And here is my list of extreme things I’ve done or experienced–Miriam Sagan

Extremis

I have been in at least 3 earthquakes.

I have visited a locked ward, seen a baby born, been in the audience for a prison play, and seen three corpses right after death.

I have been to a mariachi mass, in a mikvah, and lived in a Zen monastery.

I have been in a mosque.

I have seen my cervix.

I have been to massage school where we worked naked.

I have been to neo-pagan rituals, Pueblo dances, and the Macy’s Day parade.

I have had my heart broken.

I have stayed at the Plaza Hotel in NYC.

I have been in a union.

I have solved a koan.

I have hallucinated a dead person.

I have shot a gun.

I have been in a rock band.

I have cooked tofu.

I have kept a secret for twenty years.

I have streaked naked at a swimming pool in the Yosemite Valley.

I have spent a week in a trailer in an abandoned air force base at the edge of a bombing range in Great Basin.

I have marched on Washington.

I have seen the northern lights, whales in the ocean, coyotes, wild flamingos, whooping cranes, snow geese, sandhill cranes, bears, glaciers, geysers, sunrise, sunset, meteor showers, Jesus Rays, sun dogs, eclipses of the sun and moon, the rings of Saturn through a telescope.

I have performed in public on the marimbas.

I have carried the torah.

I have caught a bluefish.

I have an enormous scar.

I have been hypnotized.

I have had a magpie pull a mitten out of my hand.

Devon Miller-Duggan Turns 64 and Reflects on That and More

This Week

I turned 64. I like that I have now reached the age when I don’t have to ask my husband “Will you still need me? Will you still feed me when I’m 64?” mostly because I have a year in which I’m a line in a Beatles song. I’m not sure why that amuses me so much, but it does, and I’m not inclined to expend much energy figuring it out. Maybe one of these days, we’ll rent a cottage in the Isle of Wight. If it’s not too dear…

I saw a list on line the other day of Beatles songs John Lennon didn’t like. A handful of my favorites are on the list. Either I have given up on being edgy/with-it, or it’s possible that Lennon and I don’t have to agree. I have friends who know and like my poems who are fondest of poems I think are mediocre, and I know for certain that I have given up fretting about this. Anything I can manage to give up fretting about is a good thing.

And my husband did feed me, in fact. I bought the steaks and peas and potatoes and Boursin (for the potatoes), but he cooked. And, besides, I was doing the weekly grocery shopping for my mother, so I had time to noodle around in the store thinking about whether I wanted steak or king crab. He likes to cook more than I do these days, and he got everything done perfectly.

I don’t particularly like it when my birthday coincides with Mother’s Day. I have mixed feelings about both, and having them happen together just seems like too much to process in one day. So I did the morning routine for my mother (tough to schedule an aide on the holiday), went to church, probably let myself get talked into helping with an internet book club set up between young South African women and young American women, shopped for my mother (who was aware neither of my birthday, nor of Mother’s Day, which was okay with me) took a nap, did some submissions stuff, played Words with Friends, and spent the rest of the day either crocheting or eating and watching TV with my husband. The highlight of the day was probably when I told my 18-month-old-grand-daughter I loved her and she came over and kissed me (a first—she’s plenty affectionate, but this sort of specificity is new, and she chirps/sings as she walks, which is pretty wonderful to live with).

It’s been a complicated semester. I had a kidney stone early on and have never quite felt like I’ve gotten my feet under me. I’m teaching a new course—typically, I came up with a nifty idea about doing imitations of a bunch of poets, but only semi thought it through—this is one of the parts where being an experiential learner doesn’t always work out for the best. The course will be better next time I teach it, but seems to have not been a disaster, as nearly as I can tell, this time ‘round. My other two classes had big, tough issues I’ve never dealt with before, neither of which should go in a blog–one a headbanger, one a heartbreaker. And I lost 30-40 hours at the beginning of the semester to a new Faculty Evaluation System put in place at Pretty Good U that is a total POS (it has, for instance, gone down in the middle of contract renewal system, of course). And I’m pretty ticked that I am going to start having an actual attendance policy in classes (I’ve done quite nicely for years with one that consisted of “You expect me to be here, don’t you? I expect the same.”), but absences have gotten way out of hand. I blame the zeitgeist. Meanwhile, my mother’s slide downward has picked up speed—she’s almost out of language, and has begun to be seriously short of breath. And I have been trying to get her whole home-health-aide situation re-settled since the week between Xmas and New Year’s, when we found out that the coordinating insurer had pulled out of the market, and the new one won’t deal with Home Instead. In the northern of Delaware’s 3 counties. Just the one. Meanwhile, I am trying to coordinate between 4 companies/agencies. Much of this would be resolved by paying home-health-aides living wages, but they’re all for-profit companies, so…

