Category Archives: harmony

Thinking Makes It So

The Play Scene in Hamlet, Charles Hunt 1803-1877

The Play Scene in Hamlet, Charles Hunt 1803-1877

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so…. Shakespeare, from Hamlet, Act II, scene 2)

Everything old is New Age again

A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle

In 2008, Oprah Winfrey and Eckhart Tolle and two million of their closest friends met once a week for ten weeks, online, for the purpose of studying Tolle’s 2005 bestseller, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. The live interactive seminar was reportedly the first of its kind, with all seven continents represented.

In what had to be the planet’s largest-ever classroom, Tolle and Winfrey fielded comments and answered questions via Skype, E-mail, and telephone. The ten 90-minute sessions are available free on iTunes in large-screen, standard-screen, and audio-only formats.

Here’s the thing: A New Earth, stripped of its packaging, isn’t all that new. The message is three thousand to four thousand years old. Tolle certainly deserves credit for reviving this ancient wisdom, compiling it, and presenting it in a way that appeals to millions and keeps them off the street, at least for the length of time it takes to read 336 pages of rather dense prose. If he seems to suggest that A New Earth might literally save the human race… well, who’s to say?

New Testament, New Thought, New Age, Old Story

Another spiritual-genre phenomenon, A Course in Miracles, appeared in 1976 but didn’t gain widespread attention until 1992 with the publication of A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles,” by Marianne Williamson. Tolle owes much to ACIM and Williamson and to dozens of other authors, including Wayne Dyer (whom I greatly admire) and Deepak Chopra (who contributes the rich and ancient Hindu mystical perspective), writing in the same vein but offering original approaches and ideas as well.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey, 2004, photo by Alan Light

My daughter refers to all this as “Christian Science Lite.” The authors’ debt to Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy and her remarkable explication of Christian Science, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures
(1875), is undeniable. Mrs. Eddy’s writings in turn reflect New England Transcendentalism, particularly the work of Emerson. They’re part of a metaphysical tradition articulated by the likes of Marcus Aurelius, Rumi, the Buddha, the authors of the Torah and the Christian Bible, and many others..

Christian Science would have gained wider acceptance, I think, had it not been for the emphasis on forgoing medical treatment in favor of a strictly spiritual approach, although my Christian Scientist friends tell me that they are by no means forbidden to seek medical attention. In any case, the New Thought movement emerged in the late nineteenth century making rather less noise about doctors and healing; today’s Unity Church is part of the New Thought legacy. I have not included the much-loved Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale, as part of this tradition because Peale emphasizes faith, hope, resilience, and the miraculous intervention of a loving and very personal God, whereas authors and philosophers from Mrs. Eddy to Eckhart Tolle use, to varying degrees, the vocabulary of science and math. One exception, however, is Marianne Williamson, who combines old and new spiritual practices in a way that is graceful and beautiful to see.

(Christian Scientists are blessed with great generosity of spirit. Even so, they tend to bristle, I’ve observed, when hearing Mrs. Eddy’s complex yet practical message described as faith healing or positive thinking.)

According to Christian Science, as I understand it

  • God (“Divine Mind”), being perfect, creates only perfection
  • Human beings, as God’s divine ideas, are not susceptible to sickness, sin, or death
  • All reality reflects God’s attributes: It is loving, spiritual, eternal, intelligent, joyful, harmonious, and so forth
  • Matter is nothing but a manifestation of thought; it is insubstantial and illusory
  • It is “mortal mind” (“error”) that produces the appearance of anything other than well-being
  • Negative emotions proceed from the false beliefs that people can be separated from God and that matter is real
  • Jesus had a perfect understanding of the divine nature, thus manifesting the “Christ principle”
  • You and I, attaining that level of understanding, would also manifest the Christ principle

Thus, poverty is the manifestation of an erroneous belief in “lack.” War and family strife are examples of the “lie” of inharmony.

Compare these tenets to the “mind-body” metaphysics of modern adherents; I think you’ll find more similarities than differences. More important, though, is that you choose the guru who speaks your language. You might read something out of Chopra that resonates with you in a way Tolle’s writing does not.



Poem H–Going Fishing

Clover near West Emma Creek

Clover near West Emma Creek

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To help my friend and colleague Queen Jane Approximately decide which of my poems to submit to publications and contests, I am posting  ten of my particular favorites — poems A through J  (yes, I had to count off the letters on my fingers). I’d like your comments as we go along and, in particular, when all ten have appeared, your ranking. Which do you like best (10 points)? Least (1 point — I can’t bear the thought of getting Zero points)?


It was a halcyon day in June
with nothing in particular
to do, so we decided to go to
West Emma Creek
to catch fish
and lie in the sun
and read about mockingbirds
and antelope herds
and constellations.

We decided not to go by limousine
to Houston, or aeroplane to Dublin,
or submarine to Arabia, or flying
carpet all the way across
the world to Marrakech.

We decided to go to
West Emma Creek
to catch fish
and lie in the sun
and read a novel by Jane Austen.

We decided not to go by subway
to the Pentagon
or run into the jungle
or drive into the desert
or fly beyond the sun.
We decided not to be going, going,
going somewhere.

