Category Archives: Creativity

Mental Health Is On My Mind

Courtesy of Ann Telnaes
Washington Post, 2.5.2019

Not a day goes by without my considering what effects Trump’s random, impulsive behaviors have on the mental health of our country. I’m not alone. On February 7th, The Boston Globe carried an opinion piece titled Institutional silence on Trump’s mental state in which Doctors Lee and Glass sound the alarm on “malignant normalcy.” They state,

Human beings are very adaptable, and there is almost no degree of pathology we could not grow accustomed to, unless those with clear knowledge of what was happening were to speak out. Based on the experience of physician compliance with Nazism, we now have the Declaration of Geneva, the universal physician’s pledge that recognizes either silence or active cooperation with a destructive regime as running counter to medicine’s humanitarian goals.

The authors take issue with the American Psychiatric Organization’s decision to enact a gag order on any member who speaks out about a public figure. They advocate the present need for public discourse by mental health professionals as a first step to having clarity and empowering the people.

Many of us, with or without mental health credentials, live through each day with the knowledge that our chief executive is a rogue president with a mental attitude that permits him to behave without accountability.

The past month has been bookmarked by two events.

  • The government shutdown during which 800,000 or more public service workers were cut off from their pay while expected to perform their jobs.
  • At no point in his 80 minute speech did Trump speak of, address, express regret, or hold himself or anyone in his administration accountable for the hardship caused by his decision.

It is telling that nowhere in his State of the Union speech did Trump express concern or reflect on the challenge to prevent a future shutdown as the next budget deadline looms.

For the past two years, we have suffered through Trump’s blasphemous, irrepressible ego trip, placing himself in front of adoring fans, holed up in the residency or at Mar-a-Largo, in commune with Fox news, texting his observations and pronouncements as if they were executive orders.

Is Trump unfit to serve? Do we need a psychiatric evaluation to decide? Until and unless there is adequate data that motivates a Cabinet member on the necessity of an evaluation, how we gain perspective, be it through reading, listening, and absorbing various viewpoints, is up to each individual.

In the meantime, each of us is accountable to ourselves and to the community we share.  Our own mental health is dependent on what each of us does each and every day to maintain our own well-being as well as to contribute to the well-being of our social and community networks.

For myself, I intend to address my worry about “malignant normality” by being mindful, calling my representatives, and sharing my opinion. As always, I am grateful to my readers who run alongside as I struggle to make sense out of what, these days, seems surreal.

 

 

 

Mary Oliver: My Mentor & Teacher

Mary Oliver, circa 1992
photo by Marv

The two summers I spent in Mary Oliver’s poetry writing workshop changed my life. A practicing psychotherapist for twenty-five years, lines of poetry had arrived in the middle of the night. At lunch with a friend one day, as I mused about the mystical quality of how lines arrive each morning, she asked how the revision process was going. “Revision,” I laughed, “I’m clueless.”  Poetry had seemed like a gift from the muse, not to be tampered with.

Tampering with grit and specificity is what Mary Oliver was all about. That first morning in July 1990, blond, lean, dressed in a yellow shirt, Mary was soft-spoken bordering on shy yet directive and clear about why we were there and what was to come. She said, “I teach what works for me.” We were there to learn language, technique, and process.

Session 1— a few highlights

  • “Sound selection is unconscious. The sense of the poem is carried by sound,” she began.
  • “You work with the equipment you get inside you.”
  • “The daylight part of the mind edits.”
  • “Any word is a help or a hindrance.”
  • “There is no such thing as a neutral sound.”
  • “Without this type of artistry, the use of sound, you don’t have a poem.”
  • “When art is right, the more bearable it is.”

I can attest to the truth of Mary’s words. I come from a line of music makers. My children are music makers as am I. Under Mary’s tutelage, I sung words to myself, tapped out rhythms, played with line breaks, varied stanzas, wrote multiple drafts of poems and rarely published. The creativity, the hope of artistry, the effort to shape the words and use the tools Mary gave me powered my effort and brought balance to my life.

After I retired from my practice, I shifted into the longer form of personal essay and memoir. The musicality of words, what I had learned about enjambment, the concept of the turning of the line, the difference between a slim poem such as Mary wrote or a long line, such as Whitman, whom she blessed for speaking to her, followed me.

In my Solstice MFA critical thesis, titled, Poetic Language and Musicality in Essays of E.B. White and Ted Kooser’s Local Wonders, I expanded on Mary’s specificity. I explored symbolism as well as elements of rhythm as depicted by beat, and melody as demonstrated by sound and physiological harmony in relationship to the particulars of imagery which evoke sight, sounds, tastes, smell and touch.

