The Alchemy of Service - Part 3: Joann Wong! You Are Chinese!

By creatively expanding the concept of the family unit to include the larger world, Joann Wong fueled a lifelong passion for public service. This is the third in a five-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with her. At the end of Part 2, Jo described a six-week trip to China shortly after graduation that changed her relationship to her roots.

S: What had been your relationship to being Chinese American up to that point?

The Beijing YWCA.

The Beijing YWCA.

J: As an adolescent, I fought it. My mom would speak to me in Chinese and I’d say, I’m an American, we should speak English. My mom would lay into me: “Joann Wong! You are Chinese! You look Chinese! When people look at you they see Chinese!” I’d look at her like, OK, whatever, I just don’t want you to yell at me any more. I didn’t get it—what can I say, I was a stupid teenager.

S: What effect did this awakening during the China trip have on you?

J: It was pivotal. When I returned to the States, I was determined to work in the Asian community.

At the YWCA I’d had a chance to work on program evaluation and I’d really liked it. Putting that together with my experience in China, I was inspired by the idea of going back to school to study public health, in particular international health, with a view toward doing program evaluation.

I got into Boston University’s public health school and deferred so I could spend a year in Asia. My idea was to find an NGO where I could work on HIV issues while studying Chinese. A program called Volunteers in Asia placed me in Taipei because China wasn’t open about HIV issues—this was 1993.

I had an uncle who lived just outside Taipei, a half brother of my dad’s from his father’s earlier marriage. I didn’t know him; I’d only learned as an adult that he even existed. The idea of developing our relationship was an added draw.

Receiving a training certificate from Living With Hope

Receiving a training certificate from Living With Hope

Attending a conference in Taipei

Attending a conference in Taipei

In Taipei, I spent mornings studying Chinese and evenings teaching English. In my free time I volunteered at an NGO called Living with Hope, which supported families living with HIV/AIDS. Taiwan was a decade or so behind San Francisco in terms of the fear and misinformation flying around. One of my best friends at the NGO was an activist/organizer named Zhang Wei. Inspired by him and other staff there, I went to my first gay rights protest. I’d been such a goody-goody growing up; I’d never protested before. But somehow in Taipei it made sense to me. Zhang Wei said, You’re weird—you support these things that in our culture are so taboo and stigmatized.

When I came back to the US to attend grad school I experienced an intense case of reverse culture shock. I realized how big and loud Americans are compared to life in Taipei. And Boston was another new environment. But I embraced it. When I’d gotten into school in Boston, I thought, I wonder why God is sending me to Boston. And you know how that turned out—I met Fred there!

Volunteering for the Names Project in Washington, D.C. with partner Fred (left), Fred's brother-in-law (my brother) David, and David's daughter Arielle.

Volunteering for the Names Project in Washington, D.C. with partner Fred (left), Fred's brother-in-law (my brother) David, and David's daughter Arielle.


Much  of my grad school work focused on the connection between HIV infection and domestic violence. In 1996 I volunteered as a Logistics Chair with the Names Project to help with their display of the entire AIDS memorial quilt in Washington, D.C. I was on my feet twelve to fourteen hours a day for the duration of the display. I’ve never been as exhausted as I was then. I remember being in tears by the end of one day because my feet hurt so much; as a grad student living on the cheap, I didn’t buy more comfortable shoes! But somehow the incredible love, compassion and support from thousands of people who came to see the panels carried me through. I also volunteered with the Multicultural AIDS Coalition in Boston and with a shelter for survivors of domestic violence—one of the first in the country tailored to Asian women’s issues.



Next installment: Fireworks and Tears

Back to the Garden - Part 4: Mountain Lion Footprints on the Deck

This is the last in a four-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with the poet Hazel White, about the twenty-year process of writing her book Vigilance Is No Orchard, forthcoming from Nightboat Books. Scroll down for Parts 1–3.

Eighteen Years of Defeat Is a Strange Space

[When we left off with Hazel's story in Part 3 below, she had revised her manuscript yet again and sent it—yet again—to Stephen Motika at Nightboat.] He wrote back after some time. He didn’t like the changes. But he didn’t out-and-out reject the work.

Six months went by. One day I pulled out the manuscript again. I cut a third of the quotes and embedded the remainder more carefully in the manuscript. I sent it back to Stephen and wrote something like, “I’m not certain that I’ve fixed anything. If you could let me know your decision by Sunday I’d appreciate it. If the answer is no, I completely understand.” I almost wanted a rejection. There were many times during the whole process when I wondered if I were mentally ill.  Eighteen years of defeat is a strange space.