Now we are walking to
West Emma Creek
to catch fish
and lie in the sun
and read about Little Bear
to children.


  1. West Emma Creek is an actual stream in central Kansas, but in this poem it serves as a metaphor for _________.
  2. This is, for me, anyway, a short poem, and very little of its vocabulary is accidental.  There are several possible answers to the following question: Why might the poet (moi) have chosen the following words or phrases: mockingbirds? antelope herds? constellations? limousine? aeroplane (with its nonstandard spelling)? submarine? novel by Jane Austen? subway? Pentagon? walking? Little Bear?
  3. Please identify the following poetic (rhetorical) devices in the poem: anaphora, euphony, cacophony, hyperbole.
  4. (There is no single right answer to this question, either.) What, beyond the superfluous (she likes to lie in the sun), do you discover about the poet in “West Emma Creek”— something she might not have known about herself until she wrote the poem?
  5. Does “flying carpet all the way across the world to Marrakech” suggest any particular type of journey?

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Poem E


TapKids — Wicked timing, talent, stamina, and entertainment

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God’s Time Is the Best Time

(English subtitle of Cantata No. 106, by J. S. Bach)

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224

The Rockettes

The Rockettes

To help my friend and colleague Queen Jane Approximately decide which of my poems to submit to publications and contests, I am posting  ten of my particular favorites — poems A through J (yes, I had to count off the letters on my fingers). I’d like your comments as we go along and, in particular, when all ten have appeared, your ranking. Which do you like best (10 points)? Least (1 point — I can’t bear the thought of getting Zero points)?

I don’t like to explicate my own poems — I let my students do that, and then they explain them to me, and then I get them (the poems; not the students) — but I am not as confident of this poem’s integrity as I would like to be… I keep changing and expanding it… although I think it’s finally Done. I just don’t quite get it! My own poem!

This poem, “Life Is Poetry (Now),” is on my website’s home page, and it is the theme of my free online course “How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically.”

Tap Kids

TapKids again, astounding the audience (see short video below)

And I am going to do a bit of superficial explication, because I’m not sure what the poem is trying to tell me. If you approach poetry-writing properly, your poems will outrun your conscious understanding, just as dreams do. And puzzling them out is usually fun and revealing.

Below are some of the messages I think the poem is trying to express. But I still keep missing that train….

Being ‘on’

If you’re always running after your life, you won’t be paying attention and you’ll miss the signals

Fred Astaire and dancers in the 1935 romantic comedy TOP HAT

Fred Astaire and dancers in the 1935 romantic comedy TOP HAT

But if you must live chaotically, do even that with panache; be magnificent, even if you arrive halfway through your big number

Be bold
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. —Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love – Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles”

Don’t ever, in anything, go on autopilot. I heard recently that Orthodox Jews have prayers and rituals for every conceivable activity, even those that occur in the… um… powder room

Kevin McCormack and Riverdance

Kevin McCormack and Riverdance

Timing is everything… being in sync with the rhythms that surround you, but also knowing which ones to pay attention to [Ah. I think there’s something here. Not in sync. Unaware of the rhythms]

Brutus, the speaker in the Julius Caesar excerpt above, seems to imply that if you miss the train (“the tide… at the flood”), it’s over, and you might as well just mark time until you croak. I, however, think we have lots of chances, an infinite number. The train keeps coming back… it just doesn’t stay very long in the station… so, travel light; don’t let your baggage weigh you down

BUT THERE’S MORE. I’m still missing something. Look! Except for the fellows below, all the images I chose to illustrate “the poetic life” are big clumps of dancers. I suppose stranger things have happened, but I’m pretty sure that I will never be a Rockette.

The Scottish Pipe and Drum Band, Alexandria, Virginia
The Scottish Pipe and Drum Band, Alexandria, Virginia


When you find your spot and hit your stride,
regardless of how hard you tried to be
on time and didn’t quite succeed, yet neatly,
gracefully, and perfectly in step,
slipped into your appointed place as if
you were the missing tuba player in
a marching band, but landed with a grin
and saucy bow, finessing now,
extemporaneously starring in
an unpremeditated bit, and everyone
applauded, just assuming it was part
and parcel of the entertainment — then
you’ve made a work of art out of a chance
anomaly, and life is elevated
from the ordinary: It’s a symphony,
a dance, a comedy… perchance, by grace,
beyond felicity, to be accompanied
by ginger tea and love and handmade lace
and wondering at Coleridge and Blake… now
you must get some pixie dust (before
you are allowed a bit of rest and solitude)
to give you extra effervescence and
a bit of magic, and, not merely reading
sonnets of Rossetti, Keats, and Sidney,
be a sonnet, one with careful, offhand
rhyme, magnificent. Be poetry;
its tide is in, its time may not soon be
so sensible again


  1. Obviously, “be a sonnet” and “be poetry” suggest metaphors. In what ways might a person be, metaphorically, a poem? (I want your wild guesses here; there are no wrong answers)
  2. Why a sonnet, do you think? Why not a rondeau or a cinquain?
  3. The poetic device called sibilance is conspicuous in this poem. What functions might be served by the use of sibilance here?
  4. Life, metaphorically, is a symphony, a dance, a comedy — something orchestrated, choreographed, managed in a way that the poet (who would be me) evidently believes to be a step up from an entropic, path-of-least-resistance lifestyle. How does the poem indicate — explicitly, or by use of rhetoric — that the poet doesn’t want this “managed” life to exclude spontaneity?

