Tag Archives: defining the self

Poem F–The Middle Way

Marie Mouchon nature reserve, Belgium; photo by Luc Viatour, link below

Marie Mouchon nature reserve, Belgium; photo © Luc Viatour GFDL/CC, link below

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Benign Light

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

The previous poem, “Life Is Poetry,” you may purge from your memory bank. I think that I was struggling so much with it because it was too weak a vehicle to carry the burden I had placed upon it.

On the other hand — the following poem, “Benign Light (The Middle Way),” also has me a little mystified, but at least it’s a decent poem. It’s complete, it has been complete for a long time, I feel no need to eff around with it, so I can just study it, meditate on it, comfortably, no hurry.

It's a long way to Belgium from here

It's a long way to Belgium from here

Dordogne, Périgord (France)

Dordogne, Périgord (France), © Luc Viatour GFDL/CC

The photograph above and the one at right were taken by Luc Viatour, who is hands down the best photographer I have ever known, although I don’t actually know him, in the sense of having ever seen or spoken with him, inasmuch as he lives in Belgium and I live in Nebraska, though we have exchanged a few brief e-mails. He is very generous with his gazillions of spectacular images, and I illustrated most of my first book, Unfamiliar Territory, with his photographs.

Unfamiliar Territory would be a perfect Valentine’s Day gift, it occurs to me…. And while I’m engaging in blatant self-promotion, I might as well let you know that you can buy “Benign Light,” beautifully illustrated and sold in an 8-1/2-by-11-inch “frameless” frame, for, um, $19.99, with free shipping.

"Benign Light," $19.99

"Benign Light," $19.99

Benign Light (The Middle Way)

Benign, warm light inclines organic
things the way a cat will arch
contentedly toward a caress. Butter,
used to being cool, relaxes its
oppressive form and angularity
when carelessly left on the table by
the window. I used to love to sleep
in pools of sunlight, inching westward, creeping
toward the warmth, as hatchlings blindly cling
to Mama in the nest.

I held a match too long once, lighting birthday
candles on a marble cake with chocolate
frosting; though the little burn scarred
smooth, it smarted fierce for days. That’s when
I learned about the middle way and how
to look for balance in a contest of
extremes. But even in the agony,
innocuous as it may seem in
retrospect, of injuring a toe
or shin or elbow, when you hop about
for no good reason you can think of, there’s
a wakening of senses you’d forgotten
and a memory of the birth of feeling.
So, still cautious, you allow a bit
of gentle light to enter and to
circulate around the tender places,
so long unexposed, at first they shy
away but then are drawn as moth to flame.
And you remind yourself, “the middle way,”
and seek the shade. But something of the glow
remains, for passers-by peer in and say
to one another, “Look! A firefly.”

© Luc Viatour GFDL/CC

© Luc Viatour GFDL/CC

Students

  1. Re “the middle way and how to look for balance in a contest of extremes” — give an example of a “contest of extremes” one might encounter.
  2. Why does the narrator “seek the shade”?
  3. Why a marble cake? Why not sponge cake or coffee cake? There are at least two “correct” answers to this question.
  4. This poem uses commonplace devices (rhyming, pentameter) in rather unconventional ways. How does this practice reinforce the meaning of the poem?

Do you see a bear there?

Yogi Bear

Yogi Bear

The appearance of a poem — the way it looks on the page — can be a poetic device, though it’s one I’ve never used, at least deliberately. But as I was writing a little poem for my granddaughter’s birthday, it struck me that the poem’s shape was similar to the profile of a famous bear — either Yogi (because of the flat head) or Winnie-the-Pooh, I’m not sure which. What do you think?

To Maggie on Her Birthday

You are so dear to me; there is so
much of me in you; and if you find
that frightening, then let me hasten
to assure you: It is Lovely being me;
I like myself enormously, and if some
say I’m slightly out of touch with what
they call reality, what do THEY know?
We all create our own reality, or partially,
or everyone would be the same, and even
the most skeptical agree — they name it
“existentialism” — they can’t help it,
naming things, I mean.