Stephen wrote back and said he loved the rewrite. He had a lot of praise for it. But he also didn’t come right out and say he’d publish it.

I went to Brooklyn in the fall of 2016 and met him for breakfast. I was grateful that he had spent so much time on my manuscript and I was also nervous he might still be thinking it wasn’t done yet. I said hesitantly, Stephen, is it yes or no? He said, Yes. He said, Sorry, in my feedback I’ve been harsh on you. I said, That’s true. We laughed. He knows a lot about landscape architecture and admires Isabelle’s work, so he cared about this book. I’m of course very grateful now.


Mountain Lion Footprints on the Deck

I’ve thought a lot about why this project took twenty years. I’ve come to understand that as an English person, I wasn’t writing about a Southern California landscape from the perspective of someone raised here. I had to take up habitation in a foreign aesthetic. It’s very hard to have lost one’s original place. It’s even harder to write about that. Yet I felt I might never encounter a more mysterious or necessary subject. So what choice did I have? I had to address that desperate resettling.

I also think I was jealous of Isabelle’s power as an exquisitely intuitive maker. I wanted to write as powerfully as she created gardens. The project became finish-able when I realized I would always fail to fully get the experience on the page; that instead, I needed to allow the failure to enter the work, become part of it.

A third challenge to completing the work was my guilt that I was making an experimental poetry book, not the gloriously successful coffee table book Isabelle and I had originally envisioned.

But about six years ago I realized Isabelle wasn’t holding a grudge. Around that time she arranged for me to stay in the guest house at the garden she had created for Lillian Lovelace. The Lovelace garden features a pool with boulders in it, set under oaks, with a teahouse at its edge. It’s that placement of the human-made lines and the wild lines I described earlier, that reduces me to a noodle. I stayed in the teahouse for three days and nights. I swam in the ocean and in mountain creeks. I slept with the door open and in the mornings there were mountain-lion footprints on the deck. I wrote several poems.

Blog #10 - Photo Hazel White Part 4 - Lovelace teahouse and pool.png

Isabelle always knew I was more of a writer than I knew. She told me early on to stop calling myself a garden writer. She said I was an artist and a real thinker. By the time the book was finished, she had come to see me as being more true to myself as an artist than perhaps she’d been to her artist self during that time. So in the end, she’s glad it ended up how it did.

And so am I.

Back to the Garden - Part 3: "You're a Good Egg—Happy Easter"

This is the third in a four-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with the poet Hazel White, about the twenty-year process of writing her book Vigilance Is No Orchard, forthcoming from Nightboat Books. Scroll down for Parts 1 and 2.

Put the Relationship on the Page

In 2005, at California College of the Arts, the main feedback on my attempts to write about Isabelle and the garden was that my text lacked any sense of our relationship. I showed ten pages to the poet Leslie Scalapino. She hated it and spent an hour telling me in detail what was wrong with it. I agreed.

I joined a writing group and everyone said, We think you should put your relationship with Isabelle on the page.

Years later, when I had 60 pages written, I worked with the poet Rusty Morrison privately for a few sessions. She had a lot of critique. The title had the word shelter in it, but she wasn’t buying that the book was really about shelter. She thought that that word, that concept, was a safe placeholder. She said something about how the image of the garden “owned me and disowned me.” She encouraged me to take more risks with the whole manuscript.

I had thought it was almost done, so I was a bit shocked. And scared about taking those risks. I went to England. After a few months I gathered up the courage to read through all of Rusty’s written comments. Her observations felt completely right. But what she was suggesting—writing about what wasn’t sheltering me, of being lost over and over again in that image—seemed impossible. I realized that right from the beginning I’d clung to the topic of shelter because it was something I felt confident about and comfortable with. Rusty said, Take it out.

I needed to let everything go and write the messiness, make myself more lost!


I produced another version. I put everything I had into it. I met with Rusty again and this time she seemed to think I’d succeeded, or done well enough.

So I sent it out to poetry competitions. It was a finalist for both the Fence Books Ottoline Prize, chosen by Brenda Hillman, and the National Poetry Series. It seemed only a matter of time, I prayed, before it would be picked up by a publisher. I hoped I was done.