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Kevin McCormack and Riverdance

Kevin McCormack and Riverdance

Poem C

Lily of the valley

Lily of the valley

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A Mother’s Prayer

To help my friend and colleague Queen Jane Approximately decide which of my poems to submit to publications and contests, I am posting  ten of my particular favorites — poems A through J (yes, I had to count off the letters on my fingers). I’d like your comments as we go along and, in particular, when all ten have appeared, your ranking. Which do you like best (10 points)? Least (1 point — I can’t bear the thought of getting Zero points)?

Students: Name as many rhetorical devices used in this poem as you can.

Grassy valley under a blue sky

My space inviolate—grassy valley under a splendid sky

My Space Inviolate

My space inviolate, circle of safety, whitewashed
in whorls of sweet sunlit air. Here is a cradle;
here is a lullaby; here is the wild strawberry,
here is the lily of the valley, in the shade, these
unpretentious in their scent and in their aspect.
Charmed, I fill my lungs with earth and flower
essence, and my heart with innocence —
nothing tainted is permitted here;
I fill my sight with creamy pastel spring
blooms and new yellow-green sweet grass.
Angels who whirled in the dance now sit quietly,
expectantly, one who is wise beside me.

New spring grass

New spring grass

Meditate this hour on your angelic
guardians, whose charge is but to guide you
to your joy. Now rest and dream, and when
you rise, put on the vestments of your power.

All that is kind; all things for love; all hope for
harmony, you’ve just to ask. It is our only task
to give you ease, to please you, to create
a clean, unsullied heart in you, fulfilling
what you’ve chanted at the precipice
of sleep, so near believing all these years.
Look! Every tear you spent for love and
penitence is sacred; each was shed in
honest pain, and we have saved them for
this baptism.

Raindrops on ficus leaves

Raindrops on ficus leaves

Be happy, then. Know that we look after
him and mend his heart, so sore and
unprotected. There! It is done,
and he has seen the messengers of his
salvation, and believed. Then we embraced him
with a lambence that will cleave to him. You
need to understand that love like this,
angels cannot resist. It’s manna, meat and
drink to us. Now you must let him go;
now do release him; entrust him to us.
We shall keep him in an easy custody,
his warden shall be bliss.

Here in this circle is no place for fear.
Nothing feeds it here. Now be serene,
as you were meant to be, for all is well.
The insignificant, pathetic demons
from the place called “hell,” which is no place
at all, but just a state of mind, were chased
away, by saying, “Boo,” and making faces
at them. And yet they scare you so,
they interrupt your dancing— as if they were
substantial… as if they were not less than air.



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Dundee School, Omaha, Nebraska

My school, Dundee Elementary, in Omaha, had a large playground and, between the fence and the wall, wonderful climbing trees and hiding places. I fell off the wall and ruptured my spleen when I was 9. Photo: RDG Planning & Design

In a small literary magazine…

…appeared this poem, my very own! Note rhetorical devices, including pathetic fallacy (anthropomorphism, personification), alliteration, assonance, consonance, simile, metaphor, onomatopoeia, internal rhyme, slant or half rhyme, and others.

Swaddled in Saturday Afternoon

Friday afternoon in early spring
was all but Saturday, and finer in its
way — a long, warm wallowing in
fresh anticipation — no activity
at all, allowing for the effortless,
habitual mobility of youth,
and I had energetic fantasies,
pie in the sky, like every other foolish
girl — I’m certain it’s a rule or ought to
be — uncensored dreams, I mean. How pliable
the world and I were then, how agile my
imagination, deftly crafting Saturday
scenarios and shaping situations on a whim.

Mother Greeting Children After School

Friday afternoon...

In my fringed suede jacket with my long,
brown hair in braids that swished across
my back, I could be Jo March or Annie
Oakley just by wishing to. A lengthening
of stride on pleasant residential
sidewalks, in an instant turned to hard-
packed trails across Nebraska Territory,
I was guiding covered wagons westward,
though unhappily my little pony, Daisy,
had been left behind in Council Bluffs,
recuperating from… from… um… the
hiccups; such a mystifying case,
so strange.

Girl Playing with Leaves

The wind changed...

The wind changed. Balmy just a tick ago,
the day turned strangely dark, and
cold, quick puffs of what remained of
winter merged into a gale. I loosed my
braided hair and let the wind do what it
would. I knew (the wind did not), no
matter how it tugged and turned, no
ordinary wind could separate my hair
and skin — a small but gratifying
evidence of power, to tease the elements
that way, and win. And with such grand,
decisive triumphs, Saturdays begin.

Kids in Spring

Oh! Here they come...

