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To the Core

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 20

Chapter 8: Writing toward the Core
Part 1: Cleaning the Oven

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Sistine Chapel celing, Michelangelo, 1508

Sistine Chapel celing, Michelangelo, 1508

Authentic art is not done for an audience. It is the Self communicating with the self (although, to be truly “finished,” art must be shared — not necessarily with the hoi polloi, but with somebody).

Does that mean that commissioned visual art, poetry, or music isn’t authentic? Is Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel something less than genuine art?

I believe that most true artists, when they accept commissions, find a way to separate their art from — or to integrate it with — the expectations of their patrons. In some cases, commissioned works are rejected or, if accepted, despised. Usually, however, those who commission statues or symphonies are familiar with the artists’ previous work, and so they are not caught off guard when the sculptor they’ve engaged, who has produced dozens of mammoth sculptures that resemble the claws of vultures, gives them a clawlike monument for their money.

Picasso sculpture in Chicago; photo by J. Crocker
Picasso sculpture in Chicago; photo by J. Crocker

The Self communicating with the self


Author and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, talking with host Krista Tippett on National Public Radio’s weekly program Speaking of Faith (August 14, 2008), said,    

I was in the depth of depression and I lived in anxiety about my life and my problems and my future. And one night I woke up in the middle of the night again feeling this sense of dread, and a phrase came into my head, which said, “I can’t live with myself any longer. I can’t live with myself any longer.” And that phrase went around in my head a few times and suddenly, I was able to stand back and look at that phrase: “I can’t live with myself any longer.” And I thought, “Oh, that is strange. I cannot live with myself. Who am I and who is the self that I cannot live with? Because there must be two of me here, if that phrase is correct.”

Most of us suffer, at one time or another, from “imposter syndrome.” We are afraid to let too much of ourselves show. We have public selves who are smiling and agreeable, and we have private selves who kick puppies — or who are afraid we might. When people seem to like us, we think, “Oh, if they knew what I really am deep down….”

Poets can be a broody lot…

Allen Ginsberg, 1978; photo by Ludwig Urning

Allen Ginsberg, 1978; photo by Ludwig Urning

…who in humorless protest overturned only one symbolic pingpong table,
  resting briefly in catatonia,
returning years later truly bald except for a wig of blood, and tears and
  fingers, to the visible madman doom of the wards of the madtowns
  of the East,
Pilgrim State’s Rockland’s and Greystone’s foetid halls, bickering with the
  echoes of the soul, rocking and rolling in the midnight solitude-bench
  dolmen-realms of love, dream of life a nightmare, bodies turned to
  stone as heavy as the moon….
 Allen Ginsberg, “Howl,” Part I

Hot springs 

Blood Pond Hot Spring, Beppu, Japan

Blood Pond Hot Spring, Beppu, Japan

If writing poetry helps you peel away the superficial layers of the self toward a deeper consciousness, you might find some darkness before you reach the inner light — just as, if you could drill a hole through the earth, you would (depending on where you started) encounter a lot of muck and mire and stubborn stone before you came to the fiery magma. Some people begin their digging where the crust is thick, and they encounter dirt and rock and more rock until they give up, concluding that cold, hard rock is all that’s there.

But we are going to be intelligent and commence where the crust is thin and the magma is nearer the surface — someplace where there are geysers or hot springs, for example. If our goal is to penetrate to the core, why not do so where there is evidence that the core is, indeed, warm and bright.

It will not do to carry this metaphor too far. Our planet’s very center is actually extremely hot solid iron. It is in the outer core and surrounding mantle where magma is found; and where magma comes close to the earth’s surface, it makes its presence known through volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, and other phenomena. 

Mt. Cleveland volcano, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, taken from the International Space Station by astronaut Jeffrey N. Williams

Mt. Cleveland volcano, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, taken from the International Space Station by astronaut Jeffrey N. Williams

So let’s abandon our earth-crust metaphor and use a very different simile instead: Reaching the shining inner self is a bit like cleaning an oven. You can scrape and scrub and bang your head several times on the oven’s rim; or you can — more easily and perhaps more poetically — pour a half-cup or so of household ammonia into a bowl, leave the ammonia-filled bowl in the closed oven overnight, let the ammonia fumes loosen the grime, and in the morning sponge away the mess with comparative ease.  

(I don’t have to tell you not to mix the ammonia with other cleaners or chemicals, right?) 

However you go about it, if you really want your oven to be clean, you persist, because you know that the baked-on grease is not the oven. It is simply among the contents of the oven. Eckhart Tolle writes, in The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment,

You may not want to know yourself because you are afraid of what you may find out. Many people have a secret fear that they are bad. But nothing you can find out about yourself is you.

Nothing you can know about you is you.

Most people define themselves through the content of their lives…. When you think or say, “my life,” you are not referring to the life that you are but the life that you have, or seem to have. You are referring to content — your age, health, relationships, finances, work and living situation, as well as your mental-emotional state. The inner and outer circumstances of your life, your past and your future, all belong to the realm of content — as do events, that is to say, anything that happens.

What is there other than content? That which enables the content to be — the inner space of consciousness.

Whenever I write a poem that arises from a dark place, I begin where my emotions are closest to the surface and I persist until the light appears. Here are three examples from my book Unfamiliar Territory:


"The Other Side"Over on the other side, there is a quiet
cottage on a grassy slope, where trees
protect and decorate and cast their pleasing
shadows on the water; and where children,
hyacinths, and roses, cucumbers, and peppers
grow, and snowy linens hung to dry are blowing
in the breeze. Inside, bread rises in the
oven, herbs depend from oaken beams, and
last night’s chicken in its steaming broth becomes
this evening’s stew, tomorrow’s casserole. An
old man and a young man and a boy are sharing
rituals and mending fences, while a woman,
unaccountably serene, sips coffee, shuts her
eyes, and says a prayer of thanks for all that
providence provides.

But on this side are broken shutters, dusty
shelves, unanswered letters, leaves in piles, and
moldy flower beds; and seams half-sewn on
half-done dresses; half-forgotten words in
half-read books; and pressing obligations
half-remembered, half despaired of. Morning
struggles through the cloudy panes of windows —
gray and half-neglected or, perhaps, defied. A
pallid beam succeeds at last and penetrates the
barrier. It comes to rest upon the drooping
pothos, which persists in barely living, never
mind the diffidence its garden is.

The ray of sullen light turns motes of dust to
fireflies. At first they float at random; then they
glide; then, whimsical, they dance as if to
challenge gravity or chance; as if they
will their time aloft, to have an audience, to
shine like stars.

They catch the sun and flicker. They have won a
moment’s glory. Soon it ends, but they have shone.

On the other side are peace and order; on this
side is eagerness to cross the wide,
intimidating border, to be purposeful and
more, to yet achieve, to meet and to exceed an
expectation, even one—to finish what’s begun;
half-perfection wishing to be whole, to be
forgiven for attaining less than paradise. But for
all that, this side is painted with the brush that,
dipped in heaven’s glory, must in time adorn
the swale with yellow clover and, today, in dust
makes manifest the morning stars.


"The Summer of Going Barefoot"When I was very small,
and I was very small indeed, and light on tiny
feet, I found some great, thick, heavy leather
boots, with soles like Frisbees, and I put them
on. I often had to carry heavy things, you
see, or so they seemed to me. I didn’t like to
feel that I was sinking down into the ground,
or wet sand at the waterside, or sliding on the
ice or falling through the snow.

A summer breeze would blow and tousle
leaves on maple trees, then make its way to
me, not stopping to say “By your leave,” but arcing
almost imperceptibly to lift and sweep away the
heavy things. Then I’d sit down, right where I was,
unlace the heavy boots, take off my socks, and
chase the wind. The load was my responsibility, you
see, or so it seemed to me. But who can catch the
wind? Not I. There was no cause for worry, I soon
realized, and I stopped hurrying and felt how
free I was and loved the feeling of the sand, like gentle
hands massaging me. I lay down in a grassy place and
felt the ground resist and then embrace me, or, maybe,
the other way around.

I could have stayed for hours and
watched as clouds like giant puffballs skidded through
the sky and seabirds rose and watched, then dove into
the ocean. Slowly, steadily, the gentle sun caressed
me on its progress to the far side of the earth. I might
have slept awhile, for all too soon the sun was
low, the grass was cold.

The years flew by. I hadn’t worn my boots or even
thought about them till the day I felt the weight again. It
only ached a bit at first, but It grew heavy with alarming
speed. I needed boots without delay, so I gave everything
I had away to buy a pair and slip them on. The load became
so big I couldn’t see where it began or ended. Winters chilled
my bones without relief, and summer heat bore down, and I
was sure it was the earth itself that I was carrying. My soles
were almost bare by now, and I had lost myself.

One summer day a little bright-eyed bird was perched upon
the sand, and she, and she alone, seemed sympathetic, so
together we trudged on a bit, until I almost tripped upon a
man; he sat so still, and he was so serene, it seemed to me
that he might give me some advice, so tired was I and so
dispirited. He smiled and stretched his hands to me; I
thought that he would take the weight away, but he just tipped
it till it fell and rolled into the bay and out to sea and disappeared.

“Now give your boots to me,” he said, but they’d become a part of
me—so I believed. “Just try,” he said, and I untied them easily and
peeled them off my feet. “Now fly,” he said. My little bird and I ran
barefoot down the beach, and laughed to feel the sand and
see the daylight once again. We turned and waved to
him, and then we flew away.


All-engorging, thick with vile effluvium, and
restive, Night still heaves against the pane and
probes the porous mortar, thus to gain a
continent, and breathe again, but holding breath
within, as if release would leave it spent of form and
substance, vanished in a photon storm.

No, to find fragility and penetrate, just as the hungry
sea assaults the levee where it groans, and swallows up the
shore—except that Night can but devour and look for
more, can ebb but not abate, for it is powerless to
moderate its gluttony, nor would it,
if it could.

Anna tosses in her sleep, and if she feels the indolent
oppression, swollen with its kill, she feels it
inwardly, and moans, the speech of wan resistance,
drained of will, a feeble protestation, habit murmuring,
“I am.” Something in her knows the enemy and would
arrest it, summoning a name, essaying ownership.
It rises out of bounds before the net is thrown.

Bereft of thought and consciousness, it senses
nonetheless that I alone am here to watch and to
resist — to fill the lamp until the fuel is gone.

One forgets at midnight that this too will pass; not even
Night outlasts the unremitting circle. But at midnight one
unreasoning expends what has been grown and gathered
season after season, sacrifices every treasure, throws
into the flame a hundred fragile artifacts, to gain a moment’s
clarity. At midnight, friends have settled in and locked their
doors, oblivious to ghastly appetite, now thickened by the
certainty that Anna will comply and abdicate her shape, to be a
pool, a fog, and then evaporate.

