Where does inspiration lie? Everywhere!

This is my attempt to pounce on and then shape the words I breathe.

Please join me with your comments and make this a dialogue . . . and visit Susan's Poetry!

Monday, June 6, 2016

First Do No Harm

Layers in My Life

Today I moved into Richard Rohr's meditation on the 8th and 9th step of AA, his take on how the creator of the 12-Step Program can help anyone to Let Go and Let God.  

This was the hardest day for me so far.  It took me three hours to think through who I have harmed through my addictions to property, privilege and righteousness--and how I might ever make amends.  This is three hours on top of a lifetime of paying attention to the oppressions in play around me.

As I have done for the previous meditations in this series, I let my contemplation culminate in a poem, but it is not a poem.  Rather, it turns out to be "a thinking through" of how to move forward from this moment, how to remove one irritant from the vast field of racism that oppresses people of color.

Steps Eight and Nine: Reparations

“It is the indispensable tool against white supremacy.  One cannot
propose to plunder a people, incur a moral and monetary debt,
propose to never pay it back, and then claim to be seriously
engaging in the fight against white supremacy.”
TA-NEHISI COATES, The Atlantic 1/19/2016 

I didn’t mind taking the apartment
that was offered to me just 'cause my skin
was white, one little needle in the hay,
just one more straw to break a burdened back. 

Besides, I lost a scholarship four years before
because Black students stood up and sat-in
demanding equitable aid at last.
Years later, I finally understand:

I never doubted I could find a way
to borrow, work and pay with a fine home
and way opening up for me.  I had
to struggle, true, but I knew what to do.

Presumed innocent in all my conflicts,
I could assume police would protect me
even when I protested war, even
when they did not (like in cases of rape).

But wait.

I’m here to make lists and amends
and find a way to make reparations
too.  Sifting through my life, I see students
I held back and passed on when I shouldn’t—

Ah! Harm. But now, persist!  If we agree
a subject is worth learning, I’ll learn, too,
and break apart structures to find out why
and who they empower the way they are.

And that’s the question I will answer now:
whose feet am I stepping on to be heard
when I aggress and speak up first because
I can, I have, I will, and I am I?

Still blind, I almost pause to stop the flow
of power to me.  I almost respect
you, Friend.  Any minute now I’ll get it
and pause.  Instead of plowing on, I’ll stop.

And then how will I make amends? Now that
I know experimentally
that I hurt you, can I repay? Or pay
forward what I can never quite retract?
At least do no more harm or hold you back?**


Notes:  If I have made progress today, it's because yesterday I participated in an URG meeting, a gathering of a small group of Quakers, an Un-Doing Racism Group within the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. There I marveled at an unspoken dynamic, one in which I both acted and reacted badly.  Three times women of color and white women and men asked that people be mindful of speaking too much or too often, and I suspected they were cautioning me--that I was the aggressor--and they were trying to do so respectfully.  But I couldn't stop.  In fact, I provoked more because I thought those who cautioned were also avoiding meeting my eyes.   And I was aware of being out of line, but I did it anyway. Ugh.  I couldn't stop.  Now God lets me see myself in an inner ocean of shame, but won't let me stay there. That would be too easy. Instead, I have to become aware, write it down and apologize and change.  And it is in here I finally find humility in myself and practice steps Eight and Nine of the Twelve Steps: 
  • Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  • Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.*

I have written this down so that I may remember it.  I am not too old to learn, and I hope there is more!  I write this down so that I can pay forward by sharing what I learn about white supremacy with other white people.  God knows it takes us a long time--it takes me a lifetime--to inch forward.

*“J,” A Simple Program: A Contemporary Translation of the Book “Alcoholics Anonymous” (Hyperion: 1996), 55.

**Part of my series Oh, Ye of Little Faith*

My blog poems are rough drafts. 
Please respect my copyright.

© 2016 Susan L. Chast

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Oh, Ye of Little Faith*

Image Credit_ http___morguefile.com_creative_jclk8888_1_all
Image by jclk8888., posted with the Richard Rohr Meditation referenced below

My writing is the prayer that opens me
up to the meditations I read and/
or hear now each and every morning .

