O is for Origami

O“On a small square piece of paper, write down your biggest fear. Fold it into an origami bird and put the bird into a clean, empty eggshell. Glue the eggshell back together with the bird inside. Put the eggshell with the bird in it on a nest made from shredded cash register receipts. Hold the nest, the egg, the bird, the fear carefully in your hands, next to your heart. Keep it warm and talk to it softly until it hatches.”  Prompt #8 by Ruth Ozeki in the Preface to Choices (Borderline Press, 2016)

 IMG_4287I executed Prompt #8 in this way: Our church’s office manager decorates her bulletin board with resplendent and sparkling cranes. I borrowed one. I wrote down my greatest fear and placed it in a plastic egg retrieved from our stash of Easter decorations in the garage. I chopped up some cash register receipts and formed them in a nest. I lifted it all up close to my heart, started to talk in the advised manner, and then…something hatched!

Silly! Self-centered! Improbable! Waste of time! By which I mean, my particular fear, not the prompt. Is irrational, very occasional claustrophobia a worthy pursuit for this thoughtful prompt?

No. I could better spend my nest of cash, time, and mental energy by remembering a little Japanese girl who made cranes from her hospital bed in the mid-1950s.

“I will write peace on your wings and you will fly all over the world.”–Sadako Sasaki. 

You’ve heard about Sadako, the two-year old who survived Hiroshima, but was diagnosed with leukemia, “the Atomic Bomb disease,” when she was eleven. She believed the Japanese legend that if you folded 1000 paper cranes, your wish would be granted, so she began to fold cranes to promote peace. Some stories say that she completed the project; others say that her classmates reached her goal after her death. In any case, her friends raised money for a peace memorial. It reads: “This is our cry. This is our prayer. Building peace in the world.”

Sadako’s example has inspired peace projects all over the world. Her brother Masahiro Sasaki, now in his seventies, saved five of the original cranes and has either donated or plans to donate  one crane on each of the five continents.

IMG_4285I was told the Sadako story by a student who came into the library at the community college where I last worked as library director. This student had a bold question:”Do you think we could hang cranes from the ceiling?” She and a number of friends had formed a Peace Club and had folded 500 cranes. I managed to transfer the enthusiasm of the project to the facilities manager. Though I admired the cranes every day I walked through the door, I hadn’t given peace much attention. Its opposite, war, deserves our attention, but I’m choosing to focus on the positive for this prompt: peace.


Sadako Peace Project: http://www.origami-resource-center.com/sadako.html

Seattle Peace Project: http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=9352



N is for Norman Epstein and Jackson Mac Low

N“Social Project #4: Find a way to end global warming. Make it work.” Social Project #5. Find a way to end poverty. Make it work.” Prompts #16 and #17 by Ruth Ozeki in the Preface to Choices (Borderline Press, 1916). She attributes these projects to Jackson Mac Low who published The Fluxus Performance Workbook in 1963.

On  Friday, March 4th of this year, Ruth Ozeki addressed 800+ IMG_3771people at the Mt. Baker Theater in Bellingham, Washington. Her novel A Tale for the Time Being was the 2015-2016 choice for Whatcom READS!, the community book club.

When her formal address was over, several members of the audience stepped to the microphone, including me. I referenced her prompts in the preface to Choices, an anthology of local writing, and said “How would you carry out the prompts relating to ending poverty and global warning?” She hesitated. “Of course, it’s something that individuals must think about and do what they can.”

I will do my usual when coping with difficult political questions: avoid a specific answer (eliminating one topic, global warming altogether) and substitute background research.

I’m interested in the guy who came up with these social projects: Jackson Mac Low, whom I had never heard of. Low (1922-2004) is known for his “chance poetry”–generating random lines from previously published sources–and for performance poetry. For example, he produced a play, Verdurous Sanguinaria, by sourcing 26 different dictionaries, which, incidentally, was performed in the home of Yoko Ono.

