Monthly Archives: June 2009

taking responsibility: constance barnes and the braidwood enquiry

i was going to offer you another poem of sarah’s in this post but there’s something i need to say before we move on to that.

the braidwood enquiry into robert dziekanski’s death, the polish immigrant who was tasered at the vancouver airport in the fall of 2007.

and constance barnes.

right from the very beginning, the RCMP – the royal mounted canadian police – lied presented their own version of the truth. through their teeth, fancy red hats and polished black boots. the latest in their sometimes daily refusal to take any responsibility whatsoever is to deny the existence of an email that details how they decided to use a taser on their way to the airport.

now let’s talk about constance barnes.

constance barnes is a vancouver parks board commissioner, single mother of two children, employed at dr sun yat sen gardens – and she screwed up. she drank, she fell asleep at the wheel, and then ploughed into a house.

and then she apologized.

see the difference?

people are complaining that she didn’t apologize at the right time, that she didn’t use the right words to describe that she’s going to AA, that what she did was not a “mistake” but a … well, i don’t know what – etc., etc. who cares!

she took responsibility, and she apologized.

what a concept.

i don’t have a clue what’s going on behind closed doors at the RCMP. is there something even bigger they’re hiding? are they too steeped in a culture of secrecy that they can’t see what they’re doing? is there a boss somewhere who can’t handle looking at the truth? are they getting paid big bucks by taser? who knows.

what i DO know is that responsibility liberates. responsibility is for mature, grown-up people who know that there are no gods among humans, that we’re not perfect, and that we make mistakes. awful, horrendous mistakes sometimes. and that the way to show you’re a woman or a man is to stand as tall as possible, warts and all and to say, “YES, i did this. what can i do to make it better?”

it liberates because after you take responsibility, you don’t have to cower beneath fear, shame and guilt.

free-form writing frenzy #6: try softer!

playing cna capoeira

elizabeth’s writing prompt #6

“when you try too hard, it doesn’t work.”

when you try hard, period, never mind “too”. makes me think of trying to eat an old piece of dark rye bread, back in my grandparent’s place. they had the bread guy come buy once every two weeks. yes, every two weeks. dark rye bread keeps FOREVER. it tastes absolutely heavenly the first day or so. it’s one of the things i beeline to when i go back to germany. and then after a while it tastes good and then a little oldish, and then stale, and then in the end, it kills your teeth.

that’s trying hard. goes well with the german mentality. “the will of the child must be broken!” that’s the parenting advice that my grandfather grew up with. really progressive stuff back then. the child was a wild, dangerous animal that needed to be broken in and tamed.

well, things have changed. i wouldn’t mind being a wild animal. of course i have romantic notions about that. wild and free like the eagle! not like the cougars in whistler right now who are hungry and emaciated and come into the villages looking for easy prey because that’s all they can handle.

when you try too hard, it doesn’t work. that cougar tried hard, he was in survival mode, and it didn’t work – they killed him. being in survival mode often gets you that, doesn’t it. i’d rather be in play mode. try soft. try gentle. try because it’s fun. try because – why not? maybe not even try. just play.

image by children at risk foundation

free-form writing frenzy #5: truth. epistemology.

elizabeth’s writing prompt #5

my quirks and errors are part of my truth.

truth. such a harsh mistress. in order to know my truth, i have to know myself. like anyone else, i have i don’t know how many bones, i don’t know how many muscles, i don’t know how many kilometres of gut, hair and blood vessels. and those are the things that are more or less knowable – do i know them? no.

the truth, when we talk about it, is supposed to be about the stuff inside. inside the soul, heart, mind, psyche, brain, whatever container your current state of science tells you. nobody has ever made an inventory of it the way they have for the gross physicality of us.

so i ask you, how am i supposed to know my truth?

my quirks and errors are part of my truth as i know it this moment. how’s that for a sentence.

but what do i know of myself this moment? that i am slightly tipsy from the bordeaux i just had? that i want to go to bed? that i enjoy doing this writing frenzy?

if we talk about truth, we need to talk about knowledge. says i. i know others disagree, this is all epistemology stuff, stuff i’m supposed to have at the tip of my fingertongue but i don’t. anyway, i say, this moment, with my knowledge and awareness at 11:22 at night, that without knowledge, truth doesn’t get through to me.

