National Poetry Month: Two Autumn Skies

Wren on April 8th, 2017

Autumn Sky Poetry Daily is one of several sites that specialize in offering a new poem every day, or nearly so. I like that the editor, Christine Klocek-Lim, follows the poem with an “editor’s note,” a few thoughts on the strengths of the work, what drew her to select that poem out of the pile of submissions. Such comments from an editor are nice for readers and poets. Unlike most publications, Autumn Sky is open to previously published poems. For a poet, this can bring tested work to a larger audience.

My poem, Random John Fox, appeared on Autumn Sky in November. I wrote the first draft when my friend John was hospitalized with deadly meningitis. But in rewrites  years later I avoided the narrative story of John, who survived and recently welcomed his second child. Instead, my goal was to reflect on that time of not knowing–when a critically ill or injured person could turn either way. I portraited the randomness of fate as experienced by those in waiting. What do the specifics of a person’s life mean when a virus, car crash or drone strike can kill? Life means everything to the living and those left behind. And like Make Soup, You Said, my poems often try to make sense when life’s large random elements bring death.

I read that death is the most popular poem topic. I’m not sure if it’s true, but the article I read makes the point that if a writer takes on a universally covered topic like death, they need to bring something surprising and new to the discussion or treat the subject in a dramatically creative new way. I must contribute something in writing about loss and death, because editors do pick my grief poems.

Broom Zen was first published in Winamop, then appeared in Autumn Sky Poetry Daily in March. I believe it may be included in a special upcoming Green Revolution, a memorial edition to Charles Curtiss, my friend who sweeps his way through his own grief in this poem. He himself died last year. I wrote this early in my time at Heathcote Community. Most of my poetry was written in this wonderful natural, communal setting. Broom Zen was an early effort at rhythm and economy. I was also walking a line with narrative and repetition, trying to find my poetic voice while giving my reader enough information for my intended emotional impact.

People who know John and Charles pick up on details in the poems that make them joyful portraits of these friends. My hope is that readers can access deeper layers of broader meaning and connect with their own experiences of loss. Thank you, Christine and Autumn Sky Daily for accepting my work!

–WT

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Five:2:One Magazine asked for my batshit crazy submissions. Okay. Early on in my quest to rack up publishing points, I came upon Five2One. Their site has a section for micro poetry, which they apparently define loosely. I was looking for corners where my poems might find a niche. These editors were looking for the wild, reckless, unhinged stuff. My cover letter went like this:

In the spirit of the literary freakshow, I’m flinging the five poems listed below for your consideration. You asked for it; I don’t usually inflict Lobster-Eating Bogeyman on anyone. I didn’t realize micro poetry was a thing or that I was doing it, but here goes! This is a simultaneous submission. I will notify you immediately if any of these poems is accepted elsewhere.

They quickly got back to me, and with a letter that began, “Yo, Wren,” they scooped up all five poems I’d sent. No stuffy dignity here.

When people tell me they don’t understand poetry, I respond that they’re asking the wrong questions. They expect a poem to tell them a story, make them feel fluffy or know the presence of God. Poetry appreciation in schools is very uneven and fades away far too early. I read my poem, Lobster-Eating Bogeyman to such folks and instead of asking what the poem means, I ask them how it makes them feel. There’s no story in LEB, and definitely no fluffy. Universally, people say that it makes them feel disturbed. This is a poem that achieves its goal.  I wrote it during/about a mental health episode, a storm of panic and anxiety. My aim was to portrait, even transmit that feeling. The story of what made me feel that way doesn’t matter to my goal, and I don’t remember it anymore. Telling the story would not have had the same visceral effect.

I walk through the world as a queer woman. That’s automatically a fertility issue for me; I always wanted children. Being queer, I had to go to extra lengths to try for parenthood. Added to that impediment, I’ve had uterine fibroids all of my adult life. I walk through the world as a person who wanted children, never had them, and, for most of my life, I taught children. Place me at the barbecue, sitting in circles of parents talking about their children. Endlessly. The difference is Apparent.