On the sad occasion of Mary’s death, I recall our private feedback meeting at Bennington in 1991. She affirmed my passion and work ethic as she offered, “Send me a few poems from time to time. I’ll run alongside you, to help lift your kite into the air.”

I am grateful for Mary’s generosity, respect and poetic commentary, which enabled me to express and trust the “equipment” I have inside. Like so many who mourn her today, I turn to her vast work of artistry, her ability to create “bearable art” and rejoice for her legacy.

On Slow Waking

 

Faye, circa 1950’s
photo by Marv

For the past week, I’ve been ensconced at Pine Manor’s Winter MFA Solstice residency in Chestnut Hill. I was one of the first alumni to graduate in January, 2009. Thanks to their generous policy of encouraging alumni to audit classes and attend alumni events, I return twice a year for inspiration, learning and collegiality.

Every year, I focus on a particular aspect of craft and writing. In years past, as a memoir and personal essay writer, I’ve selected classes in creative nonfiction. This past year, perhaps because of the swirling events of Trump’s presidency, I have returned to writing poetry. The form, succinct and compressed, forces me to hone in, shape words in a rhythmic form, and highlight the essence of my subject.

I write free verse, using narrative, craft particulars and associations to shape my words. As of late, I have struggled to find the “right” words to fit my subject and fill the page. I’ve begun to wonder: does the possibility of so much free form limit my imagination?

I am grateful to report that midweek, I attended a class taught by Dzvinia Orlowsky on the Villanelle and Pantoum forms. We read and dissected Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, Sylvia Plath’s Mad Girl’s Love Song, Theodore Roethke’s The Waking and two more. Villanelle is a form that uses repetition of lines to highlight the poet’s themes and intention.

As an Octogenarian with far more years behind me than ahead, the experience of probing the contrast between Thomas’s “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” and Roethke’s “I learn by going where I have to go”  tapped into my own personal dilemma about creative focus and time.

In aging, one can rail and narrow one’s options as Thomas so aptly reveals or in contrast, one can follow one’s instincts or intuition and expand as one lives as Roethke unveils. It was remarkable join my classroom peers, all decades younger, in exploring and articulating the options.

On his recent 91stbirthday, my brother joked, “I’ve never been this old.” There is such truth is that simple statement and with it, the question of how one proceeds facing the “sunset years.” For myself, I am grateful to have returned to poem making in order to try to harness the light, caste the mauves, blues and lavenders of topics that compel me to write.

At the same time, I am grateful to experience validation of the path I am on, the belief that experience is the best teacher— a mantra I followed in all my therapeutic work with others. My choice of poetry classes was intuitive. It now seems significant that Roethke wrote the poem In Waking in 1953, a turning point in my life. I was a junior in college, far from home, emotionally adrift from my family and learning life long lessons I continue to embrace.

In Roethke’s words—“I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. I learn by going where I have to go.” I am grateful.

On Reflections of the Winter Solstice

Happy Winter Solstice!
photo by Marv

On this day before the winter Solstice and the sun’s turn towards increased daylight, I am grateful to the many readers who have read and supported my Gratitude Blog.

My own turn towards the light of gratitude began when I turned eighty. Gratitude is about perspective; and at eighty, the lens widens in one direction and shortens in another. Looking back, I can catalogue years, events, people, trends, the richness of the life I have lived. Looking ahead, there is guesswork as to how long my body, my brain, my sense of purpose and meaning will continue.

Does my goal to live to 105 years make sense? Up to 85, I thought so. In the years between eighty and eighty-five, I have written two full journals on gratitude, read numerous books on the subject and published 115 blogs. I believe that if I continue to focus on gratitude— to search for what brings a sense of thankfulness with full appreciation even with the challenges of aging, I might make it to 100 years or longer.

In the past year, I am more aware of the importance of connection. As friends become ill and pass away, I am grateful for the memory of close and fine relationships. The missing is sometimes hard like this past Saturday when Marv and I attended the Bar Mitzvah of the youngest grandson of my best friend Flo who passed away over twenty years ago. I’ve stayed close to her husband and children and know her seven grandchildren. On every family occasion, her strong spirit is present and I am melancholy.

In the yawning sadness that lingered that evening and the day after, I was unable to focus on my Monday blog deadline and wondered was this the beginning of my winding down the blog? I let it drift until this morning when I began to write and the words poured forth. Writing takes focus and patience, as does aging.