Perhaps she dreams that Night will hide her face and nobody
will notice that the Anna space, once occupied by negligible
molecules, is vacant now. But Night and I were taken by
surprise; we had forgotten that the planet turns. At sunrise,
the tenacious lamp still burns, and
Anna sighs.


In “The Other Side,” I began in frustration, approaching despair, over the orderliness of my sister’s and my daughter’s lives compared to my own chaotic existence. In “The Summer of Going Barefoot,” I work through a spell of depression by recalling the liberation from my first, and most debilitating, depression episode. When I wrote “Anna Sighs,” I was struggling with a demanding, draining, and unsatisfying employment experience, one in which I felt irrelevant and invisible.

When I began writing these poems, I didn’t know how they would end, except in light. I wasn’t sure how the light would appear — only that I was reaching toward it.

Assignment 20.1

Write a poem about one source of emotional turmoil in your life. Your poem should

  • work toward enlightment about, not necessarily resolution of, the tumultuous situation, your feelings about it, and your responsibility for it

  • identify the emotion or the situation metaphorically (For example, if you are stressed beyond endurance by an incorrigible son or daughter, you might be “a blade of grass in the jaws of a wildebeest.”)

  • contain a first-person perspective (that is, there must be an “I” narrator)

  • have a regular, rhythmic meter

  • consist of thirty lines or fewer

  • contain rhyme, though the rhyming need not be at the ends of the lines

Please e-mail your finished assignment to I will not grade your work, but I will return it to you with comments.

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Sprinkling Happiness Dust

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 14

Chapter 4: Me, Myself, and I
Part 5: Beyond Self-Knowledge

Red Lady

Red Lady

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

We’ve established—or at least I have and you’ve followed along—that it’s possible for me to see parts of myself, integrate these with direct and indirect feedback from people I respect, and come up with a rough idea of “who I am” at any given moment, which is my “self-concept.” (It’s important to remember, as Eckhart Tolle points out, that one’s self-concept is largely content, not essence.)

My self-concept might be positive (I’m a beautiful spirit sprinkling happiness dust everywhere I go), negative (I’m a slimy warthog), or somewhere in between.

Liking myself is not precisely happiness, but it’s close. Again, despite the fact that my knowledge of myself is limited, despite the fact that I can’t simultaneously “see” myself and “be seen by” myself  — as much as possible, I need to live in harmony with myself.

How I Learned to Live in Harmony with My Nose

When the angels were putting me together on the Great Heavenly Assembly Line, somebody got some of the parts mixed up and I got the wrong nose. I have a very small face and a largish nose. Not only was it unsightly, it made kissing awkward and inconvenient. For a long time I didn’t like myself, nosewise.

It is not conducive to happiness to be filled with loathing and disgust every time you look in the mirror. My choices, as I saw them, were to (a) stop noticing my nose, (b) have my nose made surgically smaller or the rest of my face made larger, or (c) do things with makeup and face putty and other artificial means to achieve better balance among my facial features.

A Child's Nose (Not Mine)

A Child's Nose (Not Mine)

My sister solved the problem by commenting one day that our noses (hers and mine are similar) are Scottish. Having a Scottish nose appealed to me. It was part of my distinguished heritage.

I dealt with the kissing dilemma by developing a deft nasal-dodge technique and by choosing, as kissing partners, men whose noses are as prominent as mine.


Summing up: I want to be happy. I am happiest when I am experiencing harmony within myself and in my environment – inside and outside, in other words. The choices I make have a lot to with the harmony I experience. To make wise choices, I need to know myself as well as possible.

The Unselfish Automobile and the Good Christian

When I was a child in Presbyterian Sunday school, I was taught that being a good Christian means being unselfish. Somehow I interpreted this to mean that my wants and needs were unimportant… that I had been put on earth exclusively to Serve Others.

This was a troubling concept, but it didn’t cause much of a problem until I was out of my teens. During one’s adolescence, it’s almost impossible not to be self-centered and self-aware. I think it’s a hormonal thing.

By the time I was twenty, I was married with an infant. Total self-abnegation is a poor basis for marriage and motherhood. I was a slave to my husband and my baby. I was unhappy – but wasn’t that okay, since God wanted me to Serve Others and to be Unselfish?

At that time I owned a 1960 Mercury Comet. Like me, my Mercury had been created to serve. It was unselfish. But in order to serve, its basic needs had to be met. It needed fuel. It had a hydraulic clutch (or something) that needed to be filled from time to time. It needed regular oil changes. It required maintenance and occasional repairs.

Eventually I learned that I too required maintenance and occasional repairs. Without receiving, I became unable to give.

Over the years, I have learned that giving and receiving are inseparable. Think of a lake that has an outlet – a stream flowing out of it – but no source of fresh water. Soon the lake will dry up. It will no longer be able to sustain fish or waterfowl. It will have no beauty to be enjoyed. It will be unable to cool and entertain swimmers on hot summer days.

When I discovered that I, like the Mercury Comet and the lake, had needs that could not be ignored, I learned a great deal about myself and about how the world works. Knowing myself better, I took better care of myself. I made wiser choices. I was happier, and so were the people around me.

I now believe that people – women and men alike – should always treat themselves as if they are pregnant. Caring for oneself beautifully and wisely during pregnancy is, as it happens, the best way to care for one’s developing fetus. And I believe that there is a sense in which we are all, always, “pregnant” with our future selves. We carry inside us the seeds of what we will become.

You are who you pretend to be

You must be the change you wish to see in the world. —Mohandas Gandhi

Through self-knowledge we can achieve temporary equilibrium. Sometimes equilibrium is enough. Constant challenges become struggles. We need rest between stretches. This is why God created day and night, summer and winter, cycles of all kinds.

Ultimately, however, as living things we must grow or die. And we have some—though not absolute—freedom to choose what direction our growth will take.

The antihero of Mother Night, one of the late Kurt Vonnegut’s lesser-known novels, is Howard W. Campbell, an American expatriate living in Germany before World War II. An ultra-deep-cover American agent recruits Campbell to spy for the Allies and, posing as a Nazi propagandist, to encode his discoveries in his radio broadcasts. When Campbell agrees, he is warned never to contact the agent.

Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut

Campbell, it develops, is a very good spy and transmits a great deal of valuable information to the Allies. He is also a very good propagandist.

After the war, Campbell returns to the U.S. with a new identity but a lingering angst. Many years pass before he is “outed” and prosecuted as the notorious traitor and brilliant Nazi propagandist. Desperate, Campbell seeks out the agent who recruited him—the man who alone can vindicate him.

The agent agrees to corroborate Campbell’s story—that he was acting as a patriot, transmitting Nazi secrets for the benefit of the Allies. Campbell is off the hook, but as they part for the last time, the recruiter makes this cryptic comment: “You are who you pretend to be.”

About six months ago I began to notice that my two-year-old granddaughter repeated everything I said, posing it as a question, trying the words and the phrasing of them on for size. We were at her bedroom window, and I was holding her up so she could see her mom outside, helping load a pile of dirt into a pickup truck.

Ava: What’s Mommy doing?

Me: She’s helping those people load that dirt into their truck.

Ava: Helping dose people load dat dirt into dehr truck?

Me: Yes. It’s nice, clean dirt, good for gardens.

Ava: Nice, clean dirt, good for gardens?

I also noticed that Ava would dog her dad’s footsteps, trying to imitate his stride. And I saw her smile with one side of her mouth, the way her mother does sometimes.

I wrote the following poem for my sons as a Christmas present, framing it along with photos of their two-year-olds (one, Ava, obviously is a girl; the other, Ryder, is a boy; I changed the gender as appropriate in the versions of the poem I used for each son):

He Will Be Like You

Ryder and Dad Eli

Ryder and Dad Eli

He watches every move you make—how else
to learn but imitate?—the way you speak and
move through life, your head held high to find
your polestar in the sky and take no notice
of the grime beneath your feet. Thus will he learn
serenity and find his place above the petty and the
mean. Then from you will he learn to soar, and
know that there is more than senses can perceive,
and all is as it needs to be this moment in the
universe. He watches you embrace adversity and
knows that life is hard, but necessarily, to
grow, to shine, to gain the victory. So you pursue
your course on higher ground, and not for him
alone, but to regain your innocence; spurn guilt,
have no regret; for Jesus said: We learn and then
move on, for God accepts the consequences in
our stead—repentance, then forgiveness, then the
grace that takes away the blemish. That is, after
all, the Gospel, and its promise is: All things are
possible; all souls have


To a great extent, children become who they are by imitating, which is a form of pretending. Adults do too, though not usually as dramatically. My friend Janet moved from Texas to Nebraska many years ago. Her once-thick Texas accent is faint now, except when she’s tired or excited. Another friend, Carol, is a New Hampshire native who has lived most of her adult life in Arizona, yet she sounds as if she has just arrived from New England.

I confess that, in difficult situations, I often pretend to be someone whom I admire and who I know would handle the problem skillfully. When tact and maturity are called for, I am Jessica Fletcher of the television series Murder, She Wrote. When insouciance and utter self-confidence are necessary, I am Miss Piggy. When a situation requires merciless and quick decisiveness (rather than my innate tendency to examine a problem from every possible aspect), I am Doctor Laura.

Miss Piggy

Miss Piggy

This isn’t hypocrisy, nor is it sham. Whatever it is in me that admires Miss Piggy is like her. I can practice being insouciant and sassy just as I can practice sitting up straight instead of slouching.

“Knowing our limitations” doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep testing them if there is an advantage to doing so—especially when what were once our strengths no longer work for us. When I was young and cute and smart and a bit brash, I had instant credibility on the job. It came as a huge shock when, in my bejowled mid-fifties — and smarter than ever — I took a new job and found that I had to prove myself from scratch.

This is why we have to keep learning, growing, and adapting—doing what we do well to remain confident, but also stretching, “reinventing” ourselves if need be, to adjust to changes in ourselves and our environments.

Assignment 14.1: An exercise in allegory—You in a box

Imagine that you have always lived alone in a box that has no windows or doors. The box is flimsy — you could easily kick a hole in any wall — but breaking out of your box would never occur to you. As far as you know, the inside of the box is all there is.

Everyone on your planet lives in a box pretty much like yours. There are light and air in these boxes, but each of you can see, smell, touch, and taste only the objects inside your box. The only stimulus that reaches you from outside is noise. You can hear the voices of your neighbors, though of course they have little meaning for you.

So that’s the scenario. How does it feel? Fun? Boring? Restful? Safe? Scary?

