Investigating Failure by Devon Miller-Duggan

Further thoughts on FAILURE

I have talked so much and so whiningly about my sense of being a failure that my daughters have forbidden the topic, quite reasonably. I have a couple of books out; a job teaching Creative Writing at a semi-big university; a rich and lovely family life. So the subject of My Failure in Life (I did not become famous…) and in Art is sort of off the table. I am, after all, still writing and finding meaning in it, still trying to become a better writer, still making various things whose making amuses and comforts me, still alive. I am still looking for risks to take.

It’s taken me years and years to let go of the idea that my life would only be justified by my being a brilliant and acclaimed maker of some sort. Years and years to come near being able to be grateful that I have something/anything to teach and make, and that when I write, even sometimes when I am working on a collage, my ADHD-ridden head settles, and everything in me and outside of me integrates so that there is a single, crystalline whisper in the center of my brain and feeling everything stops being a war. Even so, I would say that this is a “mostly” sort of progress.

But, more immediately, there is the question specific failures—poems that just won’t work, drawings that can’t catch the heart’s pleasure in the eye’s bounty, fiber works or collages that go splat. I love the Hassidic take Miriam quoted (and I think Yehudis Fishman’s words bear re-quoting here…):

…no intention for a positive accomplishment ever goes to waste; if it doesn’t seem to bring about its intended results, it still exists in the universe until someone, somewhere, sometime, actualizes it.

Aside from automatically validating the flops, this maybe ties into the bigger issue of an artistic life as a whole, since it seems to speak sideways about much of what teaching does. I know not all artists are or want to be teachers, but for those of us who do, there is my favorite-favorite bit from A Man for All Seasons, a play about a Christian saint written by an atheist existentialist (peace to the Mantel fans…). It seems to expand on the Hassidic idea, while focusing on one avenue:

Sir Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.
Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?
Sir Thomas More: You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.
― Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons

I noted, while reading over this, that I did a thing I generally do—not talk about individual failures with individual projects. They can’t be accounted for by the larger issues of audience and intention. Bigger projects—like whole manuscripts—carry their inevitable weight in terms of my sense of who and how I am. Individual projects—poems, collages, sewing projects that are NOT my daughter’s wedding gown—those are where risk is freedom and failure is just learning. If they’re poems and don’t take up space except in my drafts pile and computer file, then I’m sort of cheered by them. They remind me that failure is not artistic death. If they’re extra bad drawings, I can just ditch them and be happy for how making them took me deeper into looking. I’m believe I’m not ever going to be unhappy about having made them: I’m perfectly content to have made an attempt to write “The Poetry of Dentistry” and make it a comic poem. Boy does that one stink. There is always the chance that I might figure it out and turn it around one of these days, but meanwhile its continued existence is a bit like a by-its-nature brief friendship. It’s woven into the fabric like a slub in raw silk—the kind with different-colored warp and woof threats so that it changes colors in different light, like the stuff I made my daughter’s wedding gown from. It wasn’t perfect, either, but it was gorgeous.

Stuff.1 by Devon Miller-Duggan


There are memes on social media and articles in all sorts of publications telling us (Boomers) that the subsequent generations DO NOT want our stuff. Not our heirlooms, not our elegant china, not our furniture. None of it. This may be a phase. Humans have phases. But it does make it oddly hard to de-stuff your stuff if you have a need to do that. In our house, we’re prepping for a bunch of major renovations to make the house functional for two families so that our daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter can comfortably stay and, hopefully, see us through aging-in-place. The house is big. The yard is BIG. We like each other a lot and have been living together for 5+ years. It’s a classic story—they moved in planning on it being temporary, and it turned permanent. Works for us. But the house does need some changes for 5 big personalities to negotiate American-standard communal living, so we’re wading into a bazillion months of construction. This necessitates lots of packing-away. Which involves LOTS of why-are-we-keeping-this work. I am, so far, enjoying it. It feels like order-making in the midst of a mildly dis-ordered life in the midst of a massively dis-ordered world.  