His Social Projects are crudely typed on post cards. Whether the project is to “end war,” “produce everything everybody needs and get it to them,” or to “live without employment,” the directives all begin with “Find a Way to…” and end with “Make it work.” (See Low’s The Fluxus Performance Workbook published in 1963. Fluxus is the art movement he co-founded.)

Norm Ornstein, a contributing writer for The Atlantic, deals with practical, cogent  solutions to poverty. “One thing should be accepted universally: If Americans lose the sense of the American dream–that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can rise to the absolute limits of your own abilities–and if Americans gain a sense that the rich get richer while the rest of us get screwed, our national unity will be imperiled, and the opportunities for real demagogues to emerge.”

He supports KidSave whereby the government puts $1000 in a savings account for every child born. The account, using various levels of bonds, would grow, via compounded interest, to $700 K when the individual turns 65. At certain crucial junctures, money could be withdrawn to pay for college, home down payments, etc. The desired result would be to assist with the the difficulties facing middle and working class families in a timely manner while producing a significant nest egg for retirement. Read the whole article which ends “KidSave is an idea whose time has come. Any takers.”

And meanwhile, I recommend that we study the societal issues that afflict us because ” individuals must think about and do what they can.”

For further information: http://www.britannica.com/biography/Jackson-Mac-Low



M is for Meredith Maran…and me

M“…Bend your neck so your head tilts sideways and walk slowly along the stacks of books, reading all the titles out loud, with expression, as if the titles were lines from a poem. Do this until the poem is finished.” –Ruth Ozeki’s prompt #13 in the Preface to Choices (Borderline Press, 2016)

I headed for the Crafts/Home Décor/Arts signage at the Burlington, Washington Library . The section was near the table my wife and I had staked out over which Andrew Carnegie’s portrait presided. I strolled along, whispering the names of three dozen titles and then selected a handful for the following prose poem. The book titles are italicized; the few connecting words are not.

A HARD DAYS WRITE: What is needed: Game Face, Super Focus, Just Look,The Hammer of the Gods, A Life in Color, Energy Flash

What is not needed: Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction,The idiot’s Gide to Playing the Harmonica, Fundamentals of Philately,The Alternative Guide to Cheerleading, and especially Depression Glass

The result: Vanished Smile not Super Better

Having fulfilled the requirements of Ruth Ozeki’s prompt, I can move from me to Meredith Maran, the author of Why We Write: 2o Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do,  a book I recommend to every writer or individual interested in what makes writers write.

Moran asks the question, “Why do writers write? Anyone who’s ever sworn at a blinking cursor has asked herself that question at some point.” The answer for herself is “I write books to answer my own questions. So I made a wish list of authors to interview for this one…” Her goal was “to talk to those who have beaten the odds: writers who have succeeded at both the craft and the commerce of writing, who could offer the greatest insights into the creative urge.”

Moran managed to obtain interviews with a stellar list of authors including Isabel Allende, Susan Orlean, Sue Grafton, Mary Karr, and Armistead Maupin, to name a few. The reader learns about Armistead Maupins favorite teacher Mrs. Peacock, about Sara Gruen’s rejection for Water for Elephants (“Circus books don’t sell”), and David Baldacci’s conviction that he’d be in prison if writing were illegal (“I can’t not write. It’s a compulsion.”)

In addition to essays by the individual writers, Maran has sidebars that list basic information about each author–their birthdays, upbringing, education, honors, books authored, etc.

Version 2I met Maran briefly at the2016 AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) Conference. She participated in the panel Not a Love Story: Owning the Romantic and Domestic in Literary Memoir. Note the word “literary” in the title. Maran and her compatriots want to avoid the relegation of their books to the Chick Lit pile, preferring to emphasize the significance of their content.

For memoir writers, check out her companion volume Why We Write about Ourselves: 20 Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and others) in the name of Literature.

