Monday, November 24, 2008

What is "the good earth"?

Thank you for the invitation to join the StreetWrites blog. I would like to begin with the question I opened my own blog with:

What would be "a good earth"?

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Donate to a good cause for free!

Here are some ways to donate for free by a click:

The Hunger Site
The Child Health Site The Literacy Site The Animal Rescue Site The Rainforest Site
The Breast Cancer Site Enlarge your vocabulary & feed hungry people

At you can play a vocabulary game, have fun and learn, and donate rice to hungry people at the same time! Warning: It is addictive! :D

Write On!

Friday, February 01, 2008

Quantum States of Mary

Poems I wrote while I was homeless, with autobiographical notes.
November 1995:

Wes Browning, a long-time member of StreetLife Gallery, was also active with Real Change, Seattle's street-newspaper, which covered homeless and poverty issues and was sold by homeless vendors. He took my poem down to Real Change, and the next time Tim Harris, the Real Change director, was visiting Wes at the gallery, they invited me to join the Real Change editorial committee.

The December issue was being collected: a women's issue. I had one poem that I had been working on literally for years, that had begun with the image of Mary nursing the Christ child under the shadow of a cross on the stable wall, and the thought, "Oh my God, did she know?" I had more images now that I wanted to add, and a motivation to get it done for the Christmas issue. When I had it completed, it was a two-page poem -- I submitted it anyway.

Not only was it published, as a two-page spread, it was listed on the cover, and the cover art by Wes Browning was based on it.

Quantum States of Mary

holding your baby;
did you see a shadow fall
on the stable wall?
Did the wise men dare to tell you
all they knew?

who are you?

Frightened child bride,
towed by an angry Joseph
through the swirl of history,
shouting prophets
thundering over your huddled form...

Untouched maiden
meekly kneeling
to the Master of the Universe,
raising one cuckoo
and a flock of sparrows,
never losing serenity
or innocence...

Conniving seductress
foisting her bastard off on God,
hoaxing Joseph to raise it,
muddling the boy into visions,
all to mask your own guilt...

Daughter of the prophets
poised in ancient wisdom,
cuddling the sweetest infant
to the tenderest breast,
nursing him to sacrifice and glory...

who are you?

did you ever fear?

cuckold of God -
did he take it out on you?

Or was he so kind and noble
you felt unworthy,
distrusting any moment
of anger
or any human weakness?

Your child-man
who never cried at night,
or begged for toys
then broke them,
who never raided the cookie jar,
or rubbed dirt in his best friend's hair -
did you know how weird he was,
before you raised the other boys?

Did you ever lie awake
with some deep grief;
did he come hold your hand,
wisdom far too ancient in his eyes?

When you found him
lecturing the scholars,
did you see a cross-shaped shadow
on his path?

Did you fear for him, Mary?
Did you fear Him?

I am afraid.

To fall,
to fail,
to feel...
I am afraid of pain
and of the long slow numbing dark
without pain...

I do not know
who I am.

With no home and no money
am I helpless,
sick and pitiful?

Am I angry,
robbed and ruined
by the System,
the Others,

Am I stupid,
a wicked woman,
reaping the returns
of evil ways?

Am I the player,
one strike down
but grinning,
setting my feet
to jump back in the game?

am I your child?
Will you hold and warm me
until I am ready
for my destiny?

am I your sister?

where are you?

Have you found your ground
beyond the swirl of history,
cascading quantum images
others painted for you;
have you made a place
to be your self?

show me.

Monday, January 28, 2008

In Honor of Boyd McLaughlin: November 3, 1995

In November of 1995, we had a tragedy at the StreetLife art gallery. Boyd McLaughlin, a generous spirit who had helped and encouraged many new arrivals to the gallery, died. I wrote a tribute to Boyd which later became the opening piece of a Homeless Memorials webpage.

Nothing Much to Say


The world seems cruel
     in the face of pain.
A suffocation of silences.
When if we tried to speak
    we would scream,
    then we are silent.
When what we feel
    fills our throat
    then we are silent.
When what we should feel
    is not what we do feel,
    then we are silent.
When we don't feel
    and we don't know how
    then we are silent.

People die curled around their pain _
    unable to say what hurts. 
We cannot find the words 
    to make it right. 
Helpless to help, 
    we turn away.

Nothing much to say...


When an artist dies
    what can you say
    to equal the art
    that's gone out of the world?


Rub someone's shoulders.
Drink gingerale. Eat pizza.
Make more art.
What else can you do?

In honor of Boyd McLaughlin 11/3/95

Boyd McLaughlin died on November 2, 1995 at the age of forty-four.

Boyd came into Seattle's StreetLife Gallery, "the home of homeless art," fresh off a greyhound from Montana. He was trying to get off of cocaine and turn his life around; he threw his life into the Gallery.

