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Day seven, happy again, and already looking forward to the next quilt!

Day seven and almost done.jpg

What a difference a day makes.  Gone are the dark clouds that bore down on my spirit yesterday. Today I finished up the machine quilting with relative ease and prepared a binding out of light blue cloud material.  It will give the quilt a light and airy feeling; hopefully it will help the little boy fall asleep and have happy dreams.

Two things helped make today more productive: 1) the confidence gained from yesterday’s struggles and the technical progress achieved; and 2) the happy prospect of meeting a new friend after work. We met to discuss the “Write YOUR Story” workshop which we’ll be teaching together this fall to local kids.

My new friend is a collector of vintage typewriters (is there any other kind?!). I remember them well; once upon a time, I wrote an entire thesis on a manual typewriter like the one pictured here.  It was hard work and definitely discouraged any rewriting one might think of doing. The anguish of retyping entire pages after finding a mistake, and having to measure the paper for footnote placements at the bottom, is still a painful memory.  Thank goodness for laptops!

portable royal typewriter.jpg

Yet in listening to his enthusiastic description of old typewriters, and anecdotes about the people he’s been meeting at a local typewriter repair shop, I started to feel enthusiastic for writing in ways I thought I’d lost forever…  It occurred to me that all kinds of new vistas may open up, like holding Type-Ins at a local coffee shop, or maybe setting up a booth for poetry-writing at the West Seattle Market next summer! The sound of clicking keys and the bell ringing as the carriage flies back and forth would bring a new dimension to the scene; it would prompt a flood of memories for some of us and intrigue others who’ve been raised on flat soundless screens. Who knows what little treasures of poetry and prose may materialize on site? Wouldn’t it be fun to get kids involved too?!

Meanwhile, I’m already thinking about my next baby quilt.  It will be for a fellow T’ai chi student at the Seattle Kung Fu Club who’s having a baby this fall, and everybody at the club will be invited to submit a scrap of fabric for the quilt.  The paper you see on the quilt-in-progress has the Chinese character for child; it will become a sign inviting donations of fabric for her quilt.

Connecting with these new people is the secret ingredient to happiness and creative development.  Getting to know people in my new/old hometown, and thinking of ways to enrich our lives together, gives me the impetus I need to keep going as a teacher, a writer, and as a maker of quilts.  That emotional foundation makes sense, even though I didn’t realize it until just now.  As Twyla Tharp writes in her wonderful book, The Creative Habit: “Without passion, all the skill in the world won’t lift you above craft. Without skill, all the passion in the world will leave you eager but floundering. Combining the two is the essence of the creative life.”

That’s it for now; bon weekend!

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Ripping off the Bandaid, or must moving become existential turmoil? Remember the worry-wort centipede!

b96028bcbc4bdb7ad68f18c15fb5d620 centipede

Now that it is only four weeks til D-day, I have felt touches of that sickness known as nostalgia. It starts with a slight taste of nausea that spreads to the temples with dread and then cloaks the whole body in heavy, dank sadness. I know it well, having lost my mom just three years ago and my dad in 2008.

I hate nostalgia! I hate thinking about the past, wallowing in sorrow for babies grown, marriages sealed, friendships ended. I hate thinking all the time. The Mind, it was revealed to me during the past 18 months since I discovered meditation and T’ai chi, is not necessarily a friend. It does not naturally have any compassion for you. It can attack you, remind you of weakness, and torture you all day long if you let it. Moving your household is an activity that gives Mind free rein, because when you must spend several hours a day poring through cupboards, drawers, and shelves, choosing and tossing vestiges of the past, Mind creeps in easily and emotional turmoil may ensue, believe me.

The conflicting emotions whipped up by the storm yesterday have subsided to mental nagging today. As Peter Ralston points out, “We have a tendency to get caught up in things that don’t serve being ‘in’ or being responsive to the present moment and condition—we become enmeshed in figuring out, being anxious, upset, angry, fearful, reactive and so on.”

His solution is a brilliant series of mind experiments and exercises designed to unify the physical core and the Mind. It does work if you remain calm. Being calm for me requires preparation: doing T’ai chi daily, concentrating on even breathing, and holding a correct spinal alignment at all times. As Ralston writes, “Instead of trying to make those things disappear, we can simply let them be, not feed them energy and attention, and let them float in the base we now call being calm” (Principles of Essential Power, 6). But when you suddenly rediscover a handknit baby blanket, a cute old photo of your kid (whose present self isn’t quite so cute or unproblematic), or even a yellowed bank statement, emotions are prone to fill the idle Mind.