The yard’s a mess, though it’s full of flowers. It’s been a weird, long, cold spring, so some things hung on forever. I’ve never had daffodils still blooming when irises came up. It was pretty. The stripey pale pink azalea has been in bloom for ages. But it got stinky hot just in time to fry the lilacs the day after they bloomed. I haven’t walked the back yard for several weeks. I’m betting there’s some poison ivy out there somewhere. And I think I’ve decided to forgo the fancy wood play-set-with-house-and-climbing-wall that seems to be the suburban standard in favor of an old-fashioned swing set. But the poison ivy will have to be dealt with first.

Our cello prof tends to favor 20th/21st c. music, so I don’t often go hear him (I’m fond of some, especially of the elegiac sort, but often feel like I’m wearing uncomfortable underwear when listening to much of it), but he did a 2-night recital of Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites several weeks back. It was imperfect and glorious and made me so goofily happy that I email fan-girl-ed him. We’re going to try to have coffee. There’s much too little cross-departmental conversation around here, just because depts. are so big and we’re all so separate, so that’s kind of nice.

Last day of class tomorrow. Mostly, my students will be reciting the poems they’ve chosen to memorize. That’s nice, too. And it’s looking like I’ll survive to teach another semester. The summer’s big projects include reading all the books of poetry I haven’t gotten to all year and re-organizing the bookshelves. Could definitely be worse, which, these days, is saying a lot.

States of Mind by Miriam Sagan

Feels like a season to take stock. My 64th birthday has passed, and I’ve been “retired” for almost a year and a half. I’ve been thinking about the mental states that compose my day—my life—and want to try and understand them here.
Balance is something I strive for, but it does elude me. Balance between what and what? In asking that question, I came up with six categories.

1. Chaos. This is my least favorite state. It is when someone you love is suffering. It is sitting outside the ICU. It is the state that cries out for the first of the twelve steps—I am powerless over…heroin, my drunk uncle, a broken heart, you name it. Each person will have his or her scary things. Mine include medical procedures, and embarrassingly, even having my teeth cleaned. I don’t think I ever say—give me more chaos. Rather, I’m apt to limit my exposure. When I was widowed, I did not get my teeth cleaned. I’m not suggesting this as a good habit, just being honest.

2. Emergency. I think of this as the kind of chaos I can respond to positively. A sick child. A distraught friend. A financial crisis. An injured cat. This is where I have the skill set to cope. I like to limit my emergencies too—not take on someone else’s unless I have it to give. Emergency can devolve into chaos, or solidify into the next state—work.

3. Work. This is what I am supposedly retired from, but that isn’t really true. Work is what we do for money, or necessity. I count all of (traditionally) women’s unpaid domestic tasks as work. For if we didn’t do it, someone would get paid to. But much of work is satisfying, because here effort really pays off. Unless you have a soul-numbing or body destroying job, I suspect most people enjoy feeling competent and the sense of a job well done. I don’t mind work, but I don’t adore it. However, it turns out I do need some of it.

4. Play. This is a purposive activity that doesn’t produce something salable in our culture. Obviously the line between work and play is malleable. Creating a beautiful garden or writing a novel can go back and forth between work and play. Sometimes there can be emergencies or chaos in there as well. Sports the same. A good job will have elements of play. As a poet, I feel odd saying “I’m working” on a poem. I might be partially, but Im also playing.

5. Focus. Technically this might be samadhi, a state of focused attention. I associate it with meditation, but it can appear in almost any situation of work or play. It is a great asset in an emergency—and I suspect the EMTs I’ve known often benefit from it. It is probably my favorite state of mind. I like to write in the state of flow, throwing in bits of play and work as needed. In fact, all will go well with a poem in samadhi—until it doesn’t. That’s when work comes in, consciously looking at technical problems and solutions.

6. Moments of Awareness. Like chaos, this tends to take us unawares. It can be anything from an existential instant of being to a Zen-like awakening to the nature of things or a child-like sense of wonder that erases self-consciousness. You can find it in psychedelic drugs, solitude, nature, and spiritual pursuits. Actually, you can find it in giant Walmart too—because awareness tends to find us as much as we find it. It is good for writing—and emotional health—but it doesn’t actually create anything unless you bring it back to play or work.

