Father’s Day FB Post, the Extended Version: Some things I learned from my father. By Devon Miller-Duggan

I read Devon’s post on Facebook, and was very touched by it. Here is a somewhat expanded version for Miriam’s Well. I’m grateful to have it, because this past Father’s Day I didn’t feel up to writing about my own dad.
This seems like a good time to express my gratitude to Devon for being a contributing writer here. One of her fans recently told me that she was struck by DEvon’s ability to write about things as they were happening. As little in life is ever truly resolved, I am continually impressed by Devon’s ability to express ambiguity, and levels of meaning.
—Miriam Sagan, editor Miriam’s Well


Father’s Day FB Post, the Extended Version: Some things I learned from my father.

1. There is no end of interesting things to look at in the world: no museum too small, no scenic turnout not worth stopping at, no person whose story isn’t worth collecting, no restaurant someone else has recommended not worth trying.
2. Knowing how to do lots of things, both random and specific to your main focus, is great fun. He was a splendid dentist, and his huge hands (think Michelangelo’s “David”) could finesse the smallest, most precise work. He could also fix all sorts of stuff, ski, shoot, cook, butcher, raft, wrap gifts exquisitely, and when he was young, excel at most sports.
3. Craftsmanship doesn’t just matter, it MATTERS. I’ve had to unlearn this one a bit—perfection isn’t always useful or necessary, but that which is done beautifully is a benediction to the world. He also regarded this as a matter of character. I pretty much do, too.
4. The pleasure of arguing. He raised me to be very aware of politics, but was not altogether happy about how my politics turned out. My husband and his wife used to leave us to it and go talk cooking in the kitchen in peace.
5. Very good people can also be very bad people and still be very good people. (work that one out…) My father did a lot of good in the world. He was perhaps happiest when he was saving someone, or helping someone save themselves, or giving gifts. He was very much the person you wanted around in an emergency—calm, competent, reliable, and decisive. But he was also other things.
6. Love looks pretty weird sometimes. Sometimes it looks like extraordinary generosity and great warmth. Sometimes that generosity can become a form of manipulation (for both parties), and that warmth can turn frighteningly cold, or turn violent.
7. Never to stop living or looking for new things to learn. When he had to give up skiing, he took up whitewater rafting. He also read all those historical markers along roads.
8. He taught me that men are unsafe and capricious. My maternal grandfather taught me that men are strong and loving. My husband taught me that men are human.
9. It’s both possible and good to love people even though they’re much more complicated than they want to be.
10. Communication is a good idea. Argument is not necessarily communication, though sometimes it’s all you’ve got.
11. Even if you’re a hard-core introvert, it is possible to enjoy making yourself act like an extrovert for chunks of time. He was both charismatic and genuinely interested in the other folks in the room. I’m interested in the folks in the room, but would mostly rather not have to talk to any of them until I’ve been in the room with them lots of times and talked to other people about them—not gossip, research.
12. Beauty matters–everywhere and in everything. And he could never quite deal with the fact that I wasn’t—at least not as far as I knew. Near his death, he told me that I was for at least some part of early adulthood. You could have knocked me over with a gnat’s breath.
13. Never tell your children they’re not good enough.
14. Your children are not there to make you look good. I lost track of how often folks would tell me how proud of me he was of me, my artwork, my brains, my skills. I took up poetry partially because it was an art he couldn’t show other people. Mostly he told me what a disappointment I was.
15. The joys of storytelling.

I miss him. I didn’t for a long time, but I do now. I hate his not getting to meet his great-grandchildren. I hate his not getting to see how wrong he was about so many things in my life, and not getting to tell him how wrong I was about so many things in his. I also regret never getting to forgive him face-to-face. It would have done both our hearts great good. So, for today, I wish him great peace.

Inside Story by Julia Goldberg

1. Julia–you’ve just published your first book–INSIDE STORY. The focus is a guide to writing creative nonfiction. I found the tone and approach very helpful. What in particular can the reader expect to learn?

My hope is that the book has appeal to many different types of creative nonfiction writers, from students to working writers and everyone in between. Inside Story delves into various categories of nonfiction—from memoir to journalism to the lyric essay. Each chapter endeavors to provide explanations about craft, writing exercises as well as references and resource lists. So, it’s a way to both learn more about the genre but also very much a practical guide to reporting and writing creative nonfiction. I have read many craft books myself, so I tried to distinguish my book in terms of it sounding like me—it has, I hope, much of the information one might find in a textbook, but it has a voice as well.

