Monday, December 31, 2012

Writing on New Year's Eve

I'm not sure what that post title means, other than that I'm writing - and it's New Year's Eve.

Two and a half years I worked on this memoir. With the draft done, I am trying to find the focus for the page-by-page review and revisions. But I am surrounded by the memoir, where it came from, the journals, original documents, cards and letters, nostalgia things, the genealogies - boxes and piles of the stuff.

How do you put this mutli-generational story away?

But the rooms want clarity; they want some empty space, they want room for a little detachment, a longer view, so that I can open the memoir again from page one...

Author: Jack Frost
Before the clarity comes the chaos,

Friday, December 21, 2012

When words seem to fail...reflections on darkness and light

Winter solstice. We mark the longest darkness here in the north. But the promise of emergent sunlight heralds not yet warmth but rather the beginning, the deepening of the long cold of winter.

My  neighborhood...
How often here in Wisconsin that brilliant returning sunlight of January is accompanied by the coldest temperatures of the year. They go together.

Like today. I live along  Lake Michigan so we didn't get hit by the big snows here, mostly a lot of rain. Under the clouds all week long, our temps have hovered much above normal. The lake is unusually warm for this time of year, which is why we are having trouble turning precipitation into snow. When the sun reappeared just now, as if making a grand entrance on the stage of the solstice, I realized how long its been since we've seen it. And it comes on the tail end of the storm, on the howling winds of a night cast into cold, darkness, and silence as the power went out.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Of martyrs, narrative, meaning, truth, and the craft of writing

Martyrs of the UCA in El Salvador
Today is an anniversary that marks murder and horror and the worst of U.S. imperial reach. On Nov. 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests and a mother and daughter who had taken refuge from war on the campus of San Salvador's Central America University were gunned down by soldiers funded, armed, and trained by the United States. They were good men, these priests, brilliant scholars, courageous in the role they took on during their country's civil war, fiercely dedicated to the poor who were struggling in the face of enormous odds for their liberation from decades of US-supported dictatorship.

I mention this because this story, the story of Central America during the years of the liberation struggles, was the work of my life - for nearly 25 years. I used to write the stories.

Friday, November 9, 2012

"Poetry's true perception..." - or memoir's

I struggle through memoir and poems these days. The memoir is in a hard place, the diminishment and long dying of my mother - an extraordinary journey we shared together. It opens up a raw, tender place - vulnerable, bursting with compassion and love...

And then I just miss her.

Since I started this writing project I also started writing poetry. That surprised me at first, now it doesn't at all. Now I begin to understand it.

What was freed up in the journey, what was let go, and then what the fierce concentration on that narrative opened even more, has freed up the place where poems are apparently born - at least, it appears, for me.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A poet? Really?

I find this terrifying - and moving. Poems published?

I remember being young and falling in love with Frost, Whitman, Dickinson, and wondering if I could ever be a poet. I scribbled horrible poetry when young (except for one brief verse in my teen years that I hope will be an intro page for a collection some day). Now in these later years, something in life turned me back to poetry like a thirsty wanderer in the desert of this world - you know, I can't possibly drink enough.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Memoir is laden

More laden than I thought it would be. I mean, digging into the narratives that made our lives what they are, and after more than six decades of it, you wonder why you wanted to stir all that up again.

Where the story took place...
And yet, there lies the story. What I keep coming to as I dig and mine and create my jewels out of deeply buried gems (how's that for metaphor?!) is that these stories never go away. Come to them fully again and they are as fresh as ever, as real as ever. Which means they are also still there to be learned from, to find wisdom in, (never end a sentence or phrase with a preposition). Lower your cup into the well, see how the water tastes after all these years.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Opening the Gates...

I've been reading Jane Hirshfield's remarkable book of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. She is one of my favorite poets and the Buddhist spirituality that lies beneath so much of her work really resonates for me right now.

I don't claim to be a poet, and yet I have written poetry mostly to help open some of my own gates, to make me a better writer. There is something writing poetry does to you, if you are willing to plumb the depths, go to the depths fearlessly, or, if with fear, bravely, to see what you find there. The poetry that changes everything is the poetry that does what Buddhism invites us to do: it looks deeply. And, as Thich Nhat Hanh has written, "Looking deeply requires courage."

The poet must have courage.

Monday, August 20, 2012

More-than-memoir and the co-arising of a book

The day before my writers critique group (we meet about every other week) I always feel a little edge added to my work. What I have been sharing these past many months is what I call my "more-than-memoir," using the multi-generational story of my family to open up some deeper reflection on the culture and the many layers of impasse and crisis at which we have arrived.