There was a wild and wooded place, if
only ten feet wide or so, that circumscribed
the park. Good climbing trees were there, and
shrubs to hide in while you waited for
Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp to ride in
from their day of keeping lawlessness
at bay. I must be canny and adjust
my brim, so it just skims my eyes. Oh! Here they
come! Alas! It isn’t they, not then! It’s
Robin and his Merry Men, and I, Maid
Marian, again defied the wind and
pinned my tousled hair into a prim,
aristocratic bun, with tendrils tumbling
‘round my face.

Mom Serving Lunch

...for there was lemonade...

The wind abated and the sun peeked out.
I leaned against the Gallaghers’ red maple tree
and watched the play of shade and glimmer in
the variegated canopy and felt
the muffled thrum that was the rhythm of
a Saturday in spring, the quieting
of afternoon in placid neighborhoods.
I heard my mother mixing commerce with
a bit of gossip as the Alamito
Dairy man, whose name was John, sold butter,
half-and-half, and cottage cheese, and muttered
something he had gleaned from Mrs. Hahn,
about the Beasleys’ sheltie’s puppies being
weaned, as I recall. I listened to the
uninflected tune of bees around
a clump of lilacs, heard a small child’s bleating
and her mama crooning consolation,
and a screen door with a wicked spring
obedient to physics, snapping like a
shot, too raucous for the soporific
interlude. And why not let myself
be swaddled by the sun, the homely
sounds, the scent of sod just laid, and lilies
of the valley emanating fragrance
disproportionate to their small,
delicate, half-hidden habitat?
Well contented was I then to call
an end to my adventures for a time;
for there were lemonade, and crackers, and
a book to carry to the back yard and my
secret nook between the privet and the
elm, concave as if it had been made
expressly for my shoulder blades.

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    The Many Roads…

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    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically




    The Ancient Ones believe: If we
    could hear it in primeval purity,
    beside a sacred spring, just by the
    sunlit surfacing where it emerges
    all but unadulterated, there must
    be, in all the fullness of a
    symphony, a song within the
    watercourse — which, hearing,
    touching, tasting, bathing in it
    heals the spirit of its slow,
    insidious decay and makes us
    innocent and wholly realized,
    perhaps immortal — who can

    Even now, you and I can hear our
    voices clear and buoyant in the
    chorus — although you might
    perceive nuances and notes and
    cadences in this eternal mystic
    composition differently than I.

    For since our origin, we have
    sailed on different seas to
    different ports; our purposes and
    choices have developed separate
    pathways in the mind through
    which the melodies pour in and
    where the orchestration rises like
    the ocean at high tide. Yet even
    so, divided at a crossroads,
    separated by a veil, we can yet
    decide — to harmonize or clash,
    sing peace or, maybe, dissonance
    and, if the latter, float with a
    deceptive ease, by flattery and
    treacherous inducement,
    downstream through the sluice
    gate to cacophony; so many
    voices, shrill and wounded from
    the willful howling, shouting,
    shrieking to be heard above the

    And when at last we learn that life
    is not a race, nor yet a test, then
    destiny — some call it grace —
    will bring us home, in this life or
    the next, perhaps a thousand
    lifetimes hence. The many roads
    are one road in the end, and every
    soul will seek at last the blessed
    lullaby; each in time will kneel
    beside a holy well, to rest, to be
    made innocent, as once more
    called to cleansing in the spring,
    the sunlit source of all we know
    above the deep and hidden flow.


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  • The Riley Factor

    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

    Free E-Course Lesson 36

    Chapter 11: Living Poetically
    Case Studies in Poetic Living — Riley

    Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

    A Wallace Nutting colorized photograph
    A Wallace Nutting colorized photograph

    Case Study No. 2 — The Life of Riley

    When I met Riley, in 1995, he was living in a charming duplex — one of three that surrounded a grassy courtyard, where there were eucalyptus and grapefruit trees and flowering shrubs. By September of 1996, he — and his plants and antiques and yellow Labrador retrievers — had outgrown the small duplex, so he bought a three-bedroom house at the end of a cul-de-sac near a park in the central area of Tucson.

    Hoosier cabinet

    Hoosier cabinet

    Riley and I had much in common: Both of our fathers had the name “Horace,” neither of us had a spleen, and both of our mothers were antique dealers. It was from his mother, Rachel, that Riley inherited his love for antiques. Rachel had given him, or he had bought from her, many of the chests of drawers, art prints, rugs, pieces of crockery, and century-old bottles he collected… although, when I was living in Tucson, he and I spent a great deal of time at antique fairs and in antique malls, and his collections have probably doubled in the fourteen years I’ve known him.

    Riley is not what you’d call religious, though he almost unfailingly practices the principles set forth by Martin Buber in his 1923 book I and Thou. (See Lesson 33.1, “What Do You Want?”) He beholds the world, in all its particularity, with reverence, although he does not care for cats and he has periodic attacks of road rage.