When dreamers say “Follow
Your Dreams,” it’s more than
a cliché, and those who choose
in favor of expediency, becoming
dental-floss distributors, perhaps
(there’s nothing WRONG with that,
if it’s the path that’s lit for you), may
someday wish the toss had gone the
other way. “We are what we pretend
to be” (Kurt Vonnegut), and there is
an infinity of glorious potentialities to
draw upon, not all at once, of course,
but bit by bit, as one will flutter past,
you snap it up, examine it, and keep
the best of what it has that fits. “Be
who you are” is HUGE and TRUE,
reliably, and has been throughout
history, that old banality that
is the key to liberty at last. It
means no matter what you
do, the hard, unblemished
core of individuality that
is uniquely YOU is built
of shards of love and
overfilled with joy,
is solid, beautiful,
unchanging, safe,
and permanent,
and absolutely
necessary to
the Universe.

Pooh with Kanga and Piglet

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Poem C

Lily of the valley

Lily of the valley

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A Mother’s Prayer

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

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

Grassy valley under a blue sky

My space inviolate—grassy valley under a splendid sky

My Space Inviolate

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

New spring grass

New spring grass

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

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

Raindrops on ficus leaves

Raindrops on ficus leaves

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

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

Cattails


Detour

The shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line

In the poetic life, the shortest possible distance between two points is not always a straight line

MAP LEGEND

  1. We plan to go to the Washington Monument (intended route = straight vertical line)
  2. Just as we are leaving, we receive emergency phone call: Grandma has fallen down the steps. We drive as quickly as possible to Grandma’s, dodging kangaroos along the route; Grandma is able to walk (a very good sign) and knows her name, what day it is, who is president of the U.S., etc.
  3. We take her to see Dr. Checkerout, who says that Grandma is hale and hardy and that the very best remedy for the small laceration on her left nostril (splinter on steps) would be to spend the day at the Washington Monument (Is that a coincidence, or WHAT?)
  4. We drive back to Grandma’s so that she can get her hat and camera and put on her walking shoes, and we set out again for the Washington Monument

  5. Oh, no! There is road construction in the vicinity of the Washington Monument; we must detour via Bermuda
  6. Well, since we have to go there anyway, we enjoy the sun and the surf in Bermuda, along with numerous tropical drinks containing rum; Grandma is sloshed, so we check in to a hotel
  7. We resume our trip to the Washington Monument the next morning, arriving without incident and having a wonderful time

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

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Lesson 34
Dealing Poetically with Adversity

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roadsign_kangaroo2 

The poetic life is nothing if not flexible.

In the above diagram, the shortest distance (as the crow flies) from our house (upper left) and the Washington Monument is represented by a vertical arrow. Once we had learned of Grandma’s accident, however, it was not possible for us to take that route, poetically speaking. The shortest distance had become much longer. If you are going to live poetically, you need to use mystic math.

Mystic Math

(The Truth Is in the Poetry)

One thinks of Julio and Jeanne next door....

One thinks of Julio and Jeanne next door....

Is it so foolish to deny that 2
plus 2 must always equal 4? Because

one thinks immediately of Julio

and Jeanne next door, with twins, Celine and

quiet Jim — not counting Thor, the sheltie,

they are four indeed — but one in the

directory, one phone, one family,

one house, one home.

 

How many syllables comprise a poem?

How many deities are in the Trinity?

How many personalities have you, or I

(not in the psychopathic sense, of course,

although one wouldn’t know, would one, if there

were moments unaccounted for — so many

billion galaxies to travel in for

one a bit unraveled)?

 

...so many billion galaxies to travel in....

...so many billion galaxies to travel in....

And then there is the Christian marriage

ceremony, wherein 1 plus 1 make 1,

and during which the wedding guests affirm

that all are one in Christ.

 

One day, one night, together, they become —

a day. Once more, the sum of 1 plus 1

is 1, at least within the limits of

the English language — its vocabulary

vast, indeed, although, alas, not infinite.

 

fiddlepm_chair_istockAnd think of all those violins, violas,

cellos, basses, trumpets, clarinets,

trombones, and horns and cymbals, harps

and bells and such — and all the men and

women, dignified in black and white,

with all their individual concerns —

one widowed just a year ago tonight,

another six years clean and sober; to

her left, an oboist whose brother was

indicted yesterday for tax evasion; on

her right, a Pakistani having such

a frightful allergy attack — and the

conductor, who has just received a check

for twenty thousand dollars from the lottery—

but now she raises her baton — and

in that instant of anticipation, in

that sacred, silent metamorphosis, how

many, would you say, have they become?