For the coming year, I will be focusing on gratitude and often, on the aging process as I experience and learn about more about what brings good balance at this stage. My essentials?

  • Healthy and viable relationships with friends and family.
  • Knowledge about one’s body, what makes it tick well, how to manage vulnerabilities.
  • Good nutrition— I cook daily, am a reformed “health food nut”
  • Time for creativity— writing my blog, personal essays, poems
  • Time for learning— piano, particularly jazz, which challenges my mind, helps me create new brain cells.
  • Nature— gardening three season, house plants, visuals of green spaces
  • Time for reading— news, poems, books that grab, fiction or nonfiction
  • Engaging media– movies, television
  • Exercise— tai-chi, weights, cardio

I juggle a lot, suffer from over ambition and often, over exertion, lifelong habits I try to reign in. Moderation is a learned behavior and one I try to focus on daily. I am grateful that as I age, I am getting better at mindful pacing. Happy Winter Solstice!

On Appreciation and Gratitude

The more I ponder and focus on the subject of gratitude, the more aware I am of the complexity of articulating its meaning. Some days, it’s as simple as saying, “Thank you,” to a young woman bagger at the super market who asked, “Shall I pack your bags not too heavy, ma’am?”

She initiated the perfect question seconds before my usual instructions.  I thanked her profusely as she set the bags in my cart. In the parking lot, as I hoisted the four bags into my car without strain, I further appreciated how well she had balanced the weighty apples, potatoes and squashes with the kale and rainbow chard selections. Whereas I was thankful in the moment, the effects of her careful effort deepened my appreciation and had a lasting effect.

In this season between Thanksgiving, Chanukah and Christmas, much is written about gratitude and “giving” to show appreciation. We are bombarded by requests from charities and organizations. Budgets are reviewed. Lists of relatives and friends, people we love and care about, organizations, which focus on attending to issues and causes important to us, are made.  Every person or organization we choose to acknowledge, in some way, makes a difference in our lives.

Is not the act of making a gift list the same as making a gratitude list with a specific intention?

I enjoy list-making for the opportunity to review and reflect on people in my life who, in my mother’s words, “make my life easier.”

My mailbox is situated up the driveway by the side entrance. It requires the mail carrier to walk from the street to the mailbox every day, through every season. During warm months, I’m often in the garden and can greet him and sometimes, chat. In this season of chill, I see him little but will enjoy selecting a special card, writing a note of appreciation, and adding a gift to leave in the mailbox.

Appreciation, the practice of gratitude, takes time and effort. The person who best exemplifies this in my life is my daughter, Beth. Joined by her daughter, she has the ritual of making home made chocolate fudge and pretzels covered with chocolate and colorful sprinkles. The ritual began years ago as a way to raise funds for a school charity and since, has grown into a way to show appreciation for colleagues, friends and family. Her Dad is on the list. She makes him special turtles with caramel. I order fudge and pretzels, festive packages for special friends.

I plan to start my appreciation/gift-giving list tonight, at the onset of Chanukah. As I light candles on the eight nights, I am grateful for my home, my family, my friends, my colleagues, my neighbors, my many helpers, my news outlets, the flow of information, my opportunity to be engaged and give back to all who help make my life better and safer.

 

 

Simple Toast

UNIVERSAL Toaster, Circa 1914

This simple, flip-side, manual toaster, patented in 1914, offered warm toast every morning of my childhood before and after World War II.

By nature of its two-sided panel design, Mom could grasp a black button, flip the panel down, insert a piece of bread on one or both sides, and plug the toaster in. It toasted one side at a time, necessitating patience and hovering to get the bread brown, but not too crisp, then manually turning it over to face the red coil for even crispness.

In contrast, I own a Breville, ten-setting, multi functional toaster oven where I press a button , choose # 6 degree of crispness and turn away to hand drip my coffee as the machine performs perfection morning after morning.

With gratitude, I marvel at the memory of my mother standing at the entry handing me a piece of hot buttered toast. Ever-patient, holding up her offering, Mom said, “Take it easy, Faye,” as I dashed out the front door to meet up with best friend Harriet’s Dad, motor running at the corner curb, waiting to drop us off at junior high on her dad’s way to work.

Recently, a young friend recently noticed the antique toaster on display on a kitchen shelf. Years ago, when my two siblings and I cleared out our parent’s belongings, I chose the Universal toaster as a reminder of my childhood. She was fascinated by the fact that the plug had to be manually inserted and removed at every usage.

