Thursday, October 20, 2016

#SOL16: On Writing and Teaching Writing

Art Conversations (M.A. Reilly, 2008)


Recently I wrote in the comments section of a blog, "I like to think every letter of every word written and the spaces between these words are a record of healing." 

And I do.

For the last six years that I have kept this blog, I never imagined how much I would grow to need it--to need you--my imagined reader. Back in 2009 when I first posted, I did so out of obligation. I was taking a weekend course at Bard College and everyone enrolled had to make a blog.  So I started this blog, posted, and did not write again for another 8 months. But even as I did not write, I knew in the back of my mind that there was this space waiting for me to fill.

Since then I have written more than 1500 posts and have published 1400 of those. Since Rob's diagnosis, I have written more than 200 posts, more than 100,000 words and I recognize that each utterance and the spaces between have been healing steps. 

Who knew I would ever need this like my very breath?


I think a lot about the intersections between writing and healing. And today, I am less sure that writing instruction at school is worthy of our children's time and attention. These commercial units of study that are so popular feel so contrived. So jammed up with tasks to do that thinking, yes thinking, feels somehow left out. Completion should never be mistaken for grand conversations. When I read the prepared units I think that learning is so outlined and calendered that one might wonder where there was room to pause. To think. To talk. To err.

I grow weary just thinking about the rush to teach so many different genres each year to children of all ages. Surely in this drive to pack it all in we may be missing what is most fundamental: 


Yes, invention is at the heart of writing. William Carlos Williams admonished us years ago when he wrote, "Shame on our poets/they have caught the prevalent fever:/impressed/by the 'laboratory,'/they have forgot/the flower!/which goes beyond all/laboratories!/They have quit the job/of invention. The/imagination has fallen asleep/in a poppy-cup."

When I think of learning, not necessarily teaching, writing seems more possible, more ready to wear, less stuffy. I want the young people I work with to make meaning because they must. I want them to do it daily and to do it with intention when possible. I want them to learn the art of contradiction, the wonder that comes when the poem writes itself, the frustration that happens when the page remains empty. I want them to live wide awake lives and take notice. I want them to privilege accuracy because the words and marks they place on a page matter so, as do their readers.

I want the young people I teach to learn writing by walking/wheeling/moving/chatting. The world beyond the school house beckons and we ought to help our young people build bridges with words and intentions to it--to gather the shorelines in their fists. I imagine writing instruction has more to do with painting--with mess making--with building stuff, than with strict guidelines about any particular genre. I shudder when imagining teaching a class to write poetry at the same time. No, not that. Never that. 

I would surely fail as a writing teacher today, likely I would be dismissed. But, I would fail brilliantly. Chuck those units of study out the nearest window or better yet use them as substrates to bloom beautiful works. At best, I would hope to occasion the interest in my students to see what might be waiting around the bend. To listen to what is not said. To consider the possibilities before them and say what must be said and honor, yes honor, the silence such saying might evoke.  We could sit awhile. Perhaps take tea. There is time for this. 

John Cage knew. I have nothing to say and I am saying it--may well be the first creative act after breathing.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

#SOL16: A Dead Fir Tree

the dead fir tree.

The fir tree next to the front stoop died two weeks after Rob. It did so suddenly without a hint of sickness. Green one day and then not. It's a sad looking tree now, still draped with Christmas lights--all the more pronounced now that the needles have thinned and browned. Vinca vines from potted plants have begun to curl themselves along the tree's perimeter.  A reminder perhaps that life resurges, seeks its voice in all things.

The tree's twin is on the other side of the stoop and it seems to have grown at least another foot since March. Now it is lush and green. Its strings of light rest easy, mostly hidden among the many overlapping branches. There's an odd symmetry to the front of my home. Symbolic even.

For the longest time I have intended to replace the fir, but have not done it.  I inquired about the cost last spring and it was not too dear to do.  Yet, I have hesitated as if I can't seem to bring myself to have it gone. To see the absence it makes. To replace it.

Perhaps, I have developed a newfound affinity for the dead.  I can't bear to part with even this odd reminder of the terms I now live with, the terms that define me, partially.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

#SOL16: What I Know

from my art journal 10.15.16 (Gesso, ink, watercolor, Tombow paint markers, acrylic paint, percolator app, digital remix)

...Now that the bones are gone
who lives in the final dust?

  ~Pablo Neruda, from LXII, A Book of Questions


Each works.
Both out of sync with here, now.


What I know is limited to the rhythm of my breath. Each breathed-out moment feels new fleeting, so ephemeral. After the death of a husband, life reveals the absence of long vista views.

Here there is only terra firma.

The land, so parched, like my heart--so parched that I write love notes in the dust with just the tip of a sneaker hoping you, dear Rob, can somehow decipher the marks. It's a Morse Code of sorts. Or perhaps a bridge, left to span the void between here and there.

Each day my feet eat up the hard ground and I think, surely walking and writing and painting and talking have saved me.


What I know now could fit inside the smallest of thimbles with room left for heartache new. And when the uncertainty of the very-second-beyond-right-now rises up like an old rickety carnival ride cresting a hill, I want to turn away, to not see the empty swing of ferris wheel gondolas bereft of you, of me, of who we were together.

