Little Failure



I have just finished reading Little Failure, by Gary Shteyngart and I am a bit undone…or unhinged…or un…something.  I feel as though a large chunk of the universe has dropped down from dizzying heights and obliterated much of what I thought I once understood about what it means to have an opinion about others…or about the lineage of history…or about how it is carried on any one human’s back.  What I mean to say is – I suddenly understand, with blinding clarity, that what I thought I knew, has come from a deeply limited point of view.   After reading this (I’m searching for a verb here, a verb worthy enough to represent how good this book is, how necessary it is that people read this…) powerful and insightful and expansive book, I’ve been given a new lens upon which to reflect many things – the single most important, being, humanity, and/or it’s lack thereof.More than any other element that this book does with exceptional skill (and there are many skillful elements to this book: the humor, the self-deprecation, the weaving of world history and personal history…) – this book illuminates the scope of what it means to be a part of something bigger/larger than you, something that defines you (whether you want it to or not) and locks you into a specific location, or expectation, no matter what you do.  You are defined by this “tag.”  In the case of this memoir – the tag being: an Immigrant plunked down in New York City, in the early 1980’s, as a Russian American Jew –  a person that suddenly resides between two worlds, accepted by neither; shunned by both.

There is so much LIFE in this book: often times brutal, many times ugly, ridiculously and exquisitely funny!, again and again squeamish; there is self-loathing en masse!, there is enormous self-pity (rightfully so, but still – self pity is a tough animal to deal with, over and over and over again…) – and with all of this, there is also incredible, beautiful, painful, illuminating, tender, and wise insights into the act of living through one’s own history – whether or not you are, or you were, responsible for that history.   We carry our history in our cells, in our blood, in our stories, in our breath – and unfortunately, it is not something we ever get to choose.  It is chosen for us, by our parents, and the parents before them, and the parents before them, and so on, and on and on…

For me, what leaps off the pages of this book as the single most important lesson, and gift (to ourselves, and to our lineage) for any one human being, is this:  to learn to forgive the sins and transgressions of those who have come before us. Even when those sins are committed at the hand of those we love…who have shaped our very form (cells, blood, skin, bone, thoughts, actions, deeds, etc.).  Until we make this pilgrimage, we will remain but a child, acting out with childish fears, childish thoughts, and childish endeavors.  To learn to accept that so much of what happens in this world is beyond our ability to control…to accept that our parents’ too were shaped by the parents before them, et al… is to understand that once you start pointing the finger, the pointing can never stop.  We are all complicit, by the very fact that we live.

I urge you to read this book.  It will make you laugh out loud.  It will challenge, and broaden your understanding of child rearing.  It will provide an inside look into an experience that so many in our country – the United States of America, must undergo on a daily basis, as immigrants searching for a better life within our borders.  It will expand your understanding of humanity.  And that is why books – great books! – are written.



A woman’s woman…

courtesy of Francesca Woodman site on Photobucket
courtesy of Francesca Woodman on Photobucket…see URL thru link below

To gaze upon Francesca Woodman’s photographs is to absorb the pain, beauty, isolation, and the desire to be desired, that women often fall victim to as they move from girlhood, to sexuality, and their rise up the totem toward becoming – Object.  As we view these images, we are made to witness the wasteland of this devastation, of innocence locked away and scorned, of the machinations that women/girls mutilate themselves with in the name of Beauty, and Desire, and the too often sadistic ritual of Adoration.   Woodman’s photographs whisper of rich, delicate, haunting beauty – of girls and young women functioning, culturally, as our sacrificial lambs.  The photographs are achingly tragic…so seductively rich in their horror that they must certainly make ALL women stop, pause, catch their breath – as they immediately think of and remember, all the girls and women they have known in their life time that have stumbled through, and been obliterated by, this arid wasteland depicted in her black and white images.

Invisible enough yet?