P.S. In the picture to the left, I’ve just bought her book which accounts for the flash of cash and her accommodating smile. I suspect that reading essays by The Twenty, as she calls them, will erase my inclination to write any more Tilted Head Poetry.

Additional Resources: http://www.salon.com/2011/05/08/mothers_ask_where_did_i_go_wrong/



L is for Lie Down

L“Lie down on a piece of paper that is larger than your body. Ask your friend to trace your outline with a heavy black marker. Stand up and look at yourself. This is all there is of you. This is your boundary.” -Ruth Ozeki’s Prompt #12 in the Preface to Choices (Borderline Press, 2016)

Since we are at Pismo Beach, I modify the prompt slightly. I lie down on the sand. The sand is cold but not damp. The sun is shining but the wind whisks away any temporary warmth. I am wearing sweatpants and a bulky sweatshirt with a hood.

My wife, finding no sticks on the beach, uses the handle of her comb to trace my outline. Amory apologies for making my hands look like mittens. Fingers would be hard to define. She snaps a picture.IMG_4251

When I see it, I think, who is that thick creature with the disproportionately small head? I should have put the hood on instead of using it as a pillow. I could have  plopped on a baseball cap, something I never wear, but would wear to improve my sandy silhouette.

I take Amory’s comb and scratch a few lines in the sand to simulate wished-for spiky hair. Then, resorting to every lover’s cliche, I draw an off-center heart to render me a person with an emotional center, a person with feelings, even if I’m only a one dimensional sandscape.

I’ve never thought of myself as having a boundary–a line where one thing ends and another begins, an imaginary or real line demarcating limits. My boundary is my skin, and, for better or for worse, that skin is elastic and some of those boundaries can be stretched.

Countries have boundaries. In Border Song, author Jim Lynch was surprised that in places the boundary between the borders of the Northwestern United States and Canada was a mere ditch.

IMG_4281When I had almost completed this entry, I got up from my library table to sharpen pencils. At the entrance to the library I noticed a poster by a student: “My body. My mind. My boundaries.”

In the seventies, self-help groups popularized the idea of setting boundaries to define limits of acceptable behavior.

The poster for Sexual Awareness Month was a reminder to me that there are more important matters than how my sand drawing reflects me.

Perhaps A-Z Challenge blogger Pam Helberg https://pamelahelberg.com/ who reflects on mental health issues, might take up this topic.





K is for Kosse, Kyss, and Kis

K…and also for cos, cosse, and cus––the Old English and Middle English expressions that are the etymological origins that lead up to a word and an activity that most of us are very fond of.

“Yit wol he stele a cuss or tuo.”-John Gower, Confessio Amantis

Even if we are unfamiliar with the author, Gower’s 1390 meaning is recognizable. Samuel Coleridge’s sentiment in Ode to Sara (1797) is even clearer: “Can danger lurk within a kiss?” Neither were referring to another definition of kiss–the kiss of peace used in rituals of the primitive church.

So why am I talking about kisses? Because kiss is a more appetizing word than kick-box or knuckle or any of the other K words that came to mind and because of Isaac Fitzgerald, an editor at Buzzfeed. (See links to interviews in The New Yorker and The Rumpus below.)

Buzzfeed is the splashy online publication that gets 80 million views per month, more than the New York Times. Buzzfeed is trendy, but has a solid global news team and  effectively tailors its articles for about a jillion platforms.

Fitzgerald was the token extrovert on “Networking for Introverts,” a panel at the recent AWP (Association of Writers and Writers Programs) conference in L.A. “I live out loud,” he said, advising writers to “Do anything that gets you out of yourself. Get out of the fetal position. Get yourself on the page. Collect people. Be excellent. Be quick and be gone.”

He had the most energy, the best sense of humor of all the panelists. As I sat and listened to his comments during the panel, I skimmed the New Yorker interview below.  I liked his approach to book reviewing: “Why waste breath talking smack about something…the overwhelming online books community is a positive place.”