Pretty dismal, I’d imagine, for those of us who don’t live exclusively in boxes (as far as we know) — but perfectly natural to the hypothetical you, the You in the Box, because it’s all you’ve ever known. You have a comfortable bed, plenty to eat, and room to move around.(1) You have several ways to occupy your time: suddoku, maybe, or houseplant gardening, crocheting, shooting baskets….

Your Box and Your Neighbor's

Your Box and Your Neighbor's

The contents of every box are similar but not identical.(2) For one thing, all the stuff in your neighbor’s box, including your neighbor, is mauve, whereas you and your possessions are sky blue. But the color of your neighbor’s environment is irrelevant: You don’t even know you have a neighbor, nor could you understand the concept of color. In your world, there’s no such thing as “not–sky blue” or “not–color.”(3) There is no context for your perception of color.

Quickie exercise: Try defining or describing something without giving it context; that is, without comparing or contrasting it to something else. (Hint: Can’t be done. The unknown can be imagined only as it relates to the known.)

What Is a ‘Julia Roberts’?

Chris and Adam

Chris and Adam

My niece’s wonderful husband, Adam, is tall. He has many other fine attributes, but tallness might be the one you’d notice first, especially if my wonderful niece Chris were beside him; there’s a difference of eighteen inches, give or take, in their height.

Now, when I say “Adam is tall,” there is no need for me to add “…compared to other people but not compared to cypress trees.” The context of Adam’s tallness (people, as opposed to giraffes) is understood.

But if Adam were several stories tall, imagine the employment possibilities! More to the point—the words “Adam is tall” would be inadequate for even the most basic physical description. To give you an idea of Adam’s appearance, I would have to provide context. Even saying “Adam is the tallest man in the world” wouldn’t suffice. You’d be thinking, maybe, nine feet, tops. I’d have to say, for example, “Adam is taller than twelve average-size men standing on each other’s shoulders” for you to even begin to get the picture.

My daughter, Marian (left); Julia Roberts (right)

My daughter, Marian (left); Julia Roberts (right)

Likewise, if I tell you that my daughter looks like Julia Roberts, and you have no idea what Julia Roberts looks like, then I have to find another way to describe her appearance, comparing her to people or things you’re familiar with.




You’re drinking lemonade and I’m thirsty, but I’m leery of lemonade, never having tasted it. “You’ll like it,” you say. “It’s sweet.” But “sweet,” in my limited experience, describes my Aunt Persis’s homemade fudge, of which you, more’s the pity, have never known the bliss. I happen to have a piece of that fudge and I’m willing to share it with you. You say, “Ugh! It looks like mud.” I reply, “Well, your lemonade looks like pee.”

For you to know the joy of Aunt Persis’s homemade fudge, and for me to quench my thirst, we have to find ways to describe “lemonade” and “fudge” in terms we both understand. Most likely, we’ll use similes:(4) Lemonade is tart, like a persimmon. Fudge is chewy, like the meat of a ripe walnut.

The point here is that nothing is inherently manifest to the rational mind. In the realm of logic, nothing reveals itself or discloses its identity absolutely: not people, not inanimate objects, not concepts such as sweetness. We can conceive of them only in terms of their similarities to other things—in effect, as metaphors.(5)

None of us has an absolute identity that exists in a vacuum. It might be said that in all of existence God is the only nonmetaphor. Only God is simply “I am.”

You in a box (continued): Let your imagination run wild

Having spent your entire life inside this sky-blue box, your perceptions of yourself and the universe are likely to be very different from those of a person who has lived as you and I have lived — walking into and out of each other’s houses, freely conversing face to face, being aware of a great variety of colors, shapes, sizes, and phenomena. Take a minute to think about how the You of the Sky-Blue Box might be different from the “actual” you. For example,

  • If you hear voices from the mauve box next door, you might not perceive of those voices as coming from “somewhere else.” You would have no concept of “outside the box.” The box would be your entire universe.
  • You probably wouldn’t perceive the voices as coming from other beings like you. You might take the voices for granted and not wonder about them at all.
  • You might not even perceive a difference between your “self” — your identity, as distinct from your physical body — and the objects in your box.
  • As communication with other people in other boxes evolves and you develop a language, agreeing upon words for things like “bed” and “kneecap,” you discover that the voices are relating experiences different from yours. For the first time, perhaps, you have a sense of yourself as one among others.
  • Or perhaps, given what we know or suspect about collective consciousness, might you not somehow be aware of the nearness of others like yourself?

Exercise: You of the Sky-Blue Box (choose one of the following)

  • Write a scenario, similar to those in the bullet points above, that might describe how the You of the Sky-Blue Box would be different from the “actual” you.
  • Describe what it might it be like if you woke up one day and your refrigerator were yellow instead of sky blue.
  • Describe how your reaction to the change in color might be different if it were gradual rather than sudden.
  • Describe how you might feel…
    if an opening to the outside appeared one morning, and there were nothing outside but light — not unlike the light in your box — but you were able to walk around your box and see it from the outside
    if the next day other windowless, doorless boxes appeared
    if the day after that you saw that trees and flowers had grown among the boxes. (Do you think they would look beautiful to you? Or would they frighten you? Having led such a sheltered existence, would you want to explore them, or perhaps try to hide from them instead?)

  • Think of other possible changes in your Sky-Blue Box universe and imagine different ways in which you might react to them.
    Describe one such variation.
    How would your answer to the question “Who am I?” change?
    How would your perception of the universe change?
    What would you do differently in response to your new perceptions of yourself and the universe?

Assignment 14.2: Defining figures of speech

Define, in your own words, allegory, metaphor, and simile. Draw your definitions from at least two sources. Summarize the differences among allegories, metaphors, and similes.

Separating and reuniting

The little story “You in a box” is a very rough allegory for human personality development. When a fetus enters the world as an infant, the physical separation from the mother is the beginning of a series of physical and psychological separations.

These separations are exhilarating because they lead to freedom. They are terrifying because they lead to isolation.

I believe that

  • without God, to be completely free is to be completely alone, whereas
  • with God, freedom leads inevitably to relationships based on love rather than need and fear.

(1)      Your source of food, fresh air, and other necessities is outside the scope of this allegory. Sorry.

(2)      I know this because I am the Omniscient Narrator.

(3)      If you ever want to give yourself a really bad headache, try to invent a new color. It’s impossible. All you can do is imagine different combinations of red, yellow, and blue, plus black and white. Yet surely, somewhere “out there” in the vast unknown, there are other colors, obeying laws of physics yet to be encountered.

(4)       simile (noun): a comparison of one thing with another using the word like or as. [A particular type of software] is as ugly as a sack full of penguin guts. —Bruce Sterling

(5)      metaphor (noun): a figure of speech in which two things are compared by saying one thing is another. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very Heaven! —William Wordsworth, The Prelude


‘That Unique Essence’

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 13

Chapter 4: Me, Myself, and I
Part 4: Growth and Self-Knowledge

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

One of the first things I learned as a Buddhist was that the… mind is so vast that it completely transcends intellectual understanding…. The Buddha understood that experiences impossible to describe in words could best be explained through stories and metaphors. -Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living

What we truly are, objectively, is that unique essence that distinguishes us from one another. It equips us to reveal some special piece of cosmic truth to which the essential uniqueness of other individuals is less favorably attuned. But, in our alienation from essence, what we lack is the compellingly direct experience and cognition of the astounding fact that our body, in its entirety, is intelligence—Mind. –David S. Devor, “Intuition, Creativity, Mind & Matter,”, accessed September 3, 2008

 A Work in Progress 

We have already seen that it is impossible for me to know myself empirically, because

A Work in Progress

A Work in Progress

1. The self is never static (so my sense of self must be fluid).

2. I can’t be both Observer and Observee at the same time. To separate into Observer and Observee is to no longer be a unified, distinct self. (When I look into a mirror, I don’t see my self; I see a two-dimensional representation of my physical body.)

3. Since I can’t get outside myself, I must depend partially on what I believe to be others’ perceptions of me for my own self-knowledge. No two people perceive me in the same way. Obviously, I value some people’s opinions more than others’.

4. Parts of my psyche are floating around outside me, taking cover inside me, and latent, waiting to evolve when I am stretched and challenged.

Knowing oneself will always be a work in progress, but it is essential to keep at it if we are to have any peace, any joy, any sanity. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here is just a tiny sample of the thousands of “know thyself” maxims that exist:

  • Jesus said…, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.” —from the Gospel of Thomas

    J. Krishnamurti

    J. Krishnamurti

  • Through self-knowledge you begin to find out what is God, what is truth, what is that state which is timeless. Your teacher may pass on to you the knowledge which he received from his teacher, and you may do well in your examinations, get a degree and all the rest of it; but, without knowing yourself as you know your own face in the mirror, all other knowledge has very little meaning. Learned people who don’t know themselves are really unintelligent; they don’t know what thinking is, what life is. That is why it is important for the educator to be educated in the true sense of the word, which means that he must know the workings of his own mind and heart, see himself exactly as he is in the mirror of relationship. Self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom. In self-knowledge is the whole universe; it embraces all the struggles of humanity. -J. Krishanmurti
  • Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
    The proper study of Mankind is Man. -Alexander Pope
  • I must first know myself…. To be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous. -Plato
  • The high peak of knowledge is perfect self-knowledge. -Richard of Saint-Victor  (1)
  • If most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful…. -Aldous Huxley
  • How little do we know that which we are! How less what we may be! -Lord Byron
  • It is wisdom to know others; it is enlightenment to know oneself. -Lao-Tzu

George Gordon, Lord Byron
George Gordon, Lord Byron
  • The best way of knowing the inwardness of our neighbor is to know ourselves. -Walter Lippmann
  • All men have the capacity of knowing themselves and acting with moderation. -Heraclitus
  • We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become. Ursula K. Le Guin (2)
  • Know the enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat. –Sun-Tzu
  • The most successful people are those who don’t have any illusions about who they are. They know themselves well and they can move in the direction of their best talents. -Bud Bray, quoted in Is It Too Late to Run Away and Join the Circus? (3)
  • Meditation… is the way to know the self that resides just below the surface, a surface that is usually choppy with likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, and judgments of all sorts. This amalgam of thought and emotion is who we think we are, but we are wrong. Who we are is far more interesting, exciting, and powerful than this. Who we are is fearless, joyful, and extremely kind. -Susan Piver (4)

You are not your thoughts and feelings 

Laozi (Lao-Tzu), depicted as the Taoist god

Laozi (Lao-Tzu), depicted as the Taoist god

A working knowledge of myself is essential for day-to-day existence. I can, without understanding every facet of myself at every moment, have a pretty good idea of my strengths and my weaknesses. I can “be in touch with my feelings.” I can know my limitations and decide whether to tackle them or navigate around them. I can develop relationships with people I trust—people who will help me determine whether my perceptions are accurate or I am living in La-La-Land. I can avoid the traps that snare me if I get too close.