 

Ludwig van Beethoven, an 1804 portrait

Ludwig van Beethoven, an 1804 portrait

Four notes — three quick, one slow — are played:

the Fifth (but first, perhaps, in pure

and simple glory) symphony of Beethoven

begins… and in the audience,

a few may fidget, measuring

the minutes and intending to

retreat at intermission. Violinists

count the silent beats of idleness

between their passages, but, I imagine,

seldom ask themselves how many

notes they play in all, and just

as well, it wouldn’t change a thing. Do you

suppose there’s someone who, for fun

or scholarship, attempts to number all

the microbes in the hall, and further,

calculates the ratio of respirations that

occur between the second movement and

the third? For to be sure, it could

be quantified somewhere by some technology

or other. Fortunately, no one cares.

And that’s the point. They came, you see, to hear

the symphony.

 

...the stars care nothing of our counting them....

...the stars care nothing of our counting them....

Therefore, you’ll get no argument from me that 2 plus 2 are 4, not 3 or 17
or 20, but in turn you must forgive
the solecism I commit, suggesting there’s
a truer truth than anything that can
be proven by addition — if it were
not so, than why would anybody bother?
What would be the joy of noticing
this pattern or that symmetry? Do we
pursue a proof because the numerals
insist on our attention? I am sure
the stars care nothing of our counting
them or our refraining from it. Finding
order in the universe, or else
imposing it, or otherwise competing
in a race with chaos, really has a single
benefit — it satisfies, however
temporarily, the spirit, and
the truth, you find, is in the poetry,
not in the paper that it’s written on
or in the composition of the particles
that dart about at rates astonishingly
great — as we believe, for so the eye
of science witnesses, and since we give
it credibility, we cannot disagree.
 

...viruses or other microscopic entities....

...viruses and other microscopic entities....

It pleases us to cede authority

to science, even though we never see

the viruses and other microscopic

entities; but science offers remedies

for every manner of disease and warns

that to release a sneeze uncovered will

unleash a tyranny of demons; so

it seems, in our experience, and is

esteemed as fact, no longer theory…

because it matters. That’s the only

reason — saves a life, perhaps, or

fifty million. If the latter, is the

scientific effort fifty million times

more worthy? I don’t know.

You do the math.

 

by Sister Alma Rose

February 2006

“Galaxies,”  “tulips,” and “stars” images © Luc Viatour GFDL/CC

 tulips_magentas

The Ashley Incident

My son Jack and daughter-in-law Ashley live next door with their children, one of whom is Little Jack, who is almost a year old.

Computerized tomography (CT) scanner
Computerized tomography (CT) scanner

Last Sunday, I got a 7 a.m. phone call from Ashley. She was obviously in huge pain. I told her to go immediately to the hospital, where the emergency-room personnel discovered via numerous expensive high-tech methodologies that she was hemorrhaging, which I could have told them without the machines and the expense. After about six hours spent groaning in agony, Ashley was rushed to the operating room for exploratory surgery, anesthetized, split open like a salmon, and relieved of a couple of pints of blood and a ruptured ovarian cyst.

i-40_map
Red line = I-40

They sent her home on Tuesday, less than 48 hours after the surgery, with an incision the length of Interstate 40 and instructions not to lift the baby or any other heavy object for two weeks. This was one of those unfunded mandates doctors and hospitals are so fond of issuing, because of course they did not send Mary Poppins or Mr. T  home with Ashley.

“How,” I asked myself, “would a Person Living Poetically respond to Ashley’s dilemma?” This was not an idle question, because I tend to feel that I am to blame for everything, including World Hunger, and that everything is therefore my responsibility. I am a pathological People-Pleaser, and my default definition of myself (CONtentwise) is “one who ties up all the loose ends in the universe.”

As it happens, I had a lot to do this week, and Ashley’s plight arose at a very inconvenient time for me. I had deadlines to meet and telephone interviews to conduct and no clean underwear.

...telephone interviews to conduct...
…telephone interviews to conduct…

Theoretically, it would have been possible for me to keep to my schedule, just as it would have been possible for the Washington Monument–bound family to call 9-1-1 for Granny and go on its merry way. But if one has decided to live poetically, such choices are no longer simple. Another possibility would have been to help Ashley and grouse about it continually, moaning and groaning every time I had to carry little Jack from one room to another or, worse yet, up a flight of stairs, which I did, several times, moaning and groaning shamelessly because, after all, I didn’t drop him, so I attained the victory only slightly tarnished.