    Creative outlets

    "Farmer reading his farm paper," by George W. Ackerman, Coryell County, Texas, September 1931

    "Farmer reading his farm paper," by George W. Ackerman, Coryell County, Texas, September 1931

    Here is an example of what I mean by reverence, as it applies to Riley:

    I have an oak rocking chair, a modest little thing that has served four generations of Campbells. The chair had been smashed to smithereens (“shattered fragments,” from the Irish Gaelic smidirīn, diminutive form of smiodar, “fragment”). I would estimate that this chair was in at least twenty smithereens, some of them no larger than a toothpick. I had given up on finding someone to repair it, but I kept the pieces anyway, in a grocery bag.

    Eastlake bed (

    Eastlake bed (

    Riley took the bag of shards home one day, not long after we met, and brought the chair back to me in one perfect piece within a week. If you could see it, I would defy you to find any trace of smithereen. With the limited tools then at his disposal (he now has a large workshop and a respectable, manly set of tools), he put every fragment back in its place, seamlessly. He had had to replace one of the curved back pieces, but he chose the oak so carefully and stained it in such a way that it is impossible to tell the replacement from the corresponding back piece on the other side.

    There was a small, dark, discolored area on the seat that, as far as I knew, had always been there. Riley said, “I could have fixed that, but it’s part of the character of the chair” (or words to that effect). “The character of the chair” — What a concept! Riley taught me to see into the souls of inanimate objects.

    Living in southern Arizona, Riley can garden year-round. When I visited him recently, he took pride in showing me the new raised garden beds, the brick walkway between them, the automatic watering system, and the handmade compost bin. That’s another thing we have in common: We can ooh and aah about compost.

    Prickly pear (Opuntia; photo by Stan Shebs)

    Prickly pear (Opuntia; photo by Stan Shebs)

    In precisely the same way, he approached the restoration of a broken-down Hoosier cabinet and the reconstruction of an Eastlake bed (similar to the one pictured above), converting it from three-quarter size to full size.

    Pothos (

    Pothos (

    I think he must have been a Druid in a previous life, because he has great reverence for wood, especially oak, and for all growing things, whether they’re in pots or in forests. There are dozens of potted plants in the house and dozens more on the covered patio. The vast majority are from cuttings he took from his own plants.

    A little scary

    In 2001, my sweet Monica, a medium-size mongrel my boys and I had rescued from the Humane Society, died at the age of 13. Riley buried her — reverently — in the bit of yard west of his house and planted three rosebushes over her grave. The roses are the color of coral, and they flourish every year. Riley has planted mesquites and acacias, asparagus fern and ivyprickly pear and jalapeño peppers in the large back yard and the smaller front yard. Everything grows for him. He would no more neglect the care and feeding of a plant than he would of his yellow Labradors, Truman and Dani.

    Riley, me, and my son Eli, 1998

    Riley, me, and my son Eli, 1998

    Riley sometimes refers to himself as “anal-retentive,” but he’s not, really — not quite, just as he is almost but not quite a perfectionist — because he can laugh at himself. Every job he undertakes — from making salsa to building a bookcase — is done lovingly and systematically, and he never hurries.

    Blooming acacia

    Blooming acacia

    There is, however, a teensy suggestion of anal-retentiveness that is evident in the storage of his clothing, which is regimentally folded, or hung, according to type, color, and so forth. It’s a little scary for someone like me, who can never find socks that match.

    More Riley facts

    Riley always pays his bills on time and he never spends money he doesn’t have.

    He knows the names of all the members (and the instruments they played) of every blues or rock band that performed from the 1950s through the 1990s. He owns, I am guessing conservatively here, 120 blues albums on CD.

    He has a complete set of books by Mark Twain, signed by Mark Twain.

    He was something of a rogue in his youth, and that’s all I have to say on that subject.

    Grand Canyon: The muddy Colorado River from Navajo Point

    Grand Canyon: The muddy Colorado River from Navajo Point

    He is loyal. If you become Riley’s friend, you are Riley’s friend for life. Every spring, until recently, Riley went with five or six other men on ten-day backpacking trips in the Grand Canyon. He is one of the younger guys; several of his elders have developed back problems or knee disorders, so most of their hiking these days is done in the mountains that surround Tucson.

    Riley has a graceful, athletic, quietly reassuring way about him. He is confident but never (hardly ever) arrogant. Without having to work at it, Riley lives more poetically than almost anyone I know. As his mother once said to me, justifiably proud of her son, “Riley is a gentleman, literally, in the best possible way — a gentle man.”

    When he’s not at work or on a hike, you might find him refinishing furniture in the workshop, mulching the garden, reading science fiction, or (in season) watching college sports on television. Sometimes he takes Truman and Dani for walks along the dry bed of the Rillito River (there’s a trail about a quarter-mile from his house).


    Wallace Nutting colorized landscape

    The Wallace Nutting photos, shown above, are typical of the kinds of framed prints Riley favors. He has dozens of prints of that ilk, including several Wallace Nuttings, usually in lovely antique oak frames. But despite all the art, the antique furniture, the valuable glassware (which I won’t even begin to describe) and pottery, and the lovely old rugs, the house is neither museumlike nor cluttered. It feels, and looks, comfortable, soft, pleasing in every way… unless you are allergic to or don’t like dogs.


    Out of Order

    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

    Free E-Course Lesson 33.1
    Chapter 11: Living Poetically

    What Does It Mean to ‘Live Poetically’?