One of the things I find myself most attached to are fabrics. It’s so bad that I asked my daughters last year to stage what amounted to an intervention in advance of a yard sale. I unloaded about ½ my stash in the face of ruthless questions about whether I was EVER going to make anything out of X yardage. Not much of it sold at the yard sale, but a bit more than half went to a woman in our neighborhood who makes all her children’s clothes (also homeschools them and grows lots of veg in her front yard. The person who took the fabric was a friend of hers who mentioned this, so I cajoled her into taking practically everything kid-able in the piles. The rest went to the thrift store, where it will, hopefully, find other sewists who want it. There was a lot of wool in there. Who wears wool any longer? I don’t, especially the sorts of skirts and jumpers I used to wear a lot. We don’t have much winter in DE.  

Just this morning, I went to put on a dress that is too big, feels frumpy, and has seen me through a lot of summers (I tend to keep clothes I like a long time). The thing is, I LOVE the print. Love it. I could take the dress in, and may, or I could cut it up (the fabric is in great shape) and make a dress for a granddaughter. What I won’t do is put it in the thrift store box because the fabric is a perfect print and makes me happy every time I look at it.  

So I’ve been thinking about what categories of stuff I am most attached to. I am surprised to say that it’s a smallish list: a few of the things my grandfather gave me, some books, lots of art, a few pieces of jewelry, and fabrics I love, most of them one shade or another of green, photos. So why is my house so blasted full of stuff I don’t really want (my mother’s Lenox, my Madame Alexander dolls…), but that is too good to thrift, and too hard to sell? I have thought it was acquisitiveness—one of the Great Sins and a convenient thing to beat myself up about. But I think it’s got more to do with accretion and connection—stuff that I loved in the past, or just landed here because someone else close unloaded it and I automatically kept it because of that connection. So if you’d like my mother’s almost unused set of Lenox “Autumn” china, let me know. I’ll be happy to ship it off to you. As soon as I find it.

5 Things by Angie K Walker

1. As I am getting older, I feel less and less like I want to wash my hair.
2. I’ve never driven. I don’t really like cars that much.
3. My sound track is the acoustics you get in some places with lots of old buildings and people walking around (relaxed/quietly chatting). Well, I was in a place like that yesterday. It was a place called Piece Hall, Halifax. In the centre is a massive space where wool used to be traded. Now there are 3 or 4 tiers all around the square, and they all contain little interesting shops.
4. Walking is the thing that sort everything out, so i do that a lot.
5. I buy the tiny apples that supermarkets intend for children’s lunch boxes. I cut them into thin slices. They are a fruit I eat because they are said to be good for you, but I don’t really like them that much anymore, so i eat the littlest ones. They are OK in salads or baked in a crumble or pie.

Miriam’s Well invites all its readers to write and share 5 Things. Send to

They’re Watching Us by Lucy Moore

They’re Watching Us
Lucy Moore

I was doing laundry when I heard a raven squawking with an urgency I had never heard. We have many ravens in the neighborhood, and they are big talkers, but this message was a new one. I went to the window and saw it on a low branch about eye level. It was scolding, cursing, berating, reading the riot act to someone or something on the ground, head lunging forwarding, eye laser-focused. A snake, I thought. That is my fallback threat, so I cautiously headed for the back door to get a better look. As I approached, I saw the door was already ajar and stepped outside. The raven was raising a ruckus because our black indoor cat Bennie had escaped and was on the ground below the raven. He was hunched close to the ground, ears back, taking his scolding. I was struck by the two solid black creatures in relationship. Bennie had been headed for the fence, on the other side of which were coyotes, hawks, snakes, and more, and the raven had turned him back. He scurried back into the house and the crisis was over.

They’re Watching Us

Check it out! Well worth reading, as is her entire blog.

