius level. They managed to get funding to test these children over time. Dishearteningly, only 30 percent of 10-year-olds scored at the creative genius level. That number dropped to 12 percent at 15 years of age. They expanded the scope of their research, giving the test to 280,000 adults with an average age of 31. Only two percent were, according to the results, creative geniuses.

George Land attributes the slide in creativity to schooling. When it comes to creativity, we use two forms of mental processes. Convergent thinking is necessary for judging and critiquing ideas, in order to refine and improve them. This is a fully conscious process. Divergent thinking is more freeform and imaginative, resulting in innovative ideas that may need refining. This process is more like daydreaming. Land suggests many school assignments require children to use both processes at once, which is nearly impossible, resulting in predominantly convergent thinking. We are taught, unintentionally, to turn off our creativity. Now that is painful. In my view, creativity is the essence of who we are. If anything, it isn’t connected to pain, but to healing.

I’m glad to turn to poets for their perspectives on writing, creativity, and pain.

“Poems have to make our lives clear. Poems have to make our lives real on the page. And nobody’s living an easy life. Nobody’s living a life that is anything other than complex. And there are things about our lives that TV’s not going to give us, that movies, even, are not going to give us. And poems are where I go for that. That’s where I go for the complexity, the thing in us that we don’t really understand.”  ~Jericho Brown (from On Being interview)      

“There’s a reason poets often say, ‘Poetry saved my life,’ for often the blank page is the only one listening to the soul’s suffering, the only one registering the story completely, the only one receiving all softly and without condemnation.” ~Clarissa Pinkola Estes    

“When I began to listen to poetry, it’s when I began to listen to the stones, and I began to listen to what the clouds had to say, and I began to listen to other. And I think, most importantly for all of us, then you begin to learn to listen to the soul, the soul of yourself in here, which is also the soul of everyone else.” ~Joy Harjo

Healing Power Of Writing Via Zoom

I can barely lead this morning’s writing class. A sudden migraine hit only a few minutes before students began to show up on Zoom. It’s a bad one — pain and nausea plus vivid wavy lines distorting my vision. I take some restorative slow breaths, drink a glass of water, then welcome everyone to the class.

I love teaching. I’m particularly mesmerized by the way community writing classes effortlessly build connections between strangers. Over weeks of reading and discussing their writing, people can’t help but get to know one another. Ordinary conversations, even between close friends, tend to fritter time away on surface topics. But in writing class we skip weather and family updates, going directly to deeper topics. It’s entirely natural to bond after sharing universal experiences like fear, regret, grief, embarrassment, triumph, and joy. I suspect we carry one another’s poems and stories with us long after the class is over. I certainly do. Many friendships built in writing class persist and several former classes of mine continue to meet independently as writing groups. Writing together has a magic all its own. 

But this morning I am in trouble. I can’t easily focus on the screen and can barely see my notes. Worst of all, I have trouble explaining concepts due to migraine-imposed brain fog, In this session I introduce persona poems. I explain, falteringly, how persona poems free us to write from the perspective of a soup bowl, a tree, an astronomer, a virus. I point out persona poems can help to stretch us. After all, if we’re writing in the voice of a dolphin or the voice of Donald Trump, we are writing our way toward understanding those lives more completely. I note that some people insist all poems are persona poems because the “I” in the poem is still a persona the poet choose to present. I’m not sure how much I get across because I feel like a balloon floating over the class.

We go on to the first writing exercise after reading and discussing Lisa Bellamy’s sharply humorous poem “Black-Eyed Susan.” As Bellamy did, I ask the class to write from a non-human perspective and to include at least one example of being misunderstood. I close my eyes while participants write until they are ready to read freshly written poems told from viewpoints such as a cat, coffee mug, and sunrise.

Then we read and discuss another example of persona poetry before going on to the next exercise, one I learned from Rosemerry Whatola Trommer. In it, participants are asked to create an alter ego. Whatever they personally want to do but don’t let themselves do, the alter ego does. Whatever they’re afraid of, the alter ego loves. The alter ego relishes what they can’t imagine facing. This is such a freeing exercise that everyone is brimming with ideas. We notice, as they read their work aloud, how each other’s alter egos are witty, tender, and wildly hopeful. Some alter egos get revenge, others take lovers, and one woman’s alter ego finishes writing her novel for her. The warmth and laughter shared across Zoom screens lifts more of my migraine’s misery. By the time I explain their homework, I am able to see and read clearly. I tell the class I’m grateful.