    Moonlight Sonata, by Harrison Cady
    Moonlight Sonata, by Harrison Cady

    We are getting rather close to the end of this course, and I am finding bits and globs of material that should have been included earlier. If it’s a small bit or glob, I just quietly insert it. But if it’s a big fat key to the understanding of a major concept, which is the case here, I feel bound to call your attention to it. The left-out part is What Does It Mean to Live Poetically?” and I have stuck it in its logical place, namely, Chapter 11, “Living Poetically,” which began with Lesson 33. The new segment is Lesson 33.1 and you will find it here. 

    A Living Poetically Fortune Cookie

    I believe, when all is said and done, all you can do is show up for someone in crisis, which seems so inadequate. But then when you do, it can radically change everything. Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith


    Lady Irene

    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

    Free E-Course Lesson 33

    Chapter 11: Living Poetically
    Case Studies in Poetic Living — Irene

    Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1 … 


    Case Study #1: Living Poetically

    Anne Bancroft

    Anne Bancroft

    None of my case studies is a perfect example of the poetic liver (or pancreas, or gallbladder…). We are, after all, talking about human beings, not gods or angels. But these are human beings who, in nearly every exigency, see not disaster but an infinite number of choices, and from these they select the most elegant or the kindest.

    Irene is an exquisitely complex individual; accordingly, her life has always been complex. She is gifted in a hundred ways, and, with luck (and a bit more focus), she might have excelled in any of a dozen fields.

    Irene the Artist 

    She is an artist in the Renaissance sense: she sketches, she paints, she sculpts, she sings and plays the guitar. We met in high school — we were both singing in our school’s elite A Cappella Choir.

    During our junior year, she had the lead in the Madwoman of Chaillot,

    (French title La Folle de Chaillot) … a play, a poetic satire, by French dramatist Jean Giraudoux, written in 1943 and first performed in 1945, after his death. The play has two acts and follows the convention of the classical unities. It follows an eccentric woman who lives in Paris and her struggles against the straitlaced authority figures in her life. —Wikipedia

    Without Irene, such an ambitious production could not have been attempted at our school. Her performance was so exceptional that even the most lowbrow of our peers, the guys who still thought it was hilarious to make farting noises with their armpits, were agog.

    Mel Brooks, 1984

    Mel Brooks, 1984

    Likewise, Irene’s appearance was, and remains, dramatic. Her late mother strongly resembled the actress Anne Bancroft (1931-2005), perhaps best known for her Academy Award–winning role as Annie Sullivan in the 1962 film the Miracle Worker. Bancroft was married for more than 40 years, until her death in 2005, to Mel Brooks, now 82. (1)

    As Irene ages (she is nearing 62), she looks more and more as her mother did when I knew her — more glamorous, more Anne Bancroft-ish. For the past ten years or so — after decades of supporting herself, working hard at interesting jobs (she was, for example, the executive director of a ballet company) and learning, learning, learning (she studied under Robert Bly in Chicago) — Irene has lived almost entirely on disability income. She suffers agonies from spinal stenosis and fibromyalgia. In terms of material possessions, she is quite poor — though she reverently keeps the family china from two generations — but poverty has never made her hard or bitter. It has, instead, fueled her imagination and called forth her creativity.

    Gifts of the spirit

    Irene's double cartouche, the ideal wedding, anniversary, or Valentine's gift

    Irene's double cartouche, the ideal wedding, anniversary, or Valentine's gift

    Irene has always been more independent than rebellious. Her spirituality is eclectic, embracing paganism, Wicca, and other fringe religious practices… but she never judges the religiosity of others, and she often prays fervently to “Whoever Is On Duty.”  She begins each day with a ritual of gratitude and a salute to the sun. Many years ago, she dramatically quitted the Presbyterian church she was attending when the pastor’s wife unceremoniously ejected a homeless man from the assembled congregation.

    She knows more about Egyptology and pre-Christian Celtic religious practices than do many academics with doctoral degrees in folklore. She privately performs elaborate sacred rituals on the Celtic festival days:

    • Imbolc, celebrated on the eve of February 1st,… sacred to the fertility goddess Brigit, and as such … a spring festival. It was later Christianised as the feast of St Brigid….
    • Beltaine, held on the eve of May 1st., …devoted to the god Bel, and a common practise was the lighting of fires. It was later Christianised as the feast of St John the Baptist, and the festival of May Day is generally thought to have been based upon it.
    • Lughnasadh, … in August, [which]… revolved around the god Lugh, who, according to mythology, was giving a feast for his foster mother Tailtu at that time.
    • Samhain, held on October 31st, [marking]… the end of one pastoral year, and the beginning of another, and … similarly thought of as the time when spirits of the Otherworld became visible to humans. It was Christianised as Halloween, which has kept its associations with spirits and the supernatural right into the contemporary period. —Wikipedia, accessed January 31, 2009
    Lunar-phase diagram donated to Wikipedia by "Minesweeper"

    Lunar-phase diagram donated to Wikipedia by "Minesweeper"

    In spite of the fact that she dances under the full moon and observes certain traditions associated with the new moon… and that she believes herself to be (half seriously, half with tongue in cheek) a latter-day priestess of the Egyptian goddess Isis (or is it Bastet?), and carries forth the goddess’s legacy of protecting and sheltering cats… she is the farthest thing from a fanatic. She is in some ways vulnerable and in others impervious to the opinions of others, and she would be equally comfortable at Buckingham Palace, in an archaeological dig at the sites of the pyramids and tombs of Egypt, and at a roadside diner drinking coffee and munching on a cheese omelet.