Baskets by Devon Miller-Duggan


I have faith in baskets. Especially square and rectangular baskets, though I have them in other shapes. The faith is about how baskets, strategically placed on shelves and surfaces throughout my house will save us from the chaos of our collective modes of moving through life—or keep us looking like people who care. There are 5 humans in this house, each of us with a different approach to Stuff. These approaches range from “It’s where I have always lived and it is all my space”—that would be the 5-yr old, and why not—to outright hoarding (books-and-papers—that would be my husband, who is a child of a hoarder. My mother-in-law kept, among other things, every flower arrangement we ever sent her. She was the Miss Haversham of floral arrangements). I’m the daughter of a collector. As best I can figure, the distinction is about intention—my father meant to have over a thousand duck decoys, and hundreds of antique oyster cans, among other collections. The only thing my mother collected was clothes—red silk blouses and classic cotton bandanas in particular. The son-in-law who lives with us has ADHD as forceful as mine and is a little oblivious to the stuff he leaves in his wake. He’s working on it, but he has a full-time job with a finance company, is finishing his BA, and thinks that spending time with his kiddo is more important than picking up. My daughter is a retail manager who has weird hours and more stress than her salary could possibly compensate for. She and I both try. My major tool to combat this 5-person storm of compulsion and obliviousness is baskets. I put them where things pile up (inside the front door), sometimes with names on them. This has helped with the tripping-over-other-people’s-shoes problem. But mostly they turn into miscellaneous collections of Stuff that we forget we have. Yet my faith has held firm. We’re about to do some major renovations on the house. These require a lot of packing away of things, but also a great confrontation with Stuff We Don’t Need. It’s a good thing. But God help anyone who suggests I let go of any of my baskets.


I was recently very annoyed by something I read. A well-regarded writer, whose family survived difficult historical circumstances, said something like “No one survives by accident.” And went on to say that survival was an act of creativity, intelligence, and will.
I just can’t agree. Of course survival, in holocaust type situations, might be aided by intelligence, but it often seems to be a matter of luck. At least that is what Primo Levi reported. I also once read an account of a “U Boat”–a paperless and homeless Jewish woman in Nazi Berlin. She said she was helped not by good people doing good deeds but by evil people doing good deeds. That kind of moral ambiguity is important to remember.
My grandmother Sadie came to America. Her sister Etrazy stayed behind because her husband was an imprisoned Bolshevik. He was freed, they were re-united, and eventually killed by Stalin. Or was it Hitler? No one knows.
Shall I blame Etrazy for not surviving, for her idealism, her belief in communal solutions? It turns out she was wrong, or on the wrong side of history. Was she foolish, and Sadie smart? I think not. Each was following the twists and turns of her own life as best she could.
In Yiddish we say: ikh’d ala zeyn mazldik vi klug (I’d rather be lucky than smart). To say our survival is not influenced by the random is to aspire to a level of control not given to human beings. To think otherwise is to end up blaming patients for their diseases, refugees for their historical disasters, everyone for their circumstances.
And I’m certainly not going to blame my family members who couldn’t survive. And that in no way diminishes my gratitude towards those who did.

Grandpa George, The Gangster Lepke, and a Platypus by Miriam Sagan

My grandfather, George Sagan, founded the New York Girl Coat Company in 1916. That was not his real name. He was born Gershon Liesenbaum in the Ukraine, a borderland between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Holy Russian one, between Kiev and Odessa.

Gershon became George in America. But until the late 20th century we did not know that our family name was not Sagan. My father had found George’s exit visa from Russia. It was for Liesenbaum.

My father searched for an answer in his own imagination. George had bought Mr. Liesenbaum’s exit visa. Or, George had murdered Mr. Liesenbaum for the visa. My father actually proposed this theory without irony. My grandfather’s power to impose his will was legendary and survived even his physical death.

The most likely answer was more mundane. My grandfather Gershon, a young teenager, was in the Ukraine with his sister and her three children. She died. He was entrusted with bringing his two little nephews and one niece to their father Louie in New York City. Louie may have already remarried at this point. It is likely that Louie’s last name was Sagan.

George tied nephews and niece together with a rope so he wouldn’t lose them on shipboard. At Ellis Island, it probably made sense to take their and his brother-in-law Louie’s last name, Sagan.

One of the children tied to the rope grew up. He attempted to get an education but by the Great Depression found himself working in the garment industry for George, as one of the prime cutters. His son was Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer. On his deathbed, Carl told one of my first cousins who was interested in family history: “You aren’t really a Sagan. The Sagans were the smart side of the family.” George’s descendants were educated and successful. But we’d been told, and had to believe, we weren’t smart like the Sagans, i.e. Carl. And in fact we weren’t Sagans, but Liesenbaums.