I signed up for his tweets and then I uncurled myself from my fetal position in my chair, at the back of the lecture hall, trudged tentatively up to the front, and asked if I could take a picture of him?

“Sure,” he said, “but why don’t you be in it? Here,” he said, handing my phone to the nearest person, “take this picture, wouldja?”



Interviews with Isaac Fitzgerald 



J is for Jazz

“When the flip of your coin leads you to a bench, sit down on it and close your eyes. Listen to the sounds around you as if you were listening to a symphony playing faintly in the distance. Feel free to move your head or tap your feet or sway back and forth with your body. Sit there for a long time, or lie down and look up at the sky.”
Ruth Ozeki Prompt #11 in Preface to Choices (Borderline Press, 2016)

I chose not to flip any pennies, nickels or dimes because an abundance of available benches dotted the approach to the Pismo Pier and a cold wind was blowing. My wife Amory and I sat down on a smooth wooden bench, wind-protected by the nearby Pismo Plaza building. The sun produced warmth on my right side while the wind whipped at me from the left.

In preparation for this prompt, I listened to George Antheil’s revolutionary composition called A Jazz Symphony (1925). Antheil, born in 1900, interests me because during his time in Paris from his early twenties to his early thirties, he hung out with literary people like Joyce, Yeats and Pound. Pound even commissioned him to write two violin sonatas.

A Jazz Symphony is discordant, energy-filled and rollicking.  Antheil inserts unusual sounds like a glockenspiel and a steamboat whistle. In his earlier, more famous work Ballet Mecanique (1924) instrumentation included player pianos, sirens, airplane propellers, anvils, bells, horns and buzzsaws.

When I sat down on that bench and closed my eyes, I heard this symphony of sounds and imagined a jazz piano in the background and the scratch of drums:

Pant in my ear by a scary dog. Flap of the U.S. flag. Buzz of a distant airplane. Bump bump of baby buggy wheels. Thump of amped up car speakers. Warning beeps, a car backing up. Words of whiny kid–“Waiting tables, like, I can’t do it.” Fragments of conversation in Spanish, Hindu, German & Skateboard. “Nice Ollie, man.” Sandals scuffing. Flip flops flopping. Eighties music from an ocean sports shop. Squeal of seagulls. Swish of palm fronds. Happy roar of the ocean muffling all.




I is for In Flight

IFind a feather. Throw it as far as you can. —Prompt #7, Ruth Ozeki in the Preface to Choices (Borderline Press, 2016)

Every blog seems to start with  questions: where will I find a feather? Do I hope that my pillow will release a tiny quill? Should I buy a plumed hat and extract its decoration? Could  I purchase a bola at a craft store? How can I connect the word  feather with the letter “I”?

My wife came up with the answer to the last question: “I is for In-flight.”

IMG_4197Then a feather found me. Walking Pismo Beach, I looked to my right toward a sand dune underneath the boardwalk and saw one feather, sticking straight up out of the sand. My wife said, “It’s crying “Pick me! Pick me!”

My sandals sunk into the sand as I ascended a slight incline. The feather, like the protective coloring of some animals, blended into the sand,  invisible except for its shadow.

I plucked it from its nest of stained, dappled (or perhaps just dirty) sand. About nine inches long, the shaft was black on one side, a splotchy white on the other. The paired branches off the spine were irregular in length, battered by whatever elements its life it had presented.

Because of experience with the lemon in C is for Citrus (Prompt #15), I decided to give this feather a name, Sentinel, and to learn about feathers before I cast it to the harsh winds that were currently buffeting kites. I kept Sentinel overnight.

Feathers are what make birds––all 10,400 species––unique, distinguishing them from all other animals. Zoologists say that feathers evolved from the scales of ancient reptiles. Many cultures consider birds sacred. The feathers of the Quetzal, Guatemala’s national bird,were worshipped by ancient Mayans and Aztecs. Quetzal feathers are still represented in art and woven into fabric. Native Americans’ regard for eagles as sacred is well known; less well know is their ritual of throwing down down before guests to signify peace and friendship.