In this story of my parents and their ancestors, and what was passed down to my generation, I think I have found a key to why it is so hard for us to look at the mess we have made of our world - and change how we live accordingly before things really get out of hand.
My parents, Mary Rose & Steve

The mess is getting pretty serious now, as we know from two years of weather extreme after weather extreme, the infernos in the West, the deepening drought that is sadly only herald of worse to come, the changing economy that has thrown more people permanently out of work, depressed wages, and brought millions more of our own people into poverty, to join the hundreds of millions around the planet.

Can writing serve the purpose of helping us take an honest look at ourselves, how it is we have arrived at such a moment?

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Truth sometimes comes hard...

Being truthful, having a voice that can be trusted - tried and true advice for the writer. But it don't come easy, as they say.

What I call my more-than-memoir doesn't come easy right now. You break open old stories, old narratives, and find them still laden with the intensity of the time in which they were composed. You realize why some of these 'truths' get buried in some deep dark place, those places where we try to make the pain, the fear, the embarrassment inaccessible.

Now you have to access them - in order to be truthful.

And yet you still play around with all that truth, because not all truth should be told to the world. One gets tired of some of that confessional stuff that can be rather indulgent or mean (or sometimes simply made up) that so often accounts for memoir these days.We are a self-indulgent culture in the extreme, and not all stories merit that space on our shelves or in our e-readers or in our psyches.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Stories reveal

Not only what we tell, but how we tell them, the vantage point we choose, the voice - all of this reveals.

And what stories reveal, of course, matters. They can reflect truth about the complexity of being human on this planet; they can offer insights, another point of view on life. They can also hide truth from us, or distort truth.

In recent years, everywhere I go people talk about the importance of sharing stories. Each of us has a store of stories buried inside. Sharing them can be some of the most vulnerable moments we will ever have in our lives. It is important to examine motives when airing them in public, because not all motives are equal either. Some personal story-telling has become voyeuristic, exhibitionist, and narcissistic. That, too, is part of an unhealthy commercial culture where even people's personal troubles can become profit-making commodities.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Writing at the edge of the precipice

I've neglected this blog for a bit. Sorry 'bout that. It's not for lack of things to write about, probably more like too many things to write about - and that meets life and overwhelms. That's what it feels like these days.

I'm putting off a necessary tedious task to post this morning. The tedious task can wait.

Source: UNISYS, found at Capital Climate
It's been a bit warm across the nation, a bit crisp, a bit fiery, a bit stormy, a bit dry - unless you're in Duluth or Florida's panhandle. In these places it's the deluge. How about that 'derecho,' straight line winds up to 90 mph suddenly building and blowing from Indiana to Maryland!! Oh, and up north, the annual Arctic ice melt is already a record, and it's only June.

Friday, June 1, 2012

In times like these, why write?

I am driven to write. The more I do it, the more driven I am. It starts crowding out all the other things I need to do, like make a living. Writers mostly have to do something else to make a living. A sad statement about the culture, really. This isn't just true of writing, but all the arts. The culture doesn't value a masterfully written poem, or a painting that makes one gasp, or question the social and psychological constructs of our world.

But writers are also challenged by the sheer volume of words. Words proliferate. They pour off our computer screens and smart phones with a thousand apps and cable TV. And as they proliferate, they get louder and louder until we are all just shouting at each other trying to be heard. That's how it seems to me, anyway. And I am so weary with all the shouting. So more and more, I just turn it off.

Most of us know that not all words are equal. And we know they can be used to destroy, to manipulate, to construct false worlds, even to shape values, including some very destructive ones (Hitler, for example, was a master of words when up on a platform in front of adoring masses).

Friday, May 18, 2012

Memoir-writing as cultural challenge

by Margaret Swedish

Getting back to work later today on the more-than-memoir I'm writing, chapter six, a bit of a crescendo in the narrative of the book, unlocking the secrets and shame that impacted my parents' generation, and therefore we baby-boomers, in ways that did not serve us well. It's a 'way of being' passed down from ancestors, those who left so much misery, want, and suffering behind to come to America to become something other than who they were back in the old country. And many of them suffered a whole lot when they came here - degrading work and poverty, hallmarks of early immigrant life.

Croatian ancestors
They brought with them strong identity-based cultures that became the roots of strong identity-based neighborhoods, politics, nationalism, religion, and more. But they also buried a whole lot of the suffering, shame, humiliations, exploitation, and fear that shaped them and the lives they created here. That repression left marks on their behaviors and values, on the choices they made, and, whether we descendents like it or not, that impacted who we turned out to be, the choices we, too, have made.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Writing in the cloud of our uncertainty

I haven't fed this blog for a couple of weeks. Not because I don't want to or don't have time, but because I am so overfull. Sometimes one has to wait for the words to come because what is going on is beyond words. It has to emerge, take on a sharper focus. Some of the worst writing is when it becomes words for words' sake, something we have way too much of in this culture.