"Don't look," I want to shout.
And I look anyway. Stare down that emptiness with bravery that catches in my throat.

How did I not know life could be so very hard and I would be so very capable?


What I know about loss murmurs so soft some evenings like prayers intoned at vespers. There are things I say in the dark and I say them so softly that sometimes I think they are more imagined than not.

After all these months, I want to offer praise for I have come some distance. I have. But I have no such song to sing. No praise song, yet--just these bits of words and phrases I have fashioned here. A start of sorts.


What I know is grief keeps it's own liturgical hours, knows its own mind. It is indifferent to pain and need and desire and the well turned pages of the calendar.
I may be more monk than not, now. You may be, too.

Hymns offered to a husband dead by a wife grieving.

It will get easier, I think.
This awful newness will get easier.

Monday, October 17, 2016

#SOL16: To Do

Trying to Find Home (M.A. Reilly, 2012)

Each new step is hesitant as if I had somehow forgotten how to walk. Now that Rob's responsibilities are mine, I find myself waiting, delaying--as if paralysis were setting in. So, I'm making a To Do list--something I watched Rob do each day for decades. He was forever adding to and scratching out lists in whatever Moleskin journal he was using at the time. After he died, I found in his office nearly 50 journals he had written in. Poetry and essay mostly but interspersed in each of those journals were lists.

So here's mine:
  1. Call the plumber to bleed the lines. Soon we will need heat.
  2. Find a reputable person to service the generator. 
  3. Have someone fix the siding that is warping at the top of the house.  
  4. Have the chimney cleaned.
  5. Clean out the attic.
  6. Pack up the books for Val.
  7. Pay bills.
  8. Wash the windows.
  9. Replace batteries on the smoke detectors.
  10. Replace the fir tree next to the front stoop that died two weeks after Rob.
  11. Add salt to the water softener.
  12. Sweep the garage.
  13. Breakdown the boxes for recycling.
  14. Call the Vets to pick up more bags of clothes.
  15. Clear the chrome books and donate.
  16. Clear Rob's computer and do something with it.
  17. Buy more salt.
  18. Pay more bills.
  19. Empty the vacuum.
  20. Clean the gutters.
  21. Carve a pumpkin.
  22. Shred some of the saved financial records.
  23. Take down the umbrellas and store the chairs under the deck.
  24. Move the potted plants under the deck.
  25. Paint the first floor of the house.
  26. Bring the herbs inside before the first frost.
  27. Call about the window installation.
  28. Winterize the outside water lines.
  29. Remember in May to have the sceptic pumped.
  30. Pay more bills.
  31. Fill bird feeders for winter.
  32. Replace the cover for the baseboard heat in the bathroom.
  33. Take Devon for his driving test.
  34. Learn how to start the snow blower (Dev and I never could get it started last year).
  35. Rake leaves.
  36. Fill the propane tank.
  37. Place the winter shovels by the garage.
  38. Cut back shrubs.
  39. Do something with Rob's office.
  40. Have the wooden ramp taken down--the ramp Rob never go to use.
  41. Rest.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

#SOL16: Shoes

Sneakers (M.A.Reilly, Paris, 2016)

It's so disconcerting to see the pair of shoes next to the bed. Rob's side of the bed.

I edged off my sneakers, leaving them where they settled and after finishing some laundry I headed back into the bedroom. And that's when I saw the sneakers.

For as long as we were together, Rob's side of the bed remained closer to the door and mine was always by the windows. He kept his shoes on his side and I kept mine on my side.

Now, even the shoes are confused.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Packing Tape Transfers

from my art journal with new tape added: Sing For Your Life

I. Making a Clear Tape Transfer

An easy way to add print and color to art journal pages is through tape transfer. In the image above I added the phrase, Sing For Your Life, using the tape transfer image. Here's how you do it.

To make the transfer you'll need:

  • clear packing tape
  • a magazine
  • a basin with warm water
  • wooden spoon to burnish the image 
  • your art journal

  1. I looked through a recent copy of The New Yorker and the most recent New York Times Magazine and found images and print I wanted to use to create transfers.
  2. I placed tape over the images and words I wanted and then ripped the taped images/words out of the magazines.
  3. Next, I burnished each using the back of a kitchen spoon.
  4. I then placed the taped images/words into a basin of warm water and let them sit for  few minutes.
  5. Using my fingers I rubbed the paper pulp off the back of each piece of tape and the set it (tape side down) on paper towels to dry. You can see in the image to the left how translucent the images are.
  6. As I am not planning on using all of the tape right away, I placed the sticky side of the tape on pieces of wax paper.

tape in the water
Sample piece of tape

Clear tape drying

Using the Tape in Art Journaling

I added the phrase, In the End, to this unfinished art journal page.