Better to channel that emotional richness into creativity, as Bob Klein, Twyla Tharp and so many other sages have advised. Therein lies our life’s purpose. Creativity for me is writing (a little) and especially sewing. Sewing is a bond to the past and a disciplined way to beautify the present and make people happier, if only for a few minutes now and then. My intentions are kindly, the results are heart-warming, and that is enough for me.

But our world does not promote such simplicity, and it never has, as long as humans live in community and compare our fate to that of others. Faced with our own mortality and limitations, we humans can easily become off-balanced and fall into existential turmoil. French literature testifies to this fact all the time: just think of Victor Hugo’s poem, “The Slope of Reverie,” Jean-Paul Sartre’s works Being and Nothingness or Nausea, and Beckett’s entire absurdly depressing oeuvre.

Why is that? Because most people in the West are dominated by a tyrant named Mind or conscious logical socially-conditioned thought patterns. Mind tries (and often succeeds) to convince us that only Mind can keep us together.  Only worrying holds us upright, gets us out of bed and off to work. Only other people’s opinions of us count. If we stop worrying and trying to measure up to external standards, we will fall apart and turn into mush. That is a powerful lie. But each must realize it in his own time.

Remember the tragic fate of the worry-wort centipede!

The centipede was happy, quite,

Until a toad in fun

Said, “Pray, which leg goes after which?”

This worked his mind to such a pitch,

He lay distracted in a ditch,

Considering how to run.


–reproduced in Watts, The Way of Zen, p. 27


image reproduced courtesy of Kaneki and a Centipede Plush ||| Tokyo Ghoul Fan Art by verticalforklift on Tumblr

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The Frog Prince and other favorite things

It’s still early, only 9:30 on Saturday morning. Ah, Saturday morning, possibly the best time of the week (now that the kids are grown). The house and the neighborhood are practically silent; no trains or sirens yet to jangle your nerves. The only sounds are the quiet hum of the boiler downstairs, heating up the radiators; Rich’s munching of something in front of his computer in the other room; and Honey Girl’s sighs as she breathes right here, lying by my side on the dining room rug. I sit on a nice wood chair and feel just right.

In the hopes of passing along the peaceful feeling, here are some favorite things.

In the kitchen, deep in a corner behind a cluster of stern-looking wooden spoons and a menacing rolling pin, stands a hopeful frog. He was given to me years ago, destined for a garden I think, but I prefer to keep him closer at hand, as a sweet reminder of the Frog Prince. He is the hapless amphibian who wins the girl over through patience and love. An apt symbol for my household! (according to the Grimm version, however, the frog transforms into a prince upon impact, when the princess throws him against a wall in disgust!  Ouch!).

Another favorite thing is breakfast: plain Greek-style yogurt with sliced banana, roasted almonds with sea salt, and honey drizzled on top. Plus a double espresso with steamed milk of course, from our vintage Cimbali machine.

After breakfast, I still practice the “morning routine” every day, or at least six days out of seven. When I do not have the time or feel good enough to do it, I really miss it, and the next day think to myself, “Finally, I get to get back into shape!” It has become a sacred ritual, just like Twyla Tharp says in The Creative Habit: only in this case, my creation is my life!

I’ll leave you two other picture-thoughts: both from Mai-Mai Sze’s lovely and erudite Tao of Painting, seen here alongside a little pot of pink flowers I received from the Ruiz children, students in “Write YOUR Story,” at Christmas time.

Growing, changing, and flowering, those words apply very well to the fun, bright children I’ve grown to love. The same processes are all around us! Just think of the Mustard Seed Garden Manual description of youthful bamboo. Despite their recent arrival, the bamboo branches are portrayed as wise and deep:

… they are like the hermits who follow unswervingly the Tao. With the power of their spirit, they could comb the wind and sweep clear the full moon. They should not be painted confused or crowded, for the air around them is clear and pure.

–quoted in Mai-Mai Sze, The Tao of Painting, 123.

I like the image of a being which is not confused or crowded, for the air around it is clear and pure.

Wouldn’t we all like to live, breathe, and feel like that?  Young yet wise. Supple yet inflexibly devoted to creativity, kindness and life!

off to do T’ai chi now…

good day to you!

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The creepy sounds of the forest tonight

creeepy woods.jpg

We didn’t hear it at first, when Honey Girl and I headed out for our daily walk. We were following the usual path across the grass and onto the sidewalk, to get across the river and into the forest. But once we were on the old train tracks, something seemed to be following us. Honey Girl’s ears perked up. She startled and turned, staring intently into the spindly brush.