My migraines rarely improve so quickly. I can only think it has to do with the transformative power of creative connection. I don’t advise teaching while unwell, but if you must, don’t be surprised that writing’s healing magic still exists on Zoom. Now I’m off to take a walk. Maybe I’ll let my alter ego come along too.   

Portals: My Newest Book!

portals cover

An amazing thing happened.

Last fall I sent a pile of newer poems to Middle Creek Press, hoping I might salvage something out of what little I wrote during our ongoing pandemic misery. Turns out that collection, titled Portals, won the 2020 Halcyon Poetry Prize. Wild, right?

What an honor to have Middle Creek publisher David Anthony Martin select my manuscript. This collection is packed with poems about sycamore leaves, gut bacteria, quicksand, protests, yeast, talking peonies, insects, inflation, and consequential strangers. Here’s a sample: 

portals open like hands

People seem to think a writer writes in isolation, pulled only by some invisible drive to assemble words into form. For years I felt that isolation acutely. Heck, I didn’t even admit I was writing and publishing poems until my first collection, Tending, was accepted by a small poetry press. All that time the work of other poets pulled me onward. Their poems nourished me and helped me recognize poetry is in us all.

When the publisher of my first collection told me to solicit blurbs by reaching out to poets I admired, the task seemed unimaginable. Approach a busy stranger, someone I’d deeply respected from a distance, then ask for a favor? A distinctly time-consuming favor? I was appalled. Maybe my book could be published with a blank back cover. Maybe I could pretend the blankness was some kind of artistic choice. Turns out that wasn’t necessary. Every poet I contacted was gracious, even the poets who turned me down. Their kindness introduced me to the kindness of the writing community. (There are unkind pockets too, but I’m too small potatoes to be affected.)

My next collection, Blackbird, continued to teach me just how beautiful the writing community can be. Writers go out of their way to amplify the work of other writers. They mentor, they share, they podcast, they teach.  Many dedicate their time to make literary journals, literary organizations, and literary events possible.

I am the recipient of these kindnesses and more. I am endlessly grateful for Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s bountiful forward and for generous blurbs by James Crews, Donna Hilbert, and Phyllis Cole-Dai. Many thanks to Middle Creek publisher David Anthony Martin; it is a delight to work with a press dedicated to growing a “mycelial network of artists and readers.” Thank you to the poetry editors who published many of these poems in print and online journals. Much appreciation to the poets from our 811s poetry critique group who helped reshape these poems: Laurie Kincer, Diane Kendig, Roberta Jupin, Geoff Polk, and Richard Ferris. Appreciation to my longstanding writers’ group: Connie Gunn, Sarah Vradenburg, and Margaret Swift.  Endless thanks to poetry readers who share my work – you truly light the way for every poet. Most of all, thank you to my family who have held it all together during these surreal and humbling times.

Portals is now available from the publisher. You can also request it at your local library, favorite indie bookstore, or indie-bookstore based Bookshop.org. And you can also get it via Amazon

Clichés

“Story is an affirmation of our ties to one another.” 
~Terry Tempest Williams

My spouse and I are listening to a not-so-great audiobook as our long drive’s entertainment. After an hour or so I turn it off for a much-needed break. Mark is surprised I don’t like it. (Apparently he hasn’t heard my sighs.) I suggest the problem is not the plot but the clichéd writing. That’s when my marriage comes into question.

This man, with whom I have made children and to whom I have pledged lifelong fidelity, claims clichés are expected. He sees my expression but unwisely goes on to say he believe clichés are actually necessary.

It’s lazy writing, I tell him. As an editor I excise clichés with a fierce pen. (Although we editors no longer edit with pens.) 

Because we’re stuck in the car, I give him a bit of the cliché talk I share with writing classes. I say thanks to imaging studies, we know what writers have long understood. Sensory-rich language, particularly when embedded in stories, makes writing come alive for the reader.

When we take in straight-up information like a lecture or textbook, our brains show activity largely in the language-processing area. This indicates we are doing the basic work of decoding sounds or symbols into recognizable meaning. In contrast, a well-told story activates not only our language processing areas but also other areas of the brain – putting us inside the story. Say we read about walking into a much loved rib joint where smokers are finishing up bbq pork, greens and onions are frying, a milkshake is being poured from one of those chilled stainless steel malt cups. Our sensory cortex is activated as if we smell the smoker, hear the greens frying, see the thick milkshake slump into the glass. We may even salivate in anticipation.