I often experience very short snapshot dreams just before I wake up. In today’s dream,  I was standing in my daughter Leslie’s kitchen and I announced to her, “It’s raining rusty feathers.”

I am ill equipped to interpret that dream other than to say that I love rain, the color rust, and I have a new appreciation for feathers. I carefully carried Sentinel towards the cliff. It was time to throw her to the morning’s quieter breezes.

IMG_4219Holding Sentinel, I realized that she could be a feather from a dead bird. I prefer to think that the feather in my hand is one that was loosed in the yearly molting process that nature provides, and that Sentinel is standing watch on the cliff.

Because that’s where she landed, barely ten feet away. By the time I was ready to release her for flight, the wind was non-existent. I think she likes it right where she is.



H is for Helen Hiebert & Her Handmade Paper

HGo to a library with dice in your pocket. Roll the dice and write down the numbers until they resemble a Dewey Decimal call number. Find the book with the closest corresponding number and read it as though it were the voice of God. –Ruth Ozeki’s Prompt #6 in the Preface to Choices (Borderline Press, 2016)

The San Luis Obispo Library is an inviting place: a bright-colored mural at the entrance, a friendly person at a reception desk, wi-fi available for out-of-towners, and tables and comfy chairs on the second floor.

The dice clatter when I roll them onto the table. My wife gives me a shushing look, so I execute the next five rolls  by tossing the dice onto with  a pad of paper. Six. Seven. Eight. Eight. One. Ten. 678.810. I amble into the stacks, scrutinizing the numbers on the spines. The books in the 670s are loose on the shelf with a gap between 675.2, The Ultimate Guide to Skinning and Tanning and 680 (no extended decimal numbers), The Craft of Stickmaking. The closest number is 676.22 which, hallelujah, has an abundance of H’s: The Papermaker’s Companion: The Ultimate Guide to Making and Using Handmade Paper by Helen Hiebert.

Now I’m getting scared. How do I find the voice of God in The Papermaker’s Companion? Maybe Helen Hiebert is one of God’s experts; God certainly needs experts to explain the complexities of earth. I find information about her–HH, that is, not God. She lives in Colorado, she was born in 1965, she’s written five books including a fun volume entitled Playing With Pop-ups: the Art of Dimensional, Moving Paper Designs. Her baby pushed her to finish The Papermaker’s Companion because he was due two weeks before her manuscript.

I could have used The Papermaker’s Companion about twenty five years ago when I gathered my children for a family activity I’d read about in a magazine article. I sent four of them outdoors to gather grass. We threw clippings, wadded up newspapers, and water into a blender to make a pulp and then spread the mess out to dry on a crude window screen. The sunshine dried the materials, but the result was a thick “paper” that would never support a penned, handwritten note.

Hiebert’s recipe for making paper from grass fiber involves steaming, stripping, cleaning, retting (fermenting), scraping, drying and other processes I’m never going to try, but I might try to make paper quilts with my grandchildren, which she details in the Children’s Projects section, and I like reading her words about the history of paper.

Listen to her definition of paper: “True paper is made from a raw material that has been macerated (beaten) and broken down into tiny fibers, mixed with water, and formed into sheets on a screen surface that catches he fibers as the water drains through it. The individual fibers interlock and form a sheet of paper when pressed and dried.”

I think Helen Hiebert may be one of God’s surrogate voices and stewards. After all, didn’t God say  “Let the earth bring forth grass…And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1:11-12)

G is for Finding George

GRuth Ozeki offered twenty writing prompts in her preface to Choices (Borderline Press, 2016) which I am using as my platform for the A-Z Blogging Challenge. Twenty-six letters, twenty prompts, leaving six days unassigned.

I’m not ready for what Ozeki calls her Social Project prompts: “Find a way to end global warming. Make it work” (#16) and “Find a way to end poverty. Make it work. “(#17). When I complete them––I’ll use her library prompts, my favorites, as rewards.