A discipline of sorts, it heals my sins
of Absence, Addiction and Attachment.
As a child I competed to get A’s—

But, now, Alone time is the only A
I seek.  Not even Absolution is
preferable to Love, Unlimited.

Writing is the prayer that opens
me—paradoxically opens me—to
in-pouring Love of which words are mere trace.

Out-pouring is the call that I am more
or less obedient to, ministry
I do not understand and so resist.

My writing is the prayer that opens me
beyond logos to roiling listening
and eventually to giving back.

And I hereby exhort myself to write—
despite not feeling it—despite what we
excuse as writer’s block, despite boredom.

Oh, yes, I bore myself and turn to film
and other diversions—most of which are
empty occupations which lead me back.

To where if  I were willing and able
to write through reams of dross, I’d think past
what I can write now into faithfulness.

If I could know the story’s end before,
how easy it would be to follow course—
how little faith I would need, then, to write.

*Matthew 8:26  He replied, "You of little faith, why are you so afraid?" Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.  (New International Version)

Inspired by today's meditation by Richard Rohr: 

Twelve-Step Spirituality: Week 1
Sunday, May 29, 2016

Quote:  "Nine of Jesus' healing stories are actually exorcisms. Although we may think we are too sophisticated for such stories, the fact that there are so many speaks to their importance. I understand "possession by devils" as a primitive but absolutely truthful way of referring to what we now call addiction. In each case, the person is in some sense trapped by a larger force, and is powerless to do anything about it. The only cure for possession is "repossession." You have to be repossessed by Something Greater than the disease."

Find the entire meditation HERE

And I haven't written either blog posts or chapters since ... since .... Perhaps this is a new beginning.

It generated a series of poems:  

In case you are interested, here are The Twelve Steps of AA (from Great Britain).

My blog poems are rough drafts. 
Please respect my copyright.

© 2016 Susan L. Chast

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Did I say I wouldn't have time to write until Easter?

File:Rembrandt, Hendrickje schlafend.jpg
A Young Woman Sleeping by Rembrandt (1654)

I seem to be always tired.  Especially when it's my time to write.

It is now Thursday, the 7th of April, two days after I created the above title and typed the following confessional narrative. Which is really for me, but I am trying to be open. 

Didn't I say I wouldn't have time to write until Easter?

Uh huh, I said after Easter. I was talking about my novel-in-progress, but here it is Tuesday, the 5th of April and I haven't written a blog post either. I've attempted a poem a day as April is national poetry month, but the real time consumer is being back on Facebook. I've got to get back on schedule! The early writing, half-hour worship, settling down to the computer until lunch, etc--all that worked!

This is why I arranged with my friend Jennifer to start Friday writing again, though she is still far away and engaged in parent care. I'm typing here the question and outcome of last Friday's writing, because if I can't get down to writing, maybe copying out of notebooks is where to begin—even a week after I actually wrote this.

What's Next For Alice?

My pen skipped when I began to write, a great symbol to begin with. I think that must happen for Alice.  She writes all of her known stories and she can't write more until the end of our time together when a story comes to her at the reunion.  Oh, yes, of course, she goes to the reunion, though finding a reason to go that will overcome all of the reasons not to is major.  I haven't discovered it yet. 
Maybe the story she tells at the reunion will be "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." I could write this ending next, I think, letting her find out that the dwarfs—the women she used to know—are just regular people after all. The dwarfs will not be dwarfs when the film is off her eyes. Is it the film of self-absorption and stuck-ness in the past? Something more than that. 

The Snow White who was sent out into the world by the dwarfs to be with her Prince had to learn to stand up for herself. They all had to learn that, actually, even the Prince. (That's been covered thematically in the musical Into the Woods.  But that show did not use Snow White's story.)  The dwarfs will all take new names. 
In the original Grimm tale, the seven dwarfs were unnamed. Using the names from the familiar 1937 animated Disney film (AKA first Disney film), they begin as Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy and Dopey.  And as in the Pixar film Inside Out, these separate characters can all be seen as parts of one person. I haven't determined the new names yet, but, for example, Sleepy could become Alert; Grumpy could become Happy ; and Happy could become Grumpy. 

