Sunday, July 15, 2018

Lessons from the Garden Wilds

By Sharon Flitterman-King, Ph.D.
My flower garden -- overgrown with weeds and thistles, gloriosa daisies, hollyhocks grown lush and wild, roses faded, finished, yet unclipped, and baby’s breath—is teaching me in ways the most carefully tended garden never could.
Last summer, for example, it was home to a family of rabbits. How long it had been a haven, I don’t know. But when I’d finally gotten there with my trug of unused garden tools, I came upon them quite by accident.

I caught, out of the corner of my eye, a quiet scurry as I was tugging through the mass of weeds and vegetation, and looked up just in time to see a tiny, furry bottom—small round end of mole or mouse. Little enough to be a sparrow, except it didn’t fly.

Curious, I crept along the garden’s border, following my sense of where the thing had scrambled, over to the far rosebush. I got down on my hands and knees and peered into the grasses. There, half hidden by the weeds and huddled up against a jagged leaf, I saw a baby bunny holding very, very still. Its ears were two tiny daisy petals, translucent like two small shells, pressed back against its head, a bright white spot as if a bird had left its mark on its tiny forehead.

I held my breath and watched; it did the same. This infant rabbit could not have been more than a few days old—still small and helpless, but old enough to have its baby fur. I longed to reach into the weeds and pet it. But I’d heard somewhere that mother rabbits fear the human smell, and so I crept back to my spot and continued with my tugging—gently now, not wanting to disturb it.

But just as I was reaching in again I sensed another shiver, looked up, and saw a second rabbit (same tiny bunny’s bottom, same bright white forehead mark). I checked on bunny number one, but he was where I’d left him, small and still, tucked beneath a dandelion leaf, brown eyes closed and sleeping peacefully after his big fright. That made two babies that I had disturbed with my clumsy hands and sandaled feet.

I’d had enough—no use causing more distress. I went indoors and fixed some lemonade. I dreamed away the rest of the hot day sitting in the shade of our big spruce, watching pine needles shiver and hollyhocks sway with each small gust of wind.

My wild things keep teaching me each summer—to live at peace with nature’s processes, to recognize its frailness, to be tender, patient. Not to fear. To realize that this nature that we live with—are a part of—has its laws and rhythms, and that we cannot intervene.

These creatures, all unknowing, are teaching me to recognize there’s little I can do about my garden snake, the one I saw last week, jagged into pieces by the mower’s edge.

I felt a sadness when I came upon it dead and quiet in the grass. Mute, I stared at it, half in horror, half in awe, for the life it had lived so vigorously in my garden eating bugs and insects, and weeding in its way. I felt a quiet fascination, a sort of helpless reverence for this also helpless thing.

I’m growing more accustomed to what happens in my garden, more patient, more accepting. Like just this morning when I opened up the curtains in our living room to let in the early morning light and saw a tangled clump of gray partly hidden in the unmowed grass. In an instant I knew it was our oriole’s nest, downed by last night’s thunderstorm.

I felt a little shock as I remembered how I’d seen it every morning before this, hanging so precariously on the edge of a dead branch, high up in one of our old maples, swaying with each ruffle of the leaves. I’d always been concerned when I’d seen this ragged, scraggly thing—wondered over, worried for our brave, bright birds.

But this morning when I looked across the lawn I felt a small wave of relief, because I realized that the nest must have been empty, bright flash of orange and sharp, whistling chirps having been but just an echo these past few weeks.

I start out every summer worrying over wild things—the baby rabbits that we have about, our helpful garden snakes, the nesting orioles whose house hangs by a fragile filament. I think I’m learning, slowly, to be at peace with this precariousness, to love my wild things. To let them be.

I’ve learned to be content with the little that I can do: creep quietly into the house so a small brown thing can nap; gather up my snake and bury it beside a quiet birch; pick up the ragged nest and gently place it by our back step. Watch and wait and feel that thrill of wonder when the orioles return, flashing brilliant in the lilacs, and start to weave again their fragile house.

This piece appeared first in The Christian Science Monitor.
Sharon Flitterman-King, who holds a PhD in English from the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of "A Secret Star." She resides in Hillsdale, New York, with her husband, writer David King.