You’re a Good Egg—Happy Easter

Feeling more confident than I had in years, I sent the manuscript to Nightboat Books. The publisher, Stephen Motika, read it and said, I’m interested in your relationship with Isabelle and I don’t see it on the page.

I honestly didn’t think I could do anything more about it. I came to a grinding halt.

One day several months into my despair, I felt a different kind of energy—a little cocky, a little devil-may-care. I walked to the filing cabinet and took out a file overflowing with correspondence from Isabelle to me. Birthday cards, holiday cards, notes I had saved. With a kind of weird, wild boldness I thought, I’ll give them this relationship. Flipping through the file I started writing things like, “You’re a Good Egg—Happy Easter.”


I should mention that during these years I’d become a close friend of Isabelle’s, in spite of the fact that I’d failed to publish a book about her and the garden I was so obsessed with. She’d gotten married—in that same garden. I’d attended the wedding, even helped her dress for the ceremony. In my maniacal writing fit, I included details about how I helped her that day with her corset and shoes. I produced about eight pages of quotes and inserted them into the manuscript.

I sent it off to Stephen. I was just waiting for him to reject it.

Next Installment: Mountain Lion Footprints on the Deck



Back to the Garden - Part 2: "A Pretty Big Failure"

This is the second in a four-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with the poet Hazel White, about the twenty-year process of writing her book Vigilance Is No Orchard, forthcoming from Nightboat Books. Scroll down for Part 1.

A Pretty Big Failure

Isabelle had a show at the UC Santa Barbara Art Museum. I wrote a catalog essay for it. A publisher of some note came to the show, became wildly interested in her work, and wanted to publish a series of books on her. Later, I had a verbal contract with the publisher to write one of the books, but due to an economic downturn in publishing, the project fell through.

Hazel with Isabelle Greene

Hazel with Isabelle Greene

Exhibit catalog for Isabelle's show at the UC Santa Barbara Art Museum

Exhibit catalog for Isabelle's show at the UC Santa Barbara Art Museum

At another point, my partner agreed I could take a year off from earning income to write a book about Isabelle. At the end of the year, with nothing much written and feeling miserable, I got brave and contacted the top agent for landscape books in New York—office on 5th Avenue, the works. She was interested but thought Isabelle wasn’t sufficiently well known to warrant an entire book just about her. The agent wanted me to write a book about Isabelle and another landscape architect. I turned her down; it didn’t feel possible to compromise. I’m sure she was very surprised.

Then I decided that in order to write the book I needed to attend a Master of Fine Arts writing program. I got into the MFA program at California College of the Arts. At the end of the first semester, a professor told me that she didn’t think I could write the book about Isabelle’s garden for probably five years. I went home and cried.

By the second semester, my writing had broken down completely. I could no longer write a linear sentence. Friends were telling me I should drop the book idea. It was looking like a pretty big failure. I suppose the breakdown in sentences was related to my emotional state. Something had to break.

At that point I took a course called “Hybrid Forms” taught by the poet Kathleen Fraser. Being a good girl and following her directions, I produced these short condensed pieces in response to her exercise prompts. She called them poems. I was terrified—I didn’t want them to be called poems. I couldn’t face my inability to write sentences anymore. I made a valiant attempt to get the hell out of this huge discomfort and transfer to the Visual and Critical Studies program, but wasn’t able to.

I had grown up in a working-class family. I’d argued my way to college based on the expectation that I’d make money. So writing poetry felt like a crisis. Yet I could no longer write anything else.

Hazel as a child (Hazel's on the right)

Hazel as a child (Hazel's on the right)

Hazel as a teen, on a farm in the southwest of England, where she grew up

Hazel as a teen, on a farm in the southwest of England, where she grew up

A couple years after receiving my MFA, I wrote my first poetry book, Peril as Architectural Enrichment, in the space of about four months. It was published by Kelsey Street Press in 2011. It dealt with landscape architecture—but wasn’t about Isabelle and her garden. I felt guilty. I had accrued 70 hours of interviews with Isabelle yet I had been unable to produce anything out of all that material.

Next Installment: You're a Good EggHappy Easter


Back to the Garden - Part 1: "Aesthetic Shock"

This is the first in a four-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with the poet Hazel White, about the twenty-year process of writing her book Vigilance Is No Orchard, forthcoming from Nightboat Books. It’s a story of intense commitment to carrying out a creative vision no matter how challenging the process.