who owns the poem?

on april 18, 2009 sarah luczaj’s guest post “the lyric self” probed the question of “who is the ‘i’ in a contemporary lyric poem?” in this guest post today, janet riehl brings the question of ownership into the discussion as she now muses on and pursues it in this post.

sarah luczaj is a british therapist and writing living in poland. janet is a writer, artist, and musician living in st. louis. morecently she’s produced an audio book “sightlines: a family love story in poetry and music”   which expanded upon and amplified  “sightlines: a poet’s diary.”  you can explore her work at riehl life: village wisdom for the 21st century; there are also videos.

sarah luczaj opens her april post with a concise literary history of the development of the personal narrator (the “i”) in poetry. beginning with the 1800’s romantic era, sarah tracks its evolution in the 1900s and on into the present. as she noted, at its best this personal style of narration offered poets a new way to express individuality and authenticity.

like sarah in her own work, when i readied my volume of story poems, sightlines: a poet’s diary, for publication, i was confronted with the issue of “revealing self and others in poems.” (the issue is not specific to poetry alone; it is also one that prose memoirists struggle with.) in my case, the i-narrator was close to the same “i” that “made the toast…did the laundry.”  i wrote the literal and emotional truth as clearly as i understood it.

it was not an easy task. my older sister had recently perished in a senseless car wreck. the injuries my mother suffered required months of recuperation. in writing about the accident and its aftermath, i unavoidably probed at the raw wounds in our hearts.

the poems that spoke directly about family members and neighbors raised the question:  as the author, what is my responsibility to them? do they “own” the poems in any way? are they the ultimate holders of the truth of any poem dealing with them? do they “own” the truth?

what does ownership mean?

struggling with this made me come to believe that in the context of my own work, the concept of “ownership” is amorphous. for my purposes, the definition of ownership does not refer to legally defined real or intellectual property rights. rather, it refers to ethical ownership. deciding ownership requires taking into account spiritual, factual, experiential, and aesthetic elements, as well as respect and courtesy.

so who did my work belong to? who owned the truth of any given poem or the project as a whole?

since i was writing about family and community history, there were times when i turned to my father. in his 90s now, his memory is far clearer than mine, and he can reel off dates and details like a seasoned game show contestant. in one poem titled “walking riehl lane,” the viewpoints between poet (me) and historian (my father) amiably clashed.

the poem features the freeman family, whose connection to ours reaches back to my great-grandfather’s time. one particular stanza relates the story of how charlie freeman integrated his son, dickie, into the boy scout troop. my story of meeting charlie’s younger son, jimmy, on riehl lane follows in another stanza. to improve the flow of the poem, i melded the two brothers into one character, whom i called jimmie.

poetic license

my father agreed that the technique worked well in conveying this bit of history. but his historian’s heart protested. “facts! facts!”  my writer’s sensibility retorted, “poetic license!” we tossed the words back and forth like a baseball until we grinned, knowing that in this instance there would be no compromise on my part. i claimed ownership of the crafting of the poem and chose not to defer to my father’s deeply felt difference of opinion.

this question of ownership-in both the ethical and aesthetic sense-is the standard i used throughout both the book and audio book “sightlines” projects.

in two poems about eight-year-old amelia, my great-niece, i’d drawn on material from her life. i asked her mother to read and discuss the poems with her. amelia suggested a few changes, which made the poems richer and more poignant. at eight, amelia wasn’t concerned about subtle emotional or spiritual undertones. facts were what mattered to amelia, and her suggestions reflected that. she owned the facts of her life. i, again, controlled the craft of the poem and incorporated her perception of reality so as to create an aesthetically pleasing whole.

in contrast, there was work i did not allow anyone to read until after publication. i knew that there were those who would undoubtedly be unhappy with some of the poems, but i wanted the work to reflect what i saw, believed, and experienced as the truth. i didn’t want their negative input before the fact. if they were upset that i hadn’t prettied up or whitewashed what our family was going through, so be it. the poems expressed my personal truth. i owned them.

the subsequent audio book included both my poems and music from my father’s youth, so we teamed up on the project. i retained ownership of the overall shape of project and my personal writing. however, i ceded ownership to my father for how his music was presented in relationship to my work. he owned the music not only because he had written much of it himself, but mainly because this music was the purest expression of his heart’s blood.

elsewhere in sarah’s post she asks, “what is the difference between writing a diary and a poem, and is it really the case that a diary is necessarily more authentic?”