Snow White will also undergo a transformation and take a new name. I don't know what yet. One thing is she'll learn that she has been Snow WHITE, a lesson in privilege that doesn't end. Will she learn to love the mistakes in her life that led her to her new knowledge?   Mistakes like taking the wrong side of European Imperialism in This River of Women when it came to the plays of ntozake shange?  Will she be content to get home again and stay there?  I think she'll still prefer to live alone in the life she's created for herself. She'll choose to be who she has always beenthe lovable companion to Miracle Kitty who we met at the beginning of the novel.

Have all ties to home died now that Alice's cat has died? OOHHH! I've leaked another bit I haven't written yet.  This is the huge tragedy of the second half of the book.  Given Miracle's place in Alice's life, what can matter after this? Will she still have her young friend Ricky? The one thing that all the women Alice reunites with have in common is animal companions. 
When Miracle Kitty dies, Alice's friend Sybil is there. I'll use the disease and feelings around Milla's death that Sheila and I actually experienced together in Berkeley, CA. I'll have to ask her what the cancer was.  

Moving backwards from the end of the novel, how does it happen that Sybil is with Alice? They haven't seen each other in decades. (And those long solitary vacation times I spent with Sheila—who is the model for Sybil in the novel—may be a sore spot. I’ll explore the ways it is both wound and blessing to have such a long-time friend.  Bits of Nancy and Tree are in there too.)  

Alice calls Sybil because she has now opened the boxes she's been storing in her locked closet. Alice will call Sybil to see if she is going to the reunion and if so, if Sybil will visit her on the way. This is approaching the climax of the main plot, and it is where I am stuck now.  

Why is it so hard for her to open the past? 

And why open it now?

I think I've established her love for boating on unruffled waters. She has been loving her life.  But now, her storytelling has had to change, and now there is Ricky.  His pain and openness and visit open doors that give Alice insight and courage to face her dead. She is able to step in to one of her stories.  I have to go back and be sure I've established enough suspense around this as I zip this lady open. But first I must write through this bump in the road.

What is in the boxes that would make her call Sybil? 

Alice will find the pictures of her and Sybil taking vacations together in Maine, maybe the actual Monhegan Island and Ogunquit that Sheila and I visited. Here is a friendship that wasn't dependent on the politics of the time.  Whether or not she goes to the reunion, she finds a yearning to see Sybil.  Her co-creator in theatre, Maya, was Sybil's sister.

What stories from each box should I tell?

Only the hottest and the sweetest ones, like the one I've already told from the Women's Music Festival.  

From the YWCA I'll tell two or three stories about (1) leaving so someone else will get the executive director job, (2) the conference of Women in the Arts and meeting both Bernice Reagan and Audre Lorde, and (3) Maybe include the story about the mission of the YWCA and the visiting members of a South African YWCA.

Stories from the Hagborn newspaper? I'm not sure. From the Black Hills Conference, only the story of my car going. More from the Women's Music Festivals? Maybe I've already told enough, though the story of Susan S and the crystals is also a good one. 

From This River of Women Theatre Company, I've already told the story of Maya and Alice conceiving of the company.  I've already told the story of the ntozake shange play, but I could tell the story of Susan Griffin's Voices which played at the Women in the Arts Conference at the Y.  Did I tell yet of It's Better to Speak? That would be a way in to talk about the Women's Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice.

And from the Women's Center itself, speak of music and dances and coffee houses and reading poetry and the nearby bar and FUSE and what else is there in the boxes?  How can I make these as lively as the stories Alice tells that aren't in the boxes?  She's got to include some of her poetry in the book she is composing from her performances.

Oh! The self-portraits from those machines that make a strip of four. I used to make one a year—that’s something Alice seems too introverted for. But PICTURES! Of the male lover and the female one. And many of friends and cats—Rosa was Tree’s cat and Milla and Emily were Sybil’s and Grasshopper was another and I will remember more.  And dogs.  And birds.