But no, nothing was there. No rabbit, chipmunk, or even a mouse.

So we trudged along in rhythm. I was feeling strong and healthy, breathing in the frosty air and gazing at branches etched on a white sky. She also felt good, I think. She went along sniffing and squatting, catching up on her pee-mail as usual.

Then we heard it again.

We both turned around and peered into the twilight. A squirrel scratching a nut? A pipe dripping onto the ground? A deer’s quiet footstep?

But no. There was nothing.

As we walked deeper into the gloom, the sound grew and swelled. Soon it was all around us! It was a spindly, splintering, quiet, sneaky sound of ….

Frozen rain.  It was the faint crack of rain drops that we were hearing, falling onto the brittle leaves underfoot.


This is a lesson on listening, and exploring with senses other than your eyes.

It is an auditory lesson of interest to poets and musicians. As Twyla Tharp says, “Metaphor is our vocabulary for connecting what we’re experiencing now with what we have experienced before. It’s not only how we express what we remember, it’s how we interpret it—for ourselves and others.”*

The sound scared me for a while. It was weirdly disconcerting: my eyes gave me nothing to fear, but my ears told me something was there. I wracked my brain for a song, to push away Doubt and Fear, and began singing. I sang loudly walking in the dark, old songs from my childhood like “I am a rover” and the Robinswold Song.** Honey Girl loves it when I sing. She jumps up and turns around as if to dance or play with me. Singing with my big dog, I was actually having fun in the weirdness.

Now that I’m warm and safe and that the night is firmly outside, this experience drives home the power of sound.

Which reminds me that Papagayo is coming our way! Written and illustrated by Gerald McDermott, Papagayo the Mischief Maker will be read by the kids in Write YOUR Story this spring. In Papagayo, a parrot is a problem because of his noisy ways, until the day he comes to rescue the night creatures. In it, a scrawny ghost dog discovers that the moon tastes good, and so he comes out night after night to eat it with sharp teeth. Although they sing their sweetest love songs to the moon, the night creatures cannot save it. Finally the night creatures—the bats, monkeys, frogs, moths, and sloths of the jungle—call out to Papagayo, “Oh what shall we do? He is eating the last of it!”

Just then, Papagayo shrieks, jumps up, and shouts: “Make noise! You must make noise! Craaaawk! Cara-cao-cao-cao!” And they do. “At first they were timid, but gradually they began to yell and shout. They howled and hissed and croaked. They cracked sticks and shook bushes and beat a rhythm that every night creature joined in chanting. … The moon-dog was frightened by all the noise. He jumped off the moon and ran through the sky.”**

In the end, the night creatures save the moon from the ghost dog… until the next month. Then they make the same ruckus, that amazing cacophony of the jungle!!

It’s good advice to all of us:  make noise!  Tell the world you are here.  Say what you want to say, go on the record.

*Creative Habit, 64.

**”Oer the waters we have come to sing in harmony / Here the waters run so deep and here the birds fly free” (or something). From Girl Scout camp near Poulsbo, WA, circa 1968). Comfy songs I know by heart from when I was 10, 11 or so. The best age of childhood.

**Papagayo, 16-21.

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streaming ideas

Canadian geese Jan 2018

On Saturday morning, I was standing and looking out the window when suddenly a flock of Canadian geese went flying by, honking loudly to each other. You could hear their wings flap and practically see their effort to stay afloat and in line. Unthinking conformism or wise family harmony?

Homage to Alvin

The snowy garden looked kind of sad. Yet if you look closely, there is something interesting. Look at the path Honey Girl made in the snow. She has clearly been making rounds around the yard, which is normal. But her rounds include a special trip to the statue of a cat, our long-lost ginger cat Alvin (ca. 1982–1998), as if she were paying him homage or saying hello to a creature she never met. What instincts or memories kept her walking that way?

Remembering things you don’t really know is what Twyla Tharp calls “ancient memory.” She describes it as the sort of things that make you say to yourself: “’It feels right.’” As she explains, “And part of the reason it feels right is that the move has been reinforced in us over centuries of practice. Every dance I make is a dive into this well of ancient memory.”*

When I am precisely focused, about 10-12 minutes into the routine of Master Peng, the T’ai chi form begins to elicit a similar sensation of “ancient moving” and well-being in me. I start getting warm, and I feel as if I’ve enjoyed reaching, standing or stretching like that before. It seems I forgot that good feeling existed and I’m rediscovering it again, every day! Like you’re a little kid again and just loving spinning around and holding still, deliberately stunning yourself and regaining equilibrium, and landing in control.