I aim to state specifics in my poems. Okay, tree. But what kind of tree? My poems are heavy on concrete images. Yet I want readers to relate, to have a universal human experience. That was a challenge in my poem, Simile, because, honestly, I was writing about my grief at the loss of my pet duck, Lilith. I decided to go with human images in this study of grief. This poem also plays with the concepts of simile and metaphor as ways of describing experiences like grief. Of course, since I was in film school at the time, it wraps with a Hollywood reference.

While Jean Doesn’t Write started out as a playful, private nudge to a friend. First it has science fiction imagery that filled my brain then. But then I turn it to political and personal prods to goad my friend, who was distracted from her writing by a demanding job. Now, years later, who can say which path was best for her. I have my own serious doubts that this poetry thing has any relevance or power to effect change. Anyway, I had to try…

White Paper Poetree is the second poem I tried to write recently, getting back to writing while I struggle with brain fog and other ailments. My process is different, few sweeping inspirations, just hacking fits of stabbing at paper. I guess that’s what got me writing about the paper, and of course, even as I struggle with my own impairments, I get in touch with my privilege. I manage a lot of word play, starting with the title. I use rhythm and line breaks. Think of “flipping ocean waves and seeping petrol” as a parallel to the paper and ink. I comment on the structure of information in our society, how we are shielded from the view of, the knowledge of atrocities like slavery, as we blithely benefit every day. Oh, and, “smacked by atmosphere,” you’re welcome.

I had my break from writing due to illness at a time when I was starting to shift from a lot of navel gazing topics to looking out at the world. I am interested to see if that shift is noticeable as I attempt more new writing.

Thanks for playing along. More coming soon!

–WT

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Issue 82 of Burningword Literary Journal, which includes my poem, The Thud of Escapement, is live on their site and also available for sale in print and digital formats.

The Thud of Escapement is one of my watch poems. I visited the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania. I could fill several posts just exploring the interesting collections there. In terms of my poetry, I was inspired by the worlds of gears and precision within the watches and clocks. This became a great image for exploring a conflict I was having at the time. It gave me language, such as the delicious watch word, escapement, to neutralize my hurt of the moment. A common theme in my poetry is to get out of ego and take a larger view, in which one’s personal drama is insignificant to the forces around. I think of this as a repeating micro/macro device in my work. Usually, it compares human upset to the grand scale of nature. This time, it’s the mechanical detachment of watches!

Antiphon Poetry Magazine in the UK published another of my micro/macro poems, April in Myth. As I usually do, I gave my hot tub date a pseudonym for the poem. I like that I call her April but she’s been around too long to embody any flowery stereotype of spring. Contrast her youthful name to the scale of time in the poem, and the theme of extinction. Again, a momentary upset leads me to ponder insignificance in the grandness of time, and even a view of human extinction. There are hints at climate change mixed in with love found and lost.

Addah Belle’s Pocket Watch is proof that I’m not a good judge of my writing. I sat on this one for years because I felt it was too narrative. I don’t like much narration in poetry, just as my own preference. Some writers pull it off brilliantly, and it has its place in history. But I dislike it. Finally I posted it in an online critique group to get pointers on where I should start revisions. Readers loved it as is. (On the other side of the coin, I’m likely to be in love with a poem that readers tear to shreds. Not a good judge of my own writing.) The Bangalore Review was the first publication I sent it to and they got back to me the next day, accepting it for publication. Not a good judge…

Addah Belle, Auntie to me, was my maternal grandmother’s sister. Long after Auntie had died, Granny gave me Auntie’s old pocket watch. Long after Granny died, Mom and I found Auntie’s letters and the story unfolded. Auntie had been my first writing mentor. Yet I had never known her secrets or why she took such an interest in me. My answer to a topic that is narrative is to pick a different medium other than poetry. Along with the poem, I conceived a play about four generations of the women in my family and the secrets they kept. I wrote it to be staged in an old farmhouse that seems to be a giant pocket watch, gears winding in and out like vines.

More another day!