Friday, July 13, 2018

God's Thief

Art by Jeff Blum Copyright 2018
 By Lynne Spigelmire Viti 
God sees me carry the stones from the seashore, smooth
gray rocks I cradle two at a time, pulling them close
to my belly, carrying them like the physical therapist said to.
If it’s against the law to carry these rocks home
to my garden, well then, I’m God’s thief.
God sees me snap off the forsythia branches, try
to speed up spring, make sunlight and  water
push out small green leaves, butter-yellow blooms.
They brighten my Spartan workroom.
God sees me out among the weeds and the damp spring soil
when I should be writing.
God knows the faces of our friends are drawn tight
in those last days before their bodies give out, their souls
still burning hard and bright in our memories.
If only God weren’t so silent, so distant with us,
if only God would pull up a chair, act like
a parent imparting advice, say, When I was your age,Rome wasn’t built in a day, keep your friends close
I’ve gathered so many rocks now, each time wondering
when God will show God’s self, or give me a sign—
not a miracle exactly, but a perfect rose, then another,
a summer of roses, safe behind a wall of sea-smoothed rocks.
Acknowledgement: This poem originally appeared in The South Florida Poetry Journal, August 2016.

Lynne Viti is the author of Baltimore Girls (2017) and The Glamorganshire Bible (2018), both  from Finishing Line Press. She blogs at stillinschool.wordpress.comJeff Blum has been a life-long peace activist and community organizer who took up painting after he retired from USAction, which he helped found.  He is a regular in art classes and seeing where it leads him.  

Monday, July 09, 2018

A brilliant idea

I told her
I didn’t
have enough
to do. 
I said,
“I am not
She said,
“What do
you need
to accomplish?
Where do
you need
to get to?”
And then, 
she had
this brilliant
piece of

Make it

Thursday, July 05, 2018

When in Doubt

When in doubt

the birds
the grass
the sun
the stars
all of
your pets
giant sequoias

many reasons

Thursday, June 28, 2018

needs doing
in this moment.
Just because there is
time on the clock
that is not occupied
by assignments or art
or dirty dishes or
weeding or anything
Don’t panic!
Sit in your rocking chair
and stare up into those maple trees
outside the window.
Feel your breath slip
into your nose
and fill your chest.
Remember what they
you are not a
human doing.
You are a
In this moment
just be calm
and observe.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Taking the Plunge, Submitting Paintings to an Art Show

Not long ago, I decided to do a very large painting (3 x 5 feet) for my dear friend Nancy S., who refuses to take a cent to care for my dog, Poco. (Her dog Burt and Poco are great pals.)

I had a fabulous time doing this painting, knowing that there was a person waiting for the end product. (Other paintings can be seen here.)

It was exciting to hang the painting over my friend's sofa. It was wonderful to discover that you can see the painting as you walk up her driveway. It was delightful to hear Nancy say how much she is enjoying the painting.

That partly explains, I think, why I decided to take the plunge and submit three paintings to a juried art show sponsored by the Housatonic Valley Arts League here in Great Barrington, MA.

I chose two large canvases, and a small collaged painting. When it was time to drive the art over to the show location, it was raining torrents. I mean serious rain. We -- my husband and I -- wrapped the paintings in a sheet and then in a moving blanket.

After depositing the canvases, I felt happy. I wasn't expecting to get accepted, but I was glad that I was putting my art out into the world. Finally. After 16 years painting, I am now starting to think about how I might show and sell my work.

Today I got word that the judges chose two of the paintings to appear in the show. The first is called "Westerly," and it is three by four feet.

The second, smaller painting, is called "Patience." It reminds me of the work of Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still, whose paintings appear in a Denver museum devoted exclusively to his work.

I can't imagine that the pieces will sell. But to me, today, it's enough to know that the paintings will hang for a month in town.

The organizers asked for a bio, and this is what I submitted:

I came to painting via my first novel, Dreaming Maples.  The story features several women who are passionate about their art. I spent a lot of time doing research for the book at the Clark Art Museum.  The novel is set in part in North Adams, MA, not far from the Clark. And the climactic scene in the book takes place at the Clark, beneath Renoir's "Blonde Bather."

The way I write fiction, I see every scene before I can write it. Many people say that when they read my books they feel as though they are watching a movie. So as I wrote, what I kept seeing were paintings. My journals from that period are filled with drawings and small paintings.