Since I was already planning a library visit, why not make my own prompt?

Go to the history room of the library in your hometown and sleuth out information about Civil War veteran George Reuben Anderson––your great-grandfather. Ask the librarian for help. Never mind about the family tree stuff. Look for personal information.

I made my prompt a nimble container because, sly cover-up artist that I am, I wrote it after conducting research.

I have a binder full of information of basics about George: born in Ohio in 1857, 14 years old when the Civil War broke out, got his parents permission to enlist at 16 in the Kansas Light Artillery, was wounded in two battles, returned to Kansas, worked with his father as a harness maker, was a founding member of the Topeka chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic (the GAR, a vets organization that existed into the 1940s), moved to California, married Libby Kent ––my great grandmother––in 1877, fathered eight children one of whom was my grandmother, Martha Louise Anderson, a single woman who adopted my mother, Ruth Raemer Anderson (not a single woman)—she married Leslie Quinby in 1927––and they adopted me.

IMG_4156    At  the History Room in Visalia, library staff member Jennifer Spurlock tracked down a registry of veterans for the local GAR Post 111 and retrieved it from the library’s vault. She pointed to the graceful cursive handwriting of an unknown scribe who, over 130 years ago, had registered new members. My great grandfather’s name was number ten.

She also found photographs, located the original 1899 book containing a two-column biography about G.R., and set me up with Digital Reel, a newspaper database that had dozens of references about G.R. Anderson.

My excitement was instant, palpable, commanding, but the software was exceedingly slow and my time limited. Some articles were difficult to find in the close weave of blurred digitized print. I downloaded some to a flash drive and opted to tease myself with the abbreviated lines that appeared in the electronic index of a now defunct newspaper, The Visalia Daily Times. I offer three, reproduced exactly as they appeared on the screen–enigmatic enough to demand a return trip to prospect for more archival gold.

  • May 8 1908 …G. R. Anderson was presented with a handsome gold watch and chain…
  • April 06, 1905 …told of the hold-up by a young daughter of G.R. Anderson, who had heard the story during the morning…
  • July 30, 1908…to spend some time with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. G.R. Anderson, in this city. Miss Anna is now almost recovered from…

Why did he receive a gold watch and chain? What’s this about a hold-up and which daughter saw it? Was it their daughter Anna, my great aunt, who went to visit G.R. and his wife Libby, and what was she recovering from?

If I have a take-home question it is this: do you have someone in your background, someone you may have never met that you would like to find out about? My take-home answer is this: find a librarian who can assist with your Sherlockian journey. The quest is energizing.


F is for Follow…or Don’t

F“Follow these instructions. Or don’t. The choice is yours.”   Prompt #20 by Ruth Ozeki in Choices (BorderlinePress, 2015)

One of the things I’m good at is following instructions, i.e. engaging in a prescribed activity. Tell me to find a feather, throw it as far as you can (Ozeki Prompt #7), and I’ll do it. Suggest that, while in a library,  I write a sincere note of apology, to someone…and fold it up and leave it in a library book…(Ozeki Prompt  9) and I’m enchanted, spurred to action.

But neither of these learning experiences begin with an “F,” so on the sixth day of the A-Z Challenge, I’m submitting a few excuses to illustrate why I’m fulfilling Prompt #20 in a minimal way.

  • I’m on vacation in my home town, Visalia, California, having fun with two friends I met in high school sixty years ago when we were thirteen year-old freshmen. Marylin lives in Visalia, Sandra’s home is in San Francisco, and I’m based in Bellingham.
  • It’s two a.m., equalling the evaporation of personal energy and creativity
  • Instead of working on today’s blog, I spent several hours in the library of my childhood combing through digital files about my great grandfather, a civil war veteran. He’s the subject of tomorrow’s “G” blog.

I appreciate the latitude in Ruth Ozeki’s prompts to not follow instructions.