John Fox, Poetic Medicine & the Art of Listening

“Wherever I can find a place to sit down and write, that is my home.”

Mary TallMountain

John Fox
John Fox at Gleann Cholm Cille in Ireland

At Groiler’s, the one-room poetry bookstore in Harvard Square, back in 1996, I bought a copy of Finding What You Didn’t Lose— John Fox’s first book, subtitled, “Expressing Your Truth and Creativity Through Poem-Making.”

“It’s important to be a witness and to be present to someone so they can edge out a little, then a little more. If I can be without judgment–or at least not show it–people feel safe,” he tells me.

It would be almost two decades before I would meet this kind listener, poet and poetry-therapist, though I thumbed through the chapters year-by-year–always a believer: Writing can heal. Writing does heal.

In the English 101 courses I taught for almost 20 years, I saw it happening. In essays students wrote week-by-week, journals they kept, conversations we shared, the world shifted.

Students  learned about themselves, writing words on the page. And we read poetry aloud and talked and wrote in response. They–and I, too–made connections and discovered possibilities for our lives. It was fun, and some who had recoiled in the beginning opened with the poetry.

From a young age, John knew he was a writer. Planning to study poetry with Ann Sexton and George Starbuck, he went to Boston University. Sexton would leave before her time, of course, and eventually John would transfer to Bard College. He continued his studies of literature though never called to deep-academia–earning a Ph.D. or publishing scholarly articles about Renaissance-men. He memorized Blake, Yeats, Ezra Pound and began exploring his spirituality with the likes of Ram Dass, later Stephen Levine, and he would eventually meet Joy Shieman–a poetry therapist Continue reading “John Fox, Poetic Medicine & the Art of Listening”

“Kindness”–A Poem For All Times, by Naomi Shihab Nye

“I write to learn rather than to spout off what I already know.”

Ellen Sussman

naomishihabnyeI learn a lot when writing these blog posts–usually when writing anything. This week’s musing on the poem “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye led me to new places. I had to think about why I’d been drawn to the poem so many years ago, and I also learned what led her to write the poem. It had been too long since I read “Kindness” out loud, and then I listened to her reading–which you can find at the end of this post (the 3 min. video where she tells how she came to write this and another poem!)

When Ludger and I got married, it wasn’t fancy, and it wasn’t long-thought-out either. Invitations were sent a few weeks before the late-December date because his parents and brother would be visiting from Europe.  My father canceled his plans to take his family to Arizona, and they drove down, the almost-two-hours, to be with us on our marriage day. My sister threw me a wonderful shower sometimes that December , and we found a dress, special earrings–and spent the night at a bed-n-breakfast sort of place the night before.

The most fun I had preparing for the ceremony and reception involves the poem “Kindness”: It was one of the poems I chose to include in a collection we put together. Ludger translated some of the poetry into German so his parents could read, and we hung the poems around the room. After our wedding day, we bound them between purple cover pages, for keepsake. More than photos to remember the union-day, I have the poetry to remind me of our vows.

“Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye was read aloud–by my friend, Najeea. It had been an important poem. I discovered it when a teaching colleague lent me the collection Words Under the Words (isn’t that a super title!?!) Those were the years just after I’d lost my mother. This was a poem I read and reread, and it gave me comfort. Then, when I moved to a small town where I felt alone and out of place, I read it as meditation and often to students those years when I would begin every class meeting with the reading of a poem. Continue reading ““Kindness”–A Poem For All Times, by Naomi Shihab Nye”

Glenna Cook: Gentle Voice Telling Her Truth

“Finding beauty in a broken world may be creating beauty in the world we find.”

Terry Tempest Williams


Poet, Glenna Cook, visiting us in Portland

Almost twenty years ago, I met Glenna Cook in a poetry workshop. Six of us gathered round a dining room  table in Tacoma, Washington. We talked and wrote, wrote and shared. Glenna was twice my age–literally–and back then it seemed a lot of years–a huge gap.

To my younger self, our life-experiences and concerns seemed unalike. Nonetheless, outside of our poetry workshop, we met up at the local Borders Bookstore, swapped a poem or two and traded stories. We witnessed each other’s writing struggles and stubbornness, and once went to the Skagit Poetry Festival together and shared a room at a motel in Mt. Vernon. When I moved two hours south for a full-time teaching gig, we stayed in touch.

Those thirty years between us don’t seem to matter much anymore: The truth is, I appreciate Glenna now more than ever. A lot’s happened since I was 30, in that poetry workshop writing some of my first poems: Loss and gain, birth and death, anniversaries and marriages–sharing stanzas by email most of the time.