Aleutian Islands (triangles = active volcanoes)
Aleutian Islands (triangles = active volcanoes)

Fortunately, I had done the decluttering exercise in Lesson 5.1 and I had finished the personal inventory assigned in Lesson 13, so I wasn’t being a knee-jerk do-gooder when I decided to devote as much time as was needed to Ashley for as long as she needed it. Using the Golden Rule, it turns out, is a pretty good way of making decisions much of the time, and what I would want Others to Do unto Me, if I had just lost 25 percent or so of my blood supply and had major abdominal surgery and if I were lurching around due to the pain of an incision that looked like the Aleutian Islands, is, I would want Others to cater to my every whim and relieve me of all responsibility for babies, diapers, six-year-olds, meals, and the like.

Finnish macaroni casserole (photo by Suvi Korhonen)
Finnish macaroni casserole (photo by Suvi Korhonen)

So that is what I have been doing instead of attending to my blogs and my deadlines and my laundry. That, and accepting with gratitude the various casseroles and salads and desserts supplied by the Church Ladies, because that is what Church Ladies DO, just as helping one’s grown children when they are in need through no fault of their own (as opposed to being in need because they have screwed up Big Time) is what I do, when I am living poetically. 

Assignment 34.1

  1. Identify as many poetic devices as you can in “Mystic Math,” above.
  2. Send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.
  3. Keep exploring the meditations at www.LifeIsPoetry.net, and continue with your meditation journal.  

* * *

 

Spare No Sibilants

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 31

Chapter 10: Meditation
Part 4: Poetry-Writing as Meditation

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

girl_art_project

The creative arts are the playground for recognizing and understanding our purpose in being here. When we truly allow our spirits to be filled with the purpose, our minds can begin to take stock of the necessary steps and needed materials so the body can become the mover or manifestor of the desire. Mind, Body, Spirit: Connecting With Your Creative Self,
by Mary Braheny and Diane Halperin

* * *

I wrote both of the poems below “meditatively” — that is, with an open mind, as part of a morning ritual.

The first poem originated from my noticing that at this time of year, the earth’s orientation to the sun is such that the rays slant more brightly and beautifully through my bedroom windows than in any other season.  I have said before that I live in a church basement, though that’s not quite accurate. Half of my apartment is below ground level. The windows — there are four, all on the south side — are full sized, made possible by window wells.

In meditative poems I try not to be intentional. I work with the poetic conventions I choose and let the tale tell itself. In this case, I chose the following:

There are other common rhetorical devices as well. (1) How many can you identify? (Please name the ones you find.)

The poem was going to be a meditation on a ray of light, but it turned into something quite different. (2) What might it have told me about myself that I hadn’t been aware of?

1. WHIMSY ON WELCOMING WINDOWS IN WINTER

My walkdown is half below ground and thus darkish
with windows on only one side, and these mullioned
and frosted and dusty, gray-tinted with shadows
from brickwork and privet… and silent, so quiet
that lightning and thunder at midnight can’t penetrate;
but, more’s the pity, I can’t discern birdsong;
cicadas lamenting and crickets scritch-scritching,
however, are easily heard in midsummer.
I once had a fright from a possum who tumbled,
at least I inferred that she had, to the floor of
the window-well; captive, she skittered around on
the old metal screens; and I, thinking the threat must
be human, in fear and confusion, punched in nine-
one-one on the phone, and no fewer than two dozen
uniformed men armed with pistols came quickly
to rescue a woman alone in her bedroom,
defending her person from one hapless menacing
possum. The men with the guns were forgiving,
and, surely, one had to do something, not knowing
the danger. I do love a window that faces
the south in the wintertime, feral four-footed
invaders, indeed, notwithstanding; for sunlight
slants through in a comforting, angular way that
is perfectly suited for afternoon naps and
geraniums, too.

January 18, 2009

restored_winter_garden_2002_ground0

The inspiration for the following poem was the much-embellished language of Elizabeth Peters’s delightful Victorian archaeologist and detective Amelia Peabody Emerson. Peters has written a few dozen books about the Emersons, all narrated (for the most part) by Amelia, whose husband refers to her affectionately as “Peabody.” There is an unrestraint about her utterances (as there is, as well, about Victorian houses, furniture, and other artistic expressions) that is greatly at odds with the more modern, pared-down prose of later writers. If something can be clearly expressed using five words, Amelia will use fifteen.

tomb234There is, I am overjoyed to find, a new book in the series: Tomb of the Golden Bird (Amelia Peabody Mysteries).