I can know what is not me. Teachers of meditation say, “Observe your thoughts and feelings, but know that you are not your thoughts and feelings.” My identity or self is not simply the sum of my roles: mother, sister, friend, writer, churchgoer, meditator, teacher, Anglo American, dancer, singer, and so forth. This is good news. If I identify too closely with any role, then, on the day I’m performing well, I like myself and I feel good, and on an off day I despise myself and I am miserable.

So where to begin?

Let’s go back to a few of the principles we established earlier:

  • Everybody wants to be happy.
  • Babies are born expecting happiness. At birth, their wants and their needs are virtually identical, but they (wants and needs) soon diverge.
  • As we interact with more and more people who are Not Us, we learn adaptive behaviors. Some are healthy, such as compromising without giving our selves away. Some are unhealthy, such as lying and manipulating for short-term gain.
  • We are often mistaken about what would make us happy. Learning what makes us genuinely and lastingly happy is called “maturing,” and it usually involves balancing our immediate wants and needs with our dreams, goals, and anticipated long-term needs. It’s the same kind of balancing you do when you’re in your thirties, say, and putting aside money for retirement, enough but not too much for present needs and generosity.

Happiness ≠ cake batter

When I was, oh, maybe four years old, my mother left a bowl of cake batter unattended on the kitchen counter while she took a long-distance phone call from her dad in Des Moines. Long-distance phone calls were a big deal back then. (5)

My mother should have known better. I loved nothing more than cake batter. I wanted to be happy. Surely eating some cake batter would make me happy.

I ate every atom of that cake batter. I was very ill afterward, plus I had to endure my mother’s anger and my father’s grave disappointment, which was even worse than being yelled at by Mom. 

I had been given a lesson in enlightened self-interest, which often requires delaying gratification. These lessons are learned first-hand-by suffering the painful consequences of immature, uninformed decisions—as well as by watching others (older siblings, perhaps) suffer them and, less often than we might like, by listening, reading, and observing the world at large.

Learning about ourselves is a process of testing our inclinations—which must never be discounted—against their short- and long-term consequences. Creating (or co-creating) ourselves involves growing in the directions that (a) satisfy our inclinations—wants and needs—and (b) have acceptable short-term outcomes and beneficial long-term consequences.

Build on Your Strengths

Build on Your Strengths

Employers are finding that organizational success is more a matter of building on employees’ strengths rather than trying to improve their weaknesses. It’s about time. Unaccountably, American companies throughout the twentieth century typically promoted their strongest sales personnel into management, seemingly unaware that great salespeople are cut from different cloth than great managers.

The Gallup organization administers a comprehensive test of employee strengths, which are ranked from first to thirty-second. My opinion, which the Gallup folks unwisely didn’t ask for, is that what you get with a single assessment is more of a snapshot than a portrait. Even so, the employers I’ve talked to say it’s a great help in assembling work groups so that you have at least one Organizer, one Learner, one Bulldozer, (6) and one Creative Person, and not a bunch of Peacemakers who tiptoe around trying not to hurt each other’s feelings and don’t accomplish anything.

I agree that it’s important to know your limitations and not knock yourself out trying to excel in something that (a) you don’t particularly enjoy and (b) you’re not well equipped for. This is why I’ve never tried out for the NFL.

A. Becoming a Better Teacher? Yes

I have a lot of knowledge about and experience with writing, but at one time I was uncomfortable in front of an audience and I did a poor job conveying my knowledge. I chose to improve my public-speaking skills because I sensed that it would be tremendous fun to teach and that there were specific steps I could take to become good at it.

B. Becoming a Better Salesman? No

I have an aversion to selling. I’ve never been able to get past the feeling that I’m asking my prospect for a favor. I hated selling candy when I was a Camp Fire Girl, and I hated calling on prospective underwriters when I was the promotion director for a public-radio station. Try as I might, I can’t envision myself as an effective salesperson. It seems wiser on my part to let others do whatever selling is necessary in my business endeavors.

Vulnerabilities: How well do you learn from your mistakes?

Long ago I read a wonderful little bit of prose that I can’t locate today. With apologies to the author, it went something like this:

  • I walk down the street. There is a hole in the street. I don’t see it. I fall in. It is not my fault.
  • I walk down the street. There is a hole in the street. I pretend not to see it. I fall in.
  • I walk down the street. There is a hole in the street. I know it is there, and I try to walk around it. I fall in anyway.
  • I walk down a different street.
New York City pothole; photo by David Shankbone

New York City pothole; photo by David Shankbone

The “hole in the street” is, for example, a woman’s tendency to fall in love with men who are abusive, or needy, or dangerous. It might be a parent’s serial rescuing of an adult child who is profligate. (Dad to daughter: “Okay, I’ll lend you the money, but this is the last time.”)

Vulnerabilities are the areas in which you’re most likely to make mistakes that screw up your life; the things you do even though you know better; the way you respond when people push your hot buttons; the habit of using the same failed strategy over and over, expecting a different result.

Dr. Young, the psychiatrist who treated me so successfully in the nineteen-seventies, used to say, “Know your patterns.” My pathological “pattern,” at that time, was to “stuff” my anger and accept the blame for everything that went wrong. Many people err in the other direction: They don’t take responsibility for their mistakes and change their behavior accordingly; instead they look for someone or something else to blame. (Ideally, blame doesn’t enter the picture, and everyone focuses on what he or she can do to keep the problem from recurring.)

Vulnerabilities or patterns differ from weaknesses in that it’s not always necessary to fix your weaknesses. Having astigmatism or poor upper-body strength is a weakness. There are ways to compensate. Having asthma is a vulnerability. You can stay healthy (according to conventional western medicine) only by avoiding situations that are likely to bring on an asthma attack.

Choices create futures. Mistakes are possible only until they’re made. After that they’re the raw material of your future life. You can’t change a stupid decision, but you can use it as a basis for making smarter decisions in the future. And you can absolutely refuse to let guilt or regret drain your energy.

The only function of guilt is to motivate us to make whatever amends are possible and to behave differently in the future. After that, indulging in guilt is like picking a scab. Leave the wound alone; it will heal, and the scab will fall off.

Lesson 13.1: Assignment

Exercise: Personal inventory

Without getting too technical or introspective, let’s inventory ourselves. I’ll go first.

1. Things I most enjoy: Mothering. Dancing. Writing poetry, songs, fiction, and nonfiction. Singing. Teaching. Meditating. Listening to classical music, especially the larger works of Brahms, Mozart, and Beethoven, and Renaissance choral music. Reading in bed, with a particular fondness for female British writers, from Jane Austen to Dorothy L. Sayers to Rosamund Pilcher to Philippa Gregory, and for nonfiction about spirituality (the history of Judaism is a current passion), the English language and the development of language in general, quantum physics, and history. Going to small afternoon parties. Going to my grandchildren’s performances and sports events. Going to lunch and coffee with friends and family members. Collecting antiques. Gardening. Spending time at rural retreats.

Things you most enjoy:      


2. Things I least enjoy: Shopping. Meetings. Making phone calls. Selling. Being in crowded places.

Things you least enjoy:      


3. My talents, skills, strengths: Writing almost anything. Editing garbled prose for particular audiences. (I am especially good at working with inflated academic- and corporate-speak, making it clear and comprehensible yet still “dignified” in the eyes of the intended readers.) Public speaking. Teaching, when I don’t have to maintain order (I’m not scary enough).

Your talents, skills, strengths:


4. My weaknesses: I am inconsistent in following up on my great ideas. I am a mediocre manager of people (I always want to be friends). I am too sedentary and too easily distracted. I have trouble keeping my environment orderly. I am impossible at setting long-term goals.

Your weaknesses:      


5. My dreams and ambitions: To travel the U.S.A. in a mini-motorhome. To fly an ultralight. To live for months at a time in England, Scotland, and Wales. (William F. Buckley says he always writes his books in Switzerland. I want to always write my books in a cozy cottage in Scotland.) To write, publish, and sell lots and lots of books for children and adults about all the things I am interested in, especially if research for my books requires travel to distant places that are not cold. To live in the country.

Your dreams and ambitions:


6. My vulnerabilities: Codependency. Procrastination. A tendency to hibernate and then wonder why I’m lonely.

Your vulnerabilities:


7. How I deal with my vulnerabilities: Codependency: I get professional help immediately when I feel myself being sucked into an unhealthy lopsided relationship. Procrastination: I’m better at keeping commitments to other people than at keeping commitments to myself, so I make myself accountable to someone else, often my sister, who I know will hold me to it. Hibernation: I have a group of friends who have a similar tendency to hole up, and if we don’t hear from each other at least every two weeks we do a head count. “Everybody okay?” We also have fixed times for social gatherings-birthdays and holidays, at least.

How you deal with your vulnerabilities:


Please e-mail your assignment to me at It will not be graded, but I will return it to you with comments.

1     I culled about half of these items from a list, published on the Internet, of quotes about self-knowledge. It seemed more efficient than reading all the books they represent. I’m always leery, however, of quoting a person I’ve never heard of. What if that person never existed? What if the compiler of the list just made up the quote and threw it in as a joke?

      Richard of Saint-Victor, a Scot by birth, did exist. He was, according to Wikipedia, a “mystical theologian” and prior of the Augustinian Abbey of Saint-Victor in Paris during the twelfth century.

2     Ursula K. Le Guin is a famous American fantasy writer – practically a household name, I’m told. Apparently my household got skipped.

3     I discovered next to nothing about Bud Bray, but I included his quote because it’s the kind of thing people are always saying in motivational speeches. It rings true and it gets people nodding in agreement.

4     How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life, by Susan Piver (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007), p. 8

5     You never dialed long-distance phone calls yourself. You called the Operator and gave her the phone number you were calling. (All the Operators were women, and they sat on tall stools in front of huge switchboards with cords going everywhere.) You told her whether you wanted to call Person-to-Person or Station-to-Station, which was cheaper and which meant that you would talk to whoever answered the phone. Either way, after you made your request you hung up the phone and waited for the Operator to call you back. It might be a few minutes, or it might be hours, especially if you were calling Person-to-Person for Mr. Applebottom, who was an Important Executive involved in Important Meetings. But the Operator kept at it, and eventually the phone would ring and it would be the Operator saying she had your Party on the line.

6     Not all these terms are the official Gallup designations.

Next: Sprinkling Happiness Dust


You Are Always More Than You Think You Are

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 12

Chapter 4: Me, Myself, and I
Part 3: What Is the Self?