In my memory, the toast I savored as I ran down the block was warm, oozing with fresh butter and perfect in its crispness. To achieve this, Mom would have stood close by the toaster, ready to grasp the tiny black button to flip the bread at just the right degree of browning, only to begin all over again.

Mother was quiet and even-tempered by nature. I was not. Slow and dreamy upon awakening, I was eternally late though I tried my hardest. I cannot recall how many times Mom must have called up the stairs to prompt me to move along; but by the time I was at the front door, I was wound up, ajitated and ready to skip breakfast. Most of all, I dreaded the possibility of disapproval and a raised eyebrow.

I am still slow to rise, and at this writing, grateful to appreciate the memory of a simple gesture, which made a difference in how I faced my day. As an adult, my breakfast rituals are specific and predictable. I grind fresh coffee beans, boil water, and drip coffee with a steady pouring hand. I choose and toast an Ezekial high protein, sprouted wheat bun for sustained energy, and slather it with nut butter. Sometimes, I add micro-greens or asparagus.

In this post mid-election Trumpian era where breaking news abounds at every moment, I am grateful for morning dreaming and the simple pleasures of a calming and nutritious breakfast before revving up to face whatever the day brings.

 

Fall Leaves & Mourning

Photo taken from the back patio window

There is something about fall with its bold colors, each leaf distinct, the explosion of red, orange, yellow pigments in artistic play, a cacophony of hues.

I am especially grateful for the turning of leaves this November,2018. Days before the midterm, I am fraught with anticipation and anxiety. Will there be a falling?

The cleansing sweep of leaves represents change, the falling away of what has been in preparation for what is to become. I am grateful for the wisdom of Mother Nature’s seasons.

To thrive, trees must rest. To rest, trees must give up their leaves, strip down, be prepared for the weight  of cold and the blanket of snow which will bed, protect and ultimately melt moisture into the roots and provide nourishment for spring’s resurgence and growth.

During my fall childhood, as I walked the mile route to and from school, I scanned the sidewalk for “special” leaves— the perfectly pointed fiery red maples, the curved yellow oaks, the russet chestnuts. Upon arriving home, I slid each leaf in between the pages of Mom’s discarded Woman’s Day magazines. At season’s end, the magazines bulging with stems peeking out, I tucked them away in my room under a heavy book.

Often, as it happens in childhood, I moved on to my next project, forgetting the beauty left behind until spring or even the start of the next fall, when I would begin again. All these years later, still drawn to the search for “special leaves” such as the floating oak leaf caught in the spider’s web framed in the patio glass door, shown in the picture above.

A week has passed since the awful human carnage of faithful Jews, several near my own age, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish community, daughter of a first generation Yankee father and Lithuanian immigrant mother, I watched television images of congregants in mourning and men in black hoisting caskets of their beloved ones. I read about and listened to  stories of the deceased—men and women in the throes of their lives including a married couple wed in 1954 at the Tree of Life Synagogue, the same year as Marv and I were wed.

As my heart wept for the fallen,

I gazed upward

to the bold red/orange/yellow

leaves in change,

leaves in color, leaves falling.

 

Each precious one

soon to transform

into paper thinness

likes bones to dust,

eleven spirits in flight.

May the beauty of fallen leaves bring comfort to those who mourn.

On Real-Life Storytelling in Film

Grace Lee, Film Director                Ann Hornaday, Film Critic

We’ve just returned from a week of learning about voice and ownership in film, Marv’s and my fifth season at The Chautauqua Institute with Road Scholar. As a writer, I am drawn to topics that edify and explicate literary aspects of the creative process. What better way to understand process than to listen to an astute interviewer dig into the background, motivation and story of the birth of a film.

Day five, Ann Hornaday, film critic for the Washington Post interviewed Grace Lee on what prompted her to begin her film career with “The Grace Lee Project,” in which she interviewed women named “Grace Lee” from all over the country. As an Asian American who grew up in Missouri, she was the only person she knew with her first name, but upon moving to New York and California, she realized there were many women with her full name. Likening the name “Grace Lee” to the “Jane Smith of Asian-American names,” the germ of her project was born and she set out to interview Grace Lees all over the country.