In the world of Art, women/adolescent girls are most often depicted as the one being Observed.  And so very often, they are also depicted as having knowledge of this fact…that they are being viewed, and that they are desired by their viewer…as though there is no higher honor, or status, than to be observed from this state of desire.  And it is the attainment of this status, that makes them Significant, Important, Powerful.  “I am a desirable object” they scream – and in order to maintain this position, the woman or girl will often do whatever it takes to maintain this power: starve herself, hang herself, objectify herself, sell herself, make herself mute, all but invisible, weak, easy…all in the name of satisfying what others, or what they think others, desire them to be. Art may no longer push this objectification status as it once did, but it doesn’t need to – Advertisement and popular culture has taken over and the objectification of the female seems stronger and more destructive than ever.

I have watched women very close and dear to me cross this threshold – some have been able to come back and function as strong, dynamic, well adjusted women…and others – well, let’s just say they have not fared as well.  It is tragic to watch the slow evacuation of someone you love, and sadly, this happens far too often in the world of woman.  Woodman’s photographs display this tragedy (as old as Ophelia herself…rather, most certainly older) as though with blunt knives – soft, beautiful, almost tender.  But this only heightens the betrayal of the narrative that her photographs present…the gradual erosion of self in order to fulfill someone else’s foundation of desire.

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How often we women make ourselves disappear.  As though fulfilling some unspoken contract, in a world that continues, by and large, to be run, determined, built, envisioned, and slaughtered, by men.  I say this not to put men down – every man that I know, that is in my life, is loving, decent, and good, right down to the core.  But suffice to say, the observed is rarely a position that is placed on the shoulders of man –  it is a position of inferiority, lacking in power, and lacking in determination.  No – that is sadly, still all too often, our role.  As  Women.  Woodman’s photographs reveal all of this, and more – and she hurls this at us as a whisper… a whisper hiding in a windstorm that wails through the trees.  

*Please do share these photographs with everyone you know.  I am passionately mad about photography, and Women :), and I have never in my life, come across images as Powerful, and moving, as these.  They need to be seen, they need to awaken and stir, and give voice to all the silent voices out there. Please please visit her photographs on provided link, and pass it on. FrancescaWoodman

*****…Oh no!  I am crushed!  I thought Woodman was a contemporary artist, alive and strong, but alas, that is sadly not the case.  She committed suicide at the young young age of 22, back in the ’80’s.  Devastating, that we lost the likes of her in this sweet, sad, world of ours.  FrancescaWoodmanbio

How I hope you are flying light and sweet and tender and loved.



Cage, Art, Silence


Copy of cage

Several years ago I was introduced, by a dear friend, to John Cage’s book called: Visual Art:  To Sober and Quiet the Mind.  It is a beautiful book, a meditation on Art and Purpose.  “Art, says Cage, whether it is good or bad, has a way of changing how we see the world… (if seeing) Art transfers you to something ordinary (the way  Duchamp was able to do for Cage) then, it’s not as though it were a case of the “special,” but it enlarges the spiritual experience to include many, many things…

This is a beautiful way to look at what we do, and why we do what we do, when we create Art…whether that be visual art, sound art, performance art, or written art.  It is our desire to transform ourselves, as well as the observer – to make us think, feel, open, deepen, understand, bond, explore….all of these things, and more – but for Cage, Art’s primary function is to Sober and Quiet the Mind“encouraging a state that is spiritual in nature but at the same time is connected to the everyday.”  

Yes.  Spiritual, and yet connected to the Everyday.  This is magnetic for me – a statement that expresses the full scope of Art and it’s power, that moves into and through me, and that forever stays.

what silence looks like...
what silence looks like?…

Remember the way Cage explored, and informed his work, with Silence?  Click on the link to watch his 1952 performance of Silent.   Of course, Cage is not entirely unique in his expression of Silence in art – though conceptually, this performance did bring Silence front and center, into the spotlight, allowing the viewer to fully engage in the presence of silence that resides in art, and ask that they begin to question the very notion of whether silence truly exists.  A sheet of music void of notation, other than Rests, does not silence make.  But think of poetry – the empty space on the page, the break in between, called the Caesura…this too is the expansion of this silence – of allowing the viewer to reside in between – to insert their own understanding/experience/notion, of how this Silence informs the poem and deepens its presence both on the page, and in the mind, heart, and breath, of the reader.