I hope to write a bit more about this in the next few days—and welcome your comments.

A Visit to a Las Vegas Temple Dedicated to Beauty & Commerce by Richard Feldman

In the middle of a multi-day February visit to my father, I was searching the Web for new and interesting things to do in greater Las Vegas on the upcoming road trip that I was planning with Miriam when I happened across a description on Atlas Obscura of a free-to-visit James Turrell light installation atop a Louis Vuitton store entitled Akhob (supposedly an ancient Egyptian word meaning “pure water”).  Although Turrell’s works of light have been featured in a number of exhibitions around the country in recent years, I’ve been most familiar with him as one of several artists who have devoted decades out of their lives to the creation and refinement of giant land-based projects paying homage to nature and science in the American West, while innumerable announced completion dates have come and gone.  Turrell’s project has involved the reconstruction of Roden Crater, the remnants of a northern Arizona volcano.  While the Roden Crater project, like other examples of this particular art form, never seems to be able to be finished, it has been possible to visit at times by those who’ve provided substantial financial support.

I mentioned Akhob to Miriam, who was enthusiastic.  According to the Atlas Obscura article, the lead time for tour reservations was at least three weeks, which meant that the first available tour slot would likely be several days after we planned to leave Vegas.  I decided to give it a shot anyway.  Notwithstanding a poor phone connection, I ended my call to the reservation number at Louis Vuitton having arranged places for us on a tour at 1:30 PM on our last partial day in Vegas.  The scheduling wasn’t quite perfect, but the opportunity seemed worth the inconvenience.

Our tour was scheduled for a Thursday, we were arriving in Vegas on a Monday, and the installation was closed on Tuesday and Wednesday, so my vague hope of someone else’s cancellation allowing me to reschedule for an earlier tour was unlikely from the start.  However, my reconnaissance visit to the high-end shopping area where the Louis Vuitton store was located (an extension of the Aria Resort and Casino confusingly referred to both as CityCenter and the Shops at Crystals) revealed the existence of additional Turrell light installations in the rooms adjacent to the tram station at the very top of the shopping area.  Miriam was pleased.  Although it seemed unlikely that she would be allowed to take pictures within Akhob, there would be some of Turrell’s work that she could photograph.

Thursday arrived.  We checked out of our lodgings, ate lunch, and parked at the neighboring Cosmopolitan.  We made our way again to CityCenter/the Shops at Crystals, where Miriam photographed other artwork, including the tram station Turrell installation.  We weren’t sure how much in advance we needed to arrive at Louis Vuitton for our tour, so we arrived what turned out to be needlessly early.  After we announced our purpose and were directed to the tour meeting place, we had plenty of time to sit and observe the few people shopping, who I thought looked surprisingly normal given that Miriam had told me that everything in the store cost thousands of dollars.

A few minutes past the scheduled time, our tour guide appeared and introduced herself to us and the other three people on the tour.  We would not be taken directly to our destination, but instead spent the next fifteen or twenty minutes hearing the history of Louis Vuitton and its commitment to art and being shown various items in the store to illustrate the history.  I didn’t think there was a whole lot of point in the store’s proselytizing us, but went along gamely.  Finally, we proceeded to the elevator and pressed the otherwise unlabeled “3” button.

When the elevator door opened at the third floor, our tour guide handed us over to two other female employees who would be our chaperones in the actual installation. Whereas the dark-haired guide had been dressed in black, the chaperones had on nearly identical white outfits of tops, jeans, and sneakers.  With the strong aura of reverence and ritual, it was as if I was visiting a shrine or temple, and our guides were priestesses.

The priestesses ushered us into the next anteroom for us to exchange our shoes for white booties and to read and sign multi-page liability waivers.  I scanned mine in a perfunctory manner in preparation for initialing and signing it, but as Miriam read hers, she became increasingly alarmed by its litany of potential mishaps.  In a moment, she decided to decline the experience and instead wait for me back in the store.