When that happens, writing becomes noise. And any good writer knows these days how hard it is for good writing, for writing and art that is urgent and needed, or simply beautiful for its own sake, to find a path through the noise to our awakened consciousness.

There are people I love struggling with cancer. There are people I love struggling with old age and growing vulnerability. There are people (me, too) wrestling with profound economic insecurity in a world that seems to have little use for them.

There is my poor Wisconsin cluttered with angry hateful noise of a political culture in a state of demise,

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What matters

That's one of the phrases I put in my blog description: the writing for me is about what matters. So much of what we read, view, entertain ourselves with just doesn't matter. Yet we live in a time when so much matters, so much of what we do, our life choices, how we go through our day, what we care about, what we pay attention to - really, really matters.

I don't mean that we should not experience laughter, lightness, pleasure, playfulness, and sheer joy. We should! Because these things matter - a lot. As a matter of fact, the dearth of authentic laughter, lightness, pleasure, playfulness, and joy is part of our cultural pathology. That's why we entertain ourselves in such manipulative, numbing ways, entertainment intended to deaden feelings, not awaken them, to hold authenticity at bay rather than delve into it for fear of what we might find there.

Those mystics, artists, and psychologists who have been saying for generations that we cannot experience joy if we cannot also experience sorrow, grief, and the rest have also been right for generations.

Friday, April 20, 2012

On silences and empty spaces

I'm reading Terry Tempest Williams' new book, When Women Were Birds. Extraordinary, as are most things she writes. This one is about silences, about absence, about what is not on the page, as much as what is on it.

I'm in Manhattan this week, not a place of many silences. I love this city, even as I mourn so many of the recent changes, the 'corporatization' of it, the loss of so much of the old personality of neighborhoods and small communities within the larger mass of humanity. I mourn the loss of a city in which such a variety of economic classes could once afford to live. You have to be rich to live here now - or rent stabilized.

And yet, it stimulates, right? My sister and I walk down E. 26th Street and find the site where Herman Melville lived for 28 years, where he wrote Billy Budd. It is marked with a plaque. A couple of blocks away is the site where Henry James lived, and on the way back towards the subway we pass the location where Edith Wharton once resided.

I love this stuff. I wonder if kids read any of these writers in school anymore, and then I wonder how we can claim to be American if we have not.

Friday, April 13, 2012


Friday the 13th. I don't know, seems like just another day...

When the earth gets this dry, I realize again how much I love the rain - the sound of it, the way it quiets down my spirit, how it washes all the dirt and grit away making the urban world vivid again. We hardly realize how much dust we live with from our industrial world until it is showered away.

Photo: Margaret Swedish
Gentle rainfalls of spring - I used to look forward to them, those long rainy days when contemplation comes easily, the mesmerizing sound of it in the night, how, if I enter into that sound, breathing and heart beat slow and become one with it, part of it, all this blessed earth.

It's one way we humans have changed everything. The rains have changed. The seasons have changed. And therefore, so has the human spirit.

And I think not in a good way.

We have forecasts for rain and storms over the weekend, and I pray for it, offer my heartfelt longings to the rain gods that they come through this time. Maybe I can get some writing done.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The use of language, and why this matters

In a political year like this one, it's hard not to get depressed about the use of language, this beautiful instrument and expression of conscious self-awareness, as it becomes a tool for obfuscation, deception, and manipulation. All of which speaks to its power.

And that ought to suggest that we best take care in how we use it. These days we fling words and phrases at one another like weapons in a war of attrition, using them to fiercely, and often violently, defend our point of view as if it was territory under assault from the enemy - so frail are our egos these days, so weak the foundations of those world views.

So I try to remember always to write with care, especially if I am putting anything up into cyberspace where it can float around and attract all sorts of karma, or dynamic energy of one kind or another.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Writing for survival

" is no longer such a lonely thing to open one's eyes."

So grateful for the many bold and courageous women writers who over the past decades have made it less lonely to open one's eyes. They don't tell us it's easy, just necessary in order to live one's real authentic life.

"It's exhilarating to be alive in a time of awakening consciousness; it can also be confusing, disorienting, and painful."

Yes, all of those things. Because to awaken consciousness means to wake up to what's really going on, to the damage that has been done, to the long road it will take to recover, to heal, to begin life anew.

I'm quoting Adrienne Rich again, this time from an essay: '"When We Dead Awaken": Writing as Re-vision,' in the volume, Arts of the Possible. These days I'm working on memoir and family history, and, in that narrative, searching for some wisdom that can shed light on this moment in our country, a story that is in many ways paradigmatic of our culture's crisis of meaning, a window through which to view how it is that we have come to this point of cultural dis-articulation and fragmentation. We seem so lost.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Words matter

I remarked the other day in my reflections on Adrienne Rich on the gift of language, this amazing ability that evolved through many species into human babble, our multiple, diverse, ways to express ourselves, communicate with our loved ones, our tribe, our culture. It holds tremendous power, language does. It holds people together and divides them up; it builds both bridges and walls.