  1. Two pieces of text caught my interest and I added them to art journaling pages I had been working on. 
  2. Because I am not sure yet if where I placed the tape is where I want to keep them, I just stuck the tape on the page.  
  3. Later, if I want to adhere the tape more permanently I will use some gel medium (matte) to attach it.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

#SOL16: Bear Hunting, Donald Trump, Chinatown, and Becoming (Other)Wise

Storm Warning (2012)

When the chesty, fierce-furred bear becomes sick he travels the mountainsides and the fields, searching for certain grasses, flowers, leaves and herbs, that hold within themselves the power of healing. He eats, he grows stronger. Could you, oh clever one, do this? Do you know anything about where you live, what it offers? Have you ever said, “Sir Bear, teach me. I am a customer of death coming, and would give you a pot of honey and my house on the western hills to know what you know.” - Mary Oliver, Upstream, p. 7.


from here:
In New Jersey yesterday, 206 bears were killed on the first day of bear hunting season. 206 black bears shot dead by arrows. The first bear killed this year was a 104-pound female. 74 of those 206 bears were killed nearby my home, in ZONE 3 of the bear 'harvesting' map. A prodigious day apparently. Beginning on Thursday through Saturday, eager hunters can kill bear with bow and arrows and guns (muzzleloaders).

I share woods with bears; my home situated between multiple state forests in northern New Jersey. We moved here nearly 15 years ago to be close enough to Manhattan and to still live where trees aren't something that simply line streets. I walk in the woods (not this week) a good portion of the time unless hunting is happening. Sometimes, especially in early spring, bears wander from the woods and can be seen lumbering across gravel roads and asphalt; across newly greening lawns. People come to ZONE 3 to kayak, hike and run trails, ride bikes, walk in the woods, and apparently now to use bows and arrows and guns to kill black bears.


Death is so final, so absolute. There is no going back, There is no do over.  Losing my husband, seeing Rob die last March taught me that. Once dead, you remain dead. The 104-pound bear is as dead today as she was yesterday afternoon. And we are the worse for that. Perhaps my sensibilities about death are heightened given the last 15 months, but when I read about the bear killing it gutted me. When I read about the 'bear problem' in New Jersey, I thought how very foolish we are. And so it was with this on my mind that I started to read Mary Oliver's new essay collection, Upstream. I stopped two pages in when I came across the paragraph at the top of this post. It offers such a sharp contrast to killing bears--a contrast worth our notice.

Oliver situates a bear as knowing differently than us. Bears know stuff we don't.  She asks, "Have you ever said, 'Sir Bear, teach me. I am a customer of death coming, and would give you a pot of honey and my house on the western hills to know what you know.'" 

Have you?  Have I? What might we learn if we had the courage to do so?


Maxine Greene wrote about the need to become otherwise.  Becoming otherwise is to consider points of view that feel foreign, not as some exotic exercise, but rather as a way of being in the world. Rather than judge it wrong--there is an interest in understanding, in not naming too quickly, too singularly. I think of this stance--this way of living in light of the presidential election that seems to have gone on for more than a epoch. Has there been in recent memory another election that has so divided a country?  That has set us against one another?  That we are more  nation of us and them, than we the people?

How do we mend what we have torn apart?  How do we gather up the courage to become wise about others who are not us? How do we resist harming more?


You may have read about the recent O'Reilly Factor debacle that found correspondent Jesse Watters loose in Chinatown (NYC). He was sent there by the show's host, Bill O'Reilly because "China" has been so often mentioned during the election.  In what has been defined as vile and racist by NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, Watters conducted pseudo-interviews on the street. Interspersed among the interviews were video of Watters "getting a foot massage, playing with nunchucks and asking loaded questions that some residents appeared not to understand or couldn’t answer." (from here).  Watching the segment left me disheartened, my stomach clenched, and stench of fear and anger.  This was a stab at humor? How is this even possible in 2016?

I have been thinking about this a lot. Thinking about the country my 17-year-old Korean son will be claiming for in a few brief months as he sets out from home to go to college. What world will this young man find?  How safe will he be?  How loved? Misunderstood? Demeaned? How dare Watters and O'Reilly determine my son's worth by their narrow white privilege. How dare them.  And how dare anyone who laughs alongside this 'news' show.

We must demand more of ourselves and say loudly NO to such depictions of others/selves.


And perhaps this demanding more our ourselves is at the center of what we must do regardless of the election outcome.  We cannot delay such actions.  To make a kinder, better, brighter and more humane life in this country, we need to cozy-up to other. Learn to love what we don't like.

That means all of us, although I need not wait for you to start.

I'm taking an inventory of what is other in my life.  At the top of the list are Trump and his supporters. I don't understand the motivation to support this candidate, but that doesn't mean that I need to hate him or his supporters--for I don't know even one of them.  It's easy to dislike a group--easy as it is foolish. It's far harder to dislike a person with whom you share a story. I know I don't need to be perfect at this embrace of other, I just need to do it.


Oliver closes the essay by reminding us that "[a]ttention is the beginning of devotion" (p. 8).  How observant she is. How wise.

And so tonight I am praying that I might practice noticing and learn how to resist the too easy naming that blinds me.  Let me take notice of what is in front of me--be it the bear in nearby woods, the voter I don't understand, the candidate I can't seem to respect.  Let me pay attention so I may better love.

Sir/Madam, teach me. I am a customer of death coming.