The Pactice of First Things First by Miriam Sagan

I’ve been enjoying following Mussar, the Jewish spiritual practice of working on one’s character and ethics. I’ve got a little book that gives daily assignments, with a new trait to focus on each week. This week has been surprisingly pleasant so far, given that the seemingly bland topic is “order” with the directive “first things first.” I tend to be fairly orderly, if messy in spots, so the idea of putting one thing in order a day wasn’t so exciting.
Turns out, it has been helpful, soothing even. Like all artists and writers I’ve had to learn to structure my days with a mix of paid work, creative work, hustling, family, social life, and domestic concerns. Right now I’ve also got volunteer work and a garden, an archeology class, and some travel. So—what is first? Turns out, that question itself is calming. And the answer not that obvious. Sometimes I fix something I’ve truly neglected, or deal with something that makes me anxious (on-going trapping of skunks beneath the house or Taxation and Revenue.)
I like to start the day with writing, pulling some suminagashi, and a bit of mild exercise or housework. To my shock, now that I’m retired from community college I’m getting up before 7 am. I’ve get less fatigue and less chronic pain—and somehow a better relationship to time. But I don’t want to purely define myself as creative. So sometimes that first thing is rushing off to do something else.
Monks in a monastery follow a strict daily routine. My first husband Robert—a Zen monk—used to say: if you don’t know what to do, follow the schedule. I’ve never wanted to be a monk, but I value a routine based on my intentions, not the world’s. When Donald Trump was elected I made a big list of what I wanted to do. This included marches and protests, working with immigrants, philanthropy, and interestingly—deepening Jewish spirituality and community. I didn’t want to ask myself every five minutes: can I live in this country? What should I do? Am I in danger? What is my approach? I felt that would be too destabilizing, so I set a course.
And I’ve kept to it. This doesn’t mean I won’t change as circumstances change. It just means I have a way to get through the day. I credit my understanding of this to my struggles with becoming a writer. It took me almost a decade (my twenties) to figure out how to function as a writer and as a person. Again, I’ll change as needed, but the outline is there. And I don’t want to change with each turn of the wind.
So, as each day brings new outrages and worries on the societal front, I put first things first.

Surprise Bones as Writing Process – Part 1 of a Travelogue by Michael G. Smith

Editor’s Note: When my friend Michael set off, I encouraged him to write up some of his thoughts and adventures for Miriam’s Well. I’m delighted to present: Surprise Bones as Writing Process – Part 1 of a Travelogue.

I am on a six-month road trip through Utah, Nevada and along the Pacific Coast north of the Bay Area. Ultimately I will arrive in Bozeman, MT where I do chemistry research at Montana State University four months per year. One reason for the circuitous route is to shake up my writing practice and skills. The process feels stagnant. My poems have lost zip and creativity. It seemed to me a diverse range of terrain, ecosystems, ecotones, climates, towns and people would be good medicine. Surprise and uncertainty these medicines’ healing properties, I am going to trust providence, karma and kismet.
Today I am in Hanksville, UT, a sneeze-through town forty miles east of Capital Reef National Park. On my way to the park several days ago I stopped here for breakfast. While eating at Duke’s SlickRock Grill my waiter asked me about my road trip plans. A couple at the next table overheard the conversation and started telling me about a nearby dinosaur fossil dig, the Hanksville-Burpee Dinosaur Quarry. I had never heard of it, but Bob and Nancy, whom are volunteers at the site, encouraged me to spend time there later in the week when they would be digging.
I was a little irked someone suggested I change my westward plans. Nothing about the portly appearance of Bob and Nancy indicated they would be comfortable or enjoy hours beneath a hot sun chipping through hard sandstone. But as I listened to them it became clear this Houston geologist and paleontologist couple knew the terrain and dinosaurs. And this was their tenth consecutive spring dig season.
Other fossil hunters joined the conversation. The restaurant was full of them! Retired volunteers, university students, and interns and staff from natural history museums chimed in with tales of river basins, floods and sauropods – tales from a former world brought alive to the present. The magnitude of their enthusiasm hinted their quarry was special. The cardboard cutout of John Wayne behind the bar suggested I did not need to spend much time indoors.
I then remembered a rule I set before departing Santa Fe – if a detour involved the natural world I would readily apply the brakes and turn. Something 150 million years old and still revealing itself is something to brake for. My dinosaur-loving niece, whom I would see a few weeks later, would love the stories and pictures. I modified my post-Capital Reef westward plans, vowing to return in a few days.
Now at Duke’s campground I jot down bones I have unearthed that help my writing process – keep eyes and ears open, ask questions, take notes, know that I know little (which is true!). Be willing to explore. Take the unexpected turn when offered. Dismiss nothing, including exuberant fossil-hunters. Backtrack when necessary. Read maps. Accept, accept, accept. Use a real compass with real magnetic needles – the smartphone app may lead you astray. When hiking up and down graveled hills to take pictures remain mindful of rattlesnakes – they are camouflaged. Each sentence is metaphor.
Next up – Fossil Digging as Writing Process