Our friendship is a gift which gives me a glimpse into life from a woman who’s lived a few decades longer Continue reading “Glenna Cook: Gentle Voice Telling Her Truth”

Room for Rent: “One of the Best Way to Grieve I’ve Ever Heard of”

“Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle,

and the life of the candle will not be shortened.

Happiness never decreases by being shared”

The Buddha

When I walked into Linda FitzgeraIMG_20140616_143553ld’s home, the words “I’m Happy” reached out from where they sat perched on the mantel. As she showed me around I kept looking to these words, wondering about the block of wood.

I met this dynamic 73 year old water-color artist while waiting for the MAX–the light rail here in Portland. I had struggled to buy my ticket, the machine refusing my credit card. She whipped out her smart phone.

“I like to buy mine online. It’s so much simpler,” she smiled. “You never know when the machine might not cooperate.”

We soon realized we were both headed downtown, both going to City Hall to testify as Airbnb hosts. The city is in the midst of creating new laws to guide the sharing economy. I told her about our 1907 Four-Square and the studio we rent out to travelers, and she told me about the room with a bath in her North Portland home.

“It might sound funny, but this is the best way I’ve ever heard of to grieve,” she said. “It really is. It gave me other people to serve and talk to when I lost my husband.”

Vince Fitzgerald died last September, leaving a void in Linda’s life and a lot of empty space in her home. She heard about Airbnb and realized it would be a good way to use her space and earn some income.

IMG_20140616_161412“I’m happy,” were some of his last words, she told me. Her story made me smile as my eyes stung. She described his last days, the family standing around his bed, and him assuring them, “I’m happy.”

Her husband had lived more than 18 year with Parkinson’s–diagnosed only a year after their marriage. The final three weren’t easy, but he kept his humor–and his appreciation. Earlier in his life, Vince Fitzgerald had been a Franciscan priest, had then married and fathered children, and after being windowed had found Linda. (They had met many years previous, but now they met again!)

“At first I thought he was too boring, Continue reading “Room for Rent: “One of the Best Way to Grieve I’ve Ever Heard of””

Crayfish in Timothy Lake & “The Peace of Wild Things”

“If the only prayer you ever said in your whole life was ‘Thank you,’
that would suffice.”

-Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)

Mt Hood from Gone Creek campground
Mt Hood from Gone Creek campground

One way to love the urban life yet stay refreshed is to get into the woods, especially the nearby Cascades. We hadn’t done it in way too long. And though we’re self-employed and rather flexible –you would think–we sketched in a couple of days at the end of June to “get away”.

Go we did! We packed the car, arranged for Cam, our neighbor, to visit our cat and water plants in the greenhouse. We left on Sunday by noon and wove our way out of Portland–which took almost an hour! Our timing must’ve been perfect because once we found Timothy Lake and began our campsite-search, the pickings seemed beyond good luck.

Site #31 at Gone Creek Campground was a walk-in–and on a tip of the lake: Hemlock and Vine Maple provided natural border on either side, and a drive-in loop gave us some distance from the road so we hardly noticed passersby. Continue reading “Crayfish in Timothy Lake & “The Peace of Wild Things””

Happiness & the Rat: More Similar Than We Might Think

There are two ways to live your life: one is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle.

– Albert Einstein

This week takes me back to the rat, the brain that dictates all we do, and the choices we make along our road toward happiness or wherever we’re headed.

You might remember the super-MOOC [massive open online course] Understanding the Brain: The Neurology of Everyday Life I signed up for back in April: Dr. Peggy Mason, professor of neuroscience at the University of Chicago, teaches this 10-week course.

After a 25-year focus on the cellular mechanisms of pain modulation (how does morphine work?), she now focuses on the biological basis of empathy. Some current research looks at “empathy in rats.” Watch this short video to see one of her experiments!

In her findings, it appears that a rat will choose to free another rat from captivity before choosing to eat a yummy treat. In other words, the rat empathizes with his comrade and helps relieve this other rat’s seeming misery before feeding himself chocolate and butterscotch.

Often, we humans think we’re quite different from others life, Continue reading “Happiness & the Rat: More Similar Than We Might Think”

Here’s to Jack Gilbert–Who Could Have Been Famous

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson


Jack Gilbert

Last week, Peg brought Jack Gilbert’s poem “A Brief for the Defense” to our early-morning poetry circle.