–WT

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Obviously, several of my poems that have been accepted by journals lately are coming live in time for National Poetry Month. I’ll have another herd thundering through in June.

I want to put in a plug for PoetryCircle.com. It features a “front page,” an online journal that features some wonderful and often funky poetry and prose. I will have a poem featured on the front page soon. PoetryCircle.com is also a community of experienced poets and writers behind the front page, who post poems and other work on a number of different private boards for critique. I get useful feedback here that helps me prepare my poems to succeed in the world of literary journals. That said, no community is for everyone. If you only want positive feedback or if your poems are what we call inspirational verse, you won’t be happy here. There are other internet groups for these. But if you want to have your work published, come and take in what the editors and members have to say. Participate in the PoetryCircle.com community!

Driftwood Press includes my poem, The Presence of a Witch, in Volume 4, Issue 2, which is just out! The complete collection of words and art is viewable online. You can also preorder a bound copy, which includes full color art on slick paper. Driftwood likes to go deeper into each contribution. Many of the writers and the artist have been interviewed for the journal, including yours truly! I talk about the genesis of the poem there.

The online journal Halfway Down the Stairs features my poem, Old Shelby, in its current Homeward-themed issue. Old Shelby is one of my short poems that has a lot going on–juxtaposition of the old couple with the young couple, snakes, apples and many Garden of Eden images contrasted with the ice storm, a climate change commentary. It implies the march of generations and our mobile society. All the while, it portraits an old craggy rural character I met in the Ozarks.

In the current issue of Midnight Circus, I have the perfect matching of a poem to a themed journal. This spring themed edition has an introduction that starts, “I don’t like springtime. There, I’ve said it…” These editors were definitely not seeking inspirational verse for their seasonal theme. So the volume leads off with my poem, Thistle and Brilliant, that ends in the line, “Muppets are such liars.” The online version is not live on their site yet, so keep watch. In the meantime, the print version is on Amazon (sorry, abused Amazon workers) and well worth the modest price.  Thistle and Brilliant is another example of my allegorical style, in which I write about a thistle and the temptation to touch something that seems soft but isn’t. More broadly, I’m commenting that we humans never learn, always fall in that same old hole. Then I blame muppets.

More to come! –WT

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Previously published in The Baltimore Review and the poetry anthology Blood and Tears. Upcoming in Avatar Review.

Make Soup, You Said
Soup, By William Adolphe Bourguereau, 1865I’m making a soup
to fill my bowl.
I’m after that carrot of consolation
you dangle.
I would remember
a recipe
uttered
in that season of my childhood
without language.

The three sisters–
corn, beans and squash…
When they hold hands
they can give weight
while they dance and stir,
balanced in a circle chain,
resolved, complete.

If I know the right herbs,
if my flame is humble,
if I stir with the tide,
if I ladle with steadiness,
if I eat with grace,
if I digest with stillness,
I will understand
why you have gone.

I wrote you a letter.
I burnt it,
buried it,
scattered it,
sent it sailing,
nailed it to my bed.

Make soup, you said, nothing is simple.

–Wren Tuatha

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About Make Soup, You Said: Some experiences just can’t be tied up with a bow. I wrote this poem in my process of trying to make sense of the death of my biological father. He had been gone since I was three. As an adult, I learned that he had died several years before after a life of homelessness. Realizing that I needed to nurture myself and that the situation had many ingredients, soup was the perfect metaphor. I intentionally avoided telling his or my story narratively. Instead I preferred to keep the poem general, like a love song on the radio, so the reader can apply it to their loss, their absent person. Nothing is simple. –WT

Editor’s Note: This post will be closed beginning in June, when Make Soup, You Said will appear in Avatar Review.


44 Poems and a Reason to Live

Wren on March 29th, 2017

Last summer I needed meaning. My health has been poor for years and my partner and I stress over bills until we pause from exhaustion. Other than baby goat antics we have little to make us smile. Last summer, I decided to distract myself and hopefully build my ego up a bit by submitting some of my old poems to literary journals. I thought I’d improve my publishing resume so I might get a contract for a full length volume of my poems. This was an old goal of mine that had gotten lost in the drama of leaving community, Occupy touring and rv living.