Consider the way news comes to us. During a quick televised report we might hear brief facts about a suspected break-in on the west side of town, no one hurt, police investigating. We process the information along with the day’s avalanche of facts, unlikely to pay much attention unless we live on the west side or have our own troubling break-in memory. But if we’re told the story differently, we experience the story’s events. Say the homeowner is interviewed. She describes sitting on the couch late at night, snuggled up in her pajamas watching a movie. She thinks she hears something on the back porch. She mutes the volume, listens, gulping back her fear. When the doorknob rattles she grabs her phone. Suddenly broken glass is scattering across the kitchen floor. She leaps from the couch and runs to the front door, her fear-moistened hand scrabbling to turn the knob, and then she’s running barefoot across the snow to her neighbor’s house. She pounds on the door, almost collapsing in relief when she’s welcomed inside. As she tells the story, you react.. Emotional areas of your brain for fear and relief light up. Your motor cortex lights up in the area controlling your hand as if you too are scrabbling at the doorknob, then lights up in your legs and feet as if you too are running down the steps and across the snow.

That’s why I expound on this with my writing students, I tell Mark. So they know to let the reader’s arms feel their strain as they try to lift Grandma out of bed, preserving her dignity though they feel like weeping. So they help readers feel enraged at their high school math teacher’s expression when he suggested they drop out of calculus. So the reader’s skin prickles when they write about an unfair workplace. Mark is nonplussed. This man, who tears up at animal reunion videos, says maybe people don’t feel things as intensely as I do.

These are fighting words, but I’m still in explain-mode.

I’m talking brain imaging, I say. Our brains mirror other brains; that’s how we understand one another. He’s still got his patient listener face on, so I continue. This explains how clichés impair writing. Because when we hear a cliché like put the cart before the horse our brains don’t evidence any interest. That saying was originally a clever use of language the first 1,000 or 100,000 times it was said but our brains react minimally to clichés. Brain imaging shows we take them in only at the most basic level. Phrases like “scared out of my wits” or “made of money” were original once, but now they deaden our responses.  Besides, many clichés in common usage come to us from generations ago, when everyone knew how foolhardy it was to put the actual cart before the actual horse. Take the cliché “caught red-handed.” This likely came from centuries back, when serfs worked the land of some lord or another. There were strict rules against poaching. Even if one’s family was starving on what little they could grow, it was illegal to hunt on the lord’s land. Caught red-handed meant you had blood on your hands and would be severely punished.         

Mark alleges he still likes clichés and gleefully adds the cliché, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”* It’s a game now. We continue to toss out ever more ridiculous clichés until we weary of them and put the audiobook back on.

Listening to it, we finally we reach a cliché-related accord. I agree with him that a book’s character can and perhaps should use clichés if it’s in keeping with that character. In this pop mystery, I can see why a character or two would talk this way. Mark agrees with me that the book we’re listening to also uses clichés in description and plot development outside of character narration, and it’s off-putting. We listen a few more miles and he says. “Now I can’t help but hear all the clichés. Thanks.” We give up on the book.

Yes, we’re still married. And yes, I still give that cliché talk but have learned to keep it in the classroom.

*The expression, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” first appeared in a book of husbandry back in 1523.  It’s also not true. Studies show you can teach old dogs new tricks, in fact senior dogs do better than young dogs when learning tasks that require inference or reasoning.

First published in The Blue Nib Literary Magazine.

Yellow Dress Woman

“Enter each day with the expectation that the happenings of the day may contain a clandestine message addressed to you personally. Expect omens, epiphanies, casual blessings, and teachers who unknowingly speak to your condition.” ~ Sam Keen

I never forgot her. The young woman wore a yellow dress and her smile seemed to glow in the sunshine. I’m pretty sure she was with a young man, but as a child that didn’t interest me. I was on another of our family’s summer trips. These were starkly frugal, multi-week affairs meant to educate us at every free historical site possible. Our days were spent in a hot car, our nights in our tiny travel trailer. Much of the time I was carsick or asthmatic, or both. I longed for my library books, my pink bike, and all the other comforts of home.

On this day I stood in a crowd of tourists watching a demonstration of colonial candle-dipping or blacksmithing. Trapped at armpit height behind people holding cameras, I couldn’t see a thing. That’s when I noticed Yellow Dress Woman strolling on the grass nearby. I squinted at the aliveness she radiated.

It occurred to me that she wanted to be there and I realized with a sudden full-body shiver that growing up wasn’t an abstraction. This was a revelation — that a time would come when I too could make my own choices. Her image stayed with me like a beacon through the rest of my growing up years.