Aesthetic Shock

I started out as a freelance writer, writing primarily about landscape architecture and gardening. I have loved poetry since childhood, but I always had this thought running through my head: “Poetry is the hardest thing in the world; I’m going nowhere near it.”

One day twenty years ago, I turned a page in a magazine and saw a photograph of an amazing garden. It was an aesthetic shock. I felt physically jolted. I knew instantaneously that I would do whatever was required to stand in that garden.

I had long believed that our most essential experience of place or space is about shelter and view. Now I think the maker of the garden, landscape architect Isabelle Greene, had triggered my almost paranormal experience through an exquisite manipulation of those two elements. The garden sits in a tight canyon; a series of freeform terraces step down the hill.

I thought that if I could just stand in that garden, I would understand it.

The Valentine Garden, designed by landscape architect Isabelle Greene

The Valentine Garden, designed by landscape architect Isabelle Greene

Within 24 hours I’d called Isabelle Greene at her Santa Barbara office. Too shy to say, “I’ve had an aesthetic shock,” I presented myself as a garden writer and explained that I was writing books for Chronicle Books on garden design and used that as an excuse to ask if I could come see her work.

She asked why I was writing gardening books. I said I wanted to teach ordinary gardeners what professional landscape architects know about space. I’d taken a lot of landscape architecture classes at UC Berkeley Extension and had read a lot about  the philosophy of space. She said she didn’t think this was something that could be taught. And she wasn’t compelled enough by my story to meet me or let me see the famous garden she had made for Carol Valentine, in Montecito.

Years later, when I told her the truth, she said, My god, if you’d just said so, I would have gotten you into that garden immediately. So I had shot myself in the foot by not being honest.

Access to the Garden

Each year for the next four years, while I was writing other books in the Chronicle garden design series, I called her assistant and asked if I could come down and see some gardens and maybe meet with Isabelle. I was always told, “She’s busy, but you’re welcome to come see some of her work.”

In Year Four, I called the assistant as usual. This time I suggested that if Isabelle had a favorite restaurant, I’d be happy to take her to dinner. That approach broke through! I went down there and we met for dinner. Within five minutes we were talking about line and form and whose work we loved. It was immediately obvious that we were both crazy about landscape.

Hazel White

Hazel White

She explained to me that the inspiration for the Valentine garden—her most famous creation—came from aerial views of the California landscape. She was particularly interested in the straight lines of fields and how they get interrupted by a creek or a river or foothills. She was interested in that meeting of a strong, human-made line against a natural line. The garden photograph I’d seen had the most extraordinary resonance with aerial photos of landscapes. But in the view in the photograph, you’re actually only looking down thirty feet. Isabelle had manipulated the scale such that the viewer sees terraces that are large in themselves, but are a miniaturization of the much larger landscape you’d see from a plane.

She finally arranged for me to see the garden.

All those years, I had been confident that once I was standing there I would know the particular power of that garden. I thought back then that I could pretty much understand and write about any landscape architecture using a set of concepts I’d become familiar with. I had been quite successful doing so, getting my work published in the London Telegraph Sunday magazine and so on.

Standing in the garden, I felt a strange alertness, a fizziness in my nervous system—yet I couldn’t figure out what was producing the effect. It would be a long time before I was capable of writing anything sufficient about this garden.

Next installment: "A Pretty Big Failure"


Goodbye Self-esteem, Hello Self-compassion – Part 3: Real Love

In my last post I argued that focusing on self-esteem is an unhelpful approach to feeling good. I leaned heavily on the ideas of Kristin Neff in that post and will in this one too. Neff combines insights gained from meditation retreats with her background as a research psychologist to investigate and share the benefits of self-compassion. Her book on the subject offers a clear distinction between self-compassion and self-esteem, one that I think can be of tremendous service in helping people better support their own and others’ well-being.

Shifting our paradigm from self-esteem to self-compassion isn't a day's work. But like Gertrude Stein, we can begin, again and again.

Shifting our paradigm from self-esteem to self-compassion isn't a day's work. But like Gertrude Stein, we can begin, again and again.