When I booted up my retired computer to find old forgotten drafts, my poetry had already appeared in print eleven times. Nothing very prestigious, but I had backed away from submitting because it felt like I had proven I could do it. I moved on to other priorities in life–teaching at Heathcote, running my jewelry/fair trade business, learning ZEGG Forum facilitation, exploring intimate relationships. I continued to write poetry but I rarely showed up at open mics anymore. My publishing was limited to the kitchen bulletin board in the Heathcote mill. I assumed I’d come out with that book some day.

About six years ago, my health issues shifted from recurring to permanent. And a new set of symptoms was added to my aches, pains and stiffness. I started to have trouble thinking and processing words and information. My usual process for writing poetry was gone.

So when I started collecting old poems, in various stages of completion, I hadn’t written anything new in years and I assumed this was a complete collection, that I would never write poetry again.

I was taking stock of my life. What had I contributed? Is the world any better because I’ve been in it? If I die soon, what will my life have meant? Legacy. I was looking for my legacy. Yes, there are people who would gather in some room and trade stories of my friendship and earnestness. Let’s admit it; It doesn’t distinguish me much to add my name to the list of people with good intentions.

Since I had written a big pile of poems, I decided to put them out there, to take up my own space. My life was and is extremely bleak. I can’t work and I don’t know if I ever will again. I’m gearing up for possibly my seventh (and most complicated) surgery in a year. Some days, I bleed so heavily it’s not practical to leave the house. I stumble and fall about three times a week. Writing a post like this takes days, even weeks, chipping away during hours when words behave themselves. So as acceptances have come in, my spirits are lifted. Editors are honoring the writer I was. I am thrilled and inspired!

Recently I got an email from The Cafe Review. They were accepting my “pet” poem, Folding Chair, for publication in their next issue. This is the best win yet on several levels. The Cafe Review is a highly regarded publication. I’m honored to be included.

Folding Chair is a personal favorite of mine, not for its subject, but because of the craft I put into it. It’s also been my most controversial poem, not in content, but in structure. Readers love this poem but they fall into two camps: 1) those who want me to ditch the very jarring beginning, and 2) those who beg me not to change a thing. I was corresponding with an editor from another journal about changing the beginning. She was in the first camp and after submitting Folding Chair about fifty times, I was starting to listen to that camp. But when I got the news that a review was excited to publish my original vision of Folding Chair, well, there was dancing and singing. My seven pets and I danced and sang. I can’t imagine what the neighbors thought, but I assume we finished before they got any of it on video.

But The Cafe Review wasn’t finished lifting my spirits. They were also pleased to publish a piece of mine called Cornbread, one of my new attempts. These two bring me up to forty-four poems published, lifetime.

I am back!

Heathcote Cabin Road in Fall

Wren on October 22nd, 2016

Organizing some old writings, I came upon this from eighteen or twenty years ago. Heathcote Community, Maryland:

I don't have a digitized picture of Heidi-Ho, the dog in the passage, so here's Chance.

A walk will clear my mind, align my north and south poles with some psychic axis. Just to lay foot to gravel is to become a child walking safely down the hallway in my mother’s house. As I watch my dog soaking in stimulations, her day speeds up as mine winds down.

I fold down, despite my back, to the various nuts and acorns on the gravel road. I begin a pocketful for the goat. She likes the acorns, before their hats call off. But it’s late in their season and most lie bald, fallen soldiers in random clusters, sleeping silent and just among a roughly equal number of empty acorn hats. Car tires have cracked the bulk of them.

But here in the gravel, among the ones splintered like baby beer barrels, are the survivors, full with the audacity of a late October warm spell. Here, in the road, dozens of acorns are sprouting. Haven’t they heard the one about the seeds in the road versus the seeds in fertile ground? Are they fooled, or am I, into believing a human account? They sprout in might twists, the colors of lime rinds and Thanksgiving cranberries. They lie there, swimming in magical Maryland mica, The gorgeous glitter that penetrates the soil, the stones and my shoes. As I stoop in the road wearing Dorothy’s ruby slippers, how could I doubt that this is a place of endless possibilities?