Speaking of focus, did you know you can use your moving body (via yoga or T’ai chi) to conquer bad habits such as procrastination? As Peter Ralston says, “There is a state of being that shows itself as power, has free and uninhibited life force, with no thought or refuge being taken in the intellect, which honestly and simply abandons itself to the task at hand.”**


Yet after those soaring metaphysical queries, last night I was captivated by more mundane matters in the physical world. The whole world seemed silent and muted, draped in a massive fog formation. Here on Riverside Drive, it looked like clouds were floating right outside the house.

After a long walk in a cold, clammy forest with Honey Girl, I asked Rich over dinner, “Which do you like better, ‘fog’ or ‘brouillard’?” “Fog,” he said, explaining “its origin in og always appealed to me. It brings to mind ogle, optical, optometrist, and other ideas linked to vision…”*** to which I unhelpfully added, “And ogre.”

“But just think of the great word débrouillard,” I continued, “which sounds like you are moving aside the fog….”

“What about defog?” he grunted.

“Yes but that is just for car windshields, it doesn’t have the metaphorical wealth of débrouillard,” I trilled, warming to the subject. “What a great language French is, where there’s a verb like se débrouiller (know how to cope or figure things out), or an adjective like débrouillard (clever or shrewd), all linked to the notion of fog.”

“Ahem, se débrouiller is not linked to brouillard,” he spoke professorially,  preparing for a long lecture on the topic, being that he is often as learned about the French language as I am with my PhD, etc. etc. etc.

But at this point I didn’t even hear what he was saying anymore. Not because we’ve been married 31 years (well, maybe a little) but also because my own mind had realized the error of my ways. My own mind was scolding me, “And débrouillard is furthermore merely based on the suffix –ard, as in franchouillard, babillard, to signify popular or endearing, etc. etc.” until I bored myself into a pensive silence.

Bottom line: I still think brouillard is a better word-concept-sound than fog, but I cannot explain exactly why. It just is that way, for me.


*Tharp, Creative Habit, 70.  **Ralston, Principles, 79. *** This etymology is inaccurate, I later learned. Oh, how wily he is, to try to keep fooling me with his authoritative-sounding and off-the-cuff fictions, after all these years!  HA!


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what to “do” with clouds?


Thanks to the unsettled atmospheric conditions, today is a wonderful day for cloud gazing. But how? When a cloud glides overhead and casts a shadow below, how do you react?  In fear and loathing for the rain that might follow? Or in silent wonder at the changing shapes?

For those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, the most likely thought about clouds comes through Joni Mitchell’s 1969 hit, “Both Sides Now.”  (As I watched the passing clouds during my morning meditation, that song materialized in my head and I’ve been singing it ever since.) Mitchell’s sad love song goes, “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now / From up and down and still somehow / It’s cloud’s illusions I recall / I really don’t know clouds at all.”

But are there really only two sides to clouds? No!

As a spur to your mental liberation, consider three alternative ways to see clouds (and I welcome others!):

  1. Classify them. Consider the scientific classification of clouds from the World Meteorological Organization (pasted below). It includes no less than 38 ways to see clouds. Useful. But it is sort of a dead-end because once you’ve classified them and predicted the weather, then what?
  2. Use them to develop your MQ. In The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp challenges readers to find at least three new associations with a passing cloud as a means of building up one’s Metaphorical Quotient (MQ, which is distinct from the intelligence quotient or IQ). As Tharp writes, “The process by which we transform the meaning of one thing into something different is an essential part of human intelligence. Without symbols, and the ability to understand them, there would be no writing, no numbers, no drama, no art. Everything you create is a representation of something else; in this sense, everything you create is enriched by metaphor.” One of the exercises Tharp suggests is this: “How many images and objects can you see in three minutes of cloud gazing? This is metaphor as visual translation. Metaphor is all around you. It’s never too late to raise your MQ.”*
  3. Embrace the stillness. If you seek a peaceful mind, you may like the ancient Chinese wisdom found in Mai-Mai Sze’s Tao of Painting (image below). “When the clouds parted, green summits rose. As the literati say, ‘In the midst of hustling activity, steal moments of quietness.’”**


What to “do” with clouds?  The choice is up to you.


*Tharp, The Creative Habit, pp. 157-159.

**Sze, The Tao of Painting, p. 217.




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life is an event

the bird of November 12 2017the bird on periphery of sight nov 12

The neighbors may wonder why a small figure stands in the window of my house each morning. She can be seen in different windows depending on the day. Just standing there, she looks out. Sometimes she bobs up and down, stretches side to side, or reaches up with arms outstretched. Sometimes she’s still as a reed on a deep-summer day.