    Irene of the generous spirit

    Irene's Isis print, signed and numbered, 11 x 17 inches; the original was done on real papyrus

    Irene's Isis print, signed and numbered, 11 x 17 inches; the original was done on real papyrus

    Irene is a vegetarian and an accomplished cook — chef might be the more accurate term — and she never comes to see me without a gift of food or the loan of a book. Her makeup is always perfect, her hair beautifully styled, and her clothing artistically accented with earrings or beads, or both. Her own home is approximately half of the second floor of a Queen Anne–style Victorian mansion, with a flank of long bay windows, doorways framed with intricately carved woodwork, and a stained-glass transom.

    Her adopted cats live long, pampered lives, protected as they are by Irene and Isis (or, perhaps, Bastet). She (Irene — presumably Isis and Bastet as well) is patient; it took years, but she finally wore me down, in her gentle way, until I adopted two feral kittens, offspring of fecund mama Jezebel, whom Irene has never been able to trap in order to have her spayed. Irene speaks Cat fluently, to my shame, for I have not managed to pick up more than a few words of the language.

    A Queen Anne–style Victorian house

    A Queen Anne–style Victorian house

    The yard of her mansion apartment is tiny, but Irene has found room for a small cat cemetery and for her summer fairy garden of herbs and flowers and stone pathways. She is an aficionado of meditation, visualization, and Tong Ren, and she is a healer by nature and experience.

    I do not know if Irene has ever read Martin Buber’s I And Thou, but she relates to people in the way Martin Buber would have us do — as sacred, each and every one. As was often said about my late mother-in-law, she “never knew a stranger,” and she has instant rapport with everyone from the drive-through-coffee-shop personnel to the postal-service mail clerks and the other folks waiting for their prescriptions to be ready at the pharmacy.

    Sweet basil from Irene's herb garden

    Sweet basil from Irene's herb garden

    Irene lives poetically about seven-eighths of the time. The lost eighth falls at the end of the month, when she has run out of money, in large part because of her excessive generosity. She is something of an adventurer and spent much of her life on the edge, marrying wildly unsuitable men, one of whom spent an entire night holding a gun to her head. She is far too intelligent and resourceful to have remained in these treacherous relationships, though they afforded her some interesting travel opportunities.


    Among the top ten of My Most Embarrassing Experiences is the Incident of the Thwarted Escape Attempt. We were 19 or so, still living with our parents, and she had made plans to run off to meet one of the unsuitable men, who lived, I think, in Indiana. What was supposed to have happened is that I was to drive to her neighborhood and wait on a side street to the south of her house. Her parents left for work — they owned and operated a meat market — quite early, around 6:30, as I recall, and “always” turned north after reaching the end of the driveway, so I was, theoretically, in no danger of detection. As soon as they were out of sight, I was to pick Irene up and take her to the airport, where she would soar away to her assignation.

    The view from the bay windows (photo by Mike Pedroncelli)

    The view from the bay windows (photo by Mike Pedroncelli)

    Unfortunately, her parents had detected her packed suitcase the night before and had prevented her from phoning me to warn me off. So there I was, at 6:30 a.m. on the designated side street, watching her parents back out of the driveway and turn… oops… southward. I scrunched down in the seat,  hoping to become invisible, but I heard their car pull up beside mine, and I heard her mother say, “Mary?” with a question mark in her voice. Well, there was nothing to do but pop back up into view, only to be scolded, berated, and forbidden ever to have anything to do with Irene again as long as I lived.

    Fortunately, I did not obey. My life would be much the poorer without Irene and her charm, her grace, and her optimism, which sometimes flags but never fails.


    (1) Mel Brooks, born Melvin Kaminsky; June 28, 1926)… an American director, writer, composer, lyricist, comedian, actor and producer, best known as a creator of broad film farces and comic parodies. Brooks is a member of the short list of entertainers with the distinction of having won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony award. Three of his films (Blazing Saddles, The Producers, and Young Frankenstein) ranked in the Top 20 on the American Film Institute‘s list of the Top 100 comedy films of all-time. —Wikipedia

    Single cartouche with blessing

    Single cartouche with blessing

    What Meditation Feels Like

    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

    Free E-Course Lesson 29

    Chapter 10: Meditation
    Part 2: Simple Meditation

    Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

    Pine Ridge area, northwestern Nebraska

    Pine Ridge area, northwestern Nebraska

    Before you can learn to practice poetry-writing as meditation, you need to know what meditation feels like. You need to practice letting go of your props and your crutches and your manners and your disguises and to discover that at your core — within your soul — you are already perfect. Insofar as meditation can be said to have a goal, it is complete acceptance of your “true” self and your present circumstances.