Two months after the book was published, in 2002, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease (lymphoma.) The chemo was ruthless. I could barely function. I wrote poetry to get me through. But I also started to wander around the house in a chemo-induced fog, cutting out pieces of paper and making colorful collages.

One week, when I was headed to Sloan Kettering, a dear friend who had an art store handed me a fistful of colored pencils and a small art pad. She picked a Black-eyed Susan growing outside the door and she told me that I should draw while waiting for my chemo at Sloan.  I did. It helped so much. Art cured and healed my soul just as the chemo and radiation healed my body.

At some point during that summer of chemo, I painted my first large canvas. I remember standing beside our pond, surrounded by the green lush of summer. My painting: a hillside of fir trees against a beautiful blue sky.  The painting was OK, but I quickly realized that I didn't have much talent as a realistic painter. So I started throwing paint on the canvas, the way Jackson Pollock used to. (My paintings have been compared to those of Joan Mitchell.)

I continued to paint outdoors beside the pond. Whenever a painting wasn't working, I would simply hose it down and start again. Over and over and over, I tried to let the PAINT AND THE DESIGN HAVE THEIR SAY.  My goal always was to just STAY OUT OF THE WAY!

That was 2002. I have been throwing acrylic paint on canvas for 16 years. What have I learned? That painting is alive. More alive than writing. AS VIBRANT AS DIVINE LIGHT! 

You write a story or a novel, and it is made of paper (or it's an ebook.) One sits on a bookshelf and the other resides in your iPad.  Paintings on the other hand are lively and pulsing. The colors heat up your soul. When you are done, you can hang them, store them in the basement or give them to your kids and friends. I think of people who have my paintings and I smile at every one. 

Friday, June 22, 2018

Sister Mysteries: a MeToo# Movement Story

The MeToo# movement is thriving and it’s here to stay. The days when women sat back and suffered in silence while they were being systematically abused and violated and demeaned are over.
It’s still a bit of a mystery to me – and I’m sure to others – why exactly the movement caught fire when it did. Feminism isn’t new. Nor is sexual abuse.
Maybe we have to thank Trump. His blatant sexism, his disgusting comments and his morally-corrupt attitude toward women sent millions of women (and men) into a tailspin.  The resistance movement was born literally the day after the 2017 inauguration when so many Americans marched across the U.S.  protesting the election.
The momentum continues as more and more women are running for elected office, at every level. More and more women are talking about feminism and the power that women have to excel in every part of society.
So maybe there really is no mystery there.
Where there remains a mystery, for me, however, is how it is that I am finally publishing my novel Sister Mysteries right in the midst of this swell of feminist activism. How is it that this book will appear in a matter of weeks, as people are thinking and talking (and talking) about women’s power? 
The nun at the center of my novel endures extreme sexual abuse. The man responsible is her own cousin, but for reasons I won’t spell out here, she is the one who ends up in prison because of his elaborate lies about her.
I started writing this book way back in 1995, as I was finishing up my doctorate in English at SUNY Albany. My area of concentration? Feminist Narrative Strategies. I wrote my first novel as a feminist story. Sister Mysteries appeared about this time as well.
I’ve got no good explanation why after 23 years, I finally managed to finish the book that I never thought I would finish. Why this year? I can’t attribute it to Trump. Or can I? Who knows what lurks in the subconscious mind?
All I know is that the novel offers one more rather elaborate story about sexual harassment. About women being objectified, vilified and violated. Physically hurt and psychologically destroyed by men in California in 1883. (I first wrote the word “destoryed.” There is that too!)
Stay tuned. The book is due in mid-July.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Morning Moment

Now comes
this moment
when pink
the color of
cotton candy 
the wind is
cool against
my shoulders
birds gurgle back
and forth the
sun glows on
the sea of
yellow and
white flowers

in the meadow
the blue of
the sky is so
clear so hard
to describe
the moment
is too full 
words always
fall short 
just close your eyes
open them and


Saturday, June 02, 2018

The Poem That Accompanies "Sister Mysteries"

Several years ago I came across a poem that reminded me of the story I was trying to write in my novel, Sister Mysteries -
which will be published in a matter of weeks. When I tried to research where the poem first appeared, in order to get permission to use it in the book, I found out, sadly, that the author, Judith Ortiz Cofer (who was my age), had passed away in December of 2016. I called her publisher, the University of Georgia Press, but they couldn't tell me if the poem was in one of the books they had published for her.
On a whim, I did a Google search to see if I could locate her husband, John Cofer. I found his address in Georgia and wrote to him. He was most gracious -- and still heartbroken over the death of his beloved wife.
Mr. Cofer, who handles Ms. Ortiz Cofer's  literary estate, gave me permission to use the poem, and I present  it here. She did in 144 words what it took me about 95,000 in the book.