Why do I do it? Because I listened to Master Peng.

But first of all, I observed Master Peng.

I observed him over time and with deepening wonder at what I saw. Every time he arrived for our weekly class, he glowed. He said with a smile, “I feel great!” One day, he explained why. He told us that he was in the habit of getting up at 3am every morning and standing in a meditation with his heels touching, and feet at a 90-degree angle. For three hours!  He stood like that daily from 3am to 6am. (One assumes this was possible because he was on sabbatical leave during the year spent at Notre Dame, but maybe not?!)

This habit of standing meditation is not unusual in Peng’s hometown, it seems. He told us that a man from his village learned he had lung cancer one day. Since he was already in his 60s, the prospects looked dire. So the man withdrew from the world and stood meditating, with heels touching and his feet at a 90-degree angle, for three months. At the end of the three months, he re-emerged and resumed life as usual. He is now in his 80s and feels great!

Well, you can think what you want about the tall tales told by t’ai chi teachers. But no one will ever convince me that Master Peng felt anything but good during the months I spent studying him and his supple movements in class.

And that is why I do the standing meditation for 30 minutes, with my feet at a 90-degree angle, each morning. My hip joints do feel different as does my spirit–more expansive and elastic. My hips move more smoothly now and I have no fears about arthritis. I feel strong and supple.

This comes back to the point about life being an event.

This morning while standing in the sunroom window, I gazed at a bird in a nearby tree. You can see it in the top photo. Meanwhile, downstairs, I could hear the front door open and close, and footsteps moving around as Rich and Honey Girl came back early from their walk. I wondered why. Then I heard something, saw some drips of water, and understood. After opening the window to let in the gentle sound of rain, it was easier to still the Mind. I became silent and waited. I let my vision blur so that the bird was in the periphery of my sight. (As in photo no. 2, you’ll see he’s still there. My Mind kept wanting to check on him!) I tried keeping the focus acute yet blurry, so that despite my earthbound state, I might experience the sky like a bird.

If you ever doubt that your life is part of a larger event, just look out the window or go outside. In the little universe outside my window, a flock of three crows flew in, one by one, and perched on a tree. The little bird turned and hopped a step or two. Then it turned and faced away from the ruckus, looking off through the misty air and seeing who knows what event coming along next.

What comes along next?

That is up to you.

For me, weekends are for creativity: a world beyond anything but the simplest words. Yet my imagination runs wild with textures and colors, stitching and molding fabric into designs. Yesterday I made a pillow for the grad seminar I’m teaching–ROFR 63490/40453: my creative project for class  honors the sensuous fabrics described by Zola in Au Bonheur des dames (The Ladies’ Paradise, the department store novel). I used the wonderful vintage satin that I inherited from a friend’s grandma, and stitched a variety of hues into a hoop-skirt design, added onto a woman’s silhouette, on a black-and-white flannel of fashion plates from the 50s.  Later on, I began piecing together the beginnings of the SPARK quilt, too…

The morning meditation serves as a grounding mechanism. It helps still the Mind. It reminds us that we participate in the seasons. Like the trees, we are always breathing and always in flux—today, the boughs moved only slightly, less than yesterday. One yellow leaf fell to ground.

During the school week, I treasure these 30 minutes as a vacation from work and the busy-ness and complexity of that ever-thinking Mind.  It is a little present of peacefulness, given to me from me.


Alan Watts explains the difference nicely between considering life as linear sequence of things or chores to “get done” (the Western mindset), and life as organic event unfolding as it will (the Zen mindset).  He reminds us how Western parts of speech do not account for change with the example of the word “fist.”  How can a fist [noun] suddenly disappear when a person opens his hand? Where does it go?

As Watts writes, “The object miraculously vanishes because an action was disguised by a part of speech usually assigned to a thing! In English the differences between things and actions are clearly, if not always logically, distinguished, but a great number of Chinese words do duty for both nouns and verbs—so that one who thinks in Chinese has little difficulty in seeing that objects are also events, that our world is a collection of processes rather than entities.”*

To shift into creative mode, remember it is work too, even if it is more gratifying for the spirit. As Twyla Tharp says: “It is developed through exercise, through repetition, through a blend of learning and reflection that’s both painstaking and rewarding.”**

Walk on!


*Alan Watts, The Way of Zen, 1st ed. 1957 (New York: Vintage, 1999) 5.

**Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2003), 9.