2. Was it easier–or more difficult–to write a book than you expected? You’ve been an editor in numerous capacities, including the Santa Fe Reporter but this is a different kind of endeavor. What surprised you?

I was surprised at how challenging it was! I’ve written on deadline my entire adult life and have written many long-form reported pieces. I worked as an editor on another book (Best Altweekly Writing, 2009-2010 from Northwestern Press). So I am familiar with many of the components needed to write a nonfiction book, such as research, reporting, organizing and, of course, the actual writing. But the accumulative process—writing for hours every day, day after day, and still not being finished, was a challenging—invigorating and difficult—experience. It set a bar in terms of my appreciation for the stamina it takes, for sure.

3. Anything else you want to add?
The book isn’t just my take on reporting and writing. I’ve been lucky in my career to both meet and read many amazing writers. I interviewed and reference numerous people for this book, whose own perspectives and experiences are in each chapter, and I’m very grateful for that.

4.How can readers buy a copy?
If readers are in Santa Fe, they can buy it at Collected Works. The book also is available on Amazon and all other online retailers. I’m also doing a giveaway on Goodreads May 24-June 23, so they can enter and maybe win one!

Amazon link: https://www.amazon.com/Inside-Story-Everyones-Reporting-Nonfiction/dp/0997020776

Goodreads giveaway link: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/237632-inside-story-everyone-s-guide-to-reporting-and-writing-creative-nonfict

House Dress

I spent the majority of Sunday cleaning house and watering the yard, warring with the omnipresent Chinese elm seeds, and feeling virtuous. And I was properly dressed for the occasion—in a housedress. My grandma Sadie always wore a neat little flowered duster of a dress to do housework. It was practical, differentiated home from the outside world, and looked tidy. As I prefer unconstricted clothing—sometimes even drawstring pants are too much—I’m happy in my one piece items that range from classic housedress (snaps, pockets, puffy sleeves) to a colorful short caftan that works just as well.
My mother loathed the look. She hated Depression era fashion, particularly on me. We fought for years about my favorite dress—a black 1930’s styled cotton dress patterned with red cherries. She would have bodily ripped it off me if she’d dared. I wore it to college interviews against her imprecations—only to have interviewers say: what a cute dress! It was a cute dress, and flattering, and modest. In an era of micro mini skirts I have no idea what my mom was freaking out about. She just hated that it reminded her of her mother.
Before she died, my mom sent me a clipping of me receiving the first poetry award I ever acquired while wearing…the dress. In that photo, I recognize the girl I was, the woman I would become. My expression is pleased if bemused—I look happy if slightly confused by life. My hair is bad—lank and unstyled. My dress is sweet. This is how I will remain for the rest of my life—bad hair, good dress, nice smile, mixed attitude. My mother enclosed a note saying—I don’t know why I carried on about that dress.
I don’t know either. My grandma Sadie came from poverty and oppression in the Ukraine to Boston. She was a seamstress, a union organizer, and a woman who loved clothes. She could crochet and trim a hat and judge a garment by its seams. She had a beautiful heavily embroidered silk kimono that never fit any of us as she was well under five feet tall. My mother also loved clothes. But I think she was ashamed of her roots in some way—she disliked the handmade, and the fashions of her childhood.
My paternal grandmother Esther also loved clothes and wore brilliant brocades and rich fabrics and patterns as her family ascended the social ladder. From her my sisters and I inherited a love of massage,hot springs and exercise. Influenced by the European physical culture movement, she did calisthenics naked and swam in the ocean every day. When I went to massage school, my father was as upset as my mother had been over the dress. “It’s all Esther’s fault,” he said.
My parents wanted to be modern, assimilated, American. But the counterculture—and cultural style itself—brought back everything from Swedish massage to shoulder pads.
Thank you grandmothers for your influence and sense of style.