In his own way, my grandfather cared not just about material success but beauty and justice. However, it was the justice of a gangster and the beauty of a robber baron that drove him.

The iconic story told about him was George’s meeting with the famous if perhaps second-string Jewish gangster Lepke. When my grandfather opened for business, it was in a storefront on the lower east side. One of Lepke’s henchmen came around and dunned George for protection money, the price of doing business, to be paid every Wednesday. Of course he paid.

A few months later, a second henchman appeared, demanding protection money to be paid on Fridays. My grandfather rebelled. He, a callow youth, demanded a meeting with Lepke. He was taken to a dairy restaurant on Avenue B., a table in back, men in hats.

George made his speech about justice—he would pay once, but not twice.

Lepke nodded in his fedora. Then, he offered my grandfather a job working for him. George politely declined, paid protection but once a week, and went on to make millions.

This story was told in my family not so much as an example of how ballsy George was but of how he had a true sense of fairness. It was not until I was middle-aged that I realized the absurdity of this, crusading for the right to pay protection money only once.

My grandfather’s gangsterism extended to his philanthropy, which was itself vast and generous, yet self-serving. As a small child, I too had been encouraged to be
philanthropic. I had saved up part of my allowance week after week to join the Bronx Zoo. I would be a member, with free admission, discounts, and best of all, a member’s garden party with a private viewing of a rare platypus. I was about ten years old, and ready to give my money to the zoo, when Grandpa George got wind of my stash.

We were alone, on the wraparound screened porch of my parents’ house. He loomed over me and demanded I hand over my savings to donate to plant trees in Israel. But my goal was already set. Israel, no. Platypus, yes. George yelled and screamed, towering over me. My father appeared like a deus ex machina, also shouting, “Leave her alone! It’s her money!”

I went to the members’ party and ate finger sandwiches and chocolate cookies shaped like leaves. I saw the remarkable platypus. I was the only child there, the only young person who had bought herself a membership. Old ladies in hats smiled at me. I planted not one twig in Israel.
This first appeared in the memoir BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE from Red Mountain Press.

My Grandmothers

To the best of my knowledge, Ukraine means “borderlands.” That’s why the article “the” sometimes precedes it. My whole life I’ve been obsessed with borders and boundaries—the Hudson River between my provincial suburb in New Jersey and the glittering canyons of Manhattan. Not to mention the border between my now home state of New Mexico and Mexico—a place of so much suffering, aspiration, violence, and hope.

The border inside me, though, is the border between the Russian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian one. My paternal grandmother Esther, probably aged 12, is smuggled across this border in a cart piled with sausages. She gets on a boat for America alone, gets her menstrual period, then figures she is bleeding to death until a motherly fellow passenger explains. That is all I know of her story, except for a salient detail. Esther has said she will kill herself—drown herself in the millpond—unless she gets sent to America.

I have many suspicions abut this story. Was something bad happening to her? Is it even “true?” The cart comes to me from a family reunion, menstruation from her daughter-in-law who was my mother. The millpond comes from my father. She was a rather ordinary grandmother, less interested than some. She had a bosom like a mantelpiece and a love of clothing more lavish and colorful than strictly fashionable. I inherited both these things.

My grandmother Sadie—in Hebrew her name was the lovely Tsivya, which means gazelle—came to America with her family. The worst story of the lot is as follows. There is a pogrom. The child next to her is trampled to death. The family leaves. This is never discussed. My mother, her daughter, told me, but my mother was a storyteller who knew how to fabricate So am I. Is it possible I just made this up? From a movie scene or book? However, both Sadie and my mother were extraordinarily anxious people. They feared almost everything. If you were two minutes late, they were planning the funeral. So I’ll take it as true. If it had happened in today’s world there would be endless therapy and grief groups. Then, the coping mechanism was silence.

I’ve inherited all of this. The fear. The ability to act quickly and decisively. Perhaps also the belief that terrible events are my fault.