By Judith Ortiz Cofer

A sloe-eyed dark woman shadows me.
In the mornings she sings
Spanish love songs in a high
falsetto filling my shower stall
with echoes.
She is by my side
in front of the mirror as I slip
into my tailored skirt and she
into her red cotton dress.
She shakes out her black mane as I
run a comb through my close-cropped cap.
Her mouth is like a red bull’s eye
daring me.
Everywhere I go I must
make room for her: she crowds me
in elevators where others wonder
at all the space I need.
At night her weight tips my bed, and
it is her wild dreams that run rampant
through my head exhausting me. Her heartbeats,
like dozens of spiders carrying the poison
of her restlessness over the small
distance that separates us,
drag their countless legs
over my bare flesh.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Healing with Positive Affirmations!

Louise Hay, whose book, You Can Heal Your Life, has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide, passed away last August. But her teachings live on. What follows are some positive affirmations that Hay recommended people listen to and repeat over and over again. They are brought to us by Hay House, the publishing company that Hay launched in 1984.

Check out Louise Hay's Wikipedia bio. She suffered severe abuse and rape as a child. Later, she developed cervical cancer as an adult but refused conventional treatment. Says Wikipedia:
"Hay described how in 1977 or 1978 she was diagnosed with "incurable" cervical cancer, and how she came to the conclusion that by holding on to her resentment for her childhood abuse and rape she had contributed to its onset. She reported how she had refused conventional medical treatment, and began a regime of forgiveness, coupled with therapy, nutrition, reflexology, and occasional colonic enemas. She claimed in the interview that she rid herself of the cancer by this method, but, while swearing to its truth, admitted that she had outlived every doctor who could confirm this story."
I approve of myself exactly as I am right now.
I have already begun the healing process.
I am willing to release the need in me that is creating this condition of fear and anxiety.
I am responsible for my life.
I am willing to change and to be happy and positive.
I deserve to be well.
I deserve to love myself, exactly as I am now.
I trust the process of life to take care of me.
I am my own best friend.
I am willing to forgive the past.
I can change my negative outlook by flipping the tired old script.
I forgive myself.
I dissolve all resentment and guilt and shame and fear.
My willingness to forgive begins your healing process.
I let go of sorrow.
I let go of tension and anxiety.
I let myself melt into the moment.
I embrace the WONDROUS BEING of life.
I am relaxed and smiling from my heart.
I respect and revere the life force and all of its mysteries.
I am ONE with all of life.
I am good enough just the way I am.
I don’t need to achieve anything to be happy.
I am choosing to use my power to help heal myself.
I handle my own life with joy and ease.
I am unique and special and wonderful.
I am worthy of my own love and the love of others.
I have a right to exist and to thrive.
I am living my life the way I want.
I choose to be well.
I choose to stay well.
I have lots of energy.
I am becoming totally well.
I am taking time for myself.
I have strong reasons for healing and for living.
Every hand that comes into contact with my body is a healing hand.
My body responds amazingly well to treatment.
Strength and wholeness return to my body.
It is now safe for me to get well and to stay well.
I have vibrant health.
All my organs, muscles and joints are working perfectly.
I release and dissolve all resistance.
I am open and receptive to my highest good and greatest joy.
I am surrounded by loving, healing energies.
I feel good about myself.
I have a right to do what I want to do.
I take loving care of my body.
I sleep well and awaken each day, refreshed.
I am loved and welcome wherever I go.
I trust the process of life to bring me my highest good.
I love myself, exactly the way I am.
I am now free.
I listen with love to my body’s messages.
I know I am worth healing.
It is easy for me to change.
I am whole and complete.
I release and dissolve all resistance.
I approve of myself, exactly as I am right now.
I am One with all of life.
I am at PEACE!
All is well in my world.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Hope For Immigrants

Note: This story appeared first in Berkshire Homestyle Magazine.

