Z is for Zen and the Art of Writing

Z“Find a piece of heavy white paper that is the exact size of a book you admire, and cut some circles in it. Make the circles different sizes, some large, some small. Place the white paper over a page of the book. Some of the words will show through the holes. Write these words down. Repeat on another page, and another, until your poem is finished.” Ruth Ozeki’s Prompt #5 in the Preface to Choices (Borderline Press, 2016)

My variation of RO’s instructions:  I gathered up six books on zen from the library, listed here in alphabetical order by author–because aren’t authors the most important element of a bibliographic citation? Zen in your Garden by Jenny Handy; The Accidental Buddhist by Dinty W. Moore; Zen Socks by Jon J. Muth; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig; Zen Doodle Unleashed by Tiffany Lovering; and Zen Dog by Toni Tucker and Judith Adler.

Then I cut a series of circles as directed, but opted to take only one small elongated oval so that I had enough width to extract partial sentences from random pages to make a poem. Though there are several several lines from each book, none are from the same pages. I placed Dinty Moore’s phrase “the quibbling Money” in the middle of Toni Tucker’s sentence from Zen Dog  which begins with “Where we sit” and ends with “The quibbling monkey.”

I decided to participate in the A-Z Blog Challenge because my friend Pam Helberg https://pamelahelberg.com/ said “You should do this!” We were leaving two days later for the AWP (Association for Writers and Writers Programs) Conference in Los Angeles. I was reluctant because I had a website without content, I was ignorant of WordPress technique, and I was going to be traveling for much of the month. Pam, whom I have dubbed PG, Practical Genius, worked in technology for fifteen years, and continues as a freelancer, said she’d help me. And she has–for many hours.

Using Ruth Ozeki’s prompts was a last minute decision too. Ozeki, whom I’ve heard speak a half dozen times, is an author and Zen Priest. Using Zen, a faith that fascinates this mainstream Methodist, is a fitting conclusion for twenty-six days of blogging. I’d planned all along to use Ray Bradbury’s wonderful book,  Zen and the Art of Writing, but…I didn’t pack it in my suitcase and it wasn’t in the local library, so my Zen explorations included doodling, dogs, children’s literature, motorcycle maintenance, accidental conversions, and gardening, which may go to prove the assertion in the poem title, or that applications of Zen are limitless. Thanks for reading along with me.

You Can’t Define Zen

You can’t define Zen any more than

Rich air and strange perfumes from the flower

I’m walking backward in front of them

You may not use all the tools at one time.

Some spheres have a purity of form

Kindness works. Generosity.

Not every time, but always.

Now on the horizon I see something else

Where we

(the quibbling monkeys)

can learn to finally sit.

P.S. I’m happy to provide the source and page number of each of these lines, but who would want them except a bibliographic nerd?

Xcellent, AleX

X“As you are walking toward the next intersection if you see a person who is wearing something red, stop flipping your coin and follow that person instead. Follow the person wearing red until you see a person with long brown hair until you see a man in a pinstriped suit. When you see a man in a pinstriped suit, return to flipping your coin.” Ruth Ozeki’s Prompt #3 in the Preface to Choices (Borderline Press, 2016

imageGUEST BLOG BY ALEX LAMBRIES: Alex Lambries, 17, is a junior at Park City (Utah) High School. She loves skiing, hiking, biking and cooking. Her high school team took first place in a regional culinary competition. She is a loving and competent big sister to Gabrielle, 15, Elizabeth, 12, and Nicholas, 9.

We walk into the mall and I flip a coin, which directs us to the Pretzel Shop where I buy a cinnamon and sugar pretzel. I see a Polynesian guy with luscious black hair and blue eyes. He’s wearing a red plaid shirt. I turn to my grandmother and say, “Didn’t you know that Polys wear plaid shirts all the time? They rock.”

I watch him buy lemonade and a peanut butter and a jelly pretzel (eeeww) which is almost enough to deter me from pursuit, but those blue eyes drive me on. He strides over to Granny’s Book Nook and looks over his shoulder. Why? Is he in the Fifty Shades of Grey section? He slides a shiny volume onto the counter and pays for it.

I can’t hang around to see what he buys because I have to follow the prompt and I’ve seen someone with long brown hair: Chewbacca. I must follow him, but not before he glances at me and give him a wink. IChewy goes to the Oakley Kiosk, browses thick Coke bottle lenses with pink frames, puts them on, and presses a bell.