Sadie became a seamstress. She was blacklisted for union organizing. She was a more classic grandmother. She made our dolls beautiful hats and crocheted them tiny purses. Her eyesight was so poor that she was close to blind. I learned to thread her needle.

Neither of my grandmothers ever gave me advice of any kind. Sadie was strong on endearments, and would scratch our backs by the hour if we insisted. My paternal grandmother, as she approached dementia, would wake us in the middle of the night and offer us salami. She just kept trying to feed us more.

I know, deep in my bones, that whoever they were, my grandmothers wanted me to stay alive. Sadie overtly cared about having babies and education. As old ladies, neither of them seem particularly focused on men. They were supportive of their husbands, perhaps feared them, partially avoided them. It was very old country—-no kind of role model even for my mother’s generation.

I loved Sadie and I feel she loved me. Esther was more of an active model, doing her calisthenics, getting a massage, swimming in the ocean. She had a Slavic love of fresh air and exercise. When I went to massage school I often thought of her.

But more than love, I can still feel them rooting for my survival. And if I look at how I feel about my own granddaughter, that primal feeling may also be the strongest.

My grandfathers present more ambiguity. I’m thinking about writing about them next!

Tooting My Own Horn

I realized my car’s horn was broken as I leaned heavily on it to signal to the driver in front of me that only a complete idiot would not be taking the left on the green arrow.


After that, it took a while to get the car into the repair shop. A time of quiet, at least from me.

Others blare their horns at me, too. I’m incredibly wussy about left hand turns. (I know two people who got hit that way). I dither, I hesitate. People honk me.

You think I’d spare others the humiliation, but no. I can dish it out, but I can’t take it.

I do know you are supposed to only honk to signal danger. But that is not the world I live in.

Recently I’ve been noticing my inhibition about sharing good things in my life–success, happiness. I don’t exactly hide it, but I’m cautious. My social world runs more on complaining than kvelling. I’m realizing I need to show more gratitude.

Without my horn, I was worried I wouldn’t have it to warn of road dangers. Turns out, self-observation tells me I only use it rudely.

It should be fixed this afternoon. Honk honk.

But Have You Tried Tumeric?

Yes, there is indeed something wrong with me. A somewhat mysterious, rather difficult something. When I was 21, I almost died from what may have been swine flu. My lungs went out. Surgery saved my life and scarred 25% of my torso. I have trouble walking, trouble breathing–all kinds of trouble.
And no–tumeric doesn’t help. However, there are times when passing acquaintances prescribe it weekly.
Maybe it is because I live in a New Age town. Maybe because people are kind (or bossy and butt-insky.)
Some people don’t trust allopathic medicine. It is still shocking to me how much this involves all-or-nothing thinking. Does something have to be perfect for me to engage in it? Obviously not, or I’d never stay married, work a job, have friends, raise children, or live in my neighborhood. Or write or pray or exercise or anything else.
I am sorry to say it, but many things do not have a “cure.” They can be helped, but not completely. My right lung is cloudy and scarred on the X-ray. I know to not panic when a doctor sees it for the first time. I also know not to bother with tumeric.
Not everything has an understandable origin. Many things–physical, emotional, spiritual–are in a gray zone and will remain there.
“Health” has eluded me for 56 years. However, this is not your problem to solve. I’m not going to solve it either. I’m going to treat the symptoms, accept the rest, and never buy into any promotion of ableism. Sickness, old age, and death are not failures but the common human lot. Check out your Buddhism if you feel confused about this.
My experience has helped m a lot during covid. Here is how:
1. I already know my own mortality.
2. I respect killer viruses.
3. I believe in medical science while acknowledging its limits.
4. I don’t expect easy answers.
5. I’m fine thinking for myself while remaining part of the human community.
6. My belief in control is very limited.
But most importantly, I’m used to functioning with fear about my health. I don’t like fear any more than anyone does, but after decades of practice that fear doesn’t rule me, at least not every minute.
What do I like from the world? Mild friendly sympathy. That people realize I actually am an adult, making my own decisions. And I won’t turn down a slice of pie.
But not tumeric.
P.S. Please do not post suggested cures in the comments section!