Happy Halloween,

Wren Tuatha

A Baby Goat Makes Many Things Better

Wren on February 24th, 2016

Levi means "attached."

I’m often taken aback when someone asks me why I have goats. My usual response is to ask why they don’t. This doesn’t get them any closer to understanding the attraction, but do they ask parents why they have children? Children are lots of work, they’re loud and messy, they destroy things, disobey, they eat their weight in stuff that does them little good, they scoff at your authority. Yep. Goats are children and children are goats. Now do you see why it’s a silly question? When you love your children, every challenge and trauma is worth it. You’re in it for the long haul, and even though you have moments of questioning your place in this universe, you wouldn’t trade your kids, human or caprine, for anything.

And so, in these tough times, I am an expectant mother again. I have put a deposit down on a little buckling, Levi, who will come to his forever home in about a month. He will be companion to Ponder, my young doe who has been an only goat all winter.

Levi (front) and his twin sister

This is not the greatest time to add another hungry mouth to our household, which makes it a great time for some baby goat therapy! As we grow our eco-friendly cleaning business, my partner C.T. and I are stressed about money to the point of bleeding out of our hair follicles. The business is growing wonderfully, but not fast enough for our parade of bills. Knowing that we needed to get a companion for Ponder (goats are herd animals and don’t thrive in isolation) I scoured my DVD collection and sold a bagfull to the local thrift store. I put some of my collectibles on Craigslist and started to fundraise to pay bills and to fund a baby goat.

Orphaned, Levi gets milk from other mothers in his herd.

The baby goat therapy began when we visited a herd where some newly weaned bucklings were available for adoption. C.T. had recently had minor surgery and we were visiting these goats on our way to a follow up doctor’s appointment. The available bucklings were nice but I fell in love with twin bottle babies, a male and female, whose mother had died a week after birth. The male was available for adoption after weaning. So a week later I returned and put down a deposit. He is half Pygmy and half Nigerian Dwarf, with interesting Nigerian coloring. Since the gray agouti coloring on the front half of his body makes it look like he’s wearing a denim jacket, I decided to name him Levi.

I am also waiting for a medical procedure so I arranged that the breeder would continue to bottle feed Levi with his twin sister until after my recovery, in a month or so. In the meantime, the baby goat therapy continues as the breeder sends us camera phone pictures of our little Levi.

Ponder was our bottle baby, guarded by a devoted Tonka.

But aren’t we crazy to spend money on yet another animal when we’re behind? Yes. And…Our existing herd members, solo goat Ponder and two Livestock Guard Dogs Dana and Tonka, are restless and acting out because there are no other goats. Their diminished quality of life is stressing them and adding to our stress. It’s always an option to decide not to have the herd anymore, to rehome everyone. But goats are children, as are dogs, for that matter. So today is not the day for that choice. Therefore, baby goat.

The actual purchase of a goat is not much. They range from free to $50 to $500. Since Levi was bought with traded DVD’s, well, that’s kind of free. Goats can cost a few dollars a month in feed and hay. They eat much less than a horse or a cow, being smaller. But like a horse or cow, a goat can also eat the nature all around your property, and that can lessen feed costs. When I lived in Maryland, I only fed my goats when snow was on the ground. Otherwise, they ate the woods where we lived.

Just a few more weeks of playing alone...

Vet bills can run high. But like most livestock owners, we have a shelf of medical texts and have learned to do much medical care ourselves. We also have a certain medical credit card (I won’t give them free advertising here) and in emergencies we can charge a vet bill and have a year or more to pay, interest free.

So now I’m planning how to introduce a tiny goat to our very large animals. I’ll have a nursery pen inside the larger pen, letting everyone smell and explore each other through a fence. Then one animal at a time will visit with Levi in the nursery–Ponder, Dana, Tonka and Cricket our inside dog. During the first few nights, I might have Levi in a play pen inside the house. He’s quite a McNugget for the local predators, and I want to be secure in his relationship with all herd members before I leave him out at night.