As Neff points out, self-esteem isn’t a good way to go because it’s based on judgemental thinking, which will never capture the miracle of our unfolding lives. Self-esteem is like a narrow, barren ledge that’s all too easy to topple off. That is, unless you’re a flaming narcissist. But in that case, friends would soon sicken from your constant self-involvement and withdraw from you—a different kind of barren ledge. One I guess you’d never fall from since you’d be so solidly convinced of your own greatness. But you’d still be lonely, right? And maybe start sending out barely coherent, poorly informed, offensive and downright scary tweets at 3am. Or whatever.

Neff makes the case that self-compassion is a more effective motivator than self-esteem because “its driving force is love not fear.” (SC 165) In her view, self-compassion comprises kindness toward ourselves, an awareness of our shared humanity, and mindful presence. Instead of puffing ourselves up by telling ourselves how wonderful we are, or dragging ourselves through the mud because we didn’t live up to our expectations, we’re with ourselves, the way a friend or a loving parent would be. When something goes badly in our life, instead of either denying it or pummeling ourselves, we acknowledge what happened and the pain we feel, remind ourselves that mistakes happen and are part of what make us part of the human community, and think about how we can do better next time.

Neff and others have conducted a number of studies that prove the efficacy of self-compassion. In one, she and researcher Roos Vonk proved that self-compassion was associated with steadier feelings of self-worth over time than self-esteem. Self-compassion was also found to be more independent of particular outcomes such as social approval. And it was associated with less of what the Buddhists call “comparing mind,” in which we constantly measure ourselves against others’ achievements and advantages.

Like Neff, I’ve spent years attending meditation retreats stressing the importance of compassion toward self and others. So I’m right there with her when she gets all spiritual and writes, “When we’re mainly filtering our experience through the ego, constantly trying to improve or maintain our high self-esteem, we’re denying ourselves the thing we actually want most. To be accepted as we are, an integral part of something much greater than our small selves. Unbounded. Immeasurable. Free.” (SC 158)

Shifting the paradigm to self-compassion isn’t easy, because our society is so oriented toward its sorry substitute, self-inflation. But with patience and practice, we can begin. And begin again, and yet again, like Gertrude Stein did. At every faulty tumble, every flash of envy, pausing to give ourselves real love.

Goodbye Self-esteem, Hello Self-compassion – Part 2: Mirror, Mirror

So just to review, self-esteem is “a confidence and satisfaction in oneself.” On the face of it, that sounds like an ideal way to be, right? It certainly aligns with Western culture’s emphasis on competition and individuality. It’s a cutthroat world (so the thinking goes); you’d best give yourself a pep talk in front of the mirror each morning about all your fabulous qualities so you can go out there and beat everyone else at whatever game you’re playing. Eat instead of getting eaten.

The problem, as Kristin Neff explains in her book Self: Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, is that on both the macro and micro levels, our nation’s obsession with self-esteem has let us down.

On the macro level, there’s the correlation I mentioned earlier between the widespread emphasis on raising self-esteem and an increase in narcissism, or egocentrism. Mass egocentrism unravels the social fabric—if we’re busy staring at our reflections, we’re not available to connect to and support one another. Actually it’s even worse than that—narcissistic people tend to get mean when their inflated sense of themselves is punctured. Egocentrism also contributes to a surreal atmosphere in which many people are more impressed with themselves—and convinced that others are too—than is actually the case.

Another serious problem resulting from our obsession with self-esteem is grade inflation, which actually disinhibits striving to do one’s best. American students lag behind students from other countries in most ways, yet operate under the delusion that they’re the brightest on the planet—and when a kid gets an A for lifting her pinky finger, who can blame her?

A third problem with wide implications is that self-esteem is strongly influenced by the judgments of strangers. That means we’re allowing people who don’t know us at all to determine our self-worth. Our culture’s emphasis on self-esteem aligns with the high value we place on individuality—yet ironically, self-esteem leads us to want to fit in. And that makes us vulnerable to forces investing vast resources in figuring out how to shape our preferences and behaviors in a creepy sci-fi way.

Self-esteem disappoints on the individual, subjective level as well. One cause for this has to do with the fact that self-esteem tends to be tied to things we value. If I’m driven by self-esteem, I’m motivated to work on endeavors I care about and avoid ones I don’t. But there might be some things I don’t care about that would be good to work on anyway, like getting good grades or being on time. In this way, self-esteem can limit me. On the flip side, I might waste my time struggling to achieve something I value but that I’m not suited to, like being a supermodel. (Although I’m sure if I really decided to become a supermodel I could do so … this is all about moi, right?)