In a year Boyd went from homeless and searching to housed and working as a prolific, self-taught artist offering inspiration, instruction, love and generosity to hundreds of artists walking in off the street looking to the Gallery for healing themselves.

He was at the Gallery eight or more hours a day, seven days a week, and the service providers who managed the Gallery at that time became concerned about him. They insisted that the Gallery close two days a week, Wednesday and Thursday, so that Boyd would have some time to himself.

Within two days, Boyd was dead. On a Thursday night.

It may be circumstantial, or not. But please hesitate the next time you want to decide for someone else what is best for them.

My first street poems

I grew up in a family where reading and writing were considered normal human activities. I wrote my first poem when I was five. I have written poetry all my life, and even published a few, in spite of Writer's Marketing Block. My poetry has improved the most in the toughest periods of my life.

In 1995, I lived on a friend's couch for eight months, in depression. During that depression I wrote only one poem. Because I now call couch-surfing being "homeless in denial," I will include that one here -- when I find it. A lot gets lost in the Great Gray Fog.

Finally I became officially homeless. I was fortunate: Seattle has good community health clinics, and after 40 years of undiagnosed and untreated manic depression (bipolar disorder), I was finally diagnosed. I was doubly fortunate: the first time I walked into a homeless shelter was the night a mental health outreach worker was there, and she got my prescription filled. I was triply fortunate: I respond well to Lithium.

Only a week after I began taking Lithium, I was able to push myself into participating in a craft project at Noel House, the homeless women's shelter where I stayed. We were making Halloween cards. This was the first poem I had written in several months.
    Now all threatening shadows
    into warmth and light.
I continued to become increasingly active. I moved from the staffed shelter of Noel House to a self-managed SHARE shelter, and became a member of StreetLife Gallery, a self-managed co-op of homeless and formerly homeless artists.

I was still confident of my writing, but I wanted to do something more visual at the art gallery, so I decided to try something new. I checked out some books from the library on handmade paper and found art, and walking back I "found" this poem.
    Creating With Found Objects

    Out of Limbo
    I come
    to find
    across the pavement
    I search
    with found objects
    a life.
In the months to come, poetry would help me recreate a life. I started a writing workshop for homeless and low-income people (who often have a hard time finding, or fitting into, other writing workshops). Many times I saw the same, infinitely rewarding, phenomenon: someone shuffles in with that "gray pavement" face; says that they can't write; starts moving a pen across the paper because this pushy old woman tells them to; something from their heart flows out; they read it out loud; they look around the table and see other people listening; their face transforms, their eyes light up with a sense of self, their body sits up and comes back to life.

The first couple of years of the workshop, I often heard lines like, "Homeless people don't need to be writing poetry! Homeless people need to be out finding a job!" I don't get those comments any more. A number of homeless service organizations have started writing programs and art programs. People noticed that if people are going to recreate our lives, we need our creativity.

Introducing Poetry

I am going to post here a series of poems I wrote while I was homeless; and, I hope, other members of StreetWrites will either post theirs, or allow me to post them.

To open the poetry series, here's the introduction to poetry on my own webpage:

What Is a Poem?

A poem is whatever I, as a writer, persuade you, as a reader, to experience as a poem.

Some readers are convinced all of the time: they will gush equally over Jack Kerouac and every imitator at the neighborhood open mic, as well as Rod McKuen, Hallmark cards, and at least some advertising copy.

Some poetry convinces almost everybody: The Twenty-Third Psalm; Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night"; Eugene Field's "The Duel"; some of the classic haiku, don't yell at me if I forgot your favorite just plug it in here yourself.

Some people will never be convinced by any work unless it is iambic pentameter and rhymes; or it contains a seasonal word; or it refers only to emotion and subjective experience; or it refers only to external, objective experience; or an infinite range of other specific criteria.

There is more than one kind of poet in the world because there is more than one kind of reader in the world.

Myself, I am in favor of craftsmanship and working on a poem -- not just spilling my guts on a page and calling it good.

But I don't think any of the technical criteria in the world will save you if you haven't got any guts in there at all. There has to be some heart, soul, insight, or feeling to spark a poem, to make it worth writing and worth reading -- and that is the essence of what reaches up and grabs a reader, what makes someone say, "That's a poem."

I am content if at least some of the readers in the world respond to me. If twenty people tell me "I can't make head or tails of this", I'll sweat over a re-write. If ten people cry because they did understand me, and ten others are still scratching their heads -- then I know the audience that I speak to.

I hope it's you.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Book Review: Becoming Evil

Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing
by James Waller
Oxford University Press, August 2005
336 pages, $29.95
ISBN: 0195189493

How did the girl next door end up leading a naked Iraqi man around on a leash?

