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.

Laurie Tümer Describes “How Things Feel on the Inside”

from Night Writer: All Torn Up 2016.

This is one in a series of photo-collages I made in 2016. Between my dismay with the election results and pain from multiple sclerosis, I found myself tearing up copies of my book Night Writer. As the pieces slid onto the table, there it was – the state of the body politic and my body.

I was diagnosed with MS in 1979, before MRI’s or medications existed. Now, if caught early, MS is treatable – there are many medicines now that stop progression. I take one. It won’t fix damaged nerves in the brain and spine, but that comes soon. While waiting, I manage different types of pain that started 15 years ago in my feet and has crept upward and intensified. These images show how far up it was in 2016. All invisible to others. They illustrate how things feel on the inside and helped me sort out a constellation of pains I now know have names: dysesthesia (weirdo unpleasant sensations like burning, bone-aching cold, squeezing), spasticity, and gastroparesis. These names allow my new neurologist to mix and remix a pain cocktail. The pain has moved up since 2016. It is now in my entire upper body. I will make more collages – the process is pleasurable and works well as a delicious ingredient in the cocktail.

Some of the titles in the series: No Cocktail Too Strong, Rough Waters, Gut Feeling, Spine, Feet to the Fire.

To see more of Laurie Tümer’s work: and

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’m walking around the house with my eyes closed by Miriam Sagan

I’m walking around the house with my eyes closed. Here is the reason.

I go for a standard eye exam, but not with my usual doc. Because of missing the annual exams during covid, I am now a “new” patient after 20 years. This just means I can’t get in to the usual doc. So I see a new one (Let’s call this person MD1).

MD1 announces I have age related degeneration. It sounds scary, and it might be, although I have no symptoms. The signs are brand new, MD1 tells me. Then departs the examination. It happens fast, and I am not invited to ask questions.

Although even I—-anxious and hypochondriacal—-realize it is unlikely I am about to go blind, I start practicing. This is not new. I spent much of my childhood with my eyes shut, just in case I lost my vision. I could easily dial the telephone without looking. I also practiced using my non-dominant hand, in case my right hand got cut off in an industrial accident (unlikely in suburban New Jersey after child labor laws, but still…)

As a result, I can stand on one leg for a good long time with my eyes closed. Impressive for a person my age. I can actually do many odd things, but I won’t go into them all now.

I wonder if I should learn braille—-which has always fascinated me. Granted, I’m signed up to learn Sanskrit, but I can change that. Would audio books be enough? I’m really worrying now.

Finally, I decide I need more information on my vision. I call my “real” doc—-let’s call this person MD2. MD2 says my eyes seem perfectly normal, and there is no change since 2018.

Of course this is confusing. One doc must be wrong. But I decide to believe MD2, who has helped me in the past. Plus, neither doc wants to see me for another year in any case.

I hang up the phone with my left hand, and take some barely legible notes with it as well. I’m not quite ready to give up training for…well, something.

Never Check “Other”

I went to get a baseline bone density test and I fell into a Kafkaesque intake.
First off, I have to admit: I am a crazy person in medical settings. I blame the 6 weeks in the ICU and months in the Beth Israel Hospital I spent as a young woman. Or, my personality. Anyway, I tend to lose it.
Intake forms are always a big challenge. I usually just lie. I have never had a drink, an edible, or more than one sexual partner.
This form innocently asked for my race and I checked “other.”
“What are you?” the tech asked. She was a pleasant person I was about to torture.
“Askenazic Jew.”
“They don’t have that. Can you just say ‘Caucasian’?”
Now that is a pretty rude question. Are we not allowed to self identify here? However, I didn’t need to tell her how Jews couldn’t swim in certain swimming pools or go to social dancing parties when I was growing up. But I did.
However, I’m not just insane. If X-ray Center needs me to be white, I can be white.
“Mark whatever works,” I said.
But now she was confused. It seems she wasn’t checking anything. “Your results can’t estimate your fracture risk now,” she said.
At this point even I was confused. Fracture risk assessment needs race. And I was firmly “Other.” Maybe that is why I check that box–the Jew as Other, the reason for the Holocaust.
But I just left it alone.
Turns out, my bones are normal.
It is the whole me that isn’t.


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.

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.