Because self-esteem is dependent on external measures, it keeps us on a roller coaster of elation and dejection, depending on the feedback of others and on how well we achieve our goals. The successes we experience can become addictive—when I achieve something, I get a rush of good feeling, which pushes me to strive in order to replicate the rush. No time to smell the roses in this scenario.

People with inflated self-esteem often end up lonely. Others may be initially attracted to a narcissist only to realize that the individual doesn’t really have energy for them (except to the extent that he tries to keep them around to reflect back his greatness).

Lastly, self-esteem is based on narrow, static self-judgements, not a rich, nuanced appreciation of our constantly evolving nature. We radically shrink our perceptions of ourselves and reality when we depend on self-esteem to feel good.

Are you sufficiently primed to hear about self-compassion and why it's so preferable? Coming up in Part 3.

Goodbye Self-esteem, Hello Self-compassion – Part 1: Bashing Vasco

In case you haven’t heard, self-esteem is out, and self-compassion is in. The science supports this development and so do I.

Merriam-Webster defines self-esteem as “a confidence and satisfaction in oneself.” Self-esteem got a big boost in the '80s when California State Senator John Vasconcellos created his now infamous task force to promote it. A repressed Catholic who worked hard to heal himself through therapy and self-help books, Vasconcellos came to believe that inculcating high self-esteem in everyone from children to gang members would heal many of the ills that ail society.

In spite of all that self-healing, he screwed up. As author Will Storr documents in The Guardian, Vasconcellos recruited university scientists to research the benefits of self-esteem, but the results of the study were mixed at best. “Vasco” quashed the negative findings, twisting and exaggerating the positive ones. He did this so successfully (thanks to his hard-earned self-esteem!) that he won over everyone from Bill Clinton to Oprah Winfrey and helped influence a few decades of misguided efforts on the part of school administrators, law enforcement officials, CEOs, parents, and others to boost the population’s self-esteem. Gold stars were handed out liberally, regardless of actual performance.

Photo by MarkBernard/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by MarkBernard/iStock / Getty Images

Speaking of liberals, Storr points out that leftie Vasconcellos’ focus on self-esteem fed right into the neoliberal agenda of Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, pitting puffed-up selves against one another other in the alienating and aggressive ‘80s race of my Me against yours.

A race that hasn’t stopped, BTW. Narcissism in Western culture is on the rise. And thanks to the ubiquitous smartphone, the Me Generation has morphed into the Selfie Generation. I love tech like you do, people, but I don’t love how it has fed our ever-greater tendency toward self-absorption. (That’s “greater” as in “worse and worse,” not “greater” as in “better and better.”)

But wait. I remember sitting around a table in the mid-80s with fellow administrators of nonprofit programs for underserved kids. We’d just gotten news about Vasconcellos’ project. And we were thrilled. We were doing all we could to help kids muster the inner resources to go up against incredible odds, to contribute and succeed. Vascencellos was clearly on the same page.

And wait. Speaking of pages, I remember sitting around a living room in the mid-80s with my book group discussing Women & Self-Esteem by Linda Tshirhart Sanford and Mary Ellen Donovan. We were young, earnest, insecure women trying to gather the courage to speak up, set high goals. We treasured the book’s support and tips.

I’m all for taking Vasconcellos (who died in 2014 at the age of 82) to task for his task-force sins. And in my next post I’ll talk about the distinction between self-esteem and self-compassion, and why it’s way better to shoot for the latter. But for now I’ll simply point out: Yes, he was misguided and he lied and he contributed mightily to further shredding our social fabric. I’m unhappy about that. But did Vasco’s passion for self-healing contribute to the ongoing scientific study of self-worth and the growing cultural awareness that the way we treat ourselves is integrally related to how we treat others?

I’m guessing the answer is yes.

This Thing I Found: Teens Teach Us How to See Freshly

Recently I returned to an earlier incarnation, teaching a couple poetry classes at the high school in New York Mills, a town in upstate Minnesota where I've just completed a writing residency. I taught poetry pretty intensively for a number of years but that was a while ago. I loved re-entering “the classroom.” (As if it’s the same classroom, wherever one is—and that’s true, in a certain way—and not, in others. But I digress.).

Kasey Wacker, the teacher, had informed me that her 11th graders had all written poems, but not many, and not in quite a while. I chose a lesson built around an excerpt from Wallace Stevens’ poem “Someone Puts a Pineapple Together.”