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What Is the Self?

What Is the Self?

The human self is incapable of being defined. Am I a body, am I a certain set of capacities, a certain set of memories? …You are not definable…. You share with the [divine] attribute of keter [crown] this lack of being definable and determinable. Therefore you are always free to transform your life, to be different than you have been up until now. —Rabbi Nathan Glick, The Song of the Ten Sefirot  *

The late-nineteenth-century philosopher William James writes that your self is synonymous with your thoughts and beliefs about you and, at the same time, with comparisons of yourself with others gained through social interaction.**

This definition is useful but, in my view, flawed by doubling back on itself where it should move forward. The “comparisons of yourself with others gained through social interaction” are continually influencing “your thoughts and beliefs about you,” and vice versa. So James’s definition becomes, “You are who you think you are.”

But we have already seen the weakness of this definition in Carrie’s experience and in mine.

The Sefirot in Jewish Kabbalah

The Sefirot in Jewish Kabbalah

If you’ve been told all your life that you are stupid, it’s quite likely that you’ll behave unintelligently. You’ll have no confidence in your academic ability. You’ll probably accept uncritically what you’re told by people in authority—teachers, for example—and you won’t ask the questions that occur to you, believing them to be stupid questions. People who observe your intellectual clumsiness will also think you’re stupid, reinforcing your low opinion of yourself. From your perspective, these people will seem much smarter than you. 

So one day you take an intelligence test and your IQ turns out to be 149, much higher than any of your fellow students’ IQ. The administrators and teachers at your school are sure there’s been a mistake. They give you other kinds of intelligence tests. On each of them your score indicates that you are a near-genius.

Several outcomes are possible here:

  1. The teachers and administrators are finally convinced of what you yourself have come to believe after the first few tests: You are indeed very bright. You will begin to exhibit your mental strength, in response both to your new understanding of yourself and to your elders’ and the other students’ new respect for your intelligence.
  2. The teachers and administrators will remain unconvinced, and everyone will continue to treat you as if you are stupid, but you will believe. In your certainty that you are truly smart, you will behave intelligently, your grades will improve, and you will win over the school personnel, unless they are exceedingly stubborn or unless someone is paying them a lot of money to make you appear stupid to yourself and others, probably because you have a secret trust fund worth billions in your name and your guardians want you to be declared incompetent by the courts. Or something.

    Dr. Oliver Sacks, by Erika Hall

    Dr. Oliver Sacks, by Erika Hall

  3. The teachers and administrators will remain unconvinced, but you will believe—initially. You have not thoroughly tested your newly recognized intelligence and, because everybody continues to treat you as they always have—as if you had the mental agility of dryer lint—they will eventually wear you down, things will return to “normal,” and your ephemeral moment of brilliance will fade and be forgotten, much as in the wonderful 1990 Robert DeNiroRobin Williams film Awakenings (directed by Penny Marshall), based on the true story of Dr. Oliver Sacks (Williams) and his experiments with the drug L-dopa. Sacks used L-dopa successfully to “awaken” a group of catatonic patients, some of whom had been virtually unconscious for decades. If you have seen the movie (and if you haven’t, skip to the next paragraph), you will recall the heartbreaking outcome: L-dopa was tragically unable to fulfill its early promise, and the awakened patients had to watch themselves and each other slide back into oblivion.

But for you, the student victimized by everyone’s persistent certainty that you are stupid, the story is not over. As we have seen, the self will protest, and you will either reassert yourself or become physically or mentally ill, or both.

You are always more than you think you are

Basic Training

Basic Training

Almost all who serve in the U.S. military start out in boot camp and usually find their physical capacity to be greater than they thought possible. Indeed, when circumstances force you to stretch beyond your comfort level, there is almost always a euphoric moment when your self-image grows along with your ability to meet the new demands.

We have all heard it said that people generally operate at about five percent of their potential, or some variation on that idea. I once attended a meeting at which a seminar-leader opened by having everybody take a partner and examine the partner’s appearance. Then he told us to turn around, change five clearly visible things about our appearance, and turn back to our partner. Each of us was supposed to discern the five things that our partner had changed. People did things like move their watches from one arm to the other, roll up their sleeves, loosen their ties, and ruffle their hair.

Then he had us do it again. And again. And a fourth time. The exercise got pretty silly, but people devised, on the spot, ingenious ways to change their appearance. They rolled their socks down, turned their skirts around, used lipstick to make “freckles,” wiped off their eye makeup, placed their socks on their heads, spilled coffee on themselves, blackened their teeth with mascara, and put Kleenex in their ears, straws in their noses, and forks in their shirt pockets.

It was a great way to begin a seminar. Everyone’s creative juices were flowing, they were in high good humor, and they were a mess, so nobody cared what he or she looked like. Most important, they recognized capacities within themselves that they hadn’t been aware of.

At this point we might tentatively say that you are who you think you are, plus the projected parts of yourself not reclaimed, plus your unthought-of potential, which is infinite….


* Rabbi Glick is a scholar and teacher of Kabbalah in Israel. The Song of the Ten Sefirot is an audiobook available free from

** Aronson, E., Wilson, T. & Akert, R., Social Psychology (6th edition) 2005

Photo, “Basic Training,” courtesy of

Next: Growth and self-knowledge

Art and Beauty

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 9


Chapter 3: Art, Poetry, and Beauty
Part 2: What Is Beauty, and Is It Optional?

Still Life with Fruit Dish and Mandolin, 1919, Juan Gris

Cubism: Still Life with Fruit Dish and Mandolin, 1919, Juan Gris


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Many will object to the word beauty in any definition of art. I doubt if most people seeing a Picasso cubist work for the first time are struck by its beauty. Many artists paint or dance or compose primarily to demonstrate the breadth and depth of their talent, or to innovate, or to shock people out of their complacency, or to reflect what they perceive as “reality.”

I read this anonymous posting to an artist’s blog: “Art is an attempt to objectify the world as the person sees or knows it”  (
I submit that “the world as the person sees or knows it” is not very different from “the person as she sees or knows herself.” I think that to improve or beautify the world, or oneself, is more worthwhile than to “objectify” it.

And I believe that art works both ways. It is not just something that the artist imposes on the medium. Creating the work is part of the perpetual creation of the artist. And the artist can choose the path of that creation: toward life, energy, beauty, love… or not.

Intellectually, we may try to justify the layering on of ugliness and chaos. Intuitively, in everyday speech, we equate beauty with art. We hear the phrase “poetry in motion” used to describe someone who moves gracefully. A person whose voice is charmingly melodic is said to “speak musically.”

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor

You have ordered a custom-made chest of drawers from a skilled woodworker. When you see the finished piece, it takes your breath away. The grain of the oak, the craftsmanship, the carving, the proportions — all are lovely and elegant. “Do you like it?” the woodworker asks anxiously. “Do I like it?” you echo. “It’s a work of art.”

Beauty is in the eye of the baby

If we agree to create and evolve beautifully, can we agree about what constitutes beauty? There is too much variation in cultural programming and personal history for beauty to be recognized universally. On the other hand, humans do seem to share a core aesthetic sensibility. (If this were not true, there would be no supermodels or movie stars.) Visually, we find characteristics such as luminosity, color, and symmetry to be aesthetically pleasing.

Numerous studies have investigated the way adults and infants react to sounds, sights, and scents. Researchers at the University of Texas and elsewhere have found that babies look longer at people who are generally considered beautiful, regardless of ethnicity (Langlois Social Development Lab, the University of Texas at Austin, 2006. Cited from this page on the Langlois Social Development Lab website).

In any case, inasmuch as we will never agree completely about what characterizes a chair or an ocelot, how can we expect to reach a common understanding about beauty? When I say “chair,” an image of a chair pops into your mind. It might be an upholstered chair, a desk chair, or a captain’s chair. In my case, the word chair invariably brings to mind my father’s Morris chair.

So I think that we will not turn ourselves inside out trying to define beauty in a precise way. Let us agree, for purposes of our current endeavor, that something is beautiful if it stimulates the best within us… if it makes us feel peaceful, inspired, loving, or joyous… and especially if it arouses our own creativity.

Lesson 9.1: Assignment
Examples of Beauty


Examples of Beauty

Examples of Beauty


Please submit your assignment via e-mail to Assignments will not be graded but will be returned to you with comments.

Next: Chapter 4—Me, Myself, and I

Moments of the Heart

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

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 4
Chapter 2, Part 1: Why We Need Poetry

This is important: All moments of meaning
in our lives are moments of the heart
. —Anonymous

[At a ] Mind and Life Institute conference… at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2003, … Eric S. Lander, Ph.D., a professor of molecular biology at MIT and the director of the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research, pointed out that while Buddhist practices emphasize attaining increased levels of mental awareness, the focus of modern science has rested on refining ways to restore mentally ill patients to a state of normalcy…. “Why stop there?” he asked the audience. “Why are we satisfied with saying we’re not mentally ill? Why not focus on getting better and better?” —Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living *

Art is always involved in events and circumstances that have significance and meaning. Arthur C. Danto, from Columbia University (by no means either a conservative or a Christian) said, “Art is getting across indefinable, but inescapable meaning.” This is a helpful definition, because he is saying that if in your art you are getting your meaning across in a way that is too definable, it is really preaching rather than art. Of course preaching itself can be an art form, but it is an art form that is and should remain distinct from the other arts. Art has to have a place for the observer to explore and wrestle with the message. If the meaning of a work is apparent, allowing the audience with little effort to say, “of course, that is what it means” and if the message can be simply stated in one sentence, the work is not art. You may have heard the famous statement by a dancer who was asked, “What did the dance mean?” She responded, “If I could have said it, I wouldn’t have had to dance it.” According to Danto, if an artist can enunciate the message in his work, perhaps saying, “Oh, that is Mary rocking the baby and putting him in the manger,” then the work is not good art. Art has to be, in some sense, indefinable—but in another sense absolutely inescapable. What we say and do means something. We are not just chemicals. That is why we must have artists. Artists are people who know that, in spite of what we are told by our culture, everything is part of some bigger reality. [p. 118] —Ransom Fellowship, accessed March 12, 2009

If I could have said it, I wouldn’t have had to dance it

Everybody wants to be happy. Everybody wants Good Feelings. We are spiritual beings whose natural attributes are joy and peace. Our native habitat is the Here and Now, and life is “a parade of odd and wonderful events.” **

It’s that simple, really it is. So why do we need prenuptial agreements, social workers, car alarms, and the like?

Keeping our Selves intact

Babies are born expecting happiness. Insisting upon it. “I am hungry,” they wail. “This is unacceptable. It is not a Good Feeling.” Their wants and needs are identical.