I remember a line from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town when Emily wants to visit the land of the living after her death, and the Stage Manager tells her “Pick a day. Pick any day. But make sure that it is an ordinary day because an ordinary day will be special enough.” Emily picks a birthday. 

What would Alice pick first as a special day to return to? Would she go directly to her women’s community box or work around it? Would she go directly to the Women’s Theatre Company box or would she leave that one for last? Which box first? Perhaps the Music Festival because she’s already remembered it? And all of that festival time evokes her female lover. Leave Julianna for last? Leave the question about why everyone left her for being with a man for last?

Wait!  No one left her. She left them. Why? And why did she feel abandoned? Was she ashamed of what she had done? Or was she that hurt by the theatre company? Who, by the way, did everything in its collective power to help her, including taking a disastrous journey to NYC to do a scene from Fefu and Her Friends as an audition in front of Carl Weber, the director of graduate studies at NYU.

Good golly.  

Maybe I need to unpack my own closet and start sorting through and tossing stuff to make this all happen. Should I include the covens? The women I knew there? 

The Peace Encampment should maybe be first as that’s when my lover and I were estranged. Versus the YWCA which is when/where we met. I remember how disappointed she was when I left my job as Director of Women’s Programs.

Tremble, but then start.

So, well, Chast, can you make a viable narrative out of this complexity or not? Start somewhere, anywhere, and juggle the parts together in a different order later. You knew you were coming to the hard part, the floodgates part. Let your reader stand in the swelling flood, the tumbling house of cards from Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Open your heart to it. Why grow silent now? Enter the Maelstrom. There is no other way to the other side. Interesting that Tanya’s prompt for today (Friday, 1 April) was to do something that I am afraid of. Do it, do it, do it!

To answer the question of what is next for Alice is to answer the question of what is next for me! Enter the closet. Sort. Note the feelings and stories. Let Alice figure this out in a new chapter where she is sitting on her couch—Miracle Kitty watching warily from the Dining Room table or the window sill or the Rocker—knowing something is wrong, afraid that they are moving again. An upheaval is coming. Is in process. Maybe Alice will decide to take one thing from each pile.

So how to move forward? 

Maybe open a box a day to sort. At the least do three boxes a week. This all must happen before summer. 

And so, do not duck out of going to Emma’s writing retreat by the sea next weekend. Gather the objects I want to make a spiritual altar for my character Alice—or what one of her friends might keep about her.

Do it.


Pray about it. Pray in color. Do it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Feeling Alive!

Tanya speaks my mind.  
This is her prompt for today, Day 76 of her 365 day challenge:

There is nothing like performing on stage.
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Day 76: Why We Do Solo Theatre, Tell Stories, and Create Performing Art
“The light. The light is so bright that all that remains is you and the darkness. You can feel the audience breathing. It's like holding a gun or standing on a precipice and knowing you must jump. It feels slow and fast. It's like dying and being born and fucking and crying. It's like falling in love and being utterly alone with God; you taste your own mouth and feel your own skin and I knew I was alive and I knew who I was and that that wasn't who I'd been up till then. I'd been so far away but I knew I was home.”
― Russell Brand on performing for the first time
Do you want to feel alive? There is no other experience like performing. None. Nothing else. Nada.
For those who have walked the long walk onto the stage…It has changed all of us, intrinsically, forever.
 Assignment for Today:
Create a monologue or a rant for performance.
Use “whatever I most want to avoid” as your topic for the day.
Improvise it and record it OR write it.
For the love of story,
Try it! Truly, there is nothing like it--except teaching at times. Singing and storytelling are performance, too.  

My character Alice is a performer of story partly because this is something I have experiential knowledge of and partly because I love telling a story that tells a story. I love telling stories that are both literal and allegorical, both logical and associative.  I like how multiple story both progresses as in familiar narrative overlaps and also piles up as in collages and the workings of a single mind. Minds are too connected to heart, body and spirit to work on a single plane.  They are singular only in being one of a kind.  