Ain’t Nobody Got Time For A Wreck

Ain’t Nobody Got Time For a Wreck

In New Mexico, we often laugh uproariously at the highway signage “Gusty Winds May Exist.”
“Who wrote that?” my sister asks, “Jean-Paul Sartre?”
I have no idea whose fault this existential locution is—I just enjoy the heck out of it. I do also like “Hill Blocks View” which so dryly states the obvious.
The sign on a southeastern part of an interstate is a bit more down home. AIN’T NOBODY GOT TIME FOR A WRECK it proclaims. Ungrammatical. And it has me wondering-—how is that true? Don’t we actually have all the time in the world for the wreck of our hopes and fears, our resolutions, our dreams, our aspirations? Isn’t it human fate to fail and try and…
The next line flashes—-SLOW IT DOWN. What does “it” refer to? Ungrammatical again. Something James Brown might shout to his percussion section? Is “it” the car? The speed? Life itself? No, because then we’d have time for a wreck. Which we don’t want. Along with those pesky gusts.

Monday Feature: A web of hand-me-downs by Michaela Kahn

A web of hand-me-downs –

 Earlier this week I got a text from a friend of mine, someone I’ve known since Middle School, about a song she thought I’d like. She recommended the whole album, actually, but steered me to Ane Brun’s YouTube music video for her song, “Do You Remember.” It’s a great song – very strange and simultaneously sad (the lyrics) and yet happy (the music). The video itself is like its own universe, sort of Steampunk meets the the Dust Bowl.

 The exchange got me thinking about all the art that has been passed on to me over the years by friends, family, teachers, even strangers.

 There’s my step-sister, so much more worldly-wise than I at thirteen, who made a whole 90- minute video tape of various MTV videos she thought I needed to know (being MTV-less, myself). Another friend introduced me to most of the Pop music that I am still listening to today. There’s an Uncle (in-law) who introduced me to the Le Mystere des voix Bulgares and the movie Duck Soup. My husband introduced me to Wim Wenders movies, Miles Davis, and the paintings of Leonora Carrington (no wonder I fell in love).

 For literature, there is another list of great books and poems that have been passed on to me by others. Whether it’s the teacher who told me to read Gregory Bateson or the stranger at the Boulder Public Library who told me to read his book of poetry, “Tony the Bricklayer.” But with literature I’m more often the one trying to pass along favorites. Over the years I have passed on the names of dozens of writers and works to friends, colleagues, family, strangers. I become part of their web of hand-me-down art.

All this thinking about where the art and music in my life comes prompted me to look a little deeper into my experience of this passed-on art. I realized that when I listen to a favorite song, one that was shared by a friend, my own memories and emotions surrounding the song are also layered with memories of the person who gave it to me. It’s richer for having that connection. It got me wondering whether, in some ways, this is an essential part of what art is all about –that intricate web of interconnections that develops between the people who love it.