When the first headlines came out, Rumsfeld said the abusers in Abu Ghraib were a few bad apples, a handful of psychopaths. Many headlines later - Red Cross reports leaked, a jailed Briton from Guantánamo testifying to abuse, two American soldiers convicted of murder (one of a severely wounded teenaged captive, the other of a fellow guard) - even those who were willing to accept that explanation in the beginning wanted a better one. One that would make the abuses end.

In Becoming Evil, social psychologist James Waller examines extraordinary human evil: genocide and mass killing. Between each of his chapters he includes firsthand accounts from those who have experienced some of the greatest human evils of our history, from the slaughter of Native Americans by Europeans to the tragic cycle of genocide between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. For the history lesson alone, this would be a valuable book.

Waller argues that we must neither disown those who do evil, nor excuse them. Social pressures exist, but they are not deterministic. There were Hutus who did not kill Tutsis and Tutsis who did not kill Hutus. One of the things that we have to do in order to create a society with less killing and cruelty is never to excuse or minimize killing and cruelty. Individuals must be accountable for the evils they themselves do. But we must be accountable for our part in creating a culture that encourages either empathy or cruelty.

It is not enough to reject evil; in order to exercise responsibility, we need to understand it. Then we can change the social factors that make evil more likely, or less likely. That is what this book is about. Waller does not excuse evil acts because "society is at fault," nor is this simply an academic study. There are practical lessons here for how a society becomes corrupt, and how to prevent it. Like the poor, evil will always be with us. That does not mean we should be fatalistic about evil. It means that we should always be ready to address it.

Waller examines previous explanations of extraordinary human evil - including "a handful of psychopaths" - and then proposes his own explanatory model. An explanatory model should be useful, and Waller's gives us immediate things to do, in our individual lives as well as in social policy, to increase human kindness.

Waller cites psychological experiment, ethnological field studies, and evolutionary theory to support the thesis that humans are genetically predisposed to divide into groups, value our in-group over other groups, and treat those within the group more "ethically" than those outside of the group. In human history, this predisposition has encouraged ethnocentricity and xenophobia - bigotry and hatred. Our biological heritage also influences our response to authority and our desire to exert authority over others.

There are also social forces that help prepare people to commit genocide. One is cultural beliefs, like nationalism, racism, or "manifest destiny." Another is disengaging morality from conduct by such things as:
  • displacing responsibility ("I was only following orders")

  • deploying euphemisms ("collateral damage")

  • seeking moral justification (it is "for a good end," "for the good of the state," "for the protection of democracy")

  • looking for advantageous comparisons ("we have done some bad things, but look at what they did")

  • minimizing, distorting, or distancing ourselves from the consequences (not broadcasting images of war, concentration camps, or mass killing; calling torture "abuse" or even a "fraternity prank;" calling the destruction of a village "liberation")
It is alarming to see these arguments promoted in American culture today. There are other disturbing signs.

The more highly regarded one's self-interest becomes, the easier it is to justify evil done to others. At the same time, having a self-identity that is distinct from one's group identity is essential to maintaining moral norms. When one's entire identity is wrapped up in being a prison guard; when the message of your social group is that brutality is not only acceptable but a positive good; when any refusal to obey orders or disclosure of anything to others that may reflect poorly on the group is considered betrayal: that setting is a horror waiting to happen.

American popular culture promotes advancing one's self-interest with no regard for any conseqences to others. Our consumer culture encourages only what "individualism" can be marketed.

The "victim blaming" popular in American culture is also a sign of social corruption. To make "crimes against humanity" psychologically supportable, according to Waller, it is critical to deny your victims status among those to whom you are morally obligated, and make them responsible for their own suffering. As in: "These people have attacked our society itself and thereby given up all social rights." "These particular offenses place these prisoners outside of the Geneva Convention." Humiliation, forcing others into ragged and unclean conditions, also helps to disassociate us from them.

We may not be able to overcome our biology, or want to. But there are insights in Waller's scientific analysis that we have heard before, like: Do not justify doing evil in the name of fighting evil, or we will become what we fight. Now that it has a scientific imprimatur, perhaps more people will apply that simple maxim. If enough people read this book, we may be able to reverse the corruption of the American conscience.

Monday, April 02, 2007

I'm looking for you!

I'm looking for some of the women who have been in StreetWrites over the years and contributed poetry to one or more of the annual WHEEL anthologies. WHEEL (a community organizing effort of homeless and formerly homeless women) is putting out a REAL BOOK -- a full-bound, soft-cover book -- to be published by Whit Press. We want to reprint poems by the following people, and we need to find them to get their formal permission. If you can reach any of these people, please have them email me! My email address is on my profile.
  • Glinda
  • Ako
  • Margi Washburn
  • Rongo
  • Radha
  • Wendy Nakashima
  • Ruanda Morrison
  • Debbie Bessette
  • Elizabeth Bennefield
  • Catherine Gainey
If you know somebody on that list. and they don't have email, they can call WHEEL at (206) 956-0334.

Thanks! Write On!