Having returned my waiver form, I climbed the flight of nine steep, curved, black stairs and joined the two priestesses and the three other visitors in the first of two cylindrical chambers.  The colored light suffusing the installation was beautiful but somewhat disorienting.  We were warned about the easily overlooked step between the two chambers, not to mention the six-foot drop off at the end of the second.  Like another unearthly light experience, last year’s solar eclipse, the experience was over too soon, after perhaps 15 minutes, much of which I spent either asking questions (how many light sources were there, where were they located, did the cycle of changing colors repeat and, if so, how long was the complete cycle?) of one of the priestesses or bonding with the blond-haired woman who worked at the Palo Alto gallery representing Turrell.  She had had the opportunity to visit Roden Crater four times, accompanying important clients.  She in turn seemed impressed that I had at one time worked for Lannan Foundation and invited me to stop by the gallery the next time I was in Palo Alto.

Perhaps I should have been talking less and concentrating more on experiencing being suffused by the light, but the allotted time would still have been nowhere near sufficient (I did have the thought that certain mind-altering substances would likely have enhanced the experience).  As we were guided out of the installation, re-exchanged our booties and shoes, and came back down to the first floor in the elevator, the ritualized overtones of the whole event continued to resonate.  I found myself grappling with questions similar to those prompted by my visit years ago to Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field—how much is the interaction undermined by the implied elitism?  Is there any way of making it more accessible while simultaneously respecting the aesthetic vision and economic considerations of the artist and/or gatekeepers?  I appreciate that both natural and human-created beauty offer an opportunity for non-religious (and religious) people to have an experience of the divine, but the implicit or explicit bundling of the experience of beauty with conspicuous consumption spending adds an unpleasant aura to the occasion for me.

When we had arrived at the Grand Canyon earlier in our trip, I was immediately struck by and commented about how I felt yanked out of my sense of selfness by its magnitude.  Both spirituality and art aspire to yanking people out of their senses of selfness.  I suppose that my pickiness about how I engage with spirituality is analogous to my pickiness about how I do it with art.  I was grateful to have had the chance to visit and be immersed in the temple of Akhob, but regretful of the extent to which our society has evolved in ways that require paying homage, if not actual money, to multiple intermediaries for access to great art and its transformative potential.

Photographs from Atlas Obscura.

Hello From Spring

It’s been a very mixed day. Last night hail arrived raucuously like a convocation of unwanted door to door salesmen. Today the clouds of apricot and peach blossoms seem untouched. Studying some torah, I just felt very sad about part of the story of our foremothers, who were essentially bought and sold. But what woman on earth can claim her ancestresses were free people?
I had lunch yesterday with two Zen Buddhist priests–women teachers. I felt a bit better about the world, because they were old friends who had found their path. There is little I enjoy more than a certain kind of intimate conversation–about what happened to everyone, who died, who lived, who failed, who triumphed. It gives me a pure and abiding sense of connection to the world. Call it gossip if you like–it is gospel to me.
My daughter Isabel and I went to Tune-Up. I ate chile rellenos. For many years I felt I had to skip them because I didn’t want to agitate my gallstones. I haven’t had an attack in almost thirty years, and I’ll eat that fried pepper now (knock wood). We worked on our renga–linked Japanese poem. We started this one very traditionally, by translating a haiku by Basho. That way neither of us had to start–the great Basho started for us.

First cherry blossom
This very moment
A good day
-Basho translation 

I’m cooking brisket for tomorrow night’s seder. My mother did not really cook, nor did her mother. So I have no traditional recipe. I use a variation of what poet Joan Logghe taught me. I’m feeling sad about several things–mostly squabbles and situations that don’t directly involve me, but impact me nonetheless. I’m very happy about other things–including that I’m re-reading Trollop and loving it. I also have a beautiful rosemary plant that came through the winter very nicely in my sunniest room.

Facebook, Russian Bots, Data Mining, and Me

Maybe I’m not paranoid enough, but I don’t think Facebook is really paying attention to me. If it was, I’d be seeing pop ups for the two major issues in my life:

1. How to remove skunks (five skunks) from under your (my) house.

2. Is humanity basically more stupid than evil or more evil than stupid?

The first is a short term problem. Those skunks have been trapped and released far far away. The second more ongoing. I’ve been pretty much worrying about it non-stop since I was thirteen when I definitively realized that “adults” had all the power but far far from all the understanding.

Facebook has realized that I can be lured (like a skunk to a marshmallow cookie, I kid you not) by the promise of cheap, colorful, ethnic, hippie, flow-y, items of clothing. As my browsing history, my closet, and my taste at my friend Joanie’s clothing exchange will attest to.

Otherwise, what I post on Facebook is ultra vanilla. I imagine my former dean or my dead mother’s friends reading it. I voted for Hillary. I am never drunk or naked with a lampshade on my head. I never sign in to anything via Facebook. Got it?