I shared that story with my regular Wednesday class as I asked them to think of an image that made a deep impression on them, then write about it. A lengthy pause. No pens hit paper, no fingers tapped keys. Oh no, I thought. I came up with a writing exercise that’s not working. This has happened a few other times over the years. I usually jump in to expand the concept. But heads began to bend over their stories and I relaxed.

It’s strange how fleeting images manage to plug into a waiting receptor. A man stopping to help an elder or a woman unselfconsciously nursing her baby may expand your awareness, give you new resolve, or offer clarity. We gather and hold these moments, none of us knowing what moments from our lives are carried by others.

Fifteen minutes later it was time for class members to read aloud. As always, powerful original stories were shared to rapt attention. Then on to discussion, finding insight in each other’s words. I’ve seen stories connect and uplift us so many times that I’m convinced listening to one another’s stories is the most healing thing we can do for each other, and for the times we live in.

What images do you carry that have changed you?

How Not To Make Book Swag

Jeannine Hall Gailey’s terrifyingly useful PR For Poets is packed with ideas completely new to me, even though this is my third book. (Or fifth, depending on how such things are counted.)

Notice how many pages I dog-eared.

Like nearly every other writer I know, I’m a friendly hermit with a serious allergy* to self-promotion. So I didn’t follow most of Jeannine’s good advice, like developing a PR kit or getting a headshot. But her book did foster another idea. “Hide in the house,” I said to myself. “Make something fun to help sell the new book.”

Book swag can include postcards, magnets, bookmarks, t-shirts, mugs, tote bags, pens, custom-decorated cookies, toys, and more. All the stuff most writers, let alone most publishers, can’t possibly afford. Jeannine calmly explains postcards and business cards are the most useful, and how to produce them at a reasonable cost. Of course I wanted to do something complicated.

I am particularly fortunate, because my wonderful publisher, Ginny Connors, of Grayson Books, commissioned artist Bethany Bash to create a simple, evocative cover.  I figured if I rummaged around the web for ideas I’d come up with a neat give-away as a perk for folks who bought two or more books at a reading.

Initially I hoped to create tiny replica book necklaces that could open to a poetry sample, somewhat like this project on Buttons & Paint. The time required, however, was too daunting, especially with time constraints like my actual editing job.

Then I decided to make book pendants that could be worn or used to mark one’s place. It seemed simple. Reproduce the cover image in tiny rectangles to fit pendant tray blanks. Adhere them to the trays. Cover with a layer of clear epoxy or glaze, let dry, and thread with a sheer ribbon. I got the images made at Staples. I read comparisons of adhesives and glazes, finding out more about Judikins Diamond Glaze and Mod Podge Dimensional Magic than I ever imagined. And with my husband’s help, got started.

It did not work out well. I got so frustrated that my more patient spouse took over the project. He tried adhering the images with glaze, applying a layer over the top when it dried. The paper buckled and colors bled. He tried spraying clear coat on both sides of the image to seal it before adhering to the tray. It didn’t buckle, but the colors bled with the top coat of glaze. No matter what he tried, the image bled or the top layer (of glaze or Mod Podge) turned cloudy. (Actual photos of the cover probably would have worked better, but we had tiny images copied at Staples.)

So, with readings coming up, he gave up on the dimensional top layer. Instead he used white glue to adhere the image to the tray, then sprayed it with several layers of clear coat, letting it dry well each time. It’s not as professional as I’d imagined, but still cute enough to be my main swag.

Despite my hermit-y ways, I have four events lined up, three readings and an Epic Art Sale!
May 4th and 5th from 10 am to 5 pm. This weekend I get to hang out with actual artists for two days.
Friday, May 10th at 7:30.  Lara Lillibridge is launching her sparkling new memoir Mama, Mama, Only Mama at Visible Voice Books in Cleveland. Marsha McGregor and I get to open for Lara.
Sunday, May 19th at 1 pm. I’ve got a shared reading at Loganberry Books in Shaker Heights with Kim Langley whose book, Send My Roots Rain,  uses poetry and reflection to address grief.
Sunday, June 2nd at 2 pm. My solo reading at the Wm. Skirball Writing Center at South Euclid’s CCPL.
And I have the incredible good fortune to have received two amazing book reviews.
Michelle Wilbert writes in Mom Egg Review, “There is nothing static in these poems–they move with a dynamism that holds the center of each poem without shaking the structure and or offering a summation…”
Kathleen Mickelson writes in Gyroscope Review,  “This is the very glue of this book. Oneness with everything – our families, our neighbors, the prisoners and children and battered women, the cow who lays down to die after 17 years of offerings, the coyotes and birds and beech trees, the oracles that come to us through everyday objects, the bee that leaves her stinger in the bottom of our foot. These poems draw an ever-expanding circle of life that includes even the smallest organisms.”