Newborn babies broadcast their dissatisfaction to the world at large. They don’t know who or what is going to take care of the problem, but, by God, they are not going to suffer in silence. ***

Before long, they perceive that it is not the world at large that responds to their demonstrations of discomfort but rather that every meal has a pleasing similarity and comes with a bonus: warmth and softness, swaying, and other lovely sensations. Soon they discover that the warmth and softness are attached to Something — the same Something that comes to the rescue when they, the babies, are cold or when another, smaller Something has dropped a Tonka truck onto them when they were just lying there cooing and watching dust motes cavort in a shaft of sunlight. The larger Something has the power to ease their pain and restore their little psyches to equilibrium.

Eventually, babies learn that they don’t have to let out all the stops when their tummies are empty. A little less effort with a little more focus achieves the desired result. They sense that a partnership has begun with the meal-providing-Tonka-truck-removing Something, and they find even her presence reassuring. Sometimes they make hungry noises when they’re not hungry, just for the warm, soft swaying. Their wants and needs are becoming differentiated.

Once they know the routine, they are at liberty to look around, wondering if there’s anything more to life. Wow, is there ever! It’s a veritable parade of odd and wonderful events. In no time at all, their world consists of not merely needs and wants but Extras—discoveries, surprises, sometimes unpleasant (like this afternoon’s chickenpox inoculation) but more often delightful.

There’s that pink glow in the morning, for instance. Patiently — they don’t have any pressing engagements — they watch the pearly light move across the wall, brighter, warmer and — oh, wow — suddenly it’s yellow, and it paints the teddy bears and the striped wallpaper and it moves toward the bed and brushes the tiny toes with yellow warmth, and the babies talk to it, and it talks back. They speak the same Language. They chat like old friends.

The mamas and the daddies, who are in the next room, smile and listen to the delighted cooing and burbling. The long-forgotten primal Language stirs a joy that had become almost dormant, and they relax into it as if it were a featherbed. For them, too, time stands still, and if they do have pressing engagements, these are trivial next to the conversation of sunlight and innocence.

For many stay-at-home mothers, these are golden days, and gone too soon.**** In my own experience, there has been no more blessed time than the early months of parenthood… feeling the physical and emotional surge of pleasure when breastfeeding… having the almost godlike ability to supply everything the baby needs and more besides… bathing and powdering and dressing the baby in clean, soft clothes… covering her with a light blanket when it’s warm or enclosing her in a sturdy sleeper if it’s chilly… placing her cradle near a window so she can watch the sunlight dance among the petunias in the window box and ruffle the eucalyptus leaves on the big tree in the backyard… arranging my life so that there is nothing clamoring for my time besides caring for the baby, tidying up the house, and preparing dinner for the rest of the family.

There is a transient sense of power, especially with the first baby. I felt that her father and I would be able to keep her safe throughout her childhood, though I knew we could not, and should not, always shield her from disappointment.

And so, for a few months, the baby is the center of the universe. Her demands are met almost instantaneously.

If I am the baby, feeling the warm sunlight on my toes and listening to my mother hum as she folds my diapers (I am a baby who was born when mothers still laundered diapers), I am thinking that life is pretty sweet, and I smile and laugh a lot, and everybody else smiles and laughs when I do.

I have noticed, however, that when I am hungry in the dark of night, my mother is less and less cheerful and accommodating. Then comes the time when I wake up and cry, signaling that I am hungry, or perhaps just lonely, and my mother comes in and holds me for a minute and talks to me and maybe even gives me a little water, but she doesn’t feed me. She goes away, and I cry for a while, but she doesn’t come back. So I wear myself out crying, and I go back to sleep, and soon I don’t wake up at night any more.

Oh, wow! I can move! My bear is over there, and I am over here, but if I wiggle and squirm a certain way, I can get over there. There are other things over there, too, shiny things, and I reach for them, and my mother says, “No!” in a Different Voice. And for the first time I am thwarted.

As time goes on, it becomes more and more obvious that I cannot always have what I want, but I’m not sure why. Apparently other people have wants and needs too. I am playing with other toddlers, and one of them, Ethan, has a bear sort of like mine, and I try to take it but Ethan holds it tight. I want it, Ethan has it, so as night follows day, I bite him. Everyone speaks crossly to me and makes a big fuss over Ethan. I am not the center of the universe any more.


This is where parenthood gets tricky. How do you find the balance between giving your child freedom to explore and keeping him from hurting himself or someone else? How do you convey that his wants and desires are important and at the same time teach him to compromise or negotiate with people whose wants and desires conflict with his? How can you help him learn that it is in his long-term interest to suffer disappointments, failures, separations from his parents—delayed gratification, in short—when (a) he has no clear concept of the future, and (b) you’re still learning those lessons yourself?


Most parents accomplish all this, more or less clumsily, because their biological and emotional need to protect is at war with the imperative of allowing independence and teaching self-reliance. Ideally, they do it in baby steps, so to speak, letting out the leash slowly and gradually. Sometimes the lessons are sudden and brutal, imposed by crisis.


It’s comparatively easy for a child to learn to function within the nuclear family—the home team, as it were. If there’s only one ice-cream cup in the freezer, and both little Rupert and little Helga want the ice-cream cup, Daddy is not going to run out and buy another ice-cream cup. Rupert and Helga each get half, or Rupert gets the ice-cream cup and Helga gets the Popsicle, or some other arrangement is made that is not completely satisfactory but is better than nothing.


As the child’s comfort zone expands—she goes to play group, to school, to church, to the park, and to the supermarket—she has to adapt her expectations to ever-more-conflicting wants. The way her elders deal with these conflicts determines, in part, how much of her essential self she will surrender. Well-meaning but misguided Sunday-school teachers might convey to her that she must always consider the wants and needs of other people before her own. Since other people have unending and urgent wants and needs, she might conclude that hers are of no value.

Ideally, however, she will learn that she has God-given abilities that are pleasing to her and that meet a particular need of her universe—that she is here for a reason, and that in discovering that reason she will give and receive more joy than she knew the universe could hold.

*Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living. Harmony Books (New York) 2007. I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. The author, a renowned Buddhist teacher, has, “with an infectious joy and insatiable curiosity,” integrated “the principles of Tibetan Buddhism, neuroscience, and quantum physics” (per the dust jacket) in friendly, affirmative prose. The Joy of Living is a delightful, uplifting read and a demystifying guide to meditation.


***This is so whether the baby is born into a refugee camp, a brothel, or a middle-class family desperate for a baby to love. Though it is hardly universally the case, for purposes of this discussion our baby will be one for whom the basic physical and emotional necessities are available.

****This might be true for fathers, too, though the daddies of my experience have always been in a hurry for the babies to get big enough to play Bonk (the introductory version of Catch) and climb in tree forts.

Go to Lesson 4.1 Assignment
Go to Lesson 5

Finding Your Place in Creation

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

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 3
Chapter 1: Finding Your Place in Creation

I created this course and book…

(a)  for individual readers who want to write and live poetically, and

(b) as a text for adult and advanced-student workshops in poetry-writing, self-discovery, and self-expression.


By reading and discussing the text and doing the assignments, you will learn to write poetry that is both artistic and disciplined; learn about yourself through poetry-writing; and write poetry to participate in your own creation (or “co-creation” or “evolution”).


It is my hope that this book will help you live a fuller, happier life. You’ll experience the joy of creating something worthwhile and giving beauty to the world—no work of art is really completed until it’s shared.


Beyond that, writing poetry can be a form of meditation. It anchors you to the here and now, freeing you from worry and regret. It helps you process your experiences and circumstances. It reveals inner feelings and desires.


It can even help you find your calling. Marcus Aurelius writes in his Meditations (Boox X), “Everything exists for a purpose—a horse, a vine, even the sun. What then is your purpose?”*


From a Darwinian or a spiritual standpoint—take your pick—you are here because the Universe needs you, the way a meadow needs clover and grass and bees and earthworms. You are an essential part of the vast ecosystem. Your talents and deepest desires should guide you to your place in Creation.


Mistletoe, literally “dung on a twig” in the Old Saxon language, is spread through bird excrement, and it attaches itself to tree limbs where conditions are favorable. To the Druids, oak mistletoe was sacred because it was rare—mistletoe was much more common on apple trees.


Unlike mistletoe, human beings make choices that determine where they land and what they do.** If your wants, skills, and interests were not given much attention when you were a child, you might have grown up thinking they didn’t matter much. Perhaps you’ve made major decisions—whom to marry, where to go to college, what to study, what kind of work to do—more out of obligation or coercion, or to please others, than out of deep desire or a sense of calling.


Eventually you may lose touch with your wants. Parents, especially, find their lives governed by their children’s needs. Some choose parenthood with their eyes wide open—parenthood, for the moment, is their calling, and they joyfully make the necessary “sacrifices.” Or they find ways to integrate their own passion for, say, ballroom dancing or growing fruit trees, with child-rearing.***


It’s not uncommon to find parents, especially mothers, suffering from empty-nest syndrome when the kids are gone and the daily routine is no longer relevant. The house, so recently a hub of youthful activity, is too quiet. The freedom, once longed for, is too scary. Mom feels superfluous.


The universe still needs her, and it is prodding her latent talents and desires. Writing poetry is a way to bring her sleeping passions and creative energy to the surface, as a spring bubbling out of a rocky hillside releases water from deep underground into the sunlight.


This book has three parts.

Part I

Concepts of art, poetry, and the self. Here I try to corral an unruly herd of meanings into a more or less delimited vocabulary. You can’t just throw words such as art, poetry, spirit, ideal, perfection, growth, and self-knowledge at people without saying what you mean. We are talking about the nature of reality here, not the price of grapefruit.


My assertion that reality is essentially nonphysical — love and truth and desire and ideas are “more real” and certainly more powerful than tables and chairs and the mail I keep getting from L. Ron Hubbard, even though I have told the postal service a thousand times that I am not “Margaret Campbell,” even though I have returned the items C.O.D. to L. Ron himself — is hardly original.


I draw from the works of Emerson, Mary Baker Eddy, Carl Jung, and Marcus Aurelius, and from quantum physics, the Old and New Testaments, and many other sources. I am indebted to whoever it was — I can’t find the reference — who wrote an article about Kabbalah describing how the universe splintered at the moment of creation, hurling innumerable shards into space, and how every act of kindness, or mitzvah, puts one of the shards back into its proper place, helping to repair the broken cosmos. And I am grateful to the Book-of-the-Month Club for sending me a book that I forgot to not order, The Joy of Living, by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a renowned Buddhist teacher who has worked with western neurologists and physicists to investigate the science of meditation.