    Through meditation you are, in a sense, born again every time you choose to be. Let go of the past, let go of the future. Give them to the Almighty. Everything is Right Here, Right Now, and it’s all okay, it’s all fine, because it’s the only way it can be, right here, right now.

    Begin meditation at whatever pace suits you: one minute, several times a day; a half-hour, twice a day; whenever you can steal some time away from the hubbub and find a comfortable, quiet place.

    Some meditation instructors will tell you to take a shower or a bath first, to clean up your mess, to create a “special” place for meditation, to sit in a certain way, and to not fall asleep. These suggestions might work well for you. In my case, they make meditation a chore, just another project, like going to the gym, rather than a way of life, a way of being. If I followed all the rules, I’d meditate maybe every third leap year. As it happens, I can meditate on a city bus during rush hour.

    Meditation step by step

    Jack Kornfield (a Spirit Rock image)

    Jack Kornfield (a Spirit Rock image)

    Start with a simple “sitting” or “breathing meditation.” This is as basic as it gets — breathing.

    • Get as comfortable as possible, in as quiet a place as possible. If you can get comfortable sitting with your back straight on a pillow on the floor, or on a chair, not slouching, with your head tilted slightly down and your feet planted firmly on the floor — great! If you want to lie down, for Dirty Gertie’s sake lie down.
    • Relax. Just saying the word relax to yourself is immensely powerful.
    • Close your eyes. Don’t scrunch them closed — just an easy-and-relaxed closed.
    • Inhale and exhale through your nose, comfortably, rhythmically.
    • Breathe from your diaphragm (or abdomen), so that your in-breaths are deep and lung-filling. Abdominal breathing is, in itself, relaxing. (If you can’t get the hang of it, place your hand flat across your navel and inhale so that your hand moves outward.)
    • Mentally place yourself in a sort of porous cocoon of pure white light. You can think of it as your “energy field.” I see it as God’s loving, healing light. Breathe in the light.
    • The more senses you engage during your meditation, the less likely it is that you will get distracted. See the healing light being inhaled. When you exhale, feel the healing light permeate your body with warmth, like a caress: to the tips of your fingers and toes and the top of your head; through your skin, muscle, bone, all the way to your internal organs and every cell in your body.* Smell and taste the light. Hear the ebb and flow of your breath, like an ocean tide.
    • If you can’t manage all that, just let your attention rest on your rhythmic breathing.
    • Don’t worry if your mind wanders. If a thought or a feeling intrudes, notice it, but don’t follow it. Jack Kornfield suggests you bow to it. If you do get tangled up in thoughts and emotions, gently bring your attention back to your breathing. As Susan Piver says, it doesn’t matter if it’s been ten seconds or an hour. Don’t beat yourself up. Show lovingkindness to yourself. Do not get discouraged. Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche reassures us that “the intention to meditate” is enough. If you genuinely intend to meditate, you can’t mess it up.

      Susan Piver

      Susan Piver

    • If you are distracted by pain or discomfort, let it be, for a time, the focus of your meditation. Take your attention away from your breathing and settle it on your pain. Alternate between focusing on your breath and on your pain. Don’t be surprised if the pain disappears.
    • Meditating ten to twenty minutes at a time, twice a day, is a good guideline. Start by meditating for a few minutes every day. Set a timer, if you want to. Gradually, steadily, add to your time a bit, or to the number of times you meditate per day. But if a week goes by, or a month, without your meditating, you haven’t failed. Just start again. You get an eternity of second chances.

      Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

      Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

    In a nutshell

    • Get comfortable and close your eyes. Relax.
    • Rest your attention on the sensations of comfortable, rhythmic breathing, from the diaphragm, in and out through the nose.
    • If thoughts or emotions break in, notice them but try not to follow them. (I think of this process as a scuba diver’s watching through goggles as fish swim in and out of view.)
    • As soon as you notice that your mind has wandered, gently, lovingly bring your attention back to your breathing.
    • Always, in meditation, treat yourself with love and gentleness. When you are through meditating, the lovingkindness will remain, and you’ll be kinder to yourself and others.

    Other ways to start meditating


    * Warming your fingers and toes is actually a common form of do-it-yourself biofeedback for relaxation. Use an instant-read thermometer or an old-fashioned mercury thermometer. Hold it between your fingers for a while, until it reaches your body temperature. (An instant-read thermometer will do so immediately.) Then focus your attention on the fingers holding the thermometer. You can try to warm your fingertips, or you can just “notice” them. Either should do the trick. You’ll feel a tingling in your fingers—that’s the blood flowing in. The temperature recorded on the thermometer will rise.

    When you’re stressed, your system goes into “fight or flight” mode and the blood rushes to your heart. By consciously directing the blood away from your heart, toward your extremities, the heart slows down and you’ll relax.

    Adapted from Sister Alma Rose Has the Last Word

    Assignment 29.1

    Continue with your meditation journal. Send your new journal entries via e-mail to I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.

    You’ll also find hours of music for meditation and relaxation, nature sounds, meditation instruction, and other meditation resources at Zero Gravity’s website,

    * * *