Like his “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” each line in this poem asks the reader to look at a pineapple in an entirely new way.  The second stanza, for example, reads:

4. The sea is sprouting upward out of rocks.

5. The symbol of feasts and of oblivion . . .

6. White sky, pink sun, trees on a distant peak.

As I held a pineapple aloft, we discussed Stevens’ strategies for waking up our powers of perception. Not only does Stevens give us a new image in each numbered line; he also changes up the syntax (a whole sentence followed by two fragments), the use of punctuation, the music of the language, the scale (from a rock to a mountain), and the type of figurative language employed (metaphoric in lines 4 and 6; symbolism in line 5). The vocabulary too is full of surprises, like the word “sprouting” where you’d expect “spouting”—so you get the spouting action of water but also the sense that the water is alive, growing up out of the rocks.

And that’s just one stanza!

I then gave the students each their own fruit or vegetable and asked them to employ some of Stevens’ strategies to write their own poems. With remarkably little experience in the genre, they dove right in.

My coachy takeaway? Find some teenagers to hang around with. They are coming into their full power as interesting individuals with big brains. Yet their curiosity and permeability can remind us older humans to break out of our ruts and responsibilities, give ourselves fully to life, receiving life’s goodies in return.

Kasey sent me all 40 poems afterward. Part of me wants to publish all 40. Instead, I'll tantalize you with a smattering of the great work Kasey's students did (see below). Even in this sample there's a range of forms and tones—enjoy!

What (brussels sprout)

Round like a watermelon, yet small.

The fresh smell, a Sunday morning in May.

Each layer barely over the next.


Like the veins in a heart.

They go towards the center.

The whole is nothing without the center.

The center is irrelevant without the whole.


Each layer a limb, each piece a muscle.

With more power in than out, the body develops.

One day it stops, and the Sunday morning turns to Monday.  —Jake


This Thing I Found (brussels sprout)

Green and round,

this thing I found.

With veiny leaves,

and no fleas.              —Maddie


The Things You Can See  (small yellow pepper)

1.  The bulb hung alone on the tree.

2.  The tiny pot held the most beautiful upside down flower.

3.  Would they ever pull the sword out of the stone?

4.  Can you hear that bell . . .

5.  Look! That bird has no legs.

6.  The mushroom was covered in bumps.                        —Kaitlyn Dykhoff


A Cherry Pulled Apart (ground cherry)

1.   The dark green rivers within

2.   The tail of the taut mouse slips away

3.   An egg inside a frail shell


4.   Wrinkling away as new arrives within

5.   The brightness within the dark

6.   Veins of the animal show through battered skin


7.    A hut of darkness with life within

8.   The old man hardened with kindness in his soul



Poem (reaper pepper)

The wrinkled red reaper is as hot as the summer

days    gives you chills like the winter nights.

Red as blood, vivid as a memory, exotic as a bird.

Its thin hide reveals the tasty beauty inside.


At Peace (potato)

The bird, plump and bald

perches; bathing in the light,

in a deep slumber.


The Hand (ginger)

1   From the swallows of the tomb

2   came the hand

3   crawling creepily, steadily

4   it emerged

5   into the dawn, the light

6   it wrinkled, decaying

7   twisted, crisped, squirming

8   dying in the rays

9   from the bitter son

10 so back to the swallows

11 it retreated

12 sobbing, anguished, lifeless

13 gone

Dream On - Part 5: A Dream Analysis Technique (cont.)

Hey, dreamer, in my last post I addressed three of the six basic principles you need to grok dreams the Gestalt way:

  • Everything in the dream is an aspect of the dreamer
  • The dreamer reenacts the dream in the here-and-now
  • The dreamer sticks to the scenario of the dream, instead of generalizing based on waking life

In this post we'll look at the remaining three principles :

  • The parts that are not “I” are emerging consciousness
  • Dreams are embodied consciousness
  • Only the dreamer can discover the dream’s meaning

Zooming in a bit closer:

The parts that are not “I” are emerging consciousness: The elements of the dream that are not the “I” are seen in Gestalt theory as emerging consciousness—present but not quite ready to be “owned” by the dreamer. By inhabiting the point of view of each element in turn, the individual sees the dream scenario from new perspectives that often yield surprising insights. (Even elements that seem destructive or in some way unacceptable from the perspective of the “I” can have revelatory messages when inhabited in the retelling. A tornado might be seen as terrifying by the “I,” but when inhabited, can reveal excitement.) The dreamer becomes conscious of what is on the edge of consciousness—so this is a growth experience, custom-designed for this individual at this point in her development by her own deeper self. According to Kenneth Meyer,

The point of dream work is not necessarily to discover something totally new, but to sharpen the existential dilemmas we find ourselves in, to strip away the details and circumstances that mute the felt-sense of our situations.