Part II

The poetry-writing section of the book, where readers and students will learn the forms and conventions and techniques of poetry and will practice using them. If you have ever taken a poetry-writing course, you will find little that is new or surprising in Part II except, perhaps, my tendency to go off-topic if a gust of wind through my open window carries the scent of something that might be the first drops of rain on a dusty road miles away, or it might be the washing machine overflowing again in the basement, and since it is much more likely to be the washing machine and I will eventually have to deal with it, I keep writing, as if rain on dusty roads were a metaphysical anomaly equivalent to rank upon rank of angels singing paeans in the sky.


You might find, also, that Part II focuses more on simile and metaphor, among the many devices that poets use, than your earlier poetry course might have done.

Part III

Poetry-writing as a way of knowing, expressing, and creating oneself. Because you will have read Part I, you will understand what that means, and you will realize that what you are reading here is not empty rhetoric meant to seem profound and important but is a preface to joy.

We will be working with a definition of poetry that, especially in Part III,  includes beauty as a criterion. We will learn to gather the loose, impotent, entropic bits of energy we possess and apply them to the intentional creation of beauty. We will be exemplars of our art. We will be inspired by the certainty that beauty and grace exist not only in the product of artistic endeavor but also in the endeavor itself.

* The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is a lovely little fable about the way the Universe directs us toward our destiny.

** Obviously, some people, individually and in groups, have more freedom to choose than others. On the other hand, many people who live in free societies are unaware of the innumerable choices they do have. The real or imagined opinions of others—“What will people think!”—are a common, and often unjustified, constraint.

*** With tragic exceptions, most parents do the best they can most of the time, even when parenthood sneaks up on them unawares. I made a lot of mistakes but I rolled with the punches and loved being a parent because I got to be a kid a lot, because I like ballet recitals and soccer games and eau de sweaty-little-boy and little girls playing dress-up, and snuggling in a big chair with a storybook…. But I had my moments of resentment, martyrdom, fury, and attempts to escape. Fortunately, there was always someone around to either call me on it or pick up the slack.


Go to Lesson 3.1 Assignment
Go to Lesson 4


The Seven Words That Changed My Life

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

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 2. Preface (part 2)

April 1991. I want to be anywhere but indoors. A light rain has rinsed the dust off the creosote bushes, leaving that fresh, ephemeral scent of just-washed desert foliage that you absolutely cannot describe but that makes you feel earthy somehow. By dusk, the whole world smells of Mock-orange in bloom. Nothing can compete — rose or jasmine, diesel fumes, steaks cooking over mesquite — nothing brings on spring fever like the Mock-orange at the height of its blooming glory.

Tonight I must forgo my small luxuries: watching the sun set over the mountains, imbibing Mock-orange fragrance and a margarita on the rocks with a solid inch of salt. I have a class to go to. Nor am I drawn to this class by a Hunger for Learning but rather by the need to fulfill a continuing-ed requirement.

I take a last, longing look at the Tucson Mountains to the west — always purple and mysterious when the sun sets, as if somewhere in those backlit hills the Elves’ Masquerade is about to start and you’re invited, if you can find the spot — before I lock my car and enter the windowless building, following the unmistakable pre-evening-class buzz of desultory conversation and languid laughter.

There isn’t a soul I recognize in the large, drab room, which is packed to capacity with bodies steaming slightly from the unseasonably humid warmth of the April night. Tables and chairs are nowhere to be seen, so when the instructor calls us to attention we just plop down on the carpeted floor.

The instructor, whose name is Sheila, is blond, young, compact, and soft-spoken. Her confident, intelligent energy captures my attention as she works her way back to my corner of the room handing out single sheets of paper.

In the years to come I will wish I had kept that paper, though it contains only four or five lines of instructions for our first “exercise.” With little introduction and no fanfare, Sheila explains what we are to do, summarizing the written instructions.

First, we have to “find a partner — someone you’ve never met before tonight.” I am chatting with a woman named Pat, and we give each other that raised-eyebrow “might as well” look that seals our common destiny for the next hour or so.

Normally the words “find a partner” unleash all my latent insecurities. I am back in third-grade gym class trying to be invisible rather than unchosen. To this day I am good-humored and gregarious until an authority figure says “find a partner.” Instantly my hair turns into hideous, writhing spines, the freckles on my nose into warts. My breath is redolent with every onion I have ever eaten. Small spots on my clothes spread and merge into one giant puke stain. Suddenly I need something out of my purse — something small and hard to find, maybe a Chiclet, a nitroglycerine tablet, a microdot — something buried so deep I have to submerge my head and torso to find it.

Tonight I have dodged the find-a-partner bullet. I can relax. Which happens to be the next instruction — to relax, via a mercifully no-nonsense meditation led by Sheila. I’ve undergone guided meditations so drawn out it would have been more efficient to go to the actual ocean and be calmed by the lapping of the actual waves. These exercises were generally led by women with low, crooning, hypnotic voices.

Sheila is no crooner. Her voice doesn’t go all soft and mystical (like Galadriel’s, you know, in The Lord of the Rings, when she is mesmerized by the One Ring that Frodo carries, right before she lights up like Las Vegas and morphs into Oz-the-Great-and-Terrible on steroids). Sheila suggests, in her cheery everyday voice, that we lean back and get comfortable, before she remembers that we are sitting on the floor with nothing to lean back on.

“Okay,” she amends, “just get as comfortable as you can. Relax your shoulders.” We do a few neck stretches, close our eyes, breathe deeply and rhythmically for about thirty seconds, and ultimately achieve a state of relaxation that is about what you’d expect in a room full of sweaty strangers sitting on the floor in business attire.

Seven words with the force of a Light Saber

It is time to begin the exercise. Here’s what’s supposed to happen: One of us (Student A) is to hold in her mind an image of a person she knows. My partner, Pat, has volunteered to be Student A. She is allowed to tell me only three things about “her person”: gender, age, and location. Pat’s person is a forty-two-year-old man in Tucson.

My job (as Student B) is to describe that person — through, I am guessing, some kind of mystical connection Pat and I have formed by sitting a few inches apart and being in a receptive state of deep relaxation. I am supposed to divine his appearance, his surroundings, his appurtenances, whatever occurs to me.

“You’ll feel like you’re making it up,” Sheila cautions. “Don’t wait for a flash of inspiration. Just say whatever comes into your mind. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You’ll be wrong. You’ll get over it.”

You’ll feel like you’re making it up. Seven words with the force of a Light Saber. One sentence to validate a lifetime of intuition.

The man with two red dogs

According to the rules, Pat can ask me only “neutral” questions (“Where is he standing?” “What do you see behind him?” “Is there anything next to him? What is it?”) and affirm or negate my statements. She can’t say stuff like “No, but that’s close” or “You’re getting warmer.” She can’t ask leading questions, either (“So, is he sitting in the white gazebo, or is he cleaning out the garage?”).

I take a deep breath, try to locate my Third Eye, feel a small flutter of anxiety, and then plunge in… and nail it, right from the get-go. Pat’s “forty-two-year-old man in Tucson” is unusually fair-skinned, I announce with authority, about five-foot-ten, has very dark hair but not much of it; he is bald on top, but not on the sides or in back. A thin strip of shiny baldness is covered with, oh, nine or ten strands of dark hair — a comb-over, but a tasteful one as comb-overs go.

I glance at Pat for verification, but I don’t really need it; I can see the guy. She asks where he is, what his surroundings are. I tell her that he is standing in front of a house in the foothills, a long, low, dark-green house that faces north toward the Catalina Mountains. He is beside the front door, a few feet from a curved gravel driveway lined with barrel cacti. He looks serious and intense — like a person who spends most of his time solving important equations in order to pinpoint the precise moment of the Big Bang. I chatter on, now almost oblivious to Pat until, out of the corner of my eye, I see that her face has gone three or four shades paler, a common side effect of forgetting to breathe.

“Do you see anything else?” she whispers.

“Dogs,” I answer promptly. “Two dogs. Two red dogs.”

I have unerringly and meticulously described Pat’s ex-husband, his hair, his house, his two Irish setters, even his profession. It occurs to me that she might be knocking on his door later that evening, asking if she can count the hairs in his comb-over.


The room goes from quiet to unruly as if someone has rung the dismissal bell. Everybody starts talking at once in giddy, high-pitched voices that remind me of the girls’ bathroom at Central High School on the day of the prom.

Gone are the glazed eyes, the jaded expressions and work-weary faces I saw when I entered the class. Now the room is filled with childlike awe and a hundred stories to tell, each more astonishing than the one before. A man called Biff has apparently decided he’s some kind of sorcerer. As Student B, he explains, he described his partner’s (Student A’s) father’s Indiana farmhouse so precisely that he “saw” the weathered pine step—a replacement that never got painted—on the white stairway leading from the back porch to the “truck garden.”

The stories keep coming. Sheila is impressed, in her low-key way, but hardly overwhelmed, as the rest of us are. Apparently this stuff happens all the time in her classes.

 “You’re not ‘mind-reading,’” she tells us. “You’ve just dipped your toes into what is sometimes called ‘shared consciousness.’ The only purpose of this exercise is for you to see how much power you have that you didn’t know you had.” Then she starts handing out a syllabus about the difference between Management and Leadership.

Rats. I have been hoping for more adventures in the paranormal. We all have. If Sheila were to announce, “Okay, now we’re going to levitate naked,” everybody would say, “Oh, boy! Yeah, let’s levitate,” and start throwing off their business attire.

Someone, probably being whimsical but also not wanting the magic to end, starts to sing: “I am woman, hear me roar / In numbers too big to ignore…” and the rest of the class joins in, the men as heartily as the women.




When amazing things happen in my life, the more time passes the more unreal they seem, until I wonder if I dreamed them. Like when I escorted Alexander Kerensky (who overthrew Czar Nicholas in 1917) from his residence across the street to my college dorm, holding my umbrella over his head so he wouldn’t get soaked; like when I learned that the man sitting next to me at dinner was the composer Aaron Copland and I tried to sing the soprano part to his song “Las Agachadas” with a mouth full of broccoli; like when I shared an elevator with Margaret Truman, or when, early in Ravi Shankar’s career, I went to see him “in concert” in a dorm lounge with about ten other people…. I’ll be telling one of those stories and I’ll think, “Did I make that up?”

But I’ve never for a minute doubted what happened in that classroom full of novice swimmers in the Great Sea of Cosmic Awareness — that was the genuine article. That was the real deal.


Go to Lesson 3

How Can I Keep from Singing?

Learn to Speak Your Mind Through Poetry

The next 40-plus posts in this blog comprise an online course in contemplative poetry, How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically. 