Letter to My Younger Self by Michelle Holland

Dear eleven-year old me,
At eleven, you are unchained, loud.  I loved your long lectures on God and the beauty of spiders that you gave from the crook of the old apple tree on the hill behind the house, expounding to the sky and leaves.  No audience.  And the books you wrote created a whole bookcase of stapled-together stories with illustrated, construction-paper covers.  No workshops, no instructions.  You didn’t need a publisher, or an online presence.  Let me return to follow the creek with you, that bordered our property, over the fence to the cow fields and a forested lot where the small stream curved into an oblivion you never pursued.
Soon enough you will realize that hand-me-downs from your cousins, no matter how well they fit, and how brilliant the colors of old hip-slung jeans were, they set you apart from those other girls who shopped for clothes, and had bedrooms fringed with puffy pink and posters of Davey Jones and Donny Osmond on the walls. 
Cherish that old leather baseball glove that you share with your brothers, the one always behind the radiator, where you dig it out, grab a bat from the porch, and take off for Hoag’s field in late spring to play pick-up baseball with the older kids.  Because you field well, and don’t flinch at pitches, you are always picked to play on one team or the other.  At eleven, you take this for granted, and just play. 
Stay eleven.  Somehow.  You can write poetry, love songs, and sing them to an audience of birds.  And at eleven, you don’t know your father is an alcoholic; you don’t know that it will take twenty years for your parents to pay off your grandmother’s hospital bills; you don’t know that the gardens that always need weeding, grow the food that your parents will not have to spend money on at the grocery store, and you don’t know that you are poor, or that it matters.
At eleven, the days you spend at your Aunt Dot’s camp with your cousins is magic.  There are inner tubes to float on, hotdogs and chips and potato salad and your Mimére’s chocolate cake.  Later on you will hear your aunts and uncles say that your parents don’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of.  All you know is that a clean pair of underwear and an undershirt is all you need to call a bathing suit, and the ability to dog paddle, and you, too, can run and leap off the dock trying to land as close to your thrown inner tube as possible. 
At eleven you can be oblivious.  The joy you feel is unadulterated and unselfconscious.  You kept that for me.  Bottled up like the glow worms that I know you collect in a jar, then let go all at once into the darkness.  You did that for me.  Thank you.

Monday Feature by Michaela Kahn: Letter to my younger self. Dear Me:

Letter to my younger self.

Dear Me:

Here’s the thing – I’m not going to tell you that it will all be okay. Not going to tell you that it won’t. It’s the time-travel conundrum. Go back, change one thing, and the world blinks out of existence. Butterflies and typhoons.

If I try to steer you, warn you about the disasters and deaths, explain the lifelong insomnia, fill in those blanks – who’s to say we won’t end up destroying time? Or at the very least missing out on a few of the good things that did happen in there along with the bad. And if I tell you about now, who we become, who we know, what we do … will that make you lazy or tired, make you give up or not try hard enough?

Besides, we’re not done becoming.

Here’s what I will say, Michaela, 16. I know. So much of the pain has already happened. I remember. There’s more to come. I see you. And here’s one spoiler, hopefully small enough not to unbalance reality — though sometimes you will forget to notice the beauty – you always remember again. After 41 years, that seems to be more than a hypothesis.

And you are loved. You will be loved. I love you.

–Michaela, 41.

Monday Feature by Michaela Kahn: James Baldwin, Homosexuality, and the Terror of Love

James Baldwin, Homosexuality, and the Terror of Love –

Following in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting I was surprised at the media and politicians’ initial insistence that the act was one of “terrorism” rather than a hate crime. It seems that we would rather believe that our “enemies” are some mysterious and incomprehensible group far away – a group that infiltrates our sleep and attacks in the night, rather than acknowledging that the demons that haunt America have been bred right here. We’d rather look to terrorism than connect this shooting with the other 1,000+ domestic mass shootings over the past 1200+ days, because terrorists are associated with wars, and wars with weapons, and the thought that we are arming our own people to commit mass murder is just too frightening. The thought that this is going to keep happening, with more children dying in schools, doctors in clinics, Muslims in mosques, blacks in churches, shoppers in malls – is something we’d rather forget.

James Baldwin is a writer who I found early on. To me his homosexuality was never really something separate from the rest of who he was. For me his relentless humanity was his most salient characteristic, along with his narrative skill and his undying compassion for his characters.

I found an interview of Baldwin, recently, where he talks about homosexuality in the context of his life, work, and America. Some of what he said felt so appropriate for the times, I wanted to share just a few pieces.