Again, the poem wandered into uncharted territory. (3) What do you think I learned about myself in the process of writing this poem? (HINT: There are no wrong answers.) 

2. LIBERTINE (AMELIA)

 “They will rid us of resident

     “rodents,” said Amelia Peabody —

Oh, what a droll redundancy

     Of D’s and R’s and S’s.

Amelia is generous with consonants

     and commas and asides,

     not sparing

     an embarrassment of prepositions

     or extravagant Egyptian

     nomenclature.

Ah, to scatter syllables

     with no fear of reprisal,

Scribbling whatever adjectives

     arise, page upon page,

To be intemperate at last

     and feel the weight of pent-up participles

     lifted from one’s shoulders,

     nobly carried, one might add,

     despite the rain.

Now to feast upon the delicate,

     the succulent, the opulent

     accessories, plucked in

     leaner days from one’s

     repast, but frozen — for

     one knew their banishment

     would end at last.

Economy, begone! Pack your

     valise and abdicate

     your stern and pious reign.

Don’t slam the door when you

     egress. Expect no severance pay,

     for you’ve exacted

     more than you were owed.

And now, a toast, companions

     in the liberation, mes amis.

Now lift your flagons, lift them high,

     and drink to whimsy, arrogant,

     peculiar, wry, benevolent.

Drink to liberty

     in flowing crimson silk

     arrayed; Amelia Peabody has

     gained the citadel, and

     holds aloft the flame.

O, wasted wealth of words, O, damned

     display of Latin origins.

O, Norse and Arabic, O, Gaelic,

     Greek and Cherokee, and more;

Ye assonant ambassadors, rejoice!

Amelia has restored

     your scattered fortunes.

Spare no sibilants;

     there shall be subsurrations,

     seventy times seven, and

     a score besides.

Throw wide the gates for

     summer’s retinue,

     ripe pomegranate.

Go and populate the periodicals, reclaim

     the islands where verbosity

     has honor still.

Amelia has gained the citadel,

     and yet, take care that your extravagance

     is eloquent, laid on with artistry. For as

     “the tombs themselves descend in

     “sinuous curves,”

Endeavor to deserve, when you are

     gone, an orderly effusion

     in the manner you (yourself)

     displayed.

Immerse yourself in immortality.

     Immerse yourself COMPLETELY,

     like Amelia,

Who bathes and then adjourns to the

     verandah,

Where breezes ruffle Nefret’s hair

     that shimmers in the light like

     golden threads.

 

February 2006

peabody

Assignment 31.1

  1. Answer the questions highlighted above in red.
  2. Write a meditative poem in blank verse using iambic or trochaic tetrameter. Your poem should have no more than twenty lines. BEGIN WITH A MINIMALIST, CONCRETE SUBJECT, AND DO NOT WRITE OVERTLY ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS.
  3. Identify the poetic devices in your poem.
  4. Send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.
  5. Keep exploring the meditations at www.LifeIsPoetry.net, and continue with your meditation journal.

* * *

What Meditation Feels Like

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 29

Chapter 10: Meditation
Part 2: Simple Meditation

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

Pine Ridge area, northwestern Nebraska

Pine Ridge area, northwestern Nebraska

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

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

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

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

Meditation step by step

Jack Kornfield (a Spirit Rock image)

Jack Kornfield (a Spirit Rock image)

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

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

    Susan Piver

    Susan Piver

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

    Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

    Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

In a nutshell

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

Other ways to start meditating

__________

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

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

Adapted from Sister Alma Rose Has the Last Word

Assignment 29.1

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

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

* * *

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?

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

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 LearnOutLoud.com.

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

Photo, “Basic Training,” courtesy of http://www.list.co.uk/article/4084-basic-training/

Next: Growth and self-knowledge

Who Are You?

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 10

Chapter 4: Me, Myself, and I
Part 1: Knowing Thyself in One Easy Lesson

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

God Creating Adam, Michelangelo, c. 1510, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

God Creating Adam, Michelangelo, c. 1510, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!Anne Frank, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

I am a divine idea of a loving God, created for a divine purpose, which finds its greatest satisfaction in expression of its uniqueness, in harmony with God’s other divine ideas, which make up the infinite universe. Perhaps the universe produces what is needed in every place, at every time.