PLEASE NOTE: The free-evaluation period for this course has ended. The readings, lessons, and assignments will remain public for a time, but for professional instruction, feedback, and assessment; publication in course journal; and Certificate in Contemplative Poetry, you’ll need to pay full tuition, which is $840 for one year.

Enrollment Information

TO ENROLL: Please e-mail with the following information:

  • Include your name, phone number, and e-mail address (if different from that from which your message originates). 
  • Indicate your payment preference: Single payment of $840 or two payments of $420 each (the second payment will be due 60 days after start of course).
  • Optional: What does the phrase “living poetically” mean to you? Include your answer in the body of this e-mail.
  • Please put POETRY in the subject line unless you have received the course as a gift, in which case please put POETRY SCHOLARSHIP in the subject line.

You will receive an invoice (or confirmation, if scholarship) within a few days. Instructions will follow upon receipt of your payment. Course graduates will receive a CERTIFICATE IN CONTEMPLATIVE POETRY.

About the Course

The course — How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically — is more than a traditional poetry-writing course. It is designed to teach you to explore and express the subconscious mind through poetry. The structure and conventions of poetry create a safe context and a narrow channel for expression, so that revelations from the deep within don’t flood and overwhelm your awareness.

You’ll also learn how writing poetry can expand and color your perspective — extremely useful when events or circumstances seem overwhelming, exceptionally confusing, bleak, or threatening. You might call it “putting a good spin on a tough time,” but that implies something superficial, like using makeup in different shades to call attention to high cheekbones and away from too prominent a chin. When by writing poetry you cast a different light on a situation, the expression is organic. “Life” and the poetic cast you throw upon it merge, as in a chemical reaction: two substances combine to form a different substance altogether. A few paragraphs down you’ll find an example (“Altars”) from my own embracing of a living situation that seemed, on the surface, rather grim.

I will explain “living poetically” in greater detail as we go along, though I would be interested in hearing what the phrase conveys to you. (See “Enrollment Information,” above. Right now I’ll just say that “living poetically” is a good thing that involves serenity and well-being, achieved in part through the discipline of writing poetry as a form of meditation.)

Photo by Luc Viatour GFDL/CC

Photo by Luc Viatour GFDL/CC

The introductory lessons describe the goals and define the terms used in this course, all in a way you should find interesting and thought-provoking.

After the introductory sections, there will be regular assignments. These will be fun and revealing. Besides learning about poets and poetry, you’ll investigate topics including the English language, the arts in general, the emotions, meditation and the self.

At the conclusion of the course, I will compile some of the poetry received from you and other students—the best poems, or those that best represent the course objectives—into an e-book, which all participants may download for free.

Today’s installment is the first part of the preface. It describes a period in my own life that was particularly poetic—not because of any conscious effort on my part, but because I had unknowingly slipped into a benign rhythm, like finding oneself on a riverboat and being carried by a current that happens to be going in the right direction.



If I were going to live here—and to all
appearances I was, the heap of luggage at my
feet attesting to the fact—then there would
need to be a very lot of plants, I thought. In
my experience, a few lush, hardy pothos were
the ticket: instant ambience and simple
propagation—cuttings in a jar of water,
nothing to it.  Pothos thrive that way,
requiring hardly any light and not a bit of
fuss. I set them side by side or cluster them in
corners. Right away they are the best of
friends. You see it in the sweet (and shy at the
beginning) twining of their stems. They show
up better, too, in bunches. Shiny leaves and
sturdy, twisty vines attract the eye and give a
timid space vitality… so easy, with this
simple show of domesticity, to stake a claim:
This is my place.

I spot a well-placed window and I feel like it’s 
my birthday. Every home must have a few, to
ward off melancholy. Dark moods brighten in
the company of pots of jaunty herbs along the
narrow boundary between inside and out,
especially—not that it’s necessary, strictly
speaking, but appealing, and salubrious as well—
if I can hang a pair of devil’s ivy (pothos by another
name) directly 
overhead and don’t forget to dust
the leaves with regularity. It’s not that they object to
getting grimy now and then, however. If their soil is
overdry they droop pathetically. Hydration brings them
back before your eyes. They show their gratitude so
energetically you’ll want to put them on a leash. For
little more than water the reward is foliage, thick and
shining like my mama’s kitchen floor. They’re given
every window with an east exposure, and I spend
my first few waking minutes with them as
they come to life again. 

Note the very moment when the first rays 
brush the leaves, the way a mother strokes her
baby’s face… and let the 
moment be a regular
so you don’t forget to stop and sit
and watch 
habitually, in awe of what you’re
the sacred intimacy of it.

Try not to think too much about the
photosynthesis that’s happening. It
but this is an exchange of
love between the 
earth and sky you’re
looking on, and the display 
is brief… a
micro-dawn, a breath of  prayer,
 a song
of praise (Where is it coming from? It
isn’t you? It must be me), and one can
scarcely help 
but worship then the Power
that upon the first encounter stirred a
need to turn a plain green 
thing into a kind of altar.

Of an evening, passing through, a spirit
likes to pause at such a place of holiness
and whimsy, drawing in another lively one
or two, apparently attracted by the microscopic
movements you and I, preoccupied,neglected to
observe. Now you have company, a cozy few, who
somehow sensed that you were disinclined to be
alone just then, and they were every bit as pleased
as you and I to find that what we started with our
ivied accidental altar had, without our necessarily
intending it, or even giving it much thought—
although we wanted it; what’s not to want? But,
you see, we didn’t know how near it was—had
of its own volition taken root and grown. Now
look at us. By water, grace, 
and alchemy,
we’re here. We’re home.

—by Mary Campbell
April 2008

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

E-Course Lesson 1. Preface (part 1)

How Can I Keep from Singing?

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?

Robert Wadsworth Lowry, 1860, based on a traditional Quaker hymn

APRIL 1990. The sky is a deep, unbroken blue from horizon to horizon. Even at noon, the desert sun is gentle, gathering strength for the brutal summer.

You are rattling gleefully down the freeway toward Mexico in the most marvelous vehicle you have ever owned. It is a 1983 Chinook: a teeny-tiny house on wheels. You’ve got your built-in icebox, got your sink, got your two-burner propane stove. There’s a little dining booth that unfolds into a double bed, and there’s another, smaller bed above the front seats; there are closets and cupboards and a Porta-Potty. You have upholstered the benches in brown-red-yellow calico and made cute little curtains to match. This is a traveling cottage for women and children. Grown men who are uneasy with calico and cute little curtains can drive their phallic Corvettes or their ATVs.

Though aerodynamically challenged — basically a fiberglass box on a Toyota chassis with a four-cylinder engine — the Chinook gets twenty miles to a gallon of gas in town, twenty-five on the highway.

You are bound for Puerto Peñasco, a five-hour drive to paradise, where you can lounge on the playa and comprar trinkets you don’t need, just to hear yourself hablar español badly: “¿Quantos dólares para esta dije, por favor?”

The windows of your little Chinook are wide open so that the Whole World can hear you and your two sons, ages nine and ten, lustily singing “Green Grow the Rushes, Ho,” although you are the only one not faking at least half the words, and the Whole World is making way too much noise anyway.

Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, Mexico (\" width=

You’re on the “Nine Bright Shiners” and suddenly you are soloing. Your chorus has gone silent, with the “Ten Commandments,” the “Eleven Who Went to Heaven,” and the “Twelve Apostles” still unsung.


“…and eight for the April Rainers. Seven for the Seven Stars in the Sky and six for the Six Proud Walkers.* Five for the Symbols at Your Door and four for the—”


“…Gospel Makers. Three, three, the Rivals, I’ll sing you two, two, the Lily-White Boys, clo-thed all—”

“MOM! What are the ‘Symbols at Your Door’?”

The back seat, obviously, has undergone a mood shift. Lusty Singing Mood has given way to Pensive Mood. Now there will be questions… familiar questions… deep, philosophical questions arranged around familiar themes:

The What-Would-You-Do-for-a-Million-Dollars Theme

“Mom, would you eat Clarence’s poop for a million dollars?” (If you could, you would, but you gag just thinking about it.)

(Clarence is a Weimaraner. Not that your answer would be different if Clarence were a French poodle or the Queen of Sheba. Maybe if Clarence were a parakeet, and maybe for two million dollars….)

“Mom, would you run naked through Disneyland for a million dollars?” (You bet. In a heartbeat.)

“Mom, if you knew that Jack and I would be happy and have wonderful parents who loved us and took good care of us, would you sell us for a million dollars?” (Nah.) “A billion dollars?” (Nope. Not for all the money in the world.)

The What’s-It-All-About Theme

“Mom, is it true that we’re not really real, we’re just part of somebody’s dream?” (You’re pretty real to me, Kiddo.)

“No, really, Mom, how do we know we’re real?”

Children are such a blessing. You get to hand off the great existential questions. The next generation is allowed to ponder the nature of reality, freeing you to ponder how Eli’s teacher, Mrs. Rodriguez, intends to “curb his spontaneity.” You wonder if electrodes will be involved.

Reality is macaroni and cheese with raisins. Reality is seeing a small boy in a small boat bobbing in the distance, in the Gulf of California, being carried by the wind and tide toward China; feeling your heart lurch when you realize that he is your small boy and he doesn’t know anyone in China; begging a man in a uniform for help when all the Spanish you know involves buying trinkets and “una cerveza, por favor” and something about volatil in an aeroplano to Los Estados Unidos to visitar your Tia Yolanda.

Reality is single parenting, reading aloud for hours before bed, the water bill, the gas bill, Mexican food and margaritas on the beach, a broken arm, a flat tire, a helpful friend, a new bike, tousled heads on damp pillows when the house is quiet and outside a lone nightingale mimics an entire tropical forest.

Reality is rhythmic, a poem punctuated by surprises, a dance, now whirling, now gliding, now stumbling, regaining one’s footing, getting a little dizzy, looking around, and being reassured that one is where one needs to be, for now.

* For years I sang the wrong words here— “the Six Brown Walkers.” I had no curiosity about the origins of this ancient, mystical song until I realized I could look it up on the Internet. You’ll find a fascinating account in Wikipedia, which traces the lyrics to medieval Kabbalism (the earliest version of the song is in Hebrew), Celtic paganism, and Christianity. While you’re online, check out, “The Archive of Misheard Lyrics,” where you’ll discover you weren’t the only one who thought Jimi Hendrix was singing “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy” or that the oft-misinterpreted Creedence Clearwater Revival megahit was about “a bad moon on the rise,” not “a bathroom on the right” (“Bad Moon Rising,” in which songwriter John Fogerty was discussing, of all people, Richard Nixon).

© 2008 Mary Campbell and, all rights reserved. Course participants (e-mail to register) may make one copy of each installment in this series for individual use. Any other duplication or redistribution in any form is unlawful.