During the past year, as the Trump administration has been tightening immigration enforcement and threatening to end programs protecting hundreds of thousands of immigrants, the Berkshire Immigrant Center, now 20 years old, has been expanding.

It's a good thing.

Brooke Mead, who joined the Pittsfield-based BIC in 2002 and became executive director in July, says she hears from terrified immigrants every day.  Since Trump’s election, Mead says she has seen “a huge rush of people” with green cards trying to become naturalized citizens. “These people have long felt the U.S. is their home but they didn’t see the urgency of citizenship before.”
To aid immigrants seeking citizenship, BIC offers legal help, advocacy and procedural counseling; the center charges a fraction of what private immigration attorneys charge.
BIC has a caseload of more than 700 immigrants representing more than 70 countries around the world. Each year, BIC represents about 10 percent of their clients in citizen applications. BIC also offers an array of other vital services to Berkshire immigrants. Among those services are language classes, settlement services, as well as referrals to housing, daycare, health care, continuing education, career counseling and social service needs.
People are so fearful about their immigration status these days, she says, that her organization and others that serve immigrants have seen lighter turnout for some educational and cultural programs in recent months. “We’ve always felt we are a safe space, but lately we have had to reassure people of that,” Mead says. “People are worrying about congregating. There was even a question last September about whether the Latino festival would take place.” (It did.)
Considering the abrupt and arbitrary way that many immigrants have been deported in the past year, it’s not surprising people would be wary of congregating.
One Berkshire County man recently deported is married to one of Mead’s good friends. A very stable homeowner and highly skilled workman, the father of two young children who “did not even have a traffic ticket, not even a parking ticket,” this man typifies the situation faced by so many of the nation’s 12 million undocumented immigrants.
 “It takes so much time and money to deport somebody,” Mead says. “We don’t have the money to deport 12 million people.” Moreover, she says, with immigrants contributing so much to our economy and enriching our culture and society, “it’s not in our national interest morally and rationally to deport all those people.”
Some of those seeking Mead’s expertise are young adults covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, a program enacted in 2012 by President Obama to protect young adults who came as children to this country with their undocumented immigrant parents.
A lot of uncertainty surrounds the DACA program. The Trump administration tried to close the program down as of March 5th but a February 26thSupreme Court decision keeps DACA open for application renewals.  The ultimate fate of the program is up in the air. Meanwhile, DACA recipients are not allowed to travel, Mead says.
There are also big questions about the future for immigrants currently covered under the Temporary Protected Status program. President Trump announced in January that TPS – which covers thousands of Salvadorans, Haitians and Nicaraguans – will expire in September of 2019.
Like so many critics of what she calls the nation’s “broken” immigration program, Mead says that “without a comprehensive immigration program, everyone is vulnerable” to deportation.
Thankfully, as the immigration crisis has intensified, so too, has the level of public support. Donations to BIC are up. Requests for BIC to conduct programs and community presentations about immigration have also increased.
“For so many years we’ve been trying to say how important immigration is, how it’s worth donating to,” Mead says. “For the first time ever, we’re definitely receiving love and affection from the community.”
As a result, the center has been blossoming this year. BIC moved from a one-room office in the First Baptist Church on South Street into St. Stephen’s Church on East Street, just off Park Square in Pittsfield. At St. Stephen’s, the center has expanded into seven private offices, a reception area and a file room; the center has access to an auditorium in the church as well.  
In her new role as executive director, Mead hired a staff, including two new caseworkers and a receptionist. (The former executive director, Hilary Greene, is also staying on part-time.) Meanwhile, the immigrant center’s board increased from four to eleven members, and launched the center’s first development program, complete with committees and specific goals for public outreach.
Mead says it’s important to know that BIC gets no state or federal aid for its work. About $85,000 of the center’s budget, which this year will total about $230,000, comes from grants. Another $30,000 to $40,000 comes from client fees, presentations and sponsorships. She says that public support is critically important, now, as it will be into the future.
“There’s always going to be a need to navigate immigration law. We just hope people will remember that, no matter what happens going forward.”
Mead grew up in Williamstown, and she holds a master’s degree in Spanish from Middlebury College.  Having lived in Venezuela and Mexico City, she has experience living as an immigrant. In December 2013, she became registered as an accredited representative with the federal Board of Immigration Appeals, meaning she is entitled to practice immigration law.
It’s clear talking to her that the work she does on behalf of clients goes way beyond a job. It’s a passion. Meaning that sometimes, like when her friend’s husband was deported, or when a client is in a rough situation, she cries. When a client triumphs, being sworn in as a citizen and voting, she cheers.
Mead had a child four years ago, and soon after she began working with an African-born woman who was trying to become a citizen. The woman herself had a child, but because of daycare problems, the child was back in Africa living with her grandmother.
The African woman had a green card, and she was studying to be a nurse. When she came to BIC, the same thing happened every time. “She would come in, then she’d cry, and I’d cry.”
Part of Mead’s job is to help clients strategize and solve immigration problems. Part of it is just being there, as a cheerleader, supporting a woman who is desperately missing her baby. (The African mother became a citizen; she and the baby were reunited.)
And so, Mead ends on a positive note: “we have more wins than we have losses. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”
In the case of her good friend, whose husband was deported, it’s not clear when her friend will see her husband again. There are two children who are now without their father.  Mead acknowledges that. “It’s depressing as heck that he was deported. But there’s still three people here. My job is to figure out how can I ease their situation.”
Through all the turmoil, Mead says that faith and hope are key to her work.
“You have to have hope and faith,” she says. “You really have to believe things are going to work out for your clients, even in the current climate. Otherwise, you’re not going to make it!