Sun Magazine published this poem along with a short biography and their regret that they hadn’t known of Gilbert’s work until reading about his death in The New York Times. Jack Gilbert, 1925-2012, lived “mostly off the poetry grid,” the article said.

He rose to the top in the poetry world and then chose to step away, travel and feel his way through the world. He chose to study living rather than study academically–or be studied. In 1962, at age 37, he won the Yale Younger Poet’s Prize but six months later bowed away from public view. Over the years he gave few readings and taught only off and on at universities–both in the USA and in Europe–to earn a living.

I hadn’t realized just how lucky we were when he visited our little college in the early 2000s. Continue reading “Here’s to Jack Gilbert–Who Could Have Been Famous”

Lives That Touch Our Own: Karen Turner–More than English Professor

“Nobody sees a flower–really–it is so small–we haven’t time–and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time.”
Georgia O’Keefe, American Artist



karenturnerbench-inscripMany of you, I imagine, have had this same experience: A friend, teacher, pastor, rabbi, astrologist, lover, sister, doctor, neighbor–someone in life–is like a fixture. We take them for granted. We don’t realize how important they are or how we’ve depended on them until it’s too late.

Not to sound dramatic, but you probably know what I mean. It’s human–waking up a bit too late. For me, it wasn’t losing my mother that left me reeling in the way of “I never realized how important she was.” I had regrets, but I knew Mom was important in my life. Her diagnosis spun me into a panic and regret, but I would have some time near the end of her life to say goodbye, make some peace, and let her know how I appreciated her. I tried–as difficult and awkward as I was.

When she died, I was just 31 and hugely sad. The loss called me to attention in a way nothing had. I wanted to make her proud. I wanted to live a life that would show my mother’s efforts and all she gave of herself to me was worthwhile.

A couple of years later, I traveled to India Continue reading “Lives That Touch Our Own: Karen Turner–More than English Professor”

And Still I Rise–A Tribute to Maya Angelou

“People will forget what you do, and

people will forget what you say, but

people won’t forget

how you made them feel.”

Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou, the literary icon who died this week, gives her high school teacher Bertha Flowers credit for helping her to speak again after five years of silence and for igniting her interest in literature. Angelou once stated that the period of silence actually allowed her to absorb her surroundings more intensely. She had been mute after being raped by her mother’s boyfriend.

The literary master was a major figure in the Civil Rights Movement and worked directly with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She authored 30 books, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) is the first of six autobiographies.

Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008. President Obama honored her in February of 2011 with a Medal of Freedom — the highest honor a MAngelou quotecivilian can receive and a “thank you for inspiring people of the world to be more compassionate, loving, and to act from their best selves,” according to a Final Tribute aired by ABC.

Maya Angelou was a poet, actress, activist and educator, and she believed that “Love is what can heal all.” Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she lived for years in Harlem, Ghana, and influenced lives all over the world–including Oprah Winfrey’s–who has long considered Angelou her mentor.

She was also a cook and loved to bring people together around a pot roast,  a “Sunday Dinner” which she said is “one of the most intimate ways to be together.” She  loved country music, she told Robin Roberts on Good Morning America.

Maya Angelou was the second poet in U.S. history Continue reading “And Still I Rise–A Tribute to Maya Angelou”

Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind

 “The mother of a child with disabilities is a powerful person. She doesn’t know what she is until it’s what she becomes.”

Sharon Draper, author of Out of My Mind

Sharon Draper

Sharon Draper’s latest book for middle graders, Out of My Mind, has remained on the New York Times Best Sellers List for more than a year because it’s one of those books that forces us to feel our world in new ways. Our heroine, Medody, is a brilliant 11 years old who’s trapped in a body that won’t allow her to talk or move independently.

“Melody represents all of us and any child who has no voice–who is different and isn’t heard,” says the author. Melody is “the voice for the voiceless.”

Born with Cerebral Palsy, her world opens when she gets a computer with a voice program that allows her to speak and share her wit with the world–for the first time.

Although Dr. Hughly advised her mother to consider sending her “away”, Melody’s caring parents make sure she enrolled in the local elementary school. However, she was always kept in “special” classes–as if she wasn’t the smartest kid in school–like she is!

With the help of ever-caring mom who “becomes more powerful than she ever knew she could be,” according to the author, Melody has been able to learn lots. Another miracle-maker of the story is neighbor and retired teacher, Violet.

“Violet Vallencia is a big hero, the example of Tough Love that pushes Melody to the max–and helps her to become what she can,” says Sharon Draper–who doesn’t Continue reading “Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind”