Intentions, Actions, and the Law of Attraction

I start out almost every post with a mention that it’s been a long time since I last posted anything.  Why should this one be any different?  As I am about to enter my 27th year in the classroom, I realize that calendar years mean nothing to me.  August (or sometimes September) is my new year, my new start, my time to make resolutions. Even my daily planner is a school-year one, and I’m on the lookout for the perfect one for 2015-16.  Such decisions are not made lightly.  2014-2015 has been a roughish year, as transformational years always are, and that daily planner is one I’m ready to put in a box in the attic. We lost my dad this spring, which was just one of a few significant though not entirely unexpected disappointments. But if you know me, you know I don’t stay down for long, and there have been some amazing things to keep me going, most of which you’ve read about (or can read about) here.

The Associated Writers’ Program Conference of my last post has been a highlight, mainly because I got to spend time with my graduate school compatriots from the Sierra Nevada College MFA Program.  I met these people a year ago August, and I’ve only spent a little time with them over the year since then, yet they have become my lifeline, my tribe, my best readers, and my favorite writers.  This week, I head out to meet up with them again, for another 10-day residency in Lake Tahoe.  I’m thrilled to be working with Gailmarie Pahmeier as our workshop leader, and heartbroken that I can’t be in both her group and the one led by the amazing and transformational (and newly-minted Poet Laureate of Fresno, California) Lee Herrick. Alas, as Frost taught us, we cannot travel two paths and be one traveler.  This residency will also start a much-anticipated semester with Patricia Smith as my mentor, and I feel like The Golden Child for having the opportunity.

I will head to Tahoe by way of Seattle, where my classmate, roommate and dear friend Suzanne and I will start our road trip, camping our way through Washington, Oregon (maybe California?) and Nevada to get to the residency that starts with the new month.  I don’t know if I’m Thelma, or Louise, but there will be no slow motion swan dives.  Brad Pitt…maybe.

This trip is a portal, as all trips are.  I will start it as one person and end it as another, just as I started this sentence as one person, and end it as another.  Change is the thing, always.  Best  to embrace it.

One way of doing that is to set  intentions and watch for the opportunities to move closer to what you want.  Twenty years ago, I wanted to write more poetry and have someone besides my mom read it.  That has happened.  Fifteen years ago, I wanted a chance to learn from some of the poets I’ve admired.  That has happened and is happening.  Ten years ago, I wanted to have a book published and maybe have some people like it.  That has happened.  Five years ago, I wanted to get an MFA from a school with top-notch teachers, though it seemed utterly impossible.  That is happening.  Time for some new intentions.

What I want now is to have the courage to go where the writing takes me, and maybe, sometime, to become a writer who occasionally teaches, instead of a teacher who occasionally writes.

There you go, Universe.  Go wild.

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AWP Conference, Minneapolis, April 8-12

For the first time EVER, I am going to be attending the Associated Writing Programs Conference this year.  I’ve always wanted to go, but never could.  This year, it’s being held in Minneapolis, and I get to be there!  I know it will be quite overwhelming and I won’t get to do a tenth of the things I want to do, but I am still very excited.  It’s the largest gathering of writers in the country (I’m fairly sure) with around 14000 attendees.  There are over 2000 presenters, and–here’s the really cool part–I am one of them!  I will be a member of a panel discussion on teaching creative writing online, called Byte by Byte: Teaching Creative Writing Online on Saturday, April 11 at 3 pm.  Click on the title to get to the full description, location, etc.  I’m joined on the panel by distinguished poets and teachers Cass Dalglish (organizer and moderator for the event), Kathryn Kysar, Athena Kildegaard, and Wendy Call.

And that’s not all!  At some point in the conference, I’ll be spending some time volunteering at the conference tables of The Loft Literary Center and the Sierra Nevada College MFA Program. 

Plus, there’s the Prince Purple Party at the Record Room, and who knows what else.  There are so many things to attend, I’ll just wander into conference rooms, knowing that whatever is going on there will be stellar.

It’s going to be a whirlwind–most of my writing buddies in the same place at the same time!  My head spins just thinking about it.  Let me know if you will be there–yes, YOU–and we will be sure to touch base.

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Sierra Nevada College MFA Program

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything here.  That’s at least in part because I’ve been doing my writing elsewhere: namely, in my work toward a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry from Sierra Nevada College.  I’m just embarking on my second semester, after an absolutely transformational first semester working with Lee Herrick as my mentor. I simply cannot say enough about Lee’s mentorship–his intelligence, sensitivity and generosity.  He was exactly the right teacher for me at exactly the right time, and I’ll be reaping the rewards in my writing and my life for a very long time.  Then I spent a magical and transcendent ten days in a workshop led by Patricia Smith, and found more transformation and growth there, aided in no small part by my stellar classmates. This semester, I’m beginning to work with Laura Wetherington, and I expect the leaps to be just as great.

There’s a lot of discussion of MFAs in writing and of MFA programs.  Some people feel that they are just factories, turning out writers who all sound the same, who engage in a kind of in-crowd cronyism, and who stretch out their schooling as long as possible because there are no jobs for writers. I can’t speak to any of that.  Maybe some programs do that.  Sierra Nevada definitively does not.

I do know that the MFA, and especially the low-residency MFA, is only available to a fairly privileged sector of the writing world.  The cost is great, and the monetary rewards are few.  For me, though, the non-monetary rewards are enough.  (Remind me I said that when the loans come due).  I’m not doing this to get a different job.  I’m not doing this to get good grades.  I’m not doing it to make connections that I plan to capitalize on at some point.  I’m doing it because I have to.   Because something inside me is driving me to it, to push myself, to be a better writer, to be in an environment with other writers and creative people who are having significant discussions about the things I love and value most.  It’s an important step in my own personal development, career development notwithstanding.  And I’m doing it because I have the level of privilege and agency in the world to be able to.  Can’t forget that part.

What I’m realizing  is that to really “do poetry” at the depth I want to do it, the lines dividing poetry/life/self have to dissolve.  I can’t keep my writing  in a separate compartment anymore.  That changes things.  And it’s as terrifying as it is wonderful.

Stay tuned.

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Closing Reception: Reassurances at Cedar Crest

Last week, Tiffany Besonen and I traveled to Allentown, Pennsylvania, to Cedar Crest College.  It was an incredible trip.  Yes, it was the first exhibit of our collaborative work, Reassurances: Incantation Bowls, Reimagined, but it was much, much more than that.  It became a collaboration not just for the two of us, but for the two of us and the Cedar Crest community.

Art Department Chairperson Jill Odegaard coordinated a campus-wide community art project.  Students, faculty and community members were invited to write their own incantations or prayers against fears, and to create bowls on which to write them.  The results were stunning, and turned out to be my favorite part of the whole experience.  This is a part of the exhibit that we will continue, as it (we hope) travels to other places.

Listening to our fellow bowl-creators talk about their processes and share their courageous words with us was transformational.  And that’s what these bowls have always been about, from ancient Babylonia to now.  They are about confronting our fears, standing up to them, asking them what they want of us, and casting them out so that we can move forward with grace and awareness.  Two people doing that is a big deal.  A hundred people doing that is  a HUGE deal.  I have to think that so many people coming together and fighting the forces that hold us back, as individuals and as a community, must have a beneficial effect beyond the people in the room last Thursday, and beyond the bowls that were displayed there.

Making things and having people come and look at them is one thing.  Having them join you in what you are creating, and take ownership in it, and think deeply about it as a participant and not just an observer is something else.

Deepest gratitude to Jill Odegaard, to gallery director Brian Wiggins, and to all of the students, staff, faculty, and community members who contributed to this exhibit.  You made it so much bigger than we knew it could be.

LouAnn Muhm is the recipient of an Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is funded, in part, by the Minnesota State Legislature from the State’s arts and cultural heritage fund with money from the vote of the people of Minnesota on Nov. 4, 2008.

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Article by Elizabeth Johnson

Elizabeth Johnson relocated to Easton, PA in 2011 after living and working in San Francisco, CA for 25 years. She received her B.A. from Bard College in 1986 in Fine Arts. She began writing about art for artpractical.com in San Francisco in 2009 and now writes art reviews and profiles about shows in New York, Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley for theartblog.org and artcritical.com, as well as visiting artist essays for Cedar Crest College. She had a solo show of paintings at the Cafe Museo at SFMOMA (2008), and showed in “Paint” a group show at the Fort Mason SFMOMA Artists Gallery (2004). Recently, she has exhibited at the Associated Gallery in Bushwick, the Soft Machine Gallery in Allentown, PA, and at Schmidtberger Fine Art in Frenchtown, NJ.  She curated “Edge Vs. Line” at Lafayette College in 2013, and has two shows planned for 2015 with Brooklyn co-curators at Muhlenberg and Cedar Crest Colleges.

 

Reassurances: Incantation Bowls, Reimagined, at Cedar Crest College

by Elizabeth Johnson

In 2010 at Concordia College in Minnesota, LouAnn Shepard Muhm and Tiffany Besonen attended a symposium called The Artist in Society that discussed Babylonian Incantation Bowls from the 6-8th Century AD. One of several kinds of amulets, or objects that protect one from evil or harm, the yellow, wide-mouthed, bisqueware vessels are commonly unearthed today in Iraq, a historic crossroads of religion. Syriac Christianity, Mandaeism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and older Mesopotamian religions started here, and after the 7th century Islam joined the mix. A universal belief during this era was that sin, something you knowingly or unknowingly did wrong, was the cause illness; and that demons, either inherently malicious ones or ones sent by an angered deity, visited affliction for mysterious reasons. Incantation bowls were covered with Aramic, Mandaic or Syraic script that ran from the rim into the middle or from the center out to the rim. Near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers: prayers, incantations, laws and literacy overlapped and evolved together as social powers. ‘Miracles’ were distinguished from ‘magic’ mostly as an attempt to elevate one’s religious practice over rival methods and beliefs; and yet, the script on incantation bowls evoked even older deities such as: Astarte, the goddess of fertility, sexuality and war, and Pazuzu, the king of the wind demons, or bearer of storms and drought. Commissioning incantation bowls was a thriving business, a form of insurance, and the bowls were buried upside down to capture evil spirits: at thresholds, in courtyards, at the four corners of a house or in the homes of the recently dead. Like the Jewish practice of placing a mezuzah inscribed with a homeowner’s name at the left side of a doorway, incantation bowls sought to control demons at the limit of a home, where public space transforms into private.

 

Reassurances: Incantation Bowls Reimagined, considers the ancient need to control illness, misfortune and other hazards as being contiguous with our modern one. In their collaboration, LouAnn and Tiffany reassert the fact that our collective fears are hot-wired to our human need to control circumstances. The incantation poet half of the collaboration, LouAnn, states, “I originally thought these poems would be about ‘contemporary fears’ (terrorism, chemicals, technology…), but what I finally came to is that human fears are and always have been the same three: fear of the unknown, fear of suffering and fear of isolation…That is one of the many revelations that came as the result of writing these poems.”

 

Replicating Babylonian incantation bowls, Tiffany molds sewing pattern paper around exercise balls, and seals them with clear acrylic; and the resulting semi-transparent forms seem cryptically marked with typeface, arrows and selvage lines, recalling ancient cuneiform script. She transcribes LouAnn’s poems in black paint marker working from the outside rim of the bowl towards the middle. At the center, where Babylonian demons were symbolically held captive, she paints hybrid fox or crow images in black tempera. In traditional folktales, foxes are characters of cunning and trickery and crows are associated with death and bad luck; but for her, “Crows and foxes have become characters of these poems against fears, reassurances that our fears cannot win. In some cases the crow and fox are the fear itself. In others, they are us, empowered to overcome fears.”

 

For Tiffany and LouAnn, Fox and Crow represent cancer, violence, poverty, ignorance, and loss of hope, or the fear of these horrors, and/or the empowered artists and viewers themselves. Their collaboration injects the Postmodern concern with absence, lack and emptiness into Babylonian personification and dualism. LouAnn’s poem This is a talisman against want visualizes a lack of money, self-recriminations and jealousy as a multi-faceted demon, one that is boiled down into a single character, rendering it less powerful. Twin Demons calls two demons named Known and Same, embodiments of boredom and lack of courage, out on the carpet, prodding the poet to confess that she needs to embrace starting over again. Conversely, Violence transforms a shared state of destructive being into an object: a tool, a god, blood, then banishes it and condemns it to bury itself. Litany speaks in puns and with double meaning, seeking to distinguish cause from effect. The line “That our travel may reveal what is fulcrum, what is spoke,” contrasts balancing with branching out from a center, but it also makes a pun on speech. And O Body conjures up the physical horrors of the flesh, only to beg that we be allowed to forget.

 

These mini-dramas diverge from, and then reincorporate the Babylonian dialectic of good verses evil. Even though cancer, violence, poverty, ignorance and loss of hope (and any number of other evils one can think of) rule us now just as completely as they did the ancients: collective conceptualization of these terrors has changed. History provides the model for Reassurances: Incantation Bowls, Reimagined but our collaborators take the leap, devising new words and images to collar familiar demons.

 

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Reassurances Opens Today!

reassurancesforWEB-1

Sept. 12 – Oct. 17, 2014
Artist Reception: Oct. 16; 6:15 – 7:45 p.m.
Harmon Hall of Peace

WOW.  Very close to four years to the day since Tiffany Besonen and I first heard of Babylonian Incantation Bowls and started the conversation that led to a body of work reinterpreting them with our own words, forms, and images, an exhibit of our work opens at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, PA.  It is hard to believe that this idea has, with the support of many others, come to fruition in a way that allows us to expand our conversation to include others.

Last night, I taught a workshop in incantation writing (over Skype–a new experience!) to Cedar Crest students.  They will be creating their own incantation bowls, and displaying them alongside ours in the LaChaise Gallery.  Tiffany and I love the idea of including these student works, of opening our work to the community and having others add their magic to help all of us face and heal our fears.  Because that’s what this work is, really:  a community effort to step out of fear and into peace, to face what burdens us and free ourselves, to put the forces that work against our higher purposes on notice that we will be in charge now and they can step aside.

Tiffany and I will be traveling to Allentown in about a month, and we will get a chance to see what these students have created and to talk to them about what we’ve created.  It’s a conversation we can’t wait to have.

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How to Train Your Culture, Part 1

This week I had my granddaughters with me for a few days. One of the things we did was to go and see “How to Train Your Dragon, Part 2.” I went in expecting to just tolerate it, to get through it because it would entertain them.
That’s not how it went. I loved the movie, and two days later I can’t stop thinking about it. If you haven’t seen the movie, SEE IT. Today. Kids or no kids.   Be warned, there are spoilers in this post, so read now or read after you see it, but please see the movie!

I have to admit that the battle scenes, and the good vs. evil plot points were pretty standard and I just tolerated them. But the interpersonal relationships, especially where gender roles and male/female power in relationships are concerned, were truly extraordinary. I’ll skip the more general plot and just discuss those points.

“Stoic” is the chief of a Viking clan that has learned to tame and ride dragons (after centuries of trying to wipe them out). He is big and burly with a loud voice and a commanding tone. He is trying to force his slight, sensitive son (Hiccup) into being chief. Hiccup does not want this, but he feels he can’t tell his father. So right away the father is cast in the traditional way: forceful, demanding, and unwilling to listen.

Hiccup’s mother, Valka, has been gone since she was taken by a dragon just after his birth. Little is said of her, until, miraculously, Hiccup finds her. The first time we see her, we don’t know who she is. She is wearing a fearsome mask, standing on the back of a flying dragon, lifting her spear into the air. Valka, indeed! She is terrifying and powerful. When she removes her mask, we are shocked to see that she is a beautiful woman. Traditionally, this is the point at which she would reveal her weakness, her “femininity,” and explain how hard she has worked to be in a man’s world, even disguising herself as male. Not in this movie. Valka is a warrior goddess, fiercely presiding over a sanctuary for rescued dragons. There is an evil band kidnapping dragons and forcing them into servitude. She has been their rescuer, fighting and winning against the forces of evil, all by herself.

There is the requisite touchingly emotional reunion between mother and son, but then Valka reveals that she could have returned, but chose not to because at the time her husband Stoic, the chief, believed that dragons were the enemy and was intent on wiping them out. Valka knew that dragons were sensitive souls, and gave up everything to devote her life to saving them.

So this is where it gets interesting. A woman giving up everything, including her husband and her child, for her principles? Women aren’t allowed to do that, are they? Men have done it for centuries and have been applauded for it. Think of all the teary scenes of men leaving their families to go off to battle to defend some principle or the other. Are there any recriminations? Does anybody say “What is he thinking leaving his children? How selfish!” No, we praise the sacrifice and the strength and bravery he shows. But women can’t do this, can they? And if they do, surely they will be punished and be filled with regret and shame, right? (cue Ibsen’s A Doll’s House here).

Then Stoic arrives. He has made one semi-disparaging remark about his missing wife previously (“His mother couldn’t stay in one place for long, either”) reinforcing the image of the missing mother as flighty, irresponsible, and not properly “in her place.” So, when he sees Valka, we expect recriminations, anger, disbelief. Instead, after a pregnant pause, Stoic runs to her, embraces her, and gushes with love for her. There is not a shred of anger, or blame. I cannot tell you how it hit me to see a strong, powerful, not-always-sensitive male figure in a movie—a children’s movie!– showing emotion and not having it depicted as him “giving in” somehow to emotions that he is trying to fight off, or becoming weak in the face of love. There is love, but Stoic is not weak. And neither is Valka. He respects the accomplishments she has made in her absence, and understands. He welcomes her with open arms, and the love story between them gets more and more tender as the movie goes on.

By far my very favorite moment of the movie occurs just after Stoic and Valka’s surprising reunion. The forces of evil are about to attack the sanctuary she has spent her life building. Stoic looks up at the encroaching horde, pauses, looks at Valka and says “What should we do?” She says “Fight!” and they launch into battle.

OK. Wait. What? The big, strong he-man just asked his wife what to do about a situation that is in “his” area of expertise? And then went with her answer unquestioningly? He deferred to her out of respect for her and recognition of something that was her accomplishment alone? With not a shred of resignation or condescension? Whoa. Paradigm shift.

I have not thought about a movie this much in a very long time. And I have not enjoyed a children’s movie in even longer. Children’s movies generally reinforce every gender role stereotype, and reduce people and situations to their very simplest outlines. Yes, we have started to have female main characters, and powerful ones. But if all we do is flip the script, and make the girls powerful at the expense of the boys, what have we gained? In this movie, the power is truly shared, the male and female characters are true equals, and strength can accommodate love and emotion without being diminished.

More of that, please.

 

 

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