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Coming Full Circle Back to Flamenco

The book -- my third novel, Sister Mysteries -- is finished. 
The cover is designed (using this guitar painting.) 
I've proofread all 319 pages. 
So why can't I let go of it?

A few minutes ago, I read the last chapter out loud. 
That's the chapter where the writer, Gina Rinaldi, finally decides that 
she has to get past life regression therapy.
As the session ended, Gina was spent.
But I wanted to keep going.
I know it's crazy, but I have lived in this character Renata for more than two decades.
As my dear writing friend Peg Woods has said for more than 20 years,
"You don't want to stop writing this book."
She's right.

Editing the book has immersed me once again in Renata's life.
Just like in 1995, I feel like I can't get enough flamenco music.
I listen to it on my iPhone or CD player day and night.
I feel like I'm breathing the music. Or it's breathing me. 
I have even decided that I might try taking lessons again (I studied guitar years ago with 
Maria Zemantauski, a Troy, New York-based virtuoso. She is an endlessly patient teacher.)

The story is deeply knit inside me.
Maybe the guitar will help release it from me.

Stay tuned. Sister Mysteries will be out in June.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

A feel-good story, celebrating CLEAN WATER on a Navajo reservation!

Readers might recall a MyStoryLives post from last April. It featured a water project that was underway at a school on a Navajo reservation in Arizona.

For years, Saint Michael's Special Education School had to buy its water in gigantic jugs, because the tap water often poured out black and foul-smelling into the school's sinks. The school, which has been operating for 40 years, offers services to about 60 children and adults with moderate to severe disabilities.

St. Michaels was in desperate need of clean water. Enter an organization called Dig Deep -- a Los Angeles-based non-profit devoted to helping communities dig and maintain low-cost water supplies.

At this time last year, I wrote asking readers for donations to help raise the $100,000 needed for the new filtration system. 

Last week, I called Dig Deep to see where the situation stood. They wrote back with great news: Dig Deep is putting the finishing touches on the filtration system at St. Michaels!  Check out this video. 

One of my readers, writer Liza Frenette, found another wonderful video.

Watching them will make you smile. And remind you how precious clean water is.

Dig Deep says that tomorrow -- March 23rd -- is World Water Day!

What better way to celebrate than having a community get clean water. Says Dig Deep:

"We did this together. Last year, you gave a generous donation to make sure the incredible students at St. Michael's didn't have to drink water that was black, stinky and toxic. Now every drop is clean and clear because of you.

But St. Michael's still has a HUGE water bill to pay -- $10,050 every year. So today we're raising $50,000 to cover that water bill for five years."

Thanks to everyone who donated.