From “James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations” with Richard Goldstein.

Goldstein asks Baldwin about the risk that he took and the difficulty he must have had in writing Giovanni’s Room at the time he did (1956). Baldwin says it was tough, but that he had to clarify something for himself…

Baldwin: Where I was in the world. I mean, what I’m made of. Giovanni’s Room isn’t really about homosexuality. It’s the vehicle through which the book moves. Go Tell It On the Mountain, for example, is not really about a church, and Giovanni is not really about homosexuality. It’s about what happens to you if you’re afraid to love anybody…

Goldstein: But you didn’t mask the sexuality … And that decision alone must have been enormously risky.

Baldwin: Yeah. The alternative was worse.

Goldstein: What would that have been?

Baldwin: If I hadn’t written the book I would probably have had to stop writing altogether.

Goldstein: It was that serious.

Baldwin: It is that serious. The question of human affection, of integrity, in my case, the question of trying to become a writer, are all linked with the question of sexuality. Sexuality is only a part of it. I don’t even know if it’s the most important part, but its indispensable.

Goldstein goes on to ask about how difficult it was for Baldwin to personally face his homosexuality and states that he doesn’t believe straight people understand how frightening that process can be. Baldwin replies …

Baldwin: It is frightening. But the so-called straight person is no safer than I am really. Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility…. The terror homosexuals go through in this society would not be so great if the society itself did not go through so many terrors which it doesn’t want to admit. The discovery of one’s sexual preference doesn’t have to be a trauma. It’s a trauma because it’s such a traumatized society.

Goldstein: Have you got a sense of what causes people to hate homosexuals?

Baldwin: Terror I suppose. Terror of the flesh. After all, we’re supposed to mortify the flesh, a doctrine which has led to untold horrors. This is a very biblical culture; people believe the wages of sin is death. In fact, the wages of sin is death, but not the way the moral guardians of this time and place understand it.

Goldstein: Is there a particularly American component of homophobia?

Baldwin: I think Americans are terrified of feeling anything. And homophobia is simply an extreme example of American terror that’s concerned with growing up.

To me Baldwin’s points – about hate coming from fear of love, fear of intimacy, fear of growing up – ties in to the reactions we’ve been seeing around the country in the wake of the Pulse shootings. Love vs. Hate. The hateful church group who picketed outside of the funeral of one of the victims – confronted by the mass of counter-protestors, many in angel costumes, who descended to entirely block them out, singing “Amazing Grace”. The self-righteous rhetoric of pundits and the gun lobby – juxtaposed with the massive flood of images on social media of couples kissing.

So in this sense perhaps the shooting at Pulse was an act of “terrorism” — an act born from the terror of love. In which case it is up to us to face our fear, be brave, and love as fiercely as we can.

To read the rest of this great interview, click here: http://www.richardgoldsteinonline.com/uploads/2/5/3/2/25321994/richardgoldstein-jamesbaldwininterview.pdf

Bored Bored Bored


I recently saw an article about how being bored over the summer is good for children. I couldn’t agree more. Boredom is most definitely the mother of invention. And childhood boredom gave rise to some of my most creative—if goofy—projects.
As the eldest of four, I had bored subjects upon which to experiment. They were pretty compliant, so when I instructed my younger sibs to spin until they fell over they were happy to. This amused us for a while, until I stumbled upon a kind a deranged mantra to expand or consciousness. I picked the composer “Bach.” We didn’t listen to his music, we just said his named over and over…and over. Until we collapsed in hysterics.
Projects were also experimental. I made tiny pops of fruit juice in an old fashioned ice cube tray. With a berry frozen in each section. Just FYI—neither honey or maple syrup freeze very well.
I also grew mold. To do this, just get some grass clippings, add a spray of water, put in a closed plastic container, and leave in a dark closet. Soon—voila! Gross mold. I did this first by accident, then replicated it.(Later on, I was a botany major for a while in college).
Best of all, was the following elaborate event.
It takes two people.
One—the fed—closes eyes and opens mouth.
One—the feeder—gives an elaborate description of what food will be placed on the fed’s tongue. Crunchy salty peanut butter on a thin crisp cracker.
The feeder serves something else—a piece of melon maybe.
The fed’s sensations go wild!
Trust me, this works.

Maybe it was overdetermined that I become a teacher of creative process…