Copy of john cage never be silence

For me, as a writer, an artist, and a musician – and as a lover of all of these! – the Silence that resides in art is what allows me to exist inside of it.  It opens room for me to enter – to mine deeply what the art has to offer for me at that moment.  But as Cage insisted, and to which I fully agree – Art that thrills me most, is that which encourages a state that is spiritual in nature, but at the same time is connected to the everyday.

How deep is my gratitude for all the artists (writers, painters, sculptures, dancers, film makers, musicians…good lord, etc, etc, etc…) who have splayed out, like a map of stars, what it means for them to create.  They are fuel for my spirit, and they catch in my heart as I set out on my own journey of creating.   Please do set out on your own journey as well – there is never such a thing as too late.  Not if you are breathing :)

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the gift of the unexpected

Copy of Bikes in Windows-L

So one of my favorite writing teachers ever, was (is – he is still teaching, I just haven’t had the pleasure of sitting in his classroom for many years now) a writer by the name of Jim Krusoe.  And the greatest gift I ever received from him was this:

We were talking one day about poetry, and he told me that he had started his writing career as a poet, and that for him, the single most important element of creating powerful, dynamic, engaging poetry was infusing it, or interrupting it, with the Unexpected.  That moment when the poem jumps into the unknown – bringing the reader into the wide open and unexpected territory of..surprise, delight, mystery…who knows.  (For me, this is equally important in Literary Fiction…to allow the portrait of humanity to catch in our chest as we witness a glimpse of something unique and peculiar; something familiar, in an unexpected way.  I dare say, that this swerve is, sadly, increasingly absent in our literature). 

The Unexpected, acts as a disruption…the thing that pushes us off our pre-determined course and lands us smack dab in the middle of uncertainty.  And oh, how we love the un-stable ground of uncertainty!  (haha) Such a fertile soil for all aspects of life though, yes?  What happens to us, the observer, when suddenly we find ourselves where we didn’t expect?  I believe it opens us up to thought, to question, to intrigue…bringing us face to face with a virtual window into the deepest part of ourselves as we ponder where we are, how we feel, and why…and what we might do about it.  

But I do remember thinking, as Krusoe said that  – Aha!  That is it!  The “unexpected” is what delights me about all great writing…indeed, all great art. ( I’m listening to Leonard Cohen as I write this, and what a perfect example of this delight of the unexpected :) )   Art, in all its forms, carries within its fabric the ability to shine a light into our deepest folds …allowing us to gain a deeper foothold on our own existence, which, in turn, gives us a broader understanding of “other”, as a whole.

I think this is why we yearn for art.  For its ability to penetrate into our darkest self, allowing us to begin to understand what is there.  Perhaps it isn’t always what we wish to see…but no matter.  Art is the crack that allows the light in…(as dear Leonard Cohen reminds us) and this crack allows us to deepen our human experience; indeed our humanity.  It is our survival – the blood, the passion, the roar inside of us that keeps us pulsing and alive.  If we can find the courage to run toward our roar, we will find the unexpected waiting to reveal to us all kinds of hidden treasures.   Yes, this can be easier said than done – I am well aware.  Especially within the culture and society we have constructed, which places such high value on the “face value” of things, rather than the duende (as the poet Lorca wrote about: the soul, the heightened state of emotion, and expression of authenticity; the grist of living and loving, the blood, sweat and tears of giving and being alive.  In Lorca’s words:

“All that has dark sounds has duende. These dark sounds are the mystery, the roots thrusting into the fertile loam known to all of us, ignored by all of us, but from which we get what is real in art. . . .”Thus duende is a power and not a behavior, it is a struggle and not a concept. I have heard an old master guitarist say: ‘Duende is not in the throat; duende surges up from the soles of the feet.’ It is a creative action.”