Perhaps you want to help St. Michael's out again? To donate, go to this link.

Note: the article on St. Michael's appeared first in the Huffington Post.

Thursday, March 15, 2018


As blank as this white screen
is the view outside the window.
Snow falling, snow blowing
Snow billowing snow
mounding snow rounding
snow mounding
higher and higher
on every surface.

Why does this perfect whiteness
of an empty winter page
strike up my anxiety?

It’s as if I were trapped in school
And no matter that I didn’t
know what the hell was
going on, I was supposed to be writing,
Somehow I still had to fill the
white sheet of paper
with some sort of bright and clever ideas.

Today I sit beside the window
And force myself to slow
down down down
to match the falling snow.
No moving and
perfect silence.

One thing I marvel at:
that in a matter of days
it will

Monday, March 12, 2018

Pink Tulips, Observed

I bought the last batch of pink tulips at the grocery store.
Came home and set them carefully into a clear glass vase
and stared.
The tulips are the color
of the two lips of a newborn,
the blossoms' flesh cupped in yellow and white at the center.

I thought, I will take a photograph and share it.
Nothing photographs quite right when there isn’t enough light.
I carried the flowers around the house,
setting them here and there,
turning on all the lights,
even the emergency lantern,
taking one lousy photo after another.
I even set them next to the bathtub.

Waiting for sunlight to brighten your tulips
is a little like waiting for spring is a lot like
More or less, it's a waste of time.
Is always the invitation
Is always the challenge.

Two days later,
this morning,
the sun rose on the tulips

And they are glorious.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

As in WAM: Where Arts and Activism Meet!

Arts and activism don’t always go hand in hand. But when they do come together, the power can be explosive, as in WAM!

WAM in this case stands for Where Arts and Activism Meet, a pioneering women’s theatre company in Berkshire County now entering its ninth year.

The dynamo who co-founded the company, Kristen van Ginhoven, did so after reading Half the Sky:Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. The book, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, profiles extraordinarily courageous women who achieved heroic accomplishments despite huge life obstacles. The book changed van Ginhoven’s life.

Trained as an actor and director, Canadian-born van Ginhoven decided to start a theatre company in Berkshire County that would feature women playwrights, actors and theatre artists.

But that wasn’t all. Her vision – which has come to pass – was for WAM to donate approximately one-fourth of the proceeds from each of its productions to non-profit organizations that serve women and girls both locally, across the country and around the world.

Last November, the Board of the Berkshire Theatre Critics Association paid tribute to van Ginhoven’s remarkable accomplishments through WAM by selecting her to receive the prestigious Larry Murray Award, which recognizes a theatre or an individual for advancing social, political, or community issues.

In WAM’s first year, van Ginhoven admits she wasn’t altogether sure her newly formed theater company would fly.  She recalls the day that the company’s first production, called “A WAM Welcome,” opened back in April 2010.

“No one had bought tickets beforehand,” she says. “I didn’t think anybody would show up.” The first woman who came up to the box office wanted to buy a ticket for herself and a woman friend who had cancer.  Van Ginhoven was very grateful to sell those first two tickets.

Altogether, the production went on to have four performances with a total of 100 people in attendance. That first year, WAM donated $1,000 to a group called Women for Women International, a program that teaches women business, life and vocational skills to help them earn a living.

This past year WAM mounted two productions: in the spring, a remount of Lauren Gunderson’s “Emilie,” first presented by WAM in 2013. The play explores the life of La Marquise Emilie du Chatelet, who in addition to being Voltaire’s mistress, also managed to promote modern physics during the Age of Enlightenment.

In the fall of 2017, WAM presented “The Last Wife,” by Kate Hennig, a marvelous exploration of the trials and tribulations of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr. The play – which I thought equal to or better than many Broadway shows I’ve seen -- earned great reviews and ran for four weeks. 
Altogether, 1500 people saw the play.

Two organizations benefited from WAM’s 2017 productions. “Emilie” generated $2500 for the Flying Cloud Institute, which provided scholarship money for 10 young women to attend a Young Women in Science training program at Simon’s Rock and Berkshire Community College during the summer of 2017.