A secret trap door opens in the floor and he disappears. I drop down into the rectangular pit of mystery and doom. The corridors are lit by smoldering torches. I try to follow the friendly hairy beast, but I only see cages of flamingoes. Now I am on a platform which undulates and begins to rise until I am in the center of a circus tent.

I see a guy with luscious black hair and blue eyes, a red plaid shirt open at the chest under a pinstriped suit. He is reading to children who are waiting for the circus to begin. They are sitting in Chewbacca’s lap listening to Red Shirt read Horton Hears a Who. He looks my way and winks.

I decide to sit right here and not flip another coin.



W is for (Dog) Walking

W“Go to a large city with a coin in your pocket. Start walking. When you reach an intersection, take the coin from your pocket and flip it. If it’s heads, go right. If it’s tails, go left. Repeat.” Ruth Ozeki’s Prompt #1 in the Preface to Choices (Borderline Press, 2016)

I am in Park City, which may have City in its name, but PC (pop: 7962) is not a large urban area. Thirty-two miles from Salt Lake, the town is known for accessible ski areas, the 2002 Winter Olympics, the annual Sundance film festival, great mountain bike trails, oh, and as the latest dwelling place for my son Jules and his family.

So, since it snowed this morning and I was loath to take my wimpy rental car out of the driveway, the place for a coin-flipping adventure was right here in the neighborhood, namely the Jeremy Ranch section of Park City.

Bella, the family Labradoodle checked out the weather and decided to spend a cozy morning in front of the fireplace, but when his little buddy Nicholas came home from school and was anxious for an on-leash (I’m sure he thought unleashed) adventure, he was ready to move, but impatient at every coin flip.

No coin flip here because we’re heading to the dog park. Anyway, Bella flips her own coins to conquer bolders, run, and take a break in somebody else’s garden.

Nicholas said, “What is this? did somebody die here?”image

Nicholas pauses to look at a worm. “Boy, that’s a long one.” Another coin flip: Tails! We go left and there’s Tony. “He’s old,” says Nick. “He’s nine.”

Finally the dog park. But we have to watch out for bears, coyotes, cougars, elk, moose, deer, and…image

…a dog with a mind of her own.

Nicholas wants to swing, but I say no. Hey, it’s 48 degrees and the swing goes out over the water.

Time for another coin flip. Fortunately, it’s heads, which means Southridge will connect to home on Sunrise Drive, the street where Nicholas, Bella, Alexandra, Elizabeth, Gabrielle, and their traveling parents, Jules and Sara, live. And me too, for a couple more happy days.image.jpeg



U is for Undoing Unhappiness

U“As you are walking in the city towards the next intersection, smile at everyone you happen to make eye contact with. Award yourself a point for every smile that is returned. The winner is the one with the most smiles.”  Prompt #14 in Ruth Ozeki’s Preface to Choices (Borderline Press, 2016)

I am amused that several readers asked “What happened to the “U” blog?”

I could say, if U knew me, U’d know that Flexible instead of Quinby, is my middle name. I punt when I don’t have recipe ingredients. I consider a schedule just a guideline—an insight supplied by my wife in a poem she (lovingly) read at our commitment ceremony 18 years ago.

As for the “U” blog, I shifted the responsibility to my grandchildren. Since their schedules didn’t match up with the progression of the alphabet prompts, I wrote U on V day and V on U day. Never mind that I’m posting on W day.

After seeing Zootopia, the contest began. Alexandra (17), Elizabeth (12) and Nicholas (9) counted the smiles they received on the way to and in the venues to which we were walking—The Habit Burger Grill and Nordstrom’s in the Sugar Loaf area of Salt Lake City. I told them to keep exact track of SIRs (Smiles In Return) and to remember as much as they could about what happened. Then we’d talk.

Nicholas (15 SIRs, 19 no smile backs) edged out Elizabeth (9 SIRs, 6 no smile backs),  as the winner and the one who tried the hardest. Alex (8 SIRs) concentrated on buying shoes for her upcoming prom (an understandable decision for a teenager) and likely prompted by the experience illustrated in this exchange. My first question to her was, “Were the smiles different?”

“It’s crazy,” she said, “how many facial expressions you can get by smiling. I got a sarcastic smile at Nordstrom’s. I started to sit down and this lady, half-smiling, said, “You’re in my spot.” Then, when I was looking at Converse Unisex shoes, a guy said, ‘You’re in the men’s section.’ I said ‘I know.’ And then he gave a raised-eyebrow-Really? smile. At the restaurant I asked the guy behind the counter where the restrooms were. “There’s a sign right there,” he said pointing, as if I was a total dummy.