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Art demands that we face ourselves.  And for this reason alone, I contend that we would be better tended as a culture if we were all to rise to the challenge of finding out what is inside our “being” and creating works of art from this mighty spring. Imagine the conversations we would have!  Art exists in the depths, not on the surface – so plumb deep, do not be afraid. Celebrate your treasures; your Duende.  And cultivate it into living, captivating, unexpected gifts of Art.  





tunnels tunnels

…this is what we create New Year’s Resolutions for, for this word at the top of this post.  Despojando.  It means to get rid of, to let go… it’s a beautiful word, yes? Soft, round, supple – full of air, and light; escaping the mouth as though to a lover – curvaceous, lush, full of love. Try it :) say it out loud (Des-poh-hahn-doh) and feel how it escapes, how it releases from your tongue.

There is life in language, in the way that words resonate inside of us, and for me, when I came upon this word, it made me look at the way the sound of this word (and its meaning) made me feel.  Open.  Softer.  More beautiful.  And…lighter.  Instead of “letting go” being an act that needed to be worked at, it suddenly felt like it could be an allowance. Something that we might simply nod our head at, and set free on the rush of our breath.

Forgiveness is, for me, the single most persistent theme in my work as a writer of literary fiction.  It is an idea, an act, an experience that I have questioned, discussed, turned around and around inside of me for over 2 decades now, and I find it…well, I suppose I find it to be the most necessary aspect of all humanity for a truly extraordinary and wonderful life.  For in truth, forgiveness precipitates all else.

Here are a couple poignant examples of forgiveness that I highly recommend you explore, if you have not yet:  Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl.  Reading this was a lightbulb moment for me when I was in my early 20’s.  I found Frankl’s life, and life experiences (survivor of the Holocaust) to be profoundly life opening.  Despite everything he experienced during  the horrors of that time, he allowed with purpose and great intention, for forgiveness.  The other I just listened to last night on RadioLab – the brilliant radio show that if you don’t know of, you must check out!, because the fellows who create the hour long shows are curious about everything, and willing to explore anything. The show I listened to was called Blame, and the story in particular was the 2nd segment about a father who becomes a pen-pal to the imprisoned man who murdered his daughter.  It’s a powerful and beautiful show, lyrical even, in it’s tone and complexity.

What I mean to offer with these examples, with this post as a whole, I suppose, is this:  I have often wondered if we are sometimes afraid to forgive, to let go, because of the way it might make us appear, to others, to ourselves, as weak somehow?   Or that it might make us look as if we condone the acts that are in need of forgiving?  Perhaps there is validity in both of these suppositions – but, I think the single most important and necessary question we should begin to ask ourselves when it comes to whether or not to forgive, is this: What is the personal price of not forgiving?  We lock ourselves in and close ourselves off, and not just to others, but most importantly, to ourselves.  And this is, of course, the very opposite of…


May this year of 2014 be Our Year of Forgiveness.  Toward those who hurt us.  Toward ourselves for deeds past.   Toward politicians :)  Let Forgiveness be our daily embrace, our active committed pursuit…and like everything else in life, our choice.

living in this Holy Land

...because magic happens all around us...if we make it so.
…because magic happens all around us…if we make it so.

Today I’ve been looking at an old book that captured and held me hostage when I first heard the author read from it while I sat under the tall sky in Vermont at Bread Loaf…years ago now.  The author was a gentle and quiet man who approached the lectern (in the barn, where the readings were held) with his head down – and as he began to read, his soft voice took over the room.  He delivered to each one of us lucky souls in that barn, a window into his spirit; a poignant, lyrical tapestry of family, place, home, and the suburban dynamic that defines so much of Southern California, and our mighty nation, at large.

d j waldie…sorry for such a tiny image, that’s all I’m getting today :)

The narrative in this book is broken into passages – snapshots, if you will – 316 total.  Waldie grew up in Lakewood, California – a development created in the ’50’s.  I taught reading/writing/and study skills with a company called IRD (International Reading Development) down there in Lakewood, and as a matter of fact, quit IRD so I could attend Bread Loaf, the very year D. J. Waldie stood before us like an incantation.  a beautiful happenstance.