*Talk about a mindbody connection. You know that “serious allergy” to self-promotion I mentioned? I was in the ER for sudden food allergies just days before my first book promotion… I am going to be fine.

My New Book!

The container of my life has been extra full these last few years — some startling lows but also some immense joys. As I said to a friend during these zigzags, I am practically a parasite on hope.

Still, I am downright startled when something amazing happens to me. And something amazing has indeed happened.

Last autumn I pulled together a manuscript of poems written since my first collection was published. I know it takes a long time to find a home for a book of poetry. And since I can’t afford to submit it to publishing houses that charge reading fees or contest entry fees, the list of publishing houses I might approach is smaller. But I pulled up my optimism socks and sent it to my first choice, Grayson Books. This is the publishing house that included one of my poems in their beautiful Poetry of Presence anthology last year.

Their submission guidelines warn they only publish a few books each year, so I expected to send the manuscript along to another publisher after I got the inevitable rejection. I didn’t even open their emailed response right away in order to postpone the disappointment.

Instead I got an acceptance! (I’m pretty sure I heard trumpets.)

I am strange about my own good news, suddenly more shy, and have only told a few people since signing the book contract back in October. Each step of the process —- editing, choosing a title, approving art commissioned for the cover — has been a testament to the professionalism and patience of Grayson Books publisher Ginny Connors. I still cannot believe my good fortune.

My good fortune doesn’t stop there. Four wonderful poets agreed to write back cover blurbs. Here they are, overflowing with the kindest words imaginable.

I admire and learn from Laura Grace Weldon’s writing. Her poems blossom from an inherent curiosity and grow strong under her compassionate treatment of the subject matter. Such fresh images and heartfelt insights move me to be a better writer.

Susan F. Glassmeyer, author of Invisible Fish and 2018 Ohio Poet of the Year

These poems touch me so deeply because they bring me home to the marvelous sacraments of the ordinary: a coyote howl at midnight, a bean in its fuzzy pod, water in a forest stream that “moves in patterns more ancient than philosophy.” When I take a few moments to read a Laura Grace Weldon poem, the sun comes out in my heart, and I know that the earth, for all its pain, is bathed in goodness.

Alfred K. LaMotte, author of Wounded Bud and Savor Eternity One Moment at a Time

Laura Grace Weldon invites us to engage our third eye, to truly examine “light in a window/ laundry flapping defiantly on the line.” Her words so intimate and lush, she guides us to spaces we pass by, take for granted, overlook in our super-charged lives. Without reprimand or judgment, Laura Grace ever so deftly reveals the secret: “it’s a matter of walking/ inside to out with someone capable of truly seeing… wakening skin and gut, summoning/ the long kinship we share with everything.”

Kari Gunter-Seymour, author of Serving and Poet Laureate of Athens, Ohio

On each surface our fingerprints linger.

They are too light to pack

too heavy to carry.

These lines from Laura Grace Weldon’s “Moving Day” remind us that the miraculous, the heartbreaking, the beautiful are always right in front of us, disguised as the daily messiness of our lives. I finished Blackbird and took a long winter walk through the park, seeing the world with fresher, keener eyes, and a feeling of gratitude.

George Bilgere, author of Blood Pages, Imperial, and The White Museum

I am endlessly grateful to these gracious poets, to my wonderful publisher, and to the dear writer friends who helped me workshop these poems: Laurie Kincer, Diane Kendig, Connie Gunn, Sarah Vradenburg, Margaret Swift, Patrick Davis, Roberta Jupin, Geoff Polk, and Virginia Douglas.

My book will be available at Cleveland’s Loganberry Books this spring or ask your local independent bookstore to order it. It can also be pre-ordered on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Or you can get a copy from me at one of my upcoming readings (so far, Loganberry Books on 5/19 at one pm and the Wm. N. Skirball Writer’s Center on 6/2 at two pm).

A portion of all book royalties will be donated to the Medina Raptor Center, a non-profit center in Spencer, Ohio which rescues, rehabilitates, and releases injured and orphaned birds.