So, to work with Tanya's topic, "whatever I most want to avoid," I'll start with a free-write rant.  I'll start here and now.  Then I may shape it a little immediately.  Then I'll stand up and dance with it, continuing a creative process that I have given Alice and I have been trying to articulate in the episodes (chapters) of my novel.

The Free Write

          I most want to avoid falling on my face.  I mean that literally.  See this tooth?  It's an implant.  And see this chip?  Implants are expensive so I learned to live with the chip.  These are the remaining scars of two separate falls, both of which also broke my glasses, cut my face, scraped flesh off my knees and ruined my clothes and my composure. One happened in front of a movie theatre and drew that date to a close.  The other happened in San Cristobal de los Casas in Chiapas, a state in Mexico.  That one was very costly even without fixing the chip. The first was more embarrassing as getting an implant occurs in stages--surgically removing the rest of the tooth that broke below the gum line and living with a temporary plate for several weeks before the surgeon embeds the screw and the dentist sculpts and attaches a new porcelain tooth. That temporary plate fell out several times while I was teaching, revealing me to my students as the gap-toothed witch that I truly am deep inside.  Talk about vulnerability and fear! No. I want to avoid falling on my face most of all.            And I wouldn't mind not falling flat on my face in other ways as well.  Like, I don't want to fail and make a fool of myself when I publish the novel I am writing.  I don't want to have to defend what I know is a shoddy piece of work.  I want to be proud of it; I want it to be note-worthy.  And I don't want to publish it myself like I had to do with the poetry books.  I want it to be wanted.  Pride goeth before that kind of fall.          And I don't want to catch myself counting my chickens before they hatch.  And I don't want to resort to cliche--though it may be safer to say things that were successful before.  Aargh.  I see the Catch 22 here: Wanting to live on the edge of risk and not wanting to risk anything at all.            I most want to avoid writing recognizable characters and opening up controversy--but I want the types to be recognizable amid real places like the Women's Center and This River of Women Theatre Company and the Michigan Women's Music Festival and the Women's Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice.   And I think I can't have one without the other.          I may want to avoid finishing the book, therefore. Hmm.  It was fine to read aloud in front of people who don't know me or the movements involved.  What about ones who do know?   I most want to avoid being silenced when I am enjoying myself so much.  I'm even enjoying the jigsaw puzzles of collage I am building to keep real folks and their friends from seeing themselves in my words.  They may certainly see a resemblance and suspect they are the model, but I can honestly say that except for in one major case--that of the director of one of the theatre pieces--no character is molded from only one real live person.

OK, that's 15 minutes of simply writing without a plan, free writing.  I see I could go back and talk about the aborted date in the first paragraph.  I could say why I was in Chiapas. Those would be fine reasons for divergence, but would stalling in these spots be useful?  Should I return to them later instead?  I could talk about my encounters with the craft in the second paragraph.  Hmm.  I could explain my identification with characters in Heller's novel Catch 22.  I could physically get smaller and smaller until I have to find a way to get bigger again--in body and in voice.  I'd love to show a spirit growing from a peanut into a glowing bell inviting me to ring and to sing.  But of course, this writing is unfinished.  It warmed me up and revealed a danger--a hard truth--to me, but it is still a free write journal entry.  

What is the dangerous truth? I have to watch out for familiar voices of mine telling me that I probably can't and I maybe shouldn't finish and publish and disseminate this book. I could act out these voices on stage as well.  I know most of them well, though sometimes I forget:  "Don't embarrass the family."  "Don't reveal private matters you could be arrested for someday."  "Don't talk about gender, sex, lesbianism, cohabitation, women's community, where you were last night, etc." I'm writing about all of these things and more.

I can't shape this into a performance now, but you can imagine the voices and dialogues all portrayed by one solo performer.  I'm going off to think about the revelation above.  Because I haven't written since I left Pendle Hill, and I won't until I return from visiting my family.  And I worry.  I guess I will not read sections to them as easily as I did to strangers.  But truly, I doubt anyone will ask.  That thought is consuming.  And relaxing, too.  

I'll write more as way opens.