“writing poetry is the act of distilling the essence,” she holds. journaling, in contrast, can include as much slush as we need to process what we’re experiencing in our lives and in our souls. we “write poems to find out what can be said about something.”

in “sightlines: a poet’s diary, “as the subtitle indicates i straddled the line between poem and diary entry. i wrote at least one poem every day in my journal, sometimes as many as three. i wrote early in the morning, in bed, tea at my side. at the sounds of slight stirring by my parents, i would rush downstairs to take over the caretaking of my mother. throughout the day i made notes in order to have material to work on later.

how did this writing differ from my usual prose journal writing? during this time almost all my journal-writing energy was channeled into the poetry. my intention was to create a book to share with others, and journaling in the poetic form suited the intimate nature of what i conceived the book to be. i journaled in poetry, later crafting the work into finished pieces.

in a typical journal entry, i might have written “i feel sad this morning,” a factual report of emotion. in the completed book that sorrow became a leitmotif running through the 90 poems. rather than using direct statement, i recorded our hearts in understated language and images.

sarah says, “this seems to be what we are doing all the time, taking people’s stories inside and being changed by them.” this was certainly how it played out for me.

as our family slogged together through our grief in the wake of my sister’s death, i observed my brother, my mother, my father, and myself. we each had our stories. i absorbed these stories and released them again as poetry. the “i” in every one is all of us and each of us. and the “i” is the real life me, telling the story as truthfully and as clearly as i could. these stories were not just for our family. no, these stories reached out to join the stories of the world-and to embrace all the families who knew grief and loss all too intimately.

this post followed the previous stop on the tour at sharmana russell’s blog.  the next stop on the tour will be eden maxwell.

free-form writing frenzy #4: motivate or mayonnaise?

free-form writing prompt #4: are you motivated?

are you motivated? are you motivated? are you motivated? are you motivated yet???? sounds like some frenzied sports coach. yuk. i don’t WANNA be motivated. so there. hows DEM apples, as t would say.

it sounds like someone with a whip. i don’t really like whips. slave driver. i don’t like slave drivers.

what i DO like: soft, friendly people who look at me with their heads to the side and ask cool questions. like, “what delights you?” “what do you WANT?” as in what do you fancy right now. a pony? a peonie? a penny? a p p p p … hm what else could be wanted that starts with a p? a penis? a putterfly? penny pincher?

those are things and words that i like. what do YOU like? what do YOU fancy? what are words that make YOU go, yes! yum! hmmm? yum?

yum is a good word. can you tell i like food? but who doesn’t. yum is so much better than “motivate”. mayonnaise is better than motivate.

what mayonnaises you?

and then there is a picture of munch’s “cry” beside the quote that elizabeth chose for the quote. that doesn’t help. maybe that’s why i went “yuk” instead of “yum” when i read “motivate”.

it also makes me think of tony robbins and his big teeth. the king of motivation. the emperor of “just do it”. he means well, he really does, i believe him, somehow, even though he probably lies through his white teeth once in a while. but he does it kinda cute-like. i can’t get mad at him. and i get his desire to get people motivated. so that’s ok, tony. i’m just not ready to go and drop $1,309 in your lap so that you can MOTIVATE me.

i’ll stick with mayonnaise for now. white gooey half-fat mayonnaise. with tuna. or in the mustard sauce. yup. that motivates me.

free-form writing frenzy #3: creative mistakes

creative mistakes

today’s writing prompt is:

i create problems for myself just so i can get creatively turned on.

ha! this is for you, ray [a lawyer i worked for back in the eighties]. numbers here, numbers there, tumbling all over the place and rarely getting to their assigned seat. number monkeys. taxes unpaid. misspellings. words misheard. it took me years to realize that apart from the fact that i was and still am simply addle-brained (my friend pete quily would say i’m ADD-le brained) (nothing french about that) i also need creative freedom. so if i don’t have it, i will make it. page too white? i’ll add some white-out. law practice going too smoothly? i’ll find some shiny stones to throw on the path. look how they glitter! look how they sun themselves in the light of my “mistakes”. aaah, that was good. that’s what i said after a particularly glaring mistake – only i couldn’t hear it and you couldn’t either. all we could hear was the cacophony of misunderstanding, the screech of logic that planted itself squarely in our path, demanding ransom. “why would you do that?” would you say, would i say, and logic would be happy. yes, that’s a logical question. and then, “how will we prevent it next time?” and logic would be happy again because that’s the next step. only they were the wrong questions, so we could never answer them satisfactorily.