Dreams are embodied consciousness: Gestalt theory views dreams as embodied consciousness. Our dreams aren’t abstract thoughts—they are bodily metaphors. A person might dream of swimming in a pool and finding all the water draining out, leaving him sitting alone at the bottom of the cold, empty pool; this might be pointing to the way he has felt “let down” by others in real life, and to a “sinking” feeling he felt when he realized he was being “let down.” Perhaps when this experience occurred in real life, he did not directly deal with it. His dream shows up to give him a chance to face this “unfinished business” (a term coined by Gestalt theorists).

Note that Gestalt theorists see metaphors not as the results of verbal thinking, but as the source of language. The dream comes first; then we describe it in language. This accords with the perspective of linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By:

Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish—a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.

Only the dreamer can discover the dream’s meaning: Gestalt theorists believe that only the individual can discover the meaning of his or her dream. In a longer dream workshop we would extend this this to include a practice whereby an individual whose dream is up for discussion can decide whether or not to invite group members to offer observations using the sentence frame “If this were my dream.” This frame, along with other discussion guidelines, ensure safety by making it clear that the individual is the owner of the dream and its meaning, and keeps us from giving advice. However, for today, we will not offer our own observations of others’ dreams.

In my next post, I'll demonstrate Gestalt dream analysis using one of my own dreams.

Agnes Martin: A Singular Career

After years of noticing references to the painter Agnes Martin in the work of other poets, I finally encountered her work in spades at the Guggenheim retrospective on view through January 11, 2017.

I knew little about Martin—partly my own failing and partly, I’m guessing, due to the short shrift she got for a long time. Why was she overlooked? Probably a combo of several factors including her gender, her resistance to the “star-making machinery” many artists embrace, and the fact that her work hasn’t translated very well online (that’s changing, though, thanks to improved video tech).

So I didn’t know that most of her works are paintings of lines and grids. Nor that she strove to provide viewers with states of happiness and joy, a sense of expansive, ego-emptied beauty such as we experience in nature. She gave some of her paintings names like “I Love the Whole World” and “Lovely Life.”

Cheesy titles, right? And how do they go with her restrained, abstract works? And while we’re questioning, how can she think grids are like nature?

These dilemmas slowly dissolve as you stare at painting after painting, experiencing the marked similarities and subtle differences between them. Sometimes you select one work for deeper communion, moving close up to see the meticulously drawn pencil lines and precisely applied paint, then further away till the lines fade like details disappearing out a window as a plane ascends. Through patient engagement (a mere smidge of the patience Martin demonstrated in creating this body of work) you start to experience a sense of meditative peace.

You begin to reflect (or I did) that ocean waves are so similar, arriving one after another, yet no two are the same. That an orchid or an oak has many systematic, predictable features, yet each can pull you into its particular universe. That there’s something about the necessarily imperfect striving for perfect form that feeds the human soul. You start to feel gratitude for this break from the daily grind of trying to be an important somebody, for the careful, deliberate markings made by this earnest, hardworking human, Agnes Martin.

There are so many facts about Martin and her creative process that inspire me as a poet and that I will no doubt draw on over time to support my clients in my work as a Life & Professional Coach. For example:

She suffered enormously (an emotionally abusive mother; paranoid schizophrenia replete with auditory hallucinations, spells of depression, and catatonic trances; shock treatment). But she found ways to cope. And to create.

She didn’t let others define her (the Minimalists wanted to claim her; she resisted).

She abjured fame.

As a queer woman in a male-dominated art world she overcame incredible odds to develop a successful career. (And she did that while abjuring fame!)

She was quirky as hell. (She claimed to remember the exact moment of her birth. She saw visions. She abruptly stopped painting for several years in the middle of her career; then resumed and proceeded at full tilt.)

She was a late bloomer (started painting at age 30) and a cool elder (painted her last work at age 92).

But the main thing is the work, and what it transmits, moving from deep inside Martin’s sensitive, introverted practice all the way over to now, to us.