Turn on cable pseudo-news stations these days, or listen to right-wing radio talks shows and evangelical preachers, and you get a sense of the power of language - how it can hold together tribal identity and shred a society all at the same time.

It seems these days that we hold this remarkable skill - the ability to create language full of nuance and layers of expression - in great disrespect. We treat it with so much disdain. We use it as cudgel, weapon, a destroyer rather than a connector. Listen to the politicians running for election this year. Talk about dragging this gift in the mud!

In my life as a writer, I do what all writers do, struggle with the modes of expression a language provides me to create a narrative that entices the reader to enter in and see the world from another vantage point, or to attempt to open an insight, or simply to tell a damn good story!

Friday, March 30, 2012

Adrienne Rich

There are the poets that make a difference in our lives, and the ones who change our lives. When that happens, we revere them; they become part of us. It's just that simple - and profound.

To reach this pinnacle, the heights where poetry actually changes our lives, requires more than beauty in words, metaphors, images, or the flow of a line. It takes courage. Poetry can inspire. There are verses that make me gasp in awe. But poetry that makes one 'see' the world differently, opens up new paths, new spaces in the psyche and the heart, anchors one differently in the world - that is rare and wonderful.

Adrienne Rich was that for me.

I am a terrible poet, but I have learned so much about writing from my attempts - and from reading poetry, lots of poetry. Poets have taught me about the stunning efficiency of words, about metaphor, the turn of a phrase, the resonance of an image, a line you read once and never forget. A line like this, from Rich's poem, 'Hunger:'

Until we find each other, we are alone. 

Here she is, writing about writing poetry with poetry:

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Silencing the written word

It is actually stunning how much censorship is going on in this country now - articles and essays that can't get published, books banned from schools and libraries, plays that can't be performed because they violate someone's deeply entrenched world view.

It's another indication of the growing assertion of right-wing, white evangelical Christianity over the US culture, something really finding expression in the GOP presidential contest this year. Deeply rooted in our history of Puritan-style evangelicalism, this version of white superiority has come to dominate airwaves, local school boards, and Tea Party politics across the country.

We see along with this (and sometimes as expression of it) growing portions of a white society that feels incredibly threatened by their looming loss of majority status, disoriented by the variety of cultures, colors, languages, and lifestyles that now surround them, that are woven into the larger fabric of a melting pot that never really melted very well.

This phenomenon is now bankrolled by wealthy corporate investors and shareholders who are using these fears and insecurities to drive democracy out of our politics, to shred our Constitution, to silence voices and movements that represent a considerable portion of the population, especially the young, who do not want their lives dominated in every aspect of them by corporations, by commodities and markets.

But the effort to stifle democracy continues.When it hits writers, I take it personally, I feel the offense.

Friday, March 16, 2012

First robin

The telltale call in the wee hours of the morning, herald of spring. This year, a robin has moved in so close to my little flat that I have resigned myself to the reality that when the windows are open this year, I will be awakened long before dawn. No way around it.

Lake Michigan shore, Feb 2010 - Photo: Margaret Swedish
And this year the windows are open early. Record warmth has spread across the country, while I'm still wondering what happened to my winter. I am missing deep in my soul the frozen lake, the ice sculptures formed when the winter storms send waves crashing on the rocks and bluffs. I am missing the unforgettable, awe-striking sound of water undulating beneath the ice sheets on the lake's surface, the sounds of cracking, the almost imperceptible motion of the ice that if you really pay attention to it can make you feel dizzy, as if the earth itself is gently rocking, rocking.

We are shattering records by 30-40 degrees. I say to my friends, if it's 82 in March, what will it be in July?

Are we scared yet?

Or does the robin song in the hours before dawn annoy the sleep-deprived, the busy workers, the ones who stayed up late playing Wii games?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Beginning again...

That's one of the wonderful things about this life, if you are not too attached to identity, personal history (or, baggage), career, beliefs - you can begin again - over and over and over. Evolution continues to create and recreate life over millions and millions of years. Why not mine?

Star formation. Chandra: NASA
Of course, this also means dying over and over again, letting go what no longer works, what no longer fits, what no longer describes or provides narrative for what we learn as we go along in life. It means not clinging to belief systems when those systems have cracked open at the foundations under the weight of new discoveries, new realizations, new unfolding...

I just try to open these days, more and more. It's hard right now because it means opening to some shattering truths about where this species seems headed, the damage we're doing, the deepening of suffering as a defining reality of our times. On the other hand, I see no other way to address that suffering at its causes. If we don't go to the source - and it is, indeed, a harsh journey - we can't get to the place where suffering ceases.