that’s a nice word, by the way: satisfactorily. a little hard to type. oh, and then there was this coworker who would type and type and type with the dictaphone on and daydream while she did it and hardly make a mistake. wow. so impressive. and then another one who said, disdainfully, “i don’t make mistakes”. wow, again. how do you not make mistakes? mis-takes? takes are too boring. there needs to be an over-take, and under-take, a between-take, a take-out, a take-over, a takedown, and all kinds of japanese words that start with take-. the mistake is just the beginning. and so i let my mistake monkey out once in a while because otherwise i would explode, not knowing that what i needed was to cre-ate. mis-take. cre-take. mis-ate. again, how japanese this all looks! that i didn’t know back then either, that i would end up with so much japanese in my life.


for those of you who want to know what this is about, here is elizabeth’s post:

this is the third post in a free-form writing frenzy productivity experiment.

each afternoon for a week i’ll post a writing prompt and some simple instructions. the next morning i’ll post a quote that has something to do with the prompt, so you can take a peek at differences or similarities in how someone else relates to the same thing. some relationships will be predictable or subtle, some off the wall.

make a mental note now, and again after writing. ask yourself:

  • am i productive?
  • am i encouraged?
  • am i creative?
  • am i curious?


  1. be ready to write, word processor open, or pad and pencil in hand. set a timer for five minutes.
  2. clear your mind.
  3. click “reveal writing prompt” below, and look at the prompt for the space of one deep, quiet breath.
  4. as you start the second breath, clear your mind of expectations.
  5. write, full on, whatever comes to you, related to the prompt or not, for five minutes. do not stop to correct anything – just go.
  6. when the time is up, you have to stop.
  7. get up and wiggle. yes, that’s what i said. move. laugh. growl. pat self on back.

you’re welcome to leave comments about the experience and anything that comes of it, including links, but please don’t paste in your entire prompt-generated exercise. what you’ve got right now is a personal thing. what happens next is up to you.

image by m-c

june 2009 buddhist carnival

kuan yin in the grassfor those of you who are not familiar with this blog, every 15th of the month i post a collection of posts about buddhist topics.  it all started as a contribution to blog carnival in november 2007.  over time, i emancipated myself from blog carnival but the name remains.  blog carnivals are themed “readers digests” of the blogosphere.

so – what do we have today?

a poem – wu!

first link, as always, a poem.  this is from an article on philip whalen’s poetry at the poetry foundation.  here’s a little teaser

unless i ask i am not alive
until i find out who is asking
i am only half alive and there is only

(an ingrown toenail?)

growing up buddhist

jaimal, author of saltwater buddha, a book that looks at the spiritual side of surfing, had an interesting article in the buddhist magazine tricycle a while ago about growing up in a hippie family

my rebellion was characterized by a nuanced differentiation strategy of the karl rove variety: i framed my parents as flaky new age hippies with buddhist leanings-the spirit rock type. i sneered at my mom’s angel books and my dad’s yoga guru, who changed his name every few months. meanwhile, i would break free of their fluffiness and be the real deal. i would become a northern california buddhist without a trace of hippiness, an endeavor that i now realize could be compared to living in france and shunning cheese.

the full article is here.

decency is the absence of strategy

william harryman, who has contributed much to this carnival, had an interesting little tidbit on his friendfeed the other day from chögyam trungpa rinpoche:

it is of utmost importance to realize that the warrior’s approach should be simple-minded sometimes, very simple and straightforward. that makes it very beautiful: you having nothing up your sleeve; therefore a sense of genuineness comes through. that is decency.