His breeder keeps Levi and his sister in a small pen with some pregnant does. So he’s already getting used to be hazed and butted by larger goats. But They’re all dwarf breeds. Ponder is larger and very keen on hierarchy. When we had her with other goats before, she was the smallest and was bullied mercilessly. She’s ready to dominate someone! Hence the slow introductions…

I know all the animals are going to be excited about a new herd member. And C.T. and I will get to enjoy a bouncing, dancing baby goat. Despite the nominal cost and financial risk, everyone’s lives will be better.

—WT

Charles leading drumming at Heathcote's 50th Anniversary gathering

He arrived home after a flood to find me, a stranger, on hands and knees in his garden. I was a visitor to Heathcote Community and I had been assigned work exchange: the task of picking up gravel that had washed into the main garden from the parking pad. Charles had been traveling and we hadn’t yet met. He was one of the community gardeners and he stood, taking in the damaged plantings with shock. I tried to imagine the love and effort and hours he had given to this garden, now washed away. But as I observed him being unable to speak for some time, I also wondered if he was just one of those intense, dramatic people who always played moments like this. I would have the next two decades to learn that he was not. We lived together in drama and boredom, work and play, love and loss. Today I learned that Charles is gone.

Charles had been a professional musician, a drummer, in a band  that had a record contract but didn’t get far. He’d studied at Berklee but left before finishing in his version of the typical rebellion/not fitting in story. In community, he made his music a gift to all by teaching World Music Drumming classes and accompanying our singalongs with his guitar.

Leaving the rock & roll life for a career in Montessori seemed to have given Charles a sense of balance and span. He cultivated his identity as a “Sensitive New Age Guy,” reading and discussing the latest pop philosophy book and stretching to acknowledge his privilege with humor and humility.

He often talked to me about Lisa, the child who had been in his life and gone. She was a partner’s daughter, and when that relationship ended, it was the loss of Lisa he mourned most.

drumming in Heathcote's house band, Tastes Like Chicken

Since we both wanted to have a child, we briefly did a dance, imagining having one together. But that is not a relationship we would have.

One thing he shared with Lisa, and then used as therapy when she was gone, was his obsession with trains, real and toy. He had constructed a model train set that ate up most of his apartment and discretionary income, once upon a time. Since my dad also built a sprawling train universe in my childhood basement, I understood train therapy and enjoyed Charles’ stories. To this day, when I see a train, I think of him.

Me holding puppy Tuatha; Charles in white behind me

But his time at Heathcote was filled with other therapies: gardening, cooking, ever-flowing meetings. Charles was a pilgrim on a search and he thrilled at including visitors, friends, kids and community mates in his explorations and gentle curiosity of what it means to be human, gendered, ethical, accountable, alive.  He took to wearing the same simple clothing most of the time. It added to his persona that one ex-Heathcoter had labeled his “icky priest.” Even as he smiled at the characterization and repeated it in jest, he also worked to temper the ego that gets fed by the pilgrimage itself.

Charles in his floppy straw gardening hat; me with my tea mug

Charles was anti-shack. Our guerilla structures were energy inefficient and he  felt we should comply with all local codes. The individual hippie shacks exposed the community to potential trouble. I personally didn’t want to live in a group house. When he decided to move into one of Heathcote’s empty shacks so he’d have room for his music studio, he was the first one to make jokes about his hyprocracy. But eventually the zoning trouble did come, and I did leave the community rather than live in a group house. I can’t say I believe he saw into our future, but I believe he wanted the community to be more secure.

His sense of security was fed by a strongly independent, “bootstraps” streak. He didn’t want to burden his friends or the community. So, as he lived with Parkinson’s and his life shrank into the Farmhouse, decisions about what he could and couldn’t do, and what help he would ask for, were difficult for him. He was always clear with us that he would leave to be with his family in the end.