All of the millions of tiny needles on a fir tree are necessary for the perfect functioning of the tree. You and I are like those needles — we are right here, right now, because the universe requires it. The difference between us and the fir tree’s needles is that we can choose (a) to follow our inclinations—doing what we love, fulfilling our destiny, and perfecting the universe — or (b) to deny our talents and be diverted from our purpose. —Anonymous

[Knowing who you are] does not even require your realization, since you already are who you are. But without realization, who you are does not shine forth into this world…. You are… like an apparently poor person who does not know he has a bank account with $100 million in it and so his wealth remains an unexpressed potential. —Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (Oprah’s Book Club, Selection 61)

Who am I? What am I? How did I get here? Now that I am here, what should I be doing? No kidding? All that? Can I have a nap first?

These are the kinds of questions most of us ask from time to time — for example,

  • During or after a crisis
  • During or after a long summer evening at the campsite drinking beer and saying to virtual strangers, “I love ya, man.”
  • When we have way too much time on our hands (see also [b])
  • When we’re not struggling for survival; that is, when our basic physical needs have been met
  • When we’re tired of struggling for survival and we’re wondering if it’s worth it
  • When we’re living in a dorm and a lot of us are taking Philosophy 203: The Mind-Body Problem (with a focus on the nature of our mental life in relation to the brain)
  • When we’re depressed; when we doubt our value; when we discover that other people’s perceptions of us are less flattering than our own
  • When, in short, we find that we’re not who we thought we were, which is just as well, because we’re never who we think we are, and we’re just as likely to be as uncertain today as we were yesterday

As in Chapter 3, however, I’ll put forth a few operational definitions so that we’re all speaking the same language, or nearly so. These definitions will be incomplete but useful answers to the questions

What is the self?

Cells are not the building blocks of life, nor are the atoms and molecules that cells can be broken down into. The body is built on invisible abstractions called information and energy–both of which are contained in your DNA. —Deepak Chopra, The Way of the Wizard: Twenty Spiritual Lessons for Creating the Life You Want


In what sense can you know yourself?

Is it possible to “reinvent” yourself? (Reinvent is the buzzword du jour for “adapt” or “change.” None of these words says precisely what I mean. “Adapting” is passive and gradual. “Changing” is too general. “Reinventing” implies that you’re starting from scratch.

(“Participating in your own creation” or “co-creating yourself” are cumbersome but are more to the point—which is that, when things aren’t going well, or when what has worked for you in the past doesn’t work any more, you can either change your approach or rant about the unfairness of everything. “Participating in your own creation” conveys both intention and acceptance of an essential, divinely created self.)

There are tomes dealing with each of these concepts. Take self-knowledge, for example. Most would agree that since the self is never static, it can never be known. By the time you figure out who you are, you’re someone else. *

By the time you figure out who you are, you're someone else

By the time you figure out who you are, you're someone else

I have only a casual observer’s understanding of Buddhist ideas about the amorphous self—personal identity without boundaries. But Buddhists don’t want everybody to walk around bumping into things all the time. The Buddha himself emerged from his transformative meditation believing in the “Middle Way” between an ascetic life and a worldly one. To learn more about what I call “practical Buddhism,” which I hope is not an oxymoron or an offense to actual Buddhists, I highly recommend the book The Joy of Living, by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (Harmony Books, 2007).  

Let’s assume for the moment that it’s possible to have a working knowledge of ourselves through information gained from three sources: (a) self-observation, (b) a more-or-less accurate understanding of others’ perceptions of us, and (c) revelation (or, if you prefer, intuition). Now consider the story of my friend Carrie, a widow, who had an electrical problem.

The Buddha

The Buddha

Who is Carrie: Tramp, chemist, pathetic widow?

Several aspects of Carrie’s surface identity are easy to describe: She is

  • a widow
  • a charming woman with a firm handshake and a good memory for names. When she says, “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she means it. She asks friendly questions about your family, your work, your beer-bottle-cap collection. If you rebuild transmissions for a living, Carrie can’t think of anything more fascinating. “Now, how is it that my automatic transmission knows when it’s time to shift into overdrive?” she wants to know.
  • a neatnik. Carrie is one of those people who dust beneath and behind the sofa daily. She can see bacteria and viruses with the naked eye. Hospital sterilization personnel salute her as she walks by. They name autoclaves after her.
  • not an electrician. Carrie doesn’t know an amp from an alligator. She breaks out in hives when she has to change a light bulb.

Thus, when the electrical outlet next to her bed stopped functioning, Carrie called in a professional. Al the electrician would arrive at 8 a.m. the next morning, Carrie was assured.