“The Last Wife” generated $9500 on behalf of Soldier On, a national organization that provides housing and other services to women veterans who are homeless. In Massachusetts, van Ginhoven says, Soldier On operates a “beautiful, comfortable and cozy” residential facility in the town of Leeds, located about halfway between Pittsfield and Northampton. Specifically, the WAM contribution will provide on-going support to female vets as they make the transition out of the Soldier On home and back into the “real” world.

Van Ginhoven says that several women from Soldier On attended the final performance of “The Last Wife” in early November.

“We were very moved, as one of the women spoke about how she had lived in her car. She lost custody of her children, attempted suicide and ended up in the hospital.” That’s where she heard about Soldier On’s housing facility. Today, the vet is working to make a transition out of the home. 

She is also working to try to get her children back.

“We were thrilled to know that we at WAM would have a small part in building her life again,” van Ginhoven says.

In total, WAM has mounted a total of 11 productions and has donated $41,500 to a total of 13 not-for-profits benefiting women. Van Ginhoven speaks fondly of several of the projects WAM has supported, some of which are on the other side of the world.

In 2014, for example, WAM donated $5000 to the Mother of Peace Orphanage in South Africa, where 13 housemothers raise 84 orphaned children. The money from WAM allowed the director of the orphanage to give the housemothers a paycheck for the first time.  Each woman was paid $385 --approximately $4,000 in South African dollars-- sufficient for one woman to put an addition on her home so that she can bring in rental income.

Closer to home, WAM in 2013 donated $3400 to a Pittsfield-based organization called The Rite of Passage and Empowerment Program, a group that serves young women of color in grades eight to 12. Operated by a dynamic community leader named Shirley Edgerton, the Empowerment program offers Berkshire County girls a wide variety of nurturing and educational activities, including, each spring, a tour of the nation’s historically black colleges. WAM’s donation paid for that tour in the Spring 2014.

WAM also offers an on-going educational program called Girls Ensemble to young women ages 13 to 18, who must audition for the group. With guidance from WAM instructors, the girls write and perform a piece of theatre based on issues in their own lives. This year, Girls Ensemble will operate a two-week intensive program.

WAM has also collaborated with IS 183 and Girls Inc. to offer acting classes to young women in the community.

When I tell van Ginhoven that I am a bit awed by all of the theater work, as well as all of the philanthropy, that WAM has under its belt, she laughs, and admits that her company has grown tremendously in its first 8 years.  “We’re pretty amazed ourselves at what we’ve accomplished,” she says. “We’re nothing if not ambitious.”

Still, by comparison to what she calls the “Big Four” theater companies in Berkshire County – Barrington Stage, Berkshire Theater company, Williamstown and Shakespeare and Co. – WAM remains a modest endeavor. But that works just fine with van Ginhoven. “We’re like the turtle and not the rabbit. We grow really slowly.”

The company’s 2018 theatre program will be announced within a few weeks, and in July at their yearly gala, WAM will announce the non-profit organization that will benefit from the production.  In the past, van Ginhoven was on her own selecting a beneficiary for the company’s donations. This year, however, WAM is forming a committee to decide which group will be selected. The committee, she says, will include an artist, a board member and a volunteer.

How does she go about selecting a play for WAM? Van Ginhoven says that she reads “a ton of plays, “ always on the lookout for scripts that feature women “trying to be authentic in leadership” roles. 

Her rule of thumb: “If I read a play and I get goosebumps, it’s in the pile” of possibilities. Then, she says, “it’s a question of when is the right moment” for a particular play.

She selected “The Last Wife” right after the 2016 Presidential election. The play’s themes, which focus on women’s precarious position in a male-dominated political world, fit the nation’s mood. “I had seen the play, and the day after the election, I was feeling so bereft.” Some aspects of the play angered her; some thrilled her. In the end, she decided it worked, and it did.

This year, however, she admits to be being confused about how WAM should respond to the events surrounding the “Me Too” campaign, and the nationwide groundswell of feminist activism against sexual harassment. “There has been so much conversation. We are thrilled for this conversation, it’s long overdue, but what does it mean for society and for how young men and women are supposed to behave? Nothing is black and white, as much as I wish it were.”

In the end, van Ginhoven will consult with her recently hired associate artistic director. And she will probably make the decision the way she often has in the past: by trusting her instincts. “I’m a gut instinct kind of girl,” she says.