And that’s when she said, “Okay, Gramma, I’m done with this smiling thing.”

Elizabeth kept up with the “smiling thing.” Here’s a bit of our conversation.

Elizabeth: There was this couple. They both smiled back. The girl was kinda Gothic, wearing a purple shirt, black pants. She had long black hair. The guy was wearing a black shirt with nude pants.

Me: Elizabeth, what do you mean by nude pants?

Elizabeth, with her very own quizzical-what-don’t-you-understand-smile. You know, the color, nude.

Me: You mean flesh-colored or beige?

Elizabeth, shrugged, but maintained her stance: I just call it nude.”

Elizabeth’s overall observation—sophisticated for a 12-year-old I thought: “I think most people don’t want to be rude so they smile back. It’s in their DNA. Seems natural for them to do it. But there were a lot who didn’t smile at all. Some people just kept walking.”

There was no daunting Nicholas’ enthusiasm. When Alex asked him to hold a box of shoes for her, he said. “Can’t, Alex, I’m losing time.”

He ran down the Nordstrom’s aisle to my outpost at Men’s Shorts: “Gramma, do babies count?” “Of course.” I said. Later, as we were in the car, he asked, “How bout waving and smiling?” I hated to disappoint him, but the contest was over and he had already demonstrated his ability to engage with people and to observe them closely. Later in the evening, he recited his experiences and I typed up his words:

  • This guy had brown hair, glasses, brown or blue eyes, plaid shirt blue, jeans, brown shoes and swipe badge. He had an ear bud in one ear. He had a dutiful smile.
  • That Little baby had little squeezy lips, no hair, blue eyes, pale skin, was in a little carrier, had footie jammies. His smile was like a fish’s.
  • There was an old lady with a red-orange mushroom cut. Freckles, long eyelashes, wearing scrubs. Her smile was square with lots of teeth showing. She looked a little constipated. Her face was orange.
  • A black guy smiled. I heard him talking in a different language. He had on jeans and a t-shirt.
  • Two guys were talking. One was kinda chill. He had on a black beanie. His smile was with a raised hand, “What’s up dude?” He had teeny, teeny freckles and arm pit hair and tattoo on his arm—it was a circle.
  • “I stared at people but they didn’t stare back. If I said Hi, then they said Hi.”
  • People don’t pay attention to kids.

Nicolas, I think they paid attention to you and I know one person you–and your sisters–made happy: me.

P is for Practice Walking

P“Go outside. Practice walking like you’re happy.” Prompt 19# by Ruth Ozeki in her Preface to Choices (Borderline Press, 2016)

When I’m trudging through a tiresome task or activity, a grumpy attitude can be modified if I think of the bracelet my friend Pam Helberg wears: “Run happy.”

Grafting “happy” onto most tasks promotes mood change: swim happy, vacuum happy, scoop the neighbor’s dog poop off the lawn happy, get up happy. Note: the tactic doesn’t always work 🙂IMG_4295

Today on the daily walk my wife Amory and I take around a nearby lake, I asked, “What do you think walking happy means?”

“Having a spring in your step,” she said, adding a little lilt to her gait to demonstrate.

I dismissed the achy muscles and headache that I woke up with, faked a spring in my step, and thought about the ideas that I’d read the night before in a book  my youngest son Weston gave me: How to Walk by Thich Nhat Hanh, a monk who has been teaching mindfulness for more than seventy years.

I read that  little book last night and extracted some quotes which allowed me to walk happy today.

  • While you are walking smile–be in the here and now. p.39
  • We have the capability to walk in a way that we only imprint peace and serenity upon the earth. p. 40
  • Walking is a celebration. p. 45
  • When we walk mindfully, our feet are massaging the earth. p. 92
  • When life seems like a turbulent ocean, we have to remember we have an island of peace inside. p. 106
  • The mind darts from one thing to another, like a monkey swinging from branch to branch. p. 112

I also noticed the single petal suspended on a spider’s web, the perfect mirror of the evergreens that the lake reflected, and the way my step lightened, almost enough to match Amory’s.

It occurred to me that Thich Nhat Hanh’s ideas pertained to yesterday’s blog theme of peace: “Sitting and walking can bring peace and joy. We have to learn how to sit and walk so that we can produce peace and joy during the time of sitting and walking.”


Resource: Hanh, Thich Nhat. How to Walk. Berkley, CA: Parallax Press, 2015

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.





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.