Here are a few passages, chosen mostly at random…all speak directly to the one listening….(or in this case, reading).

#45:  The streets in my city are a fraction of a larger grid, anchored to one in Los Angeles.  That grid was laid out in September, 1781. // The Los Angeles grid is a copy of one carried from Mexico City to an anonymous stretch of river bank by Colonel Felipe de Neve, governor of California. // The grid the Spanish colonel carried to the nonexistent Los Angeles in 1781 originally came from a book in the Archive of the Indies in Seville.  The book prescribed the exact orientation of the streets, the houses, and the public places for all the colonial settlements in the Spanish Americas. // That grid came from God.

#2:  In a suburb that is not exactly middle class, the necessary illusion is predictability.  

# 236:  Every family speaks its own language.  The language I learned had the flavor of big cities in it.  // Sometimes my mother, brother, and I ate lunch at the counter in the Woolworth’s in the shopping center.  Sometimes the waitress would comment on the way we spoke, and ask us if we were English.

# 219:  The grid on which my city is built opens outward without limits.  It’s the antithesis of a ghetto. // My city will have only one gated and guarded subdivision.  It’s the tract of houses the real estate division of Chevron is building. //  It’s the only tract of houses in the city that will be shut off from the anxieties of the grid.  //  The new development is called Westgate.  The name reminds buyers of what they are getting.

#235:  I remember exactly how my father drove.  He was a very good driver.  //  Los Angeles freeways were designed for my father’s kind of driving.  He was never impatient or uncontrolled. He never had an accident or received a ticket.  //  We drove everywhere.

#46:  “Stop counting, mother,” I said, bending over her hospital bed.  //  And she stopped on three.  All afternoon she had been telling numbers as she died.  //  She kept saying, “3, 2, 5, 3, 2.”  //  I said, “Stop counting, mother.”  She stopped again on three.  //  What were they?  Were they a telephone number or a street address?  //  They were coordinates for a map I did not have.

#6:  Moral choice does not enter his thinking.  //  He believes, however, that each of us is crucified.  His own crucifixion is the humiliation of living the life he has made for himself.

#91:  It is not simply missed opportunities that leave him the humiliation of his comfortable house and his regular habits.  The opportunities, themselves, appear out of place.  //  He prayed at first to be relieved of his life, and not to know when his prayer would be answered.  When it was, he prayed for other people’s plans.

#174: I saw my father cry only once before my mother’s death. I was nine or ten.  //  It seemed to me that my parents were arguing about my father’s health.  I don’t think they were.  Something else had unfolded in their life together.  //  The argument stopped.  My father came into the middle bedroom, where I had gone to be as far from them as I could.  In this house, the greatest distance is fifteen or twenty feet.  //  My father sat on the end of the small bed that took the place of a couch in the middle of the room.  The room was crowded with a desk, bookshelves my father built, the bed, and a black-and-white television set.  //  We sat a short distance from each other.  My father cried.  //  The middle room became my bedroom when I entered college.  I slept there on the weekends when I went to graduate school in Orange County.  It was my room when I left school and began a part-time teaching job.  //  After my mother died in 1979, my father suggested I take the larger, back bedroom.  //  I said no.

#175:  The greatest loss in living deliberately alone is in not having anyone to forgive.


I highly recommend Holy Land, by D. J. Waldie – that you add it to your “Must Read” list.  It’s one that can be opened at random, any time of day…like a parable you can put in your heart’s pocket, or a beautiful pebble you can toy with in your soul.   Happy New Year everyone – Peace, Love, Curiosity, Joy, Imagination, and Grace be yours – throughout this shiny new year!