In the perverse way of such professionals, Al arrived at 7:15. Carrie was discomfited because, though she was dressed and halfway through her second cup of coffee, and though her little house was always spick and span, she hadn’t yet made her bed.

She greeted Al at the door, offered him coffee (which he declined), and ushered him into the bedroom. The electrical outlet was situated near the floor between Carrie’s bed and her nightstand. There were four items neatly arranged on the nightstand: an alarm clock, a lamp, a book, and a jar labeled (in letters that, to Carrie’s horrified eyes, appeared at least two feet tall) “Sexual Enhancement Cream.” As Carrie told me later that day,

Al was here for half an hour, fooling with that electrical outlet, reaching over the table checking this and that, at one point even elbowing the jar aside; and he’s talking to me, explaining electrical things, and I don’t remember a word he said because I was trying so hard to be nonchalant, while this jar, before my very eyes, is inflating to four or five times its original size and also changing from white to neon orange with flashing purple letters, and an actual human voice, like at a carnival, is shouting “Sexual Enhancement Cream! Getcher Sexual Enhancement Cream here, on Carrie’s nightstand, next to her unmade bed!”

Carrie used the word mortified several times. She could have said embarrassed or humiliated. Mortified, really, is overkill, so to speak. Mortify enters the English language from the French mortifier, which in turn comes from the Latin mortificare: “to put someone to death.”

But there is a sense — a poetic sense — in which Carrie was indeed “put to death” during that excruciating half-hour and for a while afterward. Carrie’s “death” is, of course, metaphorical.

The self she knew, the tidy widow, mortified
By nothing but a jar, was stricken, died,
And what was resurrected wasn’t she at all,
But something hard, dispassionate; so small
And wretched, so pathetic, it seemed barely worth
Its rations—water, air, a bit of earth.

During that excruciating half-hour, Carrie saw herself as she imagined Al must have seen her. Since Al had given no sign of having even noticed the jar (“but he couldn’t possibly have missed it!”), her imagination ran wild. In Al’s eyes, she was (a) an oversexed spinster, (b) a brazen hussy, or (c) a purveyor of phone pornography.

I suggested (d) a chemist, and anyway, (e) why did she care what Al thought? But for some reason, in Carrie’s mind, Al’s perception of her had become more important than her own, which, it appeared, was a little on the fuzzy side. “Widowhood” was still a strange and shadowy place for Carrie. Her identity as “Phil’s wife” had been well defined. Without Phil, she wasn’t sure who she was.

_______________ 

* My research on the physics of observing and understanding a system (in this case, the self) when you, the observer, are embedded within the system, came to an abrupt halt when I learned that it would involve “fractals,” which—being statistically self-similar to their substructures and, further, generated by an infinitely recursive process—are clearly wicked, and possibly radioactive as well, and should be avoided at all cost.

 

Lesson 10.1: Assignment
How ‘Conscious’ Are You?

Eckhart Tolle writes in A New Earth that “nothing you can know about you is you.” We are not our titles or our roles. When my children were still living at home, I was so enmeshed in the role of “motherhood” that I became very ill when my youngest left the nest.

Eckhart Tolle

Eckhart Tolle

Meditation is one way to encounter your “essential” self—the you that isn’t plastered over with ego: roles, ambitions, relationships, other people’s perceptions, even your own measurement of your worth. Tolle calls these things “content… the inner and outer circumstances of your life, your past and your future [as well as] … events.” The more you identify with “the inner space of consciousness”—which, unlike content, is not transient—the less likely you are to be buffeted about by emotions and the freer you are to live poetically.

If you are young and competent, you probably have experienced little tragedy and you are confident of your ability to manage your life. I remember thinking, from time to time, that I “couldn’t bear it” if “X” happened, and I would do everything in my power to prevent it. And then “X” happened anyway (my first big “X” was the death of my mother at age 62), and I suffered, and survived, and grew in compassion. Since then, there have been lots of “X’s,” and there is little left to be afraid of, and much to celebrate.

Your assignment is to answer the following questions in a paragraph or two (about fifty words):

What makes you unhappy or afraid? What do you have or do that, if you couldn’t have it or do it, would seriously disrupt your sense of self?

It’s important to be honest here. This is the first step in “knowing thyself.” I will not ask you to send me this assignment, but it is important to write down your answers and save them for use later in this course.

Next: Chapter 4, Part 2: Your Self Is Irrepressible

 

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”).

Ð

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.

Ð

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