When I started asking other people about the Grace Lees they once knew, they were always stereotypically perfect, over-achieving Asian Americans. They went to Harvard at age 15, were excellent violin players…devout Christians, and I was none of those things. (Chautauqua Daily)

During the making of this 2005 film, she met Grace Lee Boggs, an Octogenerian Chinese-American woman who lived and worked as an activist-writer in a predominantly African American community in Detroit. A decade later, Lee returned to Boggs at age ninety to make a film titled “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.”

As a writer of memoir, as a clinician who savors story, the film clips and discussion of how Grace Lee and her camera crew followed Boggs about on her daily encounters mesmerized me. Earlier in the week, listening to Ken Burns and his two writer colleagues, I learned the value and importance of weaving “stills” and back footage into the story line.

I attended Wayne University in Detroit in 1953, just at the time whites were fleeing to the suburbs as African Americans were moving into  neighborhoods. As a sociology major, I went from door to door, interviewing whites and African Americans about their neighborhood concerns. Wariness of the “other” was everywhere. I was on the fringe, unaware of Bogg’s world, encased in an academic bubble.

Lee, who had taken on the Grace Lee film as a way to research the stereotypical Asian-American as “passive,” commented how she had studied social history and the civil rights movement in college but also had never heard of Boggs. She zoomed into Boggs life, thereby transporting me to a time before the women’s movement, before Betty Friedan’s book, to Boggs’ 70 years of living in and advocating for the African American community.

After a week of film clips and discussions from film directors and writers, I am appreciative and grateful for the special visual and auditory qualities of documentary film story telling. I wish I had known about Grace Lee Boggs when I was a student at Wayne; she was such an inspirational woman. Thanks, to Grace Lee.

 

 

 

On Vacation

Chautauqua
Amphitheater

Marv and I are off to a week at The Chautauqua Institute, Week Nine, Film Festival. Grateful to take the week to soak up lectures, films, pithy discussion, walks along Lake Chautauqua and lots of new visual and artistic experiences. Stay tuned. I’ll post again after Labor Day.

Mental Health and Mother Nature’s Nurture

Monarch Butterfly
on Asclepias tuberosa

The past three mornings, I’ve flown into my garden after checking the news in the aftermath of Trump’s worrisome press conference with Putin. Sharp pruners in hand, I tackled the wild, over-grown forsythia shrub at the driveway entrance. Branches, thin and flexible, stretching to the sun, had bent and curled between and betwixt one another in pursuit of the sun.

The first day, I followed each branch to its rooted undergrowth. Bending and reaching, I cut each one at its source. After an hour and a half, my back signaling “enough,” I turned to the lilies, always in need of tidying. Uplifted by the sight of yellow, vivid red, crème, and fuscia flowering, I plucked yesterday’s wet and drooping blossoms, filling half a bucket. Creating order is good for one’s mental outlook.

On day two, I began to shape the shrub. I targeted meandering, spiking branches and snipped at the nods between two leaves to encourage a soft, wavy pattern. As I moved up and down, over and around, I shaped and re-shaped the dancing tendrils. The focus on the task at hand, somewhat challenging, lifted my spirit.

On the third day, I was contented with the tamed, undulating shape and tended to the few dry, dead clusters at the base. At the last, I stepped back and scanned each side. Pruning is art. My vision complete, I sighed in gratitude.

When the world is wild with anxiety and worry, when I cannot stop checking the news, the garden calls. It is enough to set a goal, even a mindful walk and to proceed. The esthetics of the space— the variety of species, the coloration of purple and red astilbe, white, rose and yellow zahara zinnias, the dogwood, and the mooga pine and peach azalea shrubs—offer variety and delight. Our minds and bodies entrain (tune with) the shift in pace and rhythm.

Now that the frogs have returned, their heads peer out above the water’s edge along the rocks of the little pond. I missed them terribly in late spring; for over the years, I had come to rely on their presence as the garden awakened. But nature can be unpredictable. Last year, across the driveway from the forsythia, an Asclepius (butterfly weed) carried by a bird, no doubt, appeared. I wanted to pluck it from the bed of lilies and zinnias but Crystal, my gardening helper, cautioned me. It could attract butterflies.

Late yesterday, in my car, stopped for traffic at the driveway’s entry, I glanced to my left and there, perched on the edge of the Asciepius, was a monarch butterfly. It hovered, flew and set down again. I grabbed my iPhone and stepped out of the car.  In seconds, a shimmering green hummingbird darted below the butterfly and in a flash, sped away. The butterfly lingered on, flitting to and fro, setting down once more as if she knew how much I wanted to capture her spread winged. I’m grateful to share my picture; I’m grateful to Mother Nature for nurture.