It was Charles, in his confrontational honesty, who helped me understand that my community and my friends there had turned in a direction I couldn’t follow, or, even if I had done the turning, it was time to part.

As I page through our years at Heathcote in my mind, I light on our interactions, his judgements of me, his struggling with his judgements of me, my pulling back from our friendship when he got sick with Parkinson’s because I felt it was all I could do to badly take care of myself. And, because I have been a Heathcoter, I notice how much of my memories of us appear in a frame about me. Now I want to take the time to look at Charles—always setting aside funds for his next car; taking time to draw out a visitor’s life story; attending every monthly work day; mediating countless checkins with presence and gravity; taking constant public account of his life lessons and failings. He was a pilgrim for our times.

—Wren

P.S. Charles appeared by name at least twice in my poetry. I like that these show the pilgrim I knew:

Broom Zen

Charles’ mother is dying.
He has planed
800 miles.
Now he sweeps
her kitchen.
Back home this is his
after-dinner chore.
He sweeps the hall,
2 seconds per stroke
by the mantle clock.
“Get the stairs while
You’re at it,”
his father says.
He sweeps the living room
and the porch.
He sweeps the lawn.

His mother is awake.
She asks of his plans.
He talks of job changes.
She takes out 3 papers
and crunches numbers
on the first.
Charles makes
clarifying calculations
on the second.
She rests.

And Charles waltzes the broom.

He spreads out the pages–
her handwriting, his;
the choreography of cursive.
And one more…
He takes the unused page,
with a pause for
all symphonies in the ether,
unwritten,
and drags his dustpile
onto the page
with his mother’s broom.

—WT

walking meditation

the walking meditation class is poised
watching pumpkins swell
watching crow’s feet creep
time lapsed
photography
to chronicle
an epic
of an
opening orchid…
a sunset…
high tide…
or charles remembering that
if you walk slowly enough
you need only stand still

—WT

Occupy San Francisco members accompany a health inspector at their encampment, with mainstream press and lifestream coverage.

How “safe” are your groups for diverse people, operational styles and opinions? How safe do you feel in groups? How about right now? The concept and importance of safety in group dynamics can be elusive. We might be looking for a definition we can all depend on, but in fact, safety is defined by the person who doesn’t have it. It’s individual, subjective and momentary.

It’s also seated in the gut. So much so that we’re often not intellectually aware of our safety or lack of it. We’ve all felt those hairs on the back of the neck sound an alarm. Safety can be as physical as a fight-or-flight situation. But for some people, often people who lack privilege, the absence of safety is a low grade static state. It might be marked by what the person doesn’t say, what the person doesn’t do.

Some people are eminently safe in groups. They’re often the first to speak and often have the “great idea” to solve a problem. But even these individuals can fall out of safety in moments.

Many people don’t think of themselves as “out of safety,” but during meetings they speak very little because “it’s just not worth it,” or “someone else will say it,” Or, maybe as a woman or person of color, or anyone who’s seen repeated group dysfunction, they view a group as “nothing new/same-old-same-old” in which others are oblivious to what life is like for her/him.

In the groups you belong to, do newcomers check out the group but leave after a few meetings? In meetings, do the same 3 or 4 people do most of the talking, with 3 or 4 others speaking once, and the rest just listening, as if watching a TV program? Does it seem like a tiny core group do 80-90% of the work of your group, with a large membership who are just “tourists” or “consumers,” enjoying the fruits?

Most people say that these dynamics are just the nature of groups, that this is to be expected. But are you sure? Have you ever interviewed a new member who left your group? Would that person tell you the truth? Is there a way to increase participation? How significant is the question of safety?

Fiopa Consensus Collective
fiopa@consensus.net

I wrote the handout above as a conversation starter for small groups at the beginning of a workshop we held at the library in Chico, California. I’m not really blogging these days but I have been cleaning up my computer files and thought I’d share some writings here. You’re welcome to share the above, only if you credit Wren Tuatha & Fiopa Consensus Collective, and do not alter the content.

–Wren Tuatha