gay men, straight women, non-duality and kuan yin

here is a reference to some research that points out the similarity between certain functions  in the brains of gay men and straight women.  the author then makes a noteworthy connection between this finding and androgyny in buddhism:

one of the most revered figures in buddhism, avalokiteshvara is often seen as androgynous. in the form of avalokiteshvara this bodhisattva is seen as a man but when referred to as guan yin (kuan yin/kannon) he/she is seen as a woman. this makes total sense to me as avalokiteshvara/guan yin is seen as the bodhisattva of compassion and thus seems perfectly natural as that compassion is spread to all beings equally regardless of gender and sexual orientation.

avalokiteshvara/kuan yin is literally the embodiment of non-duality in regards to sexuality.

the rest of this article is here, on the buddhist blog.

dr. monster and buddhism as a religion

an interesting article at god knows what on the history behind the religious aspects of japanese buddhism today, as describedin this excerpt:

the day-to-day life of buddhist priests of all sects was filled with the performance of exorcisms, funerals, distributing healing charms, and spells for rain. many of these rituals were for intended for apotropiac purposes, banishing monsters, limiting their negative effects, or transforming the curses of ancestors and kami into blessings.

(what might surprise people is that with the removal of certain rituals like ‘spells for rain’ this description still largely applies to the day-to-day life of buddhist priests and monks in most buddhist countries, including japan.)

western, eastern and psychiatric buddhism brings up a number of worthwhile points in response to our own douglas todd, religion writer at the vancouver sun:

douglas todd of the vancouver sun (see also “we’re cool!“) has another interesting commentary, this time on buddhism and psychiatry. he notes that for the past several years all manner of prominent buddhists and prominent psychiatrists and psychologists have been coming up with buddhist-related practices to promote good mental health hygiene.

todd makes two points. one, he says, the psychotherapists don’t acknowledge that “ideals such as compassion, respecting human dignity, overcoming negative emotions and practicing awareness” are also found in judaism, christianity and islam. “practicing loving kindness, for instance, is the central teaching of jesus and the church.”


genkaku is one of my favourite buddhist writers; my husband and i have been following him for years.  his words are always light and full of common sense.  here he talks about generosity:

in buddhism, there is a suggestion that its followers engage in “dana” or giving/generosity. on the face of it, it sounds very much like dropping a buck in the christian plate during sunday services. and there’s nothing wrong with that either — donating to monks or nuns or beggars or institutions that uphold a convincing direction or faith.

but today i wonder if the most profound act of generosity does not lie in this: to offer yourself as best you can.

it’s a little tricky, since in order to offer yourself, you would first have to know who you were.

always maintain a joyful mind

linda lewis offers the lojong slogan: always maintain a joyfulmind and reflects:

when we are sick or in debt or experiencing loss or difficulties, we know from experience that neither complaining nor blaming helps.  we know that despair only solidifies the problem.  that is why sakyong mipham rinpoche advises us “to practice more when we have difficulties, and to practice more when we have life changes.”

then, rather than emoting and over-loading others with our latest greatest drama, we face the music, and are better able to deal with our troubles.  as mipham rinpoche also says, “some problems can be solved by talking…but some things are solved by not talking. that’s called practice.”

meditation practice

c4chaos explains his algorithmic approach to meditation:

step 1: focus out – i focus on the sensations of the breath. i note the sensation of the “rising” and “falling” of the abdomen. when attention wanders i note it and then gently go back to noting the sensation of the rising and falling. sooner or later awareness shifts or deepens.

if i feel a sense of deep relaxation, i proceed to step 2.

if i feel a sense of vibrations or waves, i proceed to step 3.

step 2: focus on rest – i focus on the restful sensations of the body and note it as “relaxed.” i then place some attention on the darkness/brightness in front of my closed eyes and note it as “blank.” i alternate between noting “relaxed” and “blank.” then i let go… sooner or later awareness shifts or deepens.

if concentration is poor and keeps wavering, i go back to step 1.

if i feel a sense of vibrations or waves, i proceed to step 3.

step 3: focus on change – i focus on the vibratory/wave sensations. i note it as “flow”, “expansion”, “contraction”, and “gone.” from here i just let go, ride out and surrender to the vibratory sensations while noting it as best as i can.  sooner or later awareness shifts and the vibratory sensations disappear.

if concentration is poor and keeps wavering, i go back to step 1.

if i feel a sense of deep relaxation, i proceed to step 2.

that’s it. simple as pie

that’